‘Motorhome Diaries’ Crew Makes a Stop at Cato

Two freedom lovers who bought an old RV to travel across the country and film an online documentary called The Motorhome Diaries stopped by Cato this week to interview Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz.

Boaz chatted with Diaries rider Pete Eyre about libertarianism, Cato’s role in Washington and why he’s optimistic about the future of liberty.

You can follow them on their trek at MotorhomeDiaries.com or on Twitter at @MHDiaries.

Save Free Enterprise—Starting Now

As Dan Mitchell noted below, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a “Campaign for Free Enterprise” to stop the “rapidly growing influence of government over private-sector activity.” Chamber president Thomas Donohue told the Wall Street Journal that an “avalanche of new rules, restrictions, mandates and taxes” could “seriously undermine the wealth- and job-creating capacity of the nation.”

Indeed. Given the scope and extent of the Obama administration’s assaults on private enterprise — national health insurance, energy central planning, pay czars, abrogation of contracts, skyrocketing spending, and so on – free enterprise can use all the help it can get. I welcome the Chamber to the fight.

But it would be nice if the Chamber had joined the fight for economic freedom a bit earlier, say back in February when many of us were trying to stop the administration’s massive “stimulus” spending bill. That bill’s official cost is $787 billion; with interest, it would be about $1.3 trillion; and if you assume that its temporary spending increases will be extended, it will cost taxpayers about $3.27 trillion over 10 years.

Back then, Donohue had a few criticisms of the bill, but

The bottom line is that at the end of the day, we’re going to support the legislation. Why? Because with the markets functioning so poorly, the government is the only game in town capable of jump-starting the economy.

Or they might even have started defending free enterprise last fall, instead of going all-out to push the TARP bailout through Congress.

Converts to the cause of limited government are always welcome. But we might not need a $100 million Campaign for Free Enterprise if American business had opposed big government when the votes were going down in Congress. Still, better late than never.

A Libertarian Dilemma

What is to be done with the nation’s largest financial institutions, 19 of which have been officially designated as “too big to fail?” When thus guaranteed government protection, such institutions can be expected to take excessive risk and generally operate recklessly. Profits on risky ventures remain privatized, while losses become socialized. That is what happens when you bet with other people’s (that is, taxpayers’) money. I have called the system “casino capitalism.”

The solution, of course, is to end the policy of “too big to fail.” That will not happen soon, however, and we will likely see the government’s safety net extended to more institutions before there is any prospect for its withdrawal. In the interim, the risk-taking appetite of the large banks must be constrained, that is, regulated. What should the classical liberal response be?

MIT’s Simon Johnson has argued, “Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.” He favors breaking these institutions up. Chicago’s Gary Becker has suggested imposing progressive capital requirements as a disincentive for financial services firms to grow large enough to become too big to fail. The larger the institution, the higher the required capital ratio.

What cannot in conscience be done is to apply presumptive free-market arguments to such entities. They are not being constrained by market forces. The market’s invisible hand has been replaced by the state’s protective embrace.

Ponnuru: Stop Socialized Medicine, in All Its Forms

As usual, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru offers sound advice on how Republicans, etc., should approach the Democrats’ health care reforms:

Karl Rove’s WSJ op-ed on health care reflects the thinking of a lot of Republicans. He concludes, “Defeating the public option should be a top priority for the GOP this year. Otherwise, our nation will be changed in damaging ways almost impossible to reverse.” In my view, Rove is defining Republican goals too narrowly.

Congress and the president can expand federal control of the health-care system a great deal without a “public option” (that is, a new government program to provide health insurance to people who choose it). They could set mandatory minimum standards for health insurance, impose price controls, mandate that individuals or employers buy insurance, and so forth. If Republicans say that the public option is the chief defect of liberals’ approach to health care, they may be leaving themselves with no rationale for opposing these steps if the Democrats drop it—which they might just do. (Or they might cosmetically weaken the public option in various ways. They could, for example, set up a “trigger” that brings the option into being only if certain conditions in the health market are met, and then design those conditions so that they will be met.)

The public option appears to be one of the biggest political vulnerabilities of the Democrats’ emerging health-care plan, but it isn’t the only one, and it shouldn’t be targeted to the exclusion of the plan’s other features—or of its general government-first orientation. Republicans ought to be making the case against individual mandates and employer mandates as well, both of which are disguised tax increases.

It isn’t incumbent on Republicans to see that a health-care bill passes Congress. To warrant conservative support, a bill should have no public option—but also no mandates and no price controls. Which is to say: No government-directed health-care system.

Fed to BoA: ‘We Will Not Leave You in the Lurch’

Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questioned Ken Lewis about Bank of America’s purchase of Merrill Lynch and the subsequent injection of tens of billions of taxpayer funds into Bank of America.

While much of the hearing focused on Lewis’ leadership of Bank of America, the hearing also touched upon the more important questions of government regulators pressuring BoA to purchase Merrill even after BoA realized that Merrill’s losses were greater than expected.

One of the basic tenets of sound regulation, exercised in the public interest, is that regulators remain at “arm’s length” from the entities they regulate. As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, “arm’s length” relates to “dealings between two parties who are not related or not on close terms and who are presumed to have roughly equal bargaining power; not involving a confidential relationship.”

If anything, it appears that BoA and the federal government were in a bear hug, rather than at arm’s length. As described in Lewis’ notes on one of his many conversations about the Merrill deal with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Bernanke told Lewis, “We will not leave you in the lurch.” Given the funds subsequently injected into BoA, one can say that Chairman Bernanke is at least a man of his word.

One of the significant problems arising from extensive government ownership of private entities is that in regulating those entities, the government no longer has the ability to be a neutral, objective arbitrator. Whether it is BoA or GM, government officials will come under increasing pressure to see a positive return on the taxpayer’s investment. One should not be surprised if that pressure manifests itself by government officials favoring the very companies they have invested in.

While BoA has been saved, it appears that the rule of law has been “left in the lurch.”

So-Called Stimulus Could Lead to $50 Billion of Fraud

MarketWatch reports that experts are predicting about $50 billion of fraud will result from the $787 billion pork-barrel spending bill approved by Congress earlier this year. That’s a huge amount of fraud being financed with borrowed money, but there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. Using basic math, that means only $737 billion of the so-called stimulus can be classified as waste:

Swindlers, con men, and thieves could siphon off as much as $50 billion of the government’s planned stimulus package as the money begins flooding the economy in coming months, according to David Williams, who runs Deloitte Financial Services Advisory and counsels clients on fraud prevention.

…Earlier this month, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned the nation to brace for a potential crime wave involving fraud and corruption related to the economic stimulus package. “These funds are inherently vulnerable to bribery, fraud, conflicts of interest, and collusion. There is an old adage, that where there is money to be made, fraud is not far behind, like bees to honey,” Mueller said.

IRS Wants Worker Cell Phones to Be Taxable

With about 100,000 employees (more than the CIA and FBI combined), the IRS has plenty of people who daydream about new ways of taking money from taxpayers. The latest scheme to emanate from the tax bureaucracy is to classify employer-provided cell phones as a taxable fringe benefit.

To be fair, non-pecuniary forms of compensation should be treated the same as cash income, but a bit of common sense should apply. What happens with cell phone plans with unlimited minutes, meaning that a business is not paying extra for personal calls? And if the IRS does go down this path, why harrass individuals when it would be much easier to simply make a portion of cell phone costs non-deductible for companies? It almost seems as if the IRS wants to instigate a tax revolt.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Internal Revenue Service proposed employers assign 25% of an employee’s annual phone expenses as a taxable benefit. Under that scenario, a worker in the 28% tax bracket, whose wireless device costs the company $1,500 a year, could see $105 in additional federal income tax….

The IRS move, which is spurring efforts by the wireless industry and others to kill the idea, would mark a stricter enforcement of an existing rule that classifies employer-provided cellphones as a taxable benefit, rather than a 24-hour-a-day work tool. Under a 1989 law, workers who use company-provided mobile phones for personal calls are supposed to count the value of those calls as income and pay federal income taxes accordingly. But businesses and workers have long ignored the requirement, prompting the IRS to consider steps the agency said would make it easier for businesses and workers to comply.

…Wireless companies also argue the IRS rule is outdated. Rates have declined so dramatically in the past decade — with night and weekend calls free under many plans — that it makes little sense for the IRS to assess employee benefits by nickels and dimes. “This is a regulation from a bygone time, dating back to the infancy of the cellphone business, and it is in desperate need of updating,” said Howard Woolley, a senior vice president with Verizon Wireless, a venture of Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC.