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Demagoguery vs. Data on Employment in America – Article by Tyler Watts

Demagoguery vs. Data on Employment in America – Article by Tyler Watts

The New Renaissance Hat
Tyler Watts
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Demagogue politicians love to play on popular fears that low-wage foreigners are “stealing” good-paying American jobs by way of outsourcing and globalization. The claim is made by nativists and protectionists of all political stripes, whether leftists complaining of a “rigged economy” or rightists speaking of other countries “beating us” economically.

A sound economic analysis of the claim about job losses due to international trade should address two questions: First, is it true that the US has lost jobs due to trade (or other factors)? Second, is this phenomenon good or bad overall for the US and world economies?

On the first point, it can appear as though the US has lost jobs. For example, as Figure 1 shows, manufacturing employment in the US has declined by about 2 million from pre-Great Recession levels, and is down by over 7 million, or 37 percent, from the all-time high reached in 1979.

Figure 1: Total Manufacturing Employment, 1940–2016

watts1

The problem, though, is that by looking at manufacturing in terms of jobs, we’re missing the full picture of industrial production.

Nevertheless, the demagogues still argue that, even though high-paying service sector jobs have more than replaced lost factory jobs, “we don’t make things here anymore” and we should lament this. This oft-heard refrain is patently false. We don’t make certain things, such as garments, toys or electronics, because global free trade and technological advances tend to shift America’s output into those industries in which our comparative advantage is greatest. But Americans do indeed make things — quite valuable things.

This can be seen in Figure 2, which shows the US Industrial Production Index for the “de-industrialization” period. After the expected steep decline following the Great Recession of 2008–2009, US manufacturing has slowly bounced back and is now producing more products, in value-added terms, than ever before. Indeed, this index, which consists mainly of manufacturing, has grown by over 100 percent since the 1979 peak in manufacturing employment.

Figure 2: Industrial Production Index for the United States, 1979–2016

watts2

In other words, thanks to productivity gains, we need fewer workers to make more stuff.

From an economic perspective, nothing could be better news. US manufacturing creates 100 percent more value with 37 percent fewer workers. Creating more value with fewer workers means we’re more efficient than ever, or put another way, more productive than ever. These awesome productivity gains have many sources, especially in the form of technological advances in areas like software, robotics, and communications. Globalization and outsourcing have also played a role, as they allow American workers a greater degree of specialization in those sectors where our productivity edge is largest.

The good news gets better, though: not only have we gained jobs on net, but jobs have grown faster than the population over time. Since the 1979 peak in manufacturing employment, the US adult population grew by 53 percent, whereas employment grew by 59 percent, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Population Growth vs. Employment Growth Since 1979

watts3Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data

Despite these generally positive facts, some still contend that we’ve replaced “good” manufacturing jobs with lousy service sector jobs. Well, of course it must be true that, if we’ve lost manufacturing jobs, but gained jobs overall, then all of the job gains must have come from non-manufacturing sectors. And indeed the service sector, broadly defined, has seen employment growth of 90 percent since our 1979 benchmark. But beware of making hasty earnings assumptions about a sector that employs nearly 124 million people. To see whether the newly-created “service sector” jobs really don’t pay as well as the vaunted manufacturing jobs, we need to drill down into the employment and earnings data. What we’ll find is that a large majority of the new service sector jobs pay just as well or much better than manufacturing jobs.

Table 1 presents Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the 15 largest sectors and sub-sectors of the US economy, which together represent over 96 percent of the total net increase in payroll employment for the post-peak manufacturing jobs era (1979 to 2016). This might come as a surprise to the anti-globalization crowd: despite the loss of 7 million manufacturing jobs (and some mining, logging, and utilities sector jobs), we’ve seen a net increase of nearly 53 million total jobs. Of these net new jobs, fully 62 percent of them feature, as of January 2016, average hourly earnings equal to or greater than current average hourly manufacturing earnings. In other words, most of the 53 million new jobs pay the same or better wages than the demagogues’ benchmark “good” manufacturing jobs. So we lost 7 million good jobs, only to gain about 32 million equal or better-paying jobs, along with about 19 million lower-paying jobs (about 38 percent of net new jobs pay less than manufacturing).

Table 1: Employment Changes and Current Earnings by Sector

watts4Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

We’ve established that, despite a major decrease in employment in the manufacturing sector, we’ve gained many more jobs than we’ve lost in the past 35 years or so, and that most of these new jobs pay better to boot. Economic changes, while painful in the short run, have brought gains in output and employment not only for the US, but for the rest of the world as well. Overall, this is good news for the US and world economies.

So, as the campaign season heats up, let’s not be misled by baseless arguments about America “losing jobs” or other countries “beating us” at trade. Trade is a positive sum game, and the benefits for both the US and world economies are, shall we say, “yuge.”

Tyler Watts earned his PhD in economics at George Mason University in 2010. He currently teaches economics at East Texas Baptist University and runs the Institute for Economic Education (see YouTube channel here), a public outreach focused on integrating economics with a Biblical worldview and providing unique teaching tools for high school and college economics students.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

This Crazy 100-Year-Old Law Makes Almost Everything More Expensive – Article by George C. Leef

This Crazy 100-Year-Old Law Makes Almost Everything More Expensive – Article by George C. Leef

The New Renaissance HatGeorge C. Leef
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It’s time to repeal the absurd, costly “Jones Act”

The 2016 presidential campaign so far has featured almost no discussion of downsizing the federal government. Americans would benefit enormously if we could get rid of costly old laws that interfere with freedom and prosperity, and future generations would benefit even more.

I keep hoping that someone will manage to put this question squarely to the candidates in either party: “What laws would you seek to repeal if you were the president?”

There are so many laws that ought to be repealed, including countless special interest statutes that benefit a tiny group while imposing costs on a vastly greater number of Americans. But if candidates need an idea of where to start, one such law is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also called the “Jones Act.”

