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Archive for November, 2011

I have a new article for National Review about the fallout from the Supercommittee.

Among the points I make are:

o We were lucky to dodge a tax hike.

o There’s still a threat of a tax hike if big-government Republicans side with the so-called rational left in favor of a tax-increase proposal, such as Gang of Six, Simpson-Bowles, and Domenici-Rivlin.

o The sequester is a good outcome.

o Republicans who accept a tax hike to get entitlement cuts will wind up with bad policy that crowds out needed reforms.

I want to focus on this last point because it is critically important, but doesn’t get much attention. Here’s what I wrote for NRO.

…many Republicans (regardless of the no-tax-hike pledge) are susceptible to a deal so long as something is being done to address entitlement costs and so long as the tax hikes are not based on class-warfare ideology. …the real challenge for fiscal conservatives is figuring out how to adopt something akin to the Ryan budget. That means no tax increases, genuine spending cuts, and real entitlement reforms (i.e., not the policies promoted by the rational Left, such as unsustainable price controls or back-door tax hikes via means testing). Sadly, there is no way for such a budget to be enacted in 2011 or 2012. And it may not happen in the four years after that. That would be both frustrating and worrisome — particularly since every year of delay brings us closer to European-style fiscal chaos. But for fiscal conservatives there is no possible compromise with either the hard Left or the rational Left. Both of those camps want bigger government. Both want higher taxes. And both oppose real entitlement reform.

To elaborate, not all entitlement reform is created equal. As I explained in this set of videos, good reform means putting individuals back in charge and restoring market forces. It means personal retirement accounts for Social Security. It means vouchers for Medicare. And it means block-granting Medicaid back to the states.

To the Washington establishment, however, entitlement reform means price controls such as the infamous “doc fix.” The problem with this approach is that price controls are notoriously ineffective and politically unsustainable.

The political elite also thinks that means-testing is entitlement reform. But this policy basically means that people who save and invest during their working years wind up losing eligibility. This approach isn’t as bad as price controls, but it does impose high implicit marginal tax rates on those who save and invest, which almost certainly will have a negative impact on capital formation.

I realize that giving advice to the GOP is about as useful as sticking my arm into a garbage disposal, but the lesson of all this is that there’s no point in trying to strike a deal with Obama or congressional Democrats. Simply stated, there is no way they would agree to good policies.

Moreover, any agreement would be interpreted as a “solution” and therefore kill any chance of real reform in 2013.

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In hopes of stopping investor panic about Europe’s fiscal crisis, the world’s major central banks just announced that they will do whatever is needed to ensure financial markets don’t freeze up.

This could be an appropriate and relatively benign use of the lender-of-last-resort powers, or it could signal another round of reckless easy money and quantitative easing.

I’m skeptical of the Fed and other central banks, but I don’t want to play back-seat driver on monetary policy. Instead, I want to focus on the underlying issue, which is whether there is any alternative to immediate – and real – spending cuts.

Maybe there is some way to muddle through, but I think the answer is no. Easy money from central banks is not a solution. Bailouts from the IMF or some other entity are not the solution.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto, I explain that more bailouts won’t work and that Europe’s welfare states should copy the Baltic nations and shrink the burden of government spending.

One point I made deserves to be emphasized. We wouldn’t be in the current mess if the political elite at the IMF and in Europe and the United States had followed my sage advice and rejected the original bailout for Greece.

The Wall Street Journal agrees. Here’s a passage from today’s editorial page.

Europe’s original sin in this crisis was not letting Greece default, remaining in the euro but shrinking its debt load as it reformed its economy. The example would have sent a useful message of discipline to countries and creditors alike. The fear at the time was that a default would spread the contagion of higher bond rates, but those rates have soared despite the bailouts of Greece and Portugal.

Sadly, I expect more bad policies. Politicians are addicted to big government, so they’ll always take the primrose path of bailouts and easy money as an alternative to fiscal restraint. Especially when the United States is a source of laughably bad advice from the clowns in the Obama Administration.

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When I think about taxes, my first instinct is to rip up the corrupt internal revenue code and implement a simple and fair flat tax.

When I think about Social Security, my first instinct is to copy dozens of other nations and implement personal retirement accounts.

