Tag: crony capitalism

Frank Underwood Wants a Subsidy

House of Cards is a Netflix television series about a powerful, manipulative politician who gets what he wants with little regard for the public good. Here’s an example:

“House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey is booked to appear in Annapolis on Friday night as the fate of a tax credit that has benefited the production of his Netflix series hangs in the balance.

Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis-based lobbyist for the show, has invited the entire Maryland General Assembly to a local wine bar to meet the two-time Academy Award winner who plays the scheming Vice President Frank Underwood in the series. An invitation describes the event as “an evening of Annapolis, D.C. and Hollywood.”…

The visit is scheduled just a few days after the Senate voted to increase the amount the state can spend next year, to $18.5 million, on a tax credit that rewards movie and television production companies that choose to film in Maryland. “House of Cards” has been the biggest beneficiary in recent years.

The House of Delegates has yet to act on the bill, with about two and a half weeks remaining in this year’s 90-day legislative session in Maryland. Evans said he has been encouraged by recent meetings with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and other key delegates.

A few weeks before the second season of “House of Cards” debuted online, the show’s production company sent letters to Busch and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) making clear they could film elsewhere if the debate over the tax credit didn’t end well.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of rent-seeking, crony capitalism, and conspiracy between the rich, the famous, and the powerful against the unorganized taxpayers. A perfect House of Cards story.

The Tax Foundation has been covering film tax credits in general and the House of Cards saga in particular. The Mackinac Center has been campaigning against Michigan’s film tax credits, and Gov. Rick Snyder has tried to rein in the program. But it’s hard to beat Frank Underwood.

 

Will Republicans Make a Principled Stand Against Ex-Im Reauthorization in 2014?

Jobs are good. Exports create jobs. We create exports. Renew our charter.

Such is the essence of the marketing pitch of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, whose officials have begun ramping up their lobbying efforts ahead of a 2014 vote concerning reauthorization of the Bank’s charter, which expires in September.  Last go around, in 2012, Ex-Im ran into some unexpected turbulence when free-market think tanks, government watchdog groups, and limited government Republicans in Congress raised some compelling – but ultimately ignored – objections to reauthorization.

The ostensible purpose of the Ex-Im Bank is to assist in financing the export of U.S. goods and services to international markets. Even if that were a legitimate role of government, the public must keep a watchful eye on how much and to whom loans are made – especially given the current administration’s tendency to bet big on particular industries and specific firms, and in light of its commitment to seeing U.S. exports reach $3.14 trillion in 2014.

From the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s 2013 Annual Report:

The Ex-Im Bank’s mission is to support American jobs by facilitating the export of U.S. goods and services. The Bank provides competitive export financing and ensures a level playing field for U.S. exporters competing for sales in the global marketplace. Ex-Im Bank does not compete with private-sector lenders but provides export financing that fill gaps in trade financing. The Bank assumes credit and country risks that the private sector is unable or unwilling to accept. It also helps to level the playing field for U.S. exporters by matching the financing that other governments provide to their exporters. The Bank’s charter requires that the transactions it authorizes demonstrate reasonable assurance of repayment.

The defensive tone of this mission statement anticipates Ex-Im critics’ objections, but it certainly doesn’t answer them. The objectives of filling gaps in trade financing passed over by the private sector and expecting a reasonable assurance of repayment are mutually exclusive – unless the threshold for “reasonable assurance” is more risk-permissive than the private-sector’s most risk-permissive financing entities.  Therefore, Ex-Im is either putting taxpayer resources at risk or it is competing directly with private-sector lenders for customers in need of finance. And if the latter, then as it seeks to create the proverbial “level playing field” for the U.S. companies whose customers it finances, Ex-Im is un-leveling the playing field for the finance industry, as well as for the U.S. firms in industries that compete globally with these U.S-taxpayer financed foreign companies.

Big Business Gets Yet Another Obamacare Delay That Individuals Don’t

“I didn’t simply choose to delay this on my own,” President Obama reassured the nation about his unilateral decision to delay Obamacare’s employer mandate. “This was in consultation with businesses all across the country,” he said, as if that made the situation better instead of worse. Obama threw his “consultants” another bone when he decided to delay the reporting requirements the law imposes on employers, also until 2015. The president’s generosity toward large corporations will be financed by the American taxpayer. The Congressional Budget Office projects these delays will cost taxpayers another $3 billion in new government spending and reduce federal revenues by $9 billion, for a total increase in the federal debt of $12 billion. Yet the president fails to show the same concern for individual taxpayers. When the House of Representatives, including dozens of Democrats, voted to extend the same break to individuals by delaying Obamacare’s individual mandate by one year, President Obama threatened to veto that bill. Bizarrely, he also threatened to veto another bill (approved by an even broader bipartisan majority) that would make legal his illegal delay of the employer mandate.

So perhaps we should not be too surprised now that the New York Times reveals yet another delay the president approved at the behest of big business:

In another setback for President Obama’s health care initiative, the administration has delayed until 2015 a significant consumer protection in the law that limits how much people may have to spend on their own health care.

The limit on out-of-pocket costs, including deductibles and co-payments, was not supposed to exceed $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family. But under a little-noticed ruling, federal officials have granted a one-year grace period to some insurers, allowing them to set higher limits, or no limit at all on some costs, in 2014…

[F]ederal officials said that many insurers and employers needed more time to comply because they used separate companies to help administer major medical coverage and drug benefits, with separate limits on out-of-pocket costs…

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said: “We knew this was an important issue. We had to balance the interests of consumers with the concerns of health plan sponsors and carriers, which told us that their computer systems were not set up to aggregate all of a person’s out-of-pocket costs. They asked for more time to comply.”…

Theodore M. Thompson, a vice president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said: “The promise of out-of-pocket limits was one of the main reasons we supported health care reform. So we are disappointed that some plans will be allowed to have multiple out-of-pocket limits in 2014.”

It is a sign of Obamacare’s complexity that the Obama administration felt it needed to issue this delay. It is a further sign of the law’s complexity that this delay was announced in February, yet is only coming to light now.

Milton Friedman on Business’s ‘Suicidal Impulse’

In a Wall Street Journal column titled “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse’” (Google the title if you can’t access it), Gordon Crovitz cites Milton Friedman’s speech to a Cato Institute conference in Silicon Valley in 1999:

In 1999, economist Milton Friedman issued a warning to technology executives at a Cato Institute conference: “Is it really in the self-interest of Silicon Valley to set the government on Microsoft? Your industry, the computer industry, moves so much more rapidly than the legal process that by the time this suit is over, who knows what the shape of the industry will be? Never mind the fact that the human energy and the money that will be spent in hiring my fellow economists, as well as in other ways, would be much more productively employed in improving your products. It’s a waste!”

He predicted: “You will rue the day when you called in the government. From now on, the computer industry, which has been very fortunate in that it has been relatively free of government intrusion, will experience a continuous increase in government regulation. Antitrust very quickly becomes regulation. Here again is a case that seems to me to illustrate the suicide impulse of the business community.”

You can find the full text of Friedman’s talk here.

For more on business’s suicidal impulses, see “Why Silicon Valley Should Not Normalize Relations With Washington, D.C.” by entrepreneur T. J. Rodgers; “The Sad State of Cyber-Politics” by Adam Thierer; and my own “Apple: Too Big Not to Nail.”

French President Demands and Gets Firing of Opposition Editor

According to the New York Times, French Socialist president François Hollande demanded and received the dismissal of the editor of Le Figaro, the country’s leading conservative newspaper. If that sounds impossibly high-handed, consider the background, as reported in the Times:

The publisher, Serge Dassault, is a senator from [ousted President Nicolas] Sarkozy’s political party [and thus opposed to Hollande]. But Mr. Dassault also heads a major military contractor, and there was widespread speculation that [Figaro editor Étienne] Mougeotte’s ouster was meant to put the Dassault group in good stead with the new president.

For an American reader, it would be natural to turn the page with a murmur of thanks that such things don’t go on in our country. Don’t be so sure:

[Since-convicted Illinois Gov. Rod] Blagojevich, Harris and others are also alleged [in the federal indictment] to have withheld state assistance to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of Wrigley Field. The statement says this was done to induce the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members who were critical of Blagojevich.

And in 1987, at the secret behest of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) inserted a legislative rider aimed at preventing Rupert Murdoch from simultaneously owning broadcast and newspaper properties in Boston and New York. The idea was to force him to sell the Boston Herald, the most persistent editorial voice criticizing Kennedy in his home state. Kennedy’s and Hollings’s actions drew criticism in places like the Harvard Crimson and from syndicated columnist R. Emmett Tyrrell, but no national furor developed.

One moral is that we cannot expect our First Amendment to do the whole job of protecting freedom of the press. Yes, it repels some kinds of incursions against press liberty, but it does not by its nature ward off the danger of entanglement between publishers and closely regulated industries, stadium operators, and others dependent on state sufferance. That’s one reason there’s such a difference in practice between a relatively free economy, where most lines of business do not require cultivating the good will of the state, and an economy deeply penetrated by government direction, in which nearly everyone is subject to (often implicit) pressure from the authorities. France has been unable to avoid the perils of the latter sort of economy. Can we?

21st Century U.S. Trade Policy Should be Pro-Market, not Pro-Business, Pro-Labor, or Pro-Lobbyist

The difference between the trade policy we have today and the trade policy we should have is like the difference between crony capitalism and free-market capitalism. The sausage grinder that is U.S. trade policy serves politicians and rewards lobbyists and gate-keeper bureaucrats, who have the gall to presume entitlement to limiting Americans’ options and picking winners and losers.

In a country that exalts freedom, the default trade policy should be free trade. But it’s not. Why?

The public has been trained to accept that special interests—companies seeking exemptions from competition; unions demanding that citizens ”Buy American”; investors and intellectual property holders demanding the U.S. public assume part of its business risks; enviros insisting on measures that punish developing countries for being poor—are rightly entitled to negotiate, abridge, impair, or sacrifice those freedoms in the name of Team USA.

So how are we free if decisions about how, with whom, and how much we transact with foreigners are decided by parties in Washington, who profit from denying us that freedom?

Trade policy should be about maximizing the freedom of Americans to choose, and distinctly not about bestowing certain advantages on particular companies, industries, or special interests. Trade policy should be about maximizing opportunities for Americans as consumers, workers, and investors, and not about impeding those opportunities.

In a globalized world where businesses are mobile and, ultimately, untethered to a homeland, what is the point of policymakers going to bat for U.S. producers? Usually, policies adopted to assist particular companies or industries handicap or subvert companies and industries upstream or downstream in the supply chain, or in other sectors. What even defines a U.S. producer anymore? GM builds more vehicles in China than it does in the United States.  Should Washington and Beijing both claim GM as national treasures and craft policy to serve its needs?

No. Policy should be neutral with respect to the goals of particular companies and industries, and designed to attract investment and human capital, and to maximize opportunities for Americans to partake of the global economy. Trade policy should be about ensuring certainty and eliminating policy-induced frictions in supply chains. As I wrote in this article (21st Century Economy Deserves Better Than 16th Century Trade Policies), which expounds upon the thoughts in this post:

This 21st century economic reality demands better than trade policies rooted in 16th century mercantilist dogma. It demands policies that are welcoming of imports and foreign investment, and that minimise regulations or administrative frictions that are based on misconceptions about some vague or ill-defined “national interest”.

Political Support for Energy’s Loan Guarantees

Several weeks ago, 127 House Republicans joined 155 Democrats to defeat an amendment introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) that would have shut down the Department of Energy’s Title 17 loan guarantee program. That’s the program that gave birth to Solyndra, which has come to symbolize the failure of the Obama administration’s crony capitalist policies.

Why would members of Congress, and Republicans in particular, continue to support this federal boondoggle incubator? A new paper from Cato adjunct scholar Veronique de Rugy that looks at the Energy loan guarantees explains:

One reason is it serves three powerful constituencies: lawmakers, bankers, and the companies that receive the subsidized loans. Politicians are able to use loan programs to reward interest groups while hiding the costs. Congress can approve billions of dollars in loan guarantees with little or no impact to the appropriations or deficit because they are almost entirely off-budget. Moreover, unlike the Solyndra case, most failures take years to occur, allowing politicians to collect the rewards of granting a loan to a special interest while skirting political blame years later when or if the project defaults. It’s like buying a house on credit without having a trace of the transaction on your credit report.

Veronique notes that most of the money for the loan guarantees issued under section 1705 of Title 17 have gone to large and established companies:

These include established utility firms, large multinational manufacturers, and a global real estate investment fund. In addition, the data shows that nearly 90 percent of the loans guaranteed by the federal government since 2009 went to subsidize lower-risk power plants, which in many cases were backed by big companies with vast resources. This includes loans such as the $90 million guarantee granted to Cogentrix, a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. Currently, Goldman Sachs ranks number 80 on the list of America’s Fortune 500 companies.

In recent testimony before the House Budget Committee, Chris Edwards and I also discussed the crony nature of the president’s “green” energy subsidies:

President Obama’s green energy programs illustrate how corporate welfare creates corrupting relationships between businesses and politicians. The Washington Post found that “$3.9 billion in federal [energy] grants and financing flowed to 21 companies backed by firms with connections to five Obama administration staffers and advisers.” It also noted that the “main players in the Solyndra saga were interconnected in many ways, as investors enjoyed access to the White House and the Energy Department.” According to the New York Times, Solyndra “spent nearly $1.8 million on Washington lobbyists, employing six firms with ties to members of Congress and officials of the Obama White House.”

American businesses, of course, have a right to lobby the federal government. But given that reality, Congress throws fuel onto the corruption fire by creating business subsidy programs. When subsidy money flows out the door from Washington to businesses at the same time that money flows back from businesses to Washington for lobbying, it’s no surprise that we get influence-peddling. Corporate welfare undermines honest and transparent governance, and Americans are sick and tired of the inevitable scandals.

Unfortunately, most members of Congress apparently aren’t sick and tired of it.