Why do so many American Progressives, fearing that rich people abuse state power, aim to reduce the riches of rich people, instead of the state power that Progressives admit is subject to being abused?
Why do so many American Progressives wish to put even larger swathes of our lives under political control given their belief that politics is so very easily corrupted by oligarchs and big-money donors?
Why do so many American Progressives – fearful of corporate power and understandably dismayed by cronyism – support tariffs and export subsidies (such as those dispensed by the U.S. Export-Import Bank)? After all, each tariff and every cent of subsidy is an unearned privilege granted by government to corporations at the expense of consumers, workers, and households – a privilege that creates corporate power and fuels abuse by corporations that would otherwise not arise.
Why do so many American Progressives, with one breath, criticize free-market economists for allegedly failing to take account of the immense importance that we humans attach to community, cultural identity, and other non-monetary values and features of our existence, and yet with the next breath talk as if the only inequality that matters is inequality of monetary incomes or wealth? (That this “Progressives” criticism of free-market economists is baseless is a subject for another day.)
And why do so many American Progressives, given their correct understanding that monetary values are not all that matter, treat differences in monetary incomes and wealth as sure evidence of economic malfunction?
Why do so many American Progressives believe that ordinary Americans are far too incompetent to choose for themselves, each individually, the appropriate levels of safety for their automobiles, workplaces, and pharmaceutical products, but supremely competent to choose which political ‘leaders’ are best for the entire country?
Why do so many American Progressives revile business people who seek greater wealth by succeeding in commerce, yet revere politicians who seek greater power by succeeding in politics?
Why do so many Americans Progressives hurl accusations of “greed” at private citizens who wish only to keep for themselves more of the money that they’ve earned, yet celebrate as selfless and noble politicians who wish to take from private citizens money that these politicians did not earn?
Why do so many American Progressives tout the alleged virtues of locally “sourced” foods and of locally produced goods while incessantly pushing for more and more power over individuals and locales to be exercised in far-away state capitals and in even farther away Washington, DC.?
Why do large numbers of American conservatives believe that U.S. government tax hikes and other interventions into the American economy are ham-fisted and, hence, harmful to the American economy, yet believe that similar interventions by foreign governments into foreign economies are genius surgical operations that inevitably strengthen those foreign economies?
Why do these very same conservatives also believe that the U.S. government somehow becomes capable of intervening successfully into the American economy if such intervention is advertised as being a response to foreign-government interventions into foreign economies?
Why do large numbers of American conservatives oppose taxes but support tariffs? Are these conservatives unaware that the latter is simply one of many different species of taxes?
Why do so many American conservatives boast about the strength of America and the resilience and greatness of her people but insist also that to allow these same American people to freely purchase goods and services supplied by low-productivity (and, thus, low-wage) foreign workers paves a sure path to America’s impoverishment and demise?
Why do so many Americans across most of the ideological space think they are offering sound and operational advice when they tell someone who is unhappy with existing government policies to “change” these policies by going to the polls to vote?
Why do so many Americans across most of the ideological space equate freedom with democracy? Do these Americans not see that oppression by a majority of one’s fellow citizens is oppression no less than is oppression by a minority of one’s fellow citizens?
Why do so many Americans, across most of the ideological space, who have ever waited in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew a driver’s license or to register a vehicle, or who have suffered long delays in a cavernous passport-control room to reenter the country after traveling abroad, want to turn over to the same institution that is responsible for the inefficiencies regularly on display in those government offices more control over our lives?
Why does not every American who has ever listened to a speech by a successful 21st century politician, or who has ever attended or tuned in to a “debate” among these office-seekers, come away from such an experience filled with terrible fear at the thought of any of these office-seekers exercising even the tiniest bit of say in the lives of ordinary Americans?
Why do so few American conservatives who were rightly appalled by Barack Obama’s performance in the Oval Office – and who rightly fear how that office would be abused by a President Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden – wish to reduce the power of the presidency?
And why do so few American Progressives who are rightly appalled by Donald Trump’s performance in the Oval Office – and who rightly fear an additional four years of Trump’s abuse of that office – wish to reduce the power of the presidency?
Why does the goal of restraining the power of government in all areas of life have so little political clout given that confidence in government is at historic lows?
Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.
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Paul Volcker, who served as chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, passed away this week at the age of 92. He is widely credited with ushering in a new era in Federal Reserve policy making, where much more attention is given to controlling inflation.
When President Carter appointed Volcker to the Fed, inflation was approaching double digits for the second time in less than a decade. Arthur Burns, who began his tenure as Fed chair in 1970 when inflation was around 4.90 percent, saw inflation rise to 11.51 percent in 1974 Q4, fall to 5.13 percent by 1976 Q4, and begin climbing again thereafter. Inflation rose from around 6.43 to 8.52 percent during G. William Miller’s brief tenure from 1978 to 1979.
Before Volcker, Fed chairs occasionally denied their ability to control inflation. Arthur Burns referred to cost-push inflation (in contrast to the demand-pull inflation caused by faster money growth). “The rules of economics are not working in quite the same way as they used to,” he told Congress in 1971.
There were dissenting views, to be sure. But, for most of the 1970s, they were coming from outside the Fed. Milton Friedman, for example, called Burns out at the December 1971 American Economic Association annual meeting. It was not cost-push inflation, Friedman claimed, but “erratic and destabilizing monetary policy [that] has largely resulted from the acceptance of erroneous economic theories.”
Volker changed that. He acknowledged that the Fed could bring down inflation and then set a course to do just that. Moreover, he did so with great resolve.
Engineering a disinflation is a costly proposition. The central bank must cut the growth rate of money to bring down inflation. However, cutting the growth rate of money also tends to fool producers into thinking there has been a decrease in the relative demand for their products. As a result, they produce fewer goods and services — which often means laying off workers — until they realize the error and adjust their prices down accordingly.
The underproduction problem can be mitigated, to some extent, by credibly announcing the policy in advance. If producers reduce their inflation expectations in line with the policy, they will not be fooled into underproducing.
But that is easier said than done. It is difficult to credibly announce a policy in normal times. Most folks just don’t pay that much attention to — or understand — monetary policy. It is harder still when the central bank has failed to live up to expectations in the past, since even those who do pay attention and understand how monetary policy works are unlikely to believe the Fed will do what it says it will. Hence, even when such measures are called for, cutting the growth rate of money virtually guarantees a recession.
Volcker’s disinflation was no exception. Real GDP growth fell from 6.51 percent in 1979 Q1 to −1.62 percent in 1980 Q3 and remained low through 1983 Q1. Unemployment shot up, from 5.7 percent in 1979 Q2 to 7.7 percent in 1980 Q3; by 1982 Q4, it had reached 10.7 percent. Home builders around the country pleaded for cheap credit by sending two-by-fours to the Marriner Eccles building in D.C.
But Volcker didn’t relent. Inflation came down and stayed down. Indeed, the public came to believe the Fed chair was willing to do whatever it takes to keep inflation low and steady. For every ounce of institutional credibility Burns had lost, Volcker gained a pound.
William J. Luther is the Director of AIER’s Sound Money Project and an Assistant Professor of Economics at Florida Atlantic University. His research focuses primarily on questions of currency acceptance. He has published articles in leading scholarly journals, including Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Economic Inquiry, Journal of Institutional Economics, Public Choice, and Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance. His popular works have appeared in The Economist, Forbes, and U.S. News & World Report. He has been cited by major media outlets, including NPR, VICE News, Al Jazeera, The Christian Science Monitor, and New Scientist.
Luther earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics at George Mason University and his B.A. in Economics at Capital University. He was an AIER Summer Fellowship Program participant in 2010 and 2011.
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It seems rather strange that in a putative democracy a handful of people can legally, if figuratively, reach into the pockets of their neighbors but it happens all the time all across America via municipal bond ballot measures.
The main problem is that the measures “pass” if the majority of those who actually vote are in favor, even if hardly anyone votes. That leads to abuses. We should change the rules and mandate that bond/tax measures must obtain the affirmative approval of over 50 percent of eligible voters, not just those with sufficient incentive, education, and information to vote.
In most areas of our lives, no means no in the sense that no decision defaults to no action. You do not have to actively dislike the advertisement of a stationary bike company to avoid buying one of its products, you can vote “no” by not taking steps to purchase one. Heck, you may even approve of its ad but that does not give the manufacturer the right to drop ship one of its high-tech torture machines to your house and dock your checking account in exchange.
The same goes for physical intimacy. A stranger does not get to lawfully have sex with you because you did not actively swipe left on his or her Tinder profile. And Tinder does not get to establish a Tinder profile for you because you did not explicitly tell it not to. Wells Fargo found that out the hard way (though arguably not hard enough).
The need to obtain explicit consent before taking somebody else’s money (or bodily fluids) is one of the key remaining features of liberty. Without it, life begins to look a lot like slavery or authoritarianism.
But the rules change when the compulsory monopoly we call government makes the rules. The original impetus behind municipal bond measures was the notion that voters need to explicitly accept the tax increases needed to service the bonds. No taxation without representation and all that. When most people voted, and where taxpayers and voters were roughly the same people, bond ballot measures approximated consent. (Why fifty percent is often considered the best threshold is another matter, but I will stipulate it here.)
It is a minor miracle when voters in a town like Monument, Colorado repeatedly put the kibosh on bond measures because the issuer, often a school district, is a concentrated interest with the budget authority to hire consultants who appear to make scientific, objective cases for the “necessity” of the bond. Some of those consultants even conduct market research studies designed to help the issuer use words and arguments most likely to sway voters to click “yes” come election day. Opponents are typically individuals with jobs, families, and lives.
Unlike in the commercial sector, municipal bond issuers do not need to persuade people to their cause, they just need to create enough uncertainty, confusion, or complexity to induce most voters to abstain. While often rational in other contexts, inaction on bond measures often means tax increases because the denominator for passage, regardless of the threshold, is always the number of people who actually voted on the measure rather than the number of registered voters.
Issuers know that and use it to their advantage. A suburb of Sioux Falls, South Dakota recently passed a bond measure 1,085 to 129. That seems like a mandate except 14,700 people were eligible to vote on the measure, which went up for vote on 10 September, a time when most East River South Dakotans are busy settling their kids in school, hanging tree stands, and “gettin’ the beans in” (soybeans of course). In other words, only about 1 in 15 people explicitly approved of the bond measure but the outcome is somehow counted “democratic.” (I don’t live in that town, incidentally, and the measure did not raise taxes but merely did not lower them as a previous bond recently matured.)
Other issuers put their measures up in November but only in odd-numbered years, when voter turnout is even lower than during even-numbered years. Often, public discussion of bond measures is muted because debate might draw out voters, which issuers want to avoid because when turnouts are low measures can be won simply by mobilizing teachers and naive statists.
In response to those obvious problems, some have called for minor reforms, like mandating that all municipal bond measures come up for vote on regular election days in even-numbered years. While that would be an improvement, it misses the main point, that no (action) should always mean no (money or booty). In other words, passage of anything authorizing use of the coercive power of the state to take citizens’ money should require the assent of fifty percent plus of eligible voters, not those who turned out at the polls.
When I proposed this recently at a meeting of the South Dakota chapter of Americans For Prosperity, someone immediately objected “but then no bond measure would ever pass!” “Exactly,” was my response. But of course truly important bond measures would pass, after mature consideration and extensive public debate clarified the issues at stake.
Consider again Monument, which sits on the Front Range betwixt Denver and Colorado Springs. Traditionally, taxes and public spending there were low so it attracted childless singles and older couples. Recently, younger couples with children began moving in because it was relatively cheap and improvements on I-25 promise to reduce commute times to both metropoles. Once ensconced, though, those couples began demanding more and better schools, even though that would mean higher taxes and, ceteris paribus, lower real estate values via what economists call tax capitalization.
I do not live in Monument either and would not presume to tell its residents what type of community they should try to create. But I do believe that a nation that purports to be a democracy should encourage citizens to debate the merits of proposals openly and to have to gain explicit approval for taxes, not a bare majority of a few percent of eligible voters in an inconvenient, secretive ballot. Robust debates could raise awareness of charter schools or maybe signal to parents with young children that they should live elsewhere. Or maybe they would lead to even more financial support for public schools. At the very least, full public discussion might expose the exorbitant fees that many municipalities now pay to consultants and issuers. The point is that to win approval, issuers would have to make a case and not just slide in under the radar.
Yes, voters could turn out to defeat bond measures, as they sometimes do, but the burden of proof should fall on the issuer, especially when public school districts seek funding because they have, with few exceptions, failed to create the type of citizens who vote. NGOs like iCivics are trying to improve civics education but the real problem, especially when it comes to bond and tax issues, is the failure of public schools to teach the basic principles of economics and public finance.
Robert E. Wright is the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is the author of 18 books, including a new book on financial exclusion published by AIER.
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