Saturday, July 14, 2012

Throw the Toll Gates Open!

I spent all of June traveling the toll roads of Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The amount of construction was considerable ... and rather disconcerting as many of the projects seem to have hardly advanced since my last major time spent in the area, in 2008-9. Yet, like millions of others, I had to stop and hand somebody money or throw quarters into a bucket (or have my newly re-acquired EZ Pass debited). Why should commuters pay full toll when the roads are slow due to seemingly never ending construction projects?

The founders, who formed numerous toll roads to tie their young nation together politically and economically, had a solution to bad roads and construction delays: throwing the toll gates open. Why not institute the practice adopted by New York in 1804,* which stipulated that turnpike commissioners could force turnpike companies to stop charging tolls if they determined that their roads' condition impeded the regular flow of traffic? Today, instead of having the brunt of the cost fall on stockholders (of which there aren't really any as most of today's toll roads are so called public corporations owned by governments), deduct any shortfalls in toll revenue from the pool in which turnpike executives draw their salaries and benefits. Under the new incentives, construction projects will be completed much more quickly and with much less waste of commuters' time and patience, guaranteed.

*For details, see Daniel Klein and John Majewski, “Economy, Community, and Law: The Turnpike Movement in New York, 1797-1845,” Law and Society Review 26, 3 (1992): 492-93.

Friday, July 13, 2012

LIBOR scandal Fubarnomics and the pressing need for real reform

Several years ago I published a book called Fubarnomics that argued that most of the FUBAR ("fouled" up beyond all recognition) aspects of our economy -- including construction, healthcare, higher ed, and the financial crisis -- were rooted in hybrid failures, in both market and government failures in other words.

The recent scandal over LIBOR is no different. The market failure here is palpable: asymmetric information allowed the bankers to lie about how much it cost their banks to borrow. The government failure is more subtle but is perhaps best exposed by the question: wtf? More specifically, how was it that these crucial transactions were not monitored? that even after it became clear there were problems with self-reporting nothing substantive was done? The answer, of course, is regulatory capture. The Fed, the Treasury, and the FDIC are Wall Street's hand maidens, not its policemen.

The LIBOR scandal is just another indication that the financial system is badly broken. I think we need to return to basics: non-profit, plain vanilla depository institutions (credit unions) for the bulk of us; mutual insurers; mutual asset managers paid by performance (mutual funds); partnership-only investment banks/LCFIs/hedge funds; deposits guaranteed up to $25,000 and life insurance to $250,000, and everyone else on the hook for losses. If any company, financial or otherwise, becomes Too Big To Fail (TBTF) it needs to be broken up before it crashes the economy and causes taxpayers billions. Anyone in a fiduciary position caught stealing or lying needs to expect serious jail time and a lifetime of poverty.

But ahhhh there is that regulatory capture again. Sensible reforms are impossible until Americans make them happen. Traditionally, they are supposed to do so at the polls but what to do when both political parties have also been co-opted and only offer a choice between Frick and Frack? Revolution? Not yet. First Americans need to flex their economic muscles and stop doing business with big banks, political parties, and anyone else standing in the way of serious reform.