Tag Archives: research

Shortfalls in non-profit disaster rebuilding

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free-market urban development.

After receiving years of praise for its work in post-Katrina recovery, Brad Pitt’s home building organization, Make It Right, is receiving some media criticism. At the New Republic, Lydia Depillis points out that the Make It Right homes built in the Lower Ninth Ward have resulted in scarce city dollars going to this neighborhood with questionable results. While some residents have been able to return to the Lower Ninth Ward through non-profit and private investment, the population hasn’t reached the level necessary to bring the commercial services to the neighborhood that it needs to be a comfortable place to live.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Mercatus Center conducted extensive field research in the Gulf Coast, interviewing people who decided to return and rebuild in the city and those who decided to permanently relocate. They discussed the events that unfolded immediately after the storm as well as the rebuilding process. They interviewed many people in the New Orleans neighborhood surrounding the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. This neighborhood rebounded exceptionally well after Hurricane Katrina, despite experiencing some of the city’s worst flooding 5-12-feet-deep and being a low-income neighborhood. As Emily Chamlee-Wright and Virgil Storr found [pdf]:

Within a year of the storm, more than 3,000 residents had returned [of the neighborhood’s 4,000 residents when the storm hit]. By the summer of 2007, approximately 90% of the MQVN residents were back while the rate of return in New Orleans overall remained at only 45%. Further, within a year of the storm, 70 of the 75 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the MQVN neighborhood were up and running.

Virgil and Emily attribute some of MQVN’s rebuilding success to the club goods that neighborhood residents shared. Club goods share some characteristics with public goods in that they are non-rivalrous — one person using the pool at a swim club doesn’t impede others from doing so — but club goods are excludable, so that non-members can be banned from using them. Adam has written about club goods previously, using the example of mass transit. The turnstile acts as a method of exclusion, and one person riding the subway doesn’t prevent other passengers from doing so as well. In the diagram below, a subway would fall into the “Low-congestion Goods” category:

club goods

In the case of MQVN, the neighborhood’s sense of community and shared culture provided a club good that encouraged residents to return after the storm. The church provided food and supplies to the first neighborhood residents to return after the storm. Church leadership worked with Entergy, the city’s power company, to demonstrate that the neighborhood had 500 residents ready to pay their bills with the restoration of power, making them one of the city’s first outer neighborhoods to get power back after the storm.

While resources have poured into the Lower Ninth Ward from outside groups in the form of $400,000 homes from Make It Right $65 million  in city money for a school, police station, and recreation center, the neighborhood has not seen the success that MQVN achieved from the bottom up. This isn’t to say that large non-profits don’t have an important role to play in disaster recovery. Social entrepreneurs face strong incentives to work well toward their objectives because their donors hold them accountable and they typically are involved in a cause because of their passion for it. Large organizations from Wal-Mart to the American Red Cross provided key resources to New Orleans residents in the days and months after Hurricane Katrina.

The post-Katrina success of MQVN relative to many other neighborhoods in the city does demonstrates the effectiveness of voluntary cooperation at the community level and the importance of bottom-up participation for long-term neighborhood stability. While people throughout the city expressed their love for New Orleans and desire to return in their conversations with Mercatus interviewers, many faced coordination problems in their efforts to rebuild. In the case of MQVN, club goods and voluntary cooperation permitted the quick and near-complete return of residents.

When politicians can’t see their own loopholes

TaxesAccording to a 2008 IRS report, the Federal Tax Code “has grown so long that it has become challenging even to figure out how long it is.”

A search of the Code conducted in the course of preparing this report turned up 3.7 million words. A 2001 study published by the Joint Committee on Taxation put the number of words in the Code at that time at 1,395,000. A 2005 report by a tax research organization put the number of words at 2.1 million, and notably, found that the number of words in the Code has more than tripled since 1975.

In last night’s State of the Union, President Obama spoke eloquently about the need for tax reform to clean up the code:

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.  After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?  How is that fair?  How does that promote growth?

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.

The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries.

Amen. Unfortunately, a few minutes later, the President said:

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years.

And a few lines after that:

We’ll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest.

