Archives: 01/2010

Wednesday Links

  • Even though the government is running massive deficits, interest rates and inflation are low. So, what’s the problem?

Reforming the Insane Tax Code

We’ve got an IRS Commissioner who doesn’t even do his own taxes, and is not embarrassed about it. We’ve got complex deductions that nobody understands, including the government, as the Maryland nurse with the MBA found out. We’ve got a Treasury Secretary and other high appointees who apparently cheated on their taxes. And we’ve got the Democrats hell-bent on greatly increasing the power and responsibilities of the overwhelmed IRS with their health care bill.

Now, more than ever, it’s time to scrap the current income tax and put in a flat tax. Or at least we could take a big jump in that direction with a “Simplified Tax,” as discussed in a new National Academies report. Get rid of all almost all deductions, exemptions, and credits and drop individual rates to 10 and 25 percent. While we’re at it, let’s drop the federal corporate rate to 25 percent or less.

For more on the two-rate tax idea, see my Options for Tax Reform and Rep. Paul Ryan’s American Roadmap.

Michael Savage: Still Banned in the UK

In my Policy Analysis “Attack of the Utility Monsters,” I noted that U.S. talk radio host Michael Savage had been preemptively banned from entering the United Kingdom, for fear that he would incite hatred on arrival. I also noted that the ban had been rescinded – which, anyway, it appeared to have been at the time. Today I read that Savage’s travel ban is back on again.

What had Savage done that was so terrible? I’m not exactly sure, but here are some things that he’s said:

On homosexuality, he once said: “The gay and lesbian mafia wants our children. If it can win their souls and their minds, it knows their bodies will follow.”

Another of his pet topics is autism, which he claims is a result of “brats” without fathers.

He has also made comments about killing Muslims, although in one broadcast he cited extremists’ desires to execute gays as a reason for deporting them.

None are sentiments I agree with. In fact, I think all of them range somewhere from foolish to idiotic. Which is exactly why I’d welcome Michael Savage into a liberal, tolerant society: Let him contend with his betters, and he will lose. Treat him like a danger, and the tolerant society will appear weak – and intolerant.

How ObamaCare Would Keep the Poor Poor

Suppose you’re a family of four at or near the federal poverty level.  Under current law, if you earn an additional dollar, you get to keep around 60-70 cents.

Under the House and Senate health care bills, however, you would get to keep maybe 38 cents.  Or 26 cents.  Or maybe just 18 cents.

The following graph (from my recent study, “Obama’s Prescription for Low-Wage Workers: High Implicit Taxes, Higher Premiums”) shows that under the House and Senate bills, the combination of (1) a mandate tax and (2) subsidies that disappear as income rises would impose implicit tax rates on poor families that reach as high as 82 percent over broad ranges of income.

This graph actually smooths out some rather bumpy implicit tax rates that spike as high as 174 percent.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the public saw that too-generous government subsidies can actually trap people in a cycle of poverty and dependence.  President Obama and his congressional allies seem not to have learned that lesson.

Surveillance, Security, and the Google Breach

Yesterday’s bombshell announcement that Google is prepared to pull out of China rather than continuing to cooperate with government Web censorship was precipitated by a series of attacks on Google servers seeking information about the accounts of Chinese dissidents.  One thing that leaped out at me from the announcement was the claim that the breach “was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.” That piqued my interest because it’s precisely the kind of information that law enforcement is able to obtain via court order, and I was hard-pressed to think of other reasons they’d have segregated access to user account and header information.  And as Macworld reports, that’s precisely where the attackers got in:

That’s because they apparently were able to access a system used to help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users, said a source familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press.

This is hardly the first time telecom surveillance architecture designed for law enforcement use has been exploited by hackers. In 2005, it was discovered that Greece’s largest cellular network had been compromised by an outside adversary. Software intended to facilitate legal wiretaps had been switched on and hijacked by an unknown attacker, who used it to spy on the conversations of over 100 Greek VIPs, including the prime minister.

As an eminent group of security experts argued in 2008, the trend toward building surveillance capability into telecommunications architecture amounts to a breach-by-design, and a serious security risk. As the volume of requests from law enforcement at all levels grows, the compliance burdens on telcoms grow also—making it increasingly tempting to create automated portals to permit access to user information with minimal human intervention.

The problem of volume is front and center in a leaked recording released last month, in which Sprint’s head of legal compliance revealed that their automated system had processed 8 million requests for GPS location data in the span of a year, noting that it would have been impossible to manually serve that level of law enforcement traffic.  Less remarked on, though, was Taylor’s speculation that someone who downloaded a phony warrant form and submitted it to a random telecom would have a good chance of getting a response—and one assumes he’d know if anyone would.

The irony here is that, while we’re accustomed to talking about the tension between privacy and security—to the point where it sometimes seems like people think greater invasion of privacy ipso facto yields greater security—one of the most serious and least discussed problems with built-in surveillance is the security risk it creates.

Dear Poor People: Please Remain Poor. Sincerely, ObamaCare

In a new study titled, “Obama’s Prescription for Low-Wage Workers: High Implicit Taxes, Higher Premiums,” I show that the House and Senate health care bills would impose implicit tax rates on low-wage workers that exceed 100 percent.  Here’s the executive summary:

House and Senate Democrats have produced health care legislation whose mandates, subsidies, tax penalties, and health insurance regulations would penalize work and reward Americans who refuse to purchase health insurance. As a result, the legislation could trap many Americans in low-wage jobs and cause even higher health-insurance premiums, government spending, and taxes than are envisioned in the legislation.

Those mandates and subsidies would impose effective marginal tax rates on low-wage workers that would average between 53 and 74 percent— and even reach as high as 82 percent—over broad ranges of earned income. By comparison, the wealthiest Americans would face tax rates no higher than 47.9 percent.

Over smaller ranges of earned income, the legislation would impose effective marginal tax rates that exceed 100 percent. Families of four would see effective marginal tax rates as high as 174 percent under the Senate bill and 159 percent under the House bill. Under the Senate bill, adults starting at $14,560 who earn an additional $560 would see their total income fall by $200 due to higher taxes and reduced subsidies. Under the House bill, families of four starting at $43,670 who earn an additional $1,100 would see their total income fall by $870.

In addition, middle-income workers could save as much as $8,000 per year by dropping coverage and purchasing health insurance only when sick. Indeed, the legislation effectively removes any penalty on such behavior by forcing insurers to sell health insurance to the uninsured at standard premiums when they fall ill. The legislation would thus encourage “adverse selection”—an unstable situation that would drive insurance premiums, government spending, and taxes even higher.

See also my Kaiser Health News oped, “Individual Mandate Would Impose High Implicit Taxes on Low-Wage Workers.”

And be sure to pre-register for our January 28 policy forum, “ObamaCare’s High Implicit Tax Rates for Low-Wage Workers,” where the Urban Institute’s Gene Steuerle and I will discuss these obnoxious implicit tax rates.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)