Archives: May, 2009

Gun Free School Zone Follies

As I have noted before, “gun free” zones are an exercise in fantasy. To some, a place without guns sounds like a great place to live.  Unfortunately, others think they sound like a great place to plunder.

Some recent developments highlight the ability of armed citizens to defend themselves and how localized gun bans near schools or on universities make victims of law-abiding citizens.

A group of Georgia college students at a birthday party owe their lives to the fact that one of them had a gun. (H/T Of Arms & the Law) Two gunmen burst in to the apartment and separated males and females into different rooms. The gunmen began discussing whether they had enough bullets to kill everyone at the party. One of the students pulled a gun from his backpack and shot at the home invader holding the men, chasing the gunman out of the apartment. The armed student went to the next room, where the other gunman was preparing to rape his girlfriend. The student shot the second gunman, killing him.

If the birthday party had been in a dorm, the student probably would have left his gun at home because of the Georgia statute that bans guns on campus.  The students would likely be dead as a result.

A second story comes from Wisconsin, one of the two states with no provision allowing for concealed carry. A man on a bicycle was hit and thrown to the ground by four young men. The bicyclist was carrying a handgun openly, a practice approved by the Wisconsin Attorney General. The bicyclist drew his revolver, pointed it in the air and yelled, “gun!” The four assailants fled. The bicyclist flagged down a police officer to report the incident.

The positive outcome to this story is countered by the fact that the bicyclist was accosted within 1,000 feet of a school. His possession of a gun is criminalized by both Wisconsin and federal statutes.

Although the local district attorney said that the bicyclist will not be prosecuted, the Milwaukee police chief and other Wisconsin law enforcement officials have promised to focus additional scrutiny on persons who openly carry a firearm.

All of this highlights the folly of “gun free” school zones. Using the law to target citizens who will not be protected by the police is a perverse policy. It gives thugs every incentive to focus their criminal activities in the areas around the schools the legislation intends to protect.

Sarbanes-Oxley under Attack… from the Supreme Court!

Today the Supreme Court agreed to review a case brought by our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute that challenges the constitutionality of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB, pronounced “peek-a-boo”).  The constitutional problem with the PCAOB – there are many policy problems – is that its officers are appointed in an unconstitutional manner. 

Under the Appointments Clause of Article II, section 2, the president has the exclusive power to appoint and remove government officials.  The members of the PCAOB – which enforces the massive regulatory scheme Sarbanes-Oxley imposes on public companies – are appointed by the SEC, however, which then has limited supervisory/removal power.  While this structural defect may seem like a minor technicality, what it means is that the awesome power to set accounting standards – not least Sarbox section 404, which has cost the economy over a trillion dollars – impose taxes, and levy criminal and civil penalties is vested in a bunch of unaccountable bureaucrats.  Entities with similar authority, even those having a modicum of political independence, such as the IRS Commissioner and Federal Reserve governors, are all vetted by the president and the Senate.

The court below (the D.C. Circuit), however, held that PCAOB members are inferior officers and, as such, Congress “may limit and restrict the power of removal as it deems best for the public interest.”  But this gets the Constitution backwards; Congress isn’t allowed to insulate important decisionmakers from political accountability.  As CEI’s press release says:

If the President can pick and remove the PCAOB members, as the Appointments Clause requires, he will be on the hook for their policy failures, and thus have an interest in making them develop sound policies that protect investors and don’t stifle economic growth.  He won’t be able to blame the red tape on an unaccountable agency whose officials he doesn’t select or control.

The Court will hear the case, Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB – which I previously blogged about here – in late fall.

What Caused Atlas Shrugged Sales to Soar?

Sales of Atlas Shrugged have risen sharply this year, and various observers from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Economist have attributed the jump to “uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day,” in the words of ARI’s Yaron Brook. The Economist writes,

Whenever governments intervene in the market, in short, readers rush to buy Rand’s book. Why? The reason is explained by the name of a recently formed group on Facebook, the world’s biggest social-networking site: “Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life”.

Brook told CNN:

“So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ “

But is this story right? Do news headlines generate book sales? How did people who read about TARP or bank nationalizations know that those events were reminiscent of a novel published in 1957? Maybe their friends told them “It’s just like Atlas Shrugged,” and they ran out and bought the book.

