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Archive for June, 2014

There have been many truly awful presidents elected in the United States, but if I had to pick my least favorite, I might choose Herbert Hoover.

I obviously have disdain for Hoover’s big-government policies, but I also am extremely irritated that – as Jonah Goldberg explained – he allowed the left to create an utterly bogus narrative that the Great Depression was caused by capitalism and free markets.

Indeed, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity produced a video demonstrating that the statist policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt helped trigger, deepen, and lengthen the economic slump.

Building on that theme, here’s a new video from Prager University that looks specifically at the misguided policies of Herbert Hoover.

Amen. Great job unmasking Hoover’s terrible record.

As I explained when correcting a glaring error by Andrew Sullivan, Hoover was a big-government interventionist. Heck, even FDR’s inner circle understood that the New Deal was simply an extension of Hoover’s statist policies.

In other words, FDR doubled down on Hoover’s awful record. And with awful results. We have a better understanding today of how the New Deal caused the downturn to be deeper and longer.

This Tom Sowell video is definitely worth watching if you want more information on that topic.

And here’s something else to share with your big-government friends. The Keynesian crowd was predicting another massive depression after World War II because of both a reduction in wartime outlays and the demobilization of millions of troops. Yet that didn’t happen, as Jeff Jacoby has succinctly explained. And if you want more details on how smaller government helped restore growth after WWII, check out what Jason Taylor and Rich Vedder wrote for Cato.

P.S. I’ve compared Bush and Obama to Hoover and Roosevelt because of some very obvious similarities. Bush was a big-government Republican who helped pave the way for a big-government Democrat, just as Hoover was a big-government Republican who also created the conditions for a big-government Democrat.

The analogy also is good because I suspect political and economic incompetence led both Hoover and Bush to expand the burden of government, whereas their successors were ideologically committed to bigger government. We know about Obama’s visceral statism, and you can watch a video of FDR advocating genuinely awful policy.

The good news is that Obama will never be as bad as FDR, no matter how hard he tries.

P.P.S. It’s also worth mentioning that a very serious downturn in 1921 was quickly ended in part thanks to big reductions in the burden of government spending. Your Keynesian friends will also have a hard time explaining how that happened.

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When I started writing about public policy, I never realized that …um…human waste would be a frequent topic.

*But we examined (not too closely!) the story of a Postal Service employee who defecated in someone’s yard and got to keep his job.

*We wondered why the Greek government wanted stool samples from entrepreneurs starting online companies.

*We mocked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for pushing a multi-billion dollar regulation to help “pee-shy” employees.

*We contemplated the story of a 30-year old man who wanted government handouts to subsidize his fetish of wearing adult diapers.

*And even though it had nothing to do with public policy, I wrote about my inability to figure out a foreign toilet.

So with that track record, you know I have to give some coverage to a report about EPA bureaucrats pooping in hallways.

Here is a passage from a story published by Government Executive.

Environmental Protection Agency workers have done some odd things recently. Contractors built secret man caves in an EPA warehouse, an employee pretended to work for the CIA to get unlimited vacations and one worker even spent most of his time on the clock looking at pornography. It appears, however, that a regional office has reached a new low: Management for Region 8 in Denver, Colo., wrote an email earlier this year to all staff in the area pleading with them to stop inappropriate bathroom behavior, including defecating in the hallway.

This somehow hasn’t been a problem anyplace I’ve worked, and I even spent some time on Capitol Hill in 1989-1990 (there was a lot of you-know-what in Congress, but it was the figurative kind).

But at least we can count on government to use any excuse to waste money. The EPA pissed away (no pun intended) some of our tax dollars so that a so-called consultant could state the obvious.

Confounded by what to make of this occurrence, EPA management “consulted” with workplace violence “national expert” John Nicoletti, who said that hallway feces is in fact a health and safety risk.

Gee, I wonder how much Mr. Nicoletti got paid to produce such brilliant analysis.

But let’s look at the silver lining to this story. When EPA bureaucrats are pooping in hallways, that’s a relatively non-destructive use of their time.

If the bureaucrats were industrious, we’d see more horror stories such as:

1. Persecuting a family for building a pond on their own property.

2. Persecuting a family for trying to build a house on their own property.

Let’s close by making fun of extreme environmentalism. For instance, green crazies have produced hand-cranked vibrators to fight global warming. And they also want us to use uncomfortable recycled toilet paper.

This makes them easy targets for satire, such as this video mocking Al Gore and this Hitler parody video about global warming.

We also have this joke about a modern-day Noah trying to build an ark, this satire about a “dam” beaver,” this humor involving the Pope, loggers, and an environmentalist, and this R-rated humor about a tree hugger.

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I’ve often explained that “third-party payer” is a major problem in our healthcare sector.

This occurs when consumers can buy healthcare with other people’s money. For instance, nearly half of all healthcare spending in America is directly financed by government. And a big chunk of supposedly private healthcare spending is actually the result of government policies that encourage and subsidize over-insurance (in which case, people may be buying healthcare with their own money, at least indirectly, but in a system akin to a pre-paid all-you-can-eat buffet).

Anyhow, one of the big downsides of this system is that third-party payer undermines market discipline and leads to higher prices and massive inefficiency in the health sector.

This then leads to a perverse outcome as politicians point to the higher prices and inefficiency and say this is evidence of market failure!! In a stereotypical example of “Mitchell’s Law,” they then propose more government to ostensibly deal with problems created by government (and people wonder why I have lots of gray hair).

We have the same problem in higher education, except it may be even worse if you look at these charts. Simply stated, government loans and grants have enabled colleges, schools, and universities to dramatically boost tuition and engage in massive bureaucratic featherbedding.

Interestingly, the Obama Administration has a proposal that sort of addresses this issue. The Department of Education is proposing “gainful employment” regulations that would, among other provisions, limit loans and financial aid on the basis of whether a school produces students with high student-loan debt relative to post-graduate earnings.

This sounds like it might be a good idea. After all, it would presumably lead to less government spending.

But there’s a catch. A giant catch, as explained by Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

…if it is truly needed to protect students, why are public and private non-profit universities excluded? For-profit schools only serve about 20% of all higher education students, and yet are the exclusive target of the regulation.

Yes, you read correctly. The Obama Administration is not trying to save money or impose accountability. Instead, it is seeking to undermine competition.

You may think I’m making this up, but a former senior bureaucrat at the Department of Education bragged, in a speech to a left-wing group, that the goal is to stamp out for-profit schools.

Here’s another excerpt from the folks at the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Former deputy undersecretary of education Robert Shireman, who initiated the Gainful Employment regulations, is currently under investigation for ethics violations and conflicts of interest relating to these effort. He has made clear through public comments that he sees eradicating private-sector colleges as his ultimate goal. In a recent speech delivered at the Center for American Progress, he said he does not believe that a business should own a college.

This fight illustrates why government intervention is so corrupting.

I don’t like any federal subsidies to education, whether for K-12 or for higher education. I don’t care whether the subsidies are for government schools, non-profit private schools, or for-profit private schools.

So I would like to cut off loans, grants, and other funds to for-profit schools, but that should happen at the same time that handouts also are being eliminated for other types of schools (Tim Carney has a very good explanation of why there are no good guys in this fight).

Let me close with an analogy.

I don’t want federal money in the healthcare system. So that means I don’t want payments of taxpayer money to private hospitals and private physicians.

But I would be even more agitated if the Obama White House said that it would “save money” by cutting off health funds, but only monies going to the private providers. The net result is that we all would be forced into VA-type treatment from government.

The moral of the story is to shrink government across the board.

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Back in 2010, I shared a remarkable chart showing how quickly economic output doubles in a fast-growth economy, but it also showed how long it takes for GDP to expand if an economy only grows 1 percent or 2 percent per year.

My main message was that nations should follow good policy because:

…even modest differences in economic growth can have a big impact on relative prosperity with a couple of decades.

But what’s really astounding – in a bad way – is that there used to be no growth. I recently posted a remarkable video from Learn Liberty that showed how the world was mired in poverty for century after century until growth exploded around 1800.

Now Don Boudreaux has a similar must-watch video for Marginal Revolution University.

The moral of the story is that poverty is, or at least was, the natural state of humanity.

But then something remarkable happened. The power of government was constrained and the vitality of markets was unleashed. The rest, as they say, is history.

And if you want to see a remarkable case study, the Fund for American Studies has its own great video showing how one nation went from misery to prosperity in just 100 or so years.

And to augment that video, here’s a chart from Wikipedia.

Just something to have in the back of your mind when some statist naively tells you the economy is a fixed pie and that successful entrepreneurs only become rich by making other people poor.

That’s simply not true.

Actually, allow me to revise my remarks. In the left’s fantasy world of taxes, bailouts, handouts, and cronyism, there is no growth and some people are able to use government coercion to become rich by ripping off others.

But in all likelihood, this satirical image shows the true impact of statism and redistribution.

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When I wrote recently that the IRS was corrupt, venal, and despicable, I didn’t realize that I was bending over backwards to be overly nice.

Every new revelation in the scandal shows that the agency is beyond salvage.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute is appropriately skeptical of the IRS.

Coincidentally, Lerner’s computer crashed 10 days after Congress expressed concern about possible targeting of conservative groups. Emails between January 2009 and April 2011 were lost. Her computer is not available for examination, because it has already been recycled by the IRS. In a further coincidence, or not, a backup tape of agency emails made by the IRS was erased after 6 months. …As Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins said, the story sounds more and more implausible.

Diana then explains why this matters, using Obamacare as an example of why we should worry about a corrupt and politicized IRS.

Why should we care about missing emails from 2009 to 2011? As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a 2013 hearing about Benghazi, “What difference at this point does it make?” It is not just that Americans’ basic trust in the IRS is being called into question. Over the past five years the IRS has been concentrating its power, giving the agency increased opportunities to pick on people and groups it dislikes. …Sarah Hall Ingram, who was commissioner of the IRS’s Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Division from 2009 to 2012 during the Lois Lerner scandal, now heads the IRS Affordable Care Act Office. …Do Americans trust the IRS to calculate these subsidies and refunds impartially? The IRS already made a power grab in May 2012 by extending premium subsidies to the 34 states with federal exchanges.

She also points out that the IRS is carrying water for the President’s attempt to stifle opposing views.

…the IRS proposed regulations that would allow the agency to regulate the free speech of President Obama’s political opponents, while leaving the political activities of his friends untouched. …The regulations were targeted at tax-exempt organizations that file under 501(c)(4) of the IRS code… Under the new rules these groups would not be allowed to engage in voter education that mentions a candidate within two months of a general election or one month of a primary. Left untouched by the proposed regulations were unions, which file under 501(c)(5) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute also is not persuaded by the IRS’s deceitful excuses.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the administration have consistently spouted lies and half-truths about the IRS scandal. The latest development in the controversy is that crucial emails have conveniently gone missing – is there any reason to believe that it is, as the administration claims, a mere accident? …This effort to keep conservative 501(c)(4) organizations from attempting to prevent president Obama’s reelection was, of course, hidden from the public. Ms. Lerner was careful to try and structure the IRS’ targeting in such a way that would not be appear to be a “per se political project,” in her own words, and denied in meetings with, and letters to, congressional oversight staff in 2012 that conservative groups were treated exceptionally or that the IRS’ ways of evaluating 501(c)(4)s had ever changed. The claims were false… In her response to a planted question from the audience at an American Bar Association tax conference, Ms. Lerner blamed the targeting of conservative groups on “our line people in Cincinnatti.” This has also turned out to be false. …non-Tea Party groups were never subjected to the same delays and investigations as Tea Party groups were. This once more suggest that obfuscation and dishonesty were central to the IRS’ approach to their targeting practices.

He even crunches some numbers to show that the claims from the IRS are utterly implausible.

It would be very helpful to see what communications took place between IRS officials and other Democrats. And this is where the missing emails come in. …They are gone, they now tell us, hard drives crashed and tapes were erased. Should we believe that? Of the 82 IRS employees tied to the targeting operation, 7 had their email disappear, or 8.5%. According to IRS commissioner John Koskinen, the industry standard is 3 to 5%. Under reasonable statistical assumptions, that makes the IRS scandal disappearance rate about as likely as the emails having been eaten by unicorn, with a probability far smaller than 1%. Given the IRS’ track record in this affair, that is way beyond anything that would justify giving the IRS and Lois Lerner the benefit of the doubt.

Amazingly, 12 percent of Americans believe the IRS. Here’s some polling data that Phil Kerpen shared on his twitter feed.

I’m particularly happy that younger people are more skeptical. They’re more tech-savvy and realize that the IRS’s excuses are a bunch of….well, a bunch of stuff that comes out of male cows.

