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Archive for November, 2015

Why does the tax code require more than 10,000,000 words and more than 75,000 pages?

There are several reasons and none of them are good. But if you had to pick one cause for all the mess, it would be the fact that politicians have worked with interest groups and lobbyists to create myriad deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, exemptions, and other loopholes.

This is a great deal for the lobbyists, who get big fees. It’s a great scam for politicians, who get lots of contributions. And it’s a great outcome for interest groups, who benefit from back-door industrial policy that distorts the economy.

But it’s not great for the American people or the American economy.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains that the net result is a Byzantine tax code that imposes very harsh compliance costs on the productive sector.

According to a 2012 study from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Treasury Department, …corporations alone spent $104 billion complying with the tax code in 2012. …The cost to individuals may be even higher. According to a 2013 study by Jason Fichtner and Jacob Feldman of the Mercatus Center, Americans face nearly $1 trillion annually in hidden tax-compliance costs. …Why does tax compliance cost so much? The answer is largely that the Internal Revenue Code…is riddled with exclusions, exemptions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits.

And she also points to a solution.

Genuine reform would cut out loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of those with political connections. It would also aim to provide lower tax rates, fewer tax brackets, and less double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such measures would be good for growth, but they would also mean taking on the interest groups that benefit from swapping tax preferences for campaign cash.

Since I want to rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, this is music to my ears.

Of course, achieving genuine tax reform won’t be easy.

There’s the obvious political obstacle since all the groups that benefit from the current system (politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronyists, interest groups, and other insiders) will fiercely resist reform.

There’s also a policy obstacle because many people oppose loopholes in theory but they haven’t paid sufficient attention to the nuts-and-bolts details.

With that in mind, let’s set out a set of guiding principles for the elimination of tax loopholes and the creation of a neutral tax system.

1. A loophole exists when income isn’t taxed – In libertarian Nirvana, the central government is so small that there’s no need for an income tax. Until we get to that point, though, we’re stuck with the internal revenue code and the goal should be to collect revenue (hopefully a modest amount) in a way that minimizes the economic damage per dollar collected. And that means a tax code that doesn’t have loopholes, which are best defined as provisions that enable people to avoid any tax based on how they earn income or how they spend income. In a neutral system, all income is taxed one time.

2. The economy performs better without a loophole-riddled tax code – Most people understand that high tax rates are bad for growth because they penalize people for earning income. They also generally understand that double taxation of saving and investment is bad for growth because it creates a bias against capital formation. But there’s not nearly enough appreciation of the fact that loopholes in the code are bad for growth since they are a back-door form of industrial policy that exist for the purpose of incentivizing people to make decisions on the basis of tax rather than on the basis of what makes economic sense. A neutral tax system means less economic damage.

3. It’s not a loophole to protect income from double taxation or to require income to be measured correctly – The bad news is that the current system forces taxpayers to overstate their income and it also imposes multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested. The good news is that there are provisions in the tax code – such as IRAs, 401(k)s, deferral, bonus depreciation – that seek to mitigate these biases. These parts of the system oftentimes are needlessly complex and they frequently will alleviate penalties in a discriminatory manner, but they are not loopholes. In a neutral system, all income is taxed only one time.

4. Loopholes should be eliminated as part of a plan to lower tax rates, not in order to give politicians more money – If loopholes are a corrupt and distorting dark cloud, the silver lining to that cloud is that all the special favors in the tax code deprive the government of tax revenue. Even the most egregious of loopholes, such as ethanol, have this redeeming feature. This is why loopholes should only be eliminated as part of an overall tax reform plan that also lowers tax rates and reduces double taxation. A neutral tax system shouldn’t enable bigger government.

There are some important implications that follow from these four guiding principles.

As a practical matter, we can now identify provisions in the tax code that are clearly loopholes, such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, and the state and local tax deduction (the mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate).

We also know that the capital gains tax rate isn’t a “preferential” loophole, but instead is the mitigation of a penalty that shouldn’t exist. Similarly, it’s not a loophole when companies deduct expenses when calculating income. And you’re not getting some sort of handout simply because Uncle Sam isn’t imposing double taxation on your retirement account. At the risk of repeating myself, all income should be taxed in a neutral system, but only one time.

Let’s close by looking at a few secondary – but still important – implications of a neutral tax code.

First, getting rid of loopholes won’t put a burden on poor and middle-income taxpayers for the simple reason that an overwhelming share of the benefits of these provisions go to high-income taxpayers.

I’ve already shown how the vast majority of charitable deductions are taken by those making more than $200,000 per year.

The same is true for the state and local tax deduction and the healthcare exclusion.

And the Washington Post just editorialized that the home mortgage interest deduction is a boon for rich taxpayers as well.

