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Posts Tagged ‘Corruption’

I have a very consistent view of victimless crimes.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t approve of prostitution and I’ve never consorted with a prostitute (other than the political ones in DC), but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

Given these views, you won’t be surprised to also learn that I don’t care for gambling, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

The good news is that the nation is slowly but surely moving in the direction of legalization.

The bad news is that politicians doing the right thing in the worst possible way. Let’s look at three examples.

Our first wretched example is government-run lotteries, which are rip-off operations. In a genuine market, competition forces casinos to have reasonably decent odds. Yes, it’s set up so “the house” wins more often than it loses, but a casino probably pays out $90 for every $100 of bets. With lotteries, by contrast, governments rig the rules so that they pay out closer to $50 for every $100 of bets. Mafioso loansharks must be envious.

A second example is that politicians seem to view legalization merely as an opportunity for taxes, graft, featherbedding, and cronyism. Consider the case of Atlantic City, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

In 1976 New Jersey voters approved a referendum that legalized gambling in Atlantic City. The constitutional amendment required casino revenues to fund programs for senior citizens and disabled residents, but politicians have instead funneled the cash to favored projects and businesses under the guise of promoting development. Guess how that’s turned out? A 1984 law required casinos to pay 2.5% of gaming revenues to the state or “reinvest” 1.25% in tax-exempt bonds issued by the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for state and community “projects that would not attract capital in normal market conditions.” Investment recipients have included Best of Bass Pro shop, Margaritaville and Healthplex. A decade later, state lawmakers imposed a $1.50 fee (which has since doubled) on casino parking spots to fund Atlantic City transportation, casino construction and a convention center. In 2004 lawmakers added a $3 surcharge for casino hotel stays to finance new hotel rooms and retail establishments, which had the effect of promoting unsustainable commercial and casino development. …Employment in Atlantic City has declined by about 10% over the last decade. Since 2010 the city’s property tax base has shrunk by two thirds. Local politicians raised property taxes by 50% between 2013 and 2014 to compensate for the dwindling tax base, but this has merely deterred new business investment and propelled flight. Meantime, local politicians have continued to spend… Between 2010 and 2014, expenditures increased by 10% while government debt doubled. The city government spends about $6,600 a year per resident—more than any other city in the state including Newark ($2,344). …Labor costs constitute about 70% of the budget. Earlier this year, the city emergency manager projected a $393 million cumulative deficit over the next five years absent reforms. …Democratic legislators and Governor Chris Christie passed a bailout that allows the city to squeeze an additional $120 million out of casinos in revenues annually to compensate for lower property-tax revenue. To sum up: New Jersey…plundered Atlantic City casinos, redistributed the spoils and loaded up the city with unaffordable levels of debt. The gambling mecca is a five-star example of failed liberal policies.

In other words, gambling did lead to addiction. Politicians got hooked on wasteful spending and haven’t been able to kick the habit.

Our final example is how politicians and established casinos are getting in bed together to prohibit competition from online gaming.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is not impressed by this bit of cronyism.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has long sought federal legislation that would override the ability of state governments to set their own online gambling rules. Given his business activities, Adelson clearly has no moral objections to gambling itself. His goal is simply to undermine market competition and put alternatives to his Vegas casinos out of business, and he has spent millions on lobbyists to help make that happen. Adelson’s allies in Congress have tried repeatedly to pass the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA), which would prevent states from authorizing online gambling within their own borders… Outside groups strongly warned against the consequences of undermining the 10th Amendment in the pursuit of crony capitalism. RAWA represents both a direct attack on personal liberty and a potential slippery slope in its erosion of federalist principles.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center also is disappointed with this odious bit of special-interest favoritism.

Adelson hates online gambling, as it competes with his bricks-and-mortar Las Vegas casinos for customers. More than five years ago, on what has become known to the poker world as Black Friday, the federal government unleashed a legal jihad against online poker companies and their top executives. Online poker is not itself illegal—a fact clarified by the DOJ’s reinterpretation of the Wire Act—but the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act made it illegal for payment processors to transfer funds to and from gambling sites. The problem for Adelson and his allies is that the UIGEA and other federal statutes apply only when state borders are crossed. The 10th Amendment and the principles of federalism mean that federal lawmakers should have no say regarding activities that take place entirely within one state’s borders. So if state governments wish to authorize online gambling for their citizens, they are and should remain free to do so.

Time for my two cents on the issue. Ideally, no government should have the power to tell gamblers whether they can engage in consensual transactions across state lines or even national borders.

But not only has that already happened, but we now have politicians and a cronyist conspiring to have the federal government interfere with states that want to allow online gambling inside state borders.

It will be interesting to see whether Republicans, now that they’re about to control Washington, will choose cronyism or competition, centralization or federalism (the Export-Import Bank is another test of GOP principles…or lack thereof).

Let’s put all this in context. Today’s topic is gambling and the cancerous effect of government intervention and favoritism in that sector. But the lesson we should learn is that cronyism is a bad idea, period. Cronyism is also bad in agriculture. It’s bad in finance. It’s bad in the tax code. It’s bad in energy. It’s bad everywhere.

To conclude, here’s an excellent video from Lean Liberty about the dangers of letting big business and big government rig the rules for the benefit of powerful insiders.

The moral of the story is that consumers should be in charge of which companies succeed and which ones fail.

The free enterprise system – when it’s allowed to operate – produces great wealth and prosperity. Cronyism, by contrast, undermines growth by politicizing the allocation of resources. Even worse, it reduces public support for limited government since many people mistakenly assume that big business and capitalism are synonymous.

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If you ask what worries me about the incoming Trump Administration, I’ll immediately point to a bunch of policy issues.

Others, though, are more focused on whether Trump’s business empire will distort decisions in the White House.

Here’s what Paul Krugman recently wrote about Trump and potential corruption.

…he’s already giving us an object lesson in what real conflicts of interest look like, as authoritarian governments around the world shower favors on his business empire. Of course, Donald Trump could be rejecting these favors and separating himself and his family from his hotels and so on. But he isn’t. In fact, he’s openly using his position to drum up business. …The question you need to ask is why this matters. …America is a very rich country, whose government spends more than $4 trillion a year, so even large-scale looting amounts to rounding error. What’s important is not the money that sticks to the fingers of the inner circle, but what they do to get that money, and the bad policy that results. …what’s truly scary is the potential impact of corruption on foreign policy. …someplace like Vladimir Putin’s Russia can easily funnel vast sums to the man at the top… So how bad will the effects of Trump-era corruption be? The best guess is, worse than you can possibly imagine.

I’m tempted to ask why Krugman wasn’t similarly worried about corruption over the past eight years. Was he fretting about Solyndra-type scams? About the pay-to-play antics at the Clinton Foundation? About Operation Choke Point and arbitrary denial of financial services to law-abiding citizens?

He seems to think that the problem of malfeasance only exists when his team isn’t in power. But that’s totally backwards. As I wrote back in 2010, people should be especially concerned and vigilant when their party holds power. It’s not just common sense. It should be a moral obligation.

But even if Krugman is a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. At least not in this case. He is absolutely on the mark when he frets about the “incentives” for massive looting by Trump and his allies.

But what frustrates me is that he doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion, which is that the incentive to loot mostly exists because there’s an ability to loot. And the ability to loot mostly exists because the federal government is so big and has so much power.

And as Lord Acton famously warned, power is very tempting and very corrupting.

Which is why I’m hoping that Krugman will read John Stossel’s new column for Reason. In the piece, John correctly points out that the only way to “drain the swamp” is to shrink the size and scope of government.

…today’s complex government allows the politically connected to corrupt… most everything. …In the swamp, no one but taxpayers pays for their mistakes. …it’s well worth it for companies to invest in lobbyists and fixers who dive into the swamp to extract subsidies.For taxpayers? Not so much. While the benefits to lobbyists are concentrated, taxpayer costs are diffuse. …Draining the swamp would mean not just taking freebies away from corporations—or needy citizens—but eliminating complex handouts like Obamacare. Candidate Trump said he would repeal Obamacare. Will he? He’s already backed off of that promise, saying he likes two parts of the law—the most expensive parts.

As you can see, Stossel understands “public choice” and recognizes that making government smaller is the only sure-fire way of reducing public corruption.

Which is music to my ears, for obvious reasons.

By the way, the same problem exists in many other countries and this connects to the controversies about Trump and his business dealings. Many of the stories about potential misbehavior during a Trump Administration focus on whether the President will adjust American policy in exchange for permits and other favors from foreign governments.

But that temptation wouldn’t exist if entrepreneurs didn’t need to get permission from bureaucrats before building things such as hotels and golf courses. In other words, if more nations copied Singapore and New Zealand, there wouldn’t be much reason to worry whether the new president was willing to swap policy for permits.

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It’s easy to define and/or understand most statist policies.

  • We know that a tax increase is when politicians take (or, given the Laffer Curve, try to take) more of your money based on your decisions to work, save, shop, or invest.
  • We know that protectionism is when politicians use taxes and other policies to restrict your freedom to buy goods and services produced in other nations.
  • We know that a minimum wage mandate is when politicians criminalize employment contracts between consenting adults, thus harming low-skilled workers.
  • We know that Keynesian “stimulus” is when politicians borrow from one part of the economy and spend in another part of the economy and pretend there’s more money.

The list is potentially endless, but there’s one statist policy – cronyism – that I haven’t added to the list because I haven’t thought of a simple definition.

Are bailouts cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are subsidies cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are favors in the tax code cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are trade barriers cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that.

You’re probably noticing a pattern, which is why this new visual from the Mercatus Center is helpful. It illustrates that there are many policies that should be considered cronyism.

And Mercatus comes up with a definition that we can add to our list.

  • We know that cronyism is when politicians create “privileges that governments give to particular businesses and industries.”

Speaking of which, one of the most damaging features of cronyism is the way that it gives capitalism a bad name.

Many people equate free markets with “business.” So when people in the business sector get special favors, regular folks conclude that capitalism is a “rigged” system.

In theory, this false impression could be offset by an aggressive educational campaign by those who support free enterprise. Unfortunately, that task is rather difficult since many people assume Republicans are the pro-capitalism party. So when they see the GOP favoring corrupt handouts to business such as the Export-Import Bank and the sleazy ethanol program, they conclude – once again – that capitalism is rigged for the politically powerful.

And the battle to separate capitalism from cronyism is further hindered when major figures in the business world (such as Warren Buffett) get in bed with government.

Another example is Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX. He is known as a visionary entrepreneur, which is good. But Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains that he also has put taxpayers on the hook to underwrite and prop up much of his business activities.

It was announced this week that one of Elon Musk’s companies, Tesla Motors, will buy one of his other companies, SolarCity, for an all-stock deal worth $2.6 billion. …With the amount of taxpayer support both companies have received, perhaps the rest of us should get a vote… The deal comes as SolarCity has floundered despite significant taxpayer support through a bevy of state and federal tax credits and subsidies. Nevertheless, the solar energy company’s stock has been in long term decline as the company struggles to develop a profitable market not reliant on generous helpings of taxpayer support. Tesla, too, has fed repeatedly at the government trough. The government provided federal loan guarantees and tax credits to help manufacture its electric vehicles. It also subsidized the purchase of those same vehicles to increase sales. Even still, the company makes more money selling “carbon credits” to other manufacturers than it does electric vehicles. …Musk’s other endeavor, SpaceX, also relies heavily on government. Obviously much of its business comes from government contracts, but more interesting is how those contracts are apparently obtained. …this year’s National Defense Authorization Act contains an amendment from Senator John McCain designed to eliminate from competition the Defense Department’s current supplier of rockets and pave the way for SpaceX to take over, despite the fact that its rockets aren’t yet powerful enough for the job.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy adds her insight

Elon Musk delivered a much-anticipated speech…where he laid out his vision for colonizing Mars…a testament to human innovation and determination. …it might be more impressive if Musk could provide a vision for how his companies can succeed here on Earth first, especially without heavy reliance on taxpayer support. …Musk is no stranger to cozy relations with federal and state governments. All three of his companies have benefited heavily from taxpayers. Yet despite generous green energy handouts, his SolarCity is heavily indebted. He now wants to merge it with his electric car company, Tesla Motors, which also benefited from almost $1.3 billion in subsidies. Solidifying his crony credentials, the epitome of crony capitalism itself, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, has subsidized the payloads for numerous SpaceX launches. The Ex-Im Bank’s chairman misrepresented this as support for “small business.” …There’s no doubt that Musk is an impressive salesman and innovator. …Now that he has set his sights on Mars, let’s hope—for the future of science and exploration—that he…has the courtesy to leave taxpayers out of it.

Amen.

It’s great when entrepreneurs are successful. And I don’t resent their wealth in the slightest.

But only if they earn their money honestly, in a genuinely free and competitive market.

Cronyism, by contrast, is a cancer that compromises and erodes genuine capitalism.

P.S. Let’s close on a more upbeat and entertaining topic, which is the bipartisan mockery of politicians.

I shared a very funny post about American leftists escaping to Canada after the Tea Party election of 2010.

Here’s some related humor about Canada closing the border for the next eight years.

One unfortunate aspect of being a libertarian is that you’re almost always unhappy about whoever becomes President. Indeed, I’ve only been pleased with one President who has served in my lifetime.

So I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Republicans who were unhappy after the 2012 election. And I’m similarly immune to feelings of empathy for Democrats who are unhappy about this election.

Especially the leftists who are engaging is hysterical hyperbolic histrionics (how’s that for alliteration!) about Trump. Here’s some great satire about the millennials protesting against Trump’s victory.

As anti-Trump rallies nationwide turned hostile overnight with widespread reports of violence, looting, vandalism, and death threats against the president-elect and his supporters, police in numerous major cities were able to instill calm and regain control by handing out participation trophies to all millennial protesters who were enraged about losing the election, sources confirmed. …“It’s a foreign notion to them. Even in sports—win or lose, everyone won, and everyone got a trophy no matter what. This is the millennial way,” he said. “So I had the idea—hey, why not start handing out participation trophies to the protesters, and telling them ‘Hey, you know what? You may have lost the election, but look—everyone gets a trophy. Everyone’s a winner.’” Seeing how the trophies had an instantaneous calming effect on the millennials and filled them with a sense of fulfillment and achievement, word spread quickly among police departments nationwide, and emergency trophies were procured by the thousands for use at the rallies.

Speaking of which, here’s an amusing image that has a serious message. I agree with leftists who fear that Trump may abuse the vast powers of the federal government. But they supported Obama’s dubious expansion of executive power, so they don’t have much credibility on the issue.

Reminds me of this clever poster that the Libertarian Party created to mock the Occupy crazies.

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I’ve written before about Hillary Clinton’s unethical and (presumably) illegal actions, both in terms of her email server and the Clinton Foundation.

We’ve probably only seen the tip of the iceberg, but one thing that can be said with confidence is that there is strong scent of corruption, cronyism, and insider dealing that surrounds Mrs. Clinton.

Every day seems to bring new evidence. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Kimberly Strassel puts it in blunt terms.

A Hillary Clinton presidency will be built, from the ground up, on self-dealing, crony favors, and an utter disregard for the law. This isn’t a guess. …It comes in the form of a memo written in 2011 by longtime Clinton errand boy Doug Band, who for years worked simultaneously at the Clinton Foundation and at the head of his lucrative consulting business, Teneo. It is astonishingly detailed proof that the Clintons do not draw any lines between their “charitable” work, their political activity, their government jobs or (and most important) their personal enrichment. Every other American is expected to keep these pursuits separate, as required by tax law, anticorruption law and campaign-finance law. For the Clintons, it is all one and the same—the rules be damned. …Any nonprofit lawyer in America knows the ironclad rule of keeping private enrichment away from tax-exempt activity, for the simple reason that mixing the two involves ripping off taxpayers. Every election lawyer in the country lives in fear of stepping over the lines governing fundraising and election vehicles. The Clintons recognize no lines. Here’s the lasting takeaway: The Clintons…know the risks. And yet they geared up the foundation and these seedy practices even as Mrs. Clinton was making her first bid for the presidency. They continued them as she sat as secretary of state. They continue them still, as she nears the White House. This is how the Clintons operate. They don’t change. Any one who pulls the lever for Mrs. Clinton takes responsibility for setting up the nation for all the blatant corruption that will follow.

Let’s look at some examples.

And we’ll start with the example of a Swiss bank that was being wrongfully persecuted by the American government for the supposed crime of protecting the privacy of clients (i.e., for following Swiss law inside Switzerland).

In other words, I’m very sympathetic to the bank. But I’m not a big fan of the Clintons using the bank’s legal woes as an opportunity to raise a bunch of money in exchange for a favorable disposition. Yet that’s exactly what happened, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian.

In February 2009, the IRS sued UBS and demanded that it disclose the names of 52,000 possible American tax evaders with secret Swiss bank accounts. …On 19 August 2009, it was announced that UBS would pay no fine and would provide the IRS with information about 4,450 accounts within a year. Since the deal was struck, disclosures by the foundation and the bank show the donations by UBS to the Clinton Foundation growing “from less than $60,000 through 2008 to a cumulative total of about $600,000 by the end of 2014”… The bank also teamed up with the foundation on the Clinton Economic Opportunity Initiative, creating a pilot entrepreneur program through which UBS offered $32m in loans to businesses, the newspaper reported. Other UBS donations to the Clinton Foundation include a $350,000 donation from June 2011 and a $100,000 donation for a charity golf tournament. Additionally, UBS paid more than $1.5m in speaking fees to Bill Clinton between 2001 and 2014, the newspaper reported.

