Archives: May, 2013

Turning the Page: How to Legalize Marijuana?

An excerpt from an op-ed by Bill Keller in today’s New York Times:

The marijuana debate has entered a new stage.  Today the most interesting and important question is no longer whether marijuana will be legalized–eventually, bit by bit, it will be–but how.

Agreed.  However, it would have been nice to hear a bit more on the horribly misguided prohibition policy that was supported by so many for so long and a more urgent plea to Obama and others in officialdom to end prohibition sooner, not later.

Supreme Court Strikes Another Blow against IRS

As if the IRS weren’t reeling enough already, today the unanimous Supreme Court dealt the beleaguered agency another blow, unanimously ruling that companies who paid a British “windfall tax” could get credit for that payment against their U.S. tax liabilities. This should’ve been a simple case, and the federal tax court got it right – the tax code credits foreign income taxes – but the court of appeals found a convoluted way to rule for the IRS.

As Cato’s brief explained, however, taxpayers have the right to be free from double taxation and here the IRS improperly disregarded the substance of the windfall tax. A foreign tax’s form or label can’t mask its substantive character for legal purposes. American businesses operating overseas should be able to rely on a stable, substantive application of U.S. tax law instead of arbitrary interpretations and constructions manipulated to generate payments to the IRS.

The Supreme Court had to invoke and explain complicated equations to reach its decision – I’ve never seen so much math in an opinion – but this ruling ultimately boils down to the longstanding doctrine regarding how to evaluate a tax: (1) A tax’s “predominant character,” or the normal manner in which it applies, controls what kind of tax it is for other legal purposes; and (2) foreign tax creditability depends not on the way a foreign government characterizes its tax but on is economic effect – whether the tax, if enacted in the United States, would be an income tax or something else.

That’s the big takeaway here: The specific since-repealed UK tax at issue in PPL Corp. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue isn’t likely to come up again, but the IRS is on notice that it doesn’t have discretion to err in favor of the Treasury whenever it feels like it. The tax code provides rules –albeit often overly complicated ones – that courts will enforce.

WSJ: ObamaCare Could Reduce Employee Health Benefits

ObamaCare supporters promised the law’s employer mandate would require employers to provide workers with comprehensive insurance. But they apparently didn’t read the bill very closely. It’s a recurring theme.

According to the Wall Street Journal, employers and employee-benefits consultants have found, and federal regulators now confirm, that the law actually requires most employers to offer no more than very flimsy coverage. Many employers are now exploring the option of offering limited-benefit health plans that cover preventive services and maybe “$100 a day for a hospital visit” but “wouldn’t cover surgery, X-rays or prenatal care.” Indeed, the law could push many employers to reduce the amount of coverage workers receive on the job.

The Obama administration’s reaction demonstrates they had no idea what they were doing. The Wall Street Journal:

Administration officials confirmed in interviews that the skinny plans, in concept, would be sufficient to avoid the across-the-workforce penalty. Several expressed surprise that employers would consider the approach.

“We wouldn’t have anticipated that there’d be demand for these types of band-aid plans in 2014,” said Robert Kocher, a former White House health adviser who helped shepherd the law. “Our expectation was that employers would offer high quality insurance.”

The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again.

This and other employer responses to the law could make the roll-out of ObamaCare’s health insurance “exchanges” even more of a train wreck.

  • To the extent ObamaCare’s employer mandate pushes firms to offer bare-bones plans, premiums for plans offered through Exchanges will rise. The healthiest workers will enroll in their employers’ bare-bones plans, but workers who have expensive illnesses (or with dependents who have expensive illnesses) will seek more-comprehensive coverage through the Exchanges. The influx of sick consumers will increase the premiums for Exchange-based plans. Many of these sick workers won’t receive any premium-assistance tax credits or cost-sharing subsidies because their employer’s bare-bones plan will likely satisfy ObamaCare’s definition of adequate – and because the statute forbids those entitlements in the 33 states that have declined to establish an Exchange.
  • Employers are also renenwing their health-benefits contracts early (i.e., before January 1, 2014), which allows them to avoid many of ObamaCare’s regulatory costs for several months. That move could also increase premiums for Exchange-based plans by encouraging workers with high-cost illnesses to seek coverage through Exchanges while healthy workers stick with their employer’s plans.
  • Many employers are also considering self-insuring their health benefits, an arrangement in which the employer bears the risk that is usually borne by the insurance carrier and just hires someone (often an insurer) to administer the coverage. This strategy allows also employers to avoid many of ObamaCare’s regulatory costs and could also increase premiums in the Exchanges and small-group market.

Again, the Journal:

Regulators worry that some of these strategies, if widely employed, could pose challenges to the new online health-insurance exchanges that are a centerpiece of the health law. Among employees offered low-benefit plans, sicker workers who need more coverage may be most likely to opt out of employer coverage and join the exchanges. That could drive up costs in the marketplaces.

