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Michelle Obama wants the federal government to tell us what kind of food to eat.

I actually wouldn’t object if she merely used a bully pulpit to encourage healthier eating. But the busy-body crowd in Washington has a hard time distinguishing between giving advice and engaging in coercion.

So we now have legislation that gives Washington the power to interfere with food in local schools.

But not everybody is rolling over, particularly when federal rules are coercing states into banning bake sales. The National Journal reports on growing resistance to this absurd example of nanny statism from Washington. Here are some excerpts.

…states are…fighting nutrition standards that would considerably alter one of the most sacred rituals of the American public school system: bake sales. Twelve states have established their own policies to circumvent regulations in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that apply to “competitive snacks,” or any foods and beverages sold to students on school grounds that are not part of the Agriculture Department’s school meal programs, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. Competitive snacks appear in vending machines, school stores, and food and beverages, including items sold at bake sales. …The pushback is not about students’ taste buds, but their wallets. Food fundraisers are a crucial source of revenue for schools, state education officials say. “Tough economic times have translated into fewer resources and these fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs,” the Georgia Department of Education wrote in a recent press release. …The statement called the federal guidelines on fundraisers “an absolute overreach of the federal government.”

Kudos to the Georgia officials who complained about government overreach.

But don’t forget that local governments certainly are capable of overreach as well, as this cartoon illustrates.

If you think banning bake sales is an example of government run amok, then you’ll be equally perturbed by what’s happening in California.

According to the Associated Press, some residents are being put in a no-win situation of being fined by either state or local government based on whether or not they water their lawns.

I’m not joking. Check out these blurbs from the story.

Laura Whitney and her husband, Michael Korte, don’t know whether they’re being good citizens during a drought or scofflaws. On the same day the state approved mandatory outdoor watering restrictions with the threat of $500 fines, the Southern California couple received a letter from their city threatening a $500 penalty for not watering their brown lawn. …They’re among residents caught in the middle of conflicting government messages as the need for conservation clashes with the need to preserve attractive neighborhoods. “My friends in Los Angeles got these letters warning they could be fined if they water, and I got a letter warning that I could be fined for not watering,” Whitney said. “I felt like I was in an alternate universe.”

It’s not an alternative universe. As Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Martha Boneta, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto can atttest, governments routinely abuse innocent people.

But at least we can take comfort in the fact that governments outside of America engage in equally silly actions.

Though I confess I’m not sure how to categorize the news that’s being reported by the BBC. As you can see from these excerpts, there’s apparently now a rule in China limiting public officials to no more than three mistresses.

We’ve heard a lot about China’s far-reaching anti-corruption campaign at the behest of President Xi Jinping. …But according to a report in the English-language newspaper China Daily, “adultery” is now banned for party members. …But just when you thought the party was taking a puritanical stand, the newspaper said that when authorities had previously accused officials of “moral corruption” they defined this as having more than “three mistresses”.

The Princess of the Levant didn’t allow me to engage in any field research on this issue during my recent trip to Shanghai, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the story.

Though I wonder whether Chinese officials got any advice from America’s 42nd president before imposing these rules?

You won’t know whether to laugh or cry after perusing these stories that will be added to our “great moments in government” collection.

For instance, did you realize that American taxpayers were saddled with the responsibility to micro-manage agriculture in Afghanistan? You’re probably surprised the answer is yes.

But I bet you’re not surprised that the money was flushed down a toilet. Here are some excerpts from a report on how $34 million was wasted.

American agricultural experts who consider soybeans a superfood…have invested tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to try to change the way Afghans eat. The effort, aimed at making soy a dietary staple, has largely been a flop, marked by mismanagement, poor government oversight and financial waste, according to interviews and government audit documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Warnings by agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country’s climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started… The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don’t like the taste of the soy processed foods.

Sadly, this $34 million boondoggle is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s been said that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Well, it’s also the graveyard of tax dollars.

…the project’s problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement and poor spending controls. No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a…special auditor appointed by President Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.

I’m guessing that most of the $120 billion was squandered using traditional definitions of waste.

But using a libertarian definition of waste (i.e., money that the federal government should not spend), we can easily calculate that the entire $120 billion was squandered.

Let’s now discuss another example of American taxpayer money being wasted in other nations. I’ve written previously about the squalid corruption at the Export-Import Bank, but Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus is the go-to expert on this issue, and she has a new article at National Review about “a project in Brazil that, if it goes bust and the Brazilians can’t pay the American contractor, your tax dollars will end up paying for.”

And what is this project?

…an Export-Import Bank–backed deal to build the largest aquarium in South America…the taxpayer exposure is $150,000 per job “supported.” Some people in Brazil are rightly upset about this. The Ex-Im loan may have lower interest rates and better terms than a regular loan, but this is probably money the indebted and poor Brazilian government can’t afford. …a real problem with the Ex-Im Bank: On one hand, it gives cheap money to large companies who would have access to capital markets even in its absence. But on the other hand, it encourages middle-income or poor countries to take on debt that they probably can’t afford, whether the products purchased are “made in America” or not.

Gee, aren’t we happy that some bureaucrats and politicians have decided to put us on the hook for a Brazilian aquarium.

But let’s try to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s a depiction of what you’re subsidizing. Enjoy.

Subsidized by American taxpayers

I hope you got your money’s worth from the image.

Perhaps I’m being American-centric by focusing on examples of bad policies from the crowd in Washington.

So let’s look at an example of government foolishness from Germany. It doesn’t involve tax money being wasted (at least not directly), but I can’t resist sharing this story because it’s such a perfect illustration of government in action.

Check out these excerpts from a British news report on over-zealous enforcement by German cops.

A one-armed man in Germany has received a full apology and refund from the police after an overzealous officer fined him for cycling using only one arm. Bogdan Ionescu, a theatre box office worker from Cologne, gets around the usually cycle-friendly city using a modified bicycle that allows him to operate both brakes – one with his foot. But on 25 March he was pulled over by a police officer who, he says, told him he was breaking the law. Under German road safety rules, bicycles are required to have to have two handlebar brakes. After a long argument at the roadside, the officer insisted that Mr Ionescu’s bike was not roadworthy and issued him with a €25 (£20) fine.

At least this story had a happy ending, at least if you overlook the time and aggravation for Mr. Ionescu.

Our last (but certainly not least) example of foolish government comes from Nebraska, though the culprit is the federal government.

But maybe “disconcerting” would be a better word than “foolish.”

It seems that our friends on the left no longer think that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” In a very troubling display of thuggery, the Justice Department dispatched a bureaucrat to “investigate” a satirical parade float.

Here’s some of what was reported by the Washington Times.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sent a member of its Community Relations Service team to investigate a Nebraska parade float that criticized President Obama. A Fourth of July parade float featured at the annual Independence Day parade in Norfolk sparked criticism when it depicted a zombie-like figure resembling Mr. Obama standing outside an outhouse, which was labeled the “Obama Presidential Library.” The Nebraska Democratic Party called the float one of the “worst shows of racism and disrespect for the office of the presidency that Nebraska has ever seen.” The Omaha World-Herald reported Friday that the Department of Justice sent a CRS member who handles discrimination disputes to a Thursday meeting about the issue. …The float’s creator, Dale Remmich, has said the mannequin depicted himself, not President Obama. He said he is upset with the president’s handling of the Veterans Affairs Department, the World-Herald reported. “Looking at the float, that message absolutely did not come through,” said NAACP chapter president Betty C. Andrews.

If you look at the picture (and other pictures that can be seen with an online search), I see plenty of disrespect for the current president, but why is that something that requires an investigation?

There was plenty of disrespect for the previous president. And there as also disrespect for the president before that. And before that. And before…well, you get the idea.

Disrespect for politicians is called political speech, and it’s (supposedly) protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

That’s even true if the float’s creator had unseemly motives such as racism. He would deserve scorn if that was the case, and parade organizers would (or at least should) have the right to exclude him on that basis.

But you don’t lose your general right to free speech just because you have unpopular and/or reprehensible opinions. And the federal government shouldn’t be doing anything that can be construed as suppressing or intimidating Americans who want to “disrespect” the political class.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of politicized bureaucracy, we have an update to a recent column about sleazy behavior at the IRS.

According to the Daily Caller, there’s more and more evidence of a big fire behind all the smoke at the IRS.

Ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s computer hard drive was “scratched” and the data on it was still recoverable. But the IRS did not try to recover the data from Lerner’s hard drive, despite recommendations from in-house IRS IT experts to outsource the recovery project. The hard drive was then “shredded,” according to a court filing the IRS made to House Ways and Means Committee investigators.

Gee, how convenient.

I used to dislike the IRS because of the tax code. Now I have an additional reason to view the bureaucrats with disdain.

P.P.S. One last comment on the controversy surrounding the parade float. Racism is an evil example of collectivist thinking. But it is also reprehensible for folks on the left to make accusations of racism simply because they disagree with someone.

I’ve had some fun over the years by pointing out that Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to catch me making an error. But I’m not sure his “gotcha” moment is very persuasive. Here’s some of what he wrote for today’s New York Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare. …Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. …Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.”

