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Archive for February, 2013

If you’re an amoral person with political connections, it’s possible to make a lot of money.

Warren Buffett lined his pockets by making a government-subsidized investment in Goldman Sachs during the financial crisis.

The rest of us suffered and he got richer, but the left seems to be okay with that perverse form of redistribution because he supports class-warfare tax hikes. Sort of like buying an indulgence in the Middle Ages.

Hey, nice work if you can get it.

But Buffett may be an amateur compared to the crony capitalists at Citigroup.

The just-confirmed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was given a huge bonus for leaving Citigroup several years ago. Did the company give Lew a bonus because they were happy to shed his $1.1 million salary after he presided over gigantic losses at the firm’s alternative investments division?

Don’t be silly. He was showered with money specifically for leaving the company to take a “high level position with the United States government”

Again, nice work if you can get it.

But Lew’s loot is pocket change compared to the $115 million that former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin received for helping to steer the company into financial collapse.

So is this evidence that the private sector is systematically stupid?

I wish that was the explanation.

Instead, this is tragic evidence that it’s possible to “earn” a very high return when you “invest” in cronyism.

Big Bank SubsidyAccording to the Treasury Department’s Special Inspector General, Citigroup got $45 billion of TARP handouts and $301 billion of guarantees.

Not to mention an estimated $13.4 billion subsidy thanks to the government’s too-big-to-fail policy.

Since we’re talking apples and oranges, I have no idea how to compare the value of the payments to Lew and Rubin with the value of all the handouts and subsidies that Citigroup got (and is still getting) from taxpayers.

But I do know that mere mortals like you and me don’t have a prayer of “earning” the incredibly high returns that Citigroup received by “investing” in Robert Rubin and Jack Lew.

And let’s not forget what Goldman Sachs “earned” by “investing” in the previous Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner.

Hey, nice work if you can get it.

And you can even be absolved of your sins by supporting higher taxes! What’s not to love. You get millions of dollars that you could never earn in a genuinely capitalist economy, and all you have to do is agree to give back an extra 5 percent or so if tax rates go up.

But if you’re someone like Tim Geithner, maybe you can avoid the extra burden by cheating on your taxes. Of course, you’ll be taking a risk of having your wrist slapped if you get caught. And that can really sting for 10 seconds.

Remember, rules and laws are for the peasants, not the cronyist 1 percent.

Nice work if you can get it.

And there are lots of opportunities for unjust enrichment, as explained in this video.

The moral of the story is…well, that you should be a libertarian if you want to be a decent person and not reward those who are indecent.

P.S. At least Jack Lew has now shown us that it’s perfectly fine to invest in the Cayman Islands and benefit from tax competition.

But only if you’re an insider, of course. Nice work if you can get it.

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I realize the sequester kicks in tomorrow and I should be writing about that rare opportunity to control the burden of government spending.

To be sure, my fingers are crossed that Republicans won’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and I’ve been busy on Capitol Hill talking to folks about the issue, but this post already says everything you need to know about that topic.

It’s time to switch gears, particularly since I have a soft spot for feel-good stories.

And what could be more heart-tugging than a story about the right to keep and bear tanks?

Here are some blurbs from the Wall Street Journal.

Weapons buffs may stock semiautomatics in the gun safe. But nothing makes a statement like having an Army tank in the garage. …there are several hundred to 1,000 private tank owners in the U.S. …Brothers Ken and Gene Neal, owners of Bullet Proof Diesel, a truck-parts manufacturer in Mesa, Ariz., once took their 1966 British Chieftain tank into the desert and joyfully backed it over a rusty car. When their insurance agent inquired about their plans for the tank, the Neal brothers emailed back, “We are going to use it to take over the world.” Says Ken Neal, 45: “A tank is cool.”

Private Tank

The latest in home defense

But is it legal?

Yup, and it can even have a working gun if you’re willing to fork over $200 for a permit.

A tank in the U.S. can have operational guns, if the owner has a federal Destructive Device permit, and state laws don’t prohibit it. The permit costs $200, and the applicant must swear he hasn’t been a “fugitive from justice,” “adjudicated mentally defective” or convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” A local law-enforcement official, usually a sheriff or police chief, has to sign off on the application. Tanks generally aren’t street-legal, so owners usually drive them off-road or on other private property. Some say local authorities sometimes make exceptions for parades, a quick test drive or a trip to the gas station.

