Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Zimbabwean Economics Spreads to Capitol Hill

In Zimbabwe, the government is ordering businesses to cut prices and threatening to jail executives who don’t comply, in an attempt to deal with inflation that is now variously estimated at somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000 percent a year.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill both houses of Congress have passed legislation establishing stiff penalties for those found guilty of gasoline price gouging. The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department to go after oil companies, traders, or retail operators if they take “unfair advantage” or charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for gasoline and other fuels in an “energy emergency.” (The complex energy legislation is still working its way through both houses, though both have endorsed the price-gouging provisions.)

How’d’ja like to be the bureaucrat charged with enforcing such vague and emotional language, or the businessperson trying not to incur a 10-year jail sentence for doing something “unfair” or “unconscionably excessive”? It’d be sort of like living in, you know, Zimbabwe.

Did Congress offer bureaucrats and businesses any more specific guidance? You bet they did. H.R. 6 and S. 1263 define an ”unconscionably excessive price” as a price that

(A)(i) represents a gross disparity between the price at which it was offered for sale in the usual course of the supplier’s business immediately prior to the President’s declaration of an energy emergency;

(ii) grossly exceeds the price at which the same or similar crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillate was readily obtainable by other purchasers in the affected area; or

(iii) represents an exercise of unfair leverage or unconscionable means on the part of the supplier, during a period of declared energy emergency; and

(B) is not attributable to increased wholesale or operational costs outside the control of the supplier, incurred in connection with the sale of crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates.

So that seems reasonable clear: it’s a price that is “gross” or “unfair” or (redundantly enough) “unconscionable.” And it can only happen during a “Federal energy emergency”:

(a) IN GENERAL- If the President finds that the health, safety, welfare, or economic well-being of the citizens of the United States is at risk because of a shortage or imminent shortage of adequate supplies of crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates due to a disruption in the national distribution system for crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates (including such a shortage related to a major disaster (as defined in section 102(2) of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act 42 U.S.C. 5122(2))), or significant pricing anomalies in national energy markets for crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates, the President may declare that a Federal energy emergency exists.

In the United States, unlike Zimbabwe, we have the rule of law. That means vague, emotional, and nonsensical laws can only be passed upon a vote of both houses of Congress and the approval of the president.

It Dawns Upon Gore

This Fast Company profile of Al Gore (via Jim Henley) contains this delicious nugget:

One problem he had in politics, he says, was identifying an issue too early–“ ‘predawn’ is the term I use”–to be able to act on it. But “in the business world, particularly at a time when things are moving so swiftly, if you can see it early, you can make a business opportunity out of it.” He pauses. “For whatever reason, the business world rewards a long-term perspective more than the political world does.”

“For whatever reason”!

It may be that “predawn” Al Gore has killer entrepreneurial instincts, but, being the scion of a political family, just got caught in the wrong game. However, I suspect he landed on the board of Apple, for example, for reasons other than his proven track record as a market ace. And the $175,000 speakers fee may have something to do with his having won the popular vote in a contest against one of history’s most unpopular presidents. But we can only hope that Gore’s many new business ventures help create new wealth and earn him and a bunch of other people a ton of money. For whatever reason, the incentives provided by markets to look further in the future than the next election tend to do us all a lot of good.     

Announcing the Anti-Universal Coverage Club

Inspired by National Review’s recent editorial and Andrew Sullivan’s embrace of same (as well as by Greg Mankiw), I have decided it would be fun and educational to keep tally of those who reject the idea that federal or state governments should strive to provide every American with health insurance.  Call it the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Here are the guiding principles of the Anti-Universal Coverage Club:

  1. Health policy should focus on making health care of ever-increasing quality available to an ever-increasing number of people.
  2. To achieve “universal coverage” would require either having the government provide health insurance to everyone or forcing everyone to buy it.  Government provision is undesirable, because government does a poor job of improving quality or efficiency.  Forcing people to get insurance would lead to a worse health-care system for everyone, because it would necessitate so much more government intervention.
  3. In a free country, people should have the right to refuse health insurance.
  4. If governments must subsidize those who cannot afford medical care, they should be free to experiment with different types of subsidies (cash, vouchers, insurance, public clinics & hospitals, uncompensated care payments, etc.) and tax exemptions, rather than be forced by a policy of “universal coverage” to subsidize people via “insurance.”

If you’d like to join the Anti-Universal Coverage Club, let me know by posting something to your own blog, or by emailing me mcannon [at] cato [dot] org (here).  Feel free to forward items from other like-minded individuals.

I predict that neither the American Medical Association, nor the Federation of American Hospitals, nor America’s Health Insurance Plans will join the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Cheney’s Secret Failure

The Washington Post has been running a huge series on the power and influence of Vice President Cheney. The first two parts examined his immense influence on the administration’s response to 9/11, “pushing the envelope” of presidential power (not to mention vice-presidential power) and crafting the administration’s position on the use of torture — or rather “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning.

But the third part, although written with the same sinister soundtrack, tells a very different story. The Post reporters seem to want us to be alarmed by Cheney’s power over fiscal policy and by his relentless push to reduce the burdens of taxes and spending on the American people. But there’s a problem with that story: not only is fiscal conservatism a good thing — unlike, say, secret authorization for domestic surveillance — but if Cheney’s goal was to constrain spending, he failed utterly.

Jo Becker and Barton Gellman report on Cheney’s power over the budget:

Cheney has changed history more than once, earning his reputation as the nation’s most powerful vice president. His impact has been on public display in the arenas of foreign policy and homeland security, and in a long-running battle to broaden presidential authority. But he has also been the unseen hand behind some of the president’s major domestic initiatives….

And it was Cheney who served as the guardian of conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters….

The vice president chairs a budget review board, a panel the Bush administration created to set spending priorities and serve as arbiter when Cabinet members appeal decisions by White House budget officials. The White House has portrayed the board as a device to keep Bush from wasting time on petty disagreements, but previous administrations have seldom seen Cabinet-level disputes in that light. Cheney’s leadership of the panel gives him direct and indirect power over the federal budget — and over those who must live within it….

Cheney often stepped in if he sensed the administration was softening its commitment to Republican “first principles,” Bolten said, and he was “a pretty vigorous voice for holding the line on spending and for holding the line on tax cuts.” Longtime Cheney adviser Mary Matalin said the vice president brings a “spine quotient” to internal debates.

To a fiscal conservative, this all sounds just fine: The most powerful vice president in American history, known as a strong conservative, is put in charge of fiscal policy and forces bureaucrats and Cabinet officers to “live within the budget.”

But we know the rest of the story: President Bush has increased federal spending at a faster pace than any president since Lyndon Johnson — or indeed faster. (And it is by no means all defense and homeland security spending.)

The Post reporters never quite tell us that, though there are some hints:

Cheney shared conservative trepidations about the president’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, which gave the federal government more control over K-12 education. He has griped privately to confidants, such as economist and CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow, about the administration’s failure to control spending. And in robust internal White House discussions, he raised concerns about the cost of the administration’s decision to expand Medicare to include a new multibillion-dollar drug entitlement, but bowed to the political reality that the president had to fulfill a campaign promise….

“Dick once told me that our president is a ‘big-government conservative,’” said former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), in a recollection disputed by Cheney’s office. “Now, Dick keeps his opinions to himself whenever he disagrees with the administration, as he should. But I believe that Dick is a small-government conservative.”

In a way, Cheney’s story is the story of the Bush administration: Where they pushed bad policies, policies that dramatically expand the power of the federal government and infringe on our liberties, they have had much success. When Cheney and occasionally Bush backed good policies, policies that would constrain government, they failed miserably. Indeed, if Vice President Cheney is indeed a “small-government conservative” who used his unprecedented power to “hold the line” for “conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters,” he has been a failure of Carteresque proportions.

Maybe taxpayers would be better off if Cheney had had his own staff prepare a secret federal budget and implement it without input from Bush’s staff, relevant Cabinet officers, Congress, or the courts.

Jurisdictional Competition is the Only Hope for Europe’s Taxpayers

A new report from the European Commission shows that the tax burden continues to climb. The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that tax competition is forcing politicians to lower corporate rates and to consider lowering tax rates on labor. A Dow Jones report notes that Eastern European nations are having a good effect since their low-rate tax systems are forcing reforms elsewhere in Europe:

Eurostat said the E.U.’s tax burden remained below the high of 41.0% reached in 1999. The tax burden last increased in 2003. Taxes on work rose to 35.2% from 35.1% in the E.U., and to 36.8% from 36.2% in the euro zone. Eurostat said the decline in labor taxes that began at the turn of the century had come to a halt “despite a wide consensus on the desirability of reducing labor taxes.” E.U. governments have agreed that persuading more Europeans to work is essential if the bloc is to remain economically competitive with the U.S. and Asia. Cutting taxes on work is seen as a vital step in that direction. Eurostat said that although taxes on work remained below the 2000 high of 36.5%, they are “much higher…than in the other main industrialized economies.” …there is growing evidence of tax competition between E.U. members that is pushing tax rates down. In general, new E.U. members from eastern Europe have lower top rates of income and corporation tax. Fearing that companies may move production to the new members, some older members of the E.U. have begun to cut corporation tax rates, including Germany and the U.K..

Is Efficient Government A Good Thing?

One of the behind-the-scenes initiatives of President Bush’s budget staff the past six years has been something called the Program Assessment Ratings Tool (PART) analysis. It’s an effort to measure the “effectiveness” and “efficiency” of nearly 1,000 federal programs. Each program is graded on how well it achieves its “goals,” with marks ranging from “effective” (the equivalent of an A grade) to “ineffective” (the equivalent of an F grade).

In Tuesday’s Investor’s Business Daily op-ed section, Ernest Christian and Gary Robbins take a look at the results to date of the effort:

Congress is about to wave its wand over nearly $1 trillion of additional “discretionary” spending that will, among other things, perpetuate or increase funding for nearly 500 expenditure programs that are not even “moderately effective,” according to the Office of Management and Budget. This includes more than 200 expenditure programs that have failing grades of D or F.

By our calculations, the OMB study, called Program Assessment Ratings Tool (PART), further reveals that on average more than half of all federal expenditure programs are falling about 50% short of their stated goals.

This means that out of every dollar spent, 50 cents may possibly be accomplishing something worthwhile, but the remaining 50 cents might as well have been poured down a rat hole. In these cases alone, the cost of government incompetence is over $250 billion per year.

The list of programs with the lowest grades might make any supporter of limited government point wildly and say, “Told you so!” This rogue’s gallery includes the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s pork-filled Community Development Block Grants, the Department of Education’s Even Start literacy program, and Amtrak.

But what about the ones that received the equivalent of an A or B grade – those programs that are “effective” or “moderately effective”? That list includes homeless assistance grants, agricultural export subsidies, Indian housing loan guarantees, the non-insured crop assistance program, and corporate welfare programs like the Trade and Development Agency which subsidizes overseas demand for the products of various corporations.

The main activity these programs are really “efficient” at is spending your money in new and interesting ways on things they shouldn’t be spending your money on in the first place.

Take the non-insured crop assistance program, for instance. This program subsidizes farmers who aren’t holding a federal crop insurance policy in the event of a crop-damaging natural disaster. What did it do to earn the honor of being listed as “moderately effective”? It became very good at increasing the number of crops eligible for subsidies.

Sure, knowing when the government is losing money to fraud or mismanagment is important. But it makes more sense to determine whether these programs should exist at all before deciding what they should be “efficient” at doing. Besides, an efficient but unjustified wealth-redistribution program might actually be worse than an inefficient one. The former will likely be better at finding innovative ways of expanding the scope of its operations.

Slapping the “efficiency” label on certain federal programs is a bit like putting lipstick on a pig. You can dress up Leviathan, but it’s still Leviathan.

Chocolate Chutzpah

Americans love their chocolate. So it’s no surprise that one of the most-read pages currently on the New York Times’ website is Monday’s op-ed decrying a proposal to change federal regulations on what can be legally labeled “chocolate.”

Under Food and Drug Administration regulations, “chocolate” must contain crushed cacao beans and may contain a short list of other ingredients, including spices, nuts, sweeteners, and dairy products. Confections that do not comply with those regulations cannot carry the “chocolate” label.

Some candymakers have petitioned the FDA to expand the list of allowable additives to include various fats. If that happens, chocolatiers could substitute cheaper vegetable oils for expensive cocoa butter — the fat in cacao beans that provides chocolate’s melt-in-your-mouth texture. By substituting away from cocoa butter, confectioners would lower their production costs,  which would lead to greater profit margins or, if the candymakers compete on price, lower chocolate’s price to consumers.

To be clear, chocolatiers can already make this substitution, but the resulting product cannot legally be called “chocolate.” A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but “chocolate-like candy” apparently doesn’t sell as well as “chocolate.”

That brings us to the NYT op-ed, penned by Mort Rosenblum. He laments:

The proposal would widen the gap between good and awful. Industrial food companies could sell their waxy [confections] for less. But purveyors of the real thing have no corners to cut. While discerning chocoholics will fork over whatever it takes, those who can’t pay will never know chocolate.

As a chocophile, I sympathize with Rosenblum’s opinion of the would-be chocolates. But his lament is difficult to square with chocolate’s history, its current market trend, and basic economics.

When edible chocolate first appeared in the mid-19th century, the high price of cacao made it an endulgence for only the wealthy. Fortunately, the confection became more affordable a few decades later when chocolate makers started mixing in cheaper additives. The most important of those was milk, first popularized by the Swiss entrepreneur Daniel Peter (with help from a powdered milk maker named Henri Nestlé). In the United States, Milton Hershey experimented with the same idea, resulting in his affordable and popular ”great American chocolate bar.” Some Rosenblum predecessor likely complained that the added milk and sugar meant that consumers “will never know chocolate,” but it’s difficult to see Peter’s and Hershey’s creations as anything but a benefit to the consumer.

Nor did milk chocolate lead consumers to turn away from “real” chocolate. Until Monday’s NYT op-ed, recent news coverage on the chocolate industry has trumpeted the strong market trend toward premium chocolate. With plenty of Hershey’s, Whitman’s, and Russell Stover’s on the market, Americans nonetheless are buying more See’s, Godiva, and Lindt’s, and are searching for chocolate bars with higher and higher cacao content. And the large chocolate manufacturers are responding to the demand for premium chocolate.

From an economic perspective, this makes perfect sense. Consumers shift from a product to its substitute because they find the substitute preferable. In the case of the would-be chocolates, consumers would shift away from “real” chocolates because they prefer either the price or the taste of the new confections. Rosenblum makes clear his opinion that “real” chocolate is far better tasting, so only consumers with a strong concern about price would make the switch. Those consumers would not fail to “know chocolate” — they just would be unwilling to pay its price. Meanwhile, people who do prefer “real” chocolate — people who happily pay chocolate’s current price — will go on paying that price to enjoy the food of the gods.

A concern that Rosenblum’s op-ed could have raised is that consumers may be misled as to the nature of the candy bar they are purchasing if the “chocolate” regulation is amended as proposed. But even that concern seems hollow. As noted above, premium chocolates are currently en vogue, and the chocolate bars in the checkout lines at my Trader Joe’s boldly advertise their cacao content (some topping 85%). If the federal government were to change the chocolate regulations, quality chocolatiers would quickly respond with labels telling consumers that their chocolates contain no “foreign fats.”

Rosenblum’s op-ed is a fun and informative read, but the alarm it raises is, well, hard to swallow.

And now, I think I’ll head across the street to the CVS and grab a Ritter Sport bar.