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Remember when Paul Krugman warned that there was a plot against France? He asserted that critics wanted to undermine the great success of France’s social model.

I agreed with Krugman, at least in the limited sense that there is a plot against France. But I explained that the conspiracy to hurt the nation was being led by French politicians.

Simply stated, my view has been that the French political elite have been taxing the nation into stagnation and decline and there is every reason to think that the nation is heading toward a severe self-inflicted fiscal crisis.

But it turns out I may have been too optimistic. Let’s look at some updates from Krugmantopia.

We’ll start with a report from the Financial Times, which captures the nation’s sense of despair.

…if the country’s embattled socialist president was hoping for some respite from what has been a testing year, he can probably think again. … the French economy barely expanded during the second quarter of this year after stagnating in the first. …the result will make it all but impossible to achieve the government’s growth forecast for 2014 of 1 per cent… Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo & Cie, the Paris-based bank, says one reason is the huge constraint on disposable income posed by France’s tax burden, which has risen from 41 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 45.7 per cent last year – one of the highest in the eurozone.

The government has responded by rearranging the deck chairs on the political Titanic.

French President Francois Hollande dissolved the government on Monday after open feuding among his Cabinet over the country’s stagnant economy. …France has had effectively no economic growth this year, unemployment is hovering around 10 percent and Hollande’s approval ratings are sunk in the teens. …Hollande’s promises to cut taxes and make it easier for businesses to open and operate have stalled, in large part because of the divisions among his Socialist party.

For what it’s worth, Hollande’s commitment to tax cuts and deregulation is about as sincere and genuine as my support for the Florida Gators.

After all, he’s the guy who imposed a new top tax rate of 75 percent (which he said was “patriotic”)

And that’s just the personal income tax. When you add other taxes to the mix, you get a system that is so onerous that more than 8,000 households paid more than 100 percent of their income to the French government!

No wonder successful people are escaping to other nations.

By the way, if you’re wondering why Hollande is appointing new people to his government, it’s because some of his ministers were complaining that so-called austerity was inhibiting Keynesian spending policies that would make government even bigger!

Austerity measures being pursued by France and elsewhere in the euro zone are quashing growth, FrenchEconomy Minister Arnaud Montebourg was quoted saying on Saturday… The outspoken minister, a fierce critic of budget austerity, is known for frequent attacks on big business and the European Commission, which he accuses of strangling economic recovery with its prioritization of deficit reduction. …While not as strident as the comments by Montebourg, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin similarly argued for moderated deficit reduction in an interview published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “The euro zone is at risk of getting stuck in a spiral of weak or negative growth. We absolutely must slow down the rate of deficit reduction,” Sapin was quoted as saying.

In other words, the French policy debate is between the far left and the crazy left.

Which is why this dour assessment from across the English Channel probably understates the depth of the problem.

Since Francois Hollande was elected President in 2012, French GDP per capita has fallen. Its economy is expected to grow by just 0.7 per cent this year. …the country now looks set for stagnation – with its unemployment rate entrenched above 10 per cent (and youth unemployment double that). …the problems are obvious. The French government accounts for a massive 57.1 per cent of the economy in state spending and transfers. The tax burden is so high at 57 per cent for French employees (the sum of income, payroll taxes, VAT, and social security contributions as a proportion of the gross employment cost)… The World Economic Forum says that France is near the worst performer on a host of measures: positioned 130 out of 148 countries for its regulatory burden, 134 for the tax rates on profits, 135 on cooperation in labour-employer relations, and 144 on hiring and firing practices. …No wonder investors have voted with their wallets. FDI into France is estimated to have fallen by 95 per cent in the last decade.

Wow. No wonder the French people are so glum about the economy, as reported by the EU Observer.

…in France, the eurozone’s second biggest economy, eight percent felt the country’s economy was good. …Only 34 percent feel the jobs crisis has peaked compared with 60 percent who are bracing themselves for a darker economic future.

Which raises a good question. If the French people are so pessimistic about the future, why do they keep electing socialists?!?

Particularly when they tell pollsters they support smaller government!

Last but not least, we have a story from the New York Times about the mind-boggling regulation and protectionism that , mostly because it illustrates the pervasive statism that is strangling France.

Alexandre Chartier and Benjamin Gaignault work off Apple computers and have no intention of ever using the DVD player tucked in the corner of their airy office. But French regulations demand that all driving schools have one, so they got one. Mr. Chartier, 28, and his partner, Mr. Gaignault, 25, are trying to break into the driving school business here… But they are not having an easy time. The other driving schools have sued them, saying their innovations break the rules. …their struggle highlights how the myriad rules governing driving schools — and 36 other highly regulated professions — stifle competition and inflate prices in France.

And what are these rules and regulations, other than the bizarre requirement to own a DVD player?

“The system is absurd,” said Mr. Koenig, who was a speechwriter for Christine Lagarde when she was the French finance minister. …he has been campaigning for changes, including calling for an overhaul of the written test, which he says goes far beyond making sure that a person knows the rules of the road. Instead, he said, it seems intended to trip students up with ridiculous questions, such as: If you run headlong into a wall, would you be safer if you were in a tank or in a car? (The answer: a car, because it has air bags.) …Some studies have concluded that the French are probably paying 20 percent more than they should for the services they get from regulated professions, which include notaries, lawyers, bailiffs, ambulance drivers, court clerks, driving instructors and more. …Francis Kramarz, an economist who has studied the French licensing system, says that barriers to getting a license are so high that about one million French people, who should have licenses, have never been able to get them. …Mr. Kramarz said that it often costs 3,000 euros, or about $3,900, to get a license. But others said the average was closer to 1,500 to 2,000 euros.

Gee, isn’t big government wonderful!

The statists say it helps the less fortunate, but it seems the poor are the ones most hurt by regulations that push the cost of getting a license to $2,000 or above.

P.S. In an uncharacteristic expression of mercy, President Hollande has announced that he wants to limit the fiscal burden so that no taxpayer has to surrender more than 80 percent  of their income to the government.

P.P.S. No wonder Obama will never make America as bad as France, regardless of how hard he tries.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the best-ever cartoon about French economic policy, though this cartoon deserves honorable mention.

P.P.P.P.S. Even the establishment, as indicated by stories in Newsweek and the New York Times (as well as The Economist and the BBC), is noticing that the French economy is dismal.

P.P.P.P.P.S. No matter how much I mock France, there are places in Europe with even worse economic policy.

It’s remarkable to read that European politicians are agitating to spend more money, supposedly to make up for “spending cuts” and austerity.

To put it mildly, their Keynesian-based arguments reflect a reality-optional understanding of recent fiscal policy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here’s some of what Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg.

Just as France’s and Italy’s poor economic results prompt the leaders of the euro area’s second and third biggest economies to step up their fight against fiscal austerity, it might be appropriate to ask whether they even know what that is.

An excellent question. As I’ve already explained, austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint).

But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

As a result, the real problem of bloated government keeps getting worse.

Government spending in the European Union, and in the euro zone in particular, is now significantly higher than before the 2008 financial crisis. …Among the 28 EU members, public spending reached 49 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, 3.5 percentage points more than in 2007.

Here’s a chart showing how the burden of government spending has become more onerous since 2007.

As you can see, all the big nations of Western Europe have moved in the wrong direction.

Only a small handful of countries in Eastern Europe that have trimmed the size of the public sector.

Bershidsky does explain that the numbers today are slightly better than they were at the peak of the economic downturn, though not because of genuine fiscal restraint.

The spending-to-GDP-ratio first ballooned by 2009, exceeding 50 percent for the EU as a whole, and then shrank a little… That, however, was not the result of government’s austerity efforts: Rather, the spending didn’t go down as much as the economies collapsed, and then didn’t grow in line with the modest rebound.

Here are some examples he shared.

I suppose France deserves a special shout out for managing to expand the size of government between 2009 and 2013. That’s what you call real commitment to statism!

