Capitalism, without hyphens

Daniel J. Mitchell:

The most obvious threat to free enterprise is Bernie Sanders, though other prominent leftists are giving “Crazy Bernie” plenty of competition.

But I sometimes wonder whether the more tangible threat to capitalism comes from self-described conservatives who say they support markets but embrace trendy ideas that would expand the size and scope of the federal government.

The people who gravitate to these ideas inevitably argue that a Reagan-style agenda of free markets and limited government is somehow inadequate.

They even make the laughable claim that the Republican Party in recent decades has been dominated by libertarian economic thinking. I’m not joking.

And they come up with creative justifications for bad ideas.

For instance, Oren Cass has concocted a “cost of thriving index” that purports to show ever-increasing economic pressure on families.

Cost-of-Thriving Index (COTI): the number of weeks of the median male wage required to pay for rent on a three-bedroom house at the 40th percentile of a local market’s prices, a family health insurance premium, a semester of public college, and the operation of a vehicle.…The COTI shows a declining capacity of a worker to meet the major costs of a typical middle-class household. As the COTI basket has become unaffordable, families have found workarounds, like having more household members work more hours, making do without, borrowing, and relying on government support. Each of these comes with its own costs, undermines the stability of families and the rationale for their formation, and creates high levels of stress and uncertainty. …The U.S. economy of recent decades has eroded, rather than reinforced, the American model of thriving, self-sufficient fami­lies.

Here’s his COTI graph, which supposedly shows that a breadwinner would have to work 53 weeks per year to buy what was easily affordable back in 1985.

A number of experts have identified serious methodological problems with his work (see Scott Winship, Mark Perry, Robert Verbruggen, Stan Veuger, Matt Yglesias, Don Boudreaux, and Andrew Biggs).

I want to make a different point. So I’m going to ignore all the problems that exist with the methodology and data, and I’m going to assume – for the sake of argument – that Cass’ chart is accurate.

And the reason I’m willing to make that heroic assumption is that Cass inadvertently shows why bigger government and more intervention is a bad idea.

Here are the numbers he used to create his chart.

If you examine what’s happened with the different categories, you’ll quickly notice that almost all the increase in his index is the result of ever-high costs for health care and college.

Yet those are precisely the areas where there the role of government has increased.

More specifically, we have a massive third-party-payer problem with health carecaused by Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code’s healthcare exclusion.

And we have a massive third-party-payer problem in higher education thanks to a big expansion of loans, grants, and other subsidies.

In both cases, providers have responded to government intervention with higher prices and massive inefficiency.

The bottom line is that the chart should be modified to show the harmful impact of government.

The challenge for Cass is to somehow explain why more government is a good idea when his own numbers show that we’re getting bad results in the sectors where we already have lots of government.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson to be learned. Or a principle that should be applied.

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