Cutting Business Property Taxes to Improve Competitiveness

Tax Foundation has released a study comparing country tax codes. The “International Tax Competitiveness Index” by Kyle Pomerleau and Andrew Lundeen found that “the United States has the 32nd most competitive tax system out of the 34 OECD member countries.” In other words, the United States is a bad place to invest from a tax perspective.

Factors behind America’s poor score include “the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world” and the fact that we are “one of the six remaining countries in the OECD with a worldwide system of taxation.”

Another cause of our poor score is our high property taxes. Many U.S. jurisdictions impose property taxes not just on land and buildings, but also on business machinery and equipment. These taxes are a strong deterrent to capital investment, and they should be repealed. U.S. state and local governments collect a huge $242 billion a year in business property taxes, according to E&Y.

In an upcoming Fiscal Report Card on America’s Governors, Nicole Kaeding and I mention efforts to cut property taxes on business equipment, including reforms in Indiana and Michigan. I suspect one reason for Detroit’s economic demise has been its very high property tax burden.

Using Tax Foundation data, the chart shows property taxes as a percent of gross domestic product for the 34 OECD countries.

Ryan Ellis highlights some more of the Tax Foundation results here.

Decrying “Wishful Science” on NPR(!)

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


First, a disclaimer. I don’t listen to NPR. “State radio” bugs me. But I have friends who do, and I was bowled over when one sent me a seemingly innocuous story about the search for a pharmaceutical treatment for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis [ALS], the horrific ailment also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I knew something big was about to happen when correspondent Richard Harris led off with this zinger:

There’s a funding crunch for biomedical research in the United States—and it’s not just causing pain for scientists and universities.  It’s also creating incentives for researchers to cut corners—and that’s affecting people who are seriously ill.

Predictably, NPR, itself a federally (and privately) funded creature, said the problem was a lack of funding, even titling the piece, “Patients Vulnerable When Cash-Strapped Scientists Cut Corners.”

Allow NPR its sins, because what’s in the article is one key to a very disturbing trend, not just in biomedical science, but in “most disciplines and countries.” It seems that negative results are systematically disappearing from science. Those words appear in the title of a blockbuster 2012 article by University of Montreal’s Daniele Fanelli, more completely, “Negative Results are Disappearing from Most Disciplines and Countries.”

Memo to NPR:  Scientists  are always “cash-strapped.” Just ask one. The reason is very simple, and can be illustrated by my area, climate science.

There are actually very few people formally trained at the doctoral level in this field (yours truly being one of them).  One reason was that, prior to the specter of anthropogenerated climate change, there wasn’t very much money from the federal government. It was about a $50 million a year operation, if that much. We didn’t have enough research dough. 

Now the federal outlay is $2.3 billion. Guess what: we’re all climate scientists now. So ecologists, plant biologists, and even psychologists hitched their wagons to this gravy train. Today’s shocker: we don’t have enough research dough.

What Harris found out about ALS really does apply in a Fanelli-like fashion. It seems that drugs that work fine on mice and rats flop miserably when tested on humans. It turns out that the animal studies were all pretty shoddy.

Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explained why.  According to NPR, “There is no single answer, she says, but part of the explanation relates to a growing issue in biomedical science: the mad scramble for scarce research dollars.”  She went on: “The field has become hypercompetitive,” and NPR added, “Many excellent grant proposals get turned down, simply because there’s not enough money to go around. So Landis says scientists are tempted to oversell weak results.”  

“Getting a grant requires that you have an exciting story to tell, that you have preliminary data and you have published”, she says. “In the rush, to be perfectly honest, to get a wonderful story out on the street in a journal, and preferably with some publicity to match, scientists can cut corners.”

According to a research paper published earlier this year, corner-cutting turned out to be the rule, rather than the exception, in animal studies of ALS.

Stefano Bertuzzi, the executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, says that’s because there is little incentive for scientists to take the time to go back and verify results from other labs;

“You want to be the first one to show something”, he says—not the one to verify or dispute a finding, “because you won’t get a big prize for that.”

Landis noted that “ALS is not the only example of this type of wishful science [emphasis added].”  She found similar problems with other drugs for other diseases.

It’s too bad that NPR didn’t then go to Montreal’s Fanelli, because they would have found that similar problems are infecting science everywhere, which is why Cato now has a Center for the Study of Science.

Coming up: I’ll be posting soon on what this does to science itself.  Teaser: if there’s little incentive to publish negative results, whatever reigning paradigm is operating in a given field will be very resistant to change. As the Center for the Study of Science’s Richard Lindzen has observed, there has been a remarkable lack of paradigm substitution in overall science as research budgets ballooned. Ironically, the more we spend on science, the more science can be harmed.

 

German Uber Ban Lifted

Today, a court in Frankfurt lifted the temporary ban on Uber’s ride-sharing service imposed at the beginning of this month. Judges were reportedly sympathetic to the claim brought by Taxi Deutschland, an association of taxi dispatchers. However, Judge Frowin Kurth ruled that Taxi Deutschland had waited too long to file for an injunction. A spokesman for the court said that the case must have been filed within two months of Uber’s ride-sharing service launching in Germany.

Taxi Deutschland claimed that Uber’s ride-sharing service was in violation of legislation prohibiting drivers without a commercial license charging passengers more than the operating cost of a ride. 

Although the temporary ban has been lifted the court has not made a judgment on whether Uber’s ride-sharing service is legal in Germany.

Uber has been facing opposition across Europe. In June, London cabbies protested how Uber was being regulated by the city’s transportation agency. In March, Milan taxi drivers held a strike protesting Uber. According to Reuters, Milan’s taxi unions believed Uber was operating illegally:

Milan’s taxi unions say that because the app allows drivers to be summoned while in their car, it violates a 1992 law which describes hired drivers as a service ordered from the garage where their business is based, as distinct from taxis, which can pick up passengers on the move.

 In Germany and the U.K. the Uber protests reportedly resulted in an explosion in signups.

Grenade Launchers: The Newest Must-Have School Supply

The Wall Street Journal reports [$] today that government-run schools are stocking up on military surplus equipment—including M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, and even multi-ton armored vehicles—through a controversial federal program. 

In the wake of school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., and elsewhere, some school security departments developed SWAT teams, added weapons to deal with any contingency and called on the federal government to help supply the gear. But now the program is facing renewed scrutiny from both outside observers and police using the program.

In south Texas, near the Mexican border, the sprawling Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District has 34,700 students and operates its own SWAT team, thanks in part to military gear it was given in recent years.

The department received two Humvees and a cargo truck from the surplus program, as well as a few power generators, said district Police Chief Ricardo Lopez. The district applied for weapons, too, but wasn’t given any, so instead purchased its own M-4 and AR-15 assault-style rifles, he said.

The Humvees have turned out to be helpful in responding to events such as burglaries at some remote elementary schools on ranchlands, he said, though the 12-member SWAT team hasn’t responded to any major incidents.

They need Humvees to respond to burglaries? And under what conceivable scenario is a grenade launcher needed in a school? At least the officials at L.A. Unified claim that they never intended to put grenades in the grenade launchers:

Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, stocked up on grenade launchers, M-16 rifles and even a multi-ton armored vehicle, only to realize the downside of the free gear is the cost to maintain it and train officers to use it.

The district is getting rid of the grenade launchers, which it never intended to use to launch grenades or use in a school setting, said Steven Zipperman, chief of police of the Los Angeles Schools Police Department. The launchers, received in 2001 and classified “as less lethal munitions,” might have been useful to help other police forces in the county disperse crowds by shooting foam or rubber bullets, he said.

Reason’s Zenon Evans reports that officials claim they need the wanna-be tanks “victim rescue vehicles” to extract students from a school shooting:

The L.A. school cops also have a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle (MRAP), a piece of equipment that often weighs upwards of 14 tons and was designed to fight asymmetrical warfare against Iraqi insurgents, not provide backup during study period patrol. Los Angeles school officers also have 61 M-16 rifles, presumably to prevent food fights from breaking out. The MRAP is worth $733,000 and each rifle is worth $499, but the DoD gives equipment away for the price of shipping.

L.A. cops aren’t the only ones with MRAPs this back to school season. The San Diego Unified School District has one, too. Oakland got stuck with a “tactical” utility truck. 

“We recognize the public concern over perceived ‘militarization of law enforcement,’ but nothing could be further from the truth for School Police,” Capt. Joseph Florentino of the San Diego district told NBC yesterday. Apparently, his department is converting it to a “victim rescue vehicle” that will “be designed for us to get into any hostile situation and pull kids out.”

Professor Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas cuts right through the absurdity of schools stocking up on military equipment:

This is a toxic combination of 1) school districts lining up for anything the feds are handing out, 2) the excessive militarization of local police (and apparently school security) forces, and 3) schools focusing on incredibly rare events, like school shootings, as opposed to incredibly common ones, like incarcerating millions of children in schools that fail to serve their needs.

Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education could set an example for school districts by dismantling its SWAT team

The Disappointing Continuing Resolution

The House of Representatives is set to vote on a continuing resolution (CR) tomorrow to fund the federal government until December 11, 2014. A CR is stop-gap measure often used when the parties and chambers cannot agree on a full-year budget.

The CR package, as presented in draft form, is disappointing. It fails to institute much-needed fiscal reforms.

  • Spending Levels: The CR keeps the level of discretionary spending constant at $1.012 trillion. Not growing the size of government is a positive step for Congress, but there are plenty of ways to cut and reform spending. As I noted recently, the sooner Congress reforms spending the better.
  • Export-Import Bank: The CR extends the Export-Import Bank’s charter until June 30, 2015. Ex-Im subsidizes exports for American companies, but at a large cost to other American firms.
  • Internet Tax Moratorium: In 1998, Congress passed a law making it illegal for federal, state, or local governments to impose taxes on internet access, such as bandwidth or email taxes. This moratorium expires on November 1, 2014. The CR extends the moratorium until December 11, 2014, but it does not permanently extend it as  previously-passed House legislation would have. This sets up an important tax fight after the congressional elections.
  • Overseas Contingency Operations: The supplemental war budget, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, provides funding for military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. OCO funding is supposed to decrease as those activities wind-down. But this CR increases OCO above planned levels. It includes $26 billion, at an annual rate, more than the Obama Administration’s request earlier in the year. One problem with OCO funding is that it is not subject to the same federal budgetary rules and disciplines as other types of spending, which allows Congress to treat it like a slush fund.

In sum, this CR allows members to again punt on any sort of meaningful entitlement reforms or spending cuts to reduce our half trillion dollar deficit.

Share Better Coalition Takes Aim at Airbnb

Airbnb, which allows for homeowners to temporarily rent some or all of their property, is the target of “Share Better,” a New York City-based campaign group launched last Friday which claims that the company worsens the affordable housing crisis, allows for tenants to violate lease agreements, and poses a safety risk to property owners and guests.

Share Better is a coalition of predictable groups: New York state and NYC elected officials, activists, and hotel industry representatives.

The Share Better campaign is a notable example of established market participants (hotels) working to stifle competition. Airbnb has proven popular in NYC, and many New Yorkers believe that the type of short-term renting facilitated by Airbnb should be permitted. A Quinnipiac poll from earlier this month shows that only 36 percent of NYC voters believe that residents should not be “permitted to rent rooms in their homes for a few days at a time to strangers, similar to a hotel.”

Given Airbnb’s popularity some in the NYC hotel industry are understandably concerned. However, some of the claims made by the group are unfounded. 

Is Airbnb contributing to NYC’s affordable housing crisis? It’s hard to see how given the number of Airbnb rentals and the number of households in NYC. Airbnb claims that there are approximately 25,000 listings in NYC. In a city of roughly 3 million households it’s hard to see how Airbnb could be significantly contributing to a lack of affordable housing in NYC.

If New York and NYC elected officials and activists are concerned about affordable housing in NYC they should turn their attention to rent controls, which economists almost universally agree are bad policy. As Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck noted, “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.”

Read Cato’s Policy Analysis “How Rent Control Drives Out Affordable Housing” by William Tucker here.

The Share Better campaign released a video highlighting negative reviews of Airbnb rentals imposed over footage of grim-looking properties. No one who supports the sharing economy claims that every Airbnb experience will be good, just as no one will claim that every hotel visit will enjoyed by every guest. However, given the rise of the Internet it is easy for those interested in staying at a hotel to look up reviews of hotels made by previous guests. Similarly, Airbnb hosts and guests review each other, making it unlikely that a host offering dirty or unsafe accommodation will be able to use Airbnb’s services for long. 

Libertarians and Share Better can agree that, if an apartment tenant has signed a lease with a landlord that forbids him from temporarily renting his apartment, he should not be hosting Airbnb guests.

Argentina: One More Step toward Venezuela

This week the Argentine Congress is likely to pass legislation that would bring that country one step closer to suffering the economic disaster that currently besets Venezuela.

First, let’s keep in mind that when it comes to the economy, Argentina is already the country that comes closest to following Venezuela’s flawed policies (expansionary monetary policy, arbitrary expropriations and nationalizations, price controls, etc.).

High inflation remains the country’s number one problem. According to private consulting firms, year-to-year inflation in August was 40.4%. The black market exchange rate is 70% higher than the official rate, which has led to a growing shortage of dollars. We have seen this movie before in Venezuela.

President Cristina Fernández now wants to tackle inflation by having Congress pass an amendment to the “Supply Act” of 1974 that would allow her government to go after businesses that are deemed to be raising prices “unjustifiably or artificially,” or that enjoy “abusive profits.” In those cases, the bill authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to regulate and establish profit margins in each stage of production and commercialization, set price controls, and force companies to continue producing even though they are incurring losses. The bill also empowers the Secretary of Commerce to raid, fine and temporarily close businesses, and also to confiscate merchandise. (In fairness, the bill also aims to eliminate the prison sentences, massive confiscations and permanent closing of businesses that are stipulated in the original law —although they have been rarely implemented.)

The Argentine bill is very similar to Venezuela’s “Just Prices and Costs Act” passed in July, 2011. That law has greatly contributed to the country’s further decimation of the private sector and to widespread shortages of basic goods. The last time the Venezuelan Central Bank published its scarcity index in March, it reached 29.4%, meaning that over one out of four basic products is out of stock at any given time.

Since the Fernández administration enjoys a comfortable majority in the House of Deputies (the Senate already passed the bill), it’s very likely that the legislation will be approved this week. If that happens, Argentina will be one step closer to becoming the next Latin American basket case.