October 2009

October 31, 2009 6:19PM

Is the Economy Booming Again?

The lead headline in Friday’s Wall Street Journal proclaims

Economy Snaps Long Slump

But buried on page C10 is a more skeptical view:

If the Obama administration were managing a company, it might have hoped the latest gross‐​domestic‐​product numbers would be greeted with cries of “great quarter, guys!”

At least the stock‐​market obliged, rising on the back of better‐​than‐​expected GDP data Thursday morning. But then bulls have become used to looking to Washington for inspiration. Zero rates and stimulus programs boost economic data as well as nudge money toward riskier assets.

Fully 2.2 percentage points of the third quarter’s 3.5% growth figure related to vehicle purchases and residential construction, both juiced by government support. Federal spending added 0.6%.

If these GDP data were company earnings, they would be what analysts euphemistically call “low quality.” Investors buying into the market off the back of them are ignoring weekly unemployment‐​claims data that came in above 500,000 again on the same day.

The danger is that all these short‐​term fixes leave the economy dangerously addicted to taxpayer‐​funded steroids. The circularity in the housing market, whereby Washington provides tax breaks to first‐​time buyers, guarantees most of the mortgages written, and then buys most of those, beggars belief, and suggests a worrying case of amnesia following the bursting of the housing bubble. (emphasis added)

Johan Norberg warned about the dangers of repeating the very mistakes that created the bubble and bust in the first place in Financial Fiasco: How America’s Infatuation with Homeownership and Easy Money Created the Economic Crisis (available in hardcover, e‐​book, or Kindle).

October 31, 2009 4:06PM

Battle for Libertarian Voters in Virginia

Almost two months ago I quoted a Washington Post op‐​ed that said that this fall’s gubernatorial race in Virginia would depend on

the all‐​important independent voters — the disproportionately moderate, young, prosperous, suburban and libertarian‐​leaning people who typically decide Virginia contests.

It looks like Frank B. Atkinson, a high‐​powered Richmond lawyer who served in the Ronald Reagan and George Allen administrations and has written two books on Virginia politics, knew what he was talking about. At least on my television here in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., the race has been dominated by two kinds of ads: Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds tells us over and over again that his Republican opponent Bob McDonnell is a reactionary social conservative. McDonnell counters with endless plays of Deeds’s stumbling admission that he’d like to raise taxes.

Judging by the polls, it looks like people are more worried about taxes and the overreach of the Obama administration than about McDonnell’s career‐​long ambition to roll back social change.

Of course, the bad news is that both candidates are right: McDonnell isreactionary social conservative, and Deeds will raise taxes. The even worse news: Deeds voted for the anti‐​marriage constitutional amendment in the Virginia legislature, though he later flipped his position; and as a legislator and attorney general, McDonnell backed transportation tax increases. So if you’re a pro‐​tax, anti‐​gay Virginia voter, you have a wealth of choices on Tuesday. Freedom‐​loving, “leave us alone” voters, a tougher day.

October 31, 2009 3:26PM

Our Libertarian Future

Brink Lindsey described a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book The Age of Abundance. Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie said that right now is a “libertarian moment.” I saw a “civil liberties surge” in public opinion polls on marijuana laws and gay marriage. And now Jacob Weisberg foresees the imminent end to various kinds of prohibition in these United States:

Within 10 years, it seems a reasonable guess that Americans will travel freely to Cuba, that all states will recognize gay unions, and that few will retain criminal penalties for marijuana use by individuals. Whether or not Democrats retain control of Congress, whether or not Obama is re‐​elected, and whether they happen sooner or later than expected, these reforms are inevitable—not because politics has changed but because society has.

For good measure, he adds that we’re not going to prohibit either abortion or gun ownership. “Conservatives would be wise to give up on the one, liberals on the other. In each of these cases, popular demand for an individual right is simply too powerful to overcome.”

Sounds like libertarian heaven:

The chief reason these prohibitions are falling away is the evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness.…

Republicans face a risk in resisting these new realities. Freedom is part of their brand; if the GOP remains the party of prohibition, it will increasingly alienate libertarian‐​leaners and the young. But the party as presently constituted has very little capacity to accept social change. Democrats face a danger in embracing cultural transformations too eagerly. Nearly four decades after George McGovern became known as the candidate of amnesty, abortion, and acid, cultural issues are still treacherous territory for them. Why get in front of change when you can follow from a safe distance and end up with the same result?

Of course, if the Democrats raise taxes and the deficit high enough, and do what they’re threatening to do to health care, marijuana may be the only medicine you don’t have to get on a waiting list for, but you won’t be able to afford it. And the marriage penalty may make everyone decide they can’t afford to get married. And flights to Cuba may be too expensive on our dwindling after‐​tax incomes.

October 30, 2009 4:29PM

Weekend Links

  • “Government should not subsidize health insurance — for the uninsured, the poor, the elderly or anyone else — or regulate health insurance markets.” Here’s why.
  • An update on the EU Lisbon Treaty.
  • Skepticism over nuclear diplomacy with Iran. (PDF) Subscribe to the Nuclear Proliferation Update here.
October 30, 2009 4:21PM

Politicians Fiddle While America’s Corporate Tax System Burns

KPMG has released its annual global survey of corporate tax systems. For the 10th consecutive year, the average corporate tax rate fell, and it is now down to 25.5 percent — and just 23.2 percent in the European Union!

In the United States, unfortunately, the corporate tax rates remains stuck at about 40 percent. Only one developed nation, Japan, has a more punitive regime.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time a politician complains that jobs are going to China, where the corporate tax rate is 25 percent.

October 30, 2009 4:08PM

Stimulus Jobs Reporting Charade

I have been reluctant to engage in the squabbling over the accuracy of the stimulus job “creation” figures because I believe it is more important to focus attention on the underlying “rob Peter to pay Paul” reality of Washington’s endeavor. As I mentioned yesterday, the government cannot “create” anything without also inflicting economic damage because the money ultimately comes at the expense of the private sector via taxation. There are countless other problems with government job “creation” efforts, including economic miscalculation, inefficiency, waste, etc. — not to mention the immorality of robbing poor Peter.

Yesterday, the White House issued a defense in response to an Associated Press finding that previously released numbers were overstated. The following sentence raised my eyebrow:

The reports are not from the government, but from the very people putting Recovery Act funds to work — governors, mayors, county executives, private businesses and community organizations across the country.

Today the federal government is supposed to release new job creation figures. I believe most of the numbers will originate with state government officials tasked with collecting and reporting jobs “created” with the stimulus dollars that passed through their state. Based on my own experience as an ex–state government employee responsible for collecting and reporting data purporting to show how well state programs were performing, I feel compelled to comment on the accuracy of today’s release.

Not only will today’s state‐​reported numbers be impossible to prove, they will be flush with erroneous, deceptive, and as Reason’s Sam Staley says, bogus claims. As Sam notes:

The numbers of jobs created or “saved” are simply counts provided by state agencies spending stimulus money. They simply record the number of people hired under the contract or for the project. They are not the result of investigative follow up, or a consistent methodology for identifying real jobs created or saved. (Indeed, these methodological problems have plagued economic development program evaluations for decades as states have claimed jobs were created by various tax incentive programs but no real way to verify the accuracy of the numbers.)

When I worked in Indiana’s state Office of Management and Budget, part of my job was to collect “performance measures” from state agencies. The idea was to offer Indiana taxpayers the appearance that the governor was holding state agencies accountable for how they spent money. In reality, we had no idea if the numbers state agencies gave us were accurate. There were no audits, and once the agencies figured out the whole effort was really a political gimmick, they often just gave us self‐​serving nonsense. Nonetheless, the numbers were pawned off on the public because it served political ends.

The Obama administration will continue to trumpet the number of jobs the stimulus package “created.” It will brag that the government’s efforts were not only successful, but that they were conducted with unprecedented transparency and accountability. But taxpayers and citizens should not buy into these claims. The stimulus jobs report is simply political theater: a charade intended to maintain public support for, or acquiescence to, Washington’s multiplying encroachments.