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Archive for June, 2011

This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains why Medicaid should be shifted to the states. As I note in the title of this post, it’s good federalism policy and good fiscal policy. But the video also explains that Medicaid reform is good health policy since it creates an opportunity to deal with the third-party payer problem.

One of the key observations of the video is that Medicaid block grants would replicate the success of welfare reform. Getting rid of the federal welfare entitlement in the 1990s and shifting the program to the states was a very successful policy, saving billions of dollars for taxpayers and significantly reducing poverty. There is every reason to think ending the Medicaid entitlement will have similar positive results.

Medicaid block grants were included in Congressman Ryan’s budget, so this reform is definitely part of the current fiscal debate. Unfortunately, the Senate apparently is not going to produce any budget, and the White House also has expressed opposition. On the left, reducing dependency is sometimes seen as a bad thing, even though poor people are the biggest victims of big government.

It’s wroth noting that Medicaid reform and Medicare reform often are lumped together, but they are separate policies. Instead of block grants, Medicare reform is based on something akin to vouchers, sort of like the health system available for Members of Congress. This video from last month explains the details.

In closing, I suppose it would be worth mentioning that there are two alternatives to Medicaid and Medicare reform. The first alternative is to do nothing and allow America to become another Greece. The second alternative is to impose bureaucratic restrictions on access to health care – what is colloquially known as the death panel approach. Neither option seems terribly attractive compared to the pro-market reforms discussed above.

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A new study revealed that politicians are very good investors, earning significantly above-average returns when they put their own money in financial markets. CNBC interviewed me about this research and asked whether it was a sign of something akin to insider trading.

Regular readers know I’m a big foe of political corruption and have repeatedly made the point that big government facilitates sleazy behavior, but I try to be fair. As such, I warn in the interview that something doesn’t smell right, but that’s not proof of criminal activity.

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The notion that American taxpayers are about to subsidize another Greek bailout (via the Keystone Cops at the IMF) is way beyond economically foolish. It is also morally offensive.

To turn Winston Churchill’s famous quote upside down: “Never have so many paid so much to subsidize such an undeserving few.”

Let’s start with a few facts:

    o Greece’s GDP is roughly equal to the GDP of Maryland.

    o Greece’s population is roughly equal to the population of Ohio.

    o Despite that small size, in both terms of population and economic output, Greece already has received a bailout of about $150 billion (actual amount fluctuates with the exchange rate).

    o Don’t forget the indirect bailout resulting from purchases of Greek government bonds by the European Central Bank.

    o Now Greece is angling for another bailout of about $150 billion.

Is there any possible justification for throwing good money after bad with another bailout. Well, if you’re a politician from Germany or France and your big banks (i.e., some of your major campaign contributors) foolishly bought lots of government bonds from Greece, the answer might be yes. After all, screwing taxpayers to benefit insiders is a longstanding tradition in Europe.

But from a taxpayer perspective, either in Europe or the United States, the answer is no. Or, to be more technical and scientific, the answer is “Hell no, are you friggin’ out of your mind?!?”

Consider these fun facts from a recent column by John Lott and then decide whether the corrupt politicians of Greece (and the special interest groups that receive handouts and subsidies from the Greek government) deserve to have their hands in the pockets of American taxpayers.

Despite Greece’s promises, government spending is up over last year’s already bloated levels, the deficit is bigger than ever, and it has utterly failed to meet the promised sell-off of some government assets. Not a single public bureaucrat has been laid off so far. …Greece can pay off €300 of the €347 billion debt by selling off shares the government owns in publicly traded companies and much of its real estate holdings. The government owns stock in casinos, hotels, resorts, railways, docks, as well as utilities providing electricity and water. But Greek unions fiercely oppose even partial privatizations. Rolling blackouts are promised this week to dissuade the government from selling of even 17 percent of its stake in the Public Power Corporation. …Greeks apparently believe that they have Europe and the world over a barrel, that they can make the rest of the world pay their bills by threatening to default. Greece’s default would be painful for everyone, but for Europe and the United States, indeed for the world, the alternative would be even worse. If politicians in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and other countries think that their bills will be picked up by taxpayers in other countries, they won’t control their spending and they won’t sell off assets to pay off these debts. Countries such as Greece have to be convinced that they will bear a real cost if they don’t fix their financial houses while they still have the assets to cover their debts. …The real problem is the incentives we are giving to other countries. We have to make sure that “Kicking the can down the road” isn’t an option.

Just for good measure, here are a few more interesting factoids in a Wall Street Journal column by Holman Jenkins.

[Greece is] one of the most corrupt, crony-ridden, patronage-ridden, inefficient, silly economies in Christendom. …The state railroad maintains a payroll four times larger than its ticket sales. When a military officer dies, his pension continues for his unwed daughter as long as she remains unwed. Various workers are allowed to retire with a full state pension at age 45.

To be blunt, Greek politicians have miserably failed. Wait, that’s not right. You can’t say someone has failed when they haven’t even tried. Let’s be more accurate and say that Greek politicians have succeeded. They have scammed money from taxpayers in other nations to prop up a venal and corrupt system of patronage and spoils. Sure, they’ve made a few cosmetic changes and trimmed around the edges, but handouts from abroad have enabled them to perpetuate a bloated state. And now they’re using a perverse form of blackmail (aided and abetted by big banks) to seek even more money.

    Let’s now re-ask the earlier question: Should American taxpayer finance the corrupt big-government policies of Greece?

    Or perhaps we should think like economists, so let’s rephrase the question: Should we misallocate capital so that funds are diverted from private investment to corrupt Greek politicians?

    Or maybe we should think like parents who have to worry about spoiling a child and the signal that sends to the other kids, so let’s ask the question this way: Should we encourage bad behavior in Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc, by giving another bailout to Greece’s corrupt politicians?

    Or should we think about this issue from the perspective of addiction counselors and rephrase the question: Should we reward self-destructive behavior by providing more money to corrupt political elites in Greece?

    Or how about we think like moral human beings, and ask the real question: Should we take money from people who earned it and give it to people who think they are entitled to live at the expense of others?

Since we paraphrased Churchill earlier, let’s answer these questions by butchering Shakespeare: “A bailout from every angle would smell to high Heaven.”

I wrote back in February of 2010 that a Greek bailout would be a mistake and every development since that time has confirmed that initial commentary.

But that doesn’t matter. Politicians have a different way of looking at things. They look at a policy and wonder whether it increases their power and generates campaign contributions. And when you understand their motives, you begin to realize why they will answer yes to the previous set of questions.

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This barely fits into the category of political humor, and that’s only if you want to engage in unfair stereotyping of vegans as effete left wingers.

That’s inappropriate, I’m sure, but I laughed, so I’m going to share with the rest of the class.

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Life is filled with risk. We can deal with that two ways. The first option is to allow people to make educated choices, thus promoting individual responsibility. The second option is to have politicians micro-manage our decisions, thus promoting passivity.

Not surprisingly, America is drifting in the wrong direction, allowing busybodies to regulate every aspect of our lives.

Here’s an excerpt from the Seattle newspaper about an example of what I call the wussification of America. But it’s really more the infantalization of America.

People who hope to beat the summer heat by swimming, floating or boating on rivers in King County must wear a life vest or face an $86 fine. …”This council sometimes thinks it’s everybody’s mom,” said Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, who voted “no.” …The law appears to be the first of its kind in the state. …it didn’t appear any other county required swimmers to wear the devices. …Opponents who spoke before the Council said sheriff’s deputies had better things to do than to write tickets for people on waterways and would be better off focusing on people engaging in dangerous behavior. …Current state law requires that kids 12 and under must wear a live vest when on a boat that is less than 19 feet long. The new county law says everybody must wear the vests when they are on rivers… It applies to people tubing, rafting, using a surfboard, canoe or kayak. Swimmers or people wading more than 5 feet from shore or in water more than 4 feet deep would also have to wear life vests.

I suppose it would be appropriate to mention that this kind of intervention has costs. When government creates the illusion that there is little or no risk, it lures people into behaving more recklessly. The housing mess is a good example. Government subsidies and guarantees caused a boom-bust cycle largely by making it seem like housing was a risk-free investment.

Mandatory life jackets are a different situation, to be sure. Maybe they would encourage people to behave more recklessly, thus offsetting the presumed benefits, but that’s an empirical matter. I’m more worried about the signal sent by such interventions – i.e., that people no longer should think for themselves and instead we can rely on Big Brother to safely guide us through life.

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As a general rule, the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund are not awful people or fire-breathing leftists. But they are voices for the establishment. And, at the upper levels, IMF staff seem overly solicitous of the views of the big nations, which means that they are indirectly attentive to interest groups (such as big banks) that have political power in those big nations.

This helps explain why the IMF is so intent on providing bailouts to Greece when it would be far better in the long run to cut the country loose and force the Greek people to realize that there is not a never-ending supply of subsidies to support statism.

But it’s not just in Greece where the IMF peddles bad policy. I wrote back in 2009 about the IMF’s efforts to repeal the flat tax in Latvia. And I’ve posted about the IMF’s support for anti-tax competition schemes that would enable bigger government.

I guess we need to give the bureaucrats credit for being consistent. The IMF is now pushing Albania to increase its flat tax rate. Here’s an excerpt from the Albanianeconomy.com website.

“The flat tax can be raised to 12-15 per cent, [from the current 10 per cent] as a way to cut the deficit and the stock of public debt,” IMF representative Gerwin Bell said on Thursday in a joint press conference with Albania’s Minister of Finance Ridvan Bode and the Governor of Albania’s Central Bank, Ardian Fullani.

To reiterate my earlier point, however, the IMF produces muddled advice, not bad advice. The bureaucrats also are recommending some budgetary restraint for Albania. The problem, of course, is that politicians often accept the suggestions for higher taxes and never bother with fiscal restraint. Indeed, IMF bailout funds for places such as Greece are substitutes for fiscal restraint.

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I have a confession to make: I have a hard time making up my mind. At times, I am overcome by indecision. To be more specific, I can’t figure out which department of the federal government should be shut down first.

In the past, I’ve written about the squalid waste and corruption at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and argued that HUD should be shuttered.

But I’ve also written about the grotesque inefficiency and bloat at the Department of Transportation and urged that the building be razed to the ground.

Today, I can’t resist turning my attention to the Department of Agriculture. This is another part of the federal behemoth that specializes in taking money from productive taxpayers and dispensing it to well-connected agri-businesses to maintain a system of subsidies and central planning so Byzantine that it would probably make a North Korean Commissar shake his head with bemusement.

If you want to share my anger, read this column by Victor David Hanson. Here’s an excerpt to get your blood boiling.

The Department of Agriculture…is a vast, self-perpetuating postmodern bureaucracy with an amorphous budget of some $130 billion — a sum far greater than the nation’s net farm income this year. …This year it will give a record $20 billion in various crop “supports” to the nation’s wealthiest farmers — with the richest 10 percent receiving over 70 percent of all the redistributive payouts. …Then there is the more than $5 billion in ethanol subsidies that goes to the nation’s corn farmers to divert their acreage to produce transportation fuel. That program has somehow managed to cost the nation billions, to send worldwide corn prices sky-high, and to distort global trade in ethanol at the expense of far cheaper sugarcane. …About every 10 years or so, public outrage forces Congress to promise to curtail the subsidy programs. But when the deadline arrives, our elected officials always find a trendy excuse like “green energy” or “national security” to continue welfare to agribusiness. …In a brilliantly conceived devil’s bargain, the Department of Agriculture gives welfare to the wealthy on the one hand, while on the other sending more than $70 billion to the lower income brackets in food stamps. Originally, the food stamp program focused on the noble aim of supplementing the income of only the very poor and the disabled. But now eligibility is such that some members of the middle class find a way to manipulate such grants. In fact, 2011 could be another sort of record year for the Agriculture Department, as it may achieve an all-time high in subsidizing 47 million Americans on food stamps — nearly one-sixth of the country. …The multilayered Department of Agriculture has no real mission, much less a methodology other than to provide cash to congressional pet constituencies.

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