Are Well-Meaning but Misguided Conservatives Being Seduced by the Value-Added Tax?

Having a vision of a free society doesn’t mean libertarians are incapable of common-sense political calculations.

For example, the long-run goal is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of the federal government, both because that’s how the Founding Fathers wanted our system to operate and because our economy will grow much faster if labor and capital are allocated by economic forces rather than political calculations. But in the short run, I’m advocating for incremental progress in the form of modest spending restraint.

Why? Because that’s the best that we can hope for at the moment.

Another example of common-sense libertarianism is my approach to tax reform. One of the reasons I prefer the flat tax over the national sales tax is that I don’t trust that politicians will get rid of the income tax if they decide to adopt the Fair Tax. And if the politicians suddenly have two big sources of tax revenue, you better believe they’ll want to increase the burden of government spending.

Which is what happened (and is still happening) in Europe when value-added taxes were adopted.

And that’s a good segue to today’s topic, which deals with a common-sense analysis of the value-added tax.

Here’s the issue: I’m getting increasingly antsy because some very sound people are expressing support for the VAT.

I don’t object to their theoretical analysis. They say they don’t want the VAT in order to finance bigger government. Instead, they argue the VAT should be used only to replace the corporate income tax, which is a far more destructive way of generating revenue.

And if that was the final–and permanent–outcome of the legislative process, I would accept that deal in a heartbeat. But notice I added the requirement about a “permanent” outcome. That’s because I have two requirements for such a deal:

1. The corporate income tax could never be reinstated.

2. The VAT could never be increased.

And this shows why theoretical analysis can be dangerous without real-world considerations. Simply stated, there is no way to guarantee those two requirements without amending the Constitution, and that obviously isn’t part of the discussion.

Attorneys General Aim at New Targets, Who Respond as Expected

The New York Times launches a series of investigative reports on corporate lobbying of state attorneys general. But you have to read fairly far down in the story to find the “nut graf” on why this is happening now. Radley Balko summed it up in a tweet: “As prosecutors get increasingly powerful, lobbyists will increasingly spend money to try to influence them.” And the article does note that: 

A robust industry of lobbyists and lawyers has blossomed as attorneys general have joined to conduct multistate investigations and pushed into areas as diverse as securities fraud and Internet crimes….

The increased focus on state attorneys general by corporate interests has a simple explanation: to guard against legal exposure, potentially in the billions of dollars, for corporations that become targets of the state investigations.

It can be traced back two decades, when more than 40 state attorneys general joined to challenge the tobacco industry, an inquiry that resulted in a historic $206 billion settlement.

Microsoft became the target of a similar multistate attack, accused of engaging in an anticompetitive scheme by bundling its Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system. Then came the pharmaceutical industry, accused of improperly marketing drugs, and, more recently, the financial services industry, in a case that resulted in a $25 billion settlementin 2012 with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicing companies.

The trend accelerated as attorneys general — particularly Democrats — began hiring outside law firms to conduct investigations and sue corporations on a contingency basis.

I wrote about this 30 years ago in the Wall Street Journal, citing Hayek’s assessment from 40 years before that:

Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek explained the process 40 years ago in his prophetic book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

As the size and power of government increase, we can expect more of society’s resources to be directed toward influencing government.

Those who work to increase the size, scope, and power of government need to recognize: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the federal government to tax (and borrow) and transfer – and reallocate through prosecution – $3.8 trillion a year, if you want it to supply Americans with housing and health care and school lunches and retirement security and local bike paths, then you have to accept that such programs come with incentive problems, politicization, corruption, and waste. And that special interests will find ways to influence such momentous decisions, no matter what lobbying restrictions and campaign finance regulations are passed.

