Archives: 06/2010

Business Roundtable: We Love/Hate Big Government

Regular readers of this blog know that big corporations often are enemies of free markets and individual liberty. So it is hardly suprising to know that the Business Roundtable, a lobby representing CEOs of major companies, supported the wasteful and ineffective stimulus program in 2009 and the bloated new health care entitlement in 2010. Big companies, after all, are quite proficient at working the system to obtain unearned wealth and to rig the rules against smaller competitors.
 
What is surprising, however, is that representatives of that organization now have the chutzpah to complain about a “hostile environment for investment and job creation.” Equally galling, the group has published a document called “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth.” We’ve all heard the joke about the guy who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. The Business Roundtable has adopted that strategy, except this time taxpayers are the butt of the joke. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post report:

The chairman of the Business Roundtable, an association of top corporate executives that has been President Obama’s closest ally in the business community, accused the president and Democratic lawmakers Tuesday of creating an “increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation.” Ivan G. Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said that Democrats in Washington are pursuing tax increases, policy changes and regulatory actions that together threaten to dampen economic growth and “harm our ability … to grow private-sector jobs in the U.S.” …The final straw, said Roundtable president John Castellani, was the introduction of two pieces of legislation, now pending in Congress, that the group views as particularly bad for business. One, a provision of the administration’s financial regulation overhaul, would make it easier for shareholders to nominate corporate board members. The other would raise taxes on multinational corporations. The rhetoric accompanying the tax proposals has been particularly harsh, Castellani said, with Democrats vowing to campaign in this fall’s midterm elections on a platform of punishing companies that move jobs overseas. …Seidenberg polled the members of the Business Roundtable and a sister organization, the Business Council. The result was a 54-page document, delivered to Orszag on Monday, chock full of bullet points about actions taken or considered by a wide array of executive agencies, including the White House Middle Class Task Force and the Food and Drug Administration. We believe the cumulative effect of these proposals will help defeat the objectives we all share – reducing unemployment, improving the competitiveness of U.S. companies and creating an environment that fosters long-term economic growth,” Seidenberg wrote in a cover letter for the document, titled “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth.”

No One’s Property Is Safe in New York

Sad to say, but as expected, New York State’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, has just upheld yet another gross abuse of the state’s power of eminent domain, exercised by the Empire State Development Corporation on behalf of my undergraduate alma mater, Columbia University, against two small family-owned businesses, one of them owned by Indian immigrants. Details can be found in the press release just issued by the Institute for Justice, which filed an amicus brief in the case and has been in the forefront of those defending against such abuse across the country.

IJ has had success in obtaining eminent domain reform in over 40 states, but New York remains a backwater, where collusion between well-connected private entities and government is rampant, and the courts play handmaiden to the corruption by abdicating their responsibilities. Just one more example of why New York is an economic basket case, with a population that continues to flee to more hospitable climes. I’ve discussed the property rights issues more generally here.

Meet the New Minerals Management Service

In a move reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration is cracking down on the Minerals Management Service…by changing the agency’s name.

The MMS has fallen into disrepute because, well, as E&ENews PM put it, “employees accepted gifts from oil and gas companies, participated in ‘a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity,’ and considered themselves exempt from federal ethics rules.”  The “drug and sex abuse [occurred] both inside the program and ‘in consort with industry.’ “  The New York Times reports that MMS employees “viewed pornography at work and even considered themselves part of industry.”  Yet this government agency somehow failed to prevent the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

So the Obama administration is giving MMS a makeover.  The agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service will hereafter be known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement.

That’s exactly how the Bush administration dealt with the unpopularity of the Health Care Financing Administration, the agency responsible for Medicare and Medicaid: by changing its name to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  With candor and humor – two scarce commodities in such circles – Bush’s HCFA/CMS administrator Tom Scully explained the rationale:

The health care market … is extremely muted and extremely screwed up and it’s largely because of my agency. For those of you who don’t follow CMS, which used to be called HCFA, we changed the name because it was so well loved. I always say it’s kind of like when Enron comes out of bankruptcy, they’ll probably change their name. So, HCFA—Secretary Thompson and I decided to confuse everybody. We changed the name to CMS for a couple of years so people wouldn’t realize we’re actually HCFA. So far, it’s worked reasonably well.

For more on the pervasive cozy relationship between big business and big government, read Tim Carney’s Obamanomics.

For even more candor and humor concerning Medicare, read David Hyman’s Medicare Meets Mephistopheles.

The Unbearable Vagueness of “Honest Services Fraud”

Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur, who authored an amicus brief in the case of Skilling v. U.S., writes on his home blog:

Today, the Supreme Court decided the case of Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO of Enron, who had been convicted of the crime of “honest services fraud.” The statute, however, is so vague, that nobody knows what the term “honest services fraud” actually means. Pacific Legal Foundation (joined by our friends at the Cato Institute) filed a brief in the case arguing that statutes that are so vague violate the constitutional guarantee of due process of law—and that the constitutional protection against vague laws should apply in the business realm the same as anywhere else. Vague laws are dangerous because you cannot know what they prohibit and cannot therefore avoid breaking the law. It is unfair and unconstitutional to hold vague statutes over their head in such a way.

