In my last post I discussed the difficulty faced by potential challengers to President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program in establishing legal standing in court. I also mentioned an estimate of the cost of the plan to taxpayers of around $600 billion over ten years. That was from the Penn-Wharton Budget Model, but now the model’s estimate ranges to more than $1 trillion! The difference is a reassessment of the changes to increasingly popular income-driven repayment (IDR) plans and uncertainty around behavioral assumptions like plan uptake over the ten-year budget window. The changes to IDRs are separate from the $10,000 – $20,000 short-term loan forgiveness component of Biden’s plan, and they are a perfect basis for a legal scam on taxpayers.
IDRs are not new. Under these plans, a borrower pays 10% of their income toward the outstanding balance of their student loans for a period of 10 to 20 years, depending on the plan, after which any remaining balance is forgiven. This may or may not make sense for borrowers with high student loan payments relative to income. In fact, there are some who warn that IDRs are a ripoff. However, only income above 150% of the poverty line is subject to IDR payments. For some students borrowing heavily, IDRs can make tuition hikes irrelevant beyond a certain loan balance: just borrow it! Living expenses can be borrowed as well! These plans almost completely eliminate price sensitivity among consumers of college educations, and it may make sense for certain students to borrow as much as possible. It’s also a prescription for escalating tuition.
Law graduates who work in the public sector have long received favorable treatment via IDRs: they pay 10% of their discretionary income for only 10 years. The so-called Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is leveraged by law schools, which offer deals for students called Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP). For an explanation, I’ll defer to Matt Bruenig and his interesting post on the topic (with hat tip to Alex Tabarrok):
“The LRAP schemes work as follows:
The school increases their tuition.
The student takes out federal loans to cover the tuition increase.
The school squirrels away the debt-financed tuition increase into an LRAP fund.
The school disburses money from the LRAP fund to cover PSLF repayments.
Through this roundabout process, the law schools effectively use student debt to pay off student debt and make their schools free or nearly free, at least for these particular students.”
The school knows the student’s debt payments are limited by income. Tuition hikes can be paid with additional loans, and the LRAPs future obligations are limited by the student’s income after graduation. Not only is the tuition hike “free” to the student, but the school might be able to pocket a share of the new loan and invest the whole nut for returns in the interim. That’s the gist of Tabarrok’s simple example. Needless to say, IDRs and PSLF create some very bad incentives! Farewell to cost control!
Biden’s plan extends IDRs in ways that make them far more attractive to students, including undergraduates. Here are the changes, again from Bruenig:
“The IDR changes are four-fold:
Increase the amount of income not subject to IDR from 150 percent of the federal poverty line to 225 percent of the federal poverty line.
Eliminate any accrual of interest on IDR-enrolled loans.
For undergraduate debt, reduce the IDR rate from 10 percent of income beyond the threshold in (1) to 5 percent of income beyond the threshold in (1).
For IDR-enrolled debts with original loan balances below $12,000, reduce the repayment period from 20 years to 10 years.”
Smaller payments and zero interest! This is what led to Penn-Wharton’s revision in the high-side cost estimates of Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan:
“‘Depending on future details of the actual IDR program and concomitant behavioral changes, the IDR program could add another $450 billion or more,’ the analysis found. ‘Thereby raising total plan costs to over $1 trillion.’”
The incentives are for schools to offer LRAPs more broadly, and to abuse them. Rent-seeking vendors have lined up to design and manage these programs. Students and even parents are encouraged to borrow up to the maximum limits, which conceivably allows the loan proceeds to be used outside of the ostensible educational purpose of the loan, potentially for investment gains. See Tabarrok’s post for some links to creative schemes to which part of the loan proceeds might be put by borrowers.
This is a huge scam! It’s hard to square the Administration’s action with any effort to apply economic logic to program design. But that’s not really the point of the student loan forgiveness program. Instead, it’s designed to warm the hearts of Biden’s political base among students and young college graduates. And it will further enrich the heavily endowed universities that can be counted upon to inculcate students with leftist dogma. Apparently, the rest of us, who lack standing to formally challenge these schemes, can just suck it.
I hate to contribute to the deluge of ink spilled over Joe Biden’s latest executive action, which forgives massive amounts of federal student loan debt, but there’s an angle that hasn’t received adequate treatment. Of course, Biden’s action is an abridgment of taxpayer rights, a violation of the separation of powers, and an affront to borrowers who already paid off their student loans, but it will be nearly impossible for any challenger(s) to show that they have standing in court. Writing in the Virginia Law Review earlier this year, Jack V. Hoover says this kind of action lies within what he calls a “standing dead zone” created by the courts.
