Black Adder

Monty rules!

Federal Judge Rules Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.

A copy of the decision is here. Two other federal district courts have previously upheld the individual mandate against constitutional challenge, and at least one suit remains pending.

It’s often claimed that the individual mandate is a necessary compliment to the provisions of ObamaCare banning denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions and so forth. The idea is that if an insurance company can’t deny you coverage once you are already sick there is a strong incentive not to get coverage until you are already sick, which leads to a death spiral (that’s a technical term) of increased insurance prices and lower levels of coverage.

However, as Paul Starr noted back when the bill was being debated, there are ways of dealing with this problem that don’t involve a mandate:

The law could give people a right to opt out of the mandate if they signed a form agreeing that they could not opt in for the following five years. In other words, instead of paying a fine, they would forgo a potential benefit. For five years they would become ineligible for federal subsidies for health insurance and, if they did buy coverage, no insurer would have to cover a pre-existing condition of theirs.

The idea for this opt-out comes from an analogous provision in Germany, which has a small sector of private insurance in addition to a much larger state insurance system. Only some Germans are eligible to opt for private insurance, but if they make that choice, the law prevents them from getting back at will into the public system. That deters opportunistic switches in and out of the public funds, and it helps to prevent the private insurers from cherry-picking healthy people and driving up insurance costs in the public sector.

For whatever reason, the Democrats choose not to head this advice, and didn’t include any alternative to the mandate in the bill, even as a fall back measure. This means that, if the mandate is ultimately found unconstitutional, there will be nothing in the law to prevent the “death spiral” scenario. Granted, this can always be passed in the future, but this may not be as easy to do depending on the political environment at that time. Why the Democrats didn’t do this is a mystery to me.

Tight Money is a Tax on the Unemployed

One argument commonly made by inflation hawks is that inflation is bad because it is a tax on savers. The idea being that since inflation erodes the purchasing power of a dollar, those who keep their money in a savings account will end up being able to buy less with that money down the road if there is inflation than if there is not. There is an element of truth to this idea, though if inflation is expected there are ways to deal with the problem, such as offering higher interest rates for savings accounts.

A propos of David’s post earlier to day, however, it occurs to me that there is a flip side to the inflation taxes savings argument, namely that disinflation (i.e. lower than expected inflation) functions as a tax on the unemployed. When a certain amount of inflation is expected over the coming years, this ends up getting built into people’s wage demands, contracts, loans, etc. If inflation is approximately 2-3% a year for several decades, then people will come to expect a raise of at least 2-3% a year to cover the increase in the cost of living, and they will get upset if this doesn’t happen, even if inflation is significantly below 2-3% (on election day I met a man who was angry he had been denied a cost of living raise in his Social Security for 2009, even though there was deflation that year).

If expected inflation doesn’t appear, there won’t be enough money for businesses to pay their workers and will have to cut either wages or employment. But since workers hate nominal wage cuts (even where these don’t translate into real wage cuts), employers tend to respond to this situation by laying people off rather than spreading the pain around. The result is that during inflationary or disinflationary periods real wages tend to increase (since prices are falling while wages remain constant in nominal terms) and so does unemployment. Functionally this acts as a kind of wealth transfer from the unemployed to those who still have jobs. Thus, tight money is a tax on the unemployed.

Quote of the Week

So I’ve been reading Fintan O’Toole’s Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic on my Kindle recently. I know what you’re thinking: why would someone read a book about how to make Irish politics more left-wing when he is neither 1) Irish nor 2) left-wing? And it’s true, I have a problem; I need help.

But leave that aside for now. I’m currently on a section in which O’Toole rails against the large place the Catholic Church has in providing health care in Ireland. It seems that the Irish bishops have actually had the temerity to oppose increased government involvement in health care, as this would interfere with the Church’s role. For example, in 1948 the Bishops opposed a government plan to provide free health care to children and new mothers. O’Toole quotes Bishop Cornelius Lucey of Cork laying out the Church’s view on the part the state should play in health care:

What should we expect from the State? Help to enable us to help ourselves. Thus, instead of providing directly through its own agencies free housing for all, free health services for all, free school meals for all, etc., it should rather see to it that these are available and that people can afford to pay for them. Thus the real answer to the problem of the man who cannot afford medical care for his wife and children is not a free mother and child service for all, but a rise in wages – or cut in taxes – sufficient to enable him to pay.

Milton Friedman couldn’t have said it better himself.

I note this because you sometimes hear it said that American political culture is fundamentally protestant, and that Catholics who believe in limited government are somehow buying into protestant individualist notions. Correct me if I’m wrong, though, but my impression is that Ireland circa 1948 was pretty Catholic.

Is Inflation Hiding?

There’s an old saying, which I’ve seen attributed to every from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to the effect that while a man is entitled to his own opinion he is not entitled to his own facts. This saying would seem to be particularly relevant to current arguments about the Federal Reserve and monetary stimulus. As I noted in my last post, some commentators have been warning for years that the Fed’s actions would cause a return to the high inflation of the 1970s, if not to 1920s Germany. Yet more than two years on, this inflation has failed to materialize.

