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Archive for the ‘Federalism’ Category

To save the nation from a future Greek-style fiscal meltdown, we should reform entitlements.

But as part of the effort to restore limited, constitutional government, we also should shut down various departments that deal with issues that shouldn’t be handled by the central government.

I’ve already identified some low-hanging fruit.

Get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shut down the Department of Agriculture.

Eliminate the Department of Transportation.

We need to add the Department of Education to the list. And maybe even make it one of the first targets.

Increasing federal involvement and intervention, after all, is associated with more spending and more bureaucracy, but NOT better educational outcomes.

Politicians in Washington periodically try to “reform” the status quo, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic never works. And that’s true whether you look at the results of GOP plans, like Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind scheme, or Democratic plans, like Obama’s Common Core.

The good news, as explained by the Washington Examiner, is that Congress is finally considering legislation that would reduce the federal government’s footprint.

There are some good things about this bill, which will serve as the reauthorization of former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Importantly, the bill removes the Education Department’s ability to bludgeon states into adopting the controversial Common Core standards. The legislative language specifically forbids both direct and indirect attempts “to influence, incentivize, or coerce” states’ decisions. …The Student Success Act is therefore a step in the right direction, because it returns educational decisions to their rightful place — the state (or local) level. It is also positive in that it eliminates nearly 70 Department of Education programs, replacing them with more flexible grants to the states.

But the bad news is that the legislation doesn’t go nearly far enough. Federal involvement is a gaping wound caused by a compound fracture, while the so-called Student Success Act is a band-aid.

…as a vehicle for moving the federal government away from micromanaging schools that should fall entirely under state and local control, the bill is disappointing. …the recent explosion of federal spending and federal control in education over the last few decades has failed to produce any significant improvement in outcomes. Reading and math proficiency have hardly budged. …the federal government’s still-modest financial contribution to primary and secondary education has come with strings that give Washington an inordinate say over state education policy. …The Student Success Act…leaves federal spending on primary and secondary education at the elevated levels of the Bush era. It also fails to provide states with an opt-out.

To be sure, there’s no realistic way of making significant progress with Obama in the White House.

But the long-run battle will never be won unless reform-minded lawmakers make the principled case. Here’s the bottom line.

Education is one area where the federal government has long resisted accepting the evidence or heeding its constitutional limitations. …Republicans should be looking forward to a post-Obama opportunity to do it for real — to end federal experimentation and meddling in primary and secondary education and letting states set their own policies.

Amen.

But now let’s acknowledge that ending federal involvement and intervention should be just the first step on a long journey.

State governments are capable of wasting money and getting poor results.

Local governments also have shown that they can be similarly profligate and ineffective.

Indeed, when you add together total federal/state/local spending and then look at the actual results (whether kids are getting educated), the United States does an embarrassingly bad job.

The ultimate answer is to end the government education monopoly and shift to a system based on choice and competition.

Fortunately, we already have strong evidence that such an approach yields superior outcomes.

To be sure, school choice doesn’t automatically mean every child will be an educational success, but evidence from SwedenChile, and the Netherlands shows good results after breaking up state-run education monopolies.

P.S. Let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that government education spending has been reduced.

P.P.P.S. And you’ll also be amused (and outraged and disgusted) by the truly bizarre examples of political correctness in government schools.

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The modern welfare state is a disaster. But rather than go into lengthy details, let’s simply look at some very powerful images (click for enlarged view).

Probably the most damning evidence is that the poverty rate in America was steadily falling after World War II. But then Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” and got Washington more involved in the business of income redistribution. So what happened? The poverty rate stopped falling.

But it’s also sobering to see how much money is being spent on income-redistribution programs. Taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level are coughing up more than $1 trillion every year to subsidize poverty. To give an idea of how much inefficiency and waste permeates the system, this is enough to give every poor household $60,000.

Poor people are among the biggest victims of the welfare state. Redistribution programs create a dependency trap because of very high implicit tax rates on productive behavior. Simply stated, handouts are so generous that poor people who enter the labor force generally will have lower living standards than those who remain wards of the state.

 So what’s the solution to this mess?

Fortunately, we have a case study that points us in a productive direction.

The Bill Clinton-era welfare reforms, pushed through by Republicans in Congress, were a big success. Here are some excerpts from an article written by an expert at the Brooking Institution.

Between 1994 and 2004, the caseload declined about 60 percent, a decline that is without precedent. The percentage of U.S. children on welfare is now lower than it has been since at least 1970. …More than 40 studies conducted by states since 1996 show that about 60 percent of the adults leaving welfare are employed at any given moment and that, over a period of several months, about 80 percent hold at least one job. …Again, these sweeping changes are unprecedented. …Equally important, with earnings leading the way, the total income of these low-income families increased by more than 25 percent over the period (in constant dollars). Not surprisingly, between 1994 and 2000, child poverty fell every year and reached levels not seen since 1978. In addition, by 2000, the poverty rate of black children was the lowest it had ever been.