I’ll start with a few preliminaries. Note that student loan forgiveness was NOT legislated, unlike the Paycheck Protection Program, which the Administration keeps referencing in defense of the action. And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Biden’s action looks like a pathetic attempt to salvage votes ahead of what some democrats fear could be a disastrous midterm election. In addition, the action is regressive, with benefits weighted heavily toward high-income debtors with graduate degrees. The cost (write down, loss) to the federal government was originally said to be near $300 billion, depending on uptake, but independent estimates now put the full cost at $600 billion. This wipes out the hoped-for deficit reduction in the ridiculous but much ballyhooed “Inflation Reduction Act”, and yes, student loan forgiveness may well be inflationary. At a minimum, it makes the Fed’s job of restraining inflation by tamping down demand that much harder. Loan forgiveness will not solve the underlying problem of runaway cost escalation in higher education. In fact, it will exacerbate the problem by encouraging non-payment and additional borrowing, while tuition to colleges and universities will escalate all the more. So this is really bad policy all the way around!
Biden’s action is clearly a huge stretch on statutory grounds. In particular, the Administration invoked the HEROES Act, which authorizes the Secretary of Education to waive loan requirements during periods of national emergency. In this case, the Administration appeals to hardships caused by the pandemic for individuals with student debt. Of course, just two weeks ago, the CDC rolled back their emergency pandemic guidelines on social distancing and quarantines, so the “emergency” seems to be over, officially. Also, the Administration recently ended the “return to Mexico” policy at the border on the pretext that it had only been necessary because of the pandemic! Pardon my incredulity, but playing the “pandemic card” at this point is both dishonest and hypocritical.
“Standing” in the legal sense can’t be found in the text of the Constitution. It was itself created by the courts. Even so, why do taxpayers, Congress, or past borrowers lack standing to challenge the action on student loans through the judicial system? How can that be when the harms are so obvious? Well, courts tend to avoid interfering with the executive branch, and they’d rather leave such disputes up to the political system to hash out. That doesn’t seem like a terribly effective way to practice the game of “checks and balances”. Nevertheless, for many years the courts have relied on a strict test for establishing plaintiff standing promulgated in the Supreme Court decision in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. In that majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia laid out a three-part test, whichHoover describes thusly:
“… (1) injury in fact that is actual, concrete, and particularized; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and (3) a likelihood that exercise of judicial power will redress the injury.28 The Court furthermore differentiated between cases in which government regulation targets the plaintiff and cases where the plaintiff complains about ‘unlawful regulation (or lack of regulation) of someone else,’ in which case “much more is needed” for standing to exist.29 The Court has regularly reaffirmed this formulation of its standing requirements.3”
Hoover discusses the executive’s authority to cancel debt under the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. In terms of the impregnability of Biden’s action to legal challenge, Hoover implies that the president might just as well have fallen back on HEA as HEROES. However, the Department of Education (DOE) opined last year that it lacked the power to forgive debt. Here’s what the DOE said in 2021:
“… the Secretary does not have statutory authority to provide blanket or mass cancellation, compromise, discharge, or forgiveness of student loan principal balances, and/or materially modify the repayment amounts or terms thereof, whether due to the COVID-19 pandemic or for any other reason.”
Hoover seems to be saying that it is all but impossible to challenge Biden’s bald assertion of extra-legal power in forgiving student loans. Hoover goes on to discuss all classes of potential litigants who might challenge student loan forgiveness: taxpayers, former borrowers, Congress, state governments, and loan servicers. He is skeptical of all those, citing various reasons for their lack of standing, but I’ll focus on only the first three classes.
Taxpayers: The logic of denying taxpayers standing is at least two-fold. First, taxpayers cannot show direct harm from the action, though they are likely to pay a higher inflation tax over time as a consequence. Second, Congress appropriated funds for student loans, but it did so as an entitlement, and it did not restrict loan amounts nor the executive’s ability to waive “the government’s claim that borrowers must return the funds to the Treasury”. Hoover believes that the courts would defer to the political branches of government in settling such issues. The whole thing sounds rather thin to my ears, but precedent will probably hold sway unless the Supreme Court revisits its position on standing.
Congress: The standing of Congress is another matter. If, in the view of the legislature, an executive agency has exceeded its statutory authority, the matter might reflect as much on Congress as elsewhere, in failing to provide adequate limitations, guideposts, or oversight. However, in this case:,
“Congress duly appropriated funds for student loans,83 and the Executive is responsible for the funding’s disbursement. This means that any claim of standing due to institutional injury from compromising Congress’s control of the federal purse would fail.”
