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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 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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All things considered, I like small businesses more than big businesses.

Not because I’m against large companies, per se, but rather because big businesses often use their political influence to seek unearned and undeserved wealth. If you don’t believe me, just look at the big corporations lobbying for bad policies such as the Export-Import Bank, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, bailouts, and the green-energy scam.

It’s almost as if cronyism is a business model.

By contrast, the only bad policy associated with modest-sized firms is the Small Business Administration. And I suspect the majority of little firms wouldn’t even notice or care if that silly bit of intervention was shut down.

Rather than seeking handouts, small businesses generally are more focused on fighting back against excessive government.

That’s because taxes and red tape can be a death sentence for a mom-and-pop firm. Literally, not just figuratively.

The Daily News reports on the sad closing of popular restaurant in New York City.

For 25 years, China Fun was renowned…the restaurant’s sudden Jan. 3 closing, blamed by management on suffocating government demands. …“The state and municipal governments, with their punishing rules and regulations, seems to believe that we should be their cash machine to pay for all that ails us in society.” …Albert Wu, whose parents Dorothea and Felix owned the eatery, said the endless paperwork and constant regulation that forced the shutdown accumulated over the years. …Wu cited one regulation where the restaurant was required to provide an on-site break room for workers despite its limited space. And he blamed the amount of paperwork now required — an increasingly difficult task for a non-chain businesses. “In a one-restaurant operation like ours, you’re spending more time on paperwork than you are trying to run your business,” he griped. Increases in the minimum wage, health insurance and insurance added to a list of 10 issues provided by Wu. “And I haven’t even gone into the Health Department rules and regulations,” he added. …“For smaller businesses like China Fun, each little thing that occurs makes it harder,” said Malpass. “Each regulation, each tax — you put it all together and it’s just a hostile business environment.”

This is rather unfortunate, but perhaps it is a “teachable moment.”

There are two things that came to mind as I read this story.

  • First, at some point a camel’s back is broken by too much straw. Politicians often claim that a particular tax or regulation imposes a very small burden. Perhaps that is true, but when you have dozens of taxes and hundreds of regulations, those various and sundry small burdens become very onerous. I’ve made the point before that you don’t need perfect policy for the economy to function. You just need “breathing room.” Well, China Fun ran out of breathing room. A casualty of big government, though it remains to be seen if anyone learns from this experience.
  • Second, complicated taxes and regulations are a much bigger burden for small companies compared to big corporations. Every large firm has teams of lawyers and accountants to deal with tax and regulatory compliance. That’s expensive and inefficient, of course, but such costs nonetheless consume only a very small fraction of total revenue. For small businesses, by contrast, those costs consume an enormous percentage of time, energy, and resources for owners. For all intents and purposes, bad government policy creates a competitive advantage for big firms over small firms.

The moral of the story is that we should have smaller government. Not just lower taxes (and simpler taxes), but also less regulation and red tape.

Not just because such policies are good for overall economic performance, but also because small businesses shouldn’t be disadvantaged.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of how government tilts the playing field in favor of big companies (at least the corrupt big companies), let’s enjoy some humor on that topic.

Starting with Uncle Sam’s universal bailout application form. And we also have the fancy new vehicle from Government Motors.

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For the next four years, I suspect I’m going to suffer a lot of whiplash as I yank myself back and forth, acting as both a critic and supporter of Donald Trump’s policy.

This happened a lot during the campaign, as Trump would say very good things one day and then say very bad things the next day.

And now that he’s President-Elect Trump, that pattern is continuing. Consider his approach to American businesses. In the space of just a few minutes, he manages to be a Reaganesque tax cutter and an Obamaesque cronyist.

I discussed this bizarre mix in a recent interview with Dana Loesch.

I guess the only way to make sense of Trump’s policy is that it’s a random collection of carrots and sticks. The carrots are policies to encourage companies to create jobs in America, and Trump is proposing both good carrots such as a much lower corporate tax rate and bad carrots such as special Solyndra-style handouts (except, instead of loot for green energy, firms get loot for maintaining production in America).

And the sticks are all bad, ranging for public shaming to explicit protectionism.

As I said during the interview, Trump is probably scoring political points, but what we should really care about is whether policy is moving in the right direction.

The Wall Street Journal is rather skeptical, opining that Republican-backed cronyism will be just as bad as Democrat-backed cronyism.

A giant flaw in President Obama’s economic policy has been the politicized allocation of capital, from green energy to housing. Donald Trump suffers from a similar industrial-policy temptation, as we’ve seen…with his arm-twisting of Carrier to change its decision to move a plant to Mexico from Indiana. …A mercantilist Trump trade policy that jeopardized those exports would throw far more Americans out of work than the relatively low-paying jobs he’s preserved for now in Indianapolis. Mr. Trump’s Carrier squeeze might even cost more U.S. jobs if it makes CEOs more reluctant to build plants in the U.S. because it would be politically difficult to close them. Mr. Trump has now muscled his way into at least two corporate decisions about where and how to do business. But who would you rather have making a decision about where to make furnaces or cars? A company whose profitability depends on making good decisions, or a branding executive turned politician who wants to claim political credit? The larger point is that America won’t become more prosperous by forcing companies to make noneconomic investments.

Here’s some of what Tyler Cowen wrote about Trump’s approach.

One of Donald Trump’s most consistent campaign promises has been to prevent U.S. businesses from moving good jobs to Mexico… Economists might regard this as a misguided form of protectionism, but in fact, it’s worse than that: If instituted, it could prove a major step toward imposing capital controls on the American economy and politicizing many business decisions. …Using the law to forbid factory closures would have serious negative consequences. For one thing, those factories may be losing money and end up going bankrupt. For another, stopping the closure of old plants would lock the U.S. into earlier technologies and modes of production, limiting progress and economic advancement. An alternative policy would prohibit companies from cutting American production and expanding in Mexico… The end result would be that Asian, European and Mexican investors would gain at the expense of U.S. companies. …Furthermore, if we limit the export of American capital to Mexico, the biggest winner would be China, as one of its most significant low-wage competitors — Mexico — suddenly would be hobbled.

Those are all very practical and sensible arguments against protectionism.

But Tyler points out that Trump’s agenda could lead to something even worse.

…a policy limiting the ability of American companies to move funds outside of the U.S. would create a dangerous new set of government powers. Imagine giving an administration the potential to rule whether a given transfer of funds would endanger job creation or job maintenance in the United States. That’s not exactly an objective standard, and so every capital transfer decision would be subject to the arbitrary diktats of politicians and bureaucrats. It’s not hard to imagine a Trump administration using such regulations to reward supportive businesses and to punish opponents. Even in the absence of explicit favoritism, companies wouldn’t know the rules of the game in advance, and they would be reluctant to speak out in ways that anger the powers that be. …It also could bring the kind of crony capitalist nightmare scenarios described by Ayn Rand in her novel “Atlas Shrugged,” a book many Republican legislators would be well advised to now read or reread.

Tyler’s best-case scenario is that Trump doesn’t try to change policy and instead just uses the bully pulpit to…well, be a bully.

…public jawboning  also would be an unfortunate form of politicizing the economy, but at least there wouldn’t be new laws or regulations to back it up in a systematic way.

Though I’ll close by noting that this best-case scenario is still a very bad case.

The mere fact that politicians think they have the right to interfere with the internal decisions of companies is a dangerous development.

It’s cronyism on steroids.

And even if Trump somehow restrains himself (how likely is that?!?), sooner or later that bad mentality will lead to bad policy.

Yes, I’m making a slippery-slope argument. But not just because I’m a libertarian who is paranoid about government power.

My fear is based on lots of real-world evidence. It turns out that slippery slopes are very slippery.

The bottom line is that politicians don’t even do a good job of running the government. Let’s not allow them to run private companies as well. And that’s true whether they have an R after their names or a D after their names.

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I have a very consistent view of victimless crimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s easy to define and/or understand most statist policies.

  • We know that a tax increase is when politicians take (or, given the Laffer Curve, try to take) more of your money based on your decisions to work, save, shop, or invest.
  • We know that protectionism is when politicians use taxes and other policies to restrict your freedom to buy goods and services produced in other nations.
  • We know that a minimum wage mandate is when politicians criminalize employment contracts between consenting adults, thus harming low-skilled workers.
  • We know that Keynesian “stimulus” is when politicians borrow from one part of the economy and spend in another part of the economy and pretend there’s more money.

The list is potentially endless, but there’s one statist policy – cronyism – that I haven’t added to the list because I haven’t thought of a simple definition.

Are bailouts cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are subsidies cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are favors in the tax code cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are trade barriers cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that.

You’re probably noticing a pattern, which is why this new visual from the Mercatus Center is helpful. It illustrates that there are many policies that should be considered cronyism.

And Mercatus comes up with a definition that we can add to our list.

  • We know that cronyism is when politicians create “privileges that governments give to particular businesses and industries.”

Speaking of which, one of the most damaging features of cronyism is the way that it gives capitalism a bad name.

Many people equate free markets with “business.” So when people in the business sector get special favors, regular folks conclude that capitalism is a “rigged” system.

In theory, this false impression could be offset by an aggressive educational campaign by those who support free enterprise. Unfortunately, that task is rather difficult since many people assume Republicans are the pro-capitalism party. So when they see the GOP favoring corrupt handouts to business such as the Export-Import Bank and the sleazy ethanol program, they conclude – once again – that capitalism is rigged for the politically powerful.

And the battle to separate capitalism from cronyism is further hindered when major figures in the business world (such as Warren Buffett) get in bed with government.

Another example is Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX. He is known as a visionary entrepreneur, which is good. But Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains that he also has put taxpayers on the hook to underwrite and prop up much of his business activities.

It was announced this week that one of Elon Musk’s companies, Tesla Motors, will buy one of his other companies, SolarCity, for an all-stock deal worth $2.6 billion. …With the amount of taxpayer support both companies have received, perhaps the rest of us should get a vote… The deal comes as SolarCity has floundered despite significant taxpayer support through a bevy of state and federal tax credits and subsidies. Nevertheless, the solar energy company’s stock has been in long term decline as the company struggles to develop a profitable market not reliant on generous helpings of taxpayer support. Tesla, too, has fed repeatedly at the government trough. The government provided federal loan guarantees and tax credits to help manufacture its electric vehicles. It also subsidized the purchase of those same vehicles to increase sales. Even still, the company makes more money selling “carbon credits” to other manufacturers than it does electric vehicles. …Musk’s other endeavor, SpaceX, also relies heavily on government. Obviously much of its business comes from government contracts, but more interesting is how those contracts are apparently obtained. …this year’s National Defense Authorization Act contains an amendment from Senator John McCain designed to eliminate from competition the Defense Department’s current supplier of rockets and pave the way for SpaceX to take over, despite the fact that its rockets aren’t yet powerful enough for the job.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy adds her insight

Elon Musk delivered a much-anticipated speech…where he laid out his vision for colonizing Mars…a testament to human innovation and determination. …it might be more impressive if Musk could provide a vision for how his companies can succeed here on Earth first, especially without heavy reliance on taxpayer support. …Musk is no stranger to cozy relations with federal and state governments. All three of his companies have benefited heavily from taxpayers. Yet despite generous green energy handouts, his SolarCity is heavily indebted. He now wants to merge it with his electric car company, Tesla Motors, which also benefited from almost $1.3 billion in subsidies. Solidifying his crony credentials, the epitome of crony capitalism itself, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, has subsidized the payloads for numerous SpaceX launches. The Ex-Im Bank’s chairman misrepresented this as support for “small business.” …There’s no doubt that Musk is an impressive salesman and innovator. …Now that he has set his sights on Mars, let’s hope—for the future of science and exploration—that he…has the courtesy to leave taxpayers out of it.

Amen.

It’s great when entrepreneurs are successful. And I don’t resent their wealth in the slightest.

But only if they earn their money honestly, in a genuinely free and competitive market.

Cronyism, by contrast, is a cancer that compromises and erodes genuine capitalism.

P.S. Let’s close on a more upbeat and entertaining topic, which is the bipartisan mockery of politicians.

I shared a very funny post about American leftists escaping to Canada after the Tea Party election of 2010.

Here’s some related humor about Canada closing the border for the next eight years.

One unfortunate aspect of being a libertarian is that you’re almost always unhappy about whoever becomes President. Indeed, I’ve only been pleased with one President who has served in my lifetime.

So I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Republicans who were unhappy after the 2012 election. And I’m similarly immune to feelings of empathy for Democrats who are unhappy about this election.

Especially the leftists who are engaging is hysterical hyperbolic histrionics (how’s that for alliteration!) about Trump. Here’s some great satire about the millennials protesting against Trump’s victory.

As anti-Trump rallies nationwide turned hostile overnight with widespread reports of violence, looting, vandalism, and death threats against the president-elect and his supporters, police in numerous major cities were able to instill calm and regain control by handing out participation trophies to all millennial protesters who were enraged about losing the election, sources confirmed. …“It’s a foreign notion to them. Even in sports—win or lose, everyone won, and everyone got a trophy no matter what. This is the millennial way,” he said. “So I had the idea—hey, why not start handing out participation trophies to the protesters, and telling them ‘Hey, you know what? You may have lost the election, but look—everyone gets a trophy. Everyone’s a winner.’” Seeing how the trophies had an instantaneous calming effect on the millennials and filled them with a sense of fulfillment and achievement, word spread quickly among police departments nationwide, and emergency trophies were procured by the thousands for use at the rallies.

Speaking of which, here’s an amusing image that has a serious message. I agree with leftists who fear that Trump may abuse the vast powers of the federal government. But they supported Obama’s dubious expansion of executive power, so they don’t have much credibility on the issue.

