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Archive for August, 2013

I’ve already shared some analysis of Mark Steyn’s libertarian-leaning views on foreign policy, so it’s very timely to see what he just wrote about Syria.

Here’s some of his new article in National Review. His humor is sharp, but he makes a very important point.

The administration’s ingenious plan is to lose this war in far less time than we usually take. In the unimprovable formulation of an unnamed official speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the White House is carefully calibrating a military action “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” That would make a great caption for a Vanity Fair photo shoot of Obama gamboling in the surf at Martha’s Vineyard, but as a military strategy it’s not exactly Alexander the Great or the Duke of Wellington.  …From the New York Times: “A wide range of officials characterize the action under consideration as ‘limited,’ perhaps lasting no more than a day or two.” Yeah, I know, that’s what Edward III said about the Hundred Years’ War. But Obama seems to mean it

Steyn notes that British voters already have said no to “ineffectual warmongering.”

This week, David Cameron recalled Parliament from its summer recess to permit the people’s representatives to express their support for the impending attack. Instead, for the first time since the British defeat at Yorktown in 1782, the House of Commons voted to deny Her Majesty’s Government the use of force. Under the Obama “reset,” even the Coalition of the Willing is unwilling. …“This House will not fight for king and country”? Not exactly. What the British people are sick of, quite reasonably enough, is ineffectual warmongering.

For what it’s worth, Obama doesn’t think he should be bound by that silly little clause in the Constitution about only Congress having the power to declare war. Which at least makes him consistent, since he doesn’t feel bound by the fact that Article I, Section 8, doesn’t authorize the federal government to be involved in health care.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at what Steyn identifies as the real problem. We account for a huge share of the globe’s military spending, yet we don’t get much bang for the buck.

The problem with the American way of war is that, technologically, it can’t lose, but, in every other sense, it can’t win. No one in his right mind wants to get into a tank battle or a naval bombardment with the guys responsible for over 40 percent of the planet’s military expenditures. Which is why these days there aren’t a lot of tank battles. The consummate interventionist Robert Kagan wrote in his recent book that the American military “remains unmatched.” It’s unmatched in the sense that the only guy in town with a tennis racket isn’t going to be playing a lot of tennis matches. …America’s inability to win ought to be a burning national question, but it’s not even being asked.

Particularly since there are no real friends competing to rule Syria.

For a quarter-century, from Kuwait to Kosovo to Kandahar, the civilized world has gone to war only in order to save or liberate Muslims. The Pentagon is little more than central dispatch for the U.S. military’s Muslim Fast Squad. And what do we have to show for it? Liberating Syria isn’t like liberating the Netherlands: In the Middle East, the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy.  …So we’ll get rid of Assad and install the local branch of al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood or whatever plucky neophyte democrat makes it to the presidential palace first — and then, instead of napalmed schoolyards, there will be, as in Egypt, burning Christian churches and women raped for going uncovered.

Steyn then summarizes what’s at stake.

…the hyperpower is going to war because Obama wandered off prompter and accidentally made a threat. So he has to make good on it, or America will lose its credibility. But he only wants to make good on it in a perfunctory and ineffectual way. So America will lose its credibility anyway.

It’s unfortunate that politicians misallocate military spending for parochial reasons, but it’s equally worrisome that they risk blood and treasure in ways that don’t make sense.

Syrian intervention, however, would take foolishness to an entire new level.

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During the big-spending Bush years, economic and fiscal people inside the Administration often would sympathize with my complaints about bad policy, but say that there was nothing they could do since all the big decisions were being made by the political types in the White House.

In other words, Karl Rove and his crew were the ones who helped encourage Bush to hurt the country for short-run political gain.

So you can imagine I’m reluctant to give favorable attention to anything associated with Rove, but this new video from one of his organizations is too good not to share. The Department of Health and Human Services has a video contest to sucker gullible young people into signing up for Obamacare, and here’s the satirical gem put together by Crossroads GPS.

And since we’re mocking the Obama Administration’s wasteful video contest, let’s enjoy a great Lisa Benson cartoon on the same topic.

Cartoon Obamacare Video Contest

Perhaps not quite as good as my all-time favorite Benson cartoon, which perfectly captures Obama’s fiscal policy, but still an excellent contribution to the debate.  I also very much like her fiscal cliff cartoon, this Keynesian economics cartoon, and this one about jump-starting the economy with tax hikes.

In conclusion, let’s remember that young people are suffering for reasons other than Obamacare. Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation that looks at four examples of how Obamanomics is especially bad news for those under age 30.

Though, to be fair, everyone is suffering from the President’s statist policies. As shown by these charts from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, the United States is enduring the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression.

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I got involved in a bit of a controversy last year about presidential profligacy.

Some guy named Rex Nutting put together some data on government spending and claimed that Barack Obama was the most frugal President in recent history.

I pointed out that Mr. Nutting’s data left something to be desired because he didn’t adjust the numbers for inflation.

Moreover, most analysts also would remove interest spending from the calculations since Presidents presumably shouldn’t be held responsible for servicing the debt incurred by their predecessors.

But even when you make these adjustments and measure inflation-adjusted “primary spending,” it turns out that Nutting’s main assertion was correct. Obama is the most frugal President in modern times.

When you look at the adjusted numbers, though, Reagan does a lot better, ranking a close second to Obama.

I also included Carter, Nixon, and LBJ in my calculations, though it’s worth noting that none of them got a good score. Indeed, President Johnson even scored below President George W. Bush.

Some of you may be thinking that I made a mistake. What about the pork-filled stimulus? And all the new spending in Obamacare?

Most of the Obamacare spending doesn’t begin until 2014, so that wasn’t a big factor. And I did include the faux stimulus. Indeed, I even adjusted the FY2009 and FY2010 numbers so that all of stimulus spending that took place in Bush’s last fiscal year was credited to Obama.

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my misguided buddy Bruce Bartlett has asserted?

Not exactly. Five days after my first post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

And when I removed TARP and other bailouts from the equation, Obama plummeted in the rankings. Instead of first place, he was second-to-last, beating only LBJ.

But this isn’t the end of the story. My analysis last year only looked at the first three years of Obama’s tenure.

We now have the numbers for his fourth year. And if you crank through the numbers (all methodology available upon request), you find that Obama’s numbers improve substantially.

Pres Spending 2013 - PrimaryAs the table illustrates, inflation-adjusted non-interest spending has grown by only 0.2 percent per year. Those are remarkably good numbers, due in large part to the fact that government spending actually fell in nominal terms last year and is expected to shrink again this year.

We haven’t seen two consecutive years of lower spending since the end of the Korean War!

Republicans can argue, of course, that the Tea Party deserves credit for recent fiscal progress, much as they can claim that Clinton’s relatively good numbers were the result of the GOP sweep in the 1994 elections.

I’ll leave that debate to partisans because I now want to do what I did last year and adjust the numbers for TARP and other bailouts.

In other words, how does Obama rank if you adjust for the transitory distorting impact  of what happened during the financial crisis?

Well, as you can see from this final table, Obama’s 2013 numbers are much better than his 2012 numbers. Pres Spending 2013 - Primary Minus BailoutsInstead of being in second-to-last place, he’s now in the middle of the pack.

I used a slightly different methodology this year to measure the impact of TARP and related items, so all of the numbers have changed a bit, but Reagan is still the champ and everyone else is the same order other than Obama.

So what does all this mean?

As I constantly remind people, good fiscal policy occurs when the burden of government spending is falling as a share of economic output.

And this happens when policy makers follow my Golden Rule and restrain spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

That’s actually been happening for the past couple of years. Even after you adjust for the quirks of how TARP repayments get measured.

I’m normally a pessimist, but if advocates of small government can maintain the pressure and get some concessions during the upcoming fights over  spending levels for the new fiscal year and/or the debt limit, we may even see progress next year and the year after that.

And if we eventually get a new crop of policymakers who are willing to enact genuine entitlement reform, the United States may avoid the future Greek-style fiscal crisis that is predicted by the BIS, OECD, and IMF.

That would almost be as good as a national championship for the Georgia Bulldogs!

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It sounds strange, but my two favorite columns on gun control were authored by self-identified leftists. But they didn’t let ideology trump common sense.

