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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, here’s the opening of the big-business version of Sonnet 43.

How do I hate thee, capitalism? Let me count the ways.
I hate thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, for I am big and competition is a threat
Better to have bailouts, subsidies, mandates, protectionism, and cronyism.

I wish this was just empty satire. Sadly, however, there are many examples of big businesses fighting against free enterprise.

And now we have a new example.

The head of a huge investment fund has implied that businesses should become social justice warriors, a missive that (predictably) led to some fawning coverage in the New York Times.

Laurence D. Fink, founder and chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock, is going to inform business leaders that their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock. …“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” he wrote in a draft of the letter that was shared with me.

Actually, as Walter Williams has eloquently explained, businesses perform a very valuable social purpose when they earn profits.

Indeed, the free enterprise system is why we enjoy unimaginable prosperity and why poor people in the United States have higher living standards than the average person in a socialist economy.

But that’s not the point Mr. Fink is making. Instead, he’s giving aid and comfort to the interventionists and redistributionists who want politicians and bureaucrats to have more power.

Which is, of course, the angle the New York Times chose to highlight.

It may be a watershed moment on Wall Street, one that raises all sorts of questions about the very nature of capitalism. …for the world’s largest investor to say it aloud — and declare that he plans to hold companies accountable — is a bracing example of the evolution of corporate America. …Mr. Fink’s declaration…pits him, to some degree, against many of the companies that he’s invested in, which hold the view that their only duty is to produce profits for their shareholders, an argument long espoused by economists like Milton Friedman.

Friedman was right, of course.

And not just about the value of profits. He also pointed out that people like Mr. Fink play a very destructive role.

Friedman wrote…in this very newspaper. “Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

Amen.

So why would a fabulously rich man like Mr. Fink engage in this kind of stunt.

There are three possible explanations.

  1. He’s stupid. But I think we can eliminate that possibility by virtue of what he has achieved.
  2. He sincerely believes that businesses should sacrifice profits to pursue social justice. If that’s the case, I would suggest he lead by example by voluntarily giving the government 90 percent of his income over $200,000 per year (sort of a do-it-yourself version of 1950s tax policy). Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath. Rich people who decide to become left-wing always seem to want to appease their feelings of guilt by coercing other people into giving more money to politicians.
  3. He realizes his letter is a bunch of nonsense, but he wants to appease the left in order to shield his industry from bad policies such as an increase in capital gains taxes on “carried interest.” If this is the right answer, I sympathize with Mr. Fink’s policy objective (especially since higher taxes on carried interest would be the precursor for higher taxes on other forms of capital gains), but I very much disagree with his tactics.

Indeed, I have a suggestion for Republicans on Capitol Hill, one that I’ve made in the past when big businesses have urged tax hikes.

They should invite Mr. Fink to testify and ask him whether he supports higher taxes to achieve warm and fuzzy goals. Assuming he then says yes, they should then ask how much of his income he is voluntarily giving to Washington.

He’ll presumably say none (like all the other rich leftists), at which point they should rake him over the coals for hypocrisy,

And then they should ask him for a yes-or-no answer on whether he will support legislation specifically increasing the tax rate on CEOs of investment funds.  And follow that with a question of whether he endorses higher capital gains taxes on carried interest (a class-warfare levy that would be very painful for firms that specialize in private equity investments.

Last but not least, they should ask him for examples of BlackRock choosing unprofitable (or even less-profitable) investments in order to “serve a social purpose.” It would be somewhat amusing to see the reaction of investors if Fink actually named examples (and amusing to expose an additional layer of hypocrisy if he didn’t).

Here’s my bottom line on this issue. If Mr. Fink wants to be an effective advocate of social justice, properly defined, then he should concentrate on making very wise (i.e., profitable) investments. Because getting a healthy return on his investments would be the best possible evidence that he was helping the poor.

P.S. The first dictator of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, is rumored to have said that “capitalists will sell us the rope we will hang them with.” There’s no proof he actually said that, but the “Order of Lenin” was the highest civilian award granted by the Soviet Union.

So maybe we should mix the two concepts and create “The Lenin Award for Rich People Who Want to Destroy Free Enterprise.” Or something like that.

It definitely would be more meaningful than the Bob Dole Award or the Charlie Brown Award, and I know a good candidate for the inaugural prize.

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This is depressing.

Republicans botched the repeal of Obamacare. They’ve already sold out (twice!) on the spending caps in the Budget Control Act, and they’re about to do it again.

And now they want to bring back earmarks.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto, I explain why this is a very troubling development.

One thing I didn’t mention in the interview is that earmarks are inherently corrupt. Indeed, there’s a near-universal four-step process that – in a just world – would result in politicians getting arrested (see 18 U.S. Code § 203) for bribery, graft, and conflicts of interest.

  1. An interest group decides it wants other people’s money and decides to use government as a middleman.
  2. The interest group hires lobbyists, most of whom are former members of Congress or former staff members.
  3. The interest group and the lobbyists direct campaign contributions to one or more politicians.
  4. In exchange for those contributions, one or more earmarks are inserted in a spending bill.

That’s a great deal for Washington insiders, but not so good for taxpayers or honest government.

And if you don’t believe me, read about the oleaginous behavior of Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Jim Moran.

Now let’s consider an argument in favor of earmarks. Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University argues that the system needs a bit of grease to work better.

…think of earmarks as local benefits inserted into bills to buy more votes in Congress. …Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock…whether we like it or not, there is something inherently transactional about being governed.

As I stated in the interview, I don’t think this assertion is persuasive. Most legislation is bad for liberty, so I agree with America’s Founders that gridlock is good.

That being said, Tyler makes a couple of compelling arguments. First, he points out that we may need some pork to get good legislation through the process.

Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

I agree with the first sentence and said the same thing in my talk with Neil. We will need congressional action to reform entitlements and save the country. And if that means bribing a few members to get votes, so be it.

However, I think his second sentence is too optimistic. Good reform is not very likely with Trump in the White House. It’s a judgement call, to be sure, but I believe gridlock will be a good thing for the next few years.

Second, Tyler acknowledges that politicians try to buy votes, but he suggests that earmarks are cheap compared to potential alternatives (such as new entitlements, presumably).

…virtually every member of Congress looks to support government spending that will boost his or her re-election prospects. It is often the case that directly targeted local spending — which may take the form of earmarks — buys support for a relatively low dollar price per vote. If earmarks are removed, representatives are still going to pursue votes, but the total amount of electorally motivated, wasteful government spending may be higher.

This is a potentially persuasive point, but I’ll be skeptical until I see some supporting evidence.

In a gridlock environment, I suspect enacting non-earmark spending is not that easy (though I admit an Obamacare-level budget buster every 10 years would completely wipe out in just one year the money that might be saved over several decades with an earmark ban).

In addition to what Tyler wrote, another pro-earmark argument is that there will always be a person who decides how money is spent. And I’ve had members of Congress tell me that they’d rather make those decisions that have a bunch of left-wing bureaucrats allocate money.

That’s a perfectly reasonable argument, but it doesn’t address my fundamental concern that the existence of earmarks will seduce members into supporting higher overall levels of spending.

Which brings me to my final point. I’m willing to cut a deal.

I’m willing to let politicians allocate 100 percent of spending with earmarks if they’ll agree to a comprehensive spending cap that complies with the Golden Rule and slowly but surely shrinks the overall burden of federal spending.

If the crowd in Washington is serious about the argument that earmarks are needed to grease the skids for desirable legislation, it’s time for them to put their votes where their mouths are.

Given the track records of most of the politicians who support earmarks, I’m not holding my breath.

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I’ve written that it’s theoretically possible for Greece to pay its debts and restore prosperity.

After all, it’s simply a matter of obeying fiscal policy’s Golden Rule and reforming a suffocating tax system.

But I’ve always figured none of that will happen because Greek voters would never vote for a government that favors Reagan-style or Thatcher-style economic reforms.

Simply stated, there are too may Greek people living off the state. But that’s just part of the problem. An even bigger obstacle to reform is that the people have decided that it’s morally acceptable to mooch off the government.

As a result, I’ve assumed that Greece has passed a tipping point because the moral foundation of Greek society has been corroded by dependency. And it’s very difficult to put that toothpaste back in the tube.

But maybe I’ve been wrong. Courtesy of the great people at the Atlas Network, here’s some remarkable polling data from Greece.

…the people may finally be fed up with big government, runaway spending, public-sector corruption, and job-killing regulations. A recent in-depth survey, published by the daily Kathimerini newspaper and the new think tank Dianeosis, reveals that Greek society seems to be experiencing an ideological sea change.

On a philosophical level, Greeks seem to be embracing the principles of classical liberalism.

In Greece, the term “liberalism” retains its classical meaning of support for individual liberty, free markets, and social tolerance. The latest finding from the Dianeosis poll shows that 27 percent of respondents identify as either liberal or neoliberal, together making the largest ideological group for the country’s overall population. These ideas have taken even stronger hold among the rising generation, with an astonishing 50 percent of Greek youth identifying as either liberals or neoliberals.

And this translates into greater support for small-government policies.

About 60 percent agree that government is intervening too much in economic matters, and thereby prevents the private sector from creating jobs and wealth.

Here’s some of the relevant polling data.

It’s also encouraging to see that there was movement in the right direction between April 2015 and December 2016.

On a policy level, the Greeks now seem to recognize that the state is too big.

Even more telling is that the majority of Greeks, 55 percent, believe that lower taxation is preferable even if that results in less government welfare. This finding is particularly important because two years ago only 39.2 percent agreed with that statement.

Here are those numbers from the survey.

The last bit of good news from the survey is that Greeks have positive feelings about market-oriented terms.

Greeks today also seem to show overwhelming support for many fundamental concepts of the free-market tradition. About 73 percent agreed that “markets” have a positive connotation…a primary reason for this turn toward free markets is that the government regimes in Greece have clearly failed, thereby tainting their devotion to destructive statism and populism. This has caused many Greeks to consider economic freedom as a viable solution for the country’s devastating problems.

On the other hand, the country they most want to mimic is Sweden.

And it’s not even close (though I wonder if this chart would look different if Switzerland and Hong Kong were options).

You may be wondering (like me) how the Greeks can tell pollsters they want smaller government while simultaneously picking Sweden as a role model?

The pessimistic answer is that Greeks don’t know what they’re talking about. Or maybe they are hypocrites, willing to pay lip service to economic liberty but ultimately yearning for a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

The optimistic answer is that Sweden actually is a pretty good role model.

Check out this comparison of Greece and Sweden, based on data from Economic Freedom of the World. Sweden is ranked #27, which is in the top-20 percent of nations for economic liberty. Greece, by contrast, is way down at #116.

Yes, both countries have terrible fiscal policy, but it turns out that Sweden is very market-oriented in areas like money, trade, regulation, and rule of law. And even though it still has a long way to go, Sweden significantly improved fiscal policy in the 1990s and has even enjoyed some modest improvement in recent years.

That’s definitely not the case in Greece.

In other words, I certainly don’t mind if Swedish policy is the short-run goal for Greek voters. If they ever get to that point, then I’ll try to convince them to go the Full Hong Kong.

P.S. In the real world, are there any examples of countries that have escaped statism and enjoyed something akin to a Greece-to-Sweden jump in economic liberty?

The answer is yes. Chile would be an obvious example, as would certain post-Soviet Bloc nations such as Estonia.

It would be great to add Greece to the collection.

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I expressed approval when Trump proposed to reduce U.S. funding for international bureaucracies, mostly because of my disdain for the statist policy agenda of the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Sadly, there’s has not been much follow-through by the White House, and it looks like Congress isn’t going to cut either the funding or the authority of these bloated institutions. And that means they will continue to advocate for class-warfare tax policy and bigger government.

But, as reported by AFP, some seeds were planted early in the year that may eventually save money for taxpayers.

…a draft executive order…prepared at the White House could deprive the United Nations of billions of dollars in US financial support. The United States is by far the UN’s biggest financial contributor, providing 22 percent of its operating budget and funding 28 percent of peacekeeping missions, which currently cost $7.8 billion annually. …The Trump administration is proposing a 40 percent cut in some US funding, according to the draft executive order titled “Auditing and Reducing US Funding of International Organizations.”

And it appears that some of the seeds germinated. According to the Associated Press, steps are being taken to reduce the fiscal burden of the United Nations.

The U.S. government says it has negotiated a significant cut in the United Nations budget. The U.S. Mission to the United Nations said on Sunday that the U.N.’s 2018-2019 budget would be slashed by over $285 million. The mission said reductions would also be made to the U.N.’s management and support functions. The announcement didn’t make clear the entire amount of the budget or specify what effect the cut would have on the U.S. contribution. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that the “inefficiency and overspending” of the organization is well-known, and she would not let “the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of.”

By the way, “nicked” or “trimmed” would be more accurate than “slashed.”

