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Archive for the ‘Cronyism’ Category

I have a fantasy of junking the entire corrupt tax system and adopting a simple and fair flat tax.

I have an even bigger fantasy of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government to what America’s Founders intended, in which case Washington wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

But in the real world, where I know “public choice” determines political behavior, I have much more limited hopes and dreams.

I’ve been saying for months that tax reform will be a worthwhile success if it leads to a significantly lower corporate tax rate and the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes.

And I recently added repeal of the death tax as a third item that would make me very happy.

Now let’s add a fourth item to my wish-list. The House version of tax reform actually does  a decent job of curtailing some of the egregious distortions that line the pocket of companies that peddle so-called green energy.

I know it must be a decent job since the GOP plan is causing angst for leftist journalists.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives…bill would slash incentives for renewable energy and the electric car industry. Environmental groups are frantic. …The House provision raising the most ire are proposed changes to the renewable electricity production tax credit, which benefits producers of wind, solar, geothermal and other types of renewable energy. …The House GOP plan would also repeal the Investment Tax Credit for big solar projects that start construction after 2027. House Republicans also propose eliminating the $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases. …the Senate bill may not include all of the House’s cuts to clean energy.

It is true that the Senate bill is very timid. But given that there will be a lot of pressure to find “offsets” in any final deal, I’m vaguely hopeful that some of the good provisions in the House bill will survive.

Let’s explore why that would be a very good outcome.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is not a fan of cronyist subsidies to solar energy.

Under President Barack Obama, green energy subsidies were given out like candy. The failure of solar panel company Solyndra is well-known, but the problem extends well beyond the shady loan deal and its half-billion-dollar cost to taxpayers. Between 2010 and 2013, federal subsidies for solar energy alone increased by about 500 percent, from $1.1 billion to $5.3 billion (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration), and all federal renewable energy subsidies grew from $8.6 billion to $13.2 billion over the same period. …However, that didn’t stop the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer, SolarWorld, from filing for bankruptcy earlier this year despite $115 million in federal and state grants and tax subsidies since 2012, along with $91 million in federal loan guarantees. SolarWorld and fellow bankrupt manufacturer Suniva are now begging for even more government assistance, in the form of a 40-cent-per-watt tariff on solar imports and a minimum price of 78 cents (including the 40-cent tariff) a watt on solar panels made by foreign manufacturers.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that wind energy is reliant on taxpayer handouts.

…government data shows that offshore wind power cannot survive in a competitive environment without huge taxpayer subsidies. Today, wind power receives subsidies greater than any other form of energy per unit of actual energy produced. …public subsidies for wind on a per megawatt-hour basis are 26 times those for fossil fuels and 16 times those for nuclear power. …The tax credit gives $23 for every megawatt-hour of electricity a wind turbine generates during the first 10 years of operation. …Yet, even with these incentives, only 4.7 percent of the nation’s electricity is currently supplied by wind power and that is entirely wind power from on-land turbines. …Think about it: Four large power plants could produce as much electricity as offshore wind turbines placed side by side along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida. Moreover, power plants last longer than wind turbines. A British study found that turbines need to be replaced within 12 to 15 years, and they must be imported from Europe.

Given the disgusting nature of ethanol subsidies, I wonder whether Mark’s headline can possibly be accurate.

In any event, Senator Alexander of Tennessee agrees that wind subsidies are a bad idea.

As we look at all the wasteful and unnecessary tax breaks that are holding us back, I have a nomination: At the top of the list should be ending the quarter-century-old wind production tax credit now — not two years from now. This giveaway to wind developers was meant to end in 1999 but has been extended by Congress ten different times. While the wind production tax credit is scheduled to be phased out by the end of 2019, we should do better and end it at the end of this year, and use the $4 billion in savings to lower tax rates. …Congress needs to stop its habit of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. Twenty-five years of picking wind developers over more-reliable sources of electricity hasn’t paid off. Imagine what innovation we might unleash if we used the billions wasted on wind energy to invest in research to help our free-enterprise system provide the abundance of cheap, clean, reliable energy we need to power our 21st-century economy.

A recipient of tax preferences discusses his undeserved benefits in a Wall Street Journal column.

…it’s only appropriate that I express appreciation for the generous subsidy you provided for the 28-panel, four-array, 8,540-watt photovoltaic system I installed on my metal roof last year. Thanks to the investment tax credit, I slashed my 2016 federal tax bill by $7,758. …thanks to the incentives for rooftop solar, I’ve snared three subsidies. …fewer rooftop solar projects are being installed in low-income neighborhoods. …According to a study done for the California Public Utility Commission, residents who have installed solar systems have household incomes 68% higher than the state average. Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, calls the proliferation of rooftop solar systems and the returns they provide to lucky people like me, “a wealth transfer from less affluent ratepayers to more affluent ones.” It is, Mr. Brown says, “Robin Hood in reverse.” Do I feel bad about being a solar freeloader? Yes, a little. …the local barista or school janitor—people who likely can’t afford solar panels—are paying incrementally more for the grid’s maintenance and operation. And the more that people like me install panels, the more those baristas and janitors have to pay.

By the way, the United States is not the only nation with green-energy boondoggles (remember Solyndra?).

I’ve previously written about the failure of such programs in Germany.

Let’s add to that collection with an all-too-typical story from the United Kingdom.

Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn American wood pellets that do more harm to the climate than the coal they replaced, a study has found. Chopping down trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal, according to the report. It blames the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets… Green subsidies for wood pellets and other biomass were championed by Chris Huhne when he was Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government. Mr Huhne, 62, who was jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice, is now European chairman of Zilkha Biomass, a US supplier of wood pellets.

In a perverse way, I admire Mr. Huhne, who didn’t follow the usual revolving-door strategy of politician-to-cronyist. He apparently went politician-to-prisoner-to-cronyist.

If you head north in Great Britain, the foolishness mostly revolves around wind power.

…the blackmailing, money-printing sausage factory is a wind farm in Scotland. There are currently about 750 wind farms north of the border, with roughly 3,000 wind turbines. …The wind farms are distributed across Scotland, sometimes in very remote regions, so there is a real problem in getting their energy down to the English border – let alone getting it across. …Why has so much been built? Partly, it is because of income-support subsidies. This top-up of nearly 100 per cent over the wholesale price – funded, of course, from consumer bills – makes wind farms very attractive… Subsidies to onshore wind in the UK now cost a little under £600 million a year, with Scottish wind taking about half, yet the Scottish government continues to ignore the protests and consent to new wind farms as if they cost almost nothing at all. Which as far as Holyrood is concerned, is in fact true. Part of the attraction for Scottish politicians is that the subsidies that pay for Scottish wind farms come from consumers all over Great Britain. Scottish consumption is about 10 per cent of the British total – so when the Scottish government grants planning permission to the wind industry, it is simply writing a cheque drawn overwhelmingly on English and Welsh accounts. …The result is that there is a perverse incentive to locate wind farms in Scotland, even though they aren’t welcome and the grid can’t take their output.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that taxpayers in the U.K. have been subsidizing green groups.

From an economic perspective, the bottom line is that green energy is more expensive and it requires subsidies that line the pockets of politically connected people and companies. That’s true in America, and it’s true in other nations.

Which is unfortunate, because it gives a bad name to energy sources that probably will be capable of producing low-cost energy in some point in the future.

Indeed, my long-run optimism about green energy is one of the reasons why I’m such a big believer in capitalism and private property. I just don’t want politicians to intervene today and make it harder to achieve future innovation.

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Experts in the field of political marketing periodically tell me that you need to have sympathetic victims when trying to change policy.

That’s probably good advice. When people have real-world examples – especially ones they can relate to – that presumably helps them understand the need for a reform.

I have to admit, however, that my approach is generally more wonky. Whether I’m meeting with a policymaker, giving a speech, or writing a column, I view my role as trying to help people understand one or more basic economic concepts (the importance of lower marginal tax rates, for example).

I think there’s value in my approach (if people grasp an underlying principle, that can impact their understanding of both current and future policy fights). But there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do both.

So I’m going to begin today’s column about occupational licensing (when state governments impose restrictions and regulations that limit who can work in a particular field) with a sympathy-eliciting example that hopefully will resonate with readers.

Consider what happened in New York City recently now that bureaucrats have decided that people couldn’t be dog sitters without going through all the red tape to become a licensed kennel.

Pet lovers are barking mad over a little-known city rule that makes dog-sitting illegal in New York. Health Department rules ban anyone from taking money to care for an animal outside a licensed kennel — and the department has warned a popular pet-sitting app that its users are breaking the law. “The laws are antiquated,” said Chad Bacon, 29, a dog sitter in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with the app Rover. “If you’re qualified and able to provide a service, I don’t think you should be penalized.” Bacon, a former zookeeper and wildlife researcher, signed up for the app to help make ends meet while he was between jobs, but did enough business that he now makes his living from it full-time.

Now that we’ve identified Mr. Bacon as our sympathetic example, let’s look at the broader issue of the government creating barriers to employment and entrepreneurship.

The health code bans boarding, feeding and grooming animals for a fee without a kennel license — and says those licenses can’t be issued for private homes. …at least two apartment residents were slapped with violations in November and December for caring for pets without a permit. Fines start at $1,000. “If you’ve got a 14-year-old getting paid to feed your cats, that’s against the law right now,” said Rover’s general counsel John Lapham. “Most places right now continue to make it easier to watch children than animals, and that doesn’t make any sense.”

By the way, that’s not an argument for regulating babysitting (the kind of nonsense you might find in California). Instead, it’s a reason why state governments shouldn’t be going overboard with licensing rules.

The Institute for Justice just released a study on licensing rules for jobs that generally employ lower-skilled individuals.

Occupational licensing is, put simply, government permission to work in a particular field. In the 1950s, about one in 20 American workers needed an occupational license before they could work in the occupation of their choice. Today, that figure stands at about one in four. Securing an occupational license may require education or experience, exams, fees, and more, and working without one can mean fines or even jail time. …Policymakers, scholars and opinion leaders left, right and center are increasingly recognizing that licensing comes with high costs—fewer job opportunities and steeper prices—and does little to improve quality or protect consumers. …Most of the 102 occupations are practiced in at least one state without state licensing and apparently without widespread harm. Only 23 of these occupations are licensed by 40 states or more.

The last section of that excerpt is critically important. Special interests argue that occupational licensing somehow protects people, yet we have real-world examples for all 102 professions of states that have zero licensing restrictions and we don’t have examples of people dying or being harmed because of unregulated florists or rogue cosmetologists.

And shouldn’t there be some evidence of societal benefit before government restricts economic freedom (the same argument I’ve used when analyzing OSHA)?

As you might imagine, some states are worse than others. Here’s a map showing the degree to which state politicians conspire with special interests to create cartels in various fields. Louisiana and Washington are the worst (based on number of licensed professions) and Wyoming and Vermont (yes, that Vermont) are the least onerous.

Having written about a horrible example of occupational licensing in DC, I’m surprised that the District of Columbia isn’t at the bottom of the rankings. Or Alabama.

Though I’m not surprised to see that Oregon is green.

Here’s the report’s accompany video.

If you liked that video, you can click here for another video on occupational licensing.

A column by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic highlights some of the findings in the IJ study.

…in Connecticut, a home-entertainment installer is required to obtain a license from the state before serving customers. It costs applicants $185. To qualify, they must have a 12th-grade education, complete a test, and accumulate one year of apprenticeship experience in the field. A typical aspirant can expect the licensing process to delay them 575 days. …Occupational-licensing obstacles are much more common than they once were. “In the 1950s, about one in 20 American workers needed an occupational license before they could work in the occupation of their choice,” the report states. “Today, that figure stands at about one in four.”

And he points out that consumers and workers (those outside the cartel) are the victims.

These requirements…are at their most pernicious when they are both needless and most burdensome to the middle class, the working class, and recent immigrants to a society. The IJ report focuses its attention on these cases, surveying 102 lower-income occupations across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It concludes that “most of the 102 occupations are practiced in at least one state without state licensing and apparently without widespread harm.” In other words, dropping many of those requirements likely wouldn’t do any harm. …Too often, occupational-licensing laws are less about protecting workers or consumers as a class than they are about protecting the interests of incumbents. Want to compete with me? Good luck, now that I’ve lobbied for a law that requires you to shell out cash and work toward a certificate before you can begin.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about IJ’s new report.

More than ever, the government requires Americans to get permission to earn a living. In the 1950s one in 20 workers needed a license to work; now about one in four do. The rules hurt the working poor in particular, but everyone suffers in states with the most licensing requirements… Hawaii’s prerequisites are the most grueling while Louisiana and Washington regulate the most professions, with both states requiring a license for 77 lower-income fields. …California has the most dysfunctional regime. Across professions, it has established “a nearly impenetrable thicket of bureaucracy” where “no one could” provide a “list of all the licensed occupations,” as one state oversight agency admitted last year. …The cost and time to obtain a license is no accident, as professional guild members sit on state licensing boards and reinforce the racket. They want to limit competition to keep prices high. …Stiff licensing requirements are often prohibitive for America’s working poor, keeping them trapped in low-wage, low-skill jobs. …Nationwide, licensing drives up prices by as much as $203 billion annually. The requirements also hurt consumers by restricting access to goods and services.

The WSJ editorial points out that both political parties are guilty of supporting these insidious cartels.

Here’s an example, from Reason, of Democrats behaving badly.

California Democrats prattle endlessly about helping the working poor, but their latest vote against a bill that would tangibly help financially struggling people shows that Democratic leaders are more interested in serving their real constituencies: state bureaucracies, unions and other interest groups that want to keep out the competition. …California has the nation’s highest poverty rates, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau standard that includes cost-of-living factors. A good starting place to address that problem is to chip away at unnecessary barriers to work. Trade groups, however, recognize that the best way to inflate their members’ pay is to raise the cost of entry for others—and the more fields regulated this way, the more it keeps poor people in the welfare lines. …Such concerns prompted even the Democratic Obama administration to call for far-reaching licensing reforms, yet California’s Democrats don’t even seem to understand the point of such efforts. Or maybe they just won’t let themselves understand the argument, given their political alliances.

And Reason also identifies a Republican behaving badly.

Otter is bending to the wishes of other special interests. In vetoing the licensing reform bill—a bill that would have done little more than reduce the number of hours of training before someone could be licensed to cut hair or apply makeup from 800 to 600—Otter said objections voiced by the state Board of Cosmetology and the State Board of Barber Examiners should overrule the majority of the state legislature. …”For years, Butch Otter has given great speeches about the need for a free economy and limited, constitutionally-based government,” said Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a free market think tank, in a statement about the two vetoes. “Yet once again, Gov. Otter has rejected sensible, conservative, bipartisan liberty-based legislation that would have put Idaho entrepreneurs back to work and would have protected constitutional rights of Idahoans.”

Let’s close with an image that is both amusing and sad. Amusing because it mocks government and sad because it’s true. It’s basically the cartoon version of something I shared last year.

P.S. Returning to the issue of political marketing, I actually do use real-world examples for some purposes. My Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is nothing but horror stories about specific government employees pillaging taxpayers. and my collection of honest leftists also is based on specific stories of statists inadvertently revealing something important.

P.P.S. Business permits at the local level also are akin to occupational licenses. Governments are making people pay to become entrepreneurs. Which oftentimes translates into painful lessons for young people about government greed.

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I fully agree with my leftist friends who say that corporations want to extract every penny they can from consumers. I also (mostly) agree with them when they say corporations are soulless entities that don’t care about people.

But after they’re done venting, I then try to educate them by pointing out that the only way corporations can separate consumers their money is by vigorously competing to provide desirable goods and services at attractive prices.

Moreover, their “soulless” pursuit of those profits (as explained by Walter Williams) will lead them to be efficient and innovative, which boosts overall economic output.

