Tag: corruption

Security Pact Ensures America’s Presence in Afghanistan

President Obama’s arrival in Afghanistan and signing of the strategic partnership agreement with President Karzai supposedly represents yet another corner turned in our nearly eleven year (and counting) war. The commander-in-chief’s arrival in secrecy, under darkness, and without live coverage of the signing is reminiscent of Bush the Younger’s many trips to war-torn Iraq and displays just how bad security is in Afghanistan. Indeed, despite the administration’s talk about drawing-down, the strategic partnership agreement signed today in Kabul extends Washington’s military and financial support to the endemically corrupt Karzai regime well beyond 2014.

The Taliban’s most powerful narrative is that foreigners are occupying Afghanistan and supporting its corrupt centralized government. That is more than mere propaganda. It is reality. Transparency International was correct—save for North Korea and Somalia, Afghanistan is the most corrupt country in the world. The Karzai cartel and its band of thugs and warlords are the embodiment of social injustice. The nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a failure not of democracy promotion, but the result of bringing injustice and crony capitalism to a desperate and war-ravaged people.

As America climbs out of the worst financial crisis in a generation, the American people pour tens of billions a year into a poverty-stricken narco-stateaccording to the late-Richard Holbrooke—while the Karzais and their cronies build mansions in Dubai. The American people’s hard-earned tax dollars are funding Afghanistan’s “1%.” As I said last week about the agreement, it is nation building by another name. The American people have come to realize that the nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a needless waste of blood and treasure and unnecessary for our vital security interests. U.S. officials should recognize this and expedite our withdrawal, rather than continue to tread water in a desperate attempt to stave off disaster.

A senior administration official today warned of repeating the mistake of allowing the Taliban to reemerge in Afghanistan. In the process, however, the United States is repeating a mistake that experts contend helped to contribute to the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001unwavering economic support and political cover to the Muslim world’s most corrupt and illegitimate regimes. Some will argue that America has a moral obligation to prevent the reemergence of reprehensible groups like the Taliban. But America never made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban’s misogynistic, oppressive and militant Islamic regime when it controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thus, the present moral outrage against the group can be interpreted as opportunistic. Sadly, Washington’s current embrace of the kleptocratic Karzai regime not only contradicts the basic moral principles that America purports to impose on the rest of the world, but also does little to advance our security, drives foreigners to commit terrorist acts, and is detrimental to our long-term goal of advancing our country’s most cherished values.

Revolt of the Irish Tax Slaves

I wrote last year about a backlash from long-suffering Greek taxpayers. These people - the ones pulling the wagon rather than riding in the wagon - are being raped and pillaged by a political class that is trying to protect the greedy interest groups that benefit from Greece’s bloated public sector.

We now have another group of taxpayers who are fighting back against greedy government. My ancestors in Ireland have decided that enough is enough and there is widespread civil disobedience against a new property tax.

Here are the key details from an AP report.

Ireland is facing a revolt over its new property tax. The government said less than half of the country’s 1.6 million households paid the charge by Saturday’s deadline to avoid penalties. And about 5,000 marched in protest against the annual conference of Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party. Emotions ran raw as police backed by officers on horseback stopped demonstrators from entering the Dublin Convention Centre. …One man mistakenly identified as the government minister responsible for collecting the tax had to be rescued by police from an angry scrum. Kenny said his government had no choice, but to impose the new charge as part of the nation’s efforts to emerge from an international bailout. …The charge this year is a flat-fee €100 ($130) per dwelling, but is expected to rise dramatically next year once Ireland starts to vary the charge based on a property’s estimated value. Anti-tax campaigners have urged the public to ignore the tax demand, arguing that the government doesn’t have the power to collect it.

What makes this new tax so outrageous is that Irish taxpayers already have been victimized with higher income tax rates and a more onerous value-added tax. Yet they weren’t the ones to cause the nation’s fiscal crisis. Ireland is in trouble for two reasons, and both deal with the spending side of the fiscal equation.

1. The burden of government spending exploded last decade, more than doubling in less than 10 years. This wiped out all the gains from fiscal restraint in the 1980s and 1990s.

2. Irish politicians decided to give a bailout not only to depositors of the nation’s failed banks, but also to bondholders. This is a grotesque transfer of wealth from ordinary people to those with higher incomes.

It’s worth nothing that academic studies find that tax evasion is driven largely by high tax rates. This makes sense since there is more incentive to hide money when the government is being very greedy. But there is also evidence that tax evasion rises when people perceive that government is wasting money and being corrupt.

The serfs are fighting back

Heck, no wonder the Irish people are up in arms. They’re being asked to cough up more money to finance a bailout that was both corrupt and wasteful.

