Tag: corruption

A Bumpy — but Hopeful — Road Ahead for Ukraine

Even when one tries to ignore the current developments in the East of the country, Ukraine is in a pickle. With one of the lowest incomes per capita among the transitional economies of Eastern Europe, rampant corruption, and quickly depleting foreign reserves, the country is overdue for a reform package in many areas, including fiscal and monetary policy, the judiciary system, bankruptcy law, energy policy, state ownership, to name just a few.

While there is no shortage of foreign experts offering their views on what policies Ukraine needs or does not need, the future of Ukraine is for Ukrainians to decide. Still, the outside world can help. The Cato Institute, for example, is teaming up with the Atlas Network and the Kyiv-based European Business Association this week, hosting an emergency conference on Ukrainian economy.

Instead of policy wonks from Washington, the conference convenes a stellar group of policymakers from the region, who have direct experience with reforms enhancing economic freedom. The speakers include Einars Repse, the former Prime Minister of Latvia, Ivan Miklos, author of Slovakia’s flat tax revolution, Kakha Bendukidze, who as Minister of the Economy was the driving force behind economic reforms in Georgia, Sven Otto Littorin, the former Minister for Employment of Sweden, who assisted with the liberalization of the country’s labor markets, Jan Vincent-Rostowski, until recently the Minister of Finance of Poland, as well as Cato’s very own Andrei Illarionov.

The conference website is here, and you can follow my live twitter feed at this link. Notwithstanding the pessimism of the daily news coming from that part of the world, the recent events in Ukraine have given its people and its leaders a unique window of opportunity to make a departure from the country’s post-Soviet legacy and to put in place institutions that will lead to economic opportunity, freedom, and shared prosperity.

It’s a Very Merry Christmas for Washington Insiders

Last year, while writing about the corrupt and self-serving behavior at the IRS, I came up with a theorem that explains day-to-day behavior in Washington.

Simply stated, government is a racket that benefits the D.C. political elite by taking money from average people in America

I realize this is an unhappy topic to be discussing during the Christmas season, but the American people need to realize that they are being pillaged by the insiders that control Washington and live fat and easy lives at our expense.

If you don’t believe me, check out this map showing that 10 of the 15 richest counties in America are the ones surrounding our nation’s imperial capital.

Who would have guessed that the wages of sin are so high?

D.C., itself, isn’t on the list. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people living large inside the District.

Politicians and Their Friends

The Sunday Washington Post has a lengthy story on Terry McAuliffe’s highly successful “business” career. McAuliffe, of course, is the longtime Democratic fundraiser and “first friendof Bill Clinton who is now the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia.

How did a lifelong political operative make many millions for himself? The Post reviews:

The pitches to potential investors in a new electric-car company have been unabashed about its promise: It will enjoy “billions” in government subsidies and tax credits, will rise to a dominant position in the U.S. electric-car industry and, perhaps most critically, has a politically connected founder with the savvy to make it all happen….

The prospectus, along with other documents reviewed by The Post, shows how GreenTech fits into a pattern of investments in which McAuliffe has used government programs, political connections and access to wealthy investors of both parties in pursuit of big profits for himself.

That formula has made McAuliffe a millionaire many times over, paving the way for a long list of business ventures, including his law firm, from which he resigned in the 1990s after profiting — along with his partners — from fees paid by domestic and foreign clients seeking results from the federal government.

A review of McAuliffe’s business history shows him often coming out ahead personally, even if some investments fail or become embroiled in controversy.

Or as McAuliffe told the New York Times:

”I’ve met all of my business contacts through politics. It’s all interrelated,” he said. When he meets a new business contact, he went on, ”then I raise money from them.”

And how did Bill Clinton meet his very good friend? Was it in high school? College? At Oxford? The local Kiwanis Club? No, President Clinton was down in the dumps after his electoral thumping in 1994 and needed to get in gear for his reelection campaign. Harold Ickes, “his politically astute deputy chief of staff,” urged him to meet McAuliffe, who had been a fundraiser for President Carter, when he was 23 years old, and Dick Gephardt. McAuliffe quickly recommended renting out the Lincoln Bedroom, and that worked so well that they became fast friends, maybe even “best friends.”

Politics and Politicians

The New York Times, which wants politicians to run everything from our schools to our health care to our retirement, has lately been telling us just what kind of people it wants us to trust with our lives. People like mayoral candidate Bill Thompson:

As a first-time candidate for New York City comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr. was feted at a downtown fund-raiser in 2001 by two luminaries of the black business world: the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Mr. Simmons’s money manager, a veteran Wall Street financier who made his fortune promoting hybrid securities known as convertible bonds.

Speaking in between rap and poetry-slam performances, the financier, Tracy V. Maitland, made clear why he had taken an interest in the little-watched race for comptroller. “When you control $85 billion,” he told 200 guests crowded into a popular art gallery, “you get a lot of attention.”

Over the last 12 years, Mr. Thompson has repeatedly gotten Mr. Maitland’s attention.

After that fund-raiser, Mr. Maitland became a regular contributor to the campaigns of Mr. Thompson, a Democrat who is now running for mayor. Later, he pushed unsuccessfully for Mr. Thompson’s wife to be hired as president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where he is a trustee.

Mr. Maitland’s attention was not unrequited. In 2006, Mr. Thompson honored him at a Black History Month observance. And in 2008, his office for the first time began investing city pension assets in convertible bonds, pouring $324 million into Advent Capital Management, the firm Mr. Maitland founded. By the time Mr. Thompson left office, in 2009, Advent was earning $2 million a year in fees on those investments.

Mr. Thompson’s ties to Mr. Maitland reflect a pattern that emerges from an examination of Mr. Thompson’s stewardship of the pension funds and, more broadly, the comptroller’s office: Again and again, Mr. Thompson reaped political gains from those he awarded city business.

As he oversaw the city’s $85 billion pension system, Mr. Thompson steered the funds into a diverse range of new investment categories, expanding from heavy concentrations in stocks and bonds into private equity, real estate and niche funds. Yet performance was lackluster: nationwide, more than half of large public pension funds outperformed the five city funds’ combined 4.84 percent return from 2002 through 2009, according to a widely used yardstick compiled by Wilshire Associates, an investment advisory firm. Meanwhile, the city’s roster of fund managers, and their fees, tripled — and Mr. Thompson collected more than $500,000 in campaign donations from them.

Mr. Thompson’s credentials as comptroller and a seasoned manager are central to his mayoral campaign, in which he has portrayed himself as the grown-up in the Democratic field — less liberal, strident and showy, but best prepared for the sober task of managing an unruly city.

But interviews and a review of thousands of pages of records — schedules, e-mails, pension statements and campaign finance reports — suggest frequent overlap of Mr. Thompson’s political ambitions and the comptroller’s operation, and that like many pension overseers at the time, he raised campaign money aggressively from those seeking business from his office.

And his opponent Bill DeBlasio:

Government on the Friends and Family Plan

In his stirring speech to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, then-New York governor Mario Cuomo used an extended metaphor of the whole nation as a family. So maybe it should come as no surprise to discover that his son, current New York governor Andrew Cuomo, uses the New York State government as a jobs program for his friends and their families. The Empire State Development Corporation in particular is chock-full of his donors and friends, and their young sons–not to mention Cuomo’s political advisers.

He’s not alone in spending (other people’s) money to help family and friends. The Washington Post reported in December on the family-friendly atmosphere at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority:

Meet the Kulle family: mom Helen, daughter Ann Kulle-Helms, son-in-law Douglas Helms, son Albert, daughter-in-law Michele Kulle and Michele’s brother, Jeffrey Thacker.

They all worked for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. All at the same time.

One MWAA board member, 

who has had at least three relatives, including a daughter-in-law, work at the agency, said family members are employed frequently, particularly among board members.

“If you ask a third of those folks, their relatives work there,” he said. “I never thought that we were doing anything wrong.”

“This is a government town and an agency town,” Crawford said. “If there’s a possibility that you can hire a relative … it was the norm.”

Conspiracy Not Required

The recent revelation that the IRS targeted conservative political groups is now moving into the second stage of a DC scandal: the first is finding out what happened; the second is finding out how high up it goes. Although it is important to find out how many, if any, high-level officials are culpable, high-level participation is not necessary for libertarians to have a small “I told you so” moment.

But we should not try to oversell it. Some libertarians have an odd tendency to believe that government is more effective at doing bad things than at doing good things. At the extremes, this manifests as the “libertarian conspiracy theorist”—someone who oddly believes that, while government can’t effectively run health care, schools, or welfare programs, it can successfully orchestrate and cover-up massive conspiracies. But we don’t need high-level conspiracies to point out that abuses of power, even by low-level officials, can be expected. Moreover, as government grows larger it becomes both less accountable and more important to our lives, thus giving government officials both more leverage and more freedom to misbehave.  

In his novel Child 44, a fascinating detective story that takes place in Stalin’s Russia, Tom Rob Smith tells of an encounter between a party-member doctor and the novel’s protagonist, a Muscovite police officer who was once a loyal party member but is slowly losing his faith. The officer is out sick and the doctor visits to see if he is really sick or just trying to avoid work. Shirking work is a grave offense, and the doctor’s judgment could destroy the officer and his wife. A bad report and they will go to the Gulag. A good report and they get to stay in their relatively comfortable apartment in Moscow. Knowing his power, the doctor makes unwanted advances towards the officer’s beautiful wife, telling her that “Ten minutes is hardly a high price to pay for the life of your husband.”

It is a chilling episode, and while I am certainly not comparing the U.S. government to Soviet Russia, there are some lessons to be learned. As much as we might like a sensational story implicating top-level officials, the most common form of government misconduct does not usually involve devious scheming by politicians. Instead, it is often both less insidious and more invidious—the cumulative effects of misconduct by less-accountable, low-level officials who enjoy immense power over small areas of our lives.  

