Tag: regulation

In Ensuring Credit Card Holders’ ‘Rights,’ Congress May Actually Take Away Their Credit

With a vote expected today on the so-called Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights, the U.S. House is poised to follow up on President Obama’s finger-wagging rhetoric about fees and other perceived sins of the credit industry.

But Congress should keep in mind that credit cards have been a significant source of consumer liquidity during this downturn. Now is the worst time to push measures that would curtail the availability of consumer credit, and that is exactly what the Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights will do.

While few of us want to have to cover our basic living expenses on our credit card, that option is certainly better than going without those basic needs. The wide availability of credit cards has helped to significantly maintain some level of consumer purchasing during this downturn.

It was the massive under-pricing of risk, often at the urging of Washington, that brought on our current financial market crisis. To now pressure credit card companies not to raise their fees or more accurately price credit risk, will only reduce the availability of credit while undermining the financial viability of the companies, ultimately prolonging the recession and potentially increasing the cost of bank bailouts to the taxpayer.

The Federal Reserve recently issued regulations targeting practices in the credit card industry. While this regulation was itself overkill, it should be given an opportunity to work, and be modified if it results in significant contraction of credit. It is far easier to go back and change harmful regulations than legislation.

Robert H. Frank, A 200% Tax Even Socialists Will Hate

In the latest issue of Forbes, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank is pushing “A Tax Even Libertarians Can Love.” I hope he wasn’t counting on this libertarian’s support.

What he advocates is “replacing the income tax with a progressive tax on spending. …A family’s income minus its savings is its consumption, and that amount minus a large standard deduction – say, $30,000 a year for a family of four – would be its taxable consumption. …Rates would start low, perhaps 20%, then rise gradually with total consumption. …With savings tax-exempt, top marginal tax rates on consumption would have to be significantly higher than current top rates on income.”

His concept of “significantly higher” includes tax rates of 100-200% on marginal income that isn’t saved.  This is about minimizing affluence, not maximizing revenues.  There is ample evidence from Emmanuel Saez and others that the amount of reported income drops sharply as marginal tax rates rise above 25-30% (and even less on capital gains).

In his 2007 book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, Frank suggests marginal tax rates of 50% above $220,000  and rising to 200%.  Since seniors (like me) commonly finance retirement from past savings, Frank’s tax scheme amounts to rapid confiscation of past savings.

For young people, Frank’s tax can’t possibly encourage savings because it discourages earning any income in the first place.  Consumption is, after all, the motive for both earning and saving.   The prospect of facing future consumption taxes of 50-200% would surely discourage saving much, because the rewards from invested savings (namely, future consumption) would be subjected to such prohibitive tax brackets. Under this steeply progressive tax on unsaved income, any income exempt from taxes today would be subject to brutal taxes whenever folks wanted to buy anything of value, like a car or house, or to retire on their accumulated savings.

In another April 25 piece in The New York Times, Mr. Frank shifts from promoting confiscatory taxes on consumption to defending small tweaks to the current tax regime. “The current [tax] system is much fairer than many people believe, and the president’s proposal will make it both fairer and more efficient.” That comment was aimed at the tea parties.  Yet tax party protesters clearly understood, as Frank does not, that the president’s first wave of proposed tax increases come nowhere near paying for his grandiose spending plans.  My estimate of last October, that Obama’s plans would add $4.3 trillion to the deficits over ten years is now looking much too generous, if not wildly optimistic.

In the New York Times piece, Frank argues that income differences are mainly a matter of luck.  As he often does, Frank pretends to possess evidence about this topic that other economists have missed.  He says, “economists have only begun to realize [that] pay differences often vastly overstate differences in performance.”

In his book, whenever Frank alludes to what “the evidence suggests,” his sources are usually suspect, obsolete or invisible. He claims “regulations, like cartoons are data.”  He cites an unpublished master’s thesis, unidentified surveys and “casual impressions.”

Frank  claims “happiness can be measured reliably” by brain waves.  Explaining this better in the Economic Journal in 1997, he noted that people who say they are happy show “greater electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain” which “is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, higher concentrations of which been shown independently to be correlated with positive affect.”  If we accept the amount of dopamine in the brain as the gauge of happiness, however, then the happiest people are those who routinely abuse crack and meth.

In the second chapter of Falling Behind, his first graph lists a Census Bureau URL as the source for household income data from 1949 to 1979.  Click on that link and you will find the data only go back to 1967.   In reality, all of Frank’s income and wealth graphs actually came from Chris Hartman at inequality.org. Hartman is not an economist or statistician, but a “researcher, writer, editor, and graphic designer with experience in politics, higher education, and publishing.”  Hartman’s non-facts used in Robert Frank’s first graph actually came from a 1994 book from the Economic Policy Institute, reflecting the “authors’ analysis…  of unpublished census data.” Frank’s comparison of CEO pay with “average wages” came from Hartman’s flawed calculations for United for a Fair Economy, which were critiqued on page 131 of my textbook Income and Wealth. And Frank’s demonstrably false claim that “asset ownership has become even more heavily concentrated during recent years” is likewise from inequality.org.

In short, Professor Frank often bases his remarkably strong opinions on fragile facts.

Transparency for Thee but Not for Me

It appears that the Obama administration is high on transparency for everyone but its own allies.  There are a lot of good reasons to reduce federal regulation, but if the Labor Department is going to push coercive unionism, it should require unions to disclose their activities and finances to their members.

Not in today’s world, however.  The Obama administration is moving backwards.  Reports the Washington Times:

The Obama administration, which has boasted about its efforts to make government more transparent, is rolling back rules requiring labor unions and their leaders to report information about their finances and compensation.

The Labor Department noted in a recent disclosure that “it would not be a good use of resources” to bring enforcement actions against union officials who do not comply with conflict of interest reporting rules passed in 2007. Instead, union officials will now be allowed to file older, less detailed conflict reports.

The regulation, known as the LM-30 rule, was at the heart of a lawsuit that the AFL-CIO filed against the department last year. One of the union attorneys in the case, Deborah Greenfield, is now a high-ranking deputy at Labor, who also worked on the Obama transition team on labor issues.

The only people served by this move are union officials who want less oversight over their use of dues payments, much collected from unwilling workers.  The new policy certainly runs counter to the president’s promise to set a new tone in Washington.

(Hat tip to Philip Klein.)

Obama the Planner

New Republic editor John Judis has a couple of insights about the Obama administration’s economic and social goals. He points out that, for more than a century, Progressive and free-market forces have gone through cycles of “reform and reaction.”

The Progressives — who my friend John Baden calls the “American counterrevolutionaries” — have repeatedly sought to increase the size and scope of government: railroad regulation, public land agencies, and the income tax in the 1900s; Social Security, low-interest home loans, and government ownership of power plants in the 1930s; Medicare, the war on poverty, and environmental laws in the 1960s.

In between, friends of free markets tried to roll back those reforms, but were never completely successful. Thus, each successive reform era has further increased government power and reduced free markets.

This reminds me of the basic strategy used by the wilderness movement (in which I was active from about 1975 through 1993). Wilderness activists basically considered land that had already been preserved as wilderness or some other classification to be “theirs,” while all remaining land was “potentially theirs.” Successive congressional land-use bills or presidential decrees would put more land in “their” category, but no matter how much they got, it was never enough.

At the time, I called this the “scorched earth policy,” meaning wilderness advocates embedded so many poison pills in the protected lands that no one would ever try to declassify them. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate strategy, just an effect of our political system.

Judis goes on to outline the ways in which Obama wants to build on past reforms. First, he wants to use “the budget to shift the locus of industrial production toward ‘green’ jobs and products.” He also wants to “make dramatic changes in transportation with [government’s] intervention in the auto industry and in its funding of high-speed rail.” Finally, he wants to institute a form of “national planning” in order to “reverse existing trends” towards “suburban housing [and shopping] malls.”

People who are attracted to such policies tend to judge them based on their intent rather than their results. In fact, these interventions have nearly all either backfired or had huge unintended consequences.

Railroad regulation was imposed just as trucks appeared on the scene in 1907, leaving railroads helpless against growing competition. “Progressive” income taxes ended up with so many loopholes that they weren’t really progressive. The federal loan companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, played a key role in the current crisis when they succumbed to political pressure to buy increasingly risky loans.

Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme that is also one of the most regressive taxes on the books, not to mention that it has provided billions of dollars of surpluses for Congress to borrow with little hope of ever paying it back. Medicare is an even bigger Ponzi scheme, while the war on poverty created a semi-permanent underclass that has been all but forgotten by the liberals who claim to care most about them.

Environmental laws produced many benefits when they focused on technical solutions, but they failed miserably when they attempted to change people’s behavior. As transportation expert Alan Pisarski recently told the Institute of Transportation Engineers, technical solutions to air pollution are responsible for 95 to 105 percent of the improvements in air quality in the past 40 years, while behavior solutions produced only minus 5 to 5 percent of the improvements — minus 5 meaning some behavioral solutions made pollution worse.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plans are all about changing behavior. This means two things: they will be expensive — especially when counting the unintended consequences — and they won’t work. High-speed rail and urban revitalization, for example, are all about redesigning the country for yuppy elites, not ordinary Americans. The question for free-market advocates is: how can we minimize the damage now and roll back the reforms later?

Our Troubling Tax System

The U.S. tax code gets more complex every year. It violates civil liberties and, left unchanged, will leave the United States at a powerful competitive disadvantage in years to come, say Cato scholars in this new Cato video.

According to tax expert Chris Edwards, the tax system is growing at startling levels — there are now about 70,000 pages of tax regulations and $300 billion in compliance costs — and it’s only going to get worse.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here

  • The new edition of Regulation examines the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the legal drinking age and climate change policies.
  • In The Week, Will Wilkinson argues that the Obama administration should rethink its drug policy and that prominent marijuana users should “come out of the closet.”
  • Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner why the Serve America Act (SAA) is no friend to freedom.
  • The Cato Weekly Video features Rep. Paul Ryan discussing the Obama administration’s budget.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Patri Friedman discusses seasteading and the prospects for liberty on the high seas.

Taxpayer Financing of Campaigns Returns

Taxpayer financing of congressional campaigns has returned.

Yesterday Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced a modified version of their public financing bill first proposed in 2007, now as then called the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA).  The older version included “free media vouchers” and discounted ad rates for television; the new model focuses more on small contributions and matching funds from the federal treasury.

These bills to finance campaigns with government revenue are often introduced in Congress and rarely make any headway, much less pass either chamber.  Their perennial failure is not difficult to understand. Members are interested in campaign finance regulations that make it more difficult for challengers to raise money.  They are not interested in giving candidates federal revenue to run against incumbents. Members are especially unwilling to fund campaigns because the public takes a dim view of  using taxes in this way.

FENA tries to avoid public opposition by creating the appearance that taxpayers do not actually fund this scheme.

As Politico reports:

In the Senate version, the public money would come from assessing the country’s largest government contractors with a small surcharge… In the House, the money would come from the sale of broadcast spectrum.

But the question should be asked: if public financing of campaigns will actually achieve all the great things claimed by its proponents, shouldn’t the public be asked to pay the bill? After all, the public can expect to receive the promised benefits. Why should the bill be financed by government contractors and the sale of public assets?

We know the answer to these questions. Durbin and Specter have to obscure the role of taxes in these schemes because the public would oppose the bill if taxpayers were on the hook for the funding. Yet the senators obscure rather than eliminate the role of the taxpayer who will have to pay higher levies to fund more expensive government contracts or to replace the money that might have been obtained from the sale of the spectrum.  Once the FENA lunch turns out not to be free, will voters feel like paying the tab?

The rationale for the new program also merits attention. In the past, advocates of taxpayer financing argued that private financing of campaigns corrupted representation, policymaking, and the general political culture.  Replacing private contributions with public financing would, it was claimed, remove private interests and end corruption.  That rationale appealed to most of the supporters of  public financing; they tend toward the left politically and had little trouble believing the Republicans running Congress – all of them – were corrupt.  But 2006 brought the Democrats back to power, and general claims of corruption no longer fit the background assumptions of both powerful legislators and supporters of public financing. So we now hear little about corruption and a lot about how FENA will free up legislators to “tend to the people’s business.”

Will “tending to the people’s business” be enough to convince Americans to spend tax dollars funding congressional campaigns at a time of record public sector deficits brought about by reckless spending on bailouts and much else?

The question answers itself.