Archive for the ‘Government intervention’ Category

Beginning in the 1980s, money-laundering laws were enacted in hopes of discouraging criminal activity by making it harder for crooks to use the banking system. Unfortunately, this approach has been an expensive failure.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. I wrote last year about some intrusive, expensive, and pointless legislation proposed by Senators Grassley, Feinstein, Cornyn, and Whitehouse.

Now there’s another equally misguided set of proposals from Senators Rubio and Wyden, along with Representatives Pearce, Luetkemeyer, and Maloney. They want to require complicated and needless ownership data from millions of small businesses and organizations.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has a comprehensive report on the legislation. Here’s some of what he wrote.

Congress is seriously considering imposing a beneficial ownership reporting regime on American businesses and other entities, including charities and churches. …the House and Senate bills…share three salient characteristics. First, they would impose a large compliance burden on the private sector, primarily on small businesses, charities, and religious organizations. Second, they create hundreds of thousands—potentially more than one million—inadvertent felons out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Third, they do virtually nothing to achieve their stated aim of protecting society from terrorism or other forms of illicit finance. …Furthermore, the creation of this expensive and socially damaging reporting edifice is unnecessary. The vast majority of the information that the proposed beneficial ownership reporting regime would obtain is already provided to the Internal Revenue Service.

Richard Rahn criticizes this new proposal in his weekly column.

…what would you think of a member of Congress who proposes to put a new regulation on the smallest of businesses that does not meet a cost-benefit test, denies basic privacy protections and, because of its vagueness and ambiguity, is likely to cause very high numbers of otherwise law-abiding Americans to be felons? …Some bureaucrats and elected officials argue that the government needs to know who the “beneficial owners” are of even the tiniest of businesses in order to combat “money-laundering,” tax evasion or terrorism. …Should the church ladies who run the local non-profit food bank be put in jail for their failure to submit the form to the Feds that would give them the exemption from the beneficial ownership requirement? …Given how few people are actually convicted of money-laundering, the overwhelming evidence is that 99 percent of the people being forced to submit to these costly and time-consuming proposed regulations will not be guilty of money-laundering, terrorism or whatever, and thus should not be harassed by government.

Writing for the Hill, J.W. Verret, an expert in business law from George Mason University Law School, highlights some of the serious problems with this new regulatory scheme.

Legislation under consideration in Congress, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act, risks tying entrepreneurs’ hands with even more red tape. In fact, it could destroy any benefit some small businesses stand to gain from the tax reform legislation passed last year. It would require corporations and limited liability companies with fewer than 20 employees to file a form with the Treasury Department at the time of formation, and update it annually, listing the names of all beneficial owners and individuals exercising control. …Given the substantial penalties, this will impose a massive regulatory tax on small businesses as they spend money on lawyers that should go toward workers’ pay. …It is unlikely someone on a terrorist watch list would provide their real name on the required form, and Treasury will probably never have sufficient resources to audit names in real time.

Professor Verret explains some of the practical problems and tradeoffs with these proposals.

…some individual money laundering investigations would be easier with a small business registry available. But IRS tax fraud investigations would be much easier with access to taxpayers’ bank account login information — would we tolerate the associated costs and privacy violations? …How is the term “beneficial owner” defined? How is “control” defined? As a professor of corporate law, I have given multiple lectures on those very questions. What if your company is owned, in part, by another company? Or there is a chain of ownership through multiple intermediary companies? What if a creditor of the company, though not currently a shareholder or beneficial owner, obtains the contractual right to convert their debt contract into ownership equity at some point in the future? …for the average small business owner, navigating those complexities against the backdrop of a potential three year prison sentence will often require legal counsel. Companies affected by this legislation should conservatively expect to spend at least $5,000 on a corporate lawyer to help navigate the complexities of the new filing requirements.

Needless to say, squandering $5,000 or more for some useless paperwork is not a recipe for more entrepreneurship.

So how do advocates for this type of legislation respond?

Clay Fuller of the American Enterprise Institute wants us to have faith that bad people will freely divulge their real identities and that bureaucrats will make effective use of the information.

It is time to weed out illicit financing and unfair competition from criminals and bad actors. …Passing the House Financial Services Committee’s Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act should be a priority for the 115th Congress. …Dictators, terrorists and criminals have been freeriding on the prosperity and liberty of the American economy for too long. Officials at FinCEN are sure that beneficial ownership legislation will exponentially increase conviction rates. We should give law enforcement what they need to do their jobs.

Gee, all that sounds persuasive. I’m also against dictators, terrorists, and criminals.

But if you read his entire column, you’ll notice that he offers zero evidence that this costly new legislation actually would catch more bad guys.

And since we already know that anti-money laundering laws impose heavy costs and catch almost no bad guys, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out better ways of allocating law enforcement resources?

I don’t know if we should be distressed or comforted, but other parts of the world also are hamstringing their financial industries with similar policies.

Here’s some analysis from Europe.

…a new reportfrom Consult Hyperion, commissioned by Mitek, reveals that the average UK bank is currently wasting £5 million each year due to manual and inefficient Know Your Customer (KYC) processes, and this annual waste is expected to rise to £10 million in three years. …Key Findings…Inefficient KYC processes cost the average bank £47 million a year…Total costs for KYC processes range from £10 to £100 per check…In the UK, 25% of applications are abandoned due to KYC friction… The cost of KYC checks is much too high, placing too much reliance on inefficient and error-prone manual processes,” said Steve Pannifer, author of the report and COO at Consult Hyperion.

And here’s an update from Asia.

Anti-money laundering and know-your-customer compliance have become leading concerns at financial institutions in Asia today. … we estimate that AML compliance budgets across the six Asian markets in this study total an estimated US$1.5 billion annually for banks alone. …A majority of respondents (55%) indicated that AML compliance has a negative impact on their firms’ business productivity. …An additional 15% felt that AML compliance actually threatens their firms’ ability to do business. …Eighty-two per cent of survey respondents saw overall AML compliance costs increasing in 2016, with one third projecting that costs will rise by 20% or more.

The bottom line is that laws and regulations dealing with money laundering are introduced with high hopes of reducing crime.

And when there’s no effect on criminal activity, proponents urge ever-increasing levels of red tape. And when that doesn’t work, they propose new levels of regulation. And still nothing changes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here’s the video I narrated on this topic. It’s now a bit dated, but everything I said is even more true today.

Let’s close with a surreal column in the Washington Post from Dana Milbank. He was victimized by silly anti-money laundering policies, but seems to approve.

I did not expect that my wife and I would be flagged as possible financiers of international terrorism. …The teller told me my account had been blocked. My wife went to an ATM to take out $200. Denied. Soon I discovered that checks I had written to the au pair and my daughter’s volleyball instructor had bounced. …I began making calls to the bank and eventually got an explanation: The bank was looking into whether my wife and I were laundering money, as they are required to by the Bank Secrecy Act as amended by the Patriot Act. …the bank seemed particularly suspicious that my wife was the terrorist… The bank needed answers. Did she work for the government? How much money does she make? Is she a government contractor? …a week later they came back with a new threat to freeze the account and a more peculiar question: Is my wife politically influential?

Sounds like an awful example of a bank being forced by bad laws to harass a customer.

Heck, it is an awful example of that happening.

But in a remarkable display of left-wing masochism, Milbank approves.

The people who flagged us were right to do so. …Citibank, though perhaps clumsy, was doing what it should be doing. “Know your customer” regulations are important because they prevent organized-crime networks, terrorists and assorted bad guys from moving money. Banking regulations generally are a hassle, and expensive. But they protect us — not just from terrorists such as my wife and me but from financial institutions that would otherwise exploit their customers and jeopardize economic stability the way they did before the 2008 crash.

I guess we know which way Milbank would have responded to this poll question from 2013.

But he would be wrong because money-laundering laws don’t stop terrorism.

We’re giving up freedom and imposing high costs on our economy, yet we’re not getting any additional security in exchange.

And I can’t resist commenting on his absurd assertion that money laundering played a role in the 2008 crash. Does he think that mafia kingpins somehow controlled the Federal Reserve and insisted on easy-money policies and artificially low interest rates? Does he think ISIS operatives were somehow responsible for reckless Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies?

Wow, I thought the people who blamed “tax havens” for the financial crisis deserved the prize for silliest fantasies. But Milbank gives them a run for their money.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one featuring former President Obama.

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Back in 2015, I wrote some columns about policy differences with folks who normally would be considered allies.

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.

Now it’s time for another friendly spat.

A handful of right-of-center groups and individuals have decided to embrace a new entitlement for paid parental leave.

Such as the Independent Women’s Forum.

…the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not mandate or subsidize at least some form of paid parental leave. …there is a way for the federal government to provide paid parental leave to every worker in the United States at no additional cost: offer new parents the opportunity to collect early Social Security benefits after the arrival of their child in exchange for their agreeing to defer the collection of their Social Security retirement benefits. …New parents deserve this choice.

Along with the American Enterprise Institute (cooperating with the left-leaning Urban Institute).

…public interest in creating a federal paid family leave policy has grown. …we came up with a compromise proposal… Its key elements are benefits available to both mothers and fathers, a wage-replacement rate of 70 percent up to a cap of $600 per week for eight weeks, and job protection for those who take leave. It would be financed in part by a payroll tax on employees and in part by savings in other parts of the budget. …we felt an obligation…this was better than doing nothing when the US is the only developed nation without a national paid leave policy.

And Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review.

The more I’ve followed the debate, the more I’ve supported the idea. …there are certain similarities between the personal-account and paid-leave ideas that ought to reduce conservative skepticism of the latter. …there’s a mental block that’s keeping the paid-leave objectors from seeing how much these debates have in common.

