Category: News and Events

Grand Rapids Aerial (Office of FIl,, Music and Special Event)Grand Rapids, Mich. has 34.6 percent canopy cover according to the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project website, and has a goal of reaching 40 percent across the entire city. Canopy cover refers to the amount of space covered by the shade of a trees canopy as seen from overhead. If you have ever parked your car in a blacktop lot on a sunny day with no tree cover you can understand the value of shade, but is it worthy of taxpayer dollars and the sacrifice of property rights?

The 2011 Green Grand Rapids amendment to the City’s Master plan established the new goal of 40 percent canopy cover. The city and organizations pushing for the 40 percent canopy goal believe that the community can gain great economic benefit by accomplishing this goal. They claim that the urban forest protects against floods, pollution, and even reduces energy usage through increased shade and cooling.  This economic benefit has been calculated with the assistance of I-tree, a program developed by USDA to perform benefit analysis of increasing the urban canopy. Over the last couple of years there have been thousands of trees planted along streets and in public areas through the efforts of these organizations and others like Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the City of Grand Rapids Office of Sustainability and Energy, and Alliance of Community Trees, but this has barely scratched the surface of achieving this goal. Therefore, this goal is unlikely to be achievable using only public land which may lead to some issues with property rights. (more…)

TipsMillions of Americans who work for tips have now been dragged into the political battle over the federal minimum wage and whether it should be raised to $10.10 per hour. Since 1991, the federal minimum wage has been adjusted 5 times, increasing three dollars to its current $7.25. These changes have been made while the minimum wage for America’s largest workforce, tipped workers, has remained unchanged at $2.13 for 23 years.

Although tips are meant to be a gratuity that shows appreciation for good service, they have become the difference between poverty and a living wage for nearly 20 million Americans. Saru Jayaraman, founder of the labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, says that abolishing the tipped minimum wage in favor of one fair wage will help reduce poverty, especially in families.

But the National Restaurant Association has a different view. In response to a study on tipped wages by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, the NRA states:

Ninety percent of restaurants are independent or franchisee owned and operate on razor thin profit margins. Drastic increases to the minimum wage will only hurt restaurants ability to continue to create jobs and provide real opportunity to young people looking to step into the workforce and those who are finding their economic footing.

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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…)

For years, the international community has pressured Iran to throw out its alleged nuclear weapons development program and has imposed crippling economic sanctions as a tool for compliance. Two week-long talks have just resumed with the Islamic Republic, yet little is expected to come out of them. Sanctions have only continued to mount in recent years, blocking both individuals and firms from engaging in many commercial interactions with Iran, further solidifying its ongoing economic disaster. If Iran elects to agree to a settlement on the nuclear proliferation issue, lifted sanctions would mean more access to the global free market, culminating in prosperity for the Islamic Republic and its citizens and furthering capitalist ideals into a new state. Yet a faith based argument poses the greatest challenge to Iran adopting a more free market philosophy.

This poses the question: Why are the ruling theocrats so disinterested from partnering with free market states? Such is best addressed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, who wrote in his last will and testament:

Islam does not approve of an oppressive and unbridled capitalism that deprives the oppressed masses who suffer under tyranny. On the contrary, it firmly rejects it both in the Qur’an…it considers it against social justice.

But is capitalism tyrannous and against the tenets of faith? Simply put, no. Too often, capitalism is misinterpreted as a policy of corruption and injustice – as has also been illustrated though Pope Francis’s belief that society has developed “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” (more…)

media-spoonfeeding-cartoonLet me start by saying you can fill entire football stadiums with things I don’t know. I don’t anything about fly-fishing. I have never figured out how to score tennis. I cannot identify (although my dad tried his hardest to teach me) birds by their songs. I could go on, but you get the idea.

With that said, I’m often called upon by my job to write about things I don’t know much about. I have to do a lot of reading and research, figure out what sources are credible and which are shaky (hello, Wikipedia!) Sometimes, I make mistakes, and readers point them out. I happily make corrections; who wants to be wrong?

Apparently, a lot of folks don’t mind being wrong. And many of those folks occupy the media. And they feed you stuff that isn’t quite right, is misinformed or is downright wrong. In the Wild West that is today’s media, we have to be smart about who we choose as our guides. (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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Since 2000, New York City residents have observed the shut-down of 91 Catholic schools. These closures are typically the result of parents’ inability to pay tuition costs. This presents not only a problem to the would-be students, but to the public-at-large. The civic benefits provided through a Catholic education amount to a public good. Graduation rates for Catholic schools top those of public institutions, propelling more students to college, creating future community leaders. A robust civil society such as this is contingent upon strong educational institutions, for which it is critical to incentivize the public to invest.

The Education Investment Tax Credit bill would have curtailed this problem by providing a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for each charitable donation to any private or parochial school scholarship fund, including Protestant and Jewish institutions. However, the mandate perished in the back room of the state legislature, despite support from both parties as summer recess commenced. The use of an incentive structure would have provided up to $300 million to the neediest children in the state of New York. Half of this funding would have been designated to donations to public schools for the arts, music, and athletics so as to eliminate “pay-to-play” costs to parents.

This tax credit would not only have been an investment in the future of at-risk students, but an investment toward a community’s future. In this respect, New York residents would be incentivized to endow education philanthropy, in exchange for lower taxes. Individuals would have the autonomy to support private or parochial institutions of their choosing, empowering the individual to decide what is the best use of their assets. (more…)

When President Obama signed Executive Order 13653 about a year ago, he relabeled the great debate that was known first as global warming and then climate change to “resiliency.” He set up an Interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience with three co-chairs and representatives from at least 30 listed departments, plus appointees. He also created the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which will be made up of more than 2 dozen representatives across the nation including Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.

The task force “will provide recommendations to the President on removing barriers to resilient investments, modernizing federal grant and loan programs to better support local efforts and developing information and tools they need to prepare” according to the White House.  So it looks like there will be a carrot-and-stick of government funding for local government units.

The task force has already met with President Obama twice, in December and January, to begin working on its recommendations. It is on a tight clock as Obama has asked to get responses within a year to begin working towards implementation. And according to Mayor Heartwell Obama is willing to do whatever it takes to get the recommendations put into motion, “The President made it very clear to us that he expects that what he’s going to get done over the next 3 years will largely be done through executive order”. (more…)

Sennacherib Exiles Lachish of Judah, British Museum

Sennacherib Exiles Lachish of Judah, British Museum

The treasures of Iraq have been repeatedly looted. Historical and artistic artifacts that span centuries are gone – obliterated. And the mess continues. Iraqi National Museum Director Qais Hussein Rashid says his staff cannot withstand terrorist strikes or take preventative measures. Terrorists, of course, are not interested in hanging tapestries on their walls; they use these artifacts as income. Known as ISIS or ISIL, the terrorists have proclaimed themselves a new caliphate or kingdom.

We as Iraqis are incapable of controlling the situation by ourselves,” Abbas Qureishi, director of the “recovery” program for the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told me. It’s not just a matter of the museums, he said. Mosul is in the middle of 1,791 registered archeological sites, including four capitals of the Assyrian empire. “The Iraqi army will be obliged to conduct operations next to these archeological sites,” said Qureishi. The jihadists “will destroy them and say the Iraqi army bombed these sites.”

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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.