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Posts Tagged ‘Government Thuggery’

Earlier this year, I borrowed from Dante’s Inferno and created the Five Circles of Statist Hell. At the time, I suggested that Venezuela was on the cusp of moving from the third circle (“widespread poverty and economic misery”) to the fourth circle (“systematic and grinding poverty and deprivation”).

Since we now know that children in the country are suffering from hunger and malnutrition, I think we can safely confirm that Venezuela has made that crossing, joining the dystopian hell of North Korea (though you can make a good argument that the savage regime based in Pyongyang actually belongs in the fifth circle).

And just in case you need another piece of evidence about Venezuela, consider these excerpts from a surreal BBC report.

Venezuelan authorities have arrested two toy company executives and seized almost four million toys, which they say they will distribute to the poor. Officials accused the company of hoarding toys and hiking prices in the run-up to Christmas. Last week, the government issued an order to retailers to reduce prices on a range of goods by 30%. …Venezuela…said…”Our children are sacred, we will not let them rob you of Christmas,” it said in a tweet, along with photos and video of thousands of boxes of toys. …The agency also posted photos of the two executives being marched from the premises by a squad of heavily armed soldiers.

Here’s some additional background on the economic situation in the country.

This is not the first time Venezuela has ordered price cuts on retailers, or mobilised armed units to enforce it. In late 2013, the country introduced laws allowing the government to fix prices and dictate profit margins. …The same measures have been used to fix the prices of basic products such as flour, meat and bread – but supply is limited in a country where many people go hungry.

Before continuing, I can’t help commenting that BBC journalists apparently can’t put 2 and 2 together. The reason supply is limited and people are suffering is because of the price controls and intervention.

Sigh.

Anyhow, here are some final passages from the article.

The Venezuelan government is becoming increasingly unpopular as the country’s economic crisis grows. …The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation – the rate at which prices go up – will hit 2,000% next year.

Yup, Venezuela is a regular Shangri La. No wonder Bernie Sanders is so infatuated with the place.

But let’s focus today on the Venezuelan government’s attempt to play Santa Claus by seizing toys and selling them at below-market rates.

I don’t know if this move will be politically popular since that depends on whether ordinary people have some degree of economic sophistication.

But we can say with great confidence that it represents terrible economic policy. That’s because, as Thomas Sowell has wisely noted, it’s very difficult for a government to steal wealth more than one time.

The victims (both the ones who already have been looted and the ones who might be targeted in the future) quickly learn that it’s not a smart idea to accumulate assets that can be stolen by the state. In effect, the productive people of the country learn to behave like the Little Red Hen.

In the short run, though, the Venezuelan government gets to play Santa Claus. At least for 2016.

But it won’t have that option in 2017. And because the nation’s kleptocratic government is running out of victims, it’s just a matter of time before the system collapses, at which point the government either gives up power or launches a brutal crackdown.

Hopefully the former.

Though it would remain to be seen whether the leftist thugs who currently hold power are able to escape the country with all the loot they’ve stolen, or whether they get the Ceausescu treatment.

They deserve the latter.

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When writing about money laundering laws, I’ll sometimes highlight gross abuses by government and I’ll periodically make the usual libertarian arguments about privacy.

But I mostly focus on how the laws simply don’t make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Anti-money laundering laws and regulations impose large burdens on the private sector, which creates disproportionate hardship for the poor. Yet there’s no evidence that the laws actually hinder criminal activity, which was the rationale for imposing the laws in the first place.

I have the same attitude about the War on Drugs. Yes, I get upset that people are mistreated and it irks me as a libertarian that people aren’t free to make their own choices (even if they are dumb choices) about what to put in their bodies.

But what really gets me angry is the absurd misallocation of law enforcement resources. Consider this info from a recent WonkBlog column in the Washington Post about the ever-expanding efforts of government to harass drug users.

Federal figures on drug arrests and drug use over the past three decades tell the story. Drug-possession arrests skyrocketed, from fewer than 200 arrests for every 100,000 people in 1979…, hovering near 400 arrests per 100,000 people. …despite the tough-on-crime push that led to the surge in arrests in recent decades, illicit drug use today is more common among Americans age 12 and older than it was in the early 1980s. Federal figures show no correlation between drug-possession arrests and rates of drug use during that time.

But here’s the part that should upset all of us, even if we don’t like drugs or even if we think they should be illegal.

Instead of focusing on the fight against crimes that actually have victims (such as robbery, murder, rape, assault, etc), the government is squandering an immense about of time, energy, resources, and money on drug arrests.

…arrests for drug possession continue to make up a significant chunk of modern-day police work. “Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” the report finds, citing FBI data. “More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.” In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

That last sentence is breathtaking. Does anyone think that busting potheads is more important than fighting genuine crime?!?

Do you want an example of law enforcement resources being misallocated?

Well, this story from New Hampshire tells you everything you need to know.

…an 81-year-old grandmother had been growing…the plant as medicine, a way to ease arthritis and glaucoma and help her sleep at night. Tucked away in a raspberry patch and separated by a fence from any neighbors, the plant was nearly ready for harvest when a military-style helicopter and police descended on Sept. 21. In a joint raid, the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police entered her yard and cut down the solitary plant…authorities are using budgeted funds, prior to the end of the federal fiscal year Saturday, to gas up helicopters and do flyovers. …“Is this the way we want our taxpayer money spent, to hassle an 81-year-old and law-abiding patients?” Cutler said.

Gee, I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more comfortably tonight knowing that lots of taxpayer money was squandered to seize a pot plant from this dangerous granny!

Still not convinced that law enforcement resources aren’t being wasted? And still not upset that lives are being disrupted and harmed by heavy-handed government.

Then consider this horror story from Reason.

James Slatic, a California medical marijuana business owner, found out all his family’s bank accounts had been seized by the government one day in January when his 19-year-old daughter tried to buy lunch at the San Jose State University cafeteria and her card was declined. Slatic’s wife tried to transfer money to their daughter, figuring she had simply overdrawn her account, as teenagers are wont to do, but her account wouldn’t work, either. What the Slatics soon learned was the San Diego police had frozen all of their bank accounts: $55,258 from Slatic’s personal checking and savings account; $34,175 from his wife Annette’s account; and a combined $11,260 from the savings accounts of their two teenage daughters, Penny and Lily. …The Slatics’ crimes? None. Or at least, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office hasn’t charged them with any in the nine months since it seized their accounts.

His business also was shut down, which wasn’t good news for him or his employees that are now out on the street.

The trouble for James Slatic began five days before his family’s accounts were frozen, when around 30 San Diego police officers and DEA agents raided Slatic’s medical marijuana business, Med-West Distribution, and seized nearly $325,000 in cash from a safe. …The raid was a crushing blow to Slatic—not to mention his 35 employees, who lost their jobs and benefits without notice.

Here’s a video detailing this disgusting abuse by government.

There is some good news. Voters in several states voted last week to decriminalize pot.

And for those who worry that legalizing marijuana will be a gateway to decriminalizing harder drugs, I encourage you to read this Cato Institute study on what happened after Portugal legalized all drugs early last decade.

This isn’t an argument about whether you should use drugs, like drugs, or approve of drug use. You can be the drug equivalent of a teetotaler like me and still realize that it makes no sense for the government to squander lots of money and hurt lots of lives simply because politicians want to control what people choose to put in their own bodies.

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What’s the worst development in economic policy of the Obama years?

Those are all good answers, but if you look at the data from Economic Freedom of the World, a major reason for the decline in America’s score is that the rule of law has eroded.

In other words, the United States is becoming a place where clear and neutral rules are being replaced by arbitrary and capricious government power. And this is not a trivial matter. Issues related to the rule of law account for 20 percent of a nation’s grade – the same level of importance as fiscal policy.

In another worrisome development, the United States only ranked #19 as of 2014 in a global ranking of how well nations maintain the rule of law.

There are several reasons why America’s ranking is going down. To cite just a few: The arbitrary rewrites of Obamacare. The Operation Chokepoint fiasco. IRS regulations that overturn existing law.

And it appears the Obama Administration wants to go out with a bang.

The Wall Street Journal opines on a new regulatory scheme from the Treasury Department to boost the death tax burden by arbitrarily inflating the value of certain assets.

…before President Obama leaves office, his Treasury Department is rushing to implement a de facto increase in the federal estate tax. Since Congress does not agree that the Internal Revenue Service should suck more cash out of family firms, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is up to his usual tricks, trashing established interpretations of tax law to bypass the legislative branch. Not even Mr. Lew has the gall to claim he can raise the federal death-tax rate of 40% without congressional approval. So the game here is to contrive ways to expose more of the value—or imagined value—of an estate to IRS revenue collectors. Last month Mr. Lew’s Treasury announced a proposed rule to close what it calls an estate and gift tax “loophole.” Until now, the IRS permitted realistic values for portions of closely held corporations and partnerships. …consider a minority stake with limited rights in a family business. While the business as a whole may have considerable value, how much would an investor be willing to pay for a small, illiquid piece of a private business that she can’t control? The typical answer is not much. On the other hand, the investor might pay handsomely for a controlling interest. The IRS has long recognized this reality and has allowed the discounting of interests in closely held businesses to more closely reflect what they could fetch on the open market, rather than simply assigning a percentage of a firm’s overall estimated value.

In other words, Obama’s Treasury Department wants to force heirs to pay tax on what they think an asset is worth rather than what it would fetch on the open market.

This regulatory scheme – if ultimately successful – will make a bad tax even worse.

And it also will be bad for the economy.

…what seems like a reasonable interpretation to some looks like a wasted revenue opportunity to the Obama Treasury. …As always, Mr. Lew and Treasury are happy to seize more wealth from the private economy. …But voters may ask how much economic destruction is acceptable in the name of such fairness. …the tax clearly encourages people to consume now rather than invest in the future. This means lower GDP over time and fewer opportunities for the poor, some of whom might want to work for family businesses. The Tax Foundation reckons that the economy would be 0.8% larger over a decade without the estate tax.

Here’s another example.

The Obama Administration has been shaking down banks for money because of supposed misdeeds leading up the government-caused financial crisis.

The various fines may of may not be legitimate, but what’s really troubling is that a big chunk of the money is then being steered to left-wing groups. Many of which are seeking to impact the political process.

Andy Koenig of Freedom Partners has a column in the Wall Street Journal with some of the unseemly details.

The administration’s multiyear campaign against the banking industry has quietly steered money to organizations and politicians who are working to ensure liberal policy and political victories at every level of government. The conduit for this funding is the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, a coalition of federal and state regulators and prosecutors created in 2012 to “identify, investigate, and prosecute instances of wrongdoing” in the residential mortgage-backed securities market. In conjunction with the Justice Department, the RMBS Working Group has reached multibillion-dollar settlements with essentially every major bank in America. …Combined, the banks must divert well over $11 billion into “consumer relief,” which is supposed to benefit homeowners harmed during the Great Recession. …a substantial portion is allocated to private, nonprofit organizations drawn from a federally approved list. Some groups on the list—Catholic Charities, for instance—are relatively nonpolitical. Others—La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and more—are anything but. This is a handout to the administration’s allies. Many of these groups engage in voter registration, community organizing and lobbying on liberal policy priorities at every level of government. They also provide grants to other liberal groups not eligible for payouts under the settlements. …The settlements also give banks a financial incentive to fund these groups. Most of the deals give double credit or more against the settlement amount for every dollar in “donations.”

Needless to say, diverting money to political allies sounds like the kind of chicanery you’d find in a banana republic, not an advanced western society.

But it gets worse.

Here’s another Wall Street Journal editorial on an additional bit of regulatory/tax overreach by the Treasury Department. It deals with the Obama Administration trying to stop “inversions” by unilaterally changing the rules in ways that will hamper sensible business practices for all multinational companies.

The Treasury Secretary…wants to prevent “earnings stripping,” in which companies allegedly make loans from their overseas businesses to their U.S. subsidiaries to minimize taxes. The feds succeeded in destroying the proposed merger of Pfizer and Allergan. But we warned in April that the Treasury plan would be “ugly for everybody,” imposing new costs and paperwork burdens on companies that never had any intention of moving overseas or stripping earnings. And sure enough, from small S corps all the way to Exxon, the afflicted have been explaining how the new rules will make it more expensive and difficult to do even routine business functions like cash management. …the banks hate this rule too. By limiting their ability to move money across borders to meet customer demand and respond to market stress, it could force them to violate other regulations, or worse. A July letter from Citigroup, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase to Treasury officials warned the rules could make “financial services groups more fragile in times of financial stress, thereby creating risk to the financial stability of the United States.” …If Mr. Lew were reasonable, he’d drop this misguided assault on American business and work with lawmakers to craft a corporate tax reform that ensures U.S. companies never want to leave the U.S.

A report in the New York Times highlighted some of the legal issues involved in this issue.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit on Thursday to block new rules issued by the Obama administration that prevent American corporations from merging with foreign-based companies and moving their headquarters abroad to save on taxes. The business group, along with the Texas Association of Business, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Austin, Tex., saying the administration was overstepping its authority in issuing the rules. …“If the defendants’ rule is permitted to stand, it is not just mergers that will suffer — it is the rule of law, and the certainty and stability required for effective commerce, markets and economic growth, that are truly threatened by the defendants’ unauthorized and unlawful action,” the plaintiffs said in their filing. …“Although it might seem esoteric, this action is a clear case of federal executive branch officers and agencies bypassing Congress and short-circuiting legislative debate over a hotly contested issue,” the lawsuit says.

Ugh. At least Hillary Clinton is proposing to change the law in pursuit of bad policy on inversions. Obama just waves his magic wand.

Let’s wrap up by refocusing on why the rule of law is a fundamental building block of a free society. Back in 2014, I shared a very good video from Learn Liberty about the importance of the rule of law.

That video is a compelling explanation of why it is good to have clear rules, along with limits on the arbitrary power of government officials.

Indeed, it’s probably no exaggeration to assert that rule of law is the greatest contribution of western civilization.

Here’s a movie clip (courtesy of FEE) that makes this point.

Based on the Obama Administration’s unilateral and capricious actions, maybe a new movie should be made about the rise and decline of western civilization.

P.S. On the topic of Obama and movies, here’s some humor to offset today’s dismal topic.

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While I dismiss conspiracy theories that presume there’s a plan in Washington to strip away our rights, I do think there’s a natural “public choice” explanation for ever-growing, ever-more powerful government. And that can lead to ever-expanding examples of abusive mistreatment of citizens.

If you don’t believe me, just ask people like Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, the Hammond family, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company and the entire Meitev family.

Here’s something else to worry about, especially considering the way citizens are increasingly mistreated by callous officials.

Former Senator Tom Coburn, along with Adam Andrzejewski of OpenTheBooks.com, wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal about the militarization of the bureaucracy.

Special agents at the IRS equipped with AR-15 military-style rifles? Health and Human Services “Special Office of Inspector General Agents” being trained by the Army’s Special Forces contractors? The Department of Veterans Affairs arming 3,700 employees? The number of non-Defense Department federal officers authorized to make arrests and carry firearms (200,000) now exceeds the number of U.S. Marines (182,000). In its escalating arms and ammo stockpiling, this federal arms race is unlike anything in history. Over the last 20 years, the number of these federal officers with arrest-and-firearm authority has nearly tripled to over 200,000 today, from 74,500 in 1996. …During a nine-year period through 2014, we found, 67 agencies unaffiliated with the Department of Defense spent $1.48 billion on guns and ammo. Of that total, $335.1 million was spent by agencies traditionally viewed as regulatory or administrative, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Mint.

Here are some of the strange example of militarized bureaucracy, along with my speculation as to why the paper pushers ostensibly need heavy weapons.

The Internal Revenue Service, which has 2,316 special agents, spent nearly $11 million on guns, ammunition and military-style equipment. That’s nearly $5,000 in gear for each agent.

Perhaps the IRS bureaucrats expected Tea Party groups to fight back after they were suppressed to help Obama’s reelection?

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has 3,700 law-enforcement officers guarding and securing VA medical centers, spent $11.66 million. It spent more than $200,000 on night-vision equipment, $2.3 million for body armor, more than $2 million on guns, and $3.6 million for ammunition. The VA employed no officers with firearm authorization as recently as 1995.

