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Archive for December, 2015

What was the best news of the year?

That’s a difficult question to answer if you believe in small government and you work in Washington.

We certainly didn’t get the things on my Christmas list, like genuine entitlement reform and fundamental tax reform.

Santa also forget to give me much-needed spending caps, like they have in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

But there is reason for hope. The political elite may be a bunch of self-serving statists, but ordinary citizens still have a core belief in liberty.

The folks at Gallup, for instance, asked Americans about the biggest threat to America’s future. As you can see, they wisely and astutely named big government. By an overwhelming margin.

In another poll, CNN reports that Americans generally are not happy with Washington.

Heading into the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the American public…expresses broad dissatisfaction with government and anger about the way things are going in the nation generally. According to a new CNN/ORC Poll, 75% of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed, and 69% are at least somewhat angry with the way things are going in the U.S., both metrics about as negative as they were in fall 2014.

Though I suppose I shouldn’t be too encouraged by this data. After all, what if they’re dissatisfied because government isn’t giving them enough goodies?

But I’m reasonably hopeful that the unhappiness is for the right reasons.

For example, here’s some encouraging polling data from Pew that was shared by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute. Strong support for free enterprise as a generic principle doesn’t automatically translate into support for free markets on every issue, of course, but I’m glad people in the United States at least have good instincts (unlike the misguided citizens of Argentina).

By the way, I can’t help grousing about the way the folks at Pew presented this data. Notice how the subheading starts with “despite the global financial crisis,” which implies that it was the fault of free markets.

At the risk of repeating myself for the umpteenth time, it was bad monetary policy and corrupt subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that deserve the lion’s share of the blame for that mess.

Anyhow, back to polling data. While I’m encouraged by some of the polling data above, I’m not under any illusion that people always have the right instincts. Or that they even have consistent views.

Here’s some polling data that was put together for the Legatum Institute.

The bad news is that a lot of people believe in the false left-wing narrative that the economy is a fixed pie and the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. I addressed that issue a few days ago, but the most compelling evidence is in these videos from Learn Liberty, Marginal Revolution, and the Fund for American Studies.

On the other hand, the good news is that perhaps people already have watched these videos. That because they also strongly believe that free enterprise is the best way of improving life for the poor.

P.S. Let’s end 2015 with some Donald Trump humor. I haven’t written much about the Donald, other than to point out that he has a reasonably good tax plan (though perhaps not a serious one).

But he does generate amusement value.

Here’s some anti-Trump humor, sort of similar to the how-the-world-sees-libertarians joke I’ve previously shared.

And here’s some pro-Trump humor (depending on your perspective.

It arrived in my inbox with the heading: “Trump and his national security team arriving in Saudi Arabia.”

He’s not my cup of tea, but you have to give Trump credit for dominating the election. Whether he’s making dumb statements or smart statements, he knows how to work the media.

For what it’s worth, my preferred candidate isn’t available this election, though the fact that he wins this poll (and also this poll) is yet another sign that the American people still have very sensible instincts.

P.P.S. Here are some great videos of that candidate in action. And here’s one more if you those weren’t enough.

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For those of us worried (with good reason!) about excessive regulation and red tape, 2015 was not a good year.

As you can see from the headline of this story in the Washington Examiner, federal bureaucrats were very busy imposing new mandates and restrictions on the economy. Indeed, President Obama now has the cumulative record for red tape.

That’s obviously good news for compliance bureaucrats, lawyers, and others who get fat and happy because of the regulatory state. But it can’t be good for growth and competitiveness to have all that sand thrown into the gears of the economy.

And to put the numbers in context, here’s a chart from the folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. On the left side, it shows the biggest red-tape year for every President before Obama. And then on the right side, it shows how Obama is consistently meeting or exceeding prior records.

All this bad news might be somewhat bearable if there was some reason to think we were turning a corner and that the worst was behind us.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Let’s now share another headline, this time from a report in The Hill.

The bottom line is that the Obama Administration is openly excited about the prospect of building upon the President’s dubious red-tape record.

Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. If you read the story, you’ll see that next year will be a perfect storm of pro-regulation bureaucrats being egged on by Obama’s regulatory appointees who see 2016 as their last chance to impose additional red tape on the economy’s productive sector.

