Posts tagged ‘capitalism’

It is Time to End Favored Tax Treatment of Capital Gains

My new column is up at Forbes.com, and asks why we fetishize capital gains over regular income

Let's consider two investors.  Investor A buys a piece of land and builds a campground on it, intending to run the campground for decades.  Investor A gets her return on investment from the profits each year running the campground, profits that are taxed as regular income  (Full disclosure:  In my business life, I am essentially investor A).

On the other hand, Investor B buys the same piece of land and builds the same campground on it, but in about a year Investor B sells the newly developed facility, making a profit on the sale over his original investment.  Investor B likely will pay taxes on this gain at reduced capital gains tax rates.

But why?  When Investor B sold the property, the price he got was probably something like the present value of the expected cash flows from operating the campground.   Both Investor A and B created essentially the same value., but Investor B took the value as a single lump sum rather than as a stream of income over time.  Why is Investor B's approach preferred in the tax code?  Or, stated another way, why does the tax code favor asset flipping over long-term operations?

Progressives Lamenting the Effects of Progressive Policies

Kevin Drum writes

Via Harrison Jacobs, here's a recent study showing the trend in income segregation in American neighborhoods. Forty years ago, 65 percent of us lived in middle-income neighborhoods. Today, that number is only 42 percent. The rest of us live either in rich neighborhoods or in poor neighborhoods.

This is yet another sign of the collapse of the American middle class, and it's a bad omen for the American political system. We increasingly lack a shared culture or shared experiences, and that makes democracy a tough act to pull off. The well-off have less and less interaction with the poor outside of the market economy, and less and less empathy for how they live their lives. For too many of us, the "general welfare" these days is just an academic abstraction, not a lived experience.

He does not give a reason, and apparently following the links, neither does the study author.  But my guess is that they might well attribute it to 1. effects of racism, 2.  growth of the suburbs, 3. laissez faire capitalism.

I don't think racism can be the driver of this change, given that racism and fear of other cultures is demonstrably better in the last 30 years than at most times in history  (read bout 19th century New York if you are not sure).  The suburbs have been a phenomenon for 100 years or more, and capitalism has been less laissez faire over the last 30 years than at any time in our history.

I actually believe a lot of this income sorting is a direct result of two progressive policies.  I have no data, of course, so I will label these as hypotheses, but I would offer two drivers

  • Strict enforcement of the public school monopoly.  People want good schools for their kids.  Some are wealthy enough to escape to private schools.  But the only way for those who stay in the public school system to get to the best schools is to physically move into their districts.  Over time, home prices in the best districts rise, which gives those schools more money to be even better (since most are property tax funded), and makes them even more attractive.  But as home prices rise, only the most wealthy can afford them.  This is dead easy to model.  Even in a starting state where there are only tiny inhomegeneities between the quality of individual schools, one ends up with a neighborhood sorting by income over time.  Ex post facto attempts to fix this by changing the public school funding model and sending state money to the poorest schools can't reverse it, because at least half of school quality is driven not by money by by the expectations and skills of the parents and children in it.  Thus East St. Louis can have some of the highest per pupil spending in the state but have terrible schools.  A school choice system would not likely end sorting by school, but it would eliminate a huge incentive to sort by neighborhood.
  • Strict zoning.  There has always been a desire among certain people to exclude selected groups from their neighborhoods.  This desire has not changed, or if anything I would argue it has declined somewhat.  What has changed is the increased power that exists to exclude.  Zoning laws give the rich and well-connected the political vehicle to exclude the rabble from their neighborhoods in a way that never would have been possible in a free market.  I live just next to the town of Paradise Valley, which has very strict zoning that is absolutely clearly aimed at keeping everyone but the well-off out.  They will not approve construction of new rental units.  The minimum lot sizes are huge, way beyond the reach of many.

Capitalism is an Un-System

Markets and commerce are not created top-down, they are emergent behavior:

...“no one” made markets. No one put out rules for when a market should or should not exist, much like the footprints in the snow following a fresh storm, these markets emerge from the self-interested actions of millions of buyers and sellers each responding to hundreds upon hundreds of incentives every day. Indeed, no one ever sat down and said, “you know, we have this major problem here – there are simply not enough things out there for all of the people who want them, so, let’s have this thing called capitalism and see how it works.” It simply didn’t go down that way, and discussing “markets” in the anthropomorphic way that is often done, particularly in these lines of inquiry, really takes us away from appreciating that market activity is an emergent process. Yes, it does operate in a richer institutional and intellectual framework and yes the “rules” of the game do alter when ends up being for sale or not, but simply condemning “markets” as allowing “everything” to be sold quite misses the point.

After Criticizing Capitalism For Using Advertising to Trick Consumers into Bad Deals, Progressives Try to Use the Same Tactic for Obamacare

From our favorite politically-blinkered economist who used to be smart:

Chait stresses the youth aspect:

Fortunately for Obama, this field of battle favors his side. To pass the law, he needed to win over skeptical senators. To defend it in court, he needed conservative jurists. But identifying and persuading young people is a battle Obama does not expect to lose to Republicans, and in place of the federal outreach funds, the administration is deploying a campaignlike array of weapons: microtargeting, including door-to-door outreach, and all forms of media. (A few weeks ago, Katy Perry tweeted out a link informing her 42 million followers that health care was available beginning October 1.)

Yep, when it comes to reaching hipsters, or young people in general — I know, Katy Perry — Dems have big advantages; all that coastal cultural elite hatred suddenly turns into a big disadvantage for the right.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Katy Perry is part of the cultural elite?  We have sure dumbed down that concept.
  • As to Ms. Perry, whose music is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, health care has been available to your twitter followers all their lives, not just beginning October 1.  A better way to put this is that, as of October 1 you will be forced to buy some amount of health care whether you want it or not.  
  • The whole campaign aimed at young people is simply obscene.  I understand that folks like Ms. Perry honestly believe that young people are getting a better deal, and that she is doing them a service.  Fine, millionaires can be low information voters too.  But people in the Administration have a much more cynical purpose, which explains the magnitude of the campaign described by Chait:  For Obamacare to work and not be a fiscal disaster, it depends on young people overpaying for health insurance.  The Administration knows that young people are overpaying -- the whole system depends on it -- and yet they are telling them it is in their interest to sign up.   A private company that did this would be in jail.
  • I think this whole campaign is going to fail due to a basic fallacy of Progressive thinking.  Progressives are convinced that consumers are helpless dupes of advertising.  They in fact criticized health care advertising expenses in the private world for years for this reason, making this whole campaign incredibly ironic.  Obama and company are convinced that with enough advertising, average consumers will buy anything, even if it is a bad deal, because they are convinced that this is how consumer capitalism works (it got him elected, didn't it?)  I think they are going to be disappointed.

Blast from the Past

I have not reread this little classic article from 9 years ago, until a customer in California found it and complained that it was outrageous that the state would actually allow such a person as its author to operate anything in a state park.  So I suppose it is worth relinking, if just for that reason.  Most of it holds up pretty well, though I regret the jab implying that progressives supported suicide bombers.  Here is an example:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services....

Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

Tesla Actually Strikes a Blow Against the Corporate State

Tesla Motors and Elon Musk, the folks who seem to perennially have their hands out for special government favors and taxpayer money, may have actually struck a small blow against the corporate state:

Tesla Motors Inc. says it’s won another round in its fight with established car dealers who want to stop the company from selling its electric luxury cars directly to consumers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says, via Twitter, that a New York judge has tossed out a suit brought by New York auto dealers who challenged Tesla’s direct sales model as a violation of the state’s franchise laws.

Mr. Musk spent Wednesday in Texas making the case for a legislative proposal to change the law to allow direct sales of electric vehicles by U.S.-based manufacturers.  Texas car dealers have opposed the measure, saying it would open the door for other car makers to sell electric cars direct to customers –  which could undermine the value of their franchises.

Government protections of middle men in the auto business (states generally do the same in the liquor business) are a classic example of crony capitalism.  Car dealers tend to have a lot of sway with politicians, not to mention with local media for who they are generally the largest advertisers, so they are able to engineer special privileges for themselves.  Congrats to Tesla for taking this on.

Matt Yglesias is Reinventing History

Matt Yglesias and I certainly do read history differently.  He writes recently in a Salon article:

The basic economic foundations of industrial capitalism as we've known them for the past 150 years or so have an activist state at their core. Building political institutions capable of doing these things properly is really difficult, and one of the main things that separates more prosperous places from less prosperous ones is that the more prosperous places have done a better job of building said institutions. There's also the minor matter of creating effective and non-corrupt law enforcement and judicial agencies that can protect people's property rights and enforce contracts.

The point is, it takes an awful lot of politics to get an advanced capitalist economy up and running and generating wealth. A lot of active political decisions need to be made to grow that pie. So why would you want to do all that? Presumably because pie is delicious. But if you build a bunch of political institutions with the intention of creating large quantities of pie, it's obviously important that people actually get their hands on some pie. In other words, you go through the trouble of creating advanced industrial capitalism because that's a good way to create a lot of goods and services. But the creation of goods and services would be pointless unless it served the larger cause of human welfare. Collecting taxes and giving stuff to people is every bit as much a part of advancing that cause as creating the set of institutions that allows for the wealth-creation in the first place.

This is counter-historical crap.  Unfortunately, my real job is taking all my time today so I can only give a few quick responses rather than the thorough beating this deserves

  1. Capitalism is not a "system."  It is an un-system.   It is an order that emerges from individuals exchanging goods and services to their mutual self-interest.  While it requires a rule of law, those rules can be exceedingly simple -- at their core they are "don't deal with other people via force or fraud."  Sure, case law can be complex - what happens to a land deed that has one boundary on a river when the river moves.  But I don't think this is what Matt is thinking of.  
  2. Yglesias is following the typical socialist-progressive line that our modern wealth creating capitalist economy was somehow created by the government.  I am sure this line works with the low information voter, but that does not make it any more true.  Industrial capitalism arose long before the government even acknowledged its existence.  The US economy was generating wealth - for everyone, rich and poor - long before politicians stuck an oar into the economic waters.  Go back even 85 years and you will not see anything in the "political economy" that would be recognizable to a modern progressive.  In other words, the wealth creation came first, and then the politics came second.
  3. Again we see this bizarre progressive notion that wealth creation is this thing apart, like a water well in the desert.  Income distribution in this model is a matter of keeping the piggy rich people from hogging all the water.  But in a free society, the economy and its gains are not separate from people, they are integral to the people.  Gains are not somehow independent variables, but are the results of individual gains by each person in the system.  People operate by mutual self-interest.  When I work for you, I get a paycheck, you get your products made -- we both gain.  Steve Jobs grew wealthy selling iPads, but simultaneously my iPad made me vastly better off.
  4. It is wrong to say that all distributions of wealth are arbitrary.  In a free society, there emerges a natural distribution of wealth based on people's exchange with each other.  And contrary to the progressive mythology, that system was floating all boats, not just the rich ones, long before the government gained the power to redistribute wealth.  Yglesias is right in saying that income distribution in a progressive political economy is arbitrary.  In fact, income in any government-managed economy is distributed arbitrarily to whoever can gain power.  I am always amazed at progressives who somehow have this vision that there will be some group of people with absolute power who wukk make sure there will be a flat and equitable income distribution.  When has that ever happened?  Name even a single socialist country where that has happened.
  5. What political decision has ever been made the grows the pie, except perhaps to keep the government's hands off pie creation?  When "political" decisions are made to grow the pie, what you actually get is bailouts of Goldman Sachs, wealth funneled to connected billionaires like Elon Musk, and Solyndra.  Politics don't create wealth, they are a boat anchor lashed to the wealth creators.  The only thing politicians can do productively is make the boat anchor lighter.

Go Gary Johnson

I decided today to volunteer for Gary Johnson's independent libertarian run for President.  I have always been a Johnson supporter, and was disappointed that he did not get more attention in the debates and nomination process.

Yes, I know folks will be saying that if Gary Johnson does well, it will just be guaranteeing an Obama victory.  You know what?  Given the choices, I don't care.  My other choices seem to be the guy who pilot-tested Obamacare and Rick Santorum, perhaps the only person the Republicans could have found with a deeper authoritarian streak than Obama.  You know those 2x2 matrices where one leg is "government intervention in social issues" and the other is "government intervention in economic issues?"  Where libertarians are low-low and Republicans and Democrats are each in one of the low-high boxes?  Did you ever wonder who was in the high-high box?  Well, Obama has moved pretty strongly into that space.  But Santorum staked it out years ago.   He is right out of the John McCain, I-am-nominally-for-small-governemnt-but-support-authoritarian-solutions-for-a-range-of-random-issues school.

In fact, I might argue that freedom and small government would be better served by an Obama second term that the yahoos likely to gain the Republic nomination.  First, there is nothing worse than having statism and crony capitalism sold by someone who is nominally pro-market (see either of the Bushes as an example).  Second, Republicans are much feistier about limiting spending and regulation in Congress when in opposition.  They tend to roll over for expansions of state power when they have a fellow Republican in the White House -- just compare spending of the Republican Congress under Clinton vs. Bush.  Medicare Part D, anyone?

As I heard Ayn Rand say in a public speech in 1981, there is only so far I can go choosing the lesser of two evils.  I am now all in for Gary Johnson.

Protectionism -- The Worst Form of Crony Capitalism

Food activists on the Left often point to the use of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as one of those failures of capitalism, where rapacious capitalists make money serving an inferior product.  But HFCS resulted from a scramble by food and beverage companies to find some reasonable alternative to sugar as the government has driven up sugar prices through a crazy tariff system that benefits just a tiny handful of Americans, and costs everyone else money

For the last 10 years or so, HFCS-42 has actually traded at a price higher than the world market price for sugur, but lower than the US price for sugar.   There is a lot complexity to prices, but this seems to imply that HFCS would not be nearly as attractive a substitute for sugar if US sugar tariffs did not exist (not to mention subsidies of corn which support HFCS).  This can also be seen in the fact that HFCS has not been used nearly so often as a sugar substitute in markets outside of the US, even by the same manufacturers (like Coke) that pioneered its use in the US.

President Obama used a lot of his state of the union address again teeing up what sounded to me like a new round of protectionism.  Protectionism is the worst form of crony capitalism, generally benefiting a handful of producers and their employee to the detriment of 300 million US consumers and any number of companies that use the protected product as an input.

Public vs. Private Privacy Threats

I am always fascinated by folks who fear private power but support continuing increases in public / government power.  For me there is no contest - public power is far more threatening.  This is not because I necesarily trust private corporations like Goldman Sachs or Exxon or Google more than I do public officials.  Its because I have much more avenues of redress to escape the clutches of private companies and/or to enforce accountability on them.  I trust the incentives faced by private actors and the accountability mechanisms in the marketplace far more than I trust those that apply to government.

Here is a good example.  First, Kevin Drum laments the end of privacy because Google has proposed a more intrusive privacy policy.  I am not particularly happy about the changes, but at the end of the day, I am comforted by two things.  One:  I can stop using Google services.  Sure, I use them a lot now, but I don't have to.  After all, I used to be a customer or user of AOL, Compuserve, the Source, Earthlink, and Netscape and managed to move on from those guys.  Second:  At the end of the day, the worst they are tying to do to me is sell me stuff.  You mean, instead of being bombarded by irrelevant ads I will be bombarded by slightly more relevant ads?  Short of attempts of outright fraud like identity theft, the legal uses of this data are limited.

Kevin Drum, who consistently has more faith in the state than in private actors, actually gets at the real problem in passing (my emphasis added)

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

The last part is key.  Because the worst P&G will do is try to sell you some Charmin.  The government, however, can throw you and jail and take all your property.  Time and again I see people complaining about private power, but at its core their argument really depends on the power of the state to inspire fear.  Michael Moore criticizes private enterprise in Capitalism:  A Love Story, but most of his vignettes actually boil down to private individuals manipulating state power.  In true free market capitalism, his negative examples couldn't occur.  Crony capitalism isn't a problem of private enterprise, its a problem of the increasingly powerful state.  Ditto with Google:  Sure I don't like having my data get sold to marketers, and at some point I may leave Google over it.  But the point is that I can leave Google .... try leaving your government-enforced monopoly utility provider.  Or go find an alternative to the DMV.

A great example of this contrast comes to us from Hawaii:

There may be some trouble brewing in paradise, thanks to a seemingly draconian law currently under consideration in Hawaii's state legislature. If passed, H.B. 2288 would require all ISPs within the state to track and store information on their customers, including details on every website they visit, as well as their own names and addresses. The measure, introduced on Friday, also calls for this information to be recorded on each customer's digital file and stored for a full two years. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that the bill includes virtually no restrictions on how ISPs can use (read: "sell") this information, nor does it specify whether law enforcement authorities would need a court order to obtain a user's dossier from an ISP. And, because it applies to any firm that "provides access to the Internet," the law could conceivably be expanded to include not just service providers, but internet cafes, hotels or other businesses.

Americans fed up with Google's nosiness can simply switch email providers.  But if they live in Hawaii, they will have no escape from the government's intrusiveness.

Keystone XL: Voting for the Stone Age

(update: link is fixed)  My new Forbes column is up, and it attempts to strip away the window dressing around the Keystone pipeline decision to get at the core issue -- "a quasi-irrational ('I'm blogging against the modern economy from my iPhone'), almost aesthetic distaste for energy production, the modern industrial economy, and capitalism itself. "  Read it all here.

PS-  the contrast between the Administrations support of the egregious HSR project in CA and its rejection of the takes-no-tax-dollars Keystone XL infrastructure project reminds me of my earlier piece on the Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism.   Politicians love to shift capital from private, boring, productive things like pipelines to sexy taxpayer-funded things that they can put their names on.

The Worst Polluter

This country has made great progress in cleaning up its waterways over the last four decades.  Conservatives like to pretend it's not true, but there is absolutely nothing wrong from a strong property rights perspective in stopping both public and private actors from dumping their waste in waterways that don't belong to them.

The problem today with the EPA is not the fact that they protect the quality of the commons (e.g. air and water) but that

  1. New detection technologies at the parts per billion resolution have allowed them to identify and obsess over threats that are essentially non-existent
  2. Goals have changed such that many folks use air and water protection as a cover or excuse for their real goal, which is halting development and sabotaging capitalism and property rights
But there is one actor that is still allowed to pollute at unarguably harmful levels.  You guess it, the government.

What might surprise Brougham and many other New Yorkers who were appalled by last summer’s sewage discharge is that there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. Almost every big rainstorm causes raw sewage to flow into the city’s rivers. New York is one in a handful of older American cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are others — that suffer from poor sewer infrastructure leading to Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs. New York City has spent $1.6 billion over the last decade trying to curb CSOs, but the problem is so pervasive in the city that no one is sure whether these efforts will make much of a difference.

CSOs occur because the structure of New York City’s sewage system often can’t cope with the volume of sewage flowing through it. Under the city’s streets, thousands of drains, manholes and plumbing systems converge into a few sewage mains. These pipes can handle the 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater that the five boroughs produce on a typical day — about as much water as would be generated by a 350-year-long shower. But whenever the pipes gather more water than usual — such as during a rain- or snowstorm — the pumps at the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants can’t keep up with the flow. Rather than backing up into streets and homes, untreated sewage systematically bypasses the plants and heads straight into the waterways.*

In this way, 27 to 30 billion gallons of untreated sewage enter New York City waterways each year via hundreds of CSO outfalls, says Phillip Musegaas of Riverkeeper, a New York clean water advocacy group. Musegaas says he finds it especially upsetting that city officials don’t effectively warn the thousands of people like Brougham who use the waterways and could encounter harmful bacteria during overflow events.

I thought this correction was funny:

This story originally read that New York City’s sewage system could “barely” handle the city’s wastewater, an untrue statement. As long as there’s little surplus stormwater entering the system, it’s adequate to handle the flow.

Oh, so everything is OK, as long as it does not rain.  Which it does 96 days a year.  I am just sure this reporter would say that BP's offshore safety systems were "adequate" if it only spilled oil 96 days of the year.

Crony Capitalism? Blame the Progressives

That is the purposely inflammatory title of my article this week at Forbes.com, finding the roots of crony capitalism not in capitalism itself, but in progressive legislation.  An excerpt:

The core of capitalism has nothing to do with, and is in fact inherently corrupted by, the exercise of state power.  At its heart, capitalism is one simple proposition -- free exchange between individuals based on mutual self-interest.  There is no room in this definition for subsidies or special government preferences or bailouts.  The meat and potatoes activities of crony capitalism are corruptions rather than features of free markets.  Where state power to intervene in economic activity does not exist, neither does cronyism.

Believe it or not, the Occupy movement reminds me of nothing so much as 1832.  Flash back to that year, and you will find Federal officials with almost no power to help or hinder commerce... with one exception: the Second Bank of the United States, a powerful quasi-public institution that used its monopoly on government deposits as a source of funds for private lending.  The bank was accused of using its immense reserves of government cash to influence elections, enrich the favored, and lend based on political rather than economic formulae (any of this sound familiar?).  Andrew Jackson and his supporters, the raucous occupiers of their day, came into office campaigning against the fraud and cronyism at the Bank.

Jackson, much like the current OWS folks, was a strange blend of sometimes frontier anarchist and sometimes tyrannical authoritarian.  But in the case of the Second Bank, the OWS movement could well learn from Jackson.  He didn't propose new and greater powers for government officials to help check abuses of the existing powers -- he proposed to kill the Bank entirely.  Eliminate the source of power, and men can no longer tap it for their own enrichment.

Unfortunately, the progressive Left which makes up most of the OWS movement has taken exactly the opposite approach over the last century or so, expanding government powers and economic institutions (such that today the scope of the second bank seems quaintly limited) and thus the opportunity for cronyism.   In fact, most of the interventions that make crony capitalism possible are facilitated and enabled by the very progressive legislation that the progressive Left and the OWS protesters tend to favor.  Consider some examples...