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Archive for the ‘Republicans’ Category

When I talked to CNBC on Wednesday, I was very critical of Trump and other Republicans for promoting protectionism, Keynesian monetary policy, and wasteful spending.

Yes, I give Trump and the GOP credit for improvements in regulatory policy and tax policy. And I used to think that the pro-growth effect of those reforms was enough to balance out the anti-growth effects of the bad policies.

But I now think the net effect of the Trump presidency is to expand the overall burden of government.

In early July, my report card on Trump’s economic policy (based on the five key indices in Economic Freedom of the World) had him slightly above a C average.

Now, as you can see, he’s slightly below. And since Republicans in Congress are largely going along with Trump’s policies, they also deserve blame.

I realize that people also care about other matters, such as social issues, the judiciary, and foreign policy, so it’s not my goal to influence how anyone votes.

But I do want people to understand that economic policy matters. And for readers who like Trump (or at least think he’s a less-worse alternative than Sanders, Harris, Warren, etc), be forewarned that Trump’s big-government policies are increasing the probability of having Democrats win in 2020.

The lesson Republicans should have learned from Ronald Reagan is that good policy is good politics (my Fourth Theorem of Government).

George H.W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. George W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. And now Trump is demonstrating that he didn’t learn that lesson.

P.S. Some of us knew ahead of time to expect bad policy from Trump.

P.P.S. Since my 2016 election prediction was wrong, feel free to ignore my political prognosticating.

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I wrote yesterday about the debate among leftists, which is partly a contest between Bernie Sanders-style socialists and Elizabeth Warren-style corporatists.

Now let’s look at the debate on the right.

There’s an ongoing argument over what it means to be conservative, especially when thinking about the role of the federal government.

You can view this debate – if you peruse this “political compass test” – as being a battle over whether it is best for conservatism to be represented by Friedrich Hayek or Angela Merkel? By Donald Trump or Gary Johnson?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a debate between whether the right believes in the principles of small-state classical liberalism or whether it thinks government should have the power to steer society.

Representing the latter view, here’s some of what Henry Olsen wrote for the Washington Post.

…libertarian-minded opinion leaders have criticized Trump… For these people, Trump was…an apostate whose heresies had to be cast out of the conservative church. Trump’s overwhelming victory in the primaries should have shocked them out of their ideological slumber. …the market fundamentalists seem to see nothing— absolutely nothing — about today’s capitalism to dislike. …National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley, famously wrote that…the federal government’s proper peacetime duties are solely to “protect its citizens’ lives, liberty, and property.” With respect to its efforts to do anything else, “we are, without reservation, on the libertarian side.” But that dog don’t hunt politically. ..libertarian-conservatives remain oblivious or intentionally in denial… The New Deal’s intellectual core, that the federal government should vigorously act to correct market failures, remains at the center of what Americans expect from Washington. Trump’s nomination and election proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that even a majority of Republicans agree. Less doctrinaire conservative thinkers understand this. Ramesh Ponnuru noted in his National Review essay that…capitalism “require[s] invigoration” as a result. The American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin goes further, noting that “sometimes our economic policy has to be determined by more than purely economic considerations.” Other factors, such as social order and family formation, are also worthy goals to which pure economic efficiency or growth must bend at times. …this debate is fundamental to the future of conservatism and perhaps of the United States itself.

And here’s the beginning of a history-filled article by Joshua Tait in the National Interest.

When FOX television host Tucker Carlson recently attacked conservative faith in free market economics, he probably surprised a number of his viewers. For too long, Carlson charged, libertarians and social conservatives have ignored the fundamental part economic structures play in undermining communities. Families are crushed beneath market forces. Disposable goods—fueled by consumer culture—provide little salve for drug addiction and suicide. Markets are a “tool,” Carlson said, not a “religion.” “You’d have to be a fool to worship” them. Carlson put a primetime spin on an argument that has been brewing for some time on the right. Just as the 2008 economic collapse and the national prominence of Bernie Sanders have begun to shift the Democratic Party’s stance toward socialism, so the long effects of the downturn and Trump’s election have caused a rethinking of conservative commitment to free markets.

Last but not least, Jonah Goldberg examines a slice of this divide in a column for National Review.

The idea holding together the conservative movement since the 1960s was called “fusionism.” The concept…was that freedom and virtue were inextricably linked. …Today, conservative forces concerned with freedom and virtue are pulling apart. The catalyst is a sprawling coalition of self-described nationalists, Catholic integralists, protectionists, economic planners, and others who are increasingly rallying around something called “post-liberal” conservativism. By “liberal,” they…mean classical liberalism, the Enlightenment worldview held by the Founding Fathers. What the post-liberals want is hard to summarize beyond generalities. They seek a federal government that cares more about pursuing the “highest good” than protecting the “libertarian” (their word) system of individual rights and free markets. …On the other side are…conservatives who…still rally to the banner of classical liberalism and its philosophy of natural rights and equality under the law. …this intellectual mudfight really is…about what conservatism will mean after Trump is gone from the scene. …the so-called post-liberals now want Washington to dictate how we should all pursue happiness, just so long as it’s from the right. …Where the post-liberals have a point is that humans are happiest in communities, families and institutions of faith. The solution to the culture wars is to allow more freedom for these “little platoons” of civil society… What America needs is less talk of national unity — from the left or the right — and more freedom to let people live the way they want to live, not just as individuals, but as members of local communities. We don’t need to move past liberalism, we need to return to it.

For what it’s worth, I prefer Jonah’s analysis.

But I’ll also make three additional points.

First, if we care about maximizing freedom and prosperity, there’s no substitute for classical liberalism.

In my lifetime, there have been various alternatives to free markets. There was pre-Reagan Rockefeller Republicanism, post-Reagan “kinder and gentler,” George W. Bush’s so-called compassionate conservatism, reform conservatism, and now various strains of Trumpism and populism.

It may very well be true that some of these alternatives are more politically palatable (though I’m skeptical given the GOP’s unparalleled electoral success with an anti-big government message in 1980, 1994, 2010, and 2014).

But even if some alternatives are more popular, the associated policies will hurt people in the long run. That’s a point I made when arguing for supply-side tax cuts over family-friendly tax cuts.

In other words, you demonstrate compassion by giving people opportunity to prosper, not by giving them other people’s money.

Second, there’s nothing about classical liberalism or capitalism that suggests people should be selfish and atomistic.

Indeed, I pointed out, starting at the 3:36 point of this interview, that a libertarian society is what allows family, neighborhood, and community to flourish.

And, as Jonah explained, the “platoons” of “civil society” are more likely to thrive in an environment where the central government is constrained.

My third and final point is that I’m pessimistic.

The debate on the left is basically about how to make government bigger and how fast that process should occur.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a similar debate on the right, featuring different theories of how to shrink the size and scope of government.

Instead, the Reaganite-oriented classical liberals are the only ones who want America to become more like Hong Kong, while all the competing approaches basically envision government getting bigger, albeit at a slower rate than preferred by folks on the left.

In other words, we’re in a political environment where everyone on the left is debating how quickly to become Mexico and many people on the right are debating how quickly to become France.

No wonder I’ve identified an escape option if America goes down the wrong path.

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We had an election yesterday in the United States (or, as Mencken sagely observed, an advance auction of stolen goods). Here are five things to keep in mind about the results.

First, the GOP did better than most people (including me) expected.

This tweet captures the zeitgeist of last night.

The Senate results were especially disappointing for the Democrats. It does appear the Kavanaugh fight worked out very well for Republicans.

Second, better-than-expected election news for the GOP does not imply better-than-expected news for public policy. Given Trump’s semi-big-government populism, I fear this tweet is right about the increased risk of a counterproductive infrastructure package and a job-destroying increase in the minimum wage.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll also get even more pork-filled appropriations spending. In other words, busting the spending caps after already busting the spending caps.

The only thing that might save taxpayers is that Democrats in the House may be so fixated on investigating and persecuting Trump that it poisons the well in terms of cooperating on legislation.

Fingers crossed for gridlock!

Third, there was mixed news when looking at the nation’s most important ballot initiatives.

On the plus side, Colorado voters rejected an effort to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory system (in order to waste even more money on government schools), California voters sensibly stopped the spread of rent control, Washington voters rejected a carbon tax, Florida voters expanded supermajority requirements for tax increases, and voters in several states legalized marijuana.

On the minus side, voters in four states opted to expand the bankrupt Medicaid program, Arizona voters sided with teacher unions over children and said no to expanded school choice, and voters in two states increased the minimum wage.

Fourth, Illinois is about to accelerate in the wrong direction. Based on what happened last night, it’s quite likely that the state’s flat tax will be replaced by a class-warfare-based system. In other words, the one bright spot in a dark fiscal climate will be extinguished.

This will accelerate the out-migration of investors, entrepreneurs, and businesses, which is not good news for a state that is perceived to be most likely to suffer a fiscal collapse. It’s just a matter of time before the Land of Lincoln becomes the land of bankruptcy.

Interesting, deep-blue Connecticut voters elected a Republican governor. Given the state’s horrific status, I suspect this won’t make a difference.

Fifth, Obama was a non-factor. Democrats lost almost every race where he campaigned.

Though I should point out that he deserves credit for trying to have an impact in close races. Many top-level politicians, looking to have a good “batting average,” only offer help to campaigns that are likely to prevail.

That being said, this adds to my hypothesis that Obama was basically an inconsequential president.

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My major long-run project during Obama’s presidency was to educate Republicans in Washington about the need for genuine entitlement reform. I explained to them that the United States was doomed, largely because of demographics, to suffer a Greek-style fiscal future if we left policy on autopilot.

Needless to say, I didn’t expect any positive reforms while Obama was in the White House.

Instead, I proselytized for fiscal sanity in hopes that the GOP might be willing to fix our fiscal mess if they had total control of the White House and Congress after the 2016 election.

And it seemed like things were moving in the right direction.

After they took power in 2010, House Republicans repeatedly voted for budget resolutions that included meaningful changes to Medicaid, Medicare, and Obamacare, as well as reductions in wasteful pork-barrel spending. And after the 2014 GOP landslide, Senate Republicans also voted for a budget resolution that assumed good reform.

Then we got the unexpected Trump victory in 2016 and Republicans held all the levers of power starting in 2017.

Sounds like good news for advocates of spending restraint, right?

That may be true in some alternative universe, but that’s definitely not the case in Washington.

As I warned before the election, President Trump is a big-government Republican. And a majority of congressional GOPers, after years of chest beating about the importance of spending restraint, suddenly have decided that the swamp is really a hot tub.

In 2017, my main gripe was that Republicans committed a sin of omission. They had power and didn’t adopt good reforms.

In 2018, they shifted to a sin of commission, voting to bust the spending caps as part of an orgy of new spending.

And guess what they want to do for an encore?

In the ultimate add-insult-to-injury gesture, Republicans (at least the ones in the House) are hoping voters will overlook their profligacy because they’re going to have a symbolic vote on a poorly drafted version of a balanced budget amendment.

The House is slated to vote next week on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution… The decision to bring the measure — which would require Congress not to spend more than it brings in — to the floor comes just weeks after the passage of a $1.3 trillion spending package that is projected to add billions to the deficit. …The measure has virtually no chance of becoming law as it would need Democratic support in the Senate and ratification from the majority of states.

This is insulting.

These clowns vote to expand the burden of spending and now they want to hoodwink voters with a sham vote for something that has no chance of happening (an amendment requires two-thirds support from both the House and Senate, and then would require ratification from three-fourths of state legislatures).

Do they really think we’re that stupid?!?

To make matters worse, they’re not even proposing a good version of an amendment. Here’s the core provision of H.J. Res 2.

Section 1. Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless three-fifths of the whole number of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a rollcall vote.

Sound reasonable and innocuous, but I’ve been telling folks on Capitol Hill this is the wrong approach. I pointed out that 49 out of 50 states have some form of balanced budget requirement, yet that doesn’t stop states such as Illinois, California, and New Jersey from over-taxing and over-spending, or from accumulating more debt.

I also explained that the so-called Maastricht rules in the European Union operate in a similar fashion, yet that hasn’t stopped nations such as Greece, France, and Italy from over-taxing and over-spending, or from accumulating more debt.

The problem, I explained, is that anti-deficit rules simply give politicians an excuse to raise taxes (which leads to more spending and more red ink, but I don’t think that causes many sleepless nights for elected officials).

If Republicans are going to go through the trouble of having a phony and symbolic vote, they should at least craft a good amendment. In other words, they should rally behind some sort of spending cap modeled after what exists in Switzerland and Hong Kong. They could even use Representative Kevin Brady’s widely praised MAP Act as a template.

A spending cap is far superior to a balanced-budget rule for two reasons.

  1. A spending cap puts the focus on the real problem of excessive growth of government. And if you impose some sort of cap that complies with the Golden Rule, you simultaneously address the real problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.
  2. A spending cap is much easier to enforce since politicians know that spending can only increase each year by, say 2 percent. A balanced-budget rule, by contrast, is inherently unstable and unworkable because annual revenues can jump or fall significantly depending on economic conditions.

And it’s not just me saying this. Even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund (twice), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice) have acknowledged that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Republican politicians are behaving in a despicable fashion.

So you can understand my caustic and frustrated responses in this recent interview with Charles Payne. I’m upset because it’s quite likely that Trump’s spending splurge eventually is going to lead to higher taxes.

I pointed out in the interview that Trump was in a position of power. He could have won the budget fight if he was willing to play hardball with a shutdown.

And I also explained that there shouldn’t be a Washington infrastructure plan for the simple reason that we shouldn’t have a federal Department of Transportation.

Let’s conclude with some sarcasm. I don’t know if the former leader of Tanzania ever uttered this quote I saw on Reddit‘s Libertarian Meme page. But if he did say it, he was spot on.

And here’s a clever bit of humor that I saw on Reddit‘s Libertarian page.

Except the image is unfair. I’ve crunched the numbers. Democrats generally don’t increase spending as fast as Republicans.

With one impressive exception.

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Ever since there was a deal to bust the budget caps back in February, I knew it was just a matter of time before Congress and the White House responded with an odious orgy of new spending.

Some people told me I was being too pessimistic.

After all, the President’s Office of Management and Budget has a big banner on the budget webpage. It boldly states that President Trump is going to “reverse the trend of rising government spending.”

But I’ve learned to discount the rhetoric of politicians. It’s more important to look at the actual budget numbers in legislation that the President signs into law.

And that’s what Trump did yesterday, giving his approval to a bill that funds the parts of the budget included in annual appropriations.

So did he “reverse the trend”?

The good news is that the answer is yes. But the bad news is that he reversed the trend by increasing spending faster than Obama.

I’m not joking. Courtesy of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, here are the year-over-year numbers for various parts of the bill.* This table tells you everything you need to know about the grotesque recklessness of Washington.

An overall increase of 12.9 percent!

But maybe spending is climbing so rapidly because the cost of living has suddenly jumped?

Nope, that’s not an excuse. The CRFB put together a list of the major inflation projections. As you can see, there’s not the slightest sign of a spike in prices in either 2018 or 2019.

Indeed, it turns out that the Republican Congress and the Republican President decided to increase spending six times faster than needed to keep pace with inflation. Six times.

Yes, we can definitely say the spending trend has been reversed. Just not in a good way.

So who should be blamed, congressional Republicans or Trump?

The simple answer is both.

