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Archive for the ‘Local government’ Category

Let’s revisit the issue of urban unrest, with special attention to the challenges for both entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens.

While potential police misconduct may serve as a trigger for riots, the powder keg is already in place because of decades of bad government policy.

Jay Steinmetz, who runs a supply-chain management company in Baltimore, provides a real-world perspective on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in a city run by kleptocrats. Here are some excerpts from his Wall Street Journal column.

When the building alarm goes off, the police charge us a fee. If the graffiti isn’t removed in a certain amount of time, we are fined. This penalize-first approach is of a piece with Baltimore’s legendary tax and regulatory burden.  …Maryland still lags most states in its appeal to companies, according to well-documented business-climate comparisons put out by think tanks, financial-services firms, site-selection consultants and financial media. Baltimore fares even worse than other Maryland jurisdictions, having the highest individual income and property taxes at 3.2% and $2.25 for every $100 of assessed property value, respectively.

Here’s what it means, in terms of lost revenue, to Mr. Steinmetz’s company.

The bottom line is that our modest 14,000-square-foot building is hit with $50,000 in annual property taxes. And when we refinanced our building loan in 2006, Maryland and Baltimore real-estate taxes drove up the cost of this routine financial transaction by $36,000. State and city regulations overlap in a number of areas, most notably employment and hiring practices, where litigious employees can game the system and easily find an attorney to represent them in court. Building-permit requirements, sales-tax collection procedures for our multistate clients, workers’ compensation and unemployment trust-fund hearings add to the expensive distractions that impede hiring.

So it’s no surprise to learn that the geese with the golden eggs (as well as the silver and bronze eggs) are flying away.

Our employees reduce their tax burden and receive better public services in the suburbs.  …The financial problem Baltimore does face is a declining tax base, the most pronounced in the state. According to the Internal Revenue Service, $125 million in taxable annual income in Baltimore vanished between 2009 and 2010.

I’m not sure why Mr. Steinmetz hasn’t left as well. I guess it’s both admirable and foolish for him to persevere is such a hostile environment.

Thomas Sowell, in an article published by National Review, demolishes the argument that criminal behavior can be blamed on racism or poverty.

He starts by drawing attention to the 1960s as a key turning point.

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. …Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

Prof. Sowell then makes the obvious point that blacks faced much harsher conditions before the 1960s, yet crime was much lower.

And the black family was much more stable before the so-called war on poverty in the 1960s.

We are told that such riots are a result of black poverty and white racism. But in fact — for those who still have some respect for facts — black poverty was far worse, and white racism was far worse, prior to 1960. But violent crime within black ghettos was far less. Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, down — during the much-lamented 1950s, while it went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families.

Sowell’s point is that the welfare state created incentives for dysfunctional behavior.

And he stresses that this isn’t a racial issue.

Such trends are not unique to blacks, nor even to the United States. The welfare state has led to remarkably similar trends among the white underclass in England over the same period. …You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility, and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large. Non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles are treating people as if they were livestock.

I particularly appreciate his point about the importance of social capital, what he calls the requirements of civilization.

But this doesn’t mean black citizens don’t have some legitimate grievances. Radley Balko of the Washington Post explains that African-Americans are getting abused by greedy governments, just like Mr. Steinmetz.

He starts his article by sharing some good news on falling crime rates and big reductions in police deaths. But for our purposes today, the most powerful and relevant part of his story deals with one citizen’s interaction with government.

Antonio Morgan [is] a 29-year-old resident of Hazelwood, Missouri. He owns his own small business, a car repair and body shop he’d been saving up to buy since he was a teenager. He has also been arrested more than 20 times. All but two of those arrests were for misdemeanors. Morgan saved up for his business by fixing cars in his mother’s driveway. That required him to occasionally park cars on the street. That earned him parking tickets. He paid them when he could, but he occasionally missed deadlines. And that would lead to an arrest warrant. All of this also put Morgan on the radar of local police.

As you continue reading, keep in mind he was “on the radar” even though he did nothing to infringe on the life, liberty, and property of other citizens.

His unpaid parking tickets led not just to arrest warrants, but to the occasional suspension of his license. That led to more citations, although like many in the area, Morgan was sometimes pulled over and issued only a ticket for driving on a suspended license, or driving a car that wasn’t registered to him. (Morgan sometimes drove his clients’ cars to test them.) But there was no underlying traffic violation — which raises the question of why the officer pulled Morgan over in the first place, if it wasn’t to profile him. Those citations then led to more arrests.

It certainly seems as if St. Louis County in Missouri has been treating Mr. Morgan as a revenue-generating milk cow, much as Baltimore has been squeezing Mr. Steinmetz.

Different approach, but same result.

Cops would show up at his garage and cite his employees for operating without a business license. Morgan has a license; his employees didn’t need one. But to get the citations dismissed, Morgan and his employees would have to go to court, which was held once a month, at night. If they missed their court date, they too would be hit with an arrest warrant. Wealthy people can hire an attorney to go in their stead, and to negotiate their way out of a citation. But neither Morgan nor his employees were wealthy.

Some of you may be wondering about the two ostensibly more serious arrests on his record.

Radley’s column discusses both, and it certainly looks like Mr. Morgan has been mistreated by the justice system.

Here’s the first arrest. And remember it only occurred because he had to be in court to deal with ridiculous fines and petty harassment.

As Morgan walked toward the courthouse a police officer asked him the kids in the truck were his. He replied that they were. The officer asked him why he had left them alone. Morgan replied that he hadn’t, and that the woman parked next to him had agreed to watch them. ..Morgan pleaded with the police officer to flag down his friends, who he said would vouch for him. He says the officer then threatened to Taser him. Morgan put up his hands. The officer then arrested him for child endangerment. …The incident still upsets Morgan — not even the arrest so much as that his children had to see it. “I’m a good father,” he says. “I own my own business. I provide for my kids. Do you know what it’s like for your own children to see you get arrested? For a cop to say, right in front of them, that he’s arresting you because you’re a bad parent?”

I’m not someone who sees racism under every bed and behind every tree, but you can’t help but wonder whether this incident would have even happened if he was a white guy in a business suit.

The second arrest is equally dubious.

…the officer confronted Morgan because he was “trespassing” on a neighbor’s lawn. Morgan responded that he wasn’t trespassing, because the neighbors didn’t mind. Morgan says the cop moved to arrest him, and he lost his cool. He claims he never struck the police officer, but he does admit that he screamed at him. Once he did, he was hit with a Taser and arrested for assaulting a police officer. That charge was later dropped. (The neighbors back Morgan’s account of the entire incident, including his assertion that he never touched the cop.)

It’s always a smart idea to act servile and obsequious when dealing with cops, so Mr. Morgan obviously didn’t play his cards right.

But imagine if you had been endlessly harassed. Wouldn’t you be angry? Radley sure would have been.

I was stunned. But not because Morgan lost his cool with the cop. I was stunned that it had taken him so long to do so. And that even then, he’d manage to restrain himself from physical violence. I’m not sure I’d have been able to say the same.

Here’s the bottom line. Or, to be more accurate, two bottom lines.

First, we should sympathize with Mr. Morgan just as we should sympathize with Mr. Steinmetz. Actually, we should sympathize more with Morgan.

Morgan is no one’s definition of a “thug.” He’s a guy who breaks his back to keep up the business that supports his family, despite obstacles that, frankly, most white business owners don’t have to endure. For all he’s been through, he is remarkably composed. He deals with the daily harassment in a remarkably manner-of-fact way. …Morgan isn’t a drug pusher. He isn’t an absentee father. He isn’t in a gang. He’s a guy trying to do right by his family.

Second, we should recognize that one “root cause” of the problem is greedy government.

The primary source of revenue for the local towns is sales tax. But the poorer (which means blacker) towns don’t generate enough income from sales taxes. So they turn to municipal fines to keep themselves from going under. The poorer the town and its residents, the more likely the town relies on fines for a greater percentage of its annual revenue. Which means that the blacker the town, the more likely its residents are getting treated like ATMs for the local government.

None of this justifies rioting. And I have to imagine that Mr. Morgan would be one of the good guys during any unrest (much like Stretch and his friends in Ferguson).

But stories like this should make all of us appreciate how some communities may have a very sour impression of the police.

Let’s close with some economic analysis of riots (hey, I’m a policy wonk, so bear with me).

Here’s some of what Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard wrote a few years ago for Bloomberg.

…public disturbances are a classic example of tipping-point phenomena, which occur when there is some positive feedback mechanism that makes an activity more attractive, or less costly, as more people do it. …There is a tipping point in rioting because the cost of participating — the risk of going to jail — gets lower as the number of people involved increases. …riots occur when the shear mass of rioters overwhelms law enforcement.

He then looks at the more challenging issue.

But how do these mass events get started? In some cases, …such as the 1965 Watts Riot, a peaceful crowd provides cover for initial lawlessness. Sporting events, such as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver this year, can easily produce the crowds that allow a riot to start. Most strangely, riots can follow an event that creates a combination of anger and the shared perception that others will be rioting. The acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case seems to have created these conditions in Los Angeles in 1992.

The left-wing excuse for rioting doesn’t seem to have much merit.

…across U.S. cities, there has never been much of a link between unrest and either inequality or poverty. In fact, the riots of the 1960s were actually slightly more common in cities that had more government spending.

But economic analysis gives us good clues, both about how to deter riots and who is most victimized when they occur.

Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. …Even when they are connected to understandable grievances, they do great harm, particularly to the poorest residents.

The moral of the story is that we should be tough on crime, but that doesn’t mean mistreating people like Antonio Morgan.

Instead, the legal system should focus on trying to deter bad behavior, which is when genuinely bad people infringe on the life, liberty, and property of others.

But how do we get politicians and bureaucrats to properly focus?

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I wrote back in 2010 that riots in Europe were a harbinger of future unrest in the United States.

Given the chaos in Baltimore, I’m tempted to claim profound wisdom and great foresight.

But I’ll reluctantly confess that my main point five years ago was to warn about the long-run consequences of poorly designed entitlement programs and unfavorable demographics (leading to the outcome illustrated by this set of cartoons).

Simply stated, Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with big government is that “eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

The riots in Baltimore, by contrast, are a short-run phenomenon exacerbated by factors such as a loss of social capital and potential police misconduct.

But we can still learn something by looking at the dysfunctional consequences of big government in Baltimore and other big cities in America.

Here’s some of what’s been written by my colleague, Michael Tanner.

…there are lessons to be learned about the failures of government and how those failures can create a climate of anger and frustration that just awaits a spark to ignite the flames of violence and destruction. …the powder keg was put in place by decades of big-government liberalism, both in the city of Baltimore and in the state of Maryland. …Maryland has one of the most generous welfare systems in the nation. A mother with two children participating in seven common welfare programs — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, housing assistance, Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), energy assistance (LIHEAP), and free commodities — could receive benefits worth more than $35,000. Yet, nearly a quarter of the people in Baltimore still live in poverty. In 1960, Baltimore’s poverty rate was just 10 percent. …while Baltimore’s high welfare benefits haven’t reduced poverty, they may well have exacerbated other social problems. For example, some studies have long shown that high welfare benefits correlate with high out-of-wedlock birth rates. It should not come as a surprise, then, that two-thirds of births in the city are to unmarried mothers, and almost 60 percent of Baltimore households are headed by single parents.

While the politicians subsidize bad things in Maryland, they penalize good things.

