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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

When I followed public policy in my younger days, I periodically would see stories about legislation that was approved by the House of Representatives with only one dissenting vote.

My memory isn’t perfect, I’m sure, but it seems that Ron Paul was always that lonely member. And my recollection is that he was (as usual) always on the correct side, voting for liberty and against government.

Something similar happened yesterday, except this time six members of Congress voted against a repeal of the “Cadillac Tax” that is part of Obamacare.

It was an eclectic group, but it included Justin Amash and Chip Roy, who are two of the most committed and principled supporters of free markets and limited government in Congress.

I freely admit that this is not a slam-dunk issue. After all, it’s almost always a good idea to lower taxes and almost always a good idea to jettison provisions of Obamacare.

But since the healthcare exclusion is arguably the most damaging loophole in the tax code and a major cause of ever-rising costs (because of “third-party payer“), there’s actually a very strong case – from both sides of the ideological spectrum – for retaining the Cadillac Tax.

From the right, I recommend this analysis from Alan Viard at the American Enterprise Institute.

…employer-provided health insurance gets a big tax break. Workers pay income and payroll taxes on their cash wages, but not on their health insurance benefits. …the tax break is poorly targeted because it applies even to high-cost “Cadillac” health plans. The tax system should not artificially encourage Cadillac plans, which boost demand for medical services and drive up health care costs for everyone. Although the Cadillac tax does not directly change the tax break for high-cost employer plans, it offsets the break by imposing a separate 40 percent tax on those plans. That round-about approach is far from ideal, but it gets the job done. …the Cadillac tax has won support from economists across the ideological spectrum.

From the left, here’s some of what Bruce Bartlett wrote for the New York Times.

Although obviously a form of income to the worker, the Internal Revenue Service nevertheless ruled that it was not taxable, although businesses could still deduct the cost. This anomalous tax treatment was a fabulous tax loophole for both businesses and workers… Congress codified the I.R.S. ruling.. Various tax expenditures for health cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue per year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Eliminating them could finance a significant reduction in tax rates. …If the Republicans are serious about using tax reform to improve the competitiveness of American businesses, the best thing they can do is reform employer-based health insurance.

For honest folks on the left, they should be motivated by the fact that this exclusion overwhelmingly benefits upper-income taxpayers.

This chart from the Tax Policy Center has the details about this reverse form of class warfare.

I’m more concerned about the fact that the healthcare exclusion is bad policy. Along with Medicare, Medicaid, and other forms of government intervention, it has crippled free markets and contributed to a very inefficient and costly healthcare system.

Like other loopholes, it should be repealed. But not so politicians get more money.

Every single penny should be returned to taxpayers as part of pro-growth tax reform that lowers marginal tax rates and reduces the tax bias against saving and investment.

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One of the few theoretical constraints on Washington is that politicians periodically have to raise a “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” in order to finance additional spending with additional red ink.

I have mixed feelings about this requirement. I like that there is some limit on spending, even if it’s only a potential restraint.

On the other hand, fights over the debt limit are mostly just opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to engage in posturing and finger pointing rather than adopt positive reforms.

Moreover, the scholarly research clearly suggests that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule, so what’s the point of having a debt limit if potential spending restraint never turns into actual spending restraint?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post looks at the current fight and opines that we shouldn’t even have a debt limit.

The government is about to run out of money because of an arbitrary cap on how much it can borrow… Lawmakers and the White House are haggling over  the conditions under which they will, once again, temporarily raise that cap, known as the debt ceiling. But the better solution would be to abolish it entirely… Most recently, the government hit the official debt limit on March 1 . Since then, the Treasury Department has engaged in “extraordinary measures” to shift money around and continue paying its bills… Initially Treasury predicted that its extraordinary measures would get us to October, but more recent forecasts suggest we will hit the wall as soon as early September. Which means the drop-dead deadline before we become global deadbeats could happen while Congress is away on summer vacation.

She worries that a failure to raise the debt ceiling could have very negative consequences.

So what happens if we default on our debt obligations? Well, for one, it would violate the Constitution, which says the “validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.” No small thing. …U.S. debt instruments are currently considered the safest of safe assets because creditors believe they’ll be paid back on time and in full. …Calling our creditworthiness into question could therefore set off a chain reaction of global financial panic.

I agree.

Defaulting on the debt (i.e., not paying bondholders what they’ve been contractually promised) would be very damaging to financial markets.

In reality, however, what we’re really talking about is potentially a delay in making promised payments. Which would be harmful, though presumably not nearly as bad as long-run default.

And even a delay in payments might not happen if the Treasury Department made sure that tax revenue was set aside to make all promised payments to bondholders.

Though Ms. Rampell doesn’t like this idea, which is sometimes called “prioritization.”

Some right-wingers…have in the past suggested  that defaulting is no big deal, perhaps even desirable. They (mistakenly) think that a debt default would allow those in charge to unilaterally decide which bills deserve payment and which don’t, bypassing the democratic budget process.

I’m not sure why she says prioritization is a “mistaken” view.

I testified to Congress about this issue in 2013 and in 2016. If the debt limit isn’t raised, meaning no ability to issue new debt, that would be the same as an overnight balanced budget requirement (i.e., spending could only equal current tax revenue).

If that happened and Treasury made sure to prioritize interest payments (to avoid the potentially bad results Ms. Rampell and others warn about), who would have the power to stop that from happening?

I’m guessing lawsuits would be filed, but I can’t imagine a judge would issue an injunction to require a default.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue. Back in 2017, when a similar fight occurred, Heather Long of the Washington Post identified five reasons to worry.

Unless Trump and Congress pass a law raising the U.S. debt limit — a legal cap on how much the U.S. government is allowed to borrow — the Treasury Department will soon run out of money to pay its bills, triggering a first-in-modern-U.S.-history default that threatens to turn the world economy on its head. …The danger…is that at some point someone will miscalculate and the government will actually hit the debt limit, sparking a default, intentional or otherwise. Here are five reasons that would cause global panic.

How persuasive are these reasons?

First, it would trigger a wild ride for stocks and bonds. Wall Street doesn’t like bad surprises. …There would probably be an immediate, negative reaction in the markets.

If there’s an actual default, that would be horrible news.

If there’s a temporary default, that also would be bad news, though presumably far less catastrophic than a permanent default (though some will fan the flames of hysteria).

Second, America’s cheap funding source would end. …As soon as the United States actually defaults, investors would start suing the country, and they would almost certainly insist on much higher interest rates in the future.

Interest rates surely would climb because of the perception of added risk for investors.

Though I wonder by how much. I think Italy is heading toward a fiscal/financial crisis, yet investors are buying up plenty of that government’s debt at very low interest rates.

Third, real people won’t get paid. …The Trump administration would have to either stop payments to everyone or they would have to pick who gets paid and who does not. That means deciding between bondholders, Social Security recipients, welfare recipients, …etc.

Interesting, Ms. Long accepts that prioritization would happen.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing bondholders and Social Security recipients would be at the front of the line.

Fourth, America’s global power would decline. …The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. People carry dollars and hold U.S. bonds all over the world because they believe America is their best and safest bet. A default would probably cause the value of the dollar to drop and global investors to shift some money out of U.S. assets.

This is an interesting claim.

The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

Does drama over the debt limit, or even a temporary default, lead investors to shift, en masse, to another currency?

Perhaps, though I don’t see an alternative. The euro is compromised because the European Central Bank surrendered its independence by engaging in indirect bailouts of some of Europe’s decrepit welfare states.

The Chinese financial system is too debt ridden and too opaque to give investors confidence in that nation’s currency. And other nations are simply too small.

Fifth, a recession is possible. …hitting the debt limit could cause a sharp drop in markets and sentiment around the world as everyone worries that if the United States defaults, who’s next? Investors might start panicking and ditching bonds of other countries in Europe and Asia, too.

These are all reasonable concerns.

It all depends, of course, whether there’s a temporary default and how long it lasts.

And since we may be in the midst of a debt bubble fueled by easy money, any triggering event could lead to very bad outcomes.

Which is why it would make sense for lawmakers to embrace prioritization. There has been legislation to make that happen.

