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Archive for February, 2017

I focus most of my ire on the federal government because bad policy from Washington is the biggest threat to our nation’s freedom and prosperity.

But we also get plenty of bad policy from other levels of government. I periodically focus on the foibles of states such as California, Illinois, and New York.

Today, though, let’s contemplate the inane policies of local government.

I’ve shared plenty of examples in the post, even to the point of putting together two contests (here and here) to pick the craziest action by a local government.

Politicians and bureaucrats in cities and towns do lots of big things that are bad, such as creating massive unfunded liabilities, providing crappy schools, turning law enforcement into back-door tax collectors, and trying to turn children into wusses.

And they do lots of small things that are bad, such as shutting down children’s lemonade stands, arresting people for saving rafters from drowning, fining people for rescuing children from savage dog attacks, leaving a dead body in a pool for two days, requiring permits to be a bum, poisoning water supplies, and paying bureaucrats not to work for 12 years.

Let’s augment these lists.

As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, here’s an example of Chicago cronyism.

A real estate venture created by President Barack Obama’s onetime boss and a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley squandered $68 million it was given to invest on behalf of pension plans for Chicago teachers, cops, city employees and transit workers… The five public pension funds haven’t made a dime on the investments they made nearly a decade ago… In fact, the financially troubled pension plans have lost most of the money they gave DV Urban… Though the pension funds lost out, DV Urban and its affiliated companies got about $9 million of the pension money for management fees.

Not that this should be a surprise. Being a Daley relative has commonly been a route to undeserved riches. And the same can be said about being an Obama crony.

Speaking of government greed, here are some excerpts from a very depressing Forbes column about shakedowns of poor people in Los Angeles.

An unbuckled seat belt caused Gloria Mata Alvarado to lose her driver’s license. When her husband was driving Mata to a doctor’s appointment for her gastritis in August 2012, her stomach began hurting. For relief, Mata adjusted her seat belt. But a police officer saw her take off the belt and cited her. …In court, Mata was ordered to pay $712, almost half the monthly income for her and her husband. (Both are on disability.) After telling the judge that she couldn’t pay the fine because of her limited means, a judge graciously reduced the fine—to $600. Unable to pay, her license was ultimately suspended. …In Los Angeles County alone, nearly 200,000 drivers had their licenses suspended simply because they failed to pay fines or appear in court. Statewide, from 2006 to 2013, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended more than 4.2 million driver’s licenses for those reasons… Throughout the Golden State, motorists are routinely nickeled-and-dimed in traffic court. Looking to raise revenue, state lawmakers slapped on additional fees and surcharges to the base fines for traffic tickets. For instance, the fine for failing to signal or running a stop sign is $35. But after all the surcharges and fees have been imposed, that fine soars to $238. Likewise, a $20 ticket for using a cell phone while driving balloons to $162, while a $100 traffic ticket for failing to carry proof of car insurance actually costs $490. Even worse, failing to pay can trigger an additional $300 “civil assessment” fee. So for many low-income Angelenos, a $20, $35 or $100 ticket can easily become $462, $538, and $815 respectively. …Notably, the courts themselves receive the collected civil assessment penalties, granting them a strong financial incentive to levy fees.

This sickens me. I hate the thought of poor people having their lives made worse because of venal and greedy government.

Especially when many (probably most) of the infractions are for things that don’t actually promote or protect public safety.

At the very least, the fines (and accompanying fees) should be slashed. Though I recognize this could result in more cities being like Detroit, which actually spends more administering parking tickets than it collects in revenue.

Maybe the answer is to levy fines based on income. If a lot of middle class and rich people suddenly experienced severe financial discomfort like the poor, that might generate enough pressure to shut down these revenue-raising scams.

Let’s now travel up the coast to enjoy a classic case of government incompetence from San Francisco.

last year, SFMTA officials excitedly unveiled the first of sixty brand new electric trolley buses purchased by the city of San Francisco. …these $1.1 million-a-piece vehicles were touted as a crucial investment in a public transit system still running buses 20-plus-years old. There’s just one problem: The 60-foot buses can’t go up San Francisco’s hills. In fact, the buses were never designed to handle our iconic hills — anything over a 10 percent grade wears down motor components. …the New Flyer buses also struggle to meet Muni’s internal acceleration standards on inclines of 5 to 10 percent — sometimes taking double the time during tests to accelerate to required speeds on the slight inclines.

But at least the buses are electric, which means they have zero emissions, so the nitwits in San Francisco can feel virtuous (though it does require them to pretend electricity magically appears from nowhere rather than emissions-producing power plants).

This story reminds me of the streetcar boondoggle in DC.

Now let’s go to another city famous for bad policy.

New York City has been padding its budget by ticketing cars that are parked legally.

As of late 2008, in NYC you can park in front of a sidewalk pedestrian ramp, as long as it’s not connected to a crosswalk. …I’ve got a pedestrian ramp leading to nowhere particular in the middle of my block in Brooklyn, and on occasion I have parked there.  Despite the fact that it is legal, I’ve been ticketed for parking there.  Though I get the tickets dismissed, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. And that got me wondering- How common is it for the police to give tickets to cars legally parked in front of pedestrian ramps?

What the reporter discovered is shocking.

…thanks to NYC’s Open Data portal, I was able to look at the most common parking spots in the City where cars were ticketed for blocking pedestrian ramps. …What I found when I dove into the data surprised me.  To start, I found the top address where this ticket were given: in front of 575 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where over $48,000 in parking fines were issued in the last 2.5 years. … the spot, (or really spots since there are two ramps), are legal, since they are in the middle of the block, with no crosswalk.  $48,000 in tickets at a legally parked spot, and that is just the last 2.5 years.

The next top spots on the list had the same story to tell.

1705 Canton Avenue in Brooklyn, 273 Tickets, $45,045: Legal. 270-05 76 Avenue in Queens, 256 Tickets ($42,440) Legal. 143-49 Cherry Ave, Queens, 246 Tickets, ($40,590).  Legal. …I started to skip down the list.  This spot in Battery Park, ranked #16 on my list and the top spot in Manhattan, had 116 tickets ($19,140) and turned out to be legal. …I started to skip down the list faster and faster.  Take #1000 in my top list, at 1059 Virginia Avenue, where 8 tickets had been given ($1320).  It is a classic T intersection, meaning it’s legal. …I then selected 30 random spots that had received 5 or more tickets over the time period, and based on Google Maps found that all of them appeared to be legal parking spots!

The good news is that this exposé supposedly is forcing the city to stop this type of illegal ticket, so some stories actually do have a happy ending.

The next step hopefully will deal with extortionate fines for the horrible crime of…gasp…idling for more than three minutes!

But not all stories end well.

Here’s a jaw-dropping report of bureaucratic abuse from Sarasota, Florida.

At 90 years old, Marie Louise Sikorski has lived in her house on Webber Street in Sarasota for most of her life… The city found several code violations at her home. Since then, she’s racked up massive fines, which she says add up to about 150,000 dollars. As a widow receiving only 1,000 dollars a month…, she says there’s little she can do. …That’s when 30-year-old Miles came into her life. …As her neighbor, Miles heard about her situation and began to help with repairs around the home, sometimes putting in 16 hour days, all free of charge.

This sounds like a happy ending, right? A greedy local government hits a senior citizen who is too old to maintain her house with massive fines, but a wonderful neighbor steps in to save the day.

You’re probably thinking the local government then waived the absurd fines.

…the City is still not satisfied, and she says she’s still being charged 500 dollars a day. …Sarasota requires much of the work to be done by a “licensed” contractor, something Miles is not.

In other words, we get a sad end to the story because of a mix of two ugly things, routine government greed and oligopolistic government licensing restrictions. Reminds me of the disgusting actions of the local government in Montgomery, Alabama.

Last but not least, let’s close with a classic story of wasteful spending.

A local politician in Portland, Oregon, squandered tax money taking her staff to a luxury spa in Arizona for supposed diversity training.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she will close her office next week to take her six staff members to a retreat in Arizona to learn about diversity at a cost of roughly $40,000. Fritz and her staff, about half of whom are people of color, plan to spend at least 3 1/2 days in Tubac, Arizona, near the Mexican border, participating in a diversity workshop put on by a Portland-based company, White Men as Full Diversity Partners. …The program charges $4,750 per person for tuition, lodging, meals and site fees. Fritz’s office will also have to pay for the staffers’ flights to Arizona.

Though, to be fair, Commissioner Fritz is not the only Portland politician to rip off taxpayers for this type of scam.

Former Mayor Charlie Hales drew criticism for spending $56,000 to send 16 white, male city employees to a resort on Mt. Hood in 2014 for another workshop put on by the same organization. The City of Portland has spent more than $126,000 on programs and consulting from White Men as Full Diversity Partners since August 2014, according to city invoice records.

As you might expect, there are some sketchy connections between the city bureaucracy and the contractor.

Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Amalia Alarcon Morris worked as a paid associate for the diversity organization more than a decade ago… The diversity company still lists Alarcon Morris as a consultant on its website.

By the way, I fully expect that a search of campaign finance records would reveal that the owners and managers of White Men as Full Diversity Partners have recycled some of the loot they’ve received into the campaigns of Portland politicians.

The politicians win with campaign contributions. The bureaucrats win with a free vacation. The contractor wins by getting a big check.

The only losers are…you guessed it…the taxpayers!

The moral of the story, as explained by Veronique de Rugy in a column for Reason, is that governments at all levels are venal and incompetent.

What do home Bible study classes, transgender bathrooms, lemonade stands, cat litter, and marijuana have in common? To the blind eye, not much—but in fact, they’re all things state and local governments are actively working to regulate. …it turns out local governments are frequently the worst offenders of all when it comes to petty tyranny. …Dozens of places, including Austin, Texas; Sacramento, California; and Thurston County, Washington, have banned supermarkets, convenience stores, and pharmacies from providing customers with free plastic bags. “Many cities restrict the economic freedom of their residents and potential migrants through minimum wage laws, business licensing, rent control, and zoning restrictions,” Mercatus Center state and local policy expert Adam Millsap explains. And many of these regulations, particularly zoning and occupational licensing laws, place a disproportionate burden on poor people and minorities.

And she points out that decentralization, while theoretically very desirable, won’t generate many benefits if misguided federal policies are replaced by bad local policies.

Many on the political right believe that the devolution of power to lower levels of government can help overcome problems created by centralized authority….In a 2014 paper, George Mason University economist Richard Wagner explored whether federalism really supports liberty. He found that devolving power to lower levels can be good for individual freedom under the right conditions—but it’s far from guaranteed.

P.S. Don’t forget to vote for Veronique in the “most influential libertarian” contest. And you don’t even need to make it a write-in vote. She’s been added to the list by popular demand.

P.P.S. I suspect most people won’t care about what’s happening with my local government, but local politicians and bureaucrats are whining about belt-tightening even though spending has climbed much faster than inflation.

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I shared yesterday an example of how a big tax increase on expensive homes led to fewer sales. Indeed, the drop was so pronounced that the government didn’t just collect less money than projected, which is a very common consequence when fiscal burdens increase, but it actually collected less money than before the tax hike was enacted.

That’s the Laffer Curve on steroids.

The purpose of that column was to share with my leftist friends an example of a tax increase that achieved something they desired (i.e., putting a damper on sales of expensive houses) in hopes of getting them to understand that higher taxes on other types of economic activity also will have similar effects.

And some of those “other types of economic activity” will be things that they presumably like, such as job creation, entrepreneurship, and upward mobility.

I now have another example to share. The New York Times is reporting that a Mexican tax on soda is causing a big drop in soda consumption.

In the first year of a big soda tax in Mexico, sales of sugary drinks fell. In the second year, they fell again, according to new research. The finding represents the best evidence to date of how sizable taxes on sugary drinks, increasingly favored by large American cities, may influence consumer behavior.

This is an amazing admission. Those first three sentences of the article are an acknowledgement of the central premise of supply-side economics: The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

In other words, taxes do alter behavior. In the wonky world of economics, this is simply the common-sense observation that demand curves are downward-sloping. When the price of something goes up (in this case, because of taxes), the quantity that is demanded falls and there is less output.

And here’s another remarkable admission in the story. The effect of taxes on behavior can be so significant that revenues are impacted.

The results…matter for policy makers who hope to use the money raised by such taxes to fund other projects. …some public officials may be dismayed… Philadelphia passed a large soda tax last year and earmarked most of its proceeds to pay for a major expansion to prekindergarten. City budget officials had assumed that the tax would provide a stable source of revenue for education. If results there mirror those of Mexico, city councilors may eventually have to find the education money elsewhere.

Wow, not just an admission of supply-side economics, but also an acknowledgement of the Laffer Curve.

Now if we can get the New York Times to admit that these principle also apply to taxes on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship, that will be a remarkable achievement.

P.S. Leftists are capable of amazing hypocrisy, so I won’t be holding my breath awaiting the consistent application of the NYT‘s newfound knowledge.

P.P.S. Just because some folks on the left are correct about the economic impact of soda taxes, that doesn’t mean they are right on policy. As a libertarian, I don’t think it’s the government’s job to dictate (or even influence) what we eat and drink.

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In my never-ending strategy to educate policy makers about the Laffer Curve, I generally rely on both microeconomic theory (i.e., people respond to incentives) and real-world examples.

And my favorite real-world example is what happened in the 1980s when Reagan cut the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Critics said Reagan’s reforms would deprive the Treasury of revenue and result in rich people paying a lot less tax. So I share IRS data on annual tax revenues from those making more than $200,000 per year to show that there was actually a big increase in revenue from upper-income taxpayers.

It has slowly dawned on me, though, that this may not be the best example to share if I’m trying to convince skeptical statists. After all, they presumably don’t like Reagan and they may viscerally reject my underlying point about the Laffer Curve since I’m linking it to the success of Reaganomics.

So I have a new strategy for getting my leftist friends to accept the Laffer Curve. I’m instead going to link the Laffer Curve to “successful” examples of left-wing policy. To be more specific, statists like to use the power of government to control our behavior, often by imposing mandates and regulations. But sometimes they impose taxes on things they don’t like.

And if I can use those example to teach them the basic lesson of supply-side economics (if you tax something, you get less of it), hopefully they’ll apply that lesson when contemplating higher taxes on thing they presumably do like (such as jobs, growth, competitiveness, etc).

Here’s a list of “successful” leftist tax hikes that have come to my attention.

Now I’m going to augment this list with an example from the United Kingdom.

By way of background, there’s been a heated housing market in England, with strong demand leading to higher prices. The pro-market response is to allow more home-building, but the anti-developer crowd doesn’t like that approach, so instead a big tax on high-value homes was imposed.

And as the Daily Mail reports, this statist approach has been so “successful” that the tax hike has resulted in lower tax revenues.

George Osborne’s controversial tax raid on Britain’s most expensive homes has triggered a dramatic slump in stamp duty revenues. Sales of properties worth more than £1.5million fell by almost 40 per cent last year, according to analysis of Land Registry figures… This has caused the total amount of stamp duty collected by the Treasury to fall by around £440million, from £1.079billion to a possible £635.7million. The figures cover the period between April and November last year compared to the same period in 2015.

Our leftist friends, who sometimes openly admit that they want higher taxes on the rich even if the government doesn’t actually collect any extra revenue, should be especially happy because the tax has made life more difficult for people with more wealth and higher incomes.

Those buying a £1.5 million house faced an extra £18,750 in stamp duty. …Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg…described Mr Osborne’s ‘punitive’ stamp duty hikes as the ‘politics of envy’, adding that they have also failed because they have raised less money for the Treasury.

By the way, the fact that the rich paid less tax last year isn’t really the point. Instead, the lesson to be learned is that a tax increase caused there to be less economic activity.

So I won’t care if the tax on expensive homes brings in more money next year, but I will look to see if fewer homes are being sold compared to when this tax didn’t exist.

And if my leftist friends say they don’t care if fewer expensive homes are being sold, I’ll accept they have achieved some sort of victory. But I’ll ask them to be intellectually consistent and admit that they are implementing a version of supply-side economics and that they are embracing the notion that tax rates change behavior.

Once that happens, it’s hopefully just a matter of time before they recognize that it’s not a good idea to impose high tax rates on things that are unambiguously good for an economy, such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Yes, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In addition to theory and real-world examples, my other favorite way of convincing people about the Laffer Curve is to share the poll showing that only 15 percent of certified public accountants agree with the leftist view that taxes have no impact have taxable income. I figure that CPAs are a very credible source since they actually do tax returns and have an inside view of how behavior changes in response to tax policy.

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The United States is going to become another Greece, and it’s largely because of poorly designed entitlement programs. As the old saying goes, demography is destiny.

Let’s look at just one piece of that puzzle. James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute has a very sobering summary of how Medicaid has metastasized into one of the largest and fastest-growing entitlement programs.

You should read the entire article, but if you’re pressed for time, I’m going to share two grim charts that tell you what you need to know.

First, we have a look at how the burden of Medicaid spending, measured as a share of national output, has increased over time.

What makes this chart particularly depressing is that Medicaid was never supposed to become a massive entitlement program.

It was basically created so the crowd in Washington could buy a few votes. Yet the moment politicians decided that it was the federal government had a role in subsidizing health care for the indigent, it was just a matter of time before the program was expanded to new groups of potential voters.

And every time the program was expanded, that increased the burden of spending and further undermined market forces in the health sector.

This is why entitlement programs are so injurious to a nation.

But Medicaid isn’t just a problem because of its adverse fiscal and economic impact.

The program also is exacerbating the redistribution culture in the United States as more and more people get trapped in the web of dependency.

Which brings us to our second chart from Capretta’s article. Here’s a look at the share of the population being subsidized by Medicaid.

As a fiscal wonk, I realize I should care more about the budget numbers, but I actually find this second graph more depressing. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from a nation where the federal government had no role in the provision of low-income healthcare, and now nearly one out of every five Americans is on the federal teat.

Even though we’re far richer than we were in the mid-1960s when the program was created, which presumably should have meant less supposed need for federal subsidies.

For further background on the issue, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

I urge you to pay close attention to the discussion that starts at 1:48. I explain that programs with both federal and state spending create perverse incentives for even more spending. This is mostly because politicians in either Washington or state capitals can expand eligibility and take full credit for new handouts while only being responsible for a portion of the costs. But it also happens because the federal match gives states big incentives to manipulate the system to get more transfers.

P.S. All of which explains why I think Medicaid reform should be the first priority when looking at how to fix the entitlements mess, even before Medicare reform and Social Security reform.

P.P.S. I’m not overflowing with optimism that Trump will tackle the issue, but there is a feasible scenario for him fixing the program.

P.P.P.S. Regardless, one would hope all politicians would agree that it’s time to tackle rampant Medicaid fraud.

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For more than 30 years, I’ve been trying to educate my leftist friends about supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve.

Why is it so hard for them to recognize, I endlessly wonder, that when you tax something, you get less of it? And why don’t they realize that when you tax something at high rates, the effect is even larger?

And if the tax is high and the affected economic activity is sufficiently discouraged, why won’t they admit that this will have an impact on tax revenue?

Don’t they understand the basic economics of supply and demand?

But I’m not giving up, which means I’m either a fool or an optimist.

In this Skype interview with the Blaze’s Dana Loesch, I pontificate about the economy and tax policy.

I made my standard points about the benefits a lower corporate rate and “expensing,” while also warning about the dangers of the the “border adjustable tax” being pushed by some House Republicans.

But for today, I want to focus on the part of the interview where I suggested that a lower corporate tax rate might generate more revenue in the long run.

That wasn’t a throwaway line or an empty assertion. America’s 35 percent corporate tax rate (39 percent if you include the average of state corporate taxes) is destructively high compared to business tax systems in other nations.

Last decade, the experts at the American Enterprise Institute calculated that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent.

More recently, the number crunchers at the Tax Foundation estimated the long-run revenue-maximizing rate is even lower, at about 15 percent.

You can (and should) read their studies, but all you really need to understand is that companies will have a greater incentive to both earn and report more income when the rate is reasonable.

But since the U.S. rate is very high (and we also have very punitive rules), companies are discouraged from investing and producing in America. Firms also have an incentive to seek out deductions, credits, exemptions, and other preferences when rates are high. And multinational companies understandably will seek to minimize the amount of income they report in the United States.

In other words, a big reduction in the corporate rate would be unambiguously positive for the American economy. And because there will be more investment and job creation, there also will be more taxable income. In other words, a bigger “tax base.”

Though I confess that I’m not overly fixated on whether that leads to more revenue. Remember, the goal of tax policy should be to finance the legitimate functions of government in the least-destructive manner possible, not to maximize revenue for politicians.

P.S. Economists at the Australian Treasury calculated the effect of a lower corporate rate and found both substantial revenue feedback and significant benefits for workers. The same thing would happen in the United States.

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Because I’m worried about the future of the nation, I want a national discussion and debate about big issues such as the entitlement crisis and our insane tax code.

No such luck. The crowd in Washington and the media have been focusing on sideshow topics such as which side has the most fake news, the purported sloppiness of executive orders, and the Trump-Putin “bromance.”

And we now have a culture-war fight in DC thanks to Trump’s new policy on transgender bathroom usage.

The Justice and Education departments said Wednesday that public schools no longer need to abide by the Obama-era directive instructing them to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender. …The agencies said they withdrew the guidance to “in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.” Anti-bullying safeguards for students will not be affected by the change, according to the letter. …There won’t be any immediate impact on schools, because the Obama guidance had been temporarily blocked since August by a federal judge in Texas, one of 13 states that sued over the directive.

Though, to be fair, Trump didn’t start this culture war. He’s simply responding to a battle that Obama triggered.

Moreover, even though I prefer that we focus attention of big-picture fiscal and economic issues, I’m not asserting that this issue should be swept under the rug.

That being said, I think the issue would largely disappear if we simply recognized boundaries. Not everything should be decided in Washington. Yes, it’s the federal government’s job to guarantee and protect universally applicable constitutional rights, but some decisions belong at the state and local level. And most decisions should take place in the private sector and civil society.

Here’s some of what I wrote in late 2015.

One of the great things about being a libertarian is that you have no desire for government sanctions against peaceful people who are different than you are, and that should be a very popular stance. You can be a libertarian who is also a serious fundamentalist, yet you have no desire to use the coercive power of government to oppress or harass people who are (in your view) pervasive sinners. For instance, you may think gay sex is sinful sodomy, but you don’t want it to be illegal. Likewise, you can be a libertarian with a very libertine lifestyle, yet you have no desire to use the coercive power of government to oppress and harass religious people. It’s wrong (in your view) to not cater a gay wedding, but you don’t want the government to bully bakers and florists. In other words, very different people can choose to be libertarian, yet we’re all united is support of the principle that politicians shouldn’t pester people so long as those folks aren’t trying to violate the life, liberty, or property of others. …And when you’re motivated by these peaceful principles, which imply a very small public sector and a very big private sector and civil society, it’s amazing how many controversies have easy solutions.