But the private sector will become less dynamic as we become more like Greece. Here are some very depressing bits of information I’ve shared in the past.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling, I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

P.P.S. Though I suspect America wins the prize for worst regulatory agency and most despicable regulatory practice.

P.P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with today’s level of red tape when building an ark.

P.P.P.P.S. Just in case you think regulation is “merely” a cost imposed on businesses, don’t forget that bureaucratic red tape is the reason we’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, second-rate dishwashers, and inadequate washing machines.

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When I get my daily email from the editorial page of the New York Times, I scroll through to see whether there’s anything on economic issues I should read.

As a general rule, I skip over Paul Krugman’s writings because he’s both predictable and partisan. But every so often, his column will grab my attention, usually because the headline will include an assertion that doesn’t make sense.

The bad news is that this is usually a waste of time since most of his columns are ideological rants. But the good news is that I periodically catch Krugman making grotesque errors when he engages in actual analysis. Here are a few examples:

  • Earlier this year, Krugman asserted that America was outperforming Europe because our fiscal policy was more Keynesian, yet the data showed that the United States had bigger spending reductions and less red ink.
  • Last year, he asserted that a supposed “California comeback” in jobs somehow proved my analysis of a tax hike was wrong, yet only four states at the time had a higher unemployment rate than California.
  • And here’s my favorite: In 2012, Krugman engaged in the policy version of time travel by blaming Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

And if you enjoyed those examples, you can find more of the same by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But perhaps he’s (sort of) learning from his mistakes. Today, we’re going to look at Paul Krugman’s latest numbers and I’ll be the first to say that they appear to be accurate.

But accurate numbers don’t necessarily lead to honest analysis. Krugman has a post featuring this chart, which is supposed to show us that GOP presidential candidates are wrong to pursue “Bushonomics.”

In looking at this chart and seeing how Krugman wants it to be interpreted, I can’t help but think of the famous zinger Reagan used in his debate with Jimmy Carter: “there you go again.”

Let’s consider why he’s wrong.

First, he asserts the chart is evidence that GOP candidates shouldn’t follow Bushonomics.

I actually agree. That’s because the burden of government spending jumped significantly during the Bush years and the regulatory state became more oppressive. All things considered, Bush was a statist.

Krugman, however, would like readers to believe that Bush was some sort of Reaganite. That’s where we disagree. And if you want to know which one of us is right, just check what happened to America’s rating in Economic Freedom of the World during the Bush years.

Second, Krugman would like readers to think that Presidents have total control over economic policy. Yet in America’s separation-of-powers system, that’s obviously wrong. You also need to consider what’s happening with the legislative branch.

So I added a couple of data points to Krugman’s chart. And, lo and behold, you can just as easily make an argument that partisan control of Congress is the relevant variable. As you can see, Republican control of Congress boosted job growth for Obama, whereas the Democratic takeover of Congress led to bad results during the Bush years.

By the way, I don’t actually think congressional control is all that matters. I’m simply making the point that it is misleading to assert that control of the White House is all that matters.

What is important, by contrast, are the policies that are being implemented (or, just as important, not being implemented).

And since the economic policies of Bush and Obama have been largely similar, the bottom line is that it’s disingenuous to compare job creation during their tenures and reach any intelligent conclusions.

Third, since Krugman wants us to pay attention to job creation during various administrations, we can play this game – and actually learn something – by adding another president to the mix.

Krugman doesn’t identify his data source, but I assume he used this BLS calculation of private employment (or something very similar).

So I asked that website to give me total private employment going back to the month Reagan was nominated.

And here’s what I found. As you can see, good private-sector job growth under Reagan and Clinton, but relatively tepid job growth this century.

Now let’s take a closer look at the total change in private employment for the first 81 months of the Reagan, Bush, and Obama Administrations. And you’ll see that Krugman was sort of right, at least in that Obama has done better than Bush.

And if there’s no recession before he leaves office, he’ll look even better than Bush than he does now. But Obama doesn’t fare well when compared against Reagan.

So does this mean Krugman will now argue GOP candidates should follow Reaganomics rather than Obamanomics or Bushonomics?

I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to make a correction. By the way, keep in mind what I said before. Presidents (along with members of Congress) don’t have magical job-creation powers. The best you can hope for is that the overall burden of government diminishes a bit during their tenure so that the private sector can flourish.