Here again, it will be left to settle by the political branches of government. To avoid such conflicts, it is up to the legislature to write laws that bind the discretion of the executive to varying degrees. Unrestrained entitlements are a damn good way to cede control of the “keys to the Treasury”.
Other borrowers who’ve managed their student loan debt responsibly will also lack standing, according to Hoover. Like taxpayers, they cannot show any direct harm or injury. In addition, standing is difficult to establish when an action or inaction by an executive agency pertains to someone else.
It’s my hope that a court challenge will be brought all the way to the Supreme Court, and at some level a court will define a new standard or test under which plaintiffs can attempt to establish standing against executive or agency actions. This is sorely needed as a check on the explosive growth of the administrative state. Furthermore, the “standing dead zone” allows all sorts of politically-motivated mischief by the executive branch, and the Biden Administration seems more than willing to push executive authority to extremes. However, I’m not too optimistic about the possibility of a new test for standing. Before all is said and done, Biden is likely to expand student loan forgiveness well beyond $20,000 per borrower. Federal finance is looking more precarious with Biden’s every step, and many of those steps cannot be walked back by Congress, no matter who holds the majority.
Statistics and measurement might not be critical to the exercise of the authoritarian impulse, but they have served to enable the technocratic tyranny idealized by contemporary statists. Certain influential thinkers have claimed our ability to compile statistics helps give rise to the bureaucratized state. I ran across a great post that led with that topic: “The Brutalization of Compassion” by David McGrogan. The mere ability to compile relevant statistics on a population and its well being (income, jobs, wages, inequality, mortality, suicide, etc… ) can motivate action by authorities to “improve” matters. The purpose might be to get ahead of rival states, or the action might be rationalized as compassion. But watch out! McGrogan quotes a bit of cautionary wisdom from Lionel Trilling:
“‘When once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest,’ he put it, something within us causes us to then ‘go on and make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.’”
Ultimately, to pursue their vision, interventionists must impose controls on behaviors. In practice, that means any variance or attempted variance must be penalized. Here’s McGrogan’s description of the steps in this process:
“The conceptualisation of the population as a field of action, and the measurement of statistical phenomenon within it – the taking of an ‘enlightened interest’ in it – gives rise to both ‘pity,’ or compassion, and the application of ‘wisdom’ to resolve its problems. What is left, of course, is coercion, and we do not need to look far to identify it in the many means by which the modern state subjects the population to a kind of Tocquevillian ‘soft despotism,’ constantly manipulating, cajoling and maneuvering it this way and that for its own good, whether through compulsory state education or ‘sin taxes’ or anything in between.”
Follow the Scientism
I can’t neglect to mention another important condition: the hubris among apparatchiks who imagine the state can improve upon private institutions to achieve social betterment. They will always fail in attempts to replace the action of the private markets and the price mechanism to process information relating to scarcities and preferences. Absent that facility, human planners cannot guide flows of resources to their most valued uses. In fact, they nearly always botch it!
Government provision of public goods is one concession worth making, but the state capacity needed to fulfill this legitimate function is subject to severe mission creep: we frequently see efforts to characterize goods and service as “public” despite benefits that are almost wholly private (e.g. education). Likewise, we often hear exaggerated claims of “harms” requiring state intervention (e.g. carbon emissions). These situations often hinge purely on politics. Even when legitimate external benefits or costs can be identified, there is a pretension that they can be accurately measured and corrected via subsidies or taxes. This is far-fetched. At best, it’s possible to vouch for the directional appropriateness of some interventions, but the magnitude of corrective measures is variable and essentially unknowable. Too often we see government failure via over-subsidization of politically favored activities and over-penalization of politically disfavored activities.
One of the most egregious errors of intervention is the over-application of the precautionary principle: if risks are associated with an activity, then it must be curtailed. This often relies on measurements of highly uncertain causes and effects, and it involves aggregation subject to its own biases.
Just as questionable is the ability of “experts” to model natural or behavioral processes such that outcomes can be “predicted” over horizons extending many decades forward. That interventionists tend to ignore the uncertainties of these predictions is the most blatant and damaging conceit of all, not least because the public and the media usually have limited knowledge with which to assess the phenomenon in question.
