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Posts Tagged ‘Class warfare’

In 1729, Jonathan Swift authored a satirical essay with the unwieldy title of A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. He suggested that the destitute Irish could improve their lot in life by selling their children as food for the rich.

I’m personally glad this was merely a tongue-in-cheek proposal since some of my ancestors immigrated to America from Ireland in the 1800s.

But maybe it’s time for a new “modest proposal” to make our leftist friends happy.

They’re constantly griping about the rich, asserting that the “top 1 percent” or “top 10 percent” are making too much money. Indeed, folks on the left want us to believe that “income inequality” is a big issue and a threat to the country.

So why not update Jonathan Swift’s idea and simply consume all the rich people? Indeed, P.J. O’Rourke actually wrote a book entitled Eat the Rich.

But we don’t really need to feed them to anyone. Just dump their bodies in a mass grave or bury them at sea.

In one fell swoop, income inequality could be dramatically reduced. Sure, those of us left would wind up being equally poor, like in Cuba or North Korea, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs!

But some of you probably think arbitrary executions of rich people is a step too far. After all, it would be unseemly to mimic France’s Reign of Terror or Stalin’s extermination of the Kulaks.

That’s why we should instead look at a watered-down “modest proposal” put forward by David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation. Here’s some of what he wrote for Real Clear Politics.

…consider the following bold proposal to solve our inequality problem once and for all: exile the top 0.1% of income earners. Round up all 136,080 taxpayers who make more than $2.16 million a year and ship ’em off to whatever country will accept them. Presto. Problem solved. …The 0.1 percenters, whose growing incomes have been fueling the rise in inequality over the past several decades, will have vanished overnight.

Though Azerrad does point out that exile has many of the same economic downsides as execution.

..it will put a serious dent in the government’s finances. Almost one in every five tax dollars that the government collects comes from the 0.1 percent. To make up for the shortfall, we should probably also confiscate all their assets before exiling them. What about the jobs the 0.1 percenters create and the value they add to the economy? …we’d be losing all but twelve of the CEOs from the 300 largest companies in the country. The show business industry would collapse overnight with all the star talent in exile. Gone too would be the best investment bankers, financial consultants, surgeons and lawyers. One third of the NFL’s roster and well over half of the NBA’s roster would also be culled.

Heck, we’re already confiscating some of the assets of rich people who emigrate, so part of Azerrad’s satire is disturbingly close to reality.

But let’s stick with the more farcical parts of his column. To deal with potential loss of tax revenue, Azerrad proposes to have the government sell America’s rich people to other countries.

…we will need to generate more revenue. That could be done rather easily by auctioning off the top-earning Americans to the highest foreign bidder.

That makes sense. There are still a few places in the world – such as Switzerland, Cayman, Hong Kong, Bermuda, etc – where the political class actually understands it is good to have wealth creators.

By the way, Azerrad points out that there will be a tiny little downside to this proposal. Contrary to the fevered assertions of Elizabeth Warren and Paul Krugman, penalizing the rich won’t do anything to help the less fortunate.

Mind you, life prospects will not have improved for a single poor child born into a broken community with failing schools. Or for a single recent college grad crushed by debt and facing dim job prospects. Or for a single family struggling to make ends meet. …It won’t be any easier to start a business or to find a job. Four in 10 children will still be born out of wedlock. Our entitlements will still face unfunded liabilities of almost $50 trillion. …We will however be able to boldly proclaim that we have addressed “the defining challenge of our time.” Our country will in no way be better off. But we will have satiated our lust for equality.

Actually, our country will be far worse off. Jobs, investment, and growth will all collapse.

So while the poor may wind up with a larger share of the pie, the overall size of the pie will be much smaller.

And this is perhaps the moment to stop with the satire and take a more serious look at the issue of income inequality.

I’ve repeatedly argued that the focus should be growth, not redistribution. To cite just one example, it’s better to be a poor person in Singapore than in Jamaica.

But let’s look at what others are saying. Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University addresses the issue (or non issue, as he argues) in a column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

I’ve never worried about income inequality. …Income inequality — like the color of my neighbor’s car or the question of the number of pigeons in Central Park — just never dawns on me as an issue worthy of a moment’s attention.

Don then speculates about why some people are fixated on inequality.

I wonder: What makes someone worry about income inequality? One personal characteristic that plausibly sparks obsession with inequality is envy. …Another characteristic…that likely gives rise to concerns over income inequality is a mistaken conviction that the amount of wealth in the world is fixed. …A third personal characteristic that prompts anxiety over income inequality is fear that the “have-nots” will rape and pillage society until and unless they get more from the “haves.” …This third characteristic is widespread today. The risk that the “have-nots” in modern First World economies will organize themselves using social media and then grab their electric carving knives to storm the wine bars and day spas of the “haves”.

I think all three hypotheses are correct, though people in the public policy world rarely admit that they’re motivated by envy.

But, for what it’s worth, I think many leftists genuinely think the economy is a fixed pie. And if you have that inaccurate mindset, then extra income or wealth for a rich person – by definition – means less income and wealth for the rest of us. This is why they support class-warfare tax policy.

The challenge, for those of us who believe in economic liberty, is to educate these people about how even small differences in growth can yield remarkable benefits to everyone in society within relatively short periods.

A lot of establishment Republicans, meanwhile, seem to implicitly believe that redistribution is desirable as a tactic to “buy off” the masses. They’ll privately admit the policies are destructive (both to the economy and to poor people), but they think there’s no choice.

When dealing with these people, our challenge is to educate them that big government undermines social capital and makes it far more likely to produce the kind of chaos and social disarray we’ve seen in Europe’s deteriorating welfare states.

P.S. For a humorous explanation of why the redistribution/class-warfare agenda is so destructive, here’s the politically correct version of the fable of the Little Red Hen.

And the socialism-in-the-classroom example, which may or may not be an urban legend, makes a similar point. As does the famous parable about taxes and beer.

P.P.S. I still think Margaret Thatcher has the best explanation of why the left is wrong on inequality. And if you want to see a truly disturbing video of a politician with a different perspective, click here.

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One of the most important bulwarks of a just society is equal justice under law.

That principle is even etched in stone above the entrance to the Supreme Court.

My belief in equal treatment is one of the reasons I support the flat tax. As an economist, I like the pro-growth impact of tax reform. But as someone who believes in justice, I also support the flat tax because I don’t like class-warfare policies that punish some taxpayers and corrupt loopholes that give preferential status to other taxpayers.

Indeed, my support for equality of law is so strong that I even object to policies that benefit me, such as special TSA lines in airports for frequent flyers.

But sometimes it’s not clear how a principle should be applied. So let’s revive the “you be the judge” series, which asks thorny questions about the workings of a free society, and explore the case of income-based traffic fines.

Check out these excerpts from a BBC story.

Finland’s speeding fines are linked to income, with penalties calculated on daily earnings, meaning high earners get hit with bigger penalties for breaking the law. So, when businessman Reima Kuisla was caught doing 103km/h (64mph) in an area where the speed limit is 80km/h (50mph), authorities turned to his 2013 tax return, the Iltalehti newspaper reports. He earned 6.5m euros (£4.72m) that year, so was told to hand over 54,000 euros. …Mr Kuisla might be grateful he doesn’t earn more. In 2002, an executive at Nokia was slapped with a 116,000-euro fine for speeding on his Harley Davidson motorbike. His penalty was based on a salary of 14m euros.

So is this a case of greedy government targeting people for the sin of success?

Well, I’m sure the government is greedy, but what about the morality of income-based fines?

The driver isn’t happy, but others argue that deterrence doesn’t work unless the actual impact of the fine is the same for rich and poor alike.

The scale of the fine hasn’t gone down well with Mr Kuisla. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I would seriously consider moving abroad,” he says on his Facebook page. “Finland is impossible to live in for certain kinds of people who have high incomes and wealth.” There’s little sympathy from his fellow Finns on social media. …person says: “Small fines won’t deter the rich – fines have to ‘bite’ everyone the same way.”

At the risk of sounding like a soft-headed leftist, I’m not overly sympathetic to Mr. Kuisla’s position.

Simply stated, if the goal of traffic fines is deterrence, then the penalties should vary with income.

I remember when I was young, living on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, a traffic fine sometimes would chew up a non-trivial part of my disposable income. That affected my behavior.

Now that I’m older and making more money (and especially since my kids are mostly done with their schooling!), a traffic fine is just a nuisance (though I still sometimes get very upset).

Though this discussion wouldn’t be complete without also considering the fact that traffic laws and enforcement oftentimes are motivated by revenue rather than safety.

The most compelling evidence comes from Ferguson, Missouri. It seems that what’s driving the mistreatment of black people is government greed.

Here’s some of what Ian Tuttle wrote on the topic for National Review.

The Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” released this week…what the material in the report reveals is less a culture of racial animus than one of predatory government: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” states the report, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” …myriad municipal regulations that, rigorously enforced, nickel-and-dime the citizenry to the local government’s benefit. This is the injustice on which the Justice Department has stumbled, which helps to explain the city’s racial tensions — and which merits urgent correction.

I fully understand why many blacks in Ferguson are angry.

Imagine if you had a modest income and you were constantly being hit with $50 and $100 fines (oftentimes then made much larger thanks to the scam of “court fees”).

This can wreck a family’s budget when it doesn’t have much money. So wouldn’t you be upset?

Particularly since “predatory government” is a very good description of the Ferguson bureaucracy.

In 2010, the city’s finance director encouraged Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson to “ramp up” ticket-writing to help mitigate an anticipated sales-tax shortfall. …One stop can yield six or eight citations, and officers have been known to compete to set single-stop records. Indeed, within Ferguson Police Department, because opportunities for promotion have been tied to “productivity” — that is, enthusiasm for ticket-writing — officers have perverse incentives to issue citations, and in concert with police and prosecutors, municipal courts regularly enforce the payment of fines in a way that compounds what a single defendant owes.

Now let’s connect Ferguson with Finland.

Our Finnish driver is upset by his giant fine, but at least he probably can relate to the poor people of Ferguson.

But the more successful people of Ferguson, to the extent that they are even targeted by the local cops, have almost nothing to worry about.

…this practice — of police and prosecutors and courts together — disproportionately affects black communities not because they are black, but because they are poor. They do not have the means to escape the justice apparatus, unlike the comparatively wealthy, who can pay a fine and be done with the matter — or hire an attorney, and inconvenience courts that prefer the ease of collecting fees to the challenge of arbitrating cases.

Here’s the bottom line.

If we want a just society, there should be few laws and they should be enforced on the basis of protecting public safety rather than enriching the bureaucracy.

In such a system, income-based fines and penalties are a reasonable way of making sure deterrence applies equally to rich and poor.

Unfortunately, we have far too many laws and they are used as back-door taxes on the citizenry.

So if we adopt income-based fines, the politicians will simply have more money to spend and even less incentive to scale back excessive and thuggish government.

Heck, just look at how asset-forfeiture laws and money-laundering laws have turned into revenue scams for Leviathan.

P.S. Since today’s post ended with a depressing conclusion, let’s share some a bit of offsetting good news.

As reported by The Hill, the spirit of civil disobedience lives even in Washington!

From sledding to snowball fights, dozens of children and their parents took to Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon to protest a controversial sledding ban. Capitol Police have refused to lift the sledding ban, but some parents organized a “sled in” on the west lawn of the Capitol to put a spotlight on the unpopular rule. …Capitol Police pointed out that more than 20,000 sledding injuries occur in the U.S. each year…, but officers on the ground also refused to enforce it. …It’s turning into a public relations nightmare for those who oppose sledding and support the ban.

You’ll doubtlessly be horrified to learn that illegal sledding is – gasp! – a gateway crime to other forms of misbehavior.

…the children were not only sledding but also climbing trees, building snowmen and throwing snowballs at one another.

Oh My God, unlicensed snowmen, unregistered tree climbing, and illegal snowballs! Freedom is obviously too dangerous.

Next thing you know, these kids will grow up to engage in other forms of civil disobedience, just like Arizona drivers and Connecticut gun owners.

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On the issue of so-called progressive taxation, our left-wing friends have conflicting goals. Some of them want to maximize tax revenue in order to finance ever-bigger government.

But others are much more motivated by a desire to punish success. They want high tax rates on the “rich” even if the government collects less revenue.

Some of them simply pretend there isn’t a conflict, as you might imagine. They childishly assert that the Laffer Curve doesn’t exist and that upper-income taxpayers are fiscal pinatas, capable of generating never-ending amounts of tax revenue.

But more rational leftists admit that the Laffer Curve is real. They may argue that the revenue-maximizing rate is up around 70 percent, which is grossly inconsistent with the evidence from the 1980s, but at least they understand that successful taxpayers can and do respond when tax rates increase.

So the question for grown-up leftists is simple: What’s the answer if they have to choose between collecting more revenue and punishing the rich with class-warfare taxation?

And here’s some new research looking at this tradeoff. Authored by economists from the University of Oslo in Norway, École polytechnique de Lausanne in France, and the University of Pennsylvania, they look at “Tax progressivity and the government’s ability to collect additional tax revenue.”

The recent massive expansion of public debt around the world during the Great Recession raises the question how much debt a government can maximally service by raising the level of taxes. Or, to phrase this classic public finance question differently, how much additional tax revenue can the government generate by increasing income taxes?

And since they’re part of the real world (unlike, say, the Joint Committee on Taxation or the Obama Administration), they recognize that higher tax rates impose costs on the economy that lead to feedback effects on tax revenue.

Our research (Holter et al. 2014) investigates how tax progressivity and household heterogeneity impacts the Laffer curve. We argue that a more progressive labour income tax schedule significantly reduces the maximal amount of tax revenues a government can raise…under progressive taxes heterogeneous workers will face different average and marginal tax rates. …the answer to our question is closely connected to the individual (and then properly aggregated) response of labour supply to taxes. The microeconometric literature, as surveyed e.g. by Keane (2011), has found that both the intensive and extensive margins of labour supply (the latter especially for women), life-cycle considerations, and human capital accumulation are important determinants of these individual responses. …households make a consumption–savings choice and decide on whether or not to participate in the labour market (the extensive margin), how many hours to work conditional on participation (the intensive margin), and thus how much labour market experience to accumulate (which in turn partially determines future earnings capacities).

The above passage has a bit of economic jargon, but it’s simply saying that taxpayers respond to incentives.

They also provide estimates of tax progressivity for various developed nations. They’re only looking at the personal income tax, so these numbers don’t include, for instance, the heavy burden of the value-added tax on low-income people in Europe.

The good news (at least relatively speaking) is that the American income tax is not as punitive as it is in many other nations.

But the key thing to consider, at least in the context of this new research, is the degree to which so-called progressivity comes with a high price.

Here is some additional analysis from their research.

Why does the degree of tax progressivity matter for the government’s ability to generate labour income tax revenues…? changes in tax progressivity typically affects hours worked…increasing tax progressivity induces differential income and substitution effects on the workers in different parts of the earnings distribution. …a more progressive tax system may disproportionately reduce labour supply for high earners and lead to a reduction in tax revenue. …more progressive taxes will reduce the incentives for young agents to accumulate labour market experience and become high (and thus more highly taxed) earners.

Now let’s look at some of the results.

Remarkably, they find that the best way of maximizing revenue is to minimize the economic damage of the tax system. And that means…drum roll, please…a flat tax.

For its current choice of progressivity (the green line), the US can sustain a debt burden of about 330% of its benchmark GDP, by increasing the average tax rate to about 42%. Thus, according to our findings the US is currently still nowhere close to its maximally sustainable debt levels…we also observe that larger public debt can be sustained with a less progressive tax system. Converting to a flat tax system (the black line) increases the maximum sustainable debt to more than 350% of benchmark GDP, whereas adopting Danish tax progressivity lowers it to less than 250% of benchmark GDP.

Here are a couple of charts from their study, both of which underscore that punitive tax rates are very counterproductive, assuming the goal is to either maximize revenue or to sustain a larger public sector.

Notice that if you want to punish “the rich” and impose Danish-type levels of progressivity (the dashed line), you’ll get less revenue and won’t be able to sustain as much debt.

Now let’s shift from discussing intellectual quandaries for the left and talk about challenges for believers in limited government.

We like a flat tax because it treats people equally and it raises revenue in a relatively non-destructive manner.

But because it is an “efficient” form of taxation, it’s also an “efficient” way to generate revenues to finance bigger government.

Indeed, this was one of the findings in a 1998 study by Professors Gary Becker and Casey Mulligan.

So does this mean that instead of supporting a flat tax, we should a loophole-riddled system based on high tax rates solely because that system will be so inefficient that it won’t generate revenue?

Of course not. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is why my work on fundamental tax reform is intertwined with my work on constitutional and legal mechanisms to limit the size and scope of government.

And it’s also why Obama’s class-warfare approach is so perversely destructive. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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The most compelling graph I’ve ever seen was put together by Andrew Coulson, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. It shows that there’s been a huge increase in the size and cost of the government education bureaucracy in recent decades, but that student performance has been stagnant.

But if I had to pick a graph that belongs in second place, it would be this relationship between investment and labor compensation.

The clear message is that workers earn more when there is more capital, which should be a common-sense observation. After all, workers with lots of machines, technology, and equipment obviously will be more productive (i.e., produce more per hour worked) than workers who don’t have access to capital.

And in the long run, worker compensation is tied to productivity.

This is why the President’s class-warfare proposals to increase capital gains tax rates, along with other proposals to increase the tax burden on saving and investment, are so pernicious.

The White House claims that the “rich” will bear the burden of the new taxes on capital, but the net effect will be to discourage capital investment, which means workers will be less productive and earn less income.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of Economics 21 has some very compelling analysis on the issue.

President Obama will propose raising top tax rates on capital gains and dividends to 28 percent, up from the current rate of 24 percent. Prior to 2013, the rate was 15 percent. Mr. Obama seeks to practically double capital gains and dividend taxes during the course of his presidency, a step that would have negative effects on investment and economic growth. …the middle class would be harmed by higher capital gains tax rates, because capital would be more likely to go offshore. …[a] higher rate would have negative effects on the economy by reducing U.S. investment or driving it overseas. If firms pay more in capital gains taxes in America, they would make fewer investments — especially in the businesses or projects that most need capital — and they would hire fewer workers, many of them middle-class. Higher capital gains taxes would reduce economic activity, especially financing for private companies, innovators, and small firms getting off the ground. Taxes on U.S. investment would be higher compared with taxes abroad, so some investment capital is likely to move offshore.

At this point, I want to emphasize that the point about higher taxes in America and foregone competitiveness isn’t just boilerplate.

