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Archive for November, 2013

Time for some weekend humor.

A friend sent me an example of three naval ships.

The first is an aircraft carrier named after Ronald Reagan.

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of the Gipper, and I’ve shared several inspirational Reagan videos (see here, here, and here). So I’m understandably appreciative of the USS Reagan.

SS Reagan

Next, we have a ship named after Bill Clinton.

We’re obviously entering make-believe territory, and I would have preferred this joke to target Jimmy Carter because Clinton actually turned out to be a pretty good President. Or, to be more precise, we got reasonably good policy during the Clinton years.

In any event, I can certainly see the humor in this image.

Though I’m surprised there isn’t a reference to coed bunks.

Or interns.

Or cigars.

Or…well, you get the point.

SS Clinton

By the way, if you like Bill Clinton humor, you can enjoy my favorites by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Last but not least, we have a new naval vessel that captures the Obama Administration.

SS Obama

I’m surprised there’s not also a reference to a website, but maybe this set of images was put together before the cluster-you-know-what of Obamacare.

To close, let’s share some more Obama mockery. We have this t-shirt, this Pennsylvania joke, this Reagan-Obama comparison, this Wyoming joke, this Bush-Obama comparison, this video satire, and this bumper sticker.

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I greatly admire the way some political cartoonists are able to effectively capture the essence of an issue.

And when it comes to government, I’ve always enjoyed the cartoons that portray the state as a blundering, often-malicious, overweight nitwit. You can see some of my favorite examples here, herehereherehereherehereherehere and here.

But I don’t recall ever seeing a cartoon that manages to illustrate the real nature of politics.

Until now, that is. Enjoy this Glenn McCoy cartoon, which cleverly shows the attitude of Washington’s ruling class when confronted by ordinary citizens who band together to defend themselves from predatory politicians.

Government Goliath Cartoon

Glenn McCoy, by the way, had a very respectable showing in my poll allowing readers to pick their favorite political cartoonist. His top cartoon, on media bias, is funny on several levels.

Sticking with the topic of government, let’s also enjoy a Steve Kelley cartoon that was published back during the shutdown fight (which was the source of a lot of good humor). The cartoon is a bit dated, of course, but the “business as usual” line gives it an everlasting appeal.

Government Incompetence Cartoon

Needless to say, the disastrous unveiling of Obamacare basically confirms the cartoon’s message, so it’s hard to know where satire ends and reality begins. It’s almost as if Obama is a Manchurian candidate. Except instead of being a socialist plant, as some conspiracy-minded conservatives seem to think, he’s actually a closeted libertarian who’s brilliantly waging a campaign to convince people to distrust big government!

Maybe I accidentally stumbled onto something when I joked back in 2010 that the Libertarian Party was going to name Obama its Man of the Year.

All joking aside, this poster has a very serious message, just like the above cartoons, and I encourage people to share it widely.

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Regular readers know I complain about the army of overpaid bureaucrats in Washington, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The larger problem is that Washington also is filled with hundreds of thousands of other people who get rich thanks to big government. And these politicians, lobbyists, crony capitalists, interest groups, contractors, and influence peddlers almost surely are a bigger net drain on the economy’s productive sector.

When you combine the official bureaucracy with these other over-compensated beneficiaries of big government, it’s easy to understand why Washington, DC, is now the richest region of America, with 10 of the nation’s 15 richest counties.

Reuters did an expose last year on how Washington fat cats are living on Easy Street at our expense, and The Economist also has touched on the issue. But you know the problem has reached epidemic levels when even the local left-wing paper covers the story.

And that’s exactly what is happening. The Washington Post reports on how coerced access to other people’s money has meant boom times for the beltway elite. Here are some excerpts on how your money is creating unearned riches for DC insiders.

The avalanche of cash that made Washington rich in the last decade has transformed the culture of a once staid capital and created a new wave of well-heeled insiders.Wash Post Capital Wealth The winners in the new Washington are not just the former senators, party consiglieri and four-star generals who have always profited from their connections. Now they are also the former bureaucrats, accountants and staff officers for whom unimagined riches are suddenly possible. …They are the lawyers, lobbyists and executives who work for companies that barely had a presence in Washington before the boom.

Here are some depressing stats from the story.

During the past decade, the region added 21,000 households in the nation’s top 1 percent. No other metro area came close. …in 2010, companies based in Rep. James P. Moran’s congressional district in Northern Virginia reaped $43 billion in federal contracts — roughly as much as the state of Texas. At the same time, big companies realized that a few million spent shaping legislation could produce windfall profits. They nearly doubled the cash they poured into the capital. …Essentially, Washington has been the beneficiary of a ­decade-long, taxpayer-funded stimulus package.

Unfortunately, all this federal largesse is corrupting the business community, with many companies deciding that lobbying for tax dollars is more lucrative than competing for consumer dollars.

The federal government wasn’t the only one pouring buckets of new money into Washington in the 2000s. Big business did it, too. At a time when promising investments were hard to find, corporate America learned that lobbying was one of the most surefire ways of bolstering its bottom line. …Companies spent about $3.5 billion annually on lobbying at the end of the last decade, a nearly 90 percent increase from 1999 after adjusting for inflation… Legal services also boomed, fueled by the growing complexities of federal business regulations. The number of lawyers in the D.C. metro area increased by a third from 2000 to 2012, nearly twice as fast as the growth rate nationwide. And those lawyers have the highest mean salaries in the country, according to George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis.

Lobbying isn’t automatically a bad thing, by the way. Sometimes a company needs representation so that the political vultures in Washington don’t descend upon them.

“You know that if a company stopped lobbying, it would get creamed,” Drutman said. “That’s why companies don’t stop lobbying.”

The real moral of the story is that small government and genuinely free markets are the only effective ways to reduce sordid lobbying and political corruption.

The challenge, needless to say, is convincing the Washington establishment to adopt those policies. That’s not an easy task, particularly when it violates my First Theorem of Government.

P.S. Here’s a great video from Reason about Washington’s parasite economy.

P.P.S. Here’s an example of how Obamacare has lined the pockets of some DC insiders.

P.P.P.S. And here are some grating details about how the President is part of the problem.

P.P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some government corruption humor here, here, here, here, and (my personal creation) here.

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There’s a joke in Washington that Democrats are the evil party and Republicans are the stupid party.

Except this joke isn’t very funny since a lot of bad policy occurs when gullible GOPers get lured into “bipartisan” deals that expand government. Consider, for example, all the tax-hiking budget deals – such as the “read my lips” capitulation of the first President Bush – that enable more spending.

To be fair, sometimes Republicans are placed in a no-win situation. During the “fiscal cliff” discussions last year, Obama held the upper hand since he would get a huge automatic tax hike if nothing happened. So the final agreement, which resulted in a smaller tax increase, was actually better (or, to be more accurate, less worse) than I was expecting.

But in other cases, Republicans should prevail because they have the stronger hand. That’s the situation we’re in today with the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

The sequester, which resulted from the 2011 debt-limit fight, was an unambiguous defeat for Obama and a significant victory for advocates of smaller government. And it was a defeat for all the lobbyists, special interests, and crony capitalists that get rich when there’s more money in Washington.

Though I don’t want to exaggerate. The “cuts” merely reduce the projected growth of federal spending.

But after years of unconstrained spending by both Bush and Obama, any fiscal restraint is a welcome development. Indeed, the sequester helps to explain why we’ve seen two consecutive years of lower spending in Washington for the first time since the 1950s.

No wonder Obama is desperate to cancel sequestration, even to the point of making himself a laughingstock to cartoonists.

But maybe Obama will have the last laugh because some Republicans are negotiating with Democrats to undo some of the benefits of sequestration. Here are some excerpts from a Politico report.

…an agreement may not be so elusive after all. Hopes are growing that Ryan and Murray could reach a narrow deal to replace a portion of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, according to lawmakers and senior aides involved in the discussions. …On Tuesday, several key lawmakers and aides said there was about a 50-50 chance, if not better, that a small deal could be reached — a much better prognosis than many had anticipated. Murray said in an interview Tuesday that she’s in “very good conversations” with Ryan. “The goal here is to replace sequestration with responsible spending cuts and revenue,” Murray said.

I shudder to think what Senator Murray means by “responsible spending cuts.” Presumably gimmicks.

But we don’t need a vivid imagination to know what she means by “revenue.” The real question is why Republicans would be willing to “feed the beast” with more revenue, particularly when it means eviscerating the genuine spending restraint imposed by sequestration.

It even appears as if Republicans are willing to increase unemployment as part of a bad deal.

House and Senate appropriators are putting major pressure on Murray and Ryan… Revenue raisers being discussed include increased Transportation Security Administration fees… As an extra bargaining chip, Republicans would consider including an extension of extended unemployment benefits, which expire on Dec. 28. …Murray has made clear she won’t agree to any structural changes to Medicare or Social Security, particularly without significant revenue increases.

So let’s summarize this issue.

Current law is the sequester, which is a big victory.

The big spenders understandably want to eliminate or weaken the sequester, and would be especially happy to get more revenue coming to Washington.

Paul Ryan and the other Republican negotiators have the upper hand since the sequester continues if there’s no agreement.

So we have to ask ourselves why GOPers are even bothering to negotiate. There are two possible answers.

1. The “stupid party” joke actually is an accurate assessment of mental ability and Republicans are easy to trick because of their developmental challenges.

2. Republicans pretend to be fiscal conservatives when talking to voters but secretly want to enable more spending by sabotaging the sequester.

I’m actually being a bit unfair. What’s really happening is that there are divisions inside the GOP. A majority of the Republican caucus presumably understands that they hold a winning hand and they’re content to maintain current law and let the sequester continue.

But the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee tend to dislike the sequester since it reduces their ability to spend other people’s money in exchange for political support.

They correctly complain that America’s main fiscal problem is entitlement spending, so you can understand why they’re a bit irked that their programs are being restrained while boondoggles such as Obamacare are putting us deeper in a fiscal hole.

But that’s not an argument to waste money on so-called discretionary programs. Moreover, the appropriators are wildly wrong when they assert that appropriations spending already has been “cut to the bone.”

There are also some hawks who accurately complain that defense spending incurs a disproportionate share of the sequester, but they are wrong when they say this endangers national security. After all, defense spending still grows under sequestration and America will still account for nearly 50 percent of the world’s military spending.

So what’s the bottom line?

In an ideal world, policy makers would focus first on desperately needed entitlement reform. And I suspect many members of the Appropriations and Defense Committees would grumble a lot less about restraints on discretionary spending if real structural reforms to so-called mandatory programs were being implemented.

But we don’t live in that world. The sad reality of Washington is that genuine entitlement reform won’t happen with Obama in the White House. But that’s not an argument for surrendering on sequestration and allowing discretionary spending to climb at a faster rate.

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While I’m critical of the overall design and impact of President Obama’s economic policy, I don’t have a partisan agenda and I’m willing to give the White House credit when it’s warranted.

I’ve pointed out, for instance, that Obama has increased spending at a slower rate than his GOP predecessor. That may be damning with faint praise since Bush was a big spender, but at least Obama didn’t open the money spigot in Washington even wider.

I also gave Obama some grudging praise for opposing a French tax harmonization scheme.

Heck, I even went out of my way to find something vaguely positive to say about Obamacare.

And I’ve shared some pro-Obama humor and even (sort of) defended Obama from the accusation that he’s a socialist.

So I think I have at least some ability to dispassionately judge (from a libertarian perspective) how President Obama ranks in comparison to others who have held the office.

I’m motivated to address this issue because several readers sent me an article in the Huffington Post that makes a rather remarkable claim.

Barack Obama is one of the greatest presidents America has ever seen. I believe history will prove this, and with time, he will be remembered in the annals of history as a revered revolutionary.

Even more amazing, the author wasn’t being satirical. He lists 12 specific reasons why he thinks Obama deserves high praise.

1. He is for The People. …2. He is for civil rights. …3. He is for one race – the human race. …4. He is for a healthcare system that brings hope and healing to the hurting. …5.  He is for the middle class. …6. He is for women’s rights. …7. He is for doing away with pomp and circumstance. …8. He is for the environment. …9. He is for veterans. …10. He is for peace. …11. He is for education. …12. He is for entertaining the masses.

If you click through and read the details, you’ll notice that the author almost never provides any details to back up his 12 reasons. He simply asserts that the President has good intentions.

Well, that probably true. But so what? I’m sure Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon also had good intentions.

And when the author does provide details, they are very weak. Let’s look at a few specific claims.

We’re supposed to believe Obama “is for peace” because he was awarded a Nobel Prize immediately after taking office and before he did anything.

His actual record, for what it’s worth, has been to continue many of Bush’s policies and to pursue military intervention in Libya and Syria.

The author says Obama is “for the middle class,” yet that passage of the article doesn’t list a single policy, much less a specific accomplishment.

And there certainly wasn’t any effort to explain how an $8 trillion output gap and a seemingly permanent reduction in the employment-population ratio are good for ordinary people.

Moreover, if Obama “is for a healthcare system that brings hope and healing to the hurting,” then one might expect the author to reconcile that assertion with the fact that Obamacare is causing millions of people to lose their health insurance.

I’m also puzzled by the claim that the President “is for education.” This is the White House, after all, that was so intent on undermining opportunity for disadvantaged kids in Louisiana that even the Washington Post felt compelled to slam the Administration.

There’s no need to go through all 12 “reasons” before reaching the conclusion that there’s no way Obama deserves to be ranked anywhere near the top of the list for best Presidents.

And I’m not basing that on my own ideological preferences. If you want my opinion, Reagan and Coolidge are among the best (with an honorable mention for Bill Clinton) and FDR, Nixon, Wilson, and Hoover are near the bottom.

But even by non-ideological standards, it’s simply not credible to give Obama high marks.

P.S. If I had to guess, I suspect Obama would like to be another FDR. Fortunately, he won’t achieve that goal.

P.P.S. The assertion that Obama is “one of the best Presidents ever” is almost as silly as the claim that he is a conservative.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re comparing Presidents, I can’t resist sharing that the polling data showing that people would overwhelmingly vote for Reagan over Obama.

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It’s no secret that I think we have too many government bureaucrats and I’ve shared very strong evidence that most of them are grossly overpaid.

I also have shown some data suggesting that they don’t work very hard, though I confess to mixed feelings about that factoid since I’d rather have some bureaucrats goofing off all day. After all, the economy would be even more burdened if they were being zealous and harassing additional people in the economy’s productive sector.

As an economist, one of my broad concerns is that taxpayers are picking up the tab for bloated bureaucracy. But I’m also worried for another big reason. We get less prosperity when too many people are being lured into government jobs. Simply stated, those people could be contributing to economic output if they instead were employed in the private sector.

In other words, our living standards depend on how productively we utilize labor and capital.

But we need to be careful about how we define “private sector.”

Why? Because not all private jobs are created equal. There are millions of government contractors, for instance, and many of those people should be considered part of a “shadow bureaucracy.” Too often, they’re doing things that are just as wasteful and inefficient as their bureaucrat counterparts, but they don’t show up in the Labor Department data as part of the government workforce.

Another example of the wrong kind of private employment is the so-called compliance sector.

Here are some excerpts from a report in The Hill about “compliance officers” hired by private companies.

A growing thicket of federal regulations under the Obama administration has contributed to an employment spike in at least one corner of the job market: the increasingly vital compliance industry.  ObamaCare, the Dodd-Frank Act and other large federal undertakings have led to an outpouring of new agency rules derided by business groups and defended by advocates.  But the regulations have also been a boon for professional compliance officers paid to help companies understand and adapt to the new requirements.  …Data kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows an 18-percent increase in the number of compliance officers in the United States between 2009 and 2012.

The article continues, including data showing that the compliance sector is getting bigger, costing lots of money, and that the problem began before Obama took office.

At last count, there were an estimated 227,500 compliance officers employed in the United States, according to the BLS. The bureau defines a compliance officer as an employee responsible for evaluating conformity with laws and regulations. …Compliance officers make an average of just under $65,000 annually, a gross national labor cost of roughly $14.7 billion, according to the BLS data. …for small firms without the resources to hire their own full-time compliance staff, adapting to new regulations can be an expensive proposition, said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy for AAF. …The expansion of the compliance industry did not begin under President Obama and is not solely linked to the healthcare and Wall Street reform bills. The AAF analysis found a 122-percent increase of compliance officers over the past 10 years.

Gee, maybe we can get to the point where our entire economy is nothing but government bureaucrats and compliance officers. With enough of both categories, we could have full employment!

Of course, there would be one tiny little problem since nothing would get produced. And with nobody generating any income, there wouldn’t be any money to pay for the paper pushers from both government and the private sector.

But as we’ve seen from nations such as Greece, politicians generally don’t grasp this simple point until it’s too late.

Though let’s give a shout out to the former left-wing President of Brazil, who irritated his socialist supporters by making a seemingly elementary observation that you have to have production before you can have redistribution. Heck, even rock stars are beginning to realize that capitalism is the right approach if you want better lives for the less fortunate.

So maybe there’s hope.

Let’s close by issuing a couple of important caveats. Notwithstanding my occasionally overheated rhetoric, not all government jobs are bad jobs. Similarly, I don’t want to imply that all compliance jobs in the private sector are wasteful and inefficient.

To be more specific, I mean those statements in the narrow sense that companies doubtlessly are trying to adapt to all the new regulatory burdens in the least costly manner possible. So the jobs they are creating make sense, given the reality that firms are being buried under a blizzard of red tape.

But I also mean it in the broad sense that there are some regulations that pass a cost-benefit test, and compliance officers resulting from those regulations presumably are part of such calculations. Even a cranky libertarian like me, for instance, won’t lose sleep about compliance officers in a nuclear power plant or at a medical lab doing research on the Ebola virus.*

*But allow me to point out that a genuinely free market would have something akin to compliance officers because of “private regulation.” As I explained last year, “the profit motive creates mutually reinforcing oversight,” and we can be quite confident that market forces would do a better job of protecting us at lower cost.

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President Obama has presided over a terrible jobs market.

Unemployment is more than two-percentage points higher today than the White House claimed it would be if the so-called stimulus was enacted.

Even more worrisome, the employment-population ratio seems to have permanently fallen, which is bad news for economic performance since our output is a function of how much capital and labor is being productively utilized.

So what’s the response from the Obama Administration? Well, they want to further subsidize people for not working.

I’m not joking. Here’s some of what has been reported by the Huffington Post.

The Obama administration on Friday came out strongly in support of extending long-term unemployment insurance past its current expiration date. …”We have always done so when unemployment is this high and would make little sense to fail to do so now when we are still facing the burdens of the worst downturn since the Great Recession,” [Obama economic adviser Gene] Sperling said. “It is high bang for the buck for the economy, reduces poverty and helps workers who lost jobs due to no fault of their own get back on their feet.”

But is it true that providing more unemployment benefits is an approach that “helps workers”?  In their academic writings, both Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have pointed out that you get more unemployment when you subsidize joblessness.

And research by Professor Casey Mulligan also has found a very clear link between government benefits and unemployment. If you’re still not convinced, here’s some more empirical evidence showing that you get more joblessness when you subsidize leisure.

And now we have even more evidence showing that it doesn’t make sense to make leisure more attractive than employment. Four economists conducted some new empirical research to look at how unemployment benefits impact economic performance in the labor market. First they explain the theoretical concerns.

Unemployment in the U.S. rose dramatically during the Great Recession… The policy response involved an unprecedented extension of unemployment benefits with benefit duration rising from the usual 26 weeks to as long as 99 weeks. …The effectiveness of this policy response was questioned by Barro (2010) and Mulligan (2012), among others. Because unemployment benefit extensions represent an implicit tax on market work, they subsidize unemployment and discourage labor supply. …Everything else equal, extending unemployment benefits exerts an upward pressure on the equilibrium wage. This lowers the profits employers receive from filled jobs, leading to a decline in vacancy creation. Lower vacancies imply a lower job finding rate for workers, which leads to an increase in unemployment.

Then they report their findings, including the remarkable result that the bulk of poor employment numbers in recent years are the result of extended unemployment benefits.

Our empirical strategy exploits a policy discontinuity at state borders to identify the effects of unemployment insurance policies on unemployment. …We explicitly control for the effects of other policy changes at the state level (that could be correlated with the expansion of unemployment benefit durations) to ensure that our estimates isolate the effects of unemployment benefit extensions. …We find that unemployment rises dramatically in the border counties belonging to the states that expanded unemployment benefit duration as compared to the counties just across the state border. The quantitative magnitude of this effect is so large that our estimates imply that benefit extensions can quantitatively account for much of the unemployment dynamics following the Great Recession.

Some Keynesians argue that unemployment benefits are nonetheless good for the economy because of the impact on aggregate demand. But even if you believe Keynesian theory, the authors find that unemployment benefits don’t help because of the offsetting foregone income resulting from fewer jobs.

…an increase in unemployment due to benefit extensions is similar in magnitude to the decline of employment. Thus, the total effect on spending is ambiguous as extending benefits increase spending by the unemployed but at the same time decrease spending as fewer people are employed.

So what’s the bottom line? Simply stated, we need some tough love. There needs to be a limit on unemployment benefits so that companies will have more incentive to create jobs and so that unemployed people will have more incentive to get off the couch and find a job.

I’ve made this point during television interviews, but I suspect that many people will find this Michael Ramirez cartoon more compelling and convincing. In any event, it’s more entertaining.

And we definitely can’t overlook this superb Wizard-of-Id parody. It doesn’t focus on unemployment benefits, but it makes a great point about labor supply incentives in a very amusing fashion.

But let’s close on a serious note. Comparing data from the United States and Europe also shows that government policy has a big impact on the labor market. And if you prefer anecdotes, check out this story from Michigan and this example from Ohio.

P.S. At least the President is consistent. He also is pushing another policy that would increase unemployment.

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