Moreover, in a competitive market, it’s not consumers vs. corporations, it’s corporations vs. corporations with consumers automatically winning.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute makes a very valuable point about what happens in a free economy.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2017 Fortune 500, there are only 59 companies that appear in both lists (see companies in the graphic above). In other words, fewer than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies included in 1955 were still on the list 62 years later in 2017, and more than 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged with (or were acquired by) another firm, or they still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).

It’s not just the Fortune 500.

…corporations in the S&P 500 Index in 1965 stayed in the index for an average of 33 years. By 1990, average tenure in the S&P 500 had narrowed to 20 years and is now forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026. At the current churn rate, about half of today’s S&P 500 firms will be replaced over the next 10 years.

Here’s Mark’s list of companies that have stayed at the top of the Fortune 500 over the past 62 years.

Mark then offers an economic lesson from this data.

The fact that nearly 9 of every 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction over the last six decades. It’s reasonable to assume that when the Fortune 500 list is released 60 years from now in 2077, almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist as currently configured, having been replaced by new companies in new, emerging industries, and for that we should be extremely thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy.

He also emphasizes that consumers are the real beneficiaries of this competitive process.

…the creative destruction that results in the constant churning of Fortune 500 (and S&P 500) companies over time is that the process of market disruption is being driven by the endless pursuit of sales and profits that can only come from serving customers with low prices, high-quality products and services, and great customer service. If we think of a company’s annual sales revenues as the number of “dollar votes” it gets every year from providing goods and services to consumers… As consumers, we should appreciate the fact that we are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Schumpeterian creative destruction that drives the dynamism of the market economy and results in a constant churning of the firms who are ultimately fighting to attract as many of our dollar votes as possible.

Incidentally, Mark did this same exercise in 2014 and 2015 and ascertained that there were 61 companies still remaining on the list.

So creative destruction apparently has claimed two more victims.

Or, to be more accurate, the needs and desires of consumers have produced more churning, leading to greater material abundance for America.

I’ll close with two points.

All of which explains why I want separation of business and state.

The bottom line is that an unfettered market produces the best results for the vast majority of people. Yes, people are greedy, but that leads to good outcomes in a capitalist environment.

But we get awful results if cronyism is the dominant system, and that seems to be the direction we’re heading in America.

P.S. Even when corporations try to exploit people in the third world, the pursuit of profits actually results in better lives for the less fortunate.

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In my 30-plus years in Washington, I’ve lived through some very bad pieces of legislation.

But the most depressing experience was probably the TARP bailout. In part, it was depressing because bad government policy created the conditions for the crisis, so it was frustrating to see the crowd in Washington blame capitalism (in effect, a repeat of what happened in the 1930s).

Far more depressing, however, was the policy response. Thanks largely to the influence of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the Bush Administration decided to bail out the big firms on Wall Street rather than use “FDIC resolution,” which would have bailed out depositors but at least shut down big institutions that were insolvent.

In other words, TARP was pure cronyism. Wall Street firms had “invested” in Washington by giving lots of contributions to politicians and TARP was their payoff.

With this background, you’ll understand why I asserted in this interview that the dissolution of two business advisory councils is the silver lining to the black cloud of Charlottesville.

Since that was just one segment of a longer interview and I didn’t get a chance to elaborate, here are some excerpts from an article in Harvard Business Review by Robert Litan and Ian Hathaway about the connection between anemic productivity numbers (which I wrote about last week) and cronyism.

Baumol’s writing raises the possibility that U.S. productivity is low because would-be entrepreneurs are focused on the wrong kind of work. In a 1990 paper, “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” Baumol argued that the level of entrepreneurial ambition in a country is essentially fixed over time, and that what determines a nation’s entrepreneurial output is the incentive structure that governs and directs entrepreneurial efforts between “productive” and “unproductive” endeavors. Most people think of entrepreneurship as being the “productive” kind, as Baumol referred to it, where the companies that founders launch commercialize something new or better, benefiting society and themselves in the process. A sizable body of research establishes that these “Schumpeterian” entrepreneurs, those that are “creatively destroying” the old in favor of the new, are critical for breakthrough innovations and rapid advances in productivity and standards of living. Baumol was worried, however, by a very different sort of entrepreneur: the “unproductive” ones, who exploit special relationships with the government to construct regulatory moats, secure public spending for their own benefit, or bend specific rules to their will, in the process stifling competition to create advantage for their firms. Economists call this rent-seeking behavior.

That’s the theory.

What about evidence? Well, Obamacare could be considered a case study since it basically was a giveaway to big pharmaceutical firms and big health insurance companies.

But the authors look at the issue more broadly to see if there is an economy-wide problem.

Do we…see a rise in unproductive entrepreneurship, as Baumol theorized? …James Bessen of Boston University has provided suggestive evidence that rent-seeking behavior has been increasing. In a 2016 paper Bessen demonstrates that, since 2000, “political factors” account for a substantial part of the increase in corporate profits. This occurs through expanded regulation that favors incumbent firms. Similarly, economists Jeffrey Brown and Jiekun Huang of the University of Illinois have found that companies that have executives with close ties to key policy makers have abnormally high stock returns.

This is very depressing.

I don’t want companies to do well because the CEOs cozy up to politicians. If entrepreneurs and corporations are going to be rolling in money, I want that to happen because they are providing valued goods and services to consumers.

