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Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category

You won’t know whether to laugh or cry after perusing these stories that will be added to our “great moments in government” collection.

For instance, did you realize that American taxpayers were saddled with the responsibility to micro-manage agriculture in Afghanistan? You’re probably surprised the answer is yes.

But I bet you’re not surprised that the money was flushed down a toilet. Here are some excerpts from a report on how $34 million was wasted.

American agricultural experts who consider soybeans a superfood…have invested tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to try to change the way Afghans eat. The effort, aimed at making soy a dietary staple, has largely been a flop, marked by mismanagement, poor government oversight and financial waste, according to interviews and government audit documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Warnings by agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country’s climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started… The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don’t like the taste of the soy processed foods.

Sadly, this $34 million boondoggle is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s been said that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Well, it’s also the graveyard of tax dollars.

…the project’s problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement and poor spending controls. No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a…special auditor appointed by President Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.

I’m guessing that most of the $120 billion was squandered using traditional definitions of waste.

But using a libertarian definition of waste (i.e., money that the federal government should not spend), we can easily calculate that the entire $120 billion was squandered.

Let’s now discuss another example of American taxpayer money being wasted in other nations. I’ve written previously about the squalid corruption at the Export-Import Bank, but Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus is the go-to expert on this issue, and she has a new article at National Review about “a project in Brazil that, if it goes bust and the Brazilians can’t pay the American contractor, your tax dollars will end up paying for.”

And what is this project?

…an Export-Import Bank–backed deal to build the largest aquarium in South America…the taxpayer exposure is $150,000 per job “supported.” Some people in Brazil are rightly upset about this. The Ex-Im loan may have lower interest rates and better terms than a regular loan, but this is probably money the indebted and poor Brazilian government can’t afford. …a real problem with the Ex-Im Bank: On one hand, it gives cheap money to large companies who would have access to capital markets even in its absence. But on the other hand, it encourages middle-income or poor countries to take on debt that they probably can’t afford, whether the products purchased are “made in America” or not.

Gee, aren’t we happy that some bureaucrats and politicians have decided to put us on the hook for a Brazilian aquarium.

But let’s try to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s a depiction of what you’re subsidizing. Enjoy.

Subsidized by American taxpayers

I hope you got your money’s worth from the image.

Perhaps I’m being American-centric by focusing on examples of bad policies from the crowd in Washington.

So let’s look at an example of government foolishness from Germany. It doesn’t involve tax money being wasted (at least not directly), but I can’t resist sharing this story because it’s such a perfect illustration of government in action.

Check out these excerpts from a British news report on over-zealous enforcement by German cops.

A one-armed man in Germany has received a full apology and refund from the police after an overzealous officer fined him for cycling using only one arm. Bogdan Ionescu, a theatre box office worker from Cologne, gets around the usually cycle-friendly city using a modified bicycle that allows him to operate both brakes – one with his foot. But on 25 March he was pulled over by a police officer who, he says, told him he was breaking the law. Under German road safety rules, bicycles are required to have to have two handlebar brakes. After a long argument at the roadside, the officer insisted that Mr Ionescu’s bike was not roadworthy and issued him with a €25 (£20) fine.

At least this story had a happy ending, at least if you overlook the time and aggravation for Mr. Ionescu.

Our last (but certainly not least) example of foolish government comes from Nebraska, though the culprit is the federal government.

But maybe “disconcerting” would be a better word than “foolish.”

It seems that our friends on the left no longer think that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” In a very troubling display of thuggery, the Justice Department dispatched a bureaucrat to “investigate” a satirical parade float.

Here’s some of what was reported by the Washington Times.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sent a member of its Community Relations Service team to investigate a Nebraska parade float that criticized President Obama. A Fourth of July parade float featured at the annual Independence Day parade in Norfolk sparked criticism when it depicted a zombie-like figure resembling Mr. Obama standing outside an outhouse, which was labeled the “Obama Presidential Library.” The Nebraska Democratic Party called the float one of the “worst shows of racism and disrespect for the office of the presidency that Nebraska has ever seen.” The Omaha World-Herald reported Friday that the Department of Justice sent a CRS member who handles discrimination disputes to a Thursday meeting about the issue. …The float’s creator, Dale Remmich, has said the mannequin depicted himself, not President Obama. He said he is upset with the president’s handling of the Veterans Affairs Department, the World-Herald reported. “Looking at the float, that message absolutely did not come through,” said NAACP chapter president Betty C. Andrews.

If you look at the picture (and other pictures that can be seen with an online search), I see plenty of disrespect for the current president, but why is that something that requires an investigation?

There was plenty of disrespect for the previous president. And there as also disrespect for the president before that. And before that. And before…well, you get the idea.

Disrespect for politicians is called political speech, and it’s (supposedly) protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

That’s even true if the float’s creator had unseemly motives such as racism. He would deserve scorn if that was the case, and parade organizers would (or at least should) have the right to exclude him on that basis.

But you don’t lose your general right to free speech just because you have unpopular and/or reprehensible opinions. And the federal government shouldn’t be doing anything that can be construed as suppressing or intimidating Americans who want to “disrespect” the political class.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of politicized bureaucracy, we have an update to a recent column about sleazy behavior at the IRS.

According to the Daily Caller, there’s more and more evidence of a big fire behind all the smoke at the IRS.

Ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s computer hard drive was “scratched” and the data on it was still recoverable. But the IRS did not try to recover the data from Lerner’s hard drive, despite recommendations from in-house IRS IT experts to outsource the recovery project. The hard drive was then “shredded,” according to a court filing the IRS made to House Ways and Means Committee investigators.

Gee, how convenient.

I used to dislike the IRS because of the tax code. Now I have an additional reason to view the bureaucrats with disdain.

P.P.S. One last comment on the controversy surrounding the parade float. Racism is an evil example of collectivist thinking. But it is also reprehensible for folks on the left to make accusations of racism simply because they disagree with someone.

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I’m a big believer in federalism, both as a matter of policy and politics.

So you won’t be surprised that I’ve called for the abolition of the Department of Transportation. On more than one occasion.

But when you’re trying to convince politicians to give up power and money, it takes a lot repetition. So, to paraphrase what Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, here we go again.

I want to emphasize one part of the interview. I’m agnostic on the issue of whether America as a whole needs more infrastructure spending, but I’m sure some parts of the nation could use more roads.

But that doesn’t mean that Washington should be in charge of that spending.

My colleague at Cato, Chris Edwards, is an expert on these issues. Here’s what he recently wrote about the various schemes in DC to fund more transportation spending with higher taxes.

HTF spending on highways and urban transit adds up to $53 billion a year, while the HTF rakes in $39 billion in revenues, mainly from the federal gasoline tax. That leaves a gap of $14 billion. President Obama wants to fill the gap with corporate tax revenues, but that bad idea is dead on arrival in Congress. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) has a different idea. His bill, co-sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), would hike the federal gas tax by 12 cents per gallon. …Corker’s position is the opposite of conservative. If Tennessee needs more money for roads, it can raise its own gas tax any time it wants.

And here are some of the numbers that Chris put together showing that highway spending has been rising rather than falling.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason adds more context.

About 27 percent of highway and transit spending currently comes from the federal government, via the HTF, while states kicking in about 38 percent and 35 percent coming from municipalities. The HTF isn’t set to “run dry” in August, as many are reporting, but it did tell states to expect an average 28 percent reduction in aid at that point unless Congress acts. …there’s nothing stopping states from taking this matter into their own hands. Since 2013, seven states have raised fuel levies, reports Reuters… When left a little more to their own devices, it seems states get innovative. They develop localized solutions. They experiment.

Let’s close with one interesting piece of data. The International Institute for Management Development recently published its World Competitiveness Yearbook.

The good news is that the United States maintained its hold on first place. That’s a lot better than we’re doing in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But what’s particularly relevant and fascinating is to see America’s scores in the various sub-components of the Yearbook. The United States may rank only 22 out of 60 nations for government effectiveness, but we beat every nation for infrastructure.

So if we have an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States, it certainly doesn’t show up in either the hard data or the business leader opinion survey that generate those rankings.

P.S. Back in 2011, I shared a couple of serious videos about bitcoin.

On a lighter note, here’s “bitcoin girl” encouraging more people to use this private money.

But since I don’t want anyone to accuse me of bias, fans of the Federal Reserve can enjoy this alleged film clip from Ben Bernanke’s childhood.

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Let’s enjoy some semi-good news today.

We’ve discussed many times why Obamacare is bad news, whether we’re looking at it from the perspective of the healthcare system, taxpayers, or workers.

But it could be worse. Writing in the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson explains that two-dozen states have refused the lure of expanding Medicaid (the means-tested health care program) in exchange for “free” federal money.

From 1989 to 2013, the share of states’ general funds devoted to Medicaid has risen from 9 percent to 19 percent, reports the National Association of State Budget Officers. Under present law, the squeeze will worsen. The White House report doesn’t discuss this. …To the White House, the right-wing anti-Obamacare crusade is mean-spirited partisanship at its worst. The 24 non- participating states are sacrificing huge amounts of almost-free money… Under the ACA, the federal government pays all the cost of the Medicaid expansion through 2016 and, after that, the reimbursement rate drops gradually to a still-generous 90 percent in 2020.

But that “almost-free money” isn’t free, of course. It’s simply money that the federal government (rather than state governments) is diverting from the productive sector of the economy.

So the 24 states that have rejected Medicaid expansion have done a huge favor for America’s taxpayers. To be more specific, Nic Horton of Watchdog.org explains that these states have lowered the burden of federal spending (compared to what it would have been) by almost $90 billion over the next three years.

By not expanding Medicaid, 24 states are saving taxpayers $88 billion over the next three years. That is $88 billion that will not be added to the national debt — debt that will not be passed on to future generations of taxpayers. On the other hand, states that have expanded Medicaid through Obamacare are adding roughly $84 billion to the national debt through 2016.

Returning to Samuelson’s column, he would like a grand bargain between states and the federal government, with Washington agreeing to pay for all of Medicaid (currently, states pay a portion of the bill) in exchange for states taking over all spending for things such as roads and education.

We could minimize this process for states and localities by transferring all Medicaid costs to Washington (or at least the costs of the elderly and disabled). To pay for it, Washington would reduce transportation and education grants to states. Let Washington mediate among generations. Let states and localities concentrate on their traditional roles of education, public safety and roads. Spare them the swamp of escalating health costs. This is the bargain we need — and probably won’t get.

I like half of that deal. I want to transfer education, law enforcement, and roads back to the state level (or even the local level).

But I don’t want Washington taking full responsibility for Medicaid. Instead, that program also should be sent down to the states as well. This video explains why that reform is so desirable.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of Obamacare, this Chip Bok cartoon perfectly captures the essence of the Hobby Lobby decision. The left wants the mandate that contraception and abortifacients be part of health insurance packages.

Rather than exacerbate the damage of using insurance to cover routine costs, wouldn’t it make more sense to have employers simply give their workers more cash compensation and then allow the workers to use their money as they see fit?

That way there’s no role for those evil, patriarchal, oppressive, and misogynistic bosses!

I realize this might upset Sandra Fluke, but at least she has the comfort of knowing that her narcissistic statism generated some good jokes (here, here, and here).

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It’s difficult being a libertarian.

In addition to all the other challenges (such as trying to convince people stealing doesn’t become okay simply because the government is the middleman), I get conflicted about government waste.

You’re probably thinking I’m wandering off the libertarian reservation. After all, aren’t libertarians big opponents of boondoggles, government waste, and pork-barrel spending?

All true, but here’s my challenge: I also don’t want “efficient government.”

In other words, our goal should be to shrink government, not to make it “work better.” To understand the point I’m making, ponder these questions:

Do we want government to efficiently lure people into dependency?

Do we want government to efficiently socialize health care?

Do we want government to efficiently cartelize the agriculture sector?

