As Eugene McCarthy, of all people, observed: “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.”
Luckily the United States is blessed with one of the most incompetent governments in the developed world. It isn’t simply that the Americans have a bloated government, it’s that they have a bloated government that accomplishes far less dollar for dollar than the bloated governments of other leading nations.
This is why Americans should have no fear of Canadian style socialized health care being imposed on them, their government isn’t smart enough to run it. That said Obamacare is turning out to be something that makes Canadian Medicare look like the Swiss Army. I grimly await the flood of American health care refugees trickling north of the 49th. That’s bad news for them and worse news for us. What kept the Canadian system semi-functional was the American escape hatch. If upper middle class Canadians can no longer sneak across to Buffalo, Burlington or Seattle for treatment, that puts more pressure on our system.
From time to time I’m asked why government is so incompetent. It’s such a truism among conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals that it’s rarely reflected upon. February is cold in Winnipeg, governments are generally incompetent. We accept these things perhaps too readily. The truism is true, but in assuming it so blithely we fail to communicate its importance to reasonable people who are uncommitted.
Richard Anderson, “The Incompetence of Evil Government”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-02-20
February 21, 2014
February 19, 2014
Julian Hattem reports that the NSA and the DHS have dropped their complaint about parody mugs that they initially claimed were violating some sort of “special legal protection” for certain US government agencies’ seals:
The NSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are abandoning their protests against a line of mugs, hats and shirts that mock official government insignia, settling a lawsuit filed by the consumer interest group Public Citizen on behalf of Dan McCall, a Minnesota activist who sold products poking fun at the government.
“This is an important win,” said Paul Levy, a Public Citizen lawyer involved in the case, in a statement on Tuesday. “Citizens shouldn’t have to worry whether criticizing government agencies will get them in trouble or not. This settlement proves the First Amendment is there to protect citizens’ rights to free speech.”
McCall’s site, LibertyManiacs.com, sold bumper stickers, shirts, hats and other goods featuring a series of parody images. One graphic featured the DHS seal with the words “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”
In 2011, the NSA and the DHS sent cease and desist letters to Zazzle, which printed McCall’s designs, claiming that the images violated special legal protections for the agencies’ official seals.
The LibertyManiacs site shows a selection of “Censored by” items on the front page (I imagine they’ll be getting quite a sales boost from this case):
February 8, 2014
The problem of the Ministry of Defence is that in peace time the three armed forces have no one on whom to vent their warlike instincts except the cabinet or each other.
February 4, 2014
Megan McArdle says that the meme about fast-rising tuition costs at university being driven primarily by the increase in administration staff isn’t the whole story:
Tim Burke, a Swarthmore professor who is also a top-notch (if insufficiently prolific) blogger, has penned a long post that is a very useful corrective to this complaint. It isn’t that the professors are wrong, exactly — administration has grown fantastically over the last 50 years. And empire building is undoubtedly some of the reason for this, because all organizations accumulate unnecessary mid-managerial retinues unless the leadership makes a regular effort to scrape off the supernumerary barnacles.
However, most of those administrators have been hired for two much simpler reasons: The faculty wanted to outsource their administrative responsibilities to professionals so they could focus more on teaching and research; and the demands placed on a university are much greater than they used to be.
I am not going to excerpt Burke’s piece because it is too multifaceted, and too good; you’ll just have to read the whole thing. He elaborates the many new things that administrators now do, from monitoring diversity to tending the mental health of the students. He touches on the legal changes that have made much of this administrative bloat into an expensive necessity, a sort of institutional immune system that defends against lawsuits. He also mentions the new regulations, like Title IX, that imply a whole new staff of people certifying that you have complied with their requirements.
February 3, 2014
BBC News discusses a recent EU report on bribery and corruption in Europe:
The extent of corruption in Europe is “breathtaking” and it costs the EU economy at least 120bn euros (£99bn) annually, the European Commission says.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has presented a full report on the problem.
She said the true cost of corruption was “probably much higher” than 120bn.
Three-quarters of Europeans surveyed for the Commission study said that corruption was widespread, and more than half said the level had increased.
Interestingly, the perception of corruption is significantly higher than the (self-reported) incidence:
In the UK only five people out of 1,115 — less than 1% — said they had been expected to pay a bribe. It was “the best result in all Europe”, the report said.
But 64% of British respondents said they believed corruption to be widespread in the UK, while the EU average was 74% on that question.
In some countries there was a relatively high number reporting personal experience of bribery,
In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, between 6% and 29% of respondents said they had been asked for a bribe, or had been expected to pay one, in the past 12 months.
There were also high levels of bribery in Poland (15%), Slovakia (14%) and Hungary (13%), where the most prevalent instances were in healthcare.
Ms Malmstroem said corruption was eroding trust in democracy and draining resources from the legal economy.
January 27, 2014
Emma Elliott Freire explains why she and other Americans living and working in other countries feel like they’re being treated as “toxic citizens”:
The [travel] books tend to emphasize romance and adventure. As an American who is actually living abroad, though, I’ve found that the reality is quite different. My fellow Americans back home sometimes regard me with suspicion, and I feel like my government considers me a “toxic citizen.”
The US is one of two countries in the world that taxes its citizens on the income they earn while living abroad. The other is Eritrea. Every single other country bases its taxation on residency, i.e., you only pay taxes where you live and work.
Americans are required to file an annual tax return with the IRS when they’re abroad — even if they don’t owe any money. They’re also required to file a form called an FBAR to declare their foreign bank accounts. An undeclared account incurs a $10,000 fine.
As you might expect, international tax accountants get a lot of business from Americans. One tax accountant based in Amsterdam told me his American clients take their filings very seriously. “If they get the IRS going after them, they have a real problem,” he says.
His clients are the savvy ones, though. In my experience, many Americans who move abroad are not aware that they need to file. The US government does precious little to inform its citizens of their obligations in this area. Over several years, I’ve been informally asking Americans I meet abroad if they file their US taxes. Most of them told me they don’t. They only file and pay taxes in their country of residency. They assume that’s enough. But, in fact, they have unwittingly become lawbreakers. If they move back to America, they could find themselves in quite a bit of trouble.
The IRS is enforcing new rules passed in 2010, which extend US taxation laws to non-US banks that deal with American citizens. To no great surprise (except perhaps to the legislators themselves), a side-effect of this is that many banks are closing existing accounts and refusing to accept new business from American would-be customers:
The IRS is currently implementing a new law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Basically, FATCA requires every bank in the entire world to report the account information of its American clients. So every bank in the world is becoming an agent of the US government. It’s still unclear how FATCA can be implemented because in some countries it violates national privacy laws. However, FATCA stipulates that any foreign bank that fails to comply will be subject to a 30 percent withholding tax on its US income.
January 17, 2014
At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Tim Worstall talks about the way regulatory agencies approach problems:
It’s claimed as one of the great victories for enlightened (sorry) regulation, the way that the EU and US have both banned the incandescent light bulb through bureaucratic action. The ban came about by raising the efficiency standards required: this meant that the traditional bulb could no longer be sold.
The argument in favour of doing things this way was, in public at least, that everyone’s too stupid (or, in a more polite manner, subject to hyperbolic discounting) to realise that the new bulbs will actually save them money in the long term by consuming less electricity. There are also the more cynical in the industry who insist that it’s actually a case of regulatory capture. The light bulb manufacturing companies managing to get us all away from using cheap as spit bulbs and onto something with a decent margin on it.
This has a number of implications in the larger world as well: for example, it means that bureaucratic regulation on car mileages (like CAFE in the US) is contra-indicated. A simple tax on petrol will drive up average mpg because we’re not all as thick as bricks. Assuming that climate change really is a problem that must be dealt with then a carbon tax is going to do the job. For we’re not all so dim that we cannot work out the utility of using fossil fuels or not given the change in prices.
That is, we don’t need to be regulated into behaviour, we can be influenced into it through the price system. Something that really shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise to us market liberals: for we’re the people who already insist that people do indeed respond to price incentives in markets.
January 9, 2014
Any unwelcome initiative from a minister can be delayed until after the next election by the Civil Service 12-stage delaying process:
1. Informal discussions
2. Draft proposal
3. Preliminary study
4. Discussion document
5. In-depth study
6. Revised proposal
7. Policy statement
8. Strategy proposal
9. Discussion of strategy
10. Implementation plan circulated
11. Revised implementation plans
12. Cabinet agreement
January 6, 2014
To the very young, to schoolteachers, as also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place. They visualize the election of representatives, freely chosen from among those the people trust. They picture the process by which the wisest and best of these become ministers of state. They imagine how captains of industry, freely elected by shareholders, choose for managerial responsibility those who have proved their ability in a humbler role. Books exist in which assumptions such as these are boldly stated or tacitly implied. To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous. Solemn conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher’s mind. It is salutary, therefore, if an occasional warning is uttered on this subject. Heaven forbid that students should cease to read books on the science of public or business administration — provided only that these works are classified as fiction. Placed between the novels of Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells, intermingled with volumes about ape men and space ships, these textbooks could harm no one. Placed elsewhere, among works of reference, they can do more damage than might at first sight seem possible.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Preface”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
January 5, 2014
The Wall Street Journal has an excerpt from The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education From Itself, the latest book by the Instapundit himself:
Though the GI Bill converted college from a privilege of the rich to a middle-class expectation, the higher education bubble really began in the 1970s, as colleges that had expanded to serve the baby boom saw the tide of students threatening to ebb. Congress came to the rescue with federally funded student aid, like Pell Grants and, in vastly greater dollar amounts, student loans.
Predictably enough, this financial assistance led colleges and universities to raise tuition and fees to absorb the resources now available to their students. As University of Michigan economics and finance professor Mark Perry has calculated, tuition for all universities, public and private, increased from 1978 to 2011 at an annual rate of 7.45%. By comparison, health-care costs increased by only 5.8%, and housing, notwithstanding the bubble, increased at 4.3%. Family incomes, on the other hand, barely kept up with the consumer-price index, which grew at an annual rate of 3.8%.
For many families, the gap between soaring tuition costs and stagnant incomes was filled by debt. Today’s average student debt of $29,400 may not sound overwhelming, but many students, especially at private and out-of-state colleges, end up owing much more, often more than $100,000. At the same time, four in 10 college graduates, according to a recent Gallup study, wind up in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Students and parents have started to reject this unsustainable arrangement, and colleges and universities have felt the impact. According to a recent analysis by this newspaper, private schools are facing a long-term decline in enrollment. More than a quarter of private institutions have suffered a drop of 10% or more — in some cases, much more. Midway College in Kentucky is laying off around a dozen of its 54 faculty members; Wittenberg University in Ohio is eliminating nearly 30 of about 140 full-time faculty slots; and Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, with dorm space for 600 students but only 300 enrolled, has gone coed in hopes of bringing in more warm bodies.
Even elite institutions haven’t been spared, as schools such as Haverford, Morehouse, Oberlin and Wellesley have seen their credit ratings downgraded by Moody’s over doubts about the viability of their high tuition/high overhead business models. Law schools, including Albany Law School, Brooklyn Law School and Thomas Jefferson Law School, have also seen credit downgrades over similar doubts. And now Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing legislation to give colleges “skin in the game” by clawing back federal aid money from schools with high student-loan default rates. Expect such proposals to get traction in 2014.
December 24, 2013
Published on 23 Dec 2013
As travelers board planes this holiday, please be aware of 12 actual banned items from the Transportation Security Administration.
The Indian government has been attempting to restrict the domestic gold market, but there’s a big loophole in the rules that many travellers are taking advantage of while they can:
Faced with curbs on gold imports and crash in international prices leaving it cheaper in other countries, gold houses and smugglers are turning to NRIs to bring in the yellow metal legally after paying duty. Any NRI, who has stayed abroad for more than six months, is allowed to bring in 1kg gold.