That’s what really enables job creation, and that’s the lesson that really matters.

But it’s not easy to find the truth if you put partisanship above analysis. Krugman erred by making a very simplistic Bush-Republican-bad/Obama-Democrat-good argument.

In reality, the past several decades show that it’s more important to look at policy rather than partisan labels. For instance, the fiscal policies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are relatively similar and are in distinct contrast to the more profligate fiscal policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

P.S. Paul Krugman’s biggest whopper was about healthcare rather than fiscal policy. In 2009, he said “scare stories” about government-run healthcare in Great Britain “are false.” But you can find lots of scary stories here.

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It’s time to criticize my least-favorite international bureaucracy.

Regular readers probably know that I’m not talking about the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, or World Bank.

Those institutions all deserve mockery, but I think the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is – on a per-dollar basis – the bureaucracy that is most destructive to human progress and economic prosperity.

One example of the organization’s perfidy is the OECD’s so-called Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative, which is basically a scheme to extract more money from companies (which means, of course, that the real cost is borne by workers, consumers, and shareholders).

I’ve written (several times) about the big-picture implications of this plan, but let’s focus today on some very troubling specifics of BEPS.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, explains why we should be very worried about a seemingly arcane development in BEPS’ tax treatment of multinationals. He starts with a very important analogy.

Suppose a group of friends agree to organize a new football league. It would make sense for them to write rules governing the gameplay, the finances of the league, and the process for drafting and trading players. But what about a rule that requires each team to hand over its playbook to the league? No team would want to do that. The playbook is a crucial internal-strategy document, laying out how the team intends to compete. Yet this is what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development wants: to force successful global companies, including U.S. multinationals, to hand over their “playbooks” to foreign governments.

Here’s specifically what’s troubling about BEPS.

…beginning next year the BEPS rules require U.S.-headquartered companies that have foreign subsidiaries to maintain a “master file” that provides an overview of the company’s business, the global allocation of its activities and income, and its overall transfer pricing policies—a complete picture of its global operations, profit drivers, supply chains, intangibles and financing. In effect, the master file is a U.S. multinational’s playbook.

And, notwithstanding assurances from politicians and bureaucrats, the means that sensitive and proprietary information about U.S. firms will wind up in the wrong hands.

Nothing could be more valuable to a U.S. company’s competitors than the information in its master file. But the master file isn’t subject to any confidentiality safeguards beyond those a foreign government decides to provide. A foreign government could hand the information over to any competitor or use it to develop a new one. And the file could be hacked.

Doug recommends in his column that Congress take steps to protect American companies and Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has the same perspective.

Here’s some of what Andy wrote for The Hill.

It is…time for Congress to take a more assertive role in the ongoing efforts to rewrite global tax rules. …(BEPS) proposals drafted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development…threaten the competitiveness of U.S.-based companies and the overall American economy. …We know the Paris-based OECD’s aim is to raid businesses – in particular American businesses – for more tax revenue… The fishing expeditions are being undertaken in part so that bureaucrats can later devise new and creative ways to suck even more wealth out of the private sector. …American companies forced to hand proprietary data to governments – like China’s – that are known to engage in corporate espionage and advantage their state-owned enterprises will be forced to choose between forgoing participation to vital markets or allowing competitors easy access to the knowledge and techniques which fuel their success.

You would think that the business community would be very alarmed about BEPS. And many companies are increasingly worried.

But their involvement may be a too-little-too-late story. That’s because the business group that is supposed to monitor the OECD hasn’t done a good job.

Part of the problem, as Andy explains, is that the head of the group is from a company that is notorious for favoring cronyism over free markets.

The Business and Industry Advisory Committee…has been successfully co-opted by the OECD bureaucracy. At every stage in the process, those positioned to speak on behalf of the business community told any who wished to push back against the boneheaded premise of the OECD’s work to sit down, be quiet, and let them seek to placate hungry tax collectors with soothing words of reassurance about their noble intentions and polite requests for minor accommodations. That go-along-to-get-along strategy has proven a monumental failure. Much of the blame rests with BIAC’s chair, Will Morris. Also the top tax official at General Electric – whose CEO Jeffrey Immelt served as Obama’s “job czar” and is a dependable administration ally – and a former IRS and Treasury Department official, Morris is exactly the kind of business representative tax collectors love.