…while Baltimore’s high welfare benefits haven’t reduced poverty, they may well have exacerbated other social problems. For example, some studies have long shown that high welfare benefits correlate with high out-of-wedlock birth rates. It should not come as a surprise, then, that two-thirds of births in the city are to unmarried mothers, and almost 60 percent of Baltimore households are headed by single parents. …if that were not bad enough, the city of Baltimore adds one of the highest property taxes among comparable cities…a tax rate more than twice the rate of most of the rest of the state.

Mike has lots of additional information, including revelations about bad education policies, dangerous anti-gun laws, and counterproductive drug prohibition.

But let’s now shift to a Wall Street Journal editorial on the same subject.

…what went up in flames in Baltimore Monday night was not merely a senior center, small businesses and police cars. Burning down was also the blue-city model of urban governance. …let’s not forget who has run Baltimore and Maryland for nearly all of the last 40 years. The men and women in charge have been Democrats, and their governing ideas are “progressive.” This model, with its reliance on government and public unions, has dominated urban America as once-vibrant cities such as Baltimore became shells of their former selves. …the main failures are three: high crime, low economic growth and failing public schools that serve primarily as jobs programs for teachers and administrators rather than places of learning. …of late the progressives have been making a comeback, led by Bill de Blasio in New York and the challenge to sometime reform Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. This week’s nightmare in Baltimore shows where this leads. It’s time for a new urban renewal, this time built on the ideas of private economic development, personal responsibility, “broken windows” policing, and education choice.

One would think that Detroit – and now Baltimore – show the dangers for cities of big government and dependency.

Unfortunately, the election of Mayor de Blasio in New York City suggest many voters are incapable of learning any lessons from the real world.

Last but not least, here’s some of Kevin Williamson’s column for National Review.

American cities are by and large Democratic-party monopolies, monopolies generally dominated by the so-called progressive wing of the party. The results have been catastrophic, and not only in poor black cities such as Baltimore and Detroit. …Would any sentient adult American be shocked to learn that Baltimore has a corrupt and feckless police department enabled by a corrupt and feckless city government? …While the progressives have been running the show in Baltimore, police commissioner Ed Norris was sent to prison on corruption charges (2004), two detectives were sentenced to 454 years in prison for dealing drugs (2005), an officer was dismissed after being videotaped verbally abusing a 14-year-old and then failing to file a report on his use of force against the same teenager (2011), an officer was been fired for sexually abusing a minor (2014), and the city paid a quarter-million-dollar settlement to a man police illegally arrested for the non-crime of recording them at work with his mobile phone. There’s a good deal more.

And who should be blamed for this horrible track record?

No Republican, and certainly no conservative, has left so much as a thumbprint on the public institutions of Baltimore in a generation. Baltimore’s police department is, like Detroit’s economy and Atlanta’s schools, the product of the progressive wing of the Democratic party enabled in no small part by black identity politics. This is entirely a left-wing project, and a Democratic-party project. …Community-organizer — a wretched term — Adam Jackson declared that in Baltimore “the Democrats and the Republicans have both failed.” Really? Which Republicans? Ulysses S. Grant? Unless I’m reading the charts wrong, the Baltimore city council is 100 percent Democratic. …The evidence suggests very strongly that the left-wing, Democratic claques that run a great many American cities…are incompetent, they are corrupt, and they are breathtakingly arrogant. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore — this is what Democrats do.

My one contribution to the wise words in the three articles excerpted above is to point out that the troubles in Baltimore are somewhat similar to riots we’ve seen in Greece and the United Kingdom. There’s no racial or ethnic component to the chaos we’ve seen in most of the European riots, so the analogy is far from exact, but the events are alike in that a big part of the problem is a failure of government and a concomitant erosion of social or cultural capital.

Simply stated, too many people on both sides of the Atlantic now think they are entitled to a life based on freebies from government. This almost surely erodes any sense of self worth and breeds anger and resentment.

Putting the toothpaste of self-reliance back into the societal tube doubtlessly will not be easy. Here’s some of what Jay Nordlinger wrote today.

The young rioters have…been brought up to regard themselves as entitled and victimized, at the same time. In truth, they are among the luckiest people in the whole world: to have been born American. Millions, probably billions, would be happy to trade places with them. The rioters are free to make of life what they will. Their shackles are mental and spiritual. …These young people have been grossly mistaught — misled — by the “grievance industry” (to use shorthand). Just about the worst thing you can do to a child is tell him he’s a victim — when it’s not true. Even when it is true, it may be unwise. It is surely damnable when it’s not true.

While I’m sometimes pessimistic about certain societal trends, one part of the answer is easy.

Stop creating new entitlements (such as Obamacare) that alter the already perverse tradeoff between work and leisure. Then people might feel a greater incentive to get jobs.

And stop imposing punitive taxes, particularly on the investors and entrepreneurs that are willing to put capital at risk to create jobs and wealth for the rest of us.

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I periodically share this poster, in part because it’s funny, but mostly because it’s true.

After all, can you think of many “success stories” involving government?

When I pose this question to my statist friends, I usually get a blank stare in response. Though some of them will offer answers such as the GI Bill, interstate highways, and landing on the moon.

But even if you accept that those policies were successful, it’s rather revealing that folks on the left have a very hard time identifying any success stories from recent decades.

On the other hand, we have a never-ending and ever-growing list of government failures, boondoggles, and screw-ups.

And that’s our focus today. We’re going to look at all levels of government for new examples that confirm Bastiat was right.

Let’s start with Montgomery County in Maryland, where bureaucrats are waging a legal battle against parents who – gasp! – allow unsupervised play for their children.

Here are some troubling passages from a Washington Post report.

