Topic: Government and Politics

President-elect Trump

President-elect Donald Trump. That’s a phrase I never expected to see. Like most Washingtonians, journalists, and political observers around the country, I never took his candidacy seriously. And now here we are, in thoroughly uncharted waters. I don’t think we’ve ever had a president with less apparent knowledge of or interest in policy, which makes it difficult to assess the direction of policy over the next few years. The few issues that did seem to motivate Trump were strikingly unattractive from a libertarian perspective, notably his hostility to international trade and immigration.

Back in January I wrote this in a National Review symposium:

From a libertarian point of view—and I think serious conservatives and liberals would share this view—Trump’s greatest offenses against American tradition and our founding principles are his nativism and his promise of one-man rule.

Not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign. Trump launched his campaign talking about Mexican rapists and has gone on to rant about mass deportation, bans on Muslim immigration, shutting down mosques, and building a wall around America. America is an exceptional nation in large part because we’ve aspired to rise above such prejudices and guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everyone. Equally troubling is his idea of the presidency—his promise that he’s the guy, the man on a white horse, who can ride into Washington, fire the stupid people, hire the best people, and fix everything. He doesn’t talk about policy or working with Congress. He’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini, concentrating power in the Trump White House and governing by fiat. It’s a vision to make the last 16 years of executive abuse of power seem modest.

Nothing much changed over the ensuing 10 months. Except that Trump won the election. He is now president-elect, and scholars and activists on all sides are waiting to see what his actual policies will be. Some of my friends are excited about the prospects for tax cuts, deregulation, repeal of Obamacare, the appointment of conservative or classical liberal Supreme Court justices, and a change in our interventionist foreign policy. Others—and sometimes the same people—worry about threats to world trade and an open society, religious tests, and a president who seems vindictive, inclined to conflate his private business with public affairs, and predisposed toward an authoritarian mindset.

Go Big and Grant Milton Friedman His Wish

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) held a press conference a few days ago where he said that GOP control of the Congress and White House afforded his party the opportunity “to go big, to go bold.”  There has been talk of rolling back regulations and Obamacare.  That’s good news, but Ryan should consider a bigger and bolder move: End federal income tax withholding. 

The “political establishment” has created a situation where the U.S. is trillions of dollars in debt.  How will the new Congress address that?  The fiscal scandal is too abstract for many voters to grasp so too many of them don’t think twice about supporting new spending measures, such as free college tuition or what have you.  To build the necessary political support for otherwise unpopular spending cuts, Ryan should quickly move to end federal income tax withholding.  If American households would stop viewing their tax refund checks as happy windfalls from politicians and instead better understood how much big government is costing them every year, one would expect to see louder demands to bring runaway spending under control and to downsize the scope of federal programs and operations.  The GOP honeymoon will be over in a few months.  Ending federal withholding will help build support for spending cuts over the next few years and perhaps beyond.

Ironically, it was the late, great Milton Friedman who helped devise the modern income tax withholding system when he worked in the Treasury Department during World War II.  He was fixated on tax collection efficiency at that time, not limiting the size of government.  Late in his life, Friedman said that he wished “there were some way of abolishing withholding now.”  Former congressman Dick Armey (R-Tex) proposed ending withholding when the GOP took control of the House in 1994, but Bill Clinton was never going to sign that measure into law.  Now that the GOP has both the Congress and the White House, it has a real opportunity to go big and bold.  Grant Friedman his wish and get our fiscal house in order.

For related Cato scholarship, go here.

How President Trump Can Fix Veterans’ Benefits Once And For All

Another Veterans Day brought another round of lamentations about the Department of Veterans Affairs and promises to fix it.

President-elect Donald Trump promised to do so throughout the campaign. Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is skeptical. Veterans are “used to big promises and disappointing results,” he says. “Fixing the VA might be one of the biggest challenges for President Trump. Every president says they’re going to do it, yet we’ve still got a VA with backlogs and massive problems.”

If Trump tries to fix the VA the same way other presidents have, he will fail. But there is a way he can succeed.

Trump’s predecessors failed because they tried to work within a model of top-down, centralized economic planning. The Veterans Health Administration is America’s only purely government-run health system. Its closest analogue is probably the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. The VHA even produces the same results as the NHS: chronic shortages and long waits for care alongside idle and wasted resources, instances of horrific care, and often good care, you know, if you can get it.

Presidents can and have fixed such problems temporarily by moving resources from here to there, or investing in some new system. It never lasts, though. The VHA is a socialist enterprise. Unlike a market system, it has no price mechanism or competitive pressures that automatically fix such problems when they re-emerge. And not only do they always re-emerge, Congress usually takes forever to get off its duff. If Trump retains the VA’s basic structure, he will join a long line of presidents who have failed our nation’s veterans.

How to Privatize the VA 

Trump can distinguish himself from other presidents by working with Congress to create a system of veterans benefits that fixes problems automatically. Here’s how.

First, the federal government should increase military pay sufficient to enable workers to purchase–from private insurers at actuarially fair rates–a package of life, disability, and health benefits equivalent to what the VA provides. Benefits would kick in as soon as they leave active duty and cover veterans’ service-related disabilities or illnesses for life.

Second, having privatized the insurance component of veterans benefits, the federal government should then privatize the delivery component. It should incorporate the VHA as a private company and issue shares to active-duty personnel and veterans based on length of service or other criteria.

You read that right. Military personnel and veterans would literally own the VHA, including its many hospitals and other facilities. Privatizing the VA would both increase the pay of active-duty personnel, and create a massive wealth transfer to active-duty personnel and veterans. Veterans would be able to receive medical care from health systems owned and operated by veterans, for veterans.

Third, the federal government should give current veterans vouchers to purchase insurance and medical care from the insurers and health systems of their choice, including the new veteran-owned and -operated systems.

Privatization Means Better Benefits for Veterans 

Privatization would improve the quality of veterans’ benefits immeasurably.

The federal government promises veterans’ benefits to military personnel once they leave active duty. Only it’s not an explicit promise. And Congress doesn’t fund it. As a result, Congress can–and does–renege on that commitment.

Political Violence and Domestic Surveillance: Has The Fuse Been Lit?

Ben Schreckinger at POLITICO has a story out today that every American concerned about the current political climate in our country should read. With the lede of “Trump Protesters Plan to Build ‘Tea Party’ of the Left,” Schreckinger quotes several progressive activists, including former Occupy Wall Street veteran Micah White. It’s worth quoting White in full, because his comments will absolutely draw the attention of officials at the FBI and DHS:

American activists are finally starting to understand that protest is broken. The people cannot attain sovereignty over their governments by collective protest in the streets. There are only two ways to achieve sovereignty in this world: Win elections or win wars. Now that street protest is not an option, we will see the Trump resistance split into these two fronts. Some will pursue the strategy of using social movements to [win] elections while others go down the dark path of ’70s guerrilla insurrection. I advocate winning elections.

Without question, the Founders would agree with much of what White says. American colonists spent over a decade trying to get Crown authorities to understand that every new tax or regulation imposed on them without their consent was creating resentments and opposition to British rule that, if not resolved peacefully, would lead to armed conflict.

Some in Parliament understood the dangers and sympathized with Americans—but not enough. It’s worth remembering that the Continental Congress was formed almost a full year before the Declaration of Independence was issued. The warning signs were there, but George III doubled-down on repression rather than negotiate with the colonists. The rest, as they say, is history. The question raised by White’s comments and the rest of Schreckinger’s piece is whether that history is about to repeat itself, this time with the federal government in the lead role of political oppressor.

New President. New SEC. Less Regulation?

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is poised to have the majority of its seats filled by Trump nominees.  Earlier this week SEC chair Mary Jo White announced she would be stepping down at the end of President Obama’s term. This is not in itself surprising.  The chair serves at the will of the president and it’s customary for the current chair to step aside and let an incoming president install a chair of his or her choosing.  What is remarkable however is the number of vacancies that leaves president-elect Trump to fill. 

The five member commission has had two empty seats for over a year and a half now, following Republican Dan Gallagher’s resignation in May 2015 and the expiration of Democrat Luis Aguilar’s term the same month. Although President Obama nominated two candidates to fill those seats, Republican Hester Peirce and Democrat Lisa Fairfax, their confirmations have been stalled in congress.  (Like many similar commissions, the SEC must be politically balanced with no more than three seats filled by members of the same party.)  White’s resignation will therefore leave only two commissioners in office, Republican Michael Piwowar and Democrat Kara Stein. Until a new chair can be confirmed, it is likely that president-elect Trump will name Piwowar acting chair.  In the meantime, however, with only two commissioners, it is unlikely that the SEC will pursue any kind of ambitious agenda.

Looking forward to what the SEC might look like with its new members in place, it would be reasonable to hope for a less aggressive and more market-friendly agency than we have had under White’s direction.  Trump has sounded a decidedly deregulatory tone both in the course of the campaign, vowing to dismantle Dodd-Frank, and in the days since the election.  His pick of Paul Atkins, a former SEC commissioner known for his strong free-market bent, to head up part of his transition team also signals a commitment to paring back the voluminous regulations that have plagued the financial sector in recent years. 

The “Progressive” Threat to Baltic Exceptionalism

I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

Trump’s Trillion-Dollar Infrastructure Plan

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to spend twice as much on infrastructure as whatever Hillary Clinton was proposing, which at the time was $275 billion. Doubling down again in a speech after winning the election, Trump now proposes to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure over the next ten years.

President Obama had proposed to fix infrastructure with an infrastructure bank, though just where the bank would get its money was never clear (actually, it was perfectly clear: the taxpayers). Trump’s alternative plan is for the private sector, not taxpayers, to spend the money, and to encourage them he proposes to offer tax credits for infrastructure projects. He says this would be “revenue neutral” because the taxes paid by people working on the infrastructure would offset the tax breaks. In short, Trump is proposing tax credits in lieu of an infrastructure bank as a form of economic stimulus.

America’s infrastructure needs are not nearly as serious as Trump thinks. Throwing a trillion dollars at infrastructure, no matter how it is funded, guarantees that a lot will be spent on unnecessary things. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser recently pointed out in an article that should be required reading for Trump’s transition team, just calling something “infrastructure” doesn’t mean it is worth doing or that it will stimulate economic growth.

Infrastructure more or less falls into three categories, and Trump’s one-size-fits-all plan doesn’t work very well for any of them. First is infrastructure that pays for itself, such as the electrical grid. Private companies and public agencies are already taking care of this kind, so if Trump’s plan applied to them, they would get tax credits for spending money they would have spent anyway. That’s not revenue neutral.