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If pessimism was an Olympic event, I used to think I might be favored to win a medal. After all, growing levels of dependency outside of Washington and rampant corruption inside of Washington sometimes lead me to conclude that America is doomed to a Greek fiscal future.

But compared to some people, maybe I’m just an amateur Cassandra. Or even a Pollyanna.

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal has an ultra-pessimistic column today arguing that “many of us believe the entitlement programs need to be reformed” but worrying about “Republicans who pose as ‘conservative’ defenders of Social Security and Medicare.”

And part of his column is rather convincing since he points out that Donald Trump has criticized Republicans who favor reform.

…the meaning of Trumpism…goes like this: “…Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that. And it’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want [it] to be cut.” Mr. Trump is a political harbinger here of a new strand of populist Republicanism.

To be fair, Trump’s comments aren’t necessarily anti-reform. One could argue that he’s simply saying that benefits for existing retirees and older workers shouldn’t be adversely impacted.

But since “The Donald” hasn’t expressed any support for reforms that would create better and more viable options for younger workers, Jenkins is probably right to be pessimistic.

But he also argues that Tea Party-type Republicans are opposed to reform.

The tea party animus toward ObamaCare is…means-tested new entitlements…are viewed as a threat to the traditional, universal, “earned,” middle-class retirement programs of Social Security and Medicare. …The unspoken tea party stance of defending the good old-fashioned entitlements of “real” Americans is increasingly, in dog-whistle terms, what differentiates one Republican from another.

While it’s almost certainly true that there’s more animosity to redistribution-oriented programs such as Obamacare than there is to so-called earned entitlements, I think Holman misreads the Tea Party crowd.

Based on my speeches to – and other interactions with – these activists, I have never detected any measurable hostility to Social Security reform and Medicare reform. Fixing those programs may not be at the top of their agenda, but they’re not on the wrong side.

Moreover, I work closely with folks on Capitol Hill and I almost never hear about any meaningful opposition from Tea Partiers. And since House GOPers have approved budgets with genuine entitlement reform for five consecutive years, there’s been plenty of time for opposition to materialize.

Jenkins also is glum because Governor Christie, who has openly expressed support for reform, hasn’t fared well. And he notes that Senator Rubio has rejected reforms that would harm current seniors.

Chris Christie, who went nowhere in Iowa, did himself no favor by dragging Social Security and Medicare into every debate, however much those programs need to be addressed. Marco Rubio was just as quick to modify any implication that Republicans therefore are entitlement reformers: “We are talking about reforms for future generations. Nothing has to change for current beneficiaries. My mother is on Medicare and Social Security. I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother.”

I’m not a political expert, so I won’t pretend to know why Chris Christie didn’t get many votes in Iowa, but I don’t think it’s right to label Marco Rubio as an opponent. He’s been very upfront about supporting much-needed structural reform of Medicare and Medicaid. He simply doesn’t want to change the rules for existing retirees and older workers.

You can argue that such a condition makes it harder to save money in the short run, but I’m more concerned about dealing with the long-run fiscal challenge (as seen in these IMF, BIS, and OECD numbers). So Rubio’s position doesn’t strike me as a problem. Indeed, I think he’s pushed the envelope in the right direction, particularly since he comes from a state with so many seniors.

And since Ted Cruz also has said similar things about entitlement reform, that means both top-tier GOP candidates (other than Trump) are willing to do the right thing to restore fiscal sanity.

To be sure, maybe I am being naively optimistic. Perhaps Rubio or Cruz will win and will decide to kick the can down the road, even with a GOP Congress that might be primed for reform.

If that happens and we miss what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for genuine entitlement reform, I’ll be very unhappy and Holman Jenkins will have demonstrated that pessimism is a much smarter assumption when contemplating the actions of politicians.

In which case my already-low opinion of politicians would drop to a record depth. And it also might be time to escape to a country that still has some sensible people and is less likely to suffer fiscal collapse.

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What’s the link between government employees and the Iowa Republican Caucus?

You’re probably thinking there’s little or no connection. After all, bureaucrats presumably would more likely be interested in the choice on the other side between the two peas in the statist pod, right?

That’s true, but bear with me. To understand the link I’m going to make, start by reading Kevin Williamson’s scathing column posted at National Review. Here are my favorite passages.

Veterans Affairs hospitals had, through their negligence and stupidity, killed more of our servicemen than died during any year of the Iraq war, and then engaged in a massive criminal cover-up. Legislation was introduced to make it easier to fire people for — let’s focus here — killing veterans through their negligence and stupidity. But government employees are the single most important Democratic interest group, and the president and his congressional allies complained that the bill was too harsh on public servants who were killing veterans through their negligence and stupidity. And so the bill died in the Senate… In the Treasury Department, the EPA, and the FCC, employees have been found to routinely spend the equivalent of a full workday every week watching pornography on their office computers. Most of those crank-yanking bureaucrats are still on your payroll. At the Commerce Department, paralegals spent their days shopping online and trolling dating sites because they were assigned no work — their supervisors were afraid giving their employees work would “antagonize the labor union.” …The IRS and the AFT are routinely used as political weapons. …Beyond spending on (overwhelmingly Democratic) political campaigns, government workers and their unions also show up to vote, to knock on doors, and to bully, harass, and threaten nonconformists. They are the backbone of the Democratic party — and they are thieving, lazy, grasping, thieving, dishonest, thieving, pervy, thieving, detestable, despicable, thieving, thieving thieves… We are ruled by criminals.

Wow, I thought I sometimes employed a bit of sarcasm when writing about overpaid scroungers in the bureaucracy. Heck, I even created a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to mock our paper-pushing overseers. But Kevin doesn’t mince words.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the GOP contest in Iowa.

Well, I think “The Donald” had a great opportunity to exploit this issue. He’s the guy who’s famous for “You’re fired” and he could have used that reputation to argue he would clean house in the federal bureaucracy.

Best of all, he wouldn’t even have to try very hard.

According to Government Executive, a non-trivial number of federal workers would retire or quit if Donald Trump is elected.

One in four federal workers would consider leaving their jobs if Trump were elected president, according to a new survey conducted by the Government Business Council, Government Executive Media Group’s research arm. About 14 percent of respondents said they would definitely consider leaving federal service under President Trump, while an additional 11 percent said they might. The findings indicate those leaving government would come from agencies’ top ranks… Among Democrats, 42 percent said they would consider leaving, while 48 percent would not.

Imagine what would have happened if Trump’s people had run commercials with this information, or handed out copies of the article at the Caucus.

Just think of all the taxpayers who might have been convinced that there was finally a candidate who would get rid of some of the over-compensated dead wood in Washington.

Definitely a missed opportunity for The Donald.

By the way, I should take this opportunity to point out that bureaucrats aren’t necessarily bad people. I realize it’s a trite phrase, but some of my best friends work for the government.

Nor are they all leftists.

The article reports that a majority would have been embarrassed with Trump in the White House, but there was also widespread disdain for Hillary. And Rubio actually did better than either Democrat.

…a majority — about six in 10 — would be “embarrassed” to have him as their boss. About half of respondents said the same of Hillary Clinton, compared to 45 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and 37 percent for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Just one in five said the same of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

I have two additional observations about Iowa.

First, it was great to see that the corrupt and sleazy ethanol industry failed in its all-out effort to defeat Cruz. Hopefully this will be interpreted as a sign that politicians no longer have to kneel at the altar of King Corn.

Second, I find it remarkable that Rubio is now being portrayed as the “establishment” candidate. This is a guy who was part of the Tea Party revolt. A guy who defeated the establishment-endorsed governor to win his Senate seat. A guy who has one of the most pro-market voting records in the Senate. A guy from a state filled with old people who is openly pro-entitlement reform. So if he’s the “establishment,” that’s a major victory.

By the way, the first observation doesn’t mean you should vote for Cruz and the second observation doesn’t mean you should vote for Rubio. I’m simply making two points that should be encouraging for advocates of good policy.

Actually, let me add a third observation. In my prediction yesterday, I guessed Cruz would come in first with 28 percent, and…drum roll, please…he came in first with 28 percent. And I said he would be followed by Trump, Rubio, Carson, Paul, and Bush, all of which was true. And I predicted Hillary would beat Bernie.

Sure, some of my percentages were off, but I’ll take this as a partial victory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I wouldn’t be completely distraught to have Clinton in the White House in 2017. But before concluding that I’ve lost my mind, I’m thinking of Bill Clinton, not his far more statist (though similarly dodgy) spouse.

You’ll see what I mean below.

In a column for National Review, Deroy Murdock has some fun by pointing out that Bill Clinton just unintentionally attacked Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton…unsealed an indictment against Obama’s economy. …Hillary’s “secret weapon” told Granite State voters Monday, “I think this election is about restoring broadly shared prosperity, rebuilding the middle class, giving kids the American Dream back.”

Why is this an attack against Obama?

For the simple reason that we haven’t had “broadly shared prosperity” during the Obama years.

…a far-left Democrat has been president for the past seven years. The economic stagnation that Clinton critiqued is Obama’s. In Obama’s first or second year, Clinton might have managed to blame Baby Bush’s massive spending, red tape, and nationalizations for America’s economic woes and middle-class anxieties. But in Obama’s seventh year, this excuse has rusted. Obamanomics has narrowed prosperity, dismantled the middle class, and snatched the American Dream from America’s kids.

Deroy then compared the economic recovery America enjoyed under Reagan with the far-less-robust recovery taking place today.

In the 25 quarters since the Great Recession, Obama’s average, inflation-adjusted annual Gross Domestic Product growth has limped ahead at 2.2 percent. During Ronald Reagan’s equivalent interval, which began in the fourth quarter of 1982, such GDP growth galloped at 4.8 percent. …The total-output gap between Reagan and Obama is a whopping $10.6 trillion. …Under Reagan, private-sector jobs expanded 23.6 percent, versus the average recovery’s 17.0 percent, and 11.6 percent under Obama — less than half of Reagan’s performance. If Obama had equaled Reagan, America would enjoy some 12.9 million additional private-sector jobs. …Under Reagan, real after-tax income per person grew 3.1 percent, compared with 2.5 percent growth in an average recovery, and 1.2 percent under Obama. Had Obama delivered like Reagan, every American would have accumulated an extra $21,306 since June 2009.

All of this analysis is music to my ears and echoes some of the points I’ve made when comparing Reagan and Obama.

But I want to augment this analysis by adding Bill Clinton to the mix.

And I want to make this addition because there’s a very strong case to be made that we actually had fairly good policy during his tenure. Economic freedom increased because the one significantly bad piece of policy (the failed 1993 tax hike) was more than offset by lots of good policy.

Here’s a chart I put together showing the pro-market policies that were adopted during the Clinton years along with the one bad policy. Seems like a slam dunk.

At this point, I should acknowledge that none of this means that Bill Clinton deserves credit for the good policies. Most of the good reforms – such as 1990s spending restraint – were adopted in spite of what he wanted.

But at least he allowed those policies to go through. Unlike Obama, he was willing to be practical.

In any event, what matters is that we had better policy under Clinton than under Obama. And that’s why it’s useful to compare economic performance during those periods.

The Minneapolis Federal Reserve has a very interesting and useful webpage (at least to wonks) that allows users to compare various recoveries on the basis of GDP growth and job creation.

I’ve used this data to compare Reagan and Obama, so now let’s add the Clinton years to the mix. The following two charts from the Minneapolis Fed show the post-1981 recovery in blue, the post-1990 recovery in yellow, and the post-2007 recovery in red.

These numbers don’t match up exactly with when presidents took office, but it’s nonetheless apparent that we got the best performance under Reagan, and also that Clinton was much better than Obama.

Here’s the chart with the job numbers.

And here are the numbers for gross domestic product.

Here’s the bottom line.

Party labels don’t matter. Policy is what counts.

When the burden of government expands, like we saw with Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama on the Democrat side, but also with Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush on the Republican side, the economy under-performs.

Similarly, when the burden of government is reduced, like we saw under Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the economy enjoys relative prosperity.

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In 2012, I shared some important observations from Jeffrey Goldberg, a left-leaning writer for The Atlantic. In his column, he basically admitted his side was wrong about gun control.

Then, in 2013, I wrote about a column by Justin Cronin in the New York Times. He self-identified as a liberal, but explained how real-world events have led him to become a supporter of private gun ownership.

Kudos to both gentlemen for putting accuracy ahead of ideology (just like I applauded the honest liberal who wrote how government programs subsidize dependency).

Well, we can add another person to our list of honest liberals. Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate, just authored a piece that says it is downright silly to fixate on so-called assault weapons and to try to deny people their 2nd-Amendment rights based on the TSA’s no-fly list.

Although well-meaning—supporters genuinely want to keep military-style weapons “off the streets” and guns out of the hands of suspected threats—both measures are wrongheaded.

Here’s some of what he wrote about scary-looking rifles.

 assault weapons—there’s no official definition for the term, which makes identifying them for prohibition difficult, if not impossible—are scary to many Americans, especially with their presence in high-profile shootings like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, or the theater killings in Aurora, Colorado. But out of 73 mass killers from 1982 to 2015, just 25 used rifles of any kind, including military-style weapons. Most used revolvers, shotguns, and semi-automatic handguns. Which gets to a related point: We might feel safer if we ban “assault weapons,” but we won’t be safer. Of the 43,000 Americans killed with guns since 2010, just a fraction—3.5 percent—were killed with rifles.

Mr. Bouie points out that almost all murders are with handguns, but – to his credit – he says you can’t try to confiscate those weapons because “A ban would be unconstitutional.”

He then addresses the use of the no-fly list as a means of imposing gun control.

…civil libertarians—and liberals, at least during the Bush administration—think it’s constitutionally dubious. They’re right. …If you’re on these lists, you’re presumed guilty until proven innocent, with no due process and little recourse. The list is conceptually flawed, and using it to deny gun ownership is wrong on its face. Add racial and religious profiling to the mix—the people on the list, including Americans, are disproportionately Arab or from Muslim countires—and you have an anti-gun measure with deep disparate impact.

Bouie isn’t actually a supporter of gun rights, as you can see from some of his concluding thoughts, but he at least recognizes that much of what we’re getting from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is empty posturing.

The sooner Democrats abandon ineffectual gun control measures, the sooner they can turn their attention to ideas that would actually limit gun accidents, suicides, and murders. …In all of this, however, gun control supporters should keep one fact in mind: The United States is saturated with guns, and barring confiscation or mandatory buybacks, there’s no way to end mass shootings. …You can read that as futility, but it’s not. It’s a recognition of reality and a plea for perspective.

I wonder if “a recognition of reality” is the first step on the path to being libertarian.

By the way, I can’t resist adding my two cents on the topic of Obama wanting to deny constitutional rights to folks who wind up on a list.

I recognize that there are plenty of people who should not be allowed on planes (and since I have to fly a lot, I have an interest in keeping nutjobs on the ground), but government lists leave a lot to be desired.

Consider, for instance, this tidbit from an article in the Washington Free Beacon.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D., Mass.) disclosed that a congressional investigation recently found that at least 72 people working at DHS also “were on the terrorist watch list.”

Does this mean the federal government is so brain-dead that it has terrorists on the payroll?

Maybe, but another item from an editorial in the New York Times should make us wonder about the quality of these lists.

A 2007 audit found that more than half of the 71,000 names then on the no-fly list were wrongly included.

And I remember several years ago when – on multiple occasions – I wasn’t allowed back in the country until bureaucrats had taken me into windowless room for interrogation.

I never learned why this happened. Was there another Dan Mitchell with a sketchy pattern of behavior? Did the bureaucrats actually target me for unknown reasons?

More important, what if I had bitched and whined during one of these episodes and some spiteful bureaucrat decided to put me on one of the government’s lists?

And most important of all, can any of us trust that President Obama (or perhaps a President Hillary Clinton) wouldn’t misuse and/or expand these lists to arbitrarily deny constitutional rights?

By the way, Reason exposes some dishonest and hypocritical leftists.

Even though the ACLU opposes the no-fly list—and is suing the federal government for violating the due process rights of several people on it—the civil liberties advocacy group is theoretically okay with depriving people on the list of their gun rights.

But I’m digressing. Today’s topic is supposed to be how some honest liberals acknowledge the silliness of gun control efforts.

P.S. Let’s close with some good news on guns. It’s from a liberal who is reflexively hostile to the 2nd Amendment, but is quasi honest in that she’s willing to discuss polling data she dislikes.

Here’s some of what Catherine Rampell wrote in the Washington Post.

