Archive for category Economics

Staggering Improvement

Looking over a CoBank report on the state of rail capacity in the West, I came across this astonishing graph:

The Staggers Act effectively deregulated the rail industry in this country, after almost a century of increasingly heavy-handed rules set out by the Interstate Commerce Commission (RIP).  It took a few years for volume to rise, but contrary to the arguments of the regulators, rates fell, revenue fell, and productivity shot up almost overnight.  As effects rippled through the economy, volume began to take off.

In recent years, as the cost of fuel has risen, and capacity constraints have become more evident, rates and revenue have started to rise, which accounts for the turnaround in railroad stocks.

What’s really striking is the stasis that the railroad industry was held in before 1980.  The ICC set their rates, limited their service, and forced freight lines to continue to run unprofitable and largely unused passenger service, competing with bus lines that were getting significant federal help through the interstate highway system.  How much of the overall economy’s stagnation and deterioration through the 60s and 70s was a result of this misguided paternalism can only be guessed at.

Harley Staggers, the author and chief sponsor of the Staggers Act, was no economic or political libertarian.  He was a 16-term Democratic representative from West Virginia who tried to subpoena the footage from a CBS documentary on Watergate and filed an FCC complaint over the F-word in a song on a radio station.  But he had enough sense to see that Appalachia’s coal industry needed a healthy railroad system to grow.  He’s lucky that this act from his final term in office is what people remember him by.

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John Kerry – Raising the Bar for Wrongness

The Olympics are coming up, and in the judged sports, like figured skating, we’ll hear a lot about the judges deliberately grading skaters down in order to “leave room” for later competitors who might do better.  If we were to judge the Obama Administration on wrongness, we’d probably have given up and just awarded a perfect score a long time ago, but that wouldn’t have left room for the continuing improvements being demonstrated.

The latest comes via the Weekly Standard, which reports these remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry:

We talked about the common interest of Pope Francis and President Obama in addressing poverty and extreme poverty on a global basis. The United States of America is deeply involved in efforts in Africa and in other parts of the world – in Asia, South Central Asia – to address this poverty, as is the Catholic Church. And so we have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.

The idea that poverty is the cause of terrorism has been so thoroughly debunked – most suicide bombers come from middle-class families, bin Laden was the wealthy son of a wealthy construction contractor, etc. – that his statement on the merits is hardly worth addressing.

That said, the second part of his statement, where he says that he and Theresa have therefore decided to set an example by donating their entire fortune to the Palestinian people, is really quite remarkable.

Ha, just kidding.  Of course, he didn’t say anything of the sort.  The solution, as always, will be to transfer billions of dollars of wealth from the middle-class and aspiring lower-class earners of the developed countries to the corrupt coffers of their “governments,” many of whom actively support terrorism, even as they pose as the most-reasonable-least-bad-alternative, in order to continue padding their Swiss bank accounts.  (Would that we pursued those half as assiduously as we went after law-abiding Americans with overseas money.)

In other words, Kerry wants to redistribute my future to people who want to kill me, enabling them to better do so, and feeding the contempt which is the real source of their murderousness.

Of course, Kerry himself won’t turn over his fortune to this good cause in defense of his countrymen.  He’ll pay some nominal increase in taxes, and continue to enjoy marvelous security at taxpayer expense (for a while) and then his own (for a while).

It’s really the foreign policy equivalent of Obama’s domestic policies.  Nobody thinks he or his rich backers from Silicon Valley are going to suffer from redistributionist policies.  It’s the middle-class and those just starting out who will see their futures bargained away, while the rest of us join the permanent renter class.

Foreign policy naivete combined with cronyism – the administration may finally have earned that Perfect 10.

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Blurring the Lines

Aaron Renn of the relentlessly engaging Urbanophile posts on the need for our legal structure to change to accommodate peer-to-peer, where people more efficiently share resources rather than owning a lot of unused or idle capacity:

But beyond the sheer efficiency gains, I think it’s under appreciated in developed countries how economic informality can create economic dynamism. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto noted that lack of property titles and difficulties of the formal economy perpetuated poverty because people in developing countries couldn’t access the system for credit to fuel business, etc. In the developed world we’ve got a similar problem brewing. Our economy has been largely entirely formalized to the point where we are choking in red tape that has produced an economic system that has failed too many of its residents and leading to the creation of these informal economies as a safety valve. And our societies are very ill equipped to deal with that as we’ve become excessively formalized.

