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Archive for May, 2010

I spoke yesterday in Vienna on the third stop on the FMRS tour. My speech focused on solutions to the fiscal crisis. I pointed out the need to substantially reduce the burden of government spending and also warned against higher tax rates – in part because higher tax rates discourage much-needed economic growth.

This puts me in direct conflict with many European politicians, many of whom think extracting more money from taxpayers is the answer to the over-spending problem. Some of these politicians try to sound more rational by saying they don’t necessarily want to boost tax rates and instead would be happy to collect more money by more onerous enforcement of existing tax laws.

I don’t think it is reasonable to expect big reductions in the underground (or shadow) economy. In a previous post, I quoted an IMF paper authored by Friedrich Schneider, which noted (with particular reference to Austria):

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy. …In Austria, the burden of direct taxes (including social security payments) has been the biggest influence on the growth of the shadow economy… Other studies show similar results for the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the United States. In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points. …A study of Quebec City in Canada shows that people are highly mobile between the official and the shadow economy, and that as net wages in the official economy go up, they work less in the shadow economy. This study also emphasizes that where people perceive the tax rate as too high, an increase in the (marginal) tax rate will lead to a decrease in tax revenue.

Interestingly, I just came across a new study from the Bank of Italy that looks at the issue from the perspective of “taxpayer morale.” The study finds that tax compliance also is sensitive to public perceptions about whether taxpayer money is being wasted. This excerpt touches on many of the key issues, and all I could think of when reading the study was bailouts, handouts, and other forms of corrupt and inefficient spending on both sides of the Atlantic:

…our measure of public spending inefficiency enters with the expected negative sign, and it is significant at the 1 percent level. Taxpayers interacting with a more efficient public sector are likely to show a higher level of tax morale. Our result can be interpreted by looking at the interaction between citizens and the government as a contractual relationship, implying duties and rights for each contract partner. If the taxpayer observes that the tax burden is not spent efficiently, he will feel cheated and his willingness to cooperate will fall. …Torgler and Werner (2005) state that greater fiscal autonomy allows regions to spend the tax revenues according to local preferences and this, in turn, might have a positive impact on tax morale. …As expected, the coefficient on the level of public spending per capita enters with a positive sign, and it is significantly different from zero. On the other side, we find a weak positive relationship between fiscal autonomy and tax morale, thus partially confirming the results by Torgler and Werner (2005). At the same time, the coefficient of public spending inefficiency remains negative and highly significant. …We find that tax morale is higher when the taxpayer perceives and observes that the government is efficient; that is, it provides a fair output with respect to the revenues. This evidence can be interpreted in terms of a psychological contract between taxpayer and fiscal authorities in which the former punishes the local government when he observes that resources are not spent well. Therefore, encouraging more efficient spending of public resources has wider consequences and contributes to increasing the citizens’ propensity to pay taxes.

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I´ve already posted a great video from the folks at the Institute for Justice about this issue, but this John Stossel column is another good reminder of the corrupt and evil impact of asset forfeiture laws. If bureaucrats have an incentive to take people´s property – even if they never get convicted of a crime, the results are bound to be horrendous. Repeal is the right answer, but at the very least the laws should be changed so cops and prosecutors can´t line their own pockets:

Zaher El-Ali has repaired and sold cars in Houston for 30 years. One day, he sold a truck to a man on credit. Ali was holding the title to the car until he was paid, but before he got his money the buyer was arrested for drunk driving. The cops then seized Ali’s truck and kept it, planning to sell it. …The police say they can keep it under forfeiture law because the person driving the car that day broke the law. It doesn’t matter that the driver wasn’t the owner. It’s as if the truck committed the crime. “I have never seen a truck drive,” Ali said. I don’t think it’s the fault of the truck. And they know better.” Something has gone wrong when the police can seize the property of innocent people. … This is serious, folks. The police can seize your property if they think  it was used in a crime. If you want it back, you must prove it was not  used criminally. The burden of proof is on you. This reverses a centuries-old safeguard in Anglo-American law against arbitrary government power. The feds do this, too. In 1986, the Justice Department made $94 million on forfeitures. Today, its forfeiture fund has more than a billion in it. …”When you give people the wrong incentives, people respond accordingly. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re stretching the definition of law enforcement,” Balko said. “But the fundamental point is that you should not have people out there enforcing the laws benefiting directly from them.”

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I have mixed feelings about the right response to illegal immigration. I don´t favor amnesty because of my respect for the rule of law and because it would encourage more illegal immigration. On the other hand, I certainly do not want law enforcement resources diverted to hassling people who are in America solely in search of a better life based on hard and honest work. Walter Williams has a good column on the issue which concludes with a call for more legal immigration:

I believe most people, even my open-borders libertarian friends, would not say that everyone on the planet had a right to live in the U.S. That being the case suggests there will be conditions that a person must meet to live in the U.S. …most Americans would recoil at the suggestion that somebody other than Americans should be allowed to set the conditions for people to live in the U.S. …Probably, the overwhelming majority of Mexican illegal immigrants are hardworking, honest and otherwise law-abiding members of the communities in which they reside. It would surely be a heart-wrenching scenario for such a person to be stopped for a driving infraction, have his illegal immigrant status discovered and face deportation proceedings. Regardless of the hardship suffered, being in the U.S. without authorization is a crime. …Various estimates put the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. between 10 and 20 million. One argument says we can’t round up and deport all those people. That argument differs little from one that says since we can’t catch every burglar, we should grant burglars amnesty. Catching and imprisoning some burglars sends a message to would-be burglars that there might be a price to pay. Similarly, imprisoning some illegal immigrants and then deporting them after their sentences were served would send a signal to others who are here illegally or who are contemplating illegal entry that there’s a price to pay. …Start strict enforcement of immigration law, as Arizona has begun. Strictly enforce border security. Most importantly, modernize and streamline our cumbersome immigration laws so that people can more easily migrate to our country.

