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Posts Tagged ‘Reform Conservatism’

Remember Solyndra, the festering symbol of green-energy corruption that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money being flushed down the toilet?

And that was just one example. Based on the ratio of energy produced compared to insider enrichment, the entire green-energy racket is a sleazy boondoggle.

For taxpayers, this is a lose-lose situation. They pay to line the pockets of green donors, and they also suffer as government intervention diverts resources in ways that reduce jobs and economic output.

But look at the bright side. Every so often, some of the insider crooks get caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

In a column for the Washington Examiner, the invaluable Tim Carney highlights some of the insider sleaze that led to the resignation of Oregon’s Democratic Governor.

When a love affair begins with shared dreams of solar panels and fantasies of switchgrass, it shouldn’t surprise us that it leads to tears, resignation and federal investigations. Such is the love story of Oregon’s former governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.

Yup, it appears that Ms. Hayes cashed in on her relationship with the governor.

Hayes…described herself as a “policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber on the issue of clean energy and economic development.” Hayes simultaneously ran a consulting firm called 3E Strategies….Demos was pushing governments to use a new measure of the economy — the Genuine Progress Indicator — in place of Gross Domestic Product. They hired Hayes to aid in this push. Soon, Kitzhaber adopted GPI as a new measure for state policies.

Sounds like pay-to-play, which is so typical of government.

But the GPI scam is just the tip of the iceberg.

…federal investigators are looking into Hayes’s work for companies that profited from Kitzhaber’s green policies. …Green energy deserves more scrutiny than the average industry, because so many of its technologies, being unprofitable and inefficient, depend on government subsidies for their very survival. One Hayes client was a California-based company called Waste to Energy Group. Hayes picked up Waste to Energy as a client in 2011 — after becoming first lady — as the company sought a contract for converting landfill gas into energy. …Mary Rowinski, a governor’s office employee, worked for Hayes. Hayes used Rowinski to set up her meetings with Waste to Energy. …Federal investigators probing the Hayes and Kitzhaber case are also seeking state agency contacts with the Oregon Business Council. The Business Council is a corporate lobby group, and a client of Hayes. …The important lesson is that the more you intertwine business and government, the more opportunities you create for cronyism. And green energy is fertile ground for such problems.

Tim’s lesson is spot on.

When you get big government, you get big corruption.

So how do we reduce sleaze in the political system.

Jay Cost, writing for the 2017 Project, urges an aggressive focus on fighting corruption.

…an anticorruption agenda should be integral to reform conservatism. First, reform conservatism is self-consciously oriented to the middle class, and political corruption works against the interests of the middle class. Usually the product of connections between interests and politicians, it favors the well-connected. The typical insurance agent, bakery owner, or office manager lacks such contacts. Second, an anticorruption agenda challenges the liberal belief that ever more government is good for the middle class. The left wishes to cast itself as defender of middle America and conservatives as champions of the elite. A full-throated attack on cronyism in the distribution of public favors would help conservatives fend off this accusation.

And he recognizes that “legal” corruption is just as big of a problem – perhaps even bigger – than “illegal” corruption.

…there is another form of corruption, an “honest” kind. Politicians see an opportunity to use their public authority to favor some private interest—be it the lobby for some commercial group, a wealthy donor, maybe themselves—and they take it. Often, no law is broken, but the public trust is nevertheless violated. James Madison understood corruption from this perspective—as including but not limited to illegal and venal activity.

So what’s the solution to the legal and illegal sleaze in Washington?

Cost seems to recognize that big government has enabled more corruption.

The legislative power has expanded most in three areas not prominently considered by the Founders: the promotion of economic development, the regulation of the economy, and the provision of social welfare benefits. For Congress, developing the national economy has long meant pork barrel politics. Members love to send money back to the district for improvements to rivers and harbors, for roads, railroads, airports, and so on. They want defense spending similarly distributed. The tax code is another place where Congress, in the name of economic growth, favors special interests. …And on top of this, a vast array of corporate welfare programs, like the Export-Import Bank, pay off various groups.

But he seems to think big government is now inevitable, and perhaps even desirable.

…one of the premises of the new reform conservatism is an acknowledgment that the federal government has a legitimate and potentially beneficial role to play in economic development, health care, education, and so on.

So his proposed reforms are rather tepid.

One goal should be to make it harder for members of Congress to cut deals with special interests. …Committee and subcommittee chairs should be required to obey stricter rules concerning conflicts of interest. They should not be allowed to accept money from interest groups with business before their committees. …the temporary lobbying ban on former members of Congress, now two years, should be extended and its loopholes closed. …Given the highly technical work that senior legislative staffers perform, they are grossly underpaid compared with their private counterparts. …The most skilled staffers should be paid appropriately… Similarly, Congress should increase the size of staffs—perhaps substantially.

Having worked on Capitol Hill, I have to say that I’m underwhelmed by these proposals.

More regulations, more staff, and higher pay are not going to change the culture of Washington.

I’m not sure if Mr. Cost sees himself as a reform conservative, or whether he’s merely offering advice to the so-called reformicons. In any event, his proposals symbolize what’s good and bad about reform conservatism: A recognition that government is causing problems, but solutions that are sometimes too tepid to actually solve problems.

The bottom line is that you can’t fix the corruption problems caused by big government unless you’re actually willing to get rid of big government.

P.S. If it’s true that misery loves company, then we can take solace in the fact that other nations have wasteful and corrupt green energy programs.

P.P.S. In keeping with our tradition, let’s close with a link to some amusing material about green-energy boondoggles.

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I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal last week about the policy debate over whether it’s better to lower tax rates or to provide targeted tax cuts for parents.

Since this meant I was wading into a fight between so-called reform conservatives (or “reformicons”) and traditional conservatives (or “supply-siders”), I wasn’t surprised to learn that not everyone agreed with my analysis.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, for instance, doesn’t approve of what I wrote.

…why are some folks on the right against giving middle-class families a big tax cut and letting them keep more of what they earn? …Cato’s Dan Mitchell, in a Wall Street Journal commentary today, concedes Stein’s idea would indeed help middle-class families right now… Yet Mitchell still thinks cutting marginal tax rates is the better idea.

Pethokoukis accurately notes that I want lower marginal tax rates because, from my perspective, faster long-run growth would be even more beneficial to middle-class families.

He disagrees and offers five counter-arguments. Here they are (summarized fairly, I hope), along with my response.

1.) House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp has put forward tax reform with a top rate of 25% vs. 40% today. Yet his plan would likely increase the economy’s size by less than 1% over the next decade, according to the Joint Tax Committee. …This is not to say lower tax rates aren’t good for economic growth. But marginal rates at those levels are almost certainly already deep on the good side of the Laffer Curve.

I have a couple of reactions.

First, the top tax rate in the Camp plan is 35 percent rather than 25 percent, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the plan doesn’t generate much additional growth.

Second, the JCT’s model is flawed and it should not be given credibility by any supporter of good tax policy. The Tax Foundation has a much better model.

Though it doesn’t really matter in this case because the Tax Foundation analysis of the Camp plan also shows a very weak growth response, largely because the slightly lower tax rates in the Camp plan are “paid for” by increasing the tax burden on saving and investment. Which is why I also wrote that the plan was disappointing.

Regarding the point about the Laffer Curve, the Tax Foundation responded to the Pethokoukis criticism of my column by noting “the Laffer Curve refers to tax revenue, not economic growth. It says there is a tax rate at which tax revenue is maximized. The tax rate at which economic growth is maximized is almost certainly well below that.”

Needless to say, I fully agree. I want to maximize growth, not tax revenue.

Now let’s move to his second point.

2.) And consider this: just how would the GDP gains, such as they are, from cutting top marginal rates be distributed in an economy where middle-wage jobs are disappearing and income gains are tilted toward the highly skilled and educated? The US economy needs to grow faster, but faster growth alone in the Age of Automation may not substantially increase living standards for a larger swath of the American people. That reality is a big difference between the 2010s economy and the 1980s economy, one many on the right have yet to grasp. Cranking up GDP growth is necessary but not sufficient.

If I understand correctly, Pethokoukis is saying that faster growth doesn’t guarantee good jobs for everyone.

I don’t disagree with this point, but I’m not sure why this is a criticism of lower marginal tax rates. Isn’t it better to get some extra growth rather than no extra growth?

Now let’s address the third point from the Pethokoukis column.

3.) Mitchell asserts, “Tax-credit conservatives generally admit that child-oriented tax cuts have few, if any, pro-growth benefits.” That’s not true. …expanding the child tax credit would serve as a sort of human-capital gains tax cut for worker creators (also known as families). It might just be nudge enough for financially-stressed families to have another kid… Modern pro-growth policymakers should fret as much about the nation’s birthrate as productivity and labor-force participation rates. …A younger American society with a higher birth rate, helped by a tax code that offsets anti-family government policy, would be more dynamic, creative, and entrepreneurial.

I’m less than overwhelmed by this argument.

Yes, we have a demographic problem, but more population is merely a way of increasing total GDP, not per-capita GDP. And it’s the latter than matters if we want higher living standards.

In his fourth point, Pethokouis notes that both supply-siders and reformicons agree on policies to reduce the tax burden on saving and investment.

4.) To give Mitchell some credit here, he does acknowledge there is more to the conservative-reform tax agenda than the child tax credit.

Since we both agree, there’s no need to rebut this part of the column.

And I don’t think there’s anything for me to rebut in Pethokoukis’ final point.

5.) Let me add that there is more to the conservative reform agenda for the middle class than just tax reform, including regulatory, health care, K-12, and higher-education reform. And there should be more to the supply-side, pro-growth agenda than cutting marginal tax rates, including reducing crony capitalist barriers — such as Too Big To Fail megabank subsidies… American needs more growth, and worker creators (strong families) are just as important to achieving that as job creators (strong companies). Let’s have both.

Since I’m among the first to acknowledge that fiscal policy is only about 20 percent of what determines a nation’s prosperity, this is an area where I’m on the same page as Pethokoukis.

Reformicon Founding Fathers

Indeed, I wrote last year that there’s much to admire about the agenda of the reformicons.

I just think that they don’t have sufficient appreciation for the value of even small increases in long-run growth.

Let’s close by looking at one sentence from some supposed analysis by Matt O’Brien in the Wonkblog section of the Washington Post.

His column is dedicated to the proposition that Republicans are overly fixated on cutting taxes for the rich. That might be a defensible hypothesis, but I doubt O’Brien has much credibility since he misrepresents my position.

 Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute downplays the idea that giving middle-class families more money even helps them, and says Republicans should keep focusing on cutting tax rates.

Just for the record, here’s what I actually wrote about middle-class families in my WSJ piece.

Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years. This is why the right kind of tax policy is so important. …since more saving and investment will lead to increased productivity, workers will enjoy higher wages, including households with children.

Does any of that sound like I’m indifferent to middle-class families? And the first sentence of that excerpt specifically says that the reformicon approach would mean relief to families with kids.

And the entire focus of my column is that supply-side tax policy would be even more beneficial to those households in the long run.

But accurately reporting what I wrote would have ruined O’Brien’s narrative. Sigh.

P.S. I wrote a couple of days ago that France was is a downward spiral because of high-tax statism. A few people have pointed out that French President Francois Hollande has picked a new industry and economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, who famously said that the new 75 percent top tax rate meant that France was “Cuba without the sun.”

Does this change my opinion, these folks have asked. Doesn’t this signal that taxes will start going down?

The answer is no. At best, I think it simply means that Hollande won’t push policy further to the left. But that doesn’t mean we’ll see genuine liberalization and a reduction in the fiscal burden of government.

If you think I’m being pessimistic, just keep in mind this excerpt from a Bloomberg story.

Macron apologized yesterday for his “exaggerated reputation” for free-market thinking.

I hope I’m wrong, but that doesn’t sound like the words of someone committed to smaller government?

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