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Archive for February, 2012

With banks and non-financial companies sitting on trillions of  dollars because of the negative economic environment created in part by his policies, this new poster is both funny and troubling.

However, I think this cartoon does the best job of capturing the destructive impact of big government on economic performance.

Sort of makes you wonder what Obama will do for an encore if he has another four years.

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This interview with the IRS Commissioner is really irritating. He wants us to believe that all the problems exist because of bad laws enacted by Congress.

I certainly agree that the crowd in Washington is venal, corrupt, and duplicitous. But the IRS takes a bad situation and makes it worse, whether we’re looking at gross abuses of the regulatory process or absurd proposals to squander money on a P.R. campaign to make the agency more cuddly.

So I’m less than overwhelmed by this performance.

Commissioner Shulman also makes reference to a distasteful IRS proposal to regulate the tax preparation industry, which is really a scheme to enrich the big firms like H&R Block at the expense of smaller competitors.

So that’s another black mark against the bureaucracy.

But the most noxious part of the interview is when he admits he has to pay someone to file his tax return and then dodges a question on what could be done to make the system better.

But that’s not surprising. Mr. Shulman oversees a bureaucracy with about 100,000 employees (bigger than the FBI, CIA, and DEA combined), and they obviously wouldn’t want the type of reform that would force them to get jobs in the real world.

But I don’t have any problem with telling the truth. America should have a simple and fair flat tax.

Actually, that’s just an interim step. What we really need is to restore a limited central government, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. That way we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax to finance Washington.

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I rarely comment on Vice President Biden because he is not a serious person in the world of policy. The only attention he gets on this blog is jabs from the late-night talk show hosts, and I also posted the Joe Biden caption contest and this Joe Biden joke.

Perhaps I would have given Biden some attention if I had started this blog in 2008 instead of 2009, because the then-Delaware Senator made a very silly statement during that year’s campaign.

Joe Biden said Thursday that paying more in taxes is the patriotic thing to do for wealthier Americans. …Biden said: “It’s time to be patriotic … time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut.”

I’m not sure how America’s Founding Fathers would have reacted to that statement, but I suspect that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Mason, and Paine would have had a different perspective.

But I’m not surprised that the Socialist candidate for President in France has the same mentality (and I’m referring to the official candidate of the Socialist Party, not the socialist currently running the country). Here’s a blurb from the BBC.

The Socialist favourite in France’s presidential election, Francois Hollande, has said top earners should pay 75% of their income in tax. …Mr Hollande himself renewed his call on Tuesday, saying the 75% rate on people earning more than one million euros a year was “a patriotic act”. …”It is patriotic to agree to pay a supplementary tax to get the country back on its feet.”

Isn’t this wonderful that politicians of different nationalities and from different continents can be united in the idea that it is “patriotic” to give the world’s least competent people more money?

Maybe Biden and Hollande can also take a trip to Greece together so they can learn how to use the additional money to subsidize pedophiles and collect stool samples as a condition of getting a business license to set up an online company.

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Supporters of individual liberty and national sovereignty have been skeptical of the United Nations, and with good reason. With the support of statists such as George Soros, the U.N. pushes for crazy ideas such as global taxation and global currency.

But there’s another international bureaucracy, also funded by American tax dollars, that is even more pernicious. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has the same leftist ideology as the U.N., but it actually has some ability to change policy.

As you can imagine, this always means bigger government and more statism. Here are some examples.

With this dismal track record, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Paris-based bureaucracy has a new propaganda initiative that seeks to bolster a left-wing redistribution agenda. And as part of this new scheme, it has put together numbers that supposedly show that there is more poverty is the United States than there is in bankrupt and backwards nations such as Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and Turkey.

This isn’t April 1, and I’m not joking. Here’s a chart, produced from the data at this OECD website, which you get to by clicking the “Poverty: Country comparisons” link on this OECD webpage.

You may be wondering whether the bureaucrats at the OECD who put together these numbers are smoking crack or high on crystal meth. Well, they certainly can afford lots of drugs since they get tax-free salaries (just like their counterparts at other international bureaucracies), but these numbers are the not the result of some ketamine-fueled binge.

Instead, the OECD is lying. The website refers to “poverty rate” and “poverty threshold” and “poverty measure,” but the OECD is not measuring poverty. Instead, they have concocted a new – and deliberately misleading – set of data that instead measures the distribution of income.

And if you’re wondering where they got this crazy idea, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is a scheme developed by the Obama Administration and it is designed so that “poverty” is only reduced if incomes become more equal, not if poor people become better off.

Even moderates such as Robert Samuelson recognize this is absurd, and here is some of what he wrote.

…the new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty — but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn’t decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: People get richer but “poverty” stays stuck.

The most amazing thing about this crazy approach is that it makes it seem as if America has more poverty than nations such as Bangladesh, even though the average “poor” American has much higher living standards than all but the wealthiest people in the developing world.

And it also generates the laughable numbers in the OECD dataset, showing that Turkey and Portugal have less poverty than the United States.

The main thing to understand, though, is that this new approach is part of an ideological campaign to promote bigger government and more redistribution. Which is very much consistent with the OECD’s overall agenda, as this video explains.

The real outrage is that American taxpayers finance the lion’s share of the OECD budget, even though it is a hard-left organization that pushes policies that are contrary to U.S. interests.

And this is why I wrote that defunding the OECD is a minimal test of fiscal seriousness for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

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Since starting this blog, I’ve periodically shared polling data that gives me hope. Highlights include:

o More than two-to-one support for personal retirement accounts.

o Recognition that big government is the greatest danger to America’s future.

o An increasingly negative view of the federal government.

o More than eight-to-one support for less spending rather than higher taxes.

o Strong support for bureaucrat layoffs and/or entitlement reforms instead of higher taxes.

o And my favorite poll results are the ones showing that voters understand that the goal is less spending, not lower deficits.

Now there’s some new research that is both encouraging and educational. Here’s part of the report from The Hill.

Three-quarters of likely voters believe the nation’s top earners should pay lower, not higher, tax rates, according to a new poll for The Hill. The big majority opted for a lower tax bill when asked to choose specific rates; precisely 75 percent said the right level for top earners was 30 percent or below. The current rate for top earners is 35 percent. Only 4 percent thought it was appropriate to take 40 percent, which is approximately the level that President Obama is seeking from January 2013 onward. The Hill Poll also found that 73 percent of likely voters believe corporations should pay a lower rate than the current 35 percent… Republicans were more likely than Democrats to support lower tax rates for the wealthy, but voters in both parties solidly supported lower rates compared to current law. Eighty-one percent of Republicans favored tax rates below current levels, compared to 70 percent of Democrats. The Hill Poll, conducted by Pulse Opinion Research of 1,000 likely voters, also found broad support for lower rates across income groups. The group most supportive of lowering tax rates on the wealthy below current rates made between $20,000 and $40,000 a year; 81 percent supported tax rates of 30 percent or lower.

This data is important because it shows the value of framing an issue. Instead of defensively responding to Obama’s class warfare, proponents of good tax policy should be making a philosophical/economic point that “nobody in America, no matter how rich or how poor, should have to pay more than one-fourth of their income to government.”

And proponents of class warfare should be put on the spot and asked “what do you think is the maximum tax rate anyone should pay?”

Last but not least, friends of liberty should make the key point that higher tax rates on the so-called rich are merely precursors for higher tax rates on everyone else – as even the New York Times recently admitted.

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I speculated last year that the political elite finally might be realizing that higher tax rates are not the solution to Greece’s fiscal situation.

Simply stated, you can only squeeze so much blood out of a stone, and pushing tax rates higher cripples growth and drives more people into the underground economy.

Well, it turns out that even the International Monetary Fund agrees with me. Here’s what the IMF said in its latest analysis about the Greek fiscal situation.

