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We Pay Millions to ‘Ghost Teachers’ Who Don’t Teach by Jason Bedrick

The Philadelphia school district is in a near-constant state of financial crisis. There are many factors contributing to this sorry state — particularly its governance structure — but it is compounded by fiscal mismanagement. One particularly egregious example is paying six-figure salaries to the tune of $1.5 million a year to “ghost teachers” that do not teach. Pennsylvania Watchdog explains:

As part of the contract with the School District of Philadelphia, the local teachers union is permitted to take up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The practice, known as “release time” or “official time,” allows public school teachers to leave the classroom and continue to earn a public salary, benefits, pension and seniority.

These so-called ghost teachers perform a variety of jobs for the PFT, serving as either information officers for other teachers or carrying out the union’s political agenda.

“Teachers should be paid to teach,” attorney Kara Sweigart, who is arguing ghost teacher lawsuits for the Fairness Center, a free legal service for employees who feel they’ve been wronged by their unions, told Watchdog.

“At a time when school districts are hurting financially, districts should be devoting every tax dollar to support students,” she said, “not to pay the salaries of employees of a private political organization.”

According to public salary data available through Philadelphia city agencies, the school district is paying 16 ghost teachers $1.5 million this year. All of them are making at least $81,000.

PFT Vice President Arlene Kempin, who has been on release time since 1983, is among the highest paid at $108,062. Union head Jerry Jordan, who has also been on release time for more than 30 years, is earning $81,245, according to district payroll logs. The 16 ghost teachers on the books this year are making an average salary of almost $98,000.

The “ghost teacher” phenomenon is far from unique to Philly or even the education sector. Such “release time” subsidies for ghost teachers, policemen, firefighters, and bureaucrats of all stripes are common features of public-sector union contracts nationwide. Last month, a Yankee Institute report found that Connecticut provided unions with $4.1 million to subsidize 121,000 hours union-related activities, “the equivalent of more than a year’s worth of work for 50 full-time employees.” Meanwhile, the Goldwater Institute in Arizona is in the midst of a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix for unconstitutionally providing millions of dollars in release-time subsidies.

According to the most recent report from the federal Office of Personnel Management, the federal government paid more than $157 million in 2012 for federal employees to work for their unions for a total of 3,439,449 hours. And those are just the direct costs.

In his book, Understanding the Teacher Union Contract: A Citizen’s Handbook, former teacher union negotiator Myron Lieberman explained how difficult it is to account for the full amount of subsidies that taxpayers provide to the unions:

Most school board members are not aware of the magnitude of these subsidies. In school district budgets, the subsidies are never grouped together under the heading “Subsidies to the Union.” Instead, the subsidies are included in school district budgets under a variety of headings that may or may not refer to the union…

School districts pay for these subsidies from a variety of line items in the district budget: payments to substitute teachers, teacher salaries, and pension contributions, among others.

In most situations, the union subsidy is lumped together with other expenses paid for under the same line item; for example, the costs of hiring substitutes for teachers who are on released time for union business may be included in a budget line for substitutes that also covers substitutes for other reasons, such as replacing teachers on sick leave, personal leave, maternity/paternity leave, and so on.

Taxpayer dollars allocated for education should be spent on items and activities that assist student learning, not to promote the interests of private organizations (especially when their interests often collide with the interests of students). Union work should be paid out of funds the unions collect through dues and donations, not funds expropriated from unwilling and unwitting taxpayers.

Cross-posted from Cato.org.

Jason Bedrick

Jason Bedrick

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Grade Inflation Eats Away at the Meaning of College by George C. Leef

The Year Was 2081 and Everyone Was Finally Above Average.

Every so often, the issue of grade inflation makes the headlines, and we are reminded that grades are being debased continuously.

That happened in late March when the two academics who have most assiduously studied grade inflation — Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy — provided fresh evidence on their site GradeInflation.com that grade inflation continues.

The authors state, “After 30 years of making incremental changes (in grading), the amount of rise has become so large that what’s happening becomes clear: mediocre students are getting higher and higher grades.”

In their database of over 400 colleges and universities covering the whole range of our higher education system, from large and prestigious universities to small, non-selective colleges, the researchers found not one where grades had remained level over the last 50 years. The overall rise in grades nationally has brought about a tripling of the percentage of A grades, although some schools have been much more “generous” than others.

Or, to look at it the other way, some schools have been much better than others in maintaining academic standards. For instance, Miami of Ohio, the University of Missouri, and Brigham Young have had low grade inflation. Why that has been the case would be worth investigating.

In North Carolina, Duke leads in grade inflation, followed closely by UNC. Wake Forest is in the middle of the pack, while UNC-Asheville has had comparatively little.

But why have American colleges and universities allowed, or perhaps even encouraged grade inflation? Why, as professor Clarence Deitsch and Norman Van Cott put it in this Pope Center piece five years ago, do we have “too many rhinestones masquerading as diamonds?”

Part of the answer, wrote Deitsch and Van Cott, is the fact that money is at stake.  “Professors don’t have to be rocket scientists to figure out that low grades can delay student graduation, thereby undermining state funding and faculty salaries,” they observed.

It might surprise Americans who believe that non-profit entities like colleges are not motivated by money and would allow honest academic assessment to be affected by concerns over revenue maximization, but they do.

But it is not just money that explains grade inflation. At least as important and probably more so is the pressure on faculty members to keep students happy.

History professor Chuck Chalberg put his finger on the problem in this article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Chalberg writes about a friend of his who had completed her Ph.D. in psychology and was working as a teaching assistant to a professor and graded the papers submitted by the undergraduates “with what she thought was an appropriate level of rigor.” But it was not appropriate, she soon learned. The professor “revised nearly all of the grades upward so that were left no failures, few C’s, and mostly A’s and B’s.”

Had she underappreciated the real quality of the work of the students? No, but, Chalberg continues, “the students thought that they were really, really, smart, and would have been quite angry and thrown some major tantrums if they got what they actually deserved.”

Thus, giving out high but undeserved grades is a way of avoiding trouble. That trouble could come from students who have an elevated and unrealistic view of their abilities and will complain about any low grade to school officials.

It could also come from their parents, who have been known to helicopter in and gripe to the administrators that young Emma or Zachary just can’t have a C and if it isn’t changed immediately, there will be serious repercussions.

Another possibility is that faculty will give out inflated grades to avoid conflict with those school administrators.

Low grades affect student retention and at many colleges the most important thing is to keep students enrolled. Back in 2008, Norfolk State University biology professor Stephen Aird lost his job because the administration was upset with him for having the nerve to grade students according to their actual learning rather than giving out undeserved grades just to keep them content. (I wrote about that pathetic case here.)

Could it be that students are getting better and deserve the higher grades they’re receiving?

You’d get an argument if you ran that explanation by Professor Ron Srigley, who teaches at the University of Prince Edward Island. In this thoroughly iconoclastic essay published in March, he stated, “Over the past fourteen years of teaching, my students’ grade-point averages have steadily gone up while real student achievement has dropped. Papers I would have failed ten years ago on the grounds that they were unintelligible … I now routinely assign grades of C or higher.”

Professor Srigley points to one factor that many other professors have observed — students simply won’t read. They aren’t in the habit of reading (due to falling K-12 standards) and rarely do assigned readings in college. “They will tell you that they don’t read because they don’t have to. They can get an A without ever opening a book,” he writes.

We also have good evidence that on average, today’s college students spend much less time in studying in homework than students used to. In this 2010 study, Professor Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks found that college students today spend only about two thirds as much time as they did some fifty years ago. That’s hardly consistent with the notion that students today are really earning all those A grades.

On the whole, today’s students are receiving substantially higher grades for substantially lower academic gains than in the past.

Grade inflation is consistent with the customer friendly, “college experience” model that has mushroomed alongside the old, “you’ve come here to learn” college model. For students who merely want the degree to which many believe themselves entitled, rigorous grading is as unwelcome as cold showers and spartan meals would be at a luxury resort. Leaders at most colleges know that if they don’t satisfy their student-customers, they will find another school that will.

Exactly what is the problem, though?

Grade inflation could be seen as harmful to the downstream parties, the future employers of students who coast through college with high grades but little intellectual benefit. Doesn’t grade inflation trick them into over-estimating the capabilities of students?

That is a very minor concern. For one thing, it seems to be the case that employers don’t really pay much attention to college transcripts. In this NAS piece, Academically Adrift author Richard Arum writes, “Examining post-college transitions of recent graduates, Josipa Roksa and I have found that course transcripts are seldom considered by employers in the hiring process.”

That’s predictable. People in business have come to expect grade inflation just as they have come to expect monetary inflation. Naturally, they take measures to avoid bad hiring decisions just as they take measures to avoid bad investment decisions. They have better means of evaluating applicants than merely looking at GPAs.

Instead, the real harm of grade inflation is that it is a fraud on students who are misled into thinking that they are more competent than they really are.

It makes students believe they are good writers when in fact they are poor writers. It makes them believe they can comprehend books and documents when they can barely do so. It makes them think they can treat college as a Five Year Party or a Beer and Circus bacchanalia because they seem to be doing fine, when they’re actually wasting a lot of time and money.

Dishonest grading from professors is as bad as dishonest health reports from doctors who just want their patients to feel happy would be. The truth may be unpleasant, but it’s better to know it than to live in blissful ignorance.

This article was originally published by the Pope Center.

George C. LeefGeorge C. Leef

George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

The 50-Year Disaster of Government Trains, Buses, and Streetcars by Daniel Bier

Today, Less than 2% of Trips Use Public Mass Transit.

Ronald Reagan once quipped that “government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

There, in a nutshell, you have a short history of mass transit in America. CEI’s Marc Scribner explains,

Following decades of excessive local government fare regulation that led to a terminal decline in the private mass transit industry, government began taking over the responsibilities performed by now-bankrupt private mass transit companies following the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964.

Over the span of a decade, the mostly-private mass transit industry was replaced by government transit monopolies.

As a result, for the last several decades, government at all levels has spent trillions on mass transit, subsidizing fares, expanding lines, and building vast new rail systems. Today, transit consumes more than 25 percent of all surface transportation funds (which mostly come from non-transit users through gas taxes).

What was the result of this tidal wave of taxpayer cash?

Despite receiving more than one-fourth of the funding, mass transit still represents less than 2 percent of trips taken nationwide. Even when one looks only at commuting, where trains and buses do best, mass transit’s national mode share is less than 5 percent — down from more than 6 percent in 1980.

That’s right: after receiving a massive and disproportionate share of taxpayer funding, totaling trillions of dollars, transit’s share of commutes declined.

But government transit monopolies keep lobbying for more and more funding. They claim the real problem is that public transit systems haven’t been expanded enough to draw more people into using them. Scribner calls this theField of Dreams theory: “If you build it, they will come.

The problem with this theory is that it’s bogus. Research from Steven Polzin shows that the capacity of transit networks, including buses, streetcars, and trains, has nearly tripled since 1970, while absolute ridership has grown by just a fraction of that. Transit trips per capita have been dead flat since the 1970s.

Polzin writes, “Supply has grown far more rapidly than demand for the past several decades. This is a report card on productivity that mom and dad would hardly be proud of.”

Meaning: we built it; they didn’t come.

Scribner concludes,

The trillions spent on mass transit have given governments many more empty buses and trains, but very little in terms of additional ridership. …

Mass transit can serve a very important, albeit narrow, purpose for people in limited settings. There is a reason that 40 percent of all US mass transit trips take place in the New York City metro area.

But it is wholly irresponsible for politicians to continue mass transit’s taxpayer gravy train, which is based on less substance than Kevin Costner’s dramatized auditory hallucinations.

When the next flashy transit project comes to your town, remember to be skeptical. Proponents of light rail, streetcars, and other hugely expensive projects routinely overestimate how many people will use the line and underestimate how much it will cost to build and run. Decades of evidence shows that if you build it, people will still probably drive — and you’ll still be stuck paying for it.

Daniel BierDaniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of FEE.org. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

The House That Uncle Sam Built by Peter J. Boettke & Steven Horwitz

The Great Recession (or the Great Hangover) that began in 2008 did not have to happen. Its causes and consequences are not mysterious. Indeed, this particular and very painful episode affirms what the best nonpartisan economists have tried to tell our politicians and policy-makers for decades, namely, that the more they try to inflate and direct the economy, the more damage the rest of us will suffer sooner or later. Hindsight is always 20-20, but in this instance, good old-fashioned common sense would have provided all the foresight needed to avoid the mess we’re in.

In this essay, originally published December 2009, we trace the path of the recession from its origins in the housing market bubble to the policies offered to cure the aftermath.

Download the PDF.

Listen to the audio file (MP3).


