Of Incentives and Jobs

Remember the early days of the recession and its intensification by the policies of Washington? Remember how the politics of envy ended up causing more job losses as the demagogues in the White House and on Capitol Hill lambasted incentives employers offered to successful employees? Good thing that the politics of envy are now behind us, that we have all grown up and recognized how foolish it all is to feel better by pulling other people down. Then again, maybe my blog post from 2009 still has some relevance today.

Weird things happen when we decide by law who should have jobs and who should not and we order how people and businesses should spend money. I am not referring to the legality of telling people who receive money from the government how to live their lives and run their businesses. I am referring to the wisdom of it. And by “weird” I really mean “bad.”

On Friday a press release came across my desk, issued by seven travel-meeting-event industry trade associations. Their basic message was that the public beating up of companies over the meetings they hold and the incentive programs that they have for employees is killing the travel, tourism, and meeting industry and the people who work in it. They estimate that 200,000 jobs were lost in that industry in 2008, and a larger number of job losses are predicted for 2009.

Even the old communist governments figured out that workers respond to incentives. Under the power of incentives people work harder, smarter, and more creatively. They may even enjoy their work more. Sometimes incentives that take the employee out of the normal routine can be very powerful. If left to their own devices, businesses will experiment with different packages of incentives to guide their employees into the most efficient ways to accomplish company goals and objectives. Will they get it right? Often they will not. When they get it wrong, they try something else.

What is the best set of incentives, and should the incentives include travel and recreation programs? I do not know, and neither do you. No one has enough information, smarts, or involvement to know. You may know what works for you, but are you willing to say that others should be offered the same rewards or that you should be given the same incentive program designed by someone somewhere else or in some other line of work? Everyone meeting company goals gets a set of golf clubs. That may work fine for Harry, but how about for you?

While it may be lots of fun to rant about businesses sending employees to Florida for a weekend, do we have any idea how that might figure into the incentive programs in those businesses? If you take that option away, what other option will work as well or as efficiently? Again, I do not know, and neither do you.

Up until recently, I did not have to know or pretend to know. We left it for businesses and their employees to figure out. In view of the efficiency of our businesses–which efficiency continued to improve and lead the world even in 2008–American businesses have been getting the incentives much more right than wrong. When we decide to make those decisions for other people, especially when we try do so through government force, we can be pretty sure we will get it wrong. Who wants to explain to the 200,000 travel and tourism industry people who are in danger of losing their jobs why businesses should not be holding meetings in Williamsburg or San Antonio or Nashville? Step up now; a frozen turkey if you get it right.

(First published February 8, 2009)

Of Obama and Ethelred the Unready

As the troubled year of 2009 was approaching its final weeks I wrote a commentary, reprinted below, reflecting on how President Obama’s unreadiness for the job of President was endangering our soldiers abroad and weakening the economy at home. As we have witnessed a recovery that month after month remains so anemic that many Americans are not experiencing much of a recovery at all, as our retreat from world affairs encourages aggression by adventurers in Russia and elsewhere, and as the Obama Administration plans to return our Army to levels not seen since before World War II, it seemed to me appropriate to reprise my musings of November 2009. I also have to wonder whether the Nobel committee, which was so excited to award the peace prize to Barack Obama for promises to reduce American influence in world affairs, still considers its decision and the policy that it celebrated to have been wise and fortunate for the world.

Arguably the worst king of England was Ethelred the Unready. He was unready to rule his kingdom, he was unready to promote its prosperity, he was unready to repel the invader. The chief manifestation of his unreadiness was his inability or unwillingness to recognize reality. Reality eventually caught up with him—as it always does—and with his kingdom—as it always does for those subject to unready rulers.

The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, may be working hard to earn himself the title of Obama the Unready. The evidence is accumulating.

For months, the novice commander-in-chief has been at a loss to know how to respond to the urgent recommendations of the field commanders in Afghanistan. They have been pleading to increase the troop levels. The added troops are needed to respond to increased enemy activity. Unwilling to say yes or no, the President vacillates while American soldiers die because they are stretched too thin. He seems to have forgotten that American soldiers under President Clinton were similarly sacrificed in another poor corner of the world—Somalia—only because Clinton did not provide enough troops to do the job. Rather than decrease casualties, insufficient troop strength increases casualties, soldiers who would not die if given enough support to overwhelm the enemy. This week the White House announced that President Obama is still unready to decide on troop strengths for the mission in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban is not waiting for him to make up his mind.