Ugh, how distasteful. But hardly a surprise given that GE is a big supporter of the corrupt Export-Import Bank.

I’m not saying that GE wants to pay more tax, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the top brass at the company decided to acquiesce to BEPS as an implicit quid pro quo for all the subsidies and handouts that the firm receives.

In any event, I’m sure the bureaucrats at the OECD are happy that BIAC didn’t cause any problems, so GE probably did earn some brownie points.

And what about the companies that don’t feed at the public trough? Weren’t they poorly served by BIAC’s ineffectiveness?

Yes, but the cronyists at GE presumably don’t care.

But enough speculation about why BIAC failed to represent the business community. Let’s return to analysis of BEPS.

Jason Fichtner and Adam Michel of the Mercatus Center explain for U.S. News & World Report that the OECD is pushing for one-size-fits-all global tax rules.

The OECD proposal aims to centralize global tax rules and increase effective tax rates on international firms. U.S. technology firms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple will likely be harmed the most. …the OECD as a special interest group for tax collectors. Over the past 25 years, they have built an international tax cartel in an effort to keep global tax rates artificially high. The group persistently advocates for increased revenue collection and more centralized control. The OECD has waged a two-decade campaign against low tax rates by blacklisting sovereign countries that don’t comply with OECD directives.

Like the others, Fichtner and Michel worry about the negative consequences of the BEPS plan.

The centralization of tax information through a new international country-by-country reporting requirement will pressure some countries to artificially expand their tax base.  A country such as China could increase tax revenue by altering its definition of so-called value creation… Revenue-hungry states will be able to disproportionately extract tax revenue from global companies using the newly centralized tax information. …while a World Bank working paper suggests there is a significant threat to privacy and trade secrets. Country-by-country reporting will complicate international taxation and harm the global economy.

Instead of BEPS, they urge pro-growth reforms of America’s self-destructive corporate tax system.

…the United States should focus on fixing our domestic corporate tax code and lower the corporate tax rate. The U.S. [has] the single highest combined corporate tax rate in the OECD. …Lower tax rates will reduce incentives for U.S. businesses to shift assets overseas, grow the economy and increase investment, output and real wages. Lowering tax rates is the most effective way policymakers can encourage innovation and growth.  The United States should not engage in any coordinated attempt to increase global taxes on economic activity. …The United States would be better off rejecting the proposal to raise taxes on the global economy, and instead focus on fixing our domestic tax code by substantially lowering our corporate tax rate.

By the way, don’t forget that BEPS is just one of the bad anti-tax competition schemes being advanced by the bureaucrats in Paris.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has just produced a new study on the OECD’s Multilateral Convention, which would result in an Orwellian nightmare of massive data collection and promiscuous data sharing.

Read the whole thing if you want to be depressed, but this excerpt from his abstract tells you everything you need to know.

The Protocol amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters will lead to substantially more transnational identity theft, crime, industrial espionage, financial fraud, and the suppression of political opponents and religious or ethnic minorities by authoritarian and corrupt governments. It puts Americans’ private financial information at risk. The risk is highest for American businesses involved in international commerce. The Protocol is part of a contemplated new and extraordinarily complex international tax information sharing regime involving two international agreements and two Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) intergovernmental initiatives. It will result in the automatic sharing of bulk taxpayer information among governments worldwide, including many that are hostile to the United States, corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards.

I wrote about this topic last year, citing some of David’s other work, as well as analysis by my colleague Richard Rahn.

The bottom line is that the OECD wants this Multilateral Convention to become a World Tax Organization, with the Paris-based bureaucracy serving as judge, jury, and executioner.

That’s bad for America. Indeed, it’s bad for all nations (though it is in the interest of politicians from high-tax nations).

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I wrote yesterday that governments want to eliminate cash in order to make it easier to squeeze more money from taxpayers.

But that’s not the only reason why politicians are interested in banning paper money and coins.

They also are worried that paper money inhibits the government’s ability to “stimulate” the economy with artificially low interest rates. Simply stated, they’ve already pushed interest rates close to zero and haven’t gotten the desired effect of more growth, so the thinking in official circles is that if you could implement negative interest rates, people could be pushed to be good little Keynesians because any money they have in their accounts would be losing value.

I’m not joking.