…further progress in reducing the deficit is going to be hard without underlying structural fiscal reforms. The fiscal deficit is now expected to be 9 percent this year, against the program target of 7½ percent. “One of the things we have seen in 2011 is that we have reached the limit of what can be achieved through increasing taxes,” Thomsen said. “Any further measures, if needed, should be on the expenditure side.

This is a remarkable admission. The IMF, for all intents and purposes, is acknowledging the Laffer Curve. At some point, tax rates become so punitive that the government collects less revenue.

This is a simple and common-sense observation, as explained in this video.

Unfortunately, even though the IMF now recognizes reality, the same can’t be said about the Obama Administration.

The President has proposed higher tax rates in his recent budget and it seems he can’t make a speech without making a class-warfare argument for penalizing producers, investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

Yet if you compare American tax rates and Greek tax rates, it seems that the IMF’s lesson also applies in the United States.

The top tax in Greece is 45 percent, which is higher than the 35 percent top rate in America. But this doesn’t count the impact of state income taxes, which add an average of about five percentage points to the burden. Or the Medicare payroll tax, which boosts the rate by another 2.9 percentage points.

So Obama’s proposed 4.6 percentage point hike in the top tax rate almost certainly would mean a higher tax burden in the United States.

Even more worrisome, the U.S. tax rates on dividends and capital gains already are higher than the equivalent rates in Greece. Yet Obama wants to boost double taxation on these forms of retained earnings and distributed earnings.

But there are important cultural differences between the United States and Greece, so there’s no reason to think that the revenue-maximizing tax rates in both nations are the same (by the way, policy makers should strive for growth-maximizing tax rates, not the rates that generate the most money).

That’s why I wrote about the U.S.-specific evidence from the 1980s, which shows that rich people paid much more to the IRS when tax rates were slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

But all this analysis may miss the point. Why is the President willing to raise tax rates even if the economy suffers enough damage that the Treasury doesn’t collect any revenue? And if you’re wondering why I might ask such a crazy question, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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I realize the title of this post sounds like the beginning of a joke, along the lines of “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar…”, but this is a serious topic.

A big problem in fiscal debates is that people can’t even agree on what they mean by certain words. For instance, what’s the definition of austerity? Is it budget cuts, higher taxes, or both? Why are people saying the United Kingdom is practicing austerity, when the burden of government spending is going up?

Or how do we define responsible fiscal policy? Should politicians try to balance budgets, or should they shrink the burden of government? Is it reasonable for some people to call Obama a conservative because he wants higher taxes and claims the money would be used to reduce red ink?

I grapple with some of these questions in this appearance on Fox Business News.

But I’m not happy with my performance, largely because there needs to be a simple way of categorizing the various approaches to fiscal policy. So that’s what I’ve done in this Table. This is a first draft, so I welcome suggestions.

I’m serious about looking for input, For instance, I would like to come up with some way to describe Bushonomics without sullying the name of supply-side economics.

But perhaps I am just sensitive to that issue because supply-side economists tend to be serious and sober people who favor smaller government, but some of the politicians associated with supply-side economics – such as Jack Kemp – have been unapologetic big spenders.

I’m also unhappy with the division between IMFers and Keynesians, which is strange because it seems like half of my time is devoted to battling statists who argue for more government spending and the other half is consumed by fights against proponents of higher taxes.

What makes this so frustrating, though, is that Keynesians and IMFers are usually the same people, even though the philosophies are supposedly inconsistent.

I suspect that all they really want is bigger government, and they use any sign of weakness to argue for more spending, and then they quickly pivot and ask for higher taxes because of red ink. The biased analysis of the Congressional Budget Office is a good example.

The right approach, needless to say, is libertarianism. Small government and low tax rates are the pro-growth, pro-freedom recipe. That’s the one part of the Table that’s right on the mark.

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I’ve expressed my disdain for the bureaucrats from the Transportation Security Administration, including stories such as:

Confiscating a plastic hammer from a mentally retarded man.

Detaining a woman for carrying breast milk.

Hassling a woman for the unexplained red flag of having sequentially numbered checks.

Demanding that a handicapped 4-year old boy walk through a metal detector without his leg braces.

Putting an 8-year old cub scout on the no-fly list.

o Stopping a teenager from flying because her purse had an image of a gun.

Yet these Keystone Cops still fail to catch guns and box cutters – even when using the body-scan equipment!

So let’s make fun of these bureaucrats by looking at some of my favorites images mocking the TSA from Cracked.com. There are 17 of them, and I’ve only picked four, so feel free to peruse the rest.

And here are three other pics that rank high on my list. Click to enlarge.

The only thing that worries me about these clever parodies is that some TSA bureaucrat may see them and decide they’re a good idea.

By the way, if you like music and TSA humor, enjoy this, this, this, and this.

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I’ve always been partial to these dependency cartoons produced by a former Cato intern, but these two are well worth sharing.

If you want to see more of Chuck Asay’s great cartoons, click herehere, here, and here.

On a related theme, here’s a cartoon from Lisa Benson.

The good news, as shown in this polling data, is that a majority of Americans still believe in individual responsibility. Let’s hope that spirit of self reliance lasts long enough for us to roll back the welfare state.

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I’ve been a big critic of Obama’s policies on taxes, spending, regulation, and intervention, so you won’t be surprised that I argued on CNBC that his policies have made the economy worse.

Here are two graphs, which I posted earlier this month, that make my point. The red lines show the economy is finally – and slowly – moving in the right direction, but the blue lines show how the economy boomed under Reaganomics.

The gap between the two lines in the charts is a measure of how Obama’s policies have undermined the economy, as I mentioned on the program. However, I also said that this may not matter much this November if Republicans are incapable of making coherent economic arguments.

One last thing to emphasize is that Jared resorted to dishonest Washington math when discussing Obama’s make-believe budget cuts. When you use honest numbers, as i did when analyzing the President’s new budget, you find that the burden of government spending is going to climb by $2 trillion between 2012 and 2022.

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Nothing compares to the depth and substance of Professor George Selgin’s scholarly take-down of the Federal Reserve, but this video by a local libertarian has a very authentic feel.

Julie lists 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

1.    The Fed has too much power.
2.    The Fed has devalued the currency.
3.    The Fed hurts the poor and middle class.
4.    The Fed is unaccountable.
5.    The Fed destabilizes the economy.
6.    The Fed is too secretive.
7.    The Fed benefits special interests.
8.    The Fed is unconstitutional.
9.    The Fed facilitates bailouts.
10.    The Fed encourages deficit spending.

If I want to nit-pick, I’m not sure that I agree with number 8 since the Constitution gives the federal government the power to coin money. I guess it depends how one interprets that particular power.

Also, I suspect politicians would waste just as much money even if the Fed didn’t exist, so number 10 may be a bit superfluous.

The main argument against the Fed is number 5. Looking at the economic chaos of the 1930s and 1970s, as well as the recent economic crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the Federal Reserve deserves the lion’s share of the blame.

For those that like monetary policy, here’s my video that looks at the origin of central banking.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

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I’ve been having fun in recent months by comparing some of the foolish decisions of politicians and bureaucrats in the United States and United Kingdom. Here’s part of what I wrote in early January.

In June of last year, I posted several examples of idiotic government policy from both the United States and United Kingdom and asked which nation had the dumbest bureaucrats and politicians.

Since then, we have found new examples of brain-dead government and jaw-dropping political correctness from England, including an effort to stop children from watching Olympic shooting events and (what must be) the most pointless sign in the history of the world.

But American politicians have been busy as well in recent months, with impressive displays of incompetence and stupidity such as preventing a girl from boarding a plane because her purse had an image of a gun and a local school calling the police because a little girl kissed a little boy in gym class.