The tax code didn’t get to be as complicated as it is by accident. Every complication; every loophole; every deduction, exemption, and credit got there because some elected official had a clever idea. It got there because someone dreamed up an innovative scheme to use the tax code as a way to encourage some sort of behavior.

The code is the way it is because politicians who decry loopholes and special-interest privileges can’t see that their own clever schemes are part of the problem.

A government that hands out privileges can expect corruption

According to the Washington Post, the mafia is heavily involved in Italy’s renewable energy market. This is not particularly surprising given that firms in that market compete on a manifestly uneven playing field.

The Godfather Movie in TextIn a market characterized by a genuinely level playing field—one in which no firm or industry benefits from government-granted privilege—the only way to profit is to offer something of value to customers. If you fail to create value for voluntarily paying customers, they won’t volunteer their money. It’s that simple.

But things are different when the playing field can be tilted through government-granted privileges. This is because when the playing field can be tilted, firms have an incentive to find some way to persuade the government to tilt it their way. And the most persuasive techniques aren’t always above board.

The problem is that objective standards for playing favorites are hard to come by. This can corrupt even well-intentioned programs that privilege particular behavior in the name of serving the general good.

Imagine you are a politician and you want to reward firms that specialize in renewable energy. How do you determine who makes the cut? What if you want to reward companies that securitize mortgages for low-income households. How do you decide whom to reward? Or say you want to bailout “systemically important” banks. Where do you draw the line between systemically important and systemically unimportant?

Without objective guideposts, subjective factors loom large: whom do you interact with the most? Whom have you known the longest? Which firms share your ideological perspective? Which are headquartered in your hometown?

Even the most well-intentioned of politicians are susceptible to these considerations because all humans are susceptible to these considerations. That’s why a slew of research has found government-granted privileges are often associated with corruption. For example, in an examination of 450 firms in 35 countries, economists Mara Faccio, Ronald Masulis, and John McConnell found that politically connected firms are more likely to be bailed out than non-connected firms. It’s possible that more deserving firms just happen to be politically connected, but this strains credulity. A more plausible explanation is that in the absence of an objective standard for dispensing privileges, politicians reward those they know.

And when that is the case, firms make it their business to get to know politicians. Just ask Angelo Mozilo, the politically ensconced former head of Countrywide Financial. Countrywide supplied the loans that were repackaged by the federally backed Fannie Mae. And since Countrywide’s business model depended on the favor of politicians, Mozilo made sure he was in good standing with his benefactors. Under a program known internally as the “Friends of Angelo” program, Countrywide offered favorable mortgage financing to the likes of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad.

The conventional route to profit is to please one’s customers. But when firms are able to profit by pleasing politicians, they will do whatever it takes to please politicians. Which brings us back to Italy and renewables. The current investigation (known as operation Eolo after the Greek god of wind) first bore fruit in 2010 when eight people were arrested for bribing officials with cash and luxury cars. Armed with more evidence, officials have now arrested another dozen crime bosses.

It is good, of course, to have police who investigate these matters. But a far simpler, equitable, and efficient solution is to create a truly level playing field for business. When politicians cannot tilt the playing field in favor of particular firms or industries, businesses have nothing to gain from bribery and connections.

Put away the honey jar and you won’t have an ant problem.

Apply for the Mercatus MA Fellowship

One of the more rewarding aspects of my job is the opportunity it affords me to work alongside dozens of bright, ambitious, Mercatus MA Fellows. The Mercatus MA Fellowship is a competitive, full-time fellowship program for students pursuing a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University. It is ideal for those interested in pursuing a career in public policy rather than academia (for those interested in the academic route, the Ph.D. Fellowship may be for you). The MA Fellowship includes full tuition support, a stipend, and a research assistantship position with Mercatus scholars. It is a total award of up to $80,000 over two years.

Successful MA Fellows—including my co-blogger and MA Fellowship alumna, Emily Washington—have gone on to do great things. Some have secured public policy positions in federal and state government; others work at prominent research institutions. If you are interested, you better hurry. The application deadline for Fall 2013 is March 1, 2013. Apply here.

