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One of the many frustrations of working in Washington is that politicians, when dealing with a problem created by government intervention, routinely propose that the solution is to give even more power to government. And since they are either unwilling or unable to connect the dots, they don’t care that their “solutions” will make matters worse. I’ve referred to this unfortunate pattern as “Mitchell’s Law.”

Of course, this concept isn’t new to me. It’s been around for a long time. I just like the phrase, “Bad government policy begets more bad government policy.”

Other people also have been publicizing this concept. I especially like what Chuck Blahous of the Mercatus Center recently wrote about the 5-step Washington tradition of “doubling down” on policy mistakes. The final step could be called the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of government failure.

Chuck also cites some very powerful (and very depressing) examples from healthcare policy.

He starts with the tax code’s healthcare exclusion.

With the best of intentions the federal government has long exempted worker compensation in the form of health benefits from income taxation.  There is wide consensus among economists that the results of this policy have been highly deleterious.  As I have written previously, this tax exclusion “depresses wages, it drives up health spending, it’s regressive, and it makes it harder for people with enduring health conditions to change jobs or enter the individual insurance market.”  Lawmakers have reacted not by scaling back the flawed policy that fuels these problems, but rather by trying to shield Americans from the resulting health care cost increases.

I fully agree.

He then points out that Medicare, Medicaid, and other spending programs have a similar impact.

The federal government has enacted programs such as Medicare and Medicaid to protect vulnerable seniors and poor Americans from ruinous health care costs.  …it is firmly established that creating these programs pushed up national health spending, driving health costs higher for Americans as a whole.  Consumer displeasure over these health cost increases subsequently became a rationale for still more government health spending, rather than reducing government’s contribution to the problem.  Examples of this doubling down include the health exchange subsidies established under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as its further expansion of Medicaid.

I fully agree.

Chuck also shows how government involvement has created the same unhealthy dynamic in other areas, writing about college costs, Social Security, and Obamacare.

The moral of the story, as displayed by this poster, is that more government is the problem instead of the solution. Which is something Bastiat warned us about back in the 1800s.

When I give speeches on fiscal policy, I commonly get some variation of this question (and you can choose one of more of the options).

Isn’t our fiscal problem largely the result of the wars/intervention/Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/Syria launched by Bush/Hillary/neocons/Blackwater/Pentagon?

I generally respond by first confessing my lack of expertise on military and foreign affairs, but then I point out that I’m not a fan of nation building (see George Will and Mark Steyn on this topic), so I tell people that I’m very sympathetic to the proposition that trillions of dollars that have been misspent on foreign adventurism this century. Not to mention the human cost of dead and wounded American soldiers.

But I then tell audiences that the Pentagon is not the reason why we’re in fiscal trouble.

Let’s look at two charts, both derived from the Office and Management and Budget’s historical data.

First, here are two pie charts based on the spreadsheet in Table 4.2, which looks at how much of the budget is consumed by different agencies and departments. For both 1962 and 2016, I added together outlays for the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs and compared that military-related spending to other major categories.

As you can see, military-related outlays used to account for more than one-half of the federal budget, but not they are less than one-fourth of total spending in Washington.

Notice, by the way, that Social Security spending now consumes a significantly larger share of the federal budget, as does spending by the Treasury Department (I assume much of that is EITC redistribution).

But the biggest change, by far, is that the Department of Health and Human Services used to account for 3 percent of federal outlays, but now eats up 28 percent of the budget. Why? Because of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

By the way, the above numbers do not mean that the military budget has been cut.

Here’s our second chart, which is based on the spreadsheet in Table 8.2, which has the numbers for inflation-adjusted outlays for major budget categories.

As you can see, the federal government is spending more today on defense than it was back in the 1960s, even after adjusting for inflation. And outlays for “domestic discretionary” programs also have increased.

But what’s obviously driving fiscal policy is the relentless expansion of entitlements (referred to as “mandatory spending” for purposes of the Budget Enforcement Act).

And because of demographic changes and bad policy choices, outlays for entitlement are projected to become a much larger burden in the future.

So now, perhaps, you understand why I keep arguing in favor of genuine entitlement reform and why I think it’s so critical that Donald Trump reconsider his skepticism.

P.S. In addition to George Will and Mark Steyn, Barack Obama also expressed some support for a libertarian-oriented foreign policy. But only in theory, not in practice.

P.P.S. To put America’s military spending in global context, check out this pie chart.

There are several features of President-Elect Trump’s tax plan that are worthy of praise, including death tax repeal, expensing, and lower marginal tax rates on households.

But the policy that probably deserves the most attention is Trump’s embrace of a 15 percent tax rate for business.

What makes this policy so attractive – and vitally important – is that the rest of the world has been in a race to reduce corporate tax burdens.

Ironically, the U.S. helped start the race by cutting the corporate tax rate as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. But ever since then, policy in America has stagnated while other developed nations are engaged in a virtuous contest to become more competitive.

And that race continues every day.

Most impressively, as reported by the Financial Times, Hungary will cut its corporate tax rate from 19 percent to 9 percent.

Hungary’s government is to cut its corporate tax rate to the lowest level in the EU in a sign of increasingly competitive tax practices among countries seeking to lure foreign direct investment. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said a new 9 per cent corporate tax rate would be introduced in 2017, significantly lower than Ireland’s 12.5 per cent. …The government said the new single band would apply to all businesses. “Corporation tax will be lowered to single digits next year: a rate of 9 per cent will apply equally to small and medium-sized enterprises and large corporations,” a statement said. …Gabor Bekes, senior research fellow at Hungary’s Institute of Economics…said the measure would likely provoke complaints of unfair tax competition from western capitals.

Needless to say, complaints from Paris, Rome, and Berlin would be a sign that Hungary is doing the right thing.

Croatia also is moving policy in the right direction, albeit in a less aggressive fashion.

Corporate income tax will…be cut from 20 to 18 per cent for large companies and from 20 to 12 per cent for small and mid-level companies whose income is no higher than 400,000 euros annually.

Though the Croatian government also plans to lower tax rates on households.

Before the reform, people with salaries between 300 and 1,750 euros a month were taxed at 25 per cent, while now everyone earning up to 2,325 euros a month will be taxed at a 24 per cent rate. People earning more than 2,325 euros a month will have a 36 per cent tax rate, replacing a 40 per cent tax rate for anyone earning over 1,750 euros a month.

But let’s keep the focus on business taxation.

Our friends on the left don’t like Trump’s plan for a corporate tax cut, but here are there things they should know.

  1. A lower corporate tax rate won’t necessarily reduce corporate tax revenue, particularly over time as there’s more investment and job creation.
  2. A lower corporate tax rate will dramatically – if not completely – eliminate any incentive for American companies to engage in inversions.
  3. A lower corporate tax rate will boost workers wages by increasing the nation’s capital stock and thus improving productivity.

If you want more information, here’s my primer on corporate taxation. You can also watch this video.

Or, to make matters simple, we can just copy Estonia, which has the world’s best system according to the Tax Foundation.

I’m a fiscal policy wonk, so I freely acknowledge that I sometimes look at the world through green-eyeshade-colored lenses. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that expanding entitlements,Demographic 2030 changing demographics, and increasing dependency are the main long-run threats to the American economy.

And this is why the concerns I had about a Hillary Clinton presidency aren’t that different from the concerns I have about a Donald Trump presidency.

Simply stated, he apparently doesn’t even think there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Here’s what Trump said in an interview with the Daily Signal.

I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.

Some people have told me not to get too worried about this statement because candidates make so many speeches and give so many interviews that they’re bound to make mistakes and say things they don’t really mean.

I agree that we shouldn’t get too hung up on every slip of the tongue on the campaign trail (notwithstanding this clip, for instance, Obama surely doesn’t think there are 57 states).

But the Trump people actually re-posted the Daily Signal interview on the campaign’s website, which certainly suggests (to use legal terminology) malice and forethought on the issue of entitlements.

That being said, this doesn’t mean Trump is a lost cause and that genuine entitlement reform is an impossibility.

  • First, politicians oftentimes say things they don’t mean (remember Obama’s pledge that people could keep their doctors and their health plans if Obamacare was enacted?).
  • Second, the plans to fix Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t involve any cuts. Instead, reformers are proposing changes that will slow the growth of outlays.
  • Third, if Trump is even slightly serious about pushing through his big tax cut, he’ll need to have some plan to restrain overall spending to make his agenda politically viable.

For what it’s worth, I’m particularly hopeful (or not un-hopeful, to be more accurate) that Trump will be willing to address Medicaid reform, ideally as part of an overall proposal to block-grant all means-tested programs.

One reason for my semi-optimism is that the programs is becoming even more of a mess thanks to Obamacare and plenty of governors and state legislators would gladly accept that kind of reform simply to have more control over state budget matters.

And every serious budget person in Washington understands the program must be reformed because of spiraling costs.

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial today about out-of-control Medicaid spending.

One immediate problem is ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid, which has seen enrollment at least twice as high as advertised. …Governors claimed not joining would leave “free money” on the table because the feds would pick up 100% of the costs of new beneficiaries. In a new report this week for the Foundation for Government Accountability, Jonathan Ingram and Nicholas Horton tracked down the original enrollment projections by actuaries in 24 states that expanded and have since disclosed at least a year of data on the results. Some 11.5 million people now belong to ObamaCare’s new class of able-bodied enrollees, or 110% higher than the projections. Analysts in California expected only 910,000 people to sign up, but instead 3.84 million have, 322% off the projections. The situation is nearly as dire in New York, where enrollment is 276% higher than expected, and Illinois, which is up 90%. This liberal state triumvirate is particularly notable because they already ran generous welfare states long before ObamaCare.

Of course, the “free money” for states is a fiscal burden for all taxpayers. It’s just that the money from taxpayers gets cycled through Washington before going to state capitals.

But it’s also worth noting that the money soon won’t be “free.”

The state spending share of new Medicaid enrollment will rise to 5% next year and then to 10% by 2020, up from 0% today. The enrollment overruns mean these states will have less to spend than they planned for every other priority, especially the least fortunate.

I suppose this is a good opportunity to recycle my video on Medicaid reform. It was filmed more than five years ago, so some of the numbers are outdated (they’re worse today!). But the policy analysis is still right on point.

Who knows, maybe Trump actually will do the right thing and (in a phrase he took from Reagan) make America great again.

Remember, none of us expected that economic freedom would expand during Bill Clinton’s presidency, so a bit of optimism isn’t totally out-of-bounds.

The concept of secession (part of a jurisdiction breaking away to become independent) has a bad reputation in the United States because it is linked to the reprehensible institution of slavery.

But, as Walter Williams has explained, secession today may be an effective way of protecting liberty from ever-expanding centralized government.

And I’ve favorably written about secessionist movements in Sardinia, Scotland, and Belgium, largely because the historical data shows that better policy is more likely when there are many jurisdictions competing with each other.

So it was with considerable interest that I saw an article in Fortune about a secessionist movement in California.

“Calexit” didn’t start with Donald Trump, but his victory on Election Day certainly sparked more interest in the idea. A play on “Brexit,” it’s the new name for the prospect of California seceding from the U.S. The movement…seems to have gained steam in the past six months, thanks in part to the U.K.’s recent Brexit vote and Donald Trump being elected president. …The group’s goal is to hold a referendum in 2018 that, if passed, would transition California into its own independent country. …the movement has even grabbed the attention of some potential Silicon Valley bankrollers.

I like this idea, though I’m not sure it’s good for California since the state faces very serious long-run challenges.

Though this is one of the reasons I like secession. As an independent nation, California no longer would have any hope of getting a bailout from Washington, so the politicians in Sacramento might start behaving more responsibly.

And there are examples of secession in the modern world, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic emerging from Czechoslovakia. That was a very tranquil divorce, unlike what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

As is so often the case, we can learn a lot from Switzerland. There is a right of secession, albeit dependent on a nationwide vote of approval. Municipalities also can vote to switch cantons, as happened in 1996 when Vellerat left Bern and became part of Jura. By the way, villages in Liechtenstein have the unilateral right to secede from the rest of the nation (though that seems highly unlikely since it is the second-richest nation in the world).

Notwithstanding these good role models, the secessionist movement in California presumably won’t get very far.

But maybe full-blown secession isn’t necessary. If Californians don’t like what’s happening in Washington (or, for that matter, if Texans aren’t happy with the antics in DC), that should be an argument for genuine and comprehensive federalism.

In other words, get rid of the one-size-fits-all policies emanating from the central government and allow states to decide the size and scope of government.

California can decide to do crazy things (such as regulate babysitters and give bureaucrats too much pay) and Texas can choose to do sane things (such as no income tax), but neither state could dictate policy for the entire nation.

This also happens to be the system envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers.

Think of federalism as a live-and-let-live system. New York doesn’t have to become North Dakota and Illinois doesn’t have to become Alabama. Red states can be red and blue states can be blue. And we can add all the other colors in the rainbow as well. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that.

And consider how well federalism works in Switzerland, a nation that doesn’t have a single language, culture, or religion.

Now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I even suggested federalism as a solution to the mess in Ukraine.

P.S. If California actually chooses to move forward with secession, the good news is that we already have a template (albeit satirical) for a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting historical footnote. There’s a small part of Germany that is entirely surrounded by Switzerland. This enclave wanted to become part of Switzerland many decades ago, but there was no right of secession notwithstanding overwhelming sentiment for a shift of nationality.

A whopping 96 percent of the inhabitants voted for annexation by Switzerland. The people had spoken loud and clear, but their voices were ignored. As the Swiss were unable to offer Germany any suitable territory in exchange, the deal was off. Büsingen would remain, somewhat reluctantly, German.

Since Germany is a reasonably well-run nation, I guess we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the people of Büsingen (unlike, say, the residents of Menton and Roquebrune in France, who used to be part of a tax haven but now are part of a tax hell).

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with some additional election-related humor.

Here’s some satire from the twitter account of the fake North Korean News Service.

And here’s another Hitler parody to add to our collection.

And here’s Michelle Obama feeling sad about what’s about to happen.

P.P.P.P.S. We also have some unintentional humor. When Trump prevailed, Paul Krugman couldn’t resist making a prediction of economic doom.

Since markets have since climbed to record highs, Krugman’s forecasting ability may be even worse than all the hacks who predicted Brexit would result in economic calamity for the United Kingdom.

When writing about money laundering laws, I’ll sometimes highlight gross abuses by government and I’ll periodically make the usual libertarian arguments about privacy.

But I mostly focus on how the laws simply don’t make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Anti-money laundering laws and regulations impose large burdens on the private sector, which creates disproportionate hardship for the poor. Yet there’s no evidence that the laws actually hinder criminal activity, which was the rationale for imposing the laws in the first place.

I have the same attitude about the War on Drugs. Yes, I get upset that people are mistreated and it irks me as a libertarian that people aren’t free to make their own choices (even if they are dumb choices) about what to put in their bodies.

But what really gets me angry is the absurd misallocation of law enforcement resources. Consider this info from a recent WonkBlog column in the Washington Post about the ever-expanding efforts of government to harass drug users.

Federal figures on drug arrests and drug use over the past three decades tell the story. Drug-possession arrests skyrocketed, from fewer than 200 arrests for every 100,000 people in 1979…, hovering near 400 arrests per 100,000 people. …despite the tough-on-crime push that led to the surge in arrests in recent decades, illicit drug use today is more common among Americans age 12 and older than it was in the early 1980s. Federal figures show no correlation between drug-possession arrests and rates of drug use during that time.

But here’s the part that should upset all of us, even if we don’t like drugs or even if we think they should be illegal.

Instead of focusing on the fight against crimes that actually have victims (such as robbery, murder, rape, assault, etc), the government is squandering an immense about of time, energy, resources, and money on drug arrests.

…arrests for drug possession continue to make up a significant chunk of modern-day police work. “Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” the report finds, citing FBI data. “More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.” In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

That last sentence is breathtaking. Does anyone think that busting potheads is more important than fighting genuine crime?!?

Do you want an example of law enforcement resources being misallocated?

Well, this story from New Hampshire tells you everything you need to know.

…an 81-year-old grandmother had been growing…the plant as medicine, a way to ease arthritis and glaucoma and help her sleep at night. Tucked away in a raspberry patch and separated by a fence from any neighbors, the plant was nearly ready for harvest when a military-style helicopter and police descended on Sept. 21. In a joint raid, the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police entered her yard and cut down the solitary plant…authorities are using budgeted funds, prior to the end of the federal fiscal year Saturday, to gas up helicopters and do flyovers. …“Is this the way we want our taxpayer money spent, to hassle an 81-year-old and law-abiding patients?” Cutler said.

