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Posts Tagged ‘corruption’

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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Happy Tax Day! Or, if you’re like me, happy tax extension filing day.

In the past couple of days, I’ve posted about the benefits of a better tax system and the unfairness of the current system.

Those were compelling posts, at least I hope. But now let’s tie these themes together. Art Laffer has a column in the Wall Street Journal that explains the comprehensively awful burden of the internal revenue code – and also shows the promise of a better approach.

There is a lot more to taxes than simply paying the bill. Taxpayers must spend significantly more than $1 in order to provide $1 of income-tax revenue to the federal government.

To start with, individuals and businesses must pay the government the $1 in revenue plus the costs of their own time spent filing and complying with the tax code; plus the tax collection costs of the IRS; plus the tax compliance outlays that individuals and businesses pay to help them file their taxes.

In a study published last week by the Laffer Center, my colleagues Wayne Winegarden, John Childs and I estimate that these costs alone are a staggering $431 billion annually. This is a cost markup of 30 cents on every dollar paid in taxes. And this is not even a complete accounting of the costs of tax complexity.

…David Keating of the National Taxpayers Union provides a useful perspective on how big the tax compliance industry is. According to his research, as of 2009 the income-tax industry employed “more workers than are employed at the five biggest employers among Fortune 500 companies—more than all the workers at Wal-Mart Stores, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, International Business Machines, and Citigroup combined.” Without diminishing in any way the professionalism of tax attorneys, accountants and financial planners, all of these efforts produce nothing other than, well, tax compliance.

…A tax reform to a simple flat-rate tax with no deductions would significantly reduce the current complexity inherent in our progressive tax system, which is full of loopholes, exemptions and special interest carve-outs. Based on the estimates from our new study, if a static, revenue-neutral flat-tax reform were to reduce the tax complexity in half, the long-term growth in our economy would increase by around one-half of 1% per year.

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When I was in college and first became active in politics and public policy, I periodically would meet people who warned about sinister conspiracies that had to be exposed and overcome.

The most common villain, reviled by conspiracy theorists on the left and right, was something called the Trilateral Commission, though the Council of Foreign Relations often was mentioned in the same breath (I also remember a lefty friend warning about the Bilderbergers and Illuminati, though I never quite understood who or what they were supposed to be).

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anybody mention any of the above groups, but this doesn’t mean conspiracy theories have faded into the sunset. There are thriving communities of people who think:

a) Obama is a Kenyan and/or Muslim (the birthers).

b) The U.S. government and/or George W. Bush were complicit in the 9-11 attacks (the truthers).

c) The Federal Reserve is a sinister cabal.

d) The Koch brothers have a secret plan to turn America into…well, I’m not sure, but they have a secret plan to do something bad.

This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea. The common theme in all these conspiracies is that wealthy/powerful people, in some unaccountable and hidden fashion, manipulate the levers of government to achieve some evil goal.

I suppose a quick disclaimer would be appropriate. The Koch brothers directly or indirectly provide 3 percent of the funding for the Cato Institute, so if they have a conspiracy, I’m part of it. Though I’m not sure how a conspiracy can be a conspiracy if it’s all public information.

But I digress. The main point I want to make is that it is almost always foolish to believe in conspiracies. Or, to be more specific, it’s foolish to believe in big conspiracies. We have a government that is spectacularly incompetent, filled with some of the most short-sighted and narcissistic people in the world, so why would anyone think it is realistic to believe that this bunch of buffoons could maintain a conspiracy using an organization that doesn’t even have the ability to give away money without creating giant clusterf*cks?

In a column for National Review, Jonah Goldberg made this point quite effectively in discussing the fevered speculations of the birthers and truthers.

I’m not saying there are no secret dealings in Washington. There are lots of them. But they involve run-of-the-mill corruption, with politicians doing things like providing earmarks in exchange for campaign cash. That’s the kind of scheme that works, because only a tiny handful of people are in on the deal, and they obviously have lots of reasons to keep quiet. Heck, in most cases there’s probably not even an overt conspiracy, just an implied understanding.

I think people are drawn to conspiracy theories because they assume that things happen for a reason, as part of a deliberate design. So if we have a TARP bailout, for instance, they assume that there was a deliberate effort to create chaos so the people who are part of the conspiracy can grab more money and power.

I’m willing to accept the last part of that scenario. Washington is filled with people who are willing to use any excuse to grab money and power. But I think it is silly to think that some hidden group of bigwigs orchestrated the financial crisis for that reason.

As indicated in my title, it is much more realistic to believe bad things happen because of corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self-interest. These ever-present characteristics of human nature help explain why politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and interest groups pursued the various policies (easy money, housing subsidies, etc) that inadvertently came together in a perfect storm to destabilize the financial system.

Yes, powerful interest groups have a lot of influence on the political system. But it’s not a hidden conspiracy. Take the example of Goldman Sachs, which frequently is cited as being part of some evil plan. Their lobbyists are well known, their campaign contributions are public knowledge, and their policy positions are openly stated.

I often disagree with the actions of Goldman Sachs. But you don’t need to believe that the company’s endorsement of, say, the Dodd-Frank bailout bill is part of a conspiracy. It’s just the kind of the out-in-the-open, day-after-day, special-interest deal-making that is routine in Washington.

I like good conspiracy theories, but I like them in David Baldacci novels rather than as explanations for what happens in Washington.

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General Electric has received a lot of unwelcome attention for paying zero federal income tax in 2010, even though it reported $5.1 billion in U.S. profits. This is a good news-bad news situation.

The good news is that GE’s clever tax planning deprived the government of revenue. And I’m in favor of just about anything that reduces the amount of money that winds up in the hands of the most corrupt and least competent people in America (a.k.a., the political class in Washington).

The bad news, though, is that politicians can engage in borrow-and-spend vote-buying behavior, so depriving them of revenue doesn’t seem to have much impact on the overall burden of government spending.

Moreover, there are good ways to cut taxes and not-so-good ways to cut taxes. Special loopholes for politically powerful companies and well-connected insiders are unfair, corrupt, and inefficient.And I’ve already written about GE’s distasteful track record of getting in bed with politicians in exchange for grubby favors.

Ideally, we should junk the corrupt internal revenue code (and the corporate side of the tax code makes the personal tax code seem simple by comparison) and replace it with a simple and transparent system such as the flat tax.

That way, all income would be taxed since loopholes would be abolished, but there would be a very low tax rate and no double taxation.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the best economic and policy journalists on the scene today, and this excerpt from his column explains what is right and wrong about GE’s tax bill.

GE allocates hundreds of talented minds to attempts at lowering taxes. I don’t blame GE for that. It’s probably worth it — which is exactly the problem. In a world with a simpler tax code — or better yet, with no corporate income tax — GE would spend those resources creating something of value. Again, this is a case where government creates a chasm between what’s profitable (gaming tax law) and what’s valuable for society. Also, this story demonstrates once again how Big Government hurts small business much more than it affects Big Business, which can afford to figure out a way around taxes.

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Joe Nocera has a must-read story in the New York Times about how the legal fallout from the financial crisis. His basic theme is that the government let all the bigwigs get away with their crimes, but then has a fascinating discussion about how the government targeted an inconsequential mortgage borrower.

I’m not sure I accept the first part of his premise. There were lots of sleazy people taking advantage of the perverse system created by bad government policy, but I would like to see some clear evidence of actual crimes before hopping on that bandwagon. Selling mortgage-backed securities filled with crummy home loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may have been immoral, for instance (at least from a libertarian perspective), but I’m not aware that it is against the law to make choices that hurt the economy – particularly when government policy is designed to reward such stupidity.

That being said, I do wonder why there haven’t been any bribery prosecutions of the politicians who got sweetheart loans as part of the “Friends of Angelo” scheme. Actually, I don’t wonder why politicians such as Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad got a free ride. Politicians operate by the principle that law are only for the little people. Nonetheless, these are examples of real laws being violated.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this post is to show how the government decided to go through great effort and expense to nail someone who, at most, was willing to go along with the government-subsidized and government-created housing scam.

Here are the sordid details.

A few weeks ago, when the Justice Department decided not to prosecuteAngelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that none of the big fish were likely to go to prison for their roles in the financial crisis.

…There was, in fact, someone behind bars for what he’d supposedly done during the subprime bubble.

…Mr. Engle’s is a tale worth telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its punch line. Was Mr. Engle convicted of running a crooked subprime company? Was he a mortgage broker who trafficked in predatory loans? A Wall Street huckster who sold toxic assets?

No. Charlie Engle wasn’t a seller of bad mortgages. He was a borrower. And the “mortgage fraud” for which he was prosecuted was something that literally millions of Americans did during the subprime bubble. Supposedly, he lied on two liar loans.

…It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome about his prosecution. It is also the way the government went about building its case.

…Even the jurors seemed confused about how to think about Mr. Engle’s supposed crime. When it came time to pronounce a verdict, the jury found him not guilty of providing false information to the bank, which would seem to be the only fraud he could possibly have committed. Yet it still found him guilty of mortgage fraud. “I think the prosecution convinced the jury that I was guilty of something but they weren’t sure what,” Mr. Engle wrote in an e-mail.

…Even when he emerges from prison, though, his ordeal will not be over. As part of his sentence, Mr. Engle was ordered to pay $262,500 in restitution to the owner of his mortgages. And what institution might that be? You guessed it: Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America. Angelo Mozilo ought to get a good chuckle out of that one.

Later today, by the way, I’ll post about the IRS’s disgusting role in this story.

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I sometimes assert that the greatest enemies of freedom in Washington are mortgage payments and tuition bills. When people give me a blank stare, I say that I’m joking, but I use the opportunity to explain that the desire for easy wealth (and the lifestyle it enables) lures many Republicans to become lobbyists and to promote policies that they almost surely understand are bad for America.

These GOPers, who do the wrong thing to line their own pockets, are the worst people in Washington. They presumably first got involved in policy because they recognized government is a cesspool, but eventually got corrupted and decide it is a hot tub. To put it mildly, this gets me very agitated. For instance:

I have slammed a former Reagan Administration official for defending earmarks. I think it is morally offensive that he gets rich by facilitating the transfer of money from taxpayers to powerful interest groups.

I have condemned the former Senate Republican leader for defending Obamacare. I think it is disgusting that he puts his lobbying income ahead of America’s best interests.

I have denounced Illinois Republican legislators for killing school choice. I think it is downright nauseating that they condemn inner-city children to terrible schools in exchange for campaign contributions from teacher unions.

So you won’t be surprised to know that I am on the verge of going postal after reading a report from The Hill about all the Republican lobbyists who are getting lucrative contracts to fight against the Tea Party agenda and lobby on behalf of big government. Here are the utterly nauseating details.

A stable of former GOP aides has been hired by public television stations, children’s hospitals and other interest groups that fear they’ll be targeted for spending cuts by the Republican House.

Most of the aides left Congress years ago, but many still have close ties to senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Speaker John Boehner (Ohio). They’ve been hired to try to convince the new GOP Congress that some public spending is worth continuing and not reducing.

An advocacy group for the Association of Public Television Stations, for example, has hired GOP lobbyists John Feehery and Marc Lampkin of Quinn Gillespie & Associates to fight off budget cuts.

…A review of lobbying disclosure records by The Hill shows the public television stations are hardly alone in recruiting GOP muscle.

A number of associations hoping to retain federal funding have recently added GOP lobbyists with connections to the new majority. The hiring binge indicates Republican lobbyists are earning dividends from their party’s re-taking of the House in November and points to the headaches in store for a Republican House that wants to take a hatchet to public spending.

Targets of GOP budget cuts say they need all the help they can get from the coming GOP-led onslaught. “Everyone is going to make their case for government support for their projects,” said one GOP lobbyist.

…The California High-Speed Rail Authority has hired Ogilvy Government Relations’ Drew Maloney, a former aide to DeLay, to work on retaining federal grants for high-speed rail.

…Williams & Jensen has registered to lobby for AARP to work on senior-citizen issues and President Obama’s deficit commission report. Prominent Republican lobbyist Steve Hart is among those working for the group, which wants to make sure the new healthcare law is not repealed.

…The National Association of Children’s Hospitals (NACH) has hired former Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) of Clark Lytle & Geduldig to lobby for the reauthorization of the Children’s Hospitals Graduate Medical Education program, which uses $317.5 million in federal funding a year.

Some of my Republican friends sometimes respond by asserting that Democrats are worse, but I grade on a curve. Democrats seek to make government bigger because they believe in statism. So it’s not terribly surprising or philosophically inconsistent for them to become lobbyists and get rich pushing to expand the burden of government (though some Democrats lobby for things that are not completely consistent with a left-wig agenda, such as special tax breaks or defense contracts, so it’s not a black-and-white divide).

Republicans, however, tell voters that they believe in small government and individual liberty. So when GOP politicians and staffers decide to get rich by lobbying for bigger government, that is more disgusting.

Doing the wrong thing is bad. But doing the wrong they when you know it is wrong is even worse.

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The internal revenue code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most quoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior – whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group – including lawyers – to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.

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