The Act requires that all shipments between American ports to be done exclusively on American ships. As Daniel Pearson explains,

Its stated purpose was to maintain a strong U.S. merchant marine industry. Drafters of the legislation hoped that the merchant fleet would remain healthy and robust if all shipments from one U.S. port to another were required to be carried on U.S.-built and U.S.-flagged vessels.

The theory behind the law is musty, antiquated mercantilism — the notion that the nation will be stronger if we protect “our” industries against foreign competition.

Imagine how strong we would be if there had been a Jones Act for automobile transportation. Would Americans be better off today if the Detroit automakers had remained an oligopoly by keeping out all of those Hondas, BMWs, and Hyundais? Obviously not — yet this logic has handicapped US shipping for 96 years.

A recent op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser nicely explain the absurd consequences of this law. The writer just wants to buy a cabinet, but “although the cabinet was made in Taiwan, it could not be off-loaded in Hawaii, but rather had to be shipped to the West Coast, then loaded onto an American ship for the costly backward journey to Hawaii.” Tons of time, fuel, and expense wasted, all thanks to the Jones Act.

We get a more comprehensive view of its costs from a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last September. The report, titled “International Food Assistance: Cargo Preference Increases Food Aid Shipping Costs,” shows the heavy cost of the law. The GAO, known for its non-partisan, straight-shooting approach, found that the Jones Act increased the cost of shipping food aid by 23 percent.

What does that mean? Between 2011 and 2014, the taxpayers had to fork over an extra $45 million to ship food for USAID. With Washington’s prodigious spending, we’ve gotten used to the idea that amounts under a billion are too small to bother with, but that is the wrong way to look at things. Even if we didn’t have a constantly increasing national debt, we ought to root out every needless federal expenditure.

Treading very delicately, the GAO states that, because the Jones Act “serves statutory policy goals,” Congress should merely tweak it so that aid agencies can find less costly shipping. But the federal government has no constitutional authority to be in the business of international aid, and carving out a special exemption for this would simply help the government avoid the consequences that it is inflicting on everyone else. Congress should simply repeal the protectionist law entirely.

The Jones Act also distorts our energy market and leads to higher prices than otherwise. Writing at The Federalist, trade attorney Scott Lincicome points out that, due to the law’s restrictions, only thirteen ships can legally move crude oil between US ports, and those ships are “booked solid.” As a result, shipping American crude from Texas to Philadelphia costs more than three times as much as it would cost to send it all the way to Canada on a foreign vessel.

One of the Act’s few congressional opponents is Arizona Senator John McCain, who pointed out in this testimony that Hawaiian cattlemen who want to sell livestock on the mainland “have actually resorted to flying the cattle on 747 jumbo jets to work around the restrictions of the Jones Act. Their only alternative is to ship the cattle to Canada because all livestock carriers in the world are foreign-owned.”

Hawaii is especially hard hit by the Jones Act, but other states and territories that depend heavily on water-borne shipping also suffer. Consider Puerto Rico: a 2012 study by the New York Fed found that it cost about $3,063 to ship a 20-foot container from an east coast US port to Puerto Rico, but shipping the same container to a foreign destination, such as Jamaica, would cost only about $1,687. Because it is an American territory, the poor island pays almost twice as much to import American products.

For nearly a century, we’ve paid more at the pump, more for goods, more in taxes, and even more to do charitable aid, all because of this ancient special interest law.

All that the Jones Act accomplishes is to guarantee a market for costly, unionized American shipping. It is similar in purpose to the Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees a market for high-cost unionized construction (as I explain here).

Such special interest laws are never good for the country as a whole, but they are passed and maintained because their lobbyists are crafty, knowledgeable, and highly motivated, while the voting public is mostly ignorant.

It takes a spotlight and presidential leadership to get rid of them. Will any of this year’s crop take up the challenge?

George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Oil Prices Too Low? – Article by Randal O’Toole

Oil Prices Too Low? – Article by Randal O’Toole

The New Renaissance HatRandal O’Toole
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Remember peak oil? Remember when oil prices were $140 a barrel and Goldman Sachs predicted they would soon reach $200? Now, the latest news is that oil prices have gone up all the way to $34 a barrel. Last fall, Goldman Sachs predicted prices would fall to $20 a barrel, which other analysts argued was “no better than its prior predictions,” but in fact they came a lot closer to that than to $200.

Low oil prices generate huge economic benefits. Low prices mean increased mobility, which means increased economic productivity. The end result, says Bank of America analyst Francisco Blanch, is “one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history” as $3 trillion remain in consumers’ pockets rather than going to the oil companies. I wouldn’t call this a “wealth transfer” so much as a reduction in income inequality, but either way, it is a good thing.

Naturally, some people hate the idea of increased mobility from lower fuel prices. “Cheap gas raises fears of urban sprawl,” warns NPR. Since “urban sprawl” is a made-up problem, I’d have to rewrite this as, “Cheap gas raises hopes of urban sprawl.” The only real “fear” is on the part of city officials who want everyone to pay taxes to them so they can build stadiums, light-rail lines, and other useless urban monuments.

A more cogent argument is made by UC Berkeley sustainability professor Maximilian Auffhammer, who argues that “gas is too cheap” because current prices fail to cover all of the external costs of driving. He cites what he calls a “classic paper” that calculates the external costs of driving to be $2.28 per gallon. If that were true, then one approach would be to tax gasoline $2.28 a gallon and use the revenues to pay those external costs.

The only problem is that most of the so-called external costs aren’t external at all but are paid by highway users. The largest share of calculated costs, estimated at $1.05 a gallon, is the cost of congestion. This is really a cost of bad planning, not gasoline. Either way, the cost is almost entirely paid by people in traffic consuming that gasoline.

The next largest cost, at 63 cents a gallon, is the cost of accidents. Again, this is partly a cost of bad planning: remember how fatality rates dropped nearly 20 percent between 2007 and 2009, largely due to the reduction in congestion caused by the recession? This decline could have taken place years before if cities had been serious about relieving congestion rather than ignoring it. In any case, most of the cost of accidents, like the other costs of congestion, are largely internalized by the auto drivers through insurance.

The next-largest cost, pegged at 42 cents per gallon, is “local pollution.” While that is truly an external cost, it is also rapidly declining as shown in figure 1 of the paper. According to EPA data, total vehicle emissions of most pollutants have declined by more than 50 percent since the numbers used in this 2006 report. Thus, the 42 cents per gallon is more like 20 cents per gallon and falling fast.

At 12 cents a gallon, the next-largest cost is “oil dependency,” which the paper defines as exposing “the economy to energy price volatility and price manipulation” that “may compromise national security and foreign policy interests.” That problem, which was questionable in the first place, seems to have gone away thanks to the resurgence of oil production within the United States, which has made other oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, more dependent on us than we are on them.

Finally, at a mere 6 cents per gallon, is the cost of greenhouse gas emissions. If you believe this is a cost, it will decline when measured as a cost per mile as cars get more fuel efficient under the current CAFE standards. But it should remain fixed as a cost per gallon as burning a gallon of gasoline will always produce a fixed amount of greenhouse gases.

In short, rather than $2.38 per gallon, the external cost of driving is closer to around 26 cents per gallon. Twenty cents of this cost is steadily declining as cars get cleaner and all of it is declining when measured per mile as cars get more fuel-efficient.

It’s worth noting that, though we are seeing an increase in driving due to low fuel prices, the amount of driving we do isn’t all that sensitive to fuel prices. Real gasoline prices doubled between 2000 and 2009, yet per capita driving continued to grow until the recession began. Prices have fallen by 50 percent in the last six months or so, yet the 3 or 4 percent increase in driving may be as much due to increased employment as to more affordable fuel.

This means that, though there may be some externalities from driving, raising gas taxes and creating government slush funds with the revenues is not the best way of dealing with those externalities. I’d feel differently if I felt any assurance that government would use those revenues to actually fix the externalities, but that seems unlikely. I actually like the idea of tradable permits best, but short of that the current system of ever-tightening pollution controls seems to be working well at little cost to consumers and without threatening the economic benefits of increased mobility.

Randal O’Toole is a Cato Institute Senior Fellow working on urban growth, public land, and transportation issues. O’Toole’s research on national forest management, culminating in his 1988 book, Reforming the Forest Service, has had a major influence on Forest Service policy and on-the-ground management. His analysis of urban land-use and transportation issues, brought together in his 2001 book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, has influenced decisions in cities across the country. In his book The Best-Laid Plans, O’Toole calls for repealing federal, state, and local planning laws and proposes reforms that can help solve social and environmental problems without heavy-handed government regulation. O’Toole’s latest book is American Nightmare: How Government Undermines The Dream of Homeownership. O’Toole is the author of numerous Cato papers. He has also written for Regulation magazine as well as op-eds and articles for numerous other national journals and newspapers. O’Toole travels extensively and has spoken about free-market environmental issues in dozens of cities. An Oregon native, O’Toole was educated in forestry at Oregon State University and in economics at the University of Oregon.  

What Are Your Odds of Making It to the 1%? – Article by Chelsea Follett

What Are Your Odds of Making It to the 1%? – Article by Chelsea Follett

The New Renaissance HatChelsea Follett
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They’re better than you think

Your odds of “making it to the top” might be better than you think, although it’s tough to stay on top once you get there.

According to research from Cornell University, over 50 percent of Americans find themselves among the top 10 percent of income-earners for at least one year during their working lives. Over 11 percent of Americans will be counted among the top 1 percent of income-earners (i.e., people making at minimum $332,000) for at least one year.

How is this possible? Simple: the rate of turnover in these groups is extremely high.

Just how high? Some 94 percent of Americans who reach “top 1 percent” income status will enjoy it for only a single year. Approximately 99 percent will lose their “top 1 percent” status within a decade.

Now consider the top 400 U.S. income-earners — a far more exclusive club than the top 1 percent. Between 1992 and 2013, 72 percent of the top 400 retained that title for no more than a year. Over 97 percent retained it for no more than a decade.

HumanProgress.org advisory board member Mark Perry put it well in his recent blog post on this subject:

Whenever we hear commentary about the top or bottom income quintiles, or the top or bottom X% of Americans by income (or the Top 400 taxpayers), a common assumption is that those are static, closed, private clubs with very little dynamic turnover. …

But economic reality is very different — people move up and down the income quintiles and percentile groups throughout their careers and lives.

What if we look at economic mobility in terms of accumulated wealth, instead of just annual income (as the latter tends to fluctuate more)?

The Forbes 400 lists the wealthiest Americans by total estimated net worth, regardless of their income during any given year. Over 71 percent of Forbes 400 listees — and their heirs — lost their top 400 status between 1982 and 2014.

heirsSo, the next time you find yourself discussing the very richest Americans, whether by wealth or income, keep in mind the extraordinarily high rate of turnover among them.

And even if you never become one of the 11.1 percent of Americans who fleetingly find themselves in the “top 1 percent” of US income-earners, you’re still quite possibly part of the global top 1 percent.

Cross-posted from HumanProgress.org.

Chelsea Follett (Chelsea German) works at the Cato Institute as a Researcher and Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Benjamin Franklin: Pioneer of Insurance in North America – Video Presentation by G. Stolyarov II

Benjamin Franklin: Pioneer of Insurance in North America – Video Presentation by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance HatG. Stolyarov II
November 6, 2015
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Mr. Stolyarov discusses Benjamin Franklin’s multifaceted contributions to combating the threat of fire, including the founding of the first fire insurance company in North America – The Philadelphia Contributorship for the Insuring of Houses from Loss by Fire.

This presentation was originally prepared for and delivered at the October 26, 2015, educational meeting of the Sierra Nevada Chapter of the CPCU Society. This video and enhanced slideshow are a slightly expanded version of that presentation.

The slides can be downloaded in PowerPoint format  and PDF format.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1767)
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1767)
The Pathway to Faster Cures – When It Comes to Life-Saving Drugs, We Need More Than Modest Reform – Article by Bartley J. Madden

The Pathway to Faster Cures – When It Comes to Life-Saving Drugs, We Need More Than Modest Reform – Article by Bartley J. Madden

The New Renaissance Hat
Bartley J. Madden
May 26, 2015
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Rob Donahue used to ride horses. He was a modern-day cowboy until he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Now his muscles are weak. He can’t ride horses anymore. And his condition is worsening quickly. ALS will degenerate Donahue’s neurons and nervous system, and he will probably die in less than five years.

Another ALS sufferer, Nick Grillo, is trying to change all that. He’s put together a petition on Change.org to urge the FDA to fast-track approval of a new drug, GM-604, that would help people like Donahue and others like him.

“People can’t wait five, ten, 15 years for the clinical trial process,” said Grillo. “Things need to happen much quicker.”

But ALS is just one illness, and GM-604 is just one medicine. There are thousands of Americans suffering — many with terminal illnesses — while waiting on the FDA approval process.

Paradigm change

A paradigm change is essential because FDA culture has led to a situation where it costs an average of $1.5 billion and 12 or more years of clinical testing to bring a new drug to market. Medical innovation cannot thrive when only very large firms can afford to research and develop new drugs.

Another problem is that the FDA’s first goal is not to maximize innovation, but to minimize the chances that an FDA-approved drug leads to unanticipated adverse side effects and negative publicity. In particular, the FDA’s efficacy testing requirements have resulted in an ever-increasing load of money and time on drug developers. We can’t count on FDA bureaucrats to fix the broken system they created.

Even Congress, whose cottage industry is to regulate, admits that the current FDA system is a roadblock to fast-paced innovation. Congress’s own 21st Century Cures Initiative has led to many good ideas for delivering medical treatments, but even if successful, these ideas would bring only incremental improvements.

Americans deserve a bold plan to achieve genuine large-scale change enabling us to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. And most importantly, we need a mechanism for allowing patients to exercise choice consistent with their own preferences for risk.

Congressional hearings: the missing seat at the table

The missing seat at the table is for someone who represents freedom — that is, the right of patients, advised by their doctors, to make informed decisions as to the use of not-yet-FDA-approved drugs.

Freedom in response to suffering and subjugation is a powerful rallying call. The Women’s Right to Vote constitutional amendment in 1920 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not about incremental improvements; each was a paradigm change that brought forth a different and better future.

Absent from the congressional hearings over health care, however, has been a freedom agenda, specifically one designed to eliminate the FDA’s monopoly on access to new drugs.

Venture capitalists, where have you gone?

We hear very little about those who suffer and die because they were not able to access drugs stuck in the FDA’s testing pipeline, or about drugs that were never brought to market because FDA procedures made the development costs too high. There is an invisible graveyard filled with people who have died because of drug lag and drug loss.

The FDA’s deadly over-caution is why venture capitalists shy away from investing in biopharmaceutical startup firms. Venture capitalists are willing to take big risks on ideas that may fail. But failure due to regulatory risk is just too big a hurdle to overcome. Capital providers have other opportunities, even if those opportunities don’t involve cures for disease.

High costs and slow innovation are the hallmark of a monopoly. And, as medical science continues its rapid pace of innovation, the cost of lost opportunities for better health will increase even faster. The solution is to introduce consumer choice and competition.

Free to choose medicine

Three self-reinforcing principles are needed to bring rapid innovation to the biopharmaceutical marketplace.

First, we need a free-to-choose track that operates independently of the FDA and runs alongside the conventional FDA clinical testing track — a competitive alternative. After a new drug has successfully passed safety trials and shows initial effectiveness in early clinical trials, a drug developer could request that the drug be available for sale. Such an arrangement would allow for new drugs to be available up to seven years earlier than waiting for a final FDA approval decision.

Second, free-to-choose treatment results, including patients’ genetic data, would be posted on an open-access database. Patients and their physicians would be able to make informed decisions about the use of approved drugs versus not-yet-approved drugs. The resulting treasure trove of observational data would reveal, in real time on the Internet, which subsets of patients do extremely well or poorly using a particular new drug. This broad population of users — in contrast to the tight similarity of clinical trial patients — would better inform the biopharmaceutical industry, yielding better R&D decisions and faster innovation.

Third, some drug developers would want to provide free-to-choose drugs in order to quickly demonstrate that their drugs were effective, thereby enhancing the ability to raise needed capital. For patients who need insurance reimbursement and for developers seeking formal FDA recognition of their drugs’ safety and effectiveness, another kind of incentive is needed. That is, FDA observational approval would be based on treatment results reflected in observational data posted on the open-access Internet database.

In the foreword to my 2012 book, Free to Choose Medicine: Better Drugs Sooner at Lower Cost, Nobel Laureate economist Vernon Smith wrote, “These three design components for patient/doctor control of medical treatment are both innovative and soundly based. With this conceptual blueprint, legislation could be crafted to promote both expanded consumer choice and the discipline of choice to the long-term benefit of society.”

Opposition

FDA proponents would bolster the fear that “unsafe” drugs could flood the marketplace. But the FDA cannot define what is “safe.” Only patients with their unique health conditions, treatment profiles, and preferences for taking risk can define what is safe for them. That is what freedom is all about: individual choice. Keep in mind that the likely large number of free-to-choose patients with widely varying health conditions would yield uniquely useful safety data superior to safety readouts from clinical trial data.

The free-to-choose medicine plan is voluntary and would not disturb those who want to use only approved drugs. A reasonable implementation schedule would first allow the new system to be used by patients fighting a life-threatening illness, as they are the ones most in need of access to the latest drug advancements.