Kudos to Krugman for having read Atlas Shrugged, or for at least knowing that Rand sometimes referred to to “looters and moochers.” Though I have to subtract points because he thinks I’m a conservative rather than a libertarian.

But what about his characterization of my position? Well, he’s right, though I’m predicting slow-motion suicide. Voting for a tax hike isn’t akin to jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. Instead, by further penalizing success and expanding the burden of government, California is engaging in the economic equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes every day instead of three and one-half packs.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

I’m generally reluctant to make predictions, but I feel safe in stating that this measure is going to accelerate California’s economic decline. Some successful taxpayers are going to tunnel under the proverbial Berlin Wall and escape to states with better (or less worse) fiscal policy. And that will mean fewer jobs and lower wages than otherwise would be the case.

Anyhow, Krugman wants readers to think that California is a success rather than a failure because the state now has a budget surplus and there’s been an uptick in job creation.

Here’s more of what he wrote.

There is, I’m sorry to say, no sign of the promised catastrophe. If tax increases are causing a major flight of jobs from California, you can’t see it in the job numbers. Employment is up 3.6 percent in the past 18 months, compared with a national average of 2.8 percent; at this point, California’s share of national employment, which was hit hard by the bursting of the state’s enormous housing bubble, is back to pre-recession levels. …And, yes, the budget is back in surplus. …So what do we learn from the California comeback? Mainly, that you should take anti-government propaganda with large helpings of salt. Tax increases aren’t economic suicide; sometimes they’re a useful way to pay for things we need.

I’m not persuaded, and I definitely don’t think this counts as a “gotcha” moment.

First, I’m a bit surprised that he wants to brag about California’s employment numbers. The Golden State has one of the highest joblessness rates in the nation. Indeed, only four states rank below California.

Second, I don’t particularly care whether the state has a budget surplus. I care about the size of government.

Krugman might respond by saying that the tax hike generated revenues, thus disproving the Laffer Curve, which is something that does matter to supporters of small government.

But the Laffer Curve doesn’t say that all tax hikes lose revenue. Instead, it says that tax rate increases will have a negative impact on taxable income. It’s then an empirical question to figure out if revenues go up a lot, go up a little, stay flat, or decline.

And what matters most of all is the long-run impact. You can rape and pillage upper-income taxpayers in the short run, particularly if a tax hike is retroactive. In the long run, though, people can move, re-organize their finances, and take other steps to reduce their exposure to the greed of the political class.

In other words, people can vote with their feet…and with their money.

And that’s what seems to be happening in California. Take a look at how much income has emigrated from the state since 1992.

Next we have a map showing which states, over time, are gaining taxable income and which states are losing income (and I invite you to look at how zero-income tax states tend to be very green).

The data isn’t population adjusted, so populous states are over-represented, but you’ll still see that California is losing while Texas is winning.

And here is similar data from the Tax Foundation.

So what’s all of this mean?

Well, it means I’m standing by my prediction of slow-motion economic suicide. The state is going to become the France of America…at least if Illinois doesn’t get there first.

California has some natural advantages that make it very desirable. And I suspect that the state’s politicians could get away with above-average taxes simply because certain people will pay some sort of premium to enjoy the climate and geography.

But the number of people willing to pay will shrink as the premium rises.

In other words, this Chuck Asay cartoon may be the most accurate depiction of California’s future. And this Lisa Benson cartoon shows what will happen between now and then.

But I won’t hold my breath waiting for a mea culpa from Krugman.

I’ve written many times about America’s looming fiscal collapse, and I’ve also pontificated about America’s costly and failed welfare state.

I even have speculated about when America reaches a tipping point, with too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency (as illustrated by these famous cartoons, which even have a Danish equivalent).

If you read all my posts on these issues, I like to think you’d be very well informed on these topics. But if you want to save time, my colleague Tom Palmer put all these issues together in a recent speech in Australia.

Best of all, he includes lots of great material on the moral and historical aspects of this discussion.

The good news is that there are signs of progress, at least outside the United States. Denmark, for instance, has cut back on its welfare state.

And now, even the United Kingdom has engaged in some serious welfare reform.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the UK-based Telegraph.

 Why should there have been this improvement in the labour market? …The most convincing explanation is surely the Government’s welfare reforms. They have made it more difficult and less attractive to live off benefits, thereby increasing the supply of workers. In economists’ jargon, the natural rate of unemployment has fallen.

Another Telegraph column digs into the details.

…more jobs are being created in Britain than in the rest of Europe put together. …There has clearly been a game-changer… What confounded the eggheads was that the number of workers is growing four times faster than the number of working-age people: in other words, Britons have become far more likely than pretty much anyone else to look for –and find – work. Why?

The answer is simple economics and incentives.

Fewer people now claim the three main out-of-work benefits than at any time during the Labour years. This, of course, is perfectly explained by IDS’s reforms, which make it a lot harder to live on welfare. Those who have been on incapacity benefit for years have been summoned to assessment centres to see what work they’re fit to do. Far more of the unemployed are being penalised for missing job interviews. A benefits cap has been imposed; housing benefit is being reformed; and the so-called “spare room subsidy” has been abolished, making life more expensive for those on benefits with unused rooms. …this is not about punishing “shirkers”, but helping good people trapped in a bad system. Fixing that system means making life harder for people who have it pretty tough already, at least for a short while. But under the Labour regime, such people were being led down the path to dependency and poverty. A new road had to be built, leading to work. And only now is it becoming clear quite how many people are taking it.

Here’s a chart showing how actual job creation is beating the forecasts.

These are remarkable numbers, particularly when you compare them to the job forecast put forth by the Obama White House, which grossly over-stated the number of jobs that would exist under the so-called stimulus.

The key takeaway is that incentives matter. When you give people unemployment insurance, you reduce incentives to find work. When you give people Obamacare, you reduce incentives to earn income. When you give people welfare and food stamps, you reduce incentives for self-reliance.

And when you add together the panoply of redistribution programs operated by government, it’s easy to see why far too many people are being trapped in government dependency.

If you like charts, here’s a very sobering image of how the welfare state destroys incentives for upward mobility. And if you like anecdotes, here’s a dismal story about government making leisure more attractive than productivity.

P.S. At least one honest leftist acknowledges that there’s a problem.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, here’s a satirical Declaration of Dependency from the left.

I’m currently in Asia, where I just finished a series of speeches about economic policy in China and Hong Kong.

These two jurisdictions offer very powerful lessons about the importance of economic policy.

Hong Kong is supposed to be Nirvana for libertarians. It holds the top spot in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. It has an optional flat tax. It has a private retirement system. And based on IMF data, government spending “only” consumes 18.4 percent of GDP (compared to 38.6 percent of economic output in the United States and 54.4 percent of GDP in France).

In reality, Hong Kong is far from perfect. It may have a lot more economic freedom than other jurisdictions, but there is widespread government intervention in certain sectors, such as housing. And while a flat tax and spending burden of 18.4 percent of GDP sound good, let’s not forget that the western world became rich in the 1800s when there was no income tax and the public sector consumed less than 10 percent of GDP.

But when you rank countries on the basis of economic freedom, you don’t compare jurisdictions to a nonexistent libertarian utopia. You compare them to other nations. So Hong Kong gets the top spot. And that’s paying dividends. When you look at long-run comparisons with other nations, Hong Kong has grown faster and become more prosperous.

So what about China? This wasn’t my first visit to the country, but it was the first time I went to Shanghai, and it is a very impressive place. It’s obvious that China has enjoyed a lot of growth in the past few decades.

But just as you shouldn’t judge the United States by a visit to Wall Street, it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions about China after a few days in Shanghai.

Indeed, average living standards for all of China are still far below American levels. Moreover, if you look at the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, China still has a lot of room for improvement. It ranks 123rd out of 152 nations, which is not only far below France (#40), but also Greece (#85), Haiti (#98), and Russia (#101).

That being said, China’s score is 6.22 out of 10, which is a vast improvement compared to where it was in 1980, when it had a score of only 4.00.

This has led to some wonderful outcomes. This chart (h/t: Mark Perry) shows the share of the world’s population living on less than $1 per day (blue line) and the share of East Asia’s population with the same level of deprivation (red line). A big reason the red line has fallen so dramatically is that severe poverty in China has largely disappeared.

The real question for China is the degree to which there will be ongoing improvement.

I think it would be good if China became more like Hong Kong and that this led to much higher living standards. Heck, I’d be happy if China became more like Taiwan or South Korea, both of which have become relatively rich nations by moving substantially in the direction of free markets and small government.

But I don’t think this will happen. In one of my speeches, I posed a series of questions, followed by some less-than-optimistic answers.