Were the VA bureaucrats worried that angry veterans who were put on secret waiting lists might get violent instead of simply dying?

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service spent $4.77 million purchasing shotguns, .308 caliber rifles, night-vision goggles, propane cannons, liquid explosives, pyro supplies, buckshot, LP gas cannons, drones, remote-control helicopters, thermal cameras, military waterproof thermal infrared scopes and more.

I don’t even know what propane cannons and LP gas cannons are, but they sound almost as awesome as a tank, so why not get them if taxpayers are footing the bill?

The Environmental Protection Agency spent $3.1 million on guns, ammunition and military-style equipment. The EPA has put nearly $800 million since 2005 into its “Criminal Enforcement Division.”

Is the EPA’s assault on illegal ponds really that dangerous?

The Food and Drug Administration employs 183 heavily armed “special agents.”

What’s the point of having milk police if they aren’t well armed?

The University of California, Berkeley acquired 14 5.56mm assault rifles and Yale University police accepted 20 5.56mm assault rifles from the Defense Department. Texas Southern University and Saddleback College police even acquired Mine Resistant Vehicles (MRVs).

There are rumors that very dodgy characters sometimes show up on campuses, so who am I to question the need for heavy weapons?

And there are other bureaucracies to add to this list, which doesn’t make Corburn and Andrzejewski very happy.

Other paper-pushing federal agencies with firearm-and-arrest authority that have expanded their arsenals since 2006 include the Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Education Department, Energy Department, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, National Institute of Standards and Technology and many others. …the federal government has become a gun show that never adjourns. Taxpayers need to tell Washington that police powers belong primarily to cities and states, not the feds.

By the way, I have no objection to armed guards stationed at federal buildings. There are wackos out there. And I’m completely in favor of armed Energy Department officials guarding nuclear facilities.

But do we really need armed regulators interacting with the public?

Yes, bureaucrats occasionally have to deal with potentially dangerous people. And even if they’re enforcing rules that shouldn’t exist, I think they have every right to be protected. But in those rare instances, why not simply call up the local cops and ask for an escort? Would that really be asking too much?

Jeff Jacoby is similarly irked by the militarization of the bureaucracy. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Boston Globe.

…consider one domestic organization’s fearsome arsenal of military-style equipment. In the space of eight years, the group amassed a stockpile of pistols, shotguns, and semiautomatic rifles, along with ample supplies of ammunition, liquid explosives, gun scopes, and suppressors. In its cache as well are night-vision goggles, gas cannons, plus armored vests, drones, and surveillance equipment. Between 2006 and 2014, this organization spent nearly $4.8 million to arm itself. Yet its aggressive weapons buildup has drawn almost no public attention. …It is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency of the US Department of Agriculture, that has built up such a formidable collection of munitions. And far from being an outlier, it is one of dozens of federal agencies that spends lavishly on guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment.

I guess the APHIS bureaucrats must run into ISIS terrorists. Or something like that.

But the more serious point, which Jeff astutely addresses, is whether militarized bureaucrats send the wrong message.

Between 2006 and 2014, the report shows, 67 federal bureaus, departments, offices, and services spent at least $1.48 billion on ammunition and materiel one might expect to find in the hands of SWAT teams, Special Forces soldiers — or terrorists. …the arms race has metastasized to federal agencies with strictly regulatory or administrative functions. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, now spends more than $1 million annually on firearms, ammunition, and military gear, double what it was spending a decade ago. Since 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs — which has been sharply criticized for episodes of fatal incompetence in patient care — has poured nearly $11.7 million into guns and ammo. …Incredibly, there are now fewer US Marines than there are officers at federal administrative agencies with the authority to carry weapons and make arrests. …this federal arsenal alarms Adam Andrzejewski, the head of American Transparency’s OpenTheBooks.com, which researched and assembled the new report. “Just who,” he asks, “are the feds planning to battle?”

As I said at the start of this column, I don’t think bureaucrats are “planning to battle” anyone.

But I am concerned that a bloated government with vast and growing powers is a recipe for an ugly and unfortunate encounters.

Especially when we have a tax code and regulatory apparatus that make all of us criminals even when we’re trying to obey.

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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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It’s that time of year. Those of us who wait until the last minute are rushing to get tax returns filed (or extensions submitted).

So it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that there is a better way.

Economists look at the tax system and focus on the warts that undermine growth.

Other people focus on the immorality of the tax code.

Most of these problems have existed for decades and are familiar to people who have the misfortune of working for tax reform.

But every so often, policy wonks like me get surprised because we find out that things are even worse than we thought.

For instance, here are some excerpts from a very disturbing article in The Hill about the IRS’s we-don’t-care attitude about fraudulent use of Social Security numbers.

…illegal immigrants…use other people’s social security numbers (SSNs) to get jobs and then file their taxes with their IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs). Although the tax returns contain false W-2 information, the IRS continues to process them, and the agency does not notify the people whose SSNs were used. …Koskinen said that in such cases “it’s in everybody’s interest to have them pay the taxes they owe.” …Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.)…told The Hill on Friday that he was “shocked” and “horrified” by Koskinen’s response. …House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)…said Friday that Koskinen’s comments about illegal immigrants’ tax returns are “just one more example of why Koskinen is doing such a poor job and should be impeached.”

As a quick aside, I’d be very curious to get some confirmation about Commissioner Koskinen’s assertion that illegals are net taxpayers. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn instead that they are a net drain because of “earned income tax credit,” which is a form of redistribution that gets laundered through the tax code.

But setting that aside, it’s completely outrageous that the IRS doesn’t let taxpayers know that their Social Security numbers have been stolen.

Congressman Jordan (and George Will) are right. There should be consequences for a government official who treats taxpayers with contempt.

Though Koskinen does deserve some credit for honesty about tax reform, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told lawmakers on Wednesday that implementing a flat tax would be simpler than the current tax system and would save the agency a lot of money. …Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R., Mo.) asked Koskinen whether a flat tax policy would save the agency money. …”clearly if you had a two-page form or a one-page form where you got rid of all the deductions and everything else and people just paid…a flat tax…it would be simpler for taxpayers and it would be much simpler for us,” Koskinen said. …Luetkemeyer asked Koskinen for more specifics about how much of the IRS’ current budget of $11.2 billion could be saved if a flat tax were implemented. “…it would be a lot,” Koskinen said. “It’d clearly be a sea change, a difference in the way the place operates.”

To call the flat tax “a sea change” is an understatement. As explained in this video, research from the Tax Foundation shows that the compliance burden of the tax code would fall by more than 90 percent.

And the economy would grow much faster since a key principle of the flat tax is that revenue should be collected in the least-damaging manner.

Though if you’re worried that a flat tax is too timid and you would prefer no broad-based tax for Washington, Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute shared this wonderful image.

Which is why October 3, 1913 may be the worst day in American history.

Some people claim that it would be impossible to have a modern society without an income tax.

Well, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and Monaco are very modern, and all those jurisdictions enjoy great prosperity in large part because there is no income tax.

And we could enjoy the same freedom and prosperity in the United States. But only if we reduced the size of the public sector.

In other words, we could free ourselves of the income tax if we could somehow get rid of all the programs that were created once the income tax gave politicians a big new source of tax revenue.

The challenge is convincing politicians to give up their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.

Incidentally, this is why we should be stalwart in our opposition to the value-added tax. The experience with the income tax shows that politicians will expand the burden of government spending if they obtain any significant new source of revenue.

Let’s close with a somewhat amusing look at how tax compliance works in India. Here are some blurbs from a story in the Wall Street Journal.

For five years, real-estate developer Prahul Sawant ignored government orders to pay his taxes. Then the drummers showed up, beating their instruments and demanding he cough up the cash. Neighbors leaned out windows and gawked. Within hours, a red-faced Mr. Sawant had written a $945 check to settle his long-standing arrears. Shame is the name of the game as India’s local governments try new tools to collect taxes from reluctant citizens. …Thane’s municipal commissioner, Sanjeev Jaiswal, is resorting to public embarrassment of tax scofflaws. …Since the drummers started work early this year in this suburb of Indian commercial capital Mumbai, property-tax revenue has jumped 20%, said Mr. Jaiswal.

It’s also safer for the tax bureaucrats to rely on drummers.

Tax collectors in Vitawa-Kalwa are glad the drummers, and some security officers, are touring the neighborhood with them. “When the staff show up to collect tax alone, people get angry and beat them up,” said S.R. Patole, the assistant commissioner, who is responsible for revenue in the area.

And if drummers don’t work, the municipal commissioner has a back-up plan.

Mr. Jaiswal…plans to deploy groups of transgender women, known in India as hijras, to perform mocking dances to shame tax delinquents. Hijras are widely believed to be able to impose hexes.

I’ll have to add this story to my collection of “great moments in tax enforcement.”

For what it’s worth, I’m on the side of the taxpayers because of the Indian government’s legendary ability to waste money.

P.S. If you’re a late filer and need some humor to get through the day, here’s my collection of IRS-related jokes: A new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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For all his faults, you have to give President Obama credit for strong convictions. He’s generally misguided, but it’s perversely impressive to observe his relentless advocacy for higher taxes, bigger government, more intervention, and limits on constitutional freedoms.

That being said, his desire to “fundamentally transform” the United States leads him to decisions that run roughshod over core principles of a civilized society such as the rule of law.

Consider, for instance, the Obama Administration project, known as “Operation Choke Point,” to restrict banking services to politically incorrect businesses such as gun dealers.

It doesn’t matter than these companies are engaged in legal activities. In pursuit of its ideological agenda, the White House is using regulatory bullying in hopes of getting banks to deny services to these businesses.

For more information, click here to read about recent efforts to end this thuggish initiative. Also, here’s a very short video explaining the topic.

Well, there’s an international version of Operation Choke Point.It’s called “de-risking,” and it occurs when banks are pressured by regulators into cutting off banking services to certain regions.

The Wall Street Journal has a column on this topic by two adjunct professors from Fordham Law School.

…a widespread trend in banking called “de-risking.” Reacting to pressure by various government regulators…, banks are rejecting customers in risky regions and industries. Throughout 2014 J.P. Morgan Chase dropped more than 100,000 accounts because they were considered risky… Between 2013 and 2014, Standard Chartered closed 70,000 small and medium-size business accounts, and ended hundreds of relationships with banks in Latin America and Central Europe. …In yet another form of de-risking, the European Central Bank reports that banks have steadily cut their correspondent relationships—that is, the other banks they work with in sending money around the globe. HSBC alone closed more than 326 correspondent bank accounts between 2010 and 2012. …the banks’ actions are understandable. They face unprecedented regulatory penalties, unclear legal standards, high litigation costs and systemic risks to their business. In 2012 HSBC settled with the Justice Department, paying $1.9 billion in fines for such failings as “ignor[ing] the money laundering risks associated with doing business with certain Mexican customers.” …A bank with a single mistaken customer relationship could be put out of business. Banks have concluded that they will be punished anytime money reaches criminals, regardless of their own efforts. It’s better to drop all supposedly risky customers.

The authors explain that there should be “safe harbor” rules to protect both banks and their customers. That’s a very sensible suggestion.

And there are easy options to make this happen. I’m not a big fan of the Financial Action Task Force, which is an OECD-connected organization that ostensibly sets money-laundering rules for the world. Simply stated, the bureaucrats at FATF think there should be no human right to privacy. Moreover, FATF advocates harsh regulatory burdens that impose very high costs while producing miserly benefits.

That being said, if a nation is not on the FATF blacklist, that should be more than enough evidence that it imposes very onerous rules to guard against misbehavior.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats in the United States and Europe don’t actually seem interested in fighting money laundering. Or, to be more precise, it appears that their primary interest is to penalize places with low tax rates.

Many Caribbean jurisdictions, for instance, are being victimized by de-risking even though they comply with all the FATF rules. And this means they lose important correspondent relationships with larger banks.

To address this issue, the Organization of American States recently held a meeting to consider this topic. I was invited to address the delegations. And since other speakers dealt with the specific details of de-risking (you can watch the entire event by clicking here), I discussed the big-picture issue of how low-tax jurisdictions are being persecuted by harsh (and ever-changing) demands. Here are my remarks, with a few of my PowerPoint slides embedded in the video.

Now for the most remarkable (and disturbing) development from that meeting.

Many of the Caribbean nations offered a rather innocuous resolution in hopes of getting agreement that de-risking is a problem and that it would be a good idea if nations came up with clear rules to eliminate the problem.

That seems like a slam dunk, right?

Not exactly. The U.S. delegation actually scuttled the declaration by proposing alternative language that was based on the notion that other countries should put the blame on themselves – even though these nations already are complying with all the FATF rules! You can read the original declaration and proposed changes by the U.S. by clicking here, but this is the excerpt that really matters.

Wow, what arrogance and hypocrisy by the Obama appointees. These jurisdictions, most with black majorities, are suffering from ad hoc and discriminatory de-risking because the Administration doesn’t like the fact that they generally have low taxes.

But rather than openly state that they favor discrimination against low-tax nations, the political hacks put in place by the Obama White House proposed blame-the-victim language, thus ensuring that nothing would happen.

P.S. Perhaps the most surreal part of the experience is the strange bond I felt with the Venezuelan delegation. Regular readers know I’m not a fan of the statist and oppressive government in Caracas. But the Venezuelan delegation apparently takes great pleasure in opposing the position of the U.S. government, so we were sort of on the same side in the discussion. A very bizarre enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend situation.

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While I’m a big fan of federalism, this isn’t because I have a starry-eyed view of non-Washington politicians. Of course there is plenty of grotesque misbehavior by state and local governments.

And it’s most troubling when it involves law enforcement and the legal system.

David French of National Review has a very powerful and compelling article about thuggery at the local level.

…my experience with small-town government…pushed me in a libertarian direction before I even knew what a libertarian was. The public schools were dreadful. Focused on patronage more than education, the school system was a public jobs program… Our local government’s core mission was dispensing favors. If you were part of the local elite, the normal rules of life simply didn’t apply. Speeding tickets? No problem. You need a conditional use permit? You got it! …if you were poor or lacked connections, “the rules” applied to you with a vengeance. After all, someone had to pay the city’s bills. There was no escaping speeding tickets, zoning officials were ruthless, and each interaction with the unyielding authorities carried with it the threat of immediate escalation, sometimes without justification.

Some of the folks who protest police mistreatment see the issue through the prism of race, but maybe the real problem is that cops are expected to generate revenue for local politicians.

…It is entirely possible to believe (as I do) that the evidence indicates that “hands up, don’t shoot” is a fiction, even a malicious fiction, while also believing that the evidence indicates that Ferguson’s government was corrupt in exactly the way that government is typically corrupt.  We often take for granted the rule of law. If you are blessed to live in a town where the officials are relatively clean, or if you’re among the class of people that officials fear to cross, then public institutions seem benign — helpful, even. But there are millions of our fellow citizens who live a different reality, under the authority of different kinds of public officials — officials who view them as virtual ATMs, regardless of their ability to pay. And when the government imposes that mindset on police officers, forcing men and women who are trained to respond to (and anticipate) the most violent incidents to essentially become the armed tax collectors of a corrupt system, then that government is unjust.

Amen. Eric garner is dead today because New York City has cops act as deputy tax collectors.

Speaking of mistreatment and abuse, Debra Saunders has a must-read account of California’s immoral system for pillaging drivers.

California is filled with people who are one traffic ticket away from losing their means of independent transportation. They get a ticket for a busted tail light or a small-change moving violation. On paper, the fine is $100, but with surcharges, it’s more like $490. People who cannot pay often do not show up in court — which drives up the cost. According to the Judicial Council of California, about 612,000 Californians have suspended driver’s licenses because they didn’t pay fines. In 2013, more people — 510,811 — had their licenses suspended for not paying fines than the 150,366 who lost their licenses for drunken driving. “For a lot of people, the car is the only asset they own in this whole damn world,” noted Mike Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. …“We’ve turned too many of the police into tax collectors and wonder why they don’t have strong relations with the community,” Norquist said.

This is disgusting, particularly because of how the system is a nightmare for poor people.

I’m about as far from an advocate of class warfare as is possible, but I can’t help but be sympathetic to the notion that traffic fines should be tied to income. Maybe if the middle class and the rich had to pay fines that confiscated huge chunks of their disposable income, there would be pressure to fix this horrid system.

