There are, of course, good political reasons to beware of government crowding out private suppliers; and there are - at least three - good economic reasons to keep government-as-producer at bay:
is an inefficient producer,
encourages over-consumption, and
brings about tax distortions,
all of which three factors reduce our wealth.
Public provision of goods and services is politically popular because it appears to furnish us with a free lunch, when in fact it is a highly costly way of delivering, where some may receive a subsidy while overall more must be paid.
Inefficient producer: government is politically exempt from the profit-and-loss system that private producers are relentlessly exposed to. The public sector is capable of production that is not economically viable. It is also often removed from establishing the degree of economic viability of its operations. Being insulated from the rationality and pressures of an economic enterprise, public providers of goods and services are not permanently forced to seek new, better, and more efficient ways of operating.
Over-consumption: When the consumer bears the cost of goods and services, demand is self-limiting. You pay as long as something is (a) worth it - i.e. benefits exceeding costs - and (b) within your budgetary means.
Replacing self-limiting consumption decisions by its own centralised discretion, and
being exempted from economic rationality (see "inefficient producer"), which precludes private providers from producing at prices insufficient to cover their fixed and variable costs, while at the same time
under political pressure to keep up the pretense of a free lunch,
government tends to encourage over-consumption.
Tax distortions: Were government an efficient producer and capable of preventing over-consumption, it would still be lagging private providers in that it depends for its financing on taxes, which are
expensive to raise both for government itself and for taxpayers, and
tend to impose further economic costs by punishing and thus discouraging productive economic activities, such as thrift or provision of employment.
In conclusion: substituting public for private spending on providing goods and services is equivalent to shifting more resources to the high-cost producer.
In writing this chapter, I have been leaning heavily on Arnold Kling's "Learning Economics" - Chapter 57: Government: The High-Cost Producer.
Image credit. A question of which system is better adapted to which task.
Law of Markets argues:
With QE we are not talking about troubled assets or dealing with an emergency. It is just straight out inflation.
Second, inflation has now come to mean rises in prices when once it meant printing money. The Keynesians switched the terminology to movements in prices in the 1930s so that their policies would no longer be immediately described as inflation (discussed in the 2nd ed of my Free Market Economics [FME2] pages 406-408). But let’s not quibble about this. What ought to be understood instead is that the effect of inflating the money supply to fund public spending has a number of possible effects of which higher prices is only one. Without militant unions and continuous labour market pressures to push wages up, inflation in the form of price increases is subdued. And whatever else may be the case at the moment pretty well everywhere, only those in very protected environments are in the mood to be pushing for significantly higher wages that would put their jobs at risk.
The real issue is that the way in which the re-direction of expenditure to the public sector is and will continue to manifest itself in a crumbling capital stock (see FME2: p410). The economy of the United States is falling to bits. It will take a longish time since it has a massive asset base but it is being eroded fast enough, which is evident in the median income data and elsewhere.
Is this view in conflict with what Arnold Kling - in The Segmented Wealth of Nations (see especially the paragraph at the bottom of the post) - identifies as the sources of crisis and contemporary economic change? I don't think so.
For a reminder why shifting toward public sector provision of goods and services is a decision for high cost production, take a look at Government - High-Cost Producer.
The other day, I was sternly encouraged by one of the figureheads of German liberalism to boycott Amazon and support retail booksellers by my patronage. The appeal struck me as incongruous. To me Amazon, including the whole new ebook culture, have brought about a welcome revolution that empowers - in the best tradition of freedom and capitalism - the consumer, as well as rewarding consumer-oriented suppliers and widening the options and commercial prospects of those seeking to publish their written work.
Especially, as a rather undiscerning youngster, my mind was to a large extent shaped by the sales mix of the local book shops. With the additional help of newspapers and the school, uncontested sources of authority, my mind was being put on a one-track trail.
I suspect that with the internet's dramatically widened spectrum of knowledge offerings and increased discretion in the choice of information (including information contained in books), we are lifting the level of tolerance among us, strengthening civil society's ability to resist the political ascendancy of radically one-sided views.
In an article well worth reading, Matthew Yglesias argues that the publishing industry nowadays
adds almost no value, it is going to be wiped off the face of the earth soon, and writers and readers will be better off for it.
The US economy has a competitive intensity problem, and [a] decline in startups is at its core. Startups are the straw that stirs the drink. They generate new innovation (and new jobs) and force incumbents to improve or die. They change everything, creating a healthier, more vibrant economy in the process.
In the US economic ecosystem, startups are wolves. And we need more of them, and the creative destruction they bring, to transform our stagnating economy.
4. So I have a PSST model for unemployment [see my post here, G.T.], and my “weak” model[s] for inflation. I think it is fair to criticize them as “just-so stories.” But I would say the same thing about the sorts of models preferred by Blanchard or Krugman. Just-so stories, dressed up in pretty math.
To which I replied:
Your concession as to the role of just-so theories in economics strikes me as significant, and even surprising. As I regard you as a serious thinker, I must rule out the conclusion that economics is idle prattle to you. But what is it?
To the extent that economics is based on story telling, what is it in the nature of that narrative habit that sustains economics as a worthwhile form of thinking about human interaction?
