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Archive for the ‘Sleaze’ Category

Once again, I threw myself on a proverbial grenade. Yes, that means I watched politicians last night as part of the Cato Institute’s live-tweeting about issues that were raised (or not raised) in the CNN Townhall featuring Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Although painful, this exercise enabled me to share my thoughts on topics such as corporate inversions, Planned Parenthood, government-run healthcare, Obamanomics, and the morality (or lack thereof) of government-coerced redistribution.

But one issue I neglected was campaign finance, which was an oversight since both Sanders and Clinton made a big deal about the ostensibly corrupting mix of money and politics.

I confess that their arguments were somewhat seductive. After all, corrupt ethanol handouts and the cronyist Export-Import Bank only exist because politicians easily can raise tens of thousands of dollars by voting yes for these boondoggles.

Moreover, a law professor from the University of Minnesota made “The Conservative Case for Campaign-Finance Reform” yesterday in the New York Times. Here’s some of what Richard Painter wrote.

…big money in politics encourages big government. Campaign contributions drive spending on earmarks and other wasteful programs — bridges to nowhere, contracts for equipment the military does not need, solar energy companies that go bankrupt on the government’s dime… When politicians are dependent on campaign money from contractors and lobbyists, they’re incapable of holding spending programs to account. Campaign contributions also breed more regulation. Companies in heavily regulated industries such as banking, health care and energy are among the largest contributors. Such companies donate with the hope of winning narrowly tailored exceptions to regulations that help them and disadvantage their competitors. …conservatives…need to drive the big spenders out of the temples of our democracy.

I have no idea if Mr. Painter actually is a conservative, but he makes a superficially compelling case.

But then I remind myself of a very important point. The sun doesn’t rise because roosters crow. It’s the other way around. What Mr. Painter fails to understand is that there’s a lot of money in politics for the simple reason that government has massive powers to tax, spend, and regulate.

Politicians in Washington every year redistribute more than $4 trillion, so interest groups have an incentive to “invest” money in campaigns so they can get some of that loot. Those politicians have created a 75,000-page tax code that is a Byzantine web of special preferences, so interest groups have an incentive to “invest” money in campaigns so they get favorable treatment. And the politicians also have created a massive regulatory morass, so interest groups have an incentive to “invest” so that red tape can be used to create an unlevel playing field for their advantage.

By the way, I’m not saying that campaign contributions are improper, or even necessarily bad.

After all, political speech (and the money that makes it meaningful) is protected by the 1st Amendment. Moreover, some people give money simply for reasons of self defense. They’re not looking for handouts of favoritism, but rather are giving money in hopes that politicians will leave them alone.

Instead, I’m simply making the point that big government is what encourages unseemly and/or corrupt political contributions.

If I’m allowed to shift to a new metaphor, Sanders and Clinton make the mistake of putting the cart of campaign finance in front of the horse of big government.

There’s a great column in today’s Wall Street Journal on this topic. It’s motivated by corruption scandals in New York, but the lessons apply equally to Washington. Here’s some of what Tom Shanahan wrote.

…whenever a public official is found guilty of wrongdoing, there’s a call for new laws. Logic cannot explain the impulse. …If they’re not obeying the laws we already have, what makes anyone believe new statutes will change that? …a host of “good government” groups, such the New York Public Interest Research Group, proposed making the legislature a “full-time job” by limiting outside income.

Mr. Shanahan suspect these reforms will backfire.

That’s a major problem for limiting the size of government. An analysis of “The Length of Legislative Sessions and the Growth of Government” byMwangi S. Kimenyi and Robert D. Tollison, in a 1995 article in Rationality and Society, demonstrated that the more time Congress spent in session, the more bills were enacted, and the more expensive government grew. …A legislator with other work also has a better understanding of the economic conditions confronting the public than one who subsists on a government check. …Legislators with outside incomes are less susceptible to the pay-to-play temptation of campaign contributions. When your sole source of income is the public office you hold, the incentive is far greater to do anything necessary to get re-elected.

So here’s the bottom line is that there’s no reason to think new laws will reduce corruption. Indeed, more rules will probably lead to more sleaze since politicians will have an even greater incentive to exploit their positions of power.

The people who will get hurt, however, are the ordinary citizens who already lose out from the current system.

