Our Social Safety Net

Virtually every country provides assistance to their poorest citizens–to those who fall for one reason or another from normal employment. Approaches to fulfill this objective differ widely. The Federal safety net spending in in the United States in 2019 was 2,600 billion dollars. Total government (Federal, State, and local) entitlement spending was 2,900 billion dollars. Of this, about one third was for Social Security and one third for Medicare and Medicaid.

“The federal government funds 126 separate programs targeted towards low‐​income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in‐​kind benefits to individuals. (The rest fund community‐​wide programs for low‐​income neighborhoods, with no direct benefits to individuals.) State and local governments operate more welfare programs.”[1] This year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has added about $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000) for temporary one-time assistance for the impact of the forced interruption of production, and is likely to add more.

The goal of these programs is, or should be, to adequately support those needing it without creating disincentives to work and with minimal abuse (corruption). The CARES Act and other pandemic assistance programs were quickly created in an emergency. It is thus understandable that mistakes were made. As time goes on charges of corruption (politically motivated expenditures) are multiplying. The administrative challenges of suddenly making millions of individual payments quickly and correctly were and are huge.

There is a dramatically better way to do this. We might characterize our existing approach of government directed assistance (e.g. food stamps) as the Socialist Model. It is top down and dictates how the assistance is to be used. Replacing all of these programs with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) leaves the decisions on how its recipients use it with each individual. This might be characterized as the Individualist Model. It has many advantages over our existing approach.

A UBI would eliminate all government discretion over who receives assistance and how much they receive.  Every adult citizen would receive that same amount monthly (and every legal child would receive the same smaller amount). The government could not favor one group over another on any bases other than age. This removes political considerations from defining and administering the payments. Every birth and death in the country is recorded in a county hall of records and every legal immigration is recorded with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Thus, the records upon which payments would be based already exist. Using them would remove my need every year to submit a certified document to my pension plan stating that I am still alive. No special measures or supplements would have been needed to address the personal income shocks of covid-19.

One carveout would be required for medical insurance. Every person or family should be required to use part of its monthly UBI to buy a health insurance policy that at a minimum includes catastrophic care coverage. At the launch of UBI and this insurance mandate, insurers would not be allowed to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions and the government would cover the actuarial estimate of the extra cost of such conditions.

As the UBI would replace Social Security pensions, another modification would be for the unlikely case that the UBI would be less than ones current Social Security pension (which in 2017 was $13,824 for someone who retired at age 65). So, for such a person who has already retired or is, say, within five years of retirement, their UBI should not be less than their existing Social Security pension. But a UBI of $1,500 per month ($18,000 per annum) for everyone seems reasonable, which would make this case mute.

Those with a welfare state mentality argue that people can’t be trusted to spend such income wisely (from their perspective). I reject such thinking. There are among us, of course, those individuals with addictions and mental illnesses who are indeed not capable of making their own decisions and thus caring for themselves. Our laws and practices already provide for such special cases and would continue to supersede the rights of such individuals to make their own decisions about the uses of their UBIs.

But can we afford it? Today’s American population is about 330 million, of which about 80 million are under the age of 20. To get a rough sense of what is possible, if we replaced today’s safety net expenditures of 2.9 trillion with a UBI to the 33% poorest (110 million people, of whom 25% or 26 million are under 20 years old) in the U.S. in 2019 each person could received about $26,000 per year or about $2,200 per month. If children (those under 20) are paid half what is paid to adults, existing safety net expenditures could finance about $15,000 per child per year and $30,000 per adult if a UBI is given to the lowest third of the population in terms of income. For a family of four this would be an annual income of $90,000, which is above the median household income of about $64,000 in 2019, and is clearly excessive.

But a UBI must be universal. It must be paid to everyone for several simple reasons. Most importantly, it would eliminate the disincentive to work in the existing programs, which end if a person’s income rises above a specified level. With a UBI, every additional dollar of income joins an irreducible UBI. Every additional dollar earned make the recipient that much better off (the UBI amount plus the earned income). This is a very important feature. In addition, it would remove any political question over the level of income at which it should be withdrawn. It would be paid to everyone regardless of their income.

But paying the UBI to everyone, not just the lowest one third, would triple its cost. Can we afford it? Clearly those who pay taxes will have to pay more to cover this additional cost. But as the additional cost is to cover payments to these taxpayers, they would not pay more on net (depending on the nature and structure of our tax systems).  For reasons of equity and tax efficiency I have long advocated a flat tax, meaning the same marginal tax rate for everyone paying taxes. “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017” I would go even further and replace income taxation (both corporate and personal) with a flat rate, comprehensive consumption tax.  When a flat rate tax, whether income or consumption, is combined with a UBI, the net result is mildly progressive. Low income people pay no tax on net and in fact receive net income via the UBI (what Milton Friedman called a negative income tax). Middle income families might break even (receive a UBI sufficient to pay for their extra taxes) and for higher income families their extra taxes would be greater than their UBI, hence a progressive average tax rate system even with flat marginal rates.

