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Archive for January, 2015

Back in 2013, I shared a snarky post comparing murder rates in Chicago and Houston. What made the data amusing is that any sensible person would look at Chicago’s high murder rate and strict gun control and conclude that perhaps, just maybe, such policies don’t work.

But the post speculated that a left-wing social scientist would instead conclude that “cold weather causes murder.”

Today, let’s take a more serious look at the issue.

Here’s a great video, narrated by Bill Whittle, that looks at gun ownership rates and murder rates. As you can see, America is the number one nation for gun ownership, but we’re nowhere near the top in murder rates.

Having had many arguments with leftists, I can tell you that their response to this video will be to point out that America has one of the highest murder rates if you look solely at developed nations.

That’s true, but this is why the most persuasive data in the video comes near the end when Bill looks at murder rates by major metropolitan areas.

He shows that pro-gun control cities have very high murder rates, whereas heavily armed, pro-gun places such as Plano, TX, have murder rates lower than some of the most tranquil places on the planet.

And although Bill doesn’t make the connection, it’s very much worth noting that Switzerland is one of the world’s most heavily armed nations, yet the murder rate is extremely low.

Moreover, there were no murders in the most recent years for which data are available in Monaco and Liechtenstein, yet I’ve been told during visits to both principalities that there is widespread private gun ownership.

Gee, maybe John Lott is right about more guns leading to less crime.

P.S. Since we’re sharing good news on guns, here’s a heartwarming story about civil disobedience. But this isn’t about civil disobedience solely by gun owners, as we’ve seen in Connecticut.

This is a story about civil disobedience sanctioned by a law enforcement officer!

J.D. Tuccille of Reason reports on the principled behavior of a sheriff in New York.

Fulton County Sheriff Thomas J. Lorey is already known as a supporter of the Second Amendment… Despite the Empire State’s fame as a jurisdiction unfriendly to private gun ownership—or, really, any activity beyond the reach of government officials—Lorey isn’t alone in his views. The New York State Sheriffs Association and individual sheriffs are already on record opposing tightened gun laws and suing the governor to block their enforcement. But Lorey goes a step further, and urges his constituents to defy the state’s handgun permit law. …”I’m asking everyone that gets those invitations to throw them in the garbage because that is where they belong,” says Lorey in the video below. “They go in the garbage because, for 100 years or more, ever since the inception of pistol permits, nobody has ever been required to renew them.”

Makes me proud to be an American when I read things like this.

Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see law enforcement officers express skepticism about gun control. A poll of cops found that they overwhelmingly reject the left’s anti-gun ideology.

And let’s not forget about the poll showing an overwhelming majority of regular citizens would engage in civil disobedience if the government tried to confiscate guns.

P.P.S. Since it’s Super Bowl weekend, here’s a depressing reminder of the NFL’s anti-gun bias.

P.P.P.S. If you like pro-Second Amendment videos, here’s a great collection.

And if you want gun control videos that are both funny and on the right side, here’s my collection.

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I’ve periodically cited the great 19th-century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, for his very wise words about the importance of looking at both the seen and the unseen when analyzing public policy.

Those that fail to consider secondary or indirect effects of government, such as Paul Krugman, are guilty of the “broken window” fallacy.

There are several examples we can cite.

A sloppy person, for instance, will think a higher minimum wage is good because workers will have more income. But a thoughtful analyst will think of the unintended consequence of lost jobs for low-skilled workers.

An unthinking person will conclude that government spending is good for growth because the recipients of redistribution have money to spend. But a wiser analyst will understand that such outlays divert money from the economy’s productive sector.

A careless person will applaud when government “creates” jobs. Sober-minded analysts, though, will wonder about the private jobs destroyed by such policies.

It’s time, though, to give some attention to another important contribution from Bastiat.

He also deserves credit for the pithy and accurate observation about government basically being a racket or a scam.

And what’s really amazing is that he reached that conclusion in the mid-1800s when the burden of government spending – even in France – was only about 10 percent of economic output. So Bastiat was largely limited to examples of corrupt regulatory arrangements and protectionist trade policy.

One can only imagine what he would think if he could see today’s bloated welfare states and the various ingenious ways politicians and interest groups have concocted to line their pockets with other people’s money!

Which brings us to today’s topic. We’re going to look at venal, corrupt, wasteful, incompetent, and bullying government at the federal, state, and local level in America.

We’ll start with the clowns in Washington, DC.

Remember when the unveiling of the Obamacare turned into a cluster-you-know-what of historic proportions?