Armor’s Reply to Barnett: Research on Early Childhood Ed Still Unpersuasive

W. Steven Barnett’s attempt to rebut my review of preschool research begins with an ad hominem attack on my (and Cato’s) motives for publishing this piece, calling it an “October Surprise” with an aim “to raise a cloud of uncertainty regarding preschool’s benefits that is difficult to dispel in the time before the election.” He omits that my first review of preschool research was published in January, the same month Cato sponsored a public forum on the topic with both pro and con speakers.  The current, expanded review was published now because it took me that long to finish it.  

Of course, it is crucial to let the research and arguments speak for themselves, but for what it is worth, I have no formal affiliation with Cato or any other organization other than George Mason University, while Barnett is Director of The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), whose mission is to “support high-quality, effective early childhood education for all young children.”  Barnett is a long-time advocate of universal preschool, while I had no position on pre-k until I read reports from the national Head Start Impact Study (HSIS).   

Moving on to substantive matters, Barnett says that because the successful Perry and Abecedarian programs were small and more intensive than current proposals, we should devote more resources to replicate them at scale, not discount them as of limited value in indicating how much larger, and different, programs would work.  But current “high quality” pre-K programs, including Abbott pre-K, do not in fact replicate either of these programs.  Moreover, Barnett ignores the national Early Head Start demonstration, a program similar to Abecedarian, which found no significant long-term effects in Grade 5 except for a few social behaviors of black parents–hardly an endorsement to make it universal.  Moreover, this one area of positive effects is tempered by significant negative effects on certain cognitive skills for the most at-risk students. 

What Public Choice Theory Says about Ebola

What does public choice theory say about responding to Ebola?

That is: What are the costs and benefits of various policies – not to the public – but to self-interested politicians? Public choice theory holds that politicians’ interests don’t always coincide with the public’s, and sometimes they diverge quite sharply. When interests diverge, politicians will often side with their own self-interest, even at the expense of the public.

So what do they want? Politicians want public esteem. They want above all to be seen as heroes. If that means sacrificing civil liberties - to little or no public benefit - then they will do so.

This remains true even if the “heroic” measures at hand amount to Ebola security theater. It would appear that’s what we’re getting - a set of state-level quarantines that are actually contrary to what doctors and epidemiologists recommend. (No, the public probably won’t care what the experts say. I mean, look – the public still buys antibacterial soaps, and public health experts don’t recommend those either.)

In general, then, we can expect politicians to be eager to quarantine. This eagerness will be completely independent of the specific facts of any particular disease. Recall that lots of politicians once wanted to be able to set up an HIV quarantine, too, even long after it was well known that HIV can’t be transmitted by hugging, kissing, sharing utensils, sharing toilet seats, non-euphemistic cuddling, or what have you. (Wasn’t that a loooong time ago? No: It was just last year. And they got what they wanted.)

In short, whether or not a quarantine is right in any particular case – and it might be right in some cases, though I wouldn’t know – public choice theory says that politicians will err on the side of quarantine.

If that seems cynical, consider the flip side: Politicians also don’t want to look like the ones who let Ebola into the country. Note that one might look like the person who brought Ebola into the country even when one’s policies are responsible for exactly zero additional Ebola risk. Life is unfair sometimes. Even to politicians.

To look like a screwup, all you have to do… is nothing. The public will be left to stew in its fears, and they hate it when that happens. So they will punish you, and your party, at the next possible opportunity. (When is that again?)

The costs of doing nothing here are especially high if your constituency happens to be made up of conservatives – in whom Jonathan Chait has pointed out a strong emotional preference for purity and cleanliness. We should thus expect to find fear of contamination at or near the top of the to-do list for conservatives, who will try, first, to intensify these fears, and second, to promote their own policies as the only ones capable of relieving them.

Return of the Vampire Lawsuit Against School Choice

Just in time for Halloween, a vampire lawsuit against school choice has risen from the dead.

Nearly a month ago, a Florida judge dismissed the Florida Education Association’s (FEA) lawsuit against a bill amending the state’s school choice laws, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked the standing to sue because they were not harmed. The union wanted to block the creation of the Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts program for students with special needs, and “in particular” the so-called “expansion” of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTCS) law, which provides tax credits to corporations in return for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low-income children attend the schools of their choice. There are two additional lawsuits against school choice in Florida, including another involving the FEA.

This year, nearly 70,000 low-income students received FTCS scholarships. One former scholarship recipient, Denisha Merriweather, recently wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal explaining how the FTCS allowed her to switch from her assigned district school, which failed to meet her needs, to a private school where she thrived.

Last week, the FEA filed an amended complaint with additional plaintiffs. The union argues that the new plaintiffs have standing as district school teachers and parents of district school students because they “are threatened by the implementation of […] the expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program,” which they claim would cause the district schools to “[lose] considerable funding” since the scholarship funds “that otherwise would go to support the public schools are instead redirected through an intermediary to provide vouchers [sic] for Florida children to attend private schools.” (The FEA’s complaint did not discuss the impact of the Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts.)

The union’s argument suffers from at least two fatal flaws.

First, the FTCS does not “redirect” any state funds. The state of Florida allocates funds to school, in part, on a per-pupil basis, but the fiscal impact of a student leaving her assigned district school to accept a tax-credit scholarship is no different than the fiscal impact of a student moving out of the district, attending private school without a scholarship, or homeschooling. Moreover, if the funds were actually “redirected” then the state would not realize any savings. In fact, the state’s own Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that the FTCS generates significant savings ($36.2 million in 2008-09) because the forgone revenue is less than the reduction in state expenditures.

Second, the union is factually incorrect in asserting that the challenged legislation, SB 850, “expanded” the FTCS. The bill loosened eligibility requirements by eliminating the requirement that recipients spend the prior academic year in a district school; allowing foster students to continue receiving scholarships if adopted; and raising the income thresholds for eligibility for full and partial scholarships. However, the bill did not expand the amount of tax credits available nor did it add any new credits against other taxes. In other words, while the bill increased the number of students who can apply for scholarships, it did not increase the actual amount of available tax credits or scholarship funds.

The FEA’s vampire lawsuit misunderstands how the FTCS law works and misstates the facts about what the legislation does. The judge should drive a stake through its heart.

Nevada Cracks Down on Uber

Unsurprisingly, Nevada officials are cracking down on Uber. Last Friday, the San Francisco-based transport technology company announced its launch in Sin City. On the day of the launch eight Uber drivers in Las Vegas had their cars impounded and were issued citations for providing an “unlicensed for-hire transportation service.” In addition, District Court Judge James Russell banned Uber drivers from offering ridesharing services in Nevada until at least early November.

Instead of spending time and money on impounding ridesharing vehicles Nevada officials should turn to their attention to reforming taxi regulations, which make it difficult for taxis in Las Vegas to compete with Uber.

As I noted last week, Las Vegas has especially over burdensome taxi regulations in place. Taxi drivers in Las Vegas are restricted in regards to where, how, and sometimes (depending on which medallion they have) when they pick can up passengers. Uber drivers are not nearly as restricted. Given such an environment it shouldn’t be surprising that yesterday Uber was reporting an “insane” level of demand.

According to an Uber spokeswoman, the company is financially and legally supporting drivers dealing with citations and impounded vehicles, as it has done in other jurisdictions where drivers have run afoul of regulators. According to one Uber driver in Las Vegas, five Nevada Taxicab Authority vehicles and two undercover officers with black ski masks were used to impound his Ford Focus while he was trying to drop off passengers.

In an ideal regulatory framework taxis and ridesharing driverswould fairly compete and Uber drivers would not have their cars impounded. Unfortunately, many taxi regulations in the U.S. allow for incumbent protection and do little to encourage competition and innovation that would benefit consumers.

Uber drivers’ experiences in Las Vegas highlight the regulatory grey area that Uber and other sharing economy companies occupy. Before the rise of the sharing economy the distinction between private car owners and taxis was clear. Today, Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar make that distinction more difficult to make, and regulators across the U.S. are struggling to keep up with the changes in technology that allow for the sharing economy to exist. 

Yet rather than deal with companies like Uber by reexamining and updating existing taxi regulations or taking steps to make taxis more competitive, the Nevada Taxicab Authority has deployed officials to crack down on drivers using Uber. This is an overreaction to the emergence of ridesharing. The Nevada Taxicab Authority ought to consider a range of changes to existing regulations such as not restricting how and where Las Vegas taxi drivers can pick up passengers.

The technology that allows Uber and other ridesharing companies to operate is not going anywhere. The Nevada Taxicab Authority cannot possibly expect the impounding of ridesharing vehicles to be an effective long-term strategy. In the short term, however, it shouldn’t be surprising if the Nevada Taxicab Authority continues to use the existing outdated regulatory environment to its advantage in order to protect taxi drivers from competition.

Two Lessons from the Tunisian Election

The victory of the secular party Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) in the parliamentary election on Sunday carries two lessons for observers of transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The first one is broadly optimistic, but the second one should be a cause for concern, heralding economic, social, and political troubles ahead.

1. The Arab Spring was not a one-way street to religious fundamentalism.

In spite of the unexpected and often violent turns that political events have taken in countries such as Syria or Libya, the revolutions across the MENA countries were not just thinly disguised attempts to impose theocratic rule on Arab societies. While Islam is an important cultural and social force, most people in the region have little appetite for a government by Islamist extremists. In fact, much of the headway that Islamist politicians made shortly after the fall of authoritarian regimes in the region can be explained by their track records as community organizers or providers of public services.

Tunisia is a case in point. Already in 2011, the country’s leading Islamic party, Ennahda, featured numerous women candidates in the election, and following a political crisis last year it negotiated a peaceful handover to a caretaker government that led the country to yesterday’s election.

Tunisia’s new leading political force, Nidaa Tounes, may have gained as many as 80 seats in the 217-seat parliament. It describes itself as a ‘modernist’ party. It unites secular politicians of various stripes, including labor union members, or former officials of the regime of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The leader of the party, the 87-year old Beji Caid el-Sebsi (who served as interim prime minister in 2011) had a long political career prior to the revolution, including an ambassadorship in Berlin after Ben Ali’s ascent to power.

2. Don’t expect radical economic reforms.

For those who feared that democratization in the MENA region could bring about theocracy and extremism, the status-quo nature of Nidaa Tounes is probably good news. At the same time, however, it seems unlikely that the party, whose sympathizers largely overlap with those of the country’s influential labor unions, will bring about the deep institutional and economic changes that Tunisia needs in order to extend access to economic opportunity to ordinary Tunisians by dismantling Byzantine red tape and corruption and freeing up its economy.

For example, while it is certainly praiseworthy that the party has promised to improve the economic situation of women, one should worry that it plans to do so by what are likely to be popular yet ineffective measures: creating a new government bureau fighting discrimination, investing in social housing for young female workers, and extending statutory maternity leave.

More importantly, in many areas the exact economic platform of Nidaa Tounes remains blurry. The party promises to foster consensus among the government, civil society, labor unions, and employers. It also promised to cut public spending – in part by reforming the system of fuel subsidies – increase industrial exports and promote industries with high value added, most notably hi-tech and renewable energy, and to subsidize economic development in poorer regions by an amount of 50 billion dinars ($28 billion) over the next five years, 30 billion of which would be coming from the public budget.

Heavy on clichés and light on specifics, these promises are reminiscent of electoral manifestos of social democratic parties of Europe. Regardless of whether that would be a good thing under normal circumstances, what Tunisia needs now is a bold agenda of economic liberalization, as well as a Leszek Balcerowicz-like figure to implement it. With a mushy economic program and Mahmoud Ben Romdhane – former deputy head of Tunisia’s ex-communist party, Ettajdid –as the key economic policy figure on the party, Nidaa Tounes offers neither.