Topic: Government and Politics

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.

Supreme Court Wasn’t Serious about the Second Amendment

While the media attention will focus on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway – the legislative-prayer case – the more interesting (and consequential) decision issued today was the Court’s denial of review in Drake v. Jerejian, the Second Amendment case I previously discussed here. In Drake, the lower federal courts upheld an outrageous New Jersey law that denies the right to bear arms outside the home for self-defense – just like the D.C. law at issue in District of Columbia v. Heller denied the right to keep arms inside the home – and today the Supreme Court let them get away with it.

Drake is but the latest in a series of cases that challenge the most restrictive state laws regarding the right to armed self-defense. Although the Supreme Court in Heller declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual constitutional right, lower federal courts with jurisdiction over states like Maryland and New York have been “willfully confused” about the scope of that right, declining to protect it outside Heller’s particular facts (a complete ban on functional firearms in the home). It’s as if the Supreme Court announced that the First Amendment protects an individual right to blog about politics from your home computer, but then some lower courts allowed states to ban political blogging from your local Starbucks.

Yet each time, the Supreme Court has denied review.

A Decent but Underwhelming Jobs Report

The headlines from today’s employment report certainly seem positive.

The unemployment rate has dropped to 6.3 percent and there are about 280,000 new jobs.*

But if you dig into the details of the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you find some less-than-exciting data.

First, here is the chart showing total employment over the past 10 years.

Total Employment

This shows a positive trend, and it is good that the number of jobs is climbing rather than falling.

But it’s disappointing that we still haven’t passed where we were in 2008.

Indeed, the current recovery is miserable and lags way behind the average of previous recoveries.

But the really disappointing news can be found by examining the data on how many working-age people are productively employed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has two different data sets that measure the number of people working as a share of the population.

Here are the numbers on the labor force participation rate.

Labor Force Participation

As you can see, we fell down a hill back in 2008 and there’s been no recovery.

The same is true for the employment-population ratio, which is the data I prefer for boring, technical reasons.

Emplyment Population Ratio

Though I should acknowledge that the employment-population ratio does show a modest uptick, so perhaps there is a glimmer of good news over the past few years.

But it’s still very disappointing that this number hasn’t bounced back since our economic output is a function of how much labor and capital are productively utilized.

In other words, the official unemployment rate could drop to 4 percent and the economy would be dismal if that number improved for the wrong reason.

* Perhaps the semi-decent numbers from last month are tied to the fact that Congress finally stopped extending subsidies paid to people for staying unemployed?

The Politics of Personal Destruction—Campaign Finance Version

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko had a great tweet this morning—“Rich progressives hold secret meeting to discuss how we can ban rich conservatives from holding secret meetings.” He linked to a long morning POLITICO piece by Kenneth P. Vogel, “Big donor secrecy: ‘Irony, but it’s not hypocrisy,’” about a gathering in Chicago this week of major Democratic Party donors that’s raised more than $30 million for liberal groups—a meeting that included a bit of strong-arming to keep unwanted reporters at bay, Vogel reports.

Secrecy aside, one of the issues I found most interesting among the many interesting things in Vogel’s piece was his discussion about what motivates big political donors—and the different perceptions liberals and conservatives have about that question. Both sides argue, he writes, that “their donations are animated by a desire to right a country headed down the wrong path.” But,

All Aboard the Privatization Train

With the expiration of the current federal highway bill in a few months, the infrastructure issue is heating up. Newspapers are ginning up interest with stories about deficient and falling down bridges (e.g. here and here).

Diane Rehm kindly invited me to her NPR show this morning to discuss how we should move ahead with financing infrastructure. I pointed to the advantages of devolving funding to state governments and the private sector. America should embrace the global movement towards privatization and public-private partnerships for highways, bridges, airports, and other facilities.

Even Japan—previously known for its pork-barrel infrastructure spending—is beginning to embrace privatization, notes this piece at NextCity.org (h/t Nick Zaiac):

Over a 15-year period starting in 1987, the Japanese government undertook one of the most ambitious privatizations in history, moving its most heavily traveled railways from public ownership into private hands. The privatization of Japanese National Railways – whose assets on Honshu (Japan’s main island) were split into three separate companies (JR East, Central and West, each centered around one of Japan’s three major metropolitan areas) – was a roaring business success. JR East, which runs commuter, intercity and Shinkansen lines in Tokyo and the surrounding region, doubled its revenue over the 15-year period, cut its payroll by a third, upped its per-capita passenger-miles by two-thirds, all while cutting the number of accidents by nearly 60 percent and keeping fares more or less flat.

Now Osaka, Japan is looking to repeat the magic, but this time on its city subway network – which, if successful, would be the first government subway system in the country to be sold off.

… The move follows on the heels of the sale of another one of the prefecture’s railways, the … Semboku Rapid Railway.

… Not to be outdone, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is considering selling its 46.6 percent stake in Tokyo Metro.