Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

During his final days in office, I gave a thumbs-down assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency. Simply stated, he increased the burden of government during his tenure, and that led to anemic economic numbers.

Now the economy seems to be doing a bit better, which is leading my friends on the left to make two impossible-to-reconcile claims.

  1. It is doing better, but Obama deserves credit.
  2. The economy isn’t doing better.

I’ve previously explained that the first argument doesn’t hold water. Today, let’s address the second argument.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CEO Andy Puzder claims that Trump easily wins over Obama when you look at the numbers.

For eight years under President Obama, the growing burden of government suppressed the economic recovery that should have followed the recession of 2008-09. Mr. Obama nonetheless has claimed responsibility for today’s boom, asking Americans in September to “remember when this recovery started.” Yet it wasn’t until President Trump took office that the economy surged. …The result is a rising tide that is lifting boats across every class and region of the country. …Today unemployment rests at 3.7%, near a 50-year low. Since the government began reporting the data, unemployment has never been as low as it is today for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and people with only a high-school education.

It’s certainly good news that unemployment rates have dropped. But labor-force participation numbers still haven’t fully recovered, or even come close to fully recovering, so the data on jobs is not quite as impressive as it sounds.

That being said, Puzder has a compelling indictment of Obama’s performance.

During a typical recovery, the economy grows at a rate between 3% and 4%, and the Obama administration predicted such a surge in its 2010 midsession review. It never came. The “recovery” of those years often felt much like a recession.

Amen. This echoes my criticism of Obamanomics. He made the U.S. a bit more like Europe, so it’s no surprise that growth was weak.

Let’s now look at Puzder’s evidence that Trump has done a better job. He compares the end of the Obama economy with the beginning of the Trump economy.

GDP growth staggered along at 1.5% in Mr. Obama’s final six full quarters in office. …growth doubled to 3% during Mr. Trump’s first six full quarters. …the increase in job openings over Mr. Trump’s first 21 months has averaged an impressive 75,000 a month. Over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months in office, the number of job openings increased an average of 900 a month. …During Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, the number of employed Americans increased an average of 157,000 a month. Under Mr. Trump, the increase has accelerated to 214,000 a month, a 36% improvement. …In Mr. Obama’s final 21 months, weekly earnings rose an average of $1.31 a month. Under Mr. Trump, weekly earnings have increased an average of $1.84 cents a month: a 40% improvement that’s come mostly since tax reform took effect in January. Over that period, weekly earnings have grown an average of $2.31 a month, a 76% increase over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months. …The unemployment rate declined 13% during Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, but from there it has dropped another 23% during Mr. Trump’s tenure.

All of this data is compelling, but I caution my GOP/Trump friends about relying on short-run economic data to make their case.

For instance, what if the economy is in a false boom caused by easy money? If that leads to a recession, will they want Trump to take the blame?

Or let’s consider a more tangible example. Trump and his supporters used to make a big deal out of rising stock prices, but that argument no longer appears to be very persuasive.

Let’s close with two charts that take different sides. The first one is from MSNBC, which makes a persuasive case that reductions in unemployment under Trump are simply a continuation of the trend.

On the other hand, this second chart, which comes from the White House, shows that economic outcomes are better than what the Obama Administration predicted.

This also is compelling data, and I’ve explained that even small improvements in economic performance are very desirable.

Though it remains to be seen whether this additional growth is either real or sustainable.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to expect big economic improvements under Trump, at least in the long run. His good policies on taxes and regulation are offset by bad policies on spending and trade.

Read Full Post »

President Trump and former President Obama are arguing over who deserves credit for the economy’s performance. Given the less-than-ideal numbers for labor force participation, I’m not convinced we should be celebrating.

Regardless, here’s a quick assessment of whether Obama deserves praise, taken from yesterday’s interview with Neil Cavuto.

To elaborate, I generally don’t blame presidents if there’s a downturn as they take office. In many cases, such a downturn is baked in the cake thanks to bad monetary policy before they ever took office.