These examples are so absurd that one hopes the reporters somehow screwed up and get their stories wrong.

But now, thanks to a story sent by a friend, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no limit to stupid and clueless behavior by government.  Here are some of the mind-bogglingly unbelievable details from an English-language Greek news site.

It took 10 months, a fat bundle of paperwork, countless certificates, long hours of haggling with bureaucrats and overcoming myriad other inconceivable obstacles for one group of young entrepreneurs to open an online store. …opening an online store based in Greece is no job for the fainthearted. …Antonopoulos and his partners spent hours collecting papers from tax offices, the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the municipal service where the company is based, the health inspector’s office, the fire department and banks. At the health department, they were told that all the shareholders of the company would have to provide chest X-rays, and, in the most surreal demand of all, stool samples.

As you can imagine, I think it’s ridiculous that a business has to take 10 months to get permission to operate. You also can guess that I’m shaking my head with dismay at all the regulatory hurdles. And I am utterly dumbfounded that you need to submit chest X-rays to open an online store.

But I can’t even begin to describe my reaction to the requirement for stool samples. I was tempted to write the previous sentence in ALL CAPS. I also thought about unleashing my inner teenager and writing WTF, OMG, and LMAO.

New Symbol of the Greek Government?

I confess, though, that I’m not quite sure what to write. It’s as if we’ve passed into a parallel dimension where parody and satire have become superfluous.

The only thing that rivals this is the story about the Greek government deciding that pedophiles deserve disability payments.

And to add insult to injury, the politicians from Europe and elsewhere are processing yet another bailout for this wasteful and spendthrift government.

Some people thought I was being a bit over-the-top when I did an interview and said the Greeks shouldn’t be allowed to “loot and mooch their way through life.”

But I think I understated the problem. Brainless policy choices are probably the inevitable result of having so many bureaucrats that they resort to asking for stool samples to justify their pointless and empty lives.

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What is the best way improve economic performance and boost living standards?

If you listen to politicians, they would like us to think that adopting Policy A or repealing Policy B is a magic elixir. And if that means adopting a flat tax or repealing Obamacare, I’ll certainly be happy.

But this video, based on analysis and data from the Economic Freedom of the World Index, shows that there is no silver bullet. Prosperity depends on several factors.

I mention this because I’m currently in the Dominican Republic for a conference on how best to improve competitiveness and growth (as you can see from the photo, this is hardship duty and I’m very sad that I’m missing the wonderful February weather in Washington).

My speech this morning was about tax reform, and I explained why a flat tax is the best way of collecting revenue in a way that minimizes economic damage and reduces opportunities for corruption.

But even though I’m a big advocate for better tax policy, the lesson from the Economic Freedom of the World Index, and as explained in the video, is that adopting a flat tax won’t solve a nation’s economic problems if politicians are doing the wrong thing in other areas.

There are five major policy areas, each of which counts for 20 percent of a nation’s grade.

  1. Size of government
  2. Regulation
  3. Monetary Policy
  4. Trade
  5. Rule of Law/Property Rights

Now let’s pick Ukraine as an example. As a proponent of tax reform, I like that lawmakers have implemented a 15 percent flat tax.

But that doesn’t mean Ukraine is a role model. When looking at the mix of all policies, the country gets a very poor score from Economic Freedom of the World Index, ranking 125 out of 141 nations.

Conversely, Denmark has a very bad tax system, but it has very free market policies in other areas, so it ranks 15 out of 141 countries.

The moral of the story is simple. A country should have a small public sector and a pro-growth tax system, but that’s only 20 percent of the answer. Prosperity requires good policy in many areas.

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What is it about Mitt Romney? The United States desperately needs smaller government, lower taxes, and less intervention, yet his comments and track record on issues such as the  value-added tax, healthcare, Social Security reform, budget savings, ethanol subsidies, and the minimum wage leave a lot to be desired.

We can now add something else to the list. The former Massachusetts governor has come out of the closet as a Keynesian.

This is worrisome, particularly since he is speaking extemporaneously and thus more likely to be letting us see his real views.

To be fair, Romney’s statement doesn’t automatically make him a big-spending Keynesian. Even I have written that, in the short run, “there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced.”

But when I say something like that, it is also in the context of explaining the myriad ways that the economy benefits when a bloated public sector is pared back.

And I like to think that I’m second to none in disseminating the medium-term and long-term advantages of less government.

Mitt Romney, needless to say, doesn’t seem to fully share those views.

For more information on this issue, here’s my take on Keynesianism.

I made a snarky comment in a previous post that, “If the answer is bigger government, you’ve asked a very strange question.” I’m worried, though, that Romney doesn’t think that’s a joke.

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American companies are hindered by what is arguably the world’s most punitive corporate tax system. The federal corporate rate is 35 percent, which climbs to more than 39 percent when you add state corporate taxes. Among developed nations, only Japan is in the same ballpark, and that country is hardly a role model of economic dynamism.

But the tax rate is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s also critically important to look at the government’s definition of taxable income. If there are lots of corrupt loopholes – such as ethanol – that enable some income to escape taxation, then the “effective” tax rate might be rather modest.

On the other hand, if the government forces companies to overstate their income with policies such as worldwide taxation and depreciation, then the statutory tax rate understates the actual tax burden.

The U.S. tax system, as the chart suggests, is riddled with both types of provisions.

This information is important because there are good and not-so-good ways of lowering tax rates as part of corporate tax reform. If politicians decide to “pay for” lower rates by eliminating loopholes, that creates a win-win situation for the economy since the penalty on productive behavior is reduced and a tax preference that distorts economic choices is removed.

But if politicians “pay for” the lower rates by expanding the second layer of tax on U.S. companies competing in foreign markets or by changing depreciation rules to make firms pretend that investment expenditures are actually net income, then the reform is nothing but a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Now let’s look at President Obama’s plan for corporate tax reform.

*The good news is that he reduces the tax rate on companies from 35 percent to 28 percent (still more than 32 percent when state corporate taxes are added to the mix).

*The bad news is that he exacerbates the tax burden on new investment and increases the second layer of taxation imposed on American companies competing for market share overseas.

In other words, to paraphrase the Bible, the President giveth and the President taketh away.

This doesn’t mean the proposal would be a step in the wrong direction. There are some loopholes, properly understood, that are scaled back.

But when you add up all the pieces, it is largely a kiss-your-sister package. Some companies would come out ahead and others would lose.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to measurably improve incomes for American workers. In a competitive global economy, where even Europe’s welfare states recognize reality and have lowered their corporate tax rates, on average, to 23 percent, the President’s proposal at best is a tiny step in the right direction.

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I’ve written before about how big government is enriching people in the Washington metropolitan area. This is for two reasons.

First, bureaucrats are paid too much, getting twice as much compensation, on average, as people in the productive sector of the economy.

Second, lobbyists, contractors, and interest groups have figured out how to get lucrative positions at the federal trough.

A new report from MSN Money illustrates how the political elite is getting very rich by plundering honest Americans. America has 3,033 counties, and they identified the 15 richest jurisdictions from that list.

Of those 15 super-elite counties (the top 1/2 of one percent), 10 are in the Washington metropolitan area. I’ve identified them with stars in the map.

You may be wondering, by the way, about the location of the other counties in the top 15. Well, four of them are suburbs of New York City, meaning that they are home to rich Wall Street people who mooched from the taxpayers thanks to TARP bailouts and other subsidies.

So if you really want to be cynical, you could count them as auxiliary counties of Washington, DC. That’s probably an unfair conclusion, but TARP was unfair to honest and hard-working people, so I don’t feel too guilty.

As far as I can tell, the only untarnished jurisdiction in the top 15 is Douglas County, Colorado. And given that these are the folks who are implementing a good school choice plan, it seems that we have a group of productive people who also believe in doing the right thing.