I wrote about Bessen’s research last year. It’s very unsettling to think that companies make more money because of political connections than they do from research and development.

There are two reasons this is troubling.

First, it means slower growth because government intervention is undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital that occurs with productive entrepreneurship.

Second, cronyism is very corrosive because people equate business with capitalism, so their support for capitalism declines when they see companies getting special favors.

I wish ordinary people understood that big business and free enterprise are not the same thing.

Though I fully understand their disdain for certain big companies. Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits. How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam. Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market. Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians. Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs. Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors. And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

The bottom line is that it’s time to save capitalism from the rent seekers in the business community.

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When I write about the actions of state governments, it’s usually to highlight a specific bad policy. As you can imagine, states like California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey give me a never-ending amount of material.

But I frequently run across things that are happening in the states that don’t really merit an entire column, but they nonetheless are worthy of attention since they symbolize the venality and incompetence of politicians.

So I’ve decided that it’s time for a series on “great moments in state government” to augment my already well-developed series on “great moments in local government.”

Let’s start by looking at a truly bizarre example of occupational licensing from Tennessee.

A decade ago, Martha Stowe founded True Equine, an equine-services company, a few miles south of Nashville, Tenn., in Williamson County. After earning a certificate in equine myofascial release, a massage technique that releases tension and pain in a horse’s body, Martha soon acquired a large clientele. …In April 2016, however, Stowe’s well-established business was upended when she received a threatening letter from the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, a board within Tennessee’s Department of Health. Only licensed veterinarians are permitted to massage horses, the board’s attorney explained, and if Stowe continued to practice myofascial release, she could be fined up to $500 and receive a six-month jail sentence. …The board also sent the letter to fellow Williamson County resident Laurie Wheeler, a professional jazz musician and licensed massage therapist who, like Stowe, is certified in equine myofascial release. …Upon receiving the veterinary board’s letter, Wheeler was stunned — after all, she was certified, and not only that, she had never even accepted money for her services. But, she says, the government threatened to “fine me and put me in jail for voluntarily working on animals.” For Wheeler, helping horses is more than a volunteer position or an occupation; it’s a call to duty.

But there is some good news.

A pro-market think tank is helping the women fight back.

Both women disregarded the veterinary board’s warnings and subsequently looked to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank, for legal representation. According to Braden Boucek, director of litigation for the Beacon Center, the board’s decision to allow only licensed veterinarians to massage horses is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause. Moreover, because the Constitution protects private property, which in turn protects the right to acquire property and the right to earn a living, the board’s decision violates the 14th Amendment. …Threatening to jail an individual for massaging a horse is absurd. These women aren’t giving medical advice to owners, or surgically operating on horses, or doing anything that only a licensed veterinarian could do. Remember, this kind of massage is not even taught in veterinary school. Under Tennessee’s logic, why shouldn’t massage therapists who practice exclusively on people be required to hold a medical degree? The veterinary board ought to take the necessary steps to begin updating this illogical statute. If it doesn’t, it will need to explain in court why it’s permissible to deprive Stowe and Wheeler of their fundamental constitutional rights.

Amen. I admire Tennessee for not having an income tax. It’s time, though, for the Volunteer State to extend economic freedom to horse masseurs.

Now let’s shift to Wisconsin, where we have another example of cronyism.

State lawmakers may be brave when it comes to curtailing special privileges for government employees, but they like special protections for private industry.

Wisconsin state regulators…[are]…banning state grocery stores from selling one of the Emerald Isle’s most popular (and tasty) products: Kerrygold butter. Never mind that Wisconsinites have been buying Kerrygold for years with no problems. Or that it remains legal in the 49 other states. Badger State bureaucrats, trying to protect the state dairy industry, are suddenly enforcing a 1970 law that requires all butter sold in the state to go through a complicated evaluation by a state panel. This is the same state that once banned margarine because it was a competitive threat to local dairies. …as a result of the ban, Kerrygold-loving Wisconsinites have been forced to make butter runs across the state border, bringing back suitcases stuffed with the import. In Ireland, meanwhile, the ban is leading to headlines such as this in the Irish Mirror: “Shopkeepers in Wisconsin could face JAIL if they sell Kerrygold butter.”

Maybe butter consumers in Wisconsin can fly to Norway and learn how to get around misguided policies that make butter a black-market commodity.

Remember, if you outlaw butter, only outlaws will have butter.

Now let’s look at some onerous government intervention in my state of Virginia. And this one is personal since I don’t like the hassle of annual vehicle inspections.

…my annual Virginia motor vehicle safety inspection was due in a month. I knew my car wouldn’t pass and that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay on the road with that light on. Never mind that the light has nothing to do with the safe operation of the vehicle. And also never mind that in a 2015 study the Government Accountability Office “examined the effect of inspection programs on crash rates related to vehicle component failure, but showed no clear influence.” AAA Public Affairs Vice President Mike Wright said, “Nobody can prove with any degree of certainty that spending the money, suffering the inconvenience of getting your vehicle inspected, actually produces desired results.” …Virginia has a personal vehicle safety program overseen by the state police that cannot be shown to enhance public safety. The people who perform inspections are often the same people who fix any identified deficiencies. …A government program that requires the purchase of a good or service in return for a nonexistent public benefit is illiberal and anti-consumer. Two-thirds of states see no need to impose the burden of annual personal vehicle safety inspections on their citizens; Virginia should end its inspection requirement.