Public Health Tyranny
The Covid pandemic presented a compelling excuse for precautionists in government and even private institutions to impose radical controls under a set of claims they called “the science”. These claims were often false and really antithetical to the principles of scientific inquiry, which calls for continually questioning hypotheses, even when they represent “consensus”. Yet a series of questionable scientific claims were used to justify abridgment of basic freedoms for the general population, most of whom faced little risk from the virus. This included lockdowns of schools and churches, business closures, cancellation of public events (except of course for protests and riots by Leftists), deferred medical care, vaccine mandates, and mask mandates. The damage these measures inflicted was fierce, and in the end we know that it was almost entirely unnecessary. Still, the public health establishment seems all too willing to ignore the facts in its readiness to repeat the whole range of mistakes at the slightest uptick in what’s now an endemic infection.
Standard Issue Cronyism
In the wake of the pandemic, we’ve witnessed a surge in calls for government to enhance the security of our nation’s supply chains. Too large a share of the critical goods required by domestic industries are produced overseas, which has made supply disruptions, and the threat of future disruptions, especially acute. Right on cue, advocates of industrial policy and planning have arranged for the federal government to provide $85 billion to domestic producers of semiconductors under the so-called CHIPS Act. But semiconductor producers are in no need of government incentives to “re-shore” production:
“… there has been even more chipmaking investment dedicated to the U.S. market, even as federal subsidies have languished. Construction is now underway at four major U.S. facilities and will continue with or without subsidies—something even Intel reluctantly acknowledged when it delayed the groundbreaking ceremony on its much‐ballyhooed Ohio facility to protest congressional inaction. This is because, as numerous experts have explained over the last year, there are real economic and geopolitical reasons to invest in additional U.S. semiconductor production—no federal subsidies needed.”
Moreover, the global shortage of computer chips appears to be ending. The subsidies will unnecessarily enrich industrialists and their shareholders, provide a source of graft to bureaucrats and various middle men, and likely over-allocate resources to domestic production of chips. Industrial planning of this kind has a long history of failure, and this time won’t be different.
We also see repeated over-application of the precautionary principle and rising dominance of industrial policy in climate and energy policy. Enormous sacrifices are imposed on consumers for the sake of minuscule changes in global carbon emissions and the “expected” long-term path of future “global” temperatures. The interventions taken in pursuit of these objectives are draconian, limiting choices and raising the cost of virtually everything produced and consumed. They distort the direction of physical investment, disfavoring reliable sources of base load capacity needed for growth, and also disfavoring the safest and most reliable zero-carbon alternative: nuclear power. The renewable energy sources foolishly pushed by the state and the ESG establishment are environmentally costly in their own right, and they don’t work when natural conditions are unfavorable. As one wag says about the climate provisions of the ironically named Inflation Reduction Act, “Gonna be a lot more Solyndras coming”.
And talk about sloppy! Our “trusted representatives” in Congress could hardly be bothered to pretend they’d done their homework. They neglected to provide any quantitative carbon and temperature impacts of the legislation. This must be a case of true honesty, because they really have no idea!
Delusions of Central Planning
One great weakness (among many) of arguments for state industrial planning is the assumption that government agents are somehow more competent, efficient, and “pure of heart” than agents in the private sector. Nothing could be more laughable. On this point, some of the most incisive commentary I’ve seen is provided by the masterful Don Boudreaux, first quoting Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan before adding his own entertaining thoughts:
The typical way the left argues for the state is to describe what economists in the 1850s thought markets would be like under monopoly or monopsony, and then compare that to a state run by angels. Both halves of the argument are bad, and yet philosophy treats this as if it were rigorous and sophisticated.
“Far too many policy proposals are nothing more than prayers to the state-god. ‘We entreat you, Oh Powerful and Sacred One, to relieve our people of this or that misery, blemish, and market imperfection! We beseech you to bestow upon us – your faithful servants – cosmic justice, safety from new pathogens, unkind thoughts, and microaggressions, and protection from each and every burden of reality that we can imagine being cured by an omniscient, benevolent, and omnipotent deity! If we obey – and sacrifice to you without complaint our treasure and our freedoms – you will provide!’
I do not exaggerate. Pick at random any proposed government intervention offered by the likes of Progressives or national conservatives, and you’ll discover that the workability of this proposed intervention, when evaluated honestly, rests on nothing more solid than the above absurd faith that the state is – or, when in the right hands, will be – a secular god.”
On the idealization of government’s ability to “plan the economy” rationally, here is more from Boudreaux, first quoting the great Deirdre McCloskey:
Deep in left-wing thought about the economy, and in a good deal of right-wing thought, too, is the premise, as Isaiah Berlin once put it with a sneer, that government can accomplish whatever it rationally proposes to do. As has been often observed about leftists even as sweet as John Rawls, the left has no theory of the behavior of the government. It assumes that the government is a perfect expression of the will of The People.