Trump is responsible because he could veto budget-busting bills. All he would need to do is tell the crowd on Capitol Hill that he is perfectly happy to close down the non-essential parts of the federal government until he gets some responsible legislation. Sooner or later, the pro-spending crowd would have to cave.

That being said, congressional GOPers also deserve blame. It’s a failure by the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee who are motivated by a desire to spend the maximum amount of money. It’s a failure of GOP leadership for not removing members from that Committee if they don’t agree to some level of spending restraint. It’s also a failure of leadership that they don’t get conservatives and moderates in a room and hammer out a common approach that would restrain the growth of Leviathan. And it’s a failure of the individual Senators and Representatives for not upholding the Constitution and not doing what’s right for the country.

But this also brings me back to Trump. If the President credibly drew a line in the sand and said “I’ll veto any spending bill that is over X”, that would change behavior on Capitol Hill. But Members of Congress believe (correctly, it seems) that Trump has no interest in fiscal restraint. So without any leadership from the White House, you get an every-man-for-himself, grab-as-much-pork-as-you-can attitude among lawmakers that makes it virtually impossible for leadership to pursue an effective strategy.

The net result is that politicians win, the special interests win, and the bureaucracy wins.

And who loses? Well, look in the mirror for the answer.

*The data in the CRFB table is for “budget authority” rather than “budget outlays.” These are closely related concepts, but technically different. When Congress approves “budget authority,” it is basically giving money to an agency. When the agencies then spend the money, it is “budget outlays.”

P.S. I’m a big fan of spending caps, but I confess that they aren’t very helpful if politicians simply change the law whenever they want more spending. The ultimate answer is to have constitutional spending limits, like Switzerland and Hong Kong, but amending the Constitution is hardly as easy task. So my best guess is that we’ll become Greece at some point.

P.P.S. Some people tell me not to worry because the real problem is entitlement spending rather than appropriated spending. They’re right that entitlements are the biggest long-run problem. But I point out that if GOPers aren’t willing to tackle the low-hanging fruit of pork-filled appropriations, that doesn’t fill me with optimism that they will ever adopt genuine entitlement reform.

P.P.P.S. The same people also claim that at least Republicans will hold the line on taxes. I think they’re hallucinating. If we don’t get control of spending, sooner or later we’ll get massive tax hikes. Which will make our fiscal problems worse, needless to say. But that’s our grim future because of GOP irresponsibility today.

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While I realize there’s zero hope of ripping up America’s awful tax code and getting a simple and fair flat tax, I’m nonetheless hopeful that there will be some meaningful incremental changes as part of the current effort to achieve some sort of tax reform.

A package that lowers the corporate rate, replaces depreciation with expensing, and ends the death tax would be very good for growth, and those good reforms could be at least partially financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and curtailing business interest deductions so that debt and equity are on a level playing field.

All that sounds good, and a package like this should be feasible since Republicans control both Congress and the White House (especially now that the BAT is off the table), but I warn in this interview that there are lots of big obstacles that could cause tax reform to become a disaster akin to the Obamacare repeal effort.

Here’s my list of conflicts that need to be solved in order to get some sort of plan through Congress and on to the President’s desk.

  • Carried interest – Trump wants to impose a higher capital gains tax on a specific type of investment, but this irks many congressional GOPers who have long understood that any capital gains tax is a form of double taxation and should be abolished. The issue apparently has some symbolic importance to the President and it could become a major stumbling block if he digs in his heels.
  • Tax cut or revenue neutrality – Budget rules basically require that tax cuts expire after 10 years. To avoid this outcome (which would undermine the pro-growth impact of any reforms), many lawmakers want a revenue-neutral package that could be permanent. But that means coming up with tax increases to offset tax cuts. That’s okay if undesirable tax preferences are being eliminated to produce more revenue, but defenders of those loopholes will then lobby against the plan.
  • Big business vs small business – Everyone agrees that America’s high corporate tax rate is bad news for competitiveness and should be reduced. The vast majority of small businesses, however, pay taxes through “Schedule C” of the individual income tax, so they want lower personal rates to match lower corporate rates. That’s a good idea, of course, but would have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Budget balance – Republicans have long claimed that a major goal is balancing the budget within 10 years. That’s certainly achievable with a modest amount of spending restraint. And it’s even relatively simple to have a big tax cut and still achieve balance in 10 years with a bit of extra spending discipline. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s very little appetite for spending restraint in the White House or Capitol Hill, and this may hinder passage of a tax plan.
  • Middle class tax relief – The main focus of the tax plan is boosting growth and competitiveness by reducing the burden on businesses and investment. That’s laudable, but critics will say “the rich” will get most of the tax relief. And even though the rich already pay most of the taxes and even though the rest of us will benefit from faster growth, Republicans are sensitive to that line of attack. So they will want to include some sort of provision designed for the middle class, but that will have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.

There’s another complicating factor. At the risk of understatement, President Trump generates controversy. And this means he doesn’t have much power to use the bully pulpit.

Though I point out in this interview that this doesn’t necessarily cripple tax reform since the President’s most important role is to simply sign the legislation.

Before the 2016 election, I was somewhat optimistic about tax reform.

A few months ago, I was very pessimistic.

I now think something will happen, if for no other reason than Republicans desperately want to achieve something after botching Obamacare repeal.

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To be blunt, Republicans are heading in the wrong direction on fiscal policy. They have full control of the executive and legislative branches, but instead of using their power to promote Reaganomics, it looks like we’re getting a reincarnation of the big-government Bush years.

As Yogi Berra might have said, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

Let’s look at the evidence. According to the Hill, the Keynesian virus has infected GOP thinking on tax cuts.

Republicans are debating whether parts of their tax-reform package should be retroactive in order to boost the economy by quickly putting more money in people’s wallets.

That is nonsense. Just as giving people a check and calling it “stimulus” didn’t help the economy under Obama, giving people a check and calling it a tax cut won’t help the economy under Trump.

Tax cuts boost growth when they reduce the marginal tax rate on productive behavior such as work, saving, investment, or entrepreneurship. When that happens, people have an incentive to generate more income. And that leads to more national income, a.k.a., economic growth.

Borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and then stuffing checks (oops, I mean retroactive tax cuts) in the economy’s right pocket, by contrast, simply reallocates national income.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the economy didn’t get much benefit from the 2001 Bush tax cut, especially when compared to the growth-oriented 2003 tax cut. Unfortunately, Republicans haven’t learned that lesson.

Republicans have taken steps in the past to ensure that taxpayers directly felt the benefits of tax cuts. As part of the 2001 tax cuts enacted by President George W. Bush, taxpayers received rebate checks.

The article does include some analysis from people who understand that retroactive tax cuts aren’t economically beneficial.

…there are also drawbacks to making tax changes retroactive. …such changes would add to the cost of the bill, but would not be an effective way to encourage new spending and investments. “It has all of the costs of the tax cuts but none of the economic benefits,” said Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget President Maya MacGuineas, who added that “you don’t make investments in the rear-view mirror.”

I’m not always on the same side as Maya, but she’s right on this issue. You can’t encourage people to generate more income in the past. If you want more growth, you have to reduce marginal tax rates on future activity.

By the way, I’m not arguing that there is no political benefit to retroactive tax cuts. If Republicans simply stated that they were going to send rebate checks to curry favor with voters, I’d roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders.

But when they make Keynesian arguments to justify such a policy, I can’t help but get upset about the economic illiteracy.

Speaking of bad economic policy, GOPers also are pursuing bad spending policy.

Politico has a report on a potential budget deal where everyone wins…except taxpayers.

The White House is pushing a deal on Capitol Hill to head off a government shutdown that would lift strict spending caps long opposed by Democrats in exchange for money for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, multiple sources said.

So much for Trump’s promise to get tough on the budget, even if it meant a shutdown.

Instead, the back-room negotiations are leading to more spending for all interest groups.

Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, …also lobbied for a big budget increase for the Pentagon, another priority for Trump. …The White House is offering Democrats more funding for their own pet projects.

The only good news is that Democrats are so upset about the symbolism of the fence that they may not go for the deal.

Democrats show no sign of yielding on the issue. They have already blocked the project once.

Unfortunately, I expect this is just posturing. When the dust settles, I expect the desire for more spending (from both parties) will produce a deal that is bad news. At least for those of us who don’t want America to become Greece (any faster than already scheduled).

Republican and Democratic congressional aides have predicted for months that both sides will come together on a spending agreement to raise spending caps for the Pentagon as well as for nondefense domestic programs.

So let’s check our scorecard. On the tax side of the equation, we’ll hopefully still get some good policy, such as a lower corporate tax rate, but it probably will be accompanied by some gimmicky Keynesian policy.

On the spending side of the equation, it appears my fears about Trump may have been correct and he’s going to be a typical big-government Republican.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m being needlessly pessimistic and we’ll get the kinds of policies I fantasized about in early 2016. But I wouldn’t bet money on a positive outcome.

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It’s depressing to see how Republicans are bungling the Obamacare issue. But it’s also understandable since it’s politically difficult to reduce handouts once people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency (a point I made even before Obamacare was enacted).

Unfortunately, I fear that the GOP might bungle the tax issue as well. I was interviewed the other day by Dana Loesch on this topic and highlighted several issues.

Here’s the full discussion.

What’s especially frustrating about this issue is that taxes should be reduced. A lot.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute debunks six tax myths. Here they are, followed by my two cents.

Myth #1: Long-term deficits are driven by tax cuts and falling revenues

Fact: They are driven entirely by rapid spending growth

Brian nails it. I made this same point earlier this year. Indeed, because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time, it is accurate to say that more than 100 percent of the long-run fiscal problem is caused by excessive spending (particularly poorly designed entitlement programs).

Myth #2: Democratic tax proposals would significantly reduce the deficit

Fact: Their most common proposals would raise little revenue

Once again, Brian is right. There are ways to significantly increase the tax burden in America, such as a value-added tax. But the class-warfare ideas that attract a lot of support on the left won’t raise much revenue because upper-income taxpayers have substantial control over the timing, level and composition of their income.

Myth #3: Taxing millionaires and corporations can balance the long-term budget

Fact: These taxes cannot cover Washington’s current commitments, much less new liberal wish lists

Since even the IRS has admitted that upper-income taxpayers finance a hugely disproportionate share of the federal government, it hardly seems fair to subject them to even more onerous penalties. Especially since the IRS data from the 1980s suggest punitive rates could lead to less revenue rather than more.

Myth #4: The U.S. income tax is more regressive than other nations

Fact: It is the most progressive in the entire OECD

There are several ways to slice the data, so one can quibble with Brian’s assertion. But when comparing taxes paid by the rich compared to taxes paid by the poor, it is true that the United States relies more on upper-income taxpayers than any other developed nation. Not because we tax the rich more, but because we tax the poor less.

Myth #5: The U.S. tax code is becoming more regressive over time

Fact: It has become increasingly progressive over the past 35 years

Brian is right. Child credits, changes in the standard deduction and personal exemptions, and the EITC have combined in recent decades to take millions of households off the tax rolls. And since the U.S. thankfully does not have a value-added tax, lower-income people are largely protected from taxation.

Myth #6: Tax rates do not matter much to economic growth

Fact: They are among the most important factors

There are many factors that determine a nation’s economic success, including trade policy, regulation, monetary policy, and rule of law, so a good tax code isn’t a guarantor of prosperity and a bad tax system doesn’t automatically mean malaise. But Brian is right that taxation has a significant impact on growth.

In the interview, I said that I had two fantasies. First, I want to junk the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Second, I’d ultimately like to shrink government so much that we could eliminate the income tax entirely.

Many people don’t realize that income taxes only began to plague the world about 100 years ago.

If we can somehow restore the kind of limited government envisioned by America’s Founders, the dream of no income tax could become a reality once again.

But if Republicans can’t even manage to cut taxes today, when they control both the executive and legislative branch, then neither one of my fantasies will ever become reality.

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Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House.

In theory, that means a long-overdue opportunity to eliminate wasteful programs and cut pork-barrel spending.

In reality, it mostly means business as usual.

Politicians in Washington just reached a deal to fund the government for the rest of the current fiscal year. As reported by the Washington Post, it’s not exactly a victory for libertarians or small-government conservatives.

Democrats are surprised by just how many concessions they extracted in the trillion-dollar deal, considering that Republicans have unified control of government. …Non-defense domestic spending will go up, despite the Trump team’s insistence he wouldn’t let that happen. The president called for $18 billion in cuts. Instead, he’s going to sign a budget with lots of sweeteners that grow the size of government. …the NIH will get a $2 billion boost — on top of the huge increase it got last year. …Planned Parenthood…will continue to receive funding at current levels. …after the deal was reached…, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi quickly put out celebratory statements. …“Overall, the compromise resembles more of an Obama administration-era budget than a Trump one,” Bloomberg reports. …Reuters: “While Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, Democrats scored … significant victories in the deal.” …Vox: “Conservatives got almost nothing they wanted.”

I guess you could call this a triumph of “public choice” over campaign rhetoric. Politicians did what’s in the best interest of politicians rather than what would be best for the nation.

I’m disappointed, as you might expect. But as I say in this interview, there are far more important battles. I’ll gladly accept a bit of pork and profligacy in the 2017 budget if that clears the decks for much-needed repeal of Obamacare and long-overdue reform of the tax code.

But here’s the catch. I don’t expect that these reforms will actually happen. Yes, the deck has been cleared, but I don’t think Republicans will take advantage of the opportunity.

The fundamental problem, which I pointed out in a different interview, is that there’s not a governing majority for smaller government. And that has some very grim implications.

Even more depressing, I point out that only Trump has the power to turn things around. Yet I see very little evidence that he, a) believes in smaller government, or b) is willing to expend any political capital to achieve smaller government.

To make matters worse, Republicans have convinced themselves that they lose the spin battle whenever there is a shutdown or some other high-stakes fiscal fight with Democrats.

For what it’s worth, I’m trying to remind Republicans that it is in their long-run political interests to do the right thing (as Reagan demonstrated). That’s why, in the first interview, I said they need to gut Obamacare and lower taxes if they want to do well in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for the “stupid party” to behave intelligently.

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Fundamental tax reform such as a flat tax should accomplish three big goals.

The good news is that almost all Republicans believe in the first two goals and at least pay lip services to the third goal.

The bad news is that they nonetheless can’t be trusted with tax reform.

Here’s why. Major tax reform is based on the assumption that achieving the first two goals will lower tax revenue and achieving the third goal will generate tax revenue. A reform plan doesn’t have to be “revenue neutral,” of course, but politicians would be very reluctant to vote for a package that substantially reduced tax revenue. So serious proposals have revenue-raising provisions that are roughly similar in magnitude to the revenue-losing provisions.

Here’s the problem.   Notwithstanding lip service, Republicans are not willing to go after major tax loopholes like the healthcare exclusion. And that means that they are looking for other sources of revenue. In some cases, such as the proposal in the House plan to put debt and equity on a level playing field, they come up with decent ideas. In other cases, such as the border-adjustment tax, they come up with misguided ideas.

And some of them are even talking about very bad ideas, such as a value-added tax or carbon tax.

This is why it would be best to set aside tax reform and focus on a more limited agenda, such as a plan to lower the corporate tax rate. I discussed that idea a few weeks ago on Neil Cavuto’s show, and I echoed myself last week in another appearance on Fox Business.

Lest you think I’m being overly paranoid about Republicans doing the wrong thing, here’s what’s being reported in the establishment press.

