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We Pay Millions to ‘Ghost Teachers’ Who Don’t Teach by Jason Bedrick

The Philadelphia school district is in a near-constant state of financial crisis. There are many factors contributing to this sorry state — particularly its governance structure — but it is compounded by fiscal mismanagement. One particularly egregious example is paying six-figure salaries to the tune of $1.5 million a year to “ghost teachers” that do not teach. Pennsylvania Watchdog explains:

As part of the contract with the School District of Philadelphia, the local teachers union is permitted to take up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The practice, known as “release time” or “official time,” allows public school teachers to leave the classroom and continue to earn a public salary, benefits, pension and seniority.

These so-called ghost teachers perform a variety of jobs for the PFT, serving as either information officers for other teachers or carrying out the union’s political agenda.

“Teachers should be paid to teach,” attorney Kara Sweigart, who is arguing ghost teacher lawsuits for the Fairness Center, a free legal service for employees who feel they’ve been wronged by their unions, told Watchdog.

“At a time when school districts are hurting financially, districts should be devoting every tax dollar to support students,” she said, “not to pay the salaries of employees of a private political organization.”

According to public salary data available through Philadelphia city agencies, the school district is paying 16 ghost teachers $1.5 million this year. All of them are making at least $81,000.

PFT Vice President Arlene Kempin, who has been on release time since 1983, is among the highest paid at $108,062. Union head Jerry Jordan, who has also been on release time for more than 30 years, is earning $81,245, according to district payroll logs. The 16 ghost teachers on the books this year are making an average salary of almost $98,000.

The “ghost teacher” phenomenon is far from unique to Philly or even the education sector. Such “release time” subsidies for ghost teachers, policemen, firefighters, and bureaucrats of all stripes are common features of public-sector union contracts nationwide. Last month, a Yankee Institute report found that Connecticut provided unions with $4.1 million to subsidize 121,000 hours union-related activities, “the equivalent of more than a year’s worth of work for 50 full-time employees.” Meanwhile, the Goldwater Institute in Arizona is in the midst of a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix for unconstitutionally providing millions of dollars in release-time subsidies.

According to the most recent report from the federal Office of Personnel Management, the federal government paid more than $157 million in 2012 for federal employees to work for their unions for a total of 3,439,449 hours. And those are just the direct costs.

In his book, Understanding the Teacher Union Contract: A Citizen’s Handbook, former teacher union negotiator Myron Lieberman explained how difficult it is to account for the full amount of subsidies that taxpayers provide to the unions:

Most school board members are not aware of the magnitude of these subsidies. In school district budgets, the subsidies are never grouped together under the heading “Subsidies to the Union.” Instead, the subsidies are included in school district budgets under a variety of headings that may or may not refer to the union…

School districts pay for these subsidies from a variety of line items in the district budget: payments to substitute teachers, teacher salaries, and pension contributions, among others.

In most situations, the union subsidy is lumped together with other expenses paid for under the same line item; for example, the costs of hiring substitutes for teachers who are on released time for union business may be included in a budget line for substitutes that also covers substitutes for other reasons, such as replacing teachers on sick leave, personal leave, maternity/paternity leave, and so on.

Taxpayer dollars allocated for education should be spent on items and activities that assist student learning, not to promote the interests of private organizations (especially when their interests often collide with the interests of students). Union work should be paid out of funds the unions collect through dues and donations, not funds expropriated from unwilling and unwitting taxpayers.

Cross-posted from Cato.org.

Jason Bedrick

Jason Bedrick

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

A Tax on Income Attacks Life Itself by Jeffrey Tucker

The least of the problems with income tax is that it takes your money. The really big problem is that the income tax takes your life. It gives the government direct access to the things you own and sets up the political-bureaucratic sector to be the final arbiter of what you can and cannot consider to be yours.

Illustrating this point is the bitter realization that the IRS considers it completely legal to demand access to your electronic communications whenever it wants. This news came about in 2013 because of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The filing unearthed a 2009 memo that stated outright: “The Fourth Amendment does not protect communications held in electronic storage, such as email messages stored on a server, because Internet users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.”

Forget search warrants and legal processes. In the interest of getting its share, the government can have it all on demand. This assertion was made again in 2010 by the IRS’s chief counsel: The “Fourth Amendment does not protect emails stored on a server” and there is “no privacy expectation” on email.

A Century of Intrusions

This assertion openly contradicts a 2010 legal decision from the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals. United States v. Warshak said that the government must obtain a probable cause warrant before forcing people and providers to cough up email archives. Granted, even that’s not much protection. Government always has its “probable cause.”

Good for the ACLU for making an issue of this. But at some level, it’s all beside the point. The problem isn’t the legal process that allows the government to do what it wants; the problem is that government has a hook into personal income that allows powerful people to have their way with the whole of your life.

As we look back at the history, we can see that the income tax enabled a century of intrusions into our lives. It’s been 100 years of a form of imposition that no American in most of the 19th century could have ever imagined or tolerated.

The income tax is what enabled Prohibition, for example. Without the ability to monitor and adjudicate how people made money, the power of enforcement would not have been there at all. (Remember that Al Capone was not convicted for bootlegging, but for tax evasion.)

It is what made possible the central planning of the New Deal. The government’s presumption that it owns the first fruits of labor gave rise to wage controls and mandatory participation in the Social Security system. It allowed the central planners to push aside young workers and tell them that they aren’t allowed to be part of the workforce. It allowed the introduction of the minimum wage that continues to shut out whole sectors of society.

And look what happened during World War II. The price controls on wages and salaries – made possible only because the income tax gave government a fiduciary interest – inspired companies to start offering health-care benefits as part of the compensation package.

That practice was intensified over the decades until it became mandatory. That practice is a major source of the health care problems we have today. So there we have it: There is a direct link from Obamacare today back to the income tax of 100 years ago.

The Root of All Evil

Frank Chodorov, author of the enduring masterpiece, was right to call the income tax the “root of all evil.” We look back to history and are in awe that anyone ever had the full right to earn whatever money he or she wanted to and to never have to tell the government about it. But that was the way it was for the dominant part of American history.

That’s the system once called freedom.

It’s striking when you realize just how completely unnecessary the income tax is for the funding of government. What if we cut back government spending by exactly the amount the income tax collects? That would take us back in time to 2006. Was the government really too small back then? Would society really collapse if we went back to a government we had just ten years ago?

Yes, the government likes our money and always wants more of it. But more crucially, the government uses the income tax as a primary means of controlling not just our money, but the whole of our lives. That’s the real purpose of the income tax and why the government will fight for its preservation to the end.

Right now, many Americans are sweating it out to get their taxes done in time for the filing deadline. It would be immeasurably hard without the brilliant companies that have put together software programs – updated constantly! – that make what would otherwise seem impossible rather easy. This is the type of thing that free enterprise and the private sector do. They help us to have better lives.

But government? What does it do? It takes. It snoops. It controls. It destroys.

Jeffrey A. TuckerJeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE and CLO of the startup Liberty.me. Author of five books, and many thousands of articles, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.  Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook. Email.

A ‘Carbon Tax’ Is a Utopian Fix that Can’t Survive Contact with Political Reality by Diana Furchtgott-Roth

Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, suggests that Americans should pick a president who favors a carbon tax. But not even Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have proposed a carbon tax as part of their tax plans. All candidates have put forward detailed tax plans, and a carbon tax is not included in any of these plans.

What is a carbon tax? Why do so many academics and columnists love it? And why will Congress be unable to enact such a tax effectively?

No matter that only 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by America, and that by many measures global temperatures have not increased over the past decade. No matter than unless China and India reduce their carbon emissions, U.S. unilateral efforts will have no practical effect on global temperature. China has stated that it will reduce emissions in 2030, but has not made any definite commitment.

