Monday, March 24, 2014

The Tax Foundation ranks the states

*From the March 26 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

As we approach that dreaded day – April 15 – I thought it appropriate to highlight findings from the recently released “Facts & Figures: How Does Your State Compare?” by the Tax Foundation. The Foundation began publishing this handy guide of state tax ranks in 1941 in order to “give a broader perspective…dissipate predilections and prejudices…and to meet the challenge presented by the broad problems of public finance.”

As a nonpartisan educational organization, the Tax Foundation is a fantastic resource on taxes. I’ve even thought about donating money to the group, which I guess is super nerdy. (Hey, we’ve all got our causes.)

Tax Foundation research is guided by the following principles of sound tax policy: Simplicity, transparency, neutrality, stability, no retroactivity, and broad based/low tax rates. In other words, these are the principles to which policymakers should adhere in order to develop tax structures that generate sufficient revenue while encouraging economic growth and treating taxpayers fairly.

Here are some of Mississippi’s facts and figures as highlighted in the publication.

March 29th is our “tax freedom day,” which represents how long Mississippians have to work into the year before they have earned enough money to pay all federal, state, and local taxes for the year.

Mississippi ranks in the top twenty states on the competitive business tax climate index, which takes into account corporate income, individual income, sales, unemployment insurance, and property taxes. Our state has the 17th most competitive business tax climate in the nation, with the 5th most favorable tax in the nation on unemployment insurance.

Important to any discussion on taxes is the makeup of how state and local governments get their revenues. In Mississippi, 27.5 percent of tax revenues are generated through property taxes; 32 percent through general sales taxes; 15.1 percent through individual income taxes; 3.8 percent through corporate income taxes; and 21.7 percent through other taxes such as excise or severance taxes.

In Fiscal Year 2011, Mississippi collected $504 in individual income taxes per capita. When accounting for local tax collections, this figure falls to $470 per capita.

While our seven percent general sales tax rate ranks second highest (tied with Indiana, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Tennessee), our average local tax rate is virtually zero (Mississippi doesn’t typically allow the levying of local sales taxes, although the City of Jackson is a notable example otherwise). Our combined rank on sales taxes is 20th in the nation.

All in all, I guess Mississippi ranks pretty middle-of-the-road when it comes to taxes. We excel in some areas yet lack a competitive tax structure in others. We could do a better job adhering to the principles outlined by the Tax Foundation, and that’s something to keep in mind.

As local and state government revenues increase with an improving economy, policymakers should govern with an eye toward reforming our tax structure to become even more competitive with surrounding states. The 2014 Facts & Figures guide by the Tax Foundation would be a good place to start those discussions.

In a world of seriousness, a breath (er, brief?) of fresh air

*First appeared in the March 19, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Every once in a blue moon, something comes around that’s simply worth sharing as is. This column highlights one of those instances where I inform you, with limited commentary, about a very funny (yet incredibly important) issue.

The Cato Institute recently filed an amicus brief regarding Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, a case involving an Ohio state law that prohibits false statements in elections.

As described on Cato’s blog: “Believe it or not, it’s illegal in Ohio to lie about politicians, for politicians to lie about other politicians, or for politicians to lie about themselves. That is, it violates an election law – this isn’t anything related to slander or libel, which has higher standards of proof for public figures – to make ‘false statements’ in campaign-related contexts.”

Because of a scuffle-turned-lawsuit between a pro-life advocacy group (the Susan B. Anthony List) and a then-Rep. Steven Driehaus, the constitutionality of this unique Ohio law has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

And that’s where it gets interesting. Did I mention “legendary satirist” and Ohio-native P.J. O’Rourke joins Cato as a fellow amicus on the brief?

A brief bio on O’Rourke: He was born and raised in Toledo and has been “writing funny things” since the 1960s on topics as varied as wars, riots, politics, cars, etiquette, economics, and, now, free speech issues.

To the question presented before the Supreme Court – “Can a state government criminalize political statements that are less than 100% truthful?” – O’Rourke has quite the response.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are the opening lines:

“I am not a crook.”

“Read my lips: no new taxes!”

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

“Mission accomplished.”

“If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.”

“While George Washington may have been incapable of telling a lie, his successors have not had this same integrity. The campaign promise (and its subsequent violation), as well as disparaging statements about one’s opponent (whether true, mostly true, mostly not true, or entirely fantastic), are cornerstones of American democracy. Indeed, mocking and satire are as old as America.”

The brief continues its discussion of “truthiness” in similar fashion, asking where we would be, after all, “without the knowledge that Democrats are pinko-communist flag-burners who want to tax churches and use the money to fund abortions so they can use the fetal stem cells to create pot-smoking lesbian ATF agents who will steal all the guns and invite the UN to take over America? Voters have to decide whether we’d be better off electing Republicans, those hateful, assault-weapon-wielding maniacs who believe that George Washington and Jesus Christ incorporated the nation after a Gettysburg reenactment and that the only thing wrong with the death penalty is that it isn’t administered quickly enough to secular-humanist professors of Chicano studies.”

On a more serious note, if you can call it that, the brief explains that laws like the one in Ohio criminalize “false” speech and do nothing to replace “truthiness, satire, and snark with high-minded ideas and ‘just the facts.’ Instead, they chill speech such that spin becomes silence.” More importantly, it continues, Ohio’s ban of “lies and damn lies” is incompatible with the protections offered by the First Amendment.

Speech that is inflammatory and insulting is more likely to produce a response from candidates, “thus making the back-and-forth of politics a self-correcting marketplace of ideas – except, of course, when candidates can tattle to the government, which then takes away their toys speech.”

In its argument that Ohio’s law ultimately weakens the vibrancy of political discourse, the brief suggests hopes that these laws will stop the lies, insults, and truthiness are “Pollyannish” at best.

Not only do these hopes “stand in the face of all political history, [they disregard] the facts that, in politics, truths are felt as much as they are known.” When a Republican, for example, calls Obama a socialist, he is “feeling a truth more than thinking one.”

You get the idea. The brief in its entirety is worth the read, not only for its humor but also its very good points about the role of satire in political discourse.

Said differently, the First Amendment protects all speech, but, even in its absence, “no government agency could do a better job policing political honesty than the myriad personalities and entities who expose charlatans, mock liars, lambaste arrogance, and unmask truthiness for a living.”

Well said, guys. Very well said.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Meet the Millennials

*First appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Lately I’ve been experiencing what can only be described as onset adulthood. Over the weekend, I began a sentence with the phrase “kids these days.” I had a Sunday conversation about retirement planning. I am responsible for a living, breathing 110-pound dog named Sadie which, I imagine, is sort of like having a kid.

So anyway, as I grapple with the phenomenon of adult living, I happen upon a recent study about Millennials (that’s the name for my generation). Ranging from 18 to 33, Millennials are “forging a distinctive path into adulthood.”

That’s not how I usually frame my foray into maturity, but I’ll go with it.

Turns out, I’m not so unlike most people in my generation. We are, according to the Pew Research Center report, linked by social media, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry, and optimistic about the future.

Millennials are “digital natives,” or the only generation for which new technologies (twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) are not something to which we’ve had to adapt.

To this, I say: Speak for yourself, pollsters. I’ve definitely had to adjust to the digital age. Sure, I mostly grew up with computers in my life, but AOL Instant Messenger – “AIM” – is a far cry from today’s digital interactions.

Nevertheless, the report noted that Millennials have “taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era – the internet, mobile technology, social media – to construct personalized networks for friends, colleagues and affinity groups.” Fifty-five percent of Millennials have posted a “selfie” on social media, yet other generations struggle to define what a selfie is.

Our reliance on technology is a double-edged sword: It opens a world of endless possibilities but may lead to debilitating personal relationships. At least ninety percent of my generation agrees that people share too much information about themselves online. Perhaps there is hope for us, yet!

