Posts tagged ‘OWS’

My Tax Proposal

1.  Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code

2.  Eliminate the corporate income tax.

3.  Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.

4.  Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

 

I don't have any idea if this revenue positive or negative (I suspect it would be short-term positive, and long-term very positive), but I don't care.  This would:

  1. Substantially reduce the government's ability to play preference games and give crony special help in the tax code.
  2. Completely eliminate the huge unproductive drag of corporate tax law expenses and substantially reduce the cost of individual tax preparation.
  3. Eliminate the enormous unproductive drag of estate tax planning
  4. Eliminate forced sales of family farms and businesses at death in order to pay the taxes (taxes are paid instead on capital gains when sold).
  5. Substantially reduce government-induced distortions on flows of capital  (e.g. current promotion of home ownership over renting, of corporate debt over equity financing, of capital gains over income, etc).
  6. Eliminate most double taxations in the code, since there is now only the individual income tax.

I would be happy to make this revenue neutral (even if it required an individual income tax rate hike) and sell this to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike as a plan to reduce waste, corporatism, and crony meddling.  The OWS might be upset about 2 & 4, but corporate profits eventually show up as either capital gains or dividends, so they will eventually get taxed on the individual income tax return.  Ditto death taxes - currently they are largely offset by the ability to write-up asset basis at death and aggressive tax planning.  And anyway, the death tax is a trivial sources of government revenues.

 

Postscript:  I know there is all sorts of literature that supposedly promotes a lower capital gains tax as an economic positive.  Frankly, I don't trust it any more than any other literature genned up to promote special tax breaks to any group because that group is supposedly economically more important.  In my mind, a lower capital gains tax rate (which means a higher regular income tax rate) is just another way of government expressing an artificial preference for one economic activity over another.  Specifically, a lower capital gains rate creates a preference for real estate and stock investors over business owners.   Currently, I invest in a second home and flip it for a profit and I get a tax break on the capital gains.  But if I invest in a business instead that pays off with regular income, I get no tax break.  Why?  Why is one type of investing better than another?  The answer is that it is not, but the people who buy and sell equities and real estate in large quantities have more political clout than small business owners.

Postscript #2:  And Medicare taxes have to go up, at least until the program is restructured. 

Postscript #3:  This is a great example of what I want to make go away.  I consider it far more destructive in the long run than a percentage point rate change.  In case it is behind a paywall, here is a bit of it (these giveaways to the rich were in the very same bill that was supposed to be to soak the rich):

Thus Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow was able to retain an accelerated tax write-off for owners of Nascar tracks (cost: $78 million) to benefit the paupers who control the Michigan International Speedway. New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman saved a tax credit for companies operating in American Samoa ($62 million), including a StarKist factory.

Distillers are able to drink to a $222 million rum tax rebate. Perhaps this will help to finance more of those fabulous Bacardi TV ads with all those beautiful rich people. Businesses located on Indian reservations will receive $222 million in accelerated depreciation. And there are breaks for railroads, "New York Liberty Zone" bonds and so much more.

But a special award goes to Chris Dodd, the former Senator who now roams Gucci Gulch lobbying for Hollywood's movie studios. The Senate summary of his tax victory is worth quoting in full: "The bill extends for two years, through 2013, the provision that allows film and television producers to expense the first $15 million of production costs incurred in the United States ($20 million if the costs are incurred in economically depressed areas in the United States)."

You gotta love that "depressed areas" bit. The impoverished impresarios of Brentwood get an extra writeoff if they take their film crews into, say, deepest Flatbush. Is that because they have to pay extra to the caterers from Dean & DeLuca to make the trip? It sure can't be because they hire the jobless locals for the production crew. Those are union jobs, mate, and don't you forget it.

The Joint Tax Committee says this Hollywood special will cost the Treasury a mere $248 million over 10 years, but over fiscal years 2013 and 2014 the cost is really $430 million because it is supposed to expire at the end of this year. In reality Mr. Dodd will wrangle another extension next year, and the year after that, and . . . . Investing a couple million in Mr. Dodd in return for $430 million in tax breaks sure beats trying to make better movies.

Then there are the green-energy giveaways that are also quickly becoming entitlements. The wind production tax credit got another one-year reprieve, thanks to Mr. Obama and GOP Senators John Thune (South Dakota) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa). This freebie for the likes of the neediest at General Electric GE -0.82% andSiemens SIE.XE +0.20% —which benefit indirectly by making wind turbine gear—is now 20 years old. Cost to taxpayers: $12 billion.

Cellulosic biofuels—the great white whale of renewable energy—also had their tax credit continued, and the definition of what qualifies was expanded to include producers of "algae-based fuel" ($59 million.) Speaking of sludge, biodiesel and "renewable diesel" will continue receiving their $1 per gallon tax credit ($2.2 billion). The U.S. is experiencing a natural gas and oil drilling boom, but Congress still thinks algae and wind will power the future.

Meanwhile, consumers will get tax credits for buying plug-in motorcycles ($7 million), while the manufacturers of energy-efficient appliances ($650 million) and builders of energy-efficient homes ($154 million) also retain tax credits. Manufacturers like Whirlpool love these subsidies, and they are one reason that company paid no net taxes in recent years.

Libertarian / OWS Nexus

I continue to be fascinated by the frequent intersection of classical liberals / libertarians and Occupy Wall Street, at least in the diagnosis of what ails us.  This post by Russ Roberts I linked previously is a great example.   Both groups get energized by criticisms of the corporate state and crony government.

Where they diverge, of course, is in solution-making.  The OWS folks see the root cause in the behavior and incentives of private corporations which corrupt government actors with their money, and thus advocate solutions which increase state power over these private entities.  In contrast, libertarians like myself see the problem as too much state power to create winners and losers in the market and shift wealth from one group to another.  Given this power, the financial incentives to harness it in ones favor are overwhelming and will never go away, so the only way to tackle it is to reduce the power to play favorites.

Crony Capitalism? Blame the Progressives

That is the purposely inflammatory title of my article this week at Forbes.com, finding the roots of crony capitalism not in capitalism itself, but in progressive legislation.  An excerpt:

The core of capitalism has nothing to do with, and is in fact inherently corrupted by, the exercise of state power.  At its heart, capitalism is one simple proposition -- free exchange between individuals based on mutual self-interest.  There is no room in this definition for subsidies or special government preferences or bailouts.  The meat and potatoes activities of crony capitalism are corruptions rather than features of free markets.  Where state power to intervene in economic activity does not exist, neither does cronyism.

Believe it or not, the Occupy movement reminds me of nothing so much as 1832.  Flash back to that year, and you will find Federal officials with almost no power to help or hinder commerce... with one exception: the Second Bank of the United States, a powerful quasi-public institution that used its monopoly on government deposits as a source of funds for private lending.  The bank was accused of using its immense reserves of government cash to influence elections, enrich the favored, and lend based on political rather than economic formulae (any of this sound familiar?).  Andrew Jackson and his supporters, the raucous occupiers of their day, came into office campaigning against the fraud and cronyism at the Bank.

Jackson, much like the current OWS folks, was a strange blend of sometimes frontier anarchist and sometimes tyrannical authoritarian.  But in the case of the Second Bank, the OWS movement could well learn from Jackson.  He didn't propose new and greater powers for government officials to help check abuses of the existing powers -- he proposed to kill the Bank entirely.  Eliminate the source of power, and men can no longer tap it for their own enrichment.

Unfortunately, the progressive Left which makes up most of the OWS movement has taken exactly the opposite approach over the last century or so, expanding government powers and economic institutions (such that today the scope of the second bank seems quaintly limited) and thus the opportunity for cronyism.   In fact, most of the interventions that make crony capitalism possible are facilitated and enabled by the very progressive legislation that the progressive Left and the OWS protesters tend to favor.  Consider some examples...

David Henderson Talks to the Occupy Folks

David Henderson has a wonderful 4-part series of a talk he had with an Occupy-type crowd in Monterrey.  He does a good job of showing how the roots of many of the problems the Occupy folks fret about lie with government power rather than free markets.

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

 

Here is a point he makes in part 3 that I have made before

"Or consider this," I said, "Who was the wealthiest man in America early in the 20th century?" "John D. Rockefeller," said someone. "Right," I said, "and at its peak, John D. Rockefeller's net worth was, in today's $, about $200 billion, which would make him richer than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined."

"But think what you have that he didn't. He couldn't watch TV, play video games, surf the Internet, or send e-mail. During the summer, he didn't have air conditioning. For most of his life, he couldn't travel by airplane. He didn't even have [and here I picked up my cell phone] a 1G. And here's the big one: If he got sick, he couldn't use many medicines, including penicillin. Calvin Coolidge's son, after playing tennis on the White House lawn and getting a blister, died. He didn't have antibiotics."

"So you could say that you're richer than Rockefeller. Isn't there a song about that?Here's the test. Who here would trade places with Rockefeller?" I asked. About 5 people stuck up their hands. "Then you're not," I said. "Who wouldn't trade places with Rockefeller?" I asked. About 15 people stuck up their hands. "You are," I said.

I wrote something similar of San Francisco 19th-century millionaire Mark Hopkins

Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people’s access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin’s business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

The only mistake in this I would correct was to say Mark Hopkins was old at 64.  The average lifespan was in the forties, but this was mainly because of childhood death.  Once someone made it into their thirties, they had a pretty good chance of living into their sixties.

Feds Make Illegal What We Already Thought Was Illegal

Via Zero Hedge

today, in a unanimous vote, "The U.S. futures regulator approved on Monday a rule that puts tighter limits on how brokerage firms can use customer funds, a measure that the now-bankrupt MF Global had encouraged the agency to delay." In other words, while before commingling client accounts was assumed to be a clear violation of every logical fiduciary imperative, now it is set in stone. For real. The CFTC means it.

In the past, I believed that a lot of financial regulations were honest (though often misguided) attempts to create transparent and trustworthy markets.  I am increasingly being pushed to the cynical conclusion that financial regulations, like, say, licensing of funeral homes, are mainly aimed at making it impossible for small competitors to survive, while larger competitors either have the scale to pay for compliance departments, or in the case of MF Global, have the political muscle to get themselves exempted (by Administrations of both parties, I should be clear, though the current one certainly gets a hypocrisy award for standing beside OWS while handing out finance and health care law exceptions to the powerful).

MF Global is far worse in my mind than, say, Enron.  In Enron's case, the management was at least mostly pursuing the activities and investments that they were supposed to be pursuing.  They were making bets of the type shareholders expected, though they were likely masking the cost and risk of these bets by aggressive pushes at the margins of accounting rules.

MF Global was doing exactly what everyone supposedly knew to be an absolute no-no, ie using client funds to make leveraged bets for their own account.  If Joe Schmoe in Florida did the same thing, he would already be incarcerated.  In the case of MF Global, no one even seems to be interviewing Corzine and so far the bankruptcy committee has put a higher priority on repaying JP Morgan and Goldman for Corzine's bad bets than on getting investors' money back.

Los Angeles and Litter

The LA Times talks about the trash and litter cleanup at the OWS site in LA.  For reasons I don't fully understand, the absolute worst trash and litter problems we have in running campgrounds around the country are around LA.  For some reason, the closer a recreation area is to LA, the more trash we get dumped on the ground.  Nowhere else in the country comes close.

Anarchists Protest Small Government Conference

Lol

I do not think that word "anarchist" means what they think it means.

This has from the beginning been the almost charming oddity of the OWS movement - we are anarchists that want more government.  We oppose "the man" but want him to pay our college tuition.  We hate capitalism but can't go anywhere without our iPods.

Bad Boys, Bad Boys

If nothing else, the OWS movement is helping ordinary Americans see the abuse of power that is so endemic in many police departments.  I am tired of the quasi-cult of police ass-kicking on average citizens, as fed by reality cop shows and folks like Joe Arpaio.  As Radley Balko points out, the casual way that the officer hoses down citizens who are just sitting on a curb with pepper spray is just outrageous.  From past experience, my guess is that these guys were ready to go limp and be dragged off - the pepper spray was just pure torture for the entertainment of the cops.

We would not do this to a terrorist in Gitmo, so why are we doing this to American citizens? I think I get particularly angry and intolerant of this kind of crap because I used to be the kind of law and order conservative that would excuse this kind of behavior, and that embarrasses me. The saying goes that a converted Catholic is often more fervent than a born one, so to I guess for this civil libertarian.

You Don't Get To Define The Value of Your Work

Kevin Drum writes that the lesson of OWS is that hard work no longer is enough to be succesful.  I wrote in the comments

I think you are leaving an important portion out of the value proposition kids are hearing.  Its not just "work hard and get an education and you will do well."  The actual proposition they think they are buying into is "work hard and get an education and work at whatever pleases you and you will do well."

I am reminded of Michelle Obama's plea to graduating college students to not go work in for-profit businesses, but to work for government or NGO's.  The problem is that workers, particularly young workers, don't get to define what is productive labor and what is not.  You can't go out in the world expecting to work really really hard at puppeteering or for the cause of Mayan feminism and necessarily expect to get paid a lot.  In any job, how much you make is determined by how valuable others see that work.

Particularly when you are 22, the work the world needs done and is valuable may very well not be what you want to do.  As you get older and more skilled, you often gain more possibilities of monetizing your true interests.  I was never really able to work at what I wanted until I was about 40.   That does not mean you can't do whatever the hell floats your boat when you are 22.  It just means don't expect the world to pay you whatever you want or need for doing it.

OWS and Philip Rearden

I have been reading a lot of the data flying around of late about income inequality and mobility.  And it struck me that income mobility may be a large part of what is driving many OWS protesters.

Despite assumptions to the contrary on the Left, wealth is not a zero-sum game.  Steven Jobs got richer by making me better off.  But the one thing that is zero-sum is presence in the top 1%.  When someone joins the club, someone, by operation of basic math, drops out.

That does not mean that the other person who drops out is poorer, it just means that they are no longer as rich relative to their peers.  This same effect works int he top 10% and 20%, etc.

Looking at OWS protectors, they seem to be disproportionately children of the upper middle class or even of the rich.  They have expensive college educations, live in nice homes, and have gobs of stuff (OWS must be the most iPhoned event in history).  My guess is that they are of the upper two quintiles, or at least their parents were.

I am wondering if the problem is not income inequality but too much income mobility.  After all, a third of the top two quartiles in 2001 had dropped into the bottom three in 2007 (while an equal number moved up). Are these the angry proletariat, or are they children of the well-off who are upset their college degree in puppetteering did not automatically keep them up with the Joneses?   Are they, in other words, Philip Rearden?

 

Time for Some Individual Action in NY

Folks in the OWS neighborhood in NYC are fed up and want the city to kick out the protesters.  While they grow old waiting for that, I would suggest taking some individual action right out of the army psi-ops manual (actually, its also from a Sopranos episode).

  1. Find some big-ass speakers
  2. Find the biggest amp you can
  3. Place speakers in window, point out at park.
  4. Find the single most annoying recording you can, and play it at volume 11 .. over and over and over and over, day in and day out.  I might try "I'm turning Japanese" or maybe "I want a hippopotamus for Christmas."  Possibly the song they used to play over and over in FAO Schwartz stores, or "It's a small world."   Or maybe something like a Joel Osteen sermon.  It almost doesn't matter once its been repeated 12 times an hour for 3 days.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I am sympathetic to the OWS hatred for bailouts and crony capitalism, but struggle to understand how they intend to fix the consequences of the exercise of government power in the private world with yet more exercise of government power in the private world.

Apropos of very little, I found this bit from Matt Taibi funny (emphasis added)

1. Break up the monopolies. The so-called "Too Big to Fail" financial companies – now sometimes called by the more accurate term "Systemically Dangerous Institutions" – are a direct threat to national security. They are above the law and above market consequence, making them more dangerous and unaccountable than a thousand mafias combined. There are about 20 such firms in America, and they need to be dismantled

I am pretty sure that, by definition, a single industry cannot have 20 monopolies.

Though I share the same concern, my solution is to just let them fail.  Right now, the cost of capital for these large companies is lower than the cost of capital for smaller companies because, even though many of them have far worse balance sheets than smaller banks, investors feel they have too big to fail protection.  Let a few fail and have the cost of capital shoot up for larger companies and you can be pretty damn sure they market itself will break up these companies.

In some ways it reminds me of the market premium given in the 1960's to multi-industry conglomerates like ITT.  When the capital markets made their cost of capital low, everyone tried to copy their conglomerate strategies.  When these strategies started failing and companies like RJ Reynolds found their diversification into shipping and shower curtains was a business disaster, capital dried up for these Frankenstein monsters and most of them were broken up.  All without a hint of government intervention, either to save them or kill them.

Its telling that no one on the Left or with OWS who gives this advice for financial institutions takes their own advice with, say, auto companies.  GM should have failed and likely been broken up as well.

Google and Government

This is a pretty interesting interview with Eric Schmidt of Google.  I am running out the door and don't have time to excerpt it, but in short, Schmidt is quite critical of the ability of government to intelligently regulate technology.

His solution is telling.  There is nothing here about reducing the power and scope of government, despite his clear and concise description of its consistent structural failures.  His solution:  more power for my guys.  That way, when Washington plays its game of sacrificing the less connected in favor of the well connected, we will do OK.

I am working on this concept for my next Forbes column vis a vis the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The OWS folks seem incoherent to us, because, in short, they complain about people having unfair power over them and then their solution is ... to give other people more power.   I have reconciled this in my mind with a cold war analogy.  Everyone accepts the arms race as a fact, and so the only way to survive is to have more nukes than the other guy.  The only way to deal with power, is to get more power for my side.

Frankly, its time for disarmament.  As a retailer, I get irritated with credit card processors, but I understood when Congress was considering regulation of interchange fees that giving the Feds the power to set credit card terms, rather than the banks, was not going to make things any easier, just shift the costs from more to less favored constituencies (and consumers are always the least favored constituency).

More later as I sort this out in my head.