Libertarian Perspectives

A Blog By Kurt Johnson

Economic Impact of Des Moines’ Water Trails project is not believable.

To the editor,

Please consider the following for inclusion in your letters section, or as a “Your Turn” essay:
It is exciting to think about the River Trails white water park that is proposed for the downtown portions of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers.  It would be a nice addition to the amenities that help keep and attract people and businesses to the Des Moines area.
But I don’t believe the results of the economic impact study that was done by Johnson Consulting for Capital Crossroads.  As reported in The Des Moines Register, the study estimates that the Water Trails project will generate $104 million of Total Direct Spending at restaurants, hotels, stores, and equipment rentals during its first five years of operation.  (See link to Register article below.)
For example, the report assumes that there will be 78,068 paying active participants of the River and Adventure Park features during the first full year of operation – spending about $78 each on food, beverage, and equipment rental.  If we assume  the recreational and related opportunities are open 365 days per year, it means that an average of over 200 people would use the facilities every day.  That doesn’t seem reasonable to me.
In addition to the 78,068 active participants, the report assumes the project will attract an additional 80,000 non-active visitors, plus 15,404 more visitors from the Iowa Events Center, for a total of 173,472 visitors who will contribute to the total economic impact of the project during the first year – spending about $100 each that they otherwise would not have spent..  (The estimated number of users increases about 6-7% per year after the first year.)
The projections include the assumption that 60,000 of the visitors will stay overnight during the first year.  That equals an average of 164 overnight visitors every day who would not have otherwise stayed overnight if there weren’t a River Trails recreation project.  The report includes other unrealistic estimates.
It is probably impossible to calculate the economic benefit of any new attraction that is added on top of all of those that already exist in our metropolitan area.  I suppose it is expected that an economic impact study be conducted before spending $117 million on a recreational project like this.  The consultants do make proper disclaimers and disclosures in their report to notify readers of how estimates were made, and that actual results may be significantly different.
It is important that we not fool ourselves into thinking that we can accurately quantify the future economic impact of such a project.  My gut feeling is that the indirect benefits of the River Trails project might greatly exceed the costs, but that the directly measurable economic benefits will not.
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Congress has the power to prohibit states from giving special incentives to specific businesses.

The Des Moines Register recently published an editorial that showed how out-of control Iowa and other states are in giving incentives to businesses to locate in their state.  To help reverse this situation, Congress should exercise its Constitutional power to “…regulate commerce… among the several states…” and should limit states’ ability to bribe companies to locate in their state.  States should be prohibited from giving custom incentives to specific businesses to locate in their state.  They should only be allowed to use schemes that provide uniform incentives to all companies that locate their business or otherwise create new jobs in that state.

Link to Register editorial:  https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/editorials/2018/11/20/amazon-apple-corporate-iowa-workers-education-environment-bribing-business-workforce-jobs-money-tax/2061418002/

Pay gap between men and women does not need further regulation or legislation.

According to an article in the Des Moines Register, The American Association of University Women (AAUW) issued their annual report on the “pay gap” between women and men.  According to the report, women in Iowa earn about $10,000 less per year than men. This article, and the related report, are excellent examples of misuse of meaningless statistics.  (See link below.)   Comparing the median pay for all women with the median pay for all men tells us nothing about whether or not sex discrimination is taking place. A valid analysis would compare the pay of women and men who do the same work for the same employer.  The report by the AAUW did not do that.
This report tells us more about the bias of the AAUW than it does about bias in the workplace.  As you reported, Kim Churches, chief executive officer of AAUW, said, “It’s unacceptable. There is no gender differentiation when it comes to quality, skills, and talent.  It’s time to close this gap and give every woman in Iowa and across the country the salaries they deserve.”  She advocated for more regulation.
Based on the facts given in the article, and assuming that women and men can and do perform equally, then it is fair to presume that the AAUW would agree that if any woman wants to earn the same pay as a man, then they should go for the same jobs that men go for.   When the relevant qualifications, working conditions, and job duties are accounted for, the difference in pay between women and men reduces dramatically.  The pay gap has been reducing for years.  Our current laws are working.  We don’t need to add more regulations.

Link to AAUW report: https://www.aauw.org/aauw_check/pdf_download/show_pdf.php?file=The_Simple_Truth

Religious Freedom bill may be just fine.

I respectfully disagree with Kevin Pokorny’s letter to the editor in the Register yesterday.  (See link below.)  The State of Iowa does need to amend its civil rights laws to allow buyers and sellers of products and services to peacefully follow their conscience when they have reasonable disagreements.
To the extent that a product or service is personalized or customized, it does infringe on the rights of a seller to force him or her to provide the product or service in such a way that goes against the seller’s sincerely held religious beliefs. If the products or services are readily available from a multitude of sellers, and a buyer can reasonably find what he or she wants from another seller, then it is not unreasonable to allow some sellers to follow their conscience.
In Iowa and other states, florists, photographers, bakers, and wedding venue operators have been forced to provide customized products and/or services for gay couples’ weddings.  Governments should never discriminate against gay marriage, and I personally have and do support giving gay marriage the same government rights and privileges as any other marriage.  But, private individuals, and the businesses they operate, should not be forced to provide customized or personalized services or products against their will.
FYI – I am a libertarian-minded atheist, and believe it is better to have peaceful voluntary solutions whenever possible, rather than to use the force of government to decide who will be winners and who will be losers.

Checkoff programs for commodities should be ended.

The Des Moines Register recently reported that all Iowa cattle producers will soon be forced to pay $0.50 per head into a “checkoff program.  The funds will be used for beef promotion, research and other activities.  56% of the cattle producers voted for the “checkoff” program – forcing the other 44% to contribute to the scheme.  In any other setting, it would be called a tax.
There are many checkoff programs for a wide variety of commodities, both nationally and in various states.  They all work the same way.  If a majority of the producers want to tax themselves to promote their commodity, then they get to force all producers to pay into the program.
There is not the kind of activity that should be ruled by a majority.  I understand that if the programs were voluntary, which they originally were, that those who did not pay would get a “free ride” – they would get the benefits without paying for any of the costs.  That is not a sufficient reason to use the force of government.  There are an unlimited number of things that a majority of businesses might like to do, if they could force all competitors to help pay.
Both federal and state governments need to repeal the laws which allow checkoff programs to exist.
Link to Register article: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/2016/12/08/iowa-beef-checkoff-passes-with-56-percent-approval/95138020/

EpiPens and Government Cheese – article from Reason Magazine

The November issue of Reason magazine included the article below by Katherine Mangu-Ward.  I think it is an excellent example of how our government can screw things ups, no matter how good the intentions.

 

EpiPens and Government Cheese

Some things won’t change no matter who wins the 2016 election.

At the end of August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bought 11 million pounds of cheese—that’s a cheese cube for every man, woman, and child in America—in order to bail out the nation’s feckless cheesemongers.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack touted the aid package, worth $20 million, as a win-win: “This commodity purchase is part of a robust, comprehensive safety net that will help reduce a cheese surplus that is at a 30-year high while, at the same time, moving a high-protein food to the tables of those most in need.” (Most of the federal government’s new stockpile will go to food banks.)

This bailout of Big Cheese came on top of an $11.2 million infusion earlier in the month to dairy farmers enrolled in a 2014 federal financial aid scheme. The deal comes after months of lobbying by the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau, and the National Milk Producers Federation, who were too antsy to wait for their next big cash cow to come ambling in with the farm bill.

The same week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) wrote a letter to the pharmaceutical company Mylan, demanding an explanation for why EpiPens, the epinephrine auto-injectors that severely allergic people carry in case of an emergency, have quadrupled in price since 2007. Grassley cited constituents paying $500 to fill their prescriptions.

Hillary Clinton issued a statement about the price increases as well: “Since there is no apparent justification in this case, I am calling on Mylan to immediately reduce the price of EpiPens.” Donald Trump used the occasion to score points, tweeting out a story about hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the Clinton Foundation from the disgraced company. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) echoed Clinton’s sentiment in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission: Lamenting that “antitrust laws do not prohibit price gouging,” she asked the regulatory body to look into whether Mylan has used “unreasonable restraints of trade” to keep prices high.

The summer’s cheese bailout and EpiPen price scandal are ideological Rorschach blots.Where one observer sees only the evils of the profit motive, another looks at the same fact pattern and sees the perils of an overweening regulatory state.

Vox sided solidly with the profit shamers, declaring: “We are the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices, maximizing profits the same way sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other manufactured goods would.” But pseudonymous blogger Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex responded with a tidy reverse Voxsplanation: The cronyist Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other government forces have squelched nearly every effort to compete with Mylan’s EpiPens, distorting the market beyond recognition via a process he chronicles in painful detail.

Mylan acquired the EpiPen from Merck in 2007, by which time the product was already 25 years old, which means the question of paying back research costs was moot. In 2009, Teva Pharmaceuticals tried to enter the market—and Mylan sued. Teva managed to get its product to the FDA anyway, only to be told that it had “certain major deficiencies,” unspecified. In 2010, Sandoz Inc. tried its luck and got bogged down in the courts, where the case still dwells. In 2011, the French drug company Sanofi made a bid to gain approval for a generic, which was delayed for years because the FDA didn’t like the proposed brand name. Which brings us to this year, when Adamis decided to sell plain old pre-filled epinephrine syringes directly to patients without the fancy injector. Cue an FDA recall, on the rather vague basis that insufficient study had been done on standard administration of a drug whose medical properties have been known since the turn of the last century.

And sometimes the tangled, dysfunctional relationship between big business and big government gets even more personal. The CEO of Mylan, Heather Bresch, is the daughter of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W. Va.), which probably makes things awkward in the Senate cafeteria. But Manchin has joined his colleagues in saying that he is “concerned about the high prices of prescription drugs,” which probably makes things awkward at Thanksgiving. Then again, Mylan spends over a million dollars a year lobbying, which likely goes a long way toward smoothing things over.

In 2014 Congress passed the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, which Grassley mentions in his letter. The law, he writes, “provides an incentive to states to boost the stockpile of epinephrine at schools.” It was co-sponsored by Klobuchar, the same senator who now wants to sic the antitrust dogs on Mylan. That law was a top lobbying priority for Mylan that year, along with new rules that reduced competition for generics.

Grassley also notes that the taxpayers are picking up the tab for kids who are getting EpiPens while on Medicaid or the state-level Children’s Health Insurance Program, and he adds that some 47 states require or encourage schools and other public institutions to stock EpiPens. In other words, Congress created a huge new class of price-insensitive EpiPen customers and now wonders why the price has gone up.

Meanwhile, the prescription laws still require you to get a special piece of paper from a doctor every single time you want to buy an EpiPen. If the doctor writes a brand name on that paper, it’s illegal for the pharmacist to give you a cheaper generic.

The story of the government cheese is just as convoluted. It’s easy to be lulled by Vilsack’s sell: Helping farmers and the hungry? Sounds great! But you know what else helps move a glut of cheese off the shelves and into the hands of poor people, without requiring taxpayer dollars? Lowering the price.

That’s something the industry isn’t willing to do, and—given all the pricing rules and production quotas that have been distorting dairy markets since the 1930s—mostly can’t do. With Americans eating a record 34 pounds of cheese a year, the problem isn’t an unexpected drop in demand.The problem is a failure to allow the laws of supply and demand to function at all.

Eleven million pounds of cheese may seem like small potatoes (to mix culinary metaphors), and it is in the larger scheme of federal spending and meddling. What’s another $20 million when the debt is already $20 trillion, after all? But our typically cheerful acceptance of central control of compressed curds and injectable epinephrine shows how widespread and insidious such conditions are in our lives.

What would real free market reforms look like, and how would they come about? In this issue, you’ll read what Libertarian Party nominees Gary Johnson and Bill Weld would do in the (very unlikely) event that they won the presidency and vice presidency (page 30). Reason TV’s Jim Epstein reports on the millennial libertarian activists in Brazil who brought down a corrupt populist president (page 50). And in Detroit, an American city where public services are essentially nonexistent, we detail how residents are building DIY alternatives (page 65).

In the meantime, there is no reason to think either the tale of the EpiPens or the saga of the cheese would play out any differently under President Trump or President Clinton. Taxpayer-funded sops to farmers are as bipartisan as it gets, and there is precisely zero chance that a president from either major party would discontinue the practice. Likewise, the iron grip of the FDA on the drug approval process—and the opportunities to purchase influence in that powerful bureaucracy—will not diminish one iota, regardless of which major-party candidate becomes America’s Big Cheese in January.

Crop insurance is essential, but no taxpayer subsidy is needed.

Craig Hill’s editorial explaining the importance of crop insurance to farmers made a lot of sense. (“This much is certain – For farmers, crop insurance is essential” 10/5/2016)   Most business and individuals buy insurance to reduce risk, and, as Mr. Hill explained, farmers have plenty of risk.  What he did not explain is why taxpayers need to subsidize about 60% of the premium.  Contrary to his opinion, it definitely is a handout.  Farmers, on average, have much more wealth than the average person.  It doesn’t matter that much of the wealth is tied up in land values.  Land can be sold for cash just like any other asset.  Crop insurance is a good idea, it just should not be subsidized by taxpayers.  In the next farm bill, a couple of years from now, we need to eliminate the taxpayer subsidy for crop insurance.

Link to Register article: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/10/04/much-certain-farmers-crop-insurance-essential/91551614/