Justin Cronin, for instance, explained that restrictions on gun ownership undermined his ability to protect his family. And Jeffrey Goldberg looked at the evidence and concluded that guns make people safer.

This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate gun control columns by non-leftists. This Larry Correia piece, for instance, is must reading if you want to understand about magazine limits and so-called assault weapons.

And if you like real-world evidence, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe examines what happened after Massachusetts adopted onerous gun control legislation. He starts by explaining the law and what supporters promised.

In 1998, Massachusetts passed what was hailed as the toughest gun-control legislation in the country. Among other stringencies, it banned semiautomatic “assault” weapons, imposed strict new licensing rules, prohibited anyone convicted of a violent crime or drug trafficking from ever carrying or owning a gun, and enacted severe penalties for storing guns unlocked. …One of the state’s leading anti-gun activists, John Rosenthal of Stop Handgun Violence, joined the applause. “The new gun law,” he predicted, “will certainly prevent future gun violence and countless grief.” It didn’t.

Legal gun ownership plummeted.

The 1998 legislation did cut down, quite sharply, on the legal use of guns in Massachusetts. Within four years, the number of active gun licenses in the state had plummeted. “There were nearly 1.5 million active gun licenses in Massachusetts in 1998,” the AP reported. “In June [2002], that number was down to just 200,000.”

Jacoby then explains, however, that the advocates of gun control were not very successful in restraining the behavior of criminals.

But the law that was so tough on law-abiding gun owners had quite a different impact on criminals. Since 1998, gun crime in Massachusetts has gotten worse, not better. In 2011, Massachusetts recorded 122 murders committed with firearms, the Globe reported this month — “a striking increase from the 65 in 1998.” Other crimes rose too. Between 1998 and 2011, robbery with firearms climbed 20.7 percent. Aggravated assaults jumped 26.7 percent.

Gee, what a surprise. The bad guys responded to incentives and committed more crimes once they knew that victims were less likely to be in a position to defend themselves.

To be fair, the statists do have a response.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for gun-control activists to admit they were wrong. …“Massachusetts probably has the toughest laws on the books, but what happens is people go across borders and buy guns and bring them into our state,” rationalizes Boston Mayor Tom Menino. “Guns have no borders.”

But here’s where Jacoby administers a knock-out punch. He looks at evidence from other states and shows that there’s no plausible alternative explanation to the proposition that more gun control is correlated with more crime.

…why didn’t the gun-control lobby warn legislators in 1998 that adopting the toughest gun law in America would do Massachusetts no good unless every surrounding state did the same thing? Far from explaining why the new law would do nothing to curb violent crime, they were positive it would make Massachusetts even safer.  …But crime in Massachusetts didn’t just continue, it began climbing. As in the rest of the country, violent crime had been declining in Massachusetts since the early 1990s. Beginning in 1998, that decline reversed — unlike in the rest of the country. …Guns-across-borders might have explained homicide levels in Massachusetts continuing unchanged. But how can other states’ policies be responsible for an increase in Massachusetts homicides? Relative to the rest of the country, or to just the states on its borders, Massachusetts since 1998 has become a more dangerous state. …In 1998, Massachusetts’s murder rate equaled about 70 percent of the rate for Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. Now it equals 125 percent of that rate. Clearly something bad happened to Massachusetts 15 years ago. Blaming the neighbors may be ideologically comforting. But those aren’t the states whose crime rates are up.

Game. Set. Match.

But just in case you’re still not convinced, check out some of the empirical work generated by John Lott.

Or check out some of the fact-based research on guns and crime by David Kopel.

In other words, even if you don’t care about the Constitution, there’s no case for gun control. Jeff Jacoby’s column is simply the 100th nail in the coffin.

P.S. Since I usually try to include something at least  vaguely amusing in my posts, click here to see some of my favorite examples of gun control humor.

P.P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that cops overwhelming agree that gun control  is ineffective.

P.P.P.S. Jacoby does very good work and deserves more attention. Here are links to some of his columns that caught my eye.

