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Annals of American Decline Antitrust Despair Regulation World

Why Progressives Once Fought Tariffs as They Fought Monopolies

The Nineteenth Century understood very well that tariffs have the same effect on consumers as do monopolies. Tariffs prevent foreign competitors from undercutting the prices of domestic companies, because the foreign competitors must now pay the tariffs, and that in turn allows domestic companies to raise prices. It is for this reason that in the Nineteenth Century the same Progressive movement that sought to prevent monopoly pricing, either through antitrust or rate regulation, also sought to replace tariffs with income taxation as the source for government revenue. And succeeded.

But what millions of Americans understood in the late Nineteenth Century is greeted as a bizarre and surprising result today.

Compare:

President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported washing machines has had an odd effect . . . . It is hardly surprising that the tariffs drove up the price of foreign washers. Perhaps more unexpectedly, they also prompted American manufacturers to raise their prices.
Companies that largely sell imported washers, like Samsung and LG, raised prices to compensate for the tariff costs they had to pay. But domestic manufacturers, like Whirlpool, increased prices, too, largely because they could. There aren’t a lot of upstart domestic producers of laundry equipment that could undercut Whirlpool on price if the company decided to capture more profits by raising prices at the same time its competitors were forced to do so.

Jim Tankersley, Trump’s Washing Machine Tariffs Stung Consumers While Lifting Corporate Profits, N.Y. Times, April 21, 2019.

With:

Beginning as early as the 1860s, the Democratic Party challenged Republican power with a biting critique of the central element of the consumption-tax system — the tariff. . . . The Democratic Party developed a general attack on special privilege, monopoly power, and public corruption — one that harkened back to the ideals of the American Revolution and the early republic. Most important, the Democrats described the tariff as the primary engine of a Republican program of subsidizing giant corporations. In 1882, in his first public political statement, the young Woodrow Wilson declared that the tariffs had “Monopoly for a father.” . . . . In the face of these problems, millions of Americans . . . regarded the progressive income tax at the federal level as the next-best alternative . . . .

W. Elliot Brownlee, Federal Taxation in America: A History 77, 79 (3d ed. 2016).
To battles won that were then fought anew,
Our bodies hastened while our minds withdrew.
Categories
Annals of American Decline Despair Regulation World

Congestion Pricing Is Just the Latest in Progressives’ Betrayal of the Regulatory State

Once upon a time, most ways into New York City were tolled. Then the original progressive movement hit. Progressive economists like Harold Hotelling argued persuasively that because the marginal cost of running another motorist over a bridge was near zero, there was no economic reason for which everyone who wanted to drive over the bridge should not be allowed to do so. The way to recover the vast fixed costs of bridge construction was not by charging a toll, but by extracting contributions from motorists that would not discourage them from using the bridge whenever they wanted to do so. And the way to do that was to tax them, regardless how much they actually used the bridge.

This solution to funding infrastructure construction — taxation combined with free access — was a regulatory solution, and not just any kind of regulatory solution, but a rate regulatory solution, because the government chose to set the price of infrastructure access: only you could easily miss it, because the government set that price at zero.

In this way, the original progressive approach to roads and bridges was not different from the progressives’ approach to markets of all kinds, which was to regulate terms of sale with social justice in mind. Thus the government in this period encouraged AT&T to recoup its own fixed costs by charging high prices to wealthy long-distance users, freeing the company up to provide local calling services, which were used more heavily by the poor, at very low rates. And the government forced the railroads to recoup more of their fixed costs from intercity routes used by the wealthy, even though competition would typically have held prices down for those customers, and to use the savings to charge lower prices to rural customers.

The progressives’ approach to regulating roads and bridges though a combination of taxation and zero price access was socially just, too, because of course it meant that city driving was free for everyone.

Then, for reasons that remain unclear, progressives seemed to forget what the entire regulatory project was all about, and in the stunningly short space of three years in the late 1970s, they collaborated with conservatives to tear down most of the regulatory state at the federal level. They deregulated the airlines, trucking, railroads, and natural gas. And in ensuring decades the federal government stopped regulating banking, and telecom rates as well.

One might have thought that the resurgence of the progressive movement in recent years would have led to a rediscovery of the original progressive model of price and quality regulation, but instead the movement has seemed time and again to mistake policies that the original progressives fought bitterly to overcome for progressive solutions to today’s problems. This has played out to a farcical extreme in the recent progressive love affair with the antitrust laws, which promote the unrestrained competition that the progressives fought so hard to overcome through the regulatory model.

And it is sadly in evidence now too in the progressive love affair with congestion pricing, which amounts to no more than reimposing the toll system that the original progressives fought so hard to take down. To be sure, the original progressives missed something important about roads: they congest, and they pollute. So Hotelling was wrong to assume that the marginal cost of allowing another driver to cross a bridge would always be near zero. That cost stays near zero until the bridge reaches the optimal level of congestion, after which point the cost of adding another car to the bridge is very high indeed.

But the solution to the problem of congestion isn’t to start charging users a price for access. That just takes us back to the bad old days when being poor meant you lost your right, even, to access that most quintessential of public spaces, the streets. The solution is to ration access to the streets using a criterion that isn’t tied so closely to wealth. And technology makes that easier to do today than it ever has been.

I’ve argued that one approach would be for the city to use a smartphone app to decide who gets access based on a combination of first-come-first-served and proximity to public transportation. You could log in from the comfort of home, the app would decide whether the city can accommodate you based on current traffic conditions and whether you are near a subway, and you would instantaneously receive an authorization to proceed or a request to go into town by other means that day. A colleague has suggested to me that those with jobs in the city should get priority.

Regardless how the rationing mechanism might be structured, the point is that price — and its sinister correlation with wealth — doesn’t need to play any role. Nor should it, unless you are so naive as to believe that those who are willing to pay more are always those who can put the streets to more productive use, rather than simply those for whom a dollar isn’t worth as much as it is to others, because they happen to have more of them.

What’s so troubling about the progressive embrace of congestion pricing is that progressives don’t seem to care about the classist consequences, setting today’s progressives rather starkly apart from the originals. Instead, today’s progressives view the price system as the solution not just to big city traffic, but climate change more generally — in the form of the carbon tax. What they don’t seem to understand is that there is no magic to price when it comes to rationing access to resources that are in fixed supply, like city streets, or air. Price is just another ration card, just another way of deciding who takes and who doesn’t. Only unlike other rationing mechanisms, price gives the rich priority.

Why would progressives ever opt, among the myriad criteria to use in sorting those who get to take and those who do not, to choose the one that selects for wealth? This approach may of course be self defeating — the gilets jaunes movement that almost toppled the French government consisted of poor people aggrieved by a gas tax aimed at fighting climate change, a tax that the government was forced to withdraw.

But even if reliance on price rationing doesn’t prove a political loser, it’s still socially unjust. Why should the poor bear the burden of saving the world’s climate? Yes, under carbon taxes and congestion pricing, the rich do end up paying, but they also end up getting to drive. The poor might end up better off, if some of the proceeds of the tax are redistributed to them, but they still won’t get to drive. Why? Because if they were to benefit so richly from redistribution of tax proceeds, or from exemptions designed to temper the effects of the tax, that they were still able to access the streets as much as the rich, why, then the carbon tax wouldn’t actually reduce emissions after all!

It is this sort of seemingly naive betrayal of the regulatory state, and the civic values that it stood for, by those who ought to be sticking up for those values, that makes the current progressive movement a shadow of the original.

Categories
Annals of American Decline Regulation World

Markets and American Decline

Operating from headquarters in a hilltop villa in the capital city, protected by government soldiers, a businessman with strong ties to his own government back home, a belief in his own manifest destiny, a desire to go down in history as a bringer of industrial development, and deep experience in completing hydropower and mining projects, submits a bid to the country’s leaders to build them a new oil refinery. The bid is backed by a loan guarantee from one of his country’s largest banks, provided as part of an initiative by his country’s government to win the friendship of other nations by providing development support.

Lacking an office in the country in which the refinery is to be built, a former mid-level government official with no experience building anything tries to cobble together a bid of her own from shared office space in her own country. She finds an investor — not at home but in a third country — gets an expression of interest from some executives from a firm in her own country with refinery construction experience, and places a bid in which she promises to secure the rest of the funding for the project by selling shares in the venture on capital markets. When ministers visit her country as part of consideration of her bid, they are shocked to be shown around shared office space, and insist that she line up a more secure source of financing. She begs her government to sign on, but the most she gets is a letter from a government lender saying that it would considering lending a fraction of the project cost.

Once upon a time, this would have been a tale about American power. The first person would be a TR, say, supremely confident about his place in history, carrying out a Marshall Plan (if you will forgive the anachronism) reflecting the ambition of the U.S. government to use aid to secure the allegiance of the world. The second person would be some luckless underfunded competitor operating out of a backward country with a weak state lacking the vision to promote its businesses and interests abroad.

But of course the first person in this story is Chinese and the second is American. As the article in today’s Times strongly suggests, the American won the bidding only because Uganda’s leader hopes to encourage American competition, and thereby to improve the terms he gets from the Chinese in the future. Indeed, the American project may well fall apart, as GE — the firm with expertise in refinery building that had shown interest in the bid — has started to exit that line of business.

How did we get here? The answer is our decades-long obsession with market magic. There has been much talk in some circles about the “fissured workplace,” the converting of many jobs into “independent contractor” positions that allow employers to treat their employees as temp staff with no job security and few benefits. Firms no longer have employees, but instead simply tap contractor markets, buying labor hours when they are needed and not when they are not, much the way you make a run to the supermarket for lemons when you need them and not when you don’t, instead of tending your own lemon tree.

Well, more than just labor markets have fissured. Everything has fissured, as our obsession with markets has spread to every corner of the economy since the 1970s. Just look at how the American bid for the refinery came about. Not at the instigation of our government, despite its recognition that China’s dominance in African business is putting us at a great strategic disadvantage, but because a mid-level foreign policy official, thrown out of work by the exit of the Obama Administration, saw a market opportunity. She then went into a set of different markets in order to try to cobble together a bid. She rented shared office space, tapping the fissured commercial real estate market, in which businesses no longer own their own space, let alone build their own custom spaces, as they once did. She also had no funding of her own, but promised to tap the fissured funding markets by selling shares in the project. And she had no experience building refineries, so she also promised to tap the fissured project market, potentially by bringing GE into the project. Markets, market, markets.

All these markets are supposed to make our economy and nation stronger, by ensuring that everything is allocated to the people who need the things the most. Workers can be repurposed via the market from one job to another at a moment’s notice, office space can be saved for the most important projects, cash can flow to the most important projects, and so on.

But what market excess really does is expose our economy and nation, to risk. The trouble with markets is that they are risky. At the end of the day the Ugandans got a bid that was worth little more than the paper it was written on. It was in effect a commitment from an amateur to use acceptance of the bid by the Ugandans to convince investors to invest, refinery builders to build, and so on. What the Chinese offered, by contrast, was a government-backed commitment to fund construction of the refinery by an experienced firm. The parts of the Chinese offer were so well integrated — so unfissured — that the Chinese even insisted on importing 60% of the labor and materials from China to complete the project. That’s right, the Chinese would bring in their own laborers to complete the work.

No wonder the American bid was at a severe disadvantage. If you were taking bids to have your floors redone, would you go with the man off the street with no experience, no operations, and no money — even if he offered the lower price — or the experienced flooring operation that’s ready to get to work as soon as you sign on the dotted line?

When you do business with integrated operations, instead of markets, you carry less risk, because integration reduces risk. It makes sure that the money is there, the expertise is there, the workers are there. You may still bear the risk of non-completion, but that risk is lower. And when the state gets behind its businesses in these deals, as the Chinese government has via its Belt and Road initiative, risk is reduced further. The Chinese drive a hard bargain, using the infrastructure they build to secure repayment of the loans, but they can do that because they have something credible to sell.

If the story of a businessperson trying to get along in an international deal — one that forwards the President’s own policy of going head to head with China — without government support, without expertise, without financing, without even an office, sounds the story of a failed state, that’s because a fissured economy — an economy in which everything, at every level in the supply chain, has been turned into a market — is a failed state. It’s a country that can have no vision or unity of purpose because its government is paralyzed by the need to respect market boundaries, unable to direct the economy according to any vision, and in which every individual and private firm is paralyzed too, at the mercy of markets in everything that they do. Therein lies the state of nature.

Of course it was not always this way. Until market dogma took over the country in the 1970s, American industry looked a lot more like Chinese industry does today. Long-term commitment to workers and suppliers was the norm. Indeed, in America’s many regulated industries, the government required firms to provide packages of services, instead of fissuring the services into the a la carte menus that have proliferated today. The government promoted international development as a strategic goal, most famously in the Marshall Plan.

And, perhaps most importantly, America had a taste for greatness. It would not have thought that “the threat posed by the Belt and Road Initiative to American interests is debatable.”