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Archive for April, 2011

George Soros participated in a forum on Hayek at the Cato Institute this past week, and the really fascinating part is watching him cross swords with University of Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein.

The video is more than one-hour long, so if you just want to see Soros and Epstein, you can skip forward to about the 16:00 mark.

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I just read something that unleashed my inner teenager, because I want to respond with a combination of OMG, LMAO, and WTF.

Donald Berwick, the person appointed by Obama to be in charge of Medicare, has a column in the Wall Street Journal that makes a very good observation about how relative prices are falling for products bought and sold in the free market. But he then draws exactly the wrong conclusion by asserting that further crippling market forces for healthcare will yield similar cost savings for programs such as Medicare.

Here’s the relevant passage from his Wall Street Journal column.

The right way is to help bring costs down by making care better and improving our health-care system. Improving quality while reducing costs is a strategy that’s had major success in other fields. Computers, cars, TVs and telephones today do more than they ever have, and the cost of these products has consistently dropped. The companies that make computers and microwaves didn’t get there by cutting what they offer: They achieved success by making their products better and more efficient. …Under President Obama’s framework, we will hold down Medicare cost growth, improve the quality of care for seniors, and save an additional $340 billion for taxpayers in the next decade.

I have no idea whether Berwick realizes that he has inverted reality, so I can’t decide whether he is cynically dishonest or hopelessly clueless. All I can say with certainty is that what he wrote is sort of like asserting “gravity causes things to fall, so therefore this rock will rise when I let go of it.”

To explain, let’s start by looking at why relative prices are falling for computers, cars, TVs and telephones. This isn’t because the companies that make these products are motivated by selflessness. Like all producers, they would love to charge high prices and get enormous profits. But because they must compete for consumers who are very careful about getting the most value for their money, the only way companies can earn profits is to be more and more efficient so they can charge low prices.

So why isn’t this happening in health care? The answer, at least in part, is that consumers aren’t spending their own money so they don’t really care how much things cost. As this chart illustrates (click to enlarge), only 12 percent of every healthcare dollar is paid directly by consumers. The rest comes from third-party payers, mostly government but also insurance companies.

In other words, Berwick’s column accidentally teaches us an important lesson. When consumers are in charge and responsible for paying their own bills, markets are very efficient and costs come down. But when government policies cause third-party payer, consumers have little if any incentive to spend money wisely – leading to high costs and inefficiency.

Defenders of the status quo argue that the market for healthcare somehow is different than the market for things such as computers. But here’s a chart (click to enlarge) showing that relative prices are falling in one of the few areas of the healthcare system where consumers spend their own money. And I’ve previously noted that the same thing applies with abortion, where prices have been remarkably stable for decades. Regardless of one’s views on the procedure, it does show that costs don’t rise when people spend their own money.

That’s common sense and basic economics. But it’s not a good description of Obama’s healthcare plan, which is explicitly designed to increase the share of medical care financed by third-party payer.

The White House presumably would argue that price controls will help control costs. And the President’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (a.k.a., the death panel) will have enormous power to directly or indirectly restrict care, but that’s probably not too comforting for the elderly and others with high healthcare expenses.

The right approach, needless to say, would be to restore market forces to healthcare, which is the core message of this video narrated by Eline van den Broek of the Netherlands.

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Both President Reagan and President Obama had to deal with serious economic dislocation upon taking office.

But they used radically different approaches to deal with the problems they inherited. Reagan sought to reduce the burden of government, whereas Obama viewed government as an engine of growth.

So who had the right approach? This image, taken from an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal,  shows  quarterly economic growth (adjusted for inflation) for the seven quarters after the recession ended.

At the risk of sounding unscientific, Reagan mops the floor with Obama. Growth was much more robust under Reaganomics. The policy of Obamanomics, by contrast, is associated with sluggish economic performance. (Indeed, see this post, based on Minneapolis Fed data, for an even starker comparison.)

Most worrisome, the weak growth over the past seven quarters means the economy has not recovered the lost output caused by the recession. This is in contrast to past downturns, where a temporary fall in output was offset by a period of rapid growth when the recession ended. And since there’s no reason to expect a sudden boom now, this means a permanent loss of income for the American people.

To be sure, we have no idea what would have happened in the early 1980s without Reaganomics, just like we have no idea what would have happened the past few years if America had taken a different approach.

But when theory and evidence both point in a certain direction, perhaps it’s a good idea to at least consider the possibility that small government is better for prosperity than big government.

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Why do some people instinctively despise wealth and want to tear down those who are successful? This question has been percolating in my mind because I am in Monaco to speak to the IXth international conference of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors.

This tiny principality is an amazingly prosperous place, easily the richest jurisdiction on the planet according to World Bank data. And it oozes glamor, with everything from the Grand Casino to the legacy of Princess Grace (who was breathtaking in Rear Window).

There is an incredibly high concentration of luxury cars in Monaco, and I can’t walk into my hotel without stumbling over a Rolls Royce or Ferrari. Not that this is a surprise. I’m staying at the Hermitage, a luxurious hotel where the cheap rooms cost more than $500 per night.

Thankfully, that doesn’t come out of my pocket since I’m a speaker. I did make the mistake, though, of getting a diet coke with my breakfast, not realizing that drinks weren’t included and that I would be responsible for the absurd extra charge of 7 euro (which is $10.40, so thank you, Ben Bernanke, for trashing the value of the dollar).

Anyhow, you get the picture. Let’s returns to the original question, dealing with perceptions of wealth. As I wander around Monaco, I don’t envy the wealth I see. I can imagine how nice it would be to have a lot of money, of course, but that doesn’t lead me to resent the rich people. Instead, I think about how they must have done something very productive to accumulate so much money.

Not everybody thinks this way. I was talking to a left-wing academic, who also is at the conference, and this person made a comment about all the “crooks” in Monaco. I asked for elaboration and this person asserted that the wealthy residents of Monaco were the beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains.

While I reject the blanket assertion, this person has a point. I’m sure any crowd of rich people includes some folks who got wealthy the wrong way. Maybe some of the people in Monaco were former government officials from other nations who figured out how to steal taxpayer funds. Maybe some of them benefited from special government favors such as exclusive licenses or protectionist barriers to monopolize a certain market and rip off consumers. And others may have been conventional crooks who obtained loot from things such as securities fraud.

As I pondered this issue, it got me thinking about the broader problem of left-wing hostility to wealth – a sentiment that you find even from statists who have a lot of money. Why do they feel this way?

I’m wondering whether part of the answer is that many rich leftists didn’t earn their money. Or, to be more precise, they got wealthy due to connections rather than achievement. And because of their personal experiences, they conclude that wealth in general isn’t really deserved. So why not subject rich people – including themselves – to high tax rates.

This is especially true for politicians. They tend to obtain money in ways that do not exactly fit the definition of entrepreneurship. Consider these examples:

o Barack Obama gets millions of dollars by cranking out a couple of books. Even if he wrote the books (many politicians let staffers do the work), he still must recognize that he didn’t really do anything but trade on his political status to pad his bank account. Moreover, his wife got big bucks representing Chicago hospitals, and it would require deliberate naiveté to believe her lucrative position had nothing to do with the couple’s political prominence.

o Bill Clinton’s perceptions of the free market were probably distorted by his participation in the Whitewater real estate project, which wound up being a bit of a scam. Also, Hillary Clinton raked in $100,000 as a young lawyer by trading cattle futures. Even assuming that money was legit, it would lead someone to think that wealth was a matter of luck.

