The odious corruption enabled by big government

Whatever you may have persuaded yourself to believe, you do not live under neo-liberalism. This is the era of corporatism: big government, big business and political parties rigging the game in their favour

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Snouts in corporatist trough
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Daniel J. Mitchell
On 24 November 2014 15:58

I’ve argued that the crowd in Washington profits by plundering America, but that’s just part of the equation. There are also plenty of big companies that have their snouts in the public trough.

No wonder many people have become disgusted

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman points out that a growing number of Americans think the system is rigged against them and he links this disillusionment to an ever-expanding federal government.

"According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a full 56% of Americans agree with this statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” This disillusionment index has been rising for more than a decade and coincides with an explosion in the size of the federal government.

"…The last time Americans had this little faith in the country’s political and economic systems was for a brief period in 1992, in the aftermath of President George H.W. Bush’s breaking of his no-new-taxes pledge in a deal with Congressional Democrats that enabled more spending. …more government enables people to get rich through political favoritism. In the era of the Beltway boom, no wonder so many people feel the deck is stacked against them."

So is this just empty anti-government rhetoric? I don’t think so.

Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits.

Or look at the way the major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies got into bed with the White House to line their pockets via Obamacare.

And examine how big financial firms pillaged taxpayers as part of the sleazy TARP bailout.

How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam.

Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market.

Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians.

Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors.

And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

After looking at that list, I’m surprised that 100 percent of Americans haven’t concluded that the system is rigged for corrupt insiders. But just in case you think that list is inadequate, let’s look at some new examples.

But first, allow me to reiterate my view on markets.

Simply stated, I believe in genuine unfettered capitalism within a system that protects life, liberty, and property (in other words, “unfettered capitalism” obviously doesn’t include the right to hire a hit man to kill your mother-in-law).

Within those boundaries, I have no objection to people taking risks, accumulating wealth, or losing all their money. Heck, it’s not just that I have “no objection.” I welcome such a system since it means the maximum freedom and prosperity for people, particularly the less fortunate.

But I don’t want people to get rich(er) because they have political allies who will adopt cronyist policies that tilt the playing field in favor of well-connected insiders.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in my two new examples. First, we have the case of a big Democratic donor who invested a lot of money in a short sell position on Herbalife, which means he will profit if the stock falls in value.

Nothing wrong with that, at least in theory. Short selling can be a very economically beneficial way of correcting markets when something is over-valued. Heck, we would all be much better off today if there had been some short selling to pop the housing bubble before it got so big.

But as Tim Carney explains in a column for the Washington Examiner, this short-selling insider isn’t relying on market forces. Instead, he is asking his buddies in the Obama Administration to use coercive government to hurt the company and lower its value.

Here are some excerpts.

"Politically connected hedge-funder Bill Ackman…shorted the nutritional supplement company Herbalife in late 2012… After Ackman’s announcement, Herbalife shares fell from $46 to $27. Ackman kept hammering away, taking his compelling slide show on the road to convince the investing public that Herbalife was a house of cards. But after the initial drop, Herbalife stock rebounded… But Ackman had another weapon in his arsenal. Namely: Big Government. Ackman lobbied congresswoman Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., to sic the Federal Trade Commission on Herbalife. Sanchez complied. Ackman also…“paid civil rights organizations at least $130,000 to join his effort by helping him collect the names of people who claimed they were victimized by Herbalife in order to send the leads to regulators…” Ackman’s firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, hired an army of K Street lobbyists — paying a combined $14,000 a month to three firms that disclose lobbying for him — to turn the government against Herbalife."

What reprehensible behavior on the part of Ackman.

I have no idea whether Herbalife is a good company or a bad company. And I have no idea whether its stock is over-valued or under-valued.

But I do know that Ackman shouldn’t be getting his political buddies to intervene. As Tim points out, this is a recipe for rampant cronyism.

"This is different from ordinary lobbying. Typically, companies lobby to protect or subsidize their business. When hedge funds play Ackman’s game, helping or hurting some other company is the entirety of that business — and so lobbying can become the core of their business plan. We’ve seen it before. Investor Steve Eisman took a short position on for-profit colleges and lobbied Congress and the Department of Education to crack down on them. The Obama administration this month announced new proposed regulations on these colleges."

Now let’s look at another example.

Only this time it involves a big-donor Republican who wants favors from big government.

As the Washington Post reports, Sheldon Adelson doesn’t want his casinos to face competition from the Internet.

"Given the more than $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has donated lately to Republican causes, the billionaire casino tycoon is well-positioned to get what he wants from a GOP-dominated Congress. But it turns out that the item on top of Adelson’s wish list — a ban on Internet gambling — is encountering resistance. And it’s not Democrats who stand in his way but a small group of fellow conservatives. …Online betting has been embraced by a number of Adelson’s industry rivals and several states eager for the additional tax revenue it provides….Yet the move to the Internet has also been seen as a threat that could deplete the customer base for Adelson’s brick-and-mortar casino resorts. …Half of the 22 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have co-sponsored the Adelson-backed legislation."

So what’s the status of the battle?

"…conservative opposition began to emerge. …leaders of the other groups, including the American Conservative Union, did not mention Adelson by name. But their letter follows the publication this week of a fiery online column by former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian hero and father of potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He called the bill an example of “crony capitalism” written “for the benefit of one powerful billionaire.” …Adelson called the 2011 Justice Department legal opinion a mistake and has taken steps to rein in online gambling, fighting state-level proposals to authorize it and pushing for the federal ban. A company lawyer penned an initial draft of the Restoration of America’s Wire Act — later refined and introduced last year by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — which would effectively prevent states from authorizing online betting."

Ugh, how nauseating.

Though I’m glad to see that there is opposition inside the GOP to Adelson’s self-serving proposal.

I realize we can’t say for sure whether opponents are motivated solely by good principles of non-intervention and federalism. Perhaps they’ve received money from interest groups on the other side, but at least there is resistance and presumably some of that opposition is for the right reasons.

By contrast, I’m not aware of any Democrats who are opposed to Ackman’s cronyist attack on Herbalife.

The moral of the story is that big government enables insider corruption. Which is the message of this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But if you don’t want to watch the video, just remember the simple lesson of today’s column, which is that all the examples of sleazy cronyism we discussed (both the new ones and the old ones) were only possible because government had the power to trump free markets.

Now let’s return to where we started. Yes, a growing number of Americans are getting disillusioned, and with good reason. But will the good people in Washington appeal to them with a principled campaign against corporate welfare and other policies that help insider fat cats?

Or will it be business as usual, with GOP cronyists replacing Democrat cronyists?

Even worse, will statists latch onto the issue and say the solution is to impose higher tax rates? That presumably would take some money from rich insiders, but it also would penalize folks who earn money honestly.

And it means the money that consumers lose because of cronyism winds up in the pockets of politicians.

Wouldn’t it be better to simply get rid of the bad subsidies and handouts and solve the real problem?

P.S. Since today’s column looks at capitalism vs cronyism, here’s the famous example of how you can explain various economic systems using two cows.

Daniel J. Mitchell, a long standing contributor to The Commentator, is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, the free-market, Washington D.C. think tank. His articles are cross-posted on his blog by agreement

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