This is an older article from 2006, so there was obviously some movement in the wrong direction after the recent recession.

Nonetheless, the big message from welfare reform in the 1990s is that blank-check welfare entitlements are greatly inferior to a federalism-based approach that allows states to innovate and experiment to see what works best.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Clinton welfare reforms only addressed a minor part of the welfare state. Moreover, the Obama Administration has undermined some of the modest progress that was achieved in the 1990s.

So we need a new offensive to deal with the broader deficiencies of the current system, which is a disaster for both taxpayers and poor people.

But if we use Clinton’s welfare reforms as a model, there is considerable progress that can be achieved. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of Economics 21 has a new study on precisely this topic.

She identifies some of the major redistribution programs in Washington.

This paper examines the evolution of major U.S. welfare programs since 1998—shortly after the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the 1996 federal welfare reform signed into law by President Clinton, went into effect. The paper chronicles the average amount of aid provided, as well as length of time on public assistance, focusing on the following programs: SNAP; Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF (established by PRWORA); Medicaid; and Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV).

And she points out these programs are an expensive failure, but proposes a way to address the problem.

…while the U.S. economy has since improved, participation in such programs has generally not declined. This paper concludes that there is ample scope for states to reform welfare, and it proposes two substantial changes: (1) cap welfare spending at the rate of inflation and the number of Americans in poverty; and (2) allow states to direct savings from welfare programs to other budget functions. …this paper finds that federal savings through 2013 would, after accounting for inflation and the number of Americans in poverty, total $1.3 trillion had welfare funding remained at 1998 levels.

The key is federalism.

States should have the freedom to experiment to see what policies are most effective. Under such conditions, successful states would serve as models for other states—and, possibly, models for further federal welfare reform. Indeed, successful welfare reforms have already been observed in North Carolina, New York, Indiana, and Rhode Island. …Providing states increased flexibility to adjust resource levels between welfare programs offers numerous advantages. For instance, states with low food prices but high housing costs might shift resources from SNAP to housing programs. In addition, states could divert funding from existing programs to new ones, such as community-based programs that prove successful.

Her bottom line is that the status quo is a failure.

Antipoverty programs should be judged by how successfully they help lift people out of poverty. By this measure, the country’s welfare programs performed poorly during the Great Recession and its aftermath: welfare costs and eligibility have, as this paper has documented, largely expanded, with few gains in poverty reduction. …The status quo is plainly unacceptable. New solutions, not more funding, are the answer. …empower states to choose welfare policies that best serve their most vulnerable families, as well as those that best fit their political demands.

An excellent study and a very sound proposal.

Though I would make one very important modification.

It’s clearly a step in the right direction if the federal government turns all income-redistribution programs into a block grant so that states can decide how to allocate the money and address poverty.

But the long-run goal should be to eliminate any role for Washington, even as a provider of block grants.

In an ideal world, the block grant should be immediately capped and then gradually phased out. Let state and local governments decide how to tax and spend in this arena.

P.S. Some folks on the right want to replace the current welfare state with a government-guaranteed minimum income. But that approach is very inferior to genuine federalism.

P.P.S. The bureaucrats at the OECD (subsidized by our tax dollars) are pushing a new definition of poverty that is really a stalking horse for more income redistribution.

P.P.P.S. In the spirit of political correctness, here’s the modern version of the Little Red Hen and the modern version of the fable about the ant and the grasshopper.

P.P.P.P.S. For American readers, click here to see the extent to which your state makes welfare more attractive than work.

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One of the very first “accomplishments” of the new GOP majority in Congress was to approve a piece of corporate welfare to subsidize terrorism insurance for big companies.

But I tried to overlook that development since there were a few modest reforms included with the legislation. After all, you shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good (even if the good, in this case, was rather anemic).

There won’t be any excuse, however, if Republicans move forward with a plan to hike the gas tax and further centralize transportation decisions in Washington.

And that’s exactly what seems to be brewing. Senator Corker of Tennessee (an otherwise generally sensible lawmaker) has put forward a specific plan.

Corker, R-Tenn., is drafting something most conservatives avoid at all costs — a tax bill. The Tennessee senator, along with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wants the 18.4-cents per-gallon federal gasoline tax and the 24.4-cents per-gallon federal diesel tax to each increase by 12 cents over the next two years — and then be indexed to inflation.

And there are several other senior GOPers who have expressed sympathy.

“I just think that option is there, it’s clearly one of the options,” said Sen. Inhofe (R-Okla.), new chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the third-ranking Senate Republican, also said they were open to the possibility of raising the tax.

Wow. This is so bad and so discouraging that I’m not even sure where to start.

So let’s make three observations.

1. Bad character. Every single Republican Senator cited in the two stories has pledged to the people of their states that they will oppose all net tax hikes.

For those of us with old-fashioned views on personal integrity, this is rather troubling.

Other than reminding me why I often have disdain for Republicans, this brings back bad memories of the “Read my lips, no new taxes” fiasco.

2. Bad politics. It is remarkably foolish for Republicans to tarnish and undermine the GOP brand as an anti-tax party.

When the issue is “should there be a tax hike?”, Republicans are more trusted by voters. But if the debate shifts to “Who should pay more tax?”, then the Democrats have an advantage.

So by putting a gas tax increase on the table, these Republicans are saying they want their opponents to have a home-field advantage.

3. Bad policy. Higher gas taxes at the national level are the wrong approach for several reasons.

But rather than reinvent the wheel, let me cite the wise words of my friends Larry Kudlow and Chris Edwards.

Here’s some of what Larry wrote for Townhall.

What can Sen. Bob Corker be thinking? On his first Sunday-news-show appearance of the year, right at the beginning of a new Republican Senate era, does Corker communicate a new GOP message of growth and reform? …Does he talk about rolling back Obamacare or regulations in general?  …No. His first Republican message is: Raise the federal gasoline tax.

He explains why this is a foolish idea.

American consumers and businesses finally get a break with plunging oil and gasoline prices. Main Street finally has something to cheer about. And then Mr. Corker weighs in with a wet-blanket proposal to raise federal gasoline and diesel taxes by 12 cents a gallon over two years from the current 18.4 cents. …Why not lead the way for a complete reform of the Highway Trust Fund, transportation spending and the Federal Highway Administration? …If states like California want to build $100 billion speed trains to nowhere, let them. But people in the rest of the country shouldn’t have to pay for it with gas and diesel taxes. …A quarter of HTF spending today is for non-highway purposes. …Federal rules like Davis-Bacon raise building costs for state and local infrastructure by at least 20 percent. Federal aid breeds cronyism, political connections and bureaucratic power in Washington D.C.

The point about gas taxes being diverted is important. Even if we keep the status quo, we don’t need Washington squandering road money of things such as mass transit or high-speed rail boondoggles.

Larry closes his column with a special plea.

Please, Sen. Corker, with the new Republican Congress in place, don’t turn the GOP into the dumb party.

And here are some excerpts from what Chris wrote for Cato.

He starts by debunking the notion that there is an infrastructure crisis.

…our highways and bridges appear to be improving, not getting more “troubled.” Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show that of the nation’s 600,000 bridges, the share that is “structurally deficient” has fallen from 22 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2013. The share that is “functionally obsolete” has also fallen. Meanwhile, the surface quality of the interstate highways has steadily improved. A study by Federal Reserve economists examining FHWA data found that “since the mid-1990s, our nation’s interstate highways have become indisputably smoother and less deteriorated.”

But even if we had a growing number of “troubled” and “deficient” bridges and highways, that shouldn’t matter.

As Chris explained in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee, these issues shouldn’t be handled by Washington.

One option would be to reduce spending and downsize the federal role in transportation. That approach would encourage state governments to pursue their own innovative solutions for highways and transit, such as new types of user charges, public-private partnerships, and privatization. Federal aid programs for highways and transit have many shortcomings. Aid redistributes transportation funds between the states in ways that are unfair and inefficient. Aid can get misallocated to low-value projects, and it distorts efficient decisionmaking by state and local governments. Also, federally funded projects are known for mismanagement and cost overruns.

Bingo. Chris is exactly right.

Which is why the right approach to transportation is to repeal the gas tax, not raise it.

As I argued in this debate with former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, we need to get Washington out of the business of determining state and local transportation issues.

P.S. Here’s an interesting example of “public choice” economics. Ask yourself why the CEO of a car company would endorse a big tax hike on gasoline. I give my answer in this discussion with Judge Napolitano.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the politicians in Washington also are considering a tax on miles driven, so they’d be able to squeeze more money out of motorists even if they have fuel-efficient vehicles.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you’re tempted to acquiesce to more power and money for Washington, never forget the lesson of this poster.

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I’m a big fan of federalism for both policy and political reasons.

Returning programs to the states is the best way of dealing with counterproductive income-redistribution policies such as welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps.

Federalism is also the right way of unwinding bad education schemes like Obama’s Common Core and Bush’s No Bureaucrat Left Behind.

And the same principle applies for transportation, natural disasters, and social issues such as drugs.

And I can’t resist pointing out, for the benefit of those who think such things matter, that federalism is also the system that is consistent with our Constitution’s restrictions on central government power.

Simply stated, federalism is good news because we get innovation, diversity, and experimentation. States that make wise choices will be role models for their peers. And it’s also worth noting that states that screw up will provide valuable lessons as well.

But sometimes a real-world example is the most compelling evidence of all. And the news that Vermont has cancelled its proposed single-payer healthcare scheme (as predicted by Megan McArdle) shows us why federalism is such a good concept.

Let’s start by reviewing what’s happened. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the Daily Caller.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin is canceling his dream plan to create a single-payer health system in the state, he announced Wednesday. …“In my judgment, now is not the right time to ask our legislature to take the step of passing a financing plan for Green Mountain Care.” The problem is, of course, how to pay for it. Even while plans were moving forward for a 2017 launch of the single-payer system, to be called Green Mountain Care, Shumlin had held off on releasing a plan for how to pay for the system, waiting until his announcement Wednesday.

So why didn’t Shumlin simply call for a big tax hike? Or look for more handouts from Washington? Or what about those fanciful assumptions that socialist health care would be more efficient?

Well, that basically was the plan.

Tax hikes required to pay for the system would include a 11.5 percent payroll tax as well as an additional income tax ranging all the way up to 9.5 percent. Shumlin admitted that in the current climate, such a precipitous hike would be disastrous for Vermont’s economy. …the report also admits that the single-payer system won’t save money as Vermont officials had planned. While both previous reports on Green Mountain Care had assumed “hundreds of millions of dollars” in savings in the very first year of operation, Shumlin’s office is now admitting that’s “not practical to achieve.” …Shumlin also cited slow economic recovery in Vermont as reason to delay, and hopes to try again in the future. But its failure, especially on economic grounds, is a resounding defeat for single-payer advocates.

Yes, this is a “resounding defeat” for socialized health care.

But it’s important to understand why Shumlin’s plan collapsed. He and other politicians obviously figured out (notwithstanding their claims when running for office) that a huge tax hike, combined with “free” healthcare, was a recipe for state disaster.

Productive people and businesses would have emigrated, while freeloaders and scroungers would have immigrated. The state would have gone into a downward spiral.

So even though Shumlin is a hard-core leftist, and even though Vermont’s electorate is so statist that the state came in first place in the Moocher Index, all these advocates of socialized healthcare were forced to recognize real-world constraints imposed by the existence of other states.

So the productive people of Vermont (at least the ones that haven’t already escaped) should be very thankful for federalism. Competition among the states, as well as freedom of movement between states, is a wonderful check on the greed and foolishness of the political class.

The crowd in Washington, by contrast, has more flexibility to impose bad policy since moving from one country to another is far bigger step than simply moving from, say, California to Texas.

Nonetheless, this also explains why I like tax competition among nations. I want greedy politicians to be haunted to at least some degree by the fear of tax flight so that they will think twice before imposing new burdens. But that’s a subject we’ve reviewed on many occasions, so no need for further details.

The bottom line is that Vermont did face real-world competitive pressure. And that meant the state’s politicians didn’t think they could successfully raise enough money to finance socialist healthcare.

This reminds me of this famous Margaret Thatcher quote about other people’s money.

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t find a clip of her actually making that statement. But if you want to see the Iron Lady in action, you can click here or here.

Let’s conclude by noting that the nation with the most decentralization and federalism is Switzerland, and that country does very well notwithstanding having different languages and cultures.

Which helps to explain why federalism is a very practical solution to the ethnic division in Ukraine.

P.S. Even though the focus of today’s column is federalism rather than policy, I can’t resist pointing out that the single-payer system in the United Kingdom generates some truly horrifying results.

P.P.S. If socialized healthcare is so wonderful, then why do politicians from countries which have that system travel to the United States for treatment?

P.P.P.S. Shifting to another topic, I’ve written before that left wingers criticize tax havens, yet it seems every rich leftist utilizes low-tax jurisdictions. Well, Business Week reports that “corporate inversions” also were created by a leftist.

John Carroll Jr., invented a whole category of corporate tax avoidance and successfully defended it in a fight with the Internal Revenue Service. …The first corporate “inversion,” as Carroll’s maneuver came to be known, was obscure then and is all but forgotten now. Yet at least 45 companies have followed the lead of Carroll’s client…and shifted their legal addresses to low-tax foreign nations.  …A committed liberal, he…once considered leaving the practice to work for antiwar candidate George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. …McDermott’s chief financial officer at the time, says he sometimes puzzled over Carroll’s motivations. “It was always an enigma to me,” Lynott says. “We knew this guy was a Democrat, and yet he would take on the government in a New York minute over a tax issue. There was nothing liberal about his thinking as far as the tax code was concerned.” …The IRS fought the case for seven years, giving up in 1989 only after a federal appeals court upheld a U.S Tax Court decision in the company’s favor.

So I like what Mr. Carroll achieved, but I guess we have to say he was a hypocrite. But, then again, statists specialize in hypocrisy.

P.P.P.P.S. I can’t resist sharing one more unrelated item. The 2008 crisis presumably showed the downsides of too much debt.

Well, time for a quiz: Who do you think has responded most intelligently and least intelligently to the lessons from that crisis?

Your choices are households, financial institutions, corporations, and governments.

I imagine nobody will be surprised by this chart from the BBC.

So what lessons can we draw from the chart?

Well, politicians in developed nations have been raising taxes over and over again, so perhaps we should conclude that higher taxes simply lead to more debt because our “leaders” can’t resist spending other people’s money.

And that’s precisely the point. Experts such as Steve Hanke, Brian Wesbury, Constantin Gurdgiev, Fredrik Erixon, and Leonid Bershidsky have all pointed out the ever-increasing burden of government in Europe.

Higher taxes are only a “solution” if the goal is bigger government and more red ink.

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This Thursday, Scottish voters decide whether they want to break away from the United Kingdom and reclaim their independence.

Do advocates of economic liberty in America have a dog in this fight?

Well, there’s very solid academic evidence from economic historians that Europe originally became rich precisely because power was decentralized among lots of small jurisdictions that had to compete with each other.

Moreover, I’ve argued that we’d get better policy if Belgium split into two nations.

So would the same be true if Scotland broke off from the United Kingdom?

Niall Ferguson, born in Scotland, is opposed.

Scotland regained its own Parliament in 1999, following an earlier referendum on so-called devolution, which significantly increased the country’s autonomy. Since 2007, there has been a Scottish government, which is currently run by the Scottish National Party. So much power has already been devolved to Edinburgh that you may well ask why half of adult Scots feel the need for outright independence. The economic risks are so glaring… What currency will Scotland use? The pound? The euro? No one knows. What share of North Sea oil revenues will go to Edinburgh? What about Scotland’s share of Britain’s enormous national debt? …Petty nationalism is just un-Scottish. And today’s Scots should remember the apposite warning of their countryman the economist Adam Smith about politicians who promise “some plausible plan of reformation” in order “to new-model the constitution,” mainly for “their own aggrandizement.”

I’m sure that many pro-independence politicians in Scotland are looking out for themselves, so that’s a compelling argument.

And David Frum is similarly skeptical, arguing that the United States should worry about an independent Scotland.

A vote in favor of Scottish independence would hurt Americans…a ‘Yes’ vote would immediately deliver a shattering blow to the political and economic stability of a crucial American ally and global financial power. The day after a ‘Yes’ vote, the British political system would be plunged into a protracted, self-involved constitutional crisis. …a ‘Yes’ vote would lead to a longer-term decline in Britain’s contribution to global security. The Scottish separatists have a 30-year history of hostility toward NATO.  …a ‘Yes’ vote would embitter English politics and empower those who wish to quit the European Union.  …The United States has traditionally preferred an EU that includes the U.K. …a ‘Yes’ vote would aggravate the paralysis afflicting the European Union.

Since I’m not a fan of the European Union and I think NATO is a bureaucracy that has lost its purpose, some of these arguments don’t move me. However, I do believe the world is a better place because of the United Kingdom, so David’s core argument shouldn’t be dismissed.

But there are other voices that have a more optimistic assessment.

Here’s Ewan Watt, one of the few Scotsmen I personally know, arguing in the Daily Caller that independence will force his statist countrymen to rein in their big-government impulses.

I’ve often been asked to try and summarize the tortuous Scottish independence campaign from a libertarian perspective to an American audience. …this nicely sums up the independence campaign: Scots and other Scots fighting over who can further spread the specter of socialism, inhibit individual liberty, and, ultimately, ruin Scotland. Both sides have strived to out-promise each other on more public spending, greater economic centralization, and cradle-to-grave public services.

Statists fighting for more statism? Sort of like Bush v Obama? That doesn’t sound like someone who thinks independence will produce good results.

But keep reading.

And yet…, independence could ultimately provide a boon to the movement and rejuvenate classical liberal ideas in the land that helped give them life. Given that Scotland lacks the tools that even a U.S. state possesses to attract external investment, it’s little surprise that at times it’s been nothing but a laboratory for successive socialist experiments. …Under independence Scotland will be forced to create an economic environment that can compete with both the lure of London and Ireland’s 12.5 percent corporation tax, while also avoiding the very government largesse and fragile financial system that the Bank of England has been able to artificially prop up. Far from becoming a socialist utopia, the conditions of independence will not only force Scotland to live under strict fiscal discipline, but embrace the very free-market philosophy that she helped export to prosperous nations around the world.

And my Cato colleague David Boaz also thinks an amicable divorce will lead to more economic freedom.

Here’s some of what he wrote for USA Today.

…whatever the benefits of union might have been in 1707, surely they have been realized by now. And independence for any country ought to appeal to Americans. So herewith a few arguments for independence. …England and Scotland are both nations with history and culture. They need not be combined in one state. …There’s some evidence that small countries enjoy more freedom and prosperity than larger countries. …Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and the likely first prime minister of an independent Scotland, may be a socialist, but he’s not an idiot. He knows that a tax hike in Scotland wouldn’t work. Asked in a televised debate, he responded, “We don’t have proposals for changing taxation. We certainly are not going to put ourselves at a tax disadvantage with the rest of the UK.” …With a top British tax rate of 45 percent, and 41 percent in Ireland, Salmond doesn’t want to raise the Scottish rate to 50 percent and push out top earners. …An independent Scotland would have to create its own prosperity, and surely the people who produced the Enlightenment are smart enough to discover the failures of socialism pretty quickly if they become free, independent, and responsible for their own future. …Scotland had a successful independent monetary system from 1716 to 1845,… So maybe it doesn’t need the pound sterling.

By the way, the independent monetary system David mentions was based on competitive currencies and it is perhaps the best example of a free-market monetary policy. But that’s a topic for another day.

Back to the issue of Scottish independence, a former Cato Institute expert, Patrick Basham, also writes that an independent Scotland will have no choice other than capitalism.

Scotland is an anachronistic place where leftist thinking remains in vogue. Scots strongly dislike, for example, the UK government’s introduction of market forces and fiscal discipline into the provision of health care, education, and welfare. …Although the Scots are ideologically to the left of their English neighbors, in practice their semiautonomous government is comparatively frugal. For example, Scotland has a lower deficit and lower public spending relative to GDP than the UK. …Given that Scotland’s top parties, the nationalists and Labor, are left-wing, it’s also possible that an independent Scotland will tax, spend, and regulate itself into an economic tailspin. That would be a travesty for many individual Scots, but not a national tragedy. Hitting the economic wall without a UK-size safety net would teach an invaluable lesson. It would rapidly cure Scotland’s entitlement culture, as a critical mass of taxpayers learned the true cost of fiscally unsustainable statism. …Ultimately, such a self-reliant, market-friendly political culture may transform Scotland into an international center of commerce and finance, such as Hong Kong, or perhaps into a tax haven, such as Guernsey or Jersey. The bottom-line is that, if Scotland decides to go it alone, it will become a very different place. An even better place.

I’m very sympathetic to sentiments in these columns, though I’m not as optimistic about an independent Scotland.

What happens, after all, if a newly independent Scotland goes through a five-year learning period of statism before it becomes clear that big government doesn’t work?

Does that mean Scottish voters will suddenly become libertarians? I hope so, but what if a non-trivial number of productive people emigrate during that period and the majority of those left still vote for handouts and dependency?

For instance, I certainly don’t expect the hundreds of thousands of people who get paychecks from government to turn into overnight libertarians.

On the other hand, maybe they’ll have no choice, sort of like the piglets in this Chuck Asay cartoon.

If you’re undecided on the issue, there is a very good role model for independence. Writing for the Washington Post, Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University’s Law School adds a very persuasive argument in favor of secession.

One relevant precedent is the experience of the “Velvet Divorce” between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose success is sometimes cited by Scottish independence advocates as a possible model for their own breakup with Britain. Like many Scottish nationalists, advocates of Slovak independence wanted to break away from their larger, richer, partner, in part so they could pursue more interventionist economic policies. But, with the loss of Czech subsidies, independent Slovakia ended up having to pursue much more free market-oriented policies than before, which led to impressive growth. The Czech Republic, freed from having to pay the subsidies, also pursued relatively free market policies, and both nations are among the great success stories of Eastern Europe. Like Slovakia, an independent Scotland might adopt more free market policies out of necessity. And the rump UK (like the Czechs before it), might move in the same direction. The secession of Scotland would deprive the more interventionist Labor Party of 41 seats in the House of Commons, while costing the Conservatives only one. The center of gravity of British politics would, at least to some extent, move in a more pro-market direction, just as the Czech Republic’s did relative to those of united Czechoslovakia. If the breakup of the UK is likely to resemble that of Czechoslovakia, this suggests that free market advocates should welcome it, while social democrats should be opposed.

Ilya is right. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have better policy as separate nations. And I say that even though I’m very disappointed that both nations recently repealed their flat tax systems.

Last but not least, let’s add a bizarre voice to the debate.

It seems that the crazies from North Korea support an independent Scotland.

North Korea is quietly backing the Yes vote in Scotland and would be keen to increase trade with a newly independent Edinburgh, according to officials of the Pyongyang regime. “I think that independence would be a very positive thing for Scotland,” Choe Kwan-il, managing editor of the Choson Sinbo newspaper, told The Telegraph. …”I believe that every person has the right to be a member of an independent nation, to have sovereignty, to live in peace and to enjoy equality,” he said. “And I believe that a majority of Scots feel the same and will vote for independence.”

There’s nothing objectionable in those words, but they come from someone who almost surely is a puppet of one of the most malignant regimes on the planet, so you can’t trust him or his statements.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Scottish independence is a bad idea, to be sure, but I surely would understand if an undecided person voted no simply because North Korea wants a yes.

But now let’s see what a true public policy expert has to say about the topic. Here’s Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons.

And since I’m sharing videos, here are the Scots in a very un-European display of patriotism. Gives these Americans a run for the money.

That’s almost enough to make me think they’ll vote yes. But my prediction, for what it’s worth, is that Scottish voters will get cold feet and vote no by a 56-44 margin.

And if my prediction is right, I’ll offer my two cents on what should happen next. The U.K.’s politicians should agree on a plan of radical decentralization. Sort of what’s already been happening, but on a much bigger scale.

The national government should maintain the military, but almost every other function of government should be devolved. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales should each decide how much to tax and how much to spend.

Sort of like Switzerland, but even better. And what I’ve already recommended for Ukraine.

And if it works in these places, maybe we can reclaim our constitutional heritage and do it in America!

P.S. Walter Williams argues we should resuscitate the concept of secession in the United States.

P.P.S. If you’re intrigued by Walter’s idea, you’ll probably enjoy this bit of humor about a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.P.S. The tiny nation of Liechtenstein is comprised of seven villages and they have an explicit right to secede if they become unhappy with the central government in Vaduz.

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Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute looks at the topic of infrastructure spending and I’m left with mixed feelings.

Some of what he writes is very good.

Yes, the claims of an “infrastructure crisis” by President Obama, many liberals…are exaggerated. …yes, existing laws and regulations turn infrastructure projects into boondoggles that take an order of magnitude longer to complete than necessary and cost more than they should.

Amen, particularly with regard to the absurd notion that America is suffering some sort of crisis. The International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, publisher of the World Competitiveness Yearbook, puts the United States in first place when ranking nations on the quality of infrastructure.

Moreover, the just-released Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum puts the United States in 12th place for infrastructure, which also is a rather high score (if you want to know where the United States does lag, we’re in 73rd place for wastefulness of government spending, 82nd place for burden of government regulation, and 102nd place for the total tax rate on profits).

And I also agree with his second point about infrastructure programs being very vulnerable to waste (see here and here for jaw-dropping examples).

But I’m nervous that he nonetheless wants to a new program of infrastructure investment.

…conservatives should put that skepticism aside and proceed — as always, with apprehension and great prudence — with a program of infrastructure investment.

Though maybe this isn’t a bad idea. After all, he specifically says that the new government spending would be based on what generates a good rate of return.

We shouldn’t follow the left’s approach to infrastructure stimulus, calculating the number of jobs we’d like to create. …a conservative approach to infrastructure would begin with a question: What are some projects that we actually need to fund? We all know by now that “shovel ready” projects are rare. So we should take some time to actually figure out which projects offer the highest value to society.

Sounds like he’s wised up since he wrote in favor of Keynesian “stimulus” earlier this year.

Unfortunately, later in his most recent article, he does use failed Keynesian theory to justify his call for more infrastructure spending.

A multi-year program will help growth and employment over the next few years, when the economy will probably still need a boost.

But let’s set that aside. If there are sound economic reasons to build a road, I’m not going to be opposed simply because Keynesians support the spending for the wrong reason.

Indeed, I don’t even necessarily object that he entitled his article, “How the government can spend billions of dollars on a new policy and still win conservative support.”

My one real problem with Strain’s column is that he wants Washington to be involved. He specifically refers to:

…the federal government’s share of the money to pay for these infrastructure projects.

Sigh.

We should be eliminating the Department of Transportation, not giving it more money to waste. That’s the answer I give when some people want a higher federal gas tax to fund more transportation spending. And it’s the answer I give when others whine about a supposed deficit in the federal highway trust fund.

The answer is federalism, not more centralization.

Want some very timely evidence in support of my position? Here are some excerpts from a new Wall Street Journal report on how infrastructure programs are ridiculously wasteful.

The most expensive train station in the U.S. is taking shape at the site of the former World Trade Center…the terminal connecting New Jersey with downtown Manhattan has turned into a public-works embarrassment. …How could such a high-profile project fall eight years behind schedule and at least $2 billion over budget? An analysis of federal oversight reports viewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with current and former officials show a project sunk in a morass of politics and government. …When completed in 2015, the station is on track to cost between $3.7 and $4 billion, more than double its original budget of $1.7 billion to $2 billion. …“the station is a national symbol for government waste…,” Mr. LaVorgna said.

So why am I citing a boondoggle project in New York City when I want to disagree with Strain’s call for more federal spending?

Because thanks to existing federal handouts, I’m paying for a big chunk of it!

…the Federal Transit Administration…is funding $2.87 billion of the train station project.

And when Uncle Sam is paying part of the tab, state and local politicians are more than happy to squander money in hopes of memorializing themselves.

The terminal’s delays and cost overruns were “certainly unfortunate,” said Mr. Pataki, a driving force in the early years of the World Trade Center redevelopment. “But I think 50 years from now, people are going to say, ‘Wow, they did it the right way.'”

But let’s ignore headline-seeking and glory-hunting politicians. What we should care about it getting good value when the government spends our money.

My point is that we’re more likely to get acceptable results (not great results since I realize that waste isn’t limited to Washington) when state and local governments are raising and spending their own money.

When other people pick up the tab, by contrast, you get absurd examples of waste.

P.S. I also heartily recommend this National Review column on getting the federal government out of the infrastructure business.

P.P.S. And don’t forget that the private sector should play a bigger role in building and operating roads.

P.P.P.S. I’m in Mexico City, having just spoken to the Society of Trust and Estate Professionals on the latest developments in the campaign by high-tax nations to cripple tax competition.

They had a nice gala dinner last night, which was the favorite part of the trip for the Princess of the Levant.

photo1

Since I’m a policy dork, I was much more enthusiastic about rallying opposition to bad policies such as FATCA and a global network of tax police.

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I’m a big believer in federalism, both as a matter of policy and politics.

So you won’t be surprised that I’ve called for the abolition of the Department of Transportation. On more than one occasion.

But when you’re trying to convince politicians to give up power and money, it takes a lot repetition. So, to paraphrase what Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, here we go again.

I want to emphasize one part of the interview. I’m agnostic on the issue of whether America as a whole needs more infrastructure spending, but I’m sure some parts of the nation could use more roads.

But that doesn’t mean that Washington should be in charge of that spending.

My colleague at Cato, Chris Edwards, is an expert on these issues. Here’s what he recently wrote about the various schemes in DC to fund more transportation spending with higher taxes.

HTF spending on highways and urban transit adds up to $53 billion a year, while the HTF rakes in $39 billion in revenues, mainly from the federal gasoline tax. That leaves a gap of $14 billion. President Obama wants to fill the gap with corporate tax revenues, but that bad idea is dead on arrival in Congress. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) has a different idea. His bill, co-sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), would hike the federal gas tax by 12 cents per gallon. …Corker’s position is the opposite of conservative. If Tennessee needs more money for roads, it can raise its own gas tax any time it wants.

And here are some of the numbers that Chris put together showing that highway spending has been rising rather than falling.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason adds more context.

About 27 percent of highway and transit spending currently comes from the federal government, via the HTF, while states kicking in about 38 percent and 35 percent coming from municipalities. The HTF isn’t set to “run dry” in August, as many are reporting, but it did tell states to expect an average 28 percent reduction in aid at that point unless Congress acts. …there’s nothing stopping states from taking this matter into their own hands. Since 2013, seven states have raised fuel levies, reports Reuters… When left a little more to their own devices, it seems states get innovative. They develop localized solutions. They experiment.

Let’s close with one interesting piece of data. The International Institute for Management Development recently published its World Competitiveness Yearbook.

The good news is that the United States maintained its hold on first place. That’s a lot better than we’re doing in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But what’s particularly relevant and fascinating is to see America’s scores in the various sub-components of the Yearbook. The United States may rank only 22 out of 60 nations for government effectiveness, but we beat every nation for infrastructure.

So if we have an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States, it certainly doesn’t show up in either the hard data or the business leader opinion survey that generate those rankings.

P.S. Back in 2011, I shared a couple of serious videos about bitcoin.

On a lighter note, here’s “bitcoin girl” encouraging more people to use this private money.

But since I don’t want anyone to accuse me of bias, fans of the Federal Reserve can enjoy this alleged film clip from Ben Bernanke’s childhood.

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