I hope the answer to all these questions is “NO,” which is why I generally focus my work on structural changes to shrink the size and scope of government.

But every so often, notwithstanding everything I just wrote, I can’t resist pointing out really absurd examples of wasteful spending. And today we have two jaw-dropping examples.

We know that government bureaucracies like palatial buildings and that cost overruns are the rule rather than the exception. Well, one of the new bureaucracies created by the Dodd-Frank bailout bill is setting records for extravagance with its new headquarters.

The newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is renovating the Washington, D.C., headquarters it rents—at a cost per square foot that is more expensive than Trump World Tower in New York City. The CFPB project is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $215 million… Cost projections have increased $65 million in six months and $120 million since last year’s estimate. Some of the building’s extravagant features include a four-story glass staircase, two-story waterfall and a sunken garden.

But what’s really amazing is that all this money is being spent on a rented building and that the cost of renovating is far greater than what was spent on building (yes, building, not just renovating) some of the world’s most famous landmark structures.

Now for our second example.

We’ve all heard about how big chunks of education spending get wasted on bureaucracy and don’t get used for classroom instruction.

And we read about how welfare bureaucrats consume a lot of money that supposedly is targeted to help poor people.

This principle also applies to other forms of government spending.

CNN reports that the federal government’s program for emergency food aid around the world is such a cluster-you-know-what that barely a bit more than one-third of money is actually spent on food for crisis-stricken regions.

International typhoons, hurricanes, and earthquakes leave behind devastating scenes of poverty and need. If you had about a $1.5 billion every year to send food to such desperate areas, how would you do it? …The way the U.S. provides international food aid is an antiquated and bureaucratic tangle. Food largely has to be purchased here in the U.S., and then shipped on boats by U.S. cargo carriers to the trouble spots. The Government Accountability Office says that 65% of the money for this aid program is spent on shipping and business costs – not on food. … it’s a system that has helped shipping companies and unions win billions in government contracts, companies like Maersk. …There’s also the transport workers unions. …The two leading maritime unions gave more than “three quarters of a million dollars to members of the current House of Representatives in the 2012 election cycle,” according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Geesh, what a typical example of insider corruption.

This is yet another piece of evidence for my view that disaster relief is not a function of the federal government.

P.S. Regarding the theme of today’s column, Fred Smith, the founder and former President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told me on more than one occasion that we should “be thankful we don’t get all the government we pay for.”

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Libertarians tend to like – or at least have a grudging respect for – the underground economy.

For instance, even if we’re personally very straight-laced, we don’t like government prohibitions against gambling, drugs, and prostitution. This is why we’re not upset when these things happen in spite of the laws enacted by the political class.

But this isn’t just about victimless crimes. We also dislike high taxes, so you won’t find libertarians shedding many tears when we read about tax avoidance and tax evasion in nations (such as France and Greece) with punitive tax systems.

Politicians tend to have a different perspective. They generally get very upset if we’re not following their societal diktats and acquiescing to their fiscal demands.

But now we’re suddenly seeing that some politicians have a new-found appreciation for the underground economy.

The New York Times reports that European nations want to add these activities to their estimates of GDP.

As of September, all European Union countries will be required to take fuller accounting of trade in sex, drugs and other underground businesses as part of an overhaul of economic measurements by Eurostat, the European statistics agency. The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who objects, after all, to more accurate numbers?

But it’s always good to be suspicious of governments.

And why is suspicion warranted in this case? Well, it appears that this effort to re-measure GDP may give politicians more ability to spend.

With European Union governments obliged to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies, the changes are also expected to make growth rates from Spain to Sweden look better, possibly also making debt ratios seem rosier. …In Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, …G.D.P. could increase by as much as 2 percent, Eurostat estimates, while Germany and France could see expansions of as much as 3 percent. Britain might show a gain of 3 to 4 percent, Eurostat said.

To elaborate, there are “Maastricht rules” in the European Union that (at least in theory) obligate governments to keep deficits from rising about 3 percent of GDP and to keep debt from climbing above 60 percent of GDP.

So if politicians and bureaucrats can figure out ways to make GDP appear bigger, that means they can have more red ink. Which means, of course, that they can spend more money.

So now it should be abundantly clear why governments have an incentive to add the underground economy to their GDP estimates.

But there’s one little problem with this approach. The whole purpose of the Maastricht rules was to keep nations from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. The rules obviously didn’t work very well (perhaps because they focused on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much government spending), but there presumably would have been even more profligacy if they didn’t exist.

So what’s the point of adding the underground economy to GDP when that simply gives politicians more leeway to spend?

Indeed, the NYT article notes that some of the bean-counting bureaucracies in Europe are concerned that this new approach won’t work because there won’t be any new tax revenue to accompany the new spending.

Statistics agencies, though, say that whatever the improved ratios, debt will not be easier to service, because governments cannot collect taxes from illegal underground activity.

And just in case you don’t trust the New York Times, here’s a blurb from Money News making the same point.

No country is supposed to let their annual deficits exceed 3 percent of GDP or accumulated debt exceed 60 percent of GDP. Countries that don’t comply with the debt limits are to be penalized — 0.2 percent of GDP, plus a “variable component” that can range up to 0.5 percent of GDP annually as long as the breach continues. Boosting GDP helps lower the debt ratio.

The bottom line is that these changes will enable Europe’s politicians to postpone much-needed fiscal discipline.

In other words, they’ll have the ability to spend themselves deeper into a hole.

And as you can see from these sobering IMF, OECD, and BIS estimates, the hole is already enormous.

Not that America is any different. Our economy may be doing better (or less worse) today, but our future fiscal outlook is worse than many other nations thanks to a combination of poorly designed entitlement programs and changing demographics.

And just as is the case for Europe, counting our underground economy would not be a substitute for the reforms needed to save the nation.

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Back in 2012, I shared a sadly amusing image about how the modern political process has degenerated into two wolves and a sheep voting what to have for lunch.

I was making an argument in that column against majoritarianism (and that is a critical issue, as explained in this video), but there’s also a very important moral component to this debate.

Walter Williams addresses this issue in his latest column. He starts by asking a hypothetical question.

Suppose I saw a homeless, hungry elderly woman huddled on a heating grate in the dead of winter. To help the woman, I ask somebody for a $200 donation to help her out. If the person refuses, I then use intimidation, threats and coercion to take the person’s money. I then purchase food and shelter for the needy woman. My question to you: Have I committed a crime? I hope that most people would answer yes. It’s theft to take the property of one person to give to another.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how Person A wants to spend money, it’s wrong for Person A to steal from Person B.

Walter than asks some critical follow-up questions, all of which are designed to make readers realize that theft doesn’t magically become acceptable simply because several people want to take Person B’s money.

Would it be theft if I managed to get three people to agree that I should take the person’s money to help the woman? What if I got 100, 1 million or 300 million people to agree to take the person’s $200? Would it be theft then? What if instead of personally taking the person’s $200, I got together with other Americans and asked Congress to use Internal Revenue Service agents to take the person’s $200? The bottom-line question is: Does an act that’s clearly immoral when done privately become moral when it is done collectively and under the color of law? Put another way, does legality establish morality?

Amen. Walter is exactly right.

And this is a point I need to internalize.

I’m often writing about the economic evidence for smaller government, but I suspect advocates of economic liberty and smaller government won’t win the debate unless we augment our arguments by also making the moral case against government-sanctioned theft.

And perhaps one way of getting this point across is to educate people about the fact that we used to have a very small federal government with little or no redistribution. Walter elaborates.

For most of our history, Congress did a far better job of limiting its activities to what was both moral and constitutional. As a result, federal spending was only 3 to 5 percent of the gross domestic product from our founding until the 1920s… James Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, said, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees, Madison stood on the floor of the House of Representatives to object, saying, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Here’s the bottom line according to Professor Williams.

We’ve become an immoral people demanding that Congress forcibly use one American to serve the purposes of another. Deficits and runaway national debt are merely symptoms of that larger problem.

Though I would slightly disagree with the way Walter phrased it.

I would argue that a bloated government is the symptom of growing immorality. Deficits and debt are then symptoms of that problem.

P.S. I want to quickly address another issue.

When I quote Art Laffer, I’m almost always going to be in agreement with what he says.

But, as I wrote last year, we’re in disagreement on the issue of whether states should be allowed to tax sales that take place outside their borders.

And now Art has a short video that rubbed me the wrong way.

He endorses legislation that would create a sales tax cartel and says – right at the start of this video – that this is because “states should have the right to be able to tax whatever they want to within their state.”

I agree, but this is why I’m against the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. That legislation would allow state governments to tax outside their borders.

Simply stated, a merchant in one state should not be forced to collect taxes for a government in another state.

P.P.S. This also explains why FATCA is such horrible legislation. It is an effort by the U.S. government to coerce banks in other nations to enforce bad IRS law.

If we care about liberty, we should make sure the power of government is constrained by borders.

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I’ve shared lots of data and evidence about the harmful economic impact of government spending.

Simply stated, budgetary outlays divert resources from more productive uses. And this results in labor and capital being misallocated, leading to less economic output.

The damage is even more pronounced when you look at how politicians finance the budget. Whether they use taxes or borrowing (or even printing money), there are additional distortions that hinder the private sector.

Today, we’re going to look at the economic impact of a particular type of government spending. A new working paper by two academics at the University of Miami has revealed a negative relationship between government consumption spending and economic growth.

But before digging into the details, what do public finance economists mean when they talk about “consumption spending”? At the risk of over-simplifying, it’s the part of the budget used to purchase goods and services. Everything from soldiers to housing and from jails to education.

It’s basically the so-called discretionary portion of the federal budget, minus “investment spending” (which would be things like roads).

Anyhow, here are some of the key findings.

This paper tests the Mundellian hypothesis that too much government spending reduces economic growth… In this paper, we analyze annual panel data from 1999 to 2011 for 31 OECD countries to examine the role of government spending in determining economic growth. In particular, we will focus our attention on government consumption spending on non-market goods such as defense and justice for collective consumption and its effect on growth in real GDP growth. …We find that government consumption spending on non-market goods signifi cantly reduces economic growth. A one percentage point increase in government consumption of non-market goods as a percent of GDP is associated with a 0.86 percentage lower growth rate in GDP. …This result is compatible with Barro (1990)’s fi nding for the Summers and Heston database, but suggests a stronger negative eff ect of government consumption on economic growth.

That’s a big number, which implies that we’re definitely on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

By the way, just in case you’re wondering why Obama’s “stimulus” was such a flop, the study also notes that “the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act envisaged less than 5% spending on public investment, and over 95% on consumption.”

In other words, Obama increased the type of government spending with the worst impact on the economy. Something to keep in mind when politicians, lobbyists, interest groups, and other insiders argue that there’s no need to cut back on discretionary spending.

But it’s also important to note that the study has some findings that may distress libertarians and small-government conservatives. It finds, for instance, that “government investment spending is positively related to growth.”

Also, it’s important to realize that the study is limited to only certain forms of discretionary spending. As the authors explain, they examine, “the impact of government consumption spending net of health, education and housing service.”

But even with those caveats, we have another strong piece of evidence that our economy would grow much faster if we reduced the burden of government spending.

And if you need more evidence on the harmful effect of government spending (either generally or specific types of outlays), allow me to call your attention to research even from normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Central Bank.

And you can find similar findings in the work of scholars from all over the world, including the United States, Finland, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

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The internal revenue service has allowed itself to become a tool of the White House. To be more specific, bureaucrats at the tax-collection agency sought to undermine a free and fair political process by stifling political speech. And now the IRS is lying about its activities and trying to cover its tracks.

This should be deeply horrifying to all Americans, regardless of political affiliation or philosophy.

Particularly since the partisan Democrat appointed by Obama to head the IRS refuses to even apologize for the agency’s rogue behavior.

There are several appropriate responses to the IRS scandal, including some genuine budget cuts. But you probably won’t be surprised to learn that some people think the IRS instead should be rewarded with even more money.