But I do hold them at least somewhat accountable for the economic performance after the recession. More specifically, is there strong growth for a year or two, allowing the economy recover the lost output? And does the economy then stabilize at the long-run trend of 3 percent growth (as illustrated by this chart showing U.S. growth from 1870-2008).

Remember, there is no substitute for long-run growth if the goal is higher living standards.

Yet we didn’t get that growth under Obama. We didn’t get a period of above-average growth, which meant we never recovered the lost output from the recession. We never even got back to the historical trendline.

Here’s a chart from Business Insider that reviews what has happened over the past 10 years. As you can see, we haven’t come close to our potential GDP. This is why Obama deserves bad marks.

But this doesn’t mean Trump deserves good marks.

First of all, it’s far too early to give a final grade. And, for what it’s worth, his interim grade is not that great. Good policy on taxes and red tape is being offset by bad policy on spending and trade.

Let me also say something semi-positive about the Obama economy. We may not have enjoyed strong growth, but the economy continued to expand. And if the economists who argue that there are structural reasons causing permanently lower potential growth are correct, maybe Obama did okay (my view is that “secular stagnation” is driven mostly by bad policy choices, so I’m not overly sympathetic to this hypothesis).

Regardless, Obama largely didn’t do anything destructive after his first two years (when we got mistakes such as the fake stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank). Indeed, we even got some good policy later in Obama’s tenure, though the overall effect of his policies was negative.

Read Full Post »

In a recent interview, I got a chance to pontificate about the recipe for growth and prosperity.

Free market capitalism revolutionized the western world, creating prosperity where there used to be deprivation.

But that observation is the easy part. Later in the interview, I was asked to give my two cents on whether Trump’s policies are helping or hurting.

As you can see, I discussed the benefits of pro-growth reforms, but also warned that monetary policy is the wild card and also admitted that economists are lousy forecasters.

That being said, I speculated that there might be a positive surprise for financial markets if Republicans held Congress and investors believed that might lead to some good policies. Especially spending restraint.

Though I should have mentioned – as I have on many occasions – that Trump is sabotaging himself with his protectionist policies.

Since we’re discussing politics and the economy, let’s look at the debate over Trump’s economic stewardship.

Professors Ed Prescott and Lee Ohanian recently opined in the Wall Street Journal about the positive impact of certain Trump policies.

The growth paths in a market economy depend on the quality of government policies and institutions. These affect the incentives to innovate, start a business, hire workers, and invest in physical and human capital. If policies are reformed to increase incentives for market economic activity—as many have been under President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress—then investment and labor input expand as the economy rises to a higher growth path. …When policies change to depress these incentives, the economy moves onto a lower long-run growth path. That happened after the 2007-09 recession. …According to our calculations, the U.S. cumulatively lost about $18 trillion in income and output between 2007 and 2016. Everything suggested this shortfall would persist or even grow.

I fully agree that economic performance was anemic during the Obama years. Though I would also give Bush 43 part of the blame.

And I think Prescott and Ohanian are right when they explain that some of Trump’s policies are having a positive effect.

U.S. economic performance is the strongest in years. One policy driving this turnaround is the substantially lower corporate-tax rate, which has made the U.S. more competitive with other countries. Regulatory changes—such as the partial rollback of Dodd-Frank and new leadership within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—also have proved helpful, particularly for small businesses, which are benefiting from lower record-keeping and compliance costs. Meanwhile, the number of regulatory pages in the Federal Register has been cut by a third since President Obama’s last year in office. …the U.S. can expect above-normal growth in the coming months, possibly even years.

Moreover, they are correct that more trade is the right approach, not Trump’s myopic protectionism.

Growth rates could improve with further policy changes. One example is a reduction in trade barriers. Since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was signed 70 years ago, international commerce has expanded dramatically, hugely benefiting U.S. consumers by lowering prices and increasing the variety of available goods. The average household’s benefits from trade are greater than $10,000 a year… A second area for reform… The rise of health-care costs is the most important reason wages have not increased more for U.S. workers. The extra compensation is swallowed up by health-insurance premiums. Expanding medical savings accounts and decoupling health plans from employment would create incentives for both consumers and their health-care providers to economize on health-care spending. This would lower costs without compromising quality.

Good health reform would be very beneficial, though I would have explicitly pointed out that the main goal is to mitigate the problems of third-party payer.

Since the economy appears to be doing well, Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution explores whether Obama deserves any of the credit.

…we easily praise or blame the sitting president for all the economic successes or failures that take place during his term in office. By that standard, President Trump seems to be riding a boom that eluded his predecessor, and that prospect distresses the legion of Trump critics who regard him as an unmitigated disaster. Accordingly, they hope to credit today’s good times to the work of President Obama. …It is well known that economic policies introduced in one year may well have effects long afterwards. …the key measure is whether a president promotes or frustrates competitive behavior. Under this standard, any protection of monopoly institutions is presumptively bad, while deregulation or tax reduction is presumptively good.

Using that benchmark, Obama gets a bad grade, starting with the faux stimulus but also including Dodd-Frank and other statist policies.

Unsound Obama policies help explain the abnormally low rate of economic growth during his eight-year tenure. …the 2009 stimulus package…left a long-term legacy of protectionist legislation for key businesses and labor unions. …Today’s economic successes come in the face of ARRA, not because of it. Obama pushed through three other major pieces of legislation during his first term, all net negatives. The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) created an immense tangle because it incorporated into health-care insurance many unsustainable features—a rich package of mandatory minimum benefits, community rating, mandatory coverage of preexisting conditions, and poor integration of federal and state programs. …In 2010, …the Dodd-Frank legislation… On balance the legislation did more harm than good by concentrating too many assets in banks deemed too big to fail. It invited regulators to pursue an extended definition of a Systematically Important Financial Institution (SIFI) and with it the opportunity to expand the regulatory scope of Dodd-Frank. …I cannot think of a single mid-level Obama policy that counts as a pro-growth initiative.

Trump, by contrast, is a mix of good and bad.

Deregulation of labor and capital markets are not just a short-term shot in the arm, and the lower taxation of corporate income has worked to repatriate capital from overseas and to expand overall levels of investment. So long as these remain permanent features of the economy—a big “if” with an election coming up—private firms have the necessary time horizons to make much-needed long-term investments. That activity will in turn–as has begun to happen–rejuvenate labor markets. …serious Trump-created obstacles. President Trump is no fan of small domestic budgets, and he has run a perverse rearguard campaign to reverse the declining fortunes of the coal industry. Most importantly, he has waged a series of foolish trade wars against our long-term trading partners. His astounding ignorance on the principles of comparative advantage led Trump to unwisely pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

So what’s the net effect?

Here is the bottom line: the gains from Trump’s (imperfect) domestic program look enormous, given the large economic drag of his trade policies. From this assessment it’s clear that classical liberalism with strong property rights, freedom of contract, and free trade is the only engine to economic prosperity.

I fully agree with the last sentence of that excerpt and I hope the first sentence is true.

But if Trump goes really crazy with his protectionism (and he has lots of bad policies under consideration – dealing with NAFTA, auto trade, China, steel and aluminum, etc), then the net effect of his policies could go from positive to negative.

Read Full Post »

When I gave speeches during Obama’s time in office, especially to audiences with a lot of Republicans, I sometimes asked a rhetorical question about whether they approved of presidents who increased spending, bailed out big companies, expanded the power of the Washington bureaucracy, imposed more red tape, and supported Keynesian stimulus schemes.

They understandably assumed I was talking about Obama, so they would always expressed disapproval.

I then would startle the audience (and sometimes make myself unpopular) by stating that I was describing economic policy during the Bush years.

