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Archive for the ‘Obama’ Category

Whether I like what’s happening (getting rid of Operation Choke Point) or don’t like what’s happening (expanding civil asset forfeiture), it appears that the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is willing to make decisions.

With one very puzzling exception.

No steps have been taken to reverse the Obama-era policy of stonewalling to hide evidence of IRS scandals. Everything seems to be on auto-pilot.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the issue today and is justifiably frustrated.

The Obama Justice Department dismissed the IRS political targeting scandal as no big deal, and the Trump Administration hasn’t been any better. …These are basic questions of political accountability, even if the IRS has stonewalled since 2013. President Obama continued to spin that the targeting was the result of some “boneheaded” IRS line officers in Cincinnati who didn’t understand tax law. Yet Congressional investigations have uncovered clear evidence that the targeting was ordered and directed out of Washington. Former director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner was at the center of that Washington effort, but the IRS allowed her to retire with benefits. She invoked the Fifth Amendment before Congress. One of her principal deputies, Holly Paz, has submitted to a deposition in separate litigation, but the judge has sealed her testimony after she claimed she faced threats. The Acting Commissioner of the IRS at the time, Stephen Miller, stepped down in the wake of the scandal, but as far as anyone outside the IRS knows, no other IRS employee has been held to account. Even if the culprits were “rogue employees,” as the IRS claims, the public deserves to know what happened. …The Trump Administration also has a duty to provide some answers. The Justice Department and IRS have continued to resist the lawsuits as doggedly as they did in the Obama era. Attorney General Jeff Sessions can change that… Seven years is too long to wait for answers over abuses of the government’s taxing power.

This is spot on. It’s outrageous that the Obama Administration weaponized and politicized the IRS. But it’s also absurdly incompetent that the Trump Administration isn’t cleaning up the mess.

I understand why the bureaucrats at the Justice Department instinctively (and probably ideologically) want to protect their counterparts at the IRS. But, as the WSJ stated, there’s no reason why Attorney General Sessions isn’t using his authority to change policy.

The President’s failure to fire the ethically tainted IRS Commissioner is a troubling sign that the problem isn’t limited to the Justice Department.

One of Republicans’ least favorite Obama administration officials remains in his position: IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Some Republicans lawmakers have asked President Trump to ask for Koskinen’s resignation. The commissioner’s term expires in November, but he has said he would step aside sooner if asked by the president. …Koskinen to lead the IRS in 2013, not long after it was revealed that the agency had subjected Tea Party groups’ applications for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny and delays. …Many Republicans accuse Koskinen of impeding congressional investigations into the political-targeting scandal. They argue that he made false and misleading statements under oath and didn’t comply with a subpoena. During the last months of Obama’s presidency, some House Republicans pushed for a vote on Koskinen’s impeachment… Since Trump has taken office, there have been calls from GOP lawmakers for Koskinen to step down. Days after Trump’s inauguration, Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and more than 50 other lawmakers sent a letter urging Trump to fire Koskinen “in the most expedient manner practicable.” …It’s unclear why Trump hasn’t ousted Koskinen or if he plans to do so in the future.

Very disappointing. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but this almost leads me to wonder whether Koskinen has some damaging information on Trump.

Incidentally, the Justice Department may be dragging its feet and the White House may have cold feet, but the Treasury Department is overtly on the wrong side. And the problem starts at the top, resulting in praise for the Treasury Secretary from the pro-IRS forces at the New York Times.

President Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, knows that investing in the Internal Revenue Service yields significant returns… And he’s right: Every dollar spent on the agency returns $4 in revenue for the federal government, and as much as $10 when invested in enforcement activities. …At his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Mnuchin bemoaned the cuts to the I.R.S. budget over the last seven years. The agency “is under-resourced to perform its duties,” he said, adding that further cuts “will indeed hamper our ability to collect revenue.” He also acknowledged that money spent on the I.R.S. is a good investment: “To the extent that we add resources, we can collect more money.” …his faith in the I.R.S. work force prompted one of his congressional interrogators to call it “refreshing” to hear someone “praise the employees at the Treasury Department.”

Yet should we give more money to a bureaucracy that has a big enough budget to finance this kind of reprehensible behavior?

The Internal Revenue Service has seized millions of dollars in cash from individuals and businesses that obtained the money legally, according to a new Treasury Department inspector general’s report. …individuals and businesses are required to report all bank deposits greater than $10,000 to federal authorities. Intentionally splitting up large sums of cash into sub-$10,000 amounts to avoid that reporting requirement is known as “structuring” and is illegal under the federal Bank Secrecy Act. But many business owners engaged in perfectly legal activities may be unaware of the law. Others are covered by insurance policies that don’t cover cash losses greater than $10,000. Still others simply want to avoid extra paperwork, and keep their deposits less than $10,000 on the advice of bank employees or colleagues. …The reporting requirements were enacted to detect serious criminal activity, such as drug dealing and terrorism.