Biopharmaceutical firms likely to oppose such a plan would include larger firms who consider their expertise in dealing with the FDA bureaucracy as an especially valued competitive advantage over their smaller competitors. We should expect support from firms with a high level of scientific skill, but limited skill and resources in dealing with FDA bureaucracy. Nevertheless, even those firms initially opposed should question their current business models, which produce sky-high prescription drug prices and the very real chance that government at some future point will impose price controls. Why not set into motion an alternative that can lead to radically lower development and approval costs with concomitant lower prescription drug prices while maintaining industry profitability levels?

Trial lawyer organizations will be expected to contribute mightily to defeat any freedom-based legislation. They do not want Americans legally taking personal responsibility by way of voluntary contracts, even if there are life-saving benefits to be had.

Patients are the ultimate beneficiaries of competition, and they are a powerful force for those who want a fundamental restructuring of the FDA. Right-to-try state laws are designed to allow those dealing with life-threatening illnesses access to not-yet-approved drugs. These laws’ enormous popularity indicates that a well-run campaign could generate similar support at the federal level for free-to-choose medicine.

Freedom should be part of the national debate on 21st century medical legislation. For that to happen, we need to give freedom lovers and chronic sufferers a seat at the table.

Every American should have the right to make informed decisions that can improve health or save lives. Freedom is not something to fear; it is the best route forward to a more innovative, efficient, and humane medical system.

Bartley J. Madden is a founder of Tomorrow’s Cures Today.  His website is www.LearningWhatWorks.com.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

Why Do We Celebrate Rising Home Prices? – Article by Ryan McMaken

Why Do We Celebrate Rising Home Prices? – Article by Ryan McMaken

The New Renaissance Hat
Ryan McMaken
May 26, 2015
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In recent years, home price indices have seemed to proliferate. Case-Shiller, of course, has been around for a long time, but over the past decade, additional measures have been marketed aggressively by Trulia, CoreLogic, and Zillow, just to name a few.

Measuring home prices has taken on an urgency beyond the real estate industry because for many, home price growth has become something of an indicator of the economy as a whole. If home prices are going up, it is assumed, “the economy” must be doing well. Indeed, we are encouraged to relax when home prices are increasing or holding steady, and we’re supposed to become concerned if home prices are going down.

This is a rather odd way of looking at the price of a basic necessity. If the price of food were going upward at the rate of 7 or 8 percent each year (as has been the case with houses in many markets in recent years) would we all be patting ourselves on the back and telling ourselves how wonderful economic conditions are? Or would we be rightly concerned if incomes were not also going up at a similar rate? Would we do the same with shoes and clothing? How about with education?

With housing, though, increases in prices are to be lauded, we are told, even if they outpace wage growth.

We’re Told to Want High Home Prices

But in today’s economy, if home prices are outpacing wage growth, then housing is becoming less affordable. This is grudgingly admitted even by the supporters of ginning up home prices, but the affordability of housing takes a back seat to the insistence that home prices be preserved at all costs.

Behind all of this is the philosophy that even if the home-price/household-income relationship gets out of whack, most problems will nevertheless be solved if we can just get people into a house. Once someone becomes a homeowner, the theory goes, he’ll be sitting on a huge asset that (almost) always goes up in price, meaning that any homeowner will increase in net worth as the equity in his home increases.

Then, the homeowner can use that equity to buy furniture, appliances, and a host of other consumer goods. With all that consumer spending, the economy takes off and we all win. Rising home prices are just a bump in the road, we are told, because if we can just get everyone into a home, the overall benefit to the economy will be immense.

Making Homes Affordable with More Cheap Debt

Not surprisingly, we find a sort of crude Keynesianism behind this philosophy. In this way of thinking, the point of homeownership is not to have shelter, but to acquire something that will encourage more consumer spending. In other words, the purpose of homeownership is to increase aggregate demand. The fact that you can live in the house is just a fringe benefit. This macro-obsession is part of the reason why the government has pushed homeownership so aggressively in recent decades.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is if home prices keep going up faster than wages — ceteris paribus — fewer people will be able to save enough money to come up with either the full amount or even a sizable down payment on a loan.

Not to worry, the experts tell us. We’ll just make it easier, with the help of inflationary fiat money, to get an enormous loan that will allow you to buy a house. Thus, rock-bottom interest rates and low down payments have been the name of the game since the late 1980s.

We started to see the end game at work during the last housing bubble when Fannie Mae introduced the 40-year mortgage in 2005, which just emphasized that when it comes to being a homeowner, the idea is not to pay off the mortgage, but to “buy” a house and just pay the monthly payment until one moves to another house and gets a new thirty- or forty-year loan.

It Pays To Be in Debt

On the surface of it, it’s hard to see how this scenario is fundamentally different from just paying rent every month. If the homeowner stops paying the monthly payment, he’s out on the street, and the bank keeps the house, which is very similar to the scenario in which a renter stops paying a landlord. There’s (at least) one big difference here, however. It makes sense for the homeowner to get a home loan rather than rent an apartment because — if it’s a fixed-rate loan — price inflation ensures the real monthly payment will go down every month. Residential rents, on the other hand, tend to keep up with inflation.

But why would any lending institution make these sorts of long-term loans if the payment in real terms keeps getting smaller? After all, thirty years is a long time for something to go wrong.

Lenders are willing and able to do this because the loans are subsidized and underwritten through government creations like Fannie Mae (which buys up these loans on the secondary market), through bailouts, and through a myriad of other federal programs such as FHA. Naturally, in an unhampered market, a loan of such a long term would require high interest rates to cover the risk. But, Congress and the Fed have come to the rescue with promises of bailouts and easy money, meaning cheap thirty-year loans continue to live on.

So, what we end up with is a complex system of subsidies and favoritism on the part of lenders, homeowners, government agencies, and the Fed. The price of homes keeps going up, increasing the net worth of homeowners, and banks can make long-term loans on fairly risky terms because they know bailouts of various sorts will come if things go wrong.

