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Archive for March, 2018

Ever since there was a deal to bust the budget caps back in February, I knew it was just a matter of time before Congress and the White House responded with an odious orgy of new spending.

Some people told me I was being too pessimistic.

After all, the President’s Office of Management and Budget has a big banner on the budget webpage. It boldly states that President Trump is going to “reverse the trend of rising government spending.”

But I’ve learned to discount the rhetoric of politicians. It’s more important to look at the actual budget numbers in legislation that the President signs into law.

And that’s what Trump did yesterday, giving his approval to a bill that funds the parts of the budget included in annual appropriations.

So did he “reverse the trend”?

The good news is that the answer is yes. But the bad news is that he reversed the trend by increasing spending faster than Obama.

I’m not joking. Courtesy of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, here are the year-over-year numbers for various parts of the bill.* This table tells you everything you need to know about the grotesque recklessness of Washington.

An overall increase of 12.9 percent!

But maybe spending is climbing so rapidly because the cost of living has suddenly jumped?

Nope, that’s not an excuse. The CRFB put together a list of the major inflation projections. As you can see, there’s not the slightest sign of a spike in prices in either 2018 or 2019.

Indeed, it turns out that the Republican Congress and the Republican President decided to increase spending six times faster than needed to keep pace with inflation. Six times.

Yes, we can definitely say the spending trend has been reversed. Just not in a good way.

So who should be blamed, congressional Republicans or Trump?

The simple answer is both.

Trump is responsible because he could veto budget-busting bills. All he would need to do is tell the crowd on Capitol Hill that he is perfectly happy to close down the non-essential parts of the federal government until he gets some responsible legislation. Sooner or later, the pro-spending crowd would have to cave.

That being said, congressional GOPers also deserve blame. It’s a failure by the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee who are motivated by a desire to spend the maximum amount of money. It’s a failure of GOP leadership for not removing members from that Committee if they don’t agree to some level of spending restraint. It’s also a failure of leadership that they don’t get conservatives and moderates in a room and hammer out a common approach that would restrain the growth of Leviathan. And it’s a failure of the individual Senators and Representatives for not upholding the Constitution and not doing what’s right for the country.

But this also brings me back to Trump. If the President credibly drew a line in the sand and said “I’ll veto any spending bill that is over X”, that would change behavior on Capitol Hill. But Members of Congress believe (correctly, it seems) that Trump has no interest in fiscal restraint. So without any leadership from the White House, you get an every-man-for-himself, grab-as-much-pork-as-you-can attitude among lawmakers that makes it virtually impossible for leadership to pursue an effective strategy.

The net result is that politicians win, the special interests win, and the bureaucracy wins.

And who loses? Well, look in the mirror for the answer.

*The data in the CRFB table is for “budget authority” rather than “budget outlays.” These are closely related concepts, but technically different. When Congress approves “budget authority,” it is basically giving money to an agency. When the agencies then spend the money, it is “budget outlays.”

P.S. I’m a big fan of spending caps, but I confess that they aren’t very helpful if politicians simply change the law whenever they want more spending. The ultimate answer is to have constitutional spending limits, like Switzerland and Hong Kong, but amending the Constitution is hardly as easy task. So my best guess is that we’ll become Greece at some point.

P.P.S. Some people tell me not to worry because the real problem is entitlement spending rather than appropriated spending. They’re right that entitlements are the biggest long-run problem. But I point out that if GOPers aren’t willing to tackle the low-hanging fruit of pork-filled appropriations, that doesn’t fill me with optimism that they will ever adopt genuine entitlement reform.

P.P.P.S. The same people also claim that at least Republicans will hold the line on taxes. I think they’re hallucinating. If we don’t get control of spending, sooner or later we’ll get massive tax hikes. Which will make our fiscal problems worse, needless to say. But that’s our grim future because of GOP irresponsibility today.

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One of the key principles of a free society is that governmental power should be limited by national borders.

Here’s an easy-to-understand example. Gambling is basically illegal (other than government-run lottery scams, of course) in my home state of Virginia. So they can arrest me (or maybe even shoot me) if I gamble in the Old Dominion.

I think that’s bad policy, but it would be far worse if Virginia politicians also asserted extraterritorial powers and said they could arrest me because I put a dollar in a slot machine during my last trip to Las Vegas.

And if Virginia politicians tried to impose such an absurd policy, I certainly would hope and expect that Nevada authorities wouldn’t provide any assistance.

This same principle applies (or should apply) to taxation policy, both globally and nationally.

On a global level, I’m a big supporter of so-called tax havens. I’m glad when places with pro-growth tax policy attract jobs and capital from high-tax nations. This process of tax competition rewards good policy and punishes bad policy. Moreover, I don’t think those low-tax jurisdictions should be under any obligation to enforce the bad tax laws of uncompetitive countries.

There’s a very similar debate inside America. Some states – particularly those with punitive sales taxes – want to force merchants in other states to be deputy tax enforcers.

I’ve written about this topic and I think even my writings from 2009 and 2010 are still completely relevant. But let’s check some other sources, starting with a column in the Wall Street Journal. It’s from 2016, but the issue hasn’t changed.

The state of Alabama is openly defying the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to squeeze millions of dollars of tax revenue from businesses beyond its borders. …This unconstitutional tax grab cuts to the heart of the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate trade “among the several States.” Alabama’s regulation directly contravenes the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Quill v. North Dakota. In that case, the court held that North Dakota could not require an out-of-state office-supply company to collect sales taxes because the firm had no offices or employees there. …Alabama’s revenue commissioner, Julie Magee, is putting forward an untested and suspect legal theory: The state claims that if its residents buy more than $250,000 a year from a remote business, then the seller has an “economic presence”… There are around 10,000 sales-tax jurisdictions in the U.S., with varying rates, rules and holidays, and different definitions of what is taxable. Keeping track of this ever-changing patchwork is a burden, and forcing retailers to scramble to comply would profoundly hinder interstate commerce in the Internet age.

And here are some excerpts from a column published that same year by Fortune.

When politicians call for “fairness,” it’s important to take a closer look at their definition of fair. See, for example, the nationwide push in state capitols to slap online sales taxes on out-of-state retailers—a simple tax grab… states are constitutionally prohibited from collecting sales taxes from retailers that have no presence within their borders…thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota… Any national online sales-tax system will burden online retailers to a degree never felt by brick-and-mortar businesses. Local businesses only have to deal with a limited number of sales taxes—usually only the state, county, and local levies that apply to specific stores. Online retailers, on the other hand, would have to calculate and apply sales taxes across the entire nation—and roughly 10,000 jurisdictions have such taxes. Complying with this convoluted system would necessarily raise costs for consumers and stifle competition.

And the debate continues this year. The Wall Street Journal editorialized against extraterritorial state taxing last week.

A large faction of House Republicans are pressing GOP leaders to attach legislation to the omnibus spending bill that would let states collect sales tax from remote online retailers. South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem’s legislation…would let some 12,000 jurisdictions conscript out-of-state retailers into collecting sales and use taxes from their customers. …Contrary to political lore, sales tax revenues have been increasing steadily in states with healthy economies. Over the past five years, Florida’s sales tax revenues have grown 27%. South Dakota’s are up by nearly 30% since 2013. …Twenty or so states have adopted “click-through” taxes to hit remote retailers that have contracts with local businesses. In 2016 South Dakota invited the High Court to revisit Quillby extending its sales tax to out-of-state sellers. …the Court could enable broader taxation and regulation of out-of-state businesses. This is what many states want to happen. …Raising taxes on small business and consumers won’t be a good look for Republicans in November, nor an inducement for investment and growth.

Jeff Jacoby also just wrote on this topic for his column in the Boston Globe.

First, the flow of interstate commerce must not be impeded by one state’s impositions. And second, there should be no taxation without representation; vendors should not be liable for taxes in states where they have no vote or political recourse. The Supreme Court upheld this “physical connection” standard in a 1992 case, Quill v. North Dakota. …the high court should reaffirm it. In the 26 years since the justices rebuffed North Dakota’s claim, the case against allowing states to exert their taxing power over remote sellers has grown even stronger. …there are now 12,000 taxing jurisdictions — not only states, counties, and cities, but also parishes, police districts, and Indian reservations. A lone online seller, unprotected by the Quill rule, could be obliged to remit taxes to any combination of them, with all their multitudinous rules and definitions, tax holidays and filing deadlines. …South Dakota can impose onerous burdens on companies operating within its borders, but not on vendors whose only connection to the state is that some of their customers happen to live there. The court got it right the first time. No merchant — whether selling online, via mail order, or in a traditional shop — is obliged to be a tax collector for states it doesn’t operate in.

And here are some passages from Jessica Melugin’s article for FEE. She makes the key point that extraterritorial tax powers would undermine – if not cripple – the liberalizing impact of tax competition.

…the Remote Transactions Parity Act (RTPA)…seeks to get rid of that physical presence limit on state taxing powers. It would let states reach outside their geographical borders and compel another state’s business to calculate, collect, and remit to that first state. …the long-term effect is that this arrangement will lessen the downward pressure on taxes between jurisdictions. Think of it like this: it’s the difference between driving your car across the D.C. border to Virginia to fill up with lower Virginia gas taxes—that’s how it works now and that’s what keeps at least some downward pressure on D.C. tax rates. If D.C. made the rate high enough, everyone would exit and fill up in Virginia. But if the approach in the RTPA is applied to this thought experiment, it would mean that when you pull into that Virginia gas station, they look at your D.C. plates and charge you the D.C. gas tax rate. …it’s a makeshift tax cartel among the states. …the RTPA is a small-business killer—which is why big box retailers support it. It crushes small competitors with compliance costs. State politicians are for it because they’d rather tax sellers in other states who can’t vote them out of office. Consumers will be left with less money in their pockets and fewer choices.

By the way, there are some pro-market people on the other side. Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute has written in favor of extraterritorial taxation.