The Bush Tax Cuts

This episode should have advocates of limited government asking themselves an important question: are tax cuts without spending cuts good for the cause of limited government? Decades ago, Milton Friedman answered this question with a resounding yes. Cut taxes, he counseled, and starve the beast. With less revenue, spending will fall too. Tax cutters from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have been convinced of “starve the beast” ever since.

But there is another Nobel laureate with free market bona fides who begs to differ. James Buchanan, a founding father of public choice economics—which uses the tools of economics to shed light on the incentives of policy makers—has long questioned “starve the beast.” When politicians are legally and politically permitted to run deficits, he warned, they will simply fund government by borrowing. In this case, tax cuts give voters the illusion that government spending is cheap. And with government seeming less-costly, voters will be happy to have more of it.

That’s me, writing on the Bush Tax Cuts in the latest issue of Reason. It was part of broader piece, edited by Peter Suderman on the fiscal cliff and it includes great essays by Charles Blahous, James Pethokoukis, Veronique de Rugy, Tad DeHaven, Susan Dudley, Maya MacGuineas, and Marc Goldwein. The whole piece can be found here.

Also this week, I did a podcast with the Heartland Institute on the Bush Tax Cuts, based on my research with Andrea Castillo.

Finally, Lars Christensen has some insightful comments on our paper here.

On behalf of all of us at Mercatus and Neighborhood Effects, Happy Holidays to all.

 

New Research on West Virginia’s Medicaid Reforms

Today, the Mercatus Cetner released a new policy brief by Tami Gurley-Calvez on Medicaid reforms implemented in West Virginia, based on a working paper she wrote this fall.  In 2007 the state enacted a Medicaid redesign with one objective being to reduce the rate at which Medicaid patients visited emergency rooms for non-emergencies. Additionally, the plan, called Mountain Health Choices, was intended to incentivize healthy behaviors among Medicaid recipients.

The “choice” in the new plan was an option for women and children to opt into an enhanced plan or default into a basic plan. The enhanced plan offered greater benefits but required participants to agree to “doing [their] best to stay healthy’ and to agree to visit their primary care physician for non-emergency treatment. The objective of reducing ER visits was to both reduce healthcare costs for state taxpayers and to improve healthcare outcomes.

Gurley-Calvez finds that with the Mountain Health Choices reforms, patients on this enhanced plan did visit the emergency room at lower rates. However, patients who defaulted into the basic plan began to visit the emergency room at a higher rate, potentially because they were not eligible for treatment for some illnesses with a primary care doctor. She explains:

Based on this research, states should consider whether they can create a greater connection between health providers and members’ involvement in their own health care. However, policymakers must be cognizant of what drives member decision making in their policy designs. In the West Virginia case, a majority of members did not enroll in the enhanced plan in the short term despite additional health coverage and no direct monetary costs to enrollment. Further, states should consider the possible costs, both near term and future, of restricting treatment options by limiting coverage levels.

This case of attempted cost savings by changing incentives represents an ever-present challenge in public policy. Predicting how people will react to new policies in a changing world is difficult, and policymakers should not be overly confident that the incentives that they design will result in the outcomes that they anticipate.

What Was Wrong with the Bush Tax Cuts?

Back in April, President Obama had this to say about the Bush tax cuts:

We tried this for eight years before I took office. We tried it. It is not like we did not try it. At the beginning of the last decade, the wealthiest Americans got two huge tax cuts, in 2001 and 2003. Meanwhile, insurance com­panies, financial institutions, there [sic] were all allowed to write their own rules, find their way around the rules. We were told the same thing we’re being told now—this is going to lead to fast­er job growth, it’s going to lead to greater prosperity for everybody. Guess what? It didn’t.

At first blush, the data would seem to be on the President’s side: even if we ignore the Great Recession,  economic growth in the 26 quarters that followed passage of the Bush tax cuts averaged just 2.5 percent while it averaged 3.7 percent in the 26 quarters that preceded the cuts.