Let’s look at some more recent sensible commentary on this topic.

Roy Cordato wrote about the controversy in his state of North Carolina.

…lost in all the rhetoric surrounding this issue is the truth about both the original Charlotte law and the state’s response to it. …the Charlotte, North Carolina, city council passed an “antidiscrimination” law… The centerpiece of this law was a provision that prohibits businesses providing bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers from segregating usage of those facilities by gender, biologically defined. Biological males or females must be allowed to use the facilities of the opposite sex if they claim that that is the sex they identify with psychologically. …This ordinance was an assault on the rights of private property owners and economic freedom, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. …In a free society based on property rights and free markets, as all free societies must be, a privately owned business would have the right to decide whether or not it wants separate bathrooms strictly for men and women biologically defined, bathrooms for men and women subjectively or psychologically defined, completely gender neutral bathrooms with no labels on the doors, or no bathrooms at all.

And Roy says that the state law (which overturned the Charlotte ordinance) was reasonable in that regard.

The law in North Carolina that so many progressives are up in arms about does not prohibit businesses from having bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, etc., that allow use by people of all genders defined biologically, psychologically, or whatever. …the state of North Carolina codified a basic libertarian principle: the separation of bathroom and state.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a similar perspective.

Government needs to get out of culture war issues as much as possible, the question of transgendered people in bathrooms included. …In North Carolina, Charlotte’s City Council made the first mistake. …the city passed a non-discrimination ordinance…that…basically legislated bathroom admission. …Charlotte passed this law, exposing private business owners to lawsuits and legal punishments. …The ordinance also stirred up fears of predators — men getting into a ladies’ room thanks to this law, and then assaulting or leering at vulnerable women. Nobody showed that this was a real threat, but the same mindset behind the Charlotte law — we need a law to ban a possible bad thing — drove the state legislature to pass HB 2. HB 2 blocked Charlotte and other cities from implementing their antidiscrimination laws. …both the liberal legislation and the conservative reaction were out of place. Charlotte shouldn’t have stuck itself into private restrooms, and the state shouldn’t have stuck itself into the city’s sticking itself into restrooms.

By the way, Tim’s column also makes the key point that people should be decent human beings. A bit of civilized consideration and politeness goes a long way when dealing with potentially uncomfortable situations.

Writing for Reason, Scott Shackford opines on the topic, beginning with an appropriate defense of transgender people.

Transgender citizens have the same right as everybody else to live their lives as they please without unnecessary government interference. …As a legal and ethical matter, …it generally shouldn’t matter why somebody identifies as transgender. It’s their right. In the event that somebody decides to pose as transgender in order to engage in some sort of fraud or criminal behavior, there are already laws to punish such actions. …so it would be appropriate that in any situation where the government treats a transgender person on the basis of his or her identity it respects their form of gender expression. That means the government should allow for any official documentation—such as a driver’s license—that requires the listing of a person’s sex to match the identity by which a person lives, as much as it’s feasibly possible. …Transgender citizens are seeing some big inroads both culturally and legally, and we should all see these generally as positive developments. …Transgender citizens have the right to demand the government treat them fairly and with dignity.

But Scott correctly observes that the government should not have the power to use coercion to mandate specific choices by private individuals or private businesses.

In the private sector, it’s all a matter of cultural negotiation and voluntary agreements. The law should not be used to mandate private recognition of transgender needs, whether it’s requiring insurance companies cover gender reassignment surgeries or requiring private businesses to accommodate their bathroom choices. The reverse is also true: It would be inappropriate for the government to forbid insurance coverage or to require private businesses to police their own bathrooms to keep transgender folks out.

Last but not least, my colleague Neal McCluskey explains that federalism is part of the solution.

Much of this debate has been framed as conservatives versus liberals, or traditionalists versus social change. But the root problem is not differing views. It is government — especially federal — imposition. …Single-sex bathrooms and locker rooms have long been the norm, and privacy about our bodies — especially from the opposite sex — has long been coveted. …Of course, transgendered students should — must — be treated equally by public institutions, and their desire to use the facilities in which they feel comfortable is utterly understandable. By fair reckoning, we do not have a competition between good and evil, but what should be equally protected values and rights. How do we resolve this? …not with a federal mandate. …So how, in public schools, do we treat people equally who have mutually exclusive values and desires? We cannot. Open the bathrooms to all, and those who want single-sex facilities lose. Keep them closed, and transgender students lose. The immediate ramification of this is that decisions should be made at state, and preferably local, levels. At least let differing communities have their own rules.

