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Archive for June, 2013

I’m a big proponent of tax reform, so at first I was very excited to learn that Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were launching an effort to clean up the tax code.

But on closer inspection, I don’t think this will lead to a simple and fair system like the flat tax. Or even a national sales tax (assuming we could trust politicians not to pull a bait-and-switch, adding a new tax and never getting rid of the income tax).

But judge for yourself. Here’s some of what’s contained in a letter they sent to their colleagues, starting with some language about the growing complexity of the tax code and the compliance cost for taxpayers.

…since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits. In addition, each year, it costs individuals and businesses more than $160 billion to comply with the tax code. The complexity, inefficiency and unfairness of the tax code are acting as a brake on our economy. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Sounds good, though they also could have mentioned other indicators of nightmarish complexity, such as the number of pages in the tax code, the number of special tax provisions, or the number of pages in the 1040 instruction manual.

I’m a bit mystified, however, at the low-ball estimate of $160 billion of compliance costs. As explained in this video, there are far higher estimates that are based on very sound methodology.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking. Let’s see with Senators Baucus and Hatch want to do.

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences that some refer to as “tax expenditures.”

I don’t like the term “tax expenditure” since it implies that the government taking money from person A and giving it to person B is equivalent to the government simply letting person B keep their own money. These two approaches may be economically equivalent in certain cases, but they’re not morally equivalent.

Once again, however, I may be guilty of nit-picking.

That being said, there is a feature of the “blank slate” approach which does generate legitimate angst. There’s a footnote in the letter that states that the Joint Committee on Taxation is in charge of determining so-called tax expenditures.

A complete list of these special tax provisions as defined by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

This is very troubling. The JCT may be non-partisan, but it’s definitely not non-ideological. These are the bureaucrats, for instance, who assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! Moreover, the JCT uses the “Haig-Simons” tax system as a benchmark, which means they start with the assumption that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

This is not nit-picking. The definition of “tax expenditure” is a critical policy decision, not something to be ceded to the other side before the debate even begins.

As illustrated by this chart, the tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Between the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, it’s possible for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four different times.

This is a very foolish policy, particularly since every school of thought in the economics profession agrees that capital formation is a key to long-run growth. Even the Marxists and socialists!

To make matters worse, double taxation puts America at competitive disadvantage. To get a sense of how the U.S. tax system is a self-inflicted wound, check out these sobering international comparisons of death tax burdens and the degree of double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

Here’s what the Haig-Simons tax base means.

1. An assumption that new business investment should be penalized with depreciation instead of being treated neutrally with expensing.

2. An assumption that IRAs and 401(k)s are loopholes to be eliminated, when they’re actually ways to protect against double taxation.

3. An assumption that various other forms of double taxation – such as the capital gains tax – should be retained.

But that’s not the only preemptive capitulation to bad policy.

The “blank slate” assumes that the class-warfare bias in the tax code also should be part of the benchmark against which possible reforms will be judged.

…we asked the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and Finance Committee tax staff to estimate the relationship between tax expenditures and the current tax rates if the current level of progressivity is maintained. …The blank slate approach would allow significant deficit reduction or rate reduction, while maintaining the current level of progressivity.

Since the internal revenue code already imposes a disproportionate burden on upper-income taxpayers – even when compared to European welfare states, it doesn’t make sense to automatically assume an ideological agenda such as progressivity.

This has been a very long answer to a simple question, but it’s very important to realize that tax reform is a three-legged stool. If we want to minimize the economic damage of generating revenue for government, we should have 1) a low tax rate, 2) no distorting tax preferences, and 3) no distorting tax penalties such as double taxation.

Unfortunately, too many people focus only on the first and second legs of the stool. And while tax rates and deductions are important, so is double taxation.

I’m not asserting that the “blank slate” should have assumed no double taxation (sometimes referred to as the “Fisher-Ture” tax base or “consumption” tax base).

But I don’t think it would have been unreasonable for Senators Baucus and Hatch to have told other Senators that one of their choices would be to pick either the Haig-Simons approach or the Fisher-Ture approach.

Heck, even the Congressional Budget Office acknowledged that there are two ways of measuring tax expenditures. To reiterate, the choice of tax base should be a policy decision, not a built-in assumption.

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Regular readers know that one of my main goals is to preserve and promote tax competition as a means of restraining the greed of the political class. Heck, I almost wound up in a Mexican jail because of my work defending low-tax jurisdictions.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to persuade politicians. After all, why would they support policies such as fiscal sovereignty and financial privacy that hinder their ability to extract more revenue?

So I try to educate them about the link between taxes and growth in hopes that they will understand that a vibrant economy also means a large tax base.

And I specifically tell them that so-called tax havens play a very valuable role since they are an alternative source of investment capital for nations that have undermined domestic investment with bad tax policy.

And I also explain to them that low-tax jurisdictions give companies some much-needed flexibility to maintain operations in an otherwise hostile fiscal environment. Let’s look at that specific issue by reviewing some of the findings from a study by two Canadian economists about tax havens and business activity.

In the introduction to their study, they describe the general concern (among politicians) that competition between governments will lead to lower tax rates.

Increased mobility of goods and services is apt to give rise to an erosion of corporate tax bases in high-tax industrialized countries, a decline in tax revenues and a rise in competition among governments. Countries seeking to attract and retain mobile investment and the associated tax revenues may be induced to reduce tax rates below the levels that would obtain in the absence of mobility. In the view of some commentators, indeed, increased mobility can lead to a “race to the bottom” driving business tax rates to minimal levels, due to the fiscal externalities that mobility creates.

It certainly is true that tax competition has pressured politicians to lower tax rates, and the academic research shows that this is a good thing, notwithstanding complaints by leftists economists such as Jeffrey Sachs.

What folks on the left don’t understand is that there is a big difference between tax rates and tax revenue. Thanks in large part to Laffer-Curve effects, the big decline in tax rates in the past three decades has not led to a decline in tax revenues.

Indeed, taxes on income and profit, measured as a share of GDP, have increased as tax rates have declined.

But I’m getting distracted. The purpose of this post is to analyze the findings of the two Canadian economists.

Here are their major conclusions, which show that tax havens actually help high-tax nations by allowing companies to engage in “real economic activities” in spite of punitive tax policies.

Financial mobility is manifested in the decisions of multinational enterprises to separate research and development and capital financing activities from production and sales of outputs, and so to engage in “tax planning” to realize income from intellectual property and from capital in jurisdictions different from those where real economic activities are located. …While tax planning may reduce revenues of high-tax jurisdictions, therefore, it may have offsetting effects on real investment that are attractive to governments. In principle, then, the presence of international tax planning opportunities may allow countries to maintain or even increase high business tax rates, while preventing an outflow of foreign direct investment. …the investment-enhancing effects of international tax planning can dominate the revenue-erosion effects. The implications of this view are strong: an increase in international tax avoidance can lead to…an increase in the welfare of citizens of high-tax countries. …consistent with our model, governments may be reluctant to close such “loopholes,” because of fears of losses in multinational employment and, in particular, expatriations of ownership and headquarters operations to low-tax countries. …revenue losses due to tax planning are irrelevant, and what matters is the effect of tax planning on the level of multinational investment in high-tax countries and its deadweight costs for the economy, if any.

In other words, tax havens make it possible for companies to indirectly reduce their overall tax burden, thus making it economically feasible to continue operating – and retaining jobs – in nations with bad tax policy.

Other economists have reached similar conclusions. At about the 7:20 mark of this video, I cite research by Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley, and James Hines that also found that tax havens facilitate greater economic activity in high-tax nations.

P.S. I’ve done lots of debates about tax havens (on American TV, British TV, and French TV) and those of you attending FreedomFest can see me cross rhetorical swords in a debate with James Henry of the Tax Justice Network. As you can see from the agenda, I’ll also be moderating a panel on tax reform and introducing Charles Murray’s talk on how to limit the state.

P.S.S. There’s something about tax havens that causes statists to become even more irrational than they usually are. Some of them actually advocate military action against these peaceful jurisdictions! I’m wondering if this is their way of compensating for the guilt that they feel since many well-known leftists invest their money in these low-tax jurisdictions.

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I generally believe that social conservatives and libertarians are natural allies. As I wrote last year, this is “because there is wide and deep agreement on the principle of individual responsibility. They may focus on different ill effects, but both camps understand that big government is a threat to a virtuous and productive citizenry.”

I even promoted a “Fusionist” principle based on a very good column by Tim Carney, and I suspect a large majority of libertarians and social conservatives would agree with the statement.

But that doesn’t mean social conservatives and libertarians are the same. There’s some fascinating research on the underlying differences between people of different ideologies, and I suspect the following story might be an example of where the two camps might diverge.