Kristin Shapiro of IWF and Andrew Biggs of AEI elaborated on a version of this idea in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a law guaranteeing workers paid parental leave. The idea has broad public support, but how to pay for it? One idea is to mandate that employers fund it, but economists find employers offset the cost by reducing wages for female employees. …Our proposal is simple: Offer new parents the opportunity to collect early Social Security benefits for a period—say, 12 weeks—after the arrival of their child. To offset the cost, parents would agree to delay collecting Social Security retirement benefits… We estimate that to make the Social Security program financially whole, a parent who claimed 12 weeks of benefits would need to delay claiming retirement benefits by only around six weeks. …This idea should be considered as Congress turns to entitlement reform. It’s a fiscally responsible opportunity to help parents and children.

All of this sounds nice, but there are several reasons why I’m very skeptical.

But let’s first distinguish between a very bad idea and a somewhat bad idea. The AEI-Urban scheme for a payroll-tax-funded paid leave program is the very bad idea. The United States already has a baked-in-the-cake entitlement crisis, so the last thing we need is the creation of another tax-and-transfer program.

So I’ll focus instead on the IWF-designed plan to enable parents to get payments from Social Security when they have a new child.

I have three objections.

  1. From a big-picture philosophical perspective, I don’t think the federal government should have any role in family life. Child care certainly is not one of the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. Proponents of intervention routinely argue that the United States is the only advanced nation without such a program, but I view that as a feature, not a bug. We’re also the only advanced nation without a value-added tax. Does that mean we should join other countries and commit fiscal suicide with that onerous levy?
  2. Another objection is that there is a very significant risk that a small program eventually become will become much larger. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I assume the plan proposed by Shapiro and Biggs is neutral. In other words, the short-run spending for parental leave is offset by future reductions in retirement benefits. But once the principle is established that Uncle Sam is playing a role, what will stop future politicians from expanding the short-run goodies and eliminating the long-run savings? It’s worth remembering that the original income tax in 1913 had a top rate of 7 percent and it only applied to 1/2 of 1 percent of the population. How long did that last?
  3. Finally, I still haven’t given up on the fantasy of replacing the bankrupt tax-and-transfer Social Security system with a system of personal retirement accounts. Funded systems based on real savings work very well in jurisdictions such as Australia, Chile, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands, but achieving this reform in the United States will be a huge challenge. And I fear that battle will become even harder if we turn Social Security into a piggy bank for other social goals. For what it’s worth, this is also why I oppose plans to integrate the payroll tax with the income tax.

Now let’s see what others have to say about a new entitlement for parental leave.

Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus explains for National Review why Ramesh’s support for a new federal entitlement is the wrong approach.

…we don’t currently have a national parental-leave entitlement. Yes, the plan he’s talking about isn’t as bad as what Hillary would propose, but it still assumes that the federal government should be playing a role in this. Let’s not pretend otherwise. It relies on the government-run Social Security system, and it increases spending for a good while. That’s regress, not progress. And we also need to be realistic. Once the door has been opened, the Left will radically expand the scheme in ways that none of us like. And, to be honest, I can already hear future conservatives demanding that the program be expanded because parents who have to retire a few months later because they use paid leaves pay “a retirement penalty” compared to non-parents. …my point of reference for judging this plan is economic freedom and smaller government involvement. If you prefer more pro-family benefits even at the risk of growing the government, then we won’t agree.

Writing for Reason, Shikha Dalmia also is a skeptic.

…this is a flawed proposal that’ll do more harm than good, including to its intended beneficiaries. …The scheme will incentivize more workers to take off and for longer periods of time. This will be especially disruptive for small businesses and start-ups that operate on a shoestring budget and can’t spread the responsibilities of the absent workers across a large workforce. They will inevitably shy away from hiring young women of childbearing age. This will diminish these women’s job options. …Furthermore, it isn’t like Social Security has a ton of spare cash lying around to dole out to people other than retirees. The program used to generate surpluses when its worker-to-retiree ratio was high. But this ratio has dropped from 42 workers to one retiree in 1945 to less than four workers per retiree now. And even though payroll taxes have gone up from 2 percent at the program’s inception to 12.6 percent now, the system is still taking in less money than it is paying out in benefits, because of all the retiring baby boomers. …It is also beyond naïve to think that once the government is allowed to dip into Social Security to pay for family leave at childbirth, it’ll simply stop there. Why shouldn’t families taking care of old and sick parents get a similar deal? Liberals are already floating proposals to use Social Security for student loan forgiveness. The possibilities are endless.

The Wall Street Journal opined against the idea last month.

…some in the ostensible party of limited government think this is the perfect time to add a new entitlement for paid family leave. …this would shift the burden of providing the benefit from the private economy to government. Academic evidence shows that family leave keeps employees in their jobs and can make them happier or more productive, which is one reason many companies pay for it. But why pay when the government offers 12 weeks? …This “crowd out” effect is a hallmark of all entitlements… Also strap yourselves in for the politics. Social Security started as a 2% payroll tax to support the elderly poor, but the tax is now 12.4% and the program is still severely under-funded.

The WSJ shares my concerns about a small program morphing into a huge entitlement.

No politician is going to deny leave to a pregnant 22-year-old merely because she hasn’t paid much into Social Security. Watch the social right demand a comparable cash benefit for stay-at-home moms, and also dads, or caring for an elderly dependent. And wait until you meet the focus group known as Congressional Democrats, who are already dismissing the proposal as unfair for forcing women to choose between children and retirement. Democrats will quickly wipe out the deferral period so everyone is entitled to leave now and get the same retirement benefits later. And once Republicans open Social Security for family leave, the door will open for other social goals. Why not college tuition? …every entitlement since Revolutionary War pensions has skied down this slope of inexorable expansion. Disability started as limited insurance but now sends checks to roughly nine million people. Medicaid was intended to cover the vulnerable and disabled but today dozens of states cover childless working-age adults above the poverty line.

If you want more information, I had two columns last year (here and here) explaining why federally mandated parental leave is a bad idea.

To put the issue in context, we should be asking whether it makes sense for the government to make employees more expensive to employers. And since this proponents will probably sell this new entitlement as being good for new mothers, it’s worth pointing out that even a columnist for the New York Times admitted that women actually get hurt by such policies.

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

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The Great Depression was an unimaginably miserable period in American history. Income fell, unemployment rose, and misery was pervasive.

But there was still room for political satire in the 1930s. Here’s a cartoon that I shared back in 2012. Based on the notations in the upper right, I gather it’s from the Chicago Tribune, though I don’t know if that’s actually true. And I also don’t know the year.

But I certainly sympathized with the message since Hoover and Roosevelt were big-spending interventionists.

Hoover saddled the economy with taxes (an increase in the top tax rate from 25 percent to 63 percent!), spending, protectionism, regulation, and intervention. Roosevelt then doubled down on almost all of those bad policies, with further tax rate increases (up to 79 percent, and he even pushed for a 100 percent tax rate in the early 1940s!!), more spending, and lots of additional regulation and intervention.

And here’s a cartoon I posted the previous year. Since I don’t know whether public opinion was on the right side, I don’t know if it accurately captures the mood of taxpayers.

But it’s 100-percent accurate about the instinctive response of politicians. For “public choice” reasons, the crowd in Washington has an incentive to buy votes with other people’s money. One might even say they spend like drunken sailors, but that’s actually an understatement.

But I’m beginning to digress, as is my wont. Let’s get back to satire and the Great Depression.

And I’m going to be creative. That’s because I saw a cartoon on Reddit‘s libertarian page that makes a very general point about government causing a mess and politicians then blaming the private sector. But because I’m a goofy libertarian policy wonk, I immediately thought that this is a perfect summary of what happened in the 1930s.  Hoover and Roosevelt hammered the economy with bad policy, the economy stayed in the dumps for an entire decade, yet the political class someone convinced a lot of people it was all the fault of capitalism.

While I will always view this cartoon as the spot-on depiction of what happened in the 1930s, it obviously applies much more broadly.

Consider the recent financial crisis, which was the result of bad monetary policy and corrupt Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies. Yet countless politicians blamed greedy capitalism.

Maybe what we have is the cartoon version of Mitchell’s Law. That’s because when politicians cause a problem and blame the free market, they inevitably then claim that the problem justifies giving them more power and control. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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When writing about the Obamacare and its birth-control mandate, I’ve made a handful of observations.

President Trump recently announced that his Administration would relax the mandate. I think that is good news for the above reasons.

Critics are very upset. But rather than argue about the desirability of insurance coverage and the wisdom of Washington mandates, they’re actually claiming that the White House has launched some sort of war on birth control. I’m not joking.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe analyzes the issue. He starts by observing that nobody is proposing to ban birth control

…the Supreme Court ruled, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that government may not ban anyone from using contraceptives. …That freedom is a matter of settled law, and hasn’t been challenged in the slightest by President Trump or his administration.

He then points out that some folks on the left have gone ballistic.

Hillary Clinton accused Trump of showing “blatant disregard for medicine, science, & every woman’s right to make her own health decisions.” Elizabeth Warren, denouncing “this attack on basic health care,” claimed that the GOP’s top priority is to deprive women of birth control.

Their arguments, however, are utter nonsense. If Person A no longer has to subsidize Person B, that doesn’t mean Person B can’t buy things. It simply means there won’t be third-party payer.

Jacoby agrees.

News flash to Warren, et al.: There is no attack on health care, and no in America is being deprived of birth control. You are losing nothing but the power to force nuns to pay for your oral contraceptives. …As a matter of economics and public policy, the Affordable Care Act mandate that birth control be supplied for free is absurd. …Especially since birth control will remain as available and affordable as ever.

Indeed, the Trump Administration was actually far too timid. There should be no birth-control mandate for any insurance plan. It should be something negotiated by employers and employees.

…the new White House rule leaves the birth-control mandate in place. Trump’s “tweak won’t affect 99.9 percent of women,” observes the Wall Street Journal, “and that number could probably have a few more 9s at the end.” Washington will continue to compel virtually every employer and insurer in America to supply birth control to any woman who wants one at no out-of-pocket cost.