Or maybe something more direct is required. One Atlas Shrugged fan suggested to me that the real boost came in January, with a Wall Street Journal article by my former colleague Stephen Moore. So I decided to investigate, using the sales figures in Nielsen’s Bookscan. And indeed those figures seem to point in a different direction. The boom in sales of Atlas Shrugged really took off in mid-January, after Steve Moore’s essay ”‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years” appeared in the Journal on January 9. Steve wrote:

Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957….

For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises – that in most cases they themselves created – by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs … and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism….

David Kelley, the president of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to promoting Rand’s ideas, explains that “the older the book gets, the more timely its message.” He tells me that there are plans to make “Atlas Shrugged” into a major motion picture – it is the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie. “We don’t need to make a movie out of the book,” Mr. Kelley jokes. “We are living it right now.”

Here’s a chart taken from Bookscan’s data on weekly sales of the mass-market paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged:

The sales in late 2008 are very similar to those in 2007, with a Christmas bump that was higher in 2008. But sales started to diverge after January 9, suggesting that it was in fact the Wall Street Journal essay that kicked them into high gear. Then they slowly fell, and then there was an even bigger peak in early March. Why? That’s not so clear. Perhaps it’s a case of self-fulfilling prophecy and the accumulating effects of media buzz. ARI put out its press release about soaring sales on February 23, and the Economist picked up the idea five days later, as did many bloggers. Then on March 2 and 5 the popular blogger Michelle Malkin talked about the idea of “Going Galt” – pulling back on work and investment in response to projected tax increases and regulations – in her blog and syndicated column, and the New York Times picked that up. Both Malkin and the Times’s Opinionator blog linked to the original ARI story about soaring sales, giving the idea further legs, and the Freakonomics blog picked up the Economist’s story. On March 14 the Wall Street Journal ran another op-ed on the contemporary relevance of Atlas Shrugged, this one by Yaron Brook. There’s a reason that publishers put “bestseller” on their book covers – people like to read what other people are reading. And there’s no question that once this media buzz got started, the sales have remained much higher than last year.

It seems that Greenspan, Bernanke, Fannie, Freddie, Barney Frank, Bush, Paulson, Geithner, and Obama all created the objective conditions for an Atlas Shrugged sales bump, but it took Steve Moore and subsequent commentators to create the “subjective conditions” – actually talking about the relationship of Atlas Shrugged to political and economic events – to set off the actual boom.

Two other minor points: The weekly sales in late 2007 were somewhat higher than in late 2006. So if you think, as the Economist suggests, that sales of Atlas Shrugged in the United States were pushed up by the British bailout of Northern Rock and the U.S. Treasury’s pressure on banks to assist subprime borrowers, then maybe the 2007 sales figures were already reflecting the impact of economic policy events. But the total sales in 2007 were barely ahead of 2006, and obviously the real jump has come this year.

Second, the bestselling edition of Atlas Shrugged is the mass-market paperback, which is of course the cheapest. That’s the edition whose sales are tracked in the chart. But the bestselling edition on Amazon is the more expensive trade paperback, which is the one whose sales the Economist analyzes. Why? Are Amazon customers older and more affluent, so that they prefer the larger book even at a higher cost? Do many local bookstores carry only the mass-market edition?

Thanks to C. Alexander Evans and Tom Firey for help in compiling and presenting these data.

Revenge of the Laffer Curve

Steve Moore and Art Laffer have an excellent column in today’s Wall Street Journal. They explain that high-tax states drive repel entrepreneurs and investors, leading to a pronounced Laffer Curve effect. Productive people either leave the state or choose to earn and report less taxable income. And because growth is weaker than in low-tax states, there also is a negative impact on lower-income and middle-class people:

Here’s the problem for states that want to pry more money out of the wallets of rich people. It never works because people, investment capital and businesses are mobile: They can leave tax-unfriendly states and move to tax-friendly states. …Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts. …Dozens of academic studies – old and new – have found clear and irrefutable statistical evidence that high state and local taxes repel jobs and businesses. …Examining IRS tax return data by state, E.J. McMahon, a fiscal expert at the Manhattan Institute, measured the impact of large income-tax rate increases on the rich ($200,000 income or more) in Connecticut, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 5% from 4.5%; in New Jersey, which raised its rate in 2004 to 8.97% from 6.35%; and in New York, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 7.7% from 6.85%. Over the period 2002-2005, in each of these states the “soak the rich” tax hike was followed by a significant reduction in the number of rich people paying taxes in these states relative to the national average.

