Topic: Government and Politics

Piketty Should Focus on Increasing the Scope of Markets, Not Expanding the Power of Government

In his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), French economist Thomas Piketty is concerned with equality of outcome, not equality under a rule of law safeguarding one’s unalienable rights to liberty and property. 

He finds that inequality of income and wealth is increasing as the return on capital assets exceeds the growth of real GDP.  His policy for reducing inequality is to use the power of government to impose very high marginal tax rates on the incomes of the rich and near rich, and also impose an annual wealth tax.  His goal is “to put an end to such incomes.”

Piketty’s leveling schemes in the pursuit of “social justice” would undermine the primacy of property rights under the U.S. Constitution, adversely affect incentives to save and invest, stifle entrepreneurship, and slow economic growth. He seems more interested in penalizing the rich than in thinking of ways to create wealth by expanding opportunities for market exchange.

Mad Magazine vs. Hollywood

Side-by-side obituaries in the Washington Post on Sunday were an interesting juxtaposition.

One obituary was for Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., a fine actor known for playing an agent in the television series “The F.B.I.,” which ran from 1965 to 1974. I never saw this show, but it sounds like many shows over the decades that have portrayed government agencies as super-efficient, laser-focused on the public interest, and always getting the bad guys.

By the end of each episode, “Mr. Zimbalist’s character, Inspector Erskine, and his fellow G-men had captured that week’s mobsters, subversives, bank robbers, or spies.” That surely helped to burnish the FBI’s image, as did the “stunning good looks” of Zimbalist.

The Washington Post notes: “Perceiving that the series could provide the real FBI with an important P.R. boost, [J. Edgar] Hoover opened the bureau’s files to the show’s producers and even allowed background shots to be filmed in real FBI offices.” Hmm, I wonder whether that influenced the show’s portrayal of the agency?

The other obituary was for Al Feldstein, a pioneering editor of Mad magazine, which had a circulation of 2.8 million by the 1970s and “shaped” many young minds. I had one of those young minds, and was influenced by the magazine’s “mockery of adult hypocrises.”

Feldstein saw his magazine “as a form of civic education” for young people. He said “it was their pipeline into the truth about what was happening in the country.” It “taught them skepticism,” which was certainly true for me.

While “The F.B.I.” was apparently portraying the FBI as beyond reproach, Mad magazine was busy “puncturing pomposity.” And here is where the two obituaries collide. Mad “asked readers to write FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to request an ‘Official Draft Dodger Card,’” and many did. One would think that the agency would have been too busy catching mobsters to pay attention to such a prank. But no: “In a predictably bizarre encounter, FBI agents paid a visit to Mad’s offices in New York, dropping hints that Hoover didn’t take kindly to such shenanigans.”

Later on, America found out that it was Hoover who was committing the real shenanigans. In 1971 a group of skeptical young people “broke into a Bureau branch office outside of Philadelphia, seeking evidence for what they’d long suspected: that Hoover’s FBI was engaged in a secret, illegal campaign of surveillance and harassment of American citizens. The documents they found revealed massive abuses of power and helped lead to new legal checks on domestic surveillance.”

They probably didn’t find any files on Mad in that Philadelphia office, but apparently FBI HQ had accumulated 36 of them over the years.

The Washington Post says that Mad “warped the sensibilities of America’s youth” and exerted a “subversive” influence. But there is nothing warped about teaching skepticism. The real warping comes from all the Hollywood portrayals of government as a benevolent force led by technocratic experts who can solve all our problems.   

Is the Constitution Relevant Today?

In the Washington Post, Paul Kane reports that recent experiences with ultra-conservative Senate candidates have made Republican leaders fearful of candidates like Rep. Paul Broun in Georgia. There may be reasons for party leaders or voters to have doubts about Broun, but I hope they aren’t actually concerned about the purported problem that Kane identifies:

Broun is prone to fiery speeches invoking the Founding Fathers and applying those 1789 principles to issues 225 years later.

Seriously? He thinks the Constitution is still the law of the land? And that the framework it established for individual rights and limited government is still relevant today? Do Republican leaders really think that’s a bad message? Or does the Washington Post?

Thomas Jefferson and his followers hailed “the principles of ‘76” or “the spirit of ‘76” in their battles with Federalists. As historian Joseph Ellis put it, “Jefferson’s core conviction was that what might be called ‘the spirit of ‘76’ had repudiated all energetic expressions of government power, most especially power exercised from faraway places, which included London, Philadelphia or Washington.” Good thing there isn’t an actual Jeffersonian running!

But the principles of 1789, or actually of 1787, also protect freedom from government power and are just as essential today as they were at the Founding. The Framers knew their history. They knew that people with power tend to abuse it and to restrict freedom. In his last letter, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote:

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

Because they feared the exercise of power, the Framers wrote a Constitution that established a government of delegated, enumerated, and thus limited powers. Then the people insisted on a Bill of Rights to further protect their rights even from the very limited federal government established in the Constitution. Then, after identifying specific rights that individuals retained, they also added, “for greater caution,” as James Madison put it, the Ninth Amendment to clarify that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

One would hope that all members of Congress – and voters, and political reporters – believe that those principles and those constitutional rules should be applied to issues of today. Surely the First Amendment remains relevant. And the Fourth. And the limits on unconstrained power in the basic structure of the Constitution. The merits of any particular candidate aside, support of the Constitution and the principles it embodies seems like a good, even minimal, qualification for public office.

North Korean Purge Opportunity for America to Extricate Itself from Potential Conflict

It doesn’t pay to be number two in North Korea.  In December the young dictator Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-taek, supposedly Kim’s top advisor.  Now Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who climbed atop Jang’s corpse, has been relieved of his important positions.

Choe’s fall is particularly important because, though he was an aide to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, he rose rapidly under the younger Kim.  Dumping Choe reshapes the political environment of Kim’s making.

While Kim’s dominance in Pyongyang does not guarantee the regime’s survival, it dampens hope for any change outside of Kim.  Today’s Korean Winter isn’t likely to give way to a Korean Spring. 

Moreover, nothing suggests that the North’s communist monarchy is about to give way.  Many observers have waited a long time for regime collapse in the North.  They probably will have to wait a lot longer.

So far Kim Jong-un doesn’t appear to be much interested in reform.  If anything, he is more committed to his government’s nuclear weapons program and confrontational foreign policy than were his predecessors.

North Korea’s policy toward the South has oscillated wildly, but has headed mostly downward.   The North also appears to be preparing a fourth nuclear test.  The DPRK recently test-fired two medium-range missiles, predicting “next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine.”

The Obama administration obviously is frustrated, and reportedly is considering easing preconditions for resuming the long-stalled Six Party Talks.  However, it’s unlikely that renewed negotiations would lead anywhere.  Which has left the major U.S. response to tie itself closer to its South Korean ally, loudly reaffirming that America will defend the Republic of Korea if necessary.

Washington needs to reflect first on why the North is such a problem for America.  A small, impoverished, and distant state, even with a handful of nuclear weapons (but no delivery capacity), obviously is no match for the globe’s superpower.  Ordinarily the former wouldn’t be interested in the latter.   

Federal Judge Halts Wisconsin “John Doe” Criminalization-of-Politics Probe

In a huge victory for the First Amendment, a Wisconsin federal judge has ordered a halt to a wide-ranging secret prosecutorial probe aimed at groups supporting Gov. Scott Walker. From pp. 1-2 of the court opinion (which is short enough to read, here): “Defendants instigated a secret John Doe investigation replete with armed raids on homes to collect evidence that would support their criminal prosecution.” Judge Rudolph Randa goes on to cite stunningly abusive conduct by the secret prosecutors and law enforcers under their command. (This article has more on Wisconsin’s distinctively broad law allowing so-called John Doe proceedings intended to determine whether a crime has been committed.) 

“The subpoenas’ list of advocacy groups indicates that all or nearly all right-of-center groups and individuals in Wisconsin who engaged in issue advocacy from 2010 to the present are targets of the investigation,” the judge writes. At the homes of targets across the state in the predawn hours of Oct. 3, 2013, “Sheriff deputy vehicles used bright floodlights to illuminate the targets’ homes. Deputies executed the search warrants, seizing business papers, computer equipment, phones, and other devices, while their targets were restrained under police supervision and denied the ability to contact their attorneys.” Target groups were also ordered to turn over essentially their entire records of public advocacy activity over a period of years.

I covered the probe and raids earlier at Overlawyered herehere, and most recently here. One of the most remarkable and harsh aspects of the raids was that they included gag orders forbidding the targets to talk about the episode with anyone other than their lawyers. That is one reason the story seeped out to the public only slowly and partially over a period of months. The Wall Street Journal editorial page helped bring the raids to national attention a month and a half after they took place, and has continued to follow the story since.

The citizens of Wisconsin must now demand a full accounting of how these raids could have happened. They should also insist on changes in state law, in particular the “John Doe” law, aimed at ensuring that nothing like them ever happens again.

The Growing Threat of a Wealth Tax

Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

Balcerowicz’s Polish Big Bang versus Ukraine

On May 21, 2014, Leszek Balcerowicz will receive the 2014 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty during a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The prestigious annual award by the Cato Institute carries with it a well-deserved check for $250,000.

For those who might have forgotten the accomplishments of my long-time friend, allow me to suggest that, in Balcerowicz’s case, a picture is literally worth a thousand words.

But, before the picture, a little background.

In 1989, Balcerowicz became Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in Eastern Europe’s first non-communist government since World War II. Balcerowicz held these positions from 1989 through 1991, and again from 1997 through 2000. Subsequently, in 2001, he became the Chairman of the National Bank of Poland, a post he held until January 2007.

A student of the “Five P’s”: prior preparation prevents poor performance; Balcerowicz was ready when he first took office in 1989. Indeed, he pulled his comprehensive economic game plan to liberalize and transform the Polish economy out of his desk drawer and proceeded to implement what became known as the “Big Bang”. As they say, the rest is history.

The results of the “Big Bang” speak for themselves in the accompanying chart. Poland’s economy has more than doubled since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, growing at an average annual rate of 4.42%.

What about neighboring Ukraine? The contrast with Balcerowicz’s Poland couldn’t be starker. As Oleh Havrylyshyn, the former deputy finance minister of Ukraine, spells out in his classic book – Divergent Paths in Post-Communist Transformation: Capitalism for All or Capitalism for the Few – Ukraine rejected the Big Bang, free-market approach to reform. In consequence, it has taken a road to nowhere, remaining in the shadow of a corrupt communist system.

Unlike Poland’s prosperity, Ukraine has witnessed a post-Soviet contraction in its economy. Yes, the Ukrainian economy has been contracting at a real annual rate of almost 1% since the fall of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it is smaller today in real terms than it was in 1992.

Many think the International Monetary Fund, which just ponied up $17 billion for Ukraine, will turn things around. Don’t hold your breath. Over the years, the IMF has dispensed its medicine and money in Ukraine with negative results.

When it comes to much-needed liberal economic reforms, one has to do something big; something that captures the public’s imagination and garners wide support. Unfortunately, Ukraine lacks a clear economic game plan – one with wide popular support.