About Steve Buckstein

Senior Policy Analyst and founder.

A Sales Tax by Any Other Name…

Public employee union backers of Initiative Petition 28 have turned in more than enough signatures to place their massive 2.5 percent gross receipts tax measure on Oregon’s November ballot.

While supposedly dedicating most of the $6 billion per biennium additional tax revenue to public education, health care, and senior services, in reality legislators would be under pressure from powerful lobbyists in the Capitol to substitute at least some of this new revenue for money they would otherwise dedicate to those services. In short, the loudest voices in Salem, not voters, will ultimately control where this extra tax money goes.

While the unions portray their measure as making large, out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of Oregon taxes, the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office has released a detailed report giving a much more balanced perspective, which includes:

■ IP 28 will increase state and local taxes by $600 per year on average for every man, woman, and child in Oregon, totaling over $6 billion each full biennium.

■ IP 28 will dampen income, employment, and population growth over the next 5 years. In fact, it is expected to reduce employment growth by more than 20,000 jobs over the next five years, with private sector job growth slowing while public sector job growth accelerates in order to spend all that new tax money.

■ IP 28 will hit lower- and middle-income Oregonians harder than it will affect high-income earners. In other words, it is a regressive tax.

Perhaps most telling, the Legislative Revenue Office concludes that IP 28 will act largely like a consumption tax. It estimates that roughly two-thirds of that $6 billion per biennium tax increase will be passed on to Oregon consumers in the form of higher prices. Another name for a consumption tax is a sales tax.

The reality that IP 28 would effectively be a sales tax should be a lesson for all Oregonians that businesses generally don’t pay taxes, people do. Even the largest corporations are made up of people, namely employees, and sell their goods and services to other people, namely customers. It is largely these two groups of people who pay so-called business taxes like the one that IP 28 would impose.

The backers of IP 28 certainly understand that it is really a tax on people, not corporations. But, it is harder to get voters to approve a tax measure when they think it will hit them with rising prices at the store and fewer job opportunities. Better to promote the fiction that big faceless corporations have some magic pots of money that they will simply hand over to state government and public employees without any consequences for the rest of us.

Public employee unions back IP 28 because most of the tax revenue it would generate will go into the pockets of their members. Once the rest of us realize that this money will come primarily out of our pockets, we might not be too excited about voting for this massive new money grab.


A version of this article originally appeared in The Coos Bay World on June 1, 2016.

Voters Decided to Leave Themselves Stranded by the Side of the Road

In the month since voters in Austin, Texas upheld new city regulations on ridesharing companies like Uber, the law of unintended consequences has been confirmed.

Austin’s highly regulated taxi industry got the city to impose strict regulations on their competition, but Uber and Lyft threatened to pull out of the city rather than comply with rules they said would be bad for them and their customers. The ridesharing companies backed an initiative to repeal the regulations.

As one pundit noted, a majority of voters decided “…to leave themselves stranded by the side of the road frantically searching for a ride. Well, that’s not what they’d say they did. Strictly speaking, they voted to stick it to corporate interests—by supporting political interests who favored other corporate interests.”

The unintended consequences of that vote included about 10,000 ridesharing drivers losing their employment, bars losing business as people had fewer ways to get home safely, and disabled residents looking for new ways to get around the city.

The market responded quickly with unregulated “black market” services such as Austin Underground Ride springing up to meet demand.

Austin voters may not have realized that the only way big corporations become big in a free market is by meeting consumer demand. In this case, Uber and Lyft may become a little bit smaller, but everyone in Austin lost some of their transportation freedom.

A Sales Tax by Any Other Name

Public employee union backers of Initiative Petition 28 appear to have turned in more than enough signatures to place their 2.5 percent corporate gross receipts tax on Oregon’s November ballot.

While the unions portray their measure as making large, out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of Oregon taxes, the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office (LRO) just released its more balanced perspective, which includes:

■ IP 28 will increase state and local taxes by $600 per year on average for every man, woman, and child in Oregon, totaling over $6 billion each full biennium.

■ IP 28 will dampen income, employment, and population growth over the next 5 years.

■ IP 28 will hit lower- and middle-income Oregonians harder than it will affect high-income earners. In other words, it is a regressive tax.

■ Finally, the Legislative Revenue Office concludes that IP 28 will act largely like a consumption tax. It estimates that roughly two-thirds of the $6 billion per biennium tax increase will be passed on to Oregon consumers in the form of higher prices.

Another name for a consumption tax is a sales tax.

Public employee unions back IP 28 because most of the tax revenue it would generate will go into the pockets of their members. Of course, that revenue will come out of everyone else’s pockets.

Help the Working Poor Adam Smith’s Way

This year’s May Day activities in Portland centered on promoting “workers’ rights” and “resistance to capitalism.” Unfortunately, too few critics of capitalism seem to realize that many of the workers they seek to help are being kept from using their knowledge and talents by a system of occupational licensure that dates back centuries.

May Day activists may not know that eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and political economist Adam Smith, Capitalism’s Founding Father, was not simply interested in how markets profit those they now call “the one percent.” In fact, Smith strongly condemned restrictions on the working poor that kept them from benefiting from free exchange and the division of labor enabled by markets.

What in Smith’s day was called “incorporated trade” is today known as occupational licensure. Smith noted that apprenticeship requirements for weavers, hatters, tailors, etc., kept many out of these trades, while raising the wages of those already secure in them.

Today, most states impose fees and training requirements that keep many workers from entering dozens of occupations such as cosmetology, athletic training, and dry wall installation. Oregon, in fact, imposes some of the heaviest occupational licensing burdens on the working poor.

So, rather than simply berating capitalism, it would be nice if May Day activists could study a little economic history and then help reduce some of the licensing restrictions that limit workers’ rights today.

Do You Support the Free Market, But…?

I first wrote in 2003 about what I call “The Statement”:

“I support the free market just as much as you do, but….”

I had been hearing versions of The Statement in and around political and business circles for years. It impinged on one of the first issues Cascade Policy Institute tackled in the year of our founding, 1991. The city of Portland was planning to franchise residential garbage service (which it eventually did at the expense of consumers). At the time Portland was the largest city in the country without government garbage service or a private monopoly protected by law.

After I had written and testified before city council about the harmful effects of government intrusion into the garbage business, a local garbage hauler called me. He wanted to explain how protected franchises—that is, government-protected private monopolies—were actually a good thing.

After a few minutes he realized that I wasn’t buying his arguments, so he made what I later labeled The Statement: “I support the free market just as much as you do, but….” The “but” in this case was the exception he felt should be made to protect his business from competition and consumer choice.

Over the years I’ve heard The Statement from business people who argue that the State of Oregon and local jurisdictions should continue protecting them from new competition in all sorts of industries. The Portland taxi cartel successfully protected its position for decades before Cascade and others helped a group of Ethiopian immigrants to enter the market with Green Cab in 1998. Then, in 2015 the expanded taxi cartel tried to rely on The Statement to fight off ridesharing companies like Uber until the new smartphone technology that enabled them gave consumers power to demand that local governments allow the transportation freedom they promised…and delivered.

At the Capitol in Salem, I heard The Statement from business lobbyists who argued that the free market was great…except that their clients should be protected from new competitors in the home moving and natural hair braiding fields. Of course, these lobbyists weren’t simply protecting the interests of their paying clients…no, they always argued that keeping competitors out was for the benefit of the public health and safety. Luckily for the public, these arguments failed; and it is now much easier for aspiring entrepreneurs to enter these fields in Oregon, providing more choices for consumers and more economic opportunities for themselves.

On the national scene we’re now hearing a version of The Statement when presidential candidates say something like, “I’m for free trade too, but….” Flawed economic arguments about foreigners “taking our jobs” and other nations harming America by somehow imposing trade deficits on us are trotted out to justify protecting some businesses against others, and against consumers.

Business people argue for government protection at their peril. If government is justified in controlling who can provide our garbage service, or taxi service, or natural hair braiding, then why shouldn’t it control who can sell us our food, clothing, and shelter—all things we cannot do without?

If government can deny us the right to buy products produced in other countries, or can slap high tariffs on those products so that we have to pay much higher prices, how is this protecting “we the public”? Isn’t it really protecting “they, the special business interests”?

Lest anyone mistakenly believe that Cascade Policy Institute is “pro-business,” we are not. Rather, we are pro-liberty, pro-free-markets, and pro-consumer-choice. We understand that the slippery slope to a government-controlled economy begins when capitalists fail to consistently defend capitalism. The resulting economy harms most consumers and businesses alike at the expense of those who work for and are protected by big government.

There may be a case for government limiting competition in some fields and subsidizing some businesses at the expense of others; it’s just not a free-market case.

Enjoy the illusion that you’re not really paying taxes, when you cash that expensive refund check

Are you happy getting three extra days to file your income tax returns this year?

For nearly eighty percent of us, it doesn’t matter much because we are expecting refunds. No check writing for us. Why? Because the withholding system almost encourages over-withholding, thus giving the impression that we don’t pay taxes, the government pays us!

Try a little experiment. Ask ten of your friends how much they paid in taxes. Chances are, eight of them might say something like, “I didn’t pay anything, I’m getting money back!”

This happened because my hero Milton Friedman had one of his few bad ideas when he proposed the withholding concept while working at the Treasury Department during World War II. The government needed money fast to finance the war effort, and as Friedman said years later:

“It never occurred to me at the time that I was helping to develop machinery that would make possible a government that I would come to criticize severely as too large, too intrusive, too destructive of freedom. Yet, that was precisely what I was doing.”

Of course, by over-withholding we’re just giving the government an interest-free loan. But psychologically, doesn’t it feel nice getting that refund check?

So, enjoy the illusion that you’re not really paying taxes when you cash that expensive refund check. You paid dearly for it!

Governor Jerry Brown: “Economically, Minimum Wages May Not Make Sense”

As California Governor Jerry Brown signed his state’s $15 minimum wage bill into law on April 4, he acknowledged, “Economically, minimum wages may not make sense.” He went on to say that work is “not just an economic equation,” calling labor “part of living in a moral community.” “Morally and socially and politically, [minimum wages] make every sense because it binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way,” Brown said.

So now it’s official—at least in our neighbor to the south—that laws don’t have to make economic sense for politicians to enact them. Laws just have to somehow “bind the community together.” When a strong majority of voters want a law to pass, as they apparently do for higher minimum wages, politicians take that as a signal that they can give voters what they want even if the law will hurt many of the very people they claim it will help. Governor Brown was just honest enough in this case to effectively admit that people may be hurt, but so what? Binding the community together apparently makes everything OK.

Of course, communities bound together by such faulty ideas will eventually come unbound, at least in the sense that many of their members will be priced out of the jobs and economic opportunity the politicians promised they would enjoy.

Minimum wage laws primarily hurt younger, less skilled, and less educated workers who will lose their jobs or not get jobs in the first place because employers can’t justify paying them what the law says they must. Employers who can’t generate enough, or any, profits at mandatory higher wage rates will also be hurt, as will consumers who end up paying higher prices they can ill afford in return for “binding their communities together.”

The governor of New York signed his state’s new $15 minimum wage law on April 4 also, and Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown signed our new slightly lower minimum wage law on March 2. Neither of these two leaders acknowledged what California’s governor did: that minimum wage laws may not make economic sense. They probably know it, but why raise doubts? They would much rather take plenty of credit, and later blame employers for not delivering the economic goodies government is so good at promising and so bad at producing.

Where Did President Obama Stay in Cuba?

This week, Barack Obama became the first U.S. President in nearly 90 years to visit the country of Cuba. While security concerns may have prevented him staying in a private home rented through Airbnb, he would have had some 2,700 such homes to choose from in Havana alone.

The amazing thing is that Cuba is a communist country, yet it allows short-term room rental services to operate, while some major American cities such as Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles do not.

While the American President likely rode through the streets of Havana in his own armored limousine, he apparently could have ridden in one of those iconic 57 Chevys if the driver had one of the still rare and expensive Cuban email accounts. Such ride-sharing services are also allowed in Havana, while Uber and Lyft are still fighting powerful taxi monopolies in some American cities.

We can have legitimate disagreements about normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba; but we should applaud the movement toward private home ownership and use, and the entrepreneurial opportunities its communist government now allows.

It will be ironic if Cuba comes into the modern free-market era at the same time that some American politicians try to impose more government restrictions on the very economic freedoms that many Cuban refugees risked their lives to achieve by coming here.

If Socialism Is Like Playing Checkers, Capitalism Is Like Playing Chess

Now that former world chess champion Garry Kasparov has weighed into the American presidential campaign, it seems fitting to explain his support of capitalism and disdain for the socialism he lived under as a Soviet citizen in terms of the differences between playing chess and playing checkers.

When you hear the expression “We’re playing checkers, while they’re playing chess,” you understand that the speaker believes his opponents are playing a more sophisticated game. In this sense, socialism is a simple economic game: You see a problem and you assume that the government is the tool that will solve it. It’s relatively easy to sell a straightforward checker move to the public. It may be harder to sell a more sophisticated chess move, even if it is the better solution to your problem.

A fascinating commentary in AgainstCronyCapitalism.org points this out:

It rarely occurs to the people calling in the government that perhaps the government will create more problems than it solves. Indeed this concept is so foreign, that when something breaks in our society due to government intervention, the call by many is almost always for yet more government intervention. It’s ridiculous. But I wonder if it is just a reflection of a checkers mentality in a world which demands an understanding of chess. 

The free marketeer is more like the chess player.…

Free market people have a better understanding of chain reactions and of unintended consequences than their statist brothers and sisters. They think a few moves ahead while also understanding the limit of their foresight.…

Society is a living, breathing being. It is organic in nature. It spins out in fractal complexity in every direction. The free marketeer understands this and is humbled by this reality.

On March 1, Garry Kasparov’s self-described “rant” against Bernie Sanders’s socialist “prescription for America” went viral on Facebook, eliciting more than 3,300 comments. Over 63,000 people have shared it with their “friends.” Here it is:

Garry Kasparov

March 1 at 11:57am

I’m enjoying the irony of American Sanders supporters lecturing me, a former Soviet citizen, on the glories of Socialism and what it really means! Socialism sounds great in speech soundbites and on Facebook, but please keep it there. In practice, it corrodes not only the economy but the human spirit itself, and the ambition and achievement that made modern capitalism possible and brought billions of people out of poverty. Talking about Socialism is a huge luxury, a luxury that was paid for by the successes of capitalism. Income inequality is a huge problem, absolutely. But the idea that the solution is more government, more regulation, more debt, and less risk is dangerously absurd. 

Garry Kasparov Yes, please take Scandinavia as an example! Implementing some socialistic elements AFTER becoming a wealthy capitalist economy only works as long as you don’t choke off what made you wealthy to begin with in the process. Again, it’s a luxury item that shouldn’t be confused with what is really doing the work, as many do. And do not forget that nearly all of the countless 20th-century innovations and industries that made the rest of the developed world so efficient and comfortable came from America, and it wasn’t a coincidence. As long as Europe had America taking risks, investing ambitiously, and yes, being “inequal [sic],” it had the luxury of benefiting from the results without making the same sacrifices. Who will be America’s America?

Kasparov then followed up with this longer article amplifying on his points:

Garry Kasparov: Hey, Bernie, Don’t Lecture Me About Socialism. I Lived Through It.

I don’t know if Kasparov thinks of socialism and capitalism in terms of playing checkers versus chess, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. But, his insights are important and worth considering by anyone and everyone considering what economic system has and will best serve America and the world.

No Fake Emergencies

I’ve written and spoken about the damage that minimum wage laws do, not only to business owners, but to their customers and their younger, less experienced, and less educated workers and potential workers.

Normally, bills become law in Oregon no earlier than 90 days after the end of the legislative session in which they pass. But the latest ill-advised minimum wage bill had an Emergency Clause attached, so it becomes law today, the day the Governor signed it. Why is a law that phases in wage increases over six years deemed an Emergency? Because supporters didn’t want to let voters refer it to the ballot.

A real emergency, such as a major earthquake or other natural disaster, may require immediate state action, which is what the Emergency Clause is for. But over half of all bills passed by the legislature last year contained such a clause. Most were emergencies only in the political sense, not the real sense.

It’s time to stop such political games by putting the No Fake Emergencies initiative on the November ballot. It will restore Oregonians’ Constitutional rights to refer most laws to a vote of the people if they wish. Bills will still be able to take effect immediately in the face of real emergencies, just not fake ones.

You can sign the petition to place this initiative on the ballot by going to NoFakeEmergencies.com.


Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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