I’m in no rush to marry (sorry, Mom), and neither are my fellow Millennials. We’ve “been keeping [our] distance from another core institution of society – marriage.” Only about a quarter – or 26 percent – of us are married already. Compare that to other generations when they were our age: 36 percent of Generation X, 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and 65 percent of members of the Silent Generation were hitched. At 29 for men and 27 for women, the median age at first marriage is now the highest in modern history.

What the Pew Research Center found is that 69 percent of Millennials would like to marry but lack what they “deem to be a necessary prerequisite – a solid economic foundation.” That’s understandable, considering Millennials are the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than our two immediately preceding generations.

Interestingly, older members of my generation (ages 26 to 33) are the best-educated cohort of young adults in history, which would seeming lead to financial security (since educational attainment is highly correlated with economic success). But the opposite is true: About two-thirds of recent bachelor’s degree recipients have outstanding student loans (average debt of about $27,000). Just twenty years ago, only half of “recent graduates had college debt, and the average was $15,000.”

Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust. Just 19 percent of us believe most people can be trusted, compared to, say, 40 percent of Baby Boomers. A glance at my twitter profile informs one that I’m “an occasional conspiracy theorist.”

Despite more financial burdens, slower journeys to married life, and greater distrust of society, Millennials are – somewhat surprisingly – more upbeat than older adults about America’s future. Almost half of Millennials believe our country’s best days are ahead. A more focused look shows Millennials are the nation’s most “stubborn economic optimists,” with more than 80 percent say they currently have or will have enough money to live the lives they want.

(In a dose of realism, the report notes that Generation Xers were equally as confident when they were as young as Millennials; thus, some “of this optimism…may simply reflect the timeless confidence of youth.”)

All this makes me wonder: What will America look like when governed by the generation that trusts little, owes much, marries later, and texts often?

To paraphrase an old Van Halen lyric, time will tell if we Millennials stand the test of time.


The Free State mentality: Something in the water?

*First appeared in the March 5, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Growing up in Jones County, one becomes accustomed to references to the “Free State.” In fact, I always found the idea of a “Free State of Jones” rather appealing, indicative of a people fiercely independent yet bound by a strong sense of community.

Others might dismiss this notion as a na├»ve view of our rocky history or simply a face-value acceptance of overblown folklore. But, just maybe there’s something to this idea that Jones Countians suffer from some sort of predisposition to make waves – whether better or worse.

But first: What is the Free State?

That itself is a source of controversy. Legend has it that an “armed band of Confederate deserters battled Confederate cavalry in the Piney Woods region of Jones County, Mississippi. Calling themselves the Knight Company after their captain, Newton Knight, they set up headquarters in the swamps of the Leaf River, where…they declared the Free State of Jones.”

According to some accounts, Newt (I never heard him called “Newton” growing up) Knight was a complex figure who refused to fight a rich-man’s war. Some accounts say his insurrection was based solely on civil rights and an opposition to slavery; others say he was a coward who deserted his Confederate soldiers. Some say he simply didn’t want to fight over cotton.

Whether he actually tried to establish an independent state, and for what purpose, remains a point of contention.

In fact, the most recent work on this issue provided the New York Times with a bit of fodder in its book review of “The State of Jones” by Washington Post reporter and Harvard historian John Stauffer. Jenkins and Stauffer apparently ruffled the feathers of another author, Victoria Bynum (a Texas State history professor and author of “The Free State of Jones”), who claimed the duo’s latest take was “a good read but inaccurate and unjustifiably politicized.”

“There’s the rub,” explained the New York Times. “Jenkins and Stauffer create a lively narrative, but is it factual – or fictionalized?”

(My favorite component of the Times review was its highlighting of Bynum’s critique of the new book...in a heated online forum exchange. The internet wins again!)

In the 21st century, Jones Countians continue the historical trend of making waves. Take, for example, Rep. Omeria Scott’s legislative proposal that would have required merchants who sell ammunition to keep detailed records open for public inspection at any time. These records include names, home addresses, driver’s license numbers, and even social security numbers.

The amendment failed, but not without first causing backlash from folks in Jackson and elsewhere.

Well-known writer Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has Jones County roots (near the Shady Grove area, I think). He’s a genuinely nice guy but often irks conservatives with columns that tend to favor more left-leaning policies.

Rickey Cole (I’ve written about him in this space before) is executive director of the Mississippi Democrats, a group that continues to raise the political stakes. While I’m sure Rickey is a fine fellow, his public statements and emails indicate an aggressive spirit.

“Sixty-seven years is long enough” proclaimed Rickey in one email to supporters, urging supporters to elect a Mississippi Democrat to the U.S. Senate. He has called Gov. Phil Bryant “aloof” in an email titled “Outrageous Incompetence.” You get the idea.

Even Jones County native and state senator Chris McDaniel has raised more than a few eyebrows by waging a primary challenge against incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran…despite telling crowds in October that Cochran is a man he “grew up” admiring and respecting.

I’m not sure about the legitimacy of the Free State tale, but I do know this: People from Jones County have a provocative spirit. Maybe we inherit Free State mentalities from our parents, or maybe it’s just something in the Bogue Homa waters.




Pay raises popular among Obama, Democrats

*First appeared in the February 26, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Pay raises. That’s a popular phrase these days. Just this week, the Washington Post reports President Obama will propose a one percent pay raise for federal employees and members of the military for the Fiscal Year 2015 budget he’ll announce next week.

Obama is trying to put an “end to austerity” in the budgeting process by increasing government wages. Never mind the fact that’s not happening in the private sector, where employees have seen their wages drop by 0.2 percent during Obama’s presidency.

These pay raises come on the heels of pay hikes implemented under the current chief executive, such as the one that went into effect December 2013 via an Obama executive order.

An administration official explained the most recent proposal, saying it reflected the “tight budget constraints we continue to face, while also recognizing the critical role these civilian employees play in our country…It also recognizes the sacrifices they have already made through prior pay freezes, reductions in awards, and furloughs due to sequestration last year.”

I don’t disagree. Indeed, federal employees have been furloughed, have seen pay freezes, or experienced some combination thereof. But it’s worth noting the root cause of these budgetary restraints: A flailing economy which produced insufficient revenue to pay government workers. (And, very likely, a bloated federal government that should have been right-sized years ago. But I digress.)

The economy isn’t helped by the spend-money-we-don’t-have mentality of the Obama administration, and neither are government workers. (It’s ironic, in an Alanis Morrisette kind of way.)

In some ways, the budget proposal to pay workers more actually jeopardizes the government’s ability to do so. Why?

Because we haven’t gotten our fiscal house in order but continue to spend, spend, spend. This President and his Democrat counterparts spend money with simply no regard for its long-term implications.

Under the leadership (or spending-ship?) of Obama, the federal debt has risen astronomically. During his first term, the nation’s debt rose 83.5 percent. Now in his second term, Obama has seen to it that federal debt has nearly doubled under his watch.

Yet instead of trimming costs, he proposes we spend more money to “end the age of austerity.” I’ve heard more than once that spending money is the enemy of controlling spending. This is a textbook example.

But pay raises aren’t limited to national level Democrats; nay, the Mississippi Democrats are singing from the same hymnal. Just last week, Democrats in the Mississippi House of Representatives attempted (unsuccessfully) to add across-the-board pay raises for state employees to appropriation bills.

I guess they endorse Obama’s fiscal management policies. After all, he’s done such a great job balancing the federal budget (oh wait – it’s taken two terms as President to even get a budget, right?) and decreasing national debt (ummm, see above).

But Mississippians are smarter than to fall for those Democrat beliefs that we ought to pay government workers more than private sector employees. Mississippians understand the importance of a balanced budget and reducing debt by refusing to swipe the state’s credit card for every pet project.

They understand we need less, not more, Obama style policies in the Magnolia State.