To be sure, there were some differences. I would give Bush a better grade on tax policy. But Obama got a better score (or, to be more accurate, a less-worse score) on government spending. But the overall impact of both Bush and Obama, as confirmed by the declining score for the United States from Economic Freedom of the World, was a loss of economic liberty.

This bit of background is important because any analysis of economic policy during the Obama years reveals that “hope and change” somehow became “more of the same.”

At least for economic policy. When I examined the economic record of George W. Bush, there were a lot of items to include in the “anti-growth policy” portion of the bar chart, but not much for the “pro-growth policy” section.

And now that we’re doing the same exercise for the Obama years, we get a chart that looks very similar. The specific policies have changed, of course, but the net result is the same. Bigger role for the state, less breathing room for the private sector and civil society.

That’s a rather disreputable collection of policies, including the faux stimulus, the cash-for-clunkers boondoggle, the Dodd-Frank regulatory orgy, and the costly Obamacare disaster. And it’s worth noting that the one good policy that occurred during Obama’s policy, the Budget Control Act and the resulting automatic budget cuts (a.k.a., sequester), happened over his strenuous (and silly) objections.

By the way, I don’t think that Obama and Bush share the same ideology. My guess is that Obama has a very strident left-wing mindset and that he was telling the truth when he said he wanted to be a statist version of Ronald Reagan. I’m quite relieved that he was largely ineffective in achieving his goals.

Bush, by contrast, presumably didn’t want to significantly expand the size and scope of the federal government. But lacking a Reagan-style commitment to principles of limited government, his administration largely surrendered to public choice-driven incentives that resulted in incremental statism.

The lesson for the rest of us is that people should be less partisan and more principled. A bad policy doesn’t become good simply because a politician belong to the “R” team rather than “D” team.

Anyhow, the bottom line is that Obama era moved America in the wrong direction. For what it’s worth, he wasn’t nearly as bad as Nixon. And if I do this same exercise for LBJ, Hoover, and FDR, I expect Obama won’t be as bad as them, either.

But wouldn’t it have been nice if he had been as good as Bill Clinton?

Read Full Post »

I’ve learned that it’s more important to pay attention to hard numbers rather than political rhetoric. Republicans, for instance, love to beat their chests about spending restraint, but I never believe them without first checking the numbers. Likewise, Democrats have a reputation as big spenders, but we occasionally get some surprising results when they’re in charge.

President Obama was especially hard to categorize. Republicans automatically assume he was profligate because he started his tenure with a Keynesian spending binge and the Obamacare entitlement. But after a few years in office, some were arguing he was the most frugal president of modern times.

Or, to be more accurate, what I basically discovered is that debt limit fights, sequestration, and government shutdowns were actually very effective. Indeed, the United States enjoyed a de facto spending freeze between 2009 and 2014, leading to the biggest five-year reduction in the burden of federal spending since the end of World War II. And it’s unclear that Obama deserves any of the credit since he was on the wrong side of those battles.

Anyhow, I’ve decided to update the numbers now that we have 8 years of data for Obama’s two terms.

But first, a brief digression on methodology: All the numbers you’re about to see have been adjusted for inflation, so these are apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, all my calculations are designed to show average annual increases. I also made sure that the “stimulus” spending that took place in the 2009 fiscal year was included in Obama’s totals, even though that fiscal year began (on October 1, 2008) while Bush was President.

We’ll start with a look at total outlays. On this basis, Obama is actually the most conservative President since World War II. And Bill Clinton is in second place.

But total outlays doesn’t really capture a President’s track record because interest payments are included, which effectively means they get blamed for all the debt run up by their predecessors.

So if we remove payments for net interest, we get a measure of what is called primary spending (total outlays minus net interest). As you can see, Obama is still in first place and Reagan jumps up to second place.

I would argue that one other major adjustment is needed to make the numbers more accurate.

There have been two major financial bailouts in the past 30 years, the savings & loan bailout in the late 1980s and the TARP bailout at the end of last decade. Those bailouts created big one-time expenses, followed by an influx of money (from asset sales and repaid loans) that actually gets counted as negative spending.

