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Archive for the ‘Corruption’ Category

One of the points I repeatedly make is that big government breeds corruption for the simple reason that politicians have more power to reward friends and punish enemies.

It’s especially nauseating when big companies learn that they can get in bed with big government in order to obtain unearned wealth with bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, and other examples of cronyism.

And these odious forms of government intervention reduce our living standards by distorting the allocation of labor and capital.

But just as crime is bad for society but good for criminals, it’s also true that cronyism is bad for the economy and good for cronies.

Two professors at the University of the Illinois decided to measure the “value” of cronyism for politically connected companies.

Gaining political access can be of significant value for corporations, particularly since governments play an increasingly prominent role in influencing firms. Governments affect economic activities not only through regulations, but also by playing the role of customers, financiers, and partners of firms in the private sector. …Therefore, gaining and maintaining access to influential policymakers can be an important source of competitive advantage… In this paper, we investigate the characteristics of firms with political access as well as the valuation effects of political access for corporations. Using a novel dataset of White House visitor logs, we identify top corporate executives of S&P 1500 firms that have face-to-face meetings with high-level federal government officials. …We match the names of visitors in the White House visitor logs to the names of corporate executives of S&P1500 firms during the period from January 2009 through December 2015. We are able to identify 2,286 meetings between corporate executives and federal government officials at the White House.

And what did they find?

That cronyism is lucrative (I deliberately chose that word rather than “profitable” because money that it legitimately earned is very honorable).

Here are some of the findings.

…we find that firms that contributed more to Obama’s presidential election campaigns are more likely to have access to the White House. We also find that firms that spend more on lobbying, firms that receive more government contracts… Second, we find that corporate executives’ meetings with White House officials are followed by significant positive cumulative abnormal returns (CARs). For example, the CAR is about 0.865% during a 51-day window surrounding the meetings (i.e., 10 days before to 40 days after the meetings). We also find that the result is driven mainly by meetings with the President and his top aides.

For those interested, here are the companies that had a lot of interaction with the Obama White House.

And here are the officials that they met with.

For what it’s worth, I would be especially suspicious of the meetings with Valerie Jarrett and the three Chiefs of Staff. Those officials are political operatives rather than policy experts, so companies meeting with them were probably looking for favors.

Interestingly, it turns out that it wasn’t a good idea for companies to “invest” a lot of time and effort into cultivating relationships with Democrats.

…we exploit the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the U.S. as a shock to political access. We find that firms with access to the Obama administration experience significantly lower stock returns following the release of the election result than otherwise similar firms. The economic magnitude is nontrivial as well: after controlling for various factors that are likely correlated with firms’ political activities, such as campaign contributions, lobbying expenses, and government contracts, the stocks of firms with access to the Obama administration underperform the stocks of otherwise similar firms by about 80 basis points in the three days immediately following the election.

Though I guess you can’t blame the companies. Most observers (including me) expected Hillary to win, so the firms were simply playing the odds (albeit from an amoral perspective).

By the way, there are two very important caveats to share.

  • First, we can’t universally assume that corporate executives who met with White House officials were seeking special favors. They may simply have been urging the Obama Administration not to raise taxes or impose new regulations (i.e., honorable forms of lobbying).
  • Second, we can’t assume that the bad forms of lobbying have disappeared simply because there’s a Republican in the White House. As we saw during the Bush years, the GOP is more than capable of creating opportunities for unearned wealth by expanding the size and scope government.

For what it’s worth, I fear Trump will be tempted to play favorites as well. Which is why the real message for today is that smaller government is the only way to limit the corrupt interaction of big business and big government.

This image from the libertarian page on Reddit illustrates why my leftist buddies are naive to think that a bigger government will be a weapon against cronyism.

P.S. We should learn from Estonia on how to limit cronyism.

P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, those with left-wing children may want to get them “Kronies” for their birthdays or Christmas.

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A couple of years ago, filled with disgust at the sleazy corruption of the federal Leviathan, I put forth a simple explanation for what happens in Washington, DC.

I call it the “First Theorem of Government,” and I think it accurately reflects the real purpose and operation of government. Except I probably should have added lobbyists and contractors. And it goes without saying (though I probably should have said it anyhow) that politicians are the main beneficiaries of this odious racket.

I think this theorem has stood the test of time. It works just as well when Republicans are in charge as it does when Democrats are in charge.

But it doesn’t describe everything.

