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Archive for the ‘Big business’ Category

I’ve argued that the crowd in Washington profits by plundering America, but that’s just part of the equation.

There are also plenty of big companies that have their snouts in the public trough.

No wonder many people have become disgusted

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman points out that a growing number of Americans think the system is rigged against them and he links this disillusionment to an ever-expanding federal government.

According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a full 56% of Americans agree with this statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” This disillusionment index has been rising for more than a decade and coincides with an explosion in the size of the federal government. …The last time Americans had this little faith in the country’s political and economic systems was for a brief period in 1992, in the aftermath of President George H.W. Bush’s breaking of his no-new-taxes pledge in a deal with Congressional Democrats that enabled more spending. …more government enables people to get rich through political favoritism. In the era of the Beltway boom, no wonder so many people feel the deck is stacked against them.

So is this just empty anti-government rhetoric?

I don’t think so.

Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits.

Or look at the way the major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies got into bed with the White House to line their pockets via Obamacare.

And examine how big financial firms pillaged taxpayers as part of the sleazy TARP bailout.

How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam.

Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market.

Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians.

Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors.

And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

After looking at that list, I’m surprised that 100 percent of Americans haven’t concluded that the system is rigged for corrupt insiders.

But just in case you think that list is inadequate, let’s look at some new examples.

But first, allow me to reiterate my view on markets.

Simply stated, I believe in genuine unfettered capitalism within a system that protects life, liberty, and property (in other words, “unfettered capitalism” obviously doesn’t include the right to hire a hit man to kill your mother-in-law).

Within those boundaries, I have no objection to people taking risks, accumulating wealth, or losing all their money. Heck, it’s not just that I have “no objection.” I welcome such a system since it means the maximum freedom and prosperity for people, particularly the less fortunate.

But I don’t want people to get rich(er) because they have political allies who will adopt cronyist policies that tilt the playing field in favor of well-connected insiders.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in my two new examples.

First, we have the case of a big Democratic donor who invested a lot of money in a short sell position on Herbalife, which means he will profit if the stock falls in value.

Nothing wrong with that, at least in theory. Short selling can be a very economically beneficial way of correcting markets when something is over-valued. Heck, we would all be much better off today if there had been some short selling to pop the housing bubble before it got so big.

But as Tim Carney explains in a column for the Washington Examiner, this short-selling insider isn’t relying on market forces. Instead, he is asking his buddies in the Obama Administration to use coercive government to hurt the company and lower its value.

Here are some excerpts.

Politically connected hedge-funder Bill Ackman…shorted the nutritional supplement company Herbalife in late 2012… After Ackman’s announcement, Herbalife shares fell from $46 to $27. Ackman kept hammering away, taking his compelling slide show on the road to convince the investing public that Herbalife was a house of cards. But after the initial drop, Herbalife stock rebounded… But Ackman had another weapon in his arsenal. Namely: Big Government. Ackman lobbied congresswoman Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., to sic the Federal Trade Commission on Herbalife. Sanchez complied. Ackman also…“paid civil rights organizations at least $130,000 to join his effort by helping him collect the names of people who claimed they were victimized by Herbalife in order to send the leads to regulators…” Ackman’s firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, hired an army of K Street lobbyists — paying a combined $14,000 a month to three firms that disclose lobbying for him — to turn the government against Herbalife.

What reprehensible behavior on the part of Ackman.

I have no idea whether Herbalife is a good company or a bad company. And I have no idea whether its stock is over-valued or under-valued.

But I do know that Ackman shouldn’t be getting his political buddies to intervene. As Tim points out, this is a recipe for rampant cronyism.

This is different from ordinary lobbying. Typically, companies lobby to protect or subsidize their business. When hedge funds play Ackman’s game, helping or hurting some other company is the entirety of that business — and so lobbying can become the core of their business plan. We’ve seen it before. Investor Steve Eisman took a short position on for-profit colleges and lobbied Congress and the Department of Education to crack down on them. The Obama administration this month announced new proposed regulations on these colleges.

Now let’s look at another example.

Only this time it involves a big-donor Republican who wants favors from big government.

As the Washington Post reports, Sheldon Adelson doesn’t want his casinos to face competition from the Internet.

