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Archive for the ‘Government intervention’ Category

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

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

I’ve already identified some low-hanging fruit.

Get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shut down the Department of Agriculture.

Eliminate the Department of Transportation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Internet has made all of our lives better, in part because there’s been an accidental policy of benign neglect from Washington.

But that’s about to change.

Even though our economy already is burdened by record amounts of regulation and red tape, the FCC is pushing forward with a plan to turn the Internet into a moss-covered public utility.

This almost leaves me at a loss for words. It’s truly remarkable – in a bad way – that the bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission think that the Internet can be improved by a big dose of 1930s-era regulation and control.

My Cato colleague, Jim Harper, summarized the issue last month.

Do you want your Internet service provider to operate like the water company or the electric company?… the FCC has sought for years now to regulate broadband Internet service providers…like it used to regulate AT&T, with government mandated terms of service if not tariffs and price controls. This doesn’t fit the technical environment of the Internet, which allows for diverse business models. Companies that experiment with network management, pricing, internal subsidy, and so on can find the configurations that serve widely varying consumers and their differing Internet needs the best.

But the FCC apparently doesn’t like innovation, diversity, and experimentation and instead wants to impose centralized rules. And to justify its power grab, FCC regulators are reclassifying the Internet as “telecommunications carriers” rather than an “information service.”

Title II, which applies to “telecommunications carriers,” allows common carrier regulation of the type the FCC is trying to impose….This is so it can have more control over the business decisions made by Internet service providers. …”Net neutrality” is a good engineering principle, but it shouldn’t be a legal mandate. Technology and markets surpassed any need for command-and-control regulation in this area long ago. But regulators don’t give up power without a fight.

But maybe mockery is the best way to win this issue.

Here’s a new video from the folks at Protect Internet Freedom (the some people who put together the second video in this post).

If you’ve ever been at hold at the Department of Motor Vehicles or some other bureaucracy, this may cause uncomfortable and painful flashbacks.

And here’s another video, put together by Senator Cruz’s office.

Very well done, just like the humor Cruz’s office has deployed against Obamacare.

And speaking of humor, here are some new cartoons on the topic.

Though this next cartoon is my favorite because it so effectively captures my feelings.

The Internet has been a huge success, so why on earth would anybody think it will be better if a bunch of regulators can second-guess the free market?!?

If you want more cartoons on Internet regulation, here’s a collection that I shared last year.

P.S. Shifting to another topic, here’s a story that belongs in the category of “great moments in lobbying.”

Here are some excerpts from a story published by the Raleigh News and Observer.

Sex between lobbyists and government officials who are covered under North Carolina’s ethics laws does not constitute a gift that must be listed in disclosure reports, the State Ethics Commission said Friday. …The opinion was in a response to an inquiry from the Secretary of State’s lobbying compliance director, Joal H. Broun, in a letter on Dec. 15. …Broun’s request also wanted to know if that activity falls within the definition of “goodwill lobbying,” which is an indirect attempt to influence legislation or executive action, such as the building of relationships, according to state law, and is also considered lobbying.

I’m sure there are some serious points to be made, but I confess that my immediate reaction was to think about this cartoon.

Whether any “goodwill” is being created is a topic for another day.

That being said, you’ll be happy to know that actually procuring hookers is against the rules.

However, providing a prostitute to a legislator or other covered official would constitute a gift or item of value and would have to be reported on disclosure forms – which, of course, would also be evidence of a crime, the opinion says.

The good news is that this rule, if properly enforced, will protect a vulnerable group people from being morally corrupted.

But enough about the need to protect prostitutes from being contaminated by close proximity to politicians.

I want to close on a serious point. As I wrote the other day, the best way to reduce lobbying is to reduce the size and scope of government.

P.P.S. Actually, hookers and politicians have something in common.

P.P.P.S. If you liked my quip about protecting prostitutes from politicians, you’ll appreciate this Craig Ferguson joke.

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My Cato Institute colleague Michael Tanner has produced some first-rate substantive research on issues.

He produced a study showing that personal retirement accounts would have been a better deal than Social Security even for people who retired at the depth of the financial crisis and stock-market collapse.

He authored another study showing that overly generous welfare systems in most states make productive work relatively unattractive compared to government dependency.

And I’ve also cited his analysis and commentary on issues such as Obamacare and obesity.

