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Archive for February, 2019

Much to the consternation of some Republicans, I periodically explain that the Trump Administration is – at best – a mixed blessing for supporters of limited government.

It’s not just that Trump is the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover, though that’s certainly a damning indictment.

The Trump White House also has been very weak on government spending, and the track record on that issue could get even worse since the President supports a new entitlement for childcare.

Yes, there are issues where Trump has been a net plus for economic liberty.

The overall regulatory burden is declining (though the Administration’s record is far from perfect when looking at anti-market interventions).

And the President gets a good mark on tax policy thanks to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

But Trump’s grade on that issue may be about to drop thanks to horribly misguided actions by his Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin. Here are some excerpts from a report by France 24.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday that the US supported a push by France for a minimum corporate tax rate for developed countries worldwide… “It’s something we absolutely support, that there’s not a chase to the bottom on taxation,” Mnuchin said in Paris after talks with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire. Le Maire said last month a minimum tax rate would be a priority for France during its presidency of the G7 nations this year. …France in particular has railed against Amazon, Google and other technology giants that declare their European income in low-tax countries like Ireland or Luxembourg.

Needless to say, it’s utterly depressing that a Republican (in name only?) Treasury Secretary explicitly condemns tax competition.

Politicians and their flunkies grouse about a “race to the bottom” when tax competition exists, not because tax rates would ever drop to zero (we should be so lucky), but because they don’t like it when the geese with the golden eggs have the ability to fly away.

They like having the option of ever-higher taxes.

In reality, the world desperately needs tax competition to reduce the danger of “goldfish government,” which occurs when vote-seeking politicians can’t resist the temptation to destroy an economy with too much government (see Greece, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, etc).

I’ll close with a remarkable observation.

The Obama Administration supported a scheme that would have required American companies to pay a tax of at least 19 percent on income earned in other jurisdictions, even if tax rates were lower (as in Ireland) or zero (as in Cayman).

This was very bad policy, completely contrary to the principle of “territorial taxation” that is part of all market-friendly tax reforms such as the flat tax.

Yet Trump’s Treasury Secretary, by prioritizing tax revenue over prosperity, is supporting a proposal for global minimum tax rates that is much worse than what the Obama Administration wanted.

And even further to the left compared to the policy supported by Bill Clinton.

P.S. I’m sure the bureaucrats at the European Commission and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are delighted with Mnuchin’s policy, especially since American companies will be the ones most disadvantaged.

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My views on Brexit haven’t changed since I wrote “The Economic Case for Brexit” back in 2016.

It’s a simple issue of what route is most likely to produce prosperity for the people of the United Kingdom. And that means escaping the dirigiste grasp of the European Union.

The European Union’s governmental manifestations (most notably, an über-powerful bureaucracy called the European Commission, a largely powerless but nonetheless expensive European Parliament, and a sovereignty-eroding European Court of Justice) are – on net – a force for statism rather than liberalization. Combined with Europe’s grim demographic outlook, a decision to remain would guarantee a slow, gradual decline….Leaving the EU would be like refinancing a mortgage when interest rates decline. In the first year or two, it might be more expensive because of one-time expenses. In the long run, though, it’s a wise decision.

But if I was rewriting that column today, I would change the title to “The Economic Case for Hard Brexit.”

That’s because Prime Minister Theresa May and other opponents are pushing for a watered-down version of Brexit. Sort of Brexit in Name Only.

Indeed, Dan Hannan, a member of the European Parliament, explains in the Washington Examiner that the deal negotiated by Theresa May is the worst possible outcome.

This is the sort of deal that a country signs when it has lost a war. Under its terms, Britain will remain subject to all the costs and obligations of EU membership, but will give up its vote, its voice and its veto. …EU exporters will enjoy privileged access to the world’s fifth-largest economy. They won’t need to worry about world competition. …In the two-and-a-half years since the referendum, civil servants, politicians, financiers and politically-connected business cartels have worked assiduously to overturn to result. …Some, including George Soros and Tony Blair, sought to overturn the result outright with a new referendum. Others, more craftily, sought instead to ensure that, while something technically called Brexit may happen, nothing actually changes. Sadly, they have achieved something far worse than no change. Their deal — Theresa May’s deal — will leave Britain in a more disadvantageous place than either leaving cleanly or staying put. It keeps the burdens of EU membership but junks the advantages.

Brian Wesbury and Bob Stein, both with First Trust Advisors, point out that Hard Brexit is the best option. Trade would continue, but based on WTO rules instead of the EU’s free trade agreement.

Some analysts and investors are concerned about a “Hard Brexit,” in which the U.K. supposedly plunges into chaos as it crashes out of the EU without an agreement. …Count us skeptical. …Any harm to the U.K.’s economy would be relatively mild… It’s not like there would be no trade between the U.K. and the EU after a Hard Brexit. Trade rules would simply shift to the ones that apply between the EU and other countries under the World Trade Organization, like those that apply to EU-U.S. trade.

While WTO rules are quite good, they’re not as good as complete free trade.

But there would be pressure to move in that direction under a Hard Brexit.

…the EU would be under enormous pressure to lower tariffs and cut a new deal with the U.K. In 2017, the rest of the European Union ran a roughly $90 billion trade surplus with the U.K. So if a Hard Brexit makes it tougher for the rest of the EU to export to the U.K., every national capital in the EU would be flooded with lobbyists asking to cut a deal. Meanwhile, leaving the EU means the U.K. would have the freedom to make free trade deals with the U.S. and Canada, and any other country it wanted, without having to wait for the EU. Yes, a Hard Brexit risks some financial jobs, but the same argument was used when the U.K. decided not to join the Euro currency bloc, after which London kept its role as Europe’s financial center.

For what it’s worth, I’m more interested in whether we can get a really good trade deal between the US and UK following a Hard Brexit.

Regardless, any possible slippage on trade between the UK and EU would be more than offset by the likelihood of better policy in other areas.

…there’s another basic reason why a Hard Brexit would be in the long-term interests of the U.K….any organization powerful enough to overrule the democratic process in the U.K. regarding economic laws and regulations…is also powerful enough to impose anti-free market policies… And, over time, since men are not angels and power corrupts, any international body with such power would gravitate toward policies that aggrandize the international political elite… In fact, the EU has already issued rules that stifle competition, like setting a standard minimum Value-Added Tax rate.

Felix Hathaway from London’s Institute of Economic Affairs, debunks Project Fear in an article just published by Cayman Financial Review.

…the only option ahead with a clear path, and requiring no new legislation in parliament, is some form of ‘Hard Brexit.’ …By Hard Brexit I mean the U.K. leaving the EU on March 29 without a withdrawal agreement. Unlike most other options, this does not require the cooperation of the EU to proceed. In this scenario, the U.K. leaves both Single Market and Customs Union of the European Union at 11 p.m. on March 29, 2019, along with leaving the various political institutions of the EU and the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU. …many of the more alarming warnings of no cooperation at all can be dismissed as fanciful. A more believable ‘no deal’ Brexit might look as follows. …the Commission is doing all it can to publicly rule out this sort of “managed no deal,” yet in doing so has stated that it would unilaterally extend agreements in selected sectors, including for financial services, following a WTO exit. …one could reasonably expect further agreements, possibly at the 11th hour in March… These would likely cover citizens’ rights, road haulage, and facilitated customs checks for certain classes of goods, and would be negotiated with the member states with which the U.K. does the most business.

For what it’s worth, I think vindictive EU bureaucrats probably want to inflict some needless harm, even though it will hurt them as much – and maybe more – than it would hurt the UK.

But Felix is right that common sense – sooner or later – will lead to agreements to smooth over any bumps in the transition. Indeed, he just wrote another article demonstrating how this is already happening.

Here’s the most important part of his article, which I like because it echoes my arguments about the pressure for better policy in an independent United Kingdom.

Ultimately, the most significant factor will be domestic policy decisions by the U.K. government, particularly in areas of taxation and housing. This may be fairly unexciting news at the end of an article about Brexit, but if the U.K. is to succeed as a “free trading, buccaneering nation,” such success will depend in large part on the ability of companies to attract investment through low corporate taxes, and the ability of workers to move to where they will be most productive through further housebuilding in key areas. …perhaps as an unexpected consequence of the conversation surrounding Brexit,… A recent ComRes poll found that, although divided on almost every other aspect, a clear two thirds of voters agree that when Brexit is complete, “the U.K. should try to become the lowest tax, business-friendliest country in Europe, focused on building strong international trade links.”

And keep in mind that bureaucrats in Brussels are pushing to make the European Union more statist (which, sadly, is contrary to the continent’s historical tradition), so it’s becoming ever-more important to escape.

This is why what happens with Brexit is among my greatest hopes and fears for 2019.

Let’s close with a bit of humor.

The Cockburn column in the Spectator mocks the New York Times for its anti-Brexit fanaticism.

The Times usually supports democracy in backward and violent states, but it hates Brexit. No news is too fake for the Times to print when it comes to Brexit. This week, the Times hit new heights of fantasy. ‘Roads gridlocked with trucks. Empty supermarket shelves. An economy thrown into paralysis,’ a would-be novelist named Scott Reyburn wrote earlier this week. His story, ‘As Brexit Looms, the Art World Prepares for the Fallout’, was recycled as a front-page item on the Times’s international edition. …Britain is in a ‘crazed Brexit vortex’, adds Roger Cohen, holder of the Tom Friedman Chair in Applied Chin-Stroking. …Yes, the British government are useless. But nobody in London is stockpiling food. Nobody is fighting in the streets, as the French are every weekend. The markets factored in their Brexit uncertainty two years ago. The supermarkets and roads are as jammed as ever. …The economy is doing much better than the Eurozone, which is slipping into recession. Polls show the British, who the Times characterize as sliding down a neofascist vortex, to be more welcoming of immigration than any other European people.

Bad journalism from the New York Times is hardly a surprise.

I’m mostly sharing his column because this satirical paragraph got me laughing.

The scene that met Cockburn’s eyes upon exiting the terminal at Heathrow reminded him of his days as a foreign correspondent during the Lebanese civil war, or a night out in south London. A dog was eating the innards of a corpse, because supplies of Romanian dog food have broken down. A naked fat man had carved off a slice of his own buttock and was roasting it over a burning tyre, because imports of Bulgarian lamb are held up at Calais. A woman offered to prostitute herself for an avocado, and to sell both of her blank-eyed children for a packet of French butter. There were no black taxis either, because London’s notoriously pro-Brexit taxi drivers had all joined one nationalist militia or other. Finally, a black-market cheese dealer with a rocket launcher affixed to the back of his pickup agreed to take Cockburn into the city. They bribed their way through the checkpoints with wedges of brie. Or not.

Speaking of laughs, Hitler parody videos have become a thing.

Here’s a new Brexit-related installment in the series.

Not as clever as the first Hitler parody I shared as part of my collection of Brexit humor, but it has some funny moments.

And if you have time, this Brexit tapestry is quite amusing.

P.S. There are some anti-Brexit people who support free markets, which is rather baffling since I can’t imagine why they would want the U.K. to be part of a bureaucracy that tries to brainwash children in favor of higher taxes. Indeed I was only semi-joking when I wrote that Brussels was “the most statist place on the planet.”

P.P.S. Though there are many reasons to question whether U.K. politicians can be trusted to adopt good policy.

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I’m currently in the Cayman Islands, which is one of my favorite places since – like Bermuda, Monaco, Vanuatu, Antigua and Barbuda, and a few other lucky places in the world – it has no income tax.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the absence of an income tax has helped make the Cayman Islands very prosperous, 14th-richest in the world according to the latest data from the World Bank on per-capita economic output (top 10 in the world if you exclude oil-rich jurisdictions).

This does not mean, incidentally, that economic policy is perfect in the Cayman Islands.

There is a overly large and excessively compensated government bureaucracy. Indeed, financing the civil service is becoming such a burden that the Cayman Islands almost made a suicidal decision to impose an income tax earlier this decade.

And the absence of an income tax doesn’t mean an absence of taxes. Here’s a chart from a 2010 report on the jurisdiction’s fiscal challenges. Yes, the tax burden is low compared to many nations, but the government nonetheless collects plenty of revenue from import duties, fees on financial services, and tourism.

But the key thing to understand is that not all taxes are created equal. Some levies impose much more damage than others.

Richard Rahn, a fellow member of the Cayman Financial Review editorial board, explained this insight a few years ago in a column for the Washington Times.

Cayman is prosperous… Critics of Cayman and other offshore financial centers call them “tax havens,” ignoring the fact that they all have many taxes, particularly on consumption — which is good tax policy — rather than on productive labor and capital — which is bad tax policy. The statist political actors in the high-tax jurisdictions will not admit that people do not work, save and invest if they are going to be overly taxed and otherwise abused by their own governments.

And it’s also worth noting that the Cayman Islands are a role model for racial tranquility.

There are people from 135 nations and “mixed” is the largest racial category.

Here are some excerpts from a column published by Forbes about the progressive social structure of the Cayman Islands.

Somebody recently said to me “The Cayman Islands is just a mailbox.”  I started wondering if that was fair. The Cayman Islands are a real places where people live.  And they are not all attorneys and accountants, although they do have more than their fair share.  …a big upside to the Caymans. …Mr. Leung, who is of Asian descent, noticed a whiff of it in Scotland, but finds the Caymans utterly devoid of racism.  Pirates, refugees, shipwrecked sailors and enslaved people might not seem to be the best material to start a country to some, but clearly there is an upside.

I’ll close by noting that there is some trouble in paradise.

The Cayman Islands faces unrelenting pressure from international bureaucracies and high-tax nations. There is a lot of resentment because the jurisdiction is so successful.

The Cayman Islands will not be bullied by countries that cannot compete with this jurisdiction on a level playing field, Premier Alden McLaughlin told an audience… He said that despite the Cayman government’s cooperation on international standards, the Netherlands and others are more concerned about the zero tax rate here. …“But we will not be bullied by those who are jealous of our success, resentful of our tax policies and unable to compete with us on a level playing field,” McLaughlin said.

What makes these attacks so ironic and unfair is that the Cayman Islands actually has much tougher standards than “onshore” nations such as the United States and United Kingdom.

Since I began this column by looking at World Bank data on the most prosperous, let’s wrap up by perusing the U.N.’s numbers.

Hmmm…, lots of so-called tax havens are on this list. I wonder if we can draw any conclusions?

Folks on the left have accused me of “trading with the enemy” for supporting these jurisdictions, but the real story is that we should emulate rather than prosecute these low-tax jurisdictions.

P.S. My affection for the Cayman Islands is mutual.

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When I’m asked for a basic tutorial on fiscal policy, I normally share my four videos on the economics of government spending and my primer on fundamental tax reform.

But this six-minute interview may be a quicker introduction to spending issues since I had the opportunity to touch on almost every key principle.

Culled from the discussion, here is what everyone should understand about the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Principle #1 – America’s fiscal problem is a government that is too big and growing too fast. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy, regardless of how it is financed. There is real-world evidence that large public sectors sap the private sector’s vitality, augmented by lots of academic research on the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

Principle #2 – Entitlements programs are the main drivers of excessive spending. All the long-run forecasts show that the burden of spending is rising because of the so-called mandatory spending programs. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were not designed to keep pace with demographic changes (falling birthrates, increasing longevity), so spending for these program will consume ever-larger shares of economic output.

Principle #3 – Deficits and debt are symptoms of the underlying problem. Government borrowing is not a good idea, but it’s primarily bad because it is a way of financing a larger burden of spending. The appropriate analogy is that, just as a person with a brain tumor shouldn’t fixate on the accompanying headache, taxpayers paying for a bloated government should pay excessive attention to the portion financed by red ink.

Principle #4 – Existing red ink is small compared to the federal government’s unfunded liabilities. People fixate on current levels of deficits and debt, which are a measure of all the additional spending financed by red ink. But today’s amount of red ink is relatively small compared to unfunded liabilities (i.e., measures of how much future spending will exceed projected revenues).

Principle #5 – A spending cap is the best way to solve America’s fiscal problems. Balanced budget rules are better than nothing, but they have a don’t control the size and growth of government. Spending caps are the only fiscal rules that have a strong track record, even confirmed by research from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Here’s one final principle, though I didn’t mention it in the interview.

Principle #6 – Increasing taxes will make a bad situation worse. Since government spending is the real fiscal problem, higher taxes, at best, replace debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending. In reality, higher taxes loosen political constraints on policy makers and “feed the beast,” so the most likely outcome – as seen in Europe – is that overall spending levels increase and long-term debt actually increases.

In an ideal world, these six principles would be put in a frame and nailed above the desk of every politician, government official, and bureaucrat who deals with fiscal policy.

Not that it would make much difference since their decisions are guided by “public choice” no matter what principles they see at their desk, but it’s nice to fantasize.

Here are a few other observations from the interview.

P.S. Needless to say, I wish limits on enumerated powers were still a guiding principle for fiscal policy. Sadly, the days of Madisonian constitutionalism are long gone.

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I have an entire page dedicated to columns that mock the evils of socialism and communism.

But we may need a special section for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her vapid – yet earnest – smiley-face statism.

I’ve already shared some AOC humor, but only incidental examples while making other points.

Today, the entire column is dedicated to the younger version of Crazy Bernie.

We’ll start by mocking things she has actually said. Our first item is self-explanatory, at least for anyone with a passing familiarity with 20th-century history.

Our next example captures her utopian statism.

Just think Green New Deal.

I don’t believe this next example is an exact quote, but she is a rabid climate alarmist (though hopefully not this extreme or this extreme) and did say something about time running out, which makes this next bit of satire rather amusing.

Though we should already be boiling to death according to some of Al Gore’s fevered statements, so you can probably still make long-term plans.

AOC is also amazingly ignorant of America’s system of government (probably on purpose since I’m sure she would be horrified about the views of the Founders), though this doesn’t stop her from pontificating on the topic.

Let’s get briefly serious.

Some people say we shouldn’t be giving AOC so much attention.

I disagree. Her ideas are so nutty that she presumably helps ordinary people realize that big government is a bad idea.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal agrees that her radicalism will backfire on Democrats.

The Republican Party has a secret weapon for 2020. It’s especially effective because it’s stealthy… All Republicans have to do is sit back and watch 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez… In a few months she’s gone from an unknown New York bartender to the democratic socialist darling of the left and its media hordes. …Republicans don’t know whether to applaud or laugh. Most do both. …what’s not to love? …She’s made friends with Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, who has been accused of anti-Semitism. She’s called the American system of wealth creation “immoral” and believes government has a duty to provide “economic security” to people who are “unwilling to work.” …Ms. Ocasio-Cortez unveiled her vaunted Green New Deal…which AOC is determined to force a full House vote. That means every Democrat in Washington will get to go on the record in favor of abolishing air travel, outlawing steaks, forcing all American homeowners to retrofit their houses, putting every miner, oil rigger, livestock rancher and gas-station attendant out of a job, and spending trillions and trillions more tax money. Oh, also for government-run health care, which is somehow a prerequisite for a clean economy. …The Green New Deal encapsulates everything Americans fear from government, all in one bonkers resolution. …AOC may not prove able to eradicate “fully” every family Christmas or strip of bacon in a decade, but that’s the goal. …Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a freight train gaining speed by the day—and helping Republicans with every passing minute.

Now back to having some fun.

Let’s look at two made-up quotes, both of which are very amusing because you could easily imagine her making these statements.

We’ll start with her proof that socialism is successful.

And here’s a made-up observation about trade policy.

Actually, I don’t recall her supporting protectionism, so it’s possible that there may be an issue where she actually is on the side of economic liberty.

As we begin to wrap up, here’s a satirical video that’s been circulating. Enjoy.

Last but not least, I don’t know if she actually said this next statement, but I’m including it because it made me laugh (though since Venezuelans are eating zoo animals and household pets, I realize it’s not funny in real life).

I also wish the creator of this meme used somebody other than Trump. After all, he’s also guilty of supporting some big-government policies, so he’s hardly the best person to throw stones at socialism since he’s in a house that’s part glass.

But let’s not get hung up on technicalities. I’m for good political satire, even if I don’t agree with the message.

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I don’t always fully agree with Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Institute, but I’m an avid reader of his work because he writes intelligently on issues that I care about.

I especially like it when we’re on the same side. A good example is his recent column about billionaires in the New York Times. He starts by observing that politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are demonizing the super-rich.

Socialists have long held that large stores of private wealth are tantamount to violence against those in need. …Thanks at least in part to Bernie Sanders and the sizzling rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,… Enthusiasm for radical leveling is whistling out of the hard-left fringe… Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s policy adviser, Dan Riffle, contends that “every billionaire is a policy failure”… He’d like to see the 2020 Democratic primary contenders answer a question: Can it be morally appropriate for anyone to be a billionaire?

Will answers Mr. Riffle’s question by noting that the world’s most successful nations operate on the principles of classical liberalism.

…the existence of virtuous three-comma fortunes is a sign not of failure but of supreme policy success. …The empirical record is quite clear about the general form of national political economy that produces the happiest, healthiest, wealthiest, freest and longest lives. There’s no pithy name for it, so we’ll have to settle for “liberal-democratic welfare-state capitalism.” There’s a “social democratic” version, which is what you get in countries like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. And there’s a “neoliberal” (usually English-speaking) version, which is what you get in countries like Canada, New Zealand and the United States. …in comparative terms, they’re all insanely great. The typical citizen of these countries is as well-off as human beings have ever been. …guess what? There are billionaires in all of them. Egalitarian Sweden, an object of ardent progressive adoration, has more billionaires per capita than the United States.

Spot on.

Nations with a lot of economic freedom produce both billionaires and a high quality of life for ordinary people.

And, yes, that does include some Northern European welfare states (though, if I wrote the column, I would have noted that those nations became rich before welfare states were adopted).

But let’s not digress. Here’s the accompanying chart for Will’s column, which compares how nations score on the U.N.’s Human Development Index (based on lifespans, education, and income) and how many billionaires they have as a share of their populations.

I can’t resist pointing out that Hong Kong and Singapore both score highly, so the “welfare-state” part of “liberal-democratic welfare-state capitalism” certainly isn’t necessary to get on this list.

Indeed, the same is true of the other countries on the list if you look at the history of their economic development.

But I’m digressing again. Let’s get back to the column.

Will issues a very relevant challenge to the class-warfare crowd.

So what’s the problem? Preventing billion-dollar hoards guards against the bad consequences of … having the best sort of polity that has ever existed? …Inspect any credible international ranking of countries by democratic quality, equal treatment under the law or level of personal freedom. You’ll find the same passel of billionaire-tolerant states again and again. If there are billionaires in all the places where people flourish best, why think getting rid of them will make things go better?

And he makes a final point about how honestly earned wealth (i.e., not using government coercion) produces big benefits for the rest of us.

…there’s a big moral difference between positive-sum wealth production and zero-sum wealth extraction — a difference that corresponds to a rough-and-ready distinction between the deserving and undeserving rich. The distinction is sound because there’s a proven a way to make a moral killing: improve a huge number of other people’s lives while capturing a tiny slice of the surplus value. …According to William Nordhaus, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, innovators capture about 2 percent of the economic value they create. The rest of it accrues to consumers. Whatever that is, it’s not a raw deal. The accumulation of these innovations over time is the mechanism that drives compounding economic growth, which accounts for a vast improvement over the past 100 years in the typical American standard of living. Some people may have made an ungodly sum in the course of helping make this humanitarian miracle happen, but that’s O.K.

It’s not just O.K., it’s great news.

This is what has produced the unparalleled prosperity of western nations.

Though I fear some of our friends on the left won’t be convinced. At least not the ones who are fixated on inequality.

Some of them very openly admit they are willing to hurt lower-income and middle-class people so long as rich people suffer even more. The International Monetary Fund has even produced studies (yes, more than one!) justifying this harsh ideological view.

Margaret Thatcher is spinning in her grave.

P.S. There is a “Modest Proposal” to “solve” inequality by eliminating the rich.

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I recently appeared on CNBC to talk about everyone’s favorite government agency, those warm and cuddly folks at the IRS.

Our tax system is a dysfunctional mess, but you’ll notice that I mostly blamed politicians. After all, they are the ones who have unceasingly made the internal revenue code more complex, starting on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was approved.

But I don’t want to give the IRS a free pass.

I’ve cited IRS incompetence and misbehavior in the past, most notably when discussing political bias, targeted harassment, and other shenanigans.

And, as illustrated by these five examples, we can always cite new evidence.

Such as lack of accountability.

…a new report from the Cause of Action Institute reveals that the IRS has been evading numerous oversight mechanisms, and it refuses to comply with laws requiring it to measure the economic impact of its rules. Congress has passed several laws, including the Regulatory Flexibility Act and the Congressional Review Act, that require agencies to report on their rules’ economic impact to lawmakers and the public. …These good-government measures are meant to ensure unelected bureaucrats can be checked by the public. …the IRS has made up a series of exemptions that allow it to avoid basic scrutiny. The agency takes the position that its rules have no economic effect because any impact is attributable to the underlying law that authorized the rule.

Such as inefficiency.

Private debt collectors cost the Internal Revenue Service $20 million in the last fiscal year, but brought in only $6.7 million in back taxes, the agency’s taxpayer advocate reported Wednesday. That was less than 1 percent of the amount assigned for collection. What’s more, private contractors in some cases were paid 25 percent commissions on collections that the I.R.S. made without their help…the report stated, “the I.R.S. has implemented the program in a manner that causes excessive financial harm to taxpayers and constitutes an end run around taxpayer rights protections.”

Such as rewarding scandal.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued more than $1.7 million in awards in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017 to employees who had been disciplined by the agency, a Treasury Department watchdog said. “Some of these employees had serious misconduct, such as unauthorized access to tax return information, substance abuse and sexual misconduct,” the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said in a report made public this week. …in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017, the IRS had given awards to nearly 2,000 employees who were disciplined in the 12 months prior to receiving the bonus.

By the way, the IRS has a pattern of rewarding bad behavior.

Such as pursuing bad policy.

…for 35 years the Internal Revenue Service has exempted itself from the most basic regulatory oversight. …Tax regulations (like all regulations) have exploded in recent decades, and of course IRS bureaucrats impose their own policy judgments. The IRS has in recent years unilaterally decided when and how to enforce ObamaCare tax provisions, often dependent on political winds. In 2016 it proposed a rule to force more business owners to pay estate and gift taxes via a complicated new reading of the law. …Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury…department is inexplicably backing IRS lawlessness with a string of excuses.

Again, this is not the first time the IRS has interfered with congressional policy.

Such as stifling political speech.

The Internal Revenue Service infamously targeted dissenters during President Obama’s re-election campaign. Now the IRS is at it again. Earlier this year it issued a rule suppressing huge swaths of First Amendment protected speech. …The innocuously named Revenue Procedure 2018-5 contains a well-hidden provision enabling the Service to withhold tax-exempt status from organizations seeking to improve “business conditions . . . relating to an activity involving controlled substances…” The rule does not apply to all speech dealing with the listed substances, only that involving an “improvement” in “business conditions,” such as legalization or deregulation. …This is constitutionally pernicious viewpoint discrimination.

In other words, the bureaucrats didn’t learn from the Lois Lerner scandal.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced people that I’m not going soft on IRS malfeasance, let’s look at the budgetary issue that was the focus of the CNBC interview.

Is the IRS budget too small? Should it be increased so that more agents can conduct more audits and extract more money?

Both the host and my fellow guest started from the assumption that the IRS budget has been gutted. But that relies on cherry-picked data, starting when the IRS budget was at a peak level in 2011 thanks in part to all the money sloshing around Washington following Obama’s failed stimulus legislation.

Here are the more relevant numbers, taken from lines 2564-2609 of this massive database in the OMB’s supplemental materials on the budget. As you can see, IRS spending – adjusted for inflation – has nearly doubled since the early 1980s.

In other words, we shouldn’t feel sorry for the IRS and give it more money.

To augment these numbers, I made two simple points in the above interview.

  • First, we should demand more efficiency from the bureaucracy.
  • Second, we should reform the tax code to eliminate complexity.

The latter point is especially important because we could dramatically improve compliance while also shrinking the IRS if we had a simple and fair system such as the flat tax.

Last but not least, here’s a clip from another recent interview. I explained that the recent shutdown will be used as an excuse for any problems that occur in the near future.

Standard operating procedure for any bureaucracy.

P.S. My archive of IRS humor features 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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