Also this week, President Obama gave a little speech about the economy. It was hard to miss the sense of frustration and perplexity in his remarks, made quickly as the Nobel laureate left town to seek more praise from his adoring foreign fans. He admitted that unemployment remains high, despite his economic program. He admitted that employers are reluctant to hire new people. He just does not seem to know why. His solution is to call a conference of economic talkers in December to talk about it. He remains unready to do something about his economic plans and government policies that are making it riskier for employers to take on more employees. Faced with half a trillion dollars in new taxes (many focused on small businesses), higher health care expenses from the trillion dollar “reform” program, new environmental plans to cool off the globe by cooling off economic growth, and dozens of other new plans to make it harder for businessmen to succeed, businessmen are reluctant to hire new people that they will later have to let go. All the while, the natural tendency for the economy to recover is weakened.

Consumer spending remains suppressed, while the Obama Administration and its friends in Congress pursue policies that make consumer credit more expensive and harder to get. Congress this year, with the Obama Administration cheering on, passed new credit card laws that make it difficult for lenders to have riskier borrowers pay higher rates. The result is that everyone gets to pay higher rates. Predictably, consumer credit declined by 15% in September and shows little sign of getting better. As we approach the holiday season, so important for the success of retailers, the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies are busily making it tougher for banks to run their debit card programs. Expect more debit cards denied at the checkout lines. Also expect the pace of store closures, already growing faster than swine flu, to continue to grow. Seen any empty storefronts at shopping centers lately? Be ready to see more, even as President Obama convenes his economic talk show in December.

Not to forget swine flu, the Obama Administration was eager all year to pump up the worry about a swine flu epidemic, in hopes that it might frighten people into supporting healthcare legislation. In the meantime, the Obama Administration’s health officials, who are heavily involved in development and distribution of vaccines (lawsuits that plague the medical industry have driven most vaccine manufacturers out of the business), were ready to promise but unready to deliver swine flu vaccine. Expect more of the same, of promises that do not meet actual needs as government becomes even more involved in regulating healthcare. Service and speed are what most people look for when they are sick, but service and speed are not what government programs are known to provide—any government program.

It should be no surprise that President Obama is not ready for the growing challenges of being President. Like Ethelred, Barack Obama had little training for the job. Governing has not gotten easier in the thousand years since Ethelred disgraced the throne of England. It is not getting any easier for Barack Obama. Fortunately for America, we do not invest all power in a king.

(First published on November 13, 2009)

Of Demagogues and Big Problems

One of the common tricks of demagogues, as cheap as it is common, is to denounce in high dander something for being “Big,”—“bad” because it is “Big.” Some of the recent targets have been Big Banks, Big Pharma (the drug companies), Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Business in general. The target is apparently chosen for its relation to the prescription that the demagogue already has in mind. Invariably the prescription involves granting more power to the demagogue, sometimes ceded from the freedoms of the targeted Big, but not infrequently taken from the liberty of the people who are somehow harmed by the Big, who are to be somehow made better by being less free.

Obamacare is one example, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, and Big Medicine all denounced to some degree in the effort to generate popular support to pass the legislation. In the end, as more and more people are recognizing, it is individual choice that has been lost, personal freedoms to choose doctors, medical plans, and available treatments (along with substantial sums of money) that have been taken, passed on to big bureaucracies identified by the demagogues.

Demagogues on left and right and even in the middle resort to this device of denouncing Big Bad, because it resonates with many people who do not consider themselves “Big” anything. We all can feel intimidated by something in our lives and experiences bigger than ourselves, making us all potentially susceptible to the demagogue’s pandering. It is also a favorite device of demagogues, because it does not require much thought or creativity to make the anti-Big speech. It seems almost required that the demagogue at some point refer to the Big Target as “Goliath” and modestly identify himself or herself with “David.” That tired jape is now getting to be about 3,000 years old, but demagogues think that their audiences just cannot get enough of it.

To be sure, there are some cases where being big is a good thing and some things that can be too big to be good. It all has to do with why they are big and perhaps how they got that way. Big savings are usually good. The Grand Canyon is big and magnificent, and I would say that the Empire StateBuilding is, too, at least as I behold it. On the other hand, big debts are to be avoided, big pits can be dangerous, and the L Tower in Toronto is an eyesore in my estimation (though I will acknowledge that others could be fond of it).

Government can be too big or too small, depending on what it does with our rights and freedoms. There are governments too small to promote and protect freedom, while there are many—most—that are too big, and ever increasing at the expense of individual rights, freedoms, and opportunities. That includes governments that are big enough to help their cronies become bigger by robbing the competition and the public. Businesses that are big because of government favor would be better for everyone if they lost the government favor and let competition, efficiency, and customer choices determine how big they should be.

Some are just big because they grew that way. Is Microsoft or Apple too big? I do not know, and neither do you. Exposed to the full discipline of the free market they will be the right size, and so will their competitors. What is the right size for banks in the United States? I do not know, and again neither do you nor does anyone else. The more that they are exposed to market forces, the sooner we will get the best answer, which I expect will be along the lines of “many sizes and shapes” in order to match the many sizes and shapes and needs of businesses, families, and individuals who rely on banks for financial services. Free competition in open markets has the power to right size commercial enterprises.

A word of caution. Part of the success of the war on Big consists in making the listeners feel small and helpless—unless rescued and led by the fearless demagogue. Besides belittling most people, the demagogue’s device diverts attention from the fact that just about everyone is part of something Big, a Big that may eventually be the demagogue’s next target. Maybe your church will one day be considered too “Big.” Or maybe the industry in which you happen to work will become a “Big” target, the town or region where you live, your race or your ethnic group, your savings and investments, the cars or trucks that you drive, your appetite, your use of water, the size of the lot of your house, the wealth of your nation. All of these, and many others, have already been used by demagogues in their Big harangues. The demagogue’s insatiable appetite for power never has enough targets. He or she is always looking for more.

Sometimes there is a kernel of something genuinely amiss in the demagogue’s Big complaint. Often, when you boil down the genuine substance of any of the complaints to the hard facts, it is hard to discover what is the Big Deal—at least in the problem. The Big Deal is to be found in the solution, which is what the demagogue is really after. Were the Popes in Rome really controlling the lives and governments of England in the time of Henry VIII? No, but the solution of confiscating Catholic Church properties and awarding them to the King’s cronies was a very Big Deal. The Nazi demagogues in Germany played the same game with their own people, the German Jews, and with their property and possessions.

The demagogue’s solutions, resting upon emotion and panic, seldom solve anything and often lead to more problems. The Climate Wars—one year the coming ice age, the next year global warming, today just climate “change”—is an example we have all seen unfold, inflicting untold billions of dollars of costs while enriching favored cronies, but which in even the most enthusiastic promises of the demagogues will do little to affect the climate in reality in our lifetimes.

The next time you hear a public figure fume about something being Big, carefully inquire into and focus upon what he or she is after. You may be a target just Big enough.

Of Claiming Good and Doing Bad

A very good book was published this month. Ostensibly, it is about our economy and the recession. It is actually about much more. It is the first book about the current American economy written by a philosopher, and it is perhaps the best book I have read yet about all the recent unpleasantness. Some might say that the economic trouble still continues, more like a long, slow convalescence from a serious illness than a healthy recovery. For many whose financial condition stagnates, for those who have replaced a full-time job with one or two part-time jobs, for graduates who have a degree in hand but no work in the field for which they have trained, and especially for the millions who remain out of work, talk of an economic turnaround can seem like a mockery.

For those and others, Infiltrated, by Jay W. Richards, can help make some sense of what hit us. The book does not suggest that there was a massive conspiracy to drive our nation into economic turmoil. It explains how turmoil came nevertheless as national policymakers followed the prescriptions of people who claimed to be doing good but tried to cheat the laws of economics and markets to impose what they might call “benevolence” on the rest of us.

It was their idea that in order to help more people own homes lenders should ignore such things as ability to repay a mortgage, strong history of employment and steady income, and having some equity in the value of the house so there would not be an incentive to walk away if prices dropped. They also agitated for the government to expand its guaranties for mortgages to people with poor credit histories and loans where lenders cut corners. And they badgered builders to keep building more houses.

Their plans horribly miscarried, and yet those people have even more control over us and our economy today and are more able and determined to try again. The recession, rather than educating and deterring them, has made them bolder.

I am reminded of what the late Louis Rukeyser, the very popular host of the PBS program Wall Street Week, wrote in the 1990s:

Washington has been taken over by an impregnable mob of short-sighted, power-hungry megaclowns.

They try their worst to micromanage every detail of the economy, but succeed only in whipping the markets back and forth, up and down in spastic patterns. They despise the gentler forces of a free market, which would moderate swings far more predictably.
(Louis Rukeyser, 1993 advertisement for his financial newsletter)

The people to whom I refer and whom Richards exposes in his book do not like the markets. They trust themselves more and think that you should trust them, too. They seriously do believe themselves smarter than the markets, and that is the problem. No one, other than God, is smarter than the markets. A large part of economic history, the tragic part, is a chronicle of the disasters caused when a small coterie of people are able to enforce their wishes and preferences on the rest of us in contravention of economic reality. It never works.

That was the story of the Great Depression, and it was entirely the story of communism, where whole societies were based upon the now well-proven fallacy that any group of people, no matter how smart or well intentioned, can gather sufficient data and know and understand enough to run a national economy. It is just far too complicated, with billions of economic decisions being made by millions of people all day and all night long. The markets make it all work, because the markets are the sum combined total of all of those economic actions and decisions interacting with each other. No human five-year plan for economic control has escaped failure.