Is the financial system weak? (because of too much state control over capital flows and investment)

Is there too much cronyism? (with friends and relatives getting favorable access to business)

Will China’s demographics be a problem? (the one-child policy is not just tyrannical, but it also means China’s population is aging)

Is rapid growth sustainable? (in the absence of reforms to boost economic freedom)

Have stimulus plans led to malinvestment? (such as ghost cities and other boondoggles)

Since economists are lousy when they make predictions, it’s quite possible that I’m wrong and my pessimism is unwarranted. For the sake of the Chinese people, let’s hope so.

And what about Hong Kong? I suspect they’ll remain the freest economy in the world. After all, why wreck a good thing?

Then again, the United States was the world’s 3rd-freest economy as recently as 2001. Now, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, we’ve plummeted to 17 in the ranking.

But I doubt Hong Kong policy makers would be equally foolish.

In some sense, there’s nothing remotely funny about the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party organizations.

It is disgusting that a powerful arm of the government became a corrupt vehicle for illegal partisan politics.

But it’s better to laugh rather than cry, so let’s enjoy this new video from Remy at Reason TV.

And let’s not forget that the IRS rewarded itself with big bonuses after the scandal!

President Obama infamously claimed there wasn’t a “smidgen” of corruption at the IRS. This Glenn Foden cartoon is the only appropriate response.

P.S. Switching to another topic, I explained recently that the left was wrong about unemployment insurance. The statists told us that paying people to be unemployed wouldn’t increase joblessness, but virtually all the evidence is on the other side.

Now we have even more research emphasizing that point. Here’s a blurb from some new research published by the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

…we find that the extension of unemployment benefits affected the labor market status of long-term unemployed workers in late 2013. Without extended UI benefits, these unemployed workers would have been more likely to be employed, more likely to exit the labor force, and on average 1.9 percent less likely to remain unemployed in the following period. In short, our simulated early termination of the EUC program lowered the unemployment rate by 3 to 5 basis points, suggesting that the December 2013 expiration of the EUC program might have slightly lowered the unemployment rate in early 2014.

However, since most leftists are not very literate about economics, let’s simplify the issue. Maybe they can understand some cartoons. Here are some options from Michael Ramirez, Robert Gorrell, and Chuck Asay, as well as a great Wizard-of-Id parody.

I’m a big believer in federalism, both as a matter of policy and politics.

So you won’t be surprised that I’ve called for the abolition of the Department of Transportation. On more than one occasion.

But when you’re trying to convince politicians to give up power and money, it takes a lot repetition. So, to paraphrase what Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, here we go again.

I want to emphasize one part of the interview. I’m agnostic on the issue of whether America as a whole needs more infrastructure spending, but I’m sure some parts of the nation could use more roads.

But that doesn’t mean that Washington should be in charge of that spending.

My colleague at Cato, Chris Edwards, is an expert on these issues. Here’s what he recently wrote about the various schemes in DC to fund more transportation spending with higher taxes.

HTF spending on highways and urban transit adds up to $53 billion a year, while the HTF rakes in $39 billion in revenues, mainly from the federal gasoline tax. That leaves a gap of $14 billion. President Obama wants to fill the gap with corporate tax revenues, but that bad idea is dead on arrival in Congress. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) has a different idea. His bill, co-sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), would hike the federal gas tax by 12 cents per gallon. …Corker’s position is the opposite of conservative. If Tennessee needs more money for roads, it can raise its own gas tax any time it wants.

And here are some of the numbers that Chris put together showing that highway spending has been rising rather than falling.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason adds more context.

About 27 percent of highway and transit spending currently comes from the federal government, via the HTF, while states kicking in about 38 percent and 35 percent coming from municipalities. The HTF isn’t set to “run dry” in August, as many are reporting, but it did tell states to expect an average 28 percent reduction in aid at that point unless Congress acts. …there’s nothing stopping states from taking this matter into their own hands. Since 2013, seven states have raised fuel levies, reports Reuters… When left a little more to their own devices, it seems states get innovative. They develop localized solutions. They experiment.

Let’s close with one interesting piece of data. The International Institute for Management Development recently published its World Competitiveness Yearbook.

The good news is that the United States maintained its hold on first place. That’s a lot better than we’re doing in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But what’s particularly relevant and fascinating is to see America’s scores in the various sub-components of the Yearbook. The United States may rank only 22 out of 60 nations for government effectiveness, but we beat every nation for infrastructure.

So if we have an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States, it certainly doesn’t show up in either the hard data or the business leader opinion survey that generate those rankings.

P.S. Back in 2011, I shared a couple of serious videos about bitcoin.

On a lighter note, here’s “bitcoin girl” encouraging more people to use this private money.

But since I don’t want anyone to accuse me of bias, fans of the Federal Reserve can enjoy this alleged film clip from Ben Bernanke’s childhood.

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