So is this experience reason to throw out every microeconomics 101 textbook? Or at least to rip out the sections that cover the deadweight loss of taxation? No. The fact is that the Bush tax cuts were deeply flawed, even from a free-market perspective. In a new paper with Mercatus program associate, Andrea Castillo, we contend:

[T]he Bush tax cuts had a number of problems from a market-oriented perspective: they were phased in slowly, they were set to expire within a decade, they entailed a Keynesian emphasis on stimulating aggregate demand, and—above all—they were undertaken without any effort to reduce spending. In light of these problems, there is no reason to overturn decades of theoretical and empirical research supporting the link between low taxation and growth. The episode offers a cautionary lesson in how not to cut taxes.

New Research on Streamlining Commissions

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Fall Research Conference to present research on streamlining commissions with Carmine Scavo. Carmine and I have written one paper developing a methodology for studying these commissions, and we’re now working on case studies of commissions in nine states.

Well over half of states have appointed one or more streamlining commissions in efforts to find budget savings or to improve state programs. We’re studying streamlining efforts in California, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, New York, Maine and Virginia. We hope to get an idea of how effectively these commissions have reduced the size of state government and found efficiencies in existing programs. We also hope to identify the characteristics that make commissions most likely to meet their goals.

In our first paper, we hypothesized that commission success would depend on the following characteristics:

1) clearly defined objectives regarding their final product;

2) a clear timeline for this deliverable with an opportunity to publish interim advice. Preliminary findings indicate that the commission should have at least one year to work;

3) adequate funds to hire an independent staff to study some issues in depth;

4) a majority of the commission members from outside the government. The commission chair certainly should be from outside the government in order to help to get around the challenges that inherently restrict the ability to find streamlining opportunities while working in government. Preliminary findings indicate that representatives from the state legislature and administration should be involved as a minority of the membership to ensure that the commission’s recommendations have buy-in from policymakers.

So far, our research indicates that funding for commissions may not be as important as we’d though. Some commissions have achieved successes with essentially no budgets while others that were well-funded developed recommendations that didn’t go anywhere.

Tomorrow we will be presenting our preliminary findings on the California Commission on the 21st Century Economy, the Colorado Pits and Peeves Roundtable Initiative, and the Virginia Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring. Once we finish this research I will write up our findings in more depth here. If any of you will be attending the APPAM conference, I hope to see you there.

States Look to Rainy Day Funds to Avoid Future Crises

For the past nine quarters, state revenue collections have been increasing and are now approaching 2008 levels after adjusting for inflation. Many state policymakers are no longer facing the near-ubiquitous budget gaps of fiscal year 2012, but at the moment those memories seem to remain fresh in their minds.

Many states are looking to rainy day funds as a tool to avoid the revenue shortfalls they have experienced since the recession. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Walker recently made headlines by building up the states’ fund to $125.4 million. In Texas, the state’s significant Rainy Day Fund has reached over $8 billion, behind only Alaska’s fund that holds over $18 billion.

A June report from the Tax Foundation shows Texas and Alaska are the only states with funds that are significant enough to protect states from budget stress in future business cycle downturns. As the Tax Foundation analysis explains, state rainy day funds can be a useful to smooth spending over the business cycle. Research that Matt Mitchell and Nick Tuszynski cite demonstrates that rainy day funds governed by strict rules about when they may be tapped do achieve modest success in smoothing revenue volatility. Because most states have balanced budget requirements, when tax revenues fall during business cycle downturns, states must respond by raising taxes or cutting spending, both pro-cyclical options. If states are required to contribute to rainy day funds when they have revenue surpluses and then are able to draw on these savings during downturns in order to avoid tax increases or spending cuts, this pro-cyclical trend can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation points out some of the benefits of large rainy day funds:

Maintaining large “rainy day” funds  benefits Texas and Alaska in three ways:

1) These states do not rely  on large pots of one-time funding to pay for ongoing expenses, but rather balance their books by bringing spending in line with revenues;

2) These states  have reserves on hand to deal with emergencies; and

3) Having a large “rainy day” fund improves the states’ bond rating which means lower interest rates for borrowing.