Unfortunately, the political system rarely generates opportunities to enact big reforms that actually solve problems and increase freedom. Instead, we’re stuck with proposals that make things modestly better or modestly worse.

So you can imagine my sense of dissatisfaction that I’m getting peppered with questions about whether the one-year 2-percentage point payroll tax holiday should be extended.

But it’s more complicated than that. The Democrats in the Senate want to make the temporary tax cut even bigger and “offset” that tax cut with some soak-the-rich tax increases. Republicans, meanwhile, are frozen like deer in the headlights. They understandably don’t like the Democrat plan, but they seem reluctant to support anything else, not even a “clean” extension of the current policy.

Here are a handful of observations.

* The Democrat’s proposal for a one-year payroll tax cut financed by a permanent income tax hike on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners would be a big net negative for US job creation and competitiveness.

* A “clean” extension of the payroll tax holiday would modestly improve incentives for work, but the temporary nature of the tax cut substantially weakens pro-growth effects.

* Ideally, the extension of the tax holiday should be financed by reducing the growth of federal spending.

* There are other tax cuts, such as permanent reductions in marginal income tax rates and/or permanent reductions in the double taxation of saving and investment, that would have a better impact on the economy.

* There are other tax cuts, such as expanded credits, deductions, preferences, exemptions, and shelters, that have no positive impact on the economy.

* A payroll tax holiday does not undermine Social Security since the Trust Fund is nothing but a big pile of IOUs.

* The best incremental reform would be a permanent reduction in the payroll tax, with the money channeled to personal retirement accounts. This would lower the tax burden of work while reducing the long-run burden of entitlement spending.

* This discussion of payroll taxes and incremental reform should not distract us from the enormously important issue of genuinely fixing entitlement programs, something that is needed to save America from Greek-style fiscal collapse at some point in the future.

So what does all this mean? Simply stated, there are many other fiscal reforms that I prefer, but a temporary extension of the payroll tax holiday is better than nothing – assuming, of course, it is not poisoned by accompanying class-warfare tax hikes.

Last but not least, let me close with a political observation. I’ve commented several times about Republicans being the “stupid party.” Well, if GOPers paint themselves into a corner such that they can be accused of supporting tax cuts for the “rich” while opposing tax cuts for workers, that will set a new record for being tone-deaf and brain-dead.

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This narrator probably won’t get rich, like the guy who did the “Girls Gone Wild” videos, but this is the second-best video I’ve ever seen on the bloated and overpaid government workforce.

I especially like how he understands that the problem is the size of government, and I also admire his recognition that Republicans often are just as bad as Democrats.

He also highlights the danger of creating a society where a majority of people are moochers instead of producers.

By the way, here’s the…ahem…best video I’ve ever seen on the topic of costly and excessive bureaucracy.

Actually, I don’t care which video you prefer, so long as you are outraged by the fact that federal bureaucrats get twice as much compensation as people in the productive sector of the economy.

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By fighting for freedom in Washington, I’ve condemned myself to a life of frustration and aggravation. One of my many pet peeves is that so many people in DC believe that economic growth depends on consumer spending.

Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote the following.

Many people assume that consumer spending drives growth because it is roughly two thirds of the economy. But this puts the cart before the horse. Higher levels of consumer spending do not cause prosperity. Instead, more consumer spending is best understood as a symptom of prosperity.

So you can imagine how irritating it is for me to see news reports about how Black Friday spending will goose the economy.

This video debunks this notion, while also explaining that Keynesian economics is flawed because it misinterprets the role of consumer spending.

If you like this video, also check out this video on IRS complexity.

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Most people have a vague understanding that America has a huge long-run fiscal problem.

They’re right, though they probably don’t realize the seriousness of that looming crisis.

Here’s what you need to know: America’s fiscal crisis is actually a spending crisis, and that spending crisis is driven by entitlements.

More specifically, the vast majority of the problem is the result of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, programs that are poorly designed and unsustainable.

America needs to fix these programs…or eventually become another Greece.

Fortunately, all of the problems can be solved, as these three videos demonstrate.

The first video explains how to fix Medicaid.

The second video shows how to fix Medicare.

And the final video shows how to fix Social Security.

Regular readers know I’m fairly gloomy about the future of liberty, but this is one area where there is a glimmer of hope.