Unfortunately, the Court has in the past been reluctant to apply it outside the regular criminal context, on the theory that businesses are wealthier and can afford expert legal advice. But in a case like this, even the experts have no idea what the statute actually means. The federal circuit courts are in disarray as to what it means. And nobody should be convicted under a statute that is so broadly and vaguely worded, that even the prosecuting lawyer can’t tell you what that law actually means.

As they say, read the whole thing.

ObamaCare Regs’ Effect on Uncompensated Care Overblown

An Obama administration “fact sheet,” released alongside the interim final rules for several of ObamaCare’s cost-increasing mandates, claims those mandates will reduce the “hidden tax” imposed by uncompensated care:

By making sure insurance covers people who are most at risk, there will be less uncompensated care and the amount of cost shifting among those who have coverage today will be reduced by up to $1 billion in 2013.

According to research by the Urban Institute, that “hidden tax” isn’t very large:

Private insurance premiums are at most 1.7 percent higher because of the shifting of the costs of the uninsured to private insurers in the form of higher charges.

As the Congressional Budget Office repeatedly lectures Congress, “Uncompensated care is less significant than many people assume.”

Likewise, these mandates’ effect on uncompensated care will be less significant than the Obama administration would like you to think.  Using data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and a reasonable assumption of 6-percent annual growth, total private health insurance premiums in 2013 will be in the neighborhood of $1.1 trillion.  So the administration is boasting that these mandates will reduce the 1.7-percent “hidden tax” imposed by uncompensated care to 1.61 percent.

Indeed, the whole of ObamaCare may not do much to reduce the “hidden tax” of uncompensated care. After Massachusetts enacted a nearly identical law, the Urban Institute reports, “high levels of emergency department (ED) use have persisted in Massachusetts. Specifically, ED use was high in Massachusetts prior to health reform and has stayed high under health reform.”  A lot of uncompensated care comes in through the ED.

Finally, notice how a 1.7-percentage-point premium surcharge is a bad thing if President Obama is ostensibly rescuing you from it, but a good thing if he’s imposing it on you.

Uncertainty More Than Anecdotal

During a recent CNBC debate on federal spending, I argued that government policies are creating uncertainty in the business community. Businesses are reluctant to invest or hire because they’re concerned that the president’s big government agenda will mean higher taxes and more onerous regulations.

I mentioned that every business owner I’ve spoken with has expressed this concern. In fact, the owner of the TV studio I was in told me that he wants to hire more employees but is afraid he may have to turn around and fire them later on thanks to Washington. My debate opponent dismissed my argument on the basis that “you cannot conduct macroeconomic policy by anecdote.”

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to support my concern beyond what I’ve heard from folks in the business community. Yesterday, the chairman of the Business Roundtable, which the Washington Post calls “President Obama’s closest ally in the business community,” said that the president and his Democratic allies are creating an “increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation.”

From the article:

Ivan G. Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said that Democrats in Washington are pursuing tax increases, policy changes and regulatory actions that together threaten to dampen economic growth and “harm our ability … to grow private-sector jobs in the U.S.”

“In our judgment, we have reached a point where the negative effects of these policies are simply too significant to ignore,” Seidenberg said in a lunchtime speech to the Economic Club of Washington. “By reaching into virtually every sector of economic life, government is injecting uncertainty into the marketplace and making it harder to raise capital and create new businesses.”

Big businesses aren’t the only ones complaining. Surveys of small businesses conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business continue to point to government taxes and regulations as their single biggest obstacle.

Even the Washington Post’s editorial page is now acknowledging that government-induced uncertainty is an issue:

But as analysts ponder the mystery of weak private-sector hiring despite signs of economic growth, it’s worth asking what role is played by government-induced uncertainty. With the federal government promoting major changes in health care, financial regulation and energy law, it wouldn’t be surprising if some companies are more inclined to wait and see than they might otherwise be. And that’s especially true when they look at looming American indebtedness and the effect that could have on long-term interest rates.

The uncertainty caused by expanding government that we are facing today isn’t a new phenomenon. Economist Robert Higgs coined the phrase “regime uncertainty” in a study that showed that FDR’s anti-business policies prolonged the Great Depression. Had the Roosevelt administration heeded the “anecdotes” from the business community in the 1930s, perhaps the country could have been spared some pain. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

Save Us, Dave Petraeus

Stanley McChrystal is out as head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to be replaced by his nominal boss David Petraeus. Some might see this as a demotion for Petraeus. Others might try to paint this as an inspired pick. Some cynics could claim that politics are a factor.

It was a logical pick. A safe pick. Afghanistan is the de facto center of gravity in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, and Petraeus understands the details as well as anyone. He also knows the military officers who can populate positions vacated by McChrystal’s deputies. And he has demonstrated a knack for working with civilians on the ground in Iraq, though whether that will translate into a similar working relationship with Amb. Eikenberry remains to be seen.

But changing commanders in Afghanistan doesn’t address the deeper problems with the strategy there that have been brought to light over the past few days (and that I’ve addressed here and here). The sad commentary is that the President of the United States shouldn’t have to rely on Rolling Stone magazine for strategic insight. If his vaunted Afghan review(s) over the past year haven’t revealed these inconsistencies, then either the reviews aren’t very vaunted, or he isn’t paying attention.