The law of unintended consequences

There is one law that legislatures can never repeal. That is the Law of Unintended Consequences. When legislators rush into something that sounds good without carefully considering possible consequences, that is when they are apt to write a law that does more harm than good.

If you think the legislature should pass some proposal, try to imagine what might be the unintended consequences. If you can’t think of any, try harder.

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“Bad luck”

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck”.

 

Price of ground beef sets record high

The price of ground beef is now above $4 per pound – for the first time ever. This is the second record high in two months. In July it set a record high price of $3.88. In just one month the price rose another 13 cents, or more than 3% in one month.
A year ago, it was $3.54. That’s an increase of 16% in one year. Five years ago the price was just $2.13.
Working harder, getting less.

Is the recession over yet? – II

“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?” — Winston Churchill

Statisticians say the recession ended mid-2009, four and a half years ago. But what do you think? Does it feel like the recession ended or does it feel like we are still in a recession? In a recent poll, 74% said we are still in a recession.

It’s no wonder most people feel that the recession never ended. Employment is miserable. GDP growth is pathetic. Median family income is down for four straight years. Almost 50 million Americans live below the federal poverty line. A record 47 million people are on food stamps. One pundit declared that “More people in the United States are poor, unemployed, underemployed, looking for work, disgusted and quit looking for work, on food stamps, and on disability than anytime in our history.”

If those words look familiar it is because I first wrote them three months ago. In that column, the focus was on the worst employment picture in more than 30 years. Three recent pieces of economic news make this a good time to look more broadly at the economy.

1) On April 22, the New York Times reported that the U.S. no longer has the highest Median Family Income in the world. Canada is now #1.
2) April 30, the headline news was that in the first quarter of 2014, the U.S. economy grew at an almost non-existent rate of 0.1%.
3) That same day other headlines stated that China would soon pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy.

Our economy stinks and we will have more such headlines if we don’t fix it. So, how do we fix it? The first step is to replace all the politicians who don’t even realize there is a problem, who do the same wrong things year after year expecting different results.

For decades, probably for more than a century, the U.S. has had the richest middle class in the world. Not just the richest middle class, but also the richest lower class, the richest upper class, and even the richest poor people. Those in the bottom 10% were much better off than the bottom 10% in any other country.

U.S. median family income is now down for five years in a row. In Canada, median family income is up for four of the last five years. Is it pure coincidence that Canada has been governed by Conservatives in recent years, the U.S. by Progressives?

The Index of Economic Freedom is an annual scoring of some 180 nations by ten measures of economic freedom. As the Index states, “The ideals of economic freedom are strongly associated with healthier societies, cleaner environments, greater per capita wealth, human development, democracy, and poverty elimination.”

The U.S. was rated economically “free” in 2006. Since then, its freedom score has dropped 6 points, it has fallen out of the top 10 to now #12 and is ranked only “mostly free”. The U.S. has lost economic freedom for seven years in a row, particularly in the areas of property rights, and freedom from corruption.

Conversely, Canada has increased its freedom score by more than 10 points over the last 20 years. It is currently ranked #6, and is rated “free”.

Hmm, is there a pattern here? The U.S. loses economic freedom seven years in a row and median family income goes down for five years in a row. Canada increases its economic freedom and median family income goes up four of the last five years. It now has the world’s highest median family income.

GDP growth in this so-called “recovery” has been pathetic. For four years it has been around 1.5% to 2%. That is the slowest by far of all the recoveries in 65 years. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has a nice interactive chart of all postwar recoveries. The current recovery amounts to merely an 11.1% increase in GDP over the almost five years since the recovery began. Many of the previous recoveries had double or almost triple that growth. This recovery is barely half the average of the ten previous recoveries.

Imagine if we had had as much as average growth in the last five years. Investor’s Business Daily estimates that we would now have $1.3 trillion higher income. That is about $10,000 higher per household. That is the cost of bad economic policies.

