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The Economic Benefits of Spending Restraint in the United Kingdom

Mon, 07/17/2017 - 12:51pm

wrote yesterday about a very depressing development in the United Kingdom. Politicians in that country – including some supposed fiscal conservatives – are contemplating a big expansion in the burden of government spending in order to give pay hikes to the bureaucracy.

What makes this so unfortunate is that the country has been making fiscal progress. Ever since 2010, government spending has grown by an average of 1.6 percent annually. And since the private economy has expanded at a faster pace, this period of restraint has satisfied my golden rule. In other words, the public sector – though still very large – is now a smaller burden on the private sector.

This progress could be quickly reversed, though, with a new spending binge. And it would be especially foolish to throw in the towel just to give more money to government employees. Just like in the U.S., bureaucrats already are overcompensated compared to their counterparts in the productive sector of the economy.

Let’s take a closer look at whether U.K. policymakers should end “austerity” and expand the relative burden of government spending.

The Centre for Policy Studies in London has examined the issue, and this new research from CPS debunks the notion that there should be large increases in bureaucrat compensation.

But since we covered that topic yesterday, let’s focus instead on what CPS discovered when reviewing the impact of spending restraint on various economic aggregates.

…when examining OECD countries that were left with a large budget deficit in 2010 (those countries with a deficit of over 5% of GDP in 2010), it appears that there is a strong correlation between those countries that cut spending by a higher degree, on average, and countries which achieved a larger reduction in deficit, higher average growth rates, a larger fall in proportionate unemployment and marginally better wage growth (see Figures 5, 6, 7 and 8). Of course, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. However, this provides strong evidence that there is no link between austerity and lower growth, higher unemployment and weaker wage growth.

Let’s look at the charts referenced in the excerpt.

We’ll start with Figure 5, which looks at the relationship between spending restraint and deficit reduction. Nobody should be surprised to see that the symptom of red ink shrinks when there’s a reduction in the underlying disease of too much government spending.

I think the most important data is contained in Figure 6, which maps the relationship between economic growth and spending restraint. As you can see, a lower burden of government spending is associated with better economic performance.

There’s also a connection between smaller government and lower joblessness, as shown in Figure 7.

Last but not least, Figure 8 shows the positive relationship between lower spending and higher wages.

As explained in the CPS report, correlation is not causation. But since these results are in sync with research from academic scholars (and even research from left-leaning bureaucracies such as the IMFWorld Bank, and OECD), the only prudent conclusion is that the U.K. should not give up on fiscal responsibility.

And perhaps the real lesson is that a constitutional spending cap should be enacted whenever a consensus for good policy materializes. That way, there’s a much lower risk of backsliding when politicians get weak-kneed.

Thanks to Feckless Tories, the United Kingdom Is Poised to Fall Off the Wagon of Fiscal Sobriety

Sun, 07/16/2017 - 12:39pm

One of my favorite charts shows how nations achieve great results when they engage in multi-year periods of spending restraint.

The most important benefit is that the burden of government shrinks relative to the private sectorbut it’s also worth noting that the symptom of red inkbegins to disappear when there is a serious effort to deal with the underlying disease of excessive spending.

But sharing this chart also a bittersweet experience since it shows – in almost all cases – that it is just a matter of time before politicians go back to fiscal profligacy.

This is why I’m a huge fan of a permanent spending cap, ideally as part of a nation’s constitution.  Jurisdictions that have adopted this approach, such as Hong Kong and Switzerland, have very strong long-run fiscal performance rather than just temporary blips of good policy.

At the risk of understatement, it’s increasingly obvious that the United Kingdom needs this kind of permanent structural reform.

As you can see from this chart I shared back in February, there’s been some decent spending restraint in that country ever since 2010.

Let’s augment those numbers. I pulled together the data on government spending from the OECD, the IMF, and the UK government. They all have slightly different methodologies with slightly different numbers, but they all tell the same story.

Ever since 2010, the burden of government spending has expanded by an average of about 1.6 percent annually. Spending is still growing, needless to say, but the private sector has been growing faster, so British policymakers have been satisfying my golden rule.

And because the productive sector of the economy has grown faster than government, this means that relative burden of spending has declined. Which is exactly what we see in this chart.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that politicians are tired of being responsible. They are salivating at the prospect of a new spending binge. Even Tory politicians now want to play Santa with other people’s money.

The U.K.-based Times has some of the unpleasant details.

Ministers are pushing to delay or abandon a series of tax cuts to fund an increase in public sector pay, The Times has learnt. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is being urged to scrap commitments to reduce corporation tax and raise the thresholds for the personal allowance and the 40 per cent income tax rate. …At a meeting of the political cabinet last week, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, Justine Greening, the education secretary, and Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, are understood to have called for more money for public sector workers.

Opening the spending spigot would be a terrible mistake. Especially to finance higher pay for bureaucrats.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this new threat to fiscal responsibility on the other side of the Atlantic.

…the Prime Minister’s Tories now want to abandon their claim to fiscal discipline. Rather than blame a feckless campaign, wobbly Tory leaders have decided that voters are exhausted with “austerity” and government employees are happy to step in with spending demands. Those government workers and their patrons in the opposition Labour Party are demanding an end to the 1% annual pay-rise cap imposed by former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne in 2013 after several years of pay freezes.

Even worse, they want to cancel tax cuts and/or impose tax hikes to finance more money for the bureaucracy.

…cabinet grandees Boris Johnson and Michael Gove…seem willing to pay for it by reducing scheduled corporate tax-rate cuts or increasing individual taxes by reducing the threshold at which the second-highest 40% rate applies.

You won’t be surprised to learn that British bureaucrats (just like their American cousins) are not underpaid compared to workers in the economy’s productive sector.

Britain’s government workers aren’t suffering from a pay crisis compared to their peers in the private (that is, productive) economy. For most of the period since 2000, average weekly nominal earnings for public employees have exceeded the private average, according to the Office for National Statistics. And that excludes government pensions that are far more generous than what most private employees enjoy. Government workers were also shielded from the worst of the post-2008 downturn. The 1% cap amounted to steady nominal wage growth while private wages fell sharply…. Government workers were also spared the worst of the job cuts private employers imposed. …The 1% nominal pay cap mainly has given private workers an opportunity to catch up to government pay. …Voters are frustrated by an economic recovery that has largely failed to deliver inflation-adjusted earnings growth. But the solution isn’t to further stifle wage growth in the private economy by raising taxes to benefit public employees.

Tim Worstall also explains that the bureaucracy is not suffering from a lack of compensation.

We’ve just had a massive recession and thus we are indeed worse off. That’s what a recession is all about. So the question should be: are we all sharing that pain? We are not. Public sector pay has fallen by less than private. The people paying the tax have suffered more than those who eat the tax – hardly a good argument in favour of tax-eater pay rises. …It is also true, as the IFS points out, that public sector pay rose substantially in the 2000 to 2005 period. Pay rose more and then pay fell less. I simply can’t see an argument for a public sector pay rise or the lifting of that cap here.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Ryan Bourne, is a citizen of the United Kingdom, and he points out that one of the problems is that bureaucrat pay levels are determined nationally, which makes no sense when the cost of living varies widely across the country.

….they should phase out national pay bargaining where it remains in the public sector. Previous research by Allison Wolf has shown the high cost of having national pay scales and bargaining. …Poorer regions…suffer as very high pay relative to the private sector crowds out private sector growth.

Ryan explains that Sweden successfully adopted this reform.

Sweden shows the solution. There, collective bargaining was entirely replaced by individual contracts between staff and their local public sector employer, with little fuss. If applied here, managers would then have genuine flexibility in the creation of new posts. It would liberate them to set pay to reflect more accurately local conditions, while varying wages to fulfil difficult positions.

Of course, the ideal situation would be genuine federalism, with local communities raising their own funds and then deciding how lavishly to compensate the bureaucrats they hire. The U.K. actually took a baby step in that direction years ago by giving greater autonomy to Scotland.

I’ll close with a rather depressing observation. It was only two months ago that I suggested Tories might be poised to make big policy improvements in the United Kingdom. Now it appears that they’ll be competing with the Labour Party on how to spend other people’s money. The great Margaret Thatcher is probably spinning in her grave.

The International Monetary Fund Accidentally Provides Strong Evidence for the Laffer Curve

Sat, 07/15/2017 - 12:13pm

As a general rule, the International Monetary Fund is a statist organization. Which shouldn’t be too surprising since its key “shareholders” are the world’s major governments.

And when you realize who controls the purse strings, it’s no surprise to learn that the bureaucracy is a persistent advocate of higher tax burdens and bigger government. Especially when the IMF’s politicized and leftist (and tax-free) leadership dictates the organization’s agenda.

Which explains why I’ve referred to that bureaucracy as a “dumpster fire of the global economy” and the “Dr. Kevorkian of global economic policy.”

I always make sure to point out, however, that there are some decent economists who work for the IMF and that they occasionally are allowed to produce good research. I’ve favorably cited the bureaucracy’s work on spending caps, for instance.

But what amuses me is when the IMF tries to promote bad policy and accidentally gives me powerful evidence for good policy. That happened in 2012, for example, when it produced some very persuasive data showing that value-added taxes are money machines to finance a bigger burden of government.

Well, it’s happened again, though this time the bureaucrats inadvertently just issued some research that makes the case for the Laffer Curve and lower corporate tax rates.

Though I can assure you that wasn’t the intention. Indeed, the article was written as part of the IMF’s battle against tax competition. As you can see from these excerpts, the authors clearly seem to favor higher tax burdens on business and want to cartelize the global economy for the benefit of the political class.

…what’s the problem when it comes to governments competing to attract investors through the tax treatment they provide? The trouble is…competing with one another and eroding each other’s revenues…countries end up having to…reduce much-needed public spending… All this has serious implications for developing countries because they are especially reliant on the corporate income tax for revenues. The risk that tax competition will pressure them into tax policies that endanger this key revenue source is therefore particularly worrisome. …international mobility means that activities are much more responsive to taxation from a national perspective… This is especially true of the activities and incomes of multinationals. Multinationals can manipulate transfer prices and use other avoidance devices to shift their profits from high tax countries to low, and they can choose in which country to invest. But they can’t shift their profits, or their real investments, to another planet. When countries compete for corporate tax base and/or real investments they do so at the expense of others—who are doing the same.

Here’s the data that most concerns the bureaucrats, though they presumably meant to point out that corporate tax rates have fallen by 20 percentage points, not by 20 percent.

Headline corporate income tax rates have plummeted since 1980, by an average of almost 20 percent. …it is a telling sign of international tax competition at work, which closer empirical work tends to confirm.

But here’s the accidental admission that immediately caught my eye. The authors admit that lower corporate tax rates have not resulted in lower revenue.

…revenues have remained steady so far in developing countries and increased in advanced economies.

And this wasn’t a typo or sloppy writing. Here are two charts that were included in the article. The first one shows that revenues (the red line) have climbed in the industrialized world as the average corporate tax rate (the blue line) has plummeted.

This may not be as dramatic as what happened when Reagan reduced tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and other upper-income taxpayers in the 1980, but it’s still a very dramatic and powerful example of the Laffer Curve in action.

And even in the developing world, we see that revenues (red line) have stayed stable in spite of – or perhaps because of – huge reductions in average corporate tax rates (blue line).

These findings are not very surprising for those of us who have been arguing in favor of lower corporate tax rates.

But it’s astounding that the IMF published this data, especially as part of an article that is trying to promote higher tax burdens.

It’s as if a prosecutor in a major trial says a defendant is guilty and then spends most of the trial producing exculpatory evidence.

I have no idea how this managed to make its way through the editing process at the IMF. Wasn’t there an intern involved in the proofreading process, someone who could have warned, “Umm, guys, you’re actually giving Dan Mitchell some powerful data in favor of lower tax burdens”?

In any event, I look forward to repeatedly writing “even the IMF agrees” when pontificating in the future about the Laffer Curve and the benefits of lower corporate tax rates.

Winning Converts for Supply-Side Economics and the Laffer Curve, One City at a Time

Fri, 07/14/2017 - 12:00pm

Supply-side economics is simply the common-sense notion that people respond to incentives, though some folks think this elementary observation is “voodoo economics” or “trickle-down economics.”

If you want a wonkish definition of supply-side economics, it is the application of microeconomic principles. In other words, what does “price theory” tell us about how people will respond when a tax goes up or down.

All of which can be illustrated using supply and demand curves, for those who prefer something visual.

None of this is controversial. Indeed, left-wing economists presumably will agree with everything I just wrote.

There is disagreement, however, about the magnitude of supply-side responses. Do people respond a lot or a little when tax policy changes (using economic jargon, what are the “elasticities” of behavioral response)?

And even if there was a consensus on those magnitudes, that still wouldn’t imply agreement on the proper policy since people have different views on whether the goal should be more growth or more redistribution (what economist Arthur Okun referred to as the equality-efficiency tradeoff).

For what it’s worth, this is why there is a lot of fighting about the Laffer Curve. Every left-wing economist agrees with the underlying principle of the Laffer Curve (in other words, because people can change their behavior, nobody actually thinks there is a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue).

But economists don’t agree on the shape of the curve. Is the revenue-maximizing rate for the personal income tax 25 percent or 75 percent? And even if people somehow agreed on the shape of the curve, that doesn’t lead to agreement on the ideal tax rate because some statists want very high rates even if the result is less revenue. And people like me only care about the growth-maximizing tax rate.

I’m giving this background for the simple reason that the policy world is lagging the economics profession. And I’m not just referring to the Joint Economic Committee’s resistance to “dynamic scoring.” My bigger complaint is that a lot of politicians still act as if there is zero insight from supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve.

In hopes of rectifying this situation, I’ve been sharing examples of supply-side-motivated tax changes that have been adopted by leftists. In other words, tax changes that were adopted specifically to alter behavior.

Here’s the list of “successful” leftist tax hikes that have crossed my desk.

Now we have another example to add to my collection, this time from a tax on plastic bags in Chicago.

Just as predicted, there is revenue feedback because people change their behavior in response to changes in tax policy.

Chicago’s effort to keep plastic and paper bags out of area landfills by imposing a 7 cents-per-bag tax is succeeding beyond officials’ wildest dreams. The bad news is that the success of the fee in dissuading shoppers from taking single-use bags means the city’s coffers are taking a steep hit. Chicago officials balanced the city’s 2017 spending plan based on an assumption that the city would earn $9.2 million this year from the tax.

But receipts will fall far short of that goal.

The city has earned just $2.4 million in the five months the tax has been in effect, said Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Finance Department. If bag use continues at the current pace, that means the city would net just $7.7 million from the tax for the year. …the number of plastic and paper bags Chicagoans used to haul home their groceries dropped 42 percent in the first month after the tax was imposed.

Incidentally, the Mayor claims that the tax is a success because the real goal was discouraging plastic bags rather than raising revenue.

That’s certainly a very legitimate position, but note that his policy is based on supply-side economics: The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

My frustration is that the politicians who say we need higher taxes to discourage bad things (smoking, sugar, plastic bags, etc) oftentimes are the same ones who say that higher taxes won’t discourage good things (work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, etc).

Needless to say, this doesn’t make sense. They are either clueless or hypocritical. But maybe if I accumulate enough example of “successful” supply-side tax hikes, they’ll finally realize it’s not a good idea to punish productive behavior.

P.S. Check out the IRS data from the 1980s on what happened to tax revenue from the rich when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. I’ve used this information in plenty of debates and I’ve never run across a statist who has a good response.

P.P.S. Here’s my video with more evidence in favor of the Laffer Curve.

P.P.P.S. I also think this polling data from certified public accountants is very persuasive. I don’t know about you, but I suspect CPAs have a much better real-world understanding of the impact of tax policy than the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Microsoft President Speaks on Using TV White Spaces to Close Broadband Gap

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 2:56pm

Recently, CF&P sent comments to the FCC regarding usage of TV white space, the spectrum between channels, to deliver broadband to underserved areas. On Tuesday, Microsoft President Brad Smith presented his company’s ideas at a Media Institute luncheon:

If you don’t want to watch the whole speech, here are some of his key points.

  • Broadband is a necessity of modern life–it impacts not just video games but healthcare, education, and agriculture–yet today 34 million Americans lack access to broadband, and the majority of them are in rural areas.
  • Microsoft is already using white spaces in 17 countries, such as Kenya, and have connected 185,000 people
  • It is launching the Rural Broadband Initiative to use a mixture of technologies, filling the gaps where TV white spaces are not available with satellite and other solutions, to increase broadband access, and estimates a cost of $8-$12 billion to reach everyone. This is much cheaper than solutions which do not use white spaces.
  • Microsoft is willing to lead by example with its Rural Airband Initiative, with direct investments to reach 2 million people in 5 years, put in place 12 projects in 12 states in 12 months, and to do so without expectation of profit. It will instead use revenue share to recoup capital costs, then reinvest to expand coverage.
  • To be a catalyst for the marketplace, Microsoft will license its 39 white space patents royalty-free to all comers, including competitors, to spur additional investment in the project.

Overall, this provides a great example of how the private sector can step up and solve a problem without waiting around for commands from central planners. However, they do ask the government for some regulatory certainty. Echoing the call in our letter to the FCC, Smith asked for the preservation of 3 usable white space channels in every top market in the country (instead of auctioning off every band to mobile carriers, for instance).

This doesn’t require any expansion of government authority. The FCC already has control of the TV band. It need merely provide an environment in which private investment can flow and competition can work to solve real consumer needs.

The World’s Demographic Crisis Is Actually a Policy Crisis

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 12:23pm

I will occasionally pontificate about a demographic crisis in the developed world, but I usually feel guilty afterward. After all, how can it be a bad thing that we’re living longer? And what gives me the right to grouse about the number of children other families decide to have?

What I should be saying instead is that demographic changes are forcing us to recognize that we have a crisis of bad public policy. To be more specific, the entitlement state has become too large.

That’s the message I tried to get across in an interview earlier this week.

At the risk of oversimplification, I basically stated that there are two crises in the world.

The first crisis, based in the industrialized world, is that tax-and-transfer welfare states were created back when there were lots of workers and relatively few old people, and most people assumed that demographic profile would always exist.

But now that the “population pyramid” is becoming a “population cylinder” (I was talking faster than I was thinking in the interview and reversed the two concepts at one point), there aren’t going to be enough workers to finance all the redistribution programs, particularly the ones that funnel money to the elderly.

This is a big reason why nations such as Greece and Italy already are in deep trouble and why it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis spreads to France and Japan (and the United States if we don’t enact genuine entitlement reform).

Here’s a table, based on World Bank data, showing the 20 jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates. Which means, of course, the places with the fewest future taxpayers to finance redistribution.

The second crisis, based in the developing world, is that pervasive statism suffocates growth.

And while I largely agree with the late Julian Simon about people being a resource rather than a liability, if a nation has a bloated and intrusive public sector that stifles the private sector, then a growing population can be a bad thing.

But it’s not the growing population that’s bad, it’s the statist policies. Here’s a list of the 20 counties with the highest fertility rates. The majority of them are ranked in the “least free” quartile according to Economic Freedom of the World. And none of them are in the “most free” quartile.

But the most important part of the interview, at least when thinking about problems in the industrialized world, is when I pointed out that nations such as Singapore don’t face a big problem.

Yes, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but it also doesn’t have a pervasive tax-and-transfer welfare state. People are responsible for saving for their own retirement and healthcare. So the absence of future taxpayers isn’t a major challenge because the system doesn’t need to be propped up with tax revenue.

And the same thing is true in Hong Kong, another jurisdiction that is in good long-run shape even though the fertility rate is extremely low.

P.S. Given the demographic changes that are now occurring, many governments with big welfare states now recognize that they have a problem. Unfortunately, many of them think the solution is to artificially encourage more babies rather than entitlement reform.

In Just Six Minutes, Everything You Need to Know about Spending Caps

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 12:01pm

Back in April, I shared a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that explained how poor nations can become rich nations by following the recipe of small government and free markets.

Now CF&P has released another video. Narrated by Yamila Feccia from Argentina, it succinctly explains – using both theory and evidence – why spending caps are the most prudent and effective way of achieving good fiscal results.

Ms. Feccia covers all the important issues, but here are five points that are worth emphasizing.

  1. Demographics – Almost all developed nations have major long-run fiscal problems because welfare states will implode because of aging populations and falling birthrates (Ponzi schemes need an ever-growing number of new people to stay afloat).
  2. Golden Rule – If government spending grows slower than the private sector, that reduces the relative burden of government spending (the underlying disease) and also reduces red ink (the symptom of the underlying disease).
  3. Success Stories – Simply stated, spending caps work. She lists the nations that have achieved very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint. She points out that the U.S. made a lot of fiscal progress when GOPers aggressively fought Obama. And she shares the details about the very successful constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland.
  4. Better than Balanced Budget Amendments or Anti-Deficit Rules – The video explains why policies that try to target red ink are not very effective, mostly because tax revenues are very volatile.
  5. Even International Bureaucracies Agree – Remarkably, the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice!) have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

I touch on some of these issues in one of my chapters in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. The entire chapter is worth reading, in my humble opinion, but I want to share an excerpt echoing Point #4 that I just shared from Ms. Feccia’s video.

There’s a very practical reason to focus on capping long-run spending rather than trying to balance the budget every year. Simply stated, the “business cycle” makes the latter very difficult. …when a recession occurs and revenues drop, a balanced-budget mandate requires politicians to make dramatic changes at a time when they are especially reluctant to either raise taxes or impose spending restraint. Then, when the economy is enjoying strong growth and producing lots of tax revenue, a balanced-budget requirement doesn’t impose much restraint on spending. All of which creates an unfortunate cycle. Politicians spend a lot of money during the good years, creating expectations of more and more money for various interest groups. When a recession occurs, the politicians suddenly have to slam on the brakes. But even if they actually cut spending, it is rarely reduced to the level it was when the economy began its upswing. Moreover, politicians often raise taxes as part of these efforts to comply with anti-deficit rules. When the recession ends and revenues begin to rise again, the process starts over—this time from a higher base of spending and with a bigger tax burden. Over the long run, these cycles create a ratchet effect, with the burden of government spending always reaching new plateaus.

It’s not that I want to belabor this point, but the bottom line is that it is very difficult to amend a country’s constitution (at least in the United States, but presumably in other nations as well).

So if there’s going to be a major campaign to put a fiscal rule in a constitution, then I think it should be one that actually achieves the goal. And whether people want to address the economically important goal of spending restraint or the symbolically important goal of fiscal balance, what should matter is that a spending cap is the effective way of getting there.

P.S. The narrator is from the soccer-mad country of Argentina, which has a big rivalry with the soccer-mad nation of Brazil. Like most Americans, I don’t quite get the appeal of that sport. That being said, I will cheer for Brazil the next time it plays against Argentina for the simple reason that it just adopted a constitutional amendment to cap government spending. If Ms. Feccia wants me to cheer for her country’s team, she needs to convince her government to do something similar.

Elizabeth Warren and Other Rich Leftists Talk the Talk, But Don’t Walk the Walk

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 12:40pm

If you want to see a bunch of hypocritical leftists squirming with embarrassment, there’s a very clever video showing what happens when a bunch of pro-tax hike millionaires are asked to voluntarily pay more money to the IRS.

I’ve even debated some of these rich, pro-tax statists on TV, telling them not to make the rest of us victims of their neurotic guilt feelings.

They definitely don’t put their money where their mouths are. There is an official government webpage where people can voluntary send extra cash to Washington, but the amount of money raised doesn’t even qualify as an asterisk in the federal budget.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that people elsewhere in the world also are not keen on the idea of deliberately giving politicians extra money to spend.

Bloomberg has a rather amusing story about the utter failure of a voluntary tax in Norway.

Eager to pay more taxes? Then look no further than Norway. …Launched in June, the initiative has received a lukewarm reception, with the equivalent of just $1,325 in extra revenue being collected so far, according to the Finance Ministry. That’s not much for a country of 5.3 million people… “The tax scheme was set up to allow those who want to pay more taxes to do so in a simple and straightforward way,” Finance Minister Siv Jensen said in an emailed comment. “If anyone thinks the tax level is too low, they now have the chance to pay more.” …Jonas Gahr Store, the wealthy Labor Party contender…, has so far refused to take up the government’s offer.

I’m not surprised that the ordinary people of Norway aren’t sending extra cash to their politicians.

After all, the country already has a costly welfare state financed by very high tax rates as well as lots of oil revenue. So why enable an even bigger burden of government?

But Mr. Store hardly seems a very ethical proponent of higher taxes if he’s not willing to lead by example.

Again, this is not very shocking. It’s a pattern among rich leftists.

The state of Massachusetts has a program for voluntary tax payments, but the Boston Globe revealed that Elizabeth Warren somehow couldn’t bring herself to cough up additional money to finance bigger government.

Elizabeth Warren acknowledged this morning that she does not pay a voluntary higher tax rate on her state income taxes, a question her campaign had previously refused to answer. …state Republicans have criticized Warren, who has earned a six-figure salary and owns assets worth millions, for her previous refusal to answer whether she pays a voluntary higher rate, calling her an “elitist hypocrite” who “lectures others about their responsibility to pay higher taxes.”

And John Kerry also decided that he wouldn’t pay extra tax to his state’s politicians.

Sen. John Kerry (D. Mass.) sailed into hot water last year when tax returns revealed that he also paid the Bay State’s lower tax rate. …perhaps he intended to pay Massachusetts’ higher rate, but his calculator slid off his yacht.

Though since Kerry uses tax havens to protect his wealth, and even keeps a yacht in a neighboring low-tax state, at least he’s consistent in his hypocrisy.

Though according to New England Public Radio, there are a few people in Massachusetts who actually do contribute extra money.

Lenox accountant William Keen said it’s his job to save his clients money, so he just assumes they want to pay their state income tax at 5.1 percent, and not the optional rate of 5.85 percent. “If somebody specifically asked to be set at the higher rate, I would do it,” Keen said Friday. “Nobody has ever even asked for that. It’s never even come up.” And very few taxpayers across Massachusetts do pay at that higher rate. According to the state Department of Revenue, on average since 2002, 1,200 people each year check the box on the tax form to voluntarily pay more. That’s contributed to just over a quarter million dollars to the state’s coffers each year — a drop in the bucket since Massachusetts has a budget of about $40 billion.

I think people who deliberately over-pay to government are very misguided, but it’s better to be naive than to be hypocritical. Like the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

New “Economics 101” Video from CF&P Explains The Merits of Government Spending Caps

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 1:01pm

Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation

For Immediate Release
Monday, July 10, 2017
202-285-0244

www.freedomandprosperity.org

New “Economics 101” Video from CF&P Explains The Merits of Government Spending Caps

(Washington, D.C., Monday, July 10, 2017) The Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation (CF&P) released today an “Economics 101” video that explains why a government spending cap is the best solution for the U.S. and other nations facing grim fiscal futures.

Narrated by Yamila Feccia from Argentina, the mini-documentary looks at real-world examples to demonstrate how spending caps work to solve the problem of excessive government and red ink. It also explains why rules focused on deficits and debt don’t work very well, citing fiscal failures in Europe, as well as states like California, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Link to the video: https://youtu.be/JZOwaIzW0xY

“Even statist international organizations like the OECD and the IMF have acknowledged the effectiveness of spending caps,” said CF&P Foundation President Andrew Quinlan. He added, “We can’t afford to wait any longer before getting serious about the nation’s fiscal trajectory.”

Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute said, “Good fiscal policy exists when the burden of government shrinks relative to the economy’s productive sector and limiting the annual growth of spending is the most effective way of making that happen.”

Executive Summary

This mini-documentary from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation explains how spending caps or expenditure limits work and why they are far more effective than rules targeting deficits and debt.

This new video is part of CF&P’s Economics 101 video series, which is designed to explain free market concepts, with particular emphasis on reaching students and young people. This is the twenty-sixth video in the series, which have combined for over 814,000 views.

Spending Caps: A Proven Strategy for Fiscal Responsibility

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 12:52pm

Center for Freedom & Prosperity Foundation’s
Economics 101 Series:
Spending Caps: A Proven Strategy for Fiscal Responsibility
July 2017

Government Fraud: A Feature, Not a Bug

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 12:18pm

Why does government waste so much money? In so many ways? With such reckless abandon?

I suppose I could answer with mockery and say it’s because they have lots of experience squandering our tax dollars.

But let’s seriously contemplate that question and explore one of the reasons for waste. Simply stated, government programs are a magnet for scammers.

Let’s look at three case studies.

Example #1: Fraud is an inherent part of the big entitlement programs. Kevin Williamson has some unseemly details in an article for National Review.

…you know where there’s a lot of waste, fraud, and abuse? Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. …Medicare and Medicaid together account for about $1 trillion in federal spending annually, and estimates suggest that $1 out of ever $10 of that spending is fraud. Some estimates go much higher. We do not have a very good idea of exactly how extensive fraud in the system is, because the federal government has put a fair amount of effort into not knowing.

And what does that mean? How does the government try not to know?

…the government’s approach long has been backward…investigators are asking whether a certain treatment was in fact appropriate for what ails Mrs. Jones, not whether Mrs. Jones exists.

In other words, bureaucrats basically accept all claims as legitimate and simply judges from afar whether the right medical service is provided for the listed ailment.

Even if the ailment is fictional. Or the patient is fake.

As one might imagine, that kind of sloppy approach, combined with programs that dispense hundreds of billions of dollars, is a magnet for professional crooks.

It’s the work of organized crime. As Sparrow points out, when there is a criminal case filed against one of these fraud artists, then billing in a particular category — some years ago, it was HIV fusion treatments — falls off steeply, by as much as 90 percent. The implication here is that fraudulent billing may make up the majority of Medicaid and Medicare spending in some categories. …organized-crime syndicates are being permitted to use our medical entitlements to loot the Treasury, and that not very much is being done about that, which suggests the possibility — only a possibility — that there is political collusion in this at some level.

By the way, Kevin may be on to something when he speculates about collusion.

We already know about examples of politicians intervening to protect fraudsters(who, conveniently, also happen to be campaign donors).

So is it really that much of a stretch to imagine them turning a blind eye (or worse) to industrial-level fraud by criminal enterprises?

Leads me to think this cartoon makes an unnecessary distinction.

Example #2: Welfare programs also are a magnet for fraud.

Here are excerpts from a recent news report.

Another six Lakewood, New Jersey couples were charged Wednesday with welfare fraud, bringing to 26 the number of people implicated since last week in the multimillion-dollar scandal. At the heart of the charges is the allegation that they all, in one way or another, failed to report or otherwise concealed significant income that would have made them ineligible for the assistance programs in which they enrolled. In total, state and federal prosecutors have said the families collected more than $2.4 million in benefits. …They allegedly obtained nearly $400,000 in Medicaid, food and heating benefits fraudulently. …Four other couples were arrested June 26 for allegedly defrauding public assistance programs of more than $1.3 million in benefits.

Welfare fraud must have been a major pastime for residents of the town.

Hundreds of these moochers are now trying to cover their tracks in hopes of avoiding legal trouble.

The specter of more charges has shaken Lakewood. Hundreds of residents have contacted authorities seeking amnesty or help avoiding arrest, the Asbury Park Press reported on June 29. In addition to the hundreds seeking amnesty, dozens more people have contacted social service agencies to cancel their benefits or declare income

Example #3: And nobody should be surprised to learn that there’s plenty of fraud at the Pentagon.

Here’s an example that seems very representative.

The former owners of a Pittsburgh-area military supplier have been accused of defrauding the U.S. government of more than $6 million in defense contract work. …Prosecutors allege the Buckners inflated the cost of the work by falsifying invoices to make it appear as though they had spent $70 per window frame for the materials when in fact they had paid just $20 each for frames manufactured in China. The brothers are also alleged to have sold scrap aluminum collected in the manufacturing process without crediting that money to TACOM. The losses to TACOM are placed at $6,085,709 by the DOJ.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2014, a defense contractor responsible for providing food and water to troops in Afghanistan pleaded guilty to over-charging the U.S. government to the tune of $48 million. This week, two San Diego defense contractors pleaded guilty in a scheme that defrauded the Navy out of at least $1.4 million by over-billing for supplies that the military never ordered, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Similar stories have cropped up in Florida, California, Maryland, North Carolina and elsewhere in recent years, renewing calls for systemic reforms.

Maybe the reason fraud is so pervasive is that penalties are trivial or nonexistent.

A 2011 DOD report found hundreds of defense contractors that defrauded the U.S. military subsequently went on to receive more than $1.1 trillion in new Pentagon contracts between 2000 and 2010.

Shouldn’t criminal companies be barred from subsequent contracts? Shouldn’t crooked company officials be sent to prison?

Or do these things not happen because the same folks are also campaign contributors?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but surely something is amiss.  It’s almost as if the government is simply a racket for the benefit of insiders.

The Grim History of Federal Spending Since World War II

Sun, 07/09/2017 - 12:38pm

I spend a lot of my time fretting about how federal spending is going to become an ever-larger (and unsustainable) burden in the future.

And I periodically will write about how I wish we still had the very small federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers (and which largely existed up until the 1920s).

But I haven’t spent that much time looking at how we got to where we are today, other than in 2015 when I cited a very interesting report from the Joint Economic Committee that provided decade-by-decade data on changes in the burden of federal spending.

But I had a chance to touch on this issue in a recent interview when asked to comment on the unfortunate milestone of a $4 trillion federal budget.

Building on that discussion, here are three charts, based on numbers from table 1.3 of OMB’s historical budget data, showing what has happened to federal outlays.

This first graph shows changes in nominal spending over time. As I pointed out in the interview, it took 200 years before the crowd in Washington got spending up to $1 trillion.

But in the past three decades, it has skyrocketed to $4 trillion.

But nominal spending numbers are not the most useful data when looking at long-run changes.

After all, we’ve had lots of inflation. Simply stated, dollars today are worth a lot less than dollars in the past.

So this second chart shows inflation-adjusted federal outlays. As you can see, we have a graph that doesn’t look quite the same. It’s much easier to see the budgetary impact of World War II, for instance, and post-war spending growth isn’t quite as dramatic.

Though it’s still significant. As I noted in the interview, the burden of inflation-adjusted federal spending has doubled since 1985.

But even inflation-adjusted data doesn’t tell the real story.

The most important numbers, at least from an economic perspective, are the ones that measure the burden of federal spending relative to the size of the private economy.

And that’s what I show in this final chart measuring federal spending as a share of economic output (gross domestic product).

Now it’s very easy to see that World War II involved a massive one-time fiscal cost. But the most important data is what happened after the war. The burden of federal outlays initially dropped to 12 percent of GDP. That’s higher than it was before the war, but at least in retrospect not a bad place to be.

Unfortunately, there’s been a gradual expansion in the economic burden of the federal budget ever since.

Though if you pay close attention to the numbers, there are some interesting secondary stories. You’ll notice that the negative upward trend was reversed during the Reagan years and we continued to make progress during the Clinton years.

Unfortunately, policy then moved in the wrong direction under Bush and Obama.

Which brings me back to where I started. As bad as the numbers are today, they are likely to get worse in the future because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs. So unless we have genuine entitlement reform, we will become a failed welfare state.

Illinois Moves another Step Closer to Bankruptcy

Sat, 07/08/2017 - 12:56pm

Here’s what I wrote last month about the fiscal situation in Illinois.

Illinois is a mess. Taxes and spending already are too high, and huge unfunded liabilities point to an even darker future. Simply stated, politicians and government employee unions have created an unholy alliance to extract as much money as possible from the state’s beleaguered private sector. That’s not a surprise. Indeed, it’s easily explained by the “stationary bandit” theory of government. But while the bandit of government may be stationary, the victims are not. At least not in a nation with 50 different states.

Looking at this grim situation, the state legislature decided it had to act.

Unfortunately, the politicians in Springfield decided that action meant stepping on the accelerator while driving in the wrong direction. Democrats in the state legislature (joined by some big-government Republicans, just like in Kansas) just overrode Governor Rauner’s veto and imposed a huge tax hike on a state that already has one of the nation’s highest tax burdens.

This will hasten the state’s collapse.

Here’s what I said earlier this week about the prospect of another tax hike in the state.

I specifically want to highlight something I said about halfway through the interview about the burden of government spending in Illinois compared to regional competitors.

Here’s a chart I prepared based on data culled from the Census Bureau. As you can see, per-capita outlays are higher in Illinois than in neighboring states. In some cases, thousands of dollars higher.

Given this data, I’d like to ask the people of Illinois the same question I asked an audience in Paris when comparing France and Switzerland. What exactly are you getting for all that money?

The answer is nothing. Just like the French governments spends far more than the Swiss government without delivering better services, the Illinois government spends far more than the Indiana government without delivering better services.

Instead, the money gets diverted to the pockets of the various interest groups. In the case of Illinois, it’s almost as if the state exists to enrich a cossetted class of state and local bureaucrats.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial earlier this week made several key points.

In Illinois, Democrats spent the long weekend coaxing Republican legislators to join their suicide pact to raise taxes to plug a $6 billion deficit… And don’t forget the $130 billion unfunded pension liability—none of which will be solved by the $5 billion tax hike. …The state legislature is controlled by public unions that refuse to compromise. …Pensions will consume about a quarter of Illinois’s general fund this year. Nearly 40% of state education dollars go toward teacher pensions, and the state paid nearly as much into the State Universities Retirement System last year as it spent on higher education. Anemic revenue and economic growth can’t keep up with entitlement spending. The state’s GDP has ticked up by a mere 0.8% annually over the last four years compared to 2% nationwide and 1.4% in the Great Lakes region. Since 2010 more than 520,000 Illinois residents on net have fled to other states.

And Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council also opined on the mess in Illinois.

…the focus should be on fixing the state’s big-government policy prescriptions that are killing economic growth and opportunity. It should come as no surprise that businesses and citizens continue to leave the Land of Lincoln in droves. The credit rating agencies are right to question Illinois’ ability to pay its bills, as the tax base flees to other states. …When the rosy accounting assumptions are stripped away, Illinois has a dismal 23.77 percent funding ratio, $362.6 billion in total amount of unfunded liabilities. That staggering number represents an unfunded pension liability of $28,200 for every man, woman and child in Illinois. …one might assume the state government is not bringing in enough revenue and merely needs to raise taxes. This is simply false. According to Tax Foundation’s analysis, Illinois’ taxpayers pay the 5th highest combined state-local tax burden in America. …It should come as no surprise, then, that nearly 700,000 Illinois residents left from 2006-2015… Only New York and California experienced higher levels of domestic out-migration during the same period.

The bottom line is that this latest tax hike will cause more productive people to leave the state. Politicians in the state also will have an excuse to postpone much-needed reforms of the state pension system, which is the primary threat to long-run solvency. And government, which already is too big, will become an even bigger burden.

P.S. At some point, I need to write about Indiana, a state that quietly has amassed a very good track record of fiscal prudence. Especially since it’s about to benefit from an influx of tax refugees from its neighbor to the west.

Trump Should Learn from Maine’s Governor on How to Win a Government Shutdown Fight

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 12:37pm

Back at the end of April, President Trump got rolled in his first big budget negotiation with Congress. The deal, which provided funding for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year, was correctly perceived as a victory for Democrats.

How could this happen, given that Democrats are the minority party in both the House and the Senate? Simply stated, Republicans were afraid that they would get blamed for a “government shutdown” if no deal was struck. So they basically unfurled the white flag and acquiesced to most of the other side’s demands.

I subsequently explained how Trump should learn from that debacle. To be succinct, he should tell Congress that he will veto any spending bills for FY2018 (which begins October 1) that exceed his budget request, even if that means a shutdown.

For what it’s worth, I don’t really expect Trump or folks in the White House to care about my advice. But I am hoping that they paid attention to what just happened in Maine. That state’s Republican Governor, Paul LePage, just prevailed in a shutdown fight with the Maine legislature.

Here are some details on what happened, as reported by CNN.

The three-day government shutdown in Maine ended early Tuesday morning after Gov. Paul LePage signed a new budget, according to a statement from his office.The shutdown had closed all non-emergency government functions, prompting protests from state employees in Augusta. …The key contention for the governor was over taxes. LePage met Monday afternoon with House Republicans and pledged to sign a budget that eliminated an increase in the lodging tax from 9 to 10.5 percent, according to the statement from the governor’s office. Once the lodging tax hike was off the table, negotiations sped up as the state House voted 147-2 and the Senate 35-0 for the new budget. “I thank legislators for doing the right thing by passing a budget that does not increase taxes on the Maine people,” said LePage in a statement.

And here are some excerpts from a local news report.

Partisan disagreements over a new two-year spending plan were finally resolved late Monday. The final budget eliminated a proposed 1.5 percent increase to Maine’s lodging tax – a hike that represented less than three-tenths of one percent of the entire $7.1 billion package but held up the process for days. …Gideon and other Democrats complained about the constantly-changing proposals being presented by House Republicans, who were acting as a proxy for LePage. Representative Ken Fredette, the House Minority Leader, insisted that his members were simply fighting back against tax hikes and making sure the governor was involved in the process. …Republicans in the Senate who, over the past several months, were able to negotiate away a three-percent income tax surcharge on high-income earners that was approved by voters last fall.

What’s particularly amazing is that Democrats in the state legislature even agreed to repeal a class-warfare tax hike (the 3-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate) that was narrowly adopted in a referendum last November.

This is a remarkable development. I had listed this referendum as one of the worst ballot initiatives of 2016 and was very disappointed when voters made the wrong choice.

So why did the state’s leftists not fight harder to preserve this awful tax?

One of the reasons they surrendered on that issue is that there was a big Laffer-Curve effect. Taxpayers with large incomes predictably decided to earn and report less income in Maine.

The moral of the story is that Maine’s Democrats were willing to give up on the surtax because they realized it wasn’t going to give them any revenue to redistribute. And unlike some DC-based leftists, they didn’t want a tax hike that resulted in less revenue.

Here are some passages from a report by the state’s Revenue Forecasting Committee.

The RFC has reduced its forecast of individual income tax receipts by $15.9 million in FY17, $40.3 million in the 2018-2019 biennium, and $43.9 million in the 2020-2021 biennium. While there was no so-called “April Surprise” to report for 2016 final payments in April, the first estimated payment for tax year 2017 was $9.3 million under budget; flat compared to a year ago. The committee had expected an increase of 25% or more in the April and June estimated payments because of the 3 percent surtax passed by the voters last November. … there is concern that high-income taxpayers impacted by the surtax may be taking some action to reduce their exposure to the surtax. The forecast accepted by the committee today assumes a reduction of approximately $250 million in taxable income by the top 1% of Maine resident tax returns and similarly situated non-resident returns. This reduction in taxable income translates into a total decrease in annual individual income tax liability of approximately $30 million; $10 million from the 3% surtax and $20 million from the regular income tax liability.

And here’s the relevant table from the appendix showing how the state had to reduce estimated income tax receipts.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

Let’s return to the lessons that Trump should learn from Governor LePage about how to win a shutdown fight.

One of the lessons is to stake out the high ground. Have the fight over something important. LePage wanted to kill the lodging tax and the referendum surtax. Since those taxes were so damaging, it was very easy for the Governor to justify his position.

Another lesson is to go on offense. Republicans in Maine explained that higher taxes would make the state less competitive. Here’s a chart they disseminated comparing the tax burden in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

And here’s another very powerful chart that was circulated to policy makers, showing the migration of taxpayers from high-tax states to zero-income-tax states.

Trump should do something similar. The fight later this year in DC (assuming the President is willing to fight) will be about spending levels. And leftists will be complaining about “savage” and “draconian” cuts.

So the Trump Administration should respond with charts showing that the other side is being hysterical and inaccurate since he’s merely trying to slow down the growth of government.

But the most important lesson of all is that Trump holds a veto pen. And that means he (just like Gov. LePage in Maine) controls the situation. He can veto bad budget legislation. And when the interest groups start to squeal that the spending faucet is no longer dispensing goodies because of a shutdown, he should understand that those interest groups feeling the pinch generally will be on the left. And when they complain, it is the big spenders in Congress who will feel the most pressure to capitulate in order to reopen the faucet. Moreover, the longer the government is shut down, the greater the pinch on the pro-spending lobbies.

In other words, Trump has the leverage, if he is willing to use it.

This assumes, of course, that Trump has the brains and fortitude to hold firm when the press tries to create a fake narrative about the world coming to an end, (just like they did with the sequester in 2013 and the shutdown fight that same year).

P.S. The only way Trump could lose a shutdown fight is if enough big-spending Republicans sided with Democrats to override a veto. That’s what happened in Kansas. And it may happen in Illinois. At this point, though, there’s no way that happens in Washington.

A Horrifying Example of Government Handouts and Perverse Incentives

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 12:04pm

The welfare state is bad news for both taxpayers and recipients.

Pervasive handouts also are a mistake because they create incentives for very bad behavior.

And I’m not just talking about the incentive not to work. Welfare enables and encourages utterly horrifying examples of misbehavior.

But there’s a new example that probably would win the prize if there was a contest for the most sickening behavior enabled by governments giveaways.

People in India apparently are feeding their older relatives to tigers is order to get cash payments from the government.

I’m not joking. India Today has a story on the matter.

What if suddenly a lot of elderly folks start dying because of fatal tiger attacks? Either the tigers have targeted the old people especially or something is just not right. …Authorities surmise that people are sending older members of the family into the tiger reserve for them to become a prey. Once killed, their bodies are relocated to fields, and staged as victims of a tiger attack, so that the respective family can claim lakhs in compensation from the government.

Here are some added details from the Times of India.

Authorities suspect local families are sending older members into the forest as tiger prey, and their bodies then relocated to fields, to feign attacks and claim lakhs in compensation from the government. Villagers aren’t entitled to compensation if their kin die in the reserve. There has been a string of recent fatal tiger attacks on the elderly, with seven deaths reported in the proximity of the Mala forest range alone since February 16. …Locals, however, say family elders were willing participants in the whole affair. “They think that since they can’t get resources from the forest, this is the only way their families can escape poverty,” farmer Jarnail Singh, 60, told TOI.

And the U.K.-based Daily Mail also has a report on this bizarre situation.

Elderly relatives are being sent into tiger reserves to be killed so that families can claim compensation in a horrifying new trend in India. Younger family members appear to be targeting Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh by sending their elders into the forest to be mauled to death before dumping their bodies in nearby fields. Villagers are not entitled to claim compensation if they die in the reserve, but if they are killed in a tiger attack outside the reserve, they can cash in on government money. …The revelation that this is a deliberate ploy to cash in on compensation money was triggered by Kalim Athar of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB).

Wow. I’m almost at a loss for words.

Imagine the conversation around the dinner table. “Good news, Granny, we’ve arranged an overnight trip for you to the nature preserve.”

It’s even more chilling if the old people are actually willing participants. “Son, make sure to make the scene look realistic after you move my body out of the preserve.”

In some sense, this is actually a broader story about bigger issues such as the degree to which the burden of government is reduced to enable more economic growth in India, including in rural areas. Or the proper balance between environmental stewardship and the needs of the surrounding community.

But it’s hard to focus on those big-picture issues when old people are being sacrificed to tigers to get loot from the government. Somebody – either the families or the willing old people – deserves induction in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

The Classical Liberal Vision of “Negative Liberty” vs the Welfare State Vision of “Positive Liberty”

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 12:53pm

I like sharing topical items around the 4th of July.

  • In 2010, I contemplated the challenging issue of libertarians and patriotism. My view, for what it’s worth, is captured by this t-shirt.
  • In 2011, I pondered research about the partisan implications of patriotism and the 4th of July.
  • In 2012, I shared an inspirational video about freedom and individualism from Ronald Reagan.
  • In 2013, I discussed the proper meaning of patriotism in the aftermath of revelations about NSA snooping.
  • In 2014, I decided on a humorous approach with one a Remy video about government being “up in your grill.”
  • In 2015, I waded into the controversial topic of what happens when flag burning meets the modern regulatory state.
  • In 2016, I looked at how government has increased the cost of celebrating Independence Day.

I actually did two columns in 2011. I also put together a satirical Declaration of Dependence for my left-wing friends. Here’s how it started.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people should be made equal, that they are endowed by their government with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are jobs, healthcare and housing.

I’m definitely not in the same league as P.J. O’Rourke or Mark Steyn, but I thought I was being at least halfway funny and somewhat clever.

But Bernie Sanders must have read it and took it seriously, at least if this tweet is any indication.

Republicans talk a lot about freedom and choice. But you cannot truly be free if you can’t afford health care or food or medicine.

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) June 30, 2017

In other words, he’s saying you have a “right” that is predicated on other people paying for you.

When I first saw that tweet, the first thing that came to mind was the cartoon about the choice between “work hard” and “free stuff.”

Then I thought about the failure of nations that go too far down the path of redistribution, such as Greece and Venezuela.

And I wondered whether Senator Sanders actually understands what he’s saying. In other words, is he crazy, blind, or evil?

Or perhaps immoral? In his Washington Times column, Richard Rahn looked at the ethical implications.

Sen. Bernie Sanders keeps repeating that “all Americans have a right to health care” — nice applause line, but what does it mean? There is no such right mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Health care is not a free good — someone has to pay for it. Ask yourself — who should pay for your health care? …Do you have the obligation to pay for someone else’s health care? If so, how much and why? …The 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits “involuntary servitude” and slavery. At what point does a tax on someone’s labor — where the proceeds of that tax are largely used to provide income or services to others — constitute “involuntary servitude”? …Those who think they have the right to the labor of those they revile, i.e., the “rich,” have the same mentality of the slaveholder who also thought he had the right to others’ labor.

Ultimately, this is about a conflict between the classical liberal vision of “negative liberty” and the welfare state vision of “positive liberty.”

Here’s how I explained the difference a few years ago.

Libertarians, along with many conservatives, believe in the right to be left alone and to not be molested by government. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “negative liberty,” which is just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual.” Statists, by contrast, believe in “positive liberty.” This means that you have a “right” to things that the government will give you… Which means, of course, that the government has an obligation to take things from somebody else. How else, after all, will the government satisfy your supposed right to a job, education, healthcare, housing, etc.

I also should have pointed out that negative liberty doesn’t impose obligations on other people. My freedom of speech doesn’t conflict with your freedom of speech. My freedom or religion doesn’t conflict with your freedom of religion. My freedom to earn and produce doesn’t conflict with your freedom to earn and produce.

But that’s not true with so-called positive liberty. If I have a “right” to health care, that means the government will use coercion. Either indirectly by using the tax code to take money from other people, or directly as explained by Senator Rand Paul.

P.S. Before Bernie, there was FDR, who was also misguided or malicious about the supposed right to other people’s money.

The Fraud-Riddled Obamaphone Boondoggle

Tue, 07/04/2017 - 12:18pm

Time for another trip down Memory Lane to the early years of the Obama Administration.

Two days ago, I wrote about the market-wrecking price controls in Obamacare. And yesterday, I shared a new study exposing the utter failure of Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme. Now let’s take a look at the track record of the “Obamaphone.”

Though let’s start by noting that federal subsidies for phone service existed well before Obama took office. He simply took a misguided program and made it bigger. Here’s a concise explanation of the program from a story I shared in 2014.

The Federal Communications Commission program…charges a dollar or two per line on every American’s phone bill. The revenue generated by the “Universal Service Fund fee” is then used to pay select phone companies $9.25 per month for each poor person they sign up for a free phone. …its cost doubled in five years to $1.75 billion in 2011, and in some states, the number of phones given out exceeded the total eligible population.

But since big government is a recipe for big corruption, you won’t be surprised to learn that a bigger program of phone subsidies has produced scandalous levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. The Government Accountability Office has just released a report revealing widespread incompetence and malfeasance in the “Lifeline” program. Here are some highlights from GAO’s one-page summary.

GAO found weaknesses in several areas. For example, Lifeline’s structure relies on over 2,000 Eligible Telecommunication Carriers that are Lifeline providers to implement key program functions, such as verifying subscriber eligibility. This complex internal control environment is susceptible to risk of fraud, waste, and abuse as companies may have financial incentives to enroll as many customers as possible.

Yes, you read correctly. The private companies that are mooching off this program are in charge of determining eligibility, even though they get more handouts by signing up more recipients.

As you might expect, this is a green light for massive fraud.

Based on its matching of subscriber to benefit data, GAO was unable to confirm whether about 1.2 million individuals of the 3.5 million it reviewed, or 36 percent, participated in a qualifying benefit program, such as Medicaid, as stated on their Lifeline enrollment application.

Readers are welcome to plow their way through GAO’s full 89-page report, but news reports have teased out the most important details.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Times.

The controversial “Obamaphone” program, which pays for cellphones for the poor, is rife with fraud, according to a new government report released Thursday that found more than a third of enrollees may not even be qualified. Known officially as the Lifeline Program, the phone giveaway became a symbol of government waste in the previous administration. …the program has stashed some $9 billion in assets in private bank accounts rather than with the federal treasury, further increasing risks and depriving taxpayers of the full benefit of that money. “…everything that could go wrong is going wrong,” said Mrs. McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s chief oversight committee and who is a former state auditor in Missouri. “We’re currently letting phone companies cash a government check every month with little more than the honor system to hold them accountable, and that simply can’t continue,” she said. …More than 5,500 people were found to be enrolled for two phones, while the program was paying for nearly 6,400 phones for persons the government has listed as having died. Investigators also submitted fraudulent applications to see what would happen, and 12 of the 19 phone carriers they applied to approved a phone.

The Daily Caller’s report also highlighted the program’s rampant fraud.

A massive portion of Obamaphone recipients are receiving the benefit after lying on their applications, according to a new 90-page report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An undercover sting operation showed ineligible applications were approved 63 percent of the time, and a review that found that 36 to 65 percent of beneficiaries in various categories had lied in easily-detectable ways but were approved anyway. The fraud reached unheard-of proportions because the Federal Communications Commission let the task of screening for eligibility fall to phone companies that profit off of enrolling as many people as possible. …All someone has to do to apply for free cell phone service is say that they are on another welfare program, such as food stamps or disability, known as SSI. But nationwide, “only 35.5 percent of people claiming eligibility based on SSI could actually be confirmed as eligible,” the GAO found. …Special interests have aggressively employed a bootleggers-and-Baptists model, with companies who profit greasing the wheels of government with donations and influence-peddling and using poor people as props in marketing campaigns. …The wife of the CEO of TracFone, the largest beneficiary of Obamaphones, was a mega-fundraiser for former President Barack Obama. …And a Pew Research Center report found that the problem of lack of access to technology is far less than it once was, the GAO noted. The FCC’s own data shows that “millions of Lifeline-eligible households are obtaining voice service without Lifeline,” while the fraud rates show that many of the people who do sign up are wealthier than those who don’t.

Again, keep in mind that subsidized telephone service isn’t an Obama invention.

He merely built upon a bad idea that existed for decades.

But also keep in mind that the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Obamaphone program is an inherent part of big government.

There’s fraud in the Medicare program. There’s fraud in the EITC program. There’s fraud in food stamps. There’s fraud in Medicaid. There’s fraud in the disability program. There’s welfare fraud.

But I don’t want to merely pick on what are perceived to be Democrat programs.

There’s also lots of waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon.

Simply stated, when you give away free money, people will do dodgy things to get some of it.

P.S. Given the pervasive parasitical corruption of Washington, nobody should be surprised to learn that plenty of Republican lobbyists are willing to shill for the Obamaphone program.

Even by Keynesian Standards, Cash-for-Clunkers Was a Clunker

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 12:06pm

Keynesian economics is fundamentally misguided because it focuses on how to encourage more spending when the real goal should be to figure out policies that result in more income.

This is one of the reasons I wish people focused more on “gross domestic income,” which is a measure of how we earn our national income (i.e., wages, small business income, corporate profits, etc) rather than on “gross domestic product,” which is a measure of how our national income gets allocated (consumption, investment, government, etc).

Simply stated, Keynesians put the cart before the horse. Consumption doesn’t drive growth, it’s a consequence of growth.

But let’s set all that aside because we have new evidence that Keynesian stimulus schemes aren’t even very good at artificially goosing consumption.

Three economists (from MIT and Tex A&M) have crunched the numbers and discovered that Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme back in 2009 was a failure even by Keynesian standards.

The abstract of the study tells you everything you need to know.

The 2009 Cash for Clunkers program aimed to stimulate consumer spending in the new automobile industry, which was experiencing disproportionate reductions in demand and employment during the Great Recession. Exploiting program eligibility criteria in a regression discontinuity design, we show nearly 60 percent of the subsidies went to households who would have purchased during the two-month program anyway; the rest accelerated sales by no more than eight months. Moreover, the program’s fuel efficiency restrictions shifted purchases toward vehicles that cost on average $5,000 less. On net, Cash for Clunkers significantly reduced total new vehicle spending over the ten month period.

This is remarkable. At the time, the most obvious criticism of the scheme was that it would simply alter the timing of purchases.

And scholars the following year confirmed that the program didn’t have any long-run impact.

But now we find out that there was an impact, but it was negative. Here’s the most relevant graph from the study.

It shows actual vehicle spending and estimated spending in the absence of the program.

For readers who like wonky details, here’s the explanatory text for Figure 7 from the study.

The effect of the program on cumulative new vehicle spending by CfC-eligible households is shown in Figure 7. The figure shows actual spending and estimates of counterfactual spending if there had been no CfC program. Cumulative spending under the CfC program was larger than counterfactual spending for the months immediately after the program. However, by February 1 the counterfactual expenditures becomes larger and by April has grown to be $4.0 billion more than actual expenditures under the program. It is difficult to make the case that the brief acceleration in spending justifies the loss of $4.0 billion in revenues to the auto industry, for two reasons. First, we calculate that in order to justify the estimated longer-term reduction in cumulative spending to boost spending for a few months, one would need a discount rate of 208 percent. Given the expected (and realized) duration of the recession, it seems difficult to argue in favor of such a discount rate. Second, we note that Cash for Clunkers seems especially unattractive compared to a counterfactual stimulus policy that left out the environmental component, which also would have accelerated purchases for some households without reducing longer-term spending.

By the way, the authors point out that Cash-for-Clunkers wasn’t even good environmental policy.

One could also argue that this decline in industry revenue over less than a year could be justified to the extent the program offered a cost-effective environmental benefit. Unfortunately, the existing evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this program was a costly way of reducing environmental damage. For example, Knittel [2009] estimates that the most optimistic implied cost of carbon reduced by the program is $237 per ton, while Li et al. [2013] estimate the cost per ton as between $92 and $288. These implied cost of carbon figures are much larger than the social costs of carbon of $33 per ton (in 2007 dollars) estimated by the IWG on the Social Cost of Carbon [Interagency Working Group, 2013].

So let’s see where we stand. The program was bad fiscal policy, bad economic policy, and bad environmental policy.

The trifecta of Obamanomics. No wonder the United States suffered the weakest recovery of the post-WWII era.

In One Image, Everything You Need to Know about Health Insurance, Community Rating, and Pre-Existing Conditions

Sun, 07/02/2017 - 12:52pm

When discussing government involvement in the health sector, I usually focus on the budgetary implications. Which makes sense since I’m a fiscal wonk and programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare are diverting ever-larger amounts of money from the economy’s productive sector.

I also look at the tax side of the fiscal equation and complain about how the healthcare exclusion mucks up the tax code.

Though it’s important to understand that government involvement doesn’t just cause fiscal damage. All these programs and policies contribute to the “third-party payer” problem, which exists when people make purchases with other people’s money. Such a system is a recipe for inefficiency and rising prices since consumers generally don’t care about cost and providers have no incentive to be efficient. And since government figures show that nearly 90 percent of health care expenditures are financed by someone other than the consumer, this is a major problem. One that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s another economic problem caused by government – price controls on insurance – that is very important. Indeed, the fights over “community rating” and “pre-existing conditions” are actually about whether politicians or competition should determine prices.

Simply stated, politicians want insurance companies to ignore risk when selling insurance. They want artificially low premiums for old people, so they restrict differences in premiums based on age (i.e., a community rating, enforced by a guaranteed-issue mandate), even though older people are statistically far more likely to incur health-related expenses. They also want artificially low premiums for sick people, so the crowd in Washington requires that they pay the same or similar premiums as healthy people (i.e., a pre-existing conditions mandate), even though they are statistically far more likely to incur health-related expenses.

Set aside that the entire purpose of insurance is to guard against risk. Instead, let’s focus on what happens when these types of price controls are imposed. For all intents and purposes, insurance companies are in a position where they have to over-charge young and healthy people in order to subsidize the premiums of old and sick people. That sounds great if you’re old and sick, but young and healthy people respond by choosing not to purchase insurance. And as fewer and fewer young and healthy people are in the system, that forces premiums ever higher. This is what is meant by a “death spiral.”

The pro-intervention crowd has a supposed solution to this problem. Just impose a mandate that requires the young and healthy people to buy insurance. Which is part of Obamacare, so there is a method to that bit of madness. But since the penalties are not sufficiently punitive (and also because the government simply isn’t very competent), the system hasn’t worked. And to make matters worse, Obamacare exacerbated the third-party payer problem, thus leading to higher costs, which ultimately leads to higher premiums, which further discourages people from buying health insurance.

So how do we solve this problem?

One of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, Michael Cannon, is a leading expert on these issues. And he’s also a leading pessimist. Here’s some of what he wrote a week ago as part of a column on the Senate bill to modify Obamacare.

ObamaCare’s “community rating” price controls are causing premiums to rise, coverage to get worse for the sick and insurance markets to collapse across the country. The Senate bill would modify those government price controls somewhat, allowing insurers to charge 64-year-olds five times what they charge 18-year-olds (as opposed to three times, under current law). But these price controls would continue to make a mess of markets and cause insurers to flee.

But he wasn’t enamored with the House proposal, either. Here are some excerpts from his analysis earlier this year of that proposal.

The House leadership bill retains the very ObamaCare regulations that are threatening to destroy health insurance markets and leave millions with no coverage at all. ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls literally penalize insurers who offer quality coverage to patients with expensive conditions, creating a race to the bottom in insurance quality. Even worse, they have sparked a death spiral that has caused insurers to flee ObamaCare’s Exchanges nationwide… The leadership bill would modify ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls by expanding the age-rating bands (from 3:1 to 5:1) and allowing insurers to charge enrollees who wait until they are sick to purchase coverage an extra 30 percent (but only for one year). It is because the House leadership would retain the community-rating price controls that they also end up retaining many other features of the law.

Though existing law also is terrible, largely because of Obamacare. Here are passages from Michael’s column in the Hill.

ObamaCare’s core provisions are the “community rating” price controls and other regulations that (supposedly) end discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions. How badly do these government price controls fail at that task? Community rating is the reason former president Bill Clinton called ObamaCare “the craziest thing in the world” where Americans “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” Community rating is why women age 55 to 64 have seen the highest premium increases under ObamaCare. It is the principal reason ObamaCare has caused overall premiums to double in just four years. …Why? Because community rating forces insurance companies to cover the sick below cost, which simply isn’t sustainable. The only solution ObamaCare supporters offer is to keep throwing more money at the problem — which also isn’t sustainable.

Anyone who wants to really understand this issue should read all of Michael’s work on health care issues.

But if you don’t have the time or energy for that, here’s an image that I found on Reddit‘s libertarian page. Using not-so-subtle sarcasm, it tells you everything you need to know about why price controls ultimately will kill health insurance.

P.S. None of this suggests we should feel sorry for health insurance companies. They got in bed with the previous administration and endorsed Obamacare, presumably because they figured a mandate (especially with all the subsidies) would create captive customers. Now that it’s clear that the mandate isn’t working very well and that increased Medicaid dependency accounts for almost all of the additional “insurance coverage,” they’re left with an increasingly dysfunctional system. As far as I’m concerned, they deserve to lose money. And I definitely don’t want them to get bailout money.

P.P.S. Republicans aren’t doing a very good job of unwinding the Obamacare price controls, but they deserve a bit of credit for being bolder about trying to undo the fiscal damage.

Addendum: A comment from Seb reminds me that I was so fixated on criticizing price controls that I never bothered to explain how to deal with people who have pre-existing conditions and therefore cannot get health insurance. I’m guessing the answer is “high-risk pools” where the focus of policy is directly subsidizing the relatively small slice of the population that has a problem (as opposed to price controls and other interventions that distort the market for everyone). But the main goal, from my perspective, is to have states handle the issue rather than Washington. A federalist approach, after all, is more likely to give us the innovation, diversity, and competition that produces the best approaches. States may discover, after all, that insurance doesn’t make sense and choose to directly subsidize the provision of health care for affected people. In the long run, part of the solution is to get rid of the health care exclusion in the internal revenue code as part of fundamental tax reform. If that happened, it’s less likely that health insurance would be tied to employment (and losing a job is one of the main ways people wind up without insurance).

Another Ghoulish and Tyrannical Moment in Government-Run Healthcare

Sat, 07/01/2017 - 12:12pm

Writing about the sub-par single-payer healthcare system in the United Kingdom, Paul Krugman infamously claimed that,“In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false.”

I’ve pointed out that there are plenty of “scare stories” about the National Health Service that are completely true. And completely scary.

But don’t take my word for it.

Just click hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, herehereherehereherehere, here, or here if you want examples.

To be fair, there surely are horror stories from every health care system. Humans are imperfect, after all.

But I suspect shoddy care is more common when healthcare providers get a salary from the government. Under such an arrangement, patients are a burden rather than a source of revenue.

Set that aside, however, because there’s a feature of the U.K.’s single-payer system that is reprehensible and it has nothing to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of care.

The UK-based Daily Mail reports on this very disturbing case.

The parents of terminally-ill baby Charlie Gard are ‘utterly distraught’ and facing fresh heartbreak after losing their final appeal in the European Court of Human Rights. Chris Gard, 32, and Connie Yates, 31, wanted to take their 10-month-old son – who suffers from a rare genetic condition and has brain damage – to the US to undergo a therapy trial. …the couple, from Bedfont, west London, raised almost £1.4million so they could take their son to America but a series of courts ruled in favour of the British doctors. …the ECHR rejected a last-ditch plea and their ‘final’ decision means the baby’s life support machine will be switched off. …It comes after a High Court judge in April ruled against a trip to America and in favour of Great Ormond Street doctors. …Specialists in the US have offered a therapy called nucleoside. …barrister Richard Gordon QC, who leads Charlie’s parents’ legal team, …said parents should be free to make decisions about their children’s treatment unless any proposal poses a risk of significant harm. …Charlie’s parents have raised nearly £1.4million to pay for therapy in America.

Ian Tuttle of National Review explains what’s really at stake in this case.

Any day now, they’ll kill Charlie Gard. …Charlie’s parents have raised enough money from private donations to fund the experimental treatment, but the court decision prohibits his removal to the U.S. …successive courts in the United Kingdom and in Europe simultaneously found that Connie Yates and Chris Gard had devoted themselves unhesitatingly to their son’s welfare for ten months, and also that Yates and Gard could not be trusted to act in their son’s best interests. …pertinent to this case, under what circumstances should the tightest bonds of affection — those between parent and child — be subordinated to the judgment of the state?

The part that astounds me (in a very bad way) is that the courts won’t allow the parents to bring their son to the United States.

They’re not asking or expecting the taxpayers to pick up the cost. They’ve raised money to cover the experimental treatment. Yet the government won’t let them try to save their son’s life.

Even if the doctors are right and the experimental treatment fails, why shouldn’t the parents be allowed to do the medical equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary at the end of a football game?

I can’t even imagine what the parents must be thinking. If some government official said I had to allow one of my kids to die and that I didn’t have the right to try anything and everything to avert that outcome, I don’t even want to think of what I might do.

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