Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December, 2014

Exactly one year ago, we looked at the best and worst policy developments of 2013.

Now it’s time for a look back at 2014 to see what’s worth celebrating and what are reasons for despair.

Here’s the good news for 2014.

1. Gridlock – I’ve been arguing for nearly three years that divided government is producing better economic performance. To be sure, it would have been difficult for the economy to move in the wrong direction after the stagnation of Obama’s first two years, but heading in the wrong direction at a slower pace is better than speeding toward European-style statism.

Indeed, the fact that policy stopped getting worse even boosted America’s relative competitiveness, so there’s a lot to be thankful for when politicians disagree with each other and can’t enact new laws.

David Harsanyi explains the glory of gridlock for The Federalist.

Gross domestic product grew by a healthy 5 percent in the third quarter, the strongest growth we’ve seen since 2003. Consumer spending looks like it’s going to be strong in 2015, unemployment numbers have looked good, buying power is up and the stock market closed at 18,000 for the first time ever. All good things. So what happened? …the predominant agenda of Washington was doing nothing. It was only when the tinkering and superfluous stimulus spending wound down that fortunes began to turn around. …spending as a percent of GDP has gone down. In 2009, 125 bills were enacted into law. In 2010, 258. After that, Congress, year by year, became one of the least productive in history. And the more unproductive Washington became, the more the economy began to improve. …Gridlock has caused an odd, but pervasive, stability in Washington. Spending has been static. No jarring reforms have passed — no cap-and-trade, which would have artificially spiked energy prices and undercut the growth we’re now experiencing. The inadvertent, but reigning, policy over the past four years has been, do no harm.

Amen. Though I should hasten to add that while gridlock has been helpful in the short run (stopping Obama from achieving his dream of becoming a second FDR), at some point we will need unified government in order to adopt much-needed tax reform and entitlement reform.

The key question is whether we will ever get good politicians controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

2. Restrained Spending – This is the most under-reported and under-celebrated news of the past few years, not just 2014.

Allow me to cite one of my favorite people.

In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion. In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington. …the fiscal restraint over the past five years has resulted in a bigger drop in the relative size of government in America than what Switzerland achieved over the past ten years thanks to the “debt brake.” …The bottom line is that the past five years have been a victory for advocates of limited government.

And this spending restraint is producing economic dividends, though Paul Krugman somehow wants people to believe that Keynesian economics deserves the credit.

3. Limits on Unemployment Benefits – Although the labor force participation rate is still disturbingly low, the unemployment rate has declined and job creation numbers have improved.

The aforementioned policies surely deserve some of the credit, but it’s also worth noting that Congress wisely put a stop to the initiative-sapping policy of endlessly extending unemployment benefits. Such policies sound compassionate, but they basically pay people not to work and cause more joblessness.

Phil Kerpen of American Commitment elaborates, citing recent research from the New York Fed.

According to empirical research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York: “most of the persistent increase in unemployment during the Great Recession can be accounted for by the unprecedented extensions of unemployment benefit eligibility.” Those benefits finally ended at the end of 2013, triggering a sharp rise in hiring… Specifically, they found that the average extended unemployment benefits duration of 82.5 weeks for four years had the impact of raising the unemployment rate from 5 percent to 8.6 percent. …Good intentions are not enough in public policy.  It might seem kind and compassionate to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on “emergency” unemployment benefits forever, but the effect is to keep millions of people unemployed.  Results matter.

Phil’s right. If you pay people not to work, you’re going to get foolish results.

But the three above stories are not the only rays of sunshine in 2014. Honorable mention goes to North Carolina and Kansas for implementing pro-growth tax reforms.

I’m also pleased that GOPers passed the first half of my test and told the Democrat appointee at the Congressional Budget Office that he would be replaced. Now the question is whether they appoint someone who will make the long-overdue changes that are needed to get better and more accurate assessments of fiscal policy. That didn’t happen when the GOP had control between 1995 and 2007, so victory is far from assured.

And another honorable mention is that Congress has not expanded the IMF’s bailout authority.

Now let’s look at the three worst policy developments of 2014.

1. Obamacare Subsidies – Yes, Obamacare has been a giant albatross for the President and his party. Yes, the law has helped more and more people realize that big government isn’t a good idea. Those are positive developments.

Nonetheless, 2014 was the year when the subsidies began to flow. And once handouts begin, politicians get very squeamish about taking them away.

This is why I wrote back in 2012 that Obamacare may have been a victory (in the long run) for the left, even though it caused dozens of Democrats to lose their seats in the House and Senate.

I think the left made a clever calculation that losses in the last cycle would be an acceptable price to get more people dependent on the federal government. And once people have to rely on government for something like healthcare, they are more likely to vote for the party that promises to make government bigger. …This is why Obamacare – and the rest of the entitlement state – is so worrisome. If more and more Americans decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency, it will be less and less likely that those people will vote for candidates who want to restrain government.

Simply stated, when more and more people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency, I fear you get the result portrayed in this set of cartoons.

2. Continuing Erosion of Tax Competition – Regular readers know that I view jurisdictional competition as a very valuable constraint on the greed of the political class.

Simply stated, politicians will be less likely to impose punitive tax policies if the geese with the golden eggs can fly away. That’s why I cheer when taxpayers escape high-tax jurisdictions, whether we’re looking at New Jersey and California, or France and the United States.

But this also helps to explain why governments, either unilaterally or multilaterally, are trying to prevent taxpayers from shifting economic activity to low-tax jurisdictions.

And 2014 was not a good year for taxpayers. We saw further implementation of FATCA, ongoing efforts by the OECD to raise the tax burden on the business community, and even efforts by the United Nations to further erode tax competition.

Here’s an example, from the Wall Street Journal, of politicians treating taxpayers like captive serfs.

Japan could become the latest country to consider taxing wealthy individuals who move abroad to take advantage of lower rates. The government and ruling party lawmakers are considering an “exit tax”… Such a rule would prevent wealthy individuals moving to a location where taxes are low–such as Singapore or Hong Kong… some expats in Tokyo are concerned the rule could make companies think twice about sending senior professionals to Japan or make Japanese entrepreneurs more reluctant to go abroad.

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is that Japan should reduce tax rates if it wants to keep people (and their money) from emigrating.

3. Repeating the Mistakes that Caused the Housing Crisis – A corrupt system of subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with other misguided policies from Washington, backfired with a housing bubble and financial crisis in 2008.

Inexplicably, the crowd in Washington has learned nothing from that disaster. New regulations are being proposed to once again provide big subsidies that will destabilize the housing market.

Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute warns that politicians are planting the seeds for another mess.

New standards were supposed to raise the quality of the “prime” mortgages that get packaged and sold to investors; instead, they will have the opposite effect. …the standards have been watered down. …The regulators believe that lower underwriting standards promote homeownership and make mortgages and homes more affordable. The facts, however, show that the opposite is true. …low underwriting standards — especially low down payments — drive housing prices up, making them less affordable for low- and moderate-income buyers, while also inducing would-be homeowners to take more risk. That’s why homes were more affordable before the 1990s than they are today. … The losers, as we saw in the financial crisis, are borrowers of modest means who are lured into financing arrangements they can’t afford. When the result is foreclosure and eviction, one of the central goals of homeownership — building equity — is undone.

Gee, it’s almost as if Chuck Asay had perfect foresight when drawing this cartoon.

Let’s end today’s post with a few dishonorable mentions.

In addition to the three developments we just discussed, I’m also very worried about the ever-growing red tape burden. This is a hidden tax that undermines economic efficiency and enables cronyism.

I continue to be irked that my tax dollars are being used to subsidize a very left-wing international bureaucracy in Paris.

And it’s very sad that one of the big success stories of economic liberalization is now being undermined.

P.S. This is the feel-good story of the year.

Read Full Post »

I’m tempted to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Paul Krugman.

As a leading proponent of the notion that bigger government stimulates growth (a.k.a., Keynesian economics), he’s in the rather difficult position of rationalizing why the economy was stagnant when Obama first took office and the burden of government spending was rising.

And he also has to somehow explain why the economy is now doing better at a time when the fiscal burden of government is declining.

But you have to give him credit for creativity. Writing in the New York Times, he attempts to square the circle.

Let’s start with his explanation for results in the United States.

…in America we haven’t had an official, declared policy of fiscal austerity — but we’ve nonetheless had plenty of austerity in practice, thanks to the federal sequester and sharp cuts by state and local governments.

If you define “austerity” as spending restraint, Krugman is right. Overall government spending has barely increased in recent years.

But then Krugman wants us to believe that there’s been a meaningful change in fiscal policy in the past year or so. Supposedly there’s been less so-called austerity and this explains why the economy is doing better.

The good news is that we…seem to have stopped tightening the screws: Public spending isn’t surging, but at least it has stopped falling. And the economy is doing much better as a result. We are finally starting to see the kind of growth, in employment and G.D.P., that we should have been seeing all along… What held us back was unprecedented public-sector austerity…now that this de facto austerity is easing, the economy is perking up.

But where’s his evidence? Whether you look at OMB data, IMF data, or OECD data, all those sources show that overall government spending has been steadily shrinking as a share of GDP ever since 2009.

And deficits also are shrinking as a share of economic output according to all these measures, so there’s still “austerity” regardless of whether we’re looking at the underlying disease of government spending or the symptom of red ink.

I sliced and diced the data to see if there was some way of justifying Krugman’s hypothesis and the only numbers that are (vaguely) supportive are the ones from the IMF that show total government spending (federal, state, and local) has increased by an average of 2.3 percent annually over the past two years, after increasing by 1.3 percent per year over the prior three years.

On that basis, one could sort of argue that Krugman is right and “austerity is easing.”

But if that’s his definition of victory, then I’m more than willing to let him be the winner. If we can constrain the public sector so that it grows at 2.3 percent annually, we’ll be complying with my Golden Rule and the burden of government spending will continue to slowly but surely shrink as a share of GDP.

And we’ll definitely have much better fiscal policy than we had between 2002-2009, when overall government spending rose by an average of 7.1 percent annually.

So does this mean Krugman and I are on the same page? During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” Assuming Krugman is being serious, the answer in late 2014 is yes. It’s time to join hands and sing Kumbaya!

But you may sense a slight tone of sarcasm in my remarks, and that’s because Krugman surely doesn’t want government to “only” grow by 2.3 percent annually. He simply wants to justify his hypothesis that the economy’s improving performance is somehow due to less austerity. Even if that means he’s implicitly endorsing genuine spending restraint.

In other words, Krugman actually is being slippery and misleading in his analysis of American austerity.

But that’s nothing compared to his analysis of so-called austerity on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s some of what he wrote about fiscal policy in the United Kingdom.

…in 2010 Britain’s newly installed Conservative government declared that a sharp reduction in budget deficits was needed to keep Britain from turning into Greece. Over the next two years growth in the British economy, which had been recovering fairly well from the financial crisis, more or less stalled. In 2013, however, growth picked up again — and the British government claimed vindication for its policies. Was this claim justified? No, not at all.

Krugman then claims that there was better economic performance because U.K. politicians decided against “further cuts.”

What actually happened was that the Tories stopped tightening the screws — they didn’t reverse the austerity that had already occurred, but they effectively put a hold on further cuts. …And sure enough, the nation started feeling better.

So is he right?

Well, the IMF numbers show that overall government spending has been growing, on average, by 2 percent annually since 2009. By today’s standards, that’s a decent record of spending restraint.

But what if we dissect the numbers? Did spending grow very slowly between 2010-2012, followed by a relaxation of restraint beginning in 2013? In other words, is Krugman’s argument legitimate, even if it requires him to implicitly endorse (as in the American example) decent fiscal discipline over the past two years?

Nope. Instead, the numbers show just the opposite. Between 2010-2012, the burden of government spending expanded by an average of 2.3 percent per year.

But over the past two years, the “austerity” has become tighter and the budget has grown by 1.5 percent annually.

In other words, it seems that Krugman is either sloppy or mendacious.

Though I’m going to give him an escape hatch, a way of justifying his assertions. When the Tories took over in the United Kingdom, they quickly imposed a series of tax hikes (in addition to the tax hikes imposed by the outgoing Labor government). But since that time, the government has implemented some tax cuts, most notably reductions in corporate tax rates and lower tax rates on personal income.

So if Krugman wants to argue that tax increases retarded the British economy for a few years and that tax cuts are now helping to boost growth, I’m willing to give him a probationary membership in the supply-side club.

But I don’t expect him at the next meeting.

P.S. This isn’t the first time Krugman has mangled numbers when analyzing U.K. fiscal policy.

P.P.S. He’s also butchered data when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, and Germany,

Read Full Post »

Many people fantasize about supermodels, but not me. I’m a bit of an oddball.

In my fantasy world, I want to shrink the federal government back to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers. I can’t stop myself from wistfully dreaming about the expanded freedom and increased growth we would enjoy if the federal government only consumed about 5 percent of economic output.

But I’m not expecting my fantasies to become reality anytime soon.

So in the real world, I have much more modest goals and expectations. I simply want to move policy in the right direction rather than the wrong direction. That’s why I developed my Golden Rule, which is designed to show that progress is possible so long as we simply make sure the private sector grows faster than the government.

And, as I explained a few weeks ago, that’s been happening. There’s been zero growth in nominal levels of federal government spending since 2009. And because there’s been some growth, that translates into a smaller fiscal burden when measured as a share of economic output.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean we should break out the champagne. The long-run fiscal outlook is still very grim. And the post-2009 progress was possible in part because reckless policies such as the faux stimulus and TARP pushed spending to unprecedented levels in the first place.

That being said, I’m still glad that we at least stopped government from getting even bigger after 2009. That’s a genuine victory.

Let’s look at some more evidence.

Here’s a chart put together by Veronique de Rugy at Mercatus. It shows what’s been happening to total spending, but adjusts the numbers for inflation plus population. As you can see, the burden of government spending has declined over the past five years.

The lesson from this chart is simple. If you have no growth in nominal government spending and there’s some inflation and population growth, then the actual burden of spending is going to decline.

Which is exactly what we see after 2009.

Now let’s look at federal spending compared to economic output. Here’s a chart that’s been circulating on Twitter which shows that the burden of government spending (measured on a quarterly basis) has been falling rapidly over the past few years.

.

This is very good news.

Though it’s not great news because the burden of federal spending is still significantly higher than it was when Bill Clinton left office.

All we’ve achieved is that some of the damage of the big-spending Bush-Obama years has been reversed.

That being said, it’s obviously better to reverse some damage if the alternative is even more damage.

And that’s why this next chart (also making the rounds on Twitter) is important. It shows what the Congressional Budget Office predicted would happen to spending (blue bars) when they released their forecast in early 2011 compared to what actually happened (red bars).

The lesson from this chart is that all the battles of the past few years have generated big dividends. Federal spending is about $500 billion lesson that CBO projected.

So be happy about the shutdowns, debt-limit battles, earmark fights, and sequestration.

And it’s also worth noting that the economy has been performing better as the burden of federal spending has been falling, which is further evidence that Keynesian economics doesn’t make sense.

Heck, even leftists have acknowledged this point, albeit accidentally.

Let’s close by making a very important observation. We’ve made progress over the past five years by restraining government spending, but the key question is whether that success will continue over the next five years.

This will be a key test for Republicans. Starting in a few days, they will have total control of the House and Senate. And if they can enforce even a modest bit of spending discipline, it’s amazing to see how quickly progress can be achieved.

And without any tax increases.

P.S. There’s also some fiscal progress on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Here are some excerpts from a report by CNBC.

President Francois Hollande unveiled a “super-tax” on the rich in 2012…the damage to France’s appeal as a home for top earners has been great, and the pickings from the levy paltry. …Hollande first floated the 75-percent super-tax on earnings over 1 million euros ($1.2 million) a year in his 2012 campaign to oust his conservative rival Nicolas Sarkozy. It fired up left-wing voters and helped him unseat the incumbent. Yet ever since, it has been a thorn in his side.

Or, to be more accurate, a thorn in the side of the French economy.

So, in a remarkable development, Monsieur Hollande is letting the tax expire.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls — alongside Macron the main reformer in Hollande’s cabinet — chose a visit to London in October to confirm that the super tax would not be renewed.

This has to be a kick in the gut to the class-warfare crowd. Even a total statist like Hollande is unfurling the white flag and admitting that it makes no sense to impose policies that are so punitive that some entrepreneurs even left the country.

P.P.S. Spending is falling the U.S. and tax rates are dropping in France, so leftists must be feeling very glum. Heck, they’re probably almost as sad as they were when the Berlin Wall fell. So if you have any statist friends, try to cheer them up. Remind them that Venezuela is still a role model.

Read Full Post »

We have some good news to share.

A government has just announced that it is going to end the unfair practice of giving government bureaucrats pension benefits that are far greater than those available for workers in the economy’s productive sector.

Can you guess which jurisdiction took this important step, notwithstanding the greed, political sophistication, and power of government bureaucracies?

Is it the federal government in Washington, which provides bureaucrats with much higher levels of overall compensation than workers in the private sector?

Is it Ireland, which a few years ago actually cut bureaucrat salaries by more than 13 percent?

Is it California, which is infamous for over-compensated bureaucrats?

Is it Denmark, which has the world’s most expensive bureaucracy?

Is it Italy, which has some of the most coddled government bureaucrats in the world?

Is it New Jersey, where it’s possible for a bureaucrat to have six government jobs at the same time?

Is it the Cayman Islands, which actually contemplated the imposition of an income tax to finance its bloated bureaucracy?

Is it Portugal, which overpays bureaucrats more than any other nation?

Those jurisdictions are all be good guesses. Or, to be more accurate, that’s a good list of jurisdictions where reform is desperately needed.

But all those guesses are wrong. The nation that is ending special pension privileges for government bureaucrats is the People’s Republic of China.

Yes, you read correctly. A communist-run nation is implementing this pro-market reform. Here are some of the details from CNTV.

China will reform its public sector pension system to reduce disparity between the public and private sectors, Vice-Premier Ma Kai said Tuesday… Under China’s dual pension system, civil servants and employees in state agencies do not need to pay for their pensions — the government provides full support for them. But employees of private enterprises have to pay 8 percent of their salary to a pension account. After retirement, private urban employees usually get a pension equal to about half of their final salary, but civil servants get much more without making any financial contribution. …now the reform is coming. The aim is to build a system for Party, government and public institution staff that is similar to the one used by the private sector. This move will affect around 37 million people: 7 million civil servants and 30 million public institution staff.

Wow, bureaucrats will have to live under the same rules as folks in the private sector.

What a radical concept! Maybe we could even try it in the United States at some point.

By the way, one additional indirect feature of the story is worth a mention. China actually has the beginnings of a private Social Security system.

Because the system is still developing, I don’t put it on my list of nations with private Social Security (though it is on the Social Security Administration’s list), but the goal is to slowly but surely shift to a funded system.

Assuming that actually happens, China could mitigate the fiscal consequences of a very large demographic crisis caused by that nation’s barbaric one-child policy.

In any event, China’s at least moving in the right direction (see here, here, and here for more information), which is more than can be said for the United States.

P.S. While China has moved in the right direction in recent decades, it still gets a relatively low score from Economic Freedom of the World. Which helps to explain why I think it’s silly for people to fear the supposed Chinese Tiger.

P.P.S. If you want to see far more striking examples of Chinese people being successful, check out Hong Kong and Taiwan.

P.P.P.S. Though at least some Chinese government officials have a very perceptive understanding of the European welfare state.

Read Full Post »

Like the good people of Arizona, I despise speed cameras.

But not because I want reckless driving. Instead, my disdain is based on the fact that governments set up cameras where speed limits are preposterously low in order to generate revenue. And I speak from personal experience.

Like the good people of Houston, I also despise red-light cameras.

But once again, this isn’t because I want jerks racing through red lights and endangering innocent people. Instead, my opposition is based on the fact that greedy governments – operating recklessly – use such cameras as tools to fleece drivers.

Holman Jenkins has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, explaining how the industry was supposed to operate.

A promising industry betrayed by the behavior of its customers—that’s the story of the red-light camera business. …Redflex Traffic Systems, leading practitioner of the once-sparkling business of setting up automatic traffic-enforcement systems for municipalities. The company and its industry were set to grow. The product improved traffic safety, freed up officers for more important work, and paid for itself. Towns and cities didn’t even have to budget a dime upfront because Redflex assumed the costs and risks of setting up cameras at designated intersections.

But in the real world, that’s not what happened. Politicians all over the nation used cameras as revenue-generating devices.

…serial revelations by the Chicago Tribune about the city’s buccaneering ways—running its camera system for profits rather than safety. …New York state conspicuously authorized cameras at various upstate locations in 2010 to close a budget gap. When New Jersey last week let a five-year experiment lapse amid a voter backlash, Moody’s called the decision a “credit negative” for local treasuries. In California, public acceptance steadily eroded as politicians kept piling on “surcharges” that turn a hundred-dollar traffic offense into a $500 fine in the mail. …the Trib cited the city’s “long-standing reliance on using the lowest possible yellow light time” to maximize revenues even at the cost of encouraging more accidents. …a universal peeve of motorists, being fined for a harmless rolling right on red.

At this point, some people may be thinking that this is no big deal. After all, they might argue, at least the cameras make the roads safer.

But according to research commissioned by the Chicago Tribune, the cameras simply replace one type of accident with another, at least in part because the city government rigged the system to maximize revenue rather than safety.

Here are some excerpts from a report published by Reason.

Chicago’s red light camera program hasn’t made driving in the city any safer and has replaced one type of car crash for another. The cameras are there obviously to make money for the city, not for the benefit and safety of the residents. The Chicago Tribune commissioned a study to break down the city’s claims that cameras have reduced right-angle crashes at intersections by 47 percent and calls the number nonsense. They calculate that it actually dropped the rate of crashes that caused injuries by only 15 percent. That wouldn’t be such a terrible number if engineers hadn’t also calculated that their cameras didn’t also cause a 22 percent increase in rear-end collisions that caused injuries. …the Tribune story makes sure to point out how much revenue the city has gotten from the program—$500 million over 12 years. The Tribune also reminds readers of the many, many, many scandals and issues the program has faced, like tickets handed out for lights that had yellow signal times below the national standard, unexplained ticket surges, and outright bribes from a company operating the cameras to city officials.

By the way, this data from Chicago isn’t an anomaly. Radley Balko has reported on similar accident-causing scams all over the nation.

So now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I wrote more than three years ago that Jay Beeber is a hero.

And why I expressed admiration for England’s NoToMob.

But I confess I’m nonetheless conflicted about cameras. Simply stated, I don’t want morons driving 60 miles per hour on residential streets. And I don’t want narcissistic jerks zipping through intersections a couple of seconds after a light has turned red.

Cameras, if properly operated, could discourage genuinely dangerous behavior.

So here’s the libertarian quandary (actually it’s a quandary for everyone who wants a sensible society). How can you give government the power to enforce legitimate laws without simultaneously giving government the power to abuse people?

This is the puzzle that America’s Founding Fathers tried to solve with a set of rules that limited the power of government. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “ let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”

Unfortunately, courts haven’t done a good job in recent decades of constraining the federal government. And the only halfway decent constraint on state and local governments is jurisdictional competition, and that’s a necessary but far from sufficient condition for good policy.

Returning to the narrow issue of cameras, part of the solution is to reduce government’s role in transportation. We already have lots of privately built and privately operated highways in America (and even in the United Kingdom). And private developers also build and operate some local roads. So why not let them set – and enforce – the traffic rules?

Such a system wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but I’m guessing we would have better rules than the ones imposed by politicians.

Or we can let politicians use new technologies to further monitor and control our lives (and empty our pockets).

P.S. If some brave citizen got arrested for busting a bunch of revenue cameras and I somehow wound up on the jury that decided the case, you can probably guess what I would do.

P.P.S. I shared a chart back in 2010 to show that economists are terrible forecasters.

Now we have more evidence. But instead of looking at growth predictions versus reality, here’s what economists predicted about interest rates compared to what actually happened.

This chart helps to show that economists shouldn’t try to make short-run predictions, which good economists already understand.

Whereas the bad ones are easily confused with con artists.

No wonder it’s so easy to make fun of us.

Read Full Post »

It’s time to correct a sin of omission.

In five-plus years of blogging, I haven’t given nearly enough attention to the wisdom of the late (and great) Milton Friedman.

Yes, I did say he was at the top of my list of great economists in a 2010 interview, and I’ve cited what he said about the correct goal of fiscal policy being smaller government rather than fiscal balance.

Moreover, I’ve quoted him many times (here, here, here, here, here, and here) to help explain why higher taxes simply lead to more government spending rather than deficit reduction.

But I’ve never once shared an interview of Friedman, which is a big oversight because of his incredible ability to advocate for economic liberty.

So let’s rectify this mistake. A reader emailed me this video, which purports to show Professor Friedman jousting with a young Michael Moore (yes, supposedly that Michael Moore, though I don’t know if it’s actually him).

But the identity of the questioner isn’t what’s important. Listen to Friedman explain the merits of cost-benefit analysis and consumer choice.

Amen. I love what he said about letting people make their own decisions about how much risk they wish to accept given relative prices.

If you want more Friedmanesque wisdom, I’ve also quoted him on issues ranging from immigration to “temporary” government programs, and from Swedish poverty to tax competition.

He also explained that there are four different ways of spending money, only one of which yields real efficiency (Jay Leno channeled some of Friedman’s wisdom when commenting on Obama shopping for Michelle)

And I’ve even noted that he helped guide the development of Economic Freedom of the World.

P.S. I do have one small disagreement with Milton Friedman. He supported the notion of a negative income tax/guaranteed annual income. His goal was noble, to replace the plethora of counterproductive welfare programs run from Washington, but I think a better approach is to get the federal government totally out of the business of income redistribution.

P.P.S. As I already stated, I don’t know if that was the (in)famous Michael Moore jousting with Friedman, but I can say that the Michael Moore of today is a big hypocrite when it comes to inequality.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday, as part of a column about the burden of regulation, I shared a couple of Christmas-themed videos, as well as a tragic story of Santa Claus getting arrested by the IRS.

During previous Christmas seasons, there’s been other topical humor.

There’s more, but let’s focus on augmenting our list with some new cartoons.

Here’s Robert Gorrell equating Christmas with the federal government.

Very amusing, but I’ll defend Christmas for the simple reason that the whole thing is voluntary. Government redistribution, by contrast, is based on coercion.

Which is sort of the theme of this Eric Allie cartoon.

Though we need to remember that sometimes the statists bribe voters with their own money, but in other cases the statists buy votes from those who don’t pay any taxes (as illustrated by this Chuck Asay cartoon).

Next we have a contribution from Glenn McCoy that I find very appealing because it focuses on the ticking time bomb of poorly designed entitlement programs.

Very similar to this Lisa Benson cartoon.

Last but not least, let’s stop with the cartoons and try to answer the age-old question of whether Santa Claus is liberal or conservative.

The person who put this together says Santa is a conservative by a 6-5 margin.

Though the anarcho-capitalists may want to claim Santa since he’s from a land with no government.

P.S. If you have had your fill of Christmas-themed humor…

Read Full Post »

How thoughtful. The President gave the economy a special gift before jetting off to Hawaii.

The Obama administration is cramming like a college student trying to study for a final exam, publishing more than 1,200 new regulations in the last 15 days alone, according to data from Regulations.gov. Energy and environment rules are the biggest category, with 139 published by the federal government in the last 15 days… So far this year, the Obama administration has proposed or finalized  more than $200 billion in regulations when the coal ash rule’s costs are factored in, according to the American Action Forum.

Unfortunately, it appears there is no return policy for these gifts, even if many of them are actually lumps of coal.

So is there a way to quantify the cost of all this regulation, particularly when added to all the red tape that’s already been imposed?

The honest answer is that it’s very difficult. Do you measure only direct budgetary costs? What about compliance costs for the private sector. And how about the indirect costs of diminished productivity, not only in terms of economic performance but also the impact on longevity?

On the other side of the ledger, should there also be some calculation of benefits? A national 5-MPH speed limit would wreck the economy, to be sure, but it would save lives. How does this get measured, using cost-benefit analysis?

The bottom line is that the methodological issues when looking at regulatory burdens are significant, so take any numbers with a few grains of salt. With that caveat out of the way, here are some very large numbers to digest.

Americans spend 8.8 billion hours every year filling out government forms.

The economy-wide cost of regulation is now $1.75 trillion.

For every bureaucrat at a regulatory agency, 100 jobs are destroyed in the economy’s productive sector.

The Obama Administration added $236 billion of red tape in 2012 alone.

A World Bank study determined that moving from heavy regulation to light regulation “can increase a country’s average annual GDP per capita growth by 2.3 percentage points.”

And now we’re going to augment this disturbing list.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has a “RegData” page that allows a user to generate all sorts of information on regulatory burdens.

But I wasn’t focused on “micro” data on the regulations that affect different industries or the regulations promulgated by various bureaucracies.

I clicked on the data designed to capture the overall “macro” magnitude of red tape. And we have two types of information.

This first chart measures the numbers of words in the annual Code of Federal Regulations (which makes great reading if you’re suffering from insomnia).

The bottom line is that there’s been a 40 percent-plus increase in the number of words over the past 15 years.

To be sure, the number of words cranked out by regulatory bureaucracies is not a perfect measure of regulatory burdens.

The Pentagon, for instance, has 26 pages of regulation detailing how to bake brownies. That’s insanely stupid and probably makes brownie procurement four times more expensive than necessary.

But there are regulations with fewer pages (and fewer words) that are far more expensive to the overall economy. The IRS, for instance, imposed a regulation to force American banks to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law regarding the reporting of bank deposit interest paid to nonresident foreigners with U.S. accounts. That regulation was less than five pages long, but could drive millions of dollars from the American financial system.

Now let’s look at the number of restrictions imposed by regulations. To be more specific, the Mercatus experts calculate the number of times that regulations use coercive words and phrases such as “shall” and “must not.”

The good news, if you’re grading on a curve, is that the use of coercive terminology has jumped by “only” 28 percent since 1997.

I guess you could say that bureaucrats are becoming loquacious faster than they’re becoming proscriptive.

Or if you’re a glass-half-empty person, you could say that they’re making us read more to learn how our freedoms are being curtailed.

Now let’s look at the regulatory burden imposed by one piece of legislation.

I’ve referred to the so-called Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act as the Dodd-Frank Bailout Bill, but that really doesn’t capture the scope of the legislation. Robert Genetski has a column in Investor’s Business Daily that attempts to measure the law’s economic burden.

Our politicians have placed any number of barriers in the way of prosperity, and one of the most costly has been the Dodd-Frank financial reforms (DF). …The Government Accountability Office provided an original estimate of Dodd-Frank’s direct cost: $2.9 billion over the first five years. If that is accurate, it means the law will cost the taxpayers roughly $600 million annually, or $5 for each private-sector worker. The direct cost to taxpayers is only the beginning. Historical estimates show private-sector costs to comply with government regulations tend to be 36 times the direct cost to government. If Dodd-Frank is typical, the annual cost of compliance will be more like $22 billion, or $188 for each private-sector worker. Unfortunately, there are numerous indications the Dodd-Frank regulations are far from typical. …Dodd-Frank has a compliance cost of close to $120 billion annually, or just over $1,000 for each private-sector worker. As burdensome as that estimate sounds, it too likely understates Dodd-Frank’s compliance costs. …the Davis Polk law firm identified 398 explicit new regulations created by Dodd-Frank, making it at least 25 times more extensive and complex than Sarbanes-Oxley. If the costs of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley are the more reasonable gauge for those associated with Dodd-Frank, it could easily cost 25 times more than its predecessor, or $225 billion a year. This amounts to almost $2,000 for each private-sector worker.

Wow. I’m glad he ran out of space. The burden of the law got more expensive with each new paragraph.

Now let’s shift to a more uplifting story.

Back in the late 1970s, politicians actually deregulated the air cargo sector.

The folks at Mercatus highlight some of the benefits.

In the twenty years prior to deregulation, the CAB refused to certify the entry of any new cargo carriers or the expansion of existing ones into new routes and limited the size of plane allowed for air cargo hauls. Thus under this regime carriers such as FedEx, which was classified as an express (rather than cargo) service, could only use small planes even when larger ones were the more efficient choice. …Deregulation of the airline industry occurred in two stages: the first happened with the passage of Public Law 95-163 deregulating interstate air cargo transport in 1977; this was followed a year later by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 deregulating the air passenger industry. The effects of deregulation were dramatic. …Absent route restrictions, the air cargo industry began using hub-and-spoke models that made widespread overnight shipping possible. …Free from operational restrictions imposed by the CAB and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), shippers increased reliability and provided a multitude of delivery speed, time, and method combinations. …Deregulation of air cargo was a key element in the emergence of modern supply chain management and allowed wider access to goods supplied by domestic and international sources. It also facilitated American trade to foreign markets. Efficiencies in widespread use of hub-and-spoke models for air cargo, by reducing total costs, enable more American products to reach foreign markets.

There’s also an accompanying video that is perfect for the season.

If air cargo regulation was the good and Dodd-Frank was the bad, I guess it’s now time for the ugly.

Here’s a video from Reason that satirizes the TSA for senseless rules on what can – and cannot – be carried onto a plane.

Just in case you think the video is unfair to the TSA, check out these horror stories.

P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with current regulation when building an ark.

P.P.S. Meanwhile, there are reports that Santa Claus was arrested after a multi-bureaucracy investigation found that he violated a slew of federal rules.

Read Full Post »

When I want to make serious points about why gun control is misguided, I’ll often cite the scholarly work of John Lott or the expert analysis of Larry Correia.

There are also two pro-2nd Amendment columns (here and here) from self-confessed leftists that also make very persuasive reading.

And let’s not forget the Constitution protects our right to keep and bear arms (at least for those who still think that document means anything).

But I confess that I mostly like using satire and mockery when criticizing gun control. And I’m pleased to report that a friend sent me some very good new material.

So, in the holiday spirit, let’s amuse ourselves by questioning the logic of the anti-2nd Amendment ideologues.

We’ll start with one that has a two-pronged meaning. Because, like satirical images that can be seen here and here, it points out that both gun control and the Drug War are premised on the notion that government can make something disappear simply by making it illegal.

Methinks the person who created this poster isn’t a good speller. But his logic is airtight. Gun control would disarm law-abiding people while leaving the bad guys with all the weapons.

But that’s apparently too difficult to understand for people like Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago (speaking of which, here’s how a statist might try to explain the different murder rates in pro-gun Houston and anti-gun Chicago).

Our next image makes a very important point that school shootings basically didn’t exist back when there was no gun control.

Even when actual machine guns were fully legal!

The bad news is that anti-gun political correctness has taken over and resulted in preposterous horror stories in many government schools.

But the good news is that while machine guns are now heavily regulated, at least Americans can still own tanks.

The next two images make the philosophical point that we shouldn’t leave all guns in the hands of government, particularly given some horrible results from the 20th century.

Very reminiscent of some of the images that are found here, here, here, and here.

Here’s another one to add to the list.

The gentleman makes a good point. Something definitely isn’t right, which perhaps explains why this poster of pro-gun control dictators is the 4th-most viewed thing I’ve ever written.

P.S. You can  see some amusing pro-Second Amendment posters herehereherehere, and here. And some amusing images of t-shirts and bumper stickers on gun control herehere, and here.

P.P.S. I have a snarky IQ test for criminals and liberals, but I also have a serious poll asking people why they oppose gun control.

P.P.P.S. The image at the bottom of this post makes me proud to be American.

P.P.P.P.S. I’m sure this is an urban legend rather than a real interview, but I always get a laugh from this transcript.

Read Full Post »

I wrote earlier this year about the “perplexing durability” of Keynesian economics. And I didn’t mince words.

Keynesian economics is a failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it didn’t work for Bush or Obama in recent years. No matter where’s it’s been tried, it’s been a flop. So why, whenever there’s a downturn, do politicians resuscitate the idea that bigger government will “stimulate” the economy?

And I specifically challenged Keynesians in 2013 to explain why automatic budget cuts were supposedly a bad idea given that the American economy expanded when the burden of government spending shrank during the Reagan and Clinton years.

I also issued that same challenge one day earlier, asking Keynesians to justify their opposition to sequestration given that Canada’s economy prospered in the 1990s when government spending was curtailed.

It seems that the evidence against Keynesianism is so strong that only a fool, a politician, or a college professor could still cling to the notion that bigger government leads to more growth.

Fortunately, it does appear that there’s a growing consensus against this free-lunch theory.

Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (and also an Adjunct Scholar at Cato) has a superb column about the retreat of Keynesianism in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The tide also changed in economic ideas. The brief resurgence of traditional Keynesian ideas is washing away from the world of economic policy. …Why? In part, because even in economics, you can’t be wrong too many times in a row. …Our first big stimulus fell flat, leaving Keynesians to argue that the recession would have been worse otherwise. George Washington’s doctors probably argued that if they hadn’t bled him, he would have died faster. With the 2013 sequester, Keynesians warned that reduced spending and the end of 99-week unemployment benefits would drive the economy back to recession. Instead, unemployment came down faster than expected, and growth returned, albeit modestly. The story is similar in the U.K.

All of this is spot on. Once the stimulus was replaced by spending restraint, the economy did better. And job creation picked up when subsidies for unemployment were limited, just as more sensible economists predicted.

Cochrane is also correct about the spending restraint in the United Kingdom. I didn’t expect Cameron and Osbourne to deliver some good fiscal policy, but it’s happening and the British economy is the envy of most other European nations.

