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Republicans are fighting about taxes. But they’re fighting with each other, not Democrats. I’ve already written about this topic once, but the issue has become more heated, and the stakes have become much larger. And this time I’m going to focus on the political implications.

First, some background. One side of this battle is led by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who is the organizer of the no-tax-increase pledge. Grover argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending and that higher taxes are economically and politically foolish.

The other side of the conflict is led by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much red ink and that higher taxes are a necessary price to strike a deal with Democrats that supposedly will reduce budget deficits.

The first  skirmish in this fight involved ethanol tax credits. Senator Coburn wanted to get rid of the credit, which everyone agrees is economically destructive and fundamentally corrupt.

But there’s a catch. when you get rid a tax preference, even an odious one, that means the government gets more money. In other words a tax increase. Senator Coburn has no problem with that outcome.

Grover Norquist says that all of the arguments against ethanol are correct, but he says that any proposal to get rid of the credit should be accompanied by a tax cut of equal magnitude.

If the ethanol credit is worth about $6 billion per year, as Senator Coburn’s office states, then find a tax cut of similar size, pair it with the ethanol credit, and kill two birds with one stone. Seems like the best of all possible outcomes, which is why Grover is correct from a policy perspective.

The fight over the ethanol credit may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but it was symbolically important – particularly since it is a precursor for the much bigger fight about whether GOPers should agree to a budget deal with Democrats.

Indeed, this may already be happening as part of the “Gang of Six” negotiations, with Senator Coburn and two other Republican Senators joining three Democrats in putting together some sort of grand compromise (presumably something similar to what was proposed by Obama’s Fiscal Commission).

In this case, the tax increase could be enormous, well over $1 trillion. No wonder this battle is getting heated. Here are some excerpts from a recent story in the Washington Post.

Republicans are feuding over whether to abandon the party’s long-held opposition to higher taxes in pursuit of a deficit-cutting deal with Democrats. …both sides say this cuts to the core of a quandary for the GOP: Will the cause of trimming deficits run aground on the conservative principle that the government must not increase the amount of money it takes in through taxes? …“If we don’t do something, what we’ve done is put the country at risk,” Coburn said in an interview. “I agree we ought to cut spending, but will we ever get the spending cut to the level that we need to without some type of compromise?” Norquist…argues that bipartisan deals struck by Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George H.W. Bush in 1990, both of which entailed increased taxes, resulted in bigger government rather than spending cuts that both men thought they had secured. “This is a fantasy on the part of the liberal Democrats that the Republicans would be stupid enough to repeat 1990 and throw away a winning hand politically,” Norquist said.

As the excerpt correctly acknowledges, this issue deals with both economics and politics. From an economic perspective, there are all sorts of important issues:

1. What is better for the economy, lower spending or higher taxes?

2. Is it possible to balance the budget without higher taxes?

3. Would tax increases be used for deficit reduction or more spending?

But I covered these issues in my earlier post, so lets’ look at the political implications. Grover asked, in the Washington Post article, “Why would you elect a Republican Senate if they just sat down with Obama and raised everyone’s taxes?” And I was quoted about how abandoning the no-tax-hike position would heavily damage the GOP.

How the debate among Republicans is resolved in the coming weeks will play a large role in determining whether a grand bipartisan bargain on deficit reduction is possible. “There’s a significant split over whether to put taxes on the table,” said Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute and a Norquist ally. Mitchell said the disagreement largely pits House and Senate Republicans against each other and gives Democrats a potential political edge. “Obama has it within his power to drive a big wedge between House and Senate GOP-ers and turn the tax issue from something that works on behalf of Republicans into something that works against them,” he said.

To elaborate on the last point, the no-tax-increase pledge helps the GOP because it sends a signal to all voters that they will not be raped and pillaged (at least in excess of what is happening now).

This puts Democrats in a tough position. They can play the politics of class warfare (as Obama likes to do) and say only the “rich” will pay higher taxes, but voters don’t dislike their upper-income neighbors. Moreover, they probably suspect that Democrats have a very broad definition of what counts as rich, so they instinctively gravitate to the GOP position. After all, the only sure way of avoiding a tax hike on yourself is to oppose tax hikes for everyone.

If Republicans put tax increases on the table, however, the politics get turned upside down. Instead of being united against all tax increases, voters realize somebody is going to get mugged and they have an incentive to make sure they’re not the ones who get victimized.

That’s when soak-the-rich taxes become very appealing. Democrats, for all intents and purposes, can appeal to average voters by targeting the so-called rich. And even though voters will be skeptical about what Democrats really want, they don’t want to be the primary target of the political predators in Washington.

Think of it this way. You’re a wildebeest running away from a pack of hyenas, but you know one member of your herd will get caught and killed. You despise hyenas, but at that critical moment, you’re main goal is wanting another member of the herd to bite the dust.

This is why surrendering to tax increases put Republicans in a no-win situation. They oppose class-warfare taxes because they understand the disproportionately damaging impact of higher top income tax rates and increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains. So when GOPers get bullied into agreeing to raise taxes, they want to target less destructive sources of revenue. But that usually means that taxes that are more likely to hit the middle class.

Needless to say, Democrats almost always win if there is a fight on whether to tax the middle class or to tax the rich.

Senator Coburn’s heart is in the right place, but he is creating a win-win situation for Democrats. By putting taxes on the table, he is giving Democrats a policy victory and a political victory.

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It’s not too surprising to learn that spending money on “high-speed” rail is foolish. And it’s hardly a revelation to learn that politicians over-promise and under-deliver when they push through these boondoggles.

My Cato colleague, Randall O’Toole, has written extensively about these money-losing white-elephant projects. But it’s not exactly shocking news that libertarians would resist wasteful government spending.

But it is stunning when establishment leftists admit that such programs are a mistake.

Here are excerpts from a column by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. Even folks at the Washington Post are recognizing (or at least beginning to recognize) that government is a giant sink-hole that squanders tax dollars and undermines prosperity.

Today, Liu Zhijun is ruined, and his high-speed rail project is in trouble. On Feb. 25, he was fired for “severe violations of discipline” — code for embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Seems his ministry has run up $271 billion in debt — roughly five times the level that bankrupted General Motors. But ticket sales can’t cover debt service that will total $27.7 billion in 2011 alone. Safety concerns also are cropping up.

…On April 13, the government cut bullet-train speeds 30 mph to improve safety, energy efficiency and affordability. The Railway Ministry’s tangled finances are being audited. Construction plans, too, are being reviewed.

Liu’s legacy, in short, is a system that could drain China’s economic resources for years. So much for the grand project that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times likened to a “moon shot” and that President Obama held up as a model for the United States.

…China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well. “Any . . . shortfall in ridership or yield, can quickly create financial stress,” warns a 2010 World Bank staff report.

Such “shortfalls” are all too common. Japan’s bullet trains needed a bailout in 1987. Taiwan’s line opened in 2007 and needed a government rescue in 2009. …[T]he Beijing-Tianjin line, built at a cost of $46 million per mile, is losing more than $100 million per year. …On the whole, I’d say China should envy us.

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Republicans are understandably nervous about polling data showing considerable opposition to the Ryan plan’s Medicare proposal – particularly since they just voted for a budget resolution in the House of Representatives that includes such a reform.

Their unease is warranted. GOPers almost surely will be subjected to a scorched-earth campaign in 2012, featuring lots of demagoguery about  Medicare “privatization,” mixed in with shrill rhetoric about big insurance companies and “tax cuts for the rich.”

I don’t particularly care about the GOP’s electoral prospects, but I do want to save my nation from fiscal collapse, so that means I don’t want entitlement reform to become radioactive.

So what can be done to counter the predictable onslaught against Ryan’s Medicare proposal?

First and foremost, reformers should borrow some advice about counter-attacks from President Obama. He said during the 2008 campaign that if opponents “bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” and a high-ranking White House aide in 2009 urged supporters to “punch back twice as hard” when dealing with attacks against government-run healthcare.

While reformers obviously should avoid the unseemly rhetoric associated with the current Administration, they should copy the aggressive approach. Timidity is a recipe for defeat.

For instance, do not allow the left to compare the Ryan proposal to the status quo of unlimited handouts. That system is bankrupt and even the Obama Administration acknowledges that something dramatic needs to happen to control costs.

Indeed, the best strategy for reformers may be to compare the Ryan plan to Obama’s scheme for a beefed-up “Independent Payment Advisory Board.” Sounds wonky and technical, but IPAB is the bureaucratic entity that will be in charge of imposing price controls that lead to the rationing of health care for the elderly.

In other words, the real issue is who will be in charge of the pool of dollars that will be used to provide healthcare for the elderly. Ryan’s plan would let seniors choose a health plan that best suits their needs and provide a big subsidy to finance that policy. Obama’s plan, by contrast, will keep seniors in a government-run system and let a bunch of unelected bureaucrats decide what kind of care they should receive.

Moreover, reformers should fight fire with fire. If the left is allowed to use “privatization” to describe Ryan’s plan (notwithstanding massive government involvement and subsidies), then reformers should refer to IPAB as a “death panel.”

My colleague Michael Cannon is a one-man truth squad on these issues, and he already has explained that there was a lot of merit in Sarah Palin’s accusation that Obamacare would create something akin to a death panel, and he has documented the various ways that government-run healthcare will lead to rationing.

To conclude, here are excerpts from two excellent columns that recently have been published on Obama’s IPAB scheme.

Rich Lowry of National Review writes.

Why does Obama need specifics when he has the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB? If spending on health care is the biggest driver of government spending, then IPAB is Obama’s most important deficit-reduction initiative. …Obama…implicitly acknowledges that [Medicare] is broken and bankrupting us. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be proposing a cap on Medicare’s growth that is at least as stringent as anything New Gingrich proposed in the 1990s… Under Obamacare, IPAB is to hit a target for Medicare’s growth that significantly squeezes the program beginning in 2014 (in his budget speech, Obama said he wants to ratchet down the cap even further). …In the fact sheet released in conjunction with his budget speech, the White House says he wants to give IPAB “additional tools” and “additional enforcement mechanisms such as an automatic sequester.” …IPAB won’t make the notoriously inefficient Medicare program any more efficient. Through arbitrary reductions on payments to providers, it will simply reduce the supply of care. …Medicare’s chief actuary warned that Obamacare will drive providers out of the program. If you love Medicaid, you’ll adore the new IPAB version of Medicare. It will be the experts’ gift to America’s seniors.

The Wall Street Journal’s superb editorial page also has a good analysis.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board was created in the ObamaCare statute, and the President will appoint its experts in 2012 to six-year terms. …Starting in 2014, the board is charged with holding Medicare spending to certain limits, which at first is a measure of inflation. After 2018, the threshold is the nominal per capita growth of the economy plus one percentage point. Last week Mr. Obama said he wants to lower that to GDP plus half a percentage point.  Mr. Ryan has been lambasted for linking his “premium support” Medicare subsidies to inflation, not the rate of health cost growth. But if that’s as unrealistic as the liberal wise men claim, then Mr. Obama’s goals are even more so. …Since the board is not allowed by law to restrict treatments, ask seniors to pay more, or raise taxes or the retirement age, it can mean only one thing: arbitrarily paying less for the services seniors receive, via fiat pricing. …Now Mr. Obama wants to give the board the additional power of automatic sequester to enforce its dictates, meaning that it would have the legal authority to prevent Congress from appropriating tax dollars. In other words, Congress would be stripped of any real legislative role in favor of an unaccountable body of experts. …the board will decide “what works” and apply it through regulation to all of American medicine. …As a practical matter, the more likely outcome is the political rationing of care for the elderly, as now occurs in Britain… Messrs. Ryan and Obama agree that Medicare spending must decline, and significantly. The difference is that Mr. Ryan would let seniors decide which private Medicare-financed insurance policies to buy based on their own needs, while Mr. Obama wants Americans to accept the commands of 15 political appointees who will never stand for election.

Even though I play senior softball, I’m not a senior citizen by Medicare standards. But when I reach that age, I know what I’ll decide if my choice is “privatization” or a “death panel.”

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America is in fiscal peril in the short run because of a 10-year spending binge by Bush and Obama and in the long run because of a toxic combination of entitlement programs and demographics.

Congressman Paul Ryan has introduced a budget plan to address America’s fiscal crisis, but Senator Reid and President Obama have summarily rejected his proposal, so it appears the United States will continue to drift in the wrong direction.

Something is needed to compel action. One might think that such an impetus would have been provided by the recent decision by Standard & Poor to downgrade the fiscal outlook for the United States. But this development hasn’t affected the spending culture in Washington.

But there is hope. Senator Corker has legislation that would force Congress to act – and automatically impose fiscal discipline if they don’t. His bill caps – and then slowly reduces – government spending as a share of national economic output (gross domestic product).

I’ve already written about the merits of this proposal, including an explanation of the all-important enforcement mechanism of sequestration (automatic spending cuts). Here’s Senator Corker’s description of his plan, as delivered at a Cato Institute conference on the Economic Impact of Government Spending.

To build on the Senator’s comments, there are two things that deserve special emphasis.

1. He correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.

2. Senator Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.

Some people complain that Senator Corker’s plan is too timid and that it doesn’t balance the budget by 2021. While it would be desirable to impose additional fiscal restraint, the Tennessee Senator has deliberately chosen a more modest goal in order to attract support from colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And he does have Democratic co-sponsors, something that is critical given the composition of the Senate.

Since I’m just a policy wonk, I’ll leave it to the other people to argue about what’s feasible in the current political environment. My final comment, though, is that we’re on an unsustainable path that will lead to the end of American exceptionalism and turn the United States into a decrepit, European-style welfare state. So I’m not going to complain if someone has a plan that finally moves policy in the right direction, albeit not quite as fast as I prefer.

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There are very serious ways to save huge amounts of money from the defense budget, largely by making smarter choices about defining America’s national security.

This obviously involves high-profile decisions about whether it is smart to engage in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it also involves what seem to be “gimme” choices about whether we should be spending tens of billions of dollars to maintain troops in places such as Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Japan.

And, sometimes, it’s just the simple fact that bureaucracies like to squander money. Here’s a $600,000 boondoggle that barely rises to the level of a rounding error in the Defense Department’s budget, but it is a nauseating example of how government wastes our money in genuinely spectacular ways. Every time some politician says we need to raise taxes, you should think of this piece of you-know-what and  say #*&@;^ No!

Here are the key passages from a U.S. News and World Report story.

A $600,000 frog sculpture that lights up, gurgles “sounds of nature” and carries a 10-foot fairy girl on its back could soon be greeting Defense Department employees who plan to start working at the $700 million Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. this fall. That is unless a new controversy over the price tag of the public art doesn’t torpedo the idea.

Decried as wasteful spending that will be seen by just a couple thousand of daily workers who arrive on bus shuttles, foes have tried to delay the decision, expected tomorrow, April 1. But in an E-mail, an Army Corps of Engineers official said that the decision can’t be held up because it would impact completion of the huge project.

…The Mark Center is one of the facilities that thousands of defense workers will be reporting to as part of the Base Realignment and Closure plan, or BRAC, that is shifting workers around Virginia and Maryland. The BRAC plan itself has been criticized as wasteful.

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I’m an over-protective parent. Even now, with my kids ranging between 18 and 23, I will try to herd them together while skiing so I can follow them down the slopes and watch for potential injuries. And I never got them a jungle gym when they were young, even though I somehow managed to survive childhood with one in my backyard.

But at least I recognize what I’m doing. And I certainly would never consider imposing my mother-hen impulses on the overall population.

I’m not surprised to discover, however, that bureaucrats in New York wanted to go way overboard with regulations to ban just about anything with even tiny risks of injury. This list included things such as archery and rock climbing, which might cause me to fret, but also things such as (I’m not joking) kickball and tag.

With those standards, you may as well require kids to be enclosed in bubble wrap every morning.

The only good news is that people found out about the state’s regulatory overreach and the government was forced to cancel the rules after widespread mockery.

Here are some excerpts from a story by NBC in New York.

Day camp games like tag, wiffle ball, Red Rover and kickball are no longer at risk in New York after state health officials yanked a proposal that threatened the future of those mainstays of child’s play.

Towns, villages and other camp operators had begun revamping upcoming indoor summer programs after the Department of Health sent out a long list of familiar games and activities it said presented a “significant risk of injury” and needed to be regulated more closely.

…On Tuesday, Richie, a Republican whose district includes three mostly rural north-central New York counties, said she was pleased by the reversal.

“At a time when our nation’s No. 1 health concern is childhood obesity, I am very happy to see that someone in state government saw we should not be adding new burdensome regulations by classifying tag, Red Rover and Wiffle Ball as dangerous activities,” she said. “I am glad New York’s children can continue to steal the bacon and play flag football and enjoy other traditional rites of summer.”

The proposal would have revised the definition of a summer day camp to include potentially risky organized indoor group activities like archery and rock climbing — as well as things like kickball, tag and Wiffle Ball.

Ritchie said that would have required camps in many smaller towns and villages to add staff such as nurses and pay $200 for a state permit. Other critics argued the regulation was a hysterical approach that stood to take all the fun out of summer.

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After reading below about Argentina’s decline, several people have emailed to ask how Chile compares. Ask and ye shall receive. This post from last month shows shows Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. Very powerful, which is why I gave the post such a grandiose title.

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There’s been a lot of coverage of the recent decision by Standard & Poor to warn that the United States has a “negative” outlook.

As Joe Biden would say, BFD. I’m stunned that anyone would care, particularly since the rating agencies have zero credibility. These clowns completely missed Enron. They missed the collapse of Europe. They blew it on the financial crisis, especially with regard to the corrupt government-created mess at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The fact that one of the rating agencies belatedly warns that America is heading in the wrong direction should elicit only one response, which is, “Where were you guys when Bush did no-bureaucrat-left-behind, the prescription drug entitlement and TARP? And where were you guys when Obama did the faux stimulus and government-run healthcare?”

One of the problems with the rating agencies in this regard is that they narrowly focus on the ostensible ability of an institution (such as a company or government) to repay debt. That’s an important consideration, especially if you are a bondholder, but (even if the rating agencies did a good job) it doesn’t tell us much about why a government is in good shape or bad shape.

This story – and the failure to recognize what’s truly important – is doubly irritating to me since I’m in Buenos Aires for the Mont Pelerin Society meetings. Many of the speakers have focused on the challenges in Latin America, with a lot of attention focused on what went wrong with Argentina.

If I was forced to compress all the analysis into one brief answer, the problem is crony capitalism. Argentina’s economy, for all intents and purposes, is one giant Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac/Obamacare/General Motors/Goldman Sachs Obamaesque dystopia. Government has enormous influence over every major economic decision. It’s like being in the middle of Atlas Shrugged, as political connections are the way to get rich.

This type of approach is far worse than the Scandinavian welfare state. Yes, the official size of government is bigger in places such as Sweden, but the negative role of government intervention is far more pervasive in Argentina.

What makes this so tragic is that Argentina used to be one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Last night, I had the privilege of listening to one of the nation’s leading free market advocates, Dr. Ricardo H. López Murphy, talk about Argentina’s history. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Argentina looked to the United States for inspiration (back in the days when government was a far smaller burden) and he noted that his country was remarkably successful.

Then, beginning around the 1940s, Argentina began to march in the wrong direction. As you can see from this chart, the consequences have been tragic. The nation’s relative ranking has declined precipitously. A country that used to be one of the world’s richest has now fallen way behind.

I also put Hong Kong on this chart to give further evidence that policy matters. Argentina has pursued an Obama policy of government intervention and has declined. Hong Kong has practiced laissez-faire economics and now is one of the world’s richest jurisdictions.

This is a warning to America. There is nothing magical about the United States. If we copy Argentina (actually, a very bad combination of Argentine-style crony capitalism and Swedish-style high-tax redistribution), we will suffer similar consequences.

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