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Posts Tagged ‘Statism’

As much as I condemn American politicians for bad policy, things could be worse.

We could be Greek citizens, which would be very depressing. Indeed, you’ll understand why I put Obamaland in the title after you read today’s column.

Simply stated, Greece is a cesspool of statism. The people seem to be wonderful (at least outside of polling booths), but government intervention is pervasive and atrocious.

Here’s an example. As I was coming in a taxi from the airport to the city yesterday, we passed some sort of protest. There were a couple of hundred people at the rally and probably about 50 riot cops.

I naturally wondered about the situation, expecting that it was radical statists or some of the crazies from Golden Dawn. But the cab driver explained that it was pharmacists.

So why are pharmacists protesting? I found out from some of the locals at the Free Market Road Show that this is a heavily regulated and protected sector of the Greek economy.

The government has rules, for instance, that products such as aspirin and other painkillers can only be purchased at pharmacies. The bureaucracy also rigs all the prices to preclude competition. And there are even government policies that make it very difficult for new pharmacies to compete against the established firms.

When special interests have that much power, no wonder Greece is in trouble.

Thought there are some sectors of the business community, such as online entrepreneurs, that are treated like crap. Literally.

Here’s another example from a Wall Street Journal report, albeit one where a modest bit of progress has been achieved.

For the first time in more than a hundred years, Greece is sacking public servants. In 1911, Greece introduced jobs for life under Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Now, a century later, his descendant, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s minister for administrative reform, is faced with the delicate task of slimming down the massive public sector this law helped create. …In exchange for…aid, Greece has promised to cut the government workforce by at least 150,000 by 2015 through attrition, and to lay off an additional 15,000 outright by the end of this year. Another 25,000 would be placed in the temporary labor pool. Of those goals, the first has been reached: Greece had 713,000 government workers at the end of 2012, down 122,000 from the end of 2010. …But the labor pool is still a work in progress. Last July, the first 4,000 employees were put in that pool, while another 8,000 or so followed a few months later. Few of them are expected to be rehired. And with Greece’s unemployment rate already close to 30%, few expect to find jobs in the private sector.

I actually feel a bit sorry for some of these people.

They probably took jobs in the bureaucracy without ever thinking about who was paying their salaries and without giving any thought to the featherbedding and waste that accompany most public sector positions.

But I bet they voted for the politicians that dramatically expanded the number of bureaucrats, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy.

In any event, they’re understandably worried now that the gravy train is being derailed.

Or maybe the gravy is still there, but in different forms.

It appears that there’s still taxpayer money floating around that can be wasted in interesting ways.

Here are some excerpts from the Guardian about EU-funded “anger management” for some of Greece’s senior tax bureaucrats.

Until Greece’s economic meltdown, anger management was an alien concept at the country’s finance ministry. …Today these are the buzzwords flying around the ground-floor training room at 1 Handris Street. For tax inspectors attending mandatory seminars at the government building, anger management, like patience and politesse, are now seen as essential prerequisites of an increasingly stressful job. “Today, in Greece, everyone is either unhappy or angry when they have to go and pay at the tax office,” Fotis Kourmouris, a senior official at the finance ministry’s public revenues department said. “There is a lot of negative emotion … in the framework of better customer service, classes in psychological and emotional intelligence had become necessary.”

I wouldn’t call it “negative emotion.”

This is a long-overdue revolt of the Greek tax slaves.

…inspectors have found themselves at the sharp end of popular rage. In recent months visiting auditors have been chased out of remote villages, hounded out of towns and booted off islands by an increasingly desperate populace. “We’ve had multiple cases of violence at tax offices by angry members of public, including physical assaults; shots were fired in one case, and one attacker came with an axe,” said Trifonas Alexiadis, vice-chairman of the national association of employees at state financial services.

But when you read how the Greek government is trying to rape and pillage taxpayers, you can understand the anger.

A series of new tax laws has further fuelled public anger. Since the outbreak of the crisis, close to 30 new levies have been introduced by governments desperate to augment empty state coffers. “Too much pressure is being put on people who can’t pay,” said Alexiadis, who suggested that in such circumstances the classes were not only ill-conceived but “juvenile and unnecessary”. …accountant Heracles Galanakopoulos agreed. “They produce a law that nobody understands and then produce another three to explain it. By the time people get here they are really very angry,” he lamented… “I spend at least five or six hours a day reading up on all these new laws and still can’t keep up. Anger management is a nice idea but in a system that is so absurd it’s not going to make a jot of difference.”

Amen. As I’ve argued before, Greece’s problem is high tax rates. Evasion is simply a function of a bad tax code.

Let’s close with some Greek-related humor.

I very much recommend this very funny video from a Greek comedian and this politically incorrect map of how the Greeks view the rest of Europe.

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Senator Rand Paul is being criticized and condemned by the Washington establishment.

That’s almost certainly a sign that he’s doing the right thing. And given the recent events in Russia and Ukraine, we should say he’s doing a great thing.

Rand PaulThis is because Senator Paul is waging a lonely battle to stop the unthinking and risky move to a world where governments – including corrupt and evil regimes – collect and share our private financial information.

I’ve written about this topic many times and warned about the risks of letting unsavory governments have access to personal information, but the Obama Administration – with the support of some Republicans who think government power is more important than individual rights – is actively pushing this agenda.

The White House has even endorsed the idea of the United States being part of a so-called Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, even though that would require the sharing of large amounts of personal financial data with thuggish and corrupt regimes such as Argentina, Azerbaijan, China, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia!

I’m sure Vladimir Putin very much appreciates this insider access so he can monitor dissidents and track political opponents. His government even signed onto a recent G-20 Communique that endorsed automatic information-sharing.

Heck, there’s even a Russian heading up the Financial Action Task Force, which is endlessly pushing to give governments untrammeled access to private information. FATF even wants banks and other financial institutions to spy on customers, regardless of whether there’s the slightest evidence of any wrongdoing.

The general mindset in Washington is that we should all bury our heads in the sand and blithely allow this massive accumulation of power and information by governments. After all, Putin and other thugs would never abuse this system, right?

Senator Paul battles the statists

Fortunately, at least one lawmaker is trying to throw sand in the gears. Like Horatius at the bridge, who single-handedly thwarted an invasion of Rome in 509 BC, Senator Paul is objecting to this massive invasion of privacy.

He has this old-fashioned appreciation for the Constitution and doesn’t think government should have carte blanche to access private financial data. He even – gasp! – thinks that government power should be restrained by the 4th Amendment and that there should be due process legal protections for individuals.

No wonder the DC establishment doesn’t like him.

One example of this phenomenon is that Senator Paul has placed a “hold” on some tax treaties. Here are some excerpts from a recent article in Politico.

Paul for years has single-handedly blocked an obscure U.S.-Swiss tax treaty that lawmakers, prosecutors, diplomats and banks say makes the difference between U.S. law enforcement rooting out the names of a few hundred fat-cat tax evaders — and many thousands more. …International tax experts for years have seethed over Paul’s block on the Swiss and several other tax treaties. These sorts of mundane tax protocols used to get approved by unanimous consent without anyone batting an eyelash — until Paul came to town.

These pacts are “mundane” to officials who think there shouldn’t be any restrictions on the power of governments.

Fortunately, Senator Paul has a different perspective.

Kentucky’s tea party darling says the treaty infringes on privacy rights. …Paul, a libertarian Republican widely believed to be eyeing a 2016 presidential run, says his hold stems from concerns about Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.” “These are people that are alleged, not convicted of doing anything wrong,” Paul said a few weeks ago. “I don’t think you should have everybody’s information from their bank. There should be some process: accusations and proof that you’ve committed a crime.”

The article also notes that Senator Paul is one of the few lawmakers to fight back against the egregious FATCA legislation.

Paul’s protest is also linked to his abhorrence of the soon-to-take-effect Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which will force foreign banks to disclose U.S. account information to the IRS, and domestic banks to reciprocate to other nations’ revenue departments. …the senator has legislation to repeal FATCA and hesitates to support a treaty that enables a law he views as U.S. government overreach.

I don’t know how long Senator Paul can withstand the pressure in his lonely fight for individual rights, but I’m glad he’s waging the battle.

Even the Swiss government and Swiss banks have thrown in the towel, having decided that they have no choice but to weaken their nation’s human rights laws on financial privacy because of threats of financial protectionism by the United States.

So let’s give three cheers to our modern-day Horatius, a very rare elected official who is doing the right thing for the right reason.

For more information on the importance of financial privacy, here’s my video on the moral case for tax havens.

P.S. I shared some good jokes about Keynesian economics a few weeks ago.

Now, via Cafe Hayek, I have a great cartoon showing the fancy equation that left-wing economists use when they tell us that the economy will grow faster if there’s a bigger burden of government spending.

Keynesian Miracle Cartoon

Now you can see how the Congressional Budget Office puts together its silly estimates.

Indeed, Chuck Asay even produced a cartoon on CBO’s fancy methodology.

The next step is to find the secret equation that CBO uses when it publishes nonsensical analysis implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

But to be fair, the politicians who pay their salaries want them to justify bigger government, so should we expect anything else?

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Two years ago, I shared a video about the Environmental Protection Agency’s brutal and thuggish tactics against an Idaho family.

Constitution Limits Government PowerThat story had a very happy ending because the Supreme Court struck a blow for property rights and unanimously ruled against the EPA (too bad that similarly sound analysis was absent when the Justices decided the Kelo case).

Now we have a new example of the EPA running amok

Let’s look at a horrifying report about another family in the cross hairs of a rogue bureaucracy.

All Andy Johnson wanted to do was build a stock pond on his sprawling eight-acre Wyoming farm. He and his wife Katie spent hours constructing it, filling it with crystal-clear water, and bringing in brook and brown trout, ducks and geese. It was a place where his horses could drink and graze, and a private playground for his three children.

Sounds like the American dream, but also responsible stewardship since ponds usually have a positive role in limiting erosion.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s pinhead bureaucrats saw an opportunity for pointless and destructive intervention.

But instead of enjoying the fruits of his labor, the Wyoming welder says he was harangued by the federal government, stuck in what he calls a petty power play by the Environmental Protection Agency. He claims the agency is now threatening him with civil and criminal penalties – including the threat of a $75,000-a-day fine. …The government says he violated the Clean Water Act by building a dam on a creek without a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Further, the EPA claims that material from his pond is being discharged into other waterways. Johnson says he built a stock pond — a man-made pond meant to attract wildlife — which is exempt from Clean Water Act regulations.  The property owner says he followed the state rules for a stock pond when he built it in 2012 and has an April 4-dated letter from the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office to prove it. …But the EPA isn’t backing down and argues they have final say over the issue. They also say Johnson needs to restore the land or face the fines.

As you can imagine, this was not exactly good news for the property owner.

Johnson says he was “bombarded by hopelessness” when he first received the administrative order from the EPA. …The EPA order on Jan. 30 gave Johnson 30 days to hire a consultant and have him or her assess the impact of the supposed unauthorized discharges. The report was also supposed to include a restoration proposal to be approved by the EPA as well as contain a schedule requiring all work be completed within 60 days of the plan’s approval. If Johnson doesn’t comply — and he hasn’t so far — he’s subject to $37,500 per day in civil penalties as well as another $37,500 per day in fines for statutory violations.

But kudos to Mr. Johnson. Unlike so many others, he’s not going to roll over and acquiesce to EPA brutishness.

Johnson plans to fight. “This goes a lot further than a pond,” he said. “It’s about a person’s rights. I have three little kids. I am not going to roll over and let [the government] tell me what I can do on my land. I followed the rules.”  …Johnson says his legal fight with the government agency is a teachable moment for his kids. “This is showing them that they shouldn’t back down,” Johnson said. “If you need to stand up and fight, you do it.”

Needless to say, the EPA is not the only out-of-control bureaucracy in Washington.

Let’s now read about the thuggish actions against blueberry growers by the Department of Labor.

Bureaucrats from that entity decided to launch a legal jihad against some growers and they relied on bad numbers and grotesque strategy.

Another example of big government run amok.

In late July 2012, officials from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division visited Pan-American Berry Growers, B&G Ditchen and E&S Farms for spot inspections. …the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division district director, Jeff Genkos, accused the growers of minimum-wage violations and declared the blueberries “hot goods” under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. This charge is usually reserved for, say, T-shirts sewn by child laborers. The effect was to stop the fruit from being shipped to customers. He then ordered the growers to pay back wages and penalties and asked them to sign away any right to appeal the deal.

What was most shocking about the DOL’s actions is that they engaged in Mafia-type tactics and “made an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

This put the growers in an impossible spot. Either they could collectively pay $240,435 or let millions of dollars’ worth of berries rot. And they only had a day or two to make a decision. They did what any prudent employer would do: They paid the money, and the hot goods order was lifted.

And you won’t be surprised that the bureaucracy cooked the numbers in the first place.