Reminds me of this clever poster that the Libertarian Party created to mock the Occupy crazies.

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I’ve written before about Hillary Clinton’s unethical and (presumably) illegal actions, both in terms of her email server and the Clinton Foundation.

We’ve probably only seen the tip of the iceberg, but one thing that can be said with confidence is that there is strong scent of corruption, cronyism, and insider dealing that surrounds Mrs. Clinton.

Every day seems to bring new evidence. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Kimberly Strassel puts it in blunt terms.

A Hillary Clinton presidency will be built, from the ground up, on self-dealing, crony favors, and an utter disregard for the law. This isn’t a guess. …It comes in the form of a memo written in 2011 by longtime Clinton errand boy Doug Band, who for years worked simultaneously at the Clinton Foundation and at the head of his lucrative consulting business, Teneo. It is astonishingly detailed proof that the Clintons do not draw any lines between their “charitable” work, their political activity, their government jobs or (and most important) their personal enrichment. Every other American is expected to keep these pursuits separate, as required by tax law, anticorruption law and campaign-finance law. For the Clintons, it is all one and the same—the rules be damned. …Any nonprofit lawyer in America knows the ironclad rule of keeping private enrichment away from tax-exempt activity, for the simple reason that mixing the two involves ripping off taxpayers. Every election lawyer in the country lives in fear of stepping over the lines governing fundraising and election vehicles. The Clintons recognize no lines. Here’s the lasting takeaway: The Clintons…know the risks. And yet they geared up the foundation and these seedy practices even as Mrs. Clinton was making her first bid for the presidency. They continued them as she sat as secretary of state. They continue them still, as she nears the White House. This is how the Clintons operate. They don’t change. Any one who pulls the lever for Mrs. Clinton takes responsibility for setting up the nation for all the blatant corruption that will follow.

Let’s look at some examples.

And we’ll start with the example of a Swiss bank that was being wrongfully persecuted by the American government for the supposed crime of protecting the privacy of clients (i.e., for following Swiss law inside Switzerland).

In other words, I’m very sympathetic to the bank. But I’m not a big fan of the Clintons using the bank’s legal woes as an opportunity to raise a bunch of money in exchange for a favorable disposition. Yet that’s exactly what happened, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian.

In February 2009, the IRS sued UBS and demanded that it disclose the names of 52,000 possible American tax evaders with secret Swiss bank accounts. …On 19 August 2009, it was announced that UBS would pay no fine and would provide the IRS with information about 4,450 accounts within a year. Since the deal was struck, disclosures by the foundation and the bank show the donations by UBS to the Clinton Foundation growing “from less than $60,000 through 2008 to a cumulative total of about $600,000 by the end of 2014”… The bank also teamed up with the foundation on the Clinton Economic Opportunity Initiative, creating a pilot entrepreneur program through which UBS offered $32m in loans to businesses, the newspaper reported. Other UBS donations to the Clinton Foundation include a $350,000 donation from June 2011 and a $100,000 donation for a charity golf tournament. Additionally, UBS paid more than $1.5m in speaking fees to Bill Clinton between 2001 and 2014, the newspaper reported.

James Freeman, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, cites two other examples of Clinton-style pay-to-play. The first example deals with Morocco.

We now know from emails published by WikiLeaks that before Mrs. Clinton formally launched her campaign, she arranged for the king of Morocco to donate $12 million to Clinton Foundation programs. What’s significant about the Morocco case is that for years the Clintons peddled the fiction that donors write checks simply to support wondrous acts of Clintonian charity. But that cover story isn’t available here. Mrs. Clinton’s trusted aide Huma Abedin put it in writing: The Moroccans agreed to the deal on the condition that Mrs. Clinton would participate at a conference in their country. Panicked Clinton-campaign aides persuaded Mrs. Clinton to avoid such a trip before launching her candidacy—and the foundation got the king to settle for Bill and Chelsea Clinton. But the record is clear. The king wanted the access, influence and prestige that all strongmen crave from legitimate democracies.

The second example comes from Kazakhstan.

This wasn’t the first time the Clintons satisfied such a desire while collecting megadonations. When it comes to human rights, Kazakhstan’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, makes Morocco’s king look enlightened. In power since 1991 and never freely elected, Mr. Nazarbayev must have enjoyed the sensation of Mr. Clinton endorsing him to lead an international election-monitoring group in 2005. The Kazakh strongman knows how to return a favor, and he granted valuable mining concessions to Clinton Foundation donors. The donors then built a global uranium powerhouse that was eventually sold to the Russians in a deal that required the 2010 approval of a U.S. government committee that included Mrs. Clinton’s State Department.

There’s a lot more material I could share, but the purpose of today’s column isn’t to demonstrate Hillary’s recent unethical behavior.

Instead, I want to show how she has a decades-long pattern of using government for self-advancement and self-enrichment. And I’ll follow by drawing (what should be) a very obvious lesson about public policy.

To keep today’s column manageable, let’s review just two examples.

First, let’s go back more than 20 years to the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Peggy Noonan explains Hillary’s attempt to replace the career professionals at the White House travel with cronies from Arkansas.

Why don’t people like Hillary Clinton? …Why, when some supposed scandal breaks and someone says she’s hiding something, do people, including many of her supporters, assume it’s true? …the scandals stretch back…all the way to her beginnings as a national figure. …It was early 1993. …It was the first big case in which she showed poor judgment, a cool willingness to mislead, and a level of political aggression that gave even those around her pause. It was after this mess that her critics said she’d revealed the soul of an East German border guard.

Let’s look at what happened.

On May 19, 1993, less than four months into the administration, the seven men who had long worked in the White House travel office were suddenly and brutally fired. The seven nonpartisan government workers, who helped arrange presidential trips, served at the pleasure of the president. But each new president had kept them on because they were good at their jobs. A veteran civil servant named Billy Dale had worked in the office 30 years and headed it the last 10. He and his colleagues were ordered to clear out their desks and were escorted from the White House, which quickly announced they were the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI. They were in shock. So were members of the press, who knew Mr. Dale and his colleagues as honest and professional. A firestorm ensued. Under criticism the White House changed its story. They said that they were just trying to cut unneeded staff and save money. Then they said they were trying to impose a competitive bidding process. They tried a new explanation—the travel office shake-up was connected to Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review. (Almost immediately Mr. Gore said that was not true.) The White House then said it was connected to a campaign pledge to cut the White House staff by 25%. Finally they claimed the workers hadn’t been fired at all but placed on indefinite “administrative leave.”

Noonan continues.

Why so many stories? Because the real one wasn’t pretty. It emerged in contemporaneous notes of a high White House staffer that the travel-office workers were removed because Mrs. Clinton wanted to give their jobs—their “slots,” as she put it, according to the notes of director of administration David Watkins—to political operatives who’d worked for Mr. Clinton’s campaign. And she wanted to give the travel office business itself to loyalists. There was a travel company based in Arkansas with long ties to the Clintons. There was a charter travel company founded by Harry Thomason, a longtime friend and fundraiser, which had provided services in the 1992 campaign.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Clinton lied about her efforts to turn the travel office into a goodie for a crony.

All along Mrs. Clinton publicly insisted she had no knowledge of the firings. Then it became barely any knowledge, then barely any involvement. When the story blew up she said under oath that she had “no role in the decision to terminate the employees.” She did not “direct that any action be taken by anyone.” In a deposition she denied having had a role in the firings, and said she was unable to remember conversations with various staffers with any specificity. A General Accounting Office report found she did play a role. But three years later a memo written by David Watkins to the White House chief of staff, recounting the history of the firings, suddenly surfaced. (“Suddenly surfaced” is a phrase one reads a lot in Clinton scandal stories.) It showed Mrs. Clinton herself directed them.

By the way, the most disgusting part of this scandal is the way Hillary sicced the government on Mr. Dale.

The White House pressed the FBI to investigate, FBI agents balked—on what evidence?—but ultimately there was an investigation, and an audit. …Billy Dale was indicted on charges including embezzlement. The trial lasted almost two weeks. …The jury acquitted him in less than two hours.

In other words, expect to see more Lois Lerner-type scandals if Hillary reaches the White House. There should be little doubt that she will use the power of government to attack her political opponents.

Now let’s go back even further in time, to the late 1970s when Hillary Clinton somehow managed to turn a $1,000 “investment” into $100,000 is less than one year. The New York Times reported on this rather implausible story back in 1994.

…in 1978 Hillary Rodham Clinton invested $1,000 in commodities futures and that the investment grew in 10 months of trading in the notoriously volatile market into a gain of nearly $100,000. Seeking to dispel suggestions that the trades were risk-free and improperly arranged by an Arkansas lawyer who represents one of the state’s most powerful companies, the White House issued a statement this afternoon that said the First Lady had put up her own money and that she bore all of the financial risks in a marketplace where three out of four investors lose money. The officials also released a year’s worth of brokerage statements from one of Mrs. Clinton’s two accounts. …Mrs. Clinton based her trades on information in The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Mrs. Clinton, a complete novice, with no experience in the private sector or the investment business, suddenly decided to sink money into a very complex type of speculation.

And we’re supposed to believe that she made a series of very clever market-timing decisions and turned small amount of money into a big pile of money.

Needless to say, even the reporter for the New York Times couldn’t help but express skepticism and doubt. Particularly since nobody was willing to back up Mrs. Clinton’s story.

The White House insisted today that Mrs. Clinton received no improper financial assistance on the trades from the lawyer, James B. Blair, a close friend who at the time was the top lawyer for Tyson Foods of Springdale, Ark., the nation’s biggest poultry company. Mr. Blair has said that he had suggested that she get into the commodities market, and that he used his knowledge of trading to guide her along the way. During Mr. Clinton’s tenure as Governor, Tyson benefited from several state decisions, including favorable environmental rulings, $9 million in state loans, and the placement of company executives on important state boards. …brokers in the Springdale office of Refco where Mrs. Clinton executed the trades, including the one she describes as her personal broker, said in interviews in recent weeks that they have no recollection of ever talking with her about the trades. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Blair have said that they used Robert L. (Red) Bone, the broker who founded the Springdale office of Refco, a Chicago commodities firm, to execute the trades. But Mr. Bone, who worked at Tyson for 13 years until 1973, insisted in several interviews this month that he has no recollection of ever trading for Mrs. Clinton or talking to her about commodities trades.

Here’s the bottom line. Back when this scandal surfaced in the 1990s, I talked to several people in the financial markets, every one of whom was 99.99 percent certain that Hillary was the beneficiary of a gift (if they were favorable to her) or a bribe (if they were unfavorable to her). And they all agreed that somebody on the inside arranged to give her, after the fact, the winning side of trades in order to make it look like she was simply a good investor.

Moreover, every single Democrat that I talked to admitted (but only off the record) that she was the recipient of a gift or a bribe.

And she hasn’t changed in the past 38 years. Government is a vehicle for personal advancement and personal enrichment.

Now let’s conclude by bring public policy into the discussion. Corrupt politicians are able to amass lots of power and money because government is big and powerful.

And I’m not making a partisan argument. Indeed, here are the same bullet points I used when pointing out the empty futility of Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp” and end DC corruption.

All I’m saying is that Hillary Clinton both supports big government and profits from big government. And as the public sector gets larger, don’t be surprised when you find out that Hillary and her cronies have figured out additional ways of feathering their own nests.

P.S. By the way, I do recognize that there’s an infinitesimally small possibility that Hillary’s story about cattle futures is accurate.

I also recognize, for what it’s worth, that there’s a greater-than-zero possibility that aliens will invade the earth tomorrow.

But neither of these hypotheses is remotely plausible (though if I had to pick, I’d go with the alien invasion for the simple reason that it would bring great joy to Paul Krugman).

P.P.S. Plenty of Republicans will get rich as well as Hillary expands government. If you don’t believe me, just consider how many of them collect campaign cash in exchange for votes in favor of ethanol and the Export-Import Bank.

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I have a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to publicize civil servants who manage to get wildly over-paid while being notoriously under-worked. And I have a Moocher Hall of Fame to identify welfare recipients who have displayed special skills in living off the labor of other people.

But now I’m thinking I may need to create a Hall of Fame to “honor” politicians who go above and beyond the call of duty by displaying extraordinary levels of arrogance, elitism, malfeasance, and corruption. That’s because my initial plan to give a once-per-year award has been superseded by events.

  • Back in May, I gave a “Politician of the Year Award” to Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, because he announced to voters that none of his mistresses is on the public payroll.
  • But earlier this month, I had to reopen the balloting since it was revealed that the follicly-challenged President of France, Francois Hollande, was squandering more than $100,000 per year on a hair stylist.

To make matters even more complicated, the Prime Minster of Malaysia has decided to join the contest.

And if these blurbs from a Wall Street Journal column are any indication, he definitely deserves some sort of recognition.

U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday linked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to hundreds of millions of dollars they believe were stolen from the Malaysian state-owned investment fund 1MDB. …The evidence of fraud connected to 1MDB from investigations in the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland and at least four other countries is damning. The U.S. Justice Department put the losses at $3.5 billion on Wednesday. The Swiss Attorney General’s office said earlier this year it suspects $4 billion was misappropriated.

That’s some serious diverting of other people’s money. Makes scams like Solyndra, Export-Import Bank, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac seem like amateur hour by comparison.

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister and his cronies are using political coercion to silence and sidetrack whistle blowers.

…officials who tried to investigate 1MDB were sidelined. Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail was on the verge of bringing charges against Mr. Najib last summer when he was forced to resign for “health reasons.” …Abu Kassim Mohamed, chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, had advised prosecutors to charge Mr. Najib and was investigating 1MDB until last month, when the government announced he would move to a lower post.

Gee, seems like bad health and demotions are quite common in Malaysia.

The stonewalling reflects Mr. Najib’s strong political position at home. He has played the nationalism card to portray himself as a victim of foreign forces, used repressive laws to silence critics in the press and opposition, and expelled dissidents from his party. …Mr. Najib has also been helped at home by the appearance of close ties to U.S. President Obama, who invited him for a golf outing and ostentatious photo-op in Hawaii in December 2014.

I’m shocked, by the way, that Najib’s name hasn’t been linked to the money-laundering racket sometimes known as the Clinton Foundation. Seems like that would be a match made in heaven.

But perhaps I simply haven’t looked closely enough.

Also, this is a good opportunity to recognize the reporter, Clare Rewcastle Brown, who has done more than any other person to publicize this scam. She even got added to Fortune‘s list of “World’s Greatest Leaders.”

Through her website Sarawak Report, London-based journalist Brown has become an irritant in the corridors of power in Malaysia. Her exposés on state investment fund 1MDB—publicizing the alleged siphoning of $700 million into the pockets of Prime Minister Najib Razak—have made her a hero and a villain in the country, depending on whom you ask. The government has tried to arrest her for “activities detrimental to Parliamentary democracy” and has banned her website.

Speaking of her website, you can read her indictment of Najib by clicking here.

Let’s close with a caveat and a lesson.

The caveat is that Prime Minister Najib still hasn’t been convicted of anything. We have to hold out the possibility, however remote, that he’s actually innocent.

The lesson is that the Malaysian government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to allocate capital.

Even if a big government-run development bank miraculously and improbably steered clear of corruption, it’s always a bad idea to let politicians and bureaucrats invest with other people’s money.

And when you add the inevitable corruption to the mix, the net result is that you damage the economy while simultaneously lining the pockets of insiders.

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Last year, I shared the most depressing PowerPoint slide in Danish history.

Back in 2011, I wrote about a depressing picture of tax complexity in America.

Let’s continue with the “depressing” theme today.

James Bessen, from Boston University Law School, has an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review about the source of corporate profits in the 21st century (h/t: James Pethokoukis).

He starts with an observation and a query.

Profits are up. …is it good news for society?

The default answer presumably is yes. Higher profits, after all, generally are a sign of wise investments.

And when labor and capital are allocated wisely, that’s good news for consumers and workers.

But Bessen correctly observes that profits can increase for bad reasons, and that’s the focus of his research.

…the rise in profits might represent a decline in…economic dynamism. …Firms engage in political “rent seeking”—lobbying for regulations that provide them sheltered markets—rather than competing on innovation. If so, then high profits portend diminished productivity growth. …In a new research paper, I tease apart the factors associated with the growth in corporate valuations.

Unfortunately, he finds that cronyist policies account for a depressingly large share of corporate profits.

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase.

Here’s a very grim chart from his article. At the very least, I’ll call this the most depressing image of 2016.

Ugh, what a dismal observation on the state of our economy. Companies are almost making as much money from manipulating Washington as they earn from serving consumers. Heck, just consider the way politically connected financial institutions tilt the playing field for unearned goodies.

Bessen adds some analysis, including the very important insight that regulation and intervention tends to help big companies relative to small companies and new competitors.

Much of this result is driven by the role of regulation… Lobbying and political campaign spending can result in favorable regulatory changes, and several studies find the returns to these investments can be quite large. For example, one study finds that for each dollar spent lobbying for a tax break, firms received returns in excess of $220. …regulations that impose costs might raise profits indirectly, since costs to incumbents are also entry barriers for prospective entrants. For example, one study found that pollution regulations served to reduce entry of new firms into some manufacturing industries.

It’s also worth noting that he finds that this bad news really started back in 2000, which makes sense given that both Bush and Obama have pushed policies that have expanded the clumsy footprint of government.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. …while political rent seeking is nothing new, the outsize effect of political rent seeking on profits and firm values is a recent development, largely occurring since 2000. Over the last 15 years, political campaign spending by firm PACs has increased more than thirtyfold and the Regdata index of regulation has increased by nearly 50% for public firms.

What an awful cycle. Government gets bigger and more powerful, which lures companies into viewing Washington as a profit center, which then leads to more policies that expand the size and power of the federal government, which leads to further opportunities for rent-seeking behavior. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Oh, and don’t forget this is one of the reasons why there’s a revolving door of insiders who shift back and forth between the private sector and government, but their real job is always to be working the system to obtain undeserved wealth.

Which is why I periodically explain that there’s a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.

P.S. Earlier this year, I shared some data, based on sources of billionaire wealth, that suggested that cronyism wasn’t a major factor in the United States. But Bessen’s new research nonetheless shows we do have a major problem, perhaps because people who get rich honestly then decide to maintain their wealth dishonestly.

P.P.S. If there’s any sort of silver lining to this bad news, it’s this amusing parody commercial about Kronies, which are toys for the children of Washington’s gilded class.

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My main problem with Hillary Clinton is that she not only supports the bloated and enervating welfare state that already exists, but she wants to make it even bigger. Indeed, there’s only a very small gap between her and crazy Bernie Sanders when you examine their voting records.

There’s only a trivially small difference…between Hillary Clinton’s lifetime rating of 10.6 from the National Taxpayers Union and Bernie Sanders’ lifetime rating of 9.4. They both earned their failing grades by spending other people’s money with reckless abandon.

That being said, I’m disgusted and outraged by her dishonest and corrupt behavior.

The rule of law is one of the most important building blocks of a just and prosperous society, so it’s both morally nauseating and economically destructive when members of the elite enjoy special treatment.

Josh Barro definitely isn’t a member of the vast right wing conspiracy, so his list of Hillary’s ethical lapses should carry extra weight.

It’s possible that Clinton and Lynch were just catching up — “a social meeting,”… Similarly, it’s possible foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation because they viewed it as the most efficient available philanthropic opportunity, without regard for the favorable impression it might make on Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s possible Goldman Sachs paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 for three speeches because they thought she would be really interesting, not because they thought the payment might help the bank make a favorable impression on a potential future president. It’s possible a major Clinton donor ended up on a State Department nuclear advisory board for perfectly innocent reasons, and that there were no untoward effects from top Clinton staffers being simultaneously on State Department and private payrolls. …The list goes on and on. …the Clintons have no apparent concern for appearances of impropriety, as long as they believe their actions cannot get them in trouble with the law.

And the Clintons get away with things that would land ordinary Americans in jail, so you have to give them credit for knowing how to exploit their political connections and power.

And that has a lot of people legitimately upset. The Washington Examiner opined about Hillary’s free pass from the FBI.

The Founding Fathers embraced principles that transcended their own human weaknesses and those of their posterity. They created a system in which process and law could check base personal ambition, favoritism and other low and common temptations. The idea was to put in place a system that would survive incompetent and corrupt leaders. …the public witnessed what happens when the system fails. Special people receive special treatment. Equal protection under the law turns out to be a fancy fiction. Some people are more equal than others. …An average government official who spent five years breaking the rules to frustrate the Freedom of Information Act, and who recklessly compromised classified information (more than 100 times), including top secret information (eight times), would serve time in federal prison. But Hillary Clinton is almost certain to suffer no consequences at all.

But what about Hillary supposedly having no bad intent, as the FBI Director offered up as a distraction?

This is bunk. Intention is something this law does not require. “Gross negligence” alone is sufficient grounds for prosecution because the officials to which it applies are entrusted with secrets that bring greater obligations than average citizens must bear. Precisely because of that greater risk of prosecution, high-ranking government officials who handle classified information, including Clinton, sign agreements that spell out their legal jeopardy.

Jacob Sullum of Reason also addresses this topic.

…one of the statutes guiding the FBI’s investigation, 18 USC 793, makes it a felony to “mishandle classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way” (emphasis added), as Comey himself notes… Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, …who was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Reagan administration, says Comey’s description of Clinton’s behavior plainly qualifies as a violation of 18 USC 793(f). …Giuliani told NBC’s Brian Williams yesterday, “because he clearly found a direct violation of 18 United States Code, Section 793, which does not require intent. It requires only gross negligence in the handling of anything relating to the national defense. …The definition of gross negligence under the law is extreme carelessness. It’s the first definition that comes up in the law dictionary. …So that is a clear, absolutely unassailable violation of 18 United States Code, Section 793, which is not a minor statute. It carries 10 years in prison.”

For those who think Rudy Giuliani is perhaps exaggerating because of his support for Trump, then consider the views of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who is part of the #neverTrump camp.

It is a felony for anyone entrusted with lawful possession of information relating to national defense to permit it, through “gross negligence,” to be removed from its proper place of custody and disclosed. “Gross negligence” rather than purposeful conduct is enough. …As an example of the kind of information at stake, he described seven email chains classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level. These were the emails that the government had said earlier are so sensitive that they will never be disclosed publicly. …To be “extremely careless” in the handling of information that sensitive is synonymous with being grossly negligent.

Needless to say, ordinary Americans would never get this kind of preferential treatment.

David French, a former military officer, explains what would happen to someone in the armed forces who treated national security with the same degree of disdain.

I served ten years as an Army lawyer, and one of my responsibilities was advising the command on matters of military justice, including incidents where soldiers mishandled classified information. And if Hillary Clinton was a soldier, she would lose her security clearance, face administrative action, and face the specter of criminal prosecution. I’ve not only seen the pattern, I’ve also participated in the process. …If Hillary were Captain Clinton instead of the presumptive Democratic nominee and wife of a disbarred former president, the following things would occur, more or less simultaneously. First, the command would immediately suspend her security clearance. …Next, her commander would probably draft an administrative reprimand. …a career-killer if placed in an officer’s permanent file…Finally, the command would consider criminal charges. …the officer would in all likelihood not only violate the Espionage Act (the same statute at issue in Clinton’s case) but also the Uniform Code of Military Justice. …In other words, her actions would have ended her military career, and she would have been fortunate to resign in lieu of enduring a court-martial. In her post-military civilian life, she would have been unemployable in any serious government position… To say that Hillary Clinton is unfit to be commander-in-chief is to give her too much credit. It implies that she might be fit for other positions of responsibility. She’s not fit to be POTUS, and she’s not fit to be a private.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of Hillary favoritism.

We can enjoy some dark humor while the rule of law is further eroded.

The clever folks at Reason TV put together this video showing how Hillary Clinton has blatantly lied about her actions.

By the way, Hillary’s negligence and disdain for national security is just the tip of the iceberg.

She already has engaged in countless other shady acts, such as allowing her top aide, Huma Abedin, to be on the government payroll while simultaneously getting payoffs as an influence peddler.

Or consider the Clinton Foundation. Investor’s Business Daily makes a compelling case that it’s nothing but a racket.

…the Clinton Foundation gathered some $100 million from a variety of Gulf sheikhs and billionaires, not to mention taking in millions of “donations” from private businesses that later benefited from their supposed “charitable” largesse. Some of those who gave big bucks to the Clintons had interests that were, to put it mildly, not in keeping with U.S. interests. …now comes a more serious, far-reaching question: Is the entire Clinton Foundation so full of conflicts of interest and questionable dealings that it amounts to little more than a massive fraud intended solely to enrich its presidential namesake and his family? Charles Ortel, a Wall Street financial analyst, who pored over the Clinton Foundation’s books, filings and records, thinks so. He concluded that “a substantial portion of Clinton Foundation activities is certainly not ‘charitable’ or ‘tax-exempt’ in the accepted legal senses…” the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator removed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation from its list of charities because of its “atypical business model.” …Getting rich isn’t a crime. But it might be if you did it in the guise of being a tax-free humanitarian charity, interested only in the betterment of humankind.

The Washington Examiner also has looked at the Clinton Foundation’s dodgy finances and activities.

The Clinton Global Initiative has a curious record of leaving its projects unfinished, despite receiving multiple large donations from foreign interests that could benefit if Hillary Clinton is elected president (and may have already benefited from her service at the State Department). …the initiative has completed fewer than half of the commitments made since 2005. Thirty-six percent of them are listed as being “in progress.” Many others are listed as “stalled,” “unfulfilled,” or haven’t had any progress reported in at least two years. This may just be a sign of bad timing or ineffective philanthropy, but when combined with the rest of the information available about the Clintons’ philanthropic activities, it hints at something more sinister. …accepted a great deal of money in donations from businesses and foreign governments that had a lot to gain from her help.

Here one of the examples that certainly seems tawdry, if not sinister.

In one well-known case, a group of Canadian mining magnates made millions in undisclosed donations to the Clinton Foundation, and a Russian bank closely linked to the Kremlin paid Bill Clinton $500,000 to give a single speech in Moscow. All of these parties involved in funneling money to the Clintons and their enterprises were part of a large mining deal that required approval from a government panel on which Clinton sat.

We also have the Clintonian equivalent of Trump University, as outlined by Professor Jonathan Turley.

Donald Trump has been rightfully criticized and sued over his defunct Trump University. There is ample support for claiming that the Trump University was fraudulent in its advertisements and operations. However, the national media has been…sidestepping a scandal involving the Clintons that involves the same type of fraud allegations. The scandal involves a dubious Laureate Education for-profit online college (Walden) and entails many of the common elements with other Clinton scandals: huge sums given to the Clintons and questions of conflicts with Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State.

Here are some of the sordid details.