The carbon tax is a favorite of many academic economists for restructuring the tax system. Proponents include a bipartisan group of professors such as Tuft University’s Gilbert Metcalf, now Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy at the Department of the Treasury; Harvard University’s Martin Feldstein, Edward Glaeser, and Gregory Mankiw; and Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz.

However, as tax practitioners know, a carbon tax is complex to set up. It requires adjustments to make sure that the tax is not unduly regressive and does not encourage consumption of imports relative to domestic production.

But, as we saw from the passage of many tax and budget bills over the years, Congress does not think deeply before it passes major tax bills.

Rather, political expediency always triumphs over academic elegance. Congress is incapable of thoughtful tax solutions, no matter how many are offered by well-intentioned professors. Despite years of notice that the Bush tax rates were due to expire, Congress passed permanent tax laws at the last moment, without reading the bill.

Many academics see a carbon tax as an alternative to an individual income tax, a corporate income tax, or a European-style cap-and-trade system. But a quickly-passed carbon tax in the hands of Congress would be just another add-on levy, with exemptions for friends and punishments for enemies.

A carbon tax raises the price of energy and so discourages consumption without regulation. Carbon tax rates could be calibrated to be revenue neutral or to yield a net rise in federal tax receipts, with the increment possibly dedicated to reducing deficits.

What are the problems with a carbon tax?

Everyone would want to spend the revenue. Some people would want to use it to reduce the deficit. Others would want to use carbon tax revenues to lower other taxes, such as income taxes. And since high income tax rates reduce incentives to work, this could conceivably add to economic efficiency.

Carbon taxes are regressive. Since low-income people use more energy as a percent of their income than high-income people, a switch to a carbon tax would have to be accompanied by transfers to low-income groups.

Some academics suggest that offsets be returned to taxpayers through lower income taxes, perhaps with the proceeds going chiefly to low-income households (individuals and families), which are disproportionately hurt by what is in essence an energy consumption tax.

This could theoretically be done by adjustments to the income tax. However, low-income earners are not required to file returns, and they would have to do so in order to be identified and compensated. That means extra work for them, and for the Internal Revenue Service — which will already be overworked calculating and collecting penalties from Obamacare violators.

Energy-intensive sectors lose under a carbon tax. The prices of energy-intensive goods in America would increase relative to imports from countries without carbon taxes. So Americans will prefer to buy imports, and American firms will lose business. Proponents of the tax suggest putting tariffs on imports in proportion to their carbon content so that American companies will not be at a disadvantage. But the precise quantities are complex to calculate, and tariffs might be illegal under World Trade Organization regulations.

The shale oil and gas that are attracting energy-intensive manufacturing back to America would be taxed, to the detriment of these new industries — and their employees. Some industries, such as coal, would be big losers. Politicians from coal-producing regions are influential in Congress, and they would demand a share of revenues.

So for a carbon tax to make our tax system more efficient, its revenues would have to be used to offset other taxes in the economy. Its negative effects on low-income Americans and on energy-intensive regions would have to be ameliorated. Some border adjustments would have to be made so that domestic goods were not disfavored.

But our disfunctional Congress is incapable of crafting a carbon tax with these attributes. Any tax on carbon would be an additional tax, without the offsets that make it so attractive to university professors. It would hurt the poor and raise domestic prices relative to prices of imports.

None of the front-running presidential candidates have proposed a carbon tax as part of their tax plans, because they know it is unpopular and will not pass Congress. To lower global emissions, the large emitters of carbon such as China and India need to move to nuclear power or natural gas. That would indeed make a difference.

This post first appeared at Economics21.org.

Diana Furchtgott-RothDiana Furchtgott-Roth

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, is director of Economics 21 and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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Socialism Is Harder than You Think by Scott Sumner

Suppose you wanted to switch to socialism — what would be the ideal place to do so? You’d want a country with extremely high quality civil servants.

That would be France.

You’d want a country where socialism is not a dirty word, and capitalism is.

That would be France.

You’d want a country with the Socialist party in power, a party that was committed to enact the ideas of Thomas Piketty.

That would be France.

So how did things work out in France, when they tried to adopt a Bernie Sanders/Thomas Piketty approach to taxes?

IN THE eyes of many foreigners, two numbers encapsulate French economic policy over the past decade or so: 75 and 35. The first refers to the top income-tax rate of 75%, promised by François Hollande to seduce the left when he was the Socialist presidential candidate in 2012. The second is the 35-hour maximum working week, devised by a Socialist government in 2000 and later retained by the centre-right.

Each has been a totem of French social preferences. Yet, to the consternation of some of his voters, Mr Hollande applied the 75% tax rate for only two years, and then binned it. Now he has drawn up plans that could, in effect, demolish the 35-hour week, too.

Mr Hollande’s government is reviewing a draft labour law that would remove a series of constraints French firms face, both when trying to adapt working time to shifting business cycles and when deciding whether to hire staff. In particular, it devolves to firms the right to negotiate longer hours and overtime rates with their own trade unions, rather than having to follow rules dictated by national industry-wide deals.

The 35-hour cap would remain in force, but it would become more of a trigger for overtime pay than a rigid constraint on hours worked. These could reach 46 hours a week, for a maximum of 16 weeks. Firms would also have greater freedom to shorten working hours and reduce pay, which can currently be done only in times of “serious economic difficulty”. Emmanuel Macron, the economy minister, has called such measures the “de facto” end of the 35-hour week.

At the same time, the law would lower existing high barriers to laying off workers. These discourage firms from creating permanent jobs, and leave huge numbers of “outsiders”, particularly young people, temping.

For one thing, it would cap awards for unfair dismissal, which are made by labour tribunals. Laid-off French workers bring such cases frequently; they can take years and cost anything from €2,500 to €310,000 ($2,700 to $337,000) by one estimate.

Unfortunately, while France is moving away from these polices, the US is like to move some distance in their direction. Of course there are differences. Our minimum wage is still lower than in France, and our top income tax rate is closer to 50% in states like California and New York. But all the momentum is with the socialists, who are especially numerous among the younger voters.

Socialist ideas are superficially appealing. Paul Krugman (who favors very high income tax rates on the rich) often says that reality has a liberal bias. Actually, reality has a neoliberal bias, and if you don’t take incentive effects into account, you may end up disappointed.

Back in the US, Sander’s single payer approach also has problems:

A costing of Mr Sanders’s plans by Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University, using more conservative assumptions, found that the plan was underfunded by nearly $1.1 trillion (or 6% of GDP) per year. If Mr Thorpe is right, higher taxes will be required to make the sums add up. In 2014 Mr Sanders’ own state, Vermont, abandoned a plan for a single-payer system on the basis that the required tax rises would be too great.

Vermont is one of the most liberal states in the union. Now think about the fact that they gave up on the idea, despite it having been previously approved and signed into law. Then think about the concept of rolling out a multi-trillion dollar plan at the federal level, soon after the only experiment at the state level failed to get off the ground.

Is that evidence-based liberalism, or wishful thinking?

This post first appeared at Econlog.

Scott SumnerScott Sumner

Scott B. Sumner is the director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center and a professor at Bentley University. He blogs at the Money Illusion and Econlog.

The Myth of Scandinavian Socialism by Corey Iacono

Bernie Sanders has single-handedly brought the term “democratic socialism” into the contemporary American political lexicon and shaken millions of Millennials out of their apathy towards politics. Even if he does not win the Democratic nomination, his impact on American politics will be evident for years to come.

Sanders has convinced a great number of people that things have been going very badly for the great majority of people in the United States, for a very long time. His solution? America must embrace “democratic socialism,” a socioeconomic system that seemingly works very well in the Scandinavian countries, like Sweden, which are, by some measures, better off than the United States.