For what it’s worth, it should be quite feasible to prioritize.

Here’s the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see from the parts I’ve circled, the government is projected to collect far more revenue than would be needed to fulfill obligations to bondholders.

To be sure, prioritization means that some recipients of federal largesse would have to wait in line. This would be unseemly and unwelcome, but it already happens in profligate states such as Illinois without causing any economic or fiscal disarray.

Who knows, maybe politicians would even decide that it’s time to jettison some federal programs. But since I understand “public choice,” I won’t be holding my breath awaiting that outcome.

I’ll close with two observations.

The first, which I’ve already discussed, is that a failure to increase the debt limit should not result in default. Unless, of course, the Treasury Department wants that to happen. But that’s inconceivable, which is why I fully expect prioritization if we ever get to that point.

The second is that debt limit fights are messy and counterproductive, but I don’t want it abolished since there’s a chance that one of these battles eventually may force politicians to deal with our fiscal mess – thus saving the country from a future Greek-style economic and fiscal meltdown.

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I’ve labeled the International Monetary Fund as the “dumpster fire” of the world economy.

I’ve also called the bureaucracy the “Dr. Kevorkian” of international economic policy, though that reference many not mean anything to younger readers.

My main complaint is that the IMF is always urging – or even extorting – nations to impose higher tax burdens.

Let’s look at a fresh example of this odious practice.

According to a Reuters report, IMF-supported tax increases are provoking economic strife in Pakistan.

Markets and wholesale merchants across Pakistan closed on Saturday in a strike by businesses against measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund… Markets and wholesale merchants across Pakistan closed on Saturday in a strike by businesses against measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. …Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government..is having to impose tough austerity measures having been forced to turn to the IMF for Pakistan’s 13th bailout since the late 1980s. …Under the IMF bailout, signed this month, Pakistan is under heavy pressure to boost its tax revenues.

I’m not surprised the private sector is protesting against IMF-instigated tax hikes.

We see similar stories from all over the world.

But what really grabbed my attention was the reference to 13 bailouts. Good grief, you would think the IMF bureaucrats would learn after five or six attempts that they shouldn’t throw good money after bad.

That being said, I wondered if the IMF was pushing for big tax hikes because they had demanded – and received – big spending cuts in exchange for the previous 12 bailouts.

So I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database to peruse the numbers…and I discovered that the IMF’s repeated bailouts actually led to big increases in the burden of spending.

The IMF’s numbers, which go back to 1993, show that outlays have tripled. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

Looking closely at the chart, I suppose one could argue that Pakistan was semi-responsible up until the turn of the century. Yes, the spending burden increased, but at a relatively mild rate.

But the brakes definitely came off this century. Enabled by endless bailouts from the IMF, Pakistan’s politicians definitely aren’t complying with my Golden Rule.

I’ll close with one final point.

The IMF types, as well as others on the left, actually want people to believe that Pakistan should have a bigger burden of government spending.

According to this novel theory, the public sector in the country, which currently consumes more than 20 percent of GDP, is too small to finance the “investments” that are needed to enable more prosperity.

Yet if this theory is accurate, why is Pakistan’s economy stagnant when there are prosperous jurisdictions with smaller spending burdens, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan?

And if the theory is accurate, why did the United States and Western Europe become rich in the 1800s, back when governments only consumed about 10 percent of economic output?

This video tells you everything you need to know.

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Every so often, I share very weird stories about government regulations, from both America and around the world. And when I say weird, I’m not exaggerating.

But we also have some strange examples of tax loopholes.

I’m not talking about corporate jets, which should be characterized as a business expense.

Instead, I’m referring to bizarre examples of income that is arbitrarily exempt from tax.

The weirdest example in the United States is from Nevada (probably because politicians have a conflict of interest).

Today I want to write about a new tax loophole in Poland.

Polish lawmakers have approved a measure that would exonerate most workers under the age of 26 from income taxes… The bill would exonerate workers under the age of 26 from Poland’s 18 percent personal income tax for those whose gross earnings don’t surpass 85,500 zlotys (20,000 euros, $22,500) per year. That level is higher than Poland’s average income… Some two million people could benefit from the measure.