Today, I want to cite him for the simple reason that I admire his cleverness.

For those of us who suffered through President Obama’s State of the Union address, you may recall that the President proposed a thawing of America’s relationship with Cuba on the basis that if something “doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”

Since I’m not a foreign policy person, I didn’t pay close attention to that passage.

But perhaps I should have been more attentive. It turns out that Obama created a big opening.

Writing for National Review, Tanner decided to hoist Obama on his own petard.

During his State of the Union address last week, President Obama defended his Cuba policy by pointing out, “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.” As it happens, I agree with the president on Cuba. But it seems to me that his advice should be applied to a number of other issues as well

Mike starts with the ill-fated War on Poverty.

Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in January 1964, just three years after the start of the Cuban embargo. Since then we’ve spent more than $20 trillion fighting poverty. Last year alone, federal and state governments spent just under $1 trillion to fund 126 separate anti-poverty programs. Yet, using the conventional Census Bureau poverty measure, we’ve done nothing to reduce the poverty rate. …And, whatever success we’ve achieved in making material poverty less uncomfortable, we’ve done little to help the poor become independent and self-supporting.

He then points out the utter failure of the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs has been going on even longer than the War on Poverty, with a similar lack of success. …in the last ten years alone we have spent some $500 billion fighting this “war,” and arrested more than 16 million Americans for drug offenses. The vast majority of arrests have been for simple possession, not sale or other drug crimes. While filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders, destabilizing countries like Mexico and Colombia, wrecking our own inner cities, and making the cartels rich, the drug war has failed to reduce either violence or drug use.

Mike also reminds us that we’ve had five decades-plus of government-run healthcare.

…we’ve suffered from government-run health care in this country for more than 50 years as well. Medicare and Medicaid started in 1965. Others would point out that we are still suffering the consequences of the IRS decision in 1953 to make employer-provided insurance tax-free, while individually purchased insurance has to be paid for with after-tax dollars. No matter how you want to measure the starting point, the government now pays for roughly 52 percent of U.S. health-care spending, and indirectly subsidizes another 37 percent. The result has been steadily rising health-care costs, a dysfunctional insurance market, and a growing shortage of physicians. …a study out of Oregon suggests that being on Medicaid provides no better health outcomes than being uninsured. Meanwhile, Medicare is running up more than $47.6 trillion in unfunded liabilities. And let us not forget the VA system and its problems.

And his article merely scratches the surface.

One could go on and on. Fannie and Freddie? Social Security and its almost $25 trillion in unfunded liabilities? Stimulus spending? Green energy? We won’t even mention the National Weather Service’s apparent inability to accurately predict snowstorms. If we are looking for lessons to learn from the last 50 years, here is one: Bigger government has not brought us more security, more freedom, or more prosperity. Yet, President Obama still sees the answer to every problem, no matter how small, as more government, no matter how big. …President Obama not only seems unable to learn from history, but apparently doesn’t even listen to his own speeches. If big government hasn’t worked for 50 years, 100 years, or for that matter pretty much the whole of human history, maybe it’s time to try something else.

The final sentence in that passage is not just a throw-away line.

I have my own two-question challenge for leftists, which is basically a request that they identify a nation – of any size and at any time – that has prospered with big government.

Mike does something similar. He basically points out that big government has an unbroken track record of failure, and not just for the past 50 years.

I suppose the question to ask is whether any big-government program can be considered a success? In other words, what has any government done well, once it goes beyond the provision of core public goods such as enforcing contracts, protecting property rights, and upholding the rule of law?

To be fair, there are some nations, such as Switzerland, that have enjoyed very long periods of monetary stability and peace. And jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have experienced decades of prosperity and tranquility.

In all of those jurisdictions, I think government is too big, but they are considered small-government by modern-world standards.

In any event, the point I’m making is that some governments seem semi-competent, but there also seems to be a relationship between the size and scope of government and the failure of government.

It will be interesting to read the comments.

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How thoughtful. The President gave the economy a special gift before jetting off to Hawaii.

The Obama administration is cramming like a college student trying to study for a final exam, publishing more than 1,200 new regulations in the last 15 days alone, according to data from Regulations.gov. Energy and environment rules are the biggest category, with 139 published by the federal government in the last 15 days… So far this year, the Obama administration has proposed or finalized  more than $200 billion in regulations when the coal ash rule’s costs are factored in, according to the American Action Forum.

Unfortunately, it appears there is no return policy for these gifts, even if many of them are actually lumps of coal.

So is there a way to quantify the cost of all this regulation, particularly when added to all the red tape that’s already been imposed?

The honest answer is that it’s very difficult. Do you measure only direct budgetary costs? What about compliance costs for the private sector. And how about the indirect costs of diminished productivity, not only in terms of economic performance but also the impact on longevity?

On the other side of the ledger, should there also be some calculation of benefits? A national 5-MPH speed limit would wreck the economy, to be sure, but it would save lives. How does this get measured, using cost-benefit analysis?

The bottom line is that the methodological issues when looking at regulatory burdens are significant, so take any numbers with a few grains of salt. With that caveat out of the way, here are some very large numbers to digest.

Americans spend 8.8 billion hours every year filling out government forms.

The economy-wide cost of regulation is now $1.75 trillion.

For every bureaucrat at a regulatory agency, 100 jobs are destroyed in the economy’s productive sector.

The Obama Administration added $236 billion of red tape in 2012 alone.

A World Bank study determined that moving from heavy regulation to light regulation “can increase a country’s average annual GDP per capita growth by 2.3 percentage points.”

And now we’re going to augment this disturbing list.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has a “RegData” page that allows a user to generate all sorts of information on regulatory burdens.

But I wasn’t focused on “micro” data on the regulations that affect different industries or the regulations promulgated by various bureaucracies.

I clicked on the data designed to capture the overall “macro” magnitude of red tape. And we have two types of information.

This first chart measures the numbers of words in the annual Code of Federal Regulations (which makes great reading if you’re suffering from insomnia).

The bottom line is that there’s been a 40 percent-plus increase in the number of words over the past 15 years.

To be sure, the number of words cranked out by regulatory bureaucracies is not a perfect measure of regulatory burdens.

The Pentagon, for instance, has 26 pages of regulation detailing how to bake brownies. That’s insanely stupid and probably makes brownie procurement four times more expensive than necessary.

But there are regulations with fewer pages (and fewer words) that are far more expensive to the overall economy. The IRS, for instance, imposed a regulation to force American banks to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law regarding the reporting of bank deposit interest paid to nonresident foreigners with U.S. accounts. That regulation was less than five pages long, but could drive millions of dollars from the American financial system.

Now let’s look at the number of restrictions imposed by regulations. To be more specific, the Mercatus experts calculate the number of times that regulations use coercive words and phrases such as “shall” and “must not.”

The good news, if you’re grading on a curve, is that the use of coercive terminology has jumped by “only” 28 percent since 1997.

I guess you could say that bureaucrats are becoming loquacious faster than they’re becoming proscriptive.

Or if you’re a glass-half-empty person, you could say that they’re making us read more to learn how our freedoms are being curtailed.

Now let’s look at the regulatory burden imposed by one piece of legislation.

I’ve referred to the so-called Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act as the Dodd-Frank Bailout Bill, but that really doesn’t capture the scope of the legislation. Robert Genetski has a column in Investor’s Business Daily that attempts to measure the law’s economic burden.

Our politicians have placed any number of barriers in the way of prosperity, and one of the most costly has been the Dodd-Frank financial reforms (DF). …The Government Accountability Office provided an original estimate of Dodd-Frank’s direct cost: $2.9 billion over the first five years. If that is accurate, it means the law will cost the taxpayers roughly $600 million annually, or $5 for each private-sector worker. The direct cost to taxpayers is only the beginning. Historical estimates show private-sector costs to comply with government regulations tend to be 36 times the direct cost to government. If Dodd-Frank is typical, the annual cost of compliance will be more like $22 billion, or $188 for each private-sector worker. Unfortunately, there are numerous indications the Dodd-Frank regulations are far from typical. …Dodd-Frank has a compliance cost of close to $120 billion annually, or just over $1,000 for each private-sector worker. As burdensome as that estimate sounds, it too likely understates Dodd-Frank’s compliance costs. …the Davis Polk law firm identified 398 explicit new regulations created by Dodd-Frank, making it at least 25 times more extensive and complex than Sarbanes-Oxley. If the costs of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley are the more reasonable gauge for those associated with Dodd-Frank, it could easily cost 25 times more than its predecessor, or $225 billion a year. This amounts to almost $2,000 for each private-sector worker.

Wow. I’m glad he ran out of space. The burden of the law got more expensive with each new paragraph.

Now let’s shift to a more uplifting story.

Back in the late 1970s, politicians actually deregulated the air cargo sector.

The folks at Mercatus highlight some of the benefits.

In the twenty years prior to deregulation, the CAB refused to certify the entry of any new cargo carriers or the expansion of existing ones into new routes and limited the size of plane allowed for air cargo hauls. Thus under this regime carriers such as FedEx, which was classified as an express (rather than cargo) service, could only use small planes even when larger ones were the more efficient choice. …Deregulation of the airline industry occurred in two stages: the first happened with the passage of Public Law 95-163 deregulating interstate air cargo transport in 1977; this was followed a year later by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 deregulating the air passenger industry. The effects of deregulation were dramatic. …Absent route restrictions, the air cargo industry began using hub-and-spoke models that made widespread overnight shipping possible. …Free from operational restrictions imposed by the CAB and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), shippers increased reliability and provided a multitude of delivery speed, time, and method combinations. …Deregulation of air cargo was a key element in the emergence of modern supply chain management and allowed wider access to goods supplied by domestic and international sources. It also facilitated American trade to foreign markets. Efficiencies in widespread use of hub-and-spoke models for air cargo, by reducing total costs, enable more American products to reach foreign markets.

There’s also an accompanying video that is perfect for the season.

If air cargo regulation was the good and Dodd-Frank was the bad, I guess it’s now time for the ugly.

Here’s a video from Reason that satirizes the TSA for senseless rules on what can – and cannot – be carried onto a plane.

Just in case you think the video is unfair to the TSA, check out these horror stories.

P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with current regulation when building an ark.

P.P.S. Meanwhile, there are reports that Santa Claus was arrested after a multi-bureaucracy investigation found that he violated a slew of federal rules.

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When I discuss corporate welfare, my first example is usually the Export-Import Bank. It galls me that taxpayers are coerced into subsidizing some of the world’s biggest corporations.

And since I’m an economist, I also don’t like how these subsidies undermine the overall economy.

But the Export-Import Bank is just the tip of the iceberg. Politically connected corporations now treat Washington like a profit center, making “investments” in politicians in exchange for policies that unfairly tilt the economic playing field.

Let’s look at another example of big companies suckling at the federal teat.

Mark Calabria, one of my Cato colleagues (and we also both studied economics at George Mason University!), explains why the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of helping rich shareholders by having the government subsidize corporate insurance policies.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats are in the midst of negotiating a deal to extend the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), which expires at the end of this year. They should save themselves the trouble and protect the taxpayer by allowing TRIA to expire. TRIA is no more than corporate welfare wrapped up in the flag. …TRIA is simply a mechanism for allocating the losses from a terrorist attack. It does nothing to deter terrorists. Do we truly believe that terrorists say to each other, “Let’s not attack that building, it’s insured”? Under the best of circumstances, TRIA has zero impact on the cost of a terror attack. …Why are taxpayers thought to be better able to bear…risk than shareholders in publicly traded corporations, given the concentrated holdings of corporate equity? Why should middle-class taxpayers subsidize the 1 percent?

Amen.

I don’t want the federal government doing any redistribution, but it’s particularly upsetting when politicians and bureaucrats hurt ordinary people to line the pockets of the rich.

Mark also explains that this isn’t simply a case of robbing Peter to subsidize Paul. As with many government programs, the indirect effects result in added collateral damage.

It would be bad enough if TRIA simply redistributed losses from corporate America to taxpayers, but TRIA runs the risk of increasing the losses from terrorism. If developers faced the full cost of their design choices — say, that between a glass building façade or reinforced concrete – they would build safer structures. We’ve sadly seen this play out in the national flood-insurance program, where subsidies have encouraged poor construction while also encouraging families to live in harm’s way. Even the Congressional Budget Office has acknowledged that TRIA lessens the incentives to reduce losses from a terror attack. …the most important lesson of the financial crisis was that when you underprice risk, people make poor choices. That has been repeatedly demonstrated when Congress has attempted to hide the costs of certain activities, like subprime-mortgage lending. Similarly distorting the pricing of terrorism risk will also lead to poor choices.

The final sentences are critically insightful. We need unfettered prices to ensure that costs and benefits are properly calculated and resources are productively allocated.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page is similarly opposed to this example of corporate welfare.

For proof of Ronald Reagan ’s maxim that the closest thing to eternal life on Earth is a government program, consider the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002. What was sold to the public as a temporary backstop is becoming another permanent entitlement. …Insurers and potential targets of terror, such as the National Football League, property developers and hoteliers, have lobbied hard to keep the program going, and going and going. Congress waved through extensions in 2005 and 2007. Earlier this year, facing a Dec. 31 expiration date, Harry Reid ’s Senate passed another seven-year extension 93-4. Like the Export-Import Bank, terrorism insurance is one of those business subsidies that both parties are only too happy to support. …The best solution would be for the House to let the program expire. Insurers have had 13 years to adjust their models. The Government Accountability Office reported in May that terrorism risk premiums have stabilized. …Private reinsurers can cover many of the risks that taxpayers now bear.

By the way, I think private insurers and reinsurers were the best option, even immediately after the 9-11 terror attacks. Yes, the market was very unsettled and would have stayed that way for a while, but both insurers and customers would have had big incentives to quickly figure out the best pricing strategies.

I would have much rather faced a year or two of instability rather than a decade-plus of distortionary subsidies.

But that’s water under the bridge. What matters now is that there’s zero excuse for subsidizing the insurance policies of big corporations.

By the way, just in case you think I’m exaggerating and that corporate welfare is limited to the Ex-Im Bank and terrorism insurance, check out these other examples of big business and big government conspiring against taxpayers and consumers.

Look at the way the major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies got into bed with the White House to line their pockets via Obamacare.

And examine how big financial firms pillaged taxpayers as part of the sleazy TARP bailout.

How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam.

Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market.

Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians.

Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors.

And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

P.S. Since our topic today dealt with terrorism, check out the terrorism-related humor and links in the “P.P.P.S.” of this post.

P.P.S. New topic. Every so often I find some left-wing political satire that is genuinely clever and thoughtful.

There’s my collection of anti-libertarian humor (including an article about libertarian law enforcement), some good leftist tax cartoons, a Fox News dystopia, and some well-done first-world vs third-world imagery.

Now we can add this cartoon about a Joe GOP Sixpack who thinks government is grossly incompetent and untrustworthy, with one exception.

A very effective zinger, I’ll be the first to admit. Indeed, the cartoonist hits me in a somewhat sensitive spot.

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When people ask me why I mock government for being a slovenly, bloated, and malicious entity, I’m sometimes not sure what to say.

Do I give them examples of corrupt corporate welfare?

Do I share instances of government thuggery?

Do I direct them to preposterous examples of waste?

Do I show them details about an insanely complex tax code?

Do I enlighten them about sleazy insider behavior by the political elite?

The short answer is that I’m never sure what to say, which is why I oftentimes resort instead to utilitarian arguments in which I show that nations with smaller public sectors out-perform countries with larger levels of taxation, spending, regulation, and intervention.

I figure many people will probably never share my instinctive libertarian outrage about abusive government, but they presumably will be susceptible to the argument that it’s better to enjoy the prosperity of jurisdictions like Hong Kong and Singapore rather than suffer the stagnation of nations such as France and Greece.

And perhaps if I also share enough stories about foolish government policy, they’ll eventually realize that 2+2=4 and also decide to become libertarians (or at least small-government conservatives).

With that in mind, let’s look at three episodes of brain-addled government policy, one about taxes, one about spending, and the other about regulation.

For our tax story, let’s look at the so-called “Snooki tax.” Here are some excerpts from a column by Erik Telford published in The Hill.

…architects of the Affordable Care Act thought they found a winning funding formula. Create a “sin tax” on vanity businesses and use it to help pay for massive increase in government healthcare spending. Proposals to hit Botox sparked strong reaction from the dermatologist lobby, so legislators went to plan B–go after a weaker industry and tax tanning beds. …They called it the “Snooki Tax” after the oft-criticized reality TV star and tried to put a shallow celebrity face on a tax that would harm thousands of small businesses. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation crowed that the tax would raise $2.7 billion in nine years, all to offset the estimated $1 trillion price tag of the ACA. Each business would have to tack on a 10 percent excise tax on each tanning experience for every customer.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the JCT’s estimate was wrong and the tax isn’t collecting as much revenue as forecast.

