Archives: 06/2009

Higher Taxes for Health Care, Fewer Jobs

President Obama broke his pledge not to raise taxes on lower- and middle-income families with his large tobacco tax increase back in February. It appears that the increase is not just hurting tobacco consumers, but also hurting workers in the cigar industry. From Tampa Bay Online:

Tampa will lose part of its cigar heritage in August when Hav-A-Tampa shuts its factory near Seffner and lays off about 495 employees, closing a factory that has been operating since 1902.

Several things conspired to hurt Altadis’ sales, McKenzie said, including the recession and the growth of indoor smoking bans. The bans have especially hurt sales in cold-weather states, where it’s impractical to smoke a cigar outdoors in the winter, he said.

However, the company attributed much of its trouble to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, a federal program that provides health insurance to low-income children. It is funded, in part, by a new federal tax on cigars and cigarettes. McKenzie couldn’t say how much sales of Hav-A-Tampa cigars had fallen off, but the numbers have dropped significantly, he said.

Previously, federal excise taxes on cigars were limited to no more than a nickel, said Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America trade group. The tax increase, which took effect April 1, raises the maximum tax on cigars to about 40 cents, Sharp said.

This health-tobacco legislation raised taxes $65 billion over 10 years. Imagine the damage that would be caused by the giant health bill currently moving through Congress, which will cost $1 trillion or more over 10 years.

Hat Tip: Tad DeHaven

Buy American, Destroy American Jobs

The “buy America” provision in the misnamed stimulus bill was supposed to protect jobs in the U.S.  Alas, by encouraging foreign protectionism, the measure is likely to end up destroying American jobs.

Indeed, the provision has all the earmarks of a grand political fiasco.  Reports the Financial Times:

Confusion reins. For fear of missing out on contracts, many companies are demanding that all their suppliers are Buy American-compliant regardless of any exemptions.

“Those companies that can comply are of course thrilled and are trumpeting that in their marketing. Those that cannot are in agony and are losing business and cutting workers,” says David Ralston, a government procurement lawyer at Foley & Lardner. “The many companies that find themselves in the gray areas are calling their lawyers.”

Canada’s government has been an early and vocal lobbyist against the measures, sending officials to Washington to warn that a trade war is brewing. Canadian municipalities threatened to attach “do not Buy American” provisions to their own public projects after manufacturers were cut out of US stimulus projects, but have agreed to hold off while the national government tries to resolve the problem.

Canada wants to broker a bilateral trade agreement on government contracts which would extend all the way down to the level of local authority. The US trade representative says it is open to the idea.

While this would quieten the Canadians, it could spark cries of protest from the US’s other trading partners. The British ambassador has given several speeches in recent weeks chastising the US over Buy American and the way it is being implemented. The Europeans are watching closely. But could the US write bilateral deals with them all? Buy American’s supporters in Congress would surely kick back.

The Chamber of Commerce is proposing a compromise. It has called on the administration to tell municipalities to act as if they were signatories to the federal government’s agreements. “I think there is enough flexibility for OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] to make that change. I don’t have a crystal ball but for multiple reasons it would make sense for them to do it,” says Chris Braddock, the Chamber’s procurement expert.

On Monday all groups with a stake in the debate submitted their written comments to the OMB, the White House department handling the stimulus. The administration must now write the final rules on how to implement Buy American.

The U.S. has gained enormously from the expansion of trade in recent years.  We all will lose if Washington now encourages a global retreat from free markets.

Maine’s Supply-Side Democrats

The class-warfare crowd in Washington wants bigger government and higher tax rates, so it’s a bit shocking to see that a group of Northeastern Democrats are slashing tax rates. Yet that is exactly what Maine’s politicians are doing. The Governor even makes the common-sense observation (that so far has escaped President Obama’s attention) that there won’t be any jobs without investors and entrepreneurs. The Wall Street Journal approves:

This month the Democratic legislature and Governor John Baldacci broke with Obamanomics and enacted a sweeping tax reform that is almost, but not quite, a flat tax. The new law junks the state’s graduated income tax structure with a top rate of 8.5% and replaces it with a simple 6.5% flat rate tax on almost everyone. Those with earnings above $250,000 will pay a surtax rate of 0.35%, for a 6.85% rate. Maine’s tax rate will fall to 20th from seventh highest among the states. To offset the lower rates and a larger family deduction, the plan cuts the state budget by some $300 million to $5.8 billion, closes tax loopholes and expands the 5% state sales tax to services that have been exempt, such as ski lift tickets. This is a big income tax cut, especially given that so many other states in the Northeast and East – Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York – have been increasing rates. “We’re definitely going against the grain here,” Mr. Baldacci tells us. “We hope these lower tax rates will encourage and reward work, and that the lower capital gains tax [of 6.85%] brings more investment into the state.” …One question is how Democrats in Augusta were able to withstand the cries by interest groups of “tax cuts for the rich?” Mr. Baldacci’s snappy reply: “Without employers, you don’t have employees.” He adds: “The best social services program is a job.” Wise and timely advice for both Democrats and Republicans as the recession rolls on and budgets get squeezed.

Trading Washington for Tbilisi?

Alliances often are advanced, as with NATO expansion, as a cheap way of keeping the peace.  After all, it is said, no one would dare challenge America.  But while alliances can deter, deterrence can fail – with catastrophic consequences.  Both World Wars I and II featured failed alliances and security guarantees.  Oops!

If deterence fails, the guaranteeing state either has to retreat ignominously or plunge into war, neither of which is likely to be in America’s interest.  Moreover, promising to defend other nations encourages them to be irresponsible:  after all, why not adopt a risky foreign policy if Washington is willing to back you up, nuclear weapons and all?  It’s a form of moral hazard applied to foreign policy.

That appears to be the case with the country of Georgia.  There’s a lot of disagreement over the character of Mikhail Saakashvili’s government, even among libertarians.  But a new European Union panel has amassed evidence that President Saakashvili is a bit of a foreign policy adventurer.  Reports Spiegel online:

Unpublished documents produced by the European Union commission that investigated the conflict between Georgia and Moscow assign much of the blame to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. But the Kremlin and Ossetian militias are also partly responsible.

From her office on Avenue de la Paix, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, 58, looks out onto the botanical gardens in peaceful Geneva. The view offers a welcome respite from the stacks of documents on her desk, which deal exclusively with war and war blame. They contain the responses, from the conflicting parties in the Caucasus region – Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – to a European Union investigative commission conducting a probe of the cause of the five-day war last August. The documents also include reports on the EU commission’s trips to Moscow, the Georgian capital Tbilisi and the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, dossiers assembled by experts and the transcripts of interviews of diplomats, military officials and civilian victims of the war.

The Caucasus expert, nicknamed “Madame Courage” by the Zurich-based Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, is considered a specialist on sensitive diplomatic matters. The Caucasus issue is the most difficult challenge she has faced to date. The final report by the commission she heads must be submitted to the EU Council of Ministers by late July. In the report, Tagliavini is expected to explain how, in August 2008, a long-smoldering regional conflict over the breakaway Georgia province of South Ossetia could suddenly have escalated into a war between Georgia and its much more powerful neighbor, Russia. Who is to blame for the most serious confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War?

In addition to having a budget of €1.6 million ($2.2 million) at her disposal, Tagliavini can draw on the expertise of two deputies, 10 specialists, military officials, political scientists, historians and international law experts.

Much hinges on the conclusions her commission will reach. Is Georgia, a former Soviet republic, a serious candidate for membership in NATO, or is the country in the hands of a reckless gambler? Did the Russian leadership simply defend South Ossetia, an ally seeking independence from Georgia, against a Georgian attack? Or did Russia spark a global crisis when its troops occupied parts of Georgia for a short period of time?

The confidential investigative commission documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show that the task of assigning blame for the conflict has been as much of a challenge for the commission members as it has for the international community. However, a majority of members tend to arrive at the assessment that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili started the war by attacking South Ossetia on August 7, 2008. The facts assembled on Tagliavini’s desk refute Saakashvili’s claim that his country became the innocent victim of “Russian aggression” on that day.