The article also cites an example that is both amusing and tragic, at least in the sense that there’s no genuine seriousness about reforming hte public sector.

Even when spending cuts are made…, the whole public spending system’s glaring inadequacy is not affected. …The ushers at the Italian Parliament, whose job is to carry messages in their imposing gold-braided uniforms, made $181,590 a year by the time they retired, but will only make as much as $140,000 after Renzi’s courageous cut. If you wonder what on earth could be wrong with getting rid of them altogether and just using e-mail, you just don’t get European public expenditure.

I particularly embrace Bershidsky’s conclusion.

There is no rational justification for European governments to insist on higher spending levels than in 2007. The post-crisis years have shown that in Italy, and in the EU was a whole, increased reliance on government spending drives up sovereign debt but doesn’t result in commensurate growth. The idea of a fiscal multiplier of more than one — every euro spent by the government coming back as a euro plus change in growth — obviously has not worked. In fact, increased government interference in the economy, in the form of higher borrowing and spending as well as increased regulation, have led to the shrinking of private credit.  …Unreformed government spending is a hindrance, not a catalyst for growth.

Amen.

Politicians will never want to hear this message, but government spending undermines economic performance by diverting resources from the the economy’s productive sector.

Here’s my video on the theoretical evidence against government spending.

And here’s the video looking at the empirical evidence against excessive spending.

P.S. Other Europeans who have correctly analyzed Europe’s spending problem include Constantin Gurdgiev and Fredrik Erixon.

I’m in Australia for Consilium, an annual conference which is hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies.

I spoke on fiscal policy and pontificated on the need for nations to restrain government spending.

That’s an important message (at least in my humble option), but I thought it was more interesting to learn more about the tax and spending policies of Australia’s current government, which is led by the supposedly right-of-Center Liberal Party (Aussies still use “liberal” in the European sense of classical liberalism).

Unfortunately, I learned that the Australian Liberals (like British Tories) need some remedial work on fiscal policy.

Prime Minister Abbott and his team, for instance, have proposed to increase Australia’s top tax rate. Here’s some of what’s been reported by the Australian Financial Review.

The Abbott government’s deficit tax means top earners will face a 49 per cent marginal tax rate, the eighth ­highest among developed countries. …. Australia already holds one of the highest personal income and company tax rates in the OECD. The 30 per cent corporate tax rate and 45 per cent personal income tax rate are higher than the average of 25.32 per cent for companies and 41.51 per cent for individuals. A personal tax increase will worsen the impact of “bracket creep”. …a higher income tax rate could also make Australia less competitive globally.

And the AFR also reports that a visiting scholar has thrown cold water on the idea of mimicking European fiscal policy.

Professor Prescott, who won the Nobel Prize for ­economics in 2004, …said that at 49 per cent the top marginal tax rate would hurt growth and the government should redouble its efforts to bring down expenditure instead. “It’s too high,” said Professor Prescott, who has written on the negative impact of increased taxes on economic growth in Europe. “You’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg.” …Lamenting “as sad” the standard of public and academic debate over budget deficits – both here and abroad – Professor Prescott said the focus should be on productivity and ­government spending. “What matters is expenditure. To spend is to tax and to tax is to depress.”

So why is an ostensibly right-of-center government copying Obama’s class warfare tax policy?

Beats me, though I’m told it’s because the politicians in Canberra (the nation’s capital) thinks this will appease the left and show “fairness.”

I imagine that strategy will be a flop, just like the first President Bush didn’t win any friends when he capitulated to a tax hike in 1990.

In any event, the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance warns that the tax hike may lose revenue because of Laffer Curve effects.

