Archives: June, 2009

Selflessly Giving…to Themselves

I wasn’t going to write about this because it is purely anecdotal, but Chris Edwards’ post on the generous compensation of federal employees, and the constant denial of that generosity by those employees’ representatives, inspired me to ingore my reservations.

A couple of days ago, I was driving through the streets of D.C. and ended up behind what appeared to be a new, black Jaguar. Now, trailing a Jag wasn’t all that extraordinary – D.C. is home to a lot of fancy cars. What was extraordinary was the wholly inconsistent declaration printed on the frame of the status symbol’s license plate: “Proud to be a social worker.”

It seemed wholly inconsistent, I should say, except, again, fancy automobiles are common on the streets of D.C., even though the District is supposed to be a city populated with “public servants.” So this public-serving D.C. driver was perhaps out of the ordinary for his implied candor, but is no doubt far from alone in serving himself at least as much as he’s serving others.

Of course, systemic evidence like Chris presents on federal workers, or I present on teacher compensation, indicates much more conclusively than my automotive observations that public-service-as-a-synonym-for-sacrifice is largely a political myth, a narrative repeated by public employees to win your sympathy while they grab for your wallet. Which is not to say that social workers, teachers, federal bureaucrats, etc., aren’t motivated to help others – no doubt many are – but like all of us, they’re also highly motivated to help themselves. And since their compensation comes through politics, it is making the public believe that they live tough, self-sacrificial lives that is, ironically, the key to their living the Good Life.

Week in Review: A Speech in Cairo, an Anniversary in China and a U.S. Bankruptcy

Obama Speaks to the Muslim World

cairoIn Cairo on Thursday, President Obama asked for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and spoke at some length on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Cato scholar Christopher Preble comments, “At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups. …That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising.”

Preble goes on to say:

He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions — including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda — that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

David Boaz contends that there are a number of other nations the president could have chosen to deliver his address:

Americans forget that the Muslim world and the Arab world are not synonymous. In fact, only 15 to 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries, barely more than the number in Indonesia alone and far fewer than the number in the Indian subcontinent. It seems to me that Obama would be better off delivering his message to the Muslim world somewhere closer to where most Muslims live. Perhaps even in his own childhood home of Indonesia.

Not only are there more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, the Muslim countries of south and southeast Asia have done a better job of integrating Islam and modern democratic capitalism…. Egypt is a fine place for a speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Pakistan he could give a speech on America and the Muslim world surrounded by rival political leaders in a democratic country and by internationally recognized business leaders. It would be good for the president to draw attention to this more moderate version of Islam.

Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

tsquare1It has been 20 years since the tragic deaths of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and 30 years since Deng Xiaoping embarked on economic reform in China. Cato scholar James A. Dorn comments, “After 20 years China has made substantial economic progress, but the ghosts of Tiananmen are restless and will continue to be so until the Goddess of Liberty is restored.”

In Thursday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Dorn discusses the perception of human rights in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre, saying that many young people are beginning to accept the existence of human rights independent of the state.

A few days before the anniversary, social media Web sites like Twitter and YouTube were blocked in China. Cato scholar Jim Harper says that it’s going to take a lot more than tanks to shut down the message of freedom in today’s online world:

In 1989, when a nascent pro-democracy movement wanted to communicate its vitality and prepare to take on the state, meeting en masse was vital. But that made it fairly easy for the CCP to roll in and crush the dream of democracy.

Twenty years later, the Internet is the place where mass movements for liberty can take root. While the CCP is attempting to use the electronic equivalent of an armored division to prevent change, reform today is a question of when, not if. Shutting down open dialogue will only slow the democratic transition to freedom, which the Chinese government cannot ultimately prevent.

Taxpayers Acquire Failing Auto Company

After billions of dollars were spent over the course of two presidential administrations to keep General Motors afloat, the American car company filed for bankruptcy this week anyway.

Last year Cato trade expert Daniel J. Ikenson appeared on dozens of radio and television programs and wrote op-eds in newspapers and magazines explaining why automakers should file for bankruptcy—before spending billions in taxpayer dollars.

Which leaves Ikenson asking one very important question: “What was the point of that?

In November, GM turned to the federal government for a bailout loan — the one final alternative to bankruptcy. After a lot of discussion and some rich debate, Congress voted against a bailout, seemingly foreclosing all options except bankruptcy. But before GM could avail itself of bankruptcy protection, President Bush took the fateful decision of circumventing Congress and diverting $15.4 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to GM (in the chummy spirit of avoiding tough news around the holidays).