And here are some good cartoons on the topic, starting with Eric Allie’s gem.

I like how he includes a representative of the 12 percent of deliberately gullible Americans.

And here’s another contribution from Allie.

And here’s Steve Kelley’s cartoon on the topic.

He’s right, needless to say. It would be better if the IRS was merely squandering money rather than seeking to subvert the democratic process.

Last but not least, here’s an evergreen cartoon about the IRS from Glenn McCoy.

Oh, and let’s not forget two other items.

The political hack who now heads the IRS is a partisan leftist.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen contributed more than $85,000 to Democratic candidates and committees…with a $5,000 donation to President Obama in 2012 and $19,000 to the Democratic National Committee from 1988 to 2008.

And the political hack who was forced out of the IRS actually wanted to target a US Senator.

…the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of conservative individuals includes a sitting United States Senator. According to emails reviewed by the Committee under its Section 6103 authority, …Lois Lerner sought to have Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) referred for IRS examination.

There are more horror stories to share, but this is enough for one day.

Suffice to say, you can understand why my fantasies involve tax reform rather than supermodels.

P.S. I can’t resist one more comment. Don’t forget that the corrupt and partisan IRS is in charge of Obamacare enforcement, but the bureaucrats want to be exempt from that government-run healthcare system. Just like politicians.

The moral of the story: Washington is even worse than you think. It’s a racket for insiders, but a burden for the rest of us.

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Obamacare resulted in big increases in the fiscal burden of government (ironically, it would be even worse if Obama hadn’t unilaterally suspended parts of the law).

The legislation increased government spending, mostly for expanded Medicaid and big subsidies for private insurance.

There were also several tax hikes, with targeted levies on medical device makers and tanning beds, as well as some soak-the-rich taxes on upper-income taxpayers.

These various policies are bad news for economic performance, but the damage of Obamacare goes well beyond these provisions.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Professor Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago explains that Obamacare contains huge implicit tax hikes on work and other forms of productive behavior.

…can we begin to take seriously the idea that the fiscal policies and regulations hidden in the Affordable Care Act are shrinking our economy? …Politicians and journalists use the term tax more narrowly than economists do, but the economic definition is needed to understand the economic effects of the ACA. …Withholding benefits from people who work or earn is hardly different than telling them to pay a tax. For this reason, economists refer to benefits withheld as “implicit taxes.” What really matters for labor market performance is the reward to working inclusive of implicit taxes, and not the amount of revenue delivered to the government treasury… The ACA…is full of implicit taxes. Many of them have remained hidden in the “fog of controversy” surrounding the law and their effects excluded from economic analyses of it.

In other words, his basic message is that the government reduces incentives to be more productive and earn more money when it provides handouts that are based on people earning less money.

Indeed, click here to see a remarkable chart showing how redistribution programs discourage work.

And speaking of charts, here’s one from Professor Mulligan’s article, and it shows the nation’s largest tax hikes based on what happened to the marginal tax rate on working.

Wow. No wonder we’re suffering from a very anemic recovery.

Professor Mulligan elaborates.

During a period that included more than a dozen tax increases, the ACA is arguably the largest as a single piece of legislation, adding about six percentage points to the marginal tax rate faced, on average, by workers in the economy. The only way to cite larger marginal tax increases would be to combine multiple coincident laws, such as the Revenue Acts of 1950 and 1951 and the new payroll tax rate that went into effect in 1950. Even with these adjustments, the ACA is still the third largest marginal tax rate hike during the seventy years. …Let’s not be surprised that, as we implement a new law that taxes jobs and incomes, we are ending up with fewer jobs and less income.

By the way, other academics also have found that Obamacare will lure many people out of the workforce and into government dependency.

The White House actually wants us to believe this is a good thing, as humorously depicted by this Glenn McCoy cartoon.

But rational people understand that our economic output is a function of how much labor and capital are being productively utilized.

In other words, Obamacare is a mess. It’s hurting the economy and should be repealed as the first step in a long journey back to market-based healthcare.

P.S. Mulligan’s chart also re-confirms that unemployment benefits increase unemployment. Heck, that’s such a simple and obvious concept that it’s easily explained in this Wizard-of-Id parody and this Michael Ramirez cartoon.

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I wrote a post several years ago contrasting a good initiative by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and a statist proposal by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.

There was no connection between the two ideas, but I thought the comparison helped show the difference between someone who instinctively wants more freedom and someone who reflexively thinks there should be more government control.

Let’s do the same thing, but this time highlight a difference between Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton, particularly since the two of them may be rivals in 2016.

First, let’s look at what Rand Paul recently said about corporate inversions, which is what happens when an American company decides to re-domicile in another jurisdiction (generally through a cross-border merger).

Senator Rand Paul told Futures magazine that the rush of American companies moving operations outside of the nation is due to failed authors of the U.S. tax code. …“I blame the tax code and those who wrote the tax code,” said Senator Paul regarding the record number of inversions by U.S. companies. …Senator Paul said that antiquated tax laws have made the U.S. uncompetitive against countries in North America and Europe and called for Members of Congress to take a moment to recognize their faults. “…we should’ve brought a big mirror, so [Congress] could look in the mirror and see where the problem is. The problem arose from legislators who wrote a crummy tax code. The problem arises from having a corporate tax cut that is twice what Canada’s is and nearly three times what it is in Ireland. Money goes where it’s welcomed, and money has been flowing overseas. I don’t fault corporations for doing what they’re supposed to do, which is maximize their profit.”

This isn’t the first time Senator Paul has made wise observations about the taxation of multinational companies. He also was one of the few lawmakers who defended Apple for the tax strategies the company used to protect the interests of workers, shareholders, and consumers.

Now let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s recent contribution to the tax discussion.

In a recent interview, she basically bragged that she and Bill paid a larger share of their earnings to the IRS than the average household with similar income.

She argued to the Guardian that her family’s wealth would not injure her ability to talk about income inequality on any hypothetical campaign trails. “But they don’t see me as part of the problem, because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we’ve done it through dint of hard work.” …are they truly paying more taxes than your average multi-millionaire, as she suggested? The Clintons last released their tax returns during Hillary’s 2008 presidential run. From 2000 to 2007, they paid $33.8 million in federal taxes, or 31 percent of their adjusted gross income — which was $109 million. At the time, the IRS said that taxpayers making $10 million or more — i.e. the people safely in 1 percenter territory — were paying 20.8 percent of their adjusted gross income in federal taxes.

Wow, bragging about paying above-average taxes.

In other words, assuming that she actually plans to run for President, she thinks that an inability to properly and intelligently manage her own finances is a reason to let her manage the nation’s finances.

Though at least she’s being philosophically consistent. After all, folks on the left act as if getting to keep any of our own money is some sort of special favor from Washington.

P.S. I can’t resist noting that Hillary thinks giving speeches is “hard work.” Since I occasionally get paid to give speeches (though only a tiny, tiny fraction of the $200,000-plus that she receives), allow me to state for the record that it is the easiest money to earn.

But I guess if you’re a former politician, it seems like “hard work” to actually go through even a modest bit of effort in exchange for money.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist pointing out that the Clintons are going through a lot of effort to minimize their exposure to the death tax, so even they have a limit when it comes to needlessly giving money to government.

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With occasional exceptions such as Switzerland and Estonia, there’s rarely good news from Europe. At least with regards to fiscal policy.

But maybe there’s a bit of sense on the Iberian Peninsula. I reported a couple of years ago that Portugal was at least flirting with the notion of lower tax rates and spending restraint.

Now Spain may be undoing some class-warfare mistakes on tax policy.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the government plans to lower tax rates on both personal income and corporate income.

Spanish leaders who broke their no-new-taxes pledge after taking office 2½ years ago announced sweeping tax cuts on Friday, saying it was time to compensate a recession-battered populace for its sacrifices and boost a nascent recovery. Budget Minister Cristóbal Montoro, announcing the government’s main economic initiative of the year, said the planned reductions of income and corporate taxes will stimulate investment, creating jobs and making Spanish companies more competitive abroad. …Spain’s corporate tax rate would drop from 30% to 25% by 2016. People earning more than €300,000 ($408,000) a year would see their personal income-tax rate fall from 52%, one of the highest in Europe, to 45% in 2016. …The cuts announced Friday would by 2016 bring income-tax rates back to their pre-2012 levels for high-income earners and lower them slightly for low-income earners.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the tax cuts will happen – or at least won’t be durable – unless Spain’s politicians also impose some long-run spending restraint.

Fortunately, there are some good examples they can follow.

Since we’re on the topic of international tax developments, let’s shift to another story.

If you want hard-core tax enforcement, beyond the fantasies of even the IRS, then it’s hard to beat the ISIS crowd in Iraq.

Let’s not give the IRS any ideas

Here some of what the New York Times reported on that group’s “tax” regime.

Behind the image of savagery that the extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria present to the world, as casual executioners who kill helpless prisoners and even behead rival jihadis, lies a disciplined organization that employs social media and sophisticated financial strategies in the funding and governance of the areas it has conquered. …Once in charge, they typically levy “taxes,” which are just as lucrative. So-called road taxes of $200 on trucks are collected all over northern Iraq to allow them safe passage. The Iraqi government claims that the insurgents are now levying a “tax” on Christians in Mosul, who were a significant minority there, to avoid being crucified.

Hopefully, this is just a short-run aberration and not a new idea that will spread to other nations.

Though politicians in other countries already have demonstrated that they’re willing to innovate when it comes to extracting money from their citizens.

Showing amazing capacity for innovation, Pakistan’s tax authority hires transgendered people to encourage (presumably homophobic) taxpayers to cough up more money.

The tax police in England have floated a proposal to have all paychecks go directly to the tax authority, which would then decide how much gets forwarded to taxpayers.

And since we’re talking about the United Kingdom, that nation’s despicable political class wants to improve compliance by indoctrinating kids to snitch on their parents.

Speaking of snitches, tax authorities in both the state of New York and the city of Chicago have programs encouraging neighbors to rat our neighbors.

And New York also has won a case to treat lap dances – for purposes of sales tax – as a service rather than art.

And who among us isn’t impressed that the German tax authorities have figured out how to levy a prostitute tax using parking meters.

Just remember that politicians view any money you earn as either a current tax obligation or a potential source of future revenue.

After all, all money belongs to them.

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Since I’ve already created a Moocher Hall of Fame to acknowledge the strangest and most reprehensible examples of government dependency, it’s occurred to me that there also should be a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to highlight the government employees that have figured out how to most successfully rip off taxpayers (and here are some good candidates for charter membership).

But what if an entire bureaucracy was eligible?

The paper pushers at the Veterans Administration sure have figured out how to milk the system. Check out these excerpts from Associated Press report.

Nearly 80 percent of senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs got performance bonuses last year despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals and clinics, a top official said Friday. …Workers at the Phoenix VA Health Care System — where officials have confirmed dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment — received about $3.9 million in bonuses last year, newly released records show. The merit-based bonuses were doled out to about 650 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaning staff.

This is such an outrageous waste of money that even the politicians who created it feel it should be criticized.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA’s bonus system “is failing veterans.” Instead of being given for outstanding work, the cash awards are “seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product,” Miller said. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said awarding bonuses to 80 percent of executives means that the VA was setting the bar for performance so low that “anybody could step over it. If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high.” Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said the VA suffered from “grade inflation, or what (humorist) Garrison Keillor would refer to as ‘all of the children are above average.'” Kuster and other lawmakers said they found it hard to believe that 80 percent of senior employees could be viewed as exceeding expectations, given the growing uproar over patients dying while awaiting VA treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. …Miller, the panel’s chairman, noted that in the past four years, none of the VA’s 470 senior executives have received ratings of minimally satisfactory or unsatisfactory, the two lowest ratings on the VA’s five-tier evaluation system.

But the real lesson is that government simply doesn’t work very well

Or let me rephrase that. Government works very well…but only if you’re a politician, lobbyist, contractor, bureaucrat, or some other insider who has figured out that “the public sector” is a great way to obtain unearned wealth.

If you’re a taxpayer, by contrast, you get the short end of the stick (I was thinking of another analogy, but decided to keep things clean).

And if you’re someone – like a veteran – who is relying on government, then you’re in a very unfortunate position (sort of like the person in the other analogy that crossed my mind).

The main thing to understand is bureaucrats respond to incentives. And when you have government programs with no bottom-line reason to  deliver efficiency and good service, we shouldn’t be surprised that we get bloated payrolls and absurd compensation packages.

This video explains that it’s a government-wide phenomenon.

And to close out today’s column, here’s a Steve Kelley cartoon about Forrest Gump and the VA.

P.S. Don’t let politicians and interest groups get away with claiming that “inadequate funding” caused the VA scandal.

