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Archive for December, 2017

Since it’s the last day of the year, let’s look back on 2017 and highlight the biggest victories and losses for liberty.

For last year’s column, we had an impressive list of overseas victories in 2016, including the United Kingdom’s Brexit from the European Union, the vote against basic income in Switzerland, the adoption of constitutional spending caps in Brazil, and even the abolition of the income tax in Antigua and Barbuda.

The only good policies I could find in the United States, by contrast, were food stamp reforms in Maine, Wisconsin, and Kansas.

This year has a depressingly small list of victories. Indeed, the only good thing I had on my initial list was the tax bill. So to make 2017 appear better, I’m turning that victory into three victories.

  • A lower corporate tax rate – Dropping the federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent will boost investment, wages, and competitiveness, while also pressuring other nations to drop their corporate rates in a virtuous cycle of tax competition. An unambiguous victory.
  • Limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes – It would have been preferable to totally abolish the deduction for state and local taxes, but a $10,000 cap will substantially curtail the federal tax subsidy for higher taxes by state and local government. The provision is only temporary, so it’s not an unambiguous win, but the whining and complaining from class-warfare politicians in New York and California is music to my ears.
  • No border-adjustment tax – Early in 2017, I was worried that tax reform was going to be tax deform. House Republicans may have had good intentions, but their proposed border-adjustment tax would have set the stage for a value-added tax. I like to think I played at least a small role in killing this bad idea.
  • Regulatory Rollback – The other bit of (modest) good news is that the Trump Administration has taken some steps to curtail and limit red tape. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.

Now let’s look elsewhere in the world for a victory. Once again, there’s not much.

  • Macron’s election in France – As I scoured my archives for some good foreign news, the only thing I could find was that a socialist beat a socialist in the French presidential election. But since I have some vague hope that Emanuel Macron will cut red tape and reduce the fiscal burden in France, I’m going to list this as good news. Yes, I’m grading on a curve.

Now let’s look at the bad news.

Last year, my list included growing GOP support for a VAT, eroding support for open trade, and the leftward shift of the Democratic Party.

Here are five examples of policy defeats in 2017.

  • Illinois tax increase – If there was a contest for bad state fiscal policy, Illinois would be a strong contender. That was true even before 2017. And now that the state legislature rammed through a big tax increase, Illinois is trying even harder to be the nation’s most uncompetitive state.
  • Kansas tax clawback – The big-government wing of the Kansas Republican Party joined forces with Democrats to undo a significant portion of the Brownback tax cuts. Since this was really a fight over whether there would be spending restraint or business-as-usual in Kansas, this was a double defeat.
  • Botched Obamacare repeal – After winning numerous elections by promising to repeal Obamacare, Republicans finally got total control of Washington and then proceeded to produce a bill that repealed only portions. And even that effort flopped. This was a very sad confirmation of my Second Theorem of Government.
  • Failure to control spending – I pointed out early in the year that it would be easy to cut taxes, control spending, and balance the budget. And I did the same thing late in the year. Unfortunately, there is no desire in Washington to restrain the growth of Leviathan. Sooner or later, this is going to generate very bad economic and political developments.
  • Venezuela’s tyrannical regime is still standing – Since I had hoped the awful socialist government would collapse, the fact that nothing has changed in Venezuela counts as bad news. Actually, some things have changed. The economy is getting worse and worse.
  • The Export-Import Bank is still alive – With total GOP control of Washington, one would hope this egregious dispenser of corporate welfare would be gone. Sadly, the swamp is winning this battle.

Tomorrow, I’ll do a new version of my annual hopes-and-fears column.

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When I criticize America’s wretched tax code (now slightly less worse because of the recent tax bill), I generally focus my ire on the politicians who have spent more than 100 years creating an insanely complicated and convoluted system.

The Internal Revenue Service, by contrast, is simply the bureaucracy that is charged with enforcing the code.

But that doesn’t mean the IRS should escape criticism. The bureaucrats have some leeway and that discretion sometimes gets abused. The most glaring example in recent years was the agency’s despicable attempt to tilt the political playing field and influence elections by discriminating against Tea Party groups.

Yet not everyone thinks the IRS misbehaved. The Washington Post actually published an editorial that tries to portray the IRS as a victim. Seriously. I’m not joking.

Conservatives who long sought to restrain the Internal Revenue Service have managed to throw a wrench into an IRS division that is supposed to regulate tax-exempt nonprofits and charities, just at a time when these groups are becoming more partisan and complex. …The number of applications from new charities has exploded in recent years, and the law is a bit of a gray zone — vaguely written and hard to enforce. In recent years, overwhelmed by applications, the…division seems to have lost its will to scrutinize charities. According to Mr. O’Harrow, last year the division rejected just 37 of the 79,582 applications on which it made a final determination. He reported that charities have now begun to recognize they face little or no chance of examination or sanction. The division’s budget has declined from a peak of $102 million in 2011 to $82 million last year. The number of division employees has fallen from 889 to 642.

I have a modest bit of sympathy for the IRS. As the editorial notes, the tax code is “vaguely written and hard to enforce.”

But my solution is to remove IRS discretion. In the long run, that can happen with a simple and fair flat tax that does away with the deduction for charitable contributions and thus removes any need for monitoring and enforcement.

In the short run, the easy answer is that charitable status should be automatic and the 642 bureaucrats should concentrate on finding and punishing nonprofit groups that violate the law.

But here’s the part of the editorial that is delusional.

…the division and its then-leader, Lois Lerner, fell into the crosshairs of the conservative tea party movement for the slow pace of approvals of tea party groups, which they claimed was due to a conspiracy by the Obama administration to target them. Subsequent investigations found mismanagement — the IRS was taking shortcuts and using keywords to deal with the mountain of applications — but not deliberate targeting.

Wow. I wonder if the person who wrote this editorial is ignorant or mendacious. The IRS admitted that it targeted Tea Party groups! The bias was in the keywords.

And that wasn’t even the first time the Post tried to make excuses for the IRS.

Investor’s Business Daily opined on this issue over the summer.

This is one of the most serious abuses of power by a federal agency in decades. That no one really lost a job and no one has been prosecuted for abusing the powers of the federal government to harass groups for their political beliefs — the kind of thing routinely done in places such as Russia and Venezuela, not in the U.S. — is nothing less than shocking. For those who need a reminder and without getting too deep in the weeds, the scandal involves IRS bureaucrats denying tax-exempt status to groups apparently solely due to their conservative political beliefs. This is clearly highly illegal. … the Nonprofit Quarterly…notes that…”Various congressional committees attempted to ferret out what happened and who did it but were stymied by the IRS’ slow responses to records requests and, in some cases, destruction of computer media (that) might have contained important information.” In short, it looks like a classic case of a gross violation of federal law followed by a possibly criminal cover-up. …This is unconscionable behavior by a federal agency that is governed by that very same Constitution.

Amen.

This is why I agreed with George Will about the impeachment of the IRS Commissioner and also argued in favor of budgetary consequences for the agency.

Sadly, the Trump Administration has basically gone to bat for the IRS when it should be pushing for transparency and reform.

By the way, my complaints about the IRS go way beyond the fact that the bureaucrats persecuted the Tea Party.

Let’s look at a recent story about a dodgy contract the IRS recently issued.

The IRS will pay Equifax $7.25 million to verify taxpayer identities and help prevent fraud under a no-bid contract issued last week, even as lawmakers lash the embattled company about a massive security breach that exposed personal information of as many as 145.5 million Americans. A contract award for Equifax’s data services was posted to the Federal Business Opportunities database Sept. 30 — the final day of the fiscal year. …The notice describes the contract as a “sole source order,” meaning Equifax is the only company deemed capable of providing the service.

What mostly bothers me is not that the IRS gave a contract to a company that had just suffered a major data leak. Instead, I’m very suspicious about it being a no-bid contract issued on the last day of the fiscal year.

Sounds like the bureaucrats had some use-it-or-lose-it funds and they decided to screw taxpayers.

