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Elizabeth Warren’s Dirigiste Plan for Wall Street

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 12:59pm

I’m constantly surprised by what happens in the world of politics. I didn’t think Donald Trump had any chance of winning in 2016, yet I was obviously wrong.

I also thought Elizabeth Warren’s political career would be crippled after people found out she fraudulently claimed Indian ancestry to gain special preferences in hiring at law schools. Yet she’s now a serious candidate to be the Democratic nominee in 2020.

So, instead of political prognosticating, I’ll stick with policy analysis, which is what I do in this clip from an interview about Sen. Warren’s plan to give Washington more power over capital markets.

If you want specifics on her plan, this Politico story has lots of detail, and this CNN report also has plenty of information.

I’ve previously written about some of the provisions, such as Glass-Steagall and carried interest, so today I want to focus on the broader point from the interview.

Every single economic theory agrees that saving and investment play a key role in long-run growth and higher living standards. But who controls and directs how capital is allocated?

prefer competitive markets, which reward decisions that make us more prosperous.

The socialists, by contrast, think government can directly control how capital is allocated. At the risk of understatement, that approach doesn’t have a good track record.

Elizabeth Warren prefers an indirect approach, which involves lots of regulation, taxation, red tape, and intervention. This cronyist approach also is misguided. Her corporatist agenda unavoidably will hinder the efficient (i.e., growth maximizing) allocation of capital and also reduce the overall level of saving and investment.

And that translates into less income for workers.

By the way, my disagreement with Sen. Warren’s policy agenda does not mean I have a pro-Wall Street perspective.

In the past, I opposed the TARP bailout and the Dodd-Frank regulatory expansion, both of which were supported by the big players on Wall Street.

And I currently oppose the Fed’s easy-money policy and also want to remove the tax code’s preference for debt, which again puts me on the other side from the big players on Wall Street.

The bottom line: I support economic liberty, not big business.

P.S. I strongly recommend Kevin Williamson’s analysis of Warren’s fake populism.

P.P.S. And I recommend my own work on Warren’s mistaken viewpoints on corporate taxation and corporate governance.

Bad Government Policy Begets Worse In U.S. Aluminum Market

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 10:37am

Originally published by RealClearMarkets on July 16, 2019.

To benefit large brewers, U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) recently introduced the Aluminum Pricing Examination Act (APEX Act), which would give the Commodity Futures Trading Commission “exclusive jurisdiction over the setting of reference prices for aluminum premiums.” This is a misguided attempt to subject market prices to the approval of government bureaucrats.

Markets for commodities purchased at high volume like aluminum operate a bit differently than those for typical consumer goods. It’s not like buying a product off the shelf. However, the fundamentals are still basically the same; it comes down to supply and demand.

To provide transparency and help facilitate commodity markets, independent reporting agencies provide price benchmarks for sales and deliveries in certain regions. For the domestic aluminum market, the U.S. Midwest Transaction Premium published by S&P Global Platts reflects both costs from the shipping and storing of aluminum, as well as the state of domestic supply and demand. Their methodology is public and relies on surveys of buyers, sellers, and other market participants. Most importantly, no one is required to pay the benchmark any attention unless they find it useful.

All of this is important because proponents of the legislation are citing “irregularities” in the premium price, while paying lip services to free market principles, to justify the entrance of government into the market. However, what really irks them is that prices have increased. Everything else is just an attempt to disguise cronyism as a noble endeavor.

The thrust of their complaint is that the premium hasn’t fully returned to its pre-tariff rate after Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs on imports from Canada and Mexico, which led to sharp price increases, were lifted in May. But tariffs aren’t the only relevant market factor affecting price. Demand is also up, while supply has tightened thanks to a union lock-out at a Canadian smelter, forcing greater reliance on imports from nations subject to a 10% duty. Uncertainty over future trade conditions are also likely to be playing a role.

Attacking or launching investigations into those monitoring the market and providing benchmark prices amounts to shooting the messenger. They aren’t controlling the factors that determine prices; they are just reporting them.

S&P Global Platts has no financial stake in whether the reported prices are high or low, but they and other assessment companies have a lot more incentive than the government would have to provide accurate information on the state of a market. The APEX Act would not only substitute the judgment of bureaucrats for market participants, but open benchmarking to political influence, inviting corruption and market distortions.

The goal is clearly to put downward pressure on aluminum prices to benefit those, like beverage makers, whose supply chains rely heavily on aluminum purchases. That might provide a short-term benefit to brewers and other aluminum consumers but would only harm the market in the long run. When prices reflect political dynamics instead of underlying market realities—as is always the case with the imposition of price controls, or even just political pressure that falls short of explicit price-setting—markets are unable to function properly.

My colleague, economist Dan Mitchell, has a saying: “bad government policy begets more bad government policy.” That’s what is happening here. Bad trade policy raised the costs of aluminum and continues to plague markets in a variety of ways. Rather than fix that problem at its source, some now want to compound it with more government power to interfere in the market. But attempts to cloak cronyism in the principles of free market economics shouldn’t distract from the fact that interfering in the market to selectively benefit a business or industry is an illegitimate use of governmental power.

 

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Image credit: homw | Pixabay License.

Taxes Are Unpleasant and Obamacare Is Awful, but there’s a Strong Case for the Cadillac Tax

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 12:16pm

When I followed public policy in my younger days, I periodically would see stories about legislation that was approved by the House of Representatives with only one dissenting vote.

My memory isn’t perfect, I’m sure, but it seems that Ron Paul was always that lonely member. And my recollection is that he was (as usual) always on the correct side, voting for liberty and against government.

Something similar happened yesterday, except this time six members of Congress voted against a repeal of the “Cadillac Tax” that is part of Obamacare.

It was an eclectic group, but it included Justin Amash and Chip Roy, who are two of the most committed and principled supporters of free markets and limited government in Congress.

I freely admit that this is not a slam-dunk issue. After all, it’s almost always a good idea to lower taxes and almost always a good idea to jettison provisions of Obamacare.

But since the healthcare exclusion is arguably the most damaging loophole in the tax code and a major cause of ever-rising costs (because of “third-party payer“), there’s actually a very strong case – from both sides of the ideological spectrum – for retaining the Cadillac Tax.

From the right, I recommend this analysis from Alan Viard at the American Enterprise Institute.

…employer-provided health insurance gets a big tax break. Workers pay income and payroll taxes on their cash wages, but not on their health insurance benefits. …the tax break is poorly targeted because it applies even to high-cost “Cadillac” health plans. The tax system should not artificially encourage Cadillac plans, which boost demand for medical services and drive up health care costs for everyone. Although the Cadillac tax does not directly change the tax break for high-cost employer plans, it offsets the break by imposing a separate 40 percent tax on those plans. That round-about approach is far from ideal, but it gets the job done. …the Cadillac tax has won support from economists across the ideological spectrum.

From the left, here’s some of what Bruce Bartlett wrote for the New York Times.

Although obviously a form of income to the worker, the Internal Revenue Service nevertheless ruled that it was not taxable, although businesses could still deduct the cost. This anomalous tax treatment was a fabulous tax loophole for both businesses and workers… Congress codified the I.R.S. ruling.. Various tax expenditures for health cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue per year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Eliminating them could finance a significant reduction in tax rates. …If the Republicans are serious about using tax reform to improve the competitiveness of American businesses, the best thing they can do is reform employer-based health insurance.

For honest folks on the left, they should be motivated by the fact that this exclusion overwhelmingly benefits upper-income taxpayers.

This chart from the Tax Policy Center has the details about this reverse form of class warfare.

I’m more concerned about the fact that the healthcare exclusion is bad policy. Along with MedicareMedicaid, and other forms of government intervention, it has crippled free markets and contributed to a very inefficient and costly healthcare system.

Like other loopholes, it should be repealed. But not so politicians get more money.

Every single penny should be returned to taxpayers as part of pro-growth tax reform that lowers marginal tax rates and reduces the tax bias against saving and investment.

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Image credit: http://401kcalculator.org | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Green New Deal: Cronyism on Steroids

Wed, 07/17/2019 - 12:18pm

From a macroeconomic perspective, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a flop. The federal government borrowed and redistributed almost $1 trillion, yet the economy stagnated.

From a microeconomic perspective, the faux stimulus may have been an even bigger failure. One of the worst features was the laughable and scandal-ridden green energy program, which featured corrupt boondoggles such as Solyndra.

Well, if you liked Solyndra, you’ll love the “Green New Deal,” a proposal to dramatically expand Washington’s power over the private economy.  As I explained in an article for the American Conservative, the plan introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is cronyism on steroids.

Looking at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, one is reminded of Voltaire’s comment that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But that might be slightly unfair. There is some Green in the GND, though the ideas aren’t New, and it’s definitely not a Deal. At least not for taxpayers. …budget gurus have examined the GND wish list and they calculate that the 10-year cost could reach $90 trillion. That’s trillion, not billion—a staggering amount of money. For all intents and purposes, Ocasio-Cortez wants to expand the burden of federal spending from 21 percent of economic output to about 50 percent of economic output. …The economic implications of these policies are horrifying. The GND would mean Greek-style fiscal policy in the United States, with concomitant economic stagnation.

But it’s not just bad fiscal policy.

The scheme would give politicians and bureaucrats immense powers to micro-manage the productive sector of the economy.

It’s equally important to consider how the GND would dramatically expand Washington’s power over the economy—above and beyond new taxes and higher spending. …the government would be obliged to end any and all reliance on fossil fuels and shift the nation to 100 percent renewable energy. …the government would be obliged to provide universal and unrestricted access to health care for everyone. …the government would be obliged to provide everybody with a job that includes generous benefits, including paid vacations and a comfortable retirement. …the government would be obliged to create a nationwide system that was so quick and so effective that commercial air travel could be ended. …the government would be obliged to gut and rebuild every single structure in the country so that they all met a zero-net-carbon goal.

What would this mean?

A feeding frenzy of well-connected special interests at the expense of ordinary taxpayers, which would be very unseemly.

That’s the direct cost.

But from an economic perspective, what matters is that labor and capital increasingly would be allocated by political forces (i.e., cronyism) rather than market forces (i.e., the preferences of consumers).

For all intents and purposes, the GND is a form of central planning. Not full Soviet style steering of the economy, but nonetheless a step in that direction.

And this indirect costs imposed by this approach wouldn’t be trivial.

Every single one of these costly ideas will serve as a magnet for consultants, contractors, administrators, and others who will want to profit by “helping” to implement the various pieces of the GND. For those who remember the corruption and cronyism of the Obama administration’s green energy program (part of the failed stimulus), Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing. But far more extensive. …what happens if the “invisible hand” of consumer-driven competition is replaced (or substantially weakened) because politicians adopt something like the Green New Deal? …market forces will get squeezed as politicians directly allocate resources in the economy. …cronyism and regulation undermine the free market just as taxes and spending undermine the free market. The mechanism—direct versus indirect—isn’t the same, but in both cases the preferences of consumers no longer drive the economy.

The bottom line is that the GND is a corporatist scheme using the environment as a pretext.

If you don’t believe me, just look at what AOC’s top aide said about the proposal.

The chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated that her signature Green New Deal was not really about saving the planet after all. In a report by the Washington Post, Saikat Chakrabarti revealed that “it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all … we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” …The Green New Deal itself was fraught with complications in its February roll-out, which included confusing language and contradictions in the “Frequently Asked Question” section. …The Green New Deal, which some estimated could cost upwards of $93 trillion to enact, also promised “economic prosperity for all.”

Refreshingly honest on the part of Mr. Chakrabarti, but also a stark warning to the rest of us.

By the way, the excerpt mentions the “confusing language” in the original GND documents. I would call is terrifying language. This section is particularly crazy.

David Harsanyi highlighted 10 of the most bizarre provisions in a column for the Federalist.

It is not hyperbole to contend that GND is likely the most ridiculous and un-American plan that’s ever been presented by an elected official to voters. …the plan’s authors assure us that this “massive transformation of our society” needs some “clear goals and a timeline.” The timeline is ten years. Here are some of the goals: …Ban affordable energy. …Eliminate nuclear energy. …Eliminate 99 percent of cars. …Gut and rebuild every building in America. …Eliminate air travel. …A government-guaranteed job. ….Free education for life. …A salubrious diet. …A house. …Free money. …Bonus insanity: Ban meat.

And remember, all these provisions are enforced by politicians and bureaucrats repressing market forces and replacing them with political pull.

Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute summarizes why this is a bad idea.

…funding allocations will undoubtedly be determined by political forces rather than market forces. …final allocation will depend on the relative clout of the lawmakers and will inefficiently differ from the allocations that consumers and producers would demand. In short, the Green New Deal would be a deficit financed expansion of federal bureaucratic power to dictate investment decisions in one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy. …further centralizing energy market decisions puts at risk the free market economy that our nation has relied on for economic growth for more than two centuries.

Exactly right, which is why the GND would translate to fewer jobs and lower living standards.

Here are two real-world examples from the Wall Street Journal showing why green cronyism is a bad idea.

The first is from the United States.

…consider the public housing projects near Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York office. The New York City Housing Authority (Nycha)…is switching to LED lighting, which lasts longer than incandescent bulbs and consumes less energy. Sounds smart, until you see how many union workers it takes to screw in a light bulb. One recent project focused on 23 housing developments, and changing the light bulbs and fixtures there cost $33.2 million. Supplies account for a fraction of that cost. Under Nycha’s Project Labor Agreement, electricians make $81 in base pay and $54 in fringe per hour, and overtime is usually time and a half. Add administrative and contracting expenses. All in, Nycha paid an average of $1,973 per apartment to install LEDs. …In the private economy, $1,973 could go a long way toward improving a dilapidated apartment. Only in the world of green government spending is replacing light bulbs for two grand a unit a cost-saving measure.

Don’t forget, by the way, that light bulbs also are more expensive once government is part of the equation.

The second is from Australia.

The Green New Deal…calls among other things for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States…” We’ve tried it in Australia—on a much smaller scale—and it didn’t go well. On Feb. 3, 2009, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, announced the Energy Efficient Homes Package. “To support jobs and set Australia up for a low carbon future the Rudd Government will install free ceiling insulation in around 2.7 million Australian homes…” There were only 250 registered insulation businesses in Australia when the package was announced. That number quickly blew out to 7,000 because the government was handing out free money to installers. …They received their rebates directly from the government rather than from homeowners, who therefore had little incentive to check if the work had been done well or even at all. …Almost every insulation job went right up to the $1,600 cap, regardless of size or ceiling area. …Nearly 100 houses caught fire. …In February 2010, a year after the Energy Efficient Homes Package was announced, it was abandoned.

I also recommend this column about what happened in Germany.

P.S. Donald Trump is also at least somewhat guilty of wanting to replace market forces with government intervention.

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Image credit: Pedro Xing | CC0 1.0.

Ready for the Green New Cronyism?

Wed, 07/17/2019 - 12:06pm

Originally published by The American Conservative on July 16, 2019.

Looking at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, one is reminded of Voltaire’s comment that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

But that might be slightly unfair. There is some Green in the GND, though the ideas aren’t New, and it’s definitely not a Deal. At least not for taxpayers.

Many experts have pondered the likely fiscal burden of the GND. This is a speculative exercise since Ocasio-Cortez has a resolution rather than a bill. In other words, there’s no legislative language. She simply wants fellow lawmakers to conceptually endorse her wish list of policies, much as they periodically pass resolutions for things like National Dairy Goat Appreciation Week.

That being said, budget gurus have examined the GND wish list and they calculate that the 10-year cost could reach $90 trillion. That’s trillion, not billion—a staggering amount of money. For all intents and purposes, Ocasio-Cortez wants to expand the burden of federal spending from 21 percent of economic output to about 50 percent of economic output.

So how’s this fiscal orgy going to be financed? There are three potential options: 1) Lots of tax increases: Ocasio-Cortez and other GND supporters are very ecumenical about potential revenue sources. Higher income tax rates are on the list, as are energy taxes and levies on financial transactions; 2) Lots of new debt: even huge tax increases would be incapable of generating enough money to finance the items on the wish list. This presumably means the economy also will be saddled with a large amount of additional red ink as well; 3) Printing money: many of the advocates of the GND are also supporters of “modern monetary theory,” which is a bizarre theory that big expansions of government can be financed by printing money. Suffice to say such an approach didn’t work for Weimar Germany.

The economic implications of these policies are horrifying. The GND would mean Greek-style fiscal policy in the United States, with concomitant economic stagnation.

But this is just part of the problem.

It’s equally important to consider how the GND would dramatically expand Washington’s power over the economy—above and beyond new taxes and higher spending. Consider some of the explicit goals of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal.

  • Zero-carbon economy: the government would be obliged to end any and all reliance on fossil fuels and shift the nation to 100 percent renewable energy.
  • High quality healthcare: the government would be obliged to provide universal and unrestricted access to health care for everyone.
  • Guaranteed jobs: the government would be obliged to provide everybody with a job that includes generous benefits, including paid vacations and a comfortable retirement.
  • National high-speed rail: the government would be obliged to create a nationwide system that was so quick and so effective that commercial air travel could be ended.
  • Retrofitting every building in the nation: the government would be obliged to gut and rebuild every single structure in the country so that they all met a zero-net-carbon goal.

Every single one of these costly ideas will serve as a magnet for consultants, contractors, administrators, and others who will want to profit by “helping” to implement the various pieces of the GND.

For those who remember the corruption and cronyism of the Obama administration’s green energy program (part of the failed stimulus), Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing. But far more extensive.

Let’s take a look at why this is misguided. And that means we have to endure a lesson about the economics of growth.

In a market-based economy, consumers are ultimately in charge. Businesses can only earn profits if they provide goods and services that meet the needs of people.

And businesses compete with each other to offer the best products at the best prices in hopes of capturing a slice of the market.

To use economic jargon, this competitive process drives the allocation of labor and capital, which are the “factors of production.” In everyday language, it simply means that jobs and investment naturally gravitate to industries and companies that do a better job of satisfying consumers.

Competition also drives innovation. Entrepreneurs are constantly putting money at risk in hopes of finding new and improved goods and services that will capture the interest of consumers.

Yes, many new products and most new businesses will fail, but it only takes a few successes to drive the economy. And those successes disrupt incumbent firms, causing them to lose market share, and maybe even go out of business.

In other words, capitalism is sometimes not very pleasant for capitalists. Consumers simply care about getting more for less, not whether an established company fails.

That’s the bad news, so to speak. The good news is that this process, known as “creative destruction,” is what makes societies richer over time. The invention of the electric light bulb displaces products such as candles and enables a big boost in productivity. The invention of the automobile displaces horse and buggy transport and enables a big boost in productivity. The invention of the personal computer displaces the typewriter and enables a big boost in productivity.

This is the way a healthy economy operates.

But what happens if the “invisible hand” of consumer-driven competition is replaced (or substantially weakened) because politicians adopt something like the Green New Deal? As noted above, Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal envisions a massive expansion in both the size and scope of government.

Taxes and spending will consume a much larger share of the economy, which means that market forces will get squeezed as politicians directly allocate resources in the economy.

But the fiscal burden of the GND is just part of the story. There will be a substantial increase in the amount of regulation, cronyism, and red tape, according to major provisions of Ocasio-Cortez’s plan. And this also means that market forces will get squeezed as politicians indirectly allocate resources in the economy.

The key thing to understand is that cronyism and regulation undermine the free market just as taxes and spending undermine the free market. The mechanism—direct versus indirect—isn’t the same, but in both cases the preferences of consumers no longer drive the economy.

Instead, the crowd in Washington tilts the economic playing field. And it’s quite possible that regulatory cronyism can do even more damage than taxes and spending.

Consider, for instance, the economic impact of a carbon tax. It would be bad for growth, since energy is a very important input for major portions of the economy. But both companies and consumers will adapt to the new burden and hopefully figure out ways to become more efficient to minimize the burden of the new levy (indeed, proponents of the tax explicitly hope and expect to see this happen).

But now contemplate the likely economic impact of a bunch of bureaucrats promulgating new regulations in hopes of artificially generating a particular change in energy consumption. The new rules and red tape will add costs to the economy, but almost certainly in a very haphazard fashion. Different interest groups will seek special treatment and politicians will put their thumbs on the scale as well.

Equally worrisome, many companies will decide that manipulating the levers of power in Washington is a shortcut to “earning” a profit. Suffice to say it won’t be a positive development if companies decide that pleasing Washington is more important than pleasing consumers.

During the Obama administration, a failed company called Solyndra became a symbol of ineffective and wasteful cronyism. The firm received hundreds of millions of dollars in goodies from Washington, money that was then squandered. Consumers didn’t benefit. Taxpayers didn’t benefit. And the economy didn’t benefit.

The Green New Deal would be Solyndra on steroids. Politicians and bureaucrats would have immense new powers.

This would create a feeding frenzy of cronyism.

This will mean more corruption, given the nature of politics. But from an economic perspective, the worrisome outcome will be stagnation. That might lead to a backlash and better policy. But we’ve also seen many examples around the world of voters responding to economic unease by demanding even more “help” from government. Americans tend to be more freedom-oriented, so hopefully it will be the former outcome rather than the latter.

 

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Image credit: nrkbeta | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Two Things to Understand about Debt Limit Hysteria

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 12:13pm

One of the few theoretical constraints on Washington is that politicians periodically have to raise a “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” in order to finance additional spending with additional red ink.

I have mixed feelings about this requirement. I like that there is some limit on spending, even if it’s only a potential restraint.

On the other hand, fights over the debt limit are mostly just opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to engage in posturing and finger pointing rather than adopt positive reforms.

Moreover, the scholarly research clearly suggests that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule, so what’s the point of having a debt limit if potential spending restraint never turns into actual spending restraint?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post looks at the current fight and opines that we shouldn’t even have a debt limit.

The government is about to run out of money because of an arbitrary cap on how much it can borrow… Lawmakers and the White House are haggling over the conditions under which they will, once again, temporarily raise that cap, known as the debt ceiling. But the better solution would be to abolish it entirely… Most recently, the government hit the official debt limit on March 1 . Since then, the Treasury Department has engaged in “extraordinary measures” to shift money around and continue paying its bills… Initially Treasury predicted that its extraordinary measures would get us to October, but more recent forecasts suggest we will hit the wall as soon as early September. Which means the drop-dead deadline before we become global deadbeats could happen while Congress is away on summer vacation.

She worries that a failure to raise the debt ceiling could have very negative consequences.

So what happens if we default on our debt obligations? Well, for one, it would violate the Constitution, which says the “validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.” No small thing. …U.S. debt instruments are currently considered the safest of safe assets because creditors believe they’ll be paid back on time and in full. …Calling our creditworthiness into question could therefore set off a chain reaction of global financial panic.

I agree.

Defaulting on the debt (i.e., not paying bondholders what they’ve been contractually promised) would be very damaging to financial markets.

In reality, however, what we’re really talking about is potentially a delay in making promised payments. Which would be harmful, though presumably not nearly as bad as long-run default.

And even a delay in payments might not happen if the Treasury Department made sure that tax revenue was set aside to make all promised payments to bondholders.

Though Ms. Rampell doesn’t like this idea, which is sometimes called “prioritization.”

Some right-wingers…have in the past suggested that defaulting is no big deal, perhaps even desirable. They (mistakenly) think that a debt default would allow those in charge to unilaterally decide which bills deserve payment and which don’t, bypassing the democratic budget process.

I’m not sure why she says prioritization is a “mistaken” view.

I testified to Congress about this issue in 2013 and in 2016. If the debt limit isn’t raised, meaning no ability to issue new debt, that would be the same as an overnight balanced budget requirement (i.e., spending could only equal current tax revenue).

If that happened and Treasury made sure to prioritize interest payments (to avoid the potentially bad results Ms. Rampell and others warn about), who would have the power to stop that from happening?

I’m guessing lawsuits would be filed, but I can’t imagine a judge would issue an injunction to require a default.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue. Back in 2017, when a similar fight occurred, Heather Long of the Washington Post identified five reasons to worry.

Unless Trump and Congress pass a law raising the U.S. debt limit — a legal cap on how much the U.S. government is allowed to borrow — the Treasury Department will soon run out of money to pay its bills, triggering a first-in-modern-U.S.-history default that threatens to turn the world economy on its head. …The danger…is that at some point someone will miscalculate and the government will actually hit the debt limit, sparking a default, intentional or otherwise. Here are five reasons that would cause global panic.

How persuasive are these reasons?

First, it would trigger a wild ride for stocks and bonds. Wall Street doesn’t like bad surprises. …There would probably be an immediate, negative reaction in the markets.

If there’s an actual default, that would be horrible news.

If there’s a temporary default, that also would be bad news, though presumably far less catastrophic than a permanent default (though some will fan the flames of hysteria).

Second, America’s cheap funding source would end. …As soon as the United States actually defaults, investors would start suing the country, and they would almost certainly insist on much higher interest rates in the future.

Interest rates surely would climb because of the perception of added risk for investors.

Though I wonder by how much. I think Italy is heading toward a fiscal/financial crisis, yet investors are buying up plenty of that government’s debt at very low interest rates.

Third, real people won’t get paid. …The Trump administration would have to either stop payments to everyone or they would have to pick who gets paid and who does not. That means deciding between bondholders, Social Security recipients, welfare recipients, …etc.

Interesting, Ms. Long accepts that prioritization would happen.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing bondholders and Social Security recipients would be at the front of the line.

Fourth, America’s global power would decline. …The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. People carry dollars and hold U.S. bonds all over the world because they believe America is their best and safest bet. A default would probably cause the value of the dollar to drop and global investors to shift some money out of U.S. assets.

This is an interesting claim.

The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

Does drama over the debt limit, or even a temporary default, lead investors to shift, en masse, to another currency?

Perhaps, though I don’t see an alternative. The euro is compromised because the European Central Bank surrendered its independence by engaging in indirect bailouts of some of Europe’s decrepit welfare states.

The Chinese financial system is too debt ridden and too opaque to give investors confidence in that nation’s currency. And other nations are simply too small.

Fifth, a recession is possible. …hitting the debt limit could cause a sharp drop in markets and sentiment around the world as everyone worries that if the United States defaults, who’s next? Investors might start panicking and ditching bonds of other countries in Europe and Asia, too.

These are all reasonable concerns.

It all depends, of course, whether there’s a temporary default and how long it lasts.

And since we may be in the midst of a debt bubble fueled by easy money, any triggering event could lead to very bad outcomes.

Which is why it would make sense for lawmakers to embrace prioritization. There has been legislation to make that happen.

For what it’s worth, it should be quite feasible to prioritize.

Here’s the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see from the parts I’ve circled, the government is projected to collect far more revenue than would be needed to fulfill obligations to bondholders.

To be sure, prioritization means that some recipients of federal largesse would have to wait in line. This would be unseemly and unwelcome, but it already happens in profligate states such as Illinois without causing any economic or fiscal disarray.

Who knows, maybe politicians would even decide that it’s time to jettison some federal programs. But since I understand “public choice,” I won’t be holding my breath awaiting that outcome.

I’ll close with two observations.

The first, which I’ve already discussed, is that a failure to increase the debt limit should not result in default. Unless, of course, the Treasury Department wants that to happen. But that’s inconceivable, which is why I fully expect prioritization if we ever get to that point.

The second is that debt limit fights are messy and counterproductive, but I don’t want it abolished since there’s a chance that one of these battles eventually may force politicians to deal with our fiscal mess – thus saving the country from a future Greek-style economic and fiscal meltdown.

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Image credit: pxhere | CC0 Public Domain.

Norway, Sweden, Socialism, and the Welfare State

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 12:58pm

The Nordic nations punch above their weight in global discussions of economic policy.

Advocates of bigger government in the United States, such as Bernie Sandersclaim that those countries are proof that socialism can work.

But there’s a big problem with that claim. The Nordic nations don’t have any of the policies – government ownershipcentral planning, or price controls – that are characteristics of a socialist economy.

But they do have high taxes and big welfare states. And since some politicians seem to think America should copy those policies, let’s see what we can learn by examining the Nordic nations.

NIma Sanandaji, writing for Foreign Policyhighlights what is good – and not so good – about government policy in the region. He starts by looking specifically at Norway.

Erlend Kvitrud, a member of the Norwegian Green Party, links democratic socialist economic policies and Nordic countries’ prosperity. …the left has for decades showcased the Nordic nations as proof that socialism can work not only in theory but also in practice. …Inconveniently for fans of the Nordic welfare model, though, Norway’s actual economic success rests on its wealth of natural resources. …Norway’s oil fund is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth around $200,000 per citizen. It wasn’t Norway’s social democratic economic policies that created the country’s wealth. It was nature. …The other Nordic countries, which lack Norway’s oil and natural gas riches, have lower living standards than the United States.

He’s certainly correct in highlighting the role of oil wealth in Norway.

And he also points out that Norway became a successful and prosperous nation before the welfare state was imposed.

What’s more, the Nordic countries’ social successes predate their high-tax, high-social spending policies. …economists Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Sogaard shows that most of the progress toward income inequality in Norway and Sweden happened before 1970, at a time when the two countries had low tax regimes and less redistributive policies. Similarly, the Nordic countries’ social successes were more pronounced in those years. Relative to the rest of the world, for example, they had a greater advantage in life span and child mortality in 1970 than they do today. In other words, the Nordic model arose after those countries were already prosperous and egalitarian.

These are all good points, but I think Nima actually overlooks one very powerful argument.

Yes, per-capita GDP in Norway is very similar to the United States, but gross domestic product is an imperfect measure of living standards. The data in relatively small economies can be misleading if there is a particular sector that distorts national statistics – such as financial services in Luxembourg or corporations in Ireland.

That’s why, if you want to measure the prosperity of households, it’s best to review the OECD’s data on “actual individual consumption.”

I’ve shared that data for all developed nations in the past, and the Council of Economic Advisers recently did a specific comparison of the United States and Nordic nations.

Norway is still impressive, ranked higher than its neighbors, but not in the same league as the United States.

By the way, in another article, this time for National Review, Nima explains that America actually has more women in management than any of the Nordic nations.

Science Daily once bluntly stated that “the Nordic countries are the most gender equal nations in the world.” There is some truth to this. …A common assumption is that the gender-equality progress of the Nordics is due to their social-democratic welfare policies. …The truth is that Nordic countries have a long history of gender equality, stretching back to the time of the Vikings. …One might expect this to translate into many women reaching the top of the business world. But this clearly is not the case. …the share of women among managers, as recorded by the International Labour Organization, is 43 percent in the United States, compared with 36 percent in Sweden and 28 percent in Denmark. …a pattern emerges: Those with more extensive welfare-state policies have fewer women on top. Iceland, which has a moderately sized welfare state, has the most women managers. Second is Sweden, which has opened up welfare services such as education, health care, and elder care for private-sector competition. Denmark, which has the highest taxes and the biggest welfare state in the modern world, has the lowest share of women in managerial positions. …The true lesson, that a large welfare state actually can impede women’s progress.

Let’s return to the big-picture economic comparisons.

Professor Hannes Gissurason of the University of Iceland authored a report on the Nordic model for the Foundation for European Reform.

It’s a very detailed study covering lots of issues.

The five Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, are rightly regarded as successful societies. They are affluent, but without a wide gap between rich and poor. They provide social security, but without a significant erosion, it seems, of their freedoms. They are small, but they all enjoy a good reputation around the world as peaceful, civilised democracies. The Nordic nations are healthy and well-educated and the crime rate is low. But what is it that other nations can learn from the Nordic success story?

For today, let’s focus on the third chapter, which look at three distinct eras of Swedish economic history.

…a distinction can be made between three Swedish models. The liberal model was developed in the mid-19th century, when liberal principles of free trade and unfettered competition were generally accepted and implemented in Sweden. The years between 1970 and 1990 were the heyday of the social democratic welfare model, although it had of course started its development much earlier and was to last for a few more years. The third model emerged in the 1990s after the experience of the social democratic model: this was the liberal welfare model.

The first era, which was based on classical liberal principles of free markets and limited government, is when Sweden became rich.

It was the liberal model which made Sweden wealthy, as Swedish economist Nima Sanandaji has well documented. Between 1870 and 1936, Sweden enjoyed the highest growth rate in the industrialised world… What produced the astonishing growth after 1870 was the introduction of economic freedom into a relatively poor society, but with strong traditions of self-reliance, hard work, thriftiness, and respect for the law and a high level of education. Money was sound, with the Swedish krona being on the gold standard… The environment was friendly to business and taxes were relatively low, even after the Social Democrats took over. In 1955, for example, tax revenues in Sweden, as a proportion of GDP, were the same as in the US, 24%.

The second era is when Sweden shifted to what some people call democratic socialism, but more accurately should be called the era of big government.

There were high taxes and lots of redistribution programs. And, not surprisingly, this led to economic stagnation.

…In 1975, tax revenues, as a proportion of GDP, had risen to 39% in Sweden, but was still only 25% in the US… In 2004, 38 of the largest companies in Sweden were entrepreneurial which means that they had been started as privately owned enterprises within the country. …Only two had been formed after 1970. While the public sector grew, the private sector stagnated. Between 1950 and 2000, the Swedish population grew from seven to almost nine million. Incredibly, the net job creation in the private sector during this period was close to zero. All the new jobs were in the public sector. …Many entrepreneurs left the country, including the founders of IKEA, Tetra Pak, and H&M.

Big government undermines initiative and weakens economic performance.

The study includes this data on how Swedes get richer in America than they do back home.

All this bad news created the conditions for the third era, which featured market-based reforms – regardless of which party or parties were in control of government.

Reluctantly, the Social Democrats started some reforms, deregulating credit and foreign exchange markets and changing the tax system, lowering marginal income tax from 73% to 51% and the capital gains tax to 30%. In 1991 a non-socialist government was voted in again. Now it was also anti-socialist, and it immediately abolished the wage earner funds… energy, postal, telephone, railway, and airline markets were all deregulated. …The government introduced school vouchers, sold stateowned companies, and carried out reforms in the labour market, especially designed for small businesses and private job agencies. The government also allowed for some choice in health care and assistance to the elderly. …when the Social Democrats returned to power in 1994…welfare benefits were cut; a new pension system was established, partly with self-funded pensions; collective bargaining was reformed; the inheritance tax was abolished. The centre-right government which was in power 2006–2014 continued liberalising the Swedish economy: the wealth tax was abolished, …property rights were strengthened, and the corporate tax was cut to 22%.

In other words, for the past twenty or so years, Sweden has been a leader in pro-market reforms.

Yes, there’s still a big government. But not as big as it used to be.

Yes, there are still high taxes. But not as high as they used to be.

And what’s the lesson we can learn?

This chart is very persuasive. It shows how Swedish prosperity, measured relative to the United States, declined during the era of big government.

But there’s been some convergence ever since policy makers started liberalizingthe Swedish economy.

And we see a similar pattern if we compare Sweden to all other industrialized nations.

P.S. A very interesting study suggests that widespread migration to America made Sweden more statist.

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Image credit: Hansjorn | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Pakistan: A Case Study of IMF Malfeasance

Sun, 07/14/2019 - 12:51pm

I’ve labeled the International Monetary Fund as the “dumpster fire” of the world economy.

I’ve also called the bureaucracy the “Dr. Kevorkian” of international economic policy, though that reference many not mean anything to younger readers.

My main complaint is that the IMF is always urging – or even extorting – nations to impose higher tax burdens.

Let’s look at a fresh example of this odious practice.

According to a Reuters report, IMF-supported tax increases are provoking economic strife in Pakistan.

Markets and wholesale merchants across Pakistan closed on Saturday in a strike by businesses against measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. …Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government..is having to impose tough austerity measures having been forced to turn to the IMF for Pakistan’s 13th bailout since the late 1980s. …Under the IMF bailout, signed this month, Pakistan is under heavy pressure to boost its tax revenues.

I’m not surprised the private sector is protesting against IMF-instigated tax hikes.

We see similar stories from all over the world.

But what really grabbed my attention was the reference to 13 bailouts. Good grief, you would think the IMF bureaucrats would learn after five or six attempts that they shouldn’t throw good money after bad.

That being said, I wondered if the IMF was pushing for big tax hikes because they had demanded – and received – big spending cuts in exchange for the previous 12 bailouts.

So I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database to peruse the numbers…and I discovered that the IMF’s repeated bailouts actually led to big increases in the burden of spending.

The IMF’s numbers, which go back to 1993, show that outlays have tripled. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

Looking closely at the chart, I suppose one could argue that Pakistan was semi-responsible up until the turn of the century. Yes, the spending burden increased, but at a relatively mild rate.

But the brakes definitely came off this century. Enabled by endless bailouts from the IMF, Pakistan’s politicians definitely aren’t complying with my Golden Rule.

I’ll close with one final point.

The IMF types, as well as others on the left, actually want people to believe that Pakistan should have a bigger burden of government spending.

According to this novel theory, the public sector in the country, which currently consumes more than 20 percent of GDP, is too small to finance the “investments” that are needed to enable more prosperity.

Yet if this theory is accurate, why is Pakistan’s economy stagnant when there are prosperous jurisdictions with smaller spending burdens, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan?

And if the theory is accurate, why did the United States and Western Europe become rich in the 1800s, back when governments only consumed about 10 percent of economic output?

This video tells you everything you need to know.

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Image credit: Uzairmaqbool | Pixabay License.

Is Democratic Socialism Better than other Types of Socialism?

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 12:40pm

I’ve repeatedly warned about the downsides of socialism, calling it “evil and stupid,” as well as a “dreary failure.”

Though these debates can be frustrating because of vague definitions.

Some people, when they talk about socialism, are referring to government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls.

Others, by contrast, are referring to Scandinavia’s market-based welfare states.

And there’s also a distinction to be made between Marxist socialism and less totalitarian versions.

Speaking of which Joseph Stiglitz opined in the Washington Post about the benefits of so-called democratic socialism.

…no one in the United States is advocating a government takeover of coal mines or oil fields — not Ocasio-Cortez, not Sanders, not anybody. …the extremes of capitalism and its dysfunction have given rise to questions such as: Can capitalism be saved from itself? …American democratic socialists — or call them what you will — is simply advocating a model that embraces government’s important role in social protection and inclusion, environmental protection, and public investment in infrastructure, technology and education. They recognize the public’s regulatory role in preventing corporations from exploiting customers or workers… Millennials respond to the label “democratic socialist” in a pragmatic way. They say, if it means ensuring a decent life for all Americans, then we’re for it. …many of these ideas have the support of a majority of Americans, especially the young.

I don’t doubt that many people respond favorably to polling questions about getting things for free.

Even the young. Maybe especially the young.

Indeed, the desire to get something for nothing is the Achilles Heel of democracy.

But does any of that mean socialism works?

Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason Law School is appropriately skeptical.

He explains why socialism imposed by a democratically elected government won’t be any more successful than the totalitarian forms of socialism.

Historically, socialism—defined as government control over all or most of the economy—has led to mass murder, poverty, and oppression on an enormous scale. …The current horrible oppression in Venezuela…is just the latest iteration of the same pattern. …current advocates of democratic socialism argue that this awful record isn’t relevant to their proposals. …we are assured that latter-day socialists don’t actually mean to impose government control over the means of production. They just want greatly increased regulation and welfare state spending. Unfortunately, the…expansion of government power advocated by modern socialists is so great that it would put most of the economy under state control, even if much industry formally remained under private ownership. It goes far beyond any Scandinavian precedent. …The standard agenda favored by most democratic socialists –  single-payer health care, universal free college, and a guaranteed federal job for anyone who wants one—would cost some $42.5 trillion over a ten year period ($4.25 trillion per year). …many enterprises would officially remain under private ownership, implementation of the democratic socialist agenda would ensure that the federal government controls the lion’s share of actual economic resources.

Professor Somin warns that the Sanders/AOC agenda would push America way to the left of the Nordic nations.

Often, their agenda is analogized to the policies of Scandinavian nations, which have large welfare states, but remain relatively prosperous and free. …The democratic socialist agenda goes well beyond the Nordic nations advocates sometimes cite as models. While these countries have comparatively large welfare states, they combine them with low levels of regulation and high openness to international trade. To take just one example, none of the Nordic nations have a national government-mandated minimum wage. The Nordic nations actually come close to the United States (and occasionally even outscore it) on standard measures of economic liberty. Iceland (slightly ahead of the US) and Denmark (slightly behind) were statistically indistinguishable from the US in the latest Index of Economic Freedom ranking put out by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Finland and Sweden were only slightly lower. When Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen tried to explain to Bernie Sanders that his country is not actually socialist, the latter should have listened.

I’ve made similar arguments about relatively high levels of economic liberty in Scandinavia, so I obviously think this is spot on.

Somin also speculates that democratic socialism in America may morph into totalitarian socialism. Which is what’s happened in Venezuela. And may happen to Greece.

I worry that he’s right, particularly since redistribution erodes societal capital.

Though I hope he’s wrong.

In any event, that’s a secondary issue. At least for now.

What matters today is that politicians are promising lots of freebies. Notwithstanding the “investment” argument made by Stiglitz and others, those new handouts will undermine prosperity.

And that’s true regardless of whether the additional spending is financed with new taxes or new debt (or printing money).

A Lesson from China about Growth and Shared Prosperity

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 12:46pm

I’ve just finished up a week of teaching at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China.

I mostly taught public finance and explained issues such as marginal tax ratesdouble taxation, the Rahn Curve, the Laffer Curve, and the fiscal implications of demographic change.

I also gave a lecture on comparative economics and looked at nations that converged or diverged over several decades. And this lecture included some material on China’s impressive (but still incomplete) reforms and subsequent growth.

The goal of the classes was to make the students aware of key issues rather than to proselytize.

But one thing I noticed in the class discussions is that students were under the impression that capitalism was mostly for the benefit of the rich.

I tried to preemptively deal with that question by recycling my charts showing how poverty fell dramatically after China shifted toward free markets.

That’s very compelling data, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not overly confident the students were similarly impressed.

So in future years, I think I’m going to steal some data from Professor Ken Schoolland, who was also part of the faculty.

This data showing changes in income distribution between 1980 and 2008 is very powerful.

As you can see, almost everybody was very poor back in 1980, which was about when China began liberalizing its economy.

By 1995, a significant share of the population climbed out of poverty.

And the 2008 numbers show that a majority of the population was middle class or above.

Very impressive. It seems a rising tide does lift all boats.

To be sure, China hasn’t turned into a mainland version of Hong Kong. It’s not even close to Taiwan.

But you don’t need perfection. Chinese data confirms that partial reforms (what I call giving an economy “breathing room“) can generate significant benefits.

P.S. There’s also data on how incomes have expanded over time for both the United States and the entire world.

P.P.S. Much to my dismay, I forgot to inform the student about how the IMF and the OECD want to sabotage China’s economy.

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Image credit: wuwow | Pixabay License.

Joe Biden: Providing another Great Moment in Left-Wing Hypocrisy

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 12:04pm

wrote last month about a group of leftist millionaires who said they should pay more in taxes.

My response was to ask why they aren’t taking advantage of the existing process that allows them to send extra money to the federal government? There’s even a special website that facilitates payments from people who want to voluntarily pay more tax.

Yet, in a glaring example of hypocrisy, these rich statists won’t “put their money where their mouths are.”

Now we have a new example of a rich leftist who says one thing and does another.

And he happens to be a former Vice President of the United States. Tax Notes reports that Joe Biden, who says he wants higher taxes if he wins the 2020 presidential election, has been very aggressive about minimizing the amount of his money that is taken by the IRS.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s tax returns show he took advantage of a planning strategy that the Obama administration tried to shut down. The planning technique involves the use of an S corporation to allow only a small portion of an individual’s earnings to be subject to self-employment tax. On the portion that isn’t on the hook for self-employment taxes, in some cases it can also escape the 3.8 percent net investment income tax for high-income earners enacted into law during the Obama administration. “It’s truly astounding to me that Biden would take such an aggressive position while contemplating a run for president,” Steven Rosenthal of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center said. “I don’t get it,” he added. …Biden, who is now a Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, released federal and state tax information on June 9 showing he and his wife, Jill, earned millions from speaking and writing engagements since leaving office.

Interesting, there are some Democrats who have chosen not to take advantage of this strategy.

…before becoming president, Barack Obama earned income as an author but listed it on Schedule C, subjecting it to self-employment tax. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., similarly earned income as author and listed the amounts on Schedule C.

What makes Biden’s hypocrisy so remarkable is that the Obama-Biden Administration proposed to make this type of avoidanceillegal.

In its proposed fiscal 2017 budget, the Obama administration would’ve expanded the 3.8 investment to passthrough income so it wouldn’t escape the 3.8 percent tax based on a technicality. The provision, included in a section entitled “loophole closers,” would have raised $271.7 billion over 10 years, according to the Treasury Department’s analysis of the proposal.

So Biden wanted to take away the right of other people to protect their money, yet he is perfectly happy to copy their tax-minimization tactics.

By the way, I should say, quite emphatically, that Biden made the right choice for his family.

Voluntarily giving more money to Washington would be wasteful and reckless. I’m not going to claim that politicians in D.C. are the worst people in the country. But I will assert that they’re the ones with the worst incentive to use money wisely.

In any event, there’s definitely something distasteful about a rich leftist politician behaving like a “greedy capitalist” in his private life. Especially since this politician in the past has asserted that it’s patriotic to pay more tax!

Does this make him a fiscal draft dodger? Is there smoke coming out of the Hypocrisy Meter?

And if so, does that mean John Kerry also is unpatriotic? And what about Bill and Hillary Clinton?

Though Governor Pritzker of Illinois may be the most aggressive example of taxes-for-thee-but-not-for-me.

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Image credit: Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0.

Heartwarming Stories of Civil Disobedience

Wed, 07/10/2019 - 12:27pm

I was delighted to learn in 2013 that an overwhelming majority of Americans would disobey if politicians passed laws to confiscate private firearms.

And we have firsthand evidence from Colorado and Connecticut that gun owners engage in widespread civil disobedience.

But people elsewhere in the world also have a bit of rebelliousness. Here are some excerpts from a column in Reason about what’s been happening in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s government—which also stepped up censorship and domestic surveillance after bloody attacks on two Christchurch mosques earlier this year—is running into stiff resistance to new gun rules from firearms owners who are slow to surrender now-prohibited weapons and will probably never turn them in. Officials should have seen it coming. …As of last week, only around 700 weapons had been turned over. There are an estimated 1.5 million guns—with an unknown number subject to the new prohibition on semiautomatic firearms—in the country overall. Traditionally relaxed in its approach to firearms regulation, and enjoying a low crime rate, New Zealand has no firearms registration rule. That means authorities have no easy way of knowing what guns are in circulation or who owns them. “These weapons are unlikely to be confiscated by police because they don’t know of their existence,” Philippa Yasbek of Gun Control NZ admitted. “These will become black-market weapons if their owners choose not to comply with the law and become criminals instead.”

Congrats to the Kiwis.

The spirit of civil disobedience exists throughout the Antipodes.

That gun owners would, in large numbers, defy restrictions should have been anticipated by anybody who…glanced across the Tasman Sea to Australia. “In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities,” wrote Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, after Australia’s 1996 compensated confiscation of firearms following a mass murder in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Csaszar put the number of illegally retained arms in Australia at between two and five million. “Many members of the community still possess grey-market firearms because they did not surrender these during the 1996–97 gun buyback,” the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission conceded in a 2016 report. “The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission continues to conservatively estimate that there are more than 260,000 firearms in the illicit firearms market.”

Congrats to the Aussies.

For what it’s worth, the Australian government hasn’t undertaken a big effort to round up guns. And I also don’t think the New Zealand government will mount a big campaign. Maybe they’ve watched this Reason video?

I’ll close with examples of noncompliance in America.

The Old West desert town of Needles, California,…is gaining notoriety… Leaders have declared it a “sanctuary city” for people who believe California’s strict gun laws have encroached too much on their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The City Council in the town of 5,000 that borders Arizona and is a few miles from the southern tip of Nevada last month unanimously declared Needles a “2nd Amendment Sanctuary City.” …This effort is part of a national trend of officials in more conservative areas resisting tougher state gun laws. In New Mexico, more than two dozen sheriffs in predominantly rural areas vowed to avoid enforcement, equipped with supportive “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” resolutions from county commissions. In Washington, sheriffs in a dozen counties said earlier this year that they won’t enforce the state’s sweeping new restrictions on semi-automatic rifles until the courts decide whether they are constitutional.

P.S. I also shared encouraging polling data on public attitudes about gun control in 2015.

P.P.S. And this polling data from cops in 2013 also gives me a reason to be optimistic.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, don’t forget that jury nullification is another way for individual Americans to fight bad laws.

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Image credit: vondelft | Pixabay License.

Keynesian Economics and Journalistic Malpractice

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 12:15pm

Given the repeated failures of Keynesian economic policy, both in America and around the worldyou would think the theory would be discredited.

Or at least be treated with considerable skepticism by anyone with rudimentary knowledge of economic affairs.

Apparently financial journalists aren’t very familiar with real-world evidence.

Here are some excerpts from a news report in the Wall Street Journal.

The economy was supposed to get a lift this year from higher government spending enacted in 2018, but so far much of that stimulus hasn’t shown up, puzzling economists. Federal dollars contributed significantly less to gross domestic product in early 2019 than what economic forecasters had predicted after Congress reached a two-year budget deal to boost government spending. …Spending by consumers and businesses are the most important drivers of economic growth, but in recent years, government outlays have played a bigger role in supporting the economy.

The lack of “stimulus” wasn’t puzzling to all economists, just the ones who still believe in the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

Maybe the reporter, Kate Davidson, should have made a few more phone calls.

Especially, for instance, to the people who correctly analyzed the failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus.

With any luck, she would have learned not to put the cart before the horse. Spending by consumers and businesses is a consequence of a strong economy, not a “driver.”

Another problem with the article is that she also falls for the fallacy of GDP statistics.

Economists are now wondering whether government spending will catch up to boost the economy later in the year… If government spending were to catch up in the second quarter, it would add 1.6 percentage points to GDP growth that quarter. …The 2018 bipartisan budget deal provided nearly $300 billion more for federal spending in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 above spending limits set in 2011.

The government’s numbers for gross domestic product are a measure of how national income is allocated.

If more of our income is diverted to Washington, that doesn’t mean there’s more of it. It simply means that less of our income is available for private uses.

That’s why gross domestic income is a preferable number. It shows the ways – wages and salaries, small business income, corporate profits, etc – that we earn our national income.

Last but not least, I can’t resist commenting on these two additional sentences, both of which cry out for correction.

Most economists expect separate stimulus provided by the 2017 tax cuts to continue fading this year. …And they must raise the federal borrowing limit this fall to avoid defaulting on the government’s debt.

Sigh.

Ms. Davidson applied misguided Keynesian analysis to the 2017 tax cut.

The accurate way to analyze changes in tax policy is to measure changes in marginal tax rates on productive behavior. Using that correct approach, the pro-growth impact grows over time rather than dissipating.

And she also applied misguided analysis to the upcoming vote over the debt limit.

If the limit isn’t increased, the government is forced to immediately operate on a money-in/money-out basis (i.e. a balanced budget requirement). But since revenues are far greater than interest payments on the debt, there would be plenty of revenue available to fulfill obligations to bondholders. A default would only occur if the Treasury Department deliberately made that choice.

Needless to say, that ain’t gonna happen.

The bottom line is that – at best – Keynesian spending can temporarily boost a nation’s level of consumption, but economic policy should instead focus on increasing production and income.

P.S. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch my 11-year old video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. Sadly, the article was completely correct about the huge spending increases that Trump and Congress approved when the spending caps were busted (again) in 2018.

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Image credit: National Portrait Gallery | CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Bizarre Moments in Taxation

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 12:09pm

Every so often, I share very weird stories about government regulations, from both America and around the world. And when I say weird, I’m not exaggerating.

But we also have some strange examples of tax loopholes.

I’m not talking about corporate jets, which should be characterized as a business expense.

Instead, I’m referring to bizarre examples of income that is arbitrarily exempt from tax.

The weirdest example in the United States is from Nevada (probably because politicians have a conflict of interest).

Today I want to write about a new tax loophole in Poland.

Polish lawmakers have approved a measure that would exonerate most workers under the age of 26 from income taxes… The bill would exonerate workers under the age of 26 from Poland’s 18 percent personal income tax for those whose gross earnings don’t surpass 85,500 zlotys (20,000 euros, $22,500) per year. That level is higher than Poland’s average income… Some two million people could benefit from the measure.

So what’s motivating this example of age-based tax discrimination?

Poland has long been haemorrhaging skilled workers to other EU states where they can find better paying jobs, posing both a long-term demographic risk and short-term problem finding enough labourers to continue the country’s streak of economic growth since the fall of communism in 1989.

I certainly agree that Poland faces a demographic challenge (along with other nations in Eastern Europe), both because of emigration and low birth rates.

And I also agree that Poland’s economy has been relatively successful since escaping the evil of communism.

But I’m not very confident that this policy is the right recipe for continued prosperity.

  • First, I don’t like discrimination in the tax code, whether based on the source of income, the use of income, the level of income, or – in this case – the age at which income is earned.
  • Second, this policy doesn’t affect social insurance taxes and value-added taxes, which are actually the biggest burden for ordinary workers in many Eastern European nations.
  • Third, unless Poland’s government imposes some spending discipline, a tax preference for young people may lead to higher taxes on other groups, thus offsetting any economic benefit.

To be sure, I’m glad Poland is addressing the issue by lowering taxes rather than by creating new programs and subsidies, as we’ve seen in some other European nations.

I’m simply not expecting big results.

P.S. You can click here to peruse other oddball examples of international tax policy.

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Image credit: Kaboompics.com | Creative Commons Zero (CC0) .

A Great Moment in Local Government

Sun, 07/07/2019 - 12:58pm

San Francisco used to be famous for cable cars.

Now it’s getting well known for its “poop patrol” and maps that warn people about the ubiquitous presence of human excrement.

Why are people defecating on city sidewalks? Because there’s a major problem with government-created homelessness thanks to rent control and zoning restrictions.

And homelessness gives us our topic for today because we have an astounding example of government waste.

More specifically, a story from the San Francisco Chronicle nicely summarizes the efficiency and competence of the public sector.

An experiment to put a homeless shelter in a San Francisco public school gym has so far been a costly failure, …costing taxpayers about $700 for each person who spends the night. …only five families have used the facility at 23rd and Valencia streets in the Mission, with an average occupancy of less than two people per night… The facility is completely empty several nights each month, Kositsky said, although shelter workers are on-site seven nights a week and through holidays, whether anyone shows up or not.

I’ve been to San Francisco many times. Hotels are not cheap.

But I’ve never had to pay anywhere close to $700 per night.

Though maybe this San Francisco program is a bargain since it costs the state $1.3 million per year to house a homeless person.

So why did the city create this boondoggle? For the same reason that many programs are created. Politicians and bureaucrats exaggerated about a problem.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen and the school’s administrators…advocated for the shelter, saying there were dozens of families facing homelessness at Buena Vista Horace Mann who needed someplace to sleep. The principal at the time, Richard Zapien, said he had identified 60 families in unstable housing.

But here’s a passage that captures the real story.

This program was created to funnel money to a non-profit group and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that officers of this group are supporters (campaign cash, get-out-the-vote, etc) of the politicians who created the program.

The city has been paying the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services $40,000 per month to manage the shelter, and if it were to be successful, would spend up to $900,000 per year to serve up to 20 families at a time with all-night staffing, food and support services to help them find permanent housing.

In other words, we have another example of how government is a racket.

No matter how flawed and foolish a program may be, never forget that it’s putting unearned money in the pockets of some group of people. And that group of people know how to play the game, since they then recycle some of the loot back to the politicians.

Politicians don’t care if the money is wasted. They don’t care if there’s rampant fraud.

They’re simply buying votes. With our money.

P.S. There is a sure-fire way of reducing this kind of corrupt behavior, but don’t hold your breath expecting it to happen.

P.P.S. Though you may want to hold your breath if you visit the city.

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Image credit: Noahnmf | CC BY-SA 4.0.

New Job Numbers and the Trump Economy Vs Obama Economy

Sat, 07/06/2019 - 12:18pm

When comparing the Obama economy and the Reagan economy, I often used a database from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve that compared jobs and growth data during business cycles.

That made sense since both presidents had an economic expansion that began relatively early in their tenures.

But what about comparing Obama and Trump? The Minneapolis Fed data isn’t overly useful since we’re in the same expansion that began during the Obama years.

To avoid that methodological problem, some people have been comparing the final years of the Obama Administration with the early years of the Trump Administration.

Let’s do the same thing using the just-released jobs data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate is only 3.7 percent, which is certainly good news. But the employment-population ratio is a better gauge of the real strength of the jobs market.

But those numbers don’t tell us much. They’ve been improving during the Trump years, but not in a way that seems different than the trend that was underway in Obama’s final years.

What about if we look at income data instead of employment data?

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial comparing the fate of workers under both administrations.

Time to wake up from the Barack Obama economy, folks, and admit how many more Americans are prospering from the faster economic growth and tighter labor market after the policy changes of 2017. …the economic expansion reached its 10th anniversary, the longest on record. But the accounts ignore that the last two years have been far different than the first eight in economic policies and results. We’re long enough into the Trump era to track the differences. ……Average hourly earnings for production-level manufacturing workers have grown at an annual rate of 2.8% during the Trump Presidency compared to 1.9% during Barack Obama’s second term.

The WSJ shares data on income growth in key states, and it certainly seems that Trump deserves bragging rights.

The WSJ also argues that Trump’s policies have been beneficial for minorities.

The jobless rate for blacks is 6.2%, which is only 2.9 percentage-points higher than for whites versus a 4.6 percentage-point difference before the start of the 2008 recession. Unemployment has fallen twice as much among blacks as whites since December 2016. Nearly one million more blacks and two million more Hispanics are employed than when Barack Obama left office, and minorities account for more than half of all new jobs created during the Trump Presidency. Unemployment among black women has hovered near 5% for the last six months, the lowest since 1972, and a mere 3.5% of high school graduates are unemployed. …The Trump Administration…policy mix of deregulation and tax reform has unleashed more private investment and job creation that has lifted productivity and wages for the non-affluent. The result has been faster growth and less inequality.

All this is positive news, but I’m not quite as hopeful about Trump’s policies as the WSJ.

The numbers are accurate, though I’m not sure whether we should give all the credit to Trump since it would be more accurate to say that policy has moved only marginally in the right direction.

Yes, tax policy and regulatory policy has moved in the right direction, but we’re moving in the wrong direction on spending policy and trade policy. And maybe monetary policy as well.

What’s the overall effect?

I gave Trump a report card last year. Here’s an updated version, along with grades for Obama.

Trump’s GPA is higher, but it’s not as if either one of them was a good student.

And before people berate about today’s supposedly strong economy, don’t forget that we may be in a bubble fueled by debt and easy money.

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Image credit: DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos | Public Domain.

The Continuing Battle against Cronyism at the Export-Import Bank

Fri, 07/05/2019 - 12:41pm

One of the worst examples of Washington cronyism is the Export-Import Bank, which has provided subsidies for big companies that sell to foreign buyers.

Corrupt firms such as Boeing and General Electric argue that they need help from the Ex-Im Bank in order make those sales.

Is that true?

Interestingly, we had a real-world test earlier this decade when the Ex-Im Bank was temporarily shut down and then, after re-opening, was largely unable to provide subsidies to big corporations.

So what happened? Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus explains that exporters did just fine when the Ex-Im Bank was curtailed.

Back in 2015, there was widespread agreement in Congress that the Export-Import Bank — the U.S. government’s export credit agency — was nothing but a crony bank, mostly serving the greedy interests of Boeing and other large companies. As a result, Congress let the bank’s charter expire. It was reauthorized a few months later but in a much-diminished form, operating at 15% capacity. …A thorny problem for those supporting Ex-Im’s revival is that we now have nearly a half-decade’s worth of data on what happened to U.S. exports, economic growth, jobs and beneficiaries while the institution was mostly dormant between 2015 and 2019. During that time, …its activities dropped from $21 billion in 2014 (the last year the bank functioned at full capacity) to $3.6 billion in 2018. …Back in 2014, 65% of the bank’s activities benefited 10 giant companies. Boeing alone got 40% of Ex-Im’s largesse. On the foreign side, the bank’s clients belong to a who’s who list of large, wealthy, successful and often state-owned companies. …Most of this profligacy ended between 2015 and 2018. During that time, the share of funding that benefited large firms dropped by 93%. …once Ex-Im stopped extending giant deals to giant companies, American taxpayers’ liability fell from $112 billion in 2014 to $72.5 billion in 2018. U.S. exports continued to grow without being impacted whatsoever by Ex-Im limitations, and many beneficiaries of the bank had their best year ever in 2018, demonstrating that none of these subsidies are necessary for their success.

Sadly, the Ex-Im Bank is now back in business (and President Trump deserves a big chunk of the blame).

But its charter has to be renewed this year.

There’s no chance of killing the program, but there may be an opportunity to at least curtail its power and authority.

Negotiations on Capitol Hill have produced a compromise package between the top Democrat and top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee.

But not everyone is a fan. The Washington Examiner opined that the deal should be rejected.

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has drafted a bill that would expand the Ex-Im Bank, rename it, free it from oversight, and charge it with a handful of irrelevant liberal mandates. The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., has unfortunately agreed to Waters’ bill. …Republicans should outright reject Waters’ proposal. It’s pitched as a compromise, but the Senate GOP has no reason to compromise. Either fix Waters’ bill or let the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expire in the fall. The “reforms” in Waters’ bill are weak tea. They don’t do anything to steer the Ex-Im Bank away from being welfare for America’s largest corporations.

So did House Republicans kill the deal, which should have been an easy decision?

Not exactly. According to a Politico report, House Democrats stopped it.

But not because they’re opposed to corporate welfare. They rebelled because they want a deal that’s even worse.

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters on Wednesday shelved a bipartisan Export-Import Bank bill that sparked a fierce backlash from her own caucus… The delay raises questions about the fate of the beleaguered bank, which, without action by Congress, will see its operating charter lapse in September. …the original compromise she drafted with McHenry ignited criticism from a wide swath of the Democrats on the committee… They objected to new restrictions that would be imposed on the bank and big manufacturers such as Boeing, that benefit from its loan guarantees… Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.)…had been raising concerns about sections of the bill that would impose new disclosure requirements on major manufacturers and restrict the agency from providing financial support for deals with Chinese state-owned enterprises. …The restrictions turned out to be one of the biggest sticking points for Democrats. …The bank is only now returning to full operation after years of being hobbled by conservative Republican lawmakers who criticized the agency as engaging in “crony capitalism” and posing a risk to taxpayers.

The moral of the story is that big government and big business shouldn’t be in bed together.

The federal government shouldn’t redistribute money, and it’s especially offensive to have programs that give handouts to rich and powerful companies.

And it’s not just the Ex-Im Bank.

P.S. If you want to understand why export subsidies are economically harmful, I strongly recommend this video from Mercatus.

P.P.S. I have no objection to companies getting profits, but I want them to earn money by serving consumers and not steal money by fleecing taxpayers.

What We Should Be Celebrating on the 4th of July

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 12:20pm

For my annual Independence Day columns, I sometimes try to make serious points, such as last year when I shared the very wise words of Calvin Coolidge, who is probably America’s most-underappreciated president.

Or when I wrote about the proper meaning of patriotism, as I did in 2010 and 2014.

Other years, I celebrate July 4 with some humor, such as my sarcastic Declaration of Dependency in 2011.

Or some cartoons about Obamacare vs. American principles the following year.

For 2019, let’s mix seriousness and satire.

We’ll start with the former. John Stossel’s column for Reason explains what Americans should be celebrating.

We have reason to celebrate. The Fourth honors the founding of America. It’s the anniversary of the day in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was approved. The Declaration was important. It didn’t say that America would be the best country because it would have the biggest military, toughest leaders, most government giveaways, or tightest borders. The great innovation that day in Philadelphia was the declaration that the United States would have a limitedgovernment, rooted in the idea that every individual has inalienable rights. …It was America’s emphasis on limited government—wanting to make sure no one in government would ever again wield power like that of the British king—that made our revolution the greatest and most lasting success of recent centuries. …France created revolutionary committees that murdered dissenters. Russia replaced its czar with a communist police state that confiscated farms, killing millions. …America happened—and continues to happen—spontaneously, when its leaders are smart enough to just stay out of our way. America will do best if we remember that the Declaration of Independence talks about limited government and reminds us that every individual has inalienable rights.

Amen.

Reminds me of what Reagan said.

One of the key takeaways is that American ideals are inspiring, but government policies often leave much to be desired.

Harry Stewart, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, has a great essay in the Wall Street Journal on patriotism even when your government is flawed.

On June 27, 1944, I graduated from Tuskegee Army Flying School, established in Alabama shortly before America’s entry into World War II to train young African-American men as Army combat pilots. …The train ride down South was eye-opening for a teenager who’d never traveled far from New York. When the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the conductor came by and pointed at me: “Move to the colored car.” It was disconcerting, but I saw it as an unavoidable hurdle to earning my wings. I swallowed hard and kept going. …You weren’t just learning to fly; you were serving your country, and you were going to fight. …I flew 43 combat missions with the 332nd Fighter Group… Our commander was the legendary Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who had endured four years of the silent treatment from white cadets at West Point but nevertheless managed to graduate 35th out of a class of 276. …His convictions were encapsulated in his statement: “The privileges of being an American belong to those brave enough to fight for them.” …I am proud that I contributed to the cause. We called it winning the Double V, victory against totalitarianism abroad and institutional racism at home. July 4 is my birthday, but I celebrate my country’s birthday too. America was not perfect in the 1940s and is not perfect today, yet I fought for it then and would do so again.

There’s a lesson in those words for Colin Kaepernick.

Now let’s enjoy some satire, though combined with a serious message.

Bryan Riley of the National Taxpayers Union has a July 4th-themed column on Trump’s destructive trade taxes.

…the next round of tariffs symbolizes just how un-American this trade war has become. …on $300 billion in imports, would include tariffs on tea and fireworks. They might as well be considering a tax on bald eagles. …the 1773 Boston Tea Party was a response to England’s 3 pence per pound tariff on tea imported from China. As President John F. Kennedy observed, “When the people of Boston in 1773 threw cargoes of tea into the harbor, the American Revolution was in effect under way, symbolized by this revolution against a tariff–a tariff which meant taxation without representation.” …As we celebrate our country’s 243rd birthday, let’s also celebrate the American patriots who are following in the footsteps of our country’s founders by opposing costly new tariffs. …As we celebrate our country’s 243rd birthday, let’s also celebrate the American patriots who are following in the footsteps of our country’s founders by opposing costly new tariffs.

Reminds me of the clever AAF visual on how government makes it more expensive to celebrate today.

Last but not least, here’s an alien learning about the long-term consequences of America’s fight for independence, which began as a tax revolt.

Taxation without representation wasn’t very appealing, but the cartoon makes a very good point about the downside of taxation with representation.

Which is a good opportunity to remind everyone why America’s Founders were wise to create a republic rather than a majoritarian democracy.

Too bad the Supreme Court, most recently with Obamacare, has failed in its job to protect economic liberty.

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Image credit: Free-Photos | Pixabay License.

The Dangerous Seduction of “Free”

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 12:42pm

By offering all sorts of freebies to various constituencies, Bernie Sanders has positioned himself as the true-believing socialist in the Democratic race (even though he’s actually a member of the “top-1 percent”).

But he has plenty of competition. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are strong competitors in the free-lunch Olympics, and most of the rest of the candidates are saying “me, too” as well.

Assuming these candidates get a warm reception, this is a worrisome development.

Part of America’s superior societal capital is (or has been) our immunity to the free-lunch message.

If that’s changing, it will be very hard to be optimistic about the future.

Antony Davies of Duquesne University and James Harrigan of the University of Arizona wrote for FEE about the dangerous – and seductive – ideology of something-for-nothing.

…politicians are tripping over each other to offer voters more “free” things, including everything from health care and college to a guaranteed basic income. But voters should be fostering a healthy sense of skepticism. If there is one eternal and immutable fact in economics, it is that nothing is free. Nothing. …as voters, our healthy skepticism seems to go right out the window. When politicians promise all sorts of “free” things, it doesn’t occur to many of us that those things can’t possibly be free. It doesn’t occur to us that, like businesses seeking our dollars, politicians will tell us whatever it takes to get hold of our votes. …Don’t be so gullible…when you hear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders tell you how health care and higher education will be free for everyone, remember that…health care and higher education cannot and will never be free.

Davies and Harrigan are economically right. Indeed, they are 100 percent right.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But there are lunches that financed by others. And that’s why I’m worried about support for Sanders and other hard-left Democrats.

I don’t want America to turn into Europe, with people thinking they have a “right” to a wide array of goodies, paid for by someone else.

So what’s the alternative to the something-for-nothing ideology of the modern left?

Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor, recently opined on this topic in the Wall Street Journal.

Progressives are changing the Democratic Party’s focus…to subsidizing everything for everybody. …Democrats now promise free college, free health care and more—for everyone. Republicans can’t outspend Democrats, but they can make the case for freedom and against the idea that everything is “free”… The Republican ideal is…an aspirational society. …becoming dependent on government is the American nightmare. …Republicans have to do more than mock the Green New Deal…if they want to persuade young voters of the case for limited government and personal freedom. …“free” means more government control at the expense of consumer autonomy. When progressives promise government will pay for health care and college, they are really saying government will run medicine and higher education. …“Free” means less efficiency, more expense and lower quality. …“Free” means robbing from America’s children. …Despite proposed marginal rates as high as 70% or even 90%, none of the tax plans Democrats have put forward would raise nearly enough revenue to pay for the promised spending. …Republicans can’t outbid Santa Claus. Americans are willing to work hard and sacrifice for a better life but need to know how pro-growth policies benefit them. Voters may be tempted by progressives’ crazy plans… They will embrace effective market-based solutions that promote freedom if Republicans offer them.

Gov. Jindal has a great message about trumpeting growth as an alternative to redistribution.

Though I’m not brimming with confidence that Republicans are overly sincere when they use this type of rhetoric.

And some of them, like Trump, don’t even bother with pretending that they want to curtail dependency and shrink the social welfare state.

And that does not bode well for America’s future.

P.S. As is so often the case on issues of policy and ethics, Professor Walter Williams is a great source of wisdom.

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Image credit: Michael Vadon | CC BY 2.0.

A Very Depressing Chart about Japan

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 12:07pm

It’s not easy picking the most pessimistic chart about Japan.

The country suffered several decades of economic stagnation following the collapse of a bubble about three decades ago.

That means it’s a bit of a challenge to identify the worst economic numbers.

  • Is it the data on ever-rising levels of government debt?
  • Is it the data on an ever-rising burden of taxation?
  • Or is it the data on an aging population and falling birthrate?

For what it’s worth, I thought the tax data was the most depressing.

But now there’s a new challenger for the grimmest chart.

I’m currently in Japan, where it’s almost bedtime. I just heard a speech from the governor of the Tokyo Prefecture.

As part of her remarks, she shared a slide showing how Japan has plummeted in the IMD competitiveness rankings.

I don’t have her chart, but I found another version with the same data.

And Japan has dropped to #30 in the recently released 2018 version.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Economic Freedom of the World shows a similar decline.

Japan was ranked in the top-10 back in 1990, but now it’s dropped to #41.

This is not quite as pronounced as Argentina’s drop in the rankings for per-capita GDP, but it’s definitely a sign that something’s gone wrong in the Land of the Rising Sun.

P.S. Japan has a very strong entry in the contest for the world’s most inane regulation.

P.P.S. And if there was a contest for the most ineffective form of government waste, Japan would have a very strong entry for that prize as well.

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Image credit: victorpalmer | Pixabay License.

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