But notice I wrote “might” rather than “will.” I’ll be very curious to see how various readers react to this story about a gay couple that is taking an unusual step to minimize an unfair and punitive tax imposed by the government of Pennsylvania.

John met Gregory at a gay bar in Pittsburgh nearly 45 years ago and immediately fell in love. …Now, as lifelong partners facing the financial and emotional insecurities of old age, they have legally changed their relationship and are father and son — John, 65, has adopted Gregory, 73. The couple was worried about Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax. “If we just live together and Gregory willed me his assets and property and anything else, I would be liable for a 15 percent tax on the value of the estate,” said John. “By adoption, that decreases to 4 percent. It’s a huge difference.” …the couple had considered marrying in another state, but because their primary residence was in Pennsylvania, which does not recognize same-sex marriage, they would still be subjected to the inheritance law.

The Judge who approved the adoption obviously wasn’t too troubled by this unusual method of tax avoidance.

The judge did turn to John and said, “I am really curious, why are you adopting [Gregory]?” “I said, ‘Because it’s our only legal option to protect ourselves from Pennsylvania’s inheritance taxes,'” said John. “He got it immediately.” The judge agreed to sign the adoption papers on the spot and handed it to the clerk. Then he turned and looked at John, “Congratulations, it’s a boy.”

So what’s your take on this issue? For some groups, it’s easy to predict how they’ll react to this story.

1. If you have the statist mindset of England’s political elite or if you work at a bureaucracy such as the OECD, you’ll think this is morally wrong. Not because you object to homosexuality, but because you think tax avoidance is very bad and you believe the state should have more money.

2. If you’re a libertarian, you’re cheering for John and Gregory. Even if you don’t personally approve of homosexuality, you don’t think the state should interfere with the private actions of consenting adults and you like the idea of people keeping more of the money they earn.

3. If you’re a public finance economist, you think any form of death tax is a very perverse form of double taxation and you like just about anything that reduces this onerous penalty on saving and investment.

But there are some groups that will be conflicted.

Social Conservative Quandary1. Social conservatives don’t like big government and bad tax policy, but they also don’t approve of homosexuality. And, in this case, it’s now technically incestuous homosexuality! If I had to guess, most social conservatives will argue that the court should not have granted the adoption. We’ll see if there are some good comments on this post.

Leftist Quandary2. Leftists also will be conflicted. They like the death tax and they want the government to have more money, but they also believe in identity politics and wouldn’t want to offend one of their constituent groups.  I’m guessing identity politics would trump greed, but I suspect their ideal approach would be to tax all inheritances at 15 percent.

In my fantasy world, needless to say, there’s no death tax and the entire issue disappears.

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One of history’s worst butchers, Josef Stalin, is rumored to have said that, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

Sadly, there’s probably some truth in that statement.

I’ve shared a bunch of horror stories about the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system (see here, here, here, here, here, herehereherehereherehereherehere, here and here) and I challenge you to read them without feeling some mix of anger, sadness, despair, and disgust.

Now read these passages from a story earlier this year in the UK-based Daily Mail.

As many as 1,165 people starved to death in NHS hospitals over the past four years… According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics following a Freedom of Information request, for every patient who dies from malnutrition, four more have dehydration mentioned on their death certificate. …In 2011, 43 patients starved to death and 291 died in a state of severe malnutrition, while the number of patients discharged from hospital suffering from malnutrition doubled to 5,558. …NHS hospitals have also stood accused of fiddling figures to mask the numbers of patients dying needlessly.

Without names, faces, and specific details, it’s easy to read the words, shrug your shoulders, and remain emotionally detached.

“I’m Josef Stalin and I approve government-run healthcare”

But there’s probably a gripping and tragic story for every one of those 1,165 people who died, as well as the 5,558 people who suffered from malnutrition.

You’re probably wondering whether the doctors and nurses in the United Kingdom are especially incompetent and/or inhumane. That may be true, but these nauseating statistics also are the result of a deliberate government policy to hasten death. If you think I’m kidding, read this story about children being put on the “Liverpool Care Pathway.” But only if you have a strong stomach.

Makes you wonder what Paul Krugman was thinking when he asserted that, “In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false.”

By the way, I’m not implying that the American health care system is the ideal approach. Our system is grossly inefficient and wasteful thanks to government-caused third-party payer.

But with Obamacare being implemented, including the IPAB “death panels,” maybe we’ll have the worst of both worlds. The inefficiency and expense of American-style third-party payer and the clinical cruelty of British-style single-payer.

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The late, great Margaret Thatcher famously said that “Socialist governments…always run out of other people’s money” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is an iconic line from Apocalypse Now.

Thinking about the fiscal mess in Europe, I’m going to combine these two sentiments and state that, “I love it when statists run out of victims and start cannibalizing each other.”

And that’s about to happen in France.

The burden of government spending is enormous, with the public sector consuming 57 percent of economic output.

That’s more than either Greece or Sweden!

If something isn’t done, France will suffer a Greek-style crisis as investors lose trust in the government’s ability to pay its bills.

The situation is so bad that even the country’s Socialist President claims that he plans to cut spending, but he faces a revolt in his own party from those who refuse to recognize reality. Here are some excerpts from a column in the UK-based Telegraph.

President Francois Hollande has already angered much of his own Socialist base with plans to cut spending next year in absolute terms for the first time since 1958, but this may be just start of the battle. The Cour des Comptes said France is not even “halfway” through its fiscal squeeze. …”France is drifting away. Like a receeding wave, it is retreating little by little from the global economy, imperceptibly in the past, but visibly so today,” said Jean-Pierre Letartre, Ernst & Young’s chief in France. …The government has pencilled in economic contraction of 0.3pc this year, with a weak recovery starting in the second half, but a chorus of private economists fear far worse if there is any outside shock. “It could be as much as minus 1.5pc,” said Jean-Michel Six from Standard & Poor’s. …Mr Hollande has so far gone along with EU austerity demands, backing away from his pledge for a New Deal growth strategy in the elections last year. But his poll ratings have crashed at the fastest rate ever for a new president, and much of his own party is near revolt.

I’ll be surprised if France actually follows through with genuine spending cuts, but you can see from this chart that the time for fiscal restraint is long overdue.

French Spending, 2003-2012

To be somewhat optimistic, it’s worth noting that governments will do the right thing when there’s no other alternative.

Greece, for instance, has cut spending three years in a row, bringing the budget down from 124 billion euro in 2009 to 106 billion euro last year. Unfortunately, there have also been big tax hikes, and the overall level of spending is still about where it was in 2007, so Greece is far from a role model. But at least the era of ever-rising outlays has ended.

And I’ve already pointed out that the Baltic nations are a role model since they made genuine spending cuts the moment the crisis began and they’re now enjoying an economic rebound.

I realize this will be the understatement of the year, but France is not going to be the new Estonia.

Unlike the Canadian Liberal Party or Australian Labor Party, it does not appear that the Socialist Party in France is willing to recognize reality and do the right thing.

But the good news is that they don’t have any room to raise taxes. Successful people already are leaving the country because of punitive tax rates, and I suspect even President Hollande privately understands that France is on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

So I expect there will be a fight. On one side, we’ll have the rational statists who recognize that spending cuts are needed to avoided a fiscal crisis. On the other side, we’ll have the irrational statists who blindly think more money can be squeezed from the rich with more class-warfare tax policy.

Let’s hope for heavy casualties on both sides.

P.S. There’s a lot to like about France, and I reported a few years ago that it was ranked as the top nation for good living. But that’s only if you already are rich. Now that the French national sport is taxation, productive people who want to become rich have a big incentive to go someplace else.

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For my birthday last year, the only present I wanted was for the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and reject Obamacare.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Chief Justice put politics above the law and made a mockery of his Oath of Office.

So I’m now a bit superstitious and I’m not going to write about anything I want today or in the future. But I will pretend that something good happened because it’s my birthday, so let’s celebrate the fact that the European Union has basically made the right decision on how to deal with insolvent banks.

Technically, it happened yesterday, the day before my birthday, but it’s being reported today, and that’s close enough for me. Here are some details from the EU Observer.

Bank shareholders and creditors will be first in line to suffer losses if their bank gets into difficulties, according to draft rules agreed by ministers in the early hours of Thursday morning… Under the new regime, banks’ creditors and shareholders would be the first to take losses. But if this proves insufficient to rescue the bank in question, savers holding uninsured deposits worth more than €100,000 would also take a hit.

This is basically the “FDIC-resolution” approach that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s sort of what happened in Cyprus (after the politicians tried every other option).

And it’s the opposite of the corrupt TARP system that the Bush and Obama Administrations imposed on the American people.

The reason this new European approach is good is that it puts the pressure for sound business decisions where it belongs – with the shareholders who own the bank and with the big creditors (such as bondholders) who should be responsible for monitoring the underlying safety and soundness of a bank before lending it money.

And rich people (depositors with more than €100,000) also should be smart enough to apply some due diligence before putting their money someplace.

The last people to bear any costs should be taxpayers. They don’t own the bank. They don’t invest in the bank. And they don’t have big bucks. So why should they bear the cost when the big-money people screw up?!? Especially when TARP-style bailouts promote moral hazard!

I’m sure the new system won’t be properly implemented, that there are some bad details in the fine print, and there will be too many opportunities for back-door bailouts and cronyism, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Happy Birthday to me. And such an unexpected present: Something good actually came out of Europe!

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Last year, I shared a potential slogan for Obama’s re-election campaign (followed by a warning about the big challenge he would face if victorious).

Now we have a new Michael Ramirez cartoon that has a similar theme.

Super-Obama Cartoon

You can see why Michael Ramirez was the winner of my political cartoonist contest. He conveys so much with a single image.

He won for his “Julia” cartoon, but he just as easily could have prevailed for his  gem about Obamanomics, his European lemming cartoon, or his masterpiece on taxes in the Garden of Eden.

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If young people in Europe were a company, I would be telling you to sell the stock.

Why? Well, because politicians want to help them. And, as perfectly illustrated by this Eric Allie cartoon (as well as the cartoon he has at the bottom of this post), government at best unintentionally harms those it tries to help.

To see what I’m talking about, here’s some of what the EU Observer is reporting today.

EU leaders gathering in Brussels on Thursday (27 June) for a two-day summit will again turn to measures aimed at helping young people to get jobs, as unemployment figures soar in southern countries. The summit kicks off at 4.30pm local time with a meeting between leaders, trade unions and employers’ associations, to hear what actions they are taking to boost youth employment. …The European Commission has already drafted a paper on how the EIB could boost its lending powers. Its loans are used mostly by small and medium enterprises, which could hire more young people if they get the money to fund expansion. Under the most ambitious scenario, EIB lending could exceed €100 billion.

How stereotypical. Big business, big labor, and big government are getting together and considering a €100 billion slush fund that will line their pockets.

They want us to believe this will lead to more jobs for young people, but they overlook (and hope we’re unaware of) Bastiat’s warning about the seen and the unseen.

Expanding the EIB will simply divert resources from more productive uses.

So what’s the answer? Here’s what I recommended as part of some speeches earlier this month in Europe.

I began with what should be a common-sense observation that businesses won’t create jobs unless they think new workers will add to the bottom line.

Youth Unemployment 1

I then outlined some of the ways big government undermines incentives to create jobs by making workers more expensive.

Youth Unemployment 2

I also explained that Keynesian spending schemes won’t create jobs.

Youth Unemployment 3

Last but not least, I warned that workers will be less likely to seek jobs if government handouts alter the tradeoff between work and leisure.

Youth Unemployment 4

Regarding this final slide, I shared in my speeches this amazing chart about the anti-work incentives created by the safety net in the United States, as well as some similar startling data from the United Kingdom.

Sadly, none of my audiences included senior European officials. And even if they were in the audience, I doubt they would have learned anything.

After all, why support an agenda of free markets and small government when that would reduce their power and influence?

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I haven’t written about gay marriage for the simple reason that I don’t think the state should have any role in marriage. That includes President Bush’s wasteful pro-marriage initiative.

That being said, I have one warning to my gay friends. You better look before you leap.

The internal revenue code punishes two-earner couples who are married. Here’s a succinct explanation from Bloomberg.

On the revenue side, the CBO estimated that gay marriage in all 50 states would increase tax receipts by about $400 million a year if the George W. Bush tax cuts were extended and by about $700 million a year if they were not. Because those tax cuts ended up being mostly extended, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but closer to $400 million. The added revenue comes from the “marriage penalty”: Two-earner married couples where each spouse has a similar income tend to be taxed more heavily than they would be if both partners were single. Other couples get a “marriage bonus,” generally when the spouses’ incomes are very unequal, but the marriage penalty effect is more important.

But you don’t have to believe me, or the reporters at Bloomberg. Here’s the tax computation worksheet for single taxpayers and married taxpayers from the IRS’s 1040 instruction manual (now more than 200-pages long!).

Marriage Penalty

Fortunately, there’s a solution to this inequity. I invite Americans of all sexual preferences to defend marriage by embracing the flat tax, which – in addition to all the other good things it does – gets rid of the marriage penalty.

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I don’t write or speak about education very much, but, when asked, I explain that America has a very costly and inefficient government school monopoly.

Education spending Cato chartThe strongest piece of evidence is an amazing chart put together by a Cato colleague. It shows that education spending has skyrocketed while educational performance has stagnated.

One of my favorite soundbites, when discussing this issue, is that the U.S. spends more per capita than any nation other than Switzerland, but we get very sub-par results for all that money.

According to new data, though, I can no longer make that assertion. I’d like to say it’s because we now get above-average results, but the real reason is because we’ve now surpassed Switzerland to become the biggest spenders on education.

But we still get a crummy return on all that money that is spent.

Here are the key findings from an OECD study, as reported by the AP.

The United States spends more than other developed nations on its students’ education each year… Despite the spending, U.S. students still trail their rivals on international tests. …brand-new and experienced teachers alike in the United States out-earn most of their counterparts around the globe.

Now let’s look at some of the grim details.

…the United States spent $15,171 on each young person in the system — more than any other nation covered in the report. That sum inched past some developed countries and far surpassed others. Switzerland’s total spending per student was $14,922… The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person. …The United States routinely trails its rival countries in performances on international exams despite being among the heaviest spenders on education. U.S. fourth-graders are 11th in the world in math in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a separate measure of nations against each other. U.S. eighth-graders ranked ninth in math, according to those 2011 results. The Program for International Student Assessment measurement found the United States ranked 31st in math literacy among 15-year-old students and below the international average. The same 2009 tests found the United States ranked 23rd in science among the same students, but posting an average score. …The average first-year high school teacher in the United States earns about $38,000. OECD nations pay their comparable educators just more than $31,000. …The average high school teacher in the United States earns about $53,000, well above the average of $45,500 among all OECD nations.

Here’s the chart from the OECD study showing per-student spending.

OECD Education Spending Rankings

So we spend more, pay more to our bureaucrats, yet we get worse results. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the education monopoly.

Oh, by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are even worse than we think. Check out this Cato video, which reveals that politicians and bureaucrats hide the real cost of their inefficient and wasteful monopoly.

One reason the system is so expensive is that we squander so much money on bureaucratic overhead. But I guess we need all those paper pushers so we can stop little kids from engaging in terrorist behavior.

But you have to give the teacher unions credit for chutzpah. One of the union bosses actually had the gall to ignore the actual findings in the study and to assert that taxpayers aren’t doing enough!

“When people talk about other countries out-educating the United States, it needs to be remembered that those other nations are out-investing us in education as well,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union.

Not that I can blame union bosses and other defenders of the status quo. They’ve got a great scam going, so why not blatantly prevaricate in hopes that the gravy train will continue.

What makes this situation so tragic is that we have strong proof that we could get much better outcomes by shifting to a system of school choice.

But that’s a difficult fight. The teacher unions understandably want to preserve their undeserved privileges. What really irks me, though, is that some people side with the unions for political purposes, even though it means they deliberately sacrifice the best interests of children. That’s a harsh accusation, I realize, but I think it describes both President Obama and the NAACP.

All the more reason to get government out of the education business.

Though this is not just an issue of government inefficiency. Other nations have government-run education systems and they spend less and produce better results.

In a few cases, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, It’s quite likely that school choice helps to explain better outcomes. But what about other nations? Is there something about the American system that makes it especially wasteful?

P.S. This is a depressing post, so let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that education spending has been reduced.

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I’ve never figured out why soccer is so popular in some parts of the world. What’s the point of watching people run up and down a field for 90 minutes when the result is usually a 0-0 tie?

But non-Americans generally don’t get the point of baseball, so I guess it’s all a matter of background and taste.

I mention soccer because it’s an excuse to write about competitiveness and taxation. Except I’m not going to write about low tax rates and job creation, or low tax rates and capital formation. Instead, today’s topic is tax competitiveness and French soccer.

And since the French care about soccer, maybe this will be a valuable opportunity to teach them why high tax rates are a bad idea in all areas.

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that the French government is on the wrong side.

Here’s how the New York Times begins a story.

Monaco may seem almost comically tiny, less a real country than a glorified safe deposit box festooned with palm trees and Lamborghini dealerships, but it teems with interesting statistics. Population: 35,427. Number of nationalities represented: 125. Unemployment rate: 0 percent. Income tax rate: 0 percent.

So far, so good. I’ve written favorably about Monaco and I have no objection to this description.

Monaco SoccerAnd it seems that Monaco’s fiscal policy is good for the local soccer team.

…a potash fertilizer tycoon…in 2011 expressed his support for his adopted country by buying a majority stake in its struggling soccer team, A.S. Monaco, and proceeding to aggressively vacuum up expensive European players. …Monaco is different from other countries. Rybolovlev can offer players…liberation from the petty annoyance of income tax. This is a happy prospect no matter what you earn; it begins to look like bliss when you count your income in millions.

But it seems there’s a controversy in this fiscal paradise. Or, to be more accurate, there’s a controversy in the tax hell next door.

…it puts the rest of the French league at a significant disadvantage. While Monaco basks in its special tax status, players for French teams are subject to the kind of high tax rates that recently motivated the actor Gérard Depardieu to renounce his citizenship… It’s like having a major league baseball team in the Cayman Islands.

Gee, what a surprise. The French are complaining that lower tax rates are an “unfair” form of tax competition.

So how did the French react? By engaging in their true national sport – imposing higher taxes.

The French soccer league has grumbled about Monaco’s exceptional situation in the past. But now, alarmed by the team’s sudden winning streak and unnerved by its 120 million-or-so euro (about $157 million) acquisition of three great players — João Moutinho and James Rodríguez from Porto and Radamel Falcao from Atlético Madrid — it finally did something. In March, it decreed that starting next June, any team playing in the French league would have to be based in France and subject to French taxes. For “any team,” read “Monaco.”

Naturally, their “solution” is to impose higher taxes in Monaco, not to lower taxes in France. At least the Spanish government, when confronted by competition from soccer clubs in other nations, created a special low-tax regime for soccer players.

That’s not the right answer. There should be low tax rates for all. But a special loophole for soccer players is a “far-less-worse” approach than what France is doing.

It’s also worth noting that the French approach won’t work. I’m not saying they can’t impose higher taxes on the Monaco soccer team.

But I am saying that the French soccer league will continue to lose top players so long as the government has a punitive 75 percent tax system.

Entrepreneurs are escaping France. Actors are escaping France. And now top soccer players have a big tax incentive to play other places other than France (or Monaco).

P.S. Speaking of soccer, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that ordinary people were screwed over at the last World Cup in order to benefit the rich elitists in private jets who like to lecture the rest of us about our carbon footprints.

P.P.S. It has nothing to do with public policy, but I was amused that the United States advanced farther than France at the last World Cup.

P.P.P.S. Returning to the realm of public policy, the statists in Europe have decided that free soccer broadcasts are a human right.

P.P.P.P.S. The United Kingdom also has lost high quality players because of excessive taxation.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since I’m writing about sports, I suppose this is a good opportunity to pat myself on the back by sharing this award from last weekend’s tournament. I came to the plate 22 times and came away with two home runs, eight doubles, six singles, and a walk, while scoring 15  runs and driving in 16 RBIs.

Salem Offensive MVP

I’ve had plenty of bad softball performances over the years, but fortunately they never give awards for screwing up.

Now if I can merely convince politicians to reduce the burden of government spending, I’ll be able to say 2013 was a good year.

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If a bad person robs a bank and then uses a Chevrolet to make his getaway, do we blame General Motors?

Of course not.

If a pilot suffers some sort of medical incident, loses control of her plane, and injures people on the ground during the crash, do we blame Cessna?

No, that would be silly.

If a con artist tricks a consumer into sending money, do we blame the bank where the fraudster has an account?

Logically, the answer is no, but thanks to money laundering laws, the government actually does expect banks to know if customers are misbehaving. But that’s why experts think those laws are absurdly unworkable and expensive.

I’m asking these rhetorical questions because a couple of professors, in a New York Times op-ed, claim that gun manufacturers and gun owners should be subject to special taxes. Why? Well, because some people deliberately or accidentally cause damage with guns.

Gun manufacturers have gone to great lengths to avoid any moral responsibility or legal accountability for the social costs of gun violence… But there is a simple and direct way to make them accountable for the harm their products cause. For every gun sold, those who manufacture or import it should pay a tax. The money should then be used to create a compensation fund for innocent victims of gun violence.

They justify their plan with economics. Or, to be more accurate, they use economic terminology to sell their scheme.

This proposal is based on a fundamentally conservative principle — that those who cause injury should be made to “internalize” the cost of their activity by paying for it. …it makes sense to tax gun manufacturers directly. The result would be that those who derive a benefit from guns — for hunting, target practice, self-defense or simply for collecting — would shoulder some of the social costs of their choice as manufacturers pass along the cost of the tax to them. Such a tax might also exert at least some economic pressure on manufacturers to market especially lethal guns less aggressively, or to implement safer gun technologies, like “smart guns” that could be used only by the registered owner. Right now, they have no such incentive — they’re immune from most lawsuits, and guns are expressly exempt from regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is supposed to protect the public from unreasonable risks from consumer products.

There are lots of reasons why I disagree with this column, but my main objection – as suggested by the rhetorical questions above – is that the professors want to improperly redistribute risk and blame.

A gun is not inherently dangerous. Indeed, gun ownership is associated with lower crime rates, so it’s more accurate to say they are inherently safety enhancing. Cops, for instance, overwhelmingly think gun control is either futile or counterproductive.

That being said, what’s the best way to deal with those individuals who deliberately or accidentally use guns in an unsafe manner?

The answer is simple. There should be criminal penalties imposed on those who engage in deliberate wrongdoing and we should rely on insurance and/or the tort system (properly focused)  for accidental misuse.

Will that system be perfect? Of course not. Criminals will always exist. All we can do is to make crime less attractive. And accidents will always happen, even if we have a good system of insurance and torts.

Let’s conclude with a statement of the obvious. I’m 99 percent certain that the professors are completely unserious about modifying how we insure against gun-related damage. They’re simply using the terminology to impose a policy that is best characterized as back-door gun control.

Which makes me all the more appreciative of the message on this young lady’s t-shirt.

I’m tired of statists, most of whom (like Rosie O’Donnell)  live very comfortable lives in safe neighborhoods, trying to tell the rest of us how to live.

P.S. Sloppy and flawed analysis seems to be a specialty at the New York Times.

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In a recent interview with the BBC, I basically accused UK Prime Minister David Cameron of being a feckless and clueless demagogue who is engaged in a desperate effort to resuscitate his political future.

Two peas in a pod

I shouldn’t have been so kind. Cameron manages to combine bad policy and bad morality in a way that is embarrassing even for a politician.

Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley eviscerates Cameron’s puerile approach to fiscal policy, beginning with some mockery of his class-warfare approach to tax enforcement.

David Cameron said something last week that was the precise opposite of the truth…the Prime Minister said was: “If you want a low-tax economy, you have to collect the taxes that are owed.” When what he should have said, of course, was: “If you want to collect the taxes that are owed, you have to have a low-tax economy.” Mr Cameron’s statement was one of the more subtle threats contained in the declaration by the G8 – which was pretty much all they could agree on – that they are now the rightful owners of all the wealth produced by anyone except for certain exemptions that they will, subject to minimal notice, decide upon. His remark, presumably designed to provide moral justification for the unprecedented levels of shared surveillance and breaches of data protection that governments are preparing to launch, actually stood on its head the truth about effective tax collection. Which is that the lower rates of taxation are, the less likely it is that payment of them will be avoided or evaded.

She also makes some very astute points about other issues, including the Laffer Curve.

The introduction of the 50p rate of income tax caused two-thirds of those earning a million pounds per year simply to disappear from the reach of HM Revenue & Customs. Whereas under the previous highest tax level of 40p, 16,000 people were prepared to declare earnings of one million pounds, that number shrank to only 6,000 after Gordon Brown, bless him, raised it to 50p. Result: the Treasury lost £7 billion in revenue.

Ms. Daley also comments on tax compliance and the risks of letting governments destroy financial privacy as part of their efforts to undermine tax competition.

If people regard levels of tax as fair (in the true sense of the word, not the Left-wing sense, which actually means “vindictive”), they will not go to expensive and dangerous lengths to escape from paying. The more punitive and discouraging of wealth-creation taxes are, the more they are avoided by stealth or geographical relocation – or by the even more economically disastrous measure of people being disinclined to increase their own productivity. Ah yes, but isn’t this the problem that those heads of government are determined to address? Rather than lowering taxes to levels that those who are taxed find acceptable, they will simply close off all the avenues of escape. There is to be no more possibility, by international agreement (which is to say, the coercion of smaller, less rich countries), of geographical movement for tax advantage.

