Free Markets, Free People

Michael Wade

The “Deregulation” Bogeyman

As Dale has mentioned before, ginning up support for massive federal expenditures and deepening deficits was much easier for FDR because he had Nazis. Obama does not have any such luxury, so he has to invent an equivalent enemy. Luckily for him, decades of propaganda have cemented the idea into many heads that capitalism=rightwing=nazi, leading to the inexorable conclusion that anyone or thing whose primary purpose is to make profit is dangerous and must be controlled.

Dovetailing nicely with that need is the meme that deregulation is to blame for the current financial mess. Although it’s a fairly ridiculous claim (as I’ve pointed out before), that won’t stop “studies” like this from being published and reported on:

$5 BILLION IN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS BOUGHT WALL STREET FREEDOM FROM REGULATION, RESTRAINT, REPORT FINDS

Steps to Financial Cataclysm Paved with Industry Dollars

March 4 – The financial sector invested more than $5 billion in political influence purchasing in Washington over the past decade, with as many as 3,000 lobbyists winning deregulation and other policy decisions that led directly to the current financial collapse, according to a 231-page report issued today by Essential Information and the Consumer Education Foundation.

The report, “Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America,” shows that, from 1998-2008, Wall Street investment firms, commercial banks, hedge funds, real estate companies and insurance conglomerates made $1.725 billion in political contributions and spent another $3.4 billion on lobbyists, a financial juggernaut aimed at undercutting federal regulation. Nearly 3,000 officially registered federal lobbyists worked for the industry in 2007 alone. The report documents a dozen distinct deregulatory moves that, together, led to the financial meltdown. These include prohibitions on regulating financial derivatives; the repeal of regulatory barriers between commercial banks and investment banks; a voluntary regulation scheme for big investment banks; and federal refusal to act to stop predatory subprime lending.

The quote above comes directly from the report’s financial backers, Essential Information and the Consumer Education Foundation. The former is a non-profit that was created by Harvey Rosenfield, a lawyer who also controls the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, formerly known as the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. The latter is an entity created by Ralph Nader. None of that information is found either in the press release, or in the news stories reporting on (i.e. quoting) the release.

The Hill reports:

The organizations are a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy groups which push for stronger consumer protection laws and to curb “excessive corporate power.”

The report alleges that excessive deregulation of the financial sector combined with undue influence from the billions spent in lobbying and political contributions resulted in the current financial crisis.

And CBS’ Political Hotsheet finds:

The two men behind the report are California lawyer Harvey Rosenfield of the nonprofit Consumer Education Foundation and Robert Weissman of Essential Information, a Washington nonprofit “that seeks to curb excessive corporate power.”

The report argues that the lobbying and contributions kept financial derivatives from being regulated, led to the repeal of regulatory barriers between commercial banks and investment banks and kept the government from stepping into halt predatory subprime lending.

The remainder of the reporting is merely quoting and paraphrasing the press release. Absolutely zero analysis of the actual report is offered. Why would they report anything else? Well, just looking at the press release provides one clue:

Financial deregulation led directly to the current economic meltdown. For the last three decades, government regulators, Congress and the executive branch, on a bipartisan basis, steadily eroded the regulatory system that restrained the financial sector from acting on its own worst tendencies. “Sold Out” details a dozen key steps to financial meltdown, revealing how industry pressure led to these deregulatory moves and their consequences:

1. 1. In 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited the merger of commercial banking and investment banking.
2. Regulatory rules permitted off-balance sheet accounting — tricks that enabled banks to hide their liabilities.
3. The Clinton administration blocked the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating financial derivatives — which became the basis for massive speculation.
4. Congress in 2000 prohibited regulation of financial derivatives when it passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.
5. The Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004 adopted a voluntary regulation scheme for investment banks that enabled them to incur much higher levels of debt.
6. Rules adopted by global regulators at the behest of the financial industry would enable commercial banks to determine their own capital reserve requirements, based on their internal “risk-assessment models.”
7. Federal regulators refused to block widespread predatory lending practices earlier in this decade, failing to either issue appropriate regulations or even enforce existing ones.
8. Federal bank regulators claimed the power to supersede state consumer protection laws that could have diminished predatory lending and other abusive practices.
9. Federal rules prevent victims of abusive loans from suing firms that bought their loans from the banks that issued the original loan.
10. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac expanded beyond their traditional scope of business and entered the subprime market, ultimately costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
11. The abandonment of antitrust and related regulatory principles enabled the creation of too-big-to-fail megabanks, which engaged in much riskier practices than smaller banks.
12. Beset by conflicts of interest, private credit rating companies incorrectly assessed the quality of mortgage-backed securities; a 2006 law handcuffed the SEC from properly regulating the firms.

The damning list offers only one instance of actual deregulation (the Glass-Steagall Act), at least seven instances of regulation that the authors simply disagree with (nos. 2-5, and 8-10), one claim each of “global regulators” and ratings agencies failing to do their respective duties (nos. 6 and 12), and two allegations that federal regulators didn’t pursue their jobs aggressively enough (7 and 11). So, despite the bold claim that “Financial deregulation led directly to the current economic meltdown,” the authors produce almost no evidence to support their conclusion.

It seems like that may have been a little more newsworthy than simply regurgitating the press release.

Then there is the fact that a Ralph Nader organization is partly responsible for the funding. Not only has the man run for president four times, one of those times perhaps leading to the election of George W. Bush, he’s notorious for his left-wing politics, including having a serious distaste for corporate America and capitalism.

Could be relevant, no?

But the real failure of journalism here was to take anything that Harvey Rosenfield has to say at face value.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) [owned by Essential Information creator, Harvey Rosenfield] has decided to re-brand itself as “Consumer Watchdog.” Will a simple name change help shore-up the eroding reputation of this “consumer group?”

Few days pass without someone from FTCR pontificating in a newspaper story or TV report. Agents of this organization often are quoted — without explanation of their credentials — about auto, fire or health insurance, gasoline pricing, stem-cell research, or just about any public policy debate on the FTCR’s mind.

[...]

Behind the pithy quotes from FTCR’s leaders lies an organization with too much to hide and too many faults to be taken seriously anymore. It has survived by quietly pocketing millions of dollars in fees stemming from an initiative it wrote and sponsored nearly two decades ago. Along the way, it has engaged in hypocritical and speculative stock trading, enjoyed the secret patronage of wealthy trial donors, and either cozied up to or bullied politicians. All of this came despite operating under IRS rules as a “public-benefit” charity.

[...]

Of course, the public has no idea what is really motivating FTCR because its agents refuse to disclose their financial backers. Their reasons for hiding the facts are insulting to the average Californian’s intelligence.

FTCR declined to release a list of donors on its website by ludicrously equating their work to the civil rights movement in the South. It’s refusal to list details about its financial backers is particularly galling since FTCR spends a lot of time lambasting politicians for alleged corruption surrounding their own political donations.

One source of income is clear, thanks to some available public disclosure forms. Following the disastrous 1994 Northridge earthquake, founder Rosenfield extracted $5 million in a consumer-protection settlement with Allstate Insurance. The money was placed in a new group he controls, the Consumer Education Foundation, which was supposed to prevent the kinds of insurance disasters that followed the Northridge quake.

But nearly a decade after the group was formed, its biggest accomplishment appears to be paying Rosenfield a $100,000 salary and writing a few grant checks … including to Rosenfield’s own FTCR, to fund its operations. One wonders what the judge in the Allstate settlement would think about this cozy relationship, let alone why Northridge consumers have yet to see much benefit from the $5 million that was paid out supposedly for the public good.

It gets even more absurd.

Rosenfield’s Consumer Education Foundation invested some of its Northridge windfall in Enron stock — the Texas company that bilked California consumers out of billions of dollars. This laughable investment, which the CEF was forced to reveal in disclosure statements, is almost too incredible to believe. The “consumer” foundation put its money in one of the biggest consumer ripoff companies in U.S. history.

Enron wasn’t the only hypocritical stock purchase made by the Rosenfield’s Consumer Education Foundation. The group purchased stock in Abbott Labs, Amgen, Merck, Pfizer, Idec Pharmaceuticals, Johnson and Johnson, and Proctor and Gamble. Meanwhile, FTCR would soon get busy lambasting politicians for accepting campaign donations from these same companies. And while FTCR has lashed out at automobile and chemical companies, the “consumer” foundation has invested in Clorox, DuPont, General Motors, Ford Motors, and Toyota Motor Credit.

There’s more on Rosenfield’s endeavors here (scroll through the comments to the ftcrfollies.org stuff), but the original site is now defunct, so caution is warranted.

In any case, it seems that Rosenfield’s alleged background as an agent provocateur should raise enough red flags to warrant at least a mention that perhaps the report he’s funded (written?) should be taken with a grain of salt. Instead, we get news stories that basically repeat exactly little more than the juiciest allegations from the press release, absolutely zero analysis of the actual report (or the press release for that matter), and nothing more than the bare bones information regarding the provenance of the report.

With apologies to Mike Judge, “What would you say ya do here, MSM?”

Tax the Rich and What Do You Get?

Another day older and deeper in debt. Of course, that’s because you plan to spend $3.6 Trillion on budget over the next year.

WASHINGTON – President Obama laid out his first budget plan, a bold $3.6 trillion proposal that would transfer wealth from rich taxpayers to the middle class and the poor, and predicts a stunning federal deficit of $1.75 trillion this year – nearly four times last year’s record.

Obama blamed the expected federal deficit explosion on a “deep and destructive” recession and recent efforts to battle it, including the Wall Street bailout and the $787 billion stimulus plan.

[...]

Among the budget proposals, the plan would:

extend a $400 tax credit for most workers while letting expire former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for couples making more than $250,000 a year. The budget contains almost $1 trillion in tax hikes over 10 years on individuals making more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000;

close tax loopholes for the wealthy to raise $318 billion toward a down payment on Obama’s universal health care plan;

clamp down on the Pentagon budget, which would get a 4 percent boost next year, but would then get increases of 2 percent or less over the next several years;

make permanent the expanded $2,500 tax credit for college expenses;

spend more than $6 billion on cancer research at the National Institutes of Health next year, a 15 percent hike;

spend $3.9 billion to improve the nation’s sewage treatment plants and drinking water systems; and

raise $15 billion a year, beginning in 2012, from auctioning off carbon pollution permits to help develop clean-energy and renewable-energy technologies. The administration “will work expeditiously” to get Congress to approve an 83 percent reduction in global warming emissions by mid-century. There’s also more money at NASA for space-based monitoring of greenhouse gases.

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After reviewing some of the comments from those intended to be taxed, as well as some of the criticisms of those taxpayers’ intelligence [as an aside, I think the liberals denouncing both the story and the interviewees are playing a little fast and loose with the assumptions, since the taxpayers displayed no misunderstanding of marginal rates, and voiced concerns solely based on principles], I got to thinking about how much money will this proposed tax hike really raise. This seems important, not only because of the size of proposed budget, but also since a common refrain from those in favor of letting the top rate snap back to 39.6% (from the current 35%) is that it will only cost those taxpayers 5 cents on the marginal dollar, which is very little to worry about much less enough to change behavior, or so the argument goes.

Before looking at the actual numbers, let’s get something straight first. While it is accurate to say that raising the top rate only costs these taxpayers a nickel per extra dollar earned, that is not all that is being proposed. These taxpayers will also be losing deductions and credits that they would otherwise have, as well as paying extra taxes on anything subject to cap-and-trade taxes, should that lovely piece of legislation be passed. Moreover, if you truly believe Obama when he says that those with incomes less than $250,000 per year will receive a tax cut, then it seems ludicrous to pretend that at least some, if not virtually all, of those taxpayers near the margin will change their working behavior so as to be in the benefit group rather than the extra-taxed one.

Nevertheless, for purposes of calculating the expected tax revenues generated under this plan, I’m going to assume that nobody changes their behavior in the slightest (i.e. everyone earns as much taxable income as possible), and that the number of taxpayers and the amount of taxes paid largely mirrors the 2006 numbers (which is the most recent data available).

According to IRS figures [xls], about 50% of all taxable income came from the $200,000 and above earners in 2006. By my calculations that came to $2.056 Trillion dollars in taxable income from 3,847,241 taxpayers (about 9% of all returns). This cohort paid approximately $522 Billion in taxes, or about 62.4% of the total $837 Billion in tax receipts. These are the people upon whom the new burden will be placed according to President Obama.

In order to figure out how much taxable income is above $200K (there is no breakout for $250K and above), I took all of the taxpayers in the $200K to infinity range (3,847,241) and multiplied it by 200,000 (= 769,448,200,000).

I then subtracted that number from the (rounded) total of taxable income for the same range (@ $2.056 Trillion), and got $1,286,551,800,000. If I thought about it correctly, then that should be the amount of taxable income above $200K.

I then took my above-$200K number and multiplied it by 5 cents, figuring that the increase in marginal rate of 4.6% would lead to about a nickel per taxable dollar earned in new revenues, if everything were to remain static.

From all of that I figured that approximately $64.3 Billion in new taxes would be raised by the new tax hike … to cover a $3.6 Trillion budget.

I sent my calculations to Dale, who became so engrossed in the matter that he put together an entire spreadsheet figuring the numbers in not one, not two, not three, but in six different ways. I realized later that asking Dale to check out my math was rather like standing on one foot and excitedly calling attention to my “skill” while in the midst of an acrobat convention.

Anyhoo …

After Dale played with the numbers [xls] for awhile, he arrived generally at the conclusion that the absolute most that could be raised was in the neighborhood of $85 Billion, and at worst around $55 Billion. On average, Dale calculated that approximately $65 Billion was the likely amount of new tax revenue that could be expected if all payers in the 2006 cohort behave exactly as they did then. Sticking with the metaphor, “Yes, Michael, that’s a decent one-legged stand you have there.”

In short, a complete klutz has a better chance of joining the Flying Wallendas than the bottom 95% of taxpayers do of getting a tax cut. Instead, they will all see a significant tax hike, whether in their marginal rates, in excise taxes, corporate taxes, fuel taxes, or other forms of indirect taxation. And as those taxes begin to mount up, and the national debt does it’s best imitation of the Challenger, people will work and produce less and less, and tax revenues will dry up.

That is the plan for our recovery. Read it and weep.

Successful NYC Trip …

I just barely beat the global warming home. Otherwise, I had a great trip up to New York City. Here’s some of the highlights:

The Empire State building as seen from the roof of my sister's apartment building.

The Empire State building as seen from the roof of my sister's apartment building.

Looking across the East River into Queens

Looking across the East River into Queens

I made it a point to go take pictures in Central Park. These are from the Bethesda Terrace which is Mid-Park around 72nd Street.

Angel of the Waters at Bethesda Terrace, Central Park

Angel of the Waters at Bethesda Terrace, Central Park


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Transparency Redefined

Perhaps you’ve heard about Joe Biden’s latest gaffe regarding his task of overseeing the Recovery Act:

How can the public know that the money is allocated correctly? That’s the question CBS’s Maggie Rodriguez asked.

“We’re going to put every bit of this transparently up on a website. You’re gonna know. You’ll be able to go on a website. Every single bit of this will be on a website,” he explained.

What website?

“You know, I’m embarrassed. Do you know the website number?” he asked looking offstage. “I should have it in front of me and I don’t. I’m actually embarrassed.”

He was able to get the website “number” from someone off camera.

“Recovery.gov. It’s Recovery.gov. It’s up and running,” he said with newfound confidence.

If that doesn’t inspire confidence, then maybe you should just go visit the “number” VP Joe suggested. Before you do, however, keep in mind that, from far to wide and low to high, the Obama administration has been touting not just the need for transparency,

Orzag said the two goals are to spend stimulus money “quickly” and “wisely,” adding, “We have to go beyond normal procedures to a higher level of transparency.”

But also on the determination and ability of the administration to deliver it:

“I [Pres. Obama] am also proud to announce the appointment of Earl Devaney as Chair of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board. For nearly a decade as Inspector General at the Interior Department, Earl has doggedly pursued waste, fraud and mismanagement, and Joe and I can’t think of a more tenacious and efficient guardian of the hard-earned tax dollars the American people have entrusted us to wisely invest.”

Apparently, the whole point of Recovery.gov is to show where your tax dollars are going, and what they are being spent on. So let’s have a gander.

On the front page, my eyes were immediately drawn to the large graph dominating the left side of the page:

Recovery.gov breakdown of what the $787 Billion is going to

Recovery.gov breakdown of what the $787 Billion is going to

Wow! According to that chart, the largest expenditure by far ($288 Billion) is going to tax relief. Heck it’s twice as much as the next category of State and Local Fiscal Relief which is only get a paltry $144 Billion. That’s fantastic news. I feel so bad now for thinking that the bill was nothing more than a huge wealth transfer and goodies giveaway. Tax relief is always a good idea when it comes to pulling ourselves out of a recession.

But wait? What’s that asterisk? I click on the chart and am taken to a lovely bubble graph that displays the same information. But with more bubbles, which are always nice. And bubble are transparent too, right?

Recovery money.  Now in bubble form!

Recovery money. Now in bubble form!

Yep. There it is again, that $288 Billion in tax relief, dwarfing all the puny spending bubbles. Of course, being an intelligent person, I know that you have to add all of the spending bubbles together to see how they compare to the tax relief, but it’s strangely comforting to see that giant, transparent bubble named Tax Relief making all the other bubbles seem, somehow, insignificant.

Unfortunately, that asterisk is still there as well. I follow it down to the bottom of the page where, in tiny print, I see these words:

* Tax Relief – includes $15 B for Infrastructure and Science, $61 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $25 B for Education and Training and $22 B for Energy, so total funds are $126 B for Infrastructure and Science, $142 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $78 B for Education and Training, and $65 B for Energy.

I think my bubble has burst. But that’s how government works now I guess: making bubbles bigger than they ought to be.

On Deck: Universal Health Care (Updated)

According to Ezra Klein, the Obama administration intends to finagle universal health care coverage out of its budget proposal, including an individual mandate:

I’ve now been able to confirm with multiple senior administration sources that the health care proposal in Obama’s budget will have a mandate. Sort of.

Here’s how it will work, according to the officials I’ve spoken to. The budget’s health care section is not a detailed plan. Rather, it offers financing — though not all — and principles meant to guide the plan that Congress will author. The details will be decided by Congress in consultation with the administration.

One of those details is “universal” health care coverage.

Some of you may recall that Obama, while in campaign mode, consistently denied that he wanted to introduce mandates as part of his health care package. Paul Krugman cited that opposition as the major difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton:

Let’s talk about how the plans compare.

Both plans require that private insurers offer policies to everyone, regardless of medical history. Both also allow people to buy into government-offered insurance instead.

And both plans seek to make insurance affordable to lower-income Americans. The Clinton plan is, however, more explicit about affordability, promising to limit insurance costs as a percentage of family income. And it also seems to include more funds for subsidies.

But the big difference is mandates: the Clinton plan requires that everyone have insurance; the Obama plan doesn’t.

Mr. Obama claims that people will buy insurance if it becomes affordable. Unfortunately, the evidence says otherwise.

Now that he’s been elected it’s presto hope’n change-o, and voila! Mandates!

Ezra Klein notes that the difference between the pre- and post-election plans is based on one word in the budget — “universal”:

That word is important: The Obama campaign’s health care plan was not a universal health care plan. It was close to it. It subsidized coverage for millions of Americans and strengthened the employer-based system. The goal, as Obama described it, was to make coverage “affordable” and “available” to all Americans.

But it did not make coverage universal. Affordability can be achieved through subsidies. But without a mandate for individuals to purchase coverage or for the government to give it to them, there was no mechanism for universal coverage. It could get close, but estimates were that around 15 million Americans would remain uninsured. As Jon Cohn wrote at the time, “without a mandate, a substantial portion of Americans [will] remain uninsured.”

In essence, unless everyone is forced to buy insurance, there is no “universality,” and the benefits of large participation in the insurance pool cannot be realized. An even shorter version is, if healthier people opt out, then sicker people can’t sponge off them.

The budget — and I was cautioned that the wording “is changing hourly” — will direct Congress to “aim for universality.” That is a bolder goal than simple affordability, which can be achieved, at least in theory, through subsidies. Universality means everyone has coverage, not just the ability to access it. And that requires a mechanism to ensure that they seek it.

Administration officials have been very clear on what the inclusion of “universality” is meant to communicate to Congress. As one senior member of the health team said to me, “[The plan] will cover everybody. And I don’t see how you cover everybody without an individual mandate.” That language almost precisely echoes what Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said in an interview last summer. “I don’t see how you can get meaningful universal coverage without a mandate,” he told me. Last fall, he included an individual mandate in the first draft of his health care plan.

The administration’s strategy brings them into alignment with senators like Max Baucus. Though they’re not proposing an individual mandate in the budget, they are asking Congress to fulfill an objective that they expect will result in Congress proposing an individual mandate. And despite the controversy over the individual mandate in the campaign, they will support it. That, after all, is how you cover everybody.

So it looks like you better start scarfing down those cheeseburgers, eating transfats, smoking cigarettes, or whatever it is you do that’s not considered healthy, because once the federal government pays for health care (which is what individual mandates essentially works out to), then it also has the power to determine what “healthy” means. After all, since everyone will be pulling from the same health care pot, and since each claim on that pot diminishes what someone else can get, then each claim must be a legitimate one as weighed against all the competing interests. Because the viability of the system depends on healthy people making much fewer claims than sick people against the collective health care resources, the government now has a vested interest in making people healthier, whether they like it or not.

Another way to put it is that we will have entered a Pareto optimal world where no one can change their position for the better (i.e. receive more of the pooled benefits) without hurting someone else. Whereas in a competitive market system, each person can get at least as much health care as he or she wants to buy and can afford, in a Pareto optimal world, we are competing for the same scarce resources (health care dollars), and our claims are granted based on a a third party’s (the government’) determination of worthiness. No longer can we get what we can afford, we get a predetermined portion of what the government decides to pay for. That, of course, is why there are 6+ month waiting lists for routine health care in places like Canada and the UK.

Possibly the most depressing result of yoking America with universal health care, is that we can pretty much kiss medical and pharmaceutical innovation good bye.

Government run health centralizes the risks of exploring new technologies, medicines, techniques, etc. Centralized risk translates into (i) observing a very cautious approach to advances, and (ii) the politicization of research … From a purely capitalist point of view, opportunites that might have been pursued otherwise, are foregone since those who accept the risks of pursuing them do not get to maximize their reward, so instead those advances must come from the government. With government as the sole innovator, there are now two types of risk (1) the risk of failure (i.e. spending gobs of money on something that does not deliver as promised, or that costs significantly more than the benefit), and (2) the political risks (i.e. what politicians face for advocating spending on projects that either fail or that don’t disproportionately benefit favored voters). The result is that risk is increased overall, and fewer innovations are realized.

America is pretty much the last industrialized nation to still have a (semi) private health care system, which should be understood to include the pharmaceutical industry (as a supplier of that health care system). What would happen to the growth and advances we’ve realized over the past few decades if (when?) we adopt universal health care? Where will the innovation come from? Who will take the risks? Without the proper incentives, and indeed with some of the worst possible incentives as the only driving force to creation, I fear that the scientific and medical Atlas will shrug.

I don’t mean to say that there will be no breakthroughs ever again, but the pace will be slowed dramatically. That’s because, one the government is in charge of paying for health care, it will also be in charge of paying for medicines. As we’ve already seen around the world, drug companies will be forced to sell their wares for much less than the (legal) monopoly prices they charge now. The result, therefore, will be much less risky and expensive research into new drugs that may never come to market, and much more emphasis on improving old drugs so as to continue to pay for further research.

Surely the federal government will pony up money for research into some diseases. But then the government will be in charge of picking winners and losers when it comes to whose diseases will get cures and whose won’t. To imagine what this would look like, just think back to how AIDS and breast cancer research dollars were successfully lobbied for, despite neither affecting anywhere near as many people as other deadly diseases.

In the end we will be left with less individual freedom, worse health care, and fewer prospects for any improvement in either. That is not the change I was hoping for.

UPDATE: Tom Maguire helpfully reminds us of how the health care debate progressed during the Democratic primary season:

For folks whose memories have blessedly erased any recollection of the endless Democratic candidates debates, let me toss in a brief reminder. Obama claimed that he would offer health insurance subsidies so generous that most folks would volunteer to sign up. Hillary mocked that, insisting that the young and healthy would decline to subsidize the rest of us, especially since they could not subsequently be denied coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions; her plan included a mandate obliging everyone to buy health insurance, like it or not (as in Massachusetts). Hillary then diligently ducked the “or else” question of what penalties she would inflict on the young, helathy and recalcitrant who would prefer to hold off on buying insurance until they were sick. As a nostalgia piece here is a link to a lefty wondering why his party was so committed to forcing young, healthy members of the working class to subsidize the rest of us on health care; that seems like a good question but I am long resigned to not being smart enough to be a lefty.

Aww, Tom. You’re plenty smart enough. Just not angry, bitter or jealous enough.

As for the “or else” question, Obama and the Congress won’t be able to duck that one. I can only imagine what sort of sword they intend to dangle of recalcitrant ,comrades citizens who refuse to sign up for the program.

D.C. Voting Rights Bill — Still Unconstitutional (Updated)

I‘ve written about this issue before, and said all I think there is to say about it. The fact is that any bill coming out of Congress granting voting rights to D.C. sua sponte is plainly unconstitutional. What’s more, Congress is already well aware of this fact. The Congressional Research Service, the legislative analysis advisors to Congress, deduced the following about H.R. 328 (the most recent precursor to current D.C. voting rights bill):

… it is difficult to identify either constitutional text or existing case law that would directly support the allocation by statute of the power to vote in the full House to the District of Columbia Delegate. Further, that case law that does exist would seem to indicate that not only is the District of Columbia not a “state” for purposes of representation, but that congressional power over the District of Columbia does not represent a sufficient power to grant congressional representation.

In particular, at least six of the Justices who participated in what appears to be the most relevant Supreme Court case on this issue, National Mutual Insurance Co. of the District of Columbia v. Tidewater Transfer Co., authored opinions rejecting the proposition that Congress’s power under the District Clause was sufficient to effectuate structural changes to the federal government. Further, the remaining three judges, who found that the Congress could grant diversity jurisdiction to District of Columbia citizens despite the lack of such jurisdiction in Article III, specifically limited their opinion to instances where the legislation in question did not involve the extension of fundamental rights. To the extent that the representation in Congress would be seen as such a right, all nine Justices in Tidewater Transfer Co. would arguably have found the instant proposal to be unconstitutional.

Can Congress vote itself more members?

Can Congress vote itself more members?


During hearings before Congress on the constitutionality of the D.C voting rights bill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John P. Elwood provided an excellent breakdown of how legal authorities had consistently found that the only way to grant D.C. citizens the right to congressional representation was through a constitutional amendment or by admitting D.C. as a state. Simply passing a law would not suffice.

Despite all the analysis presented, however, Congress continues to press forward with an unconstitutional bill:

Debate opened Monday on a bill to give the 600,000 people of Washington D.C. a full vote in the House. A new Democratic president, Barack Obama, and heftier Democratic majorities in Congress have improved the prospects for the decades-long effort that would certainly ensure another Democrat lawmaker in Congress.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 4-to-1 in the capital.

In a bit of horsetrading to offset the Democratic pickup, the bill would award a fourth House seat to Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed getting that extra seat after the 2000 national census. With the two new seats, the House would have 437 representatives.

The time is ripe, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, to end a situation where “we are the only capital of a democracy on the planet that denies voting representation in the national legislature.”

The time is ripe because Democrats have a huge majority in both houses of Congress, and control of the White House. The fact that D.C. votes reliably, and overwhelmingly, for Democrats is the real reason for the bill’s support amongst that party, and one of the main reasons for many Republicans being against it. To overcome the opposition, therefore, Democrats have thrown a sop to Utah in the way of an extra representative, which would also appear to be unconstitutional without a census. Either way, the fact that the bill is plainly contrary to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution seems to be merely a convenient excuse for some Republicans and a minor inconvenience to some Democrats.

Jonathan Turley has consistently echoed the above, and eloquently explains why Congress should not pass this law, and why the President should not sign it:

Like many, I believe that it is a terrible injustice for the District residents not to have a vote in Congress. As Justice Black stated in Wesberry v. Sanders: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.” However, the great wrong done to the District residents cannot be righted through the violation of the Constitution itself.

This is not a debate about the ends of legislative action but the means. In a nation committed to the rule of law it is often as important how we do something as what we do. This is the wrong means to a worthy end.

[...]

[Our Constitution] is the world’s most successful constitutional framework because it is carefully balanced with limited powers between the three branches. It is a design that can be frustrating at times when injustices demand quick action. Yet, the very stability and integrity of our system demands that we remain faithful to its provisions, even when our principles stand in the way of our passions.

Just as there is no debate over the need for a vote for the District, there is no debate that such a vote can be obtained by other means. Indeed, there is no longer any claim to be made that the District (or the Democratic Party) lacks the votes needed to take a constitutional course. The political realities and expediencies that gave raise to this idea no longer exist. With control of both houses and the White House, the sponsors can secure a lasting and unassailable vote in the House of Representatives through either retrocession or a constitutional amendment. Indeed, some republicans have expressed their support for a constitutional amendment that would allow a voting House member for the District.

Like Turley, I am in favor of D.C. residents having a vote in both the House and the Senate. And also like him, I am fervently opposed to any extra-constitutional means of accomplishing that goal. Instead, let’s draft an amendment, or begin the process of retroceding D.C. back to Maryland. Let the Maryland officials be accused of wanting to oppress D.C.’s denizens for a while, instead of those of us who simply want to uphold the Constitution.

We know how to make it happen, and yet Congress insists on doing it the wrong way. Much of it, of course, is sheer laziness and want of expediency. But that is no excuse for elected officials to blatantly disregard their roles as stewards of the contract between the people and their government, and the very source of those officials’ power. Minor as some of these indiscretions may be, when Congress takes it upon itself to decide which parts of the Constitution are worth following and which are not, then we become a rudderless ship of fools.

However it’s done, I heartily agree that we start the process of welcoming our D.C. brothers and sisters to the circus known as Congress. In order to make that welcome worth something, however, I recommend that we go about it in the way that passes constitutional muster.

UPDATE: As it turns out, a bill has been introduced by Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX, 1st Dist.) to retrocede D.C. back to Maryland. Funny how this bill hasn’t received any news attention.

NYT Asks: “Why Can’t Cerberus Foot the Bill?”

Welcome to the club. I’ve been asking that question for some time now. Better late than never, I suppose:

Chrysler said the only reason it was back asking for more money so soon was that the car market was worse than it had expected two months ago.

This cavalier approach to the public purse raises a very big question. If Chrysler is really on track for a turnaround and all it needs is some financing to get over a bad patch in sales and debt markets, why doesn’t Cerberus Capital Management, which owns 80 percent of the company, put up the money itself? Why should taxpayers have to take the risk? That’s what private equity funds like Cerberus are supposed to do.

Cerberus and Daimler, which retained a stake in Chrysler, have promised to convert $2 billion in loans to Chrysler into equity, which should help reduce its debt. But Cerberus said giving fresh money would violate its fiduciary duty to investors, breaking company rules limiting how much it can commit to any given investment.

We suspect these rules would be more pliant if Cerberus deemed Chrysler to be a good deal.

It seems the secretive private-equity fund is willing to gamble on Chrysler’s survival with the taxpayer’s dime, but not its own.

The real question is, if it is violative of Cerberus management’s fiduciary duty to bail out its own company, why is it fiscally responsible for the federal government to do so?

And what does it say when the leader of liberal opinion has more qualms about a bailout than the federal government? Nothing good I would think.

What’s Just Like Death?

Taxes, as the saying goes, in that both are certain to come to us all. The corollary is that once government spending outpaces tax receipts by a significant enough amount, then taxes will inevitably rise. Or, at least, that should be the corollary.

We’ve already heard about calls for raising the top income rate to 90%. Now Marc Pascal, writing at The Moderate Voice, lays out a more comprehensive plan:

The first of several stimulus packages has just passed but it is just the beginning of our efforts to address our immediate and long-term economic problems.

After 2010, the federal operating budget will face trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. They have to be addressed for the long-term prosperity of our country and our future credit-worthiness in the world.

Eventually every American has to dig in and pay more taxes to help our country and our fellow citizens. We must put in place the laws and mechanisms to steadily increase taxes after 2010. We have to owe up to our massive public and private financial messes. Cutting federal earmarks and waste will not eliminate even half the annual deficits. The federal budget gap will require increasing taxes by over $500 billion by 2011. Fiscally irresponsible and spoiled children hate to hear this news but it’s our only choice for our collective long-term prosperity.

It is true that people don’t want to hear this, and I don’t think that is limited to “fiscally irresponsible and spoiled children.” Indeed, the inevitable raising of taxes was one of the arguments against the stimulus package, so I’m not sure to whom Pascal is referring.

A number of prominent publicly-minded millionaires and billionaires including Warren Buffet have recommended higher income taxes on themselves and their friends for several years. Certainly Mr. Buffet has been right more than most politicians and it’s time to effectuate his recommendations. Their altruistic economic view may simply be a rational response for their long-term preservation and that of the nation as a whole.

Actually, their view is not altruistic at all. The very rich, with the financial means to hire the very best in tax advice, are quite skilled at arranging their affairs so as to minimize their tax burden. When Warren Buffet clamors for raising taxes on the rich, you can be sure that he does not intend to pay as much as he possibly can to the federal government. However, those in the middle income brackets surely will. Buffet and brethren simply hope that those taxpayers will somehow be mollified by the fantasy that “the rich are paying their share too.”

On to the plan:

The Bush tax cuts should expire by their own terms by 2010 and marginal income taxes will return to the rate of 39% for incomes over $250,000. Additionally, and instead of capping executive pay, we should create a new marginal tax rate of 49% for earning over $1 million.

That is actually a somewhat more reasonable plan than some that have be floated, but still a pipe dream in terms of raising tax revenues to cover the trillions in spending contemplated (and as yet revealed) over the next four years. Even if the rich were to pay every possible penny of their income above $1 Million in taxes at that rate, how long to do you suppose they would do it for? If you had a choice of living quite comfortably and making around a million dollars, knowing that you’d keep something close to 70% – 75% of the money, would you really continue working hard enough to earn more than that if you knew you would only receive 50 cents on the dollar?

If there are any short-term tax cuts, they should be combined with long-term tax increases. The 2009 FICA payroll tax for social security is a 6.2% tax rate on every dollar earned up to a gross annual income of $106,800. For more than a decade, everyone has agreed that to save social security (without increasing the retirement age, the tax rate, or lowering the average monthly benefits of just under $1,000 per person) the best solution is to raise the taxable income limit so the wealthy contribute more to the entire system. We could provide both a short-term economic stimulus to the majority of Americans and save social security for the long term.

Let’s lower the FICA social security tax rate for rest of 2009 and all of 2010 to 5.5% but raise the income limit to $250,000. In 2011, let’s raise it to 5.75% and set the income limit to $500,000. By 2012, the rate would be 6% and the taxable income unlimited. This would simply parallel the 1.45% FICA tax for Medicare and Medicaid imposed on all earned income. Its rate will probably have to be raised to 2% after 2010 to pay for existing programs and any expansions of benefits.

Again, not an entirely unreasonable plan considering the alternatives. But what’s never mentioned when someone suggests raising the income level for FICA is that, while more tax revenue would be raised, federal liabilities would also be increased. That’s because the government is simply taking more money now and promising to pay more benefits upon retirement. That does nothing to reduce the burden of current spending, which was supposed to be the point of the tax increases.

As near as I can tell, this part of the plan would have the effect of hastening the looming entitlements crisis in exchange for perhaps pushing the current one off down the road a bit. The end result looks more like a perfect budgetary storm as the bills we’re racking up today and the entitlements we’ve promised in the future, begin to overlap.

Across the political spectrum, most people agree that our various transportation, water/sewer, and electrical grid infrastructures have been long neglected. Infrastructure spending is the best use of government stimulus money because more jobs are created both quickly and over the long term. Just to modernize our existing infrastructures systems will cost at least 2 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. Furthermore, we must also invest in new energy technologies, mass transit and high speed rail lines – all of which will cost billions more. We can’t put off such spending and we have to be honest about paying for them over the foreseeable future without resorting to further borrowing.

This is a part of the supposedly Keynesian argument that government spending provides a greater multiplier than private spending. Of course, as Bruce has pointed out before, if that were the case then why have private spending at all?

Furthermore, I really don’t understand how government spending on infrastructure and energy technologies creates jobs.

In the infrastructure realm, once a government project is done, then the job disappears. If the job is done quickly, efficiently and completed on time then it’s not government work the job just disappears that much more quickly. And after that? How does a brand new bridge create a job after it’s built? Even worse, what happens if the project turns out like the Big Dig in Boston (which seems to be much more likely)? Sure people will have jobs for longer, but the supposed benefit of the structure will shoved further into the future and the taxpayers will be on the hook for a lot more than they signed on for. How does that sort of project stimulate the economy?

With respect to new energy technologies, I’m all for it. But with the government choosing which technologies to fund, how do we know we’re getting the best there is to offer? That’s not typically the case where government picks winners and losers. And just because something is “green” does not mean that it is efficient, beneficial to the economy, and/or capable of saving anyone money in the short (or long) term. In fact, it probably means the opposite of one or all of those things. Instead, why doesn’t government get out of the way and allow nuclear power plants to be built, thus saving taxpayers billions of research dollars. That’s technology that we already have, and it’s green. Otherwise, these sorts of proposals are little more than a massive wealth transfer from one group of people to the politically favored few. There is nothing stimulative about that.

Across Europe, the average tax per gallon of gasoline ranges from $4 to $6. The U.S. federal gasoline tax is a paltry 18.3 cents per gallon with each penny raising $850 million to $1 billion per year depending upon how much Americans drive. Only when gasoline hit $4 a gallon during last summer did we start taking mass transit, buying hybrids, shunning gas guzzlers, demanding more energy-efficient cars and buildings, and seriously considering alternative solar, wind and nuclear power, and our own oil and gas reserves. The best and only way to ensure long-term energy independence is to have a serious financial incentive that hits everyone.

OK, if we accept the premise that less fuel consumption is better for Americans, then Pascal has a good point here. Of course, I’m not sure why gas station owners or truck salesman are any less deserving of being stimulated than other Americans, but that seems to be a staple of these plans. Moreover, Pascal’s plan doesn’t look all that much different than how transportation projects are already funded at the federal level.

While we should not enact excessive gasoline taxes, we can at least impose an additional and modest oil import fee on foreign barrels of oil.

More importantly, we should increase the federal gasoline tax from 18.3 to 75 cents per gallon, by monthly increments of about 5 cents per gallon over 12 months. The overall U.S. gasoline price per gallon by the end of 2010 should still be around $3.00 but the U.S. would have $70 billion a year to pay for our many needed transportation and energy infrastructure projects. This would be the responsible, mature, and intelligent solution for raising the necessary funds for these projects.

Presumably, Pascal means that we would charge this import fee to the American refiners who distribute gasoline in the country. And Pascal does suggest that he thinks this would be a tax on everyone, which in addition to the increased gas tax it would be. Strangely, this is the sort of protectionist measure one sees where domestic industries are beset by low-cost foreign competitors, yet domestic production is practically forbidden. Instead, Pascal wants to drive demand for gasoline down, so he advocates raising the costs of gasoline indirectly. Would that have the effect of increasing demand for more domestic oil? Perhaps. But it would certainly raise costs for all Americans, whether we all buy hybrids (which are much more expensive) or not, and again I don’t see how raising prices is stimulative.

Overall Mr. Pascal’s tax proposal is not altogether outlandish, and certain elements of it are almost certain to come to pass. What’s so horrible is that these sorts of plans are only necessary (and inevitable) because the government has been spending far more than it takes in for quite some time now. Even if you think that the Bush tax cuts “cost” the federal government money, you have to admit that the one thing that every administration has had in common, whether Republican or Democrat, is that federal spending never decreases. Regardless of whether tax-and-spend is better/worse than cut-taxes-and-spend, the situation we find ourselves in today is precisely because spending never seems to drop, not because tax rates go up and down.

To be sure, there is nothing evil per se about deficit spending. Whether it’s bad or not depends on where the money is going, and how the costs are intended to be recouped. But at some point the piper must be paid, and when that time comes one would hope that all the spending had created some wealth with which to pay him.

Stumulative bridge for sale

Stimulative bridge for sale

Obviously taking money from Peter and giving it to Paul (minus a transfer fee, of course) won’t accomplish that goal. And neither does building a new bridge from Paul’s house to Peter’s. Indeed, unlike people, the government can’t work harder in an effort to “do something” and create wealth, because that’s not what governments do. The only things that government is any good at is making rules and enforcing (some of) them. Although those two actions can protect wealth and the opportunities to create wealth, neither action actually creates wealth.

Thus, we’re left with the unshakable propositions that (1) government spending necessitates taxes, (2) deficit spending necessitates tax increases, (3) tax increases necessitate higher prices, (4) higher prices produce less consumer spending, (5) less consumer spending results in less business revenues, (6) less business revenues means fewer jobs and less wages, (7) fewer jobs, less wages and less business revenues means less tax dollars, and (8) fewer jobs, less wages, less business revenues and less tax dollars means … more government spending is necessary?

If you believe that last one, then I have a bridge I’d like to build you. It will be ready for use immediately upon the check clearing.

“This is our house now”

Remember the organization that refused to pay its own workers a “living wage” even while it agitated for higher minimums for other businesses? The same organization that has been the subject of several voting fraud investigations? And the same one to receive $2 Billion from the stimulus bill? Well, its now in the process of “peacefully” occupying homes that are in the process of foreclosure. That organization, of course, is ACORN:

A community organization breaks into a foreclosed home in what they are calling an act of civil disobedience.

The group wants to train homeowners facing eviction on peaceful ways they can remain in their homes.

[...]

“The mortgage went up $300 in one month,” said Hanks, former homeowner.

ACORN fights foreclosures by breaking the law

ACORN fights foreclosures by breaking the law


She says the bank refused to modify her loan and foreclosed, kicking her out of the house in September.

The community group ACORN calls Hanks a victim of predatory lending.

“This is our house now,” said Louis Beverly, ACORN.

And on Thursday afternoon, they literally broke the foreclosure padlock right off the front door and then broke into the house, letting Hanks back in for the first time in months.

“We are actually trespassing, and so this is a way of civil disobedience to try to stay into our house,” said Beverly. “Legally it’s wrong, but homesteading is the only means that she has left to stay into her house. And we feel as though this is the right thing to do at this particular time to save this family.”

So even though they know it’s “legally wrong” ACORN is going to go ahead and do it anyway? Maybe they could take some of the $2 Billion they received and help Ms. Hanks pay her mortgage or even renegotiate it. Presumably ACORN received the stimulus money to do something other than commit criminal acts. Didn’t it?

[HT: Rick Moore]

How To Build A Dictatorship

Venezuelan voters approved a referendum to end term limits on Sunday, paving the way for Hugo Chavez to perfect his dictatorship:

President Hugo Chavez says a referendum victory that removed limits on his re-election is a mandate to intensify his socialist agenda for decades to come. Opponents warn of an impending dictatorship.

Victory!  Enslaved at last!

Victory! Enslaved at last!


Both sides had called the outcome of Sunday’s vote key to the future of this South American country, split down the middle between those who worship the president for redistributing Venezuela’s oil riches and those who see him as a power-hungry autocrat.

“Those who voted “yes” today voted for socialism, for revolution,” Chavez thundered to thousands of ecstatic supporters jamming the streets around the presidential palace. Fireworks lit up the Caracas skyline, and one man walked though the crowd carrying a painting of Chavez that read: “Forever.”

[...]

The constitutional overhaul allows all public officials to run for re-election as many times as they want, removing barriers to a Chavez candidacy in the next presidential elections in 2012 and beyond.

“In 2012 there will be presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate,” Chavez said to applause. First elected in 1998, he has said he might stay in power until 2049, when he’ll be 95.

Hmmm. Maybe those “critics” are onto something, eh?

At their campaign headquarters, Chavez opponents hugged one another, and some cried. They said the results were skewed by Chavez’s broad use of state resources to get out the vote, through a battery of state-run news media, pressure on 2 million public employees and frequent presidential speeches which all television stations were required to air.

With the courts, the legislature and the election council all under his influence, and now with no limits on his re-election, officials say Chavez is virtually unstoppable.

“Effectively this will become a dictatorship,” opposition leader Omar Barboza told The Associated Press. “It’s control of all the powers, lack of separation of powers, unscrupulous use of state resources, persecution of adversaries.”

As the article notes, however, everything is not peaches and cream for Chavez. Venezuela’s economy, which is so heavily dependent on oil revenues, lies in shambles, beset by low oil prices, rampant inflation, and little prospect for relief. According to Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington:

… the global financial crisis and the plunging price of oil, which accounts for 94 percent of Venezuela’s exports and nearly half its federal budget, will limit Chavez’s ability to maintain the level of public spending that has fueled his popularity.

Without oil revenues to prop up the socialist spending regime, Chavez will have to resort to other means of stabilizing the economy. Because producers of wealth are so politically disfavored in Venezuela, and there are myriad obstacles to successfully operating any businesses, Chavez’s options for economic recovery are limited:

Empty shelves in Venezuela.

Empty shelves in Venezuela.

“Venezuela faces serious problems no matter what today’s results were. Later this year, economic problems are going to be felt more acutely.”

Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S., depends on oil for 93 percent of export revenue and half the government’s budget. Prices for crude have plunged 74 percent since touching a record in July.

[...]

“Now we’re going to see what’s beyond this campaign and what he does when he takes the economy into account,” [Enrique] Alvarez, [head of Latin America fixed-income research at IDEAglobal in New York] said.

The adjustments to economic policy will probably include raising taxes and devaluing the currency to cover a public deficit now that his marathon political campaign is out of the way, said Alberto Ramos, Latin America economist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York.

Raising taxes is de rigueur in such circumstances, but not likely to generate much revenue. After all, the government has taken over the most lucrative part of the Venezuelan economy, and people and businesses who don’t earn much don’t have much to pay to the government. Taxes are not going to solve any problems.

Without any real economic engine to fund socialist programs, therefore, Chavez won’t be able to buy votes anymore. Instead he will have to find another way to garner (or manufacture) public support if he wants to remain in power. And there isn’t any doubt that he wants to remain in power.

The most obvious way for Chavez to accomplish this feat to convince the country that his leadership is indispensable to the country’s fortunes. That line of argument is already a staple in his rhetoric — i.e. that success of the Bolivarian Revolution depends on Chavez exercising ever increasing power — so the foundation has been laid. However, it was much easier to sell that idea when the oil revenues were pouring in. With a looming fiscal crisis at hand, and the prospects of economic improvement looking dim, a call for new leadership will likely grow louder.

Ironically, the path to permanent power for Chavez was described by socialist activist Naomi Klein in her book “Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” In what has become the bible for the anti-capitalist/ant-globalization movement, Klein

… explodes the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically. Exposing the thinking, the money trail and the puppet strings behind the world-changing crises and wars of the last four decades, The Shock Doctrine is the gripping story of how America’s “free market” policies have come to dominate the world– through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries.

Her theory rests on the premise that democratic obstacles to corporate domination are swept aside in times of severe crisis (e.g. Iraq war, Katrina, tsunami in Sri Lanka), allowing global moneyed interests to swoop in and take control of the economy. She often cites Milton Friedman and the “Chicago Boys” dealings with Pinochet as an example of how capitalist forces purposely, and sometimes violently, undermine the will of the people when they are at their weakest in order to introduce reforms that actually serve the interests of the elite rather than the people. In spite of her historically challenged maunderings (Friedman only met Pinochet once for an hour, and wrote him a letter), Klein does hit on an important point: crises are routinely used to further the power of the elites. Klein just identifies the wrong parties. It is typically the government elites who profit from these crises.

Take, for example, how our own government has seized upon the current fiscal crises to shove a giant social spending bill down our throats, plunging future generations into massive debt, and centralizing control over the lives of individual Americans:

Last year the US economy was hit with one shock after another: the Bear Stearns bail-out, the Indymac collapse, the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the AIG nationalisation, the biggest stock market drop ever, the $700bn Wall Street bail-out and more – all accompanied by a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic language from political leaders.

And what happened? Did the Republican administration summon up the spirit of Milton Friedman and cut government spending? Did it deregulate and privatise?

No.

It did what governments actually do in a crisis – it seized new powers over the economy. It dramatically expanded the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve and injected a trillion dollars of inflationary credit into the banking system. It partially nationalised the biggest banks. It appropriated $700bn with which to intervene in the economy. It made General Motors and Chrysler wards of the federal government. It wrote a bail-out bill giving the secretary of the treasury extraordinary powers that could not be reviewed by courts or other government agencies.

Now the Obama administration is continuing this drive toward centralisation and government domination of the economy. And its key players are explicitly referring to heir own version of the shock doctrine. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the economic crisis facing the country is “an opportunity for us”. After all, he said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before” such as taking control of the financial, energy, information and healthcare industries.

That’s just the sort of thing Naomi Klein would have us believe that free-marketers like Milton Friedman think.

Of course, that isn’t how supporters of free markets behave at all. It is, however, exactly how someone like Hugo Chavez operates.

With the Venezuelan economy shrinking, and real suffering occurring on a growing scale, the opportunity is ripe for Chavez to further “reform” the country, and complete the Bolivarian Revolution as he has promised. That won’t save the nation from economic ruin, and indeed will probably hasten such an outcome, but it will provide the impetus for perpetual Chavista rule.

The economy is doing poorly? That’s because the revolution has not advanced far enough. Economy doing well? The revolution is working its wonders! Rinse and repeat.

Thus the keys to Chavez’s Bolivarian kingdom lie in the propagandistic message that only centralized and powerful leadership can provide adequately for all. Principles such as “fairness” and “equality” are used as bludgeons against any who dare step out of line. Individual achievement is sneered at as “selfish” and “against the common good.” The redistribution of any wealth created outside the government system (as all wealth created inside is confined to the governmental leaders) is touted as the only means of ensuring a safe and productive future for all. Capitalism is deemed the language of the oppressor, and blamed for any and all ills that befall the nation. Yet, despite all this rhetoric, things will never seem to get any better.

Poor, poor Venezuela. Thank goodness we won’t such stifling of economic welfare and individual freedom here.