Democratic socialism purports to combine majority rule with state control of the means of production. However, the Scandinavian countries are not good examples of democratic socialism in action because they aren’t socialist.

In the Scandinavian countries, like all other developed nations, the means of production are primarily owned by private individuals, not the community or the government, and resources are allocated to their respective uses by the market, not government or community planning.

While it is true that the Scandinavian countries provide things like a generous social safety net and universal healthcare, an extensive welfare state is not the same thing as socialism. What Sanders and his supporters confuse as socialism is actually social democracy, a system in which the government aims to promote the public welfare through heavy taxation and spending, within the framework of a capitalist economy. This is what the Scandinavians practice.

In response to Americans frequently referring to his country as socialist, the prime minister of Denmark recently remarked in a lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government,

I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.

The Scandinavians embrace a brand of free-market capitalism that exists in conjunction with a large welfare state, known as the “Nordic Model,” which includes many policies that democratic socialists would likely abhor.

For example, democratic socialists are generally opponents of global capitalism and free trade, but the Scandinavian countries have fully embraced these things. The Economist magazine describes the Scandinavian countries as “stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies.” Perhaps this is why Denmark, Norway, and Sweden rank among the most globalized countries in the entire world. These countries all also rank in the top 10 easiest countries to do business in.

How do supporters of Bernie Sanders feel about the minimum wage? You will find no such government-imposed floors on labor in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark. Instead, minimum wages are decided by collective-bargaining agreements between unions and employers; they typically vary on an occupational or industrial basis. Union-imposed wages lock out the least skilled and do their own damage to an economy, but such a decentralized system is still arguably a much better way of doing things than having the central government set a one-size fits all wage policy that covers every occupation nationwide.

In a move that would be considered radically pro-capitalist by young Americans who #FeelTheBern, Sweden adopted a universal school choice system in the 1990s that is nearly identical to the system proposed by libertarian economist Milton Friedman his 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education.”

In practice, the Swedish system involves local governments allowing families to use public funds, in the form of vouchers, to finance their child’s education at a private school, including schools run by the dreaded for-profit corporation.

Far from being a failure, as the socialists thought it would be, Sweden’s reforms were a considerable success. According to a study published by the Institute for the Study of Labor, the expansion of private schooling and competition brought about by the Swedish free-market educational reforms “improved average educational performance both at the end of compulsory school and in the long run in terms of high school grades, university attendance, and years of schooling.”

Overall, it is clear that the Scandinavian countries are not in fact archetypes of successful democratic socialism. Sanders has convinced a great deal of people that socialism is something it is not, and he has used the Scandinavian countries to prove its efficacy, while ignoring the many ways they deviate, sometimes dramatically, from what Sanders himself advocates.

Corey IaconoCorey Iacono

Corey Iacono is a student at the University of Rhode Island majoring in pharmaceutical science and minoring in economics.

Why Bernie Sanders Has to Raise Taxes on the Middle Class by Daniel Bier

Willie Sutton was one of the most infamous bank robbers in American history. Over three decades, the dashing criminal robbed a hundred banks, escaped three prisons, and made off with millions. Today, he is best known for Sutton’s Law: Asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, Sutton allegedly quipped, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Sutton’s Law explains something unusual about Bernie Sander’s tax plan: it calls for massive tax hikes across the board. Why raise taxes on the middle class? Because that’s where the money is.

The problem all politicians face is that voters love to get stuff, but they hate to pay for it. The traditional solution that center-left politicians pitch is the idea that the poor and middle class will get the benefits, and the rich will pay for it.

This is approximately how things work in the United States. The top 1 percent of taxpayers earn 19 percent of total income and pay 38 percent of federal income taxes. The bottom 50 percent earn 12 percent and pay 3 percent. This chart from the Heritage Foundation shows net taxes paid and benefits received, per person, by household income group:

But Sanders’ proposals (free college, free health care, jobs programs, more Social Security, etc.) are way too heavy for the rich alone to carry, and he knows it. To his credit, his campaign has released a plan to pay for each of these myriad handouts. Vox’s Dylan Matthews has totaled up all the tax increases Sanders has proposed so far, and the picture is simply staggering.

Every household earning below $250,000 will face a tax hike of nearly 9 percent. Past that, rates explode, up to a top rate of 77 percent on incomes over $10 million.

Paying for Free

Sanders argues that most people’s average income tax rate won’t change, but this is only true if you exclude the two major taxes meant to pay for his health care program: a 2.2 percent “premium” tax and 6.2 percent payroll tax, imposed on incomes across the board. These taxes account for majority of the new revenue Sanders is counting on.

But it gets worse: his single-payer health care plan will cost 80 percent more than he claims. Analysis by the left-leaning scholar Kenneth Thorpe (who supports single payer) concludes that Sanders’ proposal will cost $1.1 trillion more each year than he claims. The trillion dollar discrepancy results from some questionable assumptions in Sanders’ numbers. For instance:

Sanders assumes $324 billion more per year in prescription drug savings than Thorpe does. Thorpe argues that this is wildly implausible.

“In 2014 private health plans paid a TOTAL of $132 billion on prescription drugs and nationally we spent $305 billion,” he writes in an email. “With their savings drug spending nationally would be negative.”

So unless pharmaceutical companies start paying you to take their drugs, the Sanders administration will need to increase taxes even more.

Analysis by the Tax Foundation finds that his proposed tax hikes already total $13.6 trillion over the next ten years. However, “the plan would [only] end up collecting $9.8 trillion over the next decade when accounting for decreased economic output.”

And the consequences will be truly devastating. Because of the taxes on labor and capital, GDP will be reduced 9.5 percent. Six million jobs will be lost. On average, after-tax incomes will be reduced by more than 18 percent.

Incomes for the bottom 50 percent will be reduced by more than 14 percent, and incomes for the top 1 percent will be reduced nearly 25 percent. Inequality warriors might cheer, but if you want to actually raise revenue, crushing the incomes of the people who pay almost 40 percent of all taxes isn’t the way to go.

These are just the effects of the $1 trillion tax hike he has planned — and he probably needs to double that to pay for single payer. Where will he find it? He’ll go where European welfare states go.

Being Like Scandinavia

Sanders is a great admirer of Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and many of his proposals are modeled on their systems. But to pay for their generous welfare benefits, they tax, and tax, and tax.

Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all capture between 20-26 percent of GDP from income and payroll taxes. By contrast, the United States collects only 15 percent.

Scandinavia’s tax rates themselves are not that much higher than the United States’. Denmark’s top rate is 30 percent higher, Sweden’s is 18 percent higher, and Norway’s is actually 16 percent lower — and yet Norway’s income tax raises 30 percent more revenue than the United States.

The answer lies in how progressive the US tax system is, in the thresholds at which people are hit by the top tax rates. The Tax Foundation explains,

Scandinavian income taxes raise a lot of revenue because they are actually rather flat. In other words, they tax most people at these high rates, not just high-income taxpayers.

The top marginal tax rate of 60 percent in Denmark applies to all income over 1.2 times the average income in Denmark. From the American perspective, this means that all income over $60,000 (1.2 times the average income of about $50,000 in the United States) would be taxed at 60 percent. …

Compare this to the United States. The top marginal tax rate of 46.8 percent (state average and federal combined rates) kicks in at 8.5 times the average U.S. income (around $400,000). Comparatively, few taxpayers in the United States face the top marginal rate.

The reason European states can pay for giant welfare programs is not because they just tax the rich more — it’s because they also scoop up a ton of middle class income. The reason why the United States can’t right now is its long-standing political arrangement to keep taxes high on the rich so they can be low on the poor and middle.

