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Archive for the ‘Cronyism’ Category

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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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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Every so often, I share an image that is unambiguously depressing. Usually because it suggest that freedom is slowly eroding.

I now have another addition to that depressing list.

Just as the Minneapolis Federal Reserve has an interactive website that allows users to compare recoveries and recessions, which is very useful for comparing Reaganomics and Obamanomics, the St. Louis Federal Reserve has an interactive website that allows users to compare national and regional economic data.

And that’s the source of today’s depressing chart. It shows median inflation-adjusted household income for the entire nation and for the District of Columbia. As you can see, the nation’s capital used to be somewhat similar to the rest of the nation. But over the past 10 years, DC residents have become an economic elite, with a representative household “earning” almost $14,000 more than the national average.

By the way, I put quotation marks around “earning” in the previous sentence for a very specific reason.

There is nothing wrong with some people accumulating lots of wealth and income if their prosperity is the result of voluntary exchange.

In the case of Washington, DC, however, much of the capital’s prosperity is the result of coercive redistribution. The lavish compensation of federal bureaucrats is a direct transfer from taxpayers to a gilded class, while the various lobbyists, contractors, cronyists, politicians, and other insiders are fat and happy because of a combination of direct and indirect redistribution.

I should also point out that the entire region is prospering at the expense of the rest of the nation.

By the way, some people will be tempted to argue that rising income levels in DC are simply a result of gentrification as higher-income whites displace lower-income blacks. Yes, that is happening, but that begs the question of where the new residents are getting all their income and why the nation’s capital is an increasingly attractive place for those people to live.

The answer, in large part, is that government is a growth industry. Except it’s not an industry. It’s increasingly just a racket for insiders to get rich at the expense of everyone else.

P.S. To close on a semi-humorous note, some cartoons are funny even if the underlying message is depressing.

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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 one of my periodic attempts to create themes for these columns, I developed a “fiscal fights with friends” category.

  • Part I was a response to Riehan Salam’s well-meaning critique of the flat tax.
  • Part II was a response to a good-but-timid fiscal plan from folks at AEI.
  • Part III was a response to Jerry Taylor’s principled case for an energy tax.
  • And I’m going to retroactively categorize my friendly attacks on the destination-based cash-flow tax as Part IVa, Party IVb, and Part IVc.

Today’s column could be considered Part IIIb since I’m going to revisit the case against energy taxes. Except it’s not going to be a friendly assessment. That’s because there’s a legitimate case (made by Jerry) for a carbon tax, based on the notion that it could address an externality, obviate the need for command-and-control regulation, and provide revenue to finance pro-growth tax cuts.

But there’s also a distasteful argument for such a tax and it revolves around crony capitalists seeking to obtain unearned wealth by imposing costs on their competitors.

Elon Musk already is infamous for trying to put taxpayers on the hook for some of his grandiose schemes. Now, as reported by Bloomberg, he wants an energy tax on American consumers.

Tesla Motors Inc. founder Elon Musk is pressing the Trump administration to adopt a tax on carbon emissions, raising the issue directly with President Donald Trump and U.S. business leaders at a White House meeting Monday regarding manufacturing.

But what the article doesn’t mention is that such a tax would make his electric cars more financially attractive. It’s rather unseemly (and I’m bending over backwards for a charitable characterization) that a rich guy is pushing a tax on the rest of us as a way of lining his pockets.

What’s ironic, though, is that he’s probably being short-sighted because a carbon tax presumably would hit coal, and that’s a common source of energy for electrical generation. So while regular drivers would pay a lot more for gas, Tesla drivers would pay more at charging stations.

Some big oil companies also are flirting with an energy tax for cronyist reasons. An article in the Federalist notes that some of those firms support carbon taxes because they want to create hardships for their competitors.

…carbon taxes do not affect all fossil fuels equally. So just as some fossil fuels are much more carbon-intensive than others, here we can begin to understand how, beyond the benefits of predictability, a carbon tax might actually help some fossil-fuel providers… As a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper illustrates, for example, in the United States a tax on carbon would disproportionately impact the use of coal relative to natural gas for energy production. …Don’t be surprised, then, if some domestic producers of natural gas end up promoting a carbon tax, not only out of concern for regime stability but also out of a concern to make their product more competitive in the energy marketplace.

To be fair, I suppose that Musk and the energy companies might actually think energy taxes are a good idea, so their support may have nothing to do with self interest.

But it’s always a good idea to “follow the money” when looking at how policy really gets made in Washington.

Even more depressing, the adoption of one bad policy may lead to the expansion of another bad policy. More specifically, some proponents of energy taxes admit that ordinary taxpayers and consumers will be hurt. But rather than realize that a new tax is a bad idea, they decide to match a tax increase with more spending. Here is a blurb from a report by the American Enterprise Institute.

Using emissions and other data from 2013 and 2014, we also find that the revenue from the carbon tax could be enough to expand the EITC to childless workers and hold other low income households harmless, combining a regressive tax with progressive benefits.

This is not good. The EITC already is the fastest-growing redistribution program in Washington. Making it even bigger would exacerbate the fiscal burden of the welfare state.

P.S. Now that I think about it, because much of my work on spending caps is designed to educate policymakers that a focus on balanced budget rules is well-meaning but misguided, I’m going to classify my columns on spending caps as Part Va, Part Vb, Part Vc, Part Vd, Part Ve, Part Vf, Part Vg, Part Vh, Part Vi, and Part Vj of my fiscal-fights-with-friends collection.

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