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Archive for the ‘Government intervention’ Category

As much as I condemn American politicians for bad policy, things could be worse.

We could be Greek citizens, which would be very depressing. Indeed, you’ll understand why I put Obamaland in the title after you read today’s column.

Simply stated, Greece is a cesspool of statism. The people seem to be wonderful (at least outside of polling booths), but government intervention is pervasive and atrocious.

Here’s an example. As I was coming in a taxi from the airport to the city yesterday, we passed some sort of protest. There were a couple of hundred people at the rally and probably about 50 riot cops.

I naturally wondered about the situation, expecting that it was radical statists or some of the crazies from Golden Dawn. But the cab driver explained that it was pharmacists.

So why are pharmacists protesting? I found out from some of the locals at the Free Market Road Show that this is a heavily regulated and protected sector of the Greek economy.

The government has rules, for instance, that products such as aspirin and other painkillers can only be purchased at pharmacies. The bureaucracy also rigs all the prices to preclude competition. And there are even government policies that make it very difficult for new pharmacies to compete against the established firms.

When special interests have that much power, no wonder Greece is in trouble.

Thought there are some sectors of the business community, such as online entrepreneurs, that are treated like crap. Literally.

Here’s another example from a Wall Street Journal report, albeit one where a modest bit of progress has been achieved.

For the first time in more than a hundred years, Greece is sacking public servants. In 1911, Greece introduced jobs for life under Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Now, a century later, his descendant, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s minister for administrative reform, is faced with the delicate task of slimming down the massive public sector this law helped create. …In exchange for…aid, Greece has promised to cut the government workforce by at least 150,000 by 2015 through attrition, and to lay off an additional 15,000 outright by the end of this year. Another 25,000 would be placed in the temporary labor pool. Of those goals, the first has been reached: Greece had 713,000 government workers at the end of 2012, down 122,000 from the end of 2010. …But the labor pool is still a work in progress. Last July, the first 4,000 employees were put in that pool, while another 8,000 or so followed a few months later. Few of them are expected to be rehired. And with Greece’s unemployment rate already close to 30%, few expect to find jobs in the private sector.

I actually feel a bit sorry for some of these people.

They probably took jobs in the bureaucracy without ever thinking about who was paying their salaries and without giving any thought to the featherbedding and waste that accompany most public sector positions.

But I bet they voted for the politicians that dramatically expanded the number of bureaucrats, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy.

In any event, they’re understandably worried now that the gravy train is being derailed.

Or maybe the gravy is still there, but in different forms.

It appears that there’s still taxpayer money floating around that can be wasted in interesting ways.

Here are some excerpts from the Guardian about EU-funded “anger management” for some of Greece’s senior tax bureaucrats.

Until Greece’s economic meltdown, anger management was an alien concept at the country’s finance ministry. …Today these are the buzzwords flying around the ground-floor training room at 1 Handris Street. For tax inspectors attending mandatory seminars at the government building, anger management, like patience and politesse, are now seen as essential prerequisites of an increasingly stressful job. “Today, in Greece, everyone is either unhappy or angry when they have to go and pay at the tax office,” Fotis Kourmouris, a senior official at the finance ministry’s public revenues department said. “There is a lot of negative emotion … in the framework of better customer service, classes in psychological and emotional intelligence had become necessary.”

I wouldn’t call it “negative emotion.”

This is a long-overdue revolt of the Greek tax slaves.

…inspectors have found themselves at the sharp end of popular rage. In recent months visiting auditors have been chased out of remote villages, hounded out of towns and booted off islands by an increasingly desperate populace. “We’ve had multiple cases of violence at tax offices by angry members of public, including physical assaults; shots were fired in one case, and one attacker came with an axe,” said Trifonas Alexiadis, vice-chairman of the national association of employees at state financial services.

But when you read how the Greek government is trying to rape and pillage taxpayers, you can understand the anger.

A series of new tax laws has further fuelled public anger. Since the outbreak of the crisis, close to 30 new levies have been introduced by governments desperate to augment empty state coffers. “Too much pressure is being put on people who can’t pay,” said Alexiadis, who suggested that in such circumstances the classes were not only ill-conceived but “juvenile and unnecessary”. …accountant Heracles Galanakopoulos agreed. “They produce a law that nobody understands and then produce another three to explain it. By the time people get here they are really very angry,” he lamented… “I spend at least five or six hours a day reading up on all these new laws and still can’t keep up. Anger management is a nice idea but in a system that is so absurd it’s not going to make a jot of difference.”

Amen. As I’ve argued before, Greece’s problem is high tax rates. Evasion is simply a function of a bad tax code.

Let’s close with some Greek-related humor.

I very much recommend this very funny video from a Greek comedian and this politically incorrect map of how the Greeks view the rest of Europe.

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I spoke yesterday to the Memphis Economics Club about America’s looming fiscal crisis, and I did my usual song-and-dance routine about potential Greek-style chaos in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But I confess I was stumped when, after the speech, someone from the audience asked me what was going on with Obamacare.

I can pontificate at length about why government intervention has screwed up our healthcare system, and I can wax poetic about the need to restore market forces both with tax reform and with significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

But I was asked to speculate about the Obama Administration’s strategy, and I didn’t know what to say other than they’re in panic mode and they’re arbitrarily changing or ignoring the law based on short-term political imperatives.

To get an idea what I’m talking about, here’s what the Wall Street Journal opined.

Liberals say they believe in a living Constitution, and apparently they think the Affordable Care Act is a living document too. Amid one more last-minute regulatory delay, number 38 at last count, the mandate forcing nuns to sponsor birth control is more or less the only part of ObamaCare that is still intact. On Tuesday evening, the Health and Human Services Department announced that the six-month open enrollment period for ObamaCare insurance that began in October 2013 and was supposed to end on the last day of March would be extended indefinitely. …The expanded enrollment period was slipped into a legal crevice related to “exceptional circumstances” signing up such as natural disasters including “an earthquake, massive flooding, or hurricane.” …By the way, as part of this delay HHS will make no attempt to verify real enrollment problems and will instead rely on what the agency calls “the honor system.” No one will be asked why they need an extension. …This pattern of dishonesty and political improvisation has come to define ObamaCare, which is the law for some people, sometimes, except when it isn’t. Nothing HHS claims can be trusted, and little that the President of the United States promised about his signature law has turned out to be true.

Well, I must confess that I (sort of) agree with part of what the White House is doing. Obamacare has been a natural disaster.

Building on this theme, Abby McCloskey and Tom Miller have a column in the WSJ with a blunt message about the mandate.

The individual mandate has failed. After a last-ditch effort with President Obama himself encouraging “young invincibles” to sign up before the deadline, …the White House announced that people who applied for coverage on the federal health-insurance exchange will have until mid-April to finish the paperwork. …The individual mandate had the least effect on those it was supposed to encourage to gain coverage—the uninsured. … Goldman Sachs analysts estimate that about one million uninsured Americans will sign up for the ObamaCare exchanges before open enrollment ends. For perspective, that’s about 2% of the 48 million uninsured. A larger share of the exchange enrollees is likely coming from people whose previous coverage was canceled (due to other ObamaCare rules) or those who found a somewhat better deal for exchange coverage (due to much more generous low-income subsidies).

Wow, just 2 percent of the uninsured. That’s a high failure rate, even by government standards.

At this stage, the only good response is to laugh.

So let’s enjoy some Obamacare cartoons, starting with this gem from Glenn McCoy.

Reminds me of my quip about Syria and Obamacare, which even got noticed by Rand Paul!

Here’s Chip Bok having some fun with the government’s disgusting enforcement mechanism.

Brings to mind this flying monkeys cartoon.

Here’s McCoy again, this time mocking the left’s claim that we should be happy about the people who have lost their jobs because of Obamacare.

This Michael Ramirez cartoon is a classic. I especially love the eyes (a talent that Ramirez often exploits).

Needless to say, the White House’s disregard of its own law is largely driven by a desire to avoid election-day backlash, which is why this Gary Varvel cartoon is a good way to close today’s collection.

P.S. If you have a strange yearning to watch me predict the collapse of the western world (basically the same topic of my speech in Memphis), here’s a recording of my recent speech to the Center for Political Studies in Denmark.

And if you get bored with more than 60 minutes of my supposed wisdom, you can skip the rest of the video and look at the real highlight of my trip to Copenhagen, the “welfare state party ship.”

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I wish there was a magic wand that somebody could wave and all of us would have more money. Or maybe Santa Claus could play that role, or some version of the Tooth Fairy.

And if that magic person only had limited powers, I would want more money specifically for those with modest incomes.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in this fantasy world. As a society, we can’t enjoy output unless we first go through the toil and trouble of working, saving, and investing.

Heck, even some leftists have admitted that you can’t redistribute unless somebody first produces.

But that doesn’t stop some politicians from practicing free-lunch economics. They tell us, for instance, that government can impose a higher minimum wage with no job losses.

And now the Obama Administration is claiming that it can expand overtime eligibility rules without any adverse impact of base pay, hours, or employment.

In my role as the designated bad guy who has to inform people there’s no magic wand or Santa Claus, here’s what I told the New York Times.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, who warned that employers might cut pay or use fewer workers. “If they push through something to make a certain class of workers more expensive, something will happen to adjust.”

I also shared my putative wisdom with the International Business Times, underscoring the principle that government shouldn’t intervene in labor markets.

“Our view is pretty straightforward,” Daniel Mitchell, a fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington D.C., told International Business Times by phone on Wednesday. “From a philosophical perspective the government shouldn’t get involved with labor contacts between two consenting adults. You can’t impose more labor costs and have them magically disappear.”

I also pontificated on this issue for CBS News radio, but the “highlight” of the day was having to dispel economic myths in a series of TV interviews.

In this debate for Nightly Business Report, I had to explain that faster growth was the only effective way to improve living standards, but my opponent somehow thought we should go back to the glorious 1970s.

And in this interview with Ali Velshi on AJ, I’m stunned that he blames today’s weak job market on free markets.

Last but not least, I made what will probably be my last appearance on Larry Kudlow’s great show on CNBC and used the opportunity to say we shouldn’t copy Europe’s failed welfare states.

Larry is retiring at the end of the month and he will be sorely missed.

P.S. Lots of people are suffering because of Obamacare, especially taxpayers and patients.

But since our main topic today is jobs, let’s not forget that millions of workers are being screwed over by this bad law. They’re losing jobs, losing hours, and/or losing take-home pay thanks to Obama’s ham-fisted intervention.

If you like gallows humor, Reason TV addresses this issue in a new video. Enjoy.

And if you like Obamacare parody videos, here are the other ones that will produce some smiles and laughs.

*The head of the National Socialist Workers Party finds out he can’t keep his health plan.

Varvel Obamacare Ambulance*A creepy version of Uncle Sam wants to know about your sex life.

*Young people discover that they’re screwed by Obamacare.

*One of the biggest statists of the 20th century is angry that the Obamacare exchanges don’t work.

*A consumer tries to buy Obama-coffee.

By the way, if you’re concerned about America’s fiscal future, here’s a video on Obamacare that definitely is not funny.

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In recent weeks, I’ve pontificated on Obama’s spendthrift budget, Congressman Dave Camp’s timid tax reform plan, and the corrupt cronyism of Washington.

I got to elaborate on all these topics – and more – in this interview with Professor Glenn Reynolds, more widely known as Instapundit.

If there was an overall theme, it’s that President Obama’s statist agenda is not helping the country.

Other than my hair looking strange, I think this was a good interview.

But here’s a point I probably should have included when assessing the President’s performance. If you look at the Census Bureau’s data on median household income (adjusted for inflation), you’ll see that the median American is earning less during the Obama years. And that’s true whether you use 2008 or 2009 as the base year.

Median Household Income

Now let me provide three caveats on this data, two that help Obama and another that is less favorable.

1. First, if you look at the historical data from the Census Bureau, you’ll see that median household income is a lagging indicator. That means that incomes don’t improve in the first year or two of a recovery.

In other words, you can argue, with considerable justification, that Obama inherited bad numbers.

2. Second, median household income is an incomplete measure of living standards. If you peruse the data, you’ll see that median income for 2012 (the latest available year) is lower than it was the year Reagan left office.

I’m a big Reagan fan, so I’m tempted to say the country has lost ground since he left office, but that would be an exaggeration. We obviously have higher living standards today, notwithstanding the Census Bureau numbers.

3. But I’m not making excuses for Obama. My third and final caveat is that the median numbers don’t tell the full story. If you look at the Census Bureau’s numbers for various income groups, you’ll see that the only cohort that has enjoyed higher real income during the Obama years is….drum roll, please…the rich!

You read correctly. The bottom 20 percent have suffer lower incomes. The three middle-income quintiles have lost ground. Even the top 20 percent have lower median incomes. The only group that is ahead is the top 5 percent.

In other words, Obama may use lots of class-warfare rhetoric to pretend he’s on the side of ordinary people.

But his policies (TARPSolyndra, etc) have been enormously beneficial to the cronyists and insiders that have made the Washington metropolitan area so wealthy.

Here’s some of what Senator Portman of Ohio had to say about the topic.

It’s been five years since the experts said the recession was over, but for millions of Americans, it feels like it never ended. We’re living through the weakest economic recovery since World War II, and a lot of folks are struggling to make ends meet. Unemployment remains stubbornly high; the number of long-term unemployed is actually at record levels. But these statistics only tell half the story. Eleven million Americans have become so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work altogether. Poverty rates have gone up, salaries have gone down, with the average family now bringing home $4,000 less than they did just five years ago.

Just in case you doubt Portman’s remarks, here’s the chart I produced using data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.

It shows every recovery since end of World War II. The red line is Obamanomics.

Hmmm….this is almost enough to make one think that maybe we should try free markets and small government instead.

P.S. This Gary Varvel cartoon provides a good synopsis of Obama’s economic policy.

Political Cartoons by Gary Varvel

I also like Varvel’s take on Obamacare, and here’s another one of his cartoons on Obamanomics.

Varvel is the best at exposing the spending-cut hoax in DC, as you can see from this sequester cartoon and this deficit reduction cartoon. This cartoon about Bernie Madoff and Social Security, however, is at the top of my list.

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No matter how much I pontificate about Washington corruption, there’s no way I can get across the true extent of the DC establishment’s self-serving behavior.

Washington is rich because government is big and the beneficiaries of this system are enjoying their status as America’s new gilded class.

It’s even gotten to the point where children and other family members also put their hands in the cookie jar.

I guess we can call this a system of hereditary corruption. Heck, maybe we can even create hereditary titles for this new elite. The Duke of Pork. The Earl of Sleaze. The Marquise de Cronyism.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, check out these blurbs from a Daily Beast article.

Connected children of political families catching a break is something we Americans are plenty used to—there would be no Kennedy or Bush dynasties without the public’s acceptance… But it might be that Americans are less aware of political family power plays when they’re not accompanied by gripping and grinning and kissing our babies for cameras and votes. …“Members of Congress basically are profit centers for their entire families,” says Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The article cites examples of this unseemly process.

Nathan Daschle, son of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, …did a stint at a D.C. firm before heading to the Democratic Governor’s Association (where he eventually served as Executive Director), and now works for Clear Channel Media as its Executive Vice President for Political Strategy. …then there are the lobbyists—that professional amalgam of business and politics—the litany of which reads something like an Old Testament family tree. There’s Andy Blunt, son of Senator Roy Blunt and brother of former governor Matt Blunt; Andrew Coats, son of Senator Dan Coats; Scott Hatch, son of Senator Orrin Hatch; David Roberts, son of Senator Pat Roberts; Shantrel Brown Fields, daughter of Rep. Corinne Brown; Giliane Carter, daughter of Representative John Carter; Sean King, son of Rep. Peter King; Clark Mica, son of Rep. John Mica.

As you might expect, this incestuous system produces spectacular examples of wasteful and counterproductive spending.

…sometimes there is trouble in the paradise where business and politics and family meet. There’s the case of Brad Enzi, son of Mike, Senator from Wyoming. Enzi the younger has been overseeing the building of the Two Elk Power Plant in Wyoming for North American Power Group. …Senator Enzi pushed for Department of Energy funds to go towards clean coal research projects in his state and Brad Enzi’s company benefitted from them; it received nearly $10 million in funding to drill a well to study the site surrounding the plant, and Enzi himself earned $128,000 in compensation from the federal money. …Chaka Fattah Jr., son of Pennsylvania Congressman Chaka Fattah, has similarly felt the double-edged blade of intertwining family, business, and political ties. The management consulting company he founded was paid $450,000 by an education firm with lucrative contracts with the Philadelphia City School District—turns out Chaka’s father requested a $375,000 earmark for the firm from a 2009 transportation bill. Both father and son are currently under federal investigation.

Keep in mind, by the way, that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

For every bit of scandal and pork that gets publicized, you can be confident that there are hundreds of equally sordid deals that haven’t been exposed.

For all intents and purposes, big government in Washington has created a niche market for insiders who learn the specialized skill of transferring money from those who earned it to those with political pull.

And these insiders pass along this “skill” to their children.

…a hereditary specialized group of people who perform certain necessary social functions and because they have families, they’re going to gradually monopolize the functions they perform.” And in 2014, the place that’s increasingly being chosen as a place to call home by American “elites” happens to be Washington, D.C. The city’s greater metropolitan area boasts the largest number of “Super Zips”—those areas with the highest combined wealth and level of education—in the country.

They get the “super zips” while the rest of the country is treated as “super chumps.”

No wonder the Washington metropolitan area is now the richest part of the United States.

If that sounds like we’re becoming Argentina or some other cesspool of cronyism, then you understand the problem.

By the way, none of this should be interpreted to suggest that parents shouldn’t try to help their kids. Or even to give them some help joining the family business. That’s a normal part of life.

The problem exist when the “family business” is big government and income is obtained by facilitating the coercion and oppression of other people.

In a genuinely free market, by contrast, you get rich by serving other people.

P.S. Some people argue that the solution is to ban family members from lobbying or to otherwise impose restrictions on the political process. But until you deal with the underlying problem of Washington being a favor factory, all of these efforts will be akin to playing whack-a-mole.

This video explains.

P.P.S. On a totally separate issue, it appears that our right to keep and bear flamethrowers has been eroded in North Dakota.

Here are some excerpts from a Fargo news report.

Local resident Todd Fox has been detained for “reckless endangerment” and “illegal use of high-powered fire-breathing weaponry” for attacking snow with his flamethrower. …Fox stated that he was simply “fed up with battling the elements” and that he did not possess the willpower necessary to move “four billion tons of white bull [expletive deleted].” Police say that Fox surrendered his efforts immediately upon their arrival and that his front yard “looked like a hydrogen bomb had gone off.” They think he was just happy to be done with snow removal, even if it did mean a trip to jail.

I have two reactions to this story.

First, does Fargo really have a local ordinance governing the use of “high-powered fire-breathing weaponry”? I’m skeptical.

Second, isn’t this a great country? There probably aren’t many places in the world where citizens are allowed to own flamethrowers. Makes me proud to be American.

And we’re even allowed to own tanks and machine guns.

On the other hand, we do have a problem letting children possess pencils and pop tarts, so we obviously have some flaws to fix.

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On several occasions, I’ve observed that the poverty rate in America was steadily falling, but that progress came to a halt in the mid-1960s when the government declared a War on Poverty.

And I almost always included a chart showing the annual poverty rate over several decades.

Moreover, I posted graphs showing how government programs trap people in dependency because of very high implicit marginal tax rates. And that’s true in other nations as well.

But it didn’t matter how many times I revisited this issue, I was never clever enough to look at the poverty-rate data to estimate what would have happened if the federal government hadn’t become involved.

Fortunately, John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis was insightful enough to fill the breach. He shows that the War on Poverty has made a big difference. But in the wrong way.

Poverty Goodman

Here’s some of what John wrote about the topic in a column for Forbes.

From the end of World War II until 1964 the poverty rate in this country was cut in half. Further, 94% of the change in the poverty rate over this period can be explained by changes in per capita income alone. Economic growth is clearly the most effective antipoverty weapon ever devised by man. The dotted line shows what would have happened had this trend continued. Economic growth would have reduced the number in poverty to a mere 1.4% of the population today—a number so low that private charity could probably have taken care of any unmet needs. …we didn’t continue the trend. In 1965 we launched a War on Poverty. And as the graph shows, in the years that followed the portion of Americans living in poverty barely budged.

John augments this analysis by looking at some of the social science research about poverty and government dependency.

The numbers are very depressing.

…here is something you may not know. Early on ― in the first decade of our 50-year experiment with an expanded welfare state ― carefully controlled experiments funded by the federal government established without question that welfare changes behavior. It leads to the very behavioral changes that keep people in a state of poverty and dependency. …The experiments were all conducted by social scientists who believed in the welfare state and had no doubt about its capacity to be successful. …The experiments were all controlled. Randomly selected people were assigned to a “control group” and an “experimental group.” …the results were not pretty. To the dismay of the researchers, they largely confirmed what conventional wisdom had thought all along. …The number of hours worked dropped 9% for husbands and 20% for wives, relative to the control group. For young male adults it dropped 43% more. The length of unemployment increased 27% among husbands and 42% for wives, relative to the control group. For single female heads of households it increased 60% more. Divorce increased 36% more among whites and 42% more among blacks. (In a New Jersey experiment, the divorce rate was 84% higher among Hispanics.)

President Obama and other folks on the left don’t seem overly interested in this data.

Instead, they beat the drums about class warfare and income inequality.

They want us to believe the economy is a fixed pie and that all of us somehow get less if some entrepreneur becomes rich.

But John’s point from the column is correct. Economic growth is the way to help the poor, not redistribution.

Unfortunately, many politicians are hostile to the types of policies that produce more growth. Maybe it’s because they don’t understand economics. Or maybe they understand economics but don’t care because they think they’ll be more successful at the ballot box if they pursue the politics of envy and division.

But regardless of motive, bigger government doesn’t have good results, as illustrated by this Gary Varvel cartoon.

Political Cartoons by Gary Varvel

This Chip Bok cartoon, featuring Obama with his ideological soulmate, also is worth sharing.

Political Cartoons by Chip Bok

P.S. Margaret Thatcher has the best-ever takedown of the left’s inequality agenda.

P.P.S. If you want to get agitated, click here to see how a bureaucracy in Paris is using American tax dollars to push a crazy new definition of poverty. Why? To promote more redistribution.

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Like John Stossel and Thomas Sowell, I’m not a big fan of the Federal Reserve.

It’s not just that I’m a libertarian who fantasizes about the denationalization of money.

I also think the Fed hasn’t done a good job, even by its own metrics. There’s very little doubt, for instance, that easy-money policies last decade played a major role in creating the housing bubble and causing the financial crisis.

Yes, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played a big role, but it was the Fed that provided the excess liquidity that the GSEs used to subsidize the subprime lending orgy.

But I’m not writing today about possible alternatives to the Fed or big-picture issues dealing with monetary policy.

Instead, I want to highlight three rather positive signs about the Janet Yellen, the new Chair of the Fed’s Board of Governors.

1. Unlike a normal political animal and typical bureaucratic empire builder, she didn’t assert powers that she doesn’t have. She was asked at a congressional hearing about bitcoin and she forthrightly stated that the Federal Reserve has no legislative authority to mess with the online currency.

The Federal Reserve has no authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin, chair Janet Yellen told Congress on Thursday. …On Wednesday, Manchin wrote to the Fed, Treasury and other regulators warning that the currency was “disruptive to our economy” and calling for its regulation. “Bitcoin is a payment innovation that’s taking place outside the banking industry. To the best of my knowledge there’s no intersection at all, in any way, between Bitcoin and banks that the Federal Reserve has the ability to supervise and regulate. So the Fed doesn’t have authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin in anyway,” said Yellen.

This is very refreshing. A government official who is willing to be bound by the rule of law.

President Obama, by contrast, is now infamous for his radical and unilateral rewrites of his failed healthcare law.

Eighteen of them for those keeping count at home.

But it’s not just Obamacare.

Because of my interest in tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy, I’m upset that his Treasury Department pushed through a regulation that overturns – rather than enforces – laws about protecting American banks from tax inquiries by foreign governments.

But let’s not wander into other issues. Today’s post is about positive signs from Janet Yellen.

2. And here’s another one.

Political Cartoons by Gary VarvelThe Fed Chair poured cold water on the left’s fantasy view that higher minimum wage mandates don’t kill jobs.

The new Federal Reserve chairman, Janet Yellen, seemed to offer some support for the CBO’s recent conclusion that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as President Obama and Senate Democrats propose, would cost a significant number of jobs. The CBO projected that the proposal would mean 500,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2016, a conclusion the White House took issue with. Yellen said the CBO “is as qualified as anyone to evaluate the literature” about the employment effects of the minimum wage (some of which argues there would be little to no jobs losses, and some of which suggests there would be significant job losses), and that she “wouldn’t want to argue with their assessment.”

In the cautious-speak world of Fed officials, this is a very strong statement.

Congratulations to Yellen for putting intellectual honesty above partisan loyalty.

3. Most important of all, Yellen also affirmed that she plans on continuing the “taper,” which is the buzzword for winding down the Fed’s easy-money policy.

…she reiterated that it would take a “significant change” to the economy’s prospects for the Fed to put plans to wind down its bond-buying program on hold. …After more than five years of ultra easy monetary policy in the wake of the 2007-2009 recession, the Fed is taking the first small steps towards a more normal footing. It trimmed its bond buying by $10 billion in each of the past two months, and it expects to raise interest rates some time next year as long as the economy continues to improve. Yellen reiterated her concerns about possible asset price bubbles, and suggested the Fed would move to a more qualitative description of when it plans to finally raise rates. …Yellen acknowledged that such low borrowing costs “can give rise to behavior that poses threats to financial stability.”

And she even acknowledged that easy money can cause bubbles.

A refreshing change from some previous Fed Governors.

Now let’s give a caveat. None of this suggests Yellen is a closet libertarian.

She is perceived as being on the left of the spectrum, and it’s worth noting that many hardcore statists in the Democratic Party urged her selection over Larry Summers because he was (incorrectly) seen as somehow being too moderate.

Moreover, I suspect she will say many things in the coming years that will add to my collection of gray hair.

All that being said, I’m glad Obama picked her over Summers. By all accounts, Yellen is honest and will focus her attention on monetary policy.

Summers, by contrast, is a far more political animal and would have used the position of Fed Chair to aggressively push for more statism in areas outside of monetary policy.

P.S. Private financial institutions also played a role in the housing bubble and financial crisis, which is why those entities should have been allowed to go bankrupt instead of benefiting from the corrupt TARP bailout.