“And nothing is more unscientific – indeed, more mystical – than is this still-commonplace practice of most Progressives, and also of very many conservatives, to analyze the economy and society, and to offer policy recommendations, using such a juvenile ‘understanding’ of the state. Yet such an ‘understanding’ of the state permeates the work even of some Nobel laureates in economics – laureates such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. This ‘understanding’ of the state is inseparable also from the work of pundits too many to count…
That these professors and pundits think of themselves as scientific – and are widely regarded as being especially intelligent, thoughtful, and scientific – testifies to the strength of the cult of democratically rubber-stamped coercion.”
Humans have proven to be incredible documentarians. The advent of measurement techniques and increasingly sophisticated methods of accounting for various phenomena has enabled better ways of understanding our world and our well being. Unfortunately, a by-product was the birth of scientism, the belief that men in authority are capable not only of measuring, but of fine-tuning, the present and future details of society and social interaction. Those pretensions are terribly mistaken. However, the actions of Congress and the Biden Administration prove that it’s adherents will never be persuaded, despite repeated demonstrations of the futility of central planning. Their words of compassion are no comfort — they must coerce the ones they “love”.
No matter how you feel about the 2020 presidential election, whether you think it was conducted fairly or that it was “stolen” from Donald Trump, you should at least come to grips with the reality that our electoral process is quite vulnerable to manipulation. Most voters agree that election fraud is a problem. A recent poll found that 56% of likely voters agree that “every state should require that ballots be available immediately after elections for bipartisan voter reviews to enhance election confidence and transparency. Only 23% are against ballot reviews…”. So these respondents also agree that compromises to the integrity of elections should be addressed.
Local Fraud, National Scope
There is plenty of evidence that the 2020 election was manipulated by agents both inside and outside the government, if only the mainstream press could be bothered to look at it. Nuts and bolts election fraud is largely a local phenomenon, though there is likely some coordination at higher levels. Robert Zimmerman provides this summary of the election fraud in the 2020 election in Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia:
Fulton County and its elections are controlled by democrats, much as in other large cities. Localized fraud in deep blue urban centers doesn’t have much if any effect on local races, but it throws statewide and national races into doubt. Of these deep blue enclaves, Zimmerman says:
“… the government is essentially a one-party Democrat operation. Many election districts in these cities have no Republican election judges at all. If the Democrats wish to commit election fraud, there is no one looking over their shoulder to question them, with some districts actually taking aggressive action in 2020 to illegally keep Republican poll watchers out. … Thus we saw strong evidence in all of these cities of pro-Democrat ballot-stuffing, of all types, from fake ballots to ballots counted multiple times to evidence the votes on the ballots themselves were changed by computer.”
In Wisconsin, the State Supreme Court finally ruled last month that the placement of hundreds of drop boxes in its largest cities was illegal. Those unsupervised drop boxes made it a simple matter for hundreds of “mules” to deposit stacks of fraudulent ballots, not to mention enabling other kinds of ballot harvesting on a massive scale. This was not limited to Wisconsin. Zimmerman also discusses Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix), where there were a host of different issues casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election results. The race in Arizona was very close, and this kind of vote tampering likely threw the state into Biden’s column:
If you doubt the ease with which “mishaps” occur when ballots are counted, take a look at the following tweet from three weeks ago:
The point is that it’s amazingly easy for fraud to occur given the lax standards of accountability often seen in elections, particularly in one-party jurisdictions.
The New Front
Will the Left seize control of elections or leverage that control more aggressively, particularly in deep blue areas? With that control, they can reinforce their ability to swing elections for statewide offices and electoral votes, and they are certainly trying. The link just above describes some well-funded organizations channeling funds to support progressive candidates running for down-ballot positions with supervisory authority over local elections and their procedures. Charities founded by billionaire George Soros, Hilary Clinton, and Mark Zuckerberg are just some of the players involved. This activity has its parallel in Soros’ successful efforts to fund the campaigns of radical leftists for prosecutor jobs in many cities.
There is also the matter of private grants to local election offices, ostensibly to support the “health” of voters and election workers, but mostly used to “get out the vote”. This was the approach used by the activist group funded by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan:
“In 2020, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative gave $350 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a left-leaning group that distributed grants to mostly Democrat-dominated precincts, driving up the vote. The Zuckerbergs’ grants, dubbed Zuckerbucks, helped finance drop boxes and expanded mail-in balloting, among other activities.”