The Maryland parents investigated for letting their young children walk home by themselves from a park were found responsible for “unsubstantiated” child neglect…the finding of unsubstantiated child neglect means CPS will keep a file on the family for at least five years and leaves open the question of what would happen if the Meitiv children get reported again for walking without adult supervision. The parents say they will continue to allow their son, Rafi, 10, and daughter Dvora, 6, to play or walk together, and won’t be swayed by the CPS finding. …The case dates to Dec. 20, when police picked up the two Meitiv children walking in Silver Spring on a Saturday afternoon after someone reported them. …The Meitivs said they would not have allowed the one-mile outing from Woodside Park to their home if they did not feel their children were up to it. …The Meitivs, both scientists by training, embrace a “free-range” philosophy of parenting, believing that children learn self-reliance by being allowed to make choices, build independence and progressively experience the world on their own. …Danielle Meitiv said when she first read the decision, she felt numb. As she reread it, she recalled turning to her husband and saying: “Oh my God, they really believe we did something wrong.” …Danielle Meitiv said that in spite of the decision, her children played at a nearby park by themselves Monday, when schools were closed for the snow day.

I confess that I was more paranoid than the Meitivs when my kids were young, so I can’t claim to have followed the same “free-range” approach.

But I also tried to avoid being a “helicopter” parent.

Not that my decisions on child rearing matter. What’s important from the perspective of public policy is that the Montgomery County bureaucracy is trying to dictate how to raise kids. And there’s a very clear implicit threat that it will arrest the parents and/or confiscate the children if the Meitivs don’t acquiesce.

And if you think I’m exaggerating and governments don’t behave this way, check out the story of the mom who was jailed overnight because her kids played outside – while she was watching them!

All of us should be outraged, regardless of our parenting approach.

Now let’s look at an example of a state government in action.

As reported by the Washington Post, the Georgia State Patrol enjoyed a Keystone Cops moment when it raided an old man because…drum roll, please…he was growing okra.

Georgia police raided a retired Atlanta man’s garden last Wednesday after a helicopter crew with the Governor’s Task Force for Drug Suppression spotted suspicious-looking plants on the man’s property. A heavily-armed K9 unit arrived and discovered that the plants were, in fact, okra bushes. …Okra busts like these are good reason for taxpayers to be skeptical about the wisdom of sending guys up in helicopters to fly around aimlessly, looking for drugs in suburban gardens. And that’s not to mention the issue of whether we want a society where heavily-armed cops can burst into your property, with no grounds for suspicion beyond what somebody thought he saw from several hundred yards up in a helicopter.

In some sense, this is an amusing story of government incompetence.

But military-type raids, when the supposed offense involves a possible “crime” with no victims, are a recipe for disaster. Let’s be glad that the cops didn’t accidentally kill anybody in this raid.

By the way, this isn’t the first time cops have seized okra bushes. Or looked foolish because of an inability to identify marijuana leaves.

At the point, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to say that it’s time to end the foolish Drug War. People who abuse drugs may be stupid, but they’re not infringing on the rights of others. The War on Drugs, by contrast, has led to all sorts of policies that do infringe on our rights, from disgusting asset forfeiture policies to pointless snooping on our bank accounts. Or, as we just read, raids on okra growers.

Time now for a look at an example of federal government fecklessness.

But this story from the Washington Times won’t surprise anybody. Because anybody with a pulse already knows that there is a lot of waste in Washington.

Federal agencies across the board are continuing to waste tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on duplicative spending efforts, even after Congress‘ official watchdog has made hundreds of recommendations for cutting back. The spending issues, ranging from Medicare and Medicaid mismanagement to transportation programs to weapon systems acquisitions, cost taxpayers $125 billion in improper payments in 2014 alone, as highlighted in a new report from the Government Accountability Office. …GAO investigators noted in the report that the government can’t continue to sustain its wasteful spending habits… “The federal government faces an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Changing this path will require difficult fiscal policy decisions to alter both long-term federal spending and revenue,” the GAO analysts concluded. …The GAO report targeted both the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Health and Human Services for mismanaging programs that saw rampant wasteful spending. …“These programs combined account for over 76 percent of the government-wide estimate. We have made numerous recommendations that if effectively implemented, could help improve program management, reduce improper payments in these programs, and achieve cost savings.”

Notice that HHS and the IRS win the prize for wasteful incompetence.

But don’t laugh. After all, those are the two bureaucracies that got lots of new power and authority as a result of the costly Obamacare boondoggle. So the joke’s on us.

By the way, the GAO’s definition of waste is very narrow. It merely applies to funds that are improperly disbursed.

If you also include monies that are squandered, then the amount of waste includes every penny at the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, etc.

Last but not least, let’s look at a great moment in foreign government.

I’ve written about the crazy Greek government on many occasions. And given that this collection of misfits does utterly bizarre things (such as giving handouts to pedophiles and requiring stool samples when setting up online companies), I’m never surprised to learn when they adopt foolish policies.

But even I was taken aback to learn about the latest gimmick they concocted to “solve” the nation’s fiscal crisis. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

The Greek government has told its eurozone creditors it has a novel way of tackling the country’s chronic tax evasion culture – wiring students, tourists, and housewives for sound and video to spy on tax dodgers while posing as shoppers and customers. …Varoufakis’s plans for a new government-sponsored amateur snoopers’ charter…attracted most attention. …He said the prospects of successfully countering tax dodging were dismal because of the demoralised and understaffed state of the tax inspection service. Instead, he proposed recruiting large numbers of “non-professional inspectors” on short-term casual contracts of no longer than two months who would be paid by the hour. They would be “wired for sound and video”, trained to pose as “customers” and “will be hard to detect by offending tax dodgers.” …Varoufakis said the launch of the amateur snoopers would act as a deterrent, “engendering a new tax compliance culture” in Greece. He added that Athens would need to ask eurozone partners for help with the equipment and the training. Germany has previously offered to send 500 tax inspectors to Athens. …In Athens, news of the undercover tax agents was quick to spark ridicule and widespread disbelief.

Hmmm….so the Germans offered to send 500 tax inspectors? Sounds like a perfect job for ex-Stasi officials.

And there are some bureaucrats in Chicago who almost surely would want to help implement this snitch-on-your-neighbor scheme. And the governor of New York has related experience, though his police-state policy focused on guns rather than tax revenue. Let’s also not overlook the U.K. politicians who have a tax-enforcement-über-alles mentality.

Never mind that all the research shows that low rates are honest government are the best ways of getting high compliance.

So I’m not holding my breath expecting success from this latest Greek scheme.

But I can say it’s a perfect example of how governments operate. Screw up, grab for more money, screw up some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s almost a shame that there’s no life on Mars. We could make today’s list even longer if there was another layer of government.

Now you know why it’s almost always the right time to mock politicians.

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One of the most important bulwarks of a just society is equal justice under law.

That principle is even etched in stone above the entrance to the Supreme Court.

My belief in equal treatment is one of the reasons I support the flat tax. As an economist, I like the pro-growth impact of tax reform. But as someone who believes in justice, I also support the flat tax because I don’t like class-warfare policies that punish some taxpayers and corrupt loopholes that give preferential status to other taxpayers.

Indeed, my support for equality of law is so strong that I even object to policies that benefit me, such as special TSA lines in airports for frequent flyers.

But sometimes it’s not clear how a principle should be applied. So let’s revive the “you be the judge” series, which asks thorny questions about the workings of a free society, and explore the case of income-based traffic fines.

Check out these excerpts from a BBC story.

Finland’s speeding fines are linked to income, with penalties calculated on daily earnings, meaning high earners get hit with bigger penalties for breaking the law. So, when businessman Reima Kuisla was caught doing 103km/h (64mph) in an area where the speed limit is 80km/h (50mph), authorities turned to his 2013 tax return, the Iltalehti newspaper reports. He earned 6.5m euros (£4.72m) that year, so was told to hand over 54,000 euros. …Mr Kuisla might be grateful he doesn’t earn more. In 2002, an executive at Nokia was slapped with a 116,000-euro fine for speeding on his Harley Davidson motorbike. His penalty was based on a salary of 14m euros.

So is this a case of greedy government targeting people for the sin of success?

Well, I’m sure the government is greedy, but what about the morality of income-based fines?

The driver isn’t happy, but others argue that deterrence doesn’t work unless the actual impact of the fine is the same for rich and poor alike.

The scale of the fine hasn’t gone down well with Mr Kuisla. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I would seriously consider moving abroad,” he says on his Facebook page. “Finland is impossible to live in for certain kinds of people who have high incomes and wealth.” There’s little sympathy from his fellow Finns on social media. …person says: “Small fines won’t deter the rich – fines have to ‘bite’ everyone the same way.”

At the risk of sounding like a soft-headed leftist, I’m not overly sympathetic to Mr. Kuisla’s position.

Simply stated, if the goal of traffic fines is deterrence, then the penalties should vary with income.

I remember when I was young, living on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, a traffic fine sometimes would chew up a non-trivial part of my disposable income. That affected my behavior.

Now that I’m older and making more money (and especially since my kids are mostly done with their schooling!), a traffic fine is just a nuisance (though I still sometimes get very upset).

Though this discussion wouldn’t be complete without also considering the fact that traffic laws and enforcement oftentimes are motivated by revenue rather than safety.

The most compelling evidence comes from Ferguson, Missouri. It seems that what’s driving the mistreatment of black people is government greed.

Here’s some of what Ian Tuttle wrote on the topic for National Review.

The Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” released this week…what the material in the report reveals is less a culture of racial animus than one of predatory government: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” states the report, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” …myriad municipal regulations that, rigorously enforced, nickel-and-dime the citizenry to the local government’s benefit. This is the injustice on which the Justice Department has stumbled, which helps to explain the city’s racial tensions — and which merits urgent correction.

I fully understand why many blacks in Ferguson are angry.

Imagine if you had a modest income and you were constantly being hit with $50 and $100 fines (oftentimes then made much larger thanks to the scam of “court fees”).

This can wreck a family’s budget when it doesn’t have much money. So wouldn’t you be upset?

Particularly since “predatory government” is a very good description of the Ferguson bureaucracy.

In 2010, the city’s finance director encouraged Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson to “ramp up” ticket-writing to help mitigate an anticipated sales-tax shortfall. …One stop can yield six or eight citations, and officers have been known to compete to set single-stop records. Indeed, within Ferguson Police Department, because opportunities for promotion have been tied to “productivity” — that is, enthusiasm for ticket-writing — officers have perverse incentives to issue citations, and in concert with police and prosecutors, municipal courts regularly enforce the payment of fines in a way that compounds what a single defendant owes.

Now let’s connect Ferguson with Finland.

Our Finnish driver is upset by his giant fine, but at least he probably can relate to the poor people of Ferguson.

But the more successful people of Ferguson, to the extent that they are even targeted by the local cops, have almost nothing to worry about.

…this practice — of police and prosecutors and courts together — disproportionately affects black communities not because they are black, but because they are poor. They do not have the means to escape the justice apparatus, unlike the comparatively wealthy, who can pay a fine and be done with the matter — or hire an attorney, and inconvenience courts that prefer the ease of collecting fees to the challenge of arbitrating cases.

Here’s the bottom line.

If we want a just society, there should be few laws and they should be enforced on the basis of protecting public safety rather than enriching the bureaucracy.

In such a system, income-based fines and penalties are a reasonable way of making sure deterrence applies equally to rich and poor.

Unfortunately, we have far too many laws and they are used as back-door taxes on the citizenry.

So if we adopt income-based fines, the politicians will simply have more money to spend and even less incentive to scale back excessive and thuggish government.

Heck, just look at how asset-forfeiture laws and money-laundering laws have turned into revenue scams for Leviathan.

P.S. Since today’s post ended with a depressing conclusion, let’s share some a bit of offsetting good news.

As reported by The Hill, the spirit of civil disobedience lives even in Washington!

From sledding to snowball fights, dozens of children and their parents took to Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon to protest a controversial sledding ban. Capitol Police have refused to lift the sledding ban, but some parents organized a “sled in” on the west lawn of the Capitol to put a spotlight on the unpopular rule. …Capitol Police pointed out that more than 20,000 sledding injuries occur in the U.S. each year…, but officers on the ground also refused to enforce it. …It’s turning into a public relations nightmare for those who oppose sledding and support the ban.

You’ll doubtlessly be horrified to learn that illegal sledding is – gasp! – a gateway crime to other forms of misbehavior.

…the children were not only sledding but also climbing trees, building snowmen and throwing snowballs at one another.

Oh My God, unlicensed snowmen, unregistered tree climbing, and illegal snowballs! Freedom is obviously too dangerous.

Next thing you know, these kids will grow up to engage in other forms of civil disobedience, just like Arizona drivers and Connecticut gun owners.

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For both moral reasons and economic reasons, we should have small government.

But even a curmudgeonly libertarian like me also thinks it’s important to have effective and efficient government.

Fortunately, there’s no contradiction between these views. Indeed, academic researchers have found that nations with smaller government also have more efficient government. With Singapore being a very powerful example.

This is why I periodically share data looking at how much governments spend compared to how much they deliver.

Though this can be a depressing exercise because – to cite one example – no government in the world spends more on education than the United States, yet we get very sub-par results.

But what if we compare cities inside the United States on this basis? Are there big differences in how much some local governments spend and the results they get?

The answer is yes, emphatically so.

Here are some excerpts from an article in The Atlantic on which local governments do reasonably well – and very poorly – in terms of education outcomes on a per-dollar-spent basis.

…education spending isn’t inherently bad—what matters is the result. Some school districts get lots in return for the amount of money they spend. …the online financial resource WalletHub has crunched the numbers on school spending at 90 of the most-populated cities across the country, revealing which ones are getting the most—and least—bang for their buck. To arrive at the findings, WalletHub divided each city’s aggregate test scores in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math by its total per-capita education spending. The researchers then adjusted those figures for various socioeconomic factors, such as the poverty rate and percentage of households that don’t speak English as their first language.

Here are the 10 cities that purportedly do the best job on a per-dollar-spent basis.

And here are the cities that do the worst job.

I guess I’m not overly surprised that cities in California and New York generally rank at the bottom.

Though I wonder whether the results would look significantly different if education spending was measured on a per-pupil basis. That would seem a relevant distinction.

But here’s the key takeaway. Some cities spend two to three times as much per capita on education, yet they actually deliver worse outcomes!

Something all of us should remember next time some politician, whether Obama or some local hack, whines about the “need” for more money for schools.

Now let’s look at how wisely – or ineptly – local governments spend money on crime prevention.

Here’s some of WalletHub’s analysis.

With tax season approaching, WalletHub assessed how efficiently the 110 most populated U.S. cities spend taxpayer dollars on police protection. We did so by calculating each city’s ROI on police spending based on crime rates and per-capita expenditures on police forces after normalizing the data by poverty rate, unemployment rate and median household income. …note that “Adjusted ROI Rank” reflects the results of our analysis after controlling for the three economic factors, whereas “Unadjusted ROI Rank” reflects the results before normalizing the data by the same factors.

So which cities get decent bang for the buck?

And here are the 10 cities that get the least value compared to resources devoted to crime prevention.

Gee, what a surprise to see New York City (once again) at the bottom of the list. And I can only imagine how the city will rank after a few years of Bill de Blasio.

And what’s the story with Long Beach, CA?!? Why are they among the worst on both lists?

Anyhow, kudos to WalletHub for producing both these comparisons. This is good factual data that enables people to see whether their city is being competent or wasteful.

Specifically, why are taxpayers in places such as St. Louis and Orlando spending three or four times as much, on a per-capita basis, as taxpayers in cities such as Lincoln and Louisville?

P.S. Returning to the big picture, we’re more likely to have competent and effective government if it is limited in size and scope. Or, as Mark Steyn humorously observed, “our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it.”

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I’ve periodically cited the great 19th-century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, for his very wise words about the importance of looking at both the seen and the unseen when analyzing public policy.

Those that fail to consider secondary or indirect effects of government, such as Paul Krugman, are guilty of the “broken window” fallacy.

There are several examples we can cite.

A sloppy person, for instance, will think a higher minimum wage is good because workers will have more income. But a thoughtful analyst will think of the unintended consequence of lost jobs for low-skilled workers.

An unthinking person will conclude that government spending is good for growth because the recipients of redistribution have money to spend. But a wiser analyst will understand that such outlays divert money from the economy’s productive sector.

A careless person will applaud when government “creates” jobs. Sober-minded analysts, though, will wonder about the private jobs destroyed by such policies.

It’s time, though, to give some attention to another important contribution from Bastiat.

He also deserves credit for the pithy and accurate observation about government basically being a racket or a scam.

And what’s really amazing is that he reached that conclusion in the mid-1800s when the burden of government spending – even in France – was only about 10 percent of economic output. So Bastiat was largely limited to examples of corrupt regulatory arrangements and protectionist trade policy.

One can only imagine what he would think if he could see today’s bloated welfare states and the various ingenious ways politicians and interest groups have concocted to line their pockets with other people’s money!

Which brings us to today’s topic. We’re going to look at venal, corrupt, wasteful, incompetent, and bullying government at the federal, state, and local level in America.

We’ll start with the clowns in Washington, DC.

Remember when the unveiling of the Obamacare turned into a cluster-you-know-what of historic proportions?

Well, the Daily Caller reports that the IRS has just signed an Obamacare-related contract with an insider company that recently became famous for completely botching its previous Obamacare-related contract.

Seven months after federal officials fired CGI Federal for its botched work on Obamacare website Healthcare.gov, the IRS awarded the same company a $4.5 million IT contract for its new Obamacare tax program. …IRS officials signed a new contract with CGI to provide “critical functions” and “management support” for its Obamacare tax program, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, a federal government procurement database. The IRS contract is worth $4.46 million, according to the FPDS data.

Just one more piece of evidence that Washington is a town where failure gets rewarded.

And CGI is an expert on failure.

A joint Senate Finance and Judiciary Committee staff report in June 2014 found that Turning Point Global Solutions, hired by HHS to review CGI’s performance on Healthcare.gov, reported they found 21,000 lines of defective software code inserted by CGI. Scott Amey, the general counsel for the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, which reviews government contracting, examined the IRS contract with CGI. “CGI was the poster child for government failure,” he told The Daily Caller. “I am shocked that the IRS has turned around and is using them for Obamacare IT work.” Washington was not the only city that has been fed up with CGI on healthcare. Last year, CGI was fired by the liberal states of Vermont and Massachusetts for failing to deliver on their Obamacare websites. The Obamacare health website in Massachusetts never worked, despite the state paying $170 million to CGI.

For a company like this to stay in business, you have to wonder how many bribes, pay-offs, and campaign contributions are involved.

Now let’s look at an example of state government in action.

Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a column about a blatantly corrupt deal between slip-and-fall lawyers and the second most powerful Democrat in the Empire State.

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was last week arrested and accused by the feds of an elaborate kickback scheme. …Mr. Silver is alleged to have pocketed more than $5 million in a set-up in which he directed state funds to the clinic of an asbestos doctor, who in turn provided him with patients who could be turned into jackpot plaintiffs. Weitz & Luxenberg, a class-action titan, paid Mr. Silver huge referral fees for these names, off which the firm stands to make many millions. …when the Silver headlines broke, Weitz & Luxenberg founder Perry Weitz said he was “shocked”… The firm quickly put the Albany politician on “leave.”

A logical person might ask “on leave” from what? After all, he didn’t do anything.

But he did do something, even if it was corrupt and sleazy.

…here’s the revealing bit. Queried by prosecutors as to what exactly the firm did hire Mr. Silver to do—since he performed no legal work—Weitz & Luxenberg admitted that he was brought on “because of his official position and stature.” In other words, this was transactional. Weitz & Luxenberg gave Mr. Silver a plum job, and Mr. Silver looked out for the firm—namely by blocking any Albany bills that might interfere with its business model.

So workers, consumers, and businesses get screwed by a malfunctioning tort system, while insider lawyers and politicians get rich. Isn’t government wonderful!

Just one example among many of how state governments are a scam. Perhaps now folks will understand why I’m not very sympathetic to the notion of letting them take more of our money.

Last but not least, let’s look at a great moment in local government.

As we see from a report in USA Today, a village in New Jersey is dealing with the scourge of…gasp…unlicensed snow removal!

Matt Molinari and Eric Schnepf, both 18, also learned a valuable lesson about one of the costs of doing business: government regulations. The two friends were canvasing a neighborhood near this borough’s border with Bridgewater early Monday evening, handing out fliers promoting their service, when they were pulled over by police and told to stop. …Bound Brook, like many municipalities in the state and country, has a law against unlicensed solicitors and peddlers. … anyone selling goods and services door to door must apply for a license that can cost as much as $450 for permission that is valid for only 180 days. …Similar bans around the country have put the kibosh on other capitalist rites of passage, such as lemonade stands and selling Girl Scouts cookies.

Though, to be fair, it doesn’t seem like the cops were being complete jerks.

Despite the rule, however, Police Chief Michael Jannone said the two young businessmen were not arrested or issued a ticket, and that the police’s concern was about them being outside during dangerous conditions, not that they were unlicensed. “We don’t make the laws but we have to uphold them,” he said Tuesday after reading some of the online comments about the incident. “This was a state of emergency. Nobody was supposed to be out on the road.”

But the bottom line is that it says something bad about our society that we have rules that hinder teenagers from hustling for some money after a snowstorm.

Just like these other examples of local government in action also don’t reflect well on our nation.

Let’s close with my attempt to re-state Bastiat’s wise words. Here’s my “First Theorem of Government.”

And if you think what I wrote, or what Bastiat wrote, is too cynical, then I invite you to check out how politicians are bureaucrats are squandering money on Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the Agriculture Department, Medicaid, the Patent and Trademark Office, the so-called Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Institutes of Health, Food Stamps, , the Government Services Administration, unemployment insurance, the Pentagon

Well, you get the idea.

Which is why this poster is a painfully accurate summary of government.

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As a taxpayer, I don’t like the fact that government employees get paid more than folks in the private sector.

But the big difference between bureaucrats and regular workers isn’t so much the pay, it’s the fringe benefits.

And perhaps the  biggest difference of all is that government bureaucrats get far more  lavish retiree benefits.

Sounds like a sweet deal, at least if you get a coveted job (or even six jobs!) with a state or local government.

It’s not a good deal for taxpayers, though, and the entire system is rather unstable because politicians and union bosses have conspired to create huge unfunded liabilities that threaten to create a death spiral for state and local governments.

Simply stated, why should productive taxpayers continue to live, work, and pay taxes in places where a huge chunk of money is diverted to pay off past promises rather than to deliver goods and services (education, parks, trash pickup, police, etc) that have some value?

Indeed, this is a big reason why places such as Detroit already have collapsed. And I fear it is just a matter of time before other local government (as well as some states such as California and Illinois) reach the tipping point.

But perhaps you think I’m being too dour? Yes, I’m prone to pessimism because of my low level of faith in the political elite. In this case, however, any sensible person should be very worried.

Let’s look at what some experts have to say about these issues.

Here are some passages from Steve Malanga’s Wall Street Journal column from earlier this month.

