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Archive for the ‘Lobbying’ Category

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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I’ve argued that the crowd in Washington profits by plundering America, but that’s just part of the equation.

There are also plenty of big companies that have their snouts in the public trough.

No wonder many people have become disgusted

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman points out that a growing number of Americans think the system is rigged against them and he links this disillusionment to an ever-expanding federal government.

According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a full 56% of Americans agree with this statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” This disillusionment index has been rising for more than a decade and coincides with an explosion in the size of the federal government. …The last time Americans had this little faith in the country’s political and economic systems was for a brief period in 1992, in the aftermath of President George H.W. Bush’s breaking of his no-new-taxes pledge in a deal with Congressional Democrats that enabled more spending. …more government enables people to get rich through political favoritism. In the era of the Beltway boom, no wonder so many people feel the deck is stacked against them.

So is this just empty anti-government rhetoric?

I don’t think so.

Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits.

Or 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.

After looking at that list, I’m surprised that 100 percent of Americans haven’t concluded that the system is rigged for corrupt insiders.

But just in case you think that list is inadequate, let’s look at some new examples.

But first, allow me to reiterate my view on markets.

Simply stated, I believe in genuine unfettered capitalism within a system that protects life, liberty, and property (in other words, “unfettered capitalism” obviously doesn’t include the right to hire a hit man to kill your mother-in-law).

Within those boundaries, I have no objection to people taking risks, accumulating wealth, or losing all their money. Heck, it’s not just that I have “no objection.” I welcome such a system since it means the maximum freedom and prosperity for people, particularly the less fortunate.

But I don’t want people to get rich(er) because they have political allies who will adopt cronyist policies that tilt the playing field in favor of well-connected insiders.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in my two new examples.

First, we have the case of a big Democratic donor who invested a lot of money in a short sell position on Herbalife, which means he will profit if the stock falls in value.

Nothing wrong with that, at least in theory. Short selling can be a very economically beneficial way of correcting markets when something is over-valued. Heck, we would all be much better off today if there had been some short selling to pop the housing bubble before it got so big.

But as Tim Carney explains in a column for the Washington Examiner, this short-selling insider isn’t relying on market forces. Instead, he is asking his buddies in the Obama Administration to use coercive government to hurt the company and lower its value.

Here are some excerpts.

Politically connected hedge-funder Bill Ackman…shorted the nutritional supplement company Herbalife in late 2012… After Ackman’s announcement, Herbalife shares fell from $46 to $27. Ackman kept hammering away, taking his compelling slide show on the road to convince the investing public that Herbalife was a house of cards. But after the initial drop, Herbalife stock rebounded… But Ackman had another weapon in his arsenal. Namely: Big Government. Ackman lobbied congresswoman Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., to sic the Federal Trade Commission on Herbalife. Sanchez complied. Ackman also…“paid civil rights organizations at least $130,000 to join his effort by helping him collect the names of people who claimed they were victimized by Herbalife in order to send the leads to regulators…” Ackman’s firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, hired an army of K Street lobbyists — paying a combined $14,000 a month to three firms that disclose lobbying for him — to turn the government against Herbalife.

What reprehensible behavior on the part of Ackman.

I have no idea whether Herbalife is a good company or a bad company. And I have no idea whether its stock is over-valued or under-valued.

But I do know that Ackman shouldn’t be getting his political buddies to intervene. As Tim points out, this is a recipe for rampant cronyism.

This is different from ordinary lobbying. Typically, companies lobby to protect or subsidize their business. When hedge funds play Ackman’s game, helping or hurting some other company is the entirety of that business — and so lobbying can become the core of their business plan. We’ve seen it before. Investor Steve Eisman took a short position on for-profit colleges and lobbied Congress and the Department of Education to crack down on them. The Obama administration this month announced new proposed regulations on these colleges.

Now let’s look at another example.

Only this time it involves a big-donor Republican who wants favors from big government.

As the Washington Post reports, Sheldon Adelson doesn’t want his casinos to face competition from the Internet.

Given the more than $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has donated lately to Republican causes, the billionaire casino tycoon is well-positioned to get what he wants from a GOP-dominated Congress. But it turns out that the item on top of Adelson’s wish list — a ban on Internet gambling — is encountering resistance. And it’s not Democrats who stand in his way but a small group of fellow conservatives. …Online betting has been embraced by a number of Adelson’s industry rivals and several states eager for the additional tax revenue it provides….Yet the move to the Internet has also been seen as a threat that could deplete the customer base for Adelson’s brick-and-mortar casino resorts. …Half of the 22 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have co-sponsored the Adelson-backed legislation.

So what’s the status of the battle?

…conservative opposition began to emerge. …leaders of the other groups, including the American Conservative Union, did not mention Adelson by name. But their letter follows the publication this week of a fiery online column by former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian hero and father of potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He called the bill an example of “crony capitalism” written “for the benefit of one powerful billionaire.” …Adelson called the 2011 Justice Department legal opinion a mistake and has taken steps to rein in online gambling, fighting state-level proposals to authorize it and pushing for the federal ban. A company lawyer penned an initial draft of the Restoration of America’s Wire Act — later refined and introduced last year by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — which would effectively prevent states from authorizing online betting.

Ugh, how nauseating.

Though I’m glad to see that there is opposition inside the GOP to Adelson’s self-serving proposal.

I realize we can’t say for sure whether opponents are motivated solely by good principles of non-intervention and federalism. Perhaps they’ve received money from interest groups on the other side, but at least there is resistance and presumably some of that opposition is for the right reasons.

By contrast, I’m not aware of any Democrats who are opposed to Ackman’s cronyist attack on Herbalife.

The moral of the story is that big government enables insider corruption. Which is the message of this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But if you don’t want to watch the video, just remember the simple lesson of today’s column, which is that all the examples of sleazy cronyism we discussed (both the new ones and the old ones) were only possible because government had the power to trump free markets.

Now let’s return to where we started. Yes, a growing number of Americans are getting disillusioned, and with good reason. But will the good people in Washington appeal to them with a principled campaign against corporate welfare and other policies that help insider fat cats?

Or will it be business as usual, with GOP cronyists replacing Democrat cronyists?

Even worse, will statists latch onto the issue and say the solution is to impose higher tax rates? That presumably would take some money from rich insiders, but it also would penalize folks who earn money honestly.

And it means the money that consumers lose because of cronyism winds up in the pockets of politicians.

Wouldn’t it be better to simply get rid of the bad subsidies and handouts and solve the real problem?

P.S. Since today’s column looks at capitalism vs cronyism, here’s the famous example of how you can explain various economic systems using two cows.

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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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I’ve been banging the drum for years about Washington being a racket for the benefit of politicians, cronyists, bureaucrats, contractors, lobbyists, interest groups, and other insiders.

I’ve written about horrific examples of bloated spending that line the pockets of the well connected.

I’ve shared disgusting examples of Democrat sleaze and Republican sleaze.

I’ve exposed rampant corruption with insiders getting rich at our expense.

I’ve pontificated about fat-cat bureaucrats who get paid more and do less.

But I’ve never figured out an effective way of combining all these issues.

So I’m very happy that Scott Beyer of the American Enterprise Institute combines these themes in a very good article about our self-serving political class.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

…the nation’s capital today is wealthy and growing. Metro Washington now has six of the nation’s ten wealthiest counties. In 2012, Falls Church became the nation’s richest city… The region’s median household income is $88,233, second in the nation… But while in other cities this might be a success story, in Washington it comes with a catch. Rather than resulting from private industry, it merely underlies the growth of the city’s leading employer, the federal government. The city’s flourishing has seemed especially perverse in recent years, as the rest of America has lagged economically. Every tax dollar spent represents less money in the private sector to create jobs.

That’s all good material, but this pictograph is absolutely superb. It’s a very compelling summary of how Washington has become a fat and happy imperial city.

Very well done.

It should be clear to everyone that Washington is booming, and hopefully they make the obvious connection that D.C.’s wealth comes at the expense of America’s productive sector.

While the pictograph is excellent, Beyer has some other observations that are worth sharing.

For instance, there’s been an explosion in the amount of money diverted to lobbying by firms, as well as a huge jump in the number of politicians who cash in on their contacts.

One growth industry, due to the vast expansion of the federal government’s tax and regulatory rules, is lobbying. Businesses spent $3.24 billion last year on lobbying, up from $1.45 billion in 1998 and $200 million in 1983. Two-thirds of US senators and representatives joined the lobbying industry after leaving office in 2012, up from a small fraction in the 1960s.

Because I support the Constitution, I don’t object to the concept of companies exercising their 1st Amendment rights to petition the government.

But I do wish government was much smaller so that companies didn’t have so much interest in what happens in Washington. Particularly since companies oftentimes get seduced into treating Washington like a profit center.