Here’s some of what Kenneth Rogoff, a professor at Harvard and a former economist at the International Monetary Fund, wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Getting rid of physical currency and replacing it with electronic money would…eliminate the zero bound on policy interest rates that has handcuffed central banks since the financial crisis. At present, if central banks try setting rates too far below zero, people will start bailing out into cash.

And here are some passages from an editorial that also was published in the FT.

…authorities would do well to consider the arguments for phasing out their use as another “barbarous relic”…even a little physical currency can cause a lot of distortion to the economic system. The existence of cash — a bearer instrument with a zero interest rate — limits central banks’ ability to stimulate a depressed economy.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that the Willem Buiter of Citi (the same guy who endorsed military attacks on low-tax jurisdictions) supports the elimination of cash.

Citi’s Willem Buiter looks at this problem, which is known as the effective lower bound (ELB) on nominal interest rates. …the ELB only exists at all due to the existence of cash, which is a bearer instrument that pays zero nominal rates. Why have your money on deposit at a negative rate that reduces your wealth when you can have it in cash and suffer no reduction? Cash therefore gives people an easy and effective way of avoiding negative nominal rates. …Buiter’s solution to cash’s ability to allow people to avoid negative deposit rates is to abolish cash altogether.

So are they right? Should cash be abolished so central bankers and governments have more power to manipulate the economy?

There’s a lot of opposition from very sensible people, particularly in the United Kingdom where the idea of banning cash is viewed as a more serious threat.

Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph worries that governments would engage in more mischief if a nation got rid of cash.

Many of our leading figures are preparing to give up on sound money. The intervention I’m most concerned about is Bank of England chief economist Andrew Haldane’s call for a 4pc inflation target, as well as his desire to abolish cash, embrace a purely electronic currency and thus make it easier for the Bank to impose substantially negative interest rates… Imagine that banks imposed -4pc interest rates on savings today: everybody would pull cash out and stuff it under their mattresses. But if all cash were digital, they would be trapped and forced to hand over their money. …all spending would become subject to the surveillance state, dramatically eroding individual liberty. …Money is already too loose – turning on the taps would merely further fuel bubbles at home and abroad.

Also writing for the Telegraph, Matthew Lynn expresses reservations about this trend.

As for negative interest rates, do we really want those? Or have we concluded that central bankers are doing more harm than good with their attempts to manipulate the economy? …a banknote is an incredibly efficient way to handle small transactions. It is costless, immediate, flexible, no one ever needs a password, it can’t be hacked, and the system doesn’t ever crash. More importantly, cash is about freedom. There are surely limits to the control over society we wish to hand over to governments and central banks? You don’t need to be a fully paid-up libertarian to question whether…we really want the banks and the state to know every single detail of what we are spending our money on and where. It is easy to surrender that freedom – but it will be a lot harder to get back.

Merryn Somerset Webb, a business writer from the U.K., is properly concerned about the economic implications of a society with no cash.

…at the beginning of the financial crisis, there was much talk about financial repression — the ways in which policymakers would seek to control the use of our money to deal with out-of-control public debt. …We’ve seen capital controls in the periphery of the eurozone… Interest rates everywhere have been at or below inflation for seven years — and negative interest rates are now snaking their nasty way around Europe… This makes debt interest cheap for governments…and it and forces once-prudent savers to move their money into the kind of risky assets that are supposed to drive growth (and tax receipts).

Amen. She’s right that low interest rates are good news for governments and not very good news for people in the productive sector.

Last but not least, Chris Giles wrote a column for the FT and made one final point that is very much worth sharing.

Mr Haldane’s proposal to ban cash has all the hallmarks of a public official confusing what is convenient for the central bank with what is in the public interest.

Especially since the central bankers are probably undermining long-run economic prosperity with short-run tinkering.

Moreover, the option to engage in Keynesian monetary policy also gives politicians an excuse to avoid the reforms that actually would boost economic performance. Indeed, it’s quite likely that an easy-money policy exacerbates the problems caused by bad fiscal and regulatory policy.

Let’s conclude by noting that maybe the right approach isn’t to give politicians and central bankers more control over money, but rather to reduce government’s control over money. That’s one of the arguments I made in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. By the way, Ryan McKaken at the Mises Institute identifies a third reason why politicians would prefer a cash-free society.

