D.C. Just Can’t Walk Away from Burdening Business

A week ago Walter Olson noted, quoting the Washington Post, that

D.C. lawmakers are preparing to take a break from further beefing up labor standards [in] an abrupt shift for a city whose leaders have been in the vanguard of the national campaign for workers’ rights….

“Businesses like certainty, and if we’re constantly changing the tax burden or the tax environments, or constantly changing the regulatory burden, then it becomes more difficult to do business in the District,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has proposed a moratorium through the end of 2018 on bills that would negatively affect businesses.

Meanwhile, at the very moment that councilmembers are promising to stop adding new burdens to businesses and job creation, the Council is debating a new rule that would require employers who offer their workers free parking to offer that same benefit—in cash—to workers who want to walk, bike, or ride public transit to work instead.

“This bill would be easy to implement,” says one bike commuter, “because it builds on DC’s Commuter Benefits Law, which requires all employers with 20 or more employees to provide them with the option to use their own pre-tax money to pay for transit.” Easy for the regulators, anyway. Maybe even easy for business HR departments, since “the systems employers already have to make” for other mandated benefits can be adjusted. But each new mandate requires some new learning for HR officers, some effort to notify employees, some adjustment to the payroll software. Those burdens add up.

Not to worry, though! Businesses might even save money under this proposed new mandate:

Proponents point out that the bill could even wind up benefiting employers in the long run. According to the World Resource Institute, converting a non-active employee into a bike commuter saves $3,000 in employer health care costs and reduced absenteeism.

Critics insist that corporations are greedy, crafty, always focused on the bottom line. And yet they believe that there are all these free lunches—these $20 bills lying on the sidewalk waiting to be picked up, as economists say—that businesses are just missing. Just maybe, when businesses oppose new regulations, they have a better sense of their costs and opportunities than councilmembers and activists do.

D.C. currently has an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, higher than the national average of 4.4 and much higher than the D.C. metropolitan area rate of 3.9 percent. If the Council would like to see some of those suburban jobs move into the District, it might consider reducing the burdens on business. 

Posted on September 27, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Bill De Blasio Is America’s Marxist Mayor

There’s been plenty of talk about the radical right lately, involving both the United States and Europe. This is unfortunately necessary, as ideas we thought we’d left behind — socialism, protectionism even anti-Semitism — are back again.

But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the only threat to liberalism is the alt-right. Many forces on the left support some of those old, bad ideas, and they’re not all masked antifa.

Take protectionism, for instance. The Washington Post reports that “rather than jeer Trump’s protectionist positions, Democrats are echoing them and amplifying them.” The Democratic platform in 2016 rebuked President Bill Clinton’s trade deals, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton reversed her support for a trade deal with Asian countries.

And socialism. A democratic socialist who praised Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela came darn near defeating the Democratic party’s anointed presidential candidate. And both Hillary Clinton and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz were either unable or unwilling to explain “What’s the difference between a socialist and a Democrat?”

Now comes New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, a favorite among “progressive” Democrats whom New York Democratic voters easily nominated for a second term on Tuesday, to explain to a friendly interviewer that the obstacle to economic progress is private property:

What’s been hardest is the way our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. I think there’s a socialistic impulse, which I hear every day, in every kind of community, that they would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights and wealth to the point that that’s the reality that calls the tune on a lot of development….

Look, if I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents. That’s a world I’d love to see, and I think what we have, in this city at least, are people who would love to have the New Deal back, on one level. They’d love to have a very, very powerful government, including a federal government, involved in directly addressing their day-to-day reality.

This is mind-boggling. The mayor of the world’s financial center, the hub of American and global capitalism, thinks that the obstacle to progress is private property, the institutional system that has brought billions of people around the world out of back-breaking poverty. Thinks that politicians should determine where building should be built and “who gets to live in it.” Thinks that the people of enterprising New York City have a widespread impulse toward socialism and comprehensive, coercive central planning.

But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the only threat to liberalism is the alt-right.

Mayor de Blasio says he’d like to have the power to determine what happens on every piece of land in the city. Other leaders have had such power, in the Soviet Union and China and Venezuela, and those systems did not produce progress. Or even toilet paper.

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism says, “Of the different configurations of property rights, only private property provides a workable basis for a free society, a productive economy and justice.” And, “Private property restricts government power and decentralizes decision making. It confers on an individual the right to use and dispose of some good.”

That’s just what irks Mayor de Blasio: Property rights limit his power and give individuals, not him, the right to decide how to use their property.

Private property is necessary for freedom. It divides and limits power. It allows markets and trade to happen, creating economic growth. It protects freedom of the press because ideas are expressed through property — printing presses, auditoriums, billboards, audio equipment, broadcast frequencies, computer networks, web servers and so on.

Countries that have comprehensively denied private property rights have found themselves without freedom or prosperity — and with plenty of inequality. Mayor de Blasio’s ideas are deeply dangerous, all the more so because he’s not an internet troll or a perennial losing candidate but the mayor of a great city built on the foundation he wants to destroy.

Like the ideas animating the new radical right, the new radical left is embracing ideas that have brought human misery wherever they have been tried.

Posted on September 13, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

In Defense of the Mainstream Media

At a conference recently I defended the mainstream media. And who wouldn’t, really? But I was speaking on the closing panel at FreedomFest (or as my partner put it, I played the big room in Vegas), which is often called a libertarian conference but had plenty of Trumpists this July. So I wasn’t just preaching to the choir. Above, video of my three-minute filibuster. 

On the panel, Steve Forbes said that “the so-called mainstream media is becoming less and less relevant” thanks to new technology and social media, and that they are “ideological frauds” and “totalitarian frauds.” I disagreed with him. I noted first that I do think the mainstream media such as NPR fail to adequately examine the most important fact in modern history—what Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Fact, the enormous and continuing increase in human longevity and living standards since the industrial revolution. But I went on to say that the mainstream media are our main source of news about the world. And for all the talk about the rise of conservative media, very few conservative media have reporters on the ground around the country and the world. The major media have “real reporters on the ground all over the world,…and a lot of what the right-wing media does is take potshots at those reporters and their reports, and that’s fine, that’s part of the checking process.” But we should remember that the mainstream media “also serve as a check on overbearing, abusive government in the United States and other places in the world.” 

And that’s why, I said, “it’s really discouraging to me to see a president of the United States constantly denouncing the independent media and the independent judiciary as enemies of the American people, as purveyors of fake news.”

I’ve criticized, here and elsewhere, plenty of examples of what I see as media bias. But I am in sympathy with Thomas Jefferson when he wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. “

The whole FreedomFest panel video is not online but can be purchased.

Posted on September 12, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

President Trump Welcomes Anwar Ibrahim’s Jailer to the White House

Anwar Ibrahim and David Boaz

Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and finance minister of Malaysia and later leader of the opposition in the parliament, is currently in jail for the second time on trumped-up charges. His jailer, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, will be welcomed to the White House by President Trump on Tuesday.

A Wall Street Journal editorial notes:

A visit to the White House is a diplomatic plum that world leaders covet. So why is President Trump bestowing this honor on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who jailed an opposition leader and is a suspect in a corruption scandal that spans the globe?

Mr. Najib will visit the White House next week for a presidential photo-op that could help him win the next general election and imperil Malaysia’s democracy. 

From 1981 to 1998 Anwar was a rising star in the UMNO party, which has produced all of Malaysia’s prime ministers since its formation in 1963. In the late 1990s, however, he became a vocal critic of what he described as the widespread culture of nepotism and cronyism within UMNO. This angered Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

They also disagreed on how to respond to the Asian financial crisis, as Wikipedia describes:

[As finance minister, Anwar] also instituted an austerity package that cut government spending by 18%, cut ministerial salaries and deferred major projects. “Mega projects”, despite being a cornerstone of Mahathir’s development strategy, were greatly curtailed.

Although many Malaysian companies faced bankruptcy, Anwar declared: “There is no question of any bailout. The banks will be allowed to protect themselves and the government will not interfere.” Anwar advocated a free-market approach to the crisis, including foreign investment and trade liberalisation. Mahathir blamed currency speculators like George Soros for the crisis, and supported currency controls and tighter regulation of foreign investment.

Anwar was removed from office and then jailed in a trial that was criticized around the world. Amnesty International said that his trial “exposed a pattern of political manipulation of key state institutions including the police, public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary.” After his release from jail in 2004 he became leader of an opposition party and then in 2015 was sent back to jail. 

In 2005 Anwar visited the Cato Institute. In the photo above, I’m giving him a copy of my book Libertarianism: A Primer, which he told me had already read – in prison. What a thing for an author to hear! Understandably, the thought of the president of the United States honoring his jailer is especially painful.

When the English Leveller John Lilburne was tried for sedition and treason in 1649, he declared, “I shall leave this Testimony behind me, that I died for the Laws and Liberties of this nation.” American presidents should honor heroes who can make such claims, not their oppressors.

Posted on September 8, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

About David Boaz

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