The government of the United States spent the year debating major new undertakings, ranging from health care to climate change to energy development to tax reform. Yet a far more fundamental shift, in the form of a rapid and pervasive expansion of government power over the private sector of the economy, has been going on in stealth. Shifting economic power from individual decision-makers to the national government characterizes virtually every policy proposal being debated in Congress.
Take tax policy. A 131-page document issued by the Treasury goes way beyond recommending the extension of some of the expiring Bush administration tax cuts. For example, the fine print contains more than a dozen ways of discouraging American firms from doing business and investing overseas. Supposedly minor technical changes also would have a severe impact.
For example, eliminating LIFO (last in-first out) inventory accounting would raise business taxes over $60 billion in one decade. The Treasury also wants to revive four corporate environmental taxes that were eliminated in 1969. There’s no relation between the tax burden these four taxes would impose on a company and the pollution that company generates. This bears an uneasy resemblance to Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because that was where the money was.
Inevitably a variety of technical tax provisions will increase the paperwork burden on business. The penalties for failing to file information returns (such as Form 1099) promptly and accurately, for example, will rise in a very complicated, three-tiered fashion.
On the expenditure side, the typical stimulus project increases the power of government in private business decision-making. The bailout of the automobile industry is really an inefficient method of financing union pension and health plans. The stockholders got zapped and the bondholders poorly treated. The taxpayers are left holding the bag, especially considering the restrictions on importing the really fuel-efficient cars General Motors produces overseas. Apparently, the new General Motors factory for building compact cars was chosen on the basis of “carbon footprint” and “community impact.”
It is hard to keep a straight face when analyzing the Cash for Clunkers program. For example, owners of the biggest old “clunkers” got a $3,500 credit for trading in an old vehicle for a new one with an improvement of just one mile per gallon. Surely, it would have saved energy if the Treasury had just mailed the $3,500 checks directly to Detroit!
Of course, the Obama administration is making some reductions in federal spending. It is reportedly imposing a 9 percent reduction in the budget for the division in the Labor Department that polices fraud and other illegalities on the part of labor unions. As noted below, a simultaneous expansion of business-oriented antitrust enforcement is taking place.
The Business of America is Government
Turning to regulation, one of Ralph Nader’s biggest disappointments during his heyday as a “consumer advocate” was the failure of his proposal for a new Consumer Protection Agency. He should be a bit happier now: The administration’s financial regulatory plan creates a powerful new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA).
This new free-wheeling agency would take authority now divided between the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Reserve System. In a change guaranteed to cause confusion, the CFPA would share authority with the Federal Trade Commission. The new regulatory agency would also have a mandate to give consumers more economic education. Educators find that especially scary.
Moreover, the agency will have its own money pot, independent of the normal congressional appropriations process. It will be financed directly by fees assessed on “entities and transactions” across the financial sector.
The Treasury’s financial plan contains many other expansions of government power over business. The Federal Reserve System would have new authority to oversee any large financial entity whose failure the Fed thinks could generate “systemic risk.” The Treasury would head a new Financial Services Oversight Council to “resolve” the inevitable jurisdictional disputes among federal agencies. A new Office of National Insurance is to be established in the Treasury to monitor “all aspects of the insurance industry,” a sector of the economy traditionally under the province of state governments.
The SEC will require the registration of all advisers to hedge funds and other private pools of capital with assets over a given threshold. It also will have the power to inspect the books of the advisers and to ensure compliance by their clients. In addition, the power of the SEC will be expanded by legislative proposals to give it a more active role in guiding the compensation committees of all public companies.
Further, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will have new authority to take over and shut down financial institutions (not just banks) whose failure is deemed to pose “systemic risk.”
Viewed in their totality, these technical financial changes would represent a historic expansion of government. Sadly, there is little comfort in the Treasury’s warning in its 88 pages of detailed proposals: “More can and should be done in the future.” Comparisons with the New Deal of the 1930s are too timid. Shades of Alexander Hamilton!
The complicated climate change bill that recently passed the House of Representatives would dramatically expand government power over the economy. Again, the fine print deserves far more attention than it has received. For example, buried in the 1,201 pages of detail is a provision authorizing the Department of Transportation to require automotive manufacturers to produce vehicles that can run on methanol (wood alcohol), a fuel not widely available.
Other provisions, as expected, have little to do with the subject of global warming. For example, contractors on some energy projects must pay employees at least the locally “prevailing wage.” This well-known code means, in practice, paying higher union wage scales, thus letting unions set wages even for non-union firms.
Many federal departments are trying to climb aboard the economic stimulus bandwagon. The Department of Justice wants to help out by showing that antitrust should be a “frontline issue” in the response to the problems facing the economy. Apparently, business is not getting sued often enough. Incredibly, one new assistant attorney general views antitrust enforcers as “key members of the government’s economic recovery team.”
When we step back and try to add up all the tax, spending, and regulatory actions and proposals of the new Obama administration, the result is clear: a cumulative squeeze on private decision-making and a more slowly growing economy in the years ahead.
In the process, private businesses will be discouraged by a host of government policies from making major new investments, especially long-term investments with payoffs far in the future. The likelihood of higher taxes and greater inflation resulting from the huge budget deficits that are likely to arise in the next several decades, abetted by lax monetary policies, are the key negative factors. The American public is likely to have a long wait until the national unemployment rate gets back down to the 7.6 percent that was reported when President Obama took office in January 2009.
One fundamental point deserves to be stressed. For the next several years, in the inevitable tension in public policymaking between economic prosperity and income redistribution, the American people can expect income equalization to get the government’s priority over improvements in people’s living standards. The average American, at best, will receive a more equal slice of an income pie that will be far smaller than the public expects.