28 January 2011


Chinese President Hu Jintao recently completed a triumphant visit to the United States, at least according to the Chinese media. American officials wound up looking like fools as they sat through an anti-American song played by pianist Ling Ling, to the delight and contempt of Chinese nationalists and hardliners. The prevailing narrative these days is that China is rising while America is declining. This may well be the case over the next few decades if we allow it, but there is nothing inevitable about it. If we seriously reduce our deficit and institute pro-growth policies so that the economy grows at 5% this won’t happen. But the government is a long way off from getting the economy on a solid footing. On the other hand there is no certainty that China will continue to grow at a 10% rate indefinitely any more than Japan did.

China faces a host of internal problems. There is rising inflation and a property bubble that may eventually collapse. There is misallocation of capital by state enterprises, and rising discontent amongst a population that is still overwhelmingly poor. The government’s top priority is maintaining internal order and a “harmonious society” that keeps the Communist party elites in control. This is a bit tricky insofar as they have largely scrapped communist ideology in practice, but to be logically consistent they ought to do so officially, by rejecting Marxism as a foreign ideology and returning to Confucian roots. There has already been a revival of Confucianism, and a full embrace would legitimize the government in accordance with Chinese tradition. If this is accompanied by a merit system, rather than one that favors party functionaries, the government would be on solid ground, even if not democratic.

But in the long run, China will be outpaced by India. India is like a slow-moving elephant that has a long-term consistency once it is headed in the right direction. Its population will eventually pass China’s, and will be considerably younger due to China’s one-child policy. Even at a slower rate of growth in the long-term this means a larger economy. However, neither will be anywhere near the west on a per capita basis. Nor is it inevitable that the United States will be outproduced if we get our fiscal house in order, increase saving and investment, fix our dysfunctional education system, and encourage economic growth without bureaucratic obstacles. For this to happen we need a leadership that is optimistic and inspirational to move this country out of the current doldrums.

08 January 2011


Throughout history there have been groups of people who have either influenced or obtained the actual power of the state to benefit themselves at the expense of others. In ancient times these were frequently oligarchies, who used the government to enrich themselves. In modern times we have organizations that give money to support politicians with the expectation that their interests will be regarded favorably. While this is often associated with business corporations, by far the largest donors are labor unions. Their clout is magnified by the fact that they also bring out voters as well as members to work on campaigns. When it comes to public employee unions they are especially effective in electing politicians who will be extremely pliable in responding to their demands at the expense of the public. I wrote about this almost a year ago (see Pernicious Public Employee Unions). Since then there has been a growing public awareness of the extent to which they are being taken as states face increasingly dire fiscal conditions, owing largely to generous public employee pensions for which there is no equivalent in private industry. The Economist has devoted its current issue to this question.

Not only has this resulted in a bloated public sector, but it has also institutionalized resistance to meaningful reform. This is particularly true of the miserable public education system in the United States despite billions upon billions thrown at the problem. Teacher’s unions resist any kind of change that would reward the best teachers while weeding out the incompetent. Public employees generally, have a vested interest in continually expanding government expenditures and hence higher taxes for everyone else. They are the foot soldiers for the party of big government. The same problem manifests itself throughout Europe as well. Yet despite all the revenue it still takes forever to get a permit when you need one.

More broadly, in addition to the bureaucracy, the party of government includes trial lawyers, the universities, the courts, lobbyists, the mainstream media, some big business, and nonprofit organizations that get government funds. Together they constitute an irresistible force for ever expanding government spending. If you add all those on the bottom who pay no taxes and live off the government you have the makings of a formidable political machine. This is essentially what has governed over the past two years. Worse, when revenues are not enough to support the demands of these constituencies they expand the public debt.

However, all those who are not part of this machine and are continually taxed are increasingly fed up, and in many places have managed to elect governments that will strongly resist these forces and attempt to rollback many of the excesses. There will, however, be fierce resistance by the machine, which will organize and lobby against reform. It is thus necessary to remain vigilant by monitoring those elected officials who are responsible and how they respond to these pressures. The last American election was an open revolt against these forces, but the unorganized citizens must stand fast against the highly organized pressure groups. For better or worse, the machine isn’t going away.

05 January 2011


The energy picture for the new year seems increasingly dismal. The price of oil continues to rise, making everything more costly, from gas at the pump to home energy to a wide range of industrial uses. Oil, inexpensive oil in particular, is so necessary that life as we know it would not be possible without it. Our dependence is complete, and no amount of clean energy mantra is going to change that any time soon, no matter how many federal dollars we waste in subsidies. The price of oil will escalate over the coming years due to a devalued dollar, rising demand in places like China, and the administration’s virtual prohibition of new oil production in the United States. New production consists primarily of offshore drilling, where there are still plentiful reserves of domestic oil, but which the administration has effectively frozen. In the light of our own needs, the nefarious sources of foreign oil and oil pricing, this is insane. New objections are being raised to pipeling oil from the Canadian tar sands; indeed virtually any new source of oil production is being deliberately frustrated.

Nothing produces electricity as cheaply as coal, which we have in abundance in the United States, yet the EPA is now threatening the entire energy industry with onerous new regulations concerned not with pollution, but greenhouse gasses. Higher electricity prices are thus being deliberately induced by the government. Needless to say, life as we know it would also not be possible without cheap electricity.

The administration wants to wish these things away with vague visions of green energy, and things like expensive electric cars that no one is buying, but which we are all forced to subsidize. Yet despite their aversion to “old” energy sources they have nothing to offer in the way of “alternative energy” that is in any sense practically available now or any time in the near future. These policies are deliberately destructive of our industrial economy, which does not need further blows given stubbornly high unemployment and low growth. We are still the world’s largest industrial economy and ought to make it our business to remain so.

The electorate responded, and will continue to respond to misguided priorities that have nothing to do with economic growth. The top priority of any administration ought to be encouraging economic growth, usually best done by getting out of the way. We also need a cold dose of realism about our true energy sources and needs for the foreseeable future.