She closes by opining on why this is really a debate about the burden of government spending and whether taxpayers exist to feed the spending appetites of politicians.

If you eliminate tax competition – if you create a uniform, universally policed tax standard – it is the poorer countries that suffer because they are deprived of the capacity to attract foreign capital. …What is at the heart of all this is the growth of governments: the treasuries of the world are becoming needier and greedier. …Underlying almost all political debate on this matter now is the unspoken assumption that privately owned wealth is inherently evil, and that its only moral justification is to provide revenue that governments can redistribute. …let me remind you of what you may actually believe, shocking as it may sound in the context of prevailing public discourse. Are you ready? It is not the primary function of business to provide funds for politicians to spend.

Amen. The statists and collectivists that dominate the political elite treat us like a herd of cattle to be milked and slaughtered.

We need tax havens in order to impose at least a tiny bit of restraint on the greed of the political class. These low-tax jurisdictions aren’t a sufficient condition to save us from statism, but they sure as heck are a necessary condition.

P.S. Who moved farther in the wrong direction, U.S. Republicans who went from Reagan to Bush or U.K. Tories who went from Thatcher to Cameron?

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The IRS is worthy of scorn. It is a bloated bureaucracy that routinely violates the rights of taxpayers.

But even I didn’t think it was possible for a collection of bureaucrats to display the blithering incompetence necessary to send $46 million of handouts to nearly 24,000 fake returns filed from a single address.

Yes, a single address. I’m not joking. Read these details from MSN…but only if you don’t have high blood pressure.

If you make an oversight while paying your taxes to the IRS, you better believe you’ll be audited, harshly fined, and held completely accountable. Meanwhile, in 2011, the IRS accidentally sent more than $46 million in refunds to 23,994 “unauthorized” alien workers. And they sent it all to one Atlanta address. This is coming to light thanks to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) audit report.

Even I’m amazed, and I have extremely low expectations.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the “refunds” mentioned in the story almost surely aren’t refunds. Instead, they’re “earned income credit” payments, which are a form of income redistribution laundered through the tax code.

I explained back in 2010 how this scam works, and it’s worth noting this is a huge problem – more than $10 billion of fraud each and every year.

The nitwits at the IRS even sends housing tax credit checks to prisoners!

And these are the geniuses in charge of enforcing Obamacare. Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

For Heaven’s sake, let’s rip up the entire tax system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Or, better yet, let’s shrink the federal government down to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Then we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

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To save readers some time, the honest answer to the question is that I don’t have many profound thoughts about the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and snooping by the National Security Agency.

But since I’ve been asked by several people to pontificate on the matter, I won’t let trivial obstacles such as lack of knowledge or absence of expertise preclude me from giving a response. Heck, I’ve written about drone attacks, and terrorism policy, and my knowledge in those areas may be even less than the President’s understanding of the economy!

Normally, when I’m in the dark about some matter of public policy, I simply see what some of my Cato colleagues have said about an issue. But as you can see here, here, and here, those experts are split on the topic (brings to mind the joke about the politician who, when asked his position on some legislation, said “some of my friends are for the plan and some of my friends are opposed, and I always stick with my friends).

So I reckon I’ll just wing it with a couple of observations and a concluding thought about patriotism.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

I confess I don’t know whether NSA snooping is a good use of time and energy, but I’m skeptical. Why? Because we don’t find much common sense in areas where I do know enough to run my mouth, such as money laundering laws and Transportation Security Administration rules. So why is NSA snooping any different?

It probably isn’t. As such, I side with other Americans in not wanting to give up my liberties simply because some politicians say our security is threatened.

That being said, I find myself irked by Mr. Snowden’s behavior. Some people believe he is a genuine patriot (in the proper sense of the word) motivated by libertarian principles, but the fact that he fled to Russia (perhaps en route to Cuba, Venezuela, or Ecuador) doesn’t reflect well on him.

For all its flaws, I rank the United States far above places such as Russia, China, and assorted Latin American thug regimes.

I understand that Snowden presumably wants to go someplace where he can’t be snatched by American officials, but he will cross the line and unambiguously become a traitor in my eyes if he gives sensitive material to unfriendly foreign governments.

And by sensitive, I don’t necessarily mean classified. I’m sure the federal government goes way overboard in labeling material as secret or classified. I’m talking about information that could compromise the security of the United States.

I’m guessing Edward Snowden has such information. If he shares it with hostile governments, he’s a bad person.

P.S. Here’s a humorous look at Obama-approved snooping.

P.P.S. If you think I’m being too hard on Snowden, you’ll probably beat my libertarian score on this comprehensive test.

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I’ve speculated before that Jay Leno may be coming out of the closet as a libertarian now that he’s announced his retirement from NBC.

Well, here’s the latest installment of my jokes from the late-night talks shows, and you can see some good barbs from Leno about government-run healthcare, the IRS, California and small business taxation.

I’m also increasingly appreciative of Jimmy Fallon’s humor. But judge for yourself.

Jay Leno

  • President Obama’s approval rating has dropped eight points over the past month, down to 45 percent, his lowest rating in over a year. Obama’s vowing to find out whose approval he’s lost, track them down using their email and phone records, and personally win them back.
  • In Xalapa, Mexico, a cat named Morris is running for mayor. Do you know the difference between a cat and a politician? Cats don’t pretend to care about you.
  • Some experts believe the privacy scandal will hurt the NSA. Are they crazy? Do you know how many people want to join now that they’ve heard the guy who blew the whistle is a high school dropout, making almost $200,000 a year, with a pole dancer girlfriend, and he’s living in Hawaii? People are lining up to get this job.
  • According to a Gallup poll, President Obama’s approval rating has dropped to 45 percent. Luckily for Obama, he has “impeachment insurance.” It’s called “Joe Biden.”
  • The world’s oldest human tumor has been found on the rib of a Neanderthal skeleton in Croatia. The tumor would have been discovered sooner, but they have government healthcare over there.
  • We live in what’s called an open society, which of course means they open our emails, open our phone records, and open our medical records.
  • Quarterback Tim Tebow has signed with the New England Patriots. So the good news is that Tebow got a job. The bad news: Now he’s associated with the word “patriot,” and he’s being audited by the IRS.
  • The guy who blew the whistle on the NSA scandal is a former security worker named Edward Snowden. He is a high school dropout. He was making $122,000 a year. He lived in Hawaii. He was engaged to a beautiful former ballerina. And he gave it all up. So not only is he a whistleblower. He’s also a moron.
  • When I was growing up, we were afraid of Big Brother watching us. Now with Obama, we actually HAVE a brother watching us.
  • The mystery is over. After a month of waiting, it turns out that an 84-year-old woman in Florida has won the $590 million Powerball lottery. As for how much tax she’s going to have to pay, the IRS said it’s too early to tell because they don’t know whether she’s a Republican or Democrat.
  • President Obama has called on Congress to pass a media shield law that would allow reporters to do their job without fear of government prosecution. Don’t we already have that? It’s called the First Amendment.
  • More problems for the IRS. Isn’t that the feel-good story of the year? They wasted $50 million over a two-year period on conferences and retreats for employees. They even spent $11,000 on a happiness expert. I have an idea how to make them happier. How about stopping making everybody else’s life miserable? Start with that!
  • IRS executive Lois Lerner has refused to quit and will collect her full pay and benefits while on administrative leave. They asked her to resign. She refused to go. Where in the real world does that ever happen? You get fired and you tell your boss, “I’m going to stay, and I want my money.” And you wonder why we’re $16 trillion in debt.
  • President Obama says he is renewing his efforts to close Guantanamo Bay. How about closing the IRS? Why don’t we do that? How about shipping the IRS to Guantanamo Bay?
  • This latest California wildfire is getting pretty scary. But Governor Jerry Brown has it under control. He said he is going to tax and regulate the fire until it gets fed up and moves to another state.
  • New predictions claim that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by the year 2030. They say the only way to stop it is for government to step in. Oh, yeah, that will work. When it comes to trimming the fat and tightening your belt, who knows better than the U.S. government?
  • Over the weekend President Obama gave the commencement speech at Ohio State University. He said, “I dare you to do better” — to which the students yelled back, “No, we dare YOU to do better. We need jobs!”
  • President Obama is in Mexico. He’ll be on hand to celebrate Mexico’s economic successes over the last few years. See, that’s how it works now. If President Obama wants to celebrate an economic success, he actually has to leave the country.
  • The U.S. government apparently spent millions of dollars in cash to fund various dubious government projects in Afghanistan — including solar panels and wind farms that never work. No, I’m sorry. That’s what we did here. I had it backwards.
  • President Obama held a press conference today. He said he still wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, but he doesn’t know how to do it. He should do what he always does. Declare it a small business and tax it out of existence.