Introduction

The theme of “The House that Uncle Sam Built: The Untold Story of the Great Recession of 2008” is that government policy, not a failure of free markets, caused the economic trauma we have been experiencing. We do not live in a free market. We live in a mixed economy. The mixture varies by industry. Technology is primarily free. Financial Services is primarily government. It is not surprising that the most government regulated and controlled segment of the economy, financial services, experienced the biggest problems. These problems were created by actions by the Federal Reserve combined with government housing policy (especially the government- sponsored enterprises – Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae). Misguided government interference in the market is the real culprit in laying the foundation for the Great Recession.

This paper provides a “common sense” and understandable outline of fundamental causes and cures. The analysis is based on long proven economic laws. Despite the wishes and hopes of politicians, economic laws are just as immutable as the laws of physics. If you jump off a ten story building, hitting the ground will not be pleasant. If the Federal Reserve holds interest rates below the natural market rate by rapidly expanding the money supply (“printing” money) as Alan Greenspan did, individuals and businesses will make bad investment decisions and there will be negative consequences to our long term economic well-being. There are no free lunches.

When a doctor misdiagnoses a disease, his treatment will likely make the patient sicker. If we misdiagnose the causes of the Great Recession, our treatment will reduce our long term standard of living. While the U.S. economic system is highly resilient, and we will likely have some form of economic recovery, almost every significant government policy action taken in response to the Great Recession will reduce the quality of life in the long term. Understanding that failed government policies, not market failure, caused our economic challenges is critical to defining the appropriate cures. Since government created the problem, i.e. caused the disaster, it is irrational to believe that more government is the cure. We owe it to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren to take these issues very seriously.

John Allison, Chairman, BB&T

The House That Uncle Sam Built

The man who parties like there is no tomorrow puts his body through an “up” and a “down” course that looks a lot like the business cycle. At the party, the man freely imbibes. He has a great time before stumbling home at 2:00 a.m., where he crashes on the sofa. A few hours later, he awakens in the grip of the dreaded hang- over. He then has a choice to make: get a short-term lift from another drink or sober up. If he chooses the latter and endures a few hours of discomfort, he can recover. In any event, no one would say the hangover is when the harm is done; the harm was done the night before and the hangover is the evidence.

The Great Recession (or the Great Hangover) that began in 2008 did not have to happen. Its causes and consequences are not mysterious. Indeed, this particular and very painful episode affirms what the best nonpartisan economists have tried to tell our politicians and policy-makers for decades, namely, that the more they try to inflate and direct the economy, the more damage the rest of us will suffer sooner or later. Hindsight is always 20-20, but in this instance, good old-fashioned common sense would have provided all the foresight needed to avoid the mess we’re in.

In this essay, we trace the path of the recession from its origins in the housing market bubble to the policies offered to cure the aftermath.

There is no better way to understand a crisis that began in the housing sector than to begin by thinking about a house.

A house must be built on a firm, sustainable foundation. If it’s slapped together with good intentions but lousy materials and workmanship, it will collapse prematurely. If too much lumber and too many bricks are piled on top of a weak support structure, or if housing material is misallocated throughout the house, then an apparently solid structure can crumble like sand once its weaknesses are exposed. Americans built and bought a lot of houses in the past decade not, it turns out, for sound reasons or with solid financing. Why this occurred must be part of any good explanation of the Great Recession.

But isn’t home ownership a great thing, the very essence of the vaunted “American Dream”? In the wealthiest country in the world, shouldn’t everyone be able to own their own home? What could be wrong with any policy that aims to make housing more affordable? Well, we may wish it were not so, but good intentions cannot insulate us from the consequences of bad policies.

Politicians became so enthralled with home ownership and affordable housing – and the points they could score by claiming to be their champions – that they pushed and shoved the economy down an artificial path that invited an inevitable (and painful) correction. Congress created massive, government-sponsored enterprises and then encouraged them to degrade lending standards. Congress bent tax law to favor real estate over other investments. Through its reckless easy money policies, another creation of Congress, the Federal Reserve, flooded the economy with liquidity and drove interest rates down. Each of these policies encouraged too many of the economy’s resources to be drawn into the housing sector. For a substantial part of this decade, our policy-makers in Washington were laying a very poor foundation for economic growth.

Was Free Enterprise the Villain?

Call it free enterprise, capitalism or laissez faire – blaming supposedly unfettered markets for every economic shock has been the monotonous refrain of conventional wisdom for a hundred years. Among those making such claims are politicians who posture as our rescuers, bureaucrats who are needed to implement the rescue plans and special interests who get rescued. Then there are our fellow academics – the ones who add a veneer of respectability – trumpeting the “stimulus” the rest of us get from being rescued.

Rarely does it occur to these folks that government intervention might be the cause of the problem. Yet, we have the Federal Reserve System’s track record, thousands of pages of financial regulations, and thousands more pages of government housing policy that demonstrate the utter absence of “laissez faire” in areas of the economy central to the current recession.

Understanding recessions requires knowing why lots of people make the same kinds of mistakes at the same time. In the last few years, those mistakes were centered in the housing market, as many people overestimated the value of their houses or imagined that their value would continue to rise. Why did everyone believe that at the same time? Did some mysterious hysteria descend upon us out of nowhere? Did people suddenly become irrational? The truth is this: People were reacting to signals produced in the economy. Those signals were erroneous. But it was the signals and not the people themselves that were irrational.

Imagine we see an enormous rise in the number of traffic accidents in a major city. Cars keep colliding at intersections as drivers all seem to make the same sorts of mistakes at once. Is the most likely explanation that drivers have irrationally stopped paying attention to the road, or would we suspect that something might be wrong with the traffic lights? Even with completely rational drivers, malfunctioning traffic signals will lead to lots of accidents and appear to be massive irrationality.

Market prices are much like traffic signals. Interest rates are a key traffic signal. They reconcile some people’s desire to save – delay consumption until a future date – with others’ desire to invest in ideas, materials or equipment that will make them and their businesses more productive. In a market economy, interest rates change as tastes and conditions change. For instance, if people become more interested in future consumption relative to current consumption, they will increase the amount they save. This, in turn, will lower interest rates, allowing other people to borrow more money to invest in their businesses. Greater investment means more sophisticated production processes, which means more goods will be available in the future. In a normally functioning market economy, the process ensures that savings equal investment, and both are consistent with other conditions and with the public’s underlying preferences.

As was made all too obvious in 2008, ours is not a normally functioning market economy. Government has inserted itself into almost every transaction, manipulating and distorting price signals along the way. Few interventions are as momentous as those associated with monetary policy implemented by the Federal Reserve. Money’s essence is that it is a generally accepted medium of exchange, which means that it is half of every act of buying and selling in the economy. Like blood circulating in the body, it touches everything. When the Fed tinkers with the money supply, it affects not just one or two specific markets, like housing policy does, but every single market in the entire economy. The Fed’s powers give it an enormous scope for creating economic chaos.

When central banks like the Federal Reserve inflate, they provide banks with more money to lend, even though the public has not provided any more savings. Banks respond by lowering interest rates to draw in new borrowers. The borrowers see the lower interest rate and believe that it signals that consumers are more interested in delayed consumption relative to immediate consumption. Borrowers then begin to invest in those longer-term projects, which are now relatively more desirable given the lower interest rate. The problem, however, is that the demand for those longer-term projects is not really there. The public is not more interested in future consumption, even though the interest rate signals suggest otherwise. Like our malfunctioning traffic signals, an inflation-distorted interest rate is going to cause lots of “accidents.” Those accidents are the mistaken investments in longer-term production processes.

“I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation toward subsidized housing.” – Barney Frank, 2003

Eventually those producers engaged in the longer processes find the cost of acquiring their raw materials to be too high, particularly as it becomes clear that the public’s willingness to defer consumption until the future is not what the interest rate suggested would be forthcoming. These longer-term processes are then abandoned, resulting in falling asset prices (both capital goods and financial assets, such as the stock prices of the relevant companies) and unemployed labor in sectors associated with the capital goods industries.

So begins the bust phase of a monetary policy-induced cycle; as stock prices fall, asset prices “deflate,” overall economic activity slows and unemployment rises. The bust is the economy going through a refitting and reshuffling of capital and labor as it eliminates mistakes made during the boom. The important points here are that the artificial boom is when the mistakes were made, and it is during the bust that those mistakes are corrected.

From 2001 to about 2006, the Federal Reserve pursued the most expansionary monetary policy since at least the 1970s, pushing interest rates far below their natural rate. In January of 2001 the federal funds rate, the major interest rate that the Fed targets, stood at 6.5%. Just 23 months later, after 12 successive cuts, the rate stood at a mere 1.25% – more than 80% below its previous level. It stayed below 2% for two years then the Fed finally began raising rates in June of 2004. The rate was so low during this period that the real Federal Funds rate – the nominal rate minus the rate of inflation – was negative for two and a half years. This meant that, in effect, banks were being paid to borrow money! Rapidly climbing after mid-2004, the rate was back up to the 5% mark by May of 2006, just about the time that housing prices started their collapse. In order to maintain that low Fed Funds rate for that five year period, the Fed had to increase the money supply significantly. One common measure of the money supply grew by 32.5%. A lot of economically irrational investments were made during this time, but it was not because of “irrational exuberance brought on by a laissez-faire economy,” as some suggested. It is unlikely that lots of very similar bad investments are the resut of mass irrationality, just as large traffic accidents are more likely the result of malfunctioning traffic signals than lots of people forgetting how to drive overnight. They resulted from malfunctioning market price signals due to the Fed’s manipulation of money and credit. Poor monetary policy by an agency of government is hardly “laissez faire”.

What About Housing?

With such an expansionary monetary policy, the housing market was sent contradictory and incorrect signals. On one hand, housing and housing-related industries were given a giant green light to expand. It is as if the Fed supplied them with an abundance of lumber, and encouraged them to build their economic house as big as they pleased.

This would have made sense if the increased supply of lumber (capital) had been supported by the public’s desire to increase future consumption relative to immediate consumption – in other words, if the public had truly wanted to save for the bigger house. But the public did not. Interest rates were not low because the public was in the mood to save; they were low because the Fed had made them so by fiat. Worse, Fed policy gave the would-be suppliers of capital – those who might have been tempted to save – a giant red light. With rates so low, they had no incentive to put their money in the bank for others to borrow.

So the economic house was slapped together with what appeared to be an unlimited supply of lumber. It was built higher and higher, drawing resources from the rest of the economy. But it had no foundation. Because the capital did not reflect underlying consumer preferences, there was no support for such a large house. The weaknesses in the foundation were eventually exposed and the 70-story skyscraper, built on a foundation made for a single-family home, began to teeter. It eventually fell in the autumn of 2008.

But why did the Fed’s credit all flow into housing? It is true that easy credit financed a consumer-borrowing binge, a mergers-and-acquisitions binge and an auto binge. But the bulk of the credit went to housing. Why? The answer lies in government’s efforts to increase the affordability of housing.

Government intervention in the housing market dates back to at least the Great Depression. The more recent government initiatives relevant to the current recession began in the Clinton administration. Since then, the federal government has adopted a variety of policies intended to make housing more affordable for lower and middle income groups and various minorities. Among the government actions, those dealing with government-sponsored enterprises active in mortgage markets were central. Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) are the key players here. Neither Fannie nor Freddie are “free-market” firms. They were chartered by the federal government, and although nominally privately owned until the onset of the bust in 2008, they were granted a number of government privileges in addition to carrying an implicit promise of government support should they ever get into trouble.

Fannie and Freddie did not actually originate most of the bad loans that comprised the housing crisis. Loans were made by banks and mortgage companies that knew they could sell those loans in the secondary mortgage market where Fannie and Freddie would buy and repackage them to sell to other investors. Fannie and Freddie also invented a number of the low down-payment and other creative, high-risk types of loans that came into use during the housing boom. The loan originators were willing to offer these kinds of loans because they knew that Fannie and Freddie stood ready to buy them up. With the implicit promise of government support behind them, the risk was being passed on from the originators to the taxpayers. If homeowners defaulted, the buyers of the mortgages would be harmed, not the originators. The presence of Fannie and Freddie in the mortgage market dramatically distorted the incentives for private actors such as the banks.

The Fed’s low interest rates, combined with Fannie and Freddie’s government-sponsored purchases of mortgages, made it highly and artificially profitable to lend to anyone and everyone. The banks and mortgage companies didn’t need to be any greedier than they already were. When banks saw that Fannie and Freddie were willing to buy virtually any loan made to under-qualified borrowers, they made a lot more of them. Greed is no more to blame for these bad mortgages than gravity is to blame for plane crashes. Gravity is always present, just like greed. Only the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy and Congress’ housing policy can explain why the bubble happened when it did, where it did.

Of further significance is the fact that Fannie and Freddie were under great political pressure to keep housing increasingly affordable (while at the same time promoting instruments that depended on the constantly rising price of housing) and to extend opportunities to historically “under-served” groups. Many of the new mortgages with low or even zero-down payments were designed in response to this pressure. Not only were lots of funds available to lend, and not only was government implicitly subsidizing the purchase of mortgages, but it was also encouraging lenders to find more borrowers who previously were thought unable to afford a mortgage.