Jacoby closes his column with some very sensible observations and recommendations.

…there is no legitimate rationale for such a mandate. Americans don’t expect to get aspirin, bandages, or cold medicine — or condoms — for free; by what logic should birth control pills or diaphragms be handed over at no cost? …By and large, birth control is inexpensive; as little as $20 a month without insurance. …access to birth control, as the Centers for Disease Control reported in 2010, was virtually universal before Obamacare. The White House is right to end the burden on religious objectors. But it is the birth-control mandate itself that should be scrapped. Contraception is legal, cheap, and available everywhere. Why are the feds meddling where they aren’t needed?

The last sentence is key. The federal government (heck, no level of government) should be involved with birth control. They shouldn’t ban it. And they shouldn’t mandate it, either.

P.S. About five years ago, Sandra Fluke got her 15 minutes of fame by asserting that she had a right to third-party-financed birth control. That led to some clever jokes, including this cartoon and this video.

For what it’s worth, I think this cartoon is the best summary of the issue.

P.P.S. Predictably, the United Nations supports a “right” to taxpayer-financed birth control.

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I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

A column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want to read about some symptoms of India’s bloated government, the country has a member in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, it also produced the most horrifying example of how handouts create bad incentives, and it mistreats private schools to compensate for the wretched failure of government schools.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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I like France, in part because it’s a nice place to visit, but also because I’ve been able to use the country as an example of bad public policy.

It’s hard to pick which policy does the most damage. As a fiscal policy wonk, I’m tempted to blame France’s woes on high taxes and wasteful spending.

However, there’s a strong case that labor law is the worst feature of economic policy. France has all sorts of rules that “protect” employees, but the net effect is that workers suffer because these laws discourage entrepreneurs from creating jobs.

And even though I get a lot of mileage out of making France a bad example, I actually hope that the nation’s new government will move policy in the right direction. Indeed, this is why I wanted France’s current President, Emmanuel Macron, to get elected.

Yes, he used to be part of the previous socialist government that sought to make things worse rather than better. But I figured he was most likely to enact some pro-market reforms. And it appears my hopes may be realized, at least with regard to labor policy.

The BBC reports on why Macron wants reform, what he wants to do, and what likely will happen.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has begun its drive to overhaul France’s rigid labour laws, vowing to “free up the energy of the workforce”. …France has an unemployment rate of 9.5%, double that of the other big European economies and Mr Macron has vowed to cut it to 7% by 2022.

Here’s what he is proposing.

The reforms aim to make it easier for bosses to hire and fire. …France’s labour code is some 3,000 pages long and is seen by many as a straitjacket for business. Among the biggest reforms, individual firms are to be offered more flexibility in negotiating wages and conditions. …If a business reached a deal with the majority of its workforce on working hours and pay that agreement would trump any agreement in the wider industry. …The government wants to facilitate deals at local level by encouraging companies with fewer than 50 employees to set up workers’ committees that can bypass unions. One of the thorniest problems for the government is how to make it easier for companies to dismiss staff. There is to be a cap on damages that can be awarded to workers for unfair dismissal. However, after months of consultations, ministers have agreed to increase the cap from their original proposal. The cap would be limited to three months’ pay for two years of work and 20 months’ pay for 30 years. Until now the minimum pay-out for two years’ employment was six months of salary.

And he’ll probably get what he wants, both because some of the bigger unions have decided to play ball and also because he’s been granted authority to unilaterally make changes.

Protests against the plan are expected next month, but two of the biggest unions say they will not take part. Jean-Claude Mailly, the leader of Force Ouvrière (FO), said that while the reforms were far from perfect, the government had carried out “real consultation” and FO would play no role in demonstrations on 12 September. The union with the biggest presence in the private sector, CFDT, said its members would not take to the streets either, although it was ultimately disappointed that its position was not reflected in the final text. …Mr Macron has already won parliamentary backing to push these reforms through by decree. An opinion poll on Wednesday showed that nine out of 10 French people agreed that their country’s labour code had to be reformed.

Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute has some analysis of what’s been proposed.

…the National Assembly and Senate…authorized France’s government to amend the country’s byzantine labor code by executive orders… Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveiled the details of the reform, divided into five decrees, on Thursday. So what exactly are they seeking to achieve? Perhaps most important is the introduction of caps on redundancy pay to those whose employment has been terminated without a just cause…stricter caps are introduced for small companies, for which large redundancy payments can be ruinous. It will also become easier for multinational companies to justify termination of employment on economic grounds. …it will be possible to downsize or close down French operations without having to subsidize them first from profits made overseas. …Companies with fewer than 20 employees will not have to rely on labor union representatives for their collective contracts. Subsidiaries of companies will have more freedom to offer temporary work contracts.

Dalibor is not overly impressed by this collection of changes.

…measured by the standards of what France needs, it is not much… The extent to which the reform elicits a strong reaction reflects purely the overregulated status quo, rather than the revolutionary nature of the proposed measures. …the government is doing something right, however timid.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial is a bit more optimistic.

