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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.

The Freedom Caucus’s Admirable Stand Against a Bad Healthcare Bill

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 2:51pm

Originally published by Townhall.com on March 23, 2017.

Republicans largely owe their current electoral dominance to the failed promises of Obamacare. President Obama promised lower costs and better access to care from his signature initiative, but the massive federal boondoggle that Democrats rammed through Congress provided exactly the opposite. Despite last-minute improvement to their bill, Republicans appear poised to repeat his mistake.

House Republicans plan to vote Thursday on the American Health Care Act (AHCA). Instead of the straight Obamacare repeal that Republicans passed in the last Congress, AHCA would partially repeal Obamacare and replace it with provisions only slightly less bad.

Instead of an individual mandate penalty, the Republican plan will allow insurers to charge an extra 30 percent for one year for those who wait until they are sick to purchase coverage. Instead of subsidies, Republicans offer refundable tax credits. It’s the same centralized approach with different names.

Missing from the AHCA are the free market reforms necessary to finally bring health care costs under control. Instead, the bill maintains the most destructive regulations contained within Obamacare, like its “community rating” price controls. These force insurers to charge healthy and sick people within a certain age range the same premium, and when combined with “guaranteed issue” requirements is what guarantees those with pre-existing conditions can acquire new coverage. It also only allows the difference in premiums between young and old to vary by a ratio of 3:1.

Community rating controls have made premiums very expensive for the healthy, causing many to avoid coverage. That, in turn, causes prices to go up and more healthy people to leave the market. This is known as a “death spiral.”

AHCA keeps the price controls, with a small expansion of the age-rating bands from 3:1 to 5:1. That’s not enough to reverse the cost increases resulting from community rating and other government mandates, which is why Republicans want to create a new federal handout in the form of refundable tax credit for those who purchase insurance. Ironically, there’s no functional difference between the credits and the individual mandate penalties that Republicans vociferously complained about under Obamacare. In either case, not purchasing insurance means a higher tax bill.

What the health care system needs is more market competition, not new types of government control. There would be little need for Obamacare’s subsidies or AHCA’s tax credits if prices were lower to begin with, and that can only happen by getting the government out of the way.

The percentage of health care spending that is paid for directly by consumers is about 10 percent, an all-time low. Instead, most medical payments are made by third-parties, whether it be insurance companies or the government. The result is a system that lacks price transparency and competition, leading to waste, inefficiency, and ever increasing prices.

It’s no coincide that areas in which consumers exercise more control, like cosmetic or LASIK surgeries, see much flatter price trajectories. Real reform would require abandoning the government mandates and tax distortions which have morphed health insurance—intended to hedge against catastrophic financial loss—into a form of medical prepayment. Insofar as Republicans might fear and seek to mitigate a potential electoral backlash, assistance could be offered to those with limited means—or who have certain pre-existing condititions—in ways that don’t distort the market price system, such as through subsidized health savings accounts. But since costs will be lower, and insurance cheaper as it won’t be forced to do everything regardless of consumer need, most will actually be able to afford health care on their own.

Republican leadership has attempted to bring wayward conservatives on board with the AHCA with some last minute modifications to the bill. In particular, they have addressed some of the complaints about its failure to address Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion by block-granting the program and leaving it up to states to find the most cost-effective ways to cover those in need. It’s a good improvement, but it is not enough.

Standing in between Republican leadership and a looming disaster is the House Freedom Caucus. Chaired by Congressman Mark Meadows, the group’s roughly 40 members have the power to prevent passage of AHCA in the House, and most have indicated strong opposition to the legislation.

To distract from its shortcomings, Republican leadership touts the tax cutting aspects of the AHCA. There’s no doubt that Americans would benefit from eliminating Obamacare’s many tax hikes. But if the plan fails to solve the fundamental issues plaguing the nation’s healthcare system, Republicans will be setting themselves up for an early exit from power.

