Economics for Politicians Chapter Nine – Unintended Consequences – Bonus Section for Journalists! [Reader Post]

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As we enter the home stretch of our series of lectures to provide economic literacy for a group that has little or no experience with the economic realities that the rest of us face, we’re going to take the tone down a bit. Of course, after our last lesson explaining why your deficit spending is why you belong in jail, we have nowhere to go but down. Today we’re going to shift to the unintended consequences of your actions, and why so often your actions that you think are doing good actually cause more harm.

We’ll open up with two anecdotes to illustrate this claim. Shortly before Obamacare was passed I was talking with a friend who, with a few business partners, runs a company. The combination of the partners, admin staff, book keepers, etc. had them with a staffing level of 52 full time employees. We were talking about possible implications of the impending legislation and I asked how his business would react if the bill were passed. My friend shook his head and explained that, as it was being proposed at the time, Obamacare would exempt any small business with fewer than 50 employees. "Guess what happens to three of our staff", was his partnership’s mitigation strategy.

Another person I was talking to worked in education, and his role was in the semi-seasonal part of the field (no classes in summer). He was telling me that he and some coworkers started their own local electrical repair company. Unfortunately, they soon realized that the combination of taxation and regulatory hoops that they were forced to navigate led them to close their business down. You might be thinking that this is no big deal since there are plenty of electricians in the phone book (for younger readers, think of a dead-tree version of Google) and my friend still has his full time job with this venture only being extra money for him. Hopefully by now you’re seeing the bigger picture and understand the negative impact of this over-regulatory problem. This is less money that this business owner now has to spend and invest, and of course, pay tax revenue against. Consumers lose as well. Increased competition means that the electricians have to work harder to earn people’s business, whether through higher quality, lower prices, or faster service. Each competitor removed from the market means slightly less of these benefits available to the public. This is not to suggest that electricians should go unlicensed, as anyone who has had to deal with faulty wiring can attest, but you should be looking at the entire process of what is needed to start and run a business and ask yourself if you’re doing more harm than good.

Anecdotes are well and good, but they are not the basis for policy changes. I don’t want to follow the leftist arguments that generally follow the lines of, "This person lost everything because he had bad medical insurance – let’s destroy our existing health care system". I’m going to show you a real world macro example. I’ve used this before, and an instance was the luxury taxes passed back in 1991 when George "Read my lips…" Bush 41 caved into congressional Democrats and passed tax increases on luxury items, such as yachts, jewelry, and furs. The results were predictable, and since you’ve been paying attention to the past lessons, you’ve already figured out what happened. Lesson Two’s laws of supply and demand kicked in – when a good becomes more expensive, less of it is consumed. Sales of these luxury items plummeted. Thanks to the lost business the affected companies had to lay off workers and unsurprisingly the new revenues that elected officials banked on never materialized.

The same phenomena is still happening today, and on an ever expanding scale. With an overreaching government at the federal, state, and local levels so many of your colleagues are genuinely surprised that the economy hasn’t turned around as President Obama assured us. Having paid close attention to these lessons, you are naturally unsurprised by the current state of the economy. At the federal level, the looming specter of Obamacare hangs over every business. We have a law impacting how every organization handles its employees that is still being written a year and a half after its passage, as the Catholic Church just painfully learned. The Dodd-Frank bill has spawned new regulatory hoops for anyone who wants to invest in a business, complete with overlords who are immune from congressional oversight. At the state level, not surprisingly the states with the highest unemployment rates are generally the ones that enjoy the least economic freedom. During our honeymoon in New Orleans last year, Sister Babe and I went on a tour where we met an attorney from California. He remarked to us that he could walk into any business in his home state and easily find at least eight code violations. Sound far fetched? Look at the local level and how difficult it is just to open up an ice cream shop in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, this lack of understanding pervades up to the highest level of our government in the president himself. President Obama doesn’t seem to understand that when you make labor more expensive, you get fewer people hired. The president keeps talking about how he wants business to come back to America and expand, while being completely oblivious to the fact that he can immediately turn around and say that he strives to make them less profitable by raising taxes on their profits and investment. When I caught the highlights of his remarks (I never watch STOTUS addresses regardless of party or president, pure political cheerleading), I was reminded of that old saying, "You’re pointing up at the sky and telling me it’s raining, but when I look down you’re peeing on my leg." Even Steve Wynn, not exactly Rush Limbaugh in his political leanings, called out the president’s hostility toward prosperity.

Many of the political class scratch your heads in puzzlement as to why businesses are refusing to hire and are sitting on record levels of idle capital. Naturally, you share the same instincts as one legend of professional wrestling, and you may be thinking that those assets need to be confiscated.

What’s mine is mine… And what’s yours… It’s mine too!

You’ve already learned that businesses’ greed is not a bad thing, especially if you want to see low unemployment. To recap, business are in business to make money and be profitable. When there is a prospect to earn greater profits, businesses expand their operations, and when they expand, they need to hire more people to handle the additional work. So when you make pronouncements that the people who make the sacrifices and take the risks to be successful need to be punished in a manner completely arbitrarily set by you, they are naturally leery of earning too much profit right now. Let’s not also forget that more and more Americans are waking up to our ever expanding federal debt and the inevitable massive tax increases or inflation that will be needed to pay for it. When instead of hiring people to help grow their business they must first dedicate staff to dealing with all of the regulatory burdens you see fit to drop on them, they become reluctant to expand. And when hiring new employees means having to deal with Obamacare’s mandates or expanding with a new operation where the employees chose to not unionize can get you a call from Big Labor’s thugs in the NLRB, or learning that the EPA is working diligently to bankrupt you, hiring people doesn’t seem like such a good idea after all.

Leftists seethe at the fact that businesses are sitting on unprecedented levels of cash and are not using it to hire and expand. Given the current business climate, why would anyone expand? Sure, some companies are, but the new business model has become to invest in the campaigns of sympathetic politicians who will either steer business their way or regulate their competitors away. Granted, this sort of crony capitalism has always existed and will always exist, but it’s never been a good thing for an economy and it’s particularly worse when we have one in its current state. As distasteful as you may find it that businesses are sitting on all of this excess capital, remember that they are greedy, and if you take away the impediments to their profitability they will leap at the opportunity to get a jump on their competition.

You might be wondering why businesses aren’t hiring, given all of these great incentives you have given them? You’ve offered tax credit incentives for hiring veterans who have been out of work for more six months (As appealing as that may sound, guess what kind of impact this has on veterans who have been out of work for four or five months). There have been offerings of research and development and all kind of other tax credits for companies who hire. So why do we still have a real unemployment rate of over 10%? Remember, businesses live on a longer timeline than you do. Do you know who makes a long-term business decision to take advantage of a short term tax credit? That’s right – the businesses who are already planning to expand or hire anyway. Nobody makes a long term move that will impact them for years to come based on a quick cash grab. Here is another anecdote to illustrate this point. Back in my call center days I was working a job fair in search of inbound customer service reps. One candidate who approached me made her big selling point to me about her multiple disabilities (I remember her physically looking completely fine) and about all of the tax credits my employer would get for hiring her. All that I could think was, "How many days is she actually going to show up for a job where attendance is critical, and on top of the 50-60 hour work week I’m already putting in how much extra time am I going to have to spend dealing with paperwork for her or figuring out how to staff around her absences?" She wound up being interested in a different company that was there that day, but any short term benefits of hiring this person would be more than offset by long term headaches. And had she been interested, I would have been forced to follow that sad mantra of, "find a legal reason to not hire her."

By now I think you get the point of unintended consequences, but I want to show another example. Recently some treasure hunters found some centuries old sunken Spanish gold off of the coast of Florida. Naturally, the Spanish government wanted its gold back, and of course the treasure hunters wanted to keep their treasure. Both sides have fair claims – the hunters want to be compensated for their time, effort, and risk involved, and of course Spain wants the gold back that was taken from it. Although I sympathize more with the hunters, if Sister Babe and I were robbed of a large sum of cash and years later a private individual took it upon himself to find our money after the law had given up the search we would want every penny back. But in fairness to the bounty hunter, how much would we have gotten without his efforts? Zero. This is what Spain is saying the treasure hunters deserve for their efforts. A court ruled that Spain gets all of its money back today, and guess how much they can expect to see returned to them in the future? Probably around the same amount that they feel the treasure hunters deserve. The article is a short but good read, and at the end the author explains what we can expect to see in future efforts.

Of course, sometimes unintended consequences can have positive effects. Take the example of the businessman who moved from California to Washington. Upon realizing that Washington’s favorable tax laws left him with an extra $7,000 per year that would have been otherwise confiscated by the government, he did something radical and extreme with his money. You guessed it – he invested it in his business. He used it for business travel, to visit customers, and pump money back into the California economy as he worked to maintain his business relationships in the bay area. Are you learning yet?