But you might be shocked to learn that the levy is incredibly inefficient.

…roughly 19,000 “mom and pop” small businesses may have  been affected by the new tax — and those businesses likely spent an average of $74 an hour to comply with federal tax paperwork burdens… the taxes collected might not even pay for the efforts to reap them. Enforcement requires heavy investments in training and employee hours to catch businesses offering services “under the table.” An agent trying to audit a business that offers tanning must observe a business in operation, compare subjective observations about customer flow to the businesses’ bookkeeping, take into account “weak internal accounting systems,” then “request trial balance (if any), summary sheets, work papers and determine the audit trail either for manual or automated record keeping systems, for all transactions.”

I don’t know if the tanning tax is worse than the infamous German coffee tax, but it’s probably a close race.

Now let’s look at a report about wasteful government spending.

I’ve written that the federal government shouldn’t be in the disaster business since that’s a recipe for the blame-shifting, mis-management, and inefficiency we saw after Katrina.

But I realize some folks may think my approach is “too radical,” even though I think it’s common sense that affected communities are far more likely to effectively plan and respond to disasters rather than bureaucrats in Washington.

So let’s look at what happens when those bureaucrats make decisions. Here are some blurbs in a report from the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Houses that are built according to FEMA guidelines suffer more property damage during hurricanes than homes built prior to the guidelines, write Carolyn Dehring, professor at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, and Martin Halek, senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Business, for the Cato Institute. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) provides flood insurance to homeowners in communities participating in the program. Those communities are required to adopt the NFIP building code, which uses minimum building standards established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). …The study found that buildings in the A-Zone constructed after the NFIP code was implemented were much more likely to sustain damage, and have a greater extent of damage, than other structures in the area built prior to the NFIP code. Of buildings that were damaged, buildings constructed post-NFIP incurred 57 percent more damages than similarly situated property.

So federal regulations designed to “help” actually led to more damage. Go figure.

By the way, the costs weren’t borne by the actual property owners or even the local communities of states. Uncle Sugar (meaning you and me) picked up the tab.

NFIP has paid $3.7 billion in losses in Florida alone since 1978.

This is sort of the government’s version of biblical miracles. But instead of turning water into wine, Washington turns tax dollars into mud.

Now for our example of brainless regulation. The Hill reports that the bureaucracy is about to impose a big pile of red tape on the food industry.

The menu-labeling rule, due out any day, is expected to be one of the most expensive regulations to hit the food industry in recent years, business groups said. Not only does it take aim at restaurants, but, depending on its final language, the rule could also apply to grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations and movie theaters that sell prepared food. The nation’s eateries are faced with the costly prospect of having to calculate the number of calories in the various meals they serve. “Not every steak is exactly the same,” says Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Industry. “The slightest variation in how I cut the steak and serve it can affect the nutritional content.”

This costly and intrusive bit of red tape is “a requirement of ObamaCare.” And like many other parts of that odious law, it imposes onerous burdens on the economy’s productive sector.

…restaurants and grocery stores are concerned they’ll be required to recount the number of calories in a meal every time they tinker with a recipe, which they say would be nearly impossible to do considering the endless number of food combinations they sell. At McDonald’s, for instance, a Big Mac is usually 550 calories, but it could be more for a customer who orders extra cheese. It’s even more complicated for pizza joints. Domino’s says there are 34 million potential combinations of its pizza that go well beyond a customer deciding between toppings like pepperoni and sausage. They also must factor in whether it’s a large, medium, or small pizza, deep dish or thin crust, and any extra ingredients. …Grocery stores are experiencing the same concerns, facing what they say is $1 billion in compliance costs in the first year alone. They say 95 percent of the food they sell — like breakfast cereal, potato chips, milk — already lists nutritional information including the number of calories. But the menu labeling requirements would target their delis, bakeries and any fresh fruit they slice up and put in containers to sell. …That could push many grocery stores to close up their delis and bakeries and stop offering fresh fruit.

Amazingly, some interest groups and politicians want the proposed regulation to be even more sweeping.

Wootan would also like to see movie theaters included in the menu labeling requirements. She seems to have support from the congressional authors of the menu labeling requirements, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who not only believe restaurants and grocery stores should be covered, but also movie houses, miniature golf courses, amusement parks and any other venue that serves prepared food. The two lawmakers have written numerous letters to the FDA saying they are disappointed with how “narrow” the rule is.

Heck, maybe they can assign a bureaucrat to every household in America and require calorie counts for every home-cooked meal as well.

Though I shouldn’t joke. Some statist will think I’m being serious and run with the idea.

Meanwhile, I’ll make a very simple prediction. If this regulation is implemented, it will have zero measurable impact on American waistlines.

So even if you believe in government coercion, this won’t work. And the types of coercion that would work – such as mandatory exercise and criminalizing carbs – are incompatible with a a free (or even semi-free) society.

Remember the message of this poster: If government is the answer, you’ve asked a very silly question. Or a misguided question. Or a dangerous question.

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I don’t like coerced redistribution. When the government uses the threat of force to take from Person A to give to Person B, it simultaneously reduces Person A’s incentives to produce while also luring Person B into dependency.

But not all coerced redistribution and government intervention is created equal.

I don’t like welfare programs, for instance, in part because taxpayers are writing huge checks to support a plethora of programs, but also because there is very strong evidence that the modern welfare state has caused more poverty.

Nonetheless, I understand that there are well-meaning people who support these programs. Their motives are pure in that they simply want to alleviate perceived suffering. And since they’ve never learned about the adverse indirect effects of government intervention and presumably haven’t given any thought to the ethics of government coercion, I don’t think of these people as being bad or immoral. Just uninformed.

But there are some forms of redistribution and intervention that are so self-evidently odious and corrupt that you can’t give supporters the benefit of the doubt. Simply stated, there’s no justifiable argument for using government coercion to hurt poor people in order to benefit rich people.

Let’s look at two examples.

First, the Export-Import Bank is a quintessential example of corporate welfare. The program forces taxpayers to guarantee the contracts of big corporations and foreign buyers, and there’s now a fight over whether it should be extended.

Needless to say, ordinary voters don’t want their money being used enrich big companies.

So if you were one of the beltway insiders who benefited from this corrupt institution, how would you try to get the program extended? Would you be upfront and argue that big companies like Boeing deserve tax dollars? Would you argue that politicians are really smart and wise and that they should interfere with the free market?

That would be the honest way of supporting the Ex-Im Bank. But you won’t be surprised to learn that advocates instead have resorted to lies. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank has mischaracterized potentially hundreds of large companies and units of multinational conglomerates as small businesses, a flaw in its record keeping that could undermine the export lender’s survival strategy. …A comparison of some 6,000 businesses characterized by Ex-Im as “small” with information supplied by corporate data collector Dun & Bradstreet, which Ex-Im also uses to vet applicants, and other sources turns up some 200 companies that appear to be mislabeled and many more whose classification is uncertain.

Um… I would say they lied rather than characterize it as a “flaw in its record keeping.” But let’s set that aside and look at some of the “small businesses” that had their snouts in the Ex-Im trough.

…analysis showed companies owned by billionaires such as Warren Buffet and Mexico’s Carlos Slim, as well by Japanese and European conglomerates, were listed as small businesses and Ex-Im acknowledged errors in its data in response to those findings.  …A division of Austria’s Swarovski jewelers shows up, as does North Carolina’s Global Nuclear Fuels, which is owned by General Electric and Japan’s Toshiba and Hitachi. …The list of small businesses in Texas, for example, includes engineering and construction company Bechtel, which has 53,000 employees.

Gee, Warren Buffet and foreign conglomerates don’t exactly sound like my idea of small businesses.

Hopefully this will provide more ammunition of those fighting to wean big companies from the public teat.

Bank officials and supporters have used the Ex-Im’s support for American small business as a first line of defense against a campaign by conservatives to shut it down as an exponent of “crony capitalism.” …“Rarely does Ex-Im miss a (public relations) opportunity to claim that it primarily helps small business, but Ex-Im is again playing fast and loose with the facts,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. “The bulk of Ex-Im’s help indisputably goes to large corporations that can finance their own operations without putting it on the taxpayer balance sheet.”

For our second example, we have the absolutely horrifying spectacle of the Obama Administration trying to shut down Wisconsin’s school choice system.

Why? Well, because currying favor with union bosses is more important than improving educational opportunities for students from disadvantaged communities.

George Will explains what’s happening in his Washington Post column.

It is as remarkable as it is repulsive… Eager to sacrifice low-income children to please teachers unions, the Justice Department wants to destroy Wisconsin’s school choice program. Feigning concern about access for disabled children, the department aims to handicap all disadvantaged children by denying their parents access to school choices of the sort affluent government lawyers enjoy. …Wisconsin’s school choice program was pioneered by an American hero, Mississippi-born Annette Polly Williams, who died Nov. 9 at age 77. During her three decades in Wisconsin’s legislature, she overcame the opposition of fellow Democrats to offering education choices to low-income parents. At the end of her life, however, she saw an African American attorney general, serving an African American president, employing tortured legal reasoning in an attempt to bankrupt private schools that enlarge the education options of disadvantaged children. …Closing the voucher program is the obvious objective of the teachers unions and hence of the Obama administration. Herding children from the choice schools back into government schools would swell the ranks of unionized teachers, whose union dues fund the Democratic Party as it professes devotion to “diversity” and the downtrodden.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised (given the White House’s cavalier approach to the rule of law) to learn that the Obama Administration is using is utterly nonsensical legal theory.

…federal lawyers argue that because public funds, in the form of tuition vouchers empowering parents to make choices, flow to private schools, the schools become “public entities.” …this is like arguing that when food stamps are used for purchases at Wal-Mart, America’s largest private employer ceases to be private — it becomes an extension of the government. Inconveniently for the Justice Department, the U.S. Supreme Court has said the fact that a “private entity performs a function which serves the public does not make its acts state action.”

The preposterous legal reasoning is a farce, but that doesn’t get me overly upset.

What does bother me is the way the White House is acting like the modern-day equivalent of George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent low-income (and largely minority) students from getting an opportunity for better education.

I guess that a black President (who sends his own kids to private school) consigning black children to the back of the proverbial bus shouldn’t surprise me too much. After all, some divisions of the NAACP also have decided that being politically allied with union bosses is more important that educational opportunity for minority kids.

But that doesn’t make it morally acceptable. Put yourself in the shoes of a low-income parent. Wisconsin’s school choice programs gives you some hope that your kids can break free of poverty. Imagine what it feels like, then, when some of the politicians who claim to be on your side then decide that your children are expendable pawns. How disgusting.

Since we’re talking about things that are disgusting, let’s shift back to the Ex-Im Bank. I’ve actually had some Republican types tell me that corporate welfare is okay because it “helps to offset” some of the redistribution from rich to poor.

I confess that I’m dumbstruck by such arguments. It’s sort of like hearing someone say it’s okay to murder, rape, and steal because other people are doing it.

This is why it’s not easy being a libertarian. Yes, we believe in small government for utilitarian reasons such as faster growth, higher living standards, and more jobs. But we’re also motivated by morality, by the belief that there’s right and wrong and that good people should strive to uphold the former and fight the latter.

That’s not a popular view in Washington, which is best characterized as an incestuous racket for the benefit of interest groups, politicians, cronyists, lobbyists, bureaucrats, contractors, and other insiders.

P.S. On a completely separate (and non-political) issue, I can’t resist seeking some sympathy after what happened to me this morning. I took two of my cats to the vet for their spay and neuter appointments. Some of you pet owners already know that most cats don’t like car rides, so you might have some inkling of what I’m about to report.

In happier times

About five minutes into the drive, one of the cats vomits in the little cat carrier. That obviously wasn’t a happy development, particularly since it left me with an unpleasant choice of enduring a very unpleasant smell or having the window open and enduring a very bitter chill. But then, a few minutes later, the other cat…um, how should I phrase this…loses control of her bowels.

Which means that the next 20 minutes was almost as unbearable as watching a state-of-the-union address. I was running late for the appointment, so I couldn’t stop someplace and try to deal with the mess. And the two cats kept moving around in their carrier, making things worse. Trying to breathe through my mouth, even with the window down, was at best a pitiful attempt to mitigate my suffering.

An utterly miserable situation. Almost 1/10th as bad as an IRS audit.

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