Archive | Economy

More on California Tax-Services Model – William Voegeli Responds to Comments

Last week I blogged about a very interesting article in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal by Claremont Review of Books contributing editor William Voegeli titled “The Big-Spending, High-Taxing, Lousy Services Paradigm” (Autumn 2009).  It compared the tax-services models of California and Texas.  VC commenters were spirited as ever and raised a number of important questions.

Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting William Voegeli, I took the liberty of contacting him through the Claremont Institute and asked if he might have any additional thoughts for us, particularly responding to VC commenters.  Mr. Voegeli was kind enough to say yes, and has sent along the following response, below.  Let me add, on behalf of the VC community, myself as well as readers and commenters, our great thanks for engaging with us.  And let me add to the VC commenting community, that in the spirit of the original article, you might call Volokh Conspiracy a … Low-Taxing, High-Services blog!  Mr. Voegeli:

Dear Prof. Anderson:

Thank you for bringing my City Journal article ( on California and Texas to the attention of the Volokh conspirators, and for your generous and thoughtful analysis ( of the piece.  Your post elicited many . . . spirited comments.  It would be cumbersome to address them individually, but I can offer a few points that speak to some of the general questions your readers brought up.

My essay argues that it’s not enough to look at how much states and localities spend because how well they spend is very important.  I understand several people in the comments section to be saying that this principle applies to the tax side of the equation, too.  Thus, California’s problem is not so much that it is a high-tax state but, as one commenter says, that

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The California versus Texas Model, and Public Choice

William Voegeli, a contributing editor at The Claremont Review of Books, has an excellent essay in Manhattan Journal comparing the economic performance of California and Texas.  (I believe a short opinion page version appeared recently in the LAT.)  Among other things, the article provides a good example for how a public choice analysis can be applied to show, in this case, capture of public revenues and the process of increasing public revenues by public employees in California.

The most interesting feature of the article, however, is that it does not start out from a position of hostility toward California and its high tax model.  On the contrary, it says that there is a tradeoff that different people will make differently with respect to high tax/ high public services jurisdictions and low tax/ low public services jurisdictions.  There is a perfectly good argument for the former as well as for the latter.

It’s true that many people are less sensitive to taxes and more concerned about public goods, and these consumer-voters will congregate in places with extensive services. But it’s also true, all things being equal, that everyone would rather pay lower than higher taxes. The high-benefit, high-tax model can work, but only if the high taxes actually purchase high benefits—that is, public goods that far surpass the quality of those available to people who pay low taxes.

I grew up in California and despite my Upper Upper NW DC address, will always count myself a Californian, product of its public schools and a proud graduate of UCLA.  I was a beneficiary of the high tax/ high benefits model, and gravitate toward it.  The problem, as Voegeli documents, is two fold.  First, California is today a high tax/ low benefits model, while Texas, even with relatively low taxes, has managed remarkably [...]

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Textbook Suggestions for IL Law & Econ Elective?

I’ve been asked to step in and teach a 1L elective course on law and economics this spring, covering for a colleague who has taken a high level economics post in the administration.  I have to pick a textbook very soon.  The course is for second semester 1Ls, and my goal is to attract 1Ls who did not major in business or economics as undergrads, and make it comprehensible to them.

That means that I don’t want it to be super-math heavy.  It also needs to focus around the 1L courses that they’ve been taking – antitrust and IP and my own corporate finance won’t work, because they come in later years, and so it needs to focus around contracts, tort, property, criminal law.  In addition, it is only a two unit, once a week class, so it can’t cover vast swathes of material, and in fact very far from it.  I’ve never taught the basic, intro law and econ class before, and I’ve never taught 1Ls, so it should be an exciting pedagogical experience – for me, at least!  I’d be grateful for suggestions in two categories:

  • Main text – please tell me why this would be a useful textbook, given my constraints above.
  • Supplemental texts, such as short introductions on game theory, statistics, supplemental readings on law and econ, etc., but specifically with law students in mind.
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A New Soros Initiative on the Economics Profession?