Pennsylvania recently prohibited private election grants in order to reduce outside influence on elections, a wise response to the violations of state law that occurred in the 2020 election. The ban covers nonprofits like the Center for Tech and Civic Life. Zuckerberg asserts that the organization distributed more grants to Republican jurisdictions (anywhere Trump won in 2020) than elsewhere, but that claim is dubious based on the amounts of those donations:
“… Republican jurisdictions were far more likely to receive grants of less than $50,000, which would likely not be enough to materially change election practices in the recipient jurisdiction.”
Pennsylvania is not alone in its bid to restore integrity by banning these grants. At least 20 states have passed similar laws since the 2020 election, with varying degrees of stringency. That’s good news, but it won’t stop tampering by officials elected with the aid of organizations intent on controlling election procedures.
Corrupting Federal Institutions
There have been, and still are, machinations at levels much higher than local election authorities. The FBI engaged in election sabotage in 2020 to destroy Donald Trump, a sitting U.S. President. This occurred on at least two fronts. There was the staged plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Windmere in October 2020, with all hands attempting to implicate Trump and his supporters. Trump’s prospects fell in Michigan after the announcement of this foiled “kidnapping”, which was subsequently discovered to be aplot by the FBI to entrap a few rubes. Equally disturbing was the flagrant attempt by the Justice Department before the election to discount evidence that Hunter Biden had been engaged in influence peddling for years. That discounting continues to this day, of course.
These maneuvers followed the FBI’s complicity in the Russia Hoax, which was conceived in opposition research by Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. The agency made use of a dossier compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele on behalf of a Clinton campaign contractor. Despite strong suspicions that the dossier was fabricated as well as politically motivated, it was used to obtain clearance from a FISA Court to surveil Trump’s presidential campaign. The FBI continued its misrepresentation of the Steele dossier throughout the Mueller investigation, which ultimately found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia
Today, we know the FBI and the Department of Justice are still at it. Their attempts to destroy Trump, just 80 days ahead of the 2022 midterms, are transparently motivated by politics, culminating in the raid on Trump’s private residence at Mar-a-Lago in search of “classified documents”. It is also likely a fishing expedition that they hope might turn up evidence of a “planned insurrection”. Note that neither Hillary Clinton nor Sandy Berger (President Clinton’s National Security Advisor) had their private residences raided despite personal and illegal possession of classified documents. The hypocrisy is jaw dropping, but it seems clear the Mar-a-Lago raid was another example of efforts within federal law enforcement to influence elections.
Another recent example of likely election influencing within a federal institution is how the Census Bureau managed to “significantly” miscount the populations of 14 states in the 2020 Census. Five of the six undercounted states were “red” states. Six of the eight over-counted states were “blue” states, including New York. The admission of the miscount by the Census Bureau occurred after redistricting took place, a process that surely would have been impacted by the count. So the Democrats picked up congressional seats by virtue of the miscounting. In addition, according to Matt Margolis, the miscounts will give the next democrat presidential candidate nine extra votes in the Electoral College.
Efforts to wholly eliminate the Electoral College are another example of the Left’s efforts to seize control of the Executive Branch, once and for all. The popular vote would be replaced and control ceded to a group of highly populated coastal states. As I’ve written before, the Electoral College was an arrangement necessary to obtain the agreement of all states to join the union. There is no doubt that many states would insist upon a similar arrangement today if we were to do it all over again.
There is very real potential for ongoing election tampering and vote fraud in elections, and the Left has demonstrated a wholehearted willingness to engage in this effort. Much of this activity takes place at the local level in jurisdictions in which election supervision is controlled by one party. The looser the rules, the greater potential there is for abuse. This also explains the motivation to pour resources into electing certain candidates to offices with supervisory power over elections. Also disturbing is the complicity of federal law enforcement in attempts to influence presidential elections. Our Republic cannot withstand the unbridled partisanship we’ve witnessed in the election process. Addressing these problems is likely to require a major clean-up and reorganization of the FBI and possibly the DOJ, but restoring the integrity of those institutions will probably require significant election successes for Republicans in 2022 and 2024. Yes, there really is a deep state!
The “Inflation Reduction Act” (IRA) is about as fatuous a name for pork-barrel spending and taxes as its proponents could have dreamt up! But that’s the preposterous appellation given to the reconciliation bill congressional Democrats hope to approve. Are we to believe that Congress suddenly recognizes the inflationary effects of governments deficits? Well, the trouble is the projected revenue enhancements (taxes) and cost savings are heavily backloaded. It’s mostly spending up front, which is exactly how we got to this point. There are a number of provisions intended to increase domestic energy production in the hope of easing cost-push, supply-side price pressures. However, provisions relating to fossil fuel production are dependent on green energy projects in the same locales. So, even if we get more oil, we’ll still be pissing away resources on wind and solar technologies that will never be reliable sources of power. Even worse, the tax provisions in the bill will have burdens falling heavily on wage earners, despite the Administration’s pretensions of taxing only rich corporations and their shareholders.