David Letterman

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on Twitter. A politician on Twitter — what could possibly go wrong?
  • I don’t know if you saw it last night but let me just apologize. We had a bad show last night. I will tell you how bad the show was last night. Halfway through, the White House stopped listening in.
  • We put up with the IRS. They weasel you and take your hard-earned money. Well, they’ve been taking your tax dollars and throwing themselves lavish parties. I was thinking, “Yeah, well, what good is it being a bunch of power-hungry, jack-booted goons if you can’t enjoy yourselves, if you can’t every now and then pat yourself on the back?”

Letterman’s normally too timid to take on the establishment, but I appreciate the reference to jack-booted goons. And if you think that’s an overstatement, just read this horror story.

Conan

  • Due to the government spy scandal, sales of the classic George Orwell book “1984” have skyrocketed. So the fallout is worse than we thought. It’s making Americans read.
  • According to a poll, the majority of Americans are OK with the Obama administration listening in on our phone calls. Guys approve because they feel it increases security. And women approve of Obama’s policy because finally a man is listening to them.
  • Pope Francis said it is a sin for people to waste food. He made that proclamation and then he made Chris Christie a saint.
  • A new report says if Republicans want to win over young voters they need to get up-to-date with technology. Well, the GOP is listening because today they told young people everywhere to “be prepared to receive a very exciting fax from us.”
  • According to a new report, Al Gore now has more money than Mitt Romney. Gore said, “Mitt and I are living proof that if you’re a boring white guy, anything is possible.”

Jimmy Fallon

  • The Senate’s new immigration bill is apparently more than a thousand pages long and weighs 24 pounds. Some critics say the bill is too long for the average American to read before it’s approved, while some senators are saying that’s the point.
  • This weekend, President Obama held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It went well, although it got awkward when Obama asked China to stop spying on America and Jinping said, “You first.”
  • Another scandal hit the White House today. A report found that the government has been secretly collecting the phone records of Verizon customers. I knew something was up when I said, “You hang up first.” Then my wife said, “No, YOU hang up first!” Then Obama said, “Uh, how about you just hang up at the same time?”
  • Yesterday President Obama spoke at Ohio State’s graduation, and told students that it’s their responsibility to make the world a better place. It got awkward when students were like, “Wait, isn’t that literally YOUR responsibility?”
  • Vice President Joe Biden’s plane is apparently stuck in Arizona because of problems with its engine. Officials say they’re trying to fix it as fast as they can. But Obama was like, “No rush.”

The fourth Fallon joke reminds me of this bit of clever humor.

Craig Ferguson

  • The government has been secretly gathering data from your mobile phone. It’s a huge scandal and it comes on the heels of President Obama’s IRS scandal and Benghazi scandal. Even the crackhead mayor of Toronto is saying, “rough week, huh?”
  • Volcanic ash can really mess with airplanes. And we can’t let this volcano disrupt our air travel. That’s the government’s job.

Nice jab at the government about air travel. I’ve posted many jokes about the Keystone Cops of airport security (for some more laughs, see thisthisthis, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this).

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In prior posts, I’ve shared some remarkable numbers on the cost of regulation.

But the long-run damage may be even worse than any of us suspected. Here are some details about a new study, as digested by Reason’s science expert.

The growth of federal regulations over the past six decades has cut U.S. economic growth by an average of 2 percentage points per year, according to a new study in the Journal of Economic Growth. As a result, the average American household receives about $277,000 less annually than it would have gotten in the absence of six decades of accumulated regulations—a median household income of $330,000 instead of the $53,000 we get now. The researchers, economists John Dawson of Appalachian State University and John Seater of North Carolina State, constructed an index of federal regulations by tracking the growth in the number of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations since 1949. …They devise a pretty standard endogenous growth theory model and then insert their regulatory burden index to calculate how federal regulations have affected economic growth.  …Annual output in 2005, they conclude, “is 28 percent of what it would have been had regulation remained at its 1949 level.” The proliferation of federal regulations especially affects the rate of improvement in total factor productivity, a measure of technological dynamism and increasing efficiency. …Overall, they calculate, if regulation had remained at the same level as in 1949, current GDP would have been $53.9 trillion instead of $15.1 in 2011. In other words, current U.S. GDP in 2011 was $38.8 trillion less than it might have been.

That sounds unbelievable, even to a red-tape critic like me.

And the author of the column also is a bit skeptical. But even when he plays with the numbers a bit, he still finds that the cost of regulation is enormous.

…let’s say that the two economists have grossly overestimated how fast the economy could have grown in the absence of proliferating regulations. So instead let’s take the real average GDP growth rate between 1870 and 1900, before the Progressives jumpstarted the regulatory state. Economic growth in the last decades of the 19th century averaged 4.5 percent per year. Compounding that growth rate from the real 1949 GDP of $1.8 trillion to now would have yielded a total GDP in 2013 of around $31 trillion. Considerably lower than the $54 trillion estimated by Dawson and Seater, but nevertheless about double the size of our current GDP. All this means that the opportunity costs of regulation—that is, the benefits that could have been gained if an alternative course of action had been pursued—are much higher than the costs of compliance.

The key thing to understand is that faster economic growth, if maintained for a long period, can yield huge increases in living standards thank to compounding.

The accompanying chart, for instance, shows that it takes 70 years for a country to double economic output if it suffers with Italian-style 1 percent annual growth.

But if a nation enjoys rapid annual growth, it’s possible to double GDP in 10-20 years.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that we should have less regulation…as well as less spending, lower taxes, more trade, etc.

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I realize this might mean I’m not a very nice person, but I take joy in the sadness of others.

But in my defense, this only happens when the sad people happen to be those who want to steal my money using the coercive power of government. Crocodile TearsOr when bad things happen to the political class.

So you can imagine how happy I am that sleazy lobbyists for the agribusiness crowd are distraught about the rejection of the pork-filled farm bill in the House of Representatives.

Here are some of the details from The Hill, but have your crying towel ready.

K street agriculture lobbyists were stunned Thursday by the House defeat of a $940 billion farm bill and were scrambling to figure out their next move. The bill was widely expected to win approval… “We were shocked. We were watching the vote on TV and in the final minutes were saying ‘what are they doing? This thing isn’t going to pass!’ ” said one commodity group lobbyist. “I’m shocked,” said another lobbyist. “Our job as agriculture is to go to the House and say Mr. Speaker what is your plan for getting this done?” The intense blame game that broke out immediately after the bill was rejected in a 195-234 vote will only make it harder to get a bill over the hump, supporters of the measure said.

Gee, I can barely type with my vision clouded by tears.

In my fantasy world, of course, we abolish the Ag Department, which would enable me to be even happier about the sadness of others.

P.S. I have another reason to be happy. With only a few more days before I reach the advanced age of 55, I managed to hit a ball out of the park at a softball tournament in Salem, Virginia. Courtesy of Google Maps, here’s a reenactment of the glorious event.

Salem Tournament

I did hit one out at a tournament in Virginia Beach last year, but my happiness was undermined when Georgia lost later in the day to South Carolina. Hopefully nothing bad will happen today to offset the illusion that I’m still a young buck.

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The American people are very astute. I reported a couple of years ago that nearly two-thirds of voters identified the federal government as the greatest threat to the country’s future.

They’re right, and it’s also very scary, as illustrated by this Glenn McCoy cartoon.

McCoy Monster Cartoon

With frightening legislation such as Obamacare, tax hikes, and Dodd-Frank, no wonder about two out of three people have a very or somewhat negative view of Washington.

McCoy does very good work. He has a great pair of cartoons on condoms and gay marriage, and I also like his cartoon on sequester hysteria, as well as how he portrayed gullible voters being bribed with their own money. In my opinion, though, his cartoon on media bias is the best of the bunch.

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Why does virtually everything the government does cost more than we’re initially told?

In 2009, for instance, I warned that Obamacare would be much more costly than advertised, so I certainly wasn’t surprised several years later when the numbers began to climb.

Heck, I narrated an entire video warning that this would happen.

There are probably an infinite number of reasons why government programs wind up being needlessly expensive, but I think most of them fall into these four broad categories.

1. Government is inherently inefficient and wasteful (obvious to anyone who’s ever been stuck in a motor vehicles department).

2. Government doesn’t solve problems, and its failures are used as an excuse to increase budgets (a version of Mitchell’s Law).

3. Bureaucrats who produce cost estimates fail to incorporate behavioral effects (people acting in ways to take advantage of government largesse).

4. Politicians deliberately understate costs in hopes of tricking taxpayers into supporting their schemes (yes, we’re shocked that they lie).

These are some of the thoughts that went through my mind when I looked at this chart on estimated disability expenditures over time. As you can see, the government routinely underestimates the cost of the programs.

SSDI Projections

It goes without saying, of course, that the 2010 projection will be wildly inaccurate. The disability rolls have exploded during the Obama years.

But at least we’re not Greece, where you can actually get disability handouts for being a pedophile. In the United States, you have to do something far less offensive (like being a 30-year old who likes wearing diapers) to scam the program.

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After the financial crisis, the consensus among government officials was that we needed more regulation.

This irked me in two ways.

1. I don’t want more costly red tape in America, particularly when the evidence is quite strong that the crisis was caused by government intervention. Needless to say, the politicians ignored my advice and imposed the costly Dodd-Frank bailout bill.

2. I’m even more worried about global regulations that force all nations to adopt the same policy. The one-size-fits-all approach of regulatory harmonization is akin to an investment strategy of putting all your retirement money into one stock.

I talked about this issue in Slovakia, as a conference that was part of the Free Market Road Show. The first part of my presentation was a brief description of cost-benefit analysis. I think that’s an important issue, and you can click here is you want more info about that topic.

But today I want to focus on the second part of my presentation, which begins at about the 3:40 mark. Simply stated, there are big downsides to putting all your eggs in one regulatory basket.

The strongest example for my position is what happened with the “Basel” banking rules. International regulators were the ones who pressured financial institutions to invest in both mortgage-backed securities and government bonds.

Those harmonized regulatory policies didn’t end well.

Sam Bowman makes a similar point in today’s UK-based City AM.

Financial regulations like the Basel capital accords, designed to make banks act more prudentially,  did the opposite – incentivising banks to load up on government-backed mortgage debt and, particularly in Europe, government bonds. Unlike mistakes made by individual firms, these were compounded across the entire global financial system.

The final sentence of that excerpt is key. Regulatory harmonization can result in mistakes that are “compounded across the entire global financial system.”

And let’s not forget that global regulation also would be a vehicle for more red tape since politicians wouldn’t have to worry about economic activity migrating to jurisdictions with more sensible policies – just as tax harmonization is a vehicle for higher taxes.

P.S. For a more learned and first-hand explanation of how regulatory harmonization can create systemic risk, check out this column by a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

P.P.S. Politicians seem incapable of learning from their mistakes. The Obama Administration is trying to reinflate the housing bubble, which was a major reason for the last financial crisis. This Chuck Asay cartoon neatly shows why this is misguided.

Asay Housing Cartoon

P.P.S. Don’t forget that financial regulation is just one small piece of the overall red tape burden.

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According to my reader poll, Michael Ramirez is the nation’s best political cartoonist.

His new masterpiece about entitlements is a good example of his talent. In one image, he manages to convey how the system lures people into danger by offering the illusion that they can get something for nothing.

Ramirez Entitlement Cartoon

The cartoon is an apt illustration of where we are today with programs such as Food Stamps and disability, with ever-greater numbers of people being lured into lives of dependency.

In other cases, though I’m afraid we’ve already passed the point of biting the hook, particularly for many of the middle-class entitlements. We’re now being reeled in and face a very real danger of being turned into euro-style fish filets.

Though if I’m allowed to extend the metaphor, many people are working to reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in hopes of escaping the hook of dependency and fiscal crisis.

But it’s very important to realize that not all entitlement reform is created equal. As I explained back in 2011, the left would be more than happy to impose price controls and means testing as part of a “grand bargain” that seduces gullible Republicans into accepting a tax hike.

Which is why this Glenn Foden cartoon hits the nail on the head.

Foden Entitlement Cartoon

Sort of reminds me of this Ramirez cartoon. Simply stated, Republicans are dangerously susceptible to bad deals, which helps to explain why tax-increase budget agreements are always fiscal disasters.

The moral of the story is that we need the right kind of entitlement reform, but that won’t be possible until at least 2017.

P.S. If you want a tragically funny look at how the welfare state changes people for the worse, read the politically correct version of The Little Red.

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Because we live in an upside-down world, Switzerland is being persecuted for being a productive, peaceful nation that has a strong human rights policy with regards to privacy.

More specifically, politicians from high-tax nations resent the fact that investors flock to Switzerland to benefit from good policies, and they are pressuring the Swiss government to weaken that nation’s human rights laws so that governments with bad fiscal systems have an easier time of tracking and taxing flight capital.

I’ve resigned myself to this happening for the simple reason that it is well nigh impossible for a small nation (even one as well-armed as Switzerland) to withstand the coercion when all the world’s big nations are trying to impose one-size-fits-all policies designed to make it easier to raise tax rates and expand the size and power of government.

Switzerland v IRSBut, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Swiss aren’t going down without a fight.

Switzerland’s lower house of Parliament voted 123-63 against the measure, which would have enabled many of the Alpine nation’s banks to sidestep the Swiss banking secrecy laws and start handing information to the U.S. Department of Justice about any past help they may have given to Americans hiding undeclared wealth in Swiss accounts. Earlier Wednesday, the smaller, upper house of Switzerland’s Parliament voted 26-18 in favor of the proposed plan. But in the lower house, lawmakers had raised concerns about the heavy-handedness of the U.S. effort to have them sign off on legislation that might have exposed the country’s banks and bank employees to legal hazards. Lawmakers had also raised concerns about the lack of detail in the plan regarding potential fines for banks that would have opted to participate.

I heartily applaud the lawmakers who rejected the fiscal imperialism of the United States government.

As I stated in my recent BBC interview on tax havens, I believe in sovereignty, and the IRS should have no right to impose bad American tax law on economic activity inside Swiss borders (just as, say, China should have no right to demand that the United States help track down Tiananmen Square protestors that escaped to America).

But I’m not opening champagne just yet, in part because I don’t like the stuff and in part because I fear that this will be a temporary victory.

The Swiss have resisted American demands before, and on more than one occasion, only to eventually back down. And it’s hard to blame them when they’re threatened by odious forms of financial protectionism.

That being said, I’m going to enjoy this moment while it lasts and hope that somehow David can continue to withstand Goliath.

P.S. If you want to understand more about the underlying economic and philosophical implications of this issue, I heartily recommend this New York Times column by Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Insitut Liberal.

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What do you do if you’re part of a government bureaucracy that has been caught red-handed engaged in sleazy, corrupt, and (almost surely) illegal targeting of Americans for their political beliefs?

But before you answer, keep in mind that your bureaucracy also has been exposed for wasting huge amounts of money at lavish conferences. What’s the ideal way of dealing with the fallout from that scandal as well?

The answer is simple. Even though you and your pals already are paid more than the peasants in the private sector, give yourself and your cronies giant bonuses!

I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from an AP report.

The Internal Revenue Service is about to pay $70 million in employee bonuses despite an Obama administration directive to cancel discretionary bonuses because of automatic spending cuts enacted this year, according to a GOP senator. …“The IRS always claims to be short on resources,” Grassley said. “But it appears to have $70 million for union bonuses…” Three congressional committees and the Justice Department are investigating the targeting of conservative groups. And key Republicans in Congress are promising more scrutiny of the agency’s budget, especially as it ramps up to play a major role in implementing the new health care law.

Sort of makes this cartoon self evident.

IRS Trust Cartoon

Indeed, this motivates me to announce “Mitchell’s First Theorem of Government.”

I’ve explicitly expressed this sentiment in the past, and hinted at it here, here, and here.

Now it’s time to make it official.

Mitchell's First Theorem of Government

I hope you’ll agree this is a nice addition to Mitchell’s Golden Rule, Mitchell’s Bleeding Heart Guide, and Mitchell’s Law.

And maybe one of these will catch on and I can be famous like Art Laffer.

P.S. Enjoy some cartoons about the IRS scandals here, here, and here.

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In my never-ending crusade to push for the right kind of austerity, I appeared on RT to pontificate on the merits of limited government.

We got to cover a lot of material, so here’s some augmenting material.

1. The right kind of “austerity” is less government spending, which is why I’m very frustrated that the fight in Europe is largely between Keynesians who support more spending and IMF types who advocate higher taxes.

2. I explain why Keynesian economics is misguided, in part because government can’t spend money without taking resources from the productive sector of the economy and in part because politicians never follow through on Keynesian prescriptions for fiscal restraint when the economy is strong..

3. In an example of how to damn with faint praise, I give the International Monetary Fund credit for understanding that 2+2=4, though I also criticize the IMF for shifting from one bad approach (higher taxes) to another bad approach (Keynesian spending).

4. We discuss how many European nations got in trouble and then looked at how various governments responded to the crisis. Not surprisingly, I praise Switzerland for never getting in trouble and I commend the Baltic nations for rectifying their mistakes with genuine spending cuts.