It turns out that Labor’s bureaucrats had divined that the average worker could only pick around 60 pounds of blueberries an hour, some 30 pounds below what workers usually pick. They then counted the number of workers employed and concluded the growers must have had workers employed off the books. …In January, Oregon magistrate judge Thomas M. Coffin ruled for the growers. “In essence, to avoid the potential loss of millions of dollars worth of berries, defendants had to agree to the DOL’s allegations without an opportunity to present a defense or confront the DOL’s evidence in an administrative or court hearing,” he wrote.

I’m glad at least one court has ruled against the Department of Labor. Let’s hope that the final result is positive when all the appeals have been exhausted.

Both of these stories belong in my collection of “Government Thuggery in Action.”

Previous examples include:

If you peruse those examples without getting angry at big government, you probably need a lengthy bit of soul-searching.

If you’re a normal person, you’ll want this t-shirt (and don’t be a perv, just the t-shirt!).

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The political left obviously hopes that it can score political points by pitching some Americans against others with a campaign based on income inequality and class warfare taxation.

Is there any merit to this approach? Are the less fortunate suffering because some are succeeding? And would more government alleviate this problem, to the extent it actually exists?

George Will has a must-read column in the Washington Post on the topic of inequality, including a very relevant observation that the rich on Wall Street are the ones who benefit from the easy-money policy embraced by the Washington establishment.

In this sixth year of near-zero interest rates, the government’s monetary policy breeds inequality. Low rates are intended to drive liquidity into the stock market in search of higher yields. The resulting boom in equity markets — up 30 percent last year alone — has primarily benefited the 10 percent who own 80 percent of all directly owned stocks.

But his main point is that the lack of growth in the real economy has been very damaging to ordinary Americans.

And that lack of growth – acknowledged by both the Washington Post and Congressional Budget Office – is because politicians have been increasing the burden of government.

Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, says the total reserves of depository institutions “have ballooned from a pre-crisis level of $43 billion to $2.5  trillion .” And? “The store of bank reserves awaiting discharge into the economy through our banking system is vast, yet it lies fallow.” The result is a scandal of squandered potential: “In fourth quarter 2007, the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $14.7 trillion; at year-end 2013 it was estimated to be $17.1 trillion. Had we continued on the path we were on before the crisis, real GDP would currently be roughly $20 trillion in size. That’s a third larger than it was in 2007. Yet the amount of money lying fallow in the banking system is 60 times greater now than it was at year-end 2007.” …there is abundant money for businesses. But, says Fisher, the federal government’s fiscal and regulatory policies discourage businesses from growing the economy with the mountain of money the Fed has created. This is why “the most vital organ of our nation’s economy — the middle-income worker — is being eviscerated.” And why the loudest complaints about inequality are coming from those whose policies worsen it.

Trillions of dollars sitting on the sidelines because of bad government policy.

Seems like Chuck Asay’s cartoon is right on the mark.

Let’s dig deeper into this topic by looking at what a couple of experts have written on the topic of inequality.

Here are some excerpts from a column by Ronald Bailey for Reason.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Are the poor getting poorer? No. In fact, over the past 35 years most Americans got richer. Has income inequality increased in the United States? Yes. Does it matter? Well, President Barack Obama thinks so.  …Is that true? No. …The real defining economic challenge of our time isn’t to end inequality. It’s persistent joblessness and weak economic growth perpetuated by feckless Obama administration policies.

If you want to know the details (and you should), Bailey explains that what matters is growth because that means all groups can enjoy rising incomes. And that’s exactly what you find in the data.

Using the CBO data, the Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless has shown that from 1979 to 2010, the last year for which data are available, the bottom fifth’s after-tax income in constant dollars rose by 49 percent. The incomes of households in the second lowest, middle, and fourth quintiles increased by 37 percent, 36 percent, and 45 percent, respectively. The poor and the middle class got richer. …The rich got richer too, and they got richer faster. …So inequality in the U.S. has increased. But if most Americans’ incomes are rising, does it matter if some are getting a larger share?

He also makes the key observation that you shouldn’t just compare income groups over time.

This is because there is mobility. A poor household one year may not be part of the “bottom 20 percent” five years later.

Here’s more of what Bailey wrote.

Those worried about rising income inequality also often make the mistake of assuming that each income quintile contains the same households. They don’t. Between 2009 and 2011, for example, 31.6 percent of Americans fell below the official poverty threshold for at least two months, but only 3.5 percent stayed below it over the entire period. …In 2009, two economists from the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Treasury compared income mobility in two periods, 1987 to 1996 and 1996 to 2005. The results, published in the National Tax Journal, revealed that “over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile and that roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom income quintile moved up to a higher income group by the end of each period.” …The Treasury researchers updated their analysis of income mobility trends in a May 2013 study for the American Economic Review, finding that about 75 percent of taxpayers between 35 and 40 years of age in the second, middle and fourth income quintiles in 1987 had moved to a different quintile by 2007. …In January, scholars from Harvard and University of California, Berkeley bolstered the Treasury economists’ conclusions. Parsing data from the 1950s and 1970s, the researchers, who are involved with The Equality of Opportunity Project, reported that “measures of social mobility have remained stable over the second half of the twentieth century in the United States.

Let’s continue with more wonky data.

Writing for National Affairs, Scott Winship delves into the issue, beginning with an explanation of the left’s hypothesis.

To hear many liberals tell it, increasing inequality is holding back growth, crushing the prospects of the poor and middle class, and even undermining American democracy. Such concerns are prominent in President Obama’s rhetoric, and seem also to drive key parts of his policy agenda — especially the relentless pursuit of higher taxes on the wealthy. …Perhaps the most common assertion regarding the ill effects of inequality in our time is that an unequal economy just doesn’t work for most people — that inequality impedes growth and harms standards of living.

He then unloads a bunch of data and evidence to show why the statists are wrong, including reliance on bad methodology.

…does it in fact reduce growth? There is no clear evidence that it does. …one of the most widely cited papers in the inequality debates — a 2011 study by IMF economists Andrew Berg and Jonathan Ostry showing that inequality hurts growth — suffers from this very problem of focusing primarily on developing countries.

But if the research looks at industrialized nations, it becomes apparent that it is not bad for growth when some people become rich.

Recent work by Harvard’s Christopher Jencks (with Dan Andrews and Andrew Leigh) shows that, over the course of the 20th century, within the United States and across developed countries, there was no relationship between changes in inequality and economic growth. In fact, between 1960 and 2000, rising inequality coincided with higher growth across these countries. In forthcoming work, University of Arizona sociologist Lane Kenworthy also finds that, since 1979, higher growth in the share of income held by the top 1% of earners has been associated with stronger economic growth across several countries.

There’s a lot more in the article, but this already is a long post. I encourage you to read both articles in their entirety.

The bottom line is that you don’t help poor people by savaging rich people (though it is very appropriate to target rich people who have undeserved wealth because of crony policies such as TARP and Ex-Im Bank).

Pizza FairnessThe left mistakenly acts as if the economy is a fixed pie and one person’s success necessarily means the rest of us are worse off. So in an effort to increase the relative amounts received by the poor, they pursue policies that cause the pie to shrink.

As Margaret Thatcher famously said, it seems they’re willing to hurt the poor if they can hurt the rich even more.

That’s not the way the economy works when people are liberated from the heavy yoke of statism.

Simply stated, you’re not going to be doing much to help the poor unless you focus on policies that generate faster long-run growth.

P.S. It’s not related to the issue of inequality, but George Will also included this delicious sentence in his column. It’s too good not to share.

We spend $1 trillion annually on federal welfare programs, decades after Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that if one-third of the money for poverty programs was given directly to the poor, there would be no poor. But there also would be no unionized poverty bureaucrats prospering and paying dues that fund the campaigns of Democratic politicians theatrically heartsick about inequality.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist sharing this video showing a European Parliamentarian denouncing the politicians and bureaucrats of the European Commission for hypocritically trying to squeeze more tax from the private sector while simultaneously benefiting from special tax breaks only available to themselves.

Gotta love any politician who is willing to quote Murray Rothbard and also state that government is a racket. And Dan Hannan has made similar points.

I can only wonder, by the way, what Mr. Bloom would say if he knew about the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation. They are totally exempt from income tax, yet they spend a lot of their time trying to impose higher taxes on other nations (including the United States).

You can also see him wax poetic in these two videos. And his better-known fellow MEP, Dan Hannan, also has weighed in on the same topics.

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With Crimea potentially breaking away from Ukraine and the ongoing risk of conflict, it’s time to revisit the topic.

I explained a few weeks ago that decentralization was one way of defusing the crisis.

Now Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has a refreshing and important analysis explaining how bad economic policy has hindered Ukraine’s development.

He explains that Ukraine was one of the former Soviet Bloc nations that made the mistake of not copying the more market-oriented nations of Western Europe.

Prior to the breakup [of the Soviet Empire], Eastern Europe was underdeveloped relative to the West, mostly because of the failure created by central planning. When a market economy is unleashed in such a setting, “convergence” of the standard of living to that of the developed world can be quite rapid. …A large academic literature has emerged analyzing the impact of “going west.” The literature documents that those nations that assimilated into the EU saw dramatic economic growth. …The countries, like Ukraine, that failed to take that path have stagnated.

The impact is remarkable. Using EU membership as a proxy for nations that “went west,” Kevin put together a graph showing how the more market-oriented nations have dramatically out-performed the rest.

Hassett Putin Effect

He notes that per-capita income has climbed far faster in the western-oriented nations.

Income per capita has grown sharply since the mid 1990s, more than doubling for the former Soviet countries, and increasing about 50 percent for the Eastern Bloc countries (such as the Czech Republic) that have joined the EU. …The three lines on the bottom of the chart depict what has happened to those nations that have not joined the EU. Each of these countries has stagnated, seeing a standard of living that has barely budged since the fall of the USSR.

So what’s the moral of the story? Kevin bluntly writes that people who want to affiliate with Putin are traitors because they are condemning their fellow citizens to economic misery.

Vladimir Putin’s desire to maintain a zone of influence has had a dramatically negative effect on the economic well-being of citizens of the affected countries. It is hard to imagine how anyone could look at such data and not conclude that Putin supporters outside Russia are traitors, if not to their nations at the very least to their compatriots’ prospects of economic security and prosperity.

Now I want to build on what Kevin wrote by stating that “going west” is important because it is a proxy for more economic freedom.

Let’s take another look at his chart, but augment it with some numbers from Economic Freedom of the World.

I collected both the absolute ranking and relative economic freedom scores for the former Soviet Bloc nations, and then put together averages for each of the categories in Kevin’s chart. The first number is the average ranking and the second number is the average score. As you can see, the nations that have enjoyed more growth are the ones that have the most economic liberty.

EFW Putin Effect

Time for some caveats. Because of data limitations, the EFW Index does not have numbers for nations such as Kosovo. Moreover, Kevin didn’t include the former Soviet states that are in Asia, and I confess I don’t know for sure whether that means nations such as Armenia and Georgia are excluded.

But those issues only influence the green and red lines, and adding or subtracting those nations doesn’t change the look of the graph.

That having been said, the real moral of the story is that Ukraine needs economic liberty. It doesn’t have that now, and it almost surely won’t have that if it falls more under Putin’s influence.

Why? Because Ukraine already has been practicing Putinonomics (which is a sordid mix of cronyism, regulation, corruption, and weak rule of law), so more Russian control presumably will mean jumping from one frying pan to another.

Simply stated, if you want more prosperity, there’s no substitute for free markets and small government. The more nations move in that direction, the richer they will become.

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Regular readers may have noticed that I generally say that advocates of big government are “statists.”

I could call them “liberals,” but I don’t like that using that term since the early advocates of economic and personal liberty were “classical liberals” such as Adam Smith, John Locke, and Jean-Baptiste Say. And proponents of these ideas are still called “liberals” in Europe and Australia.

I could call them “socialists,” but I don’t think that’s technically accurate since the theory is based on government ownership of the means of production. This is why I’ve been in the strange position of defending Obama when some folks have used the S word to describe him.

I could call them “fascists,” which Thomas Sowell explains is the most accurate way of describing the modern left’s economic ideology, but that term also implies racism. But while leftists sometimes support policies that hurt minorities, they’re not motivated by racial animus.

I could call them “corporatists,” and I actually have used that term on occasion, but I think it’s too narrow. It’s not really an ideology, but rather a description of the sleazy alliance of the left and big business, such as we saw for TARP and Wall Street, or Obamacare and Big Pharma.

I’m motivated to write about my favorite way of expressing opprobrium because I just read a very interesting column in the U.K.-based Telegraph by Tim Stanley, an American historian.

He delves into the issue of whether it’s right to call Hitler a socialist.

…the Nazis did call themselves National Socialists. But…labels can be misleading. …Hitler wasn’t a socialist became apparent within weeks of becoming Chancellor of Germany when he started arresting socialists and communists. He did this, claim some, because they were competing brands of socialism. But that doesn’t explain why Hitler defined his politics so absolutely as a war on Bolshevism… Marxism is defined by class war, and socialism is accomplished with the total victory of the Proletariat over the ruling classes. By contrast, Hitler offered an alliance between labour and capital in the form of corporatism… It is true that the economy was socialised in the latter part of the 1930s, but not for the sake of building socialism. It was to prepare for war. Politics came before economics in the fascist state to the degree that it’s hard to conceive of Hitler as a coherent economic thinker at all. …Marxism defines history as a class struggle. Hitler saw it as a racial conflict… he was sometimes prepared to use socialist economics to pursue his agenda.

These all seem to be valid points, but I wonder whether it makes a difference.

Tarantulas, black widows, and brown recluses are all different species of arachnids, but it’s also correct to say that they are all poisonous spiders.

And I sure as heck wouldn’t want any of them to bite me.

Similarly, socialism, Marxism, and fascism may have specific motivations and characteristics, but they’re all forms of statism.

And I definitely don’t want to acquiesce to any of those coercive ideologies.

Which seems to be Tim Stanley’s conclusion as well.

The moral lesson is that power corrupts everyone: Left, Right, men, women, gay, straight, black, white, religious, atheist. The best countries have constitutions that limit the government, cherish the private sphere and largely leave the individual to make their own mistakes.

Now let’s look at a real-world example of a country that is suffering because of statism.

Allister Heath of City A.M. in London explains what is happening in Venezuela.

IF you want to see how to destroy an economy and a society, look no further than Venezuela. …the country is on the verge of total collapse… Food is running out, as are other essentials, even though the country claims the world’s largest oil reserves. There are shortages of toilet paper and soap, empty shelves and massive crowds queuing for hours in front of supermarkets. …The reason? A brain-dead rejection of basic economics, and a hardline, anti-market approach of the worst possible kind. There are maximum prices, other prices controls, profit controls, capital controls, nationalisations, expropriations and every other statist, atavistic policy you can think of. An extreme left wing government has waged war on capitalism and won; and as ever, ordinary people are paying the price. …The lesson from all of that is clear. Socialism doesn’t work. Price controls don’t work. Stealing people’s property doesn’t work. Chasing away foreigners doesn’t work. Destroying the supply-side of an economy doesn’t work. …It is a spectacularly horrible case of what FA Hayek called the Road to Serfdom.

For all intents and purposes, Venezuela is sort of like France, but without the rule of law. Which means bad policies become catastrophic policies.

And Allister is right. It is ordinary people who suffer. Venezuela’s long-term experiment with statism has resulted in stagnation and chaos. Once one of the richest nations in Latin America, it is now falling behind nations that have liberalized.

The Venezuelan government can’t keep food on the shelves, and it is moving closer and closer to Cuban-style rationing of basic necessities.

And people familiar with the history of statist regimes won’t be surprised to learn that Venezuela also is disarming the citizenry.

P.S. One business leader got a lot of heat for observing that Obamanomics was more like fascism than socialism. And another caught a bunch of grief for using an analogy about tax hikes and the Nazi invasion of Poland.

If they used “statism” instead, they would have been more accurate and avoided criticism.

P.P.S. This image is a funny but accurate illustration of the difference between socialism and capitalism. And here’s a socialism-for-kids image, but it’s really a parody of Obama’s class-warfare mentality.

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In recent weeks, I’ve pontificated on Obama’s spendthrift budget, Congressman Dave Camp’s timid tax reform plan, and the corrupt cronyism of Washington.

I got to elaborate on all these topics – and more – in this interview with Professor Glenn Reynolds, more widely known as Instapundit.

If there was an overall theme, it’s that President Obama’s statist agenda is not helping the country.

Other than my hair looking strange, I think this was a good interview.

But here’s a point I probably should have included when assessing the President’s performance. If you look at the Census Bureau’s data on median household income (adjusted for inflation), you’ll see that the median American is earning less during the Obama years. And that’s true whether you use 2008 or 2009 as the base year.

Median Household Income

Now let me provide three caveats on this data, two that help Obama and another that is less favorable.

1. First, if you look at the historical data from the Census Bureau, you’ll see that median household income is a lagging indicator. That means that incomes don’t improve in the first year or two of a recovery.

In other words, you can argue, with considerable justification, that Obama inherited bad numbers.

2. Second, median household income is an incomplete measure of living standards. If you peruse the data, you’ll see that median income for 2012 (the latest available year) is lower than it was the year Reagan left office.

I’m a big Reagan fan, so I’m tempted to say the country has lost ground since he left office, but that would be an exaggeration. We obviously have higher living standards today, notwithstanding the Census Bureau numbers.

3. But I’m not making excuses for Obama. My third and final caveat is that the median numbers don’t tell the full story. If you look at the Census Bureau’s numbers for various income groups, you’ll see that the only cohort that has enjoyed higher real income during the Obama years is….drum roll, please…the rich!

You read correctly. The bottom 20 percent have suffer lower incomes. The three middle-income quintiles have lost ground. Even the top 20 percent have lower median incomes. The only group that is ahead is the top 5 percent.

In other words, Obama may use lots of class-warfare rhetoric to pretend he’s on the side of ordinary people.

But his policies (TARPSolyndra, etc) have been enormously beneficial to the cronyists and insiders that have made the Washington metropolitan area so wealthy.

Here’s some of what Senator Portman of Ohio had to say about the topic.

It’s been five years since the experts said the recession was over, but for millions of Americans, it feels like it never ended. We’re living through the weakest economic recovery since World War II, and a lot of folks are struggling to make ends meet. Unemployment remains stubbornly high; the number of long-term unemployed is actually at record levels. But these statistics only tell half the story. Eleven million Americans have become so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work altogether. Poverty rates have gone up, salaries have gone down, with the average family now bringing home $4,000 less than they did just five years ago.

Just in case you doubt Portman’s remarks, here’s the chart I produced using data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.

It shows every recovery since end of World War II. The red line is Obamanomics.

Hmmm….this is almost enough to make one think that maybe we should try free markets and small government instead.

P.S. This Gary Varvel cartoon provides a good synopsis of Obama’s economic policy.

Political Cartoons by Gary Varvel

I also like Varvel’s take on Obamacare, and here’s another one of his cartoons on Obamanomics.

Varvel is the best at exposing the spending-cut hoax in DC, as you can see from this sequester cartoon and this deficit reduction cartoon. This cartoon about Bernie Madoff and Social Security, however, is at the top of my list.

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Just like Clark Kent could change into Superman, President Obama has a remarkable ability to change into King Obama.

Tired of that pesky Constitution? Irritated that the Founding Fathers created a system based on separation of powers? Well, there’s a superhero to overcome those obstacles.

Faster than a last-minute Obamacare reg! More powerful than the Tenth Amendment! Able to leap the enumerated powers clause in a single bound! (“Look! Up in the sky!” “It’s a bird!” “It’s a plane!” “It’s SuperPresident!”)… Yes, it’s SuperPresident … strange visitor from corrupt Chicago, who came to Washington with powers and hubris far beyond those of the Founding Fathers! SuperPresident … who can change the course of the Constitution, bend the Bill of Rights in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Barack Obama, mild-mannered uniter who stops the rise of the oceans and heals the planet, fights a never-ending battle for redistribution, statism, and the French way!

And what has our superhero done lately?

He’s arbitrarily and unilaterally changed the Obamacare law.

Since it’s the 18th time he’s done that, this may not seem very newsworthy. But the latest change is particularly interesting because the President is ordering certain companies to maintain their existing payrolls.

Check out this blurb from a Fox News story.

Obama officials made clear in a press briefing that firms would not be allowed to lay off workers to get into the preferred class of those businesses with 50 to 99 employees. …Firms will be required to certify to the IRS–under penalty of perjury–that ObamaCare was not a motivating factor in their staffing decisions. To avoid ObamaCare costs you must swear that you are not trying to avoid ObamaCare costs.

When this story first came to my attention, thanks to James Taranto, something seemed eerily familiar.

Where had I read about a government ordering companies to freeze in place their employment levels.

I went through all the usual suspects in my mind. Was it Argentina? Was it France? How about California?

And then it struck me that life was imitating fiction. Obama’s policy is so bad that it resembles a scene in an Ayn Rand novel.

In her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, the political elite try to halt the economy’s decline by imposing Directive 10-289, which seeks to freeze in place all factors of production – including the number of workers at each firm.

All workers, wage earners and employees of any kind whatsoever shall henceforth be attached to their jobs and shall not leave nor be dismissed nor change employment.

Obama’s latest diktat doesn’t go nearly as far as Directive 10-289, thankfully, but it’s more than a bit disturbing that we’ve gotten to the point where a bunch of hacks in Washington think that they have the right to tell private companies how many people they’re allowed to have on the payroll.

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

This isn’t the first time that the real-world unfolding of Obamacare has resembled a scene from Atlas Shrugged. Back in 2011, I wrote about how the waiver process for escaping the law was almost identical to the corrupt system of unfreezing railroad bonds in the book.

P.S. While searching online to get the details of Directive 10-289, I saw that John Sexton, writing for Breitbart, beat me to the punch.

P.P.S. If you prefer to get anti-statism satire from Superman instead of Atlas Shrugged, you may enjoy this cartoon.

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What’s the defining characteristic of our political masters?

Going all the way back to when they ran for student council in 6th grade, is it a craven desire to say or do anything to get elected?

Is it the corrupt compulsion to trade earmarks, loopholes, and favors in exchange for campaign cash?

Or is it the knee-jerk desire to buy votes by spending other people’s money?

The answer is yes, yes, and yes, but I want to add something else to the list.

One of the most odious features of politicians is that they think they’re entitled to all of our money. But it goes beyond that. They also think they’re doing us a favor and being magnanimous if they let us keep some of what we earn.

Think I’m joking or exaggerating?

Consider the fact that the crowd in Washington says that provisions in the internal revenue code such as IRAs are “tax expenditures” and should be considered akin to government spending.

So if you save for retirement and aren’t subject to double taxation, you’re not making a prudent decision with your own money. Instead, you’re the beneficiary of kindness and mercy by politicians that graciously have decided to give you something.

And the statists at the Washington Post will agree, writing that folks with IRAs are getting “a helping hand” from the government.

Or if you have a business and the government doesn’t impose a tax on your investment expenditures, don’t think that you’re being left alone with neutral tax policy. Instead, you should get on your knees and give thanks to politicians that have given you a less-punitive depreciation schedule.

And the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation, and the Government Accountability Office will all agree, saying that you’re benefiting from a “tax expenditure.”

The same attitude exists in Europe. But instead of calling it a “tax expenditure” when taxpayers gets to keep the money they earn, the Euro-crats say it is a “subsidy” or a form of “state aid.”

Speaking at the European Competition Forum in Brussels, EU commissioner Joaquin Almunia said he would investigate whether moves by national governments to tailor their tax laws to allow companies to avoid paying tax had the same effect as a subsidy. Subsidising certain businesses could be deemed as anti-competitive, breaching the bloc’s rules on state aid. …The remarks by the Spanish commissioner’s, who described the practice of “aggressive tax planning” as going against the principles of the EU’s single market, are the latest in a series of salvos by EU officials aimed at clamping down on corporate tax avoidance. …He added that the practice “undermines the fairness and integrity of tax systems” and was “socially untenable.”

Needless to say, Senor Almunia’s definition of “fairness” is that a never-ending supply of money should be transferred from taxpayers to the political elite.

The head of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development wants to take this mentality to the next level. He says companies no longer should try to legally minimize their tax burdens.

International technology companies should stop considering it their “duty” to employ tax-dodging strategies, said Angel Gurria, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …The OECD, an international economic organization supported by 34 member countries including the U.S., U.K., Germany and Japan, will publish the results of its research on the issue for governments to consider within the next two years, Gurria said.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD’s “research on the issue” is designed to create a one-size-fits-all scheme that will lead to companies paying a lot more tax.

But let’s think about the broader implications of his attitude about taxation. For those of us with kids, should we choose not to utilize the personal exemptions when filling out our tax returns? Should we keep our savings in a regular bank account, where it can be double taxed, instead of an IRA or 401(k)?

Should we not take itemized deductions, or even the standard deduction? Is is somehow immoral to move from a high-tax state to a low-tax state? In other words, should we try to maximize the amount of our income going to politicians?

According to Mr. Gurria, the answer must be yes. If it’s bad for companies to legally reduce their tax liabilities, then it also must be bad for households.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that bureaucrats at the OECD – including Gurria – are completely exempt from paying any income tax. So if there was an award for hypocrisy, he would win the trophy.

P.S. Switching topics to the NSA spying controversy, here’s a very amusing t-shirt I saw on Twitter.

The shirt isn’t as funny as the Obama-can-hear-you-now images, but it makes a stronger philosophical point.

P.P.S. Let’s close with an update on people going Galt.

I wrote with surprise several years ago about the number of people who were giving up American citizenship to escape America’s onerous tax system.

But that was just the beginning of a larger trend. The numbers began to skyrocket last year, probably in part the result of the awful FATCA legislation.

Well, we now have final numbers for 2013.

Expats_1998_2013

What makes these numbers really remarkable is that expatriates are forced to pay punitive exit taxes before escaping the IRS.

Which is why there are probably at least 10 Americans who simply go “off the grid” and move overseas for every citizen who uses the IRS process to officially expatriate.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Obamanomics.

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One of the many differences between advocates of freedom and supporters of statism is how they view “rights.”

Libertarians, along with many conservatives, believe in the right to be left alone and to not be molested by government. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “negative liberty,” which is just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual.”

Statists, by contrast, believe in “positive liberty.” This means that you have a “right” to things that the government will give you (as explained here by America’s second-worst President). Which means, of course, that the government has an obligation to take things from somebody else. How else, after all, will the government satisfy your supposed right to a job, education, healthcare, housing, etc.

Sometimes, the statists become very creative in their definition of rights.

You may laugh at these examples, particularly the ones that focus on seemingly trivial issues.

But don’t laugh too hard, because our friends on the left are busy with very grandiose plans for more “positive liberty.”

The EU Observer reports on efforts in Europe to create expanded rights to other people’s money.

Austerity programmes agreed with the troika of international lenders (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) are in breach of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, according to a German legal expert. …under the EU charter of fundamental rights, a legal text which became binding for member states in 2009, several austerity measures enshrined in the MoUs can be fought in courts. …His study highlights that the MoUs “have seriously limited the autonomy of employers and trade unions to negotiate wages.” …Education and health care reforms prescribed in the memorandums are also questionable because they are focusing too much on cutting budgets, he said. …He noted that the concept of “financial stability” was put above all other considerations. “But financial stability cannot be achieved without social stability,” he said.

But it’s not just one oddball academic making these claims.

…the Council of Europe’s social rights committee noted that public policies since 2009 have been unable to stem a generalised increase in poverty on the continent. The committee identified some 180 violations of European Social Charter provisions on access to health and social protection across 38 European countries. In the bailed-out countries, the committee found several breaches – particularly in terms of wages and social benefits. Ireland was found in breach of the social charter for not ensuring the minimum levels of sickness, unemployment, survivor’s, employment injury and invalidity benefits. Greece and Cyprus have “inadequate” minimum unemployment, sickness, maternity and old age benefits, as well as a restrictive social security system. Spain also pays too little to workers on sick leave.

This crazy thinking also exists in the United States. A former Carter Administration official, now a law professor at Georgetown, has written that countries with good policy must change their systems in order to enable more tax revenue in nations with bad policy.

Do states like Switzerland, which provide a tax haven for wealthy citizens of developing countries, violate internationally recognized human rights? …bank secrecy has a significant  human rights impact if governments of developing countries are deprived of resources needed to meet basic economic rights guaranteed by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. …The Covenant explicitly recognizes individual rights to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11); health care, clean water, and sanitation (Article 12); and education (Article 13). The Covenant also imposes obligations on member states to implement these rights.

And the right to redistribution isn’t just part of the U.N. mission.

There’s also a European set of Maastricht Principles which supposedly obligates nations to help each expand the burden of government.

Articles 19 and 20 of The Maastricht Principles call on states to “refrain from conduct which nullifies or impairs the enjoyment and exercise of economic . . . rights of persons outside their territories . . . or which impairs the ability of another State to comply with that State’s . . . obligations as regards economic rights.” …recognizing the fact that secrecy for offshore accounts makes it difficult for developing countries to implement Covenant obligations. It therefore seems indisputable that offshore accounts impede the fulfillment of internationally recognized human rights.

You may be thinking that all this sounds crazy. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s insane to push global schemes for bigger government at the very point when the welfare state is collapsing. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s absurd to trample national sovereignty in pursuit of bad policy. And you’re right.

And you may be thinking this is a complete bastardization of what America’s Founding Fathers had in mind. And you’re right.

But you probably don’t understand that this already is happening. The IRS’s awful FATCA legislation, for instance, is basically designed for exactly the purpose of coercing other nations into enforcing bad American tax policy.

Even more worrisome is the OECD’s Orwellian Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which is best viewed as a poisonous acorn that will grow into a deadly World Tax Organization oak tree.

P.S. And the Obama Administration already is pushing policies to satisfy the OECD’s statist regime. The IRS recently pushed through a regulation that says American banks have to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law.

P.P.S. Statists may be evil, but they’re not stupid. They understand that tax havens and tax competition are a threat to big government.

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Some things in life are very dependable. Every year, for instance, the swallows return to Capistrano.

And you can also count on Dan Mitchell to wax poetic about the looming collapse of French statism.

Back in 2011, I said France was engaged in economic self-destruction.

In September 2012, I wrote that it was time to start the countdown for France’s fiscal crisis.

In October of that year, I pontificated about France’s looming fiscal suicide.

Last April, I warned that the fuse was burning on France’s fiscal time bomb.

In June of 2013, I stated that the looters and moochers in France were running out of victims to plunder.

And in October of last year, I expounded on France’s economic death spiral.

Geesh, looking at that list, I guess I’m guilty of – in the words of Paul Krugman – being part of the “plot against France” by trying to discredit that nation’s economy.

Or maybe I’m just ahead of my time because we’re now seeing articles that almost sound like they could have been written by me appearing in establishment outlets such as Newsweek. Check out some amazing excerpts from an article by Janine di Giovanni, who lives in France and serves as the magazine’s Middle East Editor.

…what is happening today in France is being compared to the revocation of 1685. …the king closed churches and persecuted the Huguenots. As a result, nearly 700,000 of them fled France, seeking asylum in England, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa and other countries. The Huguenots, nearly a million strong before 1685, were thought of as the worker bees of France. They left without money, but took with them their many and various skills. They left France with a noticeable brain drain.

It’s happening again, except this time the cause is fiscal persecution rather than religious persecution. French politicians have changed the national sport from soccer to taxation!

Since the arrival of Socialist President François Hollande in 2012, income tax and social security contributions in France have skyrocketed. The top tax rate is 75 percent, and a great many pay in excess of 70 percent. As a result, there has been a frantic bolt for the border by the very people who create economic growth – business leaders, innovators, creative thinkers, and top executives. They are all leaving France to develop their talents elsewhere.

It’s an exaggeration to say “they are all leaving,” but France is turning Atlas Shrugged from fiction to reality.

“Au revoir, bloodsuckers”

Many of the nation’s most capable people are escaping – ranging from movie stars to top entrepreneurs.

What I find most amusing is that France’s parasitical political elite is whining and complaining that these people won’t remain immobile so they can be plundered.

And when the people who have the greatest ability leave, that has an impact on economic performance – and ordinary people are the ones who suffer the most.

…the past two years have seen a steady, noticeable decline in France. There is a grayness that the heavy hand of socialism casts. It is increasingly difficult to start a small business when you cannot fire useless employees and hire fresh new talent. Like the Huguenots, young graduates see no future and plan their escape to London. The official unemployment figure is more than 3 million; unofficially it’s more like 5 million.

The article also gives some details that will help you understand why the tax burden is so stifling. Simply stated, the government is far too big and pays for things that should not be even remotely connected to the public sector.

Part of this is the fault of the suffocating nanny state. …As a new mother, I was surprised at the many state benefits to be had if you filled out all the forms: Diapers were free; nannies were tax-deductible; free nurseries existed in every neighborhood. State social workers arrived at my door to help me “organize my nursery.” …The French state also paid for all new mothers, including me, to see a physical therapist twice a week to get our stomachs toned again.

Government-subsidized “toned” stomachs. Hey, maybe big government isn’t all bad. Sort of reminds me of the taxpayer-financed boob jobs in the United Kingdom (British taxpayers also pay for sex trips to Amsterdam).

More seriously, all the wasteful spending in France erodes the work ethic and creates a perverse form of dependency.

I had friends who belonged to trade unions, which allowed them to take entire summers off and collect 55 percent unemployment pay. From the time he was an able-bodied 30-year-old, a cameraman friend worked five months a year and spent the remaining seven months collecting state subsidies from the comfort of his house in the south of France. Another banker friend spent her three-month paid maternity leave sailing around Guadeloupe – as it is part of France, she continued to receive all the benefits. Yet another banker friend got fired, then took off nearly three years to find a new job, because the state was paying her so long as she had no job. “Why not? I deserve it,” she said when I questioned her. “I paid my benefits into the system.”

So what’s the bottom line? Well, the author sums up the issue quite nicely.

…all this handing out of money left the state bankrupt. …The most brilliant minds of France are escaping to London, Brussels, and New York rather than stultify at home. …“The best thinkers in France have left the country. What is now left is mediocrity.” From a chief legal counsel at a major French company: “France is dying a slow death. Socialism is killing it…”

As the old saying goes, this won’t end well. Maybe France will suffer a Greek-style meltdown, but perhaps it will “merely” suffer long-run stagnation and decline.

Which is a shame because France is a beautiful country and is ranked as one of the best places to live if you happen to already have a considerable amount of hard-to-tax wealth (and the French also were ranked among the top-10 most attractive people).

But bad government can screw up a country, even if it does have lots of natural advantages.

And that’s exactly what generations of French politicians have done to France. The tax system has become so bad that more than 8,000 French households had to pay more than 100 percent of their income to the government in 2012.

The French government has announced, by the way, that it intends to cap taxes so that no household ever pays more than 80 percent to the state. Gee, how merciful, particularly since the French President has echoed America’s Vice President and asserted that it’s patriotic to pay higher taxes.

That’s why I’ll stand by my prediction that President Obama will never be able to make America as bad as France. Heck, France has such a bad approach on taxes that Obama has felt compelled to oppose some of that country’s statist initiatives.

P.S. The prize for silliest example of government intervention in France goes to the law that makes it a crime to insult your spouse’s personal appearance.

P.P.S. The big puzzle is why the French put up with so much statism. Polling data from both 2010 and 2013 shows strong support for smaller government, and an astounding 52 percent of French citizens said they would consider moving to the United States if they got the opportunity. So why, then, do they elect statists such as Sarkozy and Hollande?!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim explains how companies worked the political system.

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

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

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

The better alternative, needless to say, is freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nope, the answer isn’t smoking. Or fatty food. Or 16 oz. sodas.

And it’s not alcohol, driving too fast, or standing between politicians and a TV camera.

Che Mercedes

Why is murder “chic” for some people?

In the past 100 years or so, the biggest cause of premature death has been government.

Back in 2011, while criticizing the Baltimore Symphony for using the Soviet hammer and sickle in a promotion, I linked to a website showing how many millions of people were murdered by the dictators who ruled the Soviet Union.

You’ll find similar data in this video, as well as some equally shocking numbers for other examples of democide (death by government).

I don’t know if all the numbers in the video are right. I don’t even know if the government bought 1.6 billion hollow point bullets. And I certainly hope our tax dollars didn’t help finance Pol Pot’s democide in Cambodia.

But I fully agree that government is the greatest killer of all time.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I think all governments are equally evil. I wouldn’t even make the claim that there’s a link between big government and democide (though that’s probably true given the track record of National Socialists in Germany and Soviet Socialists in China and the Soviet Union).

Instead, I’ll simply regurgitate some of what I wrote back in August.

…be thankful that there are some libertarians willing to raise a stink about government even if the rest of the world thinks we’re a bit odd. As we’ve seen dozens of times, most recently with the IRS and NSA, bureaucrats and politicians have a compulsive tendency to grab more power and make government more intrusive. …I’ll end today’s post by mentioning the fable of the frog that gets put in a pot of water and doesn’t jump out because the temperature feels comfortable. But then the heat is slowly raised and the frog no longer has the energy to escape when he finally figures out he’s being cooked. Well, libertarians are the ones who loudly complain when the government puts us into pots.

In other words, governments are less likely to do really awful things if there are some of us fighting when they do mildly bad things.

Don’t forget that when enough mildly bad things occur and you get economic stagnation, one result is the kind of social chaos and rioting that has occurred in some European nations.

And those are the conditions that sometimes lead to takeovers by the types of governments that do really awful things.

Let’s close with two bits of satire. First, here’s something I saw on Twitter. It’s for the statists who claim that communism is a good theory, but that it hasn’t been properly implemented.

Needless to say, I can’t see the appeal of a theory that says we are slaves to each other. But the point of this poster is that real-world communism is always about murder and oppression.

Communism in Real Life

Second, this is a good opportunity to emphasize one of the messages from the end of the video.

A common trait of dictators is that they want the citizenry disarmed.

This poster is the fourth-most viewed post I’ve ever produced. But not because I said anything clever.

Instead, people like this poster and share it with their friends because it makes a very important point about the dangers of unlimited state power.

So what’s the moral of the story? I guess the message is that small government is tolerable. Medium-sized government is bad. And unlimited government is horrible.

Actually, George Washington said the same thing with much greater clarity: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

P.S. I suppose this shouldn’t be a joking matter, but here’s an amusing look at communist efficiency from the Beijing Olympics.

P.P.S. And the fourth video at this link has some great examples of Reagan’s use of humor against communism.

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After nearly five years in office, what’s President Obama’s most significant accomplishment?

This is a serious question, so no jokes about the Nobel Prize he received for not being Bush. And no partisan GOP answers about the 2010 election, either.

Put yourself in the position of a future historian and think about what you would put in a book to describe Obama’s biggest accomplishment.

I don’t think anyone, regardless of ideology, would pick the so-called stimulus. Advocates of small government say it was a waste of money based on deeply flawed Keynesian theory.

Proponents of big government, by contrast, also aren’t big fans of the stimulus, though they’re dissatisfied because they think Obama should have wasted even more money.

Another potential answer is Obamacare. Libertarians and conservatives, needless to say, would say it was a significant accomplishment in the same sense that the Titanic had a significant maiden voyage.

Leftists, by contrast, obviously can’t be pleased by the way Obamacare is imploding  in the short run, but they nonetheless may think that it will be worth it in the medium run because more people will be dependent on government (though they may regret their choice in the long run).

Killing Osama bin Laden is probably a good answer, but if terrorism and conflict with the Islamic world are still big issues in the future, then I suspect the achievements of Seal Team Six won’t be seen as making that much of a difference.

For what it’s worth, I think the change in public opinion may be the President’s most long-lasting and significant accomplishment. Take a look at these remarkable results just published by Gallup. A record share of the population now say that big government is the biggest threat to the nation’s future.

Gallup Big Government Polling Data

Wow. I’m tempted to say that this is strong evidence of the effectiveness of the Cato Institute (and there is independent data to support that position), but I feel compelled to admit that Obama also deserves a good bit of the credit.

Even more amazing, President Obama has done something that is probably beyond even the ability of Cato. He’s convinced partisan Democrats that big government is a serious threat. Look at how the numbers have dramatically changed since 2008.

Gallup Big Govt Democrat Polling Data

What’s particularly amazing about the shift among Democrats isn’t that 56 percent now view big government as the major threat today, compared to 32 percent about five years ago. What’s shocking is that this change happened with a Democrat in the White House.

This is newsworthy because partisan Republicans and Democrats have a tendency to say things are good or bad depending on whether “their team” is in charge.

While these numbers are remarkable, I suppose it’s too early to say the growing concern about big government is the most significant accomplishment of the Obama presidency.

That being said, anxiety about big government may lead to big political changes in 2014 and 2016, and those political changes may then lead to big policy changes such as entitlement reform and tax reform.

And if that happens, then the shift in public opinion during the Obama years may turn out to be profoundly important. In other words, Obama may turn out to be another Herbert Hoover – a politician whose statist policies set the stage for dramatic changes in public policy.

And if that happens, Obama truly will deserve to be named “libertarian of the year.”

P.S. While big government is the biggest threat to the country’s future, big business and big labor can be very dangerous to liberty when they get in bed with big government.

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The genius of capitalism is that there is a link between effort and reward. In a genuine market economy (as opposed to cronyism), people can only make themselves rich by working harder and smarter to satisfy the needs and wants of others.

The blunder of statism is that the link between effort and reward is damaged. Punitive tax rates, for instance, punish people for producing. Redistribution programs, meanwhile, create incentives for dependency. And regulation throws lots of sand in the gears of the economy, while also creating big opportunities for corrupt cronyism.

I sometimes try to make this clear by citing the failure of communism. And by failure, I’m not talking about the brutality of Soviet-style dictatorships. Instead, I’m referring to the basic failure of state-controlled economies. Heck, places such as Cuba and Venezuela can’t even produce enough toilet paper!

And North Korea is such a basket case that it reduced physical requirements for military service after pervasive famine led to a stunted generation.

But I don’t want anyone to accuse me of red-baiting, so let’s pretend communism never existed and look at an unfortunate episode from American history.

When the colonists created the Plymouth Colony, they used a socialist model. This video from Reason TV explains how that system foundered.

Gee, what a surprise. Socialism was the problem and capitalism was the solution. When you give people property rights and establish a clear link between effort and reward, good things happen.

As Bono now understands. More remarkable, even Obama once said we should “let the market work.” So maybe there’s hope.

In honor of the season, let’s share a few more Thanksgiving cartoons, all of which – as you might expect – make fun of Obamacare.

Continuing a theme from some of yesterday’s cartoons, we have the Turkey of the Year.

TG II Cartoon 1

And an observation on how well the law is working.

TG II Cartoon 2

This Lisa Benson cartoon is very appropriate since the Mayflower carried the first colonists to Plymouth.

TG II Cartoon 3

P.S. I don’t want to pass up this opportunity for some well-deserved mockery of the evil philosophy of communism,. You can see some great Reagan jokes in the fourth video of this link and the first video in this link. And this doctored image makes a very powerful point in an amusing fashion.

P.P.S. Back in 2010, I also debunked the leftist counter-argument in a post that included the Reason video and a John Stossel column on the topic of the Pilgrims and property rights.

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I’m glad I work for a principled and libertarian organization. At the Cato Institute, there’s never any pressure to say or do the wrong thing for partisan reasons.

When Republicans screw up, I don’t have to think twice about exposing their misdeeds.

I have repeatedly criticized President Bush (and his former top aide) for expanding the burden of government. Buying votes with other people’s money isn’t compassionate.

Incurable spendaholics?

I have excoriated former GOP Hill staffers who became lobbyists for various special interests groups looking to fleece taxpayers. Stealing is wrong, even when you get a lot of money to use government as middleman.

I have slammed a former Reagan Administration official for defending earmarks. I think it is morally offensive that he gets rich by facilitating the transfer of money from taxpayers to powerful interest groups.

I have condemned the former Senate Republican leader for defending Obamacare. I think it is disgusting that he puts his lobbying income ahead of America’s best interests.

I have denounced Illinois Republican legislators for killing school choice. I think it is downright nauseating that they condemn inner-city children to terrible schools in exchange for campaign contributions from teacher unions.

And I have pointed out that statist policies don’t become acceptable merely because they come from Republican presidential candidates. The road to serfdom oftentimes is bipartisan.

We now have another candidate for our “Republican Hall of Shame.” The governor of Ohio, John Kasich, is embracing Obamacare. Moreover, not only does he want bad healthcare policy, but he’s using third-world tactics and making morally reprehensible arguments.

The Wall Street Journal savages Kasich in a stinging editorial. Here’s a key excerpt that explains the overall situation.

…there are still a few disciples with faith in an ObamaCare higher power, and one of them happens to run Ohio. Governor John Kasich is so fervent a believer that he is even abusing his executive power to join the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Not to be sacrilegious, but the Republican used to know better. Now Mr. Kasich seems to view signing up for this part of ObamaCare as an act of Christian charity and has literally all but claimed that God told him to do so.

But Gov. Kasich has a slight problem. The legislature hasn’t approved this budget-busting part of Obamacare. So Kasich has decided that he can arbitrarily change policy, just like Obama did with the employer mandate and the Obamacare exemption for Capitol Hill.

The problem is that his evangelizing failed to convert the Ohio legislature, which is run by Republicans who understand the brutal budget and regulatory realities of participating in new Medicaid. So Mr. Kasich simply decided to cut out Ohio’s elected representatives and expand Medicaid by himself. …he appealed to an obscure seven-member state panel called the Controlling Board, which oversees certain state capital expenditures and can receive or make grants. …Mr. Kasich asked the panel to approve $2.56 billion in federal funding, and then he’ll lift eligibility levels via executive fiat. It’s a gambit worthy of President Obama, who also asserts unilateral powers to suspend laws that displease him and bypass Congress.

But what’s really nauseating is that Kasich equates big government and welfare spending with religious values.

Mr. Kasich really must feel like he’s guided by the Holy Spirit… “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,” to quote one of his favorite lines.

I suppose I could make a joke about communists presumably being super religious if you use this twisted metric, but there’s a serious point to be made. I’m not a religious scholar, but I wrote several years ago that, “Doesn’t Christianity (and, I assume, Judaism and other faiths) require individuals – using free will – to act charitably? Using the coercive power of government to forcibly redistribute other people’s money, by contrast, is moral preening at best.”

Moreover, Kasich must be delusional if he thinks making government bigger is good for the poor. Redistribution traps the poor in dependency and a larger public sector hinders economic growth, making life even more difficult for the less fortunate.

Heck, just compare Hong Kong and Argentina over the past 50-plus years and ask yourself which jurisdiction afforded more opportunity for those trying to climb the economic ladder.

Fortunately, the battle isn’t over yet.

Thirty-nine House Republicans signed a formal protest and some of them are threatening to sue, and well they should. They argue that circumventing the legislature subverts the Ohio constitution’s separation of powers and exceeds the statutory legal authorities of the Controlling Board, which is supposed to “take no action which does not carry out the legislative intent of the General Assembly.”

I don’t know whether a legal case will be successful, but I can share data showing that Ohio already is in deep fiscal trouble.

It ranks 39th in the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index.

It was the 7th-worst state on controlling spending over the past decade.

It ranks in the bottom 10 on measures of bureaucrats to teachers.

It was listed as one of America’s 11 states facing an economic death spiral.

And John “Barack” Kasich thinks he’ll make Ohio better by adding an additional layer of government spending to finance Obamacare expansion?!?

What makes this situation so sad is that Kasich was Chairman of the House Budget Committee in the mid-1990s, so he deserves some of the credit for restraining federal spending during that period, a very successful policy that led to better economic performance and budget surpluses.

P.S. Kasich’s push to expand Medicaid shows one of the reasons the program should be reformed. He’s being lured by the promise that Washington will pick up the entire tab for the first few years. Afterwards, state taxpayers will get saddled with some of the burden, but Kasich probably assumes he won’t be around to deal with that problem. This is why the entire program should be block-granted to the states. If Kasich really thinks God wants a bigger Medicaid system, he should go to Ohio voters and ask them to pay for it.

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As an advocate of small government, I’m often distressed that I sometimes have to rely on Republicans in Washington to fight statism.

Why am I distressed? Because some of the worst people in Washington are GOPers. They may give lip service to fiscal responsibility when campaigning, but then conveniently forget that rhetoric when it’s time to make decisions.

Which helps to explain why spending grew faster under Bush than Obama.

But as bad as Republicans are, there’s no way they could be as bad as the faux Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

Consider the fundamental debate about whether big government is good and whether we have a moral obligation to maximize the amount of money we turn over to politicians.

Normal people think government is too big and they don’t want to reward a corrupt political class with extra revenue.

And they have strong legal standing for that position. Here’s what Judge Learned Hand famously opined in 1947.

Over and over again courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging one’s affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everybody does so, rich or poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands: taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant.

Judge Hand obviously is correct. It is nonsense to argue that taxpayers have an obligation to pay more than is legally required.

But not everybody is guided by common sense. And if there was a prize for an absence of common sense (as well as a prize for absence of integrity or principles), the David Cameron government in the United Kingdom would be a strong contestant for that award.

Here’s the latest example of the intellectual bankruptcy of that supposedly conservative government. An official was just forced to resign because – prior to joining the government – he advised people to legally minimize their tax liabilities.

I’m not joking. Here’s an excerpt from a Reuters report.

A tax adviser to the British government has been forced to resign after he was recorded giving tips at a conference on how to pay less tax and “keep money out of the Chancellor’s grubby mitts”, a Treasury minister said. The BBC Panorama investigative program filmed David Heaton – before he joined the government as an adviser on how to clamp down on aggressive tax avoidance – telling delegates at a conference how they could exploit tax loopholes. “Mr Heaton’s statements are directly at odds with the government’s approach to tackling tax avoidance,” Treasury minister David Gauke said in a statement. “Therefore, it is right that Mr Heaton resigned from his position.”

David Gauke, by the way, is infamous for having stated that legal tax avoidance strategies “damage our ability to fund public services and provide support to those who need it.” Hmmm….that phrase seems vaguely familiar. I gather the Tory Party thinks government should be guided by “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Just in case you think I’m pulling a quote out of context, click here or here for additional evidence of the pervasive statism of the current regime in London.

And take a look at this government poster I photographed in the London subway system. Orwell would be proud.

No wonder I”m so glum about the long-run outlook for the United Kingdom.

And the late great Margaret Thatcher must be spinning in her grave.

P.S. I wrote that this was the “latest example” of the Cameron government’s intellectual bankruptcy. For previous examples, see here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. I started this post with the quote from Judge Learned Hand. Leftists, by contrast, like to share the quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” What they conveniently forget to include is that he made that statement in 1927, when federal taxes amounted to only $4 billion and the federal government consumed only about 5 percent of economic output. Yes, I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.

P.P.P.S. What’s more hypocritical, the supposed conservatives in the U.K. badgering people to pay extra tax or American leftists utilizing tax havens to lower their own taxes?

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

Escaped the North Korean gulag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As illustrated by this chart, economists are lousy forecasters.

To be more specific, economists are no better than fortune tellers when trying to make short-run macroeconomic forecasts. Heck, if we actually knew what was going to happen over the next 12 months, we’d all be billionaires.

But we can (on occasion) make sensible predictions about the long-run impact of various government policies. All other things being equal, for instance, it’s safe to say that countries with bigger governments will grow slower than nations that don’t divert as many resources from the private sector. Even the World Bank and European Central Bank agree with that common-sense proposition.

Another can’t-fail prediction is that bailouts will reward bad behavior and lead to dependency. That’s why I’m not at all surprised by the news that Greece will get another bailout.Greek Bailout 1 Indeed, if there was a least-surprising-headline contest, it would go to the EU Observer for this headline.

A third bailout? You mean the first two didn’t work? I’m shocked! Which is why we need to change to a least-surprising-headlines contest, Greek Bailout 2because we also have this headline from City AM.

And this one from the UK-based Times. Which they may want to save for when it’s time for the fourth bailout. Greek Bailout 3And the fifth bailout. And…well, you get the idea.

Makes you wonder why the Germans (and the Dutch, Finns, Swedes, etc) keep subsidizing bad behavior elsewhere. Greek Bailout 4Yet these people apparently don’t care about moral hazard, so we see this headline from the Telegraph.

Last but not least, here’s what the BBC wrote. Greek Bailout 5

Given all these headlines from today, you can see why I felt safe in predicting a couple of days ago for Canadian TV that Europe was still in bad shape. Simply stated, government is far too big and costs far too much.

Yes, there are a few bright spots, such as Switzerland and the Baltic nations, but the fiscal debate in Europe is mostly between those who want higher taxes and those who want higher spending.

With that kind of contest, there are no winners other than politicians.

P.S. The ostensible purpose of the interview was to discuss Europe’s supposed recovery. I explained a few days ago why nobody should be impressed by the anemic growth on the other side of the Atlantic. But I think any changes in short-run economic performance – for better or worse – are far less important than the long-run projections of expanding government and growing dependency in Europe.

P.P.S. Americans shouldn’t feel cocky or superior. Long-run projections from the BIS, OECD, and IMF all show that the United States will be in deep trouble if we don’t engage in genuine entitlement reform.

P.P.P.S. Since I was talking to a Canadian audience, I mentioned that Europe should copy the spending restraint Canada enjoyed in the 1990s. You can click here to learn more about happened north of the border (and why the United States also should copy the same policy).

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There’s an old joke that the definition of quandary is when your mother-in-law drives off a cliff in your new car.

But since I’m not married, I can’t use that joke.

Besides, I’m a policy wonk, so the type of quandary that catches my attention is when the Obama Administration delays big parts of Obamacare (hooray!), but does so by cavalierly deciding to disregard the law (boo!).

Unfortunately, this isn’t a joke.

I wrote about this topic last month and asserted that one of “the defining characteristics of a civilized government is adherence to the rule of law.”

Why is this important? Here’s some of George Will’s analysis of how Obama is subverting the law.

President Obama’s increasingly grandiose claims for presidential power are inversely proportional to his shriveling presidency. …at last week’s news conference he offered inconvenience as a justification for illegality. …Serving as props in the scripted charade of White House news conferences, journalists did not ask the pertinent question: “Where does the Constitution confer upon presidents the ‘executive authority’ to ignore the separation of powers by revising laws?” The question could have elicited an Obama rarity: brevity. Because there is no such authority.

Will then cites the infamous example of Nixon arguing that, “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal” and compares that to Obama’s lawlessness.

Nixon’s claim, although constitutionally grotesque, was less so than the claim implicit in Obama’s actions regarding the ACA. Nixon’s claim was confined to matters of national security or (he said to Frost) “a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude.” Obama’s audacity is more spacious; it encompasses a right to disregard any portion of any law pertaining to any subject at any time when the political “environment” is difficult.

And he also dings Obama for creating – out of thin air – a special handout for members of Congress and their staffs.

…his complicity in effectively rewriting the ACA for the financial advantage of self-dealing members of Congress and their staffs.  …Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management, which has no power to do this, to authorize for the political class special subsidies unavailable for less privileged and less affluent citizens. If the president does it, it’s legal? “Exactly, exactly.”

Charles Krauthammer is equally uncomfortable with the erosion of the rule of law. His column includes a good summary of how Obamacare is being arbitrarily enforced. Or, to be more accurate, how it’s not being enforced.

…the administration…unilaterally waived Obamacare’s cap on a patient’s annual out-of-pocket expenses — a one-year exemption for selected health insurers that is nowhere permitted in the law. It was simply decreed by an obscure Labor Department regulation. Which followed a presidentially directed 70-plus percent subsidy for the insurance premiums paid by congressmen and their personal staffs — under a law that denies subsidies for anyone that well-off. Which came just a month after the administration’s equally lawless suspension of one of the cornerstones of Obamacare: the employer mandate. Which followed hundreds of Obamacare waivers granted by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to selected businesses, unions and other well-lobbied, very special interests.

He then accurately explains that we are entering an unpleasant world where the law is not what’s written, but whatever politicians arbitrarily decide on any given day.

The point is whether a president, charged with faithfully executing the laws that Congress enacts, may create, ignore, suspend and/or amend the law at will. …Such gross executive usurpation disdains the Constitution. It mocks the separation of powers. And most consequentially, it introduces a fatal instability into law itself. If the law is not what is plainly written, but is whatever the president and his agents decide, what’s left of the law? The problem is not just uncertain enforcement but the undermining of the very creation of new law. What’s the point of the whole legislative process — of crafting various provisions through give-and-take negotiation — if you cannot rely on the fixity of the final product, on the assurance that the provisions bargained for by both sides will be carried out?

He closes by noting that Obama seems quite proud of his illegal behavior and he warns that America is becoming a banana republic.

…this president is not only untroubled by what he’s doing, but open and rather proud. As he tells cheering crowds on his never-ending campaign-style tours: I am going to do X — and I’m not going to wait for Congress. That’s caudillo talk. That’s banana republic stuff. In this country, the president is required to win the consent of Congress first. At stake is not some constitutional curlicue. At stake is whether the laws are the law. And whether presidents get to write their own.

This is a very troubling issue, so let’s enjoy some gallows humor with some cartoons about Obama’s lawlessness.

Those of you who read Orwell’s Animal Farm will agree that this Eric Allie cartoon is especially insightful.

Banana Republic Cartoon 5

Here’s a Chip Bok cartoon about The One deciding which laws to enforce. Sort of reminds me of this joke about his approach to the Constitution.

Banana Republic Cartoon 3

Not surprisingly, disregard of the law even extends to the President’s top legal appointee. Michael Ramirez shows how the Attorney General decides which laws to enforce.

Banana Republic Cartoon 2

And Lisa Benson has the same theme in a cartoon that includes other Cabinet officials.

Banana Republic Cartoon 1

Here’s another Chip Bok cartoon, this one focusing on the illegal decision to grant subsidies to politicians and their staff.

Banana Republic Cartoon 6

And since we’re making fun of self dealing for the political class, let’s look at a couple of cartoons that focus on Obama’s arbitrary gift for Capitol Hill.

Banana Republic Cartoon 4

By the way, I like the Steve Kelley cartoon because he echoes my comments about “brain drain.”

Last but not least, here’s Ken Catalino making fun of Washington’s gilded class putting themselves first.

Banana Republic Cartoon 7

Let’s close with a final serious point.

Here’s some of what I wrote a couple of years ago to describe the banana republic of Argentina.

…the problem is crony capitalism. Argentina’s economy, for all intents and purposes, is one giant Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac/Obamacare/General Motors/Goldman Sachs Obamaesque dystopia. Government has enormous influence over every major economic decision. It’s like being in the middle of Atlas Shrugged, as political connections are the way to get rich. This type of approach is far worse than the Scandinavian welfare state. Yes, the official size of government is bigger in places such as Sweden, but the negative role of government intervention is far more pervasive in Argentina.

But I actually understated the problem.

Much of what I wrote was a critique of interventionism and the corruption that is facilitated by big government.

That’s part of what defines a banana republic (with Obamacare being a perfect example), but arbitrary law is another characteristic.

And that’s what’s so worrisome about what the Obama Administration is doing.

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Yesterday, Part I of this series looked at what motivates Barack Obama. We reviewed a Kevin Williamson column that made a strong case that Obama is an ends-justifies-the-means statist.

Today, we’re going to look at the President’s approach to economic policy and we’ll focus on an article by my former debating partner, the great Richard Epstein.

And since Epstein and Obama were colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School, he has some insight into the President’s mind.

In a nutshell, Professor Epstein says “Obama’s Middle Class Malaise” is the predictable result of bad policy. And the bad policy exists because the President has no clue about economic policy.

…the president is using the bully pulpit to argue for redistributive, pro-regulatory, pro-union policies that he claims will serve the middle class. …The President, who has never worked a day in the private sector, has no systematic view of the way in which businesses operate or economies grow. He never starts a discussion by asking how the basic laws of supply and demand operate, and shows no faith that markets are the best mechanism for bringing these two forces into equilibrium. Because he does not understand rudimentary economics, he relies on anecdotes to make his argument.

I’m not sure whether I fully agree. I suspect Obama doesn’t understand anything about economics, but it’s possible that he does understand, but simply doesn’t care.

Epstein then makes an elementary point about the harmful impact of government intervention.

Unfortunately, our President rules out deregulation or lower taxes as a way to unleash productive forces in the country. Indeed, he is unable to grasp the simple point that the only engine of economic prosperity is an active market in which all parties benefit from voluntary exchange. Both taxes and regulation disrupt those exchanges, causing fewer exchanges to take place—and those which do occur have generated smaller gains than they should. The two-fold attraction of markets is that they foster better incentives for production as they lower administrative costs. Their comparative flexibility means that they have a capacity for self-correction that is lacking in a top-down regulatory framework that limits wages, prices, and the other conditions of voluntary exchange.

I particularly like his point about self-correction. I frequently explain in speeches that markets are filled with mistakes, but that at least there’s a big incentive to learn from those mistakes. With government, by contrast, mistakes get subsidized.

Professor Epstein looks at recent economic history and wisely doesn’t get trapped in partisanship. He correctly notes that we got good results under both Reagan and Clinton when the burden of government was reduced.

Obama speaks first of how the economic engine began to stall, but he offers no timeline. His general statement may square with the economic malaise of the Carter years, but it hardly describes the solid growth during most of the Reagan and Clinton years, as both presidents grasped, however imperfectly, that any expansion of the government footprint on the economy could dull the incentives to production. The situation turned south the past ten years. The second George Bush administrative gave us No Child Left Behind and Sarbanes-Oxley, while Obama followed with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

The Bush-Obama years, by contrast, have been rather dismal.

Epstein next speculates whether Obama has any understanding that his policies hurt those he supposedly wants to help.

…his speech offers not one hint that he is aware of the deep conflict between his abject fealty to union objectives and the poor people he wants to lift up. Yes there is an increasing gap between the rich and poor, but that gap won’t narrow if the President keeps plumping for a higher minimum wage that will block poor individuals, many of whom are African-American, from getting a toehold in the economy. No jobs at artificially high wages—which is what will happen, per Wal Mart—is no improvement over plentiful jobs at market wages.

By the way, an even more egregious example of Obama hurting the less fortunate is his opposition to school choice.

Let’s conclude by looking at my favorite part of the article. Epstein writes that Obama is so deluded that he thinks his biggest failures are actually his greatest successes.

…he constantly thinks of his greatest regulatory failures as his great successes. No other president has “saved the auto industry,” albeit by a corrupt bankruptcy process, or “taken on a broken health care system,” only to introduce a set of unworkable mandates that are already falling apart, or “investing in new technologies,” which tries to pick winners and ends up with losers like Solyndra. The great advances in energy have come from private developments, most notably fracking, and not from the vagaries of wind and solar energy, which no one has yet figured out how to store for future use when needed. …It is easy to see, therefore, why people have tuned out the President’s recent remarks. They have heard it all countless times before. So long as the President is trapped in his intellectual wonderland that puts redistribution first and regards deregulation and lower taxation as off limits, we as a nation will be trapped in the uneasy recovery.

Here’s a good example of Obama’s upside-down world where he thinks failure = success. The Washington Examiner today commented on the President’s latest scheme to intervene in housing markets. They start by explaining how Obama’s policies already have failed.

…in February 2009, Obama spoke in Mesa, Ariz., on the housing crisis, promising that his then-forthcoming Home Affordable Mortgage Program would help “between seven and nine million families” stay in their homes. A little over four years later, HAMP was exposed as a flop by the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). Just 1.6 million households had actually received HAMP assistance, seven million fewer than Obama promised in February 2009. Worse, many of the HAMP-assisted households ended up defaulting again. As of March 31, according to SIGTARP, 46 percent of the oldest HAMP modifications re-defaulted, compared to 37 percent of the more recent beneficiaries. Many homeowners would have been better off without HAMP, according to SIGTARP: “Re-defaulted HAMP modifications often inflict great harm on already struggling homeowners when any amounts previously modified suddenly come due.”

But the President hasn’t learned from his mistakes. He still wants the government to dictate how the housing market operates.

…middle Americans have every right to be suspicious when Obama says his newest round of policies will make homes more affordable. …while Obama expressed mild interest in reducing the federal government’s role in the housing sector, he also insisted that the government must ensure that Americans will always be able to buy 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. Why? No other country on the planet has a housing market dominated by 30-year fixed mortgages, and many countries that have no long-term mortgage market at all, like Canada, avoided the 2008 housing bubble and financial crash entirely. There is simply no reason why America should repeat the same housing policy mistakes of the past. But for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, that appears to be pretty much what Obama is determined to do in his remaining years as president.

