Tag Archives: Welfare State

Trump is clearly no economist.

       There are a lot of Republicans these days embracing the anti-trade rhetoric of Donald Trump and, simultaneously, screaming about the ineffectiveness and unfairness of wealth redistribution through the welfare state. Interestingly enough, these two positions are equivalent to one another. You cannot be for trade protection (such as tariffs) and against wealth redistribution; they are fundamentally the same thing. Let me illustrate how.

   Wealth redistribution operates under the principal that government takes (forcibly, mind you) money from Susan and gives it to Tom. Susan is guilty of no crime besides being in an electoral minority, but nevertheless she incurs the wrath of Tom’s jealousy and greed of her accomplishments and higher earnings. Tom’s greedy vengeance is carried out by elected officials who are able to send men with guns to Susan’s house (if she doesn’t pay) to do what would be illegal for Tom to do himself, which is to steal from Susan.

     Now, this redistribution is all based on the premise that Tom should be allowed to do as he wishes (i.e. work less hours, invest less effort in his own skill set, and engage in more recreation) and still be provided with all the basic needs that life requires (including many that life does not require like cell phones, etc).   In effect, the welfare state makes inefficiency a right, one that can be subsidized. Productive capability is discounted in favor of lifestyle choice.

       This brings us now to trade protection and why the two things are indifferent. Let us imagine that Susan is now a consumer and Tom is a worker at an auto plant. We are told that tariff’s on foreign auto makers will “help” our economy (incidentally, zero of this claim is backed up by well-established economic principals or any evidence) so that Tom can keep his job and manufacturing will not be “shipped” overseas. Instead our government will place a 10% tariff on those evil foreign automakers that, for some reason or another, can supply us vehicles at a fraction of the price of Tom’s employer. If the foreign car is $20,000 and Tom’s car is $22,000 before the tariff, this new 10% tax (tariffs are taxes on consumers, by the way) will make them essentially the same price[i].

      So, now Susan (and everyone else) must pay $2,000 more per vehicle for Tom to remain employed (not to mention increased sales taxes, etc.) in his current occupation. If Susan chooses to purchase the foreign car, the government will profit after placing no value into the production of said vehicle much like the mobster running a protection racket. If Susan chooses to purchase the car Tom makes, she will pay a greater price to subsidize Tom’s relative inefficiency; because, if Tom were as efficient as the competition, his autos would be priced accordingly. Tom gets to keep his job that he is not as good at as the competitor is while everyone that purchases a car pays more to ensure this. The government has then taken money from every consumer (a tax) and given it to Tom to subsidize his inefficiency (we could just as easily call this welfare…see paragraph 3, sentence 2).

       If 50,000 people buy a car in a given year, the result is $100M that cannot be spent elsewhere or saved for the future (either choice is an investment in economic growth). Incidentally, this most adversely affects those families making relatively less money—that is right, the much maligned middle class and poor; rich people are not concerned with trivial little tariffs and will buy the foreign car anyway if they want to.

       If you think (rightly) that a redistributive tax hurts the economy by reducing consumption, which in turns reduces the amount of production required, and thus lowers employment you cannot simultaneously think a tariff—which accomplishes the same thing at an even greater cost—will not hurt the economy. Well, you can…but it is no less fantasy than unicorns or Bigfoot. Holding this belief would have led the government to ban the car to protect the wagon builder or ban the light bulb to protect the candle maker. Mass production of food through technological advances would have been outlawed so we could maintain the same volume of farmers, plow makers, and ox breeders (a decision which would have increased the likelihood of starvation due to poor conditions, a concern we no longer carry as humans in the U.S.).

       We must resist the urge to fall into emotional, unsupported arguments—such as those being made by Donald Trump—that tariffs will help the American worker and engaging in trade is bad. I know what you may be thinking now: “we want trade, but fair trade.” Did I get that right? That is hogwash, too. In no way, does us buying goods at a cheaper price—enabling us to consume more and thus produce a wider array of products ourselves—ever, never , never, ever hurt us. If this principle is true, why not only buy things from within your town, or county, or state and really help your local economy boom? If you think unemployed people in your town just need a chance, quit buying things from the mall, Walmart, or Amazon. The reason you do not do this is that you know deep down it is malarkey. Politicians like Trump can use nationalistic hubris to motivate an adverse response that goes against your own best interest. History has known another politician who was effectively able to do this…Adolf Hitler.

Unreasonable expectations: why government constantly fails us.

    The extent of government’s ability to act effectively is rather limited. It is not that government as a concept is inherently flawed or unable to function at any level. Instead, it is the expectations of its constituents that are the drivers of its inevitable failure in many of the tasks it endeavors upon.

     For example, government can effectively reduce the opportunity cost of a choice for its citizens, but it cannot cure social problems stemming from the choices people make. An opportunity cost is a concept from economics which basically states that for every task a person engages in there is something else they cannot be doing with their time. For example, if you mow grass for an hour, the opportunity cost of that choice might be an hour writing the great American novel (assuming you are capable of such a accomplishment). Let us estimate that your novel would take 100 hours to produce, then for each hour you mow grass you effectively “pay” 1/100th of the value of your novel. If said novel would net you $500,000 in profits, then your cost to mow grass (outside of fuel and equipment) would be $5,000. So, you would be much better off paying the little kid down the street $25 to mow your grass.

      Now, let’s apply this concept to regulatory government action. I will concede that, from a theoretical standpoint, it is much less costly to society if we “hire” an agency of people to check, for example, the solvency of financial companies. This agency could compile and publish information as to their effectiveness. They can be specialists that understand the industry and have an aptitude in their selected field. This agency would relieve us of the opportunity cost of having to learn the “ins and outs” of finance and researching every company when making any financial choice. Overall productivity rises because people can more easily determine which companies and products are relatively “better” and thus spend more time maximizing their own output based on their individual aptitudes.

     The problem with this is that humans hardly apply things within the constraints of theoretical effectiveness. Where government fails is that people want government to solve societal “problems,” instead of merely making information more accessible. They want government to keep companies from compensating certain employees too much or selling products that they (voters) think are too risky. Of course, they like the return while the products are on the upside; they just deplore the downside risk that affects them on the backend of the transaction.

     Additionally, there is a selection problem where people who wish to be politicians or government officials can often fancy themselves equalizers. Exacting what they deem to be justice from one entity for the “benefit” of the consumers or voters. Whether it is the voters or the employees of agencies driving these irrational expectations of government makes no real difference. Government is simply not up to the task without eliminating the human component of every decision. They cannot control the supply side of these transactions they deem dangerous or too risky, they must also impact the demand side of the equation. In essence, they must attempt to stop people from “hurting themselves.” Human desires and the balancing of risk and safety vary greatly from one person to the next and it is this which causes government to be ineffective. And, be certain, it is America’s risk tolerance mixed with liberty which has enabled us to be as prosperous as we are.

      Government cannot protect people from themselves or eliminate every risk inherent in life. Government can be a conduit of information, but can never (nor should it) eliminate the desire of people to make choices or engage in risk. We benefit much more from the risk tolerance of humans than we suffer from it. If risk aversion was the default human position, humans would have starved long ago in caves; paralyzed from the fear of predators.

       Over time, government becomes a haven for the risk adverse; both in employment and in voting. Those people on both sides of the proverbial aisle are driven by risk aversion and politicians motivate their voters by highlighting risk and danger. If you are on the right, the risk that someone may do something you do not think is “right” engenders the fear that society will suffer because your moral code was deviated from. On the left, if people are not nannied continuously throughout life, they will be unable to find happiness or will inevitably become victims. Incidentally, both situations are premised on adherence to some subjective moral code.

       Essentially, many people vote on the premise that government will not merely be an efficiency enhancer; instead, government will be an enactor of some “justice” where the only thing they can be sure of is they will be the beneficiary and society will somehow be improved because people are constrained in the fashion they know is best. People have often restated the phrase that government is a “necessary evil,” but lack perspective of why this was originally said. Government is a necessary evil because of the principle of the opportunity cost. Anytime we assume government can solve our individual or societal problems, we set it up for failure and us up for disappointment. Not to mention we yield to it the essential liberty that has enabled us to improve the overall human condition through technological and economic progress.

 

Welfare Recipients: Moochers or Rational Actors?

      Often, people who accept and stay on welfare are accused of being mere moochers. To some extent, they do exhibit the primary characteristic of greed: the desire for something that belongs to someone else by compulsion or collusion instead of a trade of value. However, to leave it as simply as that fuels the lack of understanding as to how to remedy the welfare state problem that exists in America today.

      First, let me state it rather directly: people who seek out and stay on welfare for seemingly indefinite periods are rational actors. This may shock some people, baffle others, and even irritate a few; however, that does not diminish the fact it is true. A rational actor is someone who is concerned about their own prosperity and makes choices with the goal of maximizing this objective. In fact, all people are rational actors; we just do not always quantify what prosperity means in the same way as others do.

    The hazard at this point is to be side-tracked by a lengthy discussion that dispels the idea that humans are altruistic (which is the alternative to rational choice), but I will (mostly) avoid that for the time being. Instead, I will use a commonly cited example of altruism and explain briefly why it is incorrect. Fire fighters are often used as examples of altruistic actors; however, they get paid (rather well in many cases), have excellent work schedules, girls tend to like them, and society often idolizes them. Is there risk involved? Of course, but they face great risk—as we all do—by getting in their cars to drive to work. This idea that fear is a primary factor in all people’s decision-making is driven by those who place increased value on personal safety. To a person that is a natural thrill seeker or one that loves accomplishing things others may not dare, being a fire fighter is not altogether frightening or discouragingly risky. It is, instead, a rather rational choice.

       How does this relate to the welfare state? In a very important way, it highlights how people value things differently, some place great value on safety, some on personal “glory,” and others place increased value on wealth accumulation. People who accept being on welfare for extended—or indefinite—periods of time clearly have a high value on security. Additionally, it is likely they place a high value on rest or recreation. When we value recreation over wealth the ability to be free of the burden of work is much more important than having things or money. Conversely, those who value wealth are happy to trade hours of the day for success.

      Here is a scenario to illustrate why welfare recipients are rational actors. Let’s imagine a man named Jim—and his family—are on a myriad of assistance programs that net him the cash equivalent of $26,000/yr and he is offered a job making $32,000/yr. Will he take it? Let us look at the considerations that enter into this decision. First, Jim will have to take 40 hours of his week and trade it for $6,000/yr (that is $500/mth or $2.88/hr). On top of that Jim will have to pay payroll taxes and possibly (unlikely at that income level) income taxes. Would you do that? Ahhh, I can hear the ethical argument now…an argument that I fully sympathize with. So, let’s put it in different terms, if you made $30,000/yr working part time and got offered a full time job for $36,000/yr and this job entailed increased costs, would you take it? It is highly unlikely that you would, unless other considerations enter into your decision such as entry into the job of your dreams.

      People stay on welfare perpetually because they literally cannot afford to get off of it. Things like poor education, increasing minimum wages for entry level occupations, and an increasing menu of programs make this problem worse all the time. Individuals make choices based on individual circumstances, as they well should. What we must do is avoid continuing to lash out at people making a perfectly rational choice; instead, we would be much better served by actually trying to remedy the circumstances which drive these choices. Expanding the welfare state perpetuates the (relative) poverty it intends to cure and reduces the alternatives people have to staying mired in the muck of our burgeoning welfare state. And to completely answer the title question, they do qualify as moochers as well.

Is government absolution?

It has often been said that government is required to help the poor and disabled; however the evidence consistently shows that government’s involvement has not reduced poverty levels. Seeing that government has never (to my knowledge) cured a societal ill like poverty, why then does there remain so much confidence in it for future success? Could it be that support for government welfare programs stems not only from those who directly benefit from being on it, but also as a path to absolution by those who advocate for it?

So, what do I mean by absolution? First, let us discuss the idea that our government has a responsibility to the poor. Milton Friedman wisely pointed out that governments cannot have a responsibility to people…instead, only individuals can have responsibility. We often hear advocates of government welfare say that we are “our brother’s keeper,” a clear reference to the book of Genesis in the Bible; however, the verse is talking about an individual’s (Cain’s) responsibility to his own brother (Abel) and not society’s responsibility to a person or people. This is a blatant misuse of a Bible verse with the intent of misleading people who, by faith, feel an obligation to fulfill Biblical mandates (at least to some extent).

The question then is how does the brother’s keeper example contrast with government welfare and where does the concept of absolution come in? Let us assume that people do feel an innate obligation to help others; which is arguable, but for the sake of this discussion we must accept it generally. What is the easiest way for people to meet that obligation to others? One could work harder and produce more so that they may transfer (via donation) some of that excess production for the consumption of others. Or, one could spend a few minutes every couple of years voting for a group of people who will give money (that is largely not theirs) to others. Both seems to meet the goal of “helping others” yet one of the two options entails significantly less hardship on the individual choosing to vote instead of donate. It is certainly much easier to vote charity to others than it is to actually provide it. Particularly when a good segment of society pays nothing to fund these programs; the estimated percentage of people in America who file tax returns and owe $0 (or less) is 43% (as of 2013).

In the case of this group of people, a vote for welfare is not only costless and potentially beneficial, but also absolves them totally of any further responsibility to be their “brother’s keeper.” In fact, an IRS analysis of the 2012 tax year showed that the most generous states (by percentage of their income donated) were “red states” that voted for Mitt Romney. This implies that those people that believe government should not engage in coerced charity (to as great of an extent) are much more likely to give of their own money while people who see government as a reasonable and righteous source of charity (albeit at the point of a gun, a fact they often ignore) sees little reason to give of their own money when they can instead vote for “charitable” actions.

Therefore, a vote for government welfare represents a much cheaper way (for the voter) to donate largely because others pay the bill. Individuals can then fulfill their sense of obligation from the pockets of others and still gain the sense of giving that usually motivates people to actually give. This leaves people who preach an obligation to the poor and disabled from actually having any responsibility for meeting that obligation personally. Thus, the individuals that choose the voting method over the donating method have effectively been absolved of their responsibility to others. Effectively, those people do not practice what they preach; instead they demand others serve as their brother’s keeper, while they hold the moral high ground through their mere demanding of action by force.  This reminds me of the brilliant words of Ayn Rand who said:

“It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”

Interestingly, the people most hurt are the ones who do, most significantly, need the help. For the real crime is not that everyone does not have access to “assistance”; instead, the real crime lay in the reality that those who truly cannot do for themselves are left in poverty so as to satiate the majority who wishes to forgo their own personal responsibility for their own monetary gain. Simply put the absolution through government costs the absolved little, while that release from obligations is paid for dearly by those they claim to be helping. This is the danger of idealism rooted in greater good terms; for the actual good is left subjected to the eye of the beholder while the intent of actions is weighted far greater than actual outcomes. I close with the definition of absolution: “the formal release of guilt, obligation, or punishment.”

Poverty: are we treating the disease or just the symptom?

Poverty is an all important topic in America today.  In fact, there has been considerable conversation about it since LBJ declared “war on poverty” in 1964; however, beyond the typical rhetoric that poverty is bad and people cannot be left to die in the street nothing is really seriously discussed.  If one argues that entitlements are ineffective, inefficient, and just plain theft they are castigated as being hateful, greedy, or insensitive.  But, with all the spending which has taken place over the last 50 years, what do we really have to show for it?  Are we spending money trying to cure the symptom instead of the disease?  It seems likely with government’s proclivity towards throwing good money at bad “solutions” that we are ultimately ignoring that which causes poverty; all so feelings are spared and political cover is well preserved.

Entitlements are necessary?  Let us look at the numbers.  President Lyndon B. Johnson, in all his glory, declares war on poverty in 1964.  In 1968, the first publication of a poverty report by the Census Bureau is published; at the time the poverty rate is approximately 13% and the beginning estimate from 1950 is 22%. Good work LBJ?  Not so fast, Scooter.  The poverty rate had been descending steadily before the “war on poverty” began and continued its descent until a trough in 1969.  However, if you just cannot help but want to give LBJ credit for some of that decline, fair enough—from the time the “war” was declared to the trough saw a reduction from a level of approximately 17% down to the 12% level.  Hoorah for government spending!!!!!  So, after 50 years of enormous and blossoming entitlement spending to eliminate poverty what is the poverty rate now?  Drum roll, please—more than 15%.  Hmmmm…that was rather anti-climactic wasn’t it?

I have it!  Maybe poverty is up, but I bet all this socialism has closed the income gap!  Wrong again, Scooter! Since the late 1960s, income inequality has been rising quite impressively. So, why is it that after trillions of dollars having been spent in the name of poverty; are the poverty numbers really not improved since about 1967? Could it be that in our fervor over poverty we have misdiagnosed the condition? I suspect that, outside of some people who are legitimately (yes, I said it) handicapped, people often continue to be poor for the same reason rich people tend to get richer: they keep doing precisely what it was that made them that way in the first place.

Our society not only accepts less effort and apathy with regard to personal responsibility; we incentivize it.  If bad behavior is without consequence, you can be assured it will be repeated; if you give out cash prizes for it, it will really be repeated.  Don’t believe me? Test it out on your kids.  Every time your child hits another child, give them a candy bar or some other reward; I bet your kid will be hitting other children with lightning speed and efficiency in no time at all! Reverse your reward system and dis-incentivize that behavior and it will (perhaps less quickly) disappear…unless your child is a sociopath then you should have just taken my word for it.  In essence, that is what we have done as a nation; we have told people that not trying is good enough…that working on excuses can be equally or more profitable than actual production.  We have lied to ourselves and to those who feed at the government trough trapping them in a slavish-type relationship with government.  There is no success in a lack of effort nor can this situation continue in perpetuity.

Sadly, by subsidizing a lack of effort we relegate those who truly cannot earn for themselves to a life of poverty and squalor.  Handicapped people often live in poor conditions, so lazy people can comfortably watch Jerry Springer and Maury Povich.  But, we all know that is not the real reason…the real reason is so the aristocrats that loom over us from D.C. can continue to earn votes in exchange for other’s wealth.  Yet, as long as they have “good intentions” their failures, waste, lies, and theft will be excused.  Unfortunately, those in the ruling class do not have to live out the consequences of their actions; that is suffered most severely by the poor they claim to champion.  This makes the leaders we choose the most despicable kind of parasite.