I understand that unlike previous lessons this one did not have the same linear flow, and instead had this more chaotic mixture of theory, macro level effects and anecdotes. While putting this lesson together I considered grouping it into sections, but decided that leaving the lesson in its current format would help to drive home another point. That is, that the economy is such a vast and complex entity that trying to think that it can be neatly categorized, understood and controlled is simply impossible. There are too many factors and too many externalities for anyone to completely account for. Hopefully you are now beginning to understand that. You also now know that if you supported The Affordable Health Care Act, had you read and understood what its real impact would be, you would never make unintelligent or dishonest remarks like, "If you like your plan, you can keep it", or that "your premiums will not increase." Hopefully nobody would support such an incompetent leader such as that, right? If you’d like to see another "unintended" consequence of our president’s landmark piece of legislation, look at the impact it’s having on medical research and development.

Any journalists reading this might be wondering why, despite the title of this lesson that no mention has been made of journalism. The more perceptive pressies have probably already picked up on it. I am, of course, helping you to remove something from your vocabulary that taints so many of your stories regarding the economy. Yes, it is that favorite word of yours, "unexpected." Now that you understand that actions cause reactions, never again during the Obama presidency will you have to write headlines like "Jobless claims unexpectedly rise" or "Unemployment remains stubbornly high." Even the recent slightly positive news uses the same theory if you’ve been paying attention to the previous lessons. "Jobless claims unexpectedly at lowest level in …". When you have fewer people hired in the first place and so many already unemployed or discouraged workers who have given up the job search the number is not unexpectedly low. It’s not class warfare; it’s math. Hopefully in the not too distant future you will get to write a headline that reads, "Government unexpectedly takes its foot off of the throat of the private sector." But don’t hold your breath.

Up next: Chapter Ten: Solutions! or You’re not part of the problem – you are the problem.

Previous Lessons:

Lesson One: It’s Not Your Money

Lesson Two: Intro to Microeconomics, or Why Prices Matter

Lesson Three: Intro to Macroeconomics. or So that’s Where Government Fits In!

Lesson Four: You Don’t Create Jobs – It’s Time to Get Over FDR!

Lesson Four A: By Definition the Government Can Not Create Wealth

Lesson Five: Businesses are Greedy – That’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing!

Lesson Six: You are Greedy – That is a Bad Thing!

Lesson Seven: You Don’t Invest; You Spend

Lesson Eight: Do You Know What an Unfunded Liability Is? It’s Why You Belong in Jail!

Cross Posted from Brother Bob’s Blog

Blogging by the credo of "Making the world a more offensive place, one blog post at a time", Brother Bob started writing posts around the beginning of the Obama presidency over at Brother Bob's Blog. A born-again Existentialist and self-professed libertarian with conservative tendencies, he has ironically chosen to live in the Washington, DC area - deep behind enemy lines. He has always loved history, and spent eight years volunteering as a tour guide on weekends, giving over 200 tours to roughly 2,500 mostly foreign guests. His tours were highlighted by stories generally not found in the history books or most other tours, such as the importance of the Battle if Antietam, the origins or Arlington Cemetery, and dispelling the myths of FDR's New Deal. Although his favorite subject to blog about is Economics, as seen in his Economics for Politicians series, his posts try to address angles that other conservative writers and the mainstream media (naturally!) miss. "There's no point in putting up a post on a subject that someone smarter than me has already written". He believes in the "Happy Warrior" approach, and tries to inject humor in his posts, sometimes successfully. Two such examples are his posts comparing the modern left to the horrible Star Wars prequels, and analyzing the laments of a DC woman in search of a feminist boyfriend. Brother Bob lives with his very patient wife known as Sister Babe, and their fantastic son. Little Bob. Little Bob is also the reason that being a tour guide came to an end, as spending Saturdays raising a son takes priority over giving lectures to foreign visitors on the folly of Keynesian economics. BB is also grateful for the opportunity to take his place among the outstanding writers at Flopping Aces, appreciates every person who takes the time to read his posts, and especially those who join him in the conversation in the comments.

6 Responses to “Economics for Politicians Chapter Nine – Unintended Consequences – Bonus Section for Journalists! [Reader Post]”

  1. 1

    Nan G

    Remember the old adage, ”If it bleeds, it leads?”

    Maybe this will get their attention, Brother Bob…..
    *Helena Independent Record explains layoffs‎
    *Philadelphia Newspapers Set to Be Sold to Local Leaders
    ‎*Rockleigh newspaper distributor to lay off 80
    ‎*The Newspaper Guild of New York, Local 31003, CWA, denounces the coming layoffs and outsourcing of jobs to India.
    *Chicago Tribune lays off 15 newsroom staffers as newspaper tries …
    ‎*FCC approves sale of Toledo television station, 63 layoffs loom
    ‎*A new round of layoffs hits the LA Times
    ‎*Print Newspapers: Will They Survive?