I’m very skeptical that these intrusive anti-money laundering laws are successful by any metric, but I’m nauseated that the main effect is to give IRS bureaucrats carte blanche to steal money from law-abiding people.

The IRS pursued hundreds of cases from 2012 to 2015 on suspicion of structuring, but with no indications of connections to any criminal activity. Simply depositing cash in sums of less than $10,000 was all that it took to arouse agents’ suspicions, leading to the eventual seizure and forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash from people not otherwise suspected of criminal activity. The IG took a random sample of 278 IRS forfeiture actions in cases where structuring was the primary basis for seizure. The report found that in 91 percent of those cases, the individuals and business had obtained their money legally.

But here’s the part that’s most outrageous.

Innocent people weren’t the byproducts of a campaign to get bad guys. They were the targets.

…the report found that the pattern of seizures — targeting businesses that had obtained their money legally — was deliberate. “One of the reasons why legal source cases were pursued was that the Department of Justice had encouraged task forces to engage in ‘quick hits,’ where property was more quickly seized and more quickly resolved through negotiation, rather than pursuing cases with other criminal activity (such as drug trafficking and money laundering), which are more time-consuming,” according to the news release. In most cases, the report found, agents followed a protocol of “seize first, ask questions later.” Agents only questioned individuals and business owners after they had already seized their money.

In any event, the Trump Administration’s failure to deal with the problem seems to have emboldened the tax collection agency.

Despite promises to Congress, the Internal Revenue Service has yet to take advantage of a red-flag alert system designed to prevent it  from rehiring past employees with blots on their records, a watchdog found. …the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that more than 200 of 2,000-plus former employees “whom the IRS rehired between January 2015 and March 2016 had been previously terminated or separated from the tax agency while under investigation,” according to a report released on Thursday.

And keep in mind that IRS bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses in response to the scandal.

By the way, the problem isn’t limited to the executive branch.

Republicans in 2015 (after they had control of both the House and Senate!) decided that the best response to IRS scandals was to increase the agency’s budget. I’m not joking (and I’m also not happy). At the risk of being redundant, only the Stupid Party could be that stupid.

I sarcastically wrote four years ago that we should be thankful that Obama reminded the American people that the IRS isn’t trustworthy. Little did I realize that Republicans would fumble a golden opportunity to deal with the mess once they got power.

P.S. I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here’s more examples of IRS humor from my archives, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Trump has been President for more than 200 days and those of us who want more economic liberty don’t have many reasons to be happy.

Obamacare hasn’t been repealed, the tax code hasn’t been reformed, and wasteful spending hasn’t been cut.

The only glimmer of hope is that Trump has eased up on the regulatory burden. More should be happening, of course, but we are seeing some small steps in the right direction.

Let’s share one positive development.

Professor Tony Lima of California State University opined back in January in the Wall Street Journal that Trump could unilaterally boost growth by ending a reprehensible policy known as “Operation Choke Point.”

…the Trump administration could shut down Operation Choke Point. This program, enforced by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., targets “risky” banking customers and pressures banks to deny them credit. It’s unnecessary: If these industries are really risky, banks would not want their business. The real purpose of Operation Choke Point is to target industries that are out of favor…, among them: Coin dealers, money-transfer networks and payday lenders. Sales of ammunition and firearms (Second Amendment, anyone?) and fireworks (legal in some states). …Other legal goods and services such as surveillance equipment, telemarketing, tobacco and dating services. …Denying credit hampers an industry’s growth. Eliminating Operation Choke Point would encourage growth. It costs nothing. And someday it may reduce enforcement spending.

And Professor Charles Calomiris from Columbia University echoed those views a few weeks later.

Imagine you have a thriving business and one morning you get a call from your banker explaining that he can no longer service your accounts. …That’s what happened to many business owners as the result of an Obama administration policy called Operation Choke Point. In 2011 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. warned banks of heightened regulatory risks from doing business with certain merchants. A total of 30 undesirable merchant categories were affected…the FDIC explained that banks with such clients were putting themselves at risk of “unsatisfactory Community Reinvestment Act ratings, compliance rating downgrades, restitution to consumers, and the pursuit of civil money penalties.” Other FDIC regulatory guidelines pointed to difficulties banks with high “reputation risk” could have receiving approval for acquisitions.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Congress didn’t pass a law mandating discrimination against and harassment of these merchants.

The Washington bureaucracy, along with ideologues in the Obama Administration, simply decided to impose an onerous new policy.

In effect, the paper pushers were telling financial institutions “nice business, shame if anything happened to it.”

But at least when mobsters engage in that kind of a shakedown, there’s no illusion about what’s happening.

Professor Calomiris explained that this regulatory initiative of the Obama Administration made no sense economically.