P.P.S. And grit your teeth because the government-run veterans health system is a good predictor of what we’ll all experience if the government-run Obamacare system is fully implemented.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that bonuses for poor performance are standard operating procedure in Washington. The bureaucrats at the IRS have been rewarded with extra cash notwithstanding all the scandals.

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One of the many challenges of being libertarian is that people sometimes think you’re naive about foreign policy (sort of like the first entry in this 24-part satirical collage of libertarians).

In large part, I think that’s because they confuse non-interventionism with pacifism.

To elaborate on why they’re wrong, I’ve shared some thoughts from Mark Steyn, George Will, and Steve Chapman on the libertarian mindset on foreign policy. And to augment their analysis, here’s John Stossel’s very good synopsis of the clear-headed libertarian approach.

Most libertarians believe our attempts to create or support democracy around the world have made us new enemies, and done harm as well as good. …Some conservatives respond to that by calling us isolationists, but we’re not. I want to participate in the world; I just don’t want to run it. …it’s realistic to acknowledge that America has dangerous enemies, it’s also realistic to acknowledge that going to war is not always worth the loss of money and lives, and that it makes new enemies. War, like most government plans, tends not to work out as well as planners hoped.

And in a version of Mitchell’s Law, he points out that screwups become the excuse for further mistakes.

Occasionally government acknowledges mistakes in domestic policy — but that doesn’t mean it then becomes more efficient. It usually just spends more to try, and fail, to fix the problem. It’s the nature of government. Politicians don’t face the competitive incentives that force other people to make hard decisions. Candidate Obama garnered support by criticizing Bush for costing money and lives through a protracted stay in Iraq. But that didn’t stop Obama from putting more money and troops into Afghanistan. …Our military should be used for defense, not to police the world.

So where exactly does Obama fit? He’s obviously not a neo-con, but how should he be characterized?

My colleague at Cato, Gene Healy, writes that the President has stumbled upon a good guide for foreign policy.

…there’s something to be said for President Obama’s latest foreign-policy maxim: “don’t do stupid stuff.” …Yet “DDSS” has been greeted with contempt by the D.C. commentariat. “How far we have come from the audacity of hope, yes we can” moans David Rothkopf, publisher of Foreign Policy magazine. “DDSS” just isn’t an “elevating notion,” he complains. (Neither, I suppose, is the Hippocratic Oath.) …The concept of avoiding catastrophic error shouldn’t be hard to grasp.

But having a good guide doesn’t mean anything if you don’t live up to it (just like Bush didn’t live up to his pronouncement that he wanted America to have a “humble” approach to the world).

It’s true that Obama has never lived up to the cautious foreign policy maxim he’s coined: launching a destructive “dumb war” in Libya, doubling down on Afghanistan with precious little to show for it. But “DDSS” is a sound, even noble, foreign policy goal, one that can help us avoid further sacrifice of American blood and treasure — even as we try to extricate ourselves from past stupidities.

I add my two cents to this discussion, pointing out in this interview about Ukraine that Obama sometimes veers in the direction of libertarianism. Or at least non-interventionism.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Obama doesn’t genuinely believe in non-interventionism. Instead, he sometimes winds up doing the right thing because of passivity rather than some underlying and principled desire to avoid foreign entanglements.

Speaking of libertarian foreign policy, this Steve Breen cartoon is a pretty good summary of what we’ve been doing in Afghanistan for the past decade.

This reminds me of being in a coalition meeting last decade and somebody from the Bush Administration was saying the mission  was a success because tax dollars had been used to build a bunch of schools and sewer system in Afghanistan.

Being the disagreeable type, I pointed out that the federal government shouldn’t even build schools and sewers in America, so why on earth were we doing that overseas.

I thought it was a good point, but the silence in the room reminded me that libertarians aren’t always the most persuasive people.

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If some special-interest lobbies give money so that a left-wing group can propose something like a value-added tax to finance bigger government, that’s no surprise.

And if a bunch of subsidy recipients donate money to Barack Obama or some other statist politician because they hope for new programs, that’s also standard procedure in DC.

I’ll fight these initiatives, of course, but I don’t get overly upset when these things happen.

What does drive me crazy, though, is when proponents of big government want to use my money to subsidize left-wing activism.

This is why I’m against taxpayer handouts for groups such as Planned Parenthood and AARP. If they want to endorse bigger government, get voluntary contributions to push that destructive agenda.

All I ask is that you don’t coerce me to subsidize statism.

I get especially upset when international bureaucracies use my money to push for bigger government. And it the past few days, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have delivered a one-two punch for statism.

And they used our money!

The IMF advocated for more government in their recent survey of the United States.

The recent expansion of Medicaid and the increase in health insurance coverage have been concrete steps whose effect on poverty and health outcomes should become more evident over time. An expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit—to apply to households without children, to older workers, and to low income youth—would be another effective tool to raise living standards for the very poor. …the minimum wage should be increased. …Action is also needed to achieve a sustained increase in both Federal and State spending on infrastructure paid for by…additional revenues, and an expansion of financing sources… The Federal gas tax should be significantly increased. …Some progress has already been made…through implementation of the Affordable Care Act… Addressing the expected depletion of the social security trust fund will require…increases the ceiling on taxable earnings for social security… In addition, the U.S. should introduce a broad-based carbon tax and move toward the introduction of a Federal-level VAT.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the IMF already has endorsed a giant energy tax on American consumers, as well as a value-added tax.

Though, to be fair, they’re not discriminating against Americans. The IMF has a long track record of pushing for bad policy in other nations.

Meanwhile, the statists at the OECD also are pushing for a wide range of bad policies.

The report encourages close cooperation between businesses and government… The Survey highlights that income inequality is high in the United States. …While this cannot be improved easily, the report praises reforms recently adopted or being considered: health care reform will help vulnerable families access high-quality care; OECD Carbon Obamadealing with mental health will help reduce job loss and disability; preschool education would be a good investment in children’s future and help middle-class parents; and paid maternity leave would help working women. …The OECD recommends introducing an adequate pricing of greenhouse gas emissions and supporting innovation in energy saving and low carbon technology.

Unsurprisingly, the OECD endorses a panoply of tax hikes to enable a bigger and more bloated public sector.

Act toward rapid international agreement and take measures to prevent base erosion and profit shifting… Make the personal tax system more redistributive… The federal government could…develop a social insurance programme for paid leave for all workers funded by a small increase in the payroll tax… Taxing the extraction of non-renewable resources offers the potential to raise revenue… Increase reliance on consumption taxation.

The OECD favors higher taxes for everyone, so it’s not as if they’re targeting Americans.

But it’s nonetheless irritating when a bunch of pampered international bureaucrats take money from American taxpayers and then use those funds to produce “research” calling for even higher tax burdens.

Especially when those bureaucrats are exempt from the income tax!!!

And keep in mind that this isn’t the first time that the OECD has acted as a public relations team for Obama’s statist agenda.

P.S. The one silver lining to the dark cloud of the IMF is that the bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

P.P.S. And the OECD accidentally produced some data showing the poor results of governments schools in the United States, so that’s a bit of consolation as well.

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I actually have a perverse fondness for Bill Clinton.

This is both because we got better policy while he was President (whether he deserves credit is a separate question) and because he single-handedly generated a lot of quality political humor.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a typical politician. And the same is true for his wife.

Indeed, they are strong candidates for the Hypocrisy-in-Government Award.

That’s because they want to subject other people to the death tax, but they’re taking aggressive steps to make sure they aren’t subject to this punitive and immoral form of double taxation.

Here’s some of what Bloomberg is reporting on the issue.

Bill and Hillary Clinton have long supported an estate tax… That doesn’t mean they want to pay it. To reduce the tax pinch, the Clintons are using financial planning strategies befitting the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth. These moves, common among multimillionaires, will help shield some of their estate from the tax that now tops out at 40 percent of assets upon death. The Clintons created residence trusts in 2010 and shifted ownership of their New York house into them in 2011, according to federal financial disclosures and local property records.

But you have to give the Clintons credit for chutzpah.

They have tens of millions of dollars in assets, but Hillary said they were “dead broke.”

The Clintons’ finances are receiving attention as Hillary Clinton tours the country promoting her book, “Hard Choices.” She said in an interview on ABC television that the couple was “dead broke” and in debt when they left the White House in early 2001. …The Clintons’ finances are receiving attention as Hillary Clinton tours the country promoting her book, “Hard Choices.” She said in an interview on ABC television that the couple was “dead broke” and in debt when they left the White House in early 2001. …Since she left the government last year, Hillary Clinton, 66, has been giving speeches for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Bill Clinton, 67, also makes paid speeches and appearances, receiving $200,000 each in October 2012 from Vanguard Group Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG, according to Hillary Clinton’s disclosures.

Geesh, I wish I was “dead broke” the same way.

Political cartoonists certainly aren’t impressed. Here’s Gary Varvel’s take on the topic.

Michael Ramirez, winner of my cartoon contest, also is unimpressed.

By the way, Hillary was quoted in the Bloomberg story as being in favor of a meritocracy.

Which makes you wonder whether she opposed the special sweetheart deal that her daughter received to work at NBC News.

Chelsea Clinton earned an annual salary of $600,000 at NBC News before switching to a month-to-month contract earlier this year, sources with knowledge of the agreement told POLITICO. …As special correspondent, Clinton worked on service-related feature assignments for NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian Williams” until the show’s cancellation in June 2013. Clinton has since worked on packages for NBC Nightly News. …When Clinton joined NBC, many media critics chafed at the network’s decision to employ a former first daughter with no experience in journalism. The New York Post referred to Clinton as “just another spoiled, aimless child of rich, successful parents chauffeured through adulthood by Mommy and Daddy’s connections.”

I have nothing against parents helping their kids and using their connections. I surely would help my kids if I had any influence in a hiring or pay decision.

But this smells of cronyism. Let’s not forget that NBC is owned by General Electric, and GE is infamous for getting in bad with politicians in exchange for handouts and subsidies.

In other words, it’s quite likely that Chelsea was given an extremely lucrative contract precisely because the company figured it was a good way of earning some chits with the then-Secretary of State and possible future President.

I’m not aware of any smoking gun to confirm my suspicion, but it would take heroic naiveté to assume that Chelsea’s parents had nothing to do with NBC’s decisions.

So, for their hypocrisy on both the death tax and meritocracy, the Clinton’s could win the Hypocrisy Award.

But there are plenty of other worthy candidates.

Such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which advocates higher tax for everyone else while providing gold-plated tax-free salaries and benefits to its own employees.

Such as the leftist political types who say tax havens are bad and immoral while simultaneously utilizing these low-tax jurisdictions to protect and grow their own wealth.

Such as the politicians and congressional staffers who decided to coerce others into Obamacare while seeking special exemptions for themselves.

Such as the rich leftists who advocate higher taxes for other people even though they refuse to send more of their own money to Washington.

Such as Prince Charles of the United Kingdom, who preaches coerced sacrifice for ordinary people even though his “carbon footprint” would be in the top 1 percent.

Such as the statists who fight against school choice for poor families while sending their own kids to pricey private schools for the elite.

Such as the Canadian politician who supports government-run healthcare for his constituents but comes to America for private treatment when he’s sick.

As you can see, the Clintons face some very tough competition.

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I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in a hellhole like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is – at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy – a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

Here’s a chart from the report showing that taxes consume about 40 percent of economic output in EU nations. And while Americans correctly view the internal revenue code as very burdensome, taxes “only” consume about 25 percent of GDP in the United States.

EU Report Total Tax

Other nations with comparatively modest tax burdens include Canada (CA), Australia (AU), South Korea (KR), and Switzerland (CH).

But it’s important to understand that not all nations in the European Union are identical.

Just as there are high-tax states and low-tax states in America, there are high-tax countries and low-tax countries in Europe. Surprisingly, France was not the worst nation.

…the ratio of 2012 tax revenue to GDP was highest in Denmark, Belgium and France (48.1 %, 45.4 % and 45.0 % respectively); the lowest shares were recorded in Lithuania (27.2 % of GDP), Bulgaria (27.9 % of GDP) and Latvia (27.9 % of GDP).

I’m surprised, by the way, that Sweden isn’t among the highest-taxed nations. I guess they’ve made even more progress than I thought.

Now let’s drill down into the report and look at some of the specific data.

But you may want to stop reading now if you get easily depressed.

That’s because it’s time to look at a chart showing what’s happened to income tax rates. Specifically, this chart shows the average top tax rate on personal income, both for Eurozone (nations using the euro currency) and European Union nations.

As you can see, the average top tax rate has jumped by almost four percentage points for euro nations and by about two percentage points for all EU nations.

EU Report Personal Income Tax

This is very unfortunate. Tax rates were heading in the right direction when there was vigorous tax competition inside Europe. But now that high-tax nations have been somewhat successful in forcing low-tax jurisdictions to become deputy tax enforcers, that positive trend has halted and policy is moving in the wrong direction.

But not in all regards.

Tax competition also has been compelling governments to lower corporate tax rates. And while that trend has abated, you can see in this chart that politicians haven’t felt they have leeway to push rates higher.

EU Report Corporate Income Tax

Though I am very concerned about the OECD’s campaign to undermine corporate tax competition.

If they’re successful, there’s no doubt we’ll see higher corporate tax rates.

Let’s now look at some more depressing data. This chart shows that a continuation in the trend toward higher rates for value-added taxes (VATs).

EU Report VAT

I’ve warned repeatedly that the VAT is a money machine for big government and the EU data certainly supports my position.

But if you want evidence from other parts of the world, there’s some IMF data that clearly shows how politicians use the VAT to expand the burden of government.

Last but not least, let’s now draw some conclusions from all this information.

At the beginning of the column, I mentioned that Americans should not copy Europe because bigger government translates into lower living standards.

Simply stated, there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and economic performance.

So let’s look at another piece of data to emphasize that point. The bureaucrats at the OECD just did a report on the U.S. economy and they produced a chart showing that the current recovery is very anemic. We haven’t recaptured lost economic output, which normally happens after a downturn. Indeed, we haven’t even returned to normal growth levels.

But that’s not news to regular readers. I’ve shared powerful data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve showing the failure of Obamanomics.

What is noteworthy, though, is comparing Europe to the United States. As you can see from these two charts, euro nations have flat lined. And if you look at the vertical scale, you can see that they were growing a lot slower than the United States to begin with.

Dismal European Economy

In other words, we’re not doing very well in the United States.

But compared to Europe, we’re Hong Kong.

Two final caveats: First, I always like to stress that economic performance is impacted by a wide range of policies. So while I think that rising tax burdens and higher tax rates are hurting growth in Europe, there are other factors that also matter.

Second, any analysis of fiscal policy should also include data on the burden of government spending. After all, a nation with a low tax burden will still suffer economic problems if there’s a large public sector financed by red ink.

And one big warning: Obama wants to make America more like Europe. If he succeeds, we can expect European-style stagnation.

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Why are some nations rich and other nations poor? What has enabled some nations to escape poverty while others continue to languish?

And if we want to help poor nations prosper, what’s the right recipe?

Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m tempted to say a flat tax and small government are an elixir for prosperity, but those policies are just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

A country also needs sensible monetary policy, open trade, modest regulation, and rule of law. In other words, you need small government AND free markets.

But even that doesn’t really tell us what causes growth.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of capital formation and shared a remarkable chart showing how workers earn more when the capital stock is larger (which is why we should avoid punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested).

But that also doesn’t really answer the question. After all, if a larger capital stock was all that mattered, doesn’t that imply that we could get prosperity if government simply mandated more saving and investing?

There’s something else that’s necessary. Something perhaps intangible, but critically important.

Deirdre McCloskey, in a video for Learn Liberty, says that ideas and innovation drive growth.

This is a great video for many reasons, but two points strike me as very important.

First, Deirdre is saying that economic liberty matters, but that modern prosperity also was enabled by a change in the culture. People began to appreciate and respect entrepreneurs. You could call this a form of social capital (and I think such cultural norms are critically important for a thriving society).

And entrepreneurs are the innovators who figure out ways of mixing capital and labor in ways that generate ever-larger amounts of economic output, so they play a critical role in boosting prosperity.

Second, she reminds us that poverty is the normal human condition and that the modern era truly is an amazing change. Indeed, I was so shocked by her numbers that I had to investigate to see if she was exaggerating.

She wasn’t. Using the Angus Maddison data set, I looked to see if Deirdre was right about world prosperity resembling a hockey stick.

Sure enough, there was an amazing increase in prosperity beginning about 1800, just as she explained. Indeed, she could have said that people lived on less than $2 per day for much of recorded history.

Here’s the data for world per-capita economic output over the past two thousand years.

Modern Prosperity

Wow. Unlike the make-believe hockey stick used by global warming alarmists, this one is real. And it shows that the economy definitely isn’t a fixed pie if the right policies – and the right attitudes – prevail.

So what’s the moral of the story?

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that we should respect and appreciate entrepreneurs and other wealth creators.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where politicians would like us to believe that the economic pie is fixed and that it’s the job of government to re-slice the pie with class-warfare tax policy and lots of redistribution.

But when they re-slice the pie, they also change the size of the pie. And not in a good way.

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Last August, I shared a list of companies that “re-domiciled” in other nations so they could escape America’s punitive “worldwide” tax system.

This past April, I augmented that list with some commentary about whether Walgreen’s might become a Swiss-based company.

And in May, I pontificated about Pfizer’s effort to re-domicile in the United Kingdom.

Well, to paraphrase what Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential debate, here we go again.

Here’s the opening few sentences from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Medtronic Inc.’s agreement on Sunday to buy rival medical-device maker Covidien COV PLC for $42.9 billion is the latest in a wave of recent moves designed—at least in part—to sidestep U.S. corporate taxes. Covidien’s U.S. headquarters are in Mansfield, Mass., where many of its executives are based. But officially it is domiciled in Ireland, which is known for having a relatively low tax rate: The main corporate rate in Ireland is 12.5%. In the U.S., home to Medtronic, the 35% tax rate is among the world’s highest. Such so-called “tax inversion” deals have become increasingly popular, especially among health-care companies, many of which have ample cash abroad that would be taxed should they bring it back to the U.S.

It’s not just Medtronic. Here are some passages from a story by Tax Analysts.

Teva Pharmaceuticals Inc. agreed to buy U.S. pharmaceutical company Labrys Biologics Inc. Teva, an Israeli-headquartered company, had an effective tax rate of 4 percent in 2013. In yet another pharma deal, Swiss company Roche has agreed to acquire U.S. company Genia Technologies Inc. Corporations are also taking other steps to shift valuable assets and businesses out of the U.S. On Tuesday the U.K. company Vodafone announced plans to move its center for product innovation and development from Silicon Valley to the U.K. The move likely means that revenue from intangibles developed in the future by the research and development center would be taxable primarily in the U.K., and not the U.S.

So how should we interpret these moves?

From a logical and ethical perspective, we should applaud companies for protecting shareholders, workers and consumers. If a government is imposing destructive tax laws (and the United States arguably has the world’s worst corporate tax system), then firms have a moral obligation to minimize the damage.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, an accounting professor from MIT has some wise words on the issue.

Even worse, legislators have responded with proposals that seek to prevent companies from escaping the U.S. tax system. The U.S. corporate statutory tax rate is one of the highest in the world at 35%. In addition, the U.S. has a world-wide tax system under which profits earned abroad face U.S. taxation when brought back to America. The other G-7 countries, however, all have some form of a territorial tax system that imposes little or no tax on repatriated earnings. To compete with foreign-based companies that have lower tax burdens, U.S. corporations have developed do-it-yourself territorial tax strategies. …Some firms have taken the next logical step to stay competitive with foreign-based companies: reincorporating as foreign companies through cross-border mergers.

Unsurprisingly, some politicians are responding with punitive policies. Instead of fixing the flaws in the internal revenue code, they want various forms of financial protectionism in order the stop companies from inversions.

Professor Hanlon is unimpressed.

Threatening corporations with stricter rules and retroactive tax punishments will not attract business and investment to the U.S. The responses by the federal government and U.S. corporations are creating what in managerial accounting we call a death spiral. The government is trying to generate revenue through high corporate taxes, but corporations cannot compete when they have such high tax costs. …The real solution is a tax system that attracts businesses to our shores, and keeps them here. …The U.K. may be a good example: In 2010, after realizing that too many companies were leaving for the greener tax pastures of Ireland, the government’s economic and finance ministry wrote in a report that it wanted to “send out the signal loud and clear, Britain is open for business.” The country made substantive tax-policy changes such as reducing the corporate tax rate and implementing a territorial tax system. Congress and President Obama should make tax reform a priority.

Here’s some info, by the way, about the United Kingdom’s smart moves on corporate taxation.

For more information on territorial taxation, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

And here’s my futile effort to educate the New York Times on the issue.

And if you want some info on the importance of lower corporate taxation, here’s another CF&P video.

P.S. Last February, I shared a hilarious video spoof about some action figures called the “Kronies.” These fake toys symbolize the sleazy insiders that have made DC a racket for well-connected insiders.

Well, the Kronies are back with a new video about the Export Import Bank, which exists to subsidize companies that give lots of contributions to politicians.

I’ve written before about the Export-Import Bank being a perfect (in a bad way) example of corruption in Washington, but if you want to know the details about this crony institution, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is a walking encyclopedia on the topic.

By the way, the recently defeated House Majority Leader has been a big supporter of Ex-Im Bank subsidies, and it’s very revealing that Boeing’s share price fell after his defeat. Investors obviously think those handouts are very valuable, and they’re worried that the gravy train may come to an end with Cantor on his way out the door.

Addendum: Some readers have already asked whether it would have been better to say that America’s corporate tax is “sadistic” rather than “masochistic.”

From the perspective of companies (and their shareholders, workers, and consumers), the answer is yes.

But I chose “masochistic” because politicians presumably want to extract the maximum amount of revenue from companies, yet that’s not happening because they’ve set the rate so high and made the system so unfriendly. In other words, they’re hurting themselves. I guess they hate the Laffer Curve even more than they like having more money with which to buy votes.

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I’ve written a couple of serious posts about the death panels at the VA’s government-run health facilities.

I think it’s particularly important to understand that the problem has nothing to do with funding levels. Instead, it’s about the chronic inefficiency of government.

But sometimes mockery is more effective than analysis, and this Remy video, produced by Reason TV, is definitely worth sharing.

Enjoy.

By the way, if you like the Remy videos from Reason TV, here’s one about Sandra Fluke and the birth control mandate, one about the TSA Hokey Pokey, and two more Christmas-themed songs about the TSA (here and here).

But I want to spend the rest of today’s column celebrating the fact that America is not Venezuela. No matter how much we complain about the inefficiency, waste, and corruption in Washington, things could be worse.

Much worse.

Here are three stories to give you an idea what total statism produces.

First, I’ve written about how government intervention is causing toilet paper shortages and food shortages in Venezuela (also in Cuba). Well, there’s also a shortage of water, as reported by Bloomberg.

The rationing of tap water amid a drought and a shortage of bottles because of currency controls are forcing people to form long lines at grocery stores and bottle shops as soon as deliveries are made. …a government-mandated water rationing plan in Caracas and hot weather are fueling demand as supply shrinks. “I haven’t been able to find 5-liter bottles of water in the supermarket for the past two weeks, and there haven’t been half-liter bottles this week,” Maria Hernandez, a 36-year-old secretary, said in an interview in Caracas today. “I have four at home, but I’m afraid that they’ll run out and that I won’t be able to find more. They ration water at my house on Wednesdays.”

Though maybe water rationing is a good thing. At least when you live in a nation where the water that does (sporadically) materialize is contaminated.

Some areas of the city receive water service only three days a week, with most neighborhoods going without water at least one day a week. When water does flow, few residents dare to drink it because of contamination.

So why is there a problem? Because the government doesn’t let the market operate.

Regulated prices for bottled water have not been raised since November 2011, industry association Anber said in a May 19 statement. Since then, consumer prices have risen 110 percent, according to central bank data, while the bolivar has lost 87 percent of its value on the black market, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the value on the Colombian border.

Our second story also comes from Bloomberg. It’s about the one thriving sector of the Venezuelan economy.

The arrival of a Liberian-flagged freighter with Ukrainian, Arab and Filipino sailors spells one thing for Elena — dollars. And greenbacks are king in Venezuela, the 32-year-old prostitute says. …Prostitutes more than double their earnings by moonlighting as currency traders in Puerto Cabello. They are the foreign exchange counter for sailors in a country where buying and selling dollars in the streets is a crime — and prostitution isn’t. Greenbacks in the black market are worth 11 times more than the official rate as dollars become more scarce.

Indeed, some women may be turning to prostitution because the government is doing so much damage to the economy.

Prostitution has become the only boom industry in Venezuela’s biggest port. …“Before I was working to support my kid and my mom; now I support my entire family,” said Paola, a prostitute who like Elena comes from Zulia and declines to give her real name. “Dollars are the only way to get by. The bolivar wages of my uncles and cousins barely mean anything now.” …“We can make more in two hours here than working in a shop in a month,” said a prostitute who calls herself Giselle. …For women like Giselle, Elena and Paola, prostitution for dollars has become a lifeline keeping them from poverty. “We haven’t studied, we have no education. What would we do now if we stopped?” said Giselle. “Work for a minimum wage that doesn’t even pay for food? If we wouldn’t be here working the scene, we would be living on the streets.”

Amazing. Venezuelan women are famous for their beauty, but the economy is such a mess that they earn twice as much money by trading currency. Way to go, big government!

Last but not least, our third story shows that government intervention is even making death more difficult. Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Guardian.

…even in death, Venezuelans are afflicted by shortages. Coffin production has dropped between 20% and 30% this year for lack of materials, forcing funeral and burial delays… Pedro Navarro, former president of Venezuela’s funeral parlor association, has blamed lagging production at the state-run foundry Sidor. …Demand for coffins has grown in recent years. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates. People have been coping with shortages since 2006, long before the death from cancer last year of the pro-socialist president, Hugo Chávez.

The moral of the story is that government interventions such as price controls and government policy mistakes such as inflation have very negative consequences for ordinary people. It’s not just shortages of water and a prostitution-encouraging desire to escape the local currency.

The entire economy is a mess.

Empty shelves in shops and long queues have become a fixture of the daily hunt for staples such as milk, cooking oil and flour. Pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are also scarce. The anti-government street protests that began in February by an emboldened opposition have grown with the shortages.

So when someone tells you that big government is good for people, ask them for an example of successful statism.

And if they’re open to rational evidence, show them this chart. It shows that Venezuela used to be twice as prosperous as Chile.

But Venezuela has stagnated because of statism and Chile has boomed because of free markets. Kind of hard to argue with these facts (though Chile’s current crop of politicians apparently don’t like success and are seeking to expand the burden of government).

Let’s close with some very accurate humor. This poster nicely summarizes the difference between capitalism and statism.

Or the parable of the two cows also does the job.

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Some statements are so lame that they now serve only as punch lines.

Nobody, after all, would ever claim to a teacher that “the dog ate my homework.”

Moreover, surely few if any people ever actually assert to bill collectors that “the check is in the mail.”

And I have to imagine that no guy would be dumb enough to think a girl would fall for the line that “I’ll still love you in the morning.”

But we now have a new champion in the contest for the most laughable and pathetic assertion ever made.

But first some background. Congressional investigators have been trying to figure out the level of criminality and malfeasance in the IRS’s campaign to interfere with the 2012 election by targeting Tea Party groups. Much of the attention has focused on the activities of Lois Lerner, a left-wing ideologue at the center of the scandal.

And it is because of this investigation that we have a winner in the most-preposterous excuse contest. The political hacks at the IRS are now claiming, with straight faces, that they can’t turn over thousands of emails sent and received by Lois Lerner because of a “computer mishap.”

Here’s some of what’s been reported by the Washington Times.

The IRS has told Congress that it has lost some of former employee Lois G. Lerner’s emails from 2009 through 2011, including those she sent to other federal agencies… Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he was stunned… “The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to congressional inquiries,” Mr. Camp said. “There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General.” …the emails lost were “critical years” from the beginning of the targeting of conservative groups.

At this point, I suppose I should acknowledge that there’s an infinitesimally tiny chance that the IRS is being honest. Maybe, just maybe, the IRS’s immense computer infrastructure and multiple levels of redundant back up happened to fail. And, by an amazing coincidence, they can recover everything except the emails from Lois Lerner that were sent at precisely the time she was instrumental in the IRS’s harassment campaign.

Yeah, right, there’s a chance the IRS is being honest. Just like the Nixon White House could have accidentally erased 18-1/2 minutes of tape.

That being said, there’s a chance I’ll be playing center field next month for the New York Yankees. And an even bigger chance that the models from Victoria’s Secret will invite me for a weekend orgy (and just in case the Princess of the Levant is reading this, I naturally would say no).

Let me now detour into the world of public policy.

The IRS’s venal and corrupt behavior is only possible because the tax code is a Byzantine nightmare of about 75,000 pages. And that doesn’t even include all the tax court decisions and IRS letter rulings that also govern the internal revenue code.

It is this thicket of special-interest sleaze that enables hacks like Lois Lerner to wield unjustified power.

So if we want to actually reduce the chances of similar malfeasance in the future, then action is needed.

But I’m not just talking about prison for the crooks who tried to misuse the power of government.

We also need to rip up the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

As you can see in this video, I’m mostly a fan of tax reform because it will help the American economy. But I’m also delighted the flat tax will reduce the discretionary power of politicians and bureaucrats.

In the long run, of course, it would be even better if we shrank the federal government so much that we didn’t need any broad-based tax of any kind.

 

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Imagine how weird it would be if the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform praised Barack Obama for fiscal responsibility.

And think how inconceivable it would be for the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union to applaud Tim “Turbotax” Geithner for economic stewardship.

But the Canadian version of that happened while I was at the conference of the World Taxpayers Association in Vancouver two weeks ago.

The event was organized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the main speaker was Paul Martin of the Liberal Party, who served as Finance Minister from 1993-2002 and Prime Minister from 2003-2006.

And I should add, for context, that the Liberal Party in Canada is not a classical liberal party with a track record of free markets and small government.

But Paul Martin was honored because he was responsible, while Finance Minister, for one of the best records of fiscal restraint of any policy maker in recent history (click here for international comparisons).

I’ve pointed out that the burden of spending fell under Bill Clinton, and I’ve even acknowledged that the federal budget hasn’t grown much under Obama, at least once you get past his first couple of years.

But Paul Martin was far more frugal. And since Canada has a parliamentary system, there’s no ambiguity about who deserves credit. He restrained spending when his party had control.

What happened to generate the good results? For all intents and purposes, he imposed a spending freeze. And I’m talking a nominal spending freeze, not the kind of fake fiscal discipline you get when politicians make “cuts” off an inflated baseline.

And because the budget was successfully restrained, that addressed both the problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.

In his speech, Martin won me over when he bragged that the burden of government spending fell to its lowest point in 50 years.

And my man crush became even more pronounced when he said they allowed agencies to ask for more funds, but only if they identified offsetting cuts elsewhere.

What a novel concept! A government that actually looked at tradeoffs and prioritized outlays. Sort of like a household or business.

Paul Martin DiscussionI asked the former Prime Minister a couple of questions.

I was specifically interested in why the Liberal Party didn’t behave like other left-wing parties and raise taxes to enable bigger government.

Martin said there were some in his party who wanted that approach, but that there were two reasons for good policy.

First, enough people understood that Canada has a spending problem rather than a debt problem. And second, there was concern that financial markets would react poorly if policy makers simply pushed for higher taxes and ignored the size of government.

Wow, I wish the average Republican had the same sophisticated understanding of fiscal policy.

No wonder Canada got such good results. They imposed austerity on the public sector, rather than trying to squeeze the private sector (a distinction that seems to escape Paul Krugman).

To give you an idea of what Paul Martin accomplished, here’s a video prepared by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which features laudatory comments by representatives of major market-oriented think tanks.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t think there will ever be a video like this about Obama.

Very well done, even though I think it focused too much on red ink and not enough on the real accomplishment of spending restraint.

My Cato colleague, Chris Edwards, has produced some very good data on what’s happened to the burden of government spending in his home country.

For further information on that topic, here’s my video on international examples of spending restraint. Canada, you’ll notice, is one of the prominent case studies.

P.S. If you know any Keynesians, you can have some fun by asking them why Canada’s economy grew when the burden of government spending was reduced.

P.P.S. It’s also very impressive that Canada has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending of any developed nation.

P.P.P.S. No wonder Canada now ranks above the United States for economic freedom and the freest jurisdiction in North America is actually a Canadian province.

P.P.P.P.S. To end on a humorous note, Canadians should fortify their border to avoid an influx of American leftists.

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As part of my “great moments” in government series, I periodically share stories about really foolish regulations and really wasteful spending.

And sometimes I’ll even have a story that combines dumb regulation and boondoggle spending. For instance, you won’t believe the government’s inane approach to different-sized condoms.

I also have a satirical series about “great moments in human rights” and it’s time to augment that collection.

Europe’s political elite may decide that being overweight is a protected disability.

Here are some passages from a BBC report.

The EU’s top court is considering a test case which could oblige employers to treat obesity as a disability. Denmark has asked the European Court of Justice to rule on the case of a male childminder who says he was sacked for being too fat. …The court’s final ruling will be binding across the EU. It is seen as especially significant because of rising obesity levels in Europe and elsewhere, including the US. …Audrey Williams, an employment discrimination expert at Eversheds law firm, said the judges would have to decide “whether obesity itself should trigger preferential rights…”. If the judges decide it is a disability then employers could face new obligations, she told the BBC. Employers might in future have a duty to create reserved car parking spaces for obese staff, or adjust the office furniture for them, she said.

Yes, you read correctly.

If the European Court of Justice rules the wrong way, you can eat all you want, knowing that you’re part of a protected class and that your employer has to incur all sorts of costs for your benefit.

Now it’s time for a bit of libertarian dogma. I think people have the right to over-eat, and I don’t think the government should be trying to impose lifestyle choices, either through coercion or by tilting our behavior with penalties or subsidies.

But I also think we should bear the costs (or reap the benefits) of our behavioral choices. In other words, we don’t have – 0r shouldn’t have – the right to compel others to like us, to hire us, to promote us, or to incur costs on our behalf.

Simply stated, a free society should have free association.

If you want to read more “great moments in human rights,” here’s an ever-growing list.

And let’s add one more to the list.

The federal government has now decided that taxpayers should be liable for the cost of sex-change surgeries.

Here are some excerpts from a story last month in The Hill.

Medicare beneficiaries who are transgender may now receive coverage for sex reassignment surgeries, a federal health board ruled Friday. The decision lifts a decades-old ban on coverage for sex-change operations with Medicare and hands a major victory to transgender rights advocates who argued the rule was discriminatory.

I suppose you could categorize this story as an example of wasteful spending, but I doubt there are that many people over age 65 who will be signing up for this surgery. So while Medicare is bankrupt, this change presumably doesn’t ever merit a fiscal asterisk.

And I suppose you could use this story to make a point about why, in a sensible health care system, voluntary medical procedures should be paid directly by the consumer rather than via insurance (though if private insurance companies want to offer that coverage, it’s not my business to object).

In my opinion, though, this story belongs in the “human rights” category because the policy apparently was made on that basis.

Now, time again for some libertarian commentary.

As far as I’m concerned, people should have the right to choose this type of surgery. Indeed, I personally know a great economist who has undergone this procedure.

All I’m saying is that other people shouldn’t be coerced to pay for it.

Which also describes my views on aspirin purchases, dermatologist appointments, and other health costs as well.

See, isn’t it great to be a libertarian! You don’t coerce other people and they don’t coerce you. Instead, you have a peaceful society based on voluntary cooperation and exchange.

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When the new Tory-led government came to power in the United Kingdom, I was rather unimpressed.

David Cameron positioned himself as a British version of George W. Bush, full of “compassionate conservative” ideas to expand the burden of government.

But even worse than Bush, because Cameron also jacked up taxes when he first took office, including big increases in the capital gains tax and the value-added tax.

But I must admit that policy in recent years has moved in the right direction, at least with regard to corporate taxation.

Writing for the U.K.-based Telegraph, Jeremy Warner remarks that business activity has significantly strengthened.

A survey by EY, published on Monday, showed that the UK is continuing to pull away from the rest of Europe in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The UK secured nearly 800 projects last year, the highest ever, accounting for around a fifth of all European FDI, far in advance of any other country. …Such investment is in turn helping to fuel Britain’s economic recovery… Go back 10 years and it was all the other way; companies were scrambling to leave the country and domicile somewhere else. It is perhaps the Coalition’s biggest unsung achievement that it has managed to reverse this flow.

So why has the United Kingdom experienced this economic rebound?

Lower corporate tax rates are key, Warner explains.

…it has done so largely through the tax system, where it has been as good as its promise to make the UK the most competitive in the G20. By next year, Britain will have the equal lowest headline rate of corporation tax – along with Russia and Saudi Arabia – in this eclectic group of economies, as well as at 20pc the lowest by some distance of the G7 major advanced economies. Other G7 countries range from 25pc to a crushing 38pc and 39pc in France and the US. …Britain has also halted the double taxation of repatriated foreign profits and the taxation of controlled foreign subsidiaries.

So the 20 percent corporate tax rate has yielded good results.

Now let’s connect the dots.

More economic activity means more income for taxpayers.

And more income means a bigger tax base.

Which means…can you guess?…yup, it means revenue feedback.

In other words, we have another piece of evidence that the Laffer Curve is very real.