But the real answer, Neal explains, is school choice.

…the long-term — and only true — solution is school choice. Attach money to students, give educators freedom to establish schools with their own rules and values, and let like-minded people freely associate. Impose on no one.  …We live in a pluralist society, and for that we should be eternally grateful. To keep that, and also be a free and equal society, people of different genders, values, etc., must be allowed to live as they see fit as long as they do not impose themselves on others. That is impossible if government imposes uniformity on all.

But I’ll admit that these libertarian principles don’t solve every problem. States will need to have some sort of policy. Not because of private businesses, which should get to choose their own policies. And not because of schools, which will be privately operated in my libertarian fantasy world and therefore also able to set their own policies.

But how should states handle bathrooms in public buildings? Even if there are less of them in a libertarian society, the issue will exist. And what about prisons in a libertarian world?

I don’t pretend to know exactly how these issues should be resolved. Conservatives argue that you should be defined by the gender on your birth certificate and leftists say you should be to choose your identify.

My gut instinct is to cut the baby in half (I’m such a moderate). Maybe the rule for prisons is not how you identify or what’s on your birth certificate, but what sort of…um…equipment you have. If you were born a man but had surgery (which is your right so long as you’re not asking me to pay for it), then you’re eligible for a women’s prison. Likewise, if you were born a woman and surgery gave you male genitalia (I confess I don’t know if that’s even possible), then you get assigned to a men’s prison.

Government bathrooms are an easier problem. From a practical perspective, I’m guessing the net result of this fight – at least for schools and public buildings – will be a shift to single-use bathrooms. In other words, multi-person facilities for men and women will be replaced by a bunch of private bathrooms.

This will be bad news for taxpayers, because it is more expensive to build and operate such bathrooms.

And it will be bad news for women because that means they will be forced to use bathrooms that are less pleasant because men…um…tend to be less fastidious about…um…personal habits such as lifting toilet seats before…well…you know.

Men only have to deal with the messes made by other men when we have to sit down in a bathroom. And even then, the problem is minimized since other men generally will use urinals when they…um…don’t need to sit down.

But if we have a world of one-person-at-a-time bathrooms, women’s lives will be less pleasant.

P.S. Speaking of bathrooms, my only goal is simply knowing how to operate the various controls. I’ve been totally stumped by the design of foreign showers and, if you check out the postscript of this column, very impressed by the sophistication of foreign toilets.

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Early last month, in a column on my hopes and fears for 2017, I fretted about fiscal chaos in Italy leading to default and bailouts.

Simply stated, I fear that Italy, along with certain other “Club Med” nations, has passed the point of no return in terms of big government, demographic decline, and societal dependency.

And this means that, sooner or later, the proverbial wheels are going to fall off the bus.

And it might be sooner. I don’t always agree with his policy recommendations, but I regularly read Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute because he is one of the best-informed people in Washington on the fiscal and economic mess in Europe.

And Italy, to be blunt, is in a mess.

Here’s what Desmond just wrote about the country’s economy.

…while the euro could very well survive a Greek exit, it certainly could not survive in anything like its present form were Italy to have a full-blown economic and financial crisis that forced it to default on its public debt mountain. …Among the reasons that there should be greater concern about an Italian, rather than a Greek, economic crisis is that Italy has a very much larger economy than Greece. Being the third-largest economy in the eurozone, Italy’s economy is around 10 times the size of that of Greece. Equally troubling is the fact that Italy has the world’s third-largest sovereign bond market with public debt of more than $2.5 trillion. Much of this debt is held by Europe’s shaky banking system, which heightens the risk that an Italian sovereign debt default could shake the global financial system to its core. …the country’s economic performance since 2008 has been abysmal. Indeed, Italian living standards today are around 10 percent below where they were 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Italy’s banking system has become highly troubled and its public sector debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is now the second highest in the eurozone.

And here’s some of what he wrote late last year.

…today there would seem to be as many reasons for worrying about the Italian economy as there were for worrying about the Greek economy back in 2009. Like Greece then, Italy today checks all too many of the boxes for the making of a full-blown economic and financial crisis within the next year or two. …the Italian economy today is barely above its level in 1999 when the country adopted the Euro as its currency. Worse still, since the Great Global Economic Recession in 2008-2009, the Italian economy has experienced a triple-dip recession that has left its economy today some 7 percent below its pre-2008 crisis peak level and its unemployment rate stuck at over 11 percent. …deficiencies of its ossified labor market that contributes so importantly to the country’s very poor productivity performance. As a result, since adopting the Euro in 1999, Italy’s unit labor costs have increased by around 15 percentage points more than have those in Germany. …Italian banks now have around EUR 360 billion in non-performing loans, which amounts to a staggering 18 percent of their loan portfolio. If that were not bad enough, the Italian banks also hold unhealthily large amounts of Italian government debt, which now total more than 10 percent of their overall assets. …the country’s public debt level has risen from 100 percent of GDP in 2008 to 133 percent of GDP at present.

