Posts Tagged ‘Corruption’

I explained back in 2013 that there is a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.

Pro-market is a belief in genuine free enterprise, which means companies succeed of fail solely on the basis of whether they produce goods and services that consumers like.

Pro-business, by contrast, is a concept that opens the door to inefficient and corrupt cronyism, such as bailouts and subsidies.

It basically means big business and big government get in bed together. And that’s going to mean bad news for taxpayers and consumers.

Washington specializes in this kind of cronyism. The Export-Import Bank, ethanol handouts, TARP, and Obamacare bailouts for big insurance firms are a few of my least-favorite examples.

But state politicians also like giving money to rich insiders.

A report in the Washington Post reveals how states are engaged in a bidding war to attract Amazon’s big new facility, dubbed HQ2.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will offer more than $3 billion in tax breaks and grants and about $2 billion in transportation upgrades to persuade Amazon.com to bring its second headquarters and up to 50,000 jobs to Montgomery County. …It appears to be the second-most generous set of inducements among the 20 locations on Amazon’s shortlist. Of the offerings whose details have become public, either through government or local media accounts, only New Jersey’s is larger, at $7 billion.

Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, explains to CNN why this approach is troubling.

…there’s one part of Amazon’s HQ2 competition that is deeply disturbing — pitting city against city in a wasteful and economically unproductive bidding war for tax and other incentives. As one of the world’s most valuable companies, Amazon does not need — and should not be going after — taxpayer dollars… While Amazon may have the deck stacked in picking its HQ2 location, the mayors and elected leaders of these cities owe it to their tax payers and citizens to ensure they are not on the hook for hundreds of millions and in some cases as much as $7 billion in incentives to one of the world’s most valuable companies and richest men. …The truly progressive thing to do is to forge a pact to not give Amazon a penny in tax incentives or other handouts, thereby forcing the company to make its decision based on merit.

It’s not just a problem with Amazon.

Here’s are excerpts from a column in the L.A. Times on crony capitalism for Apple and other large firms.

State and local officials in Iowa have been working hard to rationalize their handout of more than $208 million in tax benefits to Apple, one of the world’s richest companies, for a data facility that will host 50 permanent jobs. …the Apple deal shows the shortcomings of all such corporate handouts, nationwide. State and local governments seldom perform cost-benefit studies to determine their value — except in retrospect, when the money already has been paid out. They seldom explain why some industries should be favored over others — think about the film production incentives offered by Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia and, yes, Iowa, which never panned out as profit-makers for the states. …the handouts allow big companies to pit state against state and city against city in a competition that benefits corporate shareholders almost exclusively. Bizarrely, this process has been explicitly endorsed by Donald Trump. …politicians continue to shovel out the benefits, hoping to steer their economies in new directions and perhaps acquire a reputation for vision. Nevada was so eager to land a big battery factory from Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk that it offered him twice what Musk was seeking from the five states competing for the project. (In Las Vegas, this is known as “leaving money on the table.”) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gave a big incentive deal to a furniture factory even though it was laying off half its workforce. He followed up last month with an astronomical $3-billion handout to electronics manufacturer Foxconn for a factory likely to employ a fraction of the workforce it forecasts.

And here’s an editorial from Wisconsin about a bit of cronyism from the land of cheese.

The Foxconn deal…should be opposed by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. There are no partisan nor ideological “sides” in this debate. The division is between those who want to create jobs in a smart and responsible way that yields long-term benefits and those who propose to throw money at corporations that play states and nations against one another. The Foxconn deal represents the worst form of crony capitalism — an agreement to transfer billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to a foreign corporation. …Walker offered the company a massive giveaway — discussions included a commitment to hand the Taiwanese corporation nearly $3 billion in taxpayer funds (if it meets hazy investment and employment goals), at least $150 million in sales tax exemptions…the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which analyzes bills with budget implications…pointed out that Foxconn would receive at least $1.35 billion and possibly as much as $2.9 billion in tax incentive payments even if it didn’t owe any Wisconsin tax… This is a horrible deal.

Let’s now circle back to Amazon and consider how it gets preferential treatment from the Post Office.