Given the more than $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has donated lately to Republican causes, the billionaire casino tycoon is well-positioned to get what he wants from a GOP-dominated Congress. But it turns out that the item on top of Adelson’s wish list — a ban on Internet gambling — is encountering resistance. And it’s not Democrats who stand in his way but a small group of fellow conservatives. …Online betting has been embraced by a number of Adelson’s industry rivals and several states eager for the additional tax revenue it provides….Yet the move to the Internet has also been seen as a threat that could deplete the customer base for Adelson’s brick-and-mortar casino resorts. …Half of the 22 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have co-sponsored the Adelson-backed legislation.

So what’s the status of the battle?

…conservative opposition began to emerge. …leaders of the other groups, including the American Conservative Union, did not mention Adelson by name. But their letter follows the publication this week of a fiery online column by former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian hero and father of potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He called the bill an example of “crony capitalism” written “for the benefit of one powerful billionaire.” …Adelson called the 2011 Justice Department legal opinion a mistake and has taken steps to rein in online gambling, fighting state-level proposals to authorize it and pushing for the federal ban. A company lawyer penned an initial draft of the Restoration of America’s Wire Act — later refined and introduced last year by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — which would effectively prevent states from authorizing online betting.

Ugh, how nauseating.

Though I’m glad to see that there is opposition inside the GOP to Adelson’s self-serving proposal.

I realize we can’t say for sure whether opponents are motivated solely by good principles of non-intervention and federalism. Perhaps they’ve received money from interest groups on the other side, but at least there is resistance and presumably some of that opposition is for the right reasons.

By contrast, I’m not aware of any Democrats who are opposed to Ackman’s cronyist attack on Herbalife.

The moral of the story is that big government enables insider corruption. Which is the message of this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But if you don’t want to watch the video, just remember the simple lesson of today’s column, which is that all the examples of sleazy cronyism we discussed (both the new ones and the old ones) were only possible because government had the power to trump free markets.

Now let’s return to where we started. Yes, a growing number of Americans are getting disillusioned, and with good reason. But will the good people in Washington appeal to them with a principled campaign against corporate welfare and other policies that help insider fat cats?

Or will it be business as usual, with GOP cronyists replacing Democrat cronyists?

Even worse, will statists latch onto the issue and say the solution is to impose higher tax rates? That presumably would take some money from rich insiders, but it also would penalize folks who earn money honestly.

And it means the money that consumers lose because of cronyism winds up in the pockets of politicians.

Wouldn’t it be better to simply get rid of the bad subsidies and handouts and solve the real problem?

P.S. Since today’s column looks at capitalism vs cronyism, here’s the famous example of how you can explain various economic systems using two cows.

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I don’t like coerced redistribution. When the government uses the threat of force to take from Person A to give to Person B, it simultaneously reduces Person A’s incentives to produce while also luring Person B into dependency.

But not all coerced redistribution and government intervention is created equal.

I don’t like welfare programs, for instance, in part because taxpayers are writing huge checks to support a plethora of programs, but also because there is very strong evidence that the modern welfare state has caused more poverty.

Nonetheless, I understand that there are well-meaning people who support these programs. Their motives are pure in that they simply want to alleviate perceived suffering. And since they’ve never learned about the adverse indirect effects of government intervention and presumably haven’t given any thought to the ethics of government coercion, I don’t think of these people as being bad or immoral. Just uninformed.

But there are some forms of redistribution and intervention that are so self-evidently odious and corrupt that you can’t give supporters the benefit of the doubt. Simply stated, there’s no justifiable argument for using government coercion to hurt poor people in order to benefit rich people.

Let’s look at two examples.

First, the Export-Import Bank is a quintessential example of corporate welfare. The program forces taxpayers to guarantee the contracts of big corporations and foreign buyers, and there’s now a fight over whether it should be extended.

Needless to say, ordinary voters don’t want their money being used enrich big companies.

So if you were one of the beltway insiders who benefited from this corrupt institution, how would you try to get the program extended? Would you be upfront and argue that big companies like Boeing deserve tax dollars? Would you argue that politicians are really smart and wise and that they should interfere with the free market?

That would be the honest way of supporting the Ex-Im Bank. But you won’t be surprised to learn that advocates instead have resorted to lies. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank has mischaracterized potentially hundreds of large companies and units of multinational conglomerates as small businesses, a flaw in its record keeping that could undermine the export lender’s survival strategy. …A comparison of some 6,000 businesses characterized by Ex-Im as “small” with information supplied by corporate data collector Dun & Bradstreet, which Ex-Im also uses to vet applicants, and other sources turns up some 200 companies that appear to be mislabeled and many more whose classification is uncertain.

Um… I would say they lied rather than characterize it as a “flaw in its record keeping.” But let’s set that aside and look at some of the “small businesses” that had their snouts in the Ex-Im trough.

…analysis showed companies owned by billionaires such as Warren Buffet and Mexico’s Carlos Slim, as well by Japanese and European conglomerates, were listed as small businesses and Ex-Im acknowledged errors in its data in response to those findings.  …A division of Austria’s Swarovski jewelers shows up, as does North Carolina’s Global Nuclear Fuels, which is owned by General Electric and Japan’s Toshiba and Hitachi. …The list of small businesses in Texas, for example, includes engineering and construction company Bechtel, which has 53,000 employees.

Gee, Warren Buffet and foreign conglomerates don’t exactly sound like my idea of small businesses.

Hopefully this will provide more ammunition of those fighting to wean big companies from the public teat.

Bank officials and supporters have used the Ex-Im’s support for American small business as a first line of defense against a campaign by conservatives to shut it down as an exponent of “crony capitalism.” …“Rarely does Ex-Im miss a (public relations) opportunity to claim that it primarily helps small business, but Ex-Im is again playing fast and loose with the facts,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. “The bulk of Ex-Im’s help indisputably goes to large corporations that can finance their own operations without putting it on the taxpayer balance sheet.”

For our second example, we have the absolutely horrifying spectacle of the Obama Administration trying to shut down Wisconsin’s school choice system.

Why? Well, because currying favor with union bosses is more important than improving educational opportunities for students from disadvantaged communities.

George Will explains what’s happening in his Washington Post column.

It is as remarkable as it is repulsive… Eager to sacrifice low-income children to please teachers unions, the Justice Department wants to destroy Wisconsin’s school choice program. Feigning concern about access for disabled children, the department aims to handicap all disadvantaged children by denying their parents access to school choices of the sort affluent government lawyers enjoy. …Wisconsin’s school choice program was pioneered by an American hero, Mississippi-born Annette Polly Williams, who died Nov. 9 at age 77. During her three decades in Wisconsin’s legislature, she overcame the opposition of fellow Democrats to offering education choices to low-income parents. At the end of her life, however, she saw an African American attorney general, serving an African American president, employing tortured legal reasoning in an attempt to bankrupt private schools that enlarge the education options of disadvantaged children. …Closing the voucher program is the obvious objective of the teachers unions and hence of the Obama administration. Herding children from the choice schools back into government schools would swell the ranks of unionized teachers, whose union dues fund the Democratic Party as it professes devotion to “diversity” and the downtrodden.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised (given the White House’s cavalier approach to the rule of law) to learn that the Obama Administration is using is utterly nonsensical legal theory.

…federal lawyers argue that because public funds, in the form of tuition vouchers empowering parents to make choices, flow to private schools, the schools become “public entities.” …this is like arguing that when food stamps are used for purchases at Wal-Mart, America’s largest private employer ceases to be private — it becomes an extension of the government. Inconveniently for the Justice Department, the U.S. Supreme Court has said the fact that a “private entity performs a function which serves the public does not make its acts state action.”

The preposterous legal reasoning is a farce, but that doesn’t get me overly upset.

What does bother me is the way the White House is acting like the modern-day equivalent of George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent low-income (and largely minority) students from getting an opportunity for better education.

I guess that a black President (who sends his own kids to private school) consigning black children to the back of the proverbial bus shouldn’t surprise me too much. After all, some divisions of the NAACP also have decided that being politically allied with union bosses is more important that educational opportunity for minority kids.

But that doesn’t make it morally acceptable. Put yourself in the shoes of a low-income parent. Wisconsin’s school choice programs gives you some hope that your kids can break free of poverty. Imagine what it feels like, then, when some of the politicians who claim to be on your side then decide that your children are expendable pawns. How disgusting.

Since we’re talking about things that are disgusting, let’s shift back to the Ex-Im Bank. I’ve actually had some Republican types tell me that corporate welfare is okay because it “helps to offset” some of the redistribution from rich to poor.

I confess that I’m dumbstruck by such arguments. It’s sort of like hearing someone say it’s okay to murder, rape, and steal because other people are doing it.

This is why it’s not easy being a libertarian. Yes, we believe in small government for utilitarian reasons such as faster growth, higher living standards, and more jobs. But we’re also motivated by morality, by the belief that there’s right and wrong and that good people should strive to uphold the former and fight the latter.

That’s not a popular view in Washington, which is best characterized as an incestuous racket for the benefit of interest groups, politicians, cronyists, lobbyists, bureaucrats, contractors, and other insiders.

P.S. On a completely separate (and non-political) issue, I can’t resist seeking some sympathy after what happened to me this morning. I took two of my cats to the vet for their spay and neuter appointments. Some of you pet owners already know that most cats don’t like car rides, so you might have some inkling of what I’m about to report.

In happier times

About five minutes into the drive, one of the cats vomits in the little cat carrier. That obviously wasn’t a happy development, particularly since it left me with an unpleasant choice of enduring a very unpleasant smell or having the window open and enduring a very bitter chill. But then, a few minutes later, the other cat…um, how should I phrase this…loses control of her bowels.

Which means that the next 20 minutes was almost as unbearable as watching a state-of-the-union address. I was running late for the appointment, so I couldn’t stop someplace and try to deal with the mess. And the two cats kept moving around in their carrier, making things worse. Trying to breathe through my mouth, even with the window down, was at best a pitiful attempt to mitigate my suffering.

An utterly miserable situation. Almost 1/10th as bad as an IRS audit.

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I periodically try to explain that there’s a big difference between being pro-market and pro-business.

Simply stated, policy makers shouldn’t try to penalize businesses with taxes, mandates, and regulations.

But neither should politicians seek to subsidize businesses. That’s why I’m against bailouts, subsidies, and other distortions that provide special favors for politically connected companies.

I have nothing against companies earning money, to be sure, but I want them to earn their profits in the marketplace rather than lining their pockets by using the coercive power of government to rig the rules of the game.

But I don’t just have disdain for companies that stick their snouts in the public trough. I also have little regard for the politicians that enable this sordid type of business by trading campaign cash for corporate welfare.

I realize that’s a strong assertion, but I can’t think of any legitimate reason to support handouts for big companies. And I get especially angry when giveaways are facilitated by politicians who claim to support free markets.

Let’s look at two examples, the Export-Import Bank and the Obamacare bailout for big insurance corporations.

I’ve previously argued that the Export-Import Bank is a squalid example of corruption and I’ve shared a video that explains why it’s economically foolish to subsidize a handful of big exporters.

To augment those arguments, here’s some of what Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University Georgia recently wrote in a column for Real Clear Markets. He correctly warns that certain GOP politicians are to blame if the Export-Import Bank stays alive.

The Export-Import Bank is everything that Republicans should stand against. It is crony capitalism at its worst. It is corporate welfare, taxing American families to boost corporate profits. It ever forces firms to potentially subsidize a competitor. There is simply no need for this government agency. Republicans in Congress should make a stand and show voters that Republicans believe in free markets and small government, even if some big businesses complain. The Ex-Im Bank should not be reauthorized. …Over the last decade or so, the Democrats have increasingly become the party of big business, stealing that crown away from Republicans because of the Democrats’ willingness to engage in crony capitalism and actively pick winners and losers in our economy. While Republicans are still thought of as the pro-business party, and other actions by the Democrats are clearly anti-business (Obamacare, environmental over-regulation), large multinational corporations like Boeing and GE have donated money to Democrats and generally profited from their political alliances with them. If Republicans want to make gains among (lower) middle-class voters, one of the things that could help is to convince voters that they are on the side of the people and not big corporations. The Ex-Im Bank reauthorization is a perfect opportunity to do just that. …Income redistribution is wrong especially when the money is going to big and profitable companies.

Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform agrees. Writing for Forbes, he looks at both the policy and politics of Export-Import Bank handouts.

The ExIm bank is an export subsidy program, giving money to certain companies…in the hopes that gives them a leg up in international trade.  It’s been criticized for decades by free traders and those who simply oppose corporate welfare spending out of Washington. …the ExIm bank will sunset on its own on September 30th.  All Congress has to do is let nature take its course, and this corporate welfare program simply goes away forever.

Sounds like we should have a guaranteed victory from free markets over intervention, right?

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.  Ryan explains that Republicans may shoot themselves in the foot by trying to rescue this reprehensible example of cronyism.

Charging in at the last minute to save ExIm only makes the House GOP look beholden to K Street.  It also looks like they are flip-flopping from where they were back in the summer.  …ExIm reauthorization…is likely to take a GOP grassroots focused on President Obama’s failures and full of midterm election intensity, and turn them inward toward criticism of the House GOP leadership instead. If things go badly with this CR gambit, the House GOP will have given themselves a self inflicted wound just as they are trying to get out of town and not screw up what should be a good year for their candidates.

How nauseating.

I realize that the Export-Import Bank is a relatively minor issue and that I should mostly care about whether politicians do the right think on big topics such as entitlement reform. After all, that’s what really counts if we want to avoid fiscal catastrophe.

But I can’t stop myself from foaming at the mouth when self-proclaimed supporters of free markets undermine the argument for economic liberty with cronyist deals.

Obamacare is another example of big business being against free markets. We already know that the big pharmaceutical firms cut a special deal with the Obama White House.

The big insurance companies also had their snouts in the trough. Not only did they get legislation that mandated the purchase of their products, but they also got language that provides bailouts if they aren’t able to profit from Obamacare.

What’s really amazing, though, is that some Republicans are willing to go along with Obamacare bailouts for those major companies.

The good news is that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is in the right side. Here’s some of what he wrote about bailouts for health insurance companies for Fox News.

 …section 1342 of the ObamaCare law…established so-called “risk corridors”. According to this provision, taxpayers will make up the difference for health insurance companies whose plans lose money under ObamaCare. Last November, as it became clearer what this section of the law actually meant, I introduced legislation repealing it and protecting taxpayers from being forced to cover insurers’ ObamaCare losses. …In recent weeks, the public has learned that senior White House officials have been working closely with insurers behind the scenes to make sure that their earlier bailout deal, which helped assure ObamaCare’s passage in 2010, would stand and that a taxpayer-funded bailout was still, in fact, on the table. …On this ObamaCare bailout, as with so many issues, Washington politicians are misleading average Americans and planning to stick them with the bill. This is government favoritism and corporate cronyism at its worst. …It’s time to repeal and replace it, but at the very least, we should make it the law of the land that health insurers won’t be bailed out by taxpayers.

I’ll also add a moral argument.

As far as I’m concerned, I want the health insurance companies to suffer major losses. I want the business community to see that it’s a mistake to get in bed with big government.

Though I guess I’m actually making a practical argument. I may be motivated by morality, but the companies hopefully will do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that it’s too risky to strike deals with the political class.

By the way, Republicans often do the wrong thing because they’re afraid that voters favor the statist agenda of dependency.

But that’s not the case for Obamacare bailouts for health insurances companies. Here’s some polling data on the issue that showed up on my Twitter feed.

Let’s close by sharing some of what the editors at National Review wrote about both the Obamacare bailout and Export-Import Bank subsidies.

Congressional Republicans keep saying they oppose Obamacare. Yet they’re refusing to take the simplest and easiest action against it. …Some Republicans say that the insurance companies should not be penalized for the defects of the law. Why not? They have freely chosen to participate in the exchanges, and they should bear the risks of that decision — which include the risk that Congress might decide not to shovel tax dollars at them. The alternative, after all, is to punish taxpayers. …The debate over the Export-Import Bank is one test of Republican sincerity about ending corporate welfare. These taxpayer subsidies are another: If Republicans can’t take on corporate welfare when doing so advances one of their party’s most popular and basic commitments, when will they?

Amen. Both of these issues are tests for the GOP.

Actually, they should get added to a long list of issues that tell us whether Republicans have any sincerity (or brains) in the fight against statism.

o No tax increases, since more money for Washington will encourage a bigger burden of government and undermine prosperity.

o To stop bailouts for Europe’s decrepit welfare states, no more money for the International Monetary Fund.

o Reform the biased number-crunching methodology at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

o No more money from American taxpayers to subsidize the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for some dark humor, here’s the federal government’s satirical bailout application form.

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The Export-Import Bank is noxiously corrupt example of crony capitalism.

It never should have been created. But that’s something we could say about most government programs.

So the real question is how to reverse the damage.

If we reform a big program such as Medicare, you can’t end it overnight. You have to deal with the reality that millions of people have made plans based on government policies. And even if those policies are wrong, you can’t pull the rug out from folks who did nothing wrong.

So it’s important to put in place appropriate and fair transitions when reforming a major program.

But that’s not an issue with the Export-Import Bank. It provides undeserved subsidies to big companies. Those big companies will be just fine without having their snouts in the public trough. The right thing to do, from both a moral and economic perspective, is to shut it down immediately.

Indeed, this should be a test as to whether supposedly pro-taxpayer politicians in Washington understand the critical difference between being pro-business and being pro-market.

But what about the argument that the Export-Import Bank is somehow a win-win for the American economy? I tend to automatically dismiss such claims for the simple reason that all sorts of companies in the private sector would do what the Ex-Im Bank is doing if it really was a money maker.

But with the issue heating up, it would be a good idea to examine this claim more closely. Fortunately, Matt Mitchell (no relation) of the Mercatus Center does an excellent job of explaining the dodgy economics of the Ex-Im Bank is this short video.

In some sense, Matt is channeling Frederic Bastiat, the great French thinker who said that a good economist looks at both direct and indirect consequences of policies (the “seen” and the “unseen”).

Matt shows that the negative indirect impact of the Ex-Im Bank is far larger than any putative benefits generated by handouts to politically well-connected firms.

Just like bailouts, s0-called stimulus, and green-energy programs all look bad when you examine all the costs and benefits.

For more information, I also recommend this superb video on why cronyism is so corrosive.

And if you want a humorous analysis, scroll to the bottom of this post and see what the Kronies have to say about the Ex-Im Bank.

Or just enjoy this Glenn Foden cartoon.

P.S. I shared six jaw-dropping examples of left-wing hypocrisy last month.

But maybe it’s time to create a special Hypocrisy Hall of Fame, because the Wall Street Journal reveals that we another member who would be a shoo-in for the award.

It seems that Warren Buffett was not being terribly sincere or honest when he said people like him should be paying higher taxes.

Now this is awkward for President Obama and Senate Democrats. …Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is expected to help finance Burger King’s  pending acquisition of Canadian doughnut-chain Tim Hortons. The deal will allow Miami-based Burger King to claim Canada as its new legal home for tax purposes. Beltway Democrats had been hoping to use a recent wave of such corporate inversions as a campaign tool. The idea was to propose new taxes on the companies that move. Step two was to beat up Republicans who don’t agree to make the free world’s most punitive corporate tax system even more punitive. But now that Democratic tax hero Mr. Buffett has been spotted surfing on top of this wave, the political challenge has become more difficult.

Sort of makes you wonder whether Buffett endorses higher taxes for the self-interested reason that the political class will then give him a free pass on issues such as the Burger King inversion?

Shocking, just shocking, to think that rich leftists are hypocrites.

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Let’s start 2014 with a depressing story about the reprehensible way in which big companies get in bed with big government.

If asked to list the example of cronyism that I find most nauseating, the Export-Import Bank would be at the top of my list.

The Obamacare handouts for Big Insurance and Big Pharma obviously belong on the list as well.

But don’t forget the corrupt TARP giveaways to Wall Street, the handouts for GM (though at least we got some good parody from that farce), the corrupt H&R Block collusion with the IRS, and the sleazy ethanol handouts to agribusinesses.

We could list more examples, but let’s look at something from today’s newspapers. We normally think of the light-bulb ban as silly environmentalism, but the invaluable Tim Carney writes in the Washington Examiner that the real impetus was from corrupt companies.

Say goodbye to the regular light bulb this New Year. …Starting Jan. 1, the famous bulb is illegal to manufacture in the U.S., and it has become a fitting symbol for the collusion of big business and big government.

Tim explains how companies worked the political system.

People often assume green regulations like this represent the triumph of environmental activists trying to save the plant. That’s rarely the case, and it wasn’t here. Light bulb manufacturers whole-heartedly supported the efficiency standards. General Electric, Sylvania and Philips — the three companies that dominated the bulb industry — all backed the 2007 rule… The lighting industry was the main reason the legislation was moving. …“Philips formed a coalition with environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council to push for higher standards.”

Equally important, Tim explains why the companies thought cronyism was an effective way to line their pockets with undeserved wealth.

Competitive markets with low costs of entry have a characteristic that consumers love and businesses lament: very low profit margins. GE, Philips and Sylvania dominated the U.S. market in incandescents, but they couldn’t convert that dominance into price hikes. Because of light bulb’s low material and manufacturing costs, any big climb in prices would have invited new competitors to undercut the giants — and that new competitor would probably have won a distribution deal with Wal-Mart. So, simply the threat of competition kept profit margins low on the traditional light bulb. …the bulb-makers turned to government. Philips teamed up with NRDC. GE leaned on its huge lobbying army — the largest in the nation — and soon they were able to ban the low-profit-margin bulbs.

The better alternative, needless to say, is freedom.

There is a middle ground between everyone using traditional bulbs and traditional bulbs being illegal. It’s called free choice: Let people choose if they want more efficient and expensive bulbs. Maybe they’ll chose LEDs for some purposes and cheap bulbs for others. But consumer choice is no good either for nanny-staters or companies seeking high profit margins.

Reading Tim’s piece, it makes me wonder what sleaze was involved in the rules forcing us to use inferior washing machines.

P.S. Here are my 10 most-viewed posts of 2013.

*Last January, I shared some gun control humor and readers must like mocking the gun grabbers because that post easily got the most views.

*And in October, Libertarian Jesus racked up the second-highest number of views.

*Interestingly, the third most-viewed post was one from 2012. I guess you won’t be surprised to learn it was another example of gun control humor.

*We also go into the archives – back to 2011 – for the post with the fourth-highest number of views. It’s the classic set of cartoons about the rise and fall of the welfare state.

*Another oldie came in fifth place with this 2012 post featuring – you guessed it – gun control humor.

*In sixth place, we get some 2012 lessons on how a story about beer can be used to explain the failures of class warfare tax policy.

*We finally see another 2013 post with our revelation about the most free-market “state” in North America.

*But then we return to 2011 because lots of people waited until 2013 before reading the classroom experiment with socialism.

*In ninth place, you can read a libertarian fantasy from last April.

*Rounding out the top 10 is a celebration of Obama’s biggest fiscal defeat.

My favorite post of the year, for what it’s worth, reveals my fiscal wonkiness.

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Remember Sandra Fluke, the 30-year old student who got her 15 minutes of fame last year by becoming the poster child for subsidized birth control?

Fluke Birth ControlShe’s fortunately faded away, but the issue is still with us because the courts are being asked to decide whether government has the right to coerce people into decisions that violate their religious values.

But you won’t be surprised that this feature of Obamacare also has important economic and policy lessons.

Statists have tried to scare young people that there’s a fight over whether people have the right to access birth control. They’ll privately admit that this is just empty rhetoric (after all, there were no barriers to birth control in the pre-Obamacare era), but they nonetheless still argue that the mandate is needed for affordability reasons.

But this is utter bunk, as Megan McArdle explains in her Bloomberg column.

Regular, predictable expenses such as birth-control pills cannot be defrayed by insurance; they can only be prepaid, with a markup for the insurer’s administrative costs. The extra cost is passed on by the insurers to your employer, and from your employer to you and your fellow workers, either by raising your contribution or lowering the wage they are willing to offer.

I would take this one step farther. Costs will rise not only because of administrative costs, but also because we’ll have more third-party payer and that will make it much easier for the providers of birth control pills to raise prices.

And that is a perfect segue into the meat of today’s post, which is about the sleazy and corrupt interaction of big business and big government. And the Obamacare birth control mandate is a perfect example.

Tim Carney exposes this issue in his Washington Examiner column. He starts with a hypothesis that corporate cronyism is the real story.

Look at the contraception mandate from almost any angle, and you see the corporatism. Sometimes it’s on the surface, and sometimes it’s implicit in the arguments. The contraception mandate is nakedly a huge subsidy to the industry that most firmly supported Obamacare: the drugmakers. The drug industry has spent more on lobbying under Obama than any other industry.

Tim provides some of the sordid details.

Top Obama bundler Sally Susman oversees the lobbying shop at drug giant Pfizer, which sells $7.6 million a year in name-brand birth control pills, while also selling contraceptive injections and generic drugs. Pfizer’s CEO during the Obamacare debate was Obama donor Jeffrey Kindler. In a corporate filing, the company justified his salary increase by pointing to his Obamacare lobbying. …Merck, which also makes birth control pills, deployed top lobbyist, former Democratic congressional staffer and major Democratic donor Mark Raabe to Capitol Hill and the White House to lobby on “efforts to gain coverage of preventive services,” according to company lobbying filings. The administration uses the “preventive services” provision of Obamacare to justify the contraception mandate. Merck sells implants and other contraceptives — if “sells” is the right word for products that many customers now get for “free,” sticking colleagues and taxpayers with the bill. Conceptus, a company that sells a sterilization procedure, lobbied Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services on “implementation of the preventive services provisions of the Affordable Care Act,” according to lobbying filings. The mandate covers this patented procedure.

Needless to say, drug companies have spent all this money on lobbying and campaign contributions in the expectation that they can artificially increase their revenue as a result of government favoritism.

Obama’s contraception mandate requires all employer-sponsored health care plans to cover 100 percent of the cost of all FDA-approved contraception. That gives customers incentives to choose…name-brand pills, because the entire cost is passed onto employers and thus onto customers and colleagues.

It’s a different topic, but Tim also has some wise words about the Obama Administration’s arguments against the First Amendment.

…liberals argue that the owners of the privately held store Hobby Lobby are not protected by the First Amendment from intrusions of the “free exercise” of religion — and so it must cover the morning-after pill, which can cause a very early-term miscarriage. …It’s not a novel claim, but it’s still a scary one: A person gives up his First Amendment rights when he is acting as a businessman.

And his summary paragraph hits the nail on the head.

Sometimes people think politics is about the collective versus the individual. Most of the time, though, it’s about the state versus civil society. It’s coercion versus voluntary association.

By the way, the drug companies are just the tip of the iceberg. Companies like General Motors and General Electric also are experts at using government to tilt the playing field.

And don’t forget that companies like Boeing and Exxon Mobil use the Export-Import Bank to line their pockets at our expense.

Or what about H&R Block, which lobbies to protect its ability to profit from a corruption-riddled tax system.

The entire ethanol industry, meanwhile, is dependent on favors from Washington, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created by the government!

And Pizza Hut, joined by other fast food joints, lobbies for food stamps.

The TARP bailout was the epitome of Washington sleaze, which may help explain the revolving door between Wall Street in Washington.

We should also be upset that big corporations sometimes support higher tax rates on their competitors from the small business sector.

Gee, it’s almost enough to make one think Washington is a rat’s nest of corruption. Speaking of which, here’s my video on the link between big government and big corruption. I think you’ll agree that I understated the case.

P.S. Since we started this post by mentioning Sandra Fluke, we may as well close with some jokes at her expense. You can enjoy some laughs with this great Reason video, this funny cartoon, and four more jokes here.

P.P.S. But Sandra Fluke may have the last laugh since the clowns at the United Nations have declared that birth control (almost surely financed by taxpayers) is a human right.

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I’m a big fan of lower corporate tax rates.

I also want to eliminate worldwide taxation so American companies can be on a level playing field when competing for market share around the world.

And I want to get rid of the double taxation of dividends and capital gains in part because these reforms will boost business investment.

Given this track record, I don’t think anybody could accuse me of being an anti-big-business activist.

But I do get very irritated when politically connected corporations use cronyism to guard their interests at the expense of other taxpayers and the overall economy.

That’s why, in this interview with Larry Kudlow on CNBC, I spend most of the time advocating for pro-growth policies, but near the end I slam corporate CEOs from the Business Roundtable for endorsing higher tax rates for small businesses.

For those who don’t follow the intricacies of business taxation, most small companies – such as sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corps – are taxed through the personal income tax.

So it’s a bit outrageous when corporate CEOs endorse higher personal income tax rates, knowing that their smaller competitors will get reamed.

I don’t think they’re doing it just for that purpose. As I say in the interview, it’s more a case of feeding somebody else to the sharks out of a narrow, short-term sense of self preservation.

But this also explains why I am such a strong believer in the no-tax-hike pledge. Once “revenue enhancement” is part of the discussion, taxpayers lose their sense of unity and begin to throw each other overboard.

And this isn’t just something that happens among Washington insiders. I’ve previously explained that ordinary Americans get very tempted to support class-warfare tax hikes once they realize someone is going to be raped and pillaged by Washington.

This is why, to discourage talk of tax hikes (especially by crony capitalists), I am willing to make a special exception and support an excise tax on CEO salaries. Anybody who endorses higher taxes should be first in line for the guillotine.

P.S. I apologize for the poor quality of the video. The guy at Cato who does these things is out for the holidays, and you see the suboptimal results when I dabble in technical things. And since I’m acknowledging my shortcomings, I should have said “obediently” instead of “appropriately” at the 3:44 mark.

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