CBO Nonsense

From the CBO Director’s blog:

Many factors are responsible for the rise in unemployment in general and in long-term unemployment:

-Weak demand for goods and services, as a result of the recession and its aftermath, which results in weak demand for workers;

The better question is: what is causing weak demand? Could it be that people are realizing that it’s fiscally unhealthy to spend lots of many that they don’t technically have? Could it be that the extend-and-pretend games of the last thirty years are starting to catch up to us? Could it be that, having pulled demand forward for so long, the future is now finally catching up to us?

-Mismatches between would-be employers’ needs and the skills or location of the unemployed;

This is actually a valid point, although it’s probably helpful to look at a couple of points that contribute to this situation. The declining value of an American education certainly contributes to mismatched needs and abilities. Interestingly, the sheer vapidity of modern American education is mostly due to Boomer tinkering. Also interesting is that Boomers are now in charge of major businesses, just in time to find out how terribly awry their experiments in education have gone. Furthermore, their arrogance and blind trust in their educational model prevented them from doing the one thing that would currently save their companies: hiring bright kids out of high school and training them on the job instead of waiting for them to get a college diploma. (Of course, it probably didn’t help that Boomers made employment testing illegal.)

Regarding location, I think there are three reasons people refuse to move for work. First, government benefits currently make staying in the same place to wait for a new job feasible. Second, I would theorize that most of the once-employed are intelligent to suspect that government benefits may not be around forever, and therefore it is best to stay where one is, since one will have more social capital at one’s current location than at a new location. Finally, the increasingly transient nature of jobs discourages employees from traveling, particularly in light of government benefits. Why endure moving a thousand miles away only to lose your job after a year? Especially when, after moving costs and loss of social capital are accounted for, you’re fiscally worse off than if you’d been on government benefits?

-Incentives for people to stay in the labor force and continue searching for work that result from extensions of unemployment insurance benefits; and

This is more of a technical point, as unemployment statistics are calculated by dividing the number of unemployed workers by the total labor force. The issue is defining the labor force (if memory serves me correctly, the government has six or seven definitions). Some metrics only consider adults that are currently looking for work as part of the labor force, and so the claim being made by the CBO is that rates are artificially (or, more accurately, tautologically) high because there are some who are looking for work instead of just giving up.

-The erosion of unemployed workers’ skills and the belief of some employers that people who have been unemployed for a long time would be low-quality workers (a phenomenon sometimes called stigma).

This is pretty much the same as above. As the social stigma that comes with long-term unemployment wears off, more of those workers who were at one time out of the labor force will come back into the labor force (by seeking jobs) and tautologically drive up the unemployment rate.

In all, the CBO is blaming increased unemployment rates on the fact that Americans are finally realizing that man cannot live by debt alone and on an increasing number of people who have the gall to seek employment again. In essence, the CBO would prefer that people continue to spend money they do not have and just go back to being lazy and unproductive. And that’s how the government plans on reducing unemployment.

The Ethics of Receiving Government Benefits

Many liberals like to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the people featured in the article, who rail against big government, demand lower spending, and simultaneously rake in benefits from the federal government that they hate. The central figure in the article, Ki Gulbranson, works hard yet has barely enough money to support his family, even with the earned income tax credit* and reduced-price school lunches for his kids. His conclusion: the country is going bankrupt, but people don’t make enough money to pay more taxes, so we should have smaller government. He would rather go without his current benefits—but he can’t imagine retiring without Medicare and Social Security. [Ed.—the rest of the article is worth reading as well.]

I have no opposition to people pursuing or receiving government benefits if they’ve paid into the system, even if they oppose the offering of those benefits. There are two reasons for this.

First, if you’ve paid taxes, you should be able to recoup them because the government is supposed to act in your interests. Some benefits will be indirect (military spending, e.g.), some are indirect (highway construction, e.g.), and some are direct (welfare, e.g.). The problem with government is that all benefits are part of the same basket; you can’t opt out of paying for any of the benefits. As such, there is little reason to opt out of receiving any benefits because you’ve already paid for them and, as is the case in a democracy, they belong to you (what with it being a government of the people, by the people, for the people and all).

Second, the government does things that incentivize the receipt of direct benefits. Taxation is one example, in that taxation prevents you from taking care of things for yourself. More people would be able to afford their own health care if the government cut health spending and the corresponding taxes. Another example is regulation (which is in many cases not enacted democratically), which also makes many things more expensive. More people could more easily afford the things they need if regulatory compliance costs were reduced.

Now, political principles are indeed wonderful things, as they give us some idea of where we want to go. But we should never mistake political principles for political reality. It would be great if there weren’t any unconstitutional government programs and their corresponding taxes. But that is currently not the case, and our ethical considerations need to account for the various distortions that come at the hands of the government. If the government is going to force you to make bricks, there’s no principled reason to refuse their straw.

* Caveat 1: while I argue that people shouldn’t be considered hypocrites for receiving government benefits that they argue against, they should also be aware that there are costs to qualifying for government benefits, and that they should be prepared to comply with them.

Caveat 2: this ethical analysis only applies to people who have paid taxes. Those who haven’t paid a dime in taxes should not receive a dime in benefits.

Paragraphs to Ponder

I believe that a person who is 65 years old and has been forced into Social Security is owed something. But the question is, Who owes it to him? Congress has spent every penny of his Social Security “contribution.” Young workers have no obligation to be fleeced in order to make up for the dishonesty and dereliction of Congress. The tragedy is that most seniors just want their money and couldn’t care less about whom Congress takes it from.

Here’s what might be a temporary fix: The federal government owns huge quantities of wasting assets – assets that are not producing anything – 650 million acres of land, almost 30 percent of the land area of the United States. In exchange for those who choose to opt out of Social Security and forsake any future claim, why not pay them off with 40 or so acres of land? Doing so would give us breathing room to develop a free choice method to finance retirement.

This seems like a very good way to handle the current mess known as Social Security because it’s rather fair to both those who have already paid in and those who are currently paying. Best of all, it takes power away from the federal government, which is reason enough in my book to go forward with this plan.

Social Security Thy Name is Ponzi

I’m not sure why so many are upset with Rick Perry calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme. I said the same thing way back in March, but the media hardly seemed to care. Many economists have weighed in on this debate, and Walter Williams provides a decent summary of their sentiments:

Aside from these lies, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. The major difference between Social Security and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme is his was illegal. Three Nobel laureate economists have testified that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. Dr. Paul Samuelson called it “the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived.” Dr. Milton Friedman said it was “the biggest Ponzi scheme on earth.” Dr. Paul Krugman predicted that “the Ponzi game will soon be over.”

The media and government need to take a hint here. When two Nobel-prize-winning Keynesians say that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, it’s safe that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.(Because if there’s anyone who knows Ponzi schemes, it’s going to be a Keynesian.)Incidentally, I was also ahead of the game in demonstrating that Social Security is a lie, at least in terms of guaranteed benefits. While I only focused on Flemming v. Nestor, it is important to also look at Helvering V. Davis:

Another lie in the Social Security pamphlet is: “Beginning November 24, 1936, the United States government will set up a Social Security account for you. … The checks will come to you as a right.” Therefore, Americans were sold on the belief that Social Security is like a retirement account and money placed in it is our property. The fact of the matter is you have no property right whatsoever to your Social Security “contributions.”

You say, “Williams, you’re wrong! We have a right to Social Security payments.” In a U.S. Supreme Court case, Helvering v. Davis (1937), the court held that Social Security is not an insurance program, saying, “The proceeds of both (employee and employer) taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like internal revenue taxes generally, and are not earmarked in any way.” In a later Supreme Court case, Flemming v. Nestor (1960), the court said, “To engraft upon the Social Security system a concept of ‘accrued property rights’ would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to ever-changing conditions which it demands.” [Emphasis added.]

Of course, Social Security is not technically a Ponzi scheme because one is not forced to pay taxes contribute to a true Ponzi scheme:

It’s true that Ponzi engaged in fraud; his victims never would have “invested” with him, had he accurately explained the business model. Libertarians therefore agree with everybody else that Charles Ponzi was a criminal and would have to face legal consequences in any just legal order.

However, so far as we know Ponzi never threatened anybody. He didn’t tell struggling young workers, “Give me 15 percent of your paycheck every week, so that I can make you a fantastic return — or else I’ll send goons to kidnap you.”

In this respect, Social Security isn’t a Ponzi scheme after all. It’s more analogous to mobsters shaking down people for protection money, because otherwise “bad things could happen.”

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Natural Consequences

The justification for pushing people around like this is the NHS. Shouldn’t people have to pay for their own illnesses? Well, yes – that’s how personal responsibility works. But having an NHS removes the personal responsibility, and artificial attempts to inject it into the system are doubly illiberal and wrong.

The government (and the electorate, for that matter) forces people to be in the NHS. You have no choice in the matter, and you can’t opt out of it. Jamie Whyte put it well: “first the do-gooders conjure up the external costs by insisting that no one should have to pay for his own medical care, then they tell us that they must interfere with behavior that damages our health because it imposes costs on others.” This is perverse and illiberal. The tax would only affect the poor – rich people’s spending habits wouldn’t be dented. How easy it must be for doctors to pontificate about the need for a fat tax, knowing that such a tax would hardly affect them at all.

This creepy, controlling paternalism has plenty of fans in politics on both sides of the partisan divide. Doctors are the politicians’ enablers, lending the weight of their “expertise” to the nanny instinct of the political class in exchange for the feeling of being important. No amount of expertise – medical or otherwise – should give somebody the right to interfere with another adult’s choices. Nor should democracy be used as an excuse to violate the sovereignty of the individual. If fat people are costing the NHS money, that’s a mark against having an NHS, not against having fat people.

Sam Bowman is perfectly correct in noting that the problem with obesity is a mark against the NHS.  The NHS has essentially reduced people’s incentive to avoid unhealthy behavior and, unsurprisingly, people have engaged in unhealthy behavior.  If the NHS were abolished, people would revert to more healthy behaviors.  This is the basic economics.

However, regulating people’s diets and behaviors is the natural consequence of having the NHS.  If a government is going to dispense “free” health care, the only way to control costs is to limit health care and control individuals’ behavior.  If the government is going to provide something for you, it is eventually going to have to control you.  Government benefits and government control go hand in hand.

Therefore, if people do not wish to be controlled by their government, they must give up their benefits (and in this case pity can be offered to those in Britain because NHS is not opt-out, so there are likely some in Britain who are part of system they simply want no part of).  And if people desire certain benefits from the government, they must be prepared to cede control of themselves to the state.  Those are simply the natural consequences.