…lawmakers have proposed legislation to allow (not require) states to collect sales tax on goods purchased from out-of-state sellers. …critics of this legislation…argue that “internet freedom is under attack by politicians willing to distort markets and tilt the playing field toward their favored businesses.” Internet freedom is certainly not being “attacked” by a policy to improve enforcement of existing tax liability. Second, these critics oppose the legislative reform based on the belief that just because the internet benefits people, online retail activities should be advantaged by public policy. If public finance were based on this type of specious logic, we would have a tax code far more unfair and distorted than it currently is.

I actually agree with both of his arguments. Giving states extraterritorial tax powers isn’t an attack on the Internet. And I also agree that tax policy shouldn’t provide special preferences.

But neither of his points address my concern that extraterritorial tax powers give too much power to governments and undermine tax competition.

Unless he’s going to argue that Nevada’s no-income-tax status is “distorted” compared to California’s punitive system. Or unless he’s going to argue that Delaware’s no-sales-tax status is “unfair” compared to New Jersey’s onerous system.

For more information, here’s my speech to congressional staffers from 2012.

P.S. For folks who like technical details, this fight is not about Internet taxation. It’s a battle between “origin-based” taxation (basically territorial taxation) and “destination-based” taxation (basically worldwide or extraterritorial taxation). I favor the former and oppose the latter, which helps to explain my opposition to the border-adjustment tax and the value-added tax.

P.P.S. I was afraid that congressional leaders would attach a provision to the new spending bill that would allow extraterritorial taxation by states. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. So the “omnibus” plan is a pork-filled affront to fiscal sanity, but at least it’s not a state-goverment-empowering, pork-filled affront to fiscal sanity.

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In last year’s French presidential election between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, I joked that voters should choose the socialist over the socialist, but made a serious point that Macron – despite having been part of Hollande’s disastrous government – was preferable since there was at least a hope of market-oriented reform.

…the chance of Macron being good are greater than zero. After all, it was the left-wing parties that started the process of pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand. And it was a Social Democrat government in Germany that enacted the labor-market reforms that have been so beneficial for that nation.

And after Macron won the election, I reviewed some of his initiatives to restrain government, including plans to reduce the burden of government spending, lower France’s corporate tax rate, and to shrink the size of the bureaucracy.

His ideas sounded so good that I wrote – only partly in jest – that “I wish the Republicans in Washington were as sensible as these French socialists.”

We’re not quite to the one-year anniversary of his election, but let’s take a look at Macron’s track record. And we’ll start with a very encouraging report from the New York Times.

…if France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, has made one thing clear, it is that he is not afraid to shake up France and take on its venerable institutions. Now it is the turn of the heavily subsidized and deeply indebted French rail system. Mr. Macron says he wants to erase the railway workers’ special status, which gives them more generous benefits than almost any other workers, including a guarantee of early retirement. In doing so, he has set himself a new and formidable challenge in his expanding campaign to reshape France’s society and economy, which started last year with a law that made it easier for private companies to hire and fire workers, a near revolution for France.

Macron has a difficult task.

…the railway workers are a public-sector work force, one of the most powerful in the country, with a chokehold on as many as five million riders daily. When they go on strike, the whole country feels it. …rail unions have already pledged to join a strike by public-sector employees planned for Thursday… The rail workers then plan weeks of strikes starting in April that will be staged on a rolling basis.

Here’s some of what Macron wants to fix.

French rail workers’ current, ample benefits — including in some cases, the option of retiring at 52 — date to the first half of the 20th century, when many railway jobs involved hard, physical labor… Mr. Macron…to push for a broader overhaul that, for new hires, would end advantages like guaranteed jobs, automatic pay raises and generous social security benefits. …The French rail system is both heavily subsidized and deeply in debt, to the tune of 55 billion euros, or about $68 billion.

And if the French President succeeds, there are other reforms on the horizon.

Mr. Macron has pledged to follow the railway plan with an overhaul of the unemployment system later in the year. Next year he intends to take on the French pension system. …changing the employment terms for railway workers appears to be part of a larger crusade to push French workers into the 21st century.

Good. Similar reforms were very beneficial for German workers and the German economy, so I’m sure Macron’s proposals will produce good results in France.

Writing last October for CapX, Diego Zuluaga expressed optimism about Macron’s agenda.

…it is the French government that is tackling the big barriers to growth and dynamism that have stifled their economy since 1975. …Emmanuel Macron…has vowed to attack this status quo. He aims to deconstruct the onerous French labour market law, the infamous Code du travail. This is a 1,600-page, 10,000-article gargantuan piece of legislation which is blamed for clobbering employment in France over the past 25 years. …Macron may be able to deliver considerable reforms when it comes to the labour market. His cabinet intends to move a larger share of collective bargaining to the firm level, remove the requirement of union representation for small- and medium-sized businesses, limit severance pay – right now it averages €24,000 per dismissal – to give employers greater certainty about the costs of hiring… Spain reformed its dysfunctional hiring and firing regulations in 2012, and robust employment growth followed. Now, it is long-ossified France that is taking up the baton.

