Executive Pay

Let Corporate Welfare Unite Us

Research & Commentary
October 15, 2015

by Sheila Kennedy

Both libertarians and liberals can agree on this: much of what passes for capitalism today is anything but.

By Sheila Suess Kennedy

Credit: thinkbynumbers.org

Credit: thinkbynumbers.org

In our highly polarized political environment, we sometimes overlook areas of agreement between otherwise warring portions of the political spectrum. A recent post at Political Animal pointed to one such area between libertarians and liberals: opposition to “rent seeking” aka “corporate welfare.”

Increasingly, both groups have noted that the American economic system these days should be defined as “corporatism” rather than capitalism; corporatism is characterized by the political organization of a society to serve the interests of major vocational or corporate groups, such as agricultural or business interests. The term is often used as shorthand for “crony capitalism” or the corruption of public policy by special interests.

Whatever one calls it, those of us who genuinely value markets and market economies understand that much of what passes for capitalism these days is anything but, and that the influence of the “haves” is routinely used to ensure that they “have” even more. Libertarians protective of true capitalism and market economics see this state of affairs as undermining the integrity of truly capitalist systems; liberals note that it operates to exacerbate the widening gap between the 1% and everyone else.

They are both right.

Per a lengthy paper by John Teles of Johns Hopkins, a few examples:

Car dealers, for instance, have a sizable presence in the top 1% of earners, have a major lobbying presence in almost every state capital, and have made contributions to almost every member of Congress. That should not be surprising, because regulations (again, often at the state level) protect car dealerships from competition by limiting direct sales, restricting the termination of franchises, limiting the entry of new dealers, and preventing manufacturers from offering preferential pricing to larger franchisees. Together, these rules, economists Francine Lafontaine and Fiona Scott Morton found in a 2010 study, “almost guarantee dealership profitability and survival,” while simultaneously driving up costs to consumers…..

A concentration of high incomes also characterizes the field of government contractors, such as private-prison managers, defense contractors, and for-profit colleges. All these industries are characterized by dependence on government as a nearly exclusive source of revenue, by extraordinary levels of lobbying, and by asymmetries of power between firms and their government counterparts.

Or consider the field of management consulting, which attracts an extraordinary percentage of Ivy League college graduates. As Christopher McKenna shows in his book, The World’s Newest Profession, the outsized incomes of consultants do not come from their ability to recommend innovative practices to firms. Instead, they come from the rent they extract from performing a legally mandated due-diligence ritual for firms or from performing tasks that could otherwise be done at lower cost by public employees. These are not, in short, meaningfully “private” firms at all, despite their high profitability.

You should really read the whole thing….

There is a compelling case to be made for properly operating market economies—“properly operating” meaning markets operating in economic areas where buyers and sellers have equal access to relevant information (a characteristic that would exclude health care and other goods and services involving inescapable asymmetries of information), and where the sorts of creativity, hard work and entrepreneurial prowess that improve life for everyone are incentivized and rewarded.

There is no case—compelling or otherwise—to be made for the rent-seeking that characterizes American economic activity in the 21st Century.

Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net.  

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