It was evident last week when almost every passenger on a flight from Dubai to Calicut was found carrying 1kg of gold, totalling up to 80kg (worth about Rs 24 crore). At Chennai airport, 13 passengers brought the legally permitted quantity of gold in the past one week.
“It’s not illegal. But the 80kg gold that landed in Calicut surprised us. We soon got information that two smugglers in Dubai and their links in Calicut were behind this operation, offering free tickets to several passengers,” said an official. The passengers were mostly Indian labourers in Dubai, used as carriers by people who were otherwise looking at illegal means, he said. “We have started tracing the origin and route of gold after intelligence pointed to the role of smugglers,” he said.
Reports from Kerala said passengers from Dubai have brought more than 1,000kg of gold in the last three weeks. People who pay a duty of Rs 2.7 lakh per kg in Dubai still stand to gain at least Rs 75,000 per kg, owing to the price difference in the two countries. Gold dealers in Kerala say most of this gold goes to jewellery makers in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
December 21, 2013
Baylen Linnekin on the latest attempt to be safer-than-safe in food regulation:
Last week California health regulators ordered the makers of Sriracha hot sauce to suspend operations for 30 days. The 30-day hold comes despite the fact the product has been on the market for more than three decades and that “no recall has been ordered and no pathogenic bacteria have been found[.]”
So what’s the issue?
The problem, reports the Pasadena Star News, is that Sriracha is a raw food.
“Because Sriracha is not cooked, only mashed and blended, Huy Fong needs to make sure its bottles won’t harbor dangerous bacteria,” writes the Star News.
Aren’t three decades of sales sufficient proof of that fact?
“The regulations outlining this process have been in existence for years,” writes California health department official Anita Gore, in a statement she sent to L.A. Weekly, “but the modified production requirements were established for the firm this year.”
In other words, the state changed the rules of the game.
December 6, 2013
Talk about unintended consequences! Jim Geraghty linked to a disturbing issue for many Americans, but especially for Pennsylvanians: the risk of losing some of their volunteer firefighters due to an Obamacare rule. Ninety-seven percent of Pennsylvania fire departments are at least partially staffed by volunteers … this could be a very serious thing indeed.
Great. Now Obamacare Is Going to Louse Up Your Local Firehouse…
They had to pass the law so you could see what’s in it. Kind of like Pandora’s Box.
With any luck, Obamacare won’t close down your local firehouse, just curtail emergency response activities:
The International Association of Fire Chiefs has asked the Internal Revenue Service, which has partial oversight of the law, to clarify if current IRS treatment of volunteer firefighters as employees means their hose companies or towns must offer health insurance coverage or pay a penalty if they don’t.
The organization representing the fire chiefs has been working on the issue with the IRS and White House for months.
“It could be a huge deal,” said U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, who is seeking clarification from the IRS. “In Pennsylvania, 97 percent of fire departments are fully or mostly volunteer firefighters. It’s the fourth highest amount in the country.”
So far, the IRS hasn’t decided what to do.
Efforts to reach spokesmen for the IRS were unsuccessful.
Under the fire chiefs’ organization’s interpretation, the concern goes like this:
The health care reform law, known officially as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and derisively by Republicans as Obamacare, requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer health insurance. Companies with fewer than 50 employees do not have to offer insurance. Full-time employees are defined as an employee who works 30 or more hours a week.
Such employers who don’t offer health insurance must pay fines.
The requirement is complicated by differing interpretations about the status of volunteer firefighters within the federal government. The Department of Labor, according to the fire chiefs group, classifies most volunteers as non-employees, but the IRS considers all volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to be employees of their departments.
“If the IRS classifies volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel as employees in their final rule, fire departments may be unintentionally forced to comply with requirements that could force them to curtail their emergency response activities or close entirely,” the chiefs’ group says on its website.