New ‘summer eating allowance’ hard to stomach for low earning taxpayers

Rishi Sunak on the economy and lessons learnt from the Covid-19 ...

[This is a guest post by Dr Wesley Key, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln.]

The announcement on 8th July 2020 by Chancellor Rishi Sunak that the government will refund 50% of the cost of meals out during Mondays-Wednesdays in August 2020, at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £500m, will, for many reasons, be hard to stomach for low paid working age taxpayers who cannot afford to eat out themselves. For such people, paying the rent, heating their homes and feeding their children will often leave little or nothing left over for dining out.

This new ‘summer eating allowance’ is likely to disproportionately benefit affluent older people with high levels of disposable income, whose custom typically helps to sustain many eating outlets during the mid-day/afternoon periods of the working week. The very same affluent older people who have qualified, with no means test, for free prescriptions aged 60-plus, for a free TV licence if a household member is aged 75-plus (up to August 2020), for a Winter Fuel Payment if a household member has reached state pension age, and for free local bus travel if they have reached women’s state pension age, regardless of their gender. The very same older people to benefit from the seven-fold rise in UK private pension income during 1977-2016.

Low paid and benefit dependent parents may also wonder why Chancellor Sunak is splashing out such a large sum of taxpayers’ cash, given that it took the efforts of Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to change government policy on 16th June 2020 to ensure that children eligible for Free School Meals continued to receive the relevant food vouchers during the elongated summer vacation period. This ‘COVID Summer Food Fund‘ was eventually set up at an estimated cost of £120m, less than a quarter of the cost of Sunak’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme, a.k.a. the ‘summer eating allowance.’

In the longer term, when the reality of tax rises and/or spending cuts to pay for the COIVD-19 bailout begins to bite, the government needs to focus on intergenerational fairness and ensure that well off pensioners pay their share of the nation’s debt. It is time that a government made non-poor over-60s purchase their medication via a Prescription Prepayment Certificate (PPC), which in 2020-21 costs younger adults £29.65 for 3 months or £105.90 for 12 months, sums well within the reach of people in receipt of private and state pension payments. It is also time to make employees aged 65-plus pay a tax of the same rate as the employee National Insurance Contributions paid by younger workers, in order for older workers to fully contribute to the funding of the public services that they use more extensively than their younger colleagues. Such moves to cut the benefits received by, and increase the tax taken from, healthy, active people in their 60s and 70s would help to increase the funding of the social care services that are largely used by people aged 80-plus who are no longer able to undertake paid work and are entitled to face lower user charges for the social care that they require to ensure a degree of dignity and independence in old age.

Be Our Guest: “How to make Brexit Really Worthwhile – Example: Financial Regulation”

Be Our Guest is an open invitation to NOL‘s readers to participate with us. Pretty much anything is on the table. The latest article comes from the Freeconomist, who is following up on his earlier piece about making Brexit worthwhile via information asymmetries. His new piece is on financial regulation through the prism of Brexit. Check out this excerpt:

I do not want to write a lengthy discussion on the question of which alternative is the least costly in dealing with the incentive problems arising from the implicit subsidy by the taxpayer. There are good reasons to believe an incremental, decentralized and evolutionary system of market-based regulation to be superior to centrally designed government regulation. (4)

But even if this is the case, private regulation arising as a response to the incentive problems resulting from explicit and/or implicit government guarantees is still costly. Indeed, the evolved system of private regulation in the UK banking industry was giving the appearance of a restrictive cartel. If my analysis is correct, this “cartel” served a useful social function, namely to deal with the incentive problems created by the implicit government guarantee. Nevertheless, it also involved costs.

At the root of the problem are the taxpayer guarantees.

Please, read the rest. It’s another excellent piece of work.

And don’t be afraid to submit your thoughts to us.

Is Dominic Cummings a hypocrite, or does the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy just suck?

Tedandralph

On Saturday, The Observer revealed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recently appointed chief of staff received around £235,000 of EU farm subsidies over the course of two decades in relation that his family owns. Dominic Cummings is often portrayed as the mastermind behind the successful referendum campaign to Leave the European Union. So he is currently enemy no.1 among remain-supporters.

I am unconvinced this latest line of attack plays in Remainers’ favor (I was a marginal Remain voter in the referendum and still hold out some hope for an eventual EEA/EFTA arrangement). Instead, this story serves as a reminder of probably the worst feature of the current EU: the Common Agricultural Policy.

The CAP spends more than a third of the total EU budget (for a population of half a billion people) on agricultural policies that support around 22 million people, most of them neither poor nor disadvantaged as Cummings himself illustrates. Food is chiefly a private good and both the interests of consumers, producers and the environment (at least in the long-term, as suggested by the example of New Zealand) are best served through an unsubsidized market. But the CAP, developed on faulty dirigiste economic doctrines, has artificially raised food prices throughout the European Union, led to massive over-production of some food commodities, and denied farmers in the developing world access to European markets (the US, of course, has its equivalent system of agricultural protectionism).

These economic distortions make an appearance in my new paper with Charles Delmotte, ‘Cost and Choice in the Commons: Ostrom and the Case of British Flood Management’. In the final section, we discuss the role that farming subsidies have historically played in encouraging inappropriately aggressive floodplain drainage strategies and uneconomic use of marginal farming land that might well be better left to nature:

British farmers currently receive substantial subsidies through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. This means that both land-use decisions and farm incomes are de-coupled from underlying farm productivity. Without the ordinarily presumed interest in maintaining intrinsic profitability, farmers may fail to contribute effectively to flood prevention or other environmental goals that impacts their output unless specifically incentivized by subsidy rules. If the farms were operating unsubsidized, the costs of flooding would figure more plainly in economic calculations when deciding where it is efficient to farm in a floodplain and what contributions to make to common flood defense. Indeed, European governments are currently in the perverse position of subsidizing relatively unproductive agriculture with one policy, while attempting to curb the resulting harm to the natural environment with another. These various schemes of regulation and subsidy plausibly combine to attenuate the capacity of the market process to furnish both private individuals and local communities with the appropriate knowledge and incentives to engage in common flood prevention without state support.

Our overall argument is that it is not just the direct costs of subsidies we should worry about, but the dynamics of intervention. In this case, they have led not only farmers but homeowners and entire towns to become reliant on public flood defenses with significant costs to the natural environment. There is limited scope for the government to withdraw provision (at least in a politically palatable way).

Turning back to The Observer’s gotcha story, it isn’t clear to me that Cummings is a hypocrite. I think the best theoretical work on hypocrisy in one’s personal politics comes from Adam Swift’s How Not To be Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed. In it Swift argues that the scope to complain about supposed hypocritical behavior, especially taking advantage of policies that you personally disagree with, can be narrower than intuitively imagined, mainly because of the nature of collective action problems. Swift’s conclusion is that, in some circumstances, leftwing critics of private schools are entitled to send their own children to private schools so long as others continue to do so and burden of doing otherwise is too strong. Presumably, this also means that strident libertarians are not hypocritical to use public roads so long as a reasonable private alternative is unavailable.

In an environment where every farmer receives an EU subsidy, it might be asking too much of EU-skeptic farmers to deny it to themselves. Instead, it seems legitimate and plausible to take the subsidy while campaigning sincerely to abolish it.

Free lunch: college edition

Andrew Cuomo recently proposed making college free taxpayer funded for middle class New Yorkers. He argues that college is a “mandatory step if you really want to be a success.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he’s making adequate adjustments for vocational training.

As a SUNY employee, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it means an increased demand for my services. On the other hand, it means increased pressure to keep costs down, which could mean a fall in my future earnings potential. Increased admissions pressure means I might have easier to teach students, but also probably means less chances for the low-income students coming from the worst public schools.

At best, we’re looking at a middle-class to middle-class transfer that will trade off the benefits of market pressure against the benefits (to families paying for school) of not having to think too hard about how to manage a large expense.

I won’t go into the issue of signaling (see Bryan Caplan), or the sheer wastefulness of having people get bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t need them (see Dick Vedder… esp. table 1). These are important points, because they get at the root problem Cuomo is misdiagnosing. College is mandatory because of subsidies and subsidies will only make it worse. But we don’t even need to be that sophisticated to understand why this plan is a problem.

Here’s my basic problem with “free” college tuition: it’s too good to be true. I get the desire to help out poor people, but the average household in NY makes just under $60K/year and this plan is for all households making less than $125K. That’s “free” tuition to a lot of households that would be sending their kids to school anyways. That money has to come from somewhere. The people paying for this program will largely overlap with the people benefiting from it.

If everyone thinks their kids should go to school, then what’s the point in taking away their money to send their kids to school?! We all like burritos, so give me your money and I’ll buy us all the burritos we want. Doesn’t make sense! Giving up control of your spending can only make you worse off, so this will ultimately be a bad thing for the middle class. And that lack of control from middle class helicopter parents will likely be a bad thing for the working poor people who could have been net beneficiaries (hopefully… I’m not certain this won’t back fire on net). Even if subsidizing higher-ed were a good idea, this is almost certainly a terrible way to go about it.

“Statogenic” Climate Change?

Is climate change government-made? For some years, I have been saying to my colleagues that climate change is real. Nonetheless, I am not an alarmist and I do not believe that stating that there is a problem is a blank cheque for any policy. Unlike many of my colleagues who believe that climate change is “anthropogenic”, I argue that it is “statogenic” in the sense that government policies over the last few decades basically amplified the problem.

Obviously, there is a social cost to pollution – an externality not embedded in the price system. On that basis, many have proposed the need for a carbon tax to “internalize the externality”. The logic is that anything that brings the “market price” closer to the “social cost” is an improvement.

Rarely do they consider the possibility that governments have “pushed” the market price away from the “social cost” (Note: I really hate that term as it has been subverted to mean more than what economists use it for). Consider the example of road pricing. In my part of Canada (Quebec), road pricing was eliminated in the 1970s. By eliminating road pricing, the government incentivized the greater use of vehicles and, basically, the greater burning of fossil fuels. Thus, by definition, the return of road pricing would bring the market price and the social cost closer together (and it might do so more efficiently than a carbon tax). Thus, there can be “statogenic” climate change because governments encourage indirectly the greater use of fossil fuels.

How big is that “statogenic” climate change? I think it is pretty “yuge.” For the last few months, I have been involved in a research project with Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto regarding environmental indicators in the debates between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon (see Joanna’s podcast with Garrett Petersen here at Economics Detective Radio). In that paper, we mention the fact that roughly a quarter of the world consumption of fossil fuels is subsidized directly or indirectly (through price controls setting local prices below world prices). That is a large share of total consumption and, according to an OECD paper, 14% of the effort needed to attain the most ambitious climate change mitigation plan could be made by eliminating those subsidies.

Now imagine that estimate was made in 2011. These policies have existed since the 1970s! One paper from the World Bank from the 1990s argued that eliminating them back in the 1980s would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 5% to 9%. Imagine a level lower by 9% (just for the sake of illustration) and imagine that the growth rate of greenhouse gases would have been reduced by 9% as well. Using CAIT data, we can see how this oversimplified scenario (which is by no means a general equilibrium scenario – which is the only way to measure the overall lower levels) means in terms of lower levels of GHGs. Relative to the observed data, a 9% drop back in 1990 with a 9% reduction in the growth rate of GHGs mean that the level of GHGs in 2012 in a world without subsidies would have been more than 12% lower relative to what they were in a world of subsidies.

subsidies

Again, this is an oversimplification. However, it works against my claim. The use of sophisticated methods is likely to yield much larger differences over time. Think about it for a second – alone the policy of fossil fuel subsidies explains a lot even with the oversimplification. Now, imagine adding the fact that many countries do not practice road pricing; that some countries tax the resale of used goods forcing the production of more goods; that they discourage construction in urban environments forcing a greater population sprawl; that trade barriers in agriculture prevent us from concentrating production where it is the most efficient; and the list goes on!

When people say “anthropogenic” climate change, I hear “incentives-driven” climate change or “statogenic.”

Critics of Markets have Intervention Denial

There is a meme, an infectious idea, that has spread like a mental plague among advocates of greater governmental intervention. This idea is “intervention denial,” the claim that the US and other developed economies have had complete economic freedom. The critics of markets usually use deliberately mind-numbing language such as “capitalism,” although sometimes they do claim more starkly that today’s economies are a “free market” and practice “free banking” and “free trade.”

Many examples of intervention denial can be found by searching for the submeme “unbridled capitalism” as well as “greed” combined with “capitalism” or statements such as “people over profits.” For example, there is a web article titled “Unbridled Capitalism and the Blight of Greed” which defines “capitalism” as “the economic system in which the pursuit of wealth remains in the control of individuals, free from government regulation or interference.” The article states that “Capitalism, after all, suffers from a fatal flaw – Greed.” Intervention denial has infected well-meaning people in high places, such as the Pope, who declared, “Unbridled capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost.”

“Denial” in this context means the refusal to believe in evidence. For example, Holocaust denial is the refusal to accept the enormous evidence of mass murders by the Nazis. There are science denials of various sorts. Intervention denial is one of the most destructive memes in the mental universe human beings live in, because intervention denial blocks effective solutions to social problems.

Consider the claim that the US has had destructive “free banking.” This false meme originated in historians who called the US banking system prior to the civil war “free banking,” even though the banks were tightly controlled by state governments, such as prohibiting banks from establishing branches beyond the state. In true free-market money and banking, there is no restriction or imposed cost on any currency, account, or financial institution so long as its operation is honest and peaceful.

The intervention deniers claim that the USA has a free market in money and banking, disregarding the obvious facts that the US financial system is tightly regulated by the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”), the FDIC, the SEC, and the US Treasury Department. These institutions and Congress bailed out the financial system after the interventions caused the Depression of 2008, as they did with previous busts. The US dollar and interest rates are controlled by the central planning of the Fed. This is the system that intervention deniers call a “free market.”

In a truly free market, there would be no restriction, tax, subsidy, or mandate that alters honest and peaceful human action. Those who claim the US economy is “unbridled” talk as though there were no regulations nor any taxation, let alone subsidies. The extent and effects of regulations on the US economy can be read in the study “Ten Thousand Commandments” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as well as the regulations data base of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The economic damage done by intervention can also be read in the on-going study “Economic Freedom of the World,” at freetheworld.com.

How can an economy be “unbridled” if enterprise, consumption, and produced wealth are all afflicted with heavy taxation? Intervention deniers talk as though there were no income tax, federal excise taxes, state sales taxes, value-added taxes, and taxes on buildings and equipment. A truly free market would also not have any subsidies, such as the billions of dollars now going into the big farms, along with other corporate welfare.

All these interventions – taxes, subsidies, restrictions, and mandates – distort prices, wages, interest rates, profits, and quantities. The social problems we can observe: unemployment, low wages, unaffordable housing, slow growth, recessions, pollution, can be traced back to government intervention. Consider pollution, for example. Intervention deniers claim that “capitalism” and “greed” result in pollution and environmental destruction. But a truly free market is free of subsidies. When firms and their customers do not pay the full social cost of the products, as the social cost of pollution is imposed on others, that is an implicit subsidy. In a truly free market, with full enforcement of property rights, pollution is treated as a trespass, an invasion of others’ property, requiring full compensation. The problem is not that firms and markets are unbridled, but that ecological destruction is subsidized. The subsidies combine with a legal system that bridles the population with a legal inability to sue the polluters for damages.

There is indeed a bridle to a free market: laws prohibiting force and fraud. A pure market economy consists of voluntary human action. The bridle is on thieves, not on peaceful and honest producers, traders, and consumers.

When interventions are pointed out to the deniers, they respond that these taxes, restrictions, subsidies, and mandates are of little significance. This is similar to Holocaust deniers who respond that perhaps a few Jews and Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis, but not on the large scale that they deny. Intervention deniers do not deny the existence of the Federal Reserve system, but they claim it is a private free-market organization. Deniers of all sorts reject data and other evidence, use undefined terms such as “capitalism” and “greed,” and point to their favored authors, articles, and data as though these present unbridled truth.

“Greed” means wanting and taking more than one morally deserves. A person morally deserves that which is earned by labor and received from voluntary gifts. The honest acquisition of wealth may be avarice, but not greed. Thieves are greedy, and those who indirectly steal by getting government to do or protect their forced taking are also greedy. Intervention denial is ultimately a refusal to think it through, to fully understand the ethics, politics, and economics of human life.

The California Solar Energy Property-Tax Exemption

California exempts solar energy equipment from its property tax. The exemption will last until 2025. The California Wind Energy Association has complained that this exemption puts solar energy at an artificial advantage relative to other renewables such as windmills. Biomass, the use of biological materials such as wood and leftover crops, is also at a relative disadvantage.

Rather than eliminate the solar tax exemption, the other energy industries should seek to eliminate the property tax on all energy capital goods. With this exemption, the government of California is recognizing that property taxes on capital goods – buildings, machines, equipment, inventory – impose costs that reduce production and innovation. Since this tax is toxic, the property tax should be removed from all improvements.

The best revenue neutral tax shift would be to increase the property-tax revenue from land value by the same amount as the reduction in the taxation of capital goods.

The other energy industry chiefs call the solar property-tax exemption a subsidy. We need to distinguish between absolute and relative subsidies. An absolute subsidy occurs when government provides grants to firms, or limits competition. A relative subsidy occurs when one firm or industry receives a greater subsidy than its competitors. All absolute subsidies are also relative subsidies, because they exist relative to the rest of the economy. But if the subsidy is not in funds or protection, but from lower rates on industry-destructive taxes, this is a relative but not an absolute subsidy.

Suppose that there are patients in a hospital suffering from continuous poisoning. The doctor stops poisoning one patient, and he recovers. But the other patients are still being poisoned. The other patients complain that it is not fair for one patient to be singled out for favored treatment. But the just remedy is not to resume poisoning the recovered patient, but to stop poisoning the others. The taxation of capital goods is economic poison, which the state recognizes would poison the solar energy industry they seek to promote. But why poison the other industries? The property tax should exempt all capital goods, all improvements.

A broader issue is the subsidies to energy. All forms of energy, except human muscles, are subsidized by the state and federal governments. Energy from oil and coal are implicitly subsidized by exempting them from the social costs of their environmental destruction. There is no economic need for any subsidies. But to obtain the true costs of energy, governments should also eliminate taxes not only on their capital goods but also on their incomes and sales. We cannot know whether renewable energy can stand on its own until we eliminate all the government interventions, including taxes, subsidies, and excessive regulations.

Since a radical restructuring of public finances is politically impossible today, a politically feasible reform would be to exempt all capital goods investments from the property tax. If this needs to be revenue-neutral, California could replace its cap-and-trade policy with levies on emissions. The relative subsidy to solar power is unfair to the other energy industries, but the real unfairness is the property tax on their investments.
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This article first appeared at http://www.progress.org/views/editorials/the-california-solar-energy-property-tax-exemption/

Wait, what?!

There won’t be a MotoGP race at Laguna Seca this year and here’s why…

Unlike COTA and IMS, which are both privately owned, Laguna Seca is a non-profit operated by the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP), on property owned by the Monterey County parks department. This unique status disqualifies the facility from accepting large government subsidies available to tracks like COTA and IMS–the latter which reportedly received $100 million in state grants this year for track and facility upgrades to secure major events like MotoGP. “We can’t compete with that,” Campbell told the Herald. “Here, there are no tax credits or state subsidies.”

Hasta La Vista, Laguna Seca, Motorcyclist, January 2014

So the non-profit on public property isn’t eligible for subsidies but private tracks are?!

Myths about Libertarianism

Many articles have recently appeared in magazines, web sites, and social media criticizing free markets and libertarian ideas. It seems to me that this opposition is a result of a growing interest in freedom as people realize that the economies of the world are in serious trouble. As people see continuing high unemployment, slow growth, ever greater government debt, environmental disaster, more turbulent weather, and endless wars, some folks seek solutions in greater freedom while others seek solutions in greater state control. The critics of libertarianism and economic freedom have fallen for several fallacies.

1. Critics confuse today’s mixed economies, a mixture of markets and government intervention, with a “free market.” A truly free market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary for all persons. Government intervention changes what people would otherwise voluntarily do. A pure market would not impose the taxation of labor and capital. It would not prohibit trade with Cuba. Free markets would not subsidize industry. Any peaceful and honest action would be free of restrictions and taxes. That is not the economy we have today in any country.

2. Critics use the term “capitalism” to falsely blame markets for economic trouble. Those opposed to private enterprise call today’s economies “capitalist.” They then note that the economy has trouble such as poverty, great inequality, unemployment, and recessions. The critics conclude that “capitalism” causes these problems. This illogic uses a sly change in meaning. They use the term “capitalism” as a label for the current economies and also to refer to free markets. It makes no sense to label the economy as XYZ and then say XYZ causes problems. The critics use the double meaning of “capitalism” to blame the non-existing free market for social problems. This confusion is often deliberate, as I have found that it is almost impossible to get the critics to replace their confusing use of the term “capitalism” with clearer terms such as either the “mixed economy” or the “pure market.”

3. Critics think that the “market” means “anything goes.” For example, they think that a free market allows unlimited pollution. They often call this, “unbridled capitalism.” But freedom stops at the limit of harm. In a pure market with property rights for all resources, pollution that crosses outside one’s own property is trespass and invasion. This violation of others’ property rights would require compensation, and that payment would limit pollution.

4. Critics confuse privatization with contracting out. They then blame private enterprise for problems such as occurs with private prisons. When government contracts with private firms to produce roads, it is still a governmental road. When governments hire private contractors to provide services in a war, it is still government’s war. Government sets the rules when firms do work under contract. Genuine privatization means transferring the whole ownership, financing, and operation to a private firm.

5. Critics overlook subsidies. Government distorts the economy with subsidies to agriculture, energy production, and other corporate welfare. The biggest subsidy is implicit: the greater land rent and land value generated by the public goods provided by government and financed mostly from taxes on labor and enterprise. Critics not only ignore this implicit subsidy but also overlook the explicit subsidies to agriculture and programs such as the promotion of ethanol from corn.

6. Critics do not understand the crowding out of private services because of government programs. The critics of libertarianism say that with less government, old folks and poor folks would starve and die because they would not receive social security and medical care. What they overlook is that the reason many of the elderly have little savings for retirement is that government took away half their income while they were working. Income taxes reduce their net wages, while sales taxes raise the cost of living. Low-income people pay little or no income tax, but they pay hefty sales and excise taxes, and they indirectly pay property taxes from their rental payments to landlords. Libertarians want to abolish poverty and have a society where all people have good medical care. They just want to accomplish this by letting workers keep their full pay, which would enable them to pay for their own medical services. Also, with no taxes on interest and dividend income, people would be better able to provide for their own retirement income, indeed to have much more than social security now provides.

7. Critics fail to understand contractual governance. A pure market would not consist of isolated individuals. Human beings have always lived in community associations. In a free market, communities such as condominiums, land trusts, and civic associations would provide the public goods that the members want.

8. The critics of market believe that corporations control the economy, exploit labor, and plunder the planet. Corporations do have power, but mainly because they obtain subsidies and monopoly privileges from governments. But labor unions and lawyers also lobby the government for power and favors. Rather than blaming private enterprise, the critics should examine how the structure of government enables special interest to obtain power and wealth.

Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1905 that nobody really argues with the economics and philosophy of Henry George and public revenue from land rent; the critics either misunderstand the concepts, or they create misinformation. The same applies to critics of libertarianism. The fact that the critics falsify the free market in criticizing it implies that the actual concept is sound, otherwise they would provide valid arguments.

Nobody has refuted the free market and the libertarian ethic of “live and let live”. The critics of liberty either misunderstand it or else falsify it. Even when their errors in logic, their false evidence, and their confused terminology are pointed out, the critics persist in their falsification. They are stubbornly anchored to their viewpoints. Why this is so is a problem I will leave to psychologists to figure out.

Anti-Tesla bill rejected by Ohio Senate.

On December 3rd, an amendment to Ohio Senate Bill 137 failed to pass. The amendment would have required Tesla Motors to sell its electric cars through a third party rather than directly to consumers. Ohio is number two in auto manufacturing in the midwest and Tesla’s new line of ultra-efficient electric vehicles are a threat to the entire automotive industry. Contrary to what those in Detroit and Ohio would have you think, this is a good thing.

For far too long the automotive unions and automotive industry lobbyists have suckered the individuals in this country into believing they were the backbone of American manufacturing when in fact they were a leech sucking money from more productive uses. For example through the years 2008 to 2011 Ohio granted $80.8 million in subsidies to General Motors, $54.4 million to Ford, and $28.7 million to Chrysler. This is ignoring the billions of dollars spent on the auto bailout last decade which, much like Chrysler bailout in 1980, simply saved failing corporations from their own shoddy business practices. While Tesla gets its own fair share of subsidies any threat to the auto industry is a positive thing for consumers.

FATCA closes Americans’ Foreign Bank Accounts

by Fred Foldvary

When the USA adopted the 16th Amendment to the Constitution a century ago, did the people understand that this would deprive Americans world-wide of foreign banking services? Americans thought that the income tax would just grab the money from the rich, but they did not understand that the income tax would tax everybody else more. All that is needed to equalize wealth without damage to the economy is to stop government subsidies, but this requires an economic sophistication that so far has eluded most people.

Inherently, an income tax yields an incentive to cheat, as the government depends on reporting. So the Internal Revenue Service has to monitor financial accounts to prevent tax evasion. Gradually, the IRS has extended its reach into accounts, first within the USA, and now into the foreign accounts held by American citizens.

No other country has imposed such costs and mandates on foreign accounts as the USA. So ironically the “land of the free” has the least economic freedom for its citizens abroad. The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), enacted in 2010 requires foreign financial institutions to make reports on American accounts. Foreign financial institutions with American customers are required obtain a Global Intermediary Identification Number. FATCA requires foreign financial firms to identify their U.S. account holders, to disclose the account holders’ names, social security or other tax IDs, addresses, and the accounts’ balances, receipts, and withdrawals. For some accounts, the foreign bank is required to withhold some of the interest paid to the account, and send it straight to the IRS. This US law overrides the privacy laws of the foreign countries.

US law is thus legislating not only within US territory but throughout the whole world. If a financial firm does not comply, the IRS will tax 30 percent of its US-sourced income. The IRS is also busy laying out the legal infrastructure for enforcing this law with agreements with foreign governments for data sharing. Governments world-wide are signing on, because they too face the problem of tax evasion when they tax income that can hide.

FATCA does not just affect fat cats. Many foreign banks are now refusing to provide Americans with bank accounts and are closing the accounts of Americans, who are now also unable to obtain mortgages and insurance abroad. Americans are increasingly giving up their US citizenship in order to be able to work or retire abroad.

The US economy depends on international trade and global finance, with many Americans working abroad for US and foreign firms. Six million Americans live outside the territory of the USA. If Americans can no longer have foreign bank accounts, because the costs to the banks are too high, they will be so hampered that fewer Americans will be willing to live abroad, and this will hurt American enterprise.

Since the US government cannot directly impose laws on foreign lands, many foreign firms will sell their US affiliates and stop holding assets within the USA, thus putting themselves beyond the control of the US government. The overall cost to the US economy of FATCA may be much greater than the increase in tax revenue from reduced tax evasion. Also, those who seek to evade income taxes will find other ways. High taxes induce tax evasion, and enforcement drives evasion into other channels. How successful are US drug laws in stopping the smuggling in of drugs, and how successful have US immigration restrictions been at preventing illegal immigration?

