Friday, October 8, 2010

David Cameron's Foolish (or Cynical) Naivete about the Laffer Curve

Even though he's allowing the budget to grow twice as fast as inflation, some people seem to think the new U.K. Prime Minster is a fiscal conservative. I'm skeptical. Not only is spending rising much too fast (there are promises of more restraint in the future, but I'll believe it when it happens), but Cameron and the Tory/Liberal coalition government are increasing the value-added tax and increasing the capital gains tax. Perhaps worst of all, they are leaving in place the new 50 percent tax rate that former Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown imposed in hopes that class-warfare policy would help him get elected. But as this Daily Telegraph story suggests, it is quite likely that the higher tax rate will lose revenue as productive people escape to Switzerland and other jurisdictions not influenced by the politics of hate and envy.
One-in-four hedge fund employees has already left London to move to Switzerland, which is said to have a more stable tax regime, according to consultancy Kinetic partners. Calculations by the company claim the UK could have already forgone about £500m in tax revenues, based on the 1,000 or so hedge fund managers it says have already left the country. ...High-profile departures this year include Alan Howard, founder of Brevan Howard, and Mike Platt, founder of BlueCrest Capital.

This story shows both the power of the Laffer Curve and the importance of tax competition. The greedy politicians in England doubtlessly resent the "brain drain" to Switzerland. Like their U.S. counterparts, politicians view taxpayers as serfs who are supposed to blindly produce more income for the ruling class to expropriate and redistribute.

While I'm obviously not a big fan of British fiscal policy, America is worse in one important way. At least British taxpayers have the liberty to leave without being raped by the U.K. tax authority. Once they leave the United Kingdom and make their home in Switzerland, they are no longer British taxpayers. Americans who want to move, by contrast, are unable to escape the punitive internal revenue code. Indeed, the United States is one of the few nations in the world to have exit taxes, an odious approach generally associated with loathsome regimes such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

First Class Bureaucrats, Coach Class Taxpayers

Here's a story I got from the Advice Goddess twitter feed. It seems airlines are upset that federal air marshals almost always grab first class seats. This isn't good for airlines, since it uses up seats that they need for paying customers. It's not good for security since the main threat in on-board explosives carried by terrorists who want to sit over the wings. And it's not good for Dan Mitchell since it means he's less likely to get upgraded when the good seats are occupied by bureaucrats. Since I'm waiting for a flight to Australia, you can guess which upsets me the most. Here's a blurb from the Wall Street Journal story.
To protect the nation's air travelers, federal air marshals deployed after the 2001 terrorist attacks try to travel incognito, often in pairs, and choose flights identified with the potential to fall under threat. And they almost always fly first class—something some airlines would like to change. With cockpit doors fortified and a history of attackers choosing coach seats, some airline executives and security experts question whether the first-class practice is really necessary—or even a good idea. It could weaken security by isolating marshals or making them easier for terrorists to identify, airline executives say. With more threats in the coach cabin now, first-class clustering may not make as much security sense. Security experts say bombers are a bigger threat today than knife-wielding attackers trying to get through secure cockpit doors, and Transportation Security Administration checkpoints are heavily focused on explosives, whether hidden in shoes, liquids or under clothes. Some believe bombers try to target areas over the wing—a structurally critical location and also the site of fuel storage—to cause the most damage to the aircraft. ...By law, airlines must provide seats to marshals at no cost in any cabin requested. With first-class and business-class seats in particular, the revenue loss to airlines can be substantial because they can't sell last-minute tickets or upgrades, and travelers sometimes get bumped to the back or lose out on upgrade opportunities. When travelers do get bumped, airlines are barred from divulging why the first-class seat was unexpectedly taken away.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Political Humor

I received this joke today. It's definitely worth passing on. I don't want to spoil the punch line, so I'll just say it would be more amusing if there actually was a choice two yeas ago.

Guy goes into a bar, there's a robot bartender.

The robot says, "What will you have?"

The guy says, "Martini."

The robot brings back the best martini ever and says to the man, "What's your IQ.

The guy says, "168."

The robot then proceeds to talk about physics, space exploration and medical technology.

The guy leaves, but he is curious... So he goes back into the bar.

The robot bartender says, "What will you have?"

The guy says, "Martini."

Again, the robot makes a great martini gives it to the man and says, "What's your IQ?"

The guy says, "100."

The robot then starts to talk about Nascar, Budweiser and John Deere tractors.

The guy leaves, but finds it very interesting, so he thinks he will try it one more time.

He goes back into the bar.

The robot says, "What will you have?"

The guy says, "Martini," and the robot brings him another great martini.

The robot then says, "What's your IQ?"

The guy says, "Uh, about 50."

The robot leans in real close and says, "So, are you still happy you voted for Obama?"

Should Food Stamps Be Restricted to "Healthy Foods"?

As indicated by my post on how to handle prisoners with AIDS, I periodically run into issues where I'm not sure about the right answer. Here's another case. Politicians in New York have a proposal to prohibit people from using food stamps to buy sugary drinks. Part of me is irritated by paternalistic, nanny-state busybodies who want to tell other people how to live. On the other hand, maybe this proposal will make people less willing to mooch off taxpayers by accepting food stamps (though I suspect they'll just bring two carts to the checkout line, one with things that can be purchased with food stamps, and the other filled with sodas, booze, and other items that would require cash). The ideal answer, of course, is to get rid of the federal food stamp program and let states and communities experiment with the best way of handling these issues. Here's an excerpt from the AP report.
New Yorkers on food stamps would not be allowed to spend them on sugar-sweetened drinks under an obesity-fighting proposal being floated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson. ...If approved, it would be the first time an item would be banned from the federal program based solely on nutritional value. The idea has been suggested previously, including in 2008 in Maine, where it drew criticism from advocates for the poor who argued it unfairly singled out low-income people and risked scaring off potential needy recipients. And in 2004 the USDA rejected Minnesota's plan to ban junk food, including soda and candy, from food stamp purchases, saying it would violate the Food Stamp Act's definition of what is food and could create "confusion and embarrassment" at the register. The food stamp system...does not currently restrict any other foods based on nutrition. Recipients can essentially buy any food for the household, although there are some limits on hot or prepared foods. Food stamps also cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes or items such as pet food, vitamins or household goods. ...There still are many unhealthful products New Yorkers could purchase with food stamps, including potato chips, ice cream and candy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Where are the '60s Hippies Now that They're Needed to Fight Keynesianism?

Keynesian economic theory is the social-science version of a perpetual motion machine. It assumes that you can increase your prosperity by taking money out of your left pocket and putting it in your right pocket. Not surprisingly, nations that adopt this approach do not succeed. Deficit spending did not work for Hoover and Roosevelt is the 1930s. It did not work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn't worked for Bush or Obama.

The Keynesians invariably respond by arguing that these failures simply show that politicians didn't spend enough money. I don't know whether to be amused or horrified, but some Keynesians even say that a war would be the best way of boosting economic growth. Here's a blurb from a story in National Journal.
America's economic outlook is so grim, and political solutions are so utterly absent, that only another large-scale war might be enough to lift the nation out of chronic high unemployment and slow growth, two prominent economists, a conservative and a liberal, said today. Nobelist Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, and Harvard's Martin Feldstein, the former chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, achieved an unnerving degree of consensus about the future during an economic forum in Washington. ...Krugman and Feldstein, though often on opposite sides of the political fence on fiscal and tax policy, both appeared to share the view that political paralysis in Washington has rendered the necessary fiscal and monetary stimulus out of the question. Only a high-impact "exogenous" shock like a major war -- something similar to what Krugman called the "coordinated fiscal expansion known as World War II" -- would be enough to break the cycle. ...Both reiterated their previously argued views that the Obama administration's stimulus was far too small to fill the output gap.
Two additional comments. First, if Martin Feldstein's views on this issue represent what it means to be a conservative, then I'm especially glad I'm a libertarian. Second, Alan Reynolds has a good piece eviscerating Keynesianism, including a section dealing with Krugman's World-War-II-was-good-for-the-economy assertion.