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TARP was awful and the GM-Chrysler bailout was terrible, but those wretched pieces of legislation would be surpassed by something even more reprehensible if politicians sign on to this terrible idea to bail out the bloated pension plans of state and local government bureaucrats. If this happens, I hope taxpayers respond with massive civil disobedience when it comes to paying taxes. Here is an excerpt from the Financial Times:

Illinois used to have a plan to pay off the gaping shortfall in the pension funds that pay retired teachers, university employees, state workers, judges and politicians, Dan Long recalls. Mr Long, director of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the non-partisan auditing arm of the Illinois state legislature, remembers that, back in 1994, the state laid out a proposal that would have paid off most of what was then a $17bn gap by 2011. …Illinois is the poster child of unfunded pensions in the US. But state retirement systems could become a national concern, new research shows. Joshua Rauh, associate professor of finance at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University said that, without reform, some state pensions might run out within the decade. …if these funds exhaust their assets, the size of payments for the benefits they have promised will be too large to cover through taxes, putting pressure on the federal government for a bail-out that could potentially cost more than $1,000bn, he says. “It is more than a local problem,” Mr Rauh said. “The federal government could be on the hook.” Estimates put the unfunded liabilities at between $1,000bn and $3,000bn after years of states promising benefits but not contributing enough in both good times and bad to cover them. …States have begun reforms, with some lowering return expectations and raising employee contributions and retirement ages. Mr Rauh said such measures were cosmetic and states needed comprehensive, federally sponsored reform that would require closing the systems to new members, shifting state workers to Social Security and individual plans similar to those that are used by the private sector in order to obtain incentives to borrow to bridge the gaps.

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British healthcare is often criticized for long waiting lines and slovenly conditions, but that’s just part of the story. Here’s a frightening story about a women who actually got treated – and died as a result. To be fair, this presumably is a tragic exception and most people in the United Kingdom surely receive adequate care. That being said, how can medical professionals miss a six-inch handle stuck in someone’s butt?!? Here’s an excerpt from the Sun newspaper:

A young mum died after a series of blunders by doctors who failed to spot a six-inch long toilet brush handle embedded in her buttock, an inquest was told today. Cindy Corton, 35, was left with the bizarre injury after a drunken fall in a friend’s bathroom in 2005 but “serious errors” by doctors then led to her death. It was two years before Cindy, who was in constant pain, was able to convince doctors that the thin serrated plastic handle was stuck in the flesh of her bottom. By then what should have been a routine procedure to remove it had become much more dangerous because the handle had become embedded in her pelvis. After two unsuccessful operations in 2007 the mother-of-one was in such agony that she agreed to undergo further surgery in June last year despite being told it could prove fatal. Cindy of Sleaford, Lincs, spent more than ten hours in surgery at Nottingham’s Queens Medical Centre but died from massive blood loss. …Cindy’s husband, a construction manager, is now taking legal action against United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust. …He added: “Cindy got a very poor service from the NHS. I’m sure she would have got better treatment in foreign countries.”

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David Ranson had a good column earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal explaining that federal tax revenues historically have hovered around 19 percent of gross domestic product, regardless whether tax rates are high or low. One reason for this relationship, as he explains, is that the Laffer Curve is a real-world constraint on class warfare tax policy. When politicians boost tax rates, that motivates taxpayers to earn and/or report less income to the IRS:

The feds assume a relationship between the economy and tax revenue that is divorced from reality. Six decades of history have established one far-reaching fact that needs to be built into fiscal calculations: Increases in federal tax rates, particularly if targeted at the higher brackets, produce no additional revenue. For politicians this is truly an inconvenient truth. …tax revenue has grown over the past eight decades along with the size of the economy. It illustrates the empirical relationship first introduced on this page 20 years ago by the Hoover Institution’s W. Kurt Hauser—a close proportionality between revenue and GDP since World War II, despite big changes in marginal tax rates in both directions. “Hauser’s Law,” as I call this formula, reveals a kind of capacity ceiling for federal tax receipts at about 19% of GDP. …he tax base is not something that the government can kick around at will. It represents a living economic system that makes its own collective choices. In a tax code of 70,000 pages there are innumerable ways for high-income earners to seek out and use ambiguities and loopholes. The more they are incentivized to make an effort to game the system, the less the federal government will get to collect.

Several people have asked my opinion about the piece. I like the column, of course, but I’m not nearly so optimistic that 19 percent of GDP represents some sort of limit on the federal government’s taxing power. There are many nations in Europe with tax burdens closer to 50 percent, for instance, so governments obviously have figured how to extract much higher shares of national output. Part of the difference is because America has a federal system, and state and local governments collect taxes of about 10 percent of GDP. That still leaves a significant gap in total tax collections, though, so the real question is why American politicians are not as proficient as their European cousins at confiscating money from the private sector?