And here’s another story that’s worth sharing.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees have backed Democrats over Republicans by 2-1 in their political donations over the last 25 years. Donors listing the IRS as their employer have donated roughly $453,800 to Democratic candidates and causes and $221,400 to Republican candidates and causes since 1990. About one in four of the dollars for Democrats, or roughly $117,500, went to President Barack Obama. But IRS employees since 1990 have also donated $203,000 to the National Treasury Employees Union, which in turn has given about 95 percent of its $6 million in political contributions to Democrats over the last 25 years, OpenSecrets.org data shows. Disclosure of the huge bias among IRS employees for Democrats won’t help an agency under fire for years for illegally targeting conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

To be sure, bureaucrats can give political contributions and remain honest and fair in their dealings with the public.

Nonetheless, I suspect Lois Lerner wasn’t the only partisan hack who tried to interfere with the political process.

Let’s now end where we started. The Washington Post editorial implied that the IRS deserved a bigger budget and more staff so bureaucrats could investigate each application.

I’ve already explained why that’s not the right approach from a compliance perspective, but there’s also a moral argument against further expanding the IRS budget (something Republicans sadly don’t understand).

P.S. The IRS awarded itself “performance bonuses” after the scandal.

P.P.S. I also thought it was remarkable that IRS bureaucrats wanted to be exempt from Obamacare while asking for more money to enforce fines on ordinary people who didn’t sign up.

P.P.P.S. I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here are examples of IRS humor from my archives, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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In 2011, I wrote about how taxpayers were getting pillaged to finance a new metro line in Fairfax County, Virginia.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that California taxpayers are getting screwed even worse.

I’ve since learned, however, that the real experts at wasting money are in the Big Apple. Earlier this year, as part of a column on why the federal government shouldn’t be involved with infrastructure, I shared some depressing details about a far more expensive subway project in New York City.

And now the New York Times has a must-read report about how another big infrastructure project in NYC is an even more absurd boondoggle. The story starts with an anecdote

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there. …“All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

Nice “work” if you can get it, as the old saying goes. A pretend job that pays $1,000 per day.

That makes the gravy train for federal bureaucrats seem miserly by comparison.

Unfortunately, that anecdote is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire project is a monument to how money gets wasted in New York City.

The estimated cost of the Long Island Rail Road project, known as “East Side Access,” has ballooned to $12 billion, or nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track — seven times the average elsewhere in the world. …a host of factors have contributed to the transit authority’s exorbitant capital costs. …public officials have stood by as a small group of politically connected labor unions, construction companies and consulting firms have amassed large profits.

In other words, the story’s headline is no exaggeration.

The special deals for unions are jaw-dropping.

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show. …Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

The featherbedding belies belief.

Mr. Roach, a California-based tunneling contractor, was…stunned by how many people were operating the machine churning through soil to create the tunnel. “I actually started counting because I was so surprised, and I counted 25 or 26 people,” he said. “That’s three times what I’m used to.” …documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. …In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on…many similar projects around the world.

The international cost comparisons are the most persuasive part of the story.

Taxpayers in New York City are paying far more to get far less.

…transit construction is booming around the world. At least 150 projects have been initiated since 1990, according to a recent study by Yale University researcher David Schleicher. The approximate average cost of the projects — both in the U.S. and abroad — has been less than $500 million per track mile, the study concluded. “There was one glaring exception,” Mr. Schleicher said. “New York.”

If you want a partial explanation of why this staggering level of graft and corruption is allowed, this sentence is a good place to start.

The unions working on M.T.A. projects have donated more than $1 million combined to Mr. Cuomo during his administration, records show.

And I’m sure huge amounts of money have also been diverted to city politicians as well.

It’s almost as if the whole thing is a racket, with politicians and union bosses conspiring to rip off taxpayers.

“Almost”? I must be getting soft in my old age. Let me rephrase that sentence: It is a racket to rip off taxpayers.

But let’s be fair. I don’t want to imply that it’s all the fault of the unions. The contractors also buy off the politicians.

…the…main engineering firm: WSP USA, …has donated hundreds of thousands to politicians in recent years, and has hired so many transit officials that some in the system refer to it as “the M.T.A. retirement home.”

Speaking of the M.T.A., the bureaucrats also get a sweet deal, with the rest of us picking up the tab.

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. …A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010.

There’s a lot more to read in the article, including details on how a big French infrastructure project is being built at far lower cost.

It’s basically a perfect example of what Milton Friedman said about what happens when you get to spend other people’s money.

For instance, the story also has grim data about cost overruns, which are a routine feature of government infrastructure scams, both in America and other nations.

But one thing that isn’t in the report is the degree to which Washington is subsidizing this wretched boondoggle.

This is the part that irks me. I wouldn’t get too upset if New York City politicians were conspiring with interest groups to rip off New York City taxpayers. Heck, I wouldn’t even care if they were ripping off taxpayers from elsewhere in the state.

But the fact that I’m also paying for this pork-barrel project is very distressing. And it helps to explain why I want to shut down the Department of Transportation in Washington. That’s the real moral of this story.

P.S. Trump’s infrastructure plan will be unveiled next year. I’m not overflowing with optimism, but hope springs eternal that maybe he’ll listen to my advice.

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The right kind of tax reform can help people directly and indirectly.

  • They benefit directly if reform reduces their tax burden and gives them more take-home income.
  • They benefit indirectly if reform increases growth and leads to additional pre-tax income.

For what it’s worth, I think the indirect impact is most important for family finances, and I discussed the potential benefits of faster growth in this recent interview on Fox Business.

But for today’s column, I want to focus on the final portion of the interview, when I pontificated on how limiting the state and local tax deduction is going to motivate some successful taxpayers to “vote with their  feet” and therefore put additional pressure on high-tax states.

And if we get lower tax rates at the state level, we can include that outcome as another indirect benefit of federal tax reform.

I’m leery of predictions, but I think this will happen. The bottom line is that high-income taxpayers – even before tax reform from Washington – have been escaping from states such as Illinois and California. Here are some fun facts from a recent column in National Review based on IRS data.

Last month, the Internal Revenue Service released the latest tax and migration numbers for 2015 and 2016. …the latest figures show that Florida is seeing an overwhelming influx of taxpayers from other states. In 2015 and 2016, the Sunshine State attracted a staggering net inflow of $17.4 billion in adjusted gross incomes. …the IRS is able to break down new residents by age groups. During the 2015–16 reporting period, nearly 70,000 tax filers between the ages of 26 and 35 moved into the state. That age group accounted for the biggest influx of new Florida residents, over ten thousand more than the 55-and-over category. …The states that lost the most net taxpayers in both dollar and percentage terms relative to their existing tax bases are Connecticut (–$2.7 billion) and New York (–$8.8 billion). What does this tell us? …the size of a state’s government matters. Florida’s per capita state spending is the lowest in the country… Connecticut, meanwhile, has the eighth highest per capita state spending, and New York ranks 15th. …New York has the second heaviest aggregate tax burden of any state, while Florida’s is the fourth lightest.

The Daily Caller combed through some new data from the Census Bureau.

Three Democratic-leaning states hemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of people in 2016 and 2017 as crime, high taxes and, in some cases, crummy weather had residents seeking greener pastures elsewhere. The exodus of residents was most pronounced in New York, which saw about 190,000 people leave the state between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last week. …Illinois lost so many residents that it dropped from the fifth to the sixth-most populous state in 2017, losing its previous spot to Pennsylvania. Just under 115,000 Illinois residents decamped for other states between July 2016 and July 2017. Since 2010, the Land of Lincoln has lost about 650,000 residents to other states on net… Illinois’ Democratic-dominated legislature has tried to ameliorate the situation with tax hikes, causing even more people to leave and throwing the state into a demographic spiral. Illinois experiences a net loss of about 33,000 residents in 2016, the fourth consecutive year of population decline. …California was the third deep blue state to experience significant domestic out-migration between July 2016 and July 2017, and it couldn’t blame the outflow on retirees searching for a more agreeable climate. About 138,000 residents left the state during that time period, second only to New York.

Even the establishment media is noticing.

Here are excerpts from a recent report in the Mercury News.

A growing number of Bay Area residents — besieged by home prices, worsening traffic, high taxes and a generally more expensive cost of living — believe life would be better just about anywhere else but here. During the 12 months ending June 30, the number of people leaving California for another state exceeded by 61,100 the number who moved here from elsewhere in the U.S., according to state Finance Department statistics. The so-called “net outward migration” was the largest since 2011, when 63,300 more people fled California than entered. …”They are tired of the state of California and the endless taxes here,” said Scott McElfresh, a certified moving consultant. “People are getting soaked every time they turn around.”

And now that state and local taxes will no longer be fully deductible, this out-migration is going to accelerate. Which, of course, will mean added pressure for lower tax rates in states like New York and California. And New Jersey, Illinois, and Connecticut.

Here are some excerpts from a story from Yahoo Finance.

Wall Street tax expert Robert Willens, president of Robert Willens LLC, has never heard more discussion from wealthy New Yorkers about relocating to another state with a more favorable tax environment until now because of the GOP tax plan. “Everybody I speak to brings this up. Every NYC resident I speak to asks about the feasibility involved in doing it,” Willens, who regularly advises hedge fund clients on tax matters as it relates to investing, told Yahoo Finance. “I’ve been doing this more than 40 years, and never heard more discussion about relocating than recently.” …“He believes it will devastate NY (and, to a lesser extent, CA), primarily by ending or severely limiting the deduction of the very high state and local taxes. He estimated that his tax rate (and others [similarly] situated) will go from mid-30% to 56%, which will trigger a massive exodus from NY to places like Florida, which will crush the NYC (and therefore state) economy.” …Kelly Smallridge, the president and CEO of Palm Beach County’s Business Development Board, has seen an uptick in activity from CEOs looking to explore Florida since there’s no state tax on personal income. …The move from the northeast to Florida has been somewhat of a trend in recent years. In the last five years, 60 financial services firms have relocated to the Palm Beach area, Smallridge noted.

If you want to know what states are most vulnerable, the Tax Foundation’s map of state income tax burdens is a good place to start. Also, the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index is another measure of which states over-tax their citizens.

And here’s a survey of small business sentiment that shows which states are viewed as having unfriendly tax codes. Green is good and orange is bad.

And it’s also worth reviewing the evidence that already exists for tax-motivated migration.

Here’s a map showing the entire country and here’s a map showing the exodus from California.

Let’s close with this amusing cartoon strip.

Very clever. Sort of reminds me of these two cartoons (here and here) on the economic rivalry between Texas and California.

P.S. The folks at Redpanels, by the way, also have produced great cartoons on Keynesian economics, communism, the minimum wagebasic income, and infrastructure.

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I’ve written that it’s theoretically possible for Greece to pay its debts and restore prosperity.

After all, it’s simply a matter of obeying fiscal policy’s Golden Rule and reforming a suffocating tax system.

But I’ve always figured none of that will happen because Greek voters would never vote for a government that favors Reagan-style or Thatcher-style economic reforms.

Simply stated, there are too may Greek people living off the state. But that’s just part of the problem. An even bigger obstacle to reform is that the people have decided that it’s morally acceptable to mooch off the government.

As a result, I’ve assumed that Greece has passed a tipping point because the moral foundation of Greek society has been corroded by dependency. And it’s very difficult to put that toothpaste back in the tube.

But maybe I’ve been wrong. Courtesy of the great people at the Atlas Network, here’s some remarkable polling data from Greece.

…the people may finally be fed up with big government, runaway spending, public-sector corruption, and job-killing regulations. A recent in-depth survey, published by the daily Kathimerini newspaper and the new think tank Dianeosis, reveals that Greek society seems to be experiencing an ideological sea change.

On a philosophical level, Greeks seem to be embracing the principles of classical liberalism.

In Greece, the term “liberalism” retains its classical meaning of support for individual liberty, free markets, and social tolerance. The latest finding from the Dianeosis poll shows that 27 percent of respondents identify as either liberal or neoliberal, together making the largest ideological group for the country’s overall population. These ideas have taken even stronger hold among the rising generation, with an astonishing 50 percent of Greek youth identifying as either liberals or neoliberals.

And this translates into greater support for small-government policies.

About 60 percent agree that government is intervening too much in economic matters, and thereby prevents the private sector from creating jobs and wealth.

Here’s some of the relevant polling data.

It’s also encouraging to see that there was movement in the right direction between April 2015 and December 2016.

On a policy level, the Greeks now seem to recognize that the state is too big.