He starts by explaining that Jerry Brown’s big tax hike for education actually has very little to do with helping kids to learn (not that more money is the recipe for better education, as shown by this jaw-dropping chart, but that’s a separate issue).

Instead, the money is being diverted to finance the lavish pension system.

California Gov. Jerry Brown sold a $6 billion tax increase to voters in 2012 by promising that nearly half of the money would go to bolster public schools. …Last June Mr. Brown signed legislation that will require school districts to increase funding for teachers’ pensions from less than $1 billion this year in school year 2014-15, which started in September, to $3.7 billion by 2021, gobbling up much of the new tax money. With the state’s general government pension fund, Calpers, also demanding more money, California taxpayer advocate Joel Fox recently observed that no matter what local politicians tell voters, when you see tax increases, “think pensions.” …When California passed its 2012 tax increases, Gov. Brown and legislators promised voters the new rates would expire in 2018. But school pension costs will keep increasing… Public union leaders and sympathetic legislators are already trying to figure out how to convince voters to extend the 2012 tax increases and approve “who knows what else” in new levies

Sounds grim, but Mr. Malanga warns that “Californians are not alone.”

Decades of rising retirement benefits for workers—some of which politicians awarded to employees without setting aside adequate funding—and the 2008 financial meltdown have left American cities and states with somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $4 trillion in retirement debt. …the tab keeps growing, and now it is forcing taxes higher in many places.

Such as Pennsylvania.

A report last June by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators found that nearly every school district in that state anticipated higher pension costs for the new fiscal year, with three-quarters calculating their pension bills would rise by 25% or more. Subsequently, 164 school districts received state permission to raise property taxes above the 2.1% state tax cap. Every one of the districts cited rising pension costs.

And West Virginia.

In West Virginia, where local governments also face big pension debts, the legislature recently expanded the state’s home rule law—which governs how municipalities can raise revenues—to allow cities to impose their own sales taxes. The state’s biggest city, Charleston, with $287 million in unfunded pension liabilities, has already instituted a $6 million-a-year local sales tax devoted solely to pensions, on top of the $10 million the city already contributes annually to its retirement system. At least five more cities applying to raise local sales taxes, including Wheeling, also cited pension costs.

The column also has lots of material on the mess in Illinois.

Here’s just a sampling.

The city of Peoria’s budget illustrates the squeeze. In the early 1990s it spent 18% of the property-tax money it collected on pensions. This year it will devote 57% of its property tax to pension costs. Reluctant to raise the property levy any more, last year the city increased fees and charges to residents by 8%, or $1.2 million, for such items as garbage collection and sewer services. Taxpayers in Chicago saw the first of what promises to be a blizzard of new taxes. The city’s public-safety retirement plans are only about 35% funded, though pension costs already consume nearly half of Chicago’s property-tax collections.

All this sounds depressing, but it’s actually worse than you think.

We also have to look at the promises that have been made to provide health benefits for retired government employees.

Robert Pozen of Brookings has some very sobering data.

Public-pension funds have garnered attention in recent years for being underfunded, but a more precarious situation has received much less notice: health-care obligations for public retirees. …only 11 states have funded more than 10% of retiree health-care liabilities, according to a November 2013 report from the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s. For example, New Jersey has almost no assets backing one of the largest retiree health-care liabilities of any state—$63.8 billion. Only eight out of the 30 largest U.S. cities have funded more than 5% of their retiree health-care obligations, according to a study released last March by the Pew Charitable Trust. New York City tops the list with $22,857 of unfunded liabilities per household. …Total U.S. unfunded health-care liabilities exceeded $530 billion in 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated, but the current number may be closer to $1 trillion, according to a 2014 comprehensive study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By the way, these retired government workers are covered by Medicare, but Pozen explains that the unfunded liabilities exist because so many of them retire before age 65.

And their health plans sometimes cover Medicare premiums once they turn 65.

State and local governments typically pay most of the insurance premiums for employees who retire before they are eligible for Medicare at age 65. That can be a long commitment, as many workers retire as early as 50. Many governments also pay a percentage of Medicare premiums once retired workers turn 65.

But there is some good news.

States are trying to deal with this healthcare-driven fiscal Sword of Damocles.

Since 2010 more than 15 states have passed laws to reduce health-care cost-of-living adjustments—automatic benefit increases linked to the consumer-price index. Courts in eight states upheld these reductions on grounds that cost-of-living adjustments should not be considered a contractual right. Only Washington’s law was struck down in 2011, and the case is now on appeal. Some state and local governments—Nevada and West Virginia, for example—have increased deductibles and scaled back premium subsidies. Others like Ohio and Maine have reduced the health-care benefits provided to retirees. Several years ago Pennsylvania changed early retirement eligibility to 20 years of service from 15.

In many cases, though, I fear these reforms are a case of too little, too late.

So long as the fiscal burden of providing pensions and healthcare expands at a faster rate than the private economy, states and localities will push for more and more taxes to prop up the system.

But people won’t want to live in places where a big chunk of their tax payments are diverted to fringe benefits. So they’ll move out of cities like Detroit and Chicago, and they’ll move out of states like New Jersey and Illinois.

So the bottom line is that politicians and government employee unions engineered a great scam, but one that ultimately in many cases will self destruct.

And the lesson for the rest of us is that government bureaucrats should not get special goodies, particularly when they are financed by nothing other than promises to screw future taxpayers.

Pensions for government workers should be based on the defined-contribution model, and healthcare promises should be more limited and in the form of health savings accounts.

But how do you get these much-needed reforms when the government unions finance the politicians who are on the opposite side of the negotiating table?!?

P.S. Here’s a good joke about government bureaucracy. Here’s a similar joke in picture form. And we find the same humor in this joke, but with a bit more build up. And now that I’ve given it some thought, there’s more bureaucrat humor here, here (image near bottom), and here.

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