The COVID-19 pandemic introduced an unprecedented amount of uncertainty into transportation infrastructure planning. Travel fell significantly across all modes and remains depressed, particularly for shared transportation modes such as commercial air travel and mass transit. Changes in travel behavior may persist long after the coronavirus pandemic finally ends, particularly for commuting trips given that a large share of employees may continue working from home. Given this uncertainty, investments in new infrastructure meant to provide service for decades into the future are incredibly risky. As Congress considers surface transportation reauthorization in this low-confidence era, it should adopt a preference for the lowest-risk class of projects: maintaining and modernizing existing infrastructure under a “fix it first” strategy.
COVID-19 led to dramatic changes in travel behavior. By April 2020, when much of the country was under stay-at-home orders, road traffic fell 40%, mass transit ridership fell 95%, and air travel fell by 96%. Since then, road travel has largely recovered, with vehicle-miles traveled back to within 10% of the pre-pandemic baseline.
However, travel by shared transportation modes, such as commercial aviation and mass transit, was still down by approximately two-thirds year-over-year by the end of 2020, according to data collected by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Travel is expected to continue its rebound as the number of people vaccinated grows and the pandemic wanes, but changes in travel behavior driven by factors such as the rise of remote work are likely to persist. To what degree pandemic-spurred changes in travel demand are permanent is unknown at this time, and this uncertainty has rendered pre-pandemic infrastructure planning and investment models nearly useless as accurate guides to the future.
While the drop in transportation demand and the fixed nature of transportation infrastructure supply has significantly reduced the productivity of existing transportation infrastructure, some are calling for large new investments by claiming that the nation’s infrastructure networks are crumbling. However, a review of the available evidence suggests a different and more complicated picture of infrastructure asset quality.
For example, Reason Foundation’s most recent Annual Highway Reportfound, “Of the Annual Highway Report’s nine categories focused on performance, including structurally deficient bridges and traffic congestion, the country made incremental progress in seven of them.”
Similarly, a June 2020 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper on transportation infrastructure concluded, “Not only is this infrastructure, for the most part, not deteriorating, much of it is in good condition or improving.”
However, Reason’s Annual Highway Report shows large variation across states and the NBER analysis is limited in that it fails to account for transit infrastructure beyond rolling stock. Rail guideway assets such as tracks and signals have deteriorated in many cities. To be sure, there are sizeable transportation infrastructure needs in the United States. Reconstructing the Interstate Highway System alone has been estimated by the National Academy of Sciences to cost at least $1 trillion over two decades and mass transit’s maintenance backlog likely exceeds $100 billion.
Given all we know about existing transportation infrastructure needs and the uncertainty surrounding future travel activity, Congress should adopt a risk-minimizing “fix it first” strategy to restore our existing transportation assets to a durable state of good repair. This approach has been endorsed by organizations and think tanks across the political spectrum, from the progressive Transportation for America to the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Building new infrastructure that will last three to five decades based on pre-pandemic travel modeling is fundamentally imprudent at this time. Physical capacity expansions such as highway widening and new rail lines should at the very least face heightened scrutiny from policymakers until there is more confidence in post-pandemic travel behavior that can be used in transportation infrastructure planning and investment decisions.
As people all over the United States send their forms into the IRS, they’re probably seething over President Joe Biden’s repeated assertions that Americans are willing to pay more in taxes. In a recent interview with ABC News this week, he predicted that he would get Democrats in Congress to vote for what would be the first major federal tax increase since 1993.
Biden’s view is no doubt shaped by cognitive dissonance. He wants to raise taxes, so he believes the American people are behind him. His opinion on the subject is likely reinforced by the oft-repeated observation coming from thought leaders and other political influencers that the pandemic has created conditions favorable for passing a tax hike.
Part of this is a question of who’d pay for it. Everyone is always for a tax increase if it means lower debt or higher spending so long as they’re not the ones whose taxes go up. Few people think of themselves as “rich,” so calls for higher taxes on the wealthy don’t bother them. Everyone is generally happy when someone else pays the bill.
Pollster David Winston looked at the issue in early April and found, by a margin of 2 to 1, “voters do not believe the statement that because of what happened with Covid, I am willing to pay more in taxes.” Consider that carefully. Federal spending to fight Covid and blunt the impact of the lockdowns imposed by the states has added well over $4 trillion to the national debt – some say it’s more like $6 trillion – yet most voters are unwilling to fork over their dough to close the gap between what went out and what’s coming in. (By the way, that “gap” isn’t nearly as big as people have been made to think. A lot of states are ending the year in the black even without the money from Washington and, in D.C., federal revenues are just about what they were projected to be before Covid hit).
In the Winston survey, the biggest supporters of a tax hike are, no surprise, liberal Democrats – but they are willing to see their tax bill go up by what he calls “a very weak margin” of 43 to 36 percent. Only a third of moderate Democrats go along with the idea while 47 percent say they don’t. Interestingly suburban women, a targeted group for both Democrats and Republicans in the next election, say they disagree with the statement 20 percent to 55 percent as do most Republicans (70 percent) and most independents (53 percent).
A newly released Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey generally backed up the Winston Group findings. Its poll had 64 percent of likely U.S. voters saying they oppose increasing taxes while just 22 percent supported the idea and 14 percent said they were not sure.
The Rasmussen reports data also showed 45 percent of voters saying the current level of federal taxes “is already too high” while just 13 percent said they were “too low.” Another third – 33 percent – aligned themselves with the mythical Goldilocks saying, after the Trump tax cuts of 2017 that the current level of taxation is just “about right.”
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. President Biden has taken to saying Republican voters support his plans for the country even if GOP members of Congress reject it. Maybe – but what he doesn’t say is that – at least as far as taxes are concerned – members of his own party aren’t getting in line behind him.
“Whether or not congressional Democrats go along with Biden’s plan,” Rasmussen Reports said, “Democratic voters appear to feel differently. Only 19 percent of Democratic voters say the current level of federal taxes is too low, while 34 percent of Democrats say taxes are too high and 38 percent say the level of federal taxes is about right.”
Unsurprisingly, Biden’s wrong about the GOP voters too, at least on taxes. “Among GOP voters 56 percent say the current level of federal taxes is too high,” the survey found with, “just 9 percent say they’re too low and 29 percent say the level of federal taxation is about right. Unaffiliated voters are nearly five times more likely to say current federal taxes are too high (48 percent) than too low (10 percent).”
Despite what the New York Times lets prominent leftwing Keynesian economists write on its op-ed pages, there isn’t a lot of sentiment for raising taxes in America on anyone. The people are opposed to higher taxes on income, on gasoline, and just about everything else he’s proposed raising taxes on – tax hikes that would all break his campaign pledge that anyone making less than $400,000 per year wouldn’t see their taxes go up by “one thin dime.”
Infrastructure projects that are paid for by users, not by federal taxes, can be a big boost to the economy.