Laureate Education was sued over its Walden University Online offering, which some alleged worked like a scam designed to bilk students of tens of thousands of dollars for degrees. Students alleged that they were repeatedly delayed and given added costs as they tried to secure degrees, leaving them deeply in debt. …The respected Inside Higher Education reported that Laureate Education paid Bill Clinton an obscene $16.5 million between 2010 and 2014 to serve as an honorary chancellor for Laureate International Universities. …Various sites have reported that the State Department funneled $55 million in grants during Hillary Clinton’s tenure to groups associated with Laureate’s founder.  That would seem a pretty major story… The Wall Street Journal reported that Laureate was able to “skirt” regulations on reporting “gainful employment” due to its large number of schools and students outside of the country… Laureate has come up in the Clinton email scandal.  In her first year as Secretary of State, Clinton is quoted as directly asking that Laureate be included in a high-profile policy dinner — just months before the lucrative contract was given to Bill Clinton. …the size of the contract to Clinton, the grants from State and the complaints over alleged fraud should warrant a modicum of attention to the controversy.

Let’s close with one final example of Clintonesque sleaze. She apparently thinks insider trading is a good idea so long as the insiders are members of her family.

In 2012, Mezvinski, the husband of Chelsea Clinton, created a $325 million basket of offshore funds under the Eaglevale Partners banner through a special arrangement with investment bank Goldman Sachs. The funds have lost tens of millions of dollars predicting that bailouts of the Greek banking system would pump up the value of the country’s distressed bonds. …newly released emails from 2012 show that she and Clinton Foundation consultant, Sidney Blumenthal, shared classified information about how German leadership viewed the prospects for a Greek bailout. Clinton also shared “protected” State Department information about Greek bonds with her husband at the same time that her son-in-law aimed his hedge fund at Greece. …sharing such sensitive information with friends and family would have been highly improper. Federal regulations prohibit the use of nonpublic information to further private interests or the interests of others. The mere perception of a conflict of interest is unacceptable. …monitoring Greece was part of Clinton’s job description, but, ethically, that does not mean that a family member should make bets that depend upon the actions of another family member.

The point of all this is not that Hillary Clinton is sleazy and corrupt, though that’s one obvious conclusion.

Instead, as I’ve demonstrated over and over again, the real lesson is that Washington is filled with people like her.

And the reason that sleazy people gravitate to Washington is that we have Leviathan-sized government that enables politically well-connected people to obtain vast amounts of unearned and undeserved wealth.

Including lots of Republicans, so this isn’t a partisan argument.

Moreover, the problem almost certainly won’t get solved by electing different people. The only real solution is shrinking the size of government so there’s less opportunity for graft.

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The American economy is in the doldrums. And has been for most this century thanks to bad policy under both Obama and Bush.

So what’s needed to boost growth and create jobs? A new video from Learn Liberty, narrated by Professor Don Boudreaux (who also was the narrator for Learn Liberty’s superb video on free trade vs. protectionism), examines how to get more people employed.

A very good video. There are three things that grabbed my attention.

First, there’s a very fair compilation of various unemployment/labor force statistics. Viewers can see the good news (a relatively low official unemployment rate) and the bad news (a lowest-in-decades level of labor force participation)

Second, so-called stimulus packages don’t make sense. Yes, some people wind up with more money and jobs when politicians increase spending, but only at the expense of other people who have less money and fewer jobs. Moreover, Don correctly notes that this process of redistribution facilitates cronyism (the focus of another Learn Liberty video) and corruption in Washington (an issue I’ve addressed in one of my videos).

Third, free markets and entrepreneurship are the best routes for more job creation. And that requires less government. Don also correctly condemns occupational licensing rules that make it very difficult for people to get jobs or create jobs in certain fields.

The entire video was very concise, lasting less than four minutes, so it only scratched the surface. For those seeking more information on the topic, I would add the following points.

  1. Businesses will never create jobs unless they expect that new employees will generate enough revenue to cover not only their wages, but also the cost of taxes, regulations, and mandates. This is why policies that sometimes sound nice (higher minimum wages, health insurance mandates, etc) actually are very harmful.
  2. Redistribution programs make leisure more attractive than labor. This is not only bad for the overall economy because of lower labor force participation. This is why policies that sometime sound nice (unemployment benefits, food stamps, health subsidies, etc) actually are very harmful.

Let’s augment Don’s video by looking at some excerpts from a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Marie-Joseé Kravis of the Hudson Institute.

In economics, as far back as Joseph Schumpeter, or even Karl Marx, we have known that the flow of business deaths and births affects the dynamism and growth of a country’s economy. Business deaths unlock resources that can be allocated to more productive use and business formation can boost innovation and economic and social mobility. For much of the nation’s history, this process of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” has spread prosperity throughout the U.S. and the world. Over the past 30 years, however, with the exception of the mid-1980s and the 2002-05 period, this dynamism has been waning. There has been a steady decline in business formation while the rate of business deaths has been more or less constant. Business deaths outnumber births for the first time since measurement of these indicators began.

Why has entrepreneurial dynamism slowed? What’s happened to the creative destruction described in a different Learn Liberty video?

Unsurprisingly, government bears a lot of the blame.

Many studies have also attributed the slow rate of business formation to the regulatory fervor of the past decade. …in a 2010 report for the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration, researchers at Lafayette University found that the per employee cost of federal regulatory compliance was $10,585 for businesses with 19 or fewer employees.

Wow, that’s a powerful real-world example of how all the feel-good legislation and red tape from Washington creates a giant barrier to job creation.

And it’s worth noting that low-skilled people are the first ones to lose out.

P.S. My favorite Learn Liberty video explains how government subsidies for higher education have resulted in higher costs for students, a lesson that Hillary Clinton obviously hasn’t learned.

P.P.S. Perhaps the most underappreciated Learn Liberty video explains why the rule of law is critical for a productive society. Though the one on the importance of the price system also needs more attention.

P.P.P.S. And I’m a big fan of the Learn Liberty videos on the Great Depression, central banking, government spending, and the Drug War. And the videos on myths of capitalism, the miracle of modern prosperity, and the legality of Obamacare also should be shared widely.

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At the risk of understatement, Obamacare is a mess.

It’s been bad for taxpayers, bad for consumers, and bad for healthcare.

It’s even been bad for some of the special interest groups that backed the legislation. The big insurance companies supported the law, for instance, because they thought it would be good to have the government force people to buy their products.

And these corrupt firms even got a provision in the law promising bailouts from taxpayers if the Obamacare system didn’t work.

Given the miserable track record of the public sector, that was probably a crafty move.

But the companies mistakenly assumed their sleazy pact with Obama, Pelosi, and Reid was permanent. Fortunately, their Faustian bargain appears to be backfiring.

Senator Marco Rubio has led the fight to stop bailouts for the big insurance companies.

Here are some excerpts from his recent column in the Wall Street Journal.

Six years after being signed into law, ObamaCare is a costly and unsustainable disaster. …ObamaCare is also bringing out corporate America’s worst crony-capitalist impulses. The health-insurance lobby has teamed up with trial lawyers to sue the federal government—through individual lawsuits and a $5 billion class action—for not following through on a sweetheart bailout deal buried in the law. This provision of ObamaCare would have required taxpayers to bail out insurers.

But in a rare victory for taxpayers, the Florida Senator got the law changed to restrict bailouts.

My conservative colleagues and I sounded the alarm about the likelihood of a taxpayer-funded bailout of health insurers (and were mocked as Chicken Littles for it). …When it came time to pass a spending bill at the end of 2014, we succeeded in making it the law of the land that the ObamaCare bailout program could not cost taxpayers a single cent—which ended up saving taxpayers $2.5 billion. In December of last year, we came back and repeated the feat. Now I am urging leaders in both the House and Senate to make this a priority and stop the bailout a third time.

As you might imagine, there’s a counterattack by the corrupt insurance companies that conspired with the White House to impose Obamacare on the nation.

…the health-insurance companies are suing to try to get their bailout…professional attorneys from the Congressional Research Service…said that the administration’s practice of making other payments to insurers under the ObamaCare reinsurance program “would appear to be in conflict with the plain text” of the law. …Health insurers can hire all the high-paid trial lawyers they want, but they will run into a constitutional buzz saw: America’s founding document grants Congress the power of the purse… Health-insurance companies need to wake up to the reality that this…money they are fighting for, and that the Obama administration is trying to weasel a way to somehow give them, belongs to taxpayers. Taxpayers get to decide—through me and others in Congress—whether to bail them out. And the people have spoken: No, we will not bail out health insurance companies for ObamaCare’s failures.

Amen to Senator Rubio.

Let’s hope Congress continues to oppose bailouts, and let’s also hope the White House isn’t successful in somehow giving our money to the big insurance companies.

Speaking of which, here’s what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the bailout controversy.

Right when you think Washington can’t get any worse, it does. That much was evident at a recent U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing into the Obama administration’s bailout of private health insurance companies. It’s a textbook case of government officials ignoring federal law to put special interests before the interests of American taxpayers and families.

Here’s how the mess was created…and how the Obama White House chose to respond.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s labyrinthine mandates, health insurance companies have collectively lost billions of dollars on the exchanges, leading to an increasing number of them limiting their participation in or exiting the exchanges altogether. As a result, many insurers have demanded larger subsidy payments. …responding to insurance industry demands — in November the Obama administration promised to “explore other sources of funding” for payments to insurers. Yet rather than work with Congress, the administration flouted the law entirely — and in this case, that means using tax dollars to bail out insurers left on the exchanges. CMS simply decided to ignore the law.

Unfortunately, ordinary people don’t have that option.

They simply pay more to get less.

Meanwhile, Americans rightly wonder who’s looking out for them. Premiums have actually risen faster in the five years after passage of the Affordable Care Act than in the five years before, while deductibles average nearly $3,000 for the most popular exchange plans.

Isn’t that typical.

Big government makes life worse for the average person while the special interests get special deals.

Speaking of special deals, let’s look at another Obamacare rescue for a privileged group.

Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation explains the contortions needed to keep health insurance subsidies flowing to Capitol Hill.

…one scandal is truly bipartisan: How key administration and congressional officials connived to create, under cover of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, special health insurance subsidies for members of Congress.

Here’s the background.

Rushing to enact the giant Obamacare bill in March 2010, Congress voted itself out of its own employer-sponsored health insurance coverage—the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. …But in pulling out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, they also cut themselves off from their employer-based insurance contributions.

Subjecting themselves and their staff to Obamacare may have been smart politics, if only to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, but that created a different problem.

Obamacare’s insurance subsidies for ordinary Americans are generous, but capped by income. No one with an annual income over $47,080 gets a subsidy. That’s well below typical Capitol Hill salaries. Members of Congress make $174,000 annually, and many on their staff have impressive, upper-middle-class paychecks. …Realizing what they had done, congressional leaders sought desperately to get fatter taxpayer subsidies in the Obamacare exchange system. …The standard excuse was that, without a special “sweetener,” a Capitol Hill “brain drain” would ensue; the best and brightest would flee to the private sector to get more affordable employment-based coverage.

Gee, it would have been a shame if the people who have screwed up public policy had to get jobs in the private sector (or, more likely, the parasitic lobbying sector).

But the law oftentimes is not an obstacle when the Obama White House wants something to happen.

…at a July 31 closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats, President Barack Obama had promised he would “fix” the mess they made of their health coverage. So, on Aug. 7, 2013, just as Congress was getting out of town for the August recess, the Office of Personnel Management ruled that members of Congress and staff enrolled in the exchange program would get Federal Employees Health Benefits Program subsidies, even though they were no longer in the program.

But how exactly did the White House evade the law?

…the Office of Personnel Management declared that Congress and staff were eligible to enroll in the Washington, D.C., “SHOP” Exchange, a health insurance exchange reserved for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. The exchange offers special insurance subsidies to participating small businesses. The problem was, of course, that Congress is not a “small business,” at least under any clinically sane definition of the term, and no section of the Affordable Care Act provided for any congressional exemption from the ban on large employer participation in the SHOP exchanges.

By the way, as a former staffer on Capitol Hill, I do have some sympathy for the lower-level folks who didn’t create the Obamacare mess and would suddenly be in a position of having to pay all their health costs out of pocket if the law was obeyed.

But that’s not a reason to engage in legal chicanery.

As part of tax and entitlement reform, by all means let’s shift to a system where we address the third-party payer crisis by having most health care expenses directly financed by consumers (reserving insurance for large, unpredictable expenses). That new system should include all people, including politicians and their staff.

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According to Economic Freedom of the World, there are five major factors that determine a nation’s economic performance.

Here’s the recipe for growth and prosperity.

  • Rule of law and property rights.
  • Small government.
  • Stable monetary policy.
  • Reasonable regulatory policy.
  • Free trade.

This great publication is the first thing I check when I want to see whether a country leans in the direction of markets or whether it is burdened by a lot of statism. And it allows for meaningful comparisons between nations since it relies on global data sources.

But not all economic variables have good data sources that allow apples-to-apples comparisons. It’s very difficult to measure the degree to which various governments interfere with the price system by imposing controls (either minimum or maximum price limits).

Identifying the degree of cronyism in an economy also is a challenge since there are not reliable numbers for the degree to which politicians in various nations provide favors for particular firms or sectors.

So I was very interested when I saw that the Economist has put together a ranking that shows the degree to which a nation’s billionaires either earn their wealth via markets or cheat their way to wealth via cronyism.

It obviously doesn’t cover nearly as many nations as Economic Freedom of the World, but perhaps the folks at the Economist have come up with a methodology that eventually will allow a specific measure of cronyism in the future.

The article explains how the rankings were derived.