But problems begin to arise when increases in home prices begin to outpace access to easy money and cheap loans. Indeed, we’re now seeing that homeownership rates are going down in spite of low interest rates, and vacancy rates in rental housing are at a twenty-year low. Meanwhile, new production in housing units is at 1992 levels, offering little relief from rising prices and rents. Obviously, something isn’t going according to plan.

Who Loses?

The old debt-based tricks that once kept homeownership climbing and accessible in the face of rising home prices are no longer working.

From a free market’s perspective, renting a home is neither good nor bad, but American policymakers long ago decided to favor homeowners over renters. Consequently, we’re faced with an economic system that pushes renters toward homeownership — price inflation and the tax code punishes renters more than owners — while simultaneously pushing home prices higher and higher.

During the last housing bubble, however, as homeownership levels climbed, few noticed or cared about this. So many renters became homeowners that rental vacancies climbed to record highs from 2004 to 2009. But in our current economy, one cannot avoid rising rents or hedge against inflation by easily leaving rental housing behind.

This time around, the cost of purchasing housing is going up by 6 to 10 percent per year, but few renters can join the ranks of the homeowners to enjoy the windfall. Instead, they just face record-high rent increases and a record-low inventory in for-sale houses.

There once was a time when rising home prices and rising homeownership rates could happen at the same time; it was possible for the government to stick to its unofficial policy of propping up home prices while also claiming to be pushing homeownership. We no longer live in such a time.

Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Free Market. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre. 

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

The Other Half of the Inflation Story: Credit Expansion Adds Noise to Price Signals – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The Other Half of the Inflation Story: Credit Expansion Adds Noise to Price Signals – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
May 7, 2015
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More money means higher prices. It’s too bad not everyone understands that connection. Even some economists don’t get it. Readers of the Freeman do, I’m sure. And they also understand why that’s a bad thing.

Increasing the supply of money and credit, other things equal, will cause a general rise in wages and prices across an economy. When the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, excessively “prints money,” the result is “inflation” as it’s now commonly called. For those who get the new money after everyone else has spent theirs, inflation means incomes will now buy fewer goods, and every dollar lent before prices rose will be worth less when it’s returned.

If inflation continues, people will eventually learn to demand more for what they sell and lend in order to compensate for the purchasing power that inflation keeps eating away. That, in turn, will cause prices to rise faster, which makes planning for households and businesses even more difficult. In the past, that difficulty has led to hyperinflation and a breakdown of the entire economic system.

But as awful as all this may be, it’s really only half the story, and perhaps not even the worse half. What follows is a highly simplified story of what happens.

The structure of production

If you’d like to build a sturdy house, you’ll need to have some kind of blueprint or plan that will tell you two things:

  1. how the frame, floor, walls, roof, plumbing, and electrical system will all fit together; and
  2. the order in which to put these components together.

Even if the house was made entirely of identical stones, you would need to know how to fit them together to form the floor, walls, chimney, and other structural components. No two stones would serve exactly the same function in the overall plan.

The economy is like a house in the sense that each of its parts, which we might call “capital,” needs to mesh in a certain way if the eventual result will be order and not chaos. But there are two big differences between a house and an economy. The first is that the economy is not only much bigger, but it consists of a multitude of “houses” or private enterprises that have to fit together or coordinate, and so it’s an unimaginably more complex phenomenon than even the most elaborate house.

The second major difference is that a house is consciously constructed for a purpose, typically for someone to live in it. But an economic system is neither consciously designed by anyone nor intended to fulfill any particular purpose, other than perhaps to enable countless people with plans to do the best they can to achieve success. It’s a spontaneous order.

The way all the pieces of capital, from all the diverse people in the economy who own them, fit together is called the capital structure of production.

Credit expansion distorts the structure of production

When people decide to spend a certain portion of their incomes on consumption today, they are at the same time deciding to save some portion for consumption for the future. The amount that they save then gets lent out to borrowers and investors in the market for loanable funds. The rate of interest is the price of making those transactions across time. That is, when you decide to increase your saving, other things equal, the rate of interest (what some economists call the “natural rate of interest”) will fall. The falling interest rate makes borrowing more attractive to producers who invest today to produce more goods in the future.

That’s great, because when the market for loanable funds is operating freely without distortions, that means when people who saved today try to consume more in the future, there actually is more in the future for them to consume . Businesses today invested more at the lower rates precisely in order to have more to sell in the future when consumers want to buy more.

Now, if the Federal Reserve prints more money and that money goes into the loanable funds market, that will also increase the supply of loans and lower the interest rate and induce more borrowing and investment for future output. The difference here is that the supply of loans increases not because people are saving more now in order to consume more in the future, but only because of the credit expansion. That means that in the future, when businesses have more goods to sell, consumers won’t be able to buy them (because they didn’t save enough to do so) at prices that will cover all of the businesses’ costs. Prices will have to drop in order for markets to clear. Sellers suffer losses and workers lose their jobs.

And, oh yes, all that credit expansion also causes inflation.

While this process sounds rather involved, it’s still a highly simplified version of what has come to be known as the Austrian business cycle theory. (For a more advanced version, see here.) Of course, each instance in reality is significantly different from any other, but the narrative is essentially the same: credit expansion distorts the structure of production, and resources eventually become unemployed.

The explanation is more involved than the typical inflation-is-bad story that we’re more familiar with. Indeed, that probably explains why it’s the less-well-known half of the story. Even Milton Friedman and the monetarists pay little attention to the capital structure, choosing instead to focus on the problems of inflationary expectations.

Again, for Austrians, the problem arises when credit expansion artificially lowers interest rates and sets off an unsustainable “boom”; the solution is when the structure of production comes back into alignment with people’s actual preferences for consumption and saving, which is the “bust.” Most modern macroeconomists see it exactly the opposite way: the bust is the problem, and the boom is the solution.

An intricate, dynamic jigsaw puzzle

To close, I’d like to use an analogy I learned from Steve Horwitz (whom I heartily welcome back as a fellow columnist here at the Freeman).

The market economy is like a giant jigsaw puzzle in which each piece represents a unique unit of capital. When the system is allowed to operate without government intervention, the profit-and-loss motive tends to bring the pieces together in a complementary way to form a harmonious mosaic (although in a dynamic world, it couldn’t achieve perfection).

Credit expansion, then, is like someone coming along and making too many of some pieces and too few of others — and then, during the boom, trying to force them together, severely distorting the overall picture. During the bust, people realize they have to get rid of some pieces and try to discover where the others actually fit. That requires challenging adjustments and may take some time to accomplish. But if the government tries to “help” by stimulating the creation of more superfluous pieces, it will only confuse matters and make the process of adjustment take that much longer.

Inflation is bad enough. Unfortunately, it’s only half the story.

Sanford Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

The Costs of Hysteria: How Economists are Misleading the Public on Climate-Change Policy – Article by Robert P. Murphy

The Costs of Hysteria: How Economists are Misleading the Public on Climate-Change Policy – Article by Robert P. Murphy

The New Renaissance Hat
Robert P. Murphy
May 5, 2015
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Suppose the “scientific consensus” on climate change is right. Let’s also stipulate, for the sake of argument, that the computer projections used by the United Nations and the US government are correct, and that economists are able to translate those data into meaningful projections about costs and benefits to people living in the future with climate change.

Despite what the public has been led to believe, the situation is not a crisis at all — and certainly not something that demands drastic government actions to avert serious damage to the environment. In fact, implementing the wrong policy can cause far more damage than it can prevent.

It’s understandable that the public has no idea of the real state of the literature on climate change policy, because even professional economists use utterly misleading rhetoric in this arena. To show what I mean, first, let’s quote from a recent Noah Smith Bloomberg article, which urges left-liberals to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal:

One of the bigger economic issues under debate right now is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the multilateral trade deal that would include most countries in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the US. Many people both here and abroad are suspicious of trade deals, while economists usually support them. This time around, however, the dynamic is a little bit different — the TPP is getting some pushback from left-leaning economists such as Paul Krugman.

Krugman’s point is that since US trade is already pretty liberalized … the effect of further liberalization will be small.… I’m usually more of a free-trade skeptic than the average economist.… But in this case, I’m strongly on the pro-TPP side. There are just too many good arguments in favor.

University of California-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong does some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, and estimates that the TPP would increase the world’s wealth by a total of $3 trillion. Though that’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the best reforms that’s feasible in the current polarized political situation. (emphasis added)

To summarize the flavor of Smith’s discussion, he thinks the TPP is “one of the bigger economic issues” today, and that its potential windfall to humanity of $3 trillion is “not a big deal in the grand scheme of things” but certainly worth pursuing if attainable. Krugman disagrees with Smith’s assessment, but their differences are clearly quibbles over numbers and strategies; it’s not as if Smith thinks Krugman is a “Ricardo denier” or accuses Krugman of hating poor Asians by opposing the trade deal.

We get a much different tone if instead we look at Smith discussing climate-change policy. For example, in June 2014, Smith wrote a Bloomberg piece on five ways to fight global warming. In the interest of brevity, let me simply quote Smith’s concluding paragraph:

If we do these five things, then the US can still save the world from global warming, even though we’re no longer the main cause of the problem. And the short-run cost to our economy will be very moderate. Saving the world on the cheap sounds like a good idea to me. (emphasis added)

Clearly, there is a chasm in the rhetoric between Smith’s two Bloomberg pieces. When discussing the TPP, it’s an honest disagreement between experts over a trade agreement that Smith thinks is definitely worthwhile, but in the grand scheme is not that big a deal. In contrast, government policies concerning climate change literally involve the fate of the planet.

At this point, most readers would wonder what the problem is. After all, isn’t man-made climate change a global crisis? Why shouldn’t Smith use much stronger rhetoric when describing it?

I am making this comparison because according to one of the pioneers in climate-change economics, William Nordhaus, even if all governments around the world implemented the textbook-perfect carbon tax, the net gain to humanity would be … drumroll please … $3 trillion. In other words, one of the world’s experts on the economics of climate change estimates that the difference to humanity between (a) implementing the perfect carbon-tax policy solution and (b) doing absolutely nothing was about the same difference as DeLong estimated when it comes to the TPP.

To be more specific, the $3 trillion Nordhaus estimate comes from the 2008 calibration of his Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) model. (The numbers have gone up since then, but I studied his 2008 calibration in great detail.) Note that this isn’t some “denier” computer simulation, rejected by the serious scientists. On the contrary, Nordhaus’s DICE model was one of only three chosen by the Obama administration when it set up a working group to estimate the monetary damages of carbon dioxide emissions. To help the reader understand the trade-offs humanity faces when it comes to climate change, let me reproduce table 4 from my Independent Review article that critically evaluated Nordhaus’s model:    

The table shows Nordhaus’s estimates (made in 2008 based on the “consensus” scientific assessments of the time) of the net benefits of various possible governmental climate policy approaches. The first row shows what happens if governments do nothing. There will be $22.55 trillion (in present value terms, and quoted in 2005 dollars) of environmental damage, but virtually no economic costs of complying with regulations, for a total harm of $22.59 trillion.

In contrast, if governments around the world implemented Nordhaus’s recommended “optimal” carbon tax, the world would be spared a little more than $5 trillion in future environmental damage, while future economic output would be $2.2 trillion lower due to complying with the carbon tax. Adding it all up, humanity would suffer total harms of $19.52 trillion, meaning the world would be $3.07 trillion wealthier with the optimal, global carbon tax (because $22.59 − $19.52 = $3.07).

Central to the economic way of thinking is the concept of trade-offs. Every possible policy — including a policy of doing nothing — comes with costs. But the public tends to hear about only one set of costs, not the full array. For example, as the earlier table shows, the wrong climate policy can be much, much worse than doing nothing. Nordhaus evaluated Al Gore’s suggestion to cut emissions by 90 percent, and estimated that it would make humanity some $21 trillion poorer compared to the do-nothing baseline — a net harm seven times greater than the net benefits of the textbook-optimal approach.

My point here is not to trumpet Nordhaus’s numbers as being gospel. (My Independent Review article was a full-blown critique of his model.) Rather, I am pointing out that even one of the leading models that underpins the so-called consensus on climate-change activism shows that this is hardly the planetary crisis that the rhetoric of Smith and others would suggest. The actual numbers are in the same ballpark as those of trade deals — and nobody thinks the fate of the planet hangs on the passage of a trade deal.

More generally, what even most economists have failed to convey to the public is that climate-change policies at best will affect things on the margin. Nordhaus’s table beautifully illustrates this. The optimal carbon tax doesn’t eliminate the climate-change damage that his computer simulations predict. On the contrary, the carbon tax only reduces it from about $23 trillion down to $17 billion. The reason it doesn’t make sense to enact a more aggressive carbon tax is that the (marginal) harm to the conventional economy would exceed the (marginal) environmental benefit. There are several policies in the table that reduce environmental damage below the $17 trillion mark, but they hurt the economy so much more that, on net, they are inferior approaches.

It is understandable that noneconomists would fail to employ marginal analysis and would engage in overblown rhetoric when discussing something as controversial as climate-change policy. However, too many professional economists have also fallen into this bad habit, including not just Smith but also Krugman and many others.

Robert P. Murphy has a PhD in economics from NYU. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism and The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Great Depression and the New Deal.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Speaking Truth to Power: Jimmy Lai – Article by Lawrence W. Reed

Speaking Truth to Power: Jimmy Lai – Article by Lawrence W. Reed

The New Renaissance Hat
Lawrence W. Reed
May 4, 2015
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For years, a bust of John James Cowperthwaite sat prominently in the foyer of Jimmy Lai’s Next Media office in Hong Kong, along with others of economists F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. If that’s all you ever knew about Jimmy Lai, you could at least surmise that he loves liberty and free markets.

Cowperthwaite had been the architect of Hong Kong’s free-market miracle. He started with a destitute rock and turned it into one of the world’s freest and most prosperous economies. (Indeed, I’ve suggested that he deserves to be recognized annually and everywhere with a Cowperthwaite Day on the anniversary of his birthdate, April 25.) Jimmy Lai is precisely the sort of individual that Cowperthwaite had in mind when he decided that entrepreneurs, not central planners, should drive an economy. Because of what Cowperthwaite had done, Jimmy Lai found a hero himself. And Lai, too, would go on to do great things.

Of the characteristics most often identified with successful entrepreneurship, Jimmy Lai possesses them all in abundance. He is a self-starter who takes initiative (and risk) with enthusiasm. He’s creative and intuitive. He’s passionate and tenacious. Where others see problems, he sees opportunity. He’s a visionary, both in business endeavors and for society at large. He doesn’t hesitate to defy conventional wisdom when it points to a dead end. Whatever he undertakes, he musters the courage to act. He puts his all — money, time, and energy — where his mouth is (and where his convictions are).

On paper, Lai’s early life would seem unlikely to produce a “real hero.” He was born in China the year before it fell under Mao Zedong’s dictatorial rule. Lai was smuggled out of the country and into Hong Kong at age 12. In the absence of child-labor laws, which would have ensured his deprivation there, too, Lai went to work in a garment factory for $8 a month. Fifteen years later, he bought his own garment factory and built it into the giant known as Giordano, now a leading international retailer. Lai’s boundless entrepreneurial zeal, free to operate within Hong Kong’s laissez-faire business environment, yielded jobs for thousands and consumer goods for millions.

But in 1989, Beijing’s infamous Tiananmen Square massacre set Jimmy Lai on a new course. With Hong Kong scheduled to be transferred from British to Chinese rule in just eight years, Lai knew that maintaining traditional freedoms under Beijing’s rule would be a challenge. So he ventured into media, creating what soon became the territory’s largest-circulation magazines, Sudden Weekly and Next. In spite of Beijing’s coercion of advertisers, Jimmy Lai’s tabloid-style newspaper, Apple Daily, is still the premier voice in Asia for the freedoms of speech, press, and enterprise.

Jimmy Lai does not shrink from controversy. The Communist Party of China, he wrote in a 1994 column, is “a monopoly that charges a premium for a lousy service.” He defended the student demonstrators when they went into the streets by the hundreds of thousands in late 2014 in defense of democracy. He routinely exposed corruption in both government and business, including the especially toxic brand of corruption that arises when the two get in bed together. He sold Giordano, the apparel firm he founded, to save it from Beijing’s intense pressure, but he refuses to this day to renounce his principles.

In December 2014, he revealed that he was stepping down as publisher of Apple Daily and chairman of Next Media to devote more time to family and personal interests. A month later, and for the second time, unknown assailants firebombed his home. He remains under intense scrutiny from Beijing, which regularly employs ugly rumors, threats of litigation, and other nefarious means to undermine his influence.

Earlier this year, Lai told the New York Times that he never planned to make his media empire into a family dynasty. His six children (ages 8 to 37) are not in line as heirs to that business or its leadership positions. “I don’t think I should ask my kids to inherit my business, because they can’t start where I did,” he said. “I was from the street. I’m a very different make of person. I’ve been a fighter all my life.”

Whatever the future holds for Jimmy Lai, friends of liberty everywhere can count him as one very brave man.

For additional information:

In the Freeman:

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 2008. Prior to that, he was a founder and president for twenty years of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught Economics full-time and chaired the Department of Economics at Northwood University in Michigan from 1977 to 1984.

He holds a B.A. degree in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He holds two honorary doctorates, one from Central Michigan University (Public Administration—1993) and Northwood University (Laws—2008).

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.