…millennials seem to have neither the desire nor the willpower to pressure our political leaders… Which does not bode well for liberals hoping that the arc of history will eventually bend toward greater gun control. …statements about protecting gun rights generally elicit at least as much support from younger Americans as from older ones. …This is a bit puzzling, given that younger Americans are less Republican in their political leanings than older people are and are also less likely to own a gun — two factors that are usually strong predictors of opposition to gun restrictions. These survey data suggest, then, that younger people might be especially predisposed to oppose gun-control measures, after controlling for these variables. …for the most part, young people reveal themselves to be at least as pro-gun-rights as their elders, if not more so.

I’m a skeptic of polling on this issue, largely because the questions often seem designed to elicit pro-gun control answers.

That being said, it’s good to see young people being more rational. Particularly since – as explained in this video – millennials have been at times hopelessly naive about the downside of bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want good news about public opinion and gun rights, click here, here, and here.

P.P.P.S. The best polls are the ones on election days.

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With all of the GOP presidential candidates proposing varying plans to reduce the tax burden and reform the tax system, I’m constantly asked which one is best.

But that’s hard to answer because all of the proposals have features I like…as well as some features that leave me underwhelmed, or perhaps even worried.

My fantasy proposal is to have no income tax, or any broad-based tax, because we shrink the federal government to less than 5 percent of economic output (which is what existed for much of our nation’s history).

But since most of my fantasies won’t happen (at least in the near future), my intermediate goal is to junk the current tax system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax, which would mean a low tax rate, no double taxation, and no corrupt and distorting tax preferences.

The bad news is that there hasn’t been a stampede by candidates to embrace this type of fundamental tax reform. But the good news is that they all want to move in that direction.

The best site for seeing what the various candidates are proposing is the Tax Foundation, and you can click here to learn everything that you need to know about their plans. There’s less detail, but the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also has a helpful summary that can be perused here.

Conservative Review put together some useful graphs to compare the major plans. Here’s the tax rate structure for households.

Though this is not very accurate since the value-added taxes in the plans put forth by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz mean the real tax rates on labor income would actually be 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

And here’s the degree of double taxation in the major plans.

What stands out in this chart is the fact all the candidates want to reduce double taxation, but Marco Rubio’s plan gets rid of that pernicious practice completely.

There are lots of additional metrics. Most of the candidates abolish the death tax, which is a very damaging form of double taxation.

They all lower or eliminate the corporate income tax.

Most of the candidates also replace depreciation with expensing, thus ensuring the proper treatment of business investment.

And the candidates generally scale back on favoritism in the tax code, particularly the deduction for state and local taxes.

To summarize, the plans have lots of good features, but none of them are perfect. Which is why they all get similar grades. Here’s my back-of-the-envelope assessment (with apologies to John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, etc, since I imposed my own arbitrary cutoff on which candidates merited close consideration).

Ben Carson gets the best grade because he says he wants a pure flat tax. But he doesn’t get an A because there are no details. In theory, you don’t need a lot of details because the plan is so simple, but the fact that he hasn’t even pinned down the rate (it was 10 percent, but is now 15 percent) leaves me uncertain. Moreover, he hasn’t put forth many details on how to reduce the burden of government spending, which would be necessary to make a low-rate flat tax viable.

By the way, Carly Fiorina would probably get a grade similar to Carson since she’s talked generically about a pure flat tax, and Rick Santorum’s more detailed support for a not-quite-pure flat tax also merits applause.

Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are almost identical (and John Kasich probably would be in the same category) because they make good progress (but not great progress) in almost all areas of the tax code.

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are more aggressive taking big steps in the right direction, but the value-added tax is a very worrisome feature of their plans.

Donald Trump has the biggest net tax cut, but seems to have no interest in controlling the burden of government spending. He also is the only candidate (to my knowledge) who doesn’t want to replace America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax system with a territorial tax regime.

And Marco Rubio is unique in that his plan is great on double taxation, but is a bit of a dud with regards to tax rates.

Last but not least, Mike Huckabee’s support for replacing the income tax with a national sales tax is theoretically appealing, but it’s either impractical (because there aren’t enough votes to repeal the 16th Amendment) or too risky (because the crowd in Washington would adopt a sales tax without completely repealing the income tax).

P.S. For those who really care about these issues, there’s a debate tomorrow morning (December 8th) between representatives of the Cruz, Paul, Bush, Rubio, and Kasich campaigns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything else is window dressing.

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

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