Worse than that, they would be giving Democrats all the opportunity they need to enact something even worse than Obamacare like government-controlled single payer. The Freedom Caucus taking a stand for principle over the temptation to pass anything in an attempt to claim fulfillment—albeit in only the most superficial ways—of a key Republican campaign promise to repeal Obamacare, might be all that stands in the way of that eventual outcome.

The Best Trump Budget Cuts, Part III: The Fake Cuts to Meals on Wheels Should Become Real Cuts

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 11:00am

The annual budget for our bloated and sclerotic federal government consumes about $4 trillion of America’s economic output, yet President Trump so far has not proposed to reduce that overall spending burden by even one penny.

A few programs are targeted for cuts, to be sure, but I explained last week, that “taxpayers won’t reap the benefits since those savings will be spent elsewhere, mostly for a bigger Pentagon budget.” More worrisome, I also pointed out that his budget proposal is “silent on the very important issues of tax reform and entitlement reform.”

All things considered, you would think that statists, special interest groups, and other denizens of the D.C. swamp would be happy with Trump’s timid budget.

Not exactly. There’s so much wailing and screaming about “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts, you would think the ghost of Ronald Reagan is haunting Washington.

Much of this whining is kabuki theater and political posturing as various beneficiaries (including the bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, and other insiders) make lots of noise as part of their never-ending campaigns to get ever-larger slices of the budget pie.

And nothing demonstrates the vapidity of this process more than the imbroglio over the Meals on Wheels program. Based on news reports, the immediate assumption is that Trump’s budget is going to starve needy seniors by ending delivery of meals.

Here’s how CNN characterized the proposal.

The preliminary outline for President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget could slash some funding for a program that provides meals for older, impoverished Americans.

“Slash”? That sounds ominous. Sounds like a cut of 40 percent, 50 percent, or 60 percent!

And a flack for Meals on Wheels added her two cents, painting a picture of doom and despair for hungry seniors.

…spokeswoman Jenny Bertolette said, “It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which they will not be significantly and negatively impacted if the President’s budget were enacted.”

Oh no, “significantly and negatively impacted” sounds brutal. How many tens of thousands of seniors will starve?

Only near the bottom of the story do we learn that this is all nonsense. All that Trump proposed, as part of his plan to shift some spending from the domestic budget to the defense budget, is to shut down a pork-riddled and scandal-plaguedprogram at the Department of Housing Development. However, because a tiny fraction of community development block grants get used for Meals on Wheels, interest groups and leftist journalists decided to concoct a story about hungry old people.

In reality, the national office (appropriately) gets almost all its money from private donations and almost all the subsidies to the local branches are from a separate program.

About 3% of the budget for Meals on Wheels’ national office comes from government grants (84% comes from individual contributions and grants from corporations and foundations)… The Older Americans Act, as a function of the US Department of Health and Human Services, …covers 35% of the costs for the visits, safety checks and meals that the local agencies dole out to 2.4 million senior citizens, Bertolette said.

In other words, CNN engaged in what is now known as fake news, publishing a story designed to advance an agenda rather than to inform readers.

My colleague Walter Olson wrote a very apt summary for National Review.

The story that Trump’s budget would kill the Meals on Wheels program was too good to check. But it was false. …it wouldn’t have taken long for reporters to find and provide some needed context to the relationship between federal block grant programs, specifically Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and the popular Meals on Wheels program. …From Thursday’s conversation in the press, it was easy to assume that block grant programs — CDBG and similar block grants for community services and social services — are the main source of federal funding for Meals on Wheels. Not so.

And if you want some accurate journalism, the editorial page of Investor’s Business Daily has a superb explanation.

What Trump’s budget does propose is cutting is the corruption-prone Community Development Block Grant program, run out of Housing and Urban Development. Some, but not all, state and local governments use a tiny portion of that grant money, at their own discretion, to “augment funding for Meals on Wheels,” according to the statement. …So what’s really going on? As Meals on Wheels America explained, some Community Development Block Grant money does end up going to some of the local Meals on Wheels programs. But it’s a small amount. HUD’s own website shows that just 1% of CDBG grant money goes to the broad category of “senior services.” And 0.17% goes to “food banks.” …All of this information was easily available to anyone reporting on this story, or anyone commenting on it, which would have prevented the false claims about the Meals on Wheels program from spreading in the first place. But why bother reporting facts when you can make up a story…?

