Tag: corruption

Lessons in Crony Capitalism

From this week’s Washington Post:

Afghanistan’s Central Bank has taken control of the country’s biggest and most politically potent private bank and ordered its chairman to hand over $160 million worth of luxury villas and other real estate purchased in Dubai for well-connected insiders, according to Afghan bankers and officials.

Farther down the page the article continues:

Kabul Bank previously had been shielded by the political clout of its shareholders who, in addition to Mahmoud Karzai [President Hamid Karzai’s brother, who partly owns Kabul Bank], include Haseen Fahim, the brother of Vice President Mohammed Fahim.

If this hostile takeover wasn’t questionable enough, the article goes on to report:

Kabul Bank’s biggest creditor, bank insiders said, is Haseen Fahim, a minority shareholder, who borrowed tens of millions of dollars to fund various business ventures, which in turn won contracts at U.S. bases and sites in Afghanistan operated by the CIA.

So, in an effort to stamp out corruption, which U.S. officials have prodded Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to do, he orders his Central Bank to take managing control of the country’s largest private bank, which, I might add, “also contributed to President Karzai’s reelection campaign last year.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, the above-cited transaction sounds like a stark lesson in crony capitalism: an allegedly capitalist economy based on close relationships between politically connected business figures and the state. This U.S.-led nation-building charade in Afghanistan sounds eerily reminiscent of the state-controlled corruption surrounding Afghanistan’s mineral mining laws:

“Article 4: Ownership of Minerals

(1) All naturally occurring Minerals and all Artificial Deposits of Minerals on surface or subsurface of the territory of Afghanistan or in its water courses (rivers and streams) are the exclusive property of the State.”

Well, it’s nice to see that we are exporting our system around the world!

Are These Examples of Washington Corruption?

The “appearance of impropriety” is often considered the Washington standard for corruption and misbehavior. With that in mind, alarm bells began ringing in my head when I read this Washington Times report about Jacob Lew, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. A snippet:

President Obama’s choice to be the government’s chief budget officer received a bonus of more than $900,000 from Citigroup Inc. last year — after the Wall Street firm for which he worked received a massive taxpayer bailout. The money was paid to Jacob Lew in January 2009, about two weeks before he joined the State Department as deputy secretary of state, according to a newly filed ethics form. The payout came on top of the already hefty $1.1 million Citigroup compensation package for 2008 that he reported last year. Administration officials and members of Congress last year expressed outrage that executives at other bailed-out firms, such as American International Group Inc., awarded bonuses to top executives. State Department officials at the time steadfastly refused to say if Mr. Lew received a post-bailout bonus from Citigroup in response to inquiries from The Washington Times. But Mr. Lew’s latest financial disclosure report, provided by the State Department on Wednesday, makes clear that he did receive a significant windfall. …The records show that Mr. Lew received the $944,578 payment four days after he filed his 2008 ethics disclosure.

Why did Citigroup decide to hire Lew, a career DC political operator, for $1.1 million? As a former political aide, lobbyist, lawyer, and political appointee, what particular talents did he have to justify that salary to manage an investment division? Did the presence of Lew (as well as other Washington insiders such as Robert Rubin) help Citigroup get a big bucket of money from taxpayers as part of the TARP bailout? Did Lew’s big $900K in 2009 have anything to do with the money the bank got from taxpayers? Is it a bit suspicious that he received his big windfall bonus four days after filing a financial disclosure?

See if you can draw any conclusion other than this was a typical example of the sleazy relationship of big government and big business.

Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, let’s now look at another story featuring Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Republican and his former aides have a nice relationship that means more campaign cash for him, lucrative fees for them, and lots of our tax dollars being diverted to such recipients as the state’s university system. Here are some of the sordid details:

Since 2008, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has steered more than $250 million in earmarks to beneficiaries whose lobbyists used to work in his Senate office — including millions for Alabama universities represented by a former top staffer. In a mix of revolving-door and campaign finance politics, the same organizations that have enjoyed Shelby’s earmarks have seen their lobbyists and employees contribute nearly $1 million to Shelby’s campaign and political action committee since 1999, according to federal records. …Shelby’s earmarking doesn’t appear to run afoul of Senate rules or federal ethics laws. But critics said his tactics are part of a Washington culture in which lawmakers direct money back home to narrow interests, which, in turn, hire well-connected lobbyists — often former congressional aides — who enjoy special access on Capitol Hill.