With President Joe Biden looking to pass a major infrastructure bill and other policy priorities, the growing question is how he will pay for them. While some Republican senators have signaled some interest in cutting bipartisan deals, both sides should be focusing on budget cuts and reprioritizing existing revenues. They must avoid tax increases that could undercut the economic recovery as the number of vaccinated Americans grows and we hopefully emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Biden has called for upping the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. While that’s still lower than the country’s corporate tax rate prior to the 2017 tax cut bill, which was then 35 percent, it’s a bad idea. At 28 percent, the federal corporate tax rate, combined with state corporate taxes, would be over 32 percent, putting the U.S. back to having the highest corporate tax among the highly-developed OECD, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, nations. For example, Canada’s corporate tax rate is 15 percent and Mexico’s is 30 percent. One outcome of Biden’s proposed tax hike would be more corporations looking to move out of the U.S. to lower-tax countries.
Decades of research also show higher corporate tax rates get passed on to workers, who end up paying the majority of the costs in the form of lower pay and benefits. The Tax Foundation estimates Biden’s corporate tax increase would eliminate 159,000 jobs, reduce long-run economic output by 0.8 percent and wages by 0.7 percent, with the bottom 20 percent of earners on average seeing a 1.45 percent drop in after-tax income in the long term.
Biden also wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. “Anybody making more than $400,000 will see a small to a significant tax increase,” Biden recently said to ABC.
Raising taxes on the wealthy consistently polls well with voters of both major political parties, but it’s a bad policy that doesn’t work as intended. An analysis in the Quarterly Journal of Economics of decades of data shows that tax increases on individual incomes reduce average incomes and economic activity, but the effect is the fastest and largest when taxing the top one percent. The so-called 1990 luxury tax, for example, killed so many jobs that the federal government actually lost revenue because of it. That is because the rich do not sit on mountains of gold in their vaults, as some might imagine. Most of their money is either invested or spent so raising taxes on the rich lowers consumption and all the jobs that creates, and lowers investment and all the jobs that creates. Hence, the top one percent pay considerably more in income taxes than the bottom 90 percent of taxpayers combined.
The country is expecting significant economic growth this year as more Americans are vaccinated and able to travel to visit loved ones, go on vacations, eat in restaurants and attend things like sporting events. Tax increases would undercut this growth by taking money that would be invested in expanding existing businesses or opening new ones.
President Biden and Republicans need to show some seriousness about dealing with the nation’s debt and deficits. In the debate leading up to the recent $1.9 trillion spending bill — which came after President Trump’s own $2.2 trillion stimulus bill and four years running up debt and deficits — the GOP could not credibly claim it cared about debt and deficits. Republicans and conservatives “ditched any semblance of fiscal restraint during the last four years of economic expansion (i.e., precisely when it’s easiest to cut spending),” Scott Lincicome recently noted in his newsletter for The Dispatch.
Spending cuts are needed and the country’s massive defense spending, over $700 billion a year, is ripe for cutting. A group of House Democrats is urging Biden to trim the Pentagon’s budget. Unfortunately, Republicans want more, not less, spending. “The problem with decreased or flat defense budgets is that our adversaries aren’t looking at cutting defense spending. It’s the opposite,” Rep. Mike Rogers, the leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, claimed.
As a military veteran I’d argue he is wrong because our current military is more than capable of defending our nation and, if we stopped our absurd and broken attempts at nation-building overseas, our defense budget is more than adequate already.
If Republicans aren’t going to support ending our forever wars and reducing defense spending, they should at least try to ensure that any big infrastructure and spending bills embrace the user-pays principle and utilize public-private partnerships. Raising the federal gas tax is counterproductive — as vehicles become more fuel-efficient — and politically unpopular, but private companies and private equity firms are ready to invest billions in major infrastructure projects. From water and sewer systems to roads and bridges, infrastructure can be built via public-private partnerships using private capital and charging user direct fees to pay for it.
Users don’t pay any more than they would’ve otherwise, the projects get built faster, private investors take most of the financial risks of losses if something goes wrong with the project, such as delays and cost overruns, and the companies can make a profit if they deliver the project efficiently.
Infrastructure projects that are paid for by users, not by federal taxes, can be a big boost to the economy. Combining this approach with some smart realignment of other federal spending would allow President Biden to achieve his policy goals without the harmful tax cuts he is considering and the consequent blow to the economy and to lower-income workers.
This past week, President Joe Biden unveiled his new $2 trillion infrastructure plan, scheduled for implementation over the next eight years. He delivered a pep talk about it before a union audience in Pittsburgh: “It’s a once-in-a-generation investment in America. It’s big, yes. It’s bold, yes, and we can get it done.” One central goal of his program is to tackle climate change by reaching a level of zero net carbon emissions by 2035. Many of Biden’s supporters gave two cheers for this expansion of government power, including the New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, who lamented that the program is too small to work, but too big to pass. Huge portions of this so-called infrastructure bill actually have nothing whatsoever to do with infrastructure.
In one classic formulation by the late economist Jacob Viner, infrastructure covers “public works regarded as essential and as impossible or highly improbable of establishment by private enterprise.” Classical liberal theorists like Viner believe it is critical to identify a limited scope of business activity appropriate for government. And even here, while government intervention may be necessary to initiate the establishment of an electric grid or a road system, oftentimes the work is completed by a regulated private firm, overcoming government inefficiency in the management of particular projects.
Biden’s use of the term “infrastructure” is merely a rhetorical flourish, the sole purpose of which is to create an illusion that his proposed menu of expenditures should appeal just as much to defenders of small government as it does to progressive Democrats. A quick look at the proposed expenditures shows that they include large transfer payments to preferred groups that have nothing to do with either infrastructure or climate change. Consider this chart prepared by NPR, which breaks down the major categories of expenditure:
“Home/community care” and “affordable housing” constitute over 30 percent of the budget at $613 billion. Much of this money is for child and elder care. Both are traditional forms of transfer payments, which are already available in abundance. Why more? Why now? After all, these cash transfers are not taxable compensation for work done. They increase the motivation to stay out of the workforce, in fact, and thereby reduce the size of the tax base as overall expenditures are mushrooming. Moreover, large doses of home/community care are difficult to target exclusively to the needy. A correct analysis seeks to determine whether such payments are directed toward the truly needy and whether they induce people to leave the workforce to become tax recipients rather than taxpayers.
A similar analysis applies to affordable-housing expenditures, both for renters and owners. In the Biden plan, those expenditures operate as a combined program of disguised subsidies and disguised price controls. An affordable-housing mandate typically requires a developer to build some fraction of total units held for sale or lease at below-market rates to individuals who fall within certain broad income categories. In some programs, the losses to the developer may be offset in part by government subsidies.
These programs are not only costly but also a massive disincentive to new construction, especially when the fraction of affordable units is set too high, at which point the developers cannot recoup their losses on the affordable units by their profits on their market-rate units. A far more sensible regime that reduces both rent controls and subsidies over time allows housing resources to be allocated cheaply and sensibly by market forces. Housing markets are like all others insofar as people are willing to spend other people’s money for their own benefit, which leads to overconsumption. Similarly, price controls reduce the incentive to produce housing that people want, thereby creating systematic shortages, and the long queues and political intrigues that accompany them.
