Category Archives: Protectionism

On Property Rights and Poop

I recently had the opportunity to visit San Francisco for the first time. Coastal towns tend to be a bit more interesting in terms of cuisine (seafood being one of the more varied palate options) as well as architecture (steep hill structures are ever a testament to human ingenuity) and San Francisco scores high in both categories. However one area where it currently scores quite low is in the aroma zone. At first I thought perhaps they had a very inefficient sewer system near the shoreline retail sector, but as we explored deeper toward the city center it became clear something was amiss. I learned shortly thereafter that San Francisco has a poop crisis. To be blunt – people are literally crapping on the sidewalks. Not the tourists mind you but the local homeless population. The situation has come to a head (or to the head to employ a nautical metaphor) primarily as a result of progressive conservatism primed with the power of centralized (governmental) authority.

The outside leftist narrative of course is that this poop crisis is inevitable results of unmitigated capitalism, which drives the eternal boogeyman of income inequality. This inequality fuels gentrification of the San Francisco housing market (no, actually property taxes are the prime driver of gentrification – if you own your home absent property tax you would never need to sell due to rising prices). So as housing becomes ever more “unaffordable” people are forced out of their homes and onto the street. This is of course complete nonsense. Prices only go up if supply is constrained while demand is rising. So in order to discover why supply is constrained we turn our attention toward the “inside” leftists (that is, the progressive liberals who live there). It turns out those that live there are in fact quit conservative (even if they don’t realize it). Any attempted new housing project must pass not only governmental hurdles but also the “local input” of current residents. These residents walk and talk like social progressives but because one of their core tenets is that they do not want the flavor, character, or architecture of the area in which they live to change – that is, they want to conserve it in perpetuity  – this by definition makes them conservatives in that arena. Their dual desire to not only keep San Francisco locked in an eternal snow globe style stasis but to also not erode the value of their homes drives them to engage in this very destructive economic protectionism: keeping new comers out by making it virtually impossible (or more costly than necessary) to build, keeps the value of their own homes artificially elevated while preserving the Norman Rockwell character of their town.

To fully appreciate the extent of the damage they are causing and why perhaps more than anywhere else in the country the homeless problem is so acute is that the median price of a modest single family home now stands at $1.6 million. A family of four with a household income of $100k is considered at the poverty line and actually qualifies for assistance from HUD (let that sink in – taxpayers across the country are subsidizing the housing of people making a $100k/year).

So what is the solution? Always the same and likewise always decried as “unrealistic” – remove all housing regulations and obstacles and let anyone build anything anywhere (works just fine in Houston, TX thank you very much). Your neighbor has no right to say what you can do with your property. Progressives (yes, I’m looking at you “townies” in Athens) should stop blocking progress when it comes to housing and development.

 

 

Boulders in the Stream

The surety of the law of unintended consequences proceeding from state legislation is as steadfast as the law of gravity. Emblematic of this axiom is the massive drop  off (down 40-60%) in book sales in Israel this past year after the passage of a law intended to bolster book sales, protect small book sellers from “big chains” and of course guarantee a “living wage” to authors.  To those ignorant of basic economics and human behavior the terms of this law might appear reasonable. It guaranteed authors 8% of the sales of the first 6,000 books sold and 10% of all books thereafter while simultaneously criminalizing the discounting of books during their first 18 months of sales. Supposedly this would help the underdogs: small booksellers and new authors. Ironically it does the exact opposite. It is the unknown author that has the greatest incentive to discount heavily in order to entice someone unfamiliar with their work. It is small book sellers that are most likely to haggle or “make a deal” when someone makes a substantial purchase.

Sadly Israel is not alone in this sort of book market meddling. Quite a number of other countries (mainly in Europe) have what are known as “fixed book price agreements” type laws. These are “resale price maintenance agreements”, commonly used in the US on a voluntary basis between vendor and customer, codified into law and backed by the state. In the US if company A wants Vendors B-Z to sell a widget for $1 and Vendor D sells it for less, then the solution is simple: company A just stops selling to vendor D. But in countries where such agreements are enforced by the state, vendor D can be fined or jailed. Let that sink in: jail time for selling goods “too low.” What monsters.

The usual defense of these laws is the same tired protectionist propaganda deployed whenever an entrenched business model is threatened by a new competitor: we need the state to protect us from “unfair” competition. “Unfair” being code for “somehow these people figured out how to sell the product I’m selling for a lot less and I can’t figure out what they are doing or I’m unwilling to change my business model to compete”. For example France has a “Lang Law” which permits book publishers to set the price of the book and then forbid anyone from selling it for less than 95% off the cover price. Fast forward to 2014 and a tweak was added to this law that was targeted at Amazon.com who was both discounting their books 5% and offering free shipping. Apparently selling books into the French market for the exact same price as French bookstores is considered “unfair” if the seller is a ‘foreign’ company.

So what we have here is a real world economics experiment, akin to raising the minimum wage to $50/hour. Israel has, in effect, dialed in the $50 option on book price fixing laws. While many countries have such economic interventionist type protectionism only Israel elevated theirs to stratospherically inane levels. From this we saw quick and clear signs of damage (just as we would if the minimum wage were raised to $50/hour). However, just as with the minimum wage laws, there still exist damaging effects in those countries with more “moderate” protectionist schemes such as France. It is perhaps apropos that a French economist (Bastiat, 19th century) speaks of the “unseen” damage wrought by market interventions.

If the demand for books is inelastic then to the extent book sellers earn more, the sellers of other goods earn less, while on net the public receives fewer goods for money spent. If the demand is elastic then book sellers earn less and other vendors earn more but the public still receives fewer goods. Indeed, the Israeli example demonstrated the elasticity of book demand. After their law went into affect, book sales went down and toy sales went up (as parents passed over high priced books for more affordable toys).

The fatal conceit of the politician is the belief that they can control nature (man) by dictate: people want they want and laws are like boulders in a stream  – it may slow, but it will not stop the flow of water.

Plugging the tailpipe

Newton’s third law of physics posits that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. From the kickback on a firearm to the lift provided by chemical propellants in a rocket, nothing in this universe acts in perfect isolation. This dictum applies equally to everything in the universe; from muon to man. Human action will also induce a feedback-based response; love begets love and violence begets violence. When the actions are voluntary and un-coerced we tend to see predictable outcomes (if I am kind, you are quite likely to be kind in return, but, if I hit you, you are most likely going to hit me back). When the actions are involuntary or otherwise unduly influenced then the results become unpredictable. Economic interventionism is like plugging a car’s tailpipe to silence it; it may bring temporary silence, but the building pressure will soon be relieved. The only question is when and where.

So just as plugging a tail pipe to silence a car is a fool’s endeavor, so too are forced attempts to mold society and the economy to suit the ideological leanings of those in power. Such attempts at societal meddling always end badly, typically in the form of increasing that bad thing one was trying to eliminate. The interventionist approach has all the logical soundness of hitting people in order to reduce violence in the world, yet the politicians continue to do such things everyday. For example, paying people to be unemployed augments, rather than diminishes, the number of unemployed. Likewise, subsidies for certain industries results in a whole array of undesirable side effects. Subsidization of corn production in combination with tariff-based protection of the domestic sugar market has distorted the economy and our health. Tariff-fueled high domestic sugar prices creates an incentive for sugar users to seek a lower cost alternative, which just so happens to be state subsidized HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). The state is simultaneously constraining supply of one product and expanding supply of another to make up for the ongoing constraint. This distortion alters the market in ways that would not exist absent this intervention. It has caused HFCS to become the dominant material used in domestic food production – pushing the somewhat healthier straight sugar out the door. That the overwhelming prevalence of HCFS has recently been implicated in the obesity epidemic (and all the costs associated with obesity related health ailments) should give anyone pause the next time a politician tells you they have the perfect solution to a problem.

Another side effect of agricultural interventionism is in of all places immigration. When the government guarantees a price floor for certain agricultural goods it creates a natural incentive to over produce those goods. The excess is then dumped at low subsidized prices into other countries (such as Mexico). Farmers there can’t compete with the low prices and soon go out of business. Those farmers are now desperate for work. So they come to the US. And then people wonder why so many “illegal” immigrants are pouring into the country. Time again for the government to fix the problem they created. You’ll never go out of the tire business if you keep dumping nails in the road.

The height of absurdity though is that when those in power are faced with the reality of the damage caused by subsidies they find it easier to expand those subsidies rather than to contract them. The most inane example of this is the fact that the US government pays Brazilian cotton farmers the same subsidies it pays US cotton farmers so that they can better compete with cheap US imports.

The moral of the story here is that economic interventionism (supported by the implied violent power of the state) will cause parties to behave differently than they otherwise would absent such threats. These differences lead others into altering their behavior so as to neutralize the effects of the initial intervention in a predictable sort of feedback loop. Plugging the tailpipe merely reroutes the exhaust. Equal and opposite reactions are on net a null.

Medicaid Expansion: Compassion or Trojan Horse?

Georgia is one of 19 states currently not expanding Medicaid under the auspices of Obamacare. This, contends proponents of expansion, is leading to needless deaths and poor health outcomes for many poorer Georgia residents due to the ongoing closure of rural Georgia hospitals. As with any political issue reduced to sound bites, this is a gross over simplification. Although it is true that monies received under a Medicaid expansion would indirectly alleviate some of the financial burden faced by these hospitals, it would not solve the problem nor would it address the proximate cause of these hospital’s failures.

This nationwide network of rural hospitals was established in the 1940s by the federal government. For the most part they were quite successful with few closures, that is, until the first year of Obamacare regulations came on line – 2010. Obamacare then began to smother these community hospitals with shortsighted regulations that do nothing to limit costs. These regulations included penalties for patient re-admittance if done too soon after initial release, mandates to establish electronic medical records, as well as cuts in Medicare reimbursements to hospitals.  While one hand of Obamacare beats these hospitals with a stick (regulation), the other hand offers a Band-Aid (Medicaid expansion); truly a case of governmental cognitive dissonance.

Medicaid expansion is but one part of the Obamacare-Trojan horse that will slowly stamp out the last vestige of market health care. The “Medicaid Hole” was deliberately inserted into Obamacare. This “hole” leaves some people with no coverage unless the states go along with the Federal definition of Medicaid eligibility (the states can set their own standards now). This is the second Gruber-esque ploy within Obamacare directed at enticing “voluntary” state compliance. It follows the standard Mafia extortion-pattern of an “offer you can’t refuse” by threatening harm to a third party. The first instance of this was the state exchanges: “set up state exchanges or else your citizens won’t qualify for federal subsidies.” Now it is “expand Medicaid or your citizens will suffer for lack of health care.” The individual is but a pawn in their game. If that were not so then why didn’t they simply create federal exchanges and grant everyone subsidies?

The second part of this Trojan horse is that Obamacare sets a substantial tax on “Cadillac” health care plans. The threshold for a Cadillac plan is the ONLY financial figure in Obamacare that is NOT indexed to inflation (let that sink in for a minute). Once a state expands Medicaid they must follow the federal eligibility requirements. The end game is a masterful pincer action; Medicaid eligibility will be eased upward by the feds while the Cadillac cap will in effect be eased downward (as a result of healthcare inflation). “Affordable” plans will disappear and thus people will have no choice but to jump over to Medicaid. End result: single payer healthcare (Medicaid) without a shot being fired.

