Archive for March 2017

Arizona State Legislature Considering Yet Another Awful Law, This Time Allowing Police Prior Restraint on Speech

It is hard to pick out the most egregious example of bad legislation that has been considered by our state legislature, but this one is certainly close:

Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything actually happened.

SB1142 expands the state’s racketeering laws, now aimed at organized crime, to also include rioting. And it redefines what constitutes rioting to include actions that result in damage to the property of others.

But the real heart of the legislation is what Democrats say is the guilt by association — and giving the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets of everyone who planned a protest and everyone who participated. And what’s worse, said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, is that the person who may have broken a window, triggering the claim there was a riot, might actually not be a member of the group but someone from the other side....

There’s something else: By including rioting in racketeering laws, it actually permits police to arrest those who are planning events. And Kavanagh, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups, “I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.’’

“Wouldn’t you rather stop a riot before it starts?’’ Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. “Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?’’

This is the sort of law that is almost guaranteed to be abused and enforced in an asymmetrical manner.  This is one of those laws where the "Am I comfortable giving my political opponent this sort of power" test is particularly useful.  Conservatives rightly complained about the Obama Administrations asymmetric IRS scrutiny on Tea Party groups, but this law would create a far greater potential for abuse.  We no longer have Sheriff Joe any more (which is one reason I don't join so many others in complaining about the election of 2016) but does anyone doubt that Arpaio would have used this law to shut down every pro-immigrant protest he could learn about in advance?

The Left Justifies New Taxes Based on Reducing (Presumed) Negative Externalities, But Actually Just Wants The Money

Here is the Wikipedia definition of  a Pigovian tax:

A Pigovian tax (also spelled Pigouvian tax) is a tax levied on any market activity that generates negative externalities (costs not internalized in the market price). The tax is intended to correct an inefficient market outcome, and does so by being set equal to the social cost of the negative externalities. In the presence of negative externalities, the social cost of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and may lead to over-consumption of the product.[1] An often-cited example of such an externality is environmental pollution.

The Left often tries to justify new taxes based on their being Pigovian taxes.  The classic example is a carbon tax -- it is claimed there is a social cost to carbon-based fuel combustion (e.g. CO2 production and resulting global warming) that is not taken into account by market prices.  By adding the tax, these other costs can be taken into account, likely raising the price of these fuels and thus both reducing their use and providing a higher price umbrella for alternatives.

For years, I accepted these arguments at face value.  I might argue with them (for example, I think that the Left has tended to spot 10 of the last 2 true negative externalities), but I accepted that they really believed in the logic of the Pigovian tax.  I am now becoming convinced that I was wrong, that the Left's support of Pigovian taxes is frequently a front, a way of putting a more palatable face on what is really a naked grab for more taxpayer money by public officials.  To support this emerging hypothesis, I cite two examples.

 1.  Proposed Carbon Tax in Washington State

This last November, a carbon tax was placed on the ballot in Washington State.  In many ways, it partially mirrored my own proposal (here) by making the tax revenue neutral, ie the new carbon tax was offset by a reduction in other regressive taxes, particularly other consumption taxes.  If the Left and environmental groups truly embraced the Pigovian logic of a carbon tax, they should have jumped at supporting this initiative.  I discuss what happened in depth here but Vox has a good summary:

The measure, called Initiative 732, isn’t just any carbon tax, either. It’s a big one. It would be the first carbon tax in the US, the biggest in North America, and one of the most ambitious in the world.

And yet the left opposes it. The Democratic Party, community-of-color groups, organized labor, big liberal donors, and even most big environmental groups have come out against it.

Why on Earth would the left oppose the first and biggest carbon tax in the country? How has the climate community in Washington ended up in what one participant calls a "train wreck"? (Others have described it in more, er, colorful terms.)....

the alliance’s core objection to I-732 is that it is revenue-neutral — it surrenders all that precious revenue, which is so hard to come by in Washington. That, more than anything else, explains why alliance groups are not supporting it.

Opponents say they wanted to use the revenue for climate-related investments, but even if true there are two things wrong with this.  First, it shows ignorance of the economic theory of the Pigovian tax -- the whole point is that by raising the price of carbon-based fuels, markets will find the most efficient way to reduce this fuel use.  The whole point is that it is way more efficient to reduce CO2 production through this simple pricing mechanism than it is through government cronyist winner-picking "investments".  The second problem is that such promises of funds dedication never last.  Supposedly the tobacco settlement was all supposed to go to health care and tobacco-related education, but there is not a single state where even a double digit percentage went to these things (the American Lung Association estimates just 2% of the funds go to the original purpose).  In New York, the entire tobacco settlement stream was securitized and used to plug a single year's general budget hole.  You can be assured the same thing would happen with carbon tax revenue.

2.  Soda Tax in Philadelphia

Last year, Philadelphia passed a large soda tax.  The justification for such a tax is that such drinks cause obesity and other health issues.  Either for people's own good or to reduce the future burden on government health care programs, the whole point of such a tax is to reduce soda consumption.  Or so it was justified.

But now, once the tax took effect, the city government that passed the tax seems to be shocked and surprised that soda consumption is way down.  You would think that they would be declaring victory, ... that is, if the point was ever to reduce soda consumption and not just to raise some extra revenue.  Via Reason:

For now, Kenney and other city officials seem unfazed—dismissive, even—of the problems caused by the new tax. A city spokesman told that no one knows whether low sales figures and predicted job losses are anything more than "fear-mongering to prevent this from happening in other cities."

Kenney put an even finer point on it.

"I didn't think it was possible for the soda industry to be any greedier," Kenney said in an emailed statement to reporter Julia Terruso. "They are so committed to stopping this tax from spreading to other cities, that they are not only passing the tax they should be paying onto their customer, they are actually willing to threaten working men and women's jobs rather than marginally reduce their seven figure bonuses."

It's not the first time Kenney has tried to ignore basic economics when it comes to the soda tax. A few weeks ago, he blamed grocery stores and restaurants for "price gouging" when they increased prices for sugary drinks to make consumers pay for the cost of the tax (the tax is technically applied on the transaction between distributors and retailers, but, like all other taxes, it gets passed along).

Its clear that this tax justified as a pigovian tax is really no such thing.   City officials seem to be honestly surprised that consumption is down as the result of a Pigovian tax whose purpose is to... reduce consumption.  And if they really did not expect the tax to get passed on to consumers, then how does it work?   In fact, city officials are actually worried that reductions in soda consumption is going to cause the tax to yield less money than they expected, creating a hole in their budgets.

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Going forward, I plan to apply an order of magnitude more skepticism to any future calls for Pigovian taxes.  I think the first thing I will ask of each new suggestion is "do you still support this tax if I were to make it revenue neutral, say by offsetting it with reductions in another regressive taxes?"

Bureaucracy Creep

One of the irritating tasks I am required by law to perform for the government is fill in a bunch of detailed information about my business for the US Census Bureau.  This is one of a number of reports the government sends me each year to fill in.  The first thing I look at on these forms is whether they are required by law.  If they are not, they immediately go in the trash can.  In particular, I could spend 110% of my free time filling in Department of Labor surveys that seem to come for each state we operate in.  The only entertainment value I get associated with these many surveys is the calls I sometimes get from government workers asking me if I would please fill in the survey.  Generally I explain to them that 1.  My time is too valuable to waste on this stuff and 2.  There is no way in hell I am going to give them a bunch of data they will likely only use to justify new regulations that make my business life even harder.

The two reports that are required (this does not include of course the dozens of required tax forms, licensing forms, and corporate registration forms we fill out every year) are the annual Census report and the EEO-1 report.  I already discussed a while back the 15-20x increase in size and complexity of the EEO-1 report, where about 3600 new cells have been added that have to be filled in.  This year the Census Accommodations Industry Report had a huge increase in complexity -- last year's report had one cell for last years' total expenses (though the Census bureau's definition of total expenses was so arcane that it took an hour or so to calculate the number).  This year, instead of a single number for expenses there are 48 different cells to be filled in with detailed categories of expenses.  Here are just two of the many categories they demand:

d.  Purchased repairs and maintenance to machinery and equipment - Expensed repair and maintenance services to machinery, vehicles, equipment, and computer hardware. Exclude materials, parts, and supplies used for repairs and maintenance performed by this firm's employees

e.  Purchased repairs and maintenance to buildings, structures, and offices - Include repair and maintenance to integral parts of buildings (e.g., elevators, heating systems). Exclude materials, parts, and supplies used for repairs and maintenance performed by this firm's employees. Report janitorial and grounds maintenance services in line 4c

Perhaps I am a failure as a business person, but my company does not track expenses in this detail, or at least in these specific categories.   The exercise was not only absurdly time-consuming, it was impossible.  Depending on my mood, I might have just filled it all in with random guesses.   However, even though it is not supposed to be used this way, I couldn't shake the sense that someone someday might try to use it to compare against my tax returns (which are prepared quite carefully and accurately) and try to raise red flags.  So I left it all blank.  I will be interested to see how they respond.