But won’t tanks in private hands lead to horrible crimes? Doesn’t seem that way, particularly since the story mentions that the only tank used in a crime was one taken from a government armory.

And in sensible places such as Texas, local police think a tank is “awesome,” not a cause for hysteria.

Earlier this month, Mr. Bauer, the Texas banker, took his Chaffee out for a spin in his warehouse parking lot. He had rigged the .50-caliber machine gun on the turret with a propane system that generates the noise and muzzle flash of gunfire, without the bullets. He fired off several bursts. Minutes later, two Port Lavaca police cruisers pulled up. The first officer rolled down the window and asked dryly: “You know why we’re here, right?” Mr. Bauer assured him that no actual rounds had been fired. …The second policeman, Jeremy Marshall, got out of his car and eyeballed Mr. Bauer’s tank. “Awesome,” he said.

Meanwhile, a 6-year old boy in Maryland is suspended for making a gun shape with his fingers and a 5-year old girl in Pennsylvania is busted for having a pink plastic gun that shoots bubbles.

The best of America…and the worst of America.

But we shouldn’t be resting on our laurels. Most able-bodied men in Switzerland have fully automatic guns (i.e., capable of continuous firing) in their homes, so it’s an open question which nation is more “awesome.”

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I shared some sequester cartoons last month, but I didn’t think they hit the nail on the head.

As regular readers know, I want the message to be focused.

  1. The problem is spending, not deficits.
  2. Government is too big.
  3. The sequester is a good thing, albeit too small.
  4. Obama and the other politicians are engaging in hysterical hyperbole to protect special-interest spending.

I think that message is slowly sinking in, which is why I was much happier about the next batch of sequester cartoons.

Now we have an embarrassment of riches. Enjoy (and widely share) this set of cartoons.

We’ll start with Michael Ramirez, who uses pie charts to show how much bigger government is today and how the sequester is just crumbs.

Sequester Cartoon Ramirez 3

And here’s one from Ed Gamble showing the President engaging in fear tactics, though both Ramirez and Gamble are wrong about the “cuts.” The sequester cuts $85 billion of “budget authority,” but that translates into only $44 billion of “budget outlays.”

That’s just 1.2 percent of FY2013 spending. And remember that this means spending will still go up compared to FY2012 – as I explained in my most recent interview.

Sequester Cartoon Gamble 3

Here’s a cartoon from Gary Varvel, which is quite similar to an excellent cartoon he produced last year.

Sequester Cartoon Varvel 3

Here’s one from Glenn McCoy, poking fun at Obama for taking everything in stride…except when something happens to threaten the amount of waste in Washington.

Sequester Cartoon McCoy 3

I’m especially fond of this Glenn Foden cartoon since I’m sick and tired of the absurd hyperbole from the interest groups in DC.

Makes me wish I could bop a few Chicken Little characters on the head.

Sequester Cartoon Foden 3

Here’s one from A.F. Branco, which I also like because it simultaneously mocks Obama’s Keynesian mindset while showing that the real danger is an ever-rising burden of government spending.

Sequester Cartoon Branco 3

Last but not least, Lisa Benson makes fun of Obama for his never-ending efforts to instill panic.

Sequester Cartoon Benson 3

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the sequester happens on March 1. Then, even if the Obama Administration deliberately tries to cause inconvenience for the American people, we’ll see that the world doesn’t come to an end.

Who knows, maybe that will even lead lawmakers to think they can impose some real fiscal restraint, as we’ve recently seen in countries like Estonia and in the 1990s by nations such as Canada and New Zealand.

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I’m normally not a fan of the media, but every so often you find examples of real journalism. Here are some powerful, well-done stories from local TV stations.

  1. Exposing the plethora of benefits available to those who want government-subsidized idleness.
  2. Exposing how eminent domain laws are used to screw poor people out of their property.
  3. Exposing local government officials engaged in a witch hunt against an innocent man.

Newspapers also sometimes speak truth to power.

