Monday, February 27, 2017

A Bad Argument Against Food Stamps

There are good reasons to criticize the US food stamps program. The fact that some poor people might use food stamps to buy “junk food” is not one of them.
I make this point in response to a new article by Chris Edwards at the Cato Institute. In the article, Edwards cites a recent study by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which analyzed the purchasing habits of some food stamp recipients. Among other things, the study showed that 22.6% of the food stamp purchases were of junk food. Edwards then extrapolates this figure to the broader food stamps program and estimates that some $15 billion a year in taxpayer money is spent on junk food through the food stamps program.
On a technical level, there appears to be nothing wrong with Edwards’s estimate here. The categories he used in his definition of junk food appear reasonable, and he was also careful to note that the USDA study’s may not be representative of the whole program since it didn’t rely on a random sample.
The issue lies in the solution this observation suggests–namely, narrowing the types of foods that can be purchased with food stamps.
There are several drawbacks to this proposal. Let’s go through them.
Reducing Choice Reduces Value to Recipients
The first problem is that it would reduce the value of the benefits received. One of the most important insights from economics is that value is subjective–that is, the value I place on oranges and almond milk might be different than the value you place on each of those things. From this, it follows that individuals are in the best position to decide for themselves what they want and need at any given time.
If health isn’t the top priority for them, they might not make healthy decisions. But they will make decisions that they believe will make them content.
If we place restrictions on an individual’s choices, they will likely be worse off than before. We might have restricted the very thing they wanted most, which means they will then be left with a second-best alternative.
This is why many economists believe giving money confers a greater benefit to the recipient than giving in-kind benefits (for example, giving someone food or clothing). If a person has money, they can acquire the thing they want most. That might be clothing, but it might also be something else.
This analysis gets slightly more complicated with food stamps because it’s not regular money, but it’s also not particular foods. It’s somewhere in between. It’s effectively a gift card that can only be used for food, and only at stores that accept it. Food stamp beneficiaries cannot use food stamps to buy alcohol, pet food, or certain other items, but they have considerable flexibility otherwise. From an economics perspective, this makes food stamps less valuable than money (because they’re still confined to food) but more valuable than if the government was just delivering a box of pre-determined food each month.
If government came in and decided to further restrict the types of foods that can be purchased, this would reduce the economic value that food stamps provide to recipients. This would make the recipients worse off because they would have to substitute foods they like less for foods they preferred.
Creeping Paternalism
Another downside of more food stamp restrictions is that it requires an unsettling expansion in paternalism by the federal government. Yes, we can all probably agree that eating more fruits and vegetables is better for us than eating a steady diet of soda and Oreos. But do we really want the government setting policy to nudge or force people to eat healthy food?
In this case, of course, it would only apply to a subset of the population (low-income folks), and it would only apply to a subset of their food choices (those paid with food stamps). But it also gets the government more involved in making these determinations. If conservatives go along with a junk food ban on food stamps, it will make it harder for them to take a stand against other related legislation on nutrition, be it a nationwide soda tax or something else. Needless to say, this would not be a positive development.
Confusing the Issue
From a libertarian perspective, the essential problem with the food stamps program is that it requires the redistribution of wealth through taxation. The harm involved here is caused by taxation. How the government happens to spend or give away the money after it takes it might be more or less appalling, but it’s not the key issue.
In the case at hand, there is not a compelling, self-interested reason for a taxpayer to care if the $67B food stamp program was used for soda or fruit; they’re not getting the money back either way.
Edwards suggests that eliminating the ability to purchase junk food on food stamps might reduce demand for food stamps and thereby reduce taxpayer expenditures. While this argument is plausible, it seems unlikely. Implicitly, it assumes that some people are using food stamps to supplement a sweet tooth and would simply not use all of their benefits if junk food was eliminated. That is, poor people would be offered free food and turn it down because it didn’t fit their preferences.
Given that the food stamps program is not terribly lucrative to begin with and is only available to low-income people, this response would be strange. Substituting other foods to still fully utilize their benefit would be a more rational and likely behavior.
Summing Up
Ultimately, eliminating food stamps isn’t a top priority for libertarians, and that’s as it should be. At $67B per year, it amounts to just over 1/10 of what the US spends on the military and war. And unlike spending on war, the worst thing the food stamps program can do is waste money.
But if we’re going to criticize food stamps, our approach should be informed by economics and a healthy skepticism of government paternalism. We should continue to promote the virtues of individuals making choices for themselves, even if those individuals happen to be on welfare and the choices are about how to spend it. Reducing the value of food stamps to recipients without reducing the cost to taxpayers is not in anyone’s interest.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What the Immigration and Gun Control Debates Have in Common

President Trump is poised to issue a new executive order on immigration this week. It’s likely to be less sweeping than the initial ban so it has a better chance at passing legal muster. It will be implemented in the name of national security, but it will likely be based on the same dubious premise as before–that the people being barred, who are mostly Muslim, pose a significant threat to Americans, even if the evidence does not support this.
Still, it must be conceded that the argument behind the immigration ban had a certain plausibility for many Americans. For years, Americans have been told that (some) Muslims just hate the US because of our freedom. If that’s your understanding of what causes terrorism, banning some, or even all, Muslims from coming to the US probably doesn’t appear to be a crazy idea.
The case for restricting immigration from Mexico and securing the southern border of the US rests on a similar argument under Trump. As Trump said early on in his campaign, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” In the Trumpian worldview, it’s not that literally all Muslims or all Mexicans are going to cause harm. But he, and many of his followers, see them as a greater risk than normal. So restricting immigration as a preventative measure seems reasonable.
However, conservatives should be wary of this line of argument. Because when the exact same reasoning is applied in a different context, conservatives will be the most strident objectors.
In particular, consider the case of gun control. Here, the sides are reversed, but the argument is the same. Progressives support increased gun control because some people who buy guns do horrible things with them. No one would argue that all gun buyers are mass murderers or that every gun purchase is made with a nefarious intent. But, progressives would argue, there is a heightened risk that people buying guns could commit harm, so some preventative legislation seems reasonable.
The arguments are mirror images of each other. On immigration, conservatives argue that it is acceptable to restrict the freedom of some people (immigrants and foreign travelers) to increase safety, even though peaceful people will be adversely affected. On gun control, progressives hold that it is acceptable to restrict the freedom of some people (would-be gun buyers and gun owners) to increase safety, even though peaceful people will be adversely affected.
For progressives, this general line of reasoning fits in with their view of politics at large. They often emphasize the collective outcome over the individual, and they are not inherently skeptical of government action.
But this rationale ought to be repulsive to conservatives. It dispenses with any notion of individual liberty and replaces it with the worst sort of collectivism. It justifies expanding government power in order to punish individuals for crimes that were committed by others. This argument holds that people can be judged based on what they might do, not just what they actually have done. Once granted, that kind of power is begging to be abused.
Conservatives should think twice about cosigning on Trump’s immigration policies. The principle at stake here is the same principle at stake in the gun control debate–whether peaceful, law-abiding individuals should lose their freedoms because a few bad people commit atrocities. When it comes to gun control, conservatives usually side with individual liberty. They should be on the same side when it comes to immigration.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What If Grocery Stores Worked Like Public Schools?