The rest of the initiative’s priorities include investments in electric vehicles at $174 billion, roads and bridges at $115 billion, the power grid at $100 billion, public transportation at $85 billion, and railways at $80 billion. There is absolutely no reason to believe that these expenditures will be made in a responsible fashion, given the political forces that will descend on Washington if the proposed funds become available. Nor is there anything inherently desirable about electric vehicles, for example, that merits their subsidization. To be sure, there is a constant risk of pollution from vehicles powered by fossil fuels, but the correct response is to tax the externality in order to reduce its incidence, not to guess which alternative technology merits a subsidy. Indeed, it is especially wrongheaded to subsidize both electric cars and public transportation when they should be allowed to compete with each other. More generally, any massive subsidy for energy investment is a bad idea for the same reason that it’s a bad idea for housing: it leads to overconsumption, such that total social costs exceed total social benefits.
Shifting to wind or solar energy—both centerpieces of the Biden strategy—is also a bad idea. Those energy sources are too precarious to make more than a dent in the overall energy market. As the US Energy Information Administration reports, fossil fuels account for about 80 percent of total energy production in the United States, as well as raw materials for making “asphalt and road oil, and feedstocks for making the chemicals, plastics, and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Keeping crude oil and natural gas in the ground is not a winning strategy. Indeed, relying on wind and solar carries risks, as these forms of energy can respond poorly in extreme situations, a reality that became clear with the breakdown of the Texas power grid recently during an extreme cold snap.
The correct path to environmental soundness lies in the more efficient production and consumption of fossil fuels. This is why one of the best ways to deal with the externalities of fossil fuel consumption, such as air pollution and spills, would be to allow the development of the Keystone XL pipeline. Given how central fossil fuels are to the energy market, any small improvement in their production and distribution will result in enormous benefits. The effort to wean an entire economy off fossil fuels over the next two decades will provide short-term dislocations without any durable long-term relief.
The dubious nature of the Biden plan is made still more evident by looking at its rickety financing. As always, the two favorite targets for new taxation are increases in the corporate income tax and the income tax rates for wealthy individuals. The claim is that these targeted taxes will spare the rest of America from financial pain. Senator Elizabeth Warren made that case for her ultra-millionaire tax, saying her wealth tax would have no impact on 99.9 percent of the population. But that is one strong reason to reject her program or others like it: it encourages majorities to confiscate the wealth of the most productive. Those majorities, of course, would be far less eager if their own taxes were to rise at the same time.
Biden has rightly rejected that approach, but the price of his new, once-in-a-generation expenditure is an increase in the overall corporate tax rate from 21 to 28 percent. Yet this proposal has dangerous consequences too. The United States constantly competes with other nations for corporate investment. Biden’s policy will reduce the level of foreign investment in the United States while simultaneously increasing the level of American investment abroad. This in turn will reverse the beneficial effects of the Trump corporate tax cuts, which notably translated into higher wages. Additional taxes on the wealthy will barely make a dent in the anticipated financial shortfall.
Worse still, it is simply false advertising to say that even if these deferred revenues could be generated, they would cover the full costs of the Biden program. The public expenditures will take place over an eight-year period. As NPR reports, the government plans to keep the corporate tax in place for fifteen years to balance the books. That move will require the treasury to borrow money to cover the anticipated revenue shortfall. And there is no reason to think that the government will meet any of its revenue targets, let alone be able to find the revenues to cover the items on the Biden agenda.
At this point, Republican skepticism about the plan may perhaps peel away some Democratic support. To avert that result, Biden would be well-advised to unbundle the strange bedfellows in his omnibus bill, so that each component can be evaluated on its own merits. The likely result is a smaller program with better outcomes, both for Biden and everyone else.
President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure proposal includes a major union handout that would overhaul labor law in the United States.
The White House released a fact sheet Wednesday detailing Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package that includes a call to pass the PRO Act, which is currently languishing in the Senate after passing the House. The law would overturn right-to-work laws in 27 states and expand the ability of the National Labor Relations Board to fine employers that violate employees’ organizing rights.
“[Biden] is calling on Congress to ensure all workers have a free and fair choice to join a union by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and guarantee union and bargaining rights for public service workers,” the fact sheet states. The sheet also says that increased union membership can increase worker productivity. The labor overhaul, however, would overturn existing laws in more than half of the states in the country that allow employees to work without requiring union membership.
Biden’s infrastructure plan would also provide a massive handout to the Service Employees International Union by allocating $400 billion for in-home Medicaid health care. In many Democratic-run states, in-home Medicaid health workers are forced to join the SEIU, a major Democratic donor and labor union with nearly two million members.
Critics of the proposal said Biden is using the infrastructure package as “cover” to pass pro-union reform.
“By using his massive infrastructure proposal as cover for denying millions of American workers their right to decide for themselves whether or not to subsidize union activities, President Biden is proving that his top priority is really building the forced-dues empire of his union boss political allies,” Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, said. “The so-called PRO Act will eliminate by federal fiat all 27 state right-to-work laws and give union bosses a whole host of other new coercive tools to force workers into compulsory dues payments and one-size-fits-all union ‘representation.'”
The infrastructure bill, which Democrats have called “must-pass” legislation, may be the best vehicle for advancing the controversial PRO Act. Biden’s strong endorsement of the labor law has not helped it advance through the Democratic-controlled Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) reportedly told AFL-CIO leaders that he would not bring it to the floor without 50 cosponsors, according to the Intercept. Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), Mark Kelly (D., Ariz.), Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.), Mark Warner (D., Va.), and Angus King (I., Maine) have yet to back the package.
Other union watchdogs said the Democratic holdouts are right to be skeptical of the bill. Charlyce Bozzello, communications director at the Center for Union Facts, said the passage of the act could harm workers who are struggling to recover from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Far from providing a ‘free and fair’ choice for workers, the PRO Act is nothing more than a union wishlist,” Bozzello said. “The bill does little to support American workers who are struggling to get back on their feet after the pandemic. Instead, it would consolidate more control with our country’s labor unions, force more employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment, override the right to a secret ballot election, and threaten the livelihood of countless freelancers.”
Biden unveiled the infrastructure package at a speech in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. He urged quick congressional action on the package, which Democratic lawmakers have said they want to pass by Independence Day. He also said that he wants to include Republicans in negotiations, but other Democratic leaders have indicated that they could push the infrastructure package through via the budget reconciliation process.
The passage of the PRO Act would likely require the elimination of the Senate filibuster, however, which would allow the Senate to move forward on a number of other Democratic legislative initiatives. Manchin and Sinema have said they oppose ending the filibuster.
The Biden administration did not respond to a request for comment.
Joe Biden made a lot of promises during his truncated run for the White House. One of them, that he wouldn’t be Donald Trump, he’s kept. The others, most of which were grounded philosophically in the idea he was a moderate Democrat – an image the mainstream media cheerfully did its best to confirm, have gone out the window.
On economics, on cultural issues, even on foreign policy he’s not just reverting to the positions taken during the Obama years. No, he’s breaking new ground in so many areas it’s clear he’s trying to be a transformational president rather than the caretaker who brought us all together he suggested time and again that he’d be.
His latest foray into the grand schemes of central planning is his lately-much-discussed infrastructure proposal that’s starting to look like “the green new deal” – which he said repeatedly he wasn’t for – plus a lot of other things.
What he wants to do is bad enough. How he plans to pay for it is even worse. Now, the whole business is carrying with it an estimated $2 trillion price tag, a figure that is ambitiously modest. It’s going to cost a lot more and, as if the Democrats ever need a reason to do it, he’s going to suggest a slew of new taxes and tax hikes to get the money.
According to an analysis of the proposal released Tuesday by Americans for Tax Reform, the starting point for Biden will be an increase in the top corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent alongside the introduction of a 21 percent global minimum tax, an idea beloved by European advocates for enlarging the welfare state to end tax competition between nations.
If that were not bad enough, he’s also calling for a doubling of the capital gains tax to almost 40 percent, imposing a second death tax by ending step up in basis, and raising the top individual income tax rate to 39.6 percent.
What he wants is tax reform in reverse. The right way to do it is to broaden the base and cap or eliminate deductions the way Reagan and Trump did it. In both cases that acted as rocket fuel to a moribund U.S. economy. What Biden is proposing to do will choke off growth and reduce incentives to save and invest – making America more like Japan in the process, a big economy with no appreciable growth.
“Biden’s tax hikes,” ATR said, “will hit Main Street small businesses hard. Small businesses that are organized as pass-through entities (sole proprietors, LLCs, S-corps etc.) pay taxes through the individual code and will be hit by Biden’s plan to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent.”
Moreover, the group said, the increase in the corporate rate – if Biden gets what he is said to want – will cause utility bills to go up. “Utility customers bear the cost of taxes imposed on utility companies. Utility companies pay the corporate income tax. Corporate income tax cuts drive utility rates down, corporate income tax hikes drive utility rates up. When Republicans enacted a corporate tax rate cut, utilities across the country lowered their rates.”
What that means is higher taxes for just about everyone, shattering his promise that those making less than $400,000 a year (even if that’s by household and not individually, a distinction the then-former vice president never made on the campaign trail) “Inclusive of state taxes and the Obamacare 3.8 percent Obamacare tax, Californians would face a capital gains rate of 56.7 percent, New Yorkers would face a capital gains rate of 52.2 percent, New Jerseyans would face a capital gains tax rate of 54.14 percent.”
That makes it clear why Democrats from those and other high-tax states are adamant about repealing the cap the Trump tax reform put on the deductibility of state and local taxes also called “SALT.”
Without the SALT cap, taxpayers in well-run red states end up subsidizing the inefficiency, bloat, and wasteful spending in the poorly run blue states like New York and Illinois. That may be outrageous but it’s also Biden policy – and what the Democrats stand for. Taking money from the people (and states) that have it and oversee it responsibly to subsidize those who manage what they have poorly if at all.
As ATR points out, the proposed Biden’s corporate tax hike would make the U.S. top rate higher than Communist China’s 25 percent, a nation not thought likely to join in the effort to establish a global minimum corporate tax. What the president is proposing is an incentive for American companies to move to China rather than bring their operations home, something the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated “IRL” might be a good idea whose time has come.
The Democrats used to criticize the GOP for supporting tax cuts for any reason. Now the worm has turned. Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party are now for higher taxes for any reason, the health of the U.S. economy be damned. His tax plan is a bad policy – bad for everyone, except maybe China.
California has imposed its “fix” on something that wasn’t broken in the first place. As a result, veterans who need Telehealth services are being locked out because of California’s imposition of its own version of “net neutrality.” California now flatly prohibits Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from offering selective free data plans — including Telehealth services to veterans.
Net Neutrality is always sold as being “fair” and “just” and treating all internet traffic “equally.” Government imposed net neutrality may sound good in theory, but the reality is it often harms consumers. In this case, the first and most obviously harmed consumers will include veterans who have lost access to a mobile app called VA Video Connect. This innovative app allows veterans to receive Telehealth services without incurring data usage charges. This obviously helps veterans who have been underserved in the past and suffered long delays in obtaining medical help. This also helps low-income persons the most.
But in California’s infinite wisdom, this sort of free internet access must be stopped. Telehealth services are an innovative and efficient way to receive certain important healthcare needs— particularly counseling and initial or followup consultations. Given that veterans have suffered a backlog and long waiting periods, Telehealth has been an important tool to provide a wide array of healthcare services that work well with virtual visits to the doctor. Admittedly, Telehealth isn’t a way to have surgery, but many healthcare consultations can be done effectively via Telehealth. And it speeds quality medical care and counseling to veterans who need it.
This free data prohibition imposed by the new California law is now becoming a choke point in shutting down free data used in the VA’s Telehealth app. So veterans in California are locked out. But this law doesn’t stop at California’s borders. Even though the law is California’s law, it imposes restrictions on people who do not live or work in California, or have any relationship to the state at all. And the VA is sounding the alarm.
Major carriers like AT&T have removed all free data services from its offerings in all 50 states because they believe keeping free data options in the other 49 states would still violate the new California law. So effectively, we are allowing misguided do-gooders in California to dictate what the nation’s high tech policies will be in every other state in the country. That’s not only unconstitutional, but it is crazy stupid.
Nonetheless, this is what the Left calls progress. For more than a decade I’ve warned of precisely these kinds of “unintended consequences.” Yet, the Left rolls their eyes and says that they have the intelligence and wisdom to do it right and that we shouldn’t worry about silly hypotheticals.
Notwithstanding the warnings, the Left has had an almost maniacal drive to impose government regulations on how internet traffic is prioritized. Most ISPs have a system that prioritizes certain internet traffic that must be top priority to work properly. For example, a zoom call won’t work properly if it is delayed by even 1 second. But an email could be delayed by 1 second and not even matter. Or if you’re downloading a movie, a momentary delay won’t impact things because you begin watching the movie while the rest of it downloads. ISPs know this and since you’re paying them to give you a good internet experience, they have every incentive to get things right and to allocate scarce internet resources to give their customers a high quality experience.
But the Left and many government regulators confidently claim that giving them the power to set the rules and priorities will yield better results. But as this situation with veterans and Telemedicine proves, government frequently makes things worse — which is why we shouldn’t reflexively trust government. There are some things that should be regulated. But that is not a reasonable or rational argument that government should regulate virtually everything.
And there is no good reason to have government regulate the flow of internet traffic as virtually no consumer is thinking, “If only the government would regulate the priorities assigned to my email, video downloads, and zoom calls, life would be so much better!” We may wish for faster speeds and more network investment, but net neutrality won’t do any of that. It simply puts government in charge of directing internet traffic. But it does nothing to build more “internet highways” or to increase our connection speeds.
Policy that promotes internet freedom and allows innovative services like VA Video Connect and other free data offerings makes a lot more sense. Adopting policies that encourage private investment in expanded networks makes sense too. But having government regulate internet traffic is a horrible idea. And thanks to California, we now have the rock solid proof!
The low interest rates we’ve experienced over the past few years have made it possible for millions of Americans to buy new homes, refinance properties, and pull out some equity to ease the pinch caused by the lockdowns.
Families have been able to increase their liquidity and pump billions into the economy when it was desperately needed. Consumers, real estate agents, lenders and mortgage brokers all have benefited. So Thursday’s speech via Facebook by United Whole Mortgage CEO Mat Ishbia, in which he delivered essentially an “ultimatum” to his company’s brokers and partners, seems odd.
Ishbia told brokers they had to make a choice — either work with UWM or else. Anyone working with Quicken Loans/Rocket Mortgage and Fairway Independent Mortgage wouldn’t be getting any more business from him.