James Freeman, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, cites two other examples of Clinton-style pay-to-play. The first example deals with Morocco.

We now know from emails published by WikiLeaks that before Mrs. Clinton formally launched her campaign, she arranged for the king of Morocco to donate $12 million to Clinton Foundation programs. What’s significant about the Morocco case is that for years the Clintons peddled the fiction that donors write checks simply to support wondrous acts of Clintonian charity. But that cover story isn’t available here. Mrs. Clinton’s trusted aide Huma Abedin put it in writing: The Moroccans agreed to the deal on the condition that Mrs. Clinton would participate at a conference in their country. Panicked Clinton-campaign aides persuaded Mrs. Clinton to avoid such a trip before launching her candidacy—and the foundation got the king to settle for Bill and Chelsea Clinton. But the record is clear. The king wanted the access, influence and prestige that all strongmen crave from legitimate democracies.

The second example comes from Kazakhstan.

This wasn’t the first time the Clintons satisfied such a desire while collecting megadonations. When it comes to human rights, Kazakhstan’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, makes Morocco’s king look enlightened. In power since 1991 and never freely elected, Mr. Nazarbayev must have enjoyed the sensation of Mr. Clinton endorsing him to lead an international election-monitoring group in 2005. The Kazakh strongman knows how to return a favor, and he granted valuable mining concessions to Clinton Foundation donors. The donors then built a global uranium powerhouse that was eventually sold to the Russians in a deal that required the 2010 approval of a U.S. government committee that included Mrs. Clinton’s State Department.

There’s a lot more material I could share, but the purpose of today’s column isn’t to demonstrate Hillary’s recent unethical behavior.

Instead, I want to show how she has a decades-long pattern of using government for self-advancement and self-enrichment. And I’ll follow by drawing (what should be) a very obvious lesson about public policy.

To keep today’s column manageable, let’s review just two examples.

First, let’s go back more than 20 years to the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Peggy Noonan explains Hillary’s attempt to replace the career professionals at the White House travel with cronies from Arkansas.

Why don’t people like Hillary Clinton? …Why, when some supposed scandal breaks and someone says she’s hiding something, do people, including many of her supporters, assume it’s true? …the scandals stretch back…all the way to her beginnings as a national figure. …It was early 1993. …It was the first big case in which she showed poor judgment, a cool willingness to mislead, and a level of political aggression that gave even those around her pause. It was after this mess that her critics said she’d revealed the soul of an East German border guard.

Let’s look at what happened.

On May 19, 1993, less than four months into the administration, the seven men who had long worked in the White House travel office were suddenly and brutally fired. The seven nonpartisan government workers, who helped arrange presidential trips, served at the pleasure of the president. But each new president had kept them on because they were good at their jobs. A veteran civil servant named Billy Dale had worked in the office 30 years and headed it the last 10. He and his colleagues were ordered to clear out their desks and were escorted from the White House, which quickly announced they were the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI. They were in shock. So were members of the press, who knew Mr. Dale and his colleagues as honest and professional. A firestorm ensued. Under criticism the White House changed its story. They said that they were just trying to cut unneeded staff and save money. Then they said they were trying to impose a competitive bidding process. They tried a new explanation—the travel office shake-up was connected to Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review. (Almost immediately Mr. Gore said that was not true.) The White House then said it was connected to a campaign pledge to cut the White House staff by 25%. Finally they claimed the workers hadn’t been fired at all but placed on indefinite “administrative leave.”

Noonan continues.

Why so many stories? Because the real one wasn’t pretty. It emerged in contemporaneous notes of a high White House staffer that the travel-office workers were removed because Mrs. Clinton wanted to give their jobs—their “slots,” as she put it, according to the notes of director of administration David Watkins—to political operatives who’d worked for Mr. Clinton’s campaign. And she wanted to give the travel office business itself to loyalists. There was a travel company based in Arkansas with long ties to the Clintons. There was a charter travel company founded by Harry Thomason, a longtime friend and fundraiser, which had provided services in the 1992 campaign.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Clinton lied about her efforts to turn the travel office into a goodie for a crony.

All along Mrs. Clinton publicly insisted she had no knowledge of the firings. Then it became barely any knowledge, then barely any involvement. When the story blew up she said under oath that she had “no role in the decision to terminate the employees.” She did not “direct that any action be taken by anyone.” In a deposition she denied having had a role in the firings, and said she was unable to remember conversations with various staffers with any specificity. A General Accounting Office report found she did play a role. But three years later a memo written by David Watkins to the White House chief of staff, recounting the history of the firings, suddenly surfaced. (“Suddenly surfaced” is a phrase one reads a lot in Clinton scandal stories.) It showed Mrs. Clinton herself directed them.

By the way, the most disgusting part of this scandal is the way Hillary sicced the government on Mr. Dale.

The White House pressed the FBI to investigate, FBI agents balked—on what evidence?—but ultimately there was an investigation, and an audit. …Billy Dale was indicted on charges including embezzlement. The trial lasted almost two weeks. …The jury acquitted him in less than two hours.

In other words, expect to see more Lois Lerner-type scandals if Hillary reaches the White House. There should be little doubt that she will use the power of government to attack her political opponents.

Now let’s go back even further in time, to the late 1970s when Hillary Clinton somehow managed to turn a $1,000 “investment” into $100,000 is less than one year. The New York Times reported on this rather implausible story back in 1994.

…in 1978 Hillary Rodham Clinton invested $1,000 in commodities futures and that the investment grew in 10 months of trading in the notoriously volatile market into a gain of nearly $100,000. Seeking to dispel suggestions that the trades were risk-free and improperly arranged by an Arkansas lawyer who represents one of the state’s most powerful companies, the White House issued a statement this afternoon that said the First Lady had put up her own money and that she bore all of the financial risks in a marketplace where three out of four investors lose money. The officials also released a year’s worth of brokerage statements from one of Mrs. Clinton’s two accounts. …Mrs. Clinton based her trades on information in The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Mrs. Clinton, a complete novice, with no experience in the private sector or the investment business, suddenly decided to sink money into a very complex type of speculation.

And we’re supposed to believe that she made a series of very clever market-timing decisions and turned small amount of money into a big pile of money.

Needless to say, even the reporter for the New York Times couldn’t help but express skepticism and doubt. Particularly since nobody was willing to back up Mrs. Clinton’s story.

The White House insisted today that Mrs. Clinton received no improper financial assistance on the trades from the lawyer, James B. Blair, a close friend who at the time was the top lawyer for Tyson Foods of Springdale, Ark., the nation’s biggest poultry company. Mr. Blair has said that he had suggested that she get into the commodities market, and that he used his knowledge of trading to guide her along the way. During Mr. Clinton’s tenure as Governor, Tyson benefited from several state decisions, including favorable environmental rulings, $9 million in state loans, and the placement of company executives on important state boards. …brokers in the Springdale office of Refco where Mrs. Clinton executed the trades, including the one she describes as her personal broker, said in interviews in recent weeks that they have no recollection of ever talking with her about the trades. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Blair have said that they used Robert L. (Red) Bone, the broker who founded the Springdale office of Refco, a Chicago commodities firm, to execute the trades. But Mr. Bone, who worked at Tyson for 13 years until 1973, insisted in several interviews this month that he has no recollection of ever trading for Mrs. Clinton or talking to her about commodities trades.

Here’s the bottom line. Back when this scandal surfaced in the 1990s, I talked to several people in the financial markets, every one of whom was 99.99 percent certain that Hillary was the beneficiary of a gift (if they were favorable to her) or a bribe (if they were unfavorable to her). And they all agreed that somebody on the inside arranged to give her, after the fact, the winning side of trades in order to make it look like she was simply a good investor.

Moreover, every single Democrat that I talked to admitted (but only off the record) that she was the recipient of a gift or a bribe.

And she hasn’t changed in the past 38 years. Government is a vehicle for personal advancement and personal enrichment.

Now let’s conclude by bring public policy into the discussion. Corrupt politicians are able to amass lots of power and money because government is big and powerful.

And I’m not making a partisan argument. Indeed, here are the same bullet points I used when pointing out the empty futility of Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp” and end DC corruption.

All I’m saying is that Hillary Clinton both supports big government and profits from big government. And as the public sector gets larger, don’t be surprised when you find out that Hillary and her cronies have figured out additional ways of feathering their own nests.

P.S. By the way, I do recognize that there’s an infinitesimally small possibility that Hillary’s story about cattle futures is accurate.

I also recognize, for what it’s worth, that there’s a greater-than-zero possibility that aliens will invade the earth tomorrow.

But neither of these hypotheses is remotely plausible (though if I had to pick, I’d go with the alien invasion for the simple reason that it would bring great joy to Paul Krugman).

P.P.S. Plenty of Republicans will get rich as well as Hillary expands government. If you don’t believe me, just consider how many of them collect campaign cash in exchange for votes in favor of ethanol and the Export-Import Bank.

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The polls are not looking good for Donald Trump. Indeed, I suspect my most recent prediction for the 2016 race gives him too many states.

With time running out, he now faces pressure to come up with some new idea or a new narrative to change the likely outcome.

Which may explain why he just unveiled a new plan to “drain the swamp” in Washington with new ethics rules. Such initiatives tend to be popular with voters, who view Washington as a corrupt mess. And an ethics-reform agenda may be an effective way of reminding voters that Hillary Clinton has major problems with corruption.

But let’s consider whether his plan actually would work. Taken directly from his campaign website, here’s what Trump is proposing.

As you can see, he basically wants to make it harder for Washington insiders to go through the revolving door.

And to augment his lobbying restrictions, Trump also has embraced congressional term limits.

Donald Trump added a new proposal to his recently unveiled ethics reforms package on Tuesday, promising to pursue a constitutional amendment that would impose term limits on members of Congress should he win the election on Nov. 8. …Establishing term limits at the federal level would help “break the cycle of corruption” that has plagued Washington and “give new voices to change so that we can have a government that works again and can function properly,” Trump argued.

For what it’s worth, I suspect many voters will like what Trump is saying.

If you look at Chapman University’s “Survey of American Fears,” the most commonly cited concern is “corruption of government officials.”

For people in the political world, the obvious follow-up issue is whether a popular issue/agenda actually will attract voters. In other words, will people concerned about Washington corruption rally to Trump simply because he highlights the issue.

Beats me.

I’m much more concerned with a different follow-up issue, which is whether his five points (six if you include term limits) would actually work if they were adopted.

To be blunt, I’m not holding my breath. And the reason for my concern is that Trump isn’t proposing to actually drain the swamp. There’s rampant sleaze in Washington because politicians and bureaucrats have massive powers to give undeserved wealth to those with political connections.

In other words, the “swamp” is big government. And since Trump isn’t proposing to shrink the size and scope of Washington, the incentives that currently exist to get unearned wealth via government coercion will still remain.

If you look at Trump’s proposals, what he’s really talking about is a plan to make it somewhat more difficult for certain people to wade into the swamp.

I have no objection, by the way, to additional rules that hinder the ability of politicians, congressional staffers, and presidential appointees to cash in on the connections they’ve made.

But I’m also not naive enough to think that this will reduce Washington sleaze. The policies that Trump is proposing are like pressing down on one part of a balloon and somehow hoping that other parts of the balloon won’t expand. Indeed, that’s the message of my video on the very strong link between the size of government and the amount of corruption.

P.S. Let me add a technical point that is very important in this discussion. Lobbying occurs when someone asks a politician to vote “yes” or “no” on a piece of legislation. It’s not lobbying, however when someone tells a politicians that an idea is good or bad (which is what I often do as part of my job).

But if Trump can change the definition of lobbying for former government officials (the third point in his five-point plan), that might disrupt the status quo for certain people (assuming it could be effectively enforced).

But so long as the size and scope of government isn’t curtailed, that kind of change won’t eliminate the incentive of interest groups to hire people who are allowed to lobby. The only way to reduce corruption is to reduce government.

P.P.S. By the way, restrictions on campaign donations also won’t work.

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Here’s an interesting issue to ponder. Is corruption rampant in government because the perverse incentive structure of politics turns good people into bad people?

Or do bad people naturally gravitate to government and politics because it’s the easiest (and legal, though generally immoral) way to take money from other people?

I guess this is like a chicken-and-egg question with no clear answer, though Mark Twain preferred the latter interpretation.

Though he was being too narrow. Yes, Congress if filled with people who are willing to use coercion to take money from ordinary people in order to line the pockets of their cronies, but this is also true for politicians and bureaucrats in the executive branch, as well as their counterparts at the state and local level.

Let’s look at a couple of oleaginous examples. We’ll start with a grotesque example of nepotism. Except this isn’t a routine example of daddy giving junior an undeserved job in the family company. In this case, we have Washington-style nepotism. Daddy has ransacked taxpayers to line the pockets of his daughter. The Daily Caller has the unseemly details.

More than $9 million of Department of State money has been funneled through the Peace Corps to a nonprofit foundation started and run by Secretary of State John Kerry’s daughter, documents obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation show. The Department of State funded a Peace Corps program created by Dr. Vanessa Kerry and officials from both agencies, records show. The Peace Corps then awarded the money without competition to a nonprofit Kerry created for the program. Initially, the Peace Corps awarded Kerry’s group — now called Seed Global Health — with a three-year contract worth $2 million of State Department money on Sept. 10, 2012, documents show. Her father was then the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which oversees both the Department of State and the Peace Corps. Seed secured a four-year extension in September 2015, again without competition. This time, the Peace Corps gave the nonprofit $6.4 million provided by the Department of State while John Kerry was secretary of state.

What makes this story especially outrageous is that John Kerry is a multi-multi-millionaire, having married in the Heinz family fortune.

Does he really need to pick the pockets of taxpayers to boost his daughter’s finances?

Here’s another example. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, set up an “economic development program” that predictably turned into a playground for the politically well connected (sort of a state version of the corrupt program in Washington that financed Solyndra and other money-losing schemes).

The New York Times outlines this scandal, though be prepared to shower after reading.

Federal corruption charges were announced on Thursday against two former close aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a senior state official and six other people, in a devastating blow to the governor’s innermost circle and a repudiation of how his prized upstate economic development programs were managed. The charges against the former aides, Joseph Percoco and Todd R. Howe, and the state official, Alain Kaloyeros, were the culmination of a long-running federal investigation… The charges stemmed from “two overlapping criminal schemes involving bribery, corruption and fraud in the award of hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts and other official state benefits,” federal prosecutors said in the complaint. Mr. Percoco, who had served as Mr. Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary, is accused of soliciting and taking more than $315,000 in bribes between 2012 and 2016 from two companies… Until January, when Mr. Percoco left the administration…, he was Mr. Cuomo’s all-purpose body man, political enforcer and shadow.

The good news is that at least some of the people in this disgusting display of cronyism may face legal consequences.

Oh, by the way, Cuomo used to be the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development when regulations were implemented that required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make more dodgy housing loans. This guy is a walking disaster area.

For the umpteenth time, the moral of the story is that the only way to reduce corruption in government is to reduce the overall amount of taxing, spending, and regulating.

Or you can magically wish that only angelic people will gravitate to the public sector. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I’ll go with the former option.

P.S. I wrote a few days ago about the IMF’s hypocrisy in attacking Trump for his views on trade taxes. The bureaucrats are right that we shouldn’t increase the tax burden on global commerce. My complaint was that sauce for the goose wasn’t sauce for the gander. Hillary’s plan to increase the tax burden on work and investment is an even bigger threat to growth, yet the IMF gives her a free pass.

Anyhow, one of the points I made is that trade taxes currently are quite low, so they presumably cause only a minor amount of damage, whereas tax rates on work and investment are relatively high, meaning that further increases would be especially debilitating to growth. I cited some research from a Spanish academic to show how trade policy has improved over time, but didn’t have specific details on trade taxation.

My buddy Bryan Riley from the Heritage Foundation has come to my rescue, sharing an article that includes this chart on historical tariff rates.

The bottom line is that trade taxes have declined by somewhere between 75 percent and 90 percent since the end of World War II. This has been a great victory for economic liberty.

Trump should be condemned for wanting to halt further progress and/or go in the wrong direction by boosting trade taxes.

But, to echo what I wrote the other day, Hillary also should be condemned for proposing a different set of tax hikes that would cause even more harm to economic liberty.

P.P.S. I wrote a column earlier this month entitled “Anatomy of a Brutal Tax Beating” to highlight how an expert at the Tax Foundation completely dismantled a silly and unlearned article by a writer for Vox.

Well, we now have an “Anatomy of a Brutal Education Beating.” Except it’s not right-on-left violence. It’s left-on-left violence. Jonathan Chait writes for New York magazine and he formerly had stints at The New Republic and The American Prospect, so he’s definitely not a libertarian type.

But he’s ethical and doesn’t have a high level of tolerance for other leftists who launch dishonest ideological attacks on charter schools. Here’s some of what he wrote while debunking an article by some guy named Charles Pierce.