Another consequence of greater reporting of American accounts is the increased risk of identity theft and theft of money from accounts. The greater the reporting, the greater the revelation of data that can be stolen.

It is no use seeking to repeal FATCA. The regulation of accounts, no matter how costly, follows from the income tax being, as Henry George put it, a tax on honesty. The taxation of wealth that can hide and flee requires strict and costly reporting and enforcement. The only effective remedy is to tax something that will not flee, hide, or shrink when taxed. A tax on land value cannot be evaded, and if that were the only tax, there would be no need to impose costs on finances.

Inequality Unexplained

There is a new economics documentary film that stars Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and now a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The film, Inequality for All,  directed by Jacob Kornbluth, won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award and has been shown nation-wide.

Unfortunately, Robert Reich has not explained why the US has had an increasing inequality of income. Neither in the film nor in his writings and interviews does he examine the cause. Without the elimination of the cause, there can be no remedy. As usual in documentaries of social problems, most of the film just describes and tells stories about the inequality.

Inequality for All is typical of welfare-state presentations in jumping to governmental responses that only treat the symptoms and effects. Reich advocates a higher minimum wage without any analysis what determines wages in a market economy.

Most basically, in a free market, ordinary workers are paid what economists call the “marginal product,” or what an extra worker contributes to output. If a worker adds $10 each hour to total output, then that is what he is paid, and that is what he is worth to the company. If the company pays him any less, say $8, that provides an opportunity for a similar company to offer $9 and get the $10 worth of output, so competition will drive the wage up to the worker’s contribution, his marginal product.

A minimum wage forces the firm to pay more than the worker’s marginal product. The firm will not hire a worker who costs more than he is worth. The reason that workers are not all dismissed is the law of diminishing returns. In a farm or factory, if there are only a few workers, each worker’s marginal product is high, because there is a lot of land and machines, and few workers. As workers are added, each extra worker contributes less extra output. Workers are hired up to the quantity for which the wage equals the marginal product.

The minimum wage acts like a tax on labor that forces the firm to reduce the number of workers employed to that level where the higher marginal product equals the required wage. In some cases, the firm will also respond by reducing benefits such as medical insurance such as by hiring part-time instead of full-time labor.

Many firms in competitive industries respond to the higher minimum wage as they would to a higher tax. They pass on some of the costs to the customers. The higher price reduces sales, production, employment, and income.

The minimum wage is lethal to the economy as it acts as an extra tax on employment on top of payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, workers insurance taxes, and the income tax on the profits of the firm. All these taxes reduce employment and reduce the take-home pay of the worker.

Henry George stated in his 1883 book Social Problems that “There is in nature no reason for poverty.” Poverty is caused not by any lack of natural resources but by human institutions that deprive workers of the ability to buy what they produce. The institution with the power to impose this intervention is government. The totality of restrictions, mandates, taxes, and subsidies reduces enterprise and takes away much of the product of labor. Then impoverished workers need the welfare state to provide the necessities of life.

The ideology of welfare statists makes them only think of governmental aid and reject the idea that governmental intervention is the source of the problem. They sneer at “free market fundamentalism.” They don’t understand the fact that taxes on labor redistribute wealth from workers to landowners as government taxes wages to pay for public goods that generate higher rent and land value. They don’t understand that the worker-tenant pays twice for the public goods of government, once by having half his wage taxed away, and a second time in the higher housing rental he pays because greater governmental services increase locational rents.

The effective remedy for poverty is to remove all punitive taxes and land-value subsidies. We can remove subsidies to the landed interests by having them pay back the rent generated by useful public goods such as roads, schools, and security. Without taxes on labor and enterprise, the cost of labor is lower to employers, while the worker’s take-home pay is higher. The replacement of wage taxes with land value taxes would reduce economic inequality while also increasing the productivity of the economy.

Of course the elimination of poverty also has to include better education, and that can be accomplished with vouchers, payments not to schools but to parents. A voucher is a ticket that a parent could use to send his children to the best schools. It provides an incentive for educators to produce better schools. It is not a panacea, because the home and neighborhood environment are also important, but it would shift the incentives towards better schooling.

It is not only unfortunate but astonishing that a leading professor of public policy who cares about the poor would not make the prosperity tax shift, replacing wage taxes with land value taxes, the core of his policy proposal. I suspect his response would be that while this is a good idea, it is politically unfeasible, while raising the minimum wage has political support. But the reason it is politically unfeasible today is precisely that leading reformers such as Robert Reich refuse to bring the effective remedy to public attention in the ultimately futile effort to advocate policies with the least current political resistance.

Much of the gains from economic growth and welfare get captured by higher rent and land value. Raising the minimum wage is futile because if all workers get a substantially higher minimum wage, their landlords will be able to raise their housing rentals by the amount of their greater ability to pay, and the landed interests will end up with the gains. Why do you think that housing costs have been escalating while wages stagnate?

What Would You Do?

I picked up a five things to-do list from Grover Cleveland over at Pileus Blog if he were supreme ruler of the land. He in turn got his 5 from a prompt by Angus over at Kids Prefer Cheese. If readers have any more Top 5 lists they’ve come across let me know and I’ll link them accordingly.

Anyway, here are Angus’s Top 5: Continue reading

A Better Way to San Jose

Today I’m going to pick on the California High Speed Rail (HSR) project.  But that’s almost too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel.  So I’ll be brief and then propose a better alternative.

In case you don’t know, California voters passed an initiative in 2008 authorizing sales of bonds to finance a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles with branches to Sacramento on the north end and Anaheim on the south end.  Ten billion in state bond funds were to be matched by Federal and private funds.  The initiative also specified the running time and the fare to be charged.  (How many voters, who might balk at tax increases, understand that bonds have to be paid back with interest using tax revenue?)

Sure as God made green apples, the budget estimates have skyrocketed, the project scope has shrunk, and completion dates have stretched far out over the horizon.  In addition, citizens and local politicians along the route through the San Francisco Peninsula have risen up as one in response to the destruction and disruption that would accompany the construction and operation of the line through their back yards.  These are people in places like Palo Alto, many of them wealthy, articulate, and well-connected.  They appear to have succeeded in getting the Peninsula segment scaled down to a “blended system” where Caltrain and HSR trains share two tracks through most of the Peninsula rather than expanding to four tracks and wiping out hundreds of homes and businesses in the process.  There will likely be an initiative on the November ballot to kill the whole project and polls favor its passage.

For the record, I’m a rail fan.  I enjoy riding Caltrain to work, volunteering at the Western Railway Museum, and studying railroad history.  I’m fascinated by construction projects and still hold a license to practice civil engineering.  So if anything I should be biased in favor of the project but I hate it.

My alternative involves electric cars.  I know, they’ve been a flop so far (Obamacars?), mainly because the usable energy per kilogram of gasoline is about 35 times that of a lithium-ion battery!  A lot of smart people have been working on better energy storage devices and techniques with scant progress to date.

I propose that inductive pickup devices be added to electric cars and perhaps hybrids.  Induction coils would be buried in roadways like Interstate 5, the main SF-LA freeway.  This should make it easy to complete a long distance journey without stopping for a charge-up.  You would leave the freeway fully charged, probably with enough energy to complete your trip on conventional roads.

The payment for energy could be combined with a toll charge.  Tolls are a long overdue idea for roads like I-5 because they not only impose costs directly on beneficiaries but also because they enable congestion pricing – a toll that rises in times of heavy traffic and falls at other times.  This idea has already been implemented on a few California roads but on a very limited scale.  It has the potential to reduce congestion drastically, something carpool lanes have not accomplished.

A major advantage of this system over HSR is that it could be rolled out incrementally.  As soon as a few thousand cars were equipped with pickup devices and a few hundred miles of roadway fitted with induction coils, the benefits would begin.  In contrast, HSR won’t be much good until it’s completed all the way from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles.  A good estimate for that time is: never.  There’s a real chance that HSR will be abandoned after a lonely segment has been built through Central Valley farmland.

Another advantage of the roadway proposal is that cabling could be included with the induction coils for future automated operation.  Under this longer-range scenario control of your car would be taken by an automated system soon after you entered I-5.  You would be accelerated to 120 or 150 MPH and safely guided to your exit.  This is not so far-fetched given that Google has been running driverless cars around city streets with great success, though perhaps not on freeways as yet.

Now let’s compare two ways of getting a family from San Jose to Disneyland as an example.  First is high speed rail.  You pack the family into the car and head for the downtown station, where you pay a hefty fee for five days’ parking.  You buy tickets for all, get on your train, and arrive in Anaheim, or downtown LA if the Anaheim branch hasn’t been built.  You rent a car and away you go.  Cost?  You figure it out, surely several hundred.  Elapsed time, several hours in all.

I’ve already laid out the induction-drive car scenario.  You come and go when and where you want at a much lower cost and close to the same elapsed time with automated operation.

So there you have it.  Sure, the devil is in the details.  I’ve given only the barest outline, and yet I guarantee you that no matter how solid a case might be built up for a proposal like mine and no matter how preposterous HSR is shown to be, some will not be swayed.  I’m not thinking of those who are merely dazzled by renderings of sleek trains.  I’m thinking of people ranging from busybodies to downright sociopaths who, to one degree or another, hate the freedom that comes with car ownership and want to herd people into public transportation.  In such people we find the root of the HSR boondoggle and so many other social problems.