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Posts Tagged ‘State Government’

I’ve written (some would say excessively) about the fact that America has too many bureaucrats and that they’re paid too much.

That’s true in Washington. That’s true at the state level. And it’s true for local governments.

But since I’m a big believer in beating a dead horse, let’s revisit this issue. We’ll narrow our focus today and look solely at the issue of retirement benefits for state and local bureaucrats.

Why? Because, as explained by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, the unfunded liability for these schemes has mushroomed into a giant $5 trillion problem.

If the Actuarial Standards Board enacts recommendations from its Pension Task Force, actuarial valuations for state and local government pensions will report unfunded liabilities of over $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39 percent. The public pensions industry will hate it, but those figures are the best available measures of the costs of public employee retirement plans. …That $5.2 trillion is the number most economists would think is most relevant to considering the costs of public sector pensions. …The simple reality is that public pension underfunding is a significant problem that can only really be addressed by increasing contributions or by lower pension benefits, choices that pretty much everyone involved in the pension world would prefer to avoid.

You won’t be surprised to learn that some states are more irresponsible than others.

CNBC reports that Nebraska is the most prudent and Alaska is the worst (politicians can’t resist squandering oil revenue). Several blue states rank poorly (think Illinois, Connecticut, California, and New Jersey), but there also are red states (such as Louisiana and Kentucky) that have made very foolish promises.

In Nebraska, for example, the pension liability amounts to about $386 per person, the lowest in the nation. That compares with Alaska ($19,394 per person: the highest in the country), Illinois ($15,158 per person) and Connecticut ($14,769). The average pension shortfall in 2014 amounted to $4,383.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive table that allows readers to see which states have the biggest shortfall.

Meanwhile, Governing has an interactive map showing which states have the biggest gaps.

In other words, state and local bureaucrats have been promised a lot of money when they retire.

Much more money than is available.

And when you add Social Security benefits to the mix, as Andrew Biggs has calculated, you wind up having lots of bureaucrats enjoying very lavish levels of retirement income.

I tabulated the pension benefits paid to full-career “regular” state government employees (meaning, non-public safety) retiring in 2012. For states in which public employees participated in Social Security, I estimated the Social Security benefit the retiree would be eligible to receive. And finally, I compared total retirement benefits to the worker’s earnings immediately preceding retirement. …Mississippi paying the lowest replacement rate of 54% of final earnings. …West Virginia paid the most generous benefits, equal to 115% of final earnings, followed by New Mexico (113%), Oregon (105%), California (102%) and, yes, conservative Texas (101%).

Here’s a map that accompanied the article.

But maybe big numbers, maps and tables are too abstract.

To give some examples of how this is leading to a fiscal crisis, consider these recent news reports.

A story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Nevadans should brace for reduced services, higher taxes or both — the necessary consequence of the Public Employee Retirement System of Nevada (PERS) having badly missed its investment target last year…PERS has now missed its target over the past five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years — suggesting that another taxpayer-rate hike is on its way. Remarkably, this shortfall has occurred even though markets have nearly tripled from their 2009 lows, and currently sit at or near all-time highs. Nevada’s soaring pension costs — ranked third-highest in the nation at 9.8 percent of own-source revenue, according to 2013 data from the Public Plans Database — aren’t just due to overly optimistic investment assumptions, however. Another factor is the extraordinarily generous nature of the benefits.

A column from the Orange County Register:

…in the world of public sector pensions – among the biggest institutional investors in global markets – politicians…pretend they can count on big investment returns every year, while disregarding warning signs, mounting debts and increasingly unsustainable pension systems. We’re seeing the latest pension fund returns come in, and almost uniformly, it was a terrible year for states – and thus taxpayers. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. public pension fund, logged a paltry annual return of 0.6 percent. …CalPERS is currently only 76 percent funded, a figure that will inevitably drop given the latest weak returns.

A report from the Portland Tribune:

Oregon’s major business groups want lawmakers to start dealing with rising public pension costs as early as the session that opens Feb. 1. Although those costs start to kick in with the 2017-19 budget cycle — 18 months away — advocates say it’s not too early to whittle down an unfunded liability projected at $18 billion over the next few decades. …projected increases in contributions to PERS, which covers about 95 percent of Oregon’s public workers, will eat deeply into what they can spend over the next several two-year budget cycles. Cheri Helt, co-chair of the Bend-La Pine School Board, says pension costs will jump from the current 16 percent of payroll to 20 percent in 2017-19, and to 25 percent in the cycle afterward. …Jamie Moffitt, vice president and chief financial officer for the University of Oregon, says rising pension costs will eat up 40 percent — about 2 percentage points — of the 5.5 percent average annual increase in tuition.

An editorial about New Jersey in the Wall Street Journal:

New Jersey’s Senate president is in a Brando-like fight with government unions that he says are trying to extort or bribe legislators into doing their bidding. …At issue is the woefully underfunded state pension system. The teachers union wants to put a measure on the November ballot to amend the state constitution to require quarterly state pension payments of increasing amounts. …government unions have so much political sway over politicians that they often call the shots on their own pensions and benefits. …New Jersey’s public pensions are underfunded to the tune of $82 billion. Thomas Healey of the state’s bipartisan Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission notes that pensions and health care now eat up 11% of New Jersey’s budget, and without reform this will grow to 28% by 2025. …The pension commission has proposed reforms—including a shift to a hybrid retirement plan that includes features more akin to a 401(k)—but unions have blocked them. They now want voters to rewrite the state constitution so pension reform would be all but impossible.

A column about the corrupt system in Illinois:

Illinois’s government, says [Gov.] Rauner, “is run for the benefit of its employees.” Increasingly, it is run for their benefit when they retire. Pension promises [are] unfunded by at least $113 billion… The government is so thoroughly unionized (22 unions represent almost all government employees), that “I can’t,” Rauner says, “turn on a light switch without permission.” He exaggerates, somewhat, but the process of trying to fire someone is a career, not an option. …high-tax Illinois will continue bleeding population and businesses, but with one contented cohort — the Democratic political class, for whom the system is working quite well.

The crux of the problem is that most state and local governments have “defined-benefit” plans for bureaucrats, which means that taxpayers are on the hook to provide retiring bureaucrats a specific amount of benefits (not just retirement income, but other goodies such as health care) based on formulas that count years in the workforce, highest salary levels, and other factors. That may not sound totally unreasonable, but politicians realize they can buy votes by cutting deals with government unions and providing retirement benefits that are extremely generous, especially compared to what’s available for workers in the private sector.

But that’s simply one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is the employers with defined-benefit plans (usually referred to as “DB plans”) are supposed to set aside money in investment funds so that there’s a growing pool of assets that can be used to pay for the lavish benefits promised to the bureaucracy. But as we’ve already learned, politicians often are reluctant to take this step. They like committing lots of future money to bureaucrats, but when putting together annual budgets, they generally can buy more votes by allocating money to things like schools and roads rather than depositing money into a pension fund.

So the net result is that there’s a big unfunded liability, meaning that the amount that politicians have promised to give bureaucrats is larger than what’s set aside in the pension funds. And to make matters worse, the pension funds usually have dodgy accounting (they assume the investments will earn more money than is realistic). Which is why the actual shortfall is about $5.2 trillion, as noted above.

Given this ticking time bomb, some of you may be wondering why the title says there’s a libertarian quandary. Surely the answer is to cauterize this fiscal wound with immediate cuts and to avoid an even bigger long-run disaster by shifting newly hired bureaucrats to a defined-contribution system such as IRAs or 401(k)s. This type of reform automatically eliminates any liability for taxpayers since retirement benefits for bureaucrats would be solely a function of contributions to retirement accounts and the investment performance of those funds (most state and local bureaucrats also are part of the Social Security system).

Yes, that is the answer, but the quandary (to add to my collection) is whether the federal government should force, or even encourage, this type of reform. Don’t state and local governments, after all, have the right to make stupid decisions?

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Ed Bachrach argues that Uncle Sam should limit these suicidal policies.

The pensions of states and local governments are, collectively, trillions of dollars in the hole. This debt is crippling budgets and will dump an enormous burden on future generations. Yet state and local politicians have proven that they cannot, or will not, solve the problem. The federal government ought to step in. But how? Instead of bailing out these pensions, Congress should pass a law allowing states and local governments to reduce promised benefits—something that is now illegal under some states’ statutes or constitutions. …Many pensions allow retirement at age 55; states and local governments could mandate that benefits cannot be drawn until age 65. Payments could be capped at 150% of the median income in the local jurisdiction. Automatic cost-of-living increases that now exceed expected inflation could instead be tied to increases in the median income. …Local governments must also be required to terminate their defined-benefit plans. These should be replaced with defined-contribution plans, like 401(k)s or 403(b)s… Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) proposed withholding federal aid to government entities that don’t accurately report pension funding. That would be a step forward but would not solve the problem of underfunding.

I obviously agree that there should be no bailouts, but I’m still not convinced that Washington should mandate good policy by state and local governments.

Federalism means the freedom to adopt good policy…but also the leeway to commit fiscal suicide.

Though Andrew Biggs points out that the part about accurate reporting certainly sounds reasonable.

Congress has a tremendous opportunity to require state and local government employee pension plans to accurately disclose their multi-trillion dollar unfunded liabilities. …For years, economists and government agencies like the Congressional Budget Office have called for so-called “fair market valuation,” which both more accurately calculates the value of public pension liabilities and accurately tells those plans that taking more investment risk doesn’t make their plans cheaper. …there’s legislative language already written: Rep. Devin Nunes’s Public Employee Pension Transparency Act (PEPTA), which has a number of Congressional co-sponsors including House Speaker Paul Ryan, would require state and local plans to accurately disclose their liabilities using fair market valuation. The federal government would respect state and local rights by not forcing any changes to how pensions are funded, but Nunes’s plan would require that state and local governments to tell the public – including people thinking of purchasing municipal bonds – how much they really owe to their pensions.

P.S. By the way, advocates of limited government don’t experience many victories, but there actually was a very good reform of the pension system for federal bureaucrats during the Reagan years. Yes, federal bureaucrats are still over-compensated, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Yet another example of how Reaganomics was a success.

P.P.S. Shifting to bad news (or laughable news), the hacks in California tried to argue that lavish pensions for bureaucrats boost the economy. Andrew Biggs does a great job of debunking this nonsense.

The California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) issued a report in July claiming that its benefit payments to retired government employees in 2013-2014 “supported 104,974 jobs throughout California and generated more than $15.6 billion in additional economic output.” …To reduce pension benefits for public employees, the study implies, would harm the overall California economy. …This study is nothing short of propaganda that wouldn’t get a passing grade in a freshman economics course. …the CalPERS study lacks one important component, called “counting both sides of the equation.” It needs to count economic costs as well as economic benefits. …CalPERS doesn’t create money out of thin air. Every single dollar of CalPERS benefits comes from a dollar that taxpayers or government employees contributed to the program or from the interest earned on those contributions.

Sounds like the bureaucrats at CalPERS should be working for the Congressional Budget Office.

P.P.P.S. The focus of this column is on the inherent instability of defined-benefit pension plans for bureaucrats, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the underlying issue is that bureaucrats are ripping off taxpayers. Here are some blurbs from a Reason report by Eric Boehm on how this scam works in California.

If public service truly is a sacrifice, then join me in shedding a tear for the 20,900 public workers in California who pulled down more than $100,000 in retirement benefits during 2015. …Leading the way for 2015 was Michael Johnson. The former Solano County administrator received a $388,407 pension last year. …Rounding out the top three are Stephen Maguin, a former Los Angeles County Sanitation District general manager who pulled down $340,811 in 2015 and Joaquin Fuster, a former UCLA professor who got a pension worth $338,412 last year. …Curtis Bowden, a former member of the California Highway Patrol…retired all the way back in 1947, which means he’s been collecting pension checks for 68 years, after working just 5.3 years for the state. He got $24,800 from CalPERS in 2015.

Wow, I’m not sure what’s more impressive, Getting an annual pension of nearly $400K after being a country bureaucrat or working for just a bit over five years and getting 68 years worth of retirement checks?

Seems like both of them should be part of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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Federalism is great for many reasons. When you have dozens of states with the freedom to choose different policies, you get lots of innovation and diversity, which helps identify policies that work.

You also can minimize the cost of mistakes. When a policy error occurs in one state (for example, government-run healthcare in Vermont), it quickly becomes obvious and the damage can be contained and maybe even reversed. But when a mistake is made nationally (such as Obamacare), it’s not as easy to pinpoint why the economy is weakening and fixing the error thus becomes more difficult.

And it should go without saying that federalism is desirable because it facilitates and enables competition among jurisdictions. And that limits the power of governments to impose bad policy.

These are some of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index. It’s a rigorous publication that calculates the good and bad features of every state’s tax system. It then add together all that data to generate a very helpful ranking of the nation’s best and worst state tax systems.

And since that’s what people care most about, let’s cut to the chase and look at the states at the top and the bottom of the Index.

There are a couple of things which should be obvious from these two lists.

First, it’s a very good idea to be part of the no-income-tax club. It’s no coincidence that 7 out of the top 10 states don’t have that pernicious levy.

Second, perhaps the biggest lesson from the states in the bottom 10 is that it’s basically impossible for a state with a big government to have a good tax system.

Third (and here’s where I’m going to be a contrarian), I’m not sure that Wyoming and Alaska really deserve their high rankings. Both states use energy severance taxes to finance relatively large public sectors. And while it’s true that energy severance taxes don’t do as much damage to a state’s competitiveness as other revenue sources, I nonetheless think there should be an asterisk next to those two states.

So I actually put South Dakota in first place (though I realize I’m implicitly incorporating government spending into the equation while the Tax Foundation is only measuring the tax environment for business).

Now that we’ve hit the main highlights, here’s some explanatory information from the Index.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems, and provides a roadmap for improvement. …The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top ten states. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top ten while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases. The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, non-neutral taxes with comparatively high rates.

And here’s some details about the Index’s methodology.

The Index…comparing the states on over 100 different variables in the five major areas of taxation (corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, and property taxes)… Using the economic literature as our guide, we designed these five components to score each state’s business tax climate…The five components are not weighted equally… This improves the explanatory power of the State Business Tax Climate Index as a whole. …this edition is the 2016 Index and represents the tax climate of each state as of July 1, 2015, the first day of fiscal year 2016 for most states.

Here’s a map showing the ranking of every state.

Top-10 states are in blue and bottom-10 states are in orange. At the risk of repeating myself, notice how zero-income tax states rank highly.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page combed through the report for highlights. The biggest success story in recent years is North Carolina, which joined the flat tax club.

…North Carolina, which in 2013 slashed its top 7.75% income tax to a flat 5.75% and its corporate rate to 5% from 6.9%. The former 44th is now ranked 15th.

Given Martin O’Malley’s horrible record in Maryland, I’m surprised that he hasn’t picked up more support from crazy lefties in the Democratic Party.

As Governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015, Democrat Martin O’Malley increased some 40 taxes including the corporate rate to 8.25% from 7% and the sales tax to 6% from 5%.

And here’s some good news from an unexpected place.

The trophy for most-improved this year goes to Illinois, which jumped to 23rd from 31st… The Tax Foundation notes that the leap occurred “due to the sunset of corporate and individual income tax increases”… First-year Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has let the income-tax rate lapse to 3.75% from 5% and the corporate rate to 7.75% from 9.5%, though Democrats are trying to push them back up.

Given how the tax hike backfired, let’s hope the Governor holds firm in this fight.

Now let’s return to some of the analysis in the Tax Foundation’s Index. Here’s some of the academic evidence on the importance of low tax burdens.

