Category Archives: Fiscal Policy

The Lean Years?

It seems that a town in Northern California, Tracy, is having some budget problems. So what do they suggest? Charge for 911* calls! And it has aroused the ire of Thomas Friedman:

A small news item from Tracy, Calif., caught my eye last week. Local station CBS 13 reported: “Tracy residents will now have to pay every time they call 911 for a medical emergency. But there are a couple of options. Residents can pay a $48 voluntary fee for the year, which allows them to call 911 as many times as necessary. Or there’s the option of not signing up for the annual fee. Instead they will be charged $300 if they make a call for help.”

Welcome to the lean years.

Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.

Did I hear that right? Do we have a return to the Clintonian pronouncement that “The era of big government is over”, where Thomas Friedman has just suggested that we’ve seen the end of the “age of government handouts”? I suppose we’ll see a quick retraction from $3.8T federal budgets down to less exospheric levels.

Wait, let’s step back a bit. I’ve heard nobody else suggest that we’re going to see major cuts in budgets. So what exactly is the issue here? Why would a local government cut funding for something that is so highly visible, so near and dear to city residents’ hearts, and such a vital service? Particularly when I’m sure that the revenue raised by this move will not be exactly world-changing (I’m hearing numbers of between $400K and $800K, when the city is facing a $9M shortfall).

I was struck by something I’ve read over and over at Coyote’s place:

The second thing that governments do is cut their MOST important, MOST valuable operations. In Seattle, it was always fire and ambulance services that would be cut. Because the whole game was to find the cuts that would most upset the public to try to avoid the necessity of having to make cuts at all. Its an incredibly disingenuous process. Any staffer of a private company that made cost savings prioritization decisions like government officials would be fired in about 2 minutes.

It becomes immediately clear that the city of Tracy isn’t doing this to raise revenue — they’re doing this to piss off residents. An easier way to cut the budget would be to scour the books for non-essential services, or bloated departments, or redundancies and inefficiencies in their system. I would find it hard to believe that there’s no padding in the city government. I’ve worked in the corporate world, and I know that during times of heavy growth and good days for the balance sheet, departments sometimes grow fat and happy. But something happens differently in the corporate world when the balance sheets start bleeding red — the departments shrink.

Tracy does not want to cut their budget, and they don’t want to make hard choices. If they really wanted to raise $400-800K, I’ll bet they could find all sorts of hidden fees, taxes, regulatory compliance nightmares, etc to put together that money. But they want to bluff the residents into the false choice of paying more in taxes or seeing vital services taken away. They want local residents to make the tough choices — or maybe just scream to Sacramento or Washington for relief — so they can remain fat and happy.

Thomas Friedman suggests the lean years are upon us. Somehow I have a feeling that my tax bill and our federal debt won’t reflect this.

* Note — the charges don’t apply to every 911 call, they are targeted at calls where medical response is necessary but provided by city personnel rather than an EMT. This does not change the fundamental analysis of the situation, but I want to be clear lest someone suggest I’m not providing a clear picture.

Also Blogging: Bruce at QandO. He went a different route with his response, so I had no need to quote him, but his take is valuable as well, so I suggest you head over and give it a read. And of course there’s Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek, who is much closer to my line of argument.

LP’s Wes Benedict on ‘Limited Government’ Conservatives

Those of us who truly believe in limited government* tend to be simultaneously amused and irritated hearing the folks at CPAC speak of limited government as though it’s a principle they truly support. Yesterday, the Libertarian Party’s Executive Director Wes Benedict, monitoring the CPAC festivities from afar, said some of the things that many of us have been thinking:

Unlike libertarians, most conservatives simply don’t want small government. They want their own version of big government. Of course, they have done a pretty good job of fooling American voters for decades by repeating the phrases “limited government” and “small government” like a hypnotic chant.

It’s interesting that conservatives only notice “big government” when it’s something their political enemies want. When conservatives want it, apparently it doesn’t count.

– If a conservative wants a trillion-dollar foreign war, that doesn’t count.

– If a conservative wants a 700-billion-dollar bank bailout, that doesn’t count.

– If a conservative wants to spend billions fighting a needless and destructive War on Drugs, that doesn’t count.

– If a conservative wants to spend billions building border fences, that doesn’t count.

– If a conservative wants to “protect” the huge, unjust, and terribly inefficient Social Security and Medicare programs, that doesn’t count.

– If a conservative wants billions in farm subsidies, that doesn’t count.

It’s truly amazing how many things “don’t count.”

Benedict went on to point out the lack of concern these same people had with the government expansion of President Bush and the health care mandates of another CPAC favorite – Mitt Romney.

While I’m by no means a supporter of the Obama Administration, the idea that many Conservatives seem to have that all the problems we are faced with started on January 20, 2009 is completely ludicrous**.

These are the same people who would gladly support Sarah ‘the Quitter’ Palin, ‘Mandate’ Mitt Romney, or ‘Tax Hike Mike’ Huckabee – none are what I would call ‘limited government’ by any stretch of the imagination.

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Is The PAYGO Rule Fiscally Responsible?

On Thursday, the US Senate voted to restore pay go rules on a party line vote. President Obama praised the restoration of the PAYGO rule. Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan used the vote as a club to attack Republicans. Republicans opposed the restoration of pay go calling it a backdoor attempt to raise taxes. However, the PAYGO rule is at best a dual edged sword. While PAYGO is an excellent for controlling and limiting deficit spending, it does very little to limit the size and growth of the Federal government.

