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Archive for June, 2017

Writing about the sub-par single-payer healthcare system in the United Kingdom, Paul Krugman infamously claimed that,“In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false.”

I’ve pointed out that there are plenty of “scare stories” about the National Health Service that are completely true. And completely scary.

But don’t take my word for it.

Just click hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, herehereherehereherehere, here, or here if you want examples.

To be fair, there surely are horror stories from every health care system. Humans are imperfect, after all.

But I suspect shoddy care is more common when healthcare providers get a salary from the government. Under such an arrangement, patients are a burden rather than a source of revenue.

Set that aside, however, because there’s a feature of the U.K.’s single-payer system that is reprehensible and it has nothing to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of care.

The UK-based Daily Mail reports on this very disturbing case.

The parents of terminally-ill baby Charlie Gard are ‘utterly distraught’ and facing fresh heartbreak after losing their final appeal in the European Court of Human Rights. Chris Gard, 32, and Connie Yates, 31, wanted to take their 10-month-old son – who suffers from a rare genetic condition and has brain damage – to the US to undergo a therapy trial. …the couple, from Bedfont, west London, raised almost £1.4million so they could take their son to America but a series of courts ruled in favour of the British doctors. …the ECHR rejected a last-ditch plea and their ‘final’ decision means the baby’s life support machine will be switched off. …It comes after a High Court judge in April ruled against a trip to America and in favour of Great Ormond Street doctors. …Specialists in the US have offered a therapy called nucleoside. …barrister Richard Gordon QC, who leads Charlie’s parents’ legal team, …said parents should be free to make decisions about their children’s treatment unless any proposal poses a risk of significant harm. …Charlie’s parents have raised nearly £1.4million to pay for therapy in America.

Ian Tuttle of National Review explains what’s really at stake in this case.

Any day now, they’ll kill Charlie Gard. …Charlie’s parents have raised enough money from private donations to fund the experimental treatment, but the court decision prohibits his removal to the U.S. …successive courts in the United Kingdom and in Europe simultaneously found that Connie Yates and Chris Gard had devoted themselves unhesitatingly to their son’s welfare for ten months, and also that Yates and Gard could not be trusted to act in their son’s best interests. …pertinent to this case, under what circumstances should the tightest bonds of affection — those between parent and child — be subordinated to the judgment of the state?

The part that astounds me (in a very bad way) is that the courts won’t allow the parents to bring their son to the United States.

Their not asking or expecting the taxpayers to pick up the cost. They’ve raised money to cover the experimental treatment. Yet the government won’t let them try to save their son’s life.

Even if the doctors are right and the experimental treatment fails, why shouldn’t the parents be allowed to do the medical equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary at the end of a football game?

I can’t even imagine what the parents must be thinking. If some government official said I had to allow one of my kids to die and that I didn’t have the right to try anything and everything to avert that outcome, I don’t even want to think of what I might do.

I used to think policies such as asset forfeiture or IRS abuses were the worst form of government thuggery. But

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Singapore is one of my favorite nations for the simple reason that it consistently gets very high scores from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom (as well as from Doing Business, Global Competitiveness Report, and World Competitiveness Yearbook).

I also greatly admire Singapore’s strict adherence to my Golden Rule for a 10-year period beginning in the late 1990s. Government spending actually shrank by a bit more than 1 percent per year, on average, over that decade.

This reduced the burden of government spending to just 12 percent of economic output, almost as low as it was in North America and Western Europe in the 1800s.

Unfortunately, the public sector has since crept back up to 20 percent of GDP, but that’s still very low compared to the rest of the developed world.

What’s especially attractive is that the welfare state is very small in Singapore. According to the IMF (see page 44), expenditures on “social development” are only about 8 percent of GDP, and that category includes education and health care. If you peruse Singapore budget documents, spending on “transfers” is well under 5 percent of economic output.

Either figure is far below levels of redistribution in other developed nations.

One of the reasons the welfare state is so small is that individuals are required to set aside their own money for health and retirement.

And since the burden of spending is modest, that enables Singapore to have a non-oppressive tax regime.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a value-added tax was imposed back in the 1990s. Though the rate has stayed low (so far) and hasn’t (yet) become a money machine for big government.

Singapore is also very good in areas other than fiscal policy. It is a shining example of the benefits of open trade. It ranks very highly for rule of law. And there’s very little regulation.

Indeed, Singapore has consistently ranked #2 for economic freedom in recent decades, trailing only Hong Kong (the U.S. briefly edged out Singapore for second place after all the market-friendly reforms of the Reagan and Clinton years, but now we trail by a wide margin thanks to the statism of the Bush-Obama years).

Here’s a graph from Economic Freedom of the World showing how Singapore started at a decent point in 1970 and then had a 20-year period of improvement (most because of deregulation and better monetary policy).

As I repeatedly argue, if you want good economic results, you need good policy.

And that’s exactly the story of Singapore.

I’m currently in the country because I spoke earlier today at a conference on global investment (the audience got quite excited when I explained the effort to defund the OECD).

Walking the streets, it’s hard not to be impressed by the widespread prosperity of the jurisdiction. Sleek buildings. Fancy shops. Lots of professionals.

And ordinary people are the biggest winners. Here’s a remarkable chart from Human Progress showing per capita GDP (in $2015 inflation-adjusted dollars) in Singapore and the United States, along with the world average.

As you can see, Singapore used to be far below the United States and somewhat below the world average. Now it is one of the wealthiest places on the planet.

Singapore’s jump from poverty to prosperity is astounding.

What’s really remarkable is that the country was as poor as Jamaica back in the 1960s. But thanks to rapid economic growth, the people of Singapore enjoy very high living standards today.

The moral of the story is that ordinary people in Singapore enjoy prosperity because the government was smart enough to focus on growth and didn’t worry about inequality.

Here’s what Marian Tupy, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, wrote about the country’s incredible growth.

The incredible transformation of Singapore from a sleepy outpost of the British Empire to a global commercial and technological hub was partly facilitated by a very high degree of economic freedom. …As late as 1970, per person income in Singapore was 54 percent of the global average. Today it is 321 percent of the global average.

Now for the bad news.

Singapore is very pro-market, but it’s not very pro-liberty. In an article for the Foundation for Economic Education, Donovan Choy highlights some of the nation’s shortcomings.

Within libertarian circles, Singapore generally enjoys a good reputation for its economic freedom.

But it’s not Nirvana.

The Housing Development Board (HDB), the public housing arm of the state, houses more than 80% of the population in high-rise apartment homes. …Education is largely monopolized by the state from the primary school level up until the university level… Singapore suffers from a severe lack of press freedom, ranking at an alarming 151 in the World Press Freedom Index… The state also controls public broadcasting from television to radio. …Singapore is perhaps most well-known for its non-tolerance of drugs. Drug users can be jailed or housed in rehabilitation centers for up to three years and drug traffickers face the death penalty. …Singaporean males are also subject to mandatory conscription of up to two years by the age of 18, a law that has been in effect since 1967. Civil ownership of guns are outlawed in Singapore.

These are reasons why Singapore does not earn a high score in the Human Freedom Index.

But I’m an economist, so I’m still as positively impressed as I was back in 2009.

P.S. I went to the iconic Raffles Hotel to visit the iconic Long Bar and drink an iconic Singapore Sling. But my attempt to be a stereotypical tourist was derailed because that part of the hotel is being renovated. Which is probably a good outcome since I learned that the Singapore Sling is a gin-based drink, which presumably would not agree with my sensitive palate. Though I did learn that the last wild tiger in Singapore was killed at the hotel back in 1902.

P.P.S. One final policy comment: The bureaucrats at the OECD produced a report on Asian economies and argued that taxes should consume at least 25 percent of GDP to achieve prosperity, which was a remarkable assertion since the report showed that Singapore was the richest nation in the region and has a tax burden barely half that level. That’s an example of what soccer fans call an “own goal.” The OECD wasn’t just being statist, it was being incompetently statist.

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Senate Republicans have produced their Obamacare repeal legislation, though as I noted at the end of this interview, it’s really more a bill about Medicaid reform than Obamacare repeal.

While it’s disappointing that big parts of Obamacare are left in place, it’s definitely true that Medicaid desperately needs reform, ideally by shifting the program to the states, thus replicating the success of welfare reform.

But critics are savaging this idea, implying that “deep cuts” will hurt the quality of care. Indeed, some of them are even engaging in poisonous rhetoric about people dying because of cutbacks.

There’s one small problem with the argument, however. Nobody is proposing to cut Medicaid. Republicans are merely proposing to limit annual spending increases. Yet this counts as a “cut” in the upside-down world of Washington budgeting.

The Washington Post contributes to innumeracy with a column explicitly designed to argue that the program is being cut.

…the Senate proposal includes significant cuts to Medicaid spending…the Senate bill is more reliant on Medicaid cuts than even the House bill…spending on the program would decline in 2026 by 26 percent…That’s a decrease of over $770 billion on Medicaid over the next 10 years. …By 2026, the federal government would cut 1 of every 4 dollars it spends on Medicaid.

An article in the New York Times has a remarkably inaccurate headline, which presumably isn’t the fault of reporters. Though the story has its share of dishonest rhetoric, especially in the first few paragraphs.

Senate Republicans…took a major step…, unveiling a bill to make deep cuts in Medicaid… The Senate measure…would also slice billions of dollars from Medicaid, a program that serves one in five Americans… The Senate bill would also cap overall federal spending on Medicaid: States would receive a per-beneficiary allotment of money. …State officials and health policy experts predict that many people would be dropped from Medicaid because states would not fill the fiscal hole left by the loss of federal money.

“Loss of federal money”?

I’d like to lose some money using that math. Here’s a chart showing the truth. The data come directly from the Congressional Budget Office.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it’s not a cut if spending rises from $393 billion to $464 billion.

Federal outlays on the program will climb by about 2 percent annually.

By the way, it’s perfectly fair for opponents to say that they want the program to grow faster in order to achieve different goals.

But they should be honest with numbers.

Now that we’ve addressed math, let’s close with a bit of policy.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the important goal of giving state policymakers the power and responsibility to manage the program. The bottom line is that recent waivers have been highly successful.

…center-right and even liberal states have spent more than a decade improving a program originally meant for poor women and children and the disabled. Even as ObamaCare changed Medicaid and exploded enrollment, these reforms are working… The modern era of Medicaid reform began in 2007, when Governor Mitch Daniels signed the Healthy Indiana Plan that introduced consumer-directed insurance options, including Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). Two years later, Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri applied for a Medicaid block grant that gives states a fixed sum of money in return for Washington’s regulatory forbearance. Both programs were designed to improve the incentives to manage costs and increase upward mobility so fewer people need Medicaid. Over the first three years, the Rhode Island waiver saved some $100 million in local funds and overall spending fell about $3 billion below the $12 billion cap. The fixed federal spending limit encouraged the state to innovate, such as reducing hospital admissions for chronic diseases or transitioning the frail elderly to community care from nursing homes. The waiver has continued to pay dividends under Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo. …This reform honor roll could continue: the 21 states that have moved more than 75% of all beneficiaries to managed care, Colorado’s pediatric “medical homes” program, Texas’s Medicaid waiver to devolve control to localities from the Austin bureaucracy.

By contrast, the current system is not successful.

It doesn’t even generate better health, notwithstanding hundreds of billions of dollars of annual spending.

Avik Roy explained this perverse result in Forbes back in 2013.

Piles of studies have shown that people on Medicaid have health outcomes that are no better, and often worse, than those with no insurance at all. …authors of the Oregon study published their updated, two-year results, finding that Medicaid “generated no significant improvement in measured physical health outcomes.” The result calls into question the $450 billion a year we spend on Medicaid… And all of that, despite the fact that the study had many biasing factors working in Medicaid’s favor: most notably, the fact that Oregon’s Medicaid program pays doctors better; and also that the Medicaid enrollees were sicker, and therefore more likely to benefit from medical care than the control arm.

In other words, I was understating things when I wrote above that there was “one small problem” with the left’s assertion about Medicaid cuts hurting people.

Yes, the fact that there are no actual cuts is a problem with that argument. But the second problem with the left’s argument is that Medicaid doesn’t seem to have any effect on health outcomes. So if Republicans actually did cut the program, it’s unclear how anybody would suffer (other than the fraudsters who bilk the program).

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When I debate my leftist friends on the minimum wage, it’s often a strange experience. When other people are listening or watching, they’ll adopt a very extreme position and basically claim that politicians have the power to dramatically boost take-home pay by simply mandating higher levels of pay. And somehow there won’t be any noticeable negative impact on employment and labor markets, even though businesses only create jobs if they expect some net profit.

But when we talk privately, they have a more nuanced argument. They’ll confess that higher minimum wages will cause some low-skilled workers to become unemployed, but then justify that outcome using either or both of these arguments.

  • Amoral utilitarianism – A large number of people will get pay raises and only a small handful will lose their jobs, and this is okay if policy is based on some notion of greatest good for the greatest number. In other words, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
  • Keynesian stimulus – Some people will lose their jobs, but the income gains for those who keep their jobs will boost “aggregate demand” and thus provide a boost for the economy. Sort of like they also claim giving people unemployment benefits will somehow generate more economic activity.

I’ve always rejected the first argument because I believe in the individual right of contract. The government should not prevent an employer and employee from engaging in voluntary exchange.

And I’ve always rejected the second argument because there can’t be any net “stimulus” since any additional income for workers is automatically offset by less income for employers.

So who is right?

Well, the real world just kicked advocates of higher minimum wages in the teeth. Or maybe even someplace even more painful. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at the impact of the $11 and $13 minimum wages in the city of Seattle and finds very bad results.

Let’s start by simply citing what the local government did.

This paper, using rich administrative data on employment, earnings and hours in Washington State, re-examines this prediction in the context of Seattle’s minimum wage increases from $9.47 to $11/hour in April 2015 and to $13/hour in January 2016.

And here’s a table from the study, showing details on the minimum-wage mandate.

And what’s been happening as a result of this intervention in the labor market?

Unsurprisingly, the jump to $13 has been much more damaging that the jump to $11.

…conclusion: employment losses associated with Seattle’s mandated wage increases are in fact large enough to have resulted in net reductions in payroll expenses – and total employee earnings – in the low-wage job market. …We show that the impact of Seattle’s minimum wage increase on wage levels is much smaller than the statutory increase, reflecting the fact that most affected low-wage workers were already earning more than the statutory minimum at baseline. Our estimates imply, then, that conventionally calculated elasticities are substantially underestimated. Our preferred estimates suggest that the rise from $9.47 to $11 produced disemployment effects that approximately offset wage effects, with elasticity estimates around -1. The subsequent increase to as much as $13 yielded more substantial disemployment effects, with net elasticity estimates closer to -3.

Here’s a chart from the study looking at the impact on hours worked.

If you want a healthy labor market, it’s not good to be below the line.

And here’s some of the explanatory text.

…Because the estimated magnitude of employment losses exceeds the magnitude of wage gains in the second phase-in period, we would expect a decline in total payroll for jobs paying under $13 per hour relative to baseline. Indeed, we observe this decline in first-differences when comparing “peak” calendar quarters, as shown in Table 3 above. …point estimates suggest payroll declines of 4.0% to 7.6% (averaging 5.8%) during the second phase-in period. This implies that the minimum wage increase to $13 from the baseline level of $9.47 reduced income paid to low-wage employees of single-location Seattle businesses by roughly $120 million on an annual basis. …Our preferred estimates suggest that the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance caused hours worked by low-skilled workers (i.e., those earning under $19 per hour) to fall by 9.4% during the three quarters when the minimum wage was $13 per hour, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million hours worked per calendar quarter. Alternative estimates show the number of low-wage jobs declined by 6.8%, which represents a loss of more than 5,000 jobs.

But the biggest takeaway from the report is that hours dropped so much that the average low-wage worker wound up with less income

The reduction in hours would cost the average employee $179 per month, while the wage increase would recoup only $54 of this loss, leaving a net loss of $125 per month (6.6%), which is sizable for a low-wage worker.

Here’s the relevant chart.

Once again, it’s not good to be below the line.

This data is remarkable because it shows that higher minimum wages are a bad idea, even according to the metrics of our friends on the left.

  • The amoral utlitarianism argument doesn’t apply because it’s no longer possible to claim that income gains for those keeping jobs will more than offset income losses for those who become unemployed.
  • The Keynesian aggregate-demand argument doesn’t apply because it’s no longer possible to assert macroeconomic benefits based on the assumption of a net increase in “spending power” in the economy.

Let’s close with a couple of observations from others who have looked at the new study.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute (and formerly Chief Economist at the Department of Labor) highlights the most relevant findings.

Raising the pay floor has led to net losses in payroll expenses and worker incomes for low-wage workers. …When hourly wages rose from $11 to $13 in 2016, hours of work and earnings for low-wage workers were reduced by 9 percent for the first three calendar quarters, resulting in 3.5 million fewer hours worked for each calendar quarter.  The number of jobs declined by 7 percent, with the result that 5,000 jobs were lost. …The evidence shows that in Seattle, low-wage workers got less money in their pockets, rather than more.

Some proponents of intervention and mandates may want to dismiss Diana’s analysis since of her reputation as a market-friendly scholar.

But even Ben Casselman and Kathryn Casteel of FiveThirtyEight basically reach the same conclusion.

As cities across the country pushed their minimum wages to untested heights in recent years, some economists began to ask: How high is too high? Seattle, with its highest-in-the-country minimum wage, may have hit that limit. …New research released Monday by a team of economists at the University of Washington suggests the wage hike may have come at a significant cost: The increase led to steep declines in employment for low-wage workers, and a drop in hours for those who kept their jobs. Crucially, the negative impact of lost jobs and hours more than offset the benefits of higher wages — on average, low-wage workers earned $125 per month less because of the higher wage.

I’m amused to find more evidence that left-leaning economists admit that higher minimum wages cause damage, albeit never on the record.

Even some liberal economists have expressed concern, often privately, that employers might respond differently to a minimum wage of $12 or $15, which would affect a far broader swath of workers.

I’m wondering how they can look at themselves in the mirror. It seems very immoral (in other words, beyond amoral) to publicly defend a policy that you privately admit is bad.

I understand that this type of dishonesty happens all the time in the political world (for example, some Republicans are now supporting Trump’s plans for infrastructure boondoggles and parental leave when they would have been strongly opposed if the same policies had been proposed by Obama).

But what’s the point of being a tenured academic if you can’t at least be honest?

Though maybe there’s some sort of cognitive dissonance at play, where they feel the rules of honesty don’t apply in the political world. For instance, both Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have acknowledged in their academic work that unemployment benefits lead to more unemployment. But they pretend that’s not the case when commenting on the policy debate.

But I’m digressing. Let’s close by recycling this video on minimum wages from the Center for Prosperity.

P.S. If you want some minimum-wage themed humor, you can enjoy cartoons here, here, here, here, and here.

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If I was Captain Ahab in a Herman Melville novel, my Moby Dick would be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I have spent more than 15 years fighting that Paris-based bureaucracy. Even to the point that the OECD threatened to throw me in a Mexican jail.

So when I had a chance earlier today to comment on the OECD’s statist agenda, I could barely contain myself

Notwithstanding the glitch at the beginning (the perils of a producer talking in my ear), I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to castigate the OECD.

Indeed, returning to my Moby Dick analogy, I’m increasingly hopeful that the harpoons I keep throwing at the OECD may finally draw some blood.

In his budget, President Trump has proposed to cut overall spending for international organizations. And we’re talking about a real budget cut, not the phony kind of cut where spending merely grows at a slightly slower rate.

The budget doesn’t specify funding levels for the various bureaucracies, but various Administration officials have told me that their goal is to completely defund the Paris-based bureaucracy.

To quote Chris Matthews, this definitely sends a thrill up my leg.

But I’m trying not to get too excited. It’s still up to Congress to decide OECD funding, and the bureaucrats in Paris have been very clever about currying favor with the members of the subcommittee that doles out cash for international organizations.

Though as I mentioned in the interview, the OECD didn’t do itself any favors by openly trashing Trump last year. Even if they have their doubts about Trump, I suspect most GOPers in Congress aren’t happy that the bureaucrats in Paris were trying to tilt the election for Hillary Clinton.

Here are some examples.

The OECD’s number-two bureaucrat, Doug Frantz, actually equated America’s president with the former head of Germany’s National Socialist Workers Party.

The Deputy Secretary General of the OECD has described…Donald Trump as a “lunatic” whose political rise mirrors that of Hitler and Mussolini. …Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week, Doug Frantz said…“if you look at the basis ‘us and them’ that Donald Trump sets up, that Hitler set up, that Mussolini set up, then you can begin to at least be concerned and I’m concerned: I think any right-minded person should be concerned…The person who sits in the White House is the most powerful person in the world and if that person is someone who follows every whim and appeals to the most base instincts of a population, then we’re all under real threat”.

And another news report caught the OECD’s Secretary General, Angel Gurria, basically asserting that Trump is racist.

Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development  and former Mexican foreign minister, says the word “racist” can be applied to Donald Trump. …Gurria tells UpFront’s Mehdi Hasan: “I would tend to agree with those who say that this is not only misinformed, but yes, I think the word racist can be applied. I think that because the American public is wise, it will then act in consequence,” Gurria adds.

By the way, I’m making sure to share these partisan statements with lots of people in Congress and the Administration.

In an ideal world, lawmakers would defund the OECD because it is an egregious waste of money. But if they defund the bureaucracy because its top two officials tried to interfere with the US election, I’ll still be happy with the final outcome.

I’ll close by recycling the video on the OECD that I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I’ll acknowledge that the OECD occasionally produces good work. I’ve even favorably cited research from the bureaucracy on issues such as government spending, tax policy, and expenditure limits.

But even if the bureaucracy ended its statist advocacy agenda and gave staff economists carte blanche to produce good papers, that still wouldn’t change my view that American tax dollars should not be funding the OECD. Though I confess it would be a much less attractive target if it returned to its original mission of collecting statistics and publishing studies.

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I periodically share data showing that living standards are higher in the United States than in Europe.

My goal isn’t to be jingoistic. Instead, I’m warning readers that we won’t be as prosperous if we copy out tax-and-spend friends on the other side of the Atlantic (just like I try to draw certain conclusions when showing how many low-tax jurisdictions have higher levels of economic output than the United States).

I’m sometimes asked, though, how America can be doing better than Europe when we have more poverty.

And when I ask them why they thinks that’s the case, they will point to sources such as this study from the German-based Institute of Labor Economics. Here’s some attention-grabbing data from the report.

The United States has the highest poverty rate both overall and among households with an employed person, but it stands farther away from the other countries on its in-work poverty rate than its overall poverty rate. The contrast between the US and three other English-speaking countries — Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom — is particularly striking. Compared to those three nations, the United States has an overall poverty rate only a little higher but an in-work poverty rate that is much higher.

And here’s the main chart from the study, with the United States as the bottom. It appears that there twice as much poverty in the USA as there is in a stagnant economy like France.

There even appears to be more poverty in America than there is in Spain and Italy, both of which are so economically shaky that they required bailouts during the recent fiscal/financial crisis.

Sounds horrible, right?

Yes, it does sound really bad. However, it’s total nonsense. Because what you read in the excerpt and see in the graph has nothing to do with poverty.

Instead, it’s a measure of income distribution.

And, if you read carefully, the study actually admits there’s a bait-and-switch.

The…approach to measuring poverty is a “relative” one, with the poverty line set at 60 or 50 percent of the median income.

Think about what this means. A country where everyone is impoverished will have zero or close-to-zero poverty because everyone is at the median income. But as I’ve explained before, a very wealthy society can have lots of “poverty” if some people are a lot richer than others.

And since the United States is much richer than other nations, this means an American household with $35,000 of income can be poor, even though they wouldn’t count as poor if they earned that much elsewhere.

This is like grading on a rigged curve. And if you read the fine print of the IZA study, you’ll see that the “poverty” threshold for a four-person household magically jumps by $16,260.

For a household of four (two adults, two children) the difference between the official US threshold and the 60-percent-of-median threshold amounts to more than $16,000 ($24,000 versus $40,260). This means that the size of the working poor population in America according to the official poverty measure is significantly lower than the size obtained in studies using a relative threshold.

In other words, you can calculate a much higher poverty rate if you include people who aren’t poor.

By the way, since the IZA report acknowledges this bait-and-switch approach, I guess one would have to say that the study technically is honest.

But it’s still misleading because most people aren’t going to read the fine print. Instead, they’ll see the main chart showing higher “poverty” and assume that there is a much higher percentage of actual poor people in the United States.

Moreover, some people may understand that there’s a bait-and-switch and simply want to help fool additional people.

And I’m guessing that this is exactly what the authors and the IZA staff expected and wanted. And if that’s the case, then the study is deliberately misleading, even if not technically dishonest.

I’ll close by stating that I don’t mind if folks on the left want to argue that market-based societies are somehow unfair because some people are richer than others. And it’s also fine for them to argue that we should be willing sacrifice some of our national prosperity to achieve more after-the-fact equality of income.

But I’d like for them to be upfront about their agenda and not hide behind dodgy data manipulation.

P.S.When you do apples-to-apples comparisons of the United States with the best-performing economies of Europe, you find that the poor tend to be at the same level, but every other group is better off in America.

P.P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both the Obama Administration and the leftists at the OECD prefer the “relative” definition of poverty.

P.P.P.S. The problem with our statist friends, as Margaret Thatcher explained, is that some of them are so upset about inequality that they’re willing to make everyone poorer if that’s what it takes to reduce income differences.

P.P.P.P.S. Indeed, this “Swiftian” column about reducing inequality is satire, but one wonders whether statists would actually accept such an outcome.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Data from China demonstrates why our attention should be on poverty reduction rather than inequality.

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My daily columns usually revolve around public policy issues such as tax reform, entitlements, and corrupt government. And while sometimes get a bit agitated about bad things in Washington, it’s because I’m a curmudgeonly libertarian, not because of some personal stake (other than being an oppressed taxpayer).

But sometimes there is a personal connection, like when I responded to the Washington Post‘s front-page attack on the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a group that I founded.

Today, I’m writing because of a different kind of personal connection. I got my Ph.D. from George Mason University, and one of the great parts of that experience was taking a couple of classes from James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize shortly after I arrived on campus.

Professor Buchanan was more than an economist. He was also a social philosopher. He thought big thoughts and cared deeply about a free society. I didn’t have the opportunity to develop a close relationship with Buchanan, but I felt privileged to take his classes and also to hear his insights in various conferences and colloquia during my years on campus.

I mention this connection because a Duke professor, Nancy MacLean, has just written a book that takes some very cheap shots at Buchanan. Heck, the title makes clear her agenda: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Subtle, huh?

I’ll openly admit at this point I have not read the book. I would, if somebody gave me a free copy, but I have no desire to potentially generate royalties for Ms. MacLean by spending money for a copy.

But a review in the Atlantic is a good example of why I think the book merits condemnation.

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is part of a new wave of historiography that has been examining the southern roots of modern conservatism. …Her book includes familiar villains—principally the Koch brothers—and devotes many pages to think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, whose ideological programs are hardly a secret. But what sets Democracy in Chains apart is that it begins in the South, and emphasizes a genuinely original and very influential political thinker, the economist James M. Buchanan. …she has dug deep into her material—not just Buchanan’s voluminous, unsorted papers, but other archives, too—and she has made powerful and disturbing use of it all.

And what did she find that was so disturbing?

Brace yourself, because the giant scandal that she uncovered is that – gasp! – Buchanan was a classical liberal who believed in small government. And he consorted with other intellectuals with similar views.

The behind-the-scenes days and works of Buchanan show how much deliberation and persistence—in the face of formidable opposition—underlie the antigoverning politics ascendant today. …the University of Chicago, where Buchanan received his doctorate in 1948. During the postwar years, other faculty included Hayek and Friedman, who were shaping a new pro-market economics, part of a growing backlash against the policies of the New Deal. Hayek initiated Buchanan into the Mont Pelerin Society, the select group of intellectuals who convened periodically to talk and plot libertarian doctrine.

But here’s the disgusting part of the book, at least if the review accurately reflects the contents. MacLean does her best to imply that Buchanan somehow must be a racist. In part because of where he was born and raised.

Buchanan owed his tenacity to blood and soil and upbringing. Born in 1919 on a family farm in Tennessee.

By the way, the term “blood and soil” has very odious connotations. I don’t know if that term is used in the book. If not, then the reviewer, Sam Tanenhaus, is the one who deserves condemnation.

The book also implies that Buchanan is racist because he tried to take advantage of Virginia’s desegregation battle to push for school choice.

Buchanan played a part, MacLean writes, by teaming up with another new University of Virginia hire, G. Warren Nutter (who was later a close adviser to Barry Goldwater), on an influential paper. In it they argued that the crux of the desegregation problem was that “state run” schools had become a “monopoly,” which could be broken by privatization. If authorities sold off school buildings and equipment, and limited their own involvement in education to setting minimum standards, then all different kinds of schools might blossom.

And why is this supposed to be racist?

Because some rednecks might choose schools without black people.

…these schemes were…gave ammunition to southern policy makers looking to mount the nonracial case for maintaining Jim Crow in a new form. Friedman himself left race completely out of it. Buchanan did too at first, telling skeptical colleagues in the North that the “transcendent issue” had nothing to do with race; it came down to the question of “whether the federal government shall dictate the solutions.” But in their paper (initially a document submitted to a Virginia education commission and soon published in a Richmond newspaper), Buchanan and Nutter were more direct, stating their belief that “every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing”.

In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Buchanan was racist simply because some people – in a system based on freedom of choice – might make race-based decisions.

But that’s like saying advocates of free speech are racist because some people will make racist statements or write racist books.

For what it’s worth, I wish the racist Democrats who controlled the state in the 1950s had adopted school choice. After all, the ultimate effect of their actions would have been very beneficial for black students.

That would have been delicious irony.

But I’m digressing. I wonder whether Tannenhaus is the one who is guilty of smearing rather than the author. His review, after all, notes that MacLean apparently didn’t think Buchanan’s work was motivated by race.

…race, MacLean acknowledges, was not ultimately a major issue for Buchanan.

The review then shifts to Buchanan’s main intellectual legacy, the “public choice” school of economics (first formally proposed in Calculus of Consent, co-authored with Gordon Tullock).

Governments, they argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to “maximize their utility”—that is, win the next election or enlarge their department’s budget? This idea turned the whole notion of a beneficent government, and of programs and policies designed more or less selflessly, into a kind of fairy tale expertly woven by politicians and their flacks. Not that politicians were evil. They were looking out for themselves, as most of us do. The difference was in the damage they did.

Sounds quite reasonable to me. And Tanenhaus even grants that the theory has some merit.

You didn’t have to accept Buchanan’s ideology to see that he had a point about the growth of government-centered clientelism—“dependency,” in the term used by a new wave of neoconservatives such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But he then is very critical of Buchanan’s support for rules to constrain government.

The enemy was the public itself, expressed through the tyranny of majority rule… It wasn’t enough to elect true-believing politicians. The rules of government needed to be rewritten.

Actually, the rules don’t need “to be rewritten.” The United States already has a Constitution that was explicitly designed to protect against majoritarianism. The problem is justices who put politics first and the Constitution second.

Now let’s address a second part of the book that irked me. The author links Buchanan to Chile, which to a leftist is an automatic sign of guilt.

…in Chile, after Augusto Pinochet’s coup against the socialist Salvador Allende in 1973. A vogue for public choice had swept Pinochet’s administration. Buchanan’s books were translated, and some of his acolytes helped restructure Chile’s economy. Labor unions were banned, and social security and health care were both privatized. On a week-long visit in 1980, Buchanan gave formal lectures to “top representatives of a governing elite that melded the military and the corporate world,” MacLean reports, and he dispensed counsel in private conversations.

There’s no evidence, from what I can tell, that Buchanan endorsed or supported Pinochet’s bad record on human rights. Instead, he’s simply “guilty” of encouraging a bad government to adopt good policy.

But if providing policy advice supposedly implies support for everything a government does, then I’m guilty of supporting Russia, China, and many other regimes. Needless to say, that’s nonsense.

In any event, here’s the part that doesn’t make sense.

Buchanan said very little about his part in assisting Chile’s reformers—and he said very little, too, when the country’s economy cratered, and Pinochet at last fired the Buchananites.

The economy “cratered”? Really?

Chile has been a star performer since the market reforms on the 1980s.

Maybe MacLean and/or Tanenhaus are geographically illiterate and meant Venezuela?

Because only a blind ideologue could deny the tremendous success of Chile’s economy.

Now let’s look at some excerpts from a review in Slate written by Rebecca Onion. It starts with a major smear.

When the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Tennessee-born economist James McGill Buchanan was horrified.

Again, I haven’t read the book. But I have to imagine that if the author had the slightest bit of evidence, one of the reviews would have shared it. Instead, we get nothing but assertions. Is MacLean the one who smears Buchanan, or are the reviewers guilty of asserting that the Nobel Laureate is somehow racist because he doesn’t support a big welfare state?

I don’t know, but someone is being grossly unfair.

For what it’s worth, I never caught even the slightest whiff of racism from Buchanan during my time at GMU. Which stands to reason since libertarians and classical liberals are all about individual rights and view racism as a form of collectivism.

But it is true that Buchanan was not a fan of big government.

…the libertarian thinker found comfortable homes at a series of research universities and spent his time articulating a new grand vision of American society, a country in which government would be close to nonexistent, and would have no obligation to provide education—or health care, or old-age support, or food, or housing—to anyone.

Ms. Onion’s review includes a Q&A section with the author.

Here’s some of what MacLean said, starting with a description of public choice.

He had a very different personality from somebody like Milton Friedman. …His books were really written for other scholars, not so much the general public. …His basic idea is that people had been wrong to think of political actors as concerned with the common good or the public interest, when in fact, according to Buchanan’s way of looking at things, everyone should be understood as a self-interested actor seeking their own advantage.

She then asserts – with no evidence – that public choice isn’t an accurate way of describing the world.

…there were other people who actually tested that empirically and found out that it didn’t hold, so it’s really a caricature of the political process, but it’s a caricature that’s become very, very widespread right now.

This strikes me as nonsense. Anybody who works in DC has a very jaundiced view of the political process.

We see public choice in action every day.

She also criticizes Buchanan’s work in Chile.

…he went from writing that to advising the Pinochet junta in Chile on how to craft their constitution. This document was later called a “constitution of locks and bolts,” [and was designed] to make it so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority. So yeah, it’s pretty dark.

Well, if that’s a “dark” approach, then America’s Founders were very dark as well.

MacLean also links Buchanan to Cato.

Buchanan helped with the founding of the Cato Institute and with various other intellectual enterprises that were close to Charles Koch’s heart, like this thing called the Institute for Humane Studies.

She then plays armchair psychologist and tries to guess Buchanan’s real motivation. After all, surely he couldn’t have been motivated by a belief in liberty and limited government?

I think it’s also much more about this psychology of threatened domination. People who believe it will harm their liberty for other people to have full citizenship and be able to work together to govern society. And that somehow that goes much deeper than money to me. It’s hard to find the right words for it, but it’s a whole way of being in the world and seeing others. Assuming one’s right to dominate.

In other words, if you don’t want a tax-and-transfer welfare state, that means you want to dominate others. Amazing bit of mind reading.

Or perhaps a bit of projection.

It’s folks on the left, after all, who concoct strange theories involving Koch, Cato, and other parts of a vast libertarian conspiracy.

If we really had that much power, I can assure you that government would be much smaller than it is today.

Here’s what MacLean says about Buchanan being part of the supposedly sinister Koch network.

The most important thing I want readers to take from this book is an understanding that the Koch network and all of these people are doing what they’re doing because they understand that their ideas make them a permanent minority. They cannot win if they are honest about what they’re doing.

Let’s close by sharing some very bizarre passages from a review by Genevieve Valentine for NPR.

…economist James Buchanan — an early herald of libertarianism — began to cultivate a group of like-minded thinkers with the goal of changing government. This ideology eventually reached the billionaire Charles Koch… This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream…is at the heart of Democracy in Chains.

Here’s Ms. Valentine’s contribution to gutter politics.

…this isn’t the first time Nancy MacLean has investigated the dark side of the American conservative movement (she also wrote Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan).

A collectivist-minded group like the KKK was part of the conservative movement? Is there any evidence for that slanderous assertion?

Of course not.

And besides, what would that have to do with libertarianism?

But Ms. Valentine is just warming up. Did you know that libertarians somehow are at fault for the incompetence of Flint, MI, which is governed by Democrats?

As MacLean lays out in their own words, these men developed a strategy of misinformation and lying about outcomes until they had enough power that the public couldn’t retaliate against policies libertarians knew were destructive. (Look no further than Flint, MacLean says, where the Koch-funded Mackinac Center was behind policies that led to the water crisis.)

And she repeats the crazy assertion that Chile’s shift to free markets backfired, even though the economy boomed and subsequent governments dominated by Social Democrats have left the reforms in place.

By the time we reach Buchanan’s role in the rise of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet (which backfired so badly on the people of Chile that Buchanan remained silent about it for the rest of his life), that’s all you need to know about who Buchanan was.

It’s also remarkable that she wants us to think there’s something sinister about Buchanan remaining “silent” about his role in Chile.

This is a man who gave dozens of speeches every year in countries all over the world, while also producing all sorts of books and scholarly articles. Does she really think he was supposed to spend his time reminiscing about a couple of speeches and meetings back in 1980?

Here’s the bottom line. Professor Buchanan is “guilty” of believing in individual liberty and favoring constraints on government. It’s perfectly fair for folks on the left to object to those views (as well as the views of other Nobel Laureates with similar outlooks).

But when they want to ascribe base motives for his views, without the slightest shred of evidence, that’s crossing the line.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Ms. MacLean’s book was subsidized by taxpayers. Isn’t that wonderful. Not only do we subsidize international bureaucracies that push statism, we taxpayers also subsidize hit jobs on scholars who object to statism.

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Last night, I retweeted an image that rubbed me the wrong way.

It showed three kids who were handcuffed by undercover cops for criminal activity.

And what was their crime? Were they picking pockets? Beating up tourists? Slashing tires?

Nope, none of those things. Instead, they were (gasp!!) selling water to thirsty people. And they didn’t have a piece of paper from the government giving them permission to participate in voluntary exchange. Oh, the horror.

And everyone knows that selling water without a license is a gateway drug to the ultimate underage crime of operating an unlicensed lemonade stand. Or maybe even shoveling snow, cutting grass, or selling worms without government approval!

Here’s the original tweet.

This really sums up why libertarians don’t like government. All too often, it’s the unfair application of force against innocent behavior.

This episode of government thuggery has received a surprising amount of coverage. Here are some excerpts from a story by U.S. News & World Report.

Police handcuffed three teenagers Thursday evening for attempting to selling water without a permit on the National Mall.Photos tweeted by passerby Tim Krepp, a tour guide and writer, show three plainclothes U.S. Park Police officers detaining the three African-American teens near the Mall’s Smithsonian Castle, located between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

The good news is that the kids weren’t actually arrested.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Park Police, Sgt. Anna Rose, confirms three teenagers were detained for vending without a license, but says she feels “this has gotten blown out of proportion.” The three teens, ages 16 and 17, were detained for “illegally selling water” but were not charged, Rose says. They were held until their parents arrived. A fourth individual was immediately released after officers determined he was uninvolved, she says.

If you click on Mr. Krepp’s tweet and read the comments, you’ll notice some discussion of whether white kids would have been treated the same way.

I don’t like to assume racism without real evidence, so my default assumption is that the cops were primarily motivated by a desire to fill their quota and have some proof that they weren’t goofing off.

But it’s also worth noting that the over-criminalization of society creates opportunities for bad people in government to target minorities (or other groups that fall into disfavor). And if it’s danger to ride a train while black, then it’s also possible that it’s risky to sell water while black.

The broader lesson is that it’s a good idea to have fewer laws. And the laws that do exist should be designed to protect people from external aggression. Especially given the horror stories that are produced by the alternative approach.

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Thanks to decades of experience and research, we now know several things about so-called anti-money laundering (AML) laws.

It’s not that the theory behind these laws is without merit. The original notion was that perhaps we could reduce crime by figuring out ways to prevent crooks from utilizing the banking system. That’s a worthy goal. But it turns out that it doesn’t work.

For all intents and purposes, AML laws are a misallocation of law-enforcement resources.

So you would think that policy makers would be endeavoring to repeal these counterproductive rules and regulations, right?

But you would be wrong. Some of them actually want to double down on failure. To be more specific, four senators have introduced a bill to make these laws more intrusive and onerous.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, along with Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse, today introduced legislation that modernizes and strengthens criminal laws against money laundering – a critical source of funding for terrorist organizations, drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates.  The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Counterfeiting Act of 2017 updates criminal money laundering and counterfeiting statutes, and promotes transparency in the U.S. financial system.

It’s quite possible that these politicians actually think this new law will somehow reduce all the bad things they put in the bill’s title (I’m surprised they didn’t add tooth decay and cancer to the list).

But if past experience is any guide, the real-world result will be more abuse of law-abiding citizens.

Writing for the Blaze, Justin Haskins warns how the new legislation can endanger innocent people.

Four U.S. senators have proposed legislation that would significantly expand the power of the federal government to seize citizens’ money when traveling in or out of the United States. …several troubling provisions in the law could put law-abiding American citizens at risk of losing tens of thousands of dollars for doing nothing more than failing to fill out a government form. Under current federal law, travelers transporting $10,000 or more in cash or other monetary instruments are required to report those funds to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Failure to report funds, even if unintentional, can lead to the seizure of the money and criminal or civil penalties.

That approach already produces horrible abuses of innocent people.

And imagine what will happen if this new law is enacted.

The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Counterfeiting Act would expand “monetary instruments” covered under current law to include “prepaid access devices, stored value cards, digital currencies, and other similar instruments.” This is particularly problematic because digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are theoretically always transported by the owner of the digital currency account wherever he or she goes, which means digital currency owners with accounts valued at $10,000 or more must always report their funds or risk having them seized. Even more troubling is the law treats all blank checks as though they are financial instruments valued in excess of $10,000 if the checking account contains at least $10,000, which means if a traveler accidently fails to report a blank check floating around in his or her luggage, the account holder could face stiff penalties — even if there is no suspicion of criminal activity.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s okay to subject innocent people to abuse if it achieves a very important goal of stopping terrorists.

But that’s not happening. In a must-read article for Foreign Affairs, Peter Neumann points out that AML laws are grossly ineffective in the fight against Islamo-fascism.

…the war on terrorist financing has failed. Today, there are more terrorist organizations, with more money, than ever before. …Driven by the assumption that terrorism costs money, governments have for years sought to cut off terrorists’ access to the global financial system. They have introduced blacklists, frozen assets, and imposed countless regulations designed to prevent terrorist financing, costing the public and private sectors billions of dollars.

And what’s the result of all this expense?

It hasn’t stopped terrorism.

…there is no evidence that it has ever thwarted a terrorist campaign. Most attacks require very little money, and terrorists tend to use a wide range of money-transfer and fundraising methods, many of which avoid the international financial system. …Terrorist operations are cheap, and according to a 2015 study by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, over 90 percent of the jihadist cells in Europe between 1994 and 2013 were “self-funded,” typically through savings, welfare payments, personal loans, or the proceeds of petty crime. …many jihadists have used their own savings and welfare payments or taken out small loans; others have borrowed money from their friends or family. …Financial tools cannot stop lone attackers from driving cars into crowds.

But it has imposed major burdens on innocent parties.

…the focus on the financial sector proved ineffective; it has also harmed innocent people and businesses. To address policymakers’ demands, financial institutions have “de-risked” their portfolios, shedding investments and clients that might be linked to terrorist financing. …De-risking, moreover, has resulted in the de facto exclusion of entire countries, mostly poor ones such as Afghanistan and Somalia, from the global financial system. The bank accounts of refugees, charities that operate in regions torn apart by civil war, and even Western citizens with family links to so-called risk countries have been closed. Practically no Western bank now offers cash transfers to Somalia, for example, although 40 percent of the population depends on remittances from abroad.

And what is the author’s bottom line?

Simply stated, the current system is a failure.

Instead of continuing to look for needles in a haystack, governments should overhaul their approach to countering terrorist funding… Otherwise, they will waste time and money on a strategy that cannot deliver security for many more years to come. .. Policymakers need to acknowledge that the war on terrorist financing, as it has been conducted since 2001, has often been costly and counterproductive, harming innocent people and companies without significantly constraining terrorist groups’ ability to operate.

I agree.

Indeed, I wrote an article for Pace Law Review, published back in 2005, that made many of the same points, including a lot of attention on theoretical role of cost-benefit analysis.

Law enforcement policy should include cost/benefit analysis so that resources are best allocated to protect life, liberty, and property. This should not be a controversial proposition. Cost-benefit analysis…already is part of the public policy process. For instance, few people would think it is acceptable for a city of 10 million to have just one police officer. Yet it is also true that few would want that city to have five million police officers. In other words, there is a point where additional law enforcement expenditures – both public and private – exceed the likely benefits. Every government makes such decisions. Cost-benefit analysis applies to aggregate resource allocation choices, such as how many police officers to employ in a city, but also to how a given level of resources are utilized. In other words, since there are not unlimited resources, it makes sense to allocate those resources in ways that yield the greatest benefit. On a practical level, city officials must decide how many officers to put on each shift, how many officers to assign to different neighborhoods, and how many officers to allocate to each type of crime. The same issues apply in the war against terrorism. Officials must decide not only on the level of resources devoted to fighting terrorism, but they also must make allocation decisions between, say, human intelligence and electronic surveillance.

Now let’s shift from theory to evidence.

I argued AML laws didn’t pass the test.

…while anti-money laundering laws theoretically help the war against terror, this does not mean that they necessarily are justified by cost-benefit analysis. A…book from the Institute for International Economics…strongly supports anti-money laundering laws and advocates their expansion. But the authors admit that these laws imposed costs of $7 billion in 2003, yet they admitted that, “While the number of suspicious activity reports filed has risen rapidly in recent years…total seizures and forfeitures amount to an extremely small sum (approximately $700 million annually in the United States) when compared with the crude estimates of the total amounts laundered. Moreover, there has not been an increase in the number of federal convictions for money laundering.” The private sector bears most of the cost of anti-money laundering laws, but the authors also note that, “Budgetary costs for AML laws have tripled in the last 20 years for prevention and quadrupled for enforcement.” The key question, of course, is whether these costs are matched by concomitant benefits. The answer almost certainly is no. …the government seizes very little dirty money. There are only about 2,000 convictions for federal money laundering offenses each year, and that number falls by more than 50 percent not counting cases where money laundering was an add-on charge to another offense.

Let’s close with passages from a couple of additional articles.

First, Richard Rahn explains why all anti-money laundering laws are misguided in a very recent column for the Washington Times.

…what is even more shocking is the extent to which various government organizations monitor and, in many cases, restrict financial freedom, and seize assets without criminal conviction. …The government argues that it must collect financial data and then share it with many domestic and foreign government organizations in order to stop tax evasion, money laundering, drug dealing, other assorted criminality, and terrorist finance — all of which sounds good at first glance, until one looks at what really happens. If you think that the war on drugs has been a failure, look at the war on money laundering, tax evasion and terrorist finance for an even bigger failure. …money laundering is a crime of intent, rather than actions, in which two different people can engage in the same set of financial transactions, but if one has criminal intent he or she can be charged while the other person is home free. Such vague law is both ripe with abuse and difficult to prove. …The financial information that government agencies now routinely collect is widely shared, not only with other domestic government agencies, but increasingly with foreign governments — many of which do not protect individual liberty and other basic rights.

And here are some excerpts from a column in Reason by Elizabeth Nolan Brown.

American and British banks are monitoring customers’ contraception purchases, DVD-rental frequency, dining-out habits, and more in a misguided attempt to detect human traffickers… Their intrusive and ineffective efforts come at the behest of government agencies, who have been eager to use asset-forfeiture powers… The U.S. and U.K. banks RUSI researchers interviewed said they were happy to help law enforcement prosecute human traffickers and had little problems turning over financial records for people already arrested or under investigation. But proactively finding potential traffickers themselves proved more difficult. As RUSI explains, “the often unremarkable nature of transactions related to” human trafficking made finding criminals or victims via transaction monitoring a time-consuming and unfruitful endeavor. Yet financial institutions are boxed in by regulations that threaten to punish them severely should they participate in the flow of illegally begotten money, however unwittingly. The bind leaves banks and other financial services eager to cast as wide a net as possible, terminating relationships with “suspicious” customers, monitoring the bank accounts of people they know, or turning their records over to law enforcement rather than risk allegations of not doing enough to comply.

In other words, these laws are a costly – but ineffective – burden.

Which is what I said in this video for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. In closing, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

Even the State Department’s most recent list of vulnerable jurisdictions shows only a handful of international financial centers.

Yes, places Cayman and Bermuda are on the list, but so are countries such as Canada, China, India, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, and the United Kingdom. In other words, it’s basically a random list of jurisdictions rather than a helpful guide.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

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Leftists don’t have many reasons to be cheerful.

Global economic developments keep demonstrating (over and over again) that big government and high taxes are not a recipe for prosperity. That can’t be very encouraging for them.

They also can’t be very happy about the Obama presidency. Yes, he was one of them, and he was able to impose a lot of his agenda in his first two years. But that experiment with bigger government produced very dismal results. And it also was a political disaster for the left since Republicans won landslide elections in 2010 and 2014 (you could also argue that Trump’s election in 2016 was a repudiation of Obama and the left, though I think it was more a rejection of the status quo).

But there is one piece of good news for my statist friends. The tax cuts in Kansas have been partially repealed. The New York Times is overjoyed by this development.

The Republican Legislature and much of Kansas has finally turned on Gov. Sam Brownback in his disastrous five-year experiment to prove the Republicans’ “trickle down” fantasy can work in real life — that huge tax cuts magically result in economic growth and more, not less, revenue. …state lawmakers who once abetted the Brownback budgeting folly passed a two-year, $1.2 billion tax increase this week to begin repairing the damage. …It will take years for Kansas to recover.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman also is pleased.

Here’s some of what he wrote in his NYT column.

…there was an idea, a theory, behind the Kansas tax cuts: the claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy would produce explosive economic growth. It was a foolish theory, belied by decades of experience: remember the economic collapse that was supposed to follow the Clinton tax hikes, or the boom that was supposed to follow the Bush tax cuts? …eventually the theory’s failure was too much even for Republican legislators.

Another New York Times columnist did a victory dance as well.

The most momentous political news of the past week…was the Kansas Legislature’s decision to defy the governor and raise income taxes… Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending, except for education — and promising that those policies would unleash boundless growth. The taxes were cut, and by a lot.

Brownback’s supply-side experiment was a flop, the author argues.

The cuts came. But the growth never did. As the rest of the country was growing at rates of just above 2 percent, Kansas grew at considerably slower rates, finally hitting just 0.2 percent in 2016. Revenues crashed. Spending was slashed, even on education… The experiment has been a disaster. …the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality. Earlier this year it passed tax increases, which the governor vetoed. Last Tuesday, the legislators overrode the veto. Not only is it a tax increase — it’s even a progressive tax increase! …More than half of the Republicans in both houses voted for the increases.

If you read the articles, columns, and editorials in the New York Times, you’ll notice there isn’t a lot of detail on what actually happened in the Sunflower State. Lots of rhetoric, but short on details.

So let’s go to the Tax Foundation, which has a thorough review including this very helpful chart showing tax rates before the cuts, during the cuts, and what will now happen in future years (the article also notes that the new legislation repeals the exemption for small-business income).

We know that folks on the left are happy about tax cuts being reversed in Kansas. So what are conservatives and libertarians saying?

The Wall Street Journal opined on what really happened in the state.

…national progressives are giddy. Their spin is that because the vote reverses Mr. Brownback’s tax cuts in a Republican state that Donald Trump carried by more than 20 points, Republicans everywhere should stop cutting taxes. The reality is more prosaic—and politically cynical. …At bottom the Kansas tax vote was as much about unions getting even with the Governor over his education reforms, which included making it easier to fire bad teachers.

And the editorial also explains why there wasn’t much of an economic bounce when Brownback’s tax cuts were implemented, but suggests there was a bit of good news.

Mr. Brownback was unlucky in his timing, given the hits to the agricultural and energy industries that count for much of the state economy. But unemployment is still low at 3.7%, and the state has had considerable small-business formation every year since the tax cuts were enacted. The tax competition across the Kansas-Missouri border around Kansas City is one reason Missouri cut its top individual tax rate in 2014.

I concur. When I examined the data a few years ago, I also found some positive signs.

In any event, the WSJ is not overly optimistic about what this means for the state.

The upshot is that supposedly conservative Kansas will now have a higher top marginal individual income-tax rate (5.7%) than Massachusetts (5.1%). And the unions will be back for another increase as spending rises to meet the new greater revenues. This is the eternal lesson of tax increases, as Illinois and Connecticut prove.

And Reason published an article by Ben Haller with similar conclusions.

What went wrong? First, the legislature failed to eliminate politically popular exemptions and deductions, making the initial revenue drop more severe than the governor planned. The legislature and the governor could have reduced government spending to offset the decrease in revenue, but they also failed on that front. Government spending per capita remained relatively stable in the years following the recession to the present, despite the constant fiscal crises. In fact, state expenditure reports from the National Association of State Budget Officers show that total state expenditures in Kansas increased every year except 2013, where expenditures decreased a modest 3 percent from 2012. It should then not come as a surprise that the state faced large budget gaps year after year. …tax cuts do not necessarily pay for themselves. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, …may have the right idea when it comes to lowering rates to spur economic growth, but lower taxes by themselves are not a cure-all for a state’s woes. Excessive regulation, budget insolvency, corruption, older demographics, and a whole host of other issues can slow down economic growth even in the presence of a low-tax environment.

Since Haller mentioned spending, here’s another Tax Foundation chart showing inflation-adjusted state spending in Kansas. Keep in mind that Brownback was elected in 2010. The left argued that he “slashed” spending, but that assertion obviously is empty demagoguery.

Now time for my two cents.

Looking at what happened, there are three lessons from Kansas.

  1. A long-run win for tax cutters. If this is a defeat, I hope there are similar losses all over the country. If you peruse the first chart in this column, you’ll see that tax rates in 2017 and 2018 will still be significantly lower than they were when Brownback took office. In other words, the net result of his tenure will be a permanent reduction in the tax burden, just like with the Bush tax cuts. Not as much as Brownback wanted, to be sure, but leftists are grading on a very strange curve if they think they’ve won any sort of long-run victory.
  2. Be realistic and prudent. It’s a good idea to under-promise and over-deliver. That’s true for substance and rhetoric.
    1. Don’t claim that tax cuts pay for themselves. That only happens in rare circumstances, usually involving taxpayers who have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income. In the vast majority of cases, tax cuts reduce revenue, though generally not as much as projected once “supply-side” responses are added to the equation.
    2. Big tax cuts require some spending restraint. Since tax cuts generally will lead to less revenue, they probably won’t be durable unless there’s eventually some spending restraint (which is one of the reasons why the Bush tax cuts were partially repealed and why I’m not overly optimistic about the Trump tax plan).
    3. Tax policy matters, but so does everything else. Lower tax rates are wonderful, but there are many factors that determine a jurisdiction’s long-run prosperity. As just mentioned, spending restraint is important. But state lawmakers also should pay attention to many other issues, such as licensing, regulation, and pension reform.
  3. Many Republicans are pro-tax big spenders. Most fiscal fights are really battles over the trend line of spending. Advocates of lower tax rates generally are fighting to reduce the growth of government, preferably so it expands slower than the private sector. Advocates of tax hikes, by contrast, want to enable a larger burden of government spending. What happened in Kansas shows that it’s hard to starve the beast if you’re not willing to put government on a diet.

By the way, all three points are why the GOP is having trouble in Washington.

The moral of the story? As I noted when writing about Belgium, it’s hard to have good tax policy if you don’t have good spending policy.

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I don’t know if Dr. Seuss would appreciate my title, which borrows from his children’s classic.

But given how I enjoy comparative rankings, I couldn’t help myself after perusing a new study from WalletHub that ranks states on their independence (or lack thereof).

Being a policy wonk, what really caught my attention was the section on government dependency, which is based on four criteria.

As you can see, the four factors are not weighted equally. The “federally dependent states” variable is considered four times as important as any of the other variables.

That’s important, to be sure, but is it really more important (or that much more important) than the other categories?

Moreover, I’m not sure the “tax freedom day” variable is a measure of dependency. What’s really captured by this variable, given the way the tax code doesn’t tax low-income people and over-taxes high-income people, is the degree to which state have lots of rich people or poor people. But that’s not a measure of dependence (particularly if the rich people stole money instead of earning it).

But I’m quibbling. I might put together a different formula with some different variables, but WalletHub has done something very interesting.

And if we look at their 25 least-dependent states, you see a very interesting pattern. Of the 10-most independent states, only three of them are Trump-voting red states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah).

The other seven are blue states. And some of them – such as Illinois, New Jersey, and California – are dark blue states.

And the #11 and #12 states also were Hillary states as well.

Which raises an interesting question. Why are voters in those states in favor of big government when they don’t disproportionately benefit from handouts?

Are they culturally left-wing, putting social issues above economic issues?

Or are they motivated by some issue involving foreign policy and/or defense?

Or maybe masochistic?

Beats me.

By the way, the WalletHub email announcing the report included a very interesting factoid that may explain why Hillary lost Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has the lowest percentage of government workers (local, state and federal), at 10.8 percent. Alaska has the nation’s highest percentage, at 25.1 percent.

Though I can’t see those details in the actual report, which is disappointing. I’d like to see a ranking of the states based solely on the number-of-bureaucrats criteria (we have data comparing countries, for those interested).

Now let’s shift to the states that have the highest levels of dependency.

If you look at the bottom of the final image, you’ll notice that it’s a reverse of the top-10. Seven of the most-dependent states are red states that voted for Trump.

Only New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine supported Hillary (and Trump actually won one-fourth of Maine’s electoral votes).

So this raises a separate question. Are red state people voting against their interests? Should they be voting for politicians who will further expand the size and scope of government so they can get even more goodies from Uncle Sam?

For what it’s worth, a leftist actually wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, which examined why the people of the Sunflower State weren’t voting for statism.

Well, part of the answer may be that Kansas is one of the most independent states, so perhaps the author should have picked another example.

But even if he had selected Mississippi (#49), I suspected the answer is that low-income people don’t necessarily think that it’s morally right to steal money from other states, even if the loot is laundered through Washington.

In other words, people is those states still have social capital or cultural capital.

It’s also possible, of course, that voters in red states with lots of dependency (at least as measured by WalletHub) are instead motivated by cultural issues or foreign policy issues.

There’s even a very interesting study from Professor Alesina at Harvard, which finds that ethnically diverse jurisdictions can be more hostile to redistribution (and homogeneous societies like the Nordic nations are more supportive of a large welfare state).

And since many of the red states at the bottom of the rankings also happen to be states with large minority populations, perhaps that’s a partial explanation.

Though California has a very large minority population as well, yet it routinely votes for more redistribution.

The bottom line is that we probably can’t draw any sweeping conclusions from this data.

Though it leaves me even more convinced that the best approach is to eliminate all DC-based redistribution and let states decide how much to tax and how much to spend. In other words, federalism.

P.S. I put together my own ranking of state dependency, based on a formula involving welfare usage and poverty. Vermont was the worst state and Nevada was the best state.

P.P.S. I also shared calculations based solely on the share of eligible people who signed up for food stamps. Interestingly, Californians rank as the most self-reliant. Maybe my predictions of long-run doom for that state are a bit exaggerated.

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When I write about regulation, I usually focus on big-picture issues involving economic costs, living standards, and competitiveness.

Those are very important concerns, but the average person in American probably gets more irked by rules that impact the quality of life.

That’s a grim list, but it’s time to augment it.

Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education explains that the government also has made showering a less pleasant experience. He starts by expressing envy about Brazilian showers.

…was shocked with delight at the shower in Brazil. …step into the shower and you have a glorious capitalist experience. Hot water, really hot, pours down on you like a mighty and unending waterfall… At least the socialists in Brazil knew better than to destroy such an essential of civilized life.

I know what he’s talking about.

I’m in a hotel (not in Brazil), and my shower this morning was a tedious experience because the water flow was so anemic.

Why would a hotel not want customers to have an enjoyable and quick shower?

The answer is government.

…here we’ve forgotten. We have long lived with regulated showers, plugged up with a stopper imposed by government controls imposed in 1992. There was no public announcement. It just happened gradually. After a few years, you couldn’t buy a decent shower head. They called it a flow restrictor and said it would increase efficiency. By efficiency, the government means “doesn’t work as well as it used to.” …You can see the evidence of the bureaucrat in your shower if you pull off the showerhead and look inside. It has all this complicated stuff inside, whereas it should just be an open hole, you know, so the water could get through. The flow stopper is mandated by the federal government.

The problem isn’t just the water coming out of the showerhead. It’s the water coming into your home.

It’s not just about the showerhead. The water pressure in our homes and apartments has been gradually getting worse for two decades, thanks to EPA mandates on state and local governments. This has meant that even with a good showerhead, the shower is not as good as it might be. It also means that less water is running through our pipes, causing lines to clog and homes to stink just slightly like the sewer. This problem is much more difficult to fix, especially because plumbers are forbidden by law from hacking your water pressure.

So why are politicians and bureaucrats imposing these rules?

Ostensibly for purposes of conservation.

…what about the need to conserve water? Well, the Department of the Interior says that domestic water use, which includes even the water you use on your lawn and flower beds, constitutes a mere 2% of the total, so this unrelenting misery spread by government regulations makes hardly a dent in the whole. In any case, what is the point of some vague sense of “conserving” when the whole purpose of modern appliances and indoor plumbing is to improve our lives and sanitation? (Free societies have a method for knowing how much of something to use or not use; it is called the signaling system of prices.)

Jeffrey is right. If there really is a water shortage (as there sometimes is in parts of the country and world), then prices are the best way of encouraging conservation.

Now let’s dig in the archives of the Wall Street Journal for a 2010 column on the showerhead issue.

Apparently bureaucrats are irked that builders and consumers used multiple showerheads to boost the quality of their daily showers.

Regulators are going after some of the luxury shower fixtures that took off in the housing boom. Many have multiple nozzles, cost thousands of dollars and emit as many as 12 gallons of water a minute. In May, the DOE stunned the plumbing-products industry when it said it would adopt a strict definition of the term “showerhead”… A 1992 federal law says a showerhead can deliver no more than 2.5 gallons per minute at a flowing water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch. For years, the term “showerhead” in federal regulations was understood by many manufacturers to mean a device that directs water onto a bather. Each nozzle in a shower was considered separate and in compliance if it delivered no more than the 2.5-gallon maximum. But in May, the DOE said a “showerhead” may incorporate “one or more sprays, nozzles or openings.” Under the new interpretation, all nozzles would count as a single showerhead and be deemed noncompliant if, taken together, they exceed the 2.5 gallons-a-minute maximum.

And here’s something that’s both amusing and depressing.

The regulations are so crazy that an entrepreneur didn’t think they were real.

Altmans Products, a U.S. unit of Grupo Helvex of Mexico City, says it got a letter from the DOE in January and has stopped selling several popular models, including the Shower Rose, which delivers 12 gallons of water a minute. Pedro Mier, the firm’s vice president, says his customers “just like to feel they’re getting a lot of water.” Until getting the DOE letter, his firm didn’t know U.S. law limited showerhead water usage, Mr. Mier says. “At first, I thought it was a scam.”

Unsurprisingly, California is “leading” the way. Here are some passages from an article in the L.A. Times from almost two years ago.

The flow of water from shower heads and bathroom faucets in California will be sharply reduced under strict new limits approved Wednesday by the state Energy Commission. Current rules, established in 1994 at the federal level, allow a maximum flow of 2.5 gallons per minute from a shower head. Effective next July, the limit will fall to 2.0 gallons per minute and will be reduced again in July 2018, to 1.8 gallons, giving California the toughest standard of any U.S. state.

Though “toughest standard” is the wrong way to describe what’s happening. It’s actually the “worst shower” of any state.

P.S. I forget the quality of shower I experienced in South Korea, but I was very impressed (see postscript) by the toilet.

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Back in 2014, I wrote a column asking my leftist friends two very serious questions. And I often repeat these questions when debating proponents of bigger government.

  • Can you name a nation that became rich with statist policies?
  • Can you name a nation that with interventionism and big government that is out-performing a similar nation with free markets and small government?

I’ve yet to receive a good answer to either question. Many leftists point to certain European welfare states, but I debunk that claim by pointing out that those nations became rich when government was very small (about 10 percent of GDP, about one-half the size of the current Hong Kong and Singapore public sectors).

Others point to rapid growth in China, but that’s rather silly since improvements in that country’s economy are the result of partial liberalization. In any event, it’s not that difficult to have rapid growth rates when starting from a very low level. But even with a couple of decades of good growth, living standards in China are still relatively low.

So my challenge remains. I want a leftist (or anybody) to identify a successful statist nation, but I’m not holding my breath for good answers.

Yet even though the real-world evidence against big government is so strong, it’s rather baffling that many young people are drawn to that coercive ideology and disturbing that a non-trivial number of voters favor this failed form of statism.

The London-based Institute for Economic Affairs has released a video on the false allure of socialism.

I suppose a caveat might be appropriate at this stage.

Socialism has a technical definition involving government ownership of the means of production and central planning of the economy.

But most people today think socialism is big government, with business still privately owned but with lots of redistribution and intervention (I’ve argued, for instance, that even Bernie Sanders isn’t a real socialist, and that there are big differences between countries like Sweden, China, and North Korea).

For what it’s worth, that’s actually closer to the technical definition of fascism. But I guess I’m being pedantic by wanting more precision in how terms are used.

In any event, the IEA video is spot on. If you like videos debunking socialism, I have other examples here, here, and here.

Last but not least, here’s my favorite visual from the IEA video.

P.S. If you like visuals mocking socialism, I’ve amassed a very nice collection. Click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for examples.

P.P.S. The good news is that socialism isn’t very popular in the United States, particularly compared to free enterprise.

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Whenever I debate my left-wing friends on tax policy, they routinely assert that taxes don’t matter.

It’s unclear, though, whether they really believe their own rhetoric.

After all, if taxes don’t affect economic behavior, then why are folks on the left so terrified of tax havens? Why are they so opposed to tax competition?

And why are they so anxious to defend loopholes such as the deduction for state and local taxes.

Perhaps most revealing, why do leftists sometimes cut taxes when they hold power? A story in the Wall Street Journal notes that there’s been a little-noticed wave of state tax cuts. Specifically reductions and/or eliminations of state death taxes. And many of these supply-side reforms are happening in left-wing states!

In the past three years, nine states have eliminated or lowered their estate taxes, mostly by raising exemptions. And more reductions are coming. Minnesota lawmakers recently raised the state’s estate-tax exemption to $2.1 million retroactive to January, and the exemption will rise to $2.4 million next year. Maryland will raise its $3 million exemption to $4 million next year. New Jersey’s exemption, which used to rank last at $675,000 a person, rose to $2 million a person this year. Next year, New Jersey is scheduled to eliminate its estate tax altogether, joining about a half-dozen others that have ended their estate taxes over the past decade.

This is good news for affected taxpayers, but it’s also good news for the economy.

Death taxes are not only a punitive tax on capital, but they also discourage investors, entrepreneurs, and other high-income people from earning income once they have accumulated a certain level of savings.

But let’s focus on politics rather than economics. Why are governors and state legislators finally doing something sensible? Why are they lowering tax burdens on “rich” taxpayers instead of playing their usual game of class warfare?

I’d like to claim that they’re reading Cato Institute research, or perhaps studies from other market-oriented organizations and scholars.

But it appears that tax competition deserves most of the credit.

This tax-cutting trend has been fueled by competition between the states for affluent and wealthy taxpayers. Such residents owe income taxes every year, but some are willing to move out of state to avoid death duties that come only once. Since the federal estate-and-gift tax exemption jumped to $5 million in 2011, adjusted for inflation, state death duties have stood out.

I don’t fully agree with the above excerpt because there’s plenty of evidence that income taxes cause migration from high-tax states to zero-income-tax states.

But I agree that a state death tax can have a very large impact, particularly once a successful person has retired and has more flexibility.

Courtesy of the Tax Foundation, here are the states that still impose this destructive levy.

Though this map may soon have one less yellow state. As reported by the WSJ, politicians in the Bay State may be waking up.

In Massachusetts, some lawmakers are worried about losing residents to other states because of its estate tax, which brought in $400 million last year. They hope to raise the exemption to half the federal level and perhaps exclude the value of a residence as well. These measures stand a good chance of passage even as lawmakers are considering raising income taxes on millionaires, says Kenneth Brier, an estate lawyer with Brier & Ganz LLP in Needham, Mass., who tracks the issue for the Massachusetts Bar Association. State officials “are worried about a silent leak of people down to Florida, or even New Hampshire,” he adds.

I’m not sure the leak has been silent. There’s lots of data on the migration of productive people to lower-tax states.

But what matters is that tax competition is forcing the state legislature (which is overwhelmingly Democrat) to do the right thing, even though their normal instincts would be to squeeze upper-income taxpayers for more money.

As I’ve repeatedly written, tax competition also has a liberalizing impact on national tax policy.

Following the Reagan tax cuts and Thatcher tax cuts, politicians all over the world felt pressure to lower their tax rates on personal income. The same thing has happened with corporate tax rates, though Ireland deserves most of the credit for getting that process started.

I’ll close by recycling my video on tax competition. It focuses primarily on fiscal rivalry between nations, but the lessons equally apply to states.

P.S. For what it’s worth, South Dakota arguably is the state with the best tax policy. It’s more difficult to identify the state with the worst policy, though New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, and Connecticut can all make a strong claim to be at the bottom.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding my snarky title, I don’t particularly care whether there are tax cuts for rich people. But I care a lot about not having tax policies that penalize the behaviors (work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship) that produce income, jobs, and opportunity for poor and middle-income people. And if that means reforms that allow upper-income people to keep more of their money, I’m okay with that since I’m not an envious person.

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There’s a lot to admire about Switzerland, particularly compared to its profligate neighbors.

With all these features, you won’t be surprised to learn that Switzerland is highly ranked by Human Freedom Index (#2), Economic Freedom of the World (#4), Index of Economic Freedom (#4), Global Competitiveness Report (#1), Tax Oppression Index (#1), and World Competitiveness Yearbook (#2).

Today let’s augment our list of good Swiss policies for reviewing the near-universal system of private pensions. I’ve been in Switzerland this week for a couple of speeches in Geneva, as well as interviews and meetings in Zurich and Bern.

As part of my travels around the country, I took the time to learn more about the “second pillar” of the country’s pension system.

Here’s a basic description from the Swiss government (with the help of Google translate).

The first pension funds were founded more than a hundred years ago… In 1972 the occupational pensions were included in the constitution. There it represents the second column in the three-column concept… The BVG compulsory scheme applies to all employees who are already insured in the first pillar… Pension provision in the second pillar is based on an individual savings process. This starts at 25 years. However, the condition is an annual income that exceeds the threshold (since 2015: 21’150 francs). The savings process ends with the reaching of the pension age. The accumulated savings in the individual account of the insured [are] used to finance the retirement pension.

If you want something in original English, here’s a brief description from the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.

The second pillar is governed by the provisions of the laws on occupational pension provision (BVG)… Employees who are paid by the same employer an annual salary exceeding CHF 21,150 are subject to compulsory insurance. The share of the salary which is subject to compulsory insurance is…between CHF 24,675 (the coordination deduction) and CHF 84,600… An employer who employs persons subject to compulsory insurance must be affiliated to a provident institution entered in the register for occupational benefit plan. The contributions into the pension scheme depend on age and include a minimum saving portion of 7% – 18% of the coordinated salary plus a risk portion. Both are equally shared between employer and employee. The benefits of the insured persons consist in the old age, invalidity and survivors pensions.

One of the interesting quirks of the system is that the mandatory contribution rate changes with age. The older you are, the more you pay.

I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense if the goal is for people to have big nest eggs when they retire, but nobody asked me. In any event, here’s a table showing the age-dependent contribution rates from an OECD description of the Swiss system.

Technically speaking, the contributions are evenly split between employees and employers, though labor economists widely agree that workers bear the real cost.

It’s also worth noting that the Swiss system is based on “defined contribution” like the Chilean and Australian private retirement systems. This means  retirement income generally is a function of how much is saved and how well it is invested.

By contrast, the Dutch private system is based on “defined benefit,” which means that workers get a pre-determined level of retirement income. As evidenced by huge shortfalls in the defined benefit regimes maintained by many public and private employers in the United States, this approach is very risky if there aren’t high levels of integrity and honesty.

Though that doesn’t seem to be a problem in the Netherlands. Speaking of the Dutch system, here’s a chart I shared back in 2014.

It was designed to laud the Netherlands, but you can see that Switzerland also had a large pool of pension assets, equal to more than 110 percent of GDP (according to OECD data, now 123 percent of GDP).

Looking at this data, ask yourself whether Switzerland (or the Netherlands, Iceland, Australia, etc) will be in a stronger position to handle the fiscal challenge of aging populations, particularly when compared to nations with virtually no private pension assets, such as France, Greece, and Japan.

The Swiss regime certainly isn’t perfect, and neither are the systems in other nations with private retirement savings. But at least those nations are in much better shape to deal with future demographic changes. Workers in Switzerland and other countries with similar systems have real assets rather than unsustainable political promises. And it’s also worth pointing out that there are macroeconomic benefits for nations that rely more on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes.

In other words, the Swiss system is much better than America’s bankrupt Social Security scheme.

P.S. Back in 2011, I compared five good features of the United States to five good features of Switzerland. If retirement systems were part of that discussion, Switzerland would have enjoyed a sixth advantage.

P.P.S. Switzerland does have some warts. It is only ranked #31 in the World Bank’s Doing Business. It also has a self-destructive wealth tax. And  government spending, though modest compared to neighbors, consumes slight more than one-third of economic output.

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I’ve written (many, many times) about how the best way to help the poor is to focus on economic growth rather than inequality.

After all, in a genuine market economy (as opposed to socialism, cronyism, or some other form of statism), the poor aren’t poor because some people are rich.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of why it is a mistake to focus on inequality.

A study by five Chinese scholars looked at income inequality over time in their country. Their research, published in 2010, focused mostly on the methodological challenges of obtaining good long-run data and understanding the impact of urban and rural populations. But one clear conclusion is that inequality has increased in China.

This paper investigates the influences of the income overlap part on the nationwide Gini coefficient. Then we present a new approach to estimating the Chinese Gini ratio from 1978 to 2006, which avoids the shortcomings of current data sources. In line with the results, the authors further probe the trend of Chinese income disparity. …income inequality has been rising in China. …the national Gini ratio of 2006 is 1.52 times more than that of 1978.

Here’s a chart based on their data (combined with post-2006 data from Statista). It looks at historical trends for the Gini coefficient (a value of “1” is absolute inequality, with one person accumulating all the income in a society, whereas a value of “0” is absolute equality, with everyone having the same level of income.

As you can see, there’s been a significant increase in inequality.

My leftist friends are conditioned to think this is a terrible outcome, in large part because they incorrectly think the economy is a fixed pie.

And when you have that distorted view, higher absolute incomes for the rich necessarily imply lower absolute incomes for the poor.

My response (beyond pointing out that the economy is not a fixed pie), is to argue that the goal should be economic growth and poverty reduction. I don’t care if Bill Gates is getting richer at a faster rate than a poor person. I just want a society where everyone has the chance to climb the economic ladder.

And I also point out that it’s hard to design pro-growth policies that won’t produce more income for rich people. Yes, there are some reforms (licensing liberalization, cutting agriculture subsidies, reducing protectionism, shutting the Ex-Im Bank, reforming Social Security, ending bailouts) that will probably be disproportionately beneficial for those with low incomes, but those policies also will produce growth that will help upper-income people.*

But I’m digressing. The main goal of today’s column is to look at the inequality data from above and then add the following data on poverty reduction.

Here’s a chart I shared back in March. As you can see, there’s been a very impressive reduction in the number of people suffering severe deprivation in rural China (where incomes historically have been lowest).

Consider, now, both charts together.

The bottom line is that economic liberalization resulted in much faster growth. And because some people got richer at a faster rate than others got richer, that led to both an increase in inequality and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

Therefore, what happened in China creates a type of Rorschach test for folks on the left.

  • A well-meaning leftist will look at all this data and say, “I wish somehow everyone got richer at the same rate, but market-based reforms in China are wonderful because so many people escaped poverty.”
  • A spiteful leftist will look at all this data and say, “Because upper-income people benefited even more than low-income people, market-based reforms in China were a failure and should be reversed.”

Needless to say, the spiteful leftists are the ones who hate the rich more than they love the poor (here are some wise words from Margaret Thatcher on such people).

*To the extend that some upper-income taxpayers obtain unearned income via government intervention, then they may lose out from economic liberalization. Ethical rich people, however, will earn more income if there are pro-growth reforms.

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In my collection of libertarian-related humor, I have some items that are very funny in large part because they take something that is (at least somewhat) true and stretch it to an absurd level.

Especially in my collection of anti-libertarian jokes.

But now I have the ultimate insult. This photo from the libertarian page on Reddit is a biting example of the “missionary” in the bottom row showing the 24 types of libertarians. Someone who is so driven to proselytize that they overlook….um…other normal human impulses.

For what it’s worth, I consider myself a multi-tasking libertarian.

I don’t think there are many people in the world who share my deep-seated hostility to the IRS and internal revenue code.

But I also try to live a balanced life, with time for other pursuits such as Georgia football, Yankees baseball, playing softball, and…um…something else, but I’m getting so old that I forget what that other thing is.

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I don’t like international bureaucracies that push statist policies.

In a perverse way, though, I admire their brassiness. They’re now arguing that higher taxes are good for growth.

This isn’t a joke. They never offer any evidence, of course, but it’s now routine to find international bureaucrats asserting that there will be more prosperity if more resources are taken out of the private sector and given to politicians (see the 3:30 mark of this video for some evidence).

Christine Lagarde, the lavishly paid head of the IMF, is doubling down on this bizarre idea that higher tax burdens are a way to generate more growth for poor nations.

…we are here to discuss an equally powerful tool for global growth — domestic resource mobilization. …taxes, and the improvement of tax systems, can boost development in incredible ways… So today, allow me first to explain the IMF’s commitment to capacity development and second, to outline strategies governments can use to generate stable sources of revenue…the IMF has a third important development mission — capacity development.

Keep in mind that all of the buzz phrases in the preceding passages – “resource mobilization” and “capacity development” – refer to governments imposing and collecting more taxes.

Again, I’m not joking.

…the focus of our event today — enabling countries to raise public tax revenues efficiently.

And there’s plenty of rhetoric about how higher taxes somehow translate into more prosperity.

Resource mobilization can, if pursued wisely, become a key pillar of strong economy… For many developing countries, increased revenue is a necessary catalyst to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and can be a driver of inclusive growth. Yet in some countries revenue remains stagnant, as the resources needed to enhance economic and civic life sit on the sidelines.

Wow, money that the government doesn’t grab apparently will just “sit on the sidelines.”

Lagarde’s entire speech was a triumph of anti-empiricism.

For instance, the western world went from poverty to prosperity in the 1800s when government was very small, averaging less than 10 percent of economic output.

Yet Lagarde makes an unsubstantiated assertion that today’s poor nations should have tax burdens of at least 15 percent of GDP (the OECD is even worse, arguing that taxes should consume 25 percent of economic output).

How significant is the resource problem? Developing countries typically collect between 10 to 20 percent of GDP in taxes, while the average for advanced economies is closer to 40 percent. IMF staff research shows that developing countries should aim to collect 15 percent of GDP to improve the likelihood of achieving stable and sustainable growth.

By the way, I should not that the IMF partnered with Oxfam, the radical left-wing pressure group, at the conference where her speech was delivered (sort of like the OECD cooperating with the crazies in the Occupy movement).

Moreover, her support for higher taxes is rather hypocritical since she doesn’t have to pay tax on her munificent salary.

I’ve also written about the various ways the IMF has endorsed higher taxes in the United States.

It’s also worth noting that the IMF boss thinks America should have a bigger welfare state as well. Here’s some of what she said about policy in the United States.

Policies need to help lower income households – including through a higher federal minimum wage, more generous earned income tax credit, and upgraded social programs for the nonworking poor. …There is a need to deepen and improve the provision of reasonable benefits to households… This should include paid family leave to care for a child or a parent, childcare assistance, and a better disability insurance program. I would just note that the U.S. is the only country among advanced economies without paid maternity leave at the national level.

The IMF even figured out a way to criticize the notion of lower corporate taxation in the United States.

The IMF…said that already highly leveraged U.S. companies may not be in a position to translate a cash-flow boost from U.S. Republican tax reform proposals into productive capital investments that can aid sustainable growth. Instead, the Fund said the slug of cash, which is likely to include repatriation of profits held overseas by multinational corporations, could be channelled into risks such as purchases of financial assets, mergers and dividend payouts. Such temptations would be highest in the information technology and health care sectors, according to the report. “Cash flow from tax reforms may accrue mainly to sectors that have engaged in substantial financial risk taking,” the IMF said. “Such risk taking is associated with intermittent large destabilising swings in the financial system over the past few decades.”

Basically, the bureaucrats at the IMF want us to believe that money left in private hands will be poorly used.

That’s a strange theory, but the oddest part of this report is that the IMF actually argued that a small repatriation holiday in 2004 somehow caused the recession of 2008 (almost all rational people put the blame on the Federal Reserve and the duo of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

The report noted that past major tax changes typically were followed by increases in financial risk-taking, including the tax reforms in 1986 and a corporate tax repatriation “holiday” in 2004. In both cases, these led to leverage buildups that were followed by recessions, in 1990 and 2008. …inflation and interest rates could rise more sharply than expected. This could increase market volatility and raise debt service costs for already-stretched corporate balance sheets, the IMF said. …”Tighter financial conditions could lead to distress” for weaker firms, the IMF said, noting that resulting losses would be borne by banks, life insurers, mutual funds, pension funds, and overseas institutions.

But the U.S. isn’t special.

The IMF wants higher tax burdens everywhere. Such as the Caribbean.

Over the past decade, governments in the Caribbean region have introduced the value-added tax (VAT) to modernize their tax system, rapidly mobilize revenue… VAT…has boosted revenues, the VAT has not reached its potential. …The paper also finds that although tax administration reforms can boost revenues, countries have just started… These reforms need to intensify in order to have a more significant impact on compliance and revenue.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer has a very dim assessment of the International Monetary Fund’s actions.

He starts with some background information.

The original vision of the IMF was as an agency attending to global stability… Along with the World Bank, the agency was created at an alcohol-fueled conference of 730 delegates from 44 nations, convened 72 years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. No matter that the delegates from one of the important attendees, the Soviet Union, did not speak English: Harry Dexter White, the head of the U.S. delegation, was a Soviet agent who kept Moscow informed of the goings-on. …Today’s IMF includes 189 nations, has some 2,700 employees and an annual budget in excess of $1 billion, almost 18 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

He then points out that the IMF has a bad habit of putting dodgy people in charge.

In 2004 Rodrigo Rato took the top chair and served until 2007, when he resigned to face trial in Spain for a variety of frauds involving over 70 bank accounts, and the amassing of a €27 million fortune in a web of dozens of companies. Sr. Rato was succeeded by Dominique Strauss-Kahn… Strauss-Kahn did a reasonable job until arrested in New York City on charges of imposing himself on a hotel maid whose testimony proved so incredible that all criminal charges were dropped. But DSK did settle her civil suit for a reported $1.5 million… Madame Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister, took over as managing director. …Lagarde now faces a criminal trial in France for approving a 2008 arbitration decision award of £340 million to a major financial supporter of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy that was later reversed by an appeals court.

And he notes that these head bureaucrats are lavishly compensated.

…her job…pays $500,000 per year, tax free, plus benefits and a $75,000 allowance to be paid “without any certification or justification by you, to enable you to maintain, in the interests of the Fund, a scale of living appropriate to your position as Managing Director.” The salary is twice the take-home pay of the American president, who must pay taxes on his $400,000 salary… Vacations and sick leave follow generous European standards.

Last but not least, he points out that IMF economists have a lousy track record.

All of which might be money well spent if the IMF had been reasonably successful in one of its key functions—forecasting the outlook for the international economy. …one can’t help wondering what is going on in the IMF’s highly paid forecasting shop. A study of the 189 IMF members by the Economist finds 220 instances between 1999 and 2014 in which an economy grew one year before sinking the next. “In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year.” The magazine’s random-number generator got it right 18 percent of the time.

If all the IMF did was waste a lot of money producing inaccurate forecasts, I wouldn’t be overly upset.

After all, economists seemingly specialize in getting the future wrong. My problem is that the IMF pushes bad policy.

Let’s close with a defense of the bureaucracy.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the IMF is needed because of future crises.

A number of recent senior U.S. Treasury nominations, who are known for their antipathy towards the International Monetary Fund, seems to signal that President Trump might want to have a smaller IMF. Before he yields to the temptation of trying to downsize that institution, he might want to reflect on the fact that there is a high probability that during his term he will be confronted with a global economic crisis that will require a large IMF… It is generally not a good idea to think about downsizing the fire brigade on the eve of a major conflagration. In the same way, it would seem that President Trump would be ill-advised to think about reigning in the IMF at a time when there is the real prospect of a global economic crisis during his term of office.

I actually agree with much of what Desmond wrote about the possibility of economic and fiscal crisis in the near future.

The problem, though, is that the IMF is not a fire brigade. It’s more akin to a collection of fiscal pyromaniacs.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I want to acknowledge that we sometimes get good analysis from the IMF. Economists from that bureaucracy have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule. They also made some good observations about tax policy earlier this year. And IMF researchers in 2016 concluded that smaller government and lower taxes produce more prosperity. Moreover, an IMF study in 2015 found that decentralized government works better.

P.P.S. On the other hand, I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period. And I also think it’s funny that IMF bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

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Time for an update on the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

We’ll start with the good news. The Treasury Department commissioned a study on the efficacy of the so-called stimulus spending that took place at the end of last decade. As discussed in this news report, the results were negative.

…a scathing new Treasury-commissioned report…argues the cash splash actually weakened the economy and damaged local industry… The report, …says the…fiscal stimulus was “unnecessarily large” and “misconceived because it emphasised transfers, unproductive expenditure…rather than tax relief and/or supply side reform”.

The bad news, at least from an American perspective, is that it was this story isn’t about the United States. It’s a story from an Australian newspaper about a study by an Australian professor about the Keynesian spending binge in Australia that was enacted back in 2008 and 2009.

I actually gave my assessment of the plan back in 2010, and I even provided my highly sophisticated analysis at no charge.

The Treasury-commissioned report, by contrast, presumably wasn’t free. The taxpayers of Australia probably coughed up tens of thousands of dollars for the study.

But this is a rare case where they may benefit, at least if policy makers read the findings and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Here are some of the highlights that caught my eye, starting with a description of what the Australian government actually did.

The GFC fiscal stimulus involved a mix of new public expenditure on school buildings, social housing, home insulation, limited tax breaks for business, and income transfers to select groups. Stimulus packages were announced and implemented in the December 2008, March 2009 quarters and ran into subsequent quarters.

For what it’s worth, there are strong parallels between what happened in the U.S. and Australia.v

Both nations had modest-sized Keynesian packages in 2008, followed by larger plans in 2009. The total American “stimulus” was larger because of a larger population and larger economy, of course, and the political situation was also different since it was one government that did the two plans in Australia compared to two governments (Bush in 2008 and Obama in 2009) imposing Keynesianism in the United States.

Here’s a table from the report, showing how the money was (mis)spent in Australia.

Now let’s look at the economic impact. We know Keynesianism didn’t work very well in the United States.

And the report suggests it didn’t work any better in Australia.

…fiscal stimulus induced foreign investors to take up newly issued relatively high yielding government bonds whose AAA credit rating further enhanced their appeal. This contributed to exchange rate appreciation and a subsequent competitiveness… Worsened competitiveness in turn reduced the viability of substantial parts of manufacturing, including the motor vehicle sector. …Government spending continued to rise as a proportion of GDP… This put upward pressure on interest rates… this worsened industry competitiveness contributed to major job losses, not gains, in manufacturing and tourism. …In sum, fiscal stimulus was not primarily responsible for saving the Australian economy… Fiscal stimulus later weakened the economy.

Though there was one area where the Keynesian policies had a significant impact.

Australia’s public debt growth post GFC ranks amongst the highest in the G20. Ongoing budget deficits and rising public debt have contributed to economic weakness in numerous ways. …Interest paid by the federal government on its outstanding debt was under $4 billion before the GFC yet could reach $20 billion, or one per cent of GDP, by the end of the decade.

We got a similar result in America. Lots more red ink.

Except our debt started higher and grew by more, so we face a more difficult future (especially since Australia is much less threatened by demographics thanks to a system of private retirement savings).

The study also makes a very good point about the different types of austerity.

…a distinction can be made between “good” and “bad” fiscal consolidation in terms of its macroeconomic impact. Good fiscal repair involves cutting unproductive government spending, including program overlap between different tiers of government. On the contrary, bad fiscal repair involves cutting productive infrastructure spending, or raising taxes that distort incentives to save and invest.

Incidentally, the report noted that the Kiwis implemented a “good” set of policies.

…in New Zealand…marginal income tax rates were reduced, infrastructure was improved and the regulatory burden on business was lowered.

Yet another reason to like New Zealand.

Let’s close by comparing the burden of government spending in the United States and Australia. Using the OECD’s dataset, you see that the Aussies are actually slightly better than the United States.

By the way, it looks like America had a bigger relative spending increase at the end of last decade, but keep in mind that these numbers are relative to economic output. And since Australia only had a minor downturn while the US suffered a somewhat serious recession, that makes the American numbers appear more volatile even if spending is rising at the same nominal rate.

P.S. The U.S. numbers improved significantly between 2009 and 2014 because of a de facto spending freeze. If we did the same thing again today, the budget would be balanced in 2021.

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The Moocher Hall of Fame highlights people who have some special trait that sets them apart from normal welfare recipients. They may get on the list because they are undeservingly rich, malignantly evil, incredibly entitled, or downright weird.

I also have a terror wing in the Hall of Fame. Though I’ve had to become selective since it turns out that just about every nutcase terrorist in the western world mooches off taxpayers.

And now I’m thinking I need a new wing. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s for the middlemen or wholesalers who engage in industrial-level fleecing of taxpayers.

To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some excerpts from a story in  Newsweek about some Chicago-based scamming.

…the grandmother was actually conducting a simple unemployment insurance scam, one that stole almost $7 million from the state of Illinois, attracted a federal investigation and on Monday earned Garcia a four-year prison sentence. Garcia would pass out business cards at gas stations and on some days 10 to 15 people would walk into her office and hire her to file unemployment insurance claims for them, according to court papers filed by federal prosecutors. Many of her clients were Mexican-born immigrants without lawful immigration status or work permits, which made them ineligible for unemployment benefits. …She also kept a list of U.S. cities near the Mexican border, handwritten and neatly organized, and selected from it when filling out a client’s application. …Garcia told the informant she had clients who used false Social Security numbers for five or six years without problems, and that nine out of 10 applications were approved.

I have a couple of thoughts about this story. First, why isn’t she in jail for longer? Second, why isn’t her daughter also in jail?

But most important, why is government so blindly incompetent that it makes us all have Social Security numbers, but then it doesn’t actually have some sort of system to match names and numbers on things like unemployment forms?!?

It’s almost as if government is a big incompetent blob.

Here’s another story about a welfare middleman, though this is also a case where it’s a woman who is ripping off taxpayers.

Convenience store owner Vida Ofori Causey out of Worcester, Mass. was charged in federal court Monday after pleading guilty to $3.6 million worth of food stamp fraud. …She was able to scam the program by buying food stamp benefits from receipts for half the actual value. …As a result, recipients had cash on hand to buy restricted items. The restricted items could include alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs.

Since there’s a long history of fraud in the food stamps program, I’m not surprised that this happened.

Though I’m impressed (in a bad way) about the magnitude. It takes a lot of dishonest recipients combining with one evil woman to produce $3.6 million in fraud.

Last but not least, here’s a really disturbing story about a moocher who very appropriately has been jailed for life.

For 10 years, the group targeted mentally disabled people, luring those who were vulnerable and estranged from their families and locking them inside cabinets, basements and attics, according to prosecutors. The group’s ringleader, Linda Weston, persuaded the victims to allow her to become their representative and began collecting their disability benefits. The victims, prosecutors said, lived in the dark and in isolation, and were fed food laced with drugs to keep them sedated; they were brutally punished if they tried to escape. On Thursday, a federal judge sentenced Weston, 55, to life in prison — plus 80 years — for her role in the scheme. …The case horrified Philadelphia, where in 2011 a landlord discovered four disabled adults locked inside a boiler room, NBC reported. …The group ran the operation in three other states, prosecutors said. …victims were forced to live in attics naked…were fed a diet of Ramen noodles, beans or stew just once a day. …Some were encouraged to have children in order to collect more benefits. …The group stole more than $200,000 in Social Security benefits from victims, some of whom were forced into prostitution.

By the way, all three stories today feature women, so America truly is a land of opportunity for reprehensible people of both sexes. So perhaps the bottom line is that I need a female wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

You’ve come a long way, baby!

P.S. Since today’s topic is about bad people who are financed by handouts, I’ll include some less-then-surprising news from the United Kingdom about another welfare-financed terrorist.

The ringleader of the London terror attack was bankrolled by the taxpayer, it has been revealed. Khuram Butt, 27, was claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance of around £300 a month, and was also paid housing benefit for his council-owned flat in Barking as well as child benefit. …Butt was a supporter of al-Muhajiroun and an associate of its leader Anjem Choudary, who encouraged his followers to exploit Britain’s welfare system. The jailed hate preacher even used the phrase ‘Jihad Seeker’s Allowance’.

Since the suicide bomber in Manchester also was leeching off taxpayers, we’ve reached the point where it will be more newsworthy if we find a self-sufficient terrorist.

P.P.S. I hope these are the virgins that greet Khuram in paradise.

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If there was a ranking of international bureaucracies, the World Bank would be my favorite (or, to be more accurate, least unfavorite). Yes, it sometimes produces bad studies, but it also is the source of good research on topics such as government spending, Social Security reform, tax complexity, financial regulation, and economic liberty. And the rankings in Doing Business are a very helpful way of measuring and comparing regulatory burdens (which is why leftists are so hostile to the project). Moreover, it’s hard to dislike an organization that has a mission of fighting poverty (even if it sometimes thinks redistribution is the right strategy).

The United Nations would be next on the list. The good news is that it has many well-meaning people. The bad news is that is has some very misguided projects. But since it isn’t very effective, I confess that it doesn’t command much of my attention.

At the bottom would be either the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The IMF is notorious for supporting bailouts and advocating tax increases. Depending on my mood, it’s either the “Dr. Kevorkian of economic policy” or the “dumpster fire of the global economy.” Yes, I try to be fair and will acknowledge occasional good research (on taxation, government spending, financial regulation, spending caps, etc), but there’s no question that the net impact of the IMF is negative.

The OECD also is on the wrong side when looking at the big picture. Once again, I’ll admit that there are occasional good studies (on spending caps, tax policy, government spending, etc). But those glimmers of good news are overwhelmed by a statist agenda on a wide range of policies. Most recently, the Paris-based bureaucracy proposed more taxes and more spending for the American economy. And if you’re interested in other examples, I’ve attached a list of examples at the bottom of this column.

But the main purpose of this column is to review a new publication from the OECD. As part of its so-called “Bridging the Gap” project, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that reads as if it was taken from the campaign speeches of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Here are some of the lowlights, starting with a misguided fixation on inequality.

Fiscal redistribution through taxes and transfers plays a crucial role in containing the impact of market income inequality on disposable income… Policies aimed at promoting growth should consider how growth will have an impact on many other outcomes, and how to ensure that those policies avoid the “grow first, distribute later” assumption that has characterised the economic paradigm until recently. It is now clear that growth strategies need to consider from the outset the way in which their benefits will be distributed to different income groups. … Inequalities tear at the fabric of our societies. Inequality of incomes translates seamlessly into inequality of opportunities for children, including education, health and jobs, and lower future prospects to flourish individually and collectively. …inequalities are reaching a tipping point

I’m tempted to joke that the bureaucrats want a “distribute first, grow never” approach, but let’s focus on the fact that the real goal should be reducing poverty rather than reducing inequality.

If I’m poor, I want an opportunity to increase my income. And if there’s a policy that will help give me that opportunity, it doesn’t matter if that policy enables Bill Gates to increase his income at a faster rate.

That’s why there’s no substitute for economic growth if you really want to help the less fortunate.

But the not-so-subtle message of the OECD report is that poor people are poor because rich people are rich. The bureaucrats are concerned with how to re-slice the pie rather than how to expand the size of the pie.

The really troubling material is in the final chapter, but I can’t resist commenting on a few items that appeared earlier in the report.

Such as the fact that the bureaucrats were not happy when unemployment benefits in the United States were curtailed.

…redistribution helped cushion increases in market income inequality, but its role has since tended to fall in a majority of OECD countries in the most recent years…it reflects the phasing out of fiscal stimulus, as in the United States, where the extension of unemployment benefit duration carried out in 2008-09 was rolled back in 2011.

Too bad nobody told the authors that the job market improved in America when subsidies for joblessness were cut back.

But that kind of mistake is predictable since the OECD puts such a high value on coercive redistribution.

I’m also not surprised that the bureaucrats are upset that tax competition has resulted in lower tax rates.

Globalisation has increased the difficulty for governments in taxing mobile capital income. Increased levels of capital mobility have led to certain reductions in statutory income tax rates…, which has reduced the progressivity of tax systems… The distributional effects of these reductions in statutory tax rates, especially the reduction in top personal income tax rates, has been a contributing factor to the rise in inequalities.

And the OECD even regurgitated its bizarre hypothesis that inequality reduces growth.

Widespread increases in income inequality are a source of concern…for their potential impact on economic performance. …recent OECD work estimates that rising inequality between 1985 and 2005 might have contributed to knocking more than 4 percentage points off growth between 1990-2010.

The final chapter, though, is where the OECD unveils its Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn agenda. I guess young people might say that the bureaucrats were “letting their statism freak flag fly.”

Governments have a vital role to play…targeted social investment, redistributive fiscal policy and comprehensive labour market support…fiscal policy is the key mechanism for redistributing market incomes and it is important that it is set up to prioritise support for vulnerable population groups at all points in the economic cycle.

And what are some of these policies?

The OECD wants to expand the welfare state, even though such policies already have caused fiscal crises in many nations.

The size of means-tested programmes is relatively small in many countries and there is room for expansion, by either making those programmes more generous or by extending their coverage.

The bureaucrats also want more double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

…enhancing tax progressivity via savings tax reform. Income from savings is taxed progressively, though at lower rates than labour and with a lot of variation in taxation across asset types. …There is therefore scope to increase the fairness and the neutrality of the taxation of capital income…removing tax expenditures…strengthening progressivity of tax bases. …tax expenditures such as tax deductions for private pension contributions…are regressive since higher income taxpayers tend to save… Removing such tax expenditures could simultaneously reduce inequality and make the tax system more efficient.

There’s also an embrace of punitive property taxes.

Increased taxation of residential property could increase both growth and strengthen progressivity. …if designed well can fall mostly on high-wealth, high-income households.

Amazingly, the OECD even wants more onerous death taxes, even though such policies have a very negative impact on capital formation.

Strengthening inheritance and gift taxes can support inclusive growth. … Inheritance taxes can…help achieve intergenerational equity goals. …In order to be effective, inheritance taxes must also be combined with taxes on gifts and wealth transfers during the taxpayers’ lifetime, as well as with measures to address avoidance and evasion.

The bureaucrats want more subsidies for joblessness.

Sufficiently generous unemployment benefits and social-assistance systems with a wide coverage are also a key.

And they even endorse an idea that is so economically absurd that it was rejected by President Obama’s main economic adviser.

Promoting gender equality in access to employment and job quality is a key component of inclusive growth. …gender pay gaps remaining at about 15% across the OECD, on average, with little change in recent years.

Here’s another passage urging a bigger welfare state.

Compensatory policies that redistribute income also have a role to play in…lowering post-redistribution inequality. …strong and well-designed social safety nets programmes are all the more needed.

And here’s a specific policy for more housing subsidies.

Access to affordable housing is a challenge for inclusion, and solutions include not only better housing policies but also better urban planning and governance of land use. …Explicit policies to support access to housing include housing allowances, social housing arrangements and different kinds of financial support towards homeownership.

As you can see, that’s an impressive collection of statist policies, even for the OECD.

P.S. I wrote last year that some folks on the left enjoy very lavish incomes while crusading about inequality. The same is true of the OECD, where bureaucrats not only are lavishly compensated (a general rule for international organizations), but they also enjoy tax-free incomes while urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

P.P.S. Here are additional examples of very dodgy research from the OECD.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that the OECD’s statist agenda is financed by your tax dollars.

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Since I’m a fiscal wonk, it’s sometimes tempting to overstate the importance of good tax policy. So I’m always reminding myself that all sorts of other factors matter for a jurisdiction’s competitiveness and success, including regulation and government effectiveness (and, for national governments, policies such as trade and monetary policy).

That being said, taxes are very important. In some cases, you could almost say tax policy is suicidally important.

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

Hartford, Connecticut…is edging closer to joining a small club of American municipalities: those that have sought bankruptcy protection. …The city must pay nearly $180 million on debt service, health care, pensions and other fixed costs in the coming fiscal year beginning July 1. That is more than half of the city’s budget, excluding education.

This sounds like a run-of-the-mill story about a city (like Detroit) that has spent itself into fiscal trouble, mostly because of a bloated and over-compensated bureaucracy.

But tax policy is the story behind the story. Here’s the headline that caught my attention.

As I’ve written before, this is the “Fox Butterfield” version of financial reporting (he’s the New York Times reporter who was widely mocked for repeatedly expressing puzzlement that crime rates fell when crooks were locked up).

Simply stated, it would be more accurate to state (just as it was in Detroit) that the city is in trouble “because of” high property taxes, not “despite” those onerous levies.

Imagine being a homeowner or business with this type of burden.

Since 2000, Hartford has increased its property-tax, or millage, rate seven times. The rate is now more than 50% higher than it was in 1998. At the current level, a Hartford resident who owns a home with an assessed value of $300,000 currently pays an annual tax bill of $22,287, at rate of 7.43%. A West Hartford homeowner with a similar house pays $11,853 at a rate of 3.95%.

Wow, you get to pay twice as much tax on your home simply for the “privilege” of subsidizing an inefficient and incompetent city bureaucracy (not to mention the problem of excessive state taxes).

No wonder some major taxpayers are escaping, leaving the city (and state) even more vulnerable.

…the impending departure of one of its biggest employers, Aetna Inc. …Aetna and the other four biggest taxpayers in the city contribute nearly one-fifth of the city’s $280 million of property-tax revenue. Property-tax receipts make up nearly half of the city’s general-fund revenues.

To make matters worse, the city exempts a lot of property owners, which is one of the reasons for higher tax burdens on those that don’t get favored treatment.

Half of the city’s properties are excluded from paying taxes because they are government entities, hospitals and universities. …In Baltimore, about 32% of the property is tax exempt, and in Philadelphia it’s 27%.

Excuse me if I don’t shed a tear of sympathy for Hartford’s politicians. The city is in dire straits because of a perverse combination of excessive taxation and special tax favors. Combined, of course, with lavish remuneration for a gilded bureaucracy.

That’s the worst of all worlds. It’s Detroit all over again. Or you could call it the local-government version of Illinois.

Needless to say, I don’t want my tax dollars involved in any sort of bailout.

P.S. Though it would be amusing if Hartford politicians thought this bailout application form was real rather than satire.

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There are a lot of positive things to be said about Norway.

In other words, Norway is a typical Nordic nation, with open markets, light regulation, free trade, and honest government. That’s the good news.

The bad news, at least from my perspective, is that Norway also is a typical Nordic nation in that it has a big welfare state.

But unlike the other Nordic nations, Norway also has a lot of oil. And, just like Alaska, it’s very easy to finance a big public sector when a government has access to a huge amount of petroleum-related revenue.

So does this make the country special? Is Norway a welfare-state Nirvana? In some sense, the answer is yes. As I’ve noted before, if a country wants a big welfare state, it makes a lot of sense to have very market-oriented policy in other areas to compensate. And if the country also happens to be rich with oil, that’s presumably not a bad combination.

But I would argue, of course, that Norway would be in better shape if the fiscal burden of government wasn’t so onerous.

And there’s growing evidence to validate my concerns. Bloomberg reports that falling oil prices are exposing problems with Norway’s extravagant welfare state.

More than a fifth of its working age population relied on unemployment or sick-leave benefits throughout 2016, according to a study by the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, or NAV. With welfare payments up 3 percent in 2016, the growing dependence will likely make it harder for Norway to wean itself off oil and gas production. While the discovery of petroleum 50 years ago…helped make the world’s most generous welfare system possible — declining resources…means that the country will need to find other legs to stand on to keep up its standard of living.

Norway isn’t in any immediate danger, but I wonder whether it can still prosper when the oil runs out.

Simply stated, the welfare state may have eroded the country’s work ethic (something that’s also a problem in America).

That’s something that the stewards of the system readily admit. The agency’s acronym has even become a verb, to NAV, which means `being on benefits.’ “To uphold the Norwegian welfare system we need more people at work and not on passive benefits,” said Sigrun Vageng, the head of NAV, in an emailed answered to questions.

The problem of dependency has even spread to the richer parts of the country.

…dependency on state handouts now runs deeper. It also spread to the nation’s richest regions after the plunge in oil prices… Welfare payments in Rogaland, the regional center of the oil industry and home to Statoil ASA, rose a whopping 13 percent last year. Some 19 percent received benefits on average each month in Rogaland. In Oslo, it was 15 percent.

And once there are too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency, it’s not easy to rejuvenate a nation’s social capital.

…with an increasing share of its working age population on welfare benefits instead of paying taxes, the desired changes could prove a difficult task for whoever is in power. And many are also pulling out of the workforce altogether. The percentage of people of working age in employment fell to 70.6 percent in 2016, a 21-year low… “This comes as a big cost for the society, both through lost tax revenues and the direct expenses from social benefit payments,” said Jeanette Strom Fjaere, an economist at DNB.

On the bright side, Norway has set aside lots of oil money.

Norway…has over the past 20 years built up a sovereign wealth fund.

In other words, Norway is the opposite of Venezuela. It hasn’t squandered its oil wealth on bigger government.

On the dark side, it has reached the point where its sovereign wealth fund is shrinking rather than growing.

…the government last year started withdrawing cash for the first time.

Some people say this is similar to America’s Social Security system, which has a Trust Fund that is now being depleted. I reject that analogy for the simple reason that Norway’s fund is filled with real assets. The Social Security Trust Fund, by contrast, is nothing but a pile of IOUs (as even the Clinton Administration acknowledged).

But I’m digressing. Let’s close by observing that development economists sometimes write about a “resource curse” that exists when politicians feel they can impose lots of bad policy because it is easy to generate revenue by selling natural resources.

Some argue that Norway, with its commitment to the rule of law and markets, is the exception to the rule. Yes, its welfare state is excessive, but not because of oil. Indeed, there’s more welfare spending as a share of GDP in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.

Though don’t forget that Norway’s GDP is boosted by all the oil wealth, so I’m guessing per-capita welfare outlays are higher than in neighboring countries (an important distinction, as illustrated by this data on government health spending).

So perhaps a version of the resource curse will hit Norway. But it won’t be because of a Venezuelan-style kleptocracy. Instead, it will be because the welfare state lures too many people into dependency. And when the oil money runs out, fixing that problem will be very difficult.

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I’m agnostic about President’s Trump’s budget. It has some good proposals to save money and control the burden of government spending, but after he got rolled by the big spenders earlier this year, I wonder if he’s serious about tackling wasteful government.

Nonetheless, I’m the libertarian version of Sisyphus. Except instead of trying to roll a boulder up a hill, I have the much harder task of trying to convince the crowd in Washington to shrink the size and scope of the federal government.

So I’ve written in favor of some of Trump’s proposals.

  • Shutting down the wasteful National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Defunding National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • Terminating the scandal-plagued Community Development Block Grant program.
  • Block-granting Medicaid and reducing central government funding and control.
  • Curtailing foreign aid payments that enable bad policy in poor nations.

Today, let’s add to this list by looking at what’s being proposed to control spending on food stamps.

Here are the key details from the Trump budget.

The Budget provides a path toward welfare reform, particularly to encourage those individuals dependent on the Government to return to the workforce. In doing so, this Budget includes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reforms that tighten eligibility and encourage work… SNAP—formerly Food Stamps—has grown significantly in the past decade. …despite improvements in unemployment since the recession ended, SNAP participation remains persistently high. The Budget proposes a series of reforms to SNAP that close eligibility loopholes, target benefits to the neediest households, and require able-bodied adults to work. Combined, these reforms will reduce SNAP expenditures while maintaining the basic assistance low-income families need to weather hard times. The Budget also proposes SNAP reforms that will re-balance the State-Federal partnership in providing benefits by establishing a State match for benefit costs. The Budget assumes a gradual phase-in of the match, beginning with a national average of 10 percent in 2020 and increasing to an average of 25 percent by 2023.

This is not the approach I prefer. It would be better to create a block grant that slowly phases out over a number of years (as part of an overall plan to get the federal government out of the redistribution racket).

Nonetheless, the Trump proposal would save money for taxpayers. Here are the projected savings from the budget.

To put those numbers in context, the Congressional Budget Office projects that food stamp outlays will be about $70 billion per year if current policy is left in place.

Folks on the left are predictably warning that any restrictions on the program will cause poor people to go hungry.

Yet it seems that many of these people are happy to give up their food stamps in order to avoid productive activity. I’ve already discussed examples from Maine, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Now let’s look at a news report from Alabama.

Thirteen previously exempted Alabama counties saw an 85 percent drop in food stamp participation after work requirements were put in place on Jan. 1, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources. …there were 5,538 adults ages 18-50 without dependents receiving food stamps as of Jan. 1, 2017. That number dropped to 831 – a decline of about 85 percent – by May 1, 2017. …Statewide, the number of able-bodied adults receiving food stamps has fallen by almost 35,000 people since Jan. 1, 2016. …Nationwide, there are about 44 million people receiving SNAP benefits at a cost of about $71 billion. The Trump administration has vowed to cut the food stamp rolls over the next decade, including ensuring that able-bodied adults recipients are working.

The same thing is happening in Arkansas.

Food stamp enrollment dropped by 25,000 people in Arkansas in 2016, after the state reinstated work requirements limited individuals to three months of benefits unless they found or trained for a job… Arkansas stopped granting waivers to work requirements January 1, 2016, and by April, 9,000 people were off of food stamps, also called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Another 15,000 more lost their benefits between April and November… J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Hutchinson’s office, told Arkansas Online. “If you’re receiving these SNAP benefits, you can continue to receive those SNAP benefits, but you have to work if you’re between 18 and 49 — that’s a conservative philosophy that the governor believes.”

By the way, recipients often don’t need to actually work to satisfy the work requirements. They can simply be enrolled in some sort of job-training program, many of which are run by the government at no direct cost to participants.

Yet a huge proportion of these able-bodied adults would rather give up food stamps than participate. Maybe I’m heartless, but this suggests that they are not actually dependent on handouts.

Let’s close by augmenting our list of con artists (the Octo-mom, college kids, etc) who mooch off the food stamp program. As reported by the Daily Caller, one of Mayor de Blasio’s cronies in New York City pretended to be poor so he could steal money from taxpayers.

A religious leader and big-time fundraiser for Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been charged with welfare fraud for getting around $30,000 in food stamps. Yitzchok “Isaac” Sofer, a Hasidic religious leader, hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign at the same time he was receiving food stamps illegally. …FBI…agents found that Sofer has been on food stamps since the beginning of 2010, and received more than $30,000 in benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since 2012, according to court documents… On his food stamp application in 2012, Sofer claimed to make $250 a week, or about $13,000 a year…in 2012, however, he listed his income for 2011 at $100,000, and assets at more than $600,000, according to the criminal complaint. Sofer still has ties with de Blasio’s office.

Sounds like he’s a wonderful human being. Let’s call him Exhibit A for the decline of social capital in the United States (though certain fast food restaurants might be an even more ominous sign of eroding cultural norms).

P.S. Even if Trump isn’t sincere about wanting to control food stamp spending, I guess I shouldn’t be too depressed. After all, at least he’s not proposing to make the problem worse. By contrast, the Obama Administration actually bribed states to lure more people into food stamp dependency. And, if you can believe it, Obama’s Agriculture Secretary argued that food stamps stimulate the economy.

P.P.S. Speaking of states, here are the states with the most and least food stamp dependency, and here is a ranking of states looking at the ratio of recipients compared to the eligible population.

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Defenders of civil liberties have won big victories against gun control in the United States.

The fight certainly isn’t over, to be sure, but most Americans have some degree of freedom to own guns, carry guns, and protect themselves with guns.

By contrast, the situation in Europe tends to be grim. Many nations strictly limit the freedom of people to keep and bear arms. As you might expect, the “sensible Swiss” are an exception, and nations such as Monaco, Austria, and the Nordics are semi-reasonable.

But it’s just about impossible to own a gun in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. Even groups that are targeted by Islamic fanatics, such as Jews, aren’t allowed to defend themselves.

And that is good news for terrorists. They can plot murder and mayhem with considerable confidence that they won’t meet armed resistance until police show up (just as mass killers in the USA seek out gun-free zones for their evil attacks).

But that passive approach may be changing in some European nations.

According to a column in the Washington Post, the President of the Czech Republic believes an armed citizenry is a safe citizenry.

A couple of months ago, Czech President Milos Zeman made an unusual request: He urged citizens to arm themselves against a possible “super-Holocaust” carried out by Muslim terrorists.

The column notes that he’s almost certainly over-stating the risks.

…there are fewer than 4,000 Muslims in this country of 10 million people.

But some citizens decided it’s better to be safe than sorry.

…gun purchases spiked.

Now the government is seeking to make it easier for citizens to use those guns for self-defense.

…the country’s interior ministry is pushing a constitutional change that would let citizens use guns against terrorists. Proponents say this could save lives if an attack occurs and police are delayed or unable to make their way to the scene. …Parliament must approve the proposal.

The good news is that the Czech Republic already has fairly good laws. At least by European standards.

The Czech Republic already has some of the most lenient gun policies in Europe. It’s home to about 800,000 registered firearms and 300,000 people with gun licenses. Obtaining a weapon is relatively easy: Residents must be 21, pass a gun knowledge check and have no criminal record. By law, Czechs can use their weapons to protect their property or when in danger, although they need to prove they faced a real threat.

Hopefully there are lots of unregistered firearms as well.

Though I’m unsure what the Interior Ministry is proposing with regards to gun use against terrorists. Why would the law need to be changed if Czechs already are allowed to use weapons for self-defense?

In any event, the bad news is that the meddling bureaucrats in Brussels are trying to make it more difficult for law-abiding people to protect themselves.

…much of Europe…has long supported much more stringent gun-control measures.  In the wake of the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, France pushed the European Union to enact even tougher policies. The European Commission’s initial proposal called for a complete ban on the sale of weapons like Kalashnikovs or AR-15s that are intended primarily for military use. Ammunition magazines would be limited to 20 rounds or less. …the EU passed a compromise last month… The final measure bans the sale of most military-style rifles and requires all potential buyers to go through a psychological check before they can buy a weapon. …it’s not yet clear if gun owners will have to turn in newly illegal weapons.

How typical of the French. They want to make it more difficult for law-abiding people to have guns, an approach that presumably won’t have much – if any – impact on terrorists who presumably can get weapons illegally.

And the EU once again ignores its own federalist rhetoric on subsidiarity to push for statist continent-wide policy.

Moreover, Kalashnikovs and AR-15s are no more dangerous or deadly than other rifles, so targeting guns that “are intended primarily for military use” is irrelevant nonsense.

The bottom line is that more gun control in Europe won’t help the fight against terrorism. Instead, it simply means citizens don’t have the right to defend themselves.

So I’m glad the Czechs are trying to do the right thing, in spite of the paternalistic left-wing ideologues elsewhere in Europe. And I hope there will be lots of civil disobedience as more gun control policies emanate from Brussels.

P.S. If you enjoy sarcasm, here’s a clever video showing how leftists think about gun control. And here’s another one.

P.P.S. If you enjoy when leftists accidentally make the argument against gun control, you’ll enjoy the exploding cigars by Trevor Noah and the New York Times.

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The federal income tax is corrosive and destructive. It’s almost as if a group of malicious people decided to deliberately design a system that imposes maximum damage while also allowing the most corruption.

The economic damage is not only the result of high tax rates and pervasive double taxation, but also because of loopholes that exist to bribe people into making economically unwise decisions.

These include itemized deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions, as well as the fringe benefits exclusion and the exemption for municipal bond interest. And there are many other corrupt favors sprinkled through a metastasizing tax code.

But there’s a strong case to be made that the worst loophole is the deduction for state and local taxes. Why? For the simple reason that it encourages, enables, and subsidizes bad policy.

Here’s how it works. State and local lawmakers can increase income taxes or property taxes and be partially insulated from political blowback because their taxpayers can deduct those taxes on their federal return.

And it’s a back-door way of giving a special break to upper-income taxpayers because the deduction is more valuable to people in higher tax brackets.

Let’s look at an example that’s currently in the news. Democrats in the Illinois state legislature want a big increase in the personal income tax. If they succeed and boost taxes by an average of $1000, high-income taxpayers who take advantage of the deduction may only suffer a loss of as little as $600 since their federal tax bill may fall by almost $400.

For politicians, this is an ideal racket. They can promise various interest groups $1000 of goodies while reducing take-home pay by a lesser amount.

Let’s review some recent commentary on this topic.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue last weekend.

Chuck Schumer aspires to raise taxes on every rich person in America, save one protected class: coastal progressives. …Like many other Democrats, he’s apoplectic about a plan to end the state and local tax deduction. …One goal of tax reform is to reduce unproductive tax loopholes, and ending the state and local deduction would generate revenue to finance lower rates: The deduction is worth about $100 billion a year… About 88% of the benefits in 2014 flowed to taxpayers who earn more than $100,000, while 1% went to those who earn less than $50,000. California alone reaps nearly 20% of the benefit…and a mere six states get more than half. …The folks underwriting this windfall are in Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming and other places without a state income tax. …Eliminating the deduction would be a powerful incentive for Governors to cut state taxes on residents who are suddenly exposed to their full liability. …killing the state and local deduction would pay a double dividend: The first is creating a more equitable tax code with a broader base and lower rates. The second is spurring reform in states that are long overdue for a better tax climate.

Writing earlier this year for National Review, Kevin Williamson was characteristically blunt.

It’s time for…blue-state…tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. …eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden. Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. …allowing for the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

And Bob McManus adds his two cents in an article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Voters in all heavy-tax, high-spending states have no one to blame for their situation save themselves. At a minimum, it seems clear that deductibility—by softening the impact of federal taxation—encourages outsize state and local spending. States that take advantage of deductibility—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—are in effect subsidized by states that have kept tighter control on their spending. …New York’s top-of-the-charts spending puts the state at the pinnacle…with New Yorkers paying a national high of 12.7 percent of income in state and local levies. Local property taxes in New York are astronomical and not coming down any time soon. …deductibility has powerful friends—among them the public-employee unions… New York and the nation would benefit if deductibility was jettisoned. …end the incentive for the tax-and-spend practices that have been so economically corrosive to big-spending Blue states.

Let’s close with the should-be-obvious point that the goal isn’t to repeal the state and local tax deduction in order to give politicians in Washington more money to spend. Instead, every penny of that revenue should be used to finance pro-growth tax reforms.

That creates a win-win situation of better tax policy in Washington, while also creating pressure for better tax policy at the state and local level.

For what it’s worth, both Trump and House Republicans are proposing to get rid of the deduction.

P.S. I mentioned at the start of this column that it would not be unreasonable to think that the tax code was deliberately designed to maximize economic damage. But even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t think that’s actually the case. Instead, our awful tax system is the result of 104 years of “public choice.”

P.P.S. Itemized deductions and other loopholes create distortions by allowing people to understate their income if they engage in approved behaviors. There are also provisions of the tax code – such as depreciation and worldwide taxation – that force taxpayers to overstate their income.

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Back in 2015, I basically applauded the Congressional Budget Office for its analysis of what would happen if Obamacare was repealed. The agency’s number crunchers didn’t get it exactly right, but they actually took important steps and produced numbers showing how the law was hurting taxpayers and the economy.

Now we have a new set of Obamacare numbers from CBO based on the partial repeal bill approved by the House of Representatives. The good news is that the bureaucrats show substantial fiscal benefits. There would be a significant reduction in the burden of spending and taxation.

But the CBO did not show very favorable numbers in other areas, most notably when it said that 23 million additional people would be uninsured if the legislation was enacted.

Part of the problem is that Republicans aren’t actually repealing Obamacare. Many of the regulations that drive up the cost of health insurance are left in place.

My colleague at Cato, Michael Cannon, explains why this is a big mistake.

Rather than do what their supporters sent them to Washington to do – repeal ObamaCare and replace it with free-market reforms – House Republicans are pushing a bill that will increase health-insurance premiums, make health insurance worse for the sick… ObamaCare’s core provisions are the “community rating” price controls and other regulations that (supposedly) end discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions. …Community rating is the reason former president Bill Clinton called ObamaCare “the craziest thing in the world” where Americans “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” Community rating is why women age 55 to 64 have seen the highest premium increases under ObamaCare. It is the principal reason ObamaCare has caused overall premiums to double in just four years. Community rating literally penalizes quality coverage for the sick… ObamaCare is community rating. The AHCA does not repeal community rating. Therefore, the AHCA does not repeal ObamaCare.

It would be ideal if Republicans fully repealed Obamacare.

Heck, they should also address the other programs and policies that have messed up America’s healthcare system and caused a third-party payer crisis.

That means further reforms to Medicaid, as well as Medicare and the tax code’s exclusion of fringe benefits.

But maybe that’s hoping for too much since many Republicans are squeamish about supporting even a watered-down proposal to modify Obamacare.

That being said, there are some reasonable complaints that CBO overstated the impact of the GOP bill.

Doug Badger and Grace Marie Turner, for instance, were not impressed by CBO’s methodology.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) launched its latest mistaken Obamacare-related estimate this week, predicting that a House-passed bill to repeal and replace the embattled law would lead to 23 million more uninsured people by 2026. …the agency’s errors are not only massive – one of their predictions of 2016 exchange-based enrollment missed by 140%… Undaunted by failure and unschooled by experience, CBO soldiers on, fearlessly predicting that millions will flock to the exchanges any day now.  …CBO measures the House-passed bill against this imaginary baseline and finds it wanting. …One reason CBO gets it so wrong so consistently is its fervent belief that the individual mandate has motivated millions to enroll in coverage.  …CBO’s belief in the power of the individual mandate is misplaced. …The IRS reports that in the 2015 tax year, 6.5 million uninsured filers paid the tax penalty, 12.7 million got an exemption and additional 4.2 million people simply ignored the penalty.  They left line 61 on their form 1040 blank, refusing to tell the government whether or not they had insurance.  …In all, that is a total of 23.4 million uninsured people – out of an estimated 28.8 million uninsured – who either paid, avoided or ignored the penalty.  That hardly suggests that the mandate has worked.

The Wall Street Journal also was quite critical of the CBO analysis.

…the budget scorekeepers claim the House bill could degrade the quality of insurance. This editorializing could use some scrutiny. Without government supervision of insurance minutiae and a mandate to buy coverage or pay a penalty, CBO asserts, “a few million” people will turn to insurance that falls short of the “widely accepted definition” of “a comprehensive major medical policy.” They might select certain forms of coverage that Obama Care banned, like “mini-med” plans with low costs and low benefits. Or they might select indemnity plans that pay a fixed-dollar amount per day for illness or hospitalization, or dental-only or vision-only single-service plans. CBO decided to classify these people as “uninsured,” though without identifying who accepts ObamaCare’s definition of standardized health benefits and why they deserve to substitute their judgment for the choices of individual consumers. …But the strangest part of CBO’s preoccupation with “high-cost medical events” is that the analysts never once mention catastrophic coverage—not once. These types of plans didn’t cover routine medical expenses but they did protect consumers against, well, a high-cost medical event like an accident or the diagnosis of a serious illness. Those plans answered what most people want most out of insurance—financial security and a guarantee that they won’t be bankrupted by cancer or a distracted bus driver. …under the House reform Americans won’t have any problem insuring against a bad health event, even if CBO won’t admit it. …CBO has become a fear factory because it prefers having government decide for everybody.

Drawing on his first-hand knowledge, Dr. Marc Siegel wrote on the issue for Fox News.

…23 million…will lose their health insurance by 2026 if the American Health Care Act, the bill the House passed to replace ObamaCare, is passed in the Senate and signed by President Trump. This number is concerning — until you look at it and the CBO’s handling of the health care bills more closely. …First, the CBO was wildly inaccurate when it came to ObamaCare, predicting that 23 million people would be getting policies via the exchanges by 2016. The actual number ended up being only 10.4 million… Second, many who chose to buy insurance on the exchanges did so only because they wanted to avoid paying the penalty, not because they needed or wanted the insurance. Many didn’t buy insurance until they got sick.

The Oklahoman panned the CBO’s calculations.

IN the real world, people who don’t have insurance coverage cannot lose it. Yet…the CBO estimates 14 million fewer people will have coverage in 2018 if the House bill is enacted than would be the case if the ACA is left intact, and 23 million fewer by 2026. …In 2016, there were roughly 10 million people obtaining insurance through an Obamacare exchange. The CBO estimated that number would suddenly surge to 18 million by 2018 if the law was left intact, but that far fewer people would be covered if the House reforms became law. Put simply, the CBO estimated that millions of people who don’t have insurance through an exchange today would “lose” coverage they would otherwise obtain next year. That’s doubtful. …At one point, the office estimated 22 million people would receive insurance through an Obamacare exchange by 2016. As already noted, the actual figure was less than half that. One major reason for the CBO being so far off the mark is that federal forecasters believed Obamacare’s individual mandate would cause people to buy insurance, regardless of cost. That hasn’t proven true. …In a nutshell, the CBO predicts reform would cause millions to lose coverage they don’t now have, and that millions more would eagerly reject the coverage they do have because it’s such a bad deal. Those aren’t conclusions that bolster the case for Obamacare.

And here are passages from another WSJ editorial.

CBO says 14 million fewer people on net would be insured in 2018 relative to the ObamaCare status quo, rising to 23 million in 2026. The political left has defined this as “losing coverage.” But 14 million would roll off Medicaid as the program shifted to block grants, which is a mere 17% drop in enrollment after the ObamaCare expansion. The safety net would work better if it prioritized the poor and disabled with a somewhat lower number of able-bodied, working-age adults. The balance of beneficiaries “losing coverage” would not enroll in insurance, CBO says, “because the penalty for not having insurance would be eliminated.” In other words, without the threat of government to buy insurance or else pay a penalty, some people will conclude that ObamaCare coverage isn’t worth the price even with subsidies. …CBO’s projections about ObamaCare enrollment…were consistently too high and discredited by reality year after year. CBO is also generally wrong in the opposite direction about market-based reforms, such as the 2003 Medicare drug benefit whose costs the CBO badly overestimated.

Here are excerpts from Seth Chandler’s Forbes column.

My complaints about the CBO largely revolve around its dogged refusal to adjust its computations to the ever-more-apparent failings of the Affordable Care Act. When the CBO says that 23 million fewer people will have insurance coverage under the AHCA than under the ACA — a statistic that politics have converted into a mantra —  that figure is predicated on an ACA that no longer exists. It is based on the continuing assumption that the ACA will have 18 million people enrolled on its exchanges in 2018 and that this situation will persist until 2026. I know no one on any side of the political spectrum who believes this to be true. The ACA has about 11 million people currently enrolled on its exchanges in 2017 and, with premiums going up, some insurers withdrawing from various markets, and the executive branch fuzzing up whether the individual mandate will actually be enforced. The consensus is that ACA enrollment will stay the same or go down, not increase 60%.

And here’s some of what Drew Gonshorowski wrote for the Daily Signal.

…reducing premium levels by rolling back regulations could actually have the effect of making plans more desirable for individuals looking to pay less. The CBO lacks any real discussion of these positive effects. …The CBO’s score on Medicaid…reflects that it assumes more states would likely have expanded in the future under the Affordable Care Act. Thus, its projection that 14 million fewer people would be insured due to not having Medicaid under the American Health Care Act might be overstated… CBO…assumes the Affordable Care Act will enroll 7 to 8 million more people in the individual market, when in reality it does not appear this will be the case

Last but not least, my former colleague Robert Moffit expressed concerns in a column for USA Today. The part that caught my eye was that CBO has a less-than-stellar track record on Obamacare projections.