Let’s close by looking at American attitudes about tax evasion. Here’s part of a column from Forbes, which expresses surprise that Americans view tax evasion more favorably than behaviors such as shoplifting and littering.

A new survey suggests Americans consider cheating on their taxes more socially acceptable than shoplifting, drunk driving or even throwing trash out the window of a moving car. …only 66% of  the participants said they “completely agree” that “everyone who cheats on their taxes should be held accountable”  and only 72% completely agreed that “it’s every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes”–suggesting, as the Shelton study does, that perhaps disapproval of tax evasion is not as strong as, say, disapproval of stealing from private businesses.

I’m not sure, though, why anybody would be shocked by these results. We have a government in Washington that is pervasively corrupt, funneling money to scams like Solyndra.

These same people want higher tax rates, which will further encourage people to protect their income.

If we really want to promote better tax compliance, whether in the U.S., Ireland, or anywhere in the world, there are two simple answers. First, enact a simple and fair flat tax to keep rates low. Second, shrink government to its proper size, which will automatically reduce waste and limit opportunities for corruption.

But none of this is in the interests of the political class, so don’t hold your breath waiting for these reforms.

Judge Mark Wolf, Criminal Informants, and the FBI

Judge Mark Wolf  gets some well-deserved recognition in a New York Times editorial today for his spectacular effort to bring some accountability to the FBI scandal involving gangster informants.  Here’s an excerpt:

The judge uncovered that John Connolly Jr., the F.B.I. agent who was their handler, had protected Mr. Bulger, a 15-year informant, and Mr. Flemmi, a 25-year informant, as they committed murder and conspired with the Mafia, in exchange for leads about the Mafia. It was Mr. Connolly who tipped off Mr. Bulger that he was about to be indicted and sent him on the lam. Judge Wolf testified against the F.B.I. agent at a 2002 trial before another judge. Mr. Connolly was sentenced to 10 years for racketeering, obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators….

Judges are supposed to dispense justice but rarely root out crimes. As a result of Judge Wolf’s courage and persistence, the government has paid more than $100 million in claims to families of people murdered by informants shielded by the F.B.I. There is no good evidence that the F.B.I. has set up independent oversight of its informants program like what the judge called for. It’s high time.

It’s a good editorial that’s on the mark.   Of course, in a just world, Judge Wolf’s picture should have been on the cover of the Times, not the fugitive who is thought to be responsible for countless crimes.

And in a just world, the corrupt FBI agent, John Connolly, would have had to pay for his own legal expenses.  Even though he had more than a million dollars in assets (pensions, vacation home, power boat, etc), a federal magistrate said he was “indigent” and that taxpayers should pay for his legal defense.  Not a public defender, mind you, but a top law firm in Boston.   Just one of the many sordid aspects of the whole affair.

Here’s a link to Judge Wolf’s exhaustive ruling.  Here’s a link to a Cato event that I hosted on this scandal.

Should American Taxpayers Finance another Big Fat Greek Bailout?

It appears that American taxpayers are about to subsidize another Greek bailout (via the Keystone Cops at the IMF). This is way beyond economically foolish. It is also morally offensive.

To turn Winston Churchill’s famous quote upside down, “Never have so many paid so much to subsidize such an undeserving few.”

Let’s start with a few facts:

  • Greece’s GDP is roughly equal to the GDP of Maryland.
  • Greece’s population is roughly equal to the population of Ohio.
  • Despite that small size, in both terms of population and economic output, Greece already has received a bailout of about $150 billion (actual amount fluctuates with the exchange rate).
  • Don’t forget the indirect bailout resulting from purchases of Greek government bonds by the European Central Bank.
  • Now Greece is angling for another bailout of about $150 billion.

Is there any possible justification for throwing good money after bad with another bailout? Well, if you’re a politician from Germany or France and your big banks (i.e., some of your major campaign contributors) foolishly bought lots of government bonds from Greece, the answer might be yes. After all, screwing taxpayers to benefit insiders is a longstanding tradition in Europe.

But from a taxpayer perspective, either in Europe or the United States, the answer is no. Or, to be more technical and scientific, the answer is “Heck no, are you friggin’ out of your mind?!”

