Pandering to the Protectionists

Given the audience, one could have expected a goodly amount of protectionist rhetoric from the Democratic presidential candidates in their debate last night at an AFL-CIO forum. But at times it seemed as though they were battling to see who among them could pander the most.

Dennis Kucinich has never been a promoter of open trade and markets, so it is hardly surprising that he said withdrawing from NAFTA and the WTO would be a “first week in office” priority. Thank goodness he’s not a serious candidate. What is worrisome is the cheers his pledge elicited. Do the members of the AFL-CIO truly believe that if two of our largest trade partners (Canada and Mexico) increased their tariffs on American goods, that would somehow benefit them? Is the WTO seen as such a negative force overall that withdrawing from its forums and its legal protections is perceived as wise?

The other candidates, to their credit, did not match Mr Kucinich’s pledge. But that is to damn them with faint praise, however, as most of them did undertake to “revise” trade agreements, including NAFTA, (presumably by putting in more stringent rules on labor and environmental provisions) and to put more emphasis on enforcement of trade agreements. None of them, not even Senator Clinton, whose husband showed a commendable commitment to trade during his time in office, stood up and defended the benefits of trade.

Senator Obama, given the chance to acknowledge the positive effect of trade on working families – i.e., cheap goods – demurred, making an emotive, if economically illiterate, point about how a cheap T-shirt is useless if one doesn’t have a job. As though the U.S. economy was not demonstrating that consumers can have access to cheaper goods as well as record employment.

Perhaps the next Democratic presidential candidates debate should be held at a consumer- or taxpayer-group forum.

Sub-Optimal Tax Cuts in France

Supporters of limited government often say that there is no such thing as a bad tax cut, but it also is true that some tax cuts are better than others (for instance, see here for a comparison of the sub-par 2001 tax cuts and the supply-side 2003 rate reductions). If policy makers want to boost economic performance, they should concentrate on reducing marginal tax rates on additional economic activity. By this standard, the tax cuts advocated by the new French President generally are not well designed. He is seeking to cap the total income tax burden at 50 percent rather than 60 percent, but this change affects the total tax bill and may not have much impact on the decision to engage in additional productive behavior. A better approach would be to lower the top tax rate. Likewise, Sarkozy wants to increase wealth tax exemptions, but this approach is inferior to a rate reduction (or, better yet, repeal of the tax). He also has a gimmicky plan for tax cuts on overtime and a scheme for mortgage payments. The good news is that there will be tax cuts in France. The bad news is that they could have been better designed. Tax-news.com reports

Chief among Sarkozy’s reforms are measures creating more exemptions to France’s wealth tax, which has often been cited as a key reason why France lags behind its competitors in terms of investment and economic growth, and a 50% cap on individual income tax, down from 60%. The reforms would also cut tax on overtime - encouraging more French workers to work beyond the previously politically sacred 35 hour week, part of plans to make the domestic labour market more flexible and business-friendly - and tax cuts on mortgage interest payments. …It is hoped that Sarkozy’s tax and economic reforms will tempt back the hundreds of thousands of French citizens who have left the country seeking less punitive tax regimes. Popular destinations for the estimated 500,000 French tax exiles include Belgium, Switzerland, the UK and the US. …studies show that it is not just the rich and famous who have seemingly grown weary with France’s high taxes, with families and investors fleeing in increasing numbers. Research by French Senator Philippe Marini, cited by Bloomberg, claims that households fleeing the fortune tax have climbed to a record 649 in 2005 from 370 in 1997. Another study by the Economic Analysis Council concluded that approximately 10,000 business directors have fled France in the past 15 years, taking as much as US$137 billion in capital to invest elsewhere.

A Curious Statement from Gov. Romney

I’ve been at a conference in Hawaii for a few days, so I don’t know if anyone called Mitt Romney to the mat for this extraordinary statement he made during the most recent GOP presidential candidates’ debate (quoth The New York Times):

But Mr. Romney took aim at Mr. Giuliani’s recent proposal to offer people $15,000 in tax deductions to help them buy health insurance. “We have to have our citizens insured, and we’re not going to do that by tax exemptions, because the people that don’t have insurance aren’t paying taxes,” he said.

I think Romney is wrong when he says, “We have to have our citizens insured.”  But at least that point is debatable.

Did Romney actually say, “we’re not going to do that by tax exemptions”?  Are you kidding me?  Not only does Romney’s own Massachusetts health plan use tax breaks to expand health coverage – that’s all it uses.  That law requires employers to offer a type of health plan (a Section 125 “cafeteria plan”) that extends the federal tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance to the “employee portion” of the premiums.  The whole point of the “Connector” is to extend that exclusion to health plans your employer doesn’t offer, and to make sure workers don’t lose the exclusion when they change jobs.  Even the controversial requirement that all residents purchase coverage is an attempt to use a tax break to expand coverage.  If you buy coverage, you get the personal exemption from the Commonwealth’s income tax.  If you don’t buy coverage, no exemption for you.

And what’s this about the uninsured not paying taxes?  The Census Bureau reports that 17 million of the people it counts as uninsured had household incomes over $50,000 per year.  The Tax Foundation suggests that over half of the uninsured pay either income or payroll taxes, meaning that Romney is not even half-right.

(If Romney wants universal coverage, and tax breaks won’t accomplish that, how’s he gonna do it?  More government spending?)

More on the Spying Bill

I’ve got a write-up of this weekend’s spying bill up at Ars Technica. It’s pretty bad:

Before undertaking surveillance activities, intelligence officials would need to obtain a certification from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence—both subordinates of the president—that there were “reasonable procedures” in place for ensuring that the eavesdropping “concerns” persons located outside the United States, and that the foreign intelligence is a “significant purpose” of the surveillance activities. That certification would only be reviewed after the fact, and only to determine if the procedures were, in fact, “reasonable.” A single certification could approve a broad surveillance program covering numerous individuals, and no judge would review the list of individual targets.

Moreover, the requirement that surveillance “concern” non-U.S. persons could plausibly permit spying on the relatives, friends, and business associates of a foreign target. Indeed, the administration might argue that the only way to obtain all information regarding foreign targets is to conduct dragnet surveillance of American communications and sift through them to find relevant information.

The legislation empowers the administration to “direct” individuals to “provide the government with all information, facilities, and assistance necessary” to carry out foreign surveillance. These quasi-subpoenas would not be subject to judicial review before they were issued. The targets of such orders—who will typically be telecom company executives, not terrorism suspects—have the option of appealing the order to the FISA court, but given the broad scope of surveillance activities authorized by the legislation, it seems unlikely that such challenges would succeed. Moreover, the legislation offers legal immunity to those who comply with such orders, so telecom providers will have little incentive to resist them.

The only real bright spot is that the legislation sunsets after six months. That will give Congress the opportunity to do what it should have done this weekend: require that no surveillance of domestic communications occur without prior judicial approval of each surveillance target. I’m not going to hold my breath.

New at Cato Unbound: Peter Leeson on Practical Anarchy

Everybody seems to know we need government … But pirates didn’t! How did they manage without the state? In this month’s thought-provoking Cato Unbound lead essay, Peter T. Leeson, the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University, explores what pirate “constitutions,” credit institutions among 19th century African bandit traders, and the well-being of Somalians after the collapse of the Somalian state have to tell us about the possibility of practical anarchy. It works better than you think, Leeson concludes. “As long as there are unrealized gains to realize, people will find ways to realize them” — state or no state.

Can organizations really solve complex problems of coordination without government coercion? Can voluntary bands provide public goods? Are there conditions under which groups are better off stateless? Leeson will be joined in tackling these question by three eminent commentators: Florida State economics professor Bruce Benson, author of the seminal The Enterprise of the Law: Justice without the State; Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; and Randall Holcombe, another distinguished Seminole economist and current president of the Public Choice Society. Benson is on deck to reply this Wednesday. Stay tuned!  

Time for a (Most of) Government Shutdown

President Bush and congressional Democrats are fighting over many of the annual spending bills, leading some to predict a government shutdown when the new fiscal year starts October 1. This prospect horrifies the political class, but Investor’s Business Daily explains why it would be a good idea to close many government departments:

Here’s a suggestion: Many government departments, agencies and offices should be closed for good. …In 1800, the government needed a mere 3,000 employees and $1 million a year to do its job. In those days, lawmakers knew well the meaning of “limited.” Today, federal civilian employees number nearly 2 million. Another 10 million or more are federal contractors or grant recipients. The yearly budget of this runaway train is soaring toward $3 trillion. …Start with the Education Department, created in 1979 by the Carter administration despite the fact there is no constitutional authorization for its existence. In addition to its meddling, the department is spending nearly $70 billion a year in taxpayers’ dollars. By all accounts, public education in this country is worse off than it was when the Education Department opened. It’s hard to make an argument that those 5,000 employees are contributing anything. Next on the block should be the Energy Department, another monster wrought by Jimmy Carter, this one in 1977. There’s no real job this department… Like food, shelter and clothing, energy is a commodity that can and should be traded on an open market. There is no need to make a federal case out of it, particularly one that employees 17,000 people. All Cabinet-level departments — even Defense, which could cut waste — should at least have their budgets drained of excess. On a smaller scale, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities should go. Funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be zeroed out.

Bush, Congress, and Terrorism

Last year President Bush was able to rush the dubious Military Commission Act through the Congress.  This year he was able to rush through another surveillance measure.  In my view, the President’s legislative ‘achievements’ have little to do with persuasion.  It is about the politics of anti-terrorism legislation.  That is, if a member of Congress does not support the proposal under consideration, it means he or she is too ‘soft.’  Even though we’re about six years past 9/11 and even with the track record of Attorney General Gonzales, most legislators put their reservations aside, curl up into the fetal position and say “I am against the terrorists too,” as they vote in favor.  Last year, Senator Specter went so far as to say that he hoped the courts would strike down as unconstitutional the bill he just voted for.  Whatever one thinks about the legislative details of the Patriot Act, the Military Commission Act, or this “Protect America Act of 2007,” all friends of liberty ought to be disturbed by this political climate.  The question is: When will this vicious cycle of anti-terrorism legislation stop?  In a Giuliani administration?  In a Clinton administration?

For more on the new law, go to the Balkinization blog.  Tomorrow, Glenn Greenwald and Lee Casey will be here discussing the legacy of the Bush presidency.  Watch it online.