Now before anyone argues that we need single payer to fix this “free market” mess remember that we have never had a free market based health care system in this country – there has always, at some level, been government intrusion into the market.* These intrusions distorted natural incentives and created unintended consequences. The “solution” to these unintended consequences then is always more government intrusions. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

To find a real solution to government interventions we must “undo” – not “do”. If proponents of Medicaid expansion in Georgia are serious about helping the poor and uninsured then they should propose the total repeal of all “Certificate of Need” laws (O.C.G.A. 31-6) in this state that require both state approval and the approval of any potential competitors for not only any new health care facility, but even the expansion of an existing one. CON laws have nothing to do with maintaining a certain standard of care. They are entirely a crony-capitalist measure, like taxi medallions, meant to limit competition among providers of a particular service. These laws do nothing but scare off potential investors and add years onto the process of opening a new hospital. The best thing to help the uninsured would be low prices brought about through competition. Subsidies to the uninsured in a CON environment are nothing but an indirect subsidy to high cost providers.

 

*Sky high income tax rates during World War II fostered the creation of tax free health insurance through ones employer. That, coupled with the creation of Medicare in the 1960s soon led to rapidly increasing health costs in the 1970s which Congress tried to stem with the HMO Act of 1973  and this country’s first dalliance with “managed-care” – that is the insertion of a third party between the doctor and patient who would pay for all care but also inject their opinion on the necessity of care. As costs continued to spiral upwards (due to the artificial disconnect between the customer (the patient) and the vendor (the doctor), Congress introduced layer upon layer of additional regulations trying to keep costs down. That was about as successful as throwing more blankets on a leaking waterbed to stop the leak. Like whack-a-mole, as soon as they plugged one hole a new one appeared, normally as a direct, unintended consequence of the “fix” for the last hole. And that story is how we now got to Obamacare – the latest fix in a long line of fixes.

 

Not Neutrality, Part 2

The moniker “net neutrality” is perhaps one of the most masterful strokes of political propaganda, right up there with “ethnic cleansing” and “quantitative easing” when measured for overall obfuscation. When asked their opinion, many are hesitant to take a stand, as they retreat behind a wall of an honest lack of knowledge on the subject. For the most part this is due to a perceived requirement that one must possess a deep technical understanding of how the internet works in order to have an informed opinion. Unfortunately this plays right into the hands of its proponents; “it’s complicated, trust us, we know what is best”. In fact this complexity tactic comes directly from the pundit’s playbook; witness the recent condescending Jonathan Gruber revelations (“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.”) In fact, the essence of net neutrality is not at all complicated; it is just good ol’ fashioned crony capitalism in 21st century garb.

Putatively complicated subjects are often best understood through metaphor. In this case we cast the large content carriers (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google) as manufacturers. The manufacturers need to ship their product to distributors. The ISP’s (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon) are the shipping carriers. Currently it is entirely uncontroversial that shipping carriers charge more to ship large things quickly than they do to ship small things slowly. So if we rename “net neutrality” as “shipping neutrality” things come into focus. Under “shipping neutrality” the large manufacturers want the government to force the shipping carriers to charge everyone the exact same amount regardless of size, weight, or speed. In fact, they want the shippers to ship everything at “next day air” speeds but charge first class letter rates. Net neutrality is nothing more than two parties disagreeing over pricing for a service. The cronyism comes in to play when one side demands the government take their side and implement a price ceiling. Of course such naked rent seeking would never fly politically, so it is camouflaged under the guise of protecting freedom, equality and baby kittens. Who could be against baby kittens?

But, as with all types of economic protectionism (tariffs, subsidies and other price controls) it is the consumer that is ultimately harmed. To discern this harm we must extend the metaphor a bit further. If the shipping carriers could not recoup their costs from the shipper then they would have no choice but to collect it from the recipient (postage due surcharge). Nothing is free and someone must pay.

We should be striving to make the internet more, not less, like a package shipping network. For example, if our neighbor receives a large delivery and we receive a small one, we do not subsidize his shipment through a “monthly shipment access fee”. If we receive no shipments in a particular month, we pay nothing. With free competition we would likely see a similar situation with internet access develop: no monthly charges, pay for only the amount and speed you demand as you actually consume it.

