Tag: Local Government

Turning New York City into Detroit?

I recently speculated whether Detroit’s fiscal problems should be a warning sign for the crowd in Washington.

The answer, of course, is yes, though it’s not a perfect analogy. The federal government is in deep trouble because of unsustainable entitlement programs while Detroit got in trouble because of a combination of too much compensation for bureaucrats and too many taxpayers escaping the city.

A better analogy might be to compare Detroit to other local governments. Some large cities in California already have declared bankruptcy, for instance, and you can find the same pattern of overcompensated bureaucrats and escaping taxpayers.

And the same thing may happen to New York City if the next mayor is successful in pushing for more class-warfare tax policy. Here are some excerpts from an excellent New York Post column by Nicole Gelinas:

Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio…thinks New York can hike taxes on the rich and not suffer… De Blasio’s scheme is this: Hike income taxes by 13.8 percent on New Yorkers making above half a million dollars annually….After five years, de Blasio would let this tax surcharge lapse, and — he says — find another way to pay.

But there’s a big problem with de Blasio’s plan. Rich people are not fatted calves meekly awaiting slaughter.

In 2009, the top 1 percent of taxpayers (the 34,598 households making above $493,439 annually) paid 43.2 percent of city income taxes (they made 33.9 percent of income), according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Each of these families paid an average $75,477. No, most people won’t up and leave (though if 20 percent did, they’d leave New York with less money than before the tax hike). But they can rearrange their incomes. Unlike most of us, folks making, say, $10 million have considerable control over how and when they get paid. That’s because much of their money comes from cashing out a partnership, or selling stock or a house or a painting. To avoid a tax hike, it’s easy enough for them to pay themselves earlier by selling their stuff earlier — before the tax hike. The city made $800 million in extra taxes last year because rich people sold their stuff before President Obama increased investment taxes in December. Or, people can pay themselves later — after the five years’ worth of higher taxes are up.

Gelinas makes some very important points. She warns that the city would have less money if just 20 percent of rich people escaped. She doesn’t think that will happen, but she does explain that rich people can stay but take some simple steps to reduce their taxable income.

Renters Have Privacy and Property Rights Too

Cato legal associate Sophie Cole co-authored this blog post.

A person’s home is his castle and thus affords certain protections and immunities — including the right to exclude unwanted visitors — that apply whether you own or rent.

Unfortunately, ordinances authorizing general administrative searches of rental properties have been increasingly adopted by local authorities with little protection for privacy interests. These inspections reach the whole of the buildings and all of the activity that occurs within, opening up every aspect of people’s lives to the government: political and religious affiliations, intimate relationships, and even all those Justin Bieber posters and Fifty Shades of Gray books you hide when people come over.

For the past five years, the city of Red Wing, Minnesota, has been enforcing such a rental property inspection program whereby landlords and tenants must routinely open their doors to government agents. These searches take place even if both the landlord and tenant believe it not to be necessary. The owner of the property even has to pay a fee for the unwanted search to receive a rental license!

The city sometimes makes initial requests for consent, but these are mere courtesy because the city proceeds with an administrative warrant in the event of a refusal — without a showing of probable cause to believe there’s a housing code violation or other problem. The inspection ordinance doesn’t even attempt to prevent the disclosure of information revealed during the search; the whole neighborhood may find out that you have five different facial cleansers and an unusual amount of apple sauce.

A group of landlords and tenants have thus challenged the inspection program, arguing that several alternatives are available to meet what legitimate interests local governments have. They successfully opposed three applications made for administrative warrants and now seek a court order that the rental inspection ordinance is unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has read the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as not prohibiting such legislation, but of course states are free to offer more protection for individual rights. The Red Wing plaintiffs have thus invoked Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution, which contains language similar to the federal Fourth Amendment.

Cato has joined the Reason Foundation, Libertarian Law Council, Minnesota Free Market Institute at the Center of the American Experiment, and Electronic Frontier Foundation in filing an amicus brief urging the Minnesota Supreme Court to take the Red Wing case and confirm that no Minnesotan should be subjected to an intrusive invasion of privacy when there has been no showing of some cognizable public health or safety issue within the home subject to inspection.

The Minnesota Supreme Court should be the first to decide that its state’s constitution provides greater protections against warrantless home inspections than even the Fourth Amendment (as construed by the U.S. Supreme Court). No other state judiciary has substantively ruled on constitutional protections against administrative searches in residential contexts, so this case presents an opportunity to set a benchmark for liberty.

The Minnesota Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case of McCaughtrey v. City of Red Winglater this fall.

George Leventhal Should Teach Paul Krugman about Public Finance and the Economics of Taxation

Montgomery County in Maryland is not exactly a hotbed of free market thinking or a bastion of limited government.

It’s one of the richest counties in the nation, but not because of entrepreneurship and wealth creation. Instead, it’s a bedroom community filled with over-paid bureaucrats, corrupt lobbyists, fat-cat contractors, and other ne’er-do-wells who commute into Washington and live off the blood, sweat, and tears of people in the economy’s productive sector.

To give you an idea of its political leanings, Obama won 72 percent of the vote in Montgomery County in 2008 and all nine members of the County Council are Democrats.

So you wouldn’t think this is a place where lawmakers ever have anything sensible to say about tax policy. But, lo and behold, one Councilman recognizes that there’s no Berlin Wall surrounding the County. As such, higher tax rates may not generated additional tax revenue if people vote with their feet.

You can listen to George Leventhal by clicking here, but here’s the relevant quote.

We may be reaching a tipping point with tax rates. There’s a point beyond which you can keep raising the tax rates, but you won’t get more revenue because if people leave the county or if new businesses don’t start you’re not getting new revenue.

For the uninitiated, Leventhal is talking about…gasp…the Laffer Curve.

Folks like Paul Krugman would like you to believe that the Laffer Curve is a twisted fantasy concocted by stooges for the rich. He writes that it is “junk economics” to consider the relationship between tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue.

In the real world, though, at least some left-leaning lawmakers realize that higher tax rates backfire if the geese that lay the golden eggs fly away (as has happened in Italy, France, and the United Kingdom).

Maybe we can take up a collection and hire Mr. Leventhal to do a bit of economics tutoring for a certain Nobel laureate?

P.S. Just in case you’re not convinced by the experiences of a local politician, there is lots of empirical evidence for the Laffer Curve.

Did Canada Steal Our Tenth Amendment?

Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government was assigned specific limited powers, and most government functions were left to the states. To ensure that people understood the limits on federal power, the Framers added the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Those delegated powers are “few and defined,” noted James Madison.

But the Tenth Amendment has disappeared. No one has seen it in recent decades. But I’ve found some statistics that make me very suspicious that the Canadians stole the Tenth. Look at the pie charts below. The top pie shows that 71 percent of total government spending in the United States is federal, while 29 percent is state/local. (See BEA tables 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 for 2010 data).

Back when we still had the Tenth, that ratio was the other way around—like how the bottom chart looks for Canada today. In Canada, federal spending accounts for just 38 percent of total government spending, while provincial/local spending accounts for 62 percent. (See Canada Yearbook for 2010/11 data.)

Actually, the real culprit for the missing Tenth is not the Canadians, but the U.S. Congress. In recent decades, Congress has undertaken many activities that were traditionally reserved to state and local governments. A primary method has been through “grants-in-aid.” These are federal subsidies combined with regulatory controls that micromanage state and local affairs. In United States, federal grants are about 4.1 percent of GDP (in fiscal 2011), while in Canada they are about 3.3 percent of GDP.

Even more striking: while we’ve got a complex mess of more than 1,000 state grant programs, Canada seems to have just a handful, and they are simple block grants. As I understand it, Canada’s federal grants to lower governments mainly just include:

  • A health care block grant
  • A social services block grant
  • An “equalization” block grant to help the poor provinces.

There is a smattering of other aid, but that’s just about it. There are no federal subsidies for K-12 education in Canada, for example. There are a few large block grants and not much else.

On October 27, I’m on an Urban/Brookings panel looking at “What Can the United States Learn from Canada.” Perhaps we can learn how to get our decentralized federation back. While we’re at it, we could get some tips on how to cut government spending, as the Canadians did in the 1990s.

Local Government Stupidity Contest

This post could be entitled, “So many bad decisions, so little time,” but let’s have some fun and turn it into a contest. Which bone-headed decision by a local government best exemplifies mindless bureaucracy, politically correct nonsense, and government waste?

Contestant Number One is an officer of the Baltimore County Natural Resources Police, who fined two men $90 each for the vicious, horrible, nasty crime of … (please don’t faint) … rescuing a deer. Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. Two hardened criminals used an inflatable raft to free a helpless animal, but they flouted the law by not wearing life jackets. Since I already did a blog post about a man being fined for rescuing a wounded deer, I guess the moral of the story is that bureaucrats don’t like Bambi.

Contestant Number Two is the Metro Police in Washington, DC, which has decided to harass random travelers by searching their bags before they board the subway. This is akin to the TSA’s mindless bureaucracy - but even worse. There surely are nut-jobs who would like to blow up Americans, but they could do that on a bus, on a crowded street during rush hour, or any other place where a large number of people are gathered. Heck, they can drive a car into a crowd. Good intelligence by the CIA and FBI is the way to stop these crackpots, not empty security theater that makes life more difficult for law-abiding people.

Contestant Number Three is the St. Paul School District in Minnesota, which has turned all schools into “sweet-free zones.” This ban also applies to salty foods, however that is defined, and deals “a blow to booster clubs and parent organizations, too, which won’t be able to sell hot chocolate, doughnuts, candy bars and cookies at school events.” I actually agree with Michelle Obama that American kids are overweight, but I also know that government intervention isn’t going to solve the problem unless we want a police state that bans video games, TVs, computers, and the other technological developments that are responsible for sedentary kids.

Contestant Number Four is Battlefield High School, in Haymarket, VA, which disciplined 10 unrepentant gang members. What did these thugs do to warrant detention? Brace yourself and make sure no children are looking over your shoulders, because these hoodlums belong to a particularly nasty group called the Christmas Sweater Club and they got in trouble for handing out miniature candy canes. One school administrator (Mrs. Grinch?)  explained that “not everyone wants Christmas cheer,” thus turning Jay Leno’s parody into reality.

So who wins the prize? The only thing we can really conclude is that governments do dumb things. That’s true at the national level, the state level, and the local level.

I just wish I could write like Dave Barry. He had a hilarious column many years ago that was based on various examples of government stupidity. This post is more likely to make you cry rather than laugh, which is not good at this time of year.

Giving Cops Bad Incentives to Harass Victimless Behavior

The Washington Post has an interesting report about the huge amount of money that Fairfax County spends to go after gambling. The story cites critics who ask “why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. The answer is obvious – and explicit in the story: “…police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases.” In other words, harassing the gambling business is a profit-making endeavor for police. And it also can be deadly since cops killed an optometrist during a SWAT arrest. The Institute for Justice has a powerful video on the dangers of “policing for profit,” and Fairfax County is just one bad example of how this lures cops into misallocating resources to fight behaviors that shouldn’t even be illegal.

It’s football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. …It’s a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent – and lost – more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates. …Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. …Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation. “What a waste,” said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. “The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes.” Fairfax’s most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi – and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him. …Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said. …One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts.