James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The Looting Scenario for America

Apr 13, 2010 17:25 UTC

The Great Arnold Kling thinks there is a high probability of a two-decade economic fiasco, outlined below.

In the Looting Scenario, what is going to be rewarded is what we call rent-seeking. Basically, over the next twenty years, wealth transfer by government will be much more important than wealth creation–and the amount available for transfer could actually decline. For example, I expect that benefits for the elderly will become increasingly means-tested and savings will be increasingly taxed, to the point where the marginal return to saving will approach zero. If the marginal return to saving is low, and government deficits are high, then capital formation is going to be low. It’s hard to see how you get rapid innovation in that kind of world.

The Looting Scenario is one in which public employees and pensioners have the incentive to just take as much as they can while they can get it. It is a scenario in which people talk about the deficit, and wise heads say we must do something about it, but the only politically feasible approach is to raise taxes. Even so, it turns out that higher tax rates bring in less revenue than projected, because of the incentives to consume leisure and engage in black-market activity.

Seven years ago, it would not have occurred to me that our ruling class would be so bad that the Looting Scenario would be likely. My guess is that, even among libertarians, just about everyone else still has faith that our ruling class will not let the Looting Scenario take place. However, I think it is one of the higher-probability scenarios out there.


Current trends in US ethnic demographics will continue to reduce the amount of wealth available for transfer.

When people say that betting against the US has always been a losing wager, they forget — or don’t want to acknowledge — that they’re not talking about the same country.

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

Winging it on healthcare reform

Dec 15, 2009 19:19 UTC

“Armchair Economist” Steven Landsburg had a chance to talk with Obama healthcare guru David Cutler of Harvard. His conclusion:

In Professor Cutler’s view, there are three ways to fix things: First, European style rationing, which almost no economist favors (largely because there’s no way to tell whether the government is getting the quantities right). The second option, which Professor Cutler prefers, is revising the payment system to create better incentives. I agree that this would be a very good option if you could figure out how to accomplish it, and I agree that there might be a way to make it work, but I’m not convinced that Professor Cutler (or anyone else) has yet figured out how to do it. The third option is the one I tend to favor—more patient autonomy. I’ve indicated some ways this might work in an earlier post. Professor Cutler is skeptical of this third option on the grounds that—well, he didn’t put it quite this way, but essentially his argument was that a lot of patients are stupid. That’s probably true, and it means that this option is imperfect also.

The great Arnold Kling tosses in his two cents:

My disagreement with Cutler is more than mere gut instinct. Cutler and I might agree that there is overuse of medical procedures with high costs and low benefits. We might agree that incentives affect this. However, Cutler is confident that central planning represents the solution, not the problem. He believes that remote bureaucrats can measure health care quality well enough and implement compensation schemes that are fine-grained enough to achieve significant improvement.

I suspect that he has no administrative experience either in business or government. Suppose that you told him that middle managers in America make many mistakes and often are compensated for doing the wrong things. As an academic, he would think in terms of having experts in Washington design better compensation schemes for middle managers. It would never occur to him that what works in theory fails in practice, because it incorrectly assumes that central planners have superior knowledge and face zero political constraints, and that in a dynamic environment the planners will stay one step ahead of those with an incentive to game the system.


Big point = we all should have the right to ‘life’ as a basic premise. That was the one of the top items in the constitution. That one can die in America of ‘terminal poverty’ is Dickensonian. That we assign the current distribution of services, ‘rationing’. of another kind to PROFIT making insurance companies harkens back to the slave trade in the American past.

Just dump the sick ones overboard, keep on sailing and raking in those profits. The

Health Insurance system is immoral, and has utterly failed. Greed is not a good regulator to pair with matters of life and death.

Posted by frank | Report as abusive

How about some healthcare federalism?

Nov 17, 2009 20:06 UTC

From the astounding Arnold Kling:

The bill I would propose would be one that encourages experimentation at the state level. Offer to support an experiment that allows an individual state to adopt single-payer, while allowing another state to offer deregulated insurance and medical practice.

What is frustrating to me is that many people would agree that the Massachusetts health experiment failed, and yet that is the experiment that is being used as the model for the current bill. The original promise in Massachusetts was that by eliminating the “free-riding” of the uninsured and by setting up an efficient government insurance exchange, insurance costs would go down. Instead, insurance costs there soared.

The current health care bill is viewed skeptically by every reputable health care economist. My guess is that even someone like Peter Orszag, who obviously is not free to speak his mind, is somewhere between disappointed and appalled at what is coming down the pike.

It would make sense to try more state-level experiments before choosing a model for a national system.


I am tired of this administration feeling like they have a blank check book that they can utilize whenever they feel the need to without accountability to the ones paying the bill…” The Taxpayers”

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