However, even as more states begin making significant contributions to their rainy day funds, they have not fulfilled their pension obligations. According to states’ own estimates of their pension liabilities, states’ unfunded pension liabilities total about $1 billion. However using private sector accounting methods, states are actually on the hook for over $3 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. Because states do not use the risk-free discount rate to value these liabilities, the surpluses they think they have to contribute to rainy day funds are illusions.

Even if states were already contributing appropriately to their pension funds and systematically contributed to rainy day funds during revenue upswings, it’s not clear that rainy day funds are a path toward fiscal discipline.  Because of the perpetual tendency for government to grow, it’s unlikely that state policymakers will take any steps to reduce the growth of government during times of economic growth. If states successfully save tax revenues in rainy day funds to avoid having to make spending cuts during recessions, states will not have to decrease spending at any point during the business cycle. States’ balanced budget requirements can provide a mechanism that helps states cut spending in some areas when revenues drop off, but rainy day funds obviate this requirement. Successful use of rainy day funds could contribute to the trend of states’ spending growing fast than GDP.

Supporters of substantial rainy day funds should acknowledge that these cushions — which on the one hand may provide significant benefits to taxpayers — come at the expense of cyclical opportunities to cut the size of state governments to bring them in line with tax revenues. Without the necessity of cutting spending at some point, state budgets might grow more rapidly that they already are, hindering economic growth in the long run. Whether or not rainy day funds increase the growth rate is an empirical question that advocates should research before recommending this strategy, and this possible drawback should be weighed against their potential to reduce revenue volatility.

The Real Public Choice Economics of Big Bird

In an informative post last week, Matt Yglesias pointed out that the few hundred million dollars a year that go to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are in many ways the “least important” of Big Bird’s government-granted privileges. A far more important privilege is the spectrum on which Big Bird is broadcast. Public TV stations:

don’t have to bid at auction for access to the broadcast spectrum they use. It’s just been given away for free. The decision to allocate some of that spectrum to public TV stations is, at a fundamental level, why they exist.

Matt also points out that another important privilege—one which Tyler Cowen highlights in his book Good and Plenty—is the tax deduction for charitable contributions from viewers like you.

Matt’s post was titled “The Real Economics of Big Bird,” but I’d point out that it also provides a lesson in the real public choice economics of big bird. The President has eagerly mocked his rival’s interest in Big Bird, correctly pointing out that our trillion dollar deficit is not going to be solved by cutting a few hundred million dollars from Sesame Street. But this line of argument misses the public choice lesson.

First, Sesame Street is able to obtain so many government-granted privileges in part because these privileges are inconspicuous. This is known as “fiscal illusion,” and it is an idea which pervades James Buchanan’s research: when people are not clearly presented with the bill for government intervention, they will gladly accept more intervention.

In my research on government-granted privilege, I’ve noticed that the least-conspicuous forms of privilege are often the most popular among politicians. Farm subsidies are the exception, not the rule. Typically, privileges don’t appear as line items in the budget. More often, they are hidden. Think of the Export-Import bank which doesn’t subsidize Boeing, but instead subsidizes firms that buy planes from Boeing. Loan guarantees, tax credits, and favorable regulatory treatment are more-common still and each of these privileges is rather difficult to see.

Second, Sesame Street’s privileges are an illustration of the problem of concentrated benefits and diffused costs. Sesame Street’s direct (and even indirect) subsidy is tiny, especially when it is spread out among 311 million Americans. But it is precisely this characteristic of government spending which has allowed it to get out of hand. Too many government programs concentrate benefits on a comparatively small section of society and disperse the costs over the multitude of taxpayers and consumers. This means that those who benefit from a particular program have a strong incentive to get organized and lobby on its behalf. It is big money for them. But it also means that the millions who pay for the program have little incentive to get organized to oppose it. It’s just pennies to them.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were the only government program. But it’s not. Stealth bombers, bridges to nowhere, sugar subsidies, ethanol mandates, light bulb regulations, etc. all have this characteristic. They impose costs on multitudes and confer benefits on a handful. Add it all up and you have a government that spends $7 million every minute.

As the late Everett Dirksen put it, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”