I especially like the point about Canada avoiding the financial crisis and the housing bubble. There’s a simple explanation. Our neighbors to the north avoided the government mistakes that caused the housing bubble in America.

Remember, if more government is the answer, you’ve asked a very strange question.

P.S. There’s no such thing as too much Richard Epstein. You can click here for his analysis of the flat tax and click here to watch him destroy George Soros in a debate.

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I’ve argued that Obama’s not a socialist.

I wasn’t trying to defend him. I was simply making the point that it’s technically more accurate to refer to him as a statist or a corporatist.

But he may be even worse than that, at least according to a must-read Kevin Williamson analysis of Obama for National Review.

He starts with how Obama seems to be a run-of-the-mill leftist.

Obama has been called many things — radical, socialist — labels that may have him dead to rights at the phylum level but not down at his genus or species. His social circle includes an alarming number of authentic radicals, but the president’s politics are utterly conventional managerial liberalism.

But Kevin then suggests that there’s something different about the President.

President Obama is nonetheless something new to the American experience, and troubling. It is not simply the content of his political agenda, which, though wretched, is a good deal less ambitious than was Woodrow Wilson’s or Richard Nixon’s. Barack Obama did not invent managerial liberalism, nor has he contributed any new ideas to it. He is, in fact, a strangely incurious man. …Obama’s most important influences have been tacticians such as Abner Mikva, bush-league propagandists like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and his beloved community organizers. Far from being the intellectual hostage of far-left ideologues, President Obama does not appear to have the intellectual energy even to digest their ideas, much less to implement them.

Then we have some examples of Obama’s “managerial liberalism.”

The result of this is his utterly predictable approach to domestic politics: appoint a panel of credentialed experts. …IPAB is the most dramatic example of President Obama’s approach to government by expert decree, but much of the rest of his domestic program, from the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law to his economic agenda, is substantially similar.

While this may appear to be incremental statism, Kevin argues that it represents something quite radical.

…it amounts to that fundamental transformation of American society that President Obama promised as a candidate: but instead of the new birth of hope and change, it is the transformation of a constitutional republic operating under laws passed by democratically accountable legislators into a servile nation under the management of an unaccountable administrative state. The real import of Barack Obama’s political career will be felt long after he leaves office, in the form of a permanently expanded state that is more assertive of its own interests and more ruthless in punishing its enemies.

Echoing Thomas Sowell, who explained that Obama’s agenda technically could be described as fascism, Kevin says that the current administration’s approach is a soft form of totalitarianism.

…he also has advanced it without legislative assistance — and, more troubling still, in plain violation of the law. President Obama and his admirers choose to call this “pragmatism,” but what it is is a mild expression of totalitarianism, under which the interests of the country are conflated with those of the president’s administration and his party.

For all intents and purposes, we are now governed by a leftist bureaucracy.

…the United States is not going to fall for a strongman government. Instead of delegating power to a would-be president-for-life, we delegate it to a bureaucracy-without-death. You do not need to install a dictator when you’ve already had a politically supercharged permanent bureaucracy in place for 40 years or more. As is made clear by everything from campaign donations to the IRS jihad, the bureaucracy is the Left, and the Left is the bureaucracy. Elections will be held, politicians will come and go, but if you expand the power of the bureaucracy, you expand the power of the Left, of the managers and minions who share Barack Obama’s view of the world. Barack Obama isn’t the leader of the free world; he’s the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.

And the law apparently doesn’t mean much in this new world.

…he has decided — empowered to do so by precisely nothing — that the law will not be enforced until after the elections. Neither does the law empower him arbitrarily to exempt millions of his donors and allies in organized labor from the law, but he has done that too. This is a remarkable thing. The health-care law gives the executive all sorts of powers to promulgate regulations and make judgments, but it does not give the executive the power to decide which aspects of the law will be enforced and which will not, or to establish a different timeline from the one found in the law itself. For all of the power that Congress legally has given the president in this matter, he feels it necessary to take more — illegally.

Kevin shows that lawlessness goes far beyond Obamacare.

In a similar vein, President Obama has refused to cut off foreign-aid funds to the Egyptian government, though he is required by law to do so in the event of a coup d’état, which is precisely what happened in July in Egypt. …The law also prohibits the president and his allies from using the instruments of government to persecute their rivals, but that is precisely what the IRS has been up to for several years, as it turns out. And not just the IRS: Tea-party activist Catherine Engelbrecht was subject to an IRS audit, two FBI visits, an OSHA investigation, and an ATF inspection of her business (which does not deal in A, T, or F).  …The president not only ignores the law but in some cases goes out of his way to subvert it. …He has attempted to make “recess appointments” when Congress is not in recess and has been stopped from doing so by the federal courts, which rightly identified the maneuver as patently unconstitutional.

Another example is the recent IRS regulation that forces American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law.

Indeed, Kevin explains that the White House’s disdain for the law is even worse than Nixon’s.

…what is particularly disturbing is the quiet, polite, workaday manner with which the administration goes about its business — and with which the American public accepts it. As Christopher Hitchens once put it, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law; it is capricious law.” Barack Obama makes a virtue out of that caprice… President Nixon’s lawlessness was sneaky, and he had the decency to be ashamed of it. President Obama’s lawlessness is as bland and bloodless as the man himself, and practiced openly, as though it were a virtue. President Nixon privately kept an enemies list; President Obama publicly promises that “we’re gonna punish our enemies, and we’re gonna reward our friends.”

So what’s the bottom line? According to Williamson, we have a might-makes-right White House.

He has spent the past five years methodically testing the limits of what he can get away with, like one of those crafty velociraptors testing the electric fence in Jurassic Park. Barack Obama is a Harvard Law graduate, and he knows that he cannot make recess appointments when Congress is not in recess. He knows that his HHS is promulgating regulations that conflict with federal statutes. He knows that he is not constitutionally empowered to pick and choose which laws will be enforced. This is a might-makes-right presidency, and if Barack Obama has been from time to time muddled and contradictory, he has been clear on the point that he has no intention of being limited by something so trivial as the law.

In other words, the ends justifies the means.

Do I agree with this analysis? I think Kevin is spot on in terms of policy. Obama unambiguously has expanded the power of the political class in Washington.

The more interesting question, though, is whether the President is following a deliberate plan to change the nation. Or is government expanding – as it normally does – because of corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self interest?

I’m not a big believer in secret plans, so my normal instinct is to accept the conventional explanation for ever-growing government. On the other hand, Kevin points out that Obama is quite open about “fundamentally transforming” America and he pursues his agenda even when that means running roughshod over the law.

All I can say is that you should read the entire article. You’ll have a greater appreciation of the challenges we face if we want to restore the American ideal of economic liberty and personal freedom.

P.S. With regards to the is-Obama-a-socialist debate, Steven Horwitz (a former grad school colleague) makes some insightful observations.

P.P.S. Since we’re discussing who is a socialist and who isn’t, Cal Thomas has some wise words on whether religious faith requires socialist politics.

P.P.P.S. If you really want to see an example of bizarre name calling, there are some people who think Obama is a conservative.

P.P.P.P.S. And if you enjoy irony, some leftists are more rational than others.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, I’ve cited some other first-rate Kevin Williamson columns in previous posts, including one on the corrupt nexus of Washington and Wall Street, another on limits to supply-side economics, and a delicious take down of Krugman, which I link to at the bottom of this post.

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President Obama made a much-hyped pivot-to-the-economy speech yesterday in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

I already explained, immediately following the speech, why his “grand bargain” on corporate taxes was not a good deal because of all the hidden taxes on new investment and international competitiveness.

But I also had a chance to dissect the President’s overall track record on the economy for today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

…he didn’t say anything new or different. His audience was treated to the same tax-spend-and-regulate boilerplate that the President has been dispensing ever since he entered political life. …with Obamanomics, not only has America failed to enjoy the traditional period of four-to-five percent growth at the start of a recovery, the economy hasn’t even gotten close to the long-run average of 3 percent. That’s a damning indictment. But it gets worse. The data on employment is downright depressing. A look at the numbers reveals that the nation is suffering from the worst period of job creation since the Great Depression. Most startling, we still haven’t recovered the jobs we lost during the recession.

That’s some strong rhetoric, but there are plenty of numbers to back up my assertions.

Let’s take a look at the interactive website maintained by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. This site allows users to compare all business cycles since World War II.

Let’s start by comparing the current business cycle to what happened under Reaganomics.

AFP Reagan v Obama GDP

As you can see, we’ve had a very sluggish recovery compared to the boom we enjoyed in the 1980s.

Not all of this is Obama’s fault, by the way. Here’s some more of what I wrote for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

…all of these problems started before President Obama ever got to the White House. President Bush also was guilty of too much spending and excessive regulation, and his policies helped push the economy into a ditch. Unfortunately, even though he promised “change,” President Obama has been adding to Bush’s mistakes — and also raising taxes.

Some people may be wondering whether it’s fair to compare Reaganomics to Obamanomics. Maybe I’m cherry-picking data to make Obama (and Bush) look bad.

Since I’ve already admitted that it’s good to be suspicious of all people who work in Washington, I don’t begrudge folks who are skeptical of what I write.

So let’s now look at the Minneapolis Fed’s data for every business cycle since the end of World War II. As you can see, we’re currently mired in the most anemic recovery on record.

AFP GDP

The employment data is even worse than the GDP data.

The comparison of Reaganomics with BushObamanomics is startling. There was a jobs boom in the 1980s, while today we haven’t even recovered all the jobs lost during the downturn.

AFP Reagan v Obama Jobs

And if we look at the current “recovery” compared to all other business cycles, it becomes even more apparent that big government is generating very bad results for the American people.

AFP Jobs

Here’s how I conclude my column.

…what’s the bottom line? The world is a laboratory, and the lessons are very clear. Jurisdictions with small government and free markets, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, grow rapidly. Nations with bloated welfare states, such as France, Italy and Greece, suffer from stagnation and decline. The United States historically has been somewhere between these two camps, which is why we had average growth of about 3 percent. We’ve become a lot more like Europe during the Bush-Obama years. That helps to explain why our growth numbers and jobs data are now so disappointing. Unfortunately, the President’s speech shows that he wants to step on the gas rather than turn the car in the right direction.

In other words, if we want more prosperity, we need to follow the recipe of free markets and small government.

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I sometimes make fun of Republicans for being the “Stupid Party,” but I get genuinely agitated when they’re the “Statist Party.”

You can forgive someone for not being intelligent, after all, but it’s much harder to look the other way when they deliberately and knowingly do the wrong thing.

And that seems to be a good description of how the GOP handled the recent farm bill.

Farm subsidiesFirst, some background. The farm bill traditionally has also been the legislation that funded food stamps. The special interests adopted this approach because it created an unholy alliance of big-city Democrats and farm-state Republicans, with both groups agreeing to support each other’s wasteful spending.

Advocates of smaller government have long objected to this arrangement for the simple reason that neither agriculture subsidies nor food subsidies are proper functions of the federal government.

So it seemed like good news when the House of Representatives defeated a $1 trillion farm bill last month. And it seemed like even better news when House GOP leaders announced that they would separate the farm subsidies and food stamps into separate pieces of legislation.

But here’s where we run into problems. The insiders and special interests who are cozy with the GOP used this new approach as an excuse to increase the role of the federal government!

I’m not joking. Darren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation explains what happened.

When the House leadership first announced it would separately consider the food stamp and farm components of the “farm” bill, it looked like they got the message that current farm policy was in dire need of reform. With separation, real reform to rein in market-distorting programs and special interest handouts could finally happen. But now that separation has occurred, they’ve forgotten the very reason why separation was needed in the first place. …With the passage of this bill, the House has gone even further to the left than the Senate bill. It would spend more money than Obama on the largest farm program, crop insurance. …In fact, they made this new bill even worse—by making sneaky changes to the bill text so that some of the costliest and most indefensible programs no longer expire after five years, but live on indefinitely. This means the sugar program that drives up food prices will be harder to change, because it doesn’t automatically expire. It also means the new and radical shallow loss program that covers even minor losses for farmers will indefinitely be a part of the law.

To be fair, there were a few changes that arguably moved the ball in the right direction.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal opined.

The new farm bill still has more subsidies than is desirable, especially amid a booming agriculture economy and record land prices. The supports for prospering sugar and dairy farmers are especially dreary. Republicans defeated a proposal by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to put income limits for receiving subsidies, so “farmers” with non-farm incomes of nearly $1 million a year can still dun taxpayers. But at least the bill spends $20 billion less over 10 years than current law. One major reform is the repeal of a 1949 law that reinstates New Deal-era production controls and price supports if Congress failed to pass a new bill.

I’m not an expert on agriculture subsidies, but I think the Heritage Foundation has a stronger argument. In any event, it’s unambiguously true that House Republicans didn’t use this opportunity to approve big, pro-market reforms.