Helms concluded that a state’s ability to attract, retain, and encourage business activity is significantly affected by its pattern of taxation. Furthermore, tax increases significantly retard economic growth when the revenue is used to fund transfer payments. …Bartik (1989) provides strong evidence that taxes have a negative impact on business startups. He finds specifically that property taxes, because they are paid regardless of profit, have the strongest negative effect on business. Bartik’s econometric model also predicts tax elasticities of –0.1 to –0.5 that imply a 10 percent cut in tax rates will increase business activity by 1 to 5 percent. …Agostini and Tulayasathien (2001)…determined that for “foreign investors, the corporate tax rate is the most relevant tax in their investment decision.” …Mark, McGuire, and Papke (2000) found that taxes are a statistically significant factor in private-sector job growth. Specifically, they found that personal property taxes and sales taxes have economically large negative effects on the annual growth of private employment. …the consensus among recent literature is that state and local taxes negatively affect employment levels. Harden and Hoyt conclude that the corporate income tax has the most significant negative impact on the rate of growth in employment. Gupta and Hofmann (2003)…model covered 14 years of data and determined that firms tend to locate property in states where they are subject to lower income tax burdens.

The message is that all the major revenue sources – income, sales, and property – can have negative effects.

Which explains, of course, why it’s important to control state government spending.

And one final point to make is that we should do everything possible to shrink the size of the central government in Washington and transfer activities to the private sector or states. This isn’t because states don’t make mistakes, but rather because competition between states will produce far better results than a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

P.S. A study from German economists finds that decentralization limits economically harmful redistribution outlays.

P.P.S. And a study from the IMF reveals that decentralized government is more competent and efficient.

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

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

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

She’s right to be infuriated.

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

But other revenue-raising policies also are objectionable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um…not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve posted more than 3,500 items since I started International Liberty. And if you look at the earliest posts, way back in April of 2009, you’ll find that one of the very first of them made the link between big government and big corruption.

My premise was very simple. When government is very large, with all sorts of power to provide unearned wealth via taxes, spending, and regulation, then you will get more sleaze.

Sort of like the way a full dumpster will attract lots of rats and roaches.

A story in Fortune reports that government corruption at the state level is very costly.

…corruption is everywhere, in one form or another. And it’s costing U.S. citizens big time. A new study from researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Indiana University estimates that corruption on the state level is costing Americans in the 10 most corrupt states an average of $1,308 per year… The researchers studied more than 25,000 convictions of public officials for violation of federal corruption laws between 1976 and 2008 as well as patterns in state spending to develop a corruption index that estimates the most and least corrupt states in the union.

Most Corrupt StatesHere’s the list of the 10-most corrupt states. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern.

Southern states are over-represented, it appears, but that’s obviously not an overwhelming factor since Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas (among others) didn’t make the list.

But it turns out that there is a factor that seems to be very prevalent among corrupt states.

The researchers also found that for 9 out of the 10 of the most corrupt states, overall state spending was higher than in less corrupt states (South Dakota was the only exception).

The authors suggest an attack on corruption could lead to a lower burden of government spending.

Attacking corruption, the researchers argue, could be a good way to bring down state spending.

I don’t disagree, but I wonder whether there’s an even more obvious lesson. Maybe the primary causality goes the other direction. Perhaps the goal should be to lower state spending as a way of reducing corruption.

Returning to the analogy I used earlier, a smaller dumpster presumably means fewer rats and roaches.

That’s not the only interesting data from the study. Fortune also reports that infrastructure projects and bloated bureaucracies are linked to corruption.

The paper explains that construction spending, especially on big infrastructure projects, is particularly susceptible to corruption… Corrupt states also tend to, for obvious reasons, simply have more and better paid public servants, including police and correctional officers.

I’m not surprised by those findings. Indeed, I would even argue that a large bureaucracy, in and of itself, is a sign of corruption since it suggests featherbedding and patronage for insiders.

For more info on the size of government and corruption, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. It’s several years old, but the message is even more relevant today since the public sector is larger and more intrusive.

P.S. Speaking of corruption, there’s actually a serious effort on Capitol Hill to shut down the Export-Import Bank, which has been a cesspool of corruption and cronyism.

P.P.S. Switching to a different topic (though it also fits under corruption), we have another member for our potential Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Or maybe this person belongs in a politician-ripping-off-the-system Hall of Fame.

Here are some of the details from an Irish news report and you can judge for yourself.

Ireland’s outgoing European Commissioner, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, is entitled to a total €432,000 EU pay-off over the next three years to help her adjust to life after Brussels. …EU commissioners leaving office are entitled, subject to certain conditions, to a “transitional allowance” over three years varying between 45pc and 65pc of salary. Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn’s entitlement amounts to 55pc of her salary, or €137,000 per year.

Huh?!? A transitional allowance? For what? That’s more than $500,000 in American money.

Is it really that difficult to end one’s term as an overpaid European Union Commissioner?

But what really makes Ms. Geoghegan-Quinn an inspiration to other bureaucrats (and a nightmare for taxpayers) is that she’ll also have her snout buried deeply in Ireland’s public trough.

And from this autumn, she can also resume collecting her Irish TD and ministerial pensions totalling €108,000 a year – giving her total pension entitlements worth over €3,000 a week.

Though to be fair, she’s simply doing what other politicians already have done. Not only in Ireland, but also in America.

Government has become a racket for the benefit of insiders.

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There are all sorts of ways to measure the burden of government spending.

The most obvious approach is to look at the share of economic output consumed by the public sector. That’s what I did, for instance, when comparing fiscal policy in France and Switzerland. And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that Switzerland’s comparative frugality helps to explain why its economy is much stronger than the French economy.

It’s also good to know whether a country is heading in the wrong direction or right direction. If one country has a bigger government but has implemented reforms that slow the growth of the public sector, it may have a better future than another country where government currently is a smaller burden but the long-term fiscal outlook is grim.

For this reason, I was very interested in the data showing that most European nations actually increased the size of government in recent years – notwithstanding all the hyperbole about “savage” and “draconian” austerity.

That’s why the “exceptions to the rule” in Europe – such as Estonia and Germany – are so noteworthy. While their neighbors are doing the wrong thing, these countries are being at least semi-responsible and trying to rein in the burden of government spending.

The same thing is true for state governments, which is why this new map from the Tax Foundation is worth sharing. It shows how fast spending has increased in each state over the past 10 years.

Louisiana gets the worst grade for profligacy, followed by Wyoming and New Jersey, while Alaska has been the most frugal, followed by West Virginia and South Carolina.

State Spending Map

It would be interesting to see annual numbers. Is Louisiana’s poor performance due to Governor Jindal, for instance, or in spite of him? Likewise, has Chris Christie made any difference in New Jersey?

Looking at states that have done well, did Governor Palin make a difference in Alaska? And did Governor Sanford make a difference in South Carolina? Again, without seeing the annual data, there’s no way of answering these questions.

Moreover, it might be interesting to also know what has happened to local government spending, particularly since some states may have artificially low or high numbers depending on whether there have been changes in how overall spending is allocated.

Last but not least, we should remember that the key goal of fiscal policy is – or should be – to have government grow slower than the private sector. To determine whether states are satisfying my Golden Rule, you need the Tax Foundation data on spending, but it needs to be augmented by similar data for economic output.

And if you look at personal income growth on a state-by-state basis, adjust it for inflation, and then compare it to spending growth, you get some interesting results.

It turns out that North Dakota is the state that most satisfies Mitchell’s Golden Rule, followed by South Dakota and Alaska. West Virginia and South Carolina stay in the top 10, but they drop to 4 and 9, respectively.

New Jersey, meanwhile, takes over as the worst state, followed by Arizona and Louisiana.

Not only has New Jersey been the biggest failure based on my Golden Rule, it also doesn’t have a lot of breathing room. If you look at this info-graph on state debt, you can see that it has the nation’s 7th biggest debt load. In other words, the Garden State’s politicians have been making a bad situation even worse.

And since New Jersey also has a punitive death tax, the obvious message is that productive people should flee the state. Which is exactly what’s been happening. Thanks to migration, about $70 billion of wealth escaped between 2004 and 2008 alone.

But be careful where you move. Other states that get black marks on both spending and debt are Ohio, Illinois (gee, what a surprise), and New Mexico.

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I shared some fascinating details the other day about how federal taxes inhibited the development of America’s beer industry.

And I’ve used a story about buddies sharing beer to illustrate the dangers of redistribution and class warfare.

But this blog hasn’t paid much attention to wine. Well, thanks to this new map from the Tax Foundation, that oversight has been addressed.

I reckon the politicians in Kentucky don’t have much use for those effete, wine-sipping bi-coastal elites?

P.S. If you like maps, here are some interesting ones, starting with some international comparisons.

Here are some good state maps with useful information.

There’s even a local map.

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I’m a proponent of a pro-growth and non-corrupt tax code.

I mostly write and talk about the flat tax, though I’d be happy to instead accept a national sales tax if we could somehow get rid of the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even Justices such as John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn’t rationalize that the income tax was constitutional.

But since there’s no chance of any good tax reform with Obama in the White House, there’s no need to squabble over the best plan. Instead, our short-term goal should be to educate voters so that we create a more favorable intellectual climate for genuine reform in 2017 and beyond.

That’s why I’ve argued in favor of lower tax rates and shared the latest academic research showing that tax policy has a significant impact on economic performance.

But tax reform also means getting rid of the rat’s nest of deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, shelters, loopholes, and other distortions in the tax code.

Why? Because people should make decisions on how to earn income and how to spend income on the basis of what makes economic sense, not because they’re being bribed or penalized by the tax code. That’s just central planning through the back door.

And if you don’t think this is a problem, I invite you to peruse three startling images, each of which measures rising complexity over time.

  1. The number of pages in the tax code.
  2. The number of special tax breaks.
  3. The number of pages in the 1040 instruction booklet.

Today’s Byzantine system is good for tax lawyers, accountants, and bureaucrats, but it’s bad news for America. We need to wipe the slate clean and get rid of this corrupt mess.

But as I explain in this appearance on Fox Business News, we won’t make progress until we control the burden of government spending and unless we make sure that deductions are eliminated only if we use every penny of revenue to lower tax rates.

I’ve previously explained why it’s okay to get rid of itemized deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and state and local tax payments.

Let’s now take a moment to explain why the internal revenue code shouldn’t be artificially steering capital toward state and local governments at the expense of private investment.

Under current law, there’s no federal income tax imposed on interest from municipal bonds. No matter how rich you are, Uncle Sam doesn’t tax a penny of the interest you receive if you use your wealth to lend money to state and local governments.

Should the tax code steer money to Detroit politicians?

This “muni-bond exemption” has two unfortunate effects.

  • It makes it easier and cheaper for state and local governments to incur debt, thus encouraging more wasteful spending by cities such as Detroit and states such as California.
  • By making the debt of state and local governments more attractive than private business investment, the loophole undermines long-term growth by diverting capital to unproductive uses.

The politicians at the state and local level certainly understand what’s at stake. They’re lobbying to preserve this destructive tax break. Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Firestine [of Montgomery County, MD] is on the front lines of a lobbying campaign by local and state governments, bond dealers, insurers and underwriters that is trying to pre-empt any attempt to limit or even kill the tax exemption. …At present, the federal government forgoes about $32 billion a year in taxes by exempting the interest that investors earn from municipal bonds. …The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known as the Simpson-Bowles commission, has suggested taxing all municipal bond interest, not just the interest paid to people in the top bracket. …Officials of some other government groups, like the New York City Housing Development Corporation, have formed a coalition with Wall Street groups like the Bond Dealers of America to lobby on the issue. But there is the sense of an uphill battle. …Capping the tax exemption would cause high-bracket taxpayers to look for higher-yielding investments, he said, and the county would have to offer more interest to lure them back.

Based on the last sentence in the excerpt, I gather we’re supposed to think it would be bad news if we got rid of this tax preference and taxpayers shifted more of their money to private-sector investments.

Needless to say, that’s misguided. Only in the upside-down world of Washington do people think it is smart to create tax preferences that lead to more wasteful spending by state and local governments, while simultaneously imposing punitive forms of double taxation on saving and investment in the private sector.

By the way, this shouldn’t be an ideological issue. If this amazing chart is any indication, leftists who want workers to enjoy more income should be clamoring the loudest for a tax system that doesn’t tilt the playing field against capital formation.

P.S. While simplicity is a good goal for tax policy, you will understand why it shouldn’t be the only goal if you check out this potential Barack Obama tax reform plan.

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