Those bailouts added a big chunk of one-time spending at the end of the Reagan years and at the end of the George W. Bush years, while then producing negative outlays during the early years of the George H.W. Bush Administration and Obama Administration.

So if we take out the one-time effects of those two bailouts (which I categorize as “non-TARP” for reasons of brevity), we get a new ranking.

Reagan is now in first place, followed by Clinton and Obama.

By the way, Lydon Johnson has been in last place regardless of how the numbers are calculated, and George W. Bush has had the second-worst numbers.

For all intents and purposes, the above numbers are how a libertarian would rank the various Presidents since both domestic spending and military spending are part of the calculations.

So let’s close by looking at how a conservative would rank the presidents, which is a simple exercise because all that’s required is to remove military spending. Here are the numbers showing the average inflation-adjusted increase in overall domestic outlays for various Presidents (still excluding the one-time bailouts, of course).

By this measure, Reagan easily is in first place. Though it’s worth noting that three Democrats occupy the next positions (though Obama’s numbers are no longer impressive), while Republicans (along with LBJ) get the worst scores.

The bottom line is that Reaganomics was a comparative success. But should we also conclude that Obama was a fiscal conservative?

I don’t think he deserves credit, but I won’t add anything to what I wrote above. Instead, I’ll simply note that Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has a good analysis of Obama’s fiscal record. Here’s his conclusion.

It is important to recognize that Obama did not stop trying to expand government after 2010. The president’s eight annual budget requests gradually upped their 10-year revenue demands from $1.3 trillion to $3.4 trillion, while proposing an average of $1.0 trillion in new program spending over the next decade. His play, in short, was to gradually trim the budget deficit by chasing large spending increases with even larger tax increases. The Republican Congress stopped him. My assessment: Obama’s most important fiscal legacy was a sin of omission. Despite promising to confront Social Security and Medicare’s unsustainable deficits, the president refused to endorse any plan that would come close to achieving solvency. This surrendered eight crucial years of baby-boomer retirements while costs accelerated. With baby boomers retiring and a national debt projected to exceed $90 trillion within 30 years, this was no small surrender.

In other words, the relatively good short-run numbers were in spite of Obama. And the long-run numbers were bad – and still are bad – because he chose to let the entitlement problem fester. But he was still better (less worse) than Bush I, Bush II, and Nixon.

Read Full Post »

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

With one very puzzling exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Trump has been President for more than 200 days and those of us who want more economic liberty don’t have many reasons to be happy.

Obamacare hasn’t been repealed, the tax code hasn’t been reformed, and wasteful spending hasn’t been cut.

The only glimmer of hope is that Trump has eased up on the regulatory burden. More should be happening, of course, but we are seeing some small steps in the right direction.

Let’s share one positive development.

Professor Tony Lima of California State University opined back in January in the Wall Street Journal that Trump could unilaterally boost growth by ending a reprehensible policy known as “Operation Choke Point.”

…the Trump administration could shut down Operation Choke Point. This program, enforced by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., targets “risky” banking customers and pressures banks to deny them credit. It’s unnecessary: If these industries are really risky, banks would not want their business. The real purpose of Operation Choke Point is to target industries that are out of favor…, among them: Coin dealers, money-transfer networks and payday lenders. Sales of ammunition and firearms (Second Amendment, anyone?) and fireworks (legal in some states). …Other legal goods and services such as surveillance equipment, telemarketing, tobacco and dating services. …Denying credit hampers an industry’s growth. Eliminating Operation Choke Point would encourage growth. It costs nothing. And someday it may reduce enforcement spending.

And Professor Charles Calomiris from Columbia University echoed those views a few weeks later.

