Category: Crony Capitalism

Radio Free ActonThis week on Radio Free Acton, Michael Matheson Miller takes the interviewer’s chair for a conversation with David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, to discuss the thought of Edmund Burke in the wake of the release of Bromwich’s first volume of what will be a two-volume intellectual biography of Burke. This week’s conversation touches on Burke’s view of the human person, his thoughts on progress in the arts and sciences, and his role in the modern conservative movement. And like Bromwich’s biography, this podcast will come in two parts: the remainder of the conversation will be yours to enjoy next week.

To listen to Part 1 of Miller’s interview with Bromwich, use the audio player below.

eximbank1

With its authorization charter expiring at the end of September, the U.S. Export-Import Bank has come under increased scrutiny from rabble-rousers and the hum-drum alike. An otherwise obscure fixture in the grand scheme of federal-government corporatism, Ex-Im finances and insures (i.e. subsidizes) foreign purchases of U.S. goods for those who wouldn’t otherwise accept the risk.

So far, we’ve seen a variety of good arguments made against the bank. It privileges certain companies over others. It doesn’t meaningfully improve national exports, despite many claims to the contrary. It will surely yield losses for taxpayers. And so on.

But there’s a bigger and broader reason to reject such schemes that has less to do with line-item analyses of exports vs. imports or how much Boeing will benefit vs. General Electric, and more to do with how they distort, inhibit, or prevent the efforts of those aren’t on the radar in the first place, but perhaps should or could be — the “unseen,” as Bastiat would call them.

Over at Economic Intelligence, Veronique de Rugy does us a service in highlighting this aspect, noting that Ex-Im and other corporatist schemes tend to cramp the economy at large by distorting signals and inhibiting innovation and possibility outside of the privileged few:

However, the real problem with Ex-Im pertains to the many groups who are affected by Ex-Im activities but have been ignored so far. These people don’t have connections in Washington, and they don’t have access to press offices and lobbyists. But they matter, too.

It is difficult, but extremely important, that we consider the unseen costs of political privilege, whether they take the form of market distortions, resource misallocation, job losses, destroyed potential or higher prices… (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, details how the growth of government-corporate cronyism during the past 120 or so years has been largely a phenomenon of the socialist left. Wendell Berry misses this crucial historical insight in his running critique of capitalism, and his missing it draws him into flatly inaccurate claims, as when he asserts that “the United States government’s agricultural policy, or non-policy, since 1952 has merely consented to the farmer’s predicament of high costs and low prices; it has never envisioned or advocated in particular the prosperity of farmers or of farmland …”

This makes it sounds as if the government is largely uninvolved in agricultural markets, letting the winds of the free market blow wherever they wish. It’s true that the U.S. government has moved away from buying and destroying food as it did under FDR in the Great Depression, a statist attempt to prop up commodity prices while countless Americans went hungry. But even since 1952, and in a dizzying number of ways, the American government has been busy erecting all manner of protections for American agriculture, from fat subsidies on rice and other grains to import quotas on sugar, price supports on milk, and a long-running policy of paying farmers and ranchers to idle parts of their land. (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

In his case against capitalism, Wendell Berry argues that the average person not only is anxious because he depends upon so many other people for his wellbeing (truckers, utility companies, etc.) but that he ought to be anxious. There’s a grain of truth here. We shouldn’t become helpless sheep without a clue what to do were the power to go down for a couple of days in January. But inter-dependency, far from a sign of cultural sickness, is the mark of a healthy society, one where enough trust exists to allow for broadening circles of productivity and exchange, for markets that extend beyond clan and tribe. (more…)

[Part 1 is here].

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the ring leader of a little band of first-century Jewish rebels asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” He’s sure the answer is absolutely nothing, but one of the rebels meekly pipes up with “The Aqueduct.” A moment later another rebel squeaks, “And the sanitation.” Then another, “The Roads.”

"What have the Romans ever done for us!"

“What have the Romans ever done for us!”

The ringleader grudgingly grants all of this and then tries to wrench the meeting back on track. “But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads—” Before he can even finish the sentence, others–warming to the brainstorming challenge–begin chiming in: “Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?”

The list could work just as well, and in some instances, more easily, for the British Empire. The scene also works as a metaphor for neo-agrarian essayist Wendell Berry and his relationship to capitalism and the U.S. Tobacco Trust that dominated the cigarette industry at the turn of the previous century.

Picture Berry gathering together a little knot of agrarian Distributist rebels on the back stoop of his Kentucky farm and rousing them with the purely rhetorical question, “What have the capitalists and big tobacco ever done for us?!”

The answer, I would suggest, is quite a bit. (more…)

starbucksWhen most people think of Starbucks they think of overpriced coffee, free wifi, and omnipresence. Starbucks are everywhere. The company was founded in 1971 and since 1987 they’ve opened an average of two new stores every day. In the U.S. alone there are 12,973 locations.