If you stopped reading at this point, you might conclude that Macron is a French version of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

But that would be a considerable exaggeration. The French President also is pushing some questionable policies, such as higher taxes on luxury goods. But, in Macron’s defense, those class-warfare taxes are an offset for the abolition of the wealth tax, which was a very good reform.

Emmanuel Macron’s administration will propose a tax on luxury yachts, supercars and precious metals in France’s 2018 budget. Lawmakers will propose amendments after critics attacked the President’s move to scrap the wealth tax in France. Mr Macron abolished the tax, which has been seen as a symbol of social justice for the left but blamed by others for driving thousands of millionaires abroad. …The wealth tax, introduced by the Socialists in the 1980s, was levied on individuals with assets above 1.3 million euros (£1.2 million).

Since I’m not familiar with the details (i.e., do these changes result in a revenue-neutral shift, a net tax cut, or a net tax increase?), there’s no way to determine if swapping the wealth tax for luxury taxes is a net positive or a negative. Though I assume the overall effect is positive because wealth taxes are a very bad idea and luxury taxes, while self-destructive, generally are futile.

But this doesn’t let Macron off the hook. Even if we decide that he’s a pro-market reformer inside his country, he has a very bad habit of promoting statism at the European level.

The Wall Street Journal opined unfavorably last year on his plan for greater centralization.

…the French President issued a call for more, more and more Europe. …His EU would be responsible for many of the functions traditionally performed by a nation-state, such as defense, taxation, migration control and economic regulation. …The problem is…Mr. Macron’s dreams of fiscal and economic union. He wants to create an EU finance ministry, funded by corporate and other taxes, that can spend money across the bloc with minimal interference from national capitals. Mr. Macron also wants to harmonize—eurospeak for raise—corporate taxes across the EU. He’d further establish Franco-German regulatory excess as the benchmark for the rest of the EU… This is a recipe for political failure because Europeans already know these policies are economic duds.

Writing for the New York Times, a German journalist poured cold water on Macron’s plan to give redistribution powers to the European Union.

It would be funny if it weren’t dangerous — the solution offered by the new, pro-Europe president, Emmanuel Macron, is to create a eurozone budget, with its own finance minister. …Mr. Macron’s proposal is a disaster in the making. It will only further alienate Europeans from one another and weaken the bloc economically. …Brussels’s money has often been Europe’s curse. The Greek government, for instance, knew it could take for granted the support of the other euro members for its unsustainable budget after Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany recklessly declared, “If the euro fails, Europe fails.” Athens slowed down on reform, knowing Brussels would bail it out, and northern Europeans grew angry. In the worst case, Mr. Macron’s plan could turn this disincentive into a characteristic feature of the European Union. …Brussels would end up holding the purse but not the purse strings.

So what’s the story with Macron’s schizophrenic approach? Why is he a pro-market Dr. Jekyll for French policy but a statist Mr. Hyde for European policy?

I don’t have the answer, but Diego Zuluaga wrote about this dichotomy for CapX.

The puzzle of Macronism is that it tends to advocate dynamism at home, but stasis abroad. The French President, both during his tenure in Hollande’s cabinet and in his new office, has championed reform of the country’s bewilderingly byzantine employment code, which has promoted social exclusion and led to a high rate of structural unemployment. …But Macron’s liberalism seemingly stops at France’s borders. On the EU level, he has called for increased risk-sharing among euro member states, a eurozone budget and finance minister… Whatever one makes of his climate-change activism, it is nothing if not dirigiste in the extreme, wishing to curb carbon emissions through bureaucratic pacts on a global level. What we are left with is the pro-market equivalent of Stalin’s pre-WWII economic policy of  “socialism in one country”. Liberalism in one country acknowledges the need for economic flexibility and a greater reliance on market forces at home. It champions tax reform and deregulation of industry and hiring. But it shuns those principles on the international level.

By the way, Mr. Zuluaga is using “liberalism” in the classic sense, meaning pro-market policies.

Let’s close with a couple of items that show France still has a long way to go.

First, a leftist columnist wants us to believe that recent riots, caused by a sale on Nutella, are symbolic of a dystopian future.

You may have seen the videos: in French supermarkets Intermarché, customers are rushing towards shelves of Nutella jars. They’re running, shouting, fighting, rummaging to grab a jar of the chocolate flavoured paste… This mess happened simultaneously in various French supermarkets when grocery chain Intermarché advertised a massive sale on 1kg Nutella jars, priced at €1,41 instead of the usual €4,50. …I don’t find this news funny, not even remotely. …it is telling of a France that is more and more divided… The massive response to this sale shines light…on the precarious position in which many French workers, and shoppers, find themselves. …And it’s not going to get any better for them. Macron’s looming labour reform is already eroding French workers’ rights… Macron’s great vision for France increasingly looks like a country where only the rich and “successful” will be able to afford Nutella – and those who “are nothing” will be left to fight for sale prices.

This type of over-wrought analysis makes me want to cheer for Macron.

Why? Because I understand that the best hope for workers is faster growth, not “labor-protection policies” that actually undermine job creation and cause wages to stagnate.

Second, we have a story that highlights the impossible regulatory burden in France.

