Archives: April, 2007

Is This Libertarian Paternalism?

From the Washington Post:

Other experts are considering more creative ways to improve tax compliance. One idea is to take advantage of people’s desire to get a refund at the end of the year.

“What some people do when they are doing their taxes is they do a first draft and see how much they are getting back,” said Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago economist who studies how people think about money. “If they owe money, then they do a second draft. They keep finding deductions until the refund is positive.”

Thaler said mandatorily increasing withholding levels so more people get refunds could increase compliance because taxpayers would no longer have to go to great lengths to get a refund.

Thaler is one of the leading advocates of “libertarian paternalism,” which Will Wilkinson roundly pummeled the other day.

So is withholding more money from people’s paychecks in order to make the poor dumb sheep think they’re getting money back 16 months later an example of libertarian paternalism? No, it’s just old-fashioned sheep shearing.

Volunteer Today!

This is National Volunteer Week – which is really appropriate, since it’s also the week our federal income taxes are due, and the income tax system is based on “voluntary compliance.” No, really, it says so right on the 1040 packet and throughout the IRS website. Indeed, the friendly folks at the IRS acknowledge (.pdf) that some people get the wrong idea because the IRS itself tells taxpayers in the Form 1040 instruction book that the tax system is voluntary.” But if you take their little online test of “Your Role as a Taxpayer,” they explain to you that it is True that “IRS publications state that the tax system is voluntary,” but it is also True that “The government has the right to force me to pay my taxes and charge me penalties for not paying taxes.” Go figure.

Anyway, if you have any time or money left after paying your taxes, consider doing some volunteer work.

Another Costly Government Failure

Even though they claim to be pro-family, some politicians want the government to act like Mommy and Daddy. President Bush’s abstinence program is a good example of this unfortunate willingness to adopt nanny-state policies. But like almost everything the government does, abstinence programs are an expensive failure. The UK-based Guardian reports on the latest research:

It’s been a central plank of George Bush’s social policy: to stop teenagers having sex. More than $1bn of federal money has been spent on promoting abstinence since 1998 - posters printed, television adverts broadcast and entire education programmes devised for hundreds of thousands of girls and boys. The trouble is, new research suggests that it hasn’t worked. At all. A survey of more than 2,000 teenagers carried out by a research company on behalf of Congress found that the half of the sample given abstinence-only education displayed exactly the same predilection for sex as those who had received conventional sex education in which contraception was discussed.

New Health Care Reading

David Hogberg has joined the blogosphere with Health Hog.  One of his first posts links to a debate between David Gratzer and Jonathan Cohn.  Gratzer’s opening salvo mentions a book by Robert J. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider, which is among three books reviewed here.  Gratzer writes,

Robert L. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider factor out intentional and unintentional injuries from life expectancy statistics, concluding that this non-injury group of Americans outlive similar groups in other countries.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if you did this sort of calculation.  I can’t say that I am entirely shocked that if you adjust longevity data for things like murders or car accidents, the U.S. comes out ahead.

Europe’s Dismal Fiscal Future

Nations such as France and Germany already are over-burdened by excessive taxes and spending, but things are going to get worse. A column in the Wall Street Journal notes that the number of potential workers per retiree is going to shrink dramatically. This helps explain, of course, why so many European politicians are opposed to tax competition. Mobility of labor and capital undermines their ability to keep Ponzi schemes afloat:

A shrinking population in itself is not necessarily a problem. But the rise in the “old age dependency” most definitely is. Fewer and fewer younger workers will have to finance the retirement of more and more elderly people in need of a range of support services from pensions to health care. European Commission forecasts suggest that the number of people aged 65 and older as a percentage of the working population (aged 15-64) will more than double between now and 2050 to 53% from 25%. …A continuation of the current pay-as-you-go pension systems, where employee contributions are used to pay for the pensions of those already retired, seems unsustainable. It would require an almost superhuman willingness among the shrinking pool of workers to pay ever rising payroll taxes for the increasing ranks of the older generation. It would overstretch the solidarity between generations and would only accelerate an already observable brain drain. Many of the most talented Europeans are already looking for higher salaries and lower taxes abroad.

But Americans should not gloat. Entitlement programs are pushing the United States in the same direction.

To Fix Student Lending, Government Must Go

There’s been a lot of unflattering news lately about the student loan industry: Revelations about schools and lenders in revenue-sharing deals; college financial aid officers holding stock in companies on their schools’ “preferred lender” lists; a U.S. Department of Education official owning shares in a lending company he was supposed to be overseeing; and just yesterday, revelations that some lending companies have had largely unfettered access to a federal database stocked with Social Security numbers, email addresses, loan balances, and other sensitive information belonging to tens-of-millions of student borrowers.

To many people, these revelations are just further evidence of the immoral, rapacious greed of for-profit lenders. As Generation Debt author Anya Kamenetz explained recently on the Huffington Post blog:

When I wrote my first piece about the student debt crisis in the Village Voice in June 2004, the future looked grim. Average student loan burdens doubled in the 1990s to nearly $20,000, and in February 2006, barely a year ago, Congress passed the largest cuts to student aid in history.

I never would have guessed that the tide would turn so quickly and that the loan industry, with its fat profits, billions in government subsidies, private jets and baseball teams, would be on the defensive. But here we are.

Kamenetz and others like her are right to be angry about the cushy arrangements lenders have secured through the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), which guarantees student loans with federal tax dollars. Her solution to the overall student loan mess, however, would do little to attack the root cause of the scandals and graft:

The Direct Loan Program. Switching [to it from FFELP], as described in the reintroduced STAR Act, would save billions we could then use for much needed grant aid. And a “single payer” Direct Loan program would save on marketing costs and limit the potential for scandals like the current one.

The federal Direct Loan Program – which currently furnishes about a quarter of all federal student loans – cuts out private lenders and sends loans directly from the U.S. Treasury to college kids. Now, that might be cheaper to run – though that is itself hotly debated – but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, which is just what we’d be doing if we decided to solve the current student loan disaster by giving the federal government even more student lending power. The government, you see, is the root cause of the current problems, not the solution:

  • The subsidies that have enriched lenders were created by federal policymakers, not loan companies.
  • Massive federal aid – which according to the latest inflation-adjusted data from the College Board exploded from $48.3 billion to $94.4 billion over just the last decade – has helped fuel skyrocketing tuition, creating ever-bigger federal and private loan markets.
  • Some of the biggest problems unearthed so far directly involve federal breakdowns, including a federal official owning over $100,000 worth of stock in a company he was supposed to be overseeing, and federal bureaucrats giving some lenders almost free rein to comb over highly sensitive student data. (Which, by the way, also ought to make even the most trusting person very dubious of federal promises to fully protect student privacy if allowed to maintain a proposed “unit record database” containing detailed information on every college student in America.)

Unfortunately, many of the student lending industry’s antagonists aren’t actually all that concerned with maximizing efficiency or saving taxpayers money. What they’re primarily interested in is getting as many cheap dollars to students as they can. In other words, its not outrageous subsidies they’re especially angry about, but that the wrong special interests are getting them.

Michael Dannenberg, Director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and editor of its Higher Ed Watch blog, recently made this abundantly clear:

The ultimate success of these student loan investigations will be measured by the degree to which they result in cheaper college loans for students and families. Right now, students are paying interest rates for college loans that are simply too high.

Apparently it doesn’t matter that total, inflation-adjusted federal aid doubled over the last decade; that inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student rose from $6,700 to $10,113 in that same time, or that the interest rate on subsidized federal loans is fixed at 6.8 percent while the prime rate is currently 8.25 percent. For Dannenberg and others like him, when it comes to federal policy college students never get a fair deal.

In light of the reality that the special interests most heavily involved in the student aid debate want as much money for themselves as they can get, and that the government has almost always been happy to provide it, it’s clear that what would be best for taxpayers would neither be to maintain FFELP nor to switch completely to Direct Lending, but to eliminate federal aid altogether. Then, the people who would be enriched would be taxpayers – well, maybe “unharmed” would be a more accurate description – while both lenders and students would finally have to earn an honest buck.

Upside-Down Budgeting in Europe

Politicians in Washington are quite adept at wasting money and coming up with clever excuses for new programs, but they are rank amateurs compared to their counterparts across the ocean. In Europe, politicians and bureaucrats have become so adept at twisting words that the European Commission actually announced that it “protected taxpayers’ interests” by spending almost every penny it received. The EU Observer reports on this Kafka-esque abuse of language:

The European Union has become better at spending money resulting in EU capitals getting back less of their annual membership fee, the European Commission has announced. …Out of the €107.4 billion EU spending finally agreed on for 2006 only €950 million was left unused - down from €1 billion in 2005. “Improved budget management and better planning help protect taxpayers’ interests,” said EU budget commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite in a statement. …the European Union is not allowed to make any profit and any surplus is therefore channelled back to EU member states’ coffers by way of a rebate on the year’s EU fee.