For instance, Republicans have won landslide elections in recent years by promising that they will repeal Obamacare the moment they’re in charge. Well, now they control both Congress and the White House and their muscular rhetoric has magically transformed into anemic legislation.

This is very disappointing and perhaps I’ll share some of Michael Cannon’s work in future columns about the policy details, but today I want to focus on why GOP toughness has turned into mush.

In part, this is simply a reflection of the fact the rhetoric of politicians is always bolder than their legislation (I didn’t agree with 98 percent of what was said by Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, but he was correct that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”)

But that’s just a small part of the problem. The real issue is that it’s relatively easy for GOP politicians to battle against proposed handouts and it’s very difficult to battle against existing handouts. That’s because government goodies are like a drug. Recipients quickly get hooked and they will fight much harder to preserve handouts than they will to get them in the first place.

And that’s the basic insight of the “Second Theorem of Government.”

Here’s a recent interview on FBN. The topic is the Republican reluctance to fully repeal Obamacare. I only got two soundbites, and they both occur in the first half of the discussion, but you can see why I was motivated to put forth the new theorem.

Simply stated, I’m disappointed, but I’m more resigned than agitated because this development was so sadly predictable.

And here are a couple of follow-up observations. I guess we’ll call them corollaries to the theorem.

  1. You break it, you buy it – Government intervention had screwed up the system well before Obamacare was enacted, but people now blame the 2010 law (and the Democrats who voted for it) for everything that goes wrong with healthcare. Republicans fear that all the blame will shift to them if their “Repeal and Replace” legislation is adopted.
  2. Follow the money – What’s partly driving GOP timidity is their desire not to anger many of the interest groups – such as state governments, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, etc – who benefit from various Obamacare handouts. That’s what is motivating criticism for politicians such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
  3. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – The “Cadillac Tax” is the one part of Obamacare that’s worth preserving because it will slowly cut back on the distorting tax preferences that lead to over-insurance and third-party payer. For what it’s worth, the GOP plan retains that provision, albeit postponed until 2025.
  4. The switch in time that saved…Obamacare – I’m still upset that Chief Justice John Roberts (aka, the reincarnation of the 1930s version of Justice Roberts) put politics above the Constitution by providing the decisive vote in the Supreme Court decision that upheld Obamacare. If the law had been blocked before the handouts began, we wouldn’t be in the current mess.

For these reasons (as well as other corollaries to my theorem), I’m not brimming with optimism that we’ll get real Obamacare repeal this year. Or even substantive Obamacare reform.

P.S. Now you know what I speculated many years ago that Obamacare would be a long-run victory for the left even though Democrats lost many elections because of it. I sometimes hate when I’m right.

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I’ve written many times that Washington is both a corrupt city and a corrupting city. My point is that decent people go into government and all too often wind up losing their ethical values as they learn to “play the game.”

I often joke that these are people who start out thinking Washington is a cesspool but eventually decide it’s a hot tub.

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to “drain the swamp,” which is similar to my cesspool example. My concern is that El Presidente may not understand (or perhaps not even care) that shrinking the size and scope of government is the only effective way to reduce Washington corruption.

In any event, we’re soon going to get a very strong sign about whether Trump was serious. With Republicans on Capitol Hill divided on how to deal with this cronyist institution, Trump basically has the tie-breaking vote on the issue.

In other words, he has the power to shut down this geyser of corporate welfare. But will he?

According the Susan Ferrechio of the Washington Examiner, Trump may choose to wallow in the swamp rather than drain it.

President Trump now may be in favor of the Export-Import Bank, according to Republican lawmakers who met with him privately Thursday, even though Trump once condemned the bank as corporate welfare.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is one on the Ex-Im Bank’s most tenacious opponents, and she’s very worried.

…if the reports are true that Trump has decided to support the restoration of the crony Export-Import Bank’s full lending authority, it would be akin to the president deciding to instead happily bathe in the swamp and gargle the muck. …If true, the news is only “great” for Boeing, GE, and the other major recipients of Ex-Im’s corporate welfare. It is also at odds with his campaign promises since much of the way the program works is that it gives cheap loans — backed by Americans all over the country — to foreign companies in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Restoring Ex-Im’s full lending-authority powers is renewing the policy to give cheap loans backed by workers in the Rust Belt to companies like Ryanair ($4 billion in guarantee loans over ten years) and Emirates Airlines ($3.9 billion over ten years) so they can have a large competitive advantage over U.S. domestic airlines like Delta and United. It continued to subsidize the large and prosperous state-owned Mexican oil company PEMEX ($9.7 billion over ten years). Seriously? That’s president Trump’s vision of draining the swamp?

Ugh. It will be very disappointing if Trump chooses corporate welfare over taxpayers.

What presumably matters most, though, is whether a bad decision on the Ex-Im Bank is a deviation or a harbinger of four years of cronyism.

In other words, when the dust settles, will the net effect of Trump’s policies be a bigger swamp or smaller swamp?

The New York Times opined that Trump is basically replacing one set of insiders with another set of insiders, which implies a bigger swamp.

Mr. Trump may be out to challenge one establishment — the liberal elite — but he is installing one of his own, filled with tycoons, Wall Street heavyweights, cronies and a new rank of shadowy wealthy “advisers” unaccountable to anyone but him. …Take first the Goldman Sachs crowd. The Trump campaign lambasted global financiers, led by Goldman, as having “robbed our working class,” but here come two of the alleged miscreants: Gary Cohn, Goldman’s president, named to lead the National Economic Council, and Steven Mnuchin, named as Treasury secretary. …Standing in the rain during Mr. Trump’s inaugural speech, farmers and factory workers, truckers, nurses and housekeepers greeted his anti-establishment words by cheering “Drain the Swamp!” even as the new president was standing knee-deep in a swamp of his own.

I’m skeptical of Trump, and I’m waiting to see whether Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin will be friends for taxpayers, so I’m far from a cheerleader for the current administration.

But I also think the New York Times is jumping the gun.

Maybe Trump will be a swamp-wallowing cronyist, but we don’t yet have enough evidence (though a bad decision on Ex-Im certainly would be a very bad omen).

Here’s another potential indicator of what may happen to the swamp under Trump’s reign.

Bloomberg reports that two former Trump campaign officials, Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennett have cashed in by setting up a lobbying firm to take advantage of their connections.

The arrival of a new president typically means a gold rush for Washington lobbyists as companies, foreign governments, and interest groups scramble for access and influence in the administration. Trump’s arrival promises to be different—at least according to Trump. Throughout the campaign, he lambasted the capital as a den of insider corruption and repeatedly vowed to “drain the swamp,” a phrase second only in the Trump lexicon to “make America great again.” …Trump’s well-advertised disdain for lobbying might seem to augur poorly for a firm seeking to peddle influence. …“Business,” Lewandowski says, “has been very, very good.”

This rubs me the wrong way. I don’t want lobbyists to get rich.

But, to be fair, not all lobbying is bad. Many industries hire “representation” because they want to protect themselves from taxes and regulation. And they have a constitutional right to “petition” the government and contribute money, so I definitely don’t want to criminalize lobbying.

But as I’ve said over and over again, I’d like a much smaller government so that interest groups don’t have an incentive to do either the right kind of lobbying (self-protection) or the wrong kind of lobbying (seeking to obtain unearned wealth via the coercive power of government).

Here’s one final story about the oleaginous nature of Washington.

Wells Fargo is giving a big payout to Elaine Chao, the new Secretary of Transportation.

Chao, who joined Wells Fargo as a board member in 2011, has collected deferred stock options —  a compensation perk generally designed as a long-term retention strategy — that she would not be able to cash out if she left the firm to work for a competitor. Her financial disclosure notes that she will receive a “cash payout for my deferred stock compensation” upon confirmation as Secretary of Transportation. The document discloses that the payments will continue throughout her time in government, if she is confirmed. The payouts will begin in July 2017 and continue yearly through 2021. But Wells Fargo, like several banks and defense contractors, provides a special clause in its standard executive employment contract that offers flexibility for awarding compensation if executives leave the bank to enter “government service.” Such clauses, critics say, are structured to incentivize the so-called “reverse revolving door” of private sector officials burrowing into government. …Golden parachutes for executives leaving firms to enter government dogged several Obama administration officials. Jack Lew, upon leaving Citigroup to join the Obama administration in 2009, was given a cash payout as part of his incentive and retention awards that wouldn’t have been paid if he had left the firm to join a competitor or under ordinary circumstances. But Lew’s Citigroup contract stipulated that there was an exception for leaving to work in a “full time high level position with the U.S. government or regulatory body.” Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Northrop Grumman are among the other firms that have offered special financial rewards to executives who leave to enter government.

This rubs me the wrong way, just as it rubbed me the wrong way when one of Obama’s cabinet appointees got a similar payout.

But the more I think about it, the real question isn’t whether government officials get to keep stock options and other forms of deferred compensation when they jump to government.

What bothers me much more is why companies feel that it’s in their interest to hire people closely connected to government. What value did Jacob Lew bring to Citigroup? What value did Chao bring to Wells Fargo?

I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with financial institutions wanting people who can can pick up the phone and extract favors and information from senior officials in government.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of Lew because he pushed for statism while at Treasury. By contrast, I am a fan of Chao because she was one of the few bright spots during the generally statist Bush years.

But I don’t want a system where private companies feel like they should hire either one of them simply because they have connections in Washington.

I hope that Trump will change this perverse set of incentives by “draining the swamp.” But unless he reduces the size and scope of government, the problem will get worse rather than better.

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In 2016, there were three very worthy candidates for the highly coveted Politician of the Year Award.

  • In May, I gave the prize to Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, because he assured voters that none of his mistresses were on the public payroll. Gee, what a swell guy!
  • In July, I had to reopen the balloting since it was revealed that the follicly-challenged President of France, Francois Hollande, was squandering more than $100,000 per year on a hair stylist.
  • And that same month, the Prime Minister of Malaysia became a strong contestant when it was revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars were mysteriously diverted from the government’s cronyist investment fund.

Well, we now have an early contestant for the 2017 prize.  And it’s going to be a group award. Romania’s Social Democrats have just voted to legalize abuse of power. I’m not joking, Here are some excerpts from a report by the EU Observer.

Romania’s left-wing government scrapped some anti-corruption rules, in a move likely to allow leading politicians to avoid criminal persecution. The cabinet of social democrat Sorin Grindeanu…passed an emergency measure to decriminalise some offences. Abuse of power will no longer be prosecuted if it is deemed to have caused financial damage of less than €44,000. …Changes will enter into force within 10 days, without need for approval by the parliament.

Wow. This is so absurd that I wonder whether there’s more to the story.

For instance, I wrote two years ago about the nation of Georgia getting rid of an entire division of the national police force, which sounds like a move to enable crime. But there was a story behind the story. It turns out that lawmakers in Tbilisi got rid of highway cops because the force was pervasively corrupt, basically doing nothing other than extorting money from motorists. So eliminating the force was actually an anti-corruption step.

In the case of Romania, though, I haven’t found any sign of mitigating circumstances. It appears that politicians simply want get-out-of-jail-free cards.

For what it’s worth, many Romanians are not happy that their politicians have made stealing legal.

Some 10,000 people gathered outside the government’s headquarters, calling the government “thieves” and “traitors” and imploring the cabinet to resign. …critics say the measure will clear several leading politicians who are under investigation or on trial in abuse-of-power cases. …Romania’s centre-right president Klaus Iohannis said he would refuse to swear in anyone with a criminal record. On Tuesday, Iohannis announced “a day of mourning for the rule of law”. “The government ignored the dream of millions of Romanians who want live in a country free of corruption,” he posted on Facebook. Laura Codruta Kovesi, the chief prosecutor at Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), said she had only seen a draft of the bill, but its contents would render the fight against corruption in Romania “irrelevant”.

By the way, political corruption appears to be a non-trivial problem.

According to Transparency International, Romania is ranked #57 in the Corruption Perceptions Index, which is the weakest score of any EU nation other than Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria.

But let’s close with some good news. I’ve written (over and over and over again) that big government facilitates corruption. Simply stated, politicians in places like Romania (or the United States!) wouldn’t have favors to sell if the government didn’t have favors to dispense.

So if you want less corruption, shrink the size of the public sector.

And Romania is moving in the right direction. After decades of horrific communist tyranny, it became a transition economy when the Soviet Union collapsed. Ever since, like many other countries in the region, Romania has been trying to shed the shackles of statism so that a market economy can function.

There’s been some success. Romania is one of the many flat tax nations in Eastern Europe. And it ranks #22 in Economic Freedom of the World, which is rather impressive (though it only ranks #61 for the size-of-government category, so there’s obviously room for improvement).

The continuing challenge, not only in Romania, but all over the world, is convincing politicians to reduce the size and scope of government when that means they’ll have less opportunity to line their own pockets. Sort of like asking foxes to guard henhouses.

And it’s not just the fault of politicians. What can really sabotage a nation is when a sufficiently large share of the overall population decides that it’s morally acceptable to loot and mooch. In that case, politicians are simply a reflection of societal rot.

It’s much easier to restore physical capital than it is to restore cultural capital.

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I have a very consistent view of victimless crimes.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t approve of prostitution and I’ve never consorted with a prostitute (other than the political ones in DC), but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

Given these views, you won’t be surprised to also learn that I don’t care for gambling, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

The good news is that the nation is slowly but surely moving in the direction of legalization.

The bad news is that politicians doing the right thing in the worst possible way. Let’s look at three examples.

Our first wretched example is government-run lotteries, which are rip-off operations. In a genuine market, competition forces casinos to have reasonably decent odds. Yes, it’s set up so “the house” wins more often than it loses, but a casino probably pays out $90 for every $100 of bets. With lotteries, by contrast, governments rig the rules so that they pay out closer to $50 for every $100 of bets. Mafioso loansharks must be envious.

A second example is that politicians seem to view legalization merely as an opportunity for taxes, graft, featherbedding, and cronyism. Consider the case of Atlantic City, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

In 1976 New Jersey voters approved a referendum that legalized gambling in Atlantic City. The constitutional amendment required casino revenues to fund programs for senior citizens and disabled residents, but politicians have instead funneled the cash to favored projects and businesses under the guise of promoting development. Guess how that’s turned out? A 1984 law required casinos to pay 2.5% of gaming revenues to the state or “reinvest” 1.25% in tax-exempt bonds issued by the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for state and community “projects that would not attract capital in normal market conditions.” Investment recipients have included Best of Bass Pro shop, Margaritaville and Healthplex. A decade later, state lawmakers imposed a $1.50 fee (which has since doubled) on casino parking spots to fund Atlantic City transportation, casino construction and a convention center. In 2004 lawmakers added a $3 surcharge for casino hotel stays to finance new hotel rooms and retail establishments, which had the effect of promoting unsustainable commercial and casino development. …Employment in Atlantic City has declined by about 10% over the last decade. Since 2010 the city’s property tax base has shrunk by two thirds. Local politicians raised property taxes by 50% between 2013 and 2014 to compensate for the dwindling tax base, but this has merely deterred new business investment and propelled flight. Meantime, local politicians have continued to spend… Between 2010 and 2014, expenditures increased by 10% while government debt doubled. The city government spends about $6,600 a year per resident—more than any other city in the state including Newark ($2,344). …Labor costs constitute about 70% of the budget. Earlier this year, the city emergency manager projected a $393 million cumulative deficit over the next five years absent reforms. …Democratic legislators and Governor Chris Christie passed a bailout that allows the city to squeeze an additional $120 million out of casinos in revenues annually to compensate for lower property-tax revenue. To sum up: New Jersey…plundered Atlantic City casinos, redistributed the spoils and loaded up the city with unaffordable levels of debt. The gambling mecca is a five-star example of failed liberal policies.

In other words, gambling did lead to addiction. Politicians got hooked on wasteful spending and haven’t been able to kick the habit.

Our final example is how politicians and established casinos are getting in bed together to prohibit competition from online gaming.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is not impressed by this bit of cronyism.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has long sought federal legislation that would override the ability of state governments to set their own online gambling rules. Given his business activities, Adelson clearly has no moral objections to gambling itself. His goal is simply to undermine market competition and put alternatives to his Vegas casinos out of business, and he has spent millions on lobbyists to help make that happen. Adelson’s allies in Congress have tried repeatedly to pass the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA), which would prevent states from authorizing online gambling within their own borders… Outside groups strongly warned against the consequences of undermining the 10th Amendment in the pursuit of crony capitalism. RAWA represents both a direct attack on personal liberty and a potential slippery slope in its erosion of federalist principles.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center also is disappointed with this odious bit of special-interest favoritism.

Adelson hates online gambling, as it competes with his bricks-and-mortar Las Vegas casinos for customers. More than five years ago, on what has become known to the poker world as Black Friday, the federal government unleashed a legal jihad against online poker companies and their top executives. Online poker is not itself illegal—a fact clarified by the DOJ’s reinterpretation of the Wire Act—but the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act made it illegal for payment processors to transfer funds to and from gambling sites. The problem for Adelson and his allies is that the UIGEA and other federal statutes apply only when state borders are crossed. The 10th Amendment and the principles of federalism mean that federal lawmakers should have no say regarding activities that take place entirely within one state’s borders. So if state governments wish to authorize online gambling for their citizens, they are and should remain free to do so.

Time for my two cents on the issue. Ideally, no government should have the power to tell gamblers whether they can engage in consensual transactions across state lines or even national borders.

But not only has that already happened, but we now have politicians and a cronyist conspiring to have the federal government interfere with states that want to allow online gambling inside state borders.

It will be interesting to see whether Republicans, now that they’re about to control Washington, will choose cronyism or competition, centralization or federalism (the Export-Import Bank is another test of GOP principles…or lack thereof).

Let’s put all this in context. Today’s topic is gambling and the cancerous effect of government intervention and favoritism in that sector. But the lesson we should learn is that cronyism is a bad idea, period. Cronyism is also bad in agriculture. It’s bad in finance. It’s bad in the tax code. It’s bad in energy. It’s bad everywhere.

To conclude, here’s an excellent video from Lean Liberty about the dangers of letting big business and big government rig the rules for the benefit of powerful insiders.

The moral of the story is that consumers should be in charge of which companies succeed and which ones fail.

The free enterprise system – when it’s allowed to operate – produces great wealth and prosperity. Cronyism, by contrast, undermines growth by politicizing the allocation of resources. Even worse, it reduces public support for limited government since many people mistakenly assume that big business and capitalism are synonymous.

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If you ask what worries me about the incoming Trump Administration, I’ll immediately point to a bunch of policy issues.

Others, though, are more focused on whether Trump’s business empire will distort decisions in the White House.

Here’s what Paul Krugman recently wrote about Trump and potential corruption.

…he’s already giving us an object lesson in what real conflicts of interest look like, as authoritarian governments around the world shower favors on his business empire. Of course, Donald Trump could be rejecting these favors and separating himself and his family from his hotels and so on. But he isn’t. In fact, he’s openly using his position to drum up business. …The question you need to ask is why this matters. …America is a very rich country, whose government spends more than $4 trillion a year, so even large-scale looting amounts to rounding error. What’s important is not the money that sticks to the fingers of the inner circle, but what they do to get that money, and the bad policy that results. …what’s truly scary is the potential impact of corruption on foreign policy. …someplace like Vladimir Putin’s Russia can easily funnel vast sums to the man at the top… So how bad will the effects of Trump-era corruption be? The best guess is, worse than you can possibly imagine.

I’m tempted to ask why Krugman wasn’t similarly worried about corruption over the past eight years. Was he fretting about Solyndra-type scams? About the pay-to-play antics at the Clinton Foundation? About Operation Choke Point and arbitrary denial of financial services to law-abiding citizens?

He seems to think that the problem of malfeasance only exists when his team isn’t in power. But that’s totally backwards. As I wrote back in 2010, people should be especially concerned and vigilant when their party holds power. It’s not just common sense. It should be a moral obligation.

But even if Krugman is a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. At least not in this case. He is absolutely on the mark when he frets about the “incentives” for massive looting by Trump and his allies.

But what frustrates me is that he doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion, which is that the incentive to loot mostly exists because there’s an ability to loot. And the ability to loot mostly exists because the federal government is so big and has so much power.

And as Lord Acton famously warned, power is very tempting and very corrupting.

Which is why I’m hoping that Krugman will read John Stossel’s new column for Reason. In the piece, John correctly points out that the only way to “drain the swamp” is to shrink the size and scope of government.

…today’s complex government allows the politically connected to corrupt… most everything. …In the swamp, no one but taxpayers pays for their mistakes. …it’s well worth it for companies to invest in lobbyists and fixers who dive into the swamp to extract subsidies.For taxpayers? Not so much. While the benefits to lobbyists are concentrated, taxpayer costs are diffuse. …Draining the swamp would mean not just taking freebies away from corporations—or needy citizens—but eliminating complex handouts like Obamacare. Candidate Trump said he would repeal Obamacare. Will he? He’s already backed off of that promise, saying he likes two parts of the law—the most expensive parts.

As you can see, Stossel understands “public choice” and recognizes that making government smaller is the only sure-fire way of reducing public corruption.

Which is music to my ears, for obvious reasons.

By the way, the same problem exists in many other countries and this connects to the controversies about Trump and his business dealings. Many of the stories about potential misbehavior during a Trump Administration focus on whether the President will adjust American policy in exchange for permits and other favors from foreign governments.

But that temptation wouldn’t exist if entrepreneurs didn’t need to get permission from bureaucrats before building things such as hotels and golf courses. In other words, if more nations copied Singapore and New Zealand, there wouldn’t be much reason to worry whether the new president was willing to swap policy for permits.

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The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

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