I hope, in writing this, I don't sound cynical or facetious. Increasingly, I get interested in the role of (rational) ignorance, which all conceivable societies are inevitably affected by in very considerable measure; and I wonder, how do we manage the vastness of our (rational) ignorance so well - in countries such as the US or Germany, where life is quite bearable?
The consideration that (rational) ignorance is a virtually invariant phenomenon in all modern societies including all conceivable improved versions (such as, say, a significantly more libertarian society), has led me to become a lot more respectful of politics and the state (as a functional necessity that, of course, may fail) than I used to be, their tremendous dangers and deficiencies notwithstanding.
Politics and the state seem to be (a) the result and (b) the instrumental basis of more or less successful story telling. For politics seems to be involved in seeking out procedures indispensable in dealing with large amounts of irreducible (rational) ignorance.
We need to tell us reassuring stories to sustain sufficient levels of trust while living in a largely anonymous society.
Politics is a spontaneous order - a hugely important aspect of spontaneous order totally disregarded by Hayek - that serves as a discovery procedure whose (functionally desirable) end product is at least a minimal level of trust etc. needed to support social order. A highly narrative enterprise, full of just-so stories.
If there is something to this view, what role does economics play in it with its just-so stories?
Arnold Kling replied:
I limit the scope of “just-so stories” to macroeconomics. Microeconomics often generates predictions that are falsifiable.
To which I replied:
Politics is what happens when we have to tell people:
“Sorry, serious economics cannot handle conclusively issues like unemployment or the nature of an advisable monetary regime.”
And macroeconomics is what happens when economists participate in politics.
Seriously, if there are vital topics of an economic nature that cannot be covered in a scientifically sound way, then there must inevitably develop a part of economics that deals in and is based on rhetoric and techniques of persuasion – not necessarily as something to be maligned, but possibly as a cultural pattern of mutual reassurance, just like free speech may work very well in maintaining peace (social order) even though what is being exchanged is partly of an acrimonious and a generally nonsensical nature, as the case may be.
I believe, this has very serious implications for liberty. If vital social issues of an economic kind cannot be resolved conclusively in support of a certain vision of society, say a classical liberal society, then the case for classical liberalism is incomplete, inconclusive in vital regards, and thus open to severe contestation not only among classical liberals but all citizens, parties, and factions of a free society.
The value of freedom lies in her ability to embrace and cope with the uncertainties and disunity underlying a community inevitably entertaining rhetorically constituted views of society.
No less than free markets, politics ought to be conceived of in terms of a spontaneous order.
Political structures evolve to seek out ways of attenuating the risks inherent in vast and widespread ignorance of the conditions giving rise to successful human coexistence.
Freedom produces these risks, while at the same time providing an excellent laboratory in which to test insurance and abortive products to defend against the dangers of inevitable ignorance.
Small advances in freedom - small compared to the freedom we are taking for granted - can make a huge difference in the living conditions and outlook of people, and ultimately, in their political ambitions.
The world barely noticed a remarkable achievement last year: For the first time in nearly three decades, North Korean farmers managed to produce enough food to meet the population's basic survival needs. In spite of a drought this spring, preliminary reports indicate that this year's harvest is likely to be good, too.
This success, such as it is, arose out of necessity. In the 1990s, industrial output in North Korea halved and an agricultural collapse led to famine. The vast majority of North Koreans survived by establishing an underground market economy. They had little choice: With the shelves of state-run shops empty of food, rationing coupons suddenly became worthless pieces of paper.
Most of these private enterprises started small. Farmers started growing their own food on mountainside plots. Workers began to use (or steal) equipment from state-owned factories to make their own products, which they then sold. Some people opened secret restaurants, others did informal tailoring. Markets, which the regime had barely tolerated, moved into the open.
As one might expect, some elements of North Korea’s emerging entrepreneurial class became relatively rich and began to look for more lucrative opportunities. Private workshops, inns and eateries began to spring up.
seldom start when people are desperate; they are more likely to erupt when citizens have [attained a certain level of material advancement, G.T., and therefore] come to believe that life could be significantly better under different leadership. Economic growth brings more knowledge of the (more successful) outside world. The changes also make people less fearful of the government, since they are no longer as dependent on the state for their livelihoods. A brighter future for North Koreans could well mean a darker one for the regime.
I like the discernment in Arnold Kling's three-pronged argument according to which:
(1) economy-wide wage growth is too highly aggregated a performance figure for analysing the economy,
(2) the Fed is trailing the real economy,
(3) the economy can be and presently is segmented so that certain layers of it experience vibrant economic activity, while others are mired in recession.
On (1), I would note that a few years ago wage growth was violating the Phillips Curve on the high side [meaning, I suppose: too high employment relative to the level of inflation, with strong demand for labour and correspondingly high wage growth, G.T.], and now it is violating the Phillips Curve on the low side [employment is too low given the level of inflation, with insufficient demand for labour and correspondingly weak wage growth, G.T.]. And yet mainstream macroeconomists stick to the Phillips Curve like white on rice. I would emphasize that the very concept of “the” wage rate is a snare and a delusion. Yes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures such a thing.