Moreover, the Republicans have left themselves wide open to the charge that they’re perfectly happy to subsidize rich contributors while not subsidizing those with modest incomes.

Ross Douthat was very critical of the GOP ploy in his New York Times column.

It should go without saying that America’s agriculture policy has always been a terrible, stupid, counterproductive exercise in self-dealing cronyism. But when House Republicans severed the traditional connection, arbitrary but politically effective, between farm subsidies and food stamps, it briefly seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to put libertarian populist principle into practice, by separating both outlays in order to trim or reform both separately. But no — instead they were just making it easier for the party’s congressmen to vote for a bloated, awful big government program that benefits mostly-Republican states and interest groups, knowing that they weren’t also voting for something that pays out to the (mostly-Democratic) poor as well. This is egregious whatever you think of the food stamp program… Practically any conception of the common good, libertarian or communitarian or anywhere in between, would produce better policy than a factionally-driven approach of further subsidizing the rich.

Sort of confirms my argument that the worst people in Washington are GOP insiders.

Needless to say, this approach creates a big opening for the left, as illustrated by this cartoon.

Big Ag GOP

But the reason this cartoon is effective is that it is based on reality. Republicans did push through a wasteful farm bill. And they don’t have any plans to deal with the food stamp component.

And even though there will be some agreement on food stamps, the GOP has left itself open to the charge that they want handouts for their rich friends and nothing for the poor.

From a libertarian perspective, I don’t care if Republicans open themselves up to unflattering stereotypes.

But I do want to abolish the Department of Agriculture at some point. And I also want to clean up the cesspool of corruption in Washington by shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.

Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction and the farm bill is merely the latest example of a very bad trend.

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I’m a strong believer in federalism, but not because I think state and local governments are competent. Politicians and interest groups are a toxic combination in all circumstance.

But at least people have considerable ability to cross borders if they want to escape greedy and despotic governments at the state and local level. And when the geese with the golden eggs can fly away, this facilitates competition between governments and forces politicians to restrain their appetites.

So when California screws up, people can move to Texas. And when Detroit screws up, people can move just about anyplace.

But it’s not just stereotypically left-wing places where you find stupid and oppressive government. Here are three examples of bad government, and you get to pick the one that most exemplifies statism in action!

Option #1: The “Prove Your Gender” Requirement in Georgia

I realize that gender can be a somewhat fuzzy concept in modern society, and things can get even more complicated with modern technology, but you would think that certain things are…um…well, self evident.

But that wasn’t good enough for one bureaucrat in Georgia, as reported by the New York Daily News. Here are some relevant excerpts

A Georgia mom was ordered by state workers to prove she was a woman after she found her birth certificate mistakenly listed her as a man. Nakia Grimes, 36, said she was left “in shock” after officials told her she must undergo an invasive Pap smear exam if she ever wanted the error corrected. …Grimes said the offensive proposition came about when she spotted her birth certificate had an “X” listed next to male while getting her driver’s license renewed. …a state worker said the only way for the Clayton County resident to get her gender changed would be to prove it properly. “She said I needed to go have the exam, have a doctor write a note verifying you’re a woman, and bring it back – notarized,” she added.

Shockingly, this story actually has a happy ending. According to the story, the government eventually “…altered her gender status after checking her son Zion’s birth certificate, where she is legally listed as the birth mother.”

Option #2: Squandering Money to Rip Up Flowers in Washington, DC

When government fails to fulfill one of its supposed obligations, there’s a natural tendency among some people to volunteer their time and energy to improve their communities.

But bureaucrats don’t like private initiative, particularly since it makes it rather obvious that government is a costly and inefficient way of doing things. And that’s why good Samaritans who clean parks and rescue people open themselves up to harassment and persecution.

In other cases, the bureaucrats undo the good work of private citizens. Here’s some of what was reported in the Washington Post about one episode of spiteful bureaucracy.

…the transit system would look silly if it let perish 1,000 flowers planted secretly at the Dupont Circle station by local garden artist Henry Docter, the self-described Phantom Planter. I feared that Metro would merely neglect the flowers. Instead, last Sunday, it sent workmen to yank them out.The transit system regularly pleads poverty, yet employees devoted supposedly valuable time to remove more than 1,000 morning glories, cardinal flowers and cypress vines that Docter donated to the city — albeit without permission. The plants would have bloomed from August to October in a patriotic display of red, white and blue.Instead of greenery today and colors to come, the 176 flower boxes along the top stretch of the escalators at the station’s north entrance now feature dirt, a few straggling stems and the occasional discarded soda can. …“They paid people to tear out plants that everyone loves? Well, this is cause for insurrection. Talk about fixing something that’s not broken,” said Robin Diener, a member of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association board of directors.

Amazing. The bureaucracy claims there’s no money to plant flowers, but there’s somehow money to dig up flowers someone else has planted. That’s government in action!

Option #3: Thugs from Local Government Harass Organic Farmer

One of the most unpleasant features of big government is that bureaucrats have immense power to engage in vindictive attacks.

I’ve already shared some horror stories, such as this instance of vicious IRS persecution, a story of a woman jailed overnight because she let her kids play outside, an example of cops “legally” stealing $17,000 from a man who committed no crime, a video about how the EPA tried – and fortunately failed – to destroy a family, and a disturbing report about the Justice Department’s discriminatory attack on a hapless homeowner.

We have another example of government thuggery. Here are some passages from a disturbing Washington Examiner story, though you really should read the whole thing.

Since purchasing Liberty Farm in Fauquier County, Virginia, where she grows organic vegetables and has over 160 rescued livestock…, her life has been a series of harassment and bullying by people in power. The latest trouble is that her house…was vandalized. The same day, she was harassed at her farm by strangers in a Georgetown-registered car. Ten days earlier Martha had gone public about an IRS audit. Journalist Kevin Mooney broke the story that Boneta was audited by the IRS last year after a series of disputes with the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Fauquier County government. It was later shown that the audit was disclosed to at least one Fauquier County official, perhaps feloniously. Martha’s disputes brought her national attention because of her willingness to stand up to ridiculousness. She was cited and threatened with $5,000 fines for hosting a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls without an “events” permit from the county. …Asked about the IRS audit of Boneta coming on the heels of legal disputes between the farmer and the PEC, [former IRS Commissioner] Richardson said, “Coincidences do happen.” But this audit has shown to be no coincidence. A Fauquier County supervisor blabbed about the audit two days after the notice was signed at the IRS and six days before Boneta received it. That shows collusion. The supervisor is Richardson’s friend and neighbor, and a former PEC board member.

This is such a disturbing story that I’m incapable of making a snarky or sarcastic comment. But at least this is a good example to illustrate my point that politicians and bureaucrats at the state and local level can be just as evil as those from Washington.

Anyhow, not it’s time for you to throw in your two cents. Which story best symbolizes government?

P.S. If you were inspired by these stories and want to engage in petty harassment of people who produce, here’s one way of training for government employment.

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

Two peas in a pod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I periodically post TV interviews and the second-most-watched segment – edged out only by my debate with Robert Reich on Keynesian economics – was when I discussed how President Obama’s statist policies are bad for young people.

So there’s obviously some concern about the future of the country and what it means for today’s youth.

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has examined this issue and taken it to the next level, cramming a lot of information into this six-minute video.

The video highlights four specific ways that government intervention disadvantages younger Americans.

1. Labor market interventions such as minimum wage mandates make it more difficult for young people to find employment and climb the economic ladder.

Government is even bigger in Europe...leading to even worse results for young people

Government is even bigger in Europe…leading to even worse results for young people

2. Obamacare harms young people by requiring them to pay substantially more to prop up an inefficient government-run healthcare system.

3. Young people are trapped in a poorly designed Social Security system and politicians such as Obama think the answer is to make them pay more and get less.

4. Government has created a major third-party payer problem in higher education, putting young people on a treadmill of ever higher tuition and record debt.

What makes this situation so surreal is that young people – as noted at the start of the video – are the one group who think the “government should do more”!

I hope you share this video with every young person you know and help them understand that statism is the enemy of hope and opportunity.

And maybe also show them this poster if they need some extra help grasping the problem.

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I’m in Vienna, Austria, for the annual European Resource Bank meeting.

I had the pleasure last night of listening to Jose Pinera speak about economic reform in Chile, particularly the system of personal retirement accounts.

He shared a chart that conclusively shows why good economic policy makes a difference.

Chile Miracle

Wow. Look at how much faster the economy has grown since the communists were ousted in 1975 and replaced by a pro-market government.* And the poverty rate has plummeted from 50 percent to 11 percent!

Simply stated, economic reform has been hugely beneficial to poor and middle-class people in Chile. Something to remember as we try to rein in the welfare state in America.

Let’s look at some more data. A couple of years ago, I shared this chart showing how Chile had out-paced Argentina and Venezuela. In other words, Chile’s performance is ultra-impressive, whether examined in isolation or in comparison with other nations in the region.

The reason for all this success is that Chile didn’t just reform its pension system. As you can see from this Economic Freedom of the World data, Chile has made improvements in virtually all areas of public policy.

The nationwide school choice system, for instance, is another example of very beneficial reform.

It’s not quite Hong Kong or Singapore, but Chile is definitely a huge success story.

*The Pinochet government that took power in the 1970s may have been pro-economic liberty, but it also was authoritarian. Fortunately, Chile made a successful and peaceful transition to democracy in the late 1980s and has generally continued on a pro-free market path.

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Back in 2010, I posted a “word cloud” from a Gallup poll, which cited people’s reactions when asked to describe the federal government.

Common responses included “incompetent” and “too big,” as well as “corrupt” and “confused.”

Then, quoting from a very funny Mark Steyn column, I explained last year that there is an inverse relationship between the size of government and its competence and efficiency.

…today’s bloated welfare state interferes with and undermines the government’s ability to competently fulfill its legitimate responsibilities. Imagine, for instance, if we had the kind of limited federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers and the “best and brightest” people in government – instead of being dispersed across a vast bureaucracy – were concentrated on protecting the national security of the American people. In that hypothetical world, I’m guessing something like the 9-11 attacks would be far less likely.

In other words, government is far more likely to have a “reverse Midas touch” when it is too big to manage.

Robert Samuelson makes a similar point in the Washington Post. He writes about why the American people no longer trust Washington and concludes that government is too large to competently manage.

Since World War II, American government has assumed more responsibilities than can reasonably be met. Some are unattainable; others are in conflict. Government is, among other things, supposed to: control the business cycle, combat poverty, cleanse the environment, provide health care, protect the elderly, subsidize college students, aid states and localities. There are more. Most are essentially postwar commitments. As I’ve written before, government becomes almost “suicidal” by pervasively generating unrealistic expectations. The more people depend on it, the more they may be disappointed by it. …political leaders find it almost impossible to confront government’s over-commitment. They find it difficult to withdraw or modify promises previously made and programs previously created — to define what really matters and discard or shrink what’s secondary, outdated or ineffective. …the essence of our problem, which is being more rigorous about defining what government can and should do.

Samuelson doesn’t propose specific policies, but the obvious conclusion is that we should shrink both the size and the scope of the federal government.

That means entitlement reform, particularly if we want to control the size of government. But if we want to deal with the scope of government, it’s probably even more important to deal with the plethora of agencies, departments, and programs that comprise the “discretionary” parts of the federal budget.

I’ve argued that the first target should be the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it’s a target-rich environment.

P.S. The “competence” argument for small  government augments the “economic” argument for small government.

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I joked back in 2010 that Barack Obama had a very simple flat tax proposal.

But as you can see, sometimes simple isn’t the same as good.

Well, satire too often becomes reality in a world of greedy and corrupt politicians who think class-warfare is an acceptable guide to tax policy.

I say this because thousands of French taxpayers now are being subject to this satirical Obama flat tax.

Here are some of the grotesque details from a Reuters report.

More than 8,000 French households’ tax bills topped 100 percent of their income last year, the business newspaper Les Echos reported on Saturday, citing Finance Ministry data. …President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government imposed the tax surcharge last year, shortly after taking office… The government has been forced to redraft a proposed bill to levy a temporary 75 percent tax on earnings over 1 million euros, which had been one of Hollande’s campaign pledges. …Since then, a top administrative court has determined that a marginal tax rate higher than 66.66 percent on a single household risked being considered as confiscatory by the council.

Ironically, President Hollande already made a commitment that no taxpayers should have to surrender more than 80 percent of their incomes, but I guess that promise didn’t mean much.

After all, this is the guy who equates higher taxes with patriotism.

No wonder successful people are fleeing the country.

If you want to understand real tax reform, click here.

And here’s my video describing why the right kind of flat tax is a good idea.

This topic is particularly meaningful to me since I’m in the middle of the Free Market Road Show and I’ve been five flat tax nations – Bulgaria, Romania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania – in the past 36 hours.

Too bad there’s little reason to hope that America will ever be part of the flat tax club.

P.S. I guess it’s good that the French court thinks that a 66.66 percent tax is “confiscatory.” But isn’t that true of any tax – at any rate – that is used to fund illegitimate activities?

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