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The German Study Estimates Negative Impact of the Corporate Income Tax on Wages

Sat, 09/23/2017 - 11:12am

The most common arguments for reducing the 35 percent federal tax on corporate income usually revolve around the fact that having the developed world’s highest tax rate on business undermines competitiveness and reduces investment in America.

And all of that is true. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the corporate income tax is merely a collection device. Businesses may pay the tax, but the real burden is borne by people.

  • Shareholders (investors) receive lower dividends.
  • Consumers pay more for goods and services.
  • Workers receive lower levels of compensation.

Politicians don’t really care about investors since some shareholders are rich, but they definitely pay lip service to the notion that they are on the side of consumers and workers.

So I think this new study from German scholars is worth sharing because it measures the effect of corporate taxation on wages. Here are some of the highlights.

In this paper, we revisit the question of the incidence of corporate taxes on wages both theoretically and empirically. …we exploit the specific institutional setting of the German local business tax (LBT) to identify the corporate tax incidence on wages. …we test the theoretical predictions using administrative panel data on German municipalities from 1993 to 2012. Germany is well suited to test our theoretical model for several reasons. First, we have substantial tax variation at the local level. From 1993 to 2012, on average 12.4% of municipalities adjusted their LBT rates per year. Eventually, we exploit 17,999 tax changes in 10,001 municipalities between 1993 to 2012 for identification. …Moreover, the municipal autonomy in setting tax rates allows us to treat municipalities as many small open economies within the highly integrated German national economy – with substantial mobility of capital, labor and goods across municipal borders.

And here are the key results. There’s a good bit of economic jargon, so the main takeaway is that 43 percent of the corporate tax is borne by workers.

For our baseline estimate, we focus on firms that are liable to the LBT. Figure 2 depicts the results. Pre-reform trends are flat and not statistically different from zero. After a change in the municipal business tax rate in period 0 (indicated by the vertical red line), real wages start to decline and are 0.047 log points below the pre-reform year five years after the reform. The coefficient corresponds to a wage elasticity with respect to the LBT rate of 0.14. …this central estimate implies that a 1-euro increase in the tax bill leads to a 0.56-euro decrease in the wage bill. …we have to rely on estimates from the literature to quantify the total incidence on labor. If we assume a marginal deadweight loss of corporate taxation of 29% as suggested by Devereux et al. (2014), 43% of the total tax burden is borne by workers. This finding is comparable to other studies analyzing the corporate tax incidence on wages (Arulampalam et al., 2012; Liu and Altshuler, 2013; Su´arez Serrato and Zidar, 2014). …We find that part of the tax burden is borne by low-skilled workers. …the view that the corporate income tax primarily falls on firm owners is rejected by our analysis.

For what it’s worth, I use a different approach when trying to explain the impact of the corporate income tax.

I state that shareholders pay 100 percent of the corporate income tax when looking at the direct (or first-order) effect.

However, since shareholders respond to this tax by investing less money in businesses, that means productivity won’t grow as fast, and this translates into lower wages for workers (compared to how fast they would have grown if the tax was lower or didn’t exist). This is the indirect (or second-order) effect of corporate taxation, and it’s akin to the “deadweight loss” discussed in the aforementioned study.

And this is also the approach that can be used to calculate the damage to consumers.

For today, though, the moral of the story is very simple. A high corporate tax rate is bad for growth and competitiveness, but one of the main effects is that workers wind up earning less income. So when the class-warfare crowd takes aim at “rich corporations,” there’s a lot of collateral damage on ordinary people.

P.S. For more information, here’s a CF&P video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that describes some of the warts associated with the corporate income tax.

P.P.S. There’s lots of evidence – including some from leftist international bureaucracies – that a lower corporate tax rate won’t mean less tax revenue.

GOP Should Think Big When It Comes to Corporate Tax Cuts

Fri, 09/22/2017 - 5:53pm

Originally published by Morning Consult on September 20, 2017.

President Donald Trump has consistently called for a bold reduction in corporate taxes. He wants to cut the top federal corporate rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, which would provide tremendous benefit for workers and the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, congressional Republicans have so far demurred, seemingly leaning toward much smaller reductions. It would be a waste of a rare and historic opportunity for Republicans to adopt only tepid cuts.

Not since Ronald Reagan’s reforms in 1986 has the tax code received serious scrutiny. There have been a few cuts in that time, and unfortunately some hikes as well. And plenty of new carve-outs have been introduced, making the tax code more complex and less fair each time.

Other nations have not been so idle. While the combined state and federal corporate tax rate in the U.S. has hovered just under 40 percent for decades, the average among OECD member nations has steadily declined and rests far below the United States at about 25 percent. This is why corporations keep looking for ways, such as through so-called inversions, to move their headquarters and economic activity abroad.

Setting aside the issue of competitiveness, corporate taxes are excessively destructive. No tax is good for the economy, but some are clearly worse than others. Economic research has revealed that the corporate tax is perhaps worst of all in the damage it does to the economy per dollar collected, and the pain it causes is felt by all Americans.

A new report from Adam Michel of the Heritage Foundation documents evidence from the economic literature showing that corporate taxes are primarily paid by workers in the form of lower wages. Estimates range from 75 to 100 percent of the tax coming from workers, with whatever remains falling on owners. Because of this, the after-tax income of working-class Americans would see a significant boost after a corporate rate cut.

The corporate tax system, like the rest of the tax code, is of course filled with loopholes and crony handouts, though high marginal tax rates still discourage investment in the United States and drive businesses overseas. Closing these loopholes, called base-broadening in Washington-speak, will offset some of the rate reductions.

But congressional Republicans claim they can’t make the numbers work with the corporate rate at 15 percent. Insofar as this is an issue, it is entirely one of Republicans’ making.

Government bean-counters on the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) use models out of step with the economic literature and real-world evidence to undersell the benefits of tax reform. They simply don’t pay enough attention to how individuals and businesses will change their behavior under a tax code that is simpler and contains fewer penalties on productive behavior.

For some inexplicable reason, Republicans never clean house at JCT when they come into power. It’s a stacked deck in favor of big government that they have once again left in play and now they’re paying the price. The good news is that they can at least somewhat sidestep the problem if they are truly committed to bold reforms.

Because they’ll be using reconciliation to avoid a Democratic filibuster, the Byrd Rule prevents deficit increases outside of the budget window. Since JCT will not account for the full benefits of pro-growth reform, it means Republicans are stuck having to choose between temporary reforms that expire at the end of the budget window (typically 10 years) or smaller rate reductions. Temporary reforms are less beneficial for the economy because businesses anticipate future tax burdens when making decisions.

However, if Republicans have any gumption, they can simply choose to set the window for something like 25 years instead of 10, thereby providing more tax certainty for businesses. Otherwise, they’ll have to choose between competing pro-growth reforms.

Some Republicans want to prioritize corporate rate cuts behind a move to “full expensing.” Expensing would allow businesses to immediately deduct capital expenditures, rather than doing so over the course of several years through a process called depreciation. Expensing would certainly be pro-growth, but there’s always been a disconnect between how highly economists tout it and what businesses say actually motivates their decision-making. Full expensing is also much more “expensive” according to the budget scorers that Republicans left in control.

Moreover, while European socialists are wringing their hands at the prospect of dramatic corporate rate cuts that would make the United States competitive again, they aren’t similarly hyperventilating about full expensing. It seems that from a competitiveness standpoint, a 15 percent corporate rate should take precedence.

Republicans have made the job of passing tax reform harder than it needs to be. But they have a clear path ahead if only they choose to follow it. After all their legislative stumbles this year, it’s time to go big or go home.

Demographic Doom and the Welfare State

Fri, 09/22/2017 - 12:51pm

The world’s best welfare state arguably is Finland.

Yes, the burden of government spending is enormous and the tax system is stifling, but the nation gets extremely high scores for rule of law and human liberty. Moreover, it is one of the world’s most laissez-faire economies when looking at areas other than fiscal policy.

Indeed, depending on who is doing the measuring, Finland ranks either slightly above or slightly below the United States when grading overall policy.

Yet even the best welfare state faces a grim future because of demographic change. Simply stated, redistribution programs only work if there is a sufficiently large supply of new taxpayers to finance promised handouts.

And that supply is running dry in Finland. Bloomberg reports that policymakers in that nation are waking up to the fact that there won’t be enough future taxpayers to finance the country’s extravagant welfare state.

Demographics are a concern across the developed world, of course. But they are particularly problematic for countries with a generous welfare state, since they endanger its long-term survival. …the Aktia Bank chief economist said in a telephone interview in Helsinki. “We have a large public sector and the system needs taxpayers in the future.” …According to the OECD, Finland already has the lowest ratio of youths to the working-age population in the Nordics. …And it also has the highest rate of old-age dependency in the region. …The situation is only likely to get worse, according to OECD projections.

Here are a couple of charts showing dramatic demographic changes in Nordic nations. The first chart shows the ratio of children to working-age adults.

And the second charts shows the population of old people (i.e., those most likely to receive money from the government) compared to the number of working-age adults.

As you can see, the numbers are grim now (green bar) but will get far worse by the middle of the century (the red and black bars) because the small number of children today translates into a small number of working-age adults in the future.

To be blunt, these numbers suggest that it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis in Southern Europe spreads to Scandinavia.

Heck, it’s going to spread everywhereWestern EuropeEastern EuropeAsia, the developing worldJapan and the United States.

Though it’s important to understand that demographic changes don’t necessarily trigger fiscal and economic problems. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low fertility rates, yet they don’t face big problems since they are not burdened by Western-style welfare states.

By the way, the article also reveals that Finland’s government isn’t very effective at boosting birthrates, something that we already knew based on the failure of pro-natalist government schemes in nations such as Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Japan.

Though I’m amused that the reporter apparently thinks government handouts are a pro-parent policy and believes that more of the same will somehow have a positive effect.

Finland, a first-rate place in which to be a mother, has registered the lowest number of newborns in nearly 150 years. …the fertility rate should equal two per woman, Schauman says. It was projected at 1.57 in 2016, according to Statistics Finland. That’s a surprisingly low level, given the efforts made by the state to support parenthood. …Finland’s famous baby-boxes. Introduced in 1937, containers full of baby clothes and care products are delivered to expectant mothers, with the cardboard boxes doubling up as a makeshift cot. …Offering generous parental leave…doesn’t seem to be working either. …The government has been working with employers and trade unions to boost gender equality by making parental leave more flexible and the benefits system simpler.

Sigh, a bit of research would have shown that welfare states actually have a negative impact on fertility.

The bottom line is that entitlement reform is the only plausible way for Finland to solve this major economic threat.