  1. A Michigan newspaper exposing how motorists were getting ripped off by illegal speed limits.
  2. A Pennsylvania newspaper exposing how a local bureaucrat  union tried to stop a boy scout from improving a local park.
  3. A New York newspaper exposing the education establishment for giving teachers $100,000-plus salaries for doing nothing.

Now I can add another story to the list. A local TV station in Washington, DC (with a viewing audience of countless overpaid bureaucrats) had the courage to run a story debunking sequester hysteria.

I’m partial to this report for the obvious reason that it featured me.

But even if this story didn’t use any of my soundbites, it would still be worth sharing because it’s not often that you see a reporter explain Washington’s dishonest way of measuring “spending cuts.”

I’ve complained about that sleazy tactic while appearing with John Stossel and Judge Napolitano, but I didn’t think a regular journalist would ever expose the scam.

The latter part of the report focuses on the potential impact of sequestration on the defense budget.

I’ve previously explained that the defense budget is disproportionately impacted, but I’ve also cited Cato’s military experts when arguing that our national security will not be endangered.

Indeed, military spending will be higher at the end of the 10-year period than it is today.

Now I want to share this amazing info-graphic prepared by Zach Graves, another Cato colleague.

Zach Defense

A thorough and compelling collection of data. It belongs in the visual-impact Hall of Fame with these gems.

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A Warning from Ronald Reagan

If you want some inspiration from Ronald Reagan, these brief remarks reveal his understanding of both economics of history (especially with regards to the other great president of the 20th century).

And this short video excerpt also gets me fired up to fight big government.

But maybe it’s also time to share a warning from the Gipper. Here’s a quote (which I’ve verified since not everything that lands in my inbox is necessarily accurate) about the perils of government dependency.

Reagan Slave Quote

This actually overstates the competence of government.

Communist nations, after all, didn’t do a very good job at providing food, shelter, and healthcare. Though, to be fair, there were quite proficient at turning people into slaves and prisoners.

We have a reverse problem in today’s welfare states. The people who produce the most are being coerced into turning over 50 percent of their earnings, which is sort of akin to the way the nobility treated serfs in medieval times.

Meanwhile, the “slaves” and “prisoners” wind up living rather comfortable lives, oftentimes bribed into government dependency because they can enjoy higher living standards by mooching rather than working.

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Even though it changed the terms of the political debate, thus giving them a majority in the 2010 elections, many in the Republican establishment deeply resent the Tea Party. They don’t like being monitored by taxpayer-friendly groups that will expose them when they side with special interests (as they have in recent months on Export-Import Bank subsides and housing handouts).

And they really hate the idea of being held accountable at the polls when they side with the corrupt big-spenders in Washington. Just ask Senator Bennett and Congressman Inglis.

Pork...or principles?

Pork…or principles?

Now the Washington establishment is fighting back. Karl Rove, best known for helping to steer the Bush Administration in favor of statist policies that led to the disastrous elections of 2006 and 2008, even has created a PAC to oppose the Tea Party.

But this seems like a very childish and self-destructive approach. According to some scholarly research, the Tea Party has made a big difference, both in terms of generating more votes for the GOP and in terms of pressuring Republicans to side more with taxpayers rather than the inside-the-beltway interest groups.

Here are some intriguing details from the new academic study.

We use data from a large number of sources to measure the influence of the Tax Day protests on the Tea Party. …We show that these political protests and the movements they built affected policymaking and voting behavior as well. Incumbent representatives vote more conservatively following large protests in their district… Larger protests increase turnout in the 2010 elections, primarily favoring Republican candidates. We find evidence of sizable effects. In particular, our baseline estimate shows that every Tea Party protester corresponds to a 14 vote increase in the number of Republican votes. Our most conservative estimate lowers that number to 7. The Tea Party protests therefore seem to cause a shift to the right in terms of policymaking, both directly and through the selection of politicians in elections.

Seems like a GOP political consultant should be very pleased with this research (assuming, of course, that they’re motivated by Republican and conservative victories rather than their own influence and contracts).

Want some more evidence that the Tea Party has made a difference? Well, check out these excerpts from a story in The Atlantic complaining about the lack of action in the Senate and ask yourself whether the addition of Senators like Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, and Pat Toomey might be one of the reasons why Obama’s agenda has been stalemated.

Here’s an impressive fact about life in today’s Washington: The last time a major new piece of policy legislation passed the U.S. Senate was July 15, 2010. That’s when the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill came through the Senate. And it was 951 days ago. If you’re wondering whether President Obama’s ambitious second-term agenda has a chance to make it through Congress, this little fact might be worth keeping in mind. …the Senate…hasn’t done anything the president could add to his list of policy accomplishments. For that — the kind of thing a president might talk about in his campaign speeches — it’s been more than two and a half years.

It’s now been more than 951 days, and let’s be thankful with every passing second. A “do-nothing” Congress is a very good thing if the only other option is to pass monstrosities such as Obamacare and Keynesian spending schemes.

Keep in mind, by the way, that there are now more Tea Party-oriented Senators such as Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, and Jeff Flake.

To conclude, I’m not under any illusion that the Tea Party automatically means better politicians and/or better election results. But every advocate of tax reform and smaller government should be very happy that there are people in the country who are pressuring politicians to adhere to libertarian-ish principles rather than playing the corrupt Washington game.

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The number one goal for fiscal policy is to reduce the burden of government spending.

The simple way to achieve this goal is to adhere to Mitchell’s Golden Rule and and make sure the private sector grows faster than the public sector.

But when politicians fail to exercise that modest amount of fiscal restraint, bad things happen.

Consider my state of Virginia, which is largely controlled by Republicans. Except party labels apparently don’t mean much because state spending has been growing at twice the rate of inflation.

Virginia State Spending

And when politicians engage in profligacy on the spending side of the fiscal ledger, it’s just a matter of time before they engage in greed on the other side of the fiscal ledger.

That’s certainly happened in Virginia, where the interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians just achieved a major victory over taxpayers.

The Wall Street Journal is appropriately disappointed.

"I hope you're not upset that I'm copying your fiscal policy, Mr. President"

“I hope you’re not upset that I’m copying your fiscal policy, Mr. President”

There’s one thing uglier than a Democratic tax-and-spend spree. A Republican one. On Friday Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and a GOP-run legislature approved a five-year, $6 billion transportation bill financed almost entirely with higher sales and car taxes.

Here are some of the grim details.

The sales tax rises to 6% from 5% in Hampton Roads and populous Northern Virginia and to 5.3% everywhere else. The hated car tax (which Republicans once vowed to eliminate) rises to 4.3% from 3%, meaning a new $30,000 car or truck will come with a $1,290 tax bill. Then there’s a new 0.25% sales tax on homes in Northern Virginia, plus a new hotel tax.

More taxes, not surprisingly, will mean more spending.

Mr. McDonnell even cut an 11th-hour deal with Democrats over the expansion of Medicaid under ObamaCare. …Mr. McDonnell says the commission means Virginia won’t expand Medicaid as long as Republicans control the legislature, but wait until the hospital lobby gets done working the same Republicans who raised taxes.

The governor doubtlessly has made lots of friends with the interest groups that dominate Richmond, so he’ll have plenty of opportunities to cash in when he leaves office.

The state’s taxpayers, by contrast, won’t be so lucky. And now the GOP is now divided and dispirited and will face an uphill battle in this November’s elections.

This fiasco will haunt Republicans in a state that holds elections in November. Probable Democratic nominee for Governor Terry McAuliffe endorsed the bill knowing it erases any GOP advantage on taxes and spending. Mr. Cuccinelli, the likely Republican nominee, opposed the bill but must now find a way to rally a splintered GOP and demoralized conservatives. At least Republicans can erase Mr. McDonnell’s name as a national candidate or VP choice in 2016.

I don’t lose a lot of sleep worrying about Republican political prospects, but I am irked that politicians are taking more of my money for their vote-buying schemes.

To add insult to injury, I’m not rich, so I don’t have the ability to directly benefit from tax competition by moving to a zero-income-tax state such as Florida or Texas.

And moving to Maryland or DC would be jumping out of the fiscal frying pan and into the tax fire, so that’s also not an option.

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