Tag: politics

Be Thankful for “Diminished Productivity” in Washington

Let’s do a simple thought experiment and answer the following question: Do you think that additional laws from Washington will give you more freedom and more prosperity?

I don’t know how you will answer, but I strongly suspect most Americans will say “no.” Indeed, they’ll probably augment their “no” answers with a few words that wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat in polite company.

That’s because taxpayers instinctively understand that more activity in Washington usually translates into bigger and more expensive government. And big government isn’t so fun for those who pay the bills and incur the costs.

So what’s the purpose of our thought experiment? Well, new numbers have been released showing that the current Congress is going to set a modern-era record for imposing the fewest new laws.

But while most of us think this is probably good news, Washington insiders are whining and complaining about “diminished productivity” in Congress. The Washington Post is very disappointed that lawmakers aren’t enacting more taxes, more spending, and more regulation.

…this Congress — which is set to adjourn for the year later this month — has enacted 52 public laws. By comparison, …90 laws were encated during the first year of the 113th Congress and 137 were put in place during the first year of the 111th Congress.

Just in case you don’t have a beltway mindset, another Washington Post report also tells you that fewer laws is a bad thing.

…whatever gets done in December will still be part of a year with record-low congressional accomplishment. …According to congressional records, there have been fewer than 60 public laws enacted in the first 11 months of this year, so below the previous low in legislative output that officials have already declared this first session of the 113th Congress the least productive ever.

Let’s actually look at some evidence. The first session of the current Congress may have been the “least productive” in history when it comes to imposing new laws, but what’s the actual result?

Immigrant Attitudes toward Libertarian Values

A recent paper by psychology Professor Hal Pashler of UCSD analyzes General Social Survey (GSS) data and finds that immigrants are less libertarian than the U.S.-born.  This is an interesting paper and professor Pashler notes the many limitations of his findings – mainly that the GSS doesn’t ask many questions that are good barometers of libertarian ideology.  But that hasn’t stopped non-libertarian immigration opponents from using the paper’s conclusion to try and convince libertarians to oppose immigration reform: “With increasing proportions of the US population being foreign-born, low support for libertarian values by foreign-born residents means that the political prospects of libertarian values in the US are likely to diminish over time.” 

Here are some reasons why Pashler’s paper shouldn’t worry libertarians much or convince many to oppose immigration:

First, libertarians generally support immigration reform, the legalization of unauthorized immigrants, and increasing legal immigration because it is consistent with libertarian principles – not because immigration reform will lead to breakthrough electoral gains for libertarian candidates.  The freedom for healthy non-criminals to move across borders with a minimum of government interference is important in and of itself.  General libertarian support for immigration reform does not depend upon immigrants producing a pro-liberty Curley effect – as nice as that would be. 

Second, under free immigration the freedom of current Americans to sell to, hire, and otherwise contract with foreigners would increase substantially.

Third, the ideological differences between the U.S.-born and immigrants are relatively small for some of the questions Pashler analyzes.  For instance, the GSS asked whether the government should do more or less to reduce economic inequality with a response of “1” meaning the government should do much more and a score of “5” meaning the government should do much less.  The average score for immigrants was a 2.75 while the average score for the U.S.-born was 3.18 – a statistically significant difference but hardly one that will push the U.S. toward central planning.

Led by Prop 30 in California and Prop 2 in Michigan, a List of the Most Important Ballot Initiatives of 2012

Two years ago, I highlighted nine key state ballot initiatives and happily reported about a week later that voters generally chose to limit statism.

We have a similar collection of measures this year. Some of these votes - such as the decisions about higher taxes in California and power for government employee unions in Michigan - will have profound implications and perhaps even signal whether certain jurisdictions are doomed to failure.

Since I’m motivated primarily by the desire to reduce the burden of government spending and block bad tax policy, let’s look first at the key fiscal measures on this year’s ballot.

Prop 30 in California - Would impose a huge tax hike, including an increase in the state sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent, along with three new higher income tax brackets (maxing out at more than 13 percent!) for upper-income taxpayers. The adjoining cartoon is a good summary of the issue, as is this classic bit of political humor.

Prop 38 and Prop 39 - Two additional tax hike measures, the first targeting individual taxpayers and the second targeting businesses. I’m not sure which tax-hike proposition is the worst, but they all need to be defeated for there to be any hope about California’s future.

