Mourning the Loss of a Great American Capitalist

mjWhile the big news of the day wouldn’t seem to have a public policy angle, Michael Jackson’s death allows us to remember that such phenomenal career achievements can only be possible in an economic system that rewards and harnesses talent.

The King of Pop’s creativity allowed him and his family to make hundreds of millions of dollars, yes, but it also created thousands of jobs in the music and marketing industries and brought joy to fans around the world. Whatever his personal eccentricities — perhaps, in part, as a result of them — Jackson represents a capitalist success story.

No central planner could have invented him, and no government bureaucracy could have transformed pop music in the way he did.

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I Have to Admit, I Was Wrong

I’ve just discovered that my calculation of DC education spending per pupil was wrong, and I have to publish a correction.

I wrote back in March that total DC k-12 spending, excluding charter schools, was $1,291,815,886 during the 2008-09 school year. That still appears to be correct. But to get the per-pupil number I divided total spending by the then-official enrollment count: 48,646. It now turns out that that number was rubbish. PRI’s Vicki Murray just pointed me to this recent DCPS press release that identifies a new audited enrollment number for the same school year:  44,681 students.

If that number excludes the 2,400 special education students that the District has placed in private schools, then DC’s correct total per pupil spending is $27,400.

If the new audited enrollment number does include the students placed in private schools, then DC’s correct total per pupil spending is $28,900.

Hmm. Let me think. What was that average tuition figure at the private schools serving DC voucher students….? Oh yes:  $6,600, according to the federal Department of Education.

In case you don’t know, that’s the program in which, after three years, voucher-receiving kids are reading two grade levels ahead of their public school peers — also according to the Dep’t. of Education (see the linked study, above).

It is also the program that President Obama has doomed to die, because of the, uh…, because, um…, why did he do that again?!?!

Tax Oppression Index Ranks America in Bottom Half of Industrialized Nations

A thorough new study of 30 nations from the Institut Constant de Rebecque in Switzerland reveals serious shortcomings in America’s tax system.

The report, entitled “Tax burden and individual rights in the OECD: An International Comparison,” creates a Tax Oppression Index based on three key variables: the overall tax burden, public governance, and taxpayer rights. The good news is that the United States has a comparatively low aggregate tax burden, though America’s score on this measure would be much better in the absence of a punitively high corporate tax rate. The bad news is that corruption and inefficiency in Washington drag down America’s score for public governance. The ugly news is that America has a very low rating for protecting taxpayer rights — largely because politicians have tilted the playing field to favor the IRS, including the fact that taxpayers lose the presumption of innocence provided in the Constitution.

Here is a brief description of the study:

The OECD’s campaign against “harmful tax competition” and “tax havens” has overshadowed the essential issue, namely the important roles that both tax competition and “tax havens” play for capital preservation and formation, leading to higher prosperity and better protection of individual rights throughout the OECD.

The tax oppression index is based on 18 representative criteria measuring fiscal attractiveness, public governance and financial privacy in the 30 member states of the OECD. Switzerland appears as the country with the lowest tax oppression — due to a relatively low tax burden and a more [classical] liberal institutional order, including its citizens’ right to veto legislation, political decentralization, and protection of financial privacy. Germany and France, on the other hand, whose governments have supported the OECD’s efforts, are among the most questionable states in terms of safeguarding their residents’ individual rights.

…The tax oppression index evaluates the 30 OECD member states on three complementary dimensions quantified by 18 representative criteria, on the basis of OECD and World Bank data. The index enables relevant conclusions about the tax burden and individual rights among those countries.

Switzerland earns the top ranking in the report, followed by Luxembourg, Austria, Canada, and Slovakia. Italy and Turkey have the worst systems, followed by Poland, Mexico, and Germany. The United States is tied for 19th, behind the welfare states of Scandinavia. With Obama promising to raise tax rates and increase the power of the IRS, it may just be a matter of time before the United States is competing for the world’s most oppressive tax regime.

“Sweet” Victory in Oregon

As a follow-up to Jason Kuznicki’s post from January, I am pleased to report that yesterday Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed HB 2817—a bill that eliminates the cartelization of the moving business in the Beaver state.

The old law required the Oregon Department of Transportation to notify existing moving companies of businesses that wanted to enter into their market. What’s more, those companies were given a veto over the would-be market entrants thereby locking out all competition to maintain artificially high prices—all with the government’s help.

The owner of a new moving company, Adam Sweet, enlisted the help of Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer and Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur to litigate against the old law. That lawsuit, once it cleared challenges for dismissal, prompted several pieces of legislation that culminated into the bill that the governor signed yesterday.

Congratulations to Mr. Sweet, Tim, and PLF for their well-fought victory for economic liberty for the entrepreneurs and consumers of Oregon!

More details from PLF here.

Three Worthwhile Health Care Videos

The first comes from the group Patients United Now.  Keep this video in mind the next time you hear someone say that a new “public option” is not about a government takeover of the health care sector.

The next video comes from the Independence Institute in Colorado.  It is a nice complement to my colleague Michael Tanner’s recent study, “Massachusetts Miracle or Massachusetts Miserable: What the Failure of the ‘Massachusetts Model’ Tells Us about Health Care Reform.”

Finally, a really disturbing video showing Christina Romer, chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, refusing to admit to a congressman that the president’s reform plan would oust Americans from their current health plans.

It’s a shame what politics does to really smart people.

Victory for Decency at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Safford Unified School District #1 et al. v. Redding was a victory for privacy and decency. The Court held that a middle school violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a thirteen-year-old girl by strip searching her in a failed effort to find Ibuprofen pills and an over-the-counter painkiller.

The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, joined by the Rutherford Institute and the Goldwater Institute, opposing such abuses of school officials’ authority. The search in this case should have ended with the student’s backpack and pockets; forcing a teenage girl to pull her bra and panties away from her body for visual inspection is an invasion of privacy that must be reserved for extreme cases. School officials should be authorized to conduct such a search only when they have credible evidence that the student is in possession of objects posing a danger to the school and that the student has hidden them in a place that only a strip search will uncover.

Today’s decision should not come as a surprise. School officials were not granted unlimited police power in the seminal student search case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. Justice Stevens explored the limits of school searches in his partial concurrence and partial dissent, specifically mentioning strip searches. “To the extent that deeply intrusive searches are ever reasonable outside the custodial context, it surely must only be to prevent imminent, and serious harm.”

The Fourth Amendment exists to preserve a balance between the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the state’s need for order and security. Unnecessarily traumatizing students with invasive and humiliating breaches of personal privacy upsets this balance. Today’s decision restores reasonable limits to student searches and provides valuable guidance to school officials.

Misinformation from Heritage

The Heritage Foundation has a chart up on its blog, showing defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product and declaring that “Obama plan cuts defense spending to pre-9/11 levels.”

This is a standard rhetorical device for defense hawks (see the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Mitt Romney and lots of others) so it’s worth pointing out that it’s misleading. The unfortunate truth is that Obama is increasing non-war defense spending this year and seems likely to increase it at least by inflation in the near future.

It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950.  Meanwhile, we spend more on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms, than we did then, at the height of the Cold War. The denoninator has grown faster than the numerator. 

By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level,” you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course.

To be straight with readers, charts that show defense spending as a percentage of GDP should either show GDP growth over time or include a line that shows defense spending in real terms. Otherwise they fail to demonstrate that the decline in defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a consequence of growing GDP, not lower spending.

Here’s a chart from the Congressional Budget Office’s report, “The Long Term Implications of the Current Defense Plans,” that does this.

The assumption in analysis like Heritage’s is that defense spending should be a function of economic growth, not enemies and strategies for defending against them.  It’s easy to point out that this is strategically and fiscally foolish. And it’s worth noting, as I have on many occasions, that we face a benign threat environment and can cut defense spending massively as a result.

But there is something weirder going on here that warrants mention.  Arguing that wealth creation should drive defense spending is to attempt to divorce the military from its strategic rationale. That’s an implicit acknowledgement that defense spending is not for safety.  High military spending in this worldview is either an end in itself or a partisan or cultural tool.  That’s not much of a revelation, I guess.