Saturday, February 25, 2017

Expert Advice and Optimal Policy

by Levi Russell

Is it possible to bring expert opinion to bear on policy without the current system of administrative bureaucracy? That was the question on my mind when I read this post by my former colleague Tiffany Dowell at Texas A&M. The specific case discussed in Tiffany's post is a jurisdictional dispute against the Army Corps of Engineers (an administrative bureaucracy charged with enforcing much of US federal environmental policy) regarding a provision of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.

I won't get into the specifics of the WOTUS rule here. The point I want to make is broader, namely that we are not using courts as much as we could to accomplish policy goals. Currently at the federal level, the Executive branch has broad powers to interpret legislation, to write regulations that are legally binding for everyone, and to enforce those regulations without much interference from the Judicial branch.

The problem is that administrative bureaucracies have little incentive to consider potential unintended consequences and do a poor job of accounting for the costs of regulations. If, to fix these relatively poor incentives, the power of the bureaucracies is reduced, where would it go? Some of it could go to the Legislature and the rest might be entrusted to the Judicial branch directly. These two branches might do a better job of enforcing things like non-point- (in the case of the Legislature) and point-source (in the case of the Judicial branch) pollution since they're more directly bound by public scrutiny (Legislature) or hundreds of years of nuisance law (Judiciary).

What about expertise? Don't the administrative bureaucracies bring a lot of brain power to these regulatory problems? Definitely, but such expertise is often called on in legislative committees and on the witness stand in court cases. It doesn't require one to be flippant about environmental problems to suggest that there are, potentially, better institutional models to deal with things like pollution and environmental quality.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Is Corruption an Issue in Antitrust?

by Levi Russell

Antitrust has been a big issue in agriculture recently. The Bayer-Monsanto merger, the dairy industry settlement last year, and a relatively new suit regarding chicken price fixing have been consistently making headlines. Here at FH, I've been critical of the standard perspective on market contestability (here and here) and the tension between economic regulation and antitrust policy. In this article on the Stigler Center's blog, William Shughart applies public choice theory to antitrust enforcement. His basic point is that antitrust enforcement is just as susceptible to capture as other forms of regulation. Below are some excerpts, but I definitely encourage you to read the whole piece. It's pretty short.

Standing on the shoulders of at least one giant, my former colleague and frequent co-author the late Robert Tollison, I laid out the special interest group basis of antitrust in Antitrust Policy and Interest-Group Politics (Quorum, 1990). That book documented the political pressures brought to bear on antitrust law enforcers, including those of congressional oversight committees and the competitors of antitrust defendants, that shape enforcement outcomes at every stage of the process. The rent-seeking and rent-defending efforts of the parties involved in both public and private antitrust lawsuits are consistent with Olson’s Logic. The antitrust authorities, no less than regulatory authorities, are vulnerable to capture by the collective interests of groups having the most salient stakes in antitrust law enforcement outcomes.

It is tempting to think that antitrust law enforcers—and the judges who rule on such matters—are immune from the self-interested motivations of ordinary mortals, that the parties involved look only to the “public’s interest” by protecting consumers from the depredations of profit-seeking business enterprises. A review of more than a century of the actual practices of applying the relevant laws points in the opposite direction.

Antitrust is economic regulation and, as such, is amenable to scholarly evaluations of it within the same analytical framework. If not, scholars will continue to bemoan antitrust’s failures rather than seeing them as the predicable outcomes of an understandable political process, helping to explain the secular rise and fall of activist intervention against mergers and the behaviors of so-called dominant firms both at home and abroad.3)

Antitrust bureaucrats, judges and the parties who can bring the laws to bear to their own benefit are rational actors, not Madison’s fictional angels able to shed their parochial interests in the courtroom. The evidence is clear. Chicago School scholars, if anyone, should take off their rose-colored glasses.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Ostrom on Herbicide Resistance Management

by Levi Russell

I thought I'd share an interesting article I ran across last month on community-based approaches to herbicide resistance. The authors focus on the work of Elinor Ostrom as they evaluate the history of community-based solutions to common-pool resource problems and discuss how these solutions might be applied to herbicide resistance. Here's an excerpt from the conclusion:

What is to be done? First, we can recognize the wisdom of the Nobel Economic Sciences Prize Committee for awarding Elinor Ostrom part of the 2009 prize in economics for “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”—Oliver Williamson deservedly shared the prize for his “analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm". There is now a rich body of research on managing common pool resources that can inform community-based approaches to resistance managements. Second, to organize to prevent herbicide resistant weeds, farmers and other stakeholders do not have to start from scratch. The multiple examples of community-based programs to control mobile insects and invasive weeds illustrate that farmer groups—in collaboration with and assistance from the research and extension communities—have organized effectively to overcome barriers to collective action problems. There is legal and administrative precedent as well as institutional memory that could aid farmers in developing resistance management programs based on programs they are already familiar with and which have a record of success. The particulars of herbicide resistant weed management will certainly differ from such insect and invasive weed programs. Insect biology and movement differs in spatial and temporal dimensions from that of weeds. And insect eradication programs have at times relied on mandatory area-wide spraying or practiced area-wide sterile insect releases. While both these actions took discretion out of the individual farmer’s hands, they were actions that farmers collectively accepted. Other organizational arrangements may also serve as useful examples. Endres and Schelsinger (2015) suggest that drainage districts perhaps provide a structure that can be replicated for effective community-based herbicide resistance programs.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Nirvana Fallacy in Healthcare Economics

by Levi Russell

RegBlog, a great source for regulatory info, published an opinion piece about three weeks ago by Allison Hoffman. a law professor, on the potential for an Obamacare rollback by Republicans. Reading the essay, I recognized several errors of economic logic that I thought I'd point out here. I'm not an expert in this field, but I'm a firm believer that the economic way of thinking properly applied can provide much-needed clarity. As with any other post on FH, I invite others to correct me on any of the following if I miss something important.

The first two-thirds of the post is essentially an exercise in Harold Demsetz's Nirvana Fallacy. Yes, of course people could have more accurate information about treatments and could do a better job choosing good doctors. Does that mean the government should step in? Of course people are generally healthier when they don't pay the marginal cost of care; the cost/benefit calculus is skewed by the fact that the cost is near zero. Of course diseases are caused, to some degree, by things outside of our control. Does that imply the government can control those things or can necessarily make better decisions than we can?

Professor Hoffman then takes on a few individual proposals. She acknowledges that health savings accounts (HSAs) benefit some people, but complains that they are only beneficial for those with "surplus income." Her lack of a concrete example exposes the flaw in her critique. Suppose you are faced with two options for employer-provided healthcare: (1) a traditional "insurance" plan with a premium of $500 monthly and copays for doctor visits or (2) a catastrophic plan with a premium of $200 and an HSA with a contribution match up to $3,000 per year. The HSA allows you to save money for later when your monthly expenditures are lower than what you save. Comparing the two, it's trivial to point out that if I choose (2) I have $300 in "surplus income" to put into the savings account (plus the match!). Certainly some people don't have employer-provided health insurance, but the ACA was quickly making such policies tremendously expensive.

Hoffman later discusses tax credits, tax deductions, and other premium support programs proposed by Republicans. She criticizes one plan that would give a $2,100 tax credit to anyone between the ages of 35 and 50 for medical costs. Her criticism is that this credit would not cover a Bronze ACA plan which costs $4,200 per year. Assuming her figures are correct, this criticism seems empty to me. The credit would probably work well for a lot of people (especially those with low incomes) in scenario 2 above. The fact that it doesn't work with a choice-limiting, 3rd party payer program like the ACA isn't necessarily proof that the tax credit is bad. Perhaps it means choice-limiting 3rd party payer programs are inefficient.

Finally, Professor Hoffman criticizes reform proposals on the basis that the vouchers, credits, or deductions will grow at a rate at or below inflation, which is below historic rates of growth of healthcare costs. Unlike many, many other goods and services (even those produced in "non-contestable" industries), those that are heavily subsidized by the government like education and healthcare increase in cost much more rapidly than inflation. It's possible that reducing the government's role in healthcare will make that industry operate more like other industries, thus lowering costs. I'm sure there are reasons to think otherwise, but federal and state governments have had a lot of control over healthcare markets for at least 7 decades. Perhaps we should try something different.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ag Potpourri - Feb 2017

by Levi Russell

Having recently completed a tour of the state discussing forecasts for Georgia's 4 primary meat commodities, I thought I'd put up some articles on interesting issues looking ahead for 2017.

The guys over at Agricultural Economic Insights have a great post discussing 16 questions for ag in 2017. They have another post on exchange rates which should be interesting given recent GDP and labor numbers, and recent movement in the stock market.

Scott Irwin looks at ethanol profitability for 2017.

Expect a LOT of meat on the market over the next 2 years. The beef, chicken, and pork industries are dealing with massive supplies with no relief in sight.

Finally, anti-trust continues to be a hot-button issue in proteins, most recently on the poultry side. Also, there is potential for the new administration to take action on a controversial new GIPSA rule designed to limit market power among meat processors.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

How Do We Fix Rent Seeking?

by Levi Russell

Over at the ProMarket blog, Asher Schechter summarizes some key arguments made at the recent ASSA meetings on rent seeking, antitrust enforcement, and inequality. The post is quite long (for a blog), so I'll just comment on some key paragraphs and leave the rest to the interested reader.
“In all areas of economics, the rules of the game are critical—that is emphasized by the fact that similar economics [sic] exhibit markedly different patterns of distribution, market income, and after tax and transfers income. This is especially so in an innovation economy, because innovation gives rise to rents—both from IPR and monopoly power. Who receives those rents is a matter of policy, and changes in the IPR [Intellectual Property Rights] regime have led to greater rents without having any effects on the pace of innovation,” said Stigltz.
 Stiglitz's complaint about rents from innovation is telling. As I've discussed previously here at FH, if we take a dynamic view of competition, the rents (i.e. profits in excess of all costs) from innovation are merely an inducement to continue innovating. The value of the innovations themselves are still determined by the consumer and the "monopolist" is still incentivized to create what the public wants.

So, taking his last claim at face value, what would explain increasing profits to innovators without concomitant increases in innovation? I don't buy the intellectual property argument. More likely, it's the seemingly unceasing increase in regulation in so many industries. It explains reductions in the pace of innovation because it restricts entrepreneurs from doing what they believe is best for customers. It explains increasing profits because it keeps out new entrants and potentially pushes out smaller competitors.

Both Stiglitz and Deaton agreed that tougher antitrust enforcement is “incredibly important” in reducing inequality (an argument that was explored at length in ProMarket as well), rejecting claims that diminishing the role of government and regulation is the key.
What to do about increasing concentration? Ramp up antitrust enforcement, of course! The problem here is that a move back to the old ways of measuring market power, namely concentration indices, don't accurately capture market power. The work of Israel Kirzner, Harold Demsetz, and William Baumol bear this out. Stiglitz and Deaton seem to want more (or at the very least, not less) regulation, and more antitrust enforcement. The problem is that regulation creates barriers to entry that enhance market power of incumbents!

Campaign finance reform, he said, “would reduce the current selection of Representatives and Senators who are beholden to deep pockets. It’s hard to be elected to Congress or to stay elected without support from well funded interest, and that’s as true in recent years for the Democrats as for Republicans. Congressmen and Congresswomen are the farm team for K-Street.”
Another phrase for "campaign finance reform" is "abridgement of the first amendment." If we're concerned about the power of K Street Lobbyists (and I think we should be), it seems reasonable to address them directly, rather than through potentially damaging the freedom of political speech. If you want to reduce K Street's influence, the most direct way to do so is to reduce the scale and scope of power of the administrative bureaucracy and the legislature.

I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on these selections or on any other topic discussed in the article linked above!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Entry Regulation - Public Interest or Public Choice?

by Levi Russell

Don Boudreaux at his Cafe Hayek Blog points to a great article which comprehensively measures the effects of entry regulation - regulations associated with starting a business - that I thought I'd share.

The article does a great job explaining the three primary theoretical reasons for regulation:

1) the public interest view, which states that regulation is used by governments to correct for the many, many market failures existing in private markets

2) the public choice view, which states that regulation primarily serves politically-well-connected interest groups and that the public at large is inept to curtail these favors because of poor incentives and information problems associated with political decision making

3) another public choice view, which states that regulation benefits politicians because politicians are able to extract payments from private interests in exchange for not passing or exempting said private interests from the regulation

So what do the authors of the paper find? Here's the abstract:

We present new data on the regulation of entry of start-up firms in 85 countries. The data cover the number of procedures, official time, and official cost that a start-up must bear before it can operate legally. The official costs of entry are extremely high in most countries. Countries with heavier regulation of entry have higher corruption and larger unofficial economies, but not better quality of public or private goods. Countries with more democratic and limited governments have lighter regulation of entry. The evidence is inconsistent with the public interest theories of regulation, but supports the public choice view that entry regulation benefits politicians and bureaucrats.
The first 5 pages of the article go into a bit more depth about the three theories listed above and specifically how their analysis leads to the conclusions they draw.