Well, the Daily Caller reports that the IRS has just signed an Obamacare-related contract with an insider company that recently became famous for completely botching its previous Obamacare-related contract.

Seven months after federal officials fired CGI Federal for its botched work on Obamacare website Healthcare.gov, the IRS awarded the same company a $4.5 million IT contract for its new Obamacare tax program. …IRS officials signed a new contract with CGI to provide “critical functions” and “management support” for its Obamacare tax program, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, a federal government procurement database. The IRS contract is worth $4.46 million, according to the FPDS data.

Just one more piece of evidence that Washington is a town where failure gets rewarded.

And CGI is an expert on failure.

A joint Senate Finance and Judiciary Committee staff report in June 2014 found that Turning Point Global Solutions, hired by HHS to review CGI’s performance on Healthcare.gov, reported they found 21,000 lines of defective software code inserted by CGI. Scott Amey, the general counsel for the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, which reviews government contracting, examined the IRS contract with CGI. “CGI was the poster child for government failure,” he told The Daily Caller. “I am shocked that the IRS has turned around and is using them for Obamacare IT work.” Washington was not the only city that has been fed up with CGI on healthcare. Last year, CGI was fired by the liberal states of Vermont and Massachusetts for failing to deliver on their Obamacare websites. The Obamacare health website in Massachusetts never worked, despite the state paying $170 million to CGI.

For a company like this to stay in business, you have to wonder how many bribes, pay-offs, and campaign contributions are involved.

Now let’s look at an example of state government in action.

Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a column about a blatantly corrupt deal between slip-and-fall lawyers and the second most powerful Democrat in the Empire State.

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was last week arrested and accused by the feds of an elaborate kickback scheme. …Mr. Silver is alleged to have pocketed more than $5 million in a set-up in which he directed state funds to the clinic of an asbestos doctor, who in turn provided him with patients who could be turned into jackpot plaintiffs. Weitz & Luxenberg, a class-action titan, paid Mr. Silver huge referral fees for these names, off which the firm stands to make many millions. …when the Silver headlines broke, Weitz & Luxenberg founder Perry Weitz said he was “shocked”… The firm quickly put the Albany politician on “leave.”

A logical person might ask “on leave” from what? After all, he didn’t do anything.

But he did do something, even if it was corrupt and sleazy.

…here’s the revealing bit. Queried by prosecutors as to what exactly the firm did hire Mr. Silver to do—since he performed no legal work—Weitz & Luxenberg admitted that he was brought on “because of his official position and stature.” In other words, this was transactional. Weitz & Luxenberg gave Mr. Silver a plum job, and Mr. Silver looked out for the firm—namely by blocking any Albany bills that might interfere with its business model.

So workers, consumers, and businesses get screwed by a malfunctioning tort system, while insider lawyers and politicians get rich. Isn’t government wonderful!

Just one example among many of how state governments are a scam. Perhaps now folks will understand why I’m not very sympathetic to the notion of letting them take more of our money.

Last but not least, let’s look at a great moment in local government.

As we see from a report in USA Today, a village in New Jersey is dealing with the scourge of…gasp…unlicensed snow removal!

Matt Molinari and Eric Schnepf, both 18, also learned a valuable lesson about one of the costs of doing business: government regulations. The two friends were canvasing a neighborhood near this borough’s border with Bridgewater early Monday evening, handing out fliers promoting their service, when they were pulled over by police and told to stop. …Bound Brook, like many municipalities in the state and country, has a law against unlicensed solicitors and peddlers. … anyone selling goods and services door to door must apply for a license that can cost as much as $450 for permission that is valid for only 180 days. …Similar bans around the country have put the kibosh on other capitalist rites of passage, such as lemonade stands and selling Girl Scouts cookies.

Though, to be fair, it doesn’t seem like the cops were being complete jerks.

Despite the rule, however, Police Chief Michael Jannone said the two young businessmen were not arrested or issued a ticket, and that the police’s concern was about them being outside during dangerous conditions, not that they were unlicensed. “We don’t make the laws but we have to uphold them,” he said Tuesday after reading some of the online comments about the incident. “This was a state of emergency. Nobody was supposed to be out on the road.”

But the bottom line is that it says something bad about our society that we have rules that hinder teenagers from hustling for some money after a snowstorm.

Just like these other examples of local government in action also don’t reflect well on our nation.

Let’s close with my attempt to re-state Bastiat’s wise words. Here’s my “First Theorem of Government.”