According to Ernst and Young, as well as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has one of the highest tax rates on capital gains in the entire developed world.

The only compensating factor is that at least these destructive tax rates aren’t imposed on foreign investors. Yes, it’s irritating that our tax code treats U.S. citizens far worse than foreigners, but at least we benefit from all the overseas capital being invested in the American economy.

By the way, Diana also points out that higher capital gains tax rates may actually lose revenue for the simple reason that investors can decide to hold assets rather than sell them.

Here’s some of what she wrote, accompanied by a chart from the Tax Foundation.

…higher capital gains tax rates rarely result in more revenue, because capital gains realizations can be timed.  When rates go up, people hold on to their assets rather than selling them, expecting that rates will go down at some point. …Capital gains tax revenues rose after 1997, when the rate was reduced from 28 percent to 20 percent, and again after 2003, when rates were reduced further to 15 percent… The decline in rates resulted in higher tax receipts from owners of capitals, as they sold assets, giving funds to Uncle Sam.

Yes, the Laffer Curve is alive and well.

Not that Obama cares. If you pay close attention at the 4:20 mark of this video, you’ll see that he wants higher capital gains tax rates for reasons of spite.

But I don’t care about the revenue implications. I care about good tax policy. And in an ideal tax system, there wouldn’t be any tax on capital gains.

It’s a form of double taxation with pernicious effects, as the Wall Street Journal explained back in 2012.

…the tax on the sale of a stock or a business is a double tax on the income of that business. When you buy a stock, its valuation is the discounted present value of the earnings. …If someone buys a car or a yacht or a vacation, they don’t pay extra federal income tax. But if they save those dollars and invest them in the family business or in stock, wham, they are smacked with another round of tax. Many economists believe that the economically optimal tax on capital gains is zero. Mr. Obama’s first chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, wrote in the American Economic Review in 1981 that the elimination of capital income taxation “would have very substantial economic effects” and “might raise steady-state output by as much as 18 percent, and consumption by 16 percent.” …keeping taxes low on investment is critical to economic growth, rising wages and job creation. A study by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas estimates that if the U.S. eliminated its capital gains and dividend taxes (which Mr. Obama also wants to increase), the capital stock of American plant and equipment would be twice as large. Over time this would grow the economy by trillions of dollars.

John Goodman also has a very cogent explanation of the issue.

…why tax capital gains at all? …The companies will realize their actual income and they will pay taxes on it. If the firms return some of this income to investors (stockholders), the investors will pay a tax on their dividend income. If the firms pay interest to bondholders, they will be able to deduct the interest payments from their corporate taxable income, but the bondholders will pay taxes on their interest income. …Eventually all the income that is actually earned will be taxed when it is realized and those taxes will be paid by the people who actually earned the income. ……why not avoid all these problems by reforming the entire tax system along the lines of a flat tax? The idea behind a flat tax can be summarized in one sentence: In an ideal system, (a) all income is taxed, (b) only once, (c) when (and only when) it is realized, (d) at one low rate.

And if you want to augment all this theory with some evidence, check out the details of this comprehensive study published by Canada’s Fraser Institute.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which explains why the capital gains tax should be abolished.

P.S. These posters were designed by folks fighting higher capital gains taxes in the United Kingdom, but they apply equally well in the United States. And since we’re referencing our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, you’ll be interested to know that Labor Party voters share Obama’s belief in jacking up tax rates even if the economic damage is so severe that the government doesn’t collect any revenue.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the capital gains tax isn’t indexed for inflation, so the actual tax rate almost always is higher than the statutory rate. Indeed, for folks that have held assets for a long time, the effective tax rate can be more than 100 percent. Mon Dieu!

P.P.P.S. In the past 20-plus years, I’ve seen all sorts of arguments for class-warfare taxation. These include:

I suppose leftists deserve credit for being adaptable. Just about anything is an excuse for soak-the-rich tax hikes. The sun is shining, raise taxes! The sky is cloudy, increase tax rates!

Or, in this case, Obama is giving a speech, so we know higher tax rates are on the agenda.

P.P.P.P.S. You deserve a reward if you read this far. You can enjoy some amusing cartoons on class-warfare tax policy by clicking here, here,here, here, here, here, and here.

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According to Gallup, Americans now identify “government” as the most important problem facing the United States.

That doesn’t surprise. Gallup also found last year that big government is considered a far greater danger to the nation that big business or big labor.

Moreover, a poll from NPR earlier this year found that government was the leading cause of stress in people’s lives.

And Gallup discovered earlier this year that a record number of Americans think that government is corrupt.

So why do Americans have such a dour view of officialdom?

Well, let’s look at one example. The Wall Street Journal has a devastating editorial about dishonest and unethical behavior by federal and state bureaucracies.

The column starts with a strong assertion.