Some people think the answer to such shenanigans is more ethics laws, corruption laws, and campaign-finance laws, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Besides, it is quite likely that no laws were broken, either by Lew, Citigroup, Shelby, or his former aides. This is just the way Washington works, and the beneficiaries are the insiders who know how to milk the system. The only way to actually reduce both legal and illegal corruption in Washington is to shrink the size of government. The sleaze will not go away until politicians have less ability to steer our money to special interests — whether they are Wall Street banks or Alabama universities. This video elaborates:

The Sleazy Combination of Big Business and Big Government

There’s an article today in the Wall Street Journal showing how already-established companies and their union allies will use the coercive power of government to thwart competition. The article specifically discusses efforts by less competitive supermarkets to block new Wal-Mart stores. Not that Wal-Mart can complain too vociferously. After all, this is the company that endorsed a key provision of Obamacare in hopes its hurting lower-cost competitors. The moral of the story is that whenever big business and big government get in bed together, you can be sure the outcome almost always is bad for taxpayers and consumers.

A grocery chain with nine stores in the area had hired Saint Consulting Group to secretly run the antidevelopment campaign. Saint is a specialist at fighting proposed Wal-Marts, and it uses tactics it describes as “black arts.” As Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has grown into the largest grocery seller in the U.S., similar battles have played out in hundreds of towns like Mundelein. Local activists and union groups have been the public face of much of the resistance. But in scores of cases, large supermarket chains including Supervalu Inc., Safeway Inc. and Ahold NV have retained Saint Consulting to block Wal-Mart, according to hundreds of pages of Saint documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with former employees. …Supermarkets that have funded campaigns to stop Wal-Mart are concerned about having to match the retailing giant’s low prices lest they lose market share. …In many cases, the pitched battles have more than doubled the amount of time it takes Wal-Mart to open a store, says a person close to the company. … For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a Saint manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees. They flood local politicians with calls, using multiple phones to make it appear that the calls are coming from different people, the former employees say. …Former Saint workers say the union sometimes pays a portion of Saint’s fees. “The work we’ve funded Saint to do to preserve our market share and our jobs is within our First Amendment rights,” says Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Safeway declined to comment. …Mr. Saint says there is nothing illegal about a company trying to derail a competitor’s project. Companies have legal protection under the First Amendment for using a government or legal process to thwart competition, even if they do so secretly, he says.

Krugman and Libertarianism and Political Power

Paul Krugman has a post today titled “Why Libertarianism Doesn’t Work, Part N.” Maybe parts A-M were compelling, but it seems like there’s a big flaw in his logic today. Here’s the entire item:

Thinking about BP and the Gulf: in this old interview, Milton Friedman says that there’s no need for product safety regulation, because corporations know that if they do harm they’ll be sued.

Interviewer: So tort law takes care of a lot of this ..

Friedman: Absolutely, absolutely.

Meanwhile, in the real world:

In the wake of last month’s catastrophic Gulf Coast oil spill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski blocked a bill that would have raised the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion. The Republican lawmaker said the bill, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would have unfairly hurt smaller oil companies by raising the costs of oil production. The legislation is “not where we need to be right now” she said.

And don’t say that we just need better politicians. If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.

Well, he’s got a point. Politicians do interfere in the tort system — by placing caps on liability, by stripping defendants of traditional legal defenses, and in other ways. As my colleague Aaron Powell notes, the problem here is that politicians have power that libertarians wouldn’t grant them. And:

Second, and more troubling for Krugman, is his admission that all politicians are corruptible. If that’s true (and it almost certainly is), then what does it say about Krugman’s constant calls for granting those same corruptible folks more power over our lives? Surely if Murkowski is corrupt enough to protect BP from tort damages, she’s corrupt enough to rig safety regulations in BP’s favor.

The libertarian system of markets and property rights is impeded when politicians interfere in it. But Krugman’s ideal system is that politicians should decide all questions — monetary policy, health care policy, product safety, environmental tradeoffs, you name it. Whose system is more likely to produce corrupt politicians, and more likely to fail because of them?

New Video Exposes Nightmare of IRS Complexity

My former intern, Hiwa Alaghebandian, has just narrated a new Economics 101 video about the cost of the tax code. I won’t spoil the surprise by giving the details, but you if you’re not angry now, you will be after watching.

In the video, Ms. Alaghebandian notes that a study from 1996 (back when the tax code was not nearly as complex) estimated that a flat tax would reduce the compliance burden of the income tax by 94 percent. In my video on the flat tax, I mostly focused on how a single-rate, consumption-base system would boost growth and competitiveness, but simplicity also would be a remarkable achievement. Not only would real tax reform reduce compliance costs by hundreds of billions of dollars, it would also put a big dent in the corrupt practice of distorting economic choices with deductions, exemptions, credits, preferences, shelters, and other loopholes. That’s a profitable game for politicians and lobbyists, but the rest of us pay the price because the tax code is even more of a nightmare.

There is also an under-appreciated connection between simplicity and fairness. My colleague Will Wilkinson sagely observed that “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.” The tax code is a good example. Many leftists want the tax system to penalize success with high tax rates. I’ve explained why this is economically misguided in a video on class-warfare tax policy, but it’s also worth pointing out that a simple and fair tax system like the flat tax makes it much more difficult for the well-connected to take advantage of complexity. Simply stated, the tax system should not punish the rich with high rates (notwithstanding the neurotic views of self-loathing trust-fund heirs), and it shouldn’t reward them with special deals.

The good news is that we know the policies that will fix the current system. The bad news is that politicians keep making the system worse. Putting the IRS in charge of enforcing key parts of Obamacare is just the latest example of why America needs a tax revolt.

A Columnist Sentenced to Three Years in Prison in Ecuador

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has long labeled the free press as his “main enemy.” His attitude has unfortunately resulted in official intolerance of individuals critical of the government.

The latest example is that of Emilio Palacio, the editor of the op-ed page of El Universo – the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country – who was sentenced on Friday to three years in jail for an op-ed he wrote in August 2009. Palacio accused Camilo Samán, director of a state-owned bank, of having sent protesters to El Universo’s offices after the newspaper reported on possible acts of corruption at the bank. The President has repeatedly stated that Palacio should be punished for what he wrote. In a country where everybody knows that the courts are not independent of political power, it’s not surprising that the ruling went against the editor.

I have known Palacio since I began writing op-eds for El Universo in late 2006. Although we hardly ever agree on policy issues, I certainly don’t believe he (or anyone else) deserves to go to jail (and possibly pay a fine of $3 million) for expressing an opinion. (The court actually found Palacio guilty of libel, but even if we were to agree with that finding, the punishment surely does not fit the crime.)

Correa’s government has accused at least 31 people of offending “the majesty of the presidency,” jailing many of them for short periods of time. To do so, the President revived a law that the first military dictatorship of the 1970s put into place that made such an offense a crime and that was never taken off the books.

The government regularly vilifies its critics including journalists, university students, businessmen, and indigenous leaders. For example, during his weekly national radio shows, the President has attacked Carlos Vera and Jorge Ortiz, the two most popular news anchors in the country. The government’s frequent nationally televised messages (that every TV station on public airwaves is forced to broadcast) usually have the sole purpose of attacking a person or group that opposes official policy. Sometimes these messages were broadcast during Vera’s and Ortiz’s programs, thereby keeping their viewers from watching them. In 2008 Correa took over several privately owned TV and radio stations. Last year, he apparently had his eyes set on Teleamazonas, another TV station on public airwaves. In December, the government shut down Teleamazonas for three days and now has a frivolous legal case pending against it.

Sadly, Correa is following the pattern of his fellow populist Hugo Chávez in curtailing freedom of speech, though receiving virtually no international scrutiny.

The Flat Tax: Good for America, Bad for Washington

America’s biggest fiscal challenge is excessive government spending. The public sector is far too large today and it is projected to get much bigger in coming decades. But the corrupt and punitive internal revenue code is second on the list of fiscal problems. This new video, narrated by yours truly, explains how a flat tax would work and why it would promote growth and fairness. Something to keep in mind with tax day in just a couple of weeks.

There are two big hurdles that must be overcome to achieve tax reform. The first obstacle is that the class-warfare crowd wants the tax code to penalize success with high tax rates. That issue is addressed in the video in a couple of ways. I explain that fairness should be defined as treating all people equally, and I also point out that upper-income taxpayers are far more likely to benefit from all the deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, and other loopholes in the tax code. The second obstacle, which is more of an inside-the-beltway issue, is that the current tax system is very rewarding for the iron triangle of lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats (or maybe iron rectangle if we include the tax preparation industry). There are tens of thousands of people who make very generous salaries precisely because the tax code is a playground for corrupt deal making. A flat tax for these folks would be like kryptonite for Superman. But more than two dozen nations around the world have implemented a flat tax, so hope springs eternal.