One reason is that European countries have value-added taxes, which are a disturbingly efficient way of generating more revenue. So does this mean that “Hauser’s Law” will protect us if politicians are too scared to impose a nationwide sales tax? That’s certainly a necessary condition for restraining government, but probably not a sufficient condition. If you look at the table, which is excerpted from the OECD’s annual Revenue Statistics publication, you can see that nations such as New Zealand and Denmark have figured out how to extract huge amounts of money using the personal and corporate income tax.

In some cases, tax rates are higher in other nations, but the main factor seems to be that the top tax rates in other nations are imposed at much lower levels of income. Americans don’t get hit with the maximum tax rate until our incomes are nine times the national average. In other nations, by contrast, the top tax rates take effect much faster, in some cases when taxpayers have just average incomes. In other words, European nations collect a lot more money because they impose much higher tax rates on ordinary people. Here’s a chart I put together a few years ago for a paper I wrote for Heritage (you can find updated numbers in Table 1.7 of this OECD website, but the chart will still look the same).

Europeans also sometimes impose high tax rates on rich people, but this is not the reason that tax receipts consume nearly 50 percent of GDP in some nations. Rich people in Europe, like their counterparts in America, have much greater ability to control the amount of taxable income that is earned and/or reported. These “Laffer Curve” responses limit the degree to which politicians can finance big government on the backs of a small minority.

But class-warfare tax rates on the rich do serve a very important political goal. Politicians understand that ordinary people will be less likely to resist oppressive tax rates if they think that those with larger incomes are being treated even worse. Simply stated, higher tax rates on the rich are a necessary precondition for higher tax rates on average taxpayers.

For “Hauser’s Law” to be effective, this means proponents of limited government need to fight two battles. First, they need to stop a VAT. Second, they need to block higher tax rates on the so-called rich in order to prevent higher tax rates on the middle class.

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I spoke today in Prague at the second installment of the Free Market Road Show. I gave a standard presentation about fiscal policy, including strong warnings that all industrialized nations run the risk of Greek-style fiscal collapse because of entitlement programs and demographic changes. What’s remarkable, though, is that nobody pretends anymore that this isn’t happening. The question and answer session saw many people ask when the world was coming to an end (from a fiscal perspective) and whether certain nations would be good places to escape when welfare states descend into lawlessness and chaos. Meanwhile, in the Nero-fiddles-while-Rome-burns category, Europe’s statist Chancellor, Angela Merkel, confirmed to the world that she is a blithering idiot and/or a shallow and reprehensible political hack by imposing a ban on “short selling,” which occurs when investors make decisions based on an assumption that an asset (such as a Greek government bond) will fall in value. In the real world, short sellers perform a valuable role by helping to limit speculative bubbles. In the political world, however, short sellers are targeted by demagogues. If Merkel is right and short sellers are guilty of causing assets to fall, then thermometers are guilty of causing fevers. Bloomberg reports on Germany’s national embarrassment:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel laid out proposals to gain control over “destructive” financial markets, after she imposed a unilateral ban on naked short- selling that sent stocks sliding. …“The lack of rules and limits can make behavior in financial markets driven purely by the profit motive destructive and lead to an existential threat to financial stability in Europe and even the world,” Merkel told lawmakers in Berlin today.

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Paul Volcker is a typical Washington insider who maintains his favorable connections by endorsing bigger government. In recent months, he’s been busy supporting a value-added tax. Now he is saying that it is absolutely critical to address the deficit. Here’s and excerpt from a Bloomberg report:

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a top outside adviser to President Barack Obama, said time is “growing short” for the U.S. to address problems ranging from its budget deficit to Social Security obligations. “We better get started,” the 82-year-old former central banker said in a speech yesterday in Stanford, California. “Today’s concerns may soon become tomorrow’s existential crises.”

This is the same Volcker, though, who defended Obama’s $800 billion so-called stimulus. And a quick Google search does not reveal any evidence that he opposed the giant fiscal sinkhole of Obamacare (I only spent five minutes searching, so I definitely feel comfortable stating that any opposition – if it existed at all – was very muted). In other words, Volcker is a typical beltway hack. When politicians are engaged in an orgy of new spending, he either supports them or stays quiet. But when the discussion turns to taxes, then suddely the deficit is the worst thing in the world and tough steps need to be taken. It would be nice if hypocrites like Volcker just dropped out of sight and played golf all day.

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Sleazy politicians from France, Germany, England, and the United States want a bank taxes that would finance national piggy banks to bail out politically favored companies and industries. But they are not stupid, so they realize that nations that impose bank taxes will lose deposits to nations with more sensible policy. This is why the statists want to convince all nations to adopt the same policy. Fortunately, some nations are resisting harmonized bank taxes, and Canada is taking the lead. Canadian leaders rightfully explain that their banks never got in trouble, largely because Canada does not have foolish housing subsidies. Let us hope that Canada, as well as other nations such as Brazil and Australia, block the corrupt policies being pushed by statists such as Obama and Merkel.