A UBI with a flat rate consumption tax would enormously simplify our tax and welfare system while improving the financial incentives to work and returning more control over our lives to individuals from the state. Covid-19 dramatically demonstrates that the time has come to replace existing welfare systems with a Universal Basic Income (UBI).


[1] Michael Tanner, “When Welfare Pays Better than Work” CATO Institute, August 19, 2013.

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Supply Chains

When politicians and pundit refer to trade or supply chains, they invariable mean cross border trade or supply chains.  This is a mistake. President Trump recently provided a particularly nonsensical example:

“In Washington, President Trump lambasted corporate America for “these stupid supply chains” and said the pandemic had proven him right on the need to bring factories home.

“We have a supply chain where they’re made in all different parts of the world. And one little piece of the world goes bad and the whole thing is messed up,” he told Fox Business in May. “I said we shouldn’t have supply chains. We should have them all in the United States.” “Coronavirus-globalization-manufacturing”

Trade occurs whenever you sell your labor or whatever you produce and buy what you need from others. Trade starts at your doorstep and without it you would starve to death. Supply chains exist whenever you purchase inputs to whatever you (or the firm you work for) are making from someone else rather than making every component yourself. If you are a carpenter, you buy your tools from someone else.

You might think that you should confine trade and/or associated supply chains to your family or your village for some reason, but you would give up the efficiencies of greater specialization when trading more widely (maybe even across national borders). And such restrictions would lower–potentially significantly lower–your income and standard of living as well as the incomes of your trading partners.

This does not mean that there are no risks in relying on others to produce some of what you want. If there is only one source of what you buy, you risk going without if that source stops producing. But that is rarely the case. I briefly thought it might be for toilet paper in March when the supermarket t-paper shelves were empty for a few weeks. But I bought some on line from China and it was delivered to my door.

Manufacturers whose supply chains have only one source are taking a risk for whatever efficiency they enjoy. Having multiple suppliers or supply options is a form of insurance and is generally wise.  But it makes little sense for a Southern California manufacturer who buys some of its inputs from across the border in Mexico to be forced to shift its supply chain to Pennsylvania in order to have it “in the United States.” Transportation costs would be higher and with greater risk of weather or other transportation disruption. On the other hand, relying on the much closer source across a national border has the risk of an unpredictable President imposing a tax (tariff) on imports from Mexico. Our wise constitution prevents him from doing so on interstate commerce.  

The uncertainty of today’s world is causing firms to reevaluate the risks of long supply chains. That is prudent, but insisting that everything be produced and purchased within the United States is nonsensical and harmful for everyone involved.

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Are Venture Capitalists racists?

Shifting sovereignty from Kings to the people, was the beginning of human flourishing. In the United States, in its constitution the people returned only those powers to their government necessary to protect their wellbeing. The right to and protection of ones honestly acquired property is an essential aspect of this arrangement. This includes, of course, the right to invest our property anyway we choose.

Venture capitalists are those wealthy people who choose to take great risks in the prospect of large gains by investing in “startups” that have not yet established their profitability.  Put differently venture capitalists are prepared to finance an unproven idea/product/service that might gain public approval, i.e. might become profitable, though most of them fail.  As consumers we have benefited enormously from goods and services my parents never would have even imagined that a few wealthy investors took a chance on.

So the idea that the government might need to enact laws to insure that a venture capitalist’s investments do not reflect racial bias is shocking at several levels. “In the clubby world of venture capitalists, who spent $130 billion in the United States last year and helped anoint the world’s four most valuable companies and countless other successful start-ups, there is effectively no legal backstop that ensures people of color have an equal opportunity to share in its wealth creation.”   “Black-entrepreneurs-venture-capital”

First of all is the right of these investors to their property. They can give it all to their daughters if they want to.  Marxists and other egalitarians reject such a right but that would throw away the whole basis of the wealth our capitalist system has created that Marxists would like to redistribute.  But I want to focus on why capitalism minimizes the role of bias in our economic decisions.  This was explored long ago by Nobel Lauriat Gary Becker in his famous 1976 book on the Economics of Discrimination.

Becker’s basic point is that if your economic decision is influenced by racial or sexual or any other non-economic bias it will cost you money, i.e. you will make less than you otherwise would have.  If you hire a man when a woman was better qualified, he will contribute less to your company’s income than would have the woman, thus you pay a financial price for your bias. The same is true if you hire a white person when a black one was better qualified, etc.

The purpose of venture capitalist investments is to make a bundle by funding the next great idea. Most will fail but one or two turn into Facebook, or Amazon.  It may well be that a venture capitalist systematically under rates the potential of black entrepreneurs, i.e. that he suffers racial bias.  But in that case he will be less successful in his investments.  Capitalism will punish him for his prejudices and diminish his importance as a venture capitalist because it will diminish his wealth. None the less, an Irish venture capitalist may well bias her investments toward fellow Irishmen and a black venture capitalist may risk an extra break for a fellow black. But the profit motive of capitalism will discourage departures from objective evaluations of investment prospects.

The idea that a law should forbid or discourage racial or sexual bias when venture capitalists decide in what to invest is without merit.  Moreover, it is hard to imagine what such a law would look like and/or on what basis a government bureaucrat would overrule and direct the placement of a private investor’s chose of investments.

To peak briefly at the other–entrepreneurial–side of the equation, the unbiased opportunity provided by capitalism has attracted many foreigner entrepreneurs to our shores.  Steve Jobs (Apple, NeXT, Pixar), who was adopted at birth, was the son of Joanne Schieble who was Swiss-American and Abdulfattah “John” Jandali who was Syrian.  Steve Wozniak, Apple cofounder, was the son of Polish and Swiss-German parents.  Sergey Brin cofounder of Google/Alphabet escaped from the Soviet Union.  The famous architect, I.M. Pei, immigrated from China.  “How-12-immigrant-entrepreneurs-have-made-america-great”

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Independence Day Celebration

As we listen carefully to the current criticisms of America, we should see them in the context of the wonderful features of our nation that continue to attract tens of thousands of the world’s best and brightest to become Americans and thus add to the material and cultural richness of our lives. We should not lose sight of, nor stop defending, the features of our society that have made us the Land of Opportunity even as we confront and strive to deal with our shortcomings. Those motivated by making more money and those motivated by serving and doing good to others enjoy the incentives for both in our free enterprise system. We make money by serving others, by creating better things and services for the benefit of our fellow man.

Our rights to make our own decisions and speak our minds are protected by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Our property and commitments (contracts) are protected by the Rule of Law. Indeed, our history is not without sin, far from it.  Slavery was practiced almost from the beginning of time, and our new nation shamefully participated in the practice for almost the first hundred years of its existence. Discriminatory laws and practices replaced slavery for many decades beyond the end of slavery.  Though all Americans now enjoy the equal protection of the law, the uninformed prejudices of some persevere. Our culture of mutual caring that is nurtured by our capitalist economic system and the values taught by all major religions, continue to make progress towards shrinking and isolating bigots. But we have a ways to go.  We have engaged in wars that are not justified by our defense and that are inconsistent with our values. In this area our economic incentives are perverse.

Our freedom to speak out when we see wrong and to praise what is good are critical to preserving what is good and fixing what is not.  The “cancel culture” crowd seem more intent on tearing America down than building it up by fixing its weaknesses.  The current cancerous attacks on our freedom to speak out and debate the important issues of our day in the name of political correctness risks undermining our progress:  “America’s Jacobin moment”.  This is not to say that we should not strive to address our fellow Americans politely “What is wrong with PC?”.  But if we become afraid to express our views and concerns honestly, we lose the ability to understand one another and build mutually satisfactory compromises. “Do we really need free speech?”.

So on this celebration of our Declaration of Independence and the birth of our nation let’s commit ourselves to preserving what has made us great, which includes the ability to freely criticize what is not so great, and to admit and learn from our mistakes and to work at becoming better still: freer, responsible for our own lives, and more compassionate toward others.

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George Floyd, RIP

How should we respond to the horrifying murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a bad cop with “18 complaints on his official record?” “A Minneapolis-police-chief-promised-change-george-floyd’s-death-shows-hurdles”  Finding a constructive answer is not easy.  While it is difficult to watch the horrible death of George Floyd at the hands of a bad cop as three fellow policemen looked on without becoming enraged, those setting fires, smashing windows, and looting are not looking for constructive answers (or if we are to be extremely generous are not being thoughtful about what measures would actually be constructive) and should be locked up.

For starters, in looking for answers we should acknowledge that the problem (racism–unequal treatment of black Americans as well as other ethnic minorities in the law, then by law enforcement and by many people) has existed in America since its founding. But we should also acknowledge that enormous progress has been made over time, especially in recent years. Slavery has been abolished. Racial minorities are no longer discriminated against in the law (as opposed to law enforcement).  Even policing has improved considerably, though being arrested for “driving while black or DWB” remains too prevalent. And then there remain too many Michael Brown, Jrs, an 18-year-old black man, who was killed by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and too many George Floyds. Any would be too many.

A great deal has been done since Michael Brown’s murder to improve police training. The details are impressive. Medaria Arrandondo, Minneapolis’s police Chief, is black and is committed to furthering the work of his predecessor, Janeé Harteau, to expunge racism from the force and to rebuild trust between the police and the communities they exist to keep safe. While considerable progress has been made, why does it remain so difficult to provide black Americans with the equal treatment under the law to which every American is constitutionally entitled?

Evolution has genetically predisposed us to trust family and distrust if not fear others. Civilization, in part, has required that we overcome or at least tame this primitive impulse with moral teachings and laws (“do unto others and you would have them do unto you”) that facilitate our ability to live together and build trading economies to our enormous benefit. We learn what is “right” from our families, schools, churches, and the varied people we hang out with. We learn from the words and behavior of community leaders that we respect (some have made more positive contributions than others!). Institutional structures are also very important. They should provide incentives for behavior to conform to our moral and legal principles. Police Chief Arrandondo, for example, has increased the transparency of the police force (complaint records, webcams, etc.) in efforts to hold officers more accountable for their behavior.