I don’t feel guilty ordering most of my family’s household goods on Amazon. …But when a mail truck pulls up filled to the top with Amazon boxes for my neighbors and me, I do feel some guilt. Like many close observers of the shipping business, I know a secret about the federal government’s relationship with Amazon: The U.S. Postal Service delivers the company’s boxes well below its own costs. Like an accelerant added to a fire, this subsidy is speeding up the collapse of traditional retailers in the U.S. and providing an unfair advantage for Amazon. …First-class mail effectively subsidizes the national network, and the packages get a free ride. An April analysis from Citigroup estimates that if costs were fairly allocated, on average parcels would cost $1.46 more to deliver. It is as if every Amazon box comes with a dollar or two stapled to the packing slip—a gift card from Uncle Sam. Amazon is big enough to take full advantage of “postal injection,” and that has tipped the scales in the internet giant’s favor. …around two-thirds of Amazon’s domestic deliveries are made by the Postal Service. It’s as if Amazon gets a subsidized space on every mail truck.

In this last example, the real problem is that we’ve fallen behind other nations and still have a government-run postal system.

The way to avoid perverse subsidies is privatization. That way Amazon deliveries will be based on market prices and we won’t have to worry about a tilted playing field.

And that last point is critical.

Yes, cronyism and corporate welfare is an economic issue. It is bad for long-run growth when political favors distort the allocation of capital.

But an unlevel playing field is also a moral issue. It’s simply not fair or not right for politicians to give their buddies special advantages.

And it’s both economically harmful and morally harmful to create a system where the business community views Washington as a handy source of unearned wealth.

For what it’s worth, I also think it should be a legal issue. For those of us who believe in the rule of law, a key principle is that everyone should be treated equally. Heck, that principle is enshrined in the Constitution.

So I’ve always wondered why courts haven’t rejected special deals for specific companies because of the equal-protection clause?

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t wonder. After all, the Supreme Court twisted itself into a pretzel to miraculously rationalize Obamacare.

But none of this changes the fact that it’s time to wean big business off corporate welfare.

P.S. Just in case you harbor unwarranted sympathy for big companies, remember that these are the folks who are often keen to undermine support for the entire capitalist system.

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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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It’s not easy being a libertarian in the policy world of Washington. I view the flat tax as a timid intermediate step, with the real goal being a tiny federal government (like the Founding Fathers envisioned) that can be financed without any broad-based tax.

Yet even my timid intermediate step is considered radical and impractical by DC standards. There’s no discussion of fundamental tax reform. Instead, the  debate revolves around whether we can reduce a couple of tax rates in one part of the code and “pay for” those changes by altering some provisions in another part of the code.

This is very frustrating, which is why I joked with Neil Cavuto that we could kill two birds with one stone by trading Trump, Hillary, Manafort, and Podesta to Russia in exchange for that country’s 13 percent flat tax.

But I want to address a couple of serious points in the interview.

To conclude, most people assume that something will pass simply because GOPers desperately need some sort of victory to compensate for their failure to repeal (or even just tinker with) Obamacare.

That’s true, but that doesn’t change the fact that any bill can be defeated if Democrats are unified in opposition and a small handful of Republicans decide to vote no.

By the way, I’m not completely unsympathetic to some of the Republicans who are wavering on whether to vote for a reform bill. Consider their predicament: If there’s a bill that cuts the corporate tax rate and gets rid of the deduction for state and local income taxes (to my chagrin, I’m assuming property taxes will still be deductible), that will be a net plus for the economy. But, depending on other provisions in the legislation, it may mean that a non-trivial number of voters (especially from high-tax states) will be hit with a tax increase.

Members of Congress who want good policy can explain to those voters that the economy will grow faster. They can tell those voters that their state politicians now will be more likely to reduce state income tax burdens. I think those assertions are true, but voters looking at higher tax burdens probably won’t care about those long-run effects.

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I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

A column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want to read about some symptoms of India’s bloated government, the country has a member in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, it also produced the most horrifying example of how handouts create bad incentives, and it mistreats private schools to compensate for the wretched failure of government schools.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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Whether I like what’s happening (getting rid of Operation Choke Point) or don’t like what’s happening (expanding civil asset forfeiture), it appears that the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is willing to make decisions.

With one very puzzling exception.

No steps have been taken to reverse the Obama-era policy of stonewalling to hide evidence of IRS scandals. Everything seems to be on auto-pilot.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the issue today and is justifiably frustrated.