The IRA (itself an irritating acronym) would add $433 billion of new federal outlays through 2031 (*investments*, because seemingly every federal outlay is an “investment” these days). At least that’s the deal that Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin agreed to. As the table below shows, these outlays are mostly for climate initiatives, but the figure includes almost $70 billion of extended Obamacare subsidies. There is almost $740 billion of revenue enhancements, which are weighted toward the latter half of the ten-year budget window.
The deal reduces the federal budget deficit by about $300 billion over ten years, but that takes a while… somewhat larger deficits are projected through 2026. I should note that the Congressional Budget Office has issued a new score this week that puts the savings at a much lower $102 billion. However, that “new” score does not reflect the changes demanded by Kyrsten Sinema (R-AZ).
Budget projections are usually dependent on assumptions about the duration of various measures, among many other things like economic growth. For example, the increased Obamacare subsidies are an extension, and the scoring assumes they end in 2026. It’s hard to believe they won’t be extended again when the time comes. Over ten years, that would cut the deficit reduction roughly in half.
The bill is laden with green energy subsidies intended to reduce CO2 emissions. They will accomplish little in that respect, but what the subsidies will do is enrich well-healed cronies while reducing the stability of the electric grid. Tax credits for electric vehicles will be utilized primarily by wealthier individuals, though there are tax credits for energy-efficient appliances and the like, which might benefit a broader slice of the population. And while there are a few provisions that might address supplies of fossil fuels and investment in nuclear energy, these are but a sop to Joe Manchin and misdirection against critics of Joe Biden’s disastrous energy policies.
Should we be impressed that the Democrats have proposed a bill that raises revenue more than spending? For their part, the Democrats insist that the bill will impose no new taxes on those with taxable incomes less than $400,000. That’s unlikely, as explained below. As a matter of macroeconomic stability, with the economy teetering on the edge of recession, it’s probably not a great time to raise taxes on anyone. However, Keynesians could say the same thing about my preferred approach to deficit reduction: cutting spending! So I won’t press that point too much. However, the tax provisions in the IRA are damaging not so much because they depress demand, but because they distort economic incentives. Let’s consider the three major tax components:
1. IRS enforcement: this would provide about $80 billion in extra IRS funding over 10 years. It is expected to result in a substantial number of additional IRS tax audits (placed as high as 1.2 million). Democrats assert that it will raise an additional $400 billion, but the CBO says it’s likely to be much lower($124 billion). This will certainly ensnare a large number of taxpayers earning less than $400,000 and impose substantial compliance costs on individuals and businesses. A simplified tax code would obviate much of this wasteful activity, but our elected representatives can’t seem to find their way to that obvious solution. In any case, pardon my suspicions that this increase in funding to enforce a Byzantine tax code might be used to weaponize the IRS against parties harboring disfavored political positions. Shades of Lois Lerner!
2. Carried Interest: Oops! Apparently the Democrat leadership just bought off Kyrsten Sinema by eliminating this provision and replacing it with another awful tax…. See #3 below. The next paragraph briefly discusses what the tax change for carried interest would have entailed:
The original bill sought to end the favorable tax treatment of “carried interest”, which is earned by private equity managers but is akin to the “sweat equity” earned by anyone making a contribution to the value of an investment without actually contributing a proportionate amount of capital. I’ve written about this before here. Carried interest income is taxed at the long-term capital gains tax rate, which is usually lower than tax rates on ordinary income. This treatment is really the same as for any partnership that allocates gains to partners, but populist rhetoric has it that it is used exclusively by nasty private equity managers. Changing this treatment for private equity firms would represent gross discrimination against firms that make a valuable contribution to the market for the ownership control of business enterprises, which helps to discipline the management of resources in the private sector.
3. Tax on Corporate Stock Buy-Backs: it’s not uncommon for firms to use cash they’ve generated from operations to repurchase shares of stock issued in past. Unaccountably, Democrats regard this as a “wasteful” activity designed to unfairly enrich shareholders. However, it is a perfectly legitimate way for firms to return capital to owners. The tax would create an incentive for managers to choose less efficient alternatives for the use of excess funds. In any case, the unrestricted freedom of owners to empower managers to repurchase shares is a fundamental property right.
A tax on corporate stock buybacks can result in the triple taxation of corporate profits. Profits are taxed at the firm level, and if the firm uses after-tax profits to repurchases shares, then the profits are taxed again, and further, any gain to shareholders would be subject to capital gains tax. This is one more violation of the old principle that income should be taxed once and only once.
The proposed excise tax on buy-backs now added to the IRA is *expected* to raise more revenue than the carried interest revision would have, but adjustments to behavior have a way of stymying expectations. Research has demonstrated that firms who buy back their shares often outperform their peers. But again, there are always politicians who wish to create more frictions in capital markets because firms and investors are easy political marks, and because these politocos do not understand the key role of capital markets in allocating resources efficiently between uses and across time.
4. Corporate taxes: Imposing a minimum tax rate of 15% on corporate book income above $1 billion is a highly controversial part of the IRA. While supporters contend that the burden would fall only on wealthy shareholders, in fact the burden would be heavily distributed across lower income ranges. First, a great many working people are corporate shareholders through their individual or employer-sponsored savings plans. Second, corporate employees shoulder a large percentage of the burden of corporate taxes via reduced wages and benefits. Here’s Brad Polumbo on the incidence of the corporate tax burden:
“William C. Randolph of the Congressional Budget Office found that for every dollar raised by the corporate tax, approximately 70 cents comes out of workers’ wages. Further confirming this finding, research from the Kansas City Federal Reserve concluded that a 10% increase in corporate taxes reduces wages by 7%.”
This again demonstrates the dishonesty of claims that no one with an income below $400,000 will be taxed under the IRA. In addition, almost 50% of the revenue from this minimum tax will come from the manufacturing sector:
As Eric Boehm states at the last link, “So much for improving American manufacturers’ competitiveness!” Incidentally, it’s estimated that the bill would cause differential increases in the effective corporate tax on investments in equipment, structures, and inventories. This is not exactly a prescription for deepening the stock of capital or for insulating the American economy from supply shocks!
5. Medicare Drug Prices: A final source of deficit reduction is the de facto imposition of price controls on certain prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. A small amount of savings to the government are claimed to begin in 2023. However, the rules under which this will be administered probably won’t be established for some time, so the savings may well be exaggerated. It’s unclear when the so-called “negotiations” with drug companies will begin, but they will take place under the threat of massive fines for failing to agree to CMS’s terms. And as with any price control, it’s likely to impinge on supply — the availability of drugs to seniors, and it is questionable whether seniors will reap any savings on drugs that will remain available.
Do Words Have No Meaning?
The IRA’s vaunted anti-inflationary effects are a pipe dream. A Wharton Study found that the reduction in inflation would be minuscule:
“We estimate that the Inflation Reduction Act will produce a very small increase in inflation for the first few years, up to 0.05 percent points in 2024. We estimate a 0.25 percentage point fall in the PCE price index by the late 2020s. These point estimates, however, are not statistically different than zero, thereby indicating a very low level of confidence that the legislation will have any impact on inflation.”
Over 230 economists have weighed in on the poor prospects that the IRA will achieve what its name suggests. And let’s face it: not even the general public has any confidence that the IRA will actually reduce inflation:
The Inflation Reduction Act is a destructive piece of legislation and rather galling in its many pretenses. I’m all for deficit reduction, but the key to doing so is to cut the growth in spending! Reducing the government’s coerced absorption of resources relative to the size of the economy prevents “crowding out” of private, voluntary, market-tested activity. It also prevents the need for greater tax distortions that undermine economic performance.
The federal government has played host to huge pandemic relief bills over the past two years. Then we have Joe Biden’s move to forgive student debt, a benefit flowing largely to higher income individuals having accumulated debt while in graduate programs. And then, Congress passed a bill to subsidize chip manufacturers who were already investing heavily in domestic production facilities. All the while, the Biden Administration was doing everything in its power to destroy the fossil fuel industry. So now, Democrats hope to follow-up on all that with a bill stuffed with rewards for cronies in the form of renewable energy subsidies, financed largely on the backs of the same individuals who they’ve sworn they won’t tax! The dishonesty is breathtaking! This crowd is so eager to do anything before the midterm elections that they’ll shoot for the nation’s feet!
In advanced civilizations the period loosely called Alexandrian is usually associated with flexible morals, perfunctory religion, populist standards and cosmopolitan tastes, feminism, exotic cults, and the rapid turnover of high and low fads---in short, a falling away (which is all that decadence means) from the strictness of traditional rules, embodied in character and inforced from within. -- Jacques Barzun