Who Profits from Gambling?

Governor Kate Brown opposes a plan by the Coquille Indian Tribe to build a casino in Medford.

In her public statement, the Governor said, “even a single additional casino is likely to lead to significant efforts to expand gaming across Oregon to the detriment of the public welfare.”

What she actually means is she’s opposed to more gambling if it’s not run by state government.

During the current two-year budget cycle, Oregon expects to earn $1.2 billion from the state Lottery. In January, Powerball mania resulted in record sales of $36 million in one week. A Lottery spokesman said, “Any time sales go up, that’s a good thing for our beneficiaries.”

The hypocrisy of Oregon politicians about gambling and other so-called “sinful” activities is tiresome. We are constantly lectured to avoid smoking, drinking, and gambling because those activities are bad for us; but as soon as legislators get a cut of the action, it’s full steam ahead.

Now that recreational marijuana is legal and taxed, politicians are suddenly enjoying a new profit stream. Can marijuana advertising be far behind?

As soon as our governor starts reining in the state Lottery, I might take her concerns about tribal casinos seriously. Until then, she should stop pretending to be a voice of morality.

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!

How Much of the Year Do Your Taxes Cost?

If every penny earned since the beginning of the year went to pay federal, state, and local taxes, Americans would have to work until the middle of April just to cover their tax bills. Tax Freedom Day is a calendar-based illustration of the cost of government which divides all taxes by the nation’s income. By this calculation, Americans typically work more than a hundred days a year, and pay about a third of their earned income, to all levels of government.

But this is only what Americans actually pay, not what government spends. If annual federal borrowing were taken into account, representing future taxes owed, Tax Freedom Day wouldn’t occur until May. That’s more than two weeks of federal government spending paid for by borrowing.

Americans pay more in taxes ($4.85 trillion) than they do on food, clothing, and housing combined. The saying goes, you should “work to live, not live to work.” But the more government grows, the more Americans are working less to live and more to pay for runaway government spending. That leaves fewer resources to invest in the real engines of economic growth: private sector businesses that create jobs and produce goods and services for a market fueled by Americans’ hard-earned purchasing power.

Don’t Steal the Kicker

Would you like to pay $284 less in Oregon personal income tax next year? That’s what the average taxpayer may save if Oregon’s constitutional kicker law is allowed to take effect.

The kicker law requires that if actual state revenue for a biennium exceeds the official economic forecast by two percent or more, the entire surplus is returned to those taxpayers who earned it. It now appears that the state will collect $473 million more than projected and thus have to give all that money back to taxpayers, in the form of a 6.7% credit on their tax bill.

Well, not if State Representative Tobias Read of Beaverton has anything to say about it. He’s introduced House Bill 3555 that would suspend the kicker and send all that money to schools and the state’s rainy day fund. The bill requires a two-thirds super majority vote in both houses of the legislature, something that hopefully will be very hard to do.

Read says that his bill “gives us an opportunity to invest in the things that reflect our values as Oregonians….” Apparently, “our values” don’t include things like carrying out the intent of the voters when they put the kicker in the Oregon Constitution. “Our values” apparently also don’t include letting people keep as much of their own money as possible to spend on the things that they think will benefit their own families.

Government-Imposed Minimum Wage Increases Don’t Work for Oregon Small Businesses

The concept that everyone should earn at least some government-mandated minimum wage is politically very appealing. It’s almost the classic example of taking from the few and giving to the many. “The few” in this case are portrayed as rich businessmen who could never spend all the money they have, so what’s wrong with making them pay their workers a little more? Now, proponents of raising Oregon’s minimum wage are trying to convince us that somehow such policy is actually good for small business owners.

A recent report from the Oregon Center for Public Policy claims that a higher minimum wage works for small businesses by giving them “more of what they need most: customers with money.”

In reality, raising the minimum wage would only benefit small businesses if owners didn’t mind depleting their own savings or investment funds in order to support higher labor costs. Otherwise, they would have little choice but to raise prices, which would harm all their customers, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

And, because minimum wage laws actually cut off those lower rungs on the economic ladder, younger, less educated, and less experienced workers will be even less likely to get or keep the very jobs they need to be customers in the first place. They may spend their unemployment checks, but those checks won’t go as far once prices are raised to cover the higher labor costs that a boost in the minimum wage imposes.

The argument that a higher minimum wage pumps more money into the economy assumes that the resulting pay increases are somehow “new money.” In reality, much if not all of that “new money” will be offset by a corresponding loss of savings or investment funds that otherwise would contribute to more economic growth and hiring more workers.

Just because low-wage workers are likely to quickly spend any wage increases doesn’t mean that on balance that’s good for small business. Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean small business owners, and everyone else, should never save and invest for the future, but immediately spend every dollar they earn also. If this behavior really benefitted the economy, why are we seemingly so concerned about the dismal rate of saving and investing for retirement among Oregonians? Couldn’t small businesses benefit even more by encouraging everyone to spend all their income right now?

Another set of arguments for raising the minimum wage include the assumptions that higher wages “motivate employees to work harder;” “attract more capable and productive workers;” “lead to lower turnover, reducing the cost of hiring and training new workers;” and “enhance quality and customer service.”

While higher wages may lead to the benefits stated above, if business owners believe that is the case then they should be willing and eager to raise wages whenever possible. The fact that minimum wage proponents want to force business owners to reap these benefits weakens their case.

Finally, there is a real irony in the campaign to boost Oregon’s minimum wage. Minimum wage laws conspicuously leave out a class of individuals who don’t get a paycheck from someone else, but hopefully get one from themselves. Self-employed people, small business owners, and entrepreneurs trade a steady paycheck for the opportunity to be their own boss. They often risk everything―their homes, their savings, all their assets―to build a business that might someday earn them a much higher paycheck than they could ever earn working for someone else.

But, while building a business, many entrepreneurs actually earn less than the minimum wage. They may actually have negative earnings, dipping into savings or borrowing money to keep their doors open and pay their employees. And yet, if these risk-takers hire anyone to help them make their dreams come true, government says they must pay those workers at least $9.25 per hour in Oregon today, and perhaps as much as $15 per hour in the near future.

So, while business owners are free to do a lot of things, and take a lot of risks, one thing they cannot do is hire anybody for less than the minimum wage, even if they are earning less than that themselves. Of course, this may not be a winning argument politically.

It’s easier to demonize supposedly “rich” business owners than to tell workers and job seekers the uncomfortable truth that to be employed in a successful business they must produce as much or more value than they wish to be paid.

Proponents of raising the government-mandated minimum wage know that they have little to lose and much to gain politically by telling young, less educated, and less skilled workers that they deserve to be paid more, and it’s only greedy business owners standing between them and the higher wages they desire.

Let’s just hope that if another bump in Oregon’s minimum wage results in some workers losing their jobs and others not getting hired in the first place that they place the blame for their troubles where it belongs―not on employers, but on those who promised them higher wages but couldn’t deliver because economic reality stood in the way.

Proposed Tobacco Tax Increase Will Simply Encourage More Smuggling

State legislatures across the country have piled on the tobacco taxes over the past decade. Not surprisingly, this has created a growing problem of tobacco smuggling. As the tax rate rises, it encourages people to buy products from low-tax states and sell them illegally in high-tax states.

New York is the most obvious example of this problem. The Empire State has a tax rate of $4.35/pack, far higher than most other states. As a result, an estimated 57% of all cigarettes sold in New York are brought in by smugglers.

This creates multiple problems. Cigarette buyers are inconvenienced; state legislators lose the tax revenue they were hoping for; and smuggling increases the likelihood of violence, since there are no legal ways to settle disputes among competitors.

These lessons seem lost on Oregon legislators. The House Revenue committee will consider House Bill 2555 on February 25, which would raise the tobacco tax by $1.00/pack. Currently, only about 12.7% of Oregon cigarettes are smuggled. If the new tax passes, more sales will take place in the underground economy, and net revenue to the state could actually decline.

With smoking now banned in virtually all indoor environments, the non-smoking majority is completely protected from secondhand smoke. There is no reason for additional taxes just because smokers are in the minority.

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Equal Outcome Is the Wrong Goal

In Governor Kitzhaber’s final inaugural address this week, he focused on the themes of equality and community. Specifically, he wants to reduce the gap between rich and poor. He also believes that only through collective action can we achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, his obsession with “equal outcome” guarantees that we will lose “equal opportunity.”

For instance, our Governor is passionate about spending more public money on the “free” public education system, because free education is supposed to make everyone better off. But the taxes required for this very expensive entitlement impose major burdens on families that prefer to educate their children at home or through private schools.

Is the Governor proposing legislation offering a money-back guarantee so that dissatisfied parents can get a refund and spend their tax dollars on the schools of their own choosing? No, he is not. His insistence that we all pay for a generic service makes him feel better about himself, but deprives actual students of educational opportunities.

The governor may dream of a more equal world, but if he insists on regulating his way towards that goal, he will dramatically reduce our personal freedom. And what most people really care about is the opportunity to pursue their own dreams, regardless of whether the eventual outcome makes them richer or poorer than their neighbors.

Income Inequality: A Problem That Isn’t

The debate over “income inequality” has simmered for some time, but now seems to be upfront as a key dividing line in American politics. President Obama uses the concept to make his case for raising the federal minimum wage. And, the Oregon Department of Employment reports on the so-called growing wage gap between rich and poor in our in state as though that were our primary economic problem.

But many who see income inequality as a major problem tend to have a fuzzy understanding of how our economy works―and who is to blame for our economic problems. They seem to think capitalism is evil. They seem to think “rich people” are evil, and they assume rich people gained their wealth by stealing money from the rest of us.

But that’s wrong. Most rich people got that way because they operate in our free-market system to provide goods or services that the rest of us willingly purchase. They create value for us, and for themselves.

Take, for example, the late Steve Jobs of Apple Computers. Jobs died in 2011 at the age of 56. From starting Apple in his garage back in 1976, he accumulated some $8 billion by creating and selling a number of very innovative products to millions of people. From desktop computers, to iPods, to iPhones, and now iPad tablets, Jobs made many lives easier and more enjoyable, and made many of us more productive. For that, those of us who freely purchased his products rewarded him with great wealth. He didn’t steal money from his customers. No one was forced to buy Apple products.

And yet, many people seem to believe that somehow Jobs and other rich people did just that: stole money from them. They think rich people get rich by making other people poor. What they fail to recognize is that poverty is not created. It’s the default condition of mankind. It’s wealth that has to be created.

People like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Sam Walton of Walmart created fabulous amounts of wealth by meeting the needs of the rest of us. We gladly buy their products because they make us better off, not because there is some government mandate that we do so.

But, President Obama either doesn’t understand that or chooses to ignore it. In 2010 he told us that he thinks at a certain point “you’ve made enough money,” meaning that after that point you should pay more taxes than other people.

However, rich people are, if anything, already paying more than their fair share. In the year the President made that statement, the top one percent of tax returns included 18.87 percent of all adjusted gross income and 37.38 percent of all federal individual income taxes paid. The top 5 percent earned 33.78 percent of income and paid 59.07 percent of taxes. The top 10 percent earned 45.17 percent of income and paid 70.62 percent of taxes. How much more should they pay to make everything “fair?”

Billionaire Warren Buffet says that, because much of his income is in the form of capital gains, he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Those who seem to envy the rich are demanding he pay at least as much as his secretary. They want to raise his tax rate up to hers.

But I suggest instead that we might want to lower her rate, and ours, down to Buffet’s. I think most of us would prefer to have our taxes lowered, rather than increase taxes on the few billionaires among us. That would help make most of us better off, rather than making the rich few worse off.

And, even if income inequality were a bad thing, a strong case can be made that government solutions may make the inequality worse. As recently noted by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, President Obama’s proposed $10.10 minimum wage, if applied across the economy, likely would reduce total employment by some 500,000 jobs. This is another acknowledgement that raising wages above what relatively unskilled workers are worth to a business is likely to lead to some of those workers either not being hired, or actually losing jobs they already had at the bottom of the economic ladder. Raising the minimum wage simply chops off some of those lower rungs on the ladder.

Whether or not income inequality is fair, finding ways to reduce it by helping low-income earners improve their skills and qualify for more demanding positions would be a good idea. However, reducing it by pounding down the top earners through higher taxes will not help low-income earners; it will actually make them worse off.

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

Cascade in the Capitol: Tax Reform Testimony Presented to the Senate Finance Committee

Senior Policy Analyst Steve Buckstein testified on Thursday before the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue about a series of tax reform proposals. Below is his testimony to the panel of legislators.

Testimony before the Senate Committee
on Finance and Revenue
regarding Tax Bill HB 2456
by Steve Buckstein

Good afternoon, Chair Burdick, Vice-Chair George, and members of the Committee. My name is Steve Buckstein. I’m Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, which is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank based in Portland. Cascade’s mission is to develop and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity.

I’m here to express my support for amending HB 2456 to include a new, lower income tax rate for most small businesses in the state. Small businesses, including start-ups and individual entrepreneurs, are a significant source of job creation. I have it on good authority that all state legislators would like to take credit for creating more jobs in this state. Here’s your chance.

I cannot support other changes in the bill which would jack up tax rates on C corporations and in effect raise taxes on high-income individuals. Such provisions will simply reinforce Oregon’s reputation as business-unfriendly.

In this modern world, people and capital are mobile. Investors and businesspeople change their behavior based on the incentives and disincentives they face. Oregon’s high tax rates shine like a big STOP sign at the border, warning high-income people and most businesses that the cost of coming here may be too high compared to other states.

So, by all means lower tax rates where you can, especially for small businesses. And rather than rely on taxing others more to generate revenue, rely on the fact that making Oregon more business friendly will in itself generate revenue–and jobs.

Thank you.

Cascade in the Capitol: Testimony Against Local Tobacco Tax Proposal

John A. Charles, Jr. submitted testimony on Monday to the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue, speaking against a proposal to allow counties to impose local tobacco taxes.


Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO 

Before the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue

Regarding HB 2870-A

April 29, 2012 

 

I am writing in opposition to HB 2870-A.

This bill suffers from an inherent contradiction in its twin policy objectives: raising money and reducing tobacco consumption. For one to succeed, the other must fail.

None of the proponents want to admit this. They prefer to claim that the primary goal is “public health.” However,  the bill only requires that a minimum of 40% of the proceeds be spent on tobacco use prevention and cessation programs, which means that 60% of the funds will go for other uses. This clearly shows that public health is not the primary motivation behind the bill, revenue generation is.

If we admit that this is just a money bill, then there is no compelling argument in favor of taxing a product used by only a fifth of the population, in order to create a revenue stream that will likely benefit everyone. The only reason such bills get introduced is because it is politically easy to pick on a minority group engaged in a habit that is publicly scorned.  But we should not tax minorities just because we can.

If local governments genuinely want to spend more money on tobacco cessation programs, they already have access to the MSA settlement funds. Oregon has received over $1 billion in MSA money since 1998, but virtually none of it has gone to directly help smokers. Since that was one of the express purposes of creating the fund, I’d suggest local governments direct their lobbying efforts at state legislators who continue to use revenue from the MSA as an all-purpose slush fund.

Between state and federal tobacco taxes, plus the price hikes needed by the major tobacco companies to make the MSA payments, tobacco users have paid more than their fair share for any so-called “negative social externalities” associated with smoking. Please leave them alone by tabling HB 2870.

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