P.P.S. Since this post mentions bitcoin and since I sometimes get asked about the online currency, I’ll take this opportunity to say that I hope that it is ultimately successful so that we have alternatives to government monetary monopolies. That being said, I wouldn’t put my (rather inadequate) life savings in bitcoin.

P.P.P.S. If you want an amusing video mocking the Fed, here’s the famous “Ben Bernank” video. And if you want a serious takedown of the Fed, here’s George Selgin’s scholarly but accessible analysis.

P.P.P.P.S. On a completely unrelated topic, if you’re a fan of “House of Cards,” I invite you to pay close attention at about the 30:00 mark of Episode 5, Season 2. If you don’t blink, you may notice an unexpected cameo appearance. Maybe this person has a future acting career if he ever succeeds in restoring limited government and needs to find something new to occupy his time. After all, if President Obama has a future on the silver screen, why not others?

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To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the famous Roman poet, Horace, wrote “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

To his credit, Congressman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of this clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

As you can see, I included obvious features such as low tax rates, simplicity, double taxation, and social engineering, but I also graded plans based on other features such as civil liberties, fairness, and downside risk.

Tax Reform Grading Matrix

There obviously have been many new plans since I wrote this paper, most notably the Fair Tax (a different version of a national sales tax than the Tauzin plan), Simpson-Bowles, the Ryan Roadmap, Domenici-Rivlin, the Heritage Foundation’s American Dream proposal, the Baucus-Hatch blank slate, and – as noted above – the new tax reform plan by Congressman Dave Camp.

Given his powerful position as head of the tax-writing committee, let’s use the 1995 guide to assess the pros and cons of Congressman Camp’s plan.

Rates: The Top tax rate for individual taxpayers is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, which is a disappointingly modest step in the right direction. The corporate tax rate falls from 35 percent to 25 percent, which is more praiseworthy, though Camp doesn’t explain why small businesses (who file using the individual income tax) should pay higher rates than large companies.

Simplicity: Camp claims that he will eliminate 25 percent of the tax code, which certainly is welcome news since the internal revenue code has swelled to 70,000-plus pages of loopholes, exemptions, deductions, credits, penalties, exclusions, preferences, and other distortions. And his proposal does eliminate some deductions, including the state and local tax deduction (which perversely rewards states with higher fiscal burdens).

Saving and Investment: Ever since Reagan slashed tax rates in the 1980s, the most anti-growth feature of the tax code is probably the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Shockingly, the Camp plan worsens the tax treatment of capital, with higher taxation of dividends and capital gains and depreciation rules that are even more onerous than current law.

Social Engineering: Some of the worst distortions in the tax code are left in place, including the healthcare exclusion for almost all taxpayers. This means that people will continue to make economically irrational decisions solely to benefit from certain tax provisions.

Civil Liberties: The Camp plan does nothing to change the fact that the IRS has both the need and the power to collect massive amounts of private financial data from taxpayers. Nor does the proposal end the upside-down practice of making taxpayers prove their innocence in any dispute with the tax authorities.

Fairness: In a non-corrupt tax system, all income is taxed, but only one time. On this basis, the plan from the Ways & Means Chairman is difficult to assess. Loopholes are slightly reduced, but double taxation is worse, so it’s hard to say whether the system is more fair or less fair.

Risk: There is no value-added tax, which is a critically important feature of any tax reform plan. As such, there is no risk the Camp plan will become a Trojan Horse for a massive expansion in the fiscal burden.

Evasion: People are reluctant to comply with the tax system when rates are punitive and/or there’s a perception of rampant unfairness. It’s possible that the slightly lower statutory rates may improve incentives to obey the law, but that will be offset by the higher tax burden on saving and investment.

International Competitiveness: Reducing the corporate tax rate will help attract jobs and investment, and the plan also mitigates some of worst features of America’s “worldwide” tax regime.

Now that we’ve taken a broad look at the components of Congressman Camp’s plan, let’s look at a modified version of my 1995 grades.

Camp Tax Matrix

You can see why I’m underwhelmed by his proposal.

Congressman Camp’s proposal may be an improvement over the status quo, but my main reaction is “what’s the point?”

In other words, why go through months of hearings and set up all sorts of working groups, only to propose a timid plan?

Now, perhaps, readers will understand why I’m rather pessimistic about achieving real tax reform.

We know the right policies to fix the tax code.

And we have ready-made plans – such as the flat tax and national sales tax – that would achieve the goals of tax reform.

Camp’s plan, by contrast, simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic.

P.S. If you need to be cheered up after reading all this, here’s some more IRS humor to brighten your day, including the IRS version of the quadratic formula, a new Obama 1040 form, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon ofhow GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), and two songs about the tax agency (hereand here),  and a PG-13 joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. To augment the depressing and worrisome message in this post, I suggest you read this article showing how we can restore market forces to our government-dictated healthcare system.

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I hate to dredge up bad memories so early in a new year, but we need to remind ourselves of the awful TARP bailout of 2008.

Our financial system had gone out of whack because of bad monetary policy from the Federal Reserve and unsustainable housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Some financial institutions gambled on the government’s misguided policies and got caught with their pants down when the bubble burst.

But rather than let those companies fail and use the sensible and non-corrupt “FDIC resolution” method to recapitalize the banking system, we got a taxpayer-to-Wall-Street bailout.

Or, from the perspective of the big banks, they got a very good return on their campaign contributions (read Kevin Williamson if you want to get upset about this disgusting form of cronyism).

Well, as Yogi Berra might say, it’s deja vu all over again.

Except now the fat cats lining up at the Treasury door are the big health insurance corporate titans. They got in bed with the White House to push Obamacare and now they’re worried about losing money now that it’s becoming more apparent that the American version of government-run healthcare doesn’t work any better than the British version.

Charles Krauthammer warns us about what may happen in his Washington Post column.

…there’s a Plan B. It’s a government bailout. Administration officials can’t say it for political reasons. And they don’t have to say it because it’s already in the Affordable Care Act, buried deep. First, Section 1341, the “reinsurance” fund collected from insurers and self-insuring employers at a nifty $63 a head. (Who do you think the cost is passed on to?) This yields about $20 billion over three years to cover losses. Then there is Section 1342, the “risk corridor” provision that mandates a major taxpayer payout covering up to 80 percent of insurance-company losses.

At this point, you may be wondering why there’s bailout language buried in the Obamacare legislation.

The simple answer is that politicians always love to accumulate power, and the insurance industry probably lobbied very hard to get this back-door access to our money.

But maybe the White House knew that Obamacare would be unstable and they needed a bailout option to keep the system from totally unraveling. Particularly when it seems that the Obama Administration is arbitrarily changing the system every other day.

First, it postponed the employer mandate. Then it exempted from the individual mandate people whose policies were canceled (by Obamacare). And for those who did join the exchanges, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebeliusis “strongly encouraging” insurers — during the “transition” — to cover doctors and drugs not included in their clients’ plans. The insurers were stunned. Told to give free coverage. Deprived of their best customers. Forced to offer stripped-down “catastrophic” plans to people age 30 and over (contrary to the law). These dictates, complained an insurance industry spokesman, could“destabilize” the insurance market.

So what does all this mean? It’s not good news for Big Insurance.

Shrinking revenues and rising costs could bring on the “death spiral” — an unbalanced patient pool forcing huge premium increases (to restore revenue) that would further unbalance the patient pool as the young and healthy drop out. End result? Insolvency — before which the insurance companies will pull out of Obamacare. Solution? A huge government bailout. It’s Obamacare’s escape hatch. And — surprise, surprise — it’s already baked into the law.

This sounds depressing, but Krauthammer suggests that there could be a way of derailing a bailout before it begins.

…the GOP needs to act. Obamacare is a Rube Goldberg machine with hundreds of moving parts. Without viable insurance companies doing the work, it falls apart. No bailout, no Obamacare. Such a bill would be overwhelmingly popular because Americans hate fat-cat bailouts of any kind. Why should their tax dollars be spent not only saving giant insurers but also rescuing this unworkable, unbalanced, unstable, unpopular money-pit of a health-care scheme? …Do you really think vulnerable Democrats up for reelection will vote for a bailout? And who better to slay Obamacare than a Democratic Senate — liberalism repudiating its most important creation of the last 50 years. Want to be even bolder? Attach the anti-bailout bill to the debt ceiling. That and nothing else. Dare the president to stand up and say: “I’m willing to let the country default in order to preserve a massive bailout for insurance companies.” …Who can argue with no bailout? Let the Senate Democrats decide: Support the bailout and lose the Senate. Or oppose the bailout and bury Obamacare.

I hope his political judgement is correct, though I suspect the statists (and their echo chamber in the media) would portray any effort to amend the debt limit as a sore-loser attack on Obamacare.

But if it’s a simple no-bailout message, perhaps that would be sufficiently popular to overcome the political establishment. As Krauthammer points out, the legislation could be very simple: “Sections 1341 and 1342 of the Affordable Care Act are hereby repealed.”

Let’s close today’s post with some good Obamacare cartoons. We’ll start with Eric Allie’s amusing look at how the White House is measuring success.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 1

Nice gimmick, huh? You pass a law that destroys people’s existing insurance policies, then you claim victory when some of them sign up for more expensive Obamacare insurance.

Next we have Nate Beeler welcoming the new year.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 2

Chip Bok’s cartoon is somewhat optimistic in that he’s suggesting that Obamacare may unravel.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 3

And Gary Varvel mocks the moving goalposts of Obamacare.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 4

Lisa Benson congratulates the President for winning Politifact’s Lie of the Year Award.

Obamacare cartoon Jan 2014 5

Michael Ramirez hints that the President may not be in a position to enjoy his multi-million dollar Hawaiian vacation.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 6

Last but not least, Scott Stantis warns us that Obamacare violates the Hippocratic Oath about doing no harm.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 7

P.S. Under no circumstances should you feel sorry for the insurance companies. As I noted the other day, they endorsed Obamacare and actively lobbied for its passage. They deserve every bad thing that might happen to them.

P.P.S. It’s hard to find much humor in this situation, but perhaps this funny “bailout application” could be updated to make it easier for big insurance companies to rape and pillage taxpayers.

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Remember Sandra Fluke, the 30-year old student who got her 15 minutes of fame last year by becoming the poster child for subsidized birth control?

Fluke Birth ControlShe’s fortunately faded away, but the issue is still with us because the courts are being asked to decide whether government has the right to coerce people into decisions that violate their religious values.

But you won’t be surprised that this feature of Obamacare also has important economic and policy lessons.

Statists have tried to scare young people that there’s a fight over whether people have the right to access birth control. They’ll privately admit that this is just empty rhetoric (after all, there were no barriers to birth control in the pre-Obamacare era), but they nonetheless still argue that the mandate is needed for affordability reasons.

But this is utter bunk, as Megan McArdle explains in her Bloomberg column.

Regular, predictable expenses such as birth-control pills cannot be defrayed by insurance; they can only be prepaid, with a markup for the insurer’s administrative costs. The extra cost is passed on by the insurers to your employer, and from your employer to you and your fellow workers, either by raising your contribution or lowering the wage they are willing to offer.

I would take this one step farther. Costs will rise not only because of administrative costs, but also because we’ll have more third-party payer and that will make it much easier for the providers of birth control pills to raise prices.

And that is a perfect segue into the meat of today’s post, which is about the sleazy and corrupt interaction of big business and big government. And the Obamacare birth control mandate is a perfect example.

Tim Carney exposes this issue in his Washington Examiner column. He starts with a hypothesis that corporate cronyism is the real story.

Look at the contraception mandate from almost any angle, and you see the corporatism. Sometimes it’s on the surface, and sometimes it’s implicit in the arguments. The contraception mandate is nakedly a huge subsidy to the industry that most firmly supported Obamacare: the drugmakers. The drug industry has spent more on lobbying under Obama than any other industry.

Tim provides some of the sordid details.

Top Obama bundler Sally Susman oversees the lobbying shop at drug giant Pfizer, which sells $7.6 million a year in name-brand birth control pills, while also selling contraceptive injections and generic drugs. Pfizer’s CEO during the Obamacare debate was Obama donor Jeffrey Kindler. In a corporate filing, the company justified his salary increase by pointing to his Obamacare lobbying. …Merck, which also makes birth control pills, deployed top lobbyist, former Democratic congressional staffer and major Democratic donor Mark Raabe to Capitol Hill and the White House to lobby on “efforts to gain coverage of preventive services,” according to company lobbying filings. The administration uses the “preventive services” provision of Obamacare to justify the contraception mandate. Merck sells implants and other contraceptives — if “sells” is the right word for products that many customers now get for “free,” sticking colleagues and taxpayers with the bill. Conceptus, a company that sells a sterilization procedure, lobbied Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services on “implementation of the preventive services provisions of the Affordable Care Act,” according to lobbying filings. The mandate covers this patented procedure.

Needless to say, drug companies have spent all this money on lobbying and campaign contributions in the expectation that they can artificially increase their revenue as a result of government favoritism.

Obama’s contraception mandate requires all employer-sponsored health care plans to cover 100 percent of the cost of all FDA-approved contraception. That gives customers incentives to choose…name-brand pills, because the entire cost is passed onto employers and thus onto customers and colleagues.

It’s a different topic, but Tim also has some wise words about the Obama Administration’s arguments against the First Amendment.