P.S. Since the nation’s central bank has published research on the negative impact of excessive government spending, there are some Finns who understand what should be done.

Politicians in Washington Should Learn from Successful Tax Reform in North Carolina

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 12:30pm

Earlier this year, I pointed out that Trump and Republicans could learn a valuable lesson from Maine Governor Paul LePage on how to win a government shutdown.

Today, let’s look at a lesson from North Carolina on how to design and implement pro-growth tax policy.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Senator Thom Tillis from the Tarheel State explains what happened when he helped enact a flat tax as Speaker of the State House.

In 2013, when I was speaker of the state House, North Carolina passed a serious tax-reform package. It was based on three simple principles: simplify the tax code, lower rates, and broaden the base. We replaced the progressive rate schedule for the personal income tax with a flat rate of 5.499%. That was a tax-rate cut for everyone, since the lowest bracket previously was 6%. We also increased the standard deduction for all tax filers and repealed the death tax. We lowered the 6.9% corporate income tax to 6% in 2014 and 5% in 2015. …North Carolina’s corporate tax fell to 3% in 2017 and is on track for 2.5% in 2019. We paid for this tax relief by expanding the tax base, closing loopholes, paring down spending, reducing the cost of entitlement programs, and eliminating “refundable” earned-income tax credits for people who pay no taxes.

Wow, good tax policy enabled by spending restraint. Exactly what I’ve been recommending for Washington.

Have these reforms generated good results?  The Senator says yes.

More than 350,000 jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate has been cut nearly in half. The state’s economy has jumped from one of the slowest growing in the country to one of the fastest growing.

What about tax revenue? Has the state government been starved of revenue?

Nope.

…a well-mobilized opposition on the left stoked fears that tax reform would cause shrinking state revenues and require massive budget cuts. This argument has been proved wrong. State revenue has increased each year since tax reform was enacted, and budget surpluses of more than $400 million are the new norm. North Carolina lawmakers have wisely used these surpluses to cut tax rates even further for families and businesses.

Senator Tillis didn’t have specific details on tax collections in his column. I got suspicious that he might be hiding some unflattering numbers, so I went to the Census Bureau’s database on state government finances. But it turns out the Senator is guilty of underselling his state’s reform. Tax revenue has actually grown faster in the Tarheel State, compared the average of all other states (many of which have imposed big tax hikes).

Another example of the Laffer Curve in action.

And here’s a chart from North Carolina’s Office of State Budget and Management. As you can see, revenues are rising rather than falling.

By the way, I’m guessing that the small drop in 2014 and the big increase in 2015 were caused by taxpayers delaying income to take advantage of the new, friendlier tax system. We saw the same thing in the early 1980s when some taxpayer deferred income because of the multi-year phase-in of the Reagan tax cuts.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to North Carolina.

Here’s what the Tax Foundation wrote earlier this year.

After the most dramatic improvement in the Index’s history—from 41st to 11th in one year—North Carolina has continued to improve its tax structure, and now imposes the lowest-rate corporate income tax in the country at 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. This rate cut improves the state from 6th to 4th on the corporate income tax component, the second-best ranking (after Utah) for any state that imposes a major corporate tax. (Six states forego corporate income taxes, but four of them impose economically distortive gross receipts taxes in their stead.) An individual income tax reduction, from 5.75 to 5.499 percent, is scheduled for 2017. At 11th overall, North Carolina trails only Indiana and Utah among states which do not forego any of the major tax types.

And in a column for Forbes, Patrick Gleason was even more effusive.

…the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature enacted a new budget today that cuts the state’s personal and corporate income tax rates. Under this new budget, the state’s flat personal income tax rate will drop from 5.499 to 5.25% in January of 2019, and the corporate tax rate will fall from 3% to 2.5%, which represents a 16% reduction in one of the most harmful forms of taxation. …This new budget, which received bipartisan support from a three-fifths super-majority of state lawmakers, builds upon the Tar Heel State’s impressive record of pro-growth, rate-reducing tax reform. …It’s remarkable how much progress North Carolina has made in improving its business tax climate in recent years, going from having one of the worst businesses tax climates in the country (ranked 44th), to one of the best today (now 11th best according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation).

Most importantly, state lawmakers put the brakes on spending, thus making the tax reforms more political and economically durable and successful.

Since they began cutting taxes in 2013, North Carolina legislators have kept annual increases in state spending below the rate of population growth and inflation. As a result, at the same time North Carolina taxpayers have been allowed to keep billions more of their hard-earned income, the state has experienced repeated budget surpluses. As they did in 2015, North Carolina legislators are once again returning surplus dollars back to taxpayers with the personal and corporate income tax rate cuts included in the state’s new budget.

Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this 2016 editorial from the Charlotte Observer. If nothing else, the headline is an amusing reminder that journalists have a hard time understanding that higher tax rates don’t necessarily mean more revenue and that lower tax rates don’t automatically lead to less revenue.

A curious trend you might have noticed of late: North Carolina’s leaders keep cutting taxes, yet the state keeps taking in more money. We saw it happen last year, when the state found itself with a $400 million surplus, despite big cuts in personal and corporate tax rates. …Now comes word that in the first six months of the 2016 budget year (July to December), the state has taken in $588 million more than it did in the same period the previous year. …the overall surge in tax receipts certainly shouldn’t go unnoticed, especially since most of the increased collections for the 2016 cycle so far come from higher individual income tax receipts. They’re up $489 million, 10 percent above the same period of the prior year.

Though the opinion writers in Charlotte shouldn’t feel too bad. Their counterparts at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have made the same mistake. As did a Connecticut TV station.

P.S. My leftist friends doubtlessly will cite Kansas as a counter-example to North Carolina. According to the narrative, tax cuts failed and were repealed by a Republican legislature. I did a thorough analysis of what happened in the Sunflower State earlier this year. I pointed out that tax cuts are hard to sustain without some degree of spending restraint, but also noted that the net effect of Brownback’s tenure is a permanent reduction in the tax burden. If that’s a win for the left, I hope for similar losses in Washington. It’s also worth comparing income growth in Kansas, California, and Texas if you want to figure out what tax policies are good for ordinary people.

European-Sized Government Means Ever-Rising Tax Burdens for Lower-Income and Middle-Class Taxpayers

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 12:51pm

I argued last year that leftists should be nice to rich people because upper-income taxpayers finance the vast majority of the American welfare state according to government data.

Needless to say, my comment about being “nice” was somewhat sarcastic. But I was making a serious point about the United States having a very “progressive” fiscal system. The top-20 percent basically pay for government and those in the bottom half are net recipients of that involuntary largesse.

I also pointed out a huge difference between the United States and Europe. Governments on the other side of the Atlantic impose much higher burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

…the big difference between the United States and Europe is not taxes on the rich. We both impose similar tax burden on high-income taxpayers, though Europeans are more likely to collect revenue from the rich with higher income tax rates and the U.S. gets a greater share of revenue from upper-income taxpayers with double taxation on interest, dividends, and capital gains (we also have a very punitive corporate tax system, though it doesn’t collect that much revenue). The real difference between America and Europe is that America has a far lower tax burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers. Tax rates in Europe, particularly the top rate, tend to take effect at much lower levels of income. European governments all levy onerous value-added taxes that raise costs for all consumers. Payroll tax burdens in many European nations are significantly higher than in the United States.

So do this mean European politicians don’t like ordinary people?

I could make a snarky comment about the attitudes of the political elite, but I’ll resist that temptation and instead point out that taxes in Europe are much higher for the simple reason that government is much bigger and that means some segment of the population has to surrender more of its income.

But here’s the $64,000 question that we want to investigate today: Why are European governments pillaging lower-income and middle-class taxpayers instead of going after the “evil rich” and “greedy corporations”?

Part of the answer is that there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government. But the most important factor is the Laffer Curve. Politicians can impose higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers and companies, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher revenue. Simply stated, well-to-do taxpayers have considerable ability to earn less income and/or report less income when tax burdens increase, and they do the opposite when tax burdens decrease.

That’s true in the United States, and it’s true in European countries such as SwedenFranceRussiaDenmark, and the United Kingdom.

So even if politicians want to fleece upper-income taxpayers, that’s not a successful method of generating a lot of revenue.

Which is why a shift from a medium-sized welfare state (such as what exists in the United States) to a large-sized welfare state (common in Europe) means huge tax increases on ordinary taxpayers.

I’ve made this point before, but now I have some additional evidence thanks to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Paris-based bureaucracy is probably my least-favorite international organization because of its advocacy for statism, but it collects and publishes lots of useful statistics about fiscal policy in the industrialized world.

And here are three charts from the new study that tell a very persuasive story (and a depressing story for ordinary taxpayers).

First, we can see how the average tax burden has increased substantially over the past 50 years.

And who is paying all that additional money to politicians?

As you can see from this second chart, income tax revenues have become a less important source of revenue over time while social insurance taxes (mostly paid by lower-income and middle-class taxpayers) have become a more important source of revenue.

The third chart shows the evolution of the value-added tax burden. This levy takes a big bite out of the paychecks of ordinary people and the rate keeps climbing over time (and if we looked just at European governments that are part of the OECD, the numbers are even more depressing).

 

Now let’s put this data in context.

The United States now has a medium-sized welfare state financed mostly by upper-income taxpayers.

But because of dramatic demographic changes, we are doomed to have a large-sized welfare state. At least that’s what will happen if we don’t reform entitlement programs.

And if we leave policy on auto-pilot and there’s a substantial increase in the burden of government spending, it’s simply a matter of time before politicians figure out new ways of taking more money from lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Yes, they may also impose higher rates on “rich” taxpayers, but that will be mostly for symbolic purposes since those levies won’t generate substantial revenue.

Last but not least, don’t forget that European fiscal burdens will mean anemic European economic performance.

Joe Biden, Basic Income, and Societal Capital

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 12:23pm

Most economic policy debates are predictable. Folks on the left urge higher taxes and bigger government while folks on the right advocate lower taxes and smaller government (thanks to “public choice” incentives, many supposedly pro-market politicians don’t follow through on those principles once they’re in office, but that’s a separate issue).

The normal dividing line between right and left disappears, however, when looking at whether the welfare state should be replaced by a “universal basic income” that would provide money to every legal resident of a nation.

There are some compelling arguments in favor of such an idea. Some leftists like the notion of income security for everybody. Some on the right like the fact that there would be no need for massive bureaucracies to oversee the dozens of income redistribution programs that currently exist. And since everyone automatically would get a check, regardless of income, lower-income people seeking a better life no longer would face very high implicit tax rates as they replaced handouts with income.

