Topic: Government and Politics

The State of Washington Should Learn a Very Important Lesson from Connecticut about the Dangers of an Income Tax

Every so often, I get asked why I’m so rigidly opposed to tax hikes in general and so vociferously against the imposition of new taxes in particular.

In part, my hostility is an ideological reflex. When pressed, though, I’ll confess that there are situations - in theory - where more taxes might be acceptable.

But there’s a giant gap between theory and reality. In the real world, I can’t think of a single instance in which higher taxes led to a fiscally responsible outcome.

That’s true on the national level. And it’s also true at the state level.

Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal is - to put it mildly - not very happy at the tax-aholic behavior of Connecticut politicians. Here’s some of what was in a recent editorial.

The Census Bureau says Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of Nutmeg Staters would migrate if they could. Now the Democrats who run the state want to drive the other half out too. That’s the best way to explain the frenzy by Governor Dannel Malloy and the legislature to raise taxes again… Mr. Malloy promised last year during his re-election campaign that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s what he also said in 2010. In 2011 he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike promising that it would eliminate a budget deficit. Having won re-election he’s now back seeking another $650 million in tax hikes. But that’s not enough for the legislature, which has floated $1.5 billion in tax increases. Add a state-wide municipal sales tax that some lawmakers want, and the total could hit $2.1 billion over two years.

In other words, higher taxes in recent years have been used to fund more spending.

And now the politicians are hoping to play the same trick another time.

The Folly of Centralized Spending

I’ve argued that the centralization of government spending in Washington over the past century has severely undermined good governance. Citizens get worse outcomes when funding and decisionmaking for education, infrastructure, and other things are made by the central government rather than state and local governments and the private sector. The problem is the same in the European Union, as a new article in Bloomberg on the funding of Polish airports illustrates:

Local authorities are spending some 205 million zloty ($58 million), including more than $44 million in EU subsidies, to build runways and a new terminal that could accommodate more than 1 million passengers a year. The Olsztyn Mazury Airport is scheduled to open next January, but traffic and revenue forecasts developed by the project’s backers are “very far from reality,” says Jacek Krawczyk, a former chairman of LOT Polish airlines who advises the EU on aviation policy through its European Economic and Social Committee.

Szymany adds to a burgeoning supply of costly new airports across Poland. Since 2007, the EU has spent more than €600 million ($666 million) to build or renovate a dozen Polish airports.

… Mostly, though, Poland’s new airports have been a financial bust. A report in December by the European Court of Auditors found that EU-subsidized airport projects in Poland, as well as others in Estonia, Greece, Italy, and Spain, had “produced poor value for money.” Traffic at most airports fell far short of projections, and there was little evidence of broader economic benefits, such as job creation, the report found.  

With respect to U.S. infrastructure, there is ongoing pressure to increase federal investment, despite decades of experience on the inefficiency of it. Politicians and lobby groups constantly complain that America does not spend enough on infrastructure. But they rarely discuss how to ensure efficiency in spending, or cite any advantages of federal spending over state, local, and private spending.

I’ve discussed the many downsides to federal aid for infrastructure and other local activities here and here. But I was alerted to an additional argument against aid from this Regulation article by William Fischel and this book by James Bennett. Federal aid encourages local governments to expropriate private property, often for dubious purposes.

The article and book discuss the expropriation of Detroit homes for the benefit of General Motors in the 1980s. The “Poletown” project would not have happened without $200 million in federal and state loans and grants to the city. So Fischel makes the point that (abusive) government uses of eminent domain—such as the Kelo case in New London, Connecticut—are encouraged by the flow of federal and state funds to cities. That is, money for “economic development” and the like.

State and local governments would make better decisions if they were responsible for their own funding of programs and projects. The annual flow of more than $600 billion in federal aid to state and local governments should be phased out over time and eliminated.

Proven Reforms to Restrain Leviathan

Back in March, I shared a remarkable study from the International Monetary Fund which explained that spending caps are the only truly effective way to achieve good fiscal policy.

And earlier this month, I discussed another good IMF study that showed how deficit and debt rules in Europe have been a failure.

In hopes of teaching American lawmakers about this international evidence, the Cato Institute put together a forum on Capitol Hill to highlight the specific reforms that have been successful.

I moderated the panel and began by pointing out that there are many examples of nations that have enjoyed good results thanks to multi-year periods of spending restraint.

I even pointed out that we actually had an unintentional - but very successful - spending freeze in Washington between 2009 and 2014.

But the problem, I suggested, is that it is very difficult to convince politicians to sustain good policy on a long-run basis. The gains of good policy (such as what was achieved in the 1990s) can quickly be erased by a spending binge (such as what happened during the Bush years).

A Pattern of Problems in American Cities

Last December the federal Department of Justice concluded an investigation of the Cleveland Police Department.  That investigation found a pattern of excessive force in violation of the Constitution.  On Monday, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson agreed to a legal settlement with the feds to overhaul his police department’s policies and practices regarding the use of force and how it handles complaints and monitors the actions of its officers.  This is just the most recent police department to be scrutinized.  Following the riot in Baltimore, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Dept of Justice would be launching a pattern and practice investigation of that police department as well.  Local policymakers in Baltimore, Cleveland, and elsewhere, have let serious problems fester in their police departments and addressing those deficiencies is long overdue.  At the same time, we should also remember that policymakers are also doing a generally poor job on a broader range of issues, including the schools.  As it happens, our friends at Reason did a short film a while back titled “Saving Cleveland.”  The film covers several important issues and what needs to be done.

Last week, Cato hosted an event on Capitol Hill, Lessons from Baltimore, which covers additional issues not in the Reason film.  Policing, body cameras, and social welfare spending.  That event can be viewed here.

Patients and Doctors, not the FDA, Should Choose Right Medicine

Good ideas in Congress rarely have a chance. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is sponsoring legislation to speed drug approvals, but his initial plan was largely gutted before he introduced it last month.

Drug discovery is an uncertain process. Companies consider between 5,000 and 10,000 substances for every one that ends up in the pharmacy. Of those, only one-fifth actually makes money—and must pay for everything.

As a result, the average per drug cost exceeds $1 billion, most often thought to be between $1.2 and $1.5 billion. Some estimates run more.

Naturally, the Food and Drug Administration insists that its expensive regulations are worth it. Unfortunately, while the agency undoubtedly prevents some bad pharmaceuticals from getting to market, it delays or blocks far more good products.

The average delay in winning approval of a new drug rose from seven months in 1962, when the FDA’s power was dramatically increased, to 30 months in 1967. Approval time now is estimated to run as much as 20 years.

Double Standards in American Policing

Over at the Huffington Post, Ryan J. Reilly reports that St. Louis was one of the cities to receive MacArthur Foundation grants to improve the relationship between the police and the public. When discussing the award, the police chief made some frank admissions about the double standard that infects policing in the greater St. Louis area:

In an interview ahead of the announcement, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called the reform effort a “positive that came out of a tragedy.”

[…]

Belmar… said it is simply unrealistic for law enforcement to be able to enforce the hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants in the county, many of them in connection with missed court dates for minor violations of municipal codes.

“I’m looking at cities that have 50,000, 39,000, 30,000 outstanding warrants today. You’re never going to catch up to that,” Belmar said. “You might have a city like Pine Lawn, which is 360 acres, that has 30,000 outstanding warrants. How can that be? The math doesn’t work.”

Belmar acknowledged that the protests in Ferguson have given a voice to populations that had been overlooked in the past.

“If you went to a very affluent area in St. Louis County, how long do you think a program would last where speed cameras were put up on arterial roads coming into subdivisions, and people were given letters saying they were going to be arrested? It would last about five hours,” Belmar said.

Balanced Budget Requirements Don’t Work as Well as Spending Limits

When I first came to Washington back in the 1980s, there was near-universal support and enthusiasm for a balanced budget amendment among advocates of limited government.

The support is still there, I’m guessing, but the enthusiasm is not nearly as intense.

There are three reasons for this drop.

  1. Political reality - There is zero chance that a balanced budget amendment would get the necessary two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. And if that happened, by some miracle, it’s highly unlikely that it would get the necessary support for ratification in three-fourths of state legislatures.
  2. Unfavorable evidence from the states - According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state other than Vermont has some sort of balanced budget requirement. Yet those rules don’t prevent states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad fiscal policy.
  3. Favorable evidence for the alternative approach of spending restraint - While balanced budget rules don’t seem to work very well, policies that explicitly restrain spending work very well. The data from Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado is particularly persuasive.

Advocates of a balanced budget amendment have some good responses to these points. They explain that it’s right to push good policy, regardless of the political situation. Since I’m a strong advocate for a flat tax even though it isn’t likely to happen, I can’t argue with this logic.

Regarding the last two points, advocates explain that older versions of a balanced budget requirement simply required a supermajority for more debt, but newer versions also include a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. This means - at least indirectly - that the amendment actually is a vehicle for spending restraint.