When most people think of “big business”, though, they don’t often think of the Seattle-based coffee company. But they should. Starbucks has 151,000 fulltime employees, $15 billion in annual revenues, and three times as many locations as Walmart. Starbucks is one of the biggest of big businesses. And, not surprisingly, a big proponent of cronyist policies.

Cronyism occurs when an individual or organization colludes with government officials to create legislation or regulations that give them forced benefits they could not have otherwise obtained voluntarily. Those benefits come at the expense of consumers, taxpayers, and everyone working hard to compete in the marketplace. A prime example is minimum wage laws. Almost without fail, big businesses tend to support higher minimum wages.

Since they could just choose to pay higher wages, why would they support federal mandated wage floors? One reason is because it helps to eliminate the competition from small business who don’t have the size and scale to absorb higher-than-market wage increases.

In a recent interview with CNN, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he supports an increase to federal minimum wage even though he admits the $15 wage in Seattle could have “traumatic effects” on small business owners and employees.
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[Part 1 is here.]

Even a cursory look at the annual list of the freest and least free economies in the world suggests a strong correlation between economic freedom and the prosperity of its citizens, including its poorest citizens. But there’s another correlation that tends to capture the attention of those making a cultural critique of the free economy. They note that America is economically free, and that it’s experiencing cultural decay, so they conclude the first causes the second. The conclusion isn’t absurd, but it also doesn’t follow necessarily. Sometimes correlation is due to causation, and sometimes it isn’t. To avoid confusion and false conclusions, we need to distinguish the idea of economic freedom from some things it isn’t.

A lot of people view economic freedom as synonymous with big corporations cutting sweetheart deals with politicians to suppress competitors and consumer choice. This stuff goes on all the time, of course, but it isn’t economic freedom. It’s the leviathan state and big business colluding to manipulate the market, to stack the deck in favor of political insiders. Every market economy on the planet has some of this sort of thing, since economies are operated by fallen human beings. The question is, where does cronyism tend to be the worst? (more…)

briberyThere’s an old saying that corruption is authority plus monopoly minus transparency. That combination makes state-level governments especially prone to the temptations of corruption.

A new study in Public Administration Review, “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending,” looks at the impact of government corruption on states’ expenditures. Defining corruption as the “misuse of public office for private gain,” the authors of the paper note that public and private corruption can have a range of negative effects, including lower-quality work, reduced economic productivity, and increased poverty.

According to Leighton Walter Kille, the researchers explored two possible theories: First, higher levels of corruption should cause states’ spending levels to be higher than they would be otherwise. Second, corruption would distort states’ spending priorities in ways that favor bribes from private firms and others. Some of the findings include:
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enterprisezoneBarack Obama calls them Promise Zones while Rand Paul calls them Freedom Zones. But when they were first proposed they were called Enterprise Zones.

In the 1980s, then-congressman and self-described “bleeding-heart conservative” Jack Kemp became the first lawmaker to popularize enterprise zones, which he supported to foster entrepreneurship and job creation. Enterprise Zone policies attempt to incentivize businesses to locate within their borders—usually in blighted urban areas—by offering targeted benefits to particular industries and companies. These benefits come in many forms, including business tax credits for investments, property tax abatements, and reductions in the sales tax.

There’s a couple of problems with enterprise zones, though. There’s no evidence they work. And worse, they encourage and perpetuate cronyism.

As a new paper by Christopher J. Coyne and Lotta Moberg of the Mercatus Center explains, “Despite good intentions, policymakers often overlook the unseen and unintended negative consequences of targeted-benefit policies.” One of these unintended negative consequences is increased cronyism, the practice of exchanging favors between powerful people in politics and business:

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On Tuesday, April 29, the Acton Institute hosted the conference Faith, State, and the Economy: perspectives from East and West at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. This conference was the first in a five-part international conference series – One and Indivisible? The Relationship Between Religious and Economic Freedom.

The one-night event, moderated by Acton’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico, featured four prominent speakers who offered deeper insight into the question of the relationship between religious freedom and economic liberty. The speakers represented a diversity of global perspectives on the relationship between religious and economic freedom.2014-04-29_0226_REV

Rev. Prof. Martin Rhonheimer of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, located in Rome, presented on Christianity and the Limits of State Power. Rhonheimer discussed the important and inherent link between limited government and a flourishing free market, the historical roots of the free market in Christian civilization, and the danger of Christians who fail to understand the link between Christianity and a free market economy.

Following Rhonheimer, Archbishop Maroun Elias Lahham of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem for Jordan offered his perspectives on Christians and the Challenge of Freedom in the Middle East. Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research at the Acton Institute, followed with an engaging analysis on contemporary issues in his presentation Religious Liberty and Economic Freedom: Intellectual and Practical Paradoxes. Gregg revealed some of the ways that greater economic freedom may lead to greater religious liberty, using the Chinese situation as a case study.

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