The column also looks at past Keynesian failures.

These are only the latest failures. Keynesians forecast depression with the end of World War II spending. The U.S. got a boom. The Phillips curve failed to understand inflation in the 1970s and its quick end in the 1980s, and disappeared in our recession as unemployment soared with steady inflation.

But this isn’t just about empirical evidence.

I’ve used humor to debunk Keynesianism. Professor Cochrane takes a more high-brow approach to show why the theory doesn’t make sense.

Hurricanes are good, rising oil prices are good, and ATMs are bad, we were advised: Destroying capital, lower productivity and costly oil will raise inflation and occasion government spending, which will stimulate output. Though Japan’s tsunami and oil shock gave it neither inflation nor stimulus, worriers are warning that the current oil price decline, a boon in the past, will kick off the dreaded deflationary spiral this time. I suspect policy makers heard this, and said to themselves “That’s how you think the world works? Really?” And stopped listening to such policy advice. …in Keynesian models, government spending stimulates even if totally wasted. Pay people to dig ditches and fill them up again. By Keynesian logic, fraud is good; thieves have notoriously high marginal propensities to consume.

By the way, just in case you think he’s exaggerating, keep in mind that Paul Krugman actually argued that a fake invasion from outer space would “stimulate” growth because the world would waste money building defenses against E.T.

And Krugman also argued that the 9-11 terrorist attacks were pro-growth!

Cochrane closes with some optimistic thoughts.

…no government in the foreseeable future is going to enact punitive wealth taxes. Europe’s first stab at “austerity” tried big taxes on the wealthy, meaning on those likely to invest, start businesses or hire people. Burned once, Europe is moving in the opposite direction. Magical thinking—that, contrary to centuries of experience, massive taxation and government control of incomes will lead to growth, prosperity and social peace—is moving back to the salons. …the policy world has abandoned the notion that we can solve our problems with blowout borrowing, wasted spending, inflation, default and high taxes. The policy world is facing the tough tradeoffs that centuries of experience have taught us, not wishing them away.

I wish I was equally optimistic about the death of Keynesianism. As I glumly stated a few years ago, Keynesian economics is like a Freddy Krueger move, inevitably rising from the dead when politicians want to rationalize wasting money on favored interest groups.

But I hope Cochrane is right and I’m wrong.

For further information, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.S. Since it’s the holiday season and I’m sharing videos, here’s a very clever and funny video about Keynesian Christmas carols.

The songs in the second half of the video are the ones that make sense, of course, and I particularly like the point that consumer spending is a reflection of growth, not a driver of growth.

P.P.S. If you want even more visual content, here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek.

P.P.P.S. But if you want more humor about Keynesian economics, click here, here, here, and here.

P.P.P.P.S. Let’s end on a serious note. It’s encouraging that leaders from nations at opposite ends of Europe are acknowledging the shortcomings of Keynesianism.

Read Full Post »

I can’t help but wonder whether the song made famous by The Grinch Who Stole Christmas should be the theme song for the Internal Revenue Service. After all, that bureaucracy is “as cuddly as a cactus” and “as charming as an eel.”

And it appears that having “the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile” is not a good strategy for big budget increases.

Indeed, it appears that working as an adjunct of the Obama reelection campaign has backfired on the IRS. One of the good results of the “cromnibus” negotiations is that GOPers actually took revenge on the IRS for political interference. The bureaucracy is actually going to get less money next year. In other words, a real budget cut, not one of those fake Washington cuts that occur when spending doesn’t increase as fast as desired.

Not surprisingly, the big Democratic donor who now serves as IRS Commissioner isn’t very happy about this development.

The Hill reports that the John Koskinen is claiming that his agency’s budget has been cut too much…and he’s saying that the bureaucrats will make taxpayers suffer as a result.

After absorbing a $346 million budget cut, IRS officials are warning taxpayers not to expect their phone calls to get answered or their refunds to be delivered quickly. Employees shouldn’t count on overtime pay, or for empty staff slots to be filled. And lawmakers seeking to reduce the deficit should assume the agency will collect far less revenue than it could have.  “We’re well beyond cutting out any fat,” John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, told reporters after his agency saw its budget slashed for the fifth consecutive year. “And we’re now into cutting, as people say, muscle headed toward bone.”

And here are some passages from a story published by Fox News.

The Internal Revenue Service is crying poor in the face of budget cuts and weighing the possibility of its own short-term shutdown — even warning that tax refunds could be delayed next year. …”Everybody’s return will get processed,” Koskinen told reporters. “But people have gotten very used to being able to file their return and quickly getting a refund. This year we may not have the resources, the people to provide refunds as quickly as we have in the past.” …Congress cut the IRS budget by $346 million for the budget year that ends in September 2015. The $10.9 billion budget is $1.2 billion less than the agency received in 2010. The agency has come under heavy fire from congressional Republicans for its now-halted practice of applying extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

So what’s the real story? Is the IRS budget not inadequate? Do the bureaucrats need more spending to process refund checks?

Well, my first response is to scold people who get refunds. That means, after all, that they overpaid their taxes during the year and – for all intents and purposes – gave the government and interest-free loan.

But that’s a separate issue. Let’s focus on the IRS budget. And as you can see from this chart, the IRS budget has declined since 2010. But you can also see that the IRS budget has approximately doubled over the past thirty years. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

So feel free to cry tears for the IRS, but just make sure they’re crocodile tears.

Just like the ones we all cried when the IRS complained about the possibility of being covered by Obamacare, even as the bureaucrats doubtlessly were looking forward to the new power the IRS got as a result of the law (and as humorously illustrated by cartoons from Gary Varvel, Glenn McCoy, and Henry Payne).

Now let’s bend over backwards and look at the issue from the IRS’s perspective. The bureaucrats will argue with some validity that tax laws are far more complex today than they were thirty years ago.

That’s unquestionably true, as shown by data on the number of pages in the tax code, number of provisions in the tax law, and even by the number of pages in the instruction booklet for the IRS 1040 form.

Heck, I mentioned just a few days ago that there were more than 4,600 changes in the tax code between 2001 and 2012 alone. And think of awful tax laws like FATCA that cost more to enforce than they produce in revenue.

All this nonsense is mostly the result of bad laws imposed by politicians, not a result of IRS actions.

But I still can’t find it in my heart to feel sympathy for the IRS.

After all, the IRS somehow managed to find the staff and resources to launch a politically motivated attack against tea party groups. And the so-called Taxpayer Advocate takes the side of the IRS rather than taxpayers. Worst of all, the bureaucracy even found enough money to hand out bonuses after being caught trying to interfere with elections!

So let’s celebrate the fact that the IRS is being subjected to some modest but long-overdue belt-tightening.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer group of people.

The bottom line is that IRS budget cuts show that Republicans sometimes do the right thing.

Read Full Post »

Two years ago, I jumped on USA Today for stating that the 112th Congress was the “least productive” since the end of World War II.

My argument was very straightforward. It’s better to have no legislation than bad legislation. Here’s some of what I wrote about USA Today’s hypothesis.

…it does blindly assume that it is productive to impose more laws. Was it productive to enact Obamacare? What about the faux stimulus? Or the Dodd-Frank bailout bill? Wouldn’t the headline be more accurate if it read, “This Congress could be least destructive since 1947″? …To be sure, not all legislation is bad. …Congress would have to enact a law to repeal Obamacare. Laws also would need to be changed to reform entitlements, or adopt a flat tax. And some laws are benign, such as the enactment of Dairy Goat Awareness Week or naming a federal courthouse. But I’m guessing that the vast majority of substantive laws are bad for freedom and result in less prosperity.

One year ago, I criticized the Washington Post, which complained that the 1st Session of the 113th Congress wasn’t productive. Here are a few excerpts from that column.

Do you think that additional laws from Washington will give you more freedom and more prosperity? …I strongly suspect most Americans will say “no.” …That’s because taxpayers instinctively understand that more activity in Washington usually translates into bigger and more expensive government. …The first session of the current Congress may have been the “least productive” in history when it comes to imposing new laws, butthat “record-low congressional accomplishment” translates into a smaller burden of government spending. Indeed, government spending actually has declined for two consecutive years. That hasn’t happened since the 1950s.

Well, this topic is my version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, because it’s time to deal with the same silly arguments.

Only this time, we’re looking at the final data for the 113th Congress. But we’ll still mock media outlets for mindlessly equating legislation with productivity.

Politico groused that “…this Congress has been singularly unproductive, shutting down most government functions for two weeks last fall, passing the fewest bills in memory and lurching from crisis to crisis.”

The Hill whined that “…the last two sessions of Congress with divided government are the two most unproductive in history in terms of bills cleared by both chambers.”

And Dana Milbank of the Washington Post whimpered that “According to a tally by the Library of Congress, 296 bills were presented to the president by this Congress — nearly the same as the 284 presented by the previous Congress, the fewest of any Congress since the counts began in the 1940s. …More than 10 percent of the bills presented were about naming or renaming things and awarding medals.”

So what’s my reaction to these complaints? Well, here’s where my Groundhog Day analogy breaks down. In the movie, Bill Murray learns to change his responses to win the heart of Andie MacDowell.

But I don’t have any new responses. My reactions today are exactly the same as two years ago and one year ago. As a general rule, I want less legislation.

Heck, I’d probably even be willing to double Congressional pay if lawmakers agreed to be even less “productive.” Maybe they could copy the Texas state legislature and only meet every other year, with a limit of being in session no more than 140 days!

Since I don’t really have anything new to add to the debate on legislative “productivity,” I may as well close today’s column by mocking another Washington shibboleth.

I wrote last year that “bipartisanship” isn’t always a wonderful thing, as is so often claimed in Washington. You have to look at the actual policies that are generated when Republicans and Democrats cooperate. And the track record isn’t very good.

Was TARP good legislation? Maybe for politically well-connected financial institutions, but not for taxpayers.

What about the supposedly bipartisan budget agreements of recent decades? In most cases, the result was that politicians banded together to take more money from taxpayers.

Or how about Bush’s No-Bureaucrat-Left-Behind education bill? Well, that was good news for the education establishment, but it certainly didn’t lead to better outcomes.

This doesn’t mean it’s always bad when the parties work together on an issue. Reagan’s economic program wouldn’t have passed Congress without a lot of support from Democrats. And transportation deregulation was a bipartisan operation during the Carter years, ably assisted by former Senator Ted Kennedy.

So my real message isn’t that bipartisanship is bad. Instead I’m simply saying that bipartisanship is akin to legislative productivity. You have to look at the legislation that’s being produced before you can make a reasoned assessment.

Now that we’ve made that serious point, let’s close with a couple of cartoons about the wrong kinds of bipartisanship.

Here’s Glenn McCoy with a scene from a school bathroom.

And here’s one from Lisa Benson, referencing the recently enacted “cromnibus.”

I don’t know the author of this final cartoon, but it’s also worth sharing.

If you like these types of cartoons, click here to see some gems from Lisa Benson and Gary Varvel. And there are also some funny cartoons about bipartisanship from Michael Ramirez and Glenn McCoy.

Read Full Post »

I’m a big fan of federalism for both policy and political reasons.

Returning programs to the states is the best way of dealing with counterproductive income-redistribution policies such as welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps.

Federalism is also the right way of unwinding bad education schemes like Obama’s Common Core and Bush’s No Bureaucrat Left Behind.

And the same principle applies for transportation, natural disasters, and social issues such as drugs.

And I can’t resist pointing out, for the benefit of those who think such things matter, that federalism is also the system that is consistent with our Constitution’s restrictions on central government power.

Simply stated, federalism is good news because we get innovation, diversity, and experimentation. States that make wise choices will be role models for their peers. And it’s also worth noting that states that screw up will provide valuable lessons as well.

But sometimes a real-world example is the most compelling evidence of all. And the news that Vermont has cancelled its proposed single-payer healthcare scheme (as predicted by Megan McArdle) shows us why federalism is such a good concept.

Let’s start by reviewing what’s happened. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the Daily Caller.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin is canceling his dream plan to create a single-payer health system in the state, he announced Wednesday. …“In my judgment, now is not the right time to ask our legislature to take the step of passing a financing plan for Green Mountain Care.” The problem is, of course, how to pay for it. Even while plans were moving forward for a 2017 launch of the single-payer system, to be called Green Mountain Care, Shumlin had held off on releasing a plan for how to pay for the system, waiting until his announcement Wednesday.

So why didn’t Shumlin simply call for a big tax hike? Or look for more handouts from Washington? Or what about those fanciful assumptions that socialist health care would be more efficient?

Well, that basically was the plan.

Tax hikes required to pay for the system would include a 11.5 percent payroll tax as well as an additional income tax ranging all the way up to 9.5 percent. Shumlin admitted that in the current climate, such a precipitous hike would be disastrous for Vermont’s economy. …the report also admits that the single-payer system won’t save money as Vermont officials had planned. While both previous reports on Green Mountain Care had assumed “hundreds of millions of dollars” in savings in the very first year of operation, Shumlin’s office is now admitting that’s “not practical to achieve.” …Shumlin also cited slow economic recovery in Vermont as reason to delay, and hopes to try again in the future. But its failure, especially on economic grounds, is a resounding defeat for single-payer advocates.

Yes, this is a “resounding defeat” for socialized health care.

But it’s important to understand why Shumlin’s plan collapsed. He and other politicians obviously figured out (notwithstanding their claims when running for office) that a huge tax hike, combined with “free” healthcare, was a recipe for state disaster.

Productive people and businesses would have emigrated, while freeloaders and scroungers would have immigrated. The state would have gone into a downward spiral.

So even though Shumlin is a hard-core leftist, and even though Vermont’s electorate is so statist that the state came in first place in the Moocher Index, all these advocates of socialized healthcare were forced to recognize real-world constraints imposed by the existence of other states.

So the productive people of Vermont (at least the ones that haven’t already escaped) should be very thankful for federalism. Competition among the states, as well as freedom of movement between states, is a wonderful check on the greed and foolishness of the political class.

The crowd in Washington, by contrast, has more flexibility to impose bad policy since moving from one country to another is far bigger step than simply moving from, say, California to Texas.

Nonetheless, this also explains why I like tax competition among nations. I want greedy politicians to be haunted to at least some degree by the fear of tax flight so that they will think twice before imposing new burdens. But that’s a subject we’ve reviewed on many occasions, so no need for further details.

The bottom line is that Vermont did face real-world competitive pressure. And that meant the state’s politicians didn’t think they could successfully raise enough money to finance socialist healthcare.

This reminds me of this famous Margaret Thatcher quote about other people’s money.

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t find a clip of her actually making that statement. But if you want to see the Iron Lady in action, you can click here or here.

Let’s conclude by noting that the nation with the most decentralization and federalism is Switzerland, and that country does very well notwithstanding having different languages and cultures.

Which helps to explain why federalism is a very practical solution to the ethnic division in Ukraine.

P.S. Even though the focus of today’s column is federalism rather than policy, I can’t resist pointing out that the single-payer system in the United Kingdom generates some truly horrifying results.

P.P.S. If socialized healthcare is so wonderful, then why do politicians from countries which have that system travel to the United States for treatment?

P.P.P.S. Shifting to another topic, I’ve written before that left wingers criticize tax havens, yet it seems every rich leftist utilizes low-tax jurisdictions. Well, Business Week reports that “corporate inversions” also were created by a leftist.

John Carroll Jr., invented a whole category of corporate tax avoidance and successfully defended it in a fight with the Internal Revenue Service. …The first corporate “inversion,” as Carroll’s maneuver came to be known, was obscure then and is all but forgotten now. Yet at least 45 companies have followed the lead of Carroll’s client…and shifted their legal addresses to low-tax foreign nations.  …A committed liberal, he…once considered leaving the practice to work for antiwar candidate George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. …McDermott’s chief financial officer at the time, says he sometimes puzzled over Carroll’s motivations. “It was always an enigma to me,” Lynott says. “We knew this guy was a Democrat, and yet he would take on the government in a New York minute over a tax issue. There was nothing liberal about his thinking as far as the tax code was concerned.” …The IRS fought the case for seven years, giving up in 1989 only after a federal appeals court upheld a U.S Tax Court decision in the company’s favor.

So I like what Mr. Carroll achieved, but I guess we have to say he was a hypocrite. But, then again, statists specialize in hypocrisy.

P.P.P.P.S. I can’t resist sharing one more unrelated item. The 2008 crisis presumably showed the downsides of too much debt.

Well, time for a quiz: Who do you think has responded most intelligently and least intelligently to the lessons from that crisis?

Your choices are households, financial institutions, corporations, and governments.

I imagine nobody will be surprised by this chart from the BBC.

So what lessons can we draw from the chart?

Well, politicians in developed nations have been raising taxes over and over again, so perhaps we should conclude that higher taxes simply lead to more debt because our “leaders” can’t resist spending other people’s money.

And that’s precisely the point. Experts such as Steve Hanke, Brian Wesbury, Constantin Gurdgiev, Fredrik Erixon, and Leonid Bershidsky have all pointed out the ever-increasing burden of government in Europe.

Higher taxes are only a “solution” if the goal is bigger government and more red ink.

Read Full Post »

Like a lot of libertarians and small-government conservatives, I’m prone to pessimism. How can you be cheerful, after all, when you look at what’s been happening in our lifetimes.

New entitlement programs, adopted by politicians from all parties, are further adding to the long-run spending crisis.

The federal budget has become much bigger, luring millions of additional people into government dependency.

The tax code has become even more corrupt and complex, with more than 4,600 changes just between 2001 and 2012 according to a withering report from outgoing Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

And let’s not forget the essential insight of “public choice” economics, which tells us that politicians care first and foremost about their own interests rather than the national interest. So what’s their incentive to address these problems, particularly if there’s some way to sweep them under the rug and let future generations bear the burden?

And if you think I’m being unduly negative about political incentives and fiscal responsibility, consider the new report from the European Commission, which found that politicians from EU member nations routinely enact budgets based on “rosy scenarios.” As the EU Observer reported:

EU governments are too optimistic about their economic prospects and their ability to control public spending, leading to them continually missing their budget targets, a European Commission paper has argued. …their growth projections are 0.6 percent higher than the final figure, while governments who promise to cut their deficit by 0.2 percent of GDP, typically tend to increase their gap between revenue and spending by the same amount.

Needless to say, American politicians do the same thing with their forecasts. If you don’t believe me, just look at the way the books were cooked to help impose Obamacare.

But set aside everything I just wrote because now I’m going to tell you that we’re making progress and that it’s actually not that difficult to constructively address America’s fiscal problems.

First, let’s look at how we’ve made progress. I just wrote a piece for The Hill. It’s entitled “Republicans are Winning the Fiscal Fight” and it includes lots of data on what’s been happening over the past five years, including the fact that there’s been no growth in the federal budget.

You should read the entire thing for full context, but here are a few brief excerpts on why the left can’t be feeling very happy right now.

…Democrats presumably can’t be happy that the lion’s share of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent. …revenues are now projected to average only 18 percent of GDP over the next 10 years…a smaller tax burden than we had throughout the Clinton years. And you can’t finance big government in the long run without a lot more revenue. And they definitely can’t be happy that domestic discretionary spending is now below where it was during the Bush years, when measured as a share of GDP. And with sequester-enforced budget caps, it’s quite likely that number will drop even further. …Perhaps even more important, looking forward, is that House Republicans for four consecutive years have approved budget resolutions that assume genuine reform of Medicare and Medicaid. And they’ve won their biggest majority since before World War II, so GOPers can feel reasonably confident that voters (perhaps sobered up by the fiscal disarray in Europe) understand the need to modernize these programs.

By the way, the point about keeping taxes under control is critical. Simply stated, it’s virtually impossible for government to get much bigger without a stream of new revenue (or, in the case of a value-added tax, a river of new revenue).

Let’s now focus on the second issue, which is how we can maintain this progress.

Here’s a chart I put together back in September that showed projected revenue over the next 10 years (blue line). I then showed what happens if spending is left on autopilot and also what happens if policy makers simply restrain spending so that it grows 2 percent annually (gold line), which is actually a bit higher than inflation.

As you can see, it’s very simple to achieve a budget surplus. And we don’t even need the same amount of spending restraint that we enjoyed over the past five years!

The challenge, of course, is that Obama and many other politicians (including quite a few Republicans) don’t want government on a diet. After all, why let government “only” grow 2 percent each year when you can please the lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronyists, contractors, and other insiders by letting spending increase two or three times faster than inflation?

Fiscal probity isn’t easy. Genuine spending restraint not only means saying no to special interests and campaign contributors, it also means picking smart fights. In some cases, Obama and the left may dig in their heels and threaten a partial government shutdown in hopes of getting bigger budgets.

Sometimes such fights are unwise, but there’s a very strong case to be made that the GOP ultimately prevailed in the 1995 and 2013 shutdown battles.

The bottom line, as illustrated by this amusing A.F. Branco cartoon, is that Republicans shouldn’t automatically act like the French army if there’s a fight over something that really matters – such as a growing burden of government spending.

And it also means not falling back into bad habits. Republicans were profligate big spenders during the Bush years and it’s not easy to stay on the wagon of spending restraint.

This Lisa Benson cartoon is a good illustration of what will happen if GOPers cater too much to special interests.

For more information showing how it is simple to make progress, here’s my video explaining how simple it is to balance the budget with modest spending restraint. It’s several years old, so just keep in mind the chart above as you watch.

Though I hasten to add that the real goal isn’t balancing the budget. I’m far more interested in restoring a limited, constitutionally restrained federal government.

If we do that, fiscal balance is an easy and obvious consequence. In other words, if you deal with the underlying disease of too much government, you automatically eliminate the symptom of red ink.

P.S. Since I mentioned government shutdowns, I should point out some very good cartoons and jokes on that topic. They can be viewed here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. On another topic, I’m disturbed that Sony has cancelled a movie simply because the crazy dictator of North Korea apparently was able to get his henchmen to hack into the studio’s computers. Sure, companies have to focus on the bottom line and make dispassionate decisions, but it’s still troubling.

President Obama could earn major praise if he undertook some big public gesture, such as showing The Interview at the White House, perhaps for some of the folks (such as Shin Dong Hyuk) who escaped that brutal regime.

In the meantime, here’s a funny, yet also sad, image on what happened.

Remember, this isn’t just a dictatorship that has impoverished people with total statism. It is also a regime that starves its people to the point where its army had to lower physical standards because so many young people were stunted by malnutrition.

Read Full Post »

I periodically share polling data on issues ranging from which nations most support capitalism to the degree to which government is a leading cause of stress.

Or how about the poll of Americans on the best and worst Presidents since World War II, or the survey data on what share of government spending is wasted.

Today, we’re going to expand on that collection by reviewing some potential good news about attitudes of young people and attitudes about guns. But this isn’t about how young people owning guns, or how they feel about guns.

Instead, we’re going to review two separate pieces of information, one about whether young people want to work for the federal government and another about an online poll about gun control that backfired. And both are somewhat encouraging, albeit not very scientific.

With regards to young people, I was very pleased to read a story in the Washington Post indicating that President Obama is failing in his attempt to make government jobs “cool again.”

Six years after candidate Barack Obama vowed to make working for government “cool again,” federal hiring of young people is instead tailing off and many millennials are heading for the door. The share of the federal workforce under the age of 30 dropped to 7 percent this year, the lowest figure in nearly a decade, government figures show. …top government officials, including at the White House, are growing increasingly distressed about the dwindling role played by young workers.

Let’s hope this is true. The last thing we want is talented young people diverted from productive employment into the suffocating embrace of government bureaucracy.

But the key issue from my perspective is why young people prefer the private sector.

If it’s because they want to do something meaningful, or because they recognize government bureaucracy is a black hole of inefficiency, or because they don’t want to be a burden on taxpayers, I would view any of those explanations as a positive sign. Perhaps even an indication of growing social capital.

But there’s a less-optimistic explanation. Maybe young people actually do want overpaid positions as regulators, paper pushers, and memo writers, but haven’t had much luck simply because the process is so inefficient and/or the money isn’t there because of the spending restraint in recent years.

Danzig said that the federal shutdown, furloughs and pay freezes in recent years have eroded the attraction of working for the government. …For those millennials who still want to land a government job, the hiring process can be an infuriating mystery. And the government’s Pathways internship program, designed to help launch young people on a federal career, is so beset by problems that only a trickle of workers has been hired. …then Congress imposed the automatic budget cuts called “sequestration.” …Budget cuts have forced agencies to slow the hiring pipeline in the past two years, and with job prospects in the private sector improving after the long economic slowdown, millennials are increasingly taking jobs outside government, where they can see a better chance of advancement.

The most encouraging part of the story is that some young people who did land government jobs have decided to jump ship and go into the private sector.

That’s a win-win for taxpayers and the economy.

These millennials no longer are a burden on people in the productive sector of the economy and they’re also presumably now doing things that are far more likely to add value to society.

Sort of like when a welfare recipient is rescued from government dependency and becomes self-sufficient.

But you won’t be surprised to learn the Obama Administration isn’t giving up.

The agency’s director, Katherine Archuleta, has been visiting college campuses to urge students to consider federal careers. …“We know hiring millennials is really critical to the future of the government,” she said. …Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been working to revamp the Pathways federal internship program for college students and recent graduates.

None of this is a surprise. The White House presumably understands that a bigger government workforce means more voters who are likely to support candidates that want to expand the size and scope of government.

Our second example comes from the scroungers at PBS. The government-subsidized broadcasters did a story on gun control and included an online poll.

There was nothing remarkable about the story, just the usual pro-gun control agitprop, but the polling results must have been a big disappointment to the PBS crowd.

Wow, 95 percent-4 percent in favor of the Second Amendment.

To be sure, online surveys are completely unscientific and I’m sure some pro-gun rights people must have actively encouraged votes.

Nonetheless, I still find the results amusing if for no other reason than they undermined the narrative that PBS doubtlessly was hoping to create.

P.S. Based on this actual polling data, many millennials are quite confused and inconsistent in their views about public policy, so they probably are very well suited for careers in government. Which is all the more reason to push them in the private sector where a bit of real-world experience would probably help them think more clearly.

P.P.S. Since the title of today’s column was about young people and guns, I can’t resist sharing this feel-good story from Georgia.

A local gun club gave young people an opportunity to pose with Santa Claus and some of their favorite weapons.

Reminds me of the time I took my kids into the woods of Vermont so they could shoot an AK-47.

There was snow on the ground, but Santa Claus was absent, so I can’t say I matched the experience the gun club provided.

However, as you can see by clicking here, I raised my kids with good values about the Second Amendment.

Read Full Post »

Genuine tax reform would be the second-best fiscal policy reform to boost economic growth.*

With a simple and fair tax system, we could get rid of high tax rates that penalize productive behavior. We could eliminate the double taxation that discourages saving and investment. And we could wipe out the rat’s nest of deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, and other loopholes that bribe people into making economically unwise decisions.

When pushing for tax reform, I normally cite the flat tax, but there are many roads that lead to Rome. I’ve also pointed out that other tax reform plans have similar attributes. Here’s what I wrote, for instance, when comparing the flat tax and national sales tax.

In simple terms, a national sales tax (such as the Fair Tax) is like a flat tax but with a different collection point.the two plans are different sides of the same coin. The only difference is that the flat tax takes of slice of your income as you earn it and the sales tax takes a slice of your income as you spend it. But neither plan has any double taxation of income that is saved and invested. And neither plan has loopholes to lure people into making economically irrational decisions.

And even though I’m so hostile to the value-added tax that I almost foam at the mouth, I’ve even acknowledged that it would be a good system if you could somehow permanently eliminate all taxes on income.

…like the flat tax and national sales tax, it’s a single-rate system with no double taxation of income that is saved and invested

Some folks think my ecumenical attitude about tax reform is misguided. They argue, from a political perspective, that we won’t make progress unless we unify behind one plan.

That’s probably true at some point in the future, but I would argue that we first need discussion and debate about the principles of tax reform.

And that’s why I’m happy to see that the Heritage Foundation has published a new paper, authored by David Burton, that explains why the major tax reform plans are economically interchangeable.

The four leading conservative tax reform plans are the Hall–Rabushka flat tax, the new flat tax, a national sales tax, and a business transfer tax. Each is a consumption tax with an equivalent tax base. Except for secondary design choices and the choice of which taxes to replace, each would apply the same tax rate to raise a given amount of tax revenue. They would also have the same economic effects. The choice among them, therefore, rests on non-economic grounds.

Perhaps the most important part of that excerpt is where David asserts that all of the big tax reform proposals are consumption taxes.

This point deserves some elaboration. Here’s some of what I wrote on this same issue.

For all intents and purposes, a “consumption tax” is any system that avoids the mistake of double-taxing income that is saved and invested. Both the national sales tax and the value-added tax, for instance, are examples of consumption-based tax systems. But the flat tax also is a consumption tax. It isn’t collected at the cash register like a sales tax, but it has the same “tax base.”

Another way of saying the same thing it to point out that a “consumption tax” is simply a system where income is taxed only one time.

And that’s also true of the subtraction-method VAT, which David refers to as a BTT, along with the “new flat tax,” which is similar to the traditional flat tax except for the method used to prevent double taxation.

In his paper, David has some flowcharts to illustrate the similarities of the various tax reform plans.

Here’s the one for a national sales tax.

And here’s the one for the flat tax.

Let’s close by reminding ourselves about what’s wrong with the current system. Here’s a video produced by Professor Murray Sabrin at Ramapo College in New Jersey. I make a few appearances, beginning about 10-1/2 minutes into the film.

*The best fiscal policy reform would be dramatically shrinking the size of the federal government so that a far greater share of labor and capital in our economy could be allocated by market forces rather than by politicians and bureaucrats.  Ideally, the federal government could be reduced to the limited “night watchman” functions envisioned by the Founding Fathers, in which case there would be no need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. Switching to another topic, regular readers know that I enjoy mocking politicians.

Well, I think if there was a “Politician of the Year” contest, we would have a winner. His name is Joe Morrissey. Here are some details from a Richmond newspaper.

Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Henrico, preserved his legislative career for now but could find his license to practice law again in trouble after a dramatic plea Friday regarding his relationship with a 17-year-old office assistant. …Morrissey was being housed Friday night in Henrico Jail East in New Kent County, where he will be allowed to engage in a work-release program and maintain his legislative and legal duties, one of his lawyers said.

So he’s going to jail, but will still be a state lawmaker as part of a work-release program. Gee, his constituents must be proud.

By the way, you may be wondering about the “relationship” that the 57-year old Morrissey had with the 17-year old. Here are some of the details.

…the special prosecutor in the case told reporters that the now-18-year-old former associate of Morrissey is pregnant, “perhaps” with Morrissey’s child….Morrissey said he entered the plea to preserve his legislative duties, spare the alleged victim the difficulties of trial and to maintain his care of a 2-year-old child that he had out of wedlock.

So one illegitimate kid already and maybe another on the way. What a model citizen.

But there’s more.

As Richmond’s prosecutor in 1991, Morrissey punched a rival attorney in the face and wound up in jail. Two years later, he was indicted on a bribery charge for reducing charges in a rape case in exchange for a $25,000 payment to the victim. The charges were dropped, but his law license was suspended. He again had his law license suspended in 1998 and was put in jail for 90 days for improperly speaking to reporters during a drug case. He got into another fight in 1999 and was sentenced to 300 hours of community service. He tried to fake the number of hours he served, and was given another 90 days in jail, before finally being disbarred. He then practiced law overseas in Ireland and Australia before authorities discovered he had been disbarred, and he came back to Virginia, where he was elected to the General Assembly in 2007.

With a resume like that, no wonder he got elected. No need for on-the-job training!

P.P.S. I don’t know if I should admit this, but I dated a girl back in the 1990s that used to date Morrissey. I don’t know if that says something about her or something about me. But maybe after the PotL casts me aside, I should try to connect with one of Bill Clinton’s former paramours?

P.P.P.S. If you like mocking politicians, you can read about how the men and women in DC spend their time screwing us and wasting our money. We also have some examples of what people in Montana, Louisiana, Nevada, and Wyoming think about big-spending politicians. This little girl has a succinct message for our political masters, here are a couple of good images capturing the relationship between politicians and taxpayers, and here is a somewhat off-color Little Johnny joke. Speaking of risqué humor, here’s a portrayal of a politician and lobbyist interacting. Returning to G-rated material, you can read about the blind rabbit who finds a politician. And everyone enjoys political satire, as can be found in these excerpts from the always popular Dave Barry. Let’s not forgot to include this joke by doctors about the crowd in Washington. And last but not least, here’s the motivational motto of the average politician.

Read Full Post »

Let’s compare two politicians, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, to see which one actually has the courage to fight against powerful interest groups.

We’ll start with Senator Warren. She portrays herself as the scourge of Wall Street, but it appears that the Massachusetts lawmaker isn’t merely a fake Indian, she’s also a fake opponent of corporate welfare.

Kevin Williamson of National Review has some withering criticism of Senator Warren’s faux populism.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the millionaire Massachusetts class warrior who has made the vilification of Wall Street bankers her second-favorite pastime (right behind prospering on the largesse of Wall Street lawyers, the gentlemen and scholars who funded her very generously compensated position at Harvard and fill her campaign coffers) did not exactly make the issue her hill to die on, but the fight did provide her an excellent opportunity for grandstanding. …Senator Warren did her usual dishonest shtick, engaging in her habitual demagoguery without every making an attempt to actually explain the issue, which is a slightly complicated and technical one, to the rubes who make up the Democrats’ base. …This led Maggie Haberman of Politico to admire Senator Warren’s “authenticity,” the choice of precisely that word being the cherry on this sundae of asininity. Senator Warren is as much an authentic champion of ordinary working people as she is an authentic Cherokee princess — and Mel Brooks and those Yiddish-speaking Indians from Blazing Saddles were more convincing in that role.

But the problem is much deeper than empty grandstanding. Senator Warren wants to give government more power, which will exacerbate the problem.

Many on the Tea Party right and the Occupy left intuit that there exists a dysfunctional relationship between Wall Street and Washington, though Senator Warren et al. maddeningly believe that the way to ameliorate this is to invest Washington with even greater powers, enabling even worse misbehavior and even more remorseless rent-seeking.

And let’s not forget the left’s historical revisionism.

Here’s how the New York Times relates the cromnibus skirmish to bailout politics: “The liberal base of the Democratic Party, led by Ms. Warren, also found itself in an unlikely alliance with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Both opposed the Wall Street bailout of 2008 and feared that the spending measure would not only provide a bounty for big banks but would also help cause another economic crisis.” …One wonders which of these famous progressives the New York Times has in mind when it states — as uncontested fact — that “the liberal base of the Democratic party” “opposed the Wall Street bailout of 2008.” …The bailouts were enabled by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which enjoyed the support and votes of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Representative Jesse Jackson of Illinois, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, etc. The people who actually opposed bailouts by voting against bailouts were not in the main progressives, but were disproportionately conservative Republicans: Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Representative Michael Burgess of Texas, Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, etc.

Elizabeth Warren was a high-paid Harvard professor in 2008, so we don’t know how she would have voted on TARP.

But based on her current support for bailouts, handouts, and subsidies for big companies (including support for the egregious Export-Import Bank), she probably would have voted yes.

The Tea Party came into being as a reaction to Republican complicity in bailouts of all sorts: of Wall Street firms, and of irresponsible mortgage borrowers. Occupy, and the potty-trained version of that movement led by Elizabeth Warren, demands more bailouts: of people who borrowed money for college or to buy a home, of fashionable corporations that do not want to pay market rates for financing, etc. Senator Warren is an energetic proponent of corporate welfare for Boeing, General Electric Bechtel, Caterpillar, and other such poor, defenseless little mom-and-pop operations. If you are looking for actual rather than theoretical opposition to bailouts and corporate welfare, then your choices include Senator Rand Paul and Senator Ted Cruz, but practically nobody who might be called a progressive.

In other words, politicians like Senator Warren pay lip service to the notion that big government shouldn’t be in bed with big business. But when it’s time to cast votes, she’s a reliable supporter of cronyism.

Now let’s review a politician who talks the talk but also walks the walk.

Here are some excerpts from Kimberley Strassel’s Wall Street Journal profile of Congressman Hensarling.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling…has spent a decade riding herd on cronyists who give capitalism a bad name by giving or taking special government favors. …Washington’s Lone Ranger was at it again this week in the fight over reauthorizing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program, a “temporary” program created in 2002 that requires taxpayers to absorb the costs of insurance payouts after an attack. …The Texan didn’t get all the reforms he wanted in the reauthorization bill that did pass this week, but he got some.

Kudos to the Congressman for arguing that companies should pay market prices for insurance rather than shifting some of the liability to taxpayers.

But that’s just one example of his fight against cronyism. He’s also fighting to protect taxpayers against the predations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The congressman stepped down from the House leadership after the 2012 election to become chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, where he could be at the center of restoring what he calls the “bedrock” GOP principle of “free enterprise.” From that perch, Mr. Hensarling has doggedly worked to dismantle crony government programs that reward the well-connected business elite. …Take his longtime fight to eliminate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed housing giants that were central to the 2008 crash. Mr. Hensarling has yet to get a House vote on his proposal, though this focus has helped put uncomfortable attention on those pushing only watered-down reform. Earlier this year, he led a battle against plans to roll back reforms to the federal flood-insurance program. The House passed that atrocity, but only after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (to great outrage) did the insurance lobby’s bidding and bypassed Mr. Hensarling on the way to a vote. …This fall he provoked a debate over reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which exists to provide cheap financing for select industry players. …The House instead caved and threw Ex-Im reauthorization into a September funding bill, though Mr. Hensarling was able to limit its extension to June—when he intends to have that fight all over again.

Let’s hope Hensarling prevails over Warren next year and the Export-Import Bank no longer is allowed to feed at the public trough.

A key question is whether other Republicans will be willing to join Congressman Hensarling’s fight.

Such fights in the next Congress will be even more worth watching. …The K-Street lobbyists are about to put enormous pressure on Republicans. …All eyes are now on the GOP. Republicans are happy to criticize obvious (and Obama -backed) recipients of government largess: the Solyndras of the world. Yet few have been willing to shut down larger programs that pay off entire industries and send dollars back to their state businesses. This is why many voters see the GOP as the party of the “rich and powerful” and Democrats get traction with their populist catchphrases. …Democrats are the ones who are champions of big government, which exists to reward the politically connected, and to hide those rewards within legislation and backroom bureaucratic payoffs. …The GOP has a yawning opening to make this case, and position itself as the party that truly represents Main Street.

If past behavior is any indication of future behavior, there are some very discouraging reasons (here, here, here, and here) to think Republicans will side with K Street over taxpayers.

But maybe GOPers will surprise us and do what’s best for America rather than what’s best for corporate moochers.

P.S. If you want some serious analysis of Elizabeth Warren’s class-warfare agenda, click here. And if you want some amusing satire about her attack on entrepreneurs, click here.

P.P.S. Let’s praise another lawmaker. In the annual year-end look at the best and worst of Congress from Washingtonian, Congressman Justin Amash was rated as “Lobbyists’ Worst Enemy.”

P.P.P.S. Based on this cartoon, Michael Ramirez isn’t very optimistic on whether the GOP will have the backbone necessary to fight cronyism and special-interest corruption.

And this Ramirez cartoon about GOP timidity is an instant classic, sort of like the one he did on the Republican elephant in the Garden of Eden.

If I do an update of my post on best political cartoons, this will definitely get added.

Read Full Post »

I don’t know if this is a good personality trait or a character flaw, but it always brings a big smile to my face when a leftist tries to argue for bigger government but inadvertently makes an argument in favor of smaller government. Sort of like scoring a goal against your own team in soccer.

It seems to happens quite a bit at the New York Times.

A New York Times columnist, for instance, pushed for a tax-hiking fiscal agreement back in 2011 based on a chart showing that the only successful budget deal was the one that cut taxes.

The following year, another New York Times columnist accidentally demonstrated that politicians are trying to curtail tax competition because they want to increase overall tax burdens.

In a major story on the pension system in the Netherlands this year, the New York Times inadvertently acknowledged that genuine private savings is the best route to obtain a secure retirement.

But it’s not just people who write for the New York Times.

The International Monetary Fund accidentally confirmed that the value-added tax is a revenue machine to finance bigger government and heavier tax burdens.

A statist in Illinois tried to argue that higher taxes don’t enable higher spending, but his argument was based on the fact that politicians raised taxes so they wouldn’t have to cut spending.

We now have another example of a leftist inadvertently making an argument in favor of limited government (h/t: Coyote Blog via Cafe Hayek).

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones recently published an article that includes a chart showing that private-sector job creation has been much stronger under Obama’s recovery than during Bush’s recovery.

So how do we interpret this data?

I think one interpretation, as I argued both in 2012 and in 2013, is that gridlock is good for the economy. As you can see from Drum’s chart, job creation in the private sector jumped significantly toward the end of 2010, just as the GOP took control of the House of Representatives.

It’s quite reasonable to think, after all, that the private sector greeted the development with a sigh of relief since it meant Obama would be stymied if he tried to impose any major new fiscal or regulatory burdens through the legislative process.

Drum, however, accidentally gives us another reason why private-sector job creation has been at least somewhat impressive. Writing last year, he showed that the overall burden of government spending has been on a downward trajectory.

Here’s a chart from that article. He looks at inflation-adjusted per-capita total government spending, including outlays at the state and local level. If you look at the red line, which measures what’s been happening since the summer of 2009, you can see that we’re actually making some progress in reducing the burden of government spending.

Drum, needless to say, wants people to believe the downward trend in overall spending is somehow bad for the economy.

…as the chart above shows. After every other recent recession, government spending has continued rising steadily throughout the recovery, providing a backstop that prevented the economy from sliding backward. …But this time, even though the 2008 recession was deeper than any of those previous ones, it didn’t. …total government spending peaked in the second quarter of 2010 and then started falling, falling, and falling some more. Today, government spending at all levels—state, local, and federal combined—has declined 7 percent

I haven’t fact-checked Drum’s specific calculations, but I assume his math is correct. After all, I showed earlier this month that federal government spending has been flat for the past five years, and I was looking at nominal data rather than inflation-adjusted or population-adjusted numbers.

Likewise, I shared a chart last month showing that state and local government spending also has been flat since about 2010.

But the quality of the numbers isn’t my main point. Let’s focus instead on the accidental message of Drum’s two charts. If you put them together, as was done by Warren Meyer of Coyote Blog, then you see a clear correlation. Under Bush, government spending increased during the recovery and private-sector job creation was nonexistent. But under Obama, there’s been a decline in government spending and private-sector job creation has been far more impressive.

In other words, the message of Drum’s two charts is precisely the opposite of what he wants us to believe.

Instead of achieving his goal of demonstrating that Keynesian “stimulus” is desirable, Drum instead has demonstrated that spending cuts are associated with better economic performance.

Maybe we need some sort of “Wrong Way Corrigan” Award for people like Drum who inadvertently help the cause of economic liberty.

Though, to be fair, we’re only talking about two data series (private-sector jobs and overall government spending) and we’re only looking at two recoveries (2001 and 2007), so I imagine Drum and others could concoct semi-plausible explanations for why the aforementioned correlation doesn’t imply causation.

After all, crowing roosters don’t cause the sun to rise.

This is why I’m a big believer in looking at overall economic policy over long periods of time. All sorts of quirks may explain why one country grows faster than another country in any given year. But when you look at several decades of data, then certain relationships become clear.

And when you compare long-run economic performance in market-oriented nations and statist countries, there’s only one logical conclusion. If you don’t believe me, just check out these differences:

P.S. By the way, job creation hasn’t been that impressive during the Obama years. Yes, there have been more jobs created (particularly private-sector jobs) during the current recovery compared to the post-2001 recovery, but check out this data from the Minneapolis Fed showing the Obama recovery (red), the Bush recovery (green), and the Reagan recovery (blue).

Obama has done better than Bush, but Reagan is the slam-dunk winner.

But it’s not just that Reagan’s recovery was far better than what we got under Bush and Obama. If you added every single recovery to the chart, the 2001 and 2007 recoveries would be the weakest.

So maybe the lesson is that statist economic policy (of all types, not just fiscal policy) is a bad idea, regardless of whether a politician is Republican or Democrat.

Hmmm….it’s almost enough to make one think that free markets and small government are a recipe for prosperity.

And maybe this is why statists still don’t have an acceptable answer for my two-part challenge.

Read Full Post »

So what should libertarians, Reagan conservatives, and other advocates of smaller government think of the “cromnibus” spending bill?

The answer depends on your benchmark. If you dislike insider deals, pork-barrel spending, and you think the federal government should be limited to the enumerated powers put in the Constitution by our Founding Fathers, then the cromnibus is an abomination.

But if you look at where we are right now and you think victory is achieved whenever we can shrink the burden of government spending and limit Washington’s power over the nation, then the cromnibus is a victory.

So is the glass half full or half empty?

Let’s start by looking at the optimistic case, which is ably summarized in what Peter Roff wrote for U.S. News and World Report.

…the “cromnibus” legislative vehicle to fund most of the federal government through September 30, 2015 is a major victory for the conservatives…the combined continuing resolution and omnibus funding bill [hence the term “cromnibus”] maintains the Ryan-Murray spending caps of $521 billion for defense and $492 billion for non-defense spending. …It blocks funding of the risk corridors that, under the Affordable Care Act, could lead to a government bailout of the insurance companies…while cutting the funds for the Independent Payment Advisory Board (which is the body that would be recommending any rationing of health care) by $10 million. The bill also cuts funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by $60 million, which is the fifth consecutive year the agency’s budget has been cut and may finally convince the bureaucrats who run the place they cannot go beyond what they are legally authorized to do without congressional approval. And it hits the Internal Revenue Service particularly hard, cutting its allocation of federal dollars by $345.6 million, prohibiting it from targeting organizations because of the way they chose to exercise their First Amendment rights or on an ideological basis… There’s more, but the general drift of the thing is toward smaller, leaner, more transparent, more honest government than has been the case over the last six years.

There’s a lot to like in what Peter wrote. I like the spending caps, even if they’re too high. And I unambiguously like imposing some fiscal restraint on the EPA and IRS.

But now let’s shift to a pessimistic assessment. Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is a leading crusader against corporate welfare and he is appropriately disgusted that the annual spending bill became a vehicle for special-interest favors

Cromnibus was a fruit basket of special-interest provisions that K Street had been requesting for years. If you read to the very end of the bill — page 1,602 of 1,603 — you would find a section titled “Modification of Treatment of Certain Health Organizations.” This provision would provide protection from an Obamacare provision for exactly one entity: Blue Cross Blue Shield.Or look at page 1,153, which reauthorizes a federal agency whose job is to subsidize American-owned foreign businesses and the banks that finance them. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation extends taxpayer-backed loans and guarantees to U.S. companies when they set up shop overseas. OPIC is naked corporate welfare.Bills like Cromnibus, crafted in darkness and presented as must-pass legislation, allow the special interests to get what they want. A free and open debate on these issues is what the country needs.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Tim is completely correct about the cromnibus being business-as-usual sleaze and corruption. There’s no question that a bunch of lobbyists were big winners.

So who’s right about the cromnibus, Peter or Tim?

I hate to sound like a mealy-mouth, finger-in-the-wind politician, but they’re both correct.

The cromnibus fight turned out like the appropriations fight of 2011, the debt limit fight of 2011, and the fiscal cliff fight of 2012, all of which had some disappointing features and some encouraging features.

In other words, we’re dealing with the reality of divided government. Even next year, when Harry Reid no longer controls the Senate, it will be very difficult to win big victories.

Let’s say that Republicans decide to pursue aggressive policies such as fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform.

I’ll definitely applaud, but – at the risk of stating the obvious – does anybody think such legislation would attract enough support to overcome a veto from the White House?

The bottom line is that the cromnibus was a typical kiss-your-sister compromise and people, after weighing the pros and cons, probably like or dislike the outcome depending on the issues that matter most to them.

If you first and foremost don’t like lobbyist deals, then you are going to be unhappy. Likewise, you won’t be happy if your main goal is stopping the President’s executive amnesty.

But if your big issue areas are reining in the EPA or IRS, then you’ll presumably be – on net – cheerful. Similarly, if you care about preserving spending caps, you’ll view cromnibus as a win.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that Republicans did a decent job, but could have achieved much more if they were willing to hold firm on certain issues, even if it meant Obama and/or Reid decided to shut down the government.

But for reasons I still don’t understand, GOP bigwigs think they lost the shutdown fights of 1995 and 2013. And so long as they hold to that view, they’ll be limited in what they can achieve.

P.S. Since I mentioned that the cromnibus contains some long-overdue cuts to the IRS budget, here’s an amusing cartoon from Jerry Holbert that reminds us why they don’t deserve more of our money.

Definitely something to add to our collection of IRS humor.

Read Full Post »

Selection to the Moocher Hall of Fame is a special award that is bestowed upon “the individuals who best exemplify the culture of loafing, laziness, and dependency that is being subsidized by our vote-buying political class.”

But it’s not limited to Americans. Previous winners of this prestigious award include Brits, Austrians, Greeks, and Danes.

Now it’s time to pick a new honoree. But we’re going to make this a contest. We have two families living in the United Kingdom, both of which impose a big fiscal burden on taxpayers, but only one of which gets to join the Moocher Hall of Fame.

Here’s contestant number one. As reported by a British tabloid, a Romanian couple, along with their 15 kids, are imposing a very heavy cost on British taxpayers.

Mihai Toma and his brood live in a three-bed home after moving to soft-touch Britain two years ago. They rake in £2,500 a month in tax credits, £1,400 in housing benefits and £700 in child benefit… That adds up to £55,200 a year in handouts – the equivalent of a £90,000 salary… It means Mihai is making more than many doctors, senior police officers and MPs. …the Toma family want even more. They are demanding to be moved to a bigger taxpayer-funded house for their children aged four months to 19. And they cannot understand why so many hard-working Brits unable to afford their own homes are angry. Mum Veronica, 37, said: “…People will judge us but we have not done bad because we have come here to get a better life than in Romania.” …The Tomas are among thousands of immigrant families who have flocked to Britain as “welfare tourists”.

I have nothing against big families, but demanding a bigger house that will be financed by other people definitely rubs me the wrong way.

And here’s contestant number two, as described in another story also from the Daily Star. The Sisarovas are a Slovakian family with 11 kids.

Katerina Sisarova, 43, left Slovakia in 2007 and has worked for just one month after settling here. …But with her £23,000 annual income from handouts, gypsy Katerina doesn’t want a job. She said her life was “very nice” and she’ll never go home. Katerina bragged: “We have a good life here. We have everything that we want. …Her husband Peter, who has not worked for two years, added: “I like England. England give me house, give me doctor, give school, benefit. England good, thank you so much England.” …Her daughter Petra, 20, lives in a council house nearby with her son Peter, three. She also lives on handouts, collecting £650 a month, and said: “I get child benefit, tax credit, housing benefit. I’ve got a better life here than in my country.

So which family is more deserving of entering the Moocher Hall of Fame?

It’s a judgement call, but my vote goes to the Sisarova family. The Toma family is disqualified because Mihai actually does something productive. He earns “£1,800-a-month wage as an electrician.”

To put this in American terms, the Sisarova family is akin to a household where everyone goofs off while collecting welfare (and assorted additional benefits based on no income).

In the Toma family, by contrast, someone is working, so that makes them akin to an American household that is eligible for the earned-income credit (and assorted additional benefits based on modest income).

And the difference is that welfare is money you get from the government for doing nothing while the EITC is money you get from the government for working.

Getting back to our contest, Mihai’s decision to be partially self-sufficient means he and his family don’t get to join the Moocher Hall of Fame.

By the way, there’s also a Terrorist Wing of the Moocher Hall of Fame. It features repugnant people like the Tsarnaev family in the United States, as well as Abdul, the million-dollar moocher from Australia.

We don’t have any new nominees for the Terrorist Wing, but here are a couple of stories that should probably be in the honorable mention category.

First, the Daily Telegraph from the U.K. reports that home-grown terrorists are using government handouts to wage jihad.

Terri Nicholson, from the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command unit, said that taxpayers’ money was being claimed fraudulently and used by terrorists in countries such as Iraq and Syria. She said there had been “a number of cases” recently of terrorists making fraudulent student loan claims to fund their activities. …“We are seeing a diverse fraud, including substantial fraud online, abuse of the benefits system, abuse of student loans, in order to fund terrorism,” she said.

I’m particularly struck by the use of student loans. Many of the people I knew in college used such payments for beer, but they obviously weren’t thinking big enough.

I guess we should count fighting for ISIS with taxpayer money as some sort of self-directed independent study.

We have similar problems in the United States.

I’ve already mentioned the Tsarnaev brothers, but we also have two men who wanted to blow up the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and kill two officials. But they had one small problem. They couldn’t afford to buy the bombs they wanted until one of their girlfriends received her next installment of handouts from Uncle Sam.

Two men indicted last week on federal weapons charges allegedly had plans to bomb the Gateway Arch — and to kill St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson — the Post-Dispatch has learned. …the two allegedly did buy what they thought was a pipe bomb in an undercover law enforcement sting. The men wanted to acquire two more bombs, the sources said, but could not afford to do it until one suspect’s girlfriend’s Electronic Benefit Transfer card was replenished.

Gee, if only handouts were even more generous. Then those two guys could have planned more efficiently.

Though I shouldn’t joke. If these guys hadn’t been such morons, some people might now be dead.

Let’s close on a more serious note about public policy. It should go without saying that the vast majority of welfare recipients aren’t terrorists, or even criminals. And most of them presumably don’t have the extreme entitlement mentality illustrated by the Sisarova family.

But that doesn’t mean welfare should be an acceptable way of life. It’s bad for taxpayers when that happens, of course, but it’s also bad for recipients.

And this is becoming apparent even to some foreign politicians who are far from being libertarian. Here are some excerpts from a story published by the Independent in Ireland.

Social welfare has become a “lifestyle choice” for many leaving school, a situation which is totally unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has said. “What we are getting at the moment is people who come into the system straight after school as a lifestyle choice. This is not acceptable, everyone should be expected to contribute and work,” Ms Burton said. Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Ms Burton said those who failed to cooperate with her department by not taking job or training opportunities would lose up to €44 a week.

My gut reaction is that they should lose everything, but I guess this is a big step from a Labour Party politician.

It appears Ms. Burton recognizes that people can be trapped into a life of dependency if the welfare system is too generous.

Which is a revelation that also has occurred to at least one American leftist.

P.S. Guess what happened when politicians in Washington declared “war on poverty” and started spending lots of money?

P.P.S. On the other hand, guess what happened while politicians in the U.K. decided to make dependency a less attractive lifestyle?

P.P.P.S. Here’s a map showing which states have the biggest welfare benefits.

P.P.P.P.S. I can’t help but wonder if the British press focuses on immigrant households that collect welfare while paying inadequate attention to the equally disturbing anecdotes of home-grown welfare families. The problem is welfare, income redistribution, and dependency, not the race or nationality of the recipients.

Read Full Post »

I wrote last week about the lunacy of a tax system that created the conditions that led to the death of Eric Garner in New York City.

But I wrote that column in the context of how high tax rates lead to tax avoidance and tax evasion. Let’s now zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

Using the Garner case as a springboard, George Will explains that we have too many laws.

Garner died at the dangerous intersection of something wise, known as “broken windows” policing, and something worse than foolish: decades of overcriminalization. …when more and more behaviors are criminalized, there are more and more occasions for police, who embody the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, and who fully participate in humanity’s flaws, to make mistakes. Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties attorney, titled his 2009 book “Three Felonies a Day” to indicate how easily we can fall afoul of the United States’ metastasizing body of criminal laws. Professor Douglas Husak of Rutgers University says that approximately 70 percent of American adults have, usually unwittingly, committed a crime for which they could be imprisoned. …The scandal of mass incarceration is partly produced by the frivolity of the political class, which uses the multiplication of criminal offenses as a form of moral exhibitionism. This, like Eric Garner’s death, is a pebble in the mountain of evidence that American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.

I don’t know if Americans actually do commit three felonies each day, and I also don’t know if 70 percent of us have committed offenses punishable by jail time, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these numbers are correct.

They may even be understated.

Indeed, when I share horrifying examples of government thuggery, these generally involve brutal and over-zealous enforcement of things that oftentimes shouldn’t be against the law in the first place.

This Eric Allie cartoon is a good example, and definitely will get added to my collection of images that capture the essence of government.

In other words, George Will wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote that, “American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.”

Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School has a similar perspective.

I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. …I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you. I wish this caution were only theoretical. It isn’t. …It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right. …it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.

Amen.

A just society should have very few laws, and those laws should be both easy to understand and they should focus on protecting life, liberty, and property.

Sadly, that’s not a good description for what now exists in America. Professor Carter explains.

…federal law alone includes more than 3,000 crimes, fewer than half of which found in the Federal Criminal Code. The rest are scattered through other statutes. A citizen who wants to abide by the law has no quick and easy way to find out what the law actually is — a violation of the traditional principle that the state cannot punish without fair notice. In addition to these statutes, he writes, an astonishing 300,000 or more federal regulations may be enforceable through criminal punishment in the discretion of an administrative agency. Nobody knows the number for sure. Husak cites estimates that more than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment. …making an offense criminal also means that the police will go armed to enforce it. Overcriminalization matters… Every new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence. …Don’t ever fight to make something illegal unless you’re willing to risk the lives of your fellow citizens to get your way.

Which is a good description of why I’m a libertarian notwithstanding my personal conservatism.

I don’t like drugs, but I’m not willing to let someone else get killed because they have a different perspective.

I don’t like gambling, but I don’t want another person to die because they want to play cards.

I don’t like prostitution, but it’s awful to think someone could lose his life because he paid for sex.

This Glenn McCoy cartoon summarizes what’s happening far too often in this country.

P.S. Since this has been a depressing topic, let’s close by switching to some good news.

I’ve previously explained why I’m somewhat optimistic on the future of the Second Amendment. Well, the folks at Pew Research have some new polling data that bolsters my optimism.

Here’s one result that put a smile on my face.

And here’s a breakdown that’s also encouraging. Note how blacks have become much more supportive of gun rights.

I guess this means “Stretch” and “R.J.” have a lot more support than just two years ago.

And it’s worth noting that cops have the same perspective.

In other words, these are not fun times for gun grabbers.

Read Full Post »

While there are plenty of reasons to dislike the World Bank, United Nations, and (especially) the International Monetary Fund, the worst international bureaucracy on a per-dollar spent basis has to be the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The OECD used to be relatively benign by the standards of international bureaucracies, but it has veered sharply to the left in recent years and some of the bureaucracy’s “research” now is more akin to talking points from the Obama White House.

And it getting worse. I wasn’t even aware that the OECD had a Directorate for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs, but the bureaucrats in this division are – if this is even possible – pushing the Paris-based bureaucracy even further to the left.

At least that’s my conclusion after reading a new study from that Directorate on inequality and growth. You can read the entire 64-page paper if you’re a masochist, but you’ll get the full flavor by perusing the OECD’s three-page summary.

Here are the headline results.

New OECD analysis suggests that income inequality has a negative and statistically significant impact on medium-term growth. Rising inequality by 3 Gini points, that is the average increase recorded in the OECD over the past two decades, would drag down economic growth by 0.35 percentage point per year for 25 years: a cumulated loss in GDP at the end of the period of 8.5 per cent. …Rising inequality is estimated to have knocked more than 10 percentage points off growth in Mexico and New Zealand, nearly 9 points in the United Kingdom, Finland and Norway and between 6 and 7 points in the United States, Italy and Sweden. On the other hand, greater equality prior to the crisis helped increase GDP per capita in Spain, France and Ireland.

Yes, you read correctly. We’re supposed to believe that Spain, France, and Ireland have enjoyed better growth.

I guess France’s stagnation is just a figment of our collective imaginations. And those bailouts for Spain and Ireland must have been a bad dream or something like that.

By the way, I’m not arguing inequality is good for growth. Indeed, it can even be bad for growth if the rich are using government to line their pockets with growth-stifling bailouts, handouts, subsidies, protectionism, and other forms of cronyism.

So is that what this study is arguing?

Hardly. Let’s move from absurdity to ideology by reviewing the OECD’s supposed solutions, which sound like something you would get if you created some sort of statist Frankenstein by mixing DNA from Francois Hollande and Elizabeth Warren in a blender.

The most direct policy tool to reduce inequality is redistribution through taxes and benefits. The analysis shows that redistribution per se does not lower economic growth. …previous work by the OECD has clearly shown that the benefits of growth do not automatically trickle down across society… Policies that help to limit or reverse inequality may not only make societies less unfair, but also wealthier. …Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.

I’m almost at a loss for words.

Part of me wants to make snarky comments about the absence of credible evidence. After all, if Spain, Ireland, and France are the success stories, the opportunities for satire are limitless.

But perhaps I should be more mature and simply note the real world contradicts this supposed research. Why is it, after all, that the countries that are most fixated on coercive redistribution tend to have the weakest economies?

Though the most remarkable thing about this study is that it is contradicted by other OECD research from the Economics Department, which is home to a more sensible crowd that periodically finds that larger governments and redistributive tax policies undermine economic performance.

A 1997 study by the Economics Department found that “a cut in the tax-to-GDP ratio by 10 percentage points of GDP (accompanied by a deficit-neutral cut in transfers) may increase annual growth by ½ to 1 percentage points.”

A 2001 study by the Economics Department found that “An increase of about one percentage point in the tax pressure (or, equivalently one half of a percentage point in government consumption, taken as a proxy for government size) – e.g. two-thirds of what was observed over the past two decades in the OECD sample – could be associated with a direct reduction of about 0.3 per cent in output per capita. If the investment effect is taken into account, the overall reduction would be about 0.6-0.7 per cent.”

Another 2001 study by the Economics Department found that “The overall tax burden is found to have a negative impact on output per capita.24 Furthermore, controlling for the overall tax burden, there is an additional negative effect coming from an extensive reliance of direct taxes.”

A 2008 study by the Economics Department found that “…relying less on corporate income relative to personal income taxes could increase efficiency. …Focusing on personal income taxation, there is also evidence that flattening the tax schedule could be beneficial for GDP per capita, notably by favouring entrepreneurship. …Estimates in this study point to adverse effects of highly progressive income tax schedules on GDP per capita through both lower labour utilisation and lower productivity… a reduction in the top marginal tax rate is found to raise productivity in industries with potentially high rates of enterprise creation. …Corporate income taxes appear to have a particularly negative impact on GDP per capita.”

A 2013 study by the Economics Department found that “personal income tax also discourages entrepreneurial activity and investment… tax autonomy may lead to a smaller and more efficient public sector, helping to limit the tax burden and improve tax compliance. …Progressive corporate income taxes harm incentives for businesses to grow.”

Let’s return to the study from the Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs Directorate. Like most logical people, you may be wondering what sort of rationale the OECD offers for this agenda of bigger government and higher taxes.

Apparently it’s all based on the notion that poor people won’t acquire skills (human capital accumulation) if rich people have a lot of money. I’m not joking.

The evidence is strongly in favour of one particular theory for how inequality affects growth: by hindering human capital accumulation income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.

We’re not given any plausible reason for why this happens. Nor are we given any explanation of why poor people will want to acquire skills if the government makes dependency more attractive with expanded redistribution.

In other words, it appears this is yet another example of the OECD engaging in statistical and analytical gymnastics in order to produce something that will justify the bad policies of member nations.

But you have to give the bureaucrats credit. This new “research” is having the desired effect, leading to news reports that will be very pleasing to advocates of bigger government. Consider these excerpts from a story in the EU Observer.

The report, published on Tuesday (9 December) by the Paris-based OECD, refutes the concept of ‘trickle-down economics’… “Income inequality has a sizeable and statistically significant negative impact on growth,” the report says, adding that “redistributive policies achieving greater equality in disposable income has no adverse growth consequences.” …In response, the OECD urges governments to hike property taxes on property and wealth and scrap tax breaks that disproportionately benefit higher earners, alongside greater support for the bottom 40 percent of earners to make sure that they are not left further behind. “As top earners now have a greater capacity to pay taxes than ever before, governments may consider re jigging their tax systems,” argues the report, adding that governments should also increase access to education, healthcare and training. “Anti poverty programmes will not be enough,” it states.

Writing for Forbes, Tim Worstall also notes that this sloppy OECD report is being used by statists to advance an ideological agenda.

We’re not surprised that The Guardian has leapt on this little report out from the OECD concerning inequality and GDP growth over the past 30 years. It conforms to every prejudice that that newspaper is every going to have about the subject. However, it should be pointed out that this report from the OECD is in fact howlingly bad. It manages to entirely ignore the OECD’s own research on exactly the same subject: the impact of inequality and attempts to reduce it on GDP growth.

The bottom line is that the OECD is working to advance the interests of the political class, not the interests of poor people. If the bureaucrats genuinely wanted to help the less fortunate, they would be pushing pro-growth policies.

Instead, they promote a bigger burden of government.

If you want to know more about the OECD’s economic malpractice, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But if you don’t want to listen to me, here are some examples of statist policies that are directly contrary to American interests.

The OECD has allied itself with the nutjobs from the so-called Occupy movement to push for bigger government and higher taxes in the United States.

The bureaucrats are advocating higher business tax burdens, which would aggravate America’s competitive disadvantage.

The OECD is pushing a “Multilateral Convention” that is designed to become something akin to a World Tax Organization, with the power to persecute nations with free-market tax policy.

It supports Obama’s class-warfare agenda, publishing documents endorsing “higher marginal tax rates” so that the so-called rich “contribute their fair share.”

The OECD advocates the value-added tax based on the absurd notion that increasing the burden of government is good for growth and employment.

It even concocts dishonest poverty numbers to advocate more redistribution in the United States.

And don’t forget that you’re paying for this nonsense. American taxpayers finance the biggest share of the OECD’s budget.

Read Full Post »

Many statists are worried that Republicans may install new leadership at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

This is a big issue because these two score-keeping bureaucracies on Capitol Hill tilt to the left and have a lot of power over fiscal policy.

The JCT produces revenue estimates for tax bills, yet all their numbers are based on the naive assumption that tax policy generally has no impact on overall economic performance. Meanwhile, CBO produces both estimates for spending bills and also fiscal commentary and analysis, much of it based on the Keynesian assumption that government spending boosts economic growth.

I personally have doubts whether GOPers are smart enough to make wise personnel choices, but I hope I’m wrong.

Matt Yglesias of Vox also seems pessimistic, but for the opposite reason.

He has a column criticizing Republicans for wanting to push their policies by using “magic math” and he specifically seeks to debunk the notion – sometimes referred to as dynamic scoring or the Laffer Curve – that changes in tax policy may lead to changes in economic performance that affect economic performance.

He asks nine questions and then provides his version of the right answers. Let’s analyze those answers and see which of his points have merit and which ones fall flat.

But even before we get to his first question, I can’t resist pointing out that he calls dynamic scoring “an accounting gimmick from the 1970s” in his introduction. That is somewhat odd since the JCT and CBO were both completely controlled by Democrats at the time and there was zero effort to do anything other than static scoring.

I suppose Yglesias actually means that dynamic scoring first became an issue in the 1970s as Ronald Reagan (along with Jack Kemp and a few other lawmakers) began to argue that lower marginal tax rates would generate some revenue feedback because of improved incentives to work, save, and invest.

Now let’s look at his nine questions and see if we can debunk his debunking.

1. The first question is “What is dynamic scoring?” and Yglesias responds to himself by stating it “is the idea that when estimating the budgetary impact of changes in tax policy, you ought to take into account changes to the economy induced by the policy change” and he further states that it “sounds like a reasonable idea.”

But then he says the real problem is that conservatives exaggerate and “say that large tax cuts will have a relatively small impact on the deficit  — or even that they make the deficit smaller” and that they “cite an idea known as the Laffer Curve to argue that tax cuts increase growth so much that tax revenues actually rise.”

He’s sort of right. There are definitely examples of conservatives overstating the pro-growth impact of tax cuts, particularly when dealing with proposals – such as expanded child tax credits – that presumably will have no impact on economic performance since there is no change in marginal tax rates on productive behavior.

But notice that he doesn’t address the bigger issue, which is whether the current approach (static scoring) is accurate and appropriate even when dealing with major changes in marginal tax rates on work, saving, and investment. That’s what so-called supply-side economists care about, yet Yglesias instead prefers to knock down a straw man.

2. The second question is “What is the Laffer Curve?” and Yglesias answer his own question by asserting that the “basic idea of the curve is that sometimes lower tax rates lead to more tax revenue by boosting economic growth.” He then goes on to ridicule the notion that tax cuts are self-financing, even citing a column by National Review’s Kevin Williamson.

Once again, Yglesias is sort of right. Some Republicans have made silly claims, but he mischaracterizes what Williamson wrote.

More specifically, he’s wrong in asserting that the Laffer Curve is all about whether tax cuts produce more revenue. Instead, the notion of the curve is simply that you can’t calculate the revenue impact of changes in tax rates without also measuring the likely change in taxable income. The actual revenue impact of changes in tax rates will then depend on whether you’re on the upward-sloping part of the curve or downward-sloping part of the curve.

The real debate is the shape of the curve, not whether a Laffer Curve exists. Indeed, I’m not aware of a single economist, no matter how far to the left (including John Maynard Keynes), who thinks a 100 percent tax rate maximizes revenue. Yet that’s the answer from the JCT. Moreover, the Laffer Curve also shows that tax increases can impose very high economic costs even if they do raise revenue, so the value of using such analysis is not driven by whether revenues go up or down.

3. The third question is “So do tax cuts boost economic growth?” and Yglesias responds by stating “the credible research on the matter is very very mixed.” But he follows that response by citing research which concluded that “a tax cut financed by reductions in wasteful spending or social assistance for the elderly would boost growth.”

But that leaves open the question as to whether the economy does better because of the lower tax burden, the lower spending burden, or some combination of the two effects. But I’ll take any of those three answers.

So is he “sort of right” again? Not so fast. Yglesias also cites the Congressional Research Service (which rubs me the wrong way) and a couple of academic economists who concluded that there is “no systematic correlation between the level of taxation and the level of economic growth.”

The bottom line is that there’s no consensus on the economic impact of taxation (in part because it is difficult to disentangle the impact of taxes from the impact on spending, and that’s not even including all the other policies that determine economic performance). But I still think Yglesias is being a bit misleading because there is far more consensus on the economic impact of marginal tax rates and debates about the Laffer Curve and dynamic scoring very often revolve around those types of tax policies.

4. The fourth question is “How does tax scoring work now?” and Yglesias respond to himself by noting that the various score-keeping bureaucracies measure “demand-side effects” and “behavioral effects.”

He’s right, but CBO uses so-called demand-side effects to justify Keynesian spending, so that’s not exactly reassuring news for people who focus more on real-world evidence.

And he’s also right that JCT measures changes in behavior (such as smokers buying fewer cigarettes if the tax goes up), and this type of analysis (sometimes called microeconomic dynamic scoring) certainly is a good thing.

But the real controversy is about macroeconomic dynamic scoring, which we’ll address below.

5. The fifth question is “Can we take a break from all this macroeconomic modeling?” and is simply an excuse for Yglesias to make a joke, though I can’t tell whether he is accusing Reagan supporters of being racists or mocking some leftists for accusing Reagan supporters of being racist.

So I’m not sure how to react, other than to recommend the fourth video at this link if you want some real Reagan humor.

6. The sixth question is “What do current scoring methods leave out?” and Yglesias accurately notes that what “dynamic-scoring proponents want is a model of macroeconomic consequences. They think that a country with lower tax rates will see more investment in physical and human capital, leading to more productivity, and more economic growth.”

He even cites my blog post from last month and correctly describes me as believing that it is “self-evidently ridiculous that the current CBO model says higher tax rates would lead to faster economic growth via lower deficits.”

I also think he is fair in pointing out that “people sharply disagree about how much tax rates actually influence economic growth” and that “the whole terrain is enormously contested.”

But this is why I think my view is the reasonable middle ground. At one extreme you find (at least in theory) some over-enthusiastic Republican types who argue that all tax cuts are self-financing. At the other extreme you find the JCT saying tax policy has no impact on the economy and actually arguing that you maximize tax revenue with 100 percent tax rates. I suspect that Yglesias, if pressed, will agree the JCT approach is nonsensical.

So why not have the JCT – in a fully transparent manner – begin to incorporate macroeconomic analysis?

7. The seventh question is “Has dynamic scoring ever been tried?” and Yglesias self-responds by pointing out that a Treasury Department dynamic analysis of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts come to the conclusion that “the resulting budget impact would be 7 percent smaller than what was suggested by conventional scoring methods.” and “ended with the conclusion that the Bush tax cuts substantially decreased revenue.”

In other words, dynamic analysis was not used to imply that tax cuts are self-financing. Indeed, the dynamic score in the example of what would happen if the Bush tax cuts were made permanent turned out to be very modest.

So why, then, are folks on the left so determined to block reforms that – in practice – don’t yield dramatic changes in numbers? My own guess, for what it’s worth, is that they don’t want any admission or acknowledgement that lower tax rates are better for growth than higher tax rates.

8. The eight question is “Why are we talking about dynamic scoring now?” and Yglesias answers his own question by accurately stating that “the Republican takeover of Congress starting in 2015 gives the GOP an opportunity to either change the scoring rules, change the personnel in charge of the scoring, or both.”

He’s not just sort of right. He’s completely right. I have no disagreements.

9. The ninth question is “Why does the score matter?” and his self-response is “the scores matter because perceptions matter in politics.” In other words, politicians don’t want to be accused of enacting legislation that is predicted to increase red ink.

Yglesias is also right when he writes that this “effect shouldn’t be exaggerated. In the past, Republicans haven’t hesitated to vote for tax measures that the CBO says will increase the deficit. That’s because they have a strong preference for low tax rates.”

At the risk of being boring, I also think he’s right about the degree to which scores matter.

The bottom line is that questions #1, #2, #3, and #6 are the ones that matter. Yglesias makes plenty of reasonable points, but I think his argument ultimately falls flat because he spends too much time attacking the all-tax-cuts-pay-for-themselves straw man and not enough time addressing whether it is reasonable for the JCT to use a methodology that assumes taxes have no effect on the overall economy.

But I expect to hear similar arguments, expressed in a more strident fashion, if Republicans take prudent steps – starting with personnel changes – to modernize the JCT and CBO apparatus.

P.S. While tax cuts usually do lead to revenue losses, there is at least one very prominent case of lower tax rates leading to more revenue.

P.P.S. If the JCT approach is reasonable, why do the overwhelming majority of CPAs disagree? Is it possible that they have more real-world understanding of how taxpayers (particularly upper-income taxpayers) respond when tax rates change?

P.P.P.S. If the JCT approach is reasonable, why do international bureaucracies so often produce analysis showing a Laffer Curve?

There’s also some nice evidence from Denmark, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.

Read Full Post »

Is Obama a socialist?

If you’re asking whether he’s a big-spending interventionist, the answer is yes.

But if you’re asking whether the President believes in government ownership of the means of production (which is the defining issue in the socialist economic platform), the answer is no (though the White House surely won’t like how Thomas Sowell describes Obama’s ideology).

But I generally don’t care about these word fights. Big government is bad because it hurts people and relies on coercion, and that’s true whether we’re talking about socialism, communism, Nazism, corporatism, or other forms of statism.

But I do care for historical accuracy and honesty.

Writing for the U.K.-based Telegraph, Dan Hannan of the European Parliament explains that the German National Socialists of the Hitler era were….well, socialists.

Goebbels never doubted that he was a socialist. He understood Nazism to be a better and more plausible form of socialism than that propagated by Lenin. Instead of spreading itself across different nations, it would operate within the unit of the Volk. So total is the cultural victory of the modern Left that the merely to recount this fact is jarring.

Anti-capitalist propaganda from the Nazis

Not that today’s leftists should be surprised. Unless, of course, they’re historically illiterate. After all, the Nazi political vehicle was the National Socialist German Workers Party.

Subsequent generations of Leftists have tried to explain away the awkward nomenclature of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party as either a cynical PR stunt or an embarrassing coincidence. In fact, the name meant what it said. Hitler…boasted, adding that “the whole of National Socialism” was “based on Marx”. Marx’s error, Hitler believed, had been to foster class war instead of national unity – to set workers against industrialists instead of conscripting both groups into a corporatist order. His aim, he told his economic adviser, Otto Wagener, was to “convert the German Volk to socialism without simply killing off the old individualists” – by which he meant the bankers and factory owners who could, he thought, serve socialism better by generating revenue for the state. …authoritarianism was the common feature of socialists of both National and Leninist varieties, who rushed to stick each other in prison camps or before firing squads. Each faction loathed the other as heretical, but both scorned free-market individualists as beyond redemption. Their battle was all the fiercer, as Hayek pointed out in 1944, because it was a battle between brothers.

In other words, Soviet-style socialism and Nazi-style socialism were both evil forms of statism, but one attracted people by fomenting class envy and the other sought recruits by demonizing non-Aryans.

Hannan hastens to add that he doesn’t think that modern self-proclaimed socialists are closet Nazis, but he does object to leftists who try to put National Socialists on the right side of the political spectrum.

The idea that Nazism is a more extreme form of conservatism has insinuated its way into popular culture. …What is it based on, this connection? Little beyond a jejune sense that Left-wing means compassionate and Right-wing means nasty and fascists are nasty. When written down like that, the notion sounds idiotic, but think of the groups around the world that the BBC, for example, calls “Right-wing”: the Taliban, who want communal ownership of goods; the Iranian revolutionaries, who…seized industries and destroyed the middle class; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who pined for Stalinism. The “Nazis-were-far-Right” shtick is a symptom of the wider notion that “Right-wing” is a synonym for “baddie”.

Citing the comprehensive work of Jonah Goldberg, Hannan’s column then makes a key point about government coercion.

Authoritarianism – or, to give it a less loaded name, the belief that state compulsion is justified in pursuit of a higher goal, such as scientific progress or greater equality – was traditionally a characteristic of the social democrats as much as of the revolutionaries. Jonah Goldberg has chronicled the phenomenon at length in his magnum opus, Liberal Fascism. Lots of people take offence at his title, evidently without reading the book since, in the first few pages, Jonah reveals that the phrase is not his own. He is quoting that impeccable progressive H.G. Wells who, in 1932, told the Young Liberals that they must become “liberal fascists” and “enlightened Nazis”.

To be fair, this doesn’t mean Wells was a horrible person, at least in the sense of embracing Hitlerism. In the early 1930s, the fascist policies of Mussolini and Hitler were simply about government intervention. At that point, few people recognized that racism and anti-Semitism were part of the fascist program.

I’m much more likely to be critical of people who make excuses for communism still today. Do they really want to romanticize an ideology that killed tens of millions of innocent people?!?

And it’s disgusting that people wear Che Guevara t-shirts when he was a brutal enforcer of Cuba’s totalitarian regime.

P.S. On a lighter note, here’s the “bread-ish” difference between socialism and capitalism.

P.P.S. Regarding European socialism, we have great (although technically inaccurate) cartoons from Glenn Foden and Michael Ramirez.

P.P.P.S. Here’s socialism for kids, though it’s really class warfare for kids.

P.P.P.P.S. And here’s what happens when you try socialism in the classroom.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Closing on a serious note, John Mackey and Steve Horwitz agree with Thomas Sowell about Obama’s real economic ideology.

Read Full Post »

When I discuss corporate welfare, my first example is usually the Export-Import Bank. It galls me that taxpayers are coerced into subsidizing some of the world’s biggest corporations.

And since I’m an economist, I also don’t like how these subsidies undermine the overall economy.

But the Export-Import Bank is just the tip of the iceberg. Politically connected corporations now treat Washington like a profit center, making “investments” in politicians in exchange for policies that unfairly tilt the economic playing field.

Let’s look at another example of big companies suckling at the federal teat.

Mark Calabria, one of my Cato colleagues (and we also both studied economics at George Mason University!), explains why the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of helping rich shareholders by having the government subsidize corporate insurance policies.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats are in the midst of negotiating a deal to extend the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), which expires at the end of this year. They should save themselves the trouble and protect the taxpayer by allowing TRIA to expire. TRIA is no more than corporate welfare wrapped up in the flag. …TRIA is simply a mechanism for allocating the losses from a terrorist attack. It does nothing to deter terrorists. Do we truly believe that terrorists say to each other, “Let’s not attack that building, it’s insured”? Under the best of circumstances, TRIA has zero impact on the cost of a terror attack. …Why are taxpayers thought to be better able to bear…risk than shareholders in publicly traded corporations, given the concentrated holdings of corporate equity? Why should middle-class taxpayers subsidize the 1 percent?

Amen.

I don’t want the federal government doing any redistribution, but it’s particularly upsetting when politicians and bureaucrats hurt ordinary people to line the pockets of the rich.

Mark also explains that this isn’t simply a case of robbing Peter to subsidize Paul. As with many government programs, the indirect effects result in added collateral damage.

It would be bad enough if TRIA simply redistributed losses from corporate America to taxpayers, but TRIA runs the risk of increasing the losses from terrorism. If developers faced the full cost of their design choices — say, that between a glass building façade or reinforced concrete – they would build safer structures. We’ve sadly seen this play out in the national flood-insurance program, where subsidies have encouraged poor construction while also encouraging families to live in harm’s way. Even the Congressional Budget Office has acknowledged that TRIA lessens the incentives to reduce losses from a terror attack. …the most important lesson of the financial crisis was that when you underprice risk, people make poor choices. That has been repeatedly demonstrated when Congress has attempted to hide the costs of certain activities, like subprime-mortgage lending. Similarly distorting the pricing of terrorism risk will also lead to poor choices.

The final sentences are critically insightful. We need unfettered prices to ensure that costs and benefits are properly calculated and resources are productively allocated.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page is similarly opposed to this example of corporate welfare.

For proof of Ronald Reagan ’s maxim that the closest thing to eternal life on Earth is a government program, consider the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002. What was sold to the public as a temporary backstop is becoming another permanent entitlement. …Insurers and potential targets of terror, such as the National Football League, property developers and hoteliers, have lobbied hard to keep the program going, and going and going. Congress waved through extensions in 2005 and 2007. Earlier this year, facing a Dec. 31 expiration date, Harry Reid ’s Senate passed another seven-year extension 93-4. Like the Export-Import Bank, terrorism insurance is one of those business subsidies that both parties are only too happy to support. …The best solution would be for the House to let the program expire. Insurers have had 13 years to adjust their models. The Government Accountability Office reported in May that terrorism risk premiums have stabilized. …Private reinsurers can cover many of the risks that taxpayers now bear.

By the way, I think private insurers and reinsurers were the best option, even immediately after the 9-11 terror attacks. Yes, the market was very unsettled and would have stayed that way for a while, but both insurers and customers would have had big incentives to quickly figure out the best pricing strategies.

I would have much rather faced a year or two of instability rather than a decade-plus of distortionary subsidies.

But that’s water under the bridge. What matters now is that there’s zero excuse for subsidizing the insurance policies of big corporations.

By the way, just in case you think I’m exaggerating and that corporate welfare is limited to the Ex-Im Bank and terrorism insurance, check out these other examples of big business and big government conspiring against taxpayers and consumers.

Look at the way the major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies got into bed with the White House to line their pockets via Obamacare.

And examine how big financial firms pillaged taxpayers as part of the sleazy TARP bailout.

How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam.

Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market.

Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians.

Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors.

And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

P.S. Since our topic today dealt with terrorism, check out the terrorism-related humor and links in the “P.P.P.S.” of this post.

P.P.S. New topic. Every so often I find some left-wing political satire that is genuinely clever and thoughtful.

There’s my collection of anti-libertarian humor (including an article about libertarian law enforcement), some good leftist tax cartoons, a Fox News dystopia, and some well-done first-world vs third-world imagery.

Now we can add this cartoon about a Joe GOP Sixpack who thinks government is grossly incompetent and untrustworthy, with one exception.

A very effective zinger, I’ll be the first to admit. Indeed, the cartoonist hits me in a somewhat sensitive spot.

Read Full Post »

When people figure out ways to keep the money they earn in their own pockets, rather than having it confiscated by government, I’m almost always happy.

That’s because governments tend to waste money (should any of us pay for corrupt pork-barrel spending?).

And it’s because government impose bad tax policy (is it fair to have governments tax us more than one time?).

I also object to oppressive tax collection tactics (why do murderers have a presumption of innocence, but not taxpayers?).

With this bit of background, you can understand why I cheer when greedy politicians fail in their efforts to grab more money.

Here are three stories about tax avoidance. The first and third stories should make you smile, while the middle story is a tragic reminder of what happens when you mix bad tax policy with bad enforcement tactics.

Our first story is from the U.K.-based Times, which reports that English shoppers will travel all the way to Belgium to buy cigarettes.

Smokers — and smugglers — are flocking to a small village on the Belgian coast in search of cheap tobacco to beat the taxman. …The savings are substantial. A sleeve of 200 Benson & Hedges Gold costs £45 in Belgium, compared with £90 at a British newsagent; a 50g pouch of Amber Leaf tobacco is on sale for £5.65, about £11 cheaper than at home. Sticking to the recommended allowance of 1kg of tobacco and 800 cigarettes will save a smoker about £400 per trip. However, as there are no limits on the amount of tobacco and alcohol that a person can bring back from an EU country, some day-trippers are pushing that to 3kg of tobacco and 3,000 cigarettes, for combined savings of £1,350.

The folks making the trip resent the way their government (often using Orwellian tactics) is trying to pillage them.

Many smokers are angry at high UK prices and annual rises in duty. A grandmother from the West Midlands tweeted to the Conservative party: “I saved £3,000 for a holiday this year. I won’t pay UK tax to be bullied. Much cheaper to buy abroad.” …An estimated 80 coaches make the trip each week from different parts of the UK. The Times joined a service run by Excalibur Coaches, starting at Elephant and Castle in south London at 5.55am and joining a P&O ferry crossing at Dover. …“There are a lot of English here but the government has made cigarettes so expensive that, with this price difference, people are bound to be tempted.”

I’m glad for these people. The U.K. government has gone way overboard in their efforts to grab more tax. Notwithstanding what the politicians say, it’s not immoral to protect your income from rapacious and untrustworthy government.

There was no suggestion that anyone on the Excalibur coach broke any rules, but trippers are reluctant to speak openly for fear that they will draw the attention of Border Force officers, who are cracking down on the illicit traders.

The same thing happens in the United States, by the way. Excessive tobacco taxes by some state and local governments create big incentives for consumers to seek out cigarettes that are more affordable.

And our second story is about how government over-reaction can lead to horrifying consequences.

First, some background from A. Barton Hinkle, writing for Reason.

Thanks to New York’s laughably high cigarette taxes ($4.35 state plus another $1.60 in the city) and higher prices generally, a pack of smokes in New York City costs $14 or more. That creates a powerful incentive to smuggle smokes in from states such as Virginia, where you can buy a pack for a third of that price. …The robust cigarette smuggling irritates officials in New York, because they miss out on a lot of tax revenue.

And because politicians deploy resources to capture some of that foregone revenue, it leads to enforcement efforts that, in the tragic case of Eric Garner, led to a man’s death.

The writers at National Review have done a superb job of addressing this issue. Let’s start with some observations from Kevin Williamson.

…one must have a permit to sell cigarettes in New York, and New York bans the sale of so-called loosies, single cigarettes sold to those who lack either the means or the desire to purchase an entire pack at the going New York City rate of $12 to $14. …In a sane world, selling cigarettes would not be a crime. …That isn’t an argument for anything-goes lawlessness, but it is an argument that we have too many criminal offenses, and an argument that not everything that is a crime is a danger.

David Harsanyi has some similar thoughts.

Garner wasn’t targeted for death because he was avoiding taxes, but nonetheless, prohibitive cigarette taxes unnecessarily generate situations that make events such as this possible. …In the case of Garner, police were enforcing a law that has nothing to do with violence, not in the short or long term. …New York has by far the highest cigarette taxes in the nation: more than five bucks a pack. Unsurprisingly, the policy has spurred a black market. …The more profitable it becomes to circumvent taxes, the more dangerous this mini-prohibition will be. Garner was selling single cigarettes, incidentally. Does anyone believe that isn’t a waste of time for police and prosecutors?

Another National Review contribution is from Jonah Goldberg.

…you know what reasonable people can’t dispute? New York’s cigarette taxes are partly to blame for Eric Garner’s death. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made this point Wednesday night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and liberals have been freaking out about it ever since. …anyone with a level head should understand — and agree with — Paul’s point. When you pass a law, you authorize law enforcement to enforce it. …Without laws making cigarettes more expensive, Eric Garner would be alive today, period. …In the war on tobacco, like the war on drugs, if politicians will the ends, they must will the means. This is something that libertarians understand better than everyone else: The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs. If you sell raw-milk cheese even after the state tells you to stop, eventually people with guns will show up at your home or office and arrest you. If you resist arrest, something very bad might happen. You might even die for selling bootleg cheese.

Heck, we’ve even gotten to the point that the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration are conducting raids on dairies for the horrible crime of selling to consumers who prefer unpasteurized milk.

But let’s focus on what Jonah wrote about the state and violence. Charles C. W. Cooke also addressed that issue in his NR column.

Ultimately, “the State” is a synonym for “organized violence.” “If you refuse to pay your taxes,” Representative David Brat recently noted, “you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.” In consequence, Brat proposed, we should be careful about when and how that violence is utilized. Certainly, civilized nations need laws. But it is one thing to recruit armed men to prevent murder and rape and grievous bodily harm, and it is quite another to do so in order to regulate the manner in which cigarettes may be sold. …Was Garner killed deliberately? No, of course he was not. …Nevertheless, we should all be willing to acknowledge that Garner would never have been so much as approached had the city not wanted its pound of flesh in the first instance. Because there are consequences to all laws — however minor — it is incumbent upon us to ask if those laws are worth the risks that they yield. What, I wonder, would the anti-tax rebels who threw off the British Empire make of the news that a man had lost his life for peacefully selling a “loosie”?

By the way, the National Review writers openly state that the Eric Garner case involves a lot more than taxes. They point out that there are very big issues about race, the proper use of force, and the integrity of the justice system.

But everything they wrote about misguided tobacco taxation is also right on the mark.

Now let’s look at our third story, which is fortunately amusing rather than tragic. It was sent to me from the Public Secrets blog, and it deals with a Spanish theater is taking a rather unusual step to avoid that nation’s crippling value-added tax.

Crippled by colossal tax rates and falling ticket sales, the Spanish cultural sector is taking creative action to cut its tax bill, including one theatre which has changed its main business to pornography to avoid having to pay high taxes. …Theatre director Karina Garantivá said: “It’s scandalous when cultural heritage is being taxed at 21 percent and porn at only at 4 percent. Something is wrong”. Her company, which performs works by the “Spanish Shakespeare” Pedro Calderón de la Barca has decided to circumvent the new, punitive taxes by registering as a distributor of pornographic magazines – and is offering free performances. Punters buying €16 worth of hardcore-swingers magazine Gente Libre from the company receive a ‘free’ ticket to a performance of the highly regarded 17th century comic drama El Mágico Prodigioso.

You have to give them credit for creativity. I previously wrote about a Spanish theater that gave “free” tickets to customers who purchased low-taxed carrots for absurd prices, but I’m guessing the porn angle will be more successful.

Heck, I’m a cultural rube, and even I might be tempted to patronize the theater.

But not because of the porn. Instead, I admire the philosophical approach. Unlike a lot of artists, these folks in Spain apparently aren’t looking for handouts.

Garantivá said: “We don’t want subsidies, we are a private initiative. The best subsidies are fiscal measures that don’t prevent me from doing my work”. …Although the company is presently selling second-hand pornography to escape tax, they may produce their own to sell in future, as their present stock is only 300 magazines. Doing so would be “a stand against the government”, said the director.

And they’re even willing to produce their own porn as a way of saying “bugger off” to government. Given my libertarian principles, maybe I should…um…volunteer to help? Viva la libertad!

Though I won’t be waiting by my phone expecting a call.

All kidding aside, the common theme in all these stories is that people don’t like paying excessive taxes.

We may not all agree about when taxation becomes excessive, but I assume just about everyone will agree that it’s perfectly legitimate to avoid or evade the French tax laws that require some people to pay more than 100 percent of their income to government.

On the other hand, most of us also will have little sympathy for folks who try to avoid or evade when they live in jurisdictions – such as Hong Kong, Bermuda, and Switzerland – that are honest, well-run, and lightly taxed.

My proposal is that we have a simple and fair system like the flat tax so that people have much less reason to evade or avoid.

In the meantime, I’ll continue rooting for taxpayers who thwart the greed of the political class.

So three cheers for French entrepreneurs, American companies, Italian boat owners, California citizens, Greek shop owners, Facebook millionaires, Norwegian butter buyers, New York taxpayers, Bulgarian smokers, foreign cab drivers, New Jersey residents, Australian film stars, and everyone else who does their part to limit the amount of tax revenue flowing to governments.

P.S. There’s at least one tax avoider who doesn’t deserve any support. Actually, there are at least two of them. Make that three. Oops, four and five. Wait, we have six. Seven. Eight…and an entire building of them…well, I think you get the point I’m trying to make.

Read Full Post »

I wrote a few days ago that advocates of smaller government have won a very significant victory over the past five years, as measured by the fact that there’s been zero growth in overall federal spending.

And because the private economy has grown while the federal budget has been flat, this means that the burden of government spending – measured as a share of GDP – has declined.

This doesn’t mean our fiscal problems are solved. Indeed, the long-run numbers are still horrible and we desperately need genuine entitlement reform to avoid becoming a failed European-style welfare state.

But a long journey begins with a first step and the spending freeze over the past five years is worth celebrating.

And let’s also celebrate the fact that members of Congress no longer have carte blanche, generally using “appropriations” legislation, to specifically allocate spending for campaign contributors and other favored constituencies. Such spending allocations, known as “earmarks,” have been banned ever since the GOP took the House in 2010.

That makes me happy. As I wrote after that election, earmarks facilitate bad policy.

…earmarks are the proverbial apple in the congressional Garden of Eden. Members who otherwise might want to defend taxpayers are lured into becoming part of the problem. …earmarks [are] a “gateway drug” that “seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects.” …they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to  politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

You’ll notice, though, that I didn’t really offer any supporting evidence four years ago.

So it’s time to rectify that oversight. The easy evidence to cite is that the federal budget hasn’t grown over the past five years, but there are several reasons for that spending freeze.

While I think the earmark ban deserves some of the credit, let me share a couple of anecdotes that also show why it was good to end this odious version of pork-barrel spending.

Here are some excerpts from a Northern Virginia news report about the looming retirement of a member of the Appropriations Committee.

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran departs Congress unrepentant on the need for those much-maligned targeted budget items known as earmarks. Moran – who once famously, if jokingly, promised to “earmark the shit out of” the federal budget if Democrats regained control in Congress – told the annual meeting of the Inter-Service Club Council of Arlington that the spending measures that used to be inserted at the behest of individual members of Congress should be brought back.

You may be wondering why this is newsworthy. After all, it’s hardly a shock that a big spender likes earmarks.

But it’s this next excerpt that makes the key point.

Why is he leaving? At the luncheon, Moran expanded on earlier frustrations. “Congress as an institution is dysfunctional,” he said. “Life’s too short to be part of an institution that only produces frustration.” Things were different when Moran first was elected to Congress in the early 1990s.

In other words, Cong. Moran got frustrated and decided to quit (at least in part) because he no longer had the ability to play favors and raise campaign cash by doling out earmarks.

Gee, it’s almost enough to make you cry with sympathy. I’m sure taxpayers are very sad that Congressman Moran won’t be prowling the halls of Congress any longer.

And it’s a double tragedy because he won’t have as much value as a lobbyist since he can’t finagle earmarks from his former colleagues. Oh, the humanity!

And keep your hankie ready, because our next story also is a tear-jerker. It’s from before the election and it’s about outgoing Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and his refusal to share his stash of campaign cash with fellow Democrats.

Despite direct appeals from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other top Democrats, Harkin has refused to transfer money from his $2.4 million campaign account to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to sources and campaign finance records.

So why did Harkin decide to hoard his campaign cash, even though he was retiring from politics?

Because the poor fellow wasn’t allowed to subsidize his own ego with a taxpayer-funded earmark and had to use money from his contributors instead.

…the retiring Iowa senator has informed party leaders that he plans to use the campaign funds for a charitable contribution to an entity that bears his name: The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines, according to sources close to discussions with the senator. …the ban on congressional earmarks…has prevented him — a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — from steering money to Drake University, said Democratic sources. Finding a home for his official papers has been a priority for Harkin, who has served in the Senate for three decades after 10 years in the House.

Gosh, no wonder Harry Reid wants to bring back earmarks. If politicians can steal from taxpayers, they’ll have more money available to win elections!

Which is another reason why the earmark ban should be preserved.

P.S. Want another argument against earmarks? Well, how about the fact that reporters at the Washington Post think President Obama would have been able to push through more gun control if he could have used earmarks as bribes.

P.P.S. I want to switch topics and close by giving readers a riddle.

What would happen if you scrambled the genes of George W. Bush and David Cameron (the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) and produced two new people, sort of like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins?

The answer is that you’d get Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon.

Allow me to elaborate. I’ve previously pointed out that George W. Bush was a reckless big spender, but at least he was somewhat consistent in advocating lower taxes.

David Cameron is the opposite. I’ve groused about his disturbing affinity for tax hikes, but he’s been much better on spending than I thought he would be.

And he’s about to get even better according to Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph.

…this government is a free marketeer’s dream. It believes in cutting spending as a share of GDP much more severely than any previous government had dreamed of. On that metric, it is more Thatcherite than Thatcher, more Reaganite than Reagan. Public spending is expected to fall to 35.2pc of GDP by 2019-20, the lowest level in at least 80 years. …When looking just at the Government’s consumption of goods and services, the state’s relative size will fall to levels last seen in 1938, according to a historical Bank of England dataset. …the aspiration is revolutionary.

Considering that government spending in the United Kingdom was consuming more than 48 percent of GDP as recently as 2009, it truly would be a dream if the burden of the public sector dropped to “only” 35 percent of economic output.

That surely would earn the U.K. a spot on my list of nations that have complied with Mitchell’s Golden Rule for multi-year periods.

Returning to my riddle, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger supposedly had the same genetic stock in Twins, but one of them somehow got the bad genes and the other one got the good genes.

So I’m speculating that the genes of Bush and Cameron, scrambled together, would produce one good politician who believes in lower spending and lower tax (i.e., Coolidge) and one bad politician who supports higher taxes and bigger government (i.e., Nixon).

P.P.P.S. Here are my most recent numbers showing which modern Presidents were the most frugal and most profligate.

Read Full Post »

I like to think that I occasionally put together interesting and persuasive charts on fiscal policy.

For instance, I think it’s virtually impossible to make a credible argument for tax hikes after looking at my chart showing how easy it is to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

But I’ll freely confess that no chart of mine can compare to this powerful image created by my Cato colleague, Andrew Coulson, which shows how spending and staffing for the government school monopoly have exploded while enrollment and performance have been stagnant.

As far as I’m concerned, no honest person can look at his chart and defend the current system.

But some folks may need some more evidence about the failure of government schools, so let’s look at stories from both ends of America.

We’ll start on the east coast. Writing for the Daily Caller, Eric Owens reports that bureaucrats in a New Jersey town are being handsomely rewarded for not educating students.

Only 19 students in the public school system in Paterson, N.J. who have taken the SAT scored high enough to be considered college ready, local Fox affiliate WWOR-TV reports. At the same time, 66 employees in the Paterson school district each soak taxpayers for salaries of at least $125,000 per year, the Paterson Press reports. …Paterson is no tiny town. It is, in fact, the third-largest city in New Jersey. The population is roughly 146,000 people. …The city boasts some 50 public schools altogether. There are over 24,000 total students in all grades.

But the folks in Paterson can be proud of their government schools. After all, they’re doing much better than Camden.

In December 2013, Camden’s then-new superintendent of public schools announced that only three — THREE! — students in the entire district who took the SAT during the 2011-12 academic year scored high enough to qualify as college-ready.

Last but not least, the story notes that the school district has concocted a clever strategy to avoid any more embarrassing stories.

You’re probably wondering whether this means school choice? Rigorous standards? Better discipline?

Nope, nope, and nope. Remember, we’re dealing with government bureaucracy.

Back in Paterson, school officials say they have cleverly dealt with their nearly complete failure to prepare students for college entrance exams by no longer using the SAT to assess student achievement.

I actually hope this is a joke, though there’s no indication in the story to suggest the reporter is being satirical.

So we have bureaucrats getting vastly overpaid in exchange for not educating kids.

Now let’s travel to the west coast, where Los Angeles schools also have overpaid officials who do a crummy job of educating students, but they have figured out very novel ways of squandering tax dollars.

As Robby Soave reports in Reason, the LA school district first tried a failed scheme to give every student an iPad, which led to predictable fraud and misuse with no accompanying educational benefit. Now they want to double down on failure with a new proposal that gives various schools the option of which bit of high-tech gadgetry to mis-utilize.

Who could be against choice? That’s the argument Los Angeles school district administrators are now employing to push their latest round of expensive technology upgrades. Schools will be given the choice to receive Chromebooks instead of iPads—and some schools will get laptops, the most expensive option of all.  …The idea is to eventually place such a device in the hands of every child in the district.

Needless to say, there’s no strategy for avoiding the mistakes that plagued the earlier scheme.

The problem administrators encountered when rolling out the iPad plan, however, was that kids kept losing or breaking the devices. What happens then? Do parents pay, or does the district? Do kids get a replacement? Teachers also struggled mightily to incorporate the technology into their lesson plans, and concerns about kids using iPads for unsanctioned purposes caused headaches. The initial iPad deal unravelled after allegations of an improper relationship between then District Superintendent John Deasy, Apple, and curriculum company Pearson.

The reporter is understandably skeptical about what will happen next.

I have little reason to believe that the individual schools will be more responsible stewards of the taxpayer’s money than the district was. Indeed, 21 schools decided to go with an even more expensive option: laptops. Steve Lopez of the LA Times argued persuasively in October that the iPad fiasco was a costly diversion from the district’s real problems. Schools can’t even find the money for math textbooks, but administrators want to force unneeded technology on them and impose computerized tests. The district should prioritize basic instruction before deciding to purchase thousands of fancy gadgets.

Gee, it’s almost enough to make you think that government schools don’t work very well and that we should instead allow parents to have real choice over how to best educate their children.

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that Obama’s silly common core proposal appears to be driving some of these bad results.

P.P.S. Though remember that Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind scheme was also a flop.

P.P.P.S. School choice doesn’t automatically mean every child will be an educational success, but evidence from SwedenChile, and the Netherlands shows good results after breaking up state-run education monopolies.

And there’s growing evidence that it also works in the limited cases where it exists in the United States.

P.P.P.P.S. Or we can just stick with the status quo, which involves spending more money, per student, than any other nation while getting dismal results.

P.P.P.P.P.S. This is a depressing post, so let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that education spending has been reduced.

Read Full Post »

The United States is burdened with some very bad policies that hinder growth and undermine competitiveness. But sometimes you can win a race if your rivals have policies that are even more self-destructive.

And that’s a good description of why the U.S. economy is out-performing Europe and why people in the United States enjoy higher living standards than their European counterparts.

In 2010, I shared data showing that Americans had far higher levels of consumption than Europeans.

In 2012, I updated the numbers and showed once again that people in America far ahead of folks in Europe.

And here are the most recent numbers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, showing “average individual consumption” for various member nations of that international bureaucracy.

The average for all OECD nations is 100, and the average for eurozone nations is 96, so the U.S. score of 147 illustrates how much better off Americans are than citizens of other countries.

The only nations that are even close to the United States have oil (like Norway) or are low-tax international financial centers (such as Luxembourg and Switzerland).

So why is the United States doing better than Europe?

There are two responses.

First, notwithstanding what I’ve just written, it’s a bit misleading to compare the U.S. to Europe. Simply stated, there are vast differences among European nations in terms of policies and living standards, much more than you find between and among American states.

There are nations such as Switzerland and Finland, for instance, that rank above the United States in Economic Freedom of the World. But there are also highly statist and moribund countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as well as transition economies in Eastern Europe that are still trying to catch up after decades of communist oppression.

So overall America-vs-Europe comparisons should be accompanied by a grain of salt.

Second, now that we’ve ingested some salt, let’s draw some general conclusions about the role of public policy. Most important, nations with bigger governments and more intervention (as is the case for many European countries) generally don’t grow as fast or have the same living standards as nations with smaller governments and more reliance on competitive markets.

The comparisons can get complicated because there are a wide range of policies that impact economic performance (many people focus on fiscal policy, but trade, regulation, monetary policy, and the rule of law are equally important). Comparisons also can get confusing because there are some relatively rich nations with bad policy and some relatively poor nations with good policy, which is why it is important to look at how rich or poor nations are (or were) when there were significant changes in policy.

For instance, many nations in Western Europe became relatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the overall burden of government was very small. Now they’ve adopted welfare states and growth is much slower (or, in some cases, nonexistent), but they’re oftentimes still in better shape than nations (such as Estonia and Chile) that only recently have liberalized their economies.

Now that we’ve gone through all this background, let’s look at a couple of stories that make me pessimistic about Europe’s future because they capture the mentality that seems dominant among continental policy makers.

First, one of the bright spots for the continent is that there’s been vigorous corporate tax competition. In other words, politicians have been under pressure to lower tax burdens on the business community because of concerns that jobs and investment will migrate to nations with better policy.

As you can imagine, this irks the political class (even though lower rates haven’t resulted in less revenue!).

So you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a new push for tax harmonization in Europe. Here are some of the details from a news report.

France, Germany and Italy have joined forces to outlaw tax competition between EU countries in a letter to the European Commission. …the language and tone in the joint letter to the new Economic and Taxation Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, is much more aggressive than in the past. …the letter from the finance ministers of the eurozone’s three largest economies says that “the lack of tax harmonisation in the European Union is one of the main causes allowing aggressive tax planning, base erosion and profit-shifting to develop”. …Vanessa Mock, commission spokeswoman said Mr Moscovici “welcomes these significant contributions to the work being carried out by the commission”.

Hmmm…., the Frenchmen who is the Economic and Taxation Commissioner “welcomes” a call from the governments of France, Germany, and Italy to outlaw tax competition. I’m shocked, shocked, by this development.

But as one British politician explained, this approach of higher business taxes will further undermine European economic vitality.

Now let’s shift to our second story, which illustrates the self-serving greed of the political elite at the European Commission.

Here are some passages from a story on the spectacular golden parachutes offered to outgoing senior Eurocrats. And we’ll focus on the former President of the European Council since he’s such a deserving target of ridicule.

Herman Van Rompuy will be entitled to more than £500,000 for doing nothing at the taxpayer’s expense over the next three years, after finishing his term as president of Europe. After standing down on Monday, the former president of the European Council will be paid £133,723 a year, 55 per cent of his basic salary, until December 2017 – to ease him back into life outside the world of Brussels officialdom.

Gee, how kind of European taxpayers to “ease him back” into the real world.

Except, of course, Van Rompuy’s never been in the real world. He’s had his snout in the public trough his entire life.

And he also gets to pay far less tax on this money compared to the poor slobs in the private sector who are footing the bill for this official largesse.

…The “transitional allowance” does not require Mr Van Rompuy to do any work at all and the cash will be paid under reduced rates of EU “community” tax, which are far lower than taxation in his native country of Belgium. …Mr Van Rompuy has not been a stranger to controversy over the perks of EU officialdom since he took the post in December 2009. He was widely criticised four years ago for using his official motorcade of five limousines as a taxi service to take his family on 325-mile round trip to Paris airport en route to a private holiday in the Caribbean. …The cost of Mr Van Rompuy’s retirement is part of a much larger bill for the handover of the administration in EU as former European Commissioners serving in the last Brussels executive pocket “transitional allowances” worth around £30million.

This scam has been in operation for several years, and keep in mind that excessive pay and lavish perks for commissioners are matched by excessive pay and lavish perks for member of the European Parliament (including taxpayer-financed penile implants).

And lavish pay and perks for European Union bureaucrats.

And don’t forget these are the folks who are pushing for bigger government and higher taxes on a pan-European basis. Like many of our politicians in Washington, they think the private sector is some sort of piñata that is capable of producing endless amounts of revenue to finance ever-expanding government.

Even though the evidence from Greece, Italy, Spain, etc, confirms that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with big government is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

P.S. European bureaucrats have decided taxpayer-financed tourism is a human right. And they also use taxpayer money to produce self-aggrandizing comic books.

P.P.S. The European political elite are so bad that even President Obama has felt compelled to oppose some of their tax initiatives.

Read Full Post »

It’s time to puncture the myth that libertarians are congenitally dour and pessimistic.

We’re going to look at some fiscal data that must be very depressing for President Obama and other advocates of big government.

But that means this information must be very good news for American taxpayers!

Here’s a chart looking at annual federal spending since 2000. You’ll notice that spending skyrocketed from 2000-2009 (a time when libertarians were justifiably glum), but look at how the growth of government came to a screeching halt after 2009.

Here are some specific numbers culled from the OMB data and CBO data. In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion.

In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington.

When I’ve argued in favor of an overall cap on government outlays in the past, my leftist friends always said this would produce catastrophic consequences. They had lots of rhetoric about “unmet needs” and “human costs,” so let’s contemplate societal outcomes since 2009:

Did children starve? Nope.

Did widows die in the snow? Nope.

Did planes fall from the sky? Nope.

Did poisoned food plague the country? Nope.

Did sick people get turned away from hospitals? Nope.

Did the North Koreans take over the world? Nope.

Gee, it appears that spending restraint doesn’t result in chaos. Not that we should be surprised, based on research on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank.

So we can logically conclude that spending restraint doesn’t lead to societal disarray. Now let’s look at what does happen when government is put on a diet.

I’ve periodically discussed my Golden Rule, which says that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private sector.

And even though we haven’t had impressive growth during the Obama years, there have been modest increases in both nominal GDP as well as inflation-adjusted (real) GDP.

In other words, the Golden Rule has been in effect since 2009. As a result, the burden of government spending, relative to the economy’s productive sector, has been declining.

Here’s another chart that will be very depressing for the President and other statists.

What’s really remarkable is that we’ve seen the biggest drop in the burden of government spending since the end of World War II.

Heck, the fiscal restraint over the past five years has resulted in a bigger drop in the relative size of government in America than what Switzerland achieved over the past ten years thanks to the “debt brake.”

At this point, some readers may be wondering who or what deserves credit for this positive development. I’ll offer a couple of explanations.

The first two points are about why we shouldn’t overstate what’s actually happened.

1. The good news is somewhat exaggerated because we had a huge spike in federal spending in 2009. To use an analogy, it’s easy to lose some weight if you first go on a big eating binge for a couple of years.

2. Some of the fiscal discipline is illusory because certain revenues that flow to the Treasury, such as TARP repayments from banks, actually count as negative spending. I explained this phenomenon when measuring which Presidents have been the biggest spenders.

But there also are some real reasons why we’ve seen genuine spending restraint.

3. The “Tea Party” election of 2010 resulted in a GOP-controlled House that was somewhat sincere about controlling federal outlays.

4. The spending caps adopted as part of the debt limit fight in 2011 have curtailed spending increases as part of the appropriations process.

5. In the biggest fiscal loss President Obama has suffered, we got a sequester that reduced the growth of federal spending.

6. Many states have refused to expand Medicaid, notwithstanding the lure of temporary free money from Uncle Sam.

7. Government shutdown fights may be messy, but they tend to produce a greater amount of fiscal restraint.

And there are surely other reasons to list, including the long-overdue end of seemingly permanent unemployment benefits and falling defense outlays as forces are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that the past five years have been a victory for advocates of limited government.

But now for the bad news. All this progress will be wiped out very quickly if there’s not genuine entitlement reform.

The long-run fiscal forecasts, whether from the Congressional Budget Office or from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD, show that America will become a European-style welfare state over the next couple of decades in the absence of reform.

So let’s enjoy our temporary victory but work even harder to avert a future fiscal crisis.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: