Category: Economics

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…)

davebratIn a piece today for the NYT Magazine, economics reporter Binyamin Appelbaum examines David Brat’s fusion of faith and free-market economics. Appelbaum finds that mixture problematic, to say the least, but it’s hard to sort out whether it is the religious faith or the free-market sympathies that Appelbaum finds more troubling.

In the opening paragraph, Appelbaum asserts that before Brat’s rise to prominence “there was plenty of skepticism about whether he merited the label of academic economist.” Who these skeptics are, who knew so much about Brat “even before” his “out-of-nowhere” victory, we are simply left to ponder. It seems some of his colleagues at Randolph-Macon College now harbor such skepticism. (Brat is running against a Randolph-Macon sociologist, Jack Trammell. Brat once wrote that “Capitalism is the major organizing force in modern life, whether we like it or not. It is here to stay. If the sociologists ever grasp this basic fact, their enterprise will be much more fruitful.”)

Brat’s academic record is a wortwhile question to take up, and one that there has been a great deal of interest in following his primary victory. I, like many others, wanted to find out more, and went in search of Brat’s publications (with the help of one of our interns). I’ve had a chance to look at a few, and even turned up the paper on Ayn Rand that had gained such notice. The Rand paper turned out to be a co-authored piece with a student, and something which barely qualified as a poorly-edited introduction to a conference presentation. It is certainly not a smoking gun for tracking down Randian sympathies.

The problem with Appelbaum’s piece isn’t that he is asking questions about Brat’s academic record. These questions should be asked. The problem is the tone of Appelbaum’s inquisition and his presumption against the coherence of Brat’s position. The sarcasm oozes from Appelbaum’s prose: Brat “is certainly not in danger of winning a Nobel Prize.” Likewise Brat has written “discursive papers devoid of math,” “cited Wikipedia as a source,” and “never been published in a significant journal.”
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Exodus36As economic prosperity has increased, and as the American economy has transitioned from agrarian to industrial to information-driven, manual labor has been increasingly cast down in the popular imagination.

When our youth navigate and graduate from high school, they receive pressure from all directions to excel in particular areas and attend a four-year college, typically in pursuit of “white-collar” work. The trades, on the other hand — including brickmasons, plumbers, butchers, and carpenters — are not high on the minds of many, whether parents, pastors, teachers, or politicians.

In the latest issue of Christianity Today, Chris Horst and Jeff Haanen offer a challenge to this trend and the supporting stereotypes, arguing that the church has a particular precedent to build on when it comes to the ways we approach “work with the hands.”

Not only does a thriving economy and society need craftspeople, but the Bible elevates these occupations as filled with worth and dignity. Craftspeople are image-bearers, they argue, reflecting “the Divine Craftsman who will one day make all things new”:

Craftspeople (harashim)—masons, barbers, weavers, goldsmiths, stonecutters, carpenters, potters—are replete in the Bible. The first person Scripture says was filled with the Spirit of God was Bezalel, who was given “ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze” (Ex. 31:1–5, ESV). Passages like these suggest God cares about craftsmanship, above all in his most holy places. From the tabernacle to the temple, what was built was meant to reflect and reveal God’s character. The temple was not just a majestic building; it spoke powerfully of his holiness. (more…)

AHB with tank.jpgThe Great War began 100 years ago last week.

From an economic perspective (from Pulitzer Prize economist Liaquat Ahamed) the European nations paid for WWI not with taxes, but with massive debts financed largely by America. The warring nations could not pay their way out of debt so many resorted to the easier route: inflation. But that inflation destroyed the savings of the middle class and that did not make European nations more stable.

Germany finally defaulted on its war debts after the 1929 crash. The international financial system also collapsed. Of course, German people listened to Hitler’s ideas about blame and solutions, while France, half destroyed by the war, looked at Germany (where few battles were fought) and wanted the Germans to pay for that destruction. The Depression made each nation more economically isolated which added to the misery as trade shrank. Europe was ripe for WWII.

WWI could be taken as a lesson on the perils of excessive debt. Governments have discovered three nasty advantages:

  1. They can borrow beyond emergencies (war) to pay for anything.
  2. Government pensions (more debt) are excellent ways to buy votes with the vague idea that ‘future growth’ or ‘future generations’ will easily cover the massive pension obligations.
  3. Governments have more recently seen that they can lower interest rates and ‘print money’ without being held accountable as they will be bailed out by other countries through central banks which will do, as Mario Draghi famously said, “whatever it takes.” These financial gimmicks look like serious plans because the men wear suits and because their ideas work, at least until the office holders retire.

However, as with WWI debt and the Crash of 1929, a severe crisis will come and prove that these leaders (while possibly not as incompetent or corrupt as the political leaders of Detroit) were wrong.

Radio Free ActonIt’s time again for another edition of Radio Free Acton, and we think this one is well worth the listen. Today, Paul Edwards talks with scholar, author, economist, occasional guest host of the nation’s largest talk radio show and all-around great guy Dr. Walter E. Williams about Frederic Bastiat’s classic The Law and the insights into modern America by reading that classic defense of limited government, authentic justice and human freedom. Williams wrote the introduction for the latest edition of Bastiat’s work, which is available for purchase in the Acton Bookshop at the link above, and said of the book that it “created order in my thinking about liberty and just human conduct.”

The lively conversation between Edwards and Williams is available via the audio player below.

comparativeadvantageNote: This is the latest entry in the Acton blog series, “What Christians Should Know About Economics.” For other entries in the series see this post.

The Term: Comparative advantage

What it Means: The ability of an individual or group of individual (e.g., a business firm) to produce goods or services at a lower opportunity cost than other individuals or groups.

Why it Matters: There is a story of the distinguished British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

When we examine creation to uncover what it reveals about the character of God, one of the things we discover time and time again is the Creator’s fondness for diversity. Like Haldane, we can see this by looking at biology (e.g., there are more species of beetle than birds or mammals combined). But we can also find it when we turn to economics.

A primary example of God’s enthusiasm for diversity is the concept of comparative advantage. While the definition of the them makes it sounds dull and wonky, comparative advantage is a beautiful, theologically profound norm of creation.

Fully appreciating the nuances of the ideas requires timely reflection. But understanding it can be achieved when a few minutes. In this brief video, economist Donald J. Boudreaux does a masterful job of explaining how, when combined with trade, comparative advantage improves human communities.
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t873In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court just announced its ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, holding that, “as applied to closely held corporations, the government’s HHS regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).” The full opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, can be read here.

Although there is still much to digest, and although the majority opinion still leaves quite a bit of room for related battles to continue, it’s worth noting that that whatever perceived “narrowness” we see in the decision — confining things specifically to closely held corporations — remains a significant victory, particularly given our culture’s prevailing attitudes about business.

According to HHS, by simply incorporating one’s business in the pursuit of profit — “without in any way changing the size or nature of their businesses” — a company “would forfeit all RFRA (and free-exercise) rights” (quotes from Alito’s paraphrase). The arguments supporting such a view vary, including the principal argument advanced by HHS that corporations cannot “exercise religion.”

Alito dissects this from a variety of angles, and does so rather compellingly. But one of the more noteworthy sections is his refutation of the notion that for-profit corporations aren’t protected by RFRA because they “simply seek to make a profit.” (more…)

Since the era of Adam Smith economists have been asking, “What creates wealth?” One key answer is specialization and trade. On a timeline of human history, the recent rise in standards of living resembles a hockey stick — flatlining for all of human history and then skyrocketing in just the last few centuries.

As economist Don Boudreaux explains, without specialization and trade, our ancient ancestors only consumed what they could make themselves. How can specialization and trade help explain the astonishing growth of productivity and output in such a short amount of time—after millennia of famine, low life expectancy, and incurable disease?

gaplogoThe furniture store Ikea has announced they will begin to base their minimum pay on what’s considered to be a “living wage” in each local area, rather than on what competitors are paying. Similarly, the clothing retailer Gap says it will set $9 as the minimum hourly rate for its United States work force this year and then establish a minimum of $10 next year.

This makes good business sense — but will lead to a lot of bad economic reasoning.

A prime example is the latest column by Slate’s business and economic writer, Jordan Weissmann:

Notably, Ikea isn’t raising prices on its furniture to pay for the raise. Instead, the company’s management says it believes the pay hike will help them compete for and keep talent, which is of course good for business. The Gap used a similar justification when it announced it would raise its own minimum to $10 by 2015.

Which I think hints at something about what would likely happen if the U.S. raised the federal minimum. Conservatives who argue that higher pay floors kill jobs tend to assume that businesses are already running at pretty much peak efficiency, and so forcing them to spend more on labor will lead to less hiring. But left-leaning economists see it differently. They tend to argue that increasing wages can lead to savings for business by reducing worker turnover, for instance, and forcing managers to make better use of their staff.

Both the conservatives and the left-leaning economists are largely correct. Higher pay floors do tend to kill jobs and increasing wages can lead to savings for business by reducing worker turnover. But where Weissmann and other liberals go wrong is in assuming that businesses can still prevent worker turnover when the minimum wage is increased.
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titiaan_abraham_izaak_grtIn our efforts to serve others and do good in the world, we humans have a remarkable tendency to fall short, no matter how carefully constructed or well intended our plans and designs may be.

When failure occurs, economists are likely to point to some kind of knowledge problem, noting that, for instance, Western Congregation X didn’t (and perhaps couldn’tknow or foresee that sending hundreds of free shoes to Developing Nation Y would put several local merchants out of business.

To mitigate these types of ripple effects, we can work to be more careful in a variety of ways, but throughout that process, Christians have a unique responsibility to order our concerns within a particular context of transcendent obedience to a particular God and Savior. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” as Samuel once said, “and to listen than the fat of rams.”

When we seek to do good on behalf of others, we certainly ought to consider the various modes of “natural” analysis and observation — reason, history, science, tradition, etc. — but we are also commanded to consult and consider the voice of God himself, whether delivered through his Word, the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, a prophetic church community, or otherwise.

This is not to call for some form of anxious and nit-picky legalism, of course, though that temptation is sure to endure as well. It’s to say that ours is a service uniquely empowered to stretch beyond the ways of this world, which are far too aimless, far too arbitrary, and ultimately beholden to the self.

When we neglect transcendent sources of knowledge, danger and destruction will persist, both in our spiritual lives and the witness we bear in the world. As the great teacher and evangelist Oswald Chambers once cautioned, “Always guard against self-chosen service for God,” which “may be a disease that impairs your service”:

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