New York continues to suffer a net migration of citizens to other states, as people flee a growing tax burden. The last thing the state needs is a legislature working full time to spend even more taxpayer money.

By the way, I’m not under the illusion that “money in politics” is a solution. I’m simply saying that new rules about campaign finance and ethics won’t have any impact on sleaze and corruption.

Which is my message in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Allow me to make one final point on this issue. I think the proponents of further regulation and control in some cases have good intentions, but they are being extremely naive. Why would anybody think that politicians would approve rules unless the net effect was to increase the powers of incumbency?

Since I shared my video on the topic, I’ll close by strongly recommending that you watch this George Will video.

P.S. I warned last month that governments were engaged in a war on cash. Well, the Germans are planning a Blitzkrieg.

The German government is considering introducing a limit of 5,000 euros ($5,450) on cash transactions in an effort to combat money laundering and financing of terrorism. Deputy finance minister Michael Meister said Wednesday that…there’s “…we also have the problem of how to clear up money-laundering offenses properly” when large transactions are conducted anonymously. …Opposition Green Party lawmaker Konstantin von Notz tweeted that trying to limit cash payments “is a new fundamental attack on data protection and privacy.”

Since criminals will be modestly inconvenienced – at best – by such an initiative, it’s important to understand the real goal is easier tax collection. Indeed, I suspect Herr von Notz will change his tune once he realizes that the German government will get more money to waste if cash is restricted.

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Two years ago, I wrote that Washington’s parasite class was having a very merry Christmas.

But I wasn’t mocking welfare recipients, many of whom actually deserve sympathy for getting trapped in the web of government dependency.

Instead, I was referring to the unearned wealth being accumulated by Washington’s gilded class of bureaucrats, cronyists, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, and other insiders.

To cite a truly horrifying statistic, the redistribution of money from America to Washington has made it the nation’s richest metropolitan region.

And it’s getting worse.

Let’s look at what Tim Carney just wrote in the Washington Examiner about Christmas on K Street.

It’s that magical season when Republicans and Democrats come together to look after the needs of corporate America, K Street lobbyists, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. …The highway measure is a huge win for industry while a loss for good governance. Far worse, however, is the…provision reviving the defunct Export-Import Bank, a corporate-welfare agency…K Street lobbied incessantly to revive Ex-Im, backed by President Obama, Hillary Clinton and nearly every Democratic lawmaker. …As a corporate cherry on top, the bill repeals a recent minor cut in federal crop insurance subsidies, a program that benefits financial firms… Congressional leaders are currently negotiating another year-end legislative package, the notorious annual tax extenders bill. …the bill will extend (at least for a short-time) green-energy subsidies: The Production Tax Credit for wind and the Investment Tax Credit for solar. …Almost all of them are crucial for some special interest and the revolving-door lobbyists they employ.

Tim points out that the feeding frenzy is bipartisan, which some people think is a measure of good policy.

Like me, though, Tim isn’t impressed when the Evil Party and the Stupid Party both conspire to produce bad policy.

As this legislation — the highway bill, the energy bill, the tax extenders, plus the omnibus spending bill—pass through both houses, expect hosannas to the “bipartisanship” and “compromise” involved. …there’s one common theme here: Corporate lobbyists win in almost every case.

But catering to the interests of K Street lobbyists is probably not a good strategy for Republicans.

Republican leaders are probably confused about why all their accomplishments and imminent accomplishments, including the highway bill, tax extenders and appropriations, haven’t dragged Congress’s approval out of the gutter—after all, everyone they talk to thinks Congress is doing a bang-up job.

Now let’s look at what Kevin Williamson recently wrote for National Review. His article is primarily about corruption in Chicago, but his observations apply just as well to how Washington operates.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Al Gore, and the rest of that sorry lot aren’t trying to get rich — they’re already rich, some of them wildly rich. They are building a patronage society. And building a patronage society costs a lot of money… The horrifying fact is that Barack Obama can make you a rich man — if you’re the right kind of man. If you operate a politically connected business, the government can direct the better part of $1 billion straight into your coffers… At the other end of the spectrum, a federal tormenter can be the end of your enterprise: Ask those Tea Party groups illegally targeted by Barack Obama’s IRS. Ask a voting-reform advocate who was targeted by the ATF in spite of not being in any business related to A, T, or F.

But it’s not just a case of undeserved goodies getting steered to political cronies.

