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Archive for July, 2014

I had a very bad lunch today.

But not because of what I ate. My lunch was unpleasant because I moderated a noontime panel on Capitol Hill featuring Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and my Cato colleague Chris Edwards.

And I should hasten to add that they were splendid company. The unpleasant part of the lunch was the information they shared.

The Senator, in particular, looked at budgetary projections over the next 30 years and basically confirmed for the audience that an ever-expanding burden of federal spending is going to lead to a fiscal crisis.

To be blunt, he showed numbers that basically matched up with this Henry Payne cartoon.

Here’s a chart from his presentation. It shows the average burden of spending in past years, compared to various projections of how much bigger government will be – on average – over the next three decades.

The Senator warned that the most unfavorable projection (i.e., “CBO ALT FISC”) was also the most realistic one. In other words, federal spending will consume a much larger share of economic output over the next three decades than it has over the past two decades.

But our fiscal outlook is actually even worse than what you see in his slide.

The Senator’s numbers are based on average spending levels over the 2015-2044 period. That’s very useful – and sobering – data, but if you look at the annual numbers, you’ll see that the trendline gives us additional reasons to worry.

More specifically, spending for the major entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare, as well as Medicaid) is closely tied to the aging population. So as more and more baby boomers retire over the next couple of decades, spending on these programs will become more burdensome.

In other words, our fiscal problem will be much larger in 2040 than it will be in 2020.

Here are the long-run numbers from the Congressional Budget Office. The blue line is federal spending on various programs and the pink line is total spending (i.e., programmatic spending plus interest payments). And keep in mind that these numbers don’t include state and local government spending, which presumably will chew up another 15 percent of our economic output!

In other words, America will become Greece.

And don’t delude yourself into thinking that CBO must be wrong. I’m not a big fan of the Congressional Budget Office (particularly CBO’s economic analysis), but these numbers are driven by demographics.

Moreover, CBO’s grim outlook is matched by similarly dismal numbers from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

By the way, CBO doesn’t do projections once federal government debt exceeds 250 percent of GDP, so the gray-colored trendline beginning about 2048 is not an official projections. It’s merely an estimate of the total spending burden assuming that the federal budget is left on autopilot.

Of course, we’ll never reach that level. We will suffer a fiscal crisis before that point. But when it happens to us, the IMF won’t be there to bail us out for the simple reason that the IMF’s credibility is based on the backing of American taxpayers.

And we’ll already have been bled dry!

So unless we find some very rich Martians (who are also stupid enough to bail out profligate governments), it won’t be a pretty situation. I’m not sure we’ll have riots, such as the ones that have taken place in Europe, but there will be plenty of suffering.

Fortunately, there is a solution. All we need is a modest bit of fiscal restraint so that government grows slower than the private sector. That would completely reverse Senator Johnson’s dismal long-run numbers.

And some countries have shown that multi-year periods of fiscal restraint are possible.

The real question, though, is whether politicians in America would be willing to adopt the entitlement reforms that are needed to control the long-run growth of spending.

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When major changes occur, especially if they’re bad, people generally will try to understand what happened so they can avoid similar bad events in the future.

This is why, when we’re looking at major economic events, it’s critical to realize that narratives matter.

For instance, generation after generation of American students were taught that the Great Depression was the fault of capitalism run amok. But we now have lots of evidence that bad government policy caused the Great Depression and that the downturn was made more severe and longer lasting thanks to further policy mistakes by Hoover and Roosevelt.

The history textbooks are probably still wrong, but at least there’s a chance that interested students (and non-students) will come across more accurate explanations of what happened in the 1930s.

More recently, the same thing happened after the financial crisis. The statists immediately tried to convince people that the 2008 mess was a consequence of “Wall Street greed” and “deregulation.”

Fortunately, many experts were available to point out that the real problem was bad government policy, specifically easy money from the Fed and the corrupt system of subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

So hopefully future history books won’t be as wrong about the financial crisis as they were about the Great Depression.

I raise these examples because I want to address another historical inaccuracy.

Let’s go back about 100 years ago to the s0-called “progressive era.” The conventional story is that this was a period when politicians reined in some of the excesses of big business. And if it wasn’t for that beneficial government intervention, we’d all still be oppressed peasants working in sweatshops.

There’s just one small problem with this narrative. It’s utter nonsense.

Let’s look specifically at the issue of sweatshops. Writing for the Independent Institute, Ben Powell looks at the history of sweatshops and whether workers were being mistreated.

He starts with a bit of history.

Sweatshops are an important stage in the process of economic development. As Jeffery Sachs puts it, “[S]weatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of  extreme poverty”. …Working conditions have been harsh and standards of living low throughout most of human history. …Prior to the Industrial Revolution,  textile production was decentralized to the homes of many rural families or artisans, and output was limited to what could be produced on the  spinning wheel and hand loom. …Yarn spinning was mechanized in 1767 with the invention of the spinning jenny, and water power was harnessed shortly  thereafter. With these inventions and steam power later, large-scale textile factories that are similar to today’s sweatshops emerged. The conditions in these  early sweatshops were worse than those in many Third World sweatshops today. In some factories, workers toiled for sixteen hours a day, six days per week.

Then he looks at what actually happened in Great Britain, which is where sweatshops began.

Yet workers flocked to the mills. …sweatshop workers…were attracted by the opportunity to earn higher wages than they could elsewhere. In fact, economist Ludwig von Mises defended the factory system of the Industrial Revolution,…writing, “The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them.” …Mises’s argument is supported by historical evidence. Economist Joel Mokyr reports that workers earned a wage premium of 15 to 30 percent by working in the factories compared with other alternatives. The transformation of Great Britain during this time was dramatic. As economist and historian Donald McCloskey describes it, “In the 80 years or so after 1780 the population of Britain nearly tripled, the towns of Liverpool and Manchester became gigantic cities, the average income of the population more than doubled… Peter Lindert and Jeffery  Williamson similarly find impressive gains in the standard of living between 1781 and 1851. Farm labor’s standard of living went up more than 60 percent,  blue-collar workers’ standard increased more than 86 percent, and overall workers’ standard increased more than 140 percent. Along with this increase in  the standard of living came a decrease in the share of women and children working beginning sometime between 1815 and 1820.

Ben then looks at the American experience. Once again, he finds that sweatshops allowed workers to earn more income than they could by staying on the farm.

And this was part of a process that enabled the United States to become much richer over time.

…workers flocked to the mills. At first, in the cities north of Boston it was mainly rural women and girls who left the farm to populate the early textile mills.  During the 1830s in Lowell, a woman could earn $12 to $14 a month (in 1830s dollars) and after paying $5 for room and board in a company boarding house  would have the rest left over for clothing, leisure, and savings. It wasn’t uncommon for women to return home to the farm after a year with $25 to $50 in a  bank account. This was far more money than they could have earned on the farm and often more disposable cash than their fathers had. …much like in Great Britain, living standards improved over time. In 1820, before the Industrial Revolution, annual per capita income in the United States stood at a little  more than $2,000. By 1850, it had grown by 50 percent to more than $3,000 and then doubled again by 1900 to more than $6,600. Along with the rise in  incomes came improvements in working conditions and greater consumption.

Eventually, of course, the sweatshops disappeared. But Ben explains that it was because of higher living standards rather than government intervention.

Sweatshops are eliminated mainly through the process of industrialization that raises a country’s income. The increased income comes from increased  worker productivity, which raises the upper bound of compensation. The increased productivity isn’t just in one firm, but in many firms and industries, and  thus workers’ next-best alternatives improve, raising the lower bound of compensation. As the economy grows, the competitive process pushes wages up.  Because health, safety, leisure, and so on are normal goods, workers demand more of their compensation on these margins as their total compensation increases. The result is the eventual disappearance of sweatshops.

Now let’s look at the broader issue of whether the “progressive era” was bad news for big business.

The answer is yes and no. Politicians imposed lots of legislation that was bad for the free market, but the crony capitalists of that era were big supporters of intervention.

Tim Carney elaborates in a column for the Washington Examiner.

Every American knows the fable of the Progressive Era and that “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt wielding the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations. We would be better off if more people knew the work of the man who dismantled this myth: historian Gabriel Kolko… His thesis: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Period “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.”

Here’s what really happened.

Many corporate titans in the early 20th Century, buying into the pervasive hubris of the day, believed that a state-managed economy was the inevitable end of a rational society—the conclusion of what Standard Oil’s top lobbyist Samuel Dodd called the “march of civilization.” Competition, in their eyes, was destructive redundancy. “Competition is industrial war,” James Logan of the U.S. Envelope Company wrote in 1901. “Ignorant, unrestricted competition carried to its logical conclusion means death to some of the combatants and injury for all.”  Steel baron Andrew Carnegie constantly strove to turn the steel industry into a cartel and keep prices high. Competition, however, always had a way pulling prices down. As Carnegie wrote in 1908, “It always comes back to me that Government control, and that alone, will properly solve the problem.” Kolko also showed how the socialists welcomed corporate-state collusion to advance monopoly as part of “progress.”

And, as Tim explains, it’s still happening today.

This has its echoes in contemporary progressive politics… When conservatives challenged Obamacare’s individual mandate, the White House had the backing of the insurance industry and the hospital lobby. After Obama won at the Supreme Court, liberal Bill Scher wrote in the New York Times that progressive victories historically flow from the Left’s alliances with Big Business. …Liberal scholar William Galston at the Brookings Institution explains the economics at play. “Corporations have sizeable cash flows and access to credit markets, which gives them a cushion against adversity and added costs,” he wrote in 2013, explaining why the big guys often welcome regulation.

In other words, big business often is the enemy of genuine capitalism and free markets.

Not only did the big companies, including insurance and pharmaceuticals, support Obamacare.

They’re now supporting the corrupt Import-Export Bank.

And they’re perfectly happy to support higher taxes, at least when the rest of us are being victimized.

They also supported the sleazy TARP bailout.

The moral of the story is not just the big business can be just as bad as big labor. The real moral of the story is captured by this poster.

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It’s a bad idea when governments demand information on your bank accounts and investments so they can impose economically destructive double taxation.

It’s a worse idea when they also demand the right to tax economic activity in other jurisdictions (otherwise known as “worldwide taxation“).

And it’s the worst possible development when governments decide that they should impose a global network of data collection and dissemination as part of a scheme of worldwide double taxation.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. High-tax nations, working through the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, want to impose a one-size-fits-all system of “automatic information exchange” that would necessitate the complete evisceration of financial privacy.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation explains the new scheme for giving governments more access to peoples’ private financial information.

…the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the full version of the global standard for automatic exchange of information. The Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters calls on governments to obtain detailed account information from their financial institutions and exchange that information automatically with other jurisdictions on an annual basis.

I think this is bad policy, regardless. It is based on imposing and enforcing bad tax policy.

But David goes one step farther. He warns that this global network of tax police includes many unsavory nations.

It is one thing to exchange financial account information with Western countries that generally respect privacy and are allied with the United States. It is an entirely different matter to exchange sensitive financial information about American citizens or corporations with countries that do not respect Western privacy norms, have systematic problems with corruption or are antagonistic to the United States. States that fall into one of these problematic categories but are participating in the OECD automatic exchange of information initiative include Colombia, China and Russia. …The Obama administration enthusiastically supports the OECD initiative.

Moreover, David wisely does not believe we should trust the Obama Administration’s hollow assurances that other nations won’t misuse the data.

…even the administration has realized important privacy issues at are stake. Robert B. Stack, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Tax Affairs, has testified that “the United States will not enter into an information exchange agreement unless the Treasury Department and the IRS are satisfied that the foreign government has strict confidentiality protections…” Leaving these determinations to a tax agency with little institutional interest in anything other than raising tax revenue is dangerous. There is little doubt sensitive financial information about American citizens and businesses can and will be used by some governments for reasons that have nothing to do with tax administration, such as identifying political opponents’ financial resources or industrial espionage. In addition, individuals in corrupt governments may use the information for criminal purposes such as identity theft, to access others’ funds or to identify potential kidnapping victims. It is naïve to think otherwise. …The Senate should not ratify this protocol. The risks to American citizens and American businesses are too great.

David is exactly right, but too restrained and polite in his assessment.

Richard Rahn, my colleague at Cato, is more blunt in his analysis. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Washington Times.

Do you want the Obama administration sharing all of your financial information with the Russian, Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments? You may be thinking, not even President Obama would go that far. Not so… The rationale behind this despicable idea is to more effectively enable governments, such as that of France and the United States, to identify tax evaders. This might sound like a good idea until one realizes that every individual and business will be stripped of all of their financial privacy if this becomes the law of the land… all of the information that financial institutions now report to the U.S. government to try to ensure income-tax compliance, including your account balances, interest, dividends, proceeds from the sale of financial assets — would be shared with foreign governments. This would apply not only for individuals, but also for both financial and nonfinancial businesses, plus trust funds and foundations. 

Richard then explains that we can’t even trust the bureaucrats at the IRS.

The United States and other governments will, of course, claim that your sensitive financial information will remain confidential — and that you can trust the governments. After the recent Internal Revenue Service scandals — which recur every decade or so — why would anyone believe anything the IRS says? Remember, the IRS leaked information on some of Mitt Romney’s donors during the 2012 presidential campaign. It was blatantly illegal, and the IRS (i.e., you the taxpayer) paid a small fine, but no one went to jail. Many U.S. presidents have misused the IRS, starting at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt, and the American people are always told “never again,” which is the beginning of the new lie.

And he logically concludes it would be even more foolish to trust foreign tax bureaucracies.

Particularly the tax authorities of the many nations that abuse human rights and persecute minorities, as well the tax police in nations that are too incompetent to be trusted with sensitive data.

…just think what is going to happen when all of those corrupt officials in foreign governments get ahold of it. Some will use the information for identity theft and to raid bank accounts, others for industrial espionage, some to identify potential kidnapping victims and some for political purposes. The potential list goes on and on. The U.S. Treasury Department says it will insist on strict confidentiality protections. (Lois Lerner, please call your office.) If you are a Ukrainian-American who donates to Ukrainian free-market and democratic causes, would you really think that Vladimir Putin’s team, having your financial information, would not misuse it? If you are an American Jew who donates to Israeli causes, do you really think that all of those in the Saudi government who now have full access to your confidential financial information are not going to misuse it? The Chinese are well known for using malware against their opponents. Just think of all the mischief they could cause if they had access to all of the sensitive financial information of human rights advocates in America.

Richard draws the appropriate conclusion. Simply stated, there’s no way we should have a global regime of automatic information exchange simply because a handful of high-tax nations want to remake global tax policy so they can prop up their decrepit welfare states.

As Lord Acton famously reminded us, governments are prone to misuse information and power. The instrument behind this information-sharing ploy is the OECD, which started out as a statistical collection and dissemination agency to promote free trade among its members. It has now morphed into an international agency promoting big government and higher taxes, and the destruction of financial freedom — while at the same time, by treaty, its staff salaries are tax-exempt. No hypocrisy there. Thinking Republicans and Democrats should unite around opposition to this terrible treaty and defund the OECD. Those who vote for it will deservedly be easy marks for their political opponents.

And kudos to Richard for urging the defunding of the OECD. It is absurd that American tax dollars are funding a Paris-based bureaucracy that constantly urges policies that would undermine the U.S. economy.

Especially when they’re insulated from the negative effects of the policies they push. Since they’re on the public teat, they don’t suffer when the private economy is battered. And they don’t even have to pay tax on their very generous salaries.

P.S. I’m very glad to report that at least one lawmaker is doing the right thing. Senator Rand Paul is leading the fight to block proposals that would put Americans at risk by requiring the inappropriate collection and sharing of private financial information.

P.P.S. By way of background, the OECD scheme is part of an effort to cripple tax competition so that high-tax nations can impose higher tax rates and finance bigger government. To learn more about tax competition (and tax havens), watch this four-part video series.

P.P.P.S. The OECD scheme is basically a multilateral version of the horrid “FATCA” legislation signed by Obama back in 2010.

P.P.P.P.S. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think a global tax database is even worse than an Obamacare database on our sex lives.

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One of the worst things about working in Washington is that it’s so easy to get frustrated about the fact-free nature of political debates.

For instance, there’s now a big controversy about companies “re-domiciling” or “inverting” from the United States to lower-tax nations such as Ireland and Switzerland.

This should not be controversial. Unless, of course, you think businesses shouldn’t be allowed to move from California to Texas. Or from New York to Tennessee.

And even if you somehow think taxpayers don’t have the right to legally protect themselves from punitive taxation, there are two very stark facts that should guide the political debate.

First, the United States has the world’s highest corporate tax rate, which undermines job creation and competitiveness in America, regardless of whether there are inversions.

Second, the United States has the most punitive “worldwide” tax system, meaning the IRS gets to tax American-domiciled companies on income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other nations.

This is why, as I explain in this video, that the politicians who are protesting against inversions are putting demagoguery above jobs.