And if you think what I wrote, or what Bastiat wrote, is too cynical, then I invite you to check out how politicians are bureaucrats are squandering money on Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the Agriculture Department, Medicaid, the Patent and Trademark Office, the so-called Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Institutes of Health, Food Stamps, , the Government Services Administration, unemployment insurance, the Pentagon

Well, you get the idea.

Which is why this poster is a painfully accurate summary of government.

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The Obama Administration has already announced a bunch of tax increases that will be part of the President’s soon-to-be-released budget.

But, in a remarkable development, the White House has preemptively thrown in the towel and said that it will no longer pursue a proposed tax hike on 529 plans (IRA-type vehicles that allow parents to save for college education without being double taxed).

It’s obviously good news any time a tax hike is very unpopular, but this victory over Obama’s 529 plan has enormous implications.

Simply stated, it underscores a point I’ve been making for a long time about why opposing all tax hikes – particularly levies on the middle class – is critical if we want to have any chance of reforming and restraining the welfare state.

The Washington Examiner explores this development.

Obama’s abandonment of this relatively minor middle class tax-hike proposal suggests that liberals lack the spine to pursue their own long-term vision for America. …They have supported tax hikes on the wealthy to make deficits a bit smaller, but there are not enough wealthy people in America to fill the gap, nor can they be taxed at a high enough rate to pay for all the entitlement and social spending the Democrats want. Thus, Obama Democrats need large middle class tax hikes to sustain their vision for America’s future. Nothing else will work. And so if Obama is too scared to touch the favorite deductions of the middle class — whether it be the mortgage interest deduction or the 529 plan — then he is too scared to make his own long-term worldview a reality.

In other words, so long as we don’t give Washington any new sources of revenue, the left won’t be able to turn the United States into a European-style welfare state.

Peter Suderman of Reason has a similar assessment. Indeed, the title of his article is “How Obama’s 529 College Tax Plan Debacle Proves the Welfare State is Doomed.”

Here are some relevant passages.

…this is the sort of plan than inevitably follows from the long-term fiscal logic of the welfare state. …the existing welfare state is unaffordable. Either it will have to be cut, or reformed, or paid for—by someone, somehow. The administration and its allies would like to reassure you that the someones who will pay for all of this will be limited to the richest of the rich, but in practice there’s only so much money that can be squeezed out of the extremely wealthy. Which means that eventually, anyone looking for ways to keep the welfare state afloat will have to go after the middle class.

Writing for The Federalist, Robert Tracinski echoes these sentiments.

…this is a desperate move by those who need to finance ever bigger government and are simply going where the money is: the vast American middle class. …There have already been trial balloons about raiding 401(k)s and IRAs. The truly committed leftist looks upon our private savings as a vast reserve of capital unfairly withheld from its proper function of servicing the needs of the state.

By the way, just in case you think Tracinski is exaggerating, just look at how governments in nations such as Poland and Argentina have seized private pension assets.

Returning to the topic at hand, here’s some of what Megan McArdle wrote for Bloomberg.

…the administration has started scraping the bottom of the barrel when seeking out money to fund new programs. …We are simply running out of room to pay for generous new programs with higher taxes on the small handful of people who make many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, politically or otherwise, to further raise their tax rates. I’m just saying that there’s not all that much money there left to get. …politicians will need to reach further down the income ladder in order to fund new spending — indeed, to fund the spending we’ve already done, in the form of entitlement promises. Where will they go for that money? Once you’ve hit your fiscal capacity to tax the rich,  a few big sources of tax revenue are left: 1) A value-added tax.  …2) Raising income taxes on the middle class. …3) Tax the savings of the middle class.

Last but not least, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review reiterated his view that the welfare state desperately needs tax money from the middle class.

…everyone who has looked at the budget projections for the next few decades understands that, absent a sudden reduction in Americans’ life expectancy or other shocking development, middle-class -benefits are going to have to be cut, middle-class taxes are going to have to be raised, or both. The war between liberals and conservatives over the future of the welfare state is largely a matter of how much of each will be done. …government cannot realistically make up much of its long-term financing gap by raising taxes on the rich. A tax-heavy solution to that gap will eventually have to rely on much higher taxes on the middle class. That’s how they finance large welfare states in other developed countries. European social democracies don’t generally have much higher taxes on corporations or high earners than the United States. The chief difference between their tax policies and ours is that they levy value-added taxes that hit consumption.

Having cited several astute writers, let’s now draw the appropriate conclusion.

Without question, the moral of the story is that anybody who genuinely and seriously favors limited government should be unalterably opposed to any and all tax hikes.

And if you don’t believe all the folks cited above, perhaps because most of them lean to the right, then maybe you’ll be convinced by the fact that many leftists agree that you can’t finance big government without big tax hikes, particularly on the middle class.

The one big difference is that they want those tax hikes because of their support for bigger government.

Which should be added evidence about the importance of resisting all tax increase. Heck, the no-tax-hike pledge is an IQ test for Republicans.  Those that fail – such as Jeb Bush – should not be promoted to positions where they can cause damage.

Here’s what I wrote about this issue earlier this month. I was commenting on proposals for a new energy tax, but my analysis applies to any scheme for more revenue.

…the left understands very well that their spending agenda requires more revenue. That’s why Obama is relentless in urging more revenue. It’s why the leftists at the Paris-based OECD endlessly urge higher taxes in America (even to the point of arguing that tax-financed redistribution is somehow good for growth). And it’s why the DC establishment is so enamored with “bipartisan” tax-hiking budget deals, which inevitably lead to bigger government and more debt. Honoring the no-tax-hike pledge isn’t a sufficient condition to rein in big government, but it sure is a necessary condition. Amazingly, top Democrats even admit that their top political goal is to seduce Republicans into supporting higher taxes.

Let’s close with some thought experiments.

American needs genuine entitlement reform. But how likely is it that we’ll see the right kind of changes to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid if politicians instead manage to impose a value-added tax? What incentive would they have to do the right thing if they instead have the option of constantly increasing the VAT rate, as we’ve seen in Europe?

Or what are the odds of good Social Security reform if politicians enact some sort of energy tax. Why improve America’s retirement system, after all, if they have a new source of revenue and they have the option of continuously tweaking the rate upwards to prop up the current system?

What are the chances of getting a good spending cap, something akin to the Swiss debt brake, if politicians succeed in getting some sort of financial transactions tax? Why deal with the problem of excessive government if there’s a new revenue source that can be periodically increased.

The left certainly understand that new revenue is necessary for their agenda. But does the right grasp the obvious implications?

This post already is very long, so I’m going to stop here. But those who are interested in more information should check out the postscripts below.

P.S. Some folks argue that Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike is “evidence” that higher taxes can lead to deficit reduction rather than higher spending, but Clinton’s own Office of Management and Budget produced data in early 1995 showing that assertion is false.

P.P.S. In my lifetime, there’s been a Democratic President with sensible views on tax policy.

P.P.P.S. It’s theoretically possible to put together a good fiscal deal involving more revenue, but only in the sense that it’s theoretically possible that I’ll be offered a $5-million contract to play for the Yankees next year.

P.P.P.P.S. The only exception to my no-tax-hike views is that I’m willing to allow higher taxes that are targeted solely on people who endorse higher taxes.

P.P.P.P.P.S. It’s nice to see that lots of people now agree with my starve-the-beast hypothesis. Even if some of them (including Republicans!) learn the wrong lesson and endorse higher taxes for the explicit purpose of financing bigger government.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Cartoonists have a good understanding of the tax-hike issue.

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There’s a lot of navel-gazing analysis in Washington about whether to expect some sort of bipartisanship over the next two years.

I find such discussions very irritating because they assume that you automatically get good results when Republicans and Democrats both agree on a policy. My reaction, to put it mildly, is “these people are f@*&#^@g crazy!!!”

Was it progress when Republicans and Democrats conspired to bail out their contributors on Wall Street with TARP?

Was it progress when Republicans and Democrats joined hands to impose Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind education scheme?

Was it progress when the first President Bush broke his read-my-lips promise and sided with Democrats to boost taxes and spending in 1990?

So you can see why I instinctively like gridlock. Simply stated, it’s better to do nothing if the alternative is to have more bad laws that expand the burden of government.

But perhaps I’m being too cynical. After all, sometimes bipartisanship accidentally produces good policies. Like when we got the Budget Control Act as part of the 2011 debt limit fight, which then led to the sequester.

Though I’m not holding my breath expecting similar good results over the next two years.

Why? Because as I said in my first comments during last week’s John Stossel show, the President is simply too far to the left to expect any progress.

I do acknowledge in the interview that you have to give Obama credit for ideological consistency, but his agenda of bigger government and more dependency doesn’t lead me to think we’ll get any good policy in the near future.

Here are a few additional points from the interview that are worth highlighting.

*This is still a weak recovery, perhaps most compelling illustrated by comparing what happened under Reagan with what’s been happening under Obama.

*But things have improved in the past couple of years, in part because there’s been progress in restraining the burden of government spending.

*Ironically, the President bragged that America’s been creating more jobs than Europe even though he wants to copy European policies.

*It’s also galling that the President says he wants to make America more competitive even though he’s pushing class-warfare taxation.

*Republicans also deserve criticism since some of them are advocating for higher gas taxes rather than the federalist approach of decentralization.

*On tax reform, if you give politicians a new tax, it’s very likely they will use the money to finance bigger government instead of abolishing an existing tax.

*My final comment from the interview brings us back to the central point of today’s post. Simply stated, bipartisanship isn’t good if it means more government.

P.S. I goofed last week when I wrote that median household income fell every year under Obama, and I repeated that mistake in the Stossel interview, which took place before I discovered that there was a very small increase in 2013. Well, I also made another mistake in the interview. I said that Kate Upton was the daughter of Congressman Fred Upton. That’s wrong. She’s actually his niece. Alas, yet another sign that I’m clueless about popular culture. I guess that means Kate won’t date me after the PotL finds another boyfriend.

P.P.S. Since we’re still debating over the issues Obama raised in his speech, I may as well call attention once again to my contribution to the U.S. News and World Report online debate on whether the State of the Union is strong. I’m doing okay in the overall reader rankings, but (as I write these words) I do have the third-highest number of “down” votes, so I gather that some of our leftist friends must not like what I wrote. So feel free to go to the article and click on the “up” arrow if you want to help me out.

P.P.P.S. Shifting to a less narcissistic topic, I wrote in 2013 that the Ohio Governor should be known as John “Barack” Kasich because he chose to expand Obamacare in his state. Now, as explained by Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner, we have Mike “Barack” Pence from Indiana.

…on Tuesday, he betrayed taxpayers when he embraced an expansion of Medicaid through President Obama’s healthcare law. …Pence buckled under pressure from hospital lobbyists who are eager to receive more federal money… Myopic Republican governors think they can fool conservatives by gaining token concessions on what remains a government-run healthcare program and calling it “free market reform.” But the Obama administration is playing the long game, realizing that if it keeps adding beneficiaries to the books, big government liberalism wins.

How disappointing. Yes, GOP governors are getting pressured by in-state lobbyists because of the lure of “free” federal money, but that’s no excuse for adopting a policy that will hurt federal taxpayers in the short run and state taxpayers in the long run.

This is yet another reason why we need to replace the federal Medicaid entitlement with a block grant.

P.P.P.P.S. I don’t want to close on a dour note, so let’s shift to sequestration, which was one of the topics in the Stossel interview. That was not only an unambiguous victory over big government, but it also resulted in some great political humor. You can see some of my favorite cartoons on the topic by clicking herehere, here, here, here, and here.

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As a taxpayer, I don’t like the fact that government employees get paid more than folks in the private sector.

But the big difference between bureaucrats and regular workers isn’t so much the pay, it’s the fringe benefits.

And perhaps the  biggest difference of all is that government bureaucrats get far more  lavish retiree benefits.

Sounds like a sweet deal, at least if you get a coveted job (or even six jobs!) with a state or local government.

It’s not a good deal for taxpayers, though, and the entire system is rather unstable because politicians and union bosses have conspired to create huge unfunded liabilities that threaten to create a death spiral for state and local governments.

Simply stated, why should productive taxpayers continue to live, work, and pay taxes in places where a huge chunk of money is diverted to pay off past promises rather than to deliver goods and services (education, parks, trash pickup, police, etc) that have some value?

Indeed, this is a big reason why places such as Detroit already have collapsed. And I fear it is just a matter of time before other local government (as well as some states such as California and Illinois) reach the tipping point.

But perhaps you think I’m being too dour? Yes, I’m prone to pessimism because of my low level of faith in the political elite. In this case, however, any sensible person should be very worried.

Let’s look at what some experts have to say about these issues.

Here are some passages from Steve Malanga’s Wall Street Journal column from earlier this month.

He starts by explaining that Jerry Brown’s big tax hike for education actually has very little to do with helping kids to learn (not that more money is the recipe for better education, as shown by this jaw-dropping chart, but that’s a separate issue).

Instead, the money is being diverted to finance the lavish pension system.

California Gov. Jerry Brown sold a $6 billion tax increase to voters in 2012 by promising that nearly half of the money would go to bolster public schools. …Last June Mr. Brown signed legislation that will require school districts to increase funding for teachers’ pensions from less than $1 billion this year in school year 2014-15, which started in September, to $3.7 billion by 2021, gobbling up much of the new tax money. With the state’s general government pension fund, Calpers, also demanding more money, California taxpayer advocate Joel Fox recently observed that no matter what local politicians tell voters, when you see tax increases, “think pensions.” …When California passed its 2012 tax increases, Gov. Brown and legislators promised voters the new rates would expire in 2018. But school pension costs will keep increasing… Public union leaders and sympathetic legislators are already trying to figure out how to convince voters to extend the 2012 tax increases and approve “who knows what else” in new levies

Sounds grim, but Mr. Malanga warns that “Californians are not alone.”

Decades of rising retirement benefits for workers—some of which politicians awarded to employees without setting aside adequate funding—and the 2008 financial meltdown have left American cities and states with somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $4 trillion in retirement debt. …the tab keeps growing, and now it is forcing taxes higher in many places.

Such as Pennsylvania.

A report last June by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators found that nearly every school district in that state anticipated higher pension costs for the new fiscal year, with three-quarters calculating their pension bills would rise by 25% or more. Subsequently, 164 school districts received state permission to raise property taxes above the 2.1% state tax cap. Every one of the districts cited rising pension costs.

And West Virginia.

In West Virginia, where local governments also face big pension debts, the legislature recently expanded the state’s home rule law—which governs how municipalities can raise revenues—to allow cities to impose their own sales taxes. The state’s biggest city, Charleston, with $287 million in unfunded pension liabilities, has already instituted a $6 million-a-year local sales tax devoted solely to pensions, on top of the $10 million the city already contributes annually to its retirement system. At least five more cities applying to raise local sales taxes, including Wheeling, also cited pension costs.

The column also has lots of material on the mess in Illinois.

Here’s just a sampling.

The city of Peoria’s budget illustrates the squeeze. In the early 1990s it spent 18% of the property-tax money it collected on pensions. This year it will devote 57% of its property tax to pension costs. Reluctant to raise the property levy any more, last year the city increased fees and charges to residents by 8%, or $1.2 million, for such items as garbage collection and sewer services. Taxpayers in Chicago saw the first of what promises to be a blizzard of new taxes. The city’s public-safety retirement plans are only about 35% funded, though pension costs already consume nearly half of Chicago’s property-tax collections.

All this sounds depressing, but it’s actually worse than you think.

We also have to look at the promises that have been made to provide health benefits for retired government employees.

Robert Pozen of Brookings has some very sobering data.

Public-pension funds have garnered attention in recent years for being underfunded, but a more precarious situation has received much less notice: health-care obligations for public retirees. …only 11 states have funded more than 10% of retiree health-care liabilities, according to a November 2013 report from the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s. For example, New Jersey has almost no assets backing one of the largest retiree health-care liabilities of any state—$63.8 billion. Only eight out of the 30 largest U.S. cities have funded more than 5% of their retiree health-care obligations, according to a study released last March by the Pew Charitable Trust. New York City tops the list with $22,857 of unfunded liabilities per household. …Total U.S. unfunded health-care liabilities exceeded $530 billion in 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated, but the current number may be closer to $1 trillion, according to a 2014 comprehensive study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By the way, these retired government workers are covered by Medicare, but Pozen explains that the unfunded liabilities exist because so many of them retire before age 65.

And their health plans sometimes cover Medicare premiums once they turn 65.

State and local governments typically pay most of the insurance premiums for employees who retire before they are eligible for Medicare at age 65. That can be a long commitment, as many workers retire as early as 50. Many governments also pay a percentage of Medicare premiums once retired workers turn 65.

But there is some good news.

States are trying to deal with this healthcare-driven fiscal Sword of Damocles.

Since 2010 more than 15 states have passed laws to reduce health-care cost-of-living adjustments—automatic benefit increases linked to the consumer-price index. Courts in eight states upheld these reductions on grounds that cost-of-living adjustments should not be considered a contractual right. Only Washington’s law was struck down in 2011, and the case is now on appeal. Some state and local governments—Nevada and West Virginia, for example—have increased deductibles and scaled back premium subsidies. Others like Ohio and Maine have reduced the health-care benefits provided to retirees. Several years ago Pennsylvania changed early retirement eligibility to 20 years of service from 15.

In many cases, though, I fear these reforms are a case of too little, too late.

So long as the fiscal burden of providing pensions and healthcare expands at a faster rate than the private economy, states and localities will push for more and more taxes to prop up the system.

But people won’t want to live in places where a big chunk of their tax payments are diverted to fringe benefits. So they’ll move out of cities like Detroit and Chicago, and they’ll move out of states like New Jersey and Illinois.

So the bottom line is that politicians and government employee unions engineered a great scam, but one that ultimately in many cases will self destruct.

And the lesson for the rest of us is that government bureaucrats should not get special goodies, particularly when they are financed by nothing other than promises to screw future taxpayers.

Pensions for government workers should be based on the defined-contribution model, and healthcare promises should be more limited and in the form of health savings accounts.

But how do you get these much-needed reforms when the government unions finance the politicians who are on the opposite side of the negotiating table?!?

P.S. Here’s a good joke about government bureaucracy. Here’s a similar joke in picture form. And we find the same humor in this joke, but with a bit more build up. And now that I’ve given it some thought, there’s more bureaucrat humor here, here (image near bottom), and here.

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Just like the swallows return each year to Capistrano, I eagerly await the Congressional Budget Office’s release of its annual Economic and Budget Outlook.

But not just because I’m a fiscal wonk. I also like perusing this publication to find CBO’s “baseline” forecast for government revenue over the next 10 years.

And once I have that data, it’s then a simple matter to figure out the degree of spending restraint that will reduce red ink and balance the budget.*

Let’s conduct that exercise.

We’ll start by going to page 2 of the report, which reveals that federal tax revenue (assuming there are no changes in law) will grow from $3,189 billion this year to $5,029 billion in 2025. Over that ten-year period, revenues will grow each year by an average of 4.67 percent.

So, at the risk of stating the obvious, this means that red ink will increase if yearly spending increases by more than 4.67 percent, but it also means that the deficit will fall if the burden of federal spending grows by less than 4.67 percent each year.

Indeed, we can easily calculate how easy it is to achieve fiscal balance. Simply take CBO’s estimate of federal spending for the 2015 fiscal year, $3,656, and then look at what happens based on various assumptions for future spending growth.

A spending freeze means the budget balances in 2018.

If federal spending increases by 1 percent each year, we balance the budget in 2019.

If federal spending climbs by 2 percent each year, we balance the budget in 2020.

And if federal spending jumps by 3 percent each year, we balance the budget in 2024.

Here’s a chart showing these options.

Balanced budget CBO Jan 2015

Now let’s explore three implications of this data.

First, there is no need to cut spending. It would be good to impose genuine spending cuts, to be sure, but progress is possible so long as spending grows slower than revenue. And the real goal should be to make sure that spending grows slower than the private sector.

Second, there is no need to raise taxes. A lot of beltway types would like voters to believe that our fiscal problems are so huge that tax increases are both necessary and desirable. That’s obviously wrong. Indeed, tax hikes almost surely enable more spending rather than deficit reduction.

Third, when Washington insiders assert that tax increases are needed to preclude “savage” and “draconian” spending cuts, they’re using the dishonest DC definition of a “cut,” which is when spending doesn’t rise as fast as previously forecast.

 At this point, you may be wondering, “Gee, if it’s so simple, why don’t we already have a balanced budget?”

The main problem is that politicians generally don’t like spending restraint. Between 2000 and 2009, for instance, they let spending grow nearly four times faster than revenue.

That being said, we’ve actually made progress over the past five years thanks to a nominal spending freeze.** And as outlined above, we can make more progress in the near future with a few more years of modest spending restraint.

The real key is whether we can maintain fiscal discipline. In the long run, there’s very little hope of spending restraint unless there’s genuine entitlement reform.

And getting that type of reform probably won’t be possible if politicians think they can just raise taxes instead. Particularly a value-added tax, which the European evidence shows is a money machine for bigger government.

Probably the best way of getting good policy would be some sort of long-run spending control process, akin to the Swiss Debt Brake. If politicians know they can only increase spending by, say, two percent each year, that will encourage them to finally prioritize the budget and make some long-overdue reforms.

*As I have written, over and over again, restraining the size and scope of the federal government should be the main goal of fiscal policy. Deficits and debt are undesirable, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms of the real problem, which is too much spending.

** The good news is that spending grew very slowly beginning in 2010. The bad news is that spending rose so fast last decade (particularly in 2009) that the burden of federal spending is still much larger than it was when Bill Clinton left office.

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Ronald Reagan.

He’s definitely the greatest president of my lifetime and, with one possible rival, he was the greatest President of the 20th century.

If his only accomplishment was ending malaise and restoring American prosperity thanks to lower tax rates and other pro-market reforms, he would be a great President.

He also restored America’s national defenses and reoriented foreign policy, both of which led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, a stupendous achievement that makes Reagan worthy of Mount Rushmore.

But he also has another great achievement, one that doesn’t receive nearly the level of appreciation that it deserves. President Reagan demolished the economic cancer of inflation.

Even Paul Krugman has acknowledged that reining in double-digit inflation was a major positive achievement. Because of his anti-Reagan bias, though, he wants to deny the Gipper any credit.

Robert Samuelson, in a column for the Washington Post, corrects the historical record.

Krugman recently wrote a column arguing that the decline of double-digit inflation in the 1980s was the decade’s big economic event, not the cuts in tax rates usually touted by conservatives. Actually, I agree with Krugman on this. But then he asserted that Ronald Reagan had almost nothing to do with it. That’s historically incorrect. Reagan was crucial. …Krugman’s error is so glaring.

Samuelson first provides the historical context.

For those too young to remember, here’s background. From 1960 to 1980, inflation — the general rise of retail prices — marched relentlessly upward. It went from 1.4 percent in 1960 to 5.9 percent in 1969 to 13.3 percent in 1979. The higher it rose, the more unpopular it became. …Worse, government seemed powerless to defeat it. Presidents deployed complex wage and price controls and guidelines. They didn’t work. The Federal Reserve — custodian of credit policies — veered between easy money and tight money, striving both to subdue inflation and to maintain “full employment” (taken as a 4 percent to 5 percent unemployment rate). It achieved neither. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, there were four recessions. Inflation became a monster, destabilizing the economy.

The column then explains that there was a dramatic turnaround in the early 1980s, as Fed Chairman Paul Volcker adopted a tight-money policy and inflation was squeezed out of the system much faster than almost anybody thought was possible.

But Krugman wants his readers to think that Reagan played no role in this dramatic and positive development.

Samuelson says this is nonsense. Vanquishing inflation would have been impossible without Reagan’s involvement.

What Reagan provided was political protection. The Fed’s previous failures to stifle inflation reflected its unwillingness to maintain tight-money policies long enough… Successive presidents preferred a different approach: the wage-price policies built on the pleasing (but unrealistic) premise that these could quell inflation without jeopardizing full employment. Reagan rejected this futile path. As the gruesome social costs of Volcker’s policies mounted — the monthly unemployment rate would ultimately rise to a post-World War II high of 10.8 percent — Reagan’s approval ratings plunged. In May 1981, they were at 68 percent; by January 1983, 35 percent. Still, he supported the Fed. …It’s doubtful that any other plausible presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, would have been so forbearing.

What’s the bottom line?

What Volcker and Reagan accomplished was an economic and political triumph. Economically, ending double-digit inflation set the stage for a quarter-century of near-automatic expansion… Politically, Reagan and Volcker showed that leaders can take actions that, though initially painful and unpopular, served the country’s long-term interests. …There was no explicit bargain between them. They had what I’ve called a “compact of conviction.”

By the way, Krugman then put forth a rather lame response to Samuelson, including the rather amazing claim that “[t]he 1980s were a triumph of Keynesian economics.”

Here’s what Samuelson wrote in a follow-up column debunking Krugman.

As preached and practiced since the 1960s, Keynesian economics promised to stabilize the economy at levels of low inflation and high employment. By the early 1980s, this vision was in tatters, and many economists were fatalistic about controlling high inflation. Maybe it could be contained. It couldn’t be eliminated, because the social costs (high unemployment, lost output) would be too great. …This was a clever rationale for tolerating high inflation, and the Volcker-Reagan monetary onslaught demolished it. High inflation was not an intrinsic condition of wealthy democracies. It was the product of bad economic policies. This was the 1980s’ true lesson, not the contrived triumph of Keynesianism.

If anything, Samuelson is being too kind.

One of the key tenets of Keynesian economics is that there’s a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment (the so-called Phillips Curve).

Yet in the 1970s we had rising inflation and rising unemployment.

While in the 1980s, we had falling inflation and falling unemployment.

But if you’re Paul Krugman and you already have a very long list of mistakes (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a few examples), then why not go for the gold and try to give Keynes credit for the supply-side boom of the 1980s

P.S. Since today’s topic is Reagan, it’s a good opportunity to share my favorite poll of the past five years.

P.P.S. Here are some great videos of Reagan in action. And here’s one more if you need another Reagan fix.

P.P.P.S. And let’s close with some mildly risqué Reagan humor that was sent to me by a former member of Congress.

Reagan Clinton Joke

If you want more Reagan humor, click here, here, and here.

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