Tag: corruption

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.

Another Day in the Life of the IRS

A previous post of mine at International Liberty addressed the debate over whether Republicans should trim the IRS’s budget. The following case study should convince everyone that the answer is a resounding yes.

First, some background from a Joe Nocera column in the New York Times. The federal government made a rather troubling decision a few years ago to investigate, prosecute, and ultimately imprison a random home-loan borrower named Charlie Engle for the crime of mortgage fraud.

Mr. Engle is far from blameless in this saga, but I noted in another post that it was rather odd that the government would target a nobody while letting all the big fish swim away. This episode certainly paints a picture of a government that has one set of rules for ordinary people, but an entirely different set of rules for the political elite and those who make big campaign contributions to that ruling class.

But I also noted that I’m not a lawyer or legal expert and was unsure about the degree to which the big players actually broke laws, or whether they simply made stupid business decisions (often encouraged by bad government policy).

The most upsetting part of the story, though, is how the government wound up targeting Mr. Engle. It turns out that an IRS agent, Robert Norlander, must have been competing for the IRS’s Bully-of-the-Year Award because here are some of the things he did:

  • Norlander decided to snoop into Engle’s affairs because he saw a film about him training for a marathon. In other words, there was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, nothing. Just the perverse decision of an IRS bully to go after someone.
  • Norlander admitted a pattern of thuggish behavior, stating that he will snoop into someone’s private life simply because that person drives an expensive car.
  • Norlander continued to investigate and persecute Engle, subjecting him to undercover surveillance, even though his tax returns showed no wrongdoing.
  • Norlander even engaged in “dumpster dives” to look for evidence of wrongdoing in Mr. Engle’s garbage. Keep in mind that there is no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, and Engle’s tax returns were legit.
  • Norlander used a sleazy KGB tactic by sending an attractive woman to flirt with Mr. Engle in hopes of getting him to somehow admit to a crime.
  • Norlander failed to find any evidence of a tax crime. He couldn’t even hit Engle with a money-laundering offense. But the undercover agent who was part of the “honey trap” was wearing a wire and supposedly got Engle to admit to mortgage fraud and Norlander used that extremely flimsy evidence to justify a Justice Department case against Engle.

In other words, this whole thing has a terrible stench. Assuming the details in the story are accurate, we have an IRS agent engaging in a random vendetta against someone, and then apparently justifying his jihad by figuring out how to nail the guy on a very weak charge of mortgage fraud. I would describe Norlander as a “rogue agent,” but apparently this behavior is business-as-usual at the IRS.

Here are the relevant passages from Nocera’s column:

Mr. Engle received $30,000 for his participation. The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.) Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly. In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments. …Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire. …No tax charges were ever brought, even though that was Mr. Nordlander’s original rationale. Money laundering, the suspicion of which was needed to justify the undercover sting, was a nonissue as well. As for that “confession” to Ms. Burrows, take a closer look. It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.

Stories like this explain why I’m a libertarian.

As George Washington supposedly said, ”Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Unfortunately, thanks to bad laws and thuggish bureaucrats, government is definitely now our master and no longer just a servant. The IRS is a grim example of this phenomenon. President Obama, not surprisingly, wants to increase their budget.

A Routine, Run-of-the-Mill Half-Billion-Dollar Corruption Story

It may be Michael Kinsley who first said that the scandal in Washington is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal. Maybe a corollary is that the scandal is what people don’t even notice when it’s exposed. The Washington Post splashed a huge story of corruption across the front page of its Sunday Business section. The pull quote in the center read

A D.C. lawyer and her associates secured $500 million in federal contracts to benefit Alaska native corporations. Less than one percent made it back to Alaska.

And so far this impressive story by Robert O’Harrow Jr. has generated 4 comments, 7 tweets, 11 “likes” on Facebook, and only one other blog post that I can find. Are we so jaded that a full-page investigation of self-dealing and corruption involving affirmative action, small business, defense contracting, and complicated financial maneuvers just doesn’t get our juices flowing? And if one diligent reporter, who obviously spent a lot of time on this story, could find this much fraud by one well-connected contractor, how much could a hundred reporters find? I generally don’t think that “waste, fraud, and abuse” is the key to cutting federal spending; you have to go after the big programs, like transfer payments and military spending. But as Everett Dirksen almost said, $500 million here, $500 million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. So let me just turn the floor over to O’Harrow to tell you what he found:

For years as a lawyer in Washington, Paralee White had helped small and disadvantaged firms break into the federal contracting market.

Then she decided to help herself.

She started a business and was soon making more than $500,000 a year through a contracting program intended to help poor Alaska natives, even though she isn’t an Alaska native.

White also helped her family. She hired her sister and brother, paying them as much as $280,000 a year. She helped her sister’s boyfriend set up his own firm in partnership with Alaska natives. He made more than $500,000 a year.

White’s story offers a look at how Washington insiders can make fortunes from government programs intended to benefit small, disadvantaged and minority entrepreneurs. It also illustrates how government officials who are supposed to keep tabs on these programs often fail to do so.

White’s native partners eventually accused her and her siblings of fraud and self-dealing, saying they were paid more than the rules allowed and hid the transactions from the government. The allegations spilled out in a civil lawsuit in Alaska, and the case was quickly settled.

Although officials at the Small Business Administration say they knew about the dispute, the U.S. government has taken no action.

Over several years, White and her associates landed more than $500 million in construction contracts for the Navy and other Pentagon departments, nearly all of them through an SBA program aimed at boosting Alaska native corporations. But less than 1 percent of that money made it back to the native-owned corporations, a Washington Post investigation found.

Government officials say they were not monitoring the contracts for compliance with the rules to ensure that the natives were doing a significant portion of the work and receiving the correct share of the revenue.

In statements, Navy and Air Force officials said that responsibility fell to the SBA. But SBA spokeswoman Hayley Meadvin said her agency long ago transferred that authority to the Pentagon and other agencies.

White, 59, declined to answer questions about the contracts. In e-mails, she said the questions involve “events several years in the past and I don’t have the files or time to research or reflect on them sufficiently to give you accurate information.”

There’s more, much more. Read it all.

Tax Lawyers, Tax Complexity, and the Broader Problem of a Self-Serving Legal Profession

The Internal Revenue Code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most qoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior - whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group - including lawyers - to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.