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Archive for April, 2010

More on Obama and Socialism. I got some interesting feedback about my pseudo-defense of Obama against the accusation that he is a socialist. It was a faux defense because my goal was simply to point out that Obama is guilty of a different form of statism. For those interested in more information, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism book is first rate (and he has a discontinued blog on the topic for those too impatient to wait for the book), and Steve Horowitz does a great job addressing this topic for the Freeman:

Talking the talk of “free markets” but proposing policies that mostly amount to collaborations between well-placed private-sector interests and the State is the hallmark of “corporatism,” or “state capitalism,” or even economic fascism.  From the bailouts of the banking system to “green jobs” to health insurance “reform” to various pieces of the “stimulus,” the real winners from the Obama administration’s policies (and Bush’s before him) have been those in corporate world lucky enough to be in the favored industries and to have sufficient political connections to benefit from the changes. Rather than take over various industries, Obama seems to believe he can work with industry leaders and labor to negotiate and manage them collectively in the national interest.  This is the essence of the “third way” of Italian Fascism.  It is not socialism, as private ownership is nominally maintained, but it is not capitalism, since private owners are not fully allowed to make independent decisions based on perceived profitability.  Those decisions must take a back seat to predetermined  national priorities. Again, consider the health insurance package.  It’s not a single-payer system, which would arguably be more truly socialist.  Instead, we will have a system of nominally private insurance companies heavily regulated and controlled so that they serve political goals, such as trying to guarantee that everyone has insurance regardless of income or medical history.
http://www.thefreemanonline.org/headline/is-obama-a-socialist/

 Keep in mind, though, my point about it being foolish to call Obama a fascist since the term is now inextricably linked to racism and militarism. Far better to point out that he is a statist or a corporatist.

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The politicians are urging big taxes on banks, using rhetoric designed to trick people into thinking that this is a way to make the banks pay for their own bailouts. But a general tax on all banks simply means that well-run banks subsidize the reckless banks – a problem that may get worse over time because of the moral hazard problems that seem to get worse every time politicians get more power over the industry. Greg Mankiw of Harvard has a more appealing idea, which would require automatic conversion of bonds to equity when a bank gets in trouble. This means, for all intents and purposes, that a bank would only be in a position of bailing itself out, so there is no risky cross-subsidization. And since bondholders presumably would not want to be converted into shareholders, there would be greater incentive to monitor whether the bank is being operated in a prudent manner. I’m not an expert on the specifics of the banking system, so I won’t pretend to know enough to give this my unqualified blessing, but I know it is a far better approach than the blank-check bailout/intervention authority in the legislation on Capitol Hill:

There has been much talk about restricting the use of financial derivatives. Unfortunately, writing good rules is not easy. Derivatives, like fire, can lead to disaster if not handled with care, but they can also be used to good effect. Whatever we do, let’s not be overoptimistic about how successful improved oversight will be. The financial system is diverse and vastly complicated. Government regulators will always be outnumbered and underpaid compared with those whose interest it is to circumvent the regulations. Legislators will often be distracted by other priorities. To believe that the government will ever become a reliable watchdog would be a tragic mistake. …Much focus in Washington has been on expanding the government’s authority to step in when a financial institution is near bankruptcy, and to fix the problem before the institution creates a systemic risk. That makes some sense, but creates risks of its own. If federal authorities are responsible for troubled institutions, creditors may view those institutions as safer than they really are. When problems arise, regulators may find it hard to avoid using taxpayer money. The entire financial system might well become, in essence, a group of government-sponsored enterprises. …My favorite proposal is to require banks, and perhaps a broad class of financial institutions, to sell contingent debt that can be converted to equity when a regulator deems that these institutions have insufficient capital. This debt would be a form of preplanned recapitalization in the event of a financial crisis, and the infusion of capital would be with private, rather than taxpayer, funds. Think of it as crisis insurance. Bankers may balk at this proposal, because it would raise the cost of doing business. The buyers of these bonds would need to be compensated for providing this insurance. But this contingent debt would also give bankers an incentive to limit risk by, say, reducing leverage. The safer these financial institutions are, the less likely the contingency would be triggered and the less they would need to pay for this debt.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/business/economy/28view.html

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I get a lot of email asking me about Greece, especially since I don’t give the issue much attention on the blog. I am paying close attention to what’s happening, especially since Greece is a canary in the coal mine. But I generally try to avoid being repetitious, and anything I say now would replicate what I said in my initial blog post in February. Simply stated, if you subsidize bad behavior, you get more bad behavrior. But now that a bailout request is official, I suppose some additional commentary is appropriate. The editorial page of today’s Wall Street Journal has some solid analysis on how rewarding Greece will exacerbate rather than solve Europe’s fiscal problems:

…a bailout would, of course, end nothing. What it would do instead is open a wide new world of moral hazard—for Greece, for the countries providing aid, and for the future of the entire euro-zone. The Greek government has played the victim for all it’s worth over the past several months, insisting that the same credit markets that finance its extravagant spending were charging too much in interest. But on Thursday, following another upward revision to its budget deficit, bond yields soared and forced Mr. Papandreou’s capitulation. … a bailout comes with baleful consequences for the entire euro-zone. Further austerity demanded as a quid pro quo might take some domestic political heat off Mr. Papandreou, but the IMF’s policy history does not bode well for future economic growth. The EU countries expected to shell out €30 billion for Greece have their own debt challenges. If Greece is bailed out, the markets will rightly conclude that a line has been crossed, and that Portugal and even Spain will be rescued too. Even the Germans don’t have that much money. …Mr. Schäuble is so worried about Berlin’s finances that he opposes tax cuts for Germans, but he nonetheless wants to bail out a spendthrift Greece. …Greece represents only 2% of euro-zone GDP. While European banks would take losses on any Greek debt restructuring, those losses would not by themselves be catastrophic. But that wouldn’t be true if the sovereign debt panic spreads to Portugal and Spain. Far better for the EU to draw the line now, force Greece and its creditors to take their pain, and demonstrate to markets that there won’t be a rolling series of bailouts. To adapt Mr. Schäuble’s Lehman analogy, better to stop the moral hazard at Bear Stearns, lest Spain become Lehman Brothers.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703876404575200013667934980.html

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Any company that steals money from taxpayers is despicable, but General Motors is especially reprehensible for dishonesty. Taking money from the left pockets of taxpayers and putting it in our right pockets is not a repayment, as explained by Shikha Dalmia in a column for Forbes.com. Her most important observation, after churning through the numbers, is that “GM is using government money to pay back government money to get more government money.” Even politicians would be reluctant to tell the kind of bold-faced lie that GM’s CEO is peddling to the nation. The only appropriate response from every moral person is to boycott this sleazy and corrupt company. Fortunately, some members of Congress are aware of GM’s scam:

A top Senate Republican on Thursday accused the Obama administration of misleading taxpayers about General Motors’ loan repayment, saying the struggling auto giant was only able to repay its bailout money by dipping into a separate pot of bailout money. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s charge was backed up by the inspector general for the bailout — also known as the Trouble Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Watchdog Neil Barofsky told Fox News, as well as the Senate Finance Committee, that General Motors used bailout money to pay back the federal government. …Vice President Biden on Wednesday called the GM repayment a “huge accomplishment.” But Barofsky told Fox News that while it’s “somewhat good news,” there’s a big catch. “I think the one thing that a lot of people overlook with this is where they got the money to pay back the loan. And it isn’t from earnings. … It’s actually from another pool of TARP money that they’ve already received,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t think we should exaggerate it too much. Remember that the source of this money is just other TARP money.” 
http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/04/22/grassley-slams-gm-administration-loans-repaid-bailout-money/

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His article doesn’t completely slam the door on a value-added tax, but Robert Samuleson’s piece in the Washington Post does highlight some of the very serious problems with a VAT – including more government spending, burdens on families, additional complexity, and more corruption:

Almost every pro-VAT argument is exaggerated, misleading, incomplete or wrong. The VAT is being merchandised as an almost-painless way to avoid deep spending cuts. The implicit, though often unstated, message is that a VAT could raise so much money it could eliminate future deficits by itself. This reasoning, if embraced, would create staggering tax burdens and exempt us from a debate we desperately need. …From 1970 to 2009, federal spending averaged 20.7 percent of the economy (gross domestic product). By 2020, it could reach 25.2 percent of GDP and would still be expanding, reckons the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of President Obama’s budgets. In 2020, the deficit (assuming a healthy economy with 5 percent unemployment) would be 5.6 percent of GDP. To cover that, taxes would have to rise almost 30 percent. A VAT could not painlessly fill this void. Applied to all consumption spending — about 70 percent of GDP — the required VAT rate would equal about 8 percent. But the actual increase might be closer to 16 percent because there would be huge pressures to exempt groceries, rent and housing, health care, education and charitable groups. Together, they account for nearly half of $10 trillion of consumer spending. There would also be other upward (and more technical) pressures on the VAT rate. Does anyone believe that Americans wouldn’t notice 16 percent price increases for cars, televisions, airfares, gasoline — and much more — even if phased in? As for a VAT’s claimed benefits (simplicity, promotion of investment), these depend mainly on a VAT replacing the present complex income tax that discriminates against investment. That’s unlikely because it would require implausibly steep VAT rates. Chances are we’d pay both the income tax and the VAT, making the overall tax system more complicated. Europe’s widespread VATs aren’t models of simplicity. Among the European Union’s 27 members, the basic rate varies from 15 percent (Cyprus, Luxembourg) to 25 percent (Denmark, Hungary and Sweden). But there are many preferential rates and exemptions. In Ireland, food is taxed at three rates (zero, 4.8 percent and 13.5 percent). In the Netherlands, hotels are taxed at 6 percent. An American VAT would stimulate ferocious lobbying for favorable treatment. …what’s wrong with the simplistic VAT advocacy is that it deemphasizes spending cuts. The consequences would be unnecessarily high taxes that would weaken the economy and discriminate against the young. It would become harder for families to raise children. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/18/AR2010041802723.html

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The Chicago Tribune reports that a bunch of government bureaucrats went to the capital of Illinois and protested in favor of higher taxes. But it’s not exactly news that looters want more looting. The amazing thing to note is that the Democrats have complete control of Illinois government yet they are afraid to raise tax rates because they know voters are sick and tired of corrupt and inefficient government:

Thousands of teachers and other union workers descended on the state Capitol on Wednesday and chanted “raise my taxes” to try to pressure politicians to avoid major budget cuts. The vibe was the exact opposite of what you’d find at a tea party rally. But the loud chants barely resonated inside the Capitol, where lawmakers are trying to exit Springfield in a couple of weeks without voting for a tax increase that could jeopardize their re-election chances in little more than six months. …Gov. Pat Quinn is out front pushing his 33 percent increase in the income tax rate, but he’s getting lonely. Many lawmakers don’t want to take more money out of people’s wallets as unemployment remains high in Illinois, yet groups that receive tax money said Quinn’s proposed tax hike isn’t big enough to help bridge a deficit that’s expected to reach $13 billion if nothing is done. Complicating the matter is that Quinn faces Republican state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington in this fall’s race for governor, and Brady is taking the position that no tax increase is needed. …Last year, the Senate Democrats, led by President John Cullerton of Chicago, passed a tax increase that would increase the personal rate to 5 percent from 3 percent, along with a slight bump for corporate taxes. But the tax increase is stalled in the House, where last year, the Democrats in control did not muster enough votes for a smaller, temporary income tax increase.http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-state-capitol-rally-tax-increase-020100421,0,7136469.story

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He’s only been Governor for a couple of months, and we have seen other elected officials start strong and then get captured by the special interested, but it certainly appears that Governor Christie of New Jersey genuinely intends to rescue his stated from becoming the Greece of America. Here’s an excerpt of what George Will just wrote, which included some spot-on analysis of the role of tax competition as a tool for constraining greedy politicians:

At the Pennsylvania end of the bridge, cigarette shops cluster: New Jersey’s per-pack tax is double Pennsylvania’s. In late afternoon, Gov. Chris Christie says, the bridge is congested with New Jersey government employees heading home to Pennsylvania, where the income tax rate is 3 percent, compared with New Jersey’s top rate of 9 percent. There are 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey, but in November Christie flattened the Democratic incumbent, Jon Corzine. Christie is built like a burly baseball catcher, and since his inauguration just 13 weeks ago, he has earned the name of the local minor-league team — the Trenton Thunder. He inheritaged a $2.2 billion deficit, and next year’s projected deficit of $10.7 billion is, relative to the state’s $29.3 billion budget, the nation’s worst. Democrats, with the verbal tic — “Tax the rich!” — that passes for progressive thinking, demanded that he reinstate the “millionaire’s tax,” which hit “millionaires” earning $400,000 until it expired Dec. 31. Instead, Christie noted that between 2004 and 2008 there was a net outflow of $70 billion in wealth as “the rich,” including small businesses, fled. And he said previous administrations had “raised taxes 115 times in the last eight years alone.” …New Jersey’s governors are the nation’s strongest — American Caesars, really — who can veto line items and even rewrite legislative language. Christie is using his power to remind New Jersey that wealth goes where it is welcome and stays where it is well-treated. Prosperous states are practicing, at the expense of slow learners like New Jersey, “entrepreneurial federalism” …competing to have the most enticing business climate.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/21/AR2010042104451.html

Meanwhile, a column from the Wall Street Journal makes some of the same points, noting that productive people will move across borders when they reach a tipping point. This underscores the value of tax competition – which is made possible by federalism:

Mr. Christie has started spreading the news that the Garden State aims to compete once again for businesses, jobs and residents. He notes that for years the state offered a better tax environment than New York, which encouraged city dwellers to discover New Jersey’s beautiful suburbs. Mr. Christie says that he recently bumped into former New York Gov. George Pataki, who noted that he’d been shocked to learn that New Jersey now has an even higher burden than its tax-crazy neighbor. “See what happens when you’re not looking?” he said to Mr. Pataki. “Snuck right up on ya.” The governor aims to move tax rates back to the glory days before 2004, when politicians lifted the top income tax rate to its current level of almost 9% from roughly 6%. Piled on top of the country’s highest property taxes, as well as sales and business income taxes, the increase brought the state to a tipping point where the affluent started to flee in droves. A Boston College study recently noted the outflow of wealthy people from the state in the period 2004-2008. The state has lately been in a vicious spiral of new taxes and fees to make up for the lost revenue, which in turn causes more high-income residents to leave, further reducing tax revenues.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303348504575184120546772244.html

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