Dispatch September 2008

Betting on John McCain

An economist explains why he thinks McCain's economic policies make more sense

3. But there's a lot about economics that McCain just doesn't get. This shows up most significantly in his energy policies. Every economist knows that the best way to discourage carbon emissions (or anything else for that matter) is to tax them. But McCain rejects a carbon tax in favor of one slightly inferior policy (cap and trade) and one grossly inferior policy (direct regulation, such as the CAFE standards for fuel efficiency).

In a world of perfect capital markets and perfect information, a cap-and-trade system (provided the government auctions off the permits rather than giving them away) is exactly equivalent to a carbon tax – same effect on everything down to and including the prices of consumer goods. In the real world we live in, it's inferior for two reasons: First, small firms might find it difficult to raise the necessary capital to buy a permit; this gives an inappropriate advantage to big firms over small ones. Second, I believe it will be harder (for technical reasons I won't go into here) to calculate the efficient number of cap-and-trade permits than to calculate the efficient per-ton carbon tax. Aside from that, the two policies are equivalent in every way. McCain presumably doesn't get this, or he wouldn't have such a strong preference for cap-and-trade.

Worse, he endorses the CAFE standards, which are just a terrible way to control carbon emissions. While a carbon tax gets incentives right at every decision point, fuel efficiency standards give people no incentive, for example, to bike to work instead of drive (in fact, they flip the incentive in the wrong direction). Worse yet, they concentrate brainpower on improving fuel efficiency when there might be far more effective ways to control carbon emissions; with a tax, all innovations are rewarded.

In his support of CAFE standards over carbon taxes, McCain betrays a serious failure to understand how incentives work. The same problem shows up when he thinks you can simply mandate campaign finance limits, as if people who are competing for control of a $15 trillion economy won't be creative enough to find some way to spend hundreds of millions in the effort, no matter how you write your laws.

4. McCain gets health care right. The reason poor Americans get too little health care is that rich Americans get too much. The reason rich Americans get too much is that they're overinsured, and therefore run to the doctor for minor problems. The reason they're overinsured is that employer-provided health benefits aren't taxed, so employers overprovide them.

It has been clear for decades that the single most effective way to control health care costs is to eliminate the tax break for employer-provided health care. According to one careful study by my colleague Charles Phelps (admittedly several years old, but I'm not sure anything relevant has changed), this single reform could reduce health care costs by 40% with essentially no effect on health care outcomes.

Essential as this reform may be, I'd always assumed it was a political non-starter. I was therefore astonished to learn that it's the essence of McCain's health care reform. (At the same time, he would give each individual $2500, and each family $5000, to use for health care.)

I am astonished that I hadn't heard about this, and particularly astonished that Barack Obama hasn't thrust it in my face with a negative spin. Possibly he has and I just wasn't paying attention.  In any case, this is just what the doctor ordered, and I am delighted that McCain has put it on the table.

Obama, by contrast, wants poor people to get more medical care without addressing the problem of overuse by rich people. Where is that extra medical care going to come from? If the answer is "nowhere," then a primary effect of the Obama plan must be to raise prices, making doctors and hospitals the big beneficiaries.

Of course, there are other things that matter. Foreign and defense policy might matter more than anything, and if I were sure that one or the other candidate were far wiser about these issues, that might be enough to win my vote. But I have no expertise on these matters and no particular reason to trust my own judgment.

I'm sure I'm right about trade and pretty sure I'm right about taxes and health care, but that's because I've thought long and hard about these issues for decades. It seems to me that we ought to be humble about the things we haven't thought hard about, and for me that includes foreign policy. The best I can do is bet that whoever's getting most of the other stuff right is getting this right too.

The bottom line is that I support John McCain. With trepidation.

Presented by
Steven Landsburg is a professor of economics at Rochester University and author of The Armchair Economist.

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