In the area of policing there are two interrelated institutional impediments to good policing that we should address. Policing can be difficult and can be dangerous. “In a series of decisions beginning in 1967, the Supreme Court gutted [the Civil Rights Act of 1871] by permitting police and other government agents to claim they acted in “good faith” when violating citizens’ rights…. The Supreme Court decided government officials deserved ‘qualified immunity.’”  “Cops-kill-because-we-gave-them-the-legal-framework-to-do-it”  This must end.

“‘Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a top contender for Vice President candidacy for Joe Biden, was the chief prosecutor for Hennepin County (including Minneapolis) from 1998 to 2006. Klobuchar, who was nicknamed “KloboCop” by detractors,  “declined to bring charges in more than two dozen cases in which people were killed in encounters with police” while she “aggressively prosecuted smaller offenses” by private citizens, the Washington Post noted. Her record was aptly summarized by a headline early this year from the Twin Cities Pioneer Press: “Klobuchar ramped up prosecutions, except in cases against police.” [see previous link] This must end.

“Since 2012 there have been more than 2,600 complaints filed against Minneapolis police officers by civilians, according to data provided by Dave Bicking, who was part of the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review. Of those, the data showed just 12 resulted in an officer being disciplined. Among those, eight received written warnings. The most severe penalty was a 40-hour suspension.” [see previous link and “My-fellow-brothers-sisters-blue-what-earth-are-you-doing/?”] This must end.

The other institutional impediment to good policing is the understandable but pernicious self interest of police unions in defending their members from charges of misconduct. “Lt. Robert Kroll, [has been] president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis since 2015. Like his union counterparts across the country, Lt. Kroll has been a fierce advocate for greater autonomy for officers…  Lt. Kroll has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement as a terrorist organization.” “Minneapolis-police-chief-promised-change-george-floyds-death-shows-hurdles”

I am reminded of my mother’s complaint (she was a grammar school teacher) that the teachers’ union was the biggest impediment to improving the quality of education in California. Any monopoly (government, unions, monopoly firms) ultimately sacrifices the public interest for their own if allowed to. This must end.

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The Vaccine: Who gets it first?

For context, the common cold is caused by coronaviruses (with rhinoviruses being the most common virus) and there are no vaccines for colds. More seriously, because colds are rarely more than annoying, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has no vaccine despite almost 40 years of trying to develop one.  While AIDS was fatal for many years there are now treatments that hold it in check, but the vaccine remains elusive.

There is hope that an effective vaccine will be found soon for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19. In fact, six potential vaccines have entered phase one of human trails (the first of three required testing phases). Once a potential vaccine has been developed it must be tested first for its safety (side effects and who is at greatest risk of these side effects) and then for its effectiveness. On average it takes five to ten years to pass these hurdles and be approved for general use. Coronavirus-vaccine-here-are-the-steps-it-will-need-to-go-through-during-development

But the science has gotten better and the authorities have put great urgency on the development of a vaccine for this virus and seem willing to cut a few corners to speed up the testing and approval, though there are risks in doing so. Still “some of Mr. Trump’s top public health advisers have repeatedly cautioned that an effective vaccine might not be ready for widespread distribution for 18 months, and perhaps even longer. Mr. Trump ordered the creation of the Warp Speed program to try to speed that timeline.” Coronavirus-Trump-operation-warp-speed

Trump says the U.S. will have a vaccine by the end of the year (this year, 2020!!), which would indeed be a miracle. But even with a crash program to produce and administer it, it will take several years from approval before enough can be produced and distributed for everyone to be vaccinated. Thus, one important question is who gets it first. Lets-say-theres-a-covid-19-vaccine-who-gets-it-first

Answering that difficult question can be approached in several ways. One is to ask what would be fair. Is it fair to give everyone an equal chance at being first, second and third….? That would require a lottery and would mean that some who would benefit more and thus have a greater need for the vaccine (health care workers being an obvious example) would often be well down the line from say children less likely to get, or at least suffer from, covid-19 in the first place. So, an ethically more defensible criteria would be to establish medically which hierarchy of priorities would save the most lives in the long run.  Perhaps after healthcare workers and first defenders, children should be next so they can get on with their life-altering educations and avoid infecting their parents and grandparents, etc.