The IBD editorial then shifted to what should be the real lesson from this make-believe controversy

…this fake budget-cutting story ended up revealing how programs like Meals on Wheels can survive without federal help. As soon as the story started to spread, donations began pouring into Meals on Wheels. In two days, the charity got more than $100,000 in donations — 50 times more than they’d normally receive. Clearly, individuals are ready, willing and eager to support this program once they perceive a need. Isn’t this how charity is supposed to work, with people donating their own time, money and resources to causes they feel are important, rather than sitting back and expecting the federal government to do it for them?

At the risk of being flippant, Libertarian Jesus would approve that message.

But to be more serious, IBD raises an important point that deserves some attention. Some Republicans think the appropriate response to CNN‘s demagoguery is to point out that Meals on Wheels gets the overwhelming share of its federal subsidies from the Older Americans Act rather than CDBG.

In reality, the correct lesson is that the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing Meals on Wheels. Or any redistribution program that purports to help people on the state and local level.

There’s a constitutional argument against federal involvement. There’s a fiscal argument against federal involvement. There’s a diversity argument against federal involvement. And there’s a demographic argument against federal involvement.

But there’s also a common-sense argument against federal involvement. And that gives me an excuse to introduce my Third Theorem of Government. Simply stated, it’s a recipe for waste to launder money through Washington.

 

P.S. For those interested, here is the First Theorem of Government and here is the Second Theorem of Government.

P.P.S. I started today’s column by noting that Trump hasn’t proposed “even one penny” of lower spending. That’s disappointing, of course, but the news is not all bad. The President has  endorsed the Obamacare reform legislation in the House of Representatives, and while that legislation does not solve the real problem in our nation’s health sector, at least it does lower the burden of taxes and spending.

The Real Issue in the Fight over Capital Gains, Class Warfare, and Carried Interest

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 1:48pm

Why would the economy grow faster if we got fundamental reform such as the flat tax?

In part, because there would be one low tax rate instead of the discriminatory and punitive “progressive” system that exists today. As such, the penalty on productive behavior would be reduced.

In part, because there would be no distorting tax breaks that lure people into making decisions based on tax considerations rather than economic merit.

But we’d also enjoy more growth because there would be no more double taxation. Under a flat tax, the death tax is abolished, the capital gains tax is abolished, there’s no double taxation on savings, the second layer of tax on dividends is eliminated, and depreciation is replaced by expensing.

In the wonky jargon of public finance economists, this means we would have a “consumption-based” system, which is just another way of saying that income would be taxed only one time. No longer would the internal revenue code discourage capital formation by imposing a higher effective tax rate on income that is saved and invested (compared to the tax rate on income that is consumed).

Indeed, this is the feature of tax reform that probably generates the most growth. As I explain in this video on capital gains taxation, all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run prosperity.

The good news is that reducing double taxation is a goal of most major tax plans in Washington. Trump’s campaign plan reduced double taxation, and the House Better Way Plan reduces double taxation.

But that doesn’t mean there’s an easy path for reform. The Hill reports on some of the conflicts that may sabotage legislation this year.

The fight over a border-adjustment tax isn’t the only challenge for Republicans in their push for tax reform. …Notably, some business groups have criticized the proposal to do away with the deduction for businesses’ net interest expenses. …the blueprint does not specifically discuss how the carried interest that fund managers receive would be taxed. Under current law, carried interest is taxed as capital gains, rather than at the higher rates for ordinary income. During the presidential race, Trump repeatedly said he wanted to eliminate the carried interest tax break, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told CNN on Sunday that Trump still plans to do this. Many Democrats also want carried interest to be taxed as ordinary income.

The border-adjustment tax is probably the biggest threat to tax reform, but the debate over “carried interest” also could be a problem since Trump endorsed a higher tax burden on this type of capital gain during the campaign.

Here are some excerpts from a recent news report.

Donald Trump vowed to stick up for Main Street over Wall Street — that line helped get him elected. But the new president has already hit a roadblock, with fellow Republicans who control Congress balking at Trump’s pledge to close a loophole that allows hedge fund and private equity managers to pay lower taxes on investment management fees. …The White House declined to comment on the status of negotiations between Trump and congressional Republicans over the carried-interest provision. …U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a House Financial Services Committee member and former Goldman Sachs executive, said there is chaos on the tax reform front. “That’s on the list of dozens of things where there is disagreement between the president and the Republican majority in Congress,” Himes said.

Regarding the specific debate over carried interest, I’ve already explained why I prefer current law over Trump’s proposal.

Today I want to focus on the “story behind the story.” One of my main concerns is that the fight over the tax treatment of carried interest is merely a proxy for a larger campaign to increase the tax burden on all capital gains.

For instance, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee openly uses the issue of carried interest as a wedge to advocate a huge increase in the overall tax rate on capital gains.

Of course, when you talk about the carried interest loophole, you’re talking about capital gains. And when you talk about capital gains, you’re talking about the biggest tax shelter of all – the one hiding in plain sight. Today the capital gains tax rate is 23.8 percent. …treat[ing] income from wages and wealth the same way. In my view, that’s a formula that ought to be repeated.

The statists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also advocate higher taxes on carried interest as part of a broader campaign for higher capital gains taxes.

Taxing as ordinary income all remuneration, including fringe benefits, carried interest arrangements, and stock options… Examining ways to tax capital income at the personal level at slightly progressive rates, and align top capital and labour income tax rates.

It would be an overstatement to say that everyone who wants higher taxes on carried interest wants higher taxes on all forms of capital gains. But it is accurate to assert that every advocate of higher taxes on capital gains wants higher taxes on carried interest.

If they succeed, that would be a very bad result for American workers and for American competitiveness.

For those wanting more information, here’s the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s video on carried interest.

Last but not least, wonky readers may be interested in learning that carried interest partnerships can be traced all the way back to medieval Venice.

Start-up merchants needed investors, and investors needed some incentive to finance the merchants. For the investor, there was the risk of their investment literally sailing out of the harbor never to be seen again. The Venetian government solved this problem by creating one of the first examples of a joint stock company, the “colleganza.” The colleganza was a contract between the investor and the merchant willing to do the travel. The investor put up the money to buy the goods and hire the ship, and the merchant made the trip to sell the goods and then buy new foreign goods that could then be brought back and sold to Venetians. Profits were then split between the merchant and investor according to the agreements in the contract.

Fortunately for the merchants and investors of that era, neither income taxes nor capital gains taxes existed.

P.S. Italy didn’t have any sort of permanent income tax until 1864. Indeed, most modern nations didn’t impose these punitive levies until the late 1800s and early 1900s. The United States managed to hold out until that awful dreary day in 1913. It’s worth noting that the U.S. and other nations managed to become rich and prosperous prior to the adoption of those income taxes. And it’s also worth noting that the rapid growth of the 18th century occurred when the burden of government spending was very modest and there was almost no redistribution spending.

P.P.S. Now that we have income taxes (and the bigger governments enabled by those levies), the only silver lining is that governments have compensated for bad fiscal policy with better policy in other areas.

IMF Data from Asia: Aging Populations Will Mean More Taxes and Fewer Benefits for Workers Trapped in Government-Run Retirement Programs

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 12:41pm

I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

 

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

 

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix.

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrotein 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons herehere, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

 

Coalition Letter to Congress: Repeal FATCA

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 11:25am

Center for Freedom and Prosperity

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
202-285-0244

www.freedomandprosperity.org

Coalition Letter to Congress: Repeal FATCA

(Washington, D.C., Tuesday, March 21, 2017) A coalition of 23 taxpayer protection and grassroots organizations sent a letter today urging Congressional leadership to include repeal of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) as part of comprehensive tax reform. Co-authored by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity and the Campaign to Repeal FATCA, the letter highlights the path of destruction that FATCA has carved through the international financial sector.

Link to Repeal FATCA letter:
http://freedomandprosperity.org/files/2017-FATCA_repeal_coalition_ltr.pdf

The letter makes 5 key points: 1) FATCA fails in its primary goal to catch wealthy tax cheats; 2) It ensnares innocent Americans with excessive reporting requirements and draconian penalties for the slightest oversights; 3) It makes U.S. citizens living and working abroad toxic assets in the eyes of both financial institutions and employers; 4) Its compliance costs far outstrip the revenue it collects; and 5) It encourages other nations and international organizations to pursue aggressive tax grabs that threaten American businesses and the global economy.

Several signers of the letter and other tax experts offered the following comments on FATCA:

CF&P President Andrew Quinlan
commented, “It’s time to turn the page on this failed experiment in global financial surveillance. Congress should acknowledge the overwhelming evidence which shows that low, pro-growth tax rates and a simplified tax code are the proven ways to encourage greater tax compliance. America, and the world, will be better off without FATCA.”

Dan Mitchell, a Cato Institute Senior Fellow, noted, “FATCA arguably is the worst provision in the entire tax code, undermining U.S. competitiveness and setting the stage for foreign attempts to tax activity in the United States.”

Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, said, “FATCA is the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for Americans overseas–an intrusive, complicated, painful and unfair tax regime designed to be massive overkill in hunting for coins between the cushions. We are finally abolishing AMT–after 48 years–in Trump’s tax reform package. We should put FATCA to sleep at the same time.”

Nigel Green, CEO of deVere Group, said, “Every government has a right to see its laws enforced and tax evasion investigated and prosecuted. That’s not what FATCA does, though. It has punished everybody, innocent as well as guilty, and consumers and taxpayers worldwide. It’s a windfall for the compliance industry and no one else. Repeal FATCA!”

Pete Sepp, President of the National Taxpayers Union, said, “Comprehensive tax reform legislation is critical not only for what it enacts, but also for what it repeals. One item that should be a top priority on the repeal agenda is FATCA, an uneconomic, unadministrable, and unfair law. Our people and businesses abroad are being increasingly harassed by other countries’ ravenous revenue collectors, and FATCA only provides political fodder for foreign tax agencies to lean harder on those Americans. But even without this factor, FATCA would be problematic for our competitive position abroad by freezing U.S. small businesses out of banking and financial resources overseas. FATCA is a failure, and tax reform can put an end to this misery.”

David Williams, President of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said, “Repealing FATCA is critical to preserving the financial privacy of U.S. citizens, which we’ve seen eroded by federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service. The repeal of FATCA will also help to preserve and strengthen the financial freedoms and choices of all Americans.

Brian Garst, Director of Policy and Communications for CF&P, added, “America ought to be ashamed for inflicting FATCA upon the world. The only respectable option now is to repeal FATCA and beg forgiveness.”


Representatives of the following 23 organizations signed the coalition letter:
Center for Freedom and Prosperity; Campaign to Repeal FATCA; Americans for Tax Reform; National Taxpayers Union; American Commitment; Taxpayers Protection Alliance; Competitive Enterprise Institute; Frontiers of Freedom; R Street Institute; 60 Plus Association; The Market Institute; FreedomWorks; Center for Individual Freedom; Sovereign Society Freedom Alliance; Institute for Liberty; Institute for Policy Innovation; The National Tax Limitation Committee; Americans for Limited Government; Citizen Outreach; National Center for Policy Analysis; Campaign for Liberty; Jeffersonian Project; Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council

For additional comments:
Andrew Quinlan can be reached at 202-285-0244, [email protected]
Brian Garst, Dir. of Policy and Communications, can be reached at [email protected]

###

Research from European Central Bank Measures How Regulation Stifles Growth and Reduces Living Standards

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 12:33pm

It’s relatively easy to demonstrate how certain regulations make our lives less pleasant (inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, inadequate washing machines, crummy dishwashers, etc).

Furthermore, it’s also simple to highlight examples of foolish and preposterous regulations.

And it’s a straightforward exercise (at least conceptually) to argue that regulations should pass some sort of cost-benefit test.

What’s not so easy, however, is getting folks to grasp the overall impact of red tape on growth and living standards. After all, most normal people don’t want to learn about wonky concepts such as the production possibilities frontier. And I also doubt there are many people who are interested in the technical challenge of how to measure the aggregate impact of thousand of rules and restrictions.

But these issues matter. A lot. According to Economic Freedom or the World, the regulatory burden is just as important as the fiscal burden when determining a nation’s competitiveness and economic outlook. Simply stated, our living standards are determined by productivity, which is determined by how wisely labor and capital are combined to generate output.

With this in mind, a new study from the European Central Bank helpfully examines the degree to which regulation hinders the efficient allocation of those factors of production.

The focus of this paper is on the…misallocation of labour and capital in eight macro-sectors (which include manufacturing and services) for five large euro-area countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) during the period 2002-2012. …The paper then investigates the potential determinants of changes in input misallocation by looking at traditional structural determinants, namely restrictive product and labour market regulations. …regulations that shelter firms from competition might result in poor allocation of resources because low productive firms will keep operating instead of downsizing or exiting. Similarly, stringent labour market regulation, in the form of high hiring and firing costs, might also thwart resource allocation.

For those who are interested in such things, the study looks at what drives improvements in productivity. Is it firms becoming more efficient because of competition, or is “reallocation” as weak companies vanish and dynamic new firms emerge?

The short answer, as illustrated by the table, is that both play a role.

Here are some of the issues considered in the ECB study.

In our full empirical specification, as well as initial conditions in misallocation, …we first examine the role of two structural factors, i.e. changes in both product and labour market regulations. In the presence of high barriers to entry, unproductive firms are able to survive and therefore retain productive resources which are not shifted to the most efficient firms in a given industry (Schiantarelli 2008; Restuccia and Rogerson 2013; Andrews and Cingano 2014). Furthermore, more stringent employment regulation might prevent firms from adjusting their workforce to optimal levels, therefore hampering the efficient reallocation of workers across firms (Haltiwanger, Scarpetta and Schweizer 2014; Bartelsman, Gautier and de Wind 2011). Moreover, in the labour misallocation regressions we also include an interaction term between the changes in product and labour market regulations.

Here are their estimates of both product market regulation and labor market regulation for selected nations.

It’s good to see that there’s a slight trend toward less regulation of product markets. A few nations have modestly reduced regulation of labor markets, but the most interesting observation is that this is an area where the United States has a major advantage. Only Germany is even close to America in allowing markets to operate with a high level of freedom.

Having examined the issues covered by the study, let’s now consider the results.

All discussed capital misallocation results are robust to the inclusion of market distortions, i.e. to regulatory and credit constraints. …The general decline in PMR over the period considered dampened capital misallocation dynamics… Stricter product market regulation is found to have led to higher labour misallocation growth. But we also find that more stringent labour market regulations positively correlate with labour misallocation growth, particularly in sectors characterized by more stringent product market regulations. Thus, these results support the idea that the positive effect of the tightness of PMR on labour misallocation growth is amplified if also EPL becomes more restrictive. Seen from an inverse perspective, the gains in the allocative efficiency of labour are larger if both kinds of regulation are jointly loosened.

Here’s the bottom line.

Our results therefore suggest that in order to foster a more efficient within-sector allocation of inputs across firms structural reforms, such as those lowering entry barriers for firms, removing size-contingent regulations that prevent firms from reaching their optimal size and enhancing bankruptcy regulations that facilitate the exit of unproductive firms, would be warranted. The loosening of PMR and EPL in recent years in some countries has proven to dampen misallocation dynamics, yet there is still room for further reductions, as shown for example when comparing the level of regulation with that in the U.S.

Unfortunately, I don’t expect that this study will have any sort of impact on the debate. The people who already understand the negative impact of regulation now have more evidence about the value of unfettered markets and creative destruction.

But the politicians and interest groups won’t care. They are interested in accumulating power and obtaining unearned benefits. To the extent that they would even bother to read the study, they would conclude that they should fight extra hard to preserve the status quo since they will realize that there are fewer favors to distribute when genuine capitalism is allowed to operate.

Everything You Need to Know about the Non-Existent Wage Gap between Men and Women

Sun, 03/19/2017 - 12:28pm

An essential part of a free market economy is the price system. The competitive pricing of goods and services transmits information to producers and consumers and creates incentives for the efficient allocation of resources. Just as the circulatory system or nervous system enables our bodies to function.

And when you weaken or cripple markets with various forms government intervention (price controls, taxes, third-party payer, etc), that leads to distortions that reduce prosperity.

This is why “paycheck fairness” proposals to address the supposed “gender pay gap” are so risky for prosperity. It’s no exaggeration to say that these “comparable worth” schemes are designed to empower bureaucrats and politicians to override market forces.

What makes all this especially frustrating is there is no systemic discrimination against females in the workplace.

One of the leading scholars in this field is Christina Hoff Summers of the American Enterprise Institute. She has dissected the data and demonstrated that there is no pay gap once factors such as occupational choice and work hours are added to the equation. And now she has a must-watch video on the subject from Prager University.

All of her data is very compelling, but the most persuasive part of the video is at the beginning when she asks why profit-seeking businesses don’t fire men and hire women if there really is a wage gap.

Statists might respond that businesses are part of some evil patriarchy and that there’s some sort of oligopolistic conspiracy to forego income in order to oppress females. But if that’s what they really think, why don’t these leftists start their own businesses and take advantage of the supposed pay gap? Not only would they earn large profits, but they would also bankrupt existing firms that ostensibly are engaging in discrimination.

Sounds like a win-win, right?

And if they respond by saying that they don’t happen to have business skills because they chose to study more enlightened topics while in school, then ask them why progressive companies from France or Sweden aren’t entering the American market and earning lots of business?

Or are they part of the patriarchal conspiracy as well? Like almost all theories based on conspiracies, this is nonsense.

Let’s close with some wisdom on this issue from one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. Vanessa Brown Calder cites a considerable amount of data on occupational choice, but also focuses on quality-of-life and family issues.

…women are considerably more likely to absorb more care-taker responsibilities within their families, and these roles demand associated career trade-offs. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In describes 43% of highly-qualified women with children as leaving their careers or off-ramping for a period of time. And a recent Harvard Business Review report describes women as being more likely than men to make decisions “to accommodate family responsibilities, such as limiting (work-related) travel, choosing a more flexible job, slowing down the pace of one’s career, making a lateral move, leaving a job, or declining to work toward a promotion.” It’s fair to assume that such interruptions impact long-term wages substantially. In fact, when researchers try to control for these differences, the wage gap virtually disappears. …It’s likely that other, more nuanced but documented differences, like spending fewer hours on paid work per week would explain some of the remaining five percent pay differential.

The philoso-raptor agrees.

P.S. Given its track record of shoddy and biased output, is anyone surprised that the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is pushing dishonest gender pay data?

P.P.S. Even the Obama-era Council of Economic Advisers had enough integrity to disavow the feminist pay-gap numbers.

The Best Trump Budget Cuts, Part II: Defunding the the Moochers at PBS and NPR

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 12:10pm

Donald Trump’s Budget Blueprint doesn’t thrill me, largely because it’s silent on the very important issues of tax reform and entitlement reform.