Where the Money Is – And Isn’t

As shown by the Laffer Curve, there is a point at which increasing tax rates actually reduces tax revenue, by discouraging work, hurting the economy, and encouraging tax avoidance.

Bernie’s plan already hammers the rich: households earning over $250,000 (the top 3 percent) would face marginal rates of 62-77 percent — meaning the IRS would take two-thirds to three-quarters of each additional dollar earned. His proposed capital gains taxes are so high that they are likely well past the point of positive returns. The US corporate tax rate of 40 percent is already the highest in the world, and even Sanders hasn’t proposed increasing it.

The only way to solve his revenue problem is to raise rates on the middle and upper-middle classes, or flatten the structure to make the top rates start kicking in much lower. You can see why a “progressive” isn’t keen on making more regressive taxes part of his platform, but the money has to come from somewhere.

The bottom fifty percent don’t pay much income tax now (only $34 billion), but they also don’t earn enough to fill the gap. Making their taxes proportionate to income would only raise $107 billion, without even considering how the higher rates would reduce employment and income.

The top 5 percent are pretty well wrung dry by Sanders’ plan, and their incomes are going to be reduced by 20-25 percent anyway. It’s hard to imagine that there’s much more blood to be had from that stone.

But households between the 50th and the 95th percentile (incomes between $37,000 to $180,000 a year) earn about 54 percent of total income — a share would likely go up, given the larger income reductions expected for top earners. Currently, this group pays only 38 percent of total income taxes, and, despite the 9 percent tax hike, they’re comparatively spared by the original tax plan. Their incomes are now the lowest hanging fruit on the tax tree.

As they go to the polls this year, the middle class should remember Sutton’s Law.

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

Tech Sector Bears Brunt of Capital Taxes, Random Regulation by Dan Gelernter

According to our president’s final State of the Union, we’ve recovered from the economic crisis and now enjoy the strongest, most durable economy in the world. Obama does acknowledge that startups and small businesses may need some help, so he wants to reignite our “sprit of innovation” — which he plans to do by putting Vice President Biden in charge of curing cancer.

But the problem facing startups is not a lack of innovation. We are being killed by the economy, which, for those of us who have to live in it, is not good at all. Young entrepreneurs may have spent last year working hard, innovating and building, only to find their companies are worth less now than when they started.

The market is adjusting downwards. Valuations are sinking. The investors I’ve spoken to feel the Fed’s free-money policy has created a dangerous over-valuation of companies and stocks and, now that the rates are coming back up, the air is being let out. 2015, they say, was a tough year because we knew this was coming. 2016 is going to be even tougher.

There is something else weighing on the minds of entrepreneurs and investors alike — regulatory uncertainty. No startup can deal with compliance by itself — not even software companies with no physical products to sell. Startups have to hire lawyers and compliance experts to help them, and this is money we’re not spending on product development or marketing or making our prices more competitive.

The way Obamacare is being implemented, for example, makes our hair white. The rules seem to change with bureaucratic whim; various parts of the law are suspended by executive order. How will we comply next year, and what will it cost? Nobody knows.

In the meantime, the Democratic candidates for President are proposing large hikes to the capital gains tax, which increases effective risk for investors and depresses valuations. Will these hikes ever take place? We don’t know, and that uncertainty carries an additional price.

We’re already seeing more investors decide to weather the storm on the sidelines, keeping an eye on their current affairs and declining to invest in companies they would have snapped up a year ago. A tech startup with a working product will find it harder to raise money today than it would have two years before with nothing but a concept. Not only are we faced with a weak market now, the trend is even more disturbing.

The problem is easier to diagnose than to repair. As an entrepreneur, I’d like to see less regulation and lower taxes. And not just lower taxes on the companies themselves, but on the people who can afford to invest in them. This may come as a surprise, but it’s the hated “one percent” that invests in startups and helps entrepreneurs’ dreams come true. When taxes cut deeper into the pockets of the wealthy, it most negatively affects us — the entrepreneurs and the people we would have hired — not the wealthy.

Regulation remains erratic, and the policies of the next administration cannot be foreseen. 2016 is going to be a hard year for the startup. Investments will continue to decline until investors see a stable market. And they’re not looking at one right now. Companies will die as a result, and not for lack of innovative ideas.

Dan Gelernter

Dan Gelernter is CEO of the technology startup Dittach.

The Islamic State vs. the Laffer Curve by Daniel J. Mitchell

Based on my writings, some people may think I’m 100 percent against higher taxes.

But that’s not exactly true. In some cases, I like punitive taxation. Or, to be more precise, I sometimes take pleasure when punitive tax policy backfires on bad people.

Here’s an example. An interesting article in Slate, authored by Adam Chodorow of Arizona State University Law School, looks at how a terrorist group’s attempt to form a government is being stymied by an inability to collect taxes.

Revolution is easy. Governing is hard. And there are few things more difficult than taxes. Operating a country requires money, and that typically requires taxes. … 

The population in this area is estimated to be between 7 million and 8 million, about the same as the population of Washington state. While ISIS currently collects about $1 billion annually, countries of similar size collect about $16 billion, suggesting that ISIS has a long way to go if it wants to operate like a real state.

But the comparatively low levels of tax revenue are not because of a Hong Kong-type commitment to limited government.

Instead, the terror group is discovering that people don’t like giving their money to politicians and bureaucrats, even ones motivated by Islamic fundamentalism.

Taxes aren’t a great way to ingratiate oneself with the governed. … More than one government has fallen because of its tax policy. ISIS must face these challenges just as any emerging polity does… ISIS may have displayed prowess on the battlefield, but it has revealed that it is as stymied and constrained by the complexities of taxation as the rest of us. …

ISIS’s taxes appear to be … no more popular in the territory it controls than they would be here in the U.S. As the Times reported, ISIS’s taxes are now so onerous that large numbers of people, who were apparently willing to tolerate ISIS’s religious authoritarianism, are fleeing Syria and Iraq to escape them. At some point people will either rise up or leave, threatening ISIS’s internal revenue source.

So taxes are becoming so onerous that taxpayers (and taxable income) are escaping.

Hmm… excessive taxation leading to less taxable economic activity. That seems like a familiar concept — something I’ve written about one or two times. Or maybe 50 or 100 times.

Ah, yes, our old friend, the Laffer Curve!

ISIS is … constrained by a lack of administrative resources and the simple reality once sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin by the economist Arthur Laffer: that tax rates can only get so high before they actually drive down government revenues.

Given current conditions, ISIS may be near or at the limits of its ability to tax, even if it can recruit jihadi tax accountants to its cause. Thus … it’s not clear how much room the group has to grow internal revenues. More important, its efforts to do so may do more to damage its prospects than outside forces can accomplish.

This sounds like the tax equivalent of War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells’ classic in which alien invaders wreak havoc on earth until they are felled by bacteria.

Tom Cruise was the star of a 2005 movie adaptation of this story, but I’m thinking I could rekindle my acting career and star in a movie of how the Laffer Curve thwarts ISIS!

But to have a happy ending, ISIS has to be defeated. And Professor Chodorow closes his article with a very helpful suggestion.

Rather than send in ground troops … view our tax code as a weapon of mass destruction. … We could make full use of it in the war on ISIS, perhaps by translating it into Arabic in the hopes that the group adopts it.

Sounds like the advice I once gave about threatening Assad with Obamacare.

A version of this post first appeared at Dan Mitchell’s blog International Liberty.

Daniel J. MitchellDaniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in fiscal policy, particularly tax reform, international tax competition, and the economic burden of government spending. He also serves on the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review.

Real Hero Jesse Owens: “Hitler Didn’t Snub Me — It Was Our President” by Lawrence W. Reed

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens famously won four gold medals, all at the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany. But in the hearts of Americans who know their Olympic history, this African American man did more than win races: he struggled against racism.

At the time of Owens’s death in 1980 at age 66, President Jimmy Carter paid this tribute to him:

Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.

Carter’s words were especially fitting in light of an unfortunate fact in Owens’s life: unforgivably, a previous American president had given him the brush-off.

Born in Alabama in 1913, James Owens at the age of nine moved with his family to the town in Ohio that bore his middle name, Cleveland. His first school teacher there asked him his name. With a deep Southern twang, he replied “J.C. Owens.” She heard “Jesse,” so that’s what she wrote down. The name stuck for the next 57 years.

Jesse could run like the wind and jump like a kangaroo. He broke junior high school records in the high jump and the broad jump. In high school, he won every major track event in which he competed, tying or breaking world records in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes and setting a new world record in the broad jump. Universities showered him with scholarship offers, but he turned them all down and chose Ohio State, which wasn’t extending track scholarships at the time.

Imagine it. You come from a relatively poor family. You could go to any number of colleges for next to nothing, but you pick one you have to pay for. At 21, you have a wife to support as well. So what do you do? If you are Jesse Owens, you work your way through school as a gas station attendant, a waiter, an all-night elevator operator, a library assistant, even a page in the Ohio legislature. Owens worked, studied, practiced on the field, and set more records in track during his years at OSU.

The biography at JesseOwens.com tells the stunning story that unfolded in 1935:

Jesse gave the world a preview of things to come in Berlin while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, [where] he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result of a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly he recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record. Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history — setting three world records and tying a fourth in four grueling track and field events.

Ohio wasn’t the Deep South, but in the mid-1930s, it wasn’t a paradise of racial equality, either. OSU required Owens and other black athletes to live together off campus. They had to order carryout or eat at “black-only” restaurants and stay in segregated hotels when traveling with the team.

The eyes of the world were focused on Berlin in early August 1936. Five years earlier and before the Nazis came to power, the German capital had been selected as the site for the summer 1936 Olympic games. An effort to boycott them because of Hitler’s racism fizzled. It would be a few more years before events convinced the world of the socialist dictator’s evil intentions. Jesse Owens entered the competition with Americans thrilled at his prospects but wondering how Hitler would react if “Aryan superiority” fell short of his expectations.

Jesse didn’t go to Berlin with a political axe to grind. “I wanted no part of politics,” he said. “And I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I’d learned long ago … the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.”

If, a hundred years from now, only one name is remembered among those who competed at the Berlin games, it will surely be that of Jesse Owens.

Owens won the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200-meter sprint, and the 4 x 100 sprint relay. In the process, he became the first American to claim four gold medals in a single Olympiad. Owens waved at Hitler and Hitler waved back, but the nasty little paper-hanger expressed his annoyance privately to fellow Nazi Albert Speer. He opined that blacks should never be allowed to compete in the games again.

A side story of Owens’s Berlin experience was the friendship he made with a German competitor named Lutz Long. A decent man by any measure, Long exhibited no racial animosity and even offered tips to Owens that the American found helpful during the games. Of Long, Owens would later tell an interviewer,

It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler.… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.

Back home, ticker tape parades feted Owens in New York City and Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of Americans came out to cheer him. Letters, phone calls, and telegrams streamed in from around the world to congratulate him. From one important man, however, no word of recognition ever came. As Owens later put it, “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leader of a major political party with deep roots in racism, couldn’t bring himself to utter a word of support, which may have been a factor in Owens’s decision to campaign for Republican Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election.

“It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it’s close,” Owens once said about athletic competition. He could have taught FDR a few lessons in character, but the president never gave him the chance. Owens wouldn’t be invited to the White House for almost 20 years — not until Dwight Eisenhower named him “Ambassador of Sports” in 1955.

Life after the Olympics wasn’t always kind to Jesse Owens. When he wanted to earn money from commercial endorsements, athletic officials yanked his amateur status. Then the commercial offers dried up. He was forced to file for bankruptcy. He felt the sting of racial discrimination again. But for the last 30 years of his life, until he died in 1980 of lung cancer, he found helping underprivileged teenagers to be even more personally satisfying that his Olympic gold medals.

For further information, see:

Jeremy Schaap’s Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics

David Clay Large’s Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936

Lawrence W. Reed
Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Can We Afford ‘Affordable Care’? by D.W. MacKenzie

Does the Supreme Court decision upholding health insurance subsidies prove that Obamacare is here to stay?

With its legality settled, the longevity of the healthcare program is supposed to be politically inevitable. The millions of voters who receive subsidies from the Affordable Care Act will not tolerate the loss of this money. Insurance companies will no doubt also lobby to prevent any loss of ACA subsidies, as stockholders and employees are major beneficiaries of this program.

Political factors may well preserve the ACA in the short run. But the Court’s ruling came on the heels of a gloomy report from the Congressional Budget Office that may prove to be more decisive for the law than all of Chief Justice Roberts’ legal gymnastics.

The CBO forecasts anemic economic growth and rising public debt for decades to come. Projected revenues and projected spending indicate a growing imbalance in federal finances, driven by long-term unfunded liabilities in old entitlement programs — mainly Social Security and Medicare.

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to control health insurance costs — hence the name. Unfortunately, things are not working out that way, and insurance companies are pressing for significant rate increases.

Consumers might hope that government officials would resist pressure for rate increases, but such actions are unlikely: Stock prices for major health insurers rose sharply after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Obama administration. Clearly, investors expect the ACA to benefit health insurers. And in Oregon, state regulators actually raised premiums higher than insurers requested, just to keep companies in the market. Rising premiums will likely drive more subsidies, worsening the looming debt and entitlement crisis.

Politicians have ignored these issues for decades because they seemed like “long-term” problems, and political pressures from elections and lobbying force them to be shortsighted. The short-term financial situation is being shored up by the willingness of investors to buy federal debt at low rates.

The trouble is that the long term isn’t as far off as it used to be. The CBO indicates that the fiscal situation in the federal government worsened significantly over the past few years, even as the deficit was declining. Further deterioration in federal finances is expected over the next decade. How much longer will private investors continue to finance this soaring debt?

A large part of the problem with rising debt is that financing it requires steady economic growth, but large public debts can crush growth. Federal debt is a millstone on the economy, the burden of which could at some point lead to national bankruptcy. The ACA, with its enormous subsidies and regulatory compliance costs, will simply pile on an already unaffordable mass of federal spending programs.

The bottom line is that Supreme Court maintained the ACA subsidies legally,but the American people will not be able to maintain them financially.

The passage and continued defense of the Affordable Care Act is an example of the rank irrationality of public budgeting. The outcome of our political and legislative processes over the past few decades has been to create a myriad of wasteful and financially unsustainable federal programs. Meanwhile, the analytical office the legislative branch of government has been quietly raising the alarm about to the direction and sustainability of government finances. It would seem that delirium is winning out over reason.

There is, of course, nothing truly inevitable about the growth of federal spending. Federal spending developed into its present irrational state because many people pressed for this growth.

But spending can and will be curtailed. Citizens can push for real spending cuts through the electoral process. Otherwise, investors in financial markets will at some point put a sharp and sudden stop to government excesses.


D.W. MacKenzie

D. W. MacKenzie is an assistant professor of economics at Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

RELATED ARTICLE: Under Obamacare, Uninsured Rate Fell to Lowest Level in 50 Years. Why There’s More to That Number.