Some might call that the hard sell. Others might say it’s the kind of threat that could provoke intervention by federal regulators looking for evidence of restraint of trade. Either way, it’s a bad deal for consumers who have or who planned to capitalize on the current low rates.
Ishbia’s play didn’t go over well among industry observers. Mortgage Bankers Association President and CEO Bob Broeksmit issued a statement that said, “Consumers are best served when they have choices created by a robust, competitive market that offers a multitude of loan prices, products, and service levels. Our mortgage market is extraordinarily competitive, with thousands of lenders, multiple delivery channels, and varying business models. MBA does not condone activities designed to thwart competition in the mortgage market and limit loan options available to borrowers.”
What Ishbia wants amounts to a “publicly traded nonbank,” Inside Mortgage Finance reported, “altering its broker contract, telling third-party salespeople if they violate this ‘representation and warranty’ they must pay the wholesaler damages ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.”
Chris Whalen of Whalen Global Advisors LLC, a frequent contributor to the National Mortgage News, said Ishbia’s demands were a direct result of “mortgage lending volumes slowing” forcing firms to fight over brokers and production.
“Both firms are very dependent upon loan refinance transactions and thus buy loans from mortgage brokers. Rocket Mortgage is best in class at refinance, while UWM is an upstart and bottom feeder in terms of production,” Whalen said.
UWM is “the monkfish of mortgage lending,” Whalen said, adding it compared in some ways to Countrywide Financial, a firm that played a key role in the sub-prime lending crisis more than a decade ago “but with the added fuel of the Fed’s purchases of mortgage paper.”
The story, Whalen predicted, “will end in tears” and placed the blame squarely at the feet of Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell and the Federal Open Market Committee. Perhaps, but what is certain is that by trying to force third-party brokers to act as UWM employees, Ishbia is guaranteeing home buyers and mortgage brokers will suffer. The policy he is attempting to put into place will restrict competition, despite the launch in January by Quicken/Rocket of a new national mortgage broker directory backed by an investment of $100 million on its website.
Ishbia’s tactics undermine the goal of mortgage brokerages: to identify the lowest interest rates for borrowers and streamline the mortgage process. With Rocket — an industry leader in the mortgage space — now stripped out of the Rolodex of many brokers, consumers almost surely will be required to pay more.
That will cause the housing market to slow down at a most inconvenient time for buyers, sellers and the country as a whole.
Among the best remembered summits of the 20th century are those of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s commitment to dialogue with America’s primary adversary and what then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz called his “personal chemistry” with his Soviet counterpart were hallmarks of his presidency. But even more important was the fact that Reagan had a clear strategy for victory in the global contest with the Soviet Union.
Reagan’s approach — applying intensive economic and military pressure to a superpower adversary — became foundational to American strategic thinking. It hastened the end of Soviet power and promoted a peaceful conclusion to the multi-decade Cold War.
Now it is useful to ask if a similar approach would be equally successful in America’s contest with an even more formidable rival, the People’s Republic of China, a challenger with whom the free world’s economies are intertwined and increasingly interdependent.
In 1983, Reagan approved National Security Decision Directive 75, which set the course for an assertive, competitive approach to the Soviets, in contrast to the “live and let live” aspirations of détente. Reagan drew on George F. Kennan’s innovative policy of containment, which acknowledged both the disastrous consequences of a hot war with the Soviet Union and the impracticality of cooperation with a Kremlin driven by communist ideology.
Working from Kennan’s original intuitions, the operational approach that Directive 75 emphasized was “external resistance to Soviet imperialism” and “internal pressure on the USSR to weaken the sources of Soviet imperialism.” Rather than trying to reduce friction with the Soviets as prior administrations had done, Directive 75’s aim was “competing effectively on a sustained basis with the Soviet Union in all international arenas.” Within nine years, the Soviet Union collapsed, worn out by economic pressure, an arms race it could not win and internal political contradictions.
The goal of a competitive strategy versus Chinese Communist Party aggression should be different. The United States and like-minded liberal democracies must defend against the expansion of the party’s influence, thwart its ambitions to dominate the 21st century global economy, and convince Chinese leaders that they can fulfill enough of their aspirations without doing so at the expense of their own people’s rights or the sovereignty of other nations.
These efforts must apply Reagan’s fundamental insight — to win against a rival of China’s magnitude requires sustained pressure against the true sources of the adversary’s power.
China is an economic juggernaut. Through its engagement with the United States and other major markets, it has made itself central to global supply chains, moved to dominate strategic industries and emerging technologies, and built up a military designed to win a war with the U.S. and its allies. Numerous multinational corporations and global financial institutions pump capital, technology and know-how into China. This transfer of capability and competitive advantage can be used against the free world to devastating effect. As the CCP puts it, China is poised to “regain its might and re-ascend to the top of the world.”
To foil China’s plans for preeminence, the United States and its partners should restrict investment into Chinese companies and industries that support the CCP’s strategic goals and human rights abuses. The U.S. should work to block China’s access to Western technology in areas that contribute to military advantage and to construct a new global trade and supply chain system that reduces dependency on China. With India, Australia and Japan, the U.S. must also maintain preponderant military power in the Indo-Pacific to convince Chinese leaders that they cannot accomplish their objectives through threats or the use of force.
In all of this, America and its allies should be confident. At the start of the Reagan administration, the Soviet Union, like China today, appeared to be at the height of its ambitions, exerting influence in every corner of the globe. One decade of focused American strategy helped bring about a peaceful conclusion to what many believed could have been an endless Cold War.
Just as Reagan generated the national and international will necessary to overcome the Soviet challenge, the Biden administration can galvanize efforts to compete effectively with an emboldened China. That effort will bolster the administration’s goal of building back the United States’ strength and prosperity.
The Trump administration’s recognition of that the Chinese Communist Party is a strategic competitor was a crucial shift in U.S. foreign policy. There is now a bipartisan consensus in Washington about the need to sustain a multinational effort to restrict the party’s mobilization against the free world. Applying pressure abroad and fostering growth at home will allow the United States and its partners to prevail in this century’s most important competition, preserve peace, and help build a better future for generations to come.
The Biden administration is committed to applying the freshest thinking of the 1930s to contemporary challenges, while congressional Democrats are keen on mandating that all 50 states adopt what is worst and most destructive in California practice. These two tendencies come together in the PRO Act.
The PRO Act, which already has been passed by the House, is being sold as a measure to make it easier for American workers to join labor unions. What it is, in fact, is a measure that would make it much harder for workers to stay out of unions when they want to, by overriding state right-to-work laws and adopting California’s so-called ABC test to treat certain independent contractors as employees.
The union bosses went to bat for Joe Biden in 2020, and this is their payoff. Joe Biden takes a rosy view of unions, and it probably is easy to be sentimental about blue-collar work when you have been in elected office since the early 1970s. Nobody named Biden has lifted anything heavier than money in decades.
Why would a worker want to avoid joining a union? Wouldn’t they prefer to have someone looking out for their interests? That might be the case — if American workers were naïve enough to believe that the Teamsters and the other unions are looking out for their interests, rather than looking out for the interests of, say, a union boss’s brother getting paid a $42-an-hour wage on a New York City construction site while operating a coffee concession. There are, as it turns out, a great many blue-collar workers not much interested in paying for the privilege of enriching politically connected labor leaders who do no real work.
