Author Archives: Christopher Koopman

FDR’s Failed Thanksgiving Experiment: Benefiting Big Business, Dividing a Country

Nothing is free from the threat of political favoritism.  Not even the holidays.  And, as it turns out, Thanksgiving actually fell prey to it for a few years under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But first, a bit of Thanksgiving History.  At the request of the first Federal Congress, President Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin [sic].”  Subsequent presidents followed Washington by issuing their own Thanksgiving Proclamations.  However, the dates and months of the proclamations varied.  Eventually, under Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving was set to be regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November. Franklin and Eleanor (FDR Bio, part 1)

In 1939, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month.  As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November.

Why did Roosevelt see the need to move Thanksgiving?

The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney explain that “Roosevelt was responding to pressure from retail lobbyists who worried that Christmas shopping would lag because Thanksgiving was set to fall particularly late that year, on Nov. 30.”

In fact, Stein and Delaney note:

Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, sent a message to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins that although he didn’t dare bring this to the president’s attention, a late Thanksgiving might have a ‘possible adverse effect on the production and distribution of holiday goods.’

Hopkins told Roosevelt anyway, and the president, sensitive to the needs of business, moved the date of the holiday.

However, not everyone was interested in moving the holiday for the benefit of big retailers.  Small businesses wrote to the President, explaining:

[W]e have waited years for a late Thanksgiving to give us an advantage over the large stores, and we are sadly disappointed at your action, in this matter.  Kindly reconsider and oblige thousands of small retail storekeepers throughout this country.

Ultimately, 32 states issued proclamations moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday, while 16 states refused to change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November.   For two years, the United States had two Thanksgivings.  The President and part of the country celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November.  The rest of the country celebrated it a week later.

After two years, and four Thanksgivings, Congress put an end to the confusion by setting a fixed date for the holiday.  In 1941, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring “the last” Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day.  The Senate amended the resolution to read that it be celebrated on “the fourth” Thursday, to take into account those years when there are five Thursdays in November.  On December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed the resolution, thereby establishing the modern Thanksgiving Holiday.

Did Roosevelt’s “Franksgiving” experiment work?  Not exactly.  Stein and Delaney write that the Commerce Department found that expected expansion of retail sales never occurred.  In the end, they note, Roosevelt conceded that the economic benefits of moving Thanksgiving had not been worth the struggle.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey.  Just think, at one you time, you could’ve done it twice.

Richmond, Calif., Eminent Domain, and the Problems of Political Privilege

Sign Of The Times - ForeclosureRichmond, California is now moving forward with a proposal to use eminent domain to acquire more than 600 “underwater mortgages” (mortgages with unpaid balances greater their properties’ market value).

Eminent domain has long been used by governments for various public uses, such as highways, roads, and public utilities.  More recently this has been extended to include shopping mallsbusiness parks, and professional sports stadiums. However, while contemplated by other cities, eminent domain has never been used for the purpose of seizing mortgages. Richmond would be the first city to actually carry out such a plan.

On its face, the plan is straightforward. The city has offered to buy these underwater mortgages at discounted rates from the banks and investors currently holding these mortgages. If the offers are rejected, the city will use eminent domain to force the sale of these mortgages to the city. The city will then write down the debt, refinancing the loans for amounts much more in line with current home values.

While the stated objective of this plan is to provide mortgage relief to homeowners hurt by the most recent housing crises, the plan is rife with opportunities for political privilege and favoritism.  Ilya Somin, a law professor at the George Mason University School of Law, has laid out several problems involved with this scheme:

  • Far from benefiting low-income people as intended, the plan will actually harm them. Much of the money to condemn the mortgages and pay litigation expenses will come from taxpayers, including the poor. Most of the poor are renters, not homeowners, so they cannot benefit from this program. But renters do indirectly pay property taxes through the property taxes paid by their landlords, a cost which is built into their rent.
  • The program would also enrich those who took dangerous risks at the expense of the prudent. It isn’t good policy to force more prudent taxpayers to subsidize the behavior of people who took the risk of purchasing high-priced real estate in the midst of a bubble. Doing so will predictably encourage dubious risk-taking in the future.
  • Prudent Richmonders will also lose out from this policy in another way. If lenders believe that the city is likely to condemn mortgages whenever real estate prices fall significantly, they will either be unwilling to lend to future home purchasers in Richmond, or only do so at higher interest rates. That will hurt the local economy and make it more difficult for Richmonders to buy homes.
  • We should also remember that eminent domain that transfers property to private parties is often used to benefit the politically powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak. In Kelo v. City New London (2005), a closely divided Supreme Court ruled that government could take private property and transfer it to influential business interests in order to promote “economic development.” As a result, multiple New London residents lost their homes for a “development” project that still hasn’t built anything on their former property eight years later. Property owners lost their rights and the public has yet to see much benefit. The Richmond policy would create another precedent to help legitimate future Kelos.

You can read Somin’s article here.

It should be noted that there is a legal challenge underway as banks and investors argue that the city’s plan is unconstitutional. However, regardless of the plan’s legality, it is clear that it will do little to support economic development, aid the housing market, or support future investment in the local economy. It seems more about using these mortgages to privilege the few at the expense of the many.

Are you ready for some (subsidized) football?

This weekend marks the start of the NFL season, and with it comes the fanfare and attention that being the most lucrative professional sport in America has come to demand.  However, this success has fueled the lucrative stadium financing deals that have been secured by these teams over the past 20 years, often at the expense of taxpayers.

Olympic Stadium London - Anniversary (Blended)Take, for example, the stadium deal given to the Cincinnati Bengals by Hamilton County in Ohio. Still the most lucrative subsidy in the history of professional football, taxpayers were left paying 94 percent of the $449.8 million tab. This amount doesn’t include other costs in the generous lease, such as the agreement by the county to cover all of the costs of operation and capital improvements. The lease also leaves taxpayers on the hook to fund projects that have not even been invented yet, such things as “ticketless entry systems,” “stadium self-cleaning machines,” and even “holographic replay machines.”

The Cincinnati Bengals are certainly not alone in getting these sorts of publicly-funded gifts. The Buffalo Bills recently obtained $95 million in subsidies for stadium upgrades.  In return, the state of New York will be given a luxury suite to promote the sorts of corporate handouts that the state can give to other businesses.  Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons will receive $200 million from the city of Atlanta toward a new stadium, funded through bonds backed by the city’s hotel-motel tax.  The Kansas City Chiefs and the Carolina Panthers have also recently received generous taxpayer-funded stadium deals.  The list goes on.  Nearly every NFL stadium built since 1997 has received some public funding.

And what do these deals really do to promote economic development?  Almost nothing.  According to economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson, researchers looking into the economic impact of new sports facilities “have almost invariably found little or no economic benefits.”  This should come as no surprise to economists and policymakers.  Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys have surveyed the literature and found “a great deal of consistency among economists doing research in this area. That . . . sports subsidies cannot be justified on the grounds of local economic development, income growth or job creation.”

Why, then, do politicians continue to hand out these privileges at the taxpayers’ expense? One answer is that these sports teams are well-connected and well-organized, giving them an inherent lobbying advantage over a multitude of unorganized taxpayers.  For example, the owner of the Miami Dolphins has created an active political group to attack lawmakers he blames for a failed measure to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade to Sun Life Stadium.

Another possible explanation is that people love their hometown teams, and most politicians are eager to associate themselves with anything that appears popular.  Even if that means giving these teams handouts at the taxpayers’ expense.

So as the football season begins and continues to play out over the next 6 months, you ought to take some time to enjoy your hometown team.  Odds are, you are already paying for it.

The Public Choice of Sustainable Tax Reform

Comprehensive tax reform has gotten a jump-start from Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.  The Senate’s two top tax writers announced a new “blank slate” approach to tax reform in a “Dear Colleague” letter issued last week.

The Senators describe their new, blank slate approach as follows:

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences…

However, under their framework, every current tax privilege has a chance to survive.  The Senators explain:

We plan to operate from an assumption that all special provisions are out unless there is clear evidence that they: (1) help grow the economy, (2) make the tax code fairer, or (3) effectively promote other important policy objectives.

This plan has drawn both praise and criticism, and rightly so.  Yes, this is a step in the right direction; however, this is unlikely to lead to any sustainable reforms for two reasons.

First, forcing Congress to defend tax privileges won’t be hard.  To become law, each privilege had a sponsor, and each sponsor had a rationale to defend it.  Each tax privilege was passed by Congress, and each was then signed into law.  It is difficult to see how privileges that have already survived this process won’t once again find a congressman willing to defend them.  So long as Congress has the power to create and protect tax privileges, it will be nearly impossible to simply wipe such privileges away.

Second, even if a blank slate were achieved, it is unlikely that a privilege-free tax code would last long under the current institutional framework.  This is best demonstrated by what happened in the aftermath of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA86).

James Buchanan, writing after the passage of TRA86, predicted that very little its reforms would remain intact.  Buchanan noted that “[t]o the extent that [political] agents do possess discretionary authority, the tax structure established in 1986 will not be left substantially in place for decades or even years.”

Buchanan was spot on.  From 1986 through 2005, the tax reform of 1986 suffered a death of 15,000 tweaks.  As reported by the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform in 2005, in the two decades after the 1986 tax reform bill was passed, nearly 15,000 changes were made to the tax code – equal to more than two changes per day for 19 years straight.

What insight did Buchanan have that allowed him to so aptly predict the demise of the Tax Reform Act of 1986?  Buchanan understood that institutions matter.  That is, he understood that no matter how many times the tax code was reformed, so long as the same institutions remain unchanged, political actors will continue to respond in predictable ways, and the result would be tax privileges creeping their way back into the code.  Buchanan explained:

The 1986 broadening of the tax base by closing several established loopholes and shelters offers potential rents to those agents who can promise to renegotiate the package, piecemeal, in subsequent rounds of the tax game. The special interest lobbyists, whose clients suffered capital value losses in the 1986 exercise, may find their personal opportunities widened after 1986, as legislators seek out personal and private rents by offering to narrow the tax base again. In one fell swoop, the political agents may have created for themselves the potential for substantially increased rents. This rent-seeking hypothesis will clearly be tested by the fiscal politics of the post-1986 years.

Going forward, if any sort of reforms are achieved in the tax code, this rent-seeking hypothesis will be tested again.

Senators Baucus and Hatch admit that a blank state “is not, of course, the end product, nor the end of the discussion.”  If Buchanan’s predictions remain true today, as they most certainly are, then the Senators are quite right in admitting that a blank slate is not, and will never be, an end product.  That is, of course, unless any reform in the tax code is paired with institutional reforms to ensure that special tax privileges do not creep back into the code.