The Obama Justice Department dismissed the IRS political targeting scandal as no big deal, and the Trump Administration hasn’t been any better. …These are basic questions of political accountability, even if the IRS has stonewalled since 2013. President Obama continued to spin that the targeting was the result of some “boneheaded” IRS line officers in Cincinnati who didn’t understand tax law. Yet Congressional investigations have uncovered clear evidence that the targeting was ordered and directed out of Washington. Former director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner was at the center of that Washington effort, but the IRS allowed her to retire with benefits. She invoked the Fifth Amendment before Congress. One of her principal deputies, Holly Paz, has submitted to a deposition in separate litigation, but the judge has sealed her testimony after she claimed she faced threats. The Acting Commissioner of the IRS at the time, Stephen Miller, stepped down in the wake of the scandal, but as far as anyone outside the IRS knows, no other IRS employee has been held to account. Even if the culprits were “rogue employees,” as the IRS claims, the public deserves to know what happened. …The Trump Administration also has a duty to provide some answers. The Justice Department and IRS have continued to resist the lawsuits as doggedly as they did in the Obama era. Attorney General Jeff Sessions can change that… Seven years is too long to wait for answers over abuses of the government’s taxing power.

This is spot on. It’s outrageous that the Obama Administration weaponized and politicized the IRS. But it’s also absurdly incompetent that the Trump Administration isn’t cleaning up the mess.

I understand why the bureaucrats at the Justice Department instinctively (and probably ideologically) want to protect their counterparts at the IRS. But, as the WSJ stated, there’s no reason why Attorney General Sessions isn’t using his authority to change policy.

The President’s failure to fire the ethically tainted IRS Commissioner is a troubling sign that the problem isn’t limited to the Justice Department.

One of Republicans’ least favorite Obama administration officials remains in his position: IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Some Republicans lawmakers have asked President Trump to ask for Koskinen’s resignation. The commissioner’s term expires in November, but he has said he would step aside sooner if asked by the president. …Koskinen to lead the IRS in 2013, not long after it was revealed that the agency had subjected Tea Party groups’ applications for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny and delays. …Many Republicans accuse Koskinen of impeding congressional investigations into the political-targeting scandal. They argue that he made false and misleading statements under oath and didn’t comply with a subpoena. During the last months of Obama’s presidency, some House Republicans pushed for a vote on Koskinen’s impeachment… Since Trump has taken office, there have been calls from GOP lawmakers for Koskinen to step down. Days after Trump’s inauguration, Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and more than 50 other lawmakers sent a letter urging Trump to fire Koskinen “in the most expedient manner practicable.” …It’s unclear why Trump hasn’t ousted Koskinen or if he plans to do so in the future.

Very disappointing. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but this almost leads me to wonder whether Koskinen has some damaging information on Trump.

Incidentally, the Justice Department may be dragging its feet and the White House may have cold feet, but the Treasury Department is overtly on the wrong side. And the problem starts at the top, resulting in praise for the Treasury Secretary from the pro-IRS forces at the New York Times.

President Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, knows that investing in the Internal Revenue Service yields significant returns… And he’s right: Every dollar spent on the agency returns $4 in revenue for the federal government, and as much as $10 when invested in enforcement activities. …At his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Mnuchin bemoaned the cuts to the I.R.S. budget over the last seven years. The agency “is under-resourced to perform its duties,” he said, adding that further cuts “will indeed hamper our ability to collect revenue.” He also acknowledged that money spent on the I.R.S. is a good investment: “To the extent that we add resources, we can collect more money.” …his faith in the I.R.S. work force prompted one of his congressional interrogators to call it “refreshing” to hear someone “praise the employees at the Treasury Department.”

Yet should we give more money to a bureaucracy that has a big enough budget to finance this kind of reprehensible behavior?

The Internal Revenue Service has seized millions of dollars in cash from individuals and businesses that obtained the money legally, according to a new Treasury Department inspector general’s report. …individuals and businesses are required to report all bank deposits greater than $10,000 to federal authorities. Intentionally splitting up large sums of cash into sub-$10,000 amounts to avoid that reporting requirement is known as “structuring” and is illegal under the federal Bank Secrecy Act. But many business owners engaged in perfectly legal activities may be unaware of the law. Others are covered by insurance policies that don’t cover cash losses greater than $10,000. Still others simply want to avoid extra paperwork, and keep their deposits less than $10,000 on the advice of bank employees or colleagues. …The reporting requirements were enacted to detect serious criminal activity, such as drug dealing and terrorism.

I’m very skeptical that these intrusive anti-money laundering laws are successful by any metric, but I’m nauseated that the main effect is to give IRS bureaucrats carte blanche to steal money from law-abiding people.

The IRS pursued hundreds of cases from 2012 to 2015 on suspicion of structuring, but with no indications of connections to any criminal activity. Simply depositing cash in sums of less than $10,000 was all that it took to arouse agents’ suspicions, leading to the eventual seizure and forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash from people not otherwise suspected of criminal activity. The IG took a random sample of 278 IRS forfeiture actions in cases where structuring was the primary basis for seizure. The report found that in 91 percent of those cases, the individuals and business had obtained their money legally.

But here’s the part that’s most outrageous.

Innocent people weren’t the byproducts of a campaign to get bad guys. They were the targets.

…the report found that the pattern of seizures — targeting businesses that had obtained their money legally — was deliberate. “One of the reasons why legal source cases were pursued was that the Department of Justice had encouraged task forces to engage in ‘quick hits,’ where property was more quickly seized and more quickly resolved through negotiation, rather than pursuing cases with other criminal activity (such as drug trafficking and money laundering), which are more time-consuming,” according to the news release. In most cases, the report found, agents followed a protocol of “seize first, ask questions later.” Agents only questioned individuals and business owners after they had already seized their money.

In any event, the Trump Administration’s failure to deal with the problem seems to have emboldened the tax collection agency.

Despite promises to Congress, the Internal Revenue Service has yet to take advantage of a red-flag alert system designed to prevent it  from rehiring past employees with blots on their records, a watchdog found. …the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that more than 200 of 2,000-plus former employees “whom the IRS rehired between January 2015 and March 2016 had been previously terminated or separated from the tax agency while under investigation,” according to a report released on Thursday.

And keep in mind that IRS bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses in response to the scandal.

By the way, the problem isn’t limited to the executive branch.

Republicans in 2015 (after they had control of both the House and Senate!) decided that the best response to IRS scandals was to increase the agency’s budget. I’m not joking (and I’m also not happy). At the risk of being redundant, only the Stupid Party could be that stupid.

I sarcastically wrote four years ago that we should be thankful that Obama reminded the American people that the IRS isn’t trustworthy. Little did I realize that Republicans would fumble a golden opportunity to deal with the mess once they got power.

P.S. I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here’s more examples of IRS humor from my archives, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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When I write about the actions of state governments, it’s usually to highlight a specific bad policy. As you can imagine, states like California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey give me a never-ending amount of material.

But I frequently run across things that are happening in the states that don’t really merit an entire column, but they nonetheless are worthy of attention since they symbolize the venality and incompetence of politicians.

So I’ve decided that it’s time for a series on “great moments in state government” to augment my already well-developed series on “great moments in local government.”

Let’s start by looking at a truly bizarre example of occupational licensing from Tennessee.

A decade ago, Martha Stowe founded True Equine, an equine-services company, a few miles south of Nashville, Tenn., in Williamson County. After earning a certificate in equine myofascial release, a massage technique that releases tension and pain in a horse’s body, Martha soon acquired a large clientele. …In April 2016, however, Stowe’s well-established business was upended when she received a threatening letter from the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, a board within Tennessee’s Department of Health. Only licensed veterinarians are permitted to massage horses, the board’s attorney explained, and if Stowe continued to practice myofascial release, she could be fined up to $500 and receive a six-month jail sentence. …The board also sent the letter to fellow Williamson County resident Laurie Wheeler, a professional jazz musician and licensed massage therapist who, like Stowe, is certified in equine myofascial release. …Upon receiving the veterinary board’s letter, Wheeler was stunned — after all, she was certified, and not only that, she had never even accepted money for her services. But, she says, the government threatened to “fine me and put me in jail for voluntarily working on animals.” For Wheeler, helping horses is more than a volunteer position or an occupation; it’s a call to duty.

But there is some good news.

A pro-market think tank is helping the women fight back.

Both women disregarded the veterinary board’s warnings and subsequently looked to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank, for legal representation. According to Braden Boucek, director of litigation for the Beacon Center, the board’s decision to allow only licensed veterinarians to massage horses is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause. Moreover, because the Constitution protects private property, which in turn protects the right to acquire property and the right to earn a living, the board’s decision violates the 14th Amendment. …Threatening to jail an individual for massaging a horse is absurd. These women aren’t giving medical advice to owners, or surgically operating on horses, or doing anything that only a licensed veterinarian could do. Remember, this kind of massage is not even taught in veterinary school. Under Tennessee’s logic, why shouldn’t massage therapists who practice exclusively on people be required to hold a medical degree? The veterinary board ought to take the necessary steps to begin updating this illogical statute. If it doesn’t, it will need to explain in court why it’s permissible to deprive Stowe and Wheeler of their fundamental constitutional rights.

Amen. I admire Tennessee for not having an income tax. It’s time, though, for the Volunteer State to extend economic freedom to horse masseurs.

Now let’s shift to Wisconsin, where we have another example of cronyism.

State lawmakers may be brave when it comes to curtailing special privileges for government employees, but they like special protections for private industry.

Wisconsin state regulators…[are]…banning state grocery stores from selling one of the Emerald Isle’s most popular (and tasty) products: Kerrygold butter. Never mind that Wisconsinites have been buying Kerrygold for years with no problems. Or that it remains legal in the 49 other states. Badger State bureaucrats, trying to protect the state dairy industry, are suddenly enforcing a 1970 law that requires all butter sold in the state to go through a complicated evaluation by a state panel. This is the same state that once banned margarine because it was a competitive threat to local dairies. …as a result of the ban, Kerrygold-loving Wisconsinites have been forced to make butter runs across the state border, bringing back suitcases stuffed with the import. In Ireland, meanwhile, the ban is leading to headlines such as this in the Irish Mirror: “Shopkeepers in Wisconsin could face JAIL if they sell Kerrygold butter.”

Maybe butter consumers in Wisconsin can fly to Norway and learn how to get around misguided policies that make butter a black-market commodity.

Remember, if you outlaw butter, only outlaws will have butter.

Now let’s look at some onerous government intervention in my state of Virginia. And this one is personal since I don’t like the hassle of annual vehicle inspections.

…my annual Virginia motor vehicle safety inspection was due in a month. I knew my car wouldn’t pass and that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay on the road with that light on. Never mind that the light has nothing to do with the safe operation of the vehicle. And also never mind that in a 2015 study the Government Accountability Office “examined the effect of inspection programs on crash rates related to vehicle component failure, but showed no clear influence.” AAA Public Affairs Vice President Mike Wright said, “Nobody can prove with any degree of certainty that spending the money, suffering the inconvenience of getting your vehicle inspected, actually produces desired results.” …Virginia has a personal vehicle safety program overseen by the state police that cannot be shown to enhance public safety. The people who perform inspections are often the same people who fix any identified deficiencies. …A government program that requires the purchase of a good or service in return for a nonexistent public benefit is illiberal and anti-consumer. Two-thirds of states see no need to impose the burden of annual personal vehicle safety inspections on their citizens; Virginia should end its inspection requirement.

For what it’s worth, the People’s Republic of the District of Columbia doesn’t have this requirement. Kind of embarrassing that Virginia is more interventionist.

Our final example come from Illinois, where a local newspaper has a superb editorial on a sordid example of wasteful sleaze in the state budget.

Let’s eliminate the Illinois Arts Council Agency from the state budget. They must have taken lessons on government efficiency from our local townships, spending $1 million on staff and overhead in 2016 to hand out $834,900 in grants. The council is chaired by Shirley Madigan, who has been in that position since 1983. Funny, her husband, Mike, has been Illinois House Speaker since then, too. …guess who gets the money? Their well-heeled friends. Madigan’s alma mater received $95,100, another board member’s employer received $165,650 and yet another board member’s pet opera company received $503,000. Surprise! …Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has an opportunity to let someone else be a matron of the arts and appoint a majority of board members dedicated to either eliminating the council or at least making it a transparent organization that helps local artists rather than makes your taxes a minor revenue source for well-connected, large arts institutions.

Needless to say, the first option (eliminating the council) is the superior choice, just like we should shut down the National Endowment for the Arts in D.C.

But let’s set that aside. I’m still scratching my head about a bureaucracy that spends $1 million to give away $834.9 thousand. Though that’s actually efficient if you compare it with the German tax that resulted in €30 euros of government expense for every €1 collected.

To conclude, there’s a common thread in these four stories. In each case, politicians at the state level have policies to enable unearned wealth to flow to the pockets of their friends and allies.

In other words, the First Theorem of Government doesn’t just apply to what’s happening in Washington.

P.S. I’ve only had a few previous “great moments” for state governments. One from Florida involved a felony arrest of some luckless guy who was simply trying to impress his girlfriend by releasing some balloons, and the other from Virginia involved three misdemeanors for the horrid crime of rescuing a wounded deer.

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One of the points I repeatedly make is that big government breeds corruption for the simple reason that politicians have more power to reward friends and punish enemies.

It’s especially nauseating when big companies learn that they can get in bed with big government in order to obtain unearned wealth with bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, and other examples of cronyism.

And these odious forms of government intervention reduce our living standards by distorting the allocation of labor and capital.

But just as crime is bad for society but good for criminals, it’s also true that cronyism is bad for the economy and good for cronies.

Two professors at the University of the Illinois decided to measure the “value” of cronyism for politically connected companies.

Gaining political access can be of significant value for corporations, particularly since governments play an increasingly prominent role in influencing firms. Governments affect economic activities not only through regulations, but also by playing the role of customers, financiers, and partners of firms in the private sector. …Therefore, gaining and maintaining access to influential policymakers can be an important source of competitive advantage… In this paper, we investigate the characteristics of firms with political access as well as the valuation effects of political access for corporations. Using a novel dataset of White House visitor logs, we identify top corporate executives of S&P 1500 firms that have face-to-face meetings with high-level federal government officials. …We match the names of visitors in the White House visitor logs to the names of corporate executives of S&P1500 firms during the period from January 2009 through December 2015. We are able to identify 2,286 meetings between corporate executives and federal government officials at the White House.

And what did they find?

That cronyism is lucrative (I deliberately chose that word rather than “profitable” because money that it legitimately earned is very honorable).

Here are some of the findings.

…we find that firms that contributed more to Obama’s presidential election campaigns are more likely to have access to the White House. We also find that firms that spend more on lobbying, firms that receive more government contracts… Second, we find that corporate executives’ meetings with White House officials are followed by significant positive cumulative abnormal returns (CARs). For example, the CAR is about 0.865% during a 51-day window surrounding the meetings (i.e., 10 days before to 40 days after the meetings). We also find that the result is driven mainly by meetings with the President and his top aides.

For those interested, here are the companies that had a lot of interaction with the Obama White House.

And here are the officials that they met with.

For what it’s worth, I would be especially suspicious of the meetings with Valerie Jarrett and the three Chiefs of Staff. Those officials are political operatives rather than policy experts, so companies meeting with them were probably looking for favors.

Interestingly, it turns out that it wasn’t a good idea for companies to “invest” a lot of time and effort into cultivating relationships with Democrats.

…we exploit the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the U.S. as a shock to political access. We find that firms with access to the Obama administration experience significantly lower stock returns following the release of the election result than otherwise similar firms. The economic magnitude is nontrivial as well: after controlling for various factors that are likely correlated with firms’ political activities, such as campaign contributions, lobbying expenses, and government contracts, the stocks of firms with access to the Obama administration underperform the stocks of otherwise similar firms by about 80 basis points in the three days immediately following the election.

Though I guess you can’t blame the companies. Most observers (including me) expected Hillary to win, so the firms were simply playing the odds (albeit from an amoral perspective).

By the way, there are two very important caveats to share.

  • First, we can’t universally assume that corporate executives who met with White House officials were seeking special favors. They may simply have been urging the Obama Administration not to raise taxes or impose new regulations (i.e., honorable forms of lobbying).
  • Second, we can’t assume that the bad forms of lobbying have disappeared simply because there’s a Republican in the White House. As we saw during the Bush years, the GOP is more than capable of creating opportunities for unearned wealth by expanding the size and scope government.

For what it’s worth, I fear Trump will be tempted to play favorites as well. Which is why the real message for today is that smaller government is the only way to limit the corrupt interaction of big business and big government.

This image from the libertarian page on Reddit illustrates why my leftist buddies are naive to think that a bigger government will be a weapon against cronyism.

P.S. We should learn from Estonia on how to limit cronyism.

P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, those with left-wing children may want to get them “Kronies” for their birthdays or Christmas.

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