The mortgage interest deduction is also a significant cause of after-tax income inequality: The top 20 percent of earners get 75 percent of the benefits; the top 1 percent get 15 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. …Specifically, 10 metropolitan “hot spot” counties (among them Los Angeles in California and Fairfax in Virginia) with the greatest number of mortgages larger than $500,000 accounted for 45.1 percent of all such mortgages nationally. Just eight California urban and suburban counties accounted for 40 percent of the national total. Outside of such tony coastal precincts, the only big-mortgage hot spots were resort destinations such as Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Vail, Colo. — where many homes are vacation places, not primary residences.

To be sure, the Post is misguided in that it wants to restrict tax preferences in order to finance a larger burden of government spending.

So I’m not expecting the editors to join a coalition for pro-growth tax reform.

The second implication is that a neutral tax system means less corruption.

To cite one example, consider the oleaginous way that politicians deal with so-called tax extenders. Marc Short and Andy Koenig explain in a column they wrote for the New York Times.

Congress will soon take up the so-called tax extenders package, which has more than 50 tax breaks affecting a variety of industries and issues. …this bill mostly helps the wealthy and the well connected.

The fact that rich insiders benefit is no surprise, but what makes “tax extenders” so odious is that what began in 1988 as a supposedly one-time fix now has become a regular part of the process, a scam that gives lobbyists and politicians a way of generating fees and contributions.

The first tax-extender package…opened a door that lobbyists and lawmakers were all too willing to run through. …A 2014 analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness found that more than one out of every 10 lobbyists in Washington focused specifically on the extenders package. Given that this bill comes up about every year or two, special interests constantly have the opportunity to demand new handouts.

By the way, some of the extenders actually are good policy. They’re in the mitigation-of-penalties category I discussed above.

But those good provisions should be made permanent and the bad provisions should be jettisoned.

Unfortunately, that’s not in the interests of the politicians and lobbyists who benefit from an annual extender package, so the problem doubtlessly will fester.

Last but not least, let’s consider the moral component.

For those of us who believe in justice, it is ethically offensive that some rich and powerful taxpayer get better treatment simply because they know how to manipulate the political process.

This violates the important principle that the law should treat everyone alike. Yet another reason to have a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of being a nit-picker about my own writing, I should confess that a flat tax is not a purely neutral tax system. There will still be a penalty on earning income. But the penalty presumably will be modest if there is a low rate and that penalty won’t be exacerbated by penalties and loopholes that distort how people earn income and spend income.

P.P.S. Here, in one image, is all you really need to know about the economics of taxation.

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In conversations with statists, I’ve learned that many of them actually believe the economy is a fixed pie. This misconception leads them to think that rich people get rich only by somehow making others poor.

In this simplistic worldview, a bigger slice for one person means less for everyone else.

In reality, though, their fixation on the distribution of income leads them to support policies that hinder growth.

And here’s the ironic part. When you have statist policies such as high taxes and lots of redistribution, the economy weakens and the result is a stagnant pie.

In other words, the zero-sum society they fear only occurs when their policies are in effect!

To improve their understanding (and hopefully to make my leftist friends more amenable to good policy ideas), I oftentimes share two incontestable facts based on very hard data.

1. Per-capita economic output has increased in the world (and in the United States), which obviously means that the vast majority of people are far better off than their ancestors.

2. There are many real-world examples of how nations with sensible public policy enjoy very strong growth, leading to huge increases in living standards in relatively short periods of time.

I think this is all the evidence one needs to conclude that free markets and small government are the right recipe for a just and prosperous society.

But lots of statists are still reluctant to change their minds, even if you get them to admit that it’s possible to make the economic pie bigger.

I suspect in many cases their resistance is because (at least subconsciously) they resent the rich more than they want to help the poor. That’s certainly the conclusion that Margaret Thatcher reached after her years in public life.

So, in hopes of dealing with this mindset, let’s augment the two points listed above.

3. There is considerable income mobility in the United States, which means today’s rich and today’s poor won’t necessarily be tomorrow’s rich and tomorrow’s poor.

Let’s look at some evidence for this assertion.

And we’ll start with businesses. Here’s what Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute found when he investigated changes in the Fortune 500.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2015 Fortune 500, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists… In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 60 years later in 2015… The fact that nearly 9 of every ten Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction… The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy, and that dynamic turnover is speeding up in today’s hyper-competitive global economy.

Here’s the list of the companies that have managed to stay at the top over the past six decades.

Now let’s shift from companies to people.

The most famous ranking of personal wealth is put together by Forbes.

Is this a closed club, with the same people dominating the list year after year?

Well, there’s considerable turnover in the short run, as noted by Professor Don Boudreaux.

