Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Closing the Sausage Factory

By John Mauldin

“Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?”
– Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune

“Economies naturally grow. People innovate as they go through life. They also look around at what others are doing and adopt better practices or tools. They invest, accumulating financial, human and physical capital.
Something is deeply wrong if an economy is not growing, because it means these natural processes are impeded. That is why around the world, since the Dark Ages, lack of growth has been a signal of political oppression or instability. Absent such sickness, growth occurs.”
– Adam Posen, “Debate: The Case for Slower Growth

Today’s letter will be shorter than usual, because I’m at Camp Kotok in Grand Lake Stream, Maine, where the first order of business today is trying to outfish my son (not likely to happen, this year). But I’ve been looking closer at productivity barriers, and I want to give you some points to ponder.

The New Normal?

Like many of you readers, I’m old enough to remember a time when 2.3% annual GDP growth was a disappointment. We always knew America could do better. Not anymore, apparently. Some people actually cheered last week’s first estimate for 2Q real GDP growth. It was 4.4% in nominal terms, but inflation brought the figure back down. While certain segments are growing like crazy, for the most part we are muddling along in a slow growing malaise. You might even call it “stagnant.”

I for one still think the United States can do more. We have a large population of intelligent people who want to build a solid future for their children. They’re willing to work hard to do it. If that’s not happening – and clearly it isn’t – some barrier must be standing in their way. What is this barrier to productivity and growth? There are actually several, but government red tape is one of the biggest. I thought about this after reading an excellent Holman Jenkins column in the Wall Street Journal last week.

Jenkins led me to an audio recording of an interesting discussion on “The Future of Freedom, Democracy and Prosperity,” conducted at a symposium held at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution last month.
Government research & development funding has fallen off considerably from its peak in the 1970s moonshot days. This holds back worker productivity. The federal government is doing too much to slow down business and not enough to boost it.

The three economists who spoke at Stanford all pointed to important productivity barriers emanating from Washington DC.....

One of the participants, Hoover economist John Cochrane, spoke of fears that America is drifting toward a “corporatist system” with diminished political freedom. Are rules knowable in advance so businesses can avoid becoming targets of enforcement actions? Is there a meaningful appeals process? Are permissions received in a timely fashion, or can bureaucrats arbitrarily decide your case by simply sitting on it?

The answer to these questions increasingly is “no.” Whatever the merits of 1,231 individual waivers issued under ObamaCare, a law implemented largely through waivers and exemptions is not law-like. In such a system, where even hairdressers and tour guides are subjected to arbitrary licensing requirements, all the advantages accrue to established, politically connected businesses.

The resources that businesses put into complying with government regulations is staggering. I have often envied people outside the highly regulated financial industry for their freedom to operate rationally. In my business we seem to spend half our time – and an ungodly fraction of our money – just maneuvering through the regulatory morass.

Intrusive federal regulations touch every part of the economy:
  • Energy and mining companies have to deal with environmental protection rules.
  • Drug companies and health care providers must satisfy the FDA and Medicare.
  • Cloud technology companies have to process FBI and NSA demands for user information.
  • Retailers and consumer product makers are required to abide by the fine print on millions of product labels.
I could go on, but you get the point. Anything you do attracts bureaucratic oversight now. We may laugh at “helicopter parents” hovering over their children at school, but we all have a helicopter government looking over our shoulders at work.

Before anyone calls me an anarchist, I think some government regulation is perfectly appropriate. We all want clean drinking water. Everyone appreciates knowing our cars meet crash survival standards. I’m glad FAA is keeping order in the skies.

The problem arises when agencies enforce confusing, contradictory, and excessive regulations and try to micromanage the nation’s businesses. Every business owner I know is glad to play by the rules. They just want to know what the rules say, and that is frequently very hard to do.

A few weeks ago, in “Productivity and Modern-Day Horse Manure,” I explained that growth is really quite simple: if we want GDP to grow, we need some combination of population growth and productivity growth.

The US population is growing, thanks mainly to immigration, but the effectiveness of the workforce is another matter. Baby Boomer retirements are rapidly removing productive assets from the economy. To offset that trend, we need to make younger workers more productive.The red tape that constantly spews out of Foggy Bottom is not helping matters.

Regulatory Capture

The red tape hurts the economy overall, but it does help certain parties. The largest players in any niche often “capture” their regulators. Then they use their influence to tilt enforcement away from themselves and toward smaller competitors.

Put simply, new regulations can be great for your business if you are already well established and have the resources to comply with government mandates. New entrants rarely have those resources. The resulting lack of competition boosts profits for the big players but hurts consumers. The competition that would normally lead to better, less expensive goods and services never happens.

Holman Jenkins makes another great point about how over regulation affects growth.

Another participant, Lee Ohanian, a UCLA economist affiliated with Hoover, drew the connection between the regulatory state and today’s depressed growth in labor productivity. From a long-term average of 2.5% a year, the rate has dropped to 0.7% in the current recovery. Labor productivity is what allows rising incomes. A related factor is a decline in business start ups. New businesses are the ones that bring new techniques to bear and create new jobs. Big, established companies, in contrast, tend to be net job shrinkers over time.

Recall our economic growth formula: population growth plus productivity growth. The US population grew at a peak rate of 1.4% in 1992, and growth has been trending down ever since. Now it is around 0.75% per year. Add that to 0.7% productivity growth, and you see why Jeb Bush’s 4% growth target will be so hard to hit.

Blame Flows Downhill

Business leaders love to complain about the bureaucrats who run Washington’s alphabet-soup agencies. I think the problem goes deeper. With only a few exceptions, the regulators I’ve met over the years have been competent professionals. They weren’t intentionally trying to hurt my business. Often the regulations confused them as much as they confused me.

The real blame, I think, starts on Capitol Hill. Our legislative process is a sausage factory. Congress passes vague, complicated laws riddled with exceptions for this and zero tolerance for that. The result is superficially attractive but a mess inside. People in the alphabet agencies then have to remove the sausage skin and make sense of the contents. This would be a tough job for anyone. I certainly don’t envy them.

Jenkins mentions Obamacare’s convoluted waivers and exemptions. Even its advocates admit the law is a crazy mess. But how and why did it get that way?

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.



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