Scandinavian Myths: High Taxes and Big Spending Are Popular by Nima Sanandaji

As I have explained in previous columns for CapX, there are a number of myths surrounding the Nordic countries that don’t stand up to scrutiny. These include the notion that long life span in Nordic nations arose as the public sector expanded, the idea that generous public programs alone explain low levels of Nordic poverty and the myth that Nordic countries are bumblebees that defy gravity by not being adversely affected by high taxes.

But surely the Nordic countries do show one leftist theory to be correct: that social democrat policies can be popular with the electorate.

Although the Social Democrats have recently lost much of their previous support, they did manage to dominate Nordic policies for long. Sweden was sometimes referred to as a one-party state, since the Social Democrats ruled it almost consecutively from 1932 till 2006 (interrupted by two short spells of centre-right rule during 1976-1982 and 1991-1994).

It is sometimes puzzling to the outsider why the Nordic public repeatedly have elected tax-raising governments to power. The obvious answer is ideological support for welfare state policies.

However, there is also another reason worth examining in greater detail: the general public has not been fully aware of the price tag, in terms of higher taxes, attached to expanding public sectors. Politicians have created a fiscal illusion which has resulted in higher levels of taxation that the population would otherwise have accepted as feasible had taxes been levied in a transparent way.

Before policies radicalised in the late 1960s, the tax levels in Nordic nations were around 30 percent  of GDP – quite typical of other developed nations. At the time, the tax burdens were quite visible. Most taxation occurred through direct taxes, which showed up on employees’ payslips.

Over time, an increasing share of taxation has been raised through indirect taxes. The latter are less visible to those paying them, since they are either levied before the wage is formally given to the employee or are included in the listed price of goods.

Finland is worth considering as an example. The country’s tax level was 30 percent of GDP in 1965. Indirect taxes in the form of VAT and mandatory social security contributions amounted to a quarter of total taxation. In 2013, the total tax take had increased to 44 percent of GDP, half of which was hidden taxes.

As shown below, Finnish governments have funded the expansion of the public sector by raising the hidden, but not the visible, tax burden. Denmark has followed a route wherein both hidden and visible taxes have been hiked.

Hidden and visible taxes in Finland (percentage of GDP)

Source: OECD tax database and own calculations.

Hidden and visible taxes in Denmark (percentage of GDP)

In Norway and Sweden, visible taxes are today lower than in the 1960s, although the true taxation is considerably higher. As can be seen below, it is clear that governments in both countries have followed a strategy based on replacing visible tax income with hidden tax incomes.

Thus, whilst the average worker has paid progressively more to the government, the payslips of the same worker have misleadingly shown a reduction in taxation.

Hidden and visible taxes in Norway (percentage of GDP)

Hidden and visible taxes in Sweden (percentage of GDP)

In other words, except in Denmark, the rise in taxation has occurred fully through an increase in hidden taxation.

This is in line with the predictions of fiscal illusion made by Italian economist Amilcare Puviani in 1903. Puviani explained that politicians would have incentives to hide the cost of government by levying indirect rather than direct taxes, so that the public would under-estimate the cost of policies.

The illusion can thus be created that an expanding state benefits individuals and families and yet costs less than it actually does. Nobel laureate James Buchanan and other researchers have expanded on the idea that it is easier for politicians to raise hidden, indirect taxes rather than visible ones.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that those who believe in a higher tax rate in other parts of the world have followed a similar strategy as the Nordic nations. The American left-liberal think tank the Roosevelt Institute openly recommends “less-visible taxes that Americans are more likely to support.”

The Obamacare system launched in the US represents a form of indirect taxation – through an overly complex system – that is even more difficult to comprehend for the average taxpayer than in the Nordic systems.

I don’t doubt that less visible taxes in the US, the UK or other parts of the world would prove an easier route to raise the tax burden than visible taxes. This is indeed a lesson that the left can learn from the Nordics.

But the question remains if this is a good route to venture on. Shouldn’t politicians strive for systems where people are aware of how much they are paying for the government?


Nima Sanandaji

Dr. Nima Sanandaji is a research fellow at CPS, and the author of Scandinavian Unexceptionalism available from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

EDITORS NOTE: This article was originally published at CapX.

Clinton’s Startup Tax Will Crush New Businesses by Dan Gelernter

Hillary Clinton has announced that she will, if elected, raise the capital-gains tax to a maximum that equals the highest income tax bracket. She hopes to promote long-term investments by penalizing short-term ones with a tax rate that gets lower the longer an investment is held, reaching the current 20% rate only after six years.

This, Ms. Clinton says, would allow a CEO to focus on the company’s true interests rather than just making the next quarter. It is, unfortunately, exactly the sort of plan you would expect from someone who has never started a company — and who doesn’t seem to know anyone who has.

The CEO of a startup is unlike the CEO of an established business. He is not the head of a chain of command: he is the spokesman or agent of a few colleagues, entrusted for the moment to represent them. The startup CEO has one primary job, which is raising money. It is the hardest thing a young company has to do — and it is an unending process.

Most germinal startups never raise any money at all. The ones that get seed funding are already breathing rarified air, and can afford perhaps a day of celebration before they start pursuing the next round.

The picture is especially tough for tech startups. A startup that builds software doesn’t have any machinery or physical supplies to auction off if the company fails. This means that banks won’t make the kind of secured business loans of the sort small companies traditionally get.

As a result, tech startups are wholly reliant on a relatively small number of investors who are looking for something more exciting than the establishment choices and are willing to take a big gamble in the hope of a big, short-term payoff. Though Ms. Clinton’s proposal would only affect those in the top income bracket, she may be surprised to learn that those are the only people who can afford to make such investments.

Professional investors think in terms of risk: they balance the likelihood of a startup’s failure against the potential payoff of its success. Increasing the tax rate reduces the effective payoff, which increases risk. Investors can lower that risk by reducing the valuation at which they are willing to invest, which means they take a larger share of the company — a straightforward transfer of risk from investors to entrepreneurs.

Ms. Clinton’s tax therefore will not be borne by wealthy investors: it comes out of the entrepreneur’s payday. The increased tax rate means a risk-equivalent decrease in the percentage of the company the entrepreneur gets to keep. And that’s just the best-case scenario.

The other option is that the tax doesn’t get paid at all, because the investor decides the increased risk isn’t worth it — the startup can’t attract funding and dies.

That sounds melodramatic, but it is no exaggeration. A startup company never has more offers than it needs; it never raises money with time spare. Even a slight change in the risk-return balance — say, the 3.8% which Obamacare quietly laid on top of the current capital-gains — kills companies, as investors and entrepreneurs see the potential upside finally shaved past the tipping point.

A tech startup has short-term potential. That is a major part of the attraction to investors, and that makes Ms. Clinton’s proposal especially damaging. In the tech world, we all hope we’ll be the next Facebook or Twitter, but you can’t pitch that to an investor. A good tech startup takes a small, simple idea and implements it beautifully.

The most direct success scenario is an acquisition by a larger company. In the app world — and this is the upside to not having physical limitations on distribution — the timescale is remarkably accelerated. A recent benchmark example was Mailbox, purchased by Dropbox just two months after it launched.

Giving investors an incentive to not to sell will hurt entrepreneurs yet again, postponing the day their sweat equity finally has tangible value, and encouraging decisions that make tax-sense rather than business-sense.

If Hillary Clinton really wants to help entrepreneurs, she should talk to some and find out what they actually want. A lower capital-gains tax — or no capital-gains tax — would be an excellent start.

Dan Gelernter

Dan Gelernter is CEO of the technology startup Dittach.