…Reducing corporation tax has reversed the outflow of corporate head office functions, and doing so has substantially added to overall employment, output, income tax, national insurance and VAT receipts. Dynamic modelling by the UK Treasury has shown that lower tax rates are helping to drive a higher overall tax take. The “Laffer curve” lives. …Let business profit from its own enterprise. It’s amazing how effective this principle can be in generating growth, and yes, taxes, too.

If you want more evidence about the Laffer Curve, here’s one of the videos I narrated.

Warner points out, by the way, that the United Kingdom should not rest on its laurels.

If modest reductions in the corporate tax rate are good, then deeper cuts should be even better.

If comparatively minor changes like these to the competitiveness of the tax system can have such dramatic effects, just think what more serious, root and branch tax reform might achieve. In Singapore, the headline rate is 17pc, in Hong Kong 16.5pc and in Ireland just 12.5pc. There’s a way to go.

Though if The U.K. keeps moving in the right direction, that may arouse hostility and attacks from countries with uncompetitive tax systems.

Indeed, the statists at the European Commission have just launched an investigation of three countries for supposedly under-taxing companies.

Here are some blurbs from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

European Union regulators are preparing to open a formal investigation into corporate-tax regimes in Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands… The probe by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, follows criticism in Europe of low tax rates paid by global corporations… The probe is likely to consider whether generous corporate-tax regimes in Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands amount to illegal state aid. …The EU’s tax commissioner, Algirdas Semeta, has warned that the region “can no longer afford freeloaders who reap huge profits in the EU without contributing to the public purse.”

This is remarkable.

In the twisted minds of the euro-crats in Brussels, it is “state aid” if you let companies keep some of the money they earn.

This is horrible economics, but it’s even worse from a moral perspective.

A subsidy (or “state aid”) occurs when the government taxes money from Person A and gives it to Person B. But it’s a perversion of the English language to say that a subsidy takes place if Person A gets a tax cut.

By the way, this perverse mentality is not limited to Europe.

The “tax expenditure” concept in the United States is based on the twisted notion that a tax cut that results in more money in your pocket is economically (and morally) equivalent to a spending handout that puts more money in your pocket.

P.S. The United Kingdom also provides us with powerful evidence that the Laffer Curve plays a big role when there are changes in the personal income tax.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding a bit of good news on corporate tax, I’m not optimistic about the U.K.’s long-run outlook. Simply stated, the nation’s political elite is too statist.

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Regular readers know that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private economy.

Nations that maintain this Golden Rule for extended periods of time shrink the relative burden of government spending, thus enabling more growth by freeing up resources for the productive sector of the economy and creating leeway for lower tax rates.

And when countries deal with the underlying disease of too much spending, they automatically solve the symptom of red ink, so it’s a win-win situation whether you’re a spending hawk or a so-called deficit hawk.

With this in mind, let’s look at some interesting new research from the Heritage Foundation. They’ve produced a report entitled Europe’s Fiscal Crisis Revealed: An In-Depth Analysis of Spending, Austerity, and Growth.

It focuses on fiscal policy over the past few years and is an important contribution in two big ways. First, it shows that the Keynesian free-lunch approach is counterproductive. Second, it shows that the right kind of fiscal consolidation (i.e., spending restraint) generates superior results.

Here are some excerpts from the chapter by Professor Alberto Alesina of Harvard of Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. They look at some of the academic evidence.

The debate over the merits of austerity (the implementation of debt-reduction packages) is frustrating. Most people focus only on deficit reduction, but that can be achieved in many different ways. Some ways, such as raising taxes, deeply hurt growth… The data show that austerity has been implemented in Europe. However, with some rare exceptions, the forms of austerity were heavy on tax increases and far from involving savage spending cuts. …spending-based adjustments are more likely to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, regardless of whether fiscal adjustments are defined in terms of improvements in the cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit or in terms of premeditated policy changes designed to improve a country’s fiscal outlook. …Other research has found that fiscal adjustments based mostly on the spending side are less likely to be reversed and, as a result, have led to more long-lasting reductions in debt-to-GDP ratios. …successful fiscal adjustments are often rooted in reform of social programs and reductions in the size and pay of the government workforce rather than in other types of spending cuts. …tax increases failed to reduce the debt and were associated with large recessions. …growing evidence suggests that private investment tends to react more positively to spending-based adjustments. For instance, data from Alesina and Ardagna and from Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi show that private-sector capital accumulation increases after governments cut spending.

The basic message of the Alesina-de Rugy chapter is that bad outcomes are largely unavoidable when nations spend themselves into fiscal trouble, but the damage can be minimized if policy makers impose spending restraint.

The Heritage Foundation’s Salim Furth is the editor of the report, and here’s some of what he wrote in Chapter 3, which looks at what’s happened in recent years as countries dealt with fiscal crisis.

Tax austerity is very harmful to growth, while spending cuts are partially replaced by private-sector activity, making them less harmful. …Estimating growth effects on private GDP, the difference between tax and spending multipliers grows predictably. A two-dollar decline in private GDP is associated with every dollar of tax increases, but spending cuts are associated with no change in private GDP.  …fiscal consolidation that relied 60 percentage points more on spending cuts was associated with 3.1 percentage points more GDP growth from 2009 to 2012, when average growth was just 3.3 percent over the entire period. In other words, a country that had a fiscal consolidation composed of 80 percent of spending cuts and 20 percent of tax increases would grow much more rapidly than a country in which only 20 percent of the consolidation was spending cuts and 80 percent was tax increases. The association is slightly stronger for private GDP.

Salim then cites a couple of powerful examples.

…the difference between Germany’s 8 percent growth from 2009 to 2012 and the 1 percent growth in the Netherlands is largely accounted for by Germany’s cut-spending, cut-taxes approach and the Netherlands’ raise-spending, raise-taxes approach. The U.K. and Italy enacted similarly-sized austerity packages, but Italy’s was half tax increases while the U.K. favored spending cuts. Neither country excelled, but over half of the gap between the U.K.’s 3 percent growth and Italy’s negative growth is explained by Italy’s tax increases.

By the way, it’s not as if Germany and the United Kingdom are stellar examples of fiscal restraint. It’s just that they’re doing better than nations that traveled down the path of even bigger government.

Regarding supposed Keynesian stimulus, Salim makes a very important point that more government spending seems positive in the short run, sort of like the fiscal version of a sugar high.

But that sugar high produces a bad hangover. Nations that try Keynesianism quickly fall behind countries with more prudent policy.

Government spending boosts GDP instantly and then crowds out private spending slowly. The incentive effects of taxation may take effect over several years, but they are permanent and especially pronounced in investment. If anything, this recent crisis shows how brief the short run is: Countries whose spending-focused stimulus put them one step ahead in 2010 were already two steps behind in 2012.

There’s a lot more in the report, so I encourage readers to give it a look.

I particularly like that it emphasizes the importance of properly defining “austerity” and “fiscal consolidation.” These are issues that I highlighted in my discussion with John Stossel.

Another great thing about the report is that it has all sorts of useful data.

Though much of it is depressing. Here’s Chart 2-9 from the report and it shows all the countries that have increased top marginal tax rates between 2007 and 2013.

Portugal wins the booby prize for the biggest tax hike, though many nations went down this class-warfare path. Including the United States thanks to Obama’s fiscal cliff tax increase.

The United Kingdom is an interesting case. It raised its top rate by 10 percentage points, but then cut the rate by 5 percentage points after it became apparent that the higher rate wasn’t collecting any additional revenue.

We should give credit to the handful of nations that have lowered tax rates, several of which replaced discriminatory systems with simple and fair flat taxes.

Though it’s also important to keep in mind where each nation started. Switzerland lowered it’s top rate by only 0.4 percentage points, which seems small compared to Denmark, which dropped its top rate by 6.7 percentage points.

But Switzerland started with a much lower rate, whereas Denmark has one of the world’s most punitive tax regimes (though, paradoxically, it is very laissez-faire in areas other than fiscal policy).

Let’s look at the same data, but from a different perspective. Chart 2-10 shows how many nations (from a list of 37) raised top rates or lowered top rates each year.

The good news is that tax cutters out-numbered tax-hikers in 2008 and 2009.

The bad news is that tax increases have dominated ever since 2010.

Many of these post-2009 tax hikes were enabled by a weakening of tax competition, which underscores why it is so important to preserve the right of jurisdictions to maintain competitive tax systems.

And don’t forget that tax policy will probably get even worse in the future because of aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Let’s close with some more numbers.

Here’s Table 2-5 from the report. It shows changes in the value-added tax (VAT) beginning in December 2008.

The key thing to notice is that there’s no column for decreases in the VAT. That’s because no nation lowered that levy. Practically speaking, this hidden form of a national sales tax is a money machine for bigger government.

But you don’t have to believe me. The International Monetary Fund unintentionally provided the data showing that VATs are the most effective tax for financing bigger government.

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There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.

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The title of this post sounds like the beginning of a strange joke, but it’s actually because we’re covering three issues today.

Our first topic is corporate taxation. More specifically, we’re looking at a nation that seems to be learning that it’s foolish the have a punitive corporate tax system.

By way of background, the United States used to have the second-highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

But then the Japanese came to their senses and reduced their tax rate on companies, leaving America with the dubious honor of having the world’s highest rate.

So did the United States respond with a tax cut in order to improve competitiveness? Nope, our rate is still high and the United States arguably now has the world’s worst tax system for businesses.

But the Japanese learned if a step in the right direction is good, then another step in the right direction must be even better.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Japan will be lowering its corporate tax rate again.

Japan’s ruling party on Tuesday cleared the way for a corporate tax cut to take effect next year… Reducing the corporate tax rate, currently about 35%, is a long-standing demand of large corporations. They say they bear an unfair share of the burden and have an incentive to move plants overseas to where taxes are lower. …Business leaders want the rate to fall below 30% within the next few years and eventually to 25%… The Japan Business Federation, known as Keidanren, says tax cuts could partly pay for themselves by spurring investment. Japan’s current corporate tax rate is higher than most European and Asian countries, although it is lower than the U.S. level of roughly 40%.

If only American politicians could be equally sensible.

The Japanese (at least some of them) even understand that a lower corporate rate will generate revenue feedback because of the Laffer Curve.

I’ve tried to make the same point to American policymakers, but that’s like teaching budget calculus to kids from the fiscal policy short bus.

Let’s switch gears to our second topic and look at what one veteran wrote about handouts from Uncle Sam.

Here are excerpts from his column in the Washington Post.

Though I spent more than five years on active duty during the 1970s as an Army infantry officer and an additional 23 years in the Reserves, I never fired a weapon other than in training, and I spent no time in a combat zone. …nearly half of the 4.5 million active-duty service members and reservists over the past decade were never deployed overseas. Among those who were, many never experienced combat. …support jobs aren’t particularly hazardous. Police officers, firefighters and construction workers face more danger than Army public affairs specialists, Air Force mechanics, Marine Corps legal assistants, Navy finance clerks or headquarters staff officers.

So what’s the point? Well, this former soldier thinks that benefits are too generous.

And yet, the benefits flow lavishly. …Even though I spent 80 percent of my time in uniform as a reservist, I received an annual pension in 2013 of $24,990, to which I contributed no money while serving. …My family and I have access to U.S. military bases worldwide, where we can use the fitness facilities at no charge and take advantage of the tax-free prices at the commissaries and post exchanges. The most generous benefit of all is Tricare. This year I paid just $550 for family medical insurance. In the civilian sector, the average family contribution for health care in 2013 was $4,565… Simply put, I’m getting more than I gave. Tricare for military retirees and their families is so underpriced that it’s more of a gift than a benefit. …budget deficits are tilting America toward financial malaise. Our elected representatives will have to summon the courage to confront the costs of benefits and entitlements and make hard choices. Some “no” votes when it comes to our service members and, in particular, military retirees will be necessary.

The entire column is informative and thoughtful. My only quibble is that it would be more accurate to say “an expanding burden of government is tilting America toward financial malaise.”

But I shouldn’t nitpick, even though I think it’s important to focus on the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

Simply stated, it’s refreshing to read someone who writes that his group should get fewer taxpayer-financed goodies. And I like the idea of reserving generous benefits for those who put their lives at risk, or actually got injured.

Last but not least, I periodically share stories that highlight challenging public policy issues, even for principled libertarians.

You can check out some of my prior examples of “you be the judge” by clicking here.

Today, we have another installment.

The New York Times has reported that a mom and dad in the United Kingdom were arrested because their kid was too fat.

The parents of an 11-year-old boy were arrested in Britain on suspicion of neglect and child cruelty after authorities grew alarmed about the child’s weight. The boy, who like his parents was not identified, weighed 210 pounds. …In a statement, the police said that “obesity and neglect of children” were sensitive issues, but that its child abuse investigation unit worked with health care and social service agencies to ensure a “proportionate and necessary” response. The police said in the statement that “intervention at this level is very rare and will only occur where other attempts to protect the child have been unsuccessful.”

So was this a proper example of state intervention?

My instinct is to say no. After all, even bad parents presumably care about their kids. And they’ll almost certainly do a better job of taking care of them than a government bureaucracy.

But there are limits. Even strict libertarians, for instance, will accept government intervention if parents are sadistically beating a child.

And if bad parents were giving multiple shots of whiskey to 7-year olds every single night, that also would justify intervention in the minds of almost everybody.

On the other hand, would any of us want the state to intervene simply because parents don’t do a good job overseeing homework? Or because they let their kids play outside without supervision (a real issue in the United States, I’m embarrassed to admit)?

The answer hopefully is no.

But how do we decide when we have parents who are over-feeding a kid?

My take, for what it’s worth, is that the size of kids is not a legitimate function of government. My heart might want there to be intervention, but my head tells me that bureaucrats can’t be trusted to exercise this power prudently.

P.S. I guess “bye bye burger boy” in the United Kingdom didn’t work very well.

P.P.S. But the U.K. government does fund foreign sex travel, and that has to burn some calories.

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From a macro perspective, the most distressing aspect of America’s education system is that taxpayers spend a lot of money (more than any other people in the world, on a per-student basis) and we get very mediocre results.

And it’s getting worse over time. This famous chart, prepared by my colleague Andrew Coulson, shows how spending and bureaucracy have skyrocketed since 1970 while test scores have been stagnant.

Blacks and other minorities are the biggest victims. They are trapped in the worst-performing schools, largely because leftist politicians would rather curry favor with union bosses then help the poor.

But I don’t want to focus on these depressing macro issues.

Instead, we’re going to look at a depressing micro issue. To be more specific, let’s share a story about brain-dead political correctness (another one to add to a depressing collection).

Here are some details from a local news report.

First-grader Darin Simak is a little shy, a little upset and a little confused about why he can’t go back to Martin Elementary in New Kensington.

So what happened? Did he stab a classmate? Set fire to the classroom? Steal from the school’s petty cash fund?

No, none of those options. Instead, he did something far worse.

At least in the minds of brainless school bureaucrats.

Jennifer Mathabel said her son left his usual backpack in a friend’s car the night before, so he packed another one but missed the toy gun inside. “So I send my child to school. My child discovers a fake toy gun at about 1:30 p.m. He turns it in to the teacher and he’s sent to the office and suspended,” said Mathabel.

Yup, you read correctly. Darin found a toy gun in his backpack, and apparently he’s been successfully brainwashed that toy guns somehow are bad, so he gave it to the teacher.

The teacher then acted like a functionary from the Cuban KGB and turned Darin over to her superiors.

Not surprisingly, Darin’s mom is not happy that she’s paying taxes to subsidize such stupidity.

…she felt her son shouldn’t be suspended, and still sent him to school Thursday morning. “I got a phone call from the principal at 9 a.m., and she said, ‘Darin is not to be in school,’ and I said, ‘I’m sending him to school because he is entitled to be in school and be educated,'” said Mathabel. …The New Kensington-Arnold School District superintendent said that bringing a toy gun to school violates the district’s policy at the highest level and requires a child to be suspended immediately until a meeting can be held to discuss what happened and whether punishment is warranted.

You’ll be happy to know that our story has a happy ending.

Actually, allow me to modify that sentence. It’s a happy ending only in the sense that the school bureaucrats graciously and mercifully decided not to expel Darin.

Instead, he was suspended for two days.

Darin will not be expelled. The school district held a meeting and decided to suspend the first-grader for two days.

Astounding, in a horrible way. Makes you wonder whether government-run schools should be considered a form of child abuse.

Since we’re on the topic of government-run education (or mis-education, to use a clunky but more accurate phrase), let’s divert to the topic of common core.

Robby Soave of Reason explores an additional reason to dislike this new form of bureaucratized centralization.

Opponents of Common Core have plenty of ammunition by now: The standards erode local autonomy, are costly to implement, and some experts dispute their rigor. But an underexplored aspect of this problematic national education reform is the massive financial incentive that certain textbook and standardized test companies have to keep the U.S. on board with it. …the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—recently invited curriculum companies to compete for the contract to design the tests. Textbook giant Pearson won the contract, surprising no one.

Soave explains why this should make parents (and taxpayers) worried.

A PARCC press release described the selection of Pearson as the result of a “competitive bidding process.” But it’s hard to tell whether the process was truly competitive, given that Pearson was the only company to even submit a bid. …Keep in mind that the contract is worth so much money that officials haven’t even attached a formal price tag. Instead, they have used the phrase “unprecedented in scale.” …it certainly undermines the notion that this is a “bottom up” education reform when state and federal lawmakers are colluding with mega corporations to dictate the tests to local school districts.

If you want to know more about the shortcomings of common core, I cite both George Will and one of Cato’s education experts in a post back in January.

But all you really need to know is that we’ll get a far better system of education if the federal government has less involvement, not more involvement.

Indeed, we should get rid of the entire Department of Education. Canada is doing better on education than the United States, and there’s no role for the national government in Ottawa.

Not that I’m a big fan of what state and local governments are doing.

The ideal system would be based on markets and competition. Which means we should copy nations with widespread school choice, such as Chile, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

We have some school choice in America, and the evidence is very strong that we get better results.

P.S. The virus of political correctness is so bad in America’s education system that some schools have even cancelled award ceremonies because they might make some students feel excluded.

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Our leftist friends have decided that income inequality is a scourge that must be addressed.

That might be a noble goal if they were motivated by a desire to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

Based on their policy proposals, though, it appears that the main goal is to punish the so-called rich. And they’re so fixated on that objective, Margaret Thatcher pointed out, that they’re willing to make the poor worse off.

And what’s especially bizarre is that rich leftists are among the biggest cheerleaders for these policies. Heck, I’ve even debated some of these limousine liberals, as you can see here and here.

But maybe their feelings of self-loathing and guilt are justified. After all, it seems that statist policies are actually associated with higher degrees of income inequality.

Let’s see what Steve Moore and Rich Vedder discovered when they looked at evidence from the states. Here are excerpts from their column in the Wall Street Journal.

Our state-by-state analysis finds that the more liberal states whose policies are supposed to promote fairness have a bigger gap between higher and lower incomes than do states that have more conservative, pro-growth policies. …According to 2012 Census Bureau data (the latest available figures), the District of Columbia, New York, Connecticut, Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest measure of income inequality of all the states; Wyoming, Alaska, Utah, Hawaii and New Hampshire have the lowest Gini coefficients. The three places that are most unequal—Washington, D.C., New York and Connecticut—are dominated by liberal policies and politicians. Four of the five states with the lowest Gini coefficients—Wyoming, Alaska, Utah and New Hampshire—are generally red states.

Steve and Rich then look at some specific comparison and some specific issues.

Texas is often regarded as an unregulated Wild West of winner-take-all-capitalism, while California is held up as the model of progressive government. Yet Texas has a lower Gini coefficient (.477) and a lower poverty rate (20.5%) than California (Gini coefficient .482, poverty rate 25.8%). Do the 19 states with minimum wages above the $7.25 federal minimum have lower income inequality? Sorry, no. States with a super minimum wage like Connecticut ($8.70), California ($8), New York ($8) and Vermont ($8.73) have significantly wider gaps between rich and poor than those states that don’t. What about welfare benefits? …In general, the higher the benefit package, the higher the Gini coefficient. States with high income-tax rates aren’t any more equal than states with no income tax.

So what’s the bottom line?

The conclusion is nearly inescapable that liberal policy prescriptions—especially high income-tax rates and the lack of a right-to-work law—make states less prosperous because they chase away workers, businesses and capital. …When politicians get fixated on closing income gaps rather than creating an overall climate conducive to prosperity, middle- and lower-income groups suffer most and income inequality rises. …John F. Kennedy had it right that a rising tide lifts all boats. It would be better for low- and middle-income Americans if growth and not equality became the driving policy goal in the states and in Washington, D.C.

Speaking of rich, guilt-ridden leftists, Michael Moore is getting divorced and the fight with his soon-to-be ex is resulting in some revelations about the immense wealth of this anti-capitalist crusader.

Here are some eye-catching details from a story in the UK-based Daily Mail.

According to Celebrity Worth, Moore has $50m in assets. …the Torch Lake mansion…put a spotlight on his wealth and opened him up for ridicule because he has so often criticized the rich in his films. …The home, which was completed years ago, is believed to cost in the neighborhood of $2m. …The lake house isn’t their only home. They own a total of nine properties in Michigan and New York. Their Manhattan condo was created through ‘the combination of three separate units,’ according to The Smoking Gun. …Together Moore and Glynn own ‘multiple substantial residences and multiple companies,’ including Dog Eat Dog Films, the production company behind films Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine.

Nine properties, including a lakefront mansion and a three-units-combined-into-one Manhattan condo?!?

Who knew bashing the rich was such a lucrative gig.

Geesh, I’m a defender of the top 1 percent and I only have a house in Virginia.

I’m obviously doing something wrong.

P.S. While rich leftists say they want higher taxes, they’ve been exposed on camera as complete hypocrites.

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Why are so many people upset that the Obama White House keeps arbitrarily changing parts of Obamacare – even when bad provisions are being suspended or certain groups are being exempted from bad policy?

Well, some of them may simply dislike Obama or government-run healthcare, and there’s nothing wrong with being against a politician or rejecting bigger government.

But the most important reason to be upset is that the White House is making a mockery of the rule of law.

But what exactly is the rule of law? Why, for instance, does it have such a large impact on a nation’s grade in the Economic Freedom of the World Index?

This Learn Liberty video explains that the rule of law is critical because it creates a framework for honest exchange and it limits the power of politicians and government.

As Professor Bell states, the rule of law provides “a necessary framework for civil society” and enables “tolerance, liberty, and free trade.”

I also like that the video highlights the importance of having laws that are easy to understand, which means that Byzantine schemes like Obamacare are contrary to the rule of law – even if they are administered honestly.

Which explains why the tax code also is an affront to the rule of law, whether we’re looking at incomprehensible policy, illegal regulations, or extraterritorial application.

And the corrupt TARP bailout obviously is contrary to the rule of law as well.

Let’s now step back and take a big-picture look at the issue. Perhaps the best example of the rule of law is the United States Constitution. That sacred document was written precisely to limit the power of the state in hopes or preventing the capricious rule of men.

This Thomas Jefferson quote gets to the heart of the matter.

It’s embarrassing that the United States only ranks #19 in an international comparison of the rule of law. Particularly when the presence of the rule of law is the biggest factor that separates advanced nations from the developing world.

P.S. It’s discouraging that the Constitution’s protections of individual liberty have eroded, so let’s share a bit of good news.

I’ve written before about the threat posed by international bureaucrats who want to cartelize business taxation in order to enable higher tax rates.

Well, at least some American lawmakers are not on board with this scheme, as reported by Reuters.

Republican tax law writers in the U.S. Congress and multinational businesses on Monday said international talks aimed at preventing companies from moving profits to low-tax countries could hurt the United States. Representative Dave Camp and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah warned of the effect on U.S. taxpayers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) work to develop multilateral tax rules. Known as the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, the OECD effort calls for revising tax treaties, tightening rules and more government tax information sharing.

The Wall Street Journal also has criticized the OECD’s “global revenue grab.”

Let’s hope this is a sign that this leftist campaign for higher taxes has hit a brick wall.

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Last December, we had some amusing humor about Obama’s infamous “selfie” at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Now we have something far more biting.

Mad magazine has some good satire on the President’s deal with the Taliban.

I’m not competent to discuss the foreign policy angle, or whether Obama’s done the right thing or wrong thing.

But I do appreciate low-blow political humor.

Speaking of which, here’s a Back to the Future parody.

There’s no policy angle, which is what I generally prefer.

But it’s always good to hold politicians of all parties in low esteem.

P.S. If you want more Obama humor, check out 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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In previous columns, I’ve explained why a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And I’ve also pontificated on why leftists are wrong to pursue policies of coerced equality.

So it goes without saying that I’m a big fan of a new Wall Street Journal column by John Steele Gordon.

He writes that the anti-wealth ideology animating the political elite is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how large fortunes are generated.

He starts by pointing out that many of today’s richest people earned their money as a result of the microprocessor, a technological development that has dramatically improved the lives of ordinary people.

The French economist Thomas Piketty, in his new book “Capital in the 21st Century,” calls for an 80% tax on incomes over $250,000 and a 2% annual tax on net worth in order to prevent an excessive concentration of wealth. That is a monumentally bad idea. The great growth of fortunes in recent decades is not a sinister development. Instead it is simply the inevitable result of an extraordinary technological innovation, the microprocessor… Seven of the 10 largest fortunes in America today were built on this technology, as have been countless smaller ones. …no one is poorer because Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, et al., are so much richer. These new fortunes came into existence only because the public wanted the products and services—and lower prices—that the microprocessor made possible.

He then points out that this is actually a consistent pattern through history.

New technologies make us better off, and also create riches for those who most effectively bring those new developments to consumers.

Whenever a new technology comes along that greatly reduces the cost of a fundamental input to the economy, or makes possible what had previously been impossible, there has always been a flowering of great new fortunes—often far larger than those that came before. …The full-rigged ship that Europeans developed in the 15th century, for instance, was capable of reaching the far corners of the globe. …The Dutch exploited the new trade so successfully that the historian Simon Schama entitled his 1987 book on this period of Dutch history “The Embarrassment of Riches.” …Before James Watt’s rotary steam engine, patented in 1781, only human and animal muscles, water mills and windmills could supply power. But with Watt’s engine it was suddenly possible to input vast amounts of very-low-cost energy into the economy. Combined with the factory system of production, the steam engine sparked the Industrial Revolution, causing growth—and thus wealth as well as job creation—to sharply accelerate. By the 1820s so many new fortunes were piling up that the English social critic John Sterling was writing, “Wealth! Wealth! Wealth! Praise to the God of the 19th century! The Golden Idol! The mighty Mammon!” In 1826 the young Benjamin Disraeli coined the word millionaire to denote the holders of these new industrial fortunes. …before the railroad, moving goods overland was extremely, and often prohibitively, expensive. The railroad made it cheap. Such fortunes as those of the railroad-owning Vanderbilts, Goulds and Harrimans became legendary for their size. …Many of the new fortunes in America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century were based on petroleum, by then inexpensive and abundant thanks to Edwin Drake’s drilling technique. Steel, suddenly made cheap thanks to the Bessemer converter, could now have a thousand new uses. Oil and steel, taken together, made the automobile possible. That produced still more great fortunes, not only in car manufacturing, but also in rubber, glass, highway construction and such ancillary industries.

Gordon then concludes by warning against class-warfare tax policy, since it would discourage the risk-taking that necessarily accompanies big investments in new technology.

Any attempt to tax away new fortunes in the name of preventing inequality is certain to have adverse effects on further technology creation and niche exploitation by entrepreneurs—and harm job creation as a result. The reason is one of the laws of economics: Potential reward must equal the risk or the risk won’t be taken. And the risks in any new technology are very real in the highly competitive game that is capitalism. In 1903, 57 automobile companies opened for business in this country, hoping to exploit the new technology. Only the Ford Motor Co. survived the Darwinian struggle to succeed. As Henry Ford’s fortune grew to dazzling levels, some might have decried it, but they also should have rejoiced as he made the automobile affordable for everyman.

My only complaint about Gordon’s column is that he didn’t have the space to emphasize a related point.

All of the large fortunes that he discusses were not accumulated at the expense of those with less money.

In other words, the economy was not a fixed pie. Capitalism made everybody better off. Some just got richer faster than other people got richer.

P.S. I wrote the other day about the VA scandal and emphasized that the problem was not inadequate spending.

I want to revisit the issue because Professor Glenn Reynolds makes a very important point about greed in a column for USA Today.

People sometimes think that government or “nonprofit” operations will be run more honestly than for-profit businesses because the businesses operate on the basis of “greed.” But, in fact, greed is a human characteristic that is present in any organization made up of humans. It’s all about incentives. And, ironically, a for-profit medical system might actually offer employees less room for greed than a government system. That’s because VA patients were stuck with the VA. If wait times were long, they just had to wait, or do without care. In a free-market system, a provider whose wait times were too long would lose business, and even if the employees faked up the wait-time numbers, that loss of business would show up on the bottom line. That would lead top managers to act, or lose their jobs. In the VA system, however, the losses didn’t show up on the bottom line because, well, there isn’t one. Instead, the losses were diffused among the many patients who went without care — visible to them, but not to the people who ran the agency, who relied on the cooked-books numbers from their bonus-seeking underlings. …that’s the problem with socialism. The absence of a bottom line doesn’t reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing.

Amen.

Greed is always with us. The question is whether greed is channeled in productive ways. In a free market, greedy people can only become rich by providing the rest of us with valuable goods and services.

In statist systems, by contrast, greedy people manipulate coercive government policies in order to obtain unearned wealth.

And that choice has big consequences for the rest of us, as illustrated by this satirical image.

P.S. Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail that sums up how Washington will probably deal with the mess at the Veterans Administration.

Sort of reminds me of this Gary Varvel cartoon.

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I haven’t spent much time writing about Thomas Piketty’s inequality book for the simple reason that my goal is economic liberty, not equality.

That being said, I think that Piketty is fundamentally misguided even if the goal is helping the poor. Simply stated, long-run growth is the best way of reducing poverty and boosting living standards. Piketty, by contrast, focuses on redistribution – even though this would require punitive taxation, thus undermining growth and hurting the less fortunate.

This is very obvious when we look at economic performance in market-oriented nations and compare it to economic performance in countries where government plays a bigger role.

Most recently, I showed how Poland is out-pacing Ukraine.

I’ve compared South Korea and North Korea.

The data for Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela is very powerful.

I’ve shown how Singapore has eclipsed Jamaica.

And we can see that Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

As I often remark in my speeches, I’d much rather be a poor person in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore rather than in a “compassionate” country such as France.

France might give me lots of handouts, but I’d remain poor. In a free-market society, by contrast, I could climb out of poverty.

Anyhow, let’s return to Piketty’s thesis about the rich benefiting from capital accumulation. All sorts of scholars have called into question his theoretical model and his empirical data, but I don’t even care if Piketty’s right. In a free society, the worst thing that happens is that the rich get richer faster than the poor get richer.

That’s why we should concentrate on what we can do to boost growth.

And there is one economic reform that is good for growth, but would be especially beneficial for lower-income people. Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation, in a column for Forbes, makes a powerful case for Social Security reform.

He starts with the essential insight that policy makers should focus on helping the poor, not penalizing success.

French economist Thomas Piketty wants to attack the issue of income inequality by redistributing the wealth of the highest earners. Wouldn’t a better solution be to increase the wealth of the lowest earners?

Merrill says we should make it easier for the overall population to become capitalists.

…instead of taxing that success even more than we already do, which discourages capital development and investment, Washington can help lower- and middle-income workers acquire capital so they too can partake in those higher returns.

He then points out that workers are forced to participate in a Social Security system that imposes very high taxes in exchange for rather meager benefits.

Eugene Steuerle and Caleb Quakenbush of the Urban Institute publish an annual estimate of how much workers at different income levels and marriage status pay into Social Security and Medicare and how much they can expect to receive in benefits. Their 2013 report estimates that a single male worker earning the average income of $44,800 (in 2013 dollars) turning 65 in 2015 can expect to receive $287,000 in Social Security benefits. However, that worker paid in $337,000, for a net loss of about $50,000. Both estimates assume a growth rate of 2 percent, which happens to match Piketty’s projection of long-term GDP growth. That disparity between contributions and benefits declines significantly for women, who tend to live longer. A single female worker would have paid in the same amount, $337,000, but could expect to receive $314,000.

Now we get to his proposed reform.

…what if workers were able to put that same amount of money—their 12.4 percent Social Security (FICA) tax; $5,555 in Stererle’s example—into a personal retirement account that could be invested in broad-based equities?

With personal retirement accounts, ordinary workers can generate big nest eggs.

Using an interest calculator, a $5,555 annual contribution over 40 years at 6 percent grows to about $970,000. Factor in that wealth and income inequality largely evaporates. …if the left is really concerned about income inequality, the best way to end it is wealth creation, not redistribution. Replacing Social Security’s financially struggling system with personal retirement accounts would create real wealth for millions of working Americans.

As you can imagine, I heartily concur. Here’s the video I narrated on the topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

By the way, if you think the stock market is too risky, particularly after the recent financial crisis, one of my Cato colleagues produced a thorough study showing that people who retired right after the market fell still would have been better off with personal accounts.

P.S. If you want to understand why class-warfare tax policy will backfire, another one of my colleagues dismantled the work of Piketty and others.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though I’m not sure we should laugh considering that tens of millions of Americans will suffer when the system no longer can afford to pay promised benefits.

P.P.P.S. Obama’s supposed solution would be an even bigger move in the wrong direction.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but definitely not least, watch Margaret Thatcher destroy the left’s position on income distribution.

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I’ve never been susceptible to the claim that you solve problems with taxpayer money.

Indeed, this amusing poster is a pretty good summary of my views on the effectiveness of government spending.

But what about the horrific stories about veterans dying because of secret waiting lists and bureaucratic skullduggery at the Veterans Administration?

I want to take care of former soldiers who need treatment because of their service, and national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government. So is this one of the rare cases where a budget needs to increase? That’s certainly the mentality in some quarters on Capitol Hill.

Here are some excerpts from Byron York’s column in the Washington Examiner.

Sanders and his fellow Democrats want to give the VA billions more. …What is striking about Sanders’ bill is not just its price tag but how irrelevant it is to the most serious problems besetting the VA health care system. It was like adding new chrome to a car that won’t run. When Republicans stopped the bill earlier this year, Democrats predictably accused them of being insensitive to veterans’ needs. …It’s unclear what Congress will do, but one certainty in the debate is that the Sanders bill won’t solve the problem.

But what do the actual budget numbers show?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the VA already has lots of money.

Here’s some of what has been reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency caught in a political firestorm over its medical care for veterans, has seen its funding grow faster than any other government department in recent years. Since 2000, annual spending has tripled to $63 billion to meet a surge in health-care and other costs. That is on top of the more than $85 billion the VA is set to receive this year for automatic payments such as disability benefits and pensions, a tally that has more than tripled since 2000.

But some may argue that needs are rising even faster because so many soldiers were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Federalist addressed this issue, in an article by Sean Davis.

VA funding has more than kept up with both medical inflation and increased patient loads. An analysis of budget and cost data, as well as data on the total number of VA patients and the number of acute inpatients treated, shows that the VA’s budget has grown much faster than its workload. Even when you take medical inflation into account, the VA budget still grew faster than its patient base since 2000. …The VA has a whole bunch of problems, but a lack of funding ain’t one.

Here’s a chart from Sean’s article. Hard to argue with these numbers.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of national defense and foreign affairs, let’s take a look at a very provocative column by Steve Chapman. He says that President Obama, whether by accident or design, actually has a reasonable foreign policy. As least if you think good foreign policy should be based on a prudent understanding of the limits of government.

Conservatives generally agree on a few propositions. The federal government should avoid spending money unnecessarily. It shouldn’t exceed its basic constitutional duties. It should encourage self-reliance rather than dependency. It should accept that some problems are beyond its ability to solve.  Barack Obama, they may be surprised to learn, agrees with much of this formula. He just applies it in a realm where conservatives often don’t: foreign relations and national security. The Obama doctrine, as outlined in his policies and his speech at West Point Wednesday, is one of comparatively limited government.

Chapman elaborates, drawing an interesting parallel to domestic issues.

A…sensible view is that the U.S. can indeed remain idle while alleged dangers gather, because most of them won’t materialize. The immortal philosopher Calvin Coolidge said, “If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” Many conservatives believe in hurrying out to meet all 10 just in case. …Critics charge that Obama’s foreign policy shows an unwillingness to lead, or weakness, or uncertain purposes. The same complaint, of course, could be made about conservative policies on poverty, health care, urban blight, access to housing and more. “Don’t you care?” indignant liberals ask. But sometimes ambitious government undertakings are too expensive to justify, sometimes they fail to solve problems, and sometimes they make things worse. In those instances, declining to act — and explaining why — is the most authentic form of leadership. That’s just as true in the international realm as it is in the domestic one.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, but I’m very sympathetic Chapman’s hypothesis because skepticism is always a good approach when analyzing government. And his piece on NATO is must reading for similar reasons.

That being said, I’m not going to put Obama on a pedestal or assume that he’s doing the right thing on foreign policy for the right reason. My guess is that his default position in foreign affairs is passivity.

That often coincides with the libertarian position of non-intervention. But as I wrote above, libertarians also believe that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of government, which is why they generally were allied with conservatives during the Cold War, when we faced an aggressive and imperialistic Soviet Bloc.

My guess is that if we went into a time machine and it was 1980 instead of 2014, Obama would be more like Jimmy Carter and less like Ronald Reagan.

P.P.S. Mark Steyn also has written some very wise words about libertarian-ish foreign policy.

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