The Hill is reporting that the Trump Administration is still undecided on the BAT.

The most controversial aspect of the House’s plan is its reliance on border adjustability to tax imports and exempt exports. …the White House has yet to fully embrace it. …If the administration opts against the border-adjustment proposal, it would have to find another way to raise revenue to pay for lowering tax rates.

While I hope the White House ultimately rejects the BAT, that won’t necessarily be good news if the Administration signs on to another new source of revenue.

And that’s apparently under discussion.

The Washington Post last week reported that the White House was looking at other ideas, including a value-added tax and a carbon tax… Even if administration officials are simply batting around ideas, it seems clear that Trump’s team is open to a different approach.

The Associated Press also tries to read the tea leaves and speculates whether the Trump Administration may try to cut or eliminate the Social Security payroll tax.

The administration’s first attempt to write legislation is in its early stages and the White House has kept much of it under wraps. But it has already sprouted the consideration of a series of unorthodox proposals including a drastic cut to the payroll tax, aimed at appealing to Democrats.

I’m not a big fan of fiddling with the payroll tax, and I definitely worry about making major changes.

Why? Because it’s quite likely politicians will replace it with a tax that is even worse.

This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. The change, proposed by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump administration, would transform Brady’s plan on imports into something closer to a value-added tax by also eliminating the deduction of labor expenses. This would bring it in line with WTO rules and generate an additional $12 trillion over 10 years, according to budget estimates.

Last but not least, the New York Times has a story today on the latest machinations, and it appears that Republicans are no closer to a consensus today than they were the day Trump got inaugurated.

…it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a simpler system, or even lower tax rates, this time next year. The Trump administration’s tax plan, promised in February, has yet to materialize; a House Republican plan has bogged down, taking as much fire from conservatives as liberals… Speaker Paul D. Ryan built a tax blueprint around a “border adjustment” tax… With no palpable support in the Senate, its prospects appear to be nearly dead. …The president’s own vision for a new tax system is muddled at best. In the past few months, he has called for taxing companies that move operations abroad, waffled on the border tax and, last week, called for a “reciprocal” tax that would match the import taxes other countries impose on the United States.

The report notes that Trump may have a personal reason to oppose one of the provisions of the House plan.

Perhaps the most consequential concern relates to a House Republican proposal to get rid of a rule that lets companies write off the interest they pay on loans — a move real estate developers and Mr. Trump vehemently oppose. Doing so would raise $1 trillion in revenue and reduce the appeal of one of Mr. Trump’s favorite business tools: debt.

From my perspective, the most encouraging part of the story is that the lack of consensus may lead Republicans to my position, which is simply to cut the corporate tax rate.

With little appetite for bipartisanship, many veterans of tax fights and lobbyists in Washington expect that Mr. Trump will ultimately embrace straight tax cuts, with some cleaning up of deductions, and call it a victory.

And I think that would be a victory as well, even though I ultimately want to junk the entire tax code and replace it with a flat tax.

P.S. In an ideal world, tax reform would be financed in large part with spending restraint. Sadly, Washington, DC, isn’t in the same galaxy as that ideal world.

P.P.S. To further explain why Republicans cannot be trusted, even if they mean well, recall that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both included VATs in the tax plans they unveiled during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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On major economic issues, it does not appear that Republican control of Washington makes much of a difference.

  • Efforts to repeal Obamacare have bogged down because GOPers are willing to deal with the fiscal wreckage of that law, but don’t seem very comfortable about undoing the interventions and regulations that have caused premiums to skyrocket.
  • Efforts to cut taxes and reform the tax code don’t look very promising because House Republicans have proposed a misguided border-adjustment tax and the White House seems hopelessly divided on how to proceed.
  • Efforts to restrain government spending haven’t gotten off the ground. A full budget is due next month, but it’s not overly encouraging that Trump’s proposed domestic cuts would be used to expand the Pentagon’s budget.

Let’s see whether we get a different story when we examine regulatory issues.

We’ll start with some good news? Well, sort of. It seems the United States has the largest and 4th-largest GDPs in the world.

You may think that makes no sense, but this is where we have to share some bad news on the regulatory burden from the Mercatus Center.

Economic growth has been reduced by an average of 0.8 percent per year from 1980 to 2012 due to regulatory accumulation. Regulations force companies to invest less in activities that enhance productivity and growth, such as research and development, as companies must divert resources into regulatory compliance and similar activities. …Compared to a scenario where regulations are held constant at levels observed in 1980, the study finds that the difference between the economy we are in and a hypothetical economy where regulatory accumulation halted in 1980 is approximately $4 trillion. …The $4 trillion dollars in lost GDP associated with regulatory accumulation would be the fourth largest economy in the world—larger than major countries like Germany, France, and India.

By the way, this data from Mercatus gives me an opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of even small variations in economic growth. It may not make that much difference if the economy grows 0.8 percent faster or slower in one year.

But, as just noted, a loss of 0.8 percent annual growth over 32 years has been enormously expensive to the U.S. economy.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has a depressing array of data on America’s regulatory burden. Here’s the chart that grabbed my attention.

And here’s a video on the burden of red tape from the folks at CEI.

Who deserves the blame for this nightmare of red tape?

The previous president definitely added to the regulatory morass. The Hill reported last year on a study by the American Action Forum.

The Obama administration issues an average of 81 major rules, those with an economic impact of at least $100 million, on a yearly basis, the study found. That’s about one major rule every four to five days, or, as the American Action Forum puts it, one rule for every three days that the federal government is open. “It is a $2,294 regulatory imposition on every person in the United States,” wrote Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy at the American Action Forum, who conducted the study.

And there was a big effort to add more red tape in Obama’s final days, as noted by Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal.

Since the election Mr. Obama has broken with all precedent by issuing rules that would be astonishing at any moment and are downright obnoxious at this point. This past week we learned of several sweeping new rules from the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, including regs on methane on public lands (cost: $2.4 billion); a new anti-coal rule related to streams ($1.2 billion) and renewable fuel standards ($1.5 billion).

As you might expect, the net cost of Obama’s regulatory excess is significant. Here’s some of what the Washington Examiner wrote during the waning days of Obama’s tenure.

According to new information from the White House, finally released after a two year wait, the total burden of federal government paperwork is more than 11.5 billion man-hours a year. That’s almost 500 million man-days, or 1.3 million man-years. More importantly, it’s 35 hours every person in the country (on average) has to spend doing federal paperwork every year, on average. …Time is money, and paperwork time alone costs the country almost $2 trillion a year, or about 11 percent of GDP.

But it’s not solely Obama’s fault. Not even close.

Both parties can be blamed for this mess, as reported by the Economist.

The call to cut red tape is now an emotive rallying cry for Republicans—more so, in the hearts of many congressmen, than slashing deficits. Deregulation will, they argue, unleash a “confident America” in which businesses thrive and wages soar, leaving economists, with their excuses for the “new normal” of low growth, red-faced. Are they right?

They may be right, but they never seem to take action when they’re in charge.

Between 1970 and 2008 the number of prescriptive words like “shall” or “must” in the code of federal regulations grew from 403,000 to nearly 963,000, or about 15,000 edicts a year… The unyielding growth of rules, then, has persisted through Republican and Democratic administrations… The endless pile-up of regulation enrages businessmen. One in five small firms say it is their biggest problem, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

Though I would point out that President Reagan was the exception to this dismal rule.

That being said, who cares about finger pointing? What matters is that the economy is being stymied by excessive red tape.

So what can be done about this? President Trump has promised a 2-for-1 deal, saying that his Administration will wipe out two existing regulations for every new rule that gets imposed.

Susan Dudley opines on this proposal, noting that Trump hasn’t put any meat on the bones.

Like pebbles tossed in a stream, each individual regulation may do little economic harm, but eventually the pebbles accumulate and like a dam, may block economic growth and innovation. A policy of removing two regulations for every new one would provide agencies incentives to evaluate the costs and effectiveness of those accumulated regulations and determine which have outlived their usefulness. Mr. Trump’s statement doesn’t provide details on how this new policy would work.

Ms. Dudley points out, however, that other nations have achieved some success with similar-sounding approaches.

…his team could look to experiences in other countries for insights. The Netherlands, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have all adopted similar requirements to offset the costs of new regulations by removing or modifying existing rules of comparable or greater effect. …The Netherlands program established a net quantitative burden reduction target that reduced regulatory burdens by 20% between 2003 and 2007. It is currently on track to save €2.5 billion in regulatory burden between 2012 and 2017 by tying the introduction of new regulations “to the revision or scrapping of existing rules.” Under Canada’s “One-for-One Rule,” launched in 2012, new regulatory changes that increase administrative burdens must be offset with equal burden reductions elsewhere. Further, for each new regulation that imposes administrative burden costs, cabinet ministers must remove at least one regulation. Similarly, Australia’s policy is that “the cost burden of new regulation must be fully offset by reductions in existing regulatory burden.” The British began with a “One-in, One-out” policy, requiring any increases in the cost of regulation to be offset by deregulatory measures of at least an equivalent value. In 2013, it moved to “One-in, Two-out” (OITO) and more recently to a “One-in, Three-out” policy in an effort to cut red tape by £10 billion.

The bottom line is that progress will depend on Trump appointing good people. And on that issue, the jury is still out.

The legislative branch also could get involved.

In a column for Reason, Senator Rand Paul explained that the REINS Act could make a big difference.

…13 of the 15 longest registers in American history have been authored by the past two presidential administrations (Barack Obama owns seven of the top eight, with George W. Bush filling in most of the rest)…federal lawmakers should pass something called the REINS Act—the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act. The REINS Act would require every new regulation that costs more than $100 million to be approved by Congress. As it is now, agencies can pass those rules unilaterally. Such major rules only account for about 3 percent of annual regulations, but they are the ones that cause the most headaches for individuals and businesses. …the REINS Act did pass the House on four occasions during the Obama administration. Lack of support in the Senate and the threat of a presidential veto kept it from ever reaching Obama’s desk.

But would it make a difference if Congress had to affirm major new rules?

Given how agencies will lie about regulatory burdens, it wouldn’t be a silver bullet.

But,based on the hysterical opposition from the left, I’m betting the REINS Act would be very helpful.

REINS would fundamentally alter the federal government in ways that could hobble federal agencies during periods when the same party controls Congress and the White House — and absolutely cripple those agencies during periods of divided government. Many federal laws delegate authority to agencies to work out the details of how to achieve relatively broad objectives set by the law itself. …REINS, however, effectively strips agencies of much of this authority.

That sounds like good news to me. If the crazies at Think Progress are this upset about the REINS Act, it must be a step in the right direction.

Let’s close with a bit of evidence that maybe, just maybe, Republicans will move the ball in the right direction. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg story.

The White House estimates it will save $10 billion over 20 years by having rescinded 11 Obama-era regulations under a relatively obscure 1996 law that lets Congress fast-track repeal legislation with a simple majority. …In all, the law has been used to repeal 11 rules, with two more awaiting the president’s signature… About two dozen measures with CRA’s targeting them remain, but because the law can only be used on rules issued in the final six months of the previous administration, Congress only has only a few more weeks to use the procedure.

Before getting too excited, remember that the annual cost of regulation is about $2 trillion and the White House is bragging about actions that will reduce red tape by $10 billion over two decades. Which means annual savings of only $500 million.

Which, if my math is right, addresses 0.025 percent of the problem.

I’ll take it, but it should be viewed as just a tiny first step on a very long journey.

P.S. The Congressional Review Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton. Yet another bit of evidence that he was a surprisingly pro-market President.

P.P.S. If you want some wonky analysis of regulation, I have some detailed columns here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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As part of an otherwise very good tax reform plan, House Republicans have proposed to modify the corporate income tax so that it becomes a “destination-based cash-flow tax.”

For those not familiar with wonky inside-the-beltway tax terminology, there are three main things to understand about this proposal.

  • First, the tax rate on business would drop from 35 percent to 20 percent. This is unambiguously positive.
  • Second, it would replace depreciation with expensing, which is a very desirable change that would eliminate a very counter-productive tax on new investment outlays. This is basically what makes the plan a “cash-flow” tax.
  • Third, any income generated by exports would be exempt from tax but the 20-percent tax would be imposed on all imports. These “border-adjustable” provisions are what makes the plan a “destination-based” tax.

I’m a big fan of the first two provisions, but I’m very hostile to the third item.

I don’t like it because I worry it sets the stage for a value-added tax. I don’t like it because it is designed to undermine tax competition. I don’t like it because it has a protectionist stench and presumably violates America’s trade commitments. I don’t like it because that part of the plan only exists because politicians aren’t willing to engage in more spending restraint. And I don’t like it because politicians should try to reinvent the wheel when we already know the right way to do tax reform.

Heck, I feel like the Dr. Seuss character who lists all the ways he would not like green eggs and ham. Except I can state with complete certainty I wouldn’t change my mind if I was suddenly forced to take a bite of this new tax.

Today, I’m going to augment my economic arguments by noting that the plan also is turning into a political liability. Here are some excerpts from a news report in the Wall Street Journal about opposition in the business community.

A linchpin of the House Republicans’ tax plan, an approach called “border adjustment,” has split Republicans and fractured the business world into competing coalitions before a bill has even been drafted. …There is also global uncertainty: Other countries may retaliate, either by border-adjusting their corporate taxes or by challenging the U.S. plan at the World Trade Organization as too tilted toward American producers.

And The Hill reports that grassroots organizations also are up in arms.

Americans for Prosperity is stepping up its efforts to advocate against a proposal from House Republicans to tax imports and exempt exports, as lawmakers are increasingly raising concerns about the proposal. …AFP has hundreds of volunteers and staff who are making phone calls about the proposal. The group has about 100 meetings set up with Congress members and their staff for next week, while Congress is in recess.

Meanwhile, the Economist reports that the plan is causing uncertainty around the world.

To offset a border-adjusted tax of 20%—the rate favoured by House Republicans—the greenback would need to rise fully 25%, enough to destabilise emerging markets burdened with dollar-denominated debts. If the dollar stayed put and wages and prices rose 25% instead, the Federal Reserve would have to decide how to respond to an unprecedented surge in inflation. Why tolerate such disruption?

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal has a devastating take on the issue.

Like a European value-added tax, its cost would be deeply hidden in the price of goods, thus easily jacked up over time. Also, compared with the current tax structure, businesses would see less incentive to move abroad in search of lower taxes, eroding a useful pressure on politicians to be fiscally sane. And because the tax would alter the terms of trade, it would be expected to lead to a sharp increase in the dollar. U.S. holders of foreign assets would suffer large paper losses. Since many foreigners borrow in dollars too, a global debt crisis might follow. The tax might also violate World Trade Organization rules, inviting other countries to impose punitive taxes on U.S. exports.

Last but not least, John Tamny outlines some of the political downsides at Real Clear Markets.

…the House of Representatives…is aggressively promoting a…tax on imports. …When we get up and go to work each day, our work is what we exchange for what we don’t have, including voluminous goods and services produced for us around the world.  …Party members are proudly seeking a tax on our work. …Only the “stupid” Party could come up with something so injurious to every American, to the American economy, and to its growth-focused brand.  But that’s where we are at the moment.  The Party that attained majorities with its tax cutting reputation is aggressively seeking to shed its growth brand through the introduction of tax hikes meant to give politicians even more of what we the people produce.  If so, the majority Party can kiss its majority goodbye.  It will have earned its minority status.

For what it’s worth, I think John overstates the case against the plan. The additional revenue from border-adjustable tax provision would be used to cut taxes elsewhere. Heck, the plan is actually a significant net tax cut.

But John is right when you look at the issue through a political lens. If the DBCFT actually began to move through the legislative process, opponents would start running commercials about the “GOP scheme to impose new consumption tax on Americans.” Journalists (most of whom dislike Republicans) would have a field day publicizing reports about the “GOP plan to raise average family tax bill by hundreds of dollars.”

Such charges would be ignoring the other side of the equation, of course, but that’s how politics works.

All of which brings me back to one of my original points. We already know that the flat tax is the gold standard of tax reform. And we already know the various ways of moving the tax code in that direction.

My advice is that Republicans abandon the border-adjustable provision and focus on lowering tax rates, reducing double taxation, and cutting back on loopholes. Such ideas are economically sounder and politically safer.

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Donald Trump is, to be charitable, a rather unique and colorful presidential candidate. He seems incapable of letting a day pass without doing something that makes the political establishment shudder with disdain.

Since I’m not a fan of the status quo in Washington, I have no objection to ruffling the feathers of DC insiders. That being said, it’s important to look at why Trump elicits such hostility.

The bottom line is that the enemy of your enemy isn’t always your friend.

In other words, my ideal candidate almost surely would be hated by the crowd in DC, but the hostility would be based on the candidate’s agenda to shrink the size and scope of the federal government, not because the candidate makes offensive and/or controversial statements.

Heck, I’d be willing to forgive a certain amount of distasteful behavior in a politician if that was the price of getting a genuine reformer. For what it’s worth, I’m even willing to tolerate a politician’s misbehavior if he simply allows good reform to happen, which is why I now have a certain after-the-fact fondness for Bill Clinton’s presidency.

As a policy wonk, I don’t spend much time wondering whether Trump is a good or stable person. I’m more focused on the policies he would push (or simply allow) if he wound up in the White House.

On that basis, I’m not brimming with optimism. Here’s some of what I wrote for the U.K.-based Guardian, when asked to share my assessment about the possible economic policy agenda of a Trump Administration. I start by saying we are in uncharted territory.

Normal presidential candidates put forth proposals that usually have been vetted by policy experts. They also generally have track records from their time as elected officials. …Trump is not a normal candidate.

I then point out that Trump is all over the map on policy.

…his views on major economic issues are eclectic. He promises a big tax cut, but it’s probably not very serious since he has no concomitant plan to restrain the growth of government spending. He threatens to impose steep tariffs, which would risk triggering a trade war, but he claims protectionism would merely be a stick to extort concessions from trading partners. ….He makes noises about potentially defaulting on debt but then pivots and says the debt can be financed by printing money. …either approach causes angst among most economists.

My conclusion (which is nothing more than a guess) is that the overall burden of government would increase with Trump in the White House.

With all this uncertainty about what Trump really believes, it’s impossible to guess which policies will change and how the economy would be impacted. For what it’s worth, libertarians generally fear that Trump ultimately would govern as a left-leaning populist.

By the way, this is also why I was not a fan of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney.

Simply stated, non-ideological Republicans (whether pseudo-populists like Trump or career politicians) don’t challenge the conventional wisdom of Washington. And that generally results in a go-along-to-get-along approach to policy, which means continued growth of government.

Which is why I’ve pointed out that Democrats in the White House sometimes result in less damage.

By the way, my jaundiced assessment of Trump does not imply that Hillary Clinton is any better. She also has personal foibles that – in a normal society – would disqualify her from holding public office.

And I also wrote for the Guardian about her approach to economic policy, which is basically the same direction as Bernie Sanders but at a slower pace.

…she would move public policy incrementally to the left. Some tax increases, but not giant tax increases. Some new regulations, but not complete government takeovers of industry. A bigger burden of government spending, but not turning America into Greece. An increase in the minimum wage, but not up to $15 an hour. More subsidies for higher education, but not an entitlement for everyone. And some restrictions on trade, but no sweeping reversal of the pro-trade consensus that has existed since the second world war.

In other words, become Greece at 55 miles per hour rather than Bernie’s desire to become Greece at 90 miles per hour.

P.S. Since our topic today is so depressing, let’s end with some humor.

We’ll start with this PG-13 pro-Gary Johnson comparison of the candidates.

This shows libertarians can be funny, even though I think it’s wrong to characterize Trump as being on the right (at least from an economic perspective).

Here’s an amusing comparison of a teenage boy and Donald Trump.

I’ll have to add this to my limited collection of Trump humor, most of which is at the bottom of this post.

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Yesterday, I shared some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the Democratic Party platform.

It wasn’t a fun task. The Democrats put together a rat’s nest of taxes, spending, cronyism, and red tape, so my blood pressure probably went crazy as I read the document. Crazy Bernie Sanders may have lost the war for the nomination, but it seems that he mostly won the battle over the platform.

The plank about letting states be in charge of marijuana policy was the only part of the platform that I actually liked (even though I personally disapprove of drug use).

Though it mostly doesn’t matter what’s in party platforms. As I pointed out yesterday, platforms tend to be ideological statements to please party activists. Politicians generally don’t care about their respective party platforms, and they definitely don’t allow their behavior to be constrained by platform language.

With that important caveat in mind, let’s now review the GOP platform. And I’ll use the same approach that I used when looking at the Democrat’s document. I’ll provide a short excerpt and then give my two cents.

Here are some of the main economic issues addressed (or bungled) by Republicans.

We believe the Constitution was written not as a flexible document, but as our enduring covenant.

That’s true, but why aren’t GOPers defunding most of the federal government if that’s what they really believe?

Because of the vital role of religious organizations, charities, and fraternal benevolent societies in fostering generosity and patriotism, they should not be subject to taxation and donations to them should remain deductible.

Endorsing the deduction for charitable contributions isn’t an optimistic sign for those of us who support fundamental tax reform.

To guard against hypertaxation of the American people in any restructuring of the federal tax system, any value added tax or national sales tax must be tied to the simultaneous repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment, which established the federal income tax.

This may be my favorite part of the GOP platform. Hopefully it will discourage Rand Paul and Ted Cruz from including a VAT if they run for president again and put forth tax reform plans.

We propose to level the international playing field by lowering the corporate tax rate to be on a par with, or below, the rates of other industrial nations.

Hard to argue with that plank, though it raises the question of why Republicans haven’t enacted this change already.

We endorse the recommendation of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, as well as the current Administration’s Export Council, to switch to a territorial system of taxation so that profits earned and taxed abroad may be repatriated for job-creating investment here at home.

Territorial taxation is good policy, so amen.

Republicans believe that no financial institution is too big to fail. We support legislation to ensure that the problems of any financial institution can be resolved through the Bankruptcy Code.

This is the right policy. Too bad many GOPers ignored this bit of wisdom and voted for TARP.

We propose to phase out the federal transit program.

They should phase out the entire Department of Transportation, but this would be a good start.

…we oppose a further increase in the federal gas tax.

That’s good, though repealing the tax would be even better.

Amtrak is an extremely expensive railroad for the American taxpayers, who must subsidize every ticket. The federal government should allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor.

All this sounds good, but it’s a bit vacuous. There should be an explicit commitment to end Amtrak subsidies.

We reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California’s high-speed train to nowhere.

A welcome commitment, though it should be extended to all transportation projects.

We should reduce the occupational licensing laws that shut untold millions of potential workers out of entrepreneurial careers.

This is largely a problem caused by state and local governments, but it’s nonetheless nice to see a statement of support for much-needed change.

We must overturn the regulatory nightmare, created by the Dodd-Frank law, for the community banks and savings and loans that provide nearly half of all small-business loans and over three-quarters of all agricultural loans.

Maybe I’m being paranoid, but where’s the language explicitly calling for repeal of the Dodd-Frank bailout bill?

The taxpayers spend an average of $35,000 a year per employee on non-cash benefits, triple the average non-cash compensation of the average worker in the private sector. Federal employees receive extraordinary pension benefits and vacation time wildly out of line with those of the private sector. We urge Congress to bring federal compensation and benefits in line with the standards of most American employees.

Federal bureaucrats are overcompensated, so it goes without saying (though I’m still glad they said it) that costs should be contained.

We must impose firm caps on future debt… A strong economy is one key to debt reduction, but spending restraint is a necessary component that must be vigorously pursued.

Capping debt is fine. Capping spending would be far better.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and the Foreign Bank and Asset Reporting Requirements result in government’s warrantless seizure of personal financial information without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. …FATCA not only allows “unreasonable search and seizures” but also threatens the ability of overseas Americans to lead normal lives. We call for its repeal and for a change to residency-based taxation for U.S. citizens overseas.

Unambiguous opposition to FATCA is great, but it’s also big news that the GOP wants territorial taxation for labor income.

We call on Congress and state legislatures to enact reforms to protect law-abiding citizens against abusive asset forfeiture tactics.

Civil asset forfeiture is abusive by definition. Repeal the laws entirely.

The Constitution gives the federal government very few powers, and they are specifically enumerated… In obedience to that principle, we condemn the current Administration’s unconstitutional expansion into areas beyond those specifically enumerated.

This is true, but it’s too bad Republicans aren’t serious about this plank.

We oppose any carbon tax.

Good. It’s never a good idea to give politicians a new source of tax revenue.

The Republican path to fiscal sanity and economic expansion begins with a constitutional requirement for a federal balanced budget.

At the risk of being repetitive, spending caps are better.

We support the following test: Is a particular expenditure within the constitutional scope of the federal government? If not, stop it. Has it been effective in the past and is it still absolutely necessary? If not, end it. Is it so important as to justify borrowing, especially foreign borrowing, to fund it? If not, kill it.

If GOPers were serious about this part of the platform, this would put them on record to abolish 90 percent of the federal government.

Impose no changes for persons 55 or older. Give others the option of traditional Medicare or transition to a premium-support model designed to strengthen patient choice, promote cost-saving competition among providers, and better guard against the fraud and abuse that now diverts billions of dollars every year away from patient care.

To their credit (and notwithstanding Trump’s unserious approach to the issue), Republicans still embrace the right type of Medicare reform.

We applaud the Republican governors and state legislators who have undertaken the hard work of modernizing Medicaid. We will give them a free hand to do so by block-granting the program without strings.

It’s also good to see support for the right kind of Medicaid reform.

…all options should be considered to preserve Social Security. As Republicans, we oppose tax increases and believe in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system.

This is vacuous language, though at least it provides an indirect endorsement of personal retirement accounts. Though I don’t want “all options” on the table since that could be construed to include tax hikes.

We support reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which prohibits commercial banks from engaging in high-risk investment.

What?!? This is the most disappointing and economically illiterate part of the GOP platform.

…the Constitution gives [the federal government] no role in education.

True, so why don’t Republicans explicitly call for abolishing the Department of Education?

We agree with the four dissenting judges of the Supreme Court: “In our view, the entire Act before us is invalid in its entirety.” It must be removed and replaced with an approach based on genuine competition, patient choice, excellent care, wellness, and timely access to treatment.

Nice, though remember that repealing Obamacare is just the first step if you want a genuine market-based healthcare sector.

We propose to end tax discrimination against the individual purchase of insurance and allow consumers to buy insurance across state lines.

I like the latter part about breaking down the government-imposed barriers to interstate commerce, but I worry the part about tax discrimination is so vague it could be used to expand tax preferences when the real goal should be to get rid of the healthcare exclusion.

The FDA has slowly but relentlessly changed into an agency that more and more puts the public health at risk by delaying, chilling, and killing the development of new devices, drugs and biologics that can promote our lives and our health.

This is correct, but it would be nice to see specific reforms.

We commend those states that have passed Right to Try legislation, allowing terminally ill patients the right to try investigational medicines not yet approved by the FDA. We urge Congress to pass federal legislation to give all Americans with terminal illnesses the right to try.

This is a very good idea. If I ever have a deadly illness, I’ll want the freedom to roll the dice in hopes a new medicine or procedure will work.

Two grave problems undermine the rule of law on the federal level: Over-criminalization and over-federalization. In the first case, Congress and federal agencies have increased the number of criminal offenses in the U.S. Code from 3,000 in the early 1980s to more than 4,500 today. That does not include an estimated 300,000 regulations containing criminal penalties. …We urge Congress to codify the Common Law’s Rule of Lenity, which requires courts to interpret unclear statutes in favor of a defendant.

If bigwigs like Hillary Clinton can get away with violating very clear-cut national security laws because she didn’t intend to do damage to the nation, then ordinary people surely should get the benefit of the doubt as well when they inadvertently violate some complicated law or regulation.

…we oppose any form of Global Tax.

Amen. Now let’s see if Republicans put our money where their mouths are and defund pro-tax international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Let’s wrap this up. There are more policies that could be addressed, but this column already is too long.

The bottom line is that the platform has many good policies. Heck, if I though GOP politicians actually planned to pursue the agenda outlined in the document, I might consider becoming a Republican.

But does anybody think the average Republican politician even knows what is in the GOP platform? More importantly, does anyone think that Donald Trump has any commitment to the policies in the platform?

So now perhaps you can understand why advocates of small government sympathize with Uncle Sam in this cartoon.

Is it Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or the other way around?

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I will always have fond feelings for Playboy, though not for the stereotypical reason.

My appreciation for the magazine is largely based on the fact that I got a very nice honorarium from the German version back in the 1990s for writing an assessment of Bill Clinton’s likely approach to economic policy (confession: he turned out to be much better than I predicted).

Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten almost all of the German I learned in high school, so I can’t read the translated version of the article that appeared in the magazine.

Now Playboy has done something else that I appreciate, putting together a very clever matrix showing what Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens think about various policy issues.

It’s obviously satire, but it’s very clever and effective because it does a good job of capturing stereotypes from each group (just like this poster showing 24 types of libertarians).

As you can see, the “libertarian chicken” obviously provided the answers for the third column.

In addition to mind-your-own-business Libertarians, Playboy gives us abortion-über-alles Democrats, elitist Republicans, and fuzzy-headed Greens. A bit of truth in all those caricatures.

So kudos to them for mocking all parties equally. Comedy Central probably wouldn’t be losing so many viewers if it also took this even-handed approach.

P.S. If you like libertarian-oriented humor (both pro and con), then click here and here.

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The good thing about being nonpartisan is that I can freely criticize (or even praise) policy makers without giving any thought to whether they have an R or D after their name.

That doesn’t mean Republicans and Democrats are the same, at least with regards to rhetoric. The two big political parties in the United States ostensibly have some core beliefs. And because of that, it is sometimes very revealing to identify deviations.

Democrats supposedly believe the rich should pay higher taxes and that low-tax jurisdictions should be persecuted, yet many Democrat bigwigs utilize tax havens.

Republicans supposedly believe in smaller government, yet many of them decide to get rich by lobbying to expand the size and scope of Washington.

Democrats supposedly believe there’s a big gender pay gap, but Obama’s top economic adviser said such numbers are fake and Hillary gave higher pay to men in her office.

Let’s now add to the list.

The IRS has stonewalled and treated Congress with contempt. The bureaucrats have disregarded the law to advance Obama’s hard-left agenda. They have used their power to help Obama’s reelection campaign. And IRS employees even donate lots of money to Democrats.

Given all this, you would think Republicans would be doing everything possible to punish this rogue bureaucracy. Even if only because of self interest rather than principles.