Yes, that’s a problem, but the economic concern is that this type of economic model misallocates resources and leads to stagnation.

The Clintons’ game isn’t enjoying the $100 million in their checking account — it’s making use of the $44 trillion in American-owned assets as if they owned them themselves. Barack Obama doesn’t want a garage full of Rolls Royces — he wants a world in which Rolls Royce has to ask his permission before building a car or selling one.

In effect, a nation slowly but surely becomes Greece as more and more people either rely on benefits or have jobs in the bloated bureaucracies that dispense goodies.

…you cannot build a patronage society on patrons alone: You need clients. And that’s where the ever-growing public sector comes in. …There is effectively no one working at your local DMV, public school, police station, or IRS office who could earn even 80 percent of his government compensation in a private-sector job. …the really nefarious dependency agenda isn’t focused on the people who cash welfare checks, but on the people who write them, the vast bureaucracies of overpaid functionaries… Get enough of those and you have effective control over the entire economy — Chávez-style socialism without the nasty business of formal expropriation.

By the way, it’s not just libertarian types who worry about bloated government and cronyism.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent column by Robert Samuelson that succinctly captures an inherent problem with government. Writing about the reasons for diminishing productivity growth, he cites the work of Mancur Olson.

Olson revolutionized thinking about the political power of interest groups. …conventional wisdom held that large groups were more powerful than small groups in pursuing their self-interest — say, a government subsidy, tax preference or a protective tariff. …Just the opposite, Olson said in his 1965 book “The Logic of Collective Action.” With so many people in the large group, the benefits of collective action were often spread so thinly that no individual had much of an incentive to become politically active. The tendency was to “let George do it,” but George had no incentive either. By contrast, the members of smaller groups often could see the benefits of their collective action directly. They were motivated to organize and to pursue their self-interest aggressively.

Samuelson continues, elaborating on Olson’s insight about concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.

Here’s an example: A company and its workers lobby for import protection, which saves jobs and raises prices and profits. But consumers — who pay the higher prices — don’t create a counter-lobby, because it’s too much trouble and the higher prices are diluted among many individual consumers. Gains are concentrated, losses dispersed. This was Olson’s great insight, and it had broad implications, he said. In a 1982 book, “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” he argued that the proliferation of special-interest concessions could reduce a society’s economic growth. “An increase in the payoffs from lobbying . . . as compared with the payoffs from production, means more resources are devoted to politics and cartel activity and fewer resources are devoted to production,” he wrote.

The last part of the excerpt is crucial.

When we get to the point when businesses are focused on harvesting favors from Washington (such as bailouts, export subsidies, special tax preferences, etc), that is a very depressing indication of a cronyist economy rather than a capitalist economy. Of being Argentina rather than Hong Kong.

If you’re not already sufficiently depressed, my colleague Chris Edwards has a very good description of the lawmaking process. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts as a teaser.

In a romantic view of democracy, legislators act with the interests of the general public in mind. They grapple with policy issues, work toward a broad consensus, and pass legislation that has strong support. To ensure that funds are spent wisely, they frequently reevaluate existing programs and prune the low-value and harmful ones. They put citizens first and carefully limit their actions to those allowable under the U.S. Constitution. The problem with this “public interest theory of government” is that it has little real-world explanatory power. …we can better understand congressional actions by looking at incentives.

And when you look at how the process really works, you learn it is dominated by “rent seeking,” which is academic jargon for interest groups obtaining undeserved benefits via government coercion.

Members…seek federal benefits for their states because most of the costs will fall on other states. This is a major factor causing federal failure. The structure of Congress leads members to support programs that benefit their states but that are losers for the nation as a whole. …There is no built-in check—no invisible hand, as in markets—to guide members to make value-added decisions… Special-interest groups dominate policy discussions. Most witnesses to congressional hearings favor the programs being examined, and they focus on program benefits, not the costs. Most visitors to member offices on Capitol Hill are there to plead for special benefits. …Washington is teaming with lobbyists seeking special benefits—subsidies, regulations, trade protections—that come at the expense of the general public. …rent seeking is a two-way street. Jonathan Rauch of Brookings noted, “In the public’s mind, the standard model of lobbying in Washington involves special interests buying influence, in a sort of legalized bribery. In fact, the process more often involves politicians shaking down special interests.”

If you’ve read this far, you probably want to go take a shower and wash away the stench of Washington corruption.

But there’s one tiny glimmer of hope. If we can somehow figure out how to shrink the size and scope of government, we can reduce the problem. That’s the message of this video.

While we know the solution, our real challenge is that we can only shrink government by convincing politicians to change policy. Yet asking politicians to reduce government is like asking burglars to be in favor of armed homeowners.

And based on everything I wrote above, we know politicians generally have bad incentives.

But it’s not hopeless. While I certainly enjoy mocking politicians, they’re not totally immoral or even amoral people. Many of them do understand there’s a problem. Indeed, I would argue that recent votes for entitlement reform are an example of genuine patriotism – i.e., doing the right thing for the country.

So is there a potential solution?

Maybe. Let’s use an analogy from Greek mythology. Many politicians generally can’t resist the siren song of a go-along-to-get-along approach. But like Ulysses facing temptation from sirens, they recognize that this is a recipe for a bad outcome. So they realize that some sort of self-imposed constraint is desirable. And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful that we can get them to impose binding spending caps.

We know there are successful reforms by looking at the evidence. And we know there is growing support from fiscal experts. And we even see that normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF acknowledge that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

So if Ulysses can bind himself to the mast and resist the sirens, perhaps we can convince politicians to tie their own hands with a Swiss-style spending cap.

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Washington is a horribly corrupt city. The tax code is riddled with special favors for politically powerful interest groups. The budget is filled with handouts and subsidies for well-connected insiders. The regulatory apparatus is a playground for cronyism.

I’ve previously explained that shrinking the size and scope of government is the most effective way of curtailing corruption. Simply stated, people won’t try to get favors and politicians won’t have the ability to sell favors if government doesn’t have power to redistribute income and dictate behavior.

To be sure, this isn’t a recipe for zero corruption. There doubtlessly was corruption in the 1700s and 1800s when Washington was just a tiny fraction of its current size. But it’s a matter of scale. A smaller government means less opportunity for mischief.

Some folks argue that campaign finance laws would be an effective way of curtailing sleaze in Washington. And there are some compelling arguments for this approach.

After all, would we have unsavory examples of corruption like the Export-Import Bank if wealthy insiders from big companies weren’t able to generate buckets of campaign cash for politicians?

But let’s be realistic. So long as politicians have the power to provide subsidies for big business, they’ll have an incentive to offer those handouts. And companies will have an incentive to seek those handouts.

Campaign finance laws might cut back on one pathway to buy and sell favors, but the incentive to cut deals will still exist. Sort of like pressing down on one part of a balloon simply causes another part of the balloon to expand.

But, you may ask, isn’t it worth taking such steps in hopes of at least creating some roadblocks to graft in Washington.

Perhaps in theory, but let’s not forget that it’s very naïve to think that politicians will enact laws that reduce their power or weaken their chances of being reelected. That’s about as likely as burglars being in favor of armed homeowners.

As such, we actually should be concerned that new laws and rules somehow would be structured to make things worse rather than better.

That’s the message of this superb video from Prager University. Narrated by George Will, the video explains why so-called campaign finance rules are not the answer (unless, of course, the question is “how can we give more power to the entrenched political class?”).

Let me add something that wasn’t addressed in the video. Incumbent politicians like the idea of limiting campaign contributions because they start each election cycle with a giant advantage. They already are well known in their states or districts. They’ve already curried favor with voters by engaging in taxpayer-financed “constituent service.” They already get themselves in front of cameras at every opportunity when there’s a ribbon cutting for a new bridge or road project. And they’ve already built relationships with the power brokers in each community.

Challengers, for all intents and purposes, need to spend a lot of money – potentially millions of dollars depending on the electorate – simply to create a level playing field. But if there are laws that limit total spending or restrict contribution amounts, it makes it a lot harder to conduct a credible campaign.

No wonder incumbent politicians so often pontificate about “getting money out of politics.” What they’re really saying is “let’s make it impossible for anybody to threaten my reelection.”

The bottom line is that limits on campaign contributions and other restrictions on political speech make elections less fair.

And they don’t solve the bigger issue of graft, corruption, and sleaze. No wonder they’re willing to impose dozens – if not hundreds – of laws governing public malfeasance and campaign finance. They know that such rules are largely ineffective because much of what happens in Washington is legalized forms of corruption.

Which brings us back to the real issue. If you want less sleaze in Washington, reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

Everything else is window dressing.

P.S. The most pervasive form of corruption in Washington (and, sadly, in many other parts of America) is the moral corruption that exists when people think it’s perfectly acceptable to steal from their neighbors so long as 51 percent of the people approve of the theft. That’s why social capital is very important.

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I’ve explained, over and over and over again, that big government is the mother’s milk of corruption.

Simply stated, a convoluted tax code, bloated budget, and regulatory morass create endless opportunities for well-connected insiders to obtain unearned and undeserved wealth.

Is this evidence that Washington is broken?

In a column for Real Clear Politics., Mike Needham of Heritage Action suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Washington actually works very well, but not for the American people.

Washington isn’t broken. It is a well-oiled machine that works for the well-connected and responds to the well-heeled. This corrupt nexus of favoritism and cronyism tends to leave hardworking Americans behind. …as we’ve seen with Obamacare, the bigger the government, the bigger the Bigs become.

Is he right? Well, let’s look at some evidence. We already know Obamacare has been a boon for hacks from the Democratic Party.

But did you know that lots of GOP insiders also are cashing in because of Obamacare?

Let’s not limit our analysis to Obamacare.

There are many other examples of how the folks in Washington live on Easy Street at our expense. For instance, they enjoy lavish junkets. Here’s what the Washington Post reported back in September.

As Congress returned Tuesday…, some 14 House members were resting up from a week-long trip to Hawaii. …It sounded like a fine journey via military jet (business class) to stay at the oceanfront Sheraton Waikiki in Honolulu. Dinners were planned at the famous Hy’s Steak House — the superb porterhouse is always worth the $88.95 — and the upscale Roy’s Hawaii with its great fusion menu. (We hope they tried the lobster pot stickers.) …The schedule thoughtfully included substantial “executive time” in the afternoons. This, as Loop Fans know, is often a thinly veiled euphemism for some fine lounging at the pool, or exploring beautiful Hawaii.

This boondoggle was especially irksome to me since I was in Hawaii at the same time. But I had to pay my own way! And my hotel was right next to Hy’s Steak House, which had a very appealing menu, but I didn’t go because taxpayers weren’t financing my meals.

Speaking of integrity in D.C., here’s a story from the Washington Post that belongs in the is-anyone-actually-surprised category.

The Honest Tea firm, which makes organic iced tea, set up a stand offering bottles of its tea at 27 cities throughout the country, including D.C., and used the honor system by asking people to leave $1 in a box when they took a tea. But in the District’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, someone stole money from the box. Executives at Honest Tea wouldn’t say exactly how much was in the box but said it ranged between $5 to $20. The theft happened in the early morning, officials believe, and they did not report it to police. It was the first time in the six years that the company has been doing its experiment that someone has actually stolen money from the collection box, officials with Honest Tea said.

By the way, Dupont Circle is a ritzy part of town, not a low-income ghetto.

I’m guessing the thief is a lobbyist or bureaucrat, someone who already has a track record of taking other people’s money.

But if you really want to see Washington at its most unseemly, the Clinton machine symbolizes the corrupt nexus of big government and cronyism. Here are some passages from a report by Politico.

A spring 2012 email to Hillary Clinton’s top State Department aide, Huma Abedin, asked for help winning a presidential appointment for a supporter of the Clinton Foundation, according to a chain obtained by POLITICO. The messages illustrate the relationship between Clinton’s most trusted confidante and the private consulting company that asked for the favor, Teneo — a global firm that later hired Abedin. Abedin signed on with the company while she still held a State Department position, a dual employment that is now being examined by congressional investigators. …Abedin also worked as an adviser to the Clinton Foundation, the nonprofit founded by former President Bill Clinton.

This is amazing. Working for an influence-peddling company while on the government payroll as well?!?

And speaking of influence peddling, check out these excerpts from another Politico story.

Campaigns are required to file reports detailing registered lobbyists who round up donations, but that number is only a small slice of the fundraisers who work in some capacity in Washington’s vast influence industry… A quarter of the “Hillblazers” who bundled $100,000 or more for Clinton work at lobbying firms or public affairs agencies lobby at the state level or otherwise make their living from influencing the government on behalf of special interests… Clinton received at least $5.4 million from professional influencers, compared with $3.2 million from registered lobbyists disclosed to the FEC. For Bush, the equivalent figures are $1.02 million and just under $408,000.

The Hill also has a story about D.C. insiders flocking to Hillary Clinton.

K Street is banking on Hillary Clinton, with more than twice as many Washington lobbyists donating to the former secretary of State’s presidential campaign than any other candidate.  Clinton — the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination — received at least $625,703 from 316 registered lobbyists and corporate PACs during the first half of the year, according to disclosure forms. …Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ranks as a distant second in the influence industry, collecting $444,500 from 140 lobbyists.

And why are lobbyists coughing up cash?

For the simple reason that they want access. And with access to politicians, that means they get access to other people’s money.

…support from K Street can not only help boost a candidate, but also put lobbyists in good standing with the candidate in the event he or she takes the White House. …lobbyists have hedged their bets by supporting several candidates, sometimes at the request of clients, they told The Hill, asking for anonymity.

Though keep in mind that Ms. Clinton and her cronies are just the tip of the iceberg.

She’s more guilty than most for the simple reason that she actively wants to expand government, which would create even more opportunities for mischief.

Let’s also be fair in acknowledging that this problem exists in other countries. Indeed, it’s probably worse elsewhere.

Vote buying in India, for instance, can be especially challenging. Check out these passages from a Reuters report.

Village bachelors in northern India are demanding brides for votes in state polls next month because of a shortage of women after decades of illegal abortions of female fetuses, the Mail Today reported on Thursday.

Though it appears that some Indian politicians actually are willing to say no to voters.

Politicians have dismissed the demand, the report said.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the politicians are saying no in public and then somehow trying arrange brides behind the scenes.

Time to conclude with some excerpts from a story about our ruling class in Washington.

Thousands of clients using the affair-oriented Ashley Madison website listed email addresses registered to the White House, top federal agencies and military branches, a data dump by hackers revealed. The detailed data, released Tuesday, will likely put Washington, D.C., on edge. The nation’s capital reportedly has the highest rate of membership for the site of any city. Indeed, more than 15,000 of the email addresses used to register accounts were hosted on government and military servers.

The key words above are “highest rate of membership.” Yup, these are the people who think they should tell us how to live our lives. These are the clowns who think they can spend our money better than we can. These are the buffoons who want to direct and control the private economy.

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In the past, I’ve identified the world’s most misleading headlines and I’ve also identified the world’s least surprising headline.

Today, I’m going to share the world’s most disappointing headline.

When I first saw this story in USA Today, I thought it was time to celebrate.

Wow, I thought, what a great outcome. I’ve always wanted a restoration of federalism, but I never thought this is how it would occur.

So I decided to read the story to find out what’s causing DC’s well-deserved disappearance.

Alas, none of those reasons apply for the simple reason that the headline is an absurd exaggeration.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but Washington isn’t really going away. Here’s what’s actually in the story.

…new research from the U.S. Geological Surveyand the University of Vermont shows that the land in the district — where the Lincoln Memorial was built on silt dredged from the Potomac River — is expected to fall 6 inches or more during the next 100 years.

Sigh, how disappointing.

In other words, we’re going to have to rely on old-fashioned methods if we really want to cut Washington down to size. Since it’s not going to disappear on its own, we’ll need tax reform, deregulation, and program terminations if we want to solve the problem.

And one fringe benefit of this approach, as pointed out by the Wall Street Journal, is that a smaller government means fewer lobbyists and special interest groups.

Businesses have no choice but to lobby a government that can cripple them with a single new regulation. …The real problem is the opportunities for corruption and special dealing that a too-large government provides. Every new regulation or twist of the tax code is an opening for some powerful Member to assist the powerful. But the solution is to reduce the size and scope of the regulatory state and to reform the tax code.

Amen. I’ve been arguing for years that big government means big corruption. I even narrated a video making that point.

But I think I said it best in this CNBC interview when I equated big government to a dumpster in an alley.

So we may not be able to sink Washington, but we can make it less of an unseemly nuisance by reducing the size and scope of the federal government.

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I don’t like former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. But not because of any personal interactions. I don’t think I’ve every even been in the same room as him, much less ever met him.

But I know that he did nothing to restrain the reckless expansion of government when he had power during the Bush years. Indeed, he fought against those who tried to throw sand in the gears.

