Archives: 05/2015

The IRS Folds, Returns 100% of Lyndon McLellan’s Money

Defying a demand from the federal government to stop publicizing his case, today Lyndon McLellan was told the IRS is abandoning its efforts to keep more than $107,000 it took from his bank account without ever charging him with a crime.

The case received national attention and outrage, including from a member of Congress, which led to this threatening message from an Assistant U.S. Attorney to McLellan’s lawyers:

Whoever made [the case file] public may serve their own interest but will not help this particular case. Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it. But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency. My offer is to return 50% of the money. 

So much for that; Mr. McLellan will be receiving 100% of his money back.  

Maryland Passes Tesla Bill

This week, people in Maryland got the news of Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature of HB 235, the so-called “Tesla Bill.” The law allows, for the first time, makers of electric cars to sell directly to consumers, bypassing traditional auto dealerships.

During the last few years, a number of states have prevented Tesla Motors from selling cars directly to consumers.  They have enforced laws that require the use of independent dealers to complete sales.

In the Summer 2014 issue of Regulation professor Daniel Crane explained that these laws are a legacy of past battles between dealers and legacy automakers like GM and Ford over the distribution of wealth losses during recessions and the number of dealerships whose fixed costs must be supported relative to Toyota and Honda.

This history has little to do with niche manufacturers like Tesla that do not want to use dealers.  But dealers do not want the possibility of non-dealer sales to spread to traditional manufacturers.     HB 235 codifies this sentiment. It allows Tesla and other electric car makers to sell directly to consumers.  But it preserves the status quo for all other traditional cars and trucks, whose dealers understood that not allowing a Tesla exception would focus undue attention on their regulatory protection and perhaps cause voters to demand more fundamental reform.

Marco Rubio’s Breathtaking Myopia

Sen. Marco Rubio might fancy himself as a new type of leader for a new era, but his speech yesterday to the Council on Foreign Relations was trapped in the past. Invoking John F. Kennedy’s final speech as president, more than 50 years ago, was bad enough. But Rubio’s overarching message – the Rubio Doctrine – amounts to warmed over Cold War dogma, sprinkled with the language of benevolent global hegemony favored by so many Washington elites, but disdained by most Americans beyond the Beltway. It is difficult to understand the depths of his political and strategic myopia.

Rubio misperceives the American public’s willingness to sustain the current model indefinitely, and therefore fails to appreciate the need for a genuinely new approach to U.S. global affairs. He minimizes the costs and risks of our current foreign policies, and oversells the benefits. He ignores the way in which U.S. security assurances to a host of some-of-the-time allies have discouraged these countries from taking reasonable steps to defend themselves and their interests. And he fails to see any reasonable alternative to a world in which the United States acts – forever, it seems – as the sole guarantor of global security. Specifically, Rubio pledged: “As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.” (Any? Whew!) 

To be sure, many people around the world may be happy to allow U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to attempt such an ambitious undertaking, and to have American taxpayers pick up the tab. It is reasonable to guess that most foreign leaders are anxious to preserve the current order – so long as the U.S. government provides for their defense, they are free to spend their money on other things. But the fact that foreigners like this arrangment doesn’t explain why most Americans would. When Rubio calls for huge increases in the Pentagon’s budget, he is telling Americans that they should be content to accept higher taxes, more debt, and less money to spend here at home, so that U.S. allies elsewhere can neglect their defenses, and feed their bloated welfare states.

Mr. President, Don’t Scapegoat Private Schools

It is not often I get a chance to latch on to someone as high profile as the President of the United States saying that public schools “draw us together.” But in his appearance at Georgetown University a couple of days ago, President Obama blamed, among other things, people sending their children to private schools for breaking down social cohesion and reducing opportunities for other children.

First, let’s get our facts straight: Private schools are not the main way better-off people, or people with high social capital, isolate themselves from poor families. Only 9 percent of school children attend private schools, and as Matt Ladner points out in a great response to the President, that percentage has been dropping over the years. No, the main way the better-off congregate amongst themselves is buying houses in nice places, which translates into access to good school districts. Even the large majority of the mega-rich appear to send their children to public schools, but rather than paying school tuition, their tuition is the far-steeper, far more exclusive price of a house. And let’s not pretend – as the President hinted – that we’ve seen anything close to long-term decreased funding for public schools. Even with a slight dip during the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in public schools has well more than doubled since 1970.

On the deeper point, do we really know that public schools “draw us together,” and more importantly, do so better than private schooling? No, we don’t. That’s the accepted wisdom, but basic history doesn’t necessarily bear it out. Roman Catholics ended up starting their own school system – which at its peak in 1965 enrolled about 12 percent of all students – because the de facto Protestant public schools could not accommodate them. African-Americans, of course, were long legally excluded from public schools, especially white public schools. Similar situations existed for Asians and Mexican-Americans in some parts of the country. And, of course, public schools reflected the communities they served, which were often small and homogeneous. Finally, public schooling forces diverse people into a single system, which has led to seemingly incessant, cohesion-tearing clashes over values, personal identities, and much more.

Amtrak’s Budget

In the wake of the terrible train crash near Philadelphia, people are asking whether Amtrak budget cuts could have been a contributing factor. The short answer is that federal rail spending has not been cut. The longer answer is that rail spending has been greatly misallocated by Congress. Rather than being spent on maintenance along heavily used corridors (particularly in the Northeast), the federal rail budget has been frittered away on uneconomical rural routes and high-speed rail schemes.

In the federal budget, Amtrak is within the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The president estimated that fiscal 2015 outlays on the FRA would be $3.6 billion. Of that, $250 million is for Amtrak operating subsidies, $1.1 billion is for Amtrak capital grants, $1.8 billion is for high-speed rail grants, and the rest is for safety, research, and other rail activities.  

The chart shows total FRA outlays from 1990 to 2015 in current dollars (not adjusting for inflation). Outlays have soared in recent years, partly due to rising high-speed rail spending. During 2009 to 2015, high-speed rail grants were $2 million, $16 million, $304 million, $513 million, $768 million, $1.1 billion, and $1.8 billion. But even aside from that spending, FRA outlays were up modestly over the past decade.

 

Luring in Foreign Investment with Subsidies

Almost every news article I read about new foreign investment in the U.S. starts off very positive and exciting.  Here’s one from earlier this week:

Volvo Cars will build a factory in South Carolina, the company said on Monday, making it the first time a Chinese-owned automaker will have an auto assembly plant in the United States.

Volvo will invest $500 million in the new factory, which will be in Berkeley County, S.C., outside Charleston. The company estimated that the plant — its first in the United States since entering the market 60 years ago — would employ 2,000 people in its early years and eventually be closer to 4,000. Construction will begin this fall and the factory will begin producing vehicles in 2018.

Volvo, which remains based in Sweden, has gone through a number of owners in recent years. In 2010, Zhejiang Geely Holdings, its current owner, bought it from Ford, which acquired it in 2000 from the Volvo Group.

It’s good news that the U.S. is so welcoming to foreign investors, including those from China.  That kind of openness is great for our economy.

But then, inevitably, the article says something like this:

South Carolina officials lined up sizable incentives to lure the Volvo plant. The automaker will receive about $200 million in combined incentives. That includes $120 million in economic development bonds, $30 million in state grants and an additional $50 million of incentives from a state-owned utility company, Santee Cooper.

Foreign investment is great, but governments competing for it with massive subsidies makes absolutely no sense.  One of the most important issues related to foreign investment right now is how to rein in these subsidies.

Unfortunately, the actual debate over foreign investment rules focuses on special provisions in trade and investment agreements that let foreign investors sue governments.  We are debating the issue right now at Cato Unbound; I’m one of the two critics of such provisions, and two others are writing in support of these provisions.  One of the points I make is that subsidies to foreign investors are the real problem, and any international rules in this area should focus on that.  We’ll see how the supporters respond.

Too Much Money Going to the Wrong Places

It appears that the Amtrak crash that killed seven people Tuesday resulted from speeding, but big-government advocates are already using this accident to make their case for more infrastructure spending. In fact, the problem is not too little money, but too much money going to the wrong places.

In 2008, President George Bush signed a law mandating that most railroads, including Amtrak, install positive train control (PTC) by December of 2015. PTC would force trains to slow or stop if the operator ignored signals or speed limits.

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama asked a Democratic Congress to give him $10 billion to spend on high-speed trains, and Congress agreed. Not one cent of that money went to installing PTC in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

PTC would have prevented this accident. There was plenty of money available to install it, but the Obama administration, in its infinite wisdom, chose to spend it elsewhere. Two days ago, it would have been embarrassing to think that the government-run Amtrak hadn’t yet completed installation of PTC on its highest-speed corridor. Today, it’s a tragedy. But how is it the fault of fiscal conservatives?

This accident is just one more example of a political fact of life: Politicians are more likely to put dollars into new construction, such as high-speed rail, than to spend them on safety and maintenance of existing infrastructure. As John Nolte says on Breitbart, “Amtrak is not underfunded; it is criminally mismanaged.”

Transportation journalist Don Phillips presents one example of Amtrak mismanagement in the June issue of Trains magazine: instead of promoting a culture of safety, Amtrak has a culture of don’t care. Phillips points to a February report from Amtrak’s Inspector General that found that Amtrak has the least-safe working environment of any major railroad. Amtrak employees are more than three times as likely to be injured or killed on the job as employees of BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, or Union Pacific.

This poor record, says the report, is a direct result of a lack of accountability “at all levels.” Employee injuries in 2013 were only one-twelfth as likely to result in disciplinary action as in 2009, resulting in employees who believe today that they “can ignore rules and safe practices with impunity.” Safety is of so little importance in the organization that three out of four of the employees interviewed by the inspector general believed that Amtrak’s safety record was better, not worse, than other railroads.

One reason why Amtrak has a poor safety culture may be that Congress has legally limited Amtrak’s liability for any single crash to $200 million. Imagine the outrage if Congress limited the liability of oil companies, pipeline companies, Monsanto, or other private corporations. Yet the progressives who wrote Amtrak legislation considered such a liability limit perfectly acceptable.

If Congress were to respond to this crash by increasing federal infrastructure spending, it is all too likely that much if not most of that money would go for useless new projects such as new high-speed rail lines, light rail, and bridges to nowhere. We don’t need intercity trains that cost several times as much but go less than half as fast as flying; we don’t need urban trains that cost 50 times as much but can’t carry as many people per hour as buses; we don’t need new bridges if bridge users themselves aren’t willing to pay for them.

As I’ve documented elsewhere, infrastructure that is funded out of user fees tends to be better maintained than infrastructure that is funded out of tax dollars. User fees also give transportation managers signals for where new infrastructure is really needed; if people won’t pay for it out of user fees, it probably isn’t necessary.

Before 1970, America’s transportation system was almost entirely funded out of user fees and it was the best in the world. Since then, funding decisions have increasingly been made by politicians who are more interested in getting their pictures taken cutting ribbons than in making sure our transportation systems run safely and smoothly.

This country doesn’t need more infrastructure that it can’t afford to maintain. Instead, it needs a more reliable system of transport funding, and that means one based on user fees and not tax subsidies or federal deficit spending.