Interestingly, the Baltimore Sun last week published an article noting that the soak-the-rich tax imposed last year is backfiring. There are fewer rich people, less taxable income, and lower tax revenue. To be sure, some of this is the result of a nationwide downturn, but the research cited by Moore and Laffer certainly suggest that the state revenue shortfall will continue even after than national economy recovers:

A year ago, Maryland became one of the first states in the nation to create a higher tax bracket for millionaires as part of a broader package of maneuvers intended to help balance the state’s finances and make the tax code more progressive. But as the state comptroller’s office sifts through this year’s returns, it is finding that the number of Marylanders with more than $1 million in taxable income who filed by the end of April has fallen by one-third, to about 2,000. Taxes collected from those returns as of last month have declined by roughly $100 million. …Karen Syrylo, a tax expert with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against the millionaire bracket, said she has heard from colleagues who are attorneys and accountants that their clients moved out of state to avoid the new tax rate. She said that some Maryland jurisdictions boast some of the highest combined state and local income tax burdens in the country. “Maryland is such a small state, and it is so easy to move a few miles south to Virginia or a few miles north to Pennsylvania,” Syrylo said. “So there are millionaires who are no longer going to be filing Maryland tax returns.”

With President Obama proposing higher tax rates for the entire nation, perhaps this is a good time to remind people about the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve that I narrated. If you have not yet had a chance to watch them, the videos are embedded here for your viewing pleasure:

Church of Universal Coverage Begins Its Campaign against that Pesky CBO

Last Monday, when lobbyists for the six biggest health care industry groups joined President Obama to announce their support for reducing health care spending by $2 trillion over 10 years, I penned and voiced my suspicion that the real motivation was to pressure the Congressional Budget Office to assume that Democrats’ health care reforms would reduce spending, despite the lack of evidence.  My wife said that hypothesis sounded a little … conspiratorial.

Last Thursday, when it was revealed that there was no actual agreement and that the White House basically manipulated the industry to get a week’s worth of good health care press, I started to doubt whether strong-arming the CBO was really the goal of that media stunt.  Then Jonathan Cohn set me straight.

In an article for The New Republic aptly titled, “Numbers Racket,” Cohn acknowledges that the biggest problem facing Democrats is that the $2 trillion cost of universal coverage has to come from somewhere.  Cohn, like many Democrats, complains that the “curmudgeonly” CBO isn’t letting reformers off the hook by assuming that universal coverage will (partly) pay for itself.  Cohn also acknowledges that pressuring the CBO was a likely purpose of last week’s media stunt:

The CBO took nearly the same positions back in 1994 – a fact not lost on either the White House or congressional leaders, who have communicated their concerns publicly and privately. One apparent purpose of bringing industry leaders to meet Obama this week was to showcase the potential for cutting costs; see, the administration seemed to be signaling, even the health care industry thinks it can save money by becoming more efficient.

Democrats have set their sights on legislation that would give government enormous power over Americans’ earnings and medical decisions.  The main political obstacle to those reforms is their cost, thus Democrats are pressuring the CBO to pretend that those costs don’t exist.  The CBO (and everybody else) should resist the Democrats’ effort to make truth yield to power.

Energy Mismanagment

Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).

I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.

Cultwatch: Union Station, New York Times

obamastoreSnapped this pic at DC’s Union Station this afternoon, on my way from the Amtrak platform to the Metro (where the machine dispensed a metrocard featuring a grinning BHO). Readers planning to visit DC will be happy to know that you can get all your Obama-related tchotchkes and talismans in one convenient locale right after you get off the train.

Say what you will about hapless Jerry Ford, but he had this going for him: nobody ever thought of making an action figure in his image.

In other cult-related news, today’s New York Times has an “Op-Extra” sidebar,with “excerpts from Opinion Online.” Our friend Judith Warner, last seen discussing cougar fantasies about “sex with the president,” weighs in about the shirtless Obama cover on the current Washingtonian:

“Just as having a president who can string a sentence together with subject-verb agreement makes us all look a little bit smarter, just as having a really admirable family in the White House makes us all seem a little less dysfunctional, perhaps having a president who can look good in a bathing suit is in some bizarre way good for the nation.”

Yeah, I mean, God knows it’s been good for Russia.