Retirees Are the Third Victims of Obamacare

We've already identified kids and low-income workers as groups that are being hurt by the new scheme for government-run healthcare. Now we can add retirees to the list. Gee, I wonder what happened to that promise about being able to keep your existing health plan? Here's an excerpt from a story in the Wall Street Journal.

3M Co. confirmed it would eventually stop offering its health-insurance plan to retirees, citing the federal health overhaul as a factor. The changes won't start to phase in until 2013. But they show how companies are beginning to respond to the new law... 3M illustrates that others may not opt to retain such plans over the next few years... The company didn't specify how many workers would be impacted. It currently has 23,000 U.S. retirees. ...Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said that "for all the employees who were promised they'd be able to keep their current benefits after the health-care law passed, I'm worried that the recent changes we've heard about...are just the beginning."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Taxpayers vs Bureaucrats, Part XLI

I've avoided this topic in recent weeks because it's too depressing, but this story is too outrageous to ignore. The County of Los Angeles has 199 bureaucrats who "earned" more than $250,000 last year. According to Census Bureau data for 2008, the median household income in the county was 55,000, Here's a blurb from the L.A.Times about incomes of the bureaucratic gilded class.

Nearly 200 Los Angeles County employees earned more than a quarter of a million dollars in 2009, according to a list of the county's top earners released late Monday in response to a Public Records Act request from The Times. The highest earners list was dominated by physicians and other medical personnel, but also included county firefighters and a handful of top sheriff's employees. Some of the best-known names on the list belong to elected officials — although none of the five county supervisors, who make $178,789 a year, qualified. ...The Times requested the base salary, overtime and "other earnings" for county employees whose total annual pay exceeded $250,000. "Other earnings" can include bonuses for special skills or responsibilities or unused benefits cashed out as taxable income, among other things. ...Overtime played a big role, with only 65 people making the list on base salary alone. Thirty workers made more than $80,000 in overtime. Twenty-two of them work for the county Fire Department, four work for public hospitals, two were psychiatrists for the Mental Health Department, and two were physician specialists for the Sheriff's Department.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Obama's Policy Failure, Part I

Former Senator Phil Gramm had a column last week in the Wall Street Journal that deserves two blog posts. This first post highlights Gramm's analysis showing that the U.S. has been very Keynesian compared to Europe, with numerous efforts to jump start the economy with deficit spending. But Senator Gramm hits the nail on the head, comparing America's tepid recovery with the better performance across the Atlantic.

During the average recovery since World War II, gross domestic product (GDP) surpassed the pre-recession high five quarters after the recession began. It has never taken longer than seven quarters. Yet today, after 11 quarters, GDP is still below what it was in the fourth quarter of 2007. The economy is growing at only about a third of the rate of previous postwar recoveries from major recessions. Obama administration officials such as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have argued that without their policies the economy would be worse, and we might have fallen "off a cliff." While this assertion cannot be tested, we can compare the recent experience of other countries to our own. ...There are 4.6% fewer people employed in the U.S. today than at the start of the recession. Euro zone countries have lost 1.7% of their jobs. ...This simple comparison suggests...that American economic policy has been less effective in increasing employment than the policies of other developed nations. ...While the most recent quarterly growth figures are just a snapshot in time, it is hardly encouraging that economic growth in the U.S. (1.7%) is lower than in the euro zone (4%), U.K. (4.8%), G-7 (2.8%) and OECD (2%).

Here's How to Balance the Budget

Our fiscal policy goal should be smaller government, but here's a video for folks who think that balancing the budget should be the main objective.

The main message is that restraining the growth of government is the right way to get rid of red ink, so there is no conflict between advocates of limited government and supporters of fiscal balance.

More specifically, the video shows that it is possible to quickly balance the budget while also making all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent and protecting taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax. All these good things can happen if politicians simply limit annual spending growth to 2 percent each year. And they'll happen even faster if spending grows at an even slower rate.

This debunks the statist argument that there is no choice but to raise taxes.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

There Is No Libertarian or Conservative Argument for Higher Taxes

Eli Lehrer has an article on the FrumForum entitled "Five Revenue Raisers the GOP Should Back." He argues it would be good to get rid of preferences such as the state and local tax deduction and the mortgage interest deduction, and he also asserts that there should be "user fees" for things such as transportation.

As an avid supporter of a flat tax and market pricing, I have no objection to these policies. Indeed, I would love to get rid of the state and local tax deduction so that taxpayers in Texas and Florida no longer have to subsidize the fiscal profligacy of politicians in California and New York.

But there is a giant difference between getting rid of certain tax preferences as part of revenue-neutral (or even better, tax-cutting) tax reform and getting rid of tax preferences in order to give politicians more revenue to spend.

The former is a noble goal. Who can argue, after all, with the idea of getting rid of the corrupt and punitive internal revenue code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax? Lots of loopholes are eliminated, so there are plenty of tax-raising provisions in tax reform. But every one of those provisions is offset by provisions that lower tax rates and get rid of double taxation of saving and investment.

The latter, by contrast, is an exercise in trying to lose with minimal damage - sort of the "French Army Theory" of taxation, surrender gracefully and hope that your new masters give you a few crumbs after their celebratory feast.

What is especially strange about this approach is that the Republicans who advocate higher taxes claim that they are political realists. Yet if we look at real-world evidence, the moment Republicans show their "realism" by putting taxes on the table, the entire debate shifts.

Instead of the debate being tax-hikes vs. no-tax-hikes, it becomes a debate over who-should-pay-more-tax. Republicans win the first debate. They get slaughtered in the second debate.

Remember when the first President Bush agreed to enter into tax-hike negotiations in 1990? He set out two conditions - that there should be a reduction in the capital gains tax and that there should be no increase in income tax rates. So what happened? As everyone with an IQ above room temperature predicted, the capital gains tax stayed the same and income tax rates increased.

Last but not least, this conversation only exists because some people have thrown in the towel, acquiescing to the idea that there is no way to balance the budget without higher taxes. Yet the Congressional Budget Office data shows that the budget can be balanced by 2020 simply by limiting annual spending growth to 2 percent.

Low-Income Workers Are the Second Victims of Obamacare

This blog already has noted that Obamacare has crippled the market for "kids only" health insurance policies. Unsurprisingly, that is just the beginning of the bad news. The latest development is that health policies designed to provide insurance to low-income workers may no longer be economically feasible. The Wall Street Journal comments.

Among President Obama's core health-care promises was that Americans can keep their current coverage if they like it. Among the reasons that a new ObamaCare squall blows in every other day is that this claim simply is not true, as people are discovering. The latest fracas was incited by Janet Adamy's scoop in the Journal this week that McDonald's Corp. may be forced to cancel its current coverage for 29,500 employees as a result of ObamaCare. McDonald's told Health and Human Services regulators that new mandates will make its plans "economically prohibitive" and cause "a huge disruption" unless it gets a waiver. ...The entire philosophical and policy architecture of ObamaCare is explicitly designed to standardize health benefits and how those benefits should be paid for. Those choices and tradeoffs will be made for everyone by Ms. Sebelius's regulators. ...Around 2.5 million consumers are covered by "mini-med" policies, most of them concentrated in low-wage industries like fast food, hospitality and retail that have large numbers of part-time or temporary workers. In the case of the restaurants, 75% of the workforce turns over every year and nearly half are under age 25. Mini-med plans are a temporary stopgap for businesses that have low margins and face high labor and health costs. But Democrats hate mini-med and other skinny-benefit plans, calling them "underinsurance." ObamaCare is meant to run them out of the market by mandating benefits, eliminating coverage caps and certain technical rules about how premiums must be spent. ...In other words, the choice is between relatively affordable coverage that isn't as generous as Democrats think it should be and dumping coverage entirely. McDonald's may eventually offer the high-cost plans that Ms. Sebelius favors, or get its waiver, but many of its less profitable or smaller competitors won't. While subsidized ObamaCare options will be available in 2014, those costs will merely be transferred to taxpayers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Talking Taxes on Freedom Watch with Judge Napolitano

I'm not a big fan of multi-guest panels, but I think this interview went well.