Consider these fun facts from a recent column by John Lott and then decide whether the corrupt politicians of Greece (and the special interest groups that receive handouts and subsidies from the Greek government) deserve to have their hands in the pockets of American taxpayers:

Despite Greece’s promises, government spending is up over last year’s already bloated levels, the deficit is bigger than ever, and it has utterly failed to meet the promised sell-off of some government assets. Not a single public bureaucrat has been laid off so far. …Greece can pay off €300 of the €347 billion debt by selling off shares the government owns in publicly traded companies and much of its real estate holdings. The government owns stock in casinos, hotels, resorts, railways, docks, as well as utilities providing electricity and water. But Greek unions fiercely oppose even partial privatizations. Rolling blackouts are promised this week to dissuade the government from selling of even 17 percent of its stake in the Public Power Corporation. …Greeks apparently believe that they have Europe and the world over a barrel, that they can make the rest of the world pay their bills by threatening to default. Greece’s default would be painful for everyone, but for Europe and the United States, indeed for the world, the alternative would be even worse. If politicians in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and other countries think that their bills will be picked up by taxpayers in other countries, they won’t control their spending and they won’t sell off assets to pay off these debts. Countries such as Greece have to be convinced that they will bear a real cost if they don’t fix their financial houses while they still have the assets to cover their debts. …The real problem is the incentives we are giving to other countries. We have to make sure that “Kicking the can down the road” isn’t an option.

Just for good measure, here are a few more interesting factoids in a Wall Street Journal column by Holman Jenkins.

[Greece is] one of the most corrupt, crony-ridden, patronage-ridden, inefficient, silly economies in Christendom. …The state railroad maintains a payroll four times larger than its ticket sales. When a military officer dies, his pension continues for his unwed daughter as long as she remains unwed. Various workers are allowed to retire with a full state pension at age 45.

To be blunt, Greek politicians have miserably failed. Wait, that’s not right. You can’t say someone has failed when they haven’t even tried. Let’s be more accurate and say that Greek politicians have succeeded. They have scammed money from taxpayers in other nations to prop up a venal and corrupt system of patronage and spoils. Sure, they’ve made a few cosmetic changes and trimmed around the edges, but handouts from abroad have enabled them to perpetuate a bloated state. And now they’re using a perverse form of blackmail (aided and abetted by big banks) to seek even more money.

Let’s now re-ask the earlier question: Should American taxpayer finance the corrupt big-government policies of Greece?

  • Or perhaps we should think like economists, so let’s rephrase the question: Should we misallocate capital so that funds are diverted from private investment to corrupt Greek politicians?
  • Or maybe we should think like parents who have to worry about spoiling a child and the signal that sends to the other kids, so let’s ask the question this way: Should we encourage bad behavior in Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc, by giving another bailout to Greece’s corrupt politicians?
  • Or should we think about this issue from the perspective of addiction counselors and rephrase the question: Should we reward self-destructive behavior by providing more money to corrupt political elites in Greece?
  • Or how about we think like moral human beings, and ask the real question: Should we take money from people who earned it and give it to people who think they are entitled to live at the expense of others?

Since we paraphrased Churchill earlier, let’s answer these questions by butchering Shakespeare: “A bailout from every angle would smell to high Heaven.”

I wrote back in February of 2010 that a Greek bailout would be a mistake and every development since that time has confirmed that initial commentary.

But that doesn’t matter. Politicians have a different way of looking at things. They look at a policy and wonder whether it increases their power and generates campaign contributions. And when you understand their motives, you begin to realize why they will answer yes to the previous set of questions.

Corrupt Obamacare Waiver Process Is Like a Scene from Atlas Shrugged

In a column about the revolving door between big government and the lobbying world, here’s what the irreplaceable Tim Carney wrote about the waiver process for folks trying to escape the burden of government-run healthcare.

Congress imposes mandates on other entities, but gives bureaucrats the power to waive those mandates. To get such a waiver, you hire the people who used to administer or who helped craft the policies. So who’s the net winner? The politicians and bureaucrats who craft policies and wield power, because this combination of massive government power and wide bureaucratic discretion creates huge demand for revolving-door lobbyists. It’s another reason Obama’s legislative agenda, including bailouts, stimulus, ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, tobacco regulation, and more, necessarily fosters more corruption and cronyism.

This seemed so familiar that I wondered whether Tim was guilty of plagiarism. But he’s one of the best journalists in DC, so I knew that couldn’t be the case.

Then I realized that there was plagiarism, but the politicians in Washington were the guilty parties. As can be seen in this passage from Atlas Shrugged, the Obama Administration is copying from what Ayn Rand wrote – as dystopian parody – in the 1950s.

Nobody professed to understand the question of the frozen railroad bonds, perhaps, because everybody understood it too well. At first, there had been signs of a panic among the bondholders and of a dangerous indignation among the public. Then, Wesley Mouch had issued another directive, which ruled that people could get their bonds “defrozen” upon a plea of “essential need”: the government would purchase the bonds, if it found proof of the need satisfactory. there were three questions that no one answered or asked: “What constituted proof?” “What constituted need?” “Essential-to whom?” …One was not supposed to speak about the men who, having been refused, sold their bonds for one-third of the value to other men who possessed needs which, miraculously, made thirty-three frozen cents melt into a whole dollar, or about a new profession practiced by bright young boys just out of college, who called themselves “defreezers” and offered their services “to help you draft your application in the proper modern terms.” The boys had friends in Washington.

This isn’t the first time the Obama Administration has inadvertently brought Atlas Shrugged to life. The Administration’s top lawyer already semi-endorsed “going Galt” when he said people could choose to earn less money to avoid certain Obamacare impositions.

So if you want a glimpse at America’s future, I encourage you to read (or re-read) the book. Or at least watch the movie.

HUD’s ‘Wastelands’

A year-long investigation by the Washington Post into the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s HOME affordable housing program uncovered systemic waste, fraud, and abuse. The tale is yet another example of why the federal government should extricate itself from housing policy and allow the states to chart their own course.

The piece is lengthy and should be read by interested readers in its entirety, so I’ll just excerpt the Post’s findings:

  • Local housing agencies have doled out millions to troubled developers, including novice builders, fledgling nonprofits and groups accused of fraud or delivering shoddy work.
  • Checks were cut even when projects were still on the drawing boards, without land, financing or permits to move forward. In at least 55 cases, developers drew HUD money but left behind only barren lots.
  • Overall, nearly one in seven projects shows signs of significant delay. Time and again, housing agencies failed to cancel bad deals or alert HUD when projects foundered.
  • HUD has known about the problems for years but still imposes few requirements on local housing agencies and relies on a data system that makes it difficult to determine which developments are stalled.
  • Even when HUD learns of a botched deal, federal law does not give the agency the authority to demand repayment. HUD can ask local authorities to voluntarily repay, but the agency was unable to say how much money has been returned.

In a Cato essay on HUD community development programs, I cite similar examples of HOME funds being wasted. And an essay on HUD scandals shows that mismanagement and corruption in federal housing programs is hardly new. Indeed, a follow-up story from the Post that focuses on related affordable housing shenanigans in the DC area explains that housing speculators who bilked HUD in the 1980s are involved in the current troubles:

All three were convicted in a scheme in the 1980s that involved getting straw buyers to purchase properties in the District at inflated prices using fraudulent appraisals. HUD backed the loans and ultimately lost millions of dollars. The Post called it the largest real estate fraud of its kind in the city’s history; about 30 people were convicted.

The response from Congress to the Post’s expose isn’t any more surprising than the findings: it’s time for a probe! This is where members of Congress point the finger at everybody else except themselves, promise to “fix” the problems, and pay lip-service to the concerns of taxpayers.

From the statement issued by Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL):

We are deeply concerned by these reports, particularly at a time when so many Americans are in need of affordable housing. Many communities across the country have successfully used HUD programs to create vital housing opportunities for their citizens. However, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, like any government agency, has a duty to safeguard taxpayer funds. The Committee takes its oversight responsibilities very seriously, and we plan to get to the bottom of this issue.

Republicans are having a difficult time naming federal programs to abolish, while Democrats would have us believe that only the federal government can take care of the “less fortunate.” For Republicans who are serious about spending cuts, HUD’s latest black eye offers an opportunity to challenge the existence of federal housing programs. For Democrats, well, perhaps one or two will start to question the sanctity of these programs.

The IRS: Even Worse Than You Think

Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

Narrated by Hiwa Alaghebandian of the American Enterprise Institute, the mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden - sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

Two things from the video are worth highlighting.

First, we should make sure to put most of the blame on Congress. As Ms. Alaghebandian notes, the IRS is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce Byzantine tax laws. Yes, there are examples of grotesque IRS abuse, but even the most angelic group of bureaucrats would have a hard time overseeing 70,000-plus pages of laws and regulations (by contrast, the Hong Kong flat tax, which has been in place for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages).

Second, we should remember that compliance costs are just the tip of the iceberg. The video also briefly mentions three other costs.

  1. The money we send to Washington, which is a direct cost to our pocketbooks and also an indirect cost since the money often is used to finance counterproductive programs that further damage the economy.
  2. The budgetary burden of the IRS, which is a staggering $12.5 billion. This is the money we spend to employ an army of tax bureaucrats that is larger than the CIA and FBI combined.
  3. The economic burden of the tax system, which measures the lost economic output from a tax system that penalizes productive behavior.
  4. The way to fix this mess, needless to say, is to junk the entire tax code and start all over.

    I’ve been a big proponent of the flat tax, which would mean one low tax rate, no double taxation of savings, and no corrupt loopholes. But I’m also a big fan of national sales tax proposals such as the Fair Tax, assuming we can amend the Constitution so that greedy politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and impose both an income tax and a sales tax.

    But the most important thing we need to understand is that bloated government is our main problem. If we had a limited federal government, as our Founding Fathers envisioned, it would be almost impossible to have a bad tax system. But if we continue to move in the direction of becoming a European-style welfare state, it will be impossible to have a good tax system.