Imagine you have a thriving business and one morning you get a call from your banker explaining that he can no longer service your accounts. …That’s what happened to many business owners as the result of an Obama administration policy called Operation Choke Point. In 2011 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. warned banks of heightened regulatory risks from doing business with certain merchants. A total of 30 undesirable merchant categories were affected…the FDIC explained that banks with such clients were putting themselves at risk of “unsatisfactory Community Reinvestment Act ratings, compliance rating downgrades, restitution to consumers, and the pursuit of civil money penalties.” Other FDIC regulatory guidelines pointed to difficulties banks with high “reputation risk” could have receiving approval for acquisitions.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Congress didn’t pass a law mandating discrimination against and harassment of these merchants.

The Washington bureaucracy, along with ideologues in the Obama Administration, simply decided to impose an onerous new policy.

In effect, the paper pushers were telling financial institutions “nice business, shame if anything happened to it.”

But at least when mobsters engage in that kind of a shakedown, there’s no illusion about what’s happening.

Professor Calomiris explained that this regulatory initiative of the Obama Administration made no sense economically.

It is rather comical that regulators would use the excuse of regulatory risk management to punish banks. Banks are in the business of gauging risk and have every incentive to avoid customer relationships that could hurt their reputation. Regulators, on the other hand, have shown themselves unwilling or unable to acknowledge risk, the most obvious example being the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.

And he also explained why Operation Choke Point was such a reprehensible violation of the rule of law.

The FDIC’s regulators never engaged in formal rule-making or announced penalties for banks serving undesirable clients. Such rule-making likely would have been defeated in congressional debate or under the Administrative Procedures Act. Instead, regulators chose to rely on informal decrees called “guidance.” …Financial regulators find regulatory guidance particularly expedient because it spares them the burden of soliciting comments, holding hearings, defining violations, setting forth procedures for ascertaining violations, and defining penalties for ignoring the guidance. Regulators prefer this veil of secrecy because it maximizes their discretionary power and places the unpredictable and discriminatory costs on banks and their customers.

Well, we have some good news.

The Trump Administration has just reversed this terrible Obama policy. Politico has some of the details.

The Justice Department has committed to ending a controversial Obama-era program that discourages banks from doing business with a range of companies, from payday lenders to gun retailers. The move hands a big victory to Republican lawmakers who charged that the initiative — dubbed “Operation Choke Point” — was hurting legitimate businesses. …House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte…and House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), along with Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) praised the department in a joint statement. “We applaud the Trump Justice Department for decisively ending Operation Choke Point,” they said. “The Obama Administration created this ill-advised program to suffocate legitimate businesses to which it was ideologically opposed by intimidating financial institutions into denying banking services to those businesses.”

And Eric Boehm of Reason is pleased by this development.

A financial dragnet that ensnared porn stars, gun dealers, payday lenders, and other politically disfavored small businesses has been shut down. Operation Choke Point launched in 2012… It quickly morphed into a questionably constitutional attack on a wide range of entrepreneurs who found their assets frozen or their bank accounts closed because they were considered “high-risk” for fraud. …Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd called Operation Choke Point “a misguided initiative” and confirmed that DOJ was closing those investigations… “Law abiding businesses should not be targeted simply for operating in an industry that a particular administration might disfavor,” Boyd wrote. …The repudiation of Operation Choke Point is a welcome development, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

I shared a video last year that explained Operation Choke Point in just one minute. But that just scratched the surface, so here’s a video from Reason that explains in greater detail why Operation Choke Point was so repulsive.

Kudos to the Trump Administration for reversing this awful policy.

But hopefully this is just the first step. Regulators are still squeezing financial institutions in an attempt to discourage them from doing business with low-tax jurisdictions. This policy of “de-risking” exists even though so-called tax havens generally have tighter laws against dirty money than the United States.

Trump should put an end to that misguided policy.

Ultimately, what’s really needed is a complete rethink of money-laundering laws and regulations.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. Ideally, Trump will move completely in the other direction.

P.S. While it’s good that Trump has reversed Operation Choke Point, his Administration has moved in the wrong direction on civil forfeiture policy. One step forward and one step backwards is not a recipe for more growth and prosperity.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: