Month: March 2016

How Much of the Year Do Your Taxes Cost?

If every penny earned since the beginning of the year went to pay federal, state, and local taxes, Americans would have to work until the middle of April just to cover their tax bills. Tax Freedom Day is a calendar-based illustration of the cost of government which divides all taxes by the nation’s income. By this calculation, Americans typically work more than a hundred days a year, and pay about a third of their earned income, to all levels of government.

But this is only what Americans actually pay, not what government spends. If annual federal borrowing were taken into account, representing future taxes owed, Tax Freedom Day wouldn’t occur until May. That’s more than two weeks of federal government spending paid for by borrowing.

Americans pay more in taxes ($4.85 trillion) than they do on food, clothing, and housing combined. The saying goes, you should “work to live, not live to work.” But the more government grows, the more Americans are working less to live and more to pay for runaway government spending. That leaves fewer resources to invest in the real engines of economic growth: private sector businesses that create jobs and produce goods and services for a market fueled by Americans’ hard-earned purchasing power.

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Where Did President Obama Stay in Cuba?

This week, Barack Obama became the first U.S. President in nearly 90 years to visit the country of Cuba. While security concerns may have prevented him staying in a private home rented through Airbnb, he would have had some 2,700 such homes to choose from in Havana alone.

The amazing thing is that Cuba is a communist country, yet it allows short-term room rental services to operate, while some major American cities such as Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles do not.

While the American President likely rode through the streets of Havana in his own armored limousine, he apparently could have ridden in one of those iconic 57 Chevys if the driver had one of the still rare and expensive Cuban email accounts. Such ride-sharing services are also allowed in Havana, while Uber and Lyft are still fighting powerful taxi monopolies in some American cities.

We can have legitimate disagreements about normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba; but we should applaud the movement toward private home ownership and use, and the entrepreneurial opportunities its communist government now allows.

It will be ironic if Cuba comes into the modern free-market era at the same time that some American politicians try to impose more government restrictions on the very economic freedoms that many Cuban refugees risked their lives to achieve by coming here.

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What Would Jefferson Advise Today’s Supreme Court About the Little Sisters of the Poor?

In 1804 an Ursuline nun in New Orleans asked Thomas Jefferson to clarify in writing her religious community’s right to retain their property and to continue their ministries without government interference following the Louisiana Purchase. As French Catholic Louisiana was being incorporated into the Anglo-Protestant United States, the nuns were concerned about the status of their institutions under U.S. law. President Jefferson assured her that the government would not interfere with the sisters’ property, ministries, and way of life. In a letter dated May 15, 1804, he wrote:

“I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution….The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.”

Jefferson confidently promised that the American Constitution would protect the nuns and that the government would leave them alone. So why don’t Catholic sisters today even qualify for a religious exemption from ObamaCare’s insurance mandate that requires contraception and abortion coverage? It may seem unbelievable, but according to the Obama Administration’s definition of “religious employer,” sisters are not included.

On March 23 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on behalf the Little Sisters of the Poor (and other religious clients of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty) in a historic religious freedom case. The Little Sisters are a nearly 200-year-old religious community dedicated to caring for the elderly poor. They run 30 homes in the U.S. (four in the West) and care for nearly 13,000 people in 31 countries.

During implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) directed most employers to include coverage of contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health insurance policies, or else pay a fine of $100 per employee, per day. The Sisters subsequently filed suit against the federal government, saying “they cannot, according to their faith, include contraceptives in their employee health plan.”

The Becket Fund, which represents the Sisters and other religious clients in their lawsuit, explains:

“The Court’s decision will finally resolve the crucial question of whether governmental agencies can, wholly without legislative oversight, needlessly force religious ministries to violate their faith….The [HHS] mandate forces the Little Sisters to authorize the government to use the Sisters’ employee healthcare plan to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs—a violation of their faith—or pay massive fines, which would threaten their religious mission.”

The “HHS Mandate” has a narrow conscience exemption that applies only to organizations whose purpose is solely to inculcate religious values and which employ and serve primarily members of their own faith. The exemption does not include religiously affiliated or faith-based institutions which serve all people without discrimination (like hospitals, colleges, schools, and social service agencies). And it doesn’t apply to communities of nuns.

“The Little Sisters should not have to fight their own government to get an exemption it has already given to thousands of other employers, including Exxon, Pepsi Cola Bottling Company, and Boeing,” said Becket Fund Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi. “Nor should the government be allowed to say that the Sisters aren’t ‘religious enough’ to merit the exemption that churches and other religious ministries have received….It is ridiculous for the federal government to claim, in this day and age, that it can’t figure out how to distribute contraceptives without involving nuns and their health plans.”

Thomas Jefferson explained to the Ursuline nuns of 19th-century Louisiana that American law would protect them and their institutions, regardless of the differences among American citizens:

“Whatever the diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.”

We can only imagine what Jefferson might think of American women having to sue the Obama Administration to defend their First Amendment rights. But can we doubt he would be dismayed by how intrusive and coercive the federal government has become since the day he wrote so cordially to a group of French nuns about the safeguards of the American Constitution?

 

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Freedom in Fiction: The Leopard

While the Irish celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this week, Italians are celebrating National Unification Day, memorialized by Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard.

This “great book,” often called Italy’s Gone with the Wind, follows the private thoughts of a scientifically minded Sicilian prince as he tries to make sense of the newly emerging Italian democracy and his place in it. This tumultuous upheaval in 19th century Italy―obscure to most Americans―forced the aristocracy and middle class to face social and cultural change not terribly different from Margaret Mitchell’s observations of the American South during roughly the same timeframe.

The Leopard also offers a prism through which we Americans might reflect on the dramatic changes unfolding in our political landscape this presidential primary season.

Don Fabrizio―The Leopard’s protagonist―wants to preserve his aristocratic lifestyle while recognizing that the future will belong to a new kind of man. The “new man” will not be an aristocrat, but a politician. Aristocrats, for all their faults, represent stability, predictability, and unchanging order. Sicilians know what to expect of them.

In contrast, the Garibaldi revolution inaugurates the democratic age. The man and woman who can succeed socially, politically, and financially make quick impressions, change their views when their factions fall from power, and work a room full of people to their advantage.

Don Fabrizio’s nephew and his middle-class, newly rich, fiancée are this “new” man and woman:

Conquered for ever by the youth’s [his nephew’s] affectionate banter, he had begun during the last few months to admire his intelligence too: that quick adaptability, that worldly penetration, that innate artistic subtlety with which he could use the demagogic terms then in fashion while hinting to initiates that for him, [the nephew], this was only a momentary pastime….Tancredi, he considered, had a great future….[H]e lacked only one thing: money; this Tancredi did not have; none at all. And to get on in politics, now that a name counted less, would require a lot of money: money to buy votes, money to do the electors favors, money for a dazzling style of living.

The new regime respects Don Fabrizio’s “dignified and liberal attitude,” made manifest during the town’s first election; but he refuses to take a seat in the Italian Senate when begged to do so:

“I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realized by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside….Now you need young men, bright young men, with minds asking ‘how’ rather than ‘why,’ and who are good at masking, at blending, I should say, their personal interests with vague public ideals.”

Don Fabrizio’s melancholy nostalgia for the old order coexists with his belief in the inevitability of the new. However, Lampedusa is clear-eyed about the human failings that can corrupt all political systems. Democracy promises an equal voice for the common man, but electoral politics are only as fair as individuals are honest. Lampedusa paints a poignant image of the middle class struggling for acceptance on equal footing with the “old families.” He shows how transparently money buys power and influence until the “new families” in time become as entrenched in their social positions as the old.

Gone with the Wind describes the blending of classes and shifting political realities under uniquely American circumstances. Lampedusa’s The Leopard shows how universal Mitchell’s themes are. Italy’s history of revolution and social change can shed light on our own American story. The consequences of cynicism, civic complacency, political corruption, and rapid change are vivid when we view them through another country’s eyes. The cultural phenomena depicted by both writers are especially worth thinking about this spring, as populist candidates from both ends of the political spectrum successfully appeal to fed-up voters—voters who have the power to bring about the next seismic wave that reshapes American politics.

(Burt Lancaster starred in an award-winning film version of The Leopard in 1963.)

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If Socialism Is Like Playing Checkers, Capitalism Is Like Playing Chess

Now that former world chess champion Garry Kasparov has weighed into the American presidential campaign, it seems fitting to explain his support of capitalism and disdain for the socialism he lived under as a Soviet citizen in terms of the differences between playing chess and playing checkers.

When you hear the expression “We’re playing checkers, while they’re playing chess,” you understand that the speaker believes his opponents are playing a more sophisticated game. In this sense, socialism is a simple economic game: You see a problem and you assume that the government is the tool that will solve it. It’s relatively easy to sell a straightforward checker move to the public. It may be harder to sell a more sophisticated chess move, even if it is the better solution to your problem.

A fascinating commentary in AgainstCronyCapitalism.org points this out:

It rarely occurs to the people calling in the government that perhaps the government will create more problems than it solves. Indeed this concept is so foreign, that when something breaks in our society due to government intervention, the call by many is almost always for yet more government intervention. It’s ridiculous. But I wonder if it is just a reflection of a checkers mentality in a world which demands an understanding of chess. 

The free marketeer is more like the chess player.…

Free market people have a better understanding of chain reactions and of unintended consequences than their statist brothers and sisters. They think a few moves ahead while also understanding the limit of their foresight.…

Society is a living, breathing being. It is organic in nature. It spins out in fractal complexity in every direction. The free marketeer understands this and is humbled by this reality.

On March 1, Garry Kasparov’s self-described “rant” against Bernie Sanders’s socialist “prescription for America” went viral on Facebook, eliciting more than 3,300 comments. Over 63,000 people have shared it with their “friends.” Here it is:

Garry Kasparov

March 1 at 11:57am

I’m enjoying the irony of American Sanders supporters lecturing me, a former Soviet citizen, on the glories of Socialism and what it really means! Socialism sounds great in speech soundbites and on Facebook, but please keep it there. In practice, it corrodes not only the economy but the human spirit itself, and the ambition and achievement that made modern capitalism possible and brought billions of people out of poverty. Talking about Socialism is a huge luxury, a luxury that was paid for by the successes of capitalism. Income inequality is a huge problem, absolutely. But the idea that the solution is more government, more regulation, more debt, and less risk is dangerously absurd. 

Garry Kasparov Yes, please take Scandinavia as an example! Implementing some socialistic elements AFTER becoming a wealthy capitalist economy only works as long as you don’t choke off what made you wealthy to begin with in the process. Again, it’s a luxury item that shouldn’t be confused with what is really doing the work, as many do. And do not forget that nearly all of the countless 20th-century innovations and industries that made the rest of the developed world so efficient and comfortable came from America, and it wasn’t a coincidence. As long as Europe had America taking risks, investing ambitiously, and yes, being “inequal [sic],” it had the luxury of benefiting from the results without making the same sacrifices. Who will be America’s America?

Kasparov then followed up with this longer article amplifying on his points:

Garry Kasparov: Hey, Bernie, Don’t Lecture Me About Socialism. I Lived Through It.

I don’t know if Kasparov thinks of socialism and capitalism in terms of playing checkers versus chess, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. But, his insights are important and worth considering by anyone and everyone considering what economic system has and will best serve America and the world.

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Portland Chases Another Dream

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that Portland is one of seven cities still in the running for a $50 million grant as part of DOT’s “Smart Cities” challenge. Portland is proposing to build “smarter streets” that talk to self-driving cars and to develop an app that will decrease reliance on private automobiles.

This is not a joke, and it’s not another episode of Portlandia. There are actually federal bureaucrats who think that putting sensors in streets to talk with computerized cars is important, and that Portland is capable of running such a system.

Apparently, they are unaware that Portland’s street system is so run down that the city could be the film location for a Mad Max movie.

And given the region’s obsession with 19th century street cars that move more slowly than pedestrians, why would anyone think Portland is capable of being a national leader in 21st century roads?

This is a city that tried to prevent car-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft from legally operating here last year. No fancy street sensors were required; the necessary smart phones were already in the hands of potential customers. All the City Council needed to do was get out of the way, and even that was too complicated for them.

We should let Google worry about autonomous cars. Portland should stick to something simple, like filling potholes.

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Freedom in Film: “For Greater Glory” (2012)

“You cannot fight for something you don’t believe in,” says the wife of General Enrique Gorostieta, the reluctant hero of the 2012 film For Greater Glory. “I may have issues with the Church,” her husband replies, “but I believe in religious freedom.”

Nearly 100,000 people were killed in Mexico in a 20th century conflict few Americans have heard of. The last known living veteran of this largely forgotten war for religious freedom, Juan Daniel Macías Villegas, just passed away last month at the age of 103.

For Greater Glory captures the spirit of the Cristero War (1926-1929), depicting the conflict through the eyes of an agnostic retired general (Andy Garcia) who leads a popular uprising against the dictatorial Calles regime.

The back-story to the film is President Plutarco Calles’s draconian enforcement of Mexico’s 1917 Constitution. The constitution gave the federal government full power to regulate or suppress religion, to control the number and activities of clergy, and to ban religious schools and instruction. By implementing the “anticlerical articles,” Calles intended to neutralize the influence of Catholicism on Mexican society and to prevent opposition to his social agendas. After all churches were closed in 1926, a popular rebellion―the “Cristiada”―began.

What happened in Mexico throughout the 20th century is a warning that loss of freedom has dire consequences. By the time they come to light, it’s usually too late to undo the damage. The Cristero War eventually forced the government to reopen the churches; but Mexico’s anticlerical laws, including the ban on worship outside a church and wearing religious garb, remained on the books until 1992. (Pope John Paul II’s outdoor Masses in 1979 and 1990 were technically illegal.)

Today, many younger Mexicans are unaware that citizens ever took up arms against the Calles regime to fight for freedom to practice their faith openly. “In public school they didn’t teach that,” said actor Eduardo Verástegui in publicity interviews.

The lush cinematography of For Greater Glory―combined with a musical score by the late James Horner (Braveheart, Titanic)―captures the beauty of Old Mexico and the soul of Hispanic America. People of faith may identify with the film from the opening line to the closing photographic montage. But one need not be religious to be moved by the human cost of totalitarianism or to be deeply troubled by a government that outlaws prayer and fires on statues of Christ.

In the United States, our separation of powers under the Constitution is designed to protect citizens from fast-rising dictatorships, sweeping constitutional changes, suspension of civil rights, and armed conflict to settle differences. Mexico’s tragedies remind us of the importance of the rule of law, of vigilance in defending freedom, and of not taking for granted what we have.

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Oregon Legislators Raised the Minimum Wage; Students Lose Their Jobs

Oregon’s three-tiered minimum wage law was just signed by Governor Kate Brown last week, but it’s already set to cost Oregon university students their campus jobs. The Oregonian reports that Oregon’s public universities are now calculating how the wage increases will affect their budgets for student workers.

Most college jobs paying the current minimum wage are not part of the federally funded work-study program; student workers are hired by the universities, which pay them hourly. According to The Oregonian, “Oregon’s new minimum could put more money in some students’ pockets, but it will more likely lead administrations to either cut back on the number of students they hire or the number of hours they’re allowed to work.”

The new wage law goes into full effect over six years, and Oregon is divided into three wage regions, so the cost increases will compound over time and affect colleges differently depending on where they are located. A spokesman for Oregon State University says OSU may need to cut up to 700 student worker positions by 2019, which is about a nine-percent reduction in student employment.

Until legislators understand that income cannot be generated by state mandate, minimum wage increases will continue to hurt workers they’re thought to help, including first-time job-seekers, workers with less experience, and college students just trying to get a part-time campus job.

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Broken Promises: The Real Trends in TriMet’s Transit Performance (2004-2015)

TriMet’s ridership is declining and its level of fixed-route service is lower today than it was in 2004. According to mainstream transit advocates, the solution is to spend more public money.

The problem is we’ve already tried that, and it’s not working. TriMet has been imposing a regional payroll tax on most employers since 1972. The rate was initially 0.30%, then grew to 0.60% by 1979. During the 2003 legislative session, TriMet sought approval to raise it by another tenth of a percent. According to TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen, “TriMet’s proposed payroll tax increase will be used exclusively to provide new or enhanced transit service. This will include assisting in the operation of Washington County Commuter Rail, Clackamas County light rail, Lake Oswego Streetcar, increasing Frequent Service routes, and enhanced local service connections to these lines.”

The rate increase was approved, and was phased in over a 10-year period, beginning January 2005.

During the 2009 legislative session, TriMet lobbied for another rate increase, phased in over 10 years. The new rate of 0.7337% went into effect on January 1, 2016.

Now that we have more than a decade of experience with payroll tax rate increases, it is informative to compare revenue trends with service trends. The results show that there is no correlation between revenue and service.

 

 

TriMet Financial Resource Trends for Operations

2004-2015

 (000s) 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
Passenger fares $55,665 $68,464 $80,818 $93,729 $102,240 $114,618 $116,734 +110%
Tax revenue $155,705 $192,450 $215,133 $208,933 $248,384 $275,357 $292,077 +88%
Total operations $290,513 $342,274 $404,481 $433,609 $488,360 $522,155 $493,572* +70%

 

*Grant revenue in 2015 dropped by $41,876 due to timing of receipt; those funds will appear in TriMet’s 2016 income statement.

 

VIEW TABLE IN PDF HERE

 

In fact, there is negative correlation – as TriMet’s revenue went up over the course of a decade, actual service went down. 

 

Annual Fixed Route Service and Ridership Trends for TriMet

2004-2015 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
 
Hours of service 1,698,492 1,653,180 1,712,724 1,682,180 1,561,242 1,608,090 1,676,826 -1.3%
Miles of service 27,548,927 26,830,124 26,448,873 25,781,480 23,625,960 23,763,420 24,248,910 -12%
Originating rides 71,284,800 74,947,200 77,582,400 77,769,119 80,042,810 75,779,560 77,260,430 +8.4

 

Source: TriMet, http://www.trimet.org/pdfs/publications/trimetridership.pdf 

VIEW TABLE IN PDF HERE

 

There is a slight correlation between revenue and transit use, as total originating rides went up 8% while operating revenue went up 70%. However, ridership peaked in 2012 and has dropped by 3.5% since then.

It is also interesting to compare revenue trends with TriMet’s share of commute trips. The Portland Auditor has conducted an annual “community survey” since 1997, and those surveys measure travel choices by Portland residents. The results show that TriMet’s market share of commuting has remained exactly the same since 1997, despite (or because of) massive expenditures on rail transit during that period. 

 

Travel Mode Share for Weekday Commuting

Portland citywide, 1997-2015 

Mode 1997 2000 2004 2008 2010 2012 2013 2014 2015
                   
SOV 71% 69% 72% 65% 62% 61% 64% 63% 60%
Carpool 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 6% 6% 6% 5%
Transit 12% 14% 13% 15% 12% 12% 10% 11% 12%
Bike 3% 3% 4% 8% 7% 7% 7% 8% 9%
Walk 5% 5% 3% 4% 6% 7% 7% 8% 8%
Other n/a n/a n/a n/a 7% 6% 6% 6% 7%

VIEW TABLE IN PDF HERE

Notwithstanding the obvious drop in service, TriMet claims that the legislative promise was met because new rail lines were opened. But to the 66% of TriMet riders who saw their bus service drop by 12%, shiny new rail lines were of little consolation.

The chief enablers of TriMet’s tax addiction have been Portland-area business associations, including Portland Business Alliance, Westside Economic Alliance, Oregon Business Association, and the Central Eastside Industrial Council. Those groups repeatedly embraced higher taxes for their members on the premise that more transit revenue equaled more transit service. That premise is clearly false.

When the TriMet Board meets to increase the tax rate again in September, Portland business groups should reconsider their automatic support. Unless and until TriMet service levels reach those of 2004, there is no reason to continue “throwing money” at an underperforming monopoly.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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No Fake Emergencies

I’ve written and spoken about the damage that minimum wage laws do, not only to business owners, but to their customers and their younger, less experienced, and less educated workers and potential workers.

Normally, bills become law in Oregon no earlier than 90 days after the end of the legislative session in which they pass. But the latest ill-advised minimum wage bill had an Emergency Clause attached, so it becomes law today, the day the Governor signed it. Why is a law that phases in wage increases over six years deemed an Emergency? Because supporters didn’t want to let voters refer it to the ballot.

A real emergency, such as a major earthquake or other natural disaster, may require immediate state action, which is what the Emergency Clause is for. But over half of all bills passed by the legislature last year contained such a clause. Most were emergencies only in the political sense, not the real sense.

It’s time to stop such political games by putting the No Fake Emergencies initiative on the November ballot. It will restore Oregonians’ Constitutional rights to refer most laws to a vote of the people if they wish. Bills will still be able to take effect immediately in the face of real emergencies, just not fake ones.

You can sign the petition to place this initiative on the ballot by going to NoFakeEmergencies.com.


Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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