So I’ll admit a certain Schadenfreude now that he’s in legal trouble. But I’m also irked. He’s being charged with something that shouldn’t be a crime, while getting (at least so far) a free pass for the bad things that he has done.

As is so often the case, Tim Carney has the right perspective. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Washington Examiner.

If the the stories that have leaked in the media are true, the true sin Hastert committed is unspeakable, but possibly unprosecutable. There is one aspect of the Hastert scandal, however, that reflects a problem that is more troubling than “structuring” bank withdrawals… How in the world could a school-teacher-turned lawmaker afford to pay, reportedly, $3.5 million in hush money?

Tim answers his own question, citing the government’s corrupt ban on incandescent light bulbs.

Hastert monetized his public service into a lucrative lobbying career — largely by increasing government. One telling episode begins in May 2007. Hastert at that time was a chief cosponsor of the “light bulb ban,” the law that effectively outlawed the traditional incandescent bulb, forcing consumers to buy more expensive fluorescent bulbs and LEDs. …in March 2008, Hastert joined Polybrite “as a strategic advisor,” according to a company press release. A year later, after he had joined K Street lobbying firm Dickstein Shapiro, Hastert officially registered as a lobbyist for Polybrite… Hastert’s first lobbying work for Polybrite…was his job to try to get stimulus money for Polybrite.

Hmmm… I wonder is Polybrite was part of the $27 bulb stimulus scandal?

But nanny-state light bulbs are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s another example.

Ethanol subsidies were another Hastert special. In the first three months of 2015, the ethanol industry lobby group, Fuels America, paid Dickstein Shapiro $60,000 for ethanol-mandate lobbying by Hastert and another lobbyist. All the House members Hastert had rewarded with committee assignments, earmarks and co-sponsorships were now taking phone calls from their former commander on behalf of green-tinted subsidy sucklers. This is part of how Washington turned a school teacher into a millionaire.

In other words, Hastert is a poster child (along with Harry Reid, Bob Dole, and countless others) for the proposition that Washington is basically a giant scam operated for the benefit of insiders who get rich by taking money from earners and producers and giving it to those with political connections.

Which is my message in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But now let’s return to the main topic. Hastert wasn’t charged with being a sleazy insider who used connections to pillage money from taxpayers and steer it to corrupt clients.

Instead, he’s being charged with violating “money laundering” laws that shouldn’t even exist. Here’s some of what Warren Coats (a colleague on the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review) wrote on this topic.

Mr. Hastert is being charged with violating our Anti Money Laundering (AML) laws. These laws allow arresting and convicting people for moving money (as Mr. Hastert was doing) that the government thinks was the proceeds of crime (not the case with Mr. Hastert, his crime was failing to report what he planned to with his money), when they are not able to prove that there was a crime in the first place. As far as I know, paying a blackmailer (which is what Mr. Hastert apparently did) is not a crime, though demanding and receiving such money is. The United States has pushed such legislation and the new bureaucracies needed to enforce it all over the world at the cost of billions and billions of dollars (that could have been used for poverty reduction or other more pressing things) with very little if any benefit to show for it. Charging Dennis Hastert with AML violations is a rare exception. Wow, what a benefit for such intrusions into our private lives. I consider AML laws more than a costly waste of money. They are another expansion of the arbitrary power of governments that can be used for good or ill with limited oversight.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated on why it’s inefficient and intrusive to require banks to spy on their customers.

I suppose the bottom line is that Dennis Hastert is a bad person who did bad things, so he deserves some payback. And that’s exactly what he’s getting.

But I can’t help but wish he was punished for the right reason.

P.S. Like most fans of the New York Yankees, I’m not a big fan of the irrelevant quasi-Major League team on Long Island.

But I confess my allegiances are just an accident of birth, family, and geography.

However, I now have a policy reason to dislike the Mets.

The New York Mets have become the first sports team to join the nationwide anti-gun campaign, aligning with celebrities like Piers Morgan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to back today’s National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Sponsored by the Michael Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety, people with some 200 organizations are wearing orange to draw attention to the issue. According to the group, the Mets even dressed in orange to show their support.

It’s both amazing and disappointing that there were no real Americans on the team who refused to participate in this attack on the Constitution.

To offset this bad news, here’s some anti-gun control humor to brighten your day.

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In the past week, I’ve written two columns (here and here) extolling the benefits of federalism.

So I now feel compelled to warn that my support for decentralization is not motivated by some Pollyannish view of sub-national governments.

State and local government officials are perfectly capable of adopting policies that lead to the absurd waste of taxpayer money and grotesque abuse of citizens.

And they also are just as proficient at sleaze as their cousins in Washington.

Politico has a sobering report on pervasive state-level corruption. They start with a rundown of what’s been happening with the criminal class in the Empire State.

Other states have plenty of corruption, but it’s hard to beat New York when it comes to sheer volume. The criminal complaint Monday against Dean Skelos, the state Senate majority leader, and his son Adam came just three months after charges were brought against Sheldon Silver, then the Assembly Speaker. Having the top leaders in both chambers face criminal charges in the same session is an unparalleled achievement, but Skelos is now the fifth straight Senate majority leader in Albany to face them. …Senate Republicans are standing by Skelos, but if they decide to make a change, they probably won’t turn to Thomas Libous, the chamber’s Number Two leader. He faces trial this summer on charges of lying to the FBI… All told, more than two dozen members of the New York state legislature have been indicted or resigned in disgrace over the past five years.

New York seems to breed corruption, probably because it is a profligate state and there is a well-established relationship between the size of government and the opportunities for malfeasance.

But other states are doing their best to show corruption and government go hand in hand.

Silver was one of four state House Speakers to face criminal charges over the past year (Alabama, Rhode Island and South Carolina are home to the others). In Massachusetts, three Speakers prior to current incumbent Robert DeLeo all resigned and pleaded guilty to criminal charges. When Dan Walker died last week, it was hard for obituary writers not to note that he was one of four Illinois governors over the past five decades who ended up in prison. …Give any U.S. attorney a year and 10 FBI agents and he or she can probably come back from the state capital with a passel of indictments.

At some point, even non-libertarians need to recognize that 2+2=4. In other words, the evidence is overwhelming that the public sector is a breeding ground for corruption because it is premised on buying votes with other people’s money.

Which is the basic message of my First Theorem of Government.

By the way, I’m not making a partisan point. It should be obvious from the story cited above, but I’ll reiterate that Republicans are just as capable of venal behavior as their opponents.

And don’t delude yourself into thinking that “principled” Democrats are immune to sleazy behavior.

Here’s the video I narrated explaining how bloated government enables corruption.

P.S. You can enjoy some government corruption humor here, here, here, here, and (my personal creation) here.

P.P.S. If you’re a fan of Barack Obama, you may be pleased to know that we’re setting records as a result of his policies.

We already know America has experienced a record drop in labor force participation.

And we also have a new record for weakest recovery since the Great Depression.

As well as a record for declining household income.

Now we have a new record. More Americans than ever before have decided to give up U.S. citizenship. Here are some of the details from a Bloomberg report.

More Americans living outside the U.S. gave up their citizenship in the first quarter of 2015 than ever before, according to data released Thursday by the IRS. The 1,335 expatriations topped the previous record by 18 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Those Americans are driven to turn in their passports in part because of laws that have expanded bank reporting and tax compliance requirements for expatriates. The increase in early 2015 follows an annual record in 2014, when 3,415 Americans gave up their citizenship. An estimated 6 million U.S. citizens are living abroad, and the U.S. is the only country within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that taxes citizens wherever they reside.

Here’s one example from the story.

“The cost of compliance with the complex tax treatment of non-resident U.S. citizens and the potential penalties I face for incorrect filings and for holding non-U.S. securities forces me to consider whether it would be more advantageous to give up my U.S. citizenship,” Stephanos Orestis, a U.S. citizen living in Oslo, wrote in a March 23 letter to the Senate Finance Committee. “The thought of doing so is highly distressing for me since I am a born and bred American with a love for my country.”

There are two lessons from this story.

  • First, it is absurd that our tax laws are so onerous (even worse than France in this regard) that some people feel compelled to give up American citizenship.
  • Second, while there are lots of ordinary Americans who are being pushed to give up their passports (folks married to foreigners, for instance), the average expatriate presumably has above-average income and is an asset to be welcomed rather than a burden to be repelled.

But such considerations don’t matter to politicians who like to demagogue about the supposed pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of overseas Americans. So we get awful laws like FATCA.

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