Today with internet access we pay the same amount month after month regardless of the extent to which we utilize that service. Although some may pay a bit more for faster service, the fact remains that light users subsidize heavy users. Under net neutrality this subsidization ‘inequality’ would only become more extreme. Heavy Netflix users will cause ISP’s to increase access rates for all consumers because they are legally prohibited from collecting anything extra from Netflix or basing consumer’s charges on their usage patterns; all in the name of ‘fairness’ of course. Would it not be a better outcome if through competition ISP’s charged Netflix more to ensure priority for their content and Netflix in turned passed that cost onto their customers alone? Internet access for everyone else would get cheaper and faster as ISP’s plow that ‘Netflix’ profit into bigger and faster pipes.

An even worse outcome of net neutrality would be if ISP’s were prohibited from raising anyone’s rates. This would result in a fixed price but ever slowing speeds as the network became more congested. At which point the voters would cry out “to do something” and we would then see a new “internet delivery tax” collected by the government and doled out to ISP’s that promised to wag their tails and do their master’s bidding (such as identifying all users on their network, tracking “suspicious” behavior and shutting down websites deemed by the government to be “politically incorrect”.)

So net neutrality supporters, be careful what you wish for, you just might get the world Edward Snowden feared.

Not Neutrality

“Net neutrality” certainly sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Who could possibly be against “neutrality” given its ability to evoke an emotional tie to equality, fairness, impartiality and egalitarianism? Only someone who is sufficiently ethically consistent that they will aver the use of aggression in all situations, rather than merely when popular opinion provides a safe harbor for that stance. Neutrality is not neutral when imposed at the barrel of a gun. Proponents of net neutrality seek not neutrality, but rather protectionism. For example, applying the principle of net neutrality one could legitimately argue that the state should restrict the ability of some companies to spend more money on marketing or R&D than their competitors. If they were allowed the freedom to spend as desired this might promote a competitive disadvantage leading to a market no longer consisting of “neutral” players. Competition bad, neutrality good.

Net neutrality has been in the news this past week due to a not-so-secret-secret vote by the FCC concerning some proposed Internet traffic rules. Proponents of net neutrality want the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a Title II medium (telecommunication service) from its current Title I designation (information service). This would transform the Internet (in the US) for all practical purposes into a public utility. Now consider the reputation that public utilities have for innovation, choice, and service and the whole notion of net neutrality should make you shudder. Free or low cost phone service over the Internet? Well you can say goodbye to that if the FCC is ever allowed to micromanage the net. Be grateful Congress did not allow the FCC to regulate cable; had they done so we’d still be stuck with three channels and rabbit ears.

Net neutrality, like all appeals for regulation, is about fear i.e. fear of hypotheticals. It is a solution in search of a problem. Indeed anti-trust legislation is based upon a similar principal. It seeks to destroy that which has never existed (a market monopoly) before it can do that which it has never done (raise prices). If one proposes dragon slaying as a solution, chances are they will be motivated to uncover dragons where none exist. Net neutrality is likewise the latest in a long line of state sponsored dragon quests. Net neutrality proponents have an irrational fear that dragons (big companies) will take over the forest (dominate the Internet) and thereby incinerate the little guy. The problem with this of course is that these dragons don’t exist. The Internet has been very much non-neutral since day one and none of their fears have come to pass. Under this benign regulatory neglect we have witnessed not oligopolization but rather innovation, growth, competition and more, not less, access for the “little guy” (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc). Their fears of the Internet turning into a virtual walled garden are not supported by 20 years of unregulated growth.

Companies like Netflix, Hulu or Apple pay big money to ensure the pipes carrying their content remain full. Why? Because we, the paying customers, demand it (anything to avoid the dreaded “buffering, buffering” message)! The network providers in turn use those big bucks to build out infrastructure to ensure content delivery occurs as promised. But if net neutrality proponents have their way, such premium payments would be disallowed, because everyone’s content must be treated “equally”. How again exactly does that help us, the customer?

If the public demands faster internet and prioritized content then the only means to achieve this is through the same process that has brought the internet to the state it is in today: an unregulated free market where individuals, not internet czars at the FCC, choose what services they want by voting with their dollars.