Calling All Harvard Alumni

As my colleague Dan Mitchell has noted, Harvard is about to hold a conference about how the “free market ideology has dominated  legal discourse and lawmaking the last few decades.”  That’s a dubious narrative (to say the least (pdf)).

In any event, Harvard alums who read this blog should know that Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate  is running for a position on Harvard’s Board of Overseers.  Pass the word to all the Harvard alumni you may know.  Additional background here.

New Mandatory Savings Plan?

I haven’t seen any media attention paid to it yet, and I don’t recall the president mentioning it in his speech Tuesday night.  Regardless, p.37 of today’s budget blueprint calls for “Making Saving for Retirement Easier as the Economy Recovers.” Although it sounds innocuous, I believe the contents could be cause for alarm:

“Over the long-term families need personal savings, in addition to Social Security, to prepare for retirement and to fall back on during tough economic times like these. However, 75 million working Americans—roughly half the workforce—currently lack access to employer-based retirement plans. In addition, the existing incentives to save for retirement are weak or non-existent for the majority of middle and low-income households. The President’s 2010 Budget lays the groundwork for the future establishment of a system of automatic workplace pensions, on top of and clearly outside Social Security, that is expected to dramatically increase both the number of Americans who save for retirement and the overall amount of personal savings for individuals. research has shown that the key to saving is to make it automatic and simple. Under this proposal, employees will be automatically enrolled in workplace pension plans—and will be allowed to opt out if they choose. Employers who do not currently offer a retirement plan will be required to enroll their employees in a direct-deposit IRA account that is compatible with existing direct-deposit payroll systems. The result will be that workers will be automatically enrolled in some form of savings vehicle when they go to work—making it easy for them to save while also allowing them to opt out if their family or individual circumstances make it particularly difficult or unwise to save. Experts estimate that this program will dramatically increase the savings participation rate for low and middle-income workers to around 80 percent.”

Here are my concerns just off the top of my head:

Obviously, it represents yet another government encroachment upon individual liberty.  While employees would be “allowed” to opt out, employers would not.  More ominously, while there is no mention of government subsidization of individual plans or forced contributions by employers, how long will it take for activists and their congressional allies to go down those roads?  I can already envision hordes of politicians bemoaning the inability of low- and moderate-income workers to direct any portion of their wages toward their accounts.  And don’t just think this will be limited to leftist politicians.  When I worked for the U.S. Senate a conservative senator once asked me to design a mandatory savings plan for all citizens in which the government and employers would “contribute.”

I guess the bright side here is that the administration is implicitly acknowledging that Social Security isn’t the wonderful retirement nest egg defenders have wanted us to believe.  I also can’t help but chuckle at the political reintroduction of savings as being beneficial.  Over the past year we’ve been repeatedly warned that savings is bad and spending is good.  Anyhow, this issue is going to be one to watch going forward.

New on YouTube: Juan Carlos Hidalgo on Obama’s Latin American Policy

Appearing on HITN’s “Destination Casablanca,” Cato analyst Juan Carlos Hidalgo discusses Latin American policy, Cuba and the future of the drug war under the Obama administration.

“It’s not Washington’s business to try to impose or suggest an agenda for Latin American countries,” Hidalgo says.

For more videos, subscribe to Cato’s YouTube channel.

“It Is a Sordid Business, This Divvying Us by Race”

Yesterday Cato filed a brief in what will be one of the most talked-about cases in the current Supeme Court term, Ricci v. DeStefano.

In Ricci, the City of New Haven, Connecticut developed an exam for firefighters seeking promotion to command positions. The city went out of its way to ensure that the exam was race-neutral and tested only relevant skills and abilities. When the exam results came down, however, white candidates had done better than their African-American and Hispanic peers. Given the few command positions available and the city’s rule that the highest scorers on an exam be promoted first, few minority firefighters would thus have been eligible for promotion. After a series of meetings and political machinations, the city refused to certify the results of the exam and promote anyone. Several of the firefighters who would have been eligible for promotion filed a lawsuit, claiming racial discrimination under Title VII.

The district court, affirmed by the court of appeals, granted summary judgment for the defendants, holding that the City’s alleged fear of an adverse impact claim (a different type of racial discrimination claim under Title VII) – based merely on the fact that the exam results yielded a racial disparity – was a legitimate reason for its decision not to certify the exams.

Cato’s brief, joined by the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, points out the absurd incentives at play: if the lower court’s ruling stands, employers will throw out the results of exams (or other criteria) that produce racial disparity, even if those exams are race-neutral, entirely valid, and extremely important to the employer and (as in this case) the public.

The Case will be argued April 22.

Obama’s $1.3 Trillion Tax Hike

Here are some notes on the tax proposals in the new federal budget:  (See Table S-6; All figures are 10-year totals)

  • There are $770 billion in “tax cuts for families and individuals.”  However, the fine print on page 129 shows that $326 billion of that is actually spending, or the “refundable” portion of the tax changes. That leaves a net $444 billion in tax cuts for individuals.
  • The budget would impose a $646 billion tax increase from new “climate revenues,” which would create a burden on families in the form of higher energy prices.  Thus, there is a net tax hike on “families” of about $202 billion, even aside from the income tax increases at the top end.
  • Income tax increases on those with higher incomes total $637 billion. Note that these hikes land on both individual filers and the huge number of small businesses that file through the individual system.
  • Other tax hikes on businesses total a net $183 billion.
  • Finally, Obama proposes to limit deductions for higher earners to raise $318 billion.
  • Thus, President Obama proposes to hike taxes by a net $1,340 billion, or about $1.3 trillion, over the next decade. That’s the last thing we need to recover from recession and to compete in the global economy in coming years.