Halfway Around the World, Fighting for Freedom, Low Taxes, and Sovereignty

I'm in Singapore for two days to help fight the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a statist international bureaucracy based in Paris. The OECD has something called a global tax forum, the purpose of which is to harass so-called tax haven in hopes of coercing them into acting as tax collectors for Europe's decrepit welfare states. Here's the executive summary from the memo I wrote, which warns low-tax jurisdictions that the OECD may push even harder to undermine fiscal sovereignty because of fears that a GOP takeover of Congress will make it more difficult to push for tax harmonization policies in the future.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has an ongoing project to prop up Europe’s inefficient welfare states by attacking tax competition in hopes of enabling governments to impose heavier tax burdens. This project received a boost when the Obama Administration joined forces with countries such as France and Germany, but the tide is now turning against high-tax nations – particularly as more people understand that such an approach inevitably leads to Greek-style fiscal collapse. Looming political changes in the United States will further complicate the OECD's ability to impose bad policy. Because of these developments, low-tax jurisdictions should be especially wary of schemes to rush through new anti-tax competition initiatives at the Singapore Global Forum.
The good news is that nothing dramatic took place on the first day of the two-day conference. the OECD continued to bully low-tax jurisdictions to sign information-sharing agreements and the low-tax jurisdictions kept asking for double-taxation agreements so they could get some benefit in exchange for weakening their human rights/financial privacy laws. The OECD and high-tax nations have been ignoring these requests for a two-way street, thus continuing their bad-faith behavior.

For more information on this issue, here's a link to my video on tax competition, and here are a handful of TV appearances where I discuss the issue. This is a challenging issue to debate, so I'd welcome feedback on which arguments you think are most effective.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Obama Tax Plan: Putting Demagoguery Before Jobs

I've already commented on the Democrats deciding to wait until after the election before figuring out what to do about the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. This was a remarkable development since failure to extend these pieces of legislation means a big tax increase next January. But this doesn't mean the Democrats are sitting on their hands. The President has a proposal to significantly increase the tax burden on American companies that compete in world markets, and Democrats on Capitol Hill think this is a winning political issue. They think higher taxes will encourage companies to keep more jobs in America, and they hope voters agree. But as the Wall Street Journal opines, this is a recipe for undermining the competitiveness f American companies. This means fewer jobs, and probably less tax revenue.

...the President's plan reveals how out of touch Democrats are with the real world of tax competition. The U.S. already has one of the most punitive corporate tax regimes in the world and this tax increase would make that competitive disadvantage much worse, accelerating the very outsourcing of jobs that Mr. Obama says he wants to reverse. At issue is how the government taxes American firms that make money overseas. Under current tax law, American companies pay the corporate tax rate in the host country where the subsidiary is located and then pay the difference between the U.S. rate (35%) and the foreign rate when they bring profits back to the U.S. This is called deferral—i.e., the U.S. tax is deferred until the money comes back to these shores. Most countries do not tax the overseas profits of their domestic companies. Mr. Obama's plan would apply the U.S. corporate tax on overseas profits as soon as they are earned. This is intended to discourage firms from moving operations out of the U.S. ...Mr. Obama believes that by increasing the U.S. tax on overseas profits, some companies may be less likely to invest abroad in the first place. In some cases that will be true. But the more frequent result will be that U.S. companies lose business to foreign rivals, U.S. firms are bought by tax-advantaged foreign companies, and some U.S. multinational firms move their headquarters overseas. They can move to Ireland (where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%) or Germany or Taiwan, or dozens of countries with less hostile tax climates. We know this will happen because we've seen it before. The 1986 tax reform abolished deferral of foreign shipping income earned by U.S. controlled firms. No other country taxed foreign shipping income. Did this lead to more business for U.S. shippers? Precisely the opposite. According to a 2007 study in Tax Notes by former Joint Committee on Taxation director Ken Kies, "Over the 1985-2004 period, the U.S.-flag fleet declined from 737 to 412 vessels, causing U.S.-flag shipping capacity, measured in deadweight tonnage, to drop by more than 50%." ...Now the White House wants to repeat this experience with all U.S. companies. Two industries that would be most harmed would be financial services and technology, and their emphasis on human capital makes them especially able to pack up and move their operations abroad. CEO Steve Ballmer has warned that if the President's plan is enacted, Microsoft would move facilities and jobs out of the U.S.
I've commented on this issue before, but I think the best explanation is in this video, which makes the key observation that American tax law may be able to discourage U.S. firms from building factories in other nations, but that simply means that companies from other countries will be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of Democrats, at least in private, admit that going after "deferral" is bad policy. But this makes the current proposal especially disgusting. People in the White House and on Capitol Hill know it will hurt jobs and reduce competitiveness, but they don't care. Or at least they put political ambition before doing what's right for the American people.

If they really cared, the would fix what's wrong with the current system. A very effective way to encourage more jobs and investment in America is to lower the corporate tax rate, which is the point I made in the Center for Freedom and Prosperity's first video.

Are the Germans and French Really More Hostile to Big Government than Americans?!?

I always view polling data with a bit of skepticism, but I'm nonetheless embarrassed by new data from a 22-nation poll showing that German and French respondents are even more opposed to so-called stimulus spending than American respondents. If Americans are to the left of Europeans on size-of-government issues, that does not bode well for our future. On the other had, at least we're not as naive and/or stupid as Egyptians, Mexicans, Russians, Indonesians, and Nigerians. Here's a blurb from the summary.

In 14 of 22 countries most people--on average 56 per cent--favour an increase in government spending to stimulate the economy. This includes large majorities of Egyptians (91%), Mexicans (80%), Russians and Indonesians (both 78%), and Nigerians (73%). But majorities are opposed in a number of industrialised countries that had large stimulus programmes--Germany (66%), France (63%) and the US (58%).
The good news from the poll is that a majority of people around the world recognize that governments waste money at alarming rates. Americans think that 55 percent of their taxes are squandered. The Spanish, for inexplicable reasons, are most likely to think money is not wasted (perhaps because most of them have their snouts in the pubic trough?).

People believe that their government misspends more than half the money they pay in tax, according to the findings of a new BBC World Service global poll across 22 countries--but many are still looking to government to play a more active economic role. The poll of more than 22,000 people, conducted by GlobeScan/PIPA, found that people estimated on average that 52 per cent of the money they pay in tax is not used in ways that serve the interests and values of the people of their country. ...The countries with the lowest average estimate of misspent tax money were Spain (average 34% misspent), Indonesia (40%), Azerbaijan and Egypt (both 42%). The highest were in Columbia (74% misspent) and Pakistan (69%). In the world's two largest economies, Americans estimate on average that 55 per cent of their taxes are misspent, while in China the figure is 46 per cent. ...As well as being less likely to support action to address the deficit, those who have the highest estimates of tax misspending are less likely to support government stimulus spending--among those who think that more than three-quarters of their tax money is misspent, only 47 per cent believe the government should spend to stimulate the economy.
The full report can be read here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Some Monday Humor

I don't know if this is true, but it's been circulating for so long that there's probably some fire under all the smoke. Does anybody know if this is for real, or an urban legend?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why Are We Paying $100 Million to International Bureaucrats in Paris so They Can Endorse Obama's Statist Agenda?

There's a wise old saying about "don't bite the hand that feeds you." But perhaps we need a new saying along the lines of "don't subsidize the foot that kicks you." Here's a good example: American taxpayers finance the biggest share of the budget for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is an international bureaucracy based in Paris. The OECD is not as costly as the United Nations, but it still soaks up about $100 million of American tax dollars each year. And what do we get in exchange for all this money? Sadly, the answer is lots of bad policy. The bureaucrats (who, by the way, get tax-free salaries) just released their "Economic Survey of the United States, 2010" and it contains a wide range of statist analysis and big-government recommendations.

The Survey endorses Obama's failed Keynesian spending bill and the Fed's easy-money policy, stating, "The substantial fiscal and monetary stimulus successfully turned the economy around." If 9.6 percent unemployment and economic stagnation is the OECD's idea of success, I'd hate to see what they consider a failure. Then again, the OECD is based in Paris, so even America's anemic economy may seem vibrant from that perspective.

The Survey also targets some very prominent tax loopholes, asserting that, "The mortgage interest deduction should be reduced or eliminated" and "the government should reduce further this [health care exclusion] tax expenditure." If the entire tax code was being ripped up and replaced with a simple and fair flat tax, these would be good policies. Unfortunately (but predictably), the OECD supports these policies as a means of increasing the overall tax burden and giving politicians more money to spend.

Speaking of tax increases, the OECD is in love with higher taxes. The Paris-based bureaucrats endorse Obama's soak-the-rich tax agenda, including higher income tax rates, higher capital gains tax rates, more double taxation of dividends, and a reinstated death tax. Perhaps because they don't pay tax and are clueless about how the real world operates, the bureaucrats state that "...the Administration’s fiscal plan is ambitious...and should therefore be implemented in full."

But even that's not enough. The OECD then puts together a menu of additional taxes and even gives political advice on how to get away with foisting these harsh burdens on innocent American taxpayers. According to the Survey, "A variety of options is available to raise tax revenue, some of which are discussed below. Combined, they have the potential to raise considerably more revenue... The advantage of relying on a package of measures is that the increase in taxation faced by individual groups is more limited than otherwise, reducing incentives to mobilise to oppose the tax increase.

The biggest kick in the teeth, though, is the OECD's support for a value-added tax. The bureaucrats wrote that, "Raising consumption taxes, notably by introducing a federal value-added tax (VAT), could therefore be another approach... A national VAT would be easier to enforce than other taxes, as each firm in the production chain pays only a fraction of the tax and must report the sales of other firms."

But just in case you think the OECD is myopically focused on tax increases, you'll be happy to know it is a full-service generator of bad ideas. The Paris-based bureaucracy also is a rabid supporter of the global-warming/climate-change/whatever-they're-calling-it-now agenda. There's an entire chapter in the survey on the issue, but the key passages is, "The current Administration is endeavouring to establish a comprehensive climate-change policy, the main planks of which are pricing GHG emissions and supporting the development of innovative technologies to reduce GHG emissions. As discussed above and emphasized in the OECD (2009), this is the right approach... Congress should pass comprehensive climate-change legislation."

You won't be surprised to learn that the OECD's reflexive support for higher taxes appears even in this section. The bureaucrats urge that "such regulation should be complemented by increases in gasoline and other fossil-fuel taxes."

If you're still not convinced the OECD is a giant waste of money for American taxpayers, I suggest you watch this video released by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity about two months ago. It's a damning indictment of the OECD's statist agenda (and this was before the bureaucrats released the horrid new "Economic Survey of the United States").

Kids Are the First Victims of Obamacare

In the real world, rational people know that companies will stop selling products if they are forced to lose money. In the political world, though, common sense doesn't matter. Or at least it ranks far below other considerations, such as power, polling, fundraising, and spite. If you think I'm being too harsh, just look at what's happened since Obamacare. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the "child-only" insurance market has been decimated by a new law that allows parents to wait until children get sick before buying insurance. Needless to say, that is an open invitation to lose money, and no business (other than crony capitalism entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) exists to throw away shareholder funds. Obama, Pelosi, and Reid probably think this is a good development, however, since they can demagogue against "greedy" insurance companies and claim that government should fully take over the health care system.

This week, almost every big insurance company in America—including Aetna, Cigna, UnitedHealth Group, WellPoint, Humana, Coventry, some Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates and others—stopped writing "child-only" policies in the individual market. This is a niche product that parents typically buy when their employer health plan doesn't cover dependents. The exact plans vary company to company and state to state, and the insurers will still offer family policies and make good on the child-only policies that they've already sold. But most won't be writing new ones. In other words, for-profit businesses are refusing to sell products that consumers want to buy. Exact data aren't available, but the child-only market covers roughly a million kids a year. The reason is a regulation that President Obama mentions every time he talks about health care, as he did recently in Falls Church, Virginia: "Children who have pre-existing conditions are going to be covered." Insurers are now required to cover everyone under 19 when their parents apply for coverage, regardless of health status. The problem with this kind of "guaranteed issue" is that it encourages people, in this case parents, to wait until their kids are sick before seeking coverage. This drives up premiums for the healthy, encouraging consumers in turn to drop coverage, and eventually it leads to what's known as a "death spiral," the industry term for an insurer with rapidly increasing costs as a result of population changes in its coverage pool. The child-only market is a particular death-spiral risk because it is so small and unstable, which explains why so many insurers left in a stroke. The collapse of the child-only market is a preview of what will happen when guaranteed issue and the rest of ObamaCare comes on line in 2014 for adults, except then insurers will have nowhere to flee. Exiting the market will mean going out of business.

Every Patriotic American Should Support the President

I wish the title of this blog post referred to the President of the United States, but instead our praise is directed across the Atlantic, to the President of the Czech Republic, who wisely has warned against giving "global governance" powers to the international bureaucrats at the United Nations. President Vaclav Klaus is a great man, who has battled against immense odds to preserve national sovereignty, resisting statist initiatives such as the new EU Constitution (aka, the Lisbon Treaty) and global warming schemes. Klaus understands that international bureaucracies are staffed by leftist ideologues who reflexively distrust markets. Equally important, he recognizes that governments will use "global governance" as a scheme to create tax and regulatory cartels that inevitably expand the burden of government and reduce competition among nations. Here's a Reuters report on the strong speech Klaus gave to the kleptocrats at the United Nations.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus on Saturday criticized U.N. calls for increased "global governance" of the world's economy, saying the world body should leave that role to national governments. The solution to dealing with the global economic crisis, Klaus told the U.N. General Assembly, did not lie in "creating new governmental and supranational agencies, or in aiming at global governance of the world economy." "On the contrary, this is the time for international organizations, including the United Nations, to reduce their expenditures, make their administrations thinner, and leave the solutions to the governments of member states," he said. ...Klaus, a free-market economist who oversaw a wave of privatization in the 1990s after communism collapsed in his homeland, also said the world was "moving in the wrong direction" in combating the economic crisis. "The anti-crisis measures that have been proposed and already partly implemented follow from the assumption that the crisis was a failure of markets and that the right way out is more regulation of markets," he said. Klaus said that was a "mistaken assumption" and it was impossible to prevent future crises through regulatory interventions and similar actions by governments. That will only "destroy the markets and together with them the chances for economic growth and prosperity in both developed and developing countries," he said.
A couple of years ago, I had the honor of introducing Klaus at a conference in France. Very rarely do I meet a politician that exudes philosophical integrity. Klaus was one of those unusual cases. And if you want to know why it is important to preserve jurisdictional competition, here is a video on the specific issue of tax competition. This is rather timely since I leave tomorrow for Singapore, where I will be doing everything I can to undermine the pampered bureaucrats at the OECD and their sinister plans to create a global tax cartel to prop up Europe's inefficient welfare states.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Warren Buffett: Good Investor, Crummy Economist

Warren Buffett once said that it wasn't right for his secretary to have a higher tax rate than he faced, leading me to point out that he didn't understand tax policy. The 15 percent tax rates on dividends and capital gains to which he presumably was referring represents double taxation, and when added to the tax that already was paid on the income he invested (and the tax that one imagines will be imposed on that same income when he dies), it is quite obvious that his effective marginal tax rates is much higher than anything his secretary pays. Though he is right that his secretary's tax rate is much too high.

Well, it turns out that Warren Buffett also doesn't understand much about other areas of fiscal policy. Like a lot of ultra-rich liberals who have lost touch with the lives of regular people, he thinks taxpayer anger is misguided. Not only does he scold people for being upset, but he regurgitates the most simplistic Keynesian talking points to justify Obama's spending spree. Here's an excerpt from his hometown paper.

Taxpayer anger against President Barack Obama and Congress is counterproductive because policy makers took measures including deficit spending to stimulate the economy, billionaire investor Warren Buffett told CNBC. ...“I hope we get over it pretty soon, because it’s not productive,’’ Buffett said. “We will come back regardless of how people feel about Washington, but it is not helpful to have people as unhappy as they are about what’s going on in Washington.” ...“The truth is we’re running a federal deficit that’s 9 percent of gross domestic product,” Buffett said. “That’s stimulative as all get out. It’s more stimulative than any policy we’ve followed since World War II.”
About the only positive thing one can say about Buffett's fiscal policy track record is that he is nowhere close to being the most inaccurate person in the United States, a title that Mark Zandi surely will own for the indefinite future.

The Democrats Unfurl the White Flag on Taxes and Class Warfare

I'm dumbfounded and amazed. When Democrats and Republicans have a game of chicken, the GOP blinks 99 percent of the time. And I thought for sure this was going to happen in the fight about whether to extend all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (the GOP position), or whether to impose a big, class-warfare tax increase on investors entrepreneurs (the Obama position to punsih the so-called rich). Democrats simply needed to get one Republican senator to surrender and they would have 60 votes in the Senate to overcome any procedural objection. But, to my astonishment, this didn't happen. Democrats threw in the towel. Not totally, the issue is simply being postponed to a "lame duck" session after the election, but it's hard to see how the left will feel any more emboldened after being kicked in the teeth by voters. But there is a very dark lining to this silver cloud. As the Wall Street Journal warns, many statists actually want a big tax increase on everybody, and they can make this happen by simply sitting on their hands.

Only a week ago, President Obama and his media supporters were asserting that they had Republicans caught in their class-war pincers: They'd lure the GOP into opposing an extension of lower tax rates for the middle class in order to defend lower tax rates for those making more than $200,000 a year. ...[but] the Democrats have cut and run, lest they get blamed for voting for a tax increase in a slow-growth economy. This is how legislative majorities behave when they've lost the political argument and can sense their days are numbered. ...Democrats will now enter the campaign's home stretch with the threat that all of the Bush-era tax rates could expire on January 1. That means the lowest tax bracket would revert to 15% from 10%, the per child tax credit would revert to $500 from $1,000, and millions of middle class families would pay thousands of dollars more in federal taxes. Keep in mind that this is the not-so-secret desire of many on the left who think the country "can't afford" to let Americans keep so much of their own money. Peter Orszag has already admitted this since leaving his post as White House budget director. What these Democrats really mean is that they think the only way to pay for their spending plans is by soaking the middle class—because that's where the real money is. ...Liberals pretend they can finance a European-style entitlement state by taxing only the rich because they know that soaking the middle class is unpopular.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Contest: Which Story Is More Upsetting?

Here's a change of pace. Instead of doing separate blog posts on the following two stories, I'm curious to see which one generates the most irritation/anger/disgust from you readers. The first option comes from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, which is appropriately upset that Government Motors...oops, I mean General back in the business of lobbying and dishing out campaign contributions. I don't think there's anything wrong with petitioning government and participating in the political process, but I don't think individuals or companies should be doing it with money taken from me by a coercive government.

General Motors is 61%-owned by American taxpayers, who were less than thrilled when forced to buy GM by Presidents Bush and Obama. We can only imagine how M's unwilling owners will react now that the company is once again spending freely on lobbying and political campaigns. The Journal reports that the company has been particularly kind lately to Midwestern Democratic incumbents while shovelling out a total of $90,500 in campaign donations so far in the current election cycle. On the lobbying side, The Hill newspaper reports that GM has spent $7 million in the four quarters since exiting bankruptcy, retaining a who's who of Washington hired guns. This may sound like the business model of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac all over again, but remember that the failed mortgage giants at least had to shut down most of their Beltway influence operation once they explicitly became wards of the state. GM has your money and now it apparently has the license to use it to lobby Congress and support its political friends. ...There's also the intriguing legal matter of the United Auto Workers union still lobbying Congress and supporting political campaigns even after becoming a partner with the government in the automobile business.
The second option embarrasses me greatly, because it is a sign of bureaucratic nonsense from my beloved University of Georgia. A student got in trouble for sending an email to the Parking Services division to gripe about the lack of scooter parking. The snot-nosed bureaucrat who received the email apparently got the vapors because of this sentence: "Did you guys just throw darts at a map to decide where to put scooter corrals? Can I expect you guys to get off your asses and put in a corral near there some point before I fucking graduate and/or the sun runs out of hydrogen?" This led to the student being subjected to real threats and potential disciplinary action. Fortunately, the great folks at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came to the rescue and the craven bureaucrats at UGA backed down.
The University of Georgia (UGA) has withdrawn charges of "disorderly conduct" and "disruption" filed against a student after he sent a mocking e-mail to UGA Parking Services to complain about the lack of parking spaces for scooters on campus. Although Parking Services specifically asks students for both "negative & positive" comments on its performance, student Jacob Lovell spent nearly a month under the threat of punishment after submitting his e-mail. UGA backed down after Lovell came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. "Jacob Lovell just wanted to park his scooter on campus, and when he found it a frustrating experience he sent a joking e-mail to the department that had asked for his feedback. But when it received his e-mail, he was threatened with punishment!" said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "Only on a college campus could a clearly flippant response to requests for complaints about parking on campus be turned into a judicial investigation for disorderly conduct." ...On August 17, 2010, Lovell e-mailed Parking Services with his complaint about its service. His flippant and joking e-mail mused, "Did you guys just throw darts at a map to decide where to put scooter corrals?" and otherwise made fun of the department for what he perceived to be its poor job of providing parking for scooters. Four hours later, Parking Services replied, "Your e-mail was sent to student judiciary." On September 3, 2010, Associate Dean of Students Kimberly Ellis sent Lovell a letter charging him with two violations of UGA's University Conduct Regulations, stating, "Specifically, it is alleged that Mr. Lovell engaged in disorderly conduct and disrupted parking services when he sent an email to them that was threatening." ...The letter required Lovell to make a disciplinary appointment by September 13. Ellis informed Lovell that failure to do so would result in his record being "flagged," rendering him unable to add, drop, or register for classes. Lovell complied with this requirement on September 13. Meanwhile, on September 10, FIRE wrote UGA President Michael F. Adams, explaining that Lovell's grievance was protected by the First Amendment. FIRE also repeated to President Adams that UGA maintains unconstitutional speech codes in addition to the regulations used against Lovell's protected speech, and that administrators could be held personally liable by a court for the violation of students' constitutional rights, as a federal judge in Georgia ruled recently. On September 14, Ellis informed Lovell that she "did not find sufficient evidence to move forward" with the charges and that the matter was now "closed."
So which story is more nauseating? In the grand scheme of things, the General Motors story is more meaningful because the company is stealing our money and then using our money to lobby for more handouts. Yet I can't help but think the UGA story is very symbolic of arrogant and stupid bureaucracy. as many of us have experienced on our trips to a DMV or our efforts to get through security at airports. Every encounter creates the risk that a job-for-life bureaucrat may decide to make your life miserable.

Wages Should Be Determined by Markets, not Quota-Driven Bureaucrats

Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute decimates the bean-counting feminist "paycheck fairness" legislation being considered by the Senate. Republicans presumably know this is a bad idea, but one can only wonder whether they will do the right thing and block this initiative that at best will be a boon for trial lawyers and at worst will lead to massive government intervention in employment markets. Here's an excerpt from her New York Times column.

...on the Senate's to-do list before the November elections is a "paycheck fairness" bill, which would make it easier for women to file class-action, punitive-damages suits against employers they accuse of sex-based pay discrimination. ...the bill...overlooks mountains of research showing that discrimination plays little role in pay disparities between men and women, and it threatens to impose onerous requirements on employers to correct gaps over which they have little control. ...proponents point out that for every dollar men earn, women earn just 77 cents. ...there are lots of...reasons men might earn more than women, including differences in education, experience and job tenure. When these factors are taken into account the gap narrows considerably - in some studies, to the point of vanishing. A recent survey found that young, childless, single urban women earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts, mostly because more of them earn college degrees. Moreover, a 2009 analysis of wage-gap studies commissioned by the Labor Department evaluated more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and concluded that the aggregate wage gap "may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers." ...The Paycheck Fairness bill would set women against men, empower trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women in the workplace and create havoc in a precarious job market. It is 1970s-style gender-war feminism.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The GOP "Pledge" Doesn't Go Far Enough: There Should Be No Federal Government Role in Housing

Considering they could have sat on their hands and relied on unhappy voters to give them big gains in November, I'm not too unhappy about the House GOP's "Pledge to America." Yes, it's mostly filled with inoffensive motherhood-and-apple-pie language, but at least there's some rhetoric about reining in excessive government. After eight years of fiscal profligacy under Bush, maybe this is a small sign that Republicans won't screw up again if they wind up back in power. That being said, I was a bit disappointed that the GOP couldn't even muster the courage to shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two corrupt government-created entities that bear so much responsibility for the housing mess and subsequent financial crisis. The best the GOP could do was to say "Since taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that triggered the financial meltdown by giving too many high risk loans to people who couldn’t afford them, taxpayers were billed more than $145 billion to save the two companies. We will reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by ending their government takeover, shrinking their portfolios, and establishing minimum capital standards." Is it really asking too much for Republicans to simply say "The federal government has no role in housing and Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be eliminated." Heck, the GOP's Pledge doesn't even mention a penny's worth of budget cuts for HUD. Here's an excerpt from Peter Wallison's Bloomberg column, which explains why Fannie and Freddie should be decapitated.

In a year when angry voters are demanding a reduced government role in the economy, it is remarkable that most of the ideas for supplanting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just imaginative ways of keeping government in the business of housing finance. ...This is pretty astonishing. One would think that something might have been learned from the recent past, when two New Deal ideas for government housing support--the savings and loan industry and the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--failed spectacularly. It cost taxpayers $150 billion to clean up the first and may cost more than $400 billion to resolve the second. ...government policy that deliberately degrades loan quality or creates moral hazard will eventually cause devastation in the housing market. ...Government involvement in housing finance is an invitation to disaster. As illustrated by the S&Ls and GSEs, no matter how such a system is structured, government support will hide the real risks.

Bashing Bailouts and Inflexible Unions

No CAP bedwetter to debate in this segment.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Strangling Entrepreneurship and Job Creation with $1.75 Trillion of Regulation and Red Tape

A new study from the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy concludes that annual regulatory costs jumped by nearly $600 billion between 2005 and 2008. Thanks to the Obama Administration's big-government agenda, the burden of red tape today doubtlessly is much higher, but the 2008 estimate is enough to generate some very sobering numbers. A $1.75 trillion regulatory cost works out to be more than $15,500 for every household and more than $8,000 for every employee in the country. Red tape is especially challenging for smaller firms, as noted in these key findings from the summary:

The research finds that the total costs of federal regulations have further increased from the level established in the 2005 study, as have the costs per employee. More specifically, the total cost of federal regulations has increased to $1.75 trillion, while the updated cost per employee for firms with fewer than 20 employees is now $10,585 (a 36 percent difference between the costs incurred by small firms when compared with their larger counterparts).
To be sure, some forms of regulation, such as environmental protection, generate benefits. There generally are not good estimates needed to produce cost-benefit analyses, but it is quite likely that the costs are much higher than necessary - particularly for economic regulation, the burden of which is more than three times larger than the costs of environmental regulation.

It's Simple to Balance the Budget without Higher Taxes

John Podesta of the Center for American Progress had a column in Politico yesterday asserting that "closing the budget gap entirely on the spending side would require draconian programmatic cuts." He went on to complain that there are some people who "refuse to look at the revenue side of the ledger – while insisting that we dig the hole $830 billion deeper over the next decade by extending the Bush tax cuts."

Not surprisingly, Mr. Podesta is totally wrong. It's actually not that challenging to balance the budget. And it doesn't even require any spending cuts, though it would be a very good idea to dramatically downsize the federal government. Here's a chart showing this year's spending and revenue totals. It then shows the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of how much revenues will grow, assuming all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and assuming that the alternative minimum tax is adjusted for inflation. As you can see, balancing the budget is a simple matter of limiting the annual growth of federal spending.

So how is it that Mr. Podesta can spout sky-is-falling rhetoric about "draconian" cuts when all that's needed is fiscal restraint? The answer is that politicians in Washington have concocted a self-serving budget process that automatically assumes that all previously-planned spending increases should occur. So if the politicians put us on a path to make government 8 percent bigger next year and there is a proposal to instead limit spending growth to 3 percent, that 3 percent increase gets portrayed as a 5 percent cut.

This is a great scam, at least for the political class. They get to buy more votes by boosting the burden of government spending, but they get to tell voters that they're being fiscally responsible. And they get to claim that they have no choice but to raise taxes because there's no other way to balance the budget. In the real world, though, this translates into bigger government and puts us on a path to a Greek-style fiscal nightmare.

The goal of fiscal policy should be smaller government, not fiscal balance. Deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too large, as I have explained elsewhere. But the good news is that spending discipline is the right answer, regardless of the objective. I explained this in more detail for a piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. Here's an excerpt.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government this year is spending almost $3.5 trillion. Tax receipts are estimated to be less than $2.2 trillion, which means a projected deficit of about $1.35 trillion. So can we balance the budget when there is that much red ink? And is it possible to eliminate deficits while also extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts? The answer is yes. ...It's a simple matter of mathematics. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that tax revenue will grow by an average of 7.3 percent annually over the next 10 years. Reducing the budget deficit is easy - so long as politicians increase overall spending by less than that amount. And with inflation projected to be about 2 percent over the same period, this is an ideal environment for some long-overdue fiscal discipline. If spending is simply capped at the current level with a hard freeze, the budget is balanced by 2016. If we limit spending growth to 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2017. And if we allow 2 percent annual spending growth - letting the budget keep pace with inflation, the budget balances in 2020. ...Interest groups that are used to big budget increases will be upset if spending growth is limited to 1 or 2 percent each year. It means entitlements will need to be reformed. It means we might need to get rid of programs and departments that are not legitimate functions of the federal government. You better believe that these changes will cause a lot of squealing by lobbyists and other insiders. But that complaining will be a sign that fiscal policy is finally heading in the right direction. The key thing to understand is that there is no need for tax increases. Politicians might not balance the budget if we say no to all tax increases. But the experience in Europe shows that oppressive tax burdens are not a recipe for fiscal balance either. Milton Friedman was correct many years ago when he warned that, "In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

New Orwellian Tax Scheme in England Would Require all Paychecks Go Directly to the Tax Authority

Our tax system in America is an absurd nightmare, but at least we have some ability to monitor what is happening. We can't get too aggressive (nobody wants the ogres at the IRS breathing down their necks), but at least we can adjust our withholding levels and control what gets put on our annual tax returns. The serfs in the United Kingdom are in much worse shape. To a large degree, the tax authority (Inland Revenue) decides everyone's tax liability, and taxpayers have no role other than to meekly acquiesce. But now the statists over in London have decided to go one step farther and have proposed to require employers to send all paychecks directly to the government. The politicians and bureaucrats that comprise the ruling class then would decide how much to pass along to the people actually earning the money. Here's a CNBC report on the issue.
The UK's tax collection agency is putting forth a proposal that all employers send employee paychecks to the government, after which the government would deduct what it deems as the appropriate tax and pay the employees by bank transfer. The proposal by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) stresses the need for employers to provide real-time information to the government so that it can monitor all payments and make a better assessment of whether the correct tax is being paid. ...George Bull, head of Tax at Baker Tilly, told "If HMRC has direct access to employees' bank accounts and makes a mistake, people are going to feel very exposed and vulnerable," Bull said. And the chance of widespread mistakes could be high, according to Bull. HMRC does not have a good track record of handling large computer systems and has suffered high-profile errors with data, he said. ...the cost of implementing the new system would be "phenomenal," Bull pointed out. ...The Institute of Directors (IoD), a UK organization created to promote the business agenda of directors and entreprenuers, said in a press release it had major concerns about the proposal to allow employees' pay to be paid directly to HMRC.
This is withholding on steroids. Politicians love pay-as-you-earn (as it's called on the other side of the ocean), largely because it disguises the burden of government. Many workers never realize how much of their paychecks are confiscated by politicians. Indeed, they probably think greedy companies are to blame when higher tax burdens result in less take-home pay. This new system could have an even more corrosive effect. It presumably would become more difficult for taxpayers to know how much government is costing them, and some people might even begin to think that their pay is the result of political kindness. After all, zoo animals often feel gratitude to the keepers that feed (and enslave) them.

Russian Government Announces 20 Percent Reduction in Number of Bureaucrats

I've already commented on Cuba's surprising announcement to slash the number of government workers. And I've complained about the federal workforce expanding in the United States. Russia wisely is following the Cuban approach on this issue (I never thought I would type those words!) and plans to get rid of 100,000 bureaucrats over the next three years.
Russia will cut its army of bureaucrats by more than 100,000 within the next three years, saving 43 billion rubles ($1.5 billion), Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said on Monday. "We assume more than 100,000 federal state civil jobs will be cut within three years. The government has already included a schedule for cutting the number of federal civil servants in the draft budget for the next three years and coordinated it with ministries and agencies," Kudrin told President Dmitry Medvedev, who in June ordered a 20 percent cut in the number of bureaucrats. Under the government plan, ministries and agencies will have to sack five percent of their staff in 2011 and 2012, and 10 percent in 2013. ...In the last three years, the number of bureaucrats in the federal government had increased by nearly 20,000, in regional governments by 60,000 and at municipalities by 50,000, he said.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Giving Cops Bad Incentives to Harass Victimless Behavior

The Washington Post has an interesting report about the huge amount of money that Fairfax County spends to go after gambling. The story cites critics who ask "why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. The answer is obvious - and explicit in the story: "...police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases." In other words, harassing the gambling business is a profit-making endeavor for police. And it also can be deadly since cops killed an optometrist during a SWAT arrest. The Institute for Justice has a powerful video on the dangers of "policing for profit," and Fairfax County is just one bad example of how this lures cops into misallocating resources to fight behaviors that shouldn't even be illegal.

It's football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. ...It's a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent -- and lost -- more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates. ...Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. In Fairfax, the police rarely publicize their arrests, and the details of their investigations are little known outside the small corps of detectives in the money laundering unit. Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation. "What a waste," said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. "The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes." Fairfax's most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi -- and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him. ...Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said. ...One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts. Schaible said such funds are recycled "back into investigating cases. It's helping us resolve these and fight further crime."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Recycling Scam

Jeff Jacoby analyzes the absurd tendency of local governments to coerce residents into costly - and inefficient - recycling programs. As a resident of Fairfascist...oops, I mean Fairfax...County in Virginia, I already am painfully aware of this bureaucratic impulse.
....recyclables will all go into 64-gallon “toters,’’ which will be emptied at curbside on trash day. ...Then I start reading the fine print. It turns out that when the town says it is “eliminating sorting,’’ what it means is that glass bottles and jars can be recycled, but not drinking glasses or window glass. It means plastic tubs are OK to toss in the toter, but plastic bags aren’t. It means that while cardboard boxes must be flattened, milk and juice cartons must not be flattened. Reams of office paper are fine, but not the wrappers they came in. Tinfoil should be crushed into balls of 2 inches or larger; tin cans shouldn’t be crushed at all. I don’t think the green police will haul me off in handcuffs if I try to recycle an ice cream carton or a pizza box, but the town has warned that “there will be fines’’ for residents whose “recycling protocols’’ don’t measure up to “basic community standards.’’ ...To be fair, things could be worse. Clevelanders will soon have to use recycling carts equipped with radio-frequency ID chips, the Plain Dealer reported last month. These will enable the city to remotely monitor residents’ compliance with recycling regulations. “If a chip shows a recyclable cart hasn’t been brought to the curb in weeks, a trash supervisor will sort through the trash for recyclables. Trash carts containing more than 10 percent recyclable material could lead to a $100 fine.’’ In Britain, where a similar system is already in place, fines can reach as high as $1,500. ...Does any of this make sense? It certainly isn’t economically rational. Unlike commercial and industrial recycling — a thriving voluntary market that annually salvages tens of millions of tons of metal, paper, glass, and plastic — mandatory household recycling is a money loser. Cost studies show that curbside recycling can cost, on average, 60 percent more per ton than conventional garbage disposal. In 2004, an analysis by New York’s Independent Budget Office concluded, according to the New York Times, that “it cost anywhere from $34 to $48 a ton more to recycle material, than to send it off to landfills or incinerators.’’ “There is not a community curbside recycling program in the United States that covers its cost,’’ says Jay Lehr, science director at the Heartland Institute and author of a handbook on environmental science. They exist primarily to make people “feel warm and fuzzy about what they are doing for the environment.’’ But if recycling household trash makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy, why does it have to be compulsory? Mandatory recycling programs “force people to squander valuable resources in a quixotic quest to save what they would sensibly discard,’’ writes Clemson University economist Daniel K. Benjamin. "On balance, recycling programs lower our wealth." Now whose idea of exciting is that?

The Environmentalist Death Toll

National Review has a column reviewing a new book, 3 Billion and Counting, that dissects the harsh human cost of banning DDT. There are things that should be banned, of course, but such decisions should be based on sound science and cost-benefit analysis. Sadly, that's not what happened with the politically-motivated decision to ban this particular pesticide.
3 Billion and Counting, which premieres this Friday in Manhattan, was produced by Dr. Rutledge Taylor, a California physician who specializes in preventive medicine. His film will both shock and anger you. DDT was first synthesized in 1877, but it was not until 1940 that a Swiss chemist demonstrated that it could kill insects without any harm to humans. It was introduced into widespread use during World War II and became the single most important pesticide in maintaining human health for the next two decades. The scientist who discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT, Dr. Paul Müller, was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on DDT. (In the 1940s and 1950s the chemical was the “secret” ingredient in a popular new cocktail, the Mickey Slim: gin, with a pinch of DDT.) In 1962, Rachel Carson’s lyrical but scientifically flawed book, Silent Spring, argued eloquently, but erroneously, that pesticides, especially DDT, were poisoning both wildlife and the environment – and also endangering human health. ...In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), DDT spraying had reduced malaria cases from 2.8 million in 1948 to 17 in 1963. After spraying stopped, malaria cases rose sharply, reaching 2.5 million over the next decade. Scientists have never found an effective substitute for DDT — and so the malaria death rate has kept on soaring.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Protecting Good Cops with Oversight to Deter Bad Cops

Here's a great video on the issue of whether police can and should be videotaped. Put together by my Cato colleagues, the answer is yes, of course. The only thing I'll add is that this actually is a great way to protect the reputation of the vast majority of cops who do their jobs honorably.

The "Tea Party's Already Won"

That's the tile of an insightful column at, which points out that Tea Party activism has succeeded in shifting the debate from making government bigger to making government smaller. The columnist also is correct in explaining how the Tea Party, by dethroning some entrenched incumbents, is forcing the GOP to at least pretend to be on the side of taxpayers.

The Tea Party insurgency will not only cost Democrats dozens of seats in Congress, and likely their majority — it will define the coming GOP presidential nominating process, determine the direction of the GOP for years to come and threaten any remaining plans Obama has for sweeping reforms of education, energy policy or our immigration system. Last March, Republicans joined Democrats in calling on Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to end his filibuster against the extension of unemployment benefits paid for by deficit spending, embarrassed he was blocking aid to the jobless. But it took just three months for the grassroots pressure to reach the Capitol — Bunning was a Tea Party hero. By the time the $30 billion expired on June 2, Senate Republicans had united behind a nearly two-month filibuster of the next round of $34 billion in “emergency spending” for unemployment insurance. They were joined by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), and some House Democrats warned their own leaders at the time that the days of votes on “emergency spending” would soon have to come to an end. ...The Tea Party candidates themselves — like O’Donnell, whom Karl Rove called “nutty,” — matter little. Only a few will actually get elected this fall. Yet the Tea Party has won without them. There are no tea leaves left to read. Democrats have been spooked and Republicans threatened, cajoled or cleansed. The results are already in.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Idiotic Moments in Political Correctness

Imagine having your child suspended for two years because he took a toy gun to school. Sounds absurd, right? Well, it's real life in Broward County, Florida.

Samuel Burgos has fond memories of his friends at school, but he only gets to see them in pictures now. The 8-year-old boy hasn't been in school for a year and will likely miss another year if the Broward County School Board has its way. Burgos was suspended from school in November after a teacher found a toy gun in his backpack. But when the boy went to register to go back to Pembroke Pines Charter School, he was told he will be expelled for this school year, too, as part of the county's zero tolerance weapons policy. ...School board officials said the rules are quite clear and that the toy gun constituted a weapon. A school board report on the incident mentions that Samuel showed the toy gun to another student and it was capable of firing projectiles. That's all it takes for it to be considered a weapon. "This is in his backpack and it's a toy. It's not a real gun. It's a toy," said Magdiel Burgos, twirling a plastic gun. The school board said they would admit Samuel into a correctional school for problem children who have been expelled located in Hallandale Beach. ..."I can't sit here and allow them to send my kid to a school where students have committed actual crimes," Burgos said. "He hasn't committed a crime."

More Evidence of the Failed Stimulus

Not that we need more evidence, but here are two new items confirming the absurdity of thinking that bigger government is stimulus. First, we have a story from Los Angeles revealing that the city only created 55 jobs with $111 million of stimulus funds. This translates to a per-job cost of $2 million, which is a grossly inefficient rate of return. But this calculation is incomplete because it doesn't measure how many jobs would have been created if the money was left in the productive sector of the economy. Moreover, it's also important to consider long-term costs such as the fact that Los Angeles now has more overhead, which will exacerbate the city's fiscal problems.

The Los Angeles City Controller said on Thursday the city's use of its share of the $800 billion federal stimulus find has been disappointing. The city received $111 million in stimulus under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) approved by the Congress more than year ago. "I'm disappointed that we've only created or retained 55 jobs after receiving $111 million," says Wendy Greuel, the city's controller, while releasing an audit report. ...The audit says the numbers were disappointing due to bureaucratic red tape, absence of competitive bidding for projects in private sectors, inappropriate tracking of stimulus money and a laxity in bringing out timely job reports.
Our second item is a new study from two scholars who find that the cash-for-clunkers program was a total failure. Just as anybody with an IQ above room temperature could have predicted, the overwhelming effect of the program was to encourage people to change when they purchased cars. There was no long-term positive impact on any economic variable.
A key rationale for fiscal stimulus is to boost consumption when aggregate demand is perceived to be inefficiently low. We examine the ability of the government to increase consumption by evaluating the impact of the 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” program on short and medium run auto purchases. Our empirical strategy exploits variation across U.S. cities in ex-ante exposure to the program as measured by the number of “clunkers” in the city as of the summer of 2008. We find that the program induced the purchase of an additional 360,000 cars in July and August of 2009. However, almost all of the additional purchases under the program were pulled forward from the very near future; the effect of the program on auto purchases is almost completely reversed by as early as March 2010 – only seven months after the program ended. ...We also find no evidence of an effect on employment, house prices, or household default rates in cities with higher exposure to the program.
The lesson from the cash-for-clunkers program also can be applied to other temporary programs. Good tax cuts, for instance, become gimmicks when they are temporary. This doesn't mean there is no positive effect on incentives from a payroll tax holiday, temporary expensing, or a two-year extension of the 2001/2003 tax cuts, but the overwhelming impact is to alter the timing of economic activity rather than the level of economic activity.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Cato Institute - America's Best Think Tank

Okay, I'm biased, but Cato stood up against the so-called stimulus when others were quiet. Cato was against Obamacare, even back when it was called Romneycare. Now, we're leading the fight on restraining Leviathan. The image below is our full page ad on cutting wasteful programs, agencies, and departments - and asking Obama to fulfill his promise on reducing needless spending. Click here for a full-size version.

Is the Tea Party Movement a Net Plus for America?

Steve Chapman points out that the Tea Party movement (like any other large group of people) has a few odd characters, but he is delighted that there is a growing mass of citizens who think it's important to restrain government and not impose burdens of future generations.

Here's my first impression of the tea party movement: It's a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn't firmly exclude Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me. Here's my second impression of the tea party movement: We are lucky to have it. That's because the tea partiers, who may not all agree on gay marriage or birthright citizenship, are united behind a couple of sound goals: curtailing the cost of government and refusing to live at the expense of future generations. Those are goals that, for eight years, had many rhetorical supporters in Washington, but few authentic champions. Blame that on George W. Bush, who arrived billing himself as a compassionate conservative, a description that was accurate except for the adjective and the noun. Whatever his ideology, his policy was to expand federal spending at a rate unseen since President Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the Great Society. He didn't do it alone, though. Had Bush been a Democrat, Republicans would have fought his budget plans at every turn. But since he was one of theirs, they joined in the spree with gusto, even as they cut taxes and piled up deficits. The prevailing attitude was: Live it up now, and let someone else worry about paying for it later. Budget hawks were left wondering what happened to Republican tightwads, who thought every dollar spent by the government was a dollar that had to be justified as a vital necessity. The tea partiers were dismayed to see these penny-pinchers replaced by poll-driven insiders with an appetite for earmarks. That's one big reason hard-right candidates have scored so many upsets in recent GOP Senate primaries—including Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. They didn't get nominated because they look and sound like the popular image of a savvy, experienced, well-informed, practical-minded U.S. senator. They got nominated because they don't.

Another Measure of American Decline

I don't know if this is hope or change, but the United States fell from 2nd to 9th in the Forbes index of "Best Countries for Business." Denmark is first, which may be a surprise, but the Scandinavian country is very free market other than fiscal policy. Hong Kong, meanwhile, enjoyed the biggest increase.

The U.S. economy is teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession. High unemployment and a weak housing market are dragging down economic growth. But there's another major issue that isn't getting much attention these days: The business climate for entrepreneurs and investors in the U.S. is starting to lag behind other countries'. The U.S. dropped from No. 2 to No. 9 in our fifth annual ranking of the Best Countries for Business. Blame the high tax burden and a poor showing on trade and monetary freedom compared with many other developed nations. The 35% federal corporate tax rate is the highest of any OECD country according to the Tax Foundation. Meanwhile the government’s significant intervention in the economy during the economic downturn has weakened economic freedom in the U.S. ...A big mover up the rankings is Hong Kong, which swapped places with the U.S., moving up to No. 2 from No. 9. It scored in the top three for taxes, investor protection and both trade and monetary freedom.
The Top 10

1. Denmark
2. Hong Kong
3. New Zealand
4. Canada
5. Singapore
6. Ireland
7. Sweden
8. Norway
9. United States
10. United Kingdom