    All of the above headlines are from this week!

    In our local area is an ad blitz for $5 – foot long sub sandwiches from Subway.
    Guess what?
    It is so expensive to run a business in San Francisco that they cannot offer that sale price there.
    The new minimum wage in SF is $10.24.
    So their cheapest sandwich is $6.15.

  2. 2

    Michael Henkins

    Always insightfull and informative. Economics is one subject that has always fascinated me. Right now I have lectures on Heyek audio books with the “Road to Seldom” queued up next. Brother Bob I need more input!

    P.S. Congratulations on your recent marriage.

    Mike H

  3. 3

    Liberal1 (objectivity)

    This exposition is based on old-style capitalism of 19th through the mid-20th century. Reactionary political people need to get used to the fact that we’re in the 21st century now, and economics will never be the same. We must be constantly vigilant against right-wing tyranny which may seek to accede during this period of weakness.

  4. 4


    @Liberal1 (objectivity):

    This exposition is based on old-style capitalism of 19th through the mid-20th century. Reactionary political people need to get used to the fact that we’re in the 21st century now, and economics will never be the same.

    In a way, you are correct. Brother Bob’s latest in his series on economics isn’t based on the style of capitalism being practiced here in the 21st century.

    However, you are wrong to think that pure capitalism cannot endure in this day and age. Pure capitalism is still being practiced in many places, in various endeavours, all around the country. And, funny enough, it isn’t the “right wing” that is legislating and badgering it into submission. It is the lefties, the liberal/progressives, who follow the thinking that elected officials know what’s best for us. These are the people whose regulatory muscle is used to quash little girl’s lemonade stands, Amish communities’ milk production sales, young boy’s lawnmowing businesses, and many others.

    The style of capitalism you allude to as being “21st” century is that of crony capitalism, practiced not by one particular political group over another, but rather, the political ideology itself. Crony capitalism is what gave us the Solyndra debacle. Crony capitalism gave us the GM pseudo-nationalization. Crony capitalism is enriching Berkshire Hathaway, at the expense of hundreds, possibly thousands of new jobs.

    Capitalism is capitalism. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. The “21st century” capitalism you speak of relies on handing politicians money for favorable regulations. It relies on relationships with politicians to hurt competitors while protecting your interests. It relies on snake-oiling people out of their hard-earned wealth, oft-times for endeavours that go nowhere. And, it relies on idealistic promises that are not based on the reality of market-based economics.

    We must be constantly vigilant against right-wing tyranny which may seek to accede during this period of weakness.

    Wow! What a statement of pure BS. Right-wing tyranny? I suppose looming threats of increased taxation and overbearing governmental burdens is nothing more than looking out for all of us. To be more precise, knowing what is in our own best interests. Hardly a “right-wing” ideology. No, that is actually what the big government proponents, like the liberal/progressives on the left, and the big-government crony capitalists on the right favor. Conservatives? Not so much.

    Period of weakness? Now that is a hilarious admission. Who made this “period” so weak, Lib1? It certainly wasn’t the conservatives who railed against the stimulus. It certainly wasn’t the conservatives that passed an overbearing monstrosity known as Obamacare, that despite assurances to the contrary, increased people’s health care premiums nation-wide. It certainly wasn’t the conservatives, who had virtually no regulatory power over the last few years that deigned CO2 a harmful gas, or stopped virtually all new gas/oil drilling in the gulf.

    No, the period of weakness was brought on by your saint Obama and his happy band of ideologues. The anarchists and liberal/progressives who railed against Bush for crony capitalism(rightly in some cases) are nowhere to be found now that their new god Obama is in power. Crony capitalism is ok when it’s used to further your higher ideological goals. Right, Lib1?

    Try looking in the mirror, Lib1. There is where you will see the kind of people responsible for the “weakness” you talk about.

  5. 5

    Brother Bob

    @Nan – great examples. I wish that the Subway story had broken a few days earlier – would have been *perfect* for this post!

    @Michael H: Thanks! I’ve got a few econ sidebars to write before getting to the final lesson on solutions. Check out two of my favorite sources if you want more econ. has frequent posts each day from two good econ profs from George Washington University. And of course, you can never go wrong reading Thomas Sowell…

    PS Sister Babe and I both say thanks for the congrats!

    @ Johngalt – perfect rebuttal against our favorite troll – couldn’t have said it better myself. If I had any confidence that our friend could give us an intelligent response I’d probably ask him to explain exactly how it is that capitalism has changed and why he believes it no longer works. Alas we will probably never know…

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