5. I even give the “PIIGS” credit for slowing the growth of spending, albeit only after they had exhausted every possible bad policy option.

6. Not all government spending is created equal and I explain that Europe’s problem is that far too much money is spent on the welfare state.

7. I close with some analysis of the data fight between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Heritage Foundation. As I’ve already explained, the Senator was the one relying on speculative data.

Showing that I have a tiny bit of non-economic knowledge, I even quoted Saint Augustine, though I’m sure he would be horribly offended that I indirectly equated him with politicians.

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At the European Resource Bank conference earlier this month, Pierre Bessard from Switzerland’s Institut Liberal spoke on a panel investigating “The Link between the Weight of the State and Economic prosperity.”

His presentation included two slides that definitely are worth sharing.

The first slide, which is based on research from the Boston Consulting Group, looks at which jurisdictions have the most households with more than $1 million of wealth.

Switzerland is the easy winner, and you probably won’t be surprised to see Hong Kong and Singapore also do very well.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 2

Gee, I wonder if the fact that Switzerland (#4), Hong Kong (#1), and Singapore (#2) score highly on the Economic Freedom of the World index has any connection with their comparative prosperity?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course.

Most sensible people already understand that countries with free markets and small government out-perform nations with big welfare states and lots of intervention.

Speaking of which, let’s look at Pierre’s slide that compares Swiss public finances with the dismal numbers from Eurozone nations.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 1

The most impressive part of this data is the way Switzerland has maintained a much smaller burden of government spending.

One reason for this superior outcome is the Swiss “Debt Brake,” a voter-imposed spending cap that basically prevents politicians from increasing spending faster than inflation plus population.

Now let’s compare Switzerland and France, which is what I did last Saturday at the Free Market Road Show conference in Paris.

As part of my remarks, I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP.

They said no.

I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP.

They said no.

And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output (I used OECD data for my comparisons, which is why my numbers are not identical to Pierre’s numbers).

Once again, they said no.

The fundamental question, then, is why French politicians impose such a heavy burden of government spending – with a very high cost to the economy – when citizens don’t get better services?

Or maybe the real question is why French voters elect politicians that pursue such senseless policies?

But to be fair, we should ask why American voters elected Bush and Obama, both of whom have made America more like France?

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I was thinking of writing something deep and profound, but then I saw this cartoon. For those of us who love the IRS, it’s too good not to share.

IRS Frankenstein Cartoon

Frankenstein periodically appears in political cartoons, including this Glenn Foden IRS cartoon and these Henry Payne cartoons about Romneycare and Obamacare.

Sort of makes you wonder why there’s so much discrimination against the Mummy, Count Dracula and the Werewolf? Maybe we can ask the EEOC to launch an investigation after they’re done trying to coerce businesses into hiring ex-convicts.

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I’m not reluctant to criticize my friends at the Heritage Foundation. In some cases, it is good-natured ribbing because of the Cato-Heritage softball rivalry, but there are also real policy disagreements.

For instance, even though it is much better than current policy, I don’t like parts of Heritage’s “Saving the American Dream” budget plan. It’s largely designed to prop up the existing Social Security system rather than replace the existing tax-and-transfer entitlement system with personal retirement accounts. And while the plan contains a flat tax, it’s not the pure Hall-Rabushka version. One of the most alarming deviations, to cite just one example, is that it creates a tax preference for higher education that would enable higher tuition costs and more bureaucratic featherbedding.

That being said, I’m also willing to defend Heritage if the organization is being wrongly attacked. The specific issue we’ll review today is “austerity” in Europe and whether Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is right to accuse Heritage of “meretricious” testimony.

Let’s look at the details.

Earlier this month, Paul Krugman wrote that, “a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.” Krugman was too clever to assert that the Heritage economist “did present” dishonest data, but if you read his short post, he clearly wants readers to believe that an unambiguous falsehood has been exposed.

Krugman, meanwhile, was simply linking to the Washington Post, which was the source of a more detailed critique. The disagreement revolves around  whether Europeans have cut spending or raised taxes, and by how much. The Heritage economist cited one set of OECD data, while critics have cited another set of data.

So who is right?

Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner explains that the Heritage economist was looking at OECD data for 2007-2012 while critics are relying on an OECD survey of what politicians in various countries say they’ve done since 2009 as well as what they plan to do between now and 2015.

Whitehouse believed he had caught Furth and The Heritage Foundation in a bald face lie. …There is just one problem with Whitehouse’s big gotcha moment: The staffer who spoon-fed Whitehouse his OECD numbers on “the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases” failed to also show Whitehouse the front page of the OECD report from which those numbers came. That report is titled: “Fiscal consolidation targets, plans and measures in OECD countries.” Turns out, the numbers Whitehouse used to attack Furth for misreporting “what took place in Europe” were actually mostly projections of what governments said they were planning to do in the future (the report was written in December 2011 and looked at data from 2009 and projections through 2015). At no point in Furth’s testimony did he ever claim to be reporting about what governments were going to do in the future. He very plainly said his analysis was of actual spending and taxing data “to date.” Odds are that Whitehouse made an honest mistake. Senators can’t be expected actually to read the title page of every report from which they quote. But, considering he was the one who was very clearly in error, and not Furth, he owes Furth, and The Heritage Foundation an apology. Krugman and Matthews would be well advised to revisit the facts as well.

In other words, critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years.

So far, we’ve simply addressed whether Heritage was unfairly attacked. The answer, quite clearly, is yes. If you don’t believe me, peruse the OECD data or peruse the IMF data.

Now let’s briefly touch on the underlying policy debate. Keynesians such as Krugman assert that there have been too many spending cuts in Europe.  The “austerity” crowd, by contrast, argues that strong steps are needed to deal with deficits and debt, though they are agnostic about whether to rely on spending reforms or tax increases.

I’ve repeatedly explained that Europe’s real problem is an excessive burden of government spending.  I want politicians to cut spending (or at least make sure it grows slower than the productive sector of the economy). And rather than increasing the tax burden, I want them to lower rates and reform punitive tax systems.

The bad news is that Europeans have raised taxes. A lot. The semi-good news is that spending no longer is growing as fast as it was before the fiscal crisis.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I think Europe is still headed down the wrong path. Here’s what I wrote back in January and it’s still true today.

I don’t sense any commitment to smaller government. I fear governments will let the spending genie out of the bottle at the first opportunity. And we’re talking about a scary genie, not Barbara Eden. And to make matters worse, Europe faces a demographic nightmare. These charts, reproduced from a Bank for International Settlements study, show that even the supposedly responsible nations in Europe face a tsunami of spending and debt over the next 25-plus years. So you can understand why I don’t express a lot of optimism about European economic policy.

By the way, I’m not optimistic about the long-term fiscal outlook for the United States either. In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, we’ll sooner or later have our own fiscal crisis.

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Although he implemented a flat tax in Russia, I don’t think of Vladimir Putin as a supporter of free markets.

Heck, he was head of the a senior officer of the KGB during the communist era, and he presides over a country that is more known for cronyism rather than competitive markets.

So if he criticizes European nations for having excessive welfare states, it’s like being called ugly by a frog.

Here are some of the amusing details from Euractiv.com.

He’s no Milton Friedman, but he’s right about the welfare state

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking ahead of the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on 17-18 June, said his country would not follow the mistakes of Europe that led to the eurozone crisis. In a wide-ranging interview he blamed the EU’s “mentality” for endangering the economy and the “moral basics of society”. …Asked if Europe’s welfare state model can be competitive today, Putin said Europe is living beyond its means, losing control of the economic situation and that Europe’s structural distortions were “unacceptable” to Russia. “Many European countries are witnessing a rise of [the] dependency mentality when not working is often much more beneficial than working. This type of mentality endangers not only the economy but also the moral basics of the society. It is not a secret that many citizens of less developed countries come to Europe intentionally to live on social welfare,” Putin said.

It’s hard to disagree with anything Putin says in that passage.

Seems like he understands that Europe made a big mistake by having too many people in the wagon and too few people pulling the wagon.

Addendum: Oops, I gave Putin an undeserved promotion. He was a high-ranking KGB official – Lieutenant Colonel – but did not head that warm and cuddly organization.

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I’ve used the Superman theme to make fun of Obama’s shallow understanding of the Constitution and to express disgust about a bureaucrat ripping off taxpayers.

Now there’s a well-timed Jim McKee cartoon that looks at government’s super intrusiveness.

Government Man Cartoon

Jim McKee is relatively new to me, but he does great work. You can see some of his other cartoons here and here.

Regular readers know that I’m very fond of cartoons that portray government as fat and bloated slob. For other examples, see here, hereherehere, here, here, here and here.

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