In summarizing the military fiasco, commission member Christopher Langton, a retired British Army colonel, claims: “Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that.”

Whatever the justification for President Saakashvili’s conduct, it certainly isn’t the kind of policy to which the U.S. should tie itself.  Yet including Georgia in NATO would in effect make President Saakashvili’s goals those of the American government and, by extension, the American people.

How many Americans should die to ensure that George gets to rule South Ossetia and Abkhazia?  Should we risk Washington for Tbilisi?  These are questions the Obama administration should answer before it joins the Bush administration in pushing NATO membership for Georgia.  The American people deserve to know exactly what risks the Obama administration plans to take with their lives and homelands before adding yet another fragile client state to Washington’s long list of security dependents.

Some Center-Left Governments Are Prepared to Promote Trade

Not to brag, but my homeland has a pretty good record when it comes to trade liberalization.  Even the center-left Labor party is supportive of multilateral trade negotiations, although they have historically been less enamored of bilateral and regional preferential deals. (A completely respectable view, by the way). Indeed, the most substantial unilateral trade liberalization efforts in Australia’s history occured under Labor governments.

Simon Crean, the current (Labor) Minister for Trade recently confirmed that commitment in the face of trade union opposition. In a statement that could have come directly from Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, he said:

People seem to think that jobs can be protected by reverting to protectionism. The exact opposite is the case. If the country and the world reverts to protectionism, it costs jobs and lowers living standards.

Minister Crean then went on to make mildly mercantalist noises about how many Australian jobs are “trade related” – and you can be sure he is not referring to imports – but, really, I shouldn’t nit-pick. If more governments, including those of the center-left, were as supportive of free trade and as skeptical of protectionism, the global economy would be better off.

HT: our friends over at the Club for Growth.

Press Release Economics in Michigan Picked Apart

This morning I blogged on the wave of state governments giving away taxpayer money to businesses in the name of “creating jobs.”  One of the examples I mentioned is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a state program that exists to generate press releases to provide cover for the state’s lamentable fiscal policies.

Michael LaFaive at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan was kind enough to send me a recent report he wrote on the folly of state subsidies to businesses.  State officials like to solicit studies from local universities that just happen to conclude that such-and-such government program is creating X number of jobs.  (Of course, in the rare occurrence that a study doesn’t come back with what the bureaucrats were expecting, such study will likely disappear into thin air.  I’ve seen that happen first hand.)  Michael’s paper deconstructs a study on the purported benefits of Michigan’s film maker subsidies, which was prepared by Michigan State University at the behest of the MEDC.  A quote he cites from a 2006 study on tourism-related economic development programs nails it:

“Most economic impact studies are commissioned to legitimize a political position rather than to search for economic truth. Often the result is mischievous procedures that produce large numbers that study sponsors seek to support a predetermined position.”

If you read nothing else, read the section on page 4 entitled “Why Government Subsidies Won’t Save Michigan’s Economy.”  The reasons apply to all fifty states, not just Michigan.

The No-Rights List

A media drumbeat is steadily building to keep those on the government’s terrorist watch list from buying firearms. A month ago, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) introduced a bill to bar them from purchasing a gun even if they had no legally disqualifying criminal conviction. Now Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced his own legislation to achieve the same goal.

This is arbitrary government at its best. The “no-fly” list used to prevent suspected terrorists from boarding aircraft has tagged Nelson Mandela, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), Rep. Don Young (R-AK), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a retired general, a Marine reservist returning from Iraq, the President of Bolivia and dead 9/11 hijackers, a former federal prosecutor, and over twenty men named John Thompson as threats to our national security. The list now contains over 1 million names. This prompted calls for probes into the watch list, and the ACLU filed suit to challenge the list.

The push to prevent firearms purchases by persons on this list is nothing new. Here is White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel saying in 2007 that, “if you’re on that no-fly list, your access to the right to bear arms is cancelled, because you’re not part of the American family; you don’t deserve that right. There is no right for you if you’re on that terrorist list.”

If the government can take an enumerated liberty away from selected citizens by placing them on a “no-rights” list without due process, the rule of law is dead.