But there are plenty of libertarians and small-government conservatives who are skeptical. I’m in this group because of my concern that the net result would be bigger government and I don’t trust that the rest of the welfare state would be abolished. Moreover, I worry that universal handouts would erode the work ethic and exacerbate the dependency problem.

And I have an ally on the other side of the ideological spectrum.

Former Vice President Joe Biden…will push back against “Universal Basic Income,”… UBI is a check to every American adult, but Biden thinks that it’s the job that is important, not just the income. In a blog post…timed to the launch of the Joe Biden Institute at the University of Delaware, Biden will quote his father telling him how a job is “about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in your community.”

I often don’t agree with Biden, but he’s right on this issue.

Having a job, earning a paycheck, and being self-sufficient are valuable forms of societal or cultural capital.

By contrast, a nation that trades the work ethic for universal handouts is taking a very risky gamble.

Let’s look at what’s been written on this topic.

In an article for the Week, Damon Linker explores the importance of work and the downside of dependency.

…a UBI would not address (and would actually intensify) the worst consequences of joblessness, which are not economic but rather psychological or spiritual. …a person who falls out of the workforce permanently will be prone to depression and other forms of psychological and spiritual degradation. When we say that an employee “earns a living,” it’s not merely a synonym for “receives a regular lump sum of money.” The element of deserving (“earns”) is crucial. …a job can be and often is a significant (even the primary) source of a person’s sense of self-worth. …A job gives a person purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, to engage with the world and interact with fellow citizens in a common endeavor, however modest. And at the end of the week or the month, there’s the satisfaction of having earned, through one’s own efforts, the income that will enable oneself and one’s family to continue to survive and hopefully even thrive.

Dan Nidess, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, opines about the downsides of universal handouts.

At the heart of a functioning democratic society is a social contract built on the independence and equality of individuals. Casually accepting the mass unemployment of a large part of the country and viewing those people as burdens would undermine this social contract, as millions of Americans become dependent on the government and the taxpaying elite. It would also create a structural division of society that would destroy any pretense of equality. …UBI would also weaken American democracy. How long before the well-educated, technocratic elites come to believe the unemployed underclass should no longer have the right to vote? Will the “useless class” react with gratitude for the handout and admiration for the increasingly divergent culture and values of the “productive class”? If Donald Trump’s election, and the elites’ reactions, are any indication, the opposite is likelier. …In the same Harvard commencement speech in which Mr. Zuckerberg called for a basic income, he also spent significant time talking about the need for purpose. But purpose can’t be manufactured, nor can it be given out alongside a government subsidy. It comes from having deep-seated responsibility—to yourself, your family and society as a whole.

An article in the American Interest echoes this point.

…work, for most people, isn’t just a means of making money—it is a source of dignity and meaning and a central part of the social compact. Simply opting for accelerated creative destruction while deliberately warehousing the part of the population that cannot participate might work as a theoretical exercise, but it does not mesh with the wants and desires and aspirations of human beings. Communities subsisting on UBIs will not be happy or healthy; the spectacle of free public redistribution without any work requirement will breed resentment and distrust.

Writing for National Review, Oren Cass discusses some negative implications of a basic income.

…even if it could work, it should be rejected on principle. A UBI would redefine the relationship between individuals, families, communities, and the state by giving government the role of provider. It would make work optional and render self-reliance moot. An underclass dependent on government handouts would no longer be one of society’s greatest challenges but instead would be recast as one of its proudest achievements. Universal basic income is a logical successor to the worst public policies and social movements of the past 50 years. These have taken hold not just through massive government spending but through fundamental cultural changes that have absolved people of responsibility for themselves and one another, supported destructive conduct while discouraging work, and thereby eroded the foundational institutions of family and community that give shape to society. …Those who work to provide for themselves and their families know they are playing a critical and worthwhile role, which imbues the work with meaning no matter how unfulfilling the particular task may be. As the term “breadwinner” suggests, the abstractions of a market economy do not obscure the way essentials are earned. A UBI would undermine all this: Work by definition would become optional, and consumption would become an entitlement disconnected from production. Stripped of its essential role as the way to earn a living, work would instead be an activity one engaged in by choice, for enjoyment, or to afford nicer things. …Work gives not only meaning but also structure and stability to life. It provides both socialization and a source of social capital. It helps establish for the next generation virtues such as responsibility, perseverance, and industriousness. …there is simply no substitute for stepping onto the first rung. A UBI might provide the same income as such a job, but it can offer none of the experience, skills, or socialization.

Tyler Cowen expresses reservations in his Bloomberg column.

I used to think that it might be a good idea for the federal government to guarantee everyone a universal basic income, to combat income inequality, slow wage growth, advancing automation and fragmented welfare programs. Now I’m more skeptical. …I see merit in tying welfare to work as a symbolic commitment to certain American ideals. It’s as if we are putting up a big sign saying, “America is about coming here to work and get ahead!” Over time, that changes the mix of immigrants the U.S. attracts and shapes the culture for the better. I wonder whether this cultural and symbolic commitment to work might do greater humanitarian good than a transfer policy that is on the surface more generous. …It’s fair to ask whether a universal income guarantee would be affordable, but my doubts run deeper than that. If two able-bodied people live next door to each other, and one works and the other chooses to live off universal basic income checks, albeit at a lower standard of living, I wonder if this disparity can last. One neighbor feels like she is paying for the other, and indeed she is.

In a piece for the City Journal, Aaron Renn also comments on the impact of a basic income on national character. He starts by observing that guaranteed incomes haven’t produced good outcomes for Indian tribes.

…consider the poor results from annual per-capita payments of casino revenues to American Indian tribes (not discussed in the book). Some tribes enjoy a very high “basic income”—sometimes as high as $100,000 per year— in the form of these payments. But as the Economist reports, “as payment grows more Native Americans have stopped working and fallen into a drug and alcohol abuse lifestyle that has carried them back into poverty.”

And he fears the results would be equally bad for the overall population.

Another major problem with the basic-income thesis is that its intrinsic vision of society is morally problematic, even perverse: individuals are entitled to a share of social prosperity but have no obligation to contribute anything to it. In the authors’ vision, it is perfectly acceptable for able-bodied young men to collect a perpetual income while living in mom’s basement or a small apartment and doing nothing but play video games and watch Internet porn.

Jared Dillian also looks at the issue of idleness in a column for Bloomberg.

I do not like the idea of a universal basic income. Its advocates fundamentally misunderstand human nature. What they do not realize about human beings is that for the vast majority of them, a subsistence level of income is enough — and those advocates are blind to the corrosive effects that widespread idleness would have on society. If you give people money for doing nothing, they will probably do nothing. …A huge controlled experiment on basic income has already been run — in Saudi Arabia, where most of the population enjoys the dividends of the country’s oil wealth. Saudi Arabia has found that idleness leads to more political extremism, not less. We have a smaller version of that controlled experiment here in the U.S. — for example, the able-bodied workers who have obtained Social Security Disability Insurance payments and are willing to stay at home for a piddling amount of money. …the overarching principle is that people need work that is worthwhile, for practical and psychological reasons. If we hand out cash to anyone who can fog a mirror, I figure we are about two generations away from revolution.

By the way, it’s not just American Indians and Saudi Arabians that are getting bad results with universal handouts.

Finland has been conducting an experiment and the early results don’t look promising.

The bottom line is that our current welfare system is a dysfunctional mess. It’s bad for taxpayers and recipients.

Replacing it with a basic income probably would make the system simpler, but at a potentially very high cost in terms of cultural capital.

That’s why I view federalism as a much better approach. Get Washington out of the redistribution racket and allow states to compete and innovate as they find ways to help the less fortunate without trapping them in dependency.

Keynesian Economics and the Fallacy of Boosting Growth by Destroying Wealth

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 12:00pm

Keynesian economics is like Freddie Krueger, constantly reappearing after logical people assumed it was dead. The fact that various stimulus schemes inevitably fail should be the death knell for the theory, which is basically the “perpetual motion machine” of economics. Indeed, I’ve wondered whether we’ve reached the point where the “debilitating drug” of Keynesianism has “jumped the shark.”

Yet Keynesian economics has “perplexing durability,” probably because the theory tells politicians that their vice of profligacy is actually a virtue.

But there are some economists who genuinely seem to believe that government can artificially boost growth. They claim terrorist attacks and alien attacks can be good for growth if they lead to more spending. They even think natural disasters are good for the economy.

I’m not joking. As reported by CNBC, the President of the New York Federal Reserve actually thinks the economy is stimulated when wealth is destroyed.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma actually will lead to increased economic activity over the long run, New York Fed President William Dudley said in an interview. …”The long-run effect of these disasters unfortunately is it actually lifts economic activity because you have to rebuild all the things that have been damaged by the storms.”

I’m always stunned when sentient adults make this kind of statement.

Should we invite ISIS into the country to blow up some bridges? Should we dynamite new buildings? Should we pray for an earthquake to destroy a big city? Should we have a war, featuring lots of spending and destruction?

All of those things, along with hurricanes and floods, are good for growth according to Keynesian theory.

Jeff Jacoby explains why this is poisonous economic analysis.

Could anything be more absurd? The shattering losses caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, and other calamities are grievous misfortunes that obviously leave society poorer. Vast sums of money may be spent afterward to repair and rebuild, but society will still be poorer from the damage caused by the storm or other disaster. Every dollar spent on cleanup and reconstruction is a dollar that could have been spent to enlarge the nation’s reservoir of material assets. Instead, it has to be spent replacing what was lost. …No, hurricanes are not good for the economy. Neither are floods, earthquakes, or massacres. When windows are shattered, all of humanity is left materially worse off. There is no financial “glint of silver lining.” To claim otherwise is delusional.

By the way, I don’t think any Keynesians actually want disasters to happen.

They’re simply making a “silver lining” argument that a bad event will lead to more spending. In their world, what drives the economy is consumption, and it’s the role of government to either consume directly or to give money to people so they will spend it.

In a recent interview, I pointed out that investment and production are the real keys to growth (which is why I prefer GDI over GDP). Increased consumption, I explained, is a result of growth, not the cause of growth.

You’ll notice I also threw in a jab at the state and local tax deduction, a loophole that needs to be abolished as part of tax reform.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

For those who want to do some additional reading on Keynesian economics, I recommend this new study by a couple of professors. Here’s a blurb from the abstract.

…Keynesians assert that even wasteful government spending can be desirable because any spending is better than nothing. This simple Keynesian approach fails to account, however, for several significant sources of cost. In addition to the cost of waste inherent in government spending, financing that spending requires taxation, which entails an excess burden. Furthermore, the employment of even previously idle resources involves opportunity costs.

I’ll close by augmenting theory and academic analysis with some real-world observations. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelthasn’t worked for Japandidn’t work for Obama, and didn’t work in Australia. Indeed, Keynesians can’t point to a single success story anywhere in the world at any point in history.

Though they always have an excuse. The government should have spent more, they tell us.

P.S. Since their lavish tax-free salaries are dependent on pleasing the governments that finance their budgets, international bureaucrats try to justify Keynesian economics. Here’s some recent economic alchemy from the IMF and OECD.

Dark Humor from the Socialist Hellhole of Venezuela

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 12:03pm

Back in 2015, I mocked Venezuelan socialism because it led to shortages of just about every product. Including toilet paper.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. After all, if people don’t have anything to eat, they probably don’t have much need to visit the bathroom.

The Washington Post reports that farmers are producing less and less food because of government intervention, even though the nation is filled with hungry people.

Venezuela, whose economy operates on its own special plane of dysfunction. At a time of empty supermarkets and spreading hunger, the country’s farms are producing less and less, not more, making the caloric deficit even worse. Drive around the countryside outside the capital, Caracas, and there’s everything a farmer needs: fertile land, water, sunshine and gasoline at 4 cents a gallon, cheapest in the world. Yet somehow families here are just as scrawny-looking as the city-dwelling Venezuelans waiting in bread lines or picking through garbage for scraps. …“Last year I had 200,000 hens,” said Saulo Escobar, who runs a poultry and hog farm here in the state of Aragua, an hour outside Caracas. “Now I have 70,000.” Several of his cavernous henhouses sit empty because, Escobar said, he can’t afford to buy more chicks or feed. Government price controls have made his business unprofitable…the country is facing a dietary calamity. With medicines scarce and malnutrition cases soaring, more than 11,000 babies died last year, sending the infant mortality rate up 30 percent, according to Venezuela’s Health Ministry. …Child hunger in parts of Venezuela is a “humanitarian crisis,” according to a new report by the Catholic relief organization Caritas, which found 11.4 percent of children under age 5 suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition… In a recent survey of 6,500 Venezuelan families by the country’s leading universities, three-quarters of adults said they lost weight in 2016 — an average of 19 pounds. This collective emaciation is referred to dryly here as “the Maduro diet,” but it’s a level of hunger almost unheard-of… Venezuela’s disaster is man-made, economists point out — the result of farm nationalizations, currency distortions and a government takeover of food distribution. …The price controls have become a powerful disincentive in rural Venezuela. “There are no profits, so we produce at a loss,” said one dairy farmer.

Here’s where we get to the economics lesson. When producers aren’t allowed to profit, they don’t produce.

And when we’re looking at the production of food, that means hungry people.

Even the left-wing Guardian in the U.K. has noticed.

Hunger is gnawing at Venezuela, where a government that claims to rule for the poorest has left most of its 31 million people short of food, many desperately so. …Adriana Velásquez gets ready for work, heading out into an uncertain darkness as she has done since hunger forced her into the only job she could find at 14. She was introduced to her brothel madam by a friend more than two years ago after her mother, a single parent, was fired and the two ran out of food. “It was really hard, but we were going to bed without eating,” said the teenager, whose name has been changed to protect her. …Venezuela’s crisis has deepened, the number of women working at the brothel has doubled, and their ages have dropped. “I was the youngest when I started. Now there are girls who are 12 or 13. Almost all of us are there because of the crisis, because of hunger.” She earns 400,000 bolivares a month, around four times the minimum wage, but at a time of hyperinflation that is now worth about $30, barely enough to feed herself, her mother and a new baby brother.

This is truly sad.

Our leftist friends like to concoct far-fetched theories of how prostitution is enabled by everything from low taxes to global warming.

In the real world, however, socialism drives teenage girls (or even younger) to work in brothels.

That’s such a depressing thought that let’s shift the topic back to hunger and toilet paper.

Especially since Venezuela’s dictator is bragging that the nation’s toilet paper shortage has been solved!

This is definitely a dark version of satire.

But Venezuela is such a mess that it’s hard to know where to draw the line between mockery and reality.

For instance, here’s another “benefit” of limited food. If you don’t eat, it’s not as necessary to brush your teeth.

And is the socialist paradise of Venezuela, that makes a virtue out of necessity since – surprise – there’s a shortage of toothpaste.

The Washington Post has the grim details.

Ana Margarita Rangel…spends everything she earns to fend off hunger. Her shoes are tattered and torn, but she cannot afford new ones. A tube of toothpaste costs half a week’s wages. “I’ve always loved brushing my teeth before going to sleep. I mean, that’s the rule, right?” said Rangel, …“Now I have to choose,” she said. “So I do it only in the mornings.” …The government sets price caps on some basic food items, such as pasta, rice and flour. …those items can usually be obtained only by standing in lines for hours or by signing up to receive a subsidized monthly grocery box from the government… Since 2014, the proportion of Venezuelan families in poverty has soared from 48 percent to 82 percent… Fifty-two percent of families live in extreme poverty, according to the survey, and about 31 percent survive on two meals per day at most.

Isn’t socialism wonderful! You have the luxury of choosing between two meals a day, or one meal a day plus toothpaste!

By the way, the central planners have a plan.

Though it won’t make Bugs Bunny happy.

Rabbit is now on the menu! Here are some excerpts from a CNN report.

Let them eat rabbits. That was basically the message from President Nicolas Maduro to Venezuelans starving and struggling through severe food shortages… The Venezuelan leaders…recommend that people raise rabbits at home as a source of food. …The agriculture minister argued that rabbits easily reproduce and are a source of protein. He also recommended citizens consider raising and growing other animals and vegetables at home. It’s just the latest attempt to try and solve the food shortage problem. The government forces citizens to pick up groceries on certain days of the week depending on social security numbers.

Gee, isn’t this wonderful. The government cripples markets so they can’t function and then advocates people live like medieval peasants.

Maybe there should be price controls on clothing, along with having the government in charge of distribution. That will wreck that market as well, so people can make their own clothes out of rabbit pelts.

I wonder whether a certain American lawmaker is rethinking his praise of Venezuelan economic policy?

Based on what he said as recently as last year, the answer is no.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: A Slice of Venezuelan-Style Thuggery in America

Sat, 09/16/2017 - 12:45pm

I periodically list people who have suffered horrible abuse because of despicable actions by government. At some point, I’ll have to create a special page to memorialize these victims. Something like the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame or Moocher Hall of Fame, though I haven’t figured out a good name (“Victims of Government Thuggery Hall of Fame” is too wordy).

Anyhow, many of these unfortunate people (the Dehko familyCarole HindersJoseph Rivers, and Thomas Williams) have something in common. They are victims of theft. But they can’t call law enforcement because their money and property was stolen by the government.

Such theft is enabled by “civil asset forfeiture” and we can now add Gerardo Serrano to the list of victims. The Washington Post has the disgusting story of what happened.

On Sept. 21, 2015, Gerardo Serrano was driving from his home in Kentucky to Piedras Negras, Mexico, when his truck was searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Texas’s Eagle Pass border crossing. After finding a small ammunition clip, the agents took Serrano’s truck from him. Two years later, Customs hasn’t charged Serrano with a crime, and they haven’t given his truck back either.

The bureaucrats could take his truck because civil asset forfeiture basically gives bureaucrats a license to steal. I’m not joking, though I wish I was.

Customs seized the truck under the laws of civil asset forfeiture, which allow authorities to take cash and property from citizens upon suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Because it happens under civil law, no criminal conviction — or even criminal charge — is necessary for authorities to take property they believe is connected to a crime.

That’s bad enough. But it gets even worse when you read about what happened to Serrano.

In September 2015, Serrano drove his new Ford F-250 pickup from his home in Kentucky to the Mexico border. He was going to visit a cousin he hadn’t seen in many years. He snapped a few photos with his phone as he drove through the checkpoint, planning to upload them to Facebook, just as he says he had been doing throughout his whole trip, to share the experience with friends and family back home. That’s when the trouble started. One of Serrano’s photos shows two Customs agents looking in his direction, hands held up. According to his lawsuit, the agents objected to his taking photos.

Are these bureaucrats members of some primitive jungle tribe that believes a photograph steals their souls?

That would at least be a semi-rational explanation.

But if you read the rest of the story, they’re apparently petulant jerks (I had other words in mind, but this is a family-friendly site).

Those agents waved him over to the side of the road, on the U.S. side of the border, and demanded he hand over his phone. Serrano said “no.” Customs declined to say whether there’s a prohibition on photography at border crossings. …one of the agents unlocked Serrano’s door, unbuckled his seat belt, and yanked him out of the car. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Serrano told The Post. “So I say ‘listen, you can’t yank me out like that, I’m an American, you can’t do that to me.’”The agent took his phone, and demanded Serrano give him the passcode. Serrano recalls he told the agent to “go get a warrant.”By this time, other agents had started searching his truck. “I said, ‘Hey listen I have rights, you’re violating my rights, you’re not supposed to do that kind of stuff,’” Serrano recounted. …“I’m sick of hearing about your rights,” the agent said, according to Serrano’s lawsuit. “You have no rights here.”Eventually, one of the agents searching the truck found an ammunition clip containing five .380-caliber bullets and yelled “we got him!,” according to the lawsuit. …Serrano had planned to take his pistol on the trip, but he left it home at the strong urging of his cousin, who explained the potential consequences of bringing it to Mexico. But he didn’t realize the extra ammunition clip, containing five .380 caliber rounds, was still in the center console of his truck.

The bureaucrats must have been trained in Venezuela.

At the crossing, the CBP agents put Serrano in handcuffs and continued to ask him to give up the passcode. “You go get that warrant,” Serrano says he told them. “I’ll wait for you in jail.” Serrano didn’t believe that any judge would grant a warrant to search a phone for taking pictures at the border. …The agents eventually placed Serrano in a locked cell without food, water or a toilet, Serrano says. Periodically someone would come in and ask for the passcode to his phone, he says. He refused every time.

The good news is that Mr. Serrano won, sort of.

Serrano says that after three hours, the agents told him he was free to go, returned his phone and said he wasn’t being arrested or charged with any crime. Serrano says he was elated.

The bad news is that the bureaucrats stole his truck.

But then, the agents handed him a document informing him that Customs was taking his truck and the ammunition clip. Those items were “subject of legally becoming the property of the Federal Government (forfeiture),” according to the document, because Serrano had failed to disclose the presence of the clip, making the truck a “conveyance of illegal exportation.” …Several weeks later he received a formal forfeiture notice from Customs, informing him that the government believed his truck was being used to transport “arms or munitions of war.” The notice gave him a number of options to pursue if he wanted his truck back.

Here’s the part that only be described as adding insult to injury.

One of the options was to make an “offer in compromise” — send Customs a check, and if they deemed the amount to be high enough, they would return his truck to him. “That’s like a shakedown,” Serrano said.

Fortunately, the great folks at the Institute for Justice are helping him challenge this horrific example of theft by government.

By the way, you may be thinking Serrano is some sort of thug, maybe a gang member from MS-13? I’ve had some defenders of civil asset forfeiture claim that the program is justifiable because it gives law enforcement leeway to go after bad guys that they can identify with their “sixth sense.” Was Serrano a bad guy who was nailed, albeit using a bad law?

Um…, not exactly.

Serrano is originally from Chicago but he’s lived on a farm in Kentucky for 20 years. A lifelong Republican, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Kentucky’s House of Representatives in 2014 on an explicitly pro-Second Amendment platform. He describes himself as a civil libertarian, and has a concealed carry permit for a Sig Sauer .380 pistol he carries for self-defense. “I believe in freedom,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s what made this country great, is our freedom, our liberty.”

Serrano sounds like a great American. If he’s an immigrant, I want more just like him.

He understands what’s really going on.

“It’s like there’s a war going on and they want to make war with my Bill of Rights,” he said. “How do they get away with this? How could this happen?”

For what it’s worth, I hope Senator Rand Paul (who is willing to fight for liberty) place a “hold” on all nominations to the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security until and unless the government returns Serrano’s truck and compensates him for mistreatment.

Let’s close with some additional excerpts from the column that explain the injustice of civil asset forfeiture.

Many Americans haven’t heard of civil asset forfeiture, the legal provision that grants police the authority to seize cash and property from people not charged with a crime. The practice doesn’t follow the traditional American concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” If police suspect that you acquired something as a result of illegal activity, or even if it is connected to illegal activity, they can take it from you. If you want to get it back, the onus is on you to prove you got it legally. Once property is seized and forfeited, in most states and at the federal level police can either keep it for themselves or sell it at auction to raise money for the department. Critics say this creates a perverse profit motive. …said Robert Johnson, Serrano’s attorney. “That’s an open invitation to abuse.” The practice is widespread. In 2014, for instance, federal law enforcement officers alone took more than $5 billion worth of cash and property from people — more than the total amount of reported burglary losses that year. After public outcry, the Obama administration put in place a number of restrictions on forfeiture that made it harder, in some cases, for authorities to take property without a criminal conviction. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed those restrictions.

Every sentence of the above passage is spot on. Including the last two sentences. The Obama Administration actually took a small step in the right direction, but that was reversed in a terrible move by Trump’s Attorney General.

And here are some excerpts from a column published by CapX.

…asset forfeiture lets government agents seize Americans’ assets (cash, but also cars and even houses) on the mere suspicion that they were involved in a crime. Asset forfeiture is intended to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains, but frequently enables police to take the property of Americans who remain innocent in the eyes of the law. …Asset forfeiture primarily targets the poor. Most forfeitures are for small amounts: in 2012, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has focused heavily on asset forfeiture, analyzed forfeiture in 10 states and found that the median value of assets seized ranged from $451 (Minnesota) to $2,048 (Utah). Given that law enforcement routinely takes everything they find in a forfeiture case, these small values suggest the relative poverty of the victims. The procedural hurdles for challenging asset forfeiture also mean that poor people are less able to get their money back. The average forfeiture challenge requires four weekdays in court; missing four days of work can be a prohibitive expense for Americans living paycheck to paycheck. …Asset forfeiture is especially dangerous for the unbanked, because police and federal agents consider high amounts of cash to be suspect. …Asset forfeiture functions as a regressive tax, which reduces low-income Americans’ economic mobility. A family that sees their savings wiped out has to start again from the bottom. A person whose cash rent payment is seized may turn to payday loans or the black market, or simply be evicted—none of which are conducive to upward mobility.

Civil asset forfeiture is reprehensible.

The fact that poor people are disproportionately harmed is awful (and pervasive in parts of the criminal justice system).

P.S. To their credit, the first two administrators of the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture program now recognize that it’s become an abusive monster and want it repealed.

Unsurprisingly, “Free” Healthcare from Government Is Very Expensive

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 12:32pm

In a strange way, I admire Bernie Sanders. He openly embraces big government. Back during the 2016 campaign, I frequently observed that the difference between the Vermont Senator and Hillary Clinton is that he wanted America to become Greece at a much faster rate.

Well, he just installed a turbo-charged engine and stepped on the accelerator. He’s proposed a single-payer healthcare scheme that is being called “Medicare for all.”

According to Sanders and other advocates, the government’s health system is a good role model: People pay a tax while working and they get health care when they’re old. But there’s a not-so-slight problem with that approach. For every dollar that Medicare recipients paid to the program, taxpayers are financing three dollars of spending.

That approach is workable (though only in the short run) for Medicare. But it won’t work if government is paying for everyone’s health care.

So even Bernie admits that a tax increase will be necessary. And not just any tax hike. He’s proposing the biggest tax hike in the history of the United States. Heck, it’s the biggest tax hike in world history. Here are some of the frightening details, as reported by the Washington Post.

The Medicare for All legislation backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 16 Senate Democrats does not include details on how it might be paid for. …Sanders’s Senate office released a white paper on possible ways to pay for the legislation.

He starts with a giant payroll tax of 11.5 percent (on top of the 15.3 percent payroll tax that already exists).

The taxes themselves would fall on both employers and employees. Sanders floats the idea of a 7.5 percent tax on employers… Another tax, of 4 percent, would hit individuals.

To understand what this means, just contemplate the disastrous impact of Obamacare on the job market.

Sanders also has a big class-warfare tax hike.

The next big slice of funding: higher tax rates on the very wealthy. Income…$250,000…higher…would be hit harder, on an upward sliding scale, ending at a 52 percent tax on income over $10 million.

By the way, imposing a tax is the easy part. Collecting revenue will be a much harder task, especially since Sanders wants to take the very successful experiment of the 1980s and run it in reverse. He also wants a big levy on banks (foreign financial institutions are probably praying for that outcome), an extra layer of tax on American companies competing in world markets (foreign corporations are cheering for that one), along with a huge boost in the death tax and the imposition of a wealth tax (lawyers and accountants doubtlessly are licking their chops).

Sanders imagines a tax on financial institutions worth more than $50 billion, a one-time tax on offshore profits (an idea that is continually floated then sunk in tax reform negotiations), a higher estate tax (topping out at 55 percent), and a 1 percent wealth tax on the richest 0.1 percent of households.

That’s all the tax hikes listed in the Washington Post story, but Sanders also has some additional material on his office’s website.

A huge increase in the double taxation of dividends and capital gains (particularly when you consider that personal tax rates will be much higher.

…end the special tax break for capital gains and dividends on household income above $250,000, treating this income the same as income earned from working.

A restriction on itemized deductions.

…itemized deductions would be capped at 28 percent for households making over $250,000. In other words, for every dollar in tax deduction a high-income household could save at most 28 cents.

For what it’s worth, I don’t like the state and local tax deduction and the charitable deduction, and I also don’t like preferences for housing.

But I want to eliminate such distortions only if the revenue is used to finance lower tax rates, not to finance bigger government.

That being said, let’s get back to our list. Sanders has a special tax targeting small business.

…ensure that all business income of high-income people would be subject to the existing 3.8 percent tax to fund Medicare, either through the net investment income tax or the additional Medicare tax on earned income.

Last but not least, he wants to skim $112 billion over 10 years from corporations by manipulating accounting rules.

…eliminate the “last-in, first-out” (LIFO) accounting method.

The bottom line is that Sanders, in one fell swoop, would saddle America with a European-sized government. And that would mean European-level taxes. The only thing that’s missing is he didn’t propose a value-added tax.

Though I’m sure that would get added to the mix since the huge increase in the government’s fiscal burden would retard growth. And since that would mean sluggish revenue, politicians would seek another way to extract more money from the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. I’m a policy wonk rather than a political tactician, but my guess is that Bernie is misreading the mood of the American people. Yes, “free” healthcare sounds nice, but people get understandably scared when they get a price tag. This is why single-payer was repealed in Bernie’s home state. And it’s why Colorado voters rejected a similar scheme by a landslide margin.

Foley Beach Express an Example for Meeting America’s Infrastructure Needs

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 9:51pm

Originally published by AL.com on September 13, 2017.

President Trump has consistently indicated that infrastructure is one of his top priorities, and wants $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending. Thankfully, the administration is not insisting on using only taxpayer dollars, but is instead open to leveraging the private sector to help fund America’s infrastructure needs. Alabama is showing how this can be done.

In recent years, traffic over the Intracoastal Waterway to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, on both the public I-59 and the private toll bridge Foley Beach Express, has stretched the limits of existing capacity.

Unfortunately, politicians initially took an antagonistic approach when the company that owns the Express showed interest in investing in a new bridge. Rather than immediately welcome the private investment, city leadership sought to pressure the company to lower tolls on the Foley Beach Express by threatening to “put them out of business” by borrowing $30 million to build another “free” bridge.

Of course,  committing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to a project, not to mention the ongoing government expense of operating and maintaining it, is not really “free.” It just shifts the costs to the public, whether they will ever use the bridge or not. It’s also not a prudent choice for a state experiencing constant budget problems, especially when other options are readily available.

Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. Rather than insisting on a taxpayer-funded take-down of an efficient private asset, elected officials began negotiating to expand the existing privately-owned bridge–a far better approach than threats and antagonism.

As a result, it has recently been announced that the company that owns the Foley Beach Express will add a third, reversible lane to ease congestion, at no cost to taxpayers. In the process, they’ll also be able to lower summer tolls thanks to other advancements improving throughput, like the widening of the toll plaza and greater reliance on electronic tolling that eliminates the need to stop for payment. In other words, everybody wins.

Avoiding unnecessary public spending is not just good politics, it’s also good economics. Tolls are a type of user fee, which means costs fall on those who actually use and benefit from a good, rather than on the entire public. Not only that, but variable tolls help reduce congestion at peak times by discouraging those commuters who can afford to wait until later from traveling during high traffic periods. And, of course, the ability to earn a profitable return on an investment in America’s infrastructure will encourage others to invest as well.

The lesson is that infrastructure problems can often be solved more efficiently through private action, or at least with private sector help. The Trump administration has the right idea in wanting to encourage public-private partnerships, proposing $200 billion in an incentive program for state and local governments that enter into agreements or make private sector deals. Other states should look to Alabama and find ways to incentive companies to meet the nation’s infrastructure needs instead of simply relying on an already overtaxed public.

Private Sector vs Government: The Humor Version

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 12:41pm

I’ve made very serious (and hopefully substantive) arguments about why small government and free markets are the recipe for prosperity.

Simply stated, profit and loss is a powerful feedback mechanism, and entrepreneurs and business owners who want to make money face constant pressure to attract consumers by offering better products at affordable prices.

These forces are so powerful that the private sector even does a good job in some areas that most people assume are reserved for government, such as criminal justiceroads, and airport security.

But let’s examine this issue today from a whimsical perspective. I found a couple of clever images on Reddit‘s libertarian page.

Here’s the first example, which will make instantaneous sense for anyone who’s ever walked into a McDonald’s and a DMV on the same day.

The second example is more elaborate but makes a similar point. Those of us with gray hair have seen the amazing developments produced by the private sector in this collage.

But can anyone think of something that has improved in the public sector?

For what it’s worth, the two cars in the column for the private sector don’t look that different. But, once again, those with gray hair will probably remember how often they used to break down in the past. The computerized engines have greatly improved operations and maintenance. Not to mention map programs, built-in TVs for the kids in the back seat, and other positive changes.

Let’s close with a serious point. Yes, business owners are greedy. They’re looking out for their own self-interest. They would love to charge us high prices.

But a system of free enterprise means that they can only earn money if they cater to our needs and wants. And so long as politicians aren’t showering them with bailoutssubsidiesprotection, or handouts, that means they compete to provide us ever-better goods and services at ever-more-affordable prices.

In other words, Adam Smith was right.

Government Run Amok at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 12:30pm

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) must be anxious to get on my list of government bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist.

The bureaucrats have engaged in some really silly and petty behavior (such as confiscating Airsoft toy guns because they might be machine guns), and they’ve engaged in some behavior that is criminally stupid and dangerous (running guns to Mexican drug gangs as part of the “Fast and Furious” fiasco).

Now we have another example. Though it’s so bizarre that I’m not sure how to classify it. Basically, the bureaucrats created an illegal slush fund, and then used the money illegally.

The New York Times has been on top of this story. Here are excerpts from the latest report.

For seven years, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, do not bother asking Washington. Talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy. …thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap. …One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show. …At least tens of millions of dollars moved through the account before it was shut down in 2013, but no one can say for sure how much. The government never tracked it.

Oh, by the way, the ATF was breaking the law.

Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that there have been no consequences.

…no one was ever prosecuted, Congress was only recently notified, and the Justice Department tried for years to keep the records secret.

And it’s also worth noting that this is also a tax issue. As I’ve noted before, high tax rates encourage illegality.

Though cigarettes are available at any corner store, they are extraordinarily profitable to smuggle. That’s because taxes are high and every state sets its own rates. Virginia charges $3 per carton. New York charges $43.50. The simplest scheme — buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them tax-free in New York — can generate tens of thousands of dollars in illicit cash. By some estimates, more than half of New York’s cigarettes come from the black market.

By the way, I can help but wonder why the federal government is engaging in all sorts of dodgy behavior to help enforce bad state tax laws. Yes, I realize the cigarettes are crossing state lines, but so what? The illegal (but not immoral) behavior occurs when an untaxed cigarette is sold inside the borders of, say, New York. Why should Washington get involved?

In other words, I like the fact that borders limit the power of government. It’s why I don’t like global schemes to undermine tax competition (why should Swiss banks be required to enforce bad U.S. tax law?), and it’s why I don’t like the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act (why should merchants in one state be required to enforce the sales taxes of other states?).

But I’m digressing.

Let’s get back to the Bureau’s misbehavior. Here’s some additional reporting from the U.K.-based Times.

A US government crime-fighting agency ran a secret bank account that its employees used to buy luxury cars, property and trips to casinos. Officers for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), charged with investigating smuggling and gun crimes, built up a slush fund worth tens of millions of dollars through illicit cigarette sales, ostensibly as part of an operation to catch traffickers. The scandal is the latest controversy to hit the agency, which has been criticised in recent years for lack of accountability and allowing the flow of guns and drugs to go unchecked. …Cash from the slush fund generated at an ATF field office in Bristol, Virginia, …funded activities such as a trip to Las Vegas, donations to agents’ children and the booking of a $21,000 suite at a Nascar race.

And what about the overall BATF bureaucracy? Well, it’s getting some unfavorable attention. Keep in mind that this scandal is on top of the “Fast and Furious” scandal of the Obama years.

The ATF has said that it has “implemented substantial enhancements to its policies, and has markedly improved leadership, training, communication, accountability and operational oversight”. Under the previous administration, it was widely derided for a botched weapons operation known as “Fast and Furious”. The agency allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal buyers, hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartel kingpins. But out of the 2,000 firearms sold, only a fraction have been traced. The secret account scandal has renewed calls from across the political spectrum for the department of about 2,000 agents to be reformed or shut down.

Last but not least, I think we have a new member of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

Thomas Lesnak, a senior ATF investigator, began the scheme. …Mr Lesnak retired with his pension and was not reprimanded.

Just like Lois Lerner and the IRS, engaging in corrupt and crooked behavior and then escaping any punishment.

Maybe the two of them should hook up? They’d make a great couple. I’m sure they could even figure out a way to make taxpayers finance their wedding and honeymoon.

P.S. The “Fast and Furious” scheme was just one of scandals that occurred during the Obama years, but it may have been the most foolish. Didn’t anybody at the BATF realize that it wasn’t a good idea to funnel weapons to Mexican drug gangs?!?

P.P.S. The silver lining to that dark cloud is that we got a couple of good one-liners about the Obama Administration’s gun-running scandal from Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon.

Income Trends, the Middle Class, and American Prosperity

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 12:14pm

Let’s consider some good news about America.

Some folks on the left like to claim that the middle class is shrinking and that therefore we need bigger government and more redistribution to protect these Americans from falling into poverty.

Well, the first half of that statement is true. The middle class is becoming smaller. But here’s the good news. As I noted in 2015 when sharing some data from Pew, the middle class is shrinking because more and more households are earning six-figure incomes.

Now we have more confirmation. Courtesy of Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute, here’s a nice chart based on data from the Census Bureau’s new report on income and poverty in the United States.

Want to feel even better?

In a column for CNBC, Professor Daniel Smith of Troy University explains that government data understates the improvements in living standards. He points out that total compensation has increased much faster than wages.

Complaints that the rich are getting richer while the majority have hit a brick wall in wage growth have led to calls to impose regulations and taxes aimed at creating a “fair” economy. This mantra, however, is wrought with holes and erroneous interpretation of the data… Over the last few decades, employees have been receiving an increasingly larger portion of their overall compensation in the form of benefits such as health care, paid vacation time, hour flexibility, improved work environments and even daycare. …Total compensation, which adds these benefits to wages and salaries, shows that earnings have actually increased more than 45 percent since 1964.

And he notes that income gains are understated if measured against the PCE index rather than the consumer price index.

Furthermore, “purchasing power,” the amount of stuff people can buy with each dollar, has changed dramatically… CPI is notorious for overstating inflation, and thus understating the growth of real wages received by workers. Adjusting the data with the more appropriate Personal Consumption Expenditure index brings the growth in average hourly wages from 5.58 percent to more than 35 percent and the growth in total compensation of employees from more than 45 percent to more than 87 percent.

The bottom line is we’re able to buy more and better for less work.

But even that index fails to grasp the drastic increase in what workers get for their wages. …100.5 hours of work was required to purchase a washing machine in 1959 compared to just 23.3 hours of work (for the average worker) in 2013. Purchasing a TV demanded an astounding 127.8 hours of work in 1959, whereas a worker in 2013 could purchase one with only 20.7 hours of work. Moreover, the improved quality of these goods over the past few decades is staggering. …Today’s iPhones and other smart-phone models seem like a different species from their predecessors… We’ve seen the same progress in knee-replacement surgeries, computers, the Internet, vacuum cleaners, and other technologies we’ve come to rely on.

Professor Smith wrote this piece back in 2014, but these arguments apply just as well today as they did back then.

Though I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. There are very worrisome trends in our economy, especially increased dependency and reduced labor force participation.

So if you prefer to look at the glass as being half empty, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American University authored an article that is very pessimistic assessment about recent trends.

It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly. …it should be painfully obvious that the U.S. economy has been in the grip of deep dysfunction since the dawn of the new century. …It took America six and a half years—until mid-2014—to get back to its late 2007 per capita production levels. And in late 2016, per capita output was just 4 percent higher than in late 2007—nine years earlier. By this reckoning, the American economy looks to have suffered something close to a lost decade. …Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 20002016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today. …If 21st-century America’s GDP trends have been disappointing, labor-force trends have been utterly dismal. Work rates have fallen off a cliff since the year 2000 and are at their lowest levels in decades.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Growth has been weak this century.

Which is hardly a surprise since we’ve seen an erosion of economic liberty (thanks Bush and Obama!).

But I also want to keep things in perspective. Weak growth is better than no growth. Our living standards are increasing, even if they could – and should – be rising at a faster clip.

So let me swing back to the Pollyanna side by sharing a chart which ostensibly is bad news because it shows rising inequality. But I view it as good news because it shows that all of us are at least 40 percent richer – in real terms – than we were back around 1980.

By the way, Thomas Sowell has pointed out that higher-income households tend to do better because they have more people working, while lower-income households feature lots of dependency. Moreover, if Professor Smith and others are right, the increase in living standards is far greater than what this chart shows anyhow. But even if you accept this data at face value, we are all getting richer over time.

Yes, growth rates should be faster and incomes should be climbing more rapidly. Especially at the bottom. Whether you look at global data or country-specific data, that’s an argument for free markets and small government.

As I wrote last year, we don’t need perfect policy to get more prosperity. Just give the private sector some breathing room.

Good Tax Reform Requires Loophole Closing, not Just lower Tax Rates and Less Double Taxation

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 12:49pm

If tax policy was a religion, the Holy Trinity of reform would be very straightforward.

But if tax policy was a meal, the first two items would be the dessert and the last item would be the vegetable. Simply stated, politicians like lowering tax rates and reducing double taxation because that makes most people happy (at least the ones who actually pay tax).

But when you take away loopholes, the people who benefit from those preferences are unhappy. And they get very noisy. Interest groups hire lobbyists. Trade associations spring into action. Campaign contribution get dispensed.

If tax policy was a movie, it would be Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.

In this clip from a recent interview, I talk about some of the dessert, specifically a much-needed reduction in the corporate tax rate.

But today I want to focus more on the vegetables of itemized deductions.

Here’s some of what Reuters reported last month about the swamp gearing up to protect its privileges.

…industry groups and other sectors of society are gearing up to fight proposed changes to the personal income tax. …proposed changes to the personal tax code have already stirred opposition from realtors, home builders, mortgage lenders and charities.

And here’s a description of what might happen and the impact.

To simplify the tax code, Republicans have proposed eliminating nearly all tax write-offs including those for state and local taxes, then doubling the standard deduction. This would eliminate the incentive to itemize and should drastically reduce the number of taxpayers who do so. Currently, many taxpayers use itemized deductions, claiming write-offs for things like charitable contributions, interest paid on a mortgage and state and local taxes. If the standard deduction becomes larger, fewer taxpayers will need to itemize, reducing the incentive to hold a mortgage or contribute to charity. …Estimates suggest more than half of taxpayers would stop itemizing under the proposed plan.

Should we hope that these reforms occur? If people lose or forego itemized deductions, would that be a good outcome?

As a long-time fan of the flat tax, I’m obviously not a fan of these preferences. Though I always stress that I only want to get rid of loopholes if the money is used to finance lower tax rates. At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t want the money being used to finance bigger government.

Let’s see what others have said, starting with Justin Fox’s column for Bloomberg. He’s not happy that loopholes disproportionately benefits taxpayers with above-average incomes.

Let’s talk about upper-middle-class entitlements, the subsidies that flow almost entirely to those in the upper fifth or even tenth of the income distribution. …Why do these subsidies continue…? Mainly, it seems, because they’ve been granted to a sizable, influential population who, it is feared, will fight any effort to take them away. There are other interested parties, too — the real estate industry and mortgage lenders in the case of the mortgage interest deduction… But mainly it’s the millions of upper-middle-class Americans who, like me and my family, are beneficiaries of tax subsidies.

He’s right. I’m more upset about the economic distortions these preference create, but there’s no doubt that upper-income taxpayers reap most of the benefits.

Here’s his conclusion, which I think is spot on.

…if these tax breaks had never become law, no one would really miss them. Houses might cost a bit less. College might be slightly cheaper. Income tax rates might be a little lower. The economy might run a little bit more smoothly. So … how do we get to that place from here?

By the way, Fox includes a chart showing how richer taxpayers get more benefit from the mortgage interest deduction.

That’s certainly true, and I’ve previously shared data showing how the middle class gets almost nothing from itemized deductions compared to high-income taxpayers.

Let’s focus specifically on those goodies for the rich. This chart from the Tax Foundation reveals that the state and local tax break is especially lucrative.

For what it’s worth, the state and local deduction is my least favorite, so I’d like to see this chart change.

Though the healthcare exclusion may do even more economic damage (I assume it’s not included in the above chart since it’s an exclusion rather than a deduction).

But the bottom line of today’s column is that we’re not going to get the dessert of lower tax rates unless policy makers are willing to eat some vegetables – i.e., get rid of some tax preferences. Or, to be more exact, it will be impossible, given congressional budget rules, to have any sort of meaningful permanent reforms of the tax system unless there are revenue raisers to offset the tax cuts.

P.S. In any discussion of tax preferences, it’s important to properly define a loophole. Folks on the right generally think income should be taxed only one time (technically, they favor “consumption-base” taxation). So a loophole is a provision that results in zero tax on a particular activity.

Folks on the left generally think the tax code should impose double taxation (technically, they favor “Haig-Simons” taxation). So they have a much bigger list of loopholes, mostly focused on provisions that limit the extra layers of tax imposed on income that is saved and invested. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

By the way, Justin Fox presumably is in the Haig-Simons camp since his column treats the capital gains tax and 401(k)s as loopholes. But he cited one of my columns, so I can’t bring myself to criticize him.

P.P.S. It (almost) goes without saying that many folks on the left want to curtail tax breaks. They openly argue that it is good to divert a larger share of income into the hands of politicians and in order to facilitate bigger government. Some of them are even honest enough (crazy enough?) to openly assert that all income belongs to the government.

Overcoming FDA Bureaucracy and Saving Lives with Expanded “Right to Try”

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 12:30pm

I’m lucky. When I think of how government regulation impacts my life, my list contains minor nuisances such as inferior light bulbssubstandard toiletssecond-rate dishwashersweak-flow showerheads, and inadequate washing machines.

For my friend Matt Kibbe, by contrast, red tape could have been deadly. Literally.

Watch this powerful video and listen to him explain how he survived cancer. That’s the good part. The bad part is that he likely would have died if he got cancer during the 12 years it took before the Food and Drug Administration finally approved a life-saving drug.

Matt’s takeaway is that terminally ill patients should have the “right to try” drugs that aren’t approved by the FDA.

wrote about this issue last year and shared two other videos on the topic. Today, I want to approach the issue from another direction by pointing out that “right to try” laws shouldn’t be controversial because tens of millions of patients already take drugs for purposes that aren’t approved by the FDA.

The only catch is that they can do this only with drugs that have been approved for some other purpose.

This is not a recent revelation. Daniel Klein wrote about this issue 17 years ago for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Once a drug is approved for any use, it may be used in any way doctors and users see fit. Approved drugs are often found to have other benefits, and doctors learn to prescribe those drugs for such “off-label” uses. Although off-label uses have absolutely no standing with or approval by the FDA, they are perfectly legal. Do patients and doctors shrink in fear from uses not certified by the FDA? Absolutely not! Off-label prescribing is pervasive and vital to the health of millions of Americans. As economist Alexander Tabarrok says, “most hospital patients are given drugs which are not FDA-approved for the prescribed use.” Off-label prescriptions are especially common for AIDS, cancer, and pediatric patients, but are standard practice throughout medicine. Doctors learn of off-label uses from extensive medical research, testing, newsletters, conferences, seminars, Internet sources, and trusted colleagues. Scientists and doctors, working through professional associations and organizations, make official determinations of “best practice” and certify off-label uses in standard reference compendia such as AMA Drug Evaluations, American Hospital Formulary Service Drug Information, and US Pharmacopoeia Drug Information—all without FDA meddling or restriction.

Think about what this means. Countless Americans are taking medications and benefiting from those drugs, yet the FDA bureaucracy has never given its stamp of approval.

Which raises an interesting issue.

No one would be foolish enough to suggest that the FDA prohibit off-label prescribing. But…there is a logical inconsistency in allowing off-label prescribing and requiring proof of efficacy for the drug’s initial use. Logical consistency would require that one either oppose off-label uses and favor initial proof of efficacy, or favor off-label prescribing and oppose initial proof-of-efficacy.

By the way, just in case you think an old FEE article somehow isn’t enough proof, check out some of the research that is cited on the Wikipedia page for off-label use as of this morning.

Off-label use is very common. …Up to one-fifth of all drugs are prescribed off-label and amongst psychiatric drugs, off-label use rises to 31%. …A 2009 study found that 62% of U.S. pediatric office visits from 2001-2004 included off-label prescribing, with younger children having a higher chance of receiving off-label prescriptions. Specialist physicians also prescribed off-label more frequently than general pediatricians. …Some drugs are used more frequently off-label than for their original, approved indications. A 1991 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that one-third of all drug administrations to cancer patients were off-label, and more than half of cancer patients received at least one drug for an off-label indication. A 1997 survey of 200 cancer physicians by the American Enterprise Institute and the American Cancer Society found that 60% of them prescribed drugs off-label.

The bottom line is that we have rampant and pervasive drug use that is outside the FDA’s control. Yet that isn’t leading to horrible consequences. Or even bad consequences.

Instead, it’s teaching us that risk-averse bureaucrats are putting millions of lives at risk by delaying the approval of new drugs. Not just at risk. Don’t forget the research I cited last year estimating that deadly impact of FDA regulation.

I’ll close by noting that the FDA also does other boneheaded things. I’ve previously written about the bureaucracy’s war against unpasteurized milk (including military-style raids on dairies!). I suppose I also should mention that FDA red tape is responsible for the fact that Americans have a much more limited selection of condoms than Europeans.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling and there are some really inane examples of silly rules such as the ones cited above, as well as the FDA’s war on vaping, I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

Does Making Government Bigger Make It More Competent?

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 12:31pm

There are some core functions of government, even in a libertarian world. The most prominent examples are national defense by the central government and public safety at the state/local level.

So how do we make sure those functions are handled competently? I’ve argued that we’ll get the best results if the public sector is streamlined and elected officials have more ability to focus on genuine “public goods.”

Not everyone shares my perspective. Fareed Zakaria asserts in today’s Washington Post that hurricanes and wildfires show the need for bigger government. I’m not joking. Here’s how he starts.

…one cannot help but think about the crucial role that government plays in our lives. But while we accept, even celebrate, the role of government in the wake of…disasters, we are largely blind to the need for government to mitigate these kinds of crises in the first place.

I would argue that natural disasters sometimes show competence and courage by state and local first responders (along with private volunteers), but I’m much less sanguine about the role of the federal government, which comes in after the danger is over and starts spreading around money in ways that increase the likelihood of future problems.

But let’s set that aside and consider Zakaria’s broader argument about whether the United States is suffering from inadequate government. I’m not sure what world he’s living in, but he seems to think that America is some sort of libertarian dystopia, with an anemic public sector.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan, much of the United States has embraced an ideological framework claiming that government is the source of our problems. …Reagan argued for a retreat from the vision of an activist state and advocated instead a strictly limited role for government, one dedicated to core functions such as national defense. …Reagan’s worldview…has stayed in place for decades as a rigid ideology, even though we have entered a new age in which America has faced a very different set of challenges, often desperately requiring an activist government.

I wish this was true. I’d be delighted if “Reagan’s worldview” was “in place for decades.”

In reality, government spending is much higher today than it was in the 1980s. Even after adjusting for inflation, the federal budget is twice as big today as it was during the Reagan years (and it’s huge compared to its size for much of America’s history).

Call me crazy, but that’s not my definition of a “strictly limited…government.”

What’s especially amazing is one of the examples Zakaria used to justify more government.

We watched as financial institutions took on more and more risk, with other people’s money, effectively gambling in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose system. Any talk of regulation was seen as socialist. Even after the system blew up, causing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the calls soon came to deregulate the financial sector once again.

Does he really not know that the financial services sector has been heavily regulated for decades?

Even more amazing, does he not know that government policies such as Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies and TARP bailouts are what creates the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose environment?

Does he really think a bigger federal government is the way to solve these problems when it was federal intervention that caused the financial crisis?

To be fair, he does raise some issues that are a challenge, such as how to have free trade with countries that use government intervention to distort trade. But he doesn’t offer any suggestions on how to solve such problems while avoiding the risk of 1930s-style tit-for-tat protectionism.

His closing comment basically argues that we need more government because of what is sometimes called creative destruction.

We are living in an age of revolutions, natural and human, that are buffeting individuals and communities. We need government to be more than a passive observer of these trends and forces. It needs to actively shape and manage them. Otherwise, the ordinary individual will be powerless.

I’m tempted to respond that we’ve always had creative destruction. And, yes, it is very disruptive. But it’s also why we’re much richer today than we were in the past.

And it’s very likely that we wouldn’t be nearly as rich today if people like Zakaria had power “to actively shape and manage” the economy in the 1800s and 1900s. Heck, the reason why places such as Greece and Venezuela are such a mess is that politicians did a steroid-fueled version of shaping and managing.

Let’s close by circling back to the issue of how to increase government effectiveness. The European Central Bank produced a very rigorous study back in 2003 that measured public sector performance and public sector efficiency in OECD nations.

What the economists found, unsurprisingly, is that smaller governments did a better job than medium governments. And, needless to say, medium governments did a better job than big governments.

And the ECB came up with equally strong results in a 2006 study that looked at a larger list of countries.

It’s also worth mentioning, given current debates over whether certain activities are better handled in Washington or at the state level, that the International Monetary Fund (yes, even the IMF) found that decentralized systems do a measurably better job in delivering public services.

These studies echo what I wrote, using the Ebola virus as an example, about how a smaller government is naturally more competent. And Mark Steyn made the same point, albeit in a more entertaining fashion.

P.S. My all-time favorite example of the disconnect between big government and competent government is Belgium, where the public sector consumes more than 50 percent of the economy’s output, yet a bureaucrat said it was hard to fight terrorism “due to the small size of the Belgian government.”

The Obamacare-Repeal Fight Is Important, but Much More Is Needed if We Want a Pro-Consumer Health System

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 12:22pm

Right after Obamacare was enacted in 2010, I wrote a column suggesting four principles that should guide and motivate supporters of free markets and limited government.

As part of that article, I pointed out that Obamacare wasn’t a dramatic change. Instead, it was just another layer of government imposed on a health system that already was burdened by a huge amount of intervention.

The way to think of Obamacare is that we are shifting from a healthcare system 68 percent controlled/directed by government to one that…is 79 percent controlled/directed by government. Those numbers are just vague estimates, to be sure, but they underscore why Obamacare is just a continuation of a terrible trend, not a profound paradigm shift.

Later that year, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released a video that elaborated, pointing out that Obamacare simply made a system dominated by government into a system even more controlled by government.

With predictable bad results.

That video included two charts based on my back-of-the envelope calculation, and I shared them in a 2013 column that further discussed the incremental damage of Obamacare.

Our healthcare system as a mess before Obamacare. Normal market forces were crippled by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and also undermined by government intervention in the tax code that resulted in pervasive over-insurance that exacerbated the third-party payer problem. These various forms of intervention led to all sorts of problems, such as rising prices and indecipherable complexity…Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it was perceived to be a paradigm-shifting change in the healthcare system, even though it was just another layer of bad policy on top of lots of other bad policy. …Not surprisingly, all of the same problems still exist, but now they’re exacerbated by the mistakes in Obamacare.

In other words, we’re not going to fix the healthcare system by merely repealing Obamacare.

Yes, that’s a necessary step, but much more needs to happen.

Which is why I’m very happy that Prager University has a new video pointing out that health insurance doesn’t work nearly as well as car insurance and homeowners insurance. Why? Because it’s become an inefficient form of pre-paid health care rather than protection against large and unexpected expenses.

Amen. I’ve made a similar case on several occasions.

Though I wish the video went even further by explaining how the healthcare exclusion in the tax code encourages over-insurance.

And here’s a video from the Foundation for Economic Education that also explains how government intervention is distorting the health market.

Here’s the most important factoid from the video, which comes from the accompanying FEE article.

According to the Consumer Price Index and Medical-care price index from 1935 to 2009, the health care spending crisis didn’t start until the mid 1960s, around the same time when Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law, and at the same time that we began requiring doctors to go through all sorts of expensive licensing procedures beyond medical school. Since then, health care spending has doubled, even adjusted for inflation.

But let’s keep everything in perspective. Our system is needlessly expensive and inefficient because of government, but it still manages to deliver some decent outcomes.

Here is some very interesting analysis from the Adam Smith Institute in London.

US healthcare is famous for…poor outcomes. …their overall outcome on the most important variable—overall life expectancy—is fairly poor.

I get this factoid thrown in my face repeatedly when speaking overseas, so I was delighted to find out that it has nothing to do with the quality of our healthcare.

…consider the main two ingredients that go into health outcomes. One is health, and the other is treatment. If latent health is the same across the Western world, we can presume that any differences come from differences in treatment. But this is simply not the case. Obesity is far higher in the USA than in any other major developed country. Obviously it is a public health problem, but it’s unrealistic to blame it on the US system of paying for doctors, administrators, hospitals, equipment and drugs. In fact in the US case it’s not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it’s accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it’s not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it’s an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear.

Indeed, it turns out that the American system produces very good results on life expectancy once you adjust for these behavioral factors.

…simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.

And here’s the relevant chart from the article.

By the way, health spending in the United States would probably be high compared to other nations even if we removed all government intervention and changed our risky behaviors.

But only because richer nations can afford – even demand – new technology, cutting-edge research, and new treatments. In his Bloomberg column, Professor Tyler Cowen discusses some of these factors

…viewed through the lens of consumption behavior, American health-care spending is typical of this nation’s habits and mores. Relative to GDP, Americans consume a lot more than Europeans, and our health-care spending is another example of that tendency. …Consumption in the U.S., per capita, measures about 50 percent higher than in the European Union. American individuals command more resources than people in countries such as Norway or Luxembourg, which have higher per capita GDP. The same American consumption advantage is evident if you look at dwelling space per person or the number of appliances in a typical home. …To put it most simply, we Americans spend a lot on health care because we spend a lot period.

Tyler includes a graph mapping healthcare expenditures with overall consumption. The basic takeaway is that what makes America an outlier is our ability to consume, with healthcare being an example.

So what’s all this mean for policy?

Peter Suderman offers some very sage advice in a column for the New York Times.

…when it comes to health care, Republicans don’t know what they want, much less how to get it. …Democrats, on the other hand, share a distinct vision of robust universal coverage guaranteed by the government and paid for by a combination of delivery-system efficiencies and higher taxes. What Republicans need, then, is a set of guiding principles — a health care vision that should work from the ground up, that imagines a more affordable and more effective system.

Peter then suggests some principles.

…it would mean giving up on comprehensive universal coverage. Otherwise, Republicans will just end up bargaining on the terms set by Democrats, as they are now. …a second principle: unification, not fragmentation. …employer-provided coverage…is subsidized implicitly through the tax code, which does not tax health benefits provided by employers as income. This tax break is the original sin of the United States health care system. Worth more than $250 billion annually, it has enormously distorted the market, creating an incentive for employers to provide ever-more-generous insurance while insulating individuals from the true cost of care. …the third principle comes in: Health coverage is not the same as health care. Instead, it is a financial product, a backstop against financial ruin. Health care policy should treat it as one. …For noncatastrophic, nonemergency medical expenses, Republicans ought to promote affordability rather than subsidies. …encourage supply-side innovations in addition to demand-side reforms. The tangle of regulations governing health care can make it difficult for providers to respond to market signals and innovate. Doctor-owned hospitals are restricted by law, for example, and certificate-of-need requirements force medical providers to obtain licenses in a process that effectively requires them to ask permission from competitors to expand.

In other words, we wind up this column where we started.

Americans get good health care, but it’s needlessly expensive and inefficient as I explained in Part I and Part II of a recent series. If we can somehow unravel, or even bypass, all the bad government policy that currently exists, we could have a much better system.

How much better? Well, check out this Reason video on a free-market health center in Oklahoma, which recently was featured in a story in Time. Based on my personal experiences, that’s a big step in the right direction.

Will Conservative Populists Save CFPB’s Gift to Trial Lawyers?

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 5:30pm

According to a report in today’s Politico Pro (subscription required), some conservatives are pushing to preserve the CFPB’s anti-arbitration rule:

A poll released today by the American Future Fund, a super PAC established to support Mitt Romney’s bid for president, shows broad support for the arbitration ban in states where moderate Republicans could decide the future of the rule.

…”The message for Republican senators is be very careful,” said Nick Ryan, founder of American Future Fund. “The people are against what the Republican majority did in the House, and they’re against it by pretty clear majorities.”

It’s not hard to make a poll say whatever the pollster wants, and they are clearly trying to make this into an issue of Big Banks vs The Little Guy. But it could just as easily, and more accurately, be described as an issue of Big Trial Lawyers vs The Little Guy. I’m sure if the polling question framed the issue as a handout to trial lawyers, who are the only group that benefits from the vast majority of class-action suits, the results would have been drastically different.

Nor should that be a hard case to make. CEI’s Ted Frank explains in today’s Wall Street Journal how the CFPB used faulty data to overstate the benefit of class action lawsuits:

The agency justifies its rule by claiming it found that 79% of money paid in class-action settlements goes to consumers. The statistic is bogus. Lawyers publicize the handful of settlements in which cash actually goes to consumers but hide the overwhelming majority of settlement results from public view.

A Florida federal district court, for example, has in recent years approved several settlements with banks concerning mortgage-insurance practices. Lawyers collected tens of millions of dollars. But the claims process for mortgage-holder class members was so arduous that consumers were certain to receive only a fraction of that. Class members, who have no say over who is appointed as their attorney, objected repeatedly. The court refused to consider how much class members would actually receive in the settlements—or even require its disclosure.

 

How did the CFPB study treat settlements like these, in which there is no public information about how much the class received? It assumed every class member got paid, then calculated its ratio based on that fictional “gross relief” number. The agency also calculated a “net relief” ratio based on actual payments—but that ratio ignored all settlements in which the actual payments were not disclosed, as well as those in which the class received no cash at all and the attorneys got 100% of the proceeds.

Republican Senators shouldn’t worry too much about some push polls. It’s not an issue that is likely to move the electoral needle, and if they bother to make the case at all they should be able to sell it as a clear example of regulatory overreach in order to benefit a major constituency of the Democratic Party. After all, the CPFB has practically served as an organ of the Democratic Party since its creation, and it continues to operate with an unconstitutional degree of autonomy.

The CF&P led coalition of 29 organizations, major conservative and free market groups, should provide sufficient courage for the politicians who need it to do the right thing.

India’s Disastrous War Against Cash, Encouraged by American Taxpayers

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 12:53pm

I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

Too bad USAID was whispering sweet things into Modi’s other ear… https://t.co/KPAOQXOZ8U

— Constantin Gurdgiev (@GTCost) September 4, 2017

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen.

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

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