We don’t need to establish property titles as we already have them, but we do need regulatory systems that enable entrepreneurship and new business models like peer to peer to thrive. What’s more, I think enabling some level of an informal sector to flourish is actually a good thing, as it’s a de facto “incubator” for new ideas that can later be developed into a more officialized system. Without a toleration of informality, these would never get off the ground.

These innovations are getting stifled by incumbents, and it’s tying up a lot of the economy’s capital.  You can’t rent a room in your house through AirBnB because that supposedly turns you into a hotel, and you’re avoiding the hotel tax.  Uber can’t schedule limos because that somehow is unfair to Yellow Cab or Metro Cab.  The car-sharing stuff seems to have found favor, though, for some reason.  Lyft began service in Denver a couple of months ago.

I agree with some of the commenters that there’s a qualitative difference between creating new value – like nanotech and 3D printing – and wringing the most out of existing resources.  Living standards really rise because of the former, not so much the latter.  The big improvements in quality of life happen when productivity jumps, and that’s not going to happen through renting out that spare room on a regular basis, or sharing cars.

Bear in mind that not all restrictions are just naked rent-seeking.  There are externalities associated with many businesses, and making sure that infrastructure gets paid for, and that you’re not taking up your whole block’s available parking with your in-home B & B are perfectly reasonable concerns.  I think most of that is already recaptured by excise taxes and gas taxes and incorporation fees and oh, income taxes.   So tying up capital in inventory is something most US companies have been avoiding since the 1980s, and no fair keeping us from joining in on the fun.  But unless you’re turning that money into productive ideas, someone else is going to end up capturing the benefit of your thrift.

The wrong model will end up raising the cost of owning-your-own outright to the point where it becomes a luxury.  I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy, and given the way these things tend to work, it could end up reinforcing a socialist model where ownership itself becomes a blurry concept.

For that reason, among others, I tend to prefer the Lyft model to the Car2Go model, although I hasten to add that that shouldn’t be enforced through regulation.  (Neither, of course, should Car2Go get the benefit of a parking subsidy as they do now.)  I think it’s healthier when the individuals own their own cars, rather than surrender ownership of a large part of the available fleet to what will end up being a small number of owners.  Private ownership also ends up making it more likely that individuals will recognize an individual payment, rather than just avoiding an expense.  Not only is that likely more satisfying, it’s also likely to result in more of the experimentation that we’re trying to encourage.

The other reason that a company going into business as a clearinghouse might prefer the Lyft model to the Car2Go model is the capital expense.  Car2Go has to spend a lot of money to buy a fleet large enough to make the service worth using, to make sure that there will be cars available.  And right now, it seems to be all tiny SmartCars.  I suspect that the existing vehicle inventory out there on the road (or in the garage, as it were) pretty closely mirrors the overall composition of what people actually want to be driving.  Why try to guess at a fleet composition, when the country has already done that math for you?

As always, read the whole thing.

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Why Rhonda Fields Is Worse Than Wrong

In a committee hearing yesterday, State Senator Vicki Marble found herself on the wrong end of a Rep. Rhonda Fields race-baiting attack.  Marble – in a committee hearing devoted to race- and ethnicity-based sources of and effects of poverty – had the temerity to suggest that there might be some cultural and dietary contributors to poverty in certain groups.  In reality, this isn’t even a particularly controversial statement.  It was said without malice, and African American State Rep. Tony Exum, who spoke immediately after Marble, apparently didn’t even react.  It was only Fields who went nuts, supposedly taking offense, attacking Marble, posing as a victim of racism – in a meeting devoted to racial disparities in poverty rates.

Fields is the one who deserves to be condemned here.  Not because she’s effectively played the ever-popular race card for partisan political reasons, but because she’s hurting the very people whom we all agree need help the most, while pretending to defend and support them.