…the elimination of physical cash makes it easier for the state to keep track of private persons, and it assists central banks in efforts to punish saving and expand the money supply by implementing negative interest rate schemes. A third advantage of the elimination of physical cash would be to more easily control people and potential dissidents through the freezing of their bank accounts.

Excellent point. We’ve already seen how asset forfeiture allows governments to steal people’s bank accounts without any conviction of wrongdoing. Imagine the damage politicians and bureaucrats could do if they had even more control over our money.

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Politicians hate cash.

That may seem an odd assertion given that they love spending money (other people’s money, of course, as illustrated by this cartoon).

But what I’m talking about is the fact that politicians get upset when there’s not 100 percent compliance with tax laws.

They hate tax havens since the option of a fiscal refuge makes confiscatory taxation impractical.

They hate the underground economy because that means hard-to-tax economic activity.

And they hate cash because it gives consumers an anonymous payment mechanism.

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

It’s basically because a cashless society is an easier-to-tax society, as expressed by an editorial from the U.K.-based Financial Times.

…unlike electronic money, it cannot be tracked. That means cash favours anonymous and often illicit activity; its abolition would make life easier for a government set on squeezing the informal economy out of existence. …Value added tax, for example, could be automatically levied. …Greece, in particular, could make lemonade out of lemons, using the current capital controls to push the country’s cash culture into new habits.

And some countries are actually moving in this direction.

J.D. Tuccille looks at this issue in an article for Reason.

Peter Bofinger of the German Council of Economic Experts…wants to abolish the use of cash… He frets that old-fashioned notes enable undeclared work and black markets, and stand in the way of central bank monetary policy. So rather than adjust policy to be more palatable to the public, he’d rather leave no shadows in which the public can hide from his preferred policies. The idea is to make all economic activity visible so that people have to submit to control. Denmark, which has the highest tax rates in Europe and a correspondingly booming shadow economy, is already moving in that direction. …the Danmarks Nationalbank will stop internal printing of banknotes and minting of coins in 2016. After all, why adjust tax and regulatory policy to be acceptable to constitutents when you can nag them and try to reinvent the idea of money instead?

By the way, some have proposed similar policies in the United States, starting with a ban on $100 bills.

Which led me to paraphrase a line from the original version of Planet of the Apes.

Notwithstanding my attempt to be clever, the tide is moving in the wrong direction. Cash is beginning to vanish in Sweden, as reported by the New York Times.

…many of the country’s banks no longer accept or dispense cash. Bills and coins now represent just 2 percent of Sweden’s economy, compared with 7.7 percent in the United States and 10 percent in the euro area. This year, only a fifth of all consumer payments in Sweden have been made in cash, compared with an average of 75 percent in the rest of the world, according to Euromonitor International. …Cash machines, which are controlled by a Swedish bank consortium, are being dismantled by the hundreds

Though the article notes that there is some resistance.

Not everyone is cheering. Sweden’s embrace of electronic payments has alarmed consumer organizations and critics who warn of a rising threat to privacy and increased vulnerability to sophisticated Internet crimes. …The government has not sought to stem the cashless tide. If anything, it has benefited from more efficient tax collection, because electronic transactions leave a trail; in countries like Greece and Italy, where cash is still heavily used, tax evasion remains a big problem. Leif Trogen, an official at the Swedish Bankers’ Association, acknowledged that banks were earning substantial fee income from the cashless revolution.

What matters, by the way, is not the degree to which consumers prefer to use alternatives to cash.

That’s perfectly fine, and it explains much of what we see on this map.

The problem is when governments use coercion to limit and/or abolish cash so that politicians have more power. And (gee, what a surprise) this is why the French are trying to crack down on cash.

Writing for the U.K.-based Telegraph, Matthew Lynn mentions the new policy and France and also explores some worrisome implications of this anti-cash trend.

France is banning the use of cash for transactions worth more than €1,000…part of a growing movement among academics and now governments to gradually ban the use of cash completely. …it is a “barbarous relic”, as some publications loftily dismiss it. The trouble is, cash is also incredibly efficient. And it is a crucial part of a free society. There is no convincing case for abolition. …When it comes to creeping state control, it is no surprise to find the French out in front. …A cashless economy would be far easier to both tax and control. But hold on. Is that something we really want? In reality, cash is far too valuable to be given up lightly. In truth, the benefits of abolition are largely oversold. While terrorists and criminals may well use cash to buy weapons, or deal in drugs, it is very hard to believe that they would not find some other way of financing their operations if it was abolished. Are there really any cases of potential jihadists being foiled because they couldn’t find two utility bills (less than three months old, of course) in a false name to open an account?

Amen. Banning cash to stop terrorists is about as foolish as thinking that gun control will thwart jihadists.

In any event, we need to consider trade-offs. Chris Giles highlighted that issue in a piece for the Financial Times.

…an unfortunate rhetorical echo of Maoist China. It is illiberal… Some argue there would be beneficial side effects from abolishing notes and coins through the regularisation of illegal activities. Really? …Cash would have to be abolished everywhere and the BoE does not have those powers, thankfully. The anonymity of cash helps to free people from their governments and some criminality is a price worth paying for liberty.

Though I suppose we should grudgingly give politicians credit for cleverly trying exploit fear to expand their power.

But never forget we’re talking about a bad version of clever. If they succeed, that will be bad news for freedom.  J.D. Tuccille of Reason explains in a second article why a growing number of people prefer to use cash.

Many Americans happily and quietly avoid banks and trendy purchasing choices in favor of old-fashioned paper money. Lots of business gets done that way…the Albuquerque Journal pointed out that over a third of households in the city either avoid banks entirely (the “unbanked”) or else keep a checking account but do much of their business through cash, check-cashing shops, pawn shops, money orders, and other “alternative financial products” (the “underbanked”). A few weeks earlier, the Kansas City Star reported a similar local situation… In both cities, the phenomenon is growing. …Twenty-six percent cite privacy as a reason for keeping clear of banks – bankers say that increased federal reporting and documentation requirements drive many customers away. “A lot of people are afraid of Uncle Sam,” Greg Levenson, president and CEO of Southwest Capital Bank, told the Albuquerque Journal. …It’s a fair bet that those who “have managed to earn income in the shadow economy” and want to keep their income unreported to the feds and undiminished by fees are heavily overrepresented among the unbanked. …most people aren’t idiots. When they avoid expensive, snoopy financial institutions, it’s because they’ve decided the benefits outweigh the costs.

Very well said, though I’d augment what he wrote by noting that some of these folks probably would like to be banked but are deterred by high costs resulting from foolish government money-laundering laws.

More on that later.

Let’s stay with the issue of whether cash should be preserved. A business writer from the U.K. is very uneasy about the notion of a society with no cash.

…tax authorities have become increasingly keen on tracking everything and everyone to make absolutely certain that no assets slip under their radars. The Greeks have been told that, come 2016, they must begin to declare all cash over €15,000 held in safes or mattresses, and all precious stones, gold and the like worth more than €30,000. Anyone else think there might be a new tax coming on all that stuff? …number-crunchers…are maddened by the fact that even as we are provided with lots of simple digital payment methods we still like to use cash: the demand for £20 and £50 notes has been rising. …They are maddened because “as untraceable bearer instruments, it is not possible to locate where banknotes are being held at any one time”… Without recourse to physical cash, we are all 100% dependent on the state-controlled digital world for our financial security. Worse, the end of cash is also the end of privacy: if you have to pay for everything digitally, every transaction you ever make (and your location when you make it) will be on record. Forever. That’s real repression.

She nails it. If politicians get access to more information, they’ll levy more taxes and impose more control.

And that won’t end well.

Last but not least, the Chairman of Signature Bank, Scott Shay, warns about the totalitarian temptations that would exist in a cash-free world. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for CNBC.

In 2010, Visa and MasterCard, bowed to government pressure — not even federal or state law — and banned all online-betting payments from their systems. This made it virtually impossible for these gambling sites to continue operating regardless of their jurisdiction or legality. It is not too far-fetched to wonder if the day might come when the health records of an overweight individual would lead to a situation in which they find that any sugary drink purchase they make through a credit or debit card is declined. …You might think then that the person can always pay cash and remain outside the purview of these technologies. This may be the case for the moment, but we are well on the road to becoming a cashless society. …there is…a sinister risk…a cashless society would certainly give governments unprecedented access to information and power over citizens.

And, he warns, that information will lead to mischief.

Currently, we have little evidence to indicate that governments will refrain from using this power. On the contrary, the U.S. government is already using its snooping prowess and big-data manipulation in some frightening ways. …the U.S. government is becoming very fond of seizing money from citizens first and asking questions later via “civil forfeiture.” Amazingly, the government is permitted by law to do this even if it is only government staff members who have a suspicion, not proof, of wrongdoing. …In recent years, it made it increasingly difficult for companies to operate or individuals to transact by adding compliance hurdles for banks wishing to deal with certain categories of clients. By making it too expensive to deal with certain clients or sending the signal that a bank should not deal with a particular client or type of client, the government can almost assuredly keep that company or person out of the banking system. Banks are so critically dependent on government regulatory approval for their actions… It is easy to imagine a totalitarian regime using these tools to great harm.

Some folks will read Shay’s piece and downplay his concerns. They’ll say he’s making a slippery slope argument.

But there are very good reasons, when dealing with government, to fear that the slope actually is slippery.

Let’s close by sharing my video on the closely related topic of money laundering. These laws and regulations have been imposed supposedly to fight crime.

But we’ve slid down the slope. These policies have been a failure in terms of hindering criminals and terrorists, but they’ve given government a lot of power and information that is being routinely misused.

P.S. The one tiny sliver of good news is that bad money laundering and know-your-customer rules have generated an amusing joke featuring President Obama.

P.P.S. If politicians want to improve tax compliance in a non-totalitarian fashion, there is a very successful recipe for reducing the underground economy.

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Since we enjoyed yesterday a libertarian version of the night-before-Christmas story, let’s continue today with the holiday spirit.

During previous Christmas seasons, I’ve shared Keynesian Christmas carols, a great Jay Leno joke, a video of Santa as a small business owner dealing with red tape, and a look at the all-important question of whether Santa is a leftist or conservative.

Today, though, let’s be momentarily serious and enjoy a Christmas present to the nation from an unexpected source. The Obama Administration has announced that the odious practice of asset forfeiture is going to be curtailed.

Here are some excerpts from a Washington Post report.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it’s suspending a controversial program that allows local police departments to keep a large portion of assets seized from citizens under federal law and funnel it into their own coffers. The “equitable-sharing” program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize — even if the people they took from are never charged with a crime. …Criminal justice reformers are cheering the change. “This is a significant deal,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice.

But don’t get too excited. This almost certainly is not a sign of genuine libertarian thinking inside the Obama Administration.

Indeed, the story suggests that the Justice Department made this change at least in part because it didn’t want to share money with state and local governments.

The DOJ is suspending payments under this program due to budget cuts included in the recent spending bill. “While we had hoped to minimize any adverse impact on state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners, the Department is deferring for the time being any equitable sharing payments from the Program,” M. Kendall Day, chief of the asset forfeiture and money laundering section, wrote in a letter to state and local law enforcement agencies. In addition to budget cuts last year, the program has lost $1.2 billion, according to Day’s letter. “The Department does not take this step lightly,” he wrote. “We explored every conceivable option that would have enabled us to preserve some form of meaningful equitable sharing. … Unfortunately, the combined effect of the two reductions totaling $1.2 billion made that impossible.”

Good, I’m glad they didn’t find a “conceivable option” that would have enabled the government to continue stealing property from people who haven’t been convicted of wrongdoing.

Now that we’ve been serious, let’s get back into the Christmas spirit.

An article in The Atlantic looks at Christmas cards, as designed by economists. Mostly they showed why we’re not at the top of people’s invite lists for holiday parties. Here are my two favorites.

Yup, only economists could describe things like love and family in this fashion!

I don’t even know how to characterize this card, but this sometimes is how economists think.

Last but not least, here are a couple of great Christmas-themed cartoons from two years ago, both by Michael Ramirez.

We’ll start with a Christmas wish that Santa hopefully granted.

Amen.

After all, a GOP with spine wouldn’t cower, as illustrated amusingly by A.F. Branco, when Obama threatens a so-called government shutdown.

Our next cartoon looks at an implication of all Obama’s spending plans.

And if you wonder about the size of Santa Obama’s sack, just check out these very depressing numbers.

After perusing that data, some of us may not be feeling like our statist friends deserve any holiday cheer. But this is Christmas, so let’s try to feel love and joy. So if you see some of your government worshipping friends and family today, we even have a Christmas greeting that’s appropriate for leftists.

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