Not Theirs to Give: Misguided Compassion at Public Expense

What can seem more appealing than a cafeteria worker giving out free lunches? Or an education official writing-off school loans?

Yet, in both cases, those acting as beneficent philanthropists weren’t paying the cost. The taxpayers were. Public officials should learn that the money is not theirs to give.

Della Curry recently was dismissed as kitchen manager from an elementary school in Aurora, Colorado for, she admitted, “giving food to children that did not have money.” Doing so was legally wrong, she said, but “I do not feel bad about it and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Although posing as a great humanitarian while denouncing this rich nation for failing to “provide lunch for its children,” she didn’t pay for any children’s lunch. Rather, she gave them a full lunch at public expense.

Indeed, contrary to her claim, the school district was no collective Scrooge. Many children were on official school lunch plans and received free or cheap meals. In fact, a family of four could earn $44,000 annually and still receive a federal subsidy.

Any other student without money received free meals three times. After that, cashless children received a cheese sandwich.

Chris Christie’s Fiscal Record

Chris Christie joins the Republican field for president with an announcement at his former high school. Christie, the current governor of New Jersey, has worked to improve New Jersey’s fiscal situation. Christie earned a respectable grade of “B” on both the 2012 and 2014 Cato’s Fiscal Policy Report Cards, partly due to his repeated vetoes of the legislature’s tax increases.

Christie has vetoed personal income tax increases five times in six years, including just last week. The 2015 version of the tax increase would have raised the top personal income tax bracket from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent on income over $1 million. It was coupled with a 15 percent surcharge on corporate income taxes. Together, these two tax increases would have raised $1.1 billion, an enormous tax hike.

Christie has tried to lower taxes on New Jersey residents several times. In 2012, he proposed a 10 percent cut to personal income taxes. He also has signed into law some business tax cuts, including a large package in 2011 that featured  an energy tax cut.

However, Christie has promoted misguided tax policies as well. This year, he pushed to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to 30 percent, up from 20 percent. He pushed to increase taxes on e-cigarettes in 2014. He supported a number of targeted tax credits to encourage companies to stay in New Jersey. He created the “Grow New Jersey” tax credit which provides $5,000 to companies for each job created or retained in the state. Such tax provisions made the code more complex and do not generate broad-based growth.

Greece Is Being Taxed to Death

American news stories about the Greek financial collapse frequently echo complaints of government employees and their supplicants about “budget cuts.”  In reality, Greek government spending rose from 44.6 percent of GDP in early 2006 to 54 percent in 2010 and 59.2 percent in 2014 (although this is partly because private GDP fell even faster than government spending).  Military spending is particularly lavish in Greece, second only to the United States within NATO as a percentage of GDP.  

What is rarely mentioned in all the one-sided confusion about “austerity” is the other side of the budget–namely, taxes. 

As if Greece didn’t have enough troubles, the Troika (International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank) has promoted capital flight and a brain drain (exodus of skill and talent) by offering more and more loans to Greece in exchange for an increasingly suicidal blend of brutal taxes on both labor and capital.  The table shows what happened to key Greek tax rates in the past few years. 

  Current Previous
Corporate Tax Rate 26.00 20.00
Personal Income Tax Rate 46.00 40.00
Sales Tax Rate (VAT) 23.00 18.00
Social Security Rate 42.01 29.05

Do You Hear the Drivers Honk?

Last week, taxi drivers in France protested the Uber ride-sharing service by blocking access to airports and train stations, erecting barricades, destroying vehicles, and assaulting rival drivers in confrontations that led to injuries. American celebrity Courtney Love Cobain, caught up in the chaos, tweeted: “they’ve ambushed our car and are holding our driver hostage. they’re beating the cars with metal bats. this is France?? I’m safer in Baghdad.”

The government of France then responded to the violence in oh-so-French fashion: it arrested Uber’s executives

My Cato colleague Matthew Feeney wrote the whole story up and you should go read his Forbes piece now. My humbler role is to set the episode to music, by way of a tune you may have found hard to get out of your head if you’ve ever seen Les Miserables

Do you hear the drivers honk
Smashing the heads of random chaps
It is the music of a people
Who will not give way to apps

When the tapping of a screen
Summons a ride with just their thumbs
It is the future we are fighting
When Uber comes

When technology disrupts
The cozy pasture where we graze
We’ll challenge it with fisticuffs
And self-serving Luddite cliches

[repeat chorus:]

When the tapping of a screen
Summons a ride with just their thumbs
It is the future we are fighting
When Uber comes.

[thanks to Rogers Turner and John Strong for suggestions on the lyrics]

Washington and Havana Officially Restore Diplomatic Ties

It was long overdue. After over half a century of unsuccessfully trying to bring about regime change in Cuba through isolation, President Obama announced today that Washington has reached a deal with Havana to reopen embassies on July 20th.

There was a lot of posturing in the process, particularly from Cuba. At some point, the island’s dictator even said that restoring diplomatic ties would not be possible unless, among other things the United States returns Guantanamo and pays economic reparations for 50 years of embargo. In the end, it came down to the removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism and an agreement about the movement of U.S. diplomatic personnel around the island.

By restoring diplomatic ties, removing Cuba from the terrorist-sponsor list, and relaxing some elements of the embargo and the travel ban, the Obama administration has gone as far as it can using its executive authority. Lifting the outstanding elements of the embargo and travel ban is a prerogative of Congress. As it is, it looks unlikely that a bill in that regard will reach Obama’s desk for the remainder of his term.

Polls show not only considerable bipartisan support for Obama’s policy toward Cuba, but also a majority of Cuban Americans favoring rapprochement. Sooner rather than later, Congress–and the Republican presidential field–will realize the futility of sticking with the status quo.

Under no circumstances should we deceive ourselves on the current nature of the Cuban regime. It remains a Stalinist dictatorship. Dissidents are still harassed and arbitrarily arrested. The much-hyped economic reforms announced by Raúl Castro eight years ago have been too timid and seem more aimed at allowing Cubans to survive in the private sector without becoming prosperous.

However, political and economic isolation failed at weakening the Castro regime. American policy actually strengthened the Cuban government by providing itself as a scapegoat for Cuba’s disastrous economic policies and as a victim of U.S. aggression, thereby rallying support from all over the world.

Despite the embargo and travel ban still remaining in place, this is a historic move by the Obama administration.

Cato Continues Win Streak at Supreme Court, Government Does Abysmally Yet Again

After several blockbuster terms, this year was supposed to give a bit of a breather to Supreme Court watchers – but of course all that changed in November, when RobertsCare and same-sex marriage landed back on the justices’ laps. Looking back on the term, we see a few trends: fewer unanimous rulings than the last few years; more results that experts classify as “liberal” than “conservative” (though that’s a function of the vagaries of the docket); the lockstep voting of the liberal bloc contrasted against the inscrutability of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy.

But despite the highs and lows of the last few decision days, when the dust cleared, there was one aspect of continuity that’s particularly gratifying to me: Cato continued its winning streak in cases in which we filed amicus briefs. While not as dominating as last term, we still managed to pull off an 8-7 record. I’m also proud to note that we were the only organization in the country to support the challenges to both the IRS rule on the ACA and state marriage laws.

Here’s the breakdown, in the order the opinions arrived:

Winning side (8): North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTCYates v. United StatesElonis v. United StatesCity of Los Angeles v. PatelHorne v. U.S. Dept. of AgricultureJohnson v. United StatesObergefell v. HodgesMichigan v. EPA.

Losing side (7): Heien v. North CarolinaPerez v. Mortgage Bankers Assoc.; U.S. Dept. of Transportation v. Assoc. of American RailroadsEEOC v. Abercrombie & FitchWalker v. Sons of Confederate VeteransTexas Dept. of Housing v. Inclusive Communities ProjectKing v. Burwell

Greece: Central Government Bloat

It’s hard to find anything written or spoken about Greece that doesn’t contain a great deal of hand wringing about the alleged austerity – brutal fiscal austerity – that the Greek government has been forced to endure at the hands of the so-called troika. This is Alice in Wonderland economics. It supports my 95% rule: 95% of what you read about economics and finance is either wrong or irrelevant.

The following chart contains the facts courtesy of Eurostat. The central government in Greece is clearly bloated relative to the average European Union country. The comparison is even starker if you only consider the 16 countries that joined the EU after the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1993. To bring the government in Athens into line with Europe, a serious diet would be necessary – much more serious than anything prescribed by the troika.

Central Government Exenditure Per Capita