I’m not trying to pick on prominent Democrats. Plenty of Republicans also cash in on their political connections. But GOPers generally don’t push for higher taxes on the “rich,” and the purpose of this post is to speculate on why rich leftists support class-warfare policies.

But let’s set aside personal stories and look at how left-wing politicians must see the world of wealth. They routinely meet with well-heeled interest groups that are looking to line their pockets because of government favoritism. One day, they hear from the fat cats from Archer Daniels Midland, who come into their office lobbying for more ethanol subsidies. The next day, they may get a visit from the executives from GM and Chrysler, who jet into town looking for more handouts. And the day after that, somebody from Wall Street may drop by seeking a bailout.

After enough exposure to such sleazeballs, we should not be too surprised that leftist politicians begin to assume that all wealth is unearned. And if it is not earned, that means the rich person does not have a moral claim on the money. So why not tax it at high rates?

So long as I am playing armchair psychologist, I will make two additional points.

First, rich people who got their money from connections and/or luck may feel a certain level of resentment toward those who got rich by producing something of value. So even if they recognize that some wealth is earned, that does not mean they will support good policy.

Second, my theory certainly does not explain everything. There are plenty of rich left wingers, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who genuinely earned their money. I have no idea how to explain their political views:

Perhaps the only thing we can safely conclude is that some rich people think the wrong way. Gee, what a brilliant insight!

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Here are several from Jay Leno. The one about Biden is the best.

  • The good news is, President Obama was born in America. The bad news is, so was Donald Trump.
  • It’s the 75th anniversary of the introduction of Social Security checks. For the younger viewers who don’t know what a Social Security check is, you’ll never see one in your lifetime, so don’t worry about it.
  • The man who invented the teleprompter has died at the age of 91. When President Obama heard the news, he was speechless.
  • A new poll shows that President Obama’s approval rating is down to 41 percent. A lot of people that voted for him now say they liked him a lot better when he was a Democrat.
  • The United States is sending its most powerful drone to Libya. That’s a long trip for Joe Biden.

Here’s a good one from Jimmy Fallon.

  • Donald Trump said he still wants to look more closely at Obama’s birth certificate to make sure that it’s real. Incidentally, President Obama said the same exact thing about Donald Trump’s hair.

Two funny quips from Jimmy Kimmel.

  • The White House Easter Egg Roll is an opportunity from kids all over the country to come to the White House and look for the president’s birth certificate.
  • Everyone knows that Santa Claus lives at the north pole, but no one cares where the Easter Bunny comes from.
  • St. Louis International Airport was hit directly by a tornado. They determined that tornadoes are no longer a danger, and now we can go back to being endangered by sleeping air traffic controllers.

And one final joke from Letterman.

  • Today was so beautiful that air traffic controllers were napping in the park.

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The first entry in this series was an Internet sensation. Now you can enjoy Part II.

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Like all sensible libertarian-minded people, I don’t think the government should be regulating pornography.

There are obvious exceptions for things like child porn, of course, and I’d even throw animal cruelty into the mix of things that can be banned.

But leave run-of-the-mill adult pornography alone. Yes, some people can take it too far and become obsessed. And I certainly can understand why a wife/girlfriend could see excessive fixation on porn as a deal-breaker in a relationship.

But those factors surely don’t require government involvement.

Now that I’ve burnished my libertarian bona fides, let me state that there is a giant difference between letting porn be legal, both for libertarian and constitutional reasons. and having the government subsidize it.

Yet that’s just what New York City is doing in its public libraries. Here’s an excerpt from a CBS report.

It’s the last thing you’d expect to find at New York City’s public libraries. But find it you will. Pornography. CBS 2’s Scott Rapoport has more on the A-B-Cs behind the XXX at the library. “It’s a little shocking,” one public library patron said. “Wow. I didn’t know that. I had no idea,” added another. Yep, electronic porn too graphic for CBS 2 to show on television is available on-line for adults — on publicly used computers at the city’s 200 library branches. …Richard Reyes-Gavilan of the Brooklyn Public Library said that’s the policy — that even pornography is protected by the first amendment and recognized as free speech.

The comment by Mr Reyes-Gavilan is a perfect example of the statist mindset. If they don’t like something, they want to ban it or heavily tax it. If they do like something, they want it to be subsidized.

Why is it so difficult for some people to accept a world where people can make their own decisions with their own money, so long as their not infringing on the life, liberty, and property of others?

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I suppose I should explicitly say that this is a joke, though it’s understandable that some folks might think it’s real, given the nonsense that is sometimes taught at Ivy League colleges.

(h/t: Transterrestial.com)

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I may have to stop being a New York Yankees fan. The state of my birth is a national embarrassment. People in the Empire State are national champions in the contest to rip off their fellow citizens according to analysis from USA Today. West Virginia, however, is the biggest deadbeat state if handouts are compared to state income.

But kudos to the folks in Utah for swindling the least amount of money from other Americans (and perhaps secondary congratulations to the Mormon Church for emphasizing self reliance). Here’s an excerpt from the article.

New Yorkers get more government aid per person from social programs than residents of any other state, a USA TODAY analysis finds. …The state’s Medicaid program is the most expensive in the nation, driving the average cost of all government benefits in New Yorkto $9,442 per person. …USA TODAY analyzed data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau to determine the importance of government benefits in each state. The benefit numbers represent average amounts received per person — not just for those in a program. The benefits include what people receive for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, veterans’ programs, college scholarships and many other government programs. …West Virginia…gets 28% of its income from government programs, more than any other state. The state’s residents are the second oldest, after Florida’s, and 20% collect disability.

Data for all states can be seen by clicking on the USA Today story, but here are the highlights (or lowlights), featuring the five states that have the highest per-capita mooching from the federal trough. And we also list the five states that deserve credit for being the most self-reliant.

Five Biggest Moocher States                          Top States for Being Self-Reliant

New York               $9,442                                  Utah                      $4,731

West Virginia         $9,138                                  Colorado               $5,632

Rhode Island         $8,955                                  Virginia                  $6,001

Maine                     $8,864                                  Nevada                  $6,080

Pennsylvania         $8,616                                   Texas                     $6,167

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I praised Michael Ramirez a few days ago for his clever political cartoons, so it’s time to “spread the wealth” and draw attention to a couple of superb cartoons by Chuck Asay (I think his hometown paper is the Colorado Springs Gazette).

Since I’ve bashed the biased and inaccurate work of the Congressional Budget Office, I found this cartoon very amusing.

And this cartoon on business taxation is very appropriate after yesterday’s post about a potential corporate tax rate reduction from the Obama Administration.

By the way, Obama at one point did say that “no business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top.”

Unfortunately, he made that statement in Ghana and I assumed he only had supply-side feelings while outside of America. But I’m a believer in redemption, so maybe his corporate tax proposal will be good and the beginning of a journey in the right direction.

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According to an article in the New York Times, the Obama Administration is seriously examining a proposal to reduce America’s anti-competitive 35 percent corporate tax rate.