A French boulanger has been ordered to pay a €3,000 fine for working too hard after he failed to close his shop for one day a week last summer. …Under local employment law, two separate regulations from 1994 and 2000 require bakers’ shops to close once a week… He has been advised the only way to get around the regulations would be to open a second boulangerie with different opening hours. …The federation of Aube boulangeries and patisseries questioned 126 members at the end of last year: the majority were in favour of maintaining the obligatory one-day closure. Eric Scherrer of the retail union CLIC-P, said French employment laws were there to protect workers and employers and had to be respected. …“These people need to have a rest day each week. We can’t just allow them to work non-stop. It’s absolutely necessary that both bosses and employees have a day of rest.”

The bottom line is that Macron should drop his statist European-wide proposals and put all of his focus on fixing France.

If you look at his country’s scores from Economic Freedom of the World, he should be working day and night to reduce the fiscal burden of government.

And lowering the regulatory burden should be the second-most important priority.

P.S. If the numbers in this poll are still accurate, Macron better fix his nation’s bad policies or his productive citizens will escape to America. After all, France is a great place to live if you’re already rich, but not so good if you aspire to become rich.

P.P.S. Here’s a story highlighting the lavish government-financed benefits for the privileged class in France.

P.P.P.S. My favorite French-themed cartoon features Obama and Hollande.

P.P.P.P.S. And let’s not forget Paul Krugman’s conspiracy theory about a “plot against France.”

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At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not a fan of international bureaucracies. The International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are the worst multilateral institutions because of their promotion of bad policy, but I’ve also gone after the United Nations and World Bank for their periodic efforts to advance statism.

But this doesn’t mean I’m reflexively against international organizations. My criticisms of the IMF, OECD, UN, and WB are solely a function of their work to empower governments at the expense of people.

And this is why I generally like the World Trade Organization. The WTO is a Geneva-based international bureaucracy, but its mission is to empower people at the expense of governments by reducing import taxes and other trade barriers.

Which explains why I think President Trump will be making a mistake if he imposes unilateral tariffs on China. Yes, there seems to be strong evidence that China’s government is misbehaving, but I think that a positive outcome is far more likely if the U.S. government takes the issue before the WTO. Which is what I said in this short interview with Neil Cavuto.

And I’m not alone.

Bloomberg editorialized recently about this issue.

President Donald Trump…is…addressing a legitimate trade dispute: China’s alleged theft of intellectual property and forced technology transfers. …the U.S. alleges — with reason — that China has been stealing U.S. trade secrets, forcing American companies to hand over proprietary technology as a condition of doing business on the mainland, and providing state support for Chinese firms to acquire critical technology abroad. …Yet unilateral blanket tariffs of the sort the administration is considering are the wrong answer. In the first instance, they’d hurt U.S. consumers and producers even if they didn’t provoke retaliation (which they probably would). They’d undermine the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution system, perhaps fatally.

And the editorial points out that the WTO is a better place to settle the dispute.

…one can question the WTO’s effectiveness in resolving disputes of this kind: The process moves slowly. On the other hand, it works. The U.S. has won the great majority of the cases it’s taken there. The complaint against China’s practices would be stronger if it was coordinated with other governments. Japan and the European Union share U.S. concerns and would be willing to cooperate. As recently as last month, this seemed to be the strategy. …the U.S. needs to take the lead, once more, in global economic statecraft. Champion the rules-based order that has served the country and the world so well. Strengthen the WTO, don’t subvert it.

And the Wall Street Journal opined today on this topic.

…there’s no denying that Beijing’s mercantilism has fueled the political backlash against free trade. China’s increasingly predatory behavior, especially intellectual-property theft, poses a particular problem to a sustainable trading system. The question is how to respond in a way that encourages better Chinese behavior without harming the global economy and American companies and workers. …the danger is a tariff tit-for-tat that harms everyone. …Beijing is more likely to respond in kind at such a broad public assault on its goods.

The WSJ notes that China’s behavior has left something to be desired.

Beijing has turned to mercantilism over the last decade. …The government gives subsidies in several forms, including loans from state-owned banks on easy terms and low interest rates. …Along with subsidies and government help in acquiring foreign companies, the policy explicitly requires foreign companies to transfer intellectual property in return for access to the Chinese market. …Beijing has also stepped up its use of regulations to discriminate against foreign companies. …All of these policies violate WTO agreements. …The China problem now is the predatory use of government power to punish foreign competitors to benefit Chinese companies.

The WSJ doesn’t necessarily think the WTO is the right vehicle to respond, but it definitely supports a plurilateral approach.

…remedies should be based on the principle of reciprocity. If Beijing pressures multinational car companies to build electric cars in China, the U.S., EU and Japan could impose a tariff on Chinese-made vehicles and restrict the transfer of related technology. This would avoid the Trump Administration’s approach of tariffs on a wide variety of goods, a policy that alienates allies and raises the risk of a wider trade war. A targeted approach…could even strengthen the WTO as China would have an interest in modernizing and using the organization’s courts to resolve the disputes.

I’m a fiscal wonk rather than a trade wonk, so I’m open to the notion that perhaps a plurilateral approach is better than the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism.

Though it’s worth noting that the United States has a very high batting average when bringing cases to the WTO.

Dan Ikenson, director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, reviewed WTO trade disputes involving the U.S. from 1995 to March of this year. He found that the U.S. prevailed in 91 percent of cases that it brought against other countries. “When the United States has been a complainant (as it has in 114 of 522 WTO disputes over 22 years — more than any other WTO member) it has prevailed on 91 percent of adjudicated issues,” he wrote.

I’ll close by noting that China’s bad policies don’t make it an enemy. The European Union is a semi-protectionist bloc and it isn’t our enemy either.

My goal is to simply point out that China’s approach to trade can be improved and should be improved. And since the country has moved in the right direction on overall economic policy (with very positive effects for the Chinese people), my hope is that coordinated opposition to Chinese mercantilism will have a positive effect.

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Beginning in the 1980s, money-laundering laws were enacted in hopes of discouraging criminal activity by making it harder for crooks to use the banking system. Unfortunately, this approach has been an expensive failure.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. I wrote last year about some intrusive, expensive, and pointless legislation proposed by Senators Grassley, Feinstein, Cornyn, and Whitehouse.

Now there’s another equally misguided set of proposals from Senators Rubio and Wyden, along with Representatives Pearce, Luetkemeyer, and Maloney. They want to require complicated and needless ownership data from millions of small businesses and organizations.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has a comprehensive report on the legislation. Here’s some of what he wrote.

Congress is seriously considering imposing a beneficial ownership reporting regime on American businesses and other entities, including charities and churches. …the House and Senate bills…share three salient characteristics. First, they would impose a large compliance burden on the private sector, primarily on small businesses, charities, and religious organizations. Second, they create hundreds of thousands—potentially more than one million—inadvertent felons out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Third, they do virtually nothing to achieve their stated aim of protecting society from terrorism or other forms of illicit finance. …Furthermore, the creation of this expensive and socially damaging reporting edifice is unnecessary. The vast majority of the information that the proposed beneficial ownership reporting regime would obtain is already provided to the Internal Revenue Service.

Richard Rahn criticizes this new proposal in his weekly column.

…what would you think of a member of Congress who proposes to put a new regulation on the smallest of businesses that does not meet a cost-benefit test, denies basic privacy protections and, because of its vagueness and ambiguity, is likely to cause very high numbers of otherwise law-abiding Americans to be felons? …Some bureaucrats and elected officials argue that the government needs to know who the “beneficial owners” are of even the tiniest of businesses in order to combat “money-laundering,” tax evasion or terrorism. …Should the church ladies who run the local non-profit food bank be put in jail for their failure to submit the form to the Feds that would give them the exemption from the beneficial ownership requirement? …Given how few people are actually convicted of money-laundering, the overwhelming evidence is that 99 percent of the people being forced to submit to these costly and time-consuming proposed regulations will not be guilty of money-laundering, terrorism or whatever, and thus should not be harassed by government.

Writing for the Hill, J.W. Verret, an expert in business law from George Mason University Law School, highlights some of the serious problems with this new regulatory scheme.

Legislation under consideration in Congress, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act, risks tying entrepreneurs’ hands with even more red tape. In fact, it could destroy any benefit some small businesses stand to gain from the tax reform legislation passed last year. It would require corporations and limited liability companies with fewer than 20 employees to file a form with the Treasury Department at the time of formation, and update it annually, listing the names of all beneficial owners and individuals exercising control. …Given the substantial penalties, this will impose a massive regulatory tax on small businesses as they spend money on lawyers that should go toward workers’ pay. …It is unlikely someone on a terrorist watch list would provide their real name on the required form, and Treasury will probably never have sufficient resources to audit names in real time.

Professor Verret explains some of the practical problems and tradeoffs with these proposals.

…some individual money laundering investigations would be easier with a small business registry available. But IRS tax fraud investigations would be much easier with access to taxpayers’ bank account login information — would we tolerate the associated costs and privacy violations? …How is the term “beneficial owner” defined? How is “control” defined? As a professor of corporate law, I have given multiple lectures on those very questions. What if your company is owned, in part, by another company? Or there is a chain of ownership through multiple intermediary companies? What if a creditor of the company, though not currently a shareholder or beneficial owner, obtains the contractual right to convert their debt contract into ownership equity at some point in the future? …for the average small business owner, navigating those complexities against the backdrop of a potential three year prison sentence will often require legal counsel. Companies affected by this legislation should conservatively expect to spend at least $5,000 on a corporate lawyer to help navigate the complexities of the new filing requirements.

Needless to say, squandering $5,000 or more for some useless paperwork is not a recipe for more entrepreneurship.

So how do advocates for this type of legislation respond?

Clay Fuller of the American Enterprise Institute wants us to have faith that bad people will freely divulge their real identities and that bureaucrats will make effective use of the information.

It is time to weed out illicit financing and unfair competition from criminals and bad actors. …Passing the House Financial Services Committee’s Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act should be a priority for the 115th Congress. …Dictators, terrorists and criminals have been freeriding on the prosperity and liberty of the American economy for too long. Officials at FinCEN are sure that beneficial ownership legislation will exponentially increase conviction rates. We should give law enforcement what they need to do their jobs.

Gee, all that sounds persuasive. I’m also against dictators, terrorists, and criminals.

But if you read his entire column, you’ll notice that he offers zero evidence that this costly new legislation actually would catch more bad guys.

And since we already know that anti-money laundering laws impose heavy costs and catch almost no bad guys, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out better ways of allocating law enforcement resources?

I don’t know if we should be distressed or comforted, but other parts of the world also are hamstringing their financial industries with similar policies.

Here’s some analysis from Europe.

…a new reportfrom Consult Hyperion, commissioned by Mitek, reveals that the average UK bank is currently wasting £5 million each year due to manual and inefficient Know Your Customer (KYC) processes, and this annual waste is expected to rise to £10 million in three years. …Key Findings…Inefficient KYC processes cost the average bank £47 million a year…Total costs for KYC processes range from £10 to £100 per check…In the UK, 25% of applications are abandoned due to KYC friction… The cost of KYC checks is much too high, placing too much reliance on inefficient and error-prone manual processes,” said Steve Pannifer, author of the report and COO at Consult Hyperion.

And here’s an update from Asia.

Anti-money laundering and know-your-customer compliance have become leading concerns at financial institutions in Asia today. … we estimate that AML compliance budgets across the six Asian markets in this study total an estimated US$1.5 billion annually for banks alone. …A majority of respondents (55%) indicated that AML compliance has a negative impact on their firms’ business productivity. …An additional 15% felt that AML compliance actually threatens their firms’ ability to do business. …Eighty-two per cent of survey respondents saw overall AML compliance costs increasing in 2016, with one third projecting that costs will rise by 20% or more.

The bottom line is that laws and regulations dealing with money laundering are introduced with high hopes of reducing crime.

And when there’s no effect on criminal activity, proponents urge ever-increasing levels of red tape. And when that doesn’t work, they propose new levels of regulation. And still nothing changes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here’s the video I narrated on this topic. It’s now a bit dated, but everything I said is even more true today.

Let’s close with a surreal column in the Washington Post from Dana Milbank. He was victimized by silly anti-money laundering policies, but seems to approve.

I did not expect that my wife and I would be flagged as possible financiers of international terrorism. …The teller told me my account had been blocked. My wife went to an ATM to take out $200. Denied. Soon I discovered that checks I had written to the au pair and my daughter’s volleyball instructor had bounced. …I began making calls to the bank and eventually got an explanation: The bank was looking into whether my wife and I were laundering money, as they are required to by the Bank Secrecy Act as amended by the Patriot Act. …the bank seemed particularly suspicious that my wife was the terrorist… The bank needed answers. Did she work for the government? How much money does she make? Is she a government contractor? …a week later they came back with a new threat to freeze the account and a more peculiar question: Is my wife politically influential?

Sounds like an awful example of a bank being forced by bad laws to harass a customer.

Heck, it is an awful example of that happening.

But in a remarkable display of left-wing masochism, Milbank approves.

The people who flagged us were right to do so. …Citibank, though perhaps clumsy, was doing what it should be doing. “Know your customer” regulations are important because they prevent organized-crime networks, terrorists and assorted bad guys from moving money. Banking regulations generally are a hassle, and expensive. But they protect us — not just from terrorists such as my wife and me but from financial institutions that would otherwise exploit their customers and jeopardize economic stability the way they did before the 2008 crash.

I guess we know which way Milbank would have responded to this poll question from 2013.

But he would be wrong because money-laundering laws don’t stop terrorism.

We’re giving up freedom and imposing high costs on our economy, yet we’re not getting any additional security in exchange.

And I can’t resist commenting on his absurd assertion that money laundering played a role in the 2008 crash. Does he think that mafia kingpins somehow controlled the Federal Reserve and insisted on easy-money policies and artificially low interest rates? Does he think ISIS operatives were somehow responsible for reckless Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies?

Wow, I thought the people who blamed “tax havens” for the financial crisis deserved the prize for silliest fantasies. But Milbank gives them a run for their money.

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

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I’ve been very critical of Trump’s protectionism. I explained why he was wrong before the 2016 election and I’ve continued to argue he is misguided ever since he became President.

Most recently, I even expressed hope that Congress would overturn his new taxes on American consumers.

Some people are arguing, however, that the situation isn’t quite so bad because Trump may have a clever plan to use tariffs as a tool to force other nations to reduce their trade barriers.

I very much hope that’s the case, as I noted in this interview with Fox Business, but I’m not holding my breath for a favorable outcome.

I’m not the only one who is skeptical.

In her column for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady pours cold water on the hypothesis that Trump is playing a very clever game.

President Trump’s practice of staking out extreme positions on trade as a negotiating tactic is a sign of his brilliance. Or so we’re told. But that theory took on water last week, when Mr. Trump had to backtrack on a promise to hit Mexico and Canada with a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum, without any concessions from either Mexico City or Ottawa. …Mr. “Art of the Deal” figured out that his opening tariff bid was on track to blow up the two best foreign markets for American-made steel and significant markets for American-made aluminum. It’s a good bet that the same producers who are lobbying for protection asked the president to back off the neighbors. The gaffe exposes the Trump administration’s failure to grasp the complexity of the supply chains that interconnect the global economy.

Well said.

By the way, I’m not just picking on Trump. I’ve criticized other Presidents for protectionist policies, most notably Hoover.

And I even dinged Saint Ronald for trade barriers (though I also noted Reagan’s good policies regarding NAFTA and the GATT).

Unsurprisingly George W. Bush also belongs on the list. Professor Vernon Smith relates a story about Bush’s protectionism in the Wall Street Journal.

I was one of nine American Nobel laureates invited to visit the White House Nov. 19, 2002, by President George W. Bush. Each of us had a few minutes to speak privately with the president… Mr. Bush congratulated me on my award in economics. …I added: “You must be doing some things right, but you did two things wrong—your steel tariff proposal and the farm bill.” I startled him, but our exchange was not over. …Later in the Lincoln Room, Mr. Bush was talking with a group of my colleagues from George Mason University. Seeing me nearby, he raised his voice in a friendly retort: “Earlier, your laureate friend gave me a hard time about the steel tariff. I’m thinking that he should handle the economics, and I’ll take care of the politics.”

Professor Smith points out, however, that Bush was wrong on the politics as well as the economics (a lesson the GOP should have learned from Reagan).

His proposal collided with a widespread political backlash at home and abroad, and with retaliation from our foreign trading partners. The Bush steel tariff, imposed in 2002, was rescinded in 2003. It was not feasible. He recognized its unreality, and backed off.

Hopefully Trump will retreat as well.

The last thing the world needs is a repeat of the 1930s.

But if that happens, be prepared for very bad news. Here’s a report on how trade taxes would undermine America’s economy.

A full-blown trade war would erase any economic benefits from the Republican tax cuts passed last year, according to an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania. …The Penn Wharton Budget Model, a research center at the university, imagined the worst case — no US imports or exports crossing borders tariff-free. The United States has free trade agreements with 20 nations. Wharton’s model assumes those all disappear. Such a trade war would make US economic output 0.9% lower than otherwise by 2027, according to the analysis. …Over the longer term, the costs of a trade war would heavily outweigh the benefits of the tax cut. By 2040, the US would lose 5.3% of economic output in the worst trade-war scenario, compared with a 1.6% increase from the tax cuts, the university found. Put another way, a full-blown trade war would cost the economy $200 billion over 10 years, and $1.4 trillion by 2040. American wages would decline, too, falling 1.1% over the next 10 years.

Last but not least, Mark Perry recently shared three videos from Khan Academy on international trade and economics. All of them are worth watching if you really want to understand the issue.  But here’s the one that I think everyone should watch.

And Mark adds this chart, which reinforces the point from the video – and something I’ve also tried to explain – about a capital surplus being the necessary and automatic flip side of a trade deficit.

In other words, when foreigners get dollars, they oftentimes think the best use of that money is to invest in America’s future. That’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

P.S. If you think protectionism is a good idea, please review these five charts.

P.P.S. Though I’m willing to go back to 19th-century tariffs – assuming we roll back all the government that has accumulated since then.

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I shared some satire about gun control last month, but the left’s campaign to exploit the horrible Parkland shooting seems to have instigated a bunch of new material.

So let’s have some weekend fun.

We’ll start with this humorous image from Reddit‘s libertarian page that actually does a good job of showing that gun control is pointless because criminals don’t care about laws.

This next image, also from Reddit, resonates with me because I’ve had many conversations with leftists who genuinely think a “semi-automatic rifle” is the same as a machine gun.

Or that “assault weapons” are somehow more lethal hunting rifles.

Though the gun-control crowd doesn’t seem to care even when you point out that their talking points are nonsense.

This next image arrived in my inbox a few days ago. I imagine the women calling the cops also failed this IQ test.

Next we have an apparently genuine sign from one of the student protests against civil liberties. Astoundingly, this girl doesn’t realize that she has everything wrong. The White House is filled with armed personnel and her school is the gun-free zone.

And we know from this cartoon whether bad people prefer unarmed victims. I guess we’ll call the student Exhibit A in the case against government-run schools.

This next item isn’t humorous, but I’m including it solely because I hope it’s a true story rather than an urban legend. If anybody knows, please share details in the comments section.

I like this next item because libertarians seem to be the only ones who value both the 1st Amendment and 2nd Amendment.

Given how California has drifted so far to the left, this next joke my turn into reality at some point. Well, even they’re not that foolish, but I can’t help but hope it might happen.

Last but not least, this item from Reddit‘s libertarian page does make me wonder about my left-wing friends. They despise Trump, yet they want to citizens to be disarmed.

Wow. Reminds me of this image.

P.S. You can still cast a vote in the online poll to identify the most important reason to defend the Second Amendment.

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