And what’s really outrageous is how the government adds all sorts of fees to the cost of a ticket.

It’s deceptive advertising: a $100 fine fronts for an extra $390 in add-ons. The price tag can grow exponentially if unpaid and lead to losing one’s license. The penalty is harsh and crushing on the poor, but these fees also are undeserved for the middle class. If Sacramento wants to levy a $490 fine for moving violations, let lawmakers put honest numbers on their legislation — instead of pretending that the fine is $100. Alas, the Legislature has found that hidden fees are a handy way to finance the court system without voting to raise tax revenue. …If a private corporation advertised a $100 payment for something that really cost $500, California Attorney General Kamala Harris probably would go after the corporation for false advertising. If a credit card company boosted its fees the way the courts do, activists would call those practices usury. If the police yanked people’s driver’s licenses because they didn’t pay a $100 fine, the public would regard such a harsh penalty as excessive force. Yet Sacramento has codified a system that commits all three sins and it’s perfectly legal. Really, is there anything more brutal than government.

The good news is that the state is offering an amnesty, allowing some drivers the ability to clean up their record at a reduced cost.

But there’s a catch. You have to pay a hidden fee!

…there is a $50 amnesty program fee. That’s right — if you want to pay off unpaid traffic fines that have ballooned because of hidden fees, first you have to pay another…hidden fee.

I guess coughing up $50 is a good deal if that can reduce other fines by a greater amount, but isn’t this typical of government. Making you give them some money in order to give them more money.

Low-income communities also bear the brunt of dubious police tactics.

The Washington Post has an in-depth report on how cops are conducting raids against residences even in the absence of any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Sallie Taylor was sitting in her apartment in Northeast Washington one evening in January 2015 watching “Bible Talk” when…D.C. police officers smashed through her door, a shotgun was pointed at her face and she was ordered to the floor. …Taylor, a soft-spoken 63-year-old grandmother who was dressed in a white nightgown and said she has never had even a speeding ticket. The heavily armed squad thought they were searching the residence of a woman arrested two miles away the previous night for carrying a half-ounce vial of PCP. …The search warrant executed at Taylor’s apartment cited no evidence of criminal activity there. Instead, in an affidavit to a judge, police argued that they should be able to search for drugs there based on their “training and experience” investigating the drug trade. They relied on an address they found in a court-records system for the woman arrested with PCP.

In other words, the government can bust into someone’s home, notwithstanding the lack of any evidence, simply because some cop has a hunch based on “training and experience’?

I suspect America’s Founding Fathers would not be pleased with this reinterpretation of the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from “unreasonable searches,” generally requiring government agents to obtain a warrant from a judge by showing they have probable cause to think that they will find a specific item at a specific location. In recent decades, police have been given wide latitude by the courts… Attorney Alec Karakatsanis, of the nonprofit group D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law, said warrants that rely on training and experience as justification for a search subject the black community to abusive police intrusion based on flimsy investigative work.

To make matters worse, the government oftentimes doesn’t bother to confirm addresses before launching these raids.

Failure to properly verify an address led police to the home of Patricia Dandridge on Jan. 27, 2015. She returned from work to find her apartment in Southeast ransacked. The door was beaten in and her bed frame was broken, she said. Clothes and personal papers were strewn across the floor. “I thought I’d been robbed, but my neighbor told me it was the police,” said Dandridge, 45. …Three officers had forced their way in to look for firearms. They left empty-handed. The warrant was based on a drug complaint at a housing complex in Southeast more than five miles from Dandridge’s apartment, according to the affidavit police used to justify the search. …Palmer lived down the hall with his parents in Apartment 103. Dandridge lives in 102. “103 does not look like 102,” Dandridge said. The apartments are on opposite ends of the building.

Last but not least, Kevin Williamson weighs in at National Review with a withering look at police misconduct and corruption.

Is it really so difficult to believe that there is widespread wrongdoing, and widespread lying about it, among U.S. law-enforcement agencies, particularly those in big, Democrat-run cities infamous for the corruption of their other municipal institutions? Why do conservatives find it so plausible — obvious, even — that the IRS and the EPA and the Atlanta public schools are corrupt and self-serving, but somehow believe that the Baltimore police department isn’t?

He has lots of examples.

There are a great many investigations of police misconduct in Baltimore, where the local police behave more like the militia of a third-world warlord than a police agency. …Today, it is the Los Angeles sheriff. Before that, it was the Los Angeles Police Department, whose anti-gang task force became a rolling crime wave of its own, with 70 officers eventually implicated in unlawful shootings, bank robbery, drug dealing, theft, planting false evidence, framing suspects, destroying evidence of their wrongdoing and the usual perjury, perjury, and perjury. Then came Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, NYPD detectives convicted in 2006 on a raft of charges — racketeering, extortion, drug-dealing, murder and conspiracy to commit murder, running an illegal gambling ring, obstruction of justice — as part of a 20-year crime spree that ranged from New York to Las Vegas. …In Fairview, Tenn., a new police detective was just fired after responding to a prostitution ad. An NYPD officer was awarded $15 million in damages for being kidnapped and beaten inside his own home by other NYPD officers with a score to settle. Honolulu announced that in 2015 it fired a record number of officers for misconduct.

Corruption, malfeasance, and misbehavior seem to be a natural part of the system.

…facts suggest that our police departments have the same problems as our other government agencies, exacerbated by the fact that police are, inevitably, in the business of violence. It isn’t a few scattered misdeeds when it’s the NYPD, the LAPD, the Baltimore PD, the Los Angeles sheriff’s department, and more. That’s not a few bad apples — that’s the orchard. And it needs pruning.

Kevin’s argument is very compelling, particularly his appeal to conservatives about being skeptical of all parts of government at all times.

This is similar to the argument I made that it’s especially important to monitor and resist government wrongdoing when “the good guys” are in power.

In other words, calling for the elimination of the Department of Education or the Department of Housing and Urban Development while Obama is in office is (or should be) the easy part.

By contrast, fighting against such wasteful programs when Bush was in the White House was much harder. Many supposed fiscal conservatives suddenly went silent, and that sin of omission helps to explain why the burden of federal spending increased so rapidly.

Yes, police protection is a legitimate function of government, so the issue isn’t whether police forces should be abolished (though Camden, New Jersey, got good results by doing exactly that). But skepticism of police budgets and police behavior is still very appropriate. Indeed, one obvious takeaway from Kevin’s article is that it’s especially important for “law and order” conservatives to be vigilant to make sure police forces operate honestly and efficiently (thus making life easier for the majority of cops who simply want to do a good job and protect their communities).

And that also means getting rid of laws that don’t make sense.

Just as defense hawks should be the ones most critical of wasteful spending by the Pentagon or misguided military commitments by politicians.

P.S. You can enjoy some police-related humor here, here, and here.

P.P.S. And don’t forget cops generally are on the right side on guns.

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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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The good thing about being nonpartisan is that I can freely criticize (or even praise) policy makers without giving any thought to whether they have an R or D after their name.

That doesn’t mean Republicans and Democrats are the same, at least with regards to rhetoric. The two big political parties in the United States ostensibly have some core beliefs. And because of that, it is sometimes very revealing to identify deviations.

Democrats supposedly believe the rich should pay higher taxes and that low-tax jurisdictions should be persecuted, yet many Democrat bigwigs utilize tax havens.

Republicans supposedly believe in smaller government, yet many of them decide to get rich by lobbying to expand the size and scope of Washington.

Democrats supposedly believe there’s a big gender pay gap, but Obama’s top economic adviser said such numbers are fake and Hillary gave higher pay to men in her office.

Let’s now add to the list.

The IRS has stonewalled and treated Congress with contempt. The bureaucrats have disregarded the law to advance Obama’s hard-left agenda. They have used their power to help Obama’s reelection campaign. And IRS employees even donate lots of money to Democrats.

Given all this, you would think Republicans would be doing everything possible to punish this rogue bureaucracy. Even if only because of self interest rather than principles.

Yet GOPers decided, as part of their capitulation on spending caps (again!), to boost the IRS’s budget. I’m not joking. The Hill has a report with the sordid details.

The spending bill…provides an increase in funding to the Internal Revenue Service, a rare win for an agency that has been on the outs with congressional Republicans. The $1.1 trillion omnibus provides an additional $290 million for the IRS, an increase of 3 percent over the last fiscal year.

What’s especially discouraging is that Congress was on track to reduce the IRS’s bloated budget.

…the outcome for the IRS in the omnibus could have been far worse. A bill advanced by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year that would have slashed IRS funding by $838 million, while a bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would have reduced funding by $470 million. Instead, the spending package gives the IRS a nearly $300 million bump.

This is yet another piece of evidence that budget deals crafted behind closed doors inevitably produce bad numbers and bad policy.

And it’s certainly another sign that Republicans truly are the Stupid Party.

Just in case you think I’m being unfair to either GOPers or the IRS, let’s look at some recent developments. Here are the best parts of an editorial on unseemly IRS behavior from the Washington Examiner.

President Obama’s IRS repeatedly los[es] hard drives loaded with data related to scandals at the agency. To lose one might be regarded as suspicious happenstance; to lose two looks like conspiracy. The most famous case is that of Lois Lerner, whose division became notorious for targeting conservative groups applying for nonprofit status. Her computer hard drive malfunctioned before that scandal broke, around the same time Congress was looking for information on a separate IRS targeting scheme aimed at conservative donors. …The newest case of IRS hard drive trouble happened last April, but came to light only this month. …the IRS has notified the Justice Department that it erased a hard drive after being ordered not to do so by a federal judge. In this case, the missing communications are those of a former IRS official named Samuel Maruca in the Large Business and International division. He is believed to have been among the senior IRS employees who made the unusual and possibly illegal decision in May 2014 to hire the outside law firm Quinn Emanuel to help conduct an audit of Microsoft Corporation.

And here’s some shocking (or maybe not so shocking) information from the Daily Caller. The IRS’s new ethics chief (wow, there’s an oxymoron) has a track record of illegally destroying records.

The new head of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) ethics office once oversaw the illegal shredding of documents sought by the federal tax agency’s inspector general (IG), and allegedly retaliated on the colleague he believed snitched on him about it.

Yup, he sounds like the kind of guy who deserves a bigger budget.

Let’s close with some very good advice from the Washington Examiner.

In the nearly three years since the targeting scandal was revealed, it has become clear that it was just a symptom of a much deeper problem at the IRS — a culture that lacks accountability, rewards failure, and persecutes the innocent. …it needs a thorough housecleaning, not…bonuses.

Too bad Republicans decided the entire IRS deserved a big bonus.

P.S. From my archives, here are some examples of the bureaucrats who will benefit from a bigger IRS budget.

P.P.P.S. And since we’re recycling some oldies but goodies, here’s my collection of IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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When I first read about armed protesters taking over a federal building in Oregon, I thought some nutjobs were about to cause some real trouble. Was this a right-wing version of the loons from the Occupy Wall Street movement, only with guns?

Then I learned that the “federal building” was nothing more than a remote and unoccupied structure in a wildlife refuge, making this story a molehill rather than a mountain.

Now I’m learning that the ostensible nutjobs have some very genuine grievances, specifically about the way the Hammond family has been viciously mistreated by the federal government.

David French, an attorney and veteran, has a column in National Review that looks at why folks in Oregon are upset with Washington.

…what if they’re right? What if the government viciously and unjustly prosecuted a rancher family so as to drive them from their land? Then protest, including civil disobedience, would be not just understandable but moral, and maybe even necessary. …Read the court documents in the case that triggered the protest… What emerges is a picture of a federal agency that will use any means necessary, including abusing federal anti-terrorism statutes, to increase government landholdings.

Here’s his summary of the situation.

The story…begins…with the creation and expansion of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a tract of federal land…The federal government has since expanded…in part by buying adjacent private land. Protesters allege that when private landowners refused to sell, the federal government got aggressive, diverting water during the 1980s into the “rising Malheur lakes.” Eventually, the lakes flooded “homes, corrals, barns, and graze-land.” Ranchers who were “broke and destroyed” then “begged” the government to buy their “useless ranches.” …the Hammonds were among the few private landowners who remained adjacent to the Refuge. …the government then began a campaign of harassment designed to force the family to sell its land, a beginning with barricaded roads and arbitrarily revoked grazing permits and culminating in an absurd anti-terrorism prosecution based largely on two “arsons” that began on private land but spread to the Refuge.

Arson sounds serious, but French explains that it’s not what city folks assume when they hear that word.

While “arsons” might sound suspicious to urban ears, anyone familiar with land management…knows that land must sometime be burned to stop the spread of invasive species and prevent or fight destructive wildfires. Indeed, the federal government frequently starts its own fires.

Here’s the part that’s most disturbing. David explains how the federal government used a sledgehammer to go after a fly.

In 2010 — almost nine years after the 2001 burn — the government filed a 19-count indictment against the Hammonds that included charges under the Federal Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act…the Hammonds and the prosecution reached a plea agreement in which the Hammonds agreed to waive their appeal rights and accept the jury’s verdict. It was their understanding that the plea agreement would end the case. At sentencing, the trial court refused to apply the mandatory-minimum sentence, holding that five years in prison would be “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses”… The federal government, however, was not content to let the matter rest. Despite the absence of any meaningful damage to federal land, the U.S. Attorney appealed the trial judge’s sentencing decision… the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals…ruled against… The Hammonds were ordered back to prison.

And here’s his bottom line.

There’s a clear argument that the government engaged in an overzealous, vindictive prosecution here. By no stretch of the imagination were the Hammonds terrorists, yet they were prosecuted under an anti-terrorism statute. …To the outside observer, it appears the government has attempted to crush private homeowners and destroy their livelihood in a quest for even more land. If that’s the case, civil disobedience is a valuable course of action. …I sympathize with the ranchers’ fury, and I’m moved by the Hammonds’ plight. …now they’re off to prison once again — not because they had to go or because they harmed any other person but because the federal government has pursued them like a pack of wolves.

I would have said a pack of hyenas, but that’s a rhetorical difference.

What matters is that the federal government has behaved reprehensibly.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the standoff, citing the federal government’s brutish efforts to grab private land.

…armed occupation of federal buildings is inexcusable, but so are federal land-management abuses and prosecutorial overreach. …The drama is bringing attention to legitimate grievances, especially the appalling federal treatment of the Hammond family. …The government has…been on a voracious land-and-water grab, coercing the area’s once-thriving ranchers to sell. The feds have revoked dozens of grazing permits and raised the price of the few it issues. It has mismanaged the area’s water, allowing ranchlands to flood. It has harassed landowners with regulatory actions that raise the cost of ranching, then has bought out private landowners to more than double the refuge’s size. …Many in rural Oregon view this as a government vendetta. …The ideology of “national” land has become the club to punish private landowners who are the best source of economic stability and conservation. The Bundy occupation of federal land can’t be tolerated, but the growing Western opposition to government harassment of private landowners ought to be a source of political concern.

Amen.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that the protesters automatically are right about being victimized. Yes, in some cases, federal bureaucrats are grossly mistreating folks. But in other cases, ranchers may be fleecing taxpayers because of implicit subsidies for things like grazing rights on federal land and water rights.

Moreover, according to CNN, the Bundy family (which is leading the sit-in at the wildlife refuge) has no problem mooching off taxpayers.

Ammon Bundy, a leader of the armed protesters who took over a federal building in Oregon, and his family are…not opposed to government and said that taking a six-figure loan from the Small Business Administration doesn’t conflict with his political philosophy.

But even if there are no pure good guys in this story, there is a pure solution.

And that’s to shrink the federal government’s ownership of land. As you can see from this Wikipedia map, Uncle Sam owns most of the land in America’s western states.

This makes no sense. It means potentially valuable land is locked up, which undermines the economy’s growth and efficiency.

Why not auction up a huge portion of that land so it’s in private hands where there will be proper incentives for wise stewardship (including conservation)?

And if politicians decide that some of the land should be set aside for parks, that should be the result of open and honest deliberation. Just as decisions to obtain private land (for genuine public purposes, not Kelo-style cronyism) should be legitimate and include proper compensation.

P.S. This story reminds me that I need to create a special page for “Victims of Government Thuggery” to augment the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame and Moocher Hall of Fame.