…21 of the still-living 100 richest Americans of only five years ago are no longer in that group today.  That’s a greater than 20 percent turnover in a mere half-decade.

There’s a lot of turnover – more than 50 percent – in the medium run, as revealed by Mark Sperry.

Of the 400 people in the 2001 Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, 230 were not in the 1989 list.

And there’s almost wholesale turnover in the long run, as discovered by Will McBride of the Tax Foundation.

Of the original Forbes 400 from the first edition in 1982, only 35 remain on the list. …Of those on the 1987 Forbes 400 list, only 73 remain there in 2013.

In other words, it’s not easy to stay at the top. New entrepreneurs and investors constantly take the place of those who don’t manage to grow their wealth.

So far, we’ve focused on the biggest companies and the richest people.

But what about ordinary people? Is there also churning for the rest of us?

The answer is yes.

Here are some remarkable findings from a New York Times column by Professor Mark Rank of Washington University.

I looked at 44 years of longitudinal data regarding individuals from ages 25 to 60 to see what percentage of the American population would experience these different levels of affluence during their lives. The results were striking. It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution. …This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60…this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income.

A thoroughly footnoted study from the National Center for Policy Analysis has more evidence.

…83 percent of adults born into the lowest income bracket exceed their parents’ income as adults. About 40 percent of people in the lowest fifth of income earners in 1986 moved to a higher income bracket by 1996, and roughly half of the people in the lowest income quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income bracket by 2005. …In both the 1970s and 1980s, 8 percent of children born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution rose to the top fifth. About 20 percent of children born in the middle fifth of the income distribution later rose to the top fifth.

And here’s some of Ronald Bailey’s analysis, which I cited last year.

Those worried about rising income inequality also often make the mistake of assuming that each income quintile contains the same households. They don’t. …In 2009, two economists from the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Treasury compared income mobility in two periods, 1987 to 1996 and 1996 to 2005. The results, published in the National Tax Journal, revealed that “over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile and that roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom income quintile moved up to a higher income group by the end of each period.” …The Treasury researchers updated their analysis of income mobility trends in a May 2013 study for the American Economic Review, finding that about 75 percent of taxpayers between 35 and 40 years of age in the second, middle and fourth income quintiles in 1987 had moved to a different quintile by 2007.

Last but not least, let’s look at some of Scott Winship’s recent work.

…for today’s forty-somethings who grew up in the middle fifth around 1970…19 percent ended up in the top fifth, 23 percent in the middle fifth, and 14 percent in the bottom fifth… Among those raised in the bottom fifth, 43 percent remain there as adults. …30 percent made it to the top three-fifths… Mobility among today’s adults raised in the top fifth displays the mirror image: 40 percent remain at the top, 37 percent fall to the bottom three-fifths.

The bottom line is that there is considerable income mobility in the United States.

To be sure, different people can look at these numbers and decide that there needs to be even more churning.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the correct distribution of income is whatever naturally results from voluntary exchange in an unfettered market economy.

I’m far more concerned with another economic variable. Indeed, it’s so important that we’ll close by adding to the three points above.

4. For those who genuinely care about the living standards of the less fortunate, the only factor that really matters in the long run is economic growth.

This is why, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up a hill, I keep trying to convince my leftist friends that growth is the best way to help the poor. I routinely share new evidence and provide real-world data in hopes that they will realize that good results are more important than good intentions.

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I may have to change my mind. When asked a few years ago to pick which department in Washington most deserved to be eliminated, I chose the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And HUD unquestionably is a cesspool of waste, so it certainly should be shuttered.

But the more I read about the bizarre handouts and subsidies showered on big agribusiness producers by the Department of Agriculture, the more I think there’s a very compelling argument that it should be at top of my list.

Indeed, these giveaways are so disgusting and corrupt that not only should the department be abolished, but the headquarters should be razed and then the ground should be covered by a foot of salt to make sure nothing ever springs back to life.

That’s a bit of hyperbole, I realize, but you’ll hopefully feel the same way after today. That’s because we’re going to look at a few examples of the bad results caused by government intervention.

To get an idea of the Soviet-style nonsense of American agricultural programs, a Reuters report on the peanut programs reveals how subsidies and intervention are bad news for taxpayers and consumers. Here’s the big picture.

A mountain of peanuts is piling up in the U.S. south, threatening to hand American taxpayers a near $2-billion bailout bill over the next three years, and leaving the government with a big chunk of the crop on its books. …experts say it is the unintended consequence of recent changes in farm policies that create incentives for farmers to keep adding to excess supply.

And here’s a description of the perverse and contradictory interventions that have been created in Washington.

First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is paying farmers most of the difference between the “reference price” of $535 per ton (26.75 cents per lb) and market prices, now below $400 per ton. A Nov. 18 report to Congress estimates such payments this year for peanuts exceed those for corn and soybeans by more than $100 per acre. Secondly, government loan guarantees mean once prices fall below levels used to value their crops as collateral, farmers have an incentive to default on the loans and hand over the peanuts to the USDA rather than sell them to make the payments.

Gee, what a nice scam. Uncle Sam tells these farmers welfare recipients that they can take out loans and then not pay back the money if peanut prices aren’t at some arbitrary level decided by the commissars politicians and bureaucrats in Washington.

In other words, assuming the peanut lobbyists have cleverly worked the system (and unfortunately they have), it’s a license to steal money from the general population by over-producing peanuts. And we’re talking a lot of peanuts.

Through forfeitures, the USDA amassed 145,000 tons of peanuts from last year’s crop, its largest stockpile in at least nine years, according to data compiled by Reuters. …That stockpile is enough to satisfy the average annual consumption of over 20 million Americans – more than the population of Florida – and puts the administration in a bind. …As peanut carryover inventories are forecast to hit a record of 1.4 million tons by end-July 2016 and as loans begin to come due next summer, farmers are expected to fork over more peanuts to the USDA.

Moreover, because the perverse interaction of the various handouts, there’s no solution (other than…gasp!…allowing a free market to operate).

Storing the peanuts in shellers’ and growers’ warehouses comes at a cost. Selling them could depress the market further and in turn would add to the price subsidy bill.

Now let’s shift gears and look at another sleazy and corrupt example of agricultural welfare.

The Des Moines Register is reporting that corn growers and other beneficiaries of the ethanol program are working to cement their place at the public trough.

Iowa’s billion-dollar ethanol industry is turning up the heat… America’s Renewable Future, a bipartisan political group backed by top Iowa elected officials and people in agriculture and the ethanol industry, is in the midst of a million-dollar ad campaign to exert pressure on candidates ahead of the Iowa caucuses, supporting candidates who back the Renewable Fuel Standard and criticizing those who denounce it.

Ethanol is a particularly evil handout, encompassing regulatory mandates, special tax preferences, trade barriers, and other forms of subsidies.

All this is necessary because it makes no economic sense to turn corn into fuel. But with the right amount of goodies from Washington, dumb things suddenly become “profitable.”

And to maintain the flow of undeserved loot, the moochers are applying pressure.

Patty Judge, co-chair of America’s Renewable Future and a former Iowa agriculture secretary, said the group has signed up 45,000 people who have pledged to look closely at how the candidates stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard when they vote in the Iowa caucuses. …Iowa is the nation’s largest ethanol producer, churning out 3.9 billion gallons in 2014.

While the stories about peanuts and ethanol make for grim reading, now it’s time to get really depressed.

That’s because we’re going to take a look at a New York Times story on how Washington is dealing with ag subsidies.

In April, Republicans newly in control of Congress celebrated their agreement on a plan to save $5 trillion — that’s trillion, with a “T” — and balance the budget in a decade. …Yet as the year closes, Congress instead is planning to repeal one of the few spending cuts it has passed into law since approving that budget resolution: $3 billion over a decade from subsidies for crop insurers. …Republican leaders agreed to hold a vote next month to delete the savings after lawmakers from agricultural states complained…the agriculture committees, like most others, had no intention of turning budget-balancing numbers into policy reality by voting for cuts that would anger constituents, contributors and influential interest groups — not the $20 billion that the budget resolution recommended, nor even the $3 billion reduction from crop insurers, a cut that administration officials and Republican leaders tucked into the bipartisan budget deal Congress passed in October.

By the way, to get further depressed, this means that the terrible agreement to bust the spending caps just became even worse.

So now you’ll understand why the Department of Agriculture deserves to be eliminated.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the disgraced and convicted former House Speaker, Denny Hastert, had his filthy hands in the ethanol business.

P.P.S. And don’t forget that the wasteful food stamp program is part of the Department of Agriculture, largely to create an unholy alliance of rural moochers and urban moochers.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, the clowns in Washington not only muck up how food is produced, they also can’t resist interfering in how food is consumed.

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The Transportation Security Administration has become infamous over the years for things that it doesn’t allow on planes.

Consider these examples of the Keystone Cops in action.

Confiscating a plastic hammer from a mentally retarded man.

Detaining a woman for carrying breast milk.

Hassling a woman for the unexplained red flag of having sequentially numbered checks.

Demanding that a handicapped 4-year old boy walk through a metal detector without his leg braces.

Putting an 8-year old cub scout on the no-fly list.

o Stopping a teenager from flying because her purse had an image of a gun.

o Seizing raygun belt buckles and Kitty Cat keychains.

Though, to be fair, other governments are similarly brainless.

I was quite amused by this bit of news from Ireland.

When passing through security at the airport, a Minion fart gun…was seized from a young toddler and taken away. The security officers claimed it was a ‘threat’ and took the toy gun away from the child.

Just in case you think a “fart gun” is too realistic and that a potential terrorist might grab it from the child and use it to take over the plane, here’s a picture to put your mind at ease.

And let’s not forget that airport bureaucrats all over the planet are on guard against criminal toiletries. I’ve had obviously dangerous toothpaste and deodorant confiscated not only in the United States, but also at airports in seemingly sensible places such as Australia and Cayman.

But let’s be fair. The TSA gets a lot of attention for things it doesn’t allow on planes, so perhaps it is time to give the bureaucrats some attention for the things it does allow.

Unfortunately, as reported by Politico, the TSA apparently is better at blocking fake weapons rather than real weapons.

…news that the Transportation Security Administration failed to detect 67 of 70 mock weapons in a secret test shook the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees it, and led to renewed calls for the TSA to clean up its act. …Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who used to chair the transportation committee, said the 95 percent failure rate is evidence of a sweeping conceptual failure. …“They’re spending billions of dollars on a huge screening bureaucracy,” he added. …the TSA also cannot publicly point to many significant attacks thwarted at airport gates, leading experts to insist that its protocols should be considered largely ineffective. Rafi Sela, president of international transportation security consultancy AR Challenges, said the agency’s nearly $8 billion budget is largely being misspent on a misguided model.

Great, we’re flushing $8 billion down the toilet on a system that does a bad job based on a bad methodology.

Heck, the bureaucrats can’t even stop the wrong people from getting through security.

A man with a stolen boarding pass got through airport security in Salt Lake City and checked in at a gate for a flight to California… Salata, who is on the sex offender registry in Utah, grabbed a boarding pass that a woman accidently left at a check-in kiosk and used it to get through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, said Craig Vargo, chief of airport police.

He was only stopped because the woman obtained another boarding pass.

Salata was detained when the woman who had left the pass checked in using a replacement ticket that had been uploaded to her phone.

The TSA tried to rationalize this goof by stating that at least he wasn’t able to smuggle any guns or bombs past security.

TSA spokeswoman Lori Dankers said an agent made a mistake in identifying Salata, but the man was properly screened to determine if he was carrying anything dangerous.

Gee, how reassuring.

Now that we’ve mocked the TSA for stopping harmless items and allowing potentially dangerous items (or people), let’s contemplate some actual solutions.

In previous columns, I’ve argued that it’s time to put the private sector in charge, citing the good work of Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz. And as Steve Chapman has explained, there were lots of benefits to the pre-TSA system.

Let’s now add to that list.

We’ll start with some passages from Jeff Jacoby’s column in the Boston Globe.

He starts by beating up on the TSA.

Fourteen years after the creation of the TSA, there is still no indication that the agency has ever caught a terrorist, or foiled a 9/11-type plot in the offing. Conversely, there are reams of reports documenting the inability of TSA screeners to spot hidden guns, knives, bomb components, and other dangerous contraband as they pass through airport checkpoints. It’s doubtful that anyone is still capable of being surprised by a fresh confirmation of the TSA’s incompetence… The Transportation Security Administration, which annually costs taxpayers more than $7 billion, should never have been created. The responsibility for airport security should never have been federalized, let alone entrusted to a bloated, inflexible workforce.

He then points out that there’s a better approach.

The airlines themselves should bear the chief responsibility for protecting planes and passengers at airports. After all, they have powerful financial incentives to ensure that flights are free of danger, while at the same time minimizing the indignities to which customers are subjected. Their bottom line would be at stake. The TSA feels no such spur. Effective defense against airline terrorism doesn’t require patting down grandmothers or confiscating eyedrops. It requires sophisticated counterterror intelligence (which is what stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot), and it calls for passengers to be vigilant (which is what ultimately foiled the underwear and shoe bombers). The TSA supplies neither.

A column by Adam Summers in the Orange County Register reaches the same conclusion.

He starts with the indictment of the current system.

TSA’s performance has steadily declined. A 2002 USA Today report revealed that undercover agents got bombs and weapons through security about a quarter of the time. By 2007, the failure rate had increased to 75 percent. Since then, the TSA has increased the number of screeners from 30,000 to 46,000 and spent $550 million on new screening equipment and agent training, yet somehow it continues to get worse. …The TSA has also perpetuated – and even expanded – failed and unproven programs, such as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, which seeks to weed out evildoers by looking for certain behavioral cues among passengers. The GAO…recommended shuttering the program. Nonetheless, the agency has spent roughly $1 billion on SPOT since 2007 and is defiantly moving forward to “enhance” the program.

And then points to a sensible solution.

The TSA has proven to be abusive, unaccountable and totally ineffective. To restore some sense of competency and accountability, the agency should simply be abolished, and security should be made the responsibility of private airlines and airports, which have a strong incentive to prevent their customers from being killed. Competition among private providers would also lead to adoption of the most efficient and effective security measures while still respecting travelers’ rights.

Wow, what a shocking conclusion. The private sector is more competent than the government. Knock me over with a  feather!

Let’s close with some humor (though the joke is on us). The column by Adam Summers mentioned TSA’s SPOT program, which even the Government Accountability Office has recognized as a wasteful failure.

Well, the folks at Reason have a very amusing video on the characteristics that might lead SPOT bureaucrats to identify you as a potential terrorist.

P.S. Check out this amazing picto-graph if you want more information about the failures of the TSA.

P.P.S. For more TSA humor, see this, this, this, this, this, and this.

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When people think about government regulation, it’s understandable that they focus on things that impact their everyday lives.

Most of us, for instance, are irked by government’s war against modern life. Bureaucratic pinheads in Washington think they have the right to plague us with crummy dishwashers, inferior light bulbssubstandard toilets, and inadequate washing machines.

But what matters more is the way that onerous regulation throws sand in the gears of the economy, slowing growth and undermining job creation. And no matter how you slice the data, there’s no escaping the conclusion that American competitiveness is suffocating because of red tape and regulation from Washington.

Here are some very depressing bits of information I’ve shared in the past.

So what’s President Obama’s plan to deal with this regulatory morass?

Well, he wants to make matters worse. I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from a report in The Hill.

President Obama is moving to complete scores of regulations as he looks to cement key parts of his legacy… The White House quietly released its formal rulemaking schedule late last week, revealing the administration’s latest plans for regulations currently in the works at agencies across the federal government. …Obama has no intentions of slowing down the process during his final year in office. …Critics, however, say the President has already issued far too many burdensome regulations. …the administration has finalized about one rule a day since Obama took office and estimates the compliance costs associated with those rules to total about $700 billion.

What makes this so depressing is that the Mercatus Center has new research showing that the regulatory burden is especially harmful to entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Here are some of the findings from this new study.

…a 10 percent increase in the intensity of regulation as measured by the RegData index leads to a statistically significant 0.5 percent decrease in overall firm births. …regulation deters hiring overall. A 10 percent increase in regulation is associated with a statistically significant 0.9 percent decrease in hiring. …Regulation leads to a statistically significant reduction in hiring and firm births for firms overall and for small firms. …our results suggest that from 1998 to 2011, increased federal regulation reduced the entry of new firms by 1.2 percent and reduced hiring by 2.2 percent. That result implies that returning to the level of regulation in effect in 1998 would lead to the creation of 30 new firms and the hiring of 530 new employees every year for an average industry.

So who benefits from red tape?

Other than bureaucrats and lobbyists, the big winner is big business.

…we find that large incumbents are actually less likely to die when their industry becomes more regulated. That finding suggests that incumbents, in particular, benefit from increasing levels of regulation and provides support for the idea that incumbents might actively seek increasing regulation to deter entry and limit competition (consistent with capture theory).

The good news is that a growing number of people are recognizing the need to deal with excessive regulation.

I don’t think many people would accuse Professor Noah Smith of Stony Brook University of being a libertarian, yet he makes a strong case for regulatory relief in a recent Bloomberg column.

Republicans should stop focusing so much on taxes and devote more attention to deregulation. …Although it’s very difficult to measure the amount of regulation across the economy, there are more and more areas that are cause for concern. For example, the scope of occupational licensing, which economists mostly believe is a drag on growth, is startling, and seems to have no good reason behind it. …Another concern is environmental regulation…local development opponents are often able to use costly environmental reviews to block needed infrastructure. A third area is zoning. As the incentives for density have risen, zoning regulation has become an increasing burden on growth.

He lists additional items, such as the approval process at the FDA for new drugs and all the Byzantine red tape required by the Sarbanes-Oxley law, and he also makes the very important point that cost-benefit analysis is necessary since not all regulations are created equal.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Research from the folks at Mercatus points to some possible solution.

First and foremost, cut the budgets for regulatory agencies. If there’s less money, there will be fewer bureaucrats with fewer resources.

Here’s a very persuasive chart from a Mercatus report showing the correlation between regulatory budgets and the burden of red tape.

By the way, notice how regulatory spending exploded during the Bush years. Yet another bit of data showing that statist Republicans can be even worse for the economy than statist Democrats.

But I’m digressing. Let’s now look at another potential way of reining in the regulatory state.

Another study from Mercatus looks at a policy in Canada that put an aggregate cap on red tape.

Canada recently became the first country in the world to legislate a cap on regulation. The Red Tape Reduction Act, which became law on April 23, 2015, requires the federal government to eliminate at least one regulation for every new one introduced. Remarkably, the legislation received near-unanimous support across the political spectrum: 245 votes in favor of the bill and 1 opposed.

The nationwide legislation was based on an experiment in British Columbia.

When the BC government first introduced the Reform Policy in 2001, two regulatory requirements had to be eliminated for every one introduced. …today the policy calls for eliminating one requirement for every new one introduced. …requiring regulators to…eliminate…regulatory requirements for every new one introduced represented a dramatic change in thinking about regulation in BC: It put the onus on the government to…reduce the total amount of regulation.

And this policy apparently was very successful.

There is no question that BC’s economic performance improved markedly after 2001 in contrast to the “dismal decade” of the 1990s. The province went from being one of the worst performing in the country to being among the best. …economic growth in BC was 1.9 percentage points below the Canadian average between 1994 and 2001 but 1.1 percentage points above the Canadian average between 2002 and 2006. BC’s real GDP growth was lower than Canada’s as a whole in six of the nine years between 1992 and 2000, but BC’s GDP grew faster than Canada’s every year between 2002 and 2008.

What’s the key takeaway lesson?

Well, just as a spending cap is the right approach to fiscal policy, a regulatory cap also is the right way to deal with red tape.

…a hard cap on the total amount of regulatory requirements…has forced a discipline that did not previously exist, a discipline that has helped change the culture within government to one where regulators see their job as focusing on the most important rules.

Gee, what a radical idea. Requiring the folks in Washington to set priorities and make tradeoffs!

P.S. I guess we can add regulatory reform to our good-things-we-can-learn-from-Canada collection, along with spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailouts, reducing double taxation, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

P.P.S. Since we just reviewed research on how big corporations can benefit by supporting regulations that will disproportionately hurt their small competitors, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that some of those same big companies support tax hikes that will be especially damaging to small businesses.

P.P.P.S. While I suspect America wins the prize for worst regulatory agency and most despicable regulatory practice, Japan almost surely wins the prize for the oddest regulation.

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Shortly after Obamacare was enacted, I started writing about groups victimized by the law. But after highlighting how children, low-income workers, and retirees were disadvantaged by government-run healthcare, I soon realized that I wasn’t saying anything new or different.

Heck, Obamacare has been such a disaster that lots of people have been writing lots of good articles about the law’s failure and how various segments of the population are being unjustly harmed.

So I chose a different approach. I decided to identify groups that deserve to suffer because of the law. Or at least to highlight slices of the population that are not very deserving of sympathy.

Some politicians and staffers of Capitol Hill, for instance, are very upset about the prospect of being subjected to the law that they inflicted on the rest of the country. Gee, my heart breaks for them.

The bureaucrats at the IRS are agitated about the possibility of living under Obamacare, even though the IRS got new powers as a result of the law. How sad, cry me a river.

Professors at Harvard University, including many who supported Obamacare, are now upset that the law is hurting them. Oh, the inhumanity!

Now we have another group to add to this list. And this group is definitely in the deserve-to-suffer category.

That’s because we’re going to look at the big insurance companies that supported Obamacare, but now are squealing because the law isn’t working and they’re not getting the bailouts they were promised.

Here are some excerpts from a column by the irreplaceable Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner.

Until recently, the insurance giants saw Obamacare as a cash cow. They are now finding the law’s insurance marketplaces to be sickly quagmires causing billions in losses. …United Healthcare, the nation’s largest insurer, last week announced it was suffering huge losses in the exchanges. …The company forecast $700 million in losses on the exchanges. Fellow insurance giant Aetna also said it expected to lose money on the exchanges, and other insurers said enrollment was lower than they expected.

This seems like a feel-good story, very appropriate for the holidays. After all, companies that get in bed with big government deserve bad consequences.

But hold on to your wallet.

…Obamacare insiders — the wealthy and powerful operatives who alternate between top government jobs and top industry jobs — are hustling to find more bailout money for insurers. Republicans, if they are able to hold their ground in the face of lobbyist pressure, can block the bailout of Obamacare and its corporate clientele. …Obamacare included…a three-year safety net for insurers who do much worse than expected, paid for by an extra tax on insurers who do much better. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) had announced in October that insurers losses for 2014 entitled them to $2.87 billion in bailout payments… The problem is that super-profitable insurers did not pay nearly that much into the bailout fund.

This means there will be a fight in Washington. The Obama White House wants to bail out its corporate cronies. But there’s not enough money in the bailout fund.

And, thanks to Senator Rubio of Florida, the government can’t write checks out of thin air.

In late 2014, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., inserted into the so-called Cromnibus spending bill a provision that prohibited CMS from paying out more in risk corridor payments than it takes in. Profitable insurers — not taxpayers — must subsidize their less profitable peers.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration oftentimes doesn’t care what the law says.

CMS announced last week that the government was going to find a way to pay the insurers their full bailout, anyway. …CMS also declared the unfunded portion of Obamacare’s initial promised insurer bailout was nevertheless an “obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required,” even though at least under the current appropriation law it is illegal.

Tim outlines the incestuous relationship between Big Insurance and the Obama White House, all of which makes for nauseating reading.

But here’s the part that matters for public policy.

Rubio’s provision…expires along with the current government funding law on December 11. The Obamacare insiders, led by Slavitt and Tavenner, will fight to free up their bailouts and put the taxpayers on the hook for their losses caused by the law they supported.

In other words, we’re about to see – as part of upcoming appropriations legislation – if Republicans have the intelligence and fortitude to retain Rubio’s anti-bailout provision.

This should be a slam-dunk issue. After all, the American people presumably will not favor bailouts for corrupt health insurance corporations.

Especially since Obamacare is still very unpopular.

But what if Obama says “boo” and threatens to veto spending legislation if it doesn’t give him carte blanche bailout authority? Will GOPers be so scared of a partial government shutdown that they instantly surrender?

After all, when there was a shutdown fight in 2013, Republicans suffered a horrible defeat in the 2014 mid-term elections. Right? Isn’t that what happened?

Oh…wait…never mind.

P.S. Let’s not forget that there is one very tiny segment of America that has unambiguously benefited from Obamacare.

P.P.S. If you have any friends who work for the corrupt health insurance companies that are worried about a potential loss of bailout money, you can cheer them up this Christmas season with some great – and very appropriate – action figure toys.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re closing with sarcasm, here’s the federal government’s universal bailout application form.

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Several years ago, I shared some analysis suggesting that voting for Obamacare resulted in about 25 Democrats losing their congressional seats in 2010. And since more Democrats presumably lost seats in 2012 and 2014 because of that costly and misguided scheme, it surely seems that expanding government’s role in health care was a net negative for the Democratic Party.

Being a contrarian, however, I then suggested in my analysis that Obamacare nonetheless might be a net plus for Democrats, at least in the long run. Simply stated, as more and more people get ensnared in the quicksand of government dependency, that creates an ever-growing bloc of voters who may think that it is in their interest to support politicians who advocate for bigger government.

Let’s expand on that issue today.

Some of my Republican friends (I’m willing to associate with all sorts of disreputable people) have been making the point that President Obama has crippled the Democratic Party.

And they have a compelling case. If you compare the number of Democrats in the House and Senate when Obama took office with the amount that there are today, it’s clear that the President has been very bad news his party.

I suppose a defender of the President somehow might argue that the losses for congressional Democrats would have been more severe without Obama, but that would be a huge intellectual challenge.

Perhaps even more important, there’s been a giant loss of Democratic state legislators during Obama’s tenure, with more than 900 seats going from Democrat control to Republican control.

That’s resulted in a huge shift in the partisan control of state legislatures. Which, by the way, has very important implications for Congress because of the redistricting that takes place every 10 years.

So it seems like Republicans are in a good situation. They control Congress and they control most of the states.

And if GOPers pick up the White House in 2016, it surely seems like that would be the icing on the cake for those who say Obama was bad news for the Democrats.

But now let me give some encouraging news for my Democrat friends (like I said, I consort with shady people).

First, Republican control doesn’t necessarily mean a shift away from big government. Indeed, we saw just the opposite during the Bush years.

Second, even if small government-oriented Republicans controlled Washington after the 2016 election, that might not change the nation’s long-run trend toward more dependency.

These are some of the issues I explore in this CBN interview.

The most relevant point in the interview, in my humble opinion, was the discussion about one-third of the way through the interview. I talked about the “ratchet effect,” which occurs when the statists expand the size and scope of government a lot and good policy makers then get control and reduce it by only a small amount.

Stay in that pattern long enough and you eventually become Greece (which is why I emphasized in the interview the need to reverse this trend with big systemic changes such as genuine entitlement reform).

One final point. Pat gave me an opportunity to brag about the Cato Institute at the end of the interview. It is nice to work at a think tank that cares solely about policy and not about partisan labels. So we criticize big-government Republicans just as much as we criticize big-government Democrats.

No wonder we’ve been identified as America’s most effective think tank.

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