The PAYGO or “pay as you go” rule simply calls for any increase of mandatory spending or reduction in revenue (ie. taxes) must be offset by decreases in discretionary spending or increases in revenue (taxes). Mandatory spending is things like Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, pay for Federal employees, paying debt, and other welfare programs such as Food Stamps and Veterans benefits. Mandatory spending is nearly 60% of the Federal budget. Discretionary spending is everything that Congress has to pass legislation to authorize.

How PAYGO Is Fiscally Responsible:

The PAYGO rule requires spending to be budget neutral and budgets to be balanced. This is generally a good thing since it does not require increasing debt which has to be paid back by taxpayers. It requires that if government cannot pay for programs it appropriates, either taxes must be raised or programs and spending be cut. It also forces Congress to prioritize which programs are important them and can lead to much needed reforms in the Federal government which reduces its cost to taxpayers and ultimately the power it wields. In a Congress where the majority of members put limited government and the interests of taxpayers first, PAYGO can be a very important tool in the rollback of the Federal government.

However, PAYGO Also Promotes Big Government:

The PAYGO rule also promotes the welfare state and big government. The PAYGO rule only calls for cuts in so-called discretionary spending while leaving untouched the welfare programs that are so-called mandatory spending. This in affect leaves nearly 60% of the Federal budget (and growing every year) untouched. In order to ultimate reduce the size and scope of the Federal government, reforms must be enacted to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and the other welfare programs which are “mandatory”. The cost of not doing anything to reign in mandatory spending will mean ultimately higher taxes and more poverty as jobs and opportunities are lost by a revenue hungry Federal government.

In addition, Republicans are right when they suspect that PAYGO in the hands of the current Congress and President is nothing more than a tool to raise taxes. Other than various gimmicks that do nothing to address the fiscal problems this nation will have, the Democrats (and Republicans alike for that matter) have shown no serious interest in reducing the size of government.

Finally, PAYGO has a loophole. It can be suspended for “emergency appropriations”. For example, if Congress and the President want to have another round of bailouts and nationalizations, all they have to do is declare an emergency.

Ultimately, PAYGO can be an excellent tool for fighting waste, fraud, and corruption; however it is useless in the hands of this Congress and President because they have neither the will nor the ability to cut the Federal budget where it really matters.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at IJ Review.com and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.

Reporting On Stimulus Jobs Becomes Even Less Useful

I suspect we’ll see a corresponding shift in the rhetoric. Instead of Obama saying the stimulus “created or saved X million jobs”, he’ll say the stimulus “put X million Americans to work.”

Either way, it’s still a joke:

When the White House unveiled its nearly $800 billion stimulus package last year, it promised not only to create and save 3.5 million jobs but also to open the books and prove it. But counting jobs turned out to be a lot harder than lining up a work crew and tapping hardhats.

Now, the White House says it will no longer keep a cumulative tally of jobs created and saved by the stimulus. Instead, it will post only a count of jobs for each quarter.

And instead of counting only created and saved jobs, it will count any person who works on a project funded with stimulus money—even if that person was never in danger of losing his or her job.

The new rules came out last month in a little-noticed memo (PDF) sent to federal agencies by Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget. OMB said it changed the guidelines to prevent the kinds of errors and confusion that occurred when the first job counts came out in October.

I’m sure the administration knew all along that they’d get skewered for whatever number they put out, especially when recovery.gov started showing money going to non-existent Congressional districts*. But I think this change shows that they just don’t care about justifying the funding any more.

Hat Tip: Ezra Klein
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United Liberty Podcast

Many readers here are also familiar with the United Liberty blog, not least because our contributor Jason Pye is the editor-in-chief of that blog, and co-contributor Doug writes at both locations.

They (Jason and UL Assistant Editor Brett Bittner) recently honored me be asking that I join them as a guest on their podcast, which you can find here or on iTunes.

Topics ranged from the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke, to health care, to home weatherization (a topic where I nearly defect from doctrinaire libertarianism), immigration and Copenhagen. All in all, I had a lot of fun and hopefully some of you may enjoy the listen.

Earmark And Healthcare Wars: Ron Paul vs Jeff Flake

A recent article in the Washington Examiner by John Labeaume details the differing approaches to earmarks that two of most libertarian members of Congress have. This difference came out in a vote on an amendment that Flake wrote to H.R. 3791 which was the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2009. The Flake amendment would ban earmarks as defined by Congressional rules. All in all, a modest amendment.

From the Examiner article:

Here’s a gross understatement: Friends of Freedom in the Halls of Congress are few and far between. Asked for a “Real Life” practicing politician that they can actually get behind, it’s not uncommon for libertarians of many stripes to limit their response to two: Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

Dr. Paul has been known to put his own sometimes idiosyncratic principle before practicality, leading his legions of fevered ‘money bombing’ fans along his particular path to ideological purity. His rabid opposition to barrier-busting trade agreements like NAFTA, quibbling with a new panel it might spawn, is a prime example. And this trait can pit his voting record against those of his erstwhile liberty-loving allies, and align himself with curious company.

……………………………

Last month, in an obscure House vote, this stubborn streak reared its head again. It’s a minor, but instructive instance, as Paul was one of only two “nay” votes on his side of the aisle against an amendment to HR 3791, the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2009, offered by his fellow Constitutional conservator, Flake.

The only Republican lined up with Paul – and against Flake – was that egregious earmarker, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the Ranking Member on Appropriations. Like his Showbiz namesake, the collegial Lewis’ look could pass for that of a 70’s “Nite Club” act and he certainly knows how to work a room, but he’s dead serious about defending Appropriators’ perks and the practice of earmarking.

Flake’s amendment was modest.

It merely seeks to ensure a competitive, need-based process for parceling out the firefighting grants authorized by the bill. The mechanism was aptly judicious: it enforces the bill’s ban on earmarking. If opened to earmarks, Flake fears that influential Members – like Lewis – could divert dollars to their districts, away from regions with less congressional clout, but in more dire need of an occasional emergency blaze dousing, admittedly not unlike the maverick Flake’s sometimes-parched Southwestern home base. Of course, and more significantly, once Members start horse trading in earmarks, the price tag tends to swell even beyond the bloated figure originally authorized.

Again, Paul stuck to his guns and stood by his controversial defense of earmarking, and let the red light glow next to his name on the big board above the Speaker’s Chair. His office told me, via an email statement, that Paul maintains that “that all spending should be earmarked as this provides the greatest transparency [and]…gives constituents an opportunity for input regarding how their tax dollars are spent.” The statement paid obligatory lip service to “drastically” reducing spending.

But this last line begs the question: what if that “input regarding how” just means “more,” and “for me”?

Before I go into the crux of the debate, my position on earmarking is this:

  • I don’t have a problem with earmarking in general because yes Congressmen should know the needs of their districts better than Federal bureaucrats.
  • However, earmarks lately have been a vehicle for corruption as Congresscritters reward supporters and campaign contributors with things that would be considered bribery under most circumstances (see John Murtha and the aforementioned Jerry Lewis, et al).
  • In addition, the earmarking process has been used as a way to short circuit the competitive bidding process and award contracts to politically connected companies.
  • Earmarks generally reward politically connected members of Congress and promote wasteful spending, however this is no different than other actions of Congress and the Federal government.
  • Therefore, I am a supporter of earmark reform, but I also realize that earmarks are only a portion of the overall problem with wasteful government spending and political corruption.

I believe that Jeff Flake is correct on this issue and I generally support his fight for earmark reform, Ron Paul’s opposition not withstanding. Earmark reform won’t eliminate wasteful spending and political corruption, but it will make a sizable reduction in both. It will also make it easier to defeat incumbent members of Congress as it will give incumbent members of Congress who bribe their constituents less ability to do so and therefore will increase turnover in Congress.

The Examiner article also attacked Ron Paul for not paying attention to the current healthcare fight:

With a scheme that threatens to regulate one-sixth of the U.S. economy wending its way through the legislative sausage-maker, Flake is focused. Glance at his home page; note the repeated references to health care from his multimedia page. Here’s a flurry of press releases issued in the heat of the House debate.

Meanwhile, Paul’s immediate obsession is trained on legalizing Liberty Dollars. Even though this health care overhaul threatens his livelihood – Dr. Paul is a physician by vocation, remember – from his homepage, you wouldn’t know that this issue looms over Washington one bit. Health care merits only a few addresses in Paul’s posted floor statements and press releases from the entire 111th Congress.

And though his official U.S. House site’s blog offers a few posts on this matter, his political arm, Campaign for Liberty, touts a recent interview with a right wing satellite shock jock, a self-styled “King Dude” whose trademark is liberal-lampooning novelty tunes. (Premium content, only for “King Dude” backstage pass holders, sorry.) During the interview, C4L’s homepage boasts, Dr. Paul discusses his pet “issues including Audit the Fed, Social Security, foreign policy, and nullification.” Number of mentions of healthcare? Zero. He didn’t even warble through a single “Death Panel” ditty.

………………………………………

Paul’s Campaign for Liberty sent out an action item, with orders to his loyal legions to contact Congress and demand a floor vote on his “Audit the Fed” bill, one that House leadership has no intention of unbottling.

As ‘Armageddon Day’ for health care regulation approaches, instead of taking up his scalpel to trim a behemoth, Dr. Paul is fiddling with the Fed.

Unfortunately for Labeaume, this is simply not true. Ron Paul has actually been focused, somewhat, on the healthcare debate. For example, the Campaign for Liberty, on its front page has a link to a project called Operation Health Freedom. Some of the proposed legislation in the project even made its wayhttp://www.thelibertypapers.org/wp-admin/post-new.php into the GOP’s alternative bill. Also, the Campaign for Liberty has been featuring articles almost daily on healthcare. Also if you look at Ron Paul’s House site as compared to Jeff Flake’s House site, you’ll see more writings about healthcare from Ron Paul and his office than from Jeff Flake and his office. I don’t begrudge Jeff Flake on the healthcare issue at all, but to say Ron Paul is disengaged from the healthcare fight is either the result of shoddy research at best or outright dishonesty at worst.

As for Ron Paul’s obsessions with the Federal Reserve, nullification, and foreign policy; that can be traced to Ron Paul’s political style more than anything. Paul is a populist oriented libertarian where as Jeff Flake is more a policy wonk libertarian. Flake’s big issues are earmark reform, immigration reform, and free trade which are more keeping of a former head of a think tank (which Flake was before his election to Congress). Paul’s issues are more geared toward a broad, populist appeal where as Flake’s issues are more appealing to political junkies and wonkish types.

As Nick Gillespie from Reason’s Hit and Run wrote:

To paraphrase Todd (“Godd”) Rundgren, sometimes I don’t know what to feel. Can’t we all just get along, and denounce the Fed and health care reform and earmarks and out-of-control spending? I’m sure we can.

Indeed.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at IJ Review.com and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.

Preach It, Brother Bunning!

Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning: not a fan of Helicopter Ben:

Four years ago when you came before the Senate for confirmation to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve, I was the only Senator to vote against you. In fact, I was the only Senator to even raise serious concerns about you. I opposed you because I knew you would continue the legacy of Alan Greenspan, and I was right. But I did not know how right I would be and could not begin to imagine how wrong you would be in the following four years.

The Greenspan legacy on monetary policy was breaking from the Taylor Rule to provide easy money, and thus inflate bubbles. Not only did you continue that policy when you took control of the Fed, but you supported every Greenspan rate decision when you were on the Fed earlier this decade. Sometimes you even wanted to go further and provide even more easy money than Chairman Greenspan. As recently as a letter you sent me two weeks ago, you still refuse to admit Fed actions played any role in inflating the housing bubble despite overwhelming evidence and the consensus of economists to the contrary.

Alan Greenspan refused to look for bubbles or try to do anything other than create them. Likewise, it is clear from your statements over the last four years that you failed to spot the housing bubble despite many warnings.

Chairman Greenspan’s attitude toward regulating banks was much like his attitude toward consumer protection. Instead of close supervision of the biggest and most dangerous banks, he ignored the growing balance sheets and increasing risk. You did no better. In fact, under your watch every one of the major banks failed or would have failed if you did not bail them out.

Now, I want to read you a quote: “I believe that the tools available to the banking agencies, including the ability to require adequate capital and an effective bank receivership process are sufficient to allow the agencies to minimize the systemic risks associated with large banks. Moreover, the agencies have made clear that no bank is too-big-too-fail, so that bank management, shareholders, and un-insured debt holders understand that they will not escape the consequences of excessive risk-taking. In short, although vigilance is necessary, I believe the systemic risk inherent in the banking system is well-managed and well-controlled.”

That should sound familiar, since it was part of your response to a question I asked about the systemic risk of large financial institutions at your last confirmation hearing. I’m going to ask that the full question and answer be included in today’s hearing record.

Now, if that statement was true and you had acted according to it, I might be supporting your nomination today. But since then, you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail. Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

From monetary policy to regulation, consumer protection, transparency, and independence, your time as Fed Chairman has been a failure.

There’s a lot more red meat in there, so I do suggest you go read the whole thing. I excerpted a lot of the sizzle, but Bunning backs up his points with even more of Greenspan’s record.

But hey, Ben, it’s not quite fair to say we’re trying to fire you… We’re just giving you the opportunity to pursue excellence elsewhere.

Hat Tip: The Big Picture (Tim Iacono)

National Debt Tops $ 12,000,000,000,000

Just 247 days after topping $ 11 trillion and 414 days since passing the $ 10 trillion mark, America’s national debt is now above the eye-popping level of twelve trillion dollars:

It’s another record-high for the U.S. National Debt which today topped the $12-trillion mark. Divided evenly among the U.S. population, it amounts to $38,974.34 for every man, woman and child.

Technically, the debt hit the new high yesterday, but it was posted on the Treasury Department website just after 3:00 p.m. ET today. The exact calculation of the debt is a 16-digit tongue-twister and red-ink tsunami: $12,031,299,186,290.07

This latest milestone in the ever-rising journey of the National Debt comes less than eight months after it hit $11 trillion for the first time. The latest high-point is not unexpected, considering the federal deficit for the just-ended 2009 fiscal year hit an all-time high at $1.42-trillion – more than triple the previous year’s record high.

Much of the increase in the deficit and debt is attributed to government spending outpacing revenue – both exacerbated by the recession and the government response to it – including hundreds of billions in bailouts and stimulus spending and tax cuts along with decreased tax revenues due to rising unemployment.

In recent days, President Obama has spoken of the need to bring the rising deficit and debt under control.

“I intend to take serious steps to reduce America’s long-term deficit – because debt-driven growth cannot fuel America’s long-term prosperity,” he said in remarks prepared for delivery to the leader’s meeting last Sunday at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The National Debt has increased about $1.6 trillion on Mr. Obama’s watch, though less than $4.9 trillion run up during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Of course, Obama has only been in office ten months, not eight years.

Since Barack Obama took the Oath of Office, the national debt has increased from $ 10,626,877,048,913.08 to $ 12,031,299,186,290.07. That’s an increase of $ 1,404,422,137,376.99 over 302 days, or $ 4,650,404,428.40 per day, $ 193,766,851.18 per hour, $ 3,229,447.52 per minute, and $ 53,824.13 per second.

Anyone want to bet how long it will take to get to $ 13 trillion ?

My guess is August 15, 2010.

Bruce Bartlett, May Your Chains Set Lightly Upon You

Ezra Klein quotes approvingly from Bruce Bartlett’s new book, The New American Economy: The Failure Of Reaganomics And A New Way Forward:

The reality is that even before spending exploded to deal with the economic crisis, the government was set to grow by about 50 percent of GDP over the next generation just to pay for Social Security and Medicare benefits under current law. When the crunch comes and the need for a major increase in revenue becomes overwhelming, I expect that Republicans will refuse to participate in the process. If Democrats have to raise taxes with no bipartisan support, then they will have no choice but to cater to the demand of their party’s most liberal wing. This will mean higher rates on businesses and entrepreneurs, and soak-the-rich policies that would make Franklin D. Roosevelt blush.

Shorter: “Hey conservatives, you’ve completely and hopelessly lost the spending war. If you don’t play nice, you’re going to get even more screwed by the tax man than if you sit at the table.”

To which Samuel Adams might have responded: “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animated contest of freedom — go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen!”