Let’s be clear – it is a dangerous and socially destabilizing situation when a group of people believes that it’s denied participation in the fruits of the American dream because of their race.  It is fundamentally unfair and indecent to the extent that it turns out to be true.  There is every reason for the state government to take an interest in the welfare of its citizens, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.  And there is every reason for a state to try to determine the extent to which actual, real, discrimination exists.

Which is why Rep. Fields’s outburst is so reprehensible.  Instead of identifying areas where Blacks and Hispanics might be able to take their destiny into their own hands, she actively encourages them to think of themselves as victims, nurse grievances, and tend to resentments.  Instead of looking for actual sources of discrimination, she invents reasons for outrage.  Instead of finding ways that people can lift themselves off the Safety Net, she is more interested in keeping them enmeshed in it.

In Detroit, in spectacular fashion, we’ve seen where this leads.

Rep. Fields has no business serving on such a committee.

And anyone who truly cares about the welfare of poor African Americans and Hispanics should stand up and say so.

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CFCs, not CO2?

Could CFCs, already known to be responsible for the ozone hole, also be responsible for global temperature change, rather than CO2?

That’s the conclusion from a new paper in Modern Physics B, a high-level peer-reviewed journal.  The paper found that while the correlation between recent temperature anomalies and  CO2 was close to 0 – as in, no correlation whatsoever – the correlation to CFCs was close to 1, almost a perfect fit:

Climate scientists have been hard-put to explain the fact that there’s been no net warming since 1998, despite increases in atmospheric CO2.  If this is true, it is extraordinarily good news.  CFC usage has been heavily reduced since their effects on the ozone layer were discovered, and are slowly being removed from the atmosphere.  The 15-year lull in warming would not, then, be a pause before further warming, but the top of the roller coaster before we headed back down.

But more important, even the publication of the piece pulls the rug out from underneath the climate alarmists, who have been telling us for well over a decade that The Science Is Settled, and that CO2 emissions are responsible for global warming – or, as they now prefer, “climate change.”  There has been plenty of reason to doubt these conclusions – historically, CO2 levels have closely led, rather than closely training, global temperatures.  Moreover, climate has been changing for millennia, long before the industrial revolution.  And recent papers have also cast doubt on the speed with which temperatures have actually been increasing.

CO2 emissions have become something of a totem in current policy debates, inserting themselves into just about every discussion, and they have been responsible for some of the most distortionist of recent economic policies.  The people who suffer from these policies most are, of course, the poorest. Globally, the poorest find themselves victimized by added costs for their countries to industrialize and modernize.  Locally, Americans find themselves with higher utility costs from green subsidies, higher food costs from diverting massive amounts of corn to ethanol, higher housing costs from mandatory efficiency requirements in building codes, and higher transportation costs from boondoggles like “cash-for-clunkers.”   And of course, such policies make jobs scarcer for college grads, and less remunerative for a middle class already finding it hard to save for their futures.

On a grander scale, “greenhouse gas emissions” end up being the justification for wasteful light-rail, high-speed rail, and streetcar projects, and the excuse for diverting ever-more tax dollars into losing efforts to force people out of suburbs an into higher-density city centers.  The Supreme Court’s ruling that CO2 is a pollutant has given the EPA carte-blanche to interfere in just about every industrial process in the country.  This despite the fact that natural gas use has allowed the US’s CO2 emissions to fall to 1992 levels, even as actual industrial production has risen, without massive government intervention.

As, the climate alarmists have been seeing the debate slip away from them, they have resorted to more anti-science, political hardball tactics.  The Climategate I and Climategate II emails laid bare the ruthlessness with which they treated those who questioned their orthodoxy.  Recently, it was revealed that the Texas A&M Atmospheric Sciences Department was requiring what amounted to a climate loyalty oath for its faculty – usually not a sign of security that one’s position is supported by the actual science.

Add this paper to the growing body of evidence undermining the need for massive reordering of the global economy in order to stave off a disaster that looks increasingly unlikely.