Nonetheless, at least it’s a small step in the right direction.

And the recent U.N. vote against the U.S. may lead to additional budgetary savings, as explained in the Wall Street Journal by John Bolton, a former ambassador from the United States to that bureaucracy.

…the U.N. showed its true colors with a 128-9 vote condemning President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. …America is heard much more clearly at the U.N. when it puts its money where its mouth is. …the White House should also reconsider how Washington funds the U.N. more broadly. …Despite decades of U.N. “reform” efforts, little or nothing in its culture or effectiveness has changed. …Turtle Bay has been impervious to reform largely because most U.N. budgets are financed through effectively mandatory contributions. Under this system, calculated by a “capacity to pay” formula, each U.N. member is assigned a fixed percentage of each agency’s budget to contribute. The highest assessment is 22%, paid by the U.S. This far exceeds other major economies… The U.S. should reject this international taxation regime and move instead to voluntary contributions. This means paying only for what the country wants—and expecting to get what it pays for. Agencies failing to deliver will see their budgets cut, modestly or substantially. Perhaps America will depart some organizations entirely.

Bolton has some targets in mind.

…earlier this year the U.N. dispatched a special rapporteur to investigate poverty in the U.S.? American taxpayers effectively paid a progressive professor to lecture them about how evil their country is. The U.N.’s five regional economic and social councils, which have no concrete accomplishments, don’t deserve American funding either. …Next come vast swaths of U.N. bureaucracy. Most of these budgets could be slashed with little or no real-world impact. Start with the Office for Disarmament Affairs. The U.N. Development Program is another example. Significant savings could be realized by reducing other U.N. offices that are little more than self-licking ice cream cones, including many dealing with “Palestinian” questions. …Thus could Mr. Trump revolutionize the U.N. system. The swamp in Turtle Bay might be drained much more quickly than the one in Washington.

And Rich Lowry of National Review didn’t even wait for the latest controversy.

Here are some excerpts from a column he wrote in late 2016.

We are the chief funder of a swollen, unaccountable U.N. apparatus that has been a gross disappointment for more than 70 years now. …As early as 1947, a U.S. Senate committee flagged “serious problems of overlap, duplication of effort, weak coordination, proliferating mandates and programs, and overly generous compensation of staff within the infant, but rapidly growing, UN system.” And those were the early, lean years. We pay more than anyone else to keep the U.N. in business, about 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget. …Because nothing involving the U.N. is clean or straightforward, it’s hard to even know how much the U.S. pays in total into the U.N. system. But it’s probably around $8 billion a year. We should withhold some significant portion of it.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the United Nations is better (less worse?) than the OECD or IMF.

But that’s mostly because it doesn’t have much power. When it does try to intervene in policy (global warming and gun control, for instance, as well as the Internet, the War on Drugs, monetary policy, and taxpayer-financed birth control), the U.N. inevitably urges more power and control for government.

If you think I’m exaggerating about a statist mindset at the United Nations, check out this jaw-dropping tweet from a high-level bureaucrat.

Wow. Before capitalism, as explained in videos by Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux, human existence was characterized by grinding poverty. But once free markets were unleashed, the world has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity.

Yet this liberating and enriching system is “an urgent threat” according to the United Nations.

Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if the bureaucrat who sent out this tweet instead focused on hellholes where the free market is suppressed and persecuted – such as Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Cuba?

My friend Walter Williams perhaps has the best response to the U.N.’s vapid sentiment (h/t: libertarian Reddit).

Others share my concern, as illustrated by this passage from a column in the U.K.-based Daily Telegraph.

Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, a campaign group, called this a “loony tweet”, adding: “While millions of people are suffering from genocide, sexual slavery and starvation, it is far from clear why the UN would instead focus its attention on unidentifiable ‘urgent threats’, let alone on economic subjects about which it has neither competence nor expertise.” Mr Neuer pointed out that socialist economics had brought misery to Venezuela without drawing similar criticism from the UN. “The same UN human rights office has failed to issue a single tweet about this past month’s dire human rights crisis in Venezuela, where millions face mass hunger in part due to attacks on the free market,” he said.

Let’s look at other examples of U.N. statism.

For example, the bureaucrats are inserting themselves in American racial issues.

The history of slavery in the United States justifies reparations for African Americans, argues a recent report by a U.N.-affiliated group based in Geneva. …The group of experts, which includes leading human rights lawyers from around the world, presented its findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, pointing to the continuing link between present injustices and the dark chapters of American history. “In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” the report stated. …The reparations could come in a variety of forms, according to the panel, including “a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities … psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.”

By the way, I’m fine with a formal apology (assuming one hasn’t already been issued). Slavery is a stain on American history, after all.

And I’d be delighted to see a massive school choice initiative, which would benefit students from all backgrounds, but I strongly suspect black kids would disproportionately gain.

I fear, though, that the U.N. panel is primarily interested in “financial support,” which is simply a euphemism for a bigger welfare state. And since the current welfare state already has caused great damage to the black community, making it even bigger would be very ill-advised.

Here’s another example of bizarre policy from a division of the United Nations. The bureaucrats at the World Health Organization want to classify the absence of a sexual partner as a disability.

…the World Health Organisation will change the standard to suggest that a person who is unable to find a suitable sexual partner or is lacking a sexual relationship to have children – will now be equally classified as disabled. WHO says the change will give every individual “the right to reproduce”. …Gareth Johnson MP, former chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Infertility, whose own children were born thanks to fertility treatment, said: “I’m in general a supporter of IVF. But I’ve never regarded infertility as a disability or a disease but rather a medical matter. …Dr David Adamson, an author of the new standards, argued…”It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change. …It sets an international legal standard. Countries are bound by it.”

Hey, I’m had many tragic periods of celibacy in my life and I never even got a handicapped parking sticker!

More seriously, I have great sympathy for people with fertility issues. Not only because I have empathy for them, but also because of my concerns about demographic decline.

But there’s a big difference between saying that people have a right to try to have children and the U.N.’s assertion that others are obliged to help people have children.

It doesn’t help that the U.N. newest top bureaucrat has a very dismal track record.

Here are some of the grim details from Claudia Rosett.

…former Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Guterres…brings to the job a record that suggests he is a perfect fit to head a UN that is prone to overreach, mismanagement, waste, fraud, abuse and government meddling in every aspect of life — provided we all want even more of the same. …Guterres also served as president of the Socialist International, from 1999-2005… From 2005-2015, Guterres served as high commissioner of the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR)… That sounds great, except the UN’s own auditors…issued an audit report identifying a series of “critical” lapses by the UNHCR under Guterres’s management. …If that’s how Guterres managed — or mismanaged — a single UN agency while running it for more than a decade, is it likely he will do a better job as secretary-general? …we get a longtime socialist with a record of managerial incompetence, heading a multi-billion dollar, diplomatically immune, opaque, globe-girdling organization funded with billions of other people’s money (America, which bankrolls roughly one-quarter of the UN system with your tax dollars, being the largest contributor). What could go wrong?

The answer to Claudia’s question is that we’ll probably get business as usual.

And since that means more waste and more advocacy of bad policy, that’s unfortunate news for taxpayers all over the world.

So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Trump Administration does the right thing and puts the U.N. on a diet.

Let’s close with some humor. Here’s a Jeff MacNelly cartoon, presumably from way back in the 1970s.

P.S. In my experience, many U.N. officials and bureaucrats are smart, well-meaning people. But as I noted during a trip to Switzerland back in 2009, it would be much better if they were in the private sector where their skills and abilities could be used for expanding prosperity.

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Yesterday’s column about “the tax nightmare before Christmas” was based on my fear that politicians will try to impose a value-added tax at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Today’s column is about the spending nightmare that is already happening. The bottom line, as expressed in this clip from a recent interview with Neil Cavuto, is that Republicans are not doing what’s right for the country.

Need some evidence?

How about  what was reported today in the Hill?

Lawmakers are under pressure to get a deal to increase the budget caps and prevent automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration. …a deal has remained elusive, with both sides battling over how much to increase both defense and nondefense spending.

Needless to say, they should be battling over how much to cut spending, not how much to increase it.

Unfortunately, the propensity to over-spend is a long-standing pattern. In an uncharacteristic episode of fiscal sanity, Congress enacted the Budget Control Act in 2011, which then led to a much-needed sequestration early in 2013.

But ever since that point, as explained back in 2015 by the New York Times, politicians have been figuring out ways to get out from under this modest bit of fiscal discipline.

They raised the spending caps at the end of 2013.

And raised the spending caps again in 2015.

In other words, GOP fecklessness isn’t anything new.

Here’s another clip from the recent Cavuto interview. I argue for spending caps with sequester enforcement.

But I confess that enacting such caps is just part of the battle. The real challenge is making sure politicians can’t wiggle out from under such fiscal constraints.

In my fantasy world, we avoid that problem by making spending restraint part of the Constitution, an approach that has been very successful for Hong Kong and Switzerland.

That doesn’t seem likely any time soon in America.

And let’s not forget that Republicans also are poised to splurge on a new “emergency” package – and this money would be exempt from spending caps. Here’s another portion of the Hill story.

The $81 billion package provides aid for communities affected by recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as wildfires in California. The Senate is expected to take the legislation up once they return to Washington.

And the bill is turning into a bidding war, thanks in part to some supposed fiscal conservatives.

…Cornyn and fellow Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz want… more funding for their state’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. …Cruz said…his state, which he said had up to $180 billion in hurricane damage, would only be eligible for a small portion of the money in the House bill. But any push to help Texas would likely set off a demand from other delegations for help responding to wildfires in California, as well as additional funding for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.)…said that Puerto Rico needs an estimated $94 billion to rebuild.

I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of compensating people for losses following natural disasters. That simply rewards those who go without insurance while also creating perverse incentives to build in risky areas.

But if politicians actually think that it’s the federal government’s responsibility, then they should reduce other spending to finance supposed emergencies. Heck, FDR and Truman did this for World War II and the Korean War, and they weren’t exactly fiscal conservatives.

Let’s close with some additional bad news. What’s written above relates to the GOP’s failure to control “discretionary” spending. That’s the part of the budget that funds the Pentagon, as well as providing most of the outlays for departments that shouldn’t even exist (such as Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Energy, and Agriculture).

If you really want to be depressed, keep in mind that Republicans also are dropping the ball on “entitlements,” which are programs that are designed to automatically increase every year (such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) and are largely responsible for America’s very grim long-run fiscal outlook.

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One of my specialty pages deals with the unfortunate nexus between sex and government. You can find columns about taxes and sex, Obamacare and sex, and licensing and sex.

My new addition to that collection involves the venal government of Venezuela.

Here’s a story from the Washington Post that will forever symbolize the utter failure of statism. It seems that big government can even ruin sex.

In a country beset by shortages, this is one of the most difficult: the disappearance of contraceptives. When she couldn’t renew her supply of birth-control pills, Gutierrez and her husband…tried to be careful, but soon she was pregnant with her second child. “We barely eat three times a day now,” said a distraught Gutierrez, a former hair washer in a beauty salon who lost her job because of the economic crisis. “I don’t know how we’re going to feed another mouth.” In Venezuela, …nearly two decades of socialist policies…has sparked a severe recession and one of the world’s highest inflation rates. People often wait hours in line to buy bread. Prices for staples jump almost by the day. Medical short­ages range from antibiotics to cancer drugs.

Socialism is infamous for creating shortages of critical things like food and important things like toilet paper.

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it produces shortages of birth control. With grim consequences.

Venezuelan doctors are reporting spikes in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases that are adding to the country’s deepening misery. …media outlets have published articles about the “counting method” of contraception that women can use to calculate when they are ovulating and likely to get pregnant. An article on the Venezuelan website Cactus24 offered “15 home remedies to avoid pregnancy,” including eating papaya twice a day and drinking two cups of tea with ginger. …Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become informal exchanges for the purchase or trading of birth-control pills, intrauterine devices and implants — albeit at black-market ­prices.  Other women beg friends and relations to bring them contraceptives from outside Venezuela.

There is a black market, which helps a few people, but that option is prohibitively expensive given the horrific state of the Venezuelan economy.

…a female customer in her 20s looking for pills was told, “We only have the imported ones” — implying they would be sold at a black-market rate. The manager offered her a single pack of 21 pills for 120,000 bolívares. That’s about $3, equal to one-third of Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage. …condoms, meanwhile, have disappeared from store shelves. But the cheaper brands taking their place are still imported, and therefore still unaffordable for many. A three-pack can now cost several days’ minimum-wage pay.

By the way, I hope this next anecdote about condoms doesn’t mean what I think it means.

…said Juan Noguera, 28, an unemployed economic researcher…“we just share them between friends. This is the sharing economy.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve always though recycling was overrated.

That being said, a shared condom may be better than nothing.

…the gynecologist from Caracas University Hospital, said the number of patients with STDs she is seeing has soared. “In my private practice, out of every 10 patients, five or six now have an STD,” she said. “Two years ago it was just two or three.” Making matters worse, drug shortages are so severe that doctors often lack what they need to treat patients with STDs. “Something as simple as penicillin — the cheapest antibiotic in the world — can’t be found in the country,” said Moraima Hernández, an epidemiologist at Concepción Palacios Maternity Hospital.

Unsurprisingly, government officials have no defense of the terrible situation.

Officials at Venezuela’s Health Ministry did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

I’d be curious, however, to see comments from pro-Venezuelan leftists in America. Do Bernie Sanders and Joe Stiglitz still think Venezuela is a praiseworthy role model?

I remarked last year that Venezuela was entering the fourth circle of statist hell. Why don’t we stipulate that the country in now fully and (un)comfortably ensconced in that grim position. Who knows, maybe it can join North Korea in the fifth circle if Maduro clings to power a few more years.

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Using comparative bar charts, I’ve analyzed the economic policies of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.

My basic conclusion was that economic policy moved in the right direction under Reagan and Clinton and moved in the wrong direction under Obama, Bush, and Nixon. Though I always included the caveat that I was agnostic about whether the various presidents deserved credit/blame for the changes that happened during their tenure.

Now let’s go back in time and look at the unambiguously awful economic record of Herbert Hoover. I’ve written about Hoover’s statism on several occasions and thought there was no need for an overall assessment since there was near-unanimous agreement that he was a failure (even if some people don’t understand why).

But near-unanimous is not the same as unanimous. And I was horrified to read that David Frum actually thinks Herbert Hoover should be some sort of role model for today’s Republicans. Here are some excerpts from his Atlantic column, which looks at a new biography of Hoover.

Hoover commenced his political life as a progressive-leaning Republican. …progressives like Hoover…accepted some increased government regulation of industry…endorsed heavier taxation of inheritances. …it’s possible to imagine a Hoover presidency that signed into law some kind of Social Security system… Hoover’s old party could learn things from his impressive career of public service. …Hoover’s astounding accomplishments and generous impulses have been effaced by polemical narratives written to serve polemical political purposes. Such distortions are offenses against historical memory.

Before we look at his economic policies, I should acknowledge that Frum makes a compelling argument that Hoover was a fundamentally good person with some impressive achievements both before and after his time in the Oval Office.

But my presidential economic scorecards are very dispassionate. I’m only looking at the changes in economic policy that occurred while a president was in office.

And by that very neutral benchmark, Hoover was terrible. Nothing but bad policy.

I give extra weight to the protectionist Smoot-Hawley legislation, which surely must rank among the worst bills ever enacted. The tax hike in 1932 also gets some extra weight because of the radical increase in marginal tax rates (the top rate was increased from 25 percent to 63 percent!).

By the way, this assessment (like all my previous assessments) only includes policies that were adopted.

If I included policies that should have been adopted (sins of omission rather than sins of commission), Hoover would get severely dinged for his failure to prevent a severe contraction of the money supply by the Federal Reserve (those interested in such issues should watch this George Selgin video and read this George Selgin article for more information).

And if you want more information on Hoover’s record, I strongly recommend this article by my buddy from grad school, Steve Horwitz.

By the way, the Wikipedia entry on Herbert Hoover is very accurate in noting that he engaged in “large-scale interventions.”

As president from 1929 to 1933, his ambitious programs were overwhelmed by the Great Depression, which seemed to get worse every year despite the increasingly large-scale interventions he made in the economy.

But it is grossly inaccurate because it says that the economy got worse “despite” that intervention rather than “because of” that intervention.

There’s one other blurb that is worth sharing, just in case anyone thinks that I’m unfairly characterizing Hoover as a statist.

FDR aide Rexford Tugwell would claim in a 1974 interview that “practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.”

I’ll close by recycling a Center for Freedom and Prosperity video that reviews the anti-market policies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.

P.S. I heartily encourage this cartoon for anyone who wants an easy way of understanding public policy and the Great Depression.

P.P.S. Looking at presidents from the 20th century, Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge stand head and shoulders above all the others when looking at economic policy, though I’ve never tried to figure out which one is best. Similarly, I haven’t figured out who deserves the “prize” for being the worst president, but I have decided that Hoover, FDR, Wilson, and Nixon are the Four Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse.

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