Beyond the corruption and the desire to be free of union politics, other workers have practical, bottom-line reasons for wishing to remain free of union entanglements. For instance, owner-operators involved in long-haul trucking cut their own deals with their clients, working on their own terms rather than on terms set by a union boss. They can do that even where a union already is present. Under the PRO Act, some of these independent operators would risk being reclassified as employees — meaning reclassified out of business. That is because of the second prong of the ABC test insists that independent contractors must be engaged in incidental work rather than core business activities — owner-operators who do drive for trucking services (as opposed to contracting with a farm or a construction company) wouldn’t pass the test to qualify as independent contractors.
Right-to-work laws, which have been passed in the majority of states, do not restrict voluntary union activity. What they do is forbid unions from forcing workers who do not wish to belong to the union to pay dues anyway as a condition of employment — which is to say, they forbid a particularly nasty form of extortion. Anybody who is not a union official who demands a kickback out of workers’ wages as a condition of employment is considered to be engaged in racketeering. The PRO Act would (probably unconstitutionally) supersede laws duly enacted by the state legislatures, making such extortion a mandatory business practice from coast to coast.
Democrats on the House Energy & Commerce Committee have introduced a relabeled and slightly revised bill from the past and given it the inaccurate and misleading name “the CLEAN Future Act.” This bill is aimed at restricting and reducing the use of reliable energy sources, and mandating and increasing the use of unreliable energy sources. This will make energy more substantially expensive and it will reduce jobs and economic growth. Simply stated, the bill, if passed, would do a great deal more to insure that more and more of America repeats the catastrophic widespread power outages that Texas experienced last month than it will ever do to provide a “clean future” as the act’s name implies.
The CLEAN Future Act is less focused on energy policy than it is on imposing an anti-energy policy and a virulent climate focused policy aimed specifically at destroying America’s current domestic energy supplies. In other words, the goal is to make it illegal to use clean fuels like natural gas or to use any fuel based on oil, or even clean coal technology — all abundant energy sources in the US. And it wants us to transition from these reliable energy sources to unproven and unreliable energy sources in the space of a little more than a dozen years. If they get their way, be ready for dramatically more expensive electric bills and for more Texas style blackouts which can cost lives and billions in damages.
The widespread use of those natural gas, oil and coal in conjunction with innovative clean technologies have caused American air quality to dramatically improve in the last thirty years. With air quality improving, there is no need to turn the economy on its head and endanger people’s lives with poverty, power outages, and economic disruption.
Even if you buy into the idea that carbon dioxide is harmful, America’s carbon emissions are on the decline. But the truth is, carbon dioxide is a natural occurring and necessary element for life. If we removed all carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, all life would shortly die out as there would be no plant life. Humans and animals require oxygen to respirate and live. Plants require carbon dioxide to live and do photosynthesis which provides animals and humans with food. So take away the carbon dioxide and you kill off life — both animal and plant life. But as I said, even if you buy into the idea that carbon dioxide is at harmful levels (it isn’t), no serious human can hope for a planet without CO2. That would be a dead planet.
The CLEAN Future Act will punish the production and use of our most reliable energy sources, and it will dramatically raise energy costs and destroy jobs. This seems to fit well with Biden’s agenda. He may have promised a “moderate” and “unifying” agenda, but his first months in office blew the lid off the idea that there will be anything moderate or unifying about the Biden-Harris administration.
The bill is also designed to give the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of “social justice” more teeth. For example, the bill would establish an Office of Energy Equity at the Department of Energy. Americans love the idea of equality before the law and the idea that we are all created equal. Justice is a founding ideal for any nation that promotes freedom. But when you add modifiers to the word justice, you are likely not talking about justice, but actually trying to co-opt the term to suit your ulterior motives and goals. With energy policy, the goal should be to provide all of America with reliable and affordable energy. That benefits everyone — the poorest among us, need affordable energy more than anyone else and they need the jobs and opportunity that affordable energy helps create.
So if you are really interested in “energy equity” or “energy fairness,” you would focus on providing reliable energy to Americans at reliable and relatively stable and affordable prices. But if you have another agenda, you might hide it by promising greater energy equity while forcing prices dramatically higher and making the reliability of the energy sources spotty and questionable. That’s exactly what “The CLEAN Future Act” does and it is in line with the Biden-Harris Administration’s goals.
If we imposed the same truth in labelling laws on Congress that apply to food products, this law would be named, “The Make Energy Expensive and Unreliable Act.” And if truthful labeling applied to the committee names in Congress, the committee would no longer be called the Committee on Energy and Commerce, but would be renamed the Committee Against Energy & Commerce.
The alarms bells for the Postal Service’s financial position have been brought to the forefront yet again following the recent release of the Government Accountability Office’s new 2021 High Risk List of vulnerabilities for waste, fraud, and abuse within elements of the Federal government. The report cites USPS losses of $87 billion in the past 14 years and it is projected to lose another $9.7 billion in 2021.
While the nation’s usage of the Postal Service continues to fluctuate amidst changing consumer demands and adjustments to account for the COVID-19 pandemic, the GAO maintains that the USPS is still subject to the essential responsibility of operating with financial self-sufficiency by earning enough revenue from its products so that it can adequately cover costs.
Yet evidence of the USPS’ broken business model have persisted and accelerated as the agency’s expenses exceeded revenues by $18 billion in 2019 and 2020.
Surely the challenges must become a central focus as potential new members to the Board of Governors are considered. Newly announced nominees include recently retired Deputy PMG Ron Stroman, in addition to Anton Hajjar, the former general counsel of the American Postal Workers Union, and Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute.
While the qualifications for the USPS board speak generally to the importance of candidates having a background in public service, law or accounting or have demonstrated skill in managing substantially large organizations, there are also designations that are very specific in nature, including requirements that, “the Governors shall not be representatives of specific interests using the Postal Service.”
With respect to the nominees, such stipulations present myriad questions about conflicts of interest and potential disqualification from consideration including, but not limited to candidates’ history in regularly endorsing and encouraging programs that entail USPS mailing services, and also major inquiries in regards to the representation of postal employees’ interests in direct negotiations with the organization in which they would potentially assume a leadership role.
This is especially important given the Government Accountability Office’s instruction that Congress is to take USPS’s financial condition into account in “any binding arbitration in the negotiation process of USPS labor contracts.” The GAO’s demands ultimately underscore the importance of ensuring that USPS is led by independent thinkers who acknowledge how rectifying the agency’s fiscal chaos is a foremost priority.
Frontiers of Freedom has previously cautioned that simply absolving the USPS of its debt without achieving structural reform would be a nightmare scenario. Following the release of the Postal Service’s year-end financials for 2020, we emphasized the importance of taking action: “In order to effectively manage and reduce the agency’s $160 billion debt, the USPS must update its policies and work with the incoming Biden administration to create thoughtful reform that will help preserve and ensure the success of our most important public institutions.”
The challenges facing the U.S. Postal Service are surely far too significant to be entrusted to potential leaders with unknown motivations and who lack the urgency to help USPS achieve more sustainable financial footing.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has consistently revealed itself to be a rogue regime. China operates “re-education camps” where unpopular minorities are systematically imprisoned, tortured, raped, and killed.The communist regime defends the existence of these camps while denying the atrocities committed in them. These denials are without even the semblance of credibility.
Over the years, China has been caught shipping children’s toys that had been painted with lead paint — decades after it was well known that lead paint is poisonous and particularly harmful to children. China has also poisoned baby food and pet food with melamine — which in nutrition testing gives the food the appearance of having a higher protein content. But the food doesn’t have higher protein, and melamine can cause serious illness, organ failure, and even death. China has also been caught producing vitamins with dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals.
Of course, the PRC consistently denies any wrongdoing — just as it did in 2020 with the COVID-19 virus.The totalitarian regime lied about the virus, misled the world in important ways that cost millions of lives across the globe, and blamed others — all while never accepting any responsibility for the harm that they had done. That’s how dictators and totalitarians roll.
Why does China behave like this? Because the totalitarian regime seeks not only to control and dominate its own population, but to ensnare the rest of us in its web of control. The PRC has a comprehensive plan to make itself the world’s most dominant power and it intends to use that power globally, as it has within its own borders. The PRC’s goal isn’t just to become the world’s largest economy or even to have the world’s largest military. The regime’s objective is to force compliance with its world view, its goals and its preferences.
The PRC is rapidly seeking and building a military and naval force; a space presence; economic, trade and shipping dominance; and technological supremacy. The PRC considers everything to be part of its plan to achieve world governance and control — everything from pet food to 5G wireless technology, from children’s toys to trade agreements and shipping, from software and apps to economics, from artificial intelligence to military force, from space exploration to infiltration of American academia.
The same PRC totalitarians who spy on their own people and systematically punish, imprison, torture and even execute them for having the “wrong” views, opinions, religious beliefs, friends, or family, want to expand the circle of their power. And they want you within that circle so that they can have the same control over you.
One of the PRC’s chief plans is to dominate world shipping — because it will give them both economic and military power. The global trade fleet is about 41,000 ships. China builds almost 1,300 ships a year. The US builds only 8. China has become the dominant player in ship building and operating ports around the globe.
But China does not currently dominate shipping within the borders of the US. That is thanks to the Jones Act which requires that ships used to transport goods between two American ports, must be American ships and American crews. Notably it does not prohibit foreign ships from making a stop in American ports. But between US ports, the Jones Act requires American ships and crews.
The Jones Act was designed to ensure that we have the shipping capacity, trained mariners, and the ship building and ship repairing capability required to meet our national security needs. The Jones Act also turns out to big a huge help in protecting the American homeland.
Some argue that the Jones Act is outdated and that it harms American competitiveness. But ask yourself these important questions — if we abolished the Jones Act, would you be comfortable with Chinese ships sailing up and down the Mississippi loaded with spies and high-tech electronics gathering intelligence and intercepting communications? Would allowing China to have a constant presence in America’s heartland on the more than 25,000 miles of inland waterways make America more or less secure? Would abolishing the Jones Act help or hinder China in achieving its goals of world domination? These are a few of the things that America must consider before listening to those who say the Jones Act should be repealed.
One thing is for sure — China would support the repeal of the Jones Act. China’s totalitarian regime seeks to become our master. We should not help them achieve that goal. That’s why we must have a robust and capable defense that is second to none. That is also why we need the Jones Act.
In two Defining Ideas articles in 2009, “Who’s Afraid of Budget Deficits? I Am” and “Furman, Summers, and Taxes,” I criticized Lawrence Summers and Jason Furman, two prominent economists who worked in the Obama administration, for their dovish views on federal debt and deficits. They had argued that we shouldn’t worry much about high federal budget deficits and growing federal debt. Of course, that was before the record budget deficit of 2020. Now even Summers is worried. In two February op-eds in the Washington Post, Summers argues against the size and composition of the Biden “stimulus” bill.
Summers makes a solid argument, on Keynesian grounds alone, that the proposed $1.9 trillion spending bill is much too large. He also, to his credit, digs into some of the details of the bill, pointing out how absurd they are. Had Summers looked at more details, he could have made an even stronger case against the measure. For instance, one major provision of the bill, the added unemployment benefits through August, will actually slow the recovery. And other provisions of the bill, like the bailout of state and local governments, are bad on other grounds. The fact is that this is not your father’s or your grandmother’s run-of-the-mill recession. It was brought about by two things: (1) people’s individual reactions to the threat of Covid-19 and (2) politicians’ reactions, in the form of lockdowns, to the same threat.
First, though, let’s consider Summers’s big-picture case. A standard way that Keynesian economists, including Summers, evaluate a spending program to stimulate the economy is to consider the difference between the actual output (gross domestic product) of the economy and the potential output, that is, the GDP that would exist at full employment. They then advocate an increase in federal spending to close this gap. The typical increase they favor is less than the gap because of the so-called multiplier effect, the idea that when the feds spend a dollar the increase in spending in the economy is more than a dollar. Such multipliers, you might or might not be surprised to know, are difficult to estimate in advance, a fact that many Keynesians readily admit. But whatever the multiplier is, we know that if the difference between potential and actual output is $x billion, the stimulus spending, in the Keynesian view, should be less than $x billion.
Now comes the shocker. The stimulus spending in the Biden bill is a multiple of x. Summers quotes an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that with the $900 billion measure Congress enacted and President Trump signed in December, the gap between actual output and potential output will fall from about $50 billion a month at the beginning of 2021 to only $20 billion a month at the end. He then notes that the Biden measure would spend about $150 billion per month over many months. So the spending is three times the current shortfall and over seven times the expected shortfall in December.
A major problem with the Keynesian model is that in its simplified form, which, amazingly, is still the one that Keynesian economists use to decide on the amount of spending needed, a dollar that the feds spend on item A is the same as a dollar they spend on item B. Summers, disappointingly but not surprisingly, does not challenge that view directly. He regards the $150 billion per month as overly stimulative whatever it is spent on.
However, Summers does grant the basic fact that one dollar spent on one item could be better or worse than one dollar spent on another item. And he finds much that is bad or, at least, inappropriate. In his February 7 op-ed in which he replies to critics and questioners, Summers notes, “Proposed expenditure levels for school support exceed $2,000 per student.” To put that in perspective, per-pupil spending in K–12 schools in academic year 2017, the most recent year for which we have data, was $13,094. So $2,000 is a huge increase in federal spending on something that, in the government sector at least, has been largely the preserve of state and local governments.
Summers also points out in his February 4 op-ed that the ratio of proposed spending to income loss is even greater for low-income families. He writes:
In normal times, a family of four with a pretax income of $1,000 a week would take home about $22,000 over the next six months. Under the Biden proposal, if the breadwinner were laid off, the family’s income over the next six months would likely exceed $30,000 as a result of regular unemployment insurance, the $400-a-week special unemployment insurance benefit, and tax credits.
Disappointingly, though, Summers doesn’t point out that if the purpose of a stimulus program is to stimulate, paying people an extra $400 a week as long they’re unemployed is a bad idea. This omission is all the more striking given that Summers, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was prominent in arguing that paying people to be unemployed will cause many of the unemployed to stay out of work longer. Indeed, in his article “Unemployment” in my 1993 Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics,later renamed The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Summers wrote:
The second way government assistance programs contribute to long-term unemployment is by providing an incentive, and the means, not to work. Each unemployed person has a “reservation wage”—the minimum wage he or she insists on getting before accepting a job. Unemployment insurance and other social assistance programs increase that reservation wage, causing an unemployed person to remain unemployed longer.
Economists since then have done a number of studies of the effect of extending unemployment benefits beyond the traditional twenty-six weeks, and the bottom line is that the effect is large. For example, Rob Valletta and Katherine Kuang, two economists at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, wrote in November 2010:
By easing the financial burden of long-term unemployment, extended benefits reduce the incentives of eligible workers to search for jobs and fill vacancies. Research by Valletta and Kuang (2010) suggests that the impact of extended insurance benefits on the unemployment rate in late 2009 was only about 0.4 percentage point. Updated estimates for all of 2009 and the first half of 2010 suggest a larger impact of about 0.8 percentage point.
More recently, economists Marcus Hagedorn of the University of Oslo, Iourii Manovskii of the University of Pennsylvania, and Kurt Mitman of Stockholm University, in a 2016 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (“The Impact of Unemployment Benefit Extensions on Employment: The 2014 Employment Miracle?”), found that 2.1 million people got jobs in 2014 due to the ending of the extended unemployment benefits.
Of course, what we would really like to know is the effect of the double whammy of extending unemployment benefits through August and increasing them by $400 per week. The latter measure would cause millions of unemployed people to make more money by being unemployed than by being unemployed. My own admittedly intuitive guess is that if the bill passes with those benefits, at least two million workers who would have been working will be out of work. That one provision of the “stimulus” bill, in short, would create a drag on the economy.
The other major absence from Summers’s critique is any mention of the huge bailout for state and local governments. Last June, in “Just Say No to State and Local Bailouts,” I noted the Federation of Tax Administrators’ estimate that the combined effect of the pandemic and the state government lockdowns would be a loss of $152 billion in state government revenues through the end of their fiscal years. I also pointed out that the state governments’ rainy-day funds plus their year-end balances totaled $90 billion. So the needed cuts in spending to stay within the states’ balanced-budget requirements would have been $62 billion, which was only 7 percent of the prior estimated tax revenues.
These numbers, it turns out, were overly pessimistic. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that state and local government tax collections by the end of 2020 were over 2 percent higher than in the fourth quarter of 2019. It should be even easier for Congress to “just say no” to state and local bailouts. Unfortunately, the $1.9 trillion bill contains $350 billion for state and local governments, territories, and tribes.
Why doesn’t Summers mention the state and local government bailout? I don’t know, but here’s a hypothesis. He wants to get Democrats to listen to him but he knows they’ll turn off if he is too critical. Thus Summers softens his criticism of the bill by writing, “Its ambition, its rejection of austerity orthodoxy, and its commitment to reducing economic inequality are all admirable.” Senator Elizabeth Warren, in her book A Fighting Chance, recalled the advice that Summers had given her in a dinner conversation early in her time as a US senator:
Larry’s tone was in the friendly-advice category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders. (Italics in original.)
I don’t know if this is true, but it fits. Larry Summers has been an insider for a long time and it’s probably hard for him to criticize his allies. That makes his criticism of this bill all the more credible.
I’m an outsider and so it’s easier for me to call them the way I see them. Here are the two major things I see, both of which undercut the case for any stimulus bill.
First, the economy is recovering. In January, the International Monetary Fund predicted that real GDP will grow by 5.1 percent in 2021. Possibly that’s because the IMF understands that this is not a typical recession. The slump we’re in was due initially to people’s fear of the virus, a fear whipped up by Dr. Anthony Fauci and others. But now it’s due mainly to lockdowns. As the percent of the US population that has had COVID-19 rises and the number of people vaccinated rises, we are getting closer to herd immunity. Then people will feel even safer going out and governments will have fewer excuses to keep their economies locked down. We can all become Florida or Florida-Plus. That will all happen without any stimulus bill.
Second, the $1.9 trillion bill represents government taxing us or our children in the future to spend money in places where we the people have chosen not to spend it now. The bill is, in essence, a huge instance of central planning with government officials’ preferences overriding ours. The bill, for example, contains $28 billion for transit agencies, $11 billion in grants to airports and airplane manufacturers, and $2 billion in grants to Amtrak and other transportation. How does the government know that those are the right amounts? What if, as I predict, when the pandemic and lockdowns end we will still have fewer people wanting to ride transit because they and their employers will opt for a hybrid model of some at-home work and some in-office work? The effect of this misallocation of resources won’t necessarily show up in GDP because GDP measures government spending at cost rather than at value. But this spending will make us somewhat worse off. It’s far better to rely on people having the freedom to make their own allocations.
If the government gets out of the way, the economy will recover. Maybe it takes an outsider to see that and to say that. I just did.
In early February congressional Democrats launched an effort to allow unions to implant themselves once again into the lives of workers – whether they’re wanted there or not. The PRO ACT, which the U.S. House of Representatives will soon consider and which, ironically enough, stands for “Protecting the Right to Organize,” would let big labor once again establish a stranglehold over the American economy.
For decades, since President Jimmy Carter’s epic mismanagement of the U.S. economy, the percentage of workers in the private sector belonging to unions has plummeted. The increased cost of membership along with diminishing satisfaction with what unions were able to do to protect the jobs of their members has led more and more of them to seek alternative arrangements.
In some states, worker independence from big labor is made easier by the existence of laws prohibiting agreements between employers and labor unions concerning the extent to which an established union can require employees to be members or to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment either before or after they’re hired.
This concept, known popularly as “right to work” has worked well since it was first introduced in the period just after the end of World War II. It’s now law in more than half the states and others are moving toward adopting it. If the PRO Act passes, right-to-work laws would be eliminated, meaning workers could be forced to join a union or pay fees equivalent to membership dues as a condition of getting or keeping their job.
To protect against this possibility, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has introduced the National Right to Work Act to preserve the options right-to-work laws make available to workers in states that have them and extend to workers in states that do not. The key point, he says, is that workers, not the unions themselves, should make the relevant decisions regarding membership.
“The National Right to Work Act ensures all American workers have the ability to choose to refrain from joining or paying dues to a union as a condition for employment,” Sen. Paul said. There are 27 states with right-to-work laws on the books, the Kentucky Republican said, adding “It’s time for the federal government to follow their lead.”
More than eight in ten workers believe preserving worker choice in such matters is a preeminent concern, according to a Gallup Poll, with more than seven in ten saying they would vote for a ballot measure protecting right-to-work.
The survey data indicates workers already in unions would like to see their options expanded, likely to leverage efforts at reform. One survey conducted nearly a decade ago for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund found that 91 percent of private-sector union members believed there was too much secrecy in how their dues money was spent, 79 percent said union membership should be voluntary, and 63 percent said they would vote out their union leadership for spending dues money on political ads if it could be done by secret ballot to protect them from retribution.
The Paul legislation would repeal six existing statutory provisions allowing private-sector workers and airline and railroad employees to be fired if they don’t pay dues or administrative fees to a union, putting bargaining power back, the senator said, in the hands of America’s workers. A companion bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Joe Wilson, R-S.C.