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The Impressive Rise (and Potential Fall) of South Korea

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 12:37pm

When I give speeches on the importance of public policy, I frequently share data showing that pro-market nations are relatively prosperous when compared to countries with statist policies.

One of the most dramatic examples is South Korean prosperity versus North Korean deprivation.

It’s not that South Korea is perfect. After all, it only ranks #35 according to Economic Freedom of the World.

But that’s enough economic liberty to be in the “most free” category. And this helps to explain why South Korean living standards have climbed dramatically compared to the economic hellhole of North Korea (and you see something similar if you compare Venezuela and South Korea).

I’m definitely not the only person to notice the difference between the two Koreas. Here are some excerpts from one of Richard Rahn’s columns in 2017.

In 1960, South Korea and North Korea were similar in their poverty. Now, 50-plus years later, South Korea has a per-capita income more than 20 times that of North Korea, at approximately $38,000 per year, which is higher than that of Spain or Italy. South Koreans have gone from a per-capita income in 1970 that was about 10 percent of the average American to almost 70 percent today. …Koreans in both the North and South come from the same genetic stock, speak the same language, and occupy adjoining pieces of land with much of the same topography and limited natural resources. North Korea is the ultimate consequence of socialism, which always contains the seeds of its own destruction. Socialism goes against human nature, requiring its government to become increasingly authoritarian — North Korea being Exhibit A.

But Richard also warned that South Korea can’t rest on its laurels.

While economic growth per year averaged more than 9 percent from 1963 to 1990, it has now slowed down and last year was only 2.8 percent…a sharp drop from earlier decades. There is too much unneeded and counterproductive regulation, including the lack of ease of creating new businesses, barriers to imports and inward foreign investment. By any measure, South Korea has been a great success, but probably not as much as it could have been or can be if it followed more of a classic free trade and more limited-government model as practiced by Hong Kong and others. The country is increasingly exhibiting the disease of most other rich, developed democracies by allowing itself to be slowly seduced into the promise of more government services and attendant regulation, rather than the tougher and more competitive policies that created the wealth. Will South Korea avoid the stagnation of Japan and much of Europe? The jury is still out.

The jury may still be out, but there is growing evidence that South Korea is heading in the wrong direction because the nation’s relatively new President in increasing the burden of government.

Here are some passages from a report in the Japan Times.

Moon Jae-in began his second full year as South Korea’s president with a reminder of what didn’t work in the first — namely his economic policies. …The self-styled “jobs president” has seen his once sky-high poll numbers tumble… Moon, a progressive, was swept into office in 2017 promising a reversal from the conglomerate-focused economic agenda of ousted President Park Geun-hye. But his plan to raise the minimum wage 11 percent disappointed… More than three-quarters of the 30 experts surveyed by Bloomberg News last month predicted that employment growth would slow this year, in part because of the wage hike. …In a speech at his news conference Thursday, Moon…pledged to improve the safety net…and fix what he described as “the worst forms of polarized wealth and economic inequality in the world.” …More than half of South Koreans surveyed in another Gallup poll last month said that the administration needed “to focus on economic growth, rather than income distribution.”

By the way, the article doesn’t even mention that South Korea faces a major demographic challenge.

It has a catastrophically low fertility rate, which means that the tax-and-transfer welfare state will become increasingly unaffordable as the ratio of workers to recipients shifts in the wrong direction.

Entitlement reform is the sensible answer to this problem (see Hong Kong, for example).

But that’s obviously not happening under President Moon. Indeed, he wants to make matters worse by expanding the welfare state.

Some people in South Korea realize that demographics are a problem for their nation.

The U.K.-based Express looks at their attempted solution.

Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month each. …The course has expanded to Kyong Hee university, which offers “Love and Marriage” classes and Inha university in Incheon, a specialist engineering college, where students can now sign up to lessons on prioritising success and love. In 2016 the number of marriages hit its lowest since 1977, according to data from the government agency Statistics Korea. …The crude marriage rate – the annual number of marriages per 1,000 people – was 5.5 last year, compared with 295.1 when statistics began in 1970. Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I’m skeptical of this approach, regardless of how much money the government spends.

Policy makers should focus instead on things they can control, such as fiscal policy and regulatory policy.

And this is why South Korea’s lurch to the left is so disappointing. Politicians are making things worse rather than better.

Even the New York Times is reporting that Moon’s statist agenda isn’t working.

Under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has raised taxes and the minimum wage in the name of economic growth. So far, it hasn’t worked out as planned. Growth has slowed, unemployment has risen and small-business owners…are complaining. …With his progressive policies, President Moon is trying to tackle some of the same economic problems that plague the United States and much of the developed world. They include a widening wealth gap, slower growth and stagnant wages. …South Korea’s troubles suggest the limits of the state in solving economic problems, especially without addressing the underlying structural issues. …After his election in May 2017, Mr. Moon undertook a sharp shift in economic policy. He supported higher wages, tighter restrictions on working hours and greater welfare spending, funded by tax increases on companies and high-income earners. …Mr. Moon has paid a steep political price for his agenda. His approval rating has plummeted from 84 percent in mid-2017 to 45 percent in the most recent Gallup poll. …The 2019 budget represents the sharpest increase in spending in a decade… The minimum wage has also gone up again for 2019, by 11 percent.

More taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more intervention. Who does Moon think he is, Barack Obama or Richard Nixon?

On a serious note, it surely says something that even the New York Times is forced to acknowledge that statist policies backfire.

Let’s close by looking at how South Korea’s economic freedom score has evolvedover time. As you can see, there was a lot of economic liberalization between 1975-2005. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that economic liberty has declined since the mid-2000s.

The drop is modest, at least in absolute terms. But it’s also important (as I explained when looking at Italy) to look at relative competitiveness.

South Korea’s current score of 7.53 isn’t that much lower than its 7.67 score in 2006. But that slight drop, along with pro-reforms steps that other nations have taken, means that South Korea is now ranked #35 instead of #20.

And the current scores are based on policy in 2016, before Moon moved South Korea in the direction of more statism. This doesn’t bode well.

P.S. I’m not expecting South Korea to become another Hong Kong or Singapore, but it should at least seek incremental progress rather than incremental deterioration. Taiwan is a good example of that approach.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Fiscal Plan Will Lead to Giant Tax Hikes on Middle-Class and Lower-Income Americans

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:28pm

Bernie Sanders is yesterday’s news.

Yes, he’s still lovable ol’ Crazy Bernie, but he’s now being overshadowed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another out-of-the-closet socialist who somehow thinks America should be more like Greece or Venezuela.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute opines in National Review about AOC’s proposed tax hike on the rich. He starts with a very appropriate economic observation.

A 70 percent tax bracket would raise very little (if any) revenue, while damaging the economy and sending income and jobs overseas.

He then points out that we should look at both sides of the fiscal ledger.

And the spending side of the left’s ledger is very crowded and very heavy.

…when assessing the needed tax revenues, a green-energy initiative costing $7–$10 trillion over the decade should be examined in the context of $42 trillion in additional Democratic-socialist proposals that include single-payer health care ($32 trillion), a federal jobs guarantee ($6.8 trillion), student-loan forgiveness ($1.4 trillion), free public college ($800 billion), infrastructure ($1 trillion), family leave ($270 billion), and Social Security expansion ($188 billion). …These spending promises are so stratospheric as to be incomprehensible — except to the far Left, which clings to the myth that simply taxing millionaires can finance a level of socialism that would make the Swedes start a tea-party movement.

Here’s the key part of Brian’s column.

He points out that there’s no way to finance the agenda of Democratic Socialists with class-warfare taxes. Even if the AOC tax plan is dramatically expanded.

…a 100 percent tax rate on all income over $1 million…would raise 3.8 percent of GDP — not even enough to balance the current budget, much less finance a Green New Deal. And even that figure implausibly assumes that people continue working and investing. Slightly more realistically, doubling the top 35 percent and 37 percent tax brackets, to 70 percent and 74 percent for singles earning more than $200,000 and couples earning at least $400,000, would raise roughly 1.6 percent of GDP. That figure also ignores all revenues lost to the economic effects of 85 percent marginal tax rates (when including state and payroll taxes) as well as tax avoidance and evasion. …limiting the 70 percent tax bracket to incomes over $10 million…would raise only 0.25 percent of GDP — about $50 billion annually. …$50 billion is surely too high of an estimate, because the kind of people with incomes over $10 million also have teams of accountants and tax lawyers finding every conceivable tax loophole and overseas income shift.

Everything we know about the real-world impact of tax policy tells us that these soak-the-rich taxes won’t raise much – if any – revenue for the simple reason that upper-income taxpayers will alter the timing, level, and composition of their income.

But, as Brian noted, these taxes wouldn’t come close to financing the leftist wish list even if one makes absurd assumptions that behavior doesn’t change and the economy is unaffected.

So how do European nations finance their large welfare states?

Europe finances its generous welfare states through steep value-added taxes that hit the entire population. …Increasing federal spending by 21 percent of GDP to fund Democratic socialism — even after slashing defense — would require either a 55 percent payroll tax increase, or 115 percent value-added tax, according to CBO data. Acknowledging this brutal middle-class burden would immediately end any public flirtation with “free-lunch socialism.”

This is the most important takeaway from the column.

And it’s something that I’ve noted as well. On more than one occasion.

If you want European-type handouts, you better be prepared to cough up a lot of money.

  • Onerous value-added taxes.
  • Punitive payroll taxes.
  • And income taxes that impose high rates on modest incomes.

Simply stated, there is no way to finance a European-sized welfare state without pillaging middle-class and lower-income taxpayers.

Which helps to explain why European living standards are significantly below American levels.

By the way, there one final point from Brian’s column that is worth sharing.

He explains that high tax rates in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s didn’t generate much revenue. Even from the rich.

A common liberal retort is that the economy survived 91 percent income-tax rates under President Eisenhower and 70 percent tax rates through the 1970s. That does not mean those policies raised much revenue. Tax exclusions and high income thresholds shielded nearly everyone from these tax rates — to the degree that the richest 1 percent of earners paid lower effective income-tax rates in the 1950s than today. In 1960, only eight taxpayers paid the 91 percent rate. Overall, today’s 8.2 percent of GDP in federal income-tax revenues exceeds that of the 1950s (7.2 percent), 1960s (7.6 percent), and 1970s (7.9 percent). Those earlier decades were not a tax-the-rich utopia.

Amen.

I made similar points back in 2017.

The bottom line is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s economic agenda cannot be justified when looking at economic data, fiscal data, and historical data.

But we can say with great confidence that ordinary people ultimately will pay the heaviest price if her proposals get enacted since her class-warfare tax hikes will be a precursor for huge tax increases on the rest of us.

The Chilean Economic Miracle: Big Benefits for the Poor, Part III

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:02pm

Today is my last day in Chile, so today’s column will build upon what I wrote last week.

I have three charts that illustrate how Chile’s pro-market reforms have been great news – especially for poor people (or, to be more accurate, for Chileans who used to be poor).

We’ll start with this chart from the most recent issue of Economía y Sociedad, which shows that there’s more mobility in Chile than any other OECD nation.

Honest folks on the left should view this as unambiguously positive.

Similarly, this Gini data (measuring the degree of inequality) should be slam-dunk evidence of progress for all left-of-center people.

For what it’s worth, I don’t care about the Gini coefficient. What matters to me is economic growth so that everyone can get richer.

If rich people happen to get richer faster than poor people (like in China), that’s fine.

And if poor people happen to get richer faster than rich people (like in Chile), that’s fine as well.

What irks me is that folks who fixate on inequality often support policies that retard growth. In other words, they’re so worried about rich people getting richer that they advocate for bigger government, which makes it harder for poor people to become richer.

Economic growth, by contrast, truly is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Which is why this final chart (based on the Maddison database) is so powerful. It shows 1975-2016 income trends for Chile (red) and other major Latin American economies. As you can see, Chile started near the bottom and is now the region’s richest nation.

Wow, Chile didn’t just converge. It surpassed.

It’s also worth noting how nations such as ArgentinaVenezuela, and Cuba have enjoyed very little income growth over the past 40 years.

The bottom line is that those nations are evidence of the costly impact of statism, while Chile is an amazing example of how capitalism generates widely shared prosperity.

P.S. I’m not claiming Chile is a perfect role model. It is #15 in Economic Freedom of the World, so there is considerable room for improvement. But I am arguing it is a successful example of how better policy is great news for all segments of society.

 

The World Trade Organization Advances American Prosperity

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:48pm

Time for the final installment in my four-part video series on trade-related topics.

  • Part I focused on the irrelevance of trade balances.
  • Part II looked at specialization and comparative advantage.
  • Part III explained trade and creative destruction.

Here’s Part IV, which looks at the very positive role of the World Trade Organization.

My basic argument is that it is a good idea to get other nations to reduce trade barriers, but tit-for-tat protectionism is not the right approach.

As I explained when writing about Chinese mercantilism, the U.S. would have far more success by using the WTO.

Let’s look at what experts have said.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Greg Rushford explained why the WTO is good for the United States.

President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall successfully pressed America’s war allies to create the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade more than 70 years ago. Leaders across the globe, mindful of how economic nationalism in the 1930s had contributed to the devastation of World War II, wanted to open the world up again. The agreement focused on slashing of tariffs and other barriers to trade—bringing unprecedented prosperity to hundreds of millions of people. The GATT, which evolved into the World Trade Organization in 1995, became the world’s most successful international economic experiment. …Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion that the WTO has been “a disaster” for the U.S., Washington has won 85% of the 117 WTO cases it has brought against foreign trading partners. Japan complained in 2003 that WTO jurists had stretched the law by determining that Japanese health officials used phony science to ban American apples. The real U.S. gripe is that foreign governments have won most of the 145 cases that they have brought against American protectionist policies. …Both political parties would be well-advised to consider the wisdom of Truman and Marshall. They understood that true national-security imperatives meant resisting protectionism.

And here’s some more background information from a column in the WSJ by James Bacchus, who served as both a Member of Congress and as a Chief Judge at the WTO.

…let’s say Mr. Trump managed to get his way and pull the U.S. out of the WTO. The consequences for the world and U.S. economies would be immense. Among them: diminished trade growth, costly market and supply-chain disruptions, and the destruction of jobs and profits, especially in import- and export-dependent U.S. industries. The resulting trade barriers would compel some American companies either to downsize or move offshore. The global economic spiral set in motion by Mr. Trump’s reckless trade actions on steel, aluminum, Canada, Mexico, China, and Europe would accelerate. …WTO membership provides goods and services produced in the U.S. with protection against discrimination in foreign markets. Nondiscrimination rules are the heart of the WTO trading system, which currently applies in 164 countries and to 98% of all global commerce. …Instead of waging war on the WTO, the U.S. should help modernize it by making it more effective in addressing digital trade, services, subsidies, sustainability and intellectual property. Internationally agreed rules for international trade—and a process for resolving disputes about those rules—are an indispensable pillar of national prosperity.

I agree with everything in both columns.

And I’ll add one very simple – and hopefully very powerful – point.

Here’s a chart from the WTO showing that the United States is one of the world’s most pro-trade nations, with average tariffs of only 3.48 percent. Not as good as Hong Kong (0.0 percent) or Singapore (0.1 percent), but definitely good compared to most other nations.

In other words, it would be good if we could convince other nations to lower their trade barriers to our level.

Yet that’s exactly what’s been happening thanks to the WTO (and GATT, the predecessor pact). Here’s a chart prepared by the Confederation of British Industry, which shows how trade barriers have been continuously dropping. And dropping most rapidly in other nations, which is something Trump should be happy about.

The bottom line is that the WTO unambiguously advances U.S. interests, as I noted in the conclusion of the video.

But it actually advances the interests of all nations by gradually reducing global barriers to trade.

Is it as good as unilateral free trade? No, but it is a big win-win for America and the rest of the world.

Which is why, despite my usual disdain for international bureaucracies, I’m a big fan of the WTO.

Striking Data on Taxes and Interstate Migration

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 10:45am

The indisputable truth about taxes is that wherever, whenever they go up, the economy suffers. In fact, as Dan Mitchell explains, even the talk about higher taxes is harmful to the economy.

It is also indisputably true that states that raise taxes lose population. However, some people remain immune to indisputable truths. There are legislators and governors in states all over the country who contemplate higher taxes and spending increases that will need higher taxes on the back end.

Two examples:

  • In Wyoming the legislative Revenue Committee wants a corporate income tax, together with an entire package of other measures, including expanding the sales tax to services;
  • In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis and the Democrat legislative majority will cooperate on a long list of new entitlements, from single-payer health care to tax-paid, mandatory child care and paid family leave.

Evidently, the Republicans that run Wyoming and the Democrats that now run Colorado believe that basic laws of economics do not apply to their states. Therefore, it may be a good idea to kick off the new year with a fresh, new look at some pertinent statistics. There is no more obvious way for people to vote against tax hikes than moving; over time, interstate migration is one of the best indicators we have of the economic damage that statists do.

Figure 1 below reports data on interstate migration and the cost of government. The former variable is collected for 12 years, 2005-2016, from the Census Bureau’s excellent data on how people move between the states. The latter variable, covering the same 12 years, is assembled from two:

  • The total cost of government, measured as taxes, fees and charges levied by state and local governments (in other words, excluding federal aid to states) as reported by the Census Bureau; and
  • Private-sector GDP, retrieved from the Bureau of Economic Analysis; the private sector’s share of GDP is the actual, total production value in a state’s economy.

The dataset is then divided into deciles.* In Figure 1, columns represent interstate migration, where a score above 100 (left vertical axis) means a state is attracting more people from other states than it is losing. For example, in 2015, a total of 553,000 people moved to Texas while 445,300 left the state, giving Texas a migration score of 124.2. That same year, New Jersey received 144,100 people from other states while losing 227,400 to outbound migration. The Garden State’s score for that year was 63.4.

In other words, grey columns represent states that, at any time in 2005-2016, had an interstate migration surplus, while red columns represent a migration deficit.

The blue line represents observations of the cost of government as a percent of private-sector GDP (right vertical axis) for each of the deciles:

Figure 1

Sources of raw data: Census Bureau (interstate migration; government revenue), Bureau of Economic Analysis (GDP)

The correlation is striking. If a state wants to attract people – and, it goes without saying, businesses – it needs to keep the cost of its government below 15 percent of private-sector GDP. Even more telling is the message from the tax outliers in deciles IX and X, where the cost of government is clearly above 15 percent of private-sector GDP. These two deciles show indisputably that people leave states with high taxes, fees and other government-levied charges.

How, then, do individual states fare? Table 1 reports the total cost of state and local government, again as total taxes, fees and charges from in-state sources, divided by private-sector GDP:

Table 1

Sources of raw data: Census Bureau (government revenue), Bureau of Economic Analysis (GDP)

The color coding differentiates states into three groups: green for states with less than 15 percent government cost; grey for 15-19 percent; and red for a cost in excess of 19 percent. Wyoming is one of only five states with four or more “red” years, and one of 14 states with not a single “green” year.

Obviously, this score can be criticized for randomly chosen categories, and anyone is free to put the categories at whatever numbers they want. What we cannot disregard is the individual ranking of the states. For example, in 2016 Mississippi led the high-cost government league, followed by Wyoming and Alaska.

This ranking differs somewhat from other studies, such as the annual report on business tax climates from the Tax Foundation. The reason is that the numbers reported here take into account all the costs that government imposes on taxpayers, including fees for service and other charges. It is, namely, important to keep in mind that while tax hikes tend to attract media attention and are often and rightfully criticized, fees and charges often slip under the radar. Colorado has a particularly telling problem with this, as the state’s TABOR law prohibits tax hikes without voter consent. Fees and charges, however, are exempt, which is why the coming fight over new entitlements in the Centennial State is likely going to be one over new fees and charges, as much as over new spending.

Table 2 reports interstate migration ratios for the 50 states and the District of Columbia. States with net immigration are coded green; net emigration is coded red:

Table 2

Source of raw data: Census Bureau

It is interesting to note how sustained, high costs of government can cause a state to lose population. Since at least 2009, Wyoming has scored as one of the top-five states in terms of how costly its government sector is, and prior to that it never earned a “green” score. Consequently, the Cowboy State has had a negative migration balance for nine of the 12 years observed. In some years the balance has been small, and occasionally canceled out by a relatively high birth rate. Nevertheless, the poor performance of Wyoming is telling when compared to its neighboring Utah, which scores green every year for the cost of government and green every year except one for migration.

The debate over taxes and prosperity will surely continue. The statist forces fighting to preserve big government will not give up that easily. That said, over time facts and economic reality always win. When nobody is there to pay the bill, even the highest tax returns zero dollars to government.

*) The dataset consists data from 51 jurisdictions, the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The resulting 612 pairs of observations are divided into ten deciles with 61 in each, except for the tenth which consists of 63 pairs.

Trudeau’s Class-Warfare Tax Hike Produces Less Revenue

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 6:15pm

wrote yesterday about a handful of strange legal developments in Canada.

In a display of balance, however, I noted in my conclusion that Canada in recent decades has been “very sensible” with regard to economic issues (spending restraintwelfare reformcorporate tax reformbank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of savingschool choice, and privatization of air traffic control).

But “very sensible” is not the same as “totally sensible.” Especially not if you count recent years.

The nation’s current top politician, Justin Trudeau (a.k.a., Prime Minister Zoolander), increased the top tax rate from 29 percent to 33 percent after taking office in late 2015.

It appears, though, that he wasn’t aware of a concept known as the Laffer Curve (or, like some folks on the left, maybe he simply didn’t care).

In the real world, however, it turns out that increasing tax rates is not the same as increasing tax revenue.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Globe and Mail.

The Liberal government’s tax on Canada’s top 1 per cent failed to produce the promised billions in new revenue in its first year, as high-income earners actually paid $4.6-billion less in federal taxes. …The latest available tax records show that revenue from Canadians earning about $140,000 or more – which had previously been the fourth and highest tax bracket – dropped by $4.6-billion in 2016, the first full year that the Liberal tax changes were in effect. Further, 30,340 fewer Canadians reported incomes in that range for 2016 compared with the year before. …The new top bracket with a 33-per-cent tax rate was predicted to raise about $3-billion a year in new revenue… Critics of the Liberal plan say the CRA’s 2016 numbers justify their concern that a new top tax bracket hurts Canadian efforts to boost competitiveness and attract top talent.

It’s quite possible, as noted in the article, that some of the foregone revenue might be the result of one-time changes, such as upper-income taxpayers shifting income from 2016 to 2015 (rich people do have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income).

report from Global News reviews a report about the degree to which revenues dropped for transitory reasons.

The Liberal government’s 2016 tax hike on Canada’s top one per cent not only failed to yield the promised billions, but resulted in a net revenue loss for government coffers… After adjusting for economic changes and one-time factors, the paper estimates, based on 2016 tax data, that the Liberals’ new tax bracket for top earners creates $1.2 billion in new revenue for the federal government but a $1.3 billion loss for provincial governments. …Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office, however, has maintained that the revenue drop for 2016 was a one-off event. …But an analysis of the data that adjusts for the impact of the dividends maneuver and economic factors still shows that the tax hike would have fallen far short of the hype… Studies have shown that top earners are more likely than lower-income taxpayers to react to tax increases by reducing their taxable income. This may be because the wealthy have access to more sophisticated tax advice, are more easily able to shift assets to lower-tax jurisdictions or can afford to simply decide to work less given that they get to keep less of their money.

Much of the data in this story came from an analysis by the C.D. Howe Institute.

Here’s the key chart from that study, which disentangles the one-off changes and permanent changes caused by the higher tax rate.

The bottom line is that the experts at the C.D. Howe Institute believe that the central government eventually will collect more revenue from the higher tax rate, but:

  1. The revenue will be less than projected by static revenue estimates because of permanently lower levels of taxable income.
  2. The added revenue for the central government is more than offset by lower tax receipts for sub-national levels of government.

In other words, Trudeau’s tax hike was a big mistake. The only tangible results are that the private sector is now smaller and the country is less competitive.

For what it’s worth, I view the lack of additional tax revenue as a silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud. Maybe, just maybe, this will put a damper on some of Trudeau’s irresponsible plans for more spending.

P.S. For those interested in Canadian fiscal policy, I shared some research last year about the implications of provincial changes in tax policy.

Great Moments in Canadian Law

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 12:20pm

When I think of over-bearing governments with myopic enforcement of silly rules, I obviously think of the United States, especially the IRSEEOCFDA, and EPA.

And I also think of GermanyJapanand other straight-laced societies.

But I don’t think of Canada. After all, that’s the home of Dudley Do-Right. Canadians are too nice to do dumb things!

However, I shouldn’t be basing my views on a cartoon from my childhood. It seems that Canadians are quite capable of bizarre behavior. At least when you look at their legal system.

  • Levying a $465 fine on a motorist with a slight tear in his driver’s license.
  • Grudgingly allowing two girls to operate a lemonade stand.
  • Awarding extra money to a healthcare worker because alcoholism is a disability.
  • Ruling that it is illegal for two kids to sell worms without a license.
  • Fining a mother for giving her kids non-state-approved lunches.
  • Suspending a student for rescuing a classmate from a bully.
  • Telling an Italian restaurant that Italian words are against the law.

Let’s review three additional examples.

I’ve written about some of the mistakes that American states (California and Colorado, for instance) have made when legalizing marijuana. Well, there are similar mistakes in Canada according to the Washington Post.

When the government launched Canada’s official recreational-pot market on Oct. 17, it was banking on the idea that many users would prefer to buy legally and that the black market would quickly begin to fade. …things aren’t going as expected. …a month after legalization, more than a third of Canadian cannabis users said they were still buying from their regular dealers and hadn’t even tried the legal system. Five illegal sellers in Quebec told The Washington Post their sales are slightly up.

It turns out that the legal system is a mess of harsh regulation.

In 2015, when the government first committed to legalization, many of them planned to apply to open private shops. “All of us thought, ‘Okay . . . I’m going to be able to come out of the shadows and I’m going to be able to pay taxes,’ ” David said. “As time went on, it became clear that’s not what they were after.” In Quebec and several other Canadian provinces, all cannabis stores are government-run, leaving no path to legality… said Lewis Koski, former director of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and now a consultant on legalization. “I can’t think of a state here in the U.S. that has a government-control model similar to . . . Canada’s.” Even in provinces that do allow private shops or dispensaries, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, small businesses face high barriers. It costs almost $5,000 just to apply for a license, and if approved, $23,000 each year thereafter in regulatory fees, with provinces often adding their own charges.

Let’s now look at a government-enforced Canadian cartel.

The maple syrup farmers of Québec have been saddled with compulsory membership to the Federation of Québec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ, according to the native French abbreviation) since 1990. The Federation holds monopoly rights over all maple syrup produced in the province, controlling wholesale distribution and prices. Anyone who dares to sell more than five litres of their boiled tree sap on their own farm or to local grocery stores faces a prison sentence and a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars. …Angele Grenier and her husband, decades-long syrup farmers, have been smuggling their contraband syrup to the neighboring province of New Brunswick. In the dark of the night, they load barrels onto trucks and sneak across the province border to market freedom. For this terrible black market act of choosing their own customers and prices, Angele is one of Canada’s most wanted women. She has appealed the charges brought against her by the FPAQ, and her case is being taken up by the Supreme Court.

Maybe Canadian syrup smugglers can learn lessons from Norwegian butter smugglers?

Last but not least, the Toronto Star reports that Canadian law enforcement is capable of government thuggery.

At about 5 p.m. on May 13, 2009, Kosoian stepped on the down escalator at a subway station in Laval. She was heading to her history class at a university in downtown Montreal. Kosoian had used that same escalator almost every day for four years. She knew that at the front of the escalator, as well as at a spot halfway down, were yellow pictograms that said, “Caution … hold handrail.” She deemed the pictogram nothing more than a warning or recommendation. Besides, the H1N1 virus was making the rounds, and Kosoian considered the handrail a cesspool of microbes. …A police officer…stopped in front of Kosoian on the step below when the escalator had taken her about halfway down. The officer, Fabio Camacho, …ordered her to hold the handrail. Kosoian says she responded: “It’s my right to hold the handrail or not to hold it.” …when Kosoian reached the bottom of the escalator, Camacho and his partner, the officer who initially walked past Kosoian, grabbed her by the arms and took her to a nearby locked room that also contained a jail cell. …Camacho and his partner cuffed Kosoian’s hands behind her back and sat her in a chair. He searched her bag, found her driver’s licence and began writing her two tickets: a $100 fine for not holding the handrail, and a $320 fine for obstructing the work of a police officer.

It’s quite possible that Kosoian was being obnoxious and baiting the cops, but none of that changes the fact that not holding a handrail shouldn’t be a criminal offense.

Do cops in Canada bust into people’s houses to see if mattress tags are still attached (though perhaps only the U.S. is dumb enough to have such a rule)?

Interestingly, this episode from 2009 is now going to the Canadian Supreme Court.

The Laval police force and the transit agency…pressed for the fines to be paid, and Kosoian’s refusal triggered a municipal court hearing in May 2011. In March 2012, Judge Florent Bisson acquitted Kosoian of the tickets… Kosoian…launched a lawsuit against Camacho, the STM and the City of Laval. In August 2015, the Quebec Court dismissed it with a legal tongue lashing. …She appealed and, on Dec. 5, 2017, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled against her in a 2-1 decision. …Kosoian and her lawyer again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court. …the Supreme Court has only granted about 10 per cent of the 500 or so requests for appeals it receives each year. So Thomas Slade, a lawyer who is not involved in the case, says he was initially surprised when the court agreed to hear Kosoian.

I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Ms. Kosoian, but there’s not much doubt that getting rid of stupid laws is the best way of avoiding this type of mess.

I’ll close with two observations. First, Americans can’t throw stones at our Canadian friends since we live in a glass house.

Second, Canada obviously needs to change some of its silly laws, but I don’t want this to be interpreted as an indictment of the entire country (notwithstanding Prime Minister Zoolander).

In recent decades, Canada has dealt with several issues (spending restraintwelfare reformcorporate tax reformbank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of savingschool choice, and privatization of air traffic control) in a very sensible fashion.

P.S. Though a Canadian politician is eligible for the hypocrite-of-the-century award.

The Adverse Consequences of a 70-Percent Top Tax Rate on Households

Sun, 01/06/2019 - 12:03pm

She’s not quite as bad as Matt Yglesias, who wants a top tax rate of 90 percent (a rate that Crazy Bernie also likes), but Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not bashful about wanting to use the coercive power of government to take much larger shares of what others have earned.

And she doesn’t want to take “just” half, which would be bad enough. She wants to go ever further, endorsing a top tax rate on household income of 70 percent.

Those of you with a lot of gray hair may recall that’s the type of punitive tax regime we had in the 1970s (does anybody want a return to the economic misery we suffered during the Nixon and Carter years?).

So it’s very disturbing to think we may get an encore performance.

Here are some excerpts from a Politico report.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is floating an income tax rate as high as 60 to 70 percent on the highest-earning Americans… Ocasio-Cortez said a dramatic increase in taxes could support her “Green New Deal” goal of eliminating the use of fossil fuels within 12 years… “There’s an element where yeah, people are going to have to start paying their fair share in taxes.” …When Cooper pointed out such a tax plan would be a “radical” move, Ocasio-Cortez embraced the label… “I think that it only has ever been radicals that have changed this country,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Yeah, if that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”

There are many arguments to make against this type of class-warfare policy, but I’ll focus on two main points.

First, this approach isn’t practical, even from a left-wing perspective. Simply stated, upper-income taxpayers have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income, and they can take very simple (and completely legal) steps to protect their money as tax rates increase.

This is one of the reasons why higher tax rates don’t always translate into higher tax revenue.

If you don’t believe me, check out the IRS data on what happened in the 1980s when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Revenues from those making more than $200,000 quintupled.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to run that experiment in reverse. That won’t end well (assuming, of course, that her goal is collecting more revenue, which may not be the case).

Second, higher tax rates on the rich will have negative consequences for the rest of us. This is because there is a lot of very rigorous research that tell us:

And this is just a partial list.

And I didn’t even include the potential costs of out-migration, which doubtlessly would be significant since Ms. Ocasio-Cortez would impose the developed world’s most punitive tax regime on the United States.

I’ll close by recycling this video on the harmful impact of punitive tax rates.

P.S. Today’s column focused on the adverse economic impact of a confiscatory tax rate, but let’s not forget the other side of the fiscal equation. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to finance a “green new deal,” which presumably means a return to Solyndra-style scandals.

P.P.S. There is some encouraging polling data on class-warfare taxation.

Chile’s Pro-Market Reforms Generate Big Benefits for the Less Fortunate, Part II

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 12:53pm

I’m currently in Chile, enjoying the warm sun and doing research on the nation’s impressive economic performance.

I met yesterday with Jose Pinera, the former minister who created Chile’s incredibly successful system of personal retirement accounts (he’s also one of the people Gary Johnson should have mentioned when he was asked to identify an admirable foreign leader).

Back in 2013, I shared some of Jose’s data showing how the economy took off after Chile enacted pro-market reforms.

I was especially impressed by the stunning reduction in the poverty rate, which had dropped from 50 percent to 11 percent (it’s now down to 7.8 percent).

In other words, capitalism has been great news for poor Chileans. Simply stated, when given more freedom and opportunity, most of them escape poverty.

Interestingly, Reuters reports that even the IMF recognizes Chile’s superior performance.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) hailed Chile’s strengthening economy in a report published on Friday while encouraging President Sebastian Pinera to push forward with promised structural reforms. In a statement following its annual consultation with Chile, the IMF praised Pinera’s proposed reform drive… Conservative billionaire Pinera took office in March with a strong mandate to make changes to the country’s pension system and labor laws and simplify the tax code. …The bank praised his early efforts, which it said were aimed at “re-invigorating investment and economic growth.”

Hmmm… makes me wonder if the IMF (given its dismal track record) actually understands why Chile has become so prosperous.

Though the World Bank has praised the country’s pro-market reforms, so international bureaucracies sometimes stumble on the right answer.

But let’s not get distracted. Today, I want to share further evidence about how pro-market reforms produce big benefits for the less fortunate.

Here’s a chart from an article in the latest edition Economia y Sociedad. The article is in Spanish, but a translation of the relevant passage tells us that, “in Chile, the income of the poorest 20% of the population has risen at a rate (8.2% per year) that is 50% higher than that to which the income of the richest 20% has risen ( 5.3% per year).”

In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats (just as in the U.S.), but the bottom quintile is enjoying the biggest increases.

Sounds like great news. And it is great news. But some people put on blinders.

My left-leaning friends loudly assure me that they are motivated by a desire to help poor people. Yet if that’s true, why aren’t they falling over themselves to praise Chile? Why are they instead susceptible to waxing rhapsodic about the hellhole of Venezuela or bending over backwards to defend Cuba’s miserable regime?

And why do some anti-capitalist economists engage in absurd examples of cherry picking in failed efforts to discredit Chile’s accomplishments?

The bottom line is that Chile became the Latin Tiger thanks to economic liberty. That’s great news for the country, but especially good for the less fortunate.

Government Shutdowns and Financial Markets

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:55pm

I’ve previously explained why I don’t have a dog in the current shutdown fight in Washington.

Simply stated, Trump isn’t fighting to make government smaller. Instead he wants more spending for a wall and isn’t even proposing some offsetting reductions to keep the overall burden of government from expanding.

That being said, I get annoyed when defenders of the status quo act as if the economy is in danger simply because a small handful of non-essential bureaucracies and departments are temporarily shuttered.

In addition to the interview with Fox Business, I also pontificated on the same topic for Cheddar, which is a new network covering financial and economic issues.

So why are TV networks bothering to cover this non-story?

Because some people think the partial shutdown does matter. Here are some excerpts from a report by USA Today.

Economists are starting to weigh the potential damage of the ongoing federal government shutdown…if the impasse drags into late January or beyond, it could take a noticeable toll by dampening federal workers’ productivity,temporarily halting their paychecks… The biggest damage could be inflicted on consumer and business confidence that’s already been dented by the recent stock market selloff. …Economist Jesse Edgerton of JPMorgan Chase predicts it could trim growth by a half a percentage point. That’s about how much the 16-day partial government shutdown reduced growth in late 2013.

Sigh.

The people who made up numbers about the alleged harm of the 2013 shutdown are basically the same people who said the sequester would hurt growth. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.

You use a crummy Keynesian model (which presupposes that government spending is good for the economy) and you get predictably nonsensical Keynesian results.

Writing for the American Spectator, Christopher Buskirk has a more sober perspective.

The DC media complex is not happy with the partial shutdown of the federal government. The government shutdown drags into the New Year, they tell us! …Yet for all of the breathless commentary from Beltway media, the reality is that the federal government can’t even shut itself down properly. Only about 25 percent of the federal government is affected. The military is fully funded and on duty, as are Social Security and Medicare. The US Postal Services continues delivering unwanted flyers and coupons, the TSA is fully funded and patting people down, and the Veterans Administration is still providing substandard care to our veterans. …when I turn on the faucet, water still comes out. When I drive to the store, the street lights are still on. In fact, I passed a police officer on the way to get a coffee this morning, so our neighborhood remains safe. So what am I missing? Not much it turns out. And neither is almost anyone else. …what we learned from the shutdown is that…the federal government is mostly non-essential.

Amen.

This is one of the reasons I don’t get agitated about shutdown (at least the ones that occur because someone is fighting for good policy). If we kept parts of the government shut down for a long period of time, maybe people would notice that nothing bad happened and then conclude that it would be a good idea to never let those departments and agencies reopen.

In any event, the focus of fiscal policy should be on shrinking the federal government, not merely a temporary partial shutdown (which doesn’t even save money since bureaucrats eventually get full pay for the days they weren’t in their offices).

The Greatest-Ever Act of Tax Avoidance?

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:14pm

despise the death tax. It should be abolished.

My main objection is that it is immoral. If a person earns money, pays tax on the money, and then responsibly saves and invests the money (which generally requires paying another layer of tax), it is reprehensible that politicians want to tax the money yet again simply because the person dies.

But I’m also an economist, so I don’t like the tax because it is the most pernicious form of double taxation. The levy not only drains capital from the private sector, it also discourages the building and creating of wealth in the first place, while also lining the pockets of accountants and tax lawyers.

None of that is good for those of us who will never have enough money to get hit by the tax.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that we get very interesting stories of what people are willing to do to escape this unfair and destructive levy.

Jeanne Calment’s apparent longevity turned her into a global celebrity before she died at the age of 122 years and 164 days in 1997. However, that age is being challenged… Yuri Deigin, a genealogist, claims that Mrs Calment actually died in 1934 and that her daughter, Yvonne, usurped her identity… The genealogist said that Mrs Calment, born in 1875, and Fernand, her husband, were the joint owners of a department store in Arles, in Provence. If Mrs Calment’s death had been registered, Mr Calment would have had to pay inheritance tax of up to 38 per cent on his wife’s half of the business. …Mr Deigin said that Mr Calment avoided the bill by telling officials that it was his daughter who had died. The daughter then passed herself off as her mother for the rest of her life.

Not everyone accepts Mr. Deigin’s analysis and it’s possible that will be genetic testing of Mrs. Calment’s remains.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing the story is accurate. We already have lots of evidence that people will take extraordinary steps to protect family funds from this additional layer of tax.

Sadly, I don’t have to worry about the death tax. But if I did, I would do everything in my power to make sure my kids got my money rather than the despicable people in Washington.

So I admire Mrs. Calment. Yes, she broke the law, but that doesn’t bother me when the law is unjust.

P.S. I’ll defend just about anybody who benefits from dodging the death tax, even if they are hypocrites or buffoons.

P.P.S. Sadly, the U.S. death tax is more punitive than the French death tax.

Americans “Vote with their Feet” for Lower Taxes

Wed, 01/02/2019 - 12:10pm

I’ve written many times about people and businesses escaping high-tax states and moving to low-tax states.

This tax-driven migration rewards states with good policy and punishes those with bad policy.

And now we have some new data.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the updated numbers.

…some states are booming while others are suffering a European-style sclerosis of population loss and slow economic growth. …The eight fastest-growing states by population last year…also experienced rapid employment and GDP growth spurred by low tax rates and policies generally friendly to business and job creation. Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Utah, Florida and Colorado ranked among the eight states with the fastest job growth this past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nevada, Texas, Washington and Florida have no income tax. …Then there’s California. Despite its balmy weather and thriving tech industry, the Golden State last year lost more people to other states than it gained from foreign immigration. Since 2010, a net 710,000 people have left California for other states. …New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently blamed cold weather for the state’s population exodus, but last year frigid New Hampshire with no income tax attracted 3,900 newcomers from other states. …Illinois’s population has declined by 157,000 over the past five years… Cold weather? While Illinois’s population has declined by 0.8% since 2010, Indiana’s has grown 3.1% and Wisconsin’s by 2.2%.

Here’s my favorite part of the editorial.

America as a whole can thank the Founders for creating a federalist system that allows the economic and political safety valve of interstate policy competition.

Amen. Federalism is great for a wide range of reasons, but I especially like that people have the freedom to escape when policy is decentralized.

Companies escape high taxes.

Honeywell International Inc. is snubbing New Jersey and heading south. …Honeywell’s move follows other companies that have moved corporate offices out of states with elevated costs of living and high taxes, including General Electric Co.’s relocation of its headquarter to Boston from Connecticut. Those costs were exacerbated by a new law last year that removed state income-tax deductions on federal taxes. North Carolina has a lower state income tax than New Jersey for higher-paid employees.

Former governors escape high taxes.

Gov. Paul LePage said Monday that he plans to move to Florida for tax reasons… LePage and his wife, Ann, already own a house in Florida and often vacation there. He said he would be in Maine from April to September. Asked where he would maintain his legal residency, LePage replied Florida. …”I have a house in Florida. I will pay no income tax and the house in Florida’s property taxes are $2,000 less than we were paying in Boothbay. … At my age, why wouldn’t you conserve your resources and spend it on your family instead of on taxes?” …LePage often has cited Maine’s income tax – currently topping out at 7.15 percent, down from a high of 8.5 percent when he took office – as an impediment to economic growth and attracting/retaining residents.

Even sports stars avoid class-warfare tax regimes.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado…will “take home” significantly higher or lower pay depending on which teams sign them and the applicable income tax rates in the states where those teams are based. This impact could be worth tens of millions of dollars. …For example, assume the Cubs and Dodgers offer identical eight-year, $300 million contracts to Machado. Lozano would warn the Dodgers that their offer is decidedly inferior. As a Dodger, Machado’s million-dollar wages would be subject to the top bracket of California’s state income tax rate. At 13.3%, it is the highest rate in the land. In contrast, as a Cub, Machado would be subject to the comparatively modest 4.95% Illinois income tax rate. …the difference in after-tax value of these two $300 million contracts would be $14 million.

Though Lozano needs to warn Machado that the recent election resultssignificantly increase the danger that Illinois politicians will finally achieve their long-held goal of changing the state constitution and replacing the flat tax with a class-warfare system.

Since we’re talking about the Land of Lincoln, it’s worth noting that the editors at the Chicago Tribune understand the issue.

Every time a worker departs, the tax burden on those of us who remain grows. The release on Wednesday of new census data about Illinois was alarming: Not only has the flight of citizens continued for a fifth straight year, but the population loss is intensifying. This year’s estimated net reduction of 45,116 residents is the worst of these five losing years. …Residents fed up with the economic climate here are heading for less taxaholic, jobs-friendlier states. …Many of them left because they believed Illinois is headed in the wrong direction. Because Illinois politicians have raised taxes, milked employers and created enormous public indebtedness that the pols want to address with … still more taxation. …How bad does the Illinois Exodus have to get before its dominant politicians understand that their debt-be-damned, tax-and-spend policies are ravaging this state?

Wow, no wonder Illinois is perceived to be the first state to suffer a fiscal collapse.

Let’s now zoom out and consider some national implications.

Chris Edwards took a close look at the data and crunched some numbers.

The new Census data confirms that people are moving from tax-punishing places such as California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey to tax-friendly places such as Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Tennessee, and South Carolina. In the chart, each blue dot is a state. The vertical axis shows the one-year Census net interstate migration figure as a percentage of 2017 state population. The horizontal axis shows state and local household taxes as a percentage of personal income in 2015. …On the right, most of the high-tax states have net out-migration. …On the left, nearly all the net in-migration states have tax loads of less than 8.5 percent. …The red line is fitted from a simple regression that was highly statistically significant.

Here’s the chart.

Professor Glenn Reynolds wrote a column on tax migration for USA Today.

He starts by warning states that it’s a very bad recipe to repel taxpayers and attract tax consumers.

IRS data show that taxpayers are migrating from high-tax states like New York, Illinois, and California to low-tax states like Texas and Florida. …In time, if taxpayers tend to migrate from high-tax states to low-tax states, and if people receiving government benefits tend to stay in place or migrate from lower-benefit states to higher-benefit states, then over time lower-tax states will tend to accumulate more people with high earnings, while higher-benefit states will tend to accumulate more people who live on the dole. …if high-benefits states are also high-tax states (as is often the case) since then states with high benefits will accumulate more people who draw on them, while shedding the taxpayers they need to support them. The problem is that the result isn’t stable: High-tax, high-benefit states will eventually go bankrupt because they won’t retain enough taxpayers to support their welfare spending.

He then makes a very interesting observation about the risk that people who leave states such as New York, Illinois, California, and New Jersey may bring their bad voting habits to their new states.

…migrants from high tax states might bring their political attitudes with them, moving to new, low-tax states for the economic opportunity but then supporting the same policies that ruined the states they left. This seems quite plausible, alas, and I’ve heard Coloradans lament that the flow of Californians to their state involved a lot of people doing just that. …If I were one of those conservative billionaires…I might try spending some of the money on some…sort of welcome wagon for blue state migrants to red states. Something that would explain to them why the place they’re moving to is doing better than the place they left, and suggesting that they might not want to vote for the same policies that are driving their old home states into bankruptcy.

Glenn makes a very good point.

As part of my work on defending TABOR in Colorado, I often run into people who fret that the state has moved in the wrong direction because of migration from left-leaning states.

Though Chuck DeVore shared some data on how migrants to Texas are more conservative than people born in the state.

Fascinating @CNN #Texas exit poll: those who moved to Texas favored Cruz over O’Rourke by 57-42 – https://t.co/RvFkMujXic This finding agrees w/ a @TexasTribune poll showing California expats in Texas were 2:1 conservative – https://t.co/OC5JVsg67s @TPPF pic.twitter.com/XAqgs4QFae

— Chuck DeVore (@ChuckDeVore) November 8, 2018

I’ll close today’s column with a helpful map from the Tax Foundation.

All you really need to know is that you should move if you live in a blue state and you should erect a no-leftists-allowed sign if you live in a gray state.

P.S. Everything I wrote about the benefits of tax migration between states also applies to tax migration between nations.

I will never stop defending the right of labor and capital to escape high-tax regimes. I especially enjoy the hysterical reactions of folks on the left, who think that my support of fiscal sovereignty means that I’m “trading with the enemy,” being disloyal to my government, or that I should be tossed in jail.

Hopes and Fears for 2019

Tue, 01/01/2019 - 12:00pm

I started my end-of-year “best and worst” series back in 2013, but didn’t begin my start-of-year “hopes and fears” series until 2017.

In that first year, I got part of what I hoped for (some tax reform and a bit of regulatory easing) and part of what I feared (no Medicaid and Medicare reform), but I mostly felt relieved that some of my fears (border-adjustment tax and an infrastructure boondoggle) weren’t realized.

For 2018, none of my hopes (government collapse in Venezuela and welfare reform) became reality, but we dodged one of my fears (Trump killing NAFTA) and moved in the wrong direction on another (a bad Brexit deal).

Time for third edition of this new tradition. It is the first day of the year and here are my good and bad expectations for 2019.

We’ll start with things I hope will happen in the coming year.

  • Hard Brexit – There is a very strong long-run argument for the United Kingdom to have a full break with the European Union. Unfortunately, the political establishment in both London and Brussels is conspiring to keep that from happening. But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that the deal they put together is so awful that Parliament may vote no. Under current law, that hopefully will lead to a no-deal Brexit that gives the U.K. the freedom to become more free and prosperous.
  • Supreme Court imposes limits of Washington’s power – I didn’t write about the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court because I don’t know if he believes in the limits on centralized power in Article 1, Section 8. But I’m semi-hopeful that his vote might make the difference in curtailing the power of the administrative state. And my fingers are crossed that he might vote with the Justices who want to restore the Constitution’s protection of economic liberty.
  • Gridlock – Some people think gridlock is a bad thing, but it is explicitly what our Founders wanted when they created America’s separation-of-powers system. And if the alternative to gridlock is politicians agreeing to bad policy, I will cheer for stalemate and division with great gusto. I will be perfectly content if Trump and House Democrats spend the next two years fighting with each other.
  • Maduro’s ouster – For the sake of the long-suffering people of Venezuela, I’m going to keep listing this item until it eventually happens.
  • Limits on the executive branch’s power to impose protectionism – Trade laws give a lot of unilateral power to the president. Ideally, the law should be changed so that any protectionist policies proposed by an administration don’t go into effect unless also approved by Congress.
  • Chilean-style reform in Brazil – Brazil recently elected a president who is viewed as the Trump of Latin America. But he might be the good kind of populist who uses his power to copy Chile’s hugely successful pro-market reforms.

Here are the things that worry me for 2019.

  • Trump – The President does not believe in small government, so I’m concerned we may get the opposite of gridlock. In my nightmare scenario, I can see him rolling over to Democrat plans for a higher minimum wageinfrastructure porkwage subsidies, and busting (again) the spending caps.
  • Recession-induced statism – If there’s an economic downturn this year, then I fear we might get an Obama-style Keynesian spending orgy in addition to all the things I just mentioned.
  • More protectionism – Until and unless there are limits on the president’s unilateral power, there is a very real dangers that Trump could do further damage to global trade. I’m particularly concerned that he might pull the U.S. our of the very useful World Trade Organization and/or impose very punitive tariffs on auto imports.
  • Fake Brexit – This is the flip side of my hope for a hard Brexit. Regardless of the country, it’s not easy to prevail when big business and the political elite are lined up on the wrong side of an issue.

Sadly, I think my fears for 2019 are more likely than my hopes.

And I didn’t even mention some additional concerns, such as what happens if China’s economy suffers a significant downturn. I fear that is likely because there hasn’t been much progress on policy since the liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s.

Or the potential implications of anti-market populism in important European nations such as Germany, Sweden, and Italy.

Last but not least, we have a demographic sword of Damocles hovering over the neck of almost every nation.

That was a problem last year, it’s a bigger problem this year, and it will become an even-bigger problem in future years.

We know the right answer to this problem, but real solutions are contrary to the selfish interests of politicians.

The Best and Worst News of 2018

Mon, 12/31/2018 - 12:50pm

One of my annual traditions is to share the “best and worst news” for each year. I started in 2013, and continued in 201420152016, and 2017.

Looking back, 2016 clearly was the best year, though entirely because of things that happened overseas (the Brits vote for BrexitBrazil adopting spending capsabolition of the income tax in Antigua, and Switzerland’s rejection of a basic income).

What about this year?

Sadly, there’s not much to cheer about. Here’s the meager list.

Amendment 73 rejected in Colorado – As part of a plan to expand the burden of government (for the children!), the left wanted to gut the state’s flat tax and replace it with a so-called progressive tax. Fortunately, voters realized that giving politicians the power to tax the rich at higher rates would also mean giving them the power to tax everyone at higher rates. The proposal was defeated by 11 percentage points.

Deregulation – The Administration’s record is certainly far from perfect on regulatory issues. But big-picture measures of the regulatory burden indicate that the overall trend is positive. Easing dangerous Obama-era car mileage rules may be the best step that’s been taken.

Positive trends – I’m having to scrape the bottom of the barrel, but I suppose a drop in support for bad ideas has to count as good news, right? On that basis, I’m encouraged that the notion of universal government handouts became less popular in 2018. Likewise, I’m glad that there’s so much opposition to the carbon tax that some supporters of that new levy are willing to throw in the towel.

Now let’s look at the bad news.

Here are the worst developments of 2018.

Aggressive protectionism – It’s no secret that Trump is a protectionist, but he was mostly noise and bluster in 2017. Sadly, bad rhetoric became bad policy in 2018. And, just as many predicted, Trump’s trade taxes on American consumers are leading other nations to impose taxes on American exporters.

The Zimbabwe-ization of South Africa – My trip to South Africa was organized to help educate people about the danger of Zimbabwe-style land confiscation. Sadly, lawmakers in that country ignore me just as much as politicians in the United States ignore me. The government is moving forward with uncompensated land seizures, a policy that will lead to very grim results for all South Africans.

More government spending – Ever since the brief period of fiscal discipline that occurred when the Tea Party had some influence, the budget news has been bad. Trump is totally unserious about controlling the burden of government spending and even routinely rolls over for new increases on top of all the previously legislated increases.

The good news is that this bad news is not as bad as it was in 2015 when we got a bunch of bad policies, including resuscitation of the corrupt Export-Import Bankanother Supreme Court Obamacare farce, expanded IMF bailout authority, and busted spending caps.

I’ll close by sharing my most-read (or, to be technically accurate, most-clicked on) columns of 2018.

  1. In first place is my piece explaining why restricting the state and local tax deduction was an important victory.
  2. Second place is my column (and accompanying poll) asking which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse.
  3. And the third place article is my analysis of how rich nations can become poor nations with bad policy.
For what it’s worth, my fourth-most read column in 2018 was a piece from 2015about political and philosophical quizzes. And the fifth-most read article was some 2012 satire about using two cows to describe systems of government.

I guess those two pieces are oldies but goodies.

Now for the columns that didn’t generate many clicks.

  1. My worst-performing column was about how DC insiders manipulate so-called tax extenders to line their own pockets.
  2. Next on the least-popular list was a piece that looked at proposals to make taxpayers subsidize wages.
  3. And the next-to-next-to-last article explained how expanding the IMF would increase the risk of bailouts and bad policy.

I’m chagrined to admit that none of these columns reached 1,000 views.  Though I try to salve my ego by assuming that many (some? most?) of the 4,000-plus subscribers eagerly devoured those pieces.

The other noteworthy thing about 2018 is that I posted my 5,000th column back in July.

And I also shared data indicating that I’m relatively popular (or, to be more accurate, I get a lot of clicks) in places like the Cayman Islands, the VaticanMonacoBermudaJersey, and Anguilla.

How to Talk about Public Policy and Why It Matters

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 12:47pm

I periodically try to remind people that you can’t explain or understand economic performance by looking at just one policy.

I’ve argued, for instance, good tax policy isn’t a panacea if there are many other policies that expand the burden of government. Likewise, bad fiscal policy isn’t a death knell if there’s a pro-market approach on issues such as trade, regulation, and monetary policy.

Which was the point I made, in this short excerpt from a recent interview, when asked about the Trump tax cut.

This obviously has implications for Trump. He wants the economy to grow faster, but he is sabotaging his good tax reform with bad protectionism.

Which is why I’ve also explained that Trump’s overall “grade point average” for economic policy isn’t very good.

And here are two other examples, but showing that tax policy – by itself – does not drive the economy.

  • The economy enjoyed good performance during the Clinton years because his one bad policy (the 1993 tax hike) was more than offset by many good policies.
  • Similarly, the economy didn’t get strong growth during the Bush years because his one good policy (the 2003 tax cut) was more than offset by many bad policies.

The same is true for policy in other nations. That’s why I always check the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World before writing about another country. I want a dispassionate source of data that covers all the major types of public policy.

And that generates counter-intuitive results, at least for people who focus on fiscal policy.

  • I’ve crunched the data to show that nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands remain relatively rich because they have pro-market policies that offset onerous fiscal burdens.
  • Likewise, some nations in Eastern Europe continue to lag economically because the pro-growth effect of their flat taxes are offset by weak scores in other areas, especially quality of governance.

There are a couple of takeaways from this type of nuanced analysis.

First, don’t pay excessive attention to partisan affiliations. Yes, sometimes a Republican such as Reagan reduces the burden of government, but plenty of GOPers (Hoover, the first BushNixon) impose lots of statism.

The same is true in other nations. Many of the pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand were initiated by Labour governments.

Second, let’s close by explaining why this matters. When people fixate on partisan labels rather than policy changes, it can lead them to very erroneous conclusions.

  • For instance, even though the Great Depression was mostly the result of government intervention, many people think it was caused by capitalism simply because a Republican president was in office when it started.
  • Similarly, even though the recent financial crisis was caused by government intervention, many people want to blame free markets merely because a Republican president was in office when it started.

P.S. In the interview, I said monetary policy might deserve some of the blame if the economy turns south. I want to stress, however, that I’m not blaming the Fed for trying to “normalize” today. Instead, the problem is all the easy-money policy earlier this decade.

As scholars from the Austrian School have explained, artificially low interest rates and other types of Keynesian monetary policy create the conditions for subsequent suffering.

Reagan’s Pro-Trade Wisdom

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 12:42pm

President Trump’s view of global trade is so bizarreriskyuninformedmisguided, and self-destructive that I periodically try to maintain my sanity by reviewing the wisdom of one of America’s greatest presidents.

  • Ronald Reagan’s remarks in 1985 about the self-destructive impact of trade barriers.
  • Ronald Reagan’s remarks in 1988 about the economic benefits of trade liberalization.

Today, let’s travel back to 1982 for more wisdom from the Gipper.

What’s especially remarkable is that Reagan boldly defended free and open trade at the tail end of the 1980-82 double-dip recession that he inherited.

Many politicians, facing an unemployment rate above 10 percent, would have succumbed to the temptation for short-run barriers.

But just as Reagan did the right thing on inflation, even though it was temporarily painful, he also advocated good long-run policy on trade. He understood Bastiat’s wise insight about “seen” benefits vs “unseen” costs.

Trump, by contrast, has a very cramped and limited understanding of trade. Which is why almost all economists disagree with his approach.

…on Trump’s other point — that protectionism offers Americans the road to riches — most specialists in international trade would beg to differ. “Even by Washington standards, Trump’s tweet was profoundly wrong,” said Daniel J. Mitchell, a conservative economist. In a recent column criticizing Trump’s tweet, Mitchell wrote, “The last time the United States made a big push for protectionism was in the 1930s. At the risk of understatement, that was not an era of prosperity.” …said Lawrence White, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business…”tariffs, like any tax, generally introduce an inefficiency and makes the two sides of the trading relationship poorer — not richer.”

I appreciated the chance to be quoted in the story, and I also was happy that a link to one of my columns was included.

Though I gladly would have traded that bit of publicity if Politifact instead had shared my “edits” to Trump’s infamous “Tariff Man” tweet.

I’ll conclude by noting that Reagan’s record didn’t always live up to his rhetoric.

P.S. I winced when Reagan positively cited the International Monetary Fund in his remarks. Though maybe the IMF in the early 1980s wasn’t the pro-taxanti-marketbailout-dispensing bureaucracy that it is today.

P.P.S. I noted that Reagan was one of America’s great presidents. I also include Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland on that list.

The Economy Is Faltering and Trump’s Protectionism and Weakness on Spending Deserve Part of the Blame

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:24pm

In this interview yesterday, I noted that there are “external” risks to the economy, most notably the spillover effect of a potential economic implosion in China or a fiscal crisis in Italy.

But many of the risks are homegrown, such as Trump’s self-destructive protectionism and the Federal Reserve’s easy money.

Regarding trade, Trump is hurting himself as well as the economy. He simply doesn’t understand that trade is good for prosperity and that trade deficits are largely irrelevant.

Regarding monetary policy, I obviously don’t blame Trump for the Fed’s easy money policy during the Obama years, though I wish that he wouldn’t bash the central bank and instead displayed Reagan’s fortitude about accepting the need to unwind such mistakes.

The interview wasn’t that long, but I had a chance to pontificate on additional topics.

The bottom line is that Trump has a very mixed record on the economy. But I fear the good policies are becoming less important and the bad policies are becoming more prominent.

The Feel-Good Story of 2018

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 12:13pm

Back in 2014, I wrote a feel-good story from Ferguson, Missouri, about how armed black men protected a white-owned store during riots that wreaked havoc in the city.

Sarah Silverman surely wouldn’t approve, but I thought it was a heartwarming combination of human solidarity and individual rights.

It’s time for another feel-good story. The Washington Free-Beacon reported earlier this month that Dick’s Sporting Goods is suffering because the company adopted an anti-gun posture.

Dick’s Sporting Goods told investors during the Goldman Sachs Retailing Conference that its gun-control stance hurt sales of its hunting business, outdoors business, and that it may close its outdoor-focused Field & Stream stores. Edward Stack, chairman and CEO of Dick’s, said during the event that the sporting goods chain’s recent 3.9 percent drop in same-store sales was the result of a mix of factors beyond their control as well as some he called “self-imposed.” Specifically, he said, “the decisions we made on firearms” negatively affected their bottom line… The company insisted during the earnings call that while their embrace of gun-control policies was hurting store foot traffic as well as their hunting and outdoors business, they’ve found ways to offset the losses. …Still, Dick’s admitted both firearms customers and the firearms industry have rebutted the retailer because of their gun-control advocacy. …The company said it may soon close down their entire Field & Stream chain of 35 stores across 18 states.

By the way, I was interviewed earlier this year by a French TV program on the issue of gun control. Here’s the part where I discussed the company’s foolish decision.

Since I’m not a shareholder, part of me is unconcerned about decisions made by the management at Dick’s.

The CEO presumably lives in a wealthy area, far removed from the threat of crime or chaos, so I’m guessing he has no understanding or appreciation of the need for self defense.

And he probably thought – foolishly, we’ve learned – that the company’s decision would help the bottom line by generating positive coverage from the establishment media.

It brings to mind this insightful tweet, which I saw thanks to Amy Alkon.

We are living in an era of woke capitalism in which companies pretend to care about social justice to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism.

— Clay Routledge (@clayroutledge) September 6, 2018

Except the people who buy sporting goods are not the vapid social justice warriors who proclaim their hostility to capitalism while patronizing some of the world’s most aggressively hyper-capitalist companies.

In any event, I don’t care that the senior management at Dick’s has adopted an anti-gun ideology.

But I get very agitated when the company gets in bed with government in a campaign to reduce the freedoms of other people.

Dick’s decided to hire their own gun-control lobbyists in order to push for stricter gun laws nationwide. That action led the National Shooting Sports Foundation—the firearms industry’s trade group—to expel the retailer.

This is why I’m happy to see Dick’s go downhill.

Schadenfreude rocks!

A Government “Success Story”

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:20pm

I often write about the failure of government.

In other words, there’s lots of evidence that government spending makes things worse.

Needless to say, this puts a lot of pressure on folks who favor bigger government. They desperately want to find any type of success story so they can argue that increasing the size and scope of the public sector generates some sort of payoff.

And they got their wish. Check out the ostensibly good news in a story from the San Fransisco Chronicle.

Investing billions of dollars in affordable housing and homeless programs in recent years has apparently put the brakes on what had been a surge in California’s homeless population, causing it to dip by 1 percent this year, a federal report released Monday showed. …The report put California’s homeless population this year at 129,972, a drop of 1,560 in the number of people on the streets in 2017. …“I think San Francisco has shown that when targeted investments are made, we see reductions in homelessness here,” Kositsky said. He pointed out that family, youth and chronic veterans homelessness dropped in the city’s last full count — although the number of chronically homeless people went up.

Maybe I’m not in the Christmas spirit, but I don’t see this as a feel-good story.

Are we really supposed to celebrate the fact that the government spent “billions of dollars” and the net effect is that the homeless population dropped just 1 percent?

The story doesn’t contain enough details for precise measurements, but even if we assume “billions” is merely $2 billion, then it cost taxpayers close to $1.3 million to get one person off the street. For that amount of money, taxpayers could have bought each of them a mansion!

In other words, the program has been a rotten investment. Heck, it makes Social Security seem like a good deal by comparison.

To be sure, maybe the number isn’t quite so bad because we’re comparing multi-year outlays with a one-year change in the homeless population. Though maybe the number is even worse because taxpayers actually coughed up far more than $2 billion.

The bottom line is that if my friends on the left see this as an example of success, I’d hate to see their definition of failure.

Have a Very Merry Libertarian Christmas

Tue, 12/25/2018 - 12:02pm

In the past, I’ve highlighted Christmas rivalries.

This Christmas, though, let’s just go with a libertarian theme. We’ll start with a new video from the clever folks at Reason.

Since the video mentioned Santa sneaking in the country and evading tariffs, here’s a cartoon strip featuring a protectionist Scrooge.

Poor Santa Claus.

He already buried by red tape and he’s been hassled by the IRS and other federal agencies.

Plus he has to deal with children who make impossible requests.

The last thing he needs is trade taxes reducing the amount of toys he can distribute.

But there is hope for a détente between Trump and Santa.

Now let’s focus on some good news.

Here’s a video about the blessings of capitalism. It has a Christmas theme, but free enterprise is a gift every single day of the year.

The above video makes a very Schumpeterian point about how capitalism is the system that best serves the needs of poor people.

But let’s not digress from out holiday theme.

We now have another video from Reason. Remy sings about how a corrupt tax code forces a very unsavory form of redistribution from the poor to the rich.

And if you liked that Remy video, he has a pair of great Christmas-themed videos (here and here) about the TSA.

Merry Christmas!

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