Archives: 12/2007

Independence in 1776 to Dependence on 1776

I recently updated data I presented last year on the total number of federal subsidy programs.

It turns out that the federal government currently operates 1,776 subsidy programs. These include subsidies for states, cities, individuals, non-profit groups, and businesses.

As the chart shows, the number of subsidy programs has increased 25 percent since 2000. 

George W. Bush: He’s no Thomas Jefferson.

Taxes in 2009

All the Democratic presidential candidates appear to agree that taxes must go up.

We have been here before. Bill Clinton promised tax cuts in 1992 and then supported increases. Democrats in Congress supported Clinton’s tax hikes just as they had voted for the 1990 tax increases.

The result? Democrats lost almost one-quarter (63 seats) of their House caucus in the elections for the 103rd and 104th Congress. The Republican president that proposed the 1990 increases lost two years later.

The current group of Democratic presidential contenders may have forgotten this history lesson. I suspect congressional Democrats running next year will remember it.

Free Speech and Property Rights in St. Louis

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a story on an important free speech case here in St. Louis. Property rights activist Jim Roos, whose run-ins with city bulldozers are documented in my recent study, has painted an enormous two-story mural on the side of one of the buildings the city has threatened with eminent domain. It reads “End Eminent Domain Abuse,” and its location makes it plainly visible for commuters driving on Interstate 55, a major commuter route.

The city isn’t amused, and has charged Roos with having an “illegal sign.” Roos fought back:

Roos fought the citation, claiming the city was targeting him not because of the size of his sign, but because of its message.

“I think if it said, ‘Go Cardinals,’ we wouldn’t have any problems,” Roos said.

The city routinely approves exemptions for large signs. On the same day a city panel rejected Roos’ claim, it granted an appeal by Laclede Gas to display a sign of over 1,000 square feet on the utility’s downtown headquarters.

Even so, content is not the issue, city officials say — it’s keeping the city tidy.

“Can you imagine what our city would look like if everyone were allowed to paint a 363-square-foot, two-story sign on their buildings?” asked City Attorney Patti Hageman.

Roos has taken his case to federal court, where he has drawn the aid of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian advocacy group in Arlington, Va. The interest in Roos’ fight is twofold for the institute, which advocates for both free speech and property rights.

It sure would be terrible if everyone were allowed to express their political opinions by painting murals on their buildings.

The High Price of Too-Low Administrative Costs

Supporters of “Medicare-for-All” (and other reforms that would give the U.S. government primary responsibility for purchasing everyone’s medical care) boast that Medicare demonstrates that government can reduce administrative costs below those in America’s bloated, inefficient private sector.  They’re wrong, as Ben Zycher ably demonstrates.

But even if Medicare’s administrative costs are lower, that’s not a virtue

Why?  As David Hyman wryly argues in Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, Medicare keeps administrative costs down by shoveling money out the door with very little oversight.  Similarly, Tyler Cowen argues that administrative costs are efficient if they pay for themselves by reducing unnecessary spending.

Today’s New York Times offers an illustration of how Medicare’s too-low administrative costs leads to waste:

Medicare spends billions of dollars each year on products and services that are available at far lower prices from retail pharmacies and online stores, according to an analysis of federal data by The New York Times. The government agency has paid above-market costs for dozens of items, a comparison of Medicare figures with retail catalogs finds.

For example, last year Medicare spent more than $21 million on pumps to help older and disabled men attain erections, paying about $450 for the same device that is available online for as little as $108. Even for a simple walking cane, which can be purchased online for about $11, the government pays $20, according to government data.

These widespread price discrepancies, including those for oxygen services, have been noted in dozens of regulatory reports.

Private insurers incur administrative costs to make sure they (and their customers) aren’t getting ripped off.  Medicare doesn’t.  The Times article also illustrates why Medicare usually can’t:

[W]hen officials and politicians have tried to cut these costs, they have often encountered a powerful foe: the companies that sell these devices, who ask their elderly customers to serve, in effect, as unpaid lobbyists, calling and writing to their representatives in Congress, protesting at rallies, and even participating in political attacks against individual lawmakers who take on the issue.

“These industries rely on a basic threat: If you mess with us, we can turn the seniors against you,” said former Senator Alan K. Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, who tried cutting Medicare payments while he was in Congress…

Many of those battles focus on the $427 billion Medicare program. Because of fierce patient and corporate lobbying, for instance, Medicare still pays prices for many items that are based on rates established in the early 1980s, when devices were often much more expensive than they are now.

Even as the actual cost of many machines and services has fallen, Medicare has only occasionally lowered what it pays.

To argue for single-payer on the basis of Medicare’s administrative costs is the equivalent of arguing that, because I can set fire to a pallet of $100 bills with a cigarette lighter and a can of gasoline, I should be entrusted with even more pallets of cash because my administrative costs are such a small share of the money involved.

So staggeringly efficient, this Medicare.

More Nanny-State Foolishness

Article I, Section VIII of the United States Constitution specifies the powers of the United States Congress. The list of congressional powers is not very long, comprising less than 20 items, so it did not take very long to discover that federal lawmakers do not have any power to regulate school lunches. So I was shocked, absolutely shocked, to read in the New York Times that Senators Harkin and Murkowski are pushing legislation to micro-manage the number of calories in vending-machine snacks (though they have graciously and generously decided to exempt the Girl Scouts):

Federal lawmakers are considering the broadest effort ever to limit what children eat: a national ban on selling candy, sugary soda and salty, fatty food in school snack bars, vending machines and cafeteria lines. …Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, has twice introduced bills to deal with foods other than the standard school lunch, which is regulated by Department of Agriculture. Several lawmakers and advocates for changes in school food believe that an amendment to the $286 billion farm bill is the best chance to get control of the mountain of high-calorie snacks and sodas available to schoolchildren. Even if the farm bill does not pass, Mr. Harkin and Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, a sponsor of the amendment, vow to keep reintroducing it in other forms until it sticks. …Food for sale would have to be limited in saturated and trans fat and have less than 35 percent sugar. Sodium would be limited, and snacks must have no more than 180 calories per serving for middle and elementary schools and 200 calories for high schools. The standards would not affect occasional fund-raising projects, like Girl Scout cookie sales.

Why Do European Politicians Want Tax Harmonization?

While it is possible that European politicians have a genetic predisposition for statist policies, I’ve never thought this is why they support tax harmonization. Self interest is a far more reasonable answer. More specifically, European nations generally have high fiscal burdens. For instance, government spending consumes nearly half of economic output in EU countries, compared to one-third of GDP in the United States.

Not surprisingly, this translates into a higher tax burden, which means jobs and investment generally flee Europe. Tax harmonization is an attempt to stop labor and capital from escaping by creating, for all intents and purposes, a “fiscal fence.” But European politicians also want to undermine tax competition because they know the situation is going to get worse. According to a new report, demographic changes almost certainly are going to result in an even bigger welfare state in the future. This means increasingly harsh tax rates on the remaining productive people - which means politicians will try even harder to prevent taxpayers from escaping. The EU Observer reports on the key statistic that is causing angst for Europe’s political class:

According to demographic predictions, the EU’s population will not only shrink by almost 20 million people by 2050, but its make-up will also change dramatically. While there are currently about four working people of working age for each person of pension age in the EU’s 27 member states, there will be fewer than two people to support every elderly person by 2050, with the population gradually ageing.

The Politics of Free Speech Change for the Better

The politics of free speech are changing fast.

The presidential public financing system is all but dead, largely because the candidates are raising so much money they don’t need to dun the taxpayers for campaign cash. The Democrats have raised a lot more money for the coming election than the Republicans. The Supreme Court is starting to favor free speech in campaign finance cases and casting a cold eye on laws like McCain-Feingold.

For most of the past three decades, so-called “reform” groups have dominated DC battles about campaign finance. These special interest groups lobbied Congress while their lawyers practiced the art of restricting speech before the Federal Election Commission.

Now that too is changing. A new group, SpeechNow.org, has formed to fight restrictions on speech. They just asked the Federal Election Commission to issue an advisory opinion about whether their fundraising must follow the contribution limits in federal election law.

Contribution limits exist–in law, if not in fact–to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. But SpeechNow.org is not giving money to federal candidates for office, and it is not incorporated (corporations cannot legally give money to parties or candidates). The organization is funded solely by individuals, some of whom want to give more than $5,000 to support the work of the new group.

What are they planning to do? The Center for Competitive Politics, which along with the Institute for Justice provides legal counsel to SpeechNow.org, says that “the group wants to run TV ads supporting and opposing candidates on free speech issues during the 2008 election cycle.”

Think about that for a minute. A group of citizens wants to come together to pool their resources to speak out for and against candidates on matters concerning free speech. They don’t plan to give candidates or the parties money, so the corruption threat does not exist. What could be more in line with the First Amendment and the Constitution? And yet… SpeechNow.org finds itself asking the Federal Election Commission “mother may I?” just to exercise its constitutional rights.

That should make you angry.

But think about this too. SpeechNow.org is something different from what we’ve heard on these issues for so many years, a group that plans to defend the First Amendment outside the courtroom. And somewhere in this nation is at least one person who is willing to give SpeechNow.org more than $5,000 for that effort.

That gives me hope.