Archives: 05/2009

Secretary of Behavior Modification

George Will recently accused Obama’s token Republican, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, of being the “Secretary for Behavior Modification” because of his support for programs designed to coerce people into driving less. Speaking before the National Press Club on May 21, LaHood pleaded guilty as charged.

In the video of LaHood’s presentation, he was asked if the administration’s “livability initiative” is really “an effort to make driving more tortuous and to coerce people out of their cars.” His answer: “It is a way to coerce people out of their cars, yeah.”

The next question was, “Some conservative groups are wary of the livable communities program, saying it’s an example of government intrusion into people’s lives. How do you respond?” His complete answer: “About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives.”

While these are certainly quotable, defenders of “livability” (code for “transportation by any mode but automobile”) would be quick to point out that all of LaHood’s examples are aimed at giving people choices other than driving: walkways, bike paths, streetcars, light rail. LaHood never mentions any actual techniques aimed at coercing people out of their cars.

Yet those coercive techniques are a major part of the livability campaign, as shown by Portland, Oregon, which LaHood touted as “the example” of a livability program. The most important of these techniques is to divert highway user fees to expensive forms of transportation that receive little use. Portland is deliberately allowing congestion to grow while it spends money collected from highway users on streetcars and light rail.

Not that Portland’s program is very successful. Despite spending more than $2 billion on rail transit since 1980, transit’s share of Portland-area commuting declined from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 6.9 percent in 2007. (The table says 6.5 percent but that includes the people who worked at home.)

Much of the money that Portland does spend on roads goes into “traffic calming,” a euphemism for “congestion building.” This consists of putting barriers in roads, speed humps, narrowing streets, and turning auto lanes into exclusive bike lanes. Portland’s official objective (see table 1.2) is to allow rush-hour traffic to grow to near-gridlock levels (“level of service F”) on most major freeways and arterials.

“People don’t like spending an hour and a half getting to work,” said LaHood. But if more congestion is a key part of “livability,” then a lot more people are going to be doing that under the administration’s plans.

Beyond not seeing anything wrong with government coercion, LaHood can’t see the difference between transportation systems that pay for themselves (such as the interstate highways) and transportation systems that require huge subsidies (such as streetcars and light rail). “If somebody wants to ride streetcars or light rail to work,” says LaHood, then it is up to the government to provide it for them.

What if someone wants to take a helicopter to work? Or a dirigible or rocketship or a personal limousine? Does LaHood really believe that, just because someone wants something, all other taxpayers should fund it?

When in Congress, LaHood was known as a “moderate Republican.” I guess that is a euphemism for “central planner in waiting.”

Euro VAT for America?

Desperate for fresh revenues to feed the giant spending appetite of President Obama, Democratic policymakers are talking up ‘tax reform’ as a way to reduce the deficit. Some are considering a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which would have a similar effect as a national sales tax, and be a large new burden on American families.

A VAT would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the government, even at a 10-percent rate. The math is simple: total U.S. consumption in 2008 was $10 trillion. VATs usually tax about half of a nation’s consumption or less, say $5 trillion. That means that a 10% VAT would raise about $500 billion a year in the United States, or about $4,300 from every household. Obviously such a huge tax hit would fundamentally change the American economy and society, and for the worse.

Some fiscal experts think that a VAT would solve the government’s budget problems and reduce the deficit, as the Washington Post noted yesterday. That certainly has not happened in Europe where the average VAT rate is a huge 20 percent, and most nations face large budget deficits just as we do. The hard truth for policymakers to swallow is that the only real cure for our federal fiscal crisis is to cut spending.

Liberals like VATs because of the revenue-raising potential, but some conservatives are drawn to the idea of using VAT revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate. The Post story reflected this in noting “A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering the corporate tax rate.” That implies that the Irish government lost money when it cut its corporate rate, but actually the reverse happened in the most dramatic way.