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Uber vs. PUC

This past Saturday’s Wall Street JournalWeekend Interview was with Uber founder Travis Kalanick (“Travis Kalanick: The Transportation Trustbuster“).  Uber allows a customer to summon an otherwise idle limo or SUV, on demand, through a smartphone app.  The prices are competitive with town car service, and don’t require pre-arrangement.  The article details, in part, Kalanick’s battles with various municipal regulatory authorities, who, often acting on behalf of established taxi interests, seek to keep his company from operating:

When I suggest to Mr. Kalanick that Uber, in the fine startup tradition, was using the “don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness” approach, he interrupts the question halfway through. “We don’t have to beg for forgiveness because we are legal,” he says. “But there’s been so much corruption and so much cronyism in the taxi industry and so much regulatory capture that if you ask for permission upfront for something that’s already legal, you’ll never get it. There’s no upside to them.”

Then, last year, came the clash with regulators in the city where they order red tape by the truckload: Washington, D.C. A month after Uber launched there, the D.C. taxi commissioner asserted in a public forum that Uber was violating the law.

This time Uber was ready with what it called Operation Rolling Thunder. The company put out a news release, alerted Uber customers by email and created a Twitter hashtag #UberDCLove. The result: Supporters sent 50,000 emails and 37,000 tweets. Mr. Kalanick says that Washington “has the most liberal, innovation-friendly laws in the country” regarding transportation, but “that doesn’t mean the regulators are the most innovative.” The taxi commission complained that the company was charging based on time and distance, Mr. Kalanick says. “It’s like saying a hotel can’t charge by the night. But there is a law on the books, black and white, that a sedan, a six-passenger-or-under, for-hire vehicle can charge based on time and distance.”

In July, the city tried to change the law—with what were actually called Uber Amendments—to set a floor on the company’s rates at five times those charged by taxis. “The rationale, in the frickin’ amendment, you can look it up, said ‘We need to keep the town-car business from competing with the taxi industry,’ ” Mr. Kalanick says. “It’s anticompetitive behavior. If a CEO did that kind of stuff—you’d be in jail.”

A determined PR campaign by Uber was able to derail DC’s efforts.  By coincidence, this week, Uber posted on its Denver blog that the Colorado PUC is up to the same tricks:

Unfortunately, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission proposed rule changes this month which, if enacted, would shut UberDenver down. We need your help to prevent these regulations from taking effect!  Sign the petition!!

Here’s a sampling of what’s being proposed (Proposed Rules Changes):

  • Uber’s pricing model will be made illegal: Sedan companies will no longer be able to charge by distance (section 6301)
    • This is akin to telling a hotel it is illegal to charge by the night.
  • Uber’s partner-drivers will effectively be banned from Downtown — by making it illegal for an Uber car to be within 200 feet of a restaurant, bar, or hotel.   (section 6309)
    • This is TAXI protectionism at its finest. The intent is to make sure that only a TAXI can provide a quick pickup in Denver’s city center.
  • Uber’s partner-drivers will be forced OUT OF BUSINESS — partnering with local sedan companies will be prohibited. (section 6001 (ff))

The PUC has run interference for the taxicab cartel here before, last year shutting down a popular airport ride sharing program.  In 2011, they denied additional permits to Yellow and a proposed start-up, Liberty Taxi.  And the Union Taxi Cooperative’s battle to begin service (eventually successful) was the stuff of legend.   Their actions to the detriment of electricity ratepayers have been well-documented by Amy Oliver and Michael Sandoval over at the Independence Institute.  But at least in those cases, they had the fig leaf of enforcing existing law.  Here, as in DC, they’re actually proposing to change the rules in order to run the company out of town.

As a living, breathing example of regulatory capture, Colorado’s PUC is in a league of its own.  Let’s hope that Uber’s supporters are able to persuade them to cease and desist their harassment of the company.

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Inflation – Bad for the Economy, Bad for Society

In The Great Wave, his history of price revolutions and inflation, David Hackett Fischer associates waves of inflation with social instability, and a pessimistic culture as reflected in the art and philosophy of that time.  If he’s correct, we could be in for much more than just a bout of price instability.  Indeed, it’s possible that the recent increases in gas prices and food prices may already be stirring some dark forces we’d probably rather leave along.

The FBI reports a continuing drop in both property and violent crime.  It’s important to remember that the BJS report and the FBI report draw from two difference sources, and that they are intended to complements each other, like the household and employer surveys of employment.  One might show changes sooner than the other, for instance, or simply be more volatile.

There’s plenty of evidence for this even in the last century.  Germany was primarily destabilized by inflation, not so much by the relatively quick Depression.  It was the brief but horrid inflation of 1923-24 that wrecked people’s faith in the institutions of Weimar.  In the meantime, the US was wracked by a long, deflationary Depression, which didn’t come close to tearing the country apart.  Compare that to crime rates in the 60s and 70s, which only began to subside once people recognized that inflation was dead and buried, at least for the time being.

Crime isn’t just the poor and lower middle-class losing faith in their futures, it also eats away at the social fabric generally, because the middle class ends up being the most victimized.  It results in frustration an anger.  Wages go up, masking price increases that always stay ahead of wage increases, and nobody knows what their savings or earnings are worth any more.

I’m obviously not the first one to propose this relationship.  It’s been observed in other countries, as well as the United States.  According to that study, macroeconomic factors don’t explain more than 15% of the changes in property crimes over time, but almost all of that explanatory power comes from inflation.

None of this is to say that you can’t have serious social upheaval in times of deflation or even price stability.  Gold standard enthusiasts point to the 19th Century as a sort of golden age of macroeconomics.  But the changes wrought by industrialization, along with the over-expansion and inevitable contraction of the railroads, led to serious social unrest and the first stirrings of mass unionization.  Walter Russell Mead has been sounding the alarm about a similar reconfiguration now, we just don’t yet know what the other side is going to look like.

But if we are going through a Great Recalculation, a metaphor preferred by Arnold Kling, it’ll be a lot easier to meet without the complicating destabilization of people not knowing what their dollar is worth.

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Does Primary Care Actually Save Money?

One of the arguments for Obamacare has been the claim that increased access to primary care will result in long-term cost savings, but studies show conflicting results.  The theory in favor of this is that early detection will allow treatment in earlier stages.  The theory opposed to it is that keeping people alive costs money, as well.

Still, before we commit to a government takeover of health care, isn’t there a pretty simple experiment that we could run to find out?  If access to primary care really does save money in the long run, why aren’t insurance companies providing incentives to the insured to make more and better use of their PCPs?  There are some experiments in the works to incentivize doctors to be more accessible, and Anthem is even cutting them in on the presumed savings.

But the problem may be on the demand side as well – people just don’t like going to doctors, and not only because of the wait times.  Presumably the problem isn’t just putting off going to the doctor when you’re sick, it’s also putting off the routine physical or the annual checkup that could catch trouble early, before there are any symptoms at all.  So why not cut the co-pays?  Or why not mimic the safe-driver discounts and rebate an increasing portion of the co-pay for every year you go for your physical?  The latter would also help create the habit of going to the doctor regularly.

Insurance companies live and die on the sort of actuarial math that would let them detect any positive results from these experiments pretty quickly.  And if anyone is culturally geared not to fall for the fallacy of the seen and the unseen, it’s insurance companies.  (The fallacy states that people fall for redistributionist schemes because the beneficiaries are immediately identifiable, while the costs are distributed among the many.  In this case, presumably, the beneficiaries are largely unseen, while everyone sees the hit to the bottom line.)

So, is there are good reason that insurance companies don’t do this?  Is it just that they haven’t thought of it, or is there actual evidence that it doesn’t work?  Is anyone aware of any results from the Anthem experiment that show one way or the other?

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Tonight’s Surprise – China?

In trying to anticipate Monday night’s debate, we’re all thinking about Benghazi.  (Well, all of us except the New York Times, in whose Sunday edition the word does not appear.)  But the White House has more or less gone silent on Benghazi in the last few days, refusing to answer questions about it.  And they have to know that Romney will know the timelines backwards and forwards, ready to remind people of what they know they’ve heard.

What if, instead of trying to rebut the charges – surely a futile task – President Obama tries instead to divert attention?  Where would they turn.

I think the answer is China.  First, reports are that the administration is going to trot out a 5-year-old video from Mitt Romney’s last presidential run, showing him, ah, not hating China.  Here’s what he says:

You know, I think it’s important first for the American people and our leadership to understand that China is not like the Soviet Union of old.  The Soviet Union, Khrushchev in particular, wanted to bury us.  China doesn’t want to bury us, they want to see us succeed and thrive so that we can buy more Chinese products and they’re a competitor economically.  More power to ‘em, we know how to compete.  We want to make sure that competition is fair and legal, and that they protect our intellectual property rights and that they have a monetary policy that’s fair, so we’ve got some challenges to make sure that the playing field is level with China, but we can compete, we can be successful with China, and I will reach out to them, I’ve already met with their leadership and will do so again if I’m lucky enough to be president. Making China a partner for stability in the world will be one of my highest priorities.

China is really key in many respects as they become a very large economy; their GNP is going to surpass ours at some point just given the scale of the nation’s population.  We have to recognize that they’re going to be an economic powerhouse like us.  And with that reality we gotta make sure that we are friendly, that we understand each other, that we’re open in communicating, and that we’re collaborating on important topics, like keeping North Korea from pursuing the nuclear armament which they’ve begun, getting Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions, China and we together will have a great deal of positive influence for stability if we’re able to work that relationship properly.

It’s unclear why the Obama campaign thinks this is damning, but I suppose you could take the words, “China doesn’t want to bury us, they want to see us succeed and thrive so that we can buy more Chinese products,” out of context, and try to portray Romney as a flip-flopper on China.  I don’t think it’ll work.  I think Romney knows what he said, and in his calm, smooth, reassuring style will remind us that he was insisting that we make China play by the rules, because it’s in everyone’s interest.

I suppose it’s also possible that they’ll use the second half of the statement to claim that Romney is naive on China.  But coming from a president whose naivete on the Middle East is unsurpassed in several generations, and whose “pivot to Asia” is about to be undermined by drastic budget cuts to the Navy, that probably won’t work too well, either.

Obama may also try to use China to salvage his Solyndra payoff investment, inasmuch as that company’s remnants are suing Chinese solar companies, trying to blame them for Solyndra’s failed business model.  Doing that would give him a two-fer: getting to play the Romney-the-outsourcer card, while saying that China is eating our lunch on green technologies, and that he’s the guy to put a stop to it.  (Never mind that China’s paying a heavy price for its own market interventions, even as they continue to blame the West for it.)

So keep an eye on China this evening.  That may be where the real fireworks come from.

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PERA Gains a New Client Group

What makes it so hard to fight the growth of government is its ability to create client groups seemingly at will, with the money of the very people it’s seeking to co-opt.  I see it myself all the time at the JCRC, where what had been private, service groups are reduced to begging for scraps and favors in front of legislative committees.  At one time they thought it more expedient to do that than to make the case for the value of their work to the community they served and represented.  Now they’re caught, and even when they’re not temperamentally inclined to go along with the leftist agenda, they often do because they can no longer imagine doing business without government support.

So it happens with PERA, too, which has announced the Colorado Mile High Fund, a fund geared towards investing in Colorado entrepreneurs who have partners, but are also having a hard time finding additional capital.

“We heard from businesses around the state during the development of the Colorado Blueprint that increased access to capital is critical to their success and that of our state’s economy,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “The creation of the Colorado Mile High Fund will improve that access to capital and we are pleased that Colorado PERA’s partnership will benefit and help grow companies here in Colorado.”

The risks to the taxpayers and the foolishness of this sort of government adventure are all around us, but it’s hard to tell if that’s a bug or a feature of this plan.  I don’t think PERA’s out to deliberately lose money, but investing in high-risk start-ups may not be the best decision for a defined benefit retirement fund.

Even if this turns out to be one fund in the option and under-used 401(k) option, entrepreneurs and start-ups will now have a reason to support increased funding for a government-sponsored employee retirement plan, whose money much come from the pockets of the taxpayer.   The most dynamic sector of the state’s economy will be effectively recruited on behalf of its most stifling.

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