Gee, I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more comfortably tonight knowing that lots of taxpayer money was squandered to seize a pot plant from this dangerous granny!

Still not convinced that law enforcement resources aren’t being wasted? And still not upset that lives are being disrupted and harmed by heavy-handed government.

Then consider this horror story from Reason.

James Slatic, a California medical marijuana business owner, found out all his family’s bank accounts had been seized by the government one day in January when his 19-year-old daughter tried to buy lunch at the San Jose State University cafeteria and her card was declined. Slatic’s wife tried to transfer money to their daughter, figuring she had simply overdrawn her account, as teenagers are wont to do, but her account wouldn’t work, either. What the Slatics soon learned was the San Diego police had frozen all of their bank accounts: $55,258 from Slatic’s personal checking and savings account; $34,175 from his wife Annette’s account; and a combined $11,260 from the savings accounts of their two teenage daughters, Penny and Lily. …The Slatics’ crimes? None. Or at least, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office hasn’t charged them with any in the nine months since it seized their accounts.

His business also was shut down, which wasn’t good news for him or his employees that are now out on the street.

The trouble for James Slatic began five days before his family’s accounts were frozen, when around 30 San Diego police officers and DEA agents raided Slatic’s medical marijuana business, Med-West Distribution, and seized nearly $325,000 in cash from a safe. …The raid was a crushing blow to Slatic—not to mention his 35 employees, who lost their jobs and benefits without notice.

Here’s a video detailing this disgusting abuse by government.

There is some good news. Voters in several states voted last week to decriminalize pot.

And for those who worry that legalizing marijuana will be a gateway to decriminalizing harder drugs, I encourage you to read this Cato Institute study on what happened after Portugal legalized all drugs early last decade.

This isn’t an argument about whether you should use drugs, like drugs, or approve of drug use. You can be the drug equivalent of a teetotaler like me and still realize that it makes no sense for the government to squander lots of money and hurt lots of lives simply because politicians want to control what people choose to put in their own bodies.

I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

So the bad news is that the flat tax could soon disappear in Estonia and Lithuania.

But the good news, based on my discussions with people in these two nations, is that the battle isn’t lost. At least not yet.

In both cases, policy can’t be changed unless all parties in the coalition government agree. Fortunately, they haven’t reached that point.

And hopefully that point will never be reached if Estonia and Lithuania want long-run success.

All of the Baltic nations get reasonably good scores from Economic Freedom of the World. Ditching the flat tax will cause their scores to decline.

Given that fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a nation’s grade, adopting some bad tax policy may not seem like the end of the world.

But the flat tax isn’t just good policy. It also has symbolic value, telling both domestic entrepreneurs and global investors that a country has a commitment to a system that won’t impose extra punishment just because a person contributes more to national economic output.

By the way, the LPGU Party is very correct to worry about emigration. The Baltic nations (like most countries in Eastern Europe) face a very large demographic problem. And every time a young person leaves for better opportunities elsewhere (even if that better opportunity is a big welfare check), that makes the long-run outlook even more challenging.

But imposing a more punitive tax system is exactly the opposite of what should happen if the goal is faster growth so that people don’t leave the nation.

Let’s close with a famous quote from John Ramsay McCulloch, a Scottish economist from the 1800s.

To be sure, progressive taxation didn’t lead to total catastrophe, so McCulloch’s warning may seem overwrought by today’s standards.

But the so-called progressive income tax did lead to the modern welfare state. And the modern welfare state, when combined with demographic change, is threatening immense economic and societal damage in many nations.

So what he wrote in 1863 may turn out to be very prescient for historians in 2063 who wonder why the western world collapsed.

P.S. If Estonia and Lithuania move in the wrong direction, Latvia could be a big winner. That nation already has received some positive attention for being fiscally responsible, and it also has withstood pressure from the IMF to impose bad tax policy. So Latvia is well positioned to reap the benefits if Estonia and Lithuania shoot themselves in the foot.

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