Canada will “resist” a bank tax, Industry Minister Tony Clement said Tuesday as ministers fanned out across the world to raise opposition to the proposal for avoiding another financial crisis. “Canada is, and will remain, opposed to a tax that would penalize financial institutions that remained strong and prosperous while many of the world’s banks failed,” Clement told a press conference with Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon. …Attempts to reach international agreement on coordinated bank taxes at last month’s G20 and IMF meetings ran aground. Nations including Canada and Brazil, whose banking sectors emerged largely unscathed from the financial crisis, objected to the plan, favoring higher capital reserve requirements instead. But it is expected to be revived at the next meeting of G20 leaders in Toronto next month, with Germany’s Angela Merkel vowing to press for the proposal supported by many in Europe. Clement said the bank tax would “encourage risky behavior” if it is used to create a bank bailout fund and “reward bad behavior” of those institutions responsible for the recent financial crisis in the first place. …”This tax would reach into consumers’ pockets and punish our financial institutions which have taken precautions to avoid the very turmoil that is afflicting other parts of the globe,” Clement lamented.

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I’m in Bratislava, where I spoke at the first stop of the Hayek Institut’s seven-nations Free Market Road Show. Slovakia is one of my favorite nations because it has both a flat tax and personal retirement accounts. A new wave of reform may be possible, depending on the outcome of the June 12 elections.

A new liberal (classical liberal, meaning free market) party has been launched, and their campaign’s message focuses on representing future generations. Here is the billboard that ones sees in Slovakia. Not sure how it would fly in America, but I certainly wish the party well.

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In an uncharacteristic display of fiscal rectitude, Senators voted 94-0 against the Greek bailout. But don’t get too excited. They only voted to instruct the White house to oppose the bailout in the absence of a plan to pay back the money. Needless to say, the Greeks, the IMF, and/or the White House will lie if the amendment becomes law. Speaking of which, approving an amendment in the Senate means nothing unless the provision is included in a final bill. Last but not least, the amendment is too weak. It should have blocked any bailout. Heck, it should have withdrawn the United States from the IMF altogether. But a baby needs to learn to crawl before it can walk, so I suppose we should be happy that the kleptocrats in Washington at least cast a symbolic vote to defend taxpayers. Here’s a report from the EU Business:

The US Senate on Monday easily approved a measure aimed at blocking International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid packages like the one for Greece absent a guarantee that the money will be repaid. Lawmakers voted 94-0 to approve the measure, crafted by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, attaching it to broad legislation to overhaul financial industry rules in the wake of the 2008 global economic meltdown. The amendment calls for President Barack Obama’s administration to measure any IMF aid package to a country whose public debt exceeds its annual gross domestic product in order to certify that the loan will be repaid. If the administration were unable to make such a certification, it would be directed to oppose the assistance and vote against it at the IMF. “Greece is going to get 40 billion dollars in loans from the IMF, out of which seven billion dollars is attributable to the contributions of the American taxpayer. They shouldn’t have to do that unless we have an assurance that it will be paid back,” Cornyn said shortly before the vote. …If the Senate passes the overhaul legislation, Cornyn’s measure would still need to survive a House-Senate “conference” to reconcile their rival versions of the bill before it can go to Obama to be signed into law.

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The only question is whether he deliberately and knowingly lied, and I say to Fox News that there is no alternative explanation. The only issue now is whether he pays a price like the first President Bush, who also lied to the American people about taxes.

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We may as well enjoy a good laugh on our trip down the Road to Serfdom.

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There are a handful of issues that expose hypocrites on both sides of the philosophical spectrum. Republicans and conservatives love to talk about free markets, for instance, but you often find them voting for completely sleazy and corrupt forms of corporate welfare such as the ethanol subsidy for big agri-business. For Democrats and leftists, a powerful example is education. They claim to want to help the poor, especially minorities, yet all too often they cast aside those people and instead side with the teacher unions by opposing school choice. So kudos to the Philadelphia branch of the ADL, as well as a local Democratic politician, for doing the right thing and putting kids before special interests. Jeff Jacoby explains in his Boston Globe column:

Three months ago, the executive committee of ADL’s Philadelphia chapter voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution endorsing vouchers. Now it is urging the entire organization to follow suit.”We believe school choice to be an urgent civil rights issue,’’ the committee argued in a brief being circulated among ADL’s 30 regional offices. Despite decades of increased spending on K-12 education, “the evidence that our public education system is failing to educate our children is staggering.’’ ADL should reverse its longtime position “as a moral imperative,’’ the Philadelphia leadership urges, and “issue a resolution in favor of school choice.’’As it happens, the ADL regional board isn’t the only liberal voice in Philadelphia calling for expanded school choice. State Senator Anthony Williams, a black Democrat and a candidate in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary this week, is the founder of a charter school, a champion of vouchers, and an ardent believer in the power of competition to improve the quality of education. His position puts him sharply at odds with the state’s largest teachers’ union, which opposes choice and has endorsed his main opponent. But Williams — like the local ADL leadership — sees school choice as the great civil rights battle of the day.”Anybody who was for Brown v. Board of Education — it baffles me that they would be against vouchers,’’ he told me last week.

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The Associated Press has a thorough story looking at the utter failure in the War on Drugs. In part, this is a predictable result of government incompetence, akin to the War on Poverty. And just as the so-called War on Poverty has negative side effects such as increased dependency, the War on Drugs has negative said effects including lots of wasteful government spending. I’m personally very anti-drug, and if I ever catch any of my kids doing drugs, they’ll be sorry, but that doesn’t mean the government should be involved. Let’s look at some of the key excerpts from the article, beginning with a look at the overall cost and an admission that all the added spending hasn’t generated any positive results:

After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread. Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn’t worked. “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. …President Richard M. Nixon seized on a new war he thought he could win. “This nation faces a major crisis in terms of the increasing use of drugs, particularly among our young people,” Nixon said as he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The following year, he said: “Public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” His first drug-fighting budget was $100 million. Now it’s $15.1 billion, 31 times Nixon’s amount even when adjusted for inflation.

Experts who have looked at the issue say criminalization is bad policy, costing lives, expanding government, and misallocating law enforcement resources:

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where that money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs. …Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse. …Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron says the only sure thing taxpayers get for more spending on police and soldiers is more homicides. “Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use,” Miron said, “but it’s costing the public a fortune.” …The dealers who are caught have overwhelmed justice systems in the United States and elsewhere. U.S. prosecutors declined to file charges in 7,482 drug cases last year, most because they simply didn’t have the time. That’s about one out of every four drug cases. ……A full 10 percent of Mexico’s economy is built on drug proceeds — $25 billion smuggled in from the United States every year, of which 25 cents of each $100 smuggled is seized at the border. \

The good news is that there is growing interest in a free-market/libertarian approach:

A decade ago, no politician who wanted to keep his job would breathe a word about legalization, but a consensus is growing across the country that at least marijuana will someday be regulated and sold like tobacco and alcohol. California voters decide in November whether to legalize marijuana, and South Dakota will vote this fall on whether to allow medical uses of marijuana, already permitted in California and 13 other states.

Unfortunately, Obama seems to have little interest in a more rational policy, even though he admits drug use when he was young. As usual, politicians get to live their lives using one set of rules while imposing a different set of rules on everyone else:

Obama is requesting a record $15.5 billion for the drug war for 2011, about two thirds of it for law enforcement at the front lines of the battle: police, military and border patrol agents struggling to seize drugs and arrest traffickers and users. …Until 100 years ago, drugs were simply a commodity. …In 1904, an Episcopal bishop returning from a mission in the Far East argued for banning opium after observing “the natives’ moral degeneration.” In 1914, The New York Times reported that cocaine caused blacks to commit “violent crimes,” and that it made them resistant to police bullets. …a young Barack Obama was one of those young users, a teenager smoking pot and trying “a little blow when you could afford it,” as he wrote in “Dreams From My Father.” When asked during his campaign if he had inhaled the pot, he replied: “That was the point.” So why persist with costly programs that don’t work?

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Making himself and the Greek government even more of a global laughingstock, Greece’s President says he wants an investigation into the role of so-called speculators. Yes, I’m being serious. According to Bloomberg, he wants to blame investors who wisely (albeit belatedly) realized that reckless and wasteful spending meant the Greek government was increasingly unlikely to honor its debts. Here are key excerpts:

Greece is considering taking legal action against U.S. investment banks that might have contributed to the country’s debt crisis, Prime Minister George Panandreou said. …Papandreou said the decision on whether to go after U.S. banks will be made after a Greek parliamentary investigation into the cause of the crisis. “Greece will look into the past and see how things went,” Papandreou said. “There are similar investigations going on in other countries and in the United States. This is where I think, yes, the financial sector, I hear the words fraud and lack of transparency. So yes, yes, there is great responsibility here.” In the days leading up to the May 10 announcement of a loan package worth almost $1 trillion to halt the spread of Greece’s fiscal woes, European Union regulators were examining whether speculators manipulated the prices of bonds and equities and contributed to the crisis. The Committee of European Securities Regulators said on May 7 it was investigating “exceptional volatility” in the markets and would work with other regulators, including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, as part of a coordinated clampdown.

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I recently posted favorable comments about a National Review article that made two important points about fiscal policy and supply-side economics. First, the article reminded “supply siders” that the burden of government spending is very important (and very worrisome). Second, the article correctly explained that not all tax cuts are created equal, and Republicans should be careful not to make silly claims about all tax cuts “paying for themselves” (particularly tax credits that have no positive effect on growth).

My Cato colleague Alan Reynolds has responded to the article, largely to remind everyone that the core premise of supply-side tax policy is 100 percent correct. Someone emailed me to ask what I thought about what they perceived to be a “big disagreement” on the right, but I don’t think that Alan’s points are inconsistent with the core premises of Williamson’s article. Maybe I’m in a “can’t-we-all-get-along” mood, so judge for yourself. Here’s the key excerpt from Alan’s article:

The trouble with what Williamson calls “the bottom-line question of balancing the budget” is the implication that it makes no difference whether the budget is balanced by curbing spending or increasing taxes. A 2002 study by Alberto Alesina of Harvard and three colleagues found that the surest way to make economies boom is through deep cuts in government spending. Higher tax rates had the opposite effect. Although “growth isn’t going to make the debt irrelevant,” as Williamson says, the ratio of debt to GDP can become much larger and more troublesome if GDP stagnates. …The burden of government depends on spending, but the “excess burden” or “deadweight loss” of tax distortions depends on marginal tax rates. The size of this excess burden grows with the square of the tax rate, making a 40 percent tax rate 16 times more damaging than a 10 percent rate. Recent estimates find at least a dollar of damage to the private economy for each additional dollar raised through today’s progressive taxes. Supply-side tax policy is about raising tax revenues in ways that do the least damage to the private economy. Spending cuts are entirely consistent with supply-side theory because (1) transfer payments that phase out with rising income are a disincentive to work and (2) government purchases divert real resources into unproductive uses. …Supply-side economists criticized the Bush tax cuts as wasteful, and the phasing-in of lower tax rates as positively harmful. University of Michigan economists Christopher House and Matthew Shapiro, in the American Economic Review of December 2006, “attribute the slow recovery from the 2001 recession, in part, to declines in labor supply stemming from the phased-in nature of the tax cuts. Additionally, the rebound in economic activity in mid-2003 coincides with the removal of the phase-ins enacted in the 2003 tax bill. A comparison of the simulated and actual time series over this time period shows that about half of the rebound in GDP in mid-2003 can be attributed to the elimination of the phase-in of the tax cuts.” Revenue from top-bracket taxpayers, dividends, and capital gains all soared after those tax rates came down in mid-2003. Offsetting the supply-side revenue gains, however, were big losses from reducing the lowest rate to 10 percent and adding various tax credits. …Williamson says, “When the Reagan tax cuts were being designed, the original supply-side crew thought that subsequent growth might offset 30 percent of the revenue losses. That’s on the high side of the current consensus.” On the contrary, the current consensus is that the typical effect of lower marginal tax rates on revenues will offset at least 40 percent of the losses, and perhaps more than 100 percent at very high incomes.

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Here’s a fascinating table that was linked on Marginal Revolution. Of all the political jurisdictions in the world, the one most likely to default (according to market perception) is Venezuela. No big surprise, of course, but I was surprised to see California in 8th place. That’s worse than Portugal and Spain (neither of which are in the top 10, though perhaps bottom 10 would be a better description of this list). This is a very damning indictment of the modern American welfare state. How about a new motto? Instead of “The Golden State,” California’s new motto can be “Better than Ukraine, Worse than Iraq.”

Welcome Instapundit readers!

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I feel like a broken record when I write about European fiscal policy. In almost all cases, I cite OECD data showing that countries are in fiscal trouble because of excessive spending rather than inadequate tax revenue. I then show that the politicians are using the spending-caused crisis as an excuse to raise taxes even further. The higher taxes, needless to say, undermine growth, which then creates more pressure for higher redistribution and welfare spending. And so the downward spiral continues. The latest example is Portugal, which is in trouble because the burden of government spending has jumped from 43 percent of GDP to 51 percent of GDP in the past 10 years. The tax burden also has increased, from 40 percent of GDP to 43 percent of GDP, so there’s zero legitimacy for those who want to argue that there’s a revenue shortfall. But Portugal’s greedy political class respond with higher taxes – including an increase in the value-added tax (a familiar refrain all throughout Europe) and higher personal and corporate income tax rates. The Financial Times reports on Portugal’s fiscal self-destruction (including the silly assertion that seizing more money from taxpayers somehow is “tough” and a sign of “austerity” when such moves should be characterized as business-as-usual):

José Sócrates, Portugal’s prime minister, on Thursday announced tough new austerity measures, including a “crisis tax” on wages and big companies, designed to more than halve the country’s gaping budget deficit in less than two years. …Describing the measures as essential to defend Portugal’s credibility in international financial markets, Mr Sócrates announced a one percentage point increase in value-added tax to 21 per cent and increases of up to 1.5 per cent in income tax. The increases, which are being called a “crisis tax”, include a 2.5 percentage point rise in corporate tax to 27.5 per cent on annual profits above €2m.

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It’s probably just a insincere negotiating ploy, but Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed to eliminate a major welfare program in California. This article from the Sacramento Bee notes that the Governator also wants to cut bureaucrat pay and impose other reforms. Given Schwarzenegger’s failure to consistently fight against special interests in previous years, and given the overwhelmingly statist orientation of the California state legislature, I am not overly optimistic that any of these reforms will occur, but it’s nice to at least have real reforms being discussed:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked lawmakers Friday to eliminate the state’s welfare program starting in October and dramatically scale back in-home care for the elderly and disabled as part of his May budget revision to close a $19.1 billion deficit.The Republican governor also proposed cuts to state worker compensation. Besides asking for a 5 percent pay cut, 5 percent payroll cap and 5 percent increased pension contribution, Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting one day per month of pay in exchange for leave credit….Employees would not be able to cash out any of this unused leave credit when they leave state service. …Schwarzenegger also proposed eliminating state-subsidized child care for all but preschoolers as a way to reduce the state’s education funding guarantee. …He did not respond directly when asked if his proposal to eliminate welfare was merely a negotiating position with the Democrat-dominated Legislature.Schwarzenegger also said he would not sign a budget plan unless lawmakers agree to overhaul the budget process, including creation of a “rainy-day fund” and downsizing public employee pensions for new hires.The governor did not propose any new tax hikes.