The Obama administration is preparing to inject an unpredictable new variable into its economic policy clash with Republicans: a plan to overhaul corporate taxes. Economic advisers have nearly completed the process initiated in January by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, at President Obama’s behest. That process, intended to make the United States more competitive internationally, has explored the willingness of business leaders to sacrifice loopholes in return for lowering the top corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. The approach officials are now discussing would drop the top rate as low as 26 percent, largely by curbing or eliminating tax breaks for depreciation and for domestic manufacturing.

This may be a worthwhile proposal, but this is an example where it would be wise to “look before you leap.” Or, for fans of Let’s Make a Deal, let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2.

To judge Obama’s plan, it is important to have the right benchmark. An ideal corporate tax system obviously should have a low tax rate. And it also should have no double taxation (tax corporate income at the business level or tax it at the individual level, but don’t tax it at both levels).

But it’s also important to have a simple and neutral system. The right definition of corporate income for any given year is (or should be) total revenue minus total costs. What’s left is income.

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it’s not the way the corporate tax code works. The system has thousands of complicated provisions, some of which provide special loopholes (such as the corrupt ethanol credit) that allow firms to understate their income, and some of which impose discriminatory penalties by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Consider the case of depreciation. The vast majority of people understandably have no idea what this term means, but it sounds like a special tax break. After all, who wants big corporations to lower their tax bills by taking advantage of something that sounds so indecipherable.

In reality, though, depreciation simply refers to the tax treatment of investment costs. Let’s say a company buys a new machine (which would increase productivity and thus boost wages) for $10 million. Under a sensible and simple tax system, that company would include that $10 million when adding up all their costs, which then would be subtracted from total revenue to determine income.

But the corporate tax code doesn’t let companies properly recognize the cost of new investments. Instead, they are only allowed to deduct (depreciate) a fraction of the cost the first year, followed by more the next year, and so on and so on depending on the specific depreciation rules for different types of investments.

To keep the example simple, let’s say there is “10-year straight line depreciation” for the new machine. That means a company can only deduct $1 million each year and they have to wait an entire decade before getting to fully deduct the cost of the new machine.

Ultimately, the firm does deduct the full $10 million, but the delay (in some cases, about 40 years) means that a company, for all intents and purposes, is being taxed on a portion of its investment expenditures. This is because they lose the use of their money, and also because even low levels of inflation mean that deductions are worth significantly less in future years than they are today.

To put it in terms that are easy to understand, imagine if the government suddenly told you that you had to wait 10 years to deduct your personal exemption!

Let’s now circle back to President Obama’s proposal. With the information we now have, there is no way of determining whether this proposal is a net plus or a net minus. A lower rate is great, of course, but perhaps not if the government doesn’t let you accurately measure your expenses and therefore forces you to overstate your income.

I’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

P.S. It’s also important to understand that a “deduction” in the business tax code does not imply loophole. If you remember the correct definition of business income (total revenue minus total costs), this means a business gets to “deduct” its expenses (such as wages paid to workers) from total revenue to determine taxable income. Some deductions are loopholes, of course, which is why a  simple, fair, and honest system should be based on cash flow. Which is how business are treated under the flat tax.

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Republicans are fighting about taxes. But they’re fighting with each other, not Democrats. I’ve already written about this topic once, but the issue has become more heated, and the stakes have become much larger. And this time I’m going to focus on the political implications.

First, some background. One side of this battle is led by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who is the organizer of the no-tax-increase pledge. Grover argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending and that higher taxes are economically and politically foolish.

The other side of the conflict is led by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much red ink and that higher taxes are a necessary price to strike a deal with Democrats that supposedly will reduce budget deficits.

The first  skirmish in this fight involved ethanol tax credits. Senator Coburn wanted to get rid of the credit, which everyone agrees is economically destructive and fundamentally corrupt.

But there’s a catch. when you get rid a tax preference, even an odious one, that means the government gets more money. In other words a tax increase. Senator Coburn has no problem with that outcome.

Grover Norquist says that all of the arguments against ethanol are correct, but he says that any proposal to get rid of the credit should be accompanied by a tax cut of equal magnitude.

If the ethanol credit is worth about $6 billion per year, as Senator Coburn’s office states, then find a tax cut of similar size, pair it with the ethanol credit, and kill two birds with one stone. Seems like the best of all possible outcomes, which is why Grover is correct from a policy perspective.

The fight over the ethanol credit may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but it was symbolically important – particularly since it is a precursor for the much bigger fight about whether GOPers should agree to a budget deal with Democrats.

Indeed, this may already be happening as part of the “Gang of Six” negotiations, with Senator Coburn and two other Republican Senators joining three Democrats in putting together some sort of grand compromise (presumably something similar to what was proposed by Obama’s Fiscal Commission).

In this case, the tax increase could be enormous, well over $1 trillion. No wonder this battle is getting heated. Here are some excerpts from a recent story in the Washington Post.

Republicans are feuding over whether to abandon the party’s long-held opposition to higher taxes in pursuit of a deficit-cutting deal with Democrats. …both sides say this cuts to the core of a quandary for the GOP: Will the cause of trimming deficits run aground on the conservative principle that the government must not increase the amount of money it takes in through taxes? …“If we don’t do something, what we’ve done is put the country at risk,” Coburn said in an interview. “I agree we ought to cut spending, but will we ever get the spending cut to the level that we need to without some type of compromise?” Norquist…argues that bipartisan deals struck by Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George H.W. Bush in 1990, both of which entailed increased taxes, resulted in bigger government rather than spending cuts that both men thought they had secured. “This is a fantasy on the part of the liberal Democrats that the Republicans would be stupid enough to repeat 1990 and throw away a winning hand politically,” Norquist said.

As the excerpt correctly acknowledges, this issue deals with both economics and politics. From an economic perspective, there are all sorts of important issues:

1. What is better for the economy, lower spending or higher taxes?

2. Is it possible to balance the budget without higher taxes?

3. Would tax increases be used for deficit reduction or more spending?

But I covered these issues in my earlier post, so lets’ look at the political implications. Grover asked, in the Washington Post article, “Why would you elect a Republican Senate if they just sat down with Obama and raised everyone’s taxes?” And I was quoted about how abandoning the no-tax-hike position would heavily damage the GOP.

How the debate among Republicans is resolved in the coming weeks will play a large role in determining whether a grand bipartisan bargain on deficit reduction is possible. “There’s a significant split over whether to put taxes on the table,” said Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute and a Norquist ally. Mitchell said the disagreement largely pits House and Senate Republicans against each other and gives Democrats a potential political edge. “Obama has it within his power to drive a big wedge between House and Senate GOP-ers and turn the tax issue from something that works on behalf of Republicans into something that works against them,” he said.

To elaborate on the last point, the no-tax-increase pledge helps the GOP because it sends a signal to all voters that they will not be raped and pillaged (at least in excess of what is happening now).

This puts Democrats in a tough position. They can play the politics of class warfare (as Obama likes to do) and say only the “rich” will pay higher taxes, but voters don’t dislike their upper-income neighbors. Moreover, they probably suspect that Democrats have a very broad definition of what counts as rich, so they instinctively gravitate to the GOP position. After all, the only sure way of avoiding a tax hike on yourself is to oppose tax hikes for everyone.