So what’s motivating this example of age-based tax discrimination?

Poland has long been haemorrhaging skilled workers to other EU states where they can find better paying jobs, posing both a long-term demographic risk and short-term problem finding enough labourers to continue the country’s streak of economic growth since the fall of communism in 1989.

I certainly agree that Poland faces a demographic challenge (along with other nations in Eastern Europe), both because of emigration and low birth rates.

And I also agree that Poland’s economy has been relatively successful since escaping the evil of communism.

But I’m not very confident that this policy is the right recipe for continued prosperity.

  • First, I don’t like discrimination in the tax code, whether based on the source of income, the use of income, the level of income, or – in this case – the age at which income is earned.
  • Second, this policy doesn’t affect social insurance taxes and value-added taxes, which are actually the biggest burden for ordinary workers in many Eastern European nations.
  • Third, unless Poland’s government imposes some spending discipline, a tax preference for young people may lead to higher taxes on other groups, thus offsetting any economic benefit.

To be sure, I’m glad Poland is addressing the issue by lowering taxes rather than by creating new programs and subsidies, as we’ve seen in some other European nations.

I’m simply not expecting big results.

P.S. You can click here to peruse other oddball examples of international tax policy.

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Regarding fundamental tax reform, there have been some interesting developments at the state level in recent years.

Utah, North Carolina, and Kentucky have all junked their so-called progressive systems and joined the flat tax club.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Illinois politicians are desperately trying to gut that state’s flat tax.

And the same thing is true in Massachusetts.

The Tax Foundation has a good explanation of what’s been happening in the Bay State and why it matters for the competitiveness, job creation, and entrepreneurship.

A joint constitutional convention of Massachusetts lawmakers has voted 147-48 to approve H.86, dubbed the Fair Share Amendment, to impose a 4 percent income tax surcharge on annual income beyond $1 million. The new tax would be levied in addition to the existing 5.05 percent flat rate, bringing Massachusetts’ total top rate to 9.05 percent. …Massachusetts requires legislatively-referred constitutional amendments be passed in consecutive sessions, meaning that the same measure would need to be approved in the 2021-2022 legislative session before it would be sent to voters in November of 2022. The millionaires’ tax, though targeted at a wealthy minority of tax filers in the Bay State, would cause broader harm to Massachusetts’ tax structure and economic climate. It would eliminate Massachusetts’ primary tax advantage over regional competitors… The Bay State’s low, flat income tax on individuals and pass-through businesses is the most competitive element of its tax code, giving the Commonwealth a clear strength compared to surrounding states and regional competitors. Income tax rate reductions in recent years have helped shed the moniker of “Taxachusetts” while setting up the Bay State to be a beneficiary of harmful tax rate increases in surrounding states. However, a 9.05 percent top rate would be uncompetitive even in a high-tax region. The amendment would hit Massachusetts pass-through businesses with the sixth-highest tax rate of any state.

Here’s a map showing top tax rates in the region (New Hampshire has an important asterisk since the 5-percent rate only applies to interest and dividends), including where Massachusetts would rank if the new plan ever becomes law.

The Boston Globe reports that lawmakers are very supportive of this scheme to extract more money, while the business community is understandably opposed.

A measure to revive a statewide tax on high earners received a glowing reception on Beacon Hill Thursday, suggesting an easy path ahead despite staunch opposition from business groups. “We are in desperate need for revenue for our districts,” said Senator Michael D. Brady of Brockton, one of the proposal’s more than 100 sponsors and a member of the Joint Committee on Revenue…. “We have tremendous unmet needs in our Commonwealth that are hurting families, hurting our communities, and putting our state’s economic future at risk,” said Senator Jason M. Lewis of Winchester, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the proposal. …business groups…came armed with arguments that hiking taxes on the state’s highest earners would drive entrepreneurs — and the jobs and tax revenue they create — out of the state, as well as unfairly harm small- and mid-sized business owners whose business income passes through their individual tax returns. “Look, we’re trying to prevent Massachusetts from becoming Connecticut,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

Meanwhile, the Boston Herald reports that the Republican governor is opposed to this class-warfare tax.

Gov. Charlie Baker cautioned the Legislature against asking for more money from taxpayers with the so-called millionaire tax… “I’ve said that we didn’t think we should be raising taxes on people and I certainly don’t think we should be pursuing a graduated income tax,” Baker told reporters yesterday. …Members of Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community organizations, religious groups and labor unions, are staunchly supporting the tax that is estimated to raise approximately $2 billion a year. …The Massachusetts Republican Party is sounding the alarm on what they’re calling, “the Democrats’ newest scheme,” to “dump” the state’s flat tax system.

The governor’s viewpoint is largely irrelevant, however, since he can’t block the legislature from moving forward with their class-warfare scheme.

But that doesn’t mean the big spenders in Massachusetts have a guaranteed victory.

Yes, the next session’s legislature is almost certain to give approval, but there’s a final step needed before the flat tax is gutted.

The voters need to say yes.

And in the five previous occasions when they’ve been asked, the answer has been no.

Overwhelmingly no.

Even in 1968 and 1972, proposals for a so-called progressive tax were defeated by a two-to-one margin.

Needless to say, that doesn’t mean voters will make the right choice in 2022.

The bottom line is that if the people of Massachusetts want investors, entrepreneurs, and other job creators to remain in the state, they should again vote no.

But if they want to destroy jobs and undermine the Bay State’s competitiveness, they should vote yes.

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There’s general agreement among public finance experts that personal income taxes and corporate income taxes, on a per-dollar-collected basis, do the most economic damage.

And I suspect there’s a lot of agreement that this is because these levies often have high marginal tax rates and often are accompanied by a significant bias against income that is saved and invested.

Payroll tax and consumption taxes, by contrast, are thought to be less damaging because they generally don’t have “progressive rates” and they are “neutral,” meaning they rarely involve any double taxation of saving and investment.

But “less damaging” is not the same as “no damage.”

Such taxes still drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption, so they do result in less economic activity (what economists refer to as “deadweight loss“).

And the deadweight loss can be significant if the overall tax burden is sufficiently onerous (as is the case in many European nations).

Interestingly, the (normally pro-tax) International Monetary Fund just released a study on this topic. It looked at the impact of taxes on work in the new member states (NMS) of the European Union. Here’s a summary of what the authors wanted to investigate.

Given demographic and pension pressures facing many EU28 countries amidst low labor market participation rates together with still high tax wedges, the call to review public policies has gained renewed prominence in the EU political debate. …tax wedges remain high and participation rates, while having increased importantly in a few countries over 2000-17 , are still around or below 70 percent in many of them. This hints at the need for addressing structural problems to improve economic fortunes. In this paper we focus our attention on hours worked (per working age population). …At country level, hours worked reflect labor supply decisions and could be thought of a measure of labor utilization. Long-run changes in labor supply are driven by incentives, of which taxes are perceived to be central. Assessing the importance of taxation on hours is key to provide new insights for potential policy actions.

And here’s what they found.

We study the role of taxes in accounting for differences in hours worked across NMS over the 1995-17 period… We find that consumption and labor taxes significantly discourage labor supply and can explain close to 21 percent of the observed variation of hours across NMS. …Higher tax rates reduce households’ net labor income and real purchasing power, inducing them to substitute consumption for leisure, which cannot be taxed. …Our findings show that, conditional on other factors, taxes are an important determinant of hours. Point estimates suggest a high elasticity of hours to taxes (close to 0.5), which is robust to the inclusion of other factors.

What’s interesting about the new member states of Eastern Europe is that many of them have flat taxes and low corporate rates.

So the personal and corporate income taxes are not a major burden.

But they so have relatively high payroll taxes (a.k.a., social insurance taxes) and relatively onerous value-added taxes.

So it’s hardly a surprise that these levies are the ones most associated with deadweight loss.

We find that social security contributions deter hours the most, followed by consumption taxes and, to a lesser extent, personal income taxes. …Consumption and personal income taxes are found to affect hours per worker, but not employment rates. On the other hand, social security contributions are negatively associated with employment rates, but do not seem to affect hours per worker. …In line with the literature, we document that women’s employment rate is more sensitive to changes in tax policies. We find the elasticity of employment rate to social security contributions to be 7 percent larger for women vis-à-vis men.

Here’s one of the charts from the study.

And here’s an explanation of what it means.

Figure 4 shows the evolution of hours and effective taxes. Hours worked increased substantially for Group 1, while it remained stable in Group 2 (Panel (a)). In both groups, the effect of the GFC is noticeable as hours sharply declined after 2008. Panel (b) shows the evolution of the average effective tax rate in each group. Interestingly, countries in Group 1, which observed an increase in hours, had lower effective tax rates (below 40 percent) throughout the period. In addition, we observe a negative correlation between hours and taxes for most of the sample. For Group 1, the large increase in hours – between year 2000 and the GFC – happened at the same time taxes declined

Here’s another chart from the IMF report.

And here’s some of the explanatory text.

Figure 5 depicts the relationship between hours worked and taxes across countries. In Panel (a), we observe a negative correlation between hours and taxes in levels for each group, with the negative correlation being stronger in Group 2 than in Group 1 (it has a steeper slope). Panel (b) shows total log changes in hours and taxes throughout the period. It also displays a negative correlation.

Looking at the conclusion, a key takeaway from the study is that there is a substantial loss of economic activity because of theoretically benign (but in reality onerous) taxes on consumption and labor.

Our modelling exercise shows that taxes influence the long-run trend in hours and our econometric exercise shows that the findings are robust to the inclusion of other labor market determinants. Furthermore, we document an elasticity of hours to overall taxes close to 0.5. We find that differences in tax burden can explain up to 21 percent in the variation of hours worked across NMS. The main takeaway of this study is that excessive tax burden, either in the form of consumption or labor taxes, can lead to substantial deadweight losses in terms of labor supply. .. overall tax burden – and not only labor taxes – should be considered when thinking about incentives from tax schemes.

Yes, incentives do matter.

And it’s good that an IMF report is providing good evidence for lower tax rates.

But I’m not optimistic we’ll get pro-growth changes. There’s been a lack of good reform this decade from the new member states from Eastern Europe. Combined with demographic decline (and the associated pressure for higher tax rates), this does not bode well.

P.S. While the professional economists at the IMF often produce good research and sensible advice, the bureaucracy’s political leaders almost always ignore those findings and instead push for bad tax policy. Including in the new member states from Eastern Europe.

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The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run fiscal forecast.

Most observers immediately looked at the estimates for deficits and debt. Those numbers are important, especially since America has an aging population, but they should be viewed as secondary.

What really matters are the trends for both taxes and spending.

Here are the three things that you need to know.

First, America’s tax burden is increasing. Immediately below are two charts. The first one shows that revenues will consume an addition three percentage points of GDP over the next three decades. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, our long-run problem is not caused by inadequate revenue.

The second of the two charts shows that most of the increase is due to “real bracket creep,” which is what happens when people earn more income and wind up having to pay higher tax rates.

So even if Congress extends the “Cadillac tax” on health premiums and extends all the temporary provisions of the 2017 Tax Act, the aggregate tax burden will increase.

Second, the spending burden is growing even faster than the tax burden.

And if you look closely at the top section of Figure 1-7, you’ll see that the big problems are the entitlements for health care (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare).

By the way, the lower section of Figure 1-7 shows that corporate tax revenues are projected to average about 1.3 percent of GDP, which is not that much lower than what CBO projected (about 1.7 percent of GDP) before the rate was reduced by 40 percent.

Interesting.

Third, we have our most important chart.

It shows that the United States is on a very bad trajectory because the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy.

In other words, Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

And this leads to all sorts of negative consequences.

  • Government consumes a greater share of the economy over time.
  • Politicians will want to respond by raising taxes.
  • Politicians will allow red ink to increase.

The key thing to understand is that more taxes and more debt are the natural and inevitable symptoms of the underlying disease of too much spending.

We know the solution, and we have real world evidence that it works (especially when part of a nation’s constitution), but don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to do the right thing.

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