…for the past 20 years, from Malaysia to Mexico, crony capitalists—individuals who earn their riches thanks to their chumminess with government—have had a golden era. Worldwide, the worth of billionaires in crony industries soared by 385% between 2004 and 2014, to $2 trillion. The Economist’s crony-capitalism index tries to measure the extent of this graft for a number of important countries. Industries that have a lot of interaction with the state are vulnerable to crony capitalism (a full list of industries is provided in the table below). These activities are often legal but always unfair (Donald Trump, a casino and property tycoon, earns the 104th spot in our individual crony ranking). …Germany is cleanest, where just a sliver of the country’s billionaires derives their wealth from crony sectors. Russia fares worst in our index: wealth from the country’s crony sectors amounts to 18% of its GDP.

I’m glad to have these new numbers, but I’m not completely sold on the methodology used by the Economist.

Is all banking and finance really cronyism? That seems a bit of a stretch. While there are some indications that Warren Buffett is now a cronyist, I’m not aware of any evidence suggesting he used government connections to become rich in the first place.

And what about energy and chemicals? That description may apply to some rich people in the U.S. and elsewhere, but there are plenty of examples (the Koch brothers) of billionaires in this sector that have earned their wealth.

And speaking of wealth, why did the article compare wealth (which is a stock) and GDP (which is a flow)? I realize the Economist needed some sort of benchmark, but they chose an approach that has dubious methodological value.

All that being said, I suspect that the countries near the top of that list have a genuine problem with cronyism and the ones near the bottom do a better job of letting market forces operate.

So congratulations to Germany and South Korea and boos for Russia and Malaysia.

And a bit of applause for the United States. We have some egregious forms of cronyism that benefit the undeserving rich, but most American billionaires apparently earn their money.

Now let’s zoom out and look at the historical case against cronyism with this superb video from Prager University.

The bottom line is that scams like Solyndra are the modern version of what many railroads did in the 1800s.

I didn’t realize, though, that Uncle Sam also squandered money trying to invent the airplane.

P.S. You can enjoy other great videos from Prager University by clicking here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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I’m a big fan of Estonia.

According to both the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, it has considerable economic freedom.

It has a low-rate flat tax, meaning that investors, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners aren’t punished for contributing more to the nation’s economic output.

It responded to the 2008 crisis by cutting spending rather than engaging in a Keynesian spending binge (which also led to an exploding cigar for Paul Krugman).

Now I have another reason to like Estonia.

It’s a role model for how to reduce corruption by shrinking the size and scope of government.

First, some background.

Neil Abrams and Professor Steven Fish have a column in the Washington Post about the seemingly intractable problem of boosting the rule of law in developing and transition economies.

Western aid agencies and scholars agree that the rule of law is required before developing countries can reduce poverty and corruption. For decades, they have supported aid programs designed to help developing countries establish law-based states. …In a rule-of-law state, the rules apply even to the rulers, not just the ordinary folks. The rule of law is not the same as democracy. Scores of developing countries have demonstrated that establishing democracy is the easy part. The rule of law is harder to attain. From India and the Philippines to Argentina, democracy coexists with endemic corruption, and elites remain largely exempt from the rules.

They then explain that its well-nigh impossible to create the rule of law in a society that has a big government.

…our research suggests that they have the sequence backward. Before urging governments to adopt the rule of law, they must first advise reformers to take one key step: eliminating the government subsidies that sustain criminal elites and replacing the compromised bureaucrats who patronize them.

Now for the big takeaway from their column: Estonia is the role model for how this can happen.

Our research shows that a few good policies can pave the way for the rule of law. For instance, Estonia’s clean and capable state administration represents a model of post-communist success. But this was not always the case. In 1991, when communism collapsed, Estonia, like other post-Soviet countries, had almost no working institutions and a burgeoning class of economic predators, nor was Estonia economically privileged. In the early post-Soviet years, its income per capita was only 10 to 20 percent higher than that of Russia and Romania and 20 to 30 percent lower than that of Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary. But Estonian leaders acted boldly. …early Estonian governments ended practically all subsidies to state and private enterprises. …in developing countries, state subsidies almost always benefit corrupt elites more than ordinary people. This policy cut off the budding economic criminals who profit from state largesse rather than entrepreneurial aptitude — and made it possible for real entrepreneurs to thrive. Deprived of subsidies, old-guard enterprise directors and crony capitalists could not muster enough political influence to hold governments hostage.

Sadly, other nations are not copying Estonia, in part because the international bureaucracies and national agencies that dispense foreign aid don’t support policies to shrink government in recipient nations.

Unfortunately, Estonia is the exception and not the rule. That’s  not for lack of trying on the part of the West. The United States, the European Union, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the United Nations have spent billions of dollars for the express purpose of helping countries build a rule of law. …But they’re stumbling. The Western effort assumes that the rule of law will flourish only if developing countries receive enough education, guidance, training and money. In fact, a growing body of research throws such optimism into doubt.

In other words, foreign aid – at best – is useless. And it may be harmful by financing a bigger role for recipient governments.

The authors close by emphasizing the need (assuming genuine rule of law is the goal) to prune the bureaucracy and public sector.

Scholars often treat the rule of law as a prerequisite for market-oriented economic policies such as liberalizing prices and trade and eradicating wasteful subsidies. They’re getting it backward. Instead, first eliminate the subsidies and purge the compromised bureaucrats who stand in the rule of law’s way. This is hard to do. It will provoke tremendous resistance from those who profit from the status quo. But it’s far more realistic and effective than simply encouraging countries to adopt the rule of law.

So what are the implications of this analysis for the United States?

Given that America now ranks below Estonia for rule of law, and given that rule of law is gradually eroding in the United States, the obvious lesson is that the public sector in America needs to shrink.

The real challenge, though, is convincing politicians to give up power.

Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School explains in USA Today that a larger government is good for politicians because it creates opportunities for graft.

The explanation for why politicians don’t do all sorts of reasonable-sounding things usually boils down to “insufficient opportunities for graft.” And, conversely, the reason why politicians choose to do many of the things that they do is … you guessed it, sufficient opportunities for graft. That graft may come in the form of bags of cash, or shady real-estate deals, or “consulting” gigs for a brother-in-law or child, but it may also come in broader terms of political support.

Glenn notes that there’s an entire school of thought in economics that analyzes this unfortunate tendency of politicians to conspire with interest groups at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

…there’s a whole field of economics based on this view, called “Public Choice Economics.” Nobel prize winning economist James Buchanan referred to public choice economics as “politics without romance.” Instead of being selfless civil servants motivated solely by the public good, public choice economics assumes that politicians are, like other human beings, heavily influenced by self-interest. …You pick a car because it’s the best car for you that you can afford. Politicians pick policies because they’re the best policies — for them — that they can achieve. …the entire system is designed — by politicians, naturally — to make it harder for voters to keep track of what politicians are doing. The people who have a bigger stake in things — the real estate developers or construction unions — have an incentive to keep track of things, and to influence them.

Having received my Ph.D. from George Mason University, home of the Center for the Study of Public Choice, I echo Glenn’s comments about the value of this theory.

So what’s the moral of the story?

As summarized by Professor Reynolds, bigger government means more corruption and smaller government means less corruption.

The more the government does and the more decisions that are relegated to bureaucrats, “guidance” and other forms of decisionmaking that are far from the public eye, the more freedom politicians have to pursue their own interest at the expense of the public — all while, of course, claiming to do just the opposite.

Now let’s look at some real-world examples from Washington.

By the way, I’m not writing to specifically condemn Obama and his team, even though I’m quite confident that the Chicago machine produces people who excel at unethical behavior.

Republicans also get their hands dirty by steering undeserved wealth to special interests, as explained here, here, and here.

That being said, most Washington corruption today seems associated with the Democrat Party for the simple reason that Democrats control the bureaucracy.

For instance, here are some of the key points from a New York Times report.

The State Department, under Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, created an arrangement for her longtime aide and confidante Huma Abedin to work for private clients as a consultant while serving as a top adviser in the department. Ms. Abedin did not disclose the arrangement — or how much income she earned — on her financial report. It requires officials to make public any significant sources of income.

To be blunt, this stinks to high heaven.

…the picture that emerges from interviews and records suggests a situation where the lines were blurred between Ms. Abedin’s work in the high echelons of one of the government’s most sensitive executive departments and her role as a Clinton family insider. While continuing her work at the State Department, in the latter half of 2012, she also worked for Teneo, a strategic consulting firm, which was founded by Doug Band, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Teneo has advised corporate clients like Coca-Cola and MF Global, the collapsed brokerage firm run by Jon S. Corzine, a former governor of New Jersey.

The Daily Caller also has been doing some first-rate work on the cronyism and corruption inside Washington.

One of their stories, for instance, exposed the left-wing connections of the supposedly “apolitical” bureaucrat at the heart of the IRS scandal.

IRS Exempt Organizations Division director Lois G. Lerner, who has been described as “apolitical” in mainstream press coverage of the IRS scandal, is married to tax attorney Michael R. Miles, a partner at the law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.

And why does that matter?

The 400-attorney firm hosted an organizing meeting at its Atlanta office for people interested in helping with voter registration for the Obama re-election campaign. …Lerner personally signed the tax-exemption approval for a shady charity run by Obama’s half-brother, after an inexplicably brief one-month application process.

Time to wrap this up.

I enjoy Mark Steyn for his biting humor, but he makes a very serious and relevant point is his latest column.

A civil “civil service” requires small government. Once government is ensnared in every aspect of life a bureaucracy grows increasingly capricious. The U.S. tax code ought to be an abomination to any free society, but the American people have become reconciled to it because of a complex web of so-called exemptions that massively empower the vast shadow state of the permanent bureaucracy. Under a simple tax system, your income is a legitimate tax issue. Under the IRS, everything is a legitimate tax issue: The books you read, the friends you recommend them to. There are no correct answers, only approved answers.

I made a similar point, arguing that you can’t have a competent government unless it’s a small government.

But as the public sector expands, effective management becomes much harder.

And, as discussed in an interview with John Stossel, you also get corruption, mixed with incompetence and thuggery.

Let’s close by re-issuing my video explaining how big government enables pervasive corruption. It’s never been more timely and appropriate.

P.S. There are some countries with big governments that are not plagued by corruption. The Nordic nations, for instance, rank at or near the top in many economic indications, including high-quality rule of law. Though it’s worth noting that these jurisdictions scored highly in these areas before the burden of government was expanded.

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Over the years, I’ve latched on to several images that do a very good job of capturing the essence of an issue.

Here are some of my favorites.

Now I have a new addition to the list.

Here’s an image Steve Conover shared with me. It comes from his book, Neutering the National Debt, and it’s the perfect way to explain why the Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the class warriors are wrong.

The problem isn’t rich people. It’s looters and moochers, regardless of their income.

What makes this image so helpful is that it’s true. If you look at the “right enemy” part of the image, the rich in the red zone are the cronyists who get Ex-Im subsidies, the Wall Street crowd that fed at the TARP trough, and other well-connected folks (like Warren Buffett) who use government coercion to line their pockets.

What we have is basically the visual that I would have liked to include in my 2011 column that discussed the “good rich” and the “bad rich.” When debating those who are motivated by class warfare, I’m defending the rich in the white zone, but it would be helpful to have a way of distinguishing between the worthy and unworthy people with money.

And the same is true for the non-rich. Most of them are good and decent folks earning an honest living and they belong in the white zone. But there are also some non-rich people who rely on government coercion. They could be overpaid government bureaucrats. They could be folks scamming the food stamp program or fraudsters bilking the EITC.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I suspect that more than 50 percent of the folks in Washington belong in the red zone.

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Remember the odious, immoral, and corrupt TARP bailout?

Well, it’s becoming an issue in the 2016 presidential race, with some folks criticizing Donald Trump for siding with Bush and Obama on the issue.

I suppose I could make a snide observation about the absurdity of Trump being perceived as an anti-establishment candidate when he supported a policy that had unanimous support from political insiders.

But I would much rather focus on the policy implications. So when Neil Cavuto asked me to comment on Chris Christie’s rejection of bailouts, I took the opportunity to stress (once again) that it wasn’t a TARP-or-nothing choice and that there was a sensible, non-corrupt, way of dealing with failing financial firms. Simply stated, only bail out depositors and let bondholders and shareholders take the hit.

For the geeks who are reading this, you’ll recognize that the policy I’m advocating is often called the FDIC-resolution approach.

And it’s worth noting that this was used at the beginning of the financial crisis. As I pointed out in the discussion, two of the big financial institution that first got in trouble – WAMU and IndyMac – were liquidated.

But once Bush’s execrable Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, took control of the process, decisions were made to rescue the fat cats as well as the depositors.

The bottom line is that a lot of establishment figures, including GOPers like Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney, argue that TARP was necessary because the financial system needed to be recapitalized.

Yet that’s also what happens with the FDIC-resolution approach. The only real difference is whether financial institutions should be rescued along with depositors.

Well, my view is that capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

P.S. The other guest in the interview made a very good point about America becoming “bailout nation.” I fully agree. To the extent that we have private profits and socialized losses, we’ll have bigger and bigger problems with moral hazard. After all, if you’re in Las Vegas and someone else is covering your losses, why not make high-risk/high-reward bets.

P.P.S. If anyone cares, my driveway is finally clear. A special thanks to the family next door. Not only were they smarter than me (as I wrote yesterday, they parked their cars near the end of their driveway), they’re also nicer than me. They came over and helped me finish when they were done!

Actually, I like to think I’d be equally thoughtful. I’ll have to look for a chance to repay their good deed.

By the way, I should add that the father next door works for a social conservative organization, which is one more piece of evidence for my view that so-cons and libertarians should be allies.

Tim Carney explains that natural alliance much better.

P.P.P.S. In hopes of convincing some of my leftist friends, I can’t resist making one final point.

When government gets to pick winners and losers, it’s highly probable that those who get the handouts, bailouts, and subsidies will be rich, powerful, and politically connected. Heck, just think of the Ex-Im Bank.

As noted by my former colleague, Will Wilkinson, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

I realize that statists won’t agree with me that it’s wrong for the federal government to redistribute from rich to poor. But I hope they’ll be on my side in fighting against redistribution from poor to rich!

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Because I don’t like their plans for a value-added tax, some people seem to think that I am politically opposed to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

That’s not true. Both Senators are generally strong proponents of free markets and limited government, so the fact that they have one bad policy position shouldn’t a disqualifying characteristic.

But since I’m a policy wonk (and because I work at a non-profit think tank), it’s not my role to tell people how to vote anyhow. Instead, my niche in life is to analyze policy proposals. And if that means I say something nice about a politician who is normally bad, or something critical of a politician who is normally good, so be it.

In other words, nothing I write is because I want readers to vote for or vote against particular candidates. I write to educate and inform.

With all those caveats out of the way, let’s look at the federal government’s odious handouts for the ethanol industry, a very important issue where Rand Paul and Ted Cruz unambiguously are on the side of the angels.

My colleague Doug Bandow summarizes the issue nicely in a column for Newsweek.

Senator Ted Cruz has broken ranks to criticize farmers’ welfare. …Senator Rand Paul also rejects the conventional wisdom…the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires blending ethanol with gasoline, operates as a huge industry subsidy. Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute figured the requirement cost drivers more than $10 billion since 2007. …Ethanol has only about two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. Given the energy necessary to produce ethanol—fuel tractors, make fertilizer and distill alcohol, for instance—ethanol actually may consume more in fossil fuels than the energy it yields. The ethanol lobby claims using this inferior fuel nevertheless promotes “energy independence.” However, …the price of this energy “insurance” is wildly excessive. …”By creating an artificial energy demand for corn—40 percent of the existing supply goes for ethanol—Uncle Sam also is raising food prices. This obviously makes it harder for poor people to feed themselves, and raises costs for those seeking to help them.” Nor does ethanol welfare yield an environmental benefit, as claimed. In fact, ethanol is bad for the planet. …Ethanol is a bad deal by any standard. Whomever Iowans support for president, King Ethanol deserves a bout of regicide.

Here’s some of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial on the topic.

Mr. Cruz does deserve support in Iowa for…his…lonely opposition to the renewable fuel standard that mandates ethanol use and enriches producers in the Hawkeye State. The Senator refused to bow before King Ethanol last year, and he’s mostly held fast even though Iowa is where anti-subsidy Republicans typically go to repent. …the Texan is right that ethanol is one of America’s worst corporate-welfare cases. The mandate flows in higher profits to a handful of ethanol producers and keeps the price of corn artificially high, all other demand being equal. This raises the price of food. Al Gore and the greens once supported ethanol but gave up on it when studies showed it did nothing for the environment because of the energy expended in its production. So for those of you keeping track of this outsider feud on your establishment scorecards, mark ethanol as one for Mr. Cruz. In this case he’s standing on principle.

Not only does it raise the price of food, Washington’s mandate for ethanol use (the “renewable fuels standard”) means higher prices for motorists.

Here are the key findings on the topic from the Congressional Budget Office.

While Senators Cruz and Paul are fighting on the right side, Donald Trump is cravenly bowing to the special interests that want continued ethanol handouts. Jillian Kay Melchior explains for National Review.

One of the most destructive environmental subsidies in the United States has found an enthusiastic supporter in Donald Trump. “The EPA should ensure that biofuel . . . blend levels match the statutory level set by Congress,” he said yesterday in Iowa, adding that he was “there with you 100 percent” on continuing federal support for ethanol. …federal support for ethanol is a bum deal for Americans. Under the 2007 Independence and Security Act, Congress mandated that the United States use 36 billion gallons of biofuels, including corn ethanol and cellulosic biofuel, by 2022. And the federal government not only requires the use of ethanol; it also subsides it. Tax credits between 1978 and 2012 cost the Treasury as much as $40 billion. Moreover, numerous other federal programs, spanning multiple agencies, allot billions of dollars to ethanol in the form of grants, loan guarantees, tax credits, and other subsidies. …Ethanol-intensive fuel blends can wreak havoc on car, lawnmower, and boat engines. In fact, many vehicle manufacturers will no longer offer warranties when ethanol comprises 10 percent or more of fuel; engine erosion simply becomes too common. …perhaps it’s not surprising that Trump likes federal support of ethanol. After all, the real-estate mogul’s business model has historically hinged on using tax abatements and other subsidies to make his building projects profitable. …Trump’s support for ethanol belies his populist Main Street rhetoric. In reality, he’s just another rich, East Coast politician who would prop up special interests at the expense of the taxpayer.

The bottom line is that ethanol handouts are one of the most notoriously corrupt subsidies that are dispensed by Washington.

They also violate my Bleeding-Heart Rule by imposing costs on lower- and middle-income people to reward politically connected fat cats with deep pockets.

Policy makers who oppose ethanol deserve praise, especially when they are willing to say and do the right thing in a state (like Iowa) that has a lot of recipients of this execrable form of corporate welfare.

P.S. I will get really excited if a candidate goes to Iowa and explains that we should get rid of the entire Department of Agriculture.

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I’ve written about how statist policies help the rich and hurt the poor.

And I’ve also pontificated on the destructive and foolish subsidies dispensed by the execrable Department of Agriculture.

Now let’s mix those two issues (though I hasten to add that this isn’t like math…two negatives don’t make a positive.

Here’s an infographic from the American Enterprise Institute showing how farm programs are a (yet another) perverse example of poor-to-rich redistribution.

I particularly like the part about 42 cents of administrative cost to give away 90 cents of other people’s money.

Actually, let me rephrase. I’m horrified and upset that we have this horrible system, so I only “like” that part of the infographic in the sense that it’s an effective way of showing the inefficiency, venality, and stupidity of government redistribution programs.

And don’t forget that if it’s bad to redistribute from rich to poor, it’s downright evil and despicable to redistribute from poor to rich.

P.S. On a different topic, I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts from a story out of Missouri.

Lobbyists who have sex with a Missouri lawmaker or a member of a lawmaker’s staff would have to disclose it to the Missouri Ethics Commission under a bill introduced Wednesday in the Missouri House. …sexual relations would have to be included on monthly lobbyist gift disclosure forms.

And you thought this cartoon was merely satirical.

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What were the most noteworthy events from 2015?

Regarding bad news, there’s unfortunately a lot of competition. But if I’m forced to pick the very worst developments, here’s my list.

Resuscitation of the Export-Import Bank – I did a premature victory dance last year when I celebrated the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s authority.  I should have known that corrupt cronyism was hard to extinguish. Sure enough, Republicans and Democrats conspired to re-authorize the Ex-Im Bank and transfer wealth from ordinary Americans to politically connected corporations.

Expansion of IMF authority – I also did a premature victory dance in 2014 when I lauded the fact that Congress did not approve increased bailout authority for the International Monetary Fund. Sadly, as part of the year-end spending agreement, Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s authority so it could continue to push for higher taxes around the world.

Busting the spending caps (again) – When I wrote last August that maintaining the spending caps was a key test of GOP integrity, I should have known that they would get a failing grade. Sure enough, Republicans deliberately fumbled the ball at the goal line and agreed to higher spending. Again.

Supreme Court ignores law to bail out Obamacare (again) – Back in 2012, the Supreme Court had a chance to rule whether Obamacare was an impermissible expansion of the power of the federal government. In a truly odious decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ignored the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and decided we could be coerced to buy health insurance. Last year, he did it again, this time by bailing out a key part of Obamacare by deciding to arbitrarily ignore the wording of the law.

Business-as-usual transportation bill – The desire of Congress to fund pork-barrel transportation projects is at least somewhat constrained by the amount of revenue generated by the gas tax. There was an opportunity for reform in 2015 because proposed spending was much higher than the trajectory of gas tax revenue, but rather than even engage in a discussion of good policy options, politicians merely bickered over what combination of tax hikes and budget gimmicks they could put together to keep the pork projects flowing.

Creeping support on the right for the value-added tax – When I wrote early last year that the 2016 election might create an opportunity for tax reform, I was being hopeful that we might get something close to a simple and fair flat tax. Yet probably the biggest news so far in this election cycle is that a couple of candidates who presumably favor small government – Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – have proposed to impose a value-added tax without fully repealing the income tax.

There’s very little good news to celebrate. Here’s my tragically sparse list, and you’ll notice that my list of victories is heavy on style and light on substance. But let’s take what we can get.

Semi-decent Republican budgets – The budget resolution produced by Congress technically doesn’t embrace specific policies, but the it’s nonetheless noteworthy that the House and Senate approved numbers that – at least conceptually – are based on genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Support for spending caps – Notwithstanding the fact that GOP politicians won’t even abide by the limited spending caps that already exist, I’m somewhat encouraged by the growing consensus for comprehensive spending caps akin to the ones in place in Switzerland and Hong Kong. Heck, even international bureaucracies now agree spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

Good election results from the Wolverine State – It was great to see Michigan voters reject a gas tax increase that was supported by the political elite.

More companies escaping the IRS – I heartily applaud when companies figure out how to re-domicile in jurisdictions with better tax law to escape America’s high corporate tax rate and self-destructive worldwide tax system. And I’m glad these “inversions” continue to take place even though the Obama Administration is trying to stop them.

A glimmer of reality at the New York Times – I realize I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel in my search for good news, but the fact that the New York Times published a column acknowledging that feminist economic policies backfire against women hopefully is a sign that sensible thinking is possible in the establishment media.

Gun control flopping – It’s great to see that the left has totally failed in its effort to undermine 2nd Amendment rights.

Limits on asset forfeiture – The final bit of good news from 2015 was the just-before-Christmas announcement by the Obama Administration that the odious practice of asset forfeiture would be modestly curtailed.

I would offer predictions for 2016, but since my big prediction from last year that we would have gridlock was sadly inaccurate, I think I’ll avoid making a fool of myself this year.

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Two years ago, I wrote that Washington’s parasite class was having a very merry Christmas.

But I wasn’t mocking welfare recipients, many of whom actually deserve sympathy for getting trapped in the web of government dependency.

Instead, I was referring to the unearned wealth being accumulated by Washington’s gilded class of bureaucrats, cronyists, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, and other insiders.

To cite a truly horrifying statistic, the redistribution of money from America to Washington has made it the nation’s richest metropolitan region.

And it’s getting worse.

Let’s look at what Tim Carney just wrote in the Washington Examiner about Christmas on K Street.

It’s that magical season when Republicans and Democrats come together to look after the needs of corporate America, K Street lobbyists, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. …The highway measure is a huge win for industry while a loss for good governance. Far worse, however, is the…provision reviving the defunct Export-Import Bank, a corporate-welfare agency…K Street lobbied incessantly to revive Ex-Im, backed by President Obama, Hillary Clinton and nearly every Democratic lawmaker. …As a corporate cherry on top, the bill repeals a recent minor cut in federal crop insurance subsidies, a program that benefits financial firms… Congressional leaders are currently negotiating another year-end legislative package, the notorious annual tax extenders bill. …the bill will extend (at least for a short-time) green-energy subsidies: The Production Tax Credit for wind and the Investment Tax Credit for solar. …Almost all of them are crucial for some special interest and the revolving-door lobbyists they employ.

Tim points out that the feeding frenzy is bipartisan, which some people think is a measure of good policy.

Like me, though, Tim isn’t impressed when the Evil Party and the Stupid Party both conspire to produce bad policy.

As this legislation — the highway bill, the energy bill, the tax extenders, plus the omnibus spending bill—pass through both houses, expect hosannas to the “bipartisanship” and “compromise” involved. …there’s one common theme here: Corporate lobbyists win in almost every case.

But catering to the interests of K Street lobbyists is probably not a good strategy for Republicans.

Republican leaders are probably confused about why all their accomplishments and imminent accomplishments, including the highway bill, tax extenders and appropriations, haven’t dragged Congress’s approval out of the gutter—after all, everyone they talk to thinks Congress is doing a bang-up job.

Now let’s look at what Kevin Williamson recently wrote for National Review. His article is primarily about corruption in Chicago, but his observations apply just as well to how Washington operates.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Al Gore, and the rest of that sorry lot aren’t trying to get rich — they’re already rich, some of them wildly rich. They are building a patronage society. And building a patronage society costs a lot of money… The horrifying fact is that Barack Obama can make you a rich man — if you’re the right kind of man. If you operate a politically connected business, the government can direct the better part of $1 billion straight into your coffers… At the other end of the spectrum, a federal tormenter can be the end of your enterprise: Ask those Tea Party groups illegally targeted by Barack Obama’s IRS. Ask a voting-reform advocate who was targeted by the ATF in spite of not being in any business related to A, T, or F.

But it’s not just a case of undeserved goodies getting steered to political cronies.

Yes, that’s a problem, but the economic concern is that this type of economic model misallocates resources and leads to stagnation.

The Clintons’ game isn’t enjoying the $100 million in their checking account — it’s making use of the $44 trillion in American-owned assets as if they owned them themselves. Barack Obama doesn’t want a garage full of Rolls Royces — he wants a world in which Rolls Royce has to ask his permission before building a car or selling one.

In effect, a nation slowly but surely becomes Greece as more and more people either rely on benefits or have jobs in the bloated bureaucracies that dispense goodies.

…you cannot build a patronage society on patrons alone: You need clients. And that’s where the ever-growing public sector comes in. …There is effectively no one working at your local DMV, public school, police station, or IRS office who could earn even 80 percent of his government compensation in a private-sector job. …the really nefarious dependency agenda isn’t focused on the people who cash welfare checks, but on the people who write them, the vast bureaucracies of overpaid functionaries… Get enough of those and you have effective control over the entire economy — Chávez-style socialism without the nasty business of formal expropriation.

By the way, it’s not just libertarian types who worry about bloated government and cronyism.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent column by Robert Samuelson that succinctly captures an inherent problem with government. Writing about the reasons for diminishing productivity growth, he cites the work of Mancur Olson.

Olson revolutionized thinking about the political power of interest groups. …conventional wisdom held that large groups were more powerful than small groups in pursuing their self-interest — say, a government subsidy, tax preference or a protective tariff. …Just the opposite, Olson said in his 1965 book “The Logic of Collective Action.” With so many people in the large group, the benefits of collective action were often spread so thinly that no individual had much of an incentive to become politically active. The tendency was to “let George do it,” but George had no incentive either. By contrast, the members of smaller groups often could see the benefits of their collective action directly. They were motivated to organize and to pursue their self-interest aggressively.

Samuelson continues, elaborating on Olson’s insight about concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.

Here’s an example: A company and its workers lobby for import protection, which saves jobs and raises prices and profits. But consumers — who pay the higher prices — don’t create a counter-lobby, because it’s too much trouble and the higher prices are diluted among many individual consumers. Gains are concentrated, losses dispersed. This was Olson’s great insight, and it had broad implications, he said. In a 1982 book, “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” he argued that the proliferation of special-interest concessions could reduce a society’s economic growth. “An increase in the payoffs from lobbying . . . as compared with the payoffs from production, means more resources are devoted to politics and cartel activity and fewer resources are devoted to production,” he wrote.

The last part of the excerpt is crucial.

When we get to the point when businesses are focused on harvesting favors from Washington (such as bailouts, export subsidies, special tax preferences, etc), that is a very depressing indication of a cronyist economy rather than a capitalist economy. Of being Argentina rather than Hong Kong.

If you’re not already sufficiently depressed, my colleague Chris Edwards has a very good description of the lawmaking process. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts as a teaser.

In a romantic view of democracy, legislators act with the interests of the general public in mind. They grapple with policy issues, work toward a broad consensus, and pass legislation that has strong support. To ensure that funds are spent wisely, they frequently reevaluate existing programs and prune the low-value and harmful ones. They put citizens first and carefully limit their actions to those allowable under the U.S. Constitution. The problem with this “public interest theory of government” is that it has little real-world explanatory power. …we can better understand congressional actions by looking at incentives.

And when you look at how the process really works, you learn it is dominated by “rent seeking,” which is academic jargon for interest groups obtaining undeserved benefits via government coercion.

Members…seek federal benefits for their states because most of the costs will fall on other states. This is a major factor causing federal failure. The structure of Congress leads members to support programs that benefit their states but that are losers for the nation as a whole. …There is no built-in check—no invisible hand, as in markets—to guide members to make value-added decisions… Special-interest groups dominate policy discussions. Most witnesses to congressional hearings favor the programs being examined, and they focus on program benefits, not the costs. Most visitors to member offices on Capitol Hill are there to plead for special benefits. …Washington is teaming with lobbyists seeking special benefits—subsidies, regulations, trade protections—that come at the expense of the general public. …rent seeking is a two-way street. Jonathan Rauch of Brookings noted, “In the public’s mind, the standard model of lobbying in Washington involves special interests buying influence, in a sort of legalized bribery. In fact, the process more often involves politicians shaking down special interests.”

If you’ve read this far, you probably want to go take a shower and wash away the stench of Washington corruption.

But there’s one tiny glimmer of hope. If we can somehow figure out how to shrink the size and scope of government, we can reduce the problem. That’s the message of this video.

While we know the solution, our real challenge is that we can only shrink government by convincing politicians to change policy. Yet asking politicians to reduce government is like asking burglars to be in favor of armed homeowners.

And based on everything I wrote above, we know politicians generally have bad incentives.

But it’s not hopeless. While I certainly enjoy mocking politicians, they’re not totally immoral or even amoral people. Many of them do understand there’s a problem. Indeed, I would argue that recent votes for entitlement reform are an example of genuine patriotism – i.e., doing the right thing for the country.

So is there a potential solution?

Maybe. Let’s use an analogy from Greek mythology. Many politicians generally can’t resist the siren song of a go-along-to-get-along approach. But like Ulysses facing temptation from sirens, they recognize that this is a recipe for a bad outcome. So they realize that some sort of self-imposed constraint is desirable. And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful that we can get them to impose binding spending caps.

We know there are successful reforms by looking at the evidence. And we know there is growing support from fiscal experts. And we even see that normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF acknowledge that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

So if Ulysses can bind himself to the mast and resist the sirens, perhaps we can convince politicians to tie their own hands with a Swiss-style spending cap.

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Shortly after Obamacare was enacted, I started writing about groups victimized by the law. But after highlighting how children, low-income workers, and retirees were disadvantaged by government-run healthcare, I soon realized that I wasn’t saying anything new or different.

Heck, Obamacare has been such a disaster that lots of people have been writing lots of good articles about the law’s failure and how various segments of the population are being unjustly harmed.

So I chose a different approach. I decided to identify groups that deserve to suffer because of the law. Or at least to highlight slices of the population that are not very deserving of sympathy.

Some politicians and staffers of Capitol Hill, for instance, are very upset about the prospect of being subjected to the law that they inflicted on the rest of the country. Gee, my heart breaks for them.

The bureaucrats at the IRS are agitated about the possibility of living under Obamacare, even though the IRS got new powers as a result of the law. How sad, cry me a river.

Professors at Harvard University, including many who supported Obamacare, are now upset that the law is hurting them. Oh, the inhumanity!

Now we have another group to add to this list. And this group is definitely in the deserve-to-suffer category.

That’s because we’re going to look at the big insurance companies that supported Obamacare, but now are squealing because the law isn’t working and they’re not getting the bailouts they were promised.

Here are some excerpts from a column by the irreplaceable Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner.

Until recently, the insurance giants saw Obamacare as a cash cow. They are now finding the law’s insurance marketplaces to be sickly quagmires causing billions in losses. …United Healthcare, the nation’s largest insurer, last week announced it was suffering huge losses in the exchanges. …The company forecast $700 million in losses on the exchanges. Fellow insurance giant Aetna also said it expected to lose money on the exchanges, and other insurers said enrollment was lower than they expected.

This seems like a feel-good story, very appropriate for the holidays. After all, companies that get in bed with big government deserve bad consequences.

But hold on to your wallet.

…Obamacare insiders — the wealthy and powerful operatives who alternate between top government jobs and top industry jobs — are hustling to find more bailout money for insurers. Republicans, if they are able to hold their ground in the face of lobbyist pressure, can block the bailout of Obamacare and its corporate clientele. …Obamacare included…a three-year safety net for insurers who do much worse than expected, paid for by an extra tax on insurers who do much better. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) had announced in October that insurers losses for 2014 entitled them to $2.87 billion in bailout payments… The problem is that super-profitable insurers did not pay nearly that much into the bailout fund.

This means there will be a fight in Washington. The Obama White House wants to bail out its corporate cronies. But there’s not enough money in the bailout fund.

And, thanks to Senator Rubio of Florida, the government can’t write checks out of thin air.

In late 2014, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., inserted into the so-called Cromnibus spending bill a provision that prohibited CMS from paying out more in risk corridor payments than it takes in. Profitable insurers — not taxpayers — must subsidize their less profitable peers.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration oftentimes doesn’t care what the law says.

CMS announced last week that the government was going to find a way to pay the insurers their full bailout, anyway. …CMS also declared the unfunded portion of Obamacare’s initial promised insurer bailout was nevertheless an “obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required,” even though at least under the current appropriation law it is illegal.

Tim outlines the incestuous relationship between Big Insurance and the Obama White House, all of which makes for nauseating reading.

But here’s the part that matters for public policy.

Rubio’s provision…expires along with the current government funding law on December 11. The Obamacare insiders, led by Slavitt and Tavenner, will fight to free up their bailouts and put the taxpayers on the hook for their losses caused by the law they supported.

In other words, we’re about to see – as part of upcoming appropriations legislation – if Republicans have the intelligence and fortitude to retain Rubio’s anti-bailout provision.

This should be a slam-dunk issue. After all, the American people presumably will not favor bailouts for corrupt health insurance corporations.

Especially since Obamacare is still very unpopular.

But what if Obama says “boo” and threatens to veto spending legislation if it doesn’t give him carte blanche bailout authority? Will GOPers be so scared of a partial government shutdown that they instantly surrender?

After all, when there was a shutdown fight in 2013, Republicans suffered a horrible defeat in the 2014 mid-term elections. Right? Isn’t that what happened?

Oh…wait…never mind.

P.S. Let’s not forget that there is one very tiny segment of America that has unambiguously benefited from Obamacare.

P.P.S. If you have any friends who work for the corrupt health insurance companies that are worried about a potential loss of bailout money, you can cheer them up this Christmas season with some great – and very appropriate – action figure toys.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re closing with sarcasm, here’s the federal government’s universal bailout application form.

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When I first got to Washington in the mid-1980s, one of the big issues was the supposedly invincible Japanese economy. Folks on the left claimed that Japan was doing well because the government had considerable power to micro-manage the economy with industrial policy.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now quite apparent that was the wrong approach.

In more recent years, some on the left have praised China’s economic model. And while it’s true that the country has enjoyed strong growth, it’s far from a role model.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2010.

Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom – which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. …This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation.

With my skeptical view of the Chinese economic system, I figured it was just a matter of time before the nation experienced some economic hiccups.

And the recent drop in the Shanghai stock market certainly would be an example. I discussed the topic earlier this week in this Skype interview with Blaze TV.

To elaborate, there’s no precise formula for determining a nation’s prosperity. After all, economies are not machines.

But there is a strong relationship between prosperity and the level of economic freedom.

And as I explained earlier this year, China’s problem is that government is still far too big. As such, its overall ranking from Economic Freedom of the World is still very low.

And this means that the Chinese people – while much better off then they were under a pure communist system – are still not rich.

I mentioned the comparative numbers on per-capita economic output in the interview, which is something I wrote about back in 2011. And you can click here if you want the underlying figures to confirm that Americans are far more prosperous.

By the way, this is an issue where the establishment seems to have a semi-decent understanding of what’s happening, even if they don’t necessarily draw any larger lessons from the episode.

The Associated Press, for instance, has a good report on the issue. Here’s some of the story, which looks at why the the stock market seems untethered from economic fundamentals.

When China’s economy was roaring along at double digit rates in the 2000s, Chinese stocks floundered. But starting in the summer of 2014, as evidence of an economic slowdown gathered, the Shanghai Composite index climbed nearly 150 percent. …Now the Chinese stock bubble has burst and Shanghai shares are in a free fall. They’ve lost about 30 percent since peaking last month. …Prices in the stock market are supposed to reflect business realities: the health of the economy, the quality of the companies listed on stock exchanges, the comparative allure of alternative investments. But in a communist country where the government plays an oversized role in the economy, investors pay more attention to signals coming from policymakers in Beijing than to earnings reports, management shake-ups and new product announcements.

If savvy investors think it’s important to focus on what the government is doing, that’s obviously bad news.

During the booming 2000s, only politically connected firms were allowed to list on stock exchanges for the most part. Many of them were run by insiders of dubious managerial talent. The markets were dominated by inefficient state-owned companies. Investors were especially wary of investing in big government banks believed to be sinking under the weight of bad loans. Stocks went nowhere.

And when the government started to encourage a bubble, that also wasn’t a good idea.

…state media began encouraging Chinese to buy stock, even as the country’s economic outlook dimmed. The economy grew 7.4 percent last year, the slowest pace since 1990. It’s expected to decelerate further this year. But authorities allowed investors to borrow to buy ever-more shares. Unsophisticated investors — more than a third left school at the junior high level — got the message and bought enthusiastically, taking Chinese stocks to dangerous heights. Now it’s all crashing down.

I’m not sure “all crashing down” is the right conclusion.

As I said in the interview, the market doubled and now it’s down about 30 percent, so many investors are still in good shape.

That being said, I have no idea whether the market will recover, stabilize, or continue to drop.

But I do feel comfortable making a larger point about the relationship between economic freedom and long-run prosperity.

So if you want to learn lessons from East Asia, look at the strong performances of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, all of which provide very impressive examples of sustained growth enabled by small government and free markets.

P.S. I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

P.P.S. Click here if you want some morbid humor about China’s pseudo-communist regime.

P.P.P.S. Though I give China credit for trimming at least one of the special privileges provided to government bureaucrats.

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Advocates of economic liberty, free market, and small government haven’t enjoyed many victories in the 21st Century.

Government got bigger and more expensive during Bush’s reign, starting in his first year with the No Bureaucrat Left Behind legislation and then ending in his final year with the odious TARP bailout.

Then Obama came to office, promising “hope and change,” but then proceeded to act like Bush on steroids, giving us the faux stimulus his first year and then the Obamacare boondoggle his second year.

But there have been a few victories since 2010.

The sequester unquestionably was Obama’s biggest defeat, and that policy helped contribute (along with debt limit fights and shutdown battles) to a much-needed five-year slowdown in federal spending between 2009 and 2014.

That’s certainly not a permanent victory, particularly since our long-run fiscal crisis will still be enormous in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But better to have some short-run spending restraint than none at all.

And since we’re looking at victories, we have something new to celebrate. Today (July 1) is the first day in decades that America is freed from a very misguided form of corporate welfare known as the Export-Import Bank.

This bit of cronyism was created to give undeserved wealth to big companies by guaranteeing some of their sales to foreign customers, and I argued in 2012 and earlier this year that shutting down the Ex-Im Bank was a test of seriousness for the GOP..

They sort of passed the test. The Ex-Im Bank needed to be authorized by midnight on June 30 to stay in operation and that didn’t happen.

However, this victory also isn’t permanent. Cronyists in the business community plan to push for re-authorization later this year, so it’s still an open question on who will prevail. Particularly since there are some GOPers who like big business more than free markets.

But at least for today, we can enjoy this image from the Ex-Im Bank’s website.

For more information why the Ex-Im Bank should not be re-authorized and instead should be permanently shut down, here are some excerpts from a column by Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus.

Ex-Im Bank puts millions of consumers, firms and workers at a disadvantage. As such, closing it down is an important first step in the battle against the unhealthy marriage between the government and corporate America. …Over 60 percent of the bank’s financing aids 10 giant beneficiaries, like Caterpillar, Bechtel, and General Electric. On the foreign side, the cheap loans go to state-owned companies like Pemex, the Mexican government’s oil and gas giant, or Air Emirates, the airline of the wealthy United Arab Emirates. …More than 98 percent of all U.S. exports occur with no Ex-Im Bank subsidies at all. And considering who the beneficiaries of Ex-Im on the domestic and foreign sides are, there’s no chance that all Ex-Im supported exports will disappear.

And let’s not forget the costs imposed on the rest of the economy thanks to this bit of corporate welfare.

Economists have shown that while export subsidies boost the profits of the recipients, it tends to have a negative impact on economy as a whole by shifting capital, economic growth, jobs and profits from unsubsidized firms to subsidized ones. …victims are taxpayers who now bear the risk for $140 billion in liabilities. These victims are consumers who pay higher prices for the purchase of subsidized goods. These victims are unsubsidized firms competing with subsidized ones. They not only pay higher financing costs but also lose out when private capital flows to politically privileged firms regardless of the merits of their projects. Some are even victimized multiple times: first as taxpayers, then as consumers, then as competitors, and finally as borrowers.

Speaking of economic costs, you definitely should click here and watch a video by another Mercatus expert of why the Ex-Im Bank undermines economic efficiency.

Like Veronique, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the unsung heroes in the fight against the Ex-Im Bank. Here’s some of his column from yesterday.

The Export-Import Bank is down. …Legally, Ex-Im’s officers, employees and board members must cease their typical work of subsidizing Boeing, J.P. Morgan and Chinese state-owned enterprises. Instead, under the law that authorized it, Ex-Im is allowed to exist only “for purposes of orderly liquidation, including the administration of its assets and the collection of any obligations held by the bank.” …This week’s knockdown of Ex-Im should be seen in exactly this light: It is an early and visible victory for the GOP’s free-market forces over the forces of K Street, which for so long held a monopoly on the party.

I should also point out that some of my colleagues at the Cato Institute have been working hard for years to explain why the Ex-Im Bank should be abolished. Kudos also to Heritage Action for fighting against this corrupt cronyist institution.

Last but not least, here’s a video Nick narrated last year on why the Ex-Im Bank should not be re-authorized. I like how he starts with a clip of Obama the candidate citing it as wasteful corporate welfare. Now that he’s in power, though, he’s decided the cesspool of DC corruption is really a hot tub.

P.S. Speaking of leftist phonies, Elizabeth Warren likes to portray herself as a scourge of big business, yet she’s a supporter of continued handouts for corporate fatcats. A fake populist, and a fake Indian.

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When debating and discussing the 2008 financial crisis, there are two big questions. And the answers to these questions are important because the wrong “narrative” could lead to decades of bad policy (much as a mistaken narrative about the Great Depression enabled bad policy in subsequent decades).

  1. What caused the crisis to occur?
  2. What should policy makers have done?

In a new video for Prager University, Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute succinctly and effectively provides very valuable information to help answer these questions. Particularly if you want to understand how the government promoted bad behavior by banks and created the conditions for a crisis.

Here are some further thoughts on the issues raised in the video.

Deregulation didn’t cause the financial crisis – Nicole explained that banks got in trouble because of poor incentives created by previous bailouts, not because of supposed deregulation. As she mentioned, their “risk models” were distorted by assumptions that some financial institutions were “too big to fail.”

But that’s only part of the story. It’s also important to recognize that easy-money policies last decade created too much liquidity and that corrupt subsidies and preferences for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac steered much of that excess liquidity into the housing sector. These policies helped to create the bubble, and many financial institutions became insolvent when that bubble burst.

TARP wasn’t necessary to avert a meltdown – Because the video focused on how the “too big to fail” policy created bad incentives, there wasn’t much attention to the topic of what should have happened once big institutions became insolvent. Defenders of TARP argued that the bailout was necessary to “unfreeze” financial markets and prevent an economic meltdown.

But here’s the key thing to understand. The purpose of TARP was to bail out big financial institutions, which also meant protecting big investors who bought bonds from those institutions. And while TARP did mitigate the panic, it also rewarded bad choices by those big players. As I’ve explained before, using the “FDIC-resolution” approach also would have averted the panic. In short, instead of bailing out shareholders and bondholders, it would have been better to bail out depositors and wind down the insolvent institutions.

Bailouts encourage very bad behavior – There’s a saying that capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell, which is simply a clever way of pointing out that you need both profit and loss in order for people in the economy to have the right set of incentives. Bailouts, however, screw up this incentive structure by allowing private profits while simultaneously socializing the losses. This creates what’s known as moral hazard.

I’ve often used a simple analogy when speaking about government-created moral hazard. How would you respond if I asked you to “invest” by giving me some money for a gambling trip to Las Vegas, but I explained that I would keep the money from all winning bets, while financing all losing bets from your funds? Assuming your IQ is at least room temperature, you would say no. But our federal government, when dealing with the financial sector, has said yes.

Good policy yields short-run pain but long-run gain – In my humble opinion, Nicole’s most valuable insight is when she explained the long-run negative consequences of the bailouts of Continental Illinois in 1984 and Long-Term Capital Management in 1998. There was less short-run pain (i.e., financial instability) because of these bailouts, but the avoidance of short-run pain meant much more long-run pain (i.e., the 2008 crisis).

Indeed, this “short termism” is a pervasive problem in government. Politicians often argue that a good policy is unfeasible because it would cause dislocation to interest groups that have become addicted to subsidies. In some cases, they’re right about short-run costs. A flat tax, for instance, might cause temporary dislocation for some sectors such as housing and employer-provide health insurance. But the long-run gains would be far greater – assuming politicians can be convinced to look past the next election cycle.

Let’s close by re-emphasizing a point I made at the beginning. Narratives matter.

For decades, the left got away with the absurd statement that the Great Depression “proved” that capitalism was unstable and destructive. Fortunately, research in recent decades has helped more and more people realize that this is an upside-down interpretation. Instead, bad government policy caused the depression and then additional bad policy during the New Deal made the depression longer and deeper.

Now we have something similar. Leftists very much want people to think that the financial crisis was a case of capitalism run amok. They’ve had some success with this false narrative. But the good news is that proponents of good policy immediately began explaining the destructive role of bad government policy. And if Nicole’s video is any indication, that effort to prevent a false narrative is continuing.

P.S. The Dodd-Frank bill was a response to the financial crisis, but it almost certainly made matters worse. Here’s what Nicole wrote about that legislation.

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I can understand why immigration reform is so contentious since it touches on all sorts of hot-button issues, such as jobs, politics, national identity, and the welfare state.

But I don’t understand why there’s a controversy just because Governor Walker of Wisconsin supports a specific part of the immigration system that provides easier access for foreigners who are willing to invest money and create jobs in America.

Seems like a win-win situation, but check out these excerpts from a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

We’ll start with a description of the program.

Congress created the EB-5 program in 1990… Under the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Immigrant Investor Program, foreigners can obtain these visas by investing $500,000 in high unemployment areas — or $1 million elsewhere — in projects generating or saving 10 jobs over two years. According to The New York Times, the federal government puts the green card applications from these foreign investors on the fast track. In general, it takes about two years to obtain legal residency through the program; other visa programs take much longer.

Not let’s get to the controversy over Governor Walker’s support.

…there’s one federal visa program you won’t hear him attack. It’s the controversial and deeply troubled immigrant investor program. The program — known as EB-5 — puts wealthy foreigners on the path to U.S. citizenship if they invest at least $500,000 in an American commercial project that will create or preserve 10 jobs. Critics have called the abuse-riddled program a “scam” that essentially sells green cards to the affluent and their families, with more than 80% of those in the program coming from China. …David North, a fellow with the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said…the program is flawed in its premise. “I think it’s immoral, fattening and otherwise unattractive to sell visas, which is what we’re doing now,” North said.

By thew way, there are reasons to be unhappy about the EB-5 program, at least in the way it operates.

I’ve already shared examples of how political insiders are manipulating the program for cronyist purposes.

But today let’s look at the concept of whether it’s good to have an “economic citizenship” program.

And we’ll start the very relevant point that any immigration system is going to be arbitrary.

  • A lottery system is arbitrary because you get to come to America because of luck.
  • A family-reunification system is arbitrary because you get to come to America because of your genes.
  • A system based on refugee status is arbitrary because you get to come to America based on geopolitical circumstances.
  • Even an “open borders” system is arbitrary because you don’t get to come to America if you’re a terrorist, criminal, have communicable diseases, etc.

So if a system is going to be based on arbitrary factors, what’s wrong with deciding that one of the criteria is economic benefit to the United States?

Indeed, maybe I’m too myopic because of my background and training, but it seems like economic benefit should be a factor that everyone can support. After all, these won’t be people seeking handouts from the welfare system.

Consider these passages from a recent New York Times story about all the EB-5 money that’s boosting the Empire State’s economy.

Through a federal visa program known as EB-5, foreigners, more than 80 percent of them from China, are investing billions of dollars in hotels, condominiums, office towers and public/private works in the hope it will result in green cards. Twelve-hundred foreigners have poured $600 million into projects at Hudson Yards; 1,154 have invested $577 million in Pacific Park Brooklyn, the development formerly known as Atlantic Yards; and 500 have put $250 million into the Four Seasons hotel and condominium in the financial district. The list of projects involving EB-5 investments also includes the International Gem Tower on West 47th Street and the New York Wheel on Staten Island. …In the last four years, the program’s popularity has surged. In fiscal year 2010, 1,885 visas were issued. But by fiscal year 2013 that figure jumped 354 percent to 8,564, according to government data. Last year, the entire annual allotment of 10,000 visas had been claimed by August — before the end of the fiscal year in October. This year the quota was reached even earlier, on May 1.

As an aside, this program isn’t attractive to those with lots of money because of America’s punitive tax system.

“This program is not for the very rich in China, because the superwealthy do not want to pay U.S. taxes.” Instead, he said, the wealthiest Chinese prefer to have their legal residences in low tax jurisdictions like Hong Kong or Singapore, and then take advantage of 10-year tourist visas to the United States.

While I’m tempted to now explain why we should fix our bad tax system, let’s stick to the topic of immigration and delve further into the issue of whether it’s good to attract economically successful foreigners to America.

Some scholars say the answer is yes, but they think the EB-5 program is inefficient.

Here’s some of what Professor Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School wrote for Slate.

The program is a mess. …it’s almost impossible to figure out whether a specific investment generates jobs rather than reshuffles them from one place to another. There have also been examples of outright fraud and political cronyism. Part of the problem is a lack of documentation but the real problem is that the program is misconceived. …the price we charge for citizenship is extraordinarily low. …A shrewd investor will find an investment that pays a couple percentage points below the market rate. If he invests $500,000 in order to obtain, say, a 6 percent return rather than an 8 percent return, then the true price he pays for U.S. citizenship is $10,000 in foregone return.

So what’s the alternative?

Gary Becker, the late University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, once proposed that the United States should sell citizenship to foreigners for a flat fee. The EB-5 program approximates Becker’s proposal, albeit in the most inefficient way possible. Becker argued that citizenship is a scarce good just like tomatoes and hula hoops, and is thus subject to the law of supply and demand. America owns visas and should sell them to willing buyers at the market-clearing price. We would attract immigrants who are skilled enough to earn wages that would cover the fee, and we would gain again from the tax on their wages once they began work in this country. These types of immigrants—the ones who could afford the fee—would be least likely to burden the public fisc by needing welfare payments.

The Becker plan, which Posner basically supports, certainly would be simpler than the EB-5 program.

And it presumably eliminates the instances of corrupt cronyism that taint that otherwise good system.

Moreover, many of the nations with economic citizenship programs use this approach.

But here’s the downside. If you sell citizenship directly, the money goes to the government rather than to the productive sector of the economy.

That might be acceptable if it meant that the politicians reduced or eliminated some tax. But I fear the real-world impact would be to simply give the crowd in Washington more money to waste.

So perhaps the real challenge is to figure out some smarter way of operating the EB-5 program so we get even more private investment and job creation while also reducing opportunities for cronyist intervention.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-themed humor, here’s some involving Peru and Canada.

P.P.S. While I don’t like government getting more money, that shouldn’t be the only factor when grading a policy proposal. I fretted, for instance, that pot legalization in Colorado would be a mixed blessing because it would generate more tax revenue. But thanks to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the politicians haven’t been able to spend all the new money, so it’s unambiguously a win-win situation.

P.P.P.S. The Princess of the Levant is in America because of the immigration lottery, so I certainly won’t be complaining too much about arbitrary systems. [correction: The PoTL has informed me that her U.S. residency is the result of her grandfather’s application and not the lottery]

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