Esquire’s Charles Pierce, a fervent charter critic, …does not dispute the findings that urban charters in Massachusetts provide dramatic education benefits. He simply doesn’t care. …In the sentence, Pierce goes on to assert that the cap on charters serves a vital purpose. But the Brookings study, which I doubt he’s read, shows the opposite. …The cap in Massachusetts is completely perverse, in fact. It allows more students to enroll in charters serving suburban students, where the charters do not outperform the neighborhood schools, and prevents more students from enrolling in urban charters, where the schools do exceed the traditional neighborhood schools. …Presented with evidence that certain schools are providing a clearly better education to low-income urban students, Pierce argues that education should be denied because … somebody is making money off of it. It is more important to him to stick it to the capitalists than to allow low-income, disproportionately nonwhite students to have a chance to have a better life. …What’s even more perverse about Pierce’s argument is that it is factually wrong. Charters in Massachusetts are not for-profit vehicles. State law prohibits for-profit operators from running a public charter school… The notion that charters are “companies” and an “industry” with “profits” — that is, the entire basis for Pierce’s opposition — is a figment of the imagination. …Pierce rails suspiciously against the donors to the anti-cap side. …It is strange to accuse people who are giving away their money to the cause of educating poor children of not “giv[ing] a rat’s ass about educating children in Roxbury or Mattapan”.

Wow. Chait drove over Pierce, then hit the brakes, put the car in reverse, and then drove over him again just for the fun of it.

A perfect example of the difference between a sincere person of the left and a hack who is probably just flacking for teacher unions.

P.P.P.S. I can’t resist returning to John Kerry. It’s not merely that he’s a staggeringly rich guy who nonetheless sees no problem with diverting money from taxpayers to his daughter. It’s also that he does everything possible to minimize the amount of tax that he pays. Everything possible.

P.P.P.P.S. This column focused on corrupt Democrats, but this is a bipartisan problem. Indeed, the worst offenders are probably Republicans.

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Why did a for-profit college pay former President Bill Clinton the staggering sum of $16.5 million to serve as an “honorary chancellor for Laureate International Universities”? Was it because he had some special insight or expertise on how to improve education?

Why did Goldman Sachs pay former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple of speeches? Was it because she had valuable observations about the economy and investments?

The answer to all those questions is that companies sometimes are willing to transfer large sums of money to influential politicians because they want something in exchange.

In some cases, they want help from powerful insiders so they can use the coercive power of government to take other people’s money, which is reprehensible and disgusting. In other cases, they are seeking to guard against being victimized with high taxes and punitive regulations and so they pay “protection money” to powerful insiders in hopes of being left alone, which is unfortunate but understandable.

In either case (one moral and the other immoral), the companies are making rational decisions. Politicians have immense ability to tax, spend, and regulate, so it makes sense to get on their good side, either by giving them money directly or contributing to their campaigns.

This is a problem in the United States, of course, but it’s also a problem in Europe.

Consider the curious case of José Manuel Barroso, the recently retired President of the European Commission who was recently hired by Goldman Sachs to be “non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International.” According the press release from the company, he will…well, it’s not clear what his role will be or what value he will provide. All we get is fluff about his political career and a murky statement that, “He will also be an advisor to Goldman Sachs.”

So let’s look at his Wikipedia bio. Maybe we’ll find some evidence that he has great expertise on investment matters. But all we find there is that he’s been a career politician, first in Portugal and then in Brussels (where he was a bit of a laughingstock).

There’s no indication that he ever held a job in the private sector. But we do get this tidbit.

In his university days, he was one of the leaders of the underground Maoist MRPP (Reorganising Movement of the Proletariat Party, later PCTP/MRPP, Communist Party of the Portuguese Workers/Revolutionary Movement of the Portuguese Proletariat).

That doesn’t sound like the pedigree of someone who just landed a lavishly compensated position in the supposed temple of global capitalism.

But the real story is that Barroso isn’t a communist (at least not now) and Goldman Sachs isn’t a bastion of free markets. Instead, both of them are expert practitioners of cronyism.

Indeed, the cronyism angle is so obvious in this case that the European Commission has launched an ethics probe.

Which is very upsetting to Senor Barroso. The Financial Times reported on the controversy.

José Manuel Barroso has accused the European Commission — a body he led for 10 years — of being “discriminatory” and “inconsistent” after the EU’s executive arm set up an ethics probe to examine his new role at Goldman Sachs. …Mr Barroso vigorously defended his decision to take a job as adviser with the US investment bank, which triggered a backlash across the EU. …French president François Hollande described the appointment as being “legally possible, but morally unacceptable”. …The committee will examine Mr Barroso’s contract to ascertain whether it complies with Mr Barroso’s obligation under EU law “to behave with integrity and discretion” when taking appointments or benefits after leaving office. Campaigners have argued that Mr Barroso could be stripped of his pension — worth €15,000 per month — if he is found to have violated these rules. …Other former members of the commission have gone on to take high-profile roles with big businesses, leading some to claim that Goldman Sachs has been singled out because of its role in the financial crisis.

Though it’s worth noting that Barroso is simply the latest example of a revolving door between senior euro-crats and Goldman Sachs.

The bottom line is that Barroso hasn’t behaved with integrity. But that’s true of his entire career. Taking a position with Goldman Sachs is simply a way of monetizing decades of cronyism.

P.S. Shifting back to the US version of cronyism, Kevin Williamson has a must-read analysis of the corrupt nexus of Wall Street and Washington.

P.P.S. The solution to this mess (other than Glenn Reynold’s revolving-door surtax) is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of government. When there’s less to steal, there will be fewer thieves.

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Back in 2009, I shared some academic research showing the unsavory link between lobbying expenditures and bailout cash from TARP.

Just in case anybody naively thinks that such distasteful favor-swapping no longer occurs, here’s some more evidence. A column in the International Business Times summarizes some new scholarly research, once again showing the corrupt nexus between big government and the financial sector.

…analysis from London Business School professors Ahmed Tahoun and Florin Vasvari analyzed how the personal finances of congressional lawmakers changed once they were appointed to the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Banking Committee or the House Financial Services Committee. It also evaluated how their finances compared with other lawmakers who are not on those panels. …the researchers found that finance committee members’ personal borrowing tended to jump in the first year they were appointed to the panels — a trend not seen for other lawmakers who were given seats on other powerful committees. Similarly, the data show that upon joining the finance panels, lawmakers tended to be given 32 percent more time — or on average 4 and a half years more — to pay back those new debts than loans they previously had and that other members of Congress have. The study found that lawmakers also “report more favorable debt terms when they join the finance committee, relative to other years and to the terms other congressional members obtain including those on other powerful committees.”

Needless to say, the companies aren’t giving special treatment to these politicians because of altruism. For every quid, there’s a quo.

…the influence may operate in the other direction, too. Looking at which particular financial institutions are lending to lawmakers, the researchers found that underperforming banks provided new — and bigger — loans to more finance committee members than to other Members of Congress. They say that because those firms could face more regulatory scrutiny and financial instability from new federal policies, they are more reliant on strong political connections than competitors that are in better shape.

In other words, if you can’t succeed by competing in the marketplace, then curry favor with politicians so that you can be propped up by big government.

Though companies presumably have learned from the Countrywide scandal to be more cautious about disguising the fact that they are dispensing goodies.

…mortgage industry titan Countrywide Financial created a “VIP loan unit” that gave lower mortgage rates and expedited loan processing services to lawmakers that oversaw legislation affecting the firm. …Democratic U.S. Senators Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad were cleared by the ethics committee, which said they did not knowingly seek the perks. The committee, though, told the lawmakers they “should have exercised more vigilance in your dealings with Countrywide in order to avoid the appearance that you were receiving preferential treatment based on your status as a senator.”

By the way, I’m not exactly shocked that the congressional ethics committee (wow, talk about an oxymoron) didn’t even bother slapping the wrists of the politicians who got the favors. After all, imagine how much harder it would be to raise campaign cash if politicians couldn’t use the coercive power of government to swap favors with interest groups.

But the folks on Capitol Hill are amateurs compared to Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Wall Street Journal explains that the charity they set up has basically been a scam to advance their personal and political interests.

The foundation served for years as a conduit for corporate and foreign cash to burnish the Clinton image, pay for their travel expenses for speeches and foreign trips, and employ their coterie in between campaigns or government gigs. Donors could give as much as they wanted because the foundation is a “charity.” …the foundation promised the White House when Mrs. Clinton became Secretary of State that the foundation would restrict foreign donations and get approval from the State Department. It turned out the foundation violated that pledge, specifically when accepting $500,000 from Algeria. The foundation also agreed to disclose donor names but failed to do so for more than 1,000 foreign donors until the failure was exposed by press reports.

Some readers may think it doesn’t matter where the money came from. What really counts is that the Clinton Foundation used the money to make the world a better place, right?

Um, not exactly. Only pennies on the dollar were used for charitable purposes.

The rest of the money was a slush fund to finance the Clinton family’s political machinery.

If you think this sounds unfair to the Clinton Foundation, you may change your mind after reading this article from the Daily Caller. Here are some excerpts.

Clinton Foundation officials have ignored virtually all of the “best practices” urged by good governance organizations for public charities… Most glaringly, for example, the foundation’s insular board of directors…are among President Bill and Hillary Clinton’s closest and richest friends. The “good governance” movement in the nonprofit field has been gathering strength for two decades, but it clearly has yet to reach the Clinton Foundation. …Good governance groups also encourage well-managed non-profits to create dedicated oversight committees… The Clinton Foundation has none of those committees, according to its Internal Revenue Service 990 tax filings. …the Clinton Foundation spent $12.6 million on Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday party. The foundation recorded the expense as “fundraising expenses.” …In December 2014 the board approved a $395,000 pay package for Braverman to become the new CEO.  But the next month he abruptly resigned. Politico reported that Clinton’s insular staff were appalled at Braverman’s attempts at reforms. Braverman never explained the reasons for his departure. But Politico believes it was a backlash from Bill and Hillary’s hardened loyalists and “mega-donors” who chafed at the notion of more openness and transparency.

If the Clinton Foundation was a truly private organization, it wouldn’t be anybody’s business whether how it operated.

Moreover, it would be hypocritical for me to make that accusation. After all, I’m on the Board of the pro-tax competition Center for Freedom and Prosperity and the other Board members are long-time friends. And we don’t have a bunch of oversight committees since CF&P’s annual budget has averaged less than $200,000, which means such things don’t seem necessary (though we’ve managed to do a lot with a little, even earning a front-page attack from the Washington Post).

The real issue, however, is whether a nonprofit organization is genuinely private. In the case of the Clinton Foundation, ” the organization seemingly operated as a “pay-to-play” gatekeeper for goodies from the State Department?

Consider these blurbs from a column in the Wall Street Journal.

…more than two dozen companies and groups and one foreign government paid former President Bill Clinton a total of more than $8 million to give speeches around the time they also had matters before Mrs. Clinton’s State Department, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Fifteen of them also donated a total of between $5 million and $15 million to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the family’s charity… In several instances, State Department actions benefited those that paid Mr. Clinton.

Here’s one of the examples discussed in the column.

…the capital of the United Arab Emirates asked for a facility to clear travelers for U.S. entry before they boarded planes so they could avoid delays when arriving in the U.S. …U.S.-based airlines, which have no direct flights between Abu Dhabi and the U.S., opposed the idea as a giveaway to the government-owned airline, Etihad Airways. …While Mrs. Clinton’s State Department and the Department of Homeland Security were working out a “letter of intent” with Abu Dhabi for the facility, Mr. Clinton sought permission to give a paid speech in Abu Dhabi. …On Dec. 6, 2011, U.S. officials signed the letter of intent. One week later, Mr. Clinton gave a 20-minute talk on climate change to the Abu Dhabi government environmental gathering. He collected $500,000, his wife’s disclosure report shows. In December 2012, Mr. Clinton sought approval for another speech in Abu Dhabi before the World Travel and Tourism Council…the speech was sponsored by three Abu Dhabi tourism agencies, all owned by the government. …Mr. Clinton gave a keynote address on the value of tourism. He was paid $500,000, his wife’s disclosure filings say. One week later, the U.S. and Abu Dhabi signed the final agreement for the facility. …Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman said it was “farcical” to suggest any connection between the speeches and the facility’s opening.

The “farcical” part of this is the notion that a) Bill Clinton is an expert on the “value of tourism”, and b) that his supposed expertise on the topic is worth $500,000.

Though I have to give Bill Clinton credit for getting good deals. When I give a speech, I’m content with simply getting the organizer to pay for a coach ticket and a hotel room.

But the L.A. Times reveals that Bill Clinton gets much better treatment, not even counting the giant piles of money funneled to the Clinton Foundation.

Clinton changed the rules of political speech-making for cash. He would push not just corporate hosts but also nonprofits and universities to pay fees well beyond what they were accustomed to. …He and Hillary Clinton would become so skilled at churning profits out of their lectures that they would net more than $150 million from speaking alone after he left the White House. …refusing questions that were not screened by his staff in advance. There is the nearly $1,400 bill for a day’s worth of phone calls from San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and the $700 dinner for two. …Clinton would demand in his contract to be shuttled by private jet from San Francisco to UC Davis, where he spoke at the Mondavi Center. The center had to appeal to its network of donors to find someone able to fly him the 70 miles, something it had never done and hasn’t since.

By the way, I don’t object to Bill Clinton being treated far better than me. But I do get agitated if he’s getting goodies because some interest group is participating in a pay-for-play scam based on favors from government.

And that does come out of my pocket, as well as from the pockets of every other taxpayer, consumer, and worker.

Speaking of pay-to-play, here’s a story from the Washington Examiner about some unseemly behavior from the Clinton Foundation.

A Clinton Foundation official asked an aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if the government would allow the well-connected charity to accept a donation from an oil company with extensive ties to Iran. …The email shows Petronas, a Malaysian state-owned oil company, wanted to send CEO Shamsul Azhar bin Abbas to a Clinton Global Initiative event as a paying member. …Two months earlier, the State Department highlighted a $150 million contract between Petronas and General Electric in Malaysia. …David Bossie, president of Citizens United, said the timeline of the State Department’s announcement of the deal with GE should raise questions. “A month after the announcement, the Clinton Foundation staff is contacting the State Department saying, ‘Hey, we want to shake down the CEO, essentially, of Petronus, is that ok?’…,” Bossie said. “That is political crony capitalism — that’s the definition of it, is using your political contacts and your political achievements for financial gain for the foundation,” he continued. “Clearly, [there was] a conflict of interest.”

The only good news is that the proposed shakedown of Petronas apparently didn’t happen, though it’s unclear from the records whether this was because the company said no or because the idea was so over-the-top corrupt that it was rejected by the State Department.

Let’s close with a really nauseating example of Clintonian sleaze. A story in National Review exposes how the family’s Foundation victimized the people of Haiti.

Their story goes back to 2010, when a massive 7.0 earthquake devastated the island, killing more than 200,000 people, leveling 100,000 homes, and leaving 1.5 million people destitute. The devastating effect of the earthquake on a very poor nation provoked worldwide concern and inspired an outpouring of…some $10.5 billion in aid, with $3.9 billion of it coming from the United States.

But all this money hasn’t helped the poor people of Haiti.

…very little of this aid money actually got to poor people in Haiti. …Port-au-Prince was supposed to be rebuilt; it was never rebuilt. Projects aimed at creating jobs proved to be bitter disappointments. Haitian unemployment remained high, largely undented by the funds that were supposed to pour into the country. Famine and illness continued to devastate the island nation.

Why didn’t all the money have a positive impact?

Part of the answer is that foreign aid generally ineffective. Another part of the answer is that Haiti has statist policies that inhibit growth and prosperity.

But a final part of the answer is that a bunch of grifters diverted the money to their own pockets.

Where did it go? …Bill Clinton was the designated UN representative for aid to Haiti. …his wife Hillary was the United States secretary of state. She was in charge of U.S. aid allocated to Haiti. …an interesting pattern involving the Clintons and the designation of how aid funds were used. …a number of companies that received contracts in Haiti happened to be entities that made large donations to the Clinton Foundation. …For example, the Clinton Foundation selected Clayton Homes, a construction company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, to build temporary shelters in Haiti. Buffett is an active member of the Clinton Global Initiative who has donated generously to the Clintons as well as the Clinton Foundation. …the contract was never competitively bid for. Clayton offered to build “hurricane-proof trailers” but what they actually delivered turned out to be a disaster. The trailers were structurally unsafe, with high levels of formaldehyde and insulation coming out of the walls. There were problems with mold and fumes. The stifling heat inside made Haitians sick and many of them abandoned the trailers because they were ill-constructed and unusable.

Here’s another example of pay-to-play favoritism.

The Clintons also funneled $10 million in federal loans to a firm called InnoVida, headed by Clinton donor Claudio Osorio. …Normally the loan approval process takes months or even years. …InnoVida had not even provided an independently audited financial report that is normally a requirement for such applications. This requirement, however, was waived. On the basis of the Clinton connection, InnoVida’s application was fast-tracked and approved in two weeks. The company, however, defaulted on the loan and never built any houses. An investigation revealed that Osorio had diverted company funds to pay for his Miami Beach mansion, his Maserati, and his Colorado ski chalet.

Gee, isn’t government a great racket!

Here’s one final oleaginous example.

In 2011, the Clinton Foundation brokered a deal with Digicel, a cell-phone-service provider seeking to gain access to the Haitian market. The Clintons arranged to have Digicel receive millions in U.S. taxpayer money to provide mobile phones. The USAID Food for Peace program, which the State Department administered through Hillary aide Cheryl Mills, distributed Digicel phones free to Haitians. Digicel didn’t just make money off the U.S. taxpayer; it also made money off the Haitians. When Haitians used the phones, either to make calls or transfer money, they paid Digicel for the service. Haitians using Digicel’s phones also became automatically enrolled in Digicel’s mobile program. By 2012, Digicel had taken over three-quarters of the cell-phone market in Haiti. Digicel is owned by Denis O’Brien, a close friend of the Clintons. O’Brien secured three speaking engagements in his native Ireland that paid $200,000 apiece. These engagements occurred right at the time that Digicel was making its deal with the U.S. State Department. O’Brien has also donated lavishly to the Clinton Foundation, giving between $1 million and $5 million sometime in 2010–2011. Coincidentally the United States government paid Digicel $45 million to open a hotel in Port-au-Prince.

If you’re not thoroughly nauseated, read the entire article for many more examples of pay-to-play sleaze.

By the way, I’m not merely picking on the Clintons. Yes, they seem to be remarkably amoral in their approach to politics, but the underlying problem is that big government enables corruption regardless of who is in charge.

That’s the moral of the story.

P.S. Don’t forget that the Clinton Foundation easily got approved by the IRS while innocuous Tea Party groups were stonewalled. Another typical example of government in action.

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I have a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to publicize civil servants who manage to get wildly over-paid while being notoriously under-worked. And I have a Moocher Hall of Fame to identify welfare recipients who have displayed special skills in living off the labor of other people.

But now I’m thinking I may need to create a Hall of Fame to “honor” politicians who go above and beyond the call of duty by displaying extraordinary levels of arrogance, elitism, malfeasance, and corruption. That’s because my initial plan to give a once-per-year award has been superseded by events.

  • Back in May, I gave a “Politician of the Year Award” to Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, because he announced to voters that none of his mistresses is on the public payroll.
  • But earlier this month, I had to reopen the balloting since it was revealed that the follicly-challenged President of France, Francois Hollande, was squandering more than $100,000 per year on a hair stylist.

To make matters even more complicated, the Prime Minster of Malaysia has decided to join the contest.

And if these blurbs from a Wall Street Journal column are any indication, he definitely deserves some sort of recognition.

U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday linked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to hundreds of millions of dollars they believe were stolen from the Malaysian state-owned investment fund 1MDB. …The evidence of fraud connected to 1MDB from investigations in the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland and at least four other countries is damning. The U.S. Justice Department put the losses at $3.5 billion on Wednesday. The Swiss Attorney General’s office said earlier this year it suspects $4 billion was misappropriated.

That’s some serious diverting of other people’s money. Makes scams like Solyndra, Export-Import Bank, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac seem like amateur hour by comparison.

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister and his cronies are using political coercion to silence and sidetrack whistle blowers.

…officials who tried to investigate 1MDB were sidelined. Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail was on the verge of bringing charges against Mr. Najib last summer when he was forced to resign for “health reasons.” …Abu Kassim Mohamed, chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, had advised prosecutors to charge Mr. Najib and was investigating 1MDB until last month, when the government announced he would move to a lower post.

Gee, seems like bad health and demotions are quite common in Malaysia.

The stonewalling reflects Mr. Najib’s strong political position at home. He has played the nationalism card to portray himself as a victim of foreign forces, used repressive laws to silence critics in the press and opposition, and expelled dissidents from his party. …Mr. Najib has also been helped at home by the appearance of close ties to U.S. President Obama, who invited him for a golf outing and ostentatious photo-op in Hawaii in December 2014.

I’m shocked, by the way, that Najib’s name hasn’t been linked to the money-laundering racket sometimes known as the Clinton Foundation. Seems like that would be a match made in heaven.

But perhaps I simply haven’t looked closely enough.

Also, this is a good opportunity to recognize the reporter, Clare Rewcastle Brown, who has done more than any other person to publicize this scam. She even got added to Fortune‘s list of “World’s Greatest Leaders.”

Through her website Sarawak Report, London-based journalist Brown has become an irritant in the corridors of power in Malaysia. Her exposés on state investment fund 1MDB—publicizing the alleged siphoning of $700 million into the pockets of Prime Minister Najib Razak—have made her a hero and a villain in the country, depending on whom you ask. The government has tried to arrest her for “activities detrimental to Parliamentary democracy” and has banned her website.

Speaking of her website, you can read her indictment of Najib by clicking here.

Let’s close with a caveat and a lesson.

The caveat is that Prime Minister Najib still hasn’t been convicted of anything. We have to hold out the possibility, however remote, that he’s actually innocent.

The lesson is that the Malaysian government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to allocate capital.

Even if a big government-run development bank miraculously and improbably steered clear of corruption, it’s always a bad idea to let politicians and bureaucrats invest with other people’s money.

And when you add the inevitable corruption to the mix, the net result is that you damage the economy while simultaneously lining the pockets of insiders.

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Last year, I shared the most depressing PowerPoint slide in Danish history.

Back in 2011, I wrote about a depressing picture of tax complexity in America.

Let’s continue with the “depressing” theme today.

James Bessen, from Boston University Law School, has an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review about the source of corporate profits in the 21st century (h/t: James Pethokoukis).

He starts with an observation and a query.

Profits are up. …is it good news for society?

The default answer presumably is yes. Higher profits, after all, generally are a sign of wise investments.

And when labor and capital are allocated wisely, that’s good news for consumers and workers.

But Bessen correctly observes that profits can increase for bad reasons, and that’s the focus of his research.

…the rise in profits might represent a decline in…economic dynamism. …Firms engage in political “rent seeking”—lobbying for regulations that provide them sheltered markets—rather than competing on innovation. If so, then high profits portend diminished productivity growth. …In a new research paper, I tease apart the factors associated with the growth in corporate valuations.

Unfortunately, he finds that cronyist policies account for a depressingly large share of corporate profits.

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase.

Here’s a very grim chart from his article. At the very least, I’ll call this the most depressing image of 2016.

Ugh, what a dismal observation on the state of our economy. Companies are almost making as much money from manipulating Washington as they earn from serving consumers. Heck, just consider the way politically connected financial institutions tilt the playing field for unearned goodies.

Bessen adds some analysis, including the very important insight that regulation and intervention tends to help big companies relative to small companies and new competitors.

Much of this result is driven by the role of regulation… Lobbying and political campaign spending can result in favorable regulatory changes, and several studies find the returns to these investments can be quite large. For example, one study finds that for each dollar spent lobbying for a tax break, firms received returns in excess of $220. …regulations that impose costs might raise profits indirectly, since costs to incumbents are also entry barriers for prospective entrants. For example, one study found that pollution regulations served to reduce entry of new firms into some manufacturing industries.

It’s also worth noting that he finds that this bad news really started back in 2000, which makes sense given that both Bush and Obama have pushed policies that have expanded the clumsy footprint of government.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. …while political rent seeking is nothing new, the outsize effect of political rent seeking on profits and firm values is a recent development, largely occurring since 2000. Over the last 15 years, political campaign spending by firm PACs has increased more than thirtyfold and the Regdata index of regulation has increased by nearly 50% for public firms.

What an awful cycle. Government gets bigger and more powerful, which lures companies into viewing Washington as a profit center, which then leads to more policies that expand the size and power of the federal government, which leads to further opportunities for rent-seeking behavior. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Oh, and don’t forget this is one of the reasons why there’s a revolving door of insiders who shift back and forth between the private sector and government, but their real job is always to be working the system to obtain undeserved wealth.

Which is why I periodically explain that there’s a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.

P.S. Earlier this year, I shared some data, based on sources of billionaire wealth, that suggested that cronyism wasn’t a major factor in the United States. But Bessen’s new research nonetheless shows we do have a major problem, perhaps because people who get rich honestly then decide to maintain their wealth dishonestly.

P.P.S. If there’s any sort of silver lining to this bad news, it’s this amusing parody commercial about Kronies, which are toys for the children of Washington’s gilded class.

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My main problem with Hillary Clinton is that she not only supports the bloated and enervating welfare state that already exists, but she wants to make it even bigger. Indeed, there’s only a very small gap between her and crazy Bernie Sanders when you examine their voting records.

There’s only a trivially small difference…between Hillary Clinton’s lifetime rating of 10.6 from the National Taxpayers Union and Bernie Sanders’ lifetime rating of 9.4. They both earned their failing grades by spending other people’s money with reckless abandon.

That being said, I’m disgusted and outraged by her dishonest and corrupt behavior.

The rule of law is one of the most important building blocks of a just and prosperous society, so it’s both morally nauseating and economically destructive when members of the elite enjoy special treatment.

Josh Barro definitely isn’t a member of the vast right wing conspiracy, so his list of Hillary’s ethical lapses should carry extra weight.

It’s possible that Clinton and Lynch were just catching up — “a social meeting,”… Similarly, it’s possible foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation because they viewed it as the most efficient available philanthropic opportunity, without regard for the favorable impression it might make on Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s possible Goldman Sachs paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 for three speeches because they thought she would be really interesting, not because they thought the payment might help the bank make a favorable impression on a potential future president. It’s possible a major Clinton donor ended up on a State Department nuclear advisory board for perfectly innocent reasons, and that there were no untoward effects from top Clinton staffers being simultaneously on State Department and private payrolls. …The list goes on and on. …the Clintons have no apparent concern for appearances of impropriety, as long as they believe their actions cannot get them in trouble with the law.

And the Clintons get away with things that would land ordinary Americans in jail, so you have to give them credit for knowing how to exploit their political connections and power.

And that has a lot of people legitimately upset. The Washington Examiner opined about Hillary’s free pass from the FBI.

The Founding Fathers embraced principles that transcended their own human weaknesses and those of their posterity. They created a system in which process and law could check base personal ambition, favoritism and other low and common temptations. The idea was to put in place a system that would survive incompetent and corrupt leaders. …the public witnessed what happens when the system fails. Special people receive special treatment. Equal protection under the law turns out to be a fancy fiction. Some people are more equal than others. …An average government official who spent five years breaking the rules to frustrate the Freedom of Information Act, and who recklessly compromised classified information (more than 100 times), including top secret information (eight times), would serve time in federal prison. But Hillary Clinton is almost certain to suffer no consequences at all.

But what about Hillary supposedly having no bad intent, as the FBI Director offered up as a distraction?

This is bunk. Intention is something this law does not require. “Gross negligence” alone is sufficient grounds for prosecution because the officials to which it applies are entrusted with secrets that bring greater obligations than average citizens must bear. Precisely because of that greater risk of prosecution, high-ranking government officials who handle classified information, including Clinton, sign agreements that spell out their legal jeopardy.

Jacob Sullum of Reason also addresses this topic.

…one of the statutes guiding the FBI’s investigation, 18 USC 793, makes it a felony to “mishandle classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way” (emphasis added), as Comey himself notes… Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, …who was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Reagan administration, says Comey’s description of Clinton’s behavior plainly qualifies as a violation of 18 USC 793(f). …Giuliani told NBC’s Brian Williams yesterday, “because he clearly found a direct violation of 18 United States Code, Section 793, which does not require intent. It requires only gross negligence in the handling of anything relating to the national defense. …The definition of gross negligence under the law is extreme carelessness. It’s the first definition that comes up in the law dictionary. …So that is a clear, absolutely unassailable violation of 18 United States Code, Section 793, which is not a minor statute. It carries 10 years in prison.”

For those who think Rudy Giuliani is perhaps exaggerating because of his support for Trump, then consider the views of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who is part of the #neverTrump camp.

It is a felony for anyone entrusted with lawful possession of information relating to national defense to permit it, through “gross negligence,” to be removed from its proper place of custody and disclosed. “Gross negligence” rather than purposeful conduct is enough. …As an example of the kind of information at stake, he described seven email chains classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level. These were the emails that the government had said earlier are so sensitive that they will never be disclosed publicly. …To be “extremely careless” in the handling of information that sensitive is synonymous with being grossly negligent.

Needless to say, ordinary Americans would never get this kind of preferential treatment.

David French, a former military officer, explains what would happen to someone in the armed forces who treated national security with the same degree of disdain.

I served ten years as an Army lawyer, and one of my responsibilities was advising the command on matters of military justice, including incidents where soldiers mishandled classified information. And if Hillary Clinton was a soldier, she would lose her security clearance, face administrative action, and face the specter of criminal prosecution. I’ve not only seen the pattern, I’ve also participated in the process. …If Hillary were Captain Clinton instead of the presumptive Democratic nominee and wife of a disbarred former president, the following things would occur, more or less simultaneously. First, the command would immediately suspend her security clearance. …Next, her commander would probably draft an administrative reprimand. …a career-killer if placed in an officer’s permanent file…Finally, the command would consider criminal charges. …the officer would in all likelihood not only violate the Espionage Act (the same statute at issue in Clinton’s case) but also the Uniform Code of Military Justice. …In other words, her actions would have ended her military career, and she would have been fortunate to resign in lieu of enduring a court-martial. In her post-military civilian life, she would have been unemployable in any serious government position… To say that Hillary Clinton is unfit to be commander-in-chief is to give her too much credit. It implies that she might be fit for other positions of responsibility. She’s not fit to be POTUS, and she’s not fit to be a private.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of Hillary favoritism.

We can enjoy some dark humor while the rule of law is further eroded.

The clever folks at Reason TV put together this video showing how Hillary Clinton has blatantly lied about her actions.

By the way, Hillary’s negligence and disdain for national security is just the tip of the iceberg.

She already has engaged in countless other shady acts, such as allowing her top aide, Huma Abedin, to be on the government payroll while simultaneously getting payoffs as an influence peddler.

Or consider the Clinton Foundation. Investor’s Business Daily makes a compelling case that it’s nothing but a racket.

…the Clinton Foundation gathered some $100 million from a variety of Gulf sheikhs and billionaires, not to mention taking in millions of “donations” from private businesses that later benefited from their supposed “charitable” largesse. Some of those who gave big bucks to the Clintons had interests that were, to put it mildly, not in keeping with U.S. interests. …now comes a more serious, far-reaching question: Is the entire Clinton Foundation so full of conflicts of interest and questionable dealings that it amounts to little more than a massive fraud intended solely to enrich its presidential namesake and his family? Charles Ortel, a Wall Street financial analyst, who pored over the Clinton Foundation’s books, filings and records, thinks so. He concluded that “a substantial portion of Clinton Foundation activities is certainly not ‘charitable’ or ‘tax-exempt’ in the accepted legal senses…” the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator removed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation from its list of charities because of its “atypical business model.” …Getting rich isn’t a crime. But it might be if you did it in the guise of being a tax-free humanitarian charity, interested only in the betterment of humankind.

The Washington Examiner also has looked at the Clinton Foundation’s dodgy finances and activities.

The Clinton Global Initiative has a curious record of leaving its projects unfinished, despite receiving multiple large donations from foreign interests that could benefit if Hillary Clinton is elected president (and may have already benefited from her service at the State Department). …the initiative has completed fewer than half of the commitments made since 2005. Thirty-six percent of them are listed as being “in progress.” Many others are listed as “stalled,” “unfulfilled,” or haven’t had any progress reported in at least two years. This may just be a sign of bad timing or ineffective philanthropy, but when combined with the rest of the information available about the Clintons’ philanthropic activities, it hints at something more sinister. …accepted a great deal of money in donations from businesses and foreign governments that had a lot to gain from her help.

Here one of the examples that certainly seems tawdry, if not sinister.

In one well-known case, a group of Canadian mining magnates made millions in undisclosed donations to the Clinton Foundation, and a Russian bank closely linked to the Kremlin paid Bill Clinton $500,000 to give a single speech in Moscow. All of these parties involved in funneling money to the Clintons and their enterprises were part of a large mining deal that required approval from a government panel on which Clinton sat.

We also have the Clintonian equivalent of Trump University, as outlined by Professor Jonathan Turley.

Donald Trump has been rightfully criticized and sued over his defunct Trump University. There is ample support for claiming that the Trump University was fraudulent in its advertisements and operations. However, the national media has been…sidestepping a scandal involving the Clintons that involves the same type of fraud allegations. The scandal involves a dubious Laureate Education for-profit online college (Walden) and entails many of the common elements with other Clinton scandals: huge sums given to the Clintons and questions of conflicts with Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State.

Here are some of the sordid details.

Laureate Education was sued over its Walden University Online offering, which some alleged worked like a scam designed to bilk students of tens of thousands of dollars for degrees. Students alleged that they were repeatedly delayed and given added costs as they tried to secure degrees, leaving them deeply in debt. …The respected Inside Higher Education reported that Laureate Education paid Bill Clinton an obscene $16.5 million between 2010 and 2014 to serve as an honorary chancellor for Laureate International Universities. …Various sites have reported that the State Department funneled $55 million in grants during Hillary Clinton’s tenure to groups associated with Laureate’s founder.  That would seem a pretty major story… The Wall Street Journal reported that Laureate was able to “skirt” regulations on reporting “gainful employment” due to its large number of schools and students outside of the country… Laureate has come up in the Clinton email scandal.  In her first year as Secretary of State, Clinton is quoted as directly asking that Laureate be included in a high-profile policy dinner — just months before the lucrative contract was given to Bill Clinton. …the size of the contract to Clinton, the grants from State and the complaints over alleged fraud should warrant a modicum of attention to the controversy.

Let’s close with one final example of Clintonesque sleaze. She apparently thinks insider trading is a good idea so long as the insiders are members of her family.

In 2012, Mezvinski, the husband of Chelsea Clinton, created a $325 million basket of offshore funds under the Eaglevale Partners banner through a special arrangement with investment bank Goldman Sachs. The funds have lost tens of millions of dollars predicting that bailouts of the Greek banking system would pump up the value of the country’s distressed bonds. …newly released emails from 2012 show that she and Clinton Foundation consultant, Sidney Blumenthal, shared classified information about how German leadership viewed the prospects for a Greek bailout. Clinton also shared “protected” State Department information about Greek bonds with her husband at the same time that her son-in-law aimed his hedge fund at Greece. …sharing such sensitive information with friends and family would have been highly improper. Federal regulations prohibit the use of nonpublic information to further private interests or the interests of others. The mere perception of a conflict of interest is unacceptable. …monitoring Greece was part of Clinton’s job description, but, ethically, that does not mean that a family member should make bets that depend upon the actions of another family member.

The point of all this is not that Hillary Clinton is sleazy and corrupt, though that’s one obvious conclusion.

Instead, as I’ve demonstrated over and over again, the real lesson is that Washington is filled with people like her.

And the reason that sleazy people gravitate to Washington is that we have Leviathan-sized government that enables politically well-connected people to obtain vast amounts of unearned and undeserved wealth.

Including lots of Republicans, so this isn’t a partisan argument.

Moreover, the problem almost certainly won’t get solved by electing different people. The only real solution is shrinking the size of government so there’s less opportunity for graft.

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At the risk of understatement, Obamacare is a mess.

It’s been bad for taxpayers, bad for consumers, and bad for healthcare.

It’s even been bad for some of the special interest groups that backed the legislation. The big insurance companies supported the law, for instance, because they thought it would be good to have the government force people to buy their products.

And these corrupt firms even got a provision in the law promising bailouts from taxpayers if the Obamacare system didn’t work.

Given the miserable track record of the public sector, that was probably a crafty move.

But the companies mistakenly assumed their sleazy pact with Obama, Pelosi, and Reid was permanent. Fortunately, their Faustian bargain appears to be backfiring.

Senator Marco Rubio has led the fight to stop bailouts for the big insurance companies.

Here are some excerpts from his recent column in the Wall Street Journal.

Six years after being signed into law, ObamaCare is a costly and unsustainable disaster. …ObamaCare is also bringing out corporate America’s worst crony-capitalist impulses. The health-insurance lobby has teamed up with trial lawyers to sue the federal government—through individual lawsuits and a $5 billion class action—for not following through on a sweetheart bailout deal buried in the law. This provision of ObamaCare would have required taxpayers to bail out insurers.

But in a rare victory for taxpayers, the Florida Senator got the law changed to restrict bailouts.

My conservative colleagues and I sounded the alarm about the likelihood of a taxpayer-funded bailout of health insurers (and were mocked as Chicken Littles for it). …When it came time to pass a spending bill at the end of 2014, we succeeded in making it the law of the land that the ObamaCare bailout program could not cost taxpayers a single cent—which ended up saving taxpayers $2.5 billion. In December of last year, we came back and repeated the feat. Now I am urging leaders in both the House and Senate to make this a priority and stop the bailout a third time.

As you might imagine, there’s a counterattack by the corrupt insurance companies that conspired with the White House to impose Obamacare on the nation.

…the health-insurance companies are suing to try to get their bailout…professional attorneys from the Congressional Research Service…said that the administration’s practice of making other payments to insurers under the ObamaCare reinsurance program “would appear to be in conflict with the plain text” of the law. …Health insurers can hire all the high-paid trial lawyers they want, but they will run into a constitutional buzz saw: America’s founding document grants Congress the power of the purse… Health-insurance companies need to wake up to the reality that this…money they are fighting for, and that the Obama administration is trying to weasel a way to somehow give them, belongs to taxpayers. Taxpayers get to decide—through me and others in Congress—whether to bail them out. And the people have spoken: No, we will not bail out health insurance companies for ObamaCare’s failures.

Amen to Senator Rubio.

Let’s hope Congress continues to oppose bailouts, and let’s also hope the White House isn’t successful in somehow giving our money to the big insurance companies.

Speaking of which, here’s what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the bailout controversy.

Right when you think Washington can’t get any worse, it does. That much was evident at a recent U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing into the Obama administration’s bailout of private health insurance companies. It’s a textbook case of government officials ignoring federal law to put special interests before the interests of American taxpayers and families.

Here’s how the mess was created…and how the Obama White House chose to respond.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s labyrinthine mandates, health insurance companies have collectively lost billions of dollars on the exchanges, leading to an increasing number of them limiting their participation in or exiting the exchanges altogether. As a result, many insurers have demanded larger subsidy payments. …responding to insurance industry demands — in November the Obama administration promised to “explore other sources of funding” for payments to insurers. Yet rather than work with Congress, the administration flouted the law entirely — and in this case, that means using tax dollars to bail out insurers left on the exchanges. CMS simply decided to ignore the law.

Unfortunately, ordinary people don’t have that option.

They simply pay more to get less.

Meanwhile, Americans rightly wonder who’s looking out for them. Premiums have actually risen faster in the five years after passage of the Affordable Care Act than in the five years before, while deductibles average nearly $3,000 for the most popular exchange plans.

Isn’t that typical.

Big government makes life worse for the average person while the special interests get special deals.

Speaking of special deals, let’s look at another Obamacare rescue for a privileged group.

Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation explains the contortions needed to keep health insurance subsidies flowing to Capitol Hill.

…one scandal is truly bipartisan: How key administration and congressional officials connived to create, under cover of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, special health insurance subsidies for members of Congress.

Here’s the background.

Rushing to enact the giant Obamacare bill in March 2010, Congress voted itself out of its own employer-sponsored health insurance coverage—the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. …But in pulling out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, they also cut themselves off from their employer-based insurance contributions.

Subjecting themselves and their staff to Obamacare may have been smart politics, if only to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, but that created a different problem.

Obamacare’s insurance subsidies for ordinary Americans are generous, but capped by income. No one with an annual income over $47,080 gets a subsidy. That’s well below typical Capitol Hill salaries. Members of Congress make $174,000 annually, and many on their staff have impressive, upper-middle-class paychecks. …Realizing what they had done, congressional leaders sought desperately to get fatter taxpayer subsidies in the Obamacare exchange system. …The standard excuse was that, without a special “sweetener,” a Capitol Hill “brain drain” would ensue; the best and brightest would flee to the private sector to get more affordable employment-based coverage.

Gee, it would have been a shame if the people who have screwed up public policy had to get jobs in the private sector (or, more likely, the parasitic lobbying sector).

But the law oftentimes is not an obstacle when the Obama White House wants something to happen.

…at a July 31 closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats, President Barack Obama had promised he would “fix” the mess they made of their health coverage. So, on Aug. 7, 2013, just as Congress was getting out of town for the August recess, the Office of Personnel Management ruled that members of Congress and staff enrolled in the exchange program would get Federal Employees Health Benefits Program subsidies, even though they were no longer in the program.

But how exactly did the White House evade the law?

…the Office of Personnel Management declared that Congress and staff were eligible to enroll in the Washington, D.C., “SHOP” Exchange, a health insurance exchange reserved for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. The exchange offers special insurance subsidies to participating small businesses. The problem was, of course, that Congress is not a “small business,” at least under any clinically sane definition of the term, and no section of the Affordable Care Act provided for any congressional exemption from the ban on large employer participation in the SHOP exchanges.

By the way, as a former staffer on Capitol Hill, I do have some sympathy for the lower-level folks who didn’t create the Obamacare mess and would suddenly be in a position of having to pay all their health costs out of pocket if the law was obeyed.

But that’s not a reason to engage in legal chicanery.

As part of tax and entitlement reform, by all means let’s shift to a system where we address the third-party payer crisis by having most health care expenses directly financed by consumers (reserving insurance for large, unpredictable expenses). That new system should include all people, including politicians and their staff.

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Whether they call it global warming or climate change, activists on the left are acting as if the issue is just an excuse to extort money and expand the power of government.

  • In Part I, I wrote about kleptocrats exploiting the issue to shake down western governments for enormous amounts of aid money.
  • In Part II, I noted how then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, using tens of billions of dollars from American taxpayers, wanted to bribe third-world governments into adopting anti-energy measures
  • In Part III, I explained how the Kyoto Protocol encourages the destruction of jobs in western nations.

Let’s now a fourth installment on how climate change is a racket.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a legal scam concocted by left-wing activists to extort money from Exxon.

A key meeting in the new push unfolded in January behind closed doors… The session brought together about a dozen people, including Kenny Bruno, a veteran of environmental campaigns, and Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, two activists who helped lead the successful fight to block the Keystone XL pipeline. The new campaign’s goals include “to establish in public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm,” according to an agenda of the meeting… This new legal strategy stems in part from environmentalists’ frustration at what they see as the inadequacy of recent climate deals. Their hope is to encourage state attorneys general and the U.S. Justice Department to launch investigations and lawsuits that ultimately will change Exxon’s behavior, force it to pay big damages.

And the scam paid off, at least in the sense that a bunch of Democratic Attorneys General have launched a legal attack on the company.

In an article for the Daily Signal, Hans von Spakovsky explores the implications.

…we now have a new inquisition underway in America in the 21st century—something that would have seemed unimaginable not too long ago. Treating climate change as an absolute, unassailable fact, instead of what it is—an unproven, controversial scientific theory—a group of state attorneys general have announced that they will be targeting any companies that challenge the catastrophic climate change religion. …The inquisitors are threatening legal action and huge fines against anyone who declines to believe in an unproven scientific theory. Schneiderman and Kamala Harris, representing New York and California, respectively, have already launched investigations into ExxonMobil for allegedly funding research that questioned climate change.

By the way, one amusing and ironic aspect of this attempted shakedown is that some of the left-wing activists are asserting that scientists for the energy companies are smarter than the ones mooching from the government.

Writing for National Review, Rupert Darwall explains.

Was ExxonMobil better at climate science than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? This is the bizarre position now being adopted by climate activists such as Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes and 350.org’s Bill McKibben. As early as 1977, Exxon researchers “knew that its main product would heat up the planet disastrously,” McKibben claimed in the New Yorker last month. …Had Exxon been up-front about the dangers of global warming, we might have started to decarbonize decades ago, Oreskes argues. Instead, Exxon had behaved like tobacco companies who had “long delayed” public understanding by suppressing the truth about the deadly nature of their products.

But there’s one teensy-weensy problem with the tobacco company/oil company analogy.

Scientists were able to prove the threat to health from smoking because there is a very strong statistical relationship between smoking and lung cancer. The strength of those initial findings was further validated by passing a tough predictive test. In 1953, Richard Doll, one of the first researchers to have found the link, predicted that in 1973 there would be 25,000 lung-cancer deaths in Britain. In fact, there were 26,000. By contrast, climate models have been systematically over-forecasting temperature rises this century, demonstrating that climate scientists know much less about the climate system than they would have us believe.

Needless to say, if the models are wrong about the weather we’ve already had, why should we believe their future predictions?

And the climate alarmists certainly have a long track record of flawed pronouncements.

And suppression of inconvenient data.

By the way, just in case these legal scams don’t work, some statists want to take the threats to the next level.

In a modern-day version of the Church imprisoning Galileo, the self-styled Science Guy apparently doesn’t think much of open and honest inquiry. Here are some passages from a report in the Washington Times about Bill Nye refusing to reject jail time for skeptics.

Bill Nye “the science guy” says in a video interview released Thursday that he is open to the idea of jailing those who deviate from the climate change consensus. …“In these cases, for me, as a taxpayer and voter, the introduction of this extreme doubt about climate change is affecting my quality of life as a public citizen,” Mr. Nye said. “So I can see where people are very concerned about this, and they’re pursuing criminal investigations as well as engaging in discussions like this.”

Local governments also are joining the campaign.

Fox News reports that the City of Portland wants to censor dissenting views on global warming.

The Portland Public Schools board voted last week to ban any materials that cast doubt on climate change, the Portland Tribune reported. According to the resolution passed May 17, the school district must remove any textbooks and other materials that suggest climate change is not occurring or that says human beings are not responsible for it. …One commenter to the Portland Tribune story responded to the news, saying, “I have never seen a case for homeschooling more clearly put forward. This is further proof that public schools are not interested in education, only political indoctrination.”

Unsurprisingly, the Obama Administration is intrigued anti-science shakedown. Though at least there’s some resistance from Capitol Hill, as reported by the Washington Examiner.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch must drop all efforts to prosecute climate change skeptics or risk engaging in “prosecutorial misconduct,” a group of Senate Judiciary Committee members warned. “As you well know, initiating criminal prosecution for a private entity’s opinions on climate change is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and an abuse of power that rises to the level of prosecutorial misconduct,” five lawmakers wrote to Lynch on Wednesday. …In March, Lynch told Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that the FBI was considering whether it was possible to prosecute companies or groups that promoted climate change skepticism.

By the way, the fact that some leftists want to stifle dissent and redistribute money doesn’t mean global warming/climate change doesn’t exist.

Heck the climate never stops changing. And it may now be changing in part because of human actions.

That being said, I’m sure the right approach for dealing with climate change shouldn’t include central planning and other forms of statism.

I have a hard time accepting the policy prescriptions of people who are nutjobs.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, consider these examples.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

So it’s understandable why sensible people reject the agenda of radical environmentalists, even if there is some man-caused global warming.

P.S. To close on an upbeat note, we have some decent environmentalist humor here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. On a more serious note, other governments also have moved to criminalize dissent.

P.P.P.S. According to the political betting markets, the most likely V.P. candidate for Trump has a very shaky history on the topic of climate alarmism.

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In hopes of learning some lessons, let’s take a tour through the dank sewer of government, the place where malice is rewarded and malfeasance is a stepping stone to success.

Writing for the Washington Post, Professor Stephen Medvic argues that America’s political system is mostly clean.

…there is very little political corruption in the United States. …According to Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, a survey of expert opinion about the level of corruption in 167 countries, only 15 countries were judged to be cleaner than the United States. …our score of 76 (out of 100) was considerably higher than the average score of 67 in the European Union and Western Europe.

But before concluding that Mr. Medvic is a crazy crack addict, he is using a very narrow definition of corruption in the above excerpt, focusing on politicians who trade votes for under-the-table money that goes into their personal bank accounts.

Using a broader definition, there’s a different conclusion.

…corruption happens whenever there is a privileging of private interests over the public good in the policymaking process. Under this interpretation, while elected officials may not be reaping private benefit from their positions of power, they are placing the (private) interests of some subset of the public above the collective interests of the people as a whole. When a politically powerful industry gets public subsidies or a well-connected corporation receives a special tax break, it suggests to some that the system has been corrupted.

And from this perspective, corruption is rampant.

Here are six examples.

First, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center describes how a Louisiana politician (gee, what a surprise) wants to use government coercion to hinder competition in the market for contact lenses.

An estimated 40 million Americans wear contact lenses. That’s a $4 billion industry. Thanks to the heavy-handed government regulation of all things health care, contacts already cost more than they should. However, if an ongoing effort to reduce competition through government cronyism were to succeed, costs might soon rise even more. …a bill was introduced by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., called the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act of 2016, which would place pointless and costly new mandates on sellers and eliminate market competition. …it would require dedicated phone lines and email addresses for prescribers to communicate questions to sellers about the prescriptions the sellers need them to verify before the sellers are allowed to fill orders. …With this move, these special interests demonstrate that they would rather avoid the grind of competition, which requires that companies deliver high-quality goods at low prices to consumers. Instead, they’re trying to rig the system to force consumers into paying more for less.

Paying more for less? Maybe that should be Washington’s motto, though it’s hard to argue with the existing motto.

Second, Mike Needham of Heritage Action exposes how a shoe company cut a sleazy deal with the Obama White House.

Currently, new Army and Air Force recruits can use a one-time stipend to choose from about a dozen different shoes from multiple manufacturers. …shoe choice is exceedingly important for not only comfort, but also to prevent injury. Despite the differences that exist among the military’s roughly 250,000 new recruits every year, there is an effort afoot to force those recruits to wear shoes made by just one company. During last month’s mark up of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Massachusetts Democrat Niki Tsongas added language that would effectively force the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide only New Balance athletic shoes for new military recruits. …This alone reeks of the revolving door politics the political left is usually swift to condemn, but it gets even worse. Last month, New Balance revealed the company disengaged from the fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership last year because it had cut a secret deal with the Obama administration. …Using the legislative process to limit choice and competition is par for the course in our corrupt political system, but doing so at the expense of America’s brave sons and daughters outrageous.

Unfortunately, wasting money is a Pentagon tradition.

Third, here’s a typical story of insider dealing in the bureaucracy.

A Department of Veterans Affairs manager who steered a $4 million contract to a relative was promoted to the second-highest position in the hospital weeks after she was caught and exposed in the national media. …The hospital evaluated 16 plots, five of which were owned by relatives of Gillis. A committee ranked them by suitability, and a non-Gillis plot was determined to be best. But in an “unusual” move, the VA selected land owned by William Gillis instead, and paid him $4.25 million. …Within three months, in June 2015, Gillis was put on a detail to serve as acting associate director, the second-highest position in the hospital, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned. The elevation was a big promotion considering the fact that others were more senior and higher-ranked.

I suspect Gillis was one of the VA bureaucrats to also get a fat bonus despite shoddy treatment of America’s veterans.

Fourth, a former Senator is now lobbying to help H&R Block stifle competition for mom and pop tax preparers.

Former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has registered to lobby on behalf of the tax preparation company H&R Block. Kyl and a colleague at his new employer, Covington & Burling, will advocate on behalf of H&R Block in favor of the “creation of minimum standards for paid tax preparers,” according to a registration form. …H&R Block has also hired another firm, Fierce Government Relations, that it is lobbying on “oversight of tax preparation” for the company. Forbes-Tate and Rock Creek Counsel also lobby for H&R Block, and the company has its own in-house lobbyists.

Yet another example of a Republican advocating bigger government to line his own pockets.

Fifth, here’s another probable example of insider dealing.

U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein’s husband Richard Blum won the first-phase construction contract for California’s high-speed rail. …If I didn’t witness the insanity and corruption in politics every day, I wouldn’t have believed this. “The Perini-Zachary-Parsons bid was the lowest received from the five consortia participating in the bidding process, but “low” is a relative term,” the Laer Pearce, author of Crazifornia wrote. ”The firms bid $985,142,530 to build the wildly anticipated first section of high speed rail track that will tie the megopolis of Madera to the global finance center of Fresno. Do the division, and you find that the low bid came in at a mere $35 million per mile.”

Wasting money on a high-speed rail boondoggle is bad enough, but steering the contract to the spouse of a senior politician adds insult to injury.

Sixth, let’s look at how a former Obama appointee is getting rich because of regulations he oversaw while in government.

Even progressives need to make a living. …Some of them are even smart enough to do it by exploiting the regulations they pushed while in government. …Jim Shelton, the deputy secretary of education in 2013 and 2014…became “chief impact officer” at 2U, a publicly traded company that caters to public and nonprofit colleges and universities. …it’s especially notable that Mr. Shelton has joined 2U because its for-profit online business model allows it to circumvent the onerous regulation that the Department of Education promoted to punish for-profit schools during Mr. Shelton’s tenure. …This rule…has forced even the best for-profit schools to shrink enrollments. Students who have suffered the most tend to be low-income and minorities… The rule has one giant loophole. It doesn’t apply to nonprofit or public universities, and it also largely exempts community colleges. Many of these have graduation rates or loan default rates that are as bad or worse than for-profits… Which works out beautifully now for Mr. Shelton and 2U, which can work around the gainful-employment rule and still make a buck. 2U’s customers don’t have to meet the rule.

Sounds like a scene out of Atlas Shrugged, right?

So what’s the solution to all this sleaze in the Washington Favor Factory?

Returning to the column from Prof. Medvic, he seems to think that the problem is money.

The real problem is…that economic elites and business organizations have a greater impact on policy outcomes than do groups representing average citizens. …the playing field is tilted toward those with money. …the problem with money in politics is that it undermines an essential principle of democratic government.

That’s wrong. Laughably wrong.

The problem is that government has too much power. If we want to reduce sordid dealmaking (and the six examples listed above are a very tiny tip of a very large iceberg), then we need to reduce the size and scope of Washington.

Which is the message of this video.

I suppose the easy thing to do at this stage is to attack politicians for constantly expanding the size and scope of government. And I certainly have done that. A lot.

But let’s not overlook the role of culture. The crowd in Washington gets away with lots of venal behavior because an ever-larger share of the population is losing the spirit of self reliance and personal responsibility.

With that in mind, there’s very little reason for optimism once people decide that it’s okay to steal from their neighbors so long as they use government as a middleman.

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I have a collection of columns about “honest leftists” and they mostly fall into two categories.

One group is comprised of people who are willing to admit that the statist policies they generally prefer have bad effects (such as gun control encouraging crime or welfare leading to more dependency).

The other group is much more dogmatic. They get credit for honesty only because they are publicly willing to admit views that most leftists try to keep hidden (such as thinking that all our income belongs to government or celebrating the role of coercion).

I also have a separate collection of statists who are honest enough to admit that their real goal is higher taxes on the middle class (mostly by imposing a value-added tax).

Now I’ve come across something that initially seemed a good fit for one of these collections since it deals with honesty.

But it doesn’t belong in any of the categories described above. So it’s time to create a new award for “Politician of the Year,” an honor that periodically will be bestowed on the elected official who goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Based on this blurb from a Wall Street Journal editorial, I think you’ll agree that the newly elected President of the Philippines deserves to win this award for a very unusual display of honesty.

Mr. Duterte gets credit for…claiming that he never gives public funds to his mistresses.

Wow, he’s openly admitting that he has mistresses (more than one, obviously), which is uncharacteristically honest for a politician.

And he’s not even using taxpayer money to subsidize his extracurricular activities with those “friends.” Assuming that’s true, kudos to President-Elect Duterte. Maybe he can give some lessons to the crowd in Washington.

By the way, we may also have a good idea of the politician who deserves the 2017 Award.

Though we don’t actually know his name because he’s written an anonymous book on what really happens behind closed doors in Washington. The U.K.-based Daily Mail has a report on this soon-to-be-released tell-all book.

A new book threatens to blow the lid off of Congress as a federal legislator’s tell-all book lays out the worst parts of serving in the House of Representatives – saying that his main job is to raise money for re-election and that leaves little time for reading the bills he votes on. …Washington is abuzz with speculation about who may be behind it. The book…discloses that the congressman is a Democrat – but not much else. …Much of what’s in the book will come as little surprise to Americans who are cynical about the political process. ‘Fundraising is so time-consuming I seldom read any bills I vote on,’ the anonymous legislator admits. ‘I don’t even know how they’ll be implemented or what they’ll cost.’ …And on controversial bills, he says, ‘I sometimes vote “yes” on a motion and “no” on an amendment so I can claim I’m on either side of an issue.’

The book will reveal how politicians indirectly line their own pockets.

…he seemingly takes a shot at the Bill and Hillary Clinton Foundation, noting how family philanthropies can be the beneficiaries of what amounts to bribes in exchange for legislative favors. ‘Some contributions are subtle,’ he explains. ‘Donations to a member’s nonprofit foundation. Funding a member’s charitable pet project. Offsetting the costs of a member’s portrait to adorn the committee room.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that politicians are shallow, corrupt, and hypocritical.

The mystery man reserves special scorn for Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who serves as Senate Minority Leader. …One chapter is titled ‘Harry Reid’s a Pompous A**. …The larger picture that emerges is one of disenchantment with the political process and the professional office-holders behind it. Especially those in the Democratic Party. ‘Our party used to be a strong advocate for the working class,’ he says. ‘We still pretend to be, but we aren’t. Large corporations and public unions grease the palms of those who have the power to determine legislative winners and losers.’ ‘Most of my colleagues want to help the poor and disadvantaged. To a point,’ he adds. ‘We certainly don’t want to live among them. Or mingle with them, unless it’s for a soup kitchen photo op. … Poverty’s a great concern as long as it’s kept at a safe distance.’ …’I’m concerned my party has an activist far-left wing intolerant of center-leftists. …He cites education policy as an example: ‘I’m a strong advocate of improving our public schools. I also see the near-term value of vouchers and charter schools committed to lending a helping hand to disadvantaged kids. Especially inner-city kids.’ ‘Hell, most of us send our children to private schools and wouldn’t be caught dead sending them to public schools in places like DC.

That last section is really disgusting. Politicians will sacrifice other people’s children to appease the teacher unions, but they have the money to exercise school choice for their own kids.

So what’s the bottom line?

The mystery Democratic Congressman paints a grim picture.

‘Most of my colleagues are dishonest career politicians who revel in the power and special-interest money that’s lavished upon them,’ Atkinson recorded his mystery collaborator saying. ‘My main job is to keep my job, to get reelected. It takes precedence over everything.’ …the take-away message is one of resigned depression about how Congress sacrifices America’s future on the altar of its collective ego. ‘We spend money we don’t have and blithely mortgage the future with a wink and a nod. Screw the next generation,’ the author writes. ‘Nobody here gives a rat’s a** about the future and who’s going to pay for all this stuff we vote for. That’s the next generation’s problem. It’s all about immediate publicity, getting credit now, lookin’ good for the upcoming election.’

In other words, he’s describing what academics refer to as “public choice economics,” which is simply the common-sense observation that politicians are most interested in maximizing power and money for themselves.

P.S. If we can give a retroactive award for Politician of the Year, the winner would be the state legislator mentioned in the postscript to this column. Bribery, prison, and potential statutory rape are a potent combination.

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I’m a big fan of Estonia.

According to both the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, it has considerable economic freedom.

It has a low-rate flat tax, meaning that investors, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners aren’t punished for contributing more to the nation’s economic output.

It responded to the 2008 crisis by cutting spending rather than engaging in a Keynesian spending binge (which also led to an exploding cigar for Paul Krugman).

Now I have another reason to like Estonia.

It’s a role model for how to reduce corruption by shrinking the size and scope of government.

First, some background.

Neil Abrams and Professor Steven Fish have a column in the Washington Post about the seemingly intractable problem of boosting the rule of law in developing and transition economies.

Western aid agencies and scholars agree that the rule of law is required before developing countries can reduce poverty and corruption. For decades, they have supported aid programs designed to help developing countries establish law-based states. …In a rule-of-law state, the rules apply even to the rulers, not just the ordinary folks. The rule of law is not the same as democracy. Scores of developing countries have demonstrated that establishing democracy is the easy part. The rule of law is harder to attain. From India and the Philippines to Argentina, democracy coexists with endemic corruption, and elites remain largely exempt from the rules.

They then explain that its well-nigh impossible to create the rule of law in a society that has a big government.

…our research suggests that they have the sequence backward. Before urging governments to adopt the rule of law, they must first advise reformers to take one key step: eliminating the government subsidies that sustain criminal elites and replacing the compromised bureaucrats who patronize them.

Now for the big takeaway from their column: Estonia is the role model for how this can happen.

Our research shows that a few good policies can pave the way for the rule of law. For instance, Estonia’s clean and capable state administration represents a model of post-communist success. But this was not always the case. In 1991, when communism collapsed, Estonia, like other post-Soviet countries, had almost no working institutions and a burgeoning class of economic predators, nor was Estonia economically privileged. In the early post-Soviet years, its income per capita was only 10 to 20 percent higher than that of Russia and Romania and 20 to 30 percent lower than that of Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary. But Estonian leaders acted boldly. …early Estonian governments ended practically all subsidies to state and private enterprises. …in developing countries, state subsidies almost always benefit corrupt elites more than ordinary people. This policy cut off the budding economic criminals who profit from state largesse rather than entrepreneurial aptitude — and made it possible for real entrepreneurs to thrive. Deprived of subsidies, old-guard enterprise directors and crony capitalists could not muster enough political influence to hold governments hostage.

Sadly, other nations are not copying Estonia, in part because the international bureaucracies and national agencies that dispense foreign aid don’t support policies to shrink government in recipient nations.

Unfortunately, Estonia is the exception and not the rule. That’s  not for lack of trying on the part of the West. The United States, the European Union, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the United Nations have spent billions of dollars for the express purpose of helping countries build a rule of law. …But they’re stumbling. The Western effort assumes that the rule of law will flourish only if developing countries receive enough education, guidance, training and money. In fact, a growing body of research throws such optimism into doubt.

In other words, foreign aid – at best – is useless. And it may be harmful by financing a bigger role for recipient governments.

The authors close by emphasizing the need (assuming genuine rule of law is the goal) to prune the bureaucracy and public sector.

Scholars often treat the rule of law as a prerequisite for market-oriented economic policies such as liberalizing prices and trade and eradicating wasteful subsidies. They’re getting it backward. Instead, first eliminate the subsidies and purge the compromised bureaucrats who stand in the rule of law’s way. This is hard to do. It will provoke tremendous resistance from those who profit from the status quo. But it’s far more realistic and effective than simply encouraging countries to adopt the rule of law.

So what are the implications of this analysis for the United States?

Given that America now ranks below Estonia for rule of law, and given that rule of law is gradually eroding in the United States, the obvious lesson is that the public sector in America needs to shrink.

The real challenge, though, is convincing politicians to give up power.

Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School explains in USA Today that a larger government is good for politicians because it creates opportunities for graft.

The explanation for why politicians don’t do all sorts of reasonable-sounding things usually boils down to “insufficient opportunities for graft.” And, conversely, the reason why politicians choose to do many of the things that they do is … you guessed it, sufficient opportunities for graft. That graft may come in the form of bags of cash, or shady real-estate deals, or “consulting” gigs for a brother-in-law or child, but it may also come in broader terms of political support.

Glenn notes that there’s an entire school of thought in economics that analyzes this unfortunate tendency of politicians to conspire with interest groups at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

…there’s a whole field of economics based on this view, called “Public Choice Economics.” Nobel prize winning economist James Buchanan referred to public choice economics as “politics without romance.” Instead of being selfless civil servants motivated solely by the public good, public choice economics assumes that politicians are, like other human beings, heavily influenced by self-interest. …You pick a car because it’s the best car for you that you can afford. Politicians pick policies because they’re the best policies — for them — that they can achieve. …the entire system is designed — by politicians, naturally — to make it harder for voters to keep track of what politicians are doing. The people who have a bigger stake in things — the real estate developers or construction unions — have an incentive to keep track of things, and to influence them.

Having received my Ph.D. from George Mason University, home of the Center for the Study of Public Choice, I echo Glenn’s comments about the value of this theory.

So what’s the moral of the story?

As summarized by Professor Reynolds, bigger government means more corruption and smaller government means less corruption.

The more the government does and the more decisions that are relegated to bureaucrats, “guidance” and other forms of decisionmaking that are far from the public eye, the more freedom politicians have to pursue their own interest at the expense of the public — all while, of course, claiming to do just the opposite.

Now let’s look at some real-world examples from Washington.

By the way, I’m not writing to specifically condemn Obama and his team, even though I’m quite confident that the Chicago machine produces people who excel at unethical behavior.

Republicans also get their hands dirty by steering undeserved wealth to special interests, as explained here, here, and here.

That being said, most Washington corruption today seems associated with the Democrat Party for the simple reason that Democrats control the bureaucracy.

For instance, here are some of the key points from a New York Times report.

The State Department, under Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, created an arrangement for her longtime aide and confidante Huma Abedin to work for private clients as a consultant while serving as a top adviser in the department. Ms. Abedin did not disclose the arrangement — or how much income she earned — on her financial report. It requires officials to make public any significant sources of income.

To be blunt, this stinks to high heaven.

…the picture that emerges from interviews and records suggests a situation where the lines were blurred between Ms. Abedin’s work in the high echelons of one of the government’s most sensitive executive departments and her role as a Clinton family insider. While continuing her work at the State Department, in the latter half of 2012, she also worked for Teneo, a strategic consulting firm, which was founded by Doug Band, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Teneo has advised corporate clients like Coca-Cola and MF Global, the collapsed brokerage firm run by Jon S. Corzine, a former governor of New Jersey.

The Daily Caller also has been doing some first-rate work on the cronyism and corruption inside Washington.

One of their stories, for instance, exposed the left-wing connections of the supposedly “apolitical” bureaucrat at the heart of the IRS scandal.

IRS Exempt Organizations Division director Lois G. Lerner, who has been described as “apolitical” in mainstream press coverage of the IRS scandal, is married to tax attorney Michael R. Miles, a partner at the law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.

And why does that matter?

The 400-attorney firm hosted an organizing meeting at its Atlanta office for people interested in helping with voter registration for the Obama re-election campaign. …Lerner personally signed the tax-exemption approval for a shady charity run by Obama’s half-brother, after an inexplicably brief one-month application process.

Time to wrap this up.

I enjoy Mark Steyn for his biting humor, but he makes a very serious and relevant point is his latest column.

A civil “civil service” requires small government. Once government is ensnared in every aspect of life a bureaucracy grows increasingly capricious. The U.S. tax code ought to be an abomination to any free society, but the American people have become reconciled to it because of a complex web of so-called exemptions that massively empower the vast shadow state of the permanent bureaucracy. Under a simple tax system, your income is a legitimate tax issue. Under the IRS, everything is a legitimate tax issue: The books you read, the friends you recommend them to. There are no correct answers, only approved answers.

I made a similar point, arguing that you can’t have a competent government unless it’s a small government.

But as the public sector expands, effective management becomes much harder.

And, as discussed in an interview with John Stossel, you also get corruption, mixed with incompetence and thuggery.

Let’s close by re-issuing my video explaining how big government enables pervasive corruption. It’s never been more timely and appropriate.

P.S. There are some countries with big governments that are not plagued by corruption. The Nordic nations, for instance, rank at or near the top in many economic indications, including high-quality rule of law. Though it’s worth noting that these jurisdictions scored highly in these areas before the burden of government was expanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Shanahan suspect these reforms will backfire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Because I don’t like their plans for a value-added tax, some people seem to think that I am politically opposed to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

That’s not true. Both Senators are generally strong proponents of free markets and limited government, so the fact that they have one bad policy position shouldn’t a disqualifying characteristic.

But since I’m a policy wonk (and because I work at a non-profit think tank), it’s not my role to tell people how to vote anyhow. Instead, my niche in life is to analyze policy proposals. And if that means I say something nice about a politician who is normally bad, or something critical of a politician who is normally good, so be it.

In other words, nothing I write is because I want readers to vote for or vote against particular candidates. I write to educate and inform.

With all those caveats out of the way, let’s look at the federal government’s odious handouts for the ethanol industry, a very important issue where Rand Paul and Ted Cruz unambiguously are on the side of the angels.

My colleague Doug Bandow summarizes the issue nicely in a column for Newsweek.

Senator Ted Cruz has broken ranks to criticize farmers’ welfare. …Senator Rand Paul also rejects the conventional wisdom…the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires blending ethanol with gasoline, operates as a huge industry subsidy. Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute figured the requirement cost drivers more than $10 billion since 2007. …Ethanol has only about two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. Given the energy necessary to produce ethanol—fuel tractors, make fertilizer and distill alcohol, for instance—ethanol actually may consume more in fossil fuels than the energy it yields. The ethanol lobby claims using this inferior fuel nevertheless promotes “energy independence.” However, …the price of this energy “insurance” is wildly excessive. …”By creating an artificial energy demand for corn—40 percent of the existing supply goes for ethanol—Uncle Sam also is raising food prices. This obviously makes it harder for poor people to feed themselves, and raises costs for those seeking to help them.” Nor does ethanol welfare yield an environmental benefit, as claimed. In fact, ethanol is bad for the planet. …Ethanol is a bad deal by any standard. Whomever Iowans support for president, King Ethanol deserves a bout of regicide.

Here’s some of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial on the topic.

Mr. Cruz does deserve support in Iowa for…his…lonely opposition to the renewable fuel standard that mandates ethanol use and enriches producers in the Hawkeye State. The Senator refused to bow before King Ethanol last year, and he’s mostly held fast even though Iowa is where anti-subsidy Republicans typically go to repent. …the Texan is right that ethanol is one of America’s worst corporate-welfare cases. The mandate flows in higher profits to a handful of ethanol producers and keeps the price of corn artificially high, all other demand being equal. This raises the price of food. Al Gore and the greens once supported ethanol but gave up on it when studies showed it did nothing for the environment because of the energy expended in its production. So for those of you keeping track of this outsider feud on your establishment scorecards, mark ethanol as one for Mr. Cruz. In this case he’s standing on principle.

Not only does it raise the price of food, Washington’s mandate for ethanol use (the “renewable fuels standard”) means higher prices for motorists.

Here are the key findings on the topic from the Congressional Budget Office.

While Senators Cruz and Paul are fighting on the right side, Donald Trump is cravenly bowing to the special interests that want continued ethanol handouts. Jillian Kay Melchior explains for National Review.

One of the most destructive environmental subsidies in the United States has found an enthusiastic supporter in Donald Trump. “The EPA should ensure that biofuel . . . blend levels match the statutory level set by Congress,” he said yesterday in Iowa, adding that he was “there with you 100 percent” on continuing federal support for ethanol. …federal support for ethanol is a bum deal for Americans. Under the 2007 Independence and Security Act, Congress mandated that the United States use 36 billion gallons of biofuels, including corn ethanol and cellulosic biofuel, by 2022. And the federal government not only requires the use of ethanol; it also subsides it. Tax credits between 1978 and 2012 cost the Treasury as much as $40 billion. Moreover, numerous other federal programs, spanning multiple agencies, allot billions of dollars to ethanol in the form of grants, loan guarantees, tax credits, and other subsidies. …Ethanol-intensive fuel blends can wreak havoc on car, lawnmower, and boat engines. In fact, many vehicle manufacturers will no longer offer warranties when ethanol comprises 10 percent or more of fuel; engine erosion simply becomes too common. …perhaps it’s not surprising that Trump likes federal support of ethanol. After all, the real-estate mogul’s business model has historically hinged on using tax abatements and other subsidies to make his building projects profitable. …Trump’s support for ethanol belies his populist Main Street rhetoric. In reality, he’s just another rich, East Coast politician who would prop up special interests at the expense of the taxpayer.

The bottom line is that ethanol handouts are one of the most notoriously corrupt subsidies that are dispensed by Washington.

They also violate my Bleeding-Heart Rule by imposing costs on lower- and middle-income people to reward politically connected fat cats with deep pockets.

Policy makers who oppose ethanol deserve praise, especially when they are willing to say and do the right thing in a state (like Iowa) that has a lot of recipients of this execrable form of corporate welfare.

P.S. I will get really excited if a candidate goes to Iowa and explains that we should get rid of the entire Department of Agriculture.

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

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

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

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

And it’s getting worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last part of the excerpt is crucial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is there a potential solution?

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

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

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

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Why does the tax code require more than 10,000,000 words and more than 75,000 pages?

There are several reasons and none of them are good. But if you had to pick one cause for all the mess, it would be the fact that politicians have worked with interest groups and lobbyists to create myriad deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, exemptions, and other loopholes.

This is a great deal for the lobbyists, who get big fees. It’s a great scam for politicians, who get lots of contributions. And it’s a great outcome for interest groups, who benefit from back-door industrial policy that distorts the economy.

But it’s not great for the American people or the American economy.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains that the net result is a Byzantine tax code that imposes very harsh compliance costs on the productive sector.

According to a 2012 study from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Treasury Department, …corporations alone spent $104 billion complying with the tax code in 2012. …The cost to individuals may be even higher. According to a 2013 study by Jason Fichtner and Jacob Feldman of the Mercatus Center, Americans face nearly $1 trillion annually in hidden tax-compliance costs. …Why does tax compliance cost so much? The answer is largely that the Internal Revenue Code…is riddled with exclusions, exemptions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits.

And she also points to a solution.

Genuine reform would cut out loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of those with political connections. It would also aim to provide lower tax rates, fewer tax brackets, and less double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such measures would be good for growth, but they would also mean taking on the interest groups that benefit from swapping tax preferences for campaign cash.

Since I want to rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, this is music to my ears.

Of course, achieving genuine tax reform won’t be easy.

There’s the obvious political obstacle since all the groups that benefit from the current system (politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, cronyists, interest groups, and other insiders) will fiercely resist reform.

There’s also a policy obstacle because many people oppose loopholes in theory but they haven’t paid sufficient attention to the nuts-and-bolts details.

With that in mind, let’s set out a set of guiding principles for the elimination of tax loopholes and the creation of a neutral tax system.

1. A loophole exists when income isn’t taxed – In libertarian Nirvana, the central government is so small that there’s no need for an income tax. Until we get to that point, though, we’re stuck with the internal revenue code and the goal should be to collect revenue (hopefully a modest amount) in a way that minimizes the economic damage per dollar collected. And that means a tax code that doesn’t have loopholes, which are best defined as provisions that enable people to avoid any tax based on how they earn income or how they spend income. In a neutral system, all income is taxed one time.

2. The economy performs better without a loophole-riddled tax code – Most people understand that high tax rates are bad for growth because they penalize people for earning income. They also generally understand that double taxation of saving and investment is bad for growth because it creates a bias against capital formation. But there’s not nearly enough appreciation of the fact that loopholes in the code are bad for growth since they are a back-door form of industrial policy that exist for the purpose of incentivizing people to make decisions on the basis of tax rather than on the basis of what makes economic sense. A neutral tax system means less economic damage.

3. It’s not a loophole to protect income from double taxation or to require income to be measured correctly – The bad news is that the current system forces taxpayers to overstate their income and it also imposes multiple layers of tax on income that is saved and invested. The good news is that there are provisions in the tax code – such as IRAs, 401(k)s, deferral, bonus depreciation – that seek to mitigate these biases. These parts of the system oftentimes are needlessly complex and they frequently will alleviate penalties in a discriminatory manner, but they are not loopholes. In a neutral system, all income is taxed only one time.

4. Loopholes should be eliminated as part of a plan to lower tax rates, not in order to give politicians more money – If loopholes are a corrupt and distorting dark cloud, the silver lining to that cloud is that all the special favors in the tax code deprive the government of tax revenue. Even the most egregious of loopholes, such as ethanol, have this redeeming feature. This is why loopholes should only be eliminated as part of an overall tax reform plan that also lowers tax rates and reduces double taxation. A neutral tax system shouldn’t enable bigger government.

There are some important implications that follow from these four guiding principles.

As a practical matter, we can now identify provisions in the tax code that are clearly loopholes, such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, and the state and local tax deduction (the mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate).

We also know that the capital gains tax rate isn’t a “preferential” loophole, but instead is the mitigation of a penalty that shouldn’t exist. Similarly, it’s not a loophole when companies deduct expenses when calculating income. And you’re not getting some sort of handout simply because Uncle Sam isn’t imposing double taxation on your retirement account. At the risk of repeating myself, all income should be taxed in a neutral system, but only one time.

Let’s close by looking at a few secondary – but still important – implications of a neutral tax code.

First, getting rid of loopholes won’t put a burden on poor and middle-income taxpayers for the simple reason that an overwhelming share of the benefits of these provisions go to high-income taxpayers.

I’ve already shown how the vast majority of charitable deductions are taken by those making more than $200,000 per year.

The same is true for the state and local tax deduction and the healthcare exclusion.

And the Washington Post just editorialized that the home mortgage interest deduction is a boon for rich taxpayers as well.

The mortgage interest deduction is also a significant cause of after-tax income inequality: The top 20 percent of earners get 75 percent of the benefits; the top 1 percent get 15 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. …Specifically, 10 metropolitan “hot spot” counties (among them Los Angeles in California and Fairfax in Virginia) with the greatest number of mortgages larger than $500,000 accounted for 45.1 percent of all such mortgages nationally. Just eight California urban and suburban counties accounted for 40 percent of the national total. Outside of such tony coastal precincts, the only big-mortgage hot spots were resort destinations such as Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Vail, Colo. — where many homes are vacation places, not primary residences.

To be sure, the Post is misguided in that it wants to restrict tax preferences in order to finance a larger burden of government spending.

So I’m not expecting the editors to join a coalition for pro-growth tax reform.

The second implication is that a neutral tax system means less corruption.

To cite one example, consider the oleaginous way that politicians deal with so-called tax extenders. Marc Short and Andy Koenig explain in a column they wrote for the New York Times.

Congress will soon take up the so-called tax extenders package, which has more than 50 tax breaks affecting a variety of industries and issues. …this bill mostly helps the wealthy and the well connected.

The fact that rich insiders benefit is no surprise, but what makes “tax extenders” so odious is that what began in 1988 as a supposedly one-time fix now has become a regular part of the process, a scam that gives lobbyists and politicians a way of generating fees and contributions.

The first tax-extender package…opened a door that lobbyists and lawmakers were all too willing to run through. …A 2014 analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness found that more than one out of every 10 lobbyists in Washington focused specifically on the extenders package. Given that this bill comes up about every year or two, special interests constantly have the opportunity to demand new handouts.

By the way, some of the extenders actually are good policy. They’re in the mitigation-of-penalties category I discussed above.

But those good provisions should be made permanent and the bad provisions should be jettisoned.

Unfortunately, that’s not in the interests of the politicians and lobbyists who benefit from an annual extender package, so the problem doubtlessly will fester.

Last but not least, let’s consider the moral component.

For those of us who believe in justice, it is ethically offensive that some rich and powerful taxpayer get better treatment simply because they know how to manipulate the political process.

This violates the important principle that the law should treat everyone alike. Yet another reason to have a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of being a nit-picker about my own writing, I should confess that a flat tax is not a purely neutral tax system. There will still be a penalty on earning income. But the penalty presumably will be modest if there is a low rate and that penalty won’t be exacerbated by penalties and loopholes that distort how people earn income and spend income.

P.P.S. Here, in one image, is all you really need to know about the economics of taxation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything else is window dressing.

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

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Yesterday, I shared several stories that exposed the festering corruption of Washington.

Today, let’s look at one issue that symbolizes the pervasive waste of Washington.

Medicare is the federal government’s one-size-fits-all health program for the elderly. Because of its poor design, it bears considerable responsibility for two massive problems.

  1. It contributes to the systemic third-party payer problem in American health care.
  2. It exacerbates America’s long-run challenge of excessive entitlement spending.

But there’s another issue. Medicare also has a very serious problem with fraud. As is so often the case with government programs, the offer of free money encourages unethical behavior.

Well, we have some good news and bad news about Medicare fraud.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the good news is that there is a small effort to catch fraudsters who bilk taxpayers.

Recovery audit contractors, as they are known, recouped $2.4 billion in improper payments in 2014, down from $3.7 billion in 2013 before the agency scaled back other audit activities and temporarily suspended the program… Those recoveries represent just a fraction of the total amount Medicare estimates it spends on incorrect payments. The Medicare program made $58 billion in improper payments to medical providers and health plans in 2014, according to PaymentAccuracy.gov, a federal website that tracks agencies’ estimates of waste.

But the bad news is this small program is being curtailed.

The federal Medicare agency is sharply cutting back the work of auditors that review hospital claims and seek to recoup improper payments for the government… Starting in January, the auditors will be able to review only 0.5% of the claims the agency pays to each hospital or provider every 45 days, according to an Oct. 28 letter to the contractors. That is a quarter of the prior threshold: 2% of claims. The contractors say the new directive, in what is known as a “technical direction letter,” will further limit their ability to pursue undue payments.

Readers are probably wondering why this effort is being hamstrung instead of expanded.

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that the folks who benefit from waste want to keep the gravy train rolling.

The latest step is a sign of how the $600-billion-a-year Medicare program can struggle to effectively rein in improper payments, fraud and waste, sometimes under pressure from medical providers… The Medicare agency “is getting a lot of pressure from the provider community to scale back the [audit] program,” said Kristin Walter… Hospital representatives welcomed further restrictions on the auditors.

Sort of like burglars welcoming “further restrictions” on police officers.

Unfortunately, the interest groups benefiting from waste and fraud have allies in government.

The American Thinker has a nauseating story about the fraudulent actions of a hospital in Houston

The president of Riverside, his son, and five others were arrested on October 4 as part of a nationwide Medicare fraud sweep.  Earnest Gibson III, chief executive officer of Riverside General Hospital for 30 years, has been charged with bilking $158 million out of Medicare over the last seven years. …Friday’s arrests at Riverside came nine months after the arrest of Mohammad Khan, the hospital’s acting administrator, who pled guilty to his role in the Medicare fraud scheme…the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services suspended payments to Riverside.

You may be wondering why this is a nauseating story when it appears that some bad guys were nailed for screwing taxpayers.

Well, now we get to the disgusting part. A politician in Washington has been fighting to enable that bad behavior.

Sheila Jackson Lee, congresswoman for Houston’s 18th district…wrote CMS Acting Director Marilyn Tavenner requesting she reconsider the agency’s decision. …Jackson Lee…asks taxpayers who have already been bilked out of hundreds of millions of dollars to pour more money into a…hospital run by alleged crooks…while administrators and politicians rake in more dough.

Sadly, the Congresswoman’s political pressure generated results.

…a month after Jackson Lee appealed to CMS…, 70% of the hospital’s Medicare payments were restored.  CMS lifted the suspension even though federal investigators were only two months away from arresting Gibson and the others.  Jackson Lee’s intervention seems to have caused even more taxpayer monies to be directed toward a hospital brimming with corruption. …This is why Washington, D.C. is broken.  Like Jackson Lee, too many politicians think that redistributing other people’s hard-earned money into the pockets of potential felons is okay as long as they get political benefit.

By the way, it’s not just Democrats. The Daily Surge reports that some Republicans are helping providers rip off taxpayers.

…efforts to rid Medicare of waste, fraud and abuse have been stymied by the power of the hospital lobby that refuses to payback excessive payments made by Medicare and are working with friends and allies in government to ensure the improper payments are never returned to the taxpayers. …at least one GOP members, Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) has actually introduced legislation further limiting the ability of the auditors to sniff out waste. His bill would block audits of Medicare providers unless their estimated error rate exceeded 40% of total billing. More than one third of all Medicare bills would have fraudulent before an audit could be triggered. So much for good government.

Ugh, makes me want to take a shower.

So what’s the bottom line? Unfortunately, fraud is an inherent part of government. When politicians create redistribution programs, amoral and immoral people will figure out ways to maximize their share of the loot.

In the case of Medicare, it means that providers have huge incentives to over-charge, over-diagnose, over-treat, and over-test.

After all, thanks to third-party payer, the patient doesn’t care.

That’s why I’m in favor of programs to combat fraud. And the RAC program doesn’t even cost taxpayers any money since the auditors are compensated by getting a slice of the improper payments that are recovered.

Imagine that, a policy where the incentives are to save money for taxpayers!

However, the only long-run and permanent solution is to shrink the size of government.

And that’s why it’s time to restructure Medicare. We have 50 years of evidence that the current approach doesn’t work.

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

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

Is this evidence that Washington is broken?

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

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

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

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

Let’s not limit our analysis to Obamacare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why are lobbyists coughing up cash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politicians have dismissed the demand, the report said.

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

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

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

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

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Back in March, I asked why Republican presidential candidates were willing to openly violate federal anti-bribery law by supporting agriculture subsidies in exchange for campaign loot.

My question was merely rhetorical, of course, since politician supposedly aren’t violating the law because the money goes to their campaigns rather than their personal bank accounts.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a sleazy quid pro quo.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ll change your mind after reading these excerpts from a column by the superb muckraking journalist Tim Carney.

The target of his piece in the Washington Examiner is Congressman Stephen Fincher of Tennessee.

Congressman Stephen Fincher…, once an opponent of the Export-Import Bank —a federal agency that subsidizes foreign buyers of U.S.-made goods — now is trying to undermine his party’s leadership by teaming up with Nancy Pelosi and her party in order to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank as President Obama and his big donors in the business lobby have demanded. …Fincher has pulled up his Tennessee roots and is now firmly planted in D.C. Instead of serving Western Tennessee, Fincher..now represents Wall Street and K Street.

Is this hyperbole?

Well, check out what Tim found out about his fundraising.

Fincher has raised a quarter-million for his re-election, according to his most recent campaign finance filing. Exactly two of his approximately 150 donations have come from Tennessee residents. Tennessee residents have given Fincher a combined $750, which rounds to 0 percent of his money raised.

And why are out-of-state donors lining up to give Fincher money?

Draw your own conclusions.

Fincher introduced his bill to reauthorize Ex-Im on Jan. 28. Two days later his campaign deposited a $2,000 check from General Electric, Ex-Im’s second-largest beneficiary and most ruthless defender. …Boeing (which benefits from 40 percent of Ex-Im subsidies) and United Technologies chipped in about a week and a half later. All of Ex-Im’s top beneficiaries, exporters and lenders (notably Ex-Im’s leading lender JPMorgan), have given to Fincher’s re-election.

The corrupt Ex-Im Bank is just one example of the for-sale sign in Fincher’s office.

Odious agriculture subsidies also can be purchased, even though none of the loot winds up in the pockets of Tennesseans.

Fincher has voted to protect the federal sugar program, whereby our government keeps out foreign sugar and issues taxpayer-backed loans to guarantee high prices for U.S. sugar growers. This hurts families, U.S.-based foodmakers and the economy, while benefitting a handful of privileged sugar companies. Tennessee produces no sugarcane or sugar beets… But Fincher’s donors do. Sugar Cane Growers of Florida PAC, American Crystal Sugar PAC, American Sugar Cane League PAC, Florida Sugar Cane League PAC, Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-Op PAC and the U.S. Beet Sugar PAC are all Fincher donors and all beneficiaries of the corporate welfare Fincher supports.

By the way, I should hasten to add that this doesn’t mean that Fincher is especially corrupt by congressional standards.

Or that he’s completely bad. I’ve made the point before that most politicians are a combination of good and bad characteristics.

It’s like they have a devil on one shoulder whispering bad advice and an angel on the other shoulder trying to get them to do the right thing.

And when the devil has a lot of PAC checks and the angel is a wonky think tank economist like yours truly, the bad guys oftentimes triumph.

But not always. Fincher, for instance, has voted for budgets based on genuine entitlement reform. And in the grand scheme of things, reining in those programs is much more important to the nation’s long-run fiscal health than curtailing sleazy corporate welfare.

That’s still no excuse, though, for Fincher’s behavior. He’s using the coercive power of government to steal from one group of people in order to provide unearned and undeserved goodies for another group.

Democrats do the same thing, of course, and they’re quite promiscuous. They seemingly favor all forms of redistribution, ranging from traditional welfare to corporate welfare.

But you can make a strong argument that Republicans are being even more immoral since they generally redistribute from the poor and middle class to the rich.

P.S. Since I’m not feeling particularly charitable to the political class, let’s close with some biting humor against the crowd in Washington.

Regular readers know I’m not a big fan of Pope Francis, and I’ve shared some criticism based on the insights of Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell.

But I definitely think this clever image is worth sharing.

Reminds me of this Star Wars-themed joke about Washington.

P.P.S. If you like mocking the political class, I have lots of other material for you to enjoy. You can read about how the men and women in DC spend their time screwing us and wasting our money. We also have some examples of what people in Montana, Louisiana, Nevada, and Wyoming think about big-spending politicians.

This little girl has a succinct message for our political masters, here are a couple of good images capturing the relationship between politicians and taxpayers, and here is a somewhat off-color Little Johnny joke. Speaking of risqué humor, here’s a portrayal of a politician and lobbyist interacting.

Returning to G-rated material, you can read about the blind rabbit who finds a politician. And everyone enjoys political satire, as can be found in these excerpts from the always popular Dave Barry.

Let’s not forgot to include this joke by doctors about the crowd in Washington. And last but not least, here’s the motivational motto of the average politician.

P.P.P.S. One serious point. If we want to clean up corruption in Washington, more campaign finance laws won’t work. The only way to reduce corruption is to shrink the size of government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh, how disappointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remember Sleepless in Seattle, the 1993 romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?

Well, there should be a remake of that film entitled Clueless in Washington. But it wouldn’t be romantic and it wouldn’t be a comedy.

Though there would be a laughable aspect to this film, because it would be about an editorial writer at the Washington Post trying to convince people to feel sorry for the IRS. Here’s some of what Stephen Stromberg wrote on Wednesday.

Congress has done some dumb things. One of the dumbest is the GOP’s penny-wise-pound-foolish campaign to defund the Internal Revenue Service. …its mindless tantrum against the IRS has produced for taxpayers: a tax season that was “by far the worst in memory,” according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an agency watchdog.

Before I share any more of the article, I should point out that the “Taxpayer Advocate Service” isn’t a watchdog. It should be renamed the “Government Advocate Service” since its main goal is to increase the IRS’s budget.

But I’m digressing. Let’s continue with Mr. Stromberg’s love letter to tax collectors.

The underlying problem is that Congress has asked the IRS to do a lot more, such as administering a critical piece of Obamacare, but the GOP Congress won’t give the agency the funding it needs to do its work. …But good luck convincing Republicans to fix the IRS’s entirely predictable and avoidable problems. Not when that would mean restraining the impulse to act on anti-tax orthodoxy, blind populist anger and scandal-mongering about the IRS mistreating conservatives. In fact, Republicans want to double down on their nonsense budgeting, proposing deep cuts to the IRS last month.

Oops, time for another correction.

Stromberg is cherry picking data to imply that the IRS budget has been savaged.

If you look at the long-run data, however, you’ll see that the IRS now has almost twice as much money to run its operations as it did a few decades ago.

And that’s based on inflation-adjusted dollars, so we have a very fair apples-to-apples comparison.

Stromberg also wants us to sympathize with the bureaucrats because the tax code has been made more complex.

The underlying irrationality is the same: The IRS doesn’t write the tax code or health-care law, but the agency must apply these policies and engage with people affected by them, so it is an easy scapegoat.

Part of this passage is correct, and I’ve specifically pointed out that the tax code is mind-numbingly complex and that politicians deserve an overwhelming share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs.

That being said, the IRS goes beyond the law to make the system worse, as we saw when it imposed a regulation that put foreign tax law above American tax law. And when it arbitrarily rewrote the Obamacare legislation to enable additional subsidies.

In other words, it deserves to be scapegoated.

But there’s a bigger issue, one that Stromberg never even addresses. Why should we give more money to a bureaucracy that manages to find plenty of resources to do bad things?

Never forget, after all, that this is the bureaucracy that – in an odious display of bias – interfered with the electoral process by targeting the President’s opponents.

And then awarded bonuses to itself for this corrupt behavior!

Even more outrageous, the Washington Examiner reports today that the IRS still hasn’t cleaned up its act.

A series of new revelations Wednesday and Thursday put the Internal Revenue Service back under fire for its alleged efforts to curtail…conservative nonprofits. …the Government Accountability Office uncovered evidence that holes in the tax agency’s procedure for selecting nonprofit groups to be audited could allow bias to seep into the process. …lawmakers exposed the lack of safeguards that could prevent IRS officials from going after groups with which they disagreed. Meanwhile, the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch released documents Wednesday that suggested the IRS targeted the donors of certain tax-exempt organizations.

Does this sound like a bureaucracy that deserves more of our money?

If you’re still not sure how to answer, consider the fact that the IRS also somehow has enough money in its budget to engage in the disgusting “asset forfeiture” racket.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this scandal.

…a pair of new horror stories show why Americans dread any interaction with the vindictive tax man. Khalid Quran owns a small business in Greenville, North Carolina. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1997, opened a convenience store near a local airport, and worked long hours to give his four children more opportunity. After nearly two decades, Mr. Quran had saved $150,000 for retirement. Then in 2014 the IRS seized his bank account because he had made withdrawals that raised red flags under “structuring” laws that require banks to report transactions of more than $10,000. Mr. Quran had made transactions below that limit.

So even though Mr. Quran did nothing illegal and even though it’s legal to make deposits of less than $10,000, the IRS stole his money.

Just like money was stolen from the Dehko family.

Here’s the other example from the WSJ.

Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers…had $62,936.04 seized from his bank account because of the pattern of his deposits, though the money was all legally earned. …Mr. Sowers told his story to a local newspaper…a lawyer for Mr. Sowers asked…“why he is being treated differently.” Mr. Cassella replied that the other forfeiture target “did not give an interview to the press.” So much for equal treatment under the law.

Yes, you read correctly. If you have the temerity to expose the IRS’s reprehensible actions, the government will try to punish you more severely.

Even though the only wrongdoing that ever happened was the IRS’s confiscation of money in the first place!

So let’s celebrate the fact that the IRS is being subjected to some modest but long-overdue belt-tightening.

Notwithstanding Mr. Stromberg’s column, the IRS is not a praiseworthy organization. And many of the bureaucrats at the agency deserve our disdain.

The bottom line is that IRS budget cuts show that Republicans sometimes do the right thing.

And maybe if there are continued cuts and the current tax system actually does become unenforceable at some point, maybe politicians could be convinced to replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. Clueless in Washington won’t be the only remake out of DC if President Obama decides to go Hollywood after 2016. Indeed, I suspect his acting career would be more successful than mine.

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A few days ago, I had some fun by writing a tongue-in-cheek column about the world’s most misleading headlines.

Today, I want to share a strong contestant for the world’s most depressing headline.

It’s from The Hill, and it’s the lead to a story about giddy times for Washington’s lobbying community.

So why are lobbyists rolling in cash? What accounts for all the dollars flowing to the influence-peddling community?

The answer, as noted in the article, is that there’s been an end to gridlock.

Nearly all of Washington’s top lobby shops saw gains in revenue in the first half of 2015 as an uptick in activity within both Congress and the Obama administration translated to a boon for K Street. Following a period of relative stagnation in the two-year span preceding the 2014 elections, the Beltway’s biggest lobbying firms have broken through the malaise… “Corporations are a lot more optimistic about whether to invest in Washington,” said Marc Lampkin, a former aide to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)… K Street’s top firm — Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld — continued to bolster its advocacy revenue, earning $10.23 million in the second quarter. …“I think our success during the first half of 2015 reflects the…high degree of activity in Congress,” said Don Pongrace, head of the firm’s public law and policy practice.

In other words, an “uptick in activity” in what gives special interests an incentive to “invest in Washington.”

So the obvious lesson is that if you want to reduce lobbying in Washington, the best option is for Washington to do nothing. My personal preference is to make Congress a part-time legislature. That’s worked out quite well for Texas, so why not try it in the nation’s capital?

But if that option isn’t available, then I’m a big fan of gridlock. Simply stated, if my choices are for politicians to do nothing or to have politicians make government bigger, the answer is obvious.

Which is why I was initially very worried when I saw this headline from another story published by The Hill.

This sounds like my worst nightmare. The last thing we should want is productive politicians!

That’s sort of like having productive pickpockets.

But if you read the story, Governor Bush says he wants a lot of activity as part of an effort to shrink “the federal footprint.”

…the GOP presidential candidate said he’d announce tax and regulatory reform proposals over the “coming months,” as well as changes to entitlement programs and a replacement for ObamaCare. …”The overspending, the overreaching, the arrogance and the sheer incompetence in that city — these problems have been with us so long that they are sometimes accepted as facts of life…” Bush criticized Washington for operating on autopilot, ticking off a slew of pitches meant to push back against what he characterized as a needless expansion of the federal footprint.

And it’s true. Fixing all these problem will require lots of legislation.

So while I’m generally very uneasy with the notion of a “productive” Congress, I also realize that lots of reforms will be needed to restore economic vitality.

Now let’s consider one final headline. This one is from a report in the New York Times, and it also revolves around Jeb Bush and his campaign.

And here’s some of what’s in the article.

Jeb Bush…outlined a wide-ranging plan on Monday to rein in the size of the federal government and curb the influence of lobbyists who live off it. …His proposals, modeled on his record as a budget-cutting governor, amounted to…an assault on the culture of Congress

By and large, this sounds good.

But here’s the catch. You don’t need specific anti-lobbying reforms (such as Bush’s proposed six-year ban on lobbying when Senators and Representatives leave office) if you actually are serious about reducing the size and scope of the federal government.

Reducing the power of Washington is the best way of starving DC’s special-interest community.

Indeed, it’s the only genuinely effective way. I explain in this video that laws to control corruption in Washington don’t work because they don’t address the real problem of politicians having far too much influence over the economy.

I hope you noticed the balloon analogy at the end of the video. If you don’t like Washington’s parasite class, the only way to curtail their privileged existence is with smaller government.

By the way, I don’t want to imply that all lobbying is bad. It all depends on whether lobbyists are engaged in self-defense or extortion. Here’s some of what I wrote last year.

…lobbying is not necessarily bad. If a handful of business owners want to join forces to fight against higher taxes or more regulation, I’m all in favor of that kind of lobbying. They’re fighting to be left alone. But a big chunk of the lobbying in Washington is not about being left alone. It’s about seeking undeserved benefits by using the coercive power of government.

Moreover, I also pointed out two years ago that we need to respect what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

…the First Amendment protects our rights to petition the government and to engage in political speech.

So at the risk of repeating myself, I urge people to fix the real problem of big government and not get overly distracted by the symptom of favor-swapping and corruption in Washington.

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Advocates of economic liberty, free market, and small government haven’t enjoyed many victories in the 21st Century.

Government got bigger and more expensive during Bush’s reign, starting in his first year with the No Bureaucrat Left Behind legislation and then ending in his final year with the odious TARP bailout.

Then Obama came to office, promising “hope and change,” but then proceeded to act like Bush on steroids, giving us the faux stimulus his first year and then the Obamacare boondoggle his second year.

But there have been a few victories since 2010.

The sequester unquestionably was Obama’s biggest defeat, and that policy helped contribute (along with debt limit fights and shutdown battles) to a much-needed five-year slowdown in federal spending between 2009 and 2014.

That’s certainly not a permanent victory, particularly since our long-run fiscal crisis will still be enormous in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But better to have some short-run spending restraint than none at all.

And since we’re looking at victories, we have something new to celebrate. Today (July 1) is the first day in decades that America is freed from a very misguided form of corporate welfare known as the Export-Import Bank.

This bit of cronyism was created to give undeserved wealth to big companies by guaranteeing some of their sales to foreign customers, and I argued in 2012 and earlier this year that shutting down the Ex-Im Bank was a test of seriousness for the GOP..

They sort of passed the test. The Ex-Im Bank needed to be authorized by midnight on June 30 to stay in operation and that didn’t happen.

However, this victory also isn’t permanent. Cronyists in the business community plan to push for re-authorization later this year, so it’s still an open question on who will prevail. Particularly since there are some GOPers who like big business more than free markets.

But at least for today, we can enjoy this image from the Ex-Im Bank’s website.

For more information why the Ex-Im Bank should not be re-authorized and instead should be permanently shut down, here are some excerpts from a column by Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus.

Ex-Im Bank puts millions of consumers, firms and workers at a disadvantage. As such, closing it down is an important first step in the battle against the unhealthy marriage between the government and corporate America. …Over 60 percent of the bank’s financing aids 10 giant beneficiaries, like Caterpillar, Bechtel, and General Electric. On the foreign side, the cheap loans go to state-owned companies like Pemex, the Mexican government’s oil and gas giant, or Air Emirates, the airline of the wealthy United Arab Emirates. …More than 98 percent of all U.S. exports occur with no Ex-Im Bank subsidies at all. And considering who the beneficiaries of Ex-Im on the domestic and foreign sides are, there’s no chance that all Ex-Im supported exports will disappear.

And let’s not forget the costs imposed on the rest of the economy thanks to this bit of corporate welfare.

Economists have shown that while export subsidies boost the profits of the recipients, it tends to have a negative impact on economy as a whole by shifting capital, economic growth, jobs and profits from unsubsidized firms to subsidized ones. …victims are taxpayers who now bear the risk for $140 billion in liabilities. These victims are consumers who pay higher prices for the purchase of subsidized goods. These victims are unsubsidized firms competing with subsidized ones. They not only pay higher financing costs but also lose out when private capital flows to politically privileged firms regardless of the merits of their projects. Some are even victimized multiple times: first as taxpayers, then as consumers, then as competitors, and finally as borrowers.

Speaking of economic costs, you definitely should click here and watch a video by another Mercatus expert of why the Ex-Im Bank undermines economic efficiency.

Like Veronique, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the unsung heroes in the fight against the Ex-Im Bank. Here’s some of his column from yesterday.

The Export-Import Bank is down. …Legally, Ex-Im’s officers, employees and board members must cease their typical work of subsidizing Boeing, J.P. Morgan and Chinese state-owned enterprises. Instead, under the law that authorized it, Ex-Im is allowed to exist only “for purposes of orderly liquidation, including the administration of its assets and the collection of any obligations held by the bank.” …This week’s knockdown of Ex-Im should be seen in exactly this light: It is an early and visible victory for the GOP’s free-market forces over the forces of K Street, which for so long held a monopoly on the party.

I should also point out that some of my colleagues at the Cato Institute have been working hard for years to explain why the Ex-Im Bank should be abolished. Kudos also to Heritage Action for fighting against this corrupt cronyist institution.

Last but not least, here’s a video Nick narrated last year on why the Ex-Im Bank should not be re-authorized. I like how he starts with a clip of Obama the candidate citing it as wasteful corporate welfare. Now that he’s in power, though, he’s decided the cesspool of DC corruption is really a hot tub.

P.S. Speaking of leftist phonies, Elizabeth Warren likes to portray herself as a scourge of big business, yet she’s a supporter of continued handouts for corporate fatcats. A fake populist, and a fake Indian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As well as a record for declining household income.

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

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

Here’s one example from the story.

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

There are two lessons from this story.

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

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

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