The numbers shared by Lachman are downright miserable.

And he’s not the only one pointing out that Italy’s economy is in the toilet.

I shared numbers last year showing the pervasive stagnation in the country.

So what’s the Italian government doing to solve these problems? Is it slashing tax rates? Reducing the burden of government? Cutting back on red tape?

Of course not. The politicians are either making things worse or engaging in pointless distractions.

Speaking of which, I’m tempted to laugh at the Italian government’s campaign to boost birthrates. Here’s some of what’s been reported by the New York Times.

…a government effort to promote “Fertility Day” on Sept. 22, a campaign intended to encourage Italians to have more babies. …Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world… Italian families have been shrinking for decades. In 2015, 488,000 babies were born in Italy, the fewest since the country first unified in 1861. It has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, with 1.37 children per woman, compared with a European average of 1.6, according to Eurostat figures.

By the way, I actually commend the government for recognizing that falling birthrates are a problem.

Not because women should feel obliged to have kids if that’s not what they want. But rather because Italy has a massive tax-and-transfer welfare state that is predicated on an ever-expending population of workers (i.e., taxpayers) to finance benefits to retirees.

But old people are living longer and low birthrates mean that there won’t be enough taxpayers to prop up the Ponzi Scheme of big government.

But while the government deserves kudos for acknowledging a problem, it deserves mockery for thinking empty slogans will make a difference.

Moreover, there’s also a problem in that Italian voters have been so conditioned to expect handouts that they think the answer to the problem is even more government!

The problem is not a lack of desire to have children, critics of the campaign say, but rather the lack of meaningful support provided by the government and many employers. …”I still feel very offended,” said Vittoria Iacovella, 37, a journalist and mother of two girls, ages 10 and 8. “The government encourages us to have babies, and then the main welfare system in Italy is still the grandparents.” …Italy’s government has tried to help families with a so-called baby bonus of 80 to 160 euros, or about $90 to $180, for low- and middle-income households, and it has approved labor laws giving more flexibility on parental leave.

Ms. Iacovella is crazy for thinking that more taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more mandates will make things better.

Heck, even leftists are now admitting such laws undermine employment and specifically hurt women by making them less attractive to employers.

Meanwhile, the Italian government is taking lots of other dumb steps. Including, as reported by the Telegraph, creating a new entitlement for teenagers.

Italian school leavers may face the dismal prospect of 40 per cent youth unemployment, but at least they have one thing to look forward to – a €500 “culture bonus”, courtesy of the government. From next month, every 18-year-old will be entitled to claim the money and spend it on culturally enriching pursuits such as going to theatres, concerts and museums, visiting archaeological sites, and buying books. The scheme, which starts on Sept 15, will benefit 575,000 teenagers, at a cost to the government of €290 million (£250 million).

By the way, is anyone shocked to learn that Italian teenagers look forward to these handouts?

…it has been welcomed by 18-year-olds, who face a difficult economic landscape when they leave school – high unemployment, a lack of secure, long-term contracts and an economy that has performed dismally for a decade. “Of course we’re happy…,” said Angelica Magazzino, a teenager from the southern region of Puglia who turns 18 in November.

If you read the entire story, you’ll learn that the government justifies this new entitlement by saying it will fight terrorism. I don’t know if that’s more crazy or less crazy than the American leftists who blame terrorism on climate change or inequality.

Last but not least, CNN is reporting that the government is also enabling other forms of Italian “culture.”

Italy’s highest court has ruled that masturbation in public is not a crime, as long as it is not conducted in the presence of minors.

No, this is not a joke.

The decision came down from the Italian Supreme Court…in the case of a 69-year-old man…The man was convicted in May 2015 after he performed the act in front of students on the University of Catania campus, according to documents filed with Supreme Court. The man was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of €3,200 (around $3,600). However, the defendant’s lawyer appealed the case to the country’s highest court, which ruled on the side of the accused in June but only just made its decision public. Judges ruled that public masturbation out of the presence of minors is no longer deemed criminal conduct due to a change in the law last year, which decriminalized the act.

Great. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Italy. Though I guess it’s nice to see Italian seniors are staying active in their communities.

More seriously, this is why I’m sympathetic to Italians that are either privately dodging or publicly revolting when you have a government this profligate and senseless.

P.S. Amazingly, some leftists think the United States should have a bigger government and be more like Italy.

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