For what it’s worth, the People’s Republic of the District of Columbia doesn’t have this requirement. Kind of embarrassing that Virginia is more interventionist.

Our final example come from Illinois, where a local newspaper has a superb editorial on a sordid example of wasteful sleaze in the state budget.

Let’s eliminate the Illinois Arts Council Agency from the state budget. They must have taken lessons on government efficiency from our local townships, spending $1 million on staff and overhead in 2016 to hand out $834,900 in grants. The council is chaired by Shirley Madigan, who has been in that position since 1983. Funny, her husband, Mike, has been Illinois House Speaker since then, too. …guess who gets the money? Their well-heeled friends. Madigan’s alma mater received $95,100, another board member’s employer received $165,650 and yet another board member’s pet opera company received $503,000. Surprise! …Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has an opportunity to let someone else be a matron of the arts and appoint a majority of board members dedicated to either eliminating the council or at least making it a transparent organization that helps local artists rather than makes your taxes a minor revenue source for well-connected, large arts institutions.

Needless to say, the first option (eliminating the council) is the superior choice, just like we should shut down the National Endowment for the Arts in D.C.

But let’s set that aside. I’m still scratching my head about a bureaucracy that spends $1 million to give away $834.9 thousand. Though that’s actually efficient if you compare it with the German tax that resulted in €30 euros of government expense for every €1 collected.

To conclude, there’s a common thread in these four stories. In each case, politicians at the state level have policies to enable unearned wealth to flow to the pockets of their friends and allies.

In other words, the First Theorem of Government doesn’t just apply to what’s happening in Washington.

P.S. I’ve only had a few previous “great moments” for state governments. One from Florida involved a felony arrest of some luckless guy who was simply trying to impress his girlfriend by releasing some balloons, and the other from Virginia involved three misdemeanors for the horrid crime of rescuing a wounded deer.

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Time for another trip down Memory Lane to the early years of the Obama Administration.

Two days ago, I wrote about the market-wrecking price controls in Obamacare. And yesterday, I shared a new study exposing the utter failure of Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme. Now let’s take a look at the track record of the “Obamaphone.”

Though let’s start by noting that federal subsidies for phone service existed well before Obama took office. He simply took a misguided program and made it bigger. Here’s a concise explanation of the program from a story I shared in 2014.

The Federal Communications Commission program…charges a dollar or two per line on every American’s phone bill. The revenue generated by the “Universal Service Fund fee” is then used to pay select phone companies $9.25 per month for each poor person they sign up for a free phone. …its cost doubled in five years to $1.75 billion in 2011, and in some states, the number of phones given out exceeded the total eligible population.

But since big government is a recipe for big corruption, you won’t be surprised to learn that a bigger program of phone subsidies has produced scandalous levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. The Government Accountability Office has just released a report revealing widespread incompetence and malfeasance in the “Lifeline” program. Here are some highlights from GAO’s one-page summary.

GAO found weaknesses in several areas. For example, Lifeline’s structure relies on over 2,000 Eligible Telecommunication Carriers that are Lifeline providers to implement key program functions, such as verifying subscriber eligibility. This complex internal control environment is susceptible to risk of fraud, waste, and abuse as companies may have financial incentives to enroll as many customers as possible.

Yes, you read correctly. The private companies that are mooching off this program are in charge of determining eligibility, even though they get more handouts by signing up more recipients.

As you might expect, this is a green light for massive fraud.

Based on its matching of subscriber to benefit data, GAO was unable to confirm whether about 1.2 million individuals of the 3.5 million it reviewed, or 36 percent, participated in a qualifying benefit program, such as Medicaid, as stated on their Lifeline enrollment application.

Readers are welcome to plow their way through GAO’s full 89-page report, but news reports have teased out the most important details.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Times.

The controversial “Obamaphone” program, which pays for cellphones for the poor, is rife with fraud, according to a new government report released Thursday that found more than a third of enrollees may not even be qualified. Known officially as the Lifeline Program, the phone giveaway became a symbol of government waste in the previous administration. …the program has stashed some $9 billion in assets in private bank accounts rather than with the federal treasury, further increasing risks and depriving taxpayers of the full benefit of that money. “…everything that could go wrong is going wrong,” said Mrs. McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s chief oversight committee and who is a former state auditor in Missouri. “We’re currently letting phone companies cash a government check every month with little more than the honor system to hold them accountable, and that simply can’t continue,” she said. …More than 5,500 people were found to be enrolled for two phones, while the program was paying for nearly 6,400 phones for persons the government has listed as having died. Investigators also submitted fraudulent applications to see what would happen, and 12 of the 19 phone carriers they applied to approved a phone.

The Daily Caller’s report also highlighted the program’s rampant fraud.

A massive portion of Obamaphone recipients are receiving the benefit after lying on their applications, according to a new 90-page report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An undercover sting operation showed ineligible applications were approved 63 percent of the time, and a review that found that 36 to 65 percent of beneficiaries in various categories had lied in easily-detectable ways but were approved anyway. The fraud reached unheard-of proportions because the Federal Communications Commission let the task of screening for eligibility fall to phone companies that profit off of enrolling as many people as possible. …All someone has to do to apply for free cell phone service is say that they are on another welfare program, such as food stamps or disability, known as SSI. But nationwide, “only 35.5 percent of people claiming eligibility based on SSI could actually be confirmed as eligible,” the GAO found. …Special interests have aggressively employed a bootleggers-and-Baptists model, with companies who profit greasing the wheels of government with donations and influence-peddling and using poor people as props in marketing campaigns. …The wife of the CEO of TracFone, the largest beneficiary of Obamaphones, was a mega-fundraiser for former President Barack Obama. …And a Pew Research Center report found that the problem of lack of access to technology is far less than it once was, the GAO noted. The FCC’s own data shows that “millions of Lifeline-eligible households are obtaining voice service without Lifeline,” while the fraud rates show that many of the people who do sign up are wealthier than those who don’t.

Again, keep in mind that subsidized telephone service isn’t an Obama invention.

He merely built upon a bad idea that existed for decades.

But also keep in mind that the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Obamaphone program is an inherent part of big government.

There’s fraud in the Medicare program. There’s fraud in the EITC program. There’s fraud in food stamps. There’s fraud in Medicaid. There’s fraud in the disability program. There’s welfare fraud.

But I don’t want to merely pick on what are perceived to be Democrat programs.

There’s also lots of waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon.

Simply stated, when you give away free money, people will do dodgy things to get some of it.

P.S. Given the pervasive parasitical corruption of Washington, nobody should be surprised to learn that plenty of Republican lobbyists are willing to shill for the Obamaphone program.

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What word best describes the actions of government? Would it be greed? How about thuggery? Or cronyism?

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm has a story showing that “all of the above” may be the right answer.

At first it seems like a story about government greed.

When Mats Järlström’s wife got snagged by one of Oregon’s red light cameras in 2013, he challenged the ticket by questioning the timing of the yellow lights at intersections where cameras had been installed. Since then, his research into red light cameras has earned him attention in local and national media—in 2014, he presented his evidence on an episode of “60 Minutes”…on how too-short yellow lights were making money for the state by putting the public’s safety at risk.

Three cheers for Mr. Järlström. Just like Jay Beeber, he’s fighting against local governments that put lives at risk by using red-light cameras as a revenue-raising scam.

But then it became a story about government thuggery.

…the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying…threatened him. Citing state laws that make it illegal to practice engineering without a license, the board told Järlström that even calling himself an “electronics engineer” and the use of the phrase “I am an engineer” in his letter were enough to “create violations.” Apparently the threats weren’t enough, because the board follow-up in January of this year by officially fining Järlström $500 for the supposed crime of “practicing engineering without being registered.”

Gasp, imagine the horror of having unregistered engineers roaming the state! Though one imagines that the government’s real goal is to punish Järlström for threatening its red-light revenue racket.

But if you continue reading the story, it’s also about cronyism. The Board apparently wants to stifle competition, even if it means trying to prevent people from making true statements.

Järlström is…arguing that it’s unconstitutional to prevent someone from doing math without the government’s permission. …The notion that it’s somehow illegal for Järlström to call himself an engineer is absurd. He has a degree in electrical engineering from Sweden… it’s not the first time the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying has been overly aggressive…the state board investigated Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman in 2014 for publishing a campaign pamphlet that mentioned Saltzman’s background as an “environmental engineer.” Saltzman has a bachelor’s degree in environmental and civil engineering from Cornell University, a master’s degree from MIT’s School of Civil Engineering, and is a membership of the American Society of Civil Engineers

In other words, this is yet another example of how politicians and special interests use “occupational licensing” as a scam.

The politicians get to impose “fees” in exchange for letting people practice a profession.

And the interest groups get to impose barriers that limit competition.

A win-win situation, at least if you’re not a taxpayer or consumer.

Or a poor person who wants to get a job.

Some of the examples of occupational licensing would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact that people are being denied the right to engage in voluntary exchange.

Such as barriers against people who want to help deaf people communicate.

If you want to help a deaf person communicate in Wisconsin, you’ll have to get permission from the state government first. Wisconsin is one of a handful of states to require a license for sign language interpreters, and the state also issues licenses for interior designers, bartenders, and dieticians despite no clear evidence that any of those professions constitute a risk to public health in other states without similar licensing rules. …It’s hard to imagine any health and safety benefits to mandatory licensing for sign language interpreters, which is one of eight licenses highlighted in a new report from Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, a conservative group. …Since 1996, the number of licensed professions in the Badger State has grown from 90 to 166—an increase of 84 percent, according to the report. Licensing cost Wisconsin more than 30,000 jobs over the last 20 years and adds an additional $1.9 billion annually in consumer costs.

Or restricting the economic liberty of dog walkers.

…according to the Colorado government, people who watch pets for money are breaking the law unless if they can get licensed as a commercial kennel—a requirement that is costly and unrealistic for people working out of their homes, often as a side job. This is not simply a case of an outdated law failing to accommodate modern technology. There are more nefarious motives—those of special interests who want to protect their profits by keeping out new competition. …it is time to add “Big Kennel” to the list of special interests that support ridiculous occupational licensing schemes.

Or trying to deny rights, as in the case of horse masseuses.

…an Arizona state licensing board finally backed down from an expensive, unnecessary mandate that nearly forced three women to give up their careers as animal masseuses. …the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board said it would no longer require animal massage practitioners, who provide therapeutic services to dogs, horses, and other animals, to obtain a veterinary license. Obtaining that license requires years of post-graduate schooling, which can cost as much as $250,000. “All I want is the freedom to do my job, and I have that now,” Celeste Kelly, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement. …the state board tried to driver her out of business by threatening her with fines and jail time if she didn’t get a veterinary license.

The good news is that there’s a growing campaign to get rid of these disgusting restrictions of voluntary exchange.

The acting head of the Federal Trade Commission is getting involved. On the right side of the issue!

Maureen K. Ohlhausen, the new acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, thinks it’s high time that the FTC start giving more than lip service to its traditional mandate of fostering economic liberty. And the first item in her crosshairs is the burgeoning growth in occupational licenses. Over the past several decades, licensing requirements have multiplied like rabbits, she noted. Only 5 percent of the workforce needed a license in 1950, but somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of all American workers need one today. …depending on where you live, you might need a license to be an auctioneer, interior designer, makeup artist, hair braider, potato shipper, massage therapist or manicurist. “The health and safety arguments about why these occupations need to be licensed range from dubious to ridiculous,” Ohlhausen said. “I challenge anyone to explain why the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the public from rogue interior designers carpet-bombing living rooms with ugly throw pillows.”

Hooray for Ms. Ohlhausen. She’s directing the FTC to do something productive, which is a nice change of pace for a bureaucracy that has been infamous in past years for absurd enforcement of counterproductive antitrust laws.

A column in the Wall Street Journal highlights Mississippi’s reforms.

State lawmakers in Mississippi are taking the need for reform to heart. Two weeks ago Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law H.B. 1425, which will significantly rein in licensing boards. …H.B. 1425 explicitly endorses competition and says that the state’s policy is to “use the least restrictive regulation necessary to protect consumers from present, significant and substantiated harms.” Under the law, the governor, the secretary of state, and the attorney general must review and approve all new regulations from professional licensing boards to ensure compliance with the new legal standard. This should be a model for other states. …Mississippi’s law…covers all licensing boards controlled by industry participants, spells out a pro-competition test, and requires new rules to be approved by elected officials accountable to voters. Mississippi has smartly targeted the core problem: Anticompetitive regulations harm the economy, slow job growth, and raise consumer prices.

Here’s some of the national data in the WSJ column.

Keep in mind, as you read these numbers, that poor people disproportionately suffer as a result of these regulatory barriers to work.

In the 1950s only about 1 in 20 American workers needed a license, but now roughly 1 in 4 do. This puts a real burden on the economy. A 2012 study by the Institute for Justice examined 102 low-income and middle-income occupations. The average license cost $209 and required nine months of training and one state exam. …Even the Obama administration saw the problem. A 2015 report from the White House said that licensing can “reduce employment opportunities and lower wages for excluded workers.” In 2011 three academic economists estimated that these barriers have result in 2.85 million fewer jobs nationwide, while costing consumers $203 billion a year thanks to decreased competition.

Professor Tyler Cowen explains in Time that licensing laws explain in part the worrisome decline in mobility in America.

Some of the decline in labor mobility may stem from…the growth of occupational licensure. While once only doctors and medical professionals required licenses to practice, now it is barbers, interior decorators, electricians, and yoga trainers. More and more of these licensing restrictions are added on, but few are ever taken away, in part because the already licensed established professionals lobby for the continuation of the restrictions. In such a world, it is harder to move into a new state and, without preparation and a good deal of investment, set up a new business in a licensed area.

Last but not least, we have a candidate for the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Elizabeth Nolan Brown explains for Reason that a paper pusher in Florida managed to use occupational licensing fees as a tool of self-enrichment.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, all topless dancers are required to register with county officials and obtain an Adult Entertainment Work Identification Card (AEIC), at the cost of $75 per year. The regulation is ridiculous for a lot of reasons, but at least applicants—many of whom are paid exclusively in cash—were able to pay the government-ID fee with cash, too, making things a little more convenient and a little less privacy-invading. But not anymore, thanks to the alleged actions of one sticky-fingered government employee. …Pedemy “diverted” at least $28,875 (and possibly an additional $3,305) from county coffers between October 2013 and mid-November 2016. The money came from both adult-entertainer fees—approximately 70 percent of which were paid in cash—and court-ordered payments intended for a crime Victims Services Fund.

At the end of the article, Ms. Brown looks at the bigger issue and asks what possible public purpose is being served by stripper licensing.

Demanding strippers be licensed in the first place is a problem… There’s no legitimate public-safety or consumer-protection element to the requirement—strip club patrons don’t care if the woman wriggling on their laps is properly permitted. Government officials have portrayed the measure as a means to stop human trafficking and the exploitation of minors, but that’s ludicrous; anyone willing to force someone else into sex or labor and circumvent much more serious rules with regard to age limits isn’t going to suddenly take pause over an occupational licensing rule they’ll have to skirt. The only ones truly affected are sex workers and adult-business owners. Not only does the regulation drive up their costs…, it gives Palm Beach regulators a database of anyone who’s ever taken their clothes off for money locally—leaving these records open to FOIA requests or hackers—and gives cops a pretense to check clubs at random to make sure there aren’t any unlicensed dancers. Those found to be dancing without a license can be arrested on a misdemeanor criminal charge.

Though I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised. If you peruse “Sex and Government,” you’ll find that politicians and bureaucrats like to stick their noses in all sorts of inappropriate places. Including the vital state interest of whether topless women should be allowed to cut hair without a license!

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