Apologists for the Obama “recovery” say that the recession was especially severe. Historically, the more severe the recession, the stronger the recovery. It should have been easy to produce better than average numbers. They now say that financial recessions take longer to recover. But that’s not what they said back in 2009 and into 2010. Back then they forecast a strong recovery. It was only after their economic plans failed that they started spouting the “financial recession” excuse.

The Democrat Party would be wise to heed the words of one of its Presidential candidates from some 20 years ago, the late Senator Paul Tsongas, who said, “You cannot redistribute wealth that you never created. You cannot be pro-jobs and anti-business at the same time. You cannot love employment and hate employers.”

Did we win the war?

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest. — Mark Twain

This year is the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty (WOP). In January 1964, during his State of the Union speech, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty”. “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” In August of that year, Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which stated that it was the policy of the United States to eliminate poverty. “The United States can achieve its full economic and social potential as a nation only if every individual has the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of his capabilities and to participate in the workings of our society.”

Even before the WOP, poverty rates were falling steadily. From 1940 to 1960 the poverty rate for black families dropped from 87% to 47%, then in the 60s it dropped another 17%. In 1950 the overall poverty rate was 30%. By 1956 that had dropped to 25%. By the time of LBJ’s announcement the rate had dropped to 19%.

A few years after the WOP legislation was passed, poverty dropped to 12%. Supporters cheered that the law was working, but how much of that drop was due to the new law and how much was a continuation of a long-term trend going back to the 1940s and 50s?

Since then, now amounting to some 45 years, the poverty rate has bounced up and down between 12% and 15%. The average for the last two decades is higher than when LBJ left office. For the first time in about 50 years, the poverty rate is 15% for three years in a row. A record high 50 million Americans live in poverty. 

We can do better. We should do better.

What we have been doing for most of 50 years has not worked. The War on Poverty has not achieved its stated goals: it has not cured, prevented, or eliminated poverty. The goals were laudable but we should judge the law by its results, not its goals. The result after 50 years is an increase in poverty, not a decrease. People are trapped in poverty, not freed from it.

LBJ’s goal was to help people become prosperous and self-sufficient. Instead, people have become dependent on government, surviving from one benefit check to the next. The Act stated as a goal that “every individual has the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of his capabilities.” 50 million Americans are not contributing; the programs’ perverse incentives punish people who try to work.

Some say the WOP has been a success as measured by the great number of people receiving assistance. Wouldn’t it be better – better for poor people themselves – to measure success by the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty and no longer need assistance?

We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For most of 50 years we have been doing the same thing year after year and the result has been to trap more and more people in poverty.

The myriad of welfare programs reward people for being poor and penalize those who try to move out of poverty and up the income ladder. Someone who works harder, takes a second job, learns more skills, might earn $10,000 more but lose $15,000 of benefits. Hence, many say “I can’t afford to take that job. I’d lose my benefits!” With perverse incentives like these, it is no wonder that we have more people in poverty and fewer people making the effort to better themselves.

New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof recognized the problem: “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.”

As a caring society we want to help the vulnerable. But do we want to trap them into a lifetime of dependency on government, where they are punished for trying to better themselves? Is it good for society to have millions of people unable to contribute their skills and energy? Is it good for the recipients themselves to live in poverty their entire lives with no hope of ever becoming self-sufficient and moving upward? 

For Kristof, “a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.”

Our social safety net all too often acts as a trap net. It traps people at the edge of poverty and prevents them from moving up the ladder of success. A true safety net is rarely used. People create opportunities to reach their work site above the safety net. In the unlucky event that they fall to the net, they climb back up and continue their work.

Let’s think more about creating ladders or stairways or ramps to help people escape poverty and reach for their dreams and less about nets that support them and trap them at the edge of poverty with no hope of rising higher.

Oh, the Shame!

“This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.” — Will Rogers

According to a recent report, “Taxachusetts” now has a lower business tax burden than NH. For decades, we have ridiculed Massachusetts for its high taxes. Now it seems that our business tax rates are even higher than theirs. Among the six New England states, NH is outranked by both Connecticut and Massachusetts for low business taxes.

Did you know that the share of state taxes paid by businesses is almost 60%? In Massachusetts, businesses pay about 35% of the state’s taxes. NH businesses pay the fourth highest percentage of state taxes in the entire country.

With businesses paying so much of our taxes and employing most of our people, shouldn’t we want more businesses, hiring more employees, paying more taxes? Sadly, Governor Hassan and House Democrats have done nothing to encourage businesses to move to or expand in NH. Of the 180 Democrat bills passed by the House, not a single one makes NH more attractive for business.

Some 20 years ago a Democratic Presidential candidate remarked that “You cannot be pro-jobs and anti-business at the same time. You cannot love employment and hate employers.” Today’s Democratic politicians often seem to be anti-business and to hate employers.

NH House Democrats this year have passed some 30 bills that make life a little more difficult, a little more expensive for businesses. None of those bills alone will kill a business, but together they will make some businesses decide, “It’s just not worth it. Too much hassle, too much risk.” Collectively, they create a “Closed for Business” sign around NH.

There were some bills that were ever so slightly pro-business. Democrats sponsored some; Republicans sponsored many more. But all of those pro-business bills were killed. 

Did you know that a convenience store that sells beer and wine is mandated to keep $3,000 of groceries in stock? A bipartisan proposal would have removed the mandate and let stores stock what their customers wanted rather than what politicians wanted. That bill was killed. A few days later a seacoast paper reported that a gas station was fined $250 for not having the requisite amount of groceries on hand.

I can’t help wondering how many inspectors we taxpayers are funding to travel around from store to store counting how much groceries each has in stock. Is that really a good use of taxpayers’ dollars? How about letting the business owner stock what he thinks his customers want? If he thinks they want to buy hamburgers and hot dogs along with beer, then let him stock those items. If he thinks his customers want nothing more than wine and cigars, then so be it. Let the customer be king, not the politicians.

In a recent poll, 74% said we are still in a recession. It’s no wonder: Employment is miserable. GDP growth is pathetic. Median family income is down for four straight years. If you are like most people, you think our representatives should be working to help the economy grow and create more jobs. The Democrats down in Concord have not been doing that, nor have they made any effort to fix the problems with ObamaCare such as people losing their hospitals, their doctors, their plans, and seeing 35% increases in their premiums and deductibles.

So just how have the Do-nothing Democrats been spending their time? You might say they have been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They have no concept of the big problems ordinary people are facing, so they have made piddling little changes to our laws. They have passed bills to establish thirteen new committees, to add members to some advisory councils, and even to support voting rights in Washington, DC.

The Democratic House passed a bill to tax paint $0.75 per gallon. They tried to ban children under 18 from using tanning facilities even with permission of their parents. That bill seemed headed for passage until members realized the absurdity that young girls would be able to get an abortion without parental consent but would not be able to get a tan even with parental consent.

What else have the Democrats spent time on? Two social issues come to mind. They tried twice to restrict the rights of law-abiding gun owners, while doing nothing about criminals. The first bill took more than an hour of debate but in the end was decisively killed by more than 2:1. The second bill also took more than an hour of debate. The vote was closer but the measure was again defeated.

Another hot button for Democrats is voter identification. They offered four separate bills that would make it easier for out-of-state persons to vote fraudulently in NH. They like to claim that there is no voter fraud but how can you find fraud if you don’t look for it? Last year, North Carolina strengthened its voter ID laws; this year they are investigating some 800 cases of apparent fraud, and another 35,000 cases of possible fraud. 

Come November could we please elect representatives (and a Governor) who will work on the economy and jobs?

ObamaCare problems and solutions

“A government which robs Peter to pay Paul, can always count on the support of Paul.” — George Bernard Shaw

“If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” Do you remember that promise? President Obama spoke those words dozens of times. Well, it wasn’t true – and he knew it. His own Department of HHS estimated and published in the Federal Register in 2010 that 93 million Americans would have their policies canceled in order to meet the requirements of ObamaCare. For the next three years, Obama continued to tell people they could keep their plans, even though he knew it was not true.

The fact checking organization, PolitiFact, rated Obama’s statement as “Lie of the Year” for 2013. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave it four Pinocchios and also ranked it “Lie of the Year.”

New Hampshire’s Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter joined in Obama’s lie of the year, repeating it many times. It is possible that they did not know it was a lie, but they certainly should have known it.

Then last year, cancellation letters went out to some 4 million Americans. Millions of people were perfectly happy with their plans, but the ObamaCare law did not allow them to keep their plans. Virtually every major NH newspaper has run stories about the turmoil caused by ObamaCare-mandated cancellations.

People lost the plans they liked, may have lost their nearby hospital, may have lost the doctor they’d been visiting for decades. In New Hampshire, the one and only insurer on the ObamaCare exchange nixed 10 of the 26 New Hampshire hospitals. In parts of the state, you may have to drive 2 or 3 hours, halfway across the state to go to a new hospital, driving right by your old, much closer hospital. Some people had to give up the doctor they have been seeing for decades and find a new doctor perhaps hours away.

Even worse is that the new ObamaCare policies don’t cover care in hospitals outside NH. Some of the best doctors and hospitals in the country are in Boston, but NH citizens cannot go there. The Union Leader reported about a woman who was told by her Nashua hospital that her cancer was untreatable. Under her old insurance she was allowed to go to a Massachusetts hospital for treatment and now three years later she is doing well. Under her new ObamaCare insurance she would be dead.

And then there are the premiums and deductibles. I have talked with people who say the combination of higher premiums and higher deductibles is costing them an extra $1,000 per month. I asked an insurance agent if her clients were seeing increases like that. She responded that most were not quite that high, but she could believe that some were paying that much extra. Another insurance agent told me that his clients were seeing up to a 100% increase but the average was about 20% to 40% increase. 

Nationally, Aetna’s CEO reported that premiums have increased an average of 30% to 40%. He also reported seeing lower employment overall and more part-time employment. A large union similarly reported seeing a shift to part-time work by companies seeking to avoid ObamaCare’s requirements. The Congressional Budget Office recently predicted that ObamaCare during the next ten years will cause job losses equivalent to 2.5 million people.
 
It’s no surprise that a recent Gallup poll found that more than twice as many Americans say that ObamaCare has hurt them or their families compared to the number it has helped. It might be a surprise that most (63%) say it has made little difference but that is only a matter of time. Most people get their insurance via their employer and that part of ObamaCare has been delayed and delayed – for political reasons.

As the New York Times reported, “[The recent change] is designed to provide political cover for Democratic senators facing tough re-election campaigns.” The law as written would have had millions more cancellation notices going out a month or two before Election Day. So with a stroke of his pen, without any authority granted to him, Obama decided to change the law so that the cancellation notices would go out AFTER the election.

The Wall Street Journal notes that “if [ObamaCare] were really working the way it should, senators who voted for it wouldn’t be running away from it, and the administration wouldn’t be forced to choose between enforcing its provisions and protecting the Democratic majority.”

As much as nervous politicians are shying away from ObamaCare, so also are the uninsured. The Washington Post reports that “The new health insurance marketplaces appear to be making little headway in signing up Americans who lack insurance, the Affordable Care Act’s central goal, according to a pair of new surveys. Only one in 10 uninsured people who qualify for private plans through the new marketplaces enrolled as of last month.”

The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem. NH Democratic leadership seems oblivious to any problems with ObamaCare, jobs, and the economy. NH Republicans know that there are problems and that we can help solve those problems. The guiding principle is that people should be able to choose what they want, not what some politicians in Washington tell them they should want.