Partnerships among Fannie and Freddie, mortgage companies, community action groups and legislators combined to make mortgages available to many people who should never have had them, based on their income and assets. Throw in the effects of the Community Reinvestment Act, which required lenders to serve under-served groups, and zoning and land-use laws that pushed housing into limited space in the suburbs and exurbs (driving up prices in the process) and you have the ingredients of a credit-fueled and regulatory-directed housing boom and bust.

All told, huge amounts of wealth and capital poured into producing houses as a result of these political machinations. The Case-Shiller Index clearly shows unprecedented increases in home prices prior to the bust in 2008. From 1946-1996, there had been no significant growth in the price of residential real estate. In contrast, the decade that followed saw skyrocketing prices.

It’s worth noting that even tax policy has been biased toward fostering investments in housing. Real estate investments are taxed at a much lower rate than other investments. Changes in the 1990s made it possible for families to pocket any capital gains (income from price appreciation) on their primary residences up to $500,000 every two years. That translates into an effective rate of 0% versus the ordinary income tax rates that apply to capital gains on other forms of investment. The differential tax treatment of capital gains made housing a relatively better investment than the alternatives. Although tax cuts are desirable for promoting economic growth, when politicians tinker with the tax code to favor the sorts of investments they think people should make, we should not be surprised if market distortions result.

Former Fed chair Alan Greenspan had made it clear that the Fed would not stand idly by whenever a crisis threatened to cause a major devaluation of financial assets. Instead, it would respond by providing liquidity to stem the fall. Greenspan declared there was little the Fed could do to prevent asset bubbles but that it could always cushion the fall when those bubbles burst. By 1998, the idea that the Fed would always bail out investors after a burst bubble had become known as the “Greenspan Put.” (A “put” is a financial arrangement where a buyer acquires the right to re-sell the asset at a pre-set price.) Having seen the Fed bailout investors this way in a series of events starting as early as the 1987 stock market crash and extending through 9/11, players in the housing market had every reason to expect that if the value of houses and other instruments they were creating should fall, the Fed would bail them out, too. The Greenspan Put became yet another government “green light,” signaling investors to take risks they might not otherwise take.

As housing prices began to rise, and in some areas rise enormously, investors saw opportunities to create new financial instruments based on those rising housing prices. These instruments constituted the next stage of the boom in this boom-bust cycle, and their eventual failure became the major focus of the bust.

Fancy Financial Instruments – Cause or Symptom?

Banks and other players in the financial markets capitalized on the housing boom to create a variety of new instruments. These new instruments would enrich many but eventually lose their value, bringing down several major companies with them. They were all premised on the belief that housing prices would continue to rise, which would enable people who had taken out the new mortgages to continue to be able to pay.

Mortgages with low or even nonexistent down payments appeared. The ownership stake the borrower had in the house was largely the equity that came from the house increasing in value. With little to no equity at the start, the amount borrowed and therefore the monthly payments were fairly high, meaning that should the house fall in value, the owner could end up owing more on the house than it was worth.

“If it ain’t broke, why do you want to fix it? Have the GSEs ever missed their housing goals?” – Maxine Waters, 2003

The large flow of mortgage payments resulting from the inflation-generated housing bubble was then converted into a variety of new investment vehicles. In the simplest terms, financial institutions such as Fannie and Freddie began to buy up these mortgages from the originating banks or mortgage companies, package them together and sell the flow of payments from that package as a bond-like instrument to other investors. At the time of their nationalization in the fall of 2008, Fannie and Freddie owned or controlled half of the entire mortgage market. Investors could buy so-called “mortgage-backed securities” and earn income ultimately derived from the mortgage payments of the homeowners. The sellers of the securities, of course, took a cut for being the intermediary. They also divided up the securities into “tranches” or levels of risk. The lowest risk tranches paid off first, as they were representative of the less risky of the mortgages backing the security. The high risk ones paid off with the leftover funds, as they reflected the riskier mortgages.

Buyers snapped up these instruments for a variety of reasons. First, as housing prices continued to rise, these securities looked like a steady source of ever-increasing income. The risk was perceived to be low, given the boom in the housing market. Of course that boom was an illusion that eventually revealed itself.

Second, most of these mortgage- backed securities had been rated AAA, the highest rating, by the three ratings agencies: Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch. This led investors to believe these securities were very safe. It has also led many to charge that markets were irrational. How could these securities, which were soon to be revealed as terribly problematic, have been rated so highly? The answer is that those three ratings agencies are a government-created cartel not subject to meaningful competition.

In 1975, the Securities and Exchange Commission decided only the ratings of three “Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations” would satisfy the ratings requirements of a number of government regulations.Their activities since then have been geared toward satisfying the demands of regulators rather than true competition. If they made an error in their ratings, there was no possibility of a new entrant coming in with a more accurate technique. The result was that many instruments were rated AAA that never should have been, not because markets somehow failed due to greed or irrationality, but because government had cut short the learning process of true market competition.

Third, changes in the international regulations covering the capital ratios of commercial banks made mortgage-backed securities look artificially attractive as investment vehicles for many banks. Specifically, the Basel accord of 1988 stipulated that if banks held securities issued by government-sponsored entities, they could hold less capital than if they held other securities, including the very mortgages they might originate. Banks could originate a mortgage and then sell it to Fannie Mae. Fannie would then package it with other mortgages into a mortgage-backed security. If the very same bank bought that security (which relied on income from the mortgage it originated), it would be required to hold only 40 percent of the capital it would have had to hold if it had just kept the original mortgage.

These rules provided a powerful incentive for banks to originate mortgages they knew Fannie or Freddie would buy and securitize. The mortgages would then be available to buy back as part of a fancier instrument. The regulatory structure’s attempt at traffic signals was a flop. Markets themselves would not have produced such persistently bad signals or such a horrendous outcome. Once these securities became popular investment vehicles for banks and other institutions (thanks mostly to the regulatory interventions that created and sustained them) still other instruments were built on top of them. This is where “credit default swaps” and other even more complex innovations come into the story. Credit default swaps were a form of insurance against the mortgage-backed securities failing to pay out. Such arrangements would normally be a perfectly legitimate form of risk reduction for investors but given the house of cards that the underlying securities rested on, they likely accentuated the false “traffic signals” the system was creating.

“I set an ambitious goal. It’s one that I believe we can achieve. It’s a clear goal, that by the end of this decade we’ll increase the number of minority homeowners by at least 5.5 million families. Some may think that’s a stretch. I don’t think it is. I think it is realistic. I know we’re going to have to work together to achieve it. But when we do, our communities will be stronger and so will our economy. Achieving the goal is going to require some good policies out of Washington. And it’s going to require a strong commitment from those of you involved in the housing industry.” – President George W. Bush, 2002

By 2006, the Federal Reserve saw the housing bubble it had been so instrumental in creating and moved to prick it by reversing monetary policy. Money and credit were constricted and interest rates were dramatically raised. It would be only a matter of time before the bubble burst.

Deregulation, a False Culprit

It is patently incorrect to say that “deregulation” produced the current crisis [See Appendix A]. While it is true that new instruments such as credit default swaps were not subject to a great deal of regulation, this was mostly because they were new. Moreover, their very existence was an unintended consequence of all the other regulations and interventions in the housing and financial markets that had taken place in prior decades. The most notable “deregulation” of financial markets that took place in the 10 years prior to the crash of 2008 was the passing during the Clinton administration of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, which allowed commercial banks, investment banks and securities firms to merge in whatever manner they wished, eliminating regulations dating from the New Deal era that prevented such activity. The effects of this Act on the housing bubble itself were minimal. Yet, its passage turned out to be helpful, not harmful, during the 2008 crisis because failing investment banks were able to merge with commercial banks and avoid bankruptcy.

The housing bubble ultimately had to come to an end, and with it came the collapse of the instruments built on top of it. Inflation-financed booms end when the industries being artificially stimulated by the inflation find it increasingly difficult to buy the inputs they need at prices that are profitable and also find it increasingly difficult to find buyers for their outputs. In late 2006, housing prices topped out and began to fall as glutted markets and higher input prices due to the previous years’ race to build began to take their toll.

Falling housing prices had two major consequences for the economy. First, many homeowners found themselves in trouble with their mortgages. The low- or no-equity mortgages that had enabled so many to buy homes on the premise that prices would keep rising now came back to bite them. The falling value of their homes meant they owed more than the homes were worth. This problem was compounded in some cases by adjustable rate mortgages with low “teaser” rates for the first few years that then jumped back to market rates. Many of these mortgages were on houses that people hoped to “flip” for an investment profit, rather than on primary residences. Borrowers could afford the lower teaser payments because they believed they could recoup those costs on the gain in value. But with the collapse of housing prices underway, these homes could not be sold for a profit and when the rates adjusted, many owners could no longer afford the payments. Foreclosures soared.

Second, with housing prices falling and foreclosures rising, the stream of payments coming into those mortgage-backed securities began to dry up. Investors began to re-evaluate the quality of those securities. As it became clear that many of those securities were built upon mortgages with a rising rate of default and homes with falling values, the market value of those securities began to fall. The investment banks that held large quantities of securities were forced to take significant paper losses. The losses on the securities meant huge losses for those that sold credit default swaps, especially AIG. With major investment banks writing down so many assets and so much uncertainty about the future of these firms and their industry, the flow of credit in these specific markets did indeed dry up. But these markets are only a small share of the whole commercial banking and finance sector. It remains a matter of much debate just how dire the crisis was come September. Even if it was real, however, the proper course of action was to allow those firms to fail and use standard bankruptcy procedures to restructure their balance sheets.

“I think this is a case where Fannie and Freddie are fundamentally sound, that they are not in danger of going under.” – Barney Frank, 2008

The Recession is the Recovery

The onset of the recession and its visible manifestations in rising unemployment and failing firms led many to call for a “recovery plan.” But it was a misguided attempt to “plan” the monetary system and the housing market that got us into trouble initially. Furthermore, recession is the process by which markets recover. When one builds a 70-story skyscraper on a foundation made for a small cottage, the building should come down. There is no use in erecting an elaborate system of struts and supports to keep the unsafe structure aloft. Unfortunately, once the weaknesses in the U.S. economic structure were exposed, that is exactly what the Federal government set about doing.

One of the major problems with the government’s response to the crisis has been the failure to understand that the bust phase is actually the correction of previous errors. When firms fail and workers are laid off, when banks reconsider the standards by which they make loans, when firms start (accurately) recording bad investments as losses, the economy is actually correcting for previous mistakes. It may be tempting to try to keep workers in the boom industries or to maintain investment positions, but the economy needs to shift its focus. Corrections must be permitted to take their course. Otherwise, we set ourselves up for more painful downturns down the road. (Remember, the 2008 crisis came about because the Federal Reserve did not want the economy to go through the painful process of reordering itself following the collapse of the dot.com bubble.) Capital and labor must be reallocated, expectations must adjust, and the economic system must accommodate the existing preferences of consumers and the real resource constraints that producers face. These adjustments are not pleasant; they are in fact often extremely painful to the individuals who must make them, but they are also essential to getting the system back on track.

When government takes steps to prevent the adjustment, it only prolongs and retards the correction process. Government policies of easy credit produce the boom. Government policies designed to prevent the bust have the potential to transform a market correction into a full-blown economic crisis.

No one wants to see the family business fail, or neighbors lose their jobs, or charitable groups stretched beyond capacity. But in a market economy, bankruptcy and liquidation are two of the primary mechanisms by which resources are reallocated to correct for previous errors in decision-making. As Lionel Robbins wrote in The Great Depression, “If bankruptcy and liquidation can be avoided by sound financing nobody would be against such measures. All that is contended is that when the extent of mal- investment and over indebtedness has passed a certain limit, measures which postpone liquidation only tend to make matters worse.”

Seeing the recession as a recovery process also implies that what looks like bad news is often necessary medicine. For example, news of slackening home sales, or falling new housing starts, or losses of jobs in the financial sector are reported as bad news. In fact, this is a necessary part of recovery, as these data are evidence of the market correcting the mistakes of the boom. We built too many houses and we had too many resources devoted to financial instruments that resulted from that housing boom. Getting the economy right again requires that resources move away from those industries and into new areas. Politicians often claim they know where resources should be allocated, but the Great Recession of 2008 is only the latest proof they really don’t.

The Bush administration made matters worse by bailing out Bear Sterns in the spring of 2008. This sent a clear signal to financial firms that they might not have to pay the price for their mistakes. Then after that zig, the administration zagged when it let Lehman Brothers fail. There are those who argue that allowing Lehman to fail precipitated the crisis. We would argue that the Lehman failure was a symptom of the real problems that we have already outlined. Having set up the expectations that failing firms would get bailed out, the federal government’s refusal to bail out Lehman confused and surprised investors, leading many to withdraw from the market. Their reaction is not the necessary consequence of letting large firms fail, rather it was the result of confusing and conflicting government policies. The tremendous uncertainty created by the Administration’s arbitrary and unpredictable shifts – most notably Bernanke and Paulson’s September 23, 2008 unconvincing testimony on the details of the Troubled Asset Relief program – was the proximate cause of the investor withdrawals that prompted the massive bailouts that came in the fall, including those of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Bush bailout program was problematic in at least two ways. First, the rationale for such aggressive government action, including the Fed’s injection of billions of dollars in new reserves, was that credit markets had frozen up and no lending was taking place. Several observers at the time called this claim into question, pointing out that aggregate new lending numbers, while growing much more slowly than in the months prior, had not dropped to zero.

Markets in which the major investment banks operated had indeed slowed to a crawl, both because many of their housing-related holdings were being revealed as mal-investments and because the inconsistent political reactions were creating much uncertainty. The regular commercial banking sector, however, was by and large continuing to lend at prior levels.

More important is this fact: the various bailout programs prolonged the persistence of the very errors that were in the process of being corrected! Bailing out firms that are suffering major losses because of errant investments simply prolongs the mal-investments and prevents the necessary reallocation of resources.

The Obama administration’s nearly $800 billion stimulus package in February of 2009 was also predicated on false premises about the nature of recession and recovery. In fact, these were the same false premises which informed the much-maligned Bush Administration approach to the crisis. The official justification for the stimulus was that only a “jolt” of government spending could revive the economy.

The fallacy of job creation by government was first exposed by the French economist Bastiat in the 19th century with his story of the broken window. Imagine a young boy throws a rock through a window, breaking it. The townspeople gather and bemoan the loss to the store owner. But eventually one notes that it means more business for the glazier. And another observes that the glazier will then have money to spend on new shoes. And then the shoe seller will have money to spend on a new suit. Soon, the crowd convinces them-selves that the broken window is actually quite a good thing.

The fallacy, of course, is that if the window was never broken, the store owner would still have a functioning window and could spend the money on something else, such as new stock for his store. All the breaking of the window does is force the store owner to spend money he wouldn’t have had to spend if the window had been left intact. There is no net gain in wealth here. If there was, why wouldn’t we recommend urban riots as an economic recovery program?

When government attempts to “create” a job, it is not unlike a vandal who “creates” work for a glazier. There are only three ways for a government to acquire resources: it can tax, it can borrow or it can print money (inflate). No matter what method is used to acquire the resources, the money that government spends on any stimulus must come out of the private sector. If it is through taxes, it is obvious that the private sector has less to spend, leading to losses that at least cancel out any jobs created by government. If it is through borrowing, that lowers the savings available to the private sector (and raises interest rates in the process), reducing the amount the sector can borrow and the jobs it can create. If it is through printing money, it reduces the purchasing power of private sector incomes and savings. When we add to this the general inefficiency of the heavily politicized public sector, it is quite probable that government spending programs will cost more jobs in the private sector than they create.

“This [Government Sponsored Housing] is one of the great success stories of all time…” Chris Dodd, 2004

The Japanese experience during the 1990s is telling. Following the collapse of their own real estate bubble, Japan’s government launched an aggressive effort to prop up the economy. Between 1992 and 1995, Japan passed six separate spending programs totaling 65.5 trillion yen. But they kept increasing the ante. In April of 1998, they passed a 16.7 trillion yen stimulus package. In November of that year, it was an additional 23.9 trillion. Then there was an 18 trillion yen package in 1999 and an 11 trillion yen package in 2000. In all, the Japanese government passed 10 (!) different fiscal “stimulus” packages, totaling more than 100 trillion yen. Despite all of these efforts, the Japanese economy still languishes. Today, Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is one of the highest in the industrialized world, with nothing to show for it. This is not a model we should want to imitate.

It is also the same mistake the United States made in the Great Depression, when both the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations attempted to fight the deepening recession by making extensive use of the federal government and only made matters worse. In addition to the errors made by the Federal Reserve System that exacerbated the downturn that it created with inflationary policies in the 1920s, Hoover himself tried to prevent a necessary fall in wages by convincing major industrialists to not cut wages, as well as proposing significant increases in public works and, eventually, a tax increase. All of these worsened the depression.

Roosevelt’s New Deal continued this set of policy errors. Despite claims during the current recession that the New Deal saved us from economic disaster, recent scholarship has solidly affirmed that the New Deal didn’t save the economy. Policies such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act only interfered with the market’s attempts to adjust and recover, prolonging the crisis. Later policies scared off private investors as they were uncertain about how much and in what ways government would step in next. The result was that six years into the New Deal, unemployment rates were still above 17% and GDP per capita was still well below its long-run trend.

In more recent years, President Nixon’s attempt to fight the stagflation of the early 1970s with wage and price controls was abandoned quickly when they did nothing to help reduce inflation or unemployment. Most telling for our case was the fact that the Fed’s expansionary policies earlier this decade were intended to “soften the blow” of the dot.com bust in 2001. Of course those policies gave us the inflationary boom that produced the crisis that began in 2008. If the current recession lingers or becomes a second Great Depression, it will not be because of problems inherent in markets, but because the political response to a politically generated boom and bust has prevented the error-correction process from doing its job. The belief that large-scale government intervention is the key to getting us out of a recession is a myth disproven by both history and recent events.

The Future That Awaits Our Children

Commentators have had a field day adding up the trillions of dollars that have been committed in the Bush bailout, the Obama stimulus, and the administration’s proposed budget for 2010. The explosion of spending and debt, whatever the final tab, is unprecedented by any measure. It will “crowd out” a significant portion of private investment, reducing growth rates and wages in the future. We are, in effect, reducing the income of our children tomorrow to pay for the bills of today and yesterday. Large government debt is also a temptation for inflation. In order for governments to borrow, someone must be willing to buy their bonds. Should confidence in a government fall enough (China, notably, has expressed some reluctance to continue buying our debt), it is possible that buyers will be hard to come by. That puts pressure on the government’s monetary authorities to “lubricate” the system by creating new money and credit from thin air.

So, even if the economy gets a lift in the near-term from either its own corrective mechanisms or from the government’s reinflation of money and credit, we have not recovered from the hangover. More of what caused the Great Recession of 2008 – easy money, regulatory interventions to direct capital in unsustainable directions, politicians and policy-makers rigging financial markets – is not likely to produce anything but the same outcome; asset price inflation and an eventual “adjustment” we call a recession or depression. Along the way, we will accumulate monumental debts which accentuate the future downturn and saddle us with new burdens.

Unless we can begin to undo the mistakes of the last decade or more, the future that awaits our children will be one that is poorer and less free than it should have been. With politicians mortgaging future generations to the tune of trillions, running and subsidizing auto and insurance companies, spending blindly and printing money hand- over-fist – all while blaming free enterprise for their own errors, we have a great deal to learn.

As Albert Einstein famously said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. The best we can hope for is that we learn the right lessons from this crisis. We cannot afford to repeat the wrong ones.

“The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn’t a typical postwar slump…. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback… Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.” Paul Krugman, 2002

Appendix A: The Myth of Deregulation

Appendix B: Government Interventions During Crisis Create Uncertainty

Appendix C: Suggested Readings

Cole, Harold and Lee E. Ohanian. 2004 New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis, Journal of Political Economy 112: 779-816.

Friedman, Jeffrey. 2009. A Crisis of Politics, Not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance, and Policy Failure, Critical Review 21: 127-183.

Higgs, Robert. 2008. Credit Is Flowing, Sky Is Not Falling, Don’t Panic, The Beacon, available at http://www.independent.org/blog/?p=201.

Marenzi, Octavio. 2008. Flawed Assumptions about the Credit Crisis: A Critical Examination of US Policymakers, Celent Research, available at http://www.celent.com/124_347.htm

Prescott, Edward and Timothy J. Kehoe (Editors). 2007. Great Depressions of the Twentieth Century, Minneapolis. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Taylor, John. 2009. Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged, and Worsened the Financial Crisis, Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Woods, Thomas. 2009. Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, Washington, DC: Regnery.

Biographies

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education – www.fee.org – and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He has been a visiting scholar at Bowling Green State University and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Peter J. Boettke is the Deputy Director of the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center, and a professor in the economics department at George Mason University.

John Allison served as the Chief Executive Officer of BB&T Corp. until December 2008. Mr Allison has been the Chairman of BB&T Corp., since July 1989. He serves as a Member of American Bankers Association and The Financial Services Roundtable.

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Peter J. BoettkePeter J. Boettke

Peter Boettke is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

RELATED ARTICLE: Housing Policies That Led to 2008 Collapse Still in Place, Says Freddie Mac Economist – PJ Meda June, 2017

Can We Afford ‘Affordable Care’? by D.W. MacKenzie

Does the Supreme Court decision upholding health insurance subsidies prove that Obamacare is here to stay?

With its legality settled, the longevity of the healthcare program is supposed to be politically inevitable. The millions of voters who receive subsidies from the Affordable Care Act will not tolerate the loss of this money. Insurance companies will no doubt also lobby to prevent any loss of ACA subsidies, as stockholders and employees are major beneficiaries of this program.

Political factors may well preserve the ACA in the short run. But the Court’s ruling came on the heels of a gloomy report from the Congressional Budget Office that may prove to be more decisive for the law than all of Chief Justice Roberts’ legal gymnastics.

The CBO forecasts anemic economic growth and rising public debt for decades to come. Projected revenues and projected spending indicate a growing imbalance in federal finances, driven by long-term unfunded liabilities in old entitlement programs — mainly Social Security and Medicare.

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to control health insurance costs — hence the name. Unfortunately, things are not working out that way, and insurance companies are pressing for significant rate increases.

Consumers might hope that government officials would resist pressure for rate increases, but such actions are unlikely: Stock prices for major health insurers rose sharply after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Obama administration. Clearly, investors expect the ACA to benefit health insurers. And in Oregon, state regulators actually raised premiums higher than insurers requested, just to keep companies in the market. Rising premiums will likely drive more subsidies, worsening the looming debt and entitlement crisis.

Politicians have ignored these issues for decades because they seemed like “long-term” problems, and political pressures from elections and lobbying force them to be shortsighted. The short-term financial situation is being shored up by the willingness of investors to buy federal debt at low rates.

The trouble is that the long term isn’t as far off as it used to be. The CBO indicates that the fiscal situation in the federal government worsened significantly over the past few years, even as the deficit was declining. Further deterioration in federal finances is expected over the next decade. How much longer will private investors continue to finance this soaring debt?

A large part of the problem with rising debt is that financing it requires steady economic growth, but large public debts can crush growth. Federal debt is a millstone on the economy, the burden of which could at some point lead to national bankruptcy. The ACA, with its enormous subsidies and regulatory compliance costs, will simply pile on an already unaffordable mass of federal spending programs.

The bottom line is that Supreme Court maintained the ACA subsidies legally,but the American people will not be able to maintain them financially.

The passage and continued defense of the Affordable Care Act is an example of the rank irrationality of public budgeting. The outcome of our political and legislative processes over the past few decades has been to create a myriad of wasteful and financially unsustainable federal programs. Meanwhile, the analytical office the legislative branch of government has been quietly raising the alarm about to the direction and sustainability of government finances. It would seem that delirium is winning out over reason.

There is, of course, nothing truly inevitable about the growth of federal spending. Federal spending developed into its present irrational state because many people pressed for this growth.

But spending can and will be curtailed. Citizens can push for real spending cuts through the electoral process. Otherwise, investors in financial markets will at some point put a sharp and sudden stop to government excesses.


D.W. MacKenzie

D. W. MacKenzie is an assistant professor of economics at Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

RELATED ARTICLE: Under Obamacare, Uninsured Rate Fell to Lowest Level in 50 Years. Why There’s More to That Number.

“Green Banks” Will Drown in the Red by Jonathan Bydlak

Why does federal spending matter? There are many reasons, but perhaps the most fundamental is that free markets allocate resources better than governments because markets rely on price instead of politics. Many industries show this observation to be true, but the emerging field of “green banks” offers perhaps one of the clearest recent examples.

A green bank is a “public or quasi-public financing institution that provides low-cost, long-term financing support to clean, low-carbon projects by leveraging public funds…to attract private investment.” Right now, only a handful of green banks are scattered across Connecticut, California, New York, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.

Free marketers rightly doubt whether public funds should be used to finance private startups. But regardless of where one stands in that debate, the states’ struggles serve as a valuable testing ground for future investments.

The State of Connecticut operates under a fairly significant budget deficit. California has been calculating its budgets without taking unfunded pension liabilities into account, and it’s gambling with its ability to service its debt. New York continues to live beyond its means. Rhode Island’s newest budget does little to rehabilitate its deficit spending addiction, and, despite having a balanced budget clause in its state constitution, Hawaii has a pattern of operating at a deficit.

In fact, a state solvency report released by the Mercatus Center has each of these five states ranked in the bottom third of the country, with their solvency described as either “low” or “poor.”