The Chairman of the House Budget Committee actually put together a plan that addresses the two biggest problems (Medicare and Medicaid) and the House of Representatives actually adopted the proposal.

The Senate didn’t act, of course, and Obama would veto any good legislation anyhow, so I don’t want to be crazy optimistic. Depending on how things play out politically in the next six years, I’ll say there’s actually a 20 percent chance to save America.

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About a year ago, I spoke at a conference in Europe that attracted a lot of very rich people from all over the continent, as well as a lot of people who manage money for high-net-worth individuals.

What made this conference remarkable was not the presentations, though they were generally quite interesting. The stunning part of the conference was learning – as part of casual conversation during breaks, meals, and other socializing time – how many rich people are planning for the eventual collapse of European society.

Not stagnation. Not gradual decline. Collapse.

As in riots, social disarray, plundering, and chaos. A non-trivial number of these people think the rioting in places such as Greece and England is just the tip of the iceberg, and they have plans – if bad things begin to happen – to escape to jurisdictions ranging from Australia to Costa Rica (several of them remarked that they no longer see the U.S. as a good long-run refuge).

This was rather sobering. I’ve never been an optimist about Europe’s future, as I explain here and here, but is the situation really this bad?

Well, the U.K. government seems to think things will get worse. Here are some excerpts from the Telegraph.

British ministers privately warned that the break-up of the euro, once almost unthinkable, is now increasingly plausible. Diplomats are preparing to help Britons abroad through a banking collapse and even riots arising from the debt crisis. The Treasury confirmed earlier this month that contingency planning for a collapse is now under way. …Recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office instructions to embassies and consulates request contingency planning for extreme scenarios including rioting and social unrest. …Diplomats have also been told to prepare to help tens of thousands of British citizens in eurozone countries with the consequences of a financial collapse that would leave them unable to access bank accounts or even withdraw cash. …Analysts at UBS, an investment bank earlier this year warned that the most extreme consequences of a break-up include risks to basic property rights and the threat of civil disorder. “When the unemployment consequences are factored in, it is virtually impossible to consider a break-up scenario without some serious social consequences,” UBS said.

Let’s think about what this means, and we’ll start with an assumption that European politicians won’t follow my sage advice and that they’ll instead continue to kick the can down the road – thus making the debt bubble even bigger and creating the conditions for a nasty collapse.

I’ve learned over the years that things are usually never as bad as they seem (or as good as they seem), so I don’t expect that a nightmare situation will materialize, but I certainly can understand why wealthy people have contingency plans to escape.

But what about the rest of us? We don’t have property overseas and we don’t have private jets, so what’s our insurance policy?

Part of the answer is to have the ability to protect ourselves and our families. As explained here, firearms are the ultimate guarantor of civilization.

In my discussions and debates about this issue, I’ve traditionally relied on these four arguments:

1. Respect for the Constitution. The Founding Fathers were wise to include “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” in the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment recognizes the value of a well-armed citizenry, and today’s politicians (or courts) shouldn’t be allowed to weaken that fundamental freedom.

2. The presumption of liberty. It’s sometimes said that everything that isn’t expressly forbidden is allowed in the United States, whereas in Europe it’s the other way around, with everything forbidden unless explicitly permitted. This certainly seems to be the case for guns, with most European governments prohibiting firearms ownership for the vast majority of people.

3. Personal protection against crime. As the first image in this post powerfully illustrates, it doesn’t really matter if cops are only a few minutes away when a person only has a few seconds to protect against danger. And since the evidence is overwhelming that gun ownership reduces crime, this is a powerful argument for the Second Amendment.

4. Ability to resist government oppression. Totalitarian governments invariably seek to disarm people, as this poster indicates. And with the majority of the world still living in nations that are not free, private gun ownership is at least a potential limit on thuggish governments.

But perhaps we now need to add a fifth reason:

5. Personal protection against social breakdown. If politicians destroy the economic system with too much debt and too much dependency, firearms will be the first and last line of defense against those who would plunder and pillage.

Here’s a thought experiment to drive the point home. If Europe does collapse, which people do you think will be in better shape to preserve civilization, the well-armed Swiss or the disarmed Brits?

I hope we never have to find out, but I know which society has a better chance of surviving.

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