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Updated: 23 min 33 sec ago

Advertising Tax Would Jeopardize 20 Million American Jobs

Wed, 06/28/2017 - 7:29pm

Originally published by Investor’s Business Daily on June 26, 2017.

Republicans have struggled to put together a tax reform plan with enough support to pass Congress. The major hang-up is their self-imposed need to find revenue offsets to “pay for” the pro-growth rate cuts and reforms. However, that challenge shouldn’t mean that every bad idea to raise money, like an advertising tax, should now be on the table.

Talks of a federal ad tax had been dead since the 1950s until former Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., gave the idea new life in his 2014 tax reform proposal. Camp wanted to convert advertising from being a fully deductible business expense — as it has been for over a century — to just half deductible, with the rest being amortized over the course of a decade.

While Camp’s proposal went nowhere, current Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady recently acknowledged that there “may be a need” to look at some of the revenue raisers in the old plan to complete his 2017 tax reform proposal.

Let’s hope that the advertising tax is not one of the ones being looked at. There’s no good reason to treat advertising costs differently than other business expenses. To do so would be to make the tax code more complicated, instead of less. Even more importantly, it would have drastic negative consequences for the economy.

In 2014, IHS Global conducted a study on advertising’s impact on the American economy, and the results were astounding. IHS found that in just that year alone, the country’s $297 billion in advertising spending generated $5.5 trillion in sales, or 16% of the nation’s total economic activity. It also helped create 20 million jobs, which in 2014 amounted to 14% of total U.S. employment.

Clearly, ad spending is a significant driver of economic growth, providing tremendous return on investment for the American economy (approximately $19 worth of sales activity for every $1 spent on advertising). The labor force participation rate is still sitting at the lowest level it’s been at since the Carter presidency, while higher-paying job sectors continue to struggle. Republicans should be careful not to make these concerning numbers plummet even more out of desperation to score a political “win.”

The dangers of the advertising tax cannot be overstated. In fact, it already has a history of wreaking havoc on the economy.

In the 1980s, Florida briefly imposed one, and it led to the immediate loss of 50,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in personal income. Even worse is the fact that the tax’s administrative costs ended up exceeding the tax revenue. The Florida ad tax was wildly unpopular — so much so that the legislature was forced to repeal it after just 6 months. The New York Times reported that then-Gov. Robert Martinez “suffered political embarrassment in his first year in office by having to shift from ardent support of the tax to advocating its repeal.”

Similarly, a study from the University of Oxford found that Austria’s advertising tax had a noticeable impact on the price of goods. In the case of consumer necessities like food and education, this mandate often led to costs shifting upward. This is to be expected — the less information consumers are exposed to about competing products, the easier it is for market leaders to maintain artificially higher market share.

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump promised to simplify the tax code for American families and businesses, creating more jobs and economic mobility by leaving more money in the hands of the people who’ve earned it. The advertising tax would undoubtedly fail on these fronts; it will do nothing but worsen the sorry state of the economy.

Kevin Brady and the rest of the Ways and Means Committee should take note of the facts of the matter at hand and learn from history so that the ad tax can be put to bed once and for all.

New CF&P Paper Investigates Russian Efforts to Influence U.S. Energy Policy Through Environmentalist Groups

Wed, 06/28/2017 - 12:46pm

Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
202-285-0244

www.freedomandprosperity.org

New CF&P Paper Investigates Russian Efforts to Influence U.S. Energy Policy Through Environmentalist Groups

(Washington, D.C., Wednesday, June 28, 2017) The Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation released today a new report titled, “Russia’s Ties to U.S. Environmentalist Groups.” Authored by Eugene Slaven, the report shines a light on covert Russian efforts to influence U.S. energy policy.

Link to the paper: http://freedomandprosperity.org/2017/publications/russias-ties-to-u-s-environmentalist-groups

Executive Summary:

Revelations that Russia may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections have dominated headlines in recent months. While we may never know the full extent of Russia’s influence on the election or its outcome, there is, in fact, overwhelming evidence of Russia’s meddling in one critical sphere of U.S. politics: energy policy. Evidence shows that a complex network of offshore firms has intimate ties to the Kremlin and connections to U.S.-based anti-fracking and anti-oil lobbies.

The investigative report documents how executives with ties to Vladimir Putin funneled millions to anti-fracking groups in the U.S. in order to benefit Russia’s oil export-driven economy. It concludes by noting the need for investigations into Russian election meddling to also consider their activities to influence other policy areas.

CF&P President Andrew Quinlan commented, “It’s critically important to understand how foreign powers are seeking to undermine U.S. energy markets. We hope this investigative paper is just the first in a much broader inquiry.”

About the Author: Eugene Slaven is a freelance writer and former Associate Director at CF&P. He holds a B.S. in Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.A. In Political Management from The George Washington University.

For additional information:
Andrew Quinlan can be reached at 202-285-0244, [email protected]

 

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Russia’s Ties to U.S. Environmentalist Groups

Wed, 06/28/2017 - 12:13pm
Russia’s Ties to U.S. Environmentalist Groups

[Download PDF]

June 2017

By Eugene Slaven

Revelations that Russia may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections have dominated headlines in recent months. While we may never know the full extent of Russia’s influence on the election or its outcome, there is, in fact, overwhelming evidence of Russia’s meddling in one critical sphere of U.S. politics: energy policy. Evidence shows that a complex network of offshore firms has intimate ties to the Kremlin and connections to U.S. based anti-fracking and anti-oil lobbies.

—————————

As congressional committees, journalists, and intelligence officials investigate the extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, one important aspect that has thus far been overlooked is Russia’s financial ties to powerful anti-fracking and anti-oil lobbies in the United States.1

The evidence is overwhelming, even if the graph connecting the dots between Moscow and U.S.-based environmental advocacy groups is non-linear, and at times as one would expect, obfuscated.

What is Russia’s interest in meddling in U.S. energy policy?

The natural gas boom ignited by the fracking revolution has played a central role in driving down global oil prices, which has significantly hampered Russia’s oil-centric economy. Ergo, it is in Russia’s economic interest to inflict damage on the U.S. fracking industry. To put it another way, what’s bad for fracking is good for Russia.

A 2014 report released by Republican members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works sheds light on an intricate network of wealthy donors—the committee dubs them “Billionaires’ Club”—who utilize complex arrangements to funnel millions of dollars into the U.S’s best-known and active environmentalist groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund.2

Perhaps the report’s most significant revelation is the existence of a group called Klein Ltd and its $23 million donation to a group called Sea Change Foundation.

According to its disclosure forms, Sea Change Foundation gets its funding from only two sources: The Nathaniel Simons family and Klein Ltd. Billionaire Nathanial Simons is the foundation’s founder and sole board member who generously gives to left-wing environmentalist causes (See Appendix).

Sea Change Foundation’s primary function is bundling millions of dollars for U.S. environmental groups. In 2011, the group gave $15 million to the Sierra Club, $13.5 million to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and $18.1 million to League of Conservation Voters—three of the biggest and most active left-wing environmentalist groups aggressively lobbying against oil and natural gas.3

To be sure, bundling is not inherently nefarious; conservative billionaires bundle millions for their causes, liberal billionaires bundle millions for their causes, and the earth keeps spinning.

The potentially nefarious aspect comes to light when we learn who the key players are behind the mysterious Klein Ltd.—one of Sea Change Foundation’s two benefactors.

Klein Ltd. is based out of Wakefield Quin—a Bermuda law firm that according to its website is “a full-service firm with a history of advising both local and international clients in the areas of banking, corporate and commercial, real estate, restructuring and insolvency, trusts, private client and litigation.”4

That sounds like an innocuous cookie cutter offshore law firm, except that Wakefield Quin is run by executives with intimate Kremlin ties, including Putin’s friend and adviser, Leonid Reiman.5 Furthermore, Wakefield Quin’s senior counsel is a man named Roderick Forrest, who along with Nicholas Hoskins and Marlies Smith formed Klein. Hoskins and Forrest were directors in the IPOC Group, which in 2008 was convicted of money laundering by a British Virgin Islands court, and had $45 million in holdings confiscated. IPOC Group is owned by the very same Leonid Reiman.

Wakefield Quin clients include 20 companies and investment funds with ties to the Russian government. And this disproportionately Russia-heavy portfolio shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the firm’s leadership’s connection to Putin.6 Hoskins and Forrest also happen to be executives of Spectrum Partners Ltd., a fund with offices in several countries, including Moscow, with a portfolio that’s heavy on Russian securities.

Given the media frenzy over Russia’s tampering in the 2016 elections, the evidence that shadowy firms with direct ties to the Kremlin fund left-wing environmental groups should pique most journalists’ interest. And the fact that Putin’s Russia has aggressively influenced global geopolitics is all the more reason to relentlessly pursue this story.

Perhaps the clearest example of Russia’s willingness to use most any means necessary to affect global oil and gas markets is its well-documented role in the building of the “South Stream” pipeline to Bulgaria.

As The New York Times reported in 2014, shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, Bulgaria’s parliament drafted legislation sanctioning a gas pipeline from Russia to Bulgaria. The legislation was largely written by Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, and was spearheaded by Putin’s energy minister, with the explicit intent of enriching Putin and his cronies.7

Compared to the Bulgaria scandal, Russia’s funding of left-wing environmentalist groups is a relatively passive gambit in Russia’s quest to exert influence over the global energy market.

So, what does all this mean? In short, we know that Putin is committed to expanding Russia’s sphere of influence and strengthening Russia’s economic position. We know the risk U.S. fracking poses to Russia’s economy, and we know the direct Russian ties to firms that contribute tens of millions of dollars to anti-fracking environmentalist groups.

As we look into Russia’s role in the 2016 elections, it’s incumbent on all responsible parties to examine Russia’s ties to anti-fracking environmentalist groups as well. After all, anyone who is concerned about a foreign power influencing U.S. public opinion should be alarmed by evidence that Russia is shaping public opinion (and public policy) through its ties to such groups.

Eugene Slaven is a freelance writer, a former Charles Koch Institute Associate, and former Associate Director of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. He is the author of the comedy novel A Life of Misery and Triumph and the self-help guide Enemy Thoughts. Eugene holds a B.S. in Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.A. in Political Management from The George Washington University.

Notes

1. See Lachlan Markay, “Foreign Firm Funding U.S. Green Groups Tied to State-Owned Russian Oil Company,” The Washington Free Beacon, January 27, 2015. http://freebeacon.com/issues/foreign-firm-funding-u-s-green-groups-tied-to-state-owned-russian-oil-company/ 

2. U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. EPW Republicans Release In-Depth Environmental Collusion Report, “The Chain Of Environmental Command: How A Club Of Billionaires And Their Foundations Control The Environmental Movement And Obama’s EPA”. July 30, 2014. 

3. “Big Donors…Big Conflicts: How Wealthy Donors Use the Sierra Club to Push Their Agenda,” Energy & Environment Legal Institute, July 2015. https://eelegal.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Big-Donors-Big-Conflicts-Final1.pdf 

4. “About Us.” Wakefield Quin http://www.wq.bm/about-us/ (retrieved April 19, 2017). 

5. “From Russia With Love: Examining Links Between U.S. Environmental Funders and the Kremlin,” Big Greed Radicals, December, 2015. https://www.biggreenradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Klein_Report_12-2015.pdf 

6. Markay, “Foreign Firm Funding U.S. Green Groups”. 

7. Jim Yardley and Jo Becker, “How Putin Forged a Pipeline Deal That Derailed,” The New York Times. December 30, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/31/world/europe/how-putin-forged-a-pipeline-deal-that-derailed-.html 

Appendix
Financial Statements, Sea Change Foundation

A Taxpayer-Funded Smear Job of Professor James Buchanan

Sat, 06/24/2017 - 12:09pm

My daily columns usually revolve around public policy issues such as tax reform, entitlements, and corrupt government. And while sometimes get a bit agitated about bad things in Washington, it’s because I’m a curmudgeonly libertarian, not because of some personal stake (other than being an oppressed taxpayer).

But sometimes there is a personal connection, like when I responded to the Washington Post‘s front-page attack on CF&P.

Today, I’m writing because of a different kind of personal connection. I got my Ph.D. from George Mason University, and one of the great parts of that experience was taking a couple of classes from James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize shortly after I arrived on campus.