An Analogy
One of the most important things to consider when buying a house is the quality of the grocery district.
As the name implies, the grocery district determines which public grocery store you and your family get to use. District maps are drawn by the government to ensure each grocery store has an appropriate number of patrons based on its capacity. Most residents are assigned to the public grocery store that is closest to their home.
Groceries are paid for primarily by local taxes. If residents go to their local public grocery store, they get their weekly groceries without any additional out-of-pocket cost. However, they cannot get groceries from a public grocery store that’s outside of their district.
In theory, all of the public grocery stores are supposed to provide equal access to high-quality food. Indeed, this is largely why government got involved in the grocery business in the first place. Politicians believed that access to food was a fundamental right and they were concerned that a free enterprise model would inadequately serve poor people. After all, there is not much profit to be made selling to those of lesser means. Or so it was argued at the time.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that wide disparities still exist in the public system of food distribution. Poorer neighborhoods tend to have public grocery stores that offer bad service, limited selection, and occasionally even unsanitary conditions. It’s not uncommon to find food well beyond its sell-by date.
Meanwhile, in richer neighborhoods, public grocery stores are typically high quality. Most approximate the quality and selection that existed in chains like Fred Meyer, Trader Joe’s, or Albertsons before the system of public food distribution was implemented.
This is why it has become essential to consider the quality of the grocery district when looking for a place to live. Live in a good district, and you’ll get diverse, healthy food for your family. Live in a bad district, and your family’s well-being is likely to suffer.
Critics argue that this system is especially harmful to poor people. In most purchasing decisions, people are not limited to a single provider in their jurisdiction. If they don’t like the bank or the mall that’s closest to them, they can drive to one that’s a little farther away that they like better. But in groceries, if they don’t like the public store that’s in their district, the main solution is to move elsewhere. If they can’t afford to move to a better grocery district–and many cannot–then they are likely to be stuck with a bad public grocery store.
One other option for residents in low-quality grocery districts is private grocery stores. In most areas, there’s no law preventing people from getting their groceries from private providers instead of the public system. However, since people utilizing the private system do not get a refund for the taxes they paid into the public system, they effectively end up paying twice. This naturally makes the private solution less accessible to families of lesser means.
Of course, no one thinks this public grocery system is ideal–especially since it retains the very inequality it hoped to eliminate. But while everyone agrees there is a problem, there is little agreement on the possible solutions.
It remains to be seen which reforms will be tried next, but history suggests that we should not be too optimistic.
The Real World
The system described above probably sounds absurd. But, in many respects, it is the system we use to provide education in the US.
One often hears that education is too important to leave to the whims of the market. Yet food is even more important; it’s a prerequisite before education can be considered.  In spite of this, the (relatively) free market in food seems to work quite well.
Consumers get a wide variety at a low cost. Even people that have niche dietary requirements like gluten-free or vegan have products suited to them. And while complaints about the quality of public education are rampant, one rarely hears objections about the quality of the grocery stores. In the latter case, people don’t have to complain; they just take their business to someone who will serve them better.
As a consequence, the inequality that exists with respect to grocery stores is actually much smaller than the inequality that exists in education. Whether you’re in a poor area or a middle-class area, the local Walmart is pretty much going to be the same Walmart. Even the gap in offerings between Walmart and, say, Whole Foods, is not so severe. One could still easily purchase the ingredients for a healthy diet in either establishment. But in public education, the difference between good schools and bad can be night and day. It could mean the difference between children graduating or dropping out, progressing or falling behind.
So perhaps it’s time to turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Education is important. It might be too important to leave to the government.

Monday, February 6, 2017

In Defense of Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

Back during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump was fond of suggesting that cuts in “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the federal government would be sufficient to balance the budget.
This never made too much sense–because the federal deficit is far larger than most estimates of potential savings. Yet it remains a common political talking point because it upsets no one. It’s one of the few things that all sides can agree on–cutting waste, fraud, and abuse is a good idea.
That said, I would like to take the opportunity to clear the good name of government waste, fraud, and abuse. If we treat these as just some of the many possible “uses” of government tax dollars, we quickly see that waste, fraud, and abuse are among the least objectionable activities of the US government.
Bad Alternatives
This claim sounds absurd on its face. But let’s consider some of the things the federal government does currently.
  • Implement Donald Trump’s immigration ban against seven Muslim-majority countries. (As of this writing, the law is temporarily halted pending a court’s review.)
  • Fund the Drug Enforcement Agency to prevent people from consuming marijuana (and other drugs deemed illegal)–thereby creating many “criminals” who have not actually harmed anyone and ensuring violent gangs monopolize control of the industry.
  • Attempt to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
  • Continue to carry out drone strikes in several countries, many of which are against unknown individuals deemed to be behaving like a terrorist. In the process, many civilians are killed, creating resentment against the US.
  • Support Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen, which has left millions of people in desperation
  • Increase and enforce sanctions against Iran, increasing the risk for another war in the process.
  • Dramatically restrict competition in the pharmaceutical industry via the Food and Drug Administration, driving massive increases in drug prices and preventing poorer individuals from accessing life-saving medications.
That list could go on, but you probably get the idea. The defining feature of each situation is that if the US government employees involved just stopped working and went home, the underlying problem would noticeably improve. We would literally be better off if all the money dedicated to the tasks above was wasted or stolen instead of being used for its present purpose.
Of course, you might quibble with my inclusion of one or more of the policies above, depending on your views. But there’s little doubt that we can all think of numerous policies of the federal government where waste and embezzlement would be vastly preferable to actual implementation.
In one regard, this is a distressing outcome. It feels strange to prefer outright theft and fraud to some other alternative. It also makes one wonder how such obviously flawed policies could have come into being in the first place.
But seen in another light, it is encouraging. If the underlying problem is being actively caused by a government policy, the solution is straightforward. We needn’t come up with a new policy that may or may not work in the real world. We just need to stop the current harm from continuing. That ought to be much easier.
So the next time you hear Trump or someone else complain about waste, fraud, and abuse, just remember, the alternative could be much worse.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Civility and Hypocrisy in the Age of Trump

As Democrats and NeverTrumpers of all stripes stand up against President Trump’s executive order on immigration, one reaction has been quite common: “Where were you when President Obama did [insert cruel/illegal/destructive foreign policy decision here]?”
The question is a good one, but it’s not as good as you might think.
Our minds abhor disorder. An innate dislike for hypocrisy and inconsistency comes along with that. And of course, it is strange that many of the politicians opposing Trump’s immigration ban against seven countries did not consistently oppose Obama when he bombed and intervened in several of those same countries. To paraphrase one prominent antiwar libertarian, is restricting a group of people’s travel abilities really a greater crime than thrusting their entire home country into chaos (and killing many of them in the process)? If not, why is Trump’s action drawing a larger response?
Such questions do not have consoling answers. For the politicians, the explanation is probably base partisanship. But for the everyday people that are newly opposing bad ideas from the Oval Office, the answer is probably ignorance about Obama’s policies. Here, I mean ignorance in the literal sense. It’s not that such people are stupid; presumably, many of them really did not know.
While unfortunate, such ignorance should not be hard to understand. We were all there at some point. And although President Obama undertook many monstrous and destructive actions as Commander-in-Chief, he rarely sounded like a monster when he did it.
Obama didn’t assassinate unidentified people based on a behavioral profile; he just conducted signature strikes to keep America safe. He didn’t violently overthrow a sovereign government in Libya on a flimsy pretext; he tried to stop a genocide. He also didn’t knowingly arm groups fighting on the same side as Al Qaeda in Syria; rather, the popular perception of Obama’s policy on Syria is that he didn’t do enough to help. And the list goes on.
The point is that in all of these cases, the official narrative put forth seemed kind of plausible. That is, if you were predisposed to trust the US government or the mainstream media on these matters, you might have taken them at face value–especially since the president implementing them appeared intelligent and professional. Meanwhile, if you were already skeptical, it was easy to read just a little more about these policies and understand why they were awful.
The situation under Obama contrasts markedly with the one under Trump. Trump’s bombastic nature means that far fewer people are willing to trust his decisions on faith. For people opposed to US foreign policy or abuse of executive power, this is excellent news. It’s also the reason why, no matter how ambitious or malevolent Trump’s plans end up being, he is likely to achieve (destroy) much less than politicians that do not excite the same anxiety.
If our goal is to persuade new adherents to the ideas of peace, this context should inform our approach. It is easy–and entirely accurate–to shame opponents of Trump’s recent immigration order for hypocrisy if they did not oppose similarly harmful actions under Obama. But this offers little in the way of persuasion.
For the hypocritical partisans, being called out has little effect no matter how clever the prose. Indeed, they’re probably already aware that they have double standards; that’s what allows them to be hypocritical partisans.
But for the many people who are newly skeptical, the call-out approach is off-putting. Would you rather listen to someone who’s already attacking you or someone who emphasizes the common ground? That is not a hard question. We can applaud them for opposing Trump’s refugee policy and criticize Obama’s refugee policy at the same time. We can embrace any newfound opposition to Trump’s aggression in Yemen, while noting it was also Obama’s aggression in Yemen.
At each step, our goal should not be to attack potential allies but to emphasize the continuity between presidents. Contrary to popular belief, Trump is not a new and unique problem. In many respects, he’s the same problem, with much less veneer.
The Trump Years offer a golden opportunity. Millions of people are doubting the US government and asking questions they wouldn’t have even considered before Trump’s election. Democrats would have them believe that the Republicans are to blame and all the problems started when Donald Trump took office. It’s up to the rest of us to explain that history began before January 20, 2017–and that Republican and Democratic politicians alike, are usually on the wrong side of it.
So, which will it be?