Prosecutorial misconduct has become an ugly commonplace of modern government, manipulating the legal system to attack easy political targets. 

It’s one that many people recognize is accurate, and probably helps to explain why pollsters now find the kinds of results cited above.

But if you think the WSJ is exaggerating or that people are misguided for being hostile to government, just check out how Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto were victimized by bureaucrats run amok.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get to this newest case. It deals with a forest fire in California and subsequent efforts for federal and state bureaucracies to blame a private company and extort some of the firm’s cash and land.

The story began in 2007 with the Moonlight Fire in California that burned some 65,000 acres, about two-thirds on federal land. Within 48 hours and while the flames were still burning, the state’s department of forestry and fire protection, known as Cal Fire, and the U.S. Forest Service blamed the disaster on Sierra Pacific, a Redding-based company that owns some 1.2 million acres of timberland. In 2009 a federal-state task force brought official complaints against the company and nearby landowners. California officials filed an action in state court while prosecutors sued for $1 billion in federal court. Sierra Pacific has insisted it didn’t start the fire but, faced with an open-ended legal fight, the company in 2012 settled the federal case for $55 million and a deed of some 22,500 acres to the U.S. government.

So far, so good, at least from the federal government’s perspective.

But there was still the case that was filed in state court, which presumably represented another attempt to extort more money from Sierra Pacific.

And this is where the government screwed up, whether through greed or incompetence (probably both). The WSJ has some of the sordid details that have been unearthed.

…the state case continued, and it has exposed a fiasco of fraud and corruption… Among other problems, government investigators and prosecutors doctored reports, misrepresented facts and retaliated against employees whose questions threatened their strategy. …According to the theory implicating the company, the fire started when the blade of a Sierra Pacific bulldozer hit a rock and created a spark. Government investigators pinpointed a location and claimed they had confirmation from a bulldozer driver. Problem was, both the fire’s alleged point of origin and the scenario to buttress it were fraudulent. When the company questioned the bulldozer driver, he denied having made the statement and admitted he couldn’t have confirmed the statement prosecutors had him sign because he didn’t know how to read. Prosecutors were also dishonest about where the fire started. Overhead videos have shown that the point of origin marked by the government was well outside the visual boundaries of the burning forest nearly an hour after the fire started.

I’m tempted at this point to make some snarky joke, but this issue is far too serious. When the government prevaricates in legal proceedings, that undermines the rule of law and call into question the integrity of the entire system.

And the column reveals that there was corruption and mendacity at both the state and federal level.

A second federal prosecutor, Eric Overby, joined the case in 2011, only to withdraw promptly on discovering what he called prosecutorial abuse directed squarely at raising revenue. He told defense counsel that in “my entire career, I have never seen anything like this. Never.” In February 2014, California state Judge Leslie Nichols assailed the federal and state government for abuses of discovery so “reprehensible” and “egregious” that they “threatened the integrity of the judicial process.” He threw out the case and awarded Sierra Pacific $30 million in sanctions against Cal Fire.

There are still reverberations from the case as Sierra Pacific is seeking to void the agreement that was made (based on lies) with the federal government. Needless to say, one hopes the company will win.

But there’s something else that needs to happen. The corrupt government officials need to be penalized, ideally with criminal sanctions including jail time. The government’s lawyers also should be disbarred and lose their jobs.

Punishment is the right approach, both because it is deserved and because it’s the only way of sending an effective signal to other bureaucrats that there is a personal risk to government malfeasance.

I also think Sierra Pacific, like any other victimized party, deserves compensation. Unfortunately, that money would come from taxpayers when it should be deducted from the budgets of the misbehaving bureaucracies (and the salaries of the bureaucrats).

P.S. I noted at the end of last year that President Hollande in France has decided to get rid of his class-warfare 75 percent top tax rate.

That’s a sign of progress, to be sure, but I wasn’t nearly as eloquent on the issue as Dan Hannan. The British MEP has some very wise words in today’s Washington Examiner.

I was living in Brussels when François Hollande, the President of France, introduced his 75 percent top rate tax in 2012. Immediately, my quartier began to fill with French exiles, who could commute to Paris in just over an hour.  …Three years on, President Hollande is shame-facedly scrapping the 75 percent rate, having forcibly re-learned an ancient truth: Wealth taxes don’t redistribute wealth; they redistribute people. Thousands of well-off Frenchmen made the easy journey north, including the country’s richest man, Bernard Arnault. …Hollande’s tax, levied on incomes above one million euros, has been a miserable failure. Over its lifespan, it raised around $500 million, a tiny fraction of the original projections. Why? Well, the Paris bureaucrats who made those projections overlooked something rather important. Rich people don’t sit around waiting to be taxed. They have all sorts of ways of beating the system… A lot of politicians don’t want to hear this. Instead of accepting international competition, they legislate against it — by, for example, imposing international rules on tax harmonization.

Amen to all these excerpts. Hollande’s class-warfare scheme was an economic failure and a revenue failure.

I also like what Hannan wrote about tax competition, and you can watch two very brief speeches he made on that topic by clicking here.

P.S. If you enjoy short Dan Hannan speeches, here’s one about the European bureaucracy racket and here’s one on the hypocrisy of European politicians.

P.P.S. My favorite item from Hannan, though, is his column about the socialist part of Germany’s National Socialists.

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Barack Obama and the rest of the class-warfare crowd act as if “tax the rich” is an appropriate answer to every question about fiscal policy.

I’m not joking. Here are some of the President’s main tax hikes that have been enacted or proposed.

Obama imposed higher income tax rates on upper-income taxpayers as part of the fiscal cliff deal.

Obama also succeeded in increasing the double-taxation of dividends and capital gains for successful taxpayers.

Obamacare was a budget-busting nightmare with lots of tax increases, but the biggest tax hike targeted rich taxpayers.

Obama’s proposed solution for Social Security’s huge unfunded liability is a large tax increase on taxpayers making more than $100,000 per year.

Obama also has proposed big tax hikes for American companies trying to compete in global markets.

This list could continue, but I think you get the point. American leftists are like malfunctioning Chatty Cathy Dolls. No matter how many times you pull the string, all that comes out is “tax the rich.”

Needless to say, that’s both tiresome and empty.

At some point, it would be nice for Obama and other statists to actually identify how much is enough.

  1. For instance, should any taxpayer ever have to give more than 40 percent of their income to government? More than 50 percent? Perhaps over 100 percent, like the 8,000 French household that had every penny of earnings confiscated in 2012?
  2. And what’s the “fair share” for the rich? Should they pay 40 percent of the tax burden? Or 50 percent? Or more?
  3. Heck, it might not be a bad idea to actually identify the rich. Is a household “rich” if annual income climbs above $200,000? Or do we simply define rich people as being anyone in the top 10 percent, or top 20 percent?

For what it’s worth, I don’t care about the answers to these questions because I favor a simple and fair flat tax that doesn’t punish people for contributing more to the economy’s output. I simply want the government to treat everyone equally and collect revenue in the least-destructive manner.

That being said, I imagine that Obama and other leftists would hem and haw if any reporters actually acted like journalists and asked tough questions. In their hearts, the class-warfare types probably want to go back to the 70 percent-plus top tax rates of the Jimmy Carter era. But they presumably wouldn’t want to openly confess those views.

Just in case Obama (or Pelosi, Reid, etc) ever are pressed to answer these questions, here are numbers that should help put their answers in context.

First, here’s a chart from the experts at the Tax Foundation and it reveals that the top-10 percent of taxpayers finance about 70 percent of the federal income tax.

The typical left-wing response to this kind of data is to complain that it doesn’t include the Social Security payroll tax and other levies.

That’s a semi-fair point, and it’s true that the so-called “FICA” tax (at least the part that goes to Social Security) is not “progressive.” Instead, it’s a flat-rate levy. Moreover, the portion of the payroll tax used to fund Social Security is only imposed on income up to $118,500, which leads many leftists to say the system is regressive.

That’s inaccurate for the simple reason that Social Security’s benefit formula is far more generous to lower-income taxpayers. It’s also worth pointing out that the program is supposed to be a form of social insurance, not a redistribution scheme (though it’s actually both).

And that point is a perfect segue for the next chart. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute used numbers from the Congressional Budget Office to measure the net effect (taxes and spending) of fiscal policy for the five income quintiles.

As you can see, the bottom 60 percent are net recipients and the top 20 percent are basically pulling the wagon for everyone.

Remember, this chart doesn’t mean that the bottom 60 percent don’t pay any tax. It just means that they get more money from the government, on average, than they put into the system.

Now that I’ve shared some numbers, let’s close with some economic analysis.

Obama’s class-warfare agenda is wrong because it’s unfair and discriminatory. But it’s also terribly misguided because high tax rates are bad for growth and competitiveness.

Besides, there is a point at which high tax rates don’t generate much, if any, additional revenue. Simply stated, rich taxpayers have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income. And that means they can reduce their taxable income when tax rates increase.

My video on class warfare has more information. Make sure to pay extra-close attention at the 4:35 mark.

P.S. If you don’t believe my argument about rich people having the ability to alter their taxable income, check out the IRS data from the 1980s.

P.P.S. Only a fool (or a malicious person) wants to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve. The right goal is to set tax rates at the growth-maximizing level.

P.P.P.S. For what it’s worth, a poll in 2012 found that 75 percent of Americans think the top tax rate should be no higher than 30 percent. That can’t be very comforting data for the hate-and-envy crowd.

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I don’t pretend that tax reform, by itself, will create economic Nirvana.

After all, the experts who measure economic policy and economic performance say that only about 20 percent of a nation’s prosperity is determined by fiscal policy.

Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of simple and fair tax systems such as the flat tax. Not only because I think we will get more growth, but also because I want to rein in the power of the IRS and reduce corruption in Washington.

So did the Republican wave in the mid-term elections make reform more likely?

Interestingly, the normally left-leaning Washington Post editorial page seems to have the right attitude about the issue.

There is broad agreement that the Internal Revenue Code is an unfair, inefficient mess and that the solution is to lower marginal rates and apply them to a broader base of income. A simpler code, purged of its market-distorting loopholes, would foster economic equality and economic growth, both of which the United States desperately needs.

So does the election make reform more likely?

Does the rise of a newly elected Republican Senate change that calculus? We’d say that it might… To be sure, Democrats want tax reform to raise money; Republicans want cuts. Still, a good deal of work has already been done on basic principles of a tax overhaul by Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress. …With a strong push from Mr. Obama, early in the new Congress, they might just be willing to finish the job their predecessors started.

I suspect the Washington Post is being far too optimistic about bipartisan compromise.

Not only would lawmakers have to overcome the big divide over whether reform should produce more revenue for Washington or less money for Washington, but there’s also a big divide on how to properly measure income.

And don’t forget that Obama (unlike the Washington Post) wants higher marginal tax rates because of his class-warfare ideology.

But maybe I’m just being a pessimist.

Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation, for instance, also offers a semi-optimistic assessment about the possibility of reform.

One of the most obvious questions from Tuesday’s election results is: what does this mean for tax reform? I think it certainly enhances the prospects of Congress and the president reaching a grand bargain on overhauling the tax code… Starting in January 2015, expect the new chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee begin holding a series of hearings on various aspects of reforming the tax system and the numerous “off-the-shelf” options available to them—such as the Flat Tax, X-Tax, FairTax, Cash Flow Tax, and the Camp draft. …Considering the energy to reform the tax code in both the House and Senate, it is quite possible that lawmakers could deliver a comprehensive tax reform bill to President Obama’s desk in 2015.

Scott makes several other points, including the long-overdue need to reform the biased revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

However, he also acknowledges that President Obama very likely would veto good tax reform. So even though our economy needs a less-destructive tax code, folks shouldn’t hold their breath expecting it to happen in the next two years.

I also addressed the topic as part of a recent forum at the Heritage Foundation, and I outlined several issues that have to be addressed if there is a serious effort to pursue tax reform. Here’s my part of the presentation.

But if you don’t want to watch me pontificate for ten-plus minutes, particularly since the video quality isn’t that great, here are my key points:

1. The tax base matters. If you don’t fix the double taxation of saving and investment, you may as well not even bother.

2. Bold beats timid. This is why I think a pure flat tax actually is more realistic than a proposal, such as Lee-Rubio, that makes compromises in hopes of being more politically realistic.

3. Highlight international competitiveness. Simply stated, globalization increases the benefits of good policy and increases the costs of bad policy.

4. International bureaucracies hinder good policy. Good tax reform is based on taxing income only once and only taxing income earned inside national borders, yet the OECD wants to impose global rules based on extra-territorial double taxation.

5. Good tax reform is good health reform. The biggest genuine loophole in the tax code is for fringe benefits, and this is a big reason for the third-party-payer crisis in healthcare.

6. Fix the biased scorekeeping of the JCT. The Joint Committee on Taxation uses methodology that it farther to the left than Paul Krugman.

7. Growth trumps fairness. The left will always use class-warfare arguments against good policy and the only effective counter-argument is that economic growth benefits all taxpayers.

One final point. Folks often ask me about plans – such as the Fair Tax – that would abolish the income tax and instead collect revenue with a national sales tax.

That approach is theoretically sound, but I have some practical concerns based on my distrust of politicians.

P.S. Here’s some humorous fallout from the election. Hitler learns that Democrats lost the Senate.

Hitler parody videos have appeared many places in recent years. Here are my favorites.

The head of the National Socialist Workers Party gets a double-dose – here and here – of bad news about Obamacare.

Here’s Hitler learning about Europe being downgraded.

And here’s the Fuehrer finding out that Scott Walker prevailed in his fight against government bureaucrats in Wisconsin.

P.P.S. I shared some cartoons before the election with the theme that Obama has been bad news for the Democratic Party.

Now that the election is over, that theme is even more appropriate.  Here’s Glenn McCoy’s assessment of the change Obama delivered.

Robert Ariail has a similar perspective.

In other words, as I suggested back in 2012, lots of non-leftist people should be happy that Obama got reelected.

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