The Hammonds would be charter members.

It would also include people like Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company and the entire Meitev family.

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When someone says “IRS,” my Pavlovian response is “flat tax.”

That’s because I’m a policy wonk and I’d like to replace our punitive internal revenue code with something simple and fair that doesn’t do nearly as much damage to our economy.

And it’s a fringe benefit that real tax reform would substantially de-fang the IRS.

But I’m also a big believer in the rule of law and a big opponent of capricious government power, so I’m also interested in curtailing the power of the IRS even if we don’t get a chance to fix the tax code.

I’ve previously commented on the unseemly and corrupt behavior of the IRS, and there’s no question the bureaucracy’s actions have been despicable.

But is it so bad that the Commissioner of the IRS deserves to be impeached? Let’s look at pro and con arguments.

Here’s some of what Bloomberg’s Al Hunt wrote about the controversy. He’s obviously a defender of the current Commissioner.

The specifics of any supposed impeachable offenses are vague. Koskinen, 76, is a respected, successful business and government executive who, at the behest of the White House, took on the job of cleaning up the beleaguered tax agency in December 2013, after offenses had been committed. …The accusations stem from 2013, when the IRS’s tax-exempt division was found to have disproportionately targeted conservative groups for scrutiny. Although Koskinen was brought in after the damage had been done, …Some, rather recklessly, accuse him of lying. …The specific charges seem specious: There may have been miscommunication, but there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Koskinen. …The pre-Koskinen abuses by the IRS’s tax-exempt division have been the subject of three inquiries… All were critical of IRS mismanagement, but none found any evidence of illegal activities or political direction from on high.

George Will is not so sanguine about Koskinen’s role. Here are excerpts from his column in the Washington Post.

Federal officials can be impeached for dereliction of duty (as in Koskinen’s failure to disclose the disappearance of e-mails germane to a congressional investigation); for failure to comply (as in Koskinen’s noncompliance with a preservation order pertaining to an investigation); and for breach of trust (as in Koskinen’s refusal to testify accurately and keep promises made to Congress). …After Koskinen complained about the high cost in time and money involved in the search, employees at a West Virginia data center told a Treasury Department official that no one asked for backup tapes of Lerner’s e-mails. Subpoenaed documents, including 422 tapes potentially containing 24,000 Lerner e-mails, were destroyed. For four months, Koskinen kept from Congress information about Lerner’s elusive e-mails. He testified under oath that he had “confirmed” that none of the tapes could be recovered. …Koskinen’s obfuscating testimonies have impeded investigation of unsavory practices, including the IRS’s sharing, potentially in violation of tax privacy laws, up to 1.25 million pages of confidential tax documents. …Koskinen consistently mischaracterized the Government Accountability Office report on IRS practices pertaining to IRS audits of tax-exempt status to groups.

These charges don’t seem (as Hunt asserted) to be “specious.”

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that there aren’t good (or at least adequate) responses to these accusations.

And perhaps Koskinen didn’t technically commit perjury. Maybe he simply engaged in some Clintonian parsing and misdirection.

So I’ll be the first to admit that it’s unclear whether Koskinen deserves to be impeached.

But I’ll also be the first to argue that the IRS is a rogue bureaucracy that needs to slapped down. That’s why it deserves budget cuts rather than the increases favored by the White House.

And Lois Lerner almost certainly should be in jail. Beyond that, I’m open to ideas on how to discourage the tax collectors from engaging in rampant misbehavior.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a list.

These horror stories provide plenty of evidence that the internal revenue service should have its wings clipped.

P.S. Since we’re criticizing the IRS, I can’t resist sharing some oldies but goodies.

P.P.P.S. And since I’m digging through my archives, here’s my collection of IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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I’m delighted that so many presidential candidates are talking about partial tax reform and I’ve specifically analyzed the plans put forth by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump.

These proposals all make the tax code less punitive, and that would be good news for job creation, growth, and American competitiveness.

But that doesn’t mean any of them are perfect. They all fall short of the pure flat tax, which is the gold standard for full tax reform. Another problem is that these proposals won’t be plausible or sustainable unless unaccompanied by some prudent plans to restrain the growth of federal spending.

Today, though, I want to focus on another shortcoming. The various plans need to be augmented by long-overdue restrictions on the IRS, which has become and abusive and rogue bureaucracy.

Consider a few examples.

These horror stories provide plenty of evidence that the internal revenue service should have its wings clipped.

But let’s add another straw to the camel’s back. The tax collection agency in the midst of an audit fight with Microsoft and the IRS is making a mockery of its own rules and flagrantly abusing the company’s legal rights.

This is bad news for one of America’s most successful firms, but it also is creating a very dangerous precedent that could victimize many other companies – large and small – in the future.

Writing for The Hill, Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity highlights some of the IRS’s most offensive actions.

First, the IRS is flouting its own rules as part of its persecution of Microsoft.

Government officials, counter to federal law, are trying to bully the company into extending an audit process that should have ended over 6 years ago. …Federal law provides a three-year time period for the completion of an audit, yet IRS officials have been digging through the company’s files for over nine years.

Second, the IRS won’t even tell the company how much money it wants!

Seattle-based Microsoft had to force a hearing on this matter because the IRS refused to submit a final tax bill to Microsoft for a dispute over taxes owed from 2004 to 2006. The IRS has been dragging out this audit process for close to a decade, and continues to pressure the company to sign waivers extending the audit infinitum.

Third, the IRS has been whining about supposedly inadequate budgets, but the bureaucrats are paying a private law firm millions of dollars to participate in this never-ending audit.

In 2014, the government in an unprecedented move hired Quinn Emanuel, a L.A.-based litigation firm to help audit the company. The IRS has billions in budget, teams of lawyers and accountants, yet they decided spend $2.2 million dollars outsourcing their legal team to lawyers that charge in excess of $1000 an hour.  It should come as no shock to anyone following the IRS scandal that Quinn Emanuel is chock full of lawyers who are also large contributors to the party in power.

Fourth, the IRS’s rogue behavior may become standard practice if the bureaucrats don’t face any repercussions for stepping over the line.

This fight actually has little to do with Microsoft. It has everything to do with the prospect of the IRS abusing power, wasting taxpayer money and setting dangerous precedents for enforcement against small businesses. …The actions of the IRS that put this matter into court threatens to set a dangerous precedent on the power of the federal government with regard to tax issues. Congress needs to protect citizens against IRS overreach, and now a potential new procedure that will allow private tax information to be shared with outside law firms.

Wow, what a damning indictment against a vindictive bureaucracy.

And while Microsoft is a big company with plenty of money to defend itself, this is still outrageous. Particularly since the IRS will employ these thuggish tactics against less powerful taxpayers if it isn’t slapped down for by either Congress or the courts.

By the way, I should say something about the underlying dispute. The IRS is not happy about the prices that Microsoft charged when doing intra-firm sales between the parent company and foreign subsidiaries.

Yet if the bureaucrats really think Microsoft abused the “transfer pricing” rules, then the IRS should come up with its own estimate and – if necessary – they can go to court to see who’s right.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the IRS isn’t presenting Microsoft with a bill precisely because the bureaucrats ultimately wouldn’t prevail in a legal fight. The agency probably hopes a never-ending audit eventually will force the company to voluntarily over-pay just to end the torture.

Since I’m a policy wonk, I can’t resist noting that the only reason this kind of dispute even exists is because the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the entire world. So companies naturally seek to maximize the income they earn in other nations (sort of like entrepreneurs and investors decide it’s better to do business in low-tax states such as Texas rather than fiscal hellholes such as Illinois).

And there’s nothing wrong – legally or ethically – with taxpayers choosing not to overpay the federal government.

The IRS can, of course, ask politicians to change the law if their goal is to grab more money. But as explained by Brian McNicoll in a column for the Washington Times, it shouldn’t try to confiscate more loot with endless harassment and dubious tactics.

If Microsoft’s business strategies are a problem for the IRS, it is up to Congress to change the tax law. But as long as those strategies are legal, no one should question Microsoft for doing what it can to limit its tax obligation. …there is reason Congress gives the IRS three years — not eight and certainly not carte blanche to go on indefinitely. …If the IRS has something on Microsoft, by all means bring it forward. But if it doesn’t, it needs to close the books on this near-decade of harassment and send Microsoft a bill for its taxes.

Returning to our main point, this is why tax reform should be accompanied by reforms to rein in the IRS’s improper behavior.

P.S. They haven’t put forth many details, but some candidates have indicated support for the kind of radical tax reform that would de-fang the IRS. Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and John Kasich have all stated that they like the flat tax. And Mike Huckabee embraces a national sales tax to replace the current tax code.

And if there’s wholesale replacement of the internal revenue code, then a lot of the problems with the IRS automatically disappear.

P.P.S. Since we’re criticizing the IRS, I can’t resist sharing some oldies but goodies.

P.P.P.S. And since I’m digging through my archives, here’s my collection of IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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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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Politicians and bureaucrats are very creative in their pursuit of bad policy.

In some case, I’m not even sure how to classify their actions.

When the government squandered $224,000-plus for research on condom sizes, for instance, I thought that story easily could be classified as wasteful spending. But then I discovered the research was related to the fact that the government limits the types of condoms that manufacturers can offer, so maybe this was an example of mindless over-regulation.

Now I’m facing another quandary about how to classify a story. I’m not sure to add the following nightmare to my ever-growing list of theft-by-government stories, or whether it belongs in my collection of stupid-drug-war stories.

Here’s some background from a report in Reason by Jacob Sullum. It’s about a robbery at an airport.

When he visited relatives in Cincinnati the winter before last, Charles Clarke, a 24-year-old college student, took with him $11,000 that he had saved from wages, financial aid, and family gifts because he did not want to lose it. He did not count on the armed robbers at the airport, who took every last cent as he was about to board a flight back to Orlando in February 2014.

So did Mr. Clarke call the cops to report the theft?

Well, not exactly.

…the thieves were cops, who justified confiscating Clarke’s life savings by claiming his luggage and cash smelled like pot.

But the cops didn’t arrest Mr. Clarke for possession of marijuana (they didn’t find any). Nor did they charge him with having smoked marijuana (I guess even cops realize that would be a pointless waste of resources).

However, they did take his money on the very tenuous (and completely unproven) proposition that it may have been connected with a drug deal.

Even more amazing, the burden of proof is now on Mr. Clarke to prove his money is innocent, so the presumption of innocence granted by the Constitution doesn’t apply!

More than a year later, Clarke is still trying to get his money back… But the federal prosecutors who are pursuing forfeiture of Clarke’s money do not have to prove he was a drug dealer. …the government keeps the cash based on “probable cause that it was proceeds of drug trafficking or was intended to be used in an illegal drug transaction,” and the burden is on Clarke to recover it.

Why is this happening?

Well, I’ve written many times that incentives matter. That’s true for taxpayers and it’s true for bureaucrats.

And true for cops as well.

…the number of seizures by police at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport exploded from a couple dozen a year in the late 1990s to nearly 100, totaling $2 million, in 2013. By pursuing forfeiture under federal law through the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, the airport cops can keep up to 80 percent of the loot while letting the feds do most of the work.

Yup, this is what’s called “policing for profit.”

This is so outrageous that even some folks who like big government are on Mr. Clarke’s side. Here are some excerpts from a report published by Vox.

Under federal and state laws that allow what’s called “civil forfeiture,” law enforcement officers can seize someone’s property without proving the person was guilty of a crime; they just need probable cause to believe the assets are being used as part of criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Police can then absorb the value of this property — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — as profit: either through state programs, or under a federal program known as Equitable Sharing that lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments. So police can not only seize people’s property without proving involvement in a crime, but they have a financial incentive to do so.

Not only is there no presumption of innocence, the government actually puts the money on trial rather than the person.

In typical criminal cases, the government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty of a crime. But in civil forfeiture cases, the government only has to show that it’s more likely than not that the property was intended to buy drugs or obtained from selling drugs. The bar is so low in part because it’s the property itself on trial, not the person whose property was taken — and due process rights cover people, not property. So in Clarke’s situation, the case is literally called United States of America v. $11,000.00 in United States Currency. (No, this is not a joke.)

The Vox report also looks at the perverse incentives created by this system.

…under the federal program, 13 different law enforcement agencies from Ohio and Kentucky are seeking a cut of Clarke’s $11,000 — even though 11 of those agencies weren’t involved in the seizure. The competition should show how lucrative these kind of seizures are in the eyes of law enforcement: they’re an opportunity to turn a costly counter-narcotics operation into a profitable venture for the law enforcement agencies involved (or even not, in Clarke’s case).

And here’s a look at how different states approach the issue.

The darker the state, the bigger the incentive for law enforcement agencies to steal money.

There’s also good evidence that these venal laws target minorities.

A bulk of forfeiture cases also appear to disproportionately afflict minorities. Clarke, who’s black, said he felt like he was racially profiled. Of the 400 federal court cases reviewed by the Post in which people challenged a seizure and got some money back, most of the victims were black, Hispanic, or another racial minority.

This is a good opportunity to say something about race relations.

I don’t have any tolerance for racial grievance mongers like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, and I don’t automatically assume racism when a black man like Eric Garner dies because of an interaction with cops.

But I do have great sympathy for law-abiding African-Americans who have to deal getting hassled for “driving while black.”

Not to mention “riding trains while black.”

And as we see from Mr. Clarke’s plight, we also have to include “flying while black.”

By the way, I’m not arguing that profiling is always illegitimate. As Walter Williams has explained, it’s sometimes just common sense.

But if profiling – or even the perception of profiling – causes resentment, then doesn’t it make sense to make sure it isn’t being used promiscuously? Shouldn’t it be reserved for situations where law enforcement is seeking to protect life, liberty, or property? Needless to say, civil asset forfeiture and the drug war are definitely not good reasons to utilize a tool with societal downsides.

P.S. Let’s shift to a different topic. I realize it might be a bit unseemly to do a victory dance in the end zone, but every so often it’s worth noting that folks on the left are spectacularly wrong in their analysis.

I wrote, for instance, about Paul Krugman’s argument that the American economy would benefit from a housing bubble. Gee, that didn’t turn out so well.

Here’s another example that’s been circulating on Twitter. It’s a snapshot on the famous economics textbook authored by Paul Samuelson. Like Krugman, Samuelson won a Nobel Prize, so he presumably had a very high IQ.

Yet just as the Soviet Union was about to collapse, he actually believed that the communist economy was thriving.

Just goes to show you that Thomas Sowell was very insightful when he wrote that intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing.

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If I had to pick a government policy that would be most upsetting to our Founding Fathers, I’d be tempted to pick the income tax. Or maybe some useless agency, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After all, surely the Founders didn’t envision – or want – today’s Leviathan government in Washington.

But I also know I’m biased since I work on fiscal policy issues.

So upon further reflection, I think the policy that would be most horrifying to the Founding Fathers is so-called civil asset forfeiture, a.k.a., theft by government.

You may think I’m joking or exaggerating, but theft is the right word when you look at how citizens (such as the Dehko family and Lyndon McClellan) have had their bank accounts seized even though they were never even charged with a crime, much less ever committed a crime.

And now we have a new example that would have the Founders rolling in their graves, but also should get every decent person angry.

Reason has a report with the odious details.

…the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is snatching the life savings of a young black male for the crime of being alone on a train. The man, Joseph Rivers, 22, was traveling from Michigan to Los Angeles by train with $18,000 in cash to pay for a music video. In Albuquerque, DEA agents boarded the train and started asking people questions. They got to Rivers, who told him he was going to shoot a music video and agreed to let them search his stuff.

Now put yourself in the mind of Mr. Rivers. You’re not committing a crime. You’re not in possession of any drugs or other illicit substances.

Agents ask to search your stuff as part of their snooping on the train and you figure being cooperative is the best way of allaying suspicion (regardless of whether the DEA used profiling).

And what’s your reward for being cooperative?

The Reason report then shares some very ugly passages from a story in the Albuquerque Journal.

Rivers was the only passenger singled out for a search by DEA agents – and the only black person on his portion of the train… In one of the bags, the agent found the cash, still in the Michigan bank envelope.

Mr. Rivers explained why he had the money, but it didn’t do any good.

“I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator, to corroborate my story,” Rivers said. “Even with all of this, the officers decided to take my money because he stated that he believed that the money was involved in some type of narcotic activity.” Rivers was left penniless.

Here’s perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the way government bureaucrats openly admit that they can take money without any criminal charges, much less a conviction for any crime.

“We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Waite said. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”

Just imagine how the Founding Fathers, if they were still around, would react to the statements of this bureaucrat?

Imagine what they would think of a policy that gave bureaucrats arbitrary powers to take money from citizens?

By the way, I’m not asking these rhetorical questions because I have some inside knowledge that Mr. Rivers is a stand-up guy. Maybe his story was fake and he actually was going to buy illegal drugs.

So what?

I’m tempted to point out at this point the foolishness of the Drug War, but that’s the point I want to make today. Heck, we can assume he had $18,000 because he intended to commit a real crime. Perhaps he was going to pay a hit man to kill someone.

At the risk of being repetitive, so what?

Our Constitution was set up to constrain the powers of government and protect citizens from abuse by government. We have a 4th Amendment to protect us from unreasonable search and seizure and we have the presumption of innocence so that we can’t be punished unless that’s the outcome of a proper legal proceeding.

Needless to say, allowing agents to steal money from train passengers is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

In a just society, there shouldn’t be shortcuts which trample people’s rights. Real police work should be used to amass evidence of real crimes, which then should be used in real courts where a jury can decide on guilt.

Let’s close with a few more passages from the Albuquerque story.

Rivers, 22, wasn’t detained and has not been charged with any crime since his money was taken last month. That doesn’t matter. Under a federal law enforcement tool called civil asset forfeiture, he need never be arrested or convicted of a crime for the government to take away his cash, cars or property – and keep it. Agencies like the DEA can confiscate money or property if they have a hunch, a suspicion, a notion that maybe, possibly, perhaps the items are connected with narcotics. Or something else illegal.Or maybe the fact that the person holding a bunch of cash is a young black man is good enough. …Meanwhile, Rivers is back in Michigan, dreaming, praying. “He’s handed this over to God,” his attorney said. Which seems infinitely safer than handing over anything further to government agents.

Amen.

I’ll make one final point.

In the absence of some evidence to the contrary, I’m not going to accuse the DEA agents of racial profiling. After all, government agents have stolen money from plenty of white people.

But I strongly suspect there was economic profiling. If Mr. Rivers was a 50-year old white guy in a business suit, the DEA probably wouldn’t have confiscated the money.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that 50-year old white guys should rest easy. When government bureaucrats get away with stealing money from young people without power and connections, it’s probably just a matter of time before others get victimized as well.

Just keep in mind that slippery slopes are very slippery when government is involved.

P.S. Also keep in mind that asset forfeiture has become such an abusive nightmare that the first two heads of that division of the Justice Department now say the policy should be abolished.

P.P.S. I don’t know what’s riskier, riding trains while black or banking while Russian?

P.P.P.S. On a separate matter, the good people at the Competitive Enterprise Institute periodically measure the overall cost of regulation and red tape on the American economy. Their latest version of Ten Thousand Commandments was just released and it is very depressing reading.

Here are two charts (out of many) from the study. The first looks at the annual cost of federal rules.

The second chart looks at how the regulatory burden has grown over time.

As I said, very depressing. No wonder Santa Claus wasn’t happy with the end-of-year gifts he received last year from the Obama Administration.

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Notwithstanding the title of this post, I’m not going to make an ultra-libertarian argument that all taxation is theft (see the P.P.P.S. below if you want my thoughts on that issue).

Instead, today’s topic is about a more specialized version of theft by government, which technically is called civil asset forfeiture but more accurately should be referred to as policing for profit.

It occurs when the government seizes cash or other property even though the victimized citizen has never been convicted – or in many cases even charged – with a crime.

I wish I was joking. But as you can see from these excerpts from a recent report, this is horrifyingly real.

Simply carrying a large amount of cash in a grocery sack in your car is now sufficient grounds for a police officer to seize your money, a US circuit court has ruled. A panel of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals found that all a deputy has to do to seize cash from a person is say it is drug money. The court refused to return the $63,530 that Deputy Dave Wintle seized from a disabled veteran named Mark A. Brewer during a traffic stop in 2011. Brewer was never charged with a crime or even given a traffic ticket. Yet the decorated Air Force veteran lost his savings when a drug-sniffing dog smelled marijuana on it, even though no cannabis was found in Brewer’s car or his home. …Brewer saved the money from disability payments and his Air Force pay — as documents deputies found in the car indicated.

Since much of our currency contains traces of marijuana and cocaine, there was no way to determine if Mr. Brewer had “drug money” simply on the basis of what the dog smelled.

What’s especially disturbing is that a court agreed that there was no evidence of a crime, but the Judge decided to “assume” the money was criminal.

“The record here does not make clear whether the seized currency constitutes property used to facilitate a drug offense or proceeds from a drug offense,” Judge Bobby E. Shepherd wrote in a March 23 opinion upholding the seizure. “For the purposes of analysis, however, we will assume that the currency facilitated a drug offense and is thus subject to [to be seized].” It was taken through a legal mechanism called civil forfeiture.

And to add injury to injury, the court case will apply to several states.

Even more tragic: The ruling will have a wide impact. “This court case will be the ‘law of the circuit’ for Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and North and South Dakota as well, creating even more barriers for Americans to fight back against unjust seizures in court,” Sibilla wrote.

But we do have a sliver of good news.

Meanwhile, New Mexico has become the second state to effectively eliminate the use of civil forfeiture and seizure by law enforcement. …It still will allow the criminal forfeiture of property, although that legal barrier is much higher for the government. …“This is the first time in decades that a state legislature has taken the bold but necessary step to put an end to the perverse financial incentive in civil forfeiture laws,” Scott Bullock, the attorney in charge of the Institute for Justice’s battle against the practice, stated in a press release. “Thankfully, Governor Martinez and the New Mexico legislature recognized that no one should lose their property without being first convicted of a crime.”

Kudos to Governor Martinez and New Mexico lawmakers.

Now we need action in Washington.

P.S. Here are some other cases of “policing for profit” that should distress all decent people.

*Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

*Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family has collected to bail out a relative.

*Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

*Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

*Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

*And you can read several other outrageous examples by clicking here.

All I can say is that our Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their graves. They gave us a marvelous Constitution precisely to protect citizens from government abuse.

Yet now courts routinely allow governments at all levels to run roughshod over our civil liberties.

P.P.S. It surely must say something that the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office now say the law is riddled with abuse and should be repealed.

P.P.P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents on the issue of taxation and theft. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously opined, when seeking to define pornography, that “I know it when I see it.” That’s not exactly a firm legal definition, but I’ve always liked his reasoning. When I look at a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong, with a relatively small and honest government, I think of taxes as an unfortunate but acceptable price to pay. But when I think of nations with bloated public sectors and maliciously destructive tax regimes, then there’s little doubt in my mind that taxation is theft. And that’s true if the government is sinisterly malign, such as Venezuela, or a failing welfare state, such as France.

Especially when tax rates exceed 100 percent!

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I have a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to recognize government workers who have demonstrated special skills in ripping off taxpayers.

And I’ve created a Moocher Hall of Fame to highlight deadbeats and scroungers who best illustrate the entitlement mentality.

But maybe it’s now time to create Victims of Government Thuggery Hall of Fame (though I need to figure out a more concise title). Charter members would include  Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company.

And I would want to include the Meitiv family as well. Check out these horrifying details about the kidnapping of children by government, as reported by Reason.

The kids, ages 10 and 6, were supposed to come home at 6:00 p.m. from playing. At 6:30 p.m, Danielle says, she and her husband Sasha were pretty worried. By 8:00 p.m., they were frantic. Only then did someone from the CPS Crisis Center call the parents and tell them that the police had picked the children up. …Husband Sasha Meitiv, raised in the Soviet Union under complete state control, told his wife he was less surprised. “He said, ‘You don’t understand how cruel bureaucracy can be,'” said Danielle. I think we all are beginning to understand just how insane, paranoid, and vindictive the state can be when it comes to respecting human rights—in this case, the right of parents who love their kids to raise them the way they see fit. And the right of kids, all kids, to be outside, part of the world, without having to worry about police snatching them off the street and holding them for hours without even letting them make a phone call. …the children were released back into the Meitiv’s custody but were required to sign a “temporary safety plan,” which prohibits them from letting the kids go outside by themselves

For additional information about this horrifying intrusion into a family’s life, you can click here.

The bottom line is that it’s disgustingly insane for government bureaucrats to steal children just because they disagree with parenting decisions that have been (and still should be) routine.

And we also need to allow group membership in this new Hall of Fame.

Consider the plight of some Wisconsin citizens who were subjected to Putin-style oppression and harassment because of their political views.

David French has the surreal details in a must-read National Review column.

Cindy Archer…was jolted awake by yelling, loud pounding at the door, and her dogs’ frantic barking. The entire house — the windows and walls — was shaking. She looked outside to see up to a dozen police officers, yelling to open the door. They were carrying a battering ram. …“I was so afraid,” she says. “I did not know what to do.” She grabbed some clothes, opened the door, and dressed right in front of the police. The dogs were still frantic. …multiple armed agents rushed inside. Some even barged into the bathroom, where her partner was in the shower. The officer or agent in charge demanded that Cindy sit on the couch, but she wanted to get up and get a cup of coffee. “I told him this was my house and I could do what I wanted.” Wrong thing to say. “This made the agent in charge furious. He towered over me with his finger in my face and yelled like a drill sergeant that I either do it his way or he would handcuff me.” …They wouldn’t let her speak to a lawyer. She looked outside and saw a person who appeared to be a reporter. Someone had tipped him off.

Cindy wasn’t the only victim. We also have the case of “Ann.”

Someone was pounding at her front door. It was early in the morning — very early — and it was the kind of heavy pounding that meant someone was either fleeing from — or bringing — trouble. “It was so hard. I’d never heard anything like it. I thought someone was dying outside.” She ran to the door, opened it, and then chaos. “People came pouring in. For a second I thought it was a home invasion. It was terrifying. They were yelling and running, into every room in the house. One of the men was in my face, yelling at me over and over and over.” …It was indeed a home invasion, but the people who were pouring in were Wisconsin law-enforcement officers. Armed, uniformed police swarmed into the house. Plainclothes investigators cornered her and her newly awakened family. Soon, state officials were seizing the family’s personal property…next came ominous warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t tell anyone about this raid. Not even your mother, your father, or your closest friends.

There were other victims.

For the family of “Rachel” (not her real name), the ordeal began before dawn — with the same loud, insistent knocking. Still in her pajamas, Rachel answered the door and saw uniformed police, poised to enter her home. When Rachel asked to wake her children herself, the officer insisted on walking into their rooms. The kids woke to an armed officer, standing near their beds. The entire family was herded into one room, and there they watched as the police carried off their personal possessions, including items that had nothing to do with the subject of the search warrant — even her daughter’s computer. And, yes, there were the warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t talk to anyone about this. Don’t tell your friends.

So who are these people? Suspected bank robbers? Kidnappers? Alleged murderers?

Not exactly.

…they were American citizens guilty of nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights to support Act 10 and other conservative causes in Wisconsin. …For dozens of conservatives, the years since Scott Walker’s first election as governor of Wisconsin transformed the state…into a place where conservatives have faced early-morning raids, multi-year secretive criminal investigations, slanderous and selective leaks to sympathetic media, and intrusive electronic snooping. Yes, Wisconsin…was giving birth to a new progressive idea, the use of law enforcement as a political instrument, as a weapon to attempt to undo election results, shame opponents, and ruin lives. …This was the on-the-ground reality of the so-called John Doe investigations, expansive and secret criminal proceedings that directly targeted Wisconsin residents because of their relationship to Scott Walker, their support for Act 10, and their advocacy of conservative reform.

There’s no good news in this story, but at least the systematic harassment and oppression may come to an end if courts do their job.

…this traumatic process, however, is now heading toward a legal climax, with two key rulings expected in the late spring or early summer. The first ruling, from the Wisconsin supreme court, could halt the investigations for good, in part by declaring that the “misconduct” being investigated isn’t misconduct at all but the simple exercise of First Amendment rights. The second ruling, from the United States Supreme Court, could grant review on a federal lawsuit brought by Wisconsin political activist Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the first conservatives to challenge the investigations head-on. If the Court grants review, it could not only halt the investigations but also begin the process of holding accountable those public officials who have so abused their powers.

The article has lots of additional information and I strongly recommend you read the entire piece (at least if you’re not susceptible to high blood pressure).

By the way, you won’t be mistaken if you’re thinking that the Wisconsin story has a similarity to what happened with the IRS targeting of the Tea Party.

In both cases, the bureaucracy and the left (that’s a Venn Diagram with a big overlap) have manipulated government policy and power for solely political ends.

If that sounds like Putin’s Russia or today’s Venezuela, there’s an old saying about “if the shoe fits.” I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that level, fortunately, but if statist politicians and bureaucrats get away with the misdeeds shared above, we’ll take a big step in the wrong direction.

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What’s the Laffer Curve?

It’s the simple, common-sense observation that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

Folks in the private sector understand this principle. No restaurant owner, for instance, would double meal prices and assume that revenues would climb by 100 percent.

Yet that’s basically the methodology used by the Joint Committee on Taxation when estimating the revenue impact of changes in tax rates.

Which helps to explain why Washington is so often wrong about revenue implications of personal tax rates and corporate tax rates.

The Laffer Curve also applies to tobacco taxation.

Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform points out in the Wall Street Journal that greedy politicians in New York have pushed cigarette taxes so high that the main beneficiaries are smugglers.

Rampant cigarette smuggling isn’t the problem in New York. It’s a symptom of the problem: sky high tobacco taxes. …New York state levies the highest cigarette tax in the nation, $4.35 per pack, and New York City tacks on an additional $1.50 local tax. All told, the cost of one pack there can run to $12 or more. …The result? Most of the cigarettes smoked in New York, 58%, are smuggled in from out of state… The higher that revenue-hungry politicians raise tobacco taxes, the more profit smugglers can make.

Which means, of course, that the higher tax rates don’t lead to more tax revenue.

…revenue from increases in cigarette taxes often falls short of expectations. Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand after cigarette taxes were raised by 25%, to $2.50 per pack from $2, in October 2009. City leaders claimed the hike would generate a windfall of additional revenue. By February of 2010, D.C.’s chief financial officer reported that projections were off by $15 million. Revenue from the cigarette tax actually fell by $7 million after the hike. New Jersey should have learned the same lesson. In 2007 the Garden State raised cigarette taxes to $2.575, from $2.40. The new tax generated $52 million less than expected, and revenue from cigarette taxes fell by $22 million. But in 2009 New Jersey raised the tax by another 17.5 cents.

By the way, don’t believe the fall-back excuse that politicians don’t care about revenue because they’re motivated by public health concerns.

Lawmakers can claim they’re raising taxes on cigarettes to reduce smoking and improve public health. That talking point is belied by the recent imposition of taxes on electronic cigarettes, which are saving lives by delivering nicotine in puffs of water vapor instead of chemical-filled smoke. There are more than 15 tax bills pending across the country for currently untaxed e-cigarettes. Hawaii is proposing a tax of 80%, New York of 75%, Oregon of 65% and Ohio of 60%. For politicians, cigarette taxes are—and have always been—about one thing: money.

One last thing. Gleason reports that New York is suing UPS because the company ships cigarettes to New York customers.

New York state and New York City in February announced a $180 million lawsuit against the shipping company UPS over what officials allege was unlawful delivery of nearly 700,000 cartons of cigarettes from 2010-14. …New York state officials claim that the cigarette smuggling via UPS cost the treasury $29.7 million in lost tax revenue. That’s less than 0.03% of the state budget. The $4.7 million allegedly lost by New York City represents less than 0.006% of its budget. For a mere rounding error, state and city officials want to grab $180 million from UPS. That’s $180 million UPS could use to hire new workers, give employees raises, or invest back into its business. The leaders of New York and New York City should drop this silly lawsuit and find a more productive use of their time.

They shouldn’t merely drop the lawsuit. They should be condemned for engaging in a thuggish shakedown.

Returning to the main topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that reviews real-world examples of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. If local officials are greedy, state officials are ever greedier, and federal officials are greediest, then you can imagine how awful it would be to let international officials impose tobacco taxes.

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Like many taxpayers, I personally get upset with the Internal Revenue Service when I file my taxes.

But I probably get angrier than the average taxpayer. That’s because I have first-hand knowledge of the waste and fraud in the federal budget, so it galls me that so much of my income is being diverted to the open sewer of Washington.

But I also want to be fair. It’s politicians who have created our monstrous tax code. And it’s politicians who have created the bloated spending programs that undermine our prosperity.

So they deserve most of the blame.

That being said, we shouldn’t let the IRS off the hook.

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

And then awarded bonuses to itself for this corrupt behavior!

So when Neil Cavuto asked me whether the IRS deserved a bigger budget, you can see I was not exactly sympathetic.

There are two points from the interview that deserve a bit of elaboration.

First, I pointed out that the IRS budget is far bigger than it was 30 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation.

So the notion that the tax collectors are suffering from “savage” budget cuts is utter nonsense.

Not surprisingly, the IRS and its defenders like to compare today’s budget with the amount that was spent right after the faux stimulus, when every bureaucracy was gorging on other people’s money.

But as I explained in the interview, that’s very misleading.

Second, we have the bigger issue of how to deal with an ever-more sclerotic tax code and and never-ending demands for more money out of Washington.

Assuming one thinks turning America into Greece is an acceptable or desirable outcome, the IRS will need more money.

But this is precisely why I said at the end of the interview that we should say no. Simply stated, giving the IRS a bigger budget almost certainly means a continuation of bad policy.

But maybe, just maybe, if the IRS budget is held in check, the politicians will conclude that we need tax reform and spending restraint. Remember, when all other options are exhausted, politicians sometimes do the right thing.

By the way, I’m not the only person who is upset. George Will also is irked with the Internal Revenue Service and wrote a powerful indictment of the corrupt bureaucracy for the Washington Post.

He starts by observing that the slimy and biased Lois Lerner will probably get away with her crimes thanks to Obama Administration stonewalling and obstruction of justice.

 Lois G. Lerner…, as head of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, directed the suppression of conservative advocacy groups by delaying and denying them the exempt status that was swiftly given to comparable liberal groups. …through dilatory and incomplete responses to subpoenas, and unresponsive answers to congressional questions…Lerner’s name now has an indelible Nixonian stain, but there probably will be no prosecution. If the administration’s stonewalling continues as the statute of limitations clock ticks, Roskam says, “She will get away with it.” …Many thousands of Lerner’s e-mails that supposedly were irretrievably lost have been found, but not released. The Justice Department’s investigation, which was entrusted to a political appointee who was a generous contributor to Barack Obama’s campaign, is a stone in the stone wall.

It’s discouraging that Ms. Lerner won’t be held accountable for criminal actions, but Will points out that at least Congress has the ability to engage in real oversight to hopefully deter further misbehavior.

One place to begin is with the evidence — anecdotal but, in the context of proven IRS corruption, convincing — of other possibly punitive IRS behavior toward Republican contributors and other conservative activists. This justifies examining the IRS’s audit selection process.  …Next, there should be hearings into the illegal disclosure of taxpayer information about conservative individuals and groups to the media and to liberal officials and groups.

And just in case anyone is tempted to feel sorry for the IRS, don’t forget that the bureaucracy continues to disregard the law.

Or, in some cases, to arbitrarily change the law.

…the IRS’s lawlessness has extended to its role in implementing the Affordable Care Act. The act says that federal subsidies shall be distributed by the IRS to persons who buy insurance through exchanges “established by the State.” …The court probably will rule that the IRS acted contrary to law. If so, the IRS certainly will not have acted contrary to its pattern of corruption in the service of the current administration.

Yup, he nailed it. A corrupt agency serving the interests of a corrupt White House.

P.S. Since we’re talking about taxation today, here’s a video from the oldie-but-goodie collection.

I can’t vouch for the veracity, but I gather this fellow was very upset by high property taxes.

As you might guess, my sympathies are with the Marquis de Maussabre.

Just as I applaud French entrepreneurs, American companies, Italian boat owners, Spanish movie patrons (and porn aficionados), California citizens, Greek shop owners, Facebook millionaires, Norwegian butter buyers, New York taxpayers, Bulgarian smokers, foreign cab drivers, New Jersey residents, Australian film stars, and everyone else who does their part to limit the amount of tax revenue flowing to governments.

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I’m not reflexively opposed to executive orders and other unilateral actions by the White House. A president and his appointees, after all, have a lot of regulatory authority.

This is because, for better or worse, many of the laws approved in Washington basically express a goal and identify some tools. It’s then up to the relevant agency or agencies to promulgate regulations to enforce and implement those tools in order to supposedly achieve those goals.

But here’s the catch. The executive branch has to make at least a semi-plausible case that any given action is consistent with the law.

And the problem with this White House is that it has been using regulations and executive orders to change laws, thwart laws, and ignore laws.

There have been several instances of the White House arbitrarily deciding to ignore or alter major parts of Obamacare.

The Obama Administration has decided a law giving the federal government authority over the “navigable waterways” of the United States also means the federal government can regulate ponds on private land.

President Obama’s Treasury Department not only used a regulation to force American banks to put foreign law above American law, it also dealt with the unworkability of FATCA by creating an intergovernmental agreement mechanism that isn’t even mentioned in the law.

And don’t forget, regardless of what you think about immigration, the President also unilaterally decided to grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.

And that issue served as a springboard for a discussion with Fox News about a possible White House scheme to unilaterally impose big tax hikes on the business sector.

I’m surprised that I didn’t splutter with outrage during the interview. You don’t need to be a constitutional scholar, or even a lawyer, to be able to read Article 1, Section 7, of the Constitution.

And while Obama may not have a problem with the notion of America becoming a banana republic, we actually have co-equal branches of government, each with specific roles and powers.

Here’s the relevant text from the Constitution, as contained in the official repository at the National Archives.

All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills. Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States.

Maybe I’m not very careful reader, but I don’t see anything in that passage about “unless President Obama feels otherwise” or “with the exception of unilateral tax hikes on companies.”

Though I imagine Ruth Bader Ginsburg could rationalize that such hidden clauses actually exist.

For additional background, here’s some of what The Hill has reported.

The Obama administration is not ruling out using executive powers to also address the tax code. With Senate Democrats openly pushing the administration to take its own action on the tax front, the White House is not shooting down the idea. …Earnest noted that the president has told lawmakers what he is interested in on taxes — closing loopholes for the wealthy and corporations… Earnest said he was not “ruling anything in or out,” when it came to specific executive steps. “This is related to the president’s ability to use his executive authority to do what he thinks is the right thing for the country,” he said.

By the way, my opposition to unilateral changes is based on principle.

So I’d be opposed even if a pro-freedom President wanted to suspend bad parts of the tax code or use “prosecutorial discretion” to provide de facto amnesty to taxpayers who refused to comply with an immoral part of the tax code, such as the death tax.

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that Obama isn’t contemplating any good unilateral changes. Instead, the policies being examined would exacerbate double taxation and extend worldwide taxation.

So we may get the worst of all worlds. Unilateral action on taxes that makes a mockery of our Constitution and rule of law while also making an already terrible business tax system even worse.

P.S. The United States only ranks #19 in an international comparison of what nations do a good job of upholding the rule of law. Makes you wonder where we’ll rank by the time Obama leaves office.

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Earlier today, I gave a speech to some folks at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs about the failure of global financial regulation.

I touched on some predictable themes:

The absence of cost/benefit analysis for regulatory initiatives.

The failure of anti-money laundering laws and their harmful impact on the poor.

How one-size-fits-all Basel rules led to imprudent risk and misallocation of capital.

How anti-tax competition schemes impose high costs on the financial system (which get passed on to financial consumers).

One thing I noticed, though, is that I didn’t get overly passionate when discussing these topics. I didn’t even get that worked up when talking about the OECD’s dangerous plan to create something akin to a World Tax Organization.

But I did get rather agitated when talking about how money-laundering rules and regulations have led to disgusting and reprehensible examples of so-called civil asset forfeiture.

This happens when a government decides to steal the property of citizens simply because they think it may have been involved in illegal activity.

Politicians and bureaucrats often use the failed Drug War as their rationale, but the activity doesn’t actually have to be illegal. I specifically cited the horrific example of the government stealing $35,000 from some folks in Michigan for no other reason than money from the family grocery business was generally deposited in amounts under $10,000.

I’m sure such government actions have a negative economic impact, but this is a case where the moral argument should take precedence.

Simply stated, all decent and humane people should stand united against thuggery by government.

And in an example of serendipity, after finishing my speech, I turned on my computer and came across more evidence against civil asset forfeiture.

Here are some truly disturbing passages from a report in the Detroit Free Press that showed up in my Twitter feed.

Thomas Williams was alone that November morning in 2013 when police raided his rural St. Joseph County home, wearing black masks, camouflage and holding guns at their sides. They broke down his front door with a battering ram. “We think you’re dealing marijuana,” they told Williams, a 72-year-old, retired carpenter and cancer patient who is disabled and carries a medical marijuana card. When he protested, they handcuffed him and left him on the living room floor as they ransacked his home, emptying drawers, rummaging through closets and surveying his grow room, where he was nourishing his 12 personal marijuana plants as allowed by law.

All this sounds horrible – and it is, but it gets worse.

They did not charge Williams with a crime… Instead, they took his Dodge Journey, $11,000 in cash from his home, his television, his cell phone, his shotgun and are attempting to take his Colon Township home. And they plan to keep the proceeds, auctioning off the property and putting the cash in police coffers. More than a year later, he is still fighting to get his belongings back and to hang on to his house. “I want to ask them, ‘Why? Why me?’ I gave them no reason to do this to me,” said Williams, who says he also suffers from glaucoma, a damaged disc in his back, and COPD, a lung disorder. “I’m out here minding my own business, and just wanted to be left alone.”

Why him? Well, one local attorney has a good idea of what’s really happening.

“It’s straight up theft,” said Williams’ Kalamazoo attorney, Dan Grow. “The forfeiture penalty does not match the crime. It’s absurd. …A lot of my practice is made up of these kinds of cases — middle-aged, middle-income people who have never been in trouble before. It’s all about the money.”

Just to be clear, Mr. Grow is emphasizing the utterly perverse incentive structure that exists when cops are allowed to steal money from citizens and use it to pad their own budget.

This system needs to be reformed.

And the second bit of serendipity is that a new report from the Institute for Justice showed up in my inbox. It explains why civil asset forfeiture should be abolished. And while the report focuses on the venal actions of the IRS, this reform should apply to all government agencies at all levels of government.

Civil forfeiture is the government’s power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, no one needs to be convicted of—or even a charged with—a crime for the government to take the property. Lax civil forfeiture standards enable the IRS to “seize first and ask questions later,” taking money without serious investigation and forcing owners into a long and difficult legal battle to try to stop the forfeiture. Any money forfeited is then used to fund further law enforcement efforts, giving agencies like the IRS an incentive to seize.

Here’s how IJ suggests that this type of abuse can be halted.

The surest way to prevent innocent people from losing money unjustly would be to end civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. Short of that, removing the financial incentive to seize, raising the standard of proof to forfeit and enacting other procedural reforms would help protect people from losing their bank accounts when the government has little or no proof of criminal wrongdoing.

While the Institute for Justice does great work, I don’t think they should have opened the door to halfway reforms.

Heck, even the two people who helped start up the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program now say it should be abolished.

P.S. The Princess of the Levant is also in London, so I’m being forced to engage in tourist activities.

We took a ride on the London Eye, which wasn’t cheap but offers very good views of Big Ben, the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey, and other historic sites.

As far as I’m concerned, though, London is too cold and dreary. The only good tourism involves a warm beach in the Caribbean.

P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, here’s some anti-gun control humor with a rather pointed message.

Definitely worth adding to my collection.

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It’s probably not a fun time to be a police officer. The deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York have led some – including the Mayor of New York City – to explicitly or implicitly accuse cops of systemic racism.

And then you have folks like me, who grouse about cops for reprehensible abuse of citizens as part of the drug war, as well as disgusting examples of theft using civil asset forfeiture.

Heck, any decent person should get upset about some of the ways law enforcement officials abuse their powers. Consider these excerpts from a nightmarish story out of Houston.

Chad Chadwick has something many citizens can only covet – a spotless record. …But on the night of September 27th, 2011 Chadwick’s commitment to living within the law did him no good at all. It started when a friend concerned for Chadwick’s emotional well-being called Missouri City police to Chad’s Sienna apartment where he’d been distraught, drinking and unknown to anyone, had gone to sleep in the bathtub. A SWAT team was summoned.

I’m not sure why a SWAT team was needed in this case, but that’s not the horrific part of the story.

Here’s what then happened.

“They told a judge I had hostages. They lied to a judge and told him I had hostages in my apartment and they needed to enter,” said Chadwick. …Chadwick’s firearm possession apparently prompted SWAT to kick in his door, launch a stun grenade into the bathroom and storm in, according to Chadwick, without announcing their identity. “While I had my hands up naked in the shower they shot me with a 40 millimeter non-lethal round,” said Chadwick. A second stun grenade soon followed. “I turned away, the explosion went off, I opened my eyes the lights are out and here comes a shield with four or five guys behind it. They pinned me against the wall and proceeded to beat the crap out of me,” said Chadwick. That’s when officers shot the unarmed Chadwick in the back of the head with a Taser at point blank range. …And it wasn’t over. “They grabbed me by my the one hand that was out of the shower and grabbed me by my testicles slammed me on my face on the floor and proceeded to beat me more,” said Chadwick. Chadwick, who hadn’t broken a single law when SWAT burst through his door, was taken to the Ft. Bend County Jail with a fractured nose, bruised ribs and what’s proven to be permanent hearing loss. He was held in an isolation cell for two full days.

Did Mr. Chadwick then get a profuse apology when it was determined that he hadn’t broken any laws?

Not exactly.

Ft. Bend County District Attorney John Healy sought to indict Chadwick on two felony counts of assaulting a police officer, but a Grand Jury said no law was broken. …but Healy’s prosecutors tried misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest, calling more than a dozen officers to testify. Those charges were dropped as well.

The government eventually did figure out a way to get Mr. Chadwick into court, but it didn’t turn out so well.

A month ago, three years after the SWAT raid, a jury found Chad Chadwick not guilty of interfering with police. With tears in their eyes members of the jury offered the exonerated defendant comforting hugs. “They tried to make me a convict. It broke me financially, bankrupted me. I used my life savings, not to mention, I lost my kids,” said Chadwick.

This is one of these cases where I hope Mr. Chadwick sues and gets generously compensated (and I would want any damages to be financed out of the budgets of the officials who misbehaved).

Defenders of the police will argue, quite correctly, that we shouldn’t smear entire police forces or the overall justice system simply because there are some bad cops and unethical prosecutors.

That’s certainly the right attitude, though it’s worth noting that sometimes the “culture” of a police force can get so poisonous that wholesale dismissal is the only way to get better performance.

Here are some passages from a New York Times report about a city in New Jersey that got far better results by firing its entire police force.

It has been 16 months since Camden took the unusual step of eliminating its police force and replacing it with a new one run by the county. …the old force had all but given up responding to some types of crimes. Dispensing with expensive work rules, the new force hired more officers within the same budget — 411, up from about 250. It hired civilians to use crime-fighting technology it had never had the staff for. …Average response time is now 4.4 minutes, down from more than 60 minutes, and about half the average in many other cities. …In June and July, the city went 40 days without a homicide — unheard-of in a Camden summer. …And while the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., has drawn attention to long-simmering hostilities between police departments and minority communities, Camden is becoming an example of the opposite. “We’re not going to do this by militarizing streets,” Chief Thomson said. Instead, he sent officers to knock on doors and ask residents their concerns. He lets community leaders monitor surveillance cameras from their home computers to help watch for developing crime.

 An even more dramatic example comes from Georgia, a country of 5 million people wedged between Russia and Turkey.

As part of a series of reforms to create free markets and honest government, all 15,000 cops from the State Traffic Inspection Office were fired.

Georgian authorities chose a radical method of reforming the police structures which were not working. …The State Traffic Inspection was one of the most corrupt units in the Georgian government. It was almost totally self-financed, fleecing both local and foreign drivers as they traveled Georgian roadways. According to estimates, 80 percent of the money extorted from drivers was distributed along the chain of command all the way up to the minister. …In early summer of 2004, Merabishvili eliminated the State Traffic Inspection, firing all fifteen thousand employees in a single day! Two months later, in August 2004, the force was replaced by competitive hiring of employees for the newly formed US-style highway patrol. During the two-month transition period there was no policing of the roads, and yet the number of car accidents did not increase. There were no riots.

The part about nothing bad happening when there were no cops is especially revealing.

Sort of like how nothing bad happened during the sequester, even though President Obama warned of terrible consequences (humorously captured by these cartoons).

Or when we got welfare reform in the 1990s and poverty went down instead of increasing as the left predicted.

But now let’s defend cops, who actually help fulfill one of the few legitimate functions of government. And there are two reasons they deserve defending.

First, the vast majority of them almost certainly are good and decent people who simply want to help others by fighting and deterring crime. That’s a real value.

Second, almost all of the bad stories about cops exist because politicians have enacted bad laws. I’ve made this point about the drug war. I’ve made this point about asset forfeiture. And I’ve made this point in the case of Eric Garner.

If politicians didn’t criminalize victimless behavior, most horror stories would disappear.

And if politicians didn’t treat police departments as backdoor vehicles for taking money from citizens, there would be no need for some of the unfortunate interactions that now occur between cops and citizens.

Now let’s defend the police from a very incendiary charge. Are cops racists, as some protesters (and government officials) would like us to believe?

Well, I’m sure there are some racist cops (of all colors), just as there are racist accountants, truck drivers, bureaucrats, and even economists. But the real issue is whether racism is a pervasive problem.

And when looking at one of today’s hot-button issues, the answer seems to be no. Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has some compelling evidence that the police do not disproportionately kill blacks.

…understanding the relationship between African-American communities and law enforcement requires a deeper analysis than a single headline… One simple way to check for bias is to see whether the number of violent crimes needed to explain one police-related death is different depending on one’s race. …We divide the number of violent crimes by the arrest-related deaths for each race. The quotient tells us, on average, how many violent crimes it takes, by race, to produce one arrest-related death. If police are unambiguously racist, then it should take fewer violent crimes to induce one death in the African-American community. As the chart shows, according to our data, African Americans and white Americans have roughly the same proportion of violent crimes to police-related deaths. …These numbers are strikingly similar. The difference between them is small, and not statistically significant. …police appear to be treating the races the same.

But that hasn’t stopped the Obama Administration from subsidizing a group that produced a video that seemingly condones cop killing.

The Obama administration’s Justice Department funneled at least $1.5 million in grants to a New York legal-aid group featured in a new rap video that depicts two young black men aiming handguns at a white police officer. …The video for  “Hands Up,” which also shows a white police officer gunning down a black motorist wearing a hoodie, contains lyrics suggesting revenge for much-publicized deaths of black men in confrontations with police. …The organization, which was founded in 1997 and boasts some high-powered corporate lawyers on its board, has enjoyed a steady flow of taxpayer dollars since President Obama took office in 2009.

This is disgusting.

Accusing cops of systemic racism without evidence is bad enough, but to subsidize a group that glorifies cop killing is downright evil.

But the bottom of line of this post is that our main problem is too many laws that are either designed to collect revenue or to dictate private behavior.

That’s where reforms should focus, not on vilifying the average cop.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing an amusing anecdote about cops. Several years ago, I spoke at the Liberty Forum in New Hampshire, a conference connected with the Free State Project. Many of the participants were avid practitioners of “open carry,” which meant they had handguns strapped to their sides. At one point, I was riding with several of these folks down the elevator at the conference hotel and a family got in. A young boy noticed all their weapons and asked “Are you guys cops?” One of them cheerfully responded, “No, we’re the good guys.”

P.P.S. On the other hand, I also have a less-than-amusing anecdote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The column starts with a strong assertion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like the good people of Arizona, I despise speed cameras.

But not because I want reckless driving. Instead, my disdain is based on the fact that governments set up cameras where speed limits are preposterously low in order to generate revenue. And I speak from personal experience.

Like the good people of Houston, I also despise red-light cameras.

But once again, this isn’t because I want jerks racing through red lights and endangering innocent people. Instead, my opposition is based on the fact that greedy governments – operating recklessly – use such cameras as tools to fleece drivers.

Holman Jenkins has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, explaining how the industry was supposed to operate.

A promising industry betrayed by the behavior of its customers—that’s the story of the red-light camera business. …Redflex Traffic Systems, leading practitioner of the once-sparkling business of setting up automatic traffic-enforcement systems for municipalities. The company and its industry were set to grow. The product improved traffic safety, freed up officers for more important work, and paid for itself. Towns and cities didn’t even have to budget a dime upfront because Redflex assumed the costs and risks of setting up cameras at designated intersections.

But in the real world, that’s not what happened. Politicians all over the nation used cameras as revenue-generating devices.

…serial revelations by the Chicago Tribune about the city’s buccaneering ways—running its camera system for profits rather than safety. …New York state conspicuously authorized cameras at various upstate locations in 2010 to close a budget gap. When New Jersey last week let a five-year experiment lapse amid a voter backlash, Moody’s called the decision a “credit negative” for local treasuries. In California, public acceptance steadily eroded as politicians kept piling on “surcharges” that turn a hundred-dollar traffic offense into a $500 fine in the mail. …the Trib cited the city’s “long-standing reliance on using the lowest possible yellow light time” to maximize revenues even at the cost of encouraging more accidents. …a universal peeve of motorists, being fined for a harmless rolling right on red.

At this point, some people may be thinking that this is no big deal. After all, they might argue, at least the cameras make the roads safer.

But according to research commissioned by the Chicago Tribune, the cameras simply replace one type of accident with another, at least in part because the city government rigged the system to maximize revenue rather than safety.

Here are some excerpts from a report published by Reason.

Chicago’s red light camera program hasn’t made driving in the city any safer and has replaced one type of car crash for another. The cameras are there obviously to make money for the city, not for the benefit and safety of the residents. The Chicago Tribune commissioned a study to break down the city’s claims that cameras have reduced right-angle crashes at intersections by 47 percent and calls the number nonsense. They calculate that it actually dropped the rate of crashes that caused injuries by only 15 percent. That wouldn’t be such a terrible number if engineers hadn’t also calculated that their cameras didn’t also cause a 22 percent increase in rear-end collisions that caused injuries. …the Tribune story makes sure to point out how much revenue the city has gotten from the program—$500 million over 12 years. The Tribune also reminds readers of the many, many, many scandals and issues the program has faced, like tickets handed out for lights that had yellow signal times below the national standard, unexplained ticket surges, and outright bribes from a company operating the cameras to city officials.

By the way, this data from Chicago isn’t an anomaly. Radley Balko has reported on similar accident-causing scams all over the nation.

So now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I wrote more than three years ago that Jay Beeber is a hero.

And why I expressed admiration for England’s NoToMob.

But I confess I’m nonetheless conflicted about cameras. Simply stated, I don’t want morons driving 60 miles per hour on residential streets. And I don’t want narcissistic jerks zipping through intersections a couple of seconds after a light has turned red.

Cameras, if properly operated, could discourage genuinely dangerous behavior.

So here’s the libertarian quandary (actually it’s a quandary for everyone who wants a sensible society). How can you give government the power to enforce legitimate laws without simultaneously giving government the power to abuse people?

This is the puzzle that America’s Founding Fathers tried to solve with a set of rules that limited the power of government. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “ let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”

Unfortunately, courts haven’t done a good job in recent decades of constraining the federal government. And the only halfway decent constraint on state and local governments is jurisdictional competition, and that’s a necessary but far from sufficient condition for good policy.

Returning to the narrow issue of cameras, part of the solution is to reduce government’s role in transportation. We already have lots of privately built and privately operated highways in America (and even in the United Kingdom). And private developers also build and operate some local roads. So why not let them set – and enforce – the traffic rules?

Such a system wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but I’m guessing we would have better rules than the ones imposed by politicians.

Or we can let politicians use new technologies to further monitor and control our lives (and empty our pockets).

P.S. If some brave citizen got arrested for busting a bunch of revenue cameras and I somehow wound up on the jury that decided the case, you can probably guess what I would do.

P.P.S. I shared a chart back in 2010 to show that economists are terrible forecasters.

Now we have more evidence. But instead of looking at growth predictions versus reality, here’s what economists predicted about interest rates compared to what actually happened.

This chart helps to show that economists shouldn’t try to make short-run predictions, which good economists already understand.

Whereas the bad ones are easily confused with con artists.

No wonder it’s so easy to make fun of us.

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I wrote last week about the lunacy of a tax system that created the conditions that led to the death of Eric Garner in New York City.

But I wrote that column in the context of how high tax rates lead to tax avoidance and tax evasion. Let’s now zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

Using the Garner case as a springboard, George Will explains that we have too many laws.

Garner died at the dangerous intersection of something wise, known as “broken windows” policing, and something worse than foolish: decades of overcriminalization. …when more and more behaviors are criminalized, there are more and more occasions for police, who embody the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, and who fully participate in humanity’s flaws, to make mistakes. Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties attorney, titled his 2009 book “Three Felonies a Day” to indicate how easily we can fall afoul of the United States’ metastasizing body of criminal laws. Professor Douglas Husak of Rutgers University says that approximately 70 percent of American adults have, usually unwittingly, committed a crime for which they could be imprisoned. …The scandal of mass incarceration is partly produced by the frivolity of the political class, which uses the multiplication of criminal offenses as a form of moral exhibitionism. This, like Eric Garner’s death, is a pebble in the mountain of evidence that American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.

I don’t know if Americans actually do commit three felonies each day, and I also don’t know if 70 percent of us have committed offenses punishable by jail time, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these numbers are correct.

They may even be understated.

Indeed, when I share horrifying examples of government thuggery, these generally involve brutal and over-zealous enforcement of things that oftentimes shouldn’t be against the law in the first place.

This Eric Allie cartoon is a good example, and definitely will get added to my collection of images that capture the essence of government.

In other words, George Will wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote that, “American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.”

Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School has a similar perspective.

I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. …I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you. I wish this caution were only theoretical. It isn’t. …It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right. …it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.

Amen.

A just society should have very few laws, and those laws should be both easy to understand and they should focus on protecting life, liberty, and property.

Sadly, that’s not a good description for what now exists in America. Professor Carter explains.

…federal law alone includes more than 3,000 crimes, fewer than half of which found in the Federal Criminal Code. The rest are scattered through other statutes. A citizen who wants to abide by the law has no quick and easy way to find out what the law actually is — a violation of the traditional principle that the state cannot punish without fair notice. In addition to these statutes, he writes, an astonishing 300,000 or more federal regulations may be enforceable through criminal punishment in the discretion of an administrative agency. Nobody knows the number for sure. Husak cites estimates that more than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment. …making an offense criminal also means that the police will go armed to enforce it. Overcriminalization matters… Every new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence. …Don’t ever fight to make something illegal unless you’re willing to risk the lives of your fellow citizens to get your way.

Which is a good description of why I’m a libertarian notwithstanding my personal conservatism.

I don’t like drugs, but I’m not willing to let someone else get killed because they have a different perspective.

I don’t like gambling, but I don’t want another person to die because they want to play cards.

I don’t like prostitution, but it’s awful to think someone could lose his life because he paid for sex.

This Glenn McCoy cartoon summarizes what’s happening far too often in this country.

P.S. Since this has been a depressing topic, let’s close by switching to some good news.

I’ve previously explained why I’m somewhat optimistic on the future of the Second Amendment. Well, the folks at Pew Research have some new polling data that bolsters my optimism.

Here’s one result that put a smile on my face.

And here’s a breakdown that’s also encouraging. Note how blacks have become much more supportive of gun rights.

I guess this means “Stretch” and “R.J.” have a lot more support than just two years ago.

And it’s worth noting that cops have the same perspective.

In other words, these are not fun times for gun grabbers.

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When people figure out ways to keep the money they earn in their own pockets, rather than having it confiscated by government, I’m almost always happy.

That’s because governments tend to waste money (should any of us pay for corrupt pork-barrel spending?).

And it’s because government impose bad tax policy (is it fair to have governments tax us more than one time?).

I also object to oppressive tax collection tactics (why do murderers have a presumption of innocence, but not taxpayers?).

With this bit of background, you can understand why I cheer when greedy politicians fail in their efforts to grab more money.

Here are three stories about tax avoidance. The first and third stories should make you smile, while the middle story is a tragic reminder of what happens when you mix bad tax policy with bad enforcement tactics.

Our first story is from the U.K.-based Times, which reports that English shoppers will travel all the way to Belgium to buy cigarettes.

Smokers — and smugglers — are flocking to a small village on the Belgian coast in search of cheap tobacco to beat the taxman. …The savings are substantial. A sleeve of 200 Benson & Hedges Gold costs £45 in Belgium, compared with £90 at a British newsagent; a 50g pouch of Amber Leaf tobacco is on sale for £5.65, about £11 cheaper than at home. Sticking to the recommended allowance of 1kg of tobacco and 800 cigarettes will save a smoker about £400 per trip. However, as there are no limits on the amount of tobacco and alcohol that a person can bring back from an EU country, some day-trippers are pushing that to 3kg of tobacco and 3,000 cigarettes, for combined savings of £1,350.

The folks making the trip resent the way their government (often using Orwellian tactics) is trying to pillage them.

Many smokers are angry at high UK prices and annual rises in duty. A grandmother from the West Midlands tweeted to the Conservative party: “I saved £3,000 for a holiday this year. I won’t pay UK tax to be bullied. Much cheaper to buy abroad.” …An estimated 80 coaches make the trip each week from different parts of the UK. The Times joined a service run by Excalibur Coaches, starting at Elephant and Castle in south London at 5.55am and joining a P&O ferry crossing at Dover. …“There are a lot of English here but the government has made cigarettes so expensive that, with this price difference, people are bound to be tempted.”

I’m glad for these people. The U.K. government has gone way overboard in their efforts to grab more tax. Notwithstanding what the politicians say, it’s not immoral to protect your income from rapacious and untrustworthy government.

There was no suggestion that anyone on the Excalibur coach broke any rules, but trippers are reluctant to speak openly for fear that they will draw the attention of Border Force officers, who are cracking down on the illicit traders.

The same thing happens in the United States, by the way. Excessive tobacco taxes by some state and local governments create big incentives for consumers to seek out cigarettes that are more affordable.

And our second story is about how government over-reaction can lead to horrifying consequences.

First, some background from A. Barton Hinkle, writing for Reason.

Thanks to New York’s laughably high cigarette taxes ($4.35 state plus another $1.60 in the city) and higher prices generally, a pack of smokes in New York City costs $14 or more. That creates a powerful incentive to smuggle smokes in from states such as Virginia, where you can buy a pack for a third of that price. …The robust cigarette smuggling irritates officials in New York, because they miss out on a lot of tax revenue.

And because politicians deploy resources to capture some of that foregone revenue, it leads to enforcement efforts that, in the tragic case of Eric Garner, led to a man’s death.

The writers at National Review have done a superb job of addressing this issue. Let’s start with some observations from Kevin Williamson.

…one must have a permit to sell cigarettes in New York, and New York bans the sale of so-called loosies, single cigarettes sold to those who lack either the means or the desire to purchase an entire pack at the going New York City rate of $12 to $14. …In a sane world, selling cigarettes would not be a crime. …That isn’t an argument for anything-goes lawlessness, but it is an argument that we have too many criminal offenses, and an argument that not everything that is a crime is a danger.

David Harsanyi has some similar thoughts.

Garner wasn’t targeted for death because he was avoiding taxes, but nonetheless, prohibitive cigarette taxes unnecessarily generate situations that make events such as this possible. …In the case of Garner, police were enforcing a law that has nothing to do with violence, not in the short or long term. …New York has by far the highest cigarette taxes in the nation: more than five bucks a pack. Unsurprisingly, the policy has spurred a black market. …The more profitable it becomes to circumvent taxes, the more dangerous this mini-prohibition will be. Garner was selling single cigarettes, incidentally. Does anyone believe that isn’t a waste of time for police and prosecutors?

