Monday, February 13, 2012

Too much money in politics? Here's how to fix it!

http://robertreich.org/post/17251255054

In a recent blog post (above) Robert Reich complains about Obama's support of a Super PAC formed to help him win re-election, while also lamenting money in politics in general. Instead of the "people" having a say, in Mr. Reich's words it will just be "... a relative handful of super-rich Democrats (who) want (to) fight a relative handful of super-rich Republicans. And we call this a democracy"

Mr. Reich's complaining ring's hollow though, since his calls for more government involvement will only increase the spending on elections by big business and wealthy individuals (not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with big business/wealthy people donating to campaigns). The reason is that government involvement and regulation lead to rent seeking opportunities galore, and businesses will do everything they can to make sure that the regulations being created work for them. One way they do this is by donating a lot of money to the people making the regulations. The best way to get money out of politics is to shrink government and eliminate rent seeking opportunities. If the government is only doing the things government needs to do (basic safety net, infrastructure, defense) businesses will find that their money is better spent elsewhere, like in real investments that will help expand the economy.

So if Mr. Reich really wants to get money out of politics he needs to join the call for less government and less regulation of the economy. Only by eliminating the incentives for businesses and wealthy people to donate will we get money out of politics.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The folly of protectionism

Everyone who has ever studied economics knows, or at least I hope they do, that tariffs, import quotas, and other forms of protectionism are bad for the country that enacts them, harming consumers especially. Frederic Bastiat knew this to be true, and in 1845 he wrote a rather funny "petition" to the French Chamber of Deputies (a former French legislative body). The petition is on behalf of candlemakers and other people affiliated with mid 19th century light production, and the text is below.

A PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.

To the Honourable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.

Open letter to the French Parliament, originally published in 1845 (Note of the Web Publisher)

Gentlemen:

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity for your — what shall we call it? Your theory? No, nothing is more deceptive than theory. Your doctrine? Your system? Your principle? But you dislike doctrines, you have a horror of systems, as for principles, you deny that there are any in political economy; therefore we shall call it your practice — your practice without theory and without principle.

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us [1].

We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

Be good enough, honourable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.

First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.

Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion.

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

But what shall we say of the specialities of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.

There is no needy resin-collector on the heights of his sand dunes, no poor miner in the depths of his black pit, who will not receive higher wages and enjoy increased prosperity.

It needs but a little reflection, gentlemen, to be convinced that there is perhaps not one Frenchman, from the wealthy stockholder of the Anzin Company to the humblest vendor of matches, whose condition would not be improved by the success of our petition.

We anticipate your objections, gentlemen; but there is not a single one of them that you have not picked up from the musty old books of the advocates of free trade. We defy you to utter a word against us that will not instantly rebound against yourselves and the principle behind all your policy.

Will you tell us that, though we may gain by this protection, France will not gain at all, because the consumer will bear the expense?

We have our answer ready:

You no longer have the right to invoke the interests of the consumer. You have sacrificed him whenever you have found his interests opposed to those of the producer. You have done so in order to encourage industry and to increase employment. For the same reason you ought to do so this time too.

Indeed, you yourselves have anticipated this objection. When told that the consumer has a stake in the free entry of iron, coal, sesame, wheat, and textiles, ``Yes,'' you reply, ``but the producer has a stake in their exclusion.'' Very well, surely if consumers have a stake in the admission of natural light, producers have a stake in its interdiction.

``But,'' you may still say, ``the producer and the consumer are one and the same person. If the manufacturer profits by protection, he will make the farmer prosperous. Contrariwise, if agriculture is prosperous, it will open markets for manufactured goods.'' Very well, If you grant us a monopoly over the production of lighting during the day, first of all we shall buy large amounts of tallow, charcoal, oil, resin, wax, alcohol, silver, iron, bronze, and crystal, to supply our industry; and, moreover, we and our numerous suppliers, having become rich, will consume a great deal and spread prosperity into all areas of domestic industry.

Will you say that the light of the sun is a gratuitous gift of Nature, and that to reject such gifts would be to reject wealth itself under the pretext of encouraging the means of acquiring it?

But if you take this position, you strike a mortal blow at your own policy; remember that up to now you have always excluded foreign goods because and in proportion as they approximate gratuitous gifts. You have only half as good a reason for complying with the demands of other monopolists as you have for granting our petition, which is in complete accord with your established policy; and to reject our demands precisely because they are better founded than anyone else's would be tantamount to accepting the equation: + x + = -; in other words, it would be to heap absurdity upon absurdity.

Labour and Nature collaborate in varying proportions, depending upon the country and the climate, in the production of a commodity. The part that Nature contributes is always free of charge; it is the part contributed by human labour that constitutes value and is paid for.

If an orange from Lisbon sells for half the price of an orange from Paris, it is because the natural heat of the sun, which is, of course, free of charge, does for the former what the latter owes to artificial heating, which necessarily has to be paid for in the market.

Thus, when an orange reaches us from Portugal, one can say that it is given to us half free of charge, or, in other words, at half price as compared with those from Paris.

Now, it is precisely on the basis of its being semigratuitous (pardon the word) that you maintain it should be barred. You ask: ``How can French labour withstand the competition of foreign labour when the former has to do all the work, whereas the latter has to do only half, the sun taking care of the rest?'' But if the fact that a product is half free of charge leads you to exclude it from competition, how can its being totally free of charge induce you to admit it into competition? Either you are not consistent, or you should, after excluding what is half free of charge as harmful to our domestic industry, exclude what is totally gratuitous with all the more reason and with twice the zeal.

To take another example: When a product — coal, iron, wheat, or textiles — comes to us from abroad, and when we can acquire it for less labour than if we produced it ourselves, the difference is a gratuitous gift that is conferred up on us. The size of this gift is proportionate to the extent of this difference. It is a quarter, a half, or three-quarters of the value of the product if the foreigner asks of us only three-quarters, one-half, or one-quarter as high a price. It is as complete as it can be when the donor, like the sun in providing us with light, asks nothing from us. The question, and we pose it formally, is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), Sophismes économiques, 1845

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Great article

http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=14061

Great article by Richard Rahn of the Cato institute about Pres. Obama's distorted sense of fairness. I especially liked his spot on dentist example:

"The American Constitution is all about protecting individual (not class) liberties and rights. If you think the “rich should pay more,” then you are thinking in class terms. Assume for the moment there are two individuals, each 45 years old with the same IQ, who went to the same college and dental school and are equally skilled dentists in private practice. However, one is married with four children in expensive colleges, and thus chooses to work 60 hours per week. The other dentist has no children and chooses to work just 30 hours per week and thus makes half as much. The president thinks it is “fair” to tax the industrious dentist at a higher tax rate."

Individuals are what matter, not groups or classes. This example highlights what is wrong with the way Obama and other high tax advocates think.

Also, I would love to hear what tax rate the "tax the rich" advocates think is fair. They keep shouting "fair share" but rarely do any of them take the necessary step of quantifying it, and any attempts to quantify it that I have seen have no analysis to back up the resulting number. What a bunch of populist nonsense.