Michael Hersh describes a new $50 million George Soros initative to try and remake the economics profession so to reclaim it from “free market fundamentalists.”  The fund will be run by Robert Johnson, formerly a managing director of Soros Fund Management; it hopes to raise $200 million in matching funds.  (H/T Instapundit; also Mark N is right in the first comment to raise Cato as a better point of comparison in the (lengthy) discussion below the fold.)

Large swaths of economics are going to have to be rethought on the basis of what’s happened.” So said Larry Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, in an interview in the weeks after the markets crashed a year ago. Yet to a remarkable degree, economic thinking hasn’t changed very much at all.

Now financier George Soros is announcing a $50 million effort to speed things along. This week Soros is gathering some of the leading practitioners of the market-skeptic school, who were marginalized during the era of “free-market fundamentalism,” among them Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Sir James Mirrlees. He’s also creating an “Institute for New Economic Thinking” to make research grants, convene symposiums, and establish a journal, all in an effort to take back the economics profession from the champions of free-market zealotry who have dominated it for decades, and to correct the failures of decades of market deregulation. Soros hopes matching funds will bring the total endowment up to $200 million. “Economics has failed not only to predict and explain what happened but has also failed to protect society,” says Robert Johnson, a former managing director at Soros Fund Management, who will direct the new institute. “That’s what the crisis revealed. The paradigm has failed. There is no guidance.”

I am curious what professional and academic economists [...]

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Bloggers agree: Congress ethics weak; public option likely. Disagree on nukes in cap/trade, and on 2d stimulus

Last week’s National Journal poll of political bloggers asked Left/Right bloggers “Are [Democratic/Republican] leaders doing enough to police congressional ethics enforcement in their ranks?”  On the Left, 56% said the Democrats were not doing enough, and 60% of the Right said Republicans were not doing enough. I was among the “no” votes for Republicans, writing that “They have fewer opportunities for corruption now that they’re the minority, but I don’t see any evidence of a fundamental change in self-policing.”

Question 2 asked “Could you see yourself supporting a cap-and-trade bill if it included significant incentives for nuclear energy?” On the Left, 61% said yes. On the Right, I was the only one who said yes. I reasoned, “The last 10 years of real-world climate data have shown that the professional hysterics and their predictions are wrong. However, the last 10 years have also demonstrated the growing dangers of U.S. energy dependence on dictatorships like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. So it’s possible (but unlikely) that a C&T bill with a strong nuclear energy component might significantly reduce U.S. dependence on dictators’ oil, and therefore be worth supporting for national security reasons.” I do realize the nukes in themselves are not the answer to foreign oil dependence, since only a small percentage of our electricity comes from imported oil. But it’s still possible (albeit very unlikely) that a C&T bill could do a great deal to reduce American dependence on dictator oil.

The October 9 poll (which I didn’t post about at the time) asked, “If major health care legislation clears Congress this year, will it include a public option?” Seventy-two percent of the Left and 57% of the right said it would. I was in the majority: “”If one presumes that the bill will pass, near-unanimous support will be needed from [...]

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McDonald’s Out of Iceland

Just when you thought the global financial crisis was subsiding, with returns to growth in most leading economies, including the US, Europe, China, etc., we have a counter-indicator.  The Financial Times reports today that McDonald’s is closing its three outlets in Iceland, citing the difficult economic environment:

Iceland edged further towards the margins of the global economy on Monday whenMcDonald’s announced the closure of its three restaurants in the crisis-hit country and said that it had no plans to return.

The move will see Iceland, one of the world’s wealthiest nations per capita until the collapse of its banking sector last year, join Albania, Armenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in a small band of European countries without a McDonald’s.

The FT gives some background on why the environment for selling Big Macs in Iceland is so difficult:

McDonald’s blamed the closures on the “very challenging economic climate” and the “unique operational complexity” of doing business in an island nation of just 300,000 people on the edge of the Arctic Circle.  Most ingredients used by McDonald’s in Iceland are imported from Germany – leading to a doubling in costs as the krona has collapsed while the euro has strengthened.

The FT cites the Big Mac index, a purchasing power parity index for comparing the valuations of currencies based on the comparative price of a single, uniform basket of goods, in this case a Big Mac, drink, and fries (as I recall).  The Economist dreamed it up as whimsy many years ago, but it has proved oddly robust at least for certain comparisons:

Magnus Ogmundsson, managing director of Lyst, the McDonald’s franchise holder in Iceland, said that price rises of at least 20 per cent were needed to produce an acceptable profit. That would have pushed the price of a Big

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Market Discipline? What Market Discipline?

The New York Times reports that Congress and the administration might soon reach some kind of view on legislation for addressing “too big to fail” institutions.  Off the table is Paul Volker’s proposal to re-establish some line between commercial banking and proprietary trading – some updated Glass-Steagall demarcation.  On the table is the Treasury’s proposal to designate various institutions as “too big to fail” in various degrees and subject them to greater capital requirements, limits on risk-taking, and in addition require a so-called “living will” that would make clear how to disentangle these institutions from others in a crisis.  I think the “living will” idea is not a bad one on its own, as long as we all understand the limits of what it gets you.

Much, much more puzzling to me is this description in the Times, quoting Michael S. Barr, assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions (italics added to show the quote):

The White House plan as outlined so far would already make it much more costly to be a large financial company whose failure would put the financial system and the economy at risk. It would force such institutions to hold more money in reserve and make it harder for them to borrow too heavily against their assets.

Setting up the equivalent of living wills for corporations, that plan would require that they come up with their own procedure to be disentangled in the event of a crisis, a plan that administration officials say ought to be made public in advance.

“These changes will impose market discipline on the largest and most interconnected companies,” said Michael S. Barr, assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions. One of the biggest changes the plan would make, he said, is that instead of being controlled by creditors, the process is controlled

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Dividing Financial Institutions into Utilities and Casinos?

One proposal for addressing too big to fail, or to systemically interconnected to fail, among financial institutions is to separate out the proprietary trading and other “casino” activities from the “utilities” business of commercial banking with the public.  In some ways (not all) it is a revival of the Glass-Steagall approach.  Paul Volker has urged such a policy, as have others.  The Obama administration has not so far shown any appetite for such it, preferring, in its Treasury blueprint for reform, to allow the functional interconnections within holding company structures, and identifying institutions that are regarded as too big or too systemically interconnected to fail and apply “regulation and last resort lending” to apply to them.

Something like the same debate is taking place in Britain, and the Financial Times’s Martin Wolf makes a comment on why one could see the functional separation desirable, but also why it is hard to do and hard to ensure that it actually reduces the systemic risk.  In response to a recent speech by Mervyn King of the Bank of England calling to separate out the “casinos” from the “utilities,” Wolf says:

it is evident why this distinction is appealing. If we define the utility parts of the financial system narrowly, as management of the payment system, it works like clockwork. It is in the management of risk (and the advice given to its clients) that the financial system fails. The limited liability businesses at the heart of our credit-based monetary system have a tendency to mismanage risk (and uncertainty), with devastating results.

However, he ultimately says that he is unpersuaded that a modernized form of Glass-Steagall can work as a structural solution to systemic risk:

Yet I remain unpersuaded that the structural solution – the separation of utility from casino finance – is

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Professor Volokh, Was Your Job Saved by the Stimulus?

Interesting article in the Financial Times (Thursday, October 22, 2009) by Sarah O’Connor, “Colleges confused over which jobs have been saved by the extra cash.”  Marcia Smith, associate vice-chancellor for research administration at UCLA, who leads a UCLA administrative team handling its stimulus awards

received guidance from the UC Office of the President saying she should include everyone paid by stimulus dollars, including tenured faculty members.  She was surprised, given that this appeared to clash with the government’s definition of a “retained” job as “an existing position that would not have been continued were it not for [stimulus] funding”.  But it did avoid a very sticky problem: how can you know for sure whether a job would have disappeared were it not for stimulus money?

If you were a tenured professor who happened to receive stimulus dollars as part of work on some research project, then your job, on this guidance, was counted as “created or saved.” Many universities, says the article, are “including tenured academics in their ‘jobs created and saved’ numbers even though their jobs were already guaranteed for life.”

While “many universities,” according to the article, including UCLA, simply decided to count everyone who is paid through a stimulus grant, in accordance with the formula, others “have excluded tenured academics from their data, after taking legal advice, amid what they say was a lack of clarity from the government on how to deal with the issue.” [...]

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Cash for Golf Carts

At least one group of needy Americans is getting timely government assistance during this recession – golf cart purchasers:

We thought cash for clunkers was the ultimate waste of taxpayer money, but as usual we were too optimistic. Thanks to the federal tax credit to buy high-mileage cars that was part of President Obama’s stimulus plan, Uncle Sam is now paying Americans to buy that great necessity of modern life, the golf cart.

The federal credit provides from $4,200 to $5,500 for the purchase of an electric vehicle, and when it is combined with similar incentive plans in many states the tax credits can pay for nearly the entire cost of a golf cart. Even in states that don’t have their own tax rebate plans, the federal credit is generous enough to pay for half or even two-thirds of the average sticker price of a cart, which is typically in the range of $8,000 to $10,000. “The purchase of some models could be absolutely free,” Roger Gaddis of Ada Electric Cars in Oklahoma said earlier this year. “Is that about the coolest thing you’ve ever heard?”

The golf-cart boom has followed an IRS ruling that golf carts qualify for the electric-car credit as long as they are also road worthy. These qualifying golf carts are essentially the same as normal golf carts save for adding some safety features, such as side and rearview mirrors and three-point seat belts. They typically can go 15 to 25 miles per hour.

The golf cart subsidies are a small but telling example of how interest groups can exploit the growth of government during crises for their own benefit, an issue I discussed in this series of posts, which also notes other dangers created by the expansion of government power in a crisis [...]

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The Rise and Fall of Supply-Side Economics

Bruce Bartlett explains his new new book, The New American Economy, and why he thinks supply-side economics should declare victory and go away before it causes any more problems.

The supply-siders are to a large extent responsible for this mess, myself included. We opened Pandora’s Box when we got the Republican Party to abandon the balanced budget as its signature economic policy and adopt tax cuts as its raison d’être. In particular, the idea that tax cuts will “starve the beast” and automatically shrink the size of government is extremely pernicious.

Indeed, by destroying the balanced budget constraint, starve-the-beast theory actually opened the flood gates of spending. As I explained in a recent column, a key reason why deficits restrained spending in the past is because they led to politically unpopular tax increases. But if, as Republicans now maintain, taxes must never be increased at any time for any reason then there is never any political cost to raising spending and cutting taxes at the same time, as the Bush 43 administration and a Republican Congress did year after year.

My book is an effort to close Pandora’s Box and explain to people why I believe that SSE should go out of business–or declare victory and go home, if that makes the idea easier to accept. To the extent that it has any valid insights left to inform policymaking they should be used to design a tax system capable of raising considerably more revenue at the least possible economic cost. Going forward, I believe that financing an aging society and a permanent welfare state is the biggest economic problem we face. (See my discussion here.) Failure to do so leads straight back to the stagflation that SSE came into existence to cope with. . . .


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Elinor Ostrom and the Tragedy of the Commons

I was very happy to hear about Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Her work focuses on the tragedy of the commons and collective action problems, which overlaps several of my own research interests. When Ostrom began writing in this field in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom in economics and political science was that the tragedy of the commons and other similar collective action problems could only be addressed through government intervention. Some dissenting economists (such as Ronald Coase) argued that they could often be addressed through privatization – converting common property into property owned by individuals, who would then have strong incentives not to overuse or destroy it. In a series of influential articles and books, Ostrom showed that there is a third way: often individuals can use social norms and informal institutions to manage common property resources and prevent tragedies of the commons. In many situations, Ostrom demonstrates, informal, decentralized approaches to managing common property resources are superior to government-imposed ones. The former take more account of the specialized local knowledge possessed by the people who actually use the resources and depend on them for their livelihoods.

For the best summary of Ostrom’s work, see her excellent 1990 book Governing the Commons.

Ostrom’s theories are often seen as an alternative to traditional libertarian thought, which emphasizes the importance of private property and markets. However, it actually fits well with libertarianism defined more broadly as advocacy of the superiority of private sector institutions over government. In some respects, Ostrom’s norm-based approach to dealing with tragedies of the commons is actually less dependent on government than the more traditional libertarian approach of relying on exclusive private property rights. The latter, after all, often depend on enforcement by government. Even where private property rights exist, it is often easier [...]

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A Transaction Tax on Financial Transactions?

The Wall Street Journal has a new story from over the weekend on Democratic proposals, in Congress and the administration and from outside groups, to impose a tax on financial transactions (John D. McKinnon, Democrats Weigh Tax on Financial Transactions, WSJ, October 10, 2009):

Taxing financial transactions on Wall Street is gathering support in high places.

With federal budget deficits soaring, policy makers and other advocates are eyeing the huge sums that could be raised as a way to cover the costs of new initiatives.

Labor unions, in particular the AFL-CIO, have proposed a financial-transactions tax as a way to defray costs of a health-care overhaul. Lawmakers have discussed a similar fee as a way to cover the cost of future financial oversight. Liberal advocates are pushing the tax to pay for new stimulus spending.

Financial transactions taxes, whether on the US domestic level or the often-proposed international “Tobin tax,” are sometimes described simply as broad based revenue raisers, and sometimes described as ways of deliberately slowing down the movement and flow of capital.  As a revenue raiser, one current proposal operates this way:

This week, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute floated the idea of a national transaction tax that would raise $100 billion to $150 billion a year. The tax, at a rate of 0.1% to 0.25% of the value of the trade, would be levied on all financial transactions such as stock trades, but not on consumer transactions such as with credit cards.

The money would be used initially to pay for temporary aid to states, hiring incentives for public- and private-sector employers and school construction money.

“We are in a difficult time right now, so people are looking at every opportunity to gain some revenue to fund” new initiatives, said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D., Mass.), a

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Jobs Increase in Canada, Drop in US

Unlike in the US, employment is rising in Canada (as it is in Australia).

It is hard to tell whether this difference is mainly because Canada benefits disproportionately from natural resources (and from its willingness to make use of them) or because the US’s stimulus program is damaging the long-term health of the US economy — or whether there is some other reason. [...]

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Proposing New Law School Finance Courses – Bleg

I’m considering submitting two new course proposals to our curriculum committee at our law school here in DC.  I’d be grateful for your pedagogical advice.

One would be a reading-research seminar in law and economics on the current state of debate over the Efficient Market Hypothesis.  I imagine we would read some standard economics articles and material running back over the last few decades, including classics like A Random Walk Down Wall Street, but also a couple of recent books on the debate, including Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market, and perhaps Dick Posner’s book, among other things.   One specifically law school connection would be to help students understand how the theory underpins much regulation, how courts view cases, many parts of the law itself.

The second class would be on financial derivatives, considered as contracts.  We already have a class on derivative regulation at my school – this would be a class specifically on the contracts themselves, and the economic context in which the derivatives are used.

Would those seem like useful seminar courses for business law students in their third year of law school?  Or yet another example of professor doing what interests him without much attention as to pedagogical utility?  We are a solid mid tier school, in DC; many, many of our students go into government regulatory agencies dealing with the economy. [...]

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