Recently John Stossel produced a television show titled Politicians’ Top 10 Promises Gone Wrong. The show features segments on government programs and why they’ve gone wrong, with a focus on the unintended consequences of the programs. Particularly illuminating are the attempts by programs’ supporters to justify their worth.
One of the segments on the show explained the harm of Cash for Clunkers, in which serviceable cars were destroyed so that new cars could be sold. The program simply stole sales from the months before and after the program. The mistaken idea that destruction can be a way to create new wealth is held by many who should know better, and Stossel reminds us of the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who wrote that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 “could even do some economic good” as rebuilding will increase business spending. It’s the seen vs. unseen problem, Stossel and David Boaz of the Cato Institute explain. It’s easy to see people buying new cars. It was reported on television. But it’s more difficult to see all the dispersed economic activity that didn’t take place because of the programs.
“Living wage” laws, in which people would be paid enough to live on — whatever that means — is next. While increasing wages of low-paid workers is a noble goal, increasing the cost of labor results in an entirely predictable result: less labor is demanded. Fewer people will have jobs. The Grand Canyon National Park, for example, switched to automated ticket machines. Christian Dorsey of the Economic Policy Institute, said that elimination of minimum wage laws would leave employers free to drive down wages as low as possible. But Stossel noted businesses hire employees in a competitive market, and it is that market that sets wages. Only about five percent of workers earn the minimum wage. Why do the others earn more than that? Competitive markets force employers to pay more, not laws.
A segment on “fancy stadiums” boosting the economy holds a lesson for Wichita and the Intrust Bank Arena in its downtown. The claimed benefits of these venues rarely appear, and the unseen costs are large — “at the local bar there’s one less bartender, there was one less waitress hired at a restaurant, a movie theater that had one less theaterfull. It’s handing money from your right hand to your left and declaring I’m rich.” While Wichita’s arena seems to be doing well, it’s still well within its honeymoon period. Even then, there was a month where no events took place at the arena.
A segment on the new credit card regulations, intended to protect consumers, shows that the regulations resulted in fewer people being able to get credit cards. Now these people have to go to payday lenders or pawn shops, which are much more expensive than credit cards. Arkansas once capped credit card interest at ten percent. The result was that few people in Arkansas could get a credit card, and the state became known as the pawn shop capital of America.
Ethanol is the topic of a segment. Promised as a way to solve our energy problem, many politicians of both parties support ethanol. But we’ve come to realize the problems with government support of ethanol: rising price of food, excessive use of fertilizer and fuel to produce corn, and an awareness that ethanol is more harmful to the environment than gasoline. “But it makes us feel good,” Stossel says. In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback is firmly in favor of government support of ethanol, which Boaz called “pound-for-pound, the dumbest program ever.”
On the role of government in causing the housing bubble, Howard Husock said “Government exaggerates, rather than minimizes, the age-old impulse to greed. The government made it harder for bankers who wanted to do the right thing.” Stossel explained that bankers who wanted to stay with safe home loans lost out on profits they could earn selling high risk loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored agencies.
At the end, Stossel said: “And that’s the number one promise gone wrong. These guys say they’ll be fiscally responsible. And then we elect them, and they spend more. They’re spending us into bankruptcy. There must be 10,000 harmful programs, and yet they keep creating more. Why can’t we cut them?” Boaz explained: “Every one of those 10,000 programs has a lobbyist in Washington. … They always know when the bill is up before Congress, and they send political contributions, they send people to Washington to lobby. The rest of us don’t do that. … People should be more engaged, people should be better citizens. But the fact is we have lives, and there’s no way that any normal person can know about the 10,000 programs that make up the $3.5 trillion federal budget.”
And so the programs keep growing, Stossel said, and we must pay their costs and unintended consequences forever — “Unless, there’s a new wind blowing in America. A new attitude, a new expectation that maybe Washington should do less. I hear there is. I sure hope so.”