These are the sort of unintended consequences that ObamaCare’s opponents warned would plague any attempt by Congress to centrally plan one-sixth of the U.S. economy.

Virginia Republican Candidates Not Joining 21st Century

Last week I reported that 40 percent of Virginia Republicans – and 56 percent of independents – now support gay marriage. But on Saturday the Virginia GOP nominated three statewide candidates whose views on homosexuality and marriage equality range from unwavering opposition to bigoted to insane

Gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli came out swinging against the “extremist” label in his convention acceptance speech:

“When did it become extreme to protect children from predators and human traffickers?” Cuccinelli asked. “When did it become extreme to guard our Constitution from overreach? When did it become extreme to secure the freedom of the wrongly convicted? And when did it become extreme to ask government to spend a little less so our economy can grow?”

Like Gov. Bob McDonnell four years ago, Cuccinelli will try to focus on jobs and the economy in his race against big-government crony capitalist Terry McAuliffe. But there’s a reason that a report by the Republican National Committee found that voters see the GOP as “scary,” “narrow minded,” and “out of touch” – and the Virginia Republican ticket is part of that reason.

Mobility Is Freedom, Not an Invasion of Privacy

Mobility is freedom, or at least an important part of it. Yet earlier this month challenges to expansions of that freedom came from, surprisingly, the Mises Institute of Canada, Reason magazine, and American Enterprise Institute. The issues are new automobile technologies, specifically self-driving cars and improved road pricing, and the challenges came from people who clearly don’t understand the technologies involved.

Self-driving cars, says Roger Toutant writing for the Mises Institute of Canada, will lead to “a national, state-operated, computer network that will be used to achieve an Orwellian level of vehicular control and information sharing. …The implications are ominous. In the future, private spheres will be invaded and all movements will be tracked.”

“Boot up a Google car,” agrees Greg Beato of Reason magazine, “and it’s not so easy to cut the connection with the online mothership.” If you get into a Google driverless car, “you immediately start sending great quantities of revealing information to a company that’s already hoarding every emoticon you’ve ever IMed.”

It is appropriate to question new technologies, but the answer is that’s not the way these cars work. None of the self-driving cars being developed by Volkswagen, Google, or other companies rely at all on central computers. Instead, all the computing power is built into each car.

The Rising Cost of Labor — a Triumph for Capitalism

Articles on page A7 and A8 of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, about rising wages in China and France, confirm something that I learned from Julian Simon. As the Journal reported:

The 14% wage rise for private-sector workers in 2012, reported by China’s National Bureau of Statistics on Friday, represented an acceleration from 12.3% in 2011.

And:

With high labor costs eating into his bottom line, Mr. Madec uses frozen ingredients—and even complete main courses—for the dishes served at Les Templiers…. a steady increase in labor costs and food prices has fueled an unexpected phenomenon: Many restaurants can no longer afford to prepare meals from fresh ingredients in their own kitchens.

And what’s the lesson I learned from Julian Simon? As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer,

Over the long run, in real terms, the only price that consistently seems to rise is the price of human labor.  Looking back a hundred years or so, we see that prices of goods–from wheat to oil to computers–have fallen, while the real wage rate has quintupled in 50 years.  The only thing getting more scarce in economic terms, that is, relative to all other factors, is people.

 

IRS Abuses Past and Present

The stories coming out about IRS abuses of nonprofit groups are appalling. We will likely find out that arrogant and biased officials are to blame, as well as members of Congress who pushed them to be especially aggressive on conservative groups.

Past IRS abuses have stemmed from foul play by both politicians and bureaucrats. As Gene Healy mentions, numerous presidents have used the IRS as a political weapon. As for the bureaucrats, investigations during the 1990s revealed how IRS enforcement had run amok, with abusive tactics being used against small businesses and other taxpayers.

Some of the hearings were hair-raising, and the abuses led Congress to pass the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. Useful links to hearing documents are here and here including Senator Roth describing the agency as having an “awesome power.” Washington Post coverage is here, including a story about how even President Clinton was “outraged” by the revelations of IRS abuse.

Going back further, this 1997 book by Shelley Davis describes some of the historical misdeeds and corruption of the IRS. This book review gives an overview of her investigations.

In recent years, efforts to close the “tax gap” have included proposals to augment the power of the IRS and increase the intrusiveness and compliance burden of tax rules. Yet Congress keeps raising tax rates and making the code more complex, which increases incentives for taxpayers to avoid taxes while reducing their ability to comply. Regarding the latest scandal—note that getting tax-exempt status is so valuable because the tax rates are so darn high.

This article by Bill Beach frames the tax gap issue: Congress can reduce the gap by either giving the IRS more police power or by reforms to cut rates and simplify the code. Hopefully the latest IRS scandal convinces Congress that the agency already has too much power. Thus the way to give Americans more freedom from the tax police and to also boost the economy is to scrap the current tax code in favor of a low-rate consumption-based system.