The Man Who Sowed the Seeds of Puerto Rico’s Collapse by Lawrence W. Reed

Is there anything more tragically monotonous than a failing welfare state? From ancient Rome to modern Greece, the story is one of the most repetitive in history. It goes like this:

People increasingly decide they’d rather vote for a living than work for one. An academic and intellectual class, dependent on subsidies and anxious to command the economy, advises the people that this is a really good thing. Politicians cater to them with high-sounding rhetoric (“We’ll take care of you”) and low-balling promises (“We can afford it. It won’t cost much. We’ll just take it from the rich”).

Responsibility, self-reliance, and enterprise give way to an entitlement mentality. Power concentrates and corruption ensues. Taxes and debt rise. The government debases the money. Crisis leads to more government, which leads to more crisis. What was always bankrupt morally finally goes bankrupt economically. Goodbye economy, liberty, and often even civilization itself. The barbarians take over. What else is new?

Now it’s Puerto Rico’s turn.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a US territory in the northeastern Caribbean. Its governor, Alejandro García Padilla, startled the world back in June when he announced that the island cannot pay back its $72 billion public debt.

“The debt is not payable,” García Padilla said. “There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics; this is math.”

He called the situation a “death spiral.” Suddenly, millions of Americans were learning what a basket case the Puerto Rican economy has become. It is indeed a crisis but one that was, to an embarrassing extent, made right here in America.

It was foisted on Puerto Ricans by one lousy New Dealer in particular. His name was Rexford Guy Tugwell.

More on the egghead Tugwell in a moment, but let me bring everybody up to date on just how bad things are down there. Be sure to read to the end because there’s a silver lining in this very dark cloud.

Puerto Rico has been in a funk for a good while. Its stubbornly high, double-digit unemployment rate is more than twice that of the United States. In fact, it hasn’t been below 9.7 percent in 40 years.

The island’s debt is higher on a per capita basis than that of any US state and four times that of Detroit, which went bankrupt two years ago. Businesses are collapsing. People are fleeing (200,000 have left since 2005). Almost half of the island’s 3.7 million residents earn incomes under the US federal poverty line. Nearly 40 percent of all households get food stamps. Until recently, the retirement age for government school teachers was as low as 47, prompting underfunded pension fund crisis so endemic to welfare states. (The retirement age has lately been raised to at least 55 for current teachers, and 62 for new teachers.)

As Tyler Durden explains at ZeroHedge.com, policies imposed from Washington must shoulder a big part of the blame for this mess: the wizards on the Potomac encouraged debt and deficit spending, priced hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans out of entry-level jobs with a punishing minimum wage, taxed and regulated commerce and investment to a crawl, and showered the island with debilitating welfare. The place would be a showcase of government-induced prosperity except for one sticking point: government.

All of this has been decades in the making, which brings me to the character named Tugwell. I’ve long had a distaste for this pompous meddler. The more I learn about his role as Puerto Rico’s appointed governor (1941–1946), the more I’m ashamed that a US president was dumb enough to put him in charge of anything.

I first heard of Tugwell as an undergraduate economics major at Grove City College in the early 1970s. Fascinated by what my econ prof, Dr. Hans Sennholz, had said in class about America’s 22nd and 24th president, Grover Cleveland, I checked out a biography of him. It carried the imaginative title, GroverCleveland, and included a revealing subtitle, A Biography of the President Whose Uncompromising Honesty and Integrity Failed America in a Time of Crisis.

The author was Rexford Guy Tugwell, widely regarded as the most influential ideologue of economic planning during Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Cleveland terms were largely wasted opportunities, according to Tugwell, because Cleveland would not turn the economy into his personal plaything. If only he had trashed his honesty and integrity, Cleveland could have been the scientist and the rest of us the lab rats.

Tugwell was the Jonathan Gruber of his day. (Recall the smug academic who admitted that deception was employed to fool stupid Americans into supporting Obamacare.) He went straight from academia as a student (the Wharton School at U-Penn, then Columbia) to academia as a professor (University of Washington, American University in Paris, and Columbia University). His intellectual mentors were socialists like Upton Sinclair and Edward Bellamy. Woodrow Wilson’s wartime administration gave him his first real glimpse of the glorious fun of central planning, and he loved it even when it flopped.

In 1932, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt invited Professor Tugwell to join the first White House “brain trust.” These were the whiz kids — the social scientists and experimenters of the administration. Blessed with power and attention, they were ready to “transform” America and “plan” our way out of the Great Depression.

H.L. Mencken was less charitable in his description. He called them “an astonishing rabble of impudent nobodies,” “a gang of half-educated pedagogues, starry-eyed uplifters and other such sorry wizards.” Along with FDR, they “planned” the Depression into the longest slump in American history.

Tugwell loved to set up and run what came to be known as “boondoggles.” He was an architect of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and later director of its Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), which taxed agricultural processors and used the revenue to destroy crops and cattle to raise prices. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and ridiculously destructive by clear thinkers.

From its inception in 1935, he directed the Resettlement Administration (RA), which relocated the rural unemployed to new, planned communities in suburbs. Urban authority Jane Jacobs, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, showed that his program simply displaced people and ruined neighborhoods. The RA was also thrown out as unconstitutional. True to the statist stereotype, Tugwell learned nothing from either experience. “Planning” was his religion and he was going to be its high priest, come hell or high water.

In 1936, Tugwell left Washington and two years later showed up as the first director of the New York City Planning Commission. He tried retroactively to enforce nonconforming land uses with almost no legal or public support. He proved too much an ideologue even for the polarizing Robert Moses, who killed Tugwell’s 50-year, pie-in-the-sky master plan for public housing.

Now let’s get back to Puerto Rico.

By 1941, Rexford Guy Tugwell had behind him a 20-year career of pontificating for big government and managing expensive government flops. Somehow that gave Franklin Roosevelt the idea of naming him governor of Puerto Rico. What Tugwell did for the mainland, he could now do for an island. Maybe this central planning stuff works better if you work small, right?

Nope.

So for five years, Professor Tugwell became Governor Tugwell. One of the first things he did was to create, with the legislature’s approval, the Puerto Rico Planning, Urbanization, and Zoning Board in 1942. If only he had done what John Copperthwaite did later in Hong Kong or what Ludwig Erhard did in postwar Germany or what inspired free marketers have done in freeing their cities, Puerto Rico might today be a beacon of liberty and prosperity. But Tugwell wanted to plan, plan, plan.

Pedro Serra is president of a new organization in Puerto Rico, the Alliance for the Protection of Liberties. He is a businessman from San Juan whose interest in free-market economics led him to work with the 2012 Ron Paul campaign. Looking back on the Tugwell period, he observes,

When President Roosevelt appointed Rexford G. Tugwell governor of Puerto Rico, it was in keeping with the same economic attitude that characterized the New Deal — that the government can solve an economy’s woes. Our government has since taken as an axiom that economic stagnation results from too little government, not too much. If this were the case, then today’s Puerto Rico should be paradise on earth. Instead our economy is depressed, our people jobless, and our government bankrupt.

Climate would seem to have blessed Puerto Rico for agricultural pursuits. Tugwell’s infinite wisdom suggested it should opt for industry instead, so he directed public policy against farming and toward manufacturing. He lobbied for all the aid and welfare from the mainland he could get. He set the tone for decades of a top-down welfare state. Joe Milligan, a colleague of Serra’s, is originally from Rochester, Michigan, and now brings his passion for free markets to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as the director of development for the Alliance for the Protection of Liberties. Here is how Milligan sums it up:

Governor Tugwell’s legacy is alive and apparent on the island. His tenure in office was characterized by central planning, government growth, and expansion of the welfare state. He stamped out the thriving sugar cane and coffee industries in favor of manufacturing. The result is that now we have neither. Today in Puerto Rico our government is the island’s largest employer and half of all residents require government financial assistance to subsist. In this sense Governor Tugwell truly left his mark.

Indeed, for many years after Governor Tugwell left Puerto Rico for academia back in the United States (where failure is celebrated as long as you worship the state and have good intentions), other New Dealers sojourned to the island to offer more of the same.

One of them was Hugh Barton, who had directed the US State Department’s Office of Strategic Services until he was fired for his knowledge of the communist affiliations of some of his top staff. Barton set up shop with the Puerto Rico Planning Board and the Office of Economic Research. If you had a college degree and a penchant for planning the economy of other people, you could get a government job in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and ’60s. Except for a brief retrenchment under one-term Governor Luis Fortuño, Puerto Rico has been run for decades as Tugwell first envisioned it, exacerbated by Washington’s poor policies to boot.

As I promised early in this article, there’s some good news in this bleak course of events. Puerto Rico now has a nascent libertarian movement and an organization devoted to spreading ideas of liberty as an antidote to the Tugwell legacy — the Alianza para la Protección de Libertades (Alliance for the Protection of Liberties) that Pedro Serra and Joe Milligan have launched.

The Alliance seeks to improve the lives of Puerto Ricans by building a new consensus around this proposition: a free society — not a centrally planned, politicized one — is a more prosperous and tolerant society. It works to build public support for smaller government and advise policy makers in choosing the proven path toward prosperity. The Alliance’s programs include developing a college campus lecture circuit, starting a YouTube channel specific to Puerto Rico’s issues, and disseminating compelling literature to legislators.

Never let a crisis go to waste, as the saying goes. Puerto Rico represents a unique opportunity to undo a painful, statist history. I hope readers will want to help.

To support the efforts of the Alliance, email Pedro Serra, the director, at pedro@protecciondelibertades.org.

“The curious task of economics,” Austrian economist F.A. Hayek taught us, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Rexford Guy Tugwell never understood that. With the help of the Alliance for the Protection of Liberties, Puerto Ricans may yet embrace Hayek’s wisdom and thereby shake the curse of Tugwell.


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

“Green Banks” Will Drown in the Red by Jonathan Bydlak

Why does federal spending matter? There are many reasons, but perhaps the most fundamental is that free markets allocate resources better than governments because markets rely on price instead of politics. Many industries show this observation to be true, but the emerging field of “green banks” offers perhaps one of the clearest recent examples.

A green bank is a “public or quasi-public financing institution that provides low-cost, long-term financing support to clean, low-carbon projects by leveraging public funds…to attract private investment.” Right now, only a handful of green banks are scattered across Connecticut, California, New York, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.

Free marketers rightly doubt whether public funds should be used to finance private startups. But regardless of where one stands in that debate, the states’ struggles serve as a valuable testing ground for future investments.

The State of Connecticut operates under a fairly significant budget deficit. California has been calculating its budgets without taking unfunded pension liabilities into account, and it’s gambling with its ability to service its debt. New York continues to live beyond its means. Rhode Island’s newest budget does little to rehabilitate its deficit spending addiction, and, despite having a balanced budget clause in its state constitution, Hawaii has a pattern of operating at a deficit.

In fact, a state solvency report released by the Mercatus Center has each of these five states ranked in the bottom third of the country, with their solvency described as either “low” or “poor.”

This all raises the question of whether these governments are able to find sound investment opportunities in the first place. Rhode Island couldn’t even identify a bad investment when baseball legend Curt Schilling wanted $75 million to make video games about something other than baseball!

Recently, though, there have been calls to extend the struggling green banking system to the federal level. Mark Muro and Reed Hundt at the Brookings Institute argued in favor of federal action in support of green banks. Somewhat paradoxically, they assert that demand for green banking institutions and the types of companies they finance is so strong that the existing state-based green banks cannot muster enough capital to meet demand.

Wherever there is potential for profit and a sound business plan, lending institutions are likely to be found, willing to relinquish a little capital for a consistent and reasonable rate of return. So where are the private lenders and other investment firms who have taken notice and are competing for the opportunity to provide loans to such highly sought-after companies and products?

Even assuming that there is demand for green banking services, recent experience shows that a federally-subsidized system would likely lead to inefficiency, favor trading, and failure. For instance, the Department of Energy Loan Program is designed to facilitate and aid clean energy startup companies. Its portfolio exceeds $30 billion, but following a series of bad investments like Solyndra, Inc., new loan guarantees have been few and far between. The program has already lost over $700 million.

Even the rosiest measurements do not show particularly exciting returns from this system. The Department of Energy itself estimates that over the lifetime of the loans it’s guaranteed, there exists the potential to see $5 billion in profit. However, those estimates also depend on the peculiar accounting methods the DoE itself employs.

This problem is apparent in other government sectors. For instance, determining how much profit the federal government makes off of student loans depends on who is asked. Some say none, while others say it’s in the billions. Gauging the economic impact or solvency of government programs is notoriously difficult, and different methods can yield what look like very different results. Add to that the consistently uncertain nature of the energy market, and profits are hardly guaranteed.

Examples abound of wasteful federal spending, and the growing green technology and renewable energy industry is no exception. The DoE Loan Program has already faced issues that go well beyond Solyndra: Abound Solar, a Colorado-based solar panel manufacturer, was given a $400 million DoE loan guarantee, only to later file for bankruptcy, potentially costing taxpayers $60 million. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a 175,000 unit heliostat array in California, received a $1.6 billion federal loan and, because it failed to produce the amount of power estimated, was forced to later request more than$500 million in federal grants from the Treasury Department. A recent Taxpayers Protection Alliance study showed that risky investments in heavily subsidized solar energy could even lead to a bubble similar to the disastrous 2008 housing bubble.

Those who want to expand the government’s role in green banking likely want to see more clean and renewable energy reach the consumer market, and a lot of people probably applaud that goal — but the real question is whether the proposed means can reliably achieve that end. A wise manager with a solid business plan can find investors who will willingly take a chance. Considering the struggles of several states, trusting the federal government to build an even bigger system would exponentially increase that risk.

In contrast, the market offers opportunity to entrepreneurs in the green technology and renewable energy industries. For instance, GreatPoint Energy, a company specializing in clean coal, successfully went the route that other companies do: Design a product or service, find investors, and compete in the marketplace.

SolarCity, a California-based and publicly traded corporation of over 2,500 employees, entered the industry before many government loan programs were established. Thanks to a sound business model and subsequent horizontal and vertical expansion, it has become a leader in the industry. SolarCity’s success, however, cannot be touted by the Department of Energy’s Loan Program, which declined to invest in the company, leading SolarCity to try — and succeed — in finding private investment.

If GreatPoint or SolarCity had failed, only those who willingly participated in the startup would suffer the consequences. The issue with green banking — and indeed government “investments” more generally — is that taxpayers are not party to the negotiations but are the ones ultimately on the hook for failures.

In absolute terms, these billions of dollars are a lot of money. But in the grand scheme of government spending, the amount of money invested in green banks and renewable energy production is relatively small. If Social Security is the Atlantic Ocean, and wasteful defense appropriations are the Mediterranean, then green energy investments fall somewhere in the range of the Y-40 pool: easily measurable but certainly not insignificant.

Your odds of drowning may be smaller in the pool than the ocean, but that doesn’t make the drowning itself any more pleasant. The federal government is already under water; adding new liabilities on the hope that politicians can guess the future of energy is merely a step towards the deep end, not the ladder out.


Jonathan Bydlak

Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Institute to Reduce Spending and the Coalition to Reduce Spending.

Video: The Democrats’ Horrible Racist Past

If one digs into the history of the Democratic Party one will find that they are: the party of slavery, the party of infanticide (eugenics to abortion), the party of Jim Crow laws, the party of the income tax, the party of prohibition. In this video Bill Little pins the tale on the Democrat Donkey.