One of the most important aspects of this debate, though, doesn’t involve the intricacies of corporate taxation. Instead, it’s a broader public finance point about whether it’s good public policy to disadvantage shareholders, workers, and consumers in order to give politicians more money to spend.

In my mind, that’s a no-brainer.

P.S. Kudos to Rand Paul for being one of the few politicians who is willing to publicly defend companies that engage in legal tax planning.

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Michelle Obama wants the federal government to tell us what kind of food to eat.

I actually wouldn’t object if she merely used a bully pulpit to encourage healthier eating. But the busy-body crowd in Washington has a hard time distinguishing between giving advice and engaging in coercion.

So we now have legislation that gives Washington the power to interfere with food in local schools.

But not everybody is rolling over, particularly when federal rules are coercing states into banning bake sales. The National Journal reports on growing resistance to this absurd example of nanny statism from Washington. Here are some excerpts.

…states are…fighting nutrition standards that would considerably alter one of the most sacred rituals of the American public school system: bake sales. Twelve states have established their own policies to circumvent regulations in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that apply to “competitive snacks,” or any foods and beverages sold to students on school grounds that are not part of the Agriculture Department’s school meal programs, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. Competitive snacks appear in vending machines, school stores, and food and beverages, including items sold at bake sales. …The pushback is not about students’ taste buds, but their wallets. Food fundraisers are a crucial source of revenue for schools, state education officials say. “Tough economic times have translated into fewer resources and these fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs,” the Georgia Department of Education wrote in a recent press release. …The statement called the federal guidelines on fundraisers “an absolute overreach of the federal government.”

Kudos to the Georgia officials who complained about government overreach.

But don’t forget that local governments certainly are capable of overreach as well, as this cartoon illustrates.

If you think banning bake sales is an example of government run amok, then you’ll be equally perturbed by what’s happening in California.

According to the Associated Press, some residents are being put in a no-win situation of being fined by either state or local government based on whether or not they water their lawns.

I’m not joking. Check out these blurbs from the story.

Laura Whitney and her husband, Michael Korte, don’t know whether they’re being good citizens during a drought or scofflaws. On the same day the state approved mandatory outdoor watering restrictions with the threat of $500 fines, the Southern California couple received a letter from their city threatening a $500 penalty for not watering their brown lawn. …They’re among residents caught in the middle of conflicting government messages as the need for conservation clashes with the need to preserve attractive neighborhoods. “My friends in Los Angeles got these letters warning they could be fined if they water, and I got a letter warning that I could be fined for not watering,” Whitney said. “I felt like I was in an alternate universe.”

It’s not an alternative universe. As Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Martha Boneta, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto can atttest, governments routinely abuse innocent people.

But at least we can take comfort in the fact that governments outside of America engage in equally silly actions.

Though I confess I’m not sure how to categorize the news that’s being reported by the BBC. As you can see from these excerpts, there’s apparently now a rule in China limiting public officials to no more than three mistresses.

We’ve heard a lot about China’s far-reaching anti-corruption campaign at the behest of President Xi Jinping. …But according to a report in the English-language newspaper China Daily, “adultery” is now banned for party members. …But just when you thought the party was taking a puritanical stand, the newspaper said that when authorities had previously accused officials of “moral corruption” they defined this as having more than “three mistresses”.

The Princess of the Levant didn’t allow me to engage in any field research on this issue during my recent trip to Shanghai, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the story.

Though I wonder whether Chinese officials got any advice from America’s 42nd president before imposing these rules?

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You won’t know whether to laugh or cry after perusing these stories that will be added to our “great moments in government” collection.

For instance, did you realize that American taxpayers were saddled with the responsibility to micro-manage agriculture in Afghanistan? You’re probably surprised the answer is yes.

But I bet you’re not surprised that the money was flushed down a toilet. Here are some excerpts from a report on how $34 million was wasted.

American agricultural experts who consider soybeans a superfood…have invested tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to try to change the way Afghans eat. The effort, aimed at making soy a dietary staple, has largely been a flop, marked by mismanagement, poor government oversight and financial waste, according to interviews and government audit documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Warnings by agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country’s climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started… The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don’t like the taste of the soy processed foods.

Sadly, this $34 million boondoggle is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s been said that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Well, it’s also the graveyard of tax dollars.

…the project’s problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement and poor spending controls. No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a…special auditor appointed by President Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.

I’m guessing that most of the $120 billion was squandered using traditional definitions of waste.

But using a libertarian definition of waste (i.e., money that the federal government should not spend), we can easily calculate that the entire $120 billion was squandered.

Let’s now discuss another example of American taxpayer money being wasted in other nations. I’ve written previously about the squalid corruption at the Export-Import Bank, but Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus is the go-to expert on this issue, and she has a new article at National Review about “a project in Brazil that, if it goes bust and the Brazilians can’t pay the American contractor, your tax dollars will end up paying for.”

And what is this project?

…an Export-Import Bank–backed deal to build the largest aquarium in South America…the taxpayer exposure is $150,000 per job “supported.” Some people in Brazil are rightly upset about this. The Ex-Im loan may have lower interest rates and better terms than a regular loan, but this is probably money the indebted and poor Brazilian government can’t afford. …a real problem with the Ex-Im Bank: On one hand, it gives cheap money to large companies who would have access to capital markets even in its absence. But on the other hand, it encourages middle-income or poor countries to take on debt that they probably can’t afford, whether the products purchased are “made in America” or not.

Gee, aren’t we happy that some bureaucrats and politicians have decided to put us on the hook for a Brazilian aquarium.

But let’s try to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s a depiction of what you’re subsidizing. Enjoy.

Subsidized by American taxpayers

I hope you got your money’s worth from the image.

Perhaps I’m being American-centric by focusing on examples of bad policies from the crowd in Washington.

So let’s look at an example of government foolishness from Germany. It doesn’t involve tax money being wasted (at least not directly), but I can’t resist sharing this story because it’s such a perfect illustration of government in action.

Check out these excerpts from a British news report on over-zealous enforcement by German cops.

A one-armed man in Germany has received a full apology and refund from the police after an overzealous officer fined him for cycling using only one arm. Bogdan Ionescu, a theatre box office worker from Cologne, gets around the usually cycle-friendly city using a modified bicycle that allows him to operate both brakes – one with his foot. But on 25 March he was pulled over by a police officer who, he says, told him he was breaking the law. Under German road safety rules, bicycles are required to have to have two handlebar brakes. After a long argument at the roadside, the officer insisted that Mr Ionescu’s bike was not roadworthy and issued him with a €25 (£20) fine.

At least this story had a happy ending, at least if you overlook the time and aggravation for Mr. Ionescu.

Our last (but certainly not least) example of foolish government comes from Nebraska, though the culprit is the federal government.

But maybe “disconcerting” would be a better word than “foolish.”

It seems that our friends on the left no longer think that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” In a very troubling display of thuggery, the Justice Department dispatched a bureaucrat to “investigate” a satirical parade float.

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

The U.S. Department of Justice has sent a member of its Community Relations Service team to investigate a Nebraska parade float that criticized President Obama. A Fourth of July parade float featured at the annual Independence Day parade in Norfolk sparked criticism when it depicted a zombie-like figure resembling Mr. Obama standing outside an outhouse, which was labeled the “Obama Presidential Library.” The Nebraska Democratic Party called the float one of the “worst shows of racism and disrespect for the office of the presidency that Nebraska has ever seen.” The Omaha World-Herald reported Friday that the Department of Justice sent a CRS member who handles discrimination disputes to a Thursday meeting about the issue. …The float’s creator, Dale Remmich, has said the mannequin depicted himself, not President Obama. He said he is upset with the president’s handling of the Veterans Affairs Department, the World-Herald reported. “Looking at the float, that message absolutely did not come through,” said NAACP chapter president Betty C. Andrews.

If you look at the picture (and other pictures that can be seen with an online search), I see plenty of disrespect for the current president, but why is that something that requires an investigation?

There was plenty of disrespect for the previous president. And there as also disrespect for the president before that. And before that. And before…well, you get the idea.

Disrespect for politicians is called political speech, and it’s (supposedly) protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

That’s even true if the float’s creator had unseemly motives such as racism. He would deserve scorn if that was the case, and parade organizers would (or at least should) have the right to exclude him on that basis.

But you don’t lose your general right to free speech just because you have unpopular and/or reprehensible opinions. And the federal government shouldn’t be doing anything that can be construed as suppressing or intimidating Americans who want to “disrespect” the political class.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of politicized bureaucracy, we have an update to a recent column about sleazy behavior at the IRS.

According to the Daily Caller, there’s more and more evidence of a big fire behind all the smoke at the IRS.

Ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s computer hard drive was “scratched” and the data on it was still recoverable. But the IRS did not try to recover the data from Lerner’s hard drive, despite recommendations from in-house IRS IT experts to outsource the recovery project. The hard drive was then “shredded,” according to a court filing the IRS made to House Ways and Means Committee investigators.

Gee, how convenient.

I used to dislike the IRS because of the tax code. Now I have an additional reason to view the bureaucrats with disdain.

P.P.S. One last comment on the controversy surrounding the parade float. Racism is an evil example of collectivist thinking. But it is also reprehensible for folks on the left to make accusations of racism simply because they disagree with someone.

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I’ve had some fun over the years by pointing out that Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to catch me making an error. But I’m not sure his “gotcha” moment is very persuasive. Here’s some of what he wrote for today’s New York Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare. …Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. …Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.”

Kudos to Krugman for having read Atlas Shrugged, or for at least knowing that Rand sometimes referred to to “looters and moochers.” Though I have to subtract points because he thinks I’m a conservative rather than a libertarian.

But what about his characterization of my position? Well, he’s right, though I’m predicting slow-motion suicide. Voting for a tax hike isn’t akin to jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. Instead, by further penalizing success and expanding the burden of government, California is engaging in the economic equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes every day instead of three and one-half packs.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

I’m generally reluctant to make predictions, but I feel safe in stating that this measure is going to accelerate California’s economic decline. Some successful taxpayers are going to tunnel under the proverbial Berlin Wall and escape to states with better (or less worse) fiscal policy. And that will mean fewer jobs and lower wages than otherwise would be the case.

Anyhow, Krugman wants readers to think that California is a success rather than a failure because the state now has a budget surplus and there’s been an uptick in job creation.

Here’s more of what he wrote.

There is, I’m sorry to say, no sign of the promised catastrophe. If tax increases are causing a major flight of jobs from California, you can’t see it in the job numbers. Employment is up 3.6 percent in the past 18 months, compared with a national average of 2.8 percent; at this point, California’s share of national employment, which was hit hard by the bursting of the state’s enormous housing bubble, is back to pre-recession levels. …And, yes, the budget is back in surplus. …So what do we learn from the California comeback? Mainly, that you should take anti-government propaganda with large helpings of salt. Tax increases aren’t economic suicide; sometimes they’re a useful way to pay for things we need.

I’m not persuaded, and I definitely don’t think this counts as a “gotcha” moment.

First, I’m a bit surprised that he wants to brag about California’s employment numbers. The Golden State has one of the highest joblessness rates in the nation. Indeed, only four states rank below California.

Second, I don’t particularly care whether the state has a budget surplus. I care about the size of government.

Krugman might respond by saying that the tax hike generated revenues, thus disproving the Laffer Curve, which is something that does matter to supporters of small government.

But the Laffer Curve doesn’t say that all tax hikes lose revenue. Instead, it says that tax rate increases will have a negative impact on taxable income. It’s then an empirical question to figure out if revenues go up a lot, go up a little, stay flat, or decline.

And what matters most of all is the long-run impact. You can rape and pillage upper-income taxpayers in the short run, particularly if a tax hike is retroactive. In the long run, though, people can move, re-organize their finances, and take other steps to reduce their exposure to the greed of the political class.

In other words, people can vote with their feet…and with their money.

And that’s what seems to be happening in California. Take a look at how much income has emigrated from the state since 1992.

Next we have a map showing which states, over time, are gaining taxable income and which states are losing income (and I invite you to look at how zero-income tax states tend to be very green).

The data isn’t population adjusted, so populous states are over-represented, but you’ll still see that California is losing while Texas is winning.

And here is similar data from the Tax Foundation.

So what’s all of this mean?

Well, it means I’m standing by my prediction of slow-motion economic suicide. The state is going to become the France of America…at least if Illinois doesn’t get there first.

California has some natural advantages that make it very desirable. And I suspect that the state’s politicians could get away with above-average taxes simply because certain people will pay some sort of premium to enjoy the climate and geography.

But the number of people willing to pay will shrink as the premium rises.

In other words, this Chuck Asay cartoon may be the most accurate depiction of California’s future. And this Lisa Benson cartoon shows what will happen between now and then.

But I won’t hold my breath waiting for a mea culpa from Krugman.

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