For more information about the overcompensation of bureaucrats, this video is loaded with information.

Most important of all, remember that any proposals to increase government spending will further widen the income gulf between the political elite and regular Americans. And any initiative to boost the tax burden would lead to the same result.

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The overwhelming fiscal policy challenge for America is entitlement programs, as I explain in this set of videos. To protect America from becoming another Greece, we need personal retirement accounts for Social Security. We need vouchers for Medicare. And we need to block-grant Medicaid back to the states.

Real reform can give people more security and save taxpayers by reducing the burden of government spending by trillions of dollars over the next several decades.

But sometimes it is the comparatively tiny bits of spending that effectively illustrate the waste, stupidity, and venality of big government. Lets talk about how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is squandering $15 million in a way that should drive taxpayers ballistic with rage.

Here are some disturbing details from the Wall Street Journal report.

The nation’s tax collector wants a “full service communications and marketing company” to help convey its “corporate vision and goals,” according to a 49-page solicitation sent to 12 agencies. The winner’s duties could include market research, educating the public about new tax provisions, and designing national information campaigns. The one-year contract could be extended for four more years, with a total value of as much as $15 million, the IRS solicitation says. PR firm Porter Novelli has had the contract for four years, but it reached the $17.5 million limit, IRS spokesman Terry Lemons said. …The IRS has relied on Porter Novelli to help inform taxpayers about some new laws and programs. Porter Novelli confirmed that the firm works with the IRS, but declined to comment further. Public relations experts said it would be an attractive challenge, given the agency’s unpopularity. …PR types said it’s technically possible to think of tougher marketing challenges — but not many. “Advancing the interests of the North Korean leadership at the moment would be harder than the IRS,” suggested Matthew Harrington.

Isn’t it wonderful that the IRS isn’t as despised as the North Korean dictatorship! I guess that’s because the North Korean government will sometimes kill you or starve you to death. The IRS, by contrast, only steals your money and occasionally gets you tossed in prison.

To show that I’m a public-spirited person, I’m going to save taxpayers $15 million by giving the IRS two good pieces of advice.

1) Obey the Constitution, which means respecting the presumption of innocence and following the Fourth Amendment’s guidelines about illegal search and seizure. I realize that complicates the job of enforcing a terrible tax code, but the Constitution exists precisely because the Founding Fathers thought some things were more important than “efficient” government.

2) Urge your overseers in the U.S. Congress to junk the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax. The video below provides a simple explanation.

See how simple that was. No need to throw $15 million down the toilet of some politically connected PR firm.

Enjoy the video.

And here’s another video documenting the onerous compliance burden of the current system and explaining how that flat tax would de-fang the IRS.

Seems like such a good idea that only people who benefit from the current system would be opposed. Unfortunately, that describes the political class, upon which we’re relying to get such reforms.

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Taxes and spending are two of the most obvious burdens imposed by government, and I’m glad that many people are fighting against a political class that seems to have a limitless appetite for a bigger public sector.

But politicians also can do great damage to an economy with mandates, regulations, and other forms of intervention. And because they are indirect and somewhat hidden, these costs are poorly understood by most voters even though the burdens can be enormous.

Interfering with the price system is an especially pernicious form of intervention.

When functioning properly, prices enable the wants and needs of consumers to be properly channeled to producers and suppliers in a way that promotes prosperity and efficiency.

Unfortunately, governments hinder this system with all sorts of misguided policies such as subsidies and price controls.

One of the worst manifestations of this type of intervention is the system of third-party payer, which occurs when government policies artificially reduce the perceived prices of goods and services.

In this post, let’s look at markets for higher education, housing, and health care to get a better understand of how third-party payer leads to rising prices and damaging bubbles.

Let’s start with the market for college education. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has been promoting the idea of a higher-education bubble for years. His theory, as he explained in the Washington Examiner, makes a lot of sense.

A couple of years back, I suggested in these pages that higher education was facing a bubble much like the housing bubble: An overpriced good, propped up by cheap government-subsidized credit, luring borrowers and lenders alike into a potentially disastrous mess. …This is a simple case of inflation: When you artificially pump up the supply of something (whether it’s currency or diplomas), the value drops. The reason why a bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability is that the government decided that as many people as possible should have bachelor’s degrees. There’s something of a pattern here. The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay in, the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them. One might as well try to promote basketball skills by distributing expensive sneakers.

I hope he’s right, and I also hope the bubble bursts quickly. The last of my three kids is a senior in high school, so anything that lowers tuition and fees would be most welcome.

But let’s look at some data and think about whether this will happen.

This first chart, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on college tuition and fees, certainly shows a big jump in the cost of higher education. Indeed, tuition and fees have climbed more than twice as fast as the overall consumer price index.

Now let’s look at the Case-Schiller data on housing prices in the second chart. While the lines aren’t identical, it certainly seems like Instapundit is on to something. When the government intervenes in a sector of the economy with lots of subsidies, prices climb rapidly.

The key question, of course, is whether the market for higher education will behave the same way as the market for housing. In other words, has the government created a house of cards that inevitably will collapse?

As noted above, I hope there’s a bubble that’s on the verge of bursting. But since I tend to be a pessimist, I’m worried that the education market may be more similar to the healthcare market rather than the housing market. Take a look at this final chart, showing what seems to be endlessly rising prices for medical care.

So why do I worry that higher education may be more like healthcare? Because both benefit from third-party payer, which happens when someone other than the consumer pays a significant share of the cost of a product. For instance, consumers directly pay for only 12 cents of every dollar of healthcare they consume. So why care about rising prices when somebody else is picking up the tab?

Indeed, in the few areas where out-of-pocket expenditures dominate, such as cosmetic surgery and abortion, we find that prices are stable or even falling.

In the case of higher education, there is substantial third-party payer because of money funneled to students in the form of grants and loans, as well as funds channeled directly to colleges and universities.

There is some third-party payer in the housing market, but the bubble that recently popped was more the result of (hopefully) one-time factors such as the Fed’s easy-money policy and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies that caused reckless lending and foolish speculation.

So what does all this mean? The honest answer is that I don’t know, but I fear that there is no looming collapse in the price of higher education. At best, we have probably reached a point where prices have leveled off, but that’s more a function of a glut in certain fields such as law.

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I confess to being monotonous and repetitive when it comes to explaining that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, and that debt and deficits are simply symptoms of that underlying problem of excessive government.

But no matter how often I repeat myself, the message isn’t sinking in – even among people who should know better.

That’s why I’ve created the “Bob Dole Award.” I’m hoping that a bit of well-intentioned moral suasion may convince people (at least the ones who presumably are on the right side) to be a bit more careful with their rhetoric.

The first winner of this (hopefully uncoveted) award are the Republicans of the House Ways & Means Committee.

These are the GOPers with the most influence over both tax and entitlement policy, so it’s very important that they understand the real problem and properly communicate with the outside world.

Unfortunately, even though the Committee normally produces good material, they messed up last week when sending out information about Obama’s big-spending budget proposal.

They issued a press release entitled “More than twice the debt in half the time,” and the document (also pasted to the right) accurately shows how red ink has exploded during the Obama years.

But a statist organization, left-wing lobby, or some other pro-big government entity could put out exactly the same press release and make it part of an argument for higher taxes.

After all, most leftists don’t openly admit that they want higher taxes to make government bigger. They always hide behind the fig leaf of “deficit reduction.” Needless to say, any additional revenue almost always is used to expand the burden of government spending.

I’m not sure whether the Bob Dole Award should be accompanied by a “shame on you” or a “tsk, tsk,” but the Ways & Means Republicans deserve a slap on the wrist (or kick in the rear, depending on your disciplinary style).

Correction: A Democrat friend emailed to point out that there was a factual error (as opposed to an error of judgment) in the GOP press release. And it’s one I should have noticed since I made the same point back in 2009, which is that the FY2009 budget began on October 1, 2008 and should be blamed on President Bush.

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I’ve written periodically about the perverse incentives of the unemployment insurance system. Simply stated, there will be fewer jobs if the government subsidizes joblessness, and I even showed that this is a consensus position by citing the academic writings of left-leaning economists such as Larry Summers and Paul Krugman.

The San Francisco Federal Reserve also has produced research measuring the negative impact of unemployment insurance on the job market.

Now we have some additional academic research on the topic, and the results once again show that the unemployment insurance program causes a significant increase in unemployment.

The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program created in the summer of 2008 provided for unprecedented extensions in the duration of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Combined with persistent high unemployment and historically long durations of unemployment during the 2008 and 2009 recession, this extension of UI has prompted renewed interest in the impact of UI benefits on job search, the duration of unemployment, and the unemployment rate. …This paper uses multiple regression analysis to estimate the impact of extended UI benefits on the unemployment rate after controlling for the severity of the recent recession. The extension of UI is found to have a positive and significant impact on the national unemployment rate… The UI benefit extensions that have occurred between the summer of 2008 and the end of 2010 are estimated to have had a cumulative effect of raising the unemployment rate by .77 to 1.54 percentage points.

If you’re trying to educate a statist friend or colleague about the relationship between unemployment insurance and joblessness, this research should help. But you may also want to share this real-world story. And here’s another powerful anecdote.

Last but not least, this cartoon does a very effective job of showing the consequences of paying people not to work.

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I fight to preserve tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy for the simple reason that politicians are less likely to impose destructive tax policy if they know that labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with more responsible fiscal climates.

My opponents in this battle are high-tax governments, statist international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and left-wing pressure groups, all of which want to impose some sort of global tax cartel – sort of an “OPEC for politicians.”

In my years of fighting this battle, I’ve has some strange experiences, most notably in 2008 when the OECD threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the supposed crime of standing in a public area of a hotel and advising representatives of low-tax jurisdictions on how best to resist fiscal imperialism.

A few other bizarre episodes occurred in Barbados, back when I was first getting involved in the issue. Here’s a summary of that adventure.

As part of its “harmful tax competition” project, the OECD had called a meeting in 2001 and invited officials from the so-called tax havens to attend in hopes of getting them to surrender their fiscal sovereignty and agree to become deputy tax collectors for uncompetitive welfare states.

Realizing that the small, relatively powerless low-tax nations and territories would be out-gunned and out-manned in such a setting, I organized a delegation of liberty-minded Americans to travel to Barbados and help fight back (as regular readers know, I’m willing to make big sacrifices and go to the Caribbean when it’s winter in Washington).

One of the low-tax nations asked me to provide technical assistance, so they made me part of their delegation. But when I got to the OECD conference, the bureaucrats refused to let me participate. That initial obstacle was overcome, though, when representatives from the low-tax country arrived and they created a stink.

So I got my credentials and went into the conference. But this obviously caused some consternation. Bureaucrats from the OECD and representatives from the Clinton Treasury Department (this was before Bush’s inauguration)  began whispering to each other, followed by some OECD flunky coming over to demand my credentials. I showed my badge, which temporarily stymied the bad guys.

But then a break was called and the OECD announced that the conference couldn’t continue if I was in the room. The fact that the OECD and some of the high-tax nations had technical consultants of their own was immaterial. The conference was supposed to be rigged to generate a certain outcome, and my presence was viewed as a threat.

Given the way things were going, with the OECD on the defensive and low-tax jurisdictions unwilling to capitulate, we decided to let the bureaucrats have a symbolic victory – especially since all that really happened is that I sat outside the conference room and representatives from the low-tax jurisdictions would come out every few minutes and brief me on what was happening. And everything ended well, with the high-tax nations failing in their goal of getting low-tax jurisdictions to surrender by signing “commitment letters” drafted by the OECD.

While the controversy over my participation in the meeting was indicative of the OECD’s unethical and biased behavior, the weirdest part of the Barbados trip occurred at the post-conference reception at the Prime Minister’s residence.

I was feeling rather happy about the OECD’s failure, so I was enjoying the evening. But not everybody was pleased with the outcome. One of the Clinton Treasury Department officials came up and basically accused me of being disloyal to the United States because I opposed the Administration’s policy while on foreign soil.

As you can probably imagine, that was not an effective argument. As this t-shirt indicates, my patriotism is to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, not to the statist actions of the U.S. government. And I also thought it was rather silly for the Treasury Department bureaucrat to make that argument when there was only a week or so left before Clinton was leaving office.

I’m reminded of this bit of personal history because of some recent developments in the area of international taxation.

The federal government recently declared that a Swiss bank is a “fugitive” because it refuses to acquiesce to American tax law and instead is obeying Switzerland’s admirable human rights policy of protecting financial privacy. Here are some details from a report by Reuters.

Wegelin & Co, the oldest Swiss private bank, was declared a fugitive after failing to show up in a U.S. court to answer a criminal charge that it conspired to help wealthy Americans evade taxes. …The indictment of Wegelin, which was founded in 1741, was the first in which the United States accused a foreign bank, rather than individuals, of helping Americans commit tax fraud. …Wegelin issued a statement from Switzerland saying it has not been served with a criminal summons and therefore was not required to appear in court. “The circumstances create a clear dilemma for Wegelin & Co,” it said. “If it were to adhere to current U.S. legal practice aimed at Swiss banks, it would have to breach Swiss law.” …Wegelin has no branches outside Switzerland.

It’s time for me to again be unpatriotic because I’m on the side of the “fugitive.” To be blunt, a Swiss bank operating on Swiss soil has no obligation to enforce bad U.S. tax law.

To understand the principles at stake, let’s turn the tables. What if the Iranian government demanded that the American government extradite Iranian exiles who write articles critical of that country’s nutjob leadership? Would the Justice Department agree that the Iranian government had the right to persecute and prosecute people who didn’t break U.S. law. Of course not (at least I hope not!).

Or what if the Chinese government requested the extradition of Tiananmen Square protesters who fled to the United States? Again, I would hope the federal government would say to go jump in a lake because it’s not a crime in America to believe in free speech.

I could provide dozens of additional examples, but I assume you get the point. Nations only cooperate with each other when they share the same laws (and the same values, including due process legal protections).

This is why Wegelin is not cooperating with the United States government, and this is why genuine patriots who believe in the rule of law should be on the side of the “fugitive.”

For further information, here’s a video I narrated on tax competition.

The moral of the story is that “tough on crime” is the right approach, but only when laws are just. At the risk of stating the obvious, the internal revenue code does not meet that test – especially when the IRS is trying to enforce it in a grossly improper extraterritorial fashion.

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Every so often, I write about what makes libertarianism special and different.

In the future, though, I think I’ll simply share this excellent cartoon.

By the way, I actually think the cartoon is a bit unfair to conservatives. Unless I’m missing something, the right-wing position on birth control is to resist subsidies and mandates. As I recently wrote, that’s the economically sound and libertarian point of view.

That being said, one of the most obvious distinctions between libertarians and conservatives is that the latter do sometimes favor laws restricting private behavior when there is no harm imposed on third parties. The misguided War on Drugs is a good example, as illustrated by this Gary Johnson speech, this video, and this AP story.

The libertarian message isn’t that drug use is good, but rather that prohibition is ineffective and that the net result of the drug war is bigger government and less freedom.

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Demonstrating that he’s probably not a fan of Mitchell’s Golden Rule, Paul Krugman recently asserted that fiscal austerity has failed in the United Kingdom.

Citing Keynesian theory and weak economics numbers, he warned about “the austerity doctrine that has dominated elite policy discussion” and says that the British government made a mistake when it decided to “slash spending.”

In support of the New York Times columnist, another blogger commented on the “sharp retrenchment in public spending” in the U.K. And a Bloomberg editorial also supported Krugman’s position, stating that recent events “undermine the conservative idea that slashing government spending will somehow bring about a confidence-driven economic boom.”

There’s only one small, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny problem with all of these statements. They’re based on a falsehood. Government spending in the United Kingdom has not been slashed. It hasn’t been retrenched. It hasn’t even been cut.

I first made this point back in 2010. And I also noted that year that the supposedly conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer advocated a big increase in the value-added tax was good since it would generate “13 billion pounds we don’t have to find from extra spending cuts.”

I then repeated myself last year, pointing out once again that government spending was expanding rather than shrinking.

To be fair, spending hasn’t been growing as fast in the past couple of years as it did last decade. According to European Union data, government spending in the United Kingdom grew by an average of 7.6 percent each year between 2000-2008, so the recent annual increases of 2 percent-4 percent may seem frugal by comparison.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, slower spending increases are not budget cuts. Unless, of course, proponents of big government decide to use the dishonest political definition that spending is cut when the budget doesn’t increase as fast as previously planned. But if that’s the case, then they are turning Keynesian economics into a political gimmick.

Not only haven’t there been any spending cuts in recent years, but it also appears that there won’t be any in future years. The Centre for Policy Studies just put out a report comparing “austerity” in the United Kingdom today with the fiscal discipline that took place in Canada during the 1990s.

As seen in the table, and as I noted in a previous post, Canada actually reduced spending.

In the United Kingdom, by contrast, spending has been climbing. And that’s projected to happen even in future years.

To be sure, spending in the U.K. won’t grow very fast (assuming the government sticks to its plans, which may be an unrealistic assumption).

But spending that grows slowly is not austerity or retrenchment.

Which is unfortunate, because that’s precisely what is needed in the United Kingdom. And the Canadian experience shows how genuine fiscal restraint generates big benefits.

Let’s also look at some more information from the CPS report.

The Canada of 1994 in many ways resembled the Greece of today. …Spending was to fall 8.8% over two years. Large cuts in transportation, industry, regional development, and scientific support were made. The size of the federal government was to decline from 16.2% of GDP in 1994 to 13.1% in 1996. Public-sector employment was to fall by 14%. The new discipline paid off quickly. Federal government spending as a share of the economy fell more rapidly than planned. Provincial government spending also decreased significantly from 25% of GDP to 20%. …Ottawa offered a historic deal to the provincial governments: unprecedented freedom to make their own welfare policies. This was localism in action – and it unleashed a wave of fruitful experimentation and innovation in the provinces, while spending was cut at the national level. The results were stunning. Large numbers of Canadians, previously trapped in poorly designed benefit programmes, returned to the workforce. By 2000, the number of welfare beneficiaries in Canada had declined by more than a million people, from 10.7% in 1994 of the population to 5.1% in 2009. …Cuts  ranged  from  5%  to 65% of departmental budgets and included cuts to health budgets. In the end, programme spending (everything except interest payments on the debt) fell by 9.7% in nominal terms (or C$11.9 billion) between 1994-95 and 1996-97.

So what were the results of this fiscal discipline? Let’s go back to the report.

Fast-forward again to 2007, and Canada seemed to be back on track. The country’s economy grew at an average rate of 3.3% between 1997 and 2007, the highest average growth among the G-7 countries, including the US. Canada’s job-creation record was nothing short of stellar. From 1997 to 2007, Canada’s average employment growth was 2.1%, doubling that of the US and exceeding employment growth in all other G-7 countries. Perhaps most importantly for future economic prosperity, during the same period Canada outperformed the G-7 average almost every year on business investment. …Canada weathered the recent recession  better than its G-7 partners. … None of Canada’s major financial institutions had to be bailed out

And this also was a period of tax cuts.

…coupled with stronger economic performance than expected, meant Ottawa could then cut taxes, including personal and corporate income taxes, capital gains taxes, and the corporate capital tax. In this period:

  • Corporate Income Tax (federal) was reduced from 28% to 21% with further cuts planned;
  • Capital Gains Tax were reduced to 14.5%;
  • Personal Income Tax rates were finally indexed to inflation;
  • Federal capital taxes were abolished.

It certainly seems that genuine fiscal restraint worked in Canada.

To be fair, though, Krugman isn’t arguing against small government in his column. He’s arguing for short-run Keynesian stimulus policy. And it’s possible to be in favor of more spending in the short run and smaller government in the long run.

Moreover, I’m not arguing that genuine spending cuts are immediately expansionary, as some research has indicated. I’m sure that happens in some cases, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.

And I imagine that there are cases where the economy does hit a short-run speed bump when the public sector is pruned. Simply stated, there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced. Only in economics textbooks is it possible to seamlessly and immediately reallocate resources.

My argument is that the short-term impact of spending restraint – whether positive or negative – is trivial compared to the long-run benefits of better fiscal policy. A small public sector means labor and capital get used more productively, and it presumably also allows a less punitive tax system.

This video has more information about Canada’s fiscal policy success, along with data about similar episodes of genuine austerity (properly defined) in Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand.

Even the United States has enjoyed periods of semi-impressive fiscal discipline, most notably during the Reagan and Clinton years. Unfortunately, the modest progress achieved during those periods has been wiped out by the profligacy of the Bush-Obama years.

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In recent weeks, I’ve shared several clever jokes making fun of noble and wonderful people such as myself (i.e., libertarians).

Let’s now have some fun by mocking despicable and loathsome people (i.e., politicians).

There are several good jabs at Gingrich below, but the first two Leno one-liners against Obama are very effective and funny.

Jay Leno:

  • President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. The president said that his Christian faith is the driving force behind his economic policies. So I guess instead of blaming Bush, it’s now all Jesus’ fault.
  • A hiker who was lost in a blizzard said he stayed alive by digging a snow tunnel and burning dollar bills for warmth. Today he was offered a job as President Obama’s economic adviser.
  • Obama said that he says a brief prayer every morning, but then Joe Biden shows up anyway. So I don’t know if it would really work.
  • The House of Representatives has passed a bill that prohibits people from using welfare money in strip clubs or liquor stores. I agree with that. Strip clubs and liquor stores should be off limits for people who get government funds — you know, like congressmen.
  • You know a really sad thing about Valentine’s Day? Some people can’t have the person they really love, so they settle for someone else. But enough about the Republicans and Mitt Romney.
  • New Jersey has passed a bill legalizing gay marriage. Now comes the hard part — finding gay couples who want to actually live in New Jersey.
  • Congratulations to Mitt Romney. He got an honorary Grammy for best spoken word for being able to speak out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.
  • Things are not looking good for Romney. His popularity has really dropped. Right now he’s running behind Syrian President Assad.
  • Mitt Romney said he is not concerned with the very poor. That statement worked out well for Marie Antoinette, didn’t it?
  • Romney knows how President Obama thinks. Because when he was governor of Massachusetts, he thought the exact same way.
  • Ron Paul was not in Florida, he was campaigning up in Maine. They think he was afraid that if he went to Florida, they’d grab him and put him in an old folks home.
  • President Obama was in Disney World today where he unveiled his new plan to create jobs. He was joined by Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse but not Goofy. He had to stay behind to tend to his vice presidential duties.

David Letterman:

  • Kim Jong Il would have been 70 years old today if he hadn’t died a couple of months ago. But don’t worry. Osama bin Laden threw him a surprise party in hell. (not political, but this is such a nice thought that I wanted to share)
  • Mitt Romney is sinking in the polls. That is the magic of a Donald Trump endorsement right there.
  • Newt Gingrich is against same-sex marriage. Well, actually, he’s against same-marriage sex.
  • Newt Gingrich says that people who ride on subways here in New York are the elite. I was on the subway today and one of the elites sitting next to me was smoking crack.
  • Newt Gingrich has criticized “New York elites” who ride the subway. One of those subway elites threw up on my pants this morning.
  • Mitt Romney is quite a guy. At one point he and his wife bought a zoo and fired all the animals.

Jimmy Kimmel:

  • President Obama’s approval rating is up to 50 percent. Only half the country dislikes him. Apparently his strategy of not being any of the Republican candidates is paying off.
  • Part of me thinks that Rick Santorum is running for president just to show his high school crush she should have gone to the prom with him.
  • Newt Gingrich didn’t bother to campaign in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. But he’s vowed to stay in the race until the Republican convention. However, Newt doesn’t have a great track record as far as sticking to his vows go.
  • During a debate, Mitt Romney said he grew up in the real streets of America. Yes, the real streets, where people pull up next to you and ask if you have any Grey Poupon.
  • Gingrich is lining up impressive endorsements. Todd Palin, Gary Busey, and now, Chuck Norris. I’ll tell you, his endorsements could beat up Mitt Romney’s endorsements.

Conan:

  • Yesterday Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney all said that if elected president they would eliminate porn. In a related story, President Obama has already been re-elected.
  • Mitt Romney went to a McDonald’s and ordered burgers and fries and apparently everything was going well until Romney asked the cashier if she could break a $1 million bill.
  • Snoop Dogg endorsed Ron Paul for president. Snoop said he likes Paul’s positions on everything from legalizing pot to legalizing pot.

Jimmy Fallon:

  • Rick Santorum said women might not be suited for military action because their emotions aren’t suited for combat. Which can mean only one thing: He’s never seen an episode of “The View.”
  • Because of large crowds at his campaign events, Mitt Romney will now receive protection from the Secret Service. Not to be outdone, Ron Paul will now receive protection from a mall cop on a Segway.
  • President Obama took Michelle out to a steak restaurant for her birthday, marking the first time in months the words “Obama” and “well done” appeared in the same sentence.

Craig Ferguson:

  • In Manhattan, the New York Giants had their own ticker tape parade. They don’t use much ticker tape on Wall Street anymore. Stock brokers just toss government bailout money from the windows.
  • Rick Santorum says Newt Gingrich is too hot, Mitt Romney is too cold, but he’s the “Goldilocks candidate.” Yes, nothing gets voters excited like comparing yourself to tepid porridge.

And to preempt a bunch of emails from people who are too lazy to use the search function, you can read previous posts with similar jokes from the late-night talk shows by clicking here, here, hereherehere, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Even though there is a wealth of evidence for the Laffer Curve, statists and other big-government advocates routinely claim that incentives don’t matter.

So I wonder how they’ll react to this new research showing that incentives have an impact on sexual choices. Here are some blurbs from The Economist.

…if you are a poor African teenager, having a sugar daddy is not such a bad deal. Eventually, Mr Right may come along and in the meantime life is, as the term suggests, a lot sweeter than it might otherwise be. Except for one thing. In many parts of Africa, relationships between older men and younger women are one of the main transmitters of HIV. With that in mind, it has often been hypothesised that if teenage girls were given an alternative income—one that might, for instance, allow them to stay on at school—they would be less likely to get infected. It is a plausible hypothesis but one that has not, until now, actually been tested. That lack has just been remedied by Berk Özler, of the World Bank, and his colleagues. In a paper just published by the Lancet, they describe how they conducted a randomised clinical trial of the idea that money, and money alone, can stop the spread of HIV. …In some they and their parents were given small amounts of money each month (between $1 and $5 for the women, and between $4 and $10 for the parents), again decided at random by the computer. In a third set of areas money was doled out in a similar way, but only in exchange for a promise by the woman to attend school. If she failed to do so, no money was forthcoming. …the team found that the unpaid women had suffered more than twice the HIV infection rate experienced by the paid women over the course of the 18 months of the experiment, and four times the infection rate of genital herpes. Intriguingly, there was no difference between the infection rate suffered by those required to go to school and those who received the money unconditionally. …What is abundantly clear, however, was that the money did make women behave differently. They had younger boyfriends than those in the control group, and had sex less frequently. Liberated from the need to find a sugar daddy, they could behave in a safer way. Those attempting to stop the spread of AIDS have, in the past, tried many ways of getting people to change their behaviour in order to reduce the risk of infection. They have extolled, exhorted and even threatened, all to little avail. They have not, though, previously, resorted to bribery. But it seems to work.

Upon reading this, I had several reactions.

  • I first thought being a sugar daddy would be a nice gig, but then I realized that I don’t have nearly enough sugar in my bank account. Life obviously isn’t fair.
  • I then thought that I’m not a fan of the World Bank, but I must admit that this seems to be a reasonably good way for them to spend money.
  • I also wondered why nobody is arresting, harassing, or otherwise going after these SOBs that are infecting the young girls. If I was the father of one of these girls, it definitely would be time for some vigilante justice.
  • Finally, being a policy geek, I wondered whether this powerful example of incentives might get some leftists to draw some obvious conclusions about the need for better tax policy.

But then I came to my senses. It seems that many of the statists I debate and deal with support punitive taxation for reasons of spite and envy. As such, they don’t really care about the impact on either the economy or tax revenues.

And if you’re wondering why they would come to such a crazy conclusion, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether they realize that this strategy is self defeating. Heck, even a former socialist President of Brazil noted that there’s nothing to redistribute if some people don’t first produce.

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When I first saw this picture, I thought it must have been created by a Ron Paul fan. And since Congressman Paul is the closest to my views according to the Reason political quiz, it’s easy to see why I would jump to that conclusion.

But maybe the person who created this image wasn’t really trying to boost Ron Paul, but was instead taking a swipe at other Republicans?

Since I’ve dinged Newt GingrichRick Santorum, and Mitt Romney, that also appeals to me.

But what really matters is that corporatism is morally and economically odious, regardless of the party. That’s why the TARP bailout was reprehensible. It’s why Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies are disgusting. And it’s why industrial policy in the tax code is corrupt.

So regardless of how you interpret this picture, enjoy the humor and remember the lesson.

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After a series of posts making fun of libertarians (here, here, here, here, and here), it’s time to aim some humor at the left. Even if it means a lame pun in the title.

This poster is funny, but it also makes a serious point about whether there should be behavioral restrictions on people who want to live off taxpayers (sort of akin to the debate about whether food stamp recipients should be allowed to buy junk food).

My view is that the answer to the welfare problem is decentralization. Let fifty states and thousands of communities take responsibility for redistribution policy.

This will mean diversity and innovation, which will help give us answers to how to help the genuinely needy with ripping off taxpayers and/or trapping poor people in lives of dependency.

Maybe drug testing is a good idea. Maybe it’s not. But we won’t find out with a one-size-fits-all policy from Washington.

This interview and this video have more information for those who want a more detailed look at anti-poverty issues.

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Early last year, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video, narrated by yours truly, making the case that the United States and other nations should shift from a tax-and-transfer entitlement scheme to a system of personal retirement accounts.

Some left wingers criticized the idea, saying the big drop in the stock market in 2008-2009 is proof that personal retirement accounts are too risky.

You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that they are wrong. It is true that retirement income fluctuates with a system of personal accounts, but that simply means that it is difficult to predict how much more income one would enjoy when compared to being stuck with Social Security.

Here is the key section from a just-released paper authored by my Cato colleague, Mike Tanner.

Despite recent declines in the stock market, a worker who had invested privately over the past 40 years would have still earned an average yearly return of 6.85 percent investing in the S&P 500, 3.46 percent from corporate bonds, and 2.44 percent from government bonds. If workers who retired in 2011 had been allowed to invest the employee half of the Social Security payroll tax over their working lifetime, they would retire with more income than if they relied on Social Security. Indeed, even in the worst-case scenario—a low-wage worker who invested entirely in bonds—the benefits from private investment would equal those from traditional Social Security.

Some people doubtlessly will still be skeptical of personal accounts, thinking to themselves that a check from the government might be meager, but at least it’s guaranteed.

But that is a very foolish assumption. When the welfare state begins to collapse and it becomes apparent that higher taxes simply make a bad situation even worse, politicians will have no choice but to renege on unaffordable promises. Just look at what’s happening in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.

And as this chart from Mike’s paper illustrates, American politicians have dug a huge hole. Relying on the empty promises of Washington politicians will be far more risky than personal retirement accounts.

The chart shows big funding shortfalls, particularly once the baby boomers have retired. Most people, though, aren’t familiar with concepts such as “percent of taxable payroll.”

So let’s make it simple. If we look at all of the future deficits, adjust them for inflation so we can make an apples-to-apples comparison, and then add them up, the Social Security shortfall is close to $30 trillion.

We know that personal accounts work. Nations such as Australia, Chile, and Sweden have reaped big benefits by making the shift.

I’m not surprised that left-wing journalists want to trap American workers in a bad system. But I am disappointed that a lot of Republican politicians feel the same way.

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While I’m obviously not a fan of big government, I have mixed feelings about why the public sector is so blindly wasteful.

Is it because politicians and bureaucrats are well-intentioned morons who accidentally do damage (as illustrated by this cartoon), or is it that they are venal vultures looking to grab as much loot as possible before the house of cards comes crashing down (powerfully demonstrated by this example)?

The answer is probably a combination, so the real challenge is figuring out whether specific examples of government stupidity fall into one category or another.

Let’s look at three recent examples.

First, we have a story from the surveillance state known as the United Kingdom.

On a cold, dark night on the mean streets of the UK, an undercover police officer was radioed and informed that a potential suspect was close by. Keen to do the right thing, he set off in hot pursuit. Twenty fraught minutes later, he learned he’d been chasing… himself. The CCTV operator reported to police that someone was ‘acting suspiciously’, according to The Telegraph. Unfortunately, the officer who decided to follow up on the report was actually the shadowy figure in question. …The poor guy doing the chasing reassured the CCTV operator that he was “hot on the heels” of the suspect. Uh, at least until the police officer’s boss turned up in the CCTV control room and recognized him.

This definitely falls into the incompetence and stupidity category. Why didn’t the camera operator figure our that there was only one person on the screen. Then again, I once spent a minute or so looking in my bedroom for a cell phone that I was holding in my left hand, so I don’t want to be overly judgmental.

So let’s look at another case of government in action. Indeed, this could become the start of a new TV program: The Fart Police.

Harold Wayne Hadley, Jr., 19, was arrested at a Mississippi junior college after he allegedly wrote a note on a piece of toilet paper on Tuesday, containing the word ‘bomb,’ according to Weirdnews.net. The note prompted 11 emergency agencies to respond to the school, but there was no bomb. Hadley and his family contend that he was only explaining the joy of flatulating in the library. “He was in the restroom doodling on some toilet paper … we are from the country, and he calls passing gas, bombs,” said Hadley’s aunt, who wouldn’t give her name to WDAM. “[He] put ‘I passed a bomb in the library,’ talking about passing gas, and somebody came in and found it, gave it to a teacher that recognized his hand writing and it blew all out of proportion.” …Hadley was arrested and held on $20,000 bail. If convicted of threatening to blow up the school, he faces 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine,according to WAPT.

Part of me wants to forgive this example of government excess. After all, we live in a post-Columbine world and I suppose schools have to plan for the worst in case they have unstable Anthony-Weiner-type students.

But then I notice two things in the story that set off alarm bells, beginning with the fact that 11 government agencies responded. If that doesn’t tell you right away that we have too many government bureaucracies and too many bureaucrats with nothing to do, then you must be in a coma.

The other thing I noticed is that a teacher recognized the student’s handwriting. So if that was true, why didn’t someone contact the student before going nuclear on the situation?

Last but not least, let’s look at an example of government misbehavior that defies description.

[A] West Hoke Elementary School student was in her More at Four classroom when a state agent who was inspecting lunch boxes decided that her packed lunch — which consisted of a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, apple juice and potato chips — “did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines,” the Journal reports. The decision was made under consideration of a regulation put in place by the the Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services, which requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs to meet USDA guidelines. “When home-packed lunches do not include all of the required items, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones,” the Journal reports. The student’s mother told the Journal she received a note from the school about the incident and was charged $1.25 for the cafeteria tray, from which her daughter only ate three chicken nuggets. …The mother, who was not identified in the report, expressed concern about school officials telling her daughter that she wasn’t “packing her lunch box properly.”

This is downright horrifying, perhaps even more disgusting than any of these stories of government malfeasance and idiocy. Several questions come to mind.

  • Is the bureaucracy so bloated that we have food police in schools?
  • Why is the Department of Agriculture preparing food guidelines?
  • Why is there a Division of Child Development and Early Education
  • More important, why is there a Department of Health and Human Services?
  • When did the nanny state get the power to overrule parents on what kids eat for lunch?
  • And why are pencil-neck bureaucrats in charge of lunch box packing etiquette?

I rarely comment about religion on this blog, but reading this story almost makes me hope there’s no such thing as Heaven. That’s because I would hate to think our Founding Fathers are looking down from above and seeing what has happened to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

P.S. I’ll re-ask the question I posed last year: Why should we ever agree to more taxes when politicians and bureaucrats do such a rotten job with the money we’re already giving them?

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Readers seem to really enjoy the political humor on this site, much of which mocks big government and statist politicians.

But the jokes and cartoons mocking libertarians also get good reviews, probably because advocates of small government have better senses of humor and are less insecure (how’s that for self-serving analysis?).

We started this series with a video portraying Somalia as a libertarian paradise.

Then we had two cartoons, one on libertarian ice fishing and the other showing libertarian lifeguards.

I thought we then hit a high point with the image showing 24 types of libertarians.

But this new cartoon, which I first saw on the What We Think and Why blog, may be even better.

As I’ve said before, effective humor takes a bit of truth and turns it into caricature, and these images strike home.

When I give speeches in front of Republican audiences, they seem to think that libertarianism is all about sex and drugs. I try to put their minds at rest by pointing out that I strike out with dismaying frequency on the former and have never tried the latter, but I’m not sure that works.

When I talk to left wingers, they probably don’t think I’m wealthy (I should be so lucky), but they definitely think that I represent the interests of the rich. I try to explain that big government is all about an elite class figuring out ways to rape and pillage ordinary people, but I wonder whether that message sinks in.

When I talk to the media, it’s obvious that most of them can’t distinguish between Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party, and the libertarian philosophy, so that part is exactly right.

When I’m hanging out with non-political friends, they probably don’t think I’m crazy, per se, but they definitely think I’m engaged in a pointless and futile effort.

When I analyze myself, I like to think of myself as a freedom fighter. But our Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. What about me? Well, my life’s not at risk and I have no fortune to lose, but I do sometimes have to travel to places where there isn’t a convenient McDonald’s. Not exactly the same level of sacrifice. On the other hand, I think I can safely claim to have never sold out, so at least I have honor.

But the final image really does sum up my life. Day after day, I sit in front of a computer and it seems all I do is read and write about never-ending examples of brain-dead government stupidity.  And if you don’t believe me, look at these examples.

That, my friends, is the real challenge of being a libertarian.

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