Legalized Plunder: Cigarette Tax Edition

From Reuters:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Adding a $1 per pack tax to cigarettes could raise more than $9 billion a year for states, health advocates said on Wednesday, and a poll released with the study shows Americans would support such a tax.

The poll, conducted by International Communications Research, found 60 percent of voters would support the tax to help struggling states and would prefer it over other tax increases or budget cuts.

An increase in tobacco tax rates is not only sound public health policy but a smart and predictable way to help boost the economy and generate long-term health savings for states facing deepening budget deficits,” said John Seffrin, chief executive of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

“We have irrefutable evidence that raising the tobacco tax lowers smoking rates among adults and deters millions of children from picking up their first cigarette,” Seffrin said in a statement.

The report was released by the Cancer Action Network, the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

All these non-profit groups have long supported taxing tobacco more as a way to discourage smoking.

The report, available here, projects the revenue that each state could earn by increasing cigarette taxes, based on research that shows a 10 percent cigarette tax increase reduces total consumption by 4 percent.

Now first off, let me just say that I am no fan of cigarettes.  I have lived with smokers and I find it to be a repulsive habit.  That being said, that people are advocating taxing cigarettes, junk food or anything else is wrong for numerous reasons.  First, it is your choice whether or not you want to consume things that may be unhealthy.  Forced “morality” through social engineering is immoral plain and simple.  Second, these types of proposals that are sold as reducing consumption of these products (which is great so long as its voluntary) are also sold as being revenue generators, which is simply an insane concept when you think about it.  The government would literally be coming up with rationalizations for taking money from you.  Since the government has grown into such a Leviathan it will look for reasons to penalize the people to fund itself.  This is legalized plunder.  A state that has to search for things to tax is a state that has grown too big.

Now the argument that this is for the public good besides the fact that it makes our citizens healthier always falls along the following lines as mentioned in the Reuters article:

“Each year in the United States, smoking-caused disease results in $96 billion in health care costs, much of which is paid by taxpayers through higher insurance premiums and government-funded health programs such as Medicaid,” the report argues

“Indeed, higher Medicaid costs are one of the reasons states are facing budget difficulties.”

Again here, as with almost all of these proposed government fixes, that smoking or obesity for example contributes significantly to healthcare costs which in turn kills the fiscal health of the nation merely addresses a symptom, not the root cause of our ultimate insolvency which is the social welfare state itself.  Smokers, drinkers and obese people would not cost us so much if the social programs didn’t exist in the first place.  Keep people off the dole and you won’t have proposals for ridiculous social engineering nor will you have massive budgetary problems.

The Lesson of Warren Harding Revisited

Though I have written extensively about the Recession of 1920, it is worth revisiting it per Glenn Beck’s show last night.  Beck rightly pointed out that the policies of decreased taxes and decreased government spending implemented by both Harding and Coolidge paved the way for the dramatic economic growth of the roaring 20s. What Beck didn’t mention was that prior to this period of unprecedented economic expansion, President Warren Harding had inherited one of the worst recessions in American history.   This Recession of 1920-21 is another one of the dirty secrets glossed over in the Progressive history books.

By late 1919, America was facing inflation in prices as measured by CPI of 20%.  Between 1920 and 1921, unemployment doubled from 5.2 to 11.7%.  During this same period, from their peak in June of 1920, prices declined by 15.8% on a year-over-year basis, a 50% greater deflation in prices than during ANY 12-month period during the Great Depression.  So what was Harding’s proposal to deal with this mess? To understand how to get out of recession, Harding looked towards how we got into it in the first place.

For America was coming out of World War I.  Government was controlling huge swaths of the economy, as it had mobilized land, labor and capital towards war production and away from normal commerce as dictated by consumer demand.  In addition to the mass of resources that needed to be reallocated according to market forces, the economy had been further distorted due to the policies of the Federal Reserve which had inflated the money supply by 71% from 1913-1919 (while the physical volume of business had only increased by 9.6%), and whose policies had led to an increase in prices of a staggering 234% between 1914 and 1920.  Prices needed to readjust according to the reallocation of resources.  In addition, not surprisingly, due to the costs of war, the federal budget had grown to $18.5bn.

One will note the parallels to our economic situation today.  Just as war led resources to be allocated away from where an unfettered economy would have directed them, so too did the artificial boom fueled by the Federal Reserve and various government policies lead resources to be misallocated towards assets such as houses and stocks during our most recent boom and bust cycle.  While unsustainable businesses and concomitant rises in prices developed in the private sector, the government too drastically increased.

Harding understood the root cause of recession.  As he noted in his inaugural address:

The economic mechanism is intricate and its parts interdependent, and has suffered the shocks and jars incident to abnormal demands, credit inflations, and price upheavals. The normal balances have been impaired, the channels of distribution have been clogged, the relations of labor and management have been strained. We must seek the readjustment with care and courage…All the penalties will not be light, nor evenly distributed. There is no way of making them so. There is no instant step from disorder to order. We must face a condition of grim reality, charge off our losses and start afresh. It is the oldest lesson of civilization.

And so what was his big Keynesian stimulus plan to bring the economy back from the abyss?  He argued during his Republican nomination speech:

Gross expansion of currency and credit have depreciated the dollar just as expansion and inflation have discredited the coins of the world. We inflated in haste, we must deflate in deliberation. We debased the dollar in reckless finance, we must restore in honesty. Deflation on the one hand and restoration of the 100-cent dollar on the other ought to have begun on the day after the armistice, but plans were lacking or courage failed. The unpreparedness for peace was little less costly than unpreparedness for war. We can promise no one remedy which will cure an ill of such wide proportions, but we do pledge that earnest and consistent attack which the party platform covenants. We will attempt intelligent and courageous deflation, and strike at government borrowing which enlarges the evil, and we will attack high cost of government with every energy and facility which attend Republican capacity. We promise that relief which will attend the halting of waste and extravagance, and the renewal of the practice of public economy, not alone because it will relieve tax burdens, but because it will be an example to stimulate thrift and economy in private life.

And so, shockingly Harding practiced what he preached.  Regarding deflation, the Federal Reserve jacked up interest rates from 4.75% in January 1920 to 7% in June 1920, and held this rate through the aforementioned major drop in prices through May of 1921.  Harding slashed the federal budget from $18.5bn in 1919 to $6.4bn in 1920 all the way down to $5.1bn in 1921.  Meanwhile, the government actually ran surpluses during these years, allowing them to pay down the debt by $300mm from 1920-21.  The Chief Economist of Chase National Bank of the era, Benjamin Anderson summed Harding’s philosophy and his attack on the recession as follows:

The idea that a balanced budget with vast pump-priming government expenditure is a necessary means of getting out of a depression received no consideration at all. It was not regarded as the function of the government to provide money to make business activity. It was rather the business of the US Treasury to look after the solvency of the government, and the most important relief that the government felt that it could afford to business was to reduce as much as possible the amount of government expenditure, which had risen to great heights during the war; to reduce taxes—but not much; and to reduce public debt.

Nor did the government increase public employment with a view to taking up idle labor. There was a reduction in the army and navy in the course of these years, and there was a steady decline in the number of civilian employees of the federal government. This policy on the part of the government generated, of course, a great confidence in the credit of the government, and the strength of the gold dollar was taken for granted. The credit of the government and confidence in the currency are basic foundations for general business confidence. The relief to business through reduced taxes was extremely helpful.

According to Anderson, how did the recession end?

…we took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression and in August 1921 we started up again. The rally in business production and employment that started in August 1921 was soundly based on a drastic cleaning up of credit weakness, a drastic reduction in the costs of production, and on the free play of private enterprise. It was not based on governmental policy designed to make business good.  (See Benjamin Anderson’s Economics and the Public Welfare or his gratisThe Return to Normal“)

Now we can debate fiscal and economic policy all day, but across the spectrum, it should be clear to all that a government that intervened and created the conditions for economic crisis will not be able to solve it.  If government’s can create prosperity when the private sector is imperiled, then why would Americans be against government central planning when all is rosy?  Do the rules of economics not apply during downturns?

If we can agree that recessions are the result of resources being improperly allocated, then we can also agree that the only way to return to economic health is to allow for their reallocation according to the market.  This involves allowing nonproductive business ventures to go belly-up, prices to naturally fall where they have unjustifiably risen and reduction in the size of government allowing resources to be released to entrepreneurs to reverse the ills of the artificial boom and spur growth.  All measures that impede the natural cleansing of an economy will only ensure pain and suffering like that witnessed over the last few decades in Japan.  Harding had things right and it would do our lawmakers good to follow his lesson: central planning and government control creates problems; innovative Americans are the only ones who can solve them.

Less Than AAA Rating? Never!

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the country’s debt rating is not at risk because of the trillions of dollars of government spending to shore up the economy.

Asked on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday whether the government would lose its triple AAA sovereign debt rating, Geithner said: “Absolutely not and that will never happen to this country.”

Geithner said there was less risk now that the economy would slip back into recession, a pattern known as a “double-dip” recession.

“We have much, much lower risk of that today than at any time over the last 12 months,” Geithner said.

The labor market which was under significant strain last year at this time is now on the cusp of creating a substantial number of new jobs. The unemployment rate is already beginning to reflect that turn falling from 10% in Dec to 9.7% in Jan.

“We had a huge shock to the American economy and we’re still living with the aftershocks,” Geithner said. “You’re seeing the first signs now of business starting to take some risks again.”

Geither went on to dismiss earlier comments by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — calling his assessment of the $787 billion stimulus package — “Flat wrong!”

After winning the Massachusetts election, Brown was quoted as saying that the stimulus did not create or save any jobs.

“I don’t think there is any basis for that judgment,” Geithner said.

The White House and independent economists (including our job charts here) have illustrated that the stimulus package has saved at least several million jobs and is on the verge of creating several million more by later this year.

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