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I’m not even sure what to say about this story about new legislation being proposed that would have the federal government track the “Body Mass Index” of American children and spend lots of money and impose lots of rules to reduce childhood obesity. I certainly don’t want to be in favor of chubby kids, but I’m much more worried about fat government. There is no authority anywhere in the Constitution for this type of effort. There is no evidence that the federal government would have any success in this type of scheme (how’s that “War on Poverty” going?). And there is also a small issue of whether this is more properly an issue for parents rather than bureaucrats. To get your blood boiling, here’s an excerpt from the CNS report:

States receiving federal grants provided for in the bill would be required to annually track the Body Mass Index of all children ages 2 through 18. The grant-receiving states would be required to mandate that all health care providers in the state determine the Body Mass Index of all their patients in the 2-to-18 age bracket and then report that information to the state government. The state government, in turn, would be required to report the information to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for analysis. The Healthy Choices Act–introduced by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee–would establish and fund a wide range of programs and regulations aimed at reducing obesity rates by such means as putting nutritional labels on the front of food products, subsidizing businesses that provide fresh fruits and vegetables, and collecting BMI measurements of patients and counseling those that are overweight or obese.

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In town for a speech tomorrow morning (will also be on Fox and Friends at 8:15). Saw this on my walk to the hotel.

Is the city government really this greedy? Or is there something so horrible about idling that it requires outlandish fines?

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Here’s a great chart put together by the New York Times. It shows the degree to which government debt issued by profligate nations such as Greece and Spain is owned by banks in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. It is quite reasonable to describe what happened as an indirect bailout of domestic banks dressed up as a bailout of the Mediterranean nations.

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I continue to be amazed at the creative ways that politicians buy votes with other people’s money. Here’s an article from the LA Times discussing the warnings of an Israeli economist about the long-term fiscal crisis his country faces because – at least in part – the government gives people welfare payments to pray and engage in religious study. An astounding 65 percent of ultra-orthodox Jews have decided this dependency option is better than working. I suppose I should go out of my way to say that I have nothing against prayer, but I do have a problem with people thinking that it is morally acceptable to pray at someone else’s expense:

Weaning itself off socialist-influenced policies that once brought 400% inflation and 60% income-tax brackets, Israel’s economy is now growing despite the international financial slowdown. Debt is manageable, the currency is strong; Israel’s high-tech sector is admired worldwide. But one Israeli economist is warning that beneath Israel’s back-patting lurks a hidden peril — fueled by demographic trends and political choices — that could eventually mean an end to the country. …According to Ben-David, nearly one in five Israeli men between the ages of 35 and 54 — a group that he believes has “no excuse” for not working — are not part of the labor force. …Officially, Israel’s unemployment rate is about 8%. But that doesn’t include Israeli citizens who are not trying to find work, either because they feel disenfranchised, such as many Arab Israelis, or because they’ve chosen a life of state-subsidized religious study, such as many ultra-Orthodox Jews. Nearly 27% of Arab men and 65% of ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t work, government figures show. The non-employment rate for ultra-Orthodox men has tripled since 1970, Ben-David said. …What worries Ben-David most is that the nonproductive part of Israel’s population, which survives largely on welfare, is also the fastest growing. Today Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox together make up less than 30% of the population, but they account for nearly half of school-age children. With heavy lobbying from ultra-Orthodox parties that often prove crucial in forming government coalitions, Israel has increased welfare payments fivefold since 1970… Over the last 30 years, the percentage of working ultra-Orthodox men has decreased because of government programs that subsidize their religious study, experts say. Such programs are now facing a backlash from Israel’s secular and non-Orthodox citizens. A radio talk-show host recently described ultra-Orthodox Jews as “parasites.”

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The chart below shows everything you need to know about why the United Kingdom is a fiscal disaster. Over the past 10 years, the burden of government spending has skyrocketed from 36.6 percent of GDP to more than 53 percent of GDP. Taxes, meanwhile, have remained largely unchanged, averaging about 40 percent of GDP.

Since the OECD numbers show that the fiscal crisis in the U.K. is solely the result of a bloated public sector, the obvious solution is…you guessed it, higher taxes.

David Cameron’s new coalition government has announced support for a higher capital gains tax and is signalling that this will be followed by an increase in the value-added tax.

There are some proposals to curtail the growth of spending, including some pay cuts for Prime Minster Cameron and other political figures, but I will be very surprised if those amount to more than window dressing. The United Kingdom, I fear, has gone past the point of no return in the journey toward becoming indistinguishable from the decrepit welfare states so common in the rest of Europe.

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Here’s a short new video looking at how the national debt has increased. It’s well done, but I worry that the message is too indirect. Politicians are more than happy to agree that debt is a problem – but only when they want to raise taxes. They suddenly forget about debt when they want to enact government-run healthcare and so-called stimulus. That’s why I prefer my video on “The Real Problem is Spending” or the “Deficits, Debt, and Unfunded Liabilities” video just released by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. These discuss the debt situation, but also explains that the mess only exists because of excessive spending and warns that higher taxes will merely exacerbate the situation. With that warning, feel free to enjoy this brief production.

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Here’s some grim news I saw linked on NRO. Obama wants to lower the bar and reduce the competency of people working in the federal bureaucracy. To be sure, I doubt the “knowledge skills and ability essays” actually produced quality bureaucrats, but I nonetheless suspect this new step will make the bureaucracy an even bigger burden on the American economy:

Tuesday, President Obama ordered the biggest federal hiring overhaul in three decades. ..Now every other federal agency will follow suit. Tuesday, a presidential memo ordered the largest federal hiring reform in 30 years. For the first time in history, applicants will be able to submit resumes and cover letters and will not be required to complete knowledge skills and ability essays.

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Here’s a very disturbing report from Foxnews.com about a scheme at the United Nations to impose global taxes. This has been a long-time dream of the bureaucrats, who (naturally) are exempt from paying tax themselves. Here’s a link to a study I wrote on a separate UN tax threat nearly 10 years ago, and here’s an excerpt from the Foxnews.com story:

The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ public health arm, is moving full speed ahead with a controversial plan to impose global consumer taxes on such things as Internet activity and everyday financial transactions like paying bills online — while its spending soars and its own financial house is in disarray. The aim of its taxing plans is to raise “tens of billions” of dollars for WHO that would be used to radically reorganize the research, development, production and distribution of medicines around the world, with greater emphasis on drugs for communicable diseases in poor countries. The irony is that the WHO push to take a huge bite out of global consumers comes as the organization is having a management crisis of its own, juggling finances, failing to use its current resources efficiently, or keep its costs under control — and it doesn’t expect to show positive results in managing those challenges until a year from now, at the earliest. …the proposals are headed for the four-day annual meeting of the 193-member World Health Assembly, WHO’s chief legislative organ, which begins in Geneva on May 17. …What truly concerns the experts, however, is how to get the wealth transfers that will make the R and D transfers possible — on a permanent basis. The panel offers up a specific number of possibilities. Chief among them: • a “digital” or “bit” tax on Internet activity, which could raise “tens of billions of U.S. dollars”; • a 10 percent tax on international arms deals, “worth about $5 billion per annum”; • a financial transaction tax, citing a Brazilian levy that was raising some $20 billion per year until it was canceled (for unspecified reasons); • an airline tax that already exists in 13 countries and has raised some $1 billion. Almost casually, the panel’s report notes that the fundraising effort would involve global changes in legal structures — and policing. As the report puts it: “Introducing a new tax or expanding an existing tax may require legal changes, nationally and internationally and ongoing regulation to ensure compliance.”

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Very rarely does one find a politician with the moral clarity to provide the blunt and necessary truth about a controversial issue, but that has finally happened. But this is a good news/bad news situation for American taxpayers. The good news is that a politician has proposed to slash both bureaucrat pay and public pensions and publicly stated that, “The state sector is like a fat man of 200kg sitting on the back of a 50kg little man who is the real economy.” The bad news is that this politician is the President of Romania. A caveat is probably appropriate at this stage. I have no idea whether Presdident Basescu actually is a genuine small-government proponent. Perhaps he is just an ordinary politician forced to do the right thing by extraordinary circumstances. Nonetheless, I have a hard time imagining we will see a better quote from an elected official this year. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the Irish Times:

President Traian Basescu said officials had decided…to reduce the pay of state employees by 25 per cent from next month and pensions and unemployment benefits by 15 per cent this year. …He said the cutbacks would also help reinvigorate an economy that is being crushed by a bloated and inefficient state sector, and allow Romania to avoid steep tax hikes that could hamper investment and destroy hopes of a swift recovery from recession. “This plan was inevitable. The state sector is like a fat man of 200kg sitting on the back of a 50kg little man who is the real economy,” said Mr Basescu, who narrowly won re-election at the end of last year.

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Kudos to the Detroit News for a great story revealing that people are refusing to accept jobs because of government unemployment benefits. None of this should be surprising to people who understand that if you subsidize something, you get more of it. Alan Reynolds has been beating this drum for quite some time, but the message doesn’t seem to get through to politicians who think it is compassionate to lure workers into lives of dependency. But perhaps this excerpt from the Detroit News report will help (In a perverse way, I admire the one guy who admits that he doesn’t plan to find work until the government stops sending him checks):

In a state with the nation’s highest jobless rate, landscaping companies are finding some job applicants are rejecting work offers so they can continue collecting unemployment benefits. It is unclear whether this trend is affecting other seasonal industries. But the fact that some seasonal landscaping workers choose to stay home and collect a check from the state, rather than work outside for a full week and spend money for gas, taxes and other expenses, raises questions about whether extended unemployment benefits give the jobless an incentive to avoid work. …Chris Pompeo, vice president of operations for Landscape America in Warren, said he has had about a dozen offers declined. One applicant, who had eight weeks to go until his state unemployment benefits ran out, asked for a deferred start date. …Some job applicants are asking to be paid in cash so they can collect unemployment illegally, said Gayle Younglove, vice president at Outdoor Experts Inc. in Romulus. “Unfortunately, we feel the economy is promoting more and more people and companies to play the system and get paid or collect cash money so they don’t have to pay taxes,” Younglove said. …A full-time landscaping employee would make $225 more a week working than from an unemployment check of $255. But after federal and state taxes are deducted, a full-time landscaper would earn $350 a week, or $95 more than a jobless check. …The federal jobless benefits extension “is the most generous safety net we’ve ever offered nationally,” said David Littmann, senior economist of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market-oriented research group in Midland. The extra protection reduces the incentive to find work, he said. It’s impossible to know exactly how many workers are illegally declining employment, but 15 percent of Michigan’s economy is underground, where people trade services, barter or exchange cash without reporting it to the government, Littmann said. One former landscaper, who has been on unemployment for a year, said he will search for work when the benefits expire, but he estimates he earns about $50 to $60 less a week than he would if he were working. “It’s crazy,” he said. “They keep doing all of these extensions.”

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