“The idea of increasing the top marginal tax rate in Australia is unlikely to raise any revenue, and may actually decrease government revenue due to a shrinking in the tax base, as high-income people reduce their labour supply, investment, innovation and tax compliance,” said John Humphreys, the deputy director of the Australian Taxpayers Alliance and an economics lecturer at the University of Queensland. …“Based on mainstream estimates of the high-income elasticity of taxable income, it is fairly straight forward to calculate the tax rate that will raise the maximum amount of revenue, and in Australia that is about 45%. If tax is increased beyond that level, then it is unlikely to raise revenue, and may actually cause a drop in revenue.…” The modeling by Humphreys is due to be published in Policy Journal in the coming months.

I’m skeptical about the finding that the revenue-maximizing rate for the personal income tax is 45 percent, particularly when there is very rigorous analysis suggesting that 20 percent is much closer to the mark.

But I definitely agree that pushing the rate to 49 percent will backfire on the Australian government.

And the folks at the ATA do make the very sound point that politicians shouldn’t try to set the top rate at the revenue-maximizing level regardless.

“There is no logical argument for increasing marginal tax rates about the revenue-maximising level, and indeed there is no good argument for having tax rates anywhere near the revenue-maximising level since those taxes raise very little money but cause significant economic damage.”

Amen. Indeed, allow me to call your attention to some very impressive academic work on this issue.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of Australian fiscal policy.

The good news is that the Abbott government isn’t proposing big increases in the burden of government spending.

The bad news, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be any commitment to a short-term or long-term effort to shrink the public sector.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, looking at what’s happened to Australian government spending over the past 20-plus years. The purple-ish line is nominal government spending (left axis) and the blue line is government spending as a share of economic output (right axis).

Australia Spending

In the long run, the trend of the blue line is the most important variable.

Unfortunately, the burden of government spending has climbed since the late 1980s. It’s still much lower than the burden of spending in places such as France, but the line is moving in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, if you look at the data since 2000, you could accurately say that Australian policy makers have succeeded in keeping the burden of spending from climbing above 34 percent of GDP (there was some foolish stimulus spending beginning back in 2009, but it didn’t lead to a permanent expansion in the size of government).

But let me share some remarkable data showing Australia’s missed fiscal opportunity. If you look at the IMF’s annual government spending and do the calculations, you’ll find that government spending since 1988 has grown by an average of 6.8 percent each year.

Since nominal GDP also has increased at a good pace, the actual burden of government has “only” risen from about 30 percent to 34 percent of economic output.

But imagine if Australian policy makers had merely imposed some version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule and limited spending so that it grew by, say, 3 percent annually.

If they had engaged in that modest level of fiscal restraint, the burden of the public sector today would be only about half its current size. In other words, government spending in Australia would be less than 17 percent of economic output, which would be even better than Hong Kong and Singapore.

This explains why I’m so fixated on expenditure limitations. You can make big progress over just a couple of decades if politicians somehow can be convinced to restrain the rate of growth of government spending.

Or, as the people of Switzerland figured out, you can enjoy that progress if you impose a spending limit on the politicians.

I’ve shared horror stories about government thuggery and I’ve shared horror stories about government stupidity.

Thanks to Mark Steyn, we have a story that exemplifies both the brain-dead nature of the public sector and the nasty nature of our bureaucratic overlords.

You may have read about the federal milk police. Well, here’s some of what Mark wrote about the Kafkaesque legal regime the federal government maintains for people who want to cross the border with….drugs? no…weapons? no…biological agents? no, nothing like that. We’re talking about  bagpipes.

…17-year-old Campbell Webster and Eryk Bean, of Concord and Londonderry, New Hampshire – understood that if you go to a highland fling a couple of hours north in Quebec you’re now obligated to get your bagpipes approved by US Fish & Wildlife. …So Messrs Webster and Bean got their CITES certificate and presented it to the US CBP agent at the Vermont border crossing. Whereupon he promptly confiscated their bagpipes on the grounds that, yes, their US Fish & Wildlife CITES paperwork was valid, but it’s only valid at 28 ports of entry and this wasn’t one of them. Nor is any other US/Canadian land crossing.

Geesh, those poor kids. Their valuable instruments get stolen by the keystone cops simply because the feds arbitrarily decided that federal government paperwork is only accepted at certain federal government outposts.

By the way, bagpipes apparently get all this unwanted attention because some older instruments have components that are made of ivory, and that’s verboten under environmental laws.

Anyhow, you won’t be surprised to learn that the petty paper pusher who confiscated the bagpipes is also a total jerk.

When the CBP agent seized Messrs Webster and Bean’s bagpipes, he told them – with the characteristic insouciance of the thug bureaucracy – that they were “never going to see them again”. But thanks to the unwelcome publicity the Homeland Security mafiosi were forced to cough ‘em up.

But the story doesn’t end here.

The kids apparently are quite the experts with their bagpipes and they’ll be competing in a contest in Scotland.

Mark explains the preposterous steps they’ll have to go through when they return.

The two pipers are now heading to a competition in Scotland. So they’ll be flying back via Boston, which is one of those 28 valid ports of entry. They’ve called Fish & Wildlife to arrange for the mandatory “inspection” of the bagpipes upon landing at Logan Airport. Unfortunately, the official Fish & Wildlife bagpipes inspector is taking a day off that day…she won’t be available to inspect the pipes. So she’s told them they’ll have to drive back to New Hampshire and then drive back to Logan the following day for the Fish & Wildlife bagpipes inspection. So…the bagpipers will have to take a day off on Thursday – just to comply with the diktats of the Department of Paperwork. … Every time you take a bagpipe in and out of the United States it’s a $476* round-trip fee.

Why can’t the bagpipe police simply give them some piece of paper saying their instrument have been deemed kosher? This is sort of like having to apply for a passport each and every time you travel outside America.

And notice that the federal government is charging the kids an inspection fee for the privilege of being harassed!

Sort of like getting an “aviation security fee” added to your airfare to finance the TSA’s patdowns of grandmothers.

Mark has a very dour summary, basically saying that the bagpipe police are a depressing illustration of the loss of freedom to the regulatory state.

Demanding a CITES certificate for bagpipes is a burden upon free-born citizens. Restricting the paperwork’s validity to only 28 ports of entry is an unduly onerous burden. Requiring the bagpipers to come back on the Wednesday to those 28 ports of entry because the inspector’s washing her hair on the Tuesday is an even more onerous and insulting burden. And charging an American $476 to play his bagpipe in Montreal is a shakedown racket unacceptable in a free society. …America is economically sclerotic because it’s being hyper-regulated to death.

P.S. Excerpts from some of my other favorite Mark Steyn columns can be read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.S. On a completely separate topic, here’s a brutal example of anti-Obama humor.

Ouch. Sort of like the Obama-Putin humor at the bottom of this blog post.

But I also share Obama humor where I sympathize with the President.

Some folks on the right in Washington, generally known as reformicons (short for reform conservatives), want the Republican Party to de-emphasize marginal tax rate reductions and instead focus on providing tax relief to parents.

There are many leaders in this movement and, if you want to learn more about the tax proposals being discussed, I specifically recommend the writings of Robert Stein, James Capretta, James Pethokoukis, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Charles Blahous, Jason Fichtner, and Reihan Salam (and I’m sure I’m unintentionally leaving off many other worthy contributions).

I explained last year what I like (and don’t like) about reform conservatism, but I haven’t specifically analyzed the tax agenda of the reformicons.

Time to rectify that oversight. The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to give me some space so I could share my thoughts on this topic.

I start by outlining the debate, albeit in simplified form because of space constraints.

There’s a policy debate among conservatives in Washington about the best way to cut taxes and reform the tax code. The supply-siders want to replicate the success of Reaganomics with lower marginal tax rates. But there’s also a camp who call themselves “reform conservatives” who want income tax credits or payroll tax cuts explicitly for the purpose of reducing tax liabilities for middle-class parents. The supply-siders argue that if you want to encourage more work, saving, investment and entrepreneurship, then it is a good idea to reduce marginal tax rates on productive behavior. …Those in the other camp…don’t necessarily disagree with the supply-siders. They note that it was important to lower marginal tax rates in 1980 when the top personal tax rate was a confiscatory 70%. But now that the top rate is “only” about 40%, they argue, lower tax rates won’t deliver nearly as much bang for the buck.

The reformicons are right. Dropping the top tax rate from 40 percent will help the economy, but the pro-growth effect won’t be enormous. At least not compared to what happened during the Reagan years when the top tax rate was slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

And, as this leftist cartoon suggests, many Republicans act as if across-the-board tax rate reductions are an elixir for every ill.

But can reformicons suggest a better way of cutting and/or reforming taxes?

I’m not convinced that their agenda of child-oriented tax relief is the right answer.

In my column, I note that many of their policies have already been implemented, yet there’s little if any evidence that these tax cuts have generated positive outcomes.

…reform conservatives say it’s time for new ideas. That’s a nice concept, but Republicans already have enacted many of their proposed policies. The child tax credit was adopted in the 1990s and expanded during the Bush years. The earned income credit also funnels a lot of money (in the form of tax relief or cash payments) to families with children, and that provision also has been significantly expanded over the years. These policies have worked, at least in the sense that households with children now face lower tax liabilities. There is little evidence, though, to suggest positive economic or social outcomes. Were families strengthened? Did the economy grow faster? Did middle-income households feel more secure?

The reformicons often argue that their tax proposals are politically more appealing.

That may be true, but that doesn’t mean they are political winners, particularly if reformicons are trying to appease the class-warfare left, which will simply argue that tax cuts targeted at families making less than, say, $100,000 will be even “fairer” if they are targeted at families making less than $50,000.

Or maybe targeted at households who pay no tax, which means more transfer spending through the tax code!

The tax-credit reformers also argue that their proposals are much less susceptible to class-warfare demagoguery that is the supply-side approach, since tax relief flows to lower- and middle-income voters. …But here’s the downside: Conservatives can bend over backward to appease the class-warfare crowd, but they can never outflank them. …Once conservatives have accepted the left’s premise that tax policy should be based on static distribution tables, they won’t have a ready answer for the left’s gambit.

But as far as I’m concerned, the real issue is how to raise take-home pay.

The reformicons want to make families more secure by reducing how much the IRS takes from their paychecks.

I certainly like the idea of boosting post-tax income, but I contend that it would be even better to focus on policies that increase pre-tax income.

The most commonly cited reason for family-based tax relief is to raise take-home pay. That’s a noble goal, but it overlooks the fact that there are two ways to raise after-tax incomes. Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … long-run growth will average only 2.3% over the next 75 years. If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years. This is why the right kind of tax policy is so important.

In other words, our economy is under-performing and that is the greatest threat to the financial security of families.

Folks on the left say it is the fault of “secular stagnation” and that the burden of government should be further expanded, but both reformicons and supply-siders agree that we’ll get far better results by focusing on tax cuts.

But which tax cuts?

I end my column with some glass-half-full analysis. The reformicons may not be thrilled by lower income tax rates and the supply-siders may not be excited by child-oriented tax cuts, but both camps are quite sympathetic to tax reforms that address the punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

While the camps disagree on lower individual income tax rates vs. child-oriented tax relief, both agree that the tax code’s bias against capital formation is very misguided. The logical compromise might be to focus on reforms that boost saving and investment, such as lowering the corporate tax rate, reducing the double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and allowing immediate expensing of business investment. These reforms would have strong supply-side effects. And since more saving and investment will lead to increased productivity, workers will enjoy higher wages, including households with children.

To be sure, some critics will say this type of tax agenda is too “business friendly,” which is an indirect way of saying that average voters may not understand how they benefit from tax reforms that don’t have a big and fast impact on their paychecks.

So maybe the right answer is to rip up the entire tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Since I primarily work on fiscal policy, I normally look at the budgetary impact of entitlement programs. And the numbers are very grim.

But I’m also an economist, so I periodically comment on how government intervention undermines the efficient functioning of markets in the healthcare field.

Last but not least, I’m also a taxpayer, so I can’t resist occasionally expressing my frustration at how the government is a giant pinata of waste fraud and abuse. And government-run healthcare seems especially vulnerable.

Huge amounts of money bilked from taxpayers for supposed counseling sessions financed by Medicare and Medicaid.

Medicare getting scammed to pay for plastic surgery.

Russian diplomats scheming to get their healthcare costs covered by Medicaid.

We now have another example to add to the list.

The Washington Post has an excellent expose on how government incompetence has made Medicare a prime target for fraudsters and other crooks.

…in a Los Angeles courtroom, Bonilla described the workings of a peculiar fraud scheme that — starting in the mid-1990s — became one of the great success stories in American crime. The sucker in this scheme was the U.S. government.The tool of the crime was the motorized wheelchair. The wheelchair scam was designed to exploit blind spots in Medicare, which often pays insurance claims without checking them first. Criminals disguised themselves as medical-supply companies. They ginned up bogus bills, saying they’d provided expensive wheelchairs to Medicare patients — who, in reality, didn’t need wheelchairs at all. Then the scammers asked Medicare to pay them back, so they could pocket the huge markup that the government paid on each chair. …The government paid. Since 1999, Medicare has spent $8.2 billion to procure power wheelchairs and “scooters” for 2.7 million people. Today, the government cannot even guess at how much of that money was paid out to scammers.

Wow. Billions of dollars of fraud and the government to this day still can’t figure out the level of theft.

And wheelchair fraud is just a small slice of the problem.

…while it lasted, the scam illuminated a critical failure point in the federal bureaucracy: Medicare’s weak defenses against fraud. The government knew how the wheelchair scheme worked in 1998. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that officials finally did enough to significantly curb the practice. …Fraud in Medicare has been a top concern in Washington for decades, in part because the program’s mistakes are so expensive. In fiscal 2013, for instance, Medicare paid out almost $50 billion in “improper payments.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that fraud is so lucrative because the government routinely over-pays for items.

…The original equipment scam had sprung up in the 1970s, at a time when Medicare was young and criminals were still learning how to steal its money. Doctors, for example, could bill Medicare for exams they didn’t do. Hospitals could bill for tests that patients didn’t need. The equipment scam was the poor man’s way in, an entry-level fraud that didn’t require a medical degree or a hospital. …“Let me put it to you this way: An $840 power wheelchair, Medicare pays close to $5,000 for. So there’s a huge profit margin there. Huge,” said one California man who participated in a recent fraud scheme involving wheelchairs.

So this isn’t just a story about government incompetence and taxpayer ripoffs, it’s also a story which shows why third-party payer is a recipe for excessive healthcare spending.

The good news is that the wheelchair scam is slowly fading away.

The bad news is that the overall problem of a poorly designed entitlement system ensures that scammers and other crooks will simply come up with other ways to pillage taxpayers.

Today, even while the wheelchair scam is in decline, that same “pay and chase” system is allowing other variants of the Medicare equipment scam to thrive. They aren’t perfect. But they work.  In Brooklyn, for instance, the next big thing is shoe inserts. Scammers bill Medicare for a $500 custom-made orthotic, according to investigators. They give the patient a $30 Dr. Scholl’s.

Geesh.

When examining entitlements, I’ve  argued that Medicaid reform is the biggest priority.

But perhaps the rampant fraud means Medicare should be addressed first.

Though the right answer is to reform both programs, which is why I’m so pleased that the House of Representatives has approved the Ryan budget for four consecutive years, even if each new proposal allows more spending than the previous one. What matters most if that Ryan’s plan block grants Medicaid and creates a premium support system for Medicare.

Those reforms won’t eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, but the structural reforms will make it harder for crooks to take advantage of the programs.

P.S. If you want more background information on Medicare, here’s a post that explains why the program is so costly even though seniors don’t enjoy first-class benefits.

P.P.S. And here’s my video explaining why Medicare desperately needs reform.

But keep in mind we also need reform of Medicaid and Social Security.

What do cigarettes and capital gains have in common?

Well, they both start with the same letter, so maybe the Cookie Monster could incorporate them into his favorite song, but I’m thinking about something else. Specifically, both cigarettes and capital gains tell us something important about tax policy, the Laffer Curve, and the limits of political bullying.

In both cases, there are folks on the left who disapprove of these two “c” words and want to penalize them with high tax rates.

But it turns out that both cigarettes and capital gains are moving targets, so the politicians are grossly mistaken if they think that punitive taxation will generate a windfall of revenue.

I’ve already discussed why it’s senseless to impose high tax rates on capital gains. Simply stated, people can avoid the tax by not selling assets.

This might not be an ideal way of managing one’s investments, and it certainly isn’t good for the economy if it discourages new investment and prevents people from shifting existing investments into more productive uses, but it’s very effective as a strategy for individuals to protect against excessive taxation.

We see something quite similar with cigarettes. People can simply choose to buy fewer smokes.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon of Canada’s Montreal Economic Institute explains why higher tobacco taxes are not a guaranteed source of revenue for the political class.

Tax increases do not in each and every case lead to increases in government revenues. …When taxes on the consumption of a good are too high, you can get to a point where taxable consumption decreases and government revenues diminish rather than increase. Or at any rate, they don’t increase as much as what would be expected given the tax increase. This phenomenon constrains government’s ability to levy taxes. …There have been numerous examples in Canada of excessive taxes having a negative impact on government revenues. As shown by my colleagues Jean-François Minardi and Francis Pouliot in a study published last January ., there’s been three “Laffer moments” when it comes to tobacco tax revenues in Quebec since 1976. Whenever the level of taxation exceeded $15 per carton, the proceeds of the tobacco taxes eventually diminished. These are no isolated incidents. Laffer shows that the theory is confirmed by the experience of Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Portugal, and Sweden.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how tax revenue has dropped in Quebec when the tax burden became too onerous.

Michel then acknowledges that some people will be happy about falling revenue because it presumably means fewer smokers.

But that’s not necessarily true.

While it is true that some people are deterred from smoking by tax increases, this is not the case of all smokers. Some avoid taxes by buying contraband cigarettes. Tax increases have no effect on the health of these smokers.

And because the tax burden is so severe, the underground economy for cigarettes is booming.

The folks at Michigan’s Mackinac Center have some remarkable and thorough estimates.

Since 2008, Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysts have periodically published estimates of cigarette smuggling in 47 of the 48 contiguous states. The numbers are quite shocking. In 2012, more than 27 percent of all Michigan in-state consumption was smuggled. In New York, almost 57 percent of all cigarettes consumed in the state were also illicit. This has profound effects on the revenue generated by state (and sometimes local) government. …We estimate nationwide revenue losses due to cigarette smuggling at $5.5 billion, a statistic consistent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ $5 billion estimate for 2009.

Here are the numbers for each state.

If all this evidence isn’t enough for you, I also encourage a look at the impact of higher tobacco taxes in Ireland, the United States, and Bulgaria and Romania.

Heck, even the city of Washington, DC, serves as a perverse role model on the foolishness of over-taxation.

P.S. Since this column focuses on the Laffer Curve and tobacco taxation, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Art Laffer recently put together a Handbook of Tobacco Taxation – Theory and Practice.

P.P.S. Art implies, at least indirectly, that policy makers should set the tax rate on tobacco at the revenue-maximizing level. That is far better than having the rate above the revenue-maximizing level, to be sure, but it rubs me the wrong way. I will repeat to my final day on earth that the growth-maximizing tax rate is far superior to the revenue-maximizing tax rate.

P.P.P.S. I’m currently in Australia for a series of speeches on fiscal policy. But as you can see from this photo, the PotL and I managed to find time to act like shameless tourists.

Tourists in Oz

P.P.P.P.S. Since I’m imitating Crocodile Dundee in the photo, I should close by noting that Paul Hogan (the actor who played Crocodile Dundee) has been harassed by the Australian tax police.

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