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Archive for April, 2015

Economists generally like competition because it promotes economic efficiency, more prosperity, lower prices, and higher wages.

But some types of competition can be misguided.

For instance, Americans used to dominate membership in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

Now, however, government employees in other nations have risen to the challenge and shown they can be just as spectacularly unproductive and wasteful as their American counterparts.

Maybe even more so.

Consider the doctor for Italy’s government-run healthcare system who only worked 15 days over a nine-year period.

Even more impressive, how about the bureaucrat in India who managed to go 24 years without showing up for work.

Now we have another foreign honoree.

Here are some blurbs from a BBC report about one French bureaucrat who went above and beyond the call of duty.

A top French civil servant has been forced to resign after spending more than €40,000 (£29,000; $44,000) on taxis in 10 months. Agnes Saal stepped down as head of France’s TV and radio archives at the demand of the culture minister. She had previously argued she needed to travel by taxi, despite having a chauffeur as well as a private car. But she admitted her son was responsible for €6,700 of the bill… She said giving him her reservation number was a “silly mistake”.

Yes, there was a “silly mistake,” but that mistake took place when France decided to create a Ministry of Culture.

Then another “silly mistake” was creating a sub-bureaucracy to be in charge of archives.

And then an additional “silly mistake” was to give the head bureaucrat of that useless division a credit card.

And perhaps the biggest “silly mistake” was to assign a chauffeur to a person holding a job that shouldn’t even exist.

All that being said, Ms. Saal deserves to be in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame because it takes a special sense of entitlement to have a chauffeur yet still run up a $44,000 taxi bill in just 10 months.

That’s nearly $145 per day she foisted on overburdened French taxpayers, which doesn’t even count the cost of the car and chauffeur!

And I suppose we should give an “honorable mention” award to Ms. Saal’s predecessor. In his new position, he has also demonstrated an unwavering commitment to waste, fraud, and abuse.

She replaced Mathieu Gallet, who is now head of French public radio and is himself at the centre of a scandal after reportedly spending €100,000 on renovating his office and hiring a €90,000 PR consultant, just as he was preparing a cost-cutting plan.

Oh, and will anybody be surprised to learn that the over-paid bureaucrats at France’s taxpayer-subsidized radio network just finished a record-long strike?

Employees at Radio France ended their longest ever strike earlier this month, after walking out for 28 days.

Sigh. I can’t wait for the day when France will be forced to reconsider whether state-run and state-financed media networks are a proper function of government (like has already happened in Greece).

P.S. On another topic, I wrote a few days ago about the types of policies that lead to more “SuperEntrepreneurs” in a nation.

Well, the World Economic Forum has published related research about the impact of taxes on “superstar inventors.”

They start by looking at some of the research about taxation and labor mobility.

There is currently heated public debate about whether higher top tax rates will cause an exodus of valuable, high income and highly skilled economic agents. …Kleven et al. (2014) study a Danish tax reform that temporarily reduced top tax rates on high income foreigners and they find very strong effects on the inflow of migrants. In another recent paper Kleven, Landais, and Saez (2013) show that highly paid football players react to top tax rates when choosing in which country to work. …A group of highly valuable economic agents that policymakers perhaps might worry about is inventors, the creators of innovations and potential drivers of technological progress. Inventors may well be important factors for a country’s development and competitiveness – highly skilled migration has been shown to be both beneficial for a receiving country’s economy and to disproportionately contribute to innovation (Kerr 2013).

Then they focus specifically on highly productive inventors and how they migrate to places where the tax burden is less onerous.

…the average top 1% inventor has hundreds of times more citations. Among top inventors, some are highly successful migrants. In general, higher quality inventors are more mobile than lower quality inventors. …In recent research (Akcigit, Baslandze, and Stantcheva 2015) we study the international migration responses of superstar inventors to top income tax rates for the period 1977-2003 using data from the European and US Patent offices, as well as from the Patent Cooperation Treaty (Miguelez and Fink 2013). …From outside survey evidence, we know that superstar inventors are highly likely to be in the top tax bracket and, hence, directly subject to top tax rates. …There has is a strong and significant correlation between top tax rates and those inventors who remain in their home countries. The relation is strongest for superstar inventors. Figures 2 and 3 show that superstar inventors are highly sensitive to top tax rates. The elasticities imply that for a ten percentage point reduction of top tax rates from 50% to 40%, a country would be able to retain on average 3.3% more of its top 1% superstar inventors. …our results suggest that, given a ten percentage point decrease in top tax rates, the average country would be able to…attract 38% more foreign superstar inventors.

Here’s the bottom line.

The loss of highly skilled agents such as inventors might entail significant economic costs, not just in terms of tax revenues lost but also in terms of reduced positive spillovers from inventors and, ultimately, less innovation in a country.

In other words, class-warfare tax policy ultimately is very destructive for the jurisdictions that practice the politics of hate and envy.

P.P.S. I wrote a few years ago about legal tank ownership in America.

But there’s a catch. You theoretically have to disarm the gun, which would take away part of the fun.

Well, maybe you can make up for that loss of firepower by owning a flamethrower, which apparently is legal in 48 states.

Not sure I would want one of these, but I bet the answers to my IQ test for criminals and liberals would be even more interesting if homeowners added some their arsenals.

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I wrote back in 2010 that riots in Europe were a harbinger of future unrest in the United States.

Given the chaos in Baltimore, I’m tempted to claim profound wisdom and great foresight.

But I’ll reluctantly confess that my main point five years ago was to warn about the long-run consequences of poorly designed entitlement programs and unfavorable demographics (leading to the outcome illustrated by this set of cartoons).

Simply stated, Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with big government is that “eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

The riots in Baltimore, by contrast, are a short-run phenomenon exacerbated by factors such as a loss of social capital and potential police misconduct.

But we can still learn something by looking at the dysfunctional consequences of big government in Baltimore and other big cities in America.

Here’s some of what’s been written by my colleague, Michael Tanner.

…there are lessons to be learned about the failures of government and how those failures can create a climate of anger and frustration that just awaits a spark to ignite the flames of violence and destruction. …the powder keg was put in place by decades of big-government liberalism, both in the city of Baltimore and in the state of Maryland. …Maryland has one of the most generous welfare systems in the nation. A mother with two children participating in seven common welfare programs — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, housing assistance, Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), energy assistance (LIHEAP), and free commodities — could receive benefits worth more than $35,000. Yet, nearly a quarter of the people in Baltimore still live in poverty. In 1960, Baltimore’s poverty rate was just 10 percent. …while Baltimore’s high welfare benefits haven’t reduced poverty, they may well have exacerbated other social problems. For example, some studies have long shown that high welfare benefits correlate with high out-of-wedlock birth rates. It should not come as a surprise, then, that two-thirds of births in the city are to unmarried mothers, and almost 60 percent of Baltimore households are headed by single parents.

While the politicians subsidize bad things in Maryland, they penalize good things.

…while Baltimore’s high welfare benefits haven’t reduced poverty, they may well have exacerbated other social problems. For example, some studies have long shown that high welfare benefits correlate with high out-of-wedlock birth rates. It should not come as a surprise, then, that two-thirds of births in the city are to unmarried mothers, and almost 60 percent of Baltimore households are headed by single parents. …if that were not bad enough, the city of Baltimore adds one of the highest property taxes among comparable cities…a tax rate more than twice the rate of most of the rest of the state.

Mike has lots of additional information, including revelations about bad education policies, dangerous anti-gun laws, and counterproductive drug prohibition.

But let’s now shift to a Wall Street Journal editorial on the same subject.

…what went up in flames in Baltimore Monday night was not merely a senior center, small businesses and police cars. Burning down was also the blue-city model of urban governance. …let’s not forget who has run Baltimore and Maryland for nearly all of the last 40 years. The men and women in charge have been Democrats, and their governing ideas are “progressive.” This model, with its reliance on government and public unions, has dominated urban America as once-vibrant cities such as Baltimore became shells of their former selves. …the main failures are three: high crime, low economic growth and failing public schools that serve primarily as jobs programs for teachers and administrators rather than places of learning. …of late the progressives have been making a comeback, led by Bill de Blasio in New York and the challenge to sometime reform Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. This week’s nightmare in Baltimore shows where this leads. It’s time for a new urban renewal, this time built on the ideas of private economic development, personal responsibility, “broken windows” policing, and education choice.

One would think that Detroit – and now Baltimore – show the dangers for cities of big government and dependency.

Unfortunately, the election of Mayor de Blasio in New York City suggest many voters are incapable of learning any lessons from the real world.

Last but not least, here’s some of Kevin Williamson’s column for National Review.

American cities are by and large Democratic-party monopolies, monopolies generally dominated by the so-called progressive wing of the party. The results have been catastrophic, and not only in poor black cities such as Baltimore and Detroit. …Would any sentient adult American be shocked to learn that Baltimore has a corrupt and feckless police department enabled by a corrupt and feckless city government? …While the progressives have been running the show in Baltimore, police commissioner Ed Norris was sent to prison on corruption charges (2004), two detectives were sentenced to 454 years in prison for dealing drugs (2005), an officer was dismissed after being videotaped verbally abusing a 14-year-old and then failing to file a report on his use of force against the same teenager (2011), an officer was been fired for sexually abusing a minor (2014), and the city paid a quarter-million-dollar settlement to a man police illegally arrested for the non-crime of recording them at work with his mobile phone. There’s a good deal more.

And who should be blamed for this horrible track record?

No Republican, and certainly no conservative, has left so much as a thumbprint on the public institutions of Baltimore in a generation. Baltimore’s police department is, like Detroit’s economy and Atlanta’s schools, the product of the progressive wing of the Democratic party enabled in no small part by black identity politics. This is entirely a left-wing project, and a Democratic-party project. …Community-organizer — a wretched term — Adam Jackson declared that in Baltimore “the Democrats and the Republicans have both failed.” Really? Which Republicans? Ulysses S. Grant? Unless I’m reading the charts wrong, the Baltimore city council is 100 percent Democratic. …The evidence suggests very strongly that the left-wing, Democratic claques that run a great many American cities…are incompetent, they are corrupt, and they are breathtakingly arrogant. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore — this is what Democrats do.

My one contribution to the wise words in the three articles excerpted above is to point out that the troubles in Baltimore are somewhat similar to riots we’ve seen in Greece and the United Kingdom. There’s no racial or ethnic component to the chaos we’ve seen in most of the European riots, so the analogy is far from exact, but the events are alike in that a big part of the problem is a failure of government and a concomitant erosion of social or cultural capital.

Simply stated, too many people on both sides of the Atlantic now think they are entitled to a life based on freebies from government. This almost surely erodes any sense of self worth and breeds anger and resentment.

Putting the toothpaste of self-reliance back into the societal tube doubtlessly will not be easy. Here’s some of what Jay Nordlinger wrote today.

The young rioters have…been brought up to regard themselves as entitled and victimized, at the same time. In truth, they are among the luckiest people in the whole world: to have been born American. Millions, probably billions, would be happy to trade places with them. The rioters are free to make of life what they will. Their shackles are mental and spiritual. …These young people have been grossly mistaught — misled — by the “grievance industry” (to use shorthand). Just about the worst thing you can do to a child is tell him he’s a victim — when it’s not true. Even when it is true, it may be unwise. It is surely damnable when it’s not true.

While I’m sometimes pessimistic about certain societal trends, one part of the answer is easy.

Stop creating new entitlements (such as Obamacare) that alter the already perverse tradeoff between work and leisure. Then people might feel a greater incentive to get jobs.

And stop imposing punitive taxes, particularly on the investors and entrepreneurs that are willing to put capital at risk to create jobs and wealth for the rest of us.

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Notwithstanding the title of this post, I’m not going to make an ultra-libertarian argument that all taxation is theft (see the P.P.P.S. below if you want my thoughts on that issue).

Instead, today’s topic is about a more specialized version of theft by government, which technically is called civil asset forfeiture but more accurately should be referred to as policing for profit.

It occurs when the government seizes cash or other property even though the victimized citizen has never been convicted – or in many cases even charged – with a crime.

I wish I was joking. But as you can see from these excerpts from a recent report, this is horrifyingly real.

Simply carrying a large amount of cash in a grocery sack in your car is now sufficient grounds for a police officer to seize your money, a US circuit court has ruled. A panel of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals found that all a deputy has to do to seize cash from a person is say it is drug money. The court refused to return the $63,530 that Deputy Dave Wintle seized from a disabled veteran named Mark A. Brewer during a traffic stop in 2011. Brewer was never charged with a crime or even given a traffic ticket. Yet the decorated Air Force veteran lost his savings when a drug-sniffing dog smelled marijuana on it, even though no cannabis was found in Brewer’s car or his home. …Brewer saved the money from disability payments and his Air Force pay — as documents deputies found in the car indicated.

Since much of our currency contains traces of marijuana and cocaine, there was no way to determine if Mr. Brewer had “drug money” simply on the basis of what the dog smelled.

What’s especially disturbing is that a court agreed that there was no evidence of a crime, but the Judge decided to “assume” the money was criminal.

“The record here does not make clear whether the seized currency constitutes property used to facilitate a drug offense or proceeds from a drug offense,” Judge Bobby E. Shepherd wrote in a March 23 opinion upholding the seizure. “For the purposes of analysis, however, we will assume that the currency facilitated a drug offense and is thus subject to [to be seized].” It was taken through a legal mechanism called civil forfeiture.

And to add injury to injury, the court case will apply to several states.

Even more tragic: The ruling will have a wide impact. “This court case will be the ‘law of the circuit’ for Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and North and South Dakota as well, creating even more barriers for Americans to fight back against unjust seizures in court,” Sibilla wrote.

But we do have a sliver of good news.

Meanwhile, New Mexico has become the second state to effectively eliminate the use of civil forfeiture and seizure by law enforcement. …It still will allow the criminal forfeiture of property, although that legal barrier is much higher for the government. …“This is the first time in decades that a state legislature has taken the bold but necessary step to put an end to the perverse financial incentive in civil forfeiture laws,” Scott Bullock, the attorney in charge of the Institute for Justice’s battle against the practice, stated in a press release. “Thankfully, Governor Martinez and the New Mexico legislature recognized that no one should lose their property without being first convicted of a crime.”

Kudos to Governor Martinez and New Mexico lawmakers.

Now we need action in Washington.

P.S. Here are some other cases of “policing for profit” that should distress all decent people.

*Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

*Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family has collected to bail out a relative.

*Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

*Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

*Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

*And you can read several other outrageous examples by clicking here.

All I can say is that our Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their graves. They gave us a marvelous Constitution precisely to protect citizens from government abuse.

Yet now courts routinely allow governments at all levels to run roughshod over our civil liberties.

P.P.S. It surely must say something that the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office now say the law is riddled with abuse and should be repealed.

P.P.P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents on the issue of taxation and theft. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously opined, when seeking to define pornography, that “I know it when I see it.” That’s not exactly a firm legal definition, but I’ve always liked his reasoning. When I look at a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong, with a relatively small and honest government, I think of taxes as an unfortunate but acceptable price to pay. But when I think of nations with bloated public sectors and maliciously destructive tax regimes, then there’s little doubt in my mind that taxation is theft. And that’s true if the government is sinisterly malign, such as Venezuela, or a failing welfare state, such as France.

Especially when tax rates exceed 100 percent!

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A nation’s prosperity is determined by the quantity and quality of labor and capital that are productively utilized.

Which means that it doesn’t make sense to have policies that penalize either saving and investment or working.

Yet that seems to be the favorite hobby of the political class.

And there are real consequences. A new study by a pair of economists, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, has some interesting findings on the link between redistribution programs and labor supply.

It’s a bit wonky, given the way academics write, but they produce some important data on the negative unintended consequences of government dependency.

…we find that the decline in desire to work since the mid-90s lowered the unemployment rate by about 0.5 ppt and the participation rate by 1.75 ppt. This is a large effect… Our estimates imply that changes in the provision of welfare and social insurance (notably disability insurance) explain about 50 percent of the decline in desire to work, which suggest a possible role for the major welfare reforms of the 90s – the 1993 Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansion and the 1996 reform of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program…the possibility that changes in the provision of social transfers can affect desire to work and thereby the aggregate unemployment and participation rates echoes Juhn, Murphy and Topel (2002) and Autor and Dugan (2003) who argue that the growing attractiveness of disability benefits relative to work increased the number of individuals outside the labor force. …Most strikingly, receiving…disability insurance substantially reduces the probability to want to work by 17 percentage points (ppt), consistent with the fact that an impairment should preclude any work activity and thus lower desire to work.

The authors openly warn that it’s difficult to separate out the effects of various redistribution programs.

The mid-1990s welfare reform apparently helped labor supply by pushing recipients to get a job.

Disability programs, by contrast, strongly discourage productive behavior, while wage subsidies such as the earned-income credit ostensibly encourage work but also can discourage workforce participation for secondary earners in a household.

Here are more of their findings.

…the Earned-Income Tax Credit (EITC) program, a program aimed at o§setting the social security payroll tax for low-income families with children, was expanded in order to encourage work effort (Rothstein and Nichols, 2014). …After controlling for characteristics, we find that the EITC explains 71 percent of the decline in low-educated married mothers’ desire to work between 1988-1993 and 1994-2010. …While the “welfare to work” reform was designed to do bring welfare recipients into the labor force, the reform could have had the opposite effect on the “weaker” nonparticipants by shifting them from a program with some connection to the labor force (welfare) to a program with no connection to the labor force (disability insurance). …Our cross-sectional estimates imply that changes in the provision of welfare and social insurance explain about 60 percent of the decline in desire to work among prime-age females, while the difference-in-difference estimates attribute between 50 and 70 percent of the decline in mothers’ desire to work to the welfare reforms. We conjecture that two mechanisms could explain these results. First, the EITC expansion raised family income and reduced secondary earners’ (typically women) incentives to work.

For non-academic readers, these two charts from the NBER study will be easier to understand.

The first chart shows what should be good news. Welfare reforms in the 1990s led to a big drop in dependency.

But now it’s time for the bad news.

Welfare reform reduced one type of dependency, but other redistribution programs have ballooned.

So no wonder there’s now research showing unfortunate results.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, John Merline addresses the same issue, but looking at different redistribution programs.

…the share of 25- to 54-year-olds who are active in the labor market has steadily fallen, to the point where just over 80% of this age group is either working or looking for work. …University of Chicago economics professor Casey Mulligan…posits that the root cause was an attempt by Congress to help people displaced by the recession. Democrats who controlled Congress at the time made several changes to anti-poverty subsidies, adding things like mortgage assistance programs, the benefits of which are phased out as income rises. ObamaCare provides still another one, by offering insurance subsidies that also phase out. …these programs…add to what is already a steep effective marginal tax rate for those in the phase-out range.

In other words, the redistribution programs alter incentives to work since people implicitly calculate the costs and benefits of productive behavior.

Mulligan figures the top rate for these families eligible for various federal aid programs went from 40% to 48% in the immediate aftermath of the recession. In other words, for every extra dollar someone eligible for various aid programs makes, they lose 48% from taxes and benefit reductions. …Mulligan says. “The more you help low-income people, the more low-income people you’ll have. The more you help unemployed people, the more unemployed people you’ll have.”

John is right to cite Prof. Mulligan’s work.

I cited his work last year showing how Obamacare undermined incentives to work. And other academics have reached the same conclusion.

Regarding the broader issue of redistribution and dependency, I argue that federalism is the best approach, both because states will face competitive pressure to avoid excessively generous benefits and because states will learn from each other about the best ways to help the truly needy while minimizing the negative impact of handouts on incentives for productive behavior.

Or we could just keep the current system, which is bad for both poor people and taxpayers.

P.S. This Wizard-of-Id parody contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. If you want some jokes referencing the disability program, we have the politically correct version of The Little Red Hen, as well as two very similar jokes about Jesus performing miracles and how liberals differ from conservatives and libertarians.

P.P.P.S. Switching to a different topic, the IRS is whining that it needs to a bigger budget to better “service” taxpayers.

The Washington Examiner has a great editorial on the topic. Here are some of the better passages.

Oh, those poor dears at the IRS. They wasted $50 million on 225 conferences between 2010 and 2012, including a single $4.1 million conference in Anaheim, Calif. They wasted $50,000 creating bad videos on the clock, including one of the worst Star Trek parodies in the history of the Internet. They gave raises and bonuses to employees who hadn’t paid their own taxes. They were caught targeting applicants for nonprofit status based on their ideology and potential opposition to President Obama. They lied to Congress about being unable to recover emails from those involved.

Yet the bureaucracy still wants more money.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen warned that taxpayers would suffer… But according to a new report by the House Ways and Means Committee, these inconveniences were the result of IRS malingering – of budgetary choices made within the agency itself….“Spending decisions entirely under the IRS’s control led to 16 million fewer taxpayers receiving IRS assistance this filing season,” said the report. “Other spending choices, including prioritizing employee bonuses and union activity on the taxpayer’s dime, used up resources that otherwise could have been used to assist another 10 million taxpayers.” This is a classic example of how federal bureaucrats take revenge when their budgets are cut. Instead of prioritizing limited resources in order to fulfill their agencies’ missions, they find ways to transfer the maximum amount of pain directly to taxpayers, so as to teach the country a lesson about how indispensable they are.

In other words, a classic example of the “Washington Monument ploy.”

Though not as outrageous as the crass behavior of the politicized National Park Service.

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It must be fun to be a leftist.

You get to spend other people’s money. But that’s just for starters. Using the power of majoritarianism, you also get to tell the rest of the country what to do, how to behave, and even what to eat.

Best of all, you can be a complete hypocrite. Even if you’re in the public eye, like Hillary Clinton, that’s apparently no obstacle to behaving in one way and then insisting that the rest of us do the opposite.

I’m particularly impressed that statists feel no guilt about dodging taxes while insisting that the rest of us pay more. That’s true even if you’re Barack Obama’s first Treasury Secretary or his current Treasury Secretary.

And it’s definitely true if you’re part of the statist chattering class.

Jillian Kay Melchoir of National Review reveals that the pro-tax crowd at MSNBC must think they’re working at the OECD.

How else to explain that so many of them have unpaid tax bills?

Touré Neblett, co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, owes more than $59,000 in taxes, according to public records reviewed by National Review. In September 2013, New York issued a state tax warrant to Neblett and his wife, Rita Nakouzi, for $46,862.68. Six months later, the state issued an additional warrant to the couple for $12,849.87. …MSNBC’s hosts and guests regularly call for higher taxes on the rich, condemning wealthy individuals and corporations who don’t pay their taxes or make use of loopholes. But recent reports, as well as records reviewed by National Review, show that at least four high-profile MSNBC on-air personalities have tax liens or warrants filed against them.

And why is this hypocritical?

Because, as illustrated by this video from Washington Free Beacon, so many of them urge higher taxes on the rest of us and argue that paying taxes is a wonderful experience.

I guess the MSNBC hosts forget to mention that higher taxes are only good for other people, not for themselves.

Now let’s look at another example.

Though I confess I’m merely assuming hypocrisy in this case. It deals with actors, the vast majority of which almost surely would want to impose a higher minimum wage on, say, the fast-food industry.

But, writing for Investor’s Business Daily, Larry Elder points out that these actors in Los Angeles don’t want to be covered by the minimum wage because they understand it means less work for themselves.

In Los Angeles County, the minimum wage is $9 per hour. Theater actors, however, can be paid as little as $7 a performance, and an actor can even work long rehearsal hours with no pay. Three decades ago, L.A. County actors sued their union for an exception to union wages for theaters with 99 seats or fewer seats. Why do these stage actors work for so little? They want to work. By working, they improve their skills, stay sharp and or perhaps have a chance to get spotted by an agent. Some say simply having something to do is better than just sitting around and waiting for a casting agent to call. Actors Equity, the national union, wants to change this. …But then a very Republican thing happened — 66% of the union members voted against a higher minimum wage. Their rationale was simple: A higher minimum wage means fewer plays get performed. Fewer plays mean fewer opportunities for actors and therefore fewer opportunities to gain experience, stay in practice or get discovered. …When it comes to their own lives, these actors understand the law of economics: Artificially raise the cost of a good — in this case the price of an actor in a stage play — and you reduce the demand for actors.

Unfortunately, this episode of economic enlightenment doesn’t have a happy ending.

But the union’s national council ignored this advisory vote and ordered, with some exceptions, a $9 per hour minimum wage.

Mr. Elder also includes a very perceptive quote from a Hollywood celebrity.

Pat Sajak, host of “Wheel of Fortune,” recently offered a different perspective on the minimum wage. “When I had minimum wage jobs,” he tweeted, “my goal was to better myself, not to better the minimum wage.”

Kudos to Mr. Sajak. Too bad there are so many politicians (including many Republicans) who don’t understand that higher minimum wages mean fewer jobs for the less vulnerable.

Though, to be fair, maybe supporters do understand the harsh impact and simply don’t care.

P.S. I wrote yesterday about the impact of tax reform on the 2016 election, and I included a postscript about a healthcare issue that has resonance with voters.

Well, Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner makes the case for another healthcare issue that he hopes will motivate Republican primary voters to reject Ohio Governor John Kasich.

…not only did Kasich decide to participate in Obamacare’s fiscally destructive expansion of Medicaid, in doing so he also displayed a toxic mix of cronyism, dishonesty and executive overreach. …despite campaigning on opposition to Obamacare, Kasich crumbled under pressure from hospital lobbyists who supported the measure, and endorsed the expansion. When his legislature opposed him, Kasich bypassed lawmakers and imposed the expansion through a separate panel — an example of executive overreach worthy of Obama. Kasich cloaked his cynical move in the language of Christianity, and, just like a liberal demagogue, he portrayed those with principled objections to spending more taxpayer money on a failing program as being heartless. …Republican voters made a terrible miscalculation when they chose so-called compassionate conservative George W. Bush as their nominee, as he went on as president to push the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society in the form of the Medicare prescription drug plan. …During this presidential primary season, Republican voters will have much better options than they did last time. They don’t have to settle for another champion of big government. By punishing Kasich for expanding Medicaid, conservative primary voters would be sending the message to state-level Republicans everywhere that if they choose to advance big government healthcare solutions, there will be consequences — and they will have no chance of rising to higher office.

It’s not my role to comment on which candidates deserve support, but I definitely agree that Kasich’s Obamacare expansion was very bad policy.

And it’s particularly galling that he made a religious argument for bigger government. I don’t think Libertarian Jesus would be amused.

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I’m a huge fan of a simple and fair flat tax.

Simply stated, if we’re going to have some sort of broad-based tax, it makes sense to collect revenue in the least-damaging fashion possible.

And a flat tax achieves that goal by adhering to the principles of good tax policy.

  1. A low tax rate – This is the best-known feature of the flat tax. A low tax rate is designed to minimize the penalty on work, entrepreneurship, and other forms of productive behavior.
  2. No double taxation of saving and investment – The flat tax gets rid of the tax bias against income that is saved and invested. The capital gains tax, double tax on dividends, and death tax are all abolished. Shifting to a system that taxes economic activity only one time will boost capital formation, thus facilitating an increase in productivity and wages.
  3. No distorting loopholes – With the exception of a family-based allowance designed to protect lower-income people, the flat tax eliminates all deductions, exemptions, shelters, preference, exclusions, and credits. By creating a neutral tax system, this ensures that decisions are made on the basis of economic fundamentals, not tax distortions.

All three features are equally important, sort of akin to the legs of a stool. And if we succeeded with fundamental reform, it would mean an end to the disgraceful internal revenue code.

But just because an idea is good policy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s also good politics.

So let’s delve into the debate over whether the flat tax is a winning political issue as well as a pro-growth reform.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation thinks the flat tax has political legs.

…the flat tax is again the rage in a presidential primary. A number of GOP candidates, including Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker, are looking to go flat with a radically simplified postcard tax return. …Ripping up the 70,000-page tax code has visceral appeal to voters.The way to sell the flat tax is as the ultimate Washington versus America issue. The only people who benefit from a complicated, barnacle-encrusted 70,000-page tax code are tax attorneys, accountants, lobbyists, IRS agents, and politicians who use the tax code as a way to buy and sell favors. The belly of the beast of corruption in American politics is the IRS tax code. The left keeps saying it wants to end the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Fine. By far the best way to do that is enact a flat tax and D.C. becomes the Sahara Desert.

I like what Steve is saying.

And I specifically agree that the best way of selling tax reform is to point out that it’s a Washington-versus-America issue.

When I first started giving speeches about the flat tax in the 1990s, I focused on the pro-growth and pro-competitive impact of lower marginal tax rates and reductions in double taxation.

People largely agreed with those points, but they didn’t get excited.

I soon learned that they instinctively liked the flat tax because they saw it as a way of cleaning out the stables of a corrupt system. In other words, they wanted tax reform mostly for reasons of fairness.

But with fairness properly defined, meaning all taxpayers playing by the same rules. Not the left’s definition, which is based on punishing success with high marginal tax rates.

Steve concurs.

So can the flat tax catch the populist tide of voter rage and angst over an economy that has squeezed the middle class for nearly a decade? Who knows? What seems certain is Democrats will run a class warfare campaign of raising tax rates on the rich. But envy isn’t an economic revival policy. Republicans can win this debate by going on the offensive and reminding voters that the best way to grow the economy, create jobs, and increase tax payments by the rich is to flatten the code. Flat is the new fair.

So does this mean the flat tax is a slam-dunk issue?

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review is unconvinced. Here’s some of what he wrote about the candidates pushing fundamental reform.

They may have some creative ideas to get around problems with previous flat-tax proposals. But I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be…as politically attractive as Moore suggests.

Ramesh is particularly skeptical whether the flat tax can be more appealing than the Lee-Rubio tax plan.

I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be free from the objections Moore raises against Lee-Rubio… A 15 percent flat tax could also expose many more millions of people to tax increases than Lee-Rubio does; and it seems highly unlikely to reduce tax bills for as many people as Lee-Rubio does.

At the risk of sounding like a politician, I agree with both Steve and Ramesh.

Taking them in reverse order, Ramesh is correct that a flat tax faces an uphill battle. He specifically warns that a flat tax might result in higher fiscal burdens for millions of middle-class taxpayers.

Ultimately, that would depend on the tax rate, the size of the family-based allowance, and whether tax reform also was a tax cut. And those choices could be easier to make if Republicans actually demonstrated some political acumen and modernized the revenue-estimating system at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

And Ramesh also points out, quite appropriately, that the flat tax will create strong opposition from interest groups that benefit from provisions in the current system.

But Steve is correct that people want bold reform, which is a proxy for ending tax-code corruption. I’ve already praised the Lee-Rubio plan, which Ramesh likes, but I have a hard time imagining that such a plan will seize the public imagination like a flat tax.

Moreover, the Lee-Rubio plan is a huge tax cut. Since I think good reform is more likely if a plan lowers the overall tax burden, I consider that to be a feature rather than a bug.

But it does mean you have to fight a two-front war, battling both those who benefit from the current system as well as those who don’t want to reduce the flow of revenue to Washington.

These are big obstacles, whether we’re talking about an incremental plan like Lee-Rubio or big-picture reform like a flat tax.

Which is why, regardless of what happens with elections, I’m not overly optimistic about making progress. Unless, of course, we figure out some way of dealing the growing burden of federal spending. Which necessarily requires genuine entitlement reform.

P.S. Don’t forget that Barack Obama reportedly will be introducing a very simple tax reform plan.

P.P.S. Since we’re talking about the impact of policies on the election, my colleague Michael Cannon points to some very low-hanging fruit.

For more than five years, the executive branch has been issuing illegal subsidies that personally benefit the most powerful interest group in the nation’s capital: members of Congress and their staffs. …executive-branch agencies have broken the law, over and over, to protect ObamaCare. …The longest-running and perhaps most significant way the administration has broken the law to protect ObamaCare is by issuing illegal subsidies to members of Congress.

What’s Michael talking about?

When congressional Democrats passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), they were so desperate to pass a health care law that the ACA did not receive the scrutiny most bills do. Many members of Congress and their staffs were therefore surprised to learn that, as of the moment the president signed the ACA, that very law threw them out of their health plans. The ACA prohibits members of Congress and their staffs from receiving health coverage through the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program. They remained free to purchase health insurance on their own, but they would have to do so without the $10,000 or so the federal government “contributed” to their FEHBP premiums.

But who cares what the law says.

Rather than risk Congress reopening the ACA to restore their lost health coverage — because who knows what other changes Congress might make in the process — the administration simply pretended that that part of the law didn’t exist. The Office of Personnel Management announced that members of Congress and their staffs could remain in the FEHBP until the ACA’s Exchanges launched in 2014.  …That still didn’t solve the president’s problems, however. The ACA says that as of 2014, the only coverage the federal government can offer members of Congress in connection with their employment is coverage created under the Act. In effect, that means Exchange coverage. But the law still cut off that $10,000 “employer contribution” to their health benefits. According to Politico, “OPM initially ruled that lawmakers and staffers couldn’t receive the subsidies once they went into the exchanges.” After the president intervened, OPM just ignored that part of the law and started issuing (illegal) subsidies on the order of $10,000 to hundreds of individual members of Congress and thousands of individual congressional staffers.

So what does all this have to do with the 2016 elections?

Well, as Michael points out, the GOP could make a lot of hay by going after the Obama Administration’s illegal favor for Capitol Hill.

Ending Congress’ special ObamaCare exemption — i.e., the bribes individual members of Congress and their staffs are receiving not to reopen ObamaCare — polls off the charts. More than 90 percent of voters believe this exemption is unfair.

The goal, of course, isn’t to deny the folks on Capitol Hill from getting pre-Obamacare subsidies for their health plans.

Instead, Michael is saying that these subsidies have to be restored in the proper fashion, which means amending the law, which will also open the door to other changes.

Which might mean actually addressing the real problems in our healthcare system.

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I have a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to recognize government workers who have demonstrated special skills in ripping off taxpayers.

And I’ve created a Moocher Hall of Fame to highlight deadbeats and scroungers who best illustrate the entitlement mentality.

But maybe it’s now time to create Victims of Government Thuggery Hall of Fame (though I need to figure out a more concise title). Charter members would include  Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company.

And I would want to include the Meitiv family as well. Check out these horrifying details about the kidnapping of children by government, as reported by Reason.

The kids, ages 10 and 6, were supposed to come home at 6:00 p.m. from playing. At 6:30 p.m, Danielle says, she and her husband Sasha were pretty worried. By 8:00 p.m., they were frantic. Only then did someone from the CPS Crisis Center call the parents and tell them that the police had picked the children up. …Husband Sasha Meitiv, raised in the Soviet Union under complete state control, told his wife he was less surprised. “He said, ‘You don’t understand how cruel bureaucracy can be,'” said Danielle. I think we all are beginning to understand just how insane, paranoid, and vindictive the state can be when it comes to respecting human rights—in this case, the right of parents who love their kids to raise them the way they see fit. And the right of kids, all kids, to be outside, part of the world, without having to worry about police snatching them off the street and holding them for hours without even letting them make a phone call. …the children were released back into the Meitiv’s custody but were required to sign a “temporary safety plan,” which prohibits them from letting the kids go outside by themselves

For additional information about this horrifying intrusion into a family’s life, you can click here.

The bottom line is that it’s disgustingly insane for government bureaucrats to steal children just because they disagree with parenting decisions that have been (and still should be) routine.

And we also need to allow group membership in this new Hall of Fame.

Consider the plight of some Wisconsin citizens who were subjected to Putin-style oppression and harassment because of their political views.

David French has the surreal details in a must-read National Review column.

Cindy Archer…was jolted awake by yelling, loud pounding at the door, and her dogs’ frantic barking. The entire house — the windows and walls — was shaking. She looked outside to see up to a dozen police officers, yelling to open the door. They were carrying a battering ram. …“I was so afraid,” she says. “I did not know what to do.” She grabbed some clothes, opened the door, and dressed right in front of the police. The dogs were still frantic. …multiple armed agents rushed inside. Some even barged into the bathroom, where her partner was in the shower. The officer or agent in charge demanded that Cindy sit on the couch, but she wanted to get up and get a cup of coffee. “I told him this was my house and I could do what I wanted.” Wrong thing to say. “This made the agent in charge furious. He towered over me with his finger in my face and yelled like a drill sergeant that I either do it his way or he would handcuff me.” …They wouldn’t let her speak to a lawyer. She looked outside and saw a person who appeared to be a reporter. Someone had tipped him off.

Cindy wasn’t the only victim. We also have the case of “Ann.”

Someone was pounding at her front door. It was early in the morning — very early — and it was the kind of heavy pounding that meant someone was either fleeing from — or bringing — trouble. “It was so hard. I’d never heard anything like it. I thought someone was dying outside.” She ran to the door, opened it, and then chaos. “People came pouring in. For a second I thought it was a home invasion. It was terrifying. They were yelling and running, into every room in the house. One of the men was in my face, yelling at me over and over and over.” …It was indeed a home invasion, but the people who were pouring in were Wisconsin law-enforcement officers. Armed, uniformed police swarmed into the house. Plainclothes investigators cornered her and her newly awakened family. Soon, state officials were seizing the family’s personal property…next came ominous warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t tell anyone about this raid. Not even your mother, your father, or your closest friends.

There were other victims.

For the family of “Rachel” (not her real name), the ordeal began before dawn — with the same loud, insistent knocking. Still in her pajamas, Rachel answered the door and saw uniformed police, poised to enter her home. When Rachel asked to wake her children herself, the officer insisted on walking into their rooms. The kids woke to an armed officer, standing near their beds. The entire family was herded into one room, and there they watched as the police carried off their personal possessions, including items that had nothing to do with the subject of the search warrant — even her daughter’s computer. And, yes, there were the warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t talk to anyone about this. Don’t tell your friends.

So who are these people? Suspected bank robbers? Kidnappers? Alleged murderers?

Not exactly.

…they were American citizens guilty of nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights to support Act 10 and other conservative causes in Wisconsin. …For dozens of conservatives, the years since Scott Walker’s first election as governor of Wisconsin transformed the state…into a place where conservatives have faced early-morning raids, multi-year secretive criminal investigations, slanderous and selective leaks to sympathetic media, and intrusive electronic snooping. Yes, Wisconsin…was giving birth to a new progressive idea, the use of law enforcement as a political instrument, as a weapon to attempt to undo election results, shame opponents, and ruin lives. …This was the on-the-ground reality of the so-called John Doe investigations, expansive and secret criminal proceedings that directly targeted Wisconsin residents because of their relationship to Scott Walker, their support for Act 10, and their advocacy of conservative reform.

There’s no good news in this story, but at least the systematic harassment and oppression may come to an end if courts do their job.

…this traumatic process, however, is now heading toward a legal climax, with two key rulings expected in the late spring or early summer. The first ruling, from the Wisconsin supreme court, could halt the investigations for good, in part by declaring that the “misconduct” being investigated isn’t misconduct at all but the simple exercise of First Amendment rights. The second ruling, from the United States Supreme Court, could grant review on a federal lawsuit brought by Wisconsin political activist Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the first conservatives to challenge the investigations head-on. If the Court grants review, it could not only halt the investigations but also begin the process of holding accountable those public officials who have so abused their powers.

The article has lots of additional information and I strongly recommend you read the entire piece (at least if you’re not susceptible to high blood pressure).

By the way, you won’t be mistaken if you’re thinking that the Wisconsin story has a similarity to what happened with the IRS targeting of the Tea Party.

In both cases, the bureaucracy and the left (that’s a Venn Diagram with a big overlap) have manipulated government policy and power for solely political ends.

If that sounds like Putin’s Russia or today’s Venezuela, there’s an old saying about “if the shoe fits.” I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that level, fortunately, but if statist politicians and bureaucrats get away with the misdeeds shared above, we’ll take a big step in the wrong direction.

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When writing about economic growth, my usual approach is to point out that more output is a function of increases in the quantity and quality of labor capital.

This is a helpful way of thinking about growth since it becomes easier to understand why certain policies are bad (such as redistribution programs that discourage labor supply) and other policies are good (reducing double taxation to encourage more saving and investment).

But labor and capital are only part of the story. Those two “factors of production” are the ingredients for growth, but who decides how those ingredients are combined?

As I point out in one of the Powerpoint slides I often use, there needs to be a “chef.”

This is why entrepreneurs are so important. They are the innovators who often figure out better and smarter ways of mixing labor and capital, leading to the “creative destruction” that characterizes dynamic and prosperous economies.

Entrepreneurs make mistakes all the time, of course, but there’s a feedback mechanism in a private economy called profit and loss. And that rewards good choices and penalizes bad choices. By contrast, when politicians play “chef,” you get cronyism, inefficiency, and corruption.

To understand the critical role of entrepreneurship, I strongly recommend a great two-part series, authored by two Swedish brothers, Tino Sanandaji and Nima Sanandaji, published by Cayman Financial Review.

In Part I, published in January, they share some good news about the state of entrepreneurship in America compared to Europe.

Entrepreneurship matters. And the rate of entrepreneurship differs across the Atlantic. Of the 100 largest public companies in the U.S., 31 were founded by an entrepreneur during the post-war era. In Europe, the corresponding figure is only seven out of the 100 largest firms. While these new firms in the U.S. created over four million jobs, those in Europe created about a million. A slightly different measure is the 500 largest global firms listed by the Financial Times. Amongst the U.S. firms on the list 29 percent were formed after 1950. This compares with merely eight percent in Europe.

But they make a valuable observation that entrepreneurship and self-employment are not necessarily the same thing.

In fact, the U.S. has a lower rate of self-employment than most other industrialized countries. Self-employment is the highest in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and Italy, countries with low rates of innovative entrepreneurship. Within the U.S., the self-employment rate in Silicon Valley is half that of the average of California. Clearly, the concept of entrepreneurship is very much different from that of self-employment. …When asked directly, four out of five business owners would not even define themselves as entrepreneurs. And approximately nine out of ten of the self-employed report that their firm does not engage in any innovative activity. So while a percentage of self-employed are true or potential entrepreneurs, not all of them are.

So the Sanandaji brothers decided to create a new measure based on “SuperEntrepreneurs.”

…we have worked on constructing a measure of high-impact entrepreneurship. The basis of our analysis is the comprehensive work that Forbes Magazine annually does when compiling the list ‘The World’s Billionaires’. We build upon Forbes’ work by distinguishing the individuals who have amassed a billion dollar fortune through entrepreneurship.

Their findings are fascinating.

The richest individuals in capitalist market economies to a surprisingly large extent appear to earn their wealth by creating new value, rather than inheriting it or acquiring it illegitimately. …the difference between both sides of the Atlantic is significant. In Western Europe 42 percent of the billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs, with most of the rest having inherited their wealth. In the U.S., 70 percent of billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs. In countries such as China that have only recently opened to capitalism, virtually all billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs. This indicates that the American Dream – the notion that it is possible for individuals to rise to the top through effort, luck and genius – is still alive. Self-made billionaire entrepreneurs have created millions of jobs, billions of dollars in private wealth and probably trillions of dollars of value for society.

And that value varies by region.

The number of SuperEntrepreneurs varies significantly across countries. Hong Kong has the most, with around three SuperEntrepreneurs per million inhabitants. The second highest rate of entrepreneurship is found in Israel, where there are close to two SuperEntrepeneurs per million inhabitants, followed by the U.S., Switzerland and Singapore. …When comparing large regions, the gap in super-entrepreneurship can be clearly seen. The U.S. is roughly four times as entrepreneurial as Western Europe and three times as entrepreneurial as Japan. The same relations hold regardless of whether we look at our measure of SuperEntrepreneurs, large firm founders or venture capital investment as a percentage of GDP.

But why does SuperEntrepreneuship vary by regions?

In Part I, the Sanandajis note that there seems to be more success in the Anglosphere (i.e., nations that got their legal system from England).

In Part II, published in April, they dig deeper and identify the policies that make a difference.

They start with property rights.

One institution that has a direct and positive link to entrepreneurship is the protection of private property. …Property rights matter because individuals will rarely invest the massive amounts of time and money needed to creating an entrepreneurial company if there is an imminent risk that their firm will be taken from them in the event it becomes valuable. In economies with weak protection of property rights and corrupt states, firms tend to stay small and informal. This of course inhibits high growth entrepreneurship. …In our study, we find a clear link between property rights – as measured by the International Property Rights Index – and the level of SuperEntrepreneurship per capita around the world. The countries which have the strongest property rights tend to have more high-impact entrepreneurs.

They also find taxes make a difference.

Another key factor influencing the rate of high-impact entrepreneurship is taxes.  …Taxes are therefore a necessary evil. The need to balance the need for revenue and the damaging impact of taxes on the economy is perhaps the biggest challenge of modern welfare states. …Entrepreneurial success is a fabulous prize that motivates many to try, for a few to succeed. If taxes diminish the value of this prize, fewer individuals will make the effort and take the risk to win. … If taxes eat away a sizable part of the return from the rare cases of great success, the calculus between these choices is changed. …high taxes can make a previously profitable investment unprofitable. …Research has consistently shown that business owners reduce their output more in reaction to taxes than workers; they are, in the terminology of economists, more responsive. This is likely due to a combination of entrepreneurs having more control over their reported income, more control over effort and being more responsive to economic incentives. …In our study, we indeed do find a clear relation between taxes on profit and the share of high-impact entrepreneurs in our list. The nations that have the highest tax rates tend to be the same that have the lowest rates of entrepreneurship.

And they explain that regulatory burdens also are important.

The third institutional factor that is strongly linked to the rate of SuperEntrepreneurship is regulation.  …Each individual regulation may seem reasonable in out of itself… Taken together however, these well-meaning regulations can grow exponentially and inhibit business startup. This is especially true as startups do not have the resources to hire full time employees to deal with regulations like large firms. Regulations can also inhibit the rate of growth, take energy from the entrepreneur that could instead be used to develop the venture and can also force the firm to make poor business decisions in order to comply with some rule or regulation. …in many countries regulations arise not in order to ensure desirable social outcomes, but in order to facilitate government control and even corruption….we rely in our work on the World Bank “ease of doing business” index… We find that countries with a heavy regulatory burden have fewer entrepreneurs per capita. The findings are replicated when using an alternate regulatory index for the OECD countries. Even when controlling for tax rates and per capita income, more regulation is associated with fewer SuperEntrepreneurs.

I’m only skimming the surface on what’s included in the two articles.

But here’s the bottom line, as illustrated by this table from Part II.

And their conclusion emphasizes why it’s important to have genuine free markets so highly productive people seek success by serving the needs and wants of consumers. In a cronyist economy, by contrast, people seek “success” through government favoritism.

Another aim is to distinguish between crony capitalists and constructive entrepreneurs. Our preliminary analysis shows that countries with free market policies are dominated by individuals who become rich by creating even greater value for society at large. Countries with high levels of state involvement and weak market institutions on the other hand encourage individuals to gain wealth at the expense of others. In all systems, individuals are motivated by wealth.

Now let’s close by looking at the issue from a more US-centric perspective.

Liya Palagashvili of George Mason University writes in U.S. News and World Report that entrepreneurship seems to be waning in the United States.

And government deserves the blame.

What exactly are the factors leading to the decline in business activity in the United States? And what can be done to revive the American entrepreneurial environment? Economists identify the costs imposed on entrepreneurs by the regulatory environment as one of the most important influences on business dynamism. Where regulations make it difficult to start and operate businesses, entrepreneurs have a difficult time bringing new ideas and innovations to fruition. Promising entrepreneurs who face burdensome regulations might opt out of doing business or decide to take their ideas to countries with more favorable business climates. Burdensome regulations such as credit and labor-market regulations, business taxes and start-up costs – like the number of procedures, payments and minimum capital requirements to start a business – all influence individuals’ decisions to engage in entrepreneurial activity. Is it costly to start a business? Am I even allowed to start a business? Will my business entail high labor costs? Can I easily fire bad or redundant workers?

Unfortunately, while government deserves the blame, the rest of us will bear the costs.

These trends pose a long-term problem. If a favorable entrepreneurial environment is eroding, what will become of economic prosperity for future Americans? …People living in the United States and much of the developed world today experience significantly higher standards of living because entrepreneurs continuously introduce and improve market products – not only items such as personal computers and cell phones, but new medicines, better clothing and other technologies that improve ordinary people’s daily lives. New technological improvements are sparked when entrepreneurs are able to reap the benefits of their innovations, and business entry is high when start-up costs are low.

So we have yet another piece of evidence showing the superiority of free markets and small government.

P.S. At the start of the month, I defended religious liberty laws based on the libertarian principle of freedom of association. Simply stated, the government shouldn’t have the power to force you to do business with people you don’t like, even if you have repugnant motivations.

Well, that principle is a two-way street. Check out these excerpts from a recent news report out of Colorado.

Last week, the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that Denver’s Azucar Bakery did not discriminate against William Jack, a Christian from Castle Rock, by refusing to make two cakes with anti-gay messages and imagery that he requested last year. …Silva told the civil rights agency that she also told Jack her bakery “does not discriminate” and “accept[s] all humans.” Jack told the civil rights agency the bakery treated him unequally and denied him goods or services based on his religious creed, Christianity. He said he found this “demeaning to his beliefs.”

I’m glad the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled in favor of the bakery, though its legal reasoning is laughable. The bakery unambiguously discriminated.

But it’s not the role of government to force people to like each other or do business with each other, whether the issue involves some Christians preferring not to do business with some gays or some gays (or gay sympathizers) preferring not to do business with some Christians.

P.P.S. Here’s another update on a previous column.

I wrote last year about how some gun control laws were imposed by racist state governments that wanted to disarm oppressed black Americans.

Well, fortunately those bad laws weren’t always successful. Here’s a blurb from a recent book that Tyler Cowen posted at Marginal Revolution.

…although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense.  The claim that armed self-defense was a necessary aspect of the civil rights movement is still controversial.  However, wielding weapons, especially firearms, let both participants in nonviolent struggle and their sympathizers protect themselves and others under terrorist attack for their civil rights activities.  This willingness to use deadly force ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself.

Another reason why Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a., Instapundit) is correct to call the 2nd Amendment a civil rights issue.

Or a human rights issue, as powerfully illustrated by Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

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I don’t understand the left’s myopic fixation on income inequality. If they genuinely care about the less fortunate, they should be focused on policies that produce higher incomes.

But instead, they agitate for class warfare and redistribution, which leads me to believe that many of them hate the rich more than they love the poor.

And while it’s surely true that governments can harm (or worse!) the financial status of folks like Bill Gates, that doesn’t help the poor.

Indeed, the poor could be worse off since statist policies are linked to weaker economic performance.

So relative inequality may decline, but only because the rich suffer even more than the poor (as Margaret Thatcher brilliantly explained).

That’s a bad outcome by any reasonable interpretation.

But let’s set aside the economic issues and contemplate the political potency of so-called income inequality.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, William Galston of the Brookings Institution (and a former adviser to Bill Clinton) opines that income inequality isn’t a powerful issue in America.

Hillary Clinton was reportedly struck that no one had asked her about inequality. She shouldn’t have been surprised… Recent opinion surveys show inequality well down the list of public concerns. In a February CBS News poll, for example, only 4% of Americans named income disparities as the most important problem facing the country. In March only 2% told Gallup that the income gap was at the top of their list.

Galston cites a couple of studies of public opinion trends.

In…Public Opinion Quarterly in 2013, Matthew Luttig also found that rising inequality has failed to boost support for redistribution and may actually have the opposite effect. What is going on? The authors of the Brookings paper found that the principal beneficiaries of government programs—especially the elderly—have become increasingly resistant in recent decades to additional redistributive policies. During that period, just about every new cohort entering the ranks of the elderly has been less supportive of redistribution than its predecessor.

He doesn’t think voters necessarily are becoming libertarian or conservative.

But he does think leftists are deluding themselves if they think more propaganda will sway voters in favor of redistribution.

Many Democratic activists believe that the weakness of public support for redistribution rests on ignorance: Give them more information about what is really happening, and their policy preferences will be transformed. But a recent paper for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth reported that while survey respondents “who view information about inequality are more likely to believe that inequality is a serious problem, they show no more appetite for many interventions to reduce inequality.” The best explanation for this apparent anomaly: rising mistrust of government, especially the federal government. Many people who think inequality is an important problem don’t believe that Washington’s political institutions can be trusted to fix it.

Gee, I wonder why people think the federal government is incompetent in helping the poor?

Could it be that voters are slowly but surely realizing that P.J. O’Rourke was right?

In any event, Galston concludes with some very sound recommendations.

What matters most is growth that includes everyone. To get that kind of growth, we will have to act on a broad front to expand opportunity for those who now lack it—and ensure that workers earn enough to provide opportunity for their children. These measures will reduce inequality, all the more so if they are financed by linking real wages to productivity gains and terminating tax preferences that don’t promote growth while benefiting mainly the wealthiest Americans.

To be sure, Galston’s embrace of growth instead of redistribution doesn’t mean he has good ideas on what causes growth.

But at least he understands that the goal should be to make the pie bigger.

And that’s the point I made in this CNN interview, which took place via Skype since I was at a conference in Brussels.

Though you may notice that I mangle my metaphor at the end of the interview, switching from pie to cake.

But setting aside that one glitch, I hopefully got across my main point that the focus should be growth rather than inequality.

P.S. It’s worth noting that states with the most support for class warfare and redistribution also are the states with the most inequality. Maybe they should experiment with bad policy inside their own borders before trying to foist such policies on the entire nation.

P.P.S. I wrote last year about six remarkable examples of leftist hypocrisy. Make that seven.

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There are some things in life that are guaranteed to make me smile.

Georgia Bulldog victories are on that list, of course, and I also relish occasional moments of glory on the softball field.

Shifting to the world of public policy, nothing warms my heart and brings a smile to my face faster than news that taxpayers have successfully escaped the greedy and grasping claws of government.

I cheered when successful French taxpayers moved across the border when Francois Hollande imposed a 75 percent class-warfare tax rate. And I was overjoyed when elitist French politicians whined that the geese with the golden eggs were escaping.

I was happy to learn about consumers traveling across borders to escape punitive air-travel taxes in places such as England and the Netherlands.

I applauded when Toyota moved hundreds of jobs from high-tax California to low-tax Texas. And when oppressed taxpayers successfully escaped from New Jersey. Or from Detroit.

I also was glad to find out that Americans can dramatically reduce their tax bills by moving to Puerto Rico, which is a completely legal tax haven for U.S. citizens.

I’m even happy when American companies use “inversions” to get out from under America’s insanely punitive approach to business taxation. I’ll also defend individual Americans who reluctantly give up their passports to protect themselves from confiscatory taxation.

The common theme in all these examples is that politicians were unable to seize as much money as they hoped because taxpayers had the ability to shift economic activity to jurisdictions with better policy.

This is why tax competition is so praiseworthy – and also why we need to be so concerned about sinister efforts to create cartels for the purpose of replacing this liberalizing process with an “OPEC for politicians.”

But I’m guilty of digressing. Today, we simply want to focus on good news.

And I know this Bloomberg story made me feel all warm and fuzzy. Here are some excerpts about the looming decision of at least one bank to escape excessive English taxes.

HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, has faced calls to move its domicile away from the British capital after the government increased the levy on bank’s balance sheets for an eighth time this year. HSBC is hit the hardest by the tax and paid 750 million pounds ($1.1 billion) last year. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have pledged a more onerous tax regime for banks in their manifestos for the May 7 U.K. election. “Banks and pay are still easy cannon fodder for politicians,” said Jonathan Tyce, senior banks analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in London. “The lines between the Labour and Conservative parties are more blurred than usual and either way, it doesn’t look promising for banks or bankers.” …Standard Chartered Plc, another British bank that like HSBC makes most of its profit in Asia, is also being urged by Aberdeen Asset Management Plc, its second-largest shareholder, to relocate to Asia because of the cost of being in London.

Good. I hope both banks leave.

While I have grudgingly admitted that David Cameron’s government has done a decent job of restraining spending in recent years, taxpayers haven’t reaped many dividends. Yes, there have been some very successful reductions in the corporate tax rate and a modest reduction in the top tax rate on personal income, but these reforms were more than offset by big tax hikes when Cameron first took power.

P.S. If I understand correctly, HSBC didn’t get a bailout during the financial crisis. But if I’m wrong and the bank did mooch off taxpayers, then I’m much less sympathetic.

P.P.S. Shifting to another topic, I like to share examples of how some nations enjoy faster growth than others, mostly because these comparison invariably help to show why small government and free markets are the best route to prosperity.

To echo this point, here’s a very enlightening chart I just saw on Twitter, which shows per-capita economic output for a group of nations that were all roughly equal back in 1997.

What’s remarkable is that a couple of those nations dramatically boosted living standards in a very short period of time while others have stagnated.

And since I’ve written about the good reforms in Estonia and Poland and complained about bad policy in Venezuela and South Africa, you can understand why this is yet another example of why leftists have no good response to my two-part challenge.

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Who benefits most from the death tax?

There are two obvious answers.

First, politicians presumably benefit since they get more money to spend. Yes, it’s true that the tax discourages capital formation and may actually lose revenue in the long run, but politicians aren’t exactly famous for thinking past the next election cycle.

Second, there are some statists who are motivated by envy and resentment. These are the folks who make class-warfare arguments about the death tax being necessary to prevent the “rich” from accumulating more wealth, even though evidence shows large family fortunes dissipate over time.

Both of those answers are correct, but they don’t fully explain why this pernicious levy still exists.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a must-read piece for the American Enterprise Institute. He reveals the groups that actually are spending time and money to defend this odious version of double taxation.

…about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters that they oppose the death tax. …But some segments of the population feel differently — most notably, the estate-planning industry. A survey by an industry magazine in 2011 found that 63 percent of estate-planning attorneys opposed repeal of the estate tax. That’s fitting. The death tax forces people to engage in complex and expensive estate planning. Lobbying disclosure forms show that the insurance industry is lobbying on the issue these days. The Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, which represents companies that sell estate-planning products, lobbied on the issue last year, as it has for years. Last decade, AALU funded a group called the Coalition for America’s Priorities, which attacked estate tax repeal as a tax break for Paris Hilton. …When the estate tax was last before Congress, the life insurance industry revved up the troops, spending $10 million a month on lobbying in the first half of 2010. In that stretch, only three industries spent more, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

I concur with Tim.

Indeed, I remember giving a speech back in the 1990s to a group of estate-planning professionals. In my youthful naiveté, I expected that these folks would very much appreciate my arguments against the death tax.

Instead, the reception was somewhat frosty.

Though not nearly as hostile, I must confess, as the treatment I got when speaking about the flat tax to a group of tax lobbyists for big corporations.

In both cases, I was surprised because I mistakenly assumed that my audiences actually cared about the best interests of their clients or employers.

In reality, they cared about what made them rich instead (economists and other social scientists call this the principal-agent problem).

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at more of Tim’s article. He cites the Clintons to make a key point about rich people being able to avoid the tax so long as they cough up enough money to the estate-planning industry.

Those same techniques, however, often are not available to farmers, small business owners, and others who are victimized by the levy.

The Clintons may be stupid-rich, but they aren’t stupid — they’re using estate-planning techniques to avoid the estate tax. Bloomberg News reported in 2014 that the Clinton family home has been divided, for tax purposes, into two shares, and those shares have been placed in a special trust that will shield Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax on the full value of the home when she inherits it. Also, the Clintons have created a life insurance trust — a common tool wealthy people use to provide liquidity for heirs to pay the estate tax. The Clintons’ games, and the estate-planning industry’s interest in the tax, highlights how the tax fails at its stated aims of preventing the inheritance of wealth and privilege. Instead, the estate tax forces the wealthy to play games in order to pass on their wealth. These games don’t add anything to the economy, they just enrich the estate-planning industry. Those whose wealth is tied up in a small or medium-sized business, on the other hand, aren’t always capable of playing the estate planning games. They’re the victims.

The bottom line is that the tax should be abolished for reasons of growth.

But it also should be repealed because it’s unfair to newly successful entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, all of whom generally lack access to the clever tax-planning tools of those with established wealth.

And it should be repealed simply because it would be morally satisfying to reduce the income of those who benefit from – and lobby for – bad government policy.

P.S. The U.S. death tax is more punitive than the ones imposed by even France and Venezuela.

P.P.S. It’s particularly hypocritical for the Clintons to support the death tax on others while taking steps to make sure it doesn’t apply to them.

P.P.P.S. In a truly repugnant development, there are efforts in the U.K. to apply the death tax while people are still alive.

P.P.P.P.S. On a more positive note, a gay “adoption” in Pennsylvania helped one couple reduce exposure to that state’s death tax.

P.P.P.P.P.S. If you live in New Jersey, by contrast, the best choice is to move before you die.

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I’ve sometimes asserted, only half-jokingly, that statists believe all of our income belongs to the government and that we should be grateful if we’re allowed to keep any slice of what we earn.

This is, at least in part, the mentality behind the “tax expenditure” concept, which creates a false equivalence between spending programs and provisions of the tax code that allow people to keep greater amounts of their own income.

Here’s how I characterized this moral blindness when criticizing a Washington Post columnist back in 2013.

Hiatt presumably thinks that the government’s decision not to impose double taxation is somehow akin to a giveaway. But that only makes sense if you assume that government has a preemptive claim to all private income. …Hiatt wants us the think that there’s no moral, ethical, or economic difference between giving person A $5,000 of other people’s money and person B being allowed to keep $5,000 of his or her own money.

Today, I have a particularly absurd real-world illustration of this statist mindset.

Two writers for the Wonkblog section of the Washington Post recently wrote an article entitled, “The rich get government handouts just like the poor. Here are 10 of them.”

Did their list of 10 “handouts” include the Export-Import Bank, which lines the pockets of big corporations? Nope.

Did it include agriculture subsidies, which provide unearned goodies for big agribusiness firms? Nope.

Did it the TARP bailout, which shielded Wall Street fatcats from capitalism? Nope.

And how about subsidized terrorism insurance, ethanol goodies, and green energy subsidies? Nope, nope, and nope.

Or the handouts in Obamacare for major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies? Nope and nope.

Instead, every single “handout” that the rich “get” from government is nothing more than a provision of the tax code that lets people keep more of their own money.

I’m not joking. Here’s the list, followed by my two cents.

1. The mortgage interest deduction for big houses and second homes.

As I’ve previously explained, I don’t think the tax code should be tilted in favor of residential real estate. But a handout is when the government takes money from Person A and gives it to Person B.

2. The yacht tax deduction.

There actually isn’t a yacht tax deduction, but if you can live in something, it can be eligible for a mortgage interest deduction. I don’t think that’s wise tax policy, but it’s not an example of government taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

3. Rental property.

The authors appear to be upset that people running a business get to subtract costs from gross income when calculating net income. But that’s exactly how businesses are supposed to be taxed. And even if one thought, for some odd reason, that gross income was the right tax base, this still isn’t an example of government taking from Person A to give to Person B.

4. Fancy business meals.

As just noted, businesses should be taxed on profits rather than gross receipts. Well, profits are the difference between total income and total costs, including the cost of business-related meals. And even if one thinks that folks in business are lying and mischaracterizing personal meals, they’re not spending other people’s money. No funds are being taken from Person A and being given to Person B.

5. The capital gains tax rate.

In a good tax system, there’s no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, so the capital gains tax should be abolished. As such, the “preferential” rate in the current system is more accurately characterized as a mitigation of a penalty. But even if one believes that saving and investment should be double taxed, a lower capital gains tax rate doesn’t take money from Person A to give to Person B.

6. The estate tax.

The death tax is triple taxation, so it also should be abolished. Regardless, letting a family hold onto its own money is not the same as taking from Person A to give to Person B.

7. Gambling loss deductions.

The government taxes gamblers on their net winnings (if any), which is the proper approach. And even if the government gave a deduction for net losses (which isn’t the case), this wouldn’t be an example of taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

8. The Social Security earnings limit.

The Social Security system is supposed to be social insurance, and one of the implications of this approach is that there’s a limit on the benefits one can receive and the payments one has to make. As such, it’s silly to assert that the “wage base cap” is somehow improper. But even if one believed in turning Social Security into a pure redistribution scheme, the existing earnings limit simply means a cap on what the government takes. There’s no coerced handout from Person A to Person B.

9. Retirement plans.

The bad news is that we have pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code. The good news is that some forms of retirement savings, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, are protected from double taxation. That protection does not require any money being taken from Person A and given to Person B.

10. Tax prep.

I’m not a fan of companies like H&R Block that benefit from an unfair and convoluted tax code. Under a simple and fair system like the flat tax, they would go out of business. But a deduction for tax preparation costs simply allows a taxpayer to keep more of his or her income. There’s no handout from Person A to Person B.

In case you didn’t notice, there’s a strong moral component to my argument. The leftists think you’re getting a handout if you get to keep more of your own money.

I think that’s absurd.

And it’s also economically illiterate when applied to provisions of the tax code that make sense, such as companies getting to subtract expenses when calculating taxable income.

Or individuals not being subjected to double taxation.

P.S. Here’s some pro-Second Amendment humor, which cleverly uses the left’s “undocumented” terminology for illegal aliens and applies it in a much better fashion.

And if you like pro-gun humor, you can find lots of good links by clicking here.

P.P.S. Since I mentioned immigration, here’s a fascinating graphic that shows immigration trends over the past two centuries.

There’s no policy lesson of philosophical point. I just think this graphic is very informative and well designed.

But if you want my two cents, I like immigration but want to make sure we attract people who want to work and assimilate rather than scroungers (and worse) who want welfare and handouts.

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I don’t know whether to be impressed or horrified by Paul Krugman.

I’m impressed that he’s always “on message.” No matter what’s happening in America or around the world, he always has some sort of story about why events show the need for bigger government.

But I’m horrified that he’s so sloppy with numbers.

My all-time favorite example of his fact-challenged approach deals with Estonia. In an attempt to condemn market-based fiscal policy, he blamed that nation’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

Wow. That’s like saying that a rooster’s crowing causes yesterday’s sunrise. Amazing.

Let’s look at a new example. This is some of what he recently wrote while trying to explain why the U.S. has out-performed Europe.

America has yet to achieve a full recovery from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Still, it seems fair to say that we’ve made up much, though by no means all, of the lost ground. But you can’t say the same about the eurozone, where real G.D.P. per capita is still lower than it was in 2007, and 10 percent or more below where it was supposed to be by now. This is worse than Europe’s track record during the 1930s. Why has Europe done so badly?

Krugman answers his own question by saying that the United States has been more loyal to Keynesian economics.

…what stands out from around 2010 onward is the huge divergence in thinking that emerged between the United States and Europe. In America, the White House and the Federal Reserve mainly stayed faithful to standard Keynesian economics. The Obama administration wasted a lot of time and effort pursuing a so-called Grand Bargain on the budget, but it continued to believe in the textbook proposition that deficit spending is actually a good thing in a depressed economy.

I have to confess that alarm bells went off in my head when I read this passage.

If Krugman was talking about the two years between 2008 and 2010, he would be right about “staying faithful to standard Keynesian economics.”

But 2010 was actually the turning point when fiscal policy in America moved very much in an anti-Keynesian direction.

Here’s the remarkable set of charts showing this reversal. First, there was zero spending growth in Washington after 2009.

Second, this modest bit of fiscal restraint meant a big reduction in the burden of government spending relative to economic output.

Wow, if this is Keynesian economics, then I’m changing my name to John Maynard Mitchell!

So is Krugman hallucinating? Why is he claiming that U.S. policy was Keynesian?

Let’s bend over backwards to be fair and try to find some rationale for his assertions. Remember, he is making a point about U.S. performance vs. European performance.

So maybe if we dig through the data and find that European nations were even more fiscally conservative starting in 2010, then there will be some way of defending Krugman’s claim.

Yet I looked at the IMF’s world economic outlook database and I crunched the numbers for government spending in the biggest EU economies (Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, accounting for almost 80 percent of the bloc’s GDP).

And what did I find?

Contrary to Krugman’s claims, total government spending in those nations grew slightly faster than it did in the United States between 2009 and 2014.

So on what basis can Krugman argue that the U.S. had a more Keynesian approach?

Beats the heck out of me. I even looked at the OECD data on deficits to see whether there was some way of justifying his argument, but those numbers show the biggest reduction in red ink (presumably a bad thing according to Keynesian stimulus theory) took place in the United States.

But I will close by acknowledging that Krugman’s column isn’t just focused on fiscal policy. He also argues that the Federal Reserve has been more Keynesian than European central banks. My impression is that both the Fed and the ECB have been keeping interest rates artificially low, so I’m not sure that’s an effective argument (or an effective policy!), but I’ll leave that issue to the folks who specialize in monetary policy.

P.S. If you want additional examples of Krugman’s factual errors, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, and here.

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Way back in 2010, I shared two very depressing numbers to illustrate how Obama’s policies were creating “regime uncertainty.”

I shared data on the cash reserves of companies and suggested it was bad news that those firms thought it made more sense to sit on money rather than invest it.

I also shared numbers on the excess reserves that banks were keeping at the Federal Reserve and speculated that this was because of a similarly dismal perspective about economic prospects.

At the time, I figured that those numbers eventually would get better. But I was wrong.

Companies are still sitting on the same about of cash and banks have actually increased the amount of money they have parked at the Federal Reserve.

Now let’s look at some more data that doesn’t reflect well on Obamanomics.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has some very discouraging analysis about worker compensation.

…real wages have barely risen—real compensation per hour has risen only by 0.5 percent, much less than at this point in past recoveries. The lack of strong wage growth has been one factor that has held down the growth of income, consumer spending, and the recovery. …Some longer-term changes in the economy have likely played a larger role in depressing real wage growth. …Productivity growth in the nonfarm business sector has averaged only 1.46 percent since 2004 and 0.85 percent since 2010. As the growth of labor productivity is a key determinant of real wage growth in the long run, the slowdown of productivity has probably helped to depress wage growth.

And here’s a chart from the article.

The brown line at the bottom is what’s been happening under Obamanomics. As you can see, compensation has basically been unchanged for the past five years. In other words, living standards have stagnated.

The Cleveland Fed data shows dismal earnings and productivity data for all Americans. And it’s important to understand how those numbers are related.

Some folks in Washington think that companies should act like charities and give workers lots of money simply because that’s a nice way to behave.

In the real world, though, workers get paid on the basis of how much they produce. So when productivity numbers are weak, as the Cleveland Fed points out, you also get weak data for worker compensation.

But now let’s dig even deeper and ask what determines productivity numbers. There are many factors, of course, but saving and investment are very important. In other words, capital formation. Simply stated, you need people to set aside some of today’s income to finance tomorrow’s growth.

And growth, as measured by inflation-adjusted changes in output, is entirely a function of population growth and productivity growth.

So the bottom line is that workers will only earn more if they produce more. But they’ll only produce more if there’s more saving and investment.

And this is why Obama’s policies are so poisonous. His tax policy is very anti-saving and anti-investment. And the increases in the regulatory burden also make it less attractive for investors and entrepreneurs to put money at risk.

Obama thinks he’s punishing the “rich,” but the rest of us are paying the price.

Now let’s look specifically at American blacks.

Deroy Murdock explains in National Review that they should feel especially angry at the gap between Obama’s rhetoric and performance.

Republicans should ask black Americans for their votes from now through November 2016. They should do so by challenging blacks to ask themselves an honest question: “What, exactly, have you gained by handing Obama 95 percent of your votes in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012?”

Deroy then lists a bunch of depressing statistics on what’s happened since 2009.

Here are the numbers that I think are most persuasive.

U.S. labor force participation has declined during that same period, from 65.7 to 62.7 percent. For blacks in general, …dipping from 63.2 to 61.0 percent of available employees in the work pool. For black teenagers, however, this number deteriorated — from 29.6 to 25.7 percent. The percentage of Americans below the poverty line inched up, the latest available Census Bureau data found, from 14.3 to 14.5 percent overall — between 2009 and 2013. For black Americans, that climb was steeper: The 25.8 percent in poverty rose to 27.2 percent. Real median household incomes across America retreated across those years, from $54,059 to $51,939. …such finances also reversed for black Americans, from $35,387 to $34,598. …Home ownership slipped from 67.3 percent of Americans in the first quarter of 2009 to 64.0 in the fourth quarter of 2014. For blacks, that figure slid from 46.1 to 42.1 percent.

Here’s Deroy’s bottom line.

Obama has betrayed blacks as a community, failed Americans as a people, and enfeebled the United States as a nation.

To be sure, it’s not as if Obama wanted to hurt blacks. He just doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that statist policies undermine economic performance.

And when you hurt economic growth, the folks at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder generally suffer the most, and that’s why there are so many grim statistics about the economic health of black America.

The good news is that we know how to solve the problem. The bad news is that Obama is in the White House until January 2017.

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What’s America’s main fiscal policy challenge, particularly in the long run?

Most sensible people will agree that our greatest threat is the rising burden of entitlement spending.

More specifically, demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades.

So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article in the Washington Examiner.

Elizabeth Warren is pushing Democrats to expand Social Security rather than cut it, a move that could pressure presumed party frontrunner Hillary Clinton to move left. …”What Elizabeth Warren has done on pushing the ball forward on Social Security is another example of why she’s a bold progressive hero,” said T.J. Helmstetter, a representative for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an outside group that pushes for progressive causes. …In March, almost all Democratic senators voted for a symbolic budget amendment to express support for expanding Social Security. …The messaging amendment approved by most Senate Democrats also did not specify how benefits were to be expanded.

I discussed this topic in a recent interview.

Though I’m surprised that my head didn’t explode while discussing such a reckless idea.

I closed the interview by expressing a modest bit of optimism.

Surely (at least I hope) politicians won’t dig the hole deeper when we can see right before our eyes the fiscal chaos and economic disarray in Greece, right?!?

I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund.

Fortunately, not all politicians think it’s smart to accelerate as you’re driving toward a cliff.

Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Lane explains Governor Christie’s proposal.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie…wants to campaign on a sweeping proposal to rein in federal entitlement spending on the elderly. …he urged a phaseout of Social Security benefits for retirees with $80,000 or more in other income and backed a gradual upward adjustment of the retirement ages for Medicare and Social Security, which is also appropriate, given increased life expectancy. …Social Security…remains a non-trivial cause of the government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. Its trust fund, admittedly an accounting fiction of sorts, is on course to run out of cash by the early 2030s. Christie’s plan would provide three-fifths of the resources necessary to guarantee Social Security’s solvency for 75 years

Kudos to Governor Christie for recognizing that you can’t repeal mathematics with politics.

And this modest bit of praise isn’t based on policy. I’m not a big fan of means testing, which has some unfortunate economic effects.

And I also think that raising the retirement age is sub-optimal since it forces people to pay longer into an inferior system that already is giving them a very low rate of return.

The right approach is to transition to a system of personal retirement accounts, but at least Christie has an adult proposal based on real-world considerations.

Though, to be fair, many leftists claim we can afford higher benefits and also “fix” the system with a giant tax increase. So they sometimes recognize that math exists, even if they want us to believe that 2 + 2 = 7.

P.S. If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

P.P.S. Is Elizabeth Warren more of a faux populist or more of a faux American Indian?

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some previous Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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I realize it’s tax week and I should be condemning our convoluted tax code and oppressive IRS.

But I can’t resist getting diverted to another topic. It’s time to debunk the notion that there is rampant sexism in the private economy that causes women to by systematically underpaid.

I addressed the issue back in 2010, citing the solid work of Christina Hoff Summers. And I cited more of her work, as well as some analysis by Steve Chapman, when writing about the topic in 2012. The bottom line is that rigorous analysis finds that the so-called gender gap largely disappears once you consider factors such as occupational choice, hours worked, and education.

I’ll add my two cents to the discussion. For decades, I’ve been dealing with leftists who repeatedly tell me that business owners are consumed by greed and put profit above everything. Yet if women truly were making less money than men for doing equal work, then why aren’t these greed-filled business owners firing all their male employees and hiring women who will work for 80 percent of what it costs to employ men? Or 85 percent? Or 90 percent?

When I pose this question, my statist friends begin to mumble and stumble, but the clever ones eventually asset that business owners are not only soulless profiteers but also malign sexists. And the sexism apparently trumps the greed because they’re willing to employ men when equally competent women would work for less.

At that point, I usually ask them why entrepreneurs (presumably women and perhaps financed by rich leftists) don’t take advantage of a huge competitive opportunity by setting up rival businesses that could hire women for less money and lure customers away from the greedy sexist firms by charging lower prices.

I still haven’t received an answer to that question.

And that may explain why even one of President Obama’s top economic advisers basically admitted that equal-pay propaganda from the left is completely bogus.

Let’s dig into the data. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute does a very good job of explaining why Equal Pay Day is based on nonsensical numbers.

…the bogus feminist holiday event known as Equal Pay Day…is a statistical fairy tale because it’s based on the false assumption that women get paid 23% less than men for doing exactly the same work in the exact same occupations and careers, working side-by-side with men on the same job for the same organization, working the same number of hours per week, traveling the same amount of time for work obligations, with the same exact work experience and education, with exactly the same level of productivity, etc. …The reality is that you can only find a 23% gender pay gap by comparing raw, aggregate, unadjusted full-time median salaries, i.e. when you control for NOTHING that would help explain gender differences in salaries… Most economic studies that control for all of those variables conclude that gender discrimination accounts for only a very small fraction of gender pay differences, and may not even be a statistically significant factor at all. …As the Department of Labor concluded in 2009, “The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.” They also concluded that “the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action.”

By the way, all this data and research doesn’t mean sexism doesn’t exist. I’m sure it does, and it probably goes both ways.

I’m simply saying that unjustified discrimination in a competitive market economy is expensive. People who put prejudice above profits suffer. Which is why there’s so little actual evidence to support the feminist position.

Now let’s enjoy a bit of fun. It’s always amusing to expose statist hypocrisy.

The Obama White House claims to believe in so-called equal pay for equal work. But apparently that’s only a rule for us peasants.

And Hillary Clinton doubtlessly will regale us with speeches about equal pay over the next several months. Yet she didn’t practice what she preaches.

Yes, I realize we’re all shocked that politicians like Hillary prevaricate and dissemble.

P.S. Since this is tax season, I suppose I should close with a couple of relevant items.

First, we have an update to the infamous chart on the number of pages in the tax code.

Second, we have a new video from Reason TV about the “best tax code.”

Sadly, I don’t think my tax videos will ever be that entertaining.

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With so many Americans currently filled with anxiety about their annual tax forms, this is the time of year that many people wistfully dream about how nice it would be to have a simple and fair flat tax.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to better tax policy. I’ve previously addressed some of these obstacles.

1. Politicians who prefer the status quo make appeals to envy by making class-warfare arguments about imposing higher tax rates on those who contribute more to economic output.

2. Politicians have created a revenue-estimating system based on the preposterous notion that even big changes in tax policy have no impact on economic performance, thus creating a procedural barrier to reform.

3. Politicians enormously benefit from the current corrupt and complex system since they can auction off tax loopholes for campaign cash and use the tax code to reward friends and punish enemies.

Today, we’re going to look at another obstacle to pro-growth reform.

One of the main goals of tax reform is to get a low flat rate. This is important because marginal tax rates affect people’s incentives to engage in additional productive behavior.

But it’s equally important to have a system that taxes economic activity only one time. This is a big issue because the current internal revenue code imposes a heavy bias against income that is saved and invested. It’s possible, when you consider the impact of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, double tax on dividends, and the death tax, for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four times.

And what makes this system so crazy is that all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is critical for long-run growth and rising living standards.

Yet here’s the problem. The crowd in Washington has set up a system for determining tax loopholes and that system assumes that there should be this kind of double taxation!

I’m not joking. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

This is why I organized a briefing for Capitol Hill staffers last week. You can watch the entire hour by clicking here, but if you don’t have a lot of time, here’s my 10-minute speech on the importance of choosing the right tax base (i.e., taxing income only one time).

Since I’m an economist, I want to highlight one particular aspect on my presentation. You’ll notice near the end that I tried to explain the destructive economic impact of double taxation with an analogy.

I shared a Powerpoint slide that compared the tax system to an apple tree. If you want to tax income, the sensible approach is to pick the apples off the tree.

But if you want to mimic the current tax system, with the pervasive double taxation and bias against capital, you harvest the apples by chopping down the tree.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), it’s utterly foolish to harvest apples by chopping down the tree since it means fewer apples in following years.

In this analogy, the apples are the income and the tree is the capital.

But as I thought about the issue further, I realized my analogy was imperfect because our current system doesn’t confiscate all existing capital.

Which is why it is very fortunate that one of the interns at Cato, Jonathan Babington-Heina, is a very good artist. And he was able to take my idea and come up with a set of cartoons that accurately – and effectively – show why discriminatory taxation of capital is so misguided.

By the way, this isn’t the first time that an intern has come to my rescue with artistic skill.

My highest-viewed post of all time is this famous set of cartoons that shows the dangerous evolution of the welfare state.

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What’s the Laffer Curve?

It’s the simple, common-sense observation that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

Folks in the private sector understand this principle. No restaurant owner, for instance, would double meal prices and assume that revenues would climb by 100 percent.

Yet that’s basically the methodology used by the Joint Committee on Taxation when estimating the revenue impact of changes in tax rates.

Which helps to explain why Washington is so often wrong about revenue implications of personal tax rates and corporate tax rates.

The Laffer Curve also applies to tobacco taxation.

Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform points out in the Wall Street Journal that greedy politicians in New York have pushed cigarette taxes so high that the main beneficiaries are smugglers.

Rampant cigarette smuggling isn’t the problem in New York. It’s a symptom of the problem: sky high tobacco taxes. …New York state levies the highest cigarette tax in the nation, $4.35 per pack, and New York City tacks on an additional $1.50 local tax. All told, the cost of one pack there can run to $12 or more. …The result? Most of the cigarettes smoked in New York, 58%, are smuggled in from out of state… The higher that revenue-hungry politicians raise tobacco taxes, the more profit smugglers can make.

Which means, of course, that the higher tax rates don’t lead to more tax revenue.

…revenue from increases in cigarette taxes often falls short of expectations. Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand after cigarette taxes were raised by 25%, to $2.50 per pack from $2, in October 2009. City leaders claimed the hike would generate a windfall of additional revenue. By February of 2010, D.C.’s chief financial officer reported that projections were off by $15 million. Revenue from the cigarette tax actually fell by $7 million after the hike. New Jersey should have learned the same lesson. In 2007 the Garden State raised cigarette taxes to $2.575, from $2.40. The new tax generated $52 million less than expected, and revenue from cigarette taxes fell by $22 million. But in 2009 New Jersey raised the tax by another 17.5 cents.

By the way, don’t believe the fall-back excuse that politicians don’t care about revenue because they’re motivated by public health concerns.

Lawmakers can claim they’re raising taxes on cigarettes to reduce smoking and improve public health. That talking point is belied by the recent imposition of taxes on electronic cigarettes, which are saving lives by delivering nicotine in puffs of water vapor instead of chemical-filled smoke. There are more than 15 tax bills pending across the country for currently untaxed e-cigarettes. Hawaii is proposing a tax of 80%, New York of 75%, Oregon of 65% and Ohio of 60%. For politicians, cigarette taxes are—and have always been—about one thing: money.

One last thing. Gleason reports that New York is suing UPS because the company ships cigarettes to New York customers.

New York state and New York City in February announced a $180 million lawsuit against the shipping company UPS over what officials allege was unlawful delivery of nearly 700,000 cartons of cigarettes from 2010-14. …New York state officials claim that the cigarette smuggling via UPS cost the treasury $29.7 million in lost tax revenue. That’s less than 0.03% of the state budget. The $4.7 million allegedly lost by New York City represents less than 0.006% of its budget. For a mere rounding error, state and city officials want to grab $180 million from UPS. That’s $180 million UPS could use to hire new workers, give employees raises, or invest back into its business. The leaders of New York and New York City should drop this silly lawsuit and find a more productive use of their time.

They shouldn’t merely drop the lawsuit. They should be condemned for engaging in a thuggish shakedown.

Returning to the main topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that reviews real-world examples of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. If local officials are greedy, state officials are ever greedier, and federal officials are greediest, then you can imagine how awful it would be to let international officials impose tobacco taxes.

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When writing about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international bureaucracy based in Paris, my life would be simpler if I created some sort of automatic fill-in-the-blanks system.

Something like this.

The OECD, subsidized by $____ million from American taxpayers, has just produced a new _________ that advocates more power for governments over the _________ sector of the economy.

But this may not be sufficiently descriptive.

So maybe I should create a multiple choice exercise. Sort of like when students take tests and get asked to circle the most appropriate answer.

The bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD, working in cooperation with union bosses/class-warfare advocates/other tax-free international bureaucrats/politicians, have released a new report/study/paper urging more power/control/authority for governments in order to increase regulation/taxes/spending/redistribution/intervention.

You may think I’m trying to be funny, but this is totally serious.

How else would you describe a bureaucracy that consorts and cooperates with leftist groups like Occupy Wall Street and the AFL-CIO and routinely published propaganda in favor of Obama’s agenda on issues such as global warming, government-run healthcare, so-called stimulus, and class-warfare taxation.

And never forget that American taxpayers finance the biggest chunk of this bureaucracy’s budget.

Adding insult to injury, the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries, which makes their relentless support for higher taxes on the rest of us even more obnoxious.

Now we have some new examples of the OECD’s statist mischief.

Here’s some of what the Center for Freedom and Prosperity recently uncovered.

At its sixth annual conference, the George Soros-founded Institute for New Economic Thinking will feature prominent left-wing economists Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and self-described Marxist and Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. By itself that wouldn’t be remarkable, but the meeting will come with the implicit endorsement of the U.S. taxpayer thanks to the sponsorship of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which gets over 20 percent of its funding from the United States.

So why is the OECD subsidizing a left-wing gabfest and giving publicity to way-out-of-the-mainstream characters like Piketty?

Part of the answer, one suspects, is that the bureaucracy has a bloated budget.

But the bigger reason is presumably that the bureaucrats want to push a statist ideological agenda.

…tax collectors have hijacked the OECD… Over the last decade and a half, they have threatened and cajoled low-tax jurisdictions into counter-productive reforms that make their economies less attractive to those suffering under the excessive taxes required to fund European welfare states. …They have essentially turned the OECD into a global tax cartel, or an OPEC for politicians.

None of this is a surprise because it’s part of a bigger pattern.

The OECD gets its money from governments. Most of those governments are European welfare states. The bureaucrats at the OECD get very generous tax-free salaries.

So of course they’re going to pump out whatever propaganda is needed to please their political (and pay) masters.

Here are some other recent examples, both of which were disseminated by the OECD’s Washington Center, which mostly exists to make sure that Congress and the White House maintain the gravy train of handouts to Paris.

Our first example of economic malpractice is this nonsense about a so-called gender wage gap. Note that the OECD is forced to admit the numbers are “unadjusted.”

That’s because lots of research shows that the wage gap disappears once you adjust for factors such as hours worked, types of professions, and work history.

By the way, just in case you think I’m only citing pro-market sources, it’s very much worth noting that even one of President Obama’s economic advisers confessed that the left’s gender-gap numbers are bogus.

Now let’s look at another chart.

I’ve previously explained that what matters most for the poor is economic growth.

Yet statists prefer to focus on the rich-v-poor gap because they want to mislead folks into thinking the economy is a fixed pie (as depicted here) and the income of the rich is at the expense of the poor.

And that’s the purpose of this OECD chart.

This very much reminds me of the OECD’s laughably dishonest research on poverty, which purports to show that there is more poverty in the United States than there is in economically distressed nations such as Greece, Turkey, Hungary, and Portugal.

As you can see from this video, statism is now the OECD’s chief product.

Which is why Republicans in Congress, if they actually on the side of taxpayers, should defund this destructive bureaucracy.

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Free trade is a good moral concept for the simple reason that politicians and bureaucrats should not be allowed to interfere with voluntary transactions between consenting adults.

It’s also a good economic concept for the simple reason that protectionists can’t provide good answers to simple questions.

And free trade is a good geopolitical concept because it is far better than foreign aid as a mechanism for generating prosperity in less-developed nations.

Writing for the Economic Times of India, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center writes about the benefits of open markets among nations.

With one simple policy—more free trade—we could make the world $500 trillion better off and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. …reducing trade barriers not only makes the world richer, it is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health and restoring the environment. …Freer trade essentially means that each country can focus on doing what it does best, making all countries better off.

The good news is that global trade has been substantially liberalized. Protectionist barriers are much lower than they were a few decades ago.

Indeed, shifts to freer trade have helped compensate for growing fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era.

But we also have bad news. There are still sectors where trade taxes and other protectionist policies inhibit voluntary exchange, most notably for agriculture and textiles.

Lomborg cites data about the huge gains that would be possible if these sectors were liberalized.

The direct economic benefits would be a 1.1 per cent increase in global GDP. This sounds modest. But because it would impact the entire world economy, by 2030 we would be about $1.5 trillion richer every year. Open economies also grow faster. In the last 50 years, countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile and India have seen their rate of growth shoot up by 1.5 per cent per annum on average, shortly after liberalisation. If Doha can be completed, it is estimated that the global economy will grow by an extra 0.6 per cent for the next few decades. By 2030, such dynamic growth would make the world economy $11.5 trillion larger each year, leaving us 10 per cent more resources to fix all other problems. …By the end of the century, free trade could leave our grandkids 20 per cent better off, or with $100 trillion more every year than they would otherwise have had.

Lomborg is making the very important point that even modest increases in growth, sustained over long periods of time, can lead to huge increases in prosperity.

He correctly applies this analysis to the trade sector, but it’s a lesson that has universal applicability. It’s why we need better tax policy, a lower burden of government spending, less regulation and red tape, and better rule of law to limit government corruption.

But today’s focus is trade, so let’s look at a great video from Marginal Revolution University. Here’s Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University talking about the benefits of trade.

By the way, I didn’t notice it at first, but Tyler’s video doesn’t focus on international trade. He simply explains the benefit of trade among people.

But this also helps to explain why free trade across borders is good for growth. If it’s good for two people inside Virginia to engage in voluntary exchange, and if it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ohio to engage in voluntary exchange, then it’s also true that it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ireland to engage in voluntary exchange.

Another subtle yet important secondary point from the video is that central planning is folly because no single bureaucrat, or group of bureaucrats, will ever have the necessary knowledge (much less incentive) to properly allocate resources. To elaborate, you just listened to Prof. Cowen explain that one of the big benefits of trade is that people can specialize in things where they have a comparative advantage. And when people specialize, they develop greater knowledge in particular fields, which further increases their productivity. Yet it’s impossible for that diffuse knowledge to be centralized, much less used properly.

Which is why centrally planned economies such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are such disasters.

And this also explains why nations that normally rely on markets get such bad results when politicians take control of specific sectors of the economy. Just consider the failures of Obamacare and the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system.

But let’s get back to the issue of trade.

Politicians sometimes make arguments about “economic patriotism.” If that simply meant, for instance, that they wanted a lower corporate tax rate to make American companies and workers more competitive, that would be fine.

But as we’ve seen with Obama, language about patriotism oftentimes is a ruse to push for protectionism and other bad policies.

And one of the reasons why the protectionism-patriotism argument doesn’t make sense is that it presumes a contest among nations. Yet as Walter Williams wisely explained, trade ultimately is between private individuals.

P.S. The MRU videos are great tutorials about economics. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value, highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and revealing the destructive impact of government subsidies. They’re all worth a few minutes of your time.

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What are the wisest words ever uttered by an American president?

I’m not going to pretend to know the answer, but there are some options that are high on my list.

I like what Ronald Reagan said about the government’s view of the economy, a quote that I shared just a few days ago.

I also like what the Gipper said about big government during his inauguration in 1981.

Since I’ve asserted that Calvin Coolidge may be the best President of the 20th Century, it behooves me to point out what he said, as cited by Reagan, about shrinking government to save people.

Going back further in time, it’s hard to come up with better advice than these sage thoughts from Thomas Jefferson.

And let’s not forget the principled words of Presidents Madison, Pierce, and Cleveland. Walter Williams has cited their impressive fealty to the Constitution, an approach that is in stark contrast to the behavior of today’s politicians.

Now let’s look at another option in our best-quote contest.

But, first, some background.

What is it that our statist friends want? At the risk of oversimplifying, they think the government should use redistribution to provide basic needs for everyone.

That certainly was the core message of FDR’s so-called second bill of rights.

And it’s certainly the prevailing mindset of most Europeans.

Well, there is a group of Americans – numbering above 2 million – who do have all their basic needs provided by government.

They get their housing from government. They get their food from government. They also get free health care from government. And their clothing as well. And don’t forget free utilities!

Who are these “lucky” folks? Well, these are the people locked up in America’s prisons. So, yes, their needs are provided by government, but the tradeoff is that they don’t have freedom.

And this brings us to a very good quote from General Dwight Eisenhower. Here’s part of what he said to students at Columbia University in 1949.

In these times when we hear so much of security, security, security for everything we do — when so many of us want to be sure that we shall never be cold, or hungry, or out in the rain, or have a leaky roof… I should think that the best example of it would be a man serving a lifetime in a federal prison.

And here’s an image I found online that captures the same spirit, though I confess I don’t know if Ike uttered these specific words (shockingly, not everything you find on the Internet is true!).

But since it echoes the same sentiment as his remarks in 1949, I figure it’s worth sharing.

Now let’s close with an amusing interpretation of Ike’s quote.

I’ve shared many jokes about our political masters.

Here’s one that I got from my mother.

It’s about a possible new “Part G” for Medicare.

Medicare – Part G – Nursing Home Plan

Say you’re an older senior citizen and can no longer take care of
yourself. The government says there’s no Nursing Home care available
for you. So, what do you do? You opt for Part G.

Our plan gives anyone 65 years or older a gun (Part G) and four bullets.
You are allowed to shoot four politicians. This means, of course, that
you’ll be sent to prison where you’ll receive three meals a day, a roof
over your head, central heating & air conditioning, cable TV, library,
and all the Health Care you need. Need new teeth? No problem. Need
glasses? That’s great. Need a hearing aid, new hip, knees, kidney,
lungs, sex change, or heart? They’re all covered.

As an added bonus, your kids can come and visit you at least as often
as they do now!

And, who will be paying for all of this? The same government that just
told you they can’t afford for you to go into a home. And….you can
get rid of 4 useless politicians while you’re at it. And now, because
you’re a prisoner, you don’t have to pay any more income taxes.

Is this a great country or what?

Now that we’ve solved your senior financial planning, enjoy your week.

Though I suppose I should add that this is just a joke and that no actual politicians were harmed in the writing of this post.

After all, there’s no need to shoot these scoundrels. As Instapundit periodically reminds us, tar and feathers are a much more appropriate punishment.

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I’ve often complained that government-created third-party payer is the main problem with America’s healthcare system, and I was making that point well before Obamacare was imposed upon the country.

The issue is very straightforward. In a genuine free market, people pay “out of pocket” for routine expenses. And they rely on insurance only in cases where they may face large, unexpected costs.

But in our current healthcare system, thanks to Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, most of us buy services with other people’s money and that dramatically distorts incentives.

Here’s some of what I wrote about this messed-up approach back in 2009.

…our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. Last but not least, we need to consider how this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working? …Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

As you can see, I’m frustrated.

I think the system is inefficient from an economic perspective. But I’m also a consumer, and I’m very dissatisfied whenever I have to deal with the healthcare system.

Fortunately, more and more people are adding their two cents on this topic.

Here’s some great analysis on the issue by Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute. He starts by pointing out how prices for health care generally climb much faster than the overall CPI price level.

Between 1998 and 2014 the price of medical care services in the US (as measured by the BLS’s CPI for Medical Care Services) has increased by 88.5%, or more than twice the 45.8% increase in consumer prices in general over that period… On an annual basis, medical care costs in the US have increased more than 4% per year compared to an average inflation rate of only 2.4% over the last 16 years.

He then explains that a big problem is third-party payer, which eviscerates normal market forces.

As a result, consumers are relatively insensitive to price, which means producers and providers can charge more and be relatively inefficient.

One of the reasons that medical care costs in the US have increased almost twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage is paid out-of-pocket by consumers. According to data from the Census Bureau, almost half (47%) of health care expenditures in 1960 were paid by consumers out-of-pocket, and by 1990 that share had fallen to 20% and by 2009 to only 12%. …Consumers of health care have no incentive to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical services when they only pay 10% themselves, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t price sensitive.

Mark then asks what the world would look like if the free market was allowed to function. And he identifies a niche in the healthcare system where that happens.

How would the market for medical services operate differently if consumers were paying out-of-pocket for medical procedures in a competitive market? Well, we can look to the $7.5 billion US market for elective cosmetic surgery for some answers.

And the information he shares is remarkable.

The table…shows the top five most popular surgical procedures and top five most popular non-surgical procedures for 2014, the number of each of those procedures performed last year, the total expenditures for each procedure, the average price per procedure both in 1998 and 2014, and the percent increase in price since 1998 for each procedure. …For the top ten most popular cosmetic procedures last year, none of them has increased in price since 1998 more than the 45.8% increase in consumer price inflation…, meaning the real price of all of those procedures have fallen over the last 16 years. …For three of the top five favorite non-surgical procedures in 2014 (botox, laser hair removal and chemical peel), the nominal prices have actually fallen since 1998 by large double-digit percentage declines of -23.6%, -31.2% and -30.1%.  …none of the ten cosmetic procedures in the table above have increased in price by anywhere close to the 88.5% increase in medical care services since 1998.

Here’s Mark’s chart, and I’ve circled the relevant bits of data.

Just in case it’s not obvious, Mark then draws the should-be-obvious conclusions from this data.

Simply stated, when people spend their own money, they are careful shoppers. And when consumers are careful shoppers, that leads to competitive pressure on producers and providers to be much more efficient.

The competitive market for cosmetic procedures operates differently than the traditional market for health care in important and significant ways. Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients paying out-of-pocket for cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious, and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Because of that market competition, the prices of almost all cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms since 1998, and some non-surgical procedures have even fallen in nominal dollars before adjusting for price changes. In all cases, cosmetic procedures have increased in price by less than the 88.5% increase in the price of medical care services between 1998 and 2014.

That last sentence is the key. Because of third-party payer, overall health care expenses have climbed about twice the rate of inflation.

For cosmetic surgery, where normal market forces operate thanks to an absence of government-imposed and government-subsidized third-party payer, prices climb slower than overall inflation.

Here’s a video, produced by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, on the problem of third-party payer.

As you can see, Obamacare made the problem worse, but it’s just one small part of a really big problem caused by decades of government intervention.

P.S. The video expands upon the analysis provided in a previous CF&P video.

P.P.S. Setting aside the debate about whether it’s right or wrong, the abortion market also is an interesting case study of how prices don’t rise when consumers pay out of pocket.

P.P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer also is screwing up the market for higher education.

P.P.P.P.S. Mark Perry not only is a good economist, as you can see above, but he’s also a brave guy for being willing to antagonize feminists.

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With tax day looming, let’s wallow in misery by contemplating the burden on America’s taxpayers.

But we’ll ignore the angst caused be dealing with an indecipherable tax code and an oppressive IRS and simply focus on the amount of money that gets extracted from our income each year.

The bad news is that the federal government is collecting a record amount of money, even after adjusting for inflation. Here’s a chart, based on the latest numbers from the Office of Management and Budget.

But there is some good news. This isn’t a record tax burden when measured as a share of economic output.

Federal taxes are projected to consume 17.7 percent of GDP this year. That’s higher than the post-WWII average of 17.2 percent of GDP, but there have been several years in which the federal tax burden has been higher than 17.7 percent, most recently in 2007, when it reached 17.9 percent of economic output.

So while it’s bad news that the IRS is collecting a record amount of revenue in inflation-adjusted dollars, I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that it’s not a record share of GDP.

I discuss the growing federal tax burden in this CNBC debate with Jared Bernstein.

A few points are worth emphasizing from the interview, two of which deal with corporate taxation.

First, it’s silly to talk to compare “taxes by individuals” to “taxes paid by corporations.” That’s because all taxes on business ultimately are paid by individuals, whether as workers, consumers, or shareholders. To be blunt, corporations may collect taxes, but the burden inevitably falls on people.

Second, the fact that corporate tax receipts are lagging is a sign that tax rates are too high rather than too low. In other words, there’s a Laffer Curve effect, and there’s lots of evidence that a lower corporate rate will generate more revenue. Which is precisely what happened when personal tax rates were reduced on the “rich” in the 1980s.

Third, if we want a balanced budget, the only responsible approach is spending restraint. As I’ve noted before, our long-run fiscal challenge is because of a rising burden of spending. Indeed, spending is more than 100 percent of the long-run problem.

By the way, let’s not forget about the role of state and local governments. WalletHub just released a report on state and local tax burdens.

Here are the 10 best states.

I’m mystified to see California in the top 10.

Though maybe this is a Laffer Curve-based result. In other words, perhaps taxes are so high that people are paying less?

Moreover, the Golden State drops to 30 if you adjust for the cost of living (see column on far right).

Now here are the 10 worst states.

I’m not surprised to see Illinois in last place, but who knew that Nebraska was a hotbed of taxaholism?

And if you look at the right-most column, you’ll see that New York and Connecticut could be considered the worst states. Both jurisdictions are richly deserving of that designation.

P.S. Don’t forget that Puerto Rico is a secret tax haven for American citizens, particularly when considering federal taxes, so it deserves honorary first place recognition.

P.P.S. The best (i.e., least worst or least destructive) approach to taxation is the flat tax.

P.P.P.S. Though the ideal scenario is to have a very small federal government so that there’s no need for any broad-based tax whatsoever. Our nation enjoyed strong growth before that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was imposed.

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What’s the most important factor for economic progress?

There are several possible answers to that question. We can take a big-picture view and argue that the key is free markets and small government, and there certainly is lots of evidence in favor of this assertion when you compare countries over time.

But what if we narrow our focus and try to identify, for instance, the key characteristic of a free market. At times, I’ve highlighted the importance of both property rights and the price system.

Private property gives people the right incentives to both produce and conserve, a lesson learned early in American history.

An unfettered price system is a mechanism that best ensures resources are efficiently utilized to serve consumers.

But we need to augment this list by also including the valuable role of the profit motive.

This Prager University video, narrated by my friend Walter Williams, succinctly explains the issue.

I especially like the section where Walter asks what institutions and entities leave us happy and contented. The answer, at least for most of us, is that we’re more likely to be satisfied in our dealing with private companies operating in competitive markets.

That’s because the profit motive gives them an incentive to treat us well, both to boost their reputations and so we’ll be repeat customers.

Simply stated, in a true free market, entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners can only become rich by providing consumers with things that make our lives better.

But our dealings with government (or government-enforced monopolies like cable companies) tend to be less rewarding, whether it’s because bureaucrats are taking our money, bossing us around, or simply treating us poorly.

So the next time some politician or pundit complains about “evil profits,” just remember Walter’s wise words from the video.

P.S. I’ve shared two other videos from Prager University, one of the Laffer Curve and one about statist policies and the Great Depression. They’ve both very much worth watching.

P.P.S. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that profits are only admirable if they’re earned honestly. There are fraudsters in private markets who rip off consumers and there are crony capitalists who use coercive government policies to line their pockets. These groups deserve disdain and punishment.

P.P.P.S. Walter Williams is one of America’s best public intellectuals. I’ve cited his work numerous times, but your first stop, in learning more about him, is this video from Reason TV.

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When writing about the Golden State, I generally focus on fiscal policy. After all, California is trying to become the France of America by imposing punitive tax rates and continuously expanding the burden of government spending.

And since this leads to the loss of jobs and competitiveness, California offers a helpful reminder that bad policy has consequences.

But let’s now look at another example of misguided policy in California. The state is suffering a drought, which obviously isn’t the fault of state lawmakers, but policies imposed by those lawmakers are turning the drought from a problem to a crisis.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the issue.

The liberals who run California have long purported that their green policies are a free (organic) lunch, but the bills are coming due. Lo, Governor Jerry Brown has mandated a 25% statewide reduction in water use. Consider this rationing a surcharge for decades of environmental excess. …During the last two winters amid the drought, regulators let more than 2.6 million acre-feet out into the bay. The reason: California lacked storage capacity north of the delta, and environmental rules restrict water pumping to reservoirs south. …no major water infrastructure project has been completed in California since the 1960s. Money is not the obstacle. Since 2000 voters have approved five bonds authorizing $22 billion in spending for water improvements. Environmental projects have been the biggest winners. …studies show that mandates and subsidies for low-flow appliances like California’s don’t work because people respond by changing their behavior (e.g., taking longer showers). Despite the diminishing returns, Mr. Brown has ordered more spending on water efficiency.

In other words, the government-run system for collecting and distributing water is suffering because of a failure to generate enough supply and because non-price mechanisms aren’t very effective at limiting demand.

So what would work?

The WSJ suggests market-based pricing.

And the good news is that it is a small part of the Governor’s new proposal.

The most proven strategy to reduce water consumption is market pricing with water rates increasing based on household use. …To his credit, the Governor has instructed the State Water Resources Control Board to develop pricing mechanisms… Not even Gov. Brown can make it rain, but he and other politicians can stop compounding the damage by putting water storage, transportation and market pricing above environmental obsessions.

By the way, it’s worth noting that market-based pricing is actually the most effective way of achieving the environmental goal of conservation.

So if you want more water for fish, make sure it’s priced appropriately.

To elaborate on this topic, Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, explains that subsidized water encourages overuse.

California’s problem is not that it doesn’t have enough water to support its population. Rather, the problem is that its population uses more water than it has to. And the reason people do this is that water in California is seriously underpriced… While the new emergency rules do include provisions for local utilities to raise rates, that would still leave water in the state ludicrously mispriced. …the average household in San Diego pays less than 80 cents a day for the 150 gallons of water it uses. …Artificially cheap water encourages people to install lush, green lawns that need lots of watering instead of native plants more appropriate to the local climate. It means they don’t even look for information about the water efficiency of their fixtures and appliances. They take long showers and let the tap run while they’re on the phone with Mom. In a thousand ways, it creates demand far in excess of supply.

Megan agrees with the WSJ that market-based prices are far more effective in controlling demand than non-market restrictions and mandates.

Having artificially goosed demand, the government then tries to curb it by mandating efficiency levels and outlawing water-hogging landscaping. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work nearly as well as pricing water properly, then letting people figure out how they want to conserve it.

And while it may be a challenge to figure out the “market rate” when water is being provided by a government monopoly, it’s safe to say that this rate is a lot higher than it is today.

…we could set some minimum amount of water that would be sold at a very cheap rate, with any excess charged at market rates to reflect the actual supply and the cost of providing it. This would be hugely unpopular with homeowners who have big lawns as well as with farmers.

There’s a semi-famous saying that “if you want less of something, tax it; if you want more of something, subsidize it.”

I don’t know if somebody famous uttered that phrase, or something like it, but the point is correct.

The bottom line is that subsidies encourage over-utilization, inefficiency, and insensitivity to price. That’s true for health care and higher education, just as it’s true for water.

Now let’s look at a video that helps illustrate the damaging impact of subsidies.

It’s not completely applicable because water isn’t sold by profit-making companies, but this video from Marginal Revolution explains how consumers will demand a much greater quantity of a product when the price is artificially low because of subsidies.

Indeed, the video even uses California water as an example.

P.S. The MRU videos are superb tutorials. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value and highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and they’re all worth a few minutes of your time.

P.P.S. Shifting from substance to California-specific humor, this Chuck Asay cartoon speculates on how future archaeologists will view California. This Michael Ramirez cartoon looks at the impact of the state’s class-warfare tax policy. And this joke about Texas, California, and a coyote is among my most-viewed blog posts.

P.P.P.S. Paul Krugman has tried to defend California’s economic performance, which has made him an easy target. I debunked him earlier this year, and I also linked to a superb Kevin Williamson takedown of Krugman at the bottom of this post.

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I’ve written many times about the shortcomings of government schools at the K-12 level. We spend more on our kids than any other nation, yet our test scores are comparatively dismal.

And one of my points, based on this very sobering chart from one of my Cato colleagues, is that America’s educational performance took a turn in the wrong direction when the federal government became more involved starting about 40-50 years ago.

Well, the same unhappy story exists in the higher-education sector. Simply stated, there’s been an explosion of spending, much of it from Washington, yet the rate of return appears to be negative.

Let’s take a closer look at this issue.

Writing for the New York Times, Professor Paul Campos of the University of Colorado begins his column by giving the conventional-wisdom explanation of why it costs so much to go to college.

Once upon a time in America, baby boomers paid for college with the money they made from their summer jobs. Then, over the course of the next few decades, public funding for higher education was slashed. These radical cuts forced universities to raise tuition year after year, which in turn forced the millennial generation to take on crushing educational debt loads, and everyone lived unhappily ever after. This is the story college administrators like to tell when they’re asked to explain why, over the past 35 years, college tuition at public universities has nearly quadrupled, to $9,139 in 2014 dollars.

That’s a compelling story, and it surely has convinced a lot of people, but it has one tiny little problem. It’s utter nonsense.

It is a fairy tale in the worst sense, in that it is not merely false, but rather almost the inverse of the truth. …In fact, public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher. In other words, far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.

Unfortunately, little of this money is being used for education.

…a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Even more strikingly, an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, found that, while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase.

This is great news, but only if you’re a bureaucrat.

But if you think education dollars should be used to educate, it’s not very encouraging.

For example, check out this very depressing example of bureaucratic bloat at the University of California San Diego.

Now let’s zoom back out to the bigger issue. Professor Richard Vedder from Ohio University is even more critical of handouts for the higher-education sector. Here’s some of what he wrote for National Review.

America’s colleges and universities are terribly inefficient and excessively expensive, foster relatively little learning and ability to think critically, and turn out too many graduates who end up underemployed. These and related problems have grown sharply in the half century since the Higher Education Act of 1965 heralded a major expansion of the federal role in higher education.

Rich correctly points out that the federal government has made matters worse.

Washington is far more the problem than the solution to the current afflictions of American higher education. …Tuition has skyrocketed in the era since federal student-loan and grant programs started to become large in the late 1970s. Colleges have effectively confiscated federal loan and grant money designated for students and used it to help fund an academic arms race that has given us climbing walls, lazy rivers, and million-dollar university presidents — but declining literacy among college students and a massive mismatch between students’ labor-market expectations and the realities of the job market.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that federal handouts have backfired against low-income students.

…the primary goal of the federal student-aid programs was to improve access to college for lower-income persons. Here, the record is one of total failure: A smaller percentage of recent college graduates come from the bottom quartile of the income distribution today than was the case in 1970, when federal student-assistance programs were in their infancy.

To close on a semi-optimistic note, Prof. Vedder highlights some intriguing incremental reforms advanced by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, including the notion that handouts should be linked to performance.

…he seems to embrace the idea that colleges should have “skin in the game”: They should face financial consequences for admitting, and then failing to graduate, students who default on loans and have marginal educational backgrounds indicating that they were clearly ill prepared for truly higher education. …Users and providers of university services need to feel the pain associated with academic non-performance. Growing federal involvement in higher education has brought rising prices, falling quality, and student underemployment. While it is perhaps politically impossible to radically change the federal student financial-aid programs now, the Alexander move is an important first step to rethinking how we finance higher education.

Ultimately, though, we won’t solve the problem unless the federal government’s role is abolished, which is yet another reason to shut down the Department of Education in Washington.

P.S. Here’s a great video from Learn Liberty explaining why subsidies have translated into higher tuition.

P.P.S. Some people have their fingers crossed that there’s a “tuition bubble” that’s about to pop. I hope that’s true, and it may be happening in a few sectors such as law, but I don’t think the overall higher-education bubble will pop until and unless we end government subsidies and handouts.

P.P.P.S. I’m even against subsidies and handouts for economists!

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A few days ago, I cited some research by an economics professor at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!), who calculated that we would have a big budget surplus today if Washington lawmakers had simply maintained Bill Clinton’s final budget, adjusting it only for inflation plus population growth.

My purpose was to show that some sort of long-run spending cap (such as limiting outlays so they can’t grow faster than population plus inflation) is the best way of achieving good fiscal outcomes.

And I cited similar hypothetical examples when writing about fiscal policy in Canada and also when sharing some good analysis from Investor’s Business Daily.

I think these examples are persuasive, but some people aren’t overly impressed by arguments that aren’t based on real-world evidence. So I also make sure to show how good things happen in those rare instances that politicians can be convinced to restrain spending.

A review of data for 16 nations reveals that multi-year periods of spending restraint lead to lower fiscal burdens and less red ink.

Between 2009 and 2014, a de facto spending freeze at the federal level dramatically reduced burden of spending in the United States.

Thanks to a constitutional spending cap, Switzerland has shrunk the public sector, balanced its budget and reduced government debt.

Now we have another real-world example to add to our list.

Check out these excerpts from a New York Times story.

A year after Colorado became the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales, millions of tax dollars are rolling in… But a legal snarl may force the state to hand that money back to marijuana consumers, growers and the public — and lawmakers do not want to.

Hmmm…I can understand lawmakers wanting to hold on to other people’s money, but what is meant by “legal snarl”?

Well, it turns out that this is just a way of describing Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which imposes caps on how fast the state’s fiscal burden can increase. The reporter from the New York Times writes that this is a “problem,” but taxpayers obviously have a different perspective.

The problem is a strict anti-spending provision in the state Constitution… Technical tripwires in that voter-approved provision, known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, may require Colorado to refund nearly $60 million…because it collected more than it had anticipated in taxes last year across the board — including construction, oil and gas and other sections of the state’s booming economy. …The complex measure, first approved by voters in 1992, essentially requires that when Colorado collects more money than it had anticipated, it has to give some back to taxpayers.

In other words, the state is collecting plenty of money in taxes, but the politicians are irked they can’t raise spending beyond what’s allowed by TABOR.

And that irks the pro-spending crowd.

Blame lies with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, said Tim Hoover, a spokesman for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which tracks budget issues in the state. …“It has its own malevolent programming that is really hard to override,” he said.

I obviously don’t agree with Mr. Hoover’s philosophy, but his quote is very powerful evidence that a well-designed spending cap can be effective.

Which is why I cited Colorado’s TABOR back in 2013 as being the best role model in the United States for those who want to genuinely constrain government.

Heck, even the International Monetary Fund now acknowledges that spending caps are the only effective fiscal policy.

By the way, there’s also a Laffer Curve lesson in this story. Echoing what I wrote earlier this year, marijuana tax revenues have been below estimates because the tax rate is too high.

“It’s not that the pot tax came in too high,” said State Senator Pat Steadman, a Democrat who has been trying to write a law that would provide a solution. “It’s that every other revenue came in high.” …Miguel Lopez, who organizes Denver’s annual 4/20 rally — intended to be a giant feel-good festival — said he was sick of what he called high taxes on recreational marijuana. He said they were hurting small stores and helping to keep the black market alive.

Not that we should be surprised. Politicians routinely over-tax tobacco.

And other so-called sin taxes also get set too high, which is a point I made when commenting about a proposed tax on strip clubs in Florida.

“You get a bigger underground economy with high tax rates, which means less revenue than anticipated, and also openings for organized crime and other bad guys,” he said. “Regarding the proposal, I have to imagine that a $25 cover charge, combined with record-keeping, will kill off most strip clubs, so I don’t think they’ll get much money,” Mitchell said. “Customers, presumably, will gravitate to substitute forms of entertainment.”

In the case of Colorado’s pot tax, the “substitute form of entertainment” is simply buying pot in the underground economy.

So the moral of the story, whether looking at spending caps or tax rates, is that politicians are too greedy for their own good.

P.S. What’s the opposite of a spending cap? There are probably a couple of possible answers, but I would pick Obama’s proposed tax-increase “trigger.” Here’s some of what I wrote about that scheme.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. …Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

Fortunately, this was such an awful idea that even gullible GOPers said no. Now if we can keep Republicans from getting seduced into counterproductive tax-hike budget deals, we may actually make some progress!

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I’m not a fan of the IRS or it’s Commissioner, a partisan Democrat named John Koskinen. The agency has become politicized, interfering with America’s political process. Needless to say, I’m not shedding tears that the bureaucracy is no longer getting big budget increases.

By contrast, I oftentimes applaud Senator Ted Cruz. His shutdown fight against Obamacare was a net plus. He was one of the few 2016 candidates who took a strong stand against cronyism in Iowa. And he manages to retain a sense of humor in the fight against big government.

So it’s with considerable chagrin that I feel compelled to admit that IRS boss made a good point, at least from a technical perspective, when he criticized Senator Cruz on the topic of the flat tax.

Here’s the background. A story in Bloomberg quotes Senator Cruz about his goal for tax reform.

“Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation, that imposes burdens on families struggling to make ends meet, imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a post card. Imagine abolishing the IRS,” Cruz said.

Now here’s an excerpt from a Politico report about Mr. Koskinen’s response.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen poked holes in Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s plan to abolish the IRS and create a simple flat tax so taxpayers could file their taxes on a postcard. Koskinen pointed out that even if taxpayers were to file their taxes on “a small card,” someone would have to collect the money and make sure the numbers filled out are actually correct. “You can call [tax collectors] something else than the IRS if that makes you feel better, but basically someone has to follow through on all of that,” Koskinen told reporters today after a speech at the National Press Club.

Koskinen is right. So long as the federal government intends to extract more than $3 trillion from taxpayers, there will be a tax-collection agency. That’s true even if you have a flat tax or a national sales tax.

Sure, you can rename the IRS, or even require states to collect the revenue instead, but none of that changes the fact that some coercive body will exist to take our money.

That being said, Cruz’s overall point surely is correct. The IRS in a flat tax world would be largely de-fanged. Indeed, the Tax Foundation estimated several years ago that compliance costs would drop by more than 94 percent if we replaced the internal revenue code with a flat tax. And, as pointed out in this video, the tax code today is even more complex, so the savings now presumably would be even larger.

So Koskinen may be technically correct, but only because he is focusing the conversation on the narrow issue of whether government will still have a tax-enforcement body.

But Cruz is correct on the big-picture issue of whether the IRS as it exists today will no longer exist.

Since we’re on the topic of tax reform, Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart, both with the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal that is somewhat critical of the Rubio-Lee tax reform plan.

The authors start by pointing out that the defining characteristic of supply-side economics is lower marginal tax rates on productive behavior (work, saving, investment, risk-taking, entrepreneurship).

Signaling opportunity throughout the tax code has long been the basis of the philosophy known as supply-side economics, or “Reaganomics.” Reaganomics treats even individual wage earners as entrepreneurs. The marginal rate to which a worker is subject under the progressive tax schedule is crucial. A higher rate on the next dollar a worker earns discourages him from working more. The highest tax bracket is especially important as top earners produce the most and innovate the most. …That top marginal rate also functions as a symbol of how society rewards enterprise.

Their unhappiness with Rubio-Lee is due to the fact that their proposal does not contain big rate reductions for labor income to match the very good rate reductions for business and investment income.

…on the personal side their proposal drops the top marginal rate on individual income by a puny 4.6 percentage points, to 35% from 39.6%. …What’s more, Rubio-Lee lowers tax thresholds drastically. Singles with taxable income as low as $75,000 find themselves entering the 35% top bracket; for couples the top rate applies after $150,000. Currently, individuals don’t hit the 35% bracket until $411,501, and the same holds for couples.

So why aren’t there big reductions in tax rates for households to match the very good reforms for businesses? The answer, at least in part, is that “Rubio-Lee also raises the child credit” and this consumes a lot of money, in effect crowding out lower marginal tax rates.

As a result, you get big economic benefits from the reforms to business taxation, but the child credits don’t have any impact on incentives to create wealth, expand jobs, or boost income.

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently estimated that Rubio-Lee would increase economic growth so that by 2025 the economy would be 15% larger than otherwise, almost entirely due to business tax cuts. The effect of the child credit on growth is reckoned at zero. 

But imagine if Rubio-Lee took their good tax reform plan and made it better by replacing the child credit with lower rates? And then made it even better by getting rid of additional tax preferences such as the healthcare exclusion?

Shlaes and Denhart quote me in their column as pointing out that if Rubio and Lee made their plan into something akin to the flat tax, the tax rate could be under 20 percent.

Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute notes that if Rubio-Lee dropped all the preferences it contains, old and new, the plan could drop its top income-tax rate to 20% or lower.

I confess that I don’t have up-to-date estimates to confirm my assertion, but the Clinton Treasury Department back in 1996 estimated that the flat tax rate in a revenue-neutral world would be 20.8 percent.

But since the Rubio-Lee plan is a very large tax cut, amounting to more than $4 trillion over 10 years, combining that amount of tax relief with the flat tax surely would allow the rate to be well below 20 percent.

By the way, none of this should be interpreted to suggest that Rubio-Lee is bad tax policy. It’s a huge improvement over the current system. As I wrote last month, it’s a very good tax reform plan. It is especially good about fixing some of the worst features of the current tax code, such as worldwide taxation, depreciation, and double taxation.

But that doesn’t mean it is as good as the flat tax, which does everything good in Rubio-Lee, but also has a low rate for households and fewer tax preferences.

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After writing about such an emotionally charged issue yesterday, let’s change the topic and enjoy a bit of levity.

I’ve shared several examples of anti-libertarian humor, most of which are fairly clever because they seize on something that is sort of true and take it to the preposterous extreme.

Here’s something with a different flavor. It basically mocks libertarians for being naively idealistic youngsters who then “grow up” and stop being libertarian.

There’s enough truth to this that I laughed, though I think the trait of being overly idealistic probably applies to all politically minded young people.

I remember thinking “let’s abolish Social Security overnight” in my younger years, whereas now I think we need to transition to a system of personal retirement accounts.

Is this a sign that I’ve “grown up” and that I’m no longer libertarian, or is it simply a recognition that progress sometimes has to be incremental if we want to achieve libertarian goals?

I think the latter, so I don’t think the image is accurate. But it’s still funny.

Now let’s share some pro-libertarian humor, adding to an unfortunately small collection (here, here, and here).

Though I guess it’s only pro-libertarian by process of elimination because it describes what it’s like when people other than libertarians are in charge of government policy.

And since there’s plenty to criticize when looking at both Republicans and Democrats, you can see why this is appealing.

Now let’s close with some humor produced by libertarians. The always-clever crowd at Reason TV snagged an interview with President Obama. Sort of, keeping in mind that this video was released on April 1.

I especially like the jabs at Biden at the end.

And since I shared my collection of Obama jokes at the bottom of this recent post, let’s take this opportunity to recycle (and re-enjoy) these examples of Biden humor.

We have this caption contest, which led to a clever winning entry.

Here’s an amusing joke (with the naughty word redacted), and the late-night talk shows have produced some good one liners about the Veep hereherehere, and here.

And let’s not forget the laughs we all enjoyed when he asserted that paying higher taxes was patriotic.

Last but not least, Biden is (in)famous for his self-defense advice and he also featured in a few of these amusing posters.

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When describing their view of government and public policy, libertarians and constitutional conservatives sometimes use a variation of this phrase: “Not everything that’s illegal is immoral, and not everything that’s immoral should be illegal.”

To put this in tangible terms, consider the fact that the EPA has penalized people who build ponds on their own property. Yet the property owners obviously haven’t engaged in any behavior that’s wrong. Indeed, it would be far more accurate to accuse the bureaucrats of behaving immorally. And Walter Williams, among others, has argued that “decent people should not obey immoral laws.”

By contrast, there are many things that we should consider immoral, such as cheating on a significant other by patronizing a prostitute, but we would argue that it’s not a proper role for government to criminalize caddish actions or victimless behavior.

This distinction between immoral and illegal is appropriate as we consider the nationwide controversy about what’s happened in Indiana.

Joining the federal government and many other states, politicians in Indiana recently passed a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that’s based on the notion that there should be some limits to government actions that hinder the free exercise of religion.

But “some limits” is not the same as “no limits.” These laws all allow government to interfere if there is a “compelling state interest.” To cite an obvious example, a crazy environmentalist couple couldn’t sacrifice their child to appease Gaia.

Since all this sounds very reasonable, why has the adoption of the Indiana law turned into a huge kerfuffle?

The answer is simple. The Hoosier statute has become a proxy for the fight over freedom of association, which also implies a right to engage in private discrimination.

Here’s some of what my colleague Roger Pilon wrote on the topic.

We find those principles in the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence…: freedom and equality. Rightly understood, they hold that we’re all born free, with equal rights to remain free. That means—to cut to the chase—that we may associate with anyone who wishes to associate with us; but we are equally free to decline to associate with others, for any reason, good or bad, or no reason at all. That right to discriminate is the very essence of freedom.

He then points out that the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, errs in a Washington Post column by seeking to use coercion to criminalize private immorality.

Cook turns those principles on their head. He says religious freedom bills “rationalize injustice” by, for example, allowing a baker to decline to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. He would compel the baker to accept that request, by force of law. That’s the very opposite of the freedom of association—the right to be left alone—that the nation was founded on. …I’m as offended as Cook is by that kind of discrimination. But I’m even more offended by the belief that we can force people to conform to our values when they’re asking simply to be left alone to enjoy their right to pursue their values. And precisely there is the source of Cook’s confusion, his conflation of rights and values, two very different moral notions.

Roger’s key point is that some types of discrimination are wrong, in some cases grossly immoral, but that doesn’t justify intervention by the state.

Which means a baker or florist who doesn’t want to cater a gay wedding should have the freedom to reject that business. That business owner may be doing something immoral and intolerant, just as a bigot who doesn’t want to do business with minorities is behaving reprehensibly, but people making their own decision with their own property shouldn’t be forced to adhere to other people’s values.

Writing for National Review, Deroy Murdock asks whether there are any limits to government coercion of private behavior.

The only identifiable victim of Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act is the First Amendment’s Freedom of Association clause. Like Joan of Arc, it has been burned at the stake. …What if you are an atheist who really objects to gay marriage? Must you still bake cakes for gay weddings, or will pro-shariah Muslim bakers be the only ones who can walk into court and ask to be excused from doing so? …Do we respect the Junior League’s right to choose to remain a female-only group, as it has been since 1901, or must they now accept male members? … Do we respect a gay baker’s right to choose not to bake a cake for the Westboro Baptist Church with icing that reads God Hates Fags? …Do we respect a black jazz band’s choice not to perform at a Ku Klux Klan chapter’s “Negro Minstrel Show”?

Deroy poses these questions, because there are big implications depending on how people answer.

…it is crucial to remember that behind each of these scenarios lies something deadly serious: a gun. Government equals force. Its ultimate authority stems from its ability to use coercion or blunt force to deprive lawbreakers of their freedom. …So, the real question in each of these cases is: Do you support the government’s use of coercive police power — up to and including fines, arrest by armed police officers, and imprisonment — because you reject a woman’s right to choose not to bake a cake for a gay couple?

Here’s his bottom line.

In the public sector, the government must administer equal justice under the law and treat all Americans equally. …The private sector, such as it is, is something different. Private individuals on private property should be free to associate with whom and without whom they wish. Just because someone runs a business or is part of a private group or organization does not mean that she surrenders her rights or becomes a mere appendage of government. At least that’s what the First Amendment says — such as it is. Freed of most restraints against government action and populated by citizens increasingly oblivious to this nation’s founding principles, America is slouching into tyranny. Little by little. Day by day. This is incredibly depressing. And to see gay people lead this charge into bondage may be the saddest sight of all.

What’s both ironic and confusing about this issue is that government generally has been the source of discrimination and oppression against disfavored groups.

For a long time, government criminalized gay relationships. Heck, such laws are still on the books in some places, though thankfully they’re no longer enforced (though the thugs in Iran and similar places obviously haven’t taken this step in societal evolution).

And don’t forget that the infamous Jim Crow laws were government-imposed mandates, as Nick Gillespie explains for Reason.

From a libertarian perspective, belief in the freedom of association generally trumps belief in anti-discrimination actions by the state. …it’s typically the state (whether at the local, state, or federal) that historically was doing most of the discriminating. Jim Crow was ushered in by the Supreme Court’s vile “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld a Louisiana state law barring railroad companies from selling first-class tickets to black customers. When businesses in the segregated South attempted to treat customers equally (often a good business strategy), they were typically hemmed in by specific laws preventing such things or by de facto laws enforced through brute force by various “citizen’s councils” and terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (which often included politicians and law enforcement). It was government at all levels, not local businesses, that disenfranchised blacks for decades.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner addresses the issue, pointing out that the cultural left now wants to coerce the traditional right.

On one side is the CEO of the world’s largest company, the president of the United States and a growing chunk of the Fortune 500. On the other side is a solo wedding photographer in New Mexico, a 70-year-old grandma florist in Washington and a few bakers. One side wants the state to conscript the religious businesswomen and men into participating in ceremonies that violate their beliefs. The other side wants to make it possible for religious people to live their own lives according to their consciences. …an emboldened and litigious cultural Left, unsated by its recent culture war victories, [is] trying now to conscript the defeated soldiers at gunpoint. …Tolerance isn’t the goal. Religious conservatives must atone for their heretical views with acts of contrition: Bake me a cake, photograph my wedding, pay for my abortion and my contraception. In Georgia, a Catholic school employed a gay teacher. When he announced he was marrying a man, the school said this violated the expectations of public behavior they demand of their teachers. They fired him. Now the Obama administration is coming after the school.

All of this is very frustrating for principled libertarians.

There are many gay libertarians, but they don’t want to coerce others into baking cakes or taking photos. They just want to live freely without excessive government coercion.

And there also are many libertarians who are traditional Christians, but they have no desire to oppress other people or to obtain coerced approval. They just want to live freely without excessive government coercion.

Unfortunately, libertarians are the exception. There are lots of other people in the world who think they should be able to impose their values on others. Oh, well, I never claimed it was easy to be libertarian.

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