All that he’s proposing is to rearrange the allocation of annually appropriated spending (the so-called discretionary outlays).

Here’s a chart from a summary prepared by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. As you can see, the federal Leviathan does not shrink in size.

It’s possible, of course, to applaud this shift from domestic discretionary to defense discretionary. Or to criticize the reallocation. But nobody can pretend the net result is smaller government.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we should accept all the domestic reductions but not boost the defense budget (the U.S. already has a very large military budget compared to potential adversaries).

And speaking of domestic reductions, the main focus of today’s column is to highlight one of my favorite program terminations in Trump’s plan (yesterday’s example was the National Endowment for the Arts). The President has proposed to eliminate all taxpayer handouts for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is the entity that subsidizes National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

This is music to my ears. As I wrote more than six years ago,

Even if we had a giant budget surplus, federal subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be misguided and improper. In an environment where excessive federal spending is strangling growth and threatening the nation’s solvency, the argument to defund PBS and NPR is even stronger…the fact that PBS and NPR have a statist bias is another argument for getting rid of taxpayer subsidies, but that’s barely a blip on my radar screen. It wouldn’t matter if government TV and radio was genuinely fair and balanced. Taxpayers should not subsidize broadcasting of any kind, period.

This should be a slam-dunk issue for congressional Republicans. Even milquetoast GOPers like Mitt Romney have said it’s time for NPR and PBS to be self-supporting.

But the best analysis, as usual, comes from the Cato Institute. Here are some excerpts from a study written by my colleague Trevor Burrus.

Assailed from all sides with allegations of bias, charges of political influence, and threats to defund their operations, public broadcasters have responded with everything from outright denial to personnel changes, but never have they squarely faced the fundamental problem: government-funded media companies are inherently problematic and impossible to reconcile with either the First Amendment or a government of constitutionally limited powers. The Constitution does not give Congress the power to create media companies, and we should heed the Founders’ wisdom on this matter. …before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created, nonprofit, noncommercial media stations enjoyed a vibrant existence, remaining free to criticize current policies and exhibit whatever bias they wished. Yet today…, public broadcasting suffers the main downside of public funding—political influence and control—yet enjoys little of the upside—a significant taxpayer contribution that would relieve it of the need to seek corporate underwriting and listener donations. But the limited taxpayer funding also shows that defunding can be relatively painless. Public broadcasting not only can survive on its own, it can thrive—and be free.

And Cato’s David Boaz adds another important point, which is that government-subsidized broadcasting is another odious example (Export-Import Bank, agriculture subsidies, TARP bailout, etc) of how government coercion is used to provide goodies to upper-income people at the expense of those with more modest levels of income.

Public broadcasting subsidizes the rich. A PBS survey shows that its viewers are 44 percent more likely than the average American to make more than $150,000 a year, 57 percent more likely to own a vacation home, and 177 percent more likely to have investments worth more than $150,000. Why should middle-class taxpayers be subsidizing the news and entertainment of the rich?

By the way, these numbers are more than 10 years old, so more recent data surely would show that an ever greater share of fans are part of an economic elite that easily can afford to privately finance PBS programming.

By the way, there already has been some self-privatization, as John Stossel reports in his Reason column

New York ran a photo of Big Bird, or rather a protester dressed as Big Bird, wearing a sign saying “Keep your mitts off me!” What New York doesn’t say is that the picture is three years old, and Big Bird’s employer, “Sesame Street,” no longer gets government funds. We confronted the article writer, Eric Levitz. He said, “Big Bird has long functioned as a symbol of public broadcasting … Still, considering Sesame Street‘s switch to HBO, I concede that some could have been misled.” You bet. Big Bird doesn’t need government help. Sesame Street is so rich that it paid one of its performers more than $800,000.

Last but not least, here’s a video from Reason that looks at how government-run broadcasting is driven by the interests of the stations rather than consumers.

P.S. Big Bird apparently wasn’t a big fan of Barack Obama, at least according to this bit of satire.

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