It is rather comical that regulators would use the excuse of regulatory risk management to punish banks. Banks are in the business of gauging risk and have every incentive to avoid customer relationships that could hurt their reputation. Regulators, on the other hand, have shown themselves unwilling or unable to acknowledge risk, the most obvious example being the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.

And he also explained why Operation Choke Point was such a reprehensible violation of the rule of law.

The FDIC’s regulators never engaged in formal rule-making or announced penalties for banks serving undesirable clients. Such rule-making likely would have been defeated in congressional debate or under the Administrative Procedures Act. Instead, regulators chose to rely on informal decrees called “guidance.” …Financial regulators find regulatory guidance particularly expedient because it spares them the burden of soliciting comments, holding hearings, defining violations, setting forth procedures for ascertaining violations, and defining penalties for ignoring the guidance. Regulators prefer this veil of secrecy because it maximizes their discretionary power and places the unpredictable and discriminatory costs on banks and their customers.

Well, we have some good news.

The Trump Administration has just reversed this terrible Obama policy. Politico has some of the details.

The Justice Department has committed to ending a controversial Obama-era program that discourages banks from doing business with a range of companies, from payday lenders to gun retailers. The move hands a big victory to Republican lawmakers who charged that the initiative — dubbed “Operation Choke Point” — was hurting legitimate businesses. …House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte…and House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), along with Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) praised the department in a joint statement. “We applaud the Trump Justice Department for decisively ending Operation Choke Point,” they said. “The Obama Administration created this ill-advised program to suffocate legitimate businesses to which it was ideologically opposed by intimidating financial institutions into denying banking services to those businesses.”

And Eric Boehm of Reason is pleased by this development.

A financial dragnet that ensnared porn stars, gun dealers, payday lenders, and other politically disfavored small businesses has been shut down. Operation Choke Point launched in 2012… It quickly morphed into a questionably constitutional attack on a wide range of entrepreneurs who found their assets frozen or their bank accounts closed because they were considered “high-risk” for fraud. …Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd called Operation Choke Point “a misguided initiative” and confirmed that DOJ was closing those investigations… “Law abiding businesses should not be targeted simply for operating in an industry that a particular administration might disfavor,” Boyd wrote. …The repudiation of Operation Choke Point is a welcome development, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

I shared a video last year that explained Operation Choke Point in just one minute. But that just scratched the surface, so here’s a video from Reason that explains in greater detail why Operation Choke Point was so repulsive.

Kudos to the Trump Administration for reversing this awful policy.

But hopefully this is just the first step. Regulators are still squeezing financial institutions in an attempt to discourage them from doing business with low-tax jurisdictions. This policy of “de-risking” exists even though so-called tax havens generally have tighter laws against dirty money than the United States.

Trump should put an end to that misguided policy.

Ultimately, what’s really needed is a complete rethink of money-laundering laws and regulations.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. Ideally, Trump will move completely in the other direction.

P.S. While it’s good that Trump has reversed Operation Choke Point, his Administration has moved in the wrong direction on civil forfeiture policy. One step forward and one step backwards is not a recipe for more growth and prosperity.

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Time for another trip down Memory Lane to the early years of the Obama Administration.

Two days ago, I wrote about the market-wrecking price controls in Obamacare. And yesterday, I shared a new study exposing the utter failure of Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme. Now let’s take a look at the track record of the “Obamaphone.”

Though let’s start by noting that federal subsidies for phone service existed well before Obama took office. He simply took a misguided program and made it bigger. Here’s a concise explanation of the program from a story I shared in 2014.

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.

But since big government is a recipe for big corruption, you won’t be surprised to learn that a bigger program of phone subsidies has produced scandalous levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. The Government Accountability Office has just released a report revealing widespread incompetence and malfeasance in the “Lifeline” program. Here are some highlights from GAO’s one-page summary.

GAO found weaknesses in several areas. For example, Lifeline’s structure relies on over 2,000 Eligible Telecommunication Carriers that are Lifeline providers to implement key program functions, such as verifying subscriber eligibility. This complex internal control environment is susceptible to risk of fraud, waste, and abuse as companies may have financial incentives to enroll as many customers as possible.

Yes, you read correctly. The private companies that are mooching off this program are in charge of determining eligibility, even though they get more handouts by signing up more recipients.

As you might expect, this is a green light for massive fraud.

Based on its matching of subscriber to benefit data, GAO was unable to confirm whether about 1.2 million individuals of the 3.5 million it reviewed, or 36 percent, participated in a qualifying benefit program, such as Medicaid, as stated on their Lifeline enrollment application.

Readers are welcome to plow their way through GAO’s full 89-page report, but news reports have teased out the most important details.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Times.

The controversial “Obamaphone” program, which pays for cellphones for the poor, is rife with fraud, according to a new government report released Thursday that found more than a third of enrollees may not even be qualified. Known officially as the Lifeline Program, the phone giveaway became a symbol of government waste in the previous administration. …the program has stashed some $9 billion in assets in private bank accounts rather than with the federal treasury, further increasing risks and depriving taxpayers of the full benefit of that money. “…everything that could go wrong is going wrong,” said Mrs. McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s chief oversight committee and who is a former state auditor in Missouri. “We’re currently letting phone companies cash a government check every month with little more than the honor system to hold them accountable, and that simply can’t continue,” she said. …More than 5,500 people were found to be enrolled for two phones, while the program was paying for nearly 6,400 phones for persons the government has listed as having died. Investigators also submitted fraudulent applications to see what would happen, and 12 of the 19 phone carriers they applied to approved a phone.

The Daily Caller’s report also highlighted the program’s rampant fraud.

A massive portion of Obamaphone recipients are receiving the benefit after lying on their applications, according to a new 90-page report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An undercover sting operation showed ineligible applications were approved 63 percent of the time, and a review that found that 36 to 65 percent of beneficiaries in various categories had lied in easily-detectable ways but were approved anyway. The fraud reached unheard-of proportions because the Federal Communications Commission let the task of screening for eligibility fall to phone companies that profit off of enrolling as many people as possible. …All someone has to do to apply for free cell phone service is say that they are on another welfare program, such as food stamps or disability, known as SSI. But nationwide, “only 35.5 percent of people claiming eligibility based on SSI could actually be confirmed as eligible,” the GAO found. …Special interests have aggressively employed a bootleggers-and-Baptists model, with companies who profit greasing the wheels of government with donations and influence-peddling and using poor people as props in marketing campaigns. …The wife of the CEO of TracFone, the largest beneficiary of Obamaphones, was a mega-fundraiser for former President Barack Obama. …And a Pew Research Center report found that the problem of lack of access to technology is far less than it once was, the GAO noted. The FCC’s own data shows that “millions of Lifeline-eligible households are obtaining voice service without Lifeline,” while the fraud rates show that many of the people who do sign up are wealthier than those who don’t.

Again, keep in mind that subsidized telephone service isn’t an Obama invention.

He merely built upon a bad idea that existed for decades.

But also keep in mind that the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Obamaphone program is an inherent part of big government.

There’s fraud in the Medicare program. There’s fraud in the EITC program. There’s fraud in food stamps. There’s fraud in Medicaid. There’s fraud in the disability program. There’s welfare fraud.

But I don’t want to merely pick on what are perceived to be Democrat programs.

There’s also lots of waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon.

Simply stated, when you give away free money, people will do dodgy things to get some of it.

P.S. Given the pervasive parasitical corruption of Washington, nobody should be surprised to learn that plenty of Republican lobbyists are willing to shill for the Obamaphone program.

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Every time I’ve gone overseas in the past six months, I’ve been peppered with questions about Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter whether my speech was about tax reform, entitlements, fiscal crisis, or tax competition, most people wanted to know what I think about The Donald.

My general reaction has been to disavow any expertise (as illustrated by my wildly inaccurate election prediction). But, when pressed, I speculate that Hillary Clinton wasn’t a very attractive candidate and that Trump managed to tap into disdain for Washington (i.e., drain the swamp) and angst about the economy’s sub-par performance.

What I find galling, though, is when I get follow-up questions – and this happens a lot, especially in Europe – asking how it is possible that the United States could somehow go from electing a wonderful visionary like Obama to electing a dangerous clown like Trump.

Since I’m not a big Trump fan, I don’t particularly care how they characterize the current president, but I’m mystified about the ongoing Obama worship in other nations. Even among folks who otherwise are sympathetic to free markets.

I’ve generally responded by explaining that Obama was a statist who wound up decimating the Democratic Party.

And my favorite factoid has been the 2013 poll showing that Reagan would have trounced Obama in a hypothetical matchup.

I especially like sharing that data since many foreigners think Reagan wasn’t a successful President. So when I share that polling data, it also gives me an opportunity to set the record straight about the success of Reaganomics.

I’m motivated to write about this topic because I’m currently in Europe and earlier today I wound up having one of these conversations in the Frankfurt Airport with a German who noticed my accent and asked me about “crazy American politics.”

I had no problem admitting that the political situation in the U.S. is somewhat surreal, so that was a bonding moment. But as the conversation progressed and I started to give my standard explanation about Obama being a dismal president and I shared the 2013 poll, my German friend didn’t believe me.

So I felt motivated to quickly go online and find some additional data to augment my argument. And I was very happy to find a Quinnipiac poll from 2014. Here are some of the highlights, as reported by USA Today.

…33% named Obama the worst president since World War II, and 28% put Bush at the bottom of post-war presidents. “Over the span of 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies, President Barack Obama finds himself with President George W. Bush at the bottom of the popularity barrel,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. …Ronald Reagan topped the poll as the best president since World War II, with 35%. He is followed by presidents Bill Clinton (18%) and John F. Kennedy (15%).

Yes, Ronald Reagan easily was considered the best President in the post-World War II era.

Here’s the relevant chart from the story. Kudos to the American people from giving the Gipper high scores.

And what about the bottom of the list?

Here’s the chart showing Obama edging out George W. Bush for last place.

By the way, I suspect these numbers will look much different in 50 years. I’m guessing many Republicans picked Obama simply because he was the most recent Democrat president and a lot of Democrats picked W because he was the most recent Republican President.

With the passage of time, I think Nixon and Carter deservedly will get some of those votes (and I think LBJ deserves more votes as the worst president, for what it’s worth).

The bottom line, though, is that I now have a second poll to share with foreigners.

P.S. If there’s ever a poll that isn’t limited to the post-World War II era, I would urge votes not only for Reagan, but also for Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland.

P.P.S. People are surprised when I explain that Bill Clinton deserves to be in second place for post-WWII presidents.

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One of the points I repeatedly make is that big government breeds corruption for the simple reason that politicians have more power to reward friends and punish enemies.

It’s especially nauseating when big companies learn that they can get in bed with big government in order to obtain unearned wealth with bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, and other examples of cronyism.

And these odious forms of government intervention reduce our living standards by distorting the allocation of labor and capital.

But just as crime is bad for society but good for criminals, it’s also true that cronyism is bad for the economy and good for cronies.

Two professors at the University of the Illinois decided to measure the “value” of cronyism for politically connected companies.

Gaining political access can be of significant value for corporations, particularly since governments play an increasingly prominent role in influencing firms. Governments affect economic activities not only through regulations, but also by playing the role of customers, financiers, and partners of firms in the private sector. …Therefore, gaining and maintaining access to influential policymakers can be an important source of competitive advantage… In this paper, we investigate the characteristics of firms with political access as well as the valuation effects of political access for corporations. Using a novel dataset of White House visitor logs, we identify top corporate executives of S&P 1500 firms that have face-to-face meetings with high-level federal government officials. …We match the names of visitors in the White House visitor logs to the names of corporate executives of S&P1500 firms during the period from January 2009 through December 2015. We are able to identify 2,286 meetings between corporate executives and federal government officials at the White House.

And what did they find?

That cronyism is lucrative (I deliberately chose that word rather than “profitable” because money that it legitimately earned is very honorable).

Here are some of the findings.

…we find that firms that contributed more to Obama’s presidential election campaigns are more likely to have access to the White House. We also find that firms that spend more on lobbying, firms that receive more government contracts… Second, we find that corporate executives’ meetings with White House officials are followed by significant positive cumulative abnormal returns (CARs). For example, the CAR is about 0.865% during a 51-day window surrounding the meetings (i.e., 10 days before to 40 days after the meetings). We also find that the result is driven mainly by meetings with the President and his top aides.

For those interested, here are the companies that had a lot of interaction with the Obama White House.

And here are the officials that they met with.

For what it’s worth, I would be especially suspicious of the meetings with Valerie Jarrett and the three Chiefs of Staff. Those officials are political operatives rather than policy experts, so companies meeting with them were probably looking for favors.

Interestingly, it turns out that it wasn’t a good idea for companies to “invest” a lot of time and effort into cultivating relationships with Democrats.

…we exploit the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the U.S. as a shock to political access. We find that firms with access to the Obama administration experience significantly lower stock returns following the release of the election result than otherwise similar firms. The economic magnitude is nontrivial as well: after controlling for various factors that are likely correlated with firms’ political activities, such as campaign contributions, lobbying expenses, and government contracts, the stocks of firms with access to the Obama administration underperform the stocks of otherwise similar firms by about 80 basis points in the three days immediately following the election.

Though I guess you can’t blame the companies. Most observers (including me) expected Hillary to win, so the firms were simply playing the odds (albeit from an amoral perspective).

By the way, there are two very important caveats to share.

  • First, we can’t universally assume that corporate executives who met with White House officials were seeking special favors. They may simply have been urging the Obama Administration not to raise taxes or impose new regulations (i.e., honorable forms of lobbying).
  • Second, we can’t assume that the bad forms of lobbying have disappeared simply because there’s a Republican in the White House. As we saw during the Bush years, the GOP is more than capable of creating opportunities for unearned wealth by expanding the size and scope government.

For what it’s worth, I fear Trump will be tempted to play favorites as well. Which is why the real message for today is that smaller government is the only way to limit the corrupt interaction of big business and big government.

This image from the libertarian page on Reddit illustrates why my leftist buddies are naive to think that a bigger government will be a weapon against cronyism.

P.S. We should learn from Estonia on how to limit cronyism.

P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, those with left-wing children may want to get them “Kronies” for their birthdays or Christmas.

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President Obama gave his farewell speech last night, orating for more than 50 minutes. As noted by the Washington Examiner, his remarks were “longer than the good-bye speeches of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined.”

But this wasn’t because he had a lengthy list of accomplishments.

Unless, of course, you count the bad things that happened. And there are three things on my list, if you want to know Obama’s legacy for domestic policy.

And those three things, combined with his other policies, produced dismal results.

In other words, Obama’s legacy will be failed statism.

Writing for the Orange County Register, Joel Kotkin is not impressed by Obama’s overall record.

Like a child star who reached his peak at age 15, Barack Obama could never fulfill the inflated expectations that accompanied his election. …The greatest accomplishment of the Obama presidency turned out to be his election as the first African American president. This should always be seen as a great step forward. Yet, the Obama presidency failed to accomplish the great things promised by his election: racial healing, a stronger economy, greater global influence and, perhaps most critically, the fundamental progressive “transformation” of American politics. …Eight years after his election, more Americans now consider race relations to be getting worse, and we are more ethnically divided than in any time in recent history. …if there was indeed a recovery, it was a modest one, marked by falling productivity and low levels of labor participation. We continue to see the decline of the middle class.

And Seth Lipsky writes in the New York Post that Obama’s economic legacy leaves a lot to be desired.

Obama’s is the only modern presidency that failed to show a single year of growth above 3 percent… Plus, the Obama economy failed to prosper even though the Federal Reserve had its pedal to the metal. Its quantitative easing, $2 trillion balance-sheet expansion and zero-interest-rate policy all produced zilch. …The recent declines in the unemployment rate are due less to the uptick in employed persons than to an increasing number of persons leaving the labor force.

All these accusation are very relevant, and I would add another charge to the indictment. Median household income has been stagnant during the Obama years. And the data for Obamanomics is especially grim when you compare recent years to what happened under Reagan.

By the way, the bad news isn’t limited to economic policy.

Here’s what Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner wrote about Obama’s cavalier treatment of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights is a barricade protecting Americans from their government. Part of President Obama’s legacy will be that he inflicted damage on that barricade, eroding freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms and the right to due process. Through his political arguments, executive actions and political leadership, Obama has taken some of the holes punched by previous presidents and made them broader or more permanent. This means that after Obama leaves office, people will be more easily silenced, killed or disarmed by their own government.

Tim extensively documents all these transgressions in his article. The entire thing is worth reading.

To be sure, there are people who defend Obama’s legacy.

From the left, Dylan Matthews wants readers of Vox to believe that Obama has been a memorable President. And he means that in a positive sense.

Barack Obama is one of the most consequential presidents in American history — and that he will be a particularly towering figure in the history of American progressivism. He got surprisingly tough reforms to Wall Street passed as well, not to mention a stimulus package that both blunted the recession and transformed education and energy policy.

A “towering figure”? That might be an accurate description of Woodrow Wilson, the despicable person who gave us both the income tax and the federal reserve. Or Franklin Roosevelt, who doubled the size of the federal government and wanted radical collectivism. Or Lyndon Johnson, the big spender who gave us Medicare and Medicaid.

All of those presidents changed America in very substantial (and very bad) ways.

Obama, by contrast, wanted to “fundamentally transform” America but instead turned out to be an incremental statist. Sort of like Bush.

And I can’t help but laugh at the assertion that Obama got “tough reforms to Wall Street” Dodd-Frank was supported by Goldman-Sachs and the other big players!

Let’s get back to the Matthews’ article. His strongest praise is reserved for Obamacare.

He signed into law a comprehensive national health insurance bill, a goal that had eluded progressive presidents for a century. …it established, for the first time in history, that it was the responsibility of the United States government to provide health insurance to nearly all Americans, and it expanded Medicaid and offered hundreds of billions of dollars in insurance subsidies to fulfill that responsibility.

I’ll agree that this is Obama’s biggest left-wing accomplishment. I’ve even noted that it may be a long-term victory for the left even though Republicans now control the House and Senate in large part because of that law (and it may not even be that if GOPers get their act together and actually repeal the law).

But I hardly think it was a game-changing reform, even if it isn’t repealed. Government was already deeply enmeshed in the healthcare sector before Obama took office. Obamacare simply moved the needle a bit further in the wrong direction.

Again, that was a victory for the left, just as Bush’s Medicare expansion was a victory for the left. But it didn’t “fundamentally transform” anything.

And here’s his conclusion.

You can generally divide American presidents into two camps: the mildly good or bad but ultimately forgettable (Clinton, Carter, Taft, Harrison), and the hugely consequential for good or ill (FDR, Lincoln, Nixon, Andrew Johnson). Whether you love or hate his record, there’s no question Obama’s domestic and foreign achievements place him firmly in the latter camp.

I strongly suspect that Obama will wind up in the former camp. He was bad, but largely forgettable. At least if the metric is policy.

Let’s close with a couple of observation on the political side.

I’m amused, for instance, that Obama’s bitter that he couldn’t rally the nation behind has anti-gun ideology.

President Obama said his biggest policy disappointment as president was not passing gun control laws, according to an interview CNN aired… Obama was unable to convince Congress to pass legislation that would change those policies, including enhancing background checks and not selling firearms at gun shows and other venues.

And I’m also amused that he believes the American people would have reelected him if he was on the ballot.

Arguing that Americans still subscribe to his vision of progressive change, President Barack Obama asserted in an interview recently he could have succeeded in this year’s election if he was eligible to run.

To be sure, he may be right. He definitely has better political skills than Hillary Clinton, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that he was better at campaigning rather than governing.

But his victories in 2008 and 2012 were against very weak Republican candidates. And it’s interesting that a hypothetical poll showed him and Trump in a statistical dead heat. Given Trump’s low approval rating, that doesn’t exactly translate into a vote of confidence for Obama.

More important, I shared some hypothetical polling data back in 2013 which showed that Reagan would have defeated Obama in a landslide.

Once again, that’s hardly a sign of Obama being a memorable or transformative President.

And I imagine Reagan would have an even bigger lead if there was a new version of the poll.

For what it’s worth, I think the most insightful analysis of Obama’s legacy comes from Philip Klein. He notes that Obama wanted Americans to believe in big government. But he failed. Miserably.

President Obama entered office in 2009 with the twin goals of expanding the role that government plays in the lives of individuals and businesses and proving to Americans that the government could be trusted to achieve big things. He was only half successful. …the gulf between his promises and the reality of what was implemented dramatically hardened public skepticism about government. …As the Obama epoch wanes, trust in government has reached historic lows. A Pew poll last fall found that just 19 percent of Americans said they could trust the government to do the right thing most of the time — a lower percentage than during Watergate, Vietnam or the Iraq War. …Obama saw himself as the liberal answer to Reagan who could succeed where Clinton failed, putting an optimistic face on government expansion, passing historic legislation and getting Americans believing in government again. …Obama’s failure to repair the image of the federal government as a bungling institution — think of the DMV, just on a much bigger scale — will create enormous challenges for any Democratic successors trying to sell the public on the next wave of ambitious government programs.

This is spot on. I joked several years ago that the Libertarian Party should have named Obama “Man of the Year.”

But given how his bad policies have made people even more hostile to big government, he might deserve “Man of the Century.”

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What’s the worst development in economic policy of the Obama years?

Those are all good answers, but if you look at the data from Economic Freedom of the World, a major reason for the decline in America’s score is that the rule of law has eroded.

In other words, the United States is becoming a place where clear and neutral rules are being replaced by arbitrary and capricious government power. And this is not a trivial matter. Issues related to the rule of law account for 20 percent of a nation’s grade – the same level of importance as fiscal policy.

In another worrisome development, the United States only ranked #19 as of 2014 in a global ranking of how well nations maintain the rule of law.

There are several reasons why America’s ranking is going down. To cite just a few: The arbitrary rewrites of Obamacare. The Operation Chokepoint fiasco. IRS regulations that overturn existing law.

And it appears the Obama Administration wants to go out with a bang.

The Wall Street Journal opines on a new regulatory scheme from the Treasury Department to boost the death tax burden by arbitrarily inflating the value of certain assets.

…before President Obama leaves office, his Treasury Department is rushing to implement a de facto increase in the federal estate tax. Since Congress does not agree that the Internal Revenue Service should suck more cash out of family firms, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is up to his usual tricks, trashing established interpretations of tax law to bypass the legislative branch. Not even Mr. Lew has the gall to claim he can raise the federal death-tax rate of 40% without congressional approval. So the game here is to contrive ways to expose more of the value—or imagined value—of an estate to IRS revenue collectors. Last month Mr. Lew’s Treasury announced a proposed rule to close what it calls an estate and gift tax “loophole.” Until now, the IRS permitted realistic values for portions of closely held corporations and partnerships. …consider a minority stake with limited rights in a family business. While the business as a whole may have considerable value, how much would an investor be willing to pay for a small, illiquid piece of a private business that she can’t control? The typical answer is not much. On the other hand, the investor might pay handsomely for a controlling interest. The IRS has long recognized this reality and has allowed the discounting of interests in closely held businesses to more closely reflect what they could fetch on the open market, rather than simply assigning a percentage of a firm’s overall estimated value.

In other words, Obama’s Treasury Department wants to force heirs to pay tax on what they think an asset is worth rather than what it would fetch on the open market.

This regulatory scheme – if ultimately successful – will make a bad tax even worse.

And it also will be bad for the economy.

…what seems like a reasonable interpretation to some looks like a wasted revenue opportunity to the Obama Treasury. …As always, Mr. Lew and Treasury are happy to seize more wealth from the private economy. …But voters may ask how much economic destruction is acceptable in the name of such fairness. …the tax clearly encourages people to consume now rather than invest in the future. This means lower GDP over time and fewer opportunities for the poor, some of whom might want to work for family businesses. The Tax Foundation reckons that the economy would be 0.8% larger over a decade without the estate tax.

Here’s another example.

The Obama Administration has been shaking down banks for money because of supposed misdeeds leading up the government-caused financial crisis.

The various fines may of may not be legitimate, but what’s really troubling is that a big chunk of the money is then being steered to left-wing groups. Many of which are seeking to impact the political process.

Andy Koenig of Freedom Partners has a column in the Wall Street Journal with some of the unseemly details.

The administration’s multiyear campaign against the banking industry has quietly steered money to organizations and politicians who are working to ensure liberal policy and political victories at every level of government. The conduit for this funding is the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, a coalition of federal and state regulators and prosecutors created in 2012 to “identify, investigate, and prosecute instances of wrongdoing” in the residential mortgage-backed securities market. In conjunction with the Justice Department, the RMBS Working Group has reached multibillion-dollar settlements with essentially every major bank in America. …Combined, the banks must divert well over $11 billion into “consumer relief,” which is supposed to benefit homeowners harmed during the Great Recession. …a substantial portion is allocated to private, nonprofit organizations drawn from a federally approved list. Some groups on the list—Catholic Charities, for instance—are relatively nonpolitical. Others—La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and more—are anything but. This is a handout to the administration’s allies. Many of these groups engage in voter registration, community organizing and lobbying on liberal policy priorities at every level of government. They also provide grants to other liberal groups not eligible for payouts under the settlements. …The settlements also give banks a financial incentive to fund these groups. Most of the deals give double credit or more against the settlement amount for every dollar in “donations.”

Needless to say, diverting money to political allies sounds like the kind of chicanery you’d find in a banana republic, not an advanced western society.

But it gets worse.

Here’s another Wall Street Journal editorial on an additional bit of regulatory/tax overreach by the Treasury Department. It deals with the Obama Administration trying to stop “inversions” by unilaterally changing the rules in ways that will hamper sensible business practices for all multinational companies.

The Treasury Secretary…wants to prevent “earnings stripping,” in which companies allegedly make loans from their overseas businesses to their U.S. subsidiaries to minimize taxes. The feds succeeded in destroying the proposed merger of Pfizer and Allergan. But we warned in April that the Treasury plan would be “ugly for everybody,” imposing new costs and paperwork burdens on companies that never had any intention of moving overseas or stripping earnings. And sure enough, from small S corps all the way to Exxon, the afflicted have been explaining how the new rules will make it more expensive and difficult to do even routine business functions like cash management. …the banks hate this rule too. By limiting their ability to move money across borders to meet customer demand and respond to market stress, it could force them to violate other regulations, or worse. A July letter from Citigroup, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase to Treasury officials warned the rules could make “financial services groups more fragile in times of financial stress, thereby creating risk to the financial stability of the United States.” …If Mr. Lew were reasonable, he’d drop this misguided assault on American business and work with lawmakers to craft a corporate tax reform that ensures U.S. companies never want to leave the U.S.

A report in the New York Times highlighted some of the legal issues involved in this issue.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit on Thursday to block new rules issued by the Obama administration that prevent American corporations from merging with foreign-based companies and moving their headquarters abroad to save on taxes. The business group, along with the Texas Association of Business, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Austin, Tex., saying the administration was overstepping its authority in issuing the rules. …“If the defendants’ rule is permitted to stand, it is not just mergers that will suffer — it is the rule of law, and the certainty and stability required for effective commerce, markets and economic growth, that are truly threatened by the defendants’ unauthorized and unlawful action,” the plaintiffs said in their filing. …“Although it might seem esoteric, this action is a clear case of federal executive branch officers and agencies bypassing Congress and short-circuiting legislative debate over a hotly contested issue,” the lawsuit says.

Ugh. At least Hillary Clinton is proposing to change the law in pursuit of bad policy on inversions. Obama just waves his magic wand.

Let’s wrap up by refocusing on why the rule of law is a fundamental building block of a free society. Back in 2014, I shared a very good video from Learn Liberty about the importance of the rule of law.

That video is a compelling explanation of why it is good to have clear rules, along with limits on the arbitrary power of government officials.

Indeed, it’s probably no exaggeration to assert that rule of law is the greatest contribution of western civilization.

Here’s a movie clip (courtesy of FEE) that makes this point.

Based on the Obama Administration’s unilateral and capricious actions, maybe a new movie should be made about the rise and decline of western civilization.

P.S. On the topic of Obama and movies, here’s some humor to offset today’s dismal topic.

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