In short, Bruce Bartlett has surrendered. He has taken the view “posit a giant welfare state — now what’s the best way to pay for it?” He suggests that if conservatives try to set the menu at — as Billy Beck would call it — the cannibal pot, that MAYBE they’ll just lose an arm and not the leg to go along with it.

All in all, Bartlett’s view is probably the calmest and most peaceful answer. But it gives us a nation that is so unlike America that I’m not sure I want a part of it. The peaceful way out is to accept that Democracy has given us a giant welfare state, that Democracy is never going to rescind it, and that therefore we might as well pay for it. He’s taking Mencken’s quote at face value:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Bartlett is arguing that if we’re all to be slaves, it’s best to suck up and hope for the job of overseer, holding the whip rather than tasting its lash.

But I’m not ready to surrender.

Bruce Bartlett says that if we don’t find a way to pay for the monstrosity growing out of Washington, the whole system will come crashing down. I say I’d prefer that to the “success” of the system as the social democrats want it to exist.

Bruce Bartlett says that the “starve the beast” tactic doesn’t work, as the beast keeps on growing. Well consider me a cancerous tumor hoping to infect the populace into becoming an ever-growing resistance that eats away at the beast’s insides until it dies of rot.

Bruce Bartlett wants conservatives to make sure they have a seat at the table to divvy up the “spoils”. Well, if he wants to be a good little Tory, that’s his choice. He’s taken sides, and despite his pleas, the fight will rage on.

Somewhere deep inside, despite a century of statism trying to weaken it with bread and circuses, the spirit of America still exists. Until that’s no longer the case, I’ll take the side of Freedom.

Obama Creates Perfect Storm with Marijuana Policy Change

Last week’s announcement from the Obama Administration that the Justice Department would call off the dogs with regard to medical marijuana in states where legal has created a perfect storm regarding state and local regulations. Colorado Attorney General lamented that with this announcement, a “legal vacuum” has been created and was quoted in The New York Times: “The federal Department of Justice is saying it will only go after you if you’re in violation of state law,” Mr. Suthers said. “But in Colorado it’s not clear what state law is.”

Here’s a thought Mr. Suthers: rather than trying to interpret the law yourself, why not allow the state legislature and/or Colorado voters clarify the law. In the meantime, while the law in your opinion is vague, err on the side of freedom by no longer prosecuting medical marijuana users or dispensary operators.

Greeley (Colorado) City Council member Carrol Martin also expressed concerns with the Obama Administration’s change in federal policy: “The federal government says they’re not going to control it [medical marijuana], so the only other option we have is to control it ourselves” and “If we have no regulations at all, then we can’t control it, and our police officers have their hands tied.”

Councilman, I would argue that this is a very good thing. You are no longer responsible for enforcing federal laws but state and local laws regarding medical marijuana. Your police officers “have their hands tied”? I think it’s quite the opposite councilman. Your police department can now concentrate on violent crime rather than spend valuable resources on going after non-violent, medicinal, marijuana users and their suppliers. If anything, the Greeley police has their hands freed!

In a time when we have an administration which wants to control banking, housing, the auto industry, the healthcare industry, and everything in-between we have one instance of the same administration relinquishing control and giving it back to the states. This is the perfect opportunity for states to act as independent laboratories of government. Some will pass stricter controls on medical marijuana (or outright ban it) while others may go the other direction and outright decriminalize or leagalize marijuana altogether.

Kirk Johnson writing for The New York Times:

Some legal scholars said the federal government, by deciding not to enforce its own laws (possession and the sale of marijuana remain federal crimes), has introduced an unpredictable variable into the drug regulation system.

“The next step would be a particular state deciding to legalize marijuana entirely,” said Peter J. Cohen, a doctor and a lawyer who teaches public health law at Georgetown University. If federal prosecutors kept their distance even then, Dr. Cohen said, legalized marijuana would become a de facto reality.

Senator Morrisette in Oregon said he thought that exact situation — a state moving toward legalization, perhaps California — could play out much sooner now than might have been imagined even a few weeks ago. And the continuing recession would only help, he said, with advocates for legalization able to promise relief to an overburdened prison system and injection of tax revenues to the state budget.

This seems like a very reasonable step to take for California from a purely economic standpoint. As I reported in my post Reforming America’s Prison System: The Time Has Come, last year California spent almost $10 million on corrections, more than half of the U.S. prison population accounts for drug offenses, 75% of state drug offenders are non-violent offenders, and that nearly half of all drug arrests in the U.S. were for marijuana offenses.

By my math, that would mean that if California* released all non-violent marijuana users and stopped prosecuting new cases involving non-violent marijuana use, the state could cut its prison population by 19% and save California taxpayers about $2 million** per year just on corrections (to say nothing of other costs associated with policing marijuana use).

If California or any other state tried such a bold approach, the American public would most likely learn that legalization does not lead to the sort of mayhem drug warriors have warned us of over the decades***. We would most certainly not see the sort of mayhem that has occurred via the drug war.

Not only does this perfect storm which the Obama Administration created have possible implications for the War on (Some) Drugs, but the very concept of Federalism itself. What might state governments learn about self governing once they have been encouraged to do so? Might the states resist the next attempted power grab from Washington?

There are many exciting possibilities. Those of us who advocate for smaller government should make the most of this opportunity.

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Quote Of The Day

From the WSJ:

The bottom line is this: The available empirical evidence does not support the idea that spending multipliers typically exceed one, and thus spending stimulus programs will likely raise GDP by less than the increase in government spending. Defense-spending multipliers exceeding one likely apply only at very high unemployment rates, and nondefense multipliers are probably smaller. However, there is empirical support for the proposition that tax rate reductions will increase real GDP.

Government taking your money and spending it is less likely to help GDP than government taking LESS of your money and letting you spend the difference yourself.

Not that this is a new idea, of course… But it’s good to see some academic support.

The Daily Show Illustrates the Shortsightedness of Government

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona State Capitol Building for Sale
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
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Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

The above video clip from The Daily Show, while very humorous, illustrates a fundamental problem of government: shortsightedness.

In this example, the State of Arizona is offering to sell the state capitol for $735 million and rent it back from the new owners.

“What happens next year when you have to pay rent?” asks Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones.

Sen. Lopez responds that the state government is more concerned about this year…they will deal with the next year’s budget (and subsequent budget) shortfalls when the time comes.

If this doesn’t illustrate the shortsightedness of government (at all levels), I don’t know what does. Our government officials do not look far beyond the immediate future (i.e. the next election). They don’t worry about the insolvency of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the long term financial difficulties of the bailouts etc, they will worry about those problems (which they created and will also blame on the free market, big business, or lack of regulation) when they can no longer pretend the problem doesn’t exist. If they are lucky, the other party will be in power by that time and the American public will turn its anger against that party by voting them out.

What the American public needs to understand is that whether the blue team or the red team controls the levers of power, this shortsighted mentality is standard operating procedure for both. They are not interested in solving long term problems but trying to appear as though they are.

Politicians will not be accountable for their deceitful actions until we, the people, hold them accountable.

…I won’t hold my breath.

Why Federal Government Spending Will Never Be Cut

Economist Bruce Bartlett had a column in Forbes outlining why he thinks spending won’t be cut.

Every time I write about the need to raise revenues to pay for federal spending, some nitwit always demands to know why we don’t just cut spending. That is not a viable option to deal with our fiscal problem.

The first point that people need to understand is that we live in a democracy. We don’t have a dictator who can just wave his hand and abolish government programs. We have a president who may propose spending cuts, but before they take effect he must get agreement from both the House of Representatives and Senate, both of which may be controlled by a different party. Congress’ efforts to cut spending on its own are futile without prior agreement from the president to support them, as Republicans found out the hard way in 1995.

Direct presidential control over spending is extremely limited. By law, he must spend every dollar appropriated by Congress. And presidents have no control at all over three-fifths of the budget devoted to interest on the debt and entitlement programs–those like Medicare for which spending is automatic. Even Congress can’t reduce spending for entitlements unless it changes the law governing eligibility and programmatic operations.

So 60% of the Federal budget cannot be touched in the budget process. The national debt must continue to be serviced and entitlements (ie. Social Security and Medicare) can only be touched by changing eligibility and the actual operations and only as stand alone legislation for the most part. So what about cutting the other 40%? Won’t work…

Looking at last year’s budget, only 38% was classified as discretionary; that is, under Congress’s control through the appropriations process. All the rest was mandatory: entitlements and interest on the debt. Within the discretionary category, 54% went to national defense. Just $37.5 billion, 3.3% of the discretionary budget, went for international affairs including foreign aid. Over the years I have encountered many conservatives who thought that abolishing foreign aid was just about the only thing needed to balance the budget. Obviously, that’s nonsense.

Domestic discretionary spending amounted to $485 billion last year. With a deficit last year of $459 billion, we would have had to abolish virtually every single domestic program to have achieved budget balance. That means every penny spent on housing, education, agriculture, highway construction and maintenance, border patrols, air traffic control, the FBI, and every other thing one can think of outside of national defense, Social Security and Medicare.

Obviously that will never happen because most of the above programs have a constituency that supports them.

Bartlett also points out that it would help the situation if some of the proponents of budget cuts knew what the hell they were talking about:

Many of those favoring budget cuts have ridiculous notions about how much of the budget can be cut without reducing services. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans generally believe that 50% of the budget is wasted. This suggests that they believe the federal budget could be cut in half without cutting anything important like Social Security benefits or national defense.

Just so people know the round numbers, total spending this year is about $3.6 trillion. At most, $200 billion of that represents stimulus spending, so even if there had been no stimulus bill and the economy had done as well as it has done, we would be looking at a $3.4 trillion budget.

Revenues are only about $2.1 trillion, so we would be looking at a substantial deficit even if the stimulus package was never enacted. Revenues would be even lower if Republicans had gotten their wish and the stimulus consisted entirely of tax cuts. How tax cuts would help people with no wages because they have no jobs or businesses with no profits to tax was never explained. But many right-wingers are convinced that tax cuts are the only appropriate governmental response no matter what the problem is.

It would also help matter if Republicans weren’t hypocrites:

This means that it is impossible to get control of spending without cutting entitlement programs. Many Republicans agree, but they never make any serious effort to do so. On the contrary, they defend entitlements when Democrats suggest cutting them. The Republican National Committee has run television ads opposing cuts in Medicare because Obama proposed using such cuts to fund health reform. Many demonstrators at right-wing tea parties were seen carrying signs demanding that the government keep its hands off Medicare.

Last year, we spent $456 billion on Medicare, and it is the fastest growing major government program. How likely is it that the people protesting Obama’s Medicare cuts will stand with Republicans if they propose cutting that program even more to balance the budget? They will switch sides in an instant. The elderly will fight anyone who tries to cut their benefits even as they hypocritically demand fiscal responsibility and rant about the national debt. The elderly are the reason why we have a national debt.

As for the great spending cutters Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, well not so much:

When I raised these facts with a prominent Republican recently, he countered that Reagan had cut spending. But he didn’t. Spending rose from 21.7% of the gross domestic product in 1980 to 23.5% in 1983 before declining to 21.2% in 1988. And that improvement came about largely because favorable demographics caused entitlement spending to temporarily decline from 11.9% of GDP in 1983 to 10.1% in 1988. (Last year it was 12.5% of GDP.)

When I noted these facts, my friend pointed to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as someone who showed that spending could be slashed. But she raised spending from 42.4% of GDP when she took office in 1979 to 46% of GDP in 1985. Only in her last years in office was spending cut to 38% of GDP. But keep in mind that Thatcher was in office for 10 years, longer than a U.S. president may serve, and had compete control of Parliament the whole time–something Reagan could only dream about.

Since it is not politically possible to cut Federal spending there are only three choices, from the argument laid out in the article:

A) Raise taxes massively which would likely crush the American economy and continue to perpetuate the cycle of government growth consuming resources out of the private sector.

B) Default on the national debt causing a national and global economic collapse.

C) Continue the current cycle of bread and circuses of spending and spending more until options A and B come due.

However, I see Bartlett’s argument as too defeatist in nature.

Neither of the three options is pleasant and fortunately, we don’t have to choose between the three but that requires the American people and politicians making hard choices (which they don’t seem to know how to make).

Solving the long term financial crisis that will lead to national bankruptcy will take a grand bargain of sorts where every political faction will get some of what they want but will have to swallow some things they don’t.

The left will have to swallow budget cuts to social welfare programs but they will applaud the tax increases that will be needed overall.

The right will have to swallow defense cuts and higher taxes but they will applaud overall budget decreases.

Libertarians will have to swallow a government not quite as small as they want and higher taxes but will applaud a shrunken Federal government both in size and scope both at home and abroad.

Populists will not like any of this because populism whether it be right-wing populism, left-wing populism, or even libertarian populism is predicated on the concept of having one’s cake and eating it too. Populism is generally anti-intellectual and solving the serious long-term financial problems of this nation will take more than a slogan or a media celebrity. I don’t see a role for populists in solving this nation’s problems because they are generally the cause of them.

Over the coming weeks, I will lay out what I see as the ingredients of the great political grand bargain that will be needed to avert national bankruptcy.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at IJ Review.com and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.

Chinese Worried Obamacare Is Too Expensive For Them To Pay For

Obama says that he won’t sign a healthcare bill that adds one dime to the deficit. I hope he’s right about that, because the people who are financing that deficit are a tad bit worried about the prospect:

And yet, there was budget director Peter Orszag rushing to a lunch with Chinese bureaucrats on a Monday in late July. To his surprise, when Orszag arrived at the site of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), the Chinese didn’t dwell on the Wall Street meltdown or the global recession. The bureaucrats at his table mostly wanted to know about health care reform, which Orszag has helped shepherd. “They were intrigued by the most recent legislative developments,” Orszag says. “It was like, ‘You’re fresh from the field, what can you tell us?’?”

As it happens, health care is much on the minds of the Chinese these days. Over the last few years, as China has become the world’s largest purchaser of Treasury bonds, the government has grown increasingly sophisticated in its understanding of U.S. budget deficits. The issue has become all the more pressing in recent months, as the financial crisis and recession pushed the deficit to record levels. With nearly half of their $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves invested in U.S. bonds alone, the Chinese are understandably concerned about our creditworthiness. And this concern has brought them ineluctably to the issue of health care. “At some point, if you refuse to contain health care costs, you’ll go bankrupt,” says Andy Xie, a prominent Shanghai-based economist, formerly of Morgan Stanley. “It’s widely known among [Chinese] policymakers.” Xie himself wrote a much-read piece on the subject in 2007 for Caijing magazine–kind of the Chinese version of Fortune.

The Chinese, unfortunately for them, have worked their way into a suicide pact with America. They are simply too heavily invested here to see any serious problems with our economy, government, or monetary base. Had they not spent the last decade buying up enormous Treasury holdings, they could let us implode our economy and “fix” our debt/spending issues through debasing our currency, and then swoop in to buy assets on the cheap once we hit bottom. But that’s not on the agenda. If we take the low road, we’re towing them along for the ride.

Obama says he won’t accept a bill that adds to the deficit. I don’t believe him, since I’ve already seen him fail to live up to his promises on taxes and legislative transparency. Even worse, though, he’s got the folks who plan to finance that deficit worried. And the last group you want to scare are the ones you’re trying to get to lend you money.

Hat Tip: Ezra Klein

Obama Raises Taxes Without Vote of Congress

“I can make a firm pledge….no family making less than $250,000 will see any form of tax increase…..not any of your taxes”-Barack Obama, September 12, 2008

Once again, President Obama has lied to the country. After raising cigarette taxes earlier this year, Obama just ordered another tax increase. This time, he raised every American’s taxes without a vote of Congress and with the simple stroke of a pen. Obama increased taxes on Chinese-made tires.

In one of his first major decisions on trade policy, President Obama opted Friday to impose a tariff on tires from China, a move that fulfills his campaign promise to “crack down” on imports that unfairly undermine American workers but risks angering the nation’s second-largest trading partner.

The decision is intended to bolster the ailing U.S. tire industry, in which more than 5,000 jobs have been lost over the past five years as the volume of Chinese tires in the market has tripled.

It comes at a sensitive time, however. Leaders from the world’s largest economies are preparing to gather in Pittsburgh in less than two weeks to discuss more cooperation amid tensions over trade.

The tire tariff will amount to 35 percent the first year, 30 percent the second and 25 percent the third.

Which means American consumers will see an increase in prices of at least 35% for their tires in the name of saving 5,000 jobs. Chinese and US companies with factories overseas are not going to pay the tariffs, they’ll pass them on to consumers. There is also the latest example of the Obama administration diplomatic ineptness of angering trade partners before major trade talks with China among other countries. Also, there was not much public debate over this, since this decision was reached behind closed doors with the help of an obscure Federal trade panel with no citizen input.

Of course with the Obama administration, there’s always someone or some group to be paid back.

Although a federal trade panel had recommended higher levies — of 55, 45 and 35 percent, respectively — the decision is considered a victory for the United Steelworkers union, which filed the trade complaint.

The United Steelworkers union endorsed Obama’s presidential bid and the Steelworkers had a massive grassroots effort that claimed credit for helping win Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia; among other states.

“Hope and Change” indeed.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at IJ Review.com and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.

Inflation Causes Misallocation of Production

The spike in car buying has caused automakers to ramp up production (via John Stossel):

Many auto industry analysts and dealers expect sales volumes to fall now that the program is over. They worry that many people who took advantage of the program were merely accelerating purchases they would have made later in the year.

If that’s true, the premature sales could hurt automakers, which increased production in the third quarter to replenish clunker-depleted inventories that had already grown low because of factory shutdowns over the summer.

Cash for Clunkers is essentially an inflationary policy. This is a policy well described by Adam Smith Milton Friedman, with the exact same consequence:

In a dynamic world demands are always shifting, some prices going up, some going down. The general signal of increasing demand will be confused with the specific signals reflecting changes in relative demands. That is why the initial side of faster monetary growth is an appearance of prosperity and greater employment. But sooner or later the signal will get through.

As it does, workers, manufacturers, retailers will discover that they have been fooled. They reacted to higher demand for the small number of things they sell in the mistaken belief that the higher demand was special to them and hence would not much affect the prices of the many things they buy.

The government has arbitrarily and falsely increased demand for a specific good (new cars). They’ve done so by throwing money at it (a locally inflationary policy) and the automakers are ramping up production in response to what they THINK is a more stable recovery. But they may soon find, as Adam Smith Friedman predicted, that they have been fooled.

Lies, Damn Lies, and California Budget Proposals

The news out of Sacramento appears good for the California middle class:

The good news, Schwarzenegger glowed, is no new taxes.

Digging a little deeper, of course, reveals the truth:

REVENUES

* Accelerate income tax withholding — $1.7 billion
* Increase estimated tax payments for businesses and the self-employed — $610 million

Between now and the end of the year, $2.3 billion will be extracted from the economy in more aggressive tax collection. Where is that money going to come from? Everyone who works:

It also raises $4 billion by in part accelerating personal and corporate income tax withholdings and increasing income tax withholding schedules by 10 percent.

The state will take 10% more than it does today out of every paycheck issued in the State of California. That means that the Californian trying to stay afloat on a mortgage, pay medical bills, or send a kid to school will have less money to do it. The Californian out trying to support local businesses will have less money to do it. The Californian who lives paycheck-to-paycheck will have less money to survive.

Since this is a withholding change, the taxpayer should get the excess withheld back on next year’s tax return. That, though, won’t undo the foreclosure that happened because a Californian couldn’t pay his mortgage. It won’t make right the bankruptcy that occurred because a Californian couldn’t pay her medical bills. It won’t bring back the corner store that went under because people couldn’t afford to shop there.

The simple fact is that this budgetary shell game will cause each and every worker to pay more to the State of California in taxes. The state is so desperate to pass a budget that it is almost certain that this tax hike will pass. All I ask is that the clowns in Sacramento have enough respect for the taxpayers to level with us and admit that their budget contains $2.3 billion in tax hikes…

Fat chance.

Discretionary?

cbo-spending

Ezra Klein says there’s we shouldn’t act as if defense spending (considered discretionary in the budget) in unable to be cut:

My friend Chris Hayes likes to say that “non-defense discretionary spending” is the most pernicious phrase in Washington. It means, essentially, that there’s spending, which we can cut, and then there’s defense spending, which we cannot cut, and shouldn’t even talk about. Defense spending, however, accounts for about 20 percent of federal dollars. Add in the wars of the past few years and it’s accounted for even more than that. Saying you can’t touch defense spending is like going on a diet but letting the milk industry say that you can’t cut back on dairy.

There aren’t “defense dollars” and then “non-defense dollars.” There are only dollars, and we need to figure out how best to use them.

Hmm… Defense spending is 20% of the budget. And I might find myself in agreement with Klein that perhaps we can defend our nation for a hell of a lot less money than that.

But there’s another distinction here. “Discretionary”. Klein doesn’t ever address the fact that this is an antonym (in the case of a federal budget). There are two types of spending. “Discretionary” and “entitlement”. And entitlement spending is more than twice as large as “non-defense discretionary spending”.

Klein says “there aren’t ‘defense’ and ‘non-defense dollars'” — only dollars. Well, if 42% of our budget is entitlement spending — and that’s a number that’s going to rise significantly with Obamacare — why is it that we should assume that nothing there can or should be cut? You want to put defense spending on the chopping block, Ezra? I’m down with that. I’ll see your proposition and raise you entitlement spending. You ready to call, or are you just bluffing?

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