Even more telling is that the majority of Greeks, 55 percent, believe that lower taxation is preferable even if that results in less government welfare. This finding is particularly important because two years ago only 39.2 percent agreed with that statement.

Here are those numbers from the survey.

The last bit of good news from the survey is that Greeks have positive feelings about market-oriented terms.

Greeks today also seem to show overwhelming support for many fundamental concepts of the free-market tradition. About 73 percent agreed that “markets” have a positive connotation…a primary reason for this turn toward free markets is that the government regimes in Greece have clearly failed, thereby tainting their devotion to destructive statism and populism. This has caused many Greeks to consider economic freedom as a viable solution for the country’s devastating problems.

On the other hand, the country they most want to mimic is Sweden.

And it’s not even close (though I wonder if this chart would look different if Switzerland and Hong Kong were options).

You may be wondering (like me) how the Greeks can tell pollsters they want smaller government while simultaneously picking Sweden as a role model?

The pessimistic answer is that Greeks don’t know what they’re talking about. Or maybe they are hypocrites, willing to pay lip service to economic liberty but ultimately yearning for a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

The optimistic answer is that Sweden actually is a pretty good role model.

Check out this comparison of Greece and Sweden, based on data from Economic Freedom of the World. Sweden is ranked #27, which is in the top-20 percent of nations for economic liberty. Greece, by contrast, is way down at #116.

Yes, both countries have terrible fiscal policy, but it turns out that Sweden is very market-oriented in areas like money, trade, regulation, and rule of law. And even though it still has a long way to go, Sweden significantly improved fiscal policy in the 1990s and has even enjoyed some modest improvement in recent years.

That’s definitely not the case in Greece.

In other words, I certainly don’t mind if Swedish policy is the short-run goal for Greek voters. If they ever get to that point, then I’ll try to convince them to go the Full Hong Kong.

P.S. In the real world, are there any examples of countries that have escaped statism and enjoyed something akin to a Greece-to-Sweden jump in economic liberty?

The answer is yes. Chile would be an obvious example, as would certain post-Soviet Bloc nations such as Estonia.

It would be great to add Greece to the collection.

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I expressed approval when Trump proposed to reduce U.S. funding for international bureaucracies, mostly because of my disdain for the statist policy agenda of the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Sadly, there’s has not been much follow-through by the White House, and it looks like Congress isn’t going to cut either the funding or the authority of these bloated institutions. And that means they will continue to advocate for class-warfare tax policy and bigger government.

But, as reported by AFP, some seeds were planted early in the year that may eventually save money for taxpayers.

…a draft executive order…prepared at the White House could deprive the United Nations of billions of dollars in US financial support. The United States is by far the UN’s biggest financial contributor, providing 22 percent of its operating budget and funding 28 percent of peacekeeping missions, which currently cost $7.8 billion annually. …The Trump administration is proposing a 40 percent cut in some US funding, according to the draft executive order titled “Auditing and Reducing US Funding of International Organizations.”

And it appears that some of the seeds germinated. According to the Associated Press, steps are being taken to reduce the fiscal burden of the United Nations.

The U.S. government says it has negotiated a significant cut in the United Nations budget. The U.S. Mission to the United Nations said on Sunday that the U.N.’s 2018-2019 budget would be slashed by over $285 million. The mission said reductions would also be made to the U.N.’s management and support functions. The announcement didn’t make clear the entire amount of the budget or specify what effect the cut would have on the U.S. contribution. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that the “inefficiency and overspending” of the organization is well-known, and she would not let “the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of.”

By the way, “nicked” or “trimmed” would be more accurate than “slashed.”

Nonetheless, at least it’s a small step in the right direction.

And the recent U.N. vote against the U.S. may lead to additional budgetary savings, as explained in the Wall Street Journal by John Bolton, a former ambassador from the United States to that bureaucracy.

…the U.N. showed its true colors with a 128-9 vote condemning President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. …America is heard much more clearly at the U.N. when it puts its money where its mouth is. …the White House should also reconsider how Washington funds the U.N. more broadly. …Despite decades of U.N. “reform” efforts, little or nothing in its culture or effectiveness has changed. …Turtle Bay has been impervious to reform largely because most U.N. budgets are financed through effectively mandatory contributions. Under this system, calculated by a “capacity to pay” formula, each U.N. member is assigned a fixed percentage of each agency’s budget to contribute. The highest assessment is 22%, paid by the U.S. This far exceeds other major economies… The U.S. should reject this international taxation regime and move instead to voluntary contributions. This means paying only for what the country wants—and expecting to get what it pays for. Agencies failing to deliver will see their budgets cut, modestly or substantially. Perhaps America will depart some organizations entirely.

Bolton has some targets in mind.

…earlier this year the U.N. dispatched a special rapporteur to investigate poverty in the U.S.? American taxpayers effectively paid a progressive professor to lecture them about how evil their country is. The U.N.’s five regional economic and social councils, which have no concrete accomplishments, don’t deserve American funding either. …Next come vast swaths of U.N. bureaucracy. Most of these budgets could be slashed with little or no real-world impact. Start with the Office for Disarmament Affairs. The U.N. Development Program is another example. Significant savings could be realized by reducing other U.N. offices that are little more than self-licking ice cream cones, including many dealing with “Palestinian” questions. …Thus could Mr. Trump revolutionize the U.N. system. The swamp in Turtle Bay might be drained much more quickly than the one in Washington.

And Rich Lowry of National Review didn’t even wait for the latest controversy.

Here are some excerpts from a column he wrote in late 2016.

We are the chief funder of a swollen, unaccountable U.N. apparatus that has been a gross disappointment for more than 70 years now. …As early as 1947, a U.S. Senate committee flagged “serious problems of overlap, duplication of effort, weak coordination, proliferating mandates and programs, and overly generous compensation of staff within the infant, but rapidly growing, UN system.” And those were the early, lean years. We pay more than anyone else to keep the U.N. in business, about 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget. …Because nothing involving the U.N. is clean or straightforward, it’s hard to even know how much the U.S. pays in total into the U.N. system. But it’s probably around $8 billion a year. We should withhold some significant portion of it.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the United Nations is better (less worse?) than the OECD or IMF.

But that’s mostly because it doesn’t have much power. When it does try to intervene in policy (global warming and gun control, for instance, as well as the Internet, the War on Drugs, monetary policy, and taxpayer-financed birth control), the U.N. inevitably urges more power and control for government.

If you think I’m exaggerating about a statist mindset at the United Nations, check out this jaw-dropping tweet from a high-level bureaucrat.

Wow. Before capitalism, as explained in videos by Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux, human existence was characterized by grinding poverty. But once free markets were unleashed, the world has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity.

Yet this liberating and enriching system is “an urgent threat” according to the United Nations.

Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if the bureaucrat who sent out this tweet instead focused on hellholes where the free market is suppressed and persecuted – such as Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Cuba?

My friend Walter Williams perhaps has the best response to the U.N.’s vapid sentiment (h/t: libertarian Reddit).

Others share my concern, as illustrated by this passage from a column in the U.K.-based Daily Telegraph.

Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, a campaign group, called this a “loony tweet”, adding: “While millions of people are suffering from genocide, sexual slavery and starvation, it is far from clear why the UN would instead focus its attention on unidentifiable ‘urgent threats’, let alone on economic subjects about which it has neither competence nor expertise.” Mr Neuer pointed out that socialist economics had brought misery to Venezuela without drawing similar criticism from the UN. “The same UN human rights office has failed to issue a single tweet about this past month’s dire human rights crisis in Venezuela, where millions face mass hunger in part due to attacks on the free market,” he said.

Let’s look at other examples of U.N. statism.

For example, the bureaucrats are inserting themselves in American racial issues.

The history of slavery in the United States justifies reparations for African Americans, argues a recent report by a U.N.-affiliated group based in Geneva. …The group of experts, which includes leading human rights lawyers from around the world, presented its findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, pointing to the continuing link between present injustices and the dark chapters of American history. “In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” the report stated. …The reparations could come in a variety of forms, according to the panel, including “a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities … psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.”

By the way, I’m fine with a formal apology (assuming one hasn’t already been issued). Slavery is a stain on American history, after all.

And I’d be delighted to see a massive school choice initiative, which would benefit students from all backgrounds, but I strongly suspect black kids would disproportionately gain.

I fear, though, that the U.N. panel is primarily interested in “financial support,” which is simply a euphemism for a bigger welfare state. And since the current welfare state already has caused great damage to the black community, making it even bigger would be very ill-advised.

Here’s another example of bizarre policy from a division of the United Nations. The bureaucrats at the World Health Organization want to classify the absence of a sexual partner as a disability.

…the World Health Organisation will change the standard to suggest that a person who is unable to find a suitable sexual partner or is lacking a sexual relationship to have children – will now be equally classified as disabled. WHO says the change will give every individual “the right to reproduce”. …Gareth Johnson MP, former chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Infertility, whose own children were born thanks to fertility treatment, said: “I’m in general a supporter of IVF. But I’ve never regarded infertility as a disability or a disease but rather a medical matter. …Dr David Adamson, an author of the new standards, argued…”It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change. …It sets an international legal standard. Countries are bound by it.”

Hey, I’m had many tragic periods of celibacy in my life and I never even got a handicapped parking sticker!

More seriously, I have great sympathy for people with fertility issues. Not only because I have empathy for them, but also because of my concerns about demographic decline.

But there’s a big difference between saying that people have a right to try to have children and the U.N.’s assertion that others are obliged to help people have children.

It doesn’t help that the U.N. newest top bureaucrat has a very dismal track record.

Here are some of the grim details from Claudia Rosett.

…former Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Guterres…brings to the job a record that suggests he is a perfect fit to head a UN that is prone to overreach, mismanagement, waste, fraud, abuse and government meddling in every aspect of life — provided we all want even more of the same. …Guterres also served as president of the Socialist International, from 1999-2005… From 2005-2015, Guterres served as high commissioner of the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR)… That sounds great, except the UN’s own auditors…issued an audit report identifying a series of “critical” lapses by the UNHCR under Guterres’s management. …If that’s how Guterres managed — or mismanaged — a single UN agency while running it for more than a decade, is it likely he will do a better job as secretary-general? …we get a longtime socialist with a record of managerial incompetence, heading a multi-billion dollar, diplomatically immune, opaque, globe-girdling organization funded with billions of other people’s money (America, which bankrolls roughly one-quarter of the UN system with your tax dollars, being the largest contributor). What could go wrong?

The answer to Claudia’s question is that we’ll probably get business as usual.

And since that means more waste and more advocacy of bad policy, that’s unfortunate news for taxpayers all over the world.

So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Trump Administration does the right thing and puts the U.N. on a diet.

Let’s close with some humor. Here’s a Jeff MacNelly cartoon, presumably from way back in the 1970s.

P.S. In my experience, many U.N. officials and bureaucrats are smart, well-meaning people. But as I noted during a trip to Switzerland back in 2009, it would be much better if they were in the private sector where their skills and abilities could be used for expanding prosperity.

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Over the years, I’ve shared examples of a politically correct Christmas, several versions of a TSA Christmas (here, here, and here), a couple of versions of The Night Before Christmas (here and here), and even a story of Santa Claus getting busted by the IRS.

But one of my favorites is the poster asking whether Santa Claus is on the left or on right.

Is he more like Bernie Sanders because he “gives out lots of free stuff”?

Or is he more like Paul Ryan because he “is a maker, not a taker”?

Amusing, but it’s time to take this this to the next level. Right or left is too mainstream. Let’s ask the more fundamental question: Is Christmas a Marxist holiday or a Randian holiday ?

We’ll start with the first option. Here’s a cartoon strip that would make Karl Marx smile.

Now let’s look at some Christmas spirit from Ayn Rand.

There are 21 satirical Randian Christmas cards to choose from. Here are the two that I found most amusing.

And…

Ouch. While I’m a fan of Atlas Shrugged and think Rand was a net plus for the cause of liberty, I’m not a Randian and these quotes are a good example of why her philosophy of objectivism leaves something to be desired.

But this isn’t a day for serious discussion.

So I’ll close by linking to some clever Obama-era Christmas cartoons (here, here, and here).

And this one-liner from Jay Leno is always worth a chuckle.

Last but not least, here’s a cartoon video showing what would happen if Obama ran the North Pole and another video with Santa grousing about unhelpful policies from Washington.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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