…liberals argue that the owners of the privately held store Hobby Lobby are not protected by the First Amendment from intrusions of the “free exercise” of religion — and so it must cover the morning-after pill, which can cause a very early-term miscarriage. …It’s not a novel claim, but it’s still a scary one: A person gives up his First Amendment rights when he is acting as a businessman.

And his summary paragraph hits the nail on the head.

Sometimes people think politics is about the collective versus the individual. Most of the time, though, it’s about the state versus civil society. It’s coercion versus voluntary association.

By the way, the drug companies are just the tip of the iceberg. Companies like General Motors and General Electric also are experts at using government to tilt the playing field.

And don’t forget that companies like Boeing and Exxon Mobil use the Export-Import Bank to line their pockets at our expense.

Or what about H&R Block, which lobbies to protect its ability to profit from a corruption-riddled tax system.

The entire ethanol industry, meanwhile, is dependent on favors from Washington, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created by the government!

And Pizza Hut, joined by other fast food joints, lobbies for food stamps.

The TARP bailout was the epitome of Washington sleaze, which may help explain the revolving door between Wall Street in Washington.

We should also be upset that big corporations sometimes support higher tax rates on their competitors from the small business sector.

Gee, it’s almost enough to make one think Washington is a rat’s nest of corruption. Speaking of which, here’s my video on the link between big government and big corruption. I think you’ll agree that I understated the case.

P.S. Since we started this post by mentioning Sandra Fluke, we may as well close with some jokes at her expense. You can enjoy some laughs with this great Reason video, this funny cartoon, and four more jokes here.

P.P.S. But Sandra Fluke may have the last laugh since the clowns at the United Nations have declared that birth control (almost surely financed by taxpayers) is a human right.

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When I talk about people being “screwed” by Obamacare, I’m generally referring to taxpayers who will bear a heavier fiscal burden and consumers who will pay more to get less.

But maybe we need to use a more elastic definition because some Obamacare proponents are using sex as a selling point to trick young people into buying over-priced insurance through exchanges.

Chris Moody of Yahoo! News reports that subsidized birth control is the focus.

From the folks who brought you the “brosurance” campaign that promotes the affordable care act comes a new line of ads aimed at reminding young women the new law will subsidize their birth control. The online ads were created by two nonprofit groups, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and Progress Now, to encourage young people to enroll in the exchanges.

And the ads are not exactly subtle. Here’s an example, presumably modeled after the “got milk?” campaign.

Birth Control 1

As an unmarried male, I theoretically should support anything that makes females easier to obtain, but instead this ad campaign is disconcerting on several levels.

1. I don’t like government either promoting sex or discouraging sex. Simply stated, it’s not their business. Though if some group wants to discourage sex by making it less enjoyable, then linking it to government might work like magic.

2. I don’t like the absurdity of using insurance for routine medical expenses. We don’t use auto insurance for oil changes and we don’t use homeowner’s insurance to repaint the dining room. The same principle should exist for health insurance, with policies only covering large and unexpected bills. That’s how a genuine market works, but Obamacare will take us farther down the path of third-party payer, which means more inefficiency and rising costs.

3. And I don’t like Obamacare, so it goes without saying that don’t like anything of the law’s features. The one time I wrote something nice about Obamacare, I included so many caveats that I’m pretty sure I preserved my anti-Obamacare virginity.

But it’s not just the Colorado Obamacare exchange that is linking sex with Obamacare. The private sector also is getting involved.

Sugar daddies are using government-run healthcare to go after young women.

Here’s a blurb from a report by the local CBS station in Dallas.

The online dating website Seeking Arrangement is launching the new campaign in Dallas, targeting young and healthy women who are now set to pay higher health insurance premiums under the recently launched Affordable Care Act. The new law is projected to increase insurance prices by an average of 41 percent next year, the website states. They want to offer women a “sweeter” plan. Seeking Arrangement suggests that women use their service to connect with a “sugar daddy” who can offset some of the new healthcare related costs. The website has earned a reputation for urging female college students and single mothers to meet men who are willing to offer money and expensive gifts for companionship.

The website is even posting a billboard.

sa-billboard

As I wrote above, I don’t think it’s government’s job to interfere with the decisions of consenting adults regarding sex. But I’m old-fashioned enough to think that it’s wrong if the government makes the healthcare system so convoluted and expensive that young women are encouraged to seek out rich older men merely to deal with the higher costs of Obamacare.

Some readers may joke that I might feel differently if I was rich rather than merely old, but we libertarians are a purist bunch. I don’t want to benefit from state intervention. Heck, I’ve already said I’d be happy to get rid of the mortgage interest deduction in the tax code, even though I’m a beneficiary.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of sex and government-run healthcare, here’s what Mark Steyn wrote about pornography and government-imposed health rules.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that Obamacare allows taxpayer-financed Viagra for sex offenders.

P.P.P.S. And I’m sure we’re all delighted that the government wants a database about our sex lives.

P.P.P.P.S. Our British cousins already link healthcare and sex, with government-provided breast augmentation as well as taxpayer-financed sex trips to Amsterdam.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Remember Sandra Fluke, the 30-yr. old college student who whined that birth control wasn’t being subsidized? Well, you can remember her ignoble role and enjoy some laughs with this great Reason video, this funny cartoon, and four more jokes here.

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Perhaps because he wants to divert attention from the slow-motion train wreck of Obamacare, the President is signalling that he will renew his efforts to throw more people into the unemployment line.

Needless to say, that’s not how the White House would describe the President’s proposal to increase the minimum wage, but that’s one of the main results when the government criminalizes certain employment contracts between consenting adults.

To be blunt, if a worker happens to have poor work skills, a less-than-impressive employment record, or some other indicator of low productivity that makes them worth, say, $7.50 per hour, then a $9-per-hour minimum wage is a ticket to the unemployment line.

Which is the point I made in a rather unfriendly interview with Yahoo Finance.

But a higher minimum wage is popular with voters who don’t understand economics, and unions strongly support a higher minimum wage since it means potential competitors are then priced out of the market.

So it’s not exactly a surprise that the White House is siding with unions over lower-skill workers. Here’s some of what is being reported by The Hill.

President Obama might soon renew his push for a $9 minimum wage, a top economic adviser said on Monday. “You’ll certainly be hearing more about it,” Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters Monday at a Wall Street Journal event. …Obama urged lawmakers during January’s State of the Union address to boost the wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour and index it so that it rises with inflation.

The “indexing” provision would be especially pernicious. In the past, rising overall wage levels have diminished the harmful impact of the minimum wage. But if the minimum wage automatically increases,Minimum Wage Cartoon 2 then the ladder of opportunity may be permanently out of reach for some low-skilled workers.

Walter Williams also has weighed in on this issue, noting specifically the negative impact of higher minimum wages on minorities. Indeed, he cited research showing that, “each 10 percent increase reduces hours worked by 3 percent among white males, 1.7 percent for Hispanic males, and 6.6 percent for black males.”

The bottom line is that businesses aren’t charities. They hire workers when they think more employees will improve the bottom line. So if you artificially increase the price of labor, it’s easy to understand why marginal workers won’t get hired.

For more information on this issue, here’s a video produced by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. I wrote yesterday that the tax-hike referendum in Colorado was the most important battle in the 2013 elections.

Well, I’m delighted to report that Colorado voters are even wiser than Swiss voters. A take-hike referendum in 2010 was defeated in Switzerland by a 58.5-41.5 margin. Colorado voters easily exceeded that margin, rejecting the tax hike in a staggering 66-34 landslide.

Here’s what the Denver newspaper – which liked the tax increase – wrote about the referendum.

The pro-66 side raised more than $10 million that it lavished on advertising, messaging and get-out-the-vote efforts, thanks in part to huge donations from teachers unions, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill and Melinda Gates. Opponents meanwhile had barely the equivalent of a street-corner megaphone at their disposal. And yet Colorado voters, in another display of independence, ignored the prodding in one direction and chose to go their own way. They didn’t merely defeat Amendment 66. They demolished the idea.

In other words, taxpayers were heavily outspent by union bosses and out-of-state billionaires, yet they easily prevailed and Colorado’s flat tax is safe.  At least for now.

P.P.S. I conducted a test this morning on media bias. I’m still in Iceland, so I went to sleep last night long before American election results were announced. When I woke up this morning, I looked first at both the CNN and Washington Post websites. When I didn’t see any results for the Colorado tax referendum, I was 99 percent confident that the statists had lost. Needless to say, it would have been front page news if the referendum was approved.

P.P.P.S. Since I’m adding some comments on Colorado elections, we also should be happy that the pro-school choice members of the Douglas County School Board were all reelected, notwithstanding a big effort by the unions.

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I’ve shared several videos that make the case against Obamacare.

Here’s one narrated by a Dutch woman warning that America shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of European government-run healthcare.

Here’s one from Reason TV about how free markets produce lower healthcare costs.

Here’s one explaining the need to deal with the government-caused third-party-payer crisis.

And I had to reluctantly admit that even one of Karl Rove’s group produced an effective video on Obamacare harming young people.

I think all of those videos are well done and contain critical information, but I suspect the humor in this clever video may change even more minds. Or at least it will be more widely watched.

Fortunately, the creepy Uncle Sam is only symbolic at this stage. While Obama probably would prefer a single-payer system like the one in the United Kingdom, where doctors and other medical personnel actually are government bureaucrats, the immediate danger is that Obamacare will turn health care professionals into agents of the government.

And the politicians will then direct doctors and others to collect information that the government shouldn’t possess.

If you think I’m exaggerating, read some of the chilling details from Betsy McCaughey’s recent New York Post op-ed.

‘Are you sexually active? If so, with one partner, multiple partners or same-sex partners?” Be ready to answer those questions and more the next time you go to the doctor, whether it’s the dermatologist or the cardiologist and no matter if the questions are unrelated to why you’re seeking medical help. And you can thank the Obama health law. …The president’s “reforms” aim to turn doctors into government agents, pressuring them financially to ask questions they consider inappropriate and unnecessary, and to violate their Hippocratic Oath to keep patients’ records confidential. …Dr. Richard Amerling, a nephrologist and associate professor at Albert Einstein Medical College, explains that your medical record should be “a story created by you and your doctor solely for your treatment and benefit.” But the new requirements are turning it “into an interrogation, and the data will not be confidential.”

I don’t like the idea of government bureaucrats having my private information, but what’s probably most worrisome about this Obama Administration scheme is that the data won’t be confidential.

As McCaughey writes, it’s just a matter of time before hackers or incompetent bureaucrats make that information public.

Patients need to defend their own privacy by refusing to answer the intrusive social-history questions. …Are such precautions paranoid? Hardly. WikiLeaker Bradley Manning showed how incompetent the government is at keeping its own secrets; incidents where various agencies accidentally disclose personal data like Social Security numbers are legion.

Do you want details about your sex life put at risk of disclosure? That’s what this issue is all about, not to mention the fact that what we do behind closed doors is none of the government’s business.

And I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know it’s not just data about your sex life that will be available for bureaucrats and identity thieves.

Here’s what Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah recently wrote.

Individuals signing up are required to provide personal information such as Social Security numbers, tax returns and household income information that will be entered into the Federal Data Services Hub (Data Hub) — a new information sharing network that allows other state and federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Homeland Security, to verify a person’s information. The problem?  …Last month the department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) issued a report saying the federal government had failed to meet multiple deadlines for testing operations and reporting data security vulnerabilities involved with the Data Hub. …The repercussions of opening the exchanges with an unproven security system could be devastating, putting the personal and financial records of millions of Americans at the fingertips of data thieves.  Other government certified systems have already proven to be less than reliable in protecting personal information. Look no further than the accidental release by the IRS this past July of thousands of taxpayer Social Security numbers on its website. …we can’t stand on the sidelines and let the Administration potentially expose the personal data of millions of Americans to more fraud.

By the way, everything written by McCaughey and Hatch also helps to explain why we should resist privacy-destroying schemes such as the Internet sales tax cartel being pushed by greedy politicians. I know I wouldn’t want all my online purchases in a database where state and local bureaucrats would be able to snoop for details.

And we also should oppose international tax harmonization schemes that are predicated on governments all over the world collecting and sharing private information about our finances. That kind of data would be a gold mine for hackers and identity thieves, not to mention there are huge risks of making that information available to corrupt, incompetent, and venal governments.

The common theme is that we shouldn’t let government have more information about us, particularly when the politicians want that data to pursue bad tax policy or bad health policy.

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I’ve certainly offered more than my fair share of Obamacare criticism. Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m mostly concerned that the law increases the fiscal burden of government.

But I’m also irked that Obamacare will worsen the third-party payer crisis, which it the main problem with our health care system in America.

Feeling sympathy for Obamacare supporters

And it should go without saying that I’m nauseated by the corruption that has been facilitated by the new regime.

All that being said, I’m almost at the point where I feel sorry for Obamacare supporters. There’s been a growing avalanche of bad news about government-run healthcare and they somehow have to justify this festering pile of you-know-what.

For instance, it must not be fun having to explain to people that their private financial and medical information will now be in the hands of some of the least competent people in America. Which means we’re sure to see more stories like this.

A MNsure employee accidentally sent an e-mail file to an Apple Valley insurance broker’s office on Thursday that contained Social Security numbers, names, business addresses and other identifying information on more than 2,400 insurance agents. An official at MNsure, the state’s new online health insurance exchange, acknowledged it had mishandled private data. A MNsure security manager called the broker, Jim Koester, and walked him and his assistant through a process of deleting the file from their computer hard drives. Koester said he willingly complied, but was unnerved. “The more I thought about it, the more troubled I was,” he said. “What if this had fallen into the wrong hands? It’s scary. If this is happening now, how can clients of MNsure be confident their data is safe?”

Or imagine what it must be like when some of your biggest allies start complaining about the law. Such as union bosses.

Top labor leaders left the White House on Friday after an hour-long meeting with President Barack Obama, still looking for a way to address concerns that “Obamacare” will hurt their members’ healthcare plans. The dispute with unions – traditional allies of Democrats – as the Obama administration begins to roll out Obama’s signature healthcare reforms is providing political ammunition for Republicans who want to defund or repeal the law. …Earlier this week, AFL-CIO members passed a resolution calling for significant changes to the healthcare law, stopping short of asking for its repeal, but exposing the rift between the labor movement and the Obama administration.

Or government bureaucrats.

A new survey of 2,500 federal employees and retirees found that 92.3 percent believe federal workers should keep their current health insurance and not be forced into ObamaCare.  Only 2.9 percent say they should become part of the new health insurance exchanges.

And what about stories about cost overruns.

According to data published by the Department of Health and Human Services, the cost of the computer cloud that stores cost, coverage, and performance data for insurance plans sold under the Affordable Care Act (also called the ACA or Obamacare) has more than tripled since the contract was originally awarded in 2011. Press reports indicate that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) awarded a $10.8 million contract to Terremark – a subsidiary of Verizon – early in 2011. The contract called for the company to design a system to help consumers find an insurance plan and transfer it to CMS’ computer cloud, among other duties. This week CMS announced the contract is now for $35.5 million – more than triple the original amount.

And how about all the bad news about limited choice in the infamous Obamacare exchanges.

Only one company will participate in West Virginia’s new individual health insurance marketplace. Media outlets report that Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Carelink/Coventry applied and were accepted to participate in the individual marketplace. But Carelink/Coventry has withdrawn. …The health insurance marketplace is part of the Affordable Care Act. Enrollment begins Oct. 1. Coverage will begin Jan. 1, 2014.

Or rising insurance costs.

For the vast majority of Americans, premium prices will be higher in the individual exchange than what they’re currently paying for employer-sponsored benefits, according to a National Journal analysis of new coverage and cost data. Adding even more out-of-pocket expenses to consumers’ monthly insurance bills is a swell in deductibles under the Affordable Care Act. Health law proponents have excused the rate hikes by saying the prices in the exchange won’t apply to the millions receiving coverage from their employers. But that’s only if employers continue to offer that coverage–something that’s looking increasingly uncertain. Already, UPS, for example, cited Obamacare as its reason for nixing spousal coverage.

So let’s add all this up. Our privacy will be compromised, our choices will be limited, our costs will increase, and the government will squander more of our money. All for a law that even left-wing groups are learning to despise.

That’s why I almost feel sorry for the President and his media flunkies.

But notice I said “almost.” In reality, I feel zero empathy for those who undermine our freedom with statism.

Indeed, I want to add to their misery with some satire. So let’s close this post with a few new Obamacare cartoons, starting with this gem from Steven Breen.

Obamacare Sept 2013 1

Gary Varvel adds his insight.

Obamacare Sept 2013 2

And here’s a clever cartoon from Lisa Benson, though let’s hope and pray something saves us from single-payer.

Obamacare Sept 2013 3

Last but not least, Bob Gorrell shows the overall impact of this costly new entitlement on the economy.

Obamacare Sept 2013 4

I have plenty of additional Obamacare cartoons here, here, and here, all of which help mock a bad law.

But let’s remember a very serious point. As suggested by the Benson cartoon, the left sees Obamacare as a stepping stone to single-payer. And if you think Obamacare’s a mess, I invite you to peruse the horror stories about the U.K. system linked at the bottom of this post.

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I’ve written about how Obamacare is a costly boondoggle.

I’ve written how it victimizes children, low-income workers, and retirees.

And I’ve explained how it exacerbates the real problem in our healthcare system.

I’ve even pointed out that there’s something good in the law.

But I’ve never bothered to discuss how bad laws usually aren’t as damaging as we think because folks in the private sector often figure out ways to work around some of the most onerous rules created by our overlords in Washington.

For example, some employers have figured out how to avoid Obamacare while still providing health insurance.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the crowd in Washington is diligently working to make the law worse.

The Wall Street Journal has a must-read editorial on the left’s “crackdown on the booming ObamaCare alternative known as self-insurance.” It starts with a brief description of the ERISA law that allows self insurance – including the fact that those who self insure escape the costly and corrupt state-level mandates that cause regular insurance policies to be needlessly expensive.

Under this model, businesses and many unions bypass commercial health plans and instead pay directly for the medical claims of their workers. Self-insured plans enjoy lower costs and more flexibility because they are insulated from state regulations and mandates under a 1974 federal law known by the acronym Erisa.

While ERISA traditionally was something that only big firms could utilize, many small employers are now looking at self insurance as a way of providing health insurance to their employees without getting dragged into the costly swamp of Obamacare.

Self-insurance used to be concentrated among national companies that could spread risk over large pools of employees. WSJ ERISA ColumnBut self-insurance is now filtering down to businesses with 199 workers or fewer, as a hedge against ObamaCare’s federal mandates and the danger that costs on its small-business exchanges will soar. Some insurers are now selling popular products that allow groups as small as 25 to self-insure. In a 2012 study, the Urban Institute found ObamaCare’s incentives will cause as many as 60% of small firms to convert without regulatory changes.

Needless to say, the left is unhappy about this development because Obamacare only “works” if a large amount of people are forced to join the infamous exchanges.

So does this mean they’ll try to fix what’s wrong with Obamacare? Of course not. Instead they want to limit the freedom to self insure.

…the White House, liberal pressure groups and state and federal regulators are trying to close what they call the self-insurance “loophole” before more escape. Their political and actuarial fear is that if enough businesses don’t join, the exchanges could fail because too few younger and healthier people will subsidize everybody else. …Note how businesses that pay for their workers’ health care are suddenly a “threat.” Wasn’t coverage the point of ObamaCare?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the statists aren’t trying (at least for now) to repeal the ERISA law. That would generate hostility from big companies, many of whom are in bed with the politicians. Instead, there’s an effort underway to screw small employers.

…the left’s political target is so-called stop-loss insurance that is essential to the little guys. Unlike corporate America, small employers are more exposed to the risk of a single high-cost case of serious illness, so they buy this form of catastrophic coverage as a self-insurance backup. Liberals are pushing state legislatures to outlaw stop-loss policies for small and mid-sized business. Another poison pill is fixing the dollar levels where stop-loss policies are allowed to start paying—aka “attachment levels” akin to deductibles—so high that they are too risky for small businesses to buy.

The details are not overly important. All you need to understand is that politicians and bureaucrats want to make self insurance either illegal or impossibly expensive for small employers.

So what’s the bottom line? The WSJ editorial hits the nail on the head with these concluding words.

President Obama famously promised that if you like your health plan you can keep it, but this Erisa gambit will also scramble the plans of the businesses that already self-insure as a safe harbor. …Liberals hate Erisa’s pluralism in favor of total government control, and small business is merely the appetizer.

Amen. Many of the left don’t like things such as pluralism, federalism, and competition. Instead, they are motivated by a perverse desire to make everyone equal, even if it means we’re all suffering equally. Particularly if that suffering facilitates a redistribution scheme.

In the title to this post, I asked whether the attack on self insurance is an example of sleaze and corruption or an example of why government intervention doesn’t work.Government Solutions The obvious answer to that question – as perfectly illustrated by this poster – is “Yes, all of the above.”

There’s cronyism because the government is hurting small employers and protecting big business. But there’s also run-of-the-mill government failure, which inevitably happens when you make productive behavior more costly while also creating incentives for more dependency.

I frequently close my posts by sharing some humor. And if you’re looking for a chuckle, there are some great Obamacare cartoons here, here, and here.

But today I want to finish up with a serious point. While it’s increasingly obvious that Obamacare won’t work, that doesn’t mean it will collapse on its own. You need new legislation to undo the damage caused by previous legislation (as well as all the other programs and intervention that existed before Obamacare).

Fortunately, I have a six-part hypothesis explaining why we should be optimistic that this can happen.

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I’ve written before that Obama’s Solyndra-style handouts have been a grotesque waste of tax dollars.

I’ve argued that they destroy jobs rather than create jobs.

I’ve gone on TV to explain why government intervention in energy creates a cesspool of cronyism.

I’ve even shared a column from Obama’s hometown newspaper that criticizes the rank corruption in green-energy programs.

And it goes without saying that I’ve disseminated some good cartoons on the issue.

But even though green-energy programs are a disgusting boondoggle, American taxpayers and consumers should be thankful they’re not in Germany.

Our programs may be wasteful and corrupt, but we’re amateurs compared to what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here are some passages from a must-read story in Der Spiegel.

The government predicts that the renewable energy surcharge added to every consumer’s electricity bill will increase from 5.3 cents today to between 6.2 and 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour — a 20-percent price hike. German consumers already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe. But because the government is failing to get the costs of its new energy policy under control, rising prices are already on the horizon. Electricity is becoming a luxury good in Germany.

As is so often the case with government intervention, the promises from politicians about low costs were a mirage.

Even well-informed citizens can no longer keep track of all the additional costs being imposed on them. According to government sources, the surcharge to finance the power grids will increase by 0.2 to 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour next year. On top of that, consumers pay a host of taxes, surcharges and fees that would make any consumer’s head spin. Former Environment Minister Jürgen Tritten of the Green Party once claimed that switching Germany to renewable energy wasn’t going to cost citizens more than one scoop of ice cream. Today his successor Altmaier admits consumers are paying enough to “eat everything on the ice cream menu.”

Perhaps the most shocking part of the story is that Germans are being forced to pay $26 billion in subsidies to get less than $4 billion of green energy.

For society as a whole, the costs have reached levels comparable only to the euro-zone bailouts. This year, German consumers will be forced to pay €20 billion ($26 billion) for electricity from solar, wind and biogas plants — electricity with a market price of just over €3 billion. Even the figure of €20 billion is disputable if you include all the unintended costs and collateral damage associated with the project. …On Thursday, a government-sanctioned commission plans to submit a special report called “Competition in Times of the Energy Transition.” The report is sharply critical, arguing that Germany’s current system actually rewards the most inefficient plants, doesn’t contribute to protecting the climate, jeopardizes the energy supply and puts the poor at a disadvantage.

Here’s what it means for ordinary people.

In the near future, an average three-person household will spend about €90 a month for electricity. That’s about twice as much as in 2000. Two-thirds of the price increase is due to new government fees, surcharges and taxes. …Today, more than 300,000 households a year are seeing their power shut off because of unpaid bills. Caritas and other charity groups call it “energy poverty.”

Not surprisingly, politically well-connected interest groups are the ones reaping the benefits.

…the renewable energy subsidies redistribute money from the poor to the more affluent, like when someone living in small rental apartment subsidizes a homeowner’s roof-mounted solar panels through his electricity bill. The SPD, which sees itself as the party of the working class, long ignored this regressive aspect of the system. The Greens, the party of higher earners, continue to do so. Germany’s renewable energy policy is particularly unfair with respect to the economy. About 2,300 businesses have managed to largely exempt themselves from the green energy surcharge by claiming, often with little justification, that they face tough international competition. Companies with less lobbying power, however, are required to pay the surcharge.

Let’s conclude with an ominous excerpt from the article. Even though prices already are very high, energy will get even more expensive in the future.

If the government sticks to its plans, the price of electricity will literally explode in the coming years. According to a current study for the federal government, electricity will cost up to 40 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2020, a 40-percent increase over today’s prices.

And isn’t it nice to know that Obama is doing everything he can to impose these policies in the United States?

This cartoon from Michael Ramirez is a perfect summary of Obama’s policy.

Ramirez Green Energy Cartoon

You can see why Ramirez won my political cartoonist contest.

P.S. I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, but green-energy subsidies are just one part of the statist/green agenda. The IMF, for instance, has recommended a huge carbon tax (about $5,500 per year for a family of four!) for the United States. A few gullible folks think this might not be a bad idea if the money gets used to lower other taxes, but they’re the same people who get suckered into buying oceanfront property in Kansas.

P.P.S. Germany may be more responsible (less irresponsible) than certain other European nations, but the country’s political elite is hopelessly statist. Even the supposedly pro-liberty political party tilts left and wants bigger government. Yet the Washington Post still thought it was appropriate and accurate to declare that Germany is “fiscally conservative.” Sure, and I’m a socialist.

P.P.P.S. But at least the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

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Yesterday, Part I of this series looked at what motivates Barack Obama. We reviewed a Kevin Williamson column that made a strong case that Obama is an ends-justifies-the-means statist.

Today, we’re going to look at the President’s approach to economic policy and we’ll focus on an article by my former debating partner, the great Richard Epstein.

And since Epstein and Obama were colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School, he has some insight into the President’s mind.

In a nutshell, Professor Epstein says “Obama’s Middle Class Malaise” is the predictable result of bad policy. And the bad policy exists because the President has no clue about economic policy.

…the president is using the bully pulpit to argue for redistributive, pro-regulatory, pro-union policies that he claims will serve the middle class. …The President, who has never worked a day in the private sector, has no systematic view of the way in which businesses operate or economies grow. He never starts a discussion by asking how the basic laws of supply and demand operate, and shows no faith that markets are the best mechanism for bringing these two forces into equilibrium. Because he does not understand rudimentary economics, he relies on anecdotes to make his argument.

I’m not sure whether I fully agree. I suspect Obama doesn’t understand anything about economics, but it’s possible that he does understand, but simply doesn’t care.

Epstein then makes an elementary point about the harmful impact of government intervention.

Unfortunately, our President rules out deregulation or lower taxes as a way to unleash productive forces in the country. Indeed, he is unable to grasp the simple point that the only engine of economic prosperity is an active market in which all parties benefit from voluntary exchange. Both taxes and regulation disrupt those exchanges, causing fewer exchanges to take place—and those which do occur have generated smaller gains than they should. The two-fold attraction of markets is that they foster better incentives for production as they lower administrative costs. Their comparative flexibility means that they have a capacity for self-correction that is lacking in a top-down regulatory framework that limits wages, prices, and the other conditions of voluntary exchange.

I particularly like his point about self-correction. I frequently explain in speeches that markets are filled with mistakes, but that at least there’s a big incentive to learn from those mistakes. With government, by contrast, mistakes get subsidized.

Professor Epstein looks at recent economic history and wisely doesn’t get trapped in partisanship. He correctly notes that we got good results under both Reagan and Clinton when the burden of government was reduced.

Obama speaks first of how the economic engine began to stall, but he offers no timeline. His general statement may square with the economic malaise of the Carter years, but it hardly describes the solid growth during most of the Reagan and Clinton years, as both presidents grasped, however imperfectly, that any expansion of the government footprint on the economy could dull the incentives to production. The situation turned south the past ten years. The second George Bush administrative gave us No Child Left Behind and Sarbanes-Oxley, while Obama followed with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

The Bush-Obama years, by contrast, have been rather dismal.

Epstein next speculates whether Obama has any understanding that his policies hurt those he supposedly wants to help.

…his speech offers not one hint that he is aware of the deep conflict between his abject fealty to union objectives and the poor people he wants to lift up. Yes there is an increasing gap between the rich and poor, but that gap won’t narrow if the President keeps plumping for a higher minimum wage that will block poor individuals, many of whom are African-American, from getting a toehold in the economy. No jobs at artificially high wages—which is what will happen, per Wal Mart—is no improvement over plentiful jobs at market wages.

By the way, an even more egregious example of Obama hurting the less fortunate is his opposition to school choice.

Let’s conclude by looking at my favorite part of the article. Epstein writes that Obama is so deluded that he thinks his biggest failures are actually his greatest successes.

…he constantly thinks of his greatest regulatory failures as his great successes. No other president has “saved the auto industry,” albeit by a corrupt bankruptcy process, or “taken on a broken health care system,” only to introduce a set of unworkable mandates that are already falling apart, or “investing in new technologies,” which tries to pick winners and ends up with losers like Solyndra. The great advances in energy have come from private developments, most notably fracking, and not from the vagaries of wind and solar energy, which no one has yet figured out how to store for future use when needed. …It is easy to see, therefore, why people have tuned out the President’s recent remarks. They have heard it all countless times before. So long as the President is trapped in his intellectual wonderland that puts redistribution first and regards deregulation and lower taxation as off limits, we as a nation will be trapped in the uneasy recovery.

Here’s a good example of Obama’s upside-down world where he thinks failure = success. The Washington Examiner today commented on the President’s latest scheme to intervene in housing markets. They start by explaining how Obama’s policies already have failed.

…in February 2009, Obama spoke in Mesa, Ariz., on the housing crisis, promising that his then-forthcoming Home Affordable Mortgage Program would help “between seven and nine million families” stay in their homes. A little over four years later, HAMP was exposed as a flop by the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). Just 1.6 million households had actually received HAMP assistance, seven million fewer than Obama promised in February 2009. Worse, many of the HAMP-assisted households ended up defaulting again. As of March 31, according to SIGTARP, 46 percent of the oldest HAMP modifications re-defaulted, compared to 37 percent of the more recent beneficiaries. Many homeowners would have been better off without HAMP, according to SIGTARP: “Re-defaulted HAMP modifications often inflict great harm on already struggling homeowners when any amounts previously modified suddenly come due.”

But the President hasn’t learned from his mistakes. He still wants the government to dictate how the housing market operates.

…middle Americans have every right to be suspicious when Obama says his newest round of policies will make homes more affordable. …while Obama expressed mild interest in reducing the federal government’s role in the housing sector, he also insisted that the government must ensure that Americans will always be able to buy 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. Why? No other country on the planet has a housing market dominated by 30-year fixed mortgages, and many countries that have no long-term mortgage market at all, like Canada, avoided the 2008 housing bubble and financial crash entirely. There is simply no reason why America should repeat the same housing policy mistakes of the past. But for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, that appears to be pretty much what Obama is determined to do in his remaining years as president.

I especially like the point about Canada avoiding the financial crisis and the housing bubble. There’s a simple explanation. Our neighbors to the north avoided the government mistakes that caused the housing bubble in America.

Remember, if more government is the answer, you’ve asked a very strange question.

P.S. There’s no such thing as too much Richard Epstein. You can click here for his analysis of the flat tax and click here to watch him destroy George Soros in a debate.

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I suggested last year that President Obama adopt “my work here is done” as a campaign slogan.

Admittedly, that was merely an excuse to share this rather amusing poster (and you can see the same hands-on-hips pose, by the way, in this clever Michael Ramirez cartoon).

But I want to make a serious point.

For those of us who want the prosperity and liberty made possible by smaller government and free markets, it would be ideal if the President actually did think his work was done. If that was the case, presumably he wouldn’t propose new schemes to expand the size and scope of the public sector.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Indeed, he bragged about providing handouts, subsidies, and bailouts for housing in his recent pivot-to-the-economy speech and he specifically stated “We’re not done yet.”

As I said in this interview on FBN, that phrase could replace “I’m from Washington and I’m here to help you” as the most frightening sentence in the English language.

Obama’s phrase is particularly distressing since he wants more intervention in housing markets – yet it was misguided government intervention that caused the housing bubble and financial crisis in the first place!

Simply stated, you don’t solve the problems caused by the Fed’s easy-money policy with more government. And you don’t solve the problems caused by corrupt Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac subsidies with more government.

The right approach is to get government out of housing altogether. That means getting rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It means privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It even means eliminating preferences for housing in the tax code as part of a shift to a simple and fair system like the flat tax.

Once we achieve all these goals, then we can say “we’re done”…and move on to our other objectives, like dealing with the damage caused by government in the health sector, the education sector, the financial markets sector, etc, etc…

P.S. Some people doubtlessly will complain that bad things will happen if the government no longer is involved in housing, but I think we’ll survive just fine without bureaucrats screwing over poor people and mandating “emotional support” animals in college dorms.

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I’ve frequently argued that “third-party payer” is the main problem with the healthcare system. In simpler terms, this is the notion that a market won’t function very well if consumers think they’re spending someone else’s money.

Why be a careful consumer, after all, if someone else is picking up the tab?

This is a pervasive problem in the United States, thanks to government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare that account for nearly 50 percent of total healthcare spending.

But our supposedly private insurance system also contributes to the problem. Under our convoluted internal revenue code, there’s no tax on worker compensation in the form of employer-provided fringe benefits such as health insurance. This allows workers to avoid a significant amount of both income tax and payroll tax by getting more and more of their compensation in the form of fringe benefits.

And since the average employer-provided family policy now costs about $15,000, the tax savings are significant. I like it when the government is deprived of revenue, of course, but this policy also contributes to the third-party payer problem by encouraging over-insurance.

Indeed, we’ve reached the point where only 12 percent of healthcare costs are paid for directly by the consumer. No wonder the healthcare market doesn’t function very well!

With this bit of background, let me explain why I’m about to say something quasi-nice about Obamacare.

Since I’ve already said the law is a fiscal nightmare and explained how it further cripples market forces in healthcare, this may be a bit of a surprise.

But even ogres and trolls occasionally have good points, and the same is true of Obamacare.

There’s a provision in the law that will cap the tax break for employer-provided health insurance. Here are parts of a New York Times report.

Say goodbye to that $500 deductible insurance plan and the $20 co-payment for a doctor’s office visit. They are likely to become luxuries of the past. …Expect to have your blood pressure checked or a prescription filled at a clinic at your office, rather than by your private doctor. Then blame — or credit — the so-called Cadillac tax, which penalizes companies that offer high-end health care plans to their employees. …Companies hoping to avoid the tax are beginning to scale back the more generous health benefits they have traditionally offered and to look harder for ways to bring down the overall cost of care. In a way, the changes are right in line with the administration’s plan: To encourage employers to move away from plans that insulate workers from the cost of care and often lead to excessive procedures and tests, and galvanize employers to try to control ever-increasing medical costs. …as many as 75 percent of plans could be affected by the tax over the next decade — unless employers manage to significantly rein in their costs.

The key passage in the above excerpt is that this change will “encourage employers to move away from plans that insulate workers from the cost of care.”

That’s just another way of describing how to deal with the third-party payer problem.

But I’m not an unqualified fan of this provision of Obamacare. I like getting rid of tax breaks, but not if it means more money for government. I want to use the money to lower tax rates, not to fatten government coffers. Needless to say, that’s not what happened with Obamacare.

Moreover, I don’t want employers figuring out how to reduce costs. Consumers need to be in charge, But if you read more of the story, it’s clear that many supporters of Obamacare don’t understand this critical distinction.

Proponents of the law say the Cadillac tax is helping bring down costs by making employers pay attention to what their health care costs are likely to be in the long run. “It’s really one of the most significant provisions” in the Affordable Care Act, said Jonathan Gruber, the M.I.T. economist who played an influential role in shaping the law.

Since Prof. Gruber played an “influential role” in the law, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s misguided even on this provision. But let’s set that aside.

I just wanted to point out that the “Cadillac Tax” would be my choice if I was forced to identify a silver lining to the dark cloud of Obamacare.

P.S. I’m not trying to rationalize a bad law. I want Obamacare repealed and I actually am reasonably optimistic that this can happen.

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Let’s assume you didn’t understand how a garbage disposal worked and, for whatever reason, you decided to stick your arm in one and turn it on. You would do some serious injury to your hand.

The rest of us would wonder what motivated you to stick your arm down the drain in the first place, but we would feel sympathy because you didn’t realize bad things would happen.

But if you then told us that you were planning to do the same thing tomorrow, we would think you were crazy. Didn’t you learn anything, we would ask?

Seems like a preposterous scenario, but something very similar is now happening in Washington. The Obama Administration is proposing to once again put the economy at risk by subsidizing banks to give mortgages to people with poor credit.

“Let’s party like it’s 2006!”

Even though we’re still dealing with the economic and fiscal damage caused by the last episode of government housing subsidies!

Here are some of the unbelievable details from a report in the Washington Post.

The Obama administration is engaged in a broad push to make more home loans available to people with weaker credit…officials say they are working to get banks to lend to a wider range of borrowers by taking advantage of taxpayer-backed programs — including those offered by the Federal Housing Administration — that insure home loans against default. Housing officials are urging the Justice Department to provide assurances to banks, which have become increasingly cautious, that they will not face legal or financial recriminations if they make loans to riskier borrowers who meet government standards but later default.

Brings to mind the famous saying from George Santayana that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But what’s especially amazing – and distressing – about this latest scheme is that “the past” was only a couple of years ago. Or, to recall my odd analogy, one of our hands is still mangled and bleeding and we’re thinking about putting our other hand in the disposal.

Some people understand this is a nutty idea.

…critics say encouraging banks to lend as broadly as the administration hopes will sow the seeds of another housing disaster and endanger taxpayer dollars. “If that were to come to pass, that would open the floodgates to highly excessive risk and would send us right back on the same path we were just trying to recover from,” said Ed Pinto, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

What’s also discouraging is that the government already is deeply involved in the housing market – even though this is an area where there is no legitimate role for the federal intervention.

Deciding which borrowers get loans might seem like something that should be left up to the private market. But since the financial crisis in 2008, the government has shaped most of the housing market, insuring between 80 percent and 90 percent of all new loans, according to the industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance. It has done so primarily through the Federal Housing Administration, which is part of the executive branch, and taxpayer-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, run by an independent regulator.

So I guess the goal is to have taxpayers on the hook for 100 percent of loans.

“Don’t worry, it’s not our money”

Anybody want to guess whether this will end well?

By the way, this is bad policy even if we somehow avoid a new bubble and big taxpayer losses. Even in a”best case” scenario, the federal government will be distorting the allocation of capital by discouraging business investment and subsidizing residential real estate.

And as shown in this powerful chart, that will have adverse consequences for wages and living standards.

The part of the article that most nauseated me was a quote from the head bureaucrat at the Federal Housing Administration.

“My view is that there are lots of creditworthy borrowers that are below 720 or 700 — all the way down the credit-score spectrum,” Galante said. “It’s important you look at the totality of that borrower’s ability to pay.”

Gee, isn’t that nice that Ms. Galante thinks there are lots of borrowers with good “totality” measures? But here’s an interesting concept. Why doesn’t she put her money at risk instead of making me the involuntary guarantor on these dodgy loans?

I’ve already said on TV that we should dump Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the Potomac River. And I’ve  argued that the entire Department of Housing and Urban Development should be razed to the ground.

But perhaps this cartoon best shows the consequences of the Obama Administration’s new subsidy scheme.

P.S. We also should get rid of housing preference in the tax code. Our economy should cater to the underlying preferences of consumers, not the electoral interests of politicians.

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Should the federal government make life more difficult for low-skilled workers?

I hope everyone will emphatically say “NO!”

Heck, most people understandably will think you’re crazy for even asking such a preposterous question.

Minimum Wage Cartoon 2But some of those people will also think that it’s a good idea for politicians in Washington to make low-skilled workers less attractive to employers by raising the minimum wage.

I often ask such people whether they are more likely to buy a Big Mac if McDonald’s raises the price by 24 percent. They say they are less likely.

I then ask them if they are more likely to buy a car if GM increases the price of a Buick by 24 percent. They say less likely, of course.

But they seem to have a blind spot when I ask them whether employers will be more likely or less likely to hire low-skilled workers when the government increases the cost of those workers by 24 percent.

I explain further in this interview for Yahoo! Finance.

The interviewer, by the way, seems to be economically illiterate.

He apparently believes that we can reduce inequality by pricing poor people out of the job market. He also blames companies for sitting on piles of cash, presumably unaware that firms only will invest if there are profitable opportunities.

Minimum Wage CartoonAt one point, I delicately state that one of his questions “betrays a certain lack of historical knowledge,” which is a polite way of saying “you’re either lying or you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Ultimately, I try to help him understand by comparing fast-growing economies such Hong Kong and Singapore, which have relatively low burdens of government, with slow-growth economies such as France and Italy, where politicians ostensibly seek to “help” people with various forms of intervention.

I’m not sure I made any progress, so feel free to suggest other ways of convincing skeptics that freedom is better than statism.

Anyway, for those who want more information, this video explains the underlying economics of the minimum wage. We also have plenty of evidence (see here and here) that unemployment rose following the most recent hike in the minimum wage.

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I recently wrote about the pinheads at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who are threatening legal action against companies that are leery about hiring people with criminal records.

Now some states and cities are making it illegal to discriminate against those that have been unemployed for a long period of time.

Unlike special legal status for ex-cons, this sounds reasonable. After all, we all would like to help the long-term unemployed break free of the chains of government dependency.

But sometimes good intentions generate undesirable effects. I explain in this Fox Business News debate that companies will do their best to avoid even interviewing the long-term unemployed if they have to worry about potential legal pitfalls whenever they make a hiring decision.

I also explain that businesses have no incentive to engage in unjustified discrimination. After all, that would imply a willingness to deliberately sacrifice profit in pursuit of some irrational bias.

But as Walter Williams has succinctly argued, some forms of discrimination make sense.

And if there are two applicants who otherwise seem to have equal qualifications for a certain job, but one has been out of work for more than 12 months, it’s only logical that the employer will think that a lengthy stint of sitting on a couch does not suggest great habits.

Which is why Obama’s policy of never-ending unemployment benefits is so misguided. People get lured into long-term unemployment and there is both anecdotal evidence (check out these stories from Michigan and Ohio) and empirical evidence (here, here, and here) showing this unfortunate impact.

Heck, even Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have admitted that you get more unemployment when you subsidize joblessness.

Ramirez Unemployment CartoonSo you won’t be surprised to know that I’ve dispensed some tough love on this topic as well.

P.S. This cartoon does a very effective job of showing the consequences of paying people not to work.

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What government spends the most on health care?

  • Is it Canada or the United Kingdom, which are famous (or, if these stories are any indication, infamous would be a better description) for single-payer healthcare systems?
  • Is it Sweden, the home of the cradle-to-grave welfare state?
  • Or France, the land of the world’s most statist people?
  • How about Italy or Greece, nations that have spent themselves into fiscal crisis?

Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

The United States spends more money, on a per-capita basis, than any of those countries. Here’s a chart from a Forbes analysis prepared by Doug Holtz-Eakin and Avik Roy.

Per Capita Government Healthcare Spending

There are three big reasons why there’s more government-financed healthcare spending in the United States.

1. Richer nations tend to spend more, regardless of how they structure their healthcare systems.

2. As you can see at the 1:18 mark of this video, the United States is halfway down the road to a single-payer system thanks to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

3. America’s pervasive government-created third-party payer system leads to high prices and costly inefficiency.

So what’s the moral of the story? Simple, notwithstanding the shallow rhetoric that dominates much of the debate, the United States does not have anything close to a free-market healthcare system.

That was true before Obamacare and it’s even more true now that Obamacare has been enacted.

Indeed, it’s quite likely that many nations with “guaranteed” health care actually have more market-oriented systems than the United States.

Avik Roy argues, for instance, that Switzerland’s system is the best in the world. And the chart above certainly shows less direct government spending.

And there’s also the example of Singapore, which also is a very rich nation that has far less government spending on healthcare than the United States.

If you read the Avik Roy articles linked above, and also this study by my Cato colleague Mike Tanner, you’ll see that there’s no perfect system.

Our challenge is that it’s very difficult to put toothpaste back in a tube. Thanks to government programs and backdoor intervention through the tax code, the United States healthcare system is nowhere close to a free market (with a few minor exceptions such as cosmetic surgery and – regardless of what you think of the procedure – abortion).

Yes, I think entitlement reform can make things better, though fixing Medicare and Medicaid should be seen as a necessary but not sufficient condition. As I show in this post, we would simply move a little bit in the right direction on the spectrum between markets and statism.

Tax reform could solve another part of the problem by removing the bias for over-insurance, which presumably would lead people to pay out of pocket and use insurance for large, unexpected costs.

Fundamental tax reform is also the best way to improve the healthcare system. Under current law, compensation in the form of fringe benefits such as health insurance is tax free. Not only is it deductible to employers and non-taxable to employees, it also isn’t hit by the payroll tax. This creates a huge incentive for gold-plated health insurance policies that cover routine costs and have very low deductibles. …Shifting to a flat tax means that all forms of employee compensation are taxed at the same low rate, a reform that presumably over time will encourage both employers and employees to migrate away from the inefficient over-use of insurance that characterizes the current system. For all intents and purposes, the health insurance market presumably would begin to resemble the vastly more efficient and consumer-friendly auto insurance and homeowner’s insurance markets.

In other words, as this poster suggests, government is the problem and less government is the solution.

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I’m a proponent of a pro-growth and non-corrupt tax code.

I mostly write and talk about the flat tax, though I’d be happy to instead accept a national sales tax if we could somehow get rid of the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even Justices such as John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn’t rationalize that the income tax was constitutional.

But since there’s no chance of any good tax reform with Obama in the White House, there’s no need to squabble over the best plan. Instead, our short-term goal should be to educate voters so that we create a more favorable intellectual climate for genuine reform in 2017 and beyond.

That’s why I’ve argued in favor of lower tax rates and shared the latest academic research showing that tax policy has a significant impact on economic performance.

But tax reform also means getting rid of the rat’s nest of deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, shelters, loopholes, and other distortions in the tax code.

Why? Because people should make decisions on how to earn income and how to spend income on the basis of what makes economic sense, not because they’re being bribed or penalized by the tax code. That’s just central planning through the back door.

And if you don’t think this is a problem, I invite you to peruse three startling images, each of which measures rising complexity over time.

  1. The number of pages in the tax code.
  2. The number of special tax breaks.
  3. The number of pages in the 1040 instruction booklet.

Today’s Byzantine system is good for tax lawyers, accountants, and bureaucrats, but it’s bad news for America. We need to wipe the slate clean and get rid of this corrupt mess.

But as I explain in this appearance on Fox Business News, we won’t make progress until we control the burden of government spending and unless we make sure that deductions are eliminated only if we use every penny of revenue to lower tax rates.

I’ve previously explained why it’s okay to get rid of itemized deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and state and local tax payments.

Let’s now take a moment to explain why the internal revenue code shouldn’t be artificially steering capital toward state and local governments at the expense of private investment.

Under current law, there’s no federal income tax imposed on interest from municipal bonds. No matter how rich you are, Uncle Sam doesn’t tax a penny of the interest you receive if you use your wealth to lend money to state and local governments.

Should the tax code steer money to Detroit politicians?

This “muni-bond exemption” has two unfortunate effects.

  • It makes it easier and cheaper for state and local governments to incur debt, thus encouraging more wasteful spending by cities such as Detroit and states such as California.
  • By making the debt of state and local governments more attractive than private business investment, the loophole undermines long-term growth by diverting capital to unproductive uses.

The politicians at the state and local level certainly understand what’s at stake. They’re lobbying to preserve this destructive tax break. Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Firestine [of Montgomery County, MD] is on the front lines of a lobbying campaign by local and state governments, bond dealers, insurers and underwriters that is trying to pre-empt any attempt to limit or even kill the tax exemption. …At present, the federal government forgoes about $32 billion a year in taxes by exempting the interest that investors earn from municipal bonds. …The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known as the Simpson-Bowles commission, has suggested taxing all municipal bond interest, not just the interest paid to people in the top bracket. …Officials of some other government groups, like the New York City Housing Development Corporation, have formed a coalition with Wall Street groups like the Bond Dealers of America to lobby on the issue. But there is the sense of an uphill battle. …Capping the tax exemption would cause high-bracket taxpayers to look for higher-yielding investments, he said, and the county would have to offer more interest to lure them back.

Based on the last sentence in the excerpt, I gather we’re supposed to think it would be bad news if we got rid of this tax preference and taxpayers shifted more of their money to private-sector investments.

Needless to say, that’s misguided. Only in the upside-down world of Washington do people think it is smart to create tax preferences that lead to more wasteful spending by state and local governments, while simultaneously imposing punitive forms of double taxation on saving and investment in the private sector.

By the way, this shouldn’t be an ideological issue. If this amazing chart is any indication, leftists who want workers to enjoy more income should be clamoring the loudest for a tax system that doesn’t tilt the playing field against capital formation.

P.S. While simplicity is a good goal for tax policy, you will understand why it shouldn’t be the only goal if you check out this potential Barack Obama tax reform plan.

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Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman has a new column promoting more government spending and additional government regulation. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation and hardly noteworthy, of course, but in this case he takes a swipe at the Cato Institute.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath…were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. …analysts at right-wing think tanks like…the Cato Institute…insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Upon reading this, my first reaction was a perverse form of admiration. After all, Krugman explicitly advocated for a housing bubble back in 2002, so it takes a lot of chutzpah to attack other people for the consequences of that bubble.

He likes cats, so he’s not all bad

But let’s set that aside and examine the accusation that folks at Cato had a Pollyanna view of monetary and regulatory policy. In other words, did Cato think that “deregulated markets were doing just fine”?

Hardly. If Krugman had bothered to spend even five minutes perusing the Cato website, he would have found hundreds of items by scholars such as Steve Hanke, Gerald O’Driscoll, Bert Ely, and others about misguided government regulatory and monetary policy. He could have perused the remarks of speakers at Cato’s annual monetary conferences. He could have looked at issues of the Cato Journal. Or our biennial Handbooks on Policy.

The tiniest bit of due diligence would have revealed that Cato was not a fan of Federal Reserve policy and we did not think that financial markets were deregulated. Indeed, Cato scholars last decade were relentlessly critical of monetary policy, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Community Reinvestment Act, and other forms of government intervention.

Heck, I imagine that Krugman would have accused Cato of relentless and foolish pessimism had he reviewed our work  in 2006 or 2007.

I will confess that Cato people didn’t predict when the bubble would peak and when it would burst. If we had that type of knowledge, we’d all be billionaires. But since Krugman is still generating income by writing columns and doing appearances, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have any special ability to time the market either.

Krugman also implies that Cato is guilty of historical revisionism.

…many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

I’ve already pointed out that Cato was critical of government intervention before and during the bubble, so we obviously did not want government tilting the playing field in favor of home mortgages.

It’s also worth nothing that Cato has been dogmatically in favor of tax reform that would eliminate preferences for owner-occupied housing. That was our position 20 years ago. That was our position 10 years ago. And it’s our position today.

I also can’t help but comment on Krugman’s assertion that GOP control of government last decade somehow was inconsistent with statist government policy. One obvious example would be the 2004 Bush Administration regulations that dramatically boosted the affordable lending requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which surely played a role in driving the orgy of subprime lending.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The burden of government spending almost doubled during the Bush years, the federal government accumulated more power, and the regulatory state expanded. No wonder economic freedom contracted under Bush after expanding under Clinton.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Krugman’s screed. He doesn’t single out Cato, but presumably he has us in mind when he criticizes those who reject Keynesian stimulus theory.

…right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Actually, I hope he’s not thinking about us. We argue for a smaller burden of government spending, not a balanced budget. And we haven’t made any assertions about higher interest rates. We instead point out that excessive government spending undermines growth by undermining incentives for productive behavior and misallocating labor and capital.

But we are critics of Keynesianism for reasons I explain in this video. And if you look at current economic performance, it’s certainly difficult to make the argument that Obama’s so-called stimulus was a success.

ZombieBut Krugman will argue that the government should have squandered even more money. Heck, he even asserted that the 9-11 attacks were a form of stimulus and has argued that it would be pro-growth if we faced the threat of an alien invasion.

In closing, I will agree with Krugman that there’s too much “zombie” economics in Washington. But I’ll let readers decide who’s guilty of mindlessly staggering in the wrong direction.

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That’s a trick question, of course, as illustrated by this biting Henry Payne cartoon.

But let’s look at one of the commonalities of Romneycare and Obamacare – higher premiums, thanks to mandates and third-party payer.

Here’s a quick look at what’s been happening to premiums in Massachusetts.

Romneycare Premiums

The same thing is already happening with Obamacare, as explained in a Wall Street Journal column by Merrill Matthews and Mark Litow.

The congressional Democrats who crafted the legislation ignored virtually every actuarial principle governing rational insurance pricing. Premiums will soon reflect that disregard—indeed, premiums are already reflecting it. …Guaranteed issue incentivizes people to forgo buying a policy until they get sick and need coverage (and then drop the policy after they get well). While ObamaCare imposes a financial penalty—or is it a tax?—to discourage people from gaming the system, it is too low to be a real disincentive. The result will be insurance pools that are smaller and sicker, and therefore more expensive.

How bad will it be? Well…

Many actuaries, such as those in the international consulting firm Oliver Wyman, are now predicting an average increase of roughly 50% in premiums for some in the individual market for the same coverage. …Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming and Virginia will likely see the largest increases—somewhere between 65% and 100%. Another 18 states, including Texas and Michigan, could see their rates rise between 35% and 65%.

Which is why 2014 is the “Year of the Snake” in more places than just China.

Obamacare Snake Cartoon

If you like Ramirez cartoons, you can see some of my favorites here, here, here, here, and here.

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Obama imposed a big tax hike last year.

But I’m not talking about the fiscal cliff and the President’s class-warfare trophy of higher tax rates on those evil rich people. That happened this year.

Instead, I’m referring to the increase in the regulatory burden.

Here are some excerpts from a report in The Hill.

The Obama administration issued $236 billion worth of new regulations last year… The analysis from the American Action Forum, led by former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, found that the administration added $216 billion in rules and more than $20 billion in regulatory proposals in 2012. Complying with those rules will require an additional 87 million hours of paperwork, the report said. The group put the total price tag from regulations during Obama’s first term at more than $518 billion. …The Environmental Protection Agency racked up the most in regulatory costs last year, according to the report, issuing $172 billion worth of rules. Regulations from the healthcare reform law tacked an additional $20.1 billion in costs onto the economy.

This isn’t pocket change. Indeed, $236 billion is almost four times as much money – measured annually – as Obama’s tax hike. And the vast majority of that burden will be borne by ordinary citizens, not just the so-called rich.

But the article includes a very important caveat.

Though the study lists the costs of regulations, it does not calculate any benefits that might have resulted from them.

That’s an important point, which is why it would be nice if the government engaged in some honest cost-benefit analysis. Some regulations impose modest costs and generate meaningful benefits. Mandating that cars include seat belts would be a good example.

Cartoon regulatory octopusBut other regulations impose costs far in excess of potential benefits, such as all the red tape accompanying Obamacare, the regulatory tsunami of Dodd-Frank, and the never-ending plethora of EPA rules.

Many people complain about the high cost of regulation. Heck, I’m one of them. I’ve shared some very disturbing numbers about the burden of red tape.

But maybe it’s time to step back and look at the bigger picture. More specifically, we should ask whether there is an alternative to government regulation. John Stossel says yes, arguing that private markets are remarkably effective in protecting consumers without the involvement of government.

He starts his column by noting that the regulatory nightmare is getting worse.

The bureaucrats never stop. There are now more than 170,000 pages of federal regulations.

But then he explains that private rules are just like regulation, but without a role for clumsy and ineffective government.

It is scary to think about a world without regulation. Intuition leads us to think that without government we’d be victims of fraud… But our intuition is wrong. Consider this: An entire sector of the economy operates almost entirely without government controls. Complete strangers exchange big money there every day. It’s the Internet. It does have regulation, just not government regulation.

He mentions the innovative private regulation of companies such as PayPal and eBay.

PayPal invented a new form of regulation. “They developed a private fraud detection system, where they used computers to say, ‘This might be fraudulent,’ and then it would send it to a human to investigate that.” That dramatically reduced fraud, and PayPal thrived. EBay’s business model is also threatened by fraud. How can a buyer trust that, say, a seller will actually deliver a $25 pack of baseball cards and that the cards will be what he claims they are? In theory, you could sue; but in practice, our legal system is too slow and costly for that. So eBay came up with self-regulation: The buyers rate the sellers.

And he also explains how stock markets originally relied on private forms of regulation.

Did you know that stock markets began without government regulation? …the first stock exchanges developed in London in the 1700s: “Government refused to enforce all but the most simple contracts. Nevertheless, brokers figured out how to do short sales, futures contracts, options contracts — even though none was enforceable by law.” They came up with private enforcement. “They traded in coffeehouses. And after a while, they decided: ‘Let’s enforce rules within this coffeehouse. If you default, you’re going to get kicked out of the coffeehouse, and we’re going to call you a lame duck.’”

Unfortunately, the trend is for more government, even though much of red tape produced by Washington doesn’t pass the cost-benefit test.

Years of consumer reporting have taught me that such private regulation is better for consumers than the piles of rules produced by our bloated government. Worse, government’s micromanagement stifles innovation. Companies now invest in lawyers and “compliance officers,” rather than engineers and creators.

John’s column is music to my ears. I wrote an entire article for Townhall based on the premise that “the profit motive creates mutually reinforcing oversight” to protect the interests of consumers.

In other words, private companies don’t maximize profits by poisoning, killing, mistreating, and abusing their customers. And even if they thought that was a means of getting rich, other private companies such as banks and insurance companies would have a profit-maximizing incentive to stop bad behavior.

That doesn’t mean there’s no role for government. Even a libertarian system, for instance, would have a legal system enabling people to get compensation when they suffer losses because of negligence.

The question before us, though, is whether the pendulum has swung too far in favor of command-and-control regulation from Washington.

To answer, let’s close this post with some examples of regulatory idiocy from government bureaucracies.

Does anyone think the private sector would impose rules like this?

Remember, if government is the answer, you’ve asked a very strange question.

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I have a serious question for readers. What’s worse, bailouts for government or bailouts for the private sector?

Yes, both are bad, but is it worse to bail out a bankrupt entitlement program, such as Social Security, or it is worse to bail out an industry, such as the financial sector?

Bailout gravy train cartoonTo bail out the housing sector, or to bail out Medicare? Fannie and Freddie, or GM and Chrysler?

All these examples involve huge amounts of money, and both private-sector and public-sector bailouts have perverse long-run effects, but which is worse?

And don’t forget there are lots of other bailouts in our future, as discussed on this interview for Fox Business News.

The interview took place before Christmas, but the topic is even more relevant today since the budget season is about to begin.

Most of the discussion was about government agencies and programs that may get more handouts, though bailouts for the Federal Housing Administration and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would be indirect bailouts for big business and housing.

So we’d get the worst of all worlds, more government spending and more cronyism.

Or, as they call it in Washington, a win-win situation.

But I call it legal corruption.

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Since I’m an out-of-the-closet libertarian, it goes without saying that I’m not favorably disposed to government intervention. As far as I’m concerned, Washington’s an inherently corrupt town filled with people seeking unearned wealth.

But even if I didn’t have any underlying philosophical or moral principles, I think I would still favor small government.

Why? Because just about everything government does turns into a bloody cluster-you-know-what, so there’s also a utilitarian case for libertarianism.

I discuss the reverse Midas touch of government with John Stossel.

The theme of Stossel’s show, by the way, was looking at how good intentions lead to bad results. I actually think that’s too optimistic.

Most government intervention is driven by sordid insider scheming, not good intentions. The politicians merely pretend they have noble-sounding goals when peddling their manure to the public.

But regardless of the goals, the result is still the same.

I point out that if the burden of government spending grows faster than the private economy (sort of Obama’s Golden Rule rather than Mitchell’s Golden Rule), bad things inevitably will happen.

Other points from the interview:

I suppose a more interesting program would be to identify things that the government does intelligently and effectively.

Any suggestions?

P.S. According to Greek mythology, anything Midas touched turned into gold. But since the fable also says that this blessing turned into a curse, perhaps this post should have been titled the “The Midas Touch of Government” rather than “The Reverse Midas Touch of Government.” But since I’m already trying to restore the good name of Robin Hood, I’m going to leave it to others to decide how to characterize Midas.

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In large part because of an excessive burden of government, the American economy is suffering European-style stagnation, with even the Washington Post now confessing that growth far below the long-run trend.

This helps explain why job creation has been so dismal in recent years, with more than twenty million Americans out of work, underemployed, or dropped out of the workforce.

But there is one pocket of enormous prosperity in America. It will warm your heart to know that our overlords in Washington are living the life of Riley.

Here are some of the highlights of a remarkable Reuters expose about the fat cats of big government, starting with the huge gap between the insider elite and the poor.

In the town that launched the War on Poverty 48 years ago, the poor are getting poorer despite the government’s help. And the rich are getting richer because of it. The top 5 percent of households in Washington, D.C., made more than $500,000 on average last year, while the bottom 20 percent earned less than $9,500 – a ratio of 54 to 1. That gap is up from 39 to 1 two decades ago. It’s wider than in any of the 50 states and all but two major cities.

One small but important correction in the previous excerpt. As I have noted many times, the “poor are getting poorer” because of “the government’s help.”

The article then explains that a lot of the redistribution in Washington is from taxpayers to a pampered elite.

…in the years since President Lyndon Johnson took aim at poverty in his first State of the Union address, there has been an increasingly strong crosscurrent: The government is redistributing wealth up, too – especially in the nation’s capital. …Two decades of record federal spending and expanding regulation have fostered a growing upper class of federal contractors, lobbyists and lawyers in the District of Columbia area. …Direct spending by the federal government accounts for 40 percent of the area’s $425 billion-a-year economy. …Roughly 15 cents of every dollar from the entire federal procurement budget stays in or around the government’s hometown, said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. Last year, that was about $80 billion out of $536 billion in procurement spending, he said. The 15 percent share is far greater than the region’s 2 percent portion of the U.S. population. “We’re seeing an enormous transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the Washington economy,” said Fuller.

And all this spending leads to an elitist class of cronyists, politicians, contractors, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. No wonder the DC area is home to some of the richest counties in America.

But unlike other well-to-do areas, the wealth in DC is rarely accumulated by honest means.

Instead, it’s the result of perverse form of redistribution to big-government insiders. Check out these horrifying details.

Washington-area workers with incomes above $100,000 rose to 22 percent of the workforce, up from 14 percent in 1990, adjusted for inflation, a Reuters analysis of Census data found. …there are 320,000 federal jobs in the Washington area. Within the District of Columbia, 55 percent pay $100,000 or more. …Nearly 13,000 lobbyists registered with the government last year and reported $3.3 billion in fees, or about $260,000 per lobbyist. That’s 22 percent more lobbyists and 37 percent more inflation-adjusted revenue per lobbyist than in 1998… Times are flush for Washington lawyers as well. The number of attorneys in the area has risen 44 percent, twice the national rate, to 41,000 since 1999. Their average income, adjusted for inflation, rose 35 percent to $156,000.

I guess we know who’s having a merry Christmas.

All these rich bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians, cronyists, and contractors certainly are living the good life, as revealed in a Washington Post story on the “Region’s Rising Wealth.” Here are some sordid excerpts.

…the D.C. region already has a reputation as one of the most affluent in the country. But the area is fast emerging as a home to the truly rich as well. High-end luxury retailers are responding. Brands such as Aston Martin are expanding their operations into the area — betting, for instance, that there will be plenty of customers who can afford the $280,000 sports car James Bond drives in the movies. …Already there are 500 Aston Martin owners in the area with the potential for more.

I’ve already shared an interview with Andrew Ferguson by Reason TV that should make all taxpayers upset. Why should ordinary taxpayers be coerced to subsidize Washington’s high-flying parasite economy?

Redistribution is a bad thing in most circumstances. But when you redistribute from poor to rich, that’s utterly perverse.

Well, thanks to profligacy by Bush and Obama, that’s exactly what’s happened.

The region’s top one percent of households make more than a half million dollars yearly — far more than the national average for the one percent, according to a study of Census data by Sentier Research, an Annapolis-based data analysis firm. And these top earners — many of whom are from dual-income households and benefit from federal contracting — weathered the recession better than their counterparts in some other metropolitan areas and the nation. More are moving beyond comfortable affluence to a much higher standard of living. “What is unique to D.C. is that there has been a change in the complexion of wealth here. There didn’t used to be much of this ultra-high-net-worth business here and now there is,” said Susan Traver, the regional president of BNY Mellon Wealth Management.

But everyone in the rest of America at least can go to sleep tonight with a warm and fuzzy feeling of joy, knowing that our money has created such comfortable lives for the political elite.

Milton Pedraza, the CEO of the Luxury Institute, a research and consulting firm, said that purveyors of luxury goods are drawn to the area because it has…a stable economy bolstered by the federal government. Government contracting, where some local entrepreneurs and business owners amassed their fortunes, has been a key driver of the region’s economy for three decades. A third of the region’s gross regional product still comes from federal spending… “Let’s face it . . . the only place with money during the recession was Washington, D.C.,” Pedraza said.

Perhaps we should make a slight correction in the previous excerpt. After all, shouldn’t it read “America suffered a recession because the only place with money was Washington, DC.”

Let’s wrap this up. A few years ago, I issued this video about overpaid bureaucrats.

But I now realize my mini-documentary only scratches the  surface. Yes, there are too many paper-pushers on the government payroll, and of course they get far too much compensation.

But what about unofficial government workforce of over-paid contractors? And all the lobbyists, consultants, and cronyists that exist only because we have a bloated federal government?

Our nation is being seriously damaged by this corrupt system, and I fear that the outcome will be Argentinian-style decline.

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