Instead, think of our economy as consisting of multiple labor market segments, not tightly connected to one another. There are many different types of workers and many different types of jobs, and the mix keeps shifting. I would bet that in recent years the official statistics on “the” wage rate have been affected more by mix shifts than by a systematic relationship between “the” wage rate and “the” unemployment rate.
On (2), I view this as evidence for my minority view that the Fed is not a big factor in the bond market. Instead, the Fed is mostly just following the bond markets. When it actually tries to affect the bond market, what you get are “anomalies,” i.e., the failure of the bond market to do as expected by the Fed.
On (3), I think that we are seeing a Charles Murray economy. In Murray’s Belmont, where the affluent, high-skilled workers live, I am hearing stories of young people quitting jobs for better jobs. On the basis of anecdotes, I would say that for young graduates of top-200 colleges, the recession is finally over. The machinery of finding sustainable patterns of specialization and trade is finally cranking again.
In Murray’s Fishtown, on the other hand, the recession is not over. I would suggest that we are seeing the cumulative effects of regulations, taxes, and means-tested benefits that reduce the incentive for firms to hire low-skilled workers as well as the incentive for those workers to take jobs. As Sumner points out, President Obama’s policies have moved in the direction of making these incentives worse.
Read the whole post on Arnold Kling's theory of the segmented wealth of nations.
For a broader context of Kling's take, consider his intriguing account of contemporary economic change:
I am inclined to treat the financial crisis as a blip, one whose apparent macroeconomic impact was made somewhat worse by the very policies that mainstream economists claim were successful.
This blip took place in the context of key multi-decade trends:
–the transition away from goods-producing sectors and toward the New Commanding Heights of education and health care
–the transition of successful men away from marrying housekeepers and toward marrying successful women
–the integration of workers in other nations, most notably China and India, into the U.S. production system
–the increasing power of computer technology that is more complementary to some workers than others
These trends are what explain the patterns of employment and relative wages that we observe. The financial crisis, and the government panic in response, pushed the impact of some of these developments forward in time.
One of the biggest problems worldwide is the absence of state structures capable of protecting economic liberty. Hernando de Soto claims that about 2/3 of the world population are affected by this bad state of affairs. It is incumbent upon those who are conscious of the value of liberty to promote the liberal state in the Third World - and, of course, as the below article shows, at home as well. Free markets do not just happen, they must be politically fought for and defended. Once again: the state is important for liberty, and so is politics.
Writes Mark J. Perry:
In today’s WSJ, Hernando de Soto argues that the cure for terrorism in the Middle East is capitalism, economic empowerment, and private property rights to help rescue “extralegal entrepreneurs” who have become trapped in their own countries as “economic refugees” by cronyism and burdensome over-regulation of market activity. Here’s an excerpt of “The Capitalist Cure for Terrorism” (emphasis mine):
It is widely known that the Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation in 2011 of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street merchant. But few have asked why Bouazizi felt driven to kill himself—or why, within 60 days, at least 63 more men and women in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also set themselves on fire, sending millions into the streets, toppling four regimes and leading us to today’s turmoil in the Arab world.
These suicides, we found, weren’t pleas for political or religious rights or for higher wage subsidies. Bouazizi and the others who burned themselves were extralegal entrepreneurs: builders, contractors, caterers, small vendors and the like. In their dying statements, none referred to religion or politics. Most of those who survived their burns spoke to us of “economic exclusion.”
In an interesting complement to de Soto, George Will makes a similar argument in today’s Washington Post that America’s “teeth-whitening entrepreneurs” are being denied the right to earn a living, and have become “economic refugees” in North Carolina because of cronyism capitalism, protectionist rent-seeking, and the burdensome over-regulation of market activity. Here’s an excerpt of “Supreme Court Has a Chance to Bring Liberty to Teeth Whitening” (emphasis mine):
On Tuesday, the national pastime will be the subject of oral arguments in a portentous Supreme Court case. This pastime is not baseball but rent-seeking — the unseemly yet uninhibited scramble of private interests to bend government power for their benefit. If the court directs a judicial scowl at North Carolina’s State Board of Dental Examiners, the court will thereby advance a basic liberty — the right of Americans to earn a living without unreasonable government interference.
In the New York Times, Arnold Kling presents an outline of his intriguing theory of the conditions of economic health and dislocation, an approach to business cycles which he abbreviates as patterns of sustainable specialization and trade (PSST):
How are jobs created?
For Keynesians, job creation is simple. Entrepreneurs have knowledge of how and what to produce. All that is required is more demand, in order to induce them to undertake more hiring.
In contrast, in our Smith-Ricardo story, the knowledge of how and what to produce has to be discovered. Entrepreneurs have to figure out ways to utilize resources that satisfy wants in an efficient way. The market mechanism first must undertake trial and error to create production processes that exploit comparative advantage. Until these new patterns of sustainable specialization and trade are discovered, there are no job slots.
Experimenting with new patterns of specialization and trade is relatively easy. Discovering patterns of sustainable specialization and trade is much harder. Our economic well-being depends on the ability of entrepreneurs to make these discoveries.