That was the original sin. George W. Bush is very much complicit in the nationalization of GM and the cascade of similar interventions that may follow. Had Bush not funded GM in December (under questionable authority, no less), the company probably would have filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 1, at which point prospective buyers, both foreign and domestic, would have surfaced and made bids for spin-off assets or equity stakes in the “New GM,” just as is happening now.

Meanwhile, the government takeover of GM puts the fate of Ford Motors, a company that didn’t take any bailout money, into question:

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock? Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated). Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered. Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother? And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.

Just Say No to Public Option Health Care

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman writes about the necessity of a public option in health care. Why is a public plan such a bad idea? I explain in my post over at The Corner:

A public plan, regardless of how it was structured or administered, would have an inherent advantage in the marketplace over private insurance companies because it would ultimately be subsidized by American taxpayers. It would also have an advantage since its enormous market presence would allow it to impose much lower reimbursement rates on doctors and hospitals, similar to current reimbursement practice under Medicare and Medicaid. It is estimated that privately insured patients presently pay $89 billion annually in additional insurance costs because of cost-shifting from government programs. Assuming the new public option would have similar reimbursement policies, it would result in additional cost-shifting as much as $36.4 billion annually. This would force insurers to raise their premiums, making them even less competitive with the taxpayer-subsidized public plan.

With the public option squeezing private insurers from the sides, and expanded eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid pushing from the top and bottom, it is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist. America would be firmly on the road to a single-payer health care system with all the dangers that presents.

National ID: Barrier to Re-Entry

Via Radley at Hit & Run, it’s a clear outrage that Larry Moore — homeless, but working his way back up — should be kicked back down by a costly and unhelpful city bureaucracy.

But don’t overlook how identification requirements act as a “barrier to re-entry”:

The only one who isn’t furious about this is Moore. He insists that city functionaries are giving him a break because they are letting him continue to shine shoes while he waits for a copy of his birth certificate to be sent from Kansas. Once it arrives they will allow him to get an ID card and then hand over almost every cent he has.

It’s already a burden for people overcoming alcohol or drug problems — and disasters like flood or fire — to produce satisfactory identification. For every Larry Moore who gets a break and gets in the paper, there are probably hundreds who never break back into legitimate employment. Imagine what it will be like when we have the more “secure” licenses envisioned under the REAL ID Act or the proposed REAL ID revival bill.

More on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholars on Judge Sotomayor:

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Sotomayor’s record on criminal justice issues put her to the right of David Souter.  Good grief — that would mean that for Sotomayer just about all the barriers on state power come tumbling down: structural safeguards like enumerated powers, non-delegation, separation of powers and the limits pertaining to police and prosecutorial powers.

For more background, go here and here.

High-Tech Companies Warn White House about Tax Hike

As I warned in my “deferral” video, the president’s proposal to increase the tax burden on U.S. companies competing in global markets is horribly misguided. The White House has now been put on notice by high-tech executives that they will be compelled to move jobs out of America if this destructive policy is adopted.

Bloomberg reports:

Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steven Ballmer said the world’s largest software company would move some employees offshore if Congress enacts President Barack Obama’s plans to impose higher taxes on U.S. companies’ foreign profits. “It makes U.S. jobs more expensive,” Ballmer said in an interview. “We’re better off taking lots of people and moving them out of the U.S. as opposed to keeping them inside the U.S.” 

…Ballmer is one of 10 U.S. software company executives pushing back against the tax proposals in meetings today with White House officials including Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council, and the heads of congressional committees such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat. …In a roundtable discussion today, Ballmer, Symantec Corp. Chairman John Thompson and the heads of smaller companies such as privately held Bentley Systems, an Exton, Pennsylvania-based maker of engineering software, said such policies would hurt domestic investment, reduce shareholder value and increase the cost of employing U.S. workers. …Ballmer said…fiduciary responsibility to shareholders would require Microsoft to cut costs, he said, meaning many jobs would be moved out of the country.

Injustice of State Subsidies

My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies.  The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse.  But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.

Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call “press release economics.”  Here’s how it works:

A state “economic development” agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state.  Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities.  Sometimes several states will engage in a “bidding war” to get a business to set up shop within their borders.  The governor of the “winning” state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state.  The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state’s package helped seal the deal.  The company and the governor’s press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.

If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup.  Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax.  This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I’m picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons.  And if you’re a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?

Am I too cynical?  Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government.  My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state’s high corporate income tax rate, and “pay for it” — at least in part — by getting rid of the state’s corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above.  That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain.  That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.

Another issue that I won’t delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state’s face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money.  Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they’re “doing something.”  Journalists should examine a state’s tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.

Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state’s corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives.  There is hope.