This all raises the question of whether these governments are able to find sound investment opportunities in the first place. Rhode Island couldn’t even identify a bad investment when baseball legend Curt Schilling wanted $75 million to make video games about something other than baseball!

Recently, though, there have been calls to extend the struggling green banking system to the federal level. Mark Muro and Reed Hundt at the Brookings Institute argued in favor of federal action in support of green banks. Somewhat paradoxically, they assert that demand for green banking institutions and the types of companies they finance is so strong that the existing state-based green banks cannot muster enough capital to meet demand.

Wherever there is potential for profit and a sound business plan, lending institutions are likely to be found, willing to relinquish a little capital for a consistent and reasonable rate of return. So where are the private lenders and other investment firms who have taken notice and are competing for the opportunity to provide loans to such highly sought-after companies and products?

Even assuming that there is demand for green banking services, recent experience shows that a federally-subsidized system would likely lead to inefficiency, favor trading, and failure. For instance, the Department of Energy Loan Program is designed to facilitate and aid clean energy startup companies. Its portfolio exceeds $30 billion, but following a series of bad investments like Solyndra, Inc., new loan guarantees have been few and far between. The program has already lost over $700 million.

Even the rosiest measurements do not show particularly exciting returns from this system. The Department of Energy itself estimates that over the lifetime of the loans it’s guaranteed, there exists the potential to see $5 billion in profit. However, those estimates also depend on the peculiar accounting methods the DoE itself employs.

This problem is apparent in other government sectors. For instance, determining how much profit the federal government makes off of student loans depends on who is asked. Some say none, while others say it’s in the billions. Gauging the economic impact or solvency of government programs is notoriously difficult, and different methods can yield what look like very different results. Add to that the consistently uncertain nature of the energy market, and profits are hardly guaranteed.

Examples abound of wasteful federal spending, and the growing green technology and renewable energy industry is no exception. The DoE Loan Program has already faced issues that go well beyond Solyndra: Abound Solar, a Colorado-based solar panel manufacturer, was given a $400 million DoE loan guarantee, only to later file for bankruptcy, potentially costing taxpayers $60 million. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a 175,000 unit heliostat array in California, received a $1.6 billion federal loan and, because it failed to produce the amount of power estimated, was forced to later request more than$500 million in federal grants from the Treasury Department. A recent Taxpayers Protection Alliance study showed that risky investments in heavily subsidized solar energy could even lead to a bubble similar to the disastrous 2008 housing bubble.

Those who want to expand the government’s role in green banking likely want to see more clean and renewable energy reach the consumer market, and a lot of people probably applaud that goal — but the real question is whether the proposed means can reliably achieve that end. A wise manager with a solid business plan can find investors who will willingly take a chance. Considering the struggles of several states, trusting the federal government to build an even bigger system would exponentially increase that risk.

In contrast, the market offers opportunity to entrepreneurs in the green technology and renewable energy industries. For instance, GreatPoint Energy, a company specializing in clean coal, successfully went the route that other companies do: Design a product or service, find investors, and compete in the marketplace.

SolarCity, a California-based and publicly traded corporation of over 2,500 employees, entered the industry before many government loan programs were established. Thanks to a sound business model and subsequent horizontal and vertical expansion, it has become a leader in the industry. SolarCity’s success, however, cannot be touted by the Department of Energy’s Loan Program, which declined to invest in the company, leading SolarCity to try — and succeed — in finding private investment.

If GreatPoint or SolarCity had failed, only those who willingly participated in the startup would suffer the consequences. The issue with green banking — and indeed government “investments” more generally — is that taxpayers are not party to the negotiations but are the ones ultimately on the hook for failures.

In absolute terms, these billions of dollars are a lot of money. But in the grand scheme of government spending, the amount of money invested in green banks and renewable energy production is relatively small. If Social Security is the Atlantic Ocean, and wasteful defense appropriations are the Mediterranean, then green energy investments fall somewhere in the range of the Y-40 pool: easily measurable but certainly not insignificant.

Your odds of drowning may be smaller in the pool than the ocean, but that doesn’t make the drowning itself any more pleasant. The federal government is already under water; adding new liabilities on the hope that politicians can guess the future of energy is merely a step towards the deep end, not the ladder out.


Jonathan Bydlak

Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Institute to Reduce Spending and the Coalition to Reduce Spending.

Bernie Sanders Thinks the Middle Class Is Deteriorating: He’s Wrong! by Corey Iacono

Sen. Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist running for President of the United States, and his passionate populist message has won him many admirers on the left. His willingness to push for radical progressive policies (such as top income tax rates of 90 percent), which mainstream Democrats are too moderate to embrace, is steadily eroding Hillary Clinton’s dominance of the Democratic primary field.

There are several “facts” upon which Sanders has built his campaign. Probably the most important is the claim that the American middle class has been declining for quite some time. According to Sanders’s website:

The long-term deterioration of the middle class, accelerated by the Wall Street crash of 2008, has not been pretty…

Since 1999, the median middle-class family has seen its income go down by almost $5,000 after adjusting for inflation, now earning less than it did 25 years ago.

The situation is clearly dire, and the right man for the momentous job of saving the middle class is Sen. Sanders. Well, at least that’s [the] message his campaign seeks to convey.

But what if the middle class isn’t becoming worse off over time? What if the American middle class is actually doing as well as ever? Would Sanders’s supporters be as likely to endorse his more radical ideas if they weren’t convinced that the middle was becoming poorer over time — and that only progressive policies could reverse this trend?

It’s worth taking the time to examine Sanders’s claim that the middle class is worse off now than in the past. He doesn’t cite a source for his statistic, but it seems to rely on looking at the median household income over time and adjusting for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

This is a problematic methodology because it does not control for the well-known fact that the median household has itself grown smaller over time. Even if median income stayed the same over time, a decline in the number of people in the median household over time would lead to an increase in income per household member.

Additionally, Sanders’s statistic looks at income before taxes and transfers. Transfer payments and tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit) make up a significant portion of income for many lower-income families. Not controlling for these factors understates their true economic well-being.

The figures cited by Sanders also fail to take into account the fact that a larger proportion of worker compensation comes in the form of non-cash benefits (such as health insurance) now than in the past.

According to research published by the National Tax Journal, “Broadening the income definition to post-tax, post-transfer, size-adjusted household cash income, middle class Americans are found to have made substantial gains,” amounting to a 37 percent increase in income over the 1979-2007 period.

Similarly, in 2014, the Congressional Budget Office found that adjusting for changing household size and looking at income after taxes and transfers, households in all income quintiles are much better off than they were a few decades ago.

The incomes of households in the three middle income quintiles grew 40 percent between 1979 and 2011. Somewhat surprisingly, given the histrionics about the state of America’s poor, income in households in the lowest quintile was 48 percent higher in 2011 than it was in 1979.

Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis comes to even more optimistic conclusions.

The Consumer Price Index is widely understood to overstate inflation — among other reasons, by failing to accurately account for improvements in quality and consumer substitutions for newer or cheaper goods — which is why the Federal Open Market Committee uses an alternative measurement for inflation, the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index, which includes more comprehensive coverage of goods and services than the CPI.

If the CPI does, in fact, overstate the extent to which prices rise over time, then it also consequently understates the growth in real, inflation-adjusted incomes over time.

Indexing median household income (post taxes and transfers) to inflation using the PCE, rather than the CPI, and adjusting for the long-run decline in household size shows that median incomes have “increased by roughly 44 percent to 62 percent from 1976 to 2006.”

Moreover, the focus on statistical categories ignores what is happening at the level of individuals and households, which may move up or down the income ladder, through different income quintiles. And studies have consistently shown that this income mobility has not changed in decades.

While the rate of growth for some income categories in recent years has been sluggish, the claim that middle incomes are declining precipitously is false. Based on these findings, it seems appropriate to conclude that Sanders’ claim that there exists a “long-term deterioration of the middle class” is patently untrue.

Learn more about wage “stagnation” from former FEE president Don Boudreaux:

Corey Iacono

Corey Iacono is a student at the University of Rhode Island majoring in pharmaceutical science and minoring in economics.

Religious Charities, Gay Marriage, and Adoption: A Case for Pluralism by Walter Olson

At Reason, Scott Shackford has a valuable piece on where libertarians’ interests are likely to coincide with those of organized gay rights advocates and where they are likely to diverge, following the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage.

One flashpoint of controversy is likely to be the role of conservative religious agencies in areas of adoption that are commonly assisted with public funds (as with the adoption of older kids from foster care).

It is now legal all across America for gay people to adopt children, and now with same-sex marriage, they can adopt their partner’s child as well. This fight is largely over, and was actually pretty much won even before gay marriage recognition.

But there is another side, and it ties back into the treatment of religious people. Some adoption agencies are tied to religious groups who do not want to serve same-sex couples or place children in same-sex homes. They are also typically recipients of state funding for placing children, and are therefore subject to state regulation. Should they be required to serve gay couples?

Some states, such as Illinois, attempted to force them. As a result, Catholic Charities, which helped the state find adoptive and foster home services for four decades, stopped providing their services in 2011.

At the time, a gay activist declared this a victory, saying “Finding a loving home for the thousands in the foster/adoption system should be the priority, not trying to exclude people based on religious dogma.”

Some libertarians I admire have taken the view that where any public dollars are involved, private social service agencies must be held to rigorous anti-discrimination standards.

While I respect this view, I don’t share it.

Programs that are explicitly voucherized (such as G.I. Bill college tuition benefits, which can be used for seminary study) often go to institutions that I might find discriminatory, and the same logic can apply even with some less explicitly voucherized benefits.

If a state depot is dispensing gasoline to rescuers’ boats after Katrina, and Catholic Charities’s boats spare the need for government boats to reach some rescue targets, the “subsidy” might in fact save the taxpayers money.

In Olson’s experience, the more agencies out there serving the needs of the children looking for homes, the better. …

Much as with the controversies over bakers and florists, being denied service by one agency does not actually impact a gay couple’s ability to find and adopt children at all.

But eliminating Catholic Charities from the pool reduces the number of people able to help place these children. It’s the children who are punished by the politicization of adoption, not Catholic Charities.

This is especially important when dealing with older children or children with special medical needs. … Allowing both sides (and others as well) to play their role as they see fit benefits all children in the system.

As for the concern that some adoption agencies take taxpayer money and then discriminate, Olson points out that it’s much more expensive to the taxpayers to leave children to be raised by the state, not to mention terribly cruel.

“If you don’t care about the kids or the families, at least care about the taxpayers,” Olson says. But you should probably care about the kids, too.

I’ve written about the same set of issues (in the foster care context) before. The new Reason piece is here.


Walter Olson

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

RELATED ARTICLE: ‘Cake Artist’ Fights in Court to Be Able to Refuse to Make Wedding Cakes for Gay Couples

EDITORS NOTE: This post first appeared at Cato.org.

The Ex-Im Bank Is Dead — But Watch Out for Corporate Welfare Zombies by Daniel J. Ikenson

At midnight, the gears of crony capitalism ground to a halt at 811 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.

After 81 years of funneling taxpayer dollars to favored companies, projects, and geopolitical outcomes under the guise of advancing some vague conception of the “U.S. economic interest,” the Export-Import Bank of the United States will end its financing operations at midnight tonight.

No more subsidies to Fortune 100 businesses. No more siphoning revenues from unwitting U.S. firms and industries. No more loan guarantees to wealthy, autocratic foreign governments. No more crowding out of private lending. No more taxpayer exposure to a Fannie Mae-like fiasco. No more bribery and corruption scandals. No more collaboration and lending to China’s Export-Import Bank – you know, the entity whose support for Chinese companies is alleged to threaten U.S. exporters and jobs, and is the most frequently cited imperative for reauthorizing Ex-Im.

No more of any of this… for now.

Champions of small government and market capitalism should savor this rare victory. It was won with solid arguments, including over 20 years of analyses from Cato Institute scholars including Ian Vasquez, Aaron Lukas, Steve Slivinsky, Chris Edwards, Doug Bandow, Sallie James, and – perhaps most comprehensively and tirelessly – Veronique de Rugy.

It was won because of columnist/scholar Tim Carney’s persistence in focusing the public’s attention on the corruption bred of corporate welfare and because of the analytical contributions of Heritage’s Diane Katz, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Young, and others who continued to make compelling arguments for shuttering the Bank, despite steep odds against that outcome.

It was won because certain libertarian groups and conservative activists made the issue a priority, recognizing that corporate welfare is as great a threat to liberty as is the Welfare State, and that reining it in should be a priority because success there would lend greater credibility to the effort to rein in the Welfare State.

It was won against great odds, including vast political expenditures and arm-twisting by U.S. business interests on Capitol Hill, a mainstream media that is reflexively unsympathetic to any cause associated with “Tea Party Types,” and a general aversion among establishment organizations to any challenges to the status-quo.

Radical and reckless, excessive and extreme, ideological and idiotic have been the characterizations assigned by media, politicians, and Boeing lobbyists in their attempts to discredit legitimate efforts to purge “crony” and make “market” the new brand of capitalism.

And it was won because House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, knowing the case against Ex-Im reauthorization was more substantive than the New York Times would allow, made good gatekeepers by putting the onus on Ex-Im proponents to answer the critics – a task at which they failed.

So, at midnight, the Export-Import Bank ceased in its capacity to issue new financing. That is something to cheer. It may also be short-lived.

Proponents of the Bank have been regrouping and strategizing to move legislation to reauthorize the Bank at the soonest possible chance. In fact the White House is hosting a conference call for the purpose of advancing that outcome. Here’s the text of the email:

Dear Friend,

Please join us for a conference call on Tuesday, June 30th, at 2:35 PM with President Barack Obama, Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, and Director of the National Economic Council, Jeff Zients, to discuss the importance of reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

The Export-Import Bank is a critical tool to help U.S. businesses and workers succeed in global markets and grow their exports – it supports high-quality jobs, is a vital tool for small businesses, and doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny. Its reauthorization is vital to U.S. competitiveness and leveling the playing field for American small business owners and workers. …

This call is off the record and is not for press purposes nor amplification on social media.

Thank you,

The White House Business Council

The battle may be over but the war continues. Given the sway that conservatives have had on this issue, it will be interesting to see whether and how Speaker Boehner tries to circumvent Hensarling’s committee to get a reauthorization bill to the floor. Majority Leader McConnell believes there’s enough support in the Senate for reauthorization, but most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have expressed opposition to reauthorization.

It seems to me that if Ex-Im reauthorization resurfaces in the weeks and months ahead, it will be an issue that provides Republicans with yet another opportunity to demonstrate commitment to limited government, free market principles. Maybe this time they’ll see the value in reclaiming that brand.


Daniel Ikenson

Dan Ikenson is director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, where he coordinates and conducts research on all manners of international trade and investment policy.

EDITORS NOTE: A version of this post first appeared at Cato.org.

Neoliberalism: Making a Boogeyman Out of a Buzzword by Max Borders

After Salon.com stopped being interesting, they needed a way to drive traffic. Competition for eyeballs is tough, after all. In the dog-eat-dog world of attracting eyeballs, you’ve got to find clever ways to pull in new readers.

One way to drive traffic is to poke people you know disagree with you. And by poking, I mean turning them into a Voodoo Doll.

This variation on beating up a Straw Man has the benefit of the Internet’s sharing magic. That is, if you pick on some group they will feel it. Then they will turn around and express their outrage by sharing your stuff! Voila: instant Internet gold.

In making Voodoo Dolls, you don’t always have to pick on a specific person. You can go for a worldview. Salon has given libertarianism a lot of flak, of course. But now they’re going for an even bigger boogeyman, because the idea is to paint as many people as you can with the same tarbrush.

What better place to go for a big, sweeping label than the academy?

Here’s UC-Berkeley political science professor Wendy Brown talking “neoliberalism” in a Salon interview.

And how do you define neoliberalism? It’s not uncommon for me to experience people I’d consider neoliberals telling me the term is meaningless.

I think most Salon readers would know neoliberalism as that radical free-marketeering that comes to us in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the Reagan-Thatcher revolution being the real marker of that turn in Euro-Atlantic world. It means the dismantling of publicly owned industry and deregulation of capital, especially finance capital; the elimination of public provisions and the idea of public goods; and the most basic submission of everything to markets and to unregulated markets.

So free enterprise is its clarion call, and even though it requires a lot of state intervention and state support, the idea that goes with it is usually also minimal state intervention in markets. Even if states are needed to prop or support or sometimes bail out markets, they shouldn’t get into the middle of them and redistribute [wealth]. That’s all true. That’s certainly part of what neoliberalism is.

Okay, let’s see if we can make heads or tails of this magician’s patter.

Start with Professor Brown’s concern that people have criticized the term neoliberalism as being meaningless. This doctrine, Brown says, “requires a lot of state intervention and state support, the idea that goes with it is usually also minimal state intervention in markets.”

Huh? If neoliberalism isn’t exactly libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism — because these doctrines certainly do not include or require state intervention and support of markets — then we might say she’s talking about cronyism. And certainly if someone were to build a doctrine around cronyism, that would not be meaningless.

It turns out such a doctrine does exist. But it’s not neoliberalism; it’s corporatism — and it’s a progressivist ideology.

According to Nobel laureate Edmund S. Phelps, quoted in the Freeman:

The managerial state has assumed responsibility for looking after everything from the incomes of the middle class to the profitability of large corporations to industrial advancement. This system . . . is . . . an economic order that harks back to Bismarck in the late nineteenth century and Mussolini in the twentieth: corporatism.

Phelps says,

In various ways, corporatism chokes off the dynamism that makes for engaging work, faster economic growth, and greater opportunity and inclusiveness. It maintains lethargic, wasteful, unproductive, and well-connected firms at the expense of dynamic newcomers and outsiders, and favors declared goals such as industrialization, economic development, and national greatness over individuals’ economic freedom and responsibility.

Today, airlines, auto manufacturers, agricultural companies, media, investment banks, hedge funds, and much more has [sic] at some point been deemed too important to weather the free market on its own, receiving a helping hand from government in the name of the “public good.”

But where does this idea come from? Contra Brown, it’s not from the “free marketeers”. Economist Thayer Watkins says:

In the last half of the 19th century people of the working class in Europe were beginning to show interest in the ideas of socialism and syndicalism. Some members of the intelligentsia, particularly the Catholic intelligentsia, decided to formulate an alternative to socialism which would emphasize social justice without the radical solution of the abolition of private property.

The result was called Corporatism. The name had nothing to do with the notion of a business corporation except that both words are derived from the Latin word for body, corpus.

To be fair, Brown might protest, arguing that she would subsidize, cartelize, and manage the right industries, such as finance. At least she laments the liberalization of these industries, citing Thatcher as an example of neoliberal excess, despite what a basket case Britain had been under prior governments.

So which industries would she leave private and which “require a lot of state intervention”? And what sort of magic makes any such scheme immune to rent-seeking and capture?

It appears state support of business originated among certain less-communist advocates of social justice. But surely this is not something the more moderate progressives had in mind.

After all, says Brown, “What’s more, if those of us who oppose neoliberalism misinterpret it as simply another word for capitalism, we make the job of fighting it even more difficult. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a capitalist, after all. But a neoliberal, he most certainly was not.”

Libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan says it’s time to point fingers and name names. In a rare polemic called “Dear Left: Corporatism is Your Fault” he writes,

America is suffering from rampant, run-away corporatism and crony capitalism. We are increasingly a plutocracy in which government serves the interests of elite financiers and CEOs at the expense of everyone else.

You know this and you complain loudly about it. But the problem is your fault. You caused this state of affairs. Stop it.

But the moderate left didn’t want radical socialism. They just wanted regulatory agencies to rein in the excesses of the market. They wanted the government to subsidize or own areas that ought to be considered public goods, like healthcare, transportation, education, and the environment. But good intentions are not enough, writes Brennan.

We told you this would happen, but you wouldn’t listen. You complain, rightly, that regulatory agencies are controlled by the very corporations they are supposed to constrain. Well, yeah, we told you that would happen. When you create power—and you people love to create power—the unscrupulous seek to capture that power for their personal benefit. Time and time again, they succeed. We told you that would happen, and we gave you an accurate account of how it would happen.

You complain, perhaps rightly, that corporations are just too big. Well, yeah, we told you that would happen. When you create complicated tax codes, complicated regulatory regimes, and complicated licensing rules, these regulations naturally select for larger and larger corporations. We told you that would happen. Of course, these increasingly large corporations then capture these rules, codes, and regulations to disadvantage their competitors and exploit the rest of us. We told you that would happen.

Brennan was probably a little upset when he wrote this, but fairly so. People like Wendy Brown have been trying to emblazon corporatism on the tunics of free marketeers and liberalizers for a while now. And they’re generally pontificating from the academy, rather than from the brothels of K St. in Washington, or Venezuela’s Ministry of Planning and Finance.

No one who calls herself a political science professor should have earned her letters without having read public choice theory. No, it’s time to admit that all progressive attempts to stitch together old scraps of socialism with markets will create perverse effects and corruption of one form or another.

Maybe Prof. Brown is okay with “corporatizing” some industries while leaving others in private hands, a la FDR. Hers seems to be an attempt to synthesize the heart of Marx with the will of the people. She says:

“Demos kratia” — “people rule” — is really the term that, however differently it’s been interpreted over different variations of democracy and different centuries, is one that we all cherish on some level. Demos is important because it’s the body, it’s the people, that we imagine are in control of the basic conditions and laws that govern our lives.

Ah, yes “the body,” the corpus. Haven’t we heard that one before? We’re supposed to cherish democracy, because, well, it’s as American as apple pie. Any more reflection would require admitting that the “demos” disagrees about stuff. And that’s a slippery slope to individualism and recognizing the need for tolerance and personal autonomy. This is the fact of pluralism that even the liberal philosopher John Rawls starts with.

Whenever you hear the world neoliberalism, be wary. It could be completely meaningless filler, but it’s always as squishy as silly putty. It’s a label that’s designed to demonize those who would never support it — a word to be accompanied by a sneer. It is a means of defining oneself as against something — preferably a nice soft Straw Man — rather than doing the hard business of coming out ideologically and defending your ideas.

When you realize that accepting degrees of state intervention is a problem of degree and not of kind, it becomes clear the Wendy Browns have nowhere to run but to nebulous concepts like “demos.” That is because between corporatism and communism there is no magical third way, only shades of state coercion, justified by a flimsy majoritarian facade. The choice between nationalized or regulated industries is binary, so the ideological choice set is really only between communism and corporatism. But communism screwed things up. Corporatism screws things up. All the variations screw things up because each permutation involves power and business forming unholy alliances.

People like Wendy Brown and her Salon interviewer Elias Isquith aren’t stupid. And like most people, they have good intentions. They are committed to a particular theory of angels. Demos, that golden calf, is the tired old notion that if we could just blur the peculiarities, individuality, and desires of 300 million people into a single prayer and send it up through the voting booth, what will come out the other side — in Washington, D.C. — is a kind of secular salvation. But this sort of thinking turns on hypostatization, that timeless fallacy of ambiguity that seduces people into collectivism.

We have to look them squarely in the face and say: “You caused this state of affairs. Stop it.”


Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

“SCOTUScare”: Supreme Court Guts Obamacare to Uphold Subsidies by Daniel Bier

The Supreme Court has voted 6-3 (with Chief Justice Roberts writing the majority opinion, joined by Justice Kennedy and the four liberal justices) to uphold the subsidies the IRS is distributing for health insurance plans purchased on the federal insurance exchange.

This ruling sets a dangerous precedent, and its reasoning is, as Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent, “quite absurd.”

There will no doubt be much written about the decision in the coming days, and almost all of it will mischaracterize the ruling as the Supreme Court “saving” the Affordable Care Act again.

This is a crucial error: The Court’s ruling guts the ACA and rewrites [it] in a way that is politically convenient for the president — again.

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, the law was designed to work through a “cooperative federalism” approach. For example, the portion of the law expanding Medicaid, like the rest of Medicaid, would be a joint federal-state program, partly funded and regulated by the feds but administered by the states.

The part of the law meant to increase individually purchased insurance coverage was similarly designed to work through federal-state cooperation.

Each state would set up its own health insurance “exchange,” and the federal government would issue tax credits for qualified individuals who purchased policies on the state exchanges. The logic here is that the states are best suited to run exchanges for their residents, as they have particular and specialized knowledge about other state healthcare programs, state regulations on insurance, and their residents’ health needs.

But the law did not (and constitutionally could not) force state governments set up exchanges. So as a backstop, a separate section of the law allows the federal government to set up an exchange for residents in states that did not set up their own.

Here’s where it got problematic: The plain text of the law only authorizes tax credits for policies purchased on an “exchange established by the State.”

There’s no easy way around this fact. Nowhere does the ACA authorize subsidies for plans purchased on the federal exchange. None of this would have been an issue if every state had chosen to build an exchange, as the law’s authors anticipated.

But in reality, the ACA has been persistently unpopular, and only 14 states (and DC) had working exchanges. The details of the backstop provision suddenly became a lot more important as the residents of 36 states were cast onto the federal exchange.

Faced with uncooperative federalism, the Obama administration suddenly had a big political problem, and it would have been quite embarrassing for the law’s biggest benefit to evaporate just as the president was planning to run for reelection on it.

So 14 months after the bill was signed into law, the IRS issued a rule, by executive fiat, to issue subsidies on the federal exchange. Because the penalty for failing [to] purchase health insurance is based on the cost of insurance, including subsidies, relative to a person’s income, individuals and businesses in states without exchanges who would otherwise have been exempt from fines and mandates were now in violation.

Lawsuits followed, which argued the IRS’s decision to issue subsidies in states that had declined to create exchanges was against the law, and it had resulted in actual harm to them.

In one of the lower court rulings on this issue, the DC Circuit concluded that the law offered no clear basis for issuing subsidies through the federal exchange.

If Congress intended to issue subsidies through the federal exchange, it would have been perfectly easy for them to say so, in any number of sections. And if Congress intended to treat the federal exchange as though it were a State entity (as the ACA does with US territories’ exchanges), it knew how to do that too. Yet there is no section of the law that does this.

Some argued that this omission was a “drafting error,” a legislative slip-up. If so, it was one it made over and over again, in at least ten different sections. And, as Michael Cannon rather pointedly asks, if it was a drafting error, why didn’t the government make that case in court? Why didn’t the IRS make that claim when they issued the new rule?

The answer may be that the law meant what the law says. The scant legislative history on this question doesn’t show that Congress ever thought that subsidies were going to be disbursed through the federal exchanges. Perhaps the law’s authors simply didn’t think about it or did not consider the possibility that most states would refuse.

But, in fact, it is entirely plausible that the ACA’s authors intended to only offer subsidies to residents of states that created exchanges, as an incentive to states to build and run them.

The reasons why Congress wanted the states to run the exchanges are perfectly clear. But, apart from the possibility of losing the subsidies, there seems to be little reason for state governments to take the risk of building one of the notoriously dysfunctional exchanges if they could dump their citizens onto the federal exchange with no consequences.

Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who was involved in the design of the health care law, explicitly claimed that the law’s authors did this on purpose:

If you’re a state and you don’t set up an Exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits. … I hope that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these Exchanges, and that they’ll do it.

On the other hand, the government argued (and Roberts accepted) that the text of the law is ambiguous, and ambiguous phrases should be interpreted “in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme,” the goal of which was to increase health insurance coverage.

Given that, Roberts concludes, we should construe “exchange established by the State” to mean any ACA exchange, whether Federal or State.

Roberts got to this reasoned, methodical, and preposterous conclusion by arguing that the plain meaning of the text would lead to “calamitous results” that Congress meant to avoid. To wit, that only allowing subsidies for plans purchased on state exchanges would cause a “death spiral” in the insurance market in states that refused to establish exchanges.

The ACA reform has three basic components: subsidies for insurance plans, the individual mandate to purchase insurance, and regulations requiring insurers to issue coverage to people with preexisting conditions (“guaranteed issue”) and banning them from charging higher premiums to sicker people (“community rating”).

The “death spiral” logic goes:

  • If states chose not to establish exchanges, their residents would not get subsidies;
  • If they couldn’t get subsidies, many people would be exempt from the insurance mandate;
  • If they were exempt, they could just wait until they got sick to buy insurance;
  • If they did that, insurers would have to accept them, under the guaranteed issue rule;
  • If that happened, the price of insurance would go up for everyone, under community rating;
  • If that happened, more healthy people would drop out of the insurance market, leaving insurers with a pool of ever sicker and more expensive patients (“adverse selection”), thus forcing insurers out of business and leaving even more people without insurance. And so on.

Hence, “death spiral.” In fact, this is exactly what happened in the 1990s in many states with guaranteed issue and community rating, before Massachusetts invented the mandate to force people to buy insurance and keep the pool of insured people relatively healthy.

But in the ACA, the mandate rests on the cost of insurance with subsidies, and (under the plain text of the law) the subsidies rest on the states establishing exchanges. If the subsidies go, fewer people will buy insurance, and the mandate crumbles, leading to a spiral of higher costs and fewer people insured.

Roberts concluded that this risk would have been unacceptable to Congress, arguing: “The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner.”

This perceived implausibility, combined with the alleged ambiguity of the text, caused the Court to rule in favor of the subsidies:

Petitioners’ plain-meaning arguments are strong, but the Act’s context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

The basic problem with Roberts’ decision is that the text isn’t ambiguous. It’s actually pretty clear, as he acknowledged. But the second issue is that Roberts has no strong basis for his speculations about what Congress thought was likely to happen with states or what risks it was willing tolerate.

If the ACA’s authors thought (as almost everyone did) that the states would get with the program and establish their own exchanges, there is no reason that they would have assumed a serious risk of a death spiral. In fact, Gruber suggested that was the plan all along: offer a carrot to the states (the subsidies) and a stick (the risk of screwing up their insurance market).

But more importantly, the “implausible” risk that Roberts bases his interpretation on is precisely what the ACA deliberately did to US territories by imposing guaranteed issue and community rating without an individual mandate.

The DC Circuit Court that ruled against the subsidies last year made exactly this point:

The supposedly unthinkable scenario … one in which insurers in states with federal Exchanges remain subject to the community rating and guaranteed issue requirements but lack a broad base of healthy customers to stabilize prices and avoid adverse selection — is exactly what the ACA enacts in such federal territories as the Northern Mariana Islands, where the Act imposes guaranteed issue and community rating requirements without an individual mandate.

This combination, predictably, has thrown individual insurance markets in the territories into turmoil. But HHS has nevertheless refused to exempt the territories from the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements, recognizing that, “[h]owever meritorious” the reasons for doing so might be, “HHS is not authorized to choose which provisions of the [ACA] might apply to the territories.”

But, it seems, the Supreme Court feels that is authorized to choose what provisions of the ACA should apply, on the grounds that doing so would make better policy, regardless of what the law actually requires.

This is essentially what Roberts did in the previous Obamacare ruling, in which he rewrote the individual mandate and the Medicaid portions of the law in order to make them pass constitutional muster.

In his scathing dissent, Justice Scalia noted,

Having transformed two major parts of the law, the Court today has turned its attention to a third. The Act that Congress passed makes tax credits available only on an “Exchange established by the State.”

This Court, however, concludes that this limitation would prevent the rest of the Act from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law to make tax credits available everywhere. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.

… This Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. The somersaults of statutory interpretation they have performed (“penalty” means tax, “further [Medicaid] payments to the State” means only incremental Medicaid payments to the State, “established by the State” means not established by the State) will be cited by litigants endlessly, to the confusion of honest jurisprudence.

This decision is not disastrous because it “saved” Obamacare — it did no such thing: The Court gutted the law and let the Obama administration stuff it with whatever policy it thought best.

No, the ruling is a catastrophe because it establishes the principle that the president can unilaterally override the plain meaning of the law whenever he or she thinks that doing so will lead to a better outcome, one more in keeping with his or her policy goals.

As is often the case with elaborate government programs, things didn’t turn out the way that the planners expected. And, once again, the Supreme Court allowed the government to skate around both the Affordable Care Act and the law of unintended consequences.

This decision sanctifies the administration’s decision to defy Congress, circumvent the states, and flout the law. And as the authors of Obamacare knew, if you subsidize something, you’ll get more of it. Expect this ruling to stimulate more sloppy legislation, executive overreach, and subversion of the rule of law.


Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

Nevada Passes Universal School Choice by Max Borders

People are becoming more conscious about animal welfare. The livestock, they say, shouldn’t be confined to factory farms — five by five — in such horrible conditions. These beings should be given more freedom to roam and to develop in a more natural way. They’re treated as mere chattel for the assembly line. It’s inhumane to keep them like this, they say — day after day, often in deplorable conditions.

Unfortunately, only a minority extends this kind of consciousness to human children. But that minority is growing, apparently.

Nevada is changing everything. According to the NRO,

Nevada governor Brian Sandoval [recently] signed into law the nation’s first universal school-choice program. That in and of itself is groundbreaking: The state has created an option open to every single public-school student.

Even better, this option improves upon the traditional voucher model, coming in the form of an education savings account (ESA) that parents control and can use to fully customize their children’s education.

Yes, school choice has often advanced through the introduction of vouchers and charter schools — which remain some of the most important reforms for breaking up the government education monopoly.

But vouchers were, to quote researcher Matthew Ladner, “the rotary telephones of our movement — an awesome technology that did one amazing thing.” States such as Nevada (and Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee) have implemented the iPhone of choice programs. They “still do that one thing well, but they also do a lot of other things,” Ladner notes.

So what’s the deal? What do parents and kids actually get out of this?

As of next year, parents in Nevada can have 90 percent (100 percent for children with special needs and children from low-income families) of the funds that would have been spent on their child in their public school deposited into a restricted-use spending account. That amounts to between $5,100 and $5,700 annually, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Those funds are deposited quarterly onto a debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and products — things such as private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services and therapies, books, tutors, and dual-enrollment college courses.

It’s an à la carte education, and the menu of options will be as hearty as the supply-side response — which, as it is whenever markets replace monopolies, is likely to be robust.

This is big news. Not merely because it is the most ambitious school choice measure yet passed, but also because it represents a very real opportunity to demonstrate the power of competitive forces to unleash entrepreneurship and innovation in the service of children.

When we compare such a bold measure to the status quo, it’s pretty groundbreaking. So it’s probably not the time to quibble about the ideological purity of such a policy.

But we should seriously consider the concerns of those who advocate full privatization, as opposed to tax and voucher reform.

Here are three things to keep an eye on:

  1. Nevadans have to remain vigilant that this doesn’t become an entree for regulators and incumbent crony schools to jack up the prices and mute the very market forces that will liberate teachers and kids.
    In other words, you don’t want to see what happened to health care (and, to some extent, higher education) happen to private education, just as low-income students finally have a chance to escape government-run schools.
  2. Nevadans have to ensure that cost spirals don’t infect the system due to cross-subsidy. This is what happened to the university system.
  3. Nevadans have to capitalize on the wiggle room quickly, by fundamentally disrupting the education market in such a profound way that it wards off the specter of those who are waiting to seize it back from parents and children.
    This can have spillover effects into other states, too, due to innovation and copycat entrepreneurship. (It might also attract a lot of parents to the state.)

Such alterations to the status quo should be welcome news to those who understand that freedom is not some ideal sitting atop Mt. Utopia.

This is a weak joint and a leverage point to unleash creative, tech-propelled market forces in a space that has been dominated by politics and unions and stifling bureaucracy.

There will be battles ahead on this front. But Nevada’s change is certainly cause for cautious celebration.


Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Kelo: Politicians Stole Her Home for Private Developers and Started a Legal War by Ilya Somin

Most of my new book, The Grasping Handfocuses on the broader legal and political issues raised by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. City of New London.

As explained in the first post in this series, I wrote the book primarily to address these big-picture issues.

But the story of how such a momentous case arose from unlikely origins is interesting in its own right.

The case originated with a development project in the Fort Trumbull area of New London, a small city in Connecticut. The neighborhood had fallen on difficult economic times in the 1990s after the closure of a naval research facility.

City officials and others hoped to revitalize it. The administration of Republican Governor John Rowland hoped to expand his political base by promoting development in New London; but to avoid having to work directly through the heavily Democratic city government, they helped resuscitate the long-moribund New London Development Corporation, a private nonprofit organization established to aid the city with development planning.

The NLDC produced a development plan that would revitalize Fort Trumbull by building housing, office space, and other facilities that would support a new headquarters that Pfizer, Inc. – a major pharmaceutical firm – had agreed to build nearby.

The development plan produced by the NLDC was in large part based on Pfizer’s requirements, which NLDC leaders (some of whom had close ties to Pfizer) were eager to meet. Pfizer would not be the new owner of the redeveloped land, but did expect to benefit from it.

I believe that NLDC leaders genuinely thought the plan would serve the public interest, as did the city and state officials who supported it. But it is also true, as one of those who worked on the plan put it, that Pfizer was the “10,000-pound gorilla” behind the project.

In order to implement the plan, the NLDC sought to acquire land belonging to some ninety different Fort Trumbull property owners.

In 2000, the New London city council authorized the NLDC to use eminent domain to condemn the land of those who refused to sell. Some defenders of the takings emphasize that all but seven of the owners sold “voluntarily.”

But as New London’s counsel Wesley Horton noted in oral argument before the Supreme Court, many did so because there was “always in the background the possibility of being able to condemn… that obviously facilitates a lot of voluntary sales.”

Moreover, owners who were reluctant to sell were subjected to considerable harassment, such as late night phone calls, dumping of waste on their property, and locking out tenants during cold winter weather.

Seven individuals and families, who between them owned fifteen residential properties, refused to sell despite the pressure. One was Susette Kelo, who wanted to hold on to her “little pink house” near the waterfront.

Some of the other families involved had deep roots in the community and did not want to be forced out. Wilhelmina Dery, who was in her eighties, had lived in the same house her whole life, and wished to continue living there during the time left to her.

The Cristofaro family were also strongly attached to their property, which they had purchased in the 1970s after their previous home had been condemned as part of an urban renewal project.

Susette Kelo’s famous “little pink house” in 2004 (photo by Isaac Reese)The resisting property owners tried to use the political process to prevent the takings. They managed to attract the support of a wide range of people in the community, including many on the political left who believed that it was wrong to forcibly expel people from their homes in order to promote commercial development.

But the Coalition to Save Fort Trumbull organized by the resisters and their allies had little, if any, hope of prevailing against the vastly more powerful forces arrayed against them.

The owners also tried to hire lawyers to fight the taking in court. But the lawyers they approached told them that there was little chance of success, and that – in any event – they could not afford the necessary prolonged legal battle.

The owners would almost certainly have had to capitulate, if not for the intervention of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. IJ had long been interested in promoting stronger judicial enforcement of “public use” limitations on takings, and one of the members of the Coalition reached out for help.

As IJ lawyer Scott Bullock put it, the Fort Trumbull situation was an “ideal public interest case” for the Institute. Legally, the case was a good one because the city did not claim that the property in question was “blighted” or otherwise causing harm, thereby making it harder to prove that condemnation would genuinely benefit the public.

The case also featured sympathetic plaintiffs who were determined to fight for their rights. That made it likely that it would play well in the court of public opinion, and that it would not be settled before it could lead to a precedent-setting decision.

IJ hoped to achieve a ruling holding that takings that transfer property from one private individual to another for “economic development” do not serve a genuine “public use” and are therefore unconstitutional.

Thanks to IJ’s pro bono legal representation, the case went to trial. In 2002, a Connecticut trial court invalidated the condemnation of 11 of the 15 properties because the city and the NLDC did not have a clear enough plan of what they intended to do with the land.

Both sides appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which upheld all fifteen takings in a close 4-3 decision. The majority ruled that almost any public benefit counts as a “public use” under the state and federal constitutions, and that courts must generally defer to government planners.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Peter Zarella argued that “the constitutionality of condemnations undertaken for the purpose of private economic development depends not only on the professed goals of the development plan, but also on the prospect of their achievement.”

Presciently, he warned, “The record contains scant evidence to suggest that the predicted public benefit will be realized with any reasonable certainty,” and that it was “impossible to determine whether future development of the area… will even benefit the public at all.”

At this point, most legal commentators (myself included) believed that the case was almost certainly over. Few thought that the federal Supreme Court was going to take a public use case.

Supreme Court precedent dating back to 1954 held that virtually any possible public benefit counts as a public use, and the Court had unanimously reaffirmed that view in 1984. Most experts thought that the debate over the meaning of “public use” had been definitively settled.

But Scott Bullock and Dana Berliner – the IJ lawyers who represented the property owners – thought the conventional wisdom was wrong. And they were vindicated when the Supreme Court unexpectedly agreed to take the case. At that point, much new national media attention was focused on the New London condemnations.

Property law experts were well aware that longstanding Supreme Court precedent permitted the government to take property for almost any reason. But very few members of the general public knew that. Many ordinary Americans were shocked to learn a city could condemn homes and small businesses in order to promote private development – a reality they were unaware of until the publicity surrounding Kelo drove it home to them.

The Supreme Court upheld the takings in a 5-4 ruling. But the resulting controversy created a major political backlash and shattered the seeming consensus in favor of a broad approach to public use.

As for the City of New London, Justice Zarella and other skeptics turned out to be right. The NLDC’s flawed development plan fell through, as did a number of later efforts. Richard Palmer, one of the state supreme court justices who voted with the majority, later apologized to Susette Kelo, telling her he “would have voted differently” had he known what would happen.

Today, the condemned land still lies empty, though city officials now plan to build a memorial park honoring the victims of eminent domain, on the former site of Susette Kelo’s house.

The former site of Susette Kelo’s house – May 2014 (photo by Ilya Somin)

In the meantime, feral cats have been using the property. So far, at least, they have been the main local beneficiaries of the takings.

Feral cat near the former site of the Kelo house – March 2011 (photo by Jackson Kuhl)

(I should point out that the events in New London leading up to the Supreme Court case are the subject of an excellent earlier book by journalist Jeff Benedict. My book primarily focuses on the broader legal and policy issues raised by the Kelo case, which Benedict touched on only briefly. But I also cover the origins of the case in Chapter 1, and post-decision developments in New London in the conclusion.)

This post first appeared on the Volokh Conspiracy, where Ilya Somin is a frequent blogger.

You can buy The Grasping Hand on Amazon here.


Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. He blogs at the Volokh Conspiracy.

How Government Turned Baltimore into Pottersville by James Bovard

Baltimore’s recent riots are not surprising in a city that has long been plagued by both police brutality and one of the nation’s highest murder rates. Though numerous government policies and the rampaging looters deserve blame for the carnage, federal housing subsidies have long destabilized Baltimore neighborhoods and helped create a culture of violence with impunity.

Yet just last week, Baltimore officials were in Washington asking for more. Given the history, it defies understanding.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was created in 1965, and Baltimore received massive subsidies to build housing projects in the following years. Baltimore’s projects, like those in many other cities, became cornucopias of crime.

One 202-unit sprawling Baltimore subsidized housing project (recently slated for razing) is known as “Murder Mall.” A 1979 HUD report noted that the robbery rate in one Baltimore public housing project was almost 20 times higher than the national average. The area in and around public housing often becomes “the territory of those who do not have to be afraid — the criminals,” the report said. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke in 1993 blamed maintenance problems at one public housing projects on drug dealers who refused to let city workers enter the buildings.

In the 1990s, the Baltimore Housing Authority began collecting lavish HUD subsidies to demolish public housing projects. But critics complained that HUD was merely replacing “vertical ghettos with horizontal ones.” Baltimore was among the first cities targeted for using Section 8 vouchers to disperse public housing residents.

HUD and the city housing agency presumed that simply moving people out of the projects was all that was necessary to end the criminal behavior of the residents. Baltimore was one of five cities chosen for a HUD demonstration project — Moving to Opportunity (MTO) — to show how Section 8 could solve the problems of the underclass.

But the relocations had “tripled the rate of arrests for property crimes” among boys who moved to new locales via Section 8. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that boys in Section 8 households who moved to new neighborhoods were three times more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and behavioral problems than boys in the control group.

A 2009 research project on Section 8 published in Homicide Studies noted that in the one city studied, “Crime, specifically homicide, became displaced to where the low-income residents were relocated. Homicide was simply moved to a new location, not eliminated.”

Ed Rutkowski, head of a community development corporation in one marginal Baltimore neighborhood, labeled Section 8 “a catalyst in neighborhood deterioration and ghetto expansion” in 2003.

Regardless of its collateral damage, Section 8 defines Valhalla for many Baltimoreans. Receiving a Section 8 voucher can enable some recipients to live rent-free in perpetuity. Because recipients must pay up to a third of their income for rent under the program, collecting Section 8 sharply decreases work effort, according to numerous economic studies.

Last October, when the local housing agency briefly allowed people to register for the program, it was deluged with 73,509 applications. Most of the applications were from families — which means that a third of Baltimore’s 241,455 households sought housing welfare. (Almost 10% of Baltimoreans are already on the housing dole.) Section 8 is not an entitlement, so the city will select fewer than 10,000“winners” from the list.

HUD’s Federal Housing Administration also has a long history of destabilizing neighborhoods in Baltimore and other big cities. A HUD subsidized mortgage program for low-income borrowers launched in 1968 spurred so many defaults and devastation that Carl Levin, then Detroit City Council president and later a long-term U.S. senator, derided the program in 1976 as “Hurricane HUD.

In the late 1990s, more than 20% of FHA mortgages in some Baltimore neighborhoods were in default — leading one activist to label Baltimore “the foreclosure capital of the world.” HUD Inspector General Susan Gaffney warned in 2000: “Vacant, boarded-up HUD-owned homes have a negative effect on neighborhoods, and the negative effect magnifies the longer the properties remain in HUD’s inventory.”

The feds continued massive negligent mortgage lending in Baltimore after that crisis, creating fresh havoc in recent years. In late 2013, more than 40% of homes in the low-income Carrollton Ridge neighborhood were underwater. Reckless subsidized lending in Baltimore and other low-income areas helped saddle Maryland with the highest foreclosure rate in the nation by the end of last year. One in every 435 housing units in Baltimore was in foreclosure last October, according to RealtyTrac.

President Obama said the Baltimore riots showed the need for new “massive investments in urban communities.” What Baltimore needs is an investment in new thinking. The highest property taxes in the state and oppressive local regulation often make investing in jobs and businesses in Baltimore unprofitable. Only fixing that will produce a stable community. Shoveling more federal money into the city is the triumph of hope over experience.

James Bovard

James Bovard is the author of Public Policy Hooligan. His work has appeared in USA Today, where this article was first published.

Health Insurance Is Illegal by Warren C. Gibson

Health insurance is a crime. No, I’m not using a metaphor. I’m not saying it’s a mess, though it certainly is that. I’m saying it’s illegal to offer real health insurance in America. To see why, we need to understand what real insurance is and differentiate that from what we currently have.

Real insurance

Life is risky. When we pool our risks with others through insurance policies, we reduce the financial impact of unforeseen accidents or illness or premature death in return for a premium we willingly pay. I don’t regret the money I’ve spent on auto insurance during my first 55 years of driving, even though I’ve yet to file a claim.

Insurance originated among affinity groups such as churches or labor unions, but now most insurance is provided by large firms with economies of scale, some organized for profit and some not. Through trial and error, these companies have learned to reduce the problems of adverse selection and moral hazard to manageable levels.

A key word above is unforeseen.

If some circumstance is known, it’s not a risk and therefore cannot be the subject of genuine risk-pooling insurance. That’s why, prior to Obamacare, some insurance companies insisted that applicants share information about their physical condition. Those with preexisting conditions were turned down, invited to high-risk pools, or offered policies with higher premiums and higher deductibles.

Insurers are now forbidden to reject applicants due to preexisting conditions or to charge them higher rates.

They are also forbidden from charging different rates due to different health conditions — and from offering plans that exclude certain coverage items, many of which are not “unforeseen.”

In other words, it’s illegal to offer real health insurance.

Word games

Is all this just semantics? Not at all. What currently passes for health insurance in America is really just prepaid health care — on a kind of all-you-can-consume buffet card. The system is a series of cost-shifting schemes stitched together by various special interests. There is no price transparency. The resulting overconsumption makes premiums skyrocket, and health resources get misallocated relative to genuine wants and needs.

Lessons

Some lessons here are that genuine health insurance would offer enormous cost savings to ordinary people — and genuine benefits to policyholders. These plans would encourage thrift and consumer wisdom in health care planning,  while discouraging the overconsumption that makes prepaid health care unaffordable.

At this point, critics will object that private health insurance is a market failure because the refusal of unregulated private companies to insure preexisting conditions is a serious problem that can only be remedied by government coercion. The trouble with such claims is that no one knows what a real health insurance market would generate, particularly as the pre-Obamacare regime wasn’t anything close to being free.

What might a real, free-market health plan look like?

  • People would be able to buy less expensive plans from anywhere, particularly across state lines.
  • People would be able to buy catastrophic plans (real insurance) and set aside much more in tax-deferred medical savings accounts to use on out-of-pocket care.
  • People would very likely be able to buy noncancelable, portable policies to cover all unforeseen illnesses over the policyholder’s lifetime.
  • People would be able to leave costly coverage items off their policies — such as chiropractic or mental health — so that they could enjoy more affordable premiums.
  • People would not be encouraged by the tax code to get insurance through their employer.

What about babies born with serious conditions? Parents could buy policies to cover such problems prior to conception. What about parents whose genes predispose them to produce disabled offspring? They might have to pay more.

Of course, there will always be those who cannot or do not, for one reason or another, take such precautions. There is still a huge reservoir of charitable impulses and institutions in this country that could offer assistance. And these civil society organizations would be far more robust in a freer health care market.

The enemy of the good

Are these perfect solutions? By no means. Perfection is not possible, but market solutions compare very favorably to government solutions, especially over longer periods. Obamacare will continue to bring us unaccountable bureaucracies, shortages, rationing, discouraged doctors, and more.

Some imagine that prior to Obamacare, we had a free-market health insurance system, but the system was already severely hobbled by restrictions.

To name a few:

  • It was illegal to offer policies across state lines, which suppressed choices and increased prices, essentially cartelizing health insurance by state.
  • Employers were (and still are) given a tax break for providing health insurance (but not auto insurance) to their employees, reducing the incentive for covered employees to economize on health care while driving up prices for individual buyers. People stayed locked in jobs out of fear of losing health policies.
  • State regulators forbade policies that excluded certain coverage items, even if policyholders were amenable to such plans.
  • Many states made it illegal to price discriminate based on health status.
  • The law forbade associated health plans, which would allow organizations like churches or civic groups to pool risk and offer alternatives.
  • Medicaid and Medicare made up half of the health care system.

Of course, Obamacare fixed none of these problems.

Many voices are calling for the repeal of Obamacare, but few of those voices are offering the only solution that will work in the long term: complete separation of state and health care. That means no insurance regulation, no medical licensing, and ultimately, the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid, which threaten to wash future federal budgets in a sea of red ink.

Meanwhile, anything resembling real health insurance is illegal. And if you tried to offer it, they might throw you in jail.

Warren C. Gibson

Warren Gibson teaches engineering at Santa Clara University and economics at San Jose State University.