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Connecticut’s Metamorphosis from the Nutmeg State to the Taxnut State

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 12:56pm

To pick the state with the best tax policy, the first step is to identify the ones with no income tax and then look at other variables to determine which one deserves the top ranking.

For what it’s worth, I put South Dakota at the top.

Picking the state with the worst tax policy is more difficult. There are lots of reasons to pick California, in part because it has the highest income tax rate of any state. But there are also strong arguments that New York, Illinois, and New Jersey deserve the worst rating.

And let’s not forget my home state of Connecticut, which invariably ranks near the bottom based on research from the Tax Foundation, the Mercatus Center, the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and WalletHub.

The Wall Street Journal opined yesterday about Connecticut’s metamorphosis from a zero-income-tax state to a high-tax swamp.

Hard to believe, but a mere 25 years ago—a lifetime for millennials—Connecticut was a low-tax haven for Northeasterners. The state enacted an income tax in 1991 that was initially a flat 4.5% but was later made steeply progressive. In 2009 former Republican Governor Jodi Rell raised the top rate on individuals earning $500,000 or more to 6.5%, which Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy has lifted to 6.99% (as if paying 0.01% less than 7% is a government discount). Connecticut’s top tax rate is now higher than the 5.1% flat rate in the state formerly known as Taxachusetts.

This big shift in the tax burden has led to predictably bad results.

…the tax hikes have been a disaster. A net 30,000 residents moved to other states last year. Since 2010 seven of Connecticut’s eight counties have lost population, and the hedge-fund haven of Fairfield County shrank for the first time last year. In the last five years, 27,400 Connecticut residents have moved to Florida. …More than 3,000 Connecticut residents have moved to zero income-tax New Hampshire in the last two years. While liberals wax apocalyptic about Kansas’s tax cuts, the Prairie State has welcomed 1,430 Connecticut refugees since 2011 and reversed the outflow between 2005 and 2009. Yet liberals deny that tax policies influence personal or business decisions.

The good news is that the state’s leftist politicians recognize that there’s a problem. The bad news is that they don’t want to undo the high tax rates that are causing the problems. Instead, they want to use some favoritism, cronyism, and social engineering.

Connecticut’s progressive tax experiment has hit a wall. Tens of thousands of residents are fleeing for lower tax climes, which has prompted Democrats to propose—get this—paying new college grads a thousand bucks to stick around. …proposing a tax credit averaging $1,200 for grads of Connecticut colleges who live in the state as well as those of out-of-state schools who move to the state within two years of earning their degree.

As the WSJ points out, special tax credits won’t be very effective if the job market stinks.

Yet the main reason young people are escaping is the lack of job opportunities. Since 2010 employment in Connecticut has grown at half the rate of Massachusetts and more slowly than in Rhode Island, New Jersey or Kansas.

By the way, this isn’t the first time that Connecticut’s politicians have resorted to special-interest kickbacks.

The Wall Street Journal also editorialized last year about the state’s one-off bribe to keep a hedge fund from fleeing to a state with better policy.

Last week the Governor presented Bridgewater with $5 million in grants and $17 million in low-interest, forgivable loans to renovate its headquarters in Westport along the state’s Gold Coast.

But the bit of cronyism won’t help ordinary people.

Connecticut has lost 105,000 residents to other states over the last five years while experiencing zero real economic growth. …So here is the new-old progressive governing model: Raise taxes relentlessly in the name of soaking the 1% to pay off government unions. When that drives people out of the state, subsidize the 0.1% to salvage at least some jobs and revenue. Ray Dalio gets at least some of his money back. The middle class gets you know what.

What’s particularly frustrating is that the state’s leftist governor understands the consequences of bad tax policy, even though he’s unwilling to enact the right solution.

Mr. Malloy said that other states including New York were trying to lure Bridgewater, and Connecticut couldn’t afford to lose the $150 billion fund or its 1,400 high-income employees. …The Governor’s office says Nutmeg State tax revenues could shrink by $4.9 billion over the next decade if all of Bridgewater’s employees departed. …“We see what happens in places like New Jersey when some of the wealthiest people move out of the state,” Mr. Malloy warned. This is the same Governor who has long echoed the progressive left’s claim that tax rates don’t matter. Maybe he was knocked off his horse by a vision on the road to Hartford.

This is remarkable.

Governor Malloy recognizes that tax-motivated migration is a powerful force.

He even admits that it causes big Laffer Curve effects, meaning governments actually lose revenue over time when tax rates are punitive.

Yet he won’t fix the underlying problem.

Maybe there’s some unwritten rule that Connecticut has to have bad governors?

Mr. Malloy’s Republican predecessor Jodi Rell raised the top marginal tax rate to 6.5% from 5% on individuals earning more than $500,000, and Mr. Malloy raised it again to 6.99%. Hilariously, Ms. Rell said last month that she’s also moving her residence to Florida because of the “downward spiral” in Connecticut that she helped to propel.

And lots of other people are moving as well.

The death tax plays a role, as explained in a column for the Hartford Courant.

Connecticut spends beyond its means and, therefore, taxes more than it should. …they’re driving the largest taxpayers away. We’ve passed the tipping point beyond which higher taxes beget lower revenues… The wealthy, in particular, have decided in swelling numbers they won’t be caught dead — literally — in our state. Evidence strongly suggests that estate and gift taxes are the final straw. To avoid Connecticut’s estate tax, wealthy families are moving to one of the 36 states without one.

And the loss of productive people means the loss of associated economic activity.

Including tax revenue.

Where wealthy families choose to establish residency has important ramifications for Connecticut’s economy and fiscal health. The earlier these golden geese flee, the greater the cumulative loss of golden eggs in the form of income taxes, sales taxes, jobs created by their companies, philanthropic support and future generations of precious taxpayers.

The data on tax-motivated migration is staggering.

Between 2010 and 2013, the number of federal tax returns with adjusted gross incomes of $1 million or more grew only 9.5 percent here vs. 22 percent in Massachusetts, 16 percent in New York and Rhode Island, and 30 percent in Florida. Slow economic growth and ever higher taxes are both cause and effect of out-migration. …In 2008, the state Department of Revenue Services asked accountants and tax lawyers whether clients moved out of state due to the estate tax, and 53 percent of respondents said it was the principal reason. …The outflow accelerated following 2011’s historic $2.5 billion tax increase. In the following two years, Connecticut suffered a net out-migration of more than 27,000 residents who took nearly $4 billion in annual adjusted gross income elsewhere, a stunning $500,000 per household. According to the Yankee Institute, the average adjusted gross income of each person leaving tripled in the past 10 years. At an average tax rate of 6.5 percent, this represents more than $250 million in lost income tax revenue annually, which is 50 percent more than the state collected in estate and gift taxes in 2014.

By the way, just in case some of you are skeptical and think that Connecticut’s deterioration is somehow unconnected to tax policy, I’ll close with this excerpt from some academic research that calculated the nationwide impact of state tax policy differences.

We consider the complete sample of all U.S. establishments from 1977-2011 belonging to firms with at least 100 employees and having operations in at least two states. On the extensive margin, we find that a one percentage point increase (decrease) in the state corporate tax rate leads to the closing (opening) of 0.03 establishments belonging to firms organized as C corporations in the state. This corresponds to an average change in the number of establishments per C corporation of 0.4%. A similar analysis shows that a one percentage point change in the state personal tax rate a§ects the number of establishments in the state per pass-through entity by 0.2-0.3%. These effects are robust to controls for local economic conditions and heterogeneous time trends. …This lends strong support to the view that tax competition across states is economically relevant.

To be sure, the numbers cited above may not sound large.

But keep in mind that small changes, if sustained over time, grow into very big results.

In the case of Connecticut, we have a state that has suffered dramatic negative consequences ever since the income tax was imposed back in 1991.

P.S. While my former state obviously has veered sharply in the wrong direction on fiscal policy, I must say that I’m proud that residents are engaging in civil disobedience against the state’s anti-gun policies.

Don’t Fall For Air Travel Protectionism Appeals

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 12:29am

Originally published by The Daily Caller on March 23, 2017.

Days after Emirates Airlines launched a new route from Newark to Athens to Dubai, a coalition representing Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines called on the administration to freeze the route, and others from Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, under the Open Skies agreements between the U.S. and Persian Gulf governments. They claim that there is not a “fair playing field” due to illegal subsidies to the state-owned airlines. Granting their request would harm American consumers and is not justified under the circumstances.

Adoption of the Open Skies agreements—the U.S. has them in place with over 100 jurisdictions—helped to deregulate the airline industry and eliminate government interference in the market. As a result, competition increased and consumers benefited through lower prices, more frequent flights, and better in-flight service. A Brookings Institution study estimated $4 billion in annual consumer benefits. American airlines have also been able to vastly expand their reach through access to new markets thanks to Open Skies agreements.

But several U.S. airlines—facing new competition for customers on certain routes—now cry foul. They claim that billions in subsidies are going to the Gulf carriers and use it as reason to call for revisiting the Open Skies agreements. The free markets that have long benefited consumers are no longer sufficient, they say, and “fairness” ought to now be ensured by the government.

This would represent a major step backward for an airline industry that suffered under stiff regulation for decades. “Market fairness,” after all, has long been a euphemism used by those who don’t trust freedom and favor instead government control over the economy. Its use, in this case, is pure corporate rent-seeking rather than motivated by ideological, but the desired result is the same: a government that picks winners and losers and thus ultimately makes losers of us all.

And just how unfair is the playing field, really?

Lest we forget, U.S. airlines also benefit significantly from subsidies. They received a quick bailout following 9/11, and continue to benefit from the Essential Air Service program and its subsidies for airlines serving many rural communities, and the Fly America Act, which requires federal agencies to favor U.S. air carriers regardless of cost or convenience. Then there are the significant tax dollars funneled into air travel infrastructure.

The companies in question also seem to be doing just fine despite claims of being unable to compete. Delta was proud to announce “a year of record-breaking performance in 2016,” for instance. United and American have also been showing hefty profits.

When foreign governments subsidize foreign companies, the biggest losers are foreign taxpayers. In addition, distortions of market activity ultimately lead to large inefficiencies and slower economic growth. That’s why such policies cannot last in the long run when set against the free market. American companies should look to history if they need more confidence on that point.

On the other hand, an intervention by the U.S. government could spark retaliation and the closing of some markets to American carriers. The result would be higher prices and fewer choices for international travelers, which would not only inconvenience American consumers but also depress tourism and its sundry benefits to the U.S. economy.

In an ideal world, governments wouldn’t be subsidizing any companies. Things are obviously not yet ideal, but Open Skies agreements have moved us closer in that direction.

If U.S. air carriers want to offer up all current and future benefits that they receive in exchange for the elimination of subsidies overseas, that’s a discussion worth having. Taxpayers the world over would certainly rejoice. But let’s not make the mistake of compounding one bad policy with another by re-regulating the air travel industry.

Tax and Development: What the U.N. Gets Wrong and What the U.N. Doesn’t Get Right

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 12:14pm

I’ve been at the United Nations this week for both the 14th Session of the Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters as well as the Special Meeting of ECOSOC on International Cooperation in Tax Matters.

As you might suspect, it would be an understatement to say this puts me in the belly of the beast (for the second time!). Sort of a modern-day version of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

These meetings are comprised of tax collectors from various nations, along with U.N. officials who – like their tax-free counterparts at other international bureaucracies – don’t have to comply with the tax laws of those countries.

In other words, there’s nobody on the side of taxpayers and the private sector (I’m merely an observer representing “civil society”).

I could share with you the details of the discussion, but 99 percent of the discussion was boring and arcane. So instead I’ll touch on two big-picture observations.

What the United Nations gets wrong: The bureaucracy assumes that higher taxes are a recipe for economic growth and development.

I’m not joking. I wrote last year about how many of the international bureaucracies are blindly asserting that higher taxes are pro-growth because government supposedly will productively “invest” any additional revenue. And this reflexive agitation for higher fiscal burdens has been very prevalent this week in New York City. It’s unclear whether participants actually believe their own rhetoric. I’ve shared with some of the folks the empirical data showing the western world became rich in the 1800s when fiscal burdens were very modest. But I’m not expecting any miraculous breakthroughs in economic understanding.

What the United Nations fails to get right: The bureaucracy does not appreciate that low rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance.

Most of the discussions focused on how tax laws, tax treaties, and tax agreements can and should be altered to extract more money from the business community. Participants occasionally groused about tax evasion, but the real focus was on ways to curtail tax avoidance. This is noteworthy because it confirms my point that the anti-tax competition work of international bureaucracies is guided by a desire to collect more revenue rather than to improve enforcement of existing law. But I raise this issue because of a sin of omission. At no point did any of the participants acknowledge that there’s a wealth of empirical evidence showing that low tax rates are the most effective way of encouraging tax compliance.

I realize that these observations are probably not a big shock. So in hopes of saying something worthwhile, I’ll close with a few additional observations

  • I had no idea that people could spend so much time discussing the technicalities of taxes on international shipping. I resisted the temptation to puncture my eardrums with an ice pick.
  • From the moment it was announced, I warned that the OECD’s project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) was designed to extract more money from the business community. The meeting convinced me that my original fears were – if possible – understated.
  • A not-so-subtle undercurrent in the meeting is that governments of rich nations, when there are squabbles over who gets to pillage taxpayers, are perfectly happy to stiff-arm governments from poor nations.
  • The representative from the U.S. government never expressed any pro-taxpayer or pro-growth sentiments, but he did express some opposition to the notion that profits of multinationals could be divvied up based on the level of GDP in various nations. I hope that meant opposition to “formula apportionment.”
  • Much of the discussion revolved around the taxation of multinational companies, but I was still nonetheless surprised that there was no discussion of the U.S. position as a very attractive tax haven.
  • The left’s goal (at least for statists from the developing world) is for the United Nations to have greater power over national tax policies, which does put the UN in conflict with the OECD, which wants to turn a multilateral convention into a pseudo-International Tax Organization.

P.S. The good news is that the folks at the United Nations have not threatened to toss me in jail. That means the bureaucrats in New York City are more tolerant of dissent than the folks at the OECD.

Will Republicans Drain the Regulatory Swamp?

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 12:07pm

On major economic issues, it does not appear that Republican control of Washington makes much of a difference.

  • Efforts to repeal Obamacare have bogged down because GOPers are willing to deal with the fiscal wreckage of that law, but don’t seem very comfortable about undoing the interventions and regulations that have caused premiums to skyrocket.
  • Efforts to cut taxes and reform the tax code don’t look very promising because House Republicans have proposed a misguided border-adjustment tax and the White House seems hopelessly divided on how to proceed.
  • Efforts to restrain government spending haven’t gotten off the ground. A full budget is due next month, but it’s not overly encouraging that Trump’s proposed domestic cuts would be used to expand the Pentagon’s budget.

Let’s see whether we get a different story when we examine regulatory issues.

We’ll start with some good news? Well, sort of. It seems the United States has the largest and 4th-largest GDPs in the world.

You may think that makes no sense, but this is where we have to share some bad news on the regulatory burden from the Mercatus Center.

Economic growth has been reduced by an average of 0.8 percent per year from 1980 to 2012 due to regulatory accumulation. Regulations force companies to invest less in activities that enhance productivity and growth, such as research and development, as companies must divert resources into regulatory compliance and similar activities. …Compared to a scenario where regulations are held constant at levels observed in 1980, the study finds that the difference between the economy we are in and a hypothetical economy where regulatory accumulation halted in 1980 is approximately $4 trillion. …The $4 trillion dollars in lost GDP associated with regulatory accumulation would be the fourth largest economy in the world—larger than major countries like Germany, France, and India.

By the way, this data from Mercatus gives me an opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of even small variations in economic growth. It may not make that much difference if the economy grows 0.8 percent faster or slower in one year.

But, as just noted, a loss of 0.8 percent annual growth over 32 years has been enormously expensive to the U.S. economy.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has a depressing array of data on America’s regulatory burden. Here’s the chart that grabbed my attention.

And here’s a video on the burden of red tape from the folks at CEI.

Who deserves the blame for this nightmare of red tape?

The previous president definitely added to the regulatory morass. The Hill reported last year on a study by the American Action Forum.

The Obama administration issues an average of 81 major rules, those with an economic impact of at least $100 million, on a yearly basis, the study found. That’s about one major rule every four to five days, or, as the American Action Forum puts it, one rule for every three days that the federal government is open. “It is a $2,294 regulatory imposition on every person in the United States,” wrote Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy at the American Action Forum, who conducted the study.

And there was a big effort to add more red tape in Obama’s final days, as noted by Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal.

Since the election Mr. Obama has broken with all precedent by issuing rules that would be astonishing at any moment and are downright obnoxious at this point. This past week we learned of several sweeping new rules from the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, including regs on methane on public lands (cost: $2.4 billion); a new anti-coal rule related to streams ($1.2 billion) and renewable fuel standards ($1.5 billion).

As you might expect, the net cost of Obama’s regulatory excess is significant. Here’s some of what the Washington Examiner wrote during the waning days of Obama’s tenure.

According to new information from the White House, finally released after a two year wait, the total burden of federal government paperwork is more than 11.5 billion man-hours a year. That’s almost 500 million man-days, or 1.3 million man-years. More importantly, it’s 35 hours every person in the country (on average) has to spend doing federal paperwork every year, on average. …Time is money, and paperwork time alone costs the country almost $2 trillion a year, or about 11 percent of GDP.

But it’s not solely Obama’s fault. Not even close.

Both parties can be blamed for this mess, as reported by the Economist.

The call to cut red tape is now an emotive rallying cry for Republicans—more so, in the hearts of many congressmen, than slashing deficits. Deregulation will, they argue, unleash a “confident America” in which businesses thrive and wages soar, leaving economists, with their excuses for the “new normal” of low growth, red-faced. Are they right?

They may be right, but they never seem to take action when they’re in charge.

Between 1970 and 2008 the number of prescriptive words like “shall” or “must” in the code of federal regulations grew from 403,000 to nearly 963,000, or about 15,000 edicts a year… The unyielding growth of rules, then, has persisted through Republican and Democratic administrations… The endless pile-up of regulation enrages businessmen. One in five small firms say it is their biggest problem, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

Though I would point out that President Reagan was the exception to this dismal rule.

That being said, who cares about finger pointing? What matters is that the economy is being stymied by excessive red tape.

So what can be done about this? President Trump has promised a 2-for-1 deal, saying that his Administration will wipe out two existing regulations for every new rule that gets imposed.

Susan Dudley opines on this proposal, noting that Trump hasn’t put any meat on the bones.

Like pebbles tossed in a stream, each individual regulation may do little economic harm, but eventually the pebbles accumulate and like a dam, may block economic growth and innovation. A policy of removing two regulations for every new one would provide agencies incentives to evaluate the costs and effectiveness of those accumulated regulations and determine which have outlived their usefulness. Mr. Trump’s statement doesn’t provide details on how this new policy would work.

Ms. Dudley points out, however, that other nations have achieved some success with similar-sounding approaches.

…his team could look to experiences in other countries for insights. The Netherlands, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have all adopted similar requirements to offset the costs of new regulations by removing or modifying existing rules of comparable or greater effect. …The Netherlands program established a net quantitative burden reduction target that reduced regulatory burdens by 20% between 2003 and 2007. It is currently on track to save €2.5 billion in regulatory burden between 2012 and 2017 by tying the introduction of new regulations “to the revision or scrapping of existing rules.” Under Canada’s “One-for-One Rule,” launched in 2012, new regulatory changes that increase administrative burdens must be offset with equal burden reductions elsewhere. Further, for each new regulation that imposes administrative burden costs, cabinet ministers must remove at least one regulation. Similarly, Australia’s policy is that “the cost burden of new regulation must be fully offset by reductions in existing regulatory burden.” The British began with a “One-in, One-out” policy, requiring any increases in the cost of regulation to be offset by deregulatory measures of at least an equivalent value. In 2013, it moved to “One-in, Two-out” (OITO) and more recently to a “One-in, Three-out” policy in an effort to cut red tape by £10 billion.

The bottom line is that progress will depend on Trump appointing good people. And on that issue, the jury is still out.

The legislative branch also could get involved.

In a column for Reason, Senator Rand Paul explained that the REINS Act could make a big difference.

…13 of the 15 longest registers in American history have been authored by the past two presidential administrations (Barack Obama owns seven of the top eight, with George W. Bush filling in most of the rest)…federal lawmakers should pass something called the REINS Act—the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act. The REINS Act would require every new regulation that costs more than $100 million to be approved by Congress. As it is now, agencies can pass those rules unilaterally. Such major rules only account for about 3 percent of annual regulations, but they are the ones that cause the most headaches for individuals and businesses. …the REINS Act did pass the House on four occasions during the Obama administration. Lack of support in the Senate and the threat of a presidential veto kept it from ever reaching Obama’s desk.

But would it make a difference if Congress had to affirm major new rules?

Given how agencies will lie about regulatory burdens, it wouldn’t be a silver bullet.

But based on the hysterical opposition from the left, I’m betting the REINS Act would be very helpful.

REINS would fundamentally alter the federal government in ways that could hobble federal agencies during periods when the same party controls Congress and the White House — and absolutely cripple those agencies during periods of divided government. Many federal laws delegate authority to agencies to work out the details of how to achieve relatively broad objectives set by the law itself. …REINS, however, effectively strips agencies of much of this authority.

That sounds like good news to me. If the crazies at Think Progress are this upset about the REINS Act, it must be a step in the right direction.

Let’s close with a bit of evidence that maybe, just maybe, Republicans will move the ball in the right direction. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg story.

The White House estimates it will save $10 billion over 20 years by having rescinded 11 Obama-era regulations under a relatively obscure 1996 law that lets Congress fast-track repeal legislation with a simple majority. …In all, the law has been used to repeal 11 rules, with two more awaiting the president’s signature… About two dozen measures with CRA’s targeting them remain, but because the law can only be used on rules issued in the final six months of the previous administration, Congress only has only a few more weeks to use the procedure.

Before getting too excited, remember that the annual cost of regulation is about $2 trillion and the White House is bragging about actions that will reduce red tape by $10 billion over two decades. Which means annual savings of only $500 million.

Which, if my math is right, addresses 0.025 percent of the problem.

I’ll take it, but it should be viewed as just a tiny first step on a very long journey.

P.S. The Congressional Review Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton. Yet another bit of evidence that he was a surprisingly pro-market President.

The Transition from Communism in the Soviet Bloc and Lessons for Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 12:54pm

It appears that Venezuela is on the brink of collapse as it enters the fourth circle of statist hell.

And the death of Cuba’s long-time dictator gives hope that the people of that island nation may soon escape communist tyranny.

Moreover, one certainly hopes that the lunatic leadership of North Korea’s brutal regime won’t last forever.

Let’s cross our fingers that these evil governments will soon lose power. But that’s only the first step. We also need to think about the policies that would enable these nations to undo the damage of pervasive socialism.

We can learn some lessons by looking at the experience of post-communist nations in Eastern Europe, which is a topic I addressed in the latest edition of The Conservative, which is the quarterly magazine published by the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformers in Europe.

I started the article with some broad observations about grim political and economic impact of communism.

Communism was an awful system for people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The political cost was enormous. Personal rights and individual liberties were sacrificed to protect the power of the state. Human rights were abused, dissidents were imprisoned, and some were even killed. Communism also imposed huge economic costs. Collectivized agriculture, central planning, price controls, and government-run industries were among the policies that resulted in a debilitating misallocation of resources. And because labor and capital were poorly utilized, living standards lagged far behind western nations.

That was the bad news.

The good news is that the Soviet Empire collapsed, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and democratic forms of government are now the norm in Eastern Europe.

But good news isn’t perfect news. Nations that emerged from the Soviet Bloc are still economic laggards. And if you dig into the latest version of Economic Freedom of the World, a big problem is that post-communist nations have not been very successful in defending property rights and implementing the rule of law.

Establishing genuine capitalism, though, has been a bigger challenge. Part of the problem is policy. And to be more specific, data from the Fraser’s Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World shows that the major difference today between Western Europe and Eastern Europe (nations that were part of the Soviet Bloc) is that the former get much better scores for “Legal System and Property Rights.” Indeed, the average ranking of Western European nations is 20.6 (with 1 being the best) while the average ranking of Eastern European countries is 67.1 (Economic Freedom of the World ranks 159 jurisdictions).

Here’s a graph comparing Western European nations with Eastern European nations.

As you can see, this is an area where Western Europe leads the world. Nordic nations tend to be at the very top of the rankings (thus helping to offset bad fiscal policy in those countries), and other countries in the region also are highly ranked (though a few countries in the region, such as Italy and Greece, don’t get good scores).

Eastern European countries, by contrast, don’t do well. There’s a significant gap when looking at average scores. Indeed, only Estonia ranks in the top 25.

And bad scores in this category are akin to putting a house on a foundation of sand. Other policies may create a house that looks very nice, but it probably won’t last very long on the unstable foundation.

And speaking of other policies, post-communist nations have better fiscal policy than the countries from Western Europe. Or, to be more accurate, they have less-worse fiscal policy.

If you examine the overall ratings for “Size of Government,” Eastern European nations actually are ranked significantly better, with an average ranking of 89.2 compared to 129.2 for Western European countries. This is because tax rates tend to be lower (many former Soviet Bloc nations have flat tax regimes, for instance) and welfare states aren’t as burdensome.

As I already hinted, doing “significantly better” on fiscal policy than Western Europe does not mean Eastern Europe has good fiscal policy.

Indeed, an average ranking of 89 means that most Eastern European nations are in the bottom half of the world.

So while it’s good that some Eastern European nations have flat taxes, that’s not an economic elixir if there are very high payroll taxes, stifling value-added taxes, and onerous energy taxes.

And since the burden of government spending is extremely onerous in Western Europe, it’s hardly an impressive achievement that Eastern Europe ranks slightly higher.

Though there’s one aspect of fiscal policy where the post-communist countries are lagging their neighbors to the west.

…if you dig into the details and examine the various components that determine “Size of Government,” there’s one area where Eastern Europe lags. The numbers for “Government Enterprises and Investment” are better in Western Europe. …In other words, politicians play too large a role in the allocation of capital in former communist nations.

To put that message in blunter terms, there’s too much cronyism in Eastern Europe.

So long as politicians can directly (state-owned enterprises) or indirectly (handouts, subsidies, and bailouts) provide favors and tilt the playing field, the enriching forces of private markets will be stunted.

Which is why I shared this conclusion in my article.

The bottom line is that post-communist nations need to choose genuine capitalism if they want a brighter future for their citizens.

If you want to close with some good news, I did point out in the article that there are some bright spots in the region, especially Estonia, though Poland also has made big progress.

Statement from CF&P President on Mark Meadows, Rand Paul Letter Calling for Administrative Action to Nullify FATCA

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 2:59pm

Center for Freedom and Prosperity

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
202-285-0244

www.freedomandprosperity.org

Statement from CF&P President on Meadows-Paul Letter Calling for Administrative Action
to Nullify FATCA

(Washington, D.C., Wednesday, April 5, 2017) Upon news that Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Mark Meadows authored a letter to the Trump administration calling for the reversal of Obama-era executive overreach implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), Center for Freedom and Prosperity President Andrew Quinlan offered the following statement:

“There’s no doubt that FATCA has been a disaster. Its extraterritorial demands on financial institutions not only cost the private sector much more than the limited revenue it collects, but millions of innocent Americans have suffered as a result. FATCA repeal is an essential component of tax reform. In the meantime, the Trump administration should heed the letter’s advice and roll back the unlawful enforcement actions of the Obama administration.

Congressman Meadows and Senator Paul are committed defenders of American taxpayers at home and abroad. We applaud their leadership in the fight to undo the devastation caused by FATCA.”

Both Meadows and Paul introduced legislation to repeal FATCA in the previous Congress and plan to reintroduce them soon. Their letter urges the Trump administration to take one or more of their recommended steps to reverse what they call “the previous administration’s inclination for abusing its Executive Power”.

CF&P has opposed FATCA since day one. It recently co-authored a coalition letter of 23 free-market think-tanks and taxpayer advocacy organizations calling on Congress to include FATCA repeal as a part of tax reform.

The Center for Freedom & Prosperity is a Washington, DC-based think-tank dedicated to the promotion of tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

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

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Minimum Wage Laws, Jobs, and the Sobering Impact of Decentralization

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 12:41pm

The real world is like a cold shower for our friends on the left. Everywhere they look, there is evidence that jurisdictions with free markets and small government outperform places with big welfare states and lots of intervention.

That’s true when comparing nations. And it’s also true when comparing states. That must be a source of endless frustration and disappointment for statists.

Speaking of disappointed statists, the real world has led to more bad news. The left-wing Mayor of Baltimore campaigned in favor of a $15 minimum wage but then decided to veto legislation to impose that mandate. The Wall Street Journal opines on this development.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, a Democrat, has rejected a bill that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. She did so even though she had campaigned in favor of raising the minimum wage, which shows that economic reality can be a powerful educator. She explained her change of heart by noting that raising the rate above the $8.75 an hour minimum that prevails in the rest of Maryland would send jobs and tax revenue out of Baltimore to surrounding counties. The increase would also have raised the city’s payroll costs by $116 million over the next four years when she’s already coping with a deficit of $130 million in the education budget.

The key thing to notice is that the Mayor recognized that the real-world impact of bad legislation is that economic activity would shrink in the city and expand outside the city.

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm also points out that the Mayor was constrained by the fact neighboring jurisdictions weren’t making the same mistake.

Pugh said the bill would not be in the best interest of Baltimore’s 76,000 unemployed workers and would drive businesses out of the city to the surrounding counties. …Indeed. Raising the minimum wage would not solve Baltimore’s economic troubles, and would likely only add to them. While support for a $15 minimum wage has become something of a litmus test for progressive politicians, the true test of any politician should be whether he or she is willing to set aside campaign trail rhetoric that flies in the face of economic reality. Signing the bill would have made progressive pols and activists happy—one Baltimore city councilman called Pugh’s decision “beyond disappointing” and a minimum wage activist group said it would remind voters of Pugh’s “broken promise”—but there’s no honor in following through on a promise to do more damage to an already struggling city’s economy. Pugh’s decision to veto a $15 minimum wage bill isn’t disappointing in the least. More politicians should learn from her example of valuing economic reality over populist rhetoric.

The Mayor’s veto is good news, though it remains to be seen whether city legislators will muster enough votes for an override.

Regardless of what happens, notice that the Mayor didn’t do the right thing because she believed in economic liberty and freedom of contract. She also didn’t do the right thing because she recognized that higher minimum wage mandates would lead to more joblessness.

Instead, she felt compelled to do the right thing because of jurisdictional competition. She was forced to acknowledge that bad policy in her city would explicitly backfire since economic activity is mobile. She had to admit that there are no magic boats.

And this underscores why federalism and decentralization are vital features of a good system. Governments are more likely to do bad things when the costs can be imposed on an entire nation (or, even better from their perspective, the entire world). But when bad policy is localized, it becomes very hard to disguise the costs of bad policy.

And, as today’s column illustrates, decentralization stopped the Mayor of Baltimore from a bad policy that would hurt poorly skilled workers. Just as federalism stopped Vermont politicians from imposing a destructive single-payer health system.

Let’s close by circling back to the minimum wage.

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Andy Puzder makes a very timely point about automation.

Entry-level jobs matter—and you don’t have to take my word for it. In a speech last week on workforce development in low-income communities, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said that “it is crucial for younger workers to establish a solid connection to employment early in their work lives.” Unfortunately, government policies are destroying entry-level jobs by giving businesses an incentive to automate at an accelerated pace. In a survey released last month, the publication Nation’s Restaurant News asked 319 restaurant operators to name their biggest challenge for 2017. Nearly a quarter of them, 24%, said rising minimum wages. …The trend toward automation is particularly pronounced in areas where the local minimum wage is high.

Need more evidence?

By the way, even the normally left-leaning World Bank has research on the damaging impact of minimum wage mandates.

This paper uses a search-and-matching model to examine the effects of labor regulations that influence the cost of formal labor (notably minimum wages and payroll taxes) on labor market outcomes… The results indicate that these regulations, especially minimum wage policy, contribute to higher unemployment rates and constraint formalization…, especially for youth and women.

The research was about the labor market in Morocco, but the laws of supply and demand are universal.

As I’ve repeatedly stated, when you mandate that workers get paid more than what they’re worth, that’s a recipe for unemployment. And as the World Bank points out, it’s the more vulnerable members of society who pay the highest price.

In an ideal world, there should be no minimum wage mandates. But since that’s not an immediately practical goal, the best way of protecting low-skilled workers is to make sure Washington does not impose a nationwide increase. That won’t stop every state and local government from imposing destructive policies that cause unemployment, but the pressure of jurisdictional competition will

And when those bad policies do occur, that will simply give us more evidence against intervention. Which brings us back to where we started. The real world is a laboratory that shows statism is a bad idea.

Can Corporate Rate Reduction Save the Tax Agenda?

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 12:05pm

The good news is that the House put together an Obamacare-repeal bill that reduced the fiscal burden of government. The bad news is that the legislation didn’t address the regulations and interventions that produce rising costs and sectoral inefficiency because of the third-party payer problem.

Whether the bill was a net plus is now moot since it didn’t have enough votes for approval. And the withdrawal of the legislation has generated a bunch of stories on whether Trump and congressional Republicans are incapable of governing.

In particular since it appears that GOPers also seem incapable of coming to agreement on how to reduce the tax burden. I commented on the dysfunctional state of affairs in this interview with Neil Cavuto.

The bottom line is that there are big divisions. There is (thankfully) a lot of opposition to the border-adjustable tax, and there’s also no agreement on whether the tax plan should be a pure tax cut or whether it should be a revenue-neutral package that finances lower tax rates by eliminating or curtailing undesirable preferences.

Jason Furman, who was the Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, suggest that Republican divisions won’t matter if tax reform becomes a bipartisan issue. But I’m not overly impressed by the five conditions he outlines in a column in today’s Wall Street Journal.

  • “Commit to revenue neutrality and distributional neutrality, as in the 1986 tax reform” – This is a poison pill, mostly because “distributional neutrality” means lawmakers would be constrained by class warfare concerns instead of focusing on how to produce growth. Indeed, this is why the plan put forth by the previous Chairman of the Ways & Means Committee was such a dud.
  • “Focus on business taxes only” – As I mentioned in the interview, I actually think this suggestion makes sense.
  • “For overseas business income, adopt something like a ‘minimum tax.’” – This is another poison pill. It’s designed to preserve worldwide taxation. Moreover, I explained last year that such schemes discriminate against nations with better tax policy.
  • “For domestic business income, adopt something along the lines of the House Republican proposal” – There’s not a lot of detail in the WSJ column, so it’s unclear if Furman is endorsing the notorious BAT from the House plan. He does explicitly endorse expensing over depreciation and he wants to put debt and equity on a level playing field. If that’s all he means, I agree with him.
  • “Incorporate into the bill a real plan for public infrastructure spending” – Since the federal government should not have any role in transportation, I’m obviously not enthusiastic about this proposal. Though if a bit of pork was the price to get an otherwise good bill through the process, I wouldn’t object too strenuously.

It’s unclear if Furman considers the five conditions a package deal. If so, there is zero chance of bipartisanship because Republicans presumably will not agree if they are bound by distributional neutrality.

But if a “business taxes only” agenda can get some Democrats on board, then there may be hope. Especially since that may make a virtue out of necessity, as I suggested in the interview.

And for those who question whether lowering the corporate tax rate is important, here’s an argument-ending chart from a recent Tax Foundation publication. Keep in mind that the U.S. corporate rate (including state levies) is 39 percent.

 

It’s particularly noteworthy that average corporate tax rates in Europe and Asia are about 20 percent, far lower than the tax burden imposed on companies in the United States.

No wonder many American companies have redomiciled to other nations.

The ultimate answer is to junk the entire tax code and adopt a simple and fair flat tax. The best-possible answer we may get out of dysfunctional Washington is probably a lower corporate rate.

Child Care, Head Start, Early Childhood Education, and Washington, D.C.’s Plan to Hurt Poor People

Mon, 04/03/2017 - 12:51pm

What federal program is most sacrosanct, even though it delivers poor results?

Those are all good answers, and you could also add housing subsidies, the drug war, and a lot of other examples to the list of programs that enjoy lots of political support even though they produce bad results.

But I’m guessing that the activity that has the greatest level of undeserved support is government intervention for “pre-K” kids, with Head Start being the most prominent example.

I haven’t written about the failure of that particular program since 2013, which is unfortunate because two of the most compelling visuals about Head Start were released in 2014.

First, this AEI research reveals that the supposed academic consensus for the program evaporates under close examination.

 

Second, this table from an article in National Affairs shows that the program doesn’t produce long-run benefits.

 

Yet these empirical results don’t seem to influence the debate. Every year, programs such as Head Start get funded because politicians only seem to care about intentions.

And positive headlines for themselves, of course. After all, we’re supposed to believe that they care about kids because they spend other people’s money on programs with nice goals.

With this as background, now let’s zoom in on a specific example of how supposedly good intentions in this field translate into occupational restrictions that have very bad results for the less fortunate people in society.

The Washington Post reports that the city’s local government has decided that additional regulation is needed to boost the quality of programs for pre-K kids.

More than a decade after Washington, D.C., set out to create the most comprehensive public preschool system in the country, the city is directing its attention to overhauling the patchwork of programs that serve infants and toddlers.  The new regulations put the District at the forefront of a national effort to improve the quality of care and education for the youngest learners. City officials want to address an academic achievement gap between children from poor and middle-class families that research shows is already evident by the age of 18 months.

And what exactly did the city government propose to achieve these nice-sounding goals?

They’ve imposed “new licensing regulations…for child-care centers” that will mandate college degrees.

The District set the minimum credential for lead teachers as an associate degree… The deadline to earn the degree is December 2020. New regulations also call for child-care center directors to earn a bachelor’s degree and for home care providers and assistant teachers to earn a CDA.

Gee, this sounds nice. Don’t we all want the best-trained staff so that we can get the best outcomes for kids?

Yes, but let’s consider costs and benefits. Especially, as noted in the article, costs that are imposed on people without a lot of money who are working at childcare centers.

…for many child-care workers, often hired with little more than a high school diploma, returning to school is a difficult, expensive proposition with questionable reward. …prospects are slim that a degree will bring a significantly higher income — a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education yields the lowest lifetime earnings of any major.

And poor people without a lot of money who are clients of childcare centers.

Many parents in the District are maxed out, paying among the highest annual tuitions nationally, at $1,800 a month.

And taxpayers who pick up part of the cost.

…government subsidies that help fund care…and generous funding for preschool.

In other words, imposing this kind of mandate will be rather expensive, especially for lower-income Washingtonians who either work at these centers of send their children to them.

That’s the cost side of the equation. Now let’s look at the benefits.

Except there’s no real-world evidence included in the article. Instead, all we get it some theorizing.

…a 2015 report by the National Academies that says the child-care workforce has not kept pace with the science of child development and early learning. From the first days of life, learning is complex and cumulative, the report says. Infants are capable of abstract thought, forming theories about what is happening in the physical world and whom to trust. Scientists concluded that teachers need the skills and insight to offer the kinds of learning experiences that challenge them and make them feel safe. They need tools to diagnose and intervene when they see learning or emotional problems. And they need literacy skills to introduce young learners to an expansive vocabulary, exposure many children do not have at home and are not getting in day care.

Scott Shackford of Reason is appropriately skeptical about this regulatory scheme.

Scientists say that higher education for pre-school child-care workers is a good idea. So of course D.C. is going to make it mandatory that child-care workers get associate’s degrees and completely screw over an entire class of lower-skilled workers. …The news story doesn’t engage in the question of why parents can’t decide for themselves how important it is for their child-care workers to have advanced degrees. Perhaps that’s because early education advocates might not like the answers, once the realities of the likely cost increases get factored in. …such a subsidy plan would not do much for lower-income families. And so not only would poorer families be even less able to afford child care, they’re also going to be locked out of jobs within the industry itself.

Though he does identify one group that would benefit.

To be sure, this D.C. law is a jobs program—it’s a jobs program for people who work in the field of post-secondary education itself. Nothing like using a regulatory mandate to create a demand for your educational services that might not exist otherwise. The story makes it abundantly clear that advocates for increased education of child-care workers—who, wouldn’t you know it, work in the field of education—want to spread this program well beyond D.C.’s borders.

And there’s another group of beneficiaries. The new DC regulations will be good news for childcare workers who already have college degrees. That’s because the city government is using a form of licensing to force competing workers out of the market (as Scott pointed out, the new rules “screw over…lower-skilled workers”). And that means that the college-educated workers will have more ability to extract higher salaries.

Just as unions urge higher minimum-wage mandates in order to undermine competition from other workers.

In other words, this is a classic “public choice” case study of a couple of interest groups using government coercion to unfairly line their pockets.

Answering a Silly Question: Of Course Government-Coerced Family Leave Is Anti-Market and Pro-Big Government

Sun, 04/02/2017 - 12:15pm

Donald Trump wants the federal government to subsidize child care. If enacted, this policy is sure to increase costs and lead to inefficiency, just as similar types of intervention have caused problems in both healthcare and higher education.

While Trump’s proposal is misguided, it hasn’t generated much surprise because politicians routinely try to buy votes with other people’s money.

I was surprised, however, when the normally market-friendly American Enterprise Institute began to publish articles starting a few years ago in support of government policies on the related issue of paid family leave. I was even more surprised when I saw that AEI teamed up with the left-leaning Brookings Institution on a joint “Project on Paid Parental Leave.”

And I’m not the only one who is perplexed that someone at AEI is pushing one of Hillary Clinton’s favorite policies. In a comment on one of the AEI articles, a reader asks a very pointed question.

…why, exactly, a purported conservative think-tank would like to impose a one-size-fits-all, top-down national policy upon all businesses in all states, regardless of cost, on the flimsy argument that ‘It’s a good thing.’

Aparna Mathur, AEI’s Co-Directors of the Project, has an article responding to the question of whether intervention from Washington can be considered pro-freedom or pro-market.

To her credit, she basically admits that the answer is no.

I see your point that encouraging a federal paid family leave plan goes against the idea of limited government. …we don’t think markets are the end-all solution here… If we don’t intervene, then that’s how it’s going to continue. …I also agree with your point that this will be a burden on businesses. …we have to be open to the idea that in some areas, markets fail or may under-provide a benefit. And in those cases, for the larger good of society…, we need to accept some sharing of costs.

But while she admits the policy is statist, she nonetheless justifies it because there ostensibly is a market failure.

I’m temped to explain why this is nonsense. After all, the fact that we can’t have everything we want because of scarcity and trade-offs is one of the reasons market exist, not evidence of failure.

But I don’t need to explain because one of Ms. Mathur’s colleagues already has done the job. Here’s some of what Benjamin Zycher wrote on this topic.

There are no free lunches, and the mere fact that expanded paid leave in isolation would be very nice for some or many workers says little about the unavoidable tradeoffs.  Would a given worker or group of workers prefer more such leave combined with lower explicit wages, or with fewer other nonwage benefits, or with employer demands for higher productivity? …with respect to the new moms returning to work soon after giving birth: Was that not their choice?  Yes, in almost all cases, and it is not clear from Mathur’s discussion precisely why such costs ought to be “shared across society.” …Whatever “socializing the costs” comes to mean, it is inevitable that the proponents of such a policy, unconcerned with the expansion of government power, will demand that businesses give something up…  So much again, for the free-lunch atmospherics: Such increases in costs will reduce employment… Which brings us to the final assertion: “In some areas, markets fail or may underprovide a benefit.”  Wow.  What does “underprovide” mean?  …there are only two basic approaches to answering that question.  The first: the outcomes emerging from competitive markets, in this case the amount of paid leave employers offer to employees and the amount that employees are willing to accept as part of total compensation, including working conditions defined broadly.  Mathur simply rejects that outcome as too little.  The second: Political determination of the appropriate amount of paid leave, in which majorities impose their will on everyone regardless of individual preferences.  Why stop at paid leave?  Why not have voters determine wages, vacation policies, dress codes, and everything else?  And are voters really qualified to do so?

I especially like Zycher’s final point. The notion that 51 percent of people should be able to dictate the terms of contracts to both employers and employees is offensive.

Indeed, rejection of untrammeled majoritarianism was one of the main goals of America’s Founders when they put together the Constitution.

And since we’re on the topic of majoritarianism, Professor Don Boudreaux explains that favorable opinion polls for mandated parental leave are both irrelevant and misleading.

Of course that’s what the polls show – which is precisely why such polls are unreliable in cases such as this.  We need take no polls to discover that people generally prefer to get benefits at a cost to them of nothing.  Such ‘information’ is hardly newsworthy.  …I want, for example, a brand new Mercedes-Maybach S600, but because I’m unwilling to pay the hefty price for the benefit that owning such a car would give to me, the correct conclusion is that I do not really want such a car given its cost.

In other words, Boudreaux and Zycher both agree that there’s no free lunch. Paid leave, mandated by government, necessarily imposes a cost.

And what’s really ironic about this issue is that some honest female analysts acknowledge that women will bear a lot of the cost. Simply stated, employers will provide them lower cash wages to offset the liability that is created by the government intervention.

P.S. To the credit of AEI, it employs one of the nation’s best scholars on the faux issue of the gender pay gap (and you know it’s a fake issue because even Obama’s economic advisor dismissed the silly claim that markets deliberately overpay men).

A Six-Figure Welfare Fraud Horror Story

Sat, 04/01/2017 - 12:00pm

Certain redistribution programs are called “entitlements” because anybody who meets various criteria is “entitled” to automatically get money or other benefits.

Economists worry that such programs (particularly the “means-tested” entitlements) create perverse incentives since some people will choose to work less and earn less in order to maximize the amount of handouts they receive. Such behavior is immoral, but understandable. People learn that if they make sacrifices and work more, the reward is taxation, whereas if they work less (or not at all), the reward is freebies from the government.

And the problem presumably is worse in places where there is a greater amount of redistribution (if you’re curious, here’s the data on which states and countries have the most profligate package of benefits).

But the problem goes beyond simply luring people into idleness with bad incentives. When politicians create programs that give away money, they also create opportunities for outright fraud. Which is a pervasive problem, as illustrated by these examples.

Let’s travel to Minnesota to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Minnesota’s Pioneer Press reports on a government audit that found one-third of welfare recipients improperly received handouts.

A review by Minnesota’s legislative auditor has found that some of Minnesota’s welfare programs do a poor job of ensuring benefits don’t go to ineligible people… It found significant error rates in the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, which provides cash and other benefits to low-income families with children. …the audit found eight of 24 families it reviewed weren’t eligible for benefits they received.

That’s not a large sample size, so we don’t know if the actual overall error rate is higher or lower than 33 percent, but the audit certainly suggests that there is a major problem.

It’s also not clear how much of the problem is caused by accident and how much is caused by fraud. Presumably the latter, but it’s quite possible that some people aren’t knowingly bilking the system.

But in some cases, there’s no ambiguity. The Sun has a horror story about a stunning case of welfare fraud.

Fozia Dualeh, 39, was charged with felony theft in Anoka County District Court, as prosecutors say she received $118,000 in government aid over roughly an 18 month period. According to the complaint, Dualeh exploited three public benefit programs from January 2015 to August 2015 which included $24,176 in food support, $85,582 in child care assistance and $8,996 in medical assistance overpayments.

Wow, almost $120K over 1-1/2 years. That’s an impressive haul, though perhaps not too surprising given the dozens of handout programs that – when combined – make idleness relatively lucrative.

In any event, Ms. Dualeh claimed she was eligible for that huge package of handouts because her husband was no longer part of the family.

But that wasn’t true.

A search of the home by authorities in late October 2015 led to the discovery of Dualeh’s husband, who is also the children’s father, Abdikhadar Ismail, hiding under a blanket in the master bedroom, charges said. Several articles of mens clothing were found in a chest, as well as numerous documents and mail throughout the home belonging to Ismail. Ismail also listed the family’s address on two vehicles and with his employer, a residential health care business.

Given the large sums of money involved, the Center of the American Experiment probably deserves an award for most-understated headline on this issue.

Though at the risk of being a pedantic libertarian, I would prefer if the headline said “Lucrative” instead of “Profitable.” After all, as Walter Williams has explained that profit is a meritorious reward for serving others.

But we can all probably agree that Ms. Dualeh deserves membership in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

P.S. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Dualeh was introduced to the welfare system thanks to America’s poorly designed refugee program.

P.P.S. On the broader issue of redistribution and economics, this Wizard-of-Id parody contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

Six Sobering Charts about America’s Grim Future from CBO’s New Report on the Long-Run Fiscal Outlook

Fri, 03/31/2017 - 12:17pm

I sometimes feel like a broken record about entitlement programs. How many times, after all, can I point out that America is on a path to become a decrepit European-style welfare state because of a combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs?

But I can’t help myself. I feel like I’m watching a surreal version of Titanic where the captain and crew know in advance that the ship will hit the iceberg, yet they’re still allowing passengers to board and still planning the same route. And in this dystopian version of the movie, the tickets actually warn the passengers that tragedy will strike, but most of them don’t bother to read the fine print because they are distracted by the promise of fancy buffets and free drinks.

We now have the book version of this grim movie. It’s called The 2017 Long-Term Budget Outlook and it was just released by the Congressional Budget Office.

If you’re a fiscal policy wonk, it’s an exciting publication. If you’re a normal human being, it’s a turgid collection of depressing data.

But maybe, just maybe, the data is so depressing that both the electorate and politicians will wake up and realize something needs to change.

I’ve selected six charts and images from the new CBO report, all of which highlight America’s grim fiscal future.

The first chart simply shows where we are right now and where we will be in 30 years if policy is left on autopilot. The most important takeaway is that the burden of government spending is going to increase significantly.

 

Interestingly, even CBO openly acknowledges that rising levels of red ink are caused solely by the fact that spending is projected to increase faster than revenue.

 

And it’s also worth noting that revenues are going up, even without any additional tax increases.

The bottom part of this chart shows that revenues from the income tax will climb by about 2 percent of GDP. In other words, more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal mess is due to higher levels of government spending. So it’s absurd to thinkthe solution should involve higher taxes.

 

This next image digs into the details. We can see that the spending burden is rising because of Social Security and the health entitlements. By the way, the top middle column on “other noninterest spending” shows one thing that is real, which is that defense spending has fallen as a share of GDP since the mid-1960s, and one thing that may not be real, which is that politicians somehow will limit domestic discretionary spending over the next three decades.

This bottom left part of the image also gives the details on built-in growth in revenues from the income tax, further underscoring that we don’t have a problem of inadequate revenue.

 

Here’s a chart that shows that our main problem is Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

 

Last but not least, here’s a graphic that shows the amount of fiscal policy changes that would be needed to either reduce or stabilize government debt.

I think that’s the wrong goal, and that instead the focus should be on reducing or stabilizing the burden of government spending, but I’m sharing this chart because it shows that spending would have to be lowered by 3.1 percent of GDP to put the nation on a good fiscal path.

Some folks think that might be impossible, but I’ll simply point out that the five-year de facto spending freeze that we achieved from 2009-2014 actually reduced the burden of government spending by a greater amount. In other words, the payoff from genuine spending restraint is enormous.

 

The bottom line is very simple.

We need to invoke my Golden Rule so that government grows slower than the private sector. In the long run, that will require genuine entitlement reform.

Or we can let America become Greece.

A Big Benefit of Real Tax Reform Is Ending the Bias for Debt over Equity

Thu, 03/30/2017 - 12:31pm

There are many powerful arguments for junking the internal revenue code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax.

  1. It is good to have lower tax rates in order to encourage more productive behavior.
  2. It is good to get rid of double taxation in order to enable saving and investment.
  3. It is good the end distorting preferences in order to reduce economically irrational decisions.

Today, let’s review a feature of good tax reform that involves the second and third bullet points.

Under current law, there is double taxation of corporate income. This means that companies must pay a tax on income, but that the income is then taxed a second time when distributed to the owners of the company (i.e., shareholders).

This means that the effective tax rate is a combination of the corporate income tax rate and the tax rate imposed on dividends. And this higher tax rate is an example of why double taxation discourages capital formation and thus leads to lower wages.

But this double taxation of dividends also creates a distortion because there isn’t double taxation of corporate income that is distributed to bondholders. This means companies have a significant tax-driven incentive to rely on debt, which is risky for them and the overall economy.

Curtis Dubay has a very straightforward explanation of the problem.

In debt financing, a business raises money by issuing debt, usually by selling a bond. In equity financing, a business raises funds by selling a share in the business through the sale of stock. The tax system provides a relative advantage to financing capital expenditures through debt because under current tax law, businesses can deduct their interest payments on the debt instruments, but dividend payments to shareholders are not deductible. Thus, equity is disadvantaged because it is double taxed while debt correctly faces only a single layer of taxation.

By the way, when public finance people write that something is “not deductible” or non-deductible, that simply means it is subject to the tax (much as the non-deductibility of imports under the BAT is simply another way of saying there will be a tax levied on all imports).

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the analysis. Curtis then explains why it doesn’t make sense to create an incentive for debt.

The double tax on equity makes debt a relatively more attractive way for businesses to finance themselves, all else equal. As a result, businesses will take on more debt than they otherwise might. …This is a serious problem because carrying significant amounts of debt can make businesses less stable during periods when profitability declines. Interest payments on debt are a fixed cost that businesses must pay regardless of their performance. This can be onerous and endanger a business’s solvency when profits fall.

He points out that the sensible way of putting debt and equity on a level playing field is by getting rid of the double tax on dividends, not by imposing a second layer of tax on interest.

…it does not make sense to equalize their tax treatment by eliminating interest deductibility for businesses. Doing so would further suppress economic growth, job creation, and wage increases. Instead, Congress should end the double taxation of income earned through equity financing in tax reform by eliminating taxes on saving and investment, including capital gains and dividends.

Incidentally, what Curtis wrote isn’t some sort of controversial right-wing theory. It’s well understood by every public finance economist.

The International Monetary Fund, for instance, is generally on the left on fiscal issues (and that’s an understatement). Yet in a study published by the IMF, Ruud A. de Mooij outlines the dangers of tax-induced debt.

Most tax systems today contain a “debt bias,” offering a tax advantage for corporations to finance their investments by debt. …One cannot compellingly argue for giving tax preferences to debt based on legal, administrative, or economic considerations. The evidence shows, rather, that debt bias creates significant inequities, complexities, and economic distortions. For instance, it has led to inefficiently high debt-to-equity ratios in corporations. It discriminates against innovative growth firms, impeding stronger economic growth. … recent developments suggest that its costs to public welfare are larger—possibly much larger—than previously thought. …The economic crisis has also made clear the harmful economic effects of excessive levels of debt… These insights make it more urgent to tackle debt bias by means of tax policy reform.

What’s the solution?

Well, just as Curtis Dubay explained, there are two options.

What can be done to mitigate debt bias in the tax code? In a nutshell, it will require either reducing the tax deductibility of interest or introducing similar deductions for equity returns.

And the author of the IMF study agree with Curtis that the way to create neutrality between equity and debt is by using the latter approach.

Abolishing interest deductibility would indeed eliminate debt bias, but it would also introduce new distortions into investment, and implementing it would be very difficult. …The second option, introducing a deduction for corporate equity, has better prospects. …such an allowance would bring other important economic benefits, such as increased investment, higher wages, and higher economic growth.

And Mooij even acknowledges that there’s a Laffer Curve argument for getting rid of the double tax on dividends.

The main obstacle is probably its cost to public revenues, estimated at around 0.5 percent of GDP for an average developed country. …In the long term, the budgetary cost is expected to be significantly smaller, since the favorable economic effects of the policy change would broaden the overall tax base. And in fact, a number of countries have successfully introduced variants of the allowance for corporate equity, suggesting that it is not only conceptually desirable but also practically feasible.

Another study from the International Monetary Fund, authored by Mooij and  Shafik Hebous, highlights the damage caused by luring companies into taking on excessive debt.

Excessive corporate debt levels are a serious macroeconomic stability concern. For instance, high debt can increase the probability of a firm’s bankruptcy in case of an adverse shock… Given this concern about excessive corporate debt, it is hard to understand why almost all tax systems around the world encourage the use of corporate debt over equity. Indeed, most corporate income tax (CIT) systems allow interest expenses, but not returns to equity, to be deducted in calculating corporate tax liability. This asymmetry stimulates corporations to use debt over equity to finance investment.

We get the same explanation of how to address the inequity in the tax treatment of debt and equity.

Effectively, there are two ways in which debt bias can be neutralized: either by treating equity more similar as debt by adding an allowance for corporate equity (ACE); or by treating debt more similar for taxation as equity by denying interest deductibility for corporations.

And we get the same solution. Stop double taxing dividends.

ACE systems have been quite widely advocated by economists and implemented in some countries, such as Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey. Evaluations generally suggest that these systems have been effective in reducing debt bias… Yet, many countries are still reluctant to introduce an ACE due to the expected revenue loss.

By the way, the distortionary damage becomes greater when tax rates are onerous.

A recent academic study addresses the added damage of extra debt that occurs when tax rates are high.

For a country like the United States with a relatively high corporate income tax rate (a statutory federal rate of 35%), theory argues that firms in this country should have significant leverage. …The objective of our study is to estimate how much such variation in tax structure arising from global operations explains the variation in capital structure that we observe among US publicly traded multinational firms. …We employ the BEA’s multinational firm data and augment it with international tax data… Using our calculated weighted average tax rate, we include otherwise identified explanatory variables for capital structure and estimate in a multivariate regression setting how much our blended tax rate measure improves our understanding of why capital structure varies across firms and, to a lesser extent, across time. …Economically, this coefficient corresponds to a 7.1% higher book leverage ratio for a firm with a 35% average tax rate over the sample period compared to an otherwise identical firm with a 25% average tax rate. These results demonstrate that, contrary to some of the earlier literature finding that tax effects were negligible, firms that persistently confront high tax rates have significantly more debt, both economically and statistically, than otherwise equivalent firms who persistently face lower corporate income tax rates. …Irrespective of whether we examine leverage ratios based on book values or market values, whether we include cash or not, or if we alternatively examine interest coverage, we find that multinational firms confronting lower tax rates use less debt. The results are not only statistically significant, but the coefficient magnitudes suggest that these effects are first order

There’s some academic jargon in the above excerpt, so I’ll also include this summary of the paper from the Tax Foundation.

A new paper published in the Journal of Financial Economics finds that countries with high tax rates on corporate income also have higher corporate leverage ratios. …Using survey data of multinational corporations from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the authors…find that businesses that report their income in high tax jurisdictions have corporate leverage ratios that are substantially higher than those in low tax jurisdictions. More precisely, they find that a business facing an average tax rate of 35% has a leverage ratio that is 7.1% higher than a similar firm facing an average tax rate of 25%.

By the way, here are the results from another IMF study by Mooij about how the debt bias is connected to high tax rates.

We find that, typically, a one percentage point higher tax rate increases the debt-asset ratio by between 0.17 and 0.28. Responses are increasing over time, which suggests that debt bias distortions have become more important.

The bottom line is that the U.S. corporate tax rate is far too high. And when you combine that punitive rate with a distortionary preference for debt over equity, the net result is that we have companies burdened by too much debt, which puts them (and the overall economy) in danger when there’s a downturn.

So the obvious solution (beyond simply lowering the corporate rate, which should be a given) is to get rid of the double tax on dividends.

The good news is that Republicans want to move in that direction.

The not-so-good news is that they are not using the ideal approach. As I noted last year, the “Better Way Plan” proposed by House Republicans is sub-optimal on this issue.

Under current law, companies can deduct the interest they pay and recipients of interest income must pay tax on those funds. This actually is correct treatment, particularly when compared to dividends, which are not deductible to companies (meaning they pay tax on those funds) while also being taxable for recipients. The House GOP plan gets rid of the deduction for interest paid. Combined with the 50 percent exclusion for individual capital income, that basically means the income is getting taxed 1-1/2 times. But that rule would apply equally for shareholders and bondholders, so that pro-debt bias in the tax code would be eliminated.

For what it’s worth, I suggest this approach was acceptable, not only because the debt bias was eliminated, but also because of the other reforms in the plan.

…the revenue generated by disallowing any deduction for interest would be used for pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate.

Though I can’t say the same thing about the border-adjustability provision, which is a poison pill for tax reform.

Republicans Need to Learn from Ronald Reagan that Good Policy Is Good Politics

Wed, 03/29/2017 - 12:59pm

For three decades, I’ve been trying to convince politicians to adopt good policy. I give them theoretical reasons why it’s a good idea to have limited government. I share with them empirical evidence demonstrating the superiority of free markets over statism. And I’m probably annoyingly relentless about disseminating examples of good and bad policy from around the world (my version of “teachable moments”).

But if you want to get a politician to do the right thing, you need more than theory, data, and real-world case studies. You need to convince them – notwithstanding my Second Theorem of Government – that good policy won’t threaten their reelection.

My usual approach is to remind them that Ronald Reagan adopted a bunch of supposedly unpopular policies, yet he got reelected in a landslide because reducing the burden of government allowed the private sector to grow much faster. George H.W. Bush, by contrast, became a one-term blunder because his tax increase and other statist policies undermined the economy’s performance.

I’m hoping this argument will resonate with some of my friends who are now working in the White House. And I don’t rely on vague hints. In this clip from a recent interview, I bluntly point out that good policy is good politics because a faster-growing economy presumably will have a big impact on the 2020 election.

Here’s another clip from that same interview, where I point out that the GOP’s repeal-and-replace legislation was good news in that it got rid of a lot of the misguided taxes and spending that were part of Obamacare.

But the Republican plan did not try to fix the government-imposed third-party-payer distortions that causes healthcare to be so expensive and inefficient. And I pointed out at the end of this clip that Republicans would have been held responsible as the system got even more costly and bureaucratic.

Now let’s shift to fiscal policy.

Here’s a clip from an interview about Trump’s budget. I’m happy about some of the specific reductions (see here, here, and here), but I grouse that there’s no attempt to fix entitlements and I’m also unhappy that the reductions in domestic discretionary spending are used to benefit the Pentagon rather than taxpayers.

The latter half of the above interview is about the corruption that defines the Washington swamp. Yes, it’s possible that Trump could use the “bully pulpit” to push Congress in the right direction, but I wish I had more time to emphasize that shrinking the overall size of government is the only way to really “drain the swamp.”

And since we’re talking about good policy and good politics, here’s a clip from another interview.

Back when the stock market was climbing, I suggested it was a rather risky move for Trump to say higher stock values were a referendum on the benefits of his policies. After all, what goes up can go down.

The hosts acknowledge that the stock market may decline in the short run, but they seem optimistic in the long run based on what happened during the Reagan years.

But this brings me back to my original point. Yes, Reagan’s policies led to a strong stock market. His policies also produced rising levels of median household income. Moreover, the economy boomed and millions of jobs were created. These were among the reasons he was reelected in a landslide.

But these good things weren’t random. They happened because Reagan made big positive changes in policy. He tamed inflation. He slashed tax rates. He substantially reduced the burden of domestic spending. He curtailed red tape.

In other words, there was a direct connection between good policy, good economy, and good political results. Indeed, let’s enshrine this relationship in a “Fourth Theorem of Government.”

 

For what it’s worth, Reagan also demonstrated leadership, enacting all those pro-growth reforms over the vociferous opposition of various interest groups.

Will Trump’s reform be that bold and that brave? His proposed 15-percent corporate tax rate deserves praise, and he seems serious about restraining the regulatory state, but he will need to do a lot more if he wants to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Not only will he need more good policies, but he’ll also need to ditch some of the bad policies (childcare subsidies, infrastructure pork, carried-interest capital gains tax hike, etc) that would increase the burden of government.

The jury is still out, but I’m a bit pessimistic on the final verdict.

A Weak Defense of FATCA

Tue, 03/28/2017 - 3:25pm

The FACT Coalition’s Clark Gascoigne yesterday attacked efforts to repeal FATCA as intended to “defend tax evaders.” Most generously, his arguments might be considered extremely naive, but many come across as mendacious spin. Nevertheless, I will address his points and explain why they are mistaken.

FATCA is a sensible transparency initiative — adopted in 2010 with overwhelmingly bipartisan support (70 to 28) — which, while modest in scope, began a global movement to protect honest taxpayers from those who shirk their civic responsibilities.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First up is the ongoing effort to brand the erosion of privacy rights as merely promoting “transparency.” It is a practice of good government for institutions to be transparent and open to the people. It is a practice of tyranny for individuals to be made transparent to the government. These concepts should not be confused. Privacy is essential to protecting rights against government overreach and abuse.

Next, FATCA is hardly a bipartisan initiative. It was thrown into the unrelated HIRE Act—a so-called jobs bill—as a “pay-for” at a time when Congress was desperate to show action combating the economic downturn resulting from the financial crisis. It’s highly unlikely that more than a handful of legislators at the time even knew what FATCA was about, other than that it raised a small sum of money, much less carefully considered the means by which it did so.

Today, there’s no question that FATCA lacks bipartisan support. FATCA repeal has been adopted by the Republican Party platform, and no Republican has stepped up to defend it. This is understandable considering what we know about the destruction it has wrought across the globe.

To clarify, FACTA adds no additional burdens on U.S. taxpayers.  It does not change the amount of tax owed nor create any new liability.  It simply helps to prevent cheating.

This argument is completely off base. FATCA did not raise or impose new taxes, it is true. But to suggest that taxes themselves are the only ways in which taxpayers can be burdened by the government is absurd.

FATCA created the privacy-invading Form 8938 for individuals, which requires reporting of total assets held overseas under threat of significant penalty, and which clearly constitutes a “burden.” Moreover, FATCA’s unintended consequences have dramatically burdened Americans banking overseas, especially those who live abroad, and even created a whole class of FATCA victims who shouldn’t owe U.S. tax at all, so-called “accidental Americans.” Many Americans have been shut out of financial institutions that are fed up with the financial costs which FATCA has attached to accepting Americans as clients. It’s no surprise that renunciations of U.S. citizenship skyrocketed after FATCA was adopted.

Even the IRS’ own Taxpayer Advocate has acknowledged the heavy burdens that have been created by FATCA.

Tax dodging is a serious problem. Offshore tax evasion by individuals is estimated to cost law-abiding taxpayers between $35 billion and $70 billion per year.  Surely, the WSJ doesn’t believe in letting wealthy tax cheats hide offshore, while the rest of us must pay full freight?

Simply identifying a problem is not enough to make a case for a specific policy response. It is typical of FATCA supporters to expect that citing the boogeyman of tax evasion is all that is needed to justify the unilateral imposition of FATCA on the rest of the world. But this doesn’t attempt to identify whether FATCA even helps with tax evasion, much less to weigh the purported benefits against its significant costs.

In addition to highlighting FATCA’s burdens, the IRS Taxpayer Advocate also acknowledged that “The weight of FATCA is being felt not by tax evaders, but by U.S. taxpayers who likely would be compliant regardless.” As for singling out overseas Americans, she also admitted that those targeted by FATCA “are generally at least as compliant as the overall U.S. taxpayer population.”

If the tax haven lobby and The Wall Street Journal believe that wealthy citizens are paying too much in taxes, then we should have an honest discussion about the tax rate.  However, once we set a rate, people should pay what they owe.

If the tax grabber lobby wants to have an honest discussion about tax enforcement, they have to be willing to acknowledge that there are costs. No matter how much one dislikes tax evasion, it must be admitted at some point that not every legally owed dollar can be collected.

It would make no sense, for instance, to spend $10 to collect $1, nor to curtail basic liberties to squeeze out a few more percentage points of tax compliance. That’s especially true when there are much easier ways to increase compliance—namely, by simplifying the tax code and lowering rates. By ignoring the cost side of the equation completely, and even worse, pretending despite considerable evidence that there are no downsides to FATCA, the FACT Coalition has demonstrated that “honest discussion” is the last thing it hopes to achieve.

 

 

The Paris-Based OECD (Financed by American Tax Dollars) Urges Bigger Government in the United States

Tue, 03/28/2017 - 12:29pm

I wrote yesterday about how the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is pushing for bigger government in China. That’s a remarkable bit of economic malpractice by the Paris-based international bureaucracy, especially since China is only ranked #113 in the latest scorecard from Economic Freedom of the World. The country very much needs smaller government to become rich, yet the OECD is preaching more statism.

But nobody should be surprised. The OECD, perhaps because its membership is dominated by European welfare states, has a dismal track record of reflexive support for bigger government.

It supports higher taxes and bigger government in Asia, in Latin America, and…yes, you guessed correctly…the United States.

And here’s the latest example. In a new publication, OECD bureaucrats recommend policy changes that ostensibly will produce more growth for the United States. Basically, America should become more like France.

Income inequality has continued to widen… Public infrastructure is not keeping pace… Promote mass transit… Implement usage fees based on distance travelled…to help fund transportation… Expand federal programmes designed to improve access to fixed broadband. …Expand funding for reskilling… Require paid parental leave… Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and raise the minimum wage.

To be fair, not every recommendation involves bigger government.

Adopt legislation that cuts the statutory marginal corporate income tax rate…

But even that single concession to good policy is matched by proposals to squeeze more money from the private sector.

…and broaden the tax base. …Continue with measures to prevent base erosion and profit shifting.

By the way, even though European nations dominate the OECD’s membership, American taxpayers provide the largest share of funding for the OECD.

In other words, we’re paying more taxes to have a bunch of international bureaucrats urge that we get hit with even higher taxes. And to add insult to injury, OECD bureaucrats are exempt from paying taxes!

Maybe that’s why they’re so blind to the harmful impact of bad tax policy.

It’s especially discouraging that the bureaucrats are even advocating greater levels of discriminatory taxation of saving and investment. Here are some blurbs from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The Paris-based think tank has just junked the conventional economic wisdom on tax it had been promoting for years. …“For the past 30 years we’ve been saying don’t try to tax capital more because you’ll lose it, you’ll lose investment. Well this argument is dead…,” Pascal Saint-Amans, the OECD’s tax chief, said in an interview. …Since the 1970s economists had argued capital income should be taxed relatively lightly because it was more mobile across countries and attracting investment would boost economic growth, ultimately benefiting everyone.

Actually, the argument on not over-taxing capital income is based on the merits of a neutral tax system that doesn’t undermine growth by punishing saving and investment.

The fact that capital is “mobile across countries” was something that constrained politicians from imposing bad tax policy. In other words, tax competition promoted better (or less worse) policy.

But now that tax havens and tax competition have been weakened, politicians are pushing tax rates higher. And the OECD is cheering this destructive development.

Here are some passages from the OECD report on this topic.

…there have been calls to move away from a narrow focus on economic growth towards a greater emphasis on inclusiveness. …Inclusive economic growth…implies that the benefits of increased prosperity and productivity are shared more evenly between people… More specifically with regard to tax policy, inclusive economic growth is related to managing tradeoffs between equity and efficiency. Growth-enhancing tax reforms might come at certain costs in terms of meeting equity goals so tax design for inclusive growth requires taking into account the distributional implications of tax policies.

In other words, the OECD wants to shift away from policies that lead to a growing economic pie and instead fixate on how to re-slice and redistribute a stagnant pie.

And here’s a flowchart from the OECD report. Keep in mind that “inclusive growth” actually means less growth. I’ve helpfully put red stars next to the items that involve more transfers of money from the productive sector of the economy to the government.

That flowchart shows what the OECD wants.

But if you want a real-world example, just look at Greece, France, and Italy.

Which brings me to my final point. To be blunt, it’s crazy that American taxpayers are subsidizing a left-wing overseas bureaucracy like the OECD.

If Republicans have any brains and integrity (I realize that’s asking a lot), they should immediately pull the plug on subsidies for the Paris-based bureaucracy. Sure, it’s only about $100 million per year, but – on a per-dollar spent basis – it’s probably the most destructive spending in the entire budget.

P.S. The OECD even wants a type of World Tax Organization.

China Won’t Become a Rich Nation if it Follows the OECD’s Bad Advice

Mon, 03/27/2017 - 12:06pm

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has published a 136-page “Economic Survey” of China.

My first reaction is to wonder why the Paris-based bureaucracy needs any publication, much less such a long document, when Economic Freedom of the World already publishes an annual ranking that precisely and concisely identifies the economic strengths and weaknesses of various nations.

A review of the EFW data would quickly show that China doesn’t do a good job in any area, but that the nation’s biggest problems are a bloated public sector and a suffocating regulatory burden.

Though it’s worth noting that China’s mediocre scores today are actually a big improvement. Back in 1980, before China began to liberalize, it received a dismal score of 3.64 (on a 1-10 scale). Today’s 6.45 score isn’t great, but there’s been a big step in the right direction.

One of the most impressive changes is that the score for the trade category has jumped from 2.72 to 6.78 (i.e., moving from protectionism toward open trade is good for growth).

I cite this EFW data because part of me wonders why the OECD couldn’t be more efficient and simply put out a 5-page document that urges reforms – such as a spending cap and deregulation – that would address China’s biggest weaknesses?

To be fair, though, the number of pages isn’t what matters. It’s the quality of the analysis and advice. So let’s dig into the OECD’s China Survey and see whether it provides a road map for greater Chinese prosperity.

But before looking at recommendations, let’s start with some good news. This chart shows a dramatic reduction in poverty and it is one of the most encouraging displays of data I’ve ever seen.

Keep in mind, by the way, that China’s economic statistics may not be fully trustworthy. And it’s also worth noting that China’s rural poverty measure of CNY2300 is less than $350 per year.

Notwithstanding these caveats, it certainly appears that there’s been a radical reduction in genuine material deprivation in China. That’s a huge triumph for the partial economic liberalization we see in the EFW numbers.

Now let’s see whether the OECD is suggesting policies that will generate more positive charts in future years.

The good news is that the bureaucrats are mostly sensible on regulatory matters and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Here are a few excerpts from the document’s executive summary.

Business creation has been made easier through the removal and unification of licenses. …Gradually remove guarantees to SOEs and other public entities to reduce contingent liabilities. …Reduce state ownership in commercially oriented…sectors. Let unviable SOEs go bankrupt, notably in sectors suffering from over-capacity.

The bad news is that the OECD wants the government to increase China’s fiscal burden. I’m not joking.

Policy reforms can greatly enhance the redistributive impact of the tax-and-transfer system. …Increase central and provincial government social assistance transfers…increase tax progressivity. Implement a broad-based nationwide recurrent tax on immovable property and consider an inheritance tax.

This is bad advice for any nation at any point, but it’s especially misguided for China because of looming demographic change.

Here’s another chart from the report. It shows a staggering four-fold increase in the share of old people relative to working-age people in the country.

This chart should be setting off alarm bells. The Chinese government should be taking steps to lower the burden of government spending and implement personal retirement accounts so there will be real savings to finance this demographic shift.

But the OECD report actually encourages less savings and more redistribution.

…rebalancing of the economy towards consumption is key. …Social infrastructure needs to be further developed…and the tax and transfer system made more progressive. …tax exemptions on interest from government bonds and savings accounts at Chinese banks could be abolished…introduction of inheritance tax.

What’s especially noteworthy is that the personal income tax in China (as is the case in almost all developing nations) only collects a trivial amount of revenue.

In 2016, PIT revenue amounted to 1.4 percent of GDP.

So why not do something bold and pro-growth, such as abolish that repugnant levy and make China a beacon for entrepreneurship and investment?

Needless to say, that’s not a recommendation you’ll find in a report from the pro-tax OECD.

And given the bureaucracy’s dismal track record, you won’t be surprised that there’s lots of rhetoric about the supposed problem of inequality, all of which is used to justify higher taxes and more redistribution.

The OECD instead should focus on growth and poverty mitigation, goals that naturally lend themselves to pro-market reforms.

Which brings me to the thing that’s always been baffling. Why doesn’t China simply copy the ultra-successful policies of Hong Kong, which has been a “special administrative region” of China for two decades?

Hong Kong has the policies – a spending capvery little redistribution, open trade, private Social Security, etc – that China needs to become a rich nation.

If the leadership in Beijing has been wise enough to leave Hong Kong’s policies in place, why haven’t they been astute enough to apply them to the entire country?

Every so often, I think China is moving in that direction, only to then come across reasons to be pessimistic.

P.S. The OECD’s China report was predictably disappointing, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the IMF’s report on China, which I characterized half-jokingly as a declaration of economic war.

Some Good News about Much-Needed Reforms to Protect Americans from Civil Asset Forfeiture

Sun, 03/26/2017 - 12:48pm

Some types of theft are legal in America.

But there’s a catch. You can only legally steal if you work for the government. It’s a process called “civil asset forfeiture” and it enables government officials to confiscate your property even if you have not been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime.

I’m not joking. This isn’t a snarky reference to the tax system. Nor am I implying that bureaucrats can figuratively steal your property. We’re talking about literal theft by the state.

And it can happen if some government official decides – without any legal proceeding – that the property somehow may have been involved in criminal activity. Or maybe just because you have the wrong skin color.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains this grotesque injustice.

…thousands of Americans have had their assets taken without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Russ Caswell almost lost his Massachusetts motel, which had been run by his family for more than 50 years, because of 15 “drug-related incidents” there from 1994-2008, a period through which he rented out nearly 200,000 rooms. Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers had his entire bank account—roughly $60,000—seized by the IRS, which accused him of running afoul of reporting requirements for cash deposits. …A manager of a Christian rock band had $53,000 in cash—profits from concerts and donations intended for an orphanage in Thailand—seized in Oklahoma after being stopped for a broken taillight. All of the property in these outrageous cases was eventually returned, but only after an arduous process.

These abuses happen in large part because cops are given bad incentives.

Any property they steal from citizens can be used to pad the budgets of police bureaucracies.

Today more than 40 states and the federal government permit law-enforcement agencies to retain anywhere from 45% to 100% of forfeiture proceeds. As a result, forfeiture has practically become an industry.

And real money is involved.

…data on asset forfeiture across 14 states, including California, Texas and New York. Between 2002 and 2013, the revenue from forfeiture more than doubled, from $107 million to $250 million. Federal confiscations have risen even faster. In 1986 the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund collected $93.7 million. In 2014 the number was $4.5 billion.

In other words, there’s a huge incentive for cops to misbehave. It’s called “policing for profit.”

Fortunately, there is a move for reform at the state level.

Since 2014 nearly 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws limiting asset forfeiture or increasing transparency. Nearly 20 other states are considering similar legislation. …lawmakers in Alaska, Connecticut, North Dakota and Texas have sponsored legislation that would send confiscated proceeds directly to the general fund of the state or county. Similar measures in Arizona and Hawaii would restrict forfeiture proceeds to being used to compensate crime victims and their families. …Last fall California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that, in most cases, requires a criminal conviction before any California agency can receive equitable-sharing proceeds. In January Ohio Gov. John Kasich approved legislation to ban his state’s police and prosecutors from transferring seized property to federal agencies unless its value is more than $100,000. Similar reforms have been introduced in Colorado, New Hampshire and a handful of other states.

Legislative reforms are good, though judicial action would be even better.

And, sooner or later, that may happen.

America’s best (but not quite perfect) Supreme Court Justice is justly outraged by these examples of legalized theft. First, some background.

…the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case filed by a Texas woman who says that her due process rights were violated when the police seized over $200,000 in cash from her family despite the fact that no one has been convicted of any underlying crime associated with the money. Unfortunately, thanks to the state’s sweeping civil asset forfeiture laws, the authorities were permitted to take the money of this innocent woman. The Supreme Court offered no explanation today for its refusal to hear the case.

But Justice Thomas is not happy that government officials are allowed to randomly steal property.

Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that he believes the current state of civil asset forfeiture law is fundamentally unconstitutional. “This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas declared. Furthermore, he wrote, the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on the matter are starkly at odds with the Constitution, which “presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation.” Those other doctrines, Thomas noted, impose significant checks on the government, such as heightened standards of proof, various procedural protections, and the right to a trial by jury. Civil asset forfeiture proceedings, by contrast, offer no such constitutional safeguards for the rights of person or property.

The article continues to explain that Thomas could be signaling that the Supreme Court will address these issues in the future, even though it didn’t choose to address the case filed by the Texas woman.

Let’s hope so. It’s heartening that there’s been a bit of good news at the state level (I even wrote that reform of asset forfeiture was one of the best developments of 2015), but it would be nice if the Supreme Court ultimately decided to prohibit civil asset forfeiture altogether.

But that might be years in the future, so let’s close with a very fresh example of a good state-based reform.

The Wall Street Journal favorably opined yesterday about reforms that have been enacted in Mississippi.

…it’s worth highlighting a civil forfeiture reform backed by the ACLU that Mississippi GOP Governor Phil Bryant signed last week with bipartisan legislative support.

The editorial reminds us why asset forfeiture is wrong.

…civil forfeiture laws…allow law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspect to be related to a crime without actually having to obtain a conviction or even submit charges. Police and prosecutors can auction off the property and keep the proceeds to pad their budgets. …Perverse incentives…create a huge potential for abuse.

Here’s what Mississippi did.

Mississippi’s reforms, which were pushed by the Institute for Justice and had nearly unanimous support in the legislature, would curb the most egregious abuses. Law enforcers would have to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours and prosecute within 30 days, so they couldn’t take property while trying to formulate a case. Agencies would also be required to publish a description of the seized property along with its value and petitions contesting the forfeiture to an online public database. …the public will finally be able to police misconduct by law enforcement in criminal raids. That’s something even liberals can cheer.

It’s nice that there’s been reform at the state level, and the Mississippi example is quite encouraging. That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that there may not be much reason to expect progress from the White House since both President Trump and his Attorney General support these arbitrary and unfair confiscations of property.

Which is a shame since they both took oaths to protect Americans from the kind of horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

However, if the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office can change their minds and urge repeal of these unfair laws, maybe there’s hope for Trump and Sessions.

Libertarian Jesus Strikes Again

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 11:00am

It’s time to make a very serious point, albeit with a bit of humor and sarcasm.

A couple of years ago, I shared an image of Libertarian Jesus to make the point that it’s absurd to equate compassion and virtue with government-coerced redistribution.

We all can agree – at least I hope – that it is admirable to help the less fortunate with our own time and/or money. Indeed, I’m proud that Americans are much more likely to be genuinely generous than people from other countries (and it’s also worth noting that people from conservative states are more generous than people from leftist states).

But some of our statist friends go awry when they think it’s also noble and selfless to support higher tax rates and bigger government. How is it compassionate, I ask them, to forcibly give away someone else’s money? Especially when those policies actually undermine progress in the fight against poverty!

With this in mind, here’s another great example of Libertarian Jesus (h/t: Reddit).

 

Amen (pun intended), I’m going to add this to my collection of libertarian humor.

But don’t overlook the serious part of the message. As Cal Thomas succinctly explained, it’s hardly a display of religious devotion when you use coercion to spend other people’s money.

This is why I’ve been critical of Pope Francis. His heart may be in the right place, but he’s misguided about the policies that actually help the less fortunate.

For what it’s worth, it would be helpful if he was guided by the moral wisdom of Walter Williams rather than the destructive statism of Juan Peron.

P.S. I’m rather amused that socialists, when looking for Christmas-themed heroes, could only identify people who practice non-coercive generosity.

P.P.S. On a separate topic, Al Gore blames climate change for Brexit.

Brexit was caused in part by climate change, former US Vice-President Al Gore has said, warning that extreme weather is creating political instability “the world will find extremely difficult to deal with”.

I’m beginning to lose track and get confused. Our statist friends have told us that climate change causes AIDS and terrorism, which are bad things. But now they’re telling us climate change caused Brexit, which is a good thing.

Maybe the real lesson is that Al Gore and his friends are crackpots.

The World’s Most Inefficient Healthcare System, Part II: Created by Government, Financed by Government

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 4:38pm

I’m flabbergasted when people assert that America’s costly and inefficient healthcare system is proof that free markets don’t work.

In hopes of helping them understand what’s really going on, I try to explain to them that an unfettered market involves consumers and producers directly interacting with their own money in an open and competitive environment.

I then explain why that’s not a description of the U.S. system. Not even close. As I noted in Part I, consumers directly finance only 10.5 percent of their healthcare expenses. Everything else involves a third-party payer thanks to government interventions such as Medicare, Medicaid, the healthcare exclusion, the Veterans Administration, etc.

Obamacare then added another layer of intervention to the existing mess. By my rough calculations, that costly boondoggle took the country from having a system that was 68-percent controlled and dictated by government to a system where government dictates and controls 79 percent of the system.

This is very relevant because Republicans in Washington are now trying to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but they’re confronting a very unpleasant reality. Undoing that legislation won’t create a stable, market-driven healthcare system. Instead, we’d only be back to where we were in 2010– a system where government would still be the dominant player and market forces would be almost totally emasculated.

The only difference is that Republicans would then get blamed for everything that goes wrong in the world of healthcare rather than Obama and the Democrats (and you better believe that’s a big part of the decision-making process on Capitol Hill).

Yes, the GOP plan would save some money, which is laudable, but presumably the main goal is to have a sensible and sustainable healthcare system. And that’s not going to happen unless there’s some effort to somehow unravel the overall mess that’s been created by all the misguided government policies that have accumulated over many decades.

This isn’t a new or brilliant observation. Milton Friedman wrote about how government-controlled healthcare leads to higher costs and lower quality back in 1977, but I can’t find an online version of that article, so let’s look at what he said in a 1978 speech to the Mayo Institute.

I realize that many people won’t have 45 minutes of spare time to watch the entire video, so I’ll also provide some excerpts from a column Friedman wrote back in the early 1990s that makes the same points. He started by observing that bureaucratic systems have ever-rising costs combined with ever-declining output.

…a study by Max Gammon…comparing input and output in the British socialized hospital system…found that input had increased sharply, while output had actually fallen. He was led to enunciate what he called “the theory of bureaucratic displacement.” In his words, in “a bureaucratic system . . . increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production. . . . Such systems will act rather like `black holes,’ in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of `emitted production.’” …concern about the rising cost of medical care, and of proposals to do something about it — most involving a further move toward the complete socialization of medicine — reminded me of the Gammon study and led me to investigate whether his law applied to U.S. health care.

Friedman then noted how this bureaucratic rule operated in the United States after the healthcare exclusion was adopted during World War II.

Even a casual glance at figures on input and output in U.S. hospitals indicates that Gammon’s law has been in full operation for U.S. hospitals since the end of World War II… Before 1940, input and output both rose, input somewhat more than output, presumably because of the introduction of more sophisticated and expensive treatment. The cost of hospital care per resident of the U.S., adjusted for inflation, rose from 1929 to 1940 at the rate of 5% per year; the number of occupied beds, at 2.4% a year. Cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, rose only modestly. The situation was very different after the war. From 1946 to 1989, the number of beds per 1,000 population fell by more than one-half; the occupancy rate, by one-eighth. In sharp contrast, input skyrocketed. Hospital personnel per occupied bed multiplied nearly seven-fold and cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, an astounding 26-fold.

Friedman then explained that the adoption of Medicare and Medicaid hastened the erosion of market forces.

One major engine of these changes was the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. A mild rise in input was turned into a meteoric rise; a mild fall in output, into a rapid decline. …The federal government’s assumption of responsibility for hospital and medical care for the elderly and the poor provided a fresh pool of money, and there was no shortage of takers. Personnel per occupied bed, which had already doubled from 1946 to 1965, more than tripled from that level after 1965. Cost per patient day, which had already more than tripled from 1946 to 1965, multiplied a further eight-fold after 1965. Growing costs, in turn, led to more regulation of hospitals, further increasing administrative expense.

Remember, Friedman wrote this article back in 1991. And the underlying problems have gotten worse since that time.

So what’s the bottom line? Friedman pointed out that the problem is too much government.

The U.S. medical system has become in large part a socialist enterprise. Why should we be any better at socialism than the Soviets?

And he explained that there’s only one genuine solution.

The inefficiency, high cost and inequitable character of our medical system can be fundamentally remedied in only one way: by moving in the other direction, toward re-privatizing medical care.

Some readers may be skeptical. Even though he cited lots of historical evidence, perhaps you’re thinking Friedman’s position is impractical.

So let’s fast forward to 2017 and look at some very concrete data assembled by Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute. He looks at medical costs over the past 18 years and compares what’s happened with prices for things that are covered by third-party payer (either government or government-distorted private insurance) and prices for cosmetic procedures that are financed directly by consumers.

As you can see, the relative price of health care generally declines when people are spending their own money and operating in a genuine free market. But when there’s third-party payer, relative prices rise.

 

Perry explains the issue very succinctly.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious, and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. Because of the price transparency and market competition that characterizes the market for cosmetic procedures, the prices of most cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms since 1998, and some non-surgical procedures have even fallen in nominal dollars before adjusting for price changes. In all cases, cosmetic procedures have increased in price by far less than the 100.5% increase in the price of medical care services between 1998 and 2016 and the 176.6% increase in hospital services.

In other words, a free market can work in healthcare. And it gives us falling prices and transparency rather than bureaucracy and inefficiency. Maybe when they’ve exhausted all other options, Republicans will decide to give freedom a try.

P.S. If you want to get a flavor for how competition and markets generate better results, watch this Reason TV video and read these stories from Maine and North Carolina.

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