Professor Buchanan was more than an economist. He was also a social philosopher. He thought big thoughts and cared deeply about a free society. I didn’t have the opportunity to develop a close relationship with Buchanan, but I felt privileged to take his classes and also to hear his insights in various conferences and colloquia during my years on campus.

I mention this connection because a Duke professor, Nancy MacLean, has just written a book that takes some very cheap shots at Buchanan. Heck, the title makes clear her agenda: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Subtle, huh?

I’ll openly admit at this point I have not read the book. I would, if somebody gave me a free copy, but I have no desire to potentially generate royalties for Ms. MacLean by spending money for a copy.

But a review in the Atlantic is a good example of why I think the book merits condemnation.

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is part of a new wave of historiography that has been examining the southern roots of modern conservatism. …Her book includes familiar villains—principally the Koch brothers—and devotes many pages to think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, whose ideological programs are hardly a secret. But what sets Democracy in Chains apart is that it begins in the South, and emphasizes a genuinely original and very influential political thinker, the economist James M. Buchanan. …she has dug deep into her material—not just Buchanan’s voluminous, unsorted papers, but other archives, too—and she has made powerful and disturbing use of it all.

And what did she find that was so disturbing?

 

Brace yourself, because the giant scandal that she uncovered is that – gasp! – Buchanan was a classical liberal who believed in small government. And he consorted with other intellectuals with similar views.

The behind-the-scenes days and works of Buchanan show how much deliberation and persistence—in the face of formidable opposition—underlie the antigoverning politics ascendant today. …the University of Chicago, where Buchanan received his doctorate in 1948. During the postwar years, other faculty included Hayek and Friedman, who were shaping a new pro-market economics, part of a growing backlash against the policies of the New Deal. Hayek initiated Buchanan into the Mont Pelerin Society, the select group of intellectuals who convened periodically to talk and plot libertarian doctrine.

But here’s the disgusting part of the book, at least if the review accurately reflects the contents. MacLean does her best to imply that Buchanan somehow must be a racist. In part because of where he was born and raised.

Buchanan owed his tenacity to blood and soil and upbringing. Born in 1919 on a family farm in Tennessee.

By the way, the term “blood and soil” has very odious connotations. I don’t know if that term is used in the book. If not, then the reviewer, Sam Tannenhaus, is the one who deserves condemnation.

The book also implies that Buchanan is racist because he tried to take advantage of Virginia’s desegregation battle to push for school choice.

Buchanan played a part, MacLean writes, by teaming up with another new University of Virginia hire, G. Warren Nutter (who was later a close adviser to Barry Goldwater), on an influential paper. In it they argued that the crux of the desegregation problem was that “state run” schools had become a “monopoly,” which could be broken by privatization. If authorities sold off school buildings and equipment, and limited their own involvement in education to setting minimum standards, then all different kinds of schools might blossom.

And why is this supposed to be racist?

Because some rednecks might choose schools without black people.

…these schemes were…gave ammunition to southern policy makers looking to mount the nonracial case for maintaining Jim Crow in a new form. Friedman himself left race completely out of it. Buchanan did too at first, telling skeptical colleagues in the North that the “transcendent issue” had nothing to do with race; it came down to the question of “whether the federal government shall dictate the solutions.” But in their paper (initially a document submitted to a Virginia education commission and soon published in a Richmond newspaper), Buchanan and Nutter were more direct, stating their belief that “every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing”.

In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Buchanan was racist simply because some people – in a system based on freedom of choice – might make race-based decisions.

But that’s like saying advocates of free speech are racist because some people will make racist statements or write racist books.

For what it’s worth, I wish the racist Democrats who controlled the state in the 1950s had adopted school choice. After all, the ultimate effect of their actions would have been very beneficial for black students.

That would have been delicious irony.

But I’m digressing. I wonder whether Tannenhaus is the one who is guilty of smearing rather than the author. His review, after all, notes that MacLean apparently didn’t think Buchanan’s work was motivated by race.

…race, MacLean acknowledges, was not ultimately a major issue for Buchanan.

The review then shifts to Buchanan’s main intellectual legacy, the “public choice” school of economics (first formally proposed in Calculus of Consent, co-authored with Gordon Tullock).

Governments, they argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to “maximize their utility”—that is, win the next election or enlarge their department’s budget? This idea turned the whole notion of a beneficent government, and of programs and policies designed more or less selflessly, into a kind of fairy tale expertly woven by politicians and their flacks. Not that politicians were evil. They were looking out for themselves, as most of us do. The difference was in the damage they did.

Sounds quite reasonable to me. And Tannenhaus even grants that the theory has some merit.

You didn’t have to accept Buchanan’s ideology to see that he had a point about the growth of government-centered clientelism—“dependency,” in the term used by a new wave of neoconservatives such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But he then is very critical of Buchanan’s support for rules to constrain government.

The enemy was the public itself, expressed through the tyranny of majority rule… It wasn’t enough to elect true-believing politicians. The rules of government needed to be rewritten.

Actually, the rules don’t need “to be rewritten.” The United States already has a Constitution that was explicitly designed to protect against majoritarianism. The problem is justices who put politics first and the Constitution second.

Now let’s address a second part of the book that irked me. The author links Buchanan to Chile, which to a leftist is an automatic sign of guilt.

…in Chile, after Augusto Pinochet’s coup against the socialist Salvador Allende in 1973. A vogue for public choice had swept Pinochet’s administration. Buchanan’s books were translated, and some of his acolytes helped restructure Chile’s economy. Labor unions were banned, and social security and health care were both privatized. On a week-long visit in 1980, Buchanan gave formal lectures to “top representatives of a governing elite that melded the military and the corporate world,” MacLean reports, and he dispensed counsel in private conversations.

There’s no evidence, from what I can tell, that Buchanan endorsed or supported Pinochet’s bad record on human rights. Instead, he’s simply “guilty” of encouraging a bad government to adopt good policy.

But if providing policy advice supposedly implies support for everything a government does, then I’m guilty of supporting Russia, China, and many other regimes. Needless to say, that’s nonsense.

In any event, here’s the part that doesn’t make sense.

Buchanan said very little about his part in assisting Chile’s reformers—and he said very little, too, when the country’s economy cratered, and Pinochet at last fired the Buchananites.

The economy “cratered”? Really?

Chile has been a star performer since the market reforms on the 1980s.

Maybe MacLean and/or Tannenhaus are geographically illiterate and meant Venezuela?

Because only a blind ideologue could deny the tremendous success of Chile’s economy.

Now let’s look at some excerpts from a review in Slate written by Rebecca Onion. It starts with a major smear.

When the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Tennessee-born economist James McGill Buchanan was horrified.

Again, I haven’t read the book. But I have to imagine that if the author had the slightest bit of evidence, one of the reviews would have shared it. Instead, we get nothing but assertions. Is MacLean the one who smears Buchanan, or are the reviewers guilty of asserting that the Nobel Laureate is somehow racist because he doesn’t support a big welfare state?

I don’t know, but someone is being grossly unfair.

For what it’s worth, I never caught even the slightest whiff of racism from Buchanan during my time at GMU. Which stands to reason since libertarians and classical liberals are all about individual rights and view racism as a form of collectivism.

But it is true that Buchanan was not a fan of big government.

…the libertarian thinker found comfortable homes at a series of research universities and spent his time articulating a new grand vision of American society, a country in which government would be close to nonexistent, and would have no obligation to provide education—or health care, or old-age support, or food, or housing—to anyone.

Ms. Onion’s review includes a Q&A section with the author.

Here’s some of what MacLean said, starting with a description of public choice.

He had a very different personality from somebody like Milton Friedman. …His books were really written for other scholars, not so much the general public. …His basic idea is that people had been wrong to think of political actors as concerned with the common good or the public interest, when in fact, according to Buchanan’s way of looking at things, everyone should be understood as a self-interested actor seeking their own advantage.

She then asserts – with no evidence – that public choice isn’t an accurate way of describing the world.

…there were other people who actually tested that empirically and found out that it didn’t hold, so it’s really a caricature of the political process, but it’s a caricature that’s become very, very widespread right now.

This strikes me as nonsense. Anybody who works in DC has a very jaundiced view of the political process.

We see public choice in action every day.

She also criticizes Buchanan’s work in Chile.

…he went from writing that to advising the Pinochet junta in Chile on how to craft their constitution. This document was later called a “constitution of locks and bolts,” [and was designed] to make it so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority. So yeah, it’s pretty dark.

Well, if that’s a “dark” approach, then America’s Founders were very dark as well.

MacLean also links Buchanan to Cato.

Buchanan helped with the founding of the Cato Institute and with various other intellectual enterprises that were close to Charles Koch’s heart, like this thing called the Institute for Humane Studies.

She then plays armchair psychologist and tries to guess Buchanan’s real motivation. After all, surely he couldn’t have been motivated by a belief in liberty and limited government?

I think it’s also much more about this psychology of threatened domination. People who believe it will harm their liberty for other people to have full citizenship and be able to work together to govern society. And that somehow that goes much deeper than money to me. It’s hard to find the right words for it, but it’s a whole way of being in the world and seeing others. Assuming one’s right to dominate.

In other words, if you don’t want a tax-and-transfer welfare state, that means you want to dominate others. Amazing bit of mind reading.

Or perhaps a bit of projection.

It’s folks on the left, after all, who concoct strange theories involving Koch, Cato, and other parts of a vast libertarian conspiracy.

If we really had that much power, I can assure you that government would be much smaller than it is today.

Here’s what MacLean says about Buchanan being part of the supposedly sinister Koch network.

The most important thing I want readers to take from this book is an understanding that the Koch network and all of these people are doing what they’re doing because they understand that their ideas make them a permanent minority. They cannot win if they are honest about what they’re doing.

Let’s close by sharing some very bizarre passages from a review by Genevieve Valentine for NPR.

…economist James Buchanan — an early herald of libertarianism — began to cultivate a group of like-minded thinkers with the goal of changing government. This ideology eventually reached the billionaire Charles Koch… This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream…is at the heart of Democracy in Chains.

Here’s Ms. Valentine’s contribution to gutter politics.

…this isn’t the first time Nancy MacLean has investigated the dark side of the American conservative movement (she also wrote Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan).

A collectivist-minded group like the KKK was part of the conservative movement? Is there any evidence for that slanderous assertion?

Of course not.

And besides, what would that have to do with libertarianism?

But Ms. Valentine is just warming up. Did you know that libertarians somehow are at fault for the incompetence of Flint, MI, which is governed by Democrats?

As MacLean lays out in their own words, these men developed a strategy of misinformation and lying about outcomes until they had enough power that the public couldn’t retaliate against policies libertarians knew were destructive. (Look no further than Flint, MacLean says, where the Koch-funded Mackinac Center was behind policies that led to the water crisis.)

And she repeats the crazy assertion that Chile’s shift to free markets backfired, even though the economy boomed and subsequent governments dominated by Social Democrats have left the reforms in place.

By the time we reach Buchanan’s role in the rise of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet (which backfired so badly on the people of Chile that Buchanan remained silent about it for the rest of his life), that’s all you need to know about who Buchanan was.

It’s also remarkable that she wants us to think there’s something sinister about Buchanan remaining “silent” about his role in Chile.

This is a man who gave dozens of speeches every year in countries all around the world, while also producing all sorts of books and scholarly articles. Does she really think he was supposed to spend his time reminiscing about a couple of speeches and meetings back in 1980?

Here’s the bottom line. Professor Buchanan is “guilty” of believing in individual liberty and favoring constraints on government. It’s perfectly fair for folks on the left to object to those views (as well as the views of other Nobel Laureates with similar outlooks).

But when they want to ascribe base motives for his views, without the slightest shred of evidence, that’s crossing the line.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Ms. MacLean’s book was subsidized by taxpayers. Isn’t that wonderful. Not only do we subsidize international bureaucracies that push statism, we taxpayers also subsidize hit jobs on scholars who object to statism.

Everything You Need to Know about Government, in a Single Picture

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 12:55pm

Last night, I retweeted an image that rubbed me the wrong way.

It showed three kids who were handcuffed by undercover cops for criminal activity.

And what was their crime? Were they picking pockets? Beating up tourists? Slashing tires?

Nope, none of those things. Instead, they were (gasp!!) selling water to thirsty people. And they didn’t have a piece of paper from the government giving them permission to participate in voluntary exchange. Oh, the horror.

And everyone knows that selling water without a license is a gateway drug to the ultimate underage crime of operating an unlicensed lemonade stand. Or maybe even shoveling snow, cutting grass, or selling worms without government approval!

Here’s the original tweet.

Undercover @usparkpolicepio handcuffing kids on @NationalMallNPS for selling water. pic.twitter.com/7iSqP4UYMq

— Tim Krepp (@timkrepp) June 22, 2017

This really sums up why libertarians don’t like government. All too often, it’s the unfair application of force against innocent behavior.

This episode of government thuggery has received a surprising amount of coverage. Here are some excerpts from a story by U.S. News & World Report.

Police handcuffed three teenagers Thursday evening for attempting to selling water without a permit on the National Mall.Photos tweeted by passerby Tim Krepp, a tour guide and writer, show three plainclothes U.S. Park Police officers detaining the three African-American teens near the Mall’s Smithsonian Castle, located between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

The good news is that the kids weren’t actually arrested.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Park Police, Sgt. Anna Rose, confirms three teenagers were detained for vending without a license, but says she feels “this has gotten blown out of proportion.” The three teens, ages 16 and 17, were detained for “illegally selling water” but were not charged, Rose says. They were held until their parents arrived. A fourth individual was immediately released after officers determined he was uninvolved, she says.

If you click on Mr. Krepp’s tweet and read the comments, you’ll notice some discussion of whether white kids would have been treated the same way.

I don’t like to assume racism without real evidence, so my default assumption is that the cops were primarily motivated by a desire to fill their quota and have some proof that they weren’t goofing off.

But it’s also worth noting that the over-criminalization of society creates opportunities for bad people in government to target minorities (or other groups that fall into disfavor). And if it’s dangerous to ride a train while black, then it’s also possible that it’s risky to sell water while black.

The broader lesson is that it’s a good idea to have fewer laws. And the laws that do exist should be designed to protect people from external aggression. Especially given the horror stories that are produced by the alternative approach.

New Legislation on Money Laundering Doubles Down on Failure

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 12:44pm

Thanks to decades of experience and research, we now know several things about so-called anti-money laundering (AML) laws.

It’s not that the theory behind these laws is without merit. The original notion was that perhaps we could reduce crime by figuring out ways to prevent crooks from utilizing the banking system. That’s a worthy goal. But it turns out that it doesn’t work.

For all intents and purposes, AML laws are a misallocation of law-enforcement resources.

So you would think that policy makers would be endeavoring to repeal these counterproductive rules and regulations, right?

But you would be wrong. Some of them actually want to double down on failure. To be more specific, four senators have introduced a bill to make these laws more intrusive and onerous.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, along with Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse, today introduced legislation that modernizes and strengthens criminal laws against money laundering – a critical source of funding for terrorist organizations, drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates.  The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Counterfeiting Act of 2017 updates criminal money laundering and counterfeiting statutes, and promotes transparency in the U.S. financial system.

It’s quite possible that these politicians actually think this new law will somehow reduce all the bad things they put in the bill’s title (I’m surprised they didn’t add tooth decay and cancer to the list).

But if past experience is any guide, the real-world result will be more abuse of law-abiding citizens.

Writing for the Blaze, Justin Haskins warns how the new legislation can endanger innocent people.

Four U.S. senators have proposed legislation that would significantly expand the power of the federal government to seize citizens’ money when traveling in or out of the United States. …several troubling provisions in the law could put law-abiding American citizens at risk of losing tens of thousands of dollars for doing nothing more than failing to fill out a government form. Under current federal law, travelers transporting $10,000 or more in cash or other monetary instruments are required to report those funds to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Failure to report funds, even if unintentional, can lead to the seizure of the money and criminal or civil penalties.

That approach already produces horrible abuses of innocent people.

And imagine what will happen if this new law is enacted.

The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Counterfeiting Act would expand “monetary instruments” covered under current law to include “prepaid access devices, stored value cards, digital currencies, and other similar instruments.” This is particularly problematic because digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are theoretically always transported by the owner of the digital currency account wherever he or she goes, which means digital currency owners with accounts valued at $10,000 or more must always report their funds or risk having them seized. Even more troubling is the law treats all blank checks as though they are financial instruments valued in excess of $10,000 if the checking account contains at least $10,000, which means if a traveler accidently fails to report a blank check floating around in his or her luggage, the account holder could face stiff penalties — even if there is no suspicion of criminal activity.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s okay to subject innocent people to abuse if it achieves a very important goal of stopping terrorists.

But that’s not happening. In a must-read article for Foreign Affairs, Peter Neumann points out that AML laws are grossly ineffective in the fight against Islamo-fascism.

…the war on terrorist financing has failed. Today, there are more terrorist organizations, with more money, than ever before. …Driven by the assumption that terrorism costs money, governments have for years sought to cut off terrorists’ access to the global financial system. They have introduced blacklists, frozen assets, and imposed countless regulations designed to prevent terrorist financing, costing the public and private sectors billions of dollars.

And what’s the result of all this expense?

It hasn’t stopped terrorism.

…there is no evidence that it has ever thwarted a terrorist campaign. Most attacks require very little money, and terrorists tend to use a wide range of money-transfer and fundraising methods, many of which avoid the international financial system. …Terrorist operations are cheap, and according to a 2015 study by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, over 90 percent of the jihadist cells in Europe between 1994 and 2013 were “self-funded,” typically through savings, welfare payments, personal loans, or the proceeds of petty crime. …many jihadists have used their own savings and welfare payments or taken out small loans; others have borrowed money from their friends or family. …Financial tools cannot stop lone attackers from driving cars into crowds.

But it has imposed major burdens on innocent parties.

…the focus on the financial sector proved ineffective; it has also harmed innocent people and businesses. To address policymakers’ demands, financial institutions have “de-risked” their portfolios, shedding investments and clients that might be linked to terrorist financing. …De-risking, moreover, has resulted in the de facto exclusion of entire countries, mostly poor ones such as Afghanistan and Somalia, from the global financial system. The bank accounts of refugees, charities that operate in regions torn apart by civil war, and even Western citizens with family links to so-called risk countries have been closed. Practically no Western bank now offers cash transfers to Somalia, for example, although 40 percent of the population depends on remittances from abroad.

And what is the author’s bottom line?

Simply stated, the current system is a failure.

Instead of continuing to look for needles in a haystack, governments should overhaul their approach to countering terrorist funding… Otherwise, they will waste time and money on a strategy that cannot deliver security for many more years to come. .. Policymakers need to acknowledge that the war on terrorist financing, as it has been conducted since 2001, has often been costly and counterproductive, harming innocent people and companies without significantly constraining terrorist groups’ ability to operate.

I agree.

Indeed, I wrote an article for Pace Law Review, published back in 2005, that made many of the same points, including a lot of attention on the theoretical role of cost-benefit analysis.

Law enforcement policy should include cost/benefit analysis so that resources are best allocated to protect life, liberty, and property. This should not be a controversial proposition. Cost-benefit analysis…already is part of the public policy process. For instance, few people would think it is acceptable for a city of 10 million to have just one police officer. Yet it is also true that few would want that city to have five million police officers. In other words, there is a point where additional law enforcement expenditures – both public and private – exceed the likely benefits. Every government makes such decisions. Cost-benefit analysis applies to aggregate resource allocation choices, such as how many police officers to employ in a city, but also to how a given level of resources are utilized. In other words, since there are not unlimited resources, it makes sense to allocate those resources in ways that yield the greatest benefit. On a practical level, city officials must decide how many officers to put on each shift, how many officers to assign to different neighborhoods, and how many officers to allocate to each type of crime. The same issues apply in the war against terrorism. Officials must decide not only on the level of resources devoted to fighting terrorism, but they also must make allocation decisions between, say, human intelligence and electronic surveillance.

Now let’s shift from theory to evidence.

I argued AML laws didn’t pass the test.

…while anti-money laundering laws theoretically help the war against terror, this does not mean that they necessarily are justified by cost-benefit analysis. A…book from the Institute for International Economics…strongly supports anti-money laundering laws and advocates their expansion. But the authors admit that these laws imposed costs of $7 billion in 2003, yet they admitted that, “While the number of suspicious activity reports filed has risen rapidly in recent years…total seizures and forfeitures amount to an extremely small sum (approximately $700 million annually in the United States) when compared with the crude estimates of the total amounts laundered. Moreover, there has not been an increase in the number of federal convictions for money laundering.” The private sector bears most of the cost of anti-money laundering laws, but the authors also note that, “Budgetary costs for AML laws have tripled in the last 20 years for prevention and quadrupled for enforcement.” The key question, of course, is whether these costs are matched by concomitant benefits. The answer almost certainly is no. …the government seizes very little dirty money. There are only about 2,000 convictions for federal money laundering offenses each year, and that number falls by more than 50 percent not counting cases where money laundering was an add-on charge to another offense.

Let’s close with passages from a couple of additional articles.

First, Richard Rahn explains why all anti-money laundering laws are misguided in a very recent column for the Washington Times.

…what is even more shocking is the extent to which various government organizations monitor and, in many cases, restrict financial freedom, and seize assets without criminal conviction. …The government argues that it must collect financial data and then share it with many domestic and foreign government organizations in order to stop tax evasion, money laundering, drug dealing, other assorted criminality, and terrorist finance — all of which sounds good at first glance, until one looks at what really happens. If you think that the war on drugs has been a failure, look at the war on money laundering, tax evasion and terrorist finance for an even bigger failure. …money laundering is a crime of intent, rather than actions, in which two different people can engage in the same set of financial transactions, but if one has criminal intent he or she can be charged while the other person is home free. Such vague law is both ripe with abuse and difficult to prove. …The financial information that government agencies now routinely collect is widely shared, not only with other domestic government agencies, but increasingly with foreign governments — many of which do not protect individual liberty and other basic rights.

And here are some excerpts from a column in Reason by Elizabeth Nolan Brown.

American and British banks are monitoring customers’ contraception purchases, DVD-rental frequency, dining-out habits, and more in a misguided attempt to detect human traffickers… Their intrusive and ineffective efforts come at the behest of government agencies, who have been eager to use asset-forfeiture powers… The U.S. and U.K. banks RUSI researchers interviewed said they were happy to help law enforcement prosecute human traffickers and had little problems turning over financial records for people already arrested or under investigation. But proactively finding potential traffickers themselves proved more difficult. As RUSI explains, “the often unremarkable nature of transactions related to” human trafficking made finding criminals or victims via transaction monitoring a time-consuming and unfruitful endeavor. Yet financial institutions are boxed in by regulations that threaten to punish them severely should they participate in the flow of illegally begotten money, however unwittingly. The bind leaves banks and other financial services eager to cast as wide a net as possible, terminating relationships with “suspicious” customers, monitoring the bank accounts of people they know, or turning their records over to law enforcement rather than risk allegations of not doing enough to comply.

In other words, these laws are a costly – but ineffective – burden.

Which is what I said in this CF&P video:

Three Lessons from the Tax Defeat in Kansas

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 12:58pm

Leftists don’t have many reasons to be cheerful.

Global economic developments keep demonstrating (over and over again) that big government and high taxes are not a recipe for prosperity. That can’t be very encouraging for them.

They also can’t be very happy about the Obama presidency. Yes, he was one of them, and he was able to impose a lot of his agenda in his first two years. But that experiment with bigger government produced very dismal results. And it also was a political disaster for the left since Republicans won landslide elections in 2010 and 2014 (you could also argue that Trump’s election in 2016 was a repudiation of Obama and the left, though I think it was more a rejection of the status quo).

But there is one piece of good news for my statist friends. The tax cuts in Kansas have been partially repealed. The New York Times is overjoyed by this development.

The Republican Legislature and much of Kansas has finally turned on Gov. Sam Brownback in his disastrous five-year experiment to prove the Republicans’ “trickle down” fantasy can work in real life — that huge tax cuts magically result in economic growth and more, not less, revenue. …state lawmakers who once abetted the Brownback budgeting folly passed a two-year, $1.2 billion tax increase this week to begin repairing the damage. …It will take years for Kansas to recover.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman also is pleased.

Here’s some of what he wrote in his NYT column.

…there was an idea, a theory, behind the Kansas tax cuts: the claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy would produce explosive economic growth. It was a foolish theory, belied by decades of experience: remember the economic collapse that was supposed to follow the Clinton tax hikes, or the boom that was supposed to follow the Bush tax cuts? …eventually the theory’s failure was too much even for Republican legislators.

Another New York Times columnist did a victory dance as well.

The most momentous political news of the past week…was the Kansas Legislature’s decision to defy the governor and raise income taxes… Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending, except for education — and promising that those policies would unleash boundless growth. The taxes were cut, and by a lot.

Brownback’s supply-side experiment was a flop, the author argues.

The cuts came. But the growth never did. As the rest of the country was growing at rates of just above 2 percent, Kansas grew at considerably slower rates, finally hitting just 0.2 percent in 2016. Revenues crashed. Spending was slashed, even on education… The experiment has been a disaster. …the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality. Earlier this year it passed tax increases, which the governor vetoed. Last Tuesday, the legislators overrode the veto. Not only is it a tax increase — it’s even a progressive tax increase! …More than half of the Republicans in both houses voted for the increases.

If you read the articles, columns, and editorials in the New York Times, you’ll notice there isn’t a lot of detail on what actually happened in the Sunflower State. Lots of rhetoric, but short on details.

So let’s go to the Tax Foundation, which has a thorough review including this very helpful chart showing tax rates before the cuts, during the cuts, and what will now happen in future years (the article also notes that the new legislation repeals the exemption for small-business income).

We know that folks on the left are happy about tax cuts being reversed in Kansas. So what are conservatives and libertarians saying?

The Wall Street Journal opined on what really happened in the state.

…national progressives are giddy. Their spin is that because the vote reverses Mr. Brownback’s tax cuts in a Republican state that Donald Trump carried by more than 20 points, Republicans everywhere should stop cutting taxes. The reality is more prosaic—and politically cynical. …At bottom the Kansas tax vote was as much about unions getting even with the Governor over his education reforms, which included making it easier to fire bad teachers.

And the editorial also explains why there wasn’t much of an economic bounce when Brownback’s tax cuts were implemented, but suggests there was a bit of good news.

Mr. Brownback was unlucky in his timing, given the hits to the agricultural and energy industries that count for much of the state economy. But unemployment is still low at 3.7%, and the state has had considerable small-business formation every year since the tax cuts were enacted. The tax competition across the Kansas-Missouri border around Kansas City is one reason Missouri cut its top individual tax rate in 2014.

I concur. When I examined the data a few years ago, I also found some positive signs.

In any event, the WSJ is not overly optimistic about what this means for the state.

The upshot is that supposedly conservative Kansas will now have a higher top marginal individual income-tax rate (5.7%) than Massachusetts (5.1%). And the unions will be back for another increase as spending rises to meet the new greater revenues. This is the eternal lesson of tax increases, as Illinois and Connecticut prove.

And Reason published an article by Ben Haller with similar conclusions.

What went wrong? First, the legislature failed to eliminate politically popular exemptions and deductions, making the initial revenue drop more severe than the governor planned. The legislature and the governor could have reduced government spending to offset the decrease in revenue, but they also failed on that front. Government spending per capita remained relatively stable in the years following the recession to the present, despite the constant fiscal crises. In fact, state expenditure reports from the National Association of State Budget Officers show that total state expenditures in Kansas increased every year except 2013, where expenditures decreased a modest 3 percent from 2012. It should then not come as a surprise that the state faced large budget gaps year after year. …tax cuts do not necessarily pay for themselves. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, …may have the right idea when it comes to lowering rates to spur economic growth, but lower taxes by themselves are not a cure-all for a state’s woes. Excessive regulation, budget insolvency, corruption, older demographics, and a whole host of other issues can slow down economic growth even in the presence of a low-tax environment.

Since Haller mentioned spending, here’s another Tax Foundation chart showing inflation-adjusted state spending in Kansas. Keep in mind that Brownback was elected in 2010. The left argued that he “slashed” spending, but that assertion obviously is empty demagoguery.

Now time for my two cents.

Looking at what happened, there are three lessons from Kansas.

  1. A long-run win for tax cutters. If this is a defeat, I hope there are similar losses all over the country. If you peruse the first chart in this column, you’ll see that tax rates in 2017 and 2018 will still be significantly lower than they were when Brownback took office. In other words, the net result of his tenure will be a permanent reduction in the tax burden, just like with the Bush tax cuts. Not as much as Brownback wanted, to be sure, but leftists are grading on a very strange curve if they think they’ve won any sort of long-run victory.
  2. Be realistic and prudent. It’s a good idea to under-promise and over-deliver. That’s true for substance and rhetoric.
    1. Don’t claim that tax cuts pay for themselves. That only happens in rare circumstances, usually involving taxpayers who have considerable controlover the timing, level, and composition of their income. In the vast majority of cases, tax cuts reduce revenue, though generally not as much as projected once “supply-side” responses are added to the equation.
    2. Big tax cuts require some spending restraint. Since tax cuts generally will lead to less revenue, they probably won’t be durable unless there’s eventually some spending restraint (which is one of the reasons why the Bush tax cuts were partially repealed and why I’m not overly optimistic about the Trump tax plan).
    3. Tax policy matters, but so does everything else. Lower tax rates are wonderful, but there are many factors that determine a jurisdiction’s long-run prosperity. As just mentioned, spending restraint is important. But state lawmakers also should pay attention to many other issues, such as licensing, regulation, and pension reform.
  3. Many Republicans are pro-tax big spenders. Most fiscal fights are really battles over the trend line of spending. Advocates of lower tax rates generally are fighting to reduce the growth of government, preferably so it expands slower than the private sector. Advocates of tax hikes, by contrast, want to enable a larger burden of government spending. What happened in Kansas shows that it’s hard to starve the beast if you’re not willing to put government on a diet.

By the way, all three points are why the GOP is having trouble in Washington.

The moral of the story? As I noted when writing about Belgium, it’s hard to have good tax policy if you don’t have good spending policy.

Red State, Blue State, Independent State, Moocher State

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 12:27pm

I don’t know if Dr. Seuss would appreciate my title, which borrows from his children’s classic.

But given how I enjoy comparative rankings, I couldn’t help myself after perusing a new study from WalletHub that ranks states on their independence (or lack thereof).

Being a policy wonk, what really caught my attention was the section on government dependency, which is based on four criteria.

As you can see, the four factors are not weighted equally. The “federally dependent states” variable is considered four times as important as any of the other variables.

That’s important, to be sure, but is it really more important (or that much more important) than the other categories?

Moreover, I’m not sure the “tax freedom day” variable is a measure of dependency. What’s really captured by this variable, given the way the tax code doesn’t tax low-income people and over-taxes high-income people, is the degree to which states have lots of rich people or poor people. But that’s not a measure of dependence (particularly if the rich people stole money instead of earning it).

But I’m quibbling. I might put together a different formula with some different variables, but WalletHub has done something very interesting.

And if we look at their 25 least-dependent states, you see a very interesting pattern. Of the 10-most independent states, only three of them are Trump-voting red states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah).

The other seven are blue states. And some of them – such as Illinois, New Jersey, and California – are dark blue states.

And the #11 and #12 states also were Hillary states as well.

Which raises an interesting question. Why are voters in those states in favor of big government when they don’t disproportionately benefit from handouts?

Are they culturally left-wing, putting social issues above economic issues?

Or are they motivated by some issue involving foreign policy and/or defense?

Or maybe masochistic?

Beats me.

By the way, the WalletHub email announcing the report included a very interesting factoid that may explain why Hillary lost Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has the lowest percentage of government workers (local, state and federal), at 10.8 percent. Alaska has the nation’s highest percentage, at 25.1 percent.

Though I can’t see those details in the actual report, which is disappointing. I’d like to see a ranking of the states based solely on the number-of-bureaucrats criteria (we have data comparing countries, for those interested).

Now let’s shift to the states that have the highest levels of dependency.

If you look at the bottom of the final image, you’ll notice that it’s a reverse of the top-10. Seven of the most-dependent states are red states that voted for Trump.

Only New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine supported Hillary (and Trump actually won one-fourth of Maine’s electoral votes).

So this raises a separate question. Are red state people voting against their interests? Should they be voting for politicians who will further expand the size and scope of government so they can get even more goodies from Uncle Sam?

For what it’s worth, a leftist actually wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, which examined why the people of the Sunflower State weren’t voting for statism.

Well, part of the answer may be that Kansas is one of the most independent states, so perhaps the author should have picked another example.

But even if he had selected Mississippi (#49), I suspected the answer is that low-income people don’t necessarily think that it’s morally right to steal money from other states, even if the loot is laundered through Washington.

In other words, people in those states still have social capital or cultural capital.

It’s also possible, of course, that voters in red states with lots of dependency (at least as measured by WalletHub) are instead motivated by cultural issues or foreign policy issues.

There’s even a very interesting study from Professor Alesina at Harvard, which finds that ethnically diverse jurisdictions can be more hostile to redistribution (and homogeneous societies like the Nordic nations are more supportive of a large welfare state).

And since many of the red states at the bottom of the rankings also happen to be states with large minority populations, perhaps that’s a partial explanation.

Though California has a very large minority population as well, yet it routinely votes for more redistribution.

The bottom line is that we probably can’t draw any sweeping conclusions from this data.

Though it leaves me even more convinced that the best approach is to eliminate all DC-based redistribution and let states decide how much to tax and how much to spend. In other words, federalism.

P.S. I put together my own ranking of state dependency, based on a formula involving welfare usage and poverty. Vermont was the worst state and Nevada was the best state.

P.P.S. I also shared calculations based solely on the share of eligible people who signed up for food stamps. Interestingly, Californians rank as the most self-reliant. Maybe my predictions of long-run doom for that state are a bit exaggerated.

 

The Nanny State, Showerheads, and the Declining Quality of Life

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 12:49pm

When I write about regulation, I usually focus on big-picture issues involving economic costs, living standards, and competitiveness.

Those are very important concerns, but the average person in American probably gets more irked by rules that impact the quality of life.

That’s a grim list, but it’s time to augment it.

Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education explains that the government also has made showering a less pleasant experience. He starts by expressing envy about Brazilian showers.

…was shocked with delight at the shower in Brazil. …step into the shower and you have a glorious capitalist experience. Hot water, really hot, pours down on you like a mighty and unending waterfall… At least the socialists in Brazil knew better than to destroy such an essential of civilized life.

I know what he’s talking about.

I’m in a hotel (not in Brazil), and my shower this morning was a tedious experience because the water flow was so anemic.

Why would a hotel not want customers to have an enjoyable and quick shower?

The answer is government.

…here we’ve forgotten. We have long lived with regulated showers, plugged up with a stopper imposed by government controls imposed in 1992. There was no public announcement. It just happened gradually. After a few years, you couldn’t buy a decent shower head. They called it a flow restrictor and said it would increase efficiency. By efficiency, the government means “doesn’t work as well as it used to.” …You can see the evidence of the bureaucrat in your shower if you pull off the showerhead and look inside. It has all this complicated stuff inside, whereas it should just be an open hole, you know, so the water could get through. The flow stopper is mandated by the federal government.

The problem isn’t just the water coming out of the showerhead. It’s the water coming into your home.

It’s not just about the showerhead. The water pressure in our homes and apartments has been gradually getting worse for two decades, thanks to EPA mandates on state and local governments. This has meant that even with a good showerhead, the shower is not as good as it might be. It also means that less water is running through our pipes, causing lines to clog and homes to stink just slightly like the sewer. This problem is much more difficult to fix, especially because plumbers are forbidden by law from hacking your water pressure.

So why are politicians and bureaucrats imposing these rules?

Ostensibly for purposes of conservation.

…what about the need to conserve water? Well, the Department of the Interior says that domestic water use, which includes even the water you use on your lawn and flower beds, constitutes a mere 2% of the total, so this unrelenting misery spread by government regulations makes hardly a dent in the whole. In any case, what is the point of some vague sense of “conserving” when the whole purpose of modern appliances and indoor plumbing is to improve our lives and sanitation? (Free societies have a method for knowing how much of something to use or not use; it is called the signaling system of prices.)

Jeffrey is right. If there really is a water shortage (as there sometimes is in parts of the country and world), then prices are the best way of encouraging conservation.

Now let’s dig in the archives of the Wall Street Journal for a 2010 column on the showerhead issue.

Apparently, bureaucrats are irked that builders and consumers used multiple showerheads to boost the quality of their daily showers.

Regulators are going after some of the luxury shower fixtures that took off in the housing boom. Many have multiple nozzles, cost thousands of dollars and emit as many as 12 gallons of water a minute. In May, the DOE stunned the plumbing-products industry when it said it would adopt a strict definition of the term “showerhead”… A 1992 federal law says a showerhead can deliver no more than 2.5 gallons per minute at a flowing water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch. For years, the term “showerhead” in federal regulations was understood by many manufacturers to mean a device that directs water onto a bather. Each nozzle in a shower was considered separate and in compliance if it delivered no more than the 2.5-gallon maximum. But in May, the DOE said a “showerhead” may incorporate “one or more sprays, nozzles or openings.” Under the new interpretation, all nozzles would count as a single showerhead and be deemed noncompliant if, taken together, they exceed the 2.5 gallons-a-minute maximum.

And here’s something that’s both amusing and depressing.

The regulations are so crazy that an entrepreneur didn’t think they were real.

Altmans Products, a U.S. unit of Grupo Helvex of Mexico City, says it got a letter from the DOE in January and has stopped selling several popular models, including the Shower Rose, which delivers 12 gallons of water a minute. Pedro Mier, the firm’s vice president, says his customers “just like to feel they’re getting a lot of water.” Until getting the DOE letter, his firm didn’t know U.S. law limited showerhead water usage, Mr. Mier says. “At first, I thought it was a scam.”

Unsurprisingly, California is “leading” the way. Here are some passages from an article in the L.A. Times from almost two years ago.

The flow of water from shower heads and bathroom faucets in California will be sharply reduced under strict new limits approved Wednesday by the state Energy Commission. Current rules, established in 1994 at the federal level, allow a maximum flow of 2.5 gallons per minute from a shower head. Effective next July, the limit will fall to 2.0 gallons per minute and will be reduced again in July 2018, to 1.8 gallons, giving California the toughest standard of any U.S. state.

Though “toughest standard” is the wrong way to describe what’s happening. It’s actually the “worst shower” of any state.

P.S. I forget the quality of shower I experienced in South Korea, but I was very impressed (see postscript) by the toilet.

The Endless Failure (but Bizarre Allure) of Socialism

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 12:41pm

Back in 2014, I wrote a column asking my leftist friends two very serious questions. And I often repeat these questions when debating proponents of bigger government.

  • Can you name a nation that became rich with statist policies?
  • Can you name a nation that with interventionism and big government that is out-performing a similar nation with free markets and small government?

I’ve yet to receive a good answer to either question. Many leftists point to certain European welfare states, but I debunk that claim by pointing out that those nations became rich when government was very small (about 10 percent of GDP, about one-half the size of the current Hong Kong and Singapore public sectors).

Others point to rapid growth in China, but that’s rather silly since improvements in that country’s economy are the result of partial liberalization. In any event, it’s not that difficult to have rapid growth rates when starting from a very low level. But even with a couple of decades of good growth, living standards in China are still relatively low.

So my challenge remains. I want a leftist (or anybody) to identify a successful statist nation, but I’m not holding my breath for good answers.

Yet even though the real-world evidence against big government is so strong, it’s rather baffling that many young people are drawn to that coercive ideology and disturbing that a non-trivial number of voters favor this failed form of statism.

The London-based Institute for Economic Affairs has released a video on the false allure of socialism.

I suppose a caveat might be appropriate at this stage.

Socialism has a technical definition involving government ownership of the means of production and central planning of the economy.

But most people today think socialism is big government, with business still privately owned but with lots of redistribution and intervention (I’ve argued, for instance, that even Bernie Sanders isn’t a real socialist, and that there are big differences between countries like Sweden, China, and North Korea).

For what it’s worth, that’s actually closer to the technical definition of fascism. But I guess I’m being pedantic by wanting more precision in how terms are used.

In any event, the IEA video is spot on. If you like videos debunking socialism, I have other examples here, here, and here.

Last but not least, here’s my favorite visual from the IEA video.

Tax Competition: So Powerful that even Politicians in Left-Wing States Feel Compelled to Cut Taxes for Rich People

Sat, 06/17/2017 - 12:57pm

Whenever I debate my left-wing friends on tax policy, they routinely assert that taxes don’t matter.

It’s unclear, though, whether they really believe their own rhetoric.

After all, if taxes don’t affect economic behavior, then why are folks on the left so terrified of tax havens? Why are they so opposed to tax competition?

And why are they so anxious to defend loopholes such as the deduction for state and local taxes.

Perhaps most revealing, why do leftists sometimes cut taxes when they hold power? A story in the Wall Street Journal notes that there’s been a little-noticed wave of state tax cuts. Specifically reductions and/or eliminations of state death taxes. And many of these supply-side reforms are happening in left-wing states!

In the past three years, nine states have eliminated or lowered their estate taxes, mostly by raising exemptions. And more reductions are coming. Minnesota lawmakers recently raised the state’s estate-tax exemption to $2.1 million retroactive to January, and the exemption will rise to $2.4 million next year. Maryland will raise its $3 million exemption to $4 million next year. New Jersey’s exemption, which used to rank last at $675,000 a person, rose to $2 million a person this year. Next year, New Jersey is scheduled to eliminate its estate tax altogether, joining about a half-dozen others that have ended their estate taxes over the past decade.

This is good news for affected taxpayers, but it’s also good news for the economy.

Death taxes are not only a punitive tax on capital, but they also discourage investors, entrepreneurs, and other high-income people from earning income once they have accumulated a certain level of savings.

But let’s focus on politics rather than economics. Why are governors and state legislators finally doing something sensible? Why are they lowering tax burdens on “rich” taxpayers instead of playing their usual game of class warfare?

It appears that tax competition deserves most of the credit.

This tax-cutting trend has been fueled by competition between the states for affluent and wealthy taxpayers. Such residents owe income taxes every year, but some are willing to move out of state to avoid death duties that come only once. Since the federal estate-and-gift tax exemption jumped to $5 million in 2011, adjusted for inflation, state death duties have stood out.

I don’t fully agree with the above excerpt because there’s plenty of evidence that income taxes cause migration from high-tax states to zero-income-tax states.

But I agree that a state death tax can have a very large impact, particularly once a successful person has retired and has more flexibility.

Courtesy of the Tax Foundation, here are the states that still impose this destructive levy.

Though this map may soon have one less yellow state. As reported by the WSJ, politicians in the Bay State may be waking up.

In Massachusetts, some lawmakers are worried about losing residents to other states because of its estate tax, which brought in $400 million last year. They hope to raise the exemption to half the federal level and perhaps exclude the value of a residence as well. These measures stand a good chance of passage even as lawmakers are considering raising income taxes on millionaires, says Kenneth Brier, an estate lawyer with Brier & Ganz LLP in Needham, Mass., who tracks the issue for the Massachusetts Bar Association. State officials “are worried about a silent leak of people down to Florida, or even New Hampshire,” he adds.

I’m not sure the leak has been silent. There’s lots of data on the migration of productive people to lower-tax states.

But what matters is that tax competition is forcing the state legislature (which is overwhelmingly Democrat) to do the right thing, even though their normal instincts would be to squeeze upper-income taxpayers for more money.

As I’ve repeatedly written, tax competition also has a liberalizing impact on national tax policy.

Following the Reagan tax cuts and Thatcher tax cuts, politicians all over the world felt pressure to lower their tax rates on personal income. The same thing has happened with corporate tax rates, though Ireland deserves most of the credit for getting that process started.

I’ll close by recycling my video on tax competition. It focuses primarily on the fiscal rivalry between nations, but the lessons equally apply to states.

P.S. For what it’s worth, South Dakota arguably is the state with the best tax policy. It’s more difficult to identify the state with the worst policy, though New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, and Connecticut can all make a strong claim to be at the bottom.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding my snarky title, I don’t particularly care whether there are tax cuts for rich people. But I care a lot about not having tax policies that penalize the behaviors (work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship) that produce income, jobs, and opportunity for poor and middle-income people. And if that means reforms that allow upper-income people to keep more of their money, I’m okay with that since I’m not an envious person.

The Universal Private Retirement System Is an Additional Reason to Admire Switzerland

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 12:46pm

There’s a lot to admire about Switzerland, particularly compared to its profligate neighbors.

With all these features, you won’t be surprised to learn that Switzerland is highly ranked by Human Freedom Index (#2), Economic Freedom of the World (#4), Index of Economic Freedom (#4), Global Competitiveness Report (#1), Tax Oppression Index (#1), and World Competitiveness Yearbook (#2).

Today let’s augment our list of good Swiss policies for reviewing the near-universal system of private pensions. I’ve been in Switzerland this week for a couple of speeches in Geneva, as well as interviews and meetings in Zurich and Bern.

As part of my travels around the country, I took the time to learn more about the “second pillar” of the country’s pension system.

Here’s a basic description from the Swiss government (with the help of Google translate).

The first pension funds were founded more than a hundred years ago… In 1972 the occupational pensions were included in the constitution. There it represents the second column in the three-column concept… The BVG compulsory scheme applies to all employees who are already insured in the first pillar… Pension provision in the second pillar is based on an individual savings process. This starts at 25 years. However, the condition is an annual income that exceeds the threshold (since 2015: 21’150 francs). The savings process ends with the reaching of the pension age. The accumulated savings in the individual account of the insured [are] used to finance the retirement pension.

If you want something in original English, here’s a brief description from the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.

The second pillar is governed by the provisions of the laws on occupational pension provision (BVG)… Employees who are paid by the same employer an annual salary exceeding CHF 21,150 are subject to compulsory insurance. The share of the salary which is subject to compulsory insurance is…between CHF 24,675 (the coordination deduction) and CHF 84,600… An employer who employs persons subject to compulsory insurance must be affiliated to a provident institution entered in the register for occupational benefit plan. The contributions into the pension scheme depend on age and include a minimum saving portion of 7% – 18% of the coordinated salary plus a risk portion. Both are equally shared between employer and employee. The benefits of the insured persons consist in the old age, invalidity and survivors pensions.

One of the interesting quirks of the system is that the mandatory contribution rate changes with age. The older you are, the more you pay.

I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense if the goal is for people to have big nest eggs when they retire, but nobody asked me. In any event, here’s a table showing the age-dependent contribution rates from an OECD description of the Swiss system.

Technically speaking, the contributions are evenly split between employees and employers, though labor economists widely agree that workers bear the real cost.

It’s also worth noting that the Swiss system is based on “defined contribution” like the Chilean and Australian private retirement systems. This means retirement income generally is a function of how much is saved and how well it is invested.

By contrast, the Dutch private system is based on “defined benefit,” which means that workers get a pre-determined level of retirement income. As evidenced by huge shortfalls in the defined benefit regimes maintained by many public and private employers in the United States, this approach is very risky if there aren’t high levels of integrity and honesty.

Though that doesn’t seem to be a problem in the Netherlands. Speaking of the Dutch system, here’s a chart I shared back in 2014.

It was designed to laud the Netherlands, but you can see that Switzerland also had a large pool of pension assets, equal to more than 110 percent of GDP (according to OECD data, now 123 percent of GDP).

Looking at this data, ask yourself whether Switzerland (or the Netherlands, Iceland, Australia, etc) will be in a stronger position to handle the fiscal challenge of aging populations, particularly when compared to nations with virtually no private pension assets, such as France, Greece, and Japan.

The Swiss regime certainly isn’t perfect, and neither are the systems in other nations with private retirement savings. But at least those nations are in much better shape to deal with future demographic changes. Workers in Switzerland and other countries with similar systems have real assets rather than unsustainable political promises. And it’s also worth pointing out that there are macroeconomic benefits for nations that rely more on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes.

In other words, the Swiss system is much better than America’s bankrupt Social Security scheme.

P.S. Back in 2011, I compared five good features of the United States to five good features of Switzerland. If retirement systems were part of that discussion, Switzerland would have enjoyed a sixth advantage.

P.P.S. Switzerland does have some warts. It is only ranked #31 in the World Bank’s Doing Business. It also has a self-destructive wealth tax. And government spending, though modest compared to neighbors, consumes slightly more than one-third of economic output.

A Lesson from China on Poverty Reduction and Inequality

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 12:30pm

I’ve written (many, many times) about how the best way to help the poor is to focus on economic growth rather than inequality.

After all, in a genuine market economy (as opposed to socialism, cronyism, or some other form of statism), the poor aren’t poor because some people are rich.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of why it is a mistake to focus on inequality.

A study by five Chinese scholars looked at income inequality over time in their country. Their research, published in 2010, focused mostly on the methodological challenges of obtaining good long-run data and understanding the impact of urban and rural populations. But one clear conclusion is that inequality has increased in China.

This paper investigates the influences of the income overlap part on the nationwide Gini coefficient. Then we present a new approach to estimating the Chinese Gini ratio from 1978 to 2006, which avoids the shortcomings of current data sources. In line with the results, the authors further probe the trend of Chinese income disparity. …income inequality has been rising in China. …the national Gini ratio of 2006 is 1.52 times more than that of 1978.

Here’s a chart based on their data (combined with post-2006 data from Statista). It looks at historical trends for the Gini coefficient (a value of “1” is absolute inequality, with one person accumulating all the income in a society, whereas a value of “0” is absolute equality, with everyone having the same level of income.

As you can see, there’s been a significant increase in inequality.

My leftist friends are conditioned to think this is a terrible outcome, in large part because they incorrectly think the economy is a fixed pie.

And when you have that distorted view, higher absolute incomes for the rich necessarily imply lower absolute incomes for the poor.

My response (beyond pointing out that the economy is not a fixed pie), is to argue that the goal should be economic growth and poverty reduction. I don’t care if Bill Gates is getting richer at a faster rate than a poor person. I just want a society where everyone has the chance to climb the economic ladder.

And I also point out that it’s hard to design pro-growth policies that won’t produce more income for rich people. Yes, there are some reforms (licensing liberalization, cutting agriculture subsidies, reducing protectionism, shutting the Ex-Im Bank, reforming Social Security, ending bailouts) that will probably be disproportionately beneficial for those with low incomes, but those policies also will produce growth that will help upper-income people.*

But I’m digressing. The main goal of today’s column is to look at the inequality data from above and then add the following data on poverty reduction.

Here’s a chart I shared back in March. As you can see, there’s been a very impressive reduction in the number of people suffering severe deprivation in rural China (where incomes historically have been lowest).

Consider, now, both charts together.

The bottom line is that economic liberalization resulted in much faster growth. And because some people got richer at a faster rate than others got richer, that led to both an increase in inequality and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

Therefore, what happened in China creates a type of Rorschach test for folks on the left.

  • A well-meaning leftist will look at all this data and say, “I wish somehow everyone got richer at the same rate, but market-based reforms in China are wonderful because so many people escaped poverty.”
  • A spiteful leftist will look at all this data and say, “Because upper-income people benefited even more than low-income people, market-based reforms in China were a failure and should be reversed.”

Needless to say, the spiteful leftists are the ones who hate the rich more than they love the poor (here are some wise words from Margaret Thatcher on such people).

*To the extent that some upper-income taxpayers obtain unearned income via government intervention, then they may lose out from economic liberalization. Ethical rich people, however, will earn more income if there are pro-growth reforms.

Don’t Implement Bad Policy Slower, Implement Good Policy

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 12:00pm

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, in response to strong opposition to his proposed border-adjustment tax, is now proposing a phase-in over 5 years. While this could satisfy those whose opposition was due merely to a fear of dramatic change to the tax code, it does nothing to address the substantive concerns offered by CF&P and others. Most notably, that it undermines tax competition and sets the stage for explosive government growth by introducing a VAT-like tax to the U.S.

Not only does it ignore the biggest issues with the BAT, but a phase-in introduces problems of its own. Here’s what Veronique de Rugy had to say:

Leaving aside the distortions and uncertainty that phasing in the tax will introduce, I doubt that it makes adopting the border-adjustment tax more politically feasible. Let’s talk about the trade deficit for a moment.

What do you think importers will do when they know that the tax today is at a lower rate than the tax tomorrow? They will anticipate tomorrow’s rate hike by importing more today and still raising costs tomorrow. How about exporters? If they think it is advantageous to delay exporting to benefit from a bigger export subsidy tomorrow, they will. You end up with a bigger trade deficit, at least in the short term. I am pretty sure that won’t fly with the trade-deficit obsessed Trump administration.

The ultimate problem, which a phase-in does nothing to solve, is that Republicans chose a bad policy to supply the revenue offsets for otherwise beneficial tax reforms. Clearly, the best solution is to replace it with good policy. That’s precisely what CF&P President Andrew Quinlan suggested to Ways and Means in a recent submission:

Although some arguments have been put forward to suggest that the DBCFT is desirable in its own right, it is only being proposed as a “pay-for” to offset the provisions of tax reform that are actually pro-growth. But even if it is decided that offsets are necessary, it makes little sense to choose a bad policy to pay for tax reform when there are alternatives available that also represent good policy…

Current reform plans rightly call for the elimination of the state and local tax deduction. This is good policy because the deduction encourages states to raise their tax burdens. However, other distortion-creating tax expenditures remain unchallenged, like the mortgage interest deduction, the municipal bond interest exemption, and the employer-provided health care exclusion. Closing these loopholes would not only provide the means to pay for rate reductions, but would simultaneously remove costly distortions from their respective markets.

The items listed above are not just revenue raisers but good policy changes in their own right. The mortgage interest deduction tilts the playing field toward housing, inducing over-investment that contributes to bubbles. The municipal bond interest exemption encourages state and local governments to take on debt and diverts capital away from private uses. And the healthcare exclusion is arguably the worst loophole in the tax code, as its distortions reverberate throughout the healthcare industry and explain much of its overall dysfunction.

This is not to suggest that these changes would be easy. All of these bad policies continue to exist either because they have entrenched interests which fight hard to keep their benefits or they are politically popular, or both. But if ever there is a time to address these issues it is now, as part of a pro-growth tax reform where large rate cuts can mitigate the impact on those particular groups. At the very least, Republicans should try. Why not start the move to tax reform from the strongest position on principle and then compromise only as much as necessary to get the job done, rather than starting with what amounts to a pre-emptive surrender in the fight to limit government.

Why not start the move to tax reform from the strongest position on principle and then compromise only as much as necessary to get the job done, rather than starting with what amounts to a pre-emptive surrender in the fight to limit government?

More Economic Malpractice at the IMF

Tue, 06/13/2017 - 12:14pm

I don’t like international bureaucracies that push statist policies.

In a perverse way, though, I admire their brassiness. They’re now arguing that higher taxes are good for growth.

This isn’t a joke. They never offer any evidence, of course, but it’s now routine to find international bureaucrats asserting that there will be more prosperity if more resources are taken out of the private sector and given to politicians (see the 3:30 mark of this video for some evidence).

Christine Lagarde, the lavishly paid head of the IMF, is doubling down on this bizarre idea that higher tax burdens are a way to generate more growth for poor nations.

…we are here to discuss an equally powerful tool for global growth — domestic resource mobilization. …taxes, and the improvement of tax systems, can boost development in incredible ways… So today, allow me first to explain the IMF’s commitment to capacity development and second, to outline strategies governments can use to generate stable sources of revenue…the IMF has a third important development mission — capacity development.

Keep in mind that all of the buzz phrases in the preceding passages – “resource mobilization” and “capacity development” – refer to governments imposing and collecting more taxes.

Again, I’m not joking.

…the focus of our event today — enabling countries to raise public tax revenues efficiently.

And there’s plenty of rhetoric about how higher taxes somehow translate into more prosperity.

Resource mobilization can, if pursued wisely, become a key pillar of strong economy… For many developing countries, increased revenue is a necessary catalyst to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and can be a driver of inclusive growth. Yet in some countries revenue remains stagnant, as the resources needed to enhance economic and civic life sit on the sidelines.

Wow, money that the government doesn’t grab apparently will just “sit on the sidelines.”

Lagarde’s entire speech was a triumph of anti-empiricism.

For instance, the western world went from poverty to prosperity in the 1800s when government was very small, averaging less than 10 percent of economic output.

Yet Lagarde makes an unsubstantiated assertion that today’s poor nations should have tax burdens of at least 15 percent of GDP (the OECD is even worse, arguing that taxes should consume 25 percent of economic output).

How significant is the resource problem? Developing countries typically collect between 10 to 20 percent of GDP in taxes, while the average for advanced economies is closer to 40 percent. IMF staff research shows that developing countries should aim to collect 15 percent of GDP to improve the likelihood of achieving stable and sustainable growth.

By the way, I should not that the IMF partnered with Oxfam, the radical left-wing pressure group, at the conference where her speech was delivered (sort of like the OECD cooperating with the crazies in the Occupy movement).

Moreover, her support for higher taxes is rather hypocritical since she doesn’t have to pay tax on her munificent salary.

I’ve also written about the various ways the IMF has endorsed higher taxes in the United States.

It’s also worth noting that the IMF boss thinks America should have a bigger welfare state as well. Here’s some of what she said about policy in the United States.

Policies need to help lower income households – including through a higher federal minimum wage, more generous earned income tax credit, and upgraded social programs for the nonworking poor. …There is a need to deepen and improve the provision of reasonable benefits to households… This should include paid family leave to care for a child or a parent, childcare assistance, and a better disability insurance program. I would just note that the U.S. is the only country among advanced economies without paid maternity leave at the national level.

The IMF even figured out a way to criticize the notion of lower corporate taxation in the United States.

The IMF…said that already highly leveraged U.S. companies may not be in a position to translate a cash-flow boost from U.S. Republican tax reform proposals into productive capital investments that can aid sustainable growth. Instead, the Fund said the slug of cash, which is likely to include repatriation of profits held overseas by multinational corporations, could be channelled into risks such as purchases of financial assets, mergers and dividend payouts. Such temptations would be highest in the information technology and health care sectors, according to the report. “Cash flow from tax reforms may accrue mainly to sectors that have engaged in substantial financial risk taking,” the IMF said. “Such risk taking is associated with intermittent large destabilising swings in the financial system over the past few decades.”

Basically, the bureaucrats at the IMF want us to believe that money left in private hands will be poorly used.

That’s a strange theory, but the oddest part of this report is that the IMF actually argued that a small repatriation holiday in 2004 somehow caused the recession of 2008 (almost all rational people put the blame on the Federal Reserve and the duo of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

The report noted that past major tax changes typically were followed by increases in financial risk-taking, including the tax reforms in 1986 and a corporate tax repatriation “holiday” in 2004. In both cases, these led to leverage buildups that were followed by recessions, in 1990 and 2008. …inflation and interest rates could rise more sharply than expected. This could increase market volatility and raise debt service costs for already-stretched corporate balance sheets, the IMF said. …”Tighter financial conditions could lead to distress” for weaker firms, the IMF said, noting that resulting losses would be borne by banks, life insurers, mutual funds, pension funds, and overseas institutions.

But the U.S. isn’t special.

The IMF wants higher tax burdens everywhere. Such as the Caribbean.

Over the past decade, governments in the Caribbean region have introduced the value-added tax (VAT) to modernize their tax system, rapidly mobilize revenue… VAT…has boosted revenues, the VAT has not reached its potential. …The paper also finds that although tax administration reforms can boost revenues, countries have just started… These reforms need to intensify in order to have a more significant impact on compliance and revenue.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer has a very dim assessment of the International Monetary Fund’s actions.

He starts with some background information.

The original vision of the IMF was as an agency attending to global stability… Along with the World Bank, the agency was created at an alcohol-fueled conference of 730 delegates from 44 nations, convened 72 years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. No matter that the delegates from one of the important attendees, the Soviet Union, did not speak English: Harry Dexter White, the head of the U.S. delegation, was a Soviet agent who kept Moscow informed of the goings-on. …Today’s IMF includes 189 nations, has some 2,700 employees and an annual budget in excess of $1 billion, almost 18 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

He then points out that the IMF has a bad habit of putting dodgy people in charge.

In 2004 Rodrigo Rato took the top chair and served until 2007, when he resigned to face trial in Spain for a variety of frauds involving over 70 bank accounts, and the amassing of a €27 million fortune in a web of dozens of companies. Sr. Rato was succeeded by Dominique Strauss-Kahn… Strauss-Kahn did a reasonable job until arrested in New York City on charges of imposing himself on a hotel maid whose testimony proved so incredible that all criminal charges were dropped. But DSK did settle her civil suit for a reported $1.5 million… Madame Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister, took over as managing director. …Lagarde now faces a criminal trial in France for approving a 2008 arbitration decision award of £340 million to a major financial supporter of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy that was later reversed by an appeals court.

And he notes that these head bureaucrats are lavishly compensated.

…her job…pays $500,000 per year, tax free, plus benefits and a $75,000 allowance to be paid “without any certification or justification by you, to enable you to maintain, in the interests of the Fund, a scale of living appropriate to your position as Managing Director.” The salary is twice the take-home pay of the American president, who must pay taxes on his $400,000 salary… Vacations and sick leave follow generous European standards.

Last but not least, he points out that IMF economists have a lousy track record.

All of which might be money well spent if the IMF had been reasonably successful in one of its key functions—forecasting the outlook for the international economy. …one can’t help wondering what is going on in the IMF’s highly paid forecasting shop. A study of the 189 IMF members by the Economist finds 220 instances between 1999 and 2014 in which an economy grew one year before sinking the next. “In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year.” The magazine’s random-number generator got it right 18 percent of the time.

If all the IMF did was waste a lot of money producing inaccurate forecasts, I wouldn’t be overly upset.

After all, economists seemingly specialize in getting the future wrong. My problem is that the IMF pushes bad policy.

Let’s close with a defense of the bureaucracy.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the IMF is needed because of future crises.

A number of recent senior U.S. Treasury nominations, who are known for their antipathy towards the International Monetary Fund, seems to signal that President Trump might want to have a smaller IMF. Before he yields to the temptation of trying to downsize that institution, he might want to reflect on the fact that there is a high probability that during his term he will be confronted with a global economic crisis that will require a large IMF… It is generally not a good idea to think about downsizing the fire brigade on the eve of a major conflagration. In the same way, it would seem that President Trump would be ill-advised to think about reigning in the IMF at a time when there is the real prospect of a global economic crisis during his term of office.

I actually agree with much of what Desmond wrote about the possibility of economic and fiscal crisis in the near future.

The problem, though, is that the IMF is not a fire brigade. It’s more akin to a collection of fiscal pyromaniacs.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I want to acknowledge that we sometimes get good analysis from the IMF. Economists from that bureaucracy have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule. They also made some good observations about tax policy earlier this year. And IMF researchers in 2016concluded that smaller government and lower taxes produce more prosperity. Moreover, an IMF study in 2015 found that decentralized government works better.

P.P.S. On the other hand, I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period. And I also think it’s funny that IMF bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

The Keynesian Blunder Down Under

Mon, 06/12/2017 - 12:22pm

Time for an update on the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

We’ll start with the good news. The Treasury Department commissioned a study on the efficacy of the so-called stimulus spending that took place at the end of last decade. As discussed in this news report, the results were negative.

…a scathing new Treasury-commissioned report…argues the cash splash actually weakened the economy and damaged local industry… The report, …says the…fiscal stimulus was “unnecessarily large” and “misconceived because it emphasised transfers, unproductive expenditure…rather than tax relief and/or supply side reform”.

The bad news, at least from an American perspective, is that it was this story isn’t about the United States. It’s a story from an Australian newspaper about a study by an Australian professor about the Keynesian spending binge in Australia that was enacted back in 2008 and 2009.

I actually gave my assessment of the plan back in 2010, and I even provided my highly sophisticated analysis at no charge.

The Treasury-commissioned report, by contrast, presumably wasn’t free. The taxpayers of Australia probably coughed up tens of thousands of dollars for the study.

But this is a rare case where they may benefit, at least if policy makers read the findings and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Here are some of the highlights that caught my eye, starting with a description of what the Australian government actually did.

The GFC fiscal stimulus involved a mix of new public expenditure on school buildings, social housing, home insulation, limited tax breaks for business, and income transfers to select groups. Stimulus packages were announced and implemented in the December 2008, March 2009 quarters and ran into subsequent quarters.

For what it’s worth, there are strong parallels between what happened in the U.S. and Australia.

Both nations had modest-sized Keynesian packages in 2008, followed by larger plans in 2009. The total American “stimulus” was larger because of a larger population and larger economy, of course, and the political situation was also different since it was one government that did the two plans in Australia compared to two governments (Bush in 2008 and Obama in 2009) imposing Keynesianism in the United States.

Here’s a table from the report, showing how the money was (mis)spent in Australia.

Now let’s look at the economic impact. We know Keynesianism didn’t work very well in the United States.

And the report suggests it didn’t work any better in Australia.

…fiscal stimulus induced foreign investors to take up newly issued relatively high yielding government bonds whose AAA credit rating further enhanced their appeal. This contributed to exchange rate appreciation and a subsequent competitiveness… Worsened competitiveness in turn reduced the viability of substantial parts of manufacturing, including the motor vehicle sector. …Government spending continued to rise as a proportion of GDP… This put upward pressure on interest rates… this worsened industry competitiveness contributed to major job losses, not gains, in manufacturing and tourism. …In sum, fiscal stimulus was not primarily responsible for saving the Australian economy… Fiscal stimulus later weakened the economy.

Though there was one area where the Keynesian policies had a significant impact.

Australia’s public debt growth post GFC ranks amongst the highest in the G20. Ongoing budget deficits and rising public debt have contributed to economic weakness in numerous ways. …Interest paid by the federal government on its outstanding debt was under $4 billion before the GFC yet could reach $20 billion, or one per cent of GDP, by the end of the decade.

We got a similar result in America. Lots more red ink.

Except our debt started higher and grew by more, so we face a more difficult future (especially since Australia is much less threatened by demographics thanks to a system of private retirement savings).

The study also makes a very good point about the different types of austerity.

…a distinction can be made between “good” and “bad” fiscal consolidation in terms of its macroeconomic impact. Good fiscal repair involves cutting unproductive government spending, including program overlap between different tiers of government. On the contrary, bad fiscal repair involves cutting productive infrastructure spending, or raising taxes that distort incentives to save and invest.

Incidentally, the report noted that the Kiwis implemented a “good” set of policies.

…in New Zealand…marginal income tax rates were reduced, infrastructure was improved and the regulatory burden on business was lowered.

Yet another reason to like New Zealand.

Let’s close by comparing the burden of government spending in the United States and Australia. Using the OECD’s dataset, you see that the Aussies are actually slightly better than the United States.

By the way, it looks like America had a bigger relative spending increase at the end of last decade, but keep in mind that these numbers are relative to economic output. And since Australia only had a minor downturn while the US suffered a somewhat serious recession, that makes the American numbers appear more volatile even if spending is rising at the same nominal rate.

P.S. The U.S. numbers improved significantly between 2009 and 2014 because of a de facto spending freeze. If we did the same thing again today, the budget would be balanced in 2021.

A Female Wing for the Moocher Hall of Fame?

Sun, 06/11/2017 - 12:18pm

The Moocher Hall of Fame highlights people who have some special trait that sets them apart from normal welfare recipients. They may get on the list because they are undeservingly rich, malignantly evil, incredibly entitled, or downright weird.

I also have a terror wing in the Hall of Fame. Though I’ve had to become selective since it turns out that just about every nutcase terrorist in the western world mooches off taxpayers.

And now I’m thinking I need a new wing. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s for the middlemen or wholesalers who engage in industrial-level fleecing of taxpayers.

To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some excerpts from a story in  Newsweek about some Chicago-based scamming.

…the grandmother was actually conducting a simple unemployment insurance scam, one that stole almost $7 million from the state of Illinois, attracted a federal investigation and on Monday earned Garcia a four-year prison sentence. Garcia would pass out business cards at gas stations and on some days 10 to 15 people would walk into her office and hire her to file unemployment insurance claims for them, according to court papers filed by federal prosecutors. Many of her clients were Mexican-born immigrants without lawful immigration status or work permits, which made them ineligible for unemployment benefits. …She also kept a list of U.S. cities near the Mexican border, handwritten and neatly organized, and selected from it when filling out a client’s application. …Garcia told the informant she had clients who used false Social Security numbers for five or six years without problems, and that nine out of 10 applications were approved.

I have a couple of thoughts about this story. First, why isn’t she in jail for longer? Second, why isn’t her daughter also in jail?

But most important, why is government so blindly incompetent that it makes us all have Social Security numbers, but then it doesn’t actually have some sort of system to match names and numbers on things like unemployment forms?!?

It’s almost as if government is a big incompetent blob.

Here’s another story about a welfare middleman, though this is also a case where it’s a woman who is ripping off taxpayers.

Convenience store owner Vida Ofori Causey out of Worcester, Mass. was charged in federal court Monday after pleading guilty to $3.6 million worth of food stamp fraud. …She was able to scam the program by buying food stamp benefits from receipts for half the actual value. …As a result, recipients had cash on hand to buy restricted items. The restricted items could include alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs.

Since there’s a long history of fraud in the food stamps program, I’m not surprised that this happened.

Though I’m impressed (in a bad way) about the magnitude. It takes a lot of dishonest recipients combining with one evil woman to produce $3.6 million in fraud.

Last but not least, here’s a really disturbing story about a moocher who very appropriately has been jailed for life.

For 10 years, the group targeted mentally disabled people, luring those who were vulnerable and estranged from their families and locking them inside cabinets, basements and attics, according to prosecutors. The group’s ringleader, Linda Weston, persuaded the victims to allow her to become their representative and began collecting their disability benefits. The victims, prosecutors said, lived in the dark and in isolation, and were fed food laced with drugs to keep them sedated; they were brutally punished if they tried to escape. On Thursday, a federal judge sentenced Weston, 55, to life in prison — plus 80 years — for her role in the scheme. …The case horrified Philadelphia, where in 2011 a landlord discovered four disabled adults locked inside a boiler room, NBC reported. …The group ran the operation in three other states, prosecutors said. …victims were forced to live in attics naked…were fed a diet of Ramen noodles, beans or stew just once a day. …Some were encouraged to have children in order to collect more benefits. …The group stole more than $200,000 in Social Security benefits from victims, some of whom were forced into prostitution.

By the way, all three stories today feature women, so America truly is a land of opportunity for reprehensible people of both sexes. So perhaps the bottom line is that I need a female wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

You’ve come a long way, baby!

True to Form, the Paris-Based OECD Urges More Class-Warfare Tax Hikes and Big Expansions of the Welfare State

Sat, 06/10/2017 - 7:11pm

If there was a ranking of international bureaucracies, the World Bank would be my favorite (or, to be more accurate, least unfavorite). Yes, it sometimes produces bad studies, but it also is the source of good research on topics such as government spending, Social Security reform, tax complexity, financial regulation, and economic liberty. And the rankings in Doing Business are a very helpful way of measuring and comparing regulatory burdens (which is why leftists are so hostile to the project). Moreover, it’s hard to dislike an organization that has a mission of fighting poverty (even if it sometimes thinks redistribution is the right strategy).

The United Nations would be next on the list. The good news is that it has many well-meaning people. The bad news is that it has some very misguided projects. But since it isn’t very effective, I confess that it doesn’t command much of my attention.

At the bottom would be either the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The IMF is notorious for supporting bailouts and advocating tax increases. Depending on my mood, it’s either the “Dr. Kevorkian of economic policy” or the “dumpster fire of the global economy.” Yes, I try to be fair and will acknowledge occasional good research (on taxation, government spending, financial regulation, spending caps, etc), but there’s no question that the net impact of the IMF is negative.

The OECD also is on the wrong side when looking at the big picture. Once again, I’ll admit that there are occasional good studies (on spending caps, tax policy, government spending, etc). But those glimmers of good news are overwhelmed by a statist agenda on a wide range of policies. Most recently, the Paris-based bureaucracy proposed more taxes and more spending for the American economy. And if you’re interested in other examples, I’ve attached a list of examples at the bottom of this column.

But the main purpose of this column is to review a new publication from the OECD. As part of its so-called “Bridging the Gap” project, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that reads as if it was taken from the campaign speeches of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Here are some of the lowlights, starting with a misguided fixation on inequality.

Fiscal redistribution through taxes and transfers plays a crucial role in containing the impact of market income inequality on disposable income… Policies aimed at promoting growth should consider how growth will have an impact on many other outcomes, and how to ensure that those policies avoid the “grow first, distribute later” assumption that has characterised the economic paradigm until recently. It is now clear that growth strategies need to consider from the outset the way in which their benefits will be distributed to different income groups. … Inequalities tear at the fabric of our societies. Inequality of incomes translates seamlessly into inequality of opportunities for children, including education, health and jobs, and lower future prospects to flourish individually and collectively. …inequalities are reaching a tipping point

I’m tempted to joke that the bureaucrats want a “distribute first, grow never” approach, but let’s focus on the fact that the real goal should be reducing poverty rather than reducing inequality.

If I’m poor, I want an opportunity to increase my income. And if there’s a policy that will help give me that opportunity, it doesn’t matter if that policy enables Bill Gates to increase his income at a faster rate.

That’s why there’s no substitute for economic growth if you really want to help the less fortunate.

But the not-so-subtle message of the OECD report is that poor people are poor because rich people are rich. The bureaucrats are concerned with how to re-slice the pie rather than how to expand the size of the pie.

The really troubling material is in the final chapter, but I can’t resist commenting on a few items that appeared earlier in the report.

Such as the fact that the bureaucrats were not happy when unemployment benefits in the United States were curtailed.

…redistribution helped cushion increases in market income inequality, but its role has since tended to fall in a majority of OECD countries in the most recent years…it reflects the phasing out of fiscal stimulus, as in the United States, where the extension of unemployment benefit duration carried out in 2008-09 was rolled back in 2011.

Too bad nobody told the authors that the job market improved in America when subsidies for joblessness were cut back.

But that kind of mistake is predictable since the OECD puts such a high value on coercive redistribution.

I’m also not surprised that the bureaucrats are upset that tax competition has resulted in lower tax rates.

Globalisation has increased the difficulty for governments in taxing mobile capital income. Increased levels of capital mobility have led to certain reductions in statutory income tax rates…, which has reduced the progressivity of tax systems… The distributional effects of these reductions in statutory tax rates, especially the reduction in top personal income tax rates, has been a contributing factor to the rise in inequalities.

And the OECD even regurgitated its bizarre hypothesis that inequality reduces growth.

Widespread increases in income inequality are a source of concern…for their potential impact on economic performance. …recent OECD work estimates that rising inequality between 1985 and 2005 might have contributed to knocking more than 4 percentage points off growth between 1990-2010.

The final chapter, though, is where the OECD unveils its Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn agenda. I guess young people might say that the bureaucrats were “letting their statism freak flag fly.”

Governments have a vital role to play…targeted social investment, redistributive fiscal policy and comprehensive labour market support…fiscal policy is the key mechanism for redistributing market incomes and it is important that it is set up to prioritise support for vulnerable population groups at all points in the economic cycle.

And what are some of these policies?

The OECD wants to expand the welfare state, even though such policies already have caused fiscal crises in many nations.

The size of means-tested programmes is relatively small in many countries and there is room for expansion, by either making those programmes more generous or by extending their coverage.

The bureaucrats also want to increase double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

…enhancing tax progressivity via savings tax reform. Income from savings is taxed progressively, though at lower rates than labour and with a lot of variation in taxation across asset types. …There is therefore scope to increase the fairness and the neutrality of the taxation of capital income…removing tax expenditures…strengthening progressivity of tax bases. …tax expenditures such as tax deductions for private pension contributions…are regressive since higher income taxpayers tend to save… Removing such tax expenditures could simultaneously reduce inequality and make the tax system more efficient.

There’s also an embrace of punitive property taxes.

Increased taxation of residential property could increase both growth and strengthen progressivity. …if designed well can fall mostly on high-wealth, high-income households.

Amazingly, the OECD even wants more onerous death taxes, even though such policies have a very negative impact on capital formation.

Strengthening inheritance and gift taxes can support inclusive growth. … Inheritance taxes can…help achieve intergenerational equity goals. …In order to be effective, inheritance taxes must also be combined with taxes on gifts and wealth transfers during the taxpayers’ lifetime, as well as with measures to address avoidance and evasion.

The bureaucrats want more subsidies for joblessness.

Sufficiently generous unemployment benefits and social-assistance systems with a wide coverage are also a key.

And they even endorse an idea that is so economically absurd that it was rejected by President Obama’s main economic adviser.

Promoting gender equality in access to employment and job quality is a key component of inclusive growth. …gender pay gaps remaining at about 15% across the OECD, on average, with little change in recent years.

Here’s another passage urging a bigger welfare state.

Compensatory policies that redistribute income also have a role to play in…lowering post-redistribution inequality. …strong and well-designed social safety nets programmes are all the more needed.

And here’s a specific policy for more housing subsidies.

Access to affordable housing is a challenge for inclusion, and solutions include not only better housing policies but also better urban planning and governance of land use. …Explicit policies to support access to housing include housing allowances, social housing arrangements and different kinds of financial support towards homeownership.

As you can see, that’s an impressive collection of statist policies, even for the OECD.

P.S. I wrote last year that some folks on the left enjoy very lavish incomes while crusading about inequality. The same is true of the OECD, where bureaucrats not only are lavishly compensated (a general rule for international organizations), but they also enjoy tax-free incomes while urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

P.P.S. Here are additional examples of very dodgy research from the OECD.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that the OECD’s statist agenda is financed by your tax dollars.

Paging Fox Butterfield: Another Jurisdiction Gets a Painful Lesson about the High Price of High Tax Rates

Fri, 06/09/2017 - 12:46pm

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, it’s sometimes tempting to overstate the importance of good tax policy. So I’m always reminding myself that all sorts of other factors matter for a jurisdiction’s competitiveness and success, including regulation and government effectiveness (and, for national governments, policies such as trade and monetary policy).

That being said, taxes are very important. In some cases, you could almost say tax policy is suicidally important.

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

Hartford, Connecticut…is edging closer to joining a small club of American municipalities: those that have sought bankruptcy protection. …The city must pay nearly $180 million on debt service, health care, pensions and other fixed costs in the coming fiscal year beginning July 1. That is more than half of the city’s budget, excluding education.

This sounds like a run-of-the-mill story about a city (like Detroit) that has spent itself into fiscal trouble, mostly because of a bloated and over-compensated bureaucracy.

But tax policy is the story behind the story. Here’s the headline that caught my attention.

As I’ve written before, this is the “Fox Butterfield” version of financial reporting (he’s the New York Times reporter who was widely mocked for repeatedly expressing puzzlement that crime rates fell when crooks were locked up).

Simply stated, it would be more accurate to state (just as it was in Detroit) that the city is in trouble “because of” high property taxes, not “despite” those onerous levies.

Imagine being a homeowner or business with this type of burden.

Since 2000, Hartford has increased its property-tax, or millage, rate seven times. The rate is now more than 50% higher than it was in 1998. At the current level, a Hartford resident who owns a home with an assessed value of $300,000 currently pays an annual tax bill of $22,287, at rate of 7.43%. A West Hartford homeowner with a similar house pays $11,853 at a rate of 3.95%.

Wow, you get to pay twice as much tax on your home simply for the “privilege” of subsidizing an inefficient and incompetent city bureaucracy (not to mention the problem of excessive state taxes).

No wonder some major taxpayers are escaping, leaving the city (and state) even more vulnerable.

…the impending departure of one of its biggest employers, Aetna Inc. …Aetna and the other four biggest taxpayers in the city contribute nearly one-fifth of the city’s $280 million of property-tax revenue. Property-tax receipts make up nearly half of the city’s general-fund revenues.

To make matters worse, the city exempts a lot of property owners, which is one of the reasons for higher tax burdens on those that don’t get favored treatment.

Half of the city’s properties are excluded from paying taxes because they are government entities, hospitals and universities. …In Baltimore, about 32% of the property is tax exempt, and in Philadelphia it’s 27%.

Excuse me if I don’t shed a tear of sympathy for Hartford’s politicians. The city is in dire straits because of a perverse combination of excessive taxation and special tax favors. Combined, of course, with lavish remuneration for a gilded bureaucracy.

That’s the worst of all worlds. It’s Detroit all over again. Or you could call it the local government version of Illinois.

Needless to say, I don’t want my tax dollars involved in any sort of bailout.

Norway’s Version of the Resource Curse

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 12:22pm

There are a lot of positive things to be said about Norway.

In other words, Norway is a typical Nordic nation, with open markets, light regulation, free trade, and honest government. That’s the good news.

The bad news, at least from my perspective, is that Norway also is a typical Nordic nation in that it has a big welfare state.

But unlike the other Nordic nations, Norway also has a lot of oil. And, just like Alaska, it’s very easy to finance a big public sector when a government has access to a huge amount of petroleum-related revenue.

So does this make the country special? Is Norway a welfare-state Nirvana? In some sense, the answer is yes. As I’ve noted before, if a country wants a big welfare state, it makes a lot of sense to have very market-oriented policy in other areas to compensate. And if the country also happens to be rich with oil, that’s presumably not a bad combination.

But I would argue, of course, that Norway would be in better shape if the fiscal burden of government wasn’t so onerous.

And there’s growing evidence to validate my concerns. Bloomberg reports that falling oil prices are exposing problems with Norway’s extravagant welfare state.

More than a fifth of its working age population relied on unemployment or sick-leave benefits throughout 2016, according to a study by the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, or NAV. With welfare payments up 3 percent in 2016, the growing dependence will likely make it harder for Norway to wean itself off oil and gas production. While the discovery of petroleum 50 years ago…helped make the world’s most generous welfare system possible — declining resources…means that the country will need to find other legs to stand on to keep up its standard of living.

Norway isn’t in any immediate danger, but I wonder whether it can still prosper when the oil runs out.

Simply stated, the welfare state may have eroded the country’s work ethic (something that’s also a problem in America).

That’s something that the stewards of the system readily admit. The agency’s acronym has even become a verb, to NAV, which means `being on benefits.’ “To uphold the Norwegian welfare system we need more people at work and not on passive benefits,” said Sigrun Vageng, the head of NAV, in an emailed answered to questions.

The problem of dependency has even spread to the richer parts of the country.

…dependency on state handouts now runs deeper. It also spread to the nation’s richest regions after the plunge in oil prices… Welfare payments in Rogaland, the regional center of the oil industry and home to Statoil ASA, rose a whopping 13 percent last year. Some 19 percent received benefits on average each month in Rogaland. In Oslo, it was 15 percent.

And once there are too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency, it’s not easy to rejuvenate a nation’s social capital.

…with an increasing share of its working age population on welfare benefits instead of paying taxes, the desired changes could prove a difficult task for whoever is in power. And many are also pulling out of the workforce altogether. The percentage of people of working age in employment fell to 70.6 percent in 2016, a 21-year low… “This comes as a big cost for the society, both through lost tax revenues and the direct expenses from social benefit payments,” said Jeanette Strom Fjaere, an economist at DNB.

On the bright side, Norway has set aside lots of oil money.

Norway…has over the past 20 years built up a sovereign wealth fund.

In other words, Norway is the opposite of Venezuela. It hasn’t squandered its oil wealth on bigger government.

On the dark side, it has reached the point where its sovereign wealth fund is shrinking rather than growing.

…the government last year started withdrawing cash for the first time.

Some people say this is similar to America’s Social Security system, which has a Trust Fund that is now being depleted. I reject that analogy for the simple reason that Norway’s fund is filled with real assets. The Social Security Trust Fund, by contrast, is nothing but a pile of IOUs (as even the Clinton Administration acknowledged).

But I’m digressing. Let’s close by observing that development economists sometimes write about a “resource curse” that exists when politicians feel they can impose lots of bad policy because it is easy to generate revenue by selling natural resources.

Some argue that Norway, with its commitment to the rule of law and markets, is the exception to the rule. Yes, its welfare state is excessive, but not because of oil. Indeed, there’s more welfare spending as a share of GDP in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.

Though don’t forget that Norway’s GDP is boosted by all the oil wealth, so I’m guessing per-capita welfare outlays are higher than in neighboring countries (an important distinction, as illustrated by this data on government health spending).

So perhaps a version of the resource curse will hit Norway. But it won’t be because of a Venezuelan-style kleptocracy. Instead, it will be because the welfare state lures too many people into dependency. And when the oil money runs out, fixing that problem will be very difficult.

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