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I’m not a big fan of the European Commission. For those not familiar with this entity, it’s sort of the European version of the executive-branch bureaucracy we have in Washington. And like their counterparts in Washington, the Brussels-based bureaucracy enjoys a very lavish lifestyle while pushing for more government and engaging in bizarre forms of political correctness.

But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, it appears that the European Commission is right once every century. Or perhaps once every millennium would be more accurate. Regardless, here are parts of a story I never thought would appear in my lifetime.

Olli Rehn: “Taxes shouldn’t be any higher than this”

According to the UK-based Independent, the European Commission – or at least one European Commissioner – now realizes that there’s such a thing as too much tax.

Tax increases imposed by the Socialist-led government in France have reached a “fatal level”, the European Union’s commissioner for economic affairs said today. Olli Rehn warned that a series of tax hikes since the Socialists took power 14 months ago – including €33bn in new taxes this year – threatens to “destroy growth and handicap the creation of jobs”.

Wow, that sounds like something I might have said.

But even though I endorsed him, Hollande has ignored my advice.

President Hollande has kept his electoral promise to attack French deficits and accumulated debt. He has done so, however, almost entirely by tax increases rather than by cuts in a state apparatus which swallows 56.6 per cent of the country’s GDP.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that tax hikes haven’t worked. Deficits today are still far higher than they were before the financial crisis. Yet the crazy French are not slowing down.

it has emerged that final budget plans for 2014 will include at least €6bn in tax rises. This figure does not include the impact of a programmed rise in the basic rate of VAT from 19.6 per cent to 20 per cent from January next year. …Mr Hollande’s 75 per cent “temporary” tax on incomes over €1m – also blocked by constitutional objections – may also finally take effect in 2014.

Geesh, no wonder even European bureaucrats are saying enough is enough.

Just like the IMF said that Greece had reached the tipping point where taxes were too high.

Just like the United Nations acknowledged the Laffer-Curve insight that taxes can be too high.

Just like the OECD admitted that better tax policy leads to more taxable income.

Just like the European Central Bank found big Laffer-Curve responses to changes in tax policy.

Hmmm…, makes you begin to think there’s a pattern and that people finally understand the Laffer Curve. Though let’s not get too optimistic since this common-sense observation about tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue has not had any impact on the pro-tax bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation in Washington. But that’s a separate story.

I feel guilty about writing something favorable about the European Commission, so I want to close with some information showing that this bureaucracy is on the wrong side more than 99 percent of the time. Which should surprise anyone since it is headed by a former Maoist (who is eminently forgettable – other than the fact that he is unintentionally engaged in a contest to see who can be the most laughable European bureaucrat).

Let’s look at some highlights from the past few years.

European Commission bureaucrats lash out at credit rating companies for warning that governments may not be able to pay their bills.

European Commission bureaucrats squander millions of dollars on empty political correctness as they publish calendars that omit Christmas.

European Commission bureaucrats pissed away millions of dollars to create a green-skinned “Mr. Fruitness” superhero.

European Commission bureaucrats wasted money on comic books portraying themselves as super heroes.

But let’s set aside their perks and boondoggles and instead look at the bad policies generated by this army of paper pushers.

The European Commission pushes for tax harmonization because it is “unfair” for some nations to have lower taxes.

The European Commission advocates gender quotas at private businesses.

The European Commission is hostile to entrepreneurship and supports ever-higher levels of regulation and red tape.

The European Commission supports higher taxes as a “solution” to overspending by national governments.

The European Commission has decided that taxpayer-funded vacations are a human right.

The European Commission finances killing ducks at the absurd price of $750 each.

In other words, the crowd in Brussels is just as wasteful as the folks in Washington. And just as profligate as the people in Paris. And just as reckless as the group in London. And…well, you get the idea.

P.S. While the purpose of this post is to congratulate the European Commission on a rare bit of sanity, it’s worth noting that there’s another bureaucracy in Brussels called the European Parliament. I don’t think they’ve ever displayed any evidence of sanity. But since it doesn’t have much power, it also has little opportunity to do really stupid things. That being said, they enjoy a level of pampering that must make American lawmakers green with envy.

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Want to know why – as shown by this map – most of America’s richest counties are part of the metropolitan DC region?

Part of the answer is that federal bureaucrats are overpaid. Another part of the answer is that the Washington area is filled with consultants and contractors, and this shadow government workforce also is overcompensated by taxpayers.

But I’m guessing that DC’s vast population of lobbyists and influence peddlers dominate the upper end of the income spectrum.

And that community of back scratchers and deal makers are getting even richer thanks to Obamacare. Here’s some of what The Hill is reporting today.

ObamaCare has become big business for an elite network of Washington lobbyists and consultants who helped shape the law from the inside. More than 30 former administration officials, lawmakers and congressional staffers who worked on the healthcare law have set up shop on K Street since 2010. Major lobbying firms such as Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, The Glover Park Group, Alston & Bird, BGR Group and Akin Gump can all boast an ObamaCare insider on their lobbying roster — putting them in a prime position to land coveted clients. …The voracious need for lobbying help in dealing with ObamaCare has created a price premium for lobbyists who had first-hand experience in crafting or debating the law.  Experts say that those able to fetch the highest salaries have come from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or committees with oversight power over healthcare.  Demand for ObamaCare insiders is even higher now that major pieces of the law — including the healthcare exchanges and individual insurance mandate — are being set up through a slew of complicated federal regulations.

You’ll also be happy to know that beltway insiders can expect years and years of undeserved loot thanks to rules, regulation, and red tape that will be unveiled for another seven years.

…the healthcare law has generated steady work — a trend that is likely to continue for years to come. That’s because ObamaCare runs on a long timeline, well into the next administration. Unless the law is severely crippled, the reform’s rules and requirements will be rolling out through at least 2020. That’s good news for lobbyists who want to sign up clients for the long haul.

This is the social science equivalent of a kick-in-the-you-know-what. A bunch of political hacks pass legislation that increases both the fiscal burden and the regulatory burden on the rest of us, but they make it very convoluted so that they can cash in and make big bucks navigating the law for deep-pocket clients.

This is a win-win for the political elite and a lose-lose for America’s productive sector.

And it’s a perfect example of what I was trying to get across in this video I narrated about the link between big government and corruption.

There are lots of specific examples of Obamacare’s corruption.

Michael Barone has exposed the sleaziness of the waiver process, Tim Carney revealed the special deals for politically connected companies, and I suggested the process was eerily similar to a passage from Atlas Shrugged.

But don’t forget Obamacare is just one example of the sleaze that defines Washington. Maybe the best way of understanding the game is to watch Andrew Ferguson explain DC’s parasite economy.

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I spoke earlier today at the 2013 Liberty Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. But I don’t think anybody is going to remember my speech about the collapse of the welfare state, even though I presented lots of powerful data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF, and also shared a very funny cartoon showing what happens when there’s nothing left for interest groups to steal.

Escaped the North Korean gulag

At a normal conference, my remarks may have resonated, but I freely admit that I was completely overshadowed by the presentation of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is the only person to have successfully escaped from the North Korean gulag.

In the future, if I ever get discouraged and think the fight for freedom is too difficult, I will watch this video and realize that nothing in my life will ever compare to the horror of living under communism. It’s not nearly as powerful as today’s first-person presentation, but the video will give you some sense of the utter barbarity of the North Korean government.

If you want more information, here is his Wikipedia entry, but I also suggest you watch this short speech by Blaine Harden, a journalist who wrote the story of Shin’s escape.

Keep in mind, by the way, that North Korea is an awful and repressive country even for the people who aren’t in the gulags. Malnutrition is such a problem, for instance, that children are stunted and the North Korean army had to lower its requirements to allow soldiers as short as 4’8″.

So perhaps now you understand why I get so upset when people in the west glorify communist thugs such as Che Guevara, or use the Soviet hammer and sickle as a cutesy marketing gimmick.

I hope nobody would ever think to wear a Hermann Göring t-shirt or use the swastika in a value-neutral fashion, so why should it be okay to whitewash and/or rehabilitate communists?

P.S. I was never a fan of former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, but he deserves lasting applause for seeking to protect children from the anti-western, soft-on-communism crap published by the late historian Howard Zinn.

P.P.S. Since today’s post is about a very dour topic, let’s close with a bit of humor about  the communist version of efficiency.

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