French voters this spring gave themselves their best shot in a generation at reviving their moribund economy, and President Emmanuel Macron is now taking advantage of the opportunity. …the labor-market reforms he unveiled Thursday could remake the eurozone’s second-largest economy. …Mr. Macron will limit the severance payouts courts can mandate for fired workers. He will free small companies with nonunion workers from the straitjacket of national collective-bargaining agreements covering working hours, overtime pay, vacation benefits and the like. Companies will have more scope to negotiate labor deals at the firm level rather than being forced to abide by national agreements.

By reducing the potential cost of employing workers, the reforms will lead to more employment.

The severance overhaul will go a long way toward inducing businesses to hire more workers. Small- and medium-size French companies report pervasive fear of expanding their workforce lest they be stuck with problem employees or face ruinous expenses to lay off workers if economic conditions change.

And France desperately needs reform.

French unemployment is still 9.5% even at its five-year low. That’s double the rate in Germany, and French unemployment has become a social crisis, especially for young people frozen out of the job market. The jobless rate for French between age 15 and 24 is 25%—for those who haven’t moved to London or the U.S.

Though the WSJ does recognize that the reforms are merely a modest step in the right direction.

France isn’t becoming a laissez-faire paradise. Even if Mr. Macron’s labor overhaul takes effect, the French workplace will still be considerably more regulated than America’s.

Let’s close with some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

…the government announced sweeping changes on Thursday with the potential to radically shift the balance of power from workers to employers. …an invigorated France is considered critical to the survival of a European Union that is finally showing signs of revival after a lost decade. …Economists in France and across Europe expressed optimism about the new law… France has stagnated for years under chronically elevated unemployment and slow growth. The country’s strong worker protections and expensive benefits have been blamed by some for being at least partly at the root of the problem.

Wow, it must be bad if even the NYT is acknowledging that government is causing the economy to stutter.

Amazingly, the story even admits that economic liberalization is the right way to get more job creation.

Germany crossed that Rubicon in the 1990s under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. …Roughly 15 years ago, “France and Germany had economies that were more or less comparable, and that ceased to be the case because the Germans wisely did micro-reforms and the French did not,” said Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. So the French ended up with “high unemployment, which fed populism, and getting out of that trap is vital

For what it’s worth, I think the reference to German reforms is key.

Under a left-leaning government, Germany liberalized labor markets. The so-called Hartz reforms were a huge success, slashing the jobless rate by more than 50 percent.

I don’t know whether Macron’s reforms are as bold as what happened in Germany, but any movement in the right direction will create more employment.

P.S. If Macron wants to save France, he better deal with the tax system as well. The problems are nicely captured by two videos, one about how young people are fleeing the nation and another showing a Hollywood celebrity reacting when told about the tax burden.

P.P.S. Whenever I give a speech in France, I ask the audience whether their government (which consumes for the half of economic output) gives them more and better services than the Swiss government (which consumes about one-third of economic output). The answer is always an overwhelmingly no.

P.P.P.S. I (sort of) agreed with Paul Krugman in 2013 that there is a plot against France.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, the French people occasionally do support good policy (and they’re willing to escape to America if things don’t get better).

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Government subsidies have an unfortunate habit of causing widespread economic damage and often result in huge burdens for taxpayers (though sometimes consumers are the ones getting pillaged).

The common thread is that government intervention interferes with the normal operation of the price system and thus leads to distortions since markets are prevented from functioning properly.

Let’s add another example, and it’s very timely because of the flooding in Texas. The federal government subsidizes flood insurance. And it does so in a way that is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment, while also giving a windfall to rich people and putting lives at risk.

That’s an impressive list, even by government standards.

In a must-read column for USA Today, my old friend Jim Bovard is very critical of the program.

Hurricane Harvey…offers the clearest lesson why Congress should not perpetuate the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)… The ravages in Houston and elsewhere would be far less if the federal government had not offered massively subsidized flood insurance in high risk, environmentally perilous locales. …NFIP embraced a “flood-rebuild-repeat” model that has spawned an almost $25 billion debt.

And when Jim says “flood-rebuild-repeat,” he’s not joking.

NFIP paid to rebuild one Houston home 16 times in 18 years, spending almost a million dollars to perpetually restore a house worth less than $120,000. Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), has almost 10,000 properties which have filed repetitive flood insurance damage claims. The Washington Post recently reported that a house “outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims.

And he points out that the program is reverse class warfare.

Flood insurance subsidies benefit well-off households, and payouts disproportionately go to areas with much higher than average home values. Working stiffs in Idaho and Oklahoma are taxed to underwrite mansions for the elite. …NBC News revealed in 2014 that FEMA revised its flood maps to give 95%+ discounted insurance premiums to “hundreds of oceanfront condo buildings and million-dollar homes,” including properties on its “repetitive loss list.”