Prop 204 in Arizona - Renewing a one-cent increase in the state sales tax, ostensibly for the education bureaucracy. Money is fungible, so this is merely a vote for bigger government.

Issue 1 in Arkansas - Imposing a half-cent increase in the state sales tax, supposedly for highway spending. Another bait-and-switch scam to trick voters into financing bigger government.

Prop 5 in Michigan - Would require a two-thirds vote of both the state house and state senate to raise any tax. Anything that makes it harder to raise taxes is also a step making it harder to boost the burden of spending.

Prop B in Missouri - Raise the cigarette tax by 73 cents per pack. Politicians in the Show Me state should kick their addiction to big government.

Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution 13 in New Hampshire - A constitutional amendment to prohibit enactment of an income tax. The Granite State has been blessed by avoiding either a state sales tax or a state income tax. It’s almost a shame that there’s a First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, because otherwise I’d be tempted to outlaw even discussion of imposing an income tax.

Measure 84 in Oregon - Would repeal the state’s death tax. This should be a no-brainer. You don’t want to repeat the mistakes of New Jersey and drive productive residents to other states. But Oregon voters have demonstrated a lemming-like suicide instinct in the past.

Initiated Measure 15 in South Dakota - Increases the state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent. There’s no income tax, but that’s no argument for making a modest sales tax into an onerous sales tax.

Initiative 1185 in Washington - Reaffirms the state’s two-thirds supermajority requirement before the state legislature can increase taxes. Voters repeatedly have reaffirmed their support for the supermajority in the past. Let’s hope that doesn’t change now.

Now let’s shift to matters of personal freedom and look at ballot measures involving the Second Amendment and the Drug War.

Prop 114 in Arizona - Protects crime victims from being sued if they injure or kill criminals. Yes, there are examples of excessive response, but the easiest way of avoiding those situations - if you’re a criminal - is by keeping your nose clean.

Amendment 2 in Louisiana - Strengthens right to keep and bear arms. If this doesn’t pass by more than 80 percent, I’ll be disappointed.

Amendment 64 in Colorado, Measure 80 in Oregon, and Initiative 502 in Washington - All of these ballot measures end marijuana prohibition to varying degrees. Let’s hope voters take a small step in ending the War on Drugs.

These initiatives are related to fiscal policy, but they belong in a special category since they deal with the necessity of curtailing bloated and over-compensated government bureaucracies.

Prop 1 in Idaho - This measure would retain recent legislative reforms to end tenure in government schools. The only real solution is school choice, but this measure at least should make it easier to get rid of awful teachers that contribute to making the public schools both costly and ineffective.

Prop 2 in Michigan - Creates permanent negotiating advantages for already pampered government employee unions. This is the bureaucrat equivalent of Prop 30 in California, a massive transfer of wealth and power from the productive sector. If it passes, Michigan probably would be past the tipping point in its descent into stagnation and despair.

Last but not least, here are measures on random issues that are very important.

Prop 3 in Michigan - Require 25 percent of electricity to come from renewables. This will be an interesting test of whether the voters of a particular state are so clueless about economics that they are willing to voluntarily boost their own energy bills and undermine their own job prospects. I almost hope it passes just for the lesson it will teach.

Question 1 in Virginia - Limits eminent domain to public purposes. Corrupt developers and their cronies in state and local government don’t like this proposal, which naturally means it is a very good idea for those who support property rights.

Amendment 6 in Alabama, Amendment 1 in Florida, Prop E in Missouri, Legislative Referendum 122 in Montana, and Amendment A in Wyoming - These are all anti-Obamacare initiatives in some form or fashion. Continued resistance is important, even if some of these measures are only symbolic, so fingers crossed that they’re all approved.

You can find more information about state ballot initiatives and referendum here, here, here, and here.

And one final philosophical/policy point: In an ideal world, the United States would be like Switzerland and have a much more robust version of federalism. Almost everything that happens in Washington, with the exception of national defense, should either be in the private sector or at the state and local level of government.

A big advantage of a genuinely federalist system is that competition among states would be more vigorous than it is today. So if Michigan voters enacted Prop 2 or California voters approved Prop 30, tho adverse consequences would materialize much faster, thus helping to educate people that free markets and limited government are the best policies.

This is No Way to Organize a Society

Congratulating them in only the narrowest sense, Ezra Klein credits Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) for their success in obstructing President Obama the last four years. This has garnered endorsements for Mitt Romney from newspapers that see him as more capable of eliciting cooperation from these congressional leaders.

Nevermind how much this was an articulate strategy distinct from insisting on their own priorities. How outrageous that these men should be rewarded for obstruction, the Obama supporter fumes! And if you’re a Republican, you smugly chuckle.

And none of these politicized characters need consider U.S. government policies regarding military spending, entitlement spending, transportation spending, education spending, warrantless wiretapping, drone war, monetary policy, privacy, regulation, tax rates, tax incidence, waste, fraud, abuse, agriculture subsidies, endangered species, energy policy, or the drug war (What did I forget?–plenty). The differences between the two parties are minimal.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. But while you’re hanging on this strange contest to control a big chunk of your life the next four years, the valets are stripping your car.

The current state of affairs–this political American Idol–is not God-given. Restoring the federal government to its proper role, and limiting states to theirs, we might once again take control and decide for ourselves how our wealth is apportioned and how our lives are run.

People on both sides think that this election is do-or-die, hopping on stage to take part in the play. But politics is no way to organize a society. Exeunt.

A Dan Mitchell Debate Fantasy

In this modern era where we’re all supposed to share our innermost thoughts, I’ve openly discussed my fantasies.

I confessed to the world, for instance, that I have a fantasy that involves about one-half of the adults in America. And I’ve also admitted to a fantasy involving Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Now I’m fantasizing about something new, and it’s all the fault of the Cato Institute. In a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, I have to watch tonight’s presidential debate in order to add my two cents to Cato’s live-blogging of the clash between Obama and Romney.

That got me thinking about some of my least-favorite episodes from past debates, and this moment from 1992 is high on my list (I had to watch that debate because my then-wife worked for the Bush Administration and I had to offer some insincere moral support).

The clip is a bit over three minutes, but it will only take a minute or so to see why this was such an unpleasant segment.

Here’s my latest fantasy. If there’s a similar question tonight, I hope either Romney or Obama gives the following response:

I’m not your daddy and you’re not my child. I’m running to be the President of the United States in order to oversee the legitimate executive branch responsibilities of the federal government. And I hope to reduce the burden of government to give you opportunities, not to take care of your needs. You’re an able-bodied adult. Take responsibility for your own life and provide for your own needs.

But I don’t expect my fantasy to get fulfilled. If a question like this is asked, both Obama and Romney almost surely will express sympathy and support.

The good news is that there have been a few politicians in American’s history who have been willing to say the right thing. Here’s a quote from Barry Goldwater that warms my heart.

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. … I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.

The bad news is that he got his you-know-what kicked in the 1964 election.

On the other hand, America did elect a president who said during his inauguration that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

And a 2011 poll showed that Americans—unlike their European counterparts—do not believe it is government’s job to guarantee that “nobody is in need.”

In other words, Julia, the fictional moocher woman created by the Obama campaign, is not representative of America. At least not yet.

Free Speech Trumps First Amendment

If you watch HBO’s “Newsroom,” you may have seen Cato, IJ and others get a quick namedrop in relation to the Citizens United Supreme Court case. Actor Jeff Daniels misstates the holding of the case, claiming that Citizens United “allowed corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to any political candidate without anyone knowing where the money was coming from.”

But, you see, this just shows Aaron Sorkin’s unwavering commitment to realism in his shows. Reporters regularly get the holding of Citizens United wrong. After all, if reporters were crystal clear that Citizens United cleared the way for all manner of groups to use “corporate treasury funds” to fund broad and overtly political statements about candidates, they would inevitably conclude that their own right to make those kinds of statements would be jeopardized by much of the campaign finance regulation on the books prior to Citizens United. And it’s hard to demonize libertarians when they’re fighting for the rights of everyone, including reporters and entertainers who work for subsidiaries of Time Warner (CNN, HBO), Viacom (CBS), Disney (ABC), Comcast (NBC, MSNBC), General Electric (NBC, MSNBC), News Corp. (FOX, Fox News), etc.

If you’d like to know more about the facts of Citizens United, watch this:

As to the claims about secrecy in political speech, Cato Institute senior fellow Nat Hentoff has a few thoughts on disclosure and the jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.

Grading Perry’s Flat Tax: Some Missing Homework, but a Solid B+

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has announced a plan, which he outlines in the Wall Street Journal, to replace the corrupt and inefficient internal revenue code with a flat tax. Let’s review his proposal, using the principles of good tax policy as a benchmark.

1. Does the plan have a low, flat rate to minimize penalties on productive behavior?

Governor Perry is proposing an optional 20 percent tax rate. Combined with a very generous allowance (it appears that a family of four would not pay tax on the first $50,000 of income), this means the income tax will be only a modest burden for households. Most important, at least from an economic perspective, the 20-percent marginal tax rate will be much more conducive to entrepreneurship and hard work, giving people more incentive to create jobs and wealth.

2. Does the plan eliminate double taxation so there is no longer a tax bias against saving and investment?

The Perry flat tax gets rid of the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the double tax on dividends. This would significantly reduce the discriminatory and punitive treatment of income that is saved and invested (see this chart to understand why this is a serious problem in the current tax code). Since all economic theories - even socialism and Marxism - agree that capital formation is key for long-run growth and higher living standards, addressing the tax bias against saving and investment is one of the best features of Perry’s plan.

3. Does the plan get rid of deductions, preferences, exemptions, preferences, deductions, loopholes, credits, shelters, and other provisions that distort economic behavior?

A pure flat tax does not include any preferences or penalties. The goal is to leave people alone so they make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than what reduces their tax liability. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Perry flat tax falls a bit short. His plan gets rid of lots of special favors in the tax code, but it would retain deductions (for those earning less than $500,000 yearly) for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local taxes.

As a long-time advocate of a pure flat tax, I’m not happy that Perry has deviated from the ideal approach. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the very good. If implemented, his plan would dramatically boost economic performance and improve competitiveness.

That being said, there are some questions that need to be answered before giving a final grade to the plan. Based on Perry’s Wall Street Journal column and material from the campaign, here are some unknowns.

1. Is the double tax on interest eliminated?

A flat tax should get rid of all forms of double taxation. For all intents and purposes, a pure flat tax includes an unlimited and unrestricted IRA. You pay tax when you first earn your income, but the IRS shouldn’t get another bite of the apple simply because you save and invest your after-tax income. It’s not clear, though, whether the Perry plan eliminates the double tax on interest. Also, the Perry plan eliminates the double taxation of “qualified dividends,” but it’s not clear what that means.

2. Is the special tax preference for fringe benefits eliminated?

One of the best features of the flat tax is that it gets rid of the business deduction for fringe benefits such as health insurance. This special tax break has helped create a very inefficient healthcare system and a third-party payer crisis. It is unclear, though, whether this pernicious tax distortion is eliminated with the Perry flat tax.

3. How will the optional flat tax operate?

The Perry plan copies the Hong Kong system in that it allows people to choose whether to participate in the flat tax. This is attractive since it ensures that nobody can be disadvantaged, but how will it work? Can people switch back and forth every year? Is the optional system also available to all the small businesses that use the 1040 individual tax system to file their returns?

4. Will businesses be allowed to “expense” investment expenditures?

The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to pretend that a substantial share of current-year investment outlays take place in the future. The government imposes this perverse policy in order to get more short-run revenue since companies are forced to artificially overstate current-year profits. A pure flat tax allows a business to “expense” the cost of business investments (just as they “expense” workers wages) for the simple reason that taxable income should be defined as total revenue minus total costs.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the grade for Perry’s flat tax could be as high as A- or as low as B. Regardless, it will be a radical improvement compared to the current tax system, which gets a D- (and that’s a very kind grade).

Here’s a brief video for those who want more information about the flat tax.

Last but not least, I’ve already received several requests to comment on how Perry’s flat tax compares to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

At a conceptual level, the plans are quite similar. They both replace the discriminatory rate structure of the current system with a low rate. They both get rid of double taxation. And they both dramatically reduce corrupt loopholes and distortions when compared to the current tax code.

All things considered, though, I prefer the flat tax. The 9-9-9 plan combines a 9 percent flat tax with a 9 percent VAT and a 9 percent national sales tax, and I don’t trust that politicians will keep the rates at 9 percent.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax is that we degenerate back to the current system. The worst thing that happens with the 9-9-9 plan, as I explain in this video, is that politicians pull a bait-and-switch and America becomes Greece or France.

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