What is worse, as well intentioned as such people may start out, all too often, as Richards’ book exposes, their efforts not only fail to do what they set out to do, they fail to stay virtuous and instead become enlisted in the service of private gain at the expense of the rest of us. The Soviet system might have worked pretty well for the party owners of the dachas along the Black Sea but only by impoverishing the workers their leaders claimed to be serving.

Do not let yourself be put off that Richards is a philosopher. His book is remarkably readable, one that you can take with you to the beach and actually enjoy, and feel that you have learned something—a lot—in the reading. Richards mixes real life narrative with hard facts and good research, unified by sound reasoning to expose a nasty and growing problem in American government today. The problem is a big part of why government is expanding and becoming more intrusive in all aspects of our lives, including our financial affairs, education, healthcare, energy use, the products we buy, the food we eat, and the entertainment we enjoy, and even the breath we exhale.

That is to say that the story told by Jay Richards, in Infiltrated, is actually a longer story, a story that began long before the recession, and continues afterward, a story that is bigger than his book. The recent economic events and their painful aftermath illuminate Richards’ core message, the human wreckage caused when some people are able to harness the coercive force of government to impose their personal notions of “benevolence” on the rest of us.

Roger Kimball, writing in 2011 in The New Criterion, warned that such efforts are “intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.” (Roger Kimball, “Liberty versus benevolence,” The New Criterion, February 2011, p.6) Richards offers several well-described examples, well illustrating the truth of Kimball’s observations.

A valuable lesson for policymakers and for the people they would govern: the more discretion you give to government, the more you create the opportunity for abuse of that discretion for private gain. Europe in the 18th century was lousy with the practice. Our forebears sought to escape it and fought a revolution to get out of its grip. The men who threw the tea into Boston Harbor were acting in protest of the partnership between the British Crown and the British East India Company.

Beware the public-private partnerships. Jay Richards explains how some public-private mortgage partnerships went bad, very bad, for the partners and for all of us caught in the dust and debris of their collapse. I am reminded of the warning by former Congressman Dick Armey, that when you enter into a partnership with the devil, you are always the junior partner.

I conclude with the words of New York City Democrat Congressman Bourke Cockran, delivered 110 years ago:

That Government only is good, that Government only is great, that Government only is just, which has neither favorites nor victims.

(W. Bourke Cockran, speech given before the National Liberal Club of England, London, July 15, 1903, in W. Bourke Cockran, In the Name of Liberty, p.190)

Our government should be that government.

(First published August 18, 2013)

Of Politicians’ Words and Deeds

A neighbor friend once asked me during election season how to tell the difference among the candidates. She pointed out that it was difficult from their messages to find enough difference on which to base a judgment. I cannot recall exactly what I told her, but if asked again today, this is how I would like to answer.

It is true that in the course of many political campaigns it is hard to tell from what candidates say who would serve better in office. With the candidates competing for the same office seeking the votes of the same electorate, a certain sameness can creep into their message, particularly if principles do not play a significant role in the campaign or in the mind of one or more of the candidates.

Far more important than what politicians say, however, is what they do—and where available, a record of what they have done. Many candidates for public office have served in another public office before. Most candidates for Senate were once a congressman, a governor, a mayor. Viable candidates for President have always had a history of prior service in public office, usually a fairly long history. Check into this history and trust it.

I do not know of any President whose service departed from the pattern of his prior service in other offices. I know of many whose campaign rhetoric did, but once in office they acted as they did before. While he talked a different game on the campaign trail, President Clinton served very much in the style of Governor Clinton. President George Bush has not acted very differently from Texas Governor Bush.

That brings us to the 2008 presidential election. Both major candidates have served in prior office. Both are Senators, Senator McCain having served for several terms. I have no expectation that a President McCain would act differently from Senator McCain.

Senator Obama’s record is much shorter. Four years ago he was a rather undistinguished member of the Illinois state legislature. Now he is a freshman Senator. Although he has not accomplished much while in office, he does have a voting record in the Senate. That brief record is even more eloquent than the Senator himself. While Senator Obama’s speeches may be rich in vacuous platitudes—however well delivered—his record is very clear and deep with meaning. It is the record of an ordinary partisan Democrat.

That record shows a strong adherence to the doctrine that problems need to be solved by government, by government rules, regulations, and funding. It is a record that is deeply mistrustful of individual choice and initiative. It trusts markets the most when they are the more guided by government and is fearful of them the freer that they are from governmental control.

Senator Obama’s record is short, but it is consistent and clear. You can trust it as a reliable testament of how a President Obama would act in office.

(First published August 12, 2008)

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