My father, an attorney, once told me he first started having vaguely libertarian thoughts after he began dealing with banking regulators. The regulators were relatively low on the chain of command, yet they held an incredible amount of power over their areas of concern, more than enough to make my father’s job very difficult. And they did. Similar stories happen all over the country, and sometimes they make it to the Supreme Court.

But most don’t usually make it to any court, much less the Supremes. The United States government is the most powerful organization the world has ever seen, and lower-level officials wield a small fraction of that power, which is still more than enough to make most people sit down and shut up.

I’m not saying that most government officials illegitimately use their power. I believe that the vast majority of government officials do not. I am saying, however, that many abuses occur and more can be expected if the government continues to grow larger and more powerful. It is simply too large an organization for anyone to control.

IRS Lied to Congress about Targeting Tea Party

On Friday, the IRS admitted that when “social welfare” groups with the terms “tea party” or “patriot” in their names applied for 501(c)(4)/tax-exempt status, IRS agents targeted them for extra (and extra-legal) scrutiny to ensure they were not engaged in politicking. The Washington Post reports, “about 75 groups were selected for extra inquiry — including, in some cases, improper requests for the names of donors.” IRS agents did not apply similar scrutiny to groups with “progressive” in their names.

Over the weekend, more details emerged. It now appears the IRS lied to Congress about this practice for more than a year. It also appears the IRS is still targeting tea-party groups today, in part because IRS bureaucrats believe groups that “educat[e] on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” deserve greater scrutiny.

Here’s a rundown. 

Senior IRS officials have known about these abuses for nearly two years. The Associated Press reports: “Senior Internal Revenue Service officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups as early as 2011…on June 29, 2011, Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, learned at a meeting that groups were being targeted, according to the watchdog’s report. At the meeting, she was told that groups with ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Patriot’ or ‘9/12 Project’ in their names were being flagged for additional and often burdensome scrutiny…Lerner instructed agents to change the criteria for flagging groups ‘immediately’…”. IRS agents also gave extra scrutiny to groups that “criticize how the country is being run.”

The IRS tried to get away with it again. The Washington Post reports:

the agency revised its criteria a week later.

But six months later, the IRS applied a new political test to groups that applied for tax-exempt status as “social welfare” groups, the document says. On Jan. 15, 2012 the agency decided to target “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement”…

The agency did not appear to adopt a more neutral test for social welfare groups…until May 17, 2012…

Of course, these revised criteria are not politically neutral either. Tea-party groups are still far more likely to receive extra scrutiny than progressive groups. Lots of right-leaning political groups describe their mission as working to limit government or educate people about the Constitution. Far fewer left-leaning groups emphasize educating people about the Constitution or openly declare their mission is to expand government. And note: the U.S. government treated groups as suspect if they educate the public about the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Let that one sink in.

The IRS lied to Congress for more than a year. The Associated Press reports: “At a congressional hearing March 22, 2012, [then-IRS commissioner Douglas] Shulman was adamant in his denials. ‘There’s absolutely no targeting.’” Senior IRS staff knew that claim was false nine months before Shulman made it. Yet they let Shulman’s false statement to Congress go uncorrected, amid a congressional investigation into whether the IRS was targeting tea-party groups, for another 14 months. According to the Washington Post, “The IRS made no mention of targeting conservative groups in five separate responses to congressional inquiries between Nov. 18, 2011, and June 15, 2012, according to the [inspector general’s] timeline.” Even if we view the facts in the light most favorable to the IRS and assume Shulman did not know he was uttering a falsehood – which, by the way, would mean he is a very poor manager – the IRS’s failure to correct that falsehood pretty much makes it a lie. I don’t mean that in the phony way PolitiFact uses the term. I mean a real lie.

The IRS did not come forward of its own accord. The Associated Press: “The Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the results of a nearly yearlong investigation in the coming week.” House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) put it, “Before the IG’s report comes to the public or to Congress as required by law, it’s leaked by the IRS to try to spin the output. This mea culpa’s not an honest one.”

IRS officials maintain the targeting of tea-party groups was the work of low-level employees and not politically motivated. Yet the agency has shown a willingness to deceive Congress and the public about its own misconduct. Congress should conduct a thorough investigation.

Even if it is true that low-level IRS bureaucrats were acting on their own, Congress’ investigation should examine the role Obama administration officials played in encouraging those bureaucrats to single out the tea party. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains:

Where might an enterprising, public-spirited I.R.S. agent get the idea that a Tea Party group deserved more scrutiny from the government than the typical band of activists seeking tax-exempt status? Oh, I don’t know: why, maybe from all the prominent voices who spent the first two years of the Obama era worrying that the Tea Party wasn’t just a typically messy expression of citizen activism, but something much darker — an expression of crypto-fascist, crypto-racist rage, part Timothy McVeigh and part Bull Connor, potentially carrying a wave of terrorist violence in its wings.

It would be very bad if senior Obama administration officials ordered the IRS to intimidate the president’s political opponents. It would scarcely be better if administration officials denounced their opponents until IRS bureaucrats took the hint.

People should lose their jobs over this.

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