The GOP should be skeptical of CBO’s coverage estimates. It has been an abysmal performance. For example, CBO projected initially that 21 million persons would enroll in exchange plans in 2016. The actual enrollment: 11.5 million.

The bottom line is that CBO overstated the benefits of Obamacare, at least as measured by the number of people who would sign up for the program.

The bureaucrats were way off.

Yet CBO continues to use those inaccurate numbers, creating a make-believe baseline that is then used to estimate a large number of uninsured people if the Republican bill is enacted.

This is sort of like the “baseline math” that is used to measure supposed spending cuts when the budget actually is getting bigger.

P.S. You may be wondering why Republicans don’t fully repeal Obamacare so that they can get credit for falling premiums. Part of the problem is that they are using “reconciliation” legislation that supposedly is limited to fiscal matters. In other words, you can’t repeal red tape and regulation. At least according to some observers. I think that’s silly since such interventions drive up the cost of health care, which obviously has an impact on the budget. Also, Republicans are a bit squeamish about reducing subsidies for various groups, whether explicit (like the Medicaid expansion) or implicit (like community rating). In other words, the Second Theorem of Government applies.

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Illinois is a mess. Taxes and spending already are too high, and huge unfunded liabilities point to an even darker future.

Simply stated, politicians and government employee unions have created an unholy alliance to extract as much money as possible from the state’s beleaguered private sector.

That’s not a surprise. Indeed, it’s easily explained by the “stationary bandit” theory of government.

But while the bandit of government may be stationary, the victims are not. At least not in a nation with 50 different states. Indeed, Illinois Policy reports that a growing number of geese with golden eggs decided to fly away after a big tax hike in 2011.

Politicians enacted Illinois’ 2011 income-tax hike during a late-night legislative session in January 2011 and raised the state’s personal income-tax rate to 5 percent from 3 percent. This 67 percent income-tax hike lasted for four years, during which time Illinois experienced record wealth flight. …The short-term increase in tax revenue gained from higher tax rates is offset by the long-term loss of substantial portions of Illinois’ tax base. The average income of taxpayers leaving Illinois rose to $77,000 per year in 2014, according to new income migration data released by the IRS. Meanwhile, the average income of people entering Illinois was only $57,000. …During the four years of the full income-tax hike, prior to its partial sunset in 2015, Illinois lost $14 billion in annual adjusted gross income, or AGI, to other states, on net.

Illinois has always had an unfavorable ratio when comparing the incomes of immigrants and emigrants. But you can see from this chart that there was a radically unfavorable shift after the tax hike.

Here’s a table from the article showing the 10-worst states.

Illinois leads this list of losers by a comfortable margin. Connecticut, meanwhile, has a strong hold on second place (which shouldn’t be a surprise).

The IP report observes that the states benefiting from internal migration have much better fiscal policy. In particular, most of them are on the admirable list of states that don’t impose income taxes.

…the top five states with favorable income differentials were Florida, Wyoming, Nevada, South Carolina and Texas. Notably, 4 of 5 of these states have no income tax, and none of them have a death tax.

It’s worth noting that the high-tax approach is not producing good results.

Instead, as reported by Bloomberg, the Land of Lincoln is the land of red ink.

Illinois had its bond rating downgraded to one step above junk by Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, the lowest ranking on record for a U.S. state… Illinois’s underfunded pensions and the record backlog of bills…are equivalent to about 40 percent of its operating budget. …investors have demanded higher premiums for the risk of owning its debt. Moody’s called Illinois “an outlier among states” after suffering eight downgrades in as many years. …like other states, has no ability to resort to bankruptcy to escape from its debts. A downgrade to junk, though, would add further financial pressure by increasing its borrowing costs.

Amazing, in spite of this ongoing meltdown, the Democrats who control the state legislature are pushing hard to once again increase the income tax.

Heck, they want to increase all sorts of taxes. Including higher burdens on the financial industry.

Kristina Rasumussen, the President of Illinois Policy, warned in the Wall Street Journal that this was not a good recipe.

Proponents here call it the “privilege tax.” …The Illinois bill would put a 20% levy on fees earned by investment advisers. It passed the state Senate in a 32-24 vote Tuesday, and backers are hoping to get it through the House before the legislative session ends May 31. The new tax is pitched as a way to squeeze more revenue—as much as $1.7 billion a year—from hedge funds and private-equity firms… An earlier version of the Illinois proposal included a provision so that the 20% tax would take effect only if and when New York, New Jersey and Connecticut enacted similar measures. But the bill as written now would impose the tax regardless, and lawmakers will simply have to hope other states follow suit. Yet who says financiers can’t do their jobs just as well in Palm Beach, Fla.—or London, Zurich or Hong Kong? The progressives peddling this idea don’t understand that Chicago competes for these businesses not only with New York and Greenwich, Conn., but with anywhere that can offer cellphone service and an internet connection. …Railing against supposed “fat cats” might satisfy progressive groups, but lawmakers shouldn’t be in the business of hounding the people who help connect capital with new opportunities for growth. …Rather than focus on how to make everyone miserable together, policy makers should work to increase their states’ competitiveness. A start would be to rally against this proposed privilege tax and instead fix the spiraling pension costs and outdated labor rules that are dragging Illinois and other blue states down.

Let’s hope the governor continues to reject any and all tax increases.

If he does hold firm, he’ll have allies.

Including the Chicago Tribune, which recently editorialized about the state’s dire position

Illinois legislators fumble repeated attempts to send a balanced budget to Gov. Bruce Rauner; while the stack of Illinois’ unpaid bills climbs by the minute; while our leaders prioritize politics over policy… Employers and other taxpayers are hopping over Illinois’ borders with alarming regularity. …What an embarrassment. What a dereliction of duty. …Illinois, boasting the lowest credit rating and the highest population loss of any state in the country, has doubled down. State government is in a full-blown crisis. Again. Since January, Democrats have discussed plans to raise income taxes and borrow money to pay down bills. They approved bills that would make Illinois a less attractive place to do business; under one proposal, Illinois would have the highest minimum wage of all its neighboring states.

This is some very sensible analysis from a newspaper that endorsed Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

Even more important, the state’s taxpayers are mostly on the correct side.

Illinoisans feel the strain of the state’s two-year budget impasse, but they are emphatic that tax hikes should not be part of any budget deal. These are the findings of a new poll of likely Illinois voters… Only 31 percent of survey respondents support raising the state income tax to end the budget impasse. An increase in the state sales tax is even more unpopular, with 76 percent of survey respondents opposed. Another key takeaway from the poll: A plurality (49 percent) of respondents who are directly affected by the state budget impasse prefer a cuts-only, no-tax-hike budget. …Survey respondents were also asked what they think of political candidates who support raising taxes to end the budget impasse. The poll found that likely Illinois voters will be unforgiving of candidates for governor or the General Assembly who raise the state income tax or sales tax.

I suspect taxpayers realize that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending.

Indeed, a leftist in the state inadvertently admitted that the purpose of tax hikes is to enable more spending.

If there is to be any hope for the future in Illinois, Governor Rauner needs to hold firm. So long as Republicans in the state legislature hold firm, he can use his veto power to stop any tax hikes.

Or he can be Charlie Brown.

P.S. Illinois is invariably near the bottom in comparisons of state fiscal policy. The one saving grace is that the state has a flat tax. If the statists ever succeed in replacing that system with a so-called progressive tax, it will just be a matter of time before the state passes New York and California in the real race to the bottom.

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Neither involves nudity, but I’ve written about libertarian porn and poverty porn.

To augment that list, my former colleague Brian Riedl, now with the Manhattan Institute, has produced some fiscal porn. Nothing sexual, so you can disregard this column if that’s your thing. However, if you share my salacious interest in smaller government and more freedom, you’ll be squirming in your seat as you read parts of his column.

He starts with a simple observation.

President Trump’s…bold proposal to cut discretionary spending – excluding defense – from $619 billion this year to $429 billion a decade from now. That is a 30 percent reduction.

And Brian points out it’s a real cut, not a “Washington cut” that occurs when spending doesn’t rise as fast as previously planned.

I admit that my heart is beating faster.

But I shouldn’t get too excited. Brian points out that Trump doesn’t specify which domestic discretionary programs would get cut, either over the next several years or by 2027 when total outlays for that category are supposed to be $429 billion.

…the budget shows initial cuts followed by an across-the-board sequestration that would top $100 billion by 2027.

Brian doesn’t think politicians would want to accept a sequester.

I’d be happy with that outcome. Perhaps even pruriently happy.

But he may be right about the preferences of the political class.

So he decided to put together his own budget for domestic discretionary programs. In effect, a roadmap for lawmakers who may actually be serious about controlling the size and scope of Washington.

I extrapolate the budget’s own reductions, and fill in the remaining gaps based on my own experience crafting federal budgets for several leading presidential campaigns and working as a federal budget economist in the Senate.

He starts by going after the federal bureaucracy’s lavish compensation.

Federal employment and its generous compensation would be reduced. The federal civilian workforce could be downsized by 10 percent by replacing only one-third of the workers who leave their jobs ($7 billion saved in 2027), slowing the annual growth rate of federal civilian employee pay by half a percentage point ($12 billion), and requiring federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement plans ($7 billion).

I call this a good start. Not only is my heart racing, I’m flushed with anticipation.

Brian follows with ideas to raise revenue that – under D.C.’s bizarre budget rules – get counted as negative spending.

Other potential cross-agency reforms include raising user fees to better reflect program costs ($3 billion), and raising $10 billion annually by 2027 through modest federal asset and land sales (which Congress could classify as an offset to discretionary spending).

I don’t object to genuine user fees (such as setting entrance fees to national parks so costs are covered). And I certainly don’t object to selling federal land and other federal assets.

That being said, I prefer genuine spending cuts, so these provisions don’t excite me. My pulse has returned to normal. He’s ruined the mood!

But Brian then gets my heart racing again with some take-no-prisoners fiscal slashing.

With regard to specific programs, two-thirds of non-defense discretionary spending goes to federal operations, and the rest to state and local government grants. …federal operations could be targeted for deeper reforms. The Administration could shelve NASA’s human space exploration program ($10 billion), and halve the National Science Foundation and energy research (saving $6 billion). President Trump’s privatization targets include Amtrak ($1 billion); much of the Federal Aviation Administration (saving $10 billion); agriculture research ($1 billion); AmeriCorps and related programs ($1.5 billion); and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities and public broadcasting ($0.7 billion combined). President Trump proposes cutting international spending nearly in half. Drastic reductions in the $45 billion foreign assistance budget.

I’m especially hot and bothered about what Brian suggests for Amtrak, the NEA, the CPB, and foreign aid.

And what he proposes for federal grants has me panting with desire.

…the completion of the interstate highway system leaves little reason for Washington to continue collecting the federal gas tax and redistributing it to states. Congress could save $40 billion in federal spending (and taxes) by eliminating the federal middle man and allowing states to collect and spend the tax themselves on projects of their choice. Other federal grant programs that could be devolved to states include housing aid to the poor (reduce by $30 billion and retain the final $10 billion for the hardest-hit states); means-tested food, child care, and home energy assistance ($10 billion); Head Start and other family service programs ($11 billion); job training ($6 billion); social services ($2 billion); economic development ($8 billion); justice ($2 billion); pollution control ($4 billion); disaster preparation ($2 billion); and numerous small public health grants ($6 billion). …lawmakers could freeze the two largest K-12 programs (special education and Title I grants to low-income school districts) at today’s combined $29 billion level, while eliminating dozens of small and largely unnecessary K-12 grant programs ($6 billion). Freezing Pell Grant spending at $24 billion, despite rising population, would require trimming either eligibility standards or the $4,860 annual maximum award.

A very good list, though I think he should get the federal government totally out of the education business, so his budget porn leaves something to be desired.

However, now for…ummm…the climax of Brian’s column (is that pun too obvious?).

Altogether, these reforms would reduce 2027 non-defense discretionary outlays to the $429 billion target proposed by President Trump.

And I must be young and virile, because the question that immediately comes to mind is what Brian can propose to get us to $329 billion. And then $229 billion.

By the way, Brian then ruins the mood with a final sentence. Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but I think he’s implying that the above cuts are too much and he’s only proposing them because Trump won’t address the old-age entitlements,

Such cuts are the price of balancing the budget without addressing the soaring Social Security and Medicare costs that are driving the deficit upwards.

My view is that we should bank all the savings to domestic discretionary that Brian identifies, accept all the reforms Trump proposes for Medicaid and other means-tested programs, and then add some reform of the other entitlements to the mix.

If Brian goes along with that, I won’t be upset if he doesn’t send flowers the next day.

P.S. If you’re looking for real porn, this isn’t the right website. I’ve commented (here, here, and here) on porn stars and politics, but you won’t find any “visuals.” Similarly, I’ve commented (here and here) on bureaucrats and porn, but you’ll have to use your imagination if you want some nakedness. And even when I’ve touched on the intersection of porn and public policy (here, here, and here), everything is PG-rated.

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While most of my disdain is reserved for the federal government in Washington, I periodically share horror stories about foreign governments and state governments.

And today we’re going to add to our collection of bone-headed policies by local governments.

In some past cases, the examples captured systemic flaws. In other cases, we looked at specific bad examples. Today, we have an interesting mix.

We’ll start with an example of bad policy that is easy to mock. It focuses on the predatory interventions by a town, as illustrated by this story from Alabama.

Teens in Gardendale are in for a rude awakening this summer when it comes to cutting grass. According to the city’s ordinance, you must have a business license. Teenagers have been threatened by officials…to show their city issued license before cutting a person’s lawn for extra summer cash. Cutting grass is often one of the first jobs many have in the summer. But a business license in Gardendale costs $110. And for a job, just for a couple of months, that can be a bit extreme.

What’s really disappointing about this story is that adults are ratting out the teenagers.

I can understand that they’re irked that they pay the license fee while the kids don’t, but that’s still wrong.

“One of the men that cuts several yards made a remark to one of our neighbors, ‘that if he saw her cutting grass again that he was going to call Gardendale because she didn’t have a business license,” said Campbell. …Mayor Stan Hogeland said when operating a business for pay within the city limits, you must have a business license.

Hey, Mr. Mayor, I have a better idea. Get rid of licensing rules and give freedom a try.

If your residents want to freely contract with each other, let them. Whether they’re kids or adults.

Makes me wonder if Gardendale is one of those places that puts the boot of government on the necks of kids who set up – gasp! – unlicensed lemonade stands?

If so, I imagine Daniela Earnest and Julie Murphy can offer the mayor some useful advice.

Now let’s shift to an example of local government abuse that is more troubling. And apparently more systemic.

A column in the Washington Post reveals that local governments try to make families pay if their kids wind up in the legal system, even if they’re ultimately declared not guilty of any offense.

In dozens of one-on-one meetings every week, a lawyer retained by the city of Philadelphia summons parents whose children have just been jailed, pulls out his calculator and hands them more bad news: a bill for their kids’ incarceration. Even if a child is later proved innocent, the parents still must pay a nightly rate for the detention. Bills run up to $1,000 a month… The lawyer, Steven Kaplan…is paid up to $316,000 a year in salary and bonuses, more than any city employee, including the mayor.

I haven’t given any thought to whether families should cough up money if kids are found guilty and then incarcerated.

But I find it to be outrageous that bills are sent to families when the kids are found to be not guilty.

And let’s be honest. Such a policy is not about criminal justice. It’s about figuring out new ways of pillaging people to finance bureaucracy.

To add insult to injury, most of the families are poor, so it’s very difficult to collect revenue. Indeed, very little money is collected after paying the lawyer.

Because these parents are so often from poor communities, even the most aggressive efforts to bill them seldom bring in meaningful revenue. Philadelphia netted $551,261 from parents of delinquent children in fiscal 2016.

And when you look at the consequences for poor families, it’s hard to think this is a good policy. Especially if the kid isn’t convicted of any crime!

When parents fail to pay on time, the state can send collection agencies after them, tack on interest, garnish 50 percent of their wages, seize their bank accounts, intercept their tax refunds, suspend their driver’s licenses or charge them with contempt of court.

Here’s an example from the west coast.

When Mariana Cuevas’s son was released from a California jail, after being locked up in a juvenile hall for more than 300 days for a homicide he did not commit, the boy’s public defender, Jeffrey Landau, thought his work was done. The case had been dismissed; his client was free. But at a celebratory dinner afterward, Cuevas, a Bay Area home cleaner, pulled out a plastic bag full of bills and showed Landau that the state had tried to collect nearly $10,000 for her child’s imprisonment. …In fiscal 2014-2015, Alameda County, which contains Oakland, spent $250,938 collecting $419,830 from parents. An internal county report called that “little financial gain.”

This is astounding. Trying to pillage a poor family for $10,000 when the kid didn’t commit the crime. If you care about decency and justice, this may even be worse than civil asset forfeiture.

Let’s close with another example of easy-to-mock local government.

The New York Post reports that the city is largely incapable of getting rid of incompetent teachers. So they’re paid to sit in a room and do nothing.

In one of the “reassignment centers,” 16 exiled educators sit in a city Department of Education building in Long Island City, Queens, including a dozen packed into one room — where they do virtually no work. They listen to music, do crossword puzzles, chat — and as this exclusive Post photo reveals, doze on the taxpayer’s dime. The rules forbid beach chairs and air mattresses, but not nap time. The teacher sprawled on the floor, pulled a wool hat over his eyes to shut out the fluorescent lights and slept. Others prop up two chairs to recline or just lay their heads on the table. …the city denies the existence of the derided holding pens. “There are no more rubber rooms,” DOE officials told The Post last week, saying reassigned staffers are given “administrative duties.” …The DOE refused to say how many removed teachers and other tenured staffers remain in limbo, but sources estimate 200 to 400 get paid while awaiting disciplinary hearings. Their salaries total $15 million to $20 million a year. …They mainly just kill time to get through a six-hour, 20-minute day. “I’m so exhausted from being in this place doing nothing,” one said. Several teachers on the payroll have been benched for up to five years due to a stunning bureaucratic breakdown.

Yes, this is bureaucratic breakdown.

But if you really want to understand the story behind the story, the real problem is that the unions representing government employee unions give a lot of money to politicians. Those politicians then turn around and “negotiate” contracts that provide excessive pay to regular bureaucrats and absurd protections to bad bureaucrats.

In this case, bad teachers are removed from the classroom, but it’s very difficult to fire them. So they get paid to do nothing.

P.S. Of course, that reminds me of the standard joke that most bureaucrats get paid to do nothing. There’s even a video version of that joke.

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