The reality, however, is that whoever owns the vaccine will have the largest say in the determination of the priorities of who gets it. Without that incentive only government labs would be working to develop a vaccine and how dreadful that would be. Private pharmaceutical companies are spending multiple millions of dollars in the race to develop “the” vaccine first. Their profit reward will come not only in initial dollars and cents but in the boost to their reputations, which will also reflect how the public sees their pricing and allocation of their product. We are quite used to the fact that hot new products–think of the first iPhones–are relatively expensive and go to those willing to pay the most. As production expands and demand is more widely met, prices come down. Governments are major funders of the research and development going into the search for a vaccine and they will rightly consider themselves entitled to an owner’s reward (first priority). Coronavirus-vaccine-frontrunners-emerge-rollouts-weighed

Policy is further complicated by whether exclusive ownership or more social collaboration (the equivalent of open source code) will produce the best vaccine the quickest.  Governments might give large financial prizes to the best two or three vaccine ideas to those developing them rather than patents to encourage information sharing.  Moreover, there can be more than one winner. The first vaccine approved will not necessarily be the best in the long run. There is a strong case for going forward with several vaccines. This view is put forth in an article by Larry Corey of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, John Mascola and Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health. Science mag.org/content/early/2020/05/12/science.abc5312

But who gets it first is an unavoidable and potentially very contentious issue.  “After controversial comments by the CEO of a French pharmaceutical company, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe took the opportunity on Thursday to say that equal access to any vaccine that is developed is “non-negotiable.” Paul Hudson, the head of Sanofi, told Bloomberg on Wednesday that the United States would get the “largest pre-order” of a successful vaccine because it was the first to fund the firm’s research—a statement he later walked back.” Coronavirus-pandemic-vaccine-Sanofi-France-United-States.  But to say that “equal access” is non-negotiable is both ignorant and meaningless, ignoring the obvious fact that production for hundreds of millions of people will take months if not years to distribute.

It would be best if all countries agreed in advance (in a philosophical veil of ignorance) on the principles that would guide the priority of distributing vaccines. The company and country of the winner(s) should get a significant share of the initial (and subsequent) supply and within all countries those most in need for the protection of the broader society should get first priority.

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an Israeli journalist on Wednesday that, ‘We’ll figure out the model for distribution when the time comes.’” Nations-jockey-to-see-who-gets-coronavirus-vaccine-first  As is so often the case these days Secretary Pompeo is wrong. Or as the Economist magazine put it this week: “For a man acknowledged to be highly intelligent, Mike Pompeo has a long history of talking nonsense.”   Mike-Pompeos-politicisation-of-foreign-policy-is-unworthy-of-him

 

 

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The order to reopen–who gives it?

Like all of us, President Trump is eager to reopen the economy. Does he have the authority to do so or do state governors? Fortunately, neither can force us to start eating out again, or return to our offices. We remain a country where those decisions rest with each of us individually (or jointly with your boss with regard to returning to your office, shop or factory). That means that those parts of the economy that have shut down will get going again when the affected businesses have taken measures to protect their customers and employees sufficient to regain their customers’ trust that they are safe places to visit. But as I argued last month, that should always have been the basis of social interactions.  “Beating-covid-19: Compulsion-or-Persuasion-and-guidance”

The broad-based, blunt instrument of sheltering at home unless your activities are vital (says who?) is imposing staggering damage to the economy.  The best way to minimize that damage is to restore public trust as quickly as possible that those with it are being isolated and treated.  A blanket shut down of non-essential activities is not the best approach. Each of us in our personal situation can better determine where we feel safe to go than can a government agency.  However, some of us will not give sufficient weight to the dangers of exposing our friends and the general public to the disease if we might have it.  Public policy should educate the public to the dangers of covid-19 and how best to protect ourselves and should minimize the financial incentive to continue working when sick. State coercion (mandatory quarantines) should only be applied to those testing positive for the virus.  This approach will allow all firms and stores to operate whose employees and customers judge them to be safe and will give businesses maximum incentive to make themselves safe.

Covid-19 will be around for at least another year or two until an effective vaccine is available and then distributed to more than 60 percent of the world population. The most effective way to contain its spread in the interim is to undertake widespread, quick, and accurate testing and to quarantine those who test positive with efficient contact tracing.  Adding the newly available tests for antibodies indicating immunity to the virus will identify those who are no longer susceptible to acquiring or spreading the disease. They should be safe in public.  Other corona viruses have created immunity in those who have had them and SARS-CoV-2 is expected to do the same, though this has not yet been established.

The U.S. has belatedly increased its testing for the virus. Initially it impeded the development and supply of test kits. As of April 16, the U.S. has tested 10,266 people per million while Germany has tested twice that. The U.S. by that date had 105 deaths per million while Germany had less than half that.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should get out of the way and allow profit seeking entrepreneurs to flood the market with test kits.  The government should focus its (our) money on a large increase in testing for the virus and quarantining those testing positive and those they contacted and should offer significant financial prizes for an effective vaccine and for the development (or discovery) of effective treatments. Unlike patents as an incentive, this will encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among those attempting to develop treatments.

On April 16 President Trump outlined guidance for the phased reopening of closed businesses and activities that is consistent with the approach outline above.  The government’s traditional public health role is important. But much more discretion should be given to individual case by case judgements about risks and entrepreneurial initiatives about remedies rather than broad based government edicts.

We will not return and cannot be required to return to the public square until we believe it is safe to do so. Individual shops and firms have a financial incentive to find convincing approaches to being safe and will get there quicker than even the best-intentioned government official issuing instructions and mandates. The government has an important role to play in fighting this virus and facilitating our return to normal life, but it should remove impediments it often creates to the private sector’s management of the related risks and the huge and unnecessary damage it imposes on the economy.

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Econ 201: CARES Act–Who pays for it?

April 11, 2010

Congress has authorized over 2 trillion dollars (so far) to help those harmed by the partial shutdown of the economy undertaken to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to facilitate its rapid recovery when it is safe for people to return to work. The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation. No good economic purpose would be served, for example, by lenders foreclosing on mortgage and other loans to workers sheltered in place at home with no income with which to service them. Some of the increased spending quite rightly will go to improve our ability to deal with covid-19 directly (expanded hospital capacity, virus testing capacity, vaccine research and development, etc.)

Obviously, it will be impossible to prevent some amount of waste and corruption from such a huge increase in expenditures. Every rent seeker on the planet has been lobbying Congress to get a piece of the action. In the design of these support programs every effort should be made to carefully target them on the people and activities appropriate to the “above objectives, to remove them and their associated distortions of economic resource allocation when the crisis has passed (i.e., keep them temporary), and to provide watchdog oversight of their implementation. Unfortunately, President Trump is already undermining such oversight. “How-trump-is-sabotaging-the-coronavirus-rescue-plan”  Nonetheless, the objective of minimizing the economic damage of a temporary forced shutdown of a significant part of the economy is appropriate.

The question explored here is who will pay for it and how.  The entertainment output of the economy (restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, vacation travel) is to a large extent non-essential, at least for a few months. If those are shuttered, about 20 percent (my guess for purposes of this analysis) of our economic output and the incomes of those producing them will be lost for the duration of the shutdown. A central goal of the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) is to prevent this necessary shutdown from killing that part of the economy and from spilling over into others. The goal is to enable it to restart as quickly and easily as health conditions permit. Thus, idled workers who would not be able to pay their rent/mortgage, or electric bill, or buy food without help should not be evicted for temporary nonpayment etc. The government might pay them for their lost income directly (unemployment insurance) or it might pay their employer to continue paying their wages for non-work under one program or another, thus continuing their health insurance and other benefits. These details are important but not the subject of this note.  The simplest assumption is that they all receive cash payments sufficient to see them through the shutdown (universal basic income, guaranteed minimum income or whatever you want to call it).

The starting fact/assumption is that the economy’s output and thus income is 20 percent or so lower for the next few months than it was a few months ago. Everyone on average has 20 percent less income, but that average consists of those who continue working as before and those sitting at home earning nothing.  If those unemployed are to receive income support (UBI), those still working and those clipping investment coupons must pay for it.  Paying an income subsidy to the unemployed does not create income, it redistributes it.

The $2 trillion plus authorized by Congress for these purposes will be debt financed, i.e. the government will borrow the money (adding to its deficit of $1 trillion for 2020 already budgeted).  So, to examine who pays for this program we must start by asking who will buy this additional debt?  In the past the Chinese and Germans funded an important part of our debts (via their trade surpluses with the US.  “Who-pays-uncle-sam’s-deficits”  China’s current account surplus with the U.S. is now negligible and it and most every other country in the world will have the financing of their own covid-19 expenditures to worry about. Those purchasing the additional Treasury bonds will thus be largely Americans who must shift their spending from other things (other investments or consumption) to the bonds and thus to the incomes of the unemployed these programs are supposed to be helping.  To the extent that new bond buyers are diverting their spending on other financial instruments interest rates on such instruments will tend to rise.

At this point very little money has been disbursed under CARES and no new government bonds to finance it have been issued. As individuals and firms miss rent and debt service payments, their lenders are being squeezed for the funds with which they must service those financing them (this is why we call banks financial intermediaries). Utility companies faced with nonpayments by their customers must borrow to continue paying their own employees, etc.  Scrambling for such funds would drive up interest rates in funding markets where it not for the Federal Reserve’s willingness to provide the needed liquidity. Similarly, with regard to the supply of funds to financial markets (the other side of bank’s balance sheets), normal investors are interrupting or even withdrawing funding in order to cover their own income shortfalls. This again squeezes financial sector liquidity and the flow of funds from lenders to borrowers needed to finance the remaining economic activity.

Enter the Federal Reserve.  In order to supply the missing funds–the missing rent and debt service payments–needed to keep the financial system flowing and in balance–the Fed has supplied almost $2 trillion to banks over the last 6 weeks, largely by outright purchases of treasury securities, though it has also opened a number of lending facilities. Bank reserve deposits at the Fed increased about $1 trillion over this period and M2 grew by about the same amount. On April 9, the Fed announced that it was opening or expanding facilities to support CARES Act objectives with up to another $2.3 trillion (leveraged by Treasury financial support to cover losses on any Fed loans provided in support of the CARES Act).  Federal Reserve Press Releases  This includes support for lending by the Small Business Administration (refinancing of SBA loans), the Main Street Lending Program administered by banks, Primary and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facilities, and the Municipal Liquidity Facility. These are dramatic expansions of Fed credit operations and the details of eligibility of borrowers and of the facilities’ administration are critically important. Ensuring that this massive government intervention in the economy creates the right incentives for a quick rebound in the economy when it can reopen and that these interventions are indeed temporary will be difficult and is very important. But the question I want to address here is whether this monetary financing on such a huge scale will be inflationary.

Simplifying and reviewing, if economic output/income falls by, say 20 percent, and the loss is shared by those working with those temporarily laid off (or idle) by workers lending money to those idled, the Fed need not be involved. However, as is often the case with fiscal policy, it is simply beyond the administrative capacity of the government to launch and coordinate such a redistribution of income quickly and smoothly enough to avoid the disruptions of credit flows described above. Instead, the Fed has printed the money paid to those idled by shuttering 20 percent of the economy. As a result, the idled workers have their regular income (more or less) from newly printed money, and the rest have their regular incomes, but the economy is producing 80 less for them to buy. The “excess” income constitutes the inflationary potential. If this income is voluntarily saved (i.e. a temporary increase in the demand for money), the increased saving would be indirectly financing the spending of the unemployed. It is not unreasonable to expect this to reflect actual behavior for a shutdown of a month or two. But should it drag on for many months the extra saving held in anticipation of a reopening of restaurants and theaters, etc. will seek other consumption outlets and prices will begin to rise.

With luck, the economy will begin to return to “normal” after a few months and the Fed will begin to withdraw its monetary injection as loans and payment delinquencies are paid off from increased output/income. The artificially preserved incomes will increasingly be spent on restored output without significant inflationary consequences.

But the CARES Act provides for the forgiveness of loans by firms that kept or that rehire their workers promptly. As the Fed sells its treasuries back to the public (or allows them to mature without replacing them), the Treasury will be issuing the additional debt needed to fund the $2 trillion plus of CARES Act expenditures, including the forgiveness of debt described above. In short, to avoid the inflationary consequences that would normally flow from the Fed’s massive increase in the money supply, the monetary financing must be replaced with fiscal debt financing.  It is hard to see where the money will come from to buy such a large increase debt (some, but not much, will probably come from the foreign financing implicit in an increase in our balance of payments deficits, but the rest of the world is now being saturated with its own debt) without an increase in market interest rates, potentially a significant increase in such interest rates. To the extent that financing remains monetary and pushes up prices, the rising inflation rate will be added to nominal market interest rates compounding the pressure of expanding real debt.  The long looming US fiscal debt problem may be near.

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Econ 101: covid-19 resource priorities

U.S. cases of covid-19 (those testing positive for the virus that causes it) continue their exponential growth exceeding 333,000 on April 5 with over 9,500 associated deaths. In a few days some hospitals will run out of the protective equipment and ventilators needed by their staff and patients.  How should the existing stock of these items be allocated to the most urgent and/or “worthy” uses and how should the inadequate supply be most effectively augmented?  Should a central authority (the “government”) choose who gets them or should the highest bidder in the market?  Should new supplies be demanded by the government employing the Defense Production Act of 1950, or should producers respond to the profits of higher prices? Should we follow the socialist or the capitalist approach?

In normal times (which these are not) the demand for hospital supplies is met by a competitive market of producers in response to prices offered by hospitals. In a well-functioning economy these prices reflect the cost of producing them and a modest profit sufficient to attract the desired supply. In this way scarce resources (the supply of any resource, starting with labor time, is limited) are allocated to their most valued uses as measured by what people are willing to pay for them. Because of the rapid and dramatic increase in the need for face masks (N95), and other protective gear needed by doctors and nurses the current supply does not satisfy the demand. This includes both emergency stocks and the flow of newly produced supplies.  Unbelievably some hospitals are preventing doctors from wearing appropriate protective gear at the detriment of their own safety and the future supply of doctors. “Doctors-say-hospitals-are-stopping-them-from-wearing-masks”  In Italy the shortage of ventilators is already causing doctors to deny them to those most likely to die in order to make them available to those more likely to live with their assistance (triage).

How should this inadequate stock of equipment be allocated among those demanding it, all of whom cannot be satisfied?  The two broad classes of approaches to allocating the existing supply until it can be increased are for a government body to determine who needs it most according to some politically accepted criteria or for market suppliers to allocate it to the highest bidders. Many books have been written to document why market allocation (capitalism) has dramatically outperformed government allocation (socialism) thus lifting most of the world’s population out of dire poverty (over 90% by 2009). But what about the emergency situation we are now in with the exponential spread of a new virus that is about ten times as deadly as the annual flu?

“The governors of New York, Texas, Illinois and other states have said they are competing with the federal government and other states in a mad scramble for lifesaving supplies such as surgical masks, N95 respirators, isolation gowns and ventilators that are widely drained or out of stock.” .” “Gouged-prices-middlemen-medical-supply-chaos-why-governors-are-so-upset-with-trump”

The oversight of healthcare delivery in the U.S. resides in the states and municipalities rather than the Federal government. However, the Federal government does support medical research and provides health guidance to the states.  Of the approximately 5,100 hospitals in the United States the Federal government owns about 200, primarily for its military and veterans. It also maintains its own emergency stockpile of medical equipment for its hospitals and to backstop shortages in state and private hospitals. In principle the Federal government could set standards for which of these non-Federal hospitals would benefit most from being allocated ventilators and other equipment from the Federal stockpile if their own supplies become inadequate. It might even dictate how private market supply would be allocated in the event of shortages.

Government allocation carries a larger risk of political and personal corruption factors influencing resource allocation than does market allocation. While the private market is not without corrupt players, the bottom line of needing to attract and satisfy customers who have other options in order to make a profit to stay in business disciplines private suppliers and tends to weed out crooks. A company’s reputation for honesty and product quality is a critical part of its staying in business. Poorly performing companies go out of business, while poorly performing and/or corrupt governments rarely do. New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s request to President Trump for help with its shortage of ventilators and other medical supplies met with pandemic expert Jared Kushner’s rebuttal that the governor was over estimating New York’s needs and that more ventilators should be allocated elsewhere.  Nothing political here. Move along.

Another and potentially more damaging potential of government allocation concerns the U.S. government’s “competition” with other countries for the scare supplies. “The White House late Thursday ordered Minnesota mask manufacturer 3M to prioritize U.S. orders over foreign demand, using its authority under the Defense Production Act, or DPA, to try to ease critical shortages of N95 masks at U.S. hospitals.

“The Trump administration has asked 3M to stop exporting the masks to Canada and Latin America, and to import more from 3M’s factories in China, the company said Friday…. At the same time, officials in Berlin criticized the United States on Friday over what they said was the diversion of 200,000 masks that were en route from China…. These are things that Americans rely on,” Trudeau said, “and it would be a mistake to create blockages or reduce the amount of back-and-forth trade of essential goods and services, including medical goods, across our border.” “White-House-scrambles-scoop-up-medical-supplies-angering-canada-germany”

“Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government has been ‘forcefully’ reminding American counterparts that trade ‘goes both ways across the border.’  Thousands of nurses in Windsor, Ontario, he noted, travel to Detroit each day to work in hospitals there. Several of them have since tested positive for covid-19.” These steps are incredibly short-sighted as is Trump’s trade policy in general. As the biggest and strongest country in the word, the U.S. should be engaging with the rest of the world to lead a cooperative approach to fighting covid-19 rather than throwing its weight around because, at the moment, it still can. These are the sorts of behavior that can lead to war.

Following quickly on the heels of allocating the existing stockpile of equipment, is the closely related question of how to increase and allocate the supply going forward as quickly as possible.  Market allocation of the existing stock prioritizes those willing to pay the most as an indication of the intensity of their need (or who has more money to spend, but the wealthy always have a greater impact on allocation whether through government or the market). Established firms aim to maximize their profit over time and will take into account their long run relationship with regular customers when agreeing on prices for the existing supply. This limits so called “price gouging”, but the prospect of higher prices accelerates the market’s supply response. Many governors instead “pleaded for the White House to invoke the Defense Production Act, the legislation that would compel American companies to make critical supplies.” “Gouged-prices-middlemen-medical-supply-chaos-why-governors-are-so-upset-with-trump”

While history clearly demonstrates that market allocation is superior to government command of the economy, it struggles in current emergency circumstances even if or when government interference is removed (such as the government’s interference with market development and supply of covid-19 test kits).  Knowledge is essential for good decision making.  A virtue of market allocation is that knowledge that is impossible  to properly centralize in socialist economies can be exploited in decentralized individual decision making in response to market generated prices that match supply with demand (See F. A. Hayek’s “The_Fatal_Conceit”).  Markets rely on trust that is built in various ways from experience. The Internet reports reviews of products by users. Uber drivers are rated by riders. Company reputations are carefully built and protected.

In the current sudden surge in demand for certain medical supplies the system is overloaded, and hospitals search beyond their usual suppliers. New marketers emerge to help hospitals find new suppliers. The reliability and quality of the supplied products lack market experience and feedback.  Governments can play a supportive role by requiring transparency about product contents and/or performance but can also get in the way if regulations are more costly than their benefits.  “’The dynamic of the market is very weird at this point,’ said Andrew Stroup, a co-founder of Project N95, a nonprofit clearinghouse working to connect hospitals with suppliers. The group has received more than 2,000 requests from health-care institutions searching for more than 110 million pieces of personal protective equipment.”   “Gouged-prices-middlemen-medical-supply-chaos-why-governors-are-so-upset-with-trump”

In the imperfect world we all live in we would do best to maximize the role of private entrepreneurs and firms to develop and supply the best possible products, limiting the government’s role to protecting private property and contract enforcement, and establishing standards that help promote consumer confidence and trust in suppliers. Private, profit motivated producers maximize their profits by best surviving and satisfying the desires of their customers.

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