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More Money, Less Problems

If the case for increased monetary stimulus could be summed up in one picture, it would be the above chart. For the last several decades, nominal spending in the U.S. has increased at a fairly steady rate, and businesses and individuals acted in the expectation that this trend would continue. Contracts were written, debts undertaken, and business ventures began under the assumption that there would be roughly 2% inflation per year. The lower total spending means that there is not enough money flowing through the system to fulfill these contracts and pay back these debts, which the result that you get lots of defaults, unemployment, and less economic growth. Monetary stimulus, such as the Fed’s QEII program, is aimed at returning nominal spending to trend, leading to lower unemployment, fewer defaults, and higher economic growth. Continue reading

The True Cost of TARP

What does the fact that, so it now seems, the TARP program will only end up costing taxpayers $25 billion tell us about the merits of the program? According to Jonathan Chait, this low price-tag makes the program “one of the most successful policy initiatives in American history.” This is a bad argument. If, as its proponents claim, TARP really did stave off a second Great Depression, then it would have been one of the most successful policy initiatives in American history even if it had cost taxpayers the full $700 billion. On the other hand, if TARP wasn’t necessary, then it likely wasn’t worth it even at the cost of only $100 per American.

Positive assessments of TARP seem to typically assume that the alternative to TARP would have been doing nothing (actually many opponents of TARP also tend to assume this). But this is not plausible. If Congress had decisively rejected TARP, it’s not like Bernanke was going to pull a Ray Patterson and book a cruise to Fiji. Instead we likely would have had an earlier bigger QE I. The overall economy would have ended up roughly in the same place, except that Wall Street would have borne a larger share of the pain.

This, at any rate, is the view of a number of iconoclastic economists on both the left and right. Continue reading

Apologia Pro Libertarianism Sua

There’s been a bit of discussion about the nature of libertarianism on the blog recently, and as the resident pseudo-libertarian, I thought I would re-state where I come down on the matter (this is based largely on an older post I did on the subject, which sadly is now lost in the cyber-ether).

To understand where I am coming from, one needs to make a distinction between political positions held as a matter of moral principle, and those held as a matter of prudence. Take the issue of torture. One might oppose the use of torture on the grounds that it’s not a good way to get information from suspects, or because by using torture on the enemy you risk retaliation by the enemy on your people, etc. Alternatively one might believe that torture is just immoral, and you should do it regardless of whether or not it is effective.

Call the first type of objection to torture “pragmatic” and the second “principled.” (A person might object to torture on both pragmatic and principled grounds, in which case the opposition would be principled, though buttressed by pragmatic considerations). Dividing the justifications for various political positions into principled or pragmatic can be sometimes tricky, but the basic idea is, I hope, intuitive enough.

A principled libertarian, as I use the term, is someone who holds libertarian political beliefs for principled reasons. Taxation is theft, my body, my business, etc. In my experience, when you say libertarian this is what people think of. Continue reading

Open Letter to Conservatives on Monetary Policy

By monetary economist Scott Sumner:

1. The Fed isn’t really trying to create inflation.

The Fed doesn’t directly control inflation; they influence total nominal spending, which is roughly what Keynesians call aggregate demand. Whether higher nominal spending results in higher inflation depends on a number of factors, such as whether the economy has a lot of underutilized resources. But it’s certainly true that for any given increase in NGDP, the Fed would prefer more RGDP growth and less inflation. Even after QE2, the Fed still expects less than 2% inflation for years to come. If the Fed had any marketing sense, they’d be telling the public they are trying to boost recovery by increasing national income, not increasing the cost of living. It would also have the virtue of being true.

2. “But doesn’t economic theory teach us that printing lots of money creates high inflation?”

In general that is true. But there are three important exceptions:

1. If the monetary injections are expected to be temporary, the inflationary effect is far smaller. The Japanese central bank did lots of QE in 2003, but pulled much of the money out in 2006 when deflation ended. It worked in preventing high inflation, indeed it may have worked too well.

2. If interest rates are near zero, the public demands more liquidity. The Fed can supply that liquidity with little impact on the price level.

3. If the Fed pays interest on reserves, then the quantity theory of money (more money means more inflation) doesn’t necessarily hold. They recently started paying interest on reserves, and that’s one reason why the big injections from 2008 didn’t have an inflationary impact. The Fed can adjust the rate as necessary, and indeed in my view a lower IOR would be more effective that QE2. Continue reading

Moralism and Monetary Policy

Last week I mentioned in the comments to this post that I think most political and financial problems are fundamentally technical rather than moral and cultural in nature. Several people took exception to this idea, so I figured I should probably try to elaborate a bit on what I meant.

Start with a historical example. During the 14th century, European society was rent asunder by the Black Death. Between a third and half of people died, and the resulting turmoil caused serious political, economic, and social upheavals. As Wikipedia notes, many governments “instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain and outlawed large-scale fishing,” none of which stopped the spread of the disease. Given the vast amount of suffering, it’s only natural that many people concluded that the causes of the Black Death were fundamentally moral or cultural in nature. Many people argued that human sinfulness, greed, pride, etc., had caused God to turn his back on Western society, whereas others sought to blame the outbreak on a specific group, such as the Jews. Today, of course, most people recognize that the cause of the plague was less a matter of morality than of hygiene. But if you were to tell an average 14th century European that the plague was being caused by fleas from rats, he would likely think you were naively trivializing the issue. Continue reading

Caritas in Veritate 25, By the Numbers

My co-blogger Tim recently highlighted the following statement from Pope Benedict’s latest social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

The global market has stimulated first and foremost, on the part of rich countries, a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods, increasing purchasing power and thus accelerating the rate of development in terms of greater availability of consumer goods for the domestic market. Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States as they seek to attract foreign businesses to set up production centres, by means of a variety of instruments, including favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market. These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers’ associations.

Now in this passage, the Pope makes a number of factual and causal claims. First, he claims that the global market has led countries to “attempt to attract foreign businesses” by adopting “favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market.” Second, the Pope claims that these reforms (i.e. adopting “favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market”) have led to “a downsizing of social security systems” and “cuts in social spending.”

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On Not Having Sex At Harvard

From the New York Times:

There was a time when not having sex consumed a very small part of Janie Fredell’s life, but that, of course, was back in Colorado Springs. It seemed to Fredell that almost no one had sex in Colorado Springs. Her hometown was extremely conservative, and as a good Catholic girl, she was annoyed by all the fundamentalist Christians who would get in her face and demand, as she put it to me recently, “You have to think all of these things that we think.” They seemed not to know that she thought many of those things already. At her public high school, everyone, “literally everyone,” wore chastity rings, Fredell recalled, but she thought the practice ridiculous. Why was it necessary, she wondered, to signify you’re not doing something that nobody is doing?

And then Fredell arrived at Harvard.

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Progressives Are Not Cynical Enough About Business

One thing my study of economics has taught me is that businesses will tend to act in whatever way they think will bring them the most profit. There may be rare exceptions, and of course businessmen often have mixed motives. But the overall tendency in this direction is very strong.

My guess is that if you surveyed people, many more self-described progressives would say that they agreed with the statement than self-described conservatives. Indeed, progressives often criticize conservatives and libertarians for being insufficiently attuned to the rapacious self-interest motivating businessmen.

Yet oddly enough, it seems to me that one of the main problems with progressive thought is that they don’t take the idea that businesses act to maximize profit seriously enough. For a group that claims to have a low opinion of businessmen, progressives have a strange habit of advocating policies that will only work on the supposition that businesses won’t act to maximize profit, and then react with shock when they proceed to do so.

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HHS Statement on Abortion Funding

The Department of Health and Human Services has released the following statement regarding allegations that newly approved Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plans would cover abortions:

As is the case with FEHB plans currently, and with the Affordable Care Act and the President’s related Executive Order more generally, in Pennsylvania and in all other states abortions will not be covered in the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) except in the cases of rape or incest, or where the life of the woman would be endangered.

Our policy is the same for both state and federally-run PCIP programs. We will reiterate this policy in guidance to those running the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan at both the state and federal levels. The contracts to operate the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan include a requirement to follow all federal laws and guidance.

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Remembering Bastille Day

Today is Bastille Day, typically associated with the start of the French Revolution. In honor of that blessed event, I offer up this classic piece by John Zmirak:

Remember when the L.A. riots spun out of control, and engulfed the whole United States? The key moment was no doubt when police and Army commanders took fright and changed sides, throwing their support to the Committee for Public Safety led by Tom Hayden, along with Noam Chomsky, Barbara Boxer, Michael Moore, and Edward Said. After Hayden’s fall and execution, his successor, Marion Barry, insisted that President Bush and his wife Barbara be tried for treason. Their executions shocked the world but sparked wild celebrations in the capital, as the First Couple’s severed heads danced on poles in daylong parades. A crack whore was duly enshrined in the National Cathedral as the Goddess of Reason.

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Inequality: Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It

In my last post I looked at the question of how to calculate the just or living wage, using figures from Father Ryan’s classic text A Living Wage brought up to date by adjusting for inflation. Commenter Restrained Radical, however, thinks that in merely adjusting for inflation I was being too stingy:

Adjusting for inflation isn’t necessary the best way to adjust Fr. Ryan’s figures. Real GDP per capita grew faster than inflation. In other words, Americans got wealthier. Using Fr. Ryan’s figures today adjusted for inflation would be appropriate if real GDP per capita was stagnate for 89 years. In 1919, GDP per capita was $805. If you only adjust for inflation, that would be $9,897 today. That’s somewhere between Cuba and South Africa. So $6.15/hour would be an appropriate living wage for a family of 5, in Cuba.

If instead we adjust for unskilled labor wage increase (4.24% annualized since 1919), $1,400 to $1,500 then would be $56,388 to $60,416. That’s probably closer to what Fr. Ryan had in mind.

In 2008, median household income in the United States was $52,029. If Restrained Radical’s interpretation is correct, then it would seem Father Ryan was advocating a kind of Lake Wobegon society, where everyone has the right to an above average income.

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