My colleague Chris Edwards has a comprehensive study of the federal government’s role in disaster relief. Here’s some of what he wrote about the history of subsidized flood insurance.

In 1968 the National Flood Insurance Act offered federal insurance to properties at risk for flooding. A key justification by supporters of federal flood insurance was that it would alleviate the need to pass special aid legislation after each flood disaster. As it has turned out, however, taxpayers are now both subsidizing flood insurance and paying for special relief bills passed after floods. …NFIP was supposed to save taxpayers money by alleviating the need for Congress to pass emergency aid packages after floods. Taxpayers were also not supposed to be burdened by the program itself because insurance premiums were to cover the system’s costs. Also, the NFIP included floodplain regulations that are imposed on communities adopting the program. These regulations were supposed to mitigate the harm from floods. None of the promises panned out. …Most importantly, rather than reducing the nation’s flooding problems, the NFIP has likely made flood damage worse by encouraging more development in hazardous areas. Since 1970, the estimated number of Americans living in coastal areas designated as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) by FEMA has increased from 10 million to more than 16 million. Subsidized flood insurance has backfired by helping to draw more people and development into flood zones.

To add insult to injury, the program is poorly run.

The GAO has had the NFIP on its “high-risk” list of troubled programs for years. …In recent years, the program has accumulated more than $24 billion in debt because payouts have far exceeded premiums. Today, the program is in financial crisis and taxpayers will likely bear the burden of its large debt. The NFIP’s financial shortcomings are typical of government-run businesses. Unlike private insurance, the NFIP charges artificially low rates, does not build capital surpluses, and does not purchase reinsurance to cover catastrophic losses. …The GAO says that “by design, NFIP is not an actuarially sound program.” …A 2011 insurance industry study found that overall NFIP premiums are only half the level needed to cover the system’s full costs, and property owners in high-risk areas pay just one-third of full market rates.

But the biggest problem is that the program encourages imprudent – and even dangerous – behavior.

…artificially low rates subsidize people to live in high-risk flood areas. …NFIP is that it has encouraged development in hazardous areas. As Duke University coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey puts it, “we are subsidizing, even encouraging, very dangerous development.” Federal flood insurance has incentivized individuals and developers to build in hazardous areas…more lives and property are put in harm’s way.

And the program has plenty of repeat business.

…some property owners repeatedly rebuild in hazardous locations knowing that the government will bail them out after each flood. Repetitive loss properties account for only about 1 percent of all policies, but are responsible for about one-third of all NFIP claims. …One Mississippi home valued at $69,900 has flooded 34 times since 1978, and the owner has received $663,000 in NFIP payments over the years.

Here’s an image from Reddit’s libertarian page. Very appropriate given today’s topic.

An article for The Week looks specifically at how the program lured the people of Houston into taking excessive risk.

Why would the practical, fiscally conservative people of Texas anchor their financial security in houses that are now literally underwater? …a major culprit is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and specifically its subsidiary, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). …Well-meaning but drenched in perverse incentives, they are complicit in the horrifying destruction now racking the Texas gulf coast. …a normal insurance company would jack up the premium price to cover the high risk of floodplain construction, thus discouraging vulnerable building plans among those who cannot afford to cover the cost of disaster, the NFIP will insure this construction at a discount. …an artificially low premium like the NFIP offers cruelly deludes homeowners into believing their flood-prone houses are far safer than they are. …NFIP has taxpayers subsidizing unrealistically low premiums that incentivize new construction on dangerous land, and its discounts are available even to wealthy homeowners with pricey properties. “About 80 percent of NFIP households are in counties that rank in the top income quintile,” notes a recent report at Politico, and “[w]ealthier households also tend to receive larger subsidies.”

How do we solve this government-created problem?

With the same answer that Chris gave.

Axing the NFIP and transitioning back to private flood insurance, with its accurate risk signaling, is much overdue.

Writing for Reason, Ronald Bailey explains the perverse incentives created by the program.

The main lesson that the public and policymakers ought to learn from Harvey is: Don’t build in flood plains, and especially don’t rebuild in flood plains. Unfortunately, the flood insurance program teaches the exact opposite lesson, selling subsidized insurance whose premiums do not come close to covering the risks home and business owners in flood prone areas face. As a result, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt. Federally subsidized flood insurance represents a moral hazard, Kevin Starbuck, Assistant City Manager and former Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Amarillo, argues, because it encourages people to take on more risk because taxpayers bear the cost of those hazards.

And, in many cases, bear those costs over and over and over again.

Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that from 1978 through 2015, 3.8 percent of flood insurance policyholders have filed repetitively for losses that account for a disproportionate 35.5 percent of flood loss claims and 30.5 percent of claim payments, Starbuck says.

The solution, once again, is obvious.

…taxpayers should not be required to subsidize people who choose to build and live on flood plains. When Congress reauthorizes the NFIP, it should initiate a phase-in of charging grandfathered properties premiums commensurate with their risks. This will likely lower the market values of affected homes and businesses and thus send a strong signal to others to avoid building and living in such risky areas.

A couple of months ago, before Harvey, the Wall Street Journal presciently opined about the downside of government-provided flood insurance.

A classic example of government dysfunction is a federal insurance program that helps pay to drain basements in millions of America’s second homes. …The 1968 program insures more than $1 trillion in property, with about five million policies in 2016 for those who live in areas prone to flooding. The program is more than $24 billion in debt. One reason for the hole is that about 20% of policies are directly subsidized. More than 75% of such policies are in counties in the top 30% for home values, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis, and many dot the affluent coasts of Florida, California and Texas. In other words, this is a wealth transfer from low and middle-income families to the folks who own real estate on Nantucket. …The best reform would be to convert the program into a private operation, though Members of both parties would pile together like sandbags to block it.

The editorial noted that Representative Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, has tried to limit the program. Since he’s a Texan, it will be interesting to see if his pro-market principles remain in the aftermath of Harvey (based on his record, I’m guessing yes).

In another Reason column, Katherine Mangu-Ward put together a list of things politicians shouldn’t do once the storm is over.

Here are a few things Trump and his pals absolutely shouldn’t do in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but probably will: …Increase funding for the federal flood insurance program. When it comes time to rebuild, everyone will studiously avoid discussing the fact that maybe we shouldn’t be using a massive federal insurance program to incentivize building in areas that are repeatedly hit by storms. There’s a reason private insurers don’t offer policies to many coastal dwellers, and it ain’t “market failure.”

Needless to say, I’m not optimistic that her advice will be heeded.

Though you would think some Democrats would be on the correct side, if for no other reason than the program is a big fat subsidy for rich people.

One of those fat cats even confessed that the program is a boondoggle that lines his pockets. Here are some excerpts from a 2004 column by John Stossel.

…the biggest welfare queens are the already wealthy. Their lobbyists fawn over politicians, giving them little bits of money — campaign contributions, plane trips, dinners, golf outings — in exchange for huge chunks of taxpayers’ money.

John then confesses that he put his snout if the taxpayer trough.

I got some of your money too. …In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms — every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: “Don’t do it; it’s too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean.” But I built anyway. Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, “Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.” What? Why would the government do that? Why would it encourage people to build in such risky places? That would be insane. But the architect was right. If the ocean took my house, Uncle Sam would pay to replace it under the National Flood Insurance Program. Since private insurers weren’t dumb enough to sell cheap insurance to people who built on the edges of oceans or rivers, Congress decided the government should step in and do it. …I did have to pay insurance premiums, but they were dirt cheap — mine never exceeded a few hundred dollars a year.

Lots of rich people like this subsidy.

The insurance, of course, has encouraged more people to build on the edges of rivers and oceans. …Subsidized insurance goes to movie stars in Malibu, to rich people in Kennebunkport (where the Bush family has its vacation compound), to rich people in Hyannis (where the Kennedy family has its), and to all sorts of people like me who ought to be paying our own way.

John was even an example of the “flood-rebuild-repeat” syndrome.

…just four years after I built my house, a two-day northeaster swept away my first floor. …After the water receded, the government bought me a new first floor. Federal flood insurance payments are like buying drunken drivers new cars after they wreck theirs. I never invited you taxpayers to my home. You shouldn’t have to pay for my ocean view.

More than once!

On New Year’s Day, 1995, …The ocean had knocked down my government-approved flood-resistant pilings and eaten my house. It was an upsetting loss for me, but financially I made out just fine. You paid for the house — and its contents.

Though now another rich person will get the subsidy.

I could have rebuilt the beach house and possibly ripped you taxpayers off again, but I’d had enough. I sold the land. Now someone’s built an even bigger house on my old property. Bet we’ll soon have to pay for that one, too.

Let’s close with some systematic data on the regressivity of the program.

Two of my other colleagues, Ike Brannon and Ari Blask, authored a study on the flood insurance program. They covered lots of material, but here’s what they wrote about poor-to-rich redistribution.

Wealthier households benefit disproportionately from the reduced average cost of flood insurance brought about by government intervention. Of course, not all NFIP-insured properties are high value, but insured homes are on average more valuable than noninsured homes. …In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a report containing statistics on the average and median values of properties in the NFIP. …The median value of properties in the NFIP exceeded the median value of an American home across all four categories, as shown in Table 1. …40 percent of coastal properties receiving subsidies were worth more than $500,000 and 12 percent were worth more than $1 million. …Comparisons of NFIP premiums with potential private premiums show that NFIP policyholders with the most risk exposure tend to receive the largest subsidy, with 80 percent of explicit subsidy recipients living in counties in the top income quintile.

And here’s Table 1 from their study.

My guide to having an ethical bleeding heart is very straightforward.

If taking money from rich people to give to poor people is wrong, then taking money from poor people to line the pockets of rich people is utterly reprehensible.

I’ll write in the near future about why the federal government shouldn’t be involved in disaster relief. But I wanted to specifically highlight the wretched impact of subsidized flood insurance because it is such a perverse example of how government promotes unjust inequality.

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