Here are some excerpts from a column in today’s Washington Post.

…this is an especially strange time to stick up for the agency, given the suspicious disappearance of a few thousand key e-mails that Congress wants to see. But right now, the IRS desperately needs a champion. …the IRS has been laboring…with fewer resources. Since 2010, when Congress first began hacking away at discretionary spending, the bureau’s funding has fallen 14 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms… These cuts have come even though the agency’s responsibilities and workload have increased, thanks to new laws such as the Affordable Care Act and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act… Now House Republicans want to hobble it even more. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to slash the bureau’s budget by another $340 million.

It’s true that both Obamacare and FATCA grant new powers and obligations to the IRS, but we can solve that problem by repealing those misguided laws.

But since that won’t happen while Obama is in the White House, let’s consider whether “fewer resources,” “hobble,” and “hacking away” are accurate ways of describing what’s been happening to the IRS’s budget.

The Office of Management and Budget has detailed tables showing spending by agency. And if you look at the administrative portions of IRS spending (culled from lines 2491-2533 of this massive database), it turns out that spending has increased dramatically over time.

Yes, it’s true that IRS spending has declined slightly since 2010, but the agency’s budget is still about twice as big as it was 30 years ago. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

In other words, it’s very misleading to focus merely on the post-2010 budgetary data (just as Krugman was being deceptive when he looked only at post-2007 data when writing about Estonia’s economic performance).

Looking at the historical data reveals that the IRS budget is much bigger than it’s been in the past.

There are a couple of additional points in the column that deserve some attention. The author argues that people who care about the budget deficit should be delighted to give more money to the IRS because it produces a “darn good return on investment.”

If you care about narrowing the budget deficit — as Republicans generally say they do — gutting your chief revenue- collection agency makes little sense. …The IRS generates way more money than it spends, after all. For every dollar appropriated to the IRS in the 2013 fiscal year, the agency collected $255, according to the national taxpayer advocate’s office. That’s a darn good return on investment.

Wow, what a scary mindset. Based on this thinking, why don’t we simply give the government carte blanche to seize our bank accounts? After all, they could probably collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for every dollar spent. That would be an even better “return on investment.”

As an aside, this is an example of why I get so agitated when supposed fiscal conservatives focus on deficits and debt. It creates an opening for people who want to push bad policy. But if you focus on the real problem of government spending, that problem disappears.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the column. There’s one other point that cries out for correction. The author claims that a bigger IRS budget will reduce tax evasion and that this will keep tax rates from going higher.

Some of that money comes from going after tax cheats, and…rampant tax evasion has a tendency to drive statutory tax rates higher so that the government can extract more money from those poor saps still obeying the law.

The only problem with this assertion is that it is grossly inconsistent with the facts.

We have very powerful evidence that politicians lowered tax rates during periods when there were substantial flows of money to so-called tax havens.

Why? Because they felt competitive pressure to implement less onerous tax rates in order to keep even more money from escaping.

And now we have strong evidence that tax rates are going up as opportunities to escape bad tax policy have decreased.

Why? Because the politicians now feel that taxpayers have fewer escape options.

To summarize this post, the IRS needs and deserves more money in the same way that Charles Manson needs and deserves a group hug.

Here’s one last bit of humor to augment the cartoons I’ve already included. It’s PG-13, so don’t read too closely if you get easily offended.

P.S. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could junk the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax? That would eliminate almost every possible conflict with the IRS and also take away the agency’s discretionary power.

Not a bad fantasy to have, at least for a policy wonk.

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I’ve posted more than 3,500 items since I started International Liberty. And if you look at the earliest posts, way back in April of 2009, you’ll find that one of the very first of them made the link between big government and big corruption.

My premise was very simple. When government is very large, with all sorts of power to provide unearned wealth via taxes, spending, and regulation, then you will get more sleaze.

Sort of like the way a full dumpster will attract lots of rats and roaches.

A story in Fortune reports that government corruption at the state level is very costly.

…corruption is everywhere, in one form or another. And it’s costing U.S. citizens big time. A new study from researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Indiana University estimates that corruption on the state level is costing Americans in the 10 most corrupt states an average of $1,308 per year… The researchers studied more than 25,000 convictions of public officials for violation of federal corruption laws between 1976 and 2008 as well as patterns in state spending to develop a corruption index that estimates the most and least corrupt states in the union.

Most Corrupt StatesHere’s the list of the 10-most corrupt states. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern.

Southern states are over-represented, it appears, but that’s obviously not an overwhelming factor since Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas (among others) didn’t make the list.

But it turns out that there is a factor that seems to be very prevalent among corrupt states.

The researchers also found that for 9 out of the 10 of the most corrupt states, overall state spending was higher than in less corrupt states (South Dakota was the only exception).

The authors suggest an attack on corruption could lead to a lower burden of government spending.

Attacking corruption, the researchers argue, could be a good way to bring down state spending.

I don’t disagree, but I wonder whether there’s an even more obvious lesson. Maybe the primary causality goes the other direction. Perhaps the goal should be to lower state spending as a way of reducing corruption.

Returning to the analogy I used earlier, a smaller dumpster presumably means fewer rats and roaches.

That’s not the only interesting data from the study. Fortune also reports that infrastructure projects and bloated bureaucracies are linked to corruption.

The paper explains that construction spending, especially on big infrastructure projects, is particularly susceptible to corruption… Corrupt states also tend to, for obvious reasons, simply have more and better paid public servants, including police and correctional officers.

I’m not surprised by those findings. Indeed, I would even argue that a large bureaucracy, in and of itself, is a sign of corruption since it suggests featherbedding and patronage for insiders.

For more info on the size of government and corruption, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. It’s several years old, but the message is even more relevant today since the public sector is larger and more intrusive.

P.S. Speaking of corruption, there’s actually a serious effort on Capitol Hill to shut down the Export-Import Bank, which has been a cesspool of corruption and cronyism.

P.P.S. Switching to a different topic (though it also fits under corruption), we have another member for our potential Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Or maybe this person belongs in a politician-ripping-off-the-system Hall of Fame.

Here are some of the details from an Irish news report and you can judge for yourself.

Ireland’s outgoing European Commissioner, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, is entitled to a total €432,000 EU pay-off over the next three years to help her adjust to life after Brussels. …EU commissioners leaving office are entitled, subject to certain conditions, to a “transitional allowance” over three years varying between 45pc and 65pc of salary. Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn’s entitlement amounts to 55pc of her salary, or €137,000 per year.

Huh?!? A transitional allowance? For what? That’s more than $500,000 in American money.

Is it really that difficult to end one’s term as an overpaid European Union Commissioner?

But what really makes Ms. Geoghegan-Quinn an inspiration to other bureaucrats (and a nightmare for taxpayers) is that she’ll also have her snout buried deeply in Ireland’s public trough.

And from this autumn, she can also resume collecting her Irish TD and ministerial pensions totalling €108,000 a year – giving her total pension entitlements worth over €3,000 a week.

Though to be fair, she’s simply doing what other politicians already have done. Not only in Ireland, but also in America.

Government has become a racket for the benefit of insiders.

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There have been many truly awful presidents elected in the United States, but if I had to pick my least favorite, I might choose Herbert Hoover.

I obviously have disdain for Hoover’s big-government policies, but I also am extremely irritated that – as Jonah Goldberg explained – he allowed the left to create an utterly bogus narrative that the Great Depression was caused by capitalism and free markets.

Indeed, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity produced a video demonstrating that the statist policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt helped trigger, deepen, and lengthen the economic slump.

Building on that theme, here’s a new video from Prager University that looks specifically at the misguided policies of Herbert Hoover.

Amen. Great job unmasking Hoover’s terrible record.

As I explained when correcting a glaring error by Andrew Sullivan, Hoover was a big-government interventionist. Heck, even FDR’s inner circle understood that the New Deal was simply an extension of Hoover’s statist policies.

In other words, FDR doubled down on Hoover’s awful record. And with awful results. We have a better understanding today of how the New Deal caused the downturn to be deeper and longer.

This Tom Sowell video is definitely worth watching if you want more information on that topic.

And here’s something else to share with your big-government friends. The Keynesian crowd was predicting another massive depression after World War II because of both a reduction in wartime outlays and the demobilization of millions of troops. Yet that didn’t happen, as Jeff Jacoby has succinctly explained. And if you want more details on how smaller government helped restore growth after WWII, check out what Jason Taylor and Rich Vedder wrote for Cato.

P.S. I’ve compared Bush and Obama to Hoover and Roosevelt because of some very obvious similarities. Bush was a big-government Republican who helped pave the way for a big-government Democrat, just as Hoover was a big-government Republican who also created the conditions for a big-government Democrat.

The analogy also is good because I suspect political and economic incompetence led both Hoover and Bush to expand the burden of government, whereas their successors were ideologically committed to bigger government. We know about Obama’s visceral statism, and you can watch a video of FDR advocating genuinely awful policy.

The good news is that Obama will never be as bad as FDR, no matter how hard he tries.

P.P.S. It’s also worth mentioning that a very serious downturn in 1921 was quickly ended in part thanks to big reductions in the burden of government spending. Your Keynesian friends will also have a hard time explaining how that happened.

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Since I’ve already created a Moocher Hall of Fame to acknowledge the strangest and most reprehensible examples of government dependency, it’s occurred to me that there also should be a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to highlight the government employees that have figured out how to most successfully rip off taxpayers (and here are some good candidates for charter membership).

But what if an entire bureaucracy was eligible?

The paper pushers at the Veterans Administration sure have figured out how to milk the system. Check out these excerpts from Associated Press report.

Nearly 80 percent of senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs got performance bonuses last year despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals and clinics, a top official said Friday. …Workers at the Phoenix VA Health Care System — where officials have confirmed dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment — received about $3.9 million in bonuses last year, newly released records show. The merit-based bonuses were doled out to about 650 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaning staff.

This is such an outrageous waste of money that even the politicians who created it feel it should be criticized.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA’s bonus system “is failing veterans.” Instead of being given for outstanding work, the cash awards are “seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product,” Miller said. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said awarding bonuses to 80 percent of executives means that the VA was setting the bar for performance so low that “anybody could step over it. If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high.” Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said the VA suffered from “grade inflation, or what (humorist) Garrison Keillor would refer to as ‘all of the children are above average.'” Kuster and other lawmakers said they found it hard to believe that 80 percent of senior employees could be viewed as exceeding expectations, given the growing uproar over patients dying while awaiting VA treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. …Miller, the panel’s chairman, noted that in the past four years, none of the VA’s 470 senior executives have received ratings of minimally satisfactory or unsatisfactory, the two lowest ratings on the VA’s five-tier evaluation system.

But the real lesson is that government simply doesn’t work very well

Or let me rephrase that. Government works very well…but only if you’re a politician, lobbyist, contractor, bureaucrat, or some other insider who has figured out that “the public sector” is a great way to obtain unearned wealth.

If you’re a taxpayer, by contrast, you get the short end of the stick (I was thinking of another analogy, but decided to keep things clean).

And if you’re someone – like a veteran – who is relying on government, then you’re in a very unfortunate position (sort of like the person in the other analogy that crossed my mind).

The main thing to understand is bureaucrats respond to incentives. And when you have government programs with no bottom-line reason to  deliver efficiency and good service, we shouldn’t be surprised that we get bloated payrolls and absurd compensation packages.

This video explains that it’s a government-wide phenomenon.

And to close out today’s column, here’s a Steve Kelley cartoon about Forrest Gump and the VA.

P.S. Don’t let politicians and interest groups get away with claiming that “inadequate funding” caused the VA scandal.

P.P.S. And grit your teeth because the government-run veterans health system is a good predictor of what we’ll all experience if the government-run Obamacare system is fully implemented.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that bonuses for poor performance are standard operating procedure in Washington. The bureaucrats at the IRS have been rewarded with extra cash notwithstanding all the scandals.

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Imagine how weird it would be if the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform praised Barack Obama for fiscal responsibility.

And think how inconceivable it would be for the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union to applaud Tim “Turbotax” Geithner for economic stewardship.

But the Canadian version of that happened while I was at the conference of the World Taxpayers Association in Vancouver two weeks ago.

The event was organized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the main speaker was Paul Martin of the Liberal Party, who served as Finance Minister from 1993-2002 and Prime Minister from 2003-2006.

And I should add, for context, that the Liberal Party in Canada is not a classical liberal party with a track record of free markets and small government.

But Paul Martin was honored because he was responsible, while Finance Minister, for one of the best records of fiscal restraint of any policy maker in recent history (click here for international comparisons).

I’ve pointed out that the burden of spending fell under Bill Clinton, and I’ve even acknowledged that the federal budget hasn’t grown much under Obama, at least once you get past his first couple of years.

But Paul Martin was far more frugal. And since Canada has a parliamentary system, there’s no ambiguity about who deserves credit. He restrained spending when his party had control.

What happened to generate the good results? For all intents and purposes, he imposed a spending freeze. And I’m talking a nominal spending freeze, not the kind of fake fiscal discipline you get when politicians make “cuts” off an inflated baseline.

And because the budget was successfully restrained, that addressed both the problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.

In his speech, Martin won me over when he bragged that the burden of government spending fell to its lowest point in 50 years.

And my man crush became even more pronounced when he said they allowed agencies to ask for more funds, but only if they identified offsetting cuts elsewhere.

What a novel concept! A government that actually looked at tradeoffs and prioritized outlays. Sort of like a household or business.

Paul Martin DiscussionI asked the former Prime Minister a couple of questions.

I was specifically interested in why the Liberal Party didn’t behave like other left-wing parties and raise taxes to enable bigger government.

Martin said there were some in his party who wanted that approach, but that there were two reasons for good policy.

First, enough people understood that Canada has a spending problem rather than a debt problem. And second, there was concern that financial markets would react poorly if policy makers simply pushed for higher taxes and ignored the size of government.

Wow, I wish the average Republican had the same sophisticated understanding of fiscal policy.

No wonder Canada got such good results. They imposed austerity on the public sector, rather than trying to squeeze the private sector (a distinction that seems to escape Paul Krugman).

To give you an idea of what Paul Martin accomplished, here’s a video prepared by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which features laudatory comments by representatives of major market-oriented think tanks.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t think there will ever be a video like this about Obama.

Very well done, even though I think it focused too much on red ink and not enough on the real accomplishment of spending restraint.

My Cato colleague, Chris Edwards, has produced some very good data on what’s happened to the burden of government spending in his home country.

For further information on that topic, here’s my video on international examples of spending restraint. Canada, you’ll notice, is one of the prominent case studies.

P.S. If you know any Keynesians, you can have some fun by asking them why Canada’s economy grew when the burden of government spending was reduced.

P.P.S. It’s also very impressive that Canada has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending of any developed nation.

P.P.P.S. No wonder Canada now ranks above the United States for economic freedom and the freest jurisdiction in North America is actually a Canadian province.

P.P.P.P.S. To end on a humorous note, Canadians should fortify their border to avoid an influx of American leftists.

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Regular readers know that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private economy.

Nations that maintain this Golden Rule for extended periods of time shrink the relative burden of government spending, thus enabling more growth by freeing up resources for the productive sector of the economy and creating leeway for lower tax rates.

And when countries deal with the underlying disease of too much spending, they automatically solve the symptom of red ink, so it’s a win-win situation whether you’re a spending hawk or a so-called deficit hawk.

With this in mind, let’s look at some interesting new research from the Heritage Foundation. They’ve produced a report entitled Europe’s Fiscal Crisis Revealed: An In-Depth Analysis of Spending, Austerity, and Growth.

It focuses on fiscal policy over the past few years and is an important contribution in two big ways. First, it shows that the Keynesian free-lunch approach is counterproductive. Second, it shows that the right kind of fiscal consolidation (i.e., spending restraint) generates superior results.

Here are some excerpts from the chapter by Professor Alberto Alesina of Harvard of Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. They look at some of the academic evidence.

The debate over the merits of austerity (the implementation of debt-reduction packages) is frustrating. Most people focus only on deficit reduction, but that can be achieved in many different ways. Some ways, such as raising taxes, deeply hurt growth… The data show that austerity has been implemented in Europe. However, with some rare exceptions, the forms of austerity were heavy on tax increases and far from involving savage spending cuts. …spending-based adjustments are more likely to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, regardless of whether fiscal adjustments are defined in terms of improvements in the cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit or in terms of premeditated policy changes designed to improve a country’s fiscal outlook. …Other research has found that fiscal adjustments based mostly on the spending side are less likely to be reversed and, as a result, have led to more long-lasting reductions in debt-to-GDP ratios. …successful fiscal adjustments are often rooted in reform of social programs and reductions in the size and pay of the government workforce rather than in other types of spending cuts. …tax increases failed to reduce the debt and were associated with large recessions. …growing evidence suggests that private investment tends to react more positively to spending-based adjustments. For instance, data from Alesina and Ardagna and from Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi show that private-sector capital accumulation increases after governments cut spending.

The basic message of the Alesina-de Rugy chapter is that bad outcomes are largely unavoidable when nations spend themselves into fiscal trouble, but the damage can be minimized if policy makers impose spending restraint.

The Heritage Foundation’s Salim Furth is the editor of the report, and here’s some of what he wrote in Chapter 3, which looks at what’s happened in recent years as countries dealt with fiscal crisis.

Tax austerity is very harmful to growth, while spending cuts are partially replaced by private-sector activity, making them less harmful. …Estimating growth effects on private GDP, the difference between tax and spending multipliers grows predictably. A two-dollar decline in private GDP is associated with every dollar of tax increases, but spending cuts are associated with no change in private GDP.  …fiscal consolidation that relied 60 percentage points more on spending cuts was associated with 3.1 percentage points more GDP growth from 2009 to 2012, when average growth was just 3.3 percent over the entire period. In other words, a country that had a fiscal consolidation composed of 80 percent of spending cuts and 20 percent of tax increases would grow much more rapidly than a country in which only 20 percent of the consolidation was spending cuts and 80 percent was tax increases. The association is slightly stronger for private GDP.

Salim then cites a couple of powerful examples.

…the difference between Germany’s 8 percent growth from 2009 to 2012 and the 1 percent growth in the Netherlands is largely accounted for by Germany’s cut-spending, cut-taxes approach and the Netherlands’ raise-spending, raise-taxes approach. The U.K. and Italy enacted similarly-sized austerity packages, but Italy’s was half tax increases while the U.K. favored spending cuts. Neither country excelled, but over half of the gap between the U.K.’s 3 percent growth and Italy’s negative growth is explained by Italy’s tax increases.

By the way, it’s not as if Germany and the United Kingdom are stellar examples of fiscal restraint. It’s just that they’re doing better than nations that traveled down the path of even bigger government.

Regarding supposed Keynesian stimulus, Salim makes a very important point that more government spending seems positive in the short run, sort of like the fiscal version of a sugar high.

But that sugar high produces a bad hangover. Nations that try Keynesianism quickly fall behind countries with more prudent policy.

Government spending boosts GDP instantly and then crowds out private spending slowly. The incentive effects of taxation may take effect over several years, but they are permanent and especially pronounced in investment. If anything, this recent crisis shows how brief the short run is: Countries whose spending-focused stimulus put them one step ahead in 2010 were already two steps behind in 2012.

There’s a lot more in the report, so I encourage readers to give it a look.

I particularly like that it emphasizes the importance of properly defining “austerity” and “fiscal consolidation.” These are issues that I highlighted in my discussion with John Stossel.

Another great thing about the report is that it has all sorts of useful data.

Though much of it is depressing. Here’s Chart 2-9 from the report and it shows all the countries that have increased top marginal tax rates between 2007 and 2013.

Portugal wins the booby prize for the biggest tax hike, though many nations went down this class-warfare path. Including the United States thanks to Obama’s fiscal cliff tax increase.

The United Kingdom is an interesting case. It raised its top rate by 10 percentage points, but then cut the rate by 5 percentage points after it became apparent that the higher rate wasn’t collecting any additional revenue.

We should give credit to the handful of nations that have lowered tax rates, several of which replaced discriminatory systems with simple and fair flat taxes.

Though it’s also important to keep in mind where each nation started. Switzerland lowered it’s top rate by only 0.4 percentage points, which seems small compared to Denmark, which dropped its top rate by 6.7 percentage points.

But Switzerland started with a much lower rate, whereas Denmark has one of the world’s most punitive tax regimes (though, paradoxically, it is very laissez-faire in areas other than fiscal policy).

Let’s look at the same data, but from a different perspective. Chart 2-10 shows how many nations (from a list of 37) raised top rates or lowered top rates each year.

The good news is that tax cutters out-numbered tax-hikers in 2008 and 2009.

The bad news is that tax increases have dominated ever since 2010.

Many of these post-2009 tax hikes were enabled by a weakening of tax competition, which underscores why it is so important to preserve the right of jurisdictions to maintain competitive tax systems.

And don’t forget that tax policy will probably get even worse in the future because of aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Let’s close with some more numbers.

Here’s Table 2-5 from the report. It shows changes in the value-added tax (VAT) beginning in December 2008.

The key thing to notice is that there’s no column for decreases in the VAT. That’s because no nation lowered that levy. Practically speaking, this hidden form of a national sales tax is a money machine for bigger government.

But you don’t have to believe me. The International Monetary Fund unintentionally provided the data showing that VATs are the most effective tax for financing bigger government.

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There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.

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The title of this post sounds like the beginning of a strange joke, but it’s actually because we’re covering three issues today.

Our first topic is corporate taxation. More specifically, we’re looking at a nation that seems to be learning that it’s foolish the have a punitive corporate tax system.

By way of background, the United States used to have the second-highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

But then the Japanese came to their senses and reduced their tax rate on companies, leaving America with the dubious honor of having the world’s highest rate.

So did the United States respond with a tax cut in order to improve competitiveness? Nope, our rate is still high and the United States arguably now has the world’s worst tax system for businesses.

But the Japanese learned if a step in the right direction is good, then another step in the right direction must be even better.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Japan will be lowering its corporate tax rate again.

Japan’s ruling party on Tuesday cleared the way for a corporate tax cut to take effect next year… Reducing the corporate tax rate, currently about 35%, is a long-standing demand of large corporations. They say they bear an unfair share of the burden and have an incentive to move plants overseas to where taxes are lower. …Business leaders want the rate to fall below 30% within the next few years and eventually to 25%… The Japan Business Federation, known as Keidanren, says tax cuts could partly pay for themselves by spurring investment. Japan’s current corporate tax rate is higher than most European and Asian countries, although it is lower than the U.S. level of roughly 40%.

If only American politicians could be equally sensible.

The Japanese (at least some of them) even understand that a lower corporate rate will generate revenue feedback because of the Laffer Curve.

I’ve tried to make the same point to American policymakers, but that’s like teaching budget calculus to kids from the fiscal policy short bus.

Let’s switch gears to our second topic and look at what one veteran wrote about handouts from Uncle Sam.

Here are excerpts from his column in the Washington Post.

Though I spent more than five years on active duty during the 1970s as an Army infantry officer and an additional 23 years in the Reserves, I never fired a weapon other than in training, and I spent no time in a combat zone. …nearly half of the 4.5 million active-duty service members and reservists over the past decade were never deployed overseas. Among those who were, many never experienced combat. …support jobs aren’t particularly hazardous. Police officers, firefighters and construction workers face more danger than Army public affairs specialists, Air Force mechanics, Marine Corps legal assistants, Navy finance clerks or headquarters staff officers.

So what’s the point? Well, this former soldier thinks that benefits are too generous.

And yet, the benefits flow lavishly. …Even though I spent 80 percent of my time in uniform as a reservist, I received an annual pension in 2013 of $24,990, to which I contributed no money while serving. …My family and I have access to U.S. military bases worldwide, where we can use the fitness facilities at no charge and take advantage of the tax-free prices at the commissaries and post exchanges. The most generous benefit of all is Tricare. This year I paid just $550 for family medical insurance. In the civilian sector, the average family contribution for health care in 2013 was $4,565… Simply put, I’m getting more than I gave. Tricare for military retirees and their families is so underpriced that it’s more of a gift than a benefit. …budget deficits are tilting America toward financial malaise. Our elected representatives will have to summon the courage to confront the costs of benefits and entitlements and make hard choices. Some “no” votes when it comes to our service members and, in particular, military retirees will be necessary.

The entire column is informative and thoughtful. My only quibble is that it would be more accurate to say “an expanding burden of government is tilting America toward financial malaise.”

But I shouldn’t nitpick, even though I think it’s important to focus on the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

Simply stated, it’s refreshing to read someone who writes that his group should get fewer taxpayer-financed goodies. And I like the idea of reserving generous benefits for those who put their lives at risk, or actually got injured.

Last but not least, I periodically share stories that highlight challenging public policy issues, even for principled libertarians.

You can check out some of my prior examples of “you be the judge” by clicking here.

Today, we have another installment.

The New York Times has reported that a mom and dad in the United Kingdom were arrested because their kid was too fat.

The parents of an 11-year-old boy were arrested in Britain on suspicion of neglect and child cruelty after authorities grew alarmed about the child’s weight. The boy, who like his parents was not identified, weighed 210 pounds. …In a statement, the police said that “obesity and neglect of children” were sensitive issues, but that its child abuse investigation unit worked with health care and social service agencies to ensure a “proportionate and necessary” response. The police said in the statement that “intervention at this level is very rare and will only occur where other attempts to protect the child have been unsuccessful.”

So was this a proper example of state intervention?

My instinct is to say no. After all, even bad parents presumably care about their kids. And they’ll almost certainly do a better job of taking care of them than a government bureaucracy.

But there are limits. Even strict libertarians, for instance, will accept government intervention if parents are sadistically beating a child.

And if bad parents were giving multiple shots of whiskey to 7-year olds every single night, that also would justify intervention in the minds of almost everybody.

On the other hand, would any of us want the state to intervene simply because parents don’t do a good job overseeing homework? Or because they let their kids play outside without supervision (a real issue in the United States, I’m embarrassed to admit)?

The answer hopefully is no.

But how do we decide when we have parents who are over-feeding a kid?

My take, for what it’s worth, is that the size of kids is not a legitimate function of government. My heart might want there to be intervention, but my head tells me that bureaucrats can’t be trusted to exercise this power prudently.

P.S. I guess “bye bye burger boy” in the United Kingdom didn’t work very well.

P.P.S. But the U.K. government does fund foreign sex travel, and that has to burn some calories.

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I’ve never been susceptible to the claim that you solve problems with taxpayer money.

Indeed, this amusing poster is a pretty good summary of my views on the effectiveness of government spending.

But what about the horrific stories about veterans dying because of secret waiting lists and bureaucratic skullduggery at the Veterans Administration?

I want to take care of former soldiers who need treatment because of their service, and national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government. So is this one of the rare cases where a budget needs to increase? That’s certainly the mentality in some quarters on Capitol Hill.

Here are some excerpts from Byron York’s column in the Washington Examiner.

Sanders and his fellow Democrats want to give the VA billions more. …What is striking about Sanders’ bill is not just its price tag but how irrelevant it is to the most serious problems besetting the VA health care system. It was like adding new chrome to a car that won’t run. When Republicans stopped the bill earlier this year, Democrats predictably accused them of being insensitive to veterans’ needs. …It’s unclear what Congress will do, but one certainty in the debate is that the Sanders bill won’t solve the problem.

But what do the actual budget numbers show?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the VA already has lots of money.

Here’s some of what has been reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency caught in a political firestorm over its medical care for veterans, has seen its funding grow faster than any other government department in recent years. Since 2000, annual spending has tripled to $63 billion to meet a surge in health-care and other costs. That is on top of the more than $85 billion the VA is set to receive this year for automatic payments such as disability benefits and pensions, a tally that has more than tripled since 2000.

But some may argue that needs are rising even faster because so many soldiers were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Federalist addressed this issue, in an article by Sean Davis.

VA funding has more than kept up with both medical inflation and increased patient loads. An analysis of budget and cost data, as well as data on the total number of VA patients and the number of acute inpatients treated, shows that the VA’s budget has grown much faster than its workload. Even when you take medical inflation into account, the VA budget still grew faster than its patient base since 2000. …The VA has a whole bunch of problems, but a lack of funding ain’t one.

Here’s a chart from Sean’s article. Hard to argue with these numbers.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of national defense and foreign affairs, let’s take a look at a very provocative column by Steve Chapman. He says that President Obama, whether by accident or design, actually has a reasonable foreign policy. As least if you think good foreign policy should be based on a prudent understanding of the limits of government.

Conservatives generally agree on a few propositions. The federal government should avoid spending money unnecessarily. It shouldn’t exceed its basic constitutional duties. It should encourage self-reliance rather than dependency. It should accept that some problems are beyond its ability to solve.  Barack Obama, they may be surprised to learn, agrees with much of this formula. He just applies it in a realm where conservatives often don’t: foreign relations and national security. The Obama doctrine, as outlined in his policies and his speech at West Point Wednesday, is one of comparatively limited government.

Chapman elaborates, drawing an interesting parallel to domestic issues.

A…sensible view is that the U.S. can indeed remain idle while alleged dangers gather, because most of them won’t materialize. The immortal philosopher Calvin Coolidge said, “If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” Many conservatives believe in hurrying out to meet all 10 just in case. …Critics charge that Obama’s foreign policy shows an unwillingness to lead, or weakness, or uncertain purposes. The same complaint, of course, could be made about conservative policies on poverty, health care, urban blight, access to housing and more. “Don’t you care?” indignant liberals ask. But sometimes ambitious government undertakings are too expensive to justify, sometimes they fail to solve problems, and sometimes they make things worse. In those instances, declining to act — and explaining why — is the most authentic form of leadership. That’s just as true in the international realm as it is in the domestic one.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, but I’m very sympathetic Chapman’s hypothesis because skepticism is always a good approach when analyzing government. And his piece on NATO is must reading for similar reasons.

That being said, I’m not going to put Obama on a pedestal or assume that he’s doing the right thing on foreign policy for the right reason. My guess is that his default position in foreign affairs is passivity.

That often coincides with the libertarian position of non-intervention. But as I wrote above, libertarians also believe that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of government, which is why they generally were allied with conservatives during the Cold War, when we faced an aggressive and imperialistic Soviet Bloc.

My guess is that if we went into a time machine and it was 1980 instead of 2014, Obama would be more like Jimmy Carter and less like Ronald Reagan.

P.P.S. Mark Steyn also has written some very wise words about libertarian-ish foreign policy.

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I’m in Vancouver, Canada, for the biennial meeting of the World Taxpayers Associations.

I gave a speech on why tax competition is a valuable force to constrain the greed of the political class, but warned the audience that high-tax governments and international bureaucracies are using financial protectionism to coerce low-tax jurisdictions into weakening their good policies.

But regular readers know that I pontificate far too often on that topic, so today’s column is instead about a presentation by Michael Walker, who was the founding Executive Director at Canada’s Fraser Institute.

Michael’s great contribution to the world was the creation of the Economic Freedom of the World Index, which he developed working with scholars such as Milton Friedman.

I’ve cited the EFW Index many times, particularly to bemoan how America’s score has deteriorated during the Bush-Obama years.

Today, though, we’re going to look at global trends in economic freedom, using some of the slides from Michael’s presentation. And the good news, as you can see from the green line in this first chart, is that there was a significant increase in economic freedom between 1980 and 2010.

EFW Economic Freedom(1)

The blue line, by the way, shows how much nations differed. A higher blue line means more variation (in other words, some nations with very good scores and some with very bad scores), while a lower blue lines means that nations are converging.

To really understand what’s happening, however, it’s important to look at the component parts of the EFW Index. As I wrote back in 2012:

…a country’s economic performance is governed by a wide range of policies.

Indeed, the research suggests that there are five big factors that determine prosperity, and they’re all equally important.

Rule of law and property rights

Sound money

Fiscal policy

Trade policy

Regulatory policy

So let’s look at what’s been happening in each of these areas. Keep in mind, as we look at the following charts, that 10 is the best score.

We’ll start with fiscal policy. As you can see, policy was moving in the wrong direction from 1970 to 1985, then we got two decades of pro-growth changes, but now policy is again trending in the wrong direction.

EFW Size of Government

We’re still better off than we were 30 years ago, but I’m afraid scores will continue to decline because tax rates are now heading in the wrong direction and the burden of government spending is rising in many nations.

Now let’s look at the regulatory data. The trend may not be dramatic, but it is positive. The green line is gradually rising, showing that governments are easing red tape and reducing intervention.

EFW Regulation

Moreover, there’s no sign that policy is moving in the wrong direction, at least on a global basis.

Shifting to trade, we have perhaps the biggest success story in global economic policy. Between 1980 and 200, there was a dramatic increase in the freedom to trade.

EFW Free Trade

We also see some progress on monetary policy, both in that it stopped moving in the wrong direction in 1975 and then moved in the right direction beginning in 1995.

EFW Sound Money

Though I confess some skepticism about this measure. Central banks have created a lot of problems with excess liquidity, but they generally escape blame so long as easy-money policies don’t result in higher consumer prices.

This brings us to our final category. Property rights and the rule of law are very important for market economies, but unfortunately we’ve seen no long-run improvement in these key measures. Positive change between 1975 and 1995 is offset by movement in the wrong direction at other times.

EFW Rule of Law

Indeed, if we look at this next chart, which measures the distribution of scores for each category in 2010, you’ll see that nations get their lowest scores on rule of law and property rights.

EFW Five Factors

This aggregate data, while very useful, does not tell the entire story. If you look at various regions, you’ll discover that “first world” nations tend to get decent scores on rule of law and property rights while developing nations get poor scores.

Indeed, this is why the blue line in the rule of law/property rights chart is so much higher than it is for other categories. Simply stated, this is one area where there hasn’t been much convergence.

Which is a big reason why many developing nations are economic laggards, even if they get reasonably good scores in other categories.

Here’s a final chart that emphasizes that point. It shows nations that get the best scores on the size of government (left column), but then shows that many of them get very poor scores for rule of law and property rights (right column).

The fiscal burden of government is very low in nations such as Lebanon and Bangladesh, for instance, but these jurisdictions don’t attract a lot of investment or enjoy much growth because government fails to provide the right environment.

EFW Size of Government vs Rule of Law Challenge

All of which shows why Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland deserve special praise. They have strong rule of law and property rights while simultaneously maintaining reasonable limits on the fiscal burden of the public sector. No wonder they are ranked first, second, and fourth in overall economic freedom.

And it’s worth noting that a few other nations deserve honorable mention for getting good fiscal policy scores while doing a decent job on the rule of law and property rights, specifically Bahamas (#39), Chile (#11), Mauritius (#6), and United Arab Emirates (#5).

By the way, the United States only got a 6.4 for size of government and a 7.1 for rule of law and property rights. No wonder America is only #17 in the overall rankings.

Back in 2000, when the United States ranked #3, we got a 7.0 for size of government and a 9.2 for rule of law and property rights.

So now you now know why I complain so much about Bush and Obama. And you especially know why I’m so concerned about the erosion of the rule of law under Obama.

P.S. A Spanish academic has developed some fascinating historical data on non-fiscal economic freedom, which is very helpful in understanding how the western world has managed to remain somewhat prosperous even though the fiscal burden of government increased dramatically in the 20th Century.

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I believe in free markets and small government, and I’m also against Washington corruption.

Which is why I want to abolish the Department of Agriculture.

And I suspect all sensible people will agree after reading excerpts from these three articles.

We’ll start with Damon Cline, who produced a searing indictment of farm welfare for the Augusta Chronicle.

Alexis de Tocqueville posited in the 19th century that America’s undoing would occur once “politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.” That’s exactly what the Farm Bill allows politicians to do – loot the treasury on behalf of the lobbyists, special interest groups and voting blocs who keep them fat and happy in Washington Wonderland. …The bill continues a legacy of waste that started 60 years ago when campaign contribution-sniffing politicians realized they could make the Great Depression’s temporary, emergency measures permanent. At $956 billion – a figure which outporks the infamous 2009 “stimulus” package by $200 billion – the Farm Bill is four-fifths food stamps and one-fifth agribusiness subsidies. It’s a swindle easily marketed to the masses. …Republicans from conservative farm districts forged an unholy alliance with and Democrats from liberal-leaning urban ones to funnel goodies to their core constituencies with minimal bickering. …American agriculture is dominated by sophisticated family corporate enterprises and Fortune 500 companies such as Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson Foods and Pilgrims Pride Corp. …Net profits were $131 billion last year, and the average farmer’s household income ($104,525 last year) far exceeds the U.S. average. …[A farmer] can earn up to $900,000 per year and still qualify for benefits that guarantee his revenues never fall below 86 percent of his previous years’ peak earnings. On top of that, taxpayers pay 62 percent of his business-insurance premiums. …The most heavily subsidized crops – corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans and rice – have their own lobby groups, as do many non-subsidized commodities, whose producers hope to get rolled into future farm bills (as U.S. catfish and maple syrup producers managed to do this year).

Ugh. What a disgusting scam.

Now let’s look at two different examples of how federal intervention produces awful results.

The first is from Daniel Payne’s column in The Federalist. He writes about how a discrimination case became an excuse to loot taxpayers.

The USDA is blessed with an ample amount of time and a great deal of money, which means it must forever be inventing new ways to spend the billions and billions of dollars allocated to it every year… the department has a history of both vicious incompetence, remorseless fraud and sulky hostility… The incompetence and fraud are both well-documented; perhaps the greatest combination of the two can be found in the Pigford v. Glickman case. Pigford was a class action lawsuit leveled against the USDA by black farmers who claimed they had been discriminated against while seeking federal loans from the department; the lawsuit quickly ballooned to an enormous number of claimants seeking redress for racial discrimination, which, as the New York Times reported, resulted in USDA employees finding reams of suspicious claims, from nursery-school-age children and pockets of urban dwellers, sometimes in the same handwriting with nearly identical accounts of discrimination.These are not “suspicious” claims but openly false and fraudulent ones, as any capable, mildly-intelligent adult can immediately discern. …The USDA responded to these grim revelations by cheerfully going along with the terms of the settlement: in one instance, they paid out nearly $100 million to sixteen zip codes in which “the number of successful claimants exceeded the total number of farms operated by people of any race;” in one town in North Carolina, “the number of people paid was nearly four times the total number of farms.” Was there no sensible, principled person within the entire Department willing to put an end to such absurdity? Was there anybody sitting around that might have mounted some kind of aggressive campaign to combat such naked deceit? Don’t count on it. This is the same bureaucracy, after all, that has paid out tens of millions of dollars to dead farmers. Last year alone the department’s whiz kids made over $6 billion in improper payments. Nearly 66% of improper food stamp payments were “agency-caused.”

And here’s Jim Bovard, writing in the Wall Street Journal about America’s Soviet-style central planning rules for raisins.

Under current law, the 1930s-era federally authorized Raisin Administrative Committee can commandeer up to half of a farmer’s harvest as a “reserve”—to purportedly stabilize markets and prevent gluts. …The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 authorized the secretary of Agriculture to appoint farmer-dominated committees to control production. The subsequent crop marketing orders were based on the New Deal philosophy of “managed abundance”—prosperity through “universal monopoly and universal scarcity.” …But the parity index was concocted by government agricultural economists in the 1920s to justify federal aid to farmers. “Parity” was based on a set ratio of farm prices to nonfarm prices, in correlation with the ratio that prevailed in 1910-14, a boom time for farmers. Because production costs for both farm and nonfarm goods radically changed, it never made any economic sense to rely on “parity” but it was a popular political ploy. …the raisin committee’s sweeping powers have failed to prevent vast swings in prices farmers receive. Many California farmers have shifted their land to other crops; the acreage devoted to raisin production has plunged since 2000. …economic illiteracy can vest boundless power in bureaucracies.

In his column, Jim also discusses a legal challenge to this insane system, so maybe there’s a glimmer of hope that this corrupt and inefficient system could be eliminated, or at least curtailed.

For what it’s worth, I still think the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be the first big bureaucracy in DC to be eliminated. But I sure won’t cry if the Department of Agriculture winds up on the chopping block first.

As P.J. O’Rourke famously advised, “Drag the thing behind the barn and kill it with an ax.”

P.S. I’ve shared many examples of anti-libertarian humor (several links available here), in part because I appreciate clever jokes and in part because I think libertarians should be self-confident about the ideas of liberty.

That being said, I definitely like to share examples of pro-libertarian humor, such as Libertarian Jesus.

And here’s the latest item for my collection.

Maybe not as good as the libertarian version of a sex fantasy, but still quite amusing.

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Two years ago, there was a flurry of excitement because some guy named Rex Nutting crunched annual budget numbers and concluded that Barack Obama was the most fiscally conservative President since at least 1980.

I looked at the data and found a few mistakes, such as a failure to adjust the numbers for inflation, but Nutting’s overall premise was reasonably accurate.

As you can see from the tables I prepared back in 2012, Obama was the third most frugal President based on the growth of total inflation-adjusted spending.

And he was in first place if you looked at primary spending, which is total spending after removing net interest payments (a reasonable step since Presidents can’t really be blamed for interest payments on the debt accrued by their predecessors).

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

Not exactly. A few days after that 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.

So I removed TARP, deposit insurance, and other bailout-related items, on the assumption that such one-time costs distort the real record of various Administrations.

And that left me with a new set of numbers, based on primary spending minus bailouts. And on this basis, Obama’s record is not exactly praiseworthy.

Instead of being the most frugal President, he suddenly dropped way down in the rankings, beating only Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Which explains why I accused him in 2012 of being a big spender – just like his predecessor.

But the analysis I did two years ago was based on Obama’s record for his first three fiscal years.

So I updated the numbers last year and looked at Obama’s record over his first four years. And it turns out that Obama did much better if you look at the average annual growth of primary spending minus bailouts. Instead of being near the bottom, he was in the middle of the pack.

Did this mean Obama moved to the right?

That’s a judgement call. For what it’s worth, I suspect that Obama’s ideology didn’t change and the better numbers were the result of the Tea Party and sequestration.

But I don’t care who gets credit. I’m just happy that spending didn’t grow as fast.

2014 Spending TotalI’m giving all this background because I’ve finally cranked the most-recent numbers.  And if we look at overall average spending growth for Obama’s first five years and compare that number to average spending growth for other Presidents, he is the most frugal. Adjusted for inflation, the budget hasn’t grown at all. That’s a very admirable outcome.

But what about primary spending? By that measure, we have even better results. 2014 Spending PrimaryThere’s actually been a slight downward trend in the fiscal burden of government during the Obama years.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, to be sure, that Obama deserves credit. Maybe the recent spending restraint in Washington is because of what’s happened in Congress.

I’ve repeatedly argued, for instance, that sequestration was a great victory over the special interests. And Obama vociferously opposed those automatic budget cuts, even to the point of making himself a laughingstock.

But don’t forget that TARP-type expenses can mask important underlying trends. So now let’s look at the numbers that I think are most illuminating. 2014 Spending Primary Minus BailoutsHere’s the data for average inflation-adjusted growth of primary spending minus bailouts.

As you can see, Obama no longer is in first place. But he’s jumped to third place in this category, which is an improvement over prior years and puts him ahead of every Republican other than Reagan. Given that all those other GOPers were statists, that’s not saying much, but it does highlight that party labels don’t necessarily mean much.

My Republican friends are probably getting irritated, so I’ll share one last set of numbers that may make them happy.

I cranked the numbers for average spending growth, but subtracted interest payments, bailouts, and defense outlays. What’s left is domestic spending, and here are the rankings based on those numbers.

2014 Spending Primary - Defense - Bailouts

Reagan easily did the best job of restraining overall domestic discretionary and entitlement outlays. Bill Clinton came in second place, showing that Democrats can preside over reasonably good results. And Richard Nixon came in last place, showing that Republicans can preside over horrible numbers.

Obama, meanwhile, winds up in the middle of the pack. Which is probably very disappointing for the President since he wanted to be a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the left, in the same way that Reagan was a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the right.

Instead, Obama’s only two legacies may turn out to be a failed healthcare plan and a tongue-in-cheek award for being a great recruiter for the cause of libertarianism.

P.S. Historical numbers sometimes change slightly because the government’s data folks massage and re-measure both inflation and spending. Though I confess I’m not sure why the 2013 calculation for Nixon’s primary spending minus bailouts is somewhat different from the 2012 and 2014 numbers. Perhaps I screwed up when copying some of the numbers, which has been known to happen. But since Nixon’s performance isn’t the focus of this post, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the discrepancy.

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The establishment fervently believes that more money should come to Washington so that politicians have greater ability to buy votes.

That’s why statists from both parties are so viscerally hostile to Grover Norquist’s no-tax-hike pledge. They view it as an obstacle to bigger government.

And it also explains why politicians who raise taxes are showered with praise, especially when they are Republicans who break their promises and betray taxpayers.

Which is why President George H.W. Bush was just awarded a “profiles in courage” award for raising taxes and breaking his read-my-lips promise by the crowd at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Here’s some of what was reported by the Dallas News.

Former President George H.W. Bush was honored Sunday with a Kennedy “courage” award for agreeing to raise taxes to confront a spiraling deficit, jeopardizing his presidency that ended after just one term. …The budget deal enacted “responsible and desperately needed reforms” at the expense of Bush’s popularity and his chances for re-election, Schlossberg said. “America’s gain was President Bush’s loss, and his decision to put country above party and political prospects makes him an example of a modern profile in courage that is all too rare,” he said.

I’m not surprised, by the way, that Mr. Schlossberg praised Bush for selling out taxpayers.

But I am disappointed that the Dallas News reporter demonstrated either incompetency or bias by saying that Bush raised taxes to “confront a spiraling deficit.”

If you look at the Congressional Budget Office forecast from early 1990, you’ll see that deficits were on a downward path.

CBO 1990 Deficit Forecast

In other words, Bush had the good fortune of inheriting a reasonably strong fiscal situation from President Reagan.

Spending was growing slower than the private economy, thanks in part to the Gramm-Rudman law that indirectly limited the growth of spending.

So Bush 41 simply had to maintain Reagan’s policies to achieve success.

But instead he raised taxes. That got him an award from the Kennedy School this year…and it resulted in bigger government in the early 1990s.

Writing for National Review, Deroy Murdock is justly irked that President George H.W. Bush was given an award for doing the wrong thing.

…former president George Herbert Walker Bush received the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. What intrepid achievement merited this emolument? Believe it or not, breaking his word to the American people and hiking taxes by $137 billion in 1990.  …Bush’s tax hike was a political betrayal for Republicans and other voters who believed him when he pledged to the 1988 GOP National Convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” …Bush violated his promise and hiked the top tax rate from 28 percent to 31. Bush also imposed a luxury tax on yachts and other items. This led to a plunge in domestic boat sales and huge job losses among carpenters, painters, and others in the yacht-manufacturing industry.

The worst result, though, was that the tax hike enabled and facilitated more government spending.

Here are the numbers I calculated a couple of years ago. If you look at total spending (other than net interest and bailouts), you see that Bush 41 allowed inflation-adjusted spending to grow more than twice as fast as it did under Reagan.

And if you remove defense spending from the equation, you see that Bush 41’s bad record was largely the result of huge and counterproductive increases in domestic spending.

With such a bad performance, you won’t be surprised to learn that market-oriented fiscal experts do not remember the Bush years fondly.

Deroy cites some examples, including a quote from yours truly.

“Bush’s tax hike repealed the real spending restraint of Gramm-Rudman and imposed a big tax hike that facilitated a larger burden of government spending,” says Cato Institute scholar Dan Mitchell. “No wonder the statists . . . are applauding.” …“Of course the Left wants to celebrate Bush’s broken tax promise,” Moore says. ”It is what cost Republicans the White House and elected Bill Clinton…” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “This is an award for stupidly throwing away the presidency to the Democrats…” Norquist further laments: “You never see a Democrat get a ‘courage’ award for saying ‘No’ to the spending-interest lobby.”

The moral of the story is that Washington tax-hike deals are always a mechanism for bigger government.

And President George H.W. Bush should be remembered for being a President who made Washington happy by making America less prosperous. As I wrote last year, “He increased spending, raised tax rates, and imposed costly new regulations.”

Hmmm…an establishment Republican President who increased the burden of government. If that sounds familiar, just remember the old saying, “Like father, like son.”

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More than three years ago, I wrote that the Department of Transportation should be dismantled for the simple reason that we’ll get better roads at lower cost with the federalist approach of returning responsibility to state and local governments.

I echoed those sentiments in this CNBC interview.

Since there’s only an opportunity to exchange soundbites in these interviews, let me elaborate on some of the reasons why transportation should be a state and local responsibility.

1. Washington involvement is a recipe for pork and corruption. Lawmakers in Congress – including Republicans – get on the Transportation Committees precisely because they can buy votes and raise campaign cash by diverting taxpayer money to friends and cronies.

mitchells-first-theorem-of-government2. Washington involvement in transportation is just the tip of the iceberg. As I said in the interview, the federal budget is mostly a scam where endless streams of money are shifted back and forth in leaky buckets. This scam is great for insiders and bad news for taxpayers.

3. Washington involvement necessarily means another layer of costly bureaucracy. And this is not a trivial issues since the Department of Transportation is infamous for overpaid bureaucrats.

4. Washington involvement gives state and local politicians an excuse to duck responsibility for low-quality infrastructure. Why make adult decisions, after all, when you can shift the blame to DC for not providing enough handouts.

While I think I made some decent points in the interview, I should have addressed the assertion that our infrastructure is falling apart. My colleague at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, effectively dealt with this scare tactic in his recent Congressional testimony.

I also should have pointed out that a big chunk of the gas tax is diverted to boondoggle mass transit projects.

Last but not least, I’m disappointed that I failed to connect some very important dots. Gov. Rendell and the CNBC host both fretted that the current system isn’t producing a desirable outcome, but they’re the ones advocating for a continuation of the status quo! Heck, they want even more of the system that they admit doesn’t work.

Sigh.

P.S. While I obviously want to get rid of the Department of Transportation, it’s not at the top of my list for the most wasteful and counterproductive federal bureaucracy.

P.P.S. On a completely separate topic, I can’t resist sharing this Ramirez cartoon.

And since we’re making fun of our Statist-in-Chief, here’s some satire about the award Obama received from Steven Spielberg.

The teleprompters are a nice touch, reminiscent of some very amusing jokes here, here, here, and here.

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The Census Bureau just released a report on America’s aging population.

The big takeaway is that our population will be getting much older between now and 2050.

And since I’m a baby boomer, I very much like the fact that we’re expected to live longer.

But as a public finance economist, I’m not nearly as happy.

As I explain in this interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Digital Network (and as confirmed by BIS, OECD, and IMF data), the United States is going to get deluged by a tsunami of entitlement spending.

I mentioned that it’s important to focus on the ratio of workers to retirees. This “dependency ratio” matters because economic output largely is a function of an economy’s working-age population.

To cite my famous cartoons, you need a sufficient number of people pulling the wagon to support those riding in the wagon.

Here’s a chart from the Census report to help you understand the magnitude of the problem. As you can see, both in the United States and other nations, the increase in the dependency ratio is almost entirely the result of aging populations.

Census Dependency Ratio

This is why I said that we face a slow-motion train wreck because of poorly designed entitlement programs.

But the good news is that there is time to reform those programs and avert a crisis.

Which explains why I probably sound like a broken record about the need for genuine entitlement reform.

In a column citing the new private pension system in the Faroe Islands, I gave the arguments for modernizing Social Security with personal retirement accounts.

But we also need to deal with the health entitlements.

Here’s how to fix Medicare.

And here’s how to fix Medicaid.

By the way, some of the damaging provisions of Obamacare can be de facto repealed by including them in the Medicaid block grant, so it’s a critically important reform.

Needless to say, I think these reforms are far better for the economy than the big tax hike Obama has endorsed to deal with the giant financing gap.

P.S. For a clever look at the worker-dependency ratio, check out the party ship produced by a Danish think tank.

P.P.S. The interviewer also mentioned that America’s racial composition is changing, which gives me an excuse to point out that Social Security reform is particularly beneficial for blacks because of differences in life expectancy.

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As you can imagine, there’s a lot to choose from in the contest for the most spectacular waste of tax dollars.

But the politicians in Oregon must really want the prize, because they managed to flush several hundred million dollars down a rat hole by putting together a state-run Obamacare website that has to be abandoned because it is so dysfunctional.

And if the Oregon website is so bad that it’s switching to the much-derided Washington Obamacare website, it must be a disaster of unparalleled dimensions!

Here are some excerpts from an AP report.

After months of trying to get its problem-plagued online health exchange to work, Oregon on Friday officially gave up on the state portal… Officials say fixing the existing system would be too costly at $78 million and would take too long. …Oregon’s exchange is seen as the worst in more than a dozen states that developed their own online health insurance marketplaces. The general public still can’t use Cover Oregon’s website to sign up for coverage in one sitting. Instead, Oregonians must use a time-consuming hybrid paper-online process to sign up for insurance — despite $134 million the state paid Oracle Corp. to build the online exchange. …In March, the federal Government Accountability Office announced an investigation of Oregon’s exchange, including looking at whether the federal government can reclaim grant money given to Cover Oregon if taxpayer funds were mismanaged.

Heck, it’s not just the GAO that’s investigating.

The FBI reportedly is probing the failed launch of Oregon’s ObamaCare insurance exchange, joining several other agencies looking into the multimillion-dollar program that was scrapped last month.  …the FBI has interviewed several people as part of the inquiry. The Oregonian reported that the bureau held a 90-minute meeting with a former Republican lawmaker who detailed potential wrongdoing — including suspicions that the state showed the feds a misleading demonstration to keep money flowing. …A U.S. House committee already is probing the Oregon debacle, as is the Government Accountability Office. The state received more than $300 million in federal grants to launch and operate the health care system. Much of what it has spent so far has gone to Oracle Corp.

But let’s be fair. Not all of the $300 million was squandered on the failed website.

The politicians also coughed up $3 million for this video, which presumably was supposed to lure people to the non-working website but probably just made people think Oregon is infested by patchouli-soaked deadbeats.

The video almost stands by itself as a form of left-wing self parody.

But what makes it especially amusing is that it generated this amusing segment on one of HBO’s programs.

Well done.

I don’t watch TV, so I don’t know if the guy who did this segment is on the right, the left, or somewhere in between.

But it would be nice to have a talk show host who is willing to go after all sides, unlike Colbert and Stewart who clearly bend over backwards to curry favor with the White House.

Anyhow, if you like videos that use humor to mock government-run healthcare, here are some good options.

*The head of the National Socialist Workers Party finds out he can’t keep his health plan.

*A creepy version of Uncle Sam wants to know about your sex life.

*Young people discover that they’re screwed by Obamacare.

*One of the biggest statists of the 20th century is angry that the Obamacare exchanges don’t work.

*A cartoon video showing how to buy coffee in an Obamacare world.

But never forget that this is a serious issue. Government has screwed up the healthcare system, yet politicians then use the mess they create to justify even more intervention.

The only effective solution is economic liberty.

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Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the data, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

China v Taiwan

Yes, China has made big strides in recent decades thanks to reforms to ease the burden of government. But Taiwan is far above the world average while China has only recently reached that level (and only if you believe official Chinese numbers).

So why is there a big difference between China and Taiwan? Well, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Taiwan ranks among the top-20 nations while China ranks only 123 out of 152 countries.

By the way, Taiwan has a relatively modest burden of government spending. The public sector only consumes about 21.5 percent of economic output. That’s very good compared to other advanced nations.

Moreover, Taiwan is one of the nations that enjoyed considerable progress by adhering to Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Between 2001 and 2006, total government spending didn’t grow at all.

Taiwan Spending Freeze

During this period of fiscal restraint, you won’t be surprised to learn that the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that because politicians addressed the underlying disease of government spending, that also enabled big progress is dealing with the symptom of government borrowing.

Look at what happened to spending and deficits between 2001 and 2006.

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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What happens when you mix something good with something bad?

To be more specific, what happens when you have a big success story, like the spending cap in Switzerland that has dramatically slowed the growth of government, and then expect intelligent and coherent coverage by a government-run media outfit that presumably wants a bigger public sector?

Well, the answer is that you get a very muddled story.

Here’s some of what Swiss Info, which is part of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, wrote about that nation’s “debt brake.”

The mind-boggling…debt racked up by governments…has turned some heads towards Switzerland’s successful track record… Swiss voters approved a so-called ‘debt brake’ on federal public finances in 2001, which was put into operation in 2003. A decade later, the mountain of government debt – that soared to dangerous levels during the 1990s and early 2000s – has been reduced by CHF20 billion ($23 billion) from its 2005 peak. The ratio of debt to annual economic output (gross domestic product or GDP)…fell from 53% to 37% between 2005 and the end of 2012.

There’s nothing wrong with that passage. Indeed, you could almost say that Swiss Info was engaging in boosterism.

Moreover, the story points out that other nations have been going in the wrong direction while Switzerland was enjoying success.

…as Switzerland was chipping away at its mountain of debt, other countries were building theirs up. …Since the middle of 2007 public sector debt alone has soared 80% to $43 trillion, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

And the story even notes that other nations are beginning to copy Switzerland.

The Swiss debt brake is the perfect model for other countries to embrace… Germany applied its own version of the Swiss debt brake in 2009, followed by Spain and other European countries.  …“Switzerland came up with the blueprint for what I am sure will be the standard fiscal model of the future,” said Müller-Jentsch.

So why, then, do I think the story has a muddled message?

The answer is that there is no explanation of how the debt brake works and therefore no explanation of why it is a success.

A reader will have no idea, for instance, that the debt brake is actually a spending cap. Readers also will have no way of knowing that red ink has been controlled because the law properly focuses on limiting the growth of spending.

By the way, it wouldn’t have required much research for Swiss Info to include that relevant data. If you do a Google search for “Swiss debt brake,” the first item that appears is the column I wrote in 2012 for the Wall Street Journal.

In that piece, I explained that “Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period” and I added that “Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.”

So why didn’t Swiss Info mention any of this very relevant information? Is it because it tilts to the left like other government-owned media outfits, and the journalists didn’t want to acknowledge that spending restraint is a successful fiscal policy?

I have no idea whether that’s the case, but there is a definite pattern. When I appear on PBS, the deck is usually stacked in favor of statism. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve had similar experiences with government-run TV in France. And it goes without saying that the BBC in the United Kingdom also leans left (though at least they seem to believe in fair fights).

This video from Swiss Info is similarly vague. It’s a favorable portrayal, but people who watch the video won’t know how the debt brake works or why it has been successful.

P.S.  I don’t know the details about the German version of the debt brake, but it’s probably having some positive impact. The burden of government spending has not increased in that nation since 2009, at least when measured as a share of GDP. Though the Germans also weren’t as profligate as other nations (including the United States) in the years before they adopted a debt brake, so I’ll have to do more research to ascertain whether the German approach is as good as the Swiss approach.

P.P.S. In any event, the moral of the story is that good fiscal policy should be based on the Golden Rule of having government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy.

P.P.S. The Princess of the Levant and I continued our tour of the French Riviera. This photo is from Les Jardins Exotiques at Chateau d’Eze.

photo1(5)

As part of my travels, I’ve learned that the unluckiest people in the world are from Menton and Roquebrune in France. That’s because they were part of Monaco until 1860.

So now, instead of enjoying an income tax of zero under Monegasque rule, they are part of France’s wretched fiscal system.

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I’ve complained many times about government intervention in the financial sector.

The financial and housing crisis, for instance, was largely a consequence of the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy, combined with the system of corrupt subsidies put in place by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But there’s another government-imposed cost that burdens the financial sector.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Paul Kupiec of the American Enterprise Institute reveals some very sobering – and disturbing – data on pay levels for both the financial industry and its regulators.

Most banks in this country are small businesses and pay employees modest salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average annual salary of a bank employee was $49,540 in 2012, not much higher than the average annual across all occupations, $45,790.

In other words, there are some very well paid people working for big banks, but most employees in the financial sector earn modest incomes.

But notice that I wrote “most employees.” That’s because there is a big group that is very well paid.

But they aren’t in the business of making loans, allocating credit, and helping to finance future growth.

That’s because these highly compensated folks aren’t in the private sector. They are regulatory bureaucrats.

…one group in banking stands out as highly paid—federal bank regulators. Before the Dodd-Frank Act, the average employee of a federal bank regulatory agency received 2.3 times the average compensation of a private banker. By 2013 this ratio increased to more than 2.7—and in some cases considerably more.

Kupiec provides details on how these bureaucrats get paid much more than wealth creators.

The average compensation at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) exceeded $190,000 in 2012. The staff at the Federal Reserve is likely even better compensated, but the Fed refuses to release employee salaries. You might think high-paying jobs at these agencies require special skills. Not so. At the OCC, secretaries make on average $79,182 per annum. Motor vehicle operators (the agency’s limo drivers) at the FDIC earn $82,130. Human resources management trainees at the CFPB make $110,759 a year. Averages tell only part of the story. In 2012, 68% of FDIC and CFPB staff—and 66% at the OCC—earned above $100,000 a year. Nearly 19% of the CFPB and OCC staff earn more than $180,000 a year. At the OCC, 10.5% of workers earn above $200,000 a year, at the FDIC 9.3%. Fewer than 7% of employees in any of these regulatory agencies earned less than $50,000. In other words, 93% of the employees in these federal bank regulatory agencies earned more than the average banker’s salary in 2012.

So what’s the rationale for overpaid bureaucrats?

Defenders of the status quo claim that high pay is necessary to attract skilled professionals.

Needless to say, that’s not true.

Instead of raising salaries to attract and retain employees for specialized, hard-to-fill jobs, federal bank regulatory agencies have increased the salaries of all employees. Ironically, the hard-to-fill jobs that require substantial education or professional experience—such as attorneys and economists with banking experience—have the smallest premiums over comparable private positions. Salary premiums are especially large for easy-to-fill jobs that require no specialized, hard-to-hire skills.

But here’s the bottom line. Consumers and taxpayers are paying higher fees and receiving fewer benefits because so much money is being diverted from the industry to finance the bureaucracy.

Who pays for these generous salaries? Bank shareholders pay directly through insurance premiums on deposits and examination fees levied by the bank regulatory agencies. These costs are passed on in higher customer fees and loan rates. The high compensation of CFPB employees is funded by taxpayers through the Federal Reserve. The runaway labor costs of these regulator agencies are not subject to congressional control, and they add up. Employee compensation accounts for about 80% of the operating costs of bank regulatory agencies. If the average regulatory employee’s compensation were equalized between bankers and regulators, the direct cost of bank regulation would fall by more than 50%.

At the risk of adding more bad news, the numbers for the financial sector are just the tip of the iceberg.

This video explains how the people who pay taxes get far less compensation than America’s bureaucrat class.

P.S. Lest I leave people a bit depressed, I want to share some good news.

I wrote back in 2011 about a motorist getting nailed for flashing his headlights to warn other drivers about a speed trap.

Here is an excerpt from a report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about a Judge throwing out a similar charge.

Chris Hill noticed a sheriff’s deputy behind him and flashed his lights to warn a UPS driver coming the other way. The deputy pulled over Hill on U.S. Highway 140 in White City and handed him a $260 ticket for improperly using his headlights, saying another deputy had seen the flashing lights from behind the UPS truck and alerted him to stop the log truck because of the signaling. Outraged, Hill decided to fight the ticket, and on Wednesday, a Jackson County Justice Court judge dismissed the citation, finding that motorists flashing their headlights amounts to speech protected by the Oregon Constitution.

I’m in favor of being tough on crime, but only when laws are just.

So kudos to the Judge in this case. And hopefully jurors around the nation will use their nullification power to block similar cases of government over-reach.

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About one year ago, I decided to create a “Moocher Hall of Fame” to highlight how certain people went above and beyond the call of indolence in their efforts to sponge off taxpayers.

This award isn’t for ordinary deadbeats. You have to do something really special (the bad kind of special) to get recognized.

* Like convincing a government to give you “disability” benefits so you can satisfy your diaper-wearing fetish.

* Such as cutting off your own foot to maintain handouts from the state.

* Or trying to impregnate 12-year old girls to increase household welfare payments.

* And how about plotting to kill the people who are subsidizing your laziness.

We have a new candidate for the MHoF.

Or perhaps I should say candidates. Our contestants are a husband and wife who enjoyed a first class lifestyle at taxpayer expense. Here are some passages from a Fox News report.

A Minnesota couple who allegedly lived in expensive homes and owned a yacht while taking more than $160,000 in state welfare benefits has been arrested. …Court documents allege the pair illegally obtained food stamps and other benefits from 2005 to 2012. According to the criminal complaints, over the years, the Chisholms received medical assistance, welfare payments and food stamp benefits. …When they first applied for welfare benefits, the couple allegedly listed their residence as Andrea Chisholm’s mother’s home in Minneapolis. Shortly after getting approved, they moved to Florida, according to court documents. They remained in that state for at least 28 months, first on their $1.2 million yacht, and then moving to a house, officials said. They collected welfare from Florida, as well as Minnesota during that time, which is prohibited, according to court documents.

So why should the Chisholms win an award?

Well, I thought it was supposed to be difficult for married adults to sponge off taxpayers, particularly if there was an able-bodied male in the household, yet that didn’t stop the Chisholms from raking in the cash.

I guess you could consider them to be the older – and American – version of Danny and Gina (though I don’t know if that deadbeat couple is/was married).

But that’s not why the Chisholms deserve to be in the MHoF. What caught my attention is that they financed a yacht with welfare payments. That’s going above and beyond the call of indolence.

P.S. I have to confess that Mr. Chisholm reminded me of Rand Paul, at least at first glance.

Separated at birth?

Though I feel like apologizing for implying any connection. After all, Senator Paul has been kind enough to give me credit for jokes I steal from other people. More important, he defends taxpayers.

Whereas Mr. Chisholm likes to steal from taxpayers.

That’s a big difference.

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Last year, I conducted an informal poll at a conference in Paris.

I explained to the audience that the public sector consumed about 57 percent of the French economy and I asked them whether they got more services and better government than the people of Germany (where government consumed 44 pct of GDP), Canada (41 pct), or Switzerland (34 pct).

Unsurprisingly, not a single hand went up.

But maybe we should ask the same question in America. Are we getting the government we want?

That’s the message of this clever video.

I have a couple of editorial comments.

1. The video made a very good point about health insurance not being real insurance in a world of government intervention.

2. I also agree that much of the federal government is illegitimate, but that point is irrelevant since we have Justices on the Supreme Court who don’t care that the federal government is supposed to be limited to those functions listed in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution.

3. The system is based on coercion. If you don’t pay taxes, you go to jail. If you resist, they shoot you. Only in Washington is that type of system known as “voluntary compliance.”

4. The video is absolutely correct that the nation did just fine for most of our nation’s history with no income tax.

But enough of my commentary. Let’s think for a few minutes of what would happen if we could use our tax returns to allocate our tax dollars. How many people would voluntarily finance the waste at places such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development or Department of Agriculture?

Reason Waste Poll But even the legitimate parts of government are riddled with waste. I believe in national defense, for instance, but that doesn’t mean I want to pay for stupid statues, subsidize green fuel, or prop up Europe’s welfare states by keeping outmoded military alliances.

That’s why I’m not surprised to see that Americans think, according to a new Reason-Rupe poll,  that 50 cents out of every tax dollar is wasted.

My leftist friends, when confronted with this type of polling data, are generally dismissive. They say ordinary people are misinformed and stupid because fraud rates for government programs (as shown in the P.S. of this post) tend to be far lower than 50 percent.

But their definition of “waste” is far too narrow. I don’t care if every single dollar of food stamps goes to people who are “eligible” or if the rules are followed for every mass transit subsidy. Those are not legitimate and proper functions of Washington.

When government is taking money from some people and using those funds to buy votes from other people, every penny is being wasted.

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My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

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I’m a supporter of a single-rate tax regime, especially if there’s no double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s why I like the flat tax.

But I’ve expressed concern about the national sales tax, even though it’s basically the same as a flat tax (the only real difference is that the flat tax takes a bite out of your income when it is earned, while the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent).

The reason for my skepticism is that I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they will adopt a sales tax, but never replace the income. As a result, we’ll wind up like Europe, with much bigger government.

And also much more red ink – even though politicians claim tax hikes and new taxes will lead to balanced budgets.

I’m not just being paranoid. Not only is this what occurred in Europe, the same thing is now happening in Japan.

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal has to say about “reforms” to the value-added tax in the land of the rising sun.

Japan on Tuesday increased its consumption tax to 8% from 5%. An increase to 10% is written into the law for next year, and don’t imagine for a minute that this will be the last. Welcome to the value-added-tax ratchet, which only goes in one direction—up. Tokyo first imposed a 3% consumption tax in 1989, after politicians had tried for a decade to enact one. …The new tax was billed as part of a tax reform, but the reform never materialized.

And as I warned in a prior column, the VAT has become a recipe for bigger government in Japan.

The new tax didn’t solve Japan’s deficit woes, as the debt to GDP ratio climbed to 50%, so in 1997 politicians increased the rate to 5%. Again politicians promised the increase would be offset by income-tax reforms. Again the reform proved illusory. …The additional revenue still didn’t satisfy Tokyo’s spending ambitions, and debt has since climbed well above 200% of GDP despite the VAT increase. …So now the rate is going up again in the name of, you guessed it, shoring up government finances as the population ages.

The OECD likes this development, which is hardly a surprise, but it’s bad news for those of us who favor growth and opportunity.

Japan’s experience points up the broader political problem with a value-added tax wherever it has been imposed. Economists tout the VAT for generating revenue without creating disincentives to work and invest. But in practice the consumption levy merely becomes one more tax in addition to current taxes and thus one more claim by the political class on the private economy. …The lesson for tax reformers elsewhere, not least in America, is to beware the VAT because once it is imposed it is only going up.

And it’s worth noting that the Europeans also have been increasing the VAT in recent years.

Simply stated, this is a levy to finance bigger government.

I elaborate in my video on the VAT.

P.S. You can see some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

P.P.S. I also very much recommend what George Will wrote about the value-added tax.

P.P.P.S. I’m also quite amused that the IMF accidentally provided key evidence against the VAT.

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