Simply stated, as I explain in this video, big government is inherently corrupting.

Beyer also makes some important observations about the overpaid government workforce.

…the region houses about 14 percent of America’s 2.1 million civilian federal workforce, one in five of whom earns an annual salary of more than $100,000. In 2012, federal civilian employees’ median salary was $81,704, compared to $54,995 for the private-sector employees; after accounting for fringe benefits, those figures go to $114,976 versus $65,917, respectively.

Amen.

As a taxpayer, I don’t like overpaid bureaucrats. But as an economist, I’m even more upset that human capital is being misallocated to unproductive purposes.

For more information, here’s my video explaining that the bureaucracy is far too big and paid far too much.

Though if you prefer specific examples, this post contains the charter members of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. And if you’re not already sufficiently nauseated, you can click here and here to learn more about how you are subsidizing fun and games in Washington.

P.S. But I don’t want folks to get overly depressed, so I also encourage you to enjoy these examples of bureaucrat humor and these examples of politician humor.

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I sometimes think that working at the Cato Institute and trying to change Washington must be akin to working at a church in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district.

In both cases, you’re wildly outnumbered by people with a different outlook on life. And it’s not that easy to save misguided souls.

The crowd in Washington, for instance, benefits enormously from a complicated tax system, a Byzantine regulatory regime, and a bloated budget.

All of these factors create big opportunities for unearned income for bureaucrats, cronies, politicians, contractors, lobbyists, and other insiders.

Telling those people they should back away from the public trough is not exactly a way to make friends in DC.

To cite just one example, look at how the Washington establishment is trying to defend the Export-Import Bank, a grotesque example of corporate welfare that is opposed by honest people on the right and left of the political spectrum.

Or, if you want to be partisan, what about the Democratic insiders who are getting rich from Obamacare?

Conversely, what about the Republican insiders who also get rich from big government?

But maybe all these examples are too indirect. So today’s column will give specific examples of people who get undeserved wealth thanks to influence peddling in Washington.

Here are some passages from a brutal expose written by Michelle Malkin for the Washington Examiner. She starts by looking at how Vice President Biden’s son got special treatment, first when he was handed a plum spot as a public relations hack in the Navy Reserve and then after he got tossed out after failing a drug test.

Everything you need to know about Beltway nepotism, corporate cronyism and corruption can be found in the biography of Robert Hunter Biden. …The youngest son of Vice President Joe Biden made news last week after the Wall Street Journal revealed he had been booted from the Navy Reserve for cocaine use. …Papa Biden loves to tout his middle-class, “Average Joe” credentials. But rest assured, if his son had been “Hunter Smith” or “Hunter Jones” or “Hunter Brown,” the Navy’s extraordinary dispensations would be all but unattainable. …Despite the disgraceful ejection from our military, Hunter’s Connecticut law license won’t be subject to automatic review. Because, well, Biden.

But special treatment apparently is nothing new for Biden’s son. And a lifetime of insider deals has been greased by the favor factory of big government.

Skating by, flouting rules and extracting favors are the story of Hunter’s life. Hunter’s first job, acquired after Joe Biden won his 1996 Senate re-election bid in Delaware, was with MBNA. …Hunter zoomed up to senior vice president by early 1998 and then scored a plum position in the Clinton administration’s Commerce Department, specializing in “electronic commerce” before returning to MBNA three years later as a high-priced “consultant.” While he collected those “consulting” (translation: nepotistic access-trading) fees, Hunter became a “founding partner” in the lobbying firm of Oldaker, Biden and Belair in 2002. …Hunter lobbied for drug companies, universities and other deep-pocketed clients to the tune of nearly $4 million billed to the company by 2007. …Continually failing upward, Hunter snagged a seat on the board of directors of taxpayer-subsidized, stimulus-inflated Amtrak, where he pretended not to be a lobbyist, but rather an “effective advocate” for the government railroad system serving the 1 percenters’ D.C.-NYC corridor. …Hunter joined Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings — owned by a powerful Russian government sympathizer who fled to Russia in February — this spring. The hypocritical lobbyist-bashers at the White House deny he will be lobbying and deny any conflict of interest.

At this point, some readers may be thinking that Democrats are the party of big-government corruption.

I’ll agree, but then I’ll add a very important caveat. It’s possible that this description applies to more than one political party.

Let’s look at the sordid details of a story about GOP lobbyists and political hacks taking dirty money to push for big government.

First, some background. For those of you who haven’t heard about “Obamaphones,” you’ll be delighted to learn that our bloated federal government has an entitlement program for cell phones.

The Federal Communications Commission program…charges a dollar or two per line on every American’s phone bill. The revenue generated by the “Universal Service Fund fee” is then used to pay select phone companies $9.25 per month for each poor person they sign up for a free phone. …its cost doubled in five years to $1.75 billion in 2011, and in some states, the number of phones given out exceeded the total eligible population. …The company that has received the most income from the Lifeline program is TracFone, whose CEO, F.J. Pollak, was an Obama campaign fundraiser. The company spent nearly $1 million on lobbying last year.

While an Obama donor is making big bucks off this federal handout, there also are a number of Republicans who are willing to agitate for wasteful spending so long as they get their pieces of silver as well.

Mary Cheney and prominent Republican consultants linked to Karl Rove, Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee are working to expand or protect the Obamaphone entitlement program, apparently on behalf of the telecom companies that make millions on it. …The strategy is aimed at convincing congressional Republicans…to back off of their opposition to the Obamaphone program, which has no connection to veteran status and is more commonly associated with welfare. …The FCC paperwork also lists the names Patti Heck, who is president of Crossroads Media, and Main Street Media Group, a Crossroads affiliate. Crossroads Media has ties to Rove’s American Crossroads…and shared an office used by several political shops employed by Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that these Republican influence peddlers are willing to engage in loathsome demagoguery.

The ad’s voiceover says “some in Congress want to take away his phone,” implying that not having it would endanger him because of his cancer. …Bennett unabashedly defended the Obamaphone and other entitlement programs. “Of course I support these programs, because I don’t hate poor people,” he told the Examiner.

Yup, if you don’t support a federal cell-phone entitlement program, you want veterans to die of cancer and you hate poor people. How do these people sleep at night?!?

Ugh, I want to take a shower after having read both of these stories. Now you see why I always say that Washington is a racket for insiders to get rich at our expense.

Fortunately, the article does quote some other people who are disturbed by this philosophical corruption.

Bill Allison, a lobbying expert at the Sunlight Foundation, said the fact that major Republican consultants are promoting an entitlement program shows that “in Washington’s mercenary culture, there are few principles that stand in the way of a payday.” …“Wow. Just wow. Big government money ensnares a lot of people,” said David Williams, president of the taxpayers group, when told of Jansen’s new client.

By the way, this doesn’t mean everybody in Washington is sleazy. And even the ones that are corrupt on some issues may be principled on others.

But the incentives to “play the game” are enormous. As I explain in this video, big government is inherently corrupting.

P.S. Folks are emailing me to ask me predictions for the 2014 mid-term elections.

I’m not sure why anyone should care. Yes, I did a good job in 2010, but my 2012 predictions were not very impressive.

That being said, I’m happy to oblige. We’re 10 days from the election, so I’ll make a set of predictions today, then another set of predictions with five days to go, then a final set of predictions the day before the election.

For the House of Representatives, I can say with near-100 percent certainty that Republicans will maintain control. Indeed, I suspect they’ll pick up some seats and have a bigger majority.

How big? Let’s go with 246-189, the biggest GOP margin since the late 1940s.

But what about the Senate? The race for partisan control on the upper chamber is getting all the attention.

In the for-what-it’s-worth department, I think Republicans will take control by a 52-48 margin, meaning a net gain of seven seats. Here’s a map showing the seats that will change hands, though I confess Iowa, Colorado, and Georgia could go either way.

 

It’s also possible that Republicans could lose Kansas, while the Democrats could lose North Carolina and New Hampshire.

In other words, the final results could be anywhere between 55-45 Republican control or 52-48 Democratic control.

P.P.S. If Republicans take control, don’t hold your breath waiting for big changes in policy. Even if they don’t get corrupted (like the Obamaphone-loving GOPers described above), the White House will still be controlled by Democrats.

So there won’t be any tax reform and there won’t be any entitlement reform.

Though there may be some fights in the next two years that help determine whether those things can happen after the 2016 election.

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I periodically comment about government corruption, often in the context of trying to make the general point that shrinking the size and scope of the public sector is the most effective way of reducing sleaze in Washington.

Now let’s get specific. I’ve already cited Obamacare, the tax code, and the Export-Import Bank as facilitators of corruption. Let’s augment that list by looking at government intervention in the financial sector.

We’ll start with some findings on the effectiveness of lobbying. In some new research, two professors at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center found that being active in Washington is beneficial for top executives, but it doesn’t help a company’s bottom line.

Here’s how the Washington Examiner summarized the study.

What is the return on investment in lobbying? Does a PAC contribution actually pay for itself? There are so many cases of a lobbyist winning an earmark, or a PAC contribution immediately preceding a subsidy, that it’s hard not to see politics as a good investment. …But for every company that hits the jackpot after lobbying campaign, scores of others end up throwing away money on lobbyists — and scores of executives whose PAC contributions don’t help the company a bit. Business professors Russell Sobel and Rachel Graefe-Anderson of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University collected the data and dug into the bigger question: Do lobbying expenditures and PAC contributions increase corporate profits, on average? Their answer: No… When Sobel and Graefe-Anderson crunched numbers, conducted regressions, and controlled for firm size, industry and other factors, they arrived at data “suggesting that any benefits gained from corporate political activity are largely captured by firm executives.” In short, when a CEO and a lobbyist decide to get their company more involved in politics, the CEO and the lobbyist benefit, while not helping the company.

These findings at first struck me as counterintuitive. After all, there are plenty of companies, such as General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, that seem to obtain lots of unearned profits thanks to their lobbying activities.

But don’t forget that government – at best – is a zero-sum game. So for every company, industry, or sector that “wins,” there will be lots of companies, industries, and sectors that suffer.

And speaking of industries that benefit, there was one exception to the Mercatus Center findings.

The only exception was the banking and financial sectors, where they found “positive and significant correlations between firm lobbying activity and three measures of firm financial performance,” including return on investment and return on equity.

At this stage, let’s be careful to specify that lobbying is not necessarily bad. If a handful of business owners want to join forces to fight against higher taxes or more regulation, I’m all in favor of that kind of lobbying. They’re fighting to be left alone.

But a big chunk of the lobbying in Washington is not about being left alone. It’s about seeking undeserved benefits by using the coercive power of government.

And this latter definition is a good description of what the financial industry has been doing in Washington. That’s bad for taxpayers, but it’s also bad for the financial sector and the overall economy. Here are some of the conclusions from a recent study published by the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

…there have been many concerns with banks deemed “too big to fail.” These concerns derive from the belief that the too-big-to-fail status gives large banks a competitive edge and incentives to take on additional risk. If investors believe the largest banks are too big to fail, they will be willing to offer them funding at a discount. Together with expectations of rescues, this discount gives the too-big-to-fail banks incentives to engage in riskier activities. …The debate around too-big-to-fail banks has given rise to a large literature. … we study whether banks that rating agencies classify as likely to receive government support increase their risk-taking. …The results of our investigation show that a greater likelihood of government support leads to a rise in bank risk-taking. Following an increase in government support, we see a larger volume of bank lending becoming impaired. Further, and in line with this finding, our results show that stronger government support translates into an increase in net charge-offs. Additionally, we find that the effect of government support on impaired loans is stronger for riskier banks than safer ones, as measured by their issuer default ratings. …the level of impaired loans in a bank loan portfolio increases directly with the level of government support. …riskier banks are more likely to take advantage of potential sovereign support.

Isn’t that wonderful. Our tax dollars have been used to increase systemic risk and undermine economic growth. Though none of us should be surprised.

Since this has been a depressing column, let’s enjoy some morbid TARP humor.

Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail about the cronies who got rich from the Bush-Obama bailouts.

Good to see Hank Paulson getting ripped. At the end of the Bush Administration, I attempted to convince the White House that “FDIC resolution” was a much better way of recapitalizing the banking system. I was repeatedly told, though, that Paulson was in charge and there was no way of stopping him from bailing out his former cronies on Wall Street.

Oh well, at least I tried.

Here’s another cartoon about the real victims of TARP. Like the first cartoon, it’s an oldie but goodie and it’s a good illustration of how government is a zero-sum scam.

But let me re-emphasize a point I made above. Taxpayers aren’t the only ones to lose. The entire economy suffers from bailouts and subsidies. Such policies distort the allocation of capital and lead to slower long-run growth.

That may not be easy to measure, but it matters a lot.

Here’s a video explaining how such policies create moral hazard.

This is a good time to recycle the famous poster about supposed government solutions.

P.S. Not all financial institutions are corrupted by government. The nation’s 10th-largest bank, BB&T, did not want and did not need a bailout. But as the bank’s former CEO (and, I’m proud to say, current Cato Institute president) explained in his book, thugs from Washington threatened to use regulatory coercion if BB&T didn’t participate.

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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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