Ireland installed a 10% corporate rate for certain industries in the 1980s, but also steadily cut its regular corporate rate during the 1990s. It switched over to a 12.5% rate for all corporations in 2004. OECD data show that as the Irish corporate tax rate fell, corporate tax revenues went through the roof – from 1.6% of GDP in 1990, to 3.7% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2006.

In sum, a VAT would not solve our deficit problems because Congress would simply boost its spending even higher, as happened in Europe as VAT rates increased over time. Also, a VAT is not needed to cut the corporate income tax rate because a corporate rate cut would be self-financing over the long-term as tax avoidance fell and economic growth increased.

Greedy Politicians Intrigued by Value-Added Tax to Finance European-Style Welfare State in America

The Washington Post reports that there is growing interest among politicians for a form of national sales tax known as the value-added tax (VAT). But rather than use the VAT to replace the income tax, the politicians want a new source of revenue to expand the burden of government. The story explains:

With… President Obama pushing a trillion-dollar-plus expansion of health coverage, some Washington policymakers are taking a fresh look at a money-making idea long considered politically taboo: a national sales tax. Common around the world, including in Europe, such a tax – called a value-added tax, or VAT – has not been seriously considered in the United States. But advocates say few other options can generate the kind of money the nation will need… At a White House conference earlier this year on the government’s budget problems, a roomful of tax experts pleaded with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to consider a VAT. A recent flurry of books and papers on the subject is attracting genuine, if furtive, interest in Congress. And last month, after wrestling with the White House over the massive deficits projected under Obama’s policies, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee declared that a VAT should be part of the debate. “There is a growing awareness of the need for fundamental tax reform,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said in an interview. “I think a VAT and a high-end income tax have got to be on the table.” …”While we do not want to rule any credible idea in or out as we discuss the way forward with Congress, the VAT tax, in particular, is popular with academics but highly controversial with policymakers,” said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for White House Budget Director Peter Orszag. Still, Orszag has hired a prominent VAT advocate to advise him on health care: Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and author of the 2008 book “Health Care, Guaranteed.” Meanwhile, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, chairman of a task force Obama assigned to study the tax system, has expressed at least tentative support for a VAT. “Everybody who understands our long-term budget problems understands we’re going to need a new source of revenue, and a VAT is an obvious candidate,” said Leonard Burman, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, who testified on Capitol Hill this month about his own VAT plan.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Post did not bother to quote any free-market people who oppose giving politicians a new source of money. For what it is worth, I wrote a piece for National Review in 2005 that explains why a VAT is a terrible idea. The core arguments are just as relevant today as they were then:

A VAT might have some theoretically attractive features, but it is a perniciously effective way of raising revenues and inevitably leads to bigger government. The best evidence comes from Europe. Back in the mid-1960s, the burden of government in Europe wasn’t that much higher than it was in the United States. Tax revenues consumed about 30 percent of gross domestic product in Europe. The U.S. had a small advantage: The tax burden, including state and local governments, was about 27 percent of GDP. But then European governments started adopting the VAT. Denmark was the first to do so in 1967. France and Germany followed, with many other European nations imposing the tax within 5 years. For politicians, the VAT was great news. Besides being a new source of revenue, the VAT has been a disturbingly easy tax to increase since it’s built into the price of products and hidden from consumers. Moreover, even small increases generate a big pile of revenue because the tax base is so broad. The tax has become so easy to raise that VAT rates in Europe average more than 20 percent. For taxpayers, however, the news has been disastrous. Thanks to this levy, the burden of government in Europe today is much higher than it is in the U.S. On average, taxes consume about 41 percent of Europe’s economic output. While other taxes have also climbed, the VAT certainly has helped finance the explosion of social welfare spending that creates such a drag on European economies. In the U.S., by contrast, the total tax burden as a share of GDP is about where it was 40 years ago — 27 percent… Many European governments…claimed that more destructive taxes would be reduced or repealed once the VAT was implemented. In the short term, this was true: As late as 1975, taxes on income and profits were lower in the EU than they were in the U.S. But this was a transitory phenomenon. Income-tax rates quickly began climbing and almost immediately jumped above U.S. levels. Ironically, the VAT facilitated higher tax rates on income since politicians often argued that a higher VAT had to be accompanied by higher income-tax burdens to ensure the tax burden wasn’t being shifted to lower-income taxpayers. There is only one scenario that would make a VAT acceptable. If U.S. lawmakers were willing to repeal the 16th Amendment and abolish all taxes on income, a VAT would be an acceptable risk. But until that happens, taxpayers should vigorously resist the Europeanization of America.

A Compelling Government Interest in… Fabulous Drapes!

Libertarians often disagree with their non-libby friends about the need for government-mandated occupational licensing in fields like medicine. The idea behind such licensing is that the government has a compelling interest in protecting citizens and that licensing actually achieves that end. The evidence is not as cut and dried on the latter point as many people assume, but at least there’s enough meat there to warrant a discussion.

Whatever you think about occupational licensing in the context of medicine, there’s one field where the government’s “compelling interest” – and ability to successfully execute on it – is particularly hard to defend: interior design.

In three U.S. states, government officials are, right now, “protecting” their citizens from bad Feng Shui, misguided uses of prints with plaids, gauche arrangements of bric-a-brac, and other crimes against fabulosity. No one in Florida, for instance, can call himself an interior designer lest he receives the official imprimatur of the state. The Institute for Justice has filed suit to overturn the licensing requirement. Imagine the harm to Floridians if they succeed….

No. I can’t imagine any either.

In this field, more than any other, the real reason for most occupational licensing becomes apparent: cartelization to protect incumbent businesses from competition.

UPDATE: Check out this video by ReasonTV about the interior design license laws around the country.

Cohn vs. AFP

The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn accuses Americans for Prosperity (AFP) of “lies” for running an ad that claims “Washington wants to bring Canadian-style healthcare to the U.S.”

AFP’s ad is more defensible than Cohn’s criticisms of it.

Cohn elides the question of whether Shana Holmes (the woman featured in the ad) was almost killed by Canada’s Medicare system.  For a supporter of single-payer like Cohn, that is tantamount to admitting that, yeah, socialized medicine sometimes kills people.

Cohn argues that the ad is unfair because Canada has many advantages over the U.S. health care sector.  That may be true, but the ad doesn’t appear to defend American health care.  It merely says, “government should never come in between your family and your doctor” and “Don’t give up your rights.”  That’s not pro-American health care or anti-reform.  It’s just anti- the type of reform that Cohn wants.  And it points to one area where our semi-socialized U.S. health care sector appears to be superior to Canada’s: quicker access to intensive treatments.  Sometimes, that saves lives.  In fact, AFP could go farther and say that the United States has another edge over Canada, in that we develop nearly all of the best new medical technologies.  In fact, our medical technologies save Canadian lives, but Canada’s health care system (and its supporters) steal the credit.

Yet “the real lie,” Cohn claims, is that the ad suggests that “Washington” wants to impose a Canadian-style system on the United States.  Cohn calls that claim “demonstrably false.” But consider:

  • President Obama has said he would prefer single-payer and has hinted that he would like to make incremental changes in that direction.
  • Many people who support a new public plan (e.g., Paul Krugman) do so because they believe it will lead to single-payer.
  • Massachusetts, which has already implemented most of the reforms that Obama and congressional Democrats are considering, is now contemplating a large leap toward Canadian-style health care by imposing capitation on its entire health care sector.
  • Government rationing becomes increasingly likely as government revenues fail to keep pace with the cost of government’s health care promises.  (See again, Massachusetts.)
  • The Left wants government to ration care.  That’s the point of the comparative-effectiveness research funding.  That draft House Appropriations Committee report committed a classic Washington gaffe when it said that certain treatments “would no longer be prescribed,” because it was admitting the truth.

Cohn is correct that no politician of influence is saying she wants to impose a Canadian-style system on the United States.  But I prefer to pay attention to what they’re doing.

AFP: 1.  Cohn: 0.