Yet GOPers decided, as part of their capitulation on spending caps (again!), to boost the IRS’s budget. I’m not joking. The Hill has a report with the sordid details.

The spending bill…provides an increase in funding to the Internal Revenue Service, a rare win for an agency that has been on the outs with congressional Republicans. The $1.1 trillion omnibus provides an additional $290 million for the IRS, an increase of 3 percent over the last fiscal year.

What’s especially discouraging is that Congress was on track to reduce the IRS’s bloated budget.

…the outcome for the IRS in the omnibus could have been far worse. A bill advanced by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year that would have slashed IRS funding by $838 million, while a bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would have reduced funding by $470 million. Instead, the spending package gives the IRS a nearly $300 million bump.

This is yet another piece of evidence that budget deals crafted behind closed doors inevitably produce bad numbers and bad policy.

And it’s certainly another sign that Republicans truly are the Stupid Party.

Just in case you think I’m being unfair to either GOPers or the IRS, let’s look at some recent developments. Here are the best parts of an editorial on unseemly IRS behavior from the Washington Examiner.

President Obama’s IRS repeatedly los[es] hard drives loaded with data related to scandals at the agency. To lose one might be regarded as suspicious happenstance; to lose two looks like conspiracy. The most famous case is that of Lois Lerner, whose division became notorious for targeting conservative groups applying for nonprofit status. Her computer hard drive malfunctioned before that scandal broke, around the same time Congress was looking for information on a separate IRS targeting scheme aimed at conservative donors. …The newest case of IRS hard drive trouble happened last April, but came to light only this month. …the IRS has notified the Justice Department that it erased a hard drive after being ordered not to do so by a federal judge. In this case, the missing communications are those of a former IRS official named Samuel Maruca in the Large Business and International division. He is believed to have been among the senior IRS employees who made the unusual and possibly illegal decision in May 2014 to hire the outside law firm Quinn Emanuel to help conduct an audit of Microsoft Corporation.

And here’s some shocking (or maybe not so shocking) information from the Daily Caller. The IRS’s new ethics chief (wow, there’s an oxymoron) has a track record of illegally destroying records.

The new head of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) ethics office once oversaw the illegal shredding of documents sought by the federal tax agency’s inspector general (IG), and allegedly retaliated on the colleague he believed snitched on him about it.

Yup, he sounds like the kind of guy who deserves a bigger budget.

Let’s close with some very good advice from the Washington Examiner.

In the nearly three years since the targeting scandal was revealed, it has become clear that it was just a symptom of a much deeper problem at the IRS — a culture that lacks accountability, rewards failure, and persecutes the innocent. …it needs a thorough housecleaning, not…bonuses.

Too bad Republicans decided the entire IRS deserved a big bonus.

P.S. From my archives, here are some examples of the bureaucrats who will benefit from a bigger IRS budget.

P.P.P.S. And since we’re recycling some oldies but goodies, here’s my collection of IRS humor, 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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When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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Earlier this year, President Obama proposed a budget that would impose new taxes and add a couple of trillion dollars to the burden of government spending over the next 10 years.

The Republican Chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees have now weighed in. You can read the details of the House proposal by clicking here and the Senate proposal by clicking here, but the two plans are broadly similar (though the Senate is a bit vaguer on how to implement spending restraint, as I wrote a couple of days ago).

So are any of these plans good, or at least acceptable? Do any of them satisfy my Golden Rule?

Here’s a chart showing what will happen to spending over the next 10 years, based on the House and Senate GOP plans, as well as the budget proposed by President Obama.

Keep in mind, as you look at these numbers, that economy is projected to expand, in nominal terms, by an average of about 4.3 percent annually.

The most relevant data is that the Republican Chairmen want spending to climb by about $1.4 trillion over the next decade (annual spending increases averaging about 3.3 percent per year), while Obama wants spending to jump by about $2.4 trillion over the same period (with annual spending climbing by an average of almost 5.1 percent per year).

At this point, some of you may be wondering how to reconcile this data with news stories you may have read about GOP budgets that supposedly include multi-trillion spending cuts?!?

The very fist sentence in a report from The Hill, for instance, asserted that the Senate budget would “cut spending by $5.1 trillion.” And USA Today had a story headlined, “House GOP budget cuts $5.5 trillion in spending.”

But these histrionic claims are based on dishonest math. The “cuts” only exist if you compare the GOP budget numbers to the “baseline,” which is basically an artificial estimate of how fast spending would grow if government was left on auto-pilot.

Which is sort of like a cad telling his wife that he reduced his misbehavior because he only added 4 new mistresses to his collection rather than the 5 that he wanted.

I explained this biased and deceptive budgetary scam in these John Stossel and Judge Napolitano interviews, and also nailed the New York Times for using this dishonest approach when reporting about sequestration.

Interestingly, the Senate plan tries to compensate for this budgetary bias by including a couple of charts that properly put the focus on year-to-year spending changes.

Here’s their chart on Obama’s profligate budget plan.

And here’s their chart looking at what happens to major spending categories based on the reforms in the Senate budget proposal.

So kudos to Chairman Enzi and his team for correctly trying to focus the discussion where it belongs.

By the way, in addition to a better use of rhetoric, the Senate GOP plan actually is more fiscally responsible than the House plan. Under Senator Enzi’s proposal, government spending would increase by an average of 3.25 percent per year over the next 10 years, which is better than Chairman Price’s plan, which would allow government spending to rise by an average of 3.36 percent annually.

Though both Chairman deserve applause for having more spending restraint than there was in the last two Ryan budgets.

But this doesn’t mean I’m entirely happy with the Republican fiscal plans.

Even though the two proposals satisfy my Golden Rule, that’s simply a minimum threshold. In reality, there’s far too much spending in both plans, and neither Chairman proposes to get rid of a single Department. Not HUD, not Education, not Transportation, and not Agriculture.

But the one thing that got me the most agitated is that the House and Senate proposals both indirectly embrace very bad economic analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

Here’s some language that was included with the House plan (the Senate proposal has similar verbiage).

CBO’s analysis…estimates that reducing budget deficits, thereby bending the curve on debt levels, would be a net positive for economic growth. …The analysis concludes that deficit reduction creates long-term economic benefits because it increases the pool of national savings and boosts investment, thereby raising economic growth and job creation.

But here’s the giant problem. The CBO would say – and has said – the same thing about budget plans with giant tax increases.

To elaborate, CBO has a very bizarre view of how fiscal policy impacts the economy. The bureaucrats think that deficits are very important for long-run economic performance, while also believing that the overall burden of government spending and the punitive structure of the tax code are relatively unimportant.

And this leads them to make bizarre claims about tax increases being good for growth.

Moreover, the bureaucrats not only think deficits are the dominant driver of long-run growth, they also use Keynesian analysis when measuring the impact of fiscal policy on short-run growth. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, or somehow mischaracterizing CBO’s position, check out page 12 of the Senate GOP plan and page 37 of the House GOP plan. You’ll see the “macroeconomic” effects of the plans cause higher deficits in 2016 and 2017, based on the silly theory that lower levels of government spending will harm short-run growth.

So hopefully you can understand why GOPers, for the sake of intellectual credibility, should not be citing bad analysis from the CBO.

But even more important, they should stop CBO from producing bad analysis is the future. The Republicans did recently replace a Democrat-appointed CBO Director, so it will be interesting to see whether their new appointee has a better understanding of how fiscal policy works.

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I feel a bit schizophrenic when people ask me my opinion of Republicans on Capitol Hill.

When I’m in a good mood (or being naively optimistic, some might argue), I applaud them for blocking Obama’s spending agenda. The fights over sequestration, debt limits, and government shutdowns have made a real difference. The burden of government spending has dropped significantly since 2009.

But when I’m in a bad mood (or being too demanding, some might say), I get very agitated that Republicans seem unable to achieve easy victories, such as doing nothing and letting the corrupt Export-Import Bank disappear. And it makes me think they’re a bunch of big-government hacks.

The bottom line is that GOPers are both good and bad. Here’s what I wrote back in 2011 and it still applies today.

It’s almost like they have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. They usually have some underlying principles, and they would like to do the right thing and make America a better place. Yet they also want to get reelected and accumulate power, and this lures them into casting votes that they know are bad for the country. Sometimes the devil has the most influence. During the Bush years, for instance, most Republicans on Capitol Hill went along with Bush’s bad proposals… Yet every so often the angel gets control. All Republicans, including the ones who were in office and doing the wrong thing during the Bush years, …vote for…budget[s]…which would limit the growth of federal spending and fundamentally reform Medicare and Medicaid.

So are the angels or devils winning?

That’s a judgement call, but here’s a slide I’ve shared in some of my speeches. It shows three issues that will get decided in 2015 and asks whether Congress will make the right choices.

The jury is still out on all three of these tests, but there are many reasons to worry.

I’ve already written about GOP flirtation with the gas tax, which is very disturbing since a decision not to raise the tax automatically reduces federal transportation spending, so it should be a win-win situation (assuming, of course, that Republicans believe in federalism and a smaller central government).

Now let’s look at the other two items on my list.

Republicans achieved a big victory with the sequester in 2013, but then gave Obama a big win by cancelling the sequester for 2014 and 2015.

Well, now they have to decide what to do for the 2016 fiscal year, which starts October 1. And there’s already pressure from the White House, as you can see from this news report, to replace real spending restraint with gimmicks and back-door tax hikes.

White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan said Thursday he sees a “hopeful possibility” that Congress and the White House will agree later this year to update the Ryan-Murray budget agreement of 2013 which increased the discretionary spending ceilings set in the Budget Control Act. …Donovan declined to say if any preliminary talks have begun to renew Ryan-Murray, but declared that President Barack Obama will insist the sequestration process be “reversed.” “We will not accept a budget that locks in sequestration,” Donovan said. …The White House budget calls for FY 2016 discretionary spending that is about $75 billion above the spending ceiling set by the 2011 law after the sequester was triggered.

You may be asking yourself why Republicans would consider – even for a nanosecond – giving Obama all that new spending?

Well, the problem is that some GOPers are big defense hawks and they complain, accurately, that Defense is less than one-fourth of the budget yet is has to absorb one-half of the sequester.

But considering that the United States and its allies still account for the overwhelming share of global defense outlays, I nonetheless think sequestration is a far better outcome than giving Obama carte blanche to squander and extra $75 billion.

But it remains to be seen what will happen.

Now let’s contemplate the third test for the GOP.

Will the Senate commit to entitlement reform? The answer is…not really, but maybe.

Here’s what The Hill has reported.

Senate Republicans will not include detailed plans to overhaul entitlement programs when they unveil their first budget in nearly a decade this week, according to GOP sources. The decision would break from Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) House budgets from recent years, which Democrats used to pound Republican candidates in the 2012 and 2014 elections. …The GOP budget would balance in 10 years, according to GOP lawmakers familiar with the document, but it will only propose savings to be achieved in Medicare and Medicaid, without spelling out specific reforms as Ryan and House Republicans did in recent budgets.

In other words, the bad news is that Senate GOPers are not going to embrace the specific Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been included in House-passed Republican budgets.

But the good (or hopeful, to be more accurate) news is that the Senate budget will call for a somewhat similar level of spending restraint. So that means the possibility of good entitlement reform will still exist.

By the way, the reason this is so important is that we may have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually enact desperately needed fiscal reforms in 2017. This is why it’s so critical that GOPers not get wobbly and regress into being Bush-type big-government conservatives.

I explain further in this interview I had with the Institute of Economic Affairs on my most recent trip to London.

Incidentally, I’m not exaggerating in the interview when I warn that the United States may turn into Greece if we don’t seize the opportunity to make reforms and slow the growth of government. If you don’t believe me, check out these sobering estimates of long-run fiscal chaos from  the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

P.S. I’m sometimes asked whether the GOP leadership is part of the problem or part of the solution. That’s not my area of expertise, but I will say that Boehner and McConnell basically represent the consensus of their respective members, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to vote or behave like Justin Amash and Rand Paul. Sure, I wish they would be more aggressive on certain issues, such as killing the Export-Import Bank or ending subsidized terrorism insurance. And I wish they weren’t so timid about confrontations with Obama since there’s a strong argument to be made that they wound up as winners from the 2013 shutdown battle. That being said, what really matters if what they would do in 2017 if there was a President who wanted real reform. And on that score, I have confidence that Boehner and McConnell would do the right thing, twisting arms and knocking heads if necessary to get their colleagues to save America from becoming Greece.

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One of the very first “accomplishments” of the new GOP majority in Congress was to approve a piece of corporate welfare to subsidize terrorism insurance for big companies.

But I tried to overlook that development since there were a few modest reforms included with the legislation. After all, you shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good (even if the good, in this case, was rather anemic).

There won’t be any excuse, however, if Republicans move forward with a plan to hike the gas tax and further centralize transportation decisions in Washington.

And that’s exactly what seems to be brewing. Senator Corker of Tennessee (an otherwise generally sensible lawmaker) has put forward a specific plan.

Corker, R-Tenn., is drafting something most conservatives avoid at all costs — a tax bill. The Tennessee senator, along with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wants the 18.4-cents per-gallon federal gasoline tax and the 24.4-cents per-gallon federal diesel tax to each increase by 12 cents over the next two years — and then be indexed to inflation.

And there are several other senior GOPers who have expressed sympathy.

“I just think that option is there, it’s clearly one of the options,” said Sen. Inhofe (R-Okla.), new chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the third-ranking Senate Republican, also said they were open to the possibility of raising the tax.

Wow. This is so bad and so discouraging that I’m not even sure where to start.

So let’s make three observations.

1. Bad character. Every single Republican Senator cited in the two stories has pledged to the people of their states that they will oppose all net tax hikes.

For those of us with old-fashioned views on personal integrity, this is rather troubling.

Other than reminding me why I often have disdain for Republicans, this brings back bad memories of the “Read my lips, no new taxes” fiasco.

2. Bad politics. It is remarkably foolish for Republicans to tarnish and undermine the GOP brand as an anti-tax party.

When the issue is “should there be a tax hike?”, Republicans are more trusted by voters. But if the debate shifts to “Who should pay more tax?”, then the Democrats have an advantage.

So by putting a gas tax increase on the table, these Republicans are saying they want their opponents to have a home-field advantage.

3. Bad policy. Higher gas taxes at the national level are the wrong approach for several reasons.

But rather than reinvent the wheel, let me cite the wise words of my friends Larry Kudlow and Chris Edwards.

Here’s some of what Larry wrote for Townhall.

What can Sen. Bob Corker be thinking? On his first Sunday-news-show appearance of the year, right at the beginning of a new Republican Senate era, does Corker communicate a new GOP message of growth and reform? …Does he talk about rolling back Obamacare or regulations in general?  …No. His first Republican message is: Raise the federal gasoline tax.

He explains why this is a foolish idea.

American consumers and businesses finally get a break with plunging oil and gasoline prices. Main Street finally has something to cheer about. And then Mr. Corker weighs in with a wet-blanket proposal to raise federal gasoline and diesel taxes by 12 cents a gallon over two years from the current 18.4 cents. …Why not lead the way for a complete reform of the Highway Trust Fund, transportation spending and the Federal Highway Administration? …If states like California want to build $100 billion speed trains to nowhere, let them. But people in the rest of the country shouldn’t have to pay for it with gas and diesel taxes. …A quarter of HTF spending today is for non-highway purposes. …Federal rules like Davis-Bacon raise building costs for state and local infrastructure by at least 20 percent. Federal aid breeds cronyism, political connections and bureaucratic power in Washington D.C.

The point about gas taxes being diverted is important. Even if we keep the status quo, we don’t need Washington squandering road money of things such as mass transit or high-speed rail boondoggles.

Larry closes his column with a special plea.

Please, Sen. Corker, with the new Republican Congress in place, don’t turn the GOP into the dumb party.

And here are some excerpts from what Chris wrote for Cato.

He starts by debunking the notion that there is an infrastructure crisis.

…our highways and bridges appear to be improving, not getting more “troubled.” Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show that of the nation’s 600,000 bridges, the share that is “structurally deficient” has fallen from 22 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2013. The share that is “functionally obsolete” has also fallen. Meanwhile, the surface quality of the interstate highways has steadily improved. A study by Federal Reserve economists examining FHWA data found that “since the mid-1990s, our nation’s interstate highways have become indisputably smoother and less deteriorated.”

But even if we had a growing number of “troubled” and “deficient” bridges and highways, that shouldn’t matter.

As Chris explained in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee, these issues shouldn’t be handled by Washington.

One option would be to reduce spending and downsize the federal role in transportation. That approach would encourage state governments to pursue their own innovative solutions for highways and transit, such as new types of user charges, public-private partnerships, and privatization. Federal aid programs for highways and transit have many shortcomings. Aid redistributes transportation funds between the states in ways that are unfair and inefficient. Aid can get misallocated to low-value projects, and it distorts efficient decisionmaking by state and local governments. Also, federally funded projects are known for mismanagement and cost overruns.

Bingo. Chris is exactly right.

Which is why the right approach to transportation is to repeal the gas tax, not raise it.

As I argued in this debate with former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, we need to get Washington out of the business of determining state and local transportation issues.

P.S. Here’s an interesting example of “public choice” economics. Ask yourself why the CEO of a car company would endorse a big tax hike on gasoline. I give my answer in this discussion with Judge Napolitano.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the politicians in Washington also are considering a tax on miles driven, so they’d be able to squeeze more money out of motorists even if they have fuel-efficient vehicles.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you’re tempted to acquiesce to more power and money for Washington, never forget the lesson of this poster.

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Four years ago, I put together some New Year’s Day Resolutions for the GOP.

Three years ago, I made some policy predictions for the new year.

But since I obviously don’t control Republicans and since I freely admit that economists are lousy forecasters, let’s do something more practical to start 2015.

Let’s simply look at three very important things that may happen this year and what they might mean.

1. Will the Republican Senate support genuine entitlement reform?

One of the best things to happen in recent years is that House Republicans embraced genuine entitlement reform. For the past four years, they have approved budget resolutions that assumed well-designed structural changes to both Medicare and Medicaid.

There were no real changes in policy, of course, because the Senate was controlled by Harry Reid. And I’m not expecting any meaningful reforms in 2015 or 2016 because Obama has a veto pen.

But if the Republican-controlled Senate later this year approves a budget resolution with the right kind of Medicare and Medicaid reform, that would send a very positive signal.

It would mean that they are willing to explicitly embrace the types of policies that are desperately needed to avert long-run fiscal crisis in America.

I don’t even care if the House and Senate have a conference committee and proceed with actual legislation. As I noted above, Obama would use his veto pen to block anything good from becoming law anyhow.

My bottom line is simple. If GOPers in both the House and Senate officially embrace the right kind of entitlement reform, then all that’s needed is a decent President after the 2016 elections (which, of course, presents an entirely different challenge).

2. Will there be another fiscal crisis in Greece (and perhaps elsewhere in Europe)?

The European fiscal crisis has not gone away. Yes, a few governments have actually been forced to cut spending, but they’ve also raised taxes and hindered the ability of the private sector to generate economic recovery.

And the spending cuts in most cases haven’t been sufficient to balance budgets, so debt continues to grow (in some cases, there have been dramatic increases in general government net liabilities).

Sounds like a recipe for further crisis, right? Yes and no.

Yes, there should be more crisis because debt levels today are higher than they were five years ago. But no, there hasn’t been more crisis because direct bailouts (by the IMF) and indirect bailouts (by the ECB) have propped up the fiscal regimes of various European nations.

At some point, though, won’t this house of cards collapse? Perhaps triggered by election victories for anti-establishment parties (such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain)?

While I’m leery of making predictions, at some point I assume there will be an implosion.

What happens after that will be very interesting. Will it trigger bad policies, such as centralized, European-wide fiscal decision-making? Or departures from the euro, which would enable nations to replace misguided debt-financed government spending with misguided monetary policy-financed government spending?

Or might turmoil lead to good policy, which both politicians and voters sobering up and realizing that there must be limits on the overall burden of government spending?

3. If the Supreme Court rules correctly in King v. Burwell, will federal and state lawmakers react correctly?

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide a very important case about whether Obamacare subsidies are available to people who get policies from a federal exchange.

Since the law explicitly states that subsidies are only available through state exchanges (as one of the law’s designers openly admitted), it seems like this should be a slam-dunk decision.

But given what happened back in 2012, when Chief Justice Roberts put politics above the Constitution, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen with King v Burwell.

Just for the sake of argument, however, let’s assume the Supreme Court decides the case correctly. That would mean a quick end to Obamacare subsidies in the dozens of states that refused to set up exchanges.

Sounds like a victory, right?

I surely hope so, but I’m worried that politicians in Washington might then decide to amend the law to officially extend subsidies to policies purchased through a federal exchange. Or politicians in state capitals may decide to set up exchanges so that their citizens can stay attached to the public teat.

In other words, a proper decision by the Supreme Court would only be a good outcome if national and state lawmakers used it as a springboard to push for repeal of the remaining parts of Obamacare.

If, on the other hand, a good decision leads to bad changes, then there will be zero progress. Indeed, it would be a big psychological defeat since it would represent a triumph of handouts over reform.

I guess I’m vaguely optimistic that good things will happen simply because we’ve already seen lots of states turn down “free” federal money to expand Medicaid.

P.S. Let’s close with some unexpected praise for Thomas Piketty. I’m generally not a fan of Monsieur Piketty since his policies would cripple growth (hurting poor people, along with everyone else).

But let’s now look at what France 24 is reporting.

France’s influential economist Thomas Piketty, author of “Capital in the 21st Century”, on Thursday refused to accept the country’s highest award, the Legion d’honneur… “I refuse this nomination because I do not think it is the government’s role to decide who is honourable,” Piketty told AFP.

It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that Piketty is merely posturing. But I heartily applaud his statement about the role of government.

Just as I applauded President Hollande when he did something right, even if it was only for political reasons.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Piketty is still a crank. His supposedly path-breaking research is based on a theory that is so nonsensical that it has the support of only about 3 percent of economists.

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I periodically try to explain that there’s a big difference between being pro-market and pro-business.

Simply stated, policy makers shouldn’t try to penalize businesses with taxes, mandates, and regulations.

But neither should politicians seek to subsidize businesses. That’s why I’m against bailouts, subsidies, and other distortions that provide special favors for politically connected companies.

I have nothing against companies earning money, to be sure, but I want them to earn their profits in the marketplace rather than lining their pockets by using the coercive power of government to rig the rules of the game.

But I don’t just have disdain for companies that stick their snouts in the public trough. I also have little regard for the politicians that enable this sordid type of business by trading campaign cash for corporate welfare.

I realize that’s a strong assertion, but I can’t think of any legitimate reason to support handouts for big companies. And I get especially angry when giveaways are facilitated by politicians who claim to support free markets.

Let’s look at two examples, the Export-Import Bank and the Obamacare bailout for big insurance corporations.

I’ve previously argued that the Export-Import Bank is a squalid example of corruption and I’ve shared a video that explains why it’s economically foolish to subsidize a handful of big exporters.

To augment those arguments, here’s some of what Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University Georgia recently wrote in a column for Real Clear Markets. He correctly warns that certain GOP politicians are to blame if the Export-Import Bank stays alive.

The Export-Import Bank is everything that Republicans should stand against. It is crony capitalism at its worst. It is corporate welfare, taxing American families to boost corporate profits. It ever forces firms to potentially subsidize a competitor. There is simply no need for this government agency. Republicans in Congress should make a stand and show voters that Republicans believe in free markets and small government, even if some big businesses complain. The Ex-Im Bank should not be reauthorized. …Over the last decade or so, the Democrats have increasingly become the party of big business, stealing that crown away from Republicans because of the Democrats’ willingness to engage in crony capitalism and actively pick winners and losers in our economy. While Republicans are still thought of as the pro-business party, and other actions by the Democrats are clearly anti-business (Obamacare, environmental over-regulation), large multinational corporations like Boeing and GE have donated money to Democrats and generally profited from their political alliances with them. If Republicans want to make gains among (lower) middle-class voters, one of the things that could help is to convince voters that they are on the side of the people and not big corporations. The Ex-Im Bank reauthorization is a perfect opportunity to do just that. …Income redistribution is wrong especially when the money is going to big and profitable companies.

Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform agrees. Writing for Forbes, he looks at both the policy and politics of Export-Import Bank handouts.

The ExIm bank is an export subsidy program, giving money to certain companies…in the hopes that gives them a leg up in international trade.  It’s been criticized for decades by free traders and those who simply oppose corporate welfare spending out of Washington. …the ExIm bank will sunset on its own on September 30th.  All Congress has to do is let nature take its course, and this corporate welfare program simply goes away forever.

Sounds like we should have a guaranteed victory from free markets over intervention, right?

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.  Ryan explains that Republicans may shoot themselves in the foot by trying to rescue this reprehensible example of cronyism.

Charging in at the last minute to save ExIm only makes the House GOP look beholden to K Street.  It also looks like they are flip-flopping from where they were back in the summer.  …ExIm reauthorization…is likely to take a GOP grassroots focused on President Obama’s failures and full of midterm election intensity, and turn them inward toward criticism of the House GOP leadership instead. If things go badly with this CR gambit, the House GOP will have given themselves a self inflicted wound just as they are trying to get out of town and not screw up what should be a good year for their candidates.

How nauseating.

I realize that the Export-Import Bank is a relatively minor issue and that I should mostly care about whether politicians do the right think on big topics such as entitlement reform. After all, that’s what really counts if we want to avoid fiscal catastrophe.

But I can’t stop myself from foaming at the mouth when self-proclaimed supporters of free markets undermine the argument for economic liberty with cronyist deals.

Obamacare is another example of big business being against free markets. We already know that the big pharmaceutical firms cut a special deal with the Obama White House.

The big insurance companies also had their snouts in the trough. Not only did they get legislation that mandated the purchase of their products, but they also got language that provides bailouts if they aren’t able to profit from Obamacare.

What’s really amazing, though, is that some Republicans are willing to go along with Obamacare bailouts for those major companies.

The good news is that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is in the right side. Here’s some of what he wrote about bailouts for health insurance companies for Fox News.

 …section 1342 of the ObamaCare law…established so-called “risk corridors”. According to this provision, taxpayers will make up the difference for health insurance companies whose plans lose money under ObamaCare. Last November, as it became clearer what this section of the law actually meant, I introduced legislation repealing it and protecting taxpayers from being forced to cover insurers’ ObamaCare losses. …In recent weeks, the public has learned that senior White House officials have been working closely with insurers behind the scenes to make sure that their earlier bailout deal, which helped assure ObamaCare’s passage in 2010, would stand and that a taxpayer-funded bailout was still, in fact, on the table. …On this ObamaCare bailout, as with so many issues, Washington politicians are misleading average Americans and planning to stick them with the bill. This is government favoritism and corporate cronyism at its worst. …It’s time to repeal and replace it, but at the very least, we should make it the law of the land that health insurers won’t be bailed out by taxpayers.

I’ll also add a moral argument.

As far as I’m concerned, I want the health insurance companies to suffer major losses. I want the business community to see that it’s a mistake to get in bed with big government.

Though I guess I’m actually making a practical argument. I may be motivated by morality, but the companies hopefully will do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that it’s too risky to strike deals with the political class.

By the way, Republicans often do the wrong thing because they’re afraid that voters favor the statist agenda of dependency.

But that’s not the case for Obamacare bailouts for health insurances companies. Here’s some polling data on the issue that showed up on my Twitter feed.

Let’s close by sharing some of what the editors at National Review wrote about both the Obamacare bailout and Export-Import Bank subsidies.

Congressional Republicans keep saying they oppose Obamacare. Yet they’re refusing to take the simplest and easiest action against it. …Some Republicans say that the insurance companies should not be penalized for the defects of the law. Why not? They have freely chosen to participate in the exchanges, and they should bear the risks of that decision — which include the risk that Congress might decide not to shovel tax dollars at them. The alternative, after all, is to punish taxpayers. …The debate over the Export-Import Bank is one test of Republican sincerity about ending corporate welfare. These taxpayer subsidies are another: If Republicans can’t take on corporate welfare when doing so advances one of their party’s most popular and basic commitments, when will they?

Amen. Both of these issues are tests for the GOP.

Actually, they should get added to a long list of issues that tell us whether Republicans have any sincerity (or brains) in the fight against statism.

o No tax increases, since more money for Washington will encourage a bigger burden of government and undermine prosperity.

o To stop bailouts for Europe’s decrepit welfare states, no more money for the International Monetary Fund.

o Reform the biased number-crunching methodology at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

o No more money from American taxpayers to subsidize the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for some dark humor, here’s the federal government’s satirical bailout application form.

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If you like to go along to get along, I suggest you don’t become a libertarian. At least not if you follow politics or work in Washington.

Otherwise, you’re doomed to a life of endlessly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Here are three examples.

1. When almost every Republican and Democrat argued for a Keynesian-style stimulus in 2008, libertarians had the lonely job of explaining that you don’t get more growth by increasing the burden of government spending.

2. And when most Republicans and Democrats said we needed a TARP bailout that same year, it was libertarians who futilely argued that the “FDIC-resolution” approach was a far more sensible way of dealing with the government-created crisis.

3. More recently, there were a bunch of stories complaining that 2013 was a very unproductive year for Congress, and libertarians were among the few to state that we’re better off with fewer laws rather than more laws.

The same is true for “bipartisanship.” Almost every pundit, politician, and lobbyist in Washington will extol the virtues of bipartisanship. But what they really mean is that they want both Republicans and Democrats to join arms in a business-as-usual game.

Indeed, the standard libertarian joke is that you get bipartisanship when the Stupid Party and the Evil Party both agree on something. Needless to say, that often means laws that are both stupid and evil.

Which is a good description of Bush’s 2008 stimulus and the corrupt TARP legislation.

But since we’re at the end of the year, I don’t want to get overly depressed. So let’s share some cartoons that celebrate the Murray-Ryan budget, which is the most recent example of “bipartisanship.”

We’ll start with ones that have a Christmas theme.

The politicians were glad to escape the fiscal constraint of sequestration, but Lisa Benson is not overly impressed by their cooperative effort.

Budget Deal Cartoon 8

Gary Varvel isn’t very happy, either.

Budget Deal Cartoon 1

Varvel is very explicit in this cartoon about Democrats and Republicans being united against taxpayers.

Budget Deal Cartoon 4

The bag should have been labelled “spending,” but that’s a minor complaint.

Steve Breen points out that the budget deal achieved three out of four goals.

Budget Deal Cartoon 2

And Michael Ramirez astutely identifies too much spending as the problem and shows that the budget deal did nothing to address that issue.

Budget Deal Cartoon 3

Here’s another Lisa Benson cartoon, though this one focuses on establishment GOPers trying to hook the Tea Party on the demon rum of big government.

Budget Deal Cartoon 5

Sort of reminds me of this great Henry Payne cartoon about Obama and Greece. Or maybe this Nate Beeler cartoon about weak-willed GOPers.

I’ve saved the best for last.

This Glenn McCoy cartoon shows what bipartisanship really means inside the DC beltway.

Budget Deal Cartoon 6

McCoy had another cartoon last year with a similar theme, as did Michael Ramirez.

In closing, I want to say something vaguely optimistic. The Murray-Ryan budget deal was unfortunate, but it was a rather minor setback compared to the kinds of “bipartisan” big-government schemes we got during the Bush years.

It was sort of akin to the fiscal cliff deal at the beginning of the year. Government got a bit bigger and a bit more expensive, but it was peanuts compared to TARP, the prescription drug entitlement, and many of the other schemes that eroded economic liberty last decade.

P.S. Fairness requires that I point out that bipartisanship doesn’t automatically mean bad legislation. The bipartisan 1997 budget deal between the GOP Congress and Bill Clinton cut some taxes and reduced the growth of federal spending. And the successful sequester came about because of the bipartisan 2011 debt limit legislation.

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There’s a saying in the sports world about how last-minute comebacks are examples of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”

I don’t like that phrase because it reminds me of the painful way my beloved Georgia Bulldogs were defeated a couple of weeks ago by Auburn.

But I also don’t like the saying because it describes what Obama and other advocates of big government must be thinking now that Republicans apparently are about to do the opposite and “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

More specifically, the GOP appears willing to give away the sequester’s real and meaningful spending restraint and replace that fiscal discipline with a package of gimmicks and new revenues.

I warned last month that something bad might happen to the sequester, but even a pessimist like me didn’t envision such a big defeat for fiscal responsibility.

You may be thinking to yourself that even the “stupid party” couldn’t be foolish enough to save Obama from his biggest defeat, but check out these excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chief negotiators for their parties, are closing in on a deal… At issue are efforts to craft a compromise that would ease across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect in January, known as the sequester, and replace them with a mix of increased fees and cuts in mandatory spending programs.

But the supposed cuts wouldn’t include any genuine entitlement reform. And there would be back-door tax hikes.

Officials familiar with the talks say negotiators are stitching together a package of offsets to the planned sequester cuts that would include none of the major cuts in Medicare or other entitlement programs that Mr. Ryan has wanted… Instead, it would include more targeted and arcane measures, such as increased fees for airport-security and federal guarantees of private pensions.

But the package may get even worse before the ink is dry.

Democrats on Thursday stepped up their demands in advance of the closing days of negotiations between Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) brought a fresh demand to the table by saying she wouldn’t support any budget deal unless in included or was accompanied by an agreement to renew expanded unemployment benefits that expire before the end of the year—which would be a major threat to any deal.

Gee, wouldn’t that be wonderful. Not only may GOPers surrender the sequester and acquiesce to some tax hikes, but they might also condemn unemployed people to further joblessness and despair.

That’s even worse than the part of the plan that would increase taxes on airline travel to further subsidize the Keystone Cops of the TSA.

But look at the bright side…at least for DC insiders. If the sequester is gutted, that will be a big victory for lobbyists. That means they’ll get larger bonuses, which means their kids will have even more presents under the Christmas tree.

As for the rest of the nation? Well, you can’t make an omelet without scrambling a few eggs.

P.S. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that this looming agreement isn’t as bad as some past budget deals, such as the read-my-lips fiasco of 1990.

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I’m glad I work for a principled and libertarian organization. At the Cato Institute, there’s never any pressure to say or do the wrong thing for partisan reasons.

When Republicans screw up, I don’t have to think twice about exposing their misdeeds.

I have repeatedly criticized President Bush (and his former top aide) for expanding the burden of government. Buying votes with other people’s money isn’t compassionate.

Incurable spendaholics?

I have excoriated former GOP Hill staffers who became lobbyists for various special interests groups looking to fleece taxpayers. Stealing is wrong, even when you get a lot of money to use government as middleman.

I have slammed a former Reagan Administration official for defending earmarks. I think it is morally offensive that he gets rich by facilitating the transfer of money from taxpayers to powerful interest groups.

I have condemned the former Senate Republican leader for defending Obamacare. I think it is disgusting that he puts his lobbying income ahead of America’s best interests.

I have denounced Illinois Republican legislators for killing school choice. I think it is downright nauseating that they condemn inner-city children to terrible schools in exchange for campaign contributions from teacher unions.

And I have pointed out that statist policies don’t become acceptable merely because they come from Republican presidential candidates. The road to serfdom oftentimes is bipartisan.

We now have another candidate for our “Republican Hall of Shame.” The governor of Ohio, John Kasich, is embracing Obamacare. Moreover, not only does he want bad healthcare policy, but he’s using third-world tactics and making morally reprehensible arguments.

The Wall Street Journal savages Kasich in a stinging editorial. Here’s a key excerpt that explains the overall situation.

…there are still a few disciples with faith in an ObamaCare higher power, and one of them happens to run Ohio. Governor John Kasich is so fervent a believer that he is even abusing his executive power to join the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Not to be sacrilegious, but the Republican used to know better. Now Mr. Kasich seems to view signing up for this part of ObamaCare as an act of Christian charity and has literally all but claimed that God told him to do so.

But Gov. Kasich has a slight problem. The legislature hasn’t approved this budget-busting part of Obamacare. So Kasich has decided that he can arbitrarily change policy, just like Obama did with the employer mandate and the Obamacare exemption for Capitol Hill.

The problem is that his evangelizing failed to convert the Ohio legislature, which is run by Republicans who understand the brutal budget and regulatory realities of participating in new Medicaid. So Mr. Kasich simply decided to cut out Ohio’s elected representatives and expand Medicaid by himself. …he appealed to an obscure seven-member state panel called the Controlling Board, which oversees certain state capital expenditures and can receive or make grants. …Mr. Kasich asked the panel to approve $2.56 billion in federal funding, and then he’ll lift eligibility levels via executive fiat. It’s a gambit worthy of President Obama, who also asserts unilateral powers to suspend laws that displease him and bypass Congress.

But what’s really nauseating is that Kasich equates big government and welfare spending with religious values.

Mr. Kasich really must feel like he’s guided by the Holy Spirit… “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,” to quote one of his favorite lines.

I suppose I could make a joke about communists presumably being super religious if you use this twisted metric, but there’s a serious point to be made. I’m not a religious scholar, but I wrote several years ago that, “Doesn’t Christianity (and, I assume, Judaism and other faiths) require individuals – using free will – to act charitably? Using the coercive power of government to forcibly redistribute other people’s money, by contrast, is moral preening at best.”

Moreover, Kasich must be delusional if he thinks making government bigger is good for the poor. Redistribution traps the poor in dependency and a larger public sector hinders economic growth, making life even more difficult for the less fortunate.

Heck, just compare Hong Kong and Argentina over the past 50-plus years and ask yourself which jurisdiction afforded more opportunity for those trying to climb the economic ladder.

Fortunately, the battle isn’t over yet.

Thirty-nine House Republicans signed a formal protest and some of them are threatening to sue, and well they should. They argue that circumventing the legislature subverts the Ohio constitution’s separation of powers and exceeds the statutory legal authorities of the Controlling Board, which is supposed to “take no action which does not carry out the legislative intent of the General Assembly.”

I don’t know whether a legal case will be successful, but I can share data showing that Ohio already is in deep fiscal trouble.

It ranks 39th in the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index.

It was the 7th-worst state on controlling spending over the past decade.

It ranks in the bottom 10 on measures of bureaucrats to teachers.

It was listed as one of America’s 11 states facing an economic death spiral.

And John “Barack” Kasich thinks he’ll make Ohio better by adding an additional layer of government spending to finance Obamacare expansion?!?

What makes this situation so sad is that Kasich was Chairman of the House Budget Committee in the mid-1990s, so he deserves some of the credit for restraining federal spending during that period, a very successful policy that led to better economic performance and budget surpluses.

P.S. Kasich’s push to expand Medicaid shows one of the reasons the program should be reformed. He’s being lured by the promise that Washington will pick up the entire tab for the first few years. Afterwards, state taxpayers will get saddled with some of the burden, but Kasich probably assumes he won’t be around to deal with that problem. This is why the entire program should be block-granted to the states. If Kasich really thinks God wants a bigger Medicaid system, he should go to Ohio voters and ask them to pay for it.

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I sometimes make fun of Republicans for being the “Stupid Party,” but I get genuinely agitated when they’re the “Statist Party.”

You can forgive someone for not being intelligent, after all, but it’s much harder to look the other way when they deliberately and knowingly do the wrong thing.

And that seems to be a good description of how the GOP handled the recent farm bill.

Farm subsidiesFirst, some background. The farm bill traditionally has also been the legislation that funded food stamps. The special interests adopted this approach because it created an unholy alliance of big-city Democrats and farm-state Republicans, with both groups agreeing to support each other’s wasteful spending.

Advocates of smaller government have long objected to this arrangement for the simple reason that neither agriculture subsidies nor food subsidies are proper functions of the federal government.

So it seemed like good news when the House of Representatives defeated a $1 trillion farm bill last month. And it seemed like even better news when House GOP leaders announced that they would separate the farm subsidies and food stamps into separate pieces of legislation.

But here’s where we run into problems. The insiders and special interests who are cozy with the GOP used this new approach as an excuse to increase the role of the federal government!

I’m not joking. Darren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation explains what happened.

When the House leadership first announced it would separately consider the food stamp and farm components of the “farm” bill, it looked like they got the message that current farm policy was in dire need of reform. With separation, real reform to rein in market-distorting programs and special interest handouts could finally happen. But now that separation has occurred, they’ve forgotten the very reason why separation was needed in the first place. …With the passage of this bill, the House has gone even further to the left than the Senate bill. It would spend more money than Obama on the largest farm program, crop insurance. …In fact, they made this new bill even worse—by making sneaky changes to the bill text so that some of the costliest and most indefensible programs no longer expire after five years, but live on indefinitely. This means the sugar program that drives up food prices will be harder to change, because it doesn’t automatically expire. It also means the new and radical shallow loss program that covers even minor losses for farmers will indefinitely be a part of the law.

To be fair, there were a few changes that arguably moved the ball in the right direction.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal opined.

The new farm bill still has more subsidies than is desirable, especially amid a booming agriculture economy and record land prices. The supports for prospering sugar and dairy farmers are especially dreary. Republicans defeated a proposal by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to put income limits for receiving subsidies, so “farmers” with non-farm incomes of nearly $1 million a year can still dun taxpayers. But at least the bill spends $20 billion less over 10 years than current law. One major reform is the repeal of a 1949 law that reinstates New Deal-era production controls and price supports if Congress failed to pass a new bill.

I’m not an expert on agriculture subsidies, but I think the Heritage Foundation has a stronger argument. In any event, it’s unambiguously true that House Republicans didn’t use this opportunity to approve big, pro-market reforms.

Moreover, the Republicans have left themselves wide open to the charge that they’re perfectly happy to subsidize rich contributors while not subsidizing those with modest incomes.

Ross Douthat was very critical of the GOP ploy in his New York Times column.

It should go without saying that America’s agriculture policy has always been a terrible, stupid, counterproductive exercise in self-dealing cronyism. But when House Republicans severed the traditional connection, arbitrary but politically effective, between farm subsidies and food stamps, it briefly seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to put libertarian populist principle into practice, by separating both outlays in order to trim or reform both separately. But no — instead they were just making it easier for the party’s congressmen to vote for a bloated, awful big government program that benefits mostly-Republican states and interest groups, knowing that they weren’t also voting for something that pays out to the (mostly-Democratic) poor as well. This is egregious whatever you think of the food stamp program… Practically any conception of the common good, libertarian or communitarian or anywhere in between, would produce better policy than a factionally-driven approach of further subsidizing the rich.

Sort of confirms my argument that the worst people in Washington are GOP insiders.

Needless to say, this approach creates a big opening for the left, as illustrated by this cartoon.

Big Ag GOP

But the reason this cartoon is effective is that it is based on reality. Republicans did push through a wasteful farm bill. And they don’t have any plans to deal with the food stamp component.

And even though there will be some agreement on food stamps, the GOP has left itself open to the charge that they want handouts for their rich friends and nothing for the poor.

From a libertarian perspective, I don’t care if Republicans open themselves up to unflattering stereotypes.

But I do want to abolish the Department of Agriculture at some point. And I also want to clean up the cesspool of corruption in Washington by shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.

Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction and the farm bill is merely the latest example of a very bad trend.

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I’m currently in Paris for my final stop on the Free Market Road Show. In other words, I’m in the belly of the beast of big-government statism.

So you would think I might be depressed, but I’m actually in a good mood.

Not because I’m surrounded by millions of socialists, but because voters in my home state just punished a couple of entrenched incumbent Republican politicians who sided with special interest groups and voted to rape and pillage taxpayers.

Here are some bring-a-smile-to-your-face details from a Washington Post report.

Two 20-year veterans of Virginia’s House of Delegates lost their seats Tuesday, falling to GOP primary challengers who assailed their support for a tax-heavy transportation funding overhaul. Del. Joe T. May (Loudoun) and Del. Beverly J. Sherwood (Frederick) lost to political newcomers who railed against the transportation plan, which imposes a $1.2-billion-a-year tax increase. … No sitting Republican delegate had faced a primary challenge since 2005, when activists went after some of those who supported a $1.5-billion-a-year tax hike pushed by then-Gov. Mark Warner (D).

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that these Republican-in-name-only lawmakers claimed tax hikes were necessary because there was no room to cut spending.

But the real problem is that too many Republicans in Richmond decided that the cesspool of big government was actually a hot tub. So rather than drain the swamp (yes, I’m mixing my metaphors), they decided they wanted more money to waste.

So, over the past several years, the burden of spending rose. Not just rose. It climbed twice as fast as inflation.

But they needed more money to maintain and support bigger government. So they disregarded their anti-tax promises.

And two of them paid the price at the polls. That may not sound like much since 34 GOP lawmakers sided with the left and voted for the tax hike.

But remember that it’s very hard to defeat incumbent politicians. So when a pair of 20-year incumbents lose, you can be sure that other lawmakers now will be far less likely to side with the political class instead of the people back home.

By the way, what makes the story in Virginia so pathetic is that Republicans normally get seduced into tax increases because of stupidity. As the Charlie Brown parody indicates, they get tricked into believing higher revenues will be used to lower deficits.

But in this case, the RINO Republicans openly admitted that they wanted more revenue to expand the state budget.

Heck, they didn’t just deserve to lose. They should have been tarred-and-feathered.

The no-tax-hike position is a line in the sand that shouldn’t be crossed.

The starve-the-beast rejection of tax hikes isn’t a sufficient condition to control big government, but it darn sure is a necessary condition.

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Among the right-leaning policy wonks and intellectuals in Washington, there’s a lot of attention being given to the something called “reform conservatism.”

Underlying this school of thought is the notion that the Reagan-era message no longer works since Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six elections.

A few people have asked my opinion about this movement, and since Ross Douthat of the New York Times just put together a good description of this school of thought, it makes it easy for me to offer my thoughts.

