Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Smart Reforms of the Social Safety Net Could Make the Economy More Growth-Friendly

 A rising tide lifts all boats, does it not? That cliché of economic policy is meant to highlight the ways in which economic growth, as a substitute for targeted social policies, can make life better not just for the privileged, but for the disadvantaged, as well. However, the cliché is misleading in that the causation is not all one way. A better social safety net can contribute to a stronger economy and faster growth of both actual and potential GDP.

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office provides some insights into one of the mechanisms linking social policy to growth, namely, labor force participation (LFP). Recent LFP trends in the United States have not been favorable to growth, but a close examination of the data suggests that better social policy, especially in the areas of income support, healthcare, and disability, could significantly improve participation. Increased LFP, in turn, would boost both actual and potential GDP, making room for additional monetary and fiscal stimulus.

Recent trends in Labor Force Participation

Let’s look at some of the key findings of the CBO report. First, we find that labor force participation as a whole has declined since its peak in the early 1990s. As the following chart shows, LFP rates are expected to stabilize for men and increase slightly for women over the next decade, but not to return to their former peak values. (Gray bars denote recessions.)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Pending Budget Deal Would Make Fiscal Policy the Most Procyclical in Forty-Five Years


In December, I wrote that the GOP tax bill could end up backfiring, not because of its effects on the structure of taxes, many of which were constructive, but because of bad timing. The fact that the bill cut total tax revenue just as the economy was approaching full employment made it highly procyclical. Standard principles of countercyclical fiscal policy call for tax cuts or spending increases as the economy moves into recession and tax increases or spending cuts as it moves toward full employment—a pattern that largely prevailed from the 1990s through 2014.

Fiscal policy since 2014 has been procyclical, and the spending deal now before Congress will make it even more so. The following chart updates one I posted in December. Its projections for 2018 are modified in two ways.

First, the CBO has revised its projection of the output gap for 2018 from -0.2 percent to +0.1 percent. The output gap measures the amount by which GDP exceeds or falls short of the level that the economy is able to sustain in the long run without excessive inflation.

Second, to reflect the impact of the new budget deal, I have changed the 2018 estimate for the structural deficit of the federal budget from -2.5 percent to -3.7 percent. The structural balance is the surplus or deficit that would prevail if the output gap were zero. When the economy slips into recession, the actual balance moves toward deficit because tax revenues automatically tend to fall and spending on unemployment benefits and other items tends to increase. The structural balance removes the effects of these “automatic stabilizers.”



If the budget deal becomes law, the degree of fiscal stimulus, as measured by the difference between the output gap and the structural balance, will be the greatest since 1973, when the rate of inflation was 6.25 percent, rising to 11 percent in 1974 and followed by a recession. Optimists say there is less risk in “running the economy hot” now than in the 1970s because of hidden labor reserves that don’t show up in the official unemployment numbers and a productivity boom they expect because of cuts to taxes and regulations. Let’s hope they are right.

Reposted from NiskanenCenter.org

Thursday, February 1, 2018

It's Time for Republicans to Rethink Healthcare Policy


Writing in the New York Times, Peter Suderman, features editor at Reason magazine, urges Republicans to start over on healthcare:
If the halting, messy debate over legislation to overhaul health care has taught us anything so far, it’s that when it comes to health care, Republicans don’t know what they want, much less how to get it.
He suggests three principles to guide the rethinking process.

First, give up on universal coverage. I think what he means is give up on having everyone’s healthcare paid in full by the government. I don’t think he means giving up on universal access—the idea that no one should find themselves entirely locked out of the healthcare system.

Second, any plan should include unification of our healthcare system, now a bewildering kludge that is fragmented among employer-based coverage, Medicare, Medicaid and the individual market.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Why Work Requirements for Medicaid Would Be Not Only Unfair, but Ineffective

The Trump administration has begun allowing states to impose work requirements for able-bodied, working-age adults as a condition for Medicaid. Work requirements are an old idea. They have been around since the days of the poorhouse. True, poorhouses were an improvement over the still older system of auctioning off poor people as slaves, but we can do better than that.

Modern supporters of work requirements, like the leaders of the poorhouse movement, see themselves as having the best of intentions. Some hope that work requirements will help lift people out of poverty by giving them the nudge they need to become self-supporting. Others believe that they will strengthen the economy by increasing labor force participation. Others think they will fix government budgets by cutting entitlement spending. But good intentions are not enough. They must be channeled through programs that actually work.

Work requirements don’t work. They have not worked in the past, and they won’t work for Medicaid. Here are some of the reasons why, and some better ideas for moving people from welfare into the labor force.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Modest Proposal for Curbing Bitcoin's Voracious Energy Appetite

Bitcoin mining, as the New York Times’s Nathanial Popper points out, is a voracious consumer of energy, perhaps as much as Denmark. For good reasons, that has environmentalists worried. What is to be done?

First, why is Bitcoin mining so energy-intensive? It’s pretty simple, as Popper explains. Nothing has value unless it is scarce. To keep Bitcoin scarce, you limit the number created. That part is easy—but who gets the new Bitcoins that trickle out of the master spigot at a rate of a dozen or so per hour? The answer is to give them to whoever can demonstrate “proof of work” by solving complex computational problems with ginormous, energy-sucking computers. According Peter Van Valkenburgh of Coin Center, that’s a good thing:
Because of the costs, we know the only people participating are serious, that they are economically invested. That creates the incentives for cooperation.
OK, I get it. But why not find some less environmentally harmful way for people to demonstrate they’re serious? For example, what if we could find something that is scarce and is, at the same time, both an economic input and an economic output? Call it “Factor X.” Using lots of Factor X would show you are serious, but at the same time, it would be a social good—not a social bad like burning energy. Bitcoin would stay scarce, but it would now be a harmless by-product of Factor X.

So, is there such a thing as Factor X? Of course! Labor! Economists tend to take a silly, one-sided view that sees labor as an input only. They talk worshipfully of “productivity,” as if the use of labor were something we should try to minimize. Yet, everyone else knows that labor—in the form of “jobs”— is really an output, something that we should try to maximize. Certainly, all of our recent Presidents seem to have known this:
  • “I think if we continue to create jobs like I’ve done — over 1 million since I’ve been in office, way over 1 million.—Donald Trump
  • “Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999.” Barack Obama
  • “America has added jobs for a record 52 straight months.” George W. Bush
  • “We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs, the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years.” Bill Clinton
  • “As we have worked together to bring down spending, tax rates and inflation, employment has climbed to record heights; America has created more jobs and better, higher-paying jobs.” Ronald Reagan
Bitcoin analyst Marc Bevand knows this, too. Popper quotes him as saying,
Labeling Bitcoin mining as a “waste” is a failure to look at the big picture. The jobs alone are a direct, measurable and positive impact that Bitcoin has already made on the economy.
Here’s my modest proposal, then. Keep Bitcoin as it is, continue to require miners to perform arduous calculations—but require that the calculations be performed only using an abacus. Keeps Bitcoins scarce. Keeps the environment clean. Creates lots of jobs. A win-win-win solution.

Reposted from NiskanenCenter.org, with a hat-tip to Jonathan Swift.

The Paradox of Property Rights in Paradise


Teton County, Wyoming, is about as close to paradise as you can get. Of its 4,000-odd square miles, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks account for 45 percent, the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests for another 51 percent, and the National Elk Refuge for another 1 percent. That leaves 3 percent for private property, the $15 billion assessed value of which averages out to $200,000 an acre.

Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb recently sent me a link to a talk he gave on the “epic struggle” of managing that paradise. Zoning and property rights are a key battleground. Recent skirmishes have been fought over such issues as whether sixty-eight homes or only seven should be allowed on twenty-one rural acres, whether six houses authorized on another parcel must be clustered, and whether additions should be permitted on houses located near streams.

It’s hard to know whether the existing 97/3 split strikes the right balance between public and private property, when, as Newcomb points out, no one can put a dollar value on the area’s environmental amenities. The only sure thing is that those amenities account for the high value of the remaining private property. But the question of the overall public/private balance is an issue for Congress, not the county commission.

Instead, the commission’s job is to oversee the existing 3 percent of private property. Newcomb’s talk reflects some doubts over whether current regulations are doing that job well.
First, he raises the issue of administrative fairness:
The system is arbitrary in that it is not rooted in any real analysis, let alone valuation, of the ecosystem services in question. It is arbitrary in that it can result in reasonable development being thwarted because the process is too onerous, or conversely for unreasonable development to be entitled because the cost to challenge it is too high, the pockets of the special interest behind it too deep. It is messy.
Second, he notes that the country’s 80-odd pages of land use regulations are not really about protecting private property rights, in the sense of “entitlements of individuals against the majority.” Rather, they are mainly motivated by the majority’s desire to dictate to individual owners.
I guarantee that these 80 pages of regs governing what you can and can’t do with your property were not requested by the property owners trying to exercise their property rights. They were requested by neighbors, neighbors expressing a diminishment of their rights to natural amenities such as viable and healthy wildlife populations, natural soundscapes, and scenic vistas.
Third, he notes the paradox that the more restrictive regulations become, the more their benefits become concentrated on the few. What would happen, he asks, if someone with deep pockets started buying up most or all of the country’s $15 billion-worth of private land?
Ironically, the more that buyer bought up, the more valuable anything left over becomes…right? Because whatever is left behind is surrounded by that much more space, that much more wildlife, offering that much more opportunity to . . . you guessed it, “Stay Wild.” In other words, everyone wants to live here, especially if no one else lives here.
That, in a nutshell, is the ultimate paradox of property rights in paradise. What’s a poor county commissioner to do?

Reposted from NiskanenCenter.org

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How the Administration Gets the “Three R’s of Deregulation” Exactly Backwards


In a recent short post for the Harvard Business Review,  I proposed that regulatory reformers should be guided by “Three R’s”:
  • Retain regulations that support the basic rules of a market economy. Those include regulations that protect property rights, ensure that contracts are honored, and protect against common law harms like fraud, negligence, and nuisance.
  • Replace regulations that have legitimate aims but also have harmful unintended consequences.
  • Repeal regulations that are motivated primarily by the manipulation of public policy for private gain (rent seeking).
An article by Lisa Friedman in today’s New York Times illustrates how the Trump administration has gotten the three R’s exactly backwards. It details efforts by coal baron Robert E. Murray, a Trump mega-donor, to overturn a broad array of regulations on the coal industry. Be sure to read the full text of Murray’s wish list, which the EPA and the Department of Energy are systematically implementing.

Rather than retaining regulations that support common law property protections against harmful pollution, Murray wants to repeal them outright. His recommendations do not stop at carbon emissions but also include harmful local pollutants like ozone. To compete the picture, he wants to get rid of mine safety regulations.

Some of the regulations that Murray objects to are open to legitimate criticism. For example, he does not like Obama-era support for clean coal technology, about which many environmentalists also express skepticism. He also does not like subsidies for wind and solar energy. My own recommendation, in line with my second “R,” would be to replace the clean coal requirements and renewable energy subsidies with a simpler, more effective carbon tax.

Finally, rather than seeking repeal regulations that are motivated primarily by rent seeking, Murray indulges in open rent seeking of his own. Can it be viewed as anything other than rent seeking when an energy producer seeks to lower his own operating costs by insisting that downwind property owners absorb his output of noxious wastes without compensation?

Reposted from NiskanenCenter.org