If Republicans put tax increases on the table, however, the politics get turned upside down. Instead of being united against all tax increases, voters realize somebody is going to get mugged and they have an incentive to make sure they’re not the ones who get victimized.

That’s when soak-the-rich taxes become very appealing. Democrats, for all intents and purposes, can appeal to average voters by targeting the so-called rich. And even though voters will be skeptical about what Democrats really want, they don’t want to be the primary target of the political predators in Washington.

Think of it this way. You’re a wildebeest running away from a pack of hyenas, but you know one member of your herd will get caught and killed. You despise hyenas, but at that critical moment, you’re main goal is wanting another member of the herd to bite the dust.

This is why surrendering to tax increases put Republicans in a no-win situation. They oppose class-warfare taxes because they understand the disproportionately damaging impact of higher top income tax rates and increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains. So when GOPers get bullied into agreeing to raise taxes, they want to target less destructive sources of revenue. But that usually means that taxes that are more likely to hit the middle class.

Needless to say, Democrats almost always win if there is a fight on whether to tax the middle class or to tax the rich.

Senator Coburn’s heart is in the right place, but he is creating a win-win situation for Democrats. By putting taxes on the table, he is giving Democrats a policy victory and a political victory.

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I periodically get emails and phone calls from people wanting me to respond to particular statements from politicians, columnists, and other high-profile figures.

Not surprisingly, Paul Krugman occasionally is the subject of these communications, particularly with regards to his view that Keynesian spending is an elixir and universal cure for economic stagnation.

I certainly have waded into the so-called stimulus fight, addressing the issue over and over and over again. But I generally try to comment on the underlying economic and political issues while avoiding pointless arguments with other people (not always with total success, as seen here and here).

The most recent Krugman-related email I received, however, has nothing to do with fiscal policy. It deals with his views on housing bubbles. Here’s what he advised back in 2002.

To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

Given what has happened in the past five years, Krugman’s endorsement of a housing bubble certainly leaves him vulnerable. And if it turns out that Alan Greenspan took his advice, that would be rather damning.

But I think he should be criticized for his general support for economic intervention, not his specific recommendation for a housing bubble.

Sure, his advice doesn’t look very good with the benefit of hindsight, but economists are notoriously awful forecasters, as I’ve noted before. Moreover, Krugman legitimately could argue that his advice was for the specific circumstances of 2002, and not a permanent recommendation.

That’s why my criticism is limited to his overall belief that government should steer the economy. And if you want to understand that issue, this post looking at the work of Robert Higgs is a great place to start.

P.S. If you want some amusing Krugman-baiting, you should read Best of the Web by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. Taranto often refers to Krugman at the “former Enron adviser” and routinely mocks Krugman for his silly assertion that horror stories about healthcare in the United Kingdom are false.

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There hasn’t been much good economic news in recent years, but one bright spot for the economy is that the United States is a haven for foreign investors and this has helped attract more than $10 trillion to American capital markets according to Commerce Department data.

These funds are hugely important for the health of the U.S. financial sector and are a critical source of funds for new job creation and other forms of investment.

This is a credit to the competitiveness of American banks and other financial institutions, but we also should give credit to politicians. For more than 90 years, Congress has approved and maintained laws to attract investment from overseas. As a general rule, foreigners are not taxed on interest they earn in America. Moreover, by not requiring it to be reported to the IRS, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have effectively blocked foreign governments from taxing this U.S.-source income.

This is why it is so disappointing and frustrating that the Internal Revenue Service is creating grave risks for the American economy by pushing a regulation that would drive a significant slice of this foreign capital to other nations. More specifically, the IRS wants banks to report how much interest they pay foreign depositors so that this information can be forwarded to overseas tax authorities.

Yes, you read correctly. The IRS is seeking to abuse its regulatory power to overturn existing law.

Not surprisingly, many members of Congress are rather upset by this rogue behavior.

Senator Rubio, for instance, just sent a letter to President Obama, slamming the IRS and urging the withdrawal of the regulation.

At a time when unemployment remains high and economic growth is lagging, forcing banks to report interest paid to nonresident aliens would encourage the flight of capital overseas to jurisdictions without onerous reporting requirements, place unnecessary burdens on the American economy, put our financial system at a fundamental competitive disadvantage, and would restrict access to capital when our economy can least afford it. …I respectfully ask that Regulation 146097-09 be permanently withdrawn from consideration. This regulation would have a highly detrimental effect on our economy at a time when pro-growth measures are sorely needed.

And here’s what the entire Florida House delegation (including all Democrats) had to say in a separate letter organized by Congressman Posey.

America’s financial institutions benefit greatly from deposits of foreigners in U.S. banks. These deposits help finance jobs and generate economic growth… For more than 90 years, the United States has recognized the importance of foreign deposits and has refrained from taxing the interest earned by them or requiring their reporting. Unfortunately, a rule proposed by the Internal Revenue Service would overturn this practice and likely result in the flight of hundreds of billions of dollars from U.S. financial institutions. …According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have $10.6 trillion passively invested in the U.S. economy, including nearly “$3.6 trillion reported by U.S. banks and securities brokers.” In addition, a 2004 study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that “a scaled back version of the rule would drive $88 billion from American financial institutions,” and this version of the regulation will be far more damaging.

Both Texas Senators also have registered their opposition. Senators Hutchison and Cornyn wrote to the Obama Administration earlier this month.

We are very concerned that this proposed regulation will bring serious harm to the Texas economy, should it go into effect. …Forgoing the taxation of deposit interest paid to certain global investors is a long-standing tax policy that helps attract capital investment to the United States. For generations, these investors have placed their funds in institutions in Texas and across the United States because of the safety of our banks. Another reason that many of these investors deposit funds in American institutions is the instability in their home countries. …With less capital, community banks will be able to extend less credit to working families and small businesses. Ultimately, working families and small businesses will bear the brunt of this ill-advised rule. Given the ongoing fragility of our nation’s economy, we must not pursue policies that will send away job-creating capital.We ask you to withdraw the IRS’s proposed REG-14609-09. The United States should continue to encourage deposits from global investors, as our nation and our economy are best served by this policy.

Their dismay shouldn’t be too surprising since their state would be especially disadvantaged. Here are key passages from a story in the Houston Chronicle.

Texas bankers fear Mexican nationals will yank their deposits if the institutions are required to report to the Internal Revenue Service the interest income non-U.S. residents earn. …such a requirement would drive billions of dollars in deposits to other countries from banks in Texas and other parts the country, hindering the economic recovery, bankers argue. About a trillion dollars in deposits from foreign nationals are in U.S. bank accounts, according to some estimates. …The issue is of particular concern to some banks in South Texas, where many Mexican nationals have moved deposits because they don’t feel their money is safe in institutions in Mexico. …”This proposal has caused a wave of panic in Mexico,” said Lindsay Martin, an estate-planning lawyer with Oppenheimer Blend Harrison + Tate in San Antonio. He has received in recent weeks more than a dozen calls from Mexican nationals and U.S.-based financial planners with questions on the rule. …Jabier Rodriguez, chief executive of Pharr-based Lone Star National Bank, said not one Mexican national he has spoken to backs the rule. “Several of them have said if it were to happen, then there’s no reason for us to have our money here anymore,” he said. Many Mexican nationals worry that the data could end up in the wrong hands, jeopardizing their safety. If people in Mexico and some South American nations find out they have a million dollars in an FDIC-insured account in the United States, “their families could be kidnapped,” added Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association.

For those who want more information about this critical issue, here’s a video explaining why the IRS’s unlawful regulation is very bad for the American economy.

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It’s not too surprising to learn that spending money on “high-speed” rail is foolish. And it’s hardly a revelation to learn that politicians over-promise and under-deliver when they push through these boondoggles.

My Cato colleague, Randall O’Toole, has written extensively about these money-losing white-elephant projects. But it’s not exactly shocking news that libertarians would resist wasteful government spending.

But it is stunning when establishment leftists admit that such programs are a mistake.

Here are excerpts from a column by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. Even folks at the Washington Post are recognizing (or at least beginning to recognize) that government is a giant sink-hole that squanders tax dollars and undermines prosperity.

Today, Liu Zhijun is ruined, and his high-speed rail project is in trouble. On Feb. 25, he was fired for “severe violations of discipline” — code for embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Seems his ministry has run up $271 billion in debt — roughly five times the level that bankrupted General Motors. But ticket sales can’t cover debt service that will total $27.7 billion in 2011 alone. Safety concerns also are cropping up. …On April 13, the government cut bullet-train speeds 30 mph to improve safety, energy efficiency and affordability. The Railway Ministry’s tangled finances are being audited. Construction plans, too, are being reviewed. Liu’s legacy, in short, is a system that could drain China’s economic resources for years. So much for the grand project that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times likened to a “moon shot” and that President Obama held up as a model for the United States. …China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well. “Any . . . shortfall in ridership or yield, can quickly create financial stress,” warns a 2010 World Bank staff report. Such “shortfalls” are all too common. Japan’s bullet trains needed a bailout in 1987. Taiwan’s line opened in 2007 and needed a government rescue in 2009. …the Beijing-Tianjin line, built at a cost of $46 million per mile, is losing more than $100 million per year. …On the whole, I’d say China should envy us.

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Michael Ramirez is a first-rate cartoonist for Investor’s Business Daily. Here are two of his recent gems.

As always, humor works when it is based on something true.

With that in mind, do you prefer this cartoon, which shows Obama scolding the Founding Fathers for their extreme libertarian views?

Or what about this cartoon, which makes the obvious point that growth is rather difficult when the productive sector of the economy is hobbled by too much government.

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I suppose there are some good jokes to make about Pakistan employing transgender tax collectors in an attempt to coerce more money from taxpayers, but I’m enough of a policy wonk to have serious questions about the system.

First, why does the government need to “shame” people. Can’t they just arrest taxpayers and/or seize their property? Or do Pakistani taxpayers actually enjoy the presumption of innocence, unlike their oppressed American counterparts?

Second, I read stories about religious zealots in Pakistan killing Christians and stoning adulterers. How do these tax collectors escape persecution? Is it that they only operate in a big city, which is more tolerant, while the really awful stuff happens in rural areas?

Third, why does Pakistan even bother with an income tax. I commented last year about Hillary Clinton’s ideological advice to Pakistan about squeezing the so-called rich, but the CNN story excerpted below says only 1 percent of the population is affected. What’s the point? The tax obviously doesn’t generate much revenue. Why not get rid of an oppressive law and make the country a tax haven?

Miss your tax deadline in the United States this weekend, and you might get a nasty letter at your door. In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, you might get Riffee and the gang. They are “transgender” tax collectors — whose weapons include flamboyancy, surprise — and a little lipstick. In a move that speaks volumes about the lengths to which Pakistan is going to tackle tax evasion, Karachi officials are using Riffee – who like many people in South Asia works under a single name – and her team as enforcers with a difference. They are sent to the businesses or houses of debtors. The aim — in this very conservative Muslim society — to embarrass tax debtors into paying up. Riffee — like her tax-collector friends Sana and Kohan — is physically a man, but prefers to be called and dress as a woman. Their job is quite simple: each morning they turn up to work and get a list of missed payments. One by one, they make house-calls, causing trouble at each debtor’s home or office, trying to get them to pay up. It’s not clear how effective this tactic is, but officials insist they would not do it if it did not work. “Their appearance causes great embarrassment amongst the people,” said Sajid Hussein Bhatti, the tax superintendent who gives Riffee her orders every morning.

Pakistan does have a lot of tax evasion, to be sure, but the unwillingness to comply is actually just a symptom of high tax rates and and a corrupt government. People don’t like paying tax when they feel like they are getting ripped off to finance a wasteful public sector. That’s true in Pakistan, Greece, and just about every other nation. That’s why lower tax rates are the best way to boost compliance.

(h/t Pejman Yousefzadeh)

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Under current law, Social Security is supposed to be an “earned benefit,” where taxes are akin to insurance premiums that finance retirement benefits for workers. And because there is a cap on retirement benefits, this means there also is a “wage-base cap” on the amount of income that is hit by the payroll tax.

For 2011, the maximum annual retirement benefit is about $28,400 and the maximum amount of income subject to the payroll tax is about $107,000.

It appears that President Obama wants to radically change this system so that it is based on a class-warfare model. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, then-Senator Obama suggested that the programs giant long-run deficit could be addressed by busting the wage-base cap and imposing the payroll tax on a larger amount of income.

For the past two years, the White House (thankfully) has not followed through on this campaign rhetoric, but that’s now changing. His Fiscal Commission, as I noted last year, suggested a big hike in the payroll tax burden. And the President reiterated his support for a class-warfare approach earlier this week, leading the Wall Street Journal to opine.

Speaking Tuesday in Annandale, Virginia, Mr. Obama came out for lifting the cap on income on which the Social Security payroll tax is applied. Currently, the employer and employee each pay 6.2% up to $106,800, a level that rises with inflation each year. …Mr. Obama didn’t hint at specifics, though he did run in 2008 on a plan to raise the “tax max” by somewhere between two to eight percentage points for the top 3% of earners. …most of the increase could be paid by the middle class or modestly affluent—i.e., those who merely make somewhat more than $106,800. A 6.2% additional hit on every extra dollar they make above that level is a huge reduction from their take-home pay. If the cap is removed entirely, it will also mean a huge increase in the marginal tax rates that affect decisions to work, invest and save. In a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Biggs calculates that this and other tax increases Mr. Obama favors would bring the top marginal rate to somewhere between 57% and 68% when factoring in state taxes. Tax levels like these haven’t been seen since the 1970s.

Obama is cleverly avoiding specifics, largely because the potential tax hike could be enormous. The excerpt above actually understates the potential damage since it mostly focuses on the “employee” side of the payroll tax. The “employer” share of the tax (which everyone agrees is paid for by workers in the form of reduced take-home wages) is also 6.2 percent, so the increase in marginal tax rates for affected workers could be as high as 12.4 percentage points.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, elaborates on why this is the wrong approach.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. This post looks at the politics of Medicare reform. You may also want to click on this post to see a video that succinctly explains the policy of Medicare reform.

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Republicans are understandably nervous about polling data showing considerable opposition to the Ryan plan’s Medicare proposal – particularly since they just voted for a budget resolution in the House of Representatives that includes such a reform.

Their unease is warranted. GOPers almost surely will be subjected to a scorched-earth campaign in 2012, featuring lots of demagoguery about  Medicare “privatization,” mixed in with shrill rhetoric about big insurance companies and “tax cuts for the rich.”

I don’t particularly care about the GOP’s electoral prospects, but I do want to save my nation from fiscal collapse, so that means I don’t want entitlement reform to become radioactive.

So what can be done to counter the predictable onslaught against Ryan’s Medicare proposal?

First and foremost, reformers should borrow some advice about counter-attacks from President Obama. He said during the 2008 campaign that if opponents “bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” and a high-ranking White House aide in 2009 urged supporters to “punch back twice as hard” when dealing with attacks against government-run healthcare.

While reformers obviously should avoid the unseemly rhetoric associated with the current Administration, they should copy the aggressive approach. Timidity is a recipe for defeat.

For instance, do not allow the left to compare the Ryan proposal to the status quo of unlimited handouts. That system is bankrupt and even the Obama Administration acknowledges that something dramatic needs to happen to control costs.

Indeed, the best strategy for reformers may be to compare the Ryan plan to Obama’s scheme for a beefed-up “Independent Payment Advisory Board.” Sounds wonky and technical, but IPAB is the bureaucratic entity that will be in charge of imposing price controls that lead to the rationing of health care for the elderly.

In other words, the real issue is who will be in charge of the pool of dollars that will be used to provide healthcare for the elderly. Ryan’s plan would let seniors choose a health plan that best suits their needs and provide a big subsidy to finance that policy. Obama’s plan, by contrast, will keep seniors in a government-run system and let a bunch of unelected bureaucrats decide what kind of care they should receive.

Moreover, reformers should fight fire with fire. If the left is allowed to use “privatization” to describe Ryan’s plan (notwithstanding massive government involvement and subsidies), then reformers should refer to IPAB as a “death panel.”

My colleague Michael Cannon is a one-man truth squad on these issues, and he already has explained that there was a lot of merit in Sarah Palin’s accusation that Obamacare would create something akin to a death panel, and he has documented the various ways that government-run healthcare will lead to rationing.

To conclude, here are excerpts from two excellent columns that recently have been published on Obama’s IPAB scheme.

Rich Lowry of National Review writes.

Why does Obama need specifics when he has the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB? If spending on health care is the biggest driver of government spending, then IPAB is Obama’s most important deficit-reduction initiative. …Obama…implicitly acknowledges that [Medicare] is broken and bankrupting us. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be proposing a cap on Medicare’s growth that is at least as stringent as anything New Gingrich proposed in the 1990s… Under Obamacare, IPAB is to hit a target for Medicare’s growth that significantly squeezes the program beginning in 2014 (in his budget speech, Obama said he wants to ratchet down the cap even further). …In the fact sheet released in conjunction with his budget speech, the White House says he wants to give IPAB “additional tools” and “additional enforcement mechanisms such as an automatic sequester.” …IPAB won’t make the notoriously inefficient Medicare program any more efficient. Through arbitrary reductions on payments to providers, it will simply reduce the supply of care. …Medicare’s chief actuary warned that Obamacare will drive providers out of the program. If you love Medicaid, you’ll adore the new IPAB version of Medicare. It will be the experts’ gift to America’s seniors.

The Wall Street Journal’s superb editorial page also has a good analysis.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board was created in the ObamaCare statute, and the President will appoint its experts in 2012 to six-year terms. …Starting in 2014, the board is charged with holding Medicare spending to certain limits, which at first is a measure of inflation. After 2018, the threshold is the nominal per capita growth of the economy plus one percentage point. Last week Mr. Obama said he wants to lower that to GDP plus half a percentage point.  Mr. Ryan has been lambasted for linking his “premium support” Medicare subsidies to inflation, not the rate of health cost growth. But if that’s as unrealistic as the liberal wise men claim, then Mr. Obama’s goals are even more so. …Since the board is not allowed by law to restrict treatments, ask seniors to pay more, or raise taxes or the retirement age, it can mean only one thing: arbitrarily paying less for the services seniors receive, via fiat pricing. …Now Mr. Obama wants to give the board the additional power of automatic sequester to enforce its dictates, meaning that it would have the legal authority to prevent Congress from appropriating tax dollars. In other words, Congress would be stripped of any real legislative role in favor of an unaccountable body of experts. …the board will decide “what works” and apply it through regulation to all of American medicine. …As a practical matter, the more likely outcome is the political rationing of care for the elderly, as now occurs in Britain… Messrs. Ryan and Obama agree that Medicare spending must decline, and significantly. The difference is that Mr. Ryan would let seniors decide which private Medicare-financed insurance policies to buy based on their own needs, while Mr. Obama wants Americans to accept the commands of 15 political appointees who will never stand for election.

Even though I play senior softball, I’m not a senior citizen by Medicare standards. But when I reach that age, I know what I’ll decide if my choice is “privatization” or a “death panel.”

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America is in fiscal peril in the short run because of a 10-year spending binge by Bush and Obama and in the long run because of a toxic combination of entitlement programs and demographics.

Congressman Paul Ryan has introduced a budget plan to address America’s fiscal crisis, but Senator Reid and President Obama have summarily rejected his proposal, so it appears the United States will continue to drift in the wrong direction.

Something is needed to compel action. One might think that such an impetus would have been provided by the recent decision by Standard & Poor to downgrade the fiscal outlook for the United States. But this development hasn’t affected the spending culture in Washington.

But there is hope. Senator Corker has legislation that would force Congress to act – and automatically impose fiscal discipline if they don’t. His bill caps – and then slowly reduces – government spending as a share of national economic output (gross domestic product).

I’ve already written about the merits of this proposal, including an explanation of the all-important enforcement mechanism of sequestration (automatic spending cuts). Here’s Senator Corker’s description of his plan, as delivered at a Cato Institute conference on the Economic Impact of Government Spending.

To build on the Senator’s comments, there are two things that deserve special emphasis.

1. He correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.

2. Senator Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.

Some people complain that Senator Corker’s plan is too timid and that it doesn’t balance the budget by 2021. While it would be desirable to impose additional fiscal restraint, the Tennessee Senator has deliberately chosen a more modest goal in order to attract support from colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And he does have Democratic co-sponsors, something that is critical given the composition of the Senate.

Since I’m just a policy wonk, I’ll leave it to the other people to argue about what’s feasible in the current political environment. My final comment, though, is that we’re on an unsustainable path that will lead to the end of American exceptionalism and turn the United States into a decrepit, European-style welfare state. So I’m not going to complain if someone has a plan that finally moves policy in the right direction, albeit not quite as fast as I prefer.

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There are very serious ways to save huge amounts of money from the defense budget, largely by making smarter choices about defining America’s national security.

This obviously involves high-profile decisions about whether it is smart to engage in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it also involves what seem to be “gimme” choices about whether we should be spending tens of billions of dollars to maintain troops in places such as Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Japan.

And, sometimes, it’s just the simple fact that bureaucracies like to squander money. Here’s a $600,000 boondoggle that barely rises to the level of a rounding error in the Defense Department’s budget, but it is a nauseating example of how government wastes our money in genuinely spectacular ways. Every time some politician says we need to raise taxes, you should think of this piece of you-know-what and  say #*&@;^ No!

Here are the key passages from a U.S. News and World Report story.

A $600,000 frog sculpture that lights up, gurgles “sounds of nature” and carries a 10-foot fairy girl on its back could soon be greeting Defense Department employees who plan to start working at the $700 million Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. this fall. That is unless a new controversy over the price tag of the public art doesn’t torpedo the idea. Decried as wasteful spending that will be seen by just a couple thousand of daily workers who arrive on bus shuttles, foes have tried to delay the decision, expected tomorrow, April 1. But in an E-mail, an Army Corps of Engineers official said that the decision can’t be held up because it would impact completion of the huge project. …The Mark Center is one of the facilities that thousands of defense workers will be reporting to as part of the Base Realignment and Closure plan, or BRAC, that is shifting workers around Virginia and Maryland. The BRAC plan itself has been criticized as wasteful.

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I’m an over-protective parent. Even now, with my kids ranging between 18 and 23, I will try to herd them together while skiing so I can follow them down the slopes and watch for potential injuries. And I never got them a jungle gym when they were young, even though I somehow managed to survive childhood with one in my backyard.

But at least I recognize what I’m doing. And I certainly would never consider imposing my mother-hen impulses on the overall population.

I’m not surprised to discover, however, that bureaucrats in New York wanted to go way overboard with regulations to ban just about anything with even tiny risks of injury. This list included things such as archery and rock climbing, which might cause me to fret, but also things such as (I’m not joking) kickball and tag.

With those standards, you may as well require kids to be enclosed in bubble wrap every morning.

The only good news is that people found out about the state’s regulatory overreach and the government was forced to cancel the rules after widespread mockery.

Here are some excerpts from a story by NBC in New York.

Day camp games like tag, wiffle ball, Red Rover and kickball are no longer at risk in New York after state health officials yanked a proposal that threatened the future of those mainstays of child’s play. Towns, villages and other camp operators had begun revamping upcoming indoor summer programs after the Department of Health sent out a long list of familiar games and activities it said presented a “significant risk of injury” and needed to be regulated more closely. …On Tuesday, Richie, a Republican whose district includes three mostly rural north-central New York counties, said she was pleased by the reversal. “At a time when our nation’s No. 1 health concern is childhood obesity, I am very happy to see that someone in state government saw we should not be adding new burdensome regulations by classifying tag, Red Rover and Wiffle Ball as dangerous activities,” she said. “I am glad New York’s children can continue to steal the bacon and play flag football and enjoy other traditional rites of summer.” The proposal would have revised the definition of a summer day camp to include potentially risky organized indoor group activities like archery and rock climbing — as well as things like kickball, tag and Wiffle Ball. Ritchie said that would have required camps in many smaller towns and villages to add staff such as nurses and pay $200 for a state permit. Other critics argued the regulation was a hysterical approach that stood to take all the fun out of summer.

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Another corny PG-13 joke from my inbox, but I can’t resist sharing anything that takes a swipe at government.

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A young man married a beautiful woman who had previously divorced 10 husbands. On their wedding night, she told her new husband to “Please be gentle; I’m still a Virgin.”

“What?” said the puzzled groom. “How can that be if you’ve been married ten times?”

“Well, husband #1 was a Sales Representative; he kept telling me how great it was going to be.

“Husband # 2 was in Software Services; he was never really sure how it was supposed to function; but he said he’d look into it and get back with me.

“Husband # 3 was from Field Services; he said that everything checked out diagnostically but he just couldn’t get the system up.

“Husband # 4 was in Telemarketing; even though he knew he had the order, he didn’t know when he would be able to deliver.

“Husband # 5 was an Engineer, he understood the basic process but he wanted three years to research, implement, and design a new state of the-art method.

“Husband #6 was from Administration; he thought he knew how but he wasn’t sure whether it was his job or not.

“Husband # 7 was in Marketing; although he had a product, he was never sure how to position it…

“Husband # 8 was a Psychiatrist; all he did was talk about it.

“Husband # 9 was a Gynecologist; all he did was look at it.

“Husband # 10 was a Stamp Collector; all he ever did was lick it….. God I miss him.

“But now that I’ve married you, I’m so excited.”

“Wonderful”, said the husband, “but why?

“You’re with the ” GOVERNMENT ”  ……..This time I KNOW I’M  gonna get  screwed.”

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn.

After reading below about Argentina’s decline, several people have emailed to ask how Chile compares. Ask and ye shall receive. This post from last month shows shows Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. Very powerful, which is why I gave the post such a grandiose title.

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There’s been a lot of coverage of the recent decision by Standard & Poor to warn that the United States has a “negative” outlook.

As Joe Biden would say, BFD. I’m stunned that anyone would care, particularly since the rating agencies have zero credibility. These clowns completely missed Enron. They missed the collapse of Europe. They blew it on the financial crisis, especially with regard to the corrupt government-created mess at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The fact that one of the rating agencies belatedly warns that America is heading in the wrong direction should elicit only one response, which is, “Where were you guys when Bush did no-bureaucrat-left-behind, the prescription drug entitlement and TARP? And where were you guys when Obama did the faux stimulus and government-run healthcare?”

One of the problems with the rating agencies in this regard is that they narrowly focus on the ostensible ability of an institution (such as a company or government) to repay debt. That’s an important consideration, especially if you are a bondholder, but (even if the rating agencies did a good job) it doesn’t tell us much about why a government is in good shape or bad shape.

This story – and the failure to recognize what’s truly important – is doubly irritating to me since I’m in Buenos Aires for the Mont Pelerin Society meetings. Many of the speakers have focused on the challenges in Latin America, with a lot of attention focused on what went wrong with Argentina.

If I was forced to compress all the analysis into one brief answer, the problem is crony capitalism. Argentina’s economy, for all intents and purposes, is one giant Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac/Obamacare/General Motors/Goldman Sachs Obamaesque dystopia. Government has enormous influence over every major economic decision. It’s like being in the middle of Atlas Shrugged, as political connections are the way to get rich.

This type of approach is far worse than the Scandinavian welfare state. Yes, the official size of government is bigger in places such as Sweden, but the negative role of government intervention is far more pervasive in Argentina.

What makes this so tragic is that Argentina used to be one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Last night, I had the privilege of listening to one of the nation’s leading free market advocates, Dr. Ricardo H. López Murphy, talk about Argentina’s history. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Argentina looked to the United States for inspiration (back in the days when government was a far smaller burden) and he noted that his country was remarkably successful.

Then, beginning around the 1940s, Argentina began to march in the wrong direction. As you can see from this chart, the consequences have been tragic. The nation’s relative ranking has declined precipitously. A country that used to be one of the world’s richest has now fallen way behind.

I also put Hong Kong on this chart to give further evidence that policy matters. Argentina has pursued an Obama policy of government intervention and has declined. Hong Kong has practiced laissez-faire economics and now is one of the world’s richest jurisdictions.

This is a warning to America. There is nothing magical about the United States. If we copy Argentina (actually, a very bad combination of Argentine-style crony capitalism and Swedish-style high-tax redistribution), we will suffer similar consequences.

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Economists often do a crummy job of teaching people about the impact of fiscal policy on the labor force, largely because we put people to sleep with boring discussions about “labor supply” decisions (my blog post from last year perhaps being an example of this tendency).

From now on, I will try to remember to use this cartoon. It’s a parody of Obama’s policies, but the last slide (or is it a panel?) is a great teaching tool about what happens when politicians turn the safety net into a hammock.

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Happy Tax Day! Or, if you’re like me, happy tax extension filing day.

In the past couple of days, I’ve posted about the benefits of a better tax system and the unfairness of the current system.

Those were compelling posts, at least I hope. But now let’s tie these themes together. Art Laffer has a column in the Wall Street Journal that explains the comprehensively awful burden of the internal revenue code – and also shows the promise of a better approach.

There is a lot more to taxes than simply paying the bill. Taxpayers must spend significantly more than $1 in order to provide $1 of lafferincome-tax revenue to the federal government. To start with, individuals and businesses must pay the government the $1 in revenue plus the costs of their own time spent filing and complying with the tax code; plus the tax collection costs of the IRS; plus the tax compliance outlays that individuals and businesses pay to help them file their taxes. In a study published last week by the Laffer Center, my colleagues Wayne Winegarden, John Childs and I estimate that these costs alone are a staggering $431 billion annually. This is a cost markup of 30 cents on every dollar paid in taxes. And this is not even a complete accounting of the costs of tax complexity. …David Keating of the National Taxpayers Union provides a useful perspective on how big the tax compliance industry is. According to his research, as of 2009 the income-tax industry employed “more workers than are employed at the five biggest employers among Fortune 500 companies—more than all the workers at Wal-Mart Stores, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, International Business Machines, and Citigroup combined.” Without diminishing in any way the professionalism of tax attorneys, accountants and financial planners, all of these efforts produce nothing other than, well, tax compliance. …A tax reform to a simple flat-rate tax with no deductions would significantly reduce the current complexity inherent in our progressive tax system, which is full of loopholes, exemptions and special interest carve-outs. Based on the estimates from our new study, if a static, revenue-neutral flat-tax reform were to reduce the tax complexity in half, the long-term growth in our economy would increase by around one-half of 1% per year.

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Nothing can compensate for the misery of having your money seized by the IRS and sent to Washington where it will be squandered by vote-buying politicians.

But if you’re a fan of gallows humor, these jokes that people have sent me over the years may brighten your day.

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A man about to have a heart transplant was offered the choice of either a 26 year-old marathon runners heart or the heart of a 62 year-old IRS agent. He picked the agent’s heart because he said it had never been used.

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A university committee was selecting a new dean. They had narrowed the candidates down to a mathematician, an economist and a tax lawyer.

Each was asked this question during their interview: “How much is two plus two?”

The mathematician answered immediately, “Four.”

The economist thought for several minutes and finally answered, “Four, plus or minus one.”

Finally the tax lawyer stood up, peered around the room and motioned silently for the committee members to gather close to him. In a hushed, conspiratorial tone, he replied, “How much do you want it to be?”

Q: How are an apple and a I.R.S. agent alike?
A: They both look good hanging from a tree.
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Q: What did the terrorist that hijacked a jumbo-jet full of I.R.S. agents do?
A: He threatened to release one every hour if his demands weren’t met.
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Q: What’s the difference between an I.R.S. agent and a mosquito?
A: One is a bloodsucking parasite, the other is an insect.

I want to join a violent, armed group with no regard for the law… but the IRS isn’t hiring.

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A businessman on his deathbed called his friend and said, “Bill, I want you to promise me that when I die you will have my remains cremated.”

“And what,” his friend asked, “Do you want me to do with your ashes?”

The businessman said, “Just put them in an envelope and mail them to the Internal Revenue Service and write on the envelope, “Now you have everything.”

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Late one night a mugger wearing a ski mask jumped into the path of a well-dressed man and stuck a gun in his ribs. “Give me your money,” he demanded.

Indignant, the affluent man replied, “You can’t do this – I’m a US Congressman!”

“In that case,” replied the robber, “Give me MY money!”

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Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

The mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden – sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

Two things from the video are worth highlighting.

First, we should make sure to put most of the blame on Congress. The IRS is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce Byzantine tax laws. Yes, there are examples of grotesque IRS abuse, but even the most angelic group of bureaucrats would have a hard time overseeing 70,000-plus pages of laws and regulations (by contrast, the Hong Kong flat tax, which has been in place for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages).

Second, we should remember that compliance costs are just the tip of the iceberg. The video also briefly mentions three other costs.

1. The money we send to Washington, which is a direct cost to our pocketbooks and also an indirect cost since the money often is used to finance counterproductive programs that further damage the economy.

2. The budgetary burden of the IRS, which is a staggering $12.5 billion. This is the money we spend to employ an army of tax bureaucrats that is larger than the CIA and FBI combined.

3. The economic burden of the tax system, which measures the lost economic output from a tax system that penalizes productive behavior.

The way to fix this mess, needless to say, is to junk the entire tax code and start all over.

I’ve been a big proponent of the flat tax, which would mean one low tax rate, no double taxation of savings, and no corrupt loopholes. But I’m also a big fan of national sales tax proposals such as the Fair Tax, assuming we can amend the Constitution so that greedy politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and impose both an income tax and a sales tax.

But the most important thing we need to understand is that bloated government is our main problem. If we had a limited federal government, as our Founding Fathers envisioned, it would be almost impossible to have a bad tax system. But if we continue to move in the direction of becoming a European-style welfare state, it will be impossible to have a good tax system.

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If you go to the IRS website, there are about one thousand forms (and accompanying material such as instruction documents) that you can download.

Fortunately, most of us only have to worry about a small fraction of what’s on that list, but it’s still a nightmare – and one that gets worse every year because politicians have an endless appetite for manipulating our lives and auctioning off new loopholes for campaign cash.

So let’s take a few minutes to review the features of a tax system that is simple and fair (and pro-growth). I’m talking about the flat tax, which now is successfully working in about 30 nations.

Just a quick caveat for my friends who prefer the national sales tax. Yes, that system also would be a vast improvement. But since the Fair Tax or something like that would require a constitutional amendment to ensure that politicians couldn’t impose both a sales tax and income tax, that’s more of a long-term project.

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Because of their well-known kindness and generosity of spirit, our wonderful friends at the IRS are letting us wait until Monday before filing our tax returns (or tax extensions, for those of us love to postpone misery).

So let’s have a fun weekend returning the love and affection.

We’ll start with a top-10 list from Letterman. It’s not quite as clever or funny as I would hope, but still worth sharing.

10. IRS deadlines are just suggestions. File your taxes whenever you want.
9. Warlocks may not claim trolls as dependents.
8. Make filing more personable by naming your calculator. Mine is named “Owen.”
7. Make sure your accountant went to a real school and not a phony Internet college like I did.
6. H Block: Good guy, R Block: complete greaseball.
5. Getting a refund? Log on to IRS.gov to spin the wheel and play “double or nothing”.
4. If you don’t remember your Social Security number, make one up.
3. Do not use Wesley Snipes’ accountant.
2. Not really a tax tip, but accountants are wild in the sack.
1. Take it from me, prison’s not so bad.

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