But before digging into his column, I think that some of the angst on the right is misplaced. Why blame a Reagan-era message for GOP electoral problems when all the Republicans presidential nominees in recent years have favored big government? Does anybody really think that Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain, and Romney were Reaganites?!?

Could any of those candidates have given these remarks, at least with any credibility? Or made these comments in a sincere fashion? It’s much more plausible to say that Republicans have lagged because they didn’t have candidates with a Reagan-style message.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Republicans would have fared poorly even if Reaganites had been nominated. Does “reform conservatism” offer a path to electoral salvation.

Here’s what Douthat identifies as the “two major premises” of reform conservatism.

1. First, he writes that the “core economic challenge facing the American experiment is not income inequality per se, but rather stratification and stagnation — weak mobility from the bottom of the income ladder and wage stagnation for the middle class.” Conservatives, he says, should strive to make “family life more affordable, upward mobility more likely, and employment easier to find.”

2. Second, he warns that the “existing welfare-state institutions we’ve inherited from the New Deal and the Great Society, however, often make these tasks harder rather than easier: Their exploding costs crowd out every other form of spending, require middle class tax increases and threaten to drag on economic growth.”

I’m not an expert on income mobility, so I’m not sure I would identify stratification and stagnation as the nation’s core economic challenge, but he may be right. Regardless, it’s definitely a good idea to have more mobility.

And I definitely agree that the welfare state hinders upward mobility by creating dependency. And he’s right that this is a drag on growth. That being said, I disagree with his assertion that rising entitlement expenditures crowd out other spending and lead to middle class tax hikes. Those things may happen at some point, particularly once we get into the peak years for retiring baby boomers, but they haven’t happened yet.

The more important question, at least to me, is what sort of policies do reform conservatives embrace? Here’s Douthat’s list, bolded, followed by my thoughts.

a. A tax reform that caps deductions and lowers rates, but also reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class, whether through an expanded child tax credit or some other means of reducing payroll tax liability. Tax Distribution CBOI obviously like the idea of lowering rates and reducing deductions since that moves the system closer to a flat tax. That being said, it’s difficult to reduce the tax burden on the lower middle class since they pay very little income tax under the current system (see accompanying table from CBO). But I like the idea of addressing the payroll tax, though I disagree with their approach (see section “c” below).

b. A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose. I fully agree with repeal of Obamacare, and I think an unfettered marketplace would evolve into a system of near-universal catastrophic insurance, but I don’t want the federal government subsidizing or coercing that approach (though current healthcare policy has far more subsidies and coercion, so Douthat’s plan would be a big improvement over the status quo).

c. A Medicare reform along the lines of the Wyden-Ryan premium support proposal, and a Social Security reform focused on means testing and extending work lives rather than a renewed push for private accounts. I’m glad they embrace Medicare reform, but I’m puzzled by the hostility to personal retirement accounts.  If you increase the retirement age and/or means test, you force people to pay more and get less, yet Social Security already is a bad deal for younger workers. So why make it worse? How can that be good for those with low mobility? Personal accounts would be akin to a tax cut for such workers since the payroll tax would be transformed into something much closer to deferred compensation.

d. An immigration reform that tilts much more toward Canadian-style recruitment of high-skilled workers, and that doesn’t necessarily seek to accelerate the pace of low-skilled immigration. As I noted in this interview, I very much favor bringing more high-skilled people into the country.

e. A “market monetarist” monetary policy as an alternative both to further fiscal stimulus and to the tight money/fiscal austerity combination advanced by many Republicans today. I try to avoid monetary policy. That being said, I’m a bit skeptical of “market monetarism.” No nation has ever tried this system, so it’s uncharted territory, and I’m reluctant to embrace an approach which is premised on the notion that bubbles can’t exist (what about the tech bubble of the late 1990s or the housing bubble last decade?!?). I’m also suspicious of a system which requires an activist central bank. Watch this George Selgin video if you want to know why.

f. An attack not only on explicit subsidies for powerful incumbents (farm subsidies, etc.) but also other protections and implicit guarantees, in arenas ranging from copyright law to the problem of “Too Big To Fail.” Amen. I fully agree.

Since I’m a tax policy wonk, let me address in greater detail some of the tax reform proposals put forward by reform conservatives.

Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is identified in the column as a reform conservative, and he recently expressed skepticism about the flat tax in a column for National Review.

It’s an elegant, compelling model that might work  splendidly if you were creating a tax code ex nihilo. …America, however, is in a much different place. Millions of individuals and businesses have made long-term plans based on expectations that the tax code will remain more or less the same. Half the nation, thanks to all those deductions and credits, pays no income tax. …it’s unlikely the U.S. can keep spending down at historical levels of 20 percent to 21 percent of GDP while also maintaining a floor for defense spending at 4 percent of output. The best a group of AEI scholars could manage was limiting spending to 23 percent of GDP by 2035.

The clear implication of his column is that we need a tax system that raises more revenue. I obviously disagree. We should never “feed the beast” by giving politicians more money to spend.

Pethokoukis also says the flat tax is politically unrealistic. Since I’m not expecting a flat tax in my lifetime, I obviously can’t argue with that statement. But he then proposes another plan that would be far less popular – and far more dangerous.

One solution is to take the essentially flat consumption tax devised by economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka and give it a progressive rate structure. Or we could combine a consumption tax with a flat income tax on wealthier Americans, as suggested by Yale’s Michael Graetz.

So we should keep the income tax as a vehicle for class warfare and augment it with a VAT?!? Yeah, good luck trying to sell that idea. And Heaven help us if it ever succeeded since politicians would have another major source of tax revenue.

Another plan, which Douthat explicitly cites in his paper, was put together by Robert Stein, a former Bush Treasury official. He thinks traditional supply-side policies today are either irrelevant or unpopular.

Lowering tax rates today could still enhance the incentives to invest, particularly in the corporate sector. But the distortions caused by marginal tax rates are not nearly as great as they were in 1980. And attempts to solve other problems caused by the tax code itself — like the biases in favor of consumption over saving, or home building over business investment — could never in themselves garner the public support necessary for a major overhaul.

As I noted, I’m not holding my breath for a flat tax, so I can’t disagree with Stein’s prognostication.

He also has a very novel way of defining the problem we should be trying to fix.

…it is time to rethink how the tax code treats ­parents. …raising children is hardly just another pastime: It is one of the most important services any American can perform for our country. …even as Social Security and Medicare depend on large numbers of future workers, they have created an enormous fiscal bias against procreation, undermining an important motive for raising children: to safeguard against poverty in old age. ……our system of taxes and entitlements not only fails to reward parents — it actively discourages Americans from having children. …Recent studies (especially work by Michele Boldrin, ­Mariacristina De Nardi, and Larry Jones and by Isaac Ehrlich and Jinyoung Kim) show that Social Security and Medicare actually reduce the fertility rate by about 0.5 children per woman. In European countries, where retirement systems are larger, the effect is closer to one child per woman.

As a libertarian, the beginning section of that passage grated on me. My children are individuals, not a “service” to prop up entitlement programs. I agree with Stein that these programs are a problem, but the solution is to reform entitlements, not to rejigger the tax code in hopes of pumping out more taxpayers.

Stein disagrees.

Unfortunately, these negative effects on fertility cannot be cured simply by converting old-age entitlement programs into mandatory savings programs, as the Bush administration proposed for Social Security in 2005. After all, requiring workers to save for retirement through private financial instruments would also crowd out the traditional motive to raise kids.

Instead, he wants to change the tax system based on the notion that today’s kids are tomorrow’s taxpayers.

…the present value of future Social Security and Medicare contributions for a typical worker born today is about $150,000. Rewarding parents for creating these future contributions suggests annual tax relief of about $8,500 per child. To correct for this inadequate treatment of households with ­children, the existing dependent exemption for children, the child credit, the ­child-care credit, and the adoption credit should be replaced with one new $4,000 credit per child that can be used to offset both income and payroll taxes. (This amount is set much closer to the $3,250 figure than the $8,500 one mostly to reduce the plan’s negative impact on federal revenue.)

I have no philosophical objection to some form of exemption – or even credit – based on family size. Almost all flat tax systems, for instance, have some sort of family allowance.

But it’s also important to realize that bigger family allowances generally don’t have pro-growth effects. It’s the marginal tax rate that impacts incentives.

And Stein, unfortunately, would “pay” for his credits by raising marginal tax rates on a significant share of taxpayers.

Some of these costs would be offset by eliminating itemized deductions (other than mortgage interest and charitable contributions). The rest would have to be offset by ­allowing the top rate of 35% to touch more taxpayers than it currently affects. …who pays more? Primarily high-income workers, but also upper-middle-class taxpayers who do not have children in the home (either because they have decided not to raise children at all, or because their children have already turned 18). To be blunt, the plan is a tax hike on the rich and makes the tax code even more progressive than it is today.

To be fair, Stein also proposes some good policies such as AMT repeal and reductions in double taxation, so he’s definitely not in the Obama class-warfare camp. But it’s also fair to say that his plan won’t do much for growth. Some tax rates are lowered but others are increased.

Yet if you really want families to be in stronger shape, more growth is the only long-run solution.

Moreover, it’s not clear that Stein’s agenda would be terribly popular. Though I confess that’s just a guess since no politician has latched onto the idea in the years since the proposal was unveiled.

Returning to the broader issue of “reform conservatism,” it’s difficult to assign an overall grade to the movement since I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to interpret it as a political strategy or an economic plan.

Regardless, I guess I’m generally sympathetic. I assume the RCers want government to be smaller than it is today and I don’t think you have to be a 100 percent libertarian to be my ally in the fight to restrain excessive government. And I also think it’s a good idea for people to be thinking of how to best articulate a message of smaller government. Heck, I do that every time I go on TV or give a speech.

So I reserve the right to object to any of the specific proposals that reform conservatives put forward (such as the tax plans discussed above), but I like the project.

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I’ve shared some nightmare stories of excessive and mindless government regulation.

  1. The Food and Drug Administration raiding a dairy for the terrible crime of selling unpasteurized milk to people who prefer unpasteurized milk.
  2. New York City imposing a $30,000 fine on a small shop because it sold a toy gun.
  3. The pinheads at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission going after Hooters for not having any male waiters in hot pants and tight t-shirts.
  4. Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources is legally attacking a family for rescuing a baby deer.
  5. An unlucky guy who is in legal hot water for releasing some heart-shaped balloons to impress his sweetheart.

But the regulatory burden goes way beyond these odd anecdotes. We’re talking about a huge cost to the economy, and it’s been getting worse for the past 12 years.

Here are some comments on the President’s inauspicious record from the Wall Street Journal.

Team Obama is now the red tape record holder. …pages in the Code of Federal Regulations hit an all-time high of 174,545 in 2012, an increase of more than 21% during the last decade. …the cost of federal rules exceeded $1.8 trillion, roughly equal to the GDP of Canada. These costs are embedded in nearly everything Americans buy…at $14,768 per household, meaning that red tape is now the second largest item in the typical family budget after housing. Last year 4,062 regulations were at various stages of implementation inside the Beltway. The government completed work on 1,172, an increase of 16% over the 1,010 that the feds imposed in 2011, which was a 40% increase over 722 in 2010. …the Obama Administration did not break the all-time record of 81,405 pages it set in 2010. But the 78,961 pages it churned out in 2012 mean that the President has posted three of the four greatest paperwork years on record. And to be fair, if Mr. Obama were ever to acknowledge that this is a problem, he could reasonably blame George W. Bush for setting a lousy example. Despite the Obama myth that the Bush years were an era of deregulation, the Bush Administration routinely generated more than 70,000 pages a year in the Federal Register.

If those numbers don’t make you sit up and take notice, how about these ones?

My personal “favorite,” as you can imagine, is the regulatory burden of the income tax.

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

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

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In recent months, people have asked me why I’m acting all giddy and optimistic. Am I hooked on cocaine? Have I fallen in love? Did I inherit several million dollars?

These questions started after I said the fiscal cliff was a smaller loss than I expected. Then people wondered what was going on when I wrote that we should celebrate the sequester victory. The questions got more intense when I opined that the Tea Party had made a positive difference. And people were even more nonplussed when I wrote that we should enjoy a win over the IMF.

But I’m not the only person thinking that things may be heading in the right direction.

Conn Carroll explains his optimism in the Washington Examiner. He starts by noting how bad Congress was back in 2009 and 2010.

…its liberal predecessor passed a trillion-dollar stimulus, enacted a government takeover of health care and institutionalized the power of Wall Street’s Too Big To Fail banks by passing the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

Then he explains that the new Tea Party Congress has changed the fiscal outlook.

…if you look at the hard numbers — if you look at the tax-and-spending trajectory that the United States was on before the 112th Congress was sworn into office, and then look at the path the U.S. is on now — you’d see that Republicans in Congress have made tremendous progress in shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.

But is there any proof?

Conn points out that the CBO “baselines” from early 2011 showed government growing very rapidly.

…the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its annual Budget and Economic Outlook for fiscal years 2011 through 2021. That document showed the federal government was on track to spend…a total of almost $50 trillion ($49.8 trillion to be exact) through 2021. At the same time, tax revenues were set to rise from just 14.8 percent of GDP in 2011 to 20.8 percent in 2021.

The same estimates from early this year, by contrast, show government growing at a slower pace.

The CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook for fiscal years 2013 through 2023 shows just how much House Republicans have actually accomplished. The federal government is now on track to spend just $46.2 trillion through 2021. That is a $3.6 trillion spending cut. And instead of taxes eating up 21 percent of the U.S. economy in 2021, now the government is set to take in just 18.9 percent.

Here are the respective baselines from those CBO publications. Let’s start by looking at how spending is projected to grow at a slower pace for the rest of the decade.

2011-2013 Spending Projections

That’s $3.5 trillion of savings. Not genuine spending cuts, of course, but it’s real progress if government doesn’t grow as fast.

Here are the revenue numbers.

2011-2013 Revenue Projections

This data basically shows that the tax burden will be much smaller than projected because about 98 percent of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent as part of the fiscal cliff deal.

And if you believe in the Starve-the-Beast theory (and you should), this will make it harder for politicians to increase the burden of government spending in the future.

Conn also notes that the unemployment rate has fallen.

Despite all of this supposedly economy-killing “austerity,” unemployment has steadily fallen, too. When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the nation’s unemployment rate was 9 percent. Today, it has fallen to 7.7 percent.

If this seems like a familiar point, it’s because I share his assessment. I wrote back in February of last year that gridlock was a positive thing for the economy since it reduced the likelihood of new bad policies.

What’s remarkable about these developments, as Conn notes, is that folks were expecting Obama to have momentum as his second term began.

Just three months ago, many in Washington were predicting Obama would steamroll Republicans into accepting higher taxes for millions of earners, undoing the sequester and maybe even passing new stimulus spending. Instead, Republicans have stayed unified, outfoxed Obama, preserved and made permanent most of last decade’s tax cuts (including permanent indexing of the Alternative Minimum Tax) and let the sequester cuts occur on schedule. As a result, Obama’s approval ratings have tumbled, and his entire second-term agenda is in jeopardy.

The final sentence in that excerpt explains why I’m feeling semi-optimistic. Obama’s agenda of more taxes and more spending is being thwarted.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean we’re seeing good policies of tax reform and fiscal restraint. And we still face a very dour fiscal future unless entitlements are reformed.

But we’re going in the wrong direction at a slower pace, and that beats the alternative.

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