Another National Review contribution is from Jonah Goldberg.

…you know what reasonable people can’t dispute? New York’s cigarette taxes are partly to blame for Eric Garner’s death. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made this point Wednesday night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and liberals have been freaking out about it ever since. …anyone with a level head should understand — and agree with — Paul’s point. When you pass a law, you authorize law enforcement to enforce it. …Without laws making cigarettes more expensive, Eric Garner would be alive today, period. …In the war on tobacco, like the war on drugs, if politicians will the ends, they must will the means. This is something that libertarians understand better than everyone else: The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs. If you sell raw-milk cheese even after the state tells you to stop, eventually people with guns will show up at your home or office and arrest you. If you resist arrest, something very bad might happen. You might even die for selling bootleg cheese.

Heck, we’ve even gotten to the point that the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration are conducting raids on dairies for the horrible crime of selling to consumers who prefer unpasteurized milk.

But let’s focus on what Jonah wrote about the state and violence. Charles C. W. Cooke also addressed that issue in his NR column.

Ultimately, “the State” is a synonym for “organized violence.” “If you refuse to pay your taxes,” Representative David Brat recently noted, “you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.” In consequence, Brat proposed, we should be careful about when and how that violence is utilized. Certainly, civilized nations need laws. But it is one thing to recruit armed men to prevent murder and rape and grievous bodily harm, and it is quite another to do so in order to regulate the manner in which cigarettes may be sold. …Was Garner killed deliberately? No, of course he was not. …Nevertheless, we should all be willing to acknowledge that Garner would never have been so much as approached had the city not wanted its pound of flesh in the first instance. Because there are consequences to all laws — however minor — it is incumbent upon us to ask if those laws are worth the risks that they yield. What, I wonder, would the anti-tax rebels who threw off the British Empire make of the news that a man had lost his life for peacefully selling a “loosie”?

By the way, the National Review writers openly state that the Eric Garner case involves a lot more than taxes. They point out that there are very big issues about race, the proper use of force, and the integrity of the justice system.

But everything they wrote about misguided tobacco taxation is also right on the mark.

Now let’s look at our third story, which is fortunately amusing rather than tragic. It was sent to me from the Public Secrets blog, and it deals with a Spanish theater is taking a rather unusual step to avoid that nation’s crippling value-added tax.

Crippled by colossal tax rates and falling ticket sales, the Spanish cultural sector is taking creative action to cut its tax bill, including one theatre which has changed its main business to pornography to avoid having to pay high taxes. …Theatre director Karina Garantivá said: “It’s scandalous when cultural heritage is being taxed at 21 percent and porn at only at 4 percent. Something is wrong”. Her company, which performs works by the “Spanish Shakespeare” Pedro Calderón de la Barca has decided to circumvent the new, punitive taxes by registering as a distributor of pornographic magazines – and is offering free performances. Punters buying €16 worth of hardcore-swingers magazine Gente Libre from the company receive a ‘free’ ticket to a performance of the highly regarded 17th century comic drama El Mágico Prodigioso.

You have to give them credit for creativity. I previously wrote about a Spanish theater that gave “free” tickets to customers who purchased low-taxed carrots for absurd prices, but I’m guessing the porn angle will be more successful.

Heck, I’m a cultural rube, and even I might be tempted to patronize the theater.

But not because of the porn. Instead, I admire the philosophical approach. Unlike a lot of artists, these folks in Spain apparently aren’t looking for handouts.

Garantivá said: “We don’t want subsidies, we are a private initiative. The best subsidies are fiscal measures that don’t prevent me from doing my work”. …Although the company is presently selling second-hand pornography to escape tax, they may produce their own to sell in future, as their present stock is only 300 magazines. Doing so would be “a stand against the government”, said the director.

And they’re even willing to produce their own porn as a way of saying “bugger off” to government. Given my libertarian principles, maybe I should…um…volunteer to help? Viva la libertad!

Though I won’t be waiting by my phone expecting a call.

All kidding aside, the common theme in all these stories is that people don’t like paying excessive taxes.

We may not all agree about when taxation becomes excessive, but I assume just about everyone will agree that it’s perfectly legitimate to avoid or evade the French tax laws that require some people to pay more than 100 percent of their income to government.

On the other hand, most of us also will have little sympathy for folks who try to avoid or evade when they live in jurisdictions – such as Hong Kong, Bermuda, and Switzerland – that are honest, well-run, and lightly taxed.

My proposal is that we have a simple and fair system like the flat tax so that people have much less reason to evade or avoid.

In the meantime, I’ll continue rooting for taxpayers who thwart the greed of the political class.

So three cheers for French entrepreneurs, American companies, Italian boat owners, California citizens, Greek shop owners, Facebook millionaires, Norwegian butter buyers, New York taxpayers, Bulgarian smokers, foreign cab drivers, New Jersey residents, Australian film stars, and everyone else who does their part to limit the amount of tax revenue flowing to governments.

P.S. There’s at least one tax avoider who doesn’t deserve any support. Actually, there are at least two of them. Make that three. Oops, four and five. Wait, we have six. Seven. Eight…and an entire building of them…well, I think you get the point I’m trying to make.

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I generally focus on the profligate habits and abusive tactics of the federal government in Washington, but that doesn’t mean other levels of government are well behaved.

In a column for the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell outlines some of the reprehensible ways that state and local governments extract money from the citizenry.

Think of recent, infuriating stories on civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement seizes cash and other property from people who are never charged with crimes. Often the departments that do the seizing get to keep the proceeds, which leads to terrible incentives. …Onerous traffic fees and court fines — which have been blamed for long-simmering tensions in places like Ferguson, Mo. — often have a similarly mercenary motive.

She’s right to be infuriated.

Policies like asset forfeiture are disgusting ways of stealing money, particularly from the less fortunate. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the two first leaders of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office now say the practice should be ended because of rampant abuses.

But other revenue-raising policies also are objectionable.

…states and cities are also increasingly trying to monetize other behaviors seen as sinful or wayward, like marijuana use, strip club patronage, and gambling. Hence the explosion of state-sponsored lotteries, which prey on (mostly poor) people’s mathematical illiteracy… States have also been jockeying to expand casinos and other venues for legalized gambling, which voters seem to see as generating free money. …Then there are the expensive occupational licensure requirements for jobs that don’t seem to require state-level gatekeeping, like hair-braiding.

At this point, after reading various examples of greedy governments pillaging citizens, you may be thinking Ms. Rampell is a good libertarian.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Her anger is misdirected. Instead of holding politicians accountable, she blames voters for their unwillingness to acquiesce to tax hikes as a way of dealing with “widespread budget crunches.”

If the political toxicity of spending and tax hikes encourages obfuscation at the federal level, it has led to far more destructive and distortionary policies at the state and local levels. Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice. …It’s time to take off the fiscal blinkers and start rewarding politicians who have the courage to advocate raising revenues the old-fashioned way: through taxes.

Reward a politician for raising taxes? Isn’t that like rewarding a mosquito for taking your blood?

But I shouldn’t be snarky. After all, maybe Ms. Rampell is right and that budgets for state and local governments have been cut as much as possible.

That being said, I noticed she didn’t include any figures on the trends in spending by state and local governments.

So I went to the Office of Management and Budget’s historical tables, specifically Table 15-2 which includes state and local government expenditures. And after adjusting the data for inflation, based on the composite deflator in Table 1-3, I put together a graph to determine whether there was a “budget crunch” for state and local government.

Um…not so much.

As you can see, state and local government spending has jumped dramatically, even when looking at inflation-adjusted dollars.

Indeed, the 164 percent increase in outlays since 1980 is four times greater than the 40 percent increase in the nation’s population over the same period.

In other words, the only “budget crunch” is the one being imposed on long-suffering taxpayers by state and local politicians.

Those officials are the folks who deserve Ms. Rampell’s ire.

P.S. Since this column corrects a big oversight in a Washington Post column, I suppose this would be a good time to point out other mistakes or misstatements I’ve noticed in that newspaper.

Such as the time it asserted in a news report that Germany is “fiscally conservative.”

Or the time the newspaper claimed a 0.158 percent cut would “slash” the federal budget.

And how about the time the Post said the tiny sequester would impose a “sledgehammer of budget cuts.”

P.P.S. On the other hand, the Washington Post has produced genuinely good editorials on school choice and postal service privatization, so it isn’t all bad.

P.P.P.S. And it presumably is better than the New York Times, which has a bigger list of preposterous stories (and I’m not even counting Paul Krugman’s mistakes, some of which can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

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It’s not uncommon for people to accuse libertarians of using “scare tactics” and “hyperbole.”

They say we present “worst-case scenarios” of what happens when government gets involved, such as when I warn that a value-added tax would become a revenue machine for big government or when I point out that advocates of gun control won’t be satisfied until they ban private ownership of weapons.

But I think these “slippery slope” concerns have merit because, well, the slope very often is slippery.

Consider the federal income tax, which started as a simple 2-page form with a top rate of 7 percent, but now has become a 75,000-page monstrosity with confiscatory rates.

Consider the Clean Water Act, which was enacted to regulate “navigable waterways,” but now has metastasized to the extent that the government now tries to regulate ponds on private property and control the building of houses on dry land.

Consider money laundering laws, which began ostensibly to stop crooks from using ill-gotten gains, but now have become a multi-billion dollar burden that require banks to spy on all customers.

Consider Medicaid, which the Washington Post reported, “was supposed to be a very small program with annual expenditures of about $1 billion,” but now costs taxpayers nearly $500 billion per year.

This list could continue for a long time, but let’s stop with old examples and now look at a new example.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, politicians claimed that government needed vast new powers to deal with potential threats. Given the environment that existed at the time, laws such as the PATRIOT Act were enacted.

So has the government used its new powers in a targeted way, focusing solely on bad people who want to kill Americans?

Hardly. The folks at Reason report that extraordinary laws enacted to fight terrorism are now mostly being used to enforce drug prohibition.

When the security state types pushed for passage of the Patriot Act, one of the measures on which they insisted was the inclusion of “sneak and peek” warrants. …Of course, it didn’t take long for law enforcement to discover this security state tool and start putting it to very different use—mostly in the enforcement of drug prohibition.

The article then cites some of the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.

Wow. Less than 1 percent of these warrants are for fighting terrorism.

And notice how the number of sneak-and-peek warrants has jumped so dramatically. The government expanded its power and we were told that our rights would be protected because the new power would be used in rare circumstances for the extraordinary task of fighting terror.

Now that new power is being used promiscuously for all sorts of purposes.

By the way, it doesn’t happen only in America. Check out these excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Times.

Sajid Javid, the culture secretary, said that the [BBC’s] use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) will be included in a wider investigation into enforcement of the TV licence fee, which was launched in response to concerns that too many people were being prosecuted for not paying the £145.50 charge. Ripa, which was introduced to combat serious crime and terrorism, has been under scrutiny after it emerged that it was used by police to obtain journalists’ sources. Yesterday, MPs on the Commons’ culture, media and sport committee said that the BBC had used the surveillance powers against people suspected of evading the licence fee… Ministers have raised concerns that 180,000 people a year are prosecuted, while the BBC argues that removing the threat of criminal action would cost it millions of pounds a year in lost revenue. …John Whittingdale, chairman of the culture committee, said…“Most people regarded Ripa as a fairly draconian measure which was necessary to tackle organised crime and terrorism. Not paying your licence fee hardly falls into that category.” The BBC…said that it was “perfectly legal”. …A BBC spokesman said: “Legislation explicitly grants the BBC the right to use these powers to detect unlicensed use of television receivers...”

Yes, you read correctly. A “draconian” measure to fight terrorism is being used to investigate people who watch TV.

I’m not sure which example is worse, the U.S. government using anti-terror laws to go after potheads or the U.K. government using anti-terror laws to go after the horrible crime of …gasp… untaxed televisions.

But maybe this post could be part of my U.K. vs. U.S. government stupidity contest.

Though this isn’t a laughing matter. If government bureaucrats are already misusing new powers granted last decade, just think how they’ll be abusing those powers next decade.

P.S. Since today’s column indirectly deals with terrorism, it’s a good opportunity for me to recycle some Osama bin Laden jokes, as well as these satirical examples of terror alert levels in Europe.

P.P.S. I shared some amusing cartoons a few days ago as part of my election analysis. Here’s one that definitely belongs in that collection.

He’s already won “man of the year” from libertarians, so Republicans may as well give him awards as well.

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I don’t particularly care how people vote, but I do care whether they believe in freedom.

That’s why I periodically share stories that should convince everyone to believe in the libertarian philosophy of small government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility.

The stories that get me most agitated are the ones that involve innocent people being robbed by bureaucrats.

And when I say robbed, I use that word deliberately.

Such as the case of an elderly couple who had their hotel stolen by government.

Such as the case of the family grocer who had his bank account stolen by government.

Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family collected to bail out a relative.

Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

With all this background, you can probably guess I’m going to add to that list.

And you’re right. We have a report from the New York Times that has me frothing at the mouth. I can’t imagine any decent person not being outraged by this example of big government run amok.

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000. The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

In other words, this is an example of two evil policies – asset forfeiture laws and money laundering laws – coming together in a vortex of we’ll-screw-you-over-even-if-you’re-law-abiding statism.

And you can forget about the Constitution’s presumption of innocence.

Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?” The federal government does. Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

Of course, much of tax code enforcement is based on the upside-down premise that taxpayers are guilty and have to prove themselves innocent.

But that still doesn’t make it right. And the IRS is just the tip of the iceberg. Stealing is now a common practice by all sorts of bureaucracies at all levels of government.

The practice has swept up dairy farmers in Maryland, an Army sergeant in Virginia saving for his children’s college education and Ms. Hinders, 67, who has borrowed money, strained her credit cards and taken out a second mortgage to keep her restaurant going. Their money was seized under an increasingly controversial area of law known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agents to take property they suspect of being tied to crime even if no criminal charges are filed. Law enforcement agencies get to keep a share of whatever is forfeited. Critics say this incentive has led to the creation of a law enforcement dragnet, with more than 100 multiagency task forces combing through bank reports, looking for accounts to seize.

Here’s just one horrifying example of how this process works.

 In one Long Island case, the police submitted almost a year’s worth of daily deposits by a business, ranging from $5,550 to $9,910. The officer wrote in his warrant affidavit that based on his training and experience, the pattern “is consistent with structuring.” The government seized $447,000 from the business, a cash-intensive candy and cigarette distributor that has been run by one family for 27 years. …the government seized $447,000, and the brothers have been unable to retrieve it. …Mr. Potashnik said he had spent that time trying, to no avail, to show that the brothers were innocent. They even paid a forensic accounting firm $25,000 to check the books. “I don’t think they’re really interested in anything,” Mr. Potashnik said of the prosecutors. “They just want the money.” …“We’re just hanging on as a family here,” Mr. Hirsch said. “We weren’t going to take a settlement, because I was not guilty.”

Still not convinced about the venality of big government? Here’s another nauseating example.

Army Sgt. Jeff Cortazzo of Arlington, Va., began saving for his daughters’ college costs during the financial crisis, when many banks were failing. He stored cash first in his basement and then in a safe-deposit box. All of the money came from paychecks, he said, but he worried that when he deposited it in a bank, he would be forced to pay taxes on the money again. So he asked the bank teller what to do. “She said: ‘Oh, that’s easy. You just have to deposit less than $10,000.’” The government seized $66,000; settling cost Sergeant Cortazzo $21,000. As a result, the eldest of his three daughters had to delay college by a year. “Why didn’t the teller tell me that was illegal?” he said. “I would have just plopped the whole thing in the account and been done with it.”

By the way, some of you may be thinking that these terrible examples are somehow justifiable because the government is stopping crime in other instances.

But that’s not true. Experts who have looking at money laundering laws have found that there’s no impact on genuine criminal activity. But lots of costs imposed on innocent people.

Which probably explains why the first two directors of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office now say the laws should be repealed.

If you want more information, here’s my video on the government’s costly and failed war on money laundering.

Sigh.

By the way, the government also abuses people in ways that have nothing to do with money laundering or asset forfeiture.

And there are more examples where those came from.

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