Topic: Government and Politics

Democratic Governor in Arkansas Pushes Big Tax Cut

Although national Democrats (and some Republicans) have a love affair with higher taxes, Mike Beebe in Arkansas has convinced legislators to approve a big tax cut. To boost growth and competitiveness, his tax cut should have focused on lower income tax rates rather than cherry-picking certain constituencies, but at least he is reducing the state’s total tax grab. The Wall Street Journal opines:

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe may not be a man from Hope, but the newly elected Democrat is becoming a voice for tax relief within his party. Last year he campaigned on cutting in half his state’s 6% sales tax on groceries. Last week he made good on the promise by striking a deal with a reluctant Democratic legislature. His compromise also repeals income taxes on the poor and cuts sales taxes that manufacturers pay on their utility bills. All told, taxpayers will save $319 million over two years, or what the Governor calls “the largest tax decrease in the history of the state.” …The Tax Foundation reports that Arkansas is the 27th most taxed state in the nation with a heavier tax burden than neighboring Texas and Tennessee, neither of which has an income tax and rank 44th and 47th. The state is expected to have an $840 million surplus this year and could therefore afford additional cuts in its 6% general sales tax and 7% tax on income over $30,100.

Federal Bureaucrats: Same Old Story

The Washington Post reports on a new survey of 221,400 federal workers and their pay and performance.

Among the survey findings are that only 22 percent of federal workers agreed with the statement “pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs.”

Despite eight years of Al Gore’s “reinventing government” and six years of similar efforts under President Bush, the federal bureaucracy is still a very ill-functioning “bureaucracy.” Indeed, that will always be the case. Here are some reasons why:

  • Poorly performing federal agencies do not go bankrupt, and thus there is no built-in mechanism to eliminate failures;
  • Government managers face no profit incentive, giving them little reason to proactively reduce costs. Indeed, without profits to worry about, managers favor budget and staffing increases to boost their power and prestige;
  • Without the profit motive, there is little incentive for government workers to innovate and produce better services;
  • The output of much government work is hard to measure, making it difficult to set performance goals for managers and workers;
  • Even if performance could be measured, federal pay is generally tied to longevity, not performance;
  • Disciplining federal workers is difficult, and they are virtually never fired, resulting in agencies carrying heavy loads of poor performers;
  • To prevent corruption, governments need complex and costly regulations and paperwork to carry out routine functions such as procurement;
  • Because of the frequent turnover of political appointees, many agencies experience continual changes in their missions;
  • Congress imposes extra costs on agencies in carrying out their duties, such as resisting closure of unneeded offices in the districts of important members;
  • Agencies get influenced or “captured” by special interest groups that steer policies toward satisfying narrow goals, rather than broad public interest goals;
  • The large size and overlapping activities of federal agencies makes coordination of related functions very difficult. Sadly, we saw the results of this problem with the failures of U.S. intelligence agencies to effectively communicate with each other prior to 9/11.

For these reasons, and many more, the federal government ought to radically downsized with as many functions as possible left to the private sector. See http://www.downsizinggovernment.com/

Great Moments in Government

While making my daily visit to Marginal Revolution, I saw this gem about the Census Bureau’s celebration of Return-Shopping-Carts-to-the-Supermarket month. After 20-plus years observing money get wasted by Washington, I thought I had reached the point where nothing would surprise me. But this caused even my jaw to drop. It’s bad enough that some politician or bureaucrat concocted the goofy idea. It adds injury to insult when they then squander tax dollars to promote it:

We’ve all seen them and wondered how they got there — a supermarket shopping cart, sitting forlornly along a residential street, far from the nearest grocery store. Was it a prank, or someone who walked to the store and bought more than they could carry? Either way, this is Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month — including milk crates and bread trays.

Pro-Business Does Not Mean Pro-Freedom or Pro-Market

Representatives of the business community frequently are the worst enemies of freedom. They often seek special subsidies and handouts, and commonly conspire with politicians to thwart competition (conveniently, they want competition among their suppliers, just not for their own products). Fortunately, most business organizations still tend to be - on balance - supporters of limited government. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, some state and local chambers of commerce have become relentless enemies of good policy: 

…many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government. In Colorado, a coalition of property owners, conservative think tanks, anti-tax groups and small businesses fought against a ballot initiative in 2005 that was intended to gut the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (Tabor). They lost, and as a result state spending will expand by $5 billion over the next five years, costing the average family several thousand dollars in higher taxes. It was not the teachers’ unions or class-warfare liberals who spearheaded the campaign against Tabor, however – it was the Denver Chamber of Commerce. …In Virginia, the state and local chambers, along with big-business allies, have spent more than $4 million in recent years on ballot initiatives and legislative lobbying to raise $2 billion in taxes for roads, rails, buses and schools. This year they want a billion more for transportation, despite the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus, and have even threatened to run candidates against fiscal conservatives in the legislature who take a “no new taxes” pledge. …In New Jersey – home of some of the worst schools in the nation – the state chamber took out an ad with the teachers’ unions opposing a school-voucher initiative for families in inner cities. The ad was withdrawn only after pro-school reform business members hollered in protest. Last summer taxpayers revolted when Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine called for a $1.5 billion hike in the sales tax; but “the chamber and other business groups sat on their hands in order to avoid making enemies with the legislature,” notes Frayda Levin, New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity. In Oklahoma the state chamber filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to block eminent domain reform, and vowed to fight a taxpayer-led movement to enact a Colorado-style Tabor. Massachusetts? The state chamber and allied business groups oppose an income tax cut.

Proposed Hedge Fund Regulations Would Limit Options for All but the Rich

The nanny-state mentality of the Bush Administration and its appointees shows no sign of abating. The latest farce comes from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which want to prohibit all but the very wealthy from taking advantage of successful hedge fund investing. Richard Rahn comments in the Washington Times:

Financial regulation is most often justified by arguing it is needed to protect all participants from those who would engage in fraud or theft, and to protect unsophisticated investors from losing money in investments they do not understand. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just proposed that the amount of liquid net worth an individual must have before investing in hedge funds and other so-called risky investments be raised to as much as $2.5 million. People meeting a net liquid worth requirement are considered “accredited investors.” …Even though most people would agree it is important to try to protect “widows and orphans” from unscrupulous and/or incompetent financial promoters, there is a fine line between protecting those who need protection and denying freedom to those who don’t. Does it make sense to prohibit a person who has recently obtained a graduate degree in finance from a leading business school from buying and selling hedge funds, because he or she has not yet accumulated some arbitrary amount of wealth – while legally allowing any adult man or woman to take all of his or her wealth and go to Las Vegas and blow it at the gambling tables?

Montgomery County Socialism

For readers in or around the DC area, the Washington City Paper has a nice cover story on the draconian Department of Liquor Control in the People’s Republic of Montgomery County, Md. The DLC is a government agency that controls the supply and distribution of every drop of alcohol sold in MC.

The piece sketches out some of the nightmarish experiences that business owners in MC have to go through to procure otherwise widely-available wines, and how the county outrageously cranks up the prices and provides godawful service to the business owners. (For example, a bottle that sold for $240 at a shi-shi DC restaurant is available for MC restaurant owners to purchase from the county for $260. They’d then have to mark it up themselves, again, to make a profit.)

Finally, the author of the piece interviews the director of the DLC, George Griffin, and asks him, “What gives?”

Griffin then proceeds to reel off some impressive statistics on how control jurisdictions have lower rates of underage drinking and fewer alcohol-related traffic fatalities for people under 21 than open jurisdictions. (An independent study forwarded to me by the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association seems to confirm his stats.) But then Griffin pauses briefly and delivers a disarmingly direct kicker to his list of justifications for MoCo’s system: “And that’s in addition to the $22 million that we give the county in unrestricted funds.”

Since taking over the DLC in 2001, after disgraced director Howard L. Cook Jr. was forced to leave for misusing a county credit card (among other misdeeds), Griffin will be the first to admit the contradictory nature of his job. It’s both to promote the “moderation and responsible behavior in all phases of distribution and consumption”…and to make a buttload of money to dump into the county’s budget. In the last five and a half years alone, the DLC has transferred more than $100 million to the general fund.

It isn’t just fine wines, either. When I was in college, I worked at a Bethesda pizza place to pay the bills. I recall during one of our busiest seasons, we ran out of all draft pilsner beer — Bud, Bud Light, Miller Light, etc. We begged, pleaded, beseeched the county to bring us more. Business had gone into the toilet, with no beer to serve with the pizza. The response from the DLC? ”We’ll be there when we get there.” They got there about a week later.

Meanwhile, DC restaurant owners are laughing all the way to the bank:

Some drinkers are already laughing at the wine choices in MoCo. “Nobody can think of a single restaurant that’s in Montgomery County that has anything approaching a noteworthy wine list,” says Mark Slater, chef sommelier at Citronelle, who once co-owned a restaurant in the county. “I don’t know why the citizens of the county even let that stuff go on. It’s punitive.”

Get the whole sorry scoop here.

Unsurprising News from the Pentagon

The Washington Post reports yesterday on cost overruns for weapons procurement. “It is not unusual for weapons programs to go 20 to 50 percent over budget, the Government Accountability Office found.”

That’s for sure. As I’ve documented, it’s not unusual for weapons to more than double in cost. I’m talking about the F/A-22 Raptor, the V-22 Osprey, the CH-47F helicopter, the Patriot missile, and on and on. See here, and see the discussion in Downsizing the Federal Government.

The same pattern occurs in federal highway projects, energy projects, and many other government endeavors.

Part of the reason this occurs is that contractors and government officials have a quiet understanding that the initial cost numbers that are used to get projects launched should be low-balled. Both sides know that later on, after projects are underway, excuses can be found to raise the price tag. “The scope of work has expanded.” “We couldn’t have foreseen those additional problems.” “The mission requirements have changed.” “There are new regulatory requirements.”

It doesn’t really matter. Once the money is flowing to certain states and jobs are at stake, no member of Congress has an incentive to be frugal with taxpayer money.