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Seven Reasons to Support Free Trade

9 hours 16 min ago

Earlier this week, Neil Cavuto asked me about the politics of trade and I warned that Trump’s protectionism may backfire on Republicans because many workers and businesses are suffering the consequences.

Needless to say, I’m not a political expert, and I think even the folks who do that for a living have a hard time disentangling the various factors that motivate voters, so we may not even know for sure after the mid-term elections.

But I do have some actual knowledge of economics, so this is a good opportunity to share some excerpts from my recent article in the Federalist. I start with the basic observation that interventionism is misguided.

…the economy grows faster when markets rather than politicians determine where labor and capital go. …Simply stated, government intervention is a recipe for cronyism, corruption, and inefficiency. It’s no coincidence that market-oriented jurisdictions such as Hong Kong are so much more prosperous than state-driven nations such as Greece. This appreciation of markets explains why conservatives should be in the forefront of the battle to defend free trade.

And it doesn’t matter whether politicians are interfering with transactions between neighbors or interfering with transactions between people who live in different countries.

We understand it would be wrong to let politicians interfere with our freedom to trade with our local grocery store. We also understand it would be a mistake to allow politicians to hinder our liberty to trade with people in neighboring states. The same argument applies when looking at our trade with people in other nations.

I then list seven reasons why free trade is desirable, starting with the fact that exchange, by definition, is mutually beneficial.

1. Voluntary Trade Is a De Facto Good – The capitalist system, based on competition and trade, is defined by voluntary exchange. There is no need for “balance” between participants. We all have trade deficits with our local gas stations. …they never buy from us. Is that bad? Of course not.

And it doesn’t matter whether people in one country are buying more than people in another country.

2. A ‘Trade Deficit’ Means a ‘Capital Surplus’ – Nations don’t trade, people do. So when people in one nation buy goods from people in another nation, the money doesn’t disappear. …Foreigners have placed trillions of dollars in America’s financial markets… This “capital surplus” boosts prosperity and should be celebrated, not bemoaned.

I also point out that trade barriers enable cronyism and corruption.

3. Protectionism Corrupts Markets – Many people unfortunately equate capitalism with big business. This is very unfortunate because large companies…manipulate the political process in order to obtain unearned profits. Trade barriers…interfere with genuine free markets…they contribute to the perception that capitalism is merely a system for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

I then share Bastiat’s wisdom about the “seen” and the “unseen.”

4. Trade Barriers Reduce Jobs and Growth – It’s easy to identify jobs that have been “saved” because of protectionism…it’s not easy to calculate the greater number of jobs that are lost because of higher prices, lost purchasing power, enforced inefficiency, and lost competitiveness.

I admit that trade of any kind can be harsh, but that’s what drives prosperity.

5. Creative Destruction Is Painful But Beneficial – Trade causes pain, but not because goods cross borders. Far more jobs are lost because of domestic trade than because of international trade. …These changes, including ones driven by cross-border trade, are painful for some people, but we all wind up much richer if markets are allowed to function.

I close with two lessons in economic history, starting with an explanation of what drove growth in the 19th century.

6. Tariffs Didn’t Create Growth in the 1800s – …the growth of the 1800s wasn’t because of trade barriers. This was an era before the welfare state. Government was very small and there were no income taxes. There was no regulatory state. …Those were the policies that helped make America an economic powerhouse.

And concluding with an observation about the success of nations with laissez-faire trade policy.

7. Protectionist Nations Lag Free-Trade Jurisdictions – …sometimes it’s easier for people to learn from real-world examples. Hong Kong and Singapore are the two jurisdictions with the world’s lowest trade barriers. Is it any coincidence that they have become rich and prosperous? …countries like New Zealand enjoyed a renaissance after dismantling trade barriers.

The bottom line is that Trump’s protectionism is bad policy. And risky policy.

I politely ask those who disagree to answer these eight questions.

What’s Happening with Wages?

Sat, 09/22/2018 - 12:55pm

Some economic statistics are very important in the world of politics.

When President Obama’s so-called stimulus was in effect, critics (including me) kept pointing to higher-than-predicted unemployment rates. President Trump, meanwhile, mistakenly thinks America somehow is losing because of the trade deficit. And the GDP numbers are the subject of considerable discussion on all sides.

Another very important piece of data is wage growth, especially since Trump wants to claim his policies are generating big results. I take a jaundiced view on such claims, but the issue is very important, so let’s take a look at two interesting columns.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, writing for Bloomberg, starts by noting that some folks on the left think workers are being screwed.

Are wages determined by market forces, or do businesses get to decide what pay they offer to workers? …Why has wage growth been so sluggish for so many years? …you might answer that employers have made the decision to boost profits at the expense of raising wages. …it is common to hear some prominent analysts and organizations on the left argue that the link between wages and productivity for most workers has effectively been severed.

Not so fast, he writes.

Businesses don’t pay employees less than the value of their productivity — the amount of revenue workers generate for their employer — because doing so would result in their workers taking another job where they would get paid what they’re worth. In this sense, employers don’t “decide” what wages they pay. Instead, wages are set in markets. …worker productivity remains the dominant force in setting wages. …Market forces are powerful. A recent paper by economists Anna M. Stansbury and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard confirms this. They find that over the last four decades, a one-percentage-point increase in productivity growth is associated with a 0.73 percentage point increase in the growth rate of median compensation. That’s a strong link.

I have two thoughts on this. First, productivity is the key to our prosperity. I’m in full agreement with Paul Krugman’s observation that, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.”

Second, as illustrated by this chart, we get more productivity with greater levels of investment.

The problem is that government often undermines productivity growth.

Governments have thrown a wrench in the market machine through the absurd proliferation of occupational licenses, reducing wages for workers who can’t get a license and restricting the mobility of licensed workers. A recent study finds that the rate of migration across state lines for individuals in occupations with state-specific licensing requirements is over one-third lower than among individuals in occupations that don’t have such rules.

Amen.

And there are plenty of additional policies that have a negative effect as well.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, David Henderson says the data on wage growth tell an incomplete story.

Standard wage data show that between the spring of 2017 and the spring of 2018, real wages in the U.S. increased only 0.1%. But there are three major problems with these data. First, they don’t account for fringe benefits, which are an increasing proportion of employee pay. Second, standard wage data use an index that overstates the inflation rate. Third, each year the composition of the workforce changes, as older, higher-paid workers retire and young, lower-paid workers enter the workforce.

He digs into some of the data that have been shared by the CEA.

…the White House Council of Economic Advisers addresses these three biases and concludes that real wages grew by 1% in 2017-18, not the measly 0.1% reported in the wage data. …including benefits would add 0.2 percentage point to the 2017-18 figure. …An alternate measure of inflation, the personal- consumption-expenditures price index, while also imperfect, is a better measure of inflation. Economists at the Federal Reserve prefer the PCEPI to the CPI. Using the PCEPI adds 0.5 percentage point to the 2017-18 growth of real wages. …The Census Bureau estimates that 3.57 million people turned 65 in 2017, compared with 2.68 million in 2010. Taking account of the decline in older, higher-paid workers and the increase in younger, lower-paid workers, the CEA estimates that this “composition factor” added 0.3 percentage point to real wage growth from 2017-18.

I have two thoughts about this data.

First, I don’t pretend to know the ideal measure to capture inflation, but I definitely know that we’d have lower prices in the absence of government intervention.

Second, the CEA definitely is right about fringe benefits being an ever-larger share of total compensation (mostly driven by government intervention).

And these observations apply, regardless of who’s in the White House.

This is not a partisan point. The same methodology would show that real wages grew more than was reported during much of President Obama’s time in office. …there is, in this context, one relevant difference between the Trump and Obama administrations: the 2017 tax cut. Real after-tax wages increased 1.4% between 2017 and 2018, according to the CEA study.

I obviously like the part about tax cuts being helpful, but I’ll reiterate my concernthat this effect will evaporate if GOPers don’t get serious about spending restraint.

And I’ll close with the essential observation that there is no substitute for across-the-board pro-market policies if the goal is improving people’s lives.

Remarkable OECD Study on Corporate Tax Rates, Corporate Tax Revenue, and the Laffer Curve

Fri, 09/21/2018 - 12:42pm

Last month, I revealed that even Paul Krugman agreed with the core principle of the Laffer Curve.

Today, we have another unlikely ally. Regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Paris-based international bureaucracy routinely urges higher tax burdens, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

But the professional economists who work for the OECD are much better than the political appointees who push a statist agenda.

So when I saw that three of them (Oguzhan Akgun, David Bartolini, and Boris Cournède) produced a study estimating the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues, I was very curious to see the results.

They start by openly acknowledging that high tax rates can backfire.

This paper investigates the capacity of governments to raise revenue by assessing the ways in which tax receipts respond to rates… Revenue returns from tax increases can be expected to decrease with the level of tax rates, because higher rates exacerbate disincentives to produce and raise incentives to avoid taxation. These two main channels can therefore imply that tax receipts rise less than proportionately with rates and may peak at a given point.

Given the OECD’s love affair with higher tax burdens, this is a remarkable admission about an important limit on the ability of governments to grab revenue.

Their estimate of the actual revenue-maximizing burden is almost secondary. But nonetheless still noteworthy.

According to the estimated coefficients in model 5 of Table 3, an EMTR of 25% maximises CIT revenue.

Not that different from the estimates produced at the Tax Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

Here’s a chart showing the revenue-maximizing level of tax, which varies depending on the degree to which a country has close economic ties with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, the study openly admits that tax competition plays a big role.

Trade openness is found to reduce CIT revenue. The latter is consistent with…international tax competition, which is likely to increase the effects of tax rates on the location of firms or more broadly of their profit-generating activities.

Sadly, the political types at the OECD have a “BEPS” scheme that is designed to curtail tax competition.

Which is a very good argument for why tax competition should be allowed to flourish.

But let’s not digress. Here’s another remarkable admission in the study. The OECD economists point out that it is not a good idea for governments to try to maximize revenue.

Estimates of revenue-maximising rates should not be seen as policy objectives or recommendations, as they imply high levels of economic distortions or tax avoidance.

Amen. I cited a study in 2012 showing that a revenue-maximizing tax rate might destroy as much as $20 of private sector output for every $1 collected by government. Only Bernie Sanders would think that’s a good deal.

Last but not least, the study even points out a class-warfare approach is misguided when looking at personal income taxes.

More progressive broadly defined personal income taxes generally yield more revenue, but very strong progressivity is associated with lower revenue.

Another wise observation.

The bottom line is that high tax rates of any kind are not a good idea.

P.S. The International Monetary Fund inadvertently provided very strong evidence about the Laffer Curve and corporate taxes.

P.P.S. An occasional good study doesn’t change my belief that the OECD no longer should be subsidized by American taxpayers.

One or Two Cheers for Price Gougers, Three Cheers for Markets, and No Cheers for Anti-Gouging Laws

Thu, 09/20/2018 - 12:24pm

Responding to Hurricane Harvey last year, I shared three very good videos explaining why laws against “price gouging” are misguided.

Simply stated, politicians can’t wave a legislative wand and change underlying conditions of supply and demand.

Laws that artificially dictate the price of something almost surely will have adverse consequences (just as artificially setting the price of labor causes some joblessness and artificially controlling price of health insurance can cause a death spiral).

Needless to say, this is not a welcome observation in some quarters.

John Stossel addresses price gouging in a new Townhall column. He starts by describing the political response.

Officials in states hit by Hurricane Florence are on the lookout for “price gouging.” People who engage in “excessive pricing” face up to 30 days jail time, said North Carolina’s attorney general. South Carolina passed a “Price Gouging During Emergency” law that imposes a $1,000 fine per violation. …These are “bad people,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi angrily during a previous storm.

He then explains some basic economics.

Pursuing profit is simply the best mechanism for bringing people supplies we need. Without rising prices indicating which materials are most sought-after, suppliers don’t know whether to rush in food, or bandages, or chainsaws. …Who will bring supplies to a disaster area if it’s illegal to make extra profit? It’s risky to invest in 19 generators, leave home, rent a U-Haul and drive 600 miles. …If prices don’t shoot up during disasters, consumers hoard. We rush to gas stations to top off our tanks. Stores run out of batteries because early customers stock up. Late arrivals may get nothing. … America should have learned that when Richard Nixon imposed price controls on gasoline. That gave us gasoline shortages and long gas lines. …allowing prices to rise, even sharply, is the best way to help desperate people get supplies they need. As supplies rush in, prices quickly return to normal. We shouldn’t call it gouging. It’s just supply and demand.

He concludes with some advice that politicians almost certainly will ignore.

The best thing “price police” can do in a disaster is stay out of the way.

Price police? I wonder if they get the same training as the milk police and bagpipe police?

But I’m digressing.

I’m going to augment Stossel’s analysis with some simple supply-and-demand curves. We’ll start with a look at a normal, competitive market. The supply curve shows producers are willing to provide ever-larger amounts of a product at higher and higher prices.

Conversely, the demand curve shows that consumers are willing to buy a lot of a product when prices are low, but the quantity they want declines as prices increase.

The “equilibrium price” is where the two curves intersect.

Now imagine you live in North Carolina and the hurricane is wreaking havoc. Two things are likely to happen. First, some sellers will be knocked out of the market. Maybe they lost power, got flooded, or went someplace safe for the duration of the storm.

The real-world impact is shown by this next graph. The supply curve has shifted to the left, meaning that there is less product available at any given prices. The net result is that the market price will go up.

The second effect is that there presumably will be more demand. Consumers will suddenly decide that certain goods (milk, bread, candles, batteries, generators, plywood, etc) are more valuable than they were last month.

This chart shows the effect of increased demand.

By the way, the way I randomly created the charts shows the quantity staying roughly the same, but that all depends on market conditions. Prices can rise a lot or a little, and quantity demanded can fall a lot or rise a lot.

Here’s all you really need to understand. If the government has anti-gouging laws that prevent prices from adjusting to market conditions, the result will be a shortage.

Which is what’s depicted in this chart. Consumers will want a lot of the product, but they won’t be able to find enough willing sellers.

That might seem like a good outcome if you were one of the lucky people who was willing to wait in line or otherwise got lucky (the “seen”). But it means a lot of consumers get left out (as Bastiat points out, those are the “unseen”).

For instance, look at what happened after Hurricane Sandy, for instance.

Perhaps most important, it means that there’s very little incentive for entrepreneurs to incur a lot of expense and effort to get much-needed supplies to a disaster area.

So people would be left waiting for the government, which means a sluggish reaction and often the wrong kind of help.

None of this suggests that “price gougers” are heroes. Yes, some of them take a risk with time and money (and maybe even personal safety) by rushing to a disaster zone. But others simply want to take advantage of an opportunity to jack up prices and get a windfall.

My point is simply that laws against gouging are bad since many consumers will be denied the opportunity to get desperately needed goods and services.

P.S. If you want more evidence of the folly of price controls, see how they backfired in Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

P.P.S. The post-war German economic miracle was triggered by the removal of price controls.

The Evidence-Based Case for Unilateral Free Trade

Wed, 09/19/2018 - 12:16pm

When President Trump proposed zero trade barriers among major economies, I applauded. Government-imposed barriers to commerce hurt prosperity, whether those restrictions hinder voluntary exchange inside a country or across national borders.

There’s a debate over Trump’s sincerity, and I’m definitely with the skeptics (look at his supposed deal with Mexico, for instance), but let’s set that issue aside and investigate the merits of free trade.

But let’s go one step farther. Instead of looking at whether multiple nations should simultaneously eliminate trade barriers, let’s consider the case for unilateral free trade.

In other words, should the government abolish all tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions so that buying products from Rome, Italy, is as simple as buying products from Rome, Georgia.

The global evidence says yes, regardless of whether other countries do the same thing.

Consider the examples of Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong. According to the World Trade Organization, trade barriers are virtually nonexistent in these jurisdictions.

Have they suffered?

Hardly. According to the World Bank, all three jurisdictions are among the most prosperous places on the planet. Indeed, if you removed oil sheikdoms and tax havens from the list, they would win the gold, silver, and bronze medals for prosperity.

To be sure, there are many reasons that Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong are rich. They have low taxes and small government, as well as comparatively little red tape and intervention.

But free trade definitely helps to explain why these jurisdictions have become so rich at such a rapid pace.

Let’s also look at the example of New Zealand. It doesn’t have absolute free trade, but average tariffs are 2.02 percent, which means it is the world’s fifth-most pro-trade nation.

Have the Kiwis suffered from free trade?

Nope. I shared a remarkable video last year that explains the nation’s remarkable turnaround coincided with a period of unilateral trade liberalization.

Today, let’s look at a column on the same topic by Patrick Tyrrell.

New Zealand…is one of the champions of economic freedom around the world. But it wasn’t always so. In the mid-1980s, New Zealand was facing an economic crisis, with its domestic market and international trade both heavily regulated. Unemployment had reached 11 percent… In response, the government of New Zealand began implementing revolutionary economic reforms, most significantly related to trade policy. It announced in 1987 a program that would reduce the tax on imports to under 20 percent by the year 1992. By 1996, that tax was reduced further to under 10 percent, and by the end of 1999, about 95 percent of New Zealand’s tariffs were set at zero.

Was that a successful policy?

Extremely beneficial.

New Zealand’s adoption of less restrictive trade policies has corresponded to its climb up the trade-freedom scale…and with a huge boost in per capita gross domestic product. The United States could take a page out of New Zealand’s trade-policy book and implement the same type of reductions in tariffs… That would enhance innovation and economic freedom—and grow our economy.

Here’s the chart from Patrick’s column.

Once again, the obvious caveat applies. New Zealand has adopted many pro-market policies in recent decades, so trade is just one of the reasons the country has moved in the right direction.

Now let’s go back in history and peruse Professor Peter Cain’s analysis of what happened when the U.K. adopted unilateral free trade in the mid-nineteenth century.

The trend to freer trade began in the late eighteenth century. …it was the 1840s that saw the beginning of a true revolution in policy. Earlier moves towards freer trade had been conditioned by an insistence on reciprocity (i.e. agreements with other states on mutual tariff reductions), but from the 1840s policy was determined unilaterally. The most dramatic instance of this was the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. …It also reflected a growing belief that cheap imports were the key to prosperity because they would benefit the consumer as well as reduce business costs… Free trade certainly became a hugely popular cause in Britain… It was attractive not only because it guaranteed cheap food, but also because it supported the belief, widespread amongst both the business class and their workforce, that the state should be kept out of economic life.

What was the impact of this shift to unilateral free trade?

…free trade, in combination with heavy foreign investment, certainly helped to change the shape of the British economy in the late nineteenth century. …the long run effect of unilateral free trade had been to increase competition for British agriculture and industry, lower profits and stimulate capital exports. …this regime had yielded great benefits. British capital, pouring into foreign railways and other industries overseas, had helped to reduce agricultural commodity prices, shifting the terms of trade in Britain’s favour and raising national income. Dividends and interest payments on foreign investments had also increased greatly and these returns were realised by importing cheap foreign produce freely. Furthermore, …this unilateral free trade-foreign investment system had provided a strong boost to Britain’s commercial and financial sector.

Here’s the Maddison data on per-capita GDP in the United Kingdom between 1800-1914.

Looking at this chart, I’m wondering how anyone can possibly argue that unilateral free trade hurts an economy.

Once again, many caveats apply. Most important, many other policies play a role in determining national prosperity. It’s also worth noting that a handful of tariffs on products like wine and tobacco were maintained. Most troubling, the era of unilateral free trade coincided with the imposition of the income tax (though it didn’t become a money machine for bigger government until the 1900s).

The bottom line is that every example of unilateral free trade (or sweeping unilateral reductions in trade barriers) tells a positive story. Trade liberalization isn’t everything, but it’s definitely a huge plus for growth.

Yes, the best of all worlds is for trade liberalization to happen simultaneously in all countries, and negotiations have produced considerable progress since the end of World War II, so I’m somewhat agnostic about the best strategy.

But there’s no ambiguity about the ultimate goal of ending protectionism.

P.S. Sometimes bad things happen for good reasons. The income tax in the United States also was adopted in part to offset the foregone revenue from lower trade taxes.

Two-Plus Cheers for President Macron’s Plan to Gut the French Exit Tax

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 12:11pm

Assuming elected officials care about the consequences of their actions, the obvious answer to a question isn’t always the right answer.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose the minimum wage, especially since some workers will get a pay hike?

A: Because the bottom rungs of the economic ladder will disappear and marginally skilled people will lose a chance to find employment and develop work skills.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose so-called employment-protection legislation, especially since some employees will be protected from dismissal?

A: Because employers will be less likely to hire workers if they don’t have the freedom to fire them if circumstances change.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose class-warfare taxation, especially since they could redistribute money to 90 percent of voters?

A: Because the short-run benefits of buying votes will be offset by long-run damage to investment, competitiveness, and job creation.

Many politicians are not sensible, of course, which is why bad policy is so common.

So it’s worth noting when someone actually makes the right decision, especially if they do it for the right reason.

With that in mind, President Emmanuel Macron deserves praise for gutting his country’s punitive “exit tax.” The U.K.-based Financial Times has the key details.

French president Emmanuel Macron said that he would remove the so-called exit tax as it was damaging for France’s image as a place to do business. The tax requires those entrepreneurs or investors who hold more than €800,000 in financial assets or at least 50 per cent of a company to pay capital gains up to 15 years after leaving France.  …A finance ministry spokesperson on Saturday confirmed “the removal of the exit tax as it existed.” …”The exit tax sends a negative message to entrepreneurs in France, more than to investors. Why? Because it means that beyond a certain threshold, you are penalised if you leave,” Mr Macron had said… “I don’t want any exit tax. It doesn’t make sense. People are free to invest where they want. I mean, if you are able to attract [investment], good for you, but if not, one should be free to divorce,” added the French president.

Kudos to Macron. He not only points out that such a tax discourages investment and entrepreneurship, but he also makes the moral argument that people should be free to leave a jurisdiction that mistreats them.

To be sure, the proposal isn’t perfect.

Mr Macron has now decided to introduce a new “anti-abuse” tax targeted at assets sold within two years of someone leaving the country. …“The new system will henceforth target divestments occurring shortly after leaving France — two years — to avoid letting people make short trips abroad in order to optimise tax efficiencies,” added the spokesperson.

This is why I gave the plan two-plus cheers instead of three cheers.  Though I understand the political calculation. It would create a lot of controversy if a rich person moved for one year to one of the several European nations that have no capital gains tax (Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, etc), sold their assets, and then immediately moved back to France the following year.

The right policy, needless to say, is for there to be no capital gains tax, period.

But let’s not get sidetracked. Here are a few additional details from Reuters.

France imposed the so-called “Exit Tax” in 2011 during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. …Its aim was to stop individuals temporarily changing their tax domicile in order to skirt French taxes but pro-business President Emmanuel Macron says it damages France’s attractiveness as an investment destination.

Yes, you read correctly, the class-warfare policy wasn’t imposed by the hard-leftFrancois Hollande, but by the Nicolas Sarkozy, the supposed conservative but de-facto leftist who preceded him.

What’s particularly bizarre is that Macron was a senior official for Hollande, yet he is the pro-market reformer who is trying to save France.

P.S. I’m embarrassed to admit that the United States has a very punitive exit tax(which Hillary Clinton wanted to make even worse).

P.P.S. Since one of my three examples at the beginning of today’s column dealt with the perverse consequences of “employment-protection laws,” I suppose it’s worth noting that’s another area where Macron is trying to reduce government intervention.

P.P.P.S. While Macron is a pro-market reformer at the national level, he advocates very bad ideas for the European Union.

A Primer on the Folly (and Evil) of Socialism

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 12:37pm

I’ve written many times about socialism, which is sometimes a frustrating task because the definition is slippery.

I suspect the average supporter of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks that socialism is big government, with lots of handouts financed by class warfare taxation. Since that’s the common perception, is that the definition we should use?

The technical definition of socialism, though, is government ownership of the means of production, which entails central planning, price controls, and other forms of intervention. So, at the risk of being pedantic, is that how the term should be defined?

As an economist, I prefer the latter approach. Which is why I’ve pushed back (though not necessarily in a favorable way) against those who called Obama a socialist.

A few years ago, I tried to reconcile this definitional conflict by creating a diagram to show that there are several strains of socialism (or statism, leftism, progressivism, or whatever you want to call it).

I also created a 2×2 matrix to show how various nations should be characterized when measuring redistribution and intervention.

If you think I’m somehow being unfair, check out this recent column in the New York Times. Even an advocate for socialism has a hard time saying what it is.

Public support for socialism is growing. Self-identified socialists like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are making inroads into the Democratic Party… Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the country, is skyrocketing, especially among young people. …what do we mean, in 2018, when we talk about “socialism”? …Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom. …when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, …from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

His claim that socialism is freedom sounds bizarre.

And it is bizarre. But it’s not new. It’s the crazy idea of “positive liberty” that was the basis of FDR’s so-called economic bill of rights.

Basically, we should all be “free” to live off of other people (though this cartoon sums up why that approach doesn’t work).

Though that’s just the start. Socialism eventually will mean…well, the proletariat will decide at some point.

There’s not much discussion, yet, of classic socialist tenets like worker control or collective ownership of the means of production. …today’s socialism is just getting started. …In magazines and on websites, in reading groups and party chapters, socialists are debating the next steps: state ownership of certain industries, worker councils and economic cooperatives… Mass action — sometimes illegal, always confrontational — will determine socialism’s final form. …As Marx and Engels understood…it is workers who get us there, who decide what and where “there” is. That, too, is a kind of freedom. Socialist freedom.

Is that the “freedom” to set up gulags and exterminate enemies?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Noah Smith is both sympathetic and worriedabout the putative resurgence of socialism.

Observing the disaster that is Venezuela, many free-market proponents are inclined to say that socialism always fails. To bolster their claim, they can also point to the Soviet Union, to North Korea, or to Vietnam and China before those countries implemented free-market reforms. Those self-described communist systems generated vast poverty and famine… defenders of socialism have their own historical examples to cite. …Though one can quibble over the definition of the word “socialism,” there’s little question that the so-called social democracies of Denmark and Sweden offer some of the world’s highest living standards.

That being said, Smith is concerned that advocates of socialism don’t understand the risks of too much government. He cites a couple of examples, including the failure of price controls and also how India suffered from statism before starting reforms in 1991.

But his comments about the United Kingdom and the Thatcher reforms may be the most important, because the Brits actually tried real socialism (i.e., government ownership of the means of production).

…the U.K. provides a cautionary tale. After World War II, the U.K. nationalized industries like steel, coal, aviation, electricity, rail transport and some manufacturing. But the British economy lagged behind its continental European peers during the midcentury. Manufacturing and transportation especially stagnated. By the time Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, both France and Italy were richer in per capita terms… Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatizations, along with other free-market policies. Britain…growth accelerated, and by 1997 it had caught up and passed France and Italy.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how the U.K. fell behind when it was socialist but then regained the lead following pro-market reforms.

Professor Smith’s cautionary words are noteworthy since he (based on having read dozens of his columns) leans to the left.

And here’s another criticism of socialism, this time from an unabashed liberal (in the modern sense of the word, not classical liberalism). Bill Scher has a withering review of a new book by a group of socialists.

Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker and Virgil Texas—of the socialist, satirical podcast Chapo Trap House…make bank by selling you a candy-coated version of socialism, one that may offend real socialists even more than liberal gruel-peddlers like myself. …The indoctrination begins with a condemnation of America’s containment of Soviet communism. …“Who cares?” if the Soviets won the Cold War, they write. …After blaming American-led capitalism for the world’s ills, the authors take aim at their favorite target: liberals. …In their evisceration of liberals and establishment Democrats, we get the usual left-wing criticisms of the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton presidencies… The Chapo crew’s romp through the history of feckless liberalism doesn’t stop with Obama and Clinton. Jimmy Carter is slammed… Lyndon Johnson is excoriated… Not even Franklin Delano Roosevelt escapes.

By the way, I can’t resist interjecting to point out that socialists had good reasons to condemn Bill Clinton’s presidency. After all, economic freedom increased during his tenure.

Though I suppose they also should be free to criticize other Democratic administrations for the supposed sin of not moving to the left at a faster rate.

The conclusion of Scher’s review is brutal.

After slogging through 276 of the book’s 282 pages of bad history…, the authors finally get around to their grand plan. Spoiler alert! This is literally it, in its entirety:

“After setting everyone on equal footing (by seizing the billionaires’ money, socializing their wealth, and handing the keys of production over to workers), you’re looking at an economy that requires something like a three-hour workday, with machines taking care of most of the drudgery; and—as our public fund pays for things like health care, education, scientific research, and infrastructure—all this technology actually makes work quicker, easier, and more enjoyable.”

The notion that socialism is going to slough off all that annoying labor to our forthcoming legion of robot slaves may come as a surprise to many socialists. …The Chapo hosts’ aversion to hard work extends to this book. Why suffer the details of how this nonworkers’ paradise, free of paper pushing and ditch digging, is going to be realized, when you can take in more than $1 million a year by dressing up stale arguments and thin policy ideas with inside jokes? The infomercial socialists of Chapo have exploited the free market expertly, and at least saved themselves from the 9-to-5 prison.

Until reading this review, I confess that these clowns were unknown to me.

But I’m going to take a wild guess that (like Michael Moore) they don’t share their wealth with the masses.

Let’s close by now perusing a serious economic analysis of socialism. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute looks at Why Socialism Failed.

Socialism is the ultimate Big Lie. While it falsely promises prosperity, equality, and security, it delivers the exact opposite: poverty, misery, inequality, and tyranny. Equality is achieved under socialism only in the sense that everyone is equal in his or her misery. …Socialism does not work because it is not consistent with fundamental principles of human behavior. …it is a system that ignores incentives. …A centrally planned economy without market prices or profits, where most of the property is owned or controlled by the state, is a system without an effective incentive mechanism to direct economic activity. …The strength of market-based capitalism can be attributed to an incentive structure based upon the three Ps: (1) Prices determined by market forces, (2) a Profit-and-Loss system of accounting, and (3) Private Property Rights. The failure of socialism in countries like Venezuela can be traced directly to its neglect of these three incentive-enhancing features.

Here’s some of what Mark wrote about socialism and prices.

The only alternative to a market price is a government-imposed price that always transmits misleading information about relative scarcity. Inappropriate behavior results from a controlled price because false information is transmitted by an artificial, non-market price. …The situation in socialist Venezuela provides a current example of the chaos and inefficiencies that are guaranteed to result from government price controls. As could be easily predicted, the widespread price controls imposed by the socialist regime in Venezuela in recent years led to chronic shortages of basic goods like milk, flour, rice and toilet paper, and long lines of customers waiting for hours to buy groceries at stores that frequently have mostly empty shelves.

Here are excerpts from his analysis of socialism and profits.

A profit system is an effective monitoring mechanism that continually evaluates the economic performance of every business enterprise. The firms that are the most efficient and most successful at serving consumers are rewarded with profits. … the profit system provides a strong disciplinary mechanism that continually redirects resources away from weak, failing, and inefficient firms toward those firms that are the most efficient and successful at serving consumers. …Under central planning, there is no profit-and-loss system of accounting to accurately measure the success or failure of various firms and producers. Without profits, there is no way to discipline firms that fail to serve the public interest and no way to reward firms that do. … Instead of continually reallocating resources towards greater efficiency, socialism falls into a vortex of inefficiency and failure.

And here are portions of what he wrote about socialism and property rights.

The failure of socialism around the world is a “tragedy of commons” on a global scale. …When assets are publicly owned, there are no incentives in place to encourage wise stewardship. While private property creates incentives for conservation and the responsible use of property, public property encourages irresponsibility and waste. …Public ownership encourages neglect and mismanagement. …Venezuela today is moving in the opposite direction. Under Hugo Chavez, the private property and assets of foreign-owned oil companies from the US, France, and Italy were nationalized and converted to state-owned, state-managed assets. The results were completely predictable: corruption, lack of investment, deteriorating capital assets, mismanagement and a sharp and ongoing decline.

His conclusion is especially powerful.

By their failure to foster, promote, and nurture the potential of their people through incentive-enhancing institutions, centrally planned, socialist economies deprive the human spirit of its full development. Socialism fails because it kills and destroys the human spirit… Programs like socialized medicine, free college, guaranteed jobs, free housing, and living wage laws will continue to entice us… But those programs, like all socialist programs, will fail in the long run…because they ignore the important role of incentives. …Socialism is being repackaged and recycled by today’s left-leaning politicians including Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez and is being taken seriously by a new young and gullible generation, many who weren’t even alive when the historic events of the 1980s and 1990s occurred including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the lessons from history about the defects, deficiencies, and failures of socialism are very clear. As we’ve learned from countless examples throughout history, including now Venezuela, the main difference between capitalism and socialism is this: Capitalism works.

Amen.

The observation that capitalism works and socialism fails is the point of my two-question challenge for my left-leaning friends.

To be sure, my challenge applies to conventional leftists as well as all varieties of socialists.

The advocates of bigger government surely should be required to show at least one example of how their policies work in the real world. But they can’t.

I’ll close by sharing this wonderful video of Dan Hannan explaining why liberty is better than socialism.

If you enjoyed that video, you can also watch Hannan in action here and here.

Why Businesses Don’t Owe More Taxes to Fund Welfare for Low-Wage Workers

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 8:51am

I rarely get surprised these days by the pervasive economic illiteracy on the left. Yet precisely that happened when a friend sent me a link to an article in Forbes Magazine from back in April. The article claims that:

Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published to coincide with Tax Day, April 15.

The topic of this article is highly relevant. It is a clear attempt to shame corporate America for having received a much-needed tax cut, suggesting that if the Democrats win the House in November, they will be under heavy pressure from their support groups to reverse the Trump tax reform.

This point is reinforced by the fact that the report referred to in the Forbes article was published by Americans for Tax Fairness. This is a coalition that presents its sole goal – higher taxes – in the usual wrapping of leftist rhetoric. Here is what they say about taxes:

Everyone must pay their fair share. We need to reform our tax code, so it raises adequate revenues to meet critical needs in a fiscally responsible manner. This requires that wealthy Americans – the richest 2 percent – and corporations pay their fair share of taxes.

There is a lot to be said about the methodology of their study; for now, let us just note that the reason why tens of millions of working Americans receive various forms of government support is that Congress has created a welfare state. If there were no welfare state, there would be no “subsidies”, as Americans for Tax Fairness erroneously refers to entitlements.

However, mislabeling the welfare state is only one of their problems. Another problem is their argument on taxes. It is correct to characterize the federal tax system as unfair, but not in the way that Americans for Tax Fairness suggests.

It gets better, though. Their misrepresentation of welfare and their argument that the wealthier should pay higher taxes coalesce into a false accusation that America’s wealthy take advantage of the welfare state to somehow suppress low-income workers.

To make their argument work they need to somehow disconnect America’s businesses from the taxes that pay for the welfare state. Unfortunately, this mission is doomed before it gets off the ground.

Before the Trump tax reform, ten percent of the employed workforce in America paid 80 percent of all personal income taxes. Since personal income taxes account for 80 percent of federal tax revenue, this means that about 15 million people, out of a population of 320 million, paid 64 percent of the taxes that fund our nation’s welfare programs.

After the Trump tax reform, the burden of funding the federal government has been even more concentrated. With the cut in corporate income taxes and the changes to the personal tax code, that ten-percent top earning group now pays at least two thirds of all federal taxes.

And now for the $64,000 question of the day: who owns America’s large businesses? The answer, of course, is the wealthy. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, the Koch brothers, the Ford family, are all examples of very wealthy entrepreneurs who earn a lot of money – but also put their money to work in some of our nation’s largest and most successful businesses.

They are also part of the population that already provide the majority of the taxes that pay for our welfare state. In other words, our corporate founders, owners and executives already pay the bulk of the cost for the programs that some of their employees benefit from.

Perhaps the most absurd point behind the arguments for higher taxes on the rich is that such tax hikes somehow do not harm the people who work for those companies. Since the Trump tax cuts have benefited employees in businesses all over the country, it is not hard to imagine what would happen if the left got what it wanted and reversed those tax cuts.

As for the tax fairness argument, there is only one fair tax system, namely one where every person pays the same percentage in tax. As Dan Mitchell shows in this video, its advantages are easily explained in a minute. It might also be worth noting that wealthy taxpayers would still contribute much, much more toward funding government than people with regular incomes. The only downside is that sales of headache medication would decline substantially around April 15, as the flat tax would make our tax system fair, transparent and neutral to everyone’s efforts to earn more and grow their wealth.

World Bank Study Confirms that Free Markets Encourage Development in Poor Nations

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 12:43pm

periodically explain that pro-market policies are the best way of helping poor people.

The reason rich countries are rich is because they had lengthy periods of limited government, free markets, and the rule of law.

And the convergence literature shows that the same thing is true for developing nations.

Today, let’s look at some new research from the World Bank on how good policy plays a role in generating wealth from natural resources. The authors start by explaining the issue they want to investigate.

The literature on economic development often assumes that natural resource endowments are exogenous. …the resource economics literature has emphasized that the resource base is endogenous to investment in explorationand extraction. That literature has, however, overlooked the role that market orientation and institutions play in driving investments in the resource sector. Our aim is to bridge the gap between these two literatures and explore the effect of market orientation on the discovery of proven (known) natural resource wealth.

They cite the United States as an example of a country that benefited from the right policies.

The experience of the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century provides a historical account of the role of market orientation in driving natural wealth. Although the United States at the time of independence was considered to be a country of “abundance of land but virtually no mining potential” (O’Toole, 1977), by 1913 it was the world’s dominant producer of virtually every major industrial mineral (David and Wright, 1997). Rather than being driven by a comparative advantage in geological endowments, this resource-based development of the United States was driven among other things by an open market orientation and an accommodating legal environment with the government claiming no ultimate title to mineral rents

And they note that there is additional anecdotal evidence that liberalization produces good results.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that increased market orientation was followed by increased discoveries across continents and types of natural resources (see Table 1). The increase in discoveries after countries open up to the global economy appears to be quite stark. In Peru, for example, discoveries more than quadrupled, in Chile they tripled, and in Mexico they doubled. In Ghana, discoveries only started to occur after the opening of the economy.

Here’s a table showing the dramatic increase in discoveries after selected nations shift to a pro-market approach.

The authors want to see if such results are either random or policy-driven.

So they put together a detailed model and gathered lots of data.

…we put forward a simple two-region model of endogenous reserves based on Pindyck (1978) where multinational corporations are faced with an implicit tax which proxies for how closed market orientation is, and seek the lowest cost location. The model explores the interplay between market orientation and other channels such as the increase in the marginal cost of discoveries and (demand driven) natural resource price shocks. …For our empirical analysis we build a unique and hitherto unexploited dataset of the universe of world-wide major natural resource discoveries since 1950, covering 128 countries, 33 types of natural resources and over 60 years.

Here’s an example of the data they utilized.

And here are the results.

I’m not surprised to learn that good policy (i.e., free markets) generate a substantial increase in economic activity.

…our empirical analysis shows that market orientation causes a statistically and economically significant increase in natural resource discoveries. Our point estimates indicate that going from a closed to an open market orientation increases discoveries by 80-140 percent. …In a thought experiment whereby economies in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa remained closed, they would have only achieved one quarter of the actual increase in discoveries they have experienced since the early 1990s.

The benefits are especially significant in developing nations, where market reforms appear to have produced a four-fold increase in the discovery of natural resources.

Here’s a look at the data for the entire study.

As you can see, there’s always an element of randomness and uncertainty in econometric research (“noise”), but the trend is readily apparent and the statistical tests provide a good amount of confidence about the strength of the relationship between more economic freedom and more economic activity.

I have two takeaways from this research.

First, we have the obvious result that property rightsrule of law, and other market-based policies are needed to help the poor.

Second, this is additional confirmation of my gut feeling that the World Bank is the best (least worst?) of the international bureaucracies. Yes, they waste money and are capable of producing bad research, but the organization’s culture seems to be focused on what changes are needed to help poor countries. And that often results in solid research (for other examples, see herehereherehere, and here).

You can occasionally find good analysis from other international bureaucracies, such as the OECD and IMF, but it’s far more likely that those organizations will promote statist analysis because of a pro-government mindset.

One Image that Underscores Why Growth Is the Most Effective Way to Help the Poor

Sat, 09/15/2018 - 12:17pm

I’ve repeatedly argued that faster growth is the only effective way of helping the less fortunate.

Class warfare and redistribution, by contrast, are not effective. Such policies are based on the fallacy that the economy is a fixed pie, and proponents of this view fixate on inequality because they mistakenly believe that additional income for the rich means less income for the poor.

Today, let’s look at some numbers that prove that a fixation on inequality is misguided. The Census Bureau this week released its annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States. That publication includes data (Table A-2) showing annual inflation-adjusted earnings by income quintile between 1967-2017.

To see if my left-leaning friends are right about the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, I calculated the annual percent change for each quintile. Lo and behold, the data actually show that there’s a very clear pattern showing how all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together.

The lesson from this data is clear. If you want policies that help the poor, those also will be policies that help the middle class and rich.

And if you hate the rich, you need to realize that policies hurting them will almost certainly hurt the less fortunate as well.

One other lesson is that all income quintiles did particularly well during the 1980sand 1990s when free-market policies prevailed.

P.S. Many people (including on the left) have pointed out that the Census Bureau’s numbers under-count compensation because fringe benefits such as healthcare are excluded. This is a very legitimate complaint, but it doesn’t change the fact that all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together. For what it’s worth, adding other forms of compensation would boost lower quintiles compared to higher quintiles.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting video from Pew Research showing how the middle class has become more prosperous over the past few decades.

P.P.P.S. The Census Bureau’s report also has the latest data on poverty. The good news is that the poverty rate fell. The bad news is that long-run progress ground to a halt once the federal government launched the ill-fated War on Poverty.

Everything You Need to Know about the Harmful Effects of FEMA and Federal Disaster Relief

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 12:25pm

With Florence about to hit, it’s time to preemptively explain how the federal government makes damage more likely and why post-hurricane efforts will make future damage more likely.

There are just two principles you need to understand.

  1. When Washington subsidizes something, you get more of it, and the federal government subsidizes building – and living – in risky areas.
  2. When Washington provides bailouts, you incentivize risky behavior in the private sector and “learned helplessness” from state and local governments.

If I wanted to be lazy (or to be merciful and spare readers from a lengthy column), this satirical image is probably all that’s necessary to explain the first point. The federal government’s flood insurance program gives people – often the very rich, which galls me – an incentive to build where the risk of flooding and hurricanes is very high.

But let’s look at additional information and analysis.

We’ll start with this excellent primer on the issue from Professor William Shughart.

Disaster relief arguably is, in short, something of a public good that would be undersupplied if responsibility for providing it were left in the hands of the private sector. If this line of reasoning is sound, the activity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or something like it is a proper function of the national government. …even if disaster relief is thought of as a public good—a form of “social insurance” against fire, flood, earthquake, and other natural catastrophes—it does not follow that government provision is the only or necessarily the best option. …both economic theory and the historical record point to the conclusion that the public sector predictably fails to supply disaster relief in socially optimal quantities. Moreover, because it facilitates corruption, creates incentives for populating disaster-prone areas, and crowds out self-help and other local means of coping with disaster, government provision of assistance to disaster’s victims actually threatens to make matters worse. …Government agencies are created by legislation, overseen by elected officials, and operated by huge bureaucracies. Public employees’ fear of being blamed for doing something wrong (or failing to do something right) produces risk aversion…the people who set priorities and make decisions are often separated by multiple layers of management from those on the ground who know what really needs to be done.

Professor Shughart explains that “public choice” and “moral hazard” play a role.

FEMA has been shown to be responsive more to the political interests of the White House than to the needs of disaster victims on the ground. …federal emergency relief funds tend to be allocated disproportionately to electoral-vote-rich states that are important to the sitting president’s reelection strategy. …The term moral hazard refers to the reduction in the cost of carelessness… The prospect of receiving federal and state reconstruction assistance after the next hurricane creates an incentive for others to relocate their homes and businesses from inland areas of comparative safety to vulnerable coastal areas. …The expectation of receiving publicly financed disaster relief may explain why 69 percent of the residents of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast did not have federal flood insurance when Katrina hit. …the immediate reactions of for-profit businesses, nongovernmental organizations large and small, and countless individual volunteers amply demonstrate that the private sector can and will supply disaster relief in adequate and perhaps socially optimal quantities

Barry Brownstein has a sober assessment of the underlying problem.

…federal flood insurance was amplifying the impact of storms by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in areas prone to flooding. …the case against subsidized flood insurance is not a case against growth; it is a case against distorted growth. Federally supported insurance overrides the risk-reducing incentives that insurance premiums provide and results in building in vulnerable areas. …In a free market, insurance premiums on cars, for instance, tend to settle toward an “actuarially fair price.” …If you have a history of drunk driving, that increases the chances you’ll make an insurance claim on your car – so your premiums will be higher, and that encourages you not to drive in the future (or to drive sober in the first place). …Getting the government out of the flood insurance business and having insurance companies determine actuarially sound premiums is the only way for homeowners, businesses, and builders to know the real risk they are assuming.

And here are excerpts from a column by David Conrad and Larry Larson.

…the Great Flood of 1993 in the upper Midwest. After that disaster, the Clinton administration directed an experienced federal interagency task force to report on the flood and its causes. That report…made more than 100 recommendations for policy and program changes… The government found that many policies were encouraging — rather than discouraging — people to build homes and businesses in places with increasingly high risks of flooding… That often compounded the costs and problems caused by floods. …Experts and policymakers have known for a long time that we need to change the way we approach flood mitigation and prevention, but that hasn’t stopped the nation from making the same mistakes over and over. …substantial benefits for property owners and taxpayers could be gleaned by simply removing damaged buildings, rather than repairing them only to see them flooded out again. …many flood insurance policies were heavily subsidized and underestimated risk, leading to premiums that were far too low. …Americans facing some new devastation in the future will be looking back at Harvey and wondering why we didn’t act now.

Even the Washington Post has a reasonable perspective on this issue.

National Flood Insurance Program…an…increasingly dysfunctional program. Enacted 50 years ago…, the program made a certain sense in theory…in return for appropriate local land-use and other measures to prevent development in low-lying areas and for actuarially sound premiums. Politics being what they are, the program gradually fell prey to pressure from developers and homeowners in the nation’s coastal areas. Arguably, the existence of flood insurance encouraged development in flood zones that would not have occurred otherwise. …Ideally, more of the costs of flood insurance would be shouldered by the people and places who benefit most from it; modern technology and financial tools should enable the private sector to handle more of the business, too. Such radical reform is not on Congress’s agenda, of course.

As you might expect, Steve Chapman has a very clear understanding of what’s happening.

The National Flood Insurance Program, created in 1968 under LBJ on the theory that the private insurance market couldn’t handle flood damage, presumed that Washington could. Like many of his Great Society initiatives, it has turned out to be an expensive tutorial on the perils of government intervention. …A house outside of Baton Rouge, La., assessed at $56,000, has soaked up 40 floods and over $428,000 in insurance payouts. One in North Wildwood, New Jersey has been rebuilt 32 times. Nationally, some 30,000 buildings classified as “severe repetitive loss properties” have been covered despite having been swamped an average of five times each. Homes in this category make up about one percent of the buildings covered by the flood insurance program—but 30 percent of the claims. Their premiums don’t cover the expected losses. But as National Resources Defense Council analyst Rob Moore told The Washington Post, “No congressman ever got unelected by providing cheap flood insurance.” …The root of the problem is a familiar one: the people responsible for these decisions are not spending their own money. They find it easier to indulge the relative handful of flood victims than to attend to the interests of millions of taxpayers in general.

Now let’s look at some of the perverse consequences of federal intervention.

Such as repeated bailouts for certain properties.

Brian Harmon had just finished spending over $300,000 to fix his home in Kingwood, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey sent floodwaters “completely over the roof.” The six-bedroom house, which has an indoor swimming pool, sits along the San Jacinto River. It has flooded 22 times since 1979, making it one of the most flood-damaged properties in the country. Between 1979 and 2015, government records show the federal flood insurance program paid out more than $1.8 million to rebuild the house—a property that Mr. Harmon figured was worth $600,000 to $800,000 before Harvey hit late last month. …Homes and other properties with repetitive flood losses account for just 2% of the roughly 1.5 million properties that currently have flood insurance, according to government estimates. But such properties have accounted for about 30% of flood claims paid over the program’s history. …Nearly half of frequently flooded properties in the U.S. have received more in total damage payments than the flood program’s estimate of what the homes are worth, according to the group’s calculations.

Disaster legislation, Rachel Bovard explained, is often an excuse for unrelated pork-barrel spending.

In 2012, President Obama requested a $60.4 billion supplemental funding bill from Congress, ostensibly to fund reconstruction efforts in the parts of the country most impacted by Hurricane Sandy. However, that’s not what Congress gave him, or what he signed. Instead, the bill was loaded up with earmarks and pork barrel spending, so much so that only around half of the bill ended up actually being for Sandy relief. Consider just a handful of the goodies contained in the final legislation…$150 million for Alaska fisheries (Hurricane Sandy was on the east coast of the US; Alaska is the country’s western most tip)…$8 million to buy cars and equipment for the Homeland Security and Justice departments (at the time of the Sandy supplemental, these agencies already had 620,000 cars between them)…$821 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge waterways with no relation to Hurricane Sandy (the Corps never likes to waste a disaster)…$118 million for AMTRAK ($86 million to be used on non-Sandy related Northeast corridor upgrades). …the Sandy supplemental represented the worst of special interest directed, unaccountable, pork-barrel spending in Washington.

And as seems to always be the case with government, Jeffrey Tucker explains that disaster relief subsidizes corrupt favors for campaign contributors.

Look closely enough and you find corruption at every level. I recall living in a town hit by a hurricane many years ago. The town mayor instructed people not to clean up yet because FEMA was coming to town. To get the maximum cash infusion, the inspectors needed to see terrible things. When the money finally arrived, it went to the largest real estate developers, who promptly used it to clear cut land for new housing developments. …It does seem highly strange that this desktop operation in Montana would be awarded a $300 million contract to rebuild the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. That sounds outrageous. But guess what? …Zinke claims that he had “absolutely nothing to do” with selecting the company that got the contract, even though the company is in his hometown and his own son worked there. And yet there is more. The Daily Beast discovered that the company that is financing Whitefish’s expansions, HBC Investments, was founded by its current general partner Joe Colonnetta. He and his wife were larger donors to Trump campaign, in every form permissible by law and at maximum amounts. …FEMA has long been used as a pipeline to cronies.

The ideal solution is to somehow curtail the role of the federal government.

Which is what Holman Jenkins suggests in this column for the Wall Street Journal, even though he is pessimistic because rich property owners capture many of the subsidies.

What’s really missing in all such places is…proper risk pricing through insurance. …Now we wonder if it can even be ameliorated. …our most influential citizens all have one thing in common: a house in Florida. An unfortunate truth is that the value of their Florida coastal propertywould plummet if they were made to bear the cost of their life-style choices. A lot of ritzy communities would shrink drastically. Sun and fun would still attract visitors, but property owners and businesses would face a new set of incentives. Either build a lot sturdier and higher up. Or build cheap and disposable, and expect to shoulder the cost of totally rebuilding every decade or two. Faced with skyrocketing insurance rates, entire communities would have to dissolve themselves or tax their residents heavily to invest in damage-mitigation measures. …With government assuming the risk, why would businesses and homesteaders ever think twice about building in the path of future hurricanes?

Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason offered some very sensible suggestions after Hurricane Harvey.

Many of the folks who take on the risk of heading into an unstable area do so because they are driven by the twin motivations of fellow-feeling and greed. These people are often the fastest and most effective at getting supplies where they are most needed, because that’s also where they can get the best price. This is just as true for Walmart as it is for the guy who fills his pickup with Poland Spring and batteries. Don’t use the bully pulpit to vilify disaster entrepreneurs, small or large. …by trying to control who gets into a storm zone to help, governments can wind up blockading good people who could do good while waiting for approval from Washington in a situation where communications are often bad. Ordinary people see and know things about what their friends and neighbors need and want that FEMA simply can’t be expected to figure out. …Emergency workers and law enforcement shouldn’t waste post-storm effort rooting around in people’s homes for firearms. Law-abiding gun owners do not, by and large, turn into characters from Grand Theft Auto when they get wet.

Amen to her point about so-called price gouging. The politicians who demagogue against price spikes either don’t understand supply-and-demand, or they don’t care whether people suffer. Probably both.

Sadly, FEMA, federal flood insurance, and other forms of intervention now play a dominant role when disasters occur.

That being said, let’s wrap up today’s column with some examples of how the private sector still manages to play a very effective role. We’ll start with this article from the Daily Caller.

Faith-based relief groups are responsible for providing nearly 80 percent of the aid delivered thus far to communities with homes devastated by the recent hurricanes… The United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has 20,000 volunteers trained to serve in disaster response teams, not only helps clean up the mess and repair the damage inflicted on homes by disasters, but also helps families… The Seventh Day Adventists help state governments with warehousing various goods and necessities to aid communities in the aftermath of a disaster. …Non-denominational Christian relief organization Convoy of Hope helps to provide meals to victims of natural disasters by setting up feeding stations in affected communities.

And I strongly recommend this video by Professor Steve Horwitz, my buddy from grad school.

The famous “Cajun Navy” is another example, as noted by the Baton Rouge Advocate.

The Pelican State managed Sunday to avoid most of Harvey’s fury. But around Baton Rouge, Lafayette and other parts of the state, members of the Cajun Navy sprung into action… Many who spent last August wading around south Louisiana’s floodwaters in boats packed them up Sunday and headed west to help rescue Texans caught in the floods. …”I can’t look at somebody knowing that I have a perfect boat in my driveway to be doing this and to just sit at home,” said Jordy Bloodsworth, a Baton Rouge member of the Cajun Navy who flooded after Hurricane Katrina when he lived in Chalmette. “I have every resource within 100 feet of me to help.” Bloodsworth was heading overnight on Sunday to Texas to help with search and rescue. …Others arrived in Texas earlier on Sunday. Toney Wade had more than a dozen friends…in tow as he battled rain and high water to get to Dickinson, Texas. Wade is the commander of an all-volunteer group of mostly former law enforcement officers and former firefighters called Cajun Coast Search and Rescue, based in Jeanerette. They brought boats and high-water rescue vehicles with them, along with food, tents and other supplies.

There’s also the “Houston Navy.”

Here’s another good example of how the private sector – when it’s allowed to play a role – acts to reduce damage.

Increasingly, insurance carriers are finding wildfires, such as those in California, are an opportunity to provide protection beyond what most people get through publicly funded fire fighting. Some insurers say they typically get new customers when homeowners see the special treatment received by neighbors during big fires. “The enrollment has taken off dramatically over the years as people have seen us save homes,” Paul Krump, a senior executive at Chubb, said of the insurer’s Wildfire Defense Services. …Tens of thousands of people benefit from the programs. …The private-sector activity calls to mind the early days of fire insurance in the U.S., in the 18th and 19th centuries before municipal fire services became common. Back then, metal-plaque “fire marks” were affixed to the front of insured buildings as a guide for insurers’ own fire brigades.

It’s also important to realize that armed private citizens are the ones who help maintain order following a disaster, as illustrated by this video of a great American (warning: some strong language).

I imagine that guy would get along very well with the folks in the image at the bottom of this column.

Last but not least, here’s some analysis for history buffs of what happened after the fire that leveled much of Chicago in the 1800s.

…does the current emphasis on top-down disaster relief favored in the US and beyond represent the best strategy? Emily Skarbek, a professor at Brown University, approached this question by studying one of the most famous catastrophes of the 19th century, the Chicago fire of 1871. …scholars and laypeople alike are convinced that there is no substitute for the resources and direction that centralized governments can provide in the wake of a disaster. …This maxim was apparently inconsistent with the Chicago fire, however, as the Midwestern city was reconstructed in a remarkably short period of time, and without the supervision of an overbearing central government. …in 1871 there was no analogue to the present-day, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), meaning that relief efforts had to be decentralized. Moreover, there was no institutionalized source of government financial aid…it was up to Chicago’s residents to develop solutions to the calamity that they faced. …The Chicago Relief and Aid Society was founded, and set about coordinating the funds and efforts, including sophisticated bylaws regarding who merited support, and at what level. …the society exhibited the flexibility and adaptability necessary for it to expand dramatically immediately after the fire…and to subsequently contract once the needs for its services fell. This latter feature distinguishes Chicago’s relief efforts from those of 21st century government agencies.

Since I started with an image that summarizes the foolishness of government-subsidized risk, let’s end with another visual showing the impact of government.

 

Or, let’s apply the lesson more broadly.

Sadly, I predict that politicians will ignore these logical conclusions and immediately clamor after Hurricane Florence for another wasteful package of emergency spending, most of which will have nothing to do with saving lives and have everything to do with buying votes. Trump, being a big spender, will be cheering them on.

Which will then encourage more damage and risk more lives in the future. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Can We Predict When Venezuela’s Statist Nightmare Will End?

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 12:16pm

Ever since 2010, I’ve been pointing out that Venezuela is a horrifying and tragicexample of what happens when the private sector in a country is almost completely suffocated by excessive government.

And with the country now in a death spiral, you would think it’s a perfect time for further commentary. I sometimes wonder, though, what I can write that isn’t ridiculously repetitive.

But a couple of recent conversations have convinced me of the need to address two points.

First, it’s important to emphasize that not all statism is created equal. When writing recently about Denmark, I created a chart to show how that country was much more pro-market than France. And that same chart showed that France was much more capitalist than Greece.

And guess which country was the most statist? If you said Venezuela, you’re right.

And the lesson from this data is that the degree of statism matters. Venezuela is a total mess because of total statism, Greece is in trouble because of lots of statism, France is anemic because of run-of-the-mill statism, and Denmark does okay because it’s only statist in one area (fiscal policy).

Imagine you were a teacher and these countries were students. Here are the grades you’d assign for economic policy.

F – Venezuela
D – Greece
C – France
B – Denmark

Second, I want to answer a question that often gets asked, which is how long can the current government survive?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. That’s partly because bad policy doesn’t cause overnight collapse (Adam Smith noted more than 200 years ago, “there is great deal of ruin in a nation”).

Venezuela historically has propped up its statist regime with oil revenue, but that’s shrinking as an option because of government incompetence.

Thousands of workers are fleeing Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, abandoning once-coveted jobs made worthless by the worst inflation in the world. …Desperate oil workers and criminals are also stripping the oil company of vital equipment, vehicles, pumps and copper wiring, carrying off whatever they can to make money. The double drain — of people and hardware — is further crippling a company that has been teetering for years yet remains the country’s most important source of income. …Venezuela is on its knees economically, buckled by hyperinflation and a history of mismanagement. Widespread hunger, political strife, devastating shortages of medicine and an exodus of well over a million people in recent years have turned this country, once the economic envy of many of its neighbors, into a crisis.

At the end of the day, the regime can rely on force. And Venezuela’s politicians cleverly have put the army in charge of graft and shakedowns, thus earning at least temporary loyalty.

Venezuela’s military has come to oversee the desperate and lucrative water trade as reservoirs empty, broken pipes flood neighborhoods and overwhelmed personnel walk out. Seven major access points in the capital of 5.5 million people are now run by soldiers or police, who also took total control of all public and private water trucks. Unofficially, soldiers direct where drivers deliver — and make them give away the goods at favored addresses. President Nicolas Maduro’s autocratic regime has handed lucrative industries to the 160,000-member military as the economic collapse gathers speed, from the mineral-rich region of the Arco Minero del Orinoco to top slots at the state oil producer to increasingly precious control over food and water.

Moreover, it’s difficult for people to revolt since the regime has followed the totalitarian playbook and banned private guns.

So it’s no surprise that many disaffected people (the ones who otherwise might revolt) are simply escaping the country.

Hundreds turn up each day, many arriving penniless and gaunt… Once they cross, many cram into public parks and plazas teeming with makeshift homeless shelters, raising concerns about drugs and crime. The lucky ones sleep in tents and line up for meals provided by soldiers — pregnant women, the disabled and families with young children are often given priority. …this is happening in Brazil, where a relentless tide of people fleeing the deepening economic crisis in Venezuela… The tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have found refuge in Brazil in recent years are walking proof of a worsening humanitarian crisis that their government claims does not exist. …more Venezuelans are leaving home each month than the 125,000 Cuban exiles who fled their homes during the 1980 Mariel boat crisis.

And the ones who haven’t left still have some options besides starve or revolt.

A few years ago, there were so many donkeys, or burros, in the Venezuelan state of Falcón that they were a problem — herds everywhere, causing highway crashes and blocking airport runways. But over the past three years, the herds have shrunk dramatically as thousands of burros have been slaughtered for their meat by Venezuelans suffering through a near-famine. …The collapse of the Venezuelan economy is radically changing the eating habits in the oil-producing country, where large sectors of the population are being forced to pick through garbage and slaughter domestic animals to sate their hunger. …The clandestine slaughter of the animals also has become a sanitary and environmental problem, Stefaneli added. There are no sanitary controls, and the burro has been disappearing from its native habitats. …Years back, residents of Paraguana used to eat goat, fish and beef. And when those were in short supply they ate rabbits, grains and even iguanas. Burro meat was not liked because it’s tough and smells, even from far away, according to residents who have eaten it. But it has become a necessity for many people.

The bottom line is that Venezuela is in free-fall, but I don’t know where the bottom is. And I don’t know what will happen when the country hits rock bottom.

But if you hold a gun to my head, I’ll predict that the regime somehow collapses in 2020.

P.S. The silver lining of Venezuela’s dark cloud is that we have some grim humor from inside and outside the country.

P.P.S. Venezuela is such a disaster that even the World Bank acknowledged Chile’s market-oriented system is far superior.

Higher Tax Rates ==> Less Innovation ==> Less Prosperity

Wed, 09/12/2018 - 12:06pm

If the goal is higher living standards, then higher levels of productivity are necessary. And that requires entrepreneurship and innovation.

But bad tax policy can be an obstacle to the economic choices that create a better future.

I’ve already shared lots of research showing how punitive tax rates undermine growth, but it never hurts to add to the collection.

Let’s look at a new study by Ufuk Akcigit, John Grigsby, Tom Nicholas, and Stefanie Stantcheva. Here’s the issue they investigated.

…do taxes affect innovation? If innovation is the result of intentional effort and taxes reduce the expected net return from it, the answer to this question should be yes. Yet, when we think of path-breaking superstar inventors from history…we often imagine hard-working and driven scientists, who ignore financial incentives and merely seek intellectual achievement. More generally, if taxes affect the amount of innovation, do they also affect the quality of the innovations produced? Do they affect where inventors decide to locate and what firms they work for? …In this paper, we…provide new evidence on the effects of taxation on innovation. Our goal is to systematically analyze the effects of both personal and corporate income taxation on inventors as well as on firms that do R&D over the 20th century.

To perform their analysis, the economists gathered some very interesting data on the evolution of tax policy at the state level. Such as when personal income taxes were adopted.

By the way, I may have discovered an error. They show Connecticut’s income tax being imposed in 1969, but my understanding is that the tax was first levied less than 30 years ago.

In any event, the authors also show how, over time, states have taxed upper-income households.

They look at 20th-century data. If you want more up-to-date numbers, you can click here.

But let’s not digress. Here are some of the findings from the study.

We use OLS to study the baseline relationship between taxes and innovation, exploiting within-state tax changes over time, our instrumental variable approach and the border county design. On the personal income tax side, we consider average and marginal tax rates, both for the median income level and for top earners. Our corporate tax measure is the top corporate tax rate. We find that personal and corporate income taxes have significant effects at the state level on patents, citations (which are a well-established marker of the quality of patents), inventors and “superstar” inventors in the state, and the share of patents produced by firms as opposed to individuals. The implied elasticities of patents, inventors, and citations at the macro level are between 2 and 3.4 for personal income taxes and between 2.5 and 3.5 for the corporate tax. We show that these effects cannot be fully accounted for by inventors moving across state lines and therefore do not merely reflect “zero-sum” business-stealing of one state from other states.

Here are further details about the statewide impact of tax policy.

A one percentage point increase in either the median or top marginal tax rate is associated with approximately a 4% decline in patents, citations, and inventors, and a close to 5% decline in the number of superstar inventors in the state. The effects of average personal tax rates are even larger. A one percentage increase in the average tax rate at the 90th income percentile is associated with a roughly 6% decline in patents, citations, and inventors and an 8% decline in superstar inventors. For the average tax rate at the median income level, the effects are closer to 10% for patents, citations, and inventors, and 15% for superstar inventors.

At the risk of understatement, that’s clear evidence that class-warfare policy has a negative effect.

The study also looked at several case studies of how states performed after significant tax changes.

…case studies provide particularly clear visual evidence of a strong negative relationship between taxes and innovation. When combined with the macro state-level regressions, the instrumental variable approach and the border county analysis, the results overall bolster the conclusion that taxes were significantly negatively related to innovation outcomes at the state level.

Here’s the example of Delaware.

For what it’s worth, we have powerful 21st-century examples of the consequences of bad tax policy. Just think New JerseyCalifornia, and Illinois.

But I’m digressing again.

Back to the study, were we find that the authors also look at how tax policy affects the decisions of people and companies.

We then turn to the micro-level, i.e., individual firms and inventors. …we find that taxes have significant negative effects on the quantity and quality (as measured by citations) of patents produced by inventors, including on the likelihood of producing a highly successful patent (which gathers many citations). At the individual inventor level, the elasticity of patents to the personal income tax is 0.6-0.7, and the elasticity of citations is 0.8-0.9. …we show that individual inventors are negatively affected by the corporate tax rate, but much less so than by personal income taxes. …We find that inventors are significantly less likely to locate in states with higher taxes. The elasticity to the net-of-tax rate of the number of inventors residing in a state is 0.11 for inventors who are from that state and 1.23 for inventors not from that state. Inventors who work for companies are particularly elastic to taxes.

And here are additional details about the micro findings.

…patenting is significantly negatively affected by personal income taxes. A one percentage point higher tax rate at the individual level decreases the likelihood of having a patent in the next 3 years by 0.63 percentage points. Similarly, the likelihood of having high quality patents with more than 10 citations decreases by 0.6 percentage points for every percentage point increase in the personal tax rate. …We find that a one percentage point increase in the personal tax rate leads to a 1.1 percent decline in the number of patents and a 1.4-1.7 percent decline in the number of citations, conditional on having any. …the likelihood of having a corporate patent also reacts very negatively to the personal tax rate… A one percentage point decrease in the corporate tax rate increases patents by 4% and citations by around 3.5%. The IV results are of similar magnitudes, but again even stronger. According to the IV specification, a one percentage point decrease in the corporate tax rate increases patents by 6% and citations by 5%.

Here are some of the conclusions from the study.

Taxation – in the form of both personal income taxes and corporate income taxes – matters for innovation along the intensive and extensive margins, and both at the micro and macro levels. Taxes affect the amount of innovation, the quality of innovation, and the location of inventive activity. The effects are economically large especially at the macro state-level, where cross-state spillovers and extensive margin location and entry decisions compound the micro, individual-level elasticities. …while our analysis focuses on the relationship between taxation and innovation, our data and approach have much broader implications. We find that taxes have important effects on intensive and extensive margin decisions, on the mobility of people and where inventors and firms choose to locate.

In other words, the bottom line is that tax rates should be as low as possible to produce as much prosperity as possible.

P.S. If you check the postscript of this column, you’ll see that there is also data showing how inventors respond to international tax policy. And there’s similar data for top-level entrepreneurs.

Trump and Trade: Evolving from Bluster to Danger

Tue, 09/11/2018 - 12:59pm

I wrote a few days ago about Obama’s weak track record on the economy and included the relevant part of a Fox Business interview.

In that same interview, I also talked about Trump’s performance. As you might expect, I said nice things about tax reform and regulatory relief, but was rather alarmist about his protectionism.

The bottom line is that Trump simply doesn’t understand trade. He thinks a trade deficit is bad, when it’s really just the flip side of a capital surplus.

Investor’s Business Daily opines on the inanity of protectionist spats.

In the tit-for-tat trade war between the U.S. and China, pain is a major theme. The idea is to ratchet up the pain, through tariffs and other punishments, until one side says “uncle.” But what if no one says “uncle”? …President Trump doubled down, proposing $100 billion in added tariffs on Chinese goods, in addition to the $50 billion or so already imposed. …China, meanwhile, on Friday withdrew from trade talks and promised to “fight back with a major response,” calling Friday’s U.S. move “arrogant.” …As the rhetoric heats up, neither side feels it can back down. …China slapped tariffs on products made in states that voted heavily for Trump, including such products as soybeans, SUVs, and small commercial jet planes. …trade disputes and tariffs have a history of becoming nasty economic downturns. …the Smoot-Hawley tariffs…caused a massive contraction in global trade and output in the late 1920s and led to the Great Depression. …in 1971, President Nixon devalued the dollar, imposed a 10% “surtax” on all imports, and the 1970s stagflation began. …trade wars are hardly ever beneficial. So maybe it’s time for both countries to cool their rhetoric, step back, and return to talking. Before we add to the damage and end up with another global economic meltdown.

Amen, especially about the foolishness of copying one of the policies that contributed to the Great Depression.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan shares some observations by Douglas Irwin, a prominent trade economist.

Mr. Trump may be the first openly protectionist president since Hoover, but what Mr. Irwin finds most frustrating about him is that “he never really defines what a ‘better’ trade deal is. His judgment of trade comes down to the trade balance, which he uses as a sort of ledger, as a businessman would, rather than think more broadly about the national economic impact of trade.” It is impossible for every country to run a trade surplus, but “Trump thinks about trade in these zero-sum terms, about whether there’s profits or losses, and he views exports as good and imports as bad.” …He fails to see that in international trade, imbalances “aren’t an indication that one country is beating another, or that one is ‘winning’ and the other’s ‘losing.’ ” Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and vocabulary are “not the way economists think about trade at all.”

There are two things from the column that merit extra attention.

First, manufacturing employment primarily has declined because of productivityimprovements.

The U.S. has lost steel jobs, but Mr. Irwin says that’s because the domestic industry has become more productive. “In 1980, it used to take 10 worker-hours to produce a ton of steel. Today, it takes less than two worker-hours. So even though we’re producing the same amount of steel, or even more, we use many, many fewer workers to produce that steel.”

Second, Trump has botched the opportunity to create an alliance against China.

The U.S., Mr. Irwin says, needs strong allies in Europe and Asia to “counter China when it violates the letter or spirit of its World Trade Organization commitments, and the Trump administration has done little to cultivate such allies. Instead, it seems bent on alienating them.”

Moving beyond theory and history, Trump’s protectionism is a job killer.

Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about steel tariffs.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said… “The new tariffs are likely to lead to a net loss in U.S. employment, at least in the short to medium run,” Mary Amiti, Sebastian Heise, and Noah Kwicklis wrote in a blog post… “given the history of protecting industries with import tariffs, we can conclude that the 25 percent steel tariff is likely to cost more jobs than it saves.” …the Fed’s Beige Book…cited one unnamed company in the Boston Fed’s region as saying that “these tariffs are now killing high-paying American manufacturing jobs and businesses.” …the effects of similar tariffs imposed by President George W. Bush in 2002 led to the loss of 200,000 jobs across the U.S. labor market. That number was bigger than the total headcount of U.S. steel producers at the time.

In other words, protectionism is bad for America, even if other countries don’t retaliate (which they often do, further exacerbating the damage of bad policy).

In the New York Times, Veronique de Rugy’s column offers some essential insights about why the trade deficit doesn’t matter.

In 1776, Adam Smith observed that nothing “can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade.” Sadly, almost 250 years later, the president — along with his economic adviser Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — has elevated this economic fallacy into a pretext for protectionism. Fueling this bipartisan hysteria is the widespread failure to understand that United States trade deficits generally add capital to our economy — more factories, more R & D or more machines. …The notion that trade deficits are always bad for the economy is…simply wrong. …we mustn’t forget that the American dollars we spend on imports eventually return to America, either by foreigners purchasing American exports or making investments. Protectionists like Mr. Trump always complain about the United States’ trade deficit for goods but mention neither the surplus of foreign investment capital that we get nor our trade surplus in services. …Recessions, reduced foreign investment in the United States and a weak dollar are the most effective ways to reduce the trade deficit. I doubt any of us would enjoy these remedies.

Trump isn’t merely wrong on the basic economics of trade. He also doesn’t even understand specific examples. Consider his recent tweets about using tariffs to force Ford to build cars in the United States.

A report in the Detroit Free Press explains why that is nonsense.

Auto analysts groaned on Sunday in response to tweets sent by President Trump that touted his tariffs on Chinese imports and his claim that the trade war would inspire Ford Motor Co. to build its Ford Active crossover in the U.S. rather than overseas. …Jon Gabrielsen, a market economist who advises automakers and auto suppliers, said, “This is further evidence that neither the president nor his trade representatives have any clue of the complexities of global supply chains.”

And Trump’s protectionism will hurt exports by American car companies.

Dziczek said. “China lowered the tariff rate from 25 percent to 15 percent for most-favored nation status — which is offered to World Trade Organization members — but raised it to 40 percent for the U.S. in retaliation to the tariffs we put on Chinese goods.”

If that’s “winning,” I hate to see the definition of losing.

We’ll round out the editorial commentary with Dan Griswold’s piece in the Los Angeles Times.

The U.S.-China trade war escalated again…both sides have a lot — almost exactly the same amount — to lose from commercial warfare. …A recent World Bank study confirms that neither side will win a protracted trade war. At the current level of tariff retaliation, the World Bank estimates that each country will suffer a drop in annual exports of about $40 billion. If retaliation escalates to include all two-way trade in goods and services, Chinese exports to the United States would fall by $190 billion and U.S. exports to China by $166 billion. …a worst-case scenario would result in a $426-billion loss to the Chinese economy and a $313-billion loss to the U.S. economy. The biggest losers in the United States will be agriculture, chemicals and transport equipment. It will be cold comfort to Americans who lose their jobs and their businesses that our loss is somewhat smaller than what our government inflicts on China.

Lots of material today, so if you made it this far, your reward is this amusing remake of the famous Ben Stein clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

If you want a more substantive video on why trade barriers are bad, I included Don Boudreaux’s excellent presentation at the end of this column.

P.S. If trade policy continues to move in the wrong direction, I suspect Trump’s final “grade point average” on economic policy might be similar to Obama’s final report card.

Socialism Has a New Generation of Followers

Mon, 09/10/2018 - 8:05am

In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, marking the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. Thanks in no small part to the bravery and patriotism of President Reagan, the world’s largest socialist experiment collapsed in a pile of rubble.

Back then, many people suggested that we had reached the end of ideologies, that free-market capitalism would be triumphant and socialism would be filed away into the more shameful annals of history. Others were more cautious, warning not to dismiss socialism that easily. The lure of free stuff and simple solutions to complex problems could very well one day attract a new generation of followers.

The skeptics turned out to be right. Already 15 years ago, socialism was making a comeback under Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Today, the seeds planted by failed presidential candidates Bernie Sanders have grown into credible candidates in elections across America. In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum wants to create a “Medicare for all” single-payer health care program, funded by a corporate income tax.

How exactly Gillum thinks a state could have jurisdiction over Medicare, a federal program, remains a mystery. What is not a mystery is the direction that he and other socialists are taking American politics. A single-payer health care system is just one item on a long list of entitlements that socialists push for purely ideological reasons.

There are many points to be made about single-payer per se, but the sprawl of socialist candidates raises the ideological red flags from 30 years ago. A new generation of voters, too young to have seen the atrocities of socialism at work in the Soviet empire, are at risk of being lured by the promises of economic redistribution and the rhetoric of correcting injustices. Therefore, it is important to once again expand the political conversation to include its ideological framework.

It is not difficult to understand how socialism can be construed to be appealing. Arguments about correcting injustices often resonate with people who have a strong pathos for justice and respecting everyone alike. When proponents of “Medicare for all” suggest that it corrects an injustice in access to health care, the issue seems attractive.

Socialists ignore the fact that there are economic differences for a variety of reasons. To them, an economic difference is unjust regardless of its cause. This leads them to drive their quest for justice – however they define it – to a point where they become the totalitarians they claim to be fighting. This is true in America, and it is true worldwide.

South Africa offers a good example of how socialist ambitions can blur the line between correcting true injustice and advancing a collectivist, unjust agenda. The ANC government has recently tried to amend the constitution to allow for the expropriation of some farm land without compensation. Their motives are spelled out in the ANC’s policy platform as:

  • Restitution of land that was taken under Apartheid; and
  • Redistribution of land for egalitarian purposes.

The first motive is just and moral. Apartheid was a totalitarian form of government that deprived millions of South Africans of basic freedoms. Apartheid, like all totalitarian ideologies, put government above the individual. People who lost property under Apartheid because of their race have the right to restitution, precisely in the same way as people who lost their property under Soviet communism have the right to get it back.

On this issue, the ANC is in the right and would be advancing a libertarian cause by returning wrongfully taken property to those who originally acquired it through gainful, voluntary trade.

The second motive, on the other hand, is in itself a path to new injustices. To take land that was rightfully acquired through voluntary exchange, is to commit an injustice of a similar kind as under communism or Apartheid.

To the socialist, the two motives for land expropriation are the same: they see a difference in the distribution of property and want to eliminate that difference, period. To the libertarian, the two motives are as different as night and day:

  • Property that was taken by force under Apartheid must be returned to whom it belonged to originally;
  • Property that has been rightfully earned through the free market must remain with its rightful owner.

Ideologically speaking, the call for economic redistribution in America rests on the same confusion of what constitutes an injustice. Access to health care is a case in point. If Jack works hard, saves responsibly and buys a health plan that helps him and his family get the medical care they need, then he has been a responsible citizen who used his individual and economic freedom to benefit himself and his family. If Joe chooses to work less, to not build his finances and to not buy health insurance, his poorer access to health care is the result of his actions.

Practically speaking, the issue of single-payer vs. free-market health care is much more complicated than this. However, its ideological dimension is really not more complicated. To further highlight the point that socialists ignore reasons for economic differences: if Jack somehow stole Joe’s health care, there would have been a case for government to intervene. If, for example, Jack at gunpoint stopped Joe from entering a health clinic, so that he could get there instead, then Jack’s actions would have been unjust and he would deserve to be duly punished.

However, this is not the reason why socialists advocate economic redistribution. They do so entirely because they see economic differences, and by their playbook that is inherently wrong.

To a socialist, the reason why there are economic differences makes no difference; to a libertarian, the reason for the economic differences makes all the difference in the world.

 

Should We Upgrade Our Assessment of Obama’s Economic Record?

Sun, 09/09/2018 - 12:32pm

President Trump and former President Obama are arguing over who deserves credit for the economy’s performance. Given the less-than-ideal numbers for labor force participation, I’m not convinced we should be celebrating.

Regardless, here’s a quick assessment of whether Obama deserves praise, taken from yesterday’s interview with Neil Cavuto.

To elaborate, I generally don’t blame presidents if there’s a downturn as they take office. In many cases, such a downturn is baked in the cake thanks to bad monetary policy before they ever took office.

But I do hold them at least somewhat accountable for the economic performance after the recession. More specifically, is there strong growth for a year or two,allowing the economy recover the lost output? And does the economy then stabilize at the long-run trend of 3 percent growth (as illustrated by this chart showing U.S. growth from 1870-2008).

Remember, there is no substitute for long-run growth if the goal is higher living standards.

Yet we didn’t get that growth under Obama. We didn’t get a period of above-average growth, which meant we never recovered the lost output from the recession. We never even got back to the historical trendline.

Here’s a chart from Business Insider that reviews what has happened over the past 10 years. As you can see, we haven’t come close to our potential GDP. This is why Obama deserves bad marks.

But this doesn’t mean Trump deserves good marks.

First of all, it’s far too early to give a final grade. And, for what it’s worth, his interim grade is not that great. Good policy on taxes and red tape is being offset by bad policy on spending and trade.

Let me also say something semi-positive about the Obama economy. We may not have enjoyed strong growth, but the economy continued to expand. And if the economists who argue that there are structural reasons causing permanently lower potential growth are correct, maybe Obama did okay (my view is that “secular stagnation” is driven mostly by bad policy choices, so I’m not overly sympathetic to this hypothesis).

Regardless, Obama largely didn’t do anything destructive after his first two years (when we got mistakes such as the fake stimulusObamacare, and Dodd-Frank). Indeed, we even got some good policy later in Obama’s tenure, though the overall effect of his policies was negative.

More Evidence that Value-Added Taxes Are Money Machines to Finance Bigger Government

Sat, 09/08/2018 - 12:08pm

The value-added tax was first imposed in Europe starting about 50 years ago. Politicians in nations like France approve of this tax because it is generally hidden, so it is relatively easy to periodically raise the rate.

And that’s the reason I am vociferously opposed to the VAT. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the burden of government spending dramatically increased in Europe once politicians got their hands on a new source of revenue.

Simply stated, I don’t want that to happen in America.

Now I have new evidence to support that position.

We’ll start by crossing the Pacific to see what’s happening in Japan, as reported by Reuters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to proceed with next year’s scheduled sales tax hike “by all means”… Abe said his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won last year’s lower house election with a pledge to use proceeds from the sales tax increase to make Japan’s social welfare system more sustainable. …his plan to raise the tax to 10 percent from 8 percent in October next year. Abe twice postponed the tax hike after an increase to 8 percent from 5 percent in 2014 tipped Japan into recession.

I give Prime Minister Abe credit for honesty. He openly admits that he wants more revenue to finance even bigger government.

But that doesn’t make it a good idea. Japan has been experimenting with bigger government for the past 25-plus years and it hasn’t led to good results. The VAT was just 3 percent in 1997 and the Prime Minster now wants it to be three times higher.

All of which is sad since Japan used to be one of the world’s most market-oriented nations.

You also won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD is being a cheerleader for a higher VAT in Japan.

Speaking of which, let’s look at what a new OECD report says about value-added taxes.

VAT revenues have reached historically high levels in most countries… Between 2008 and 2015, the OECD average standard VAT rate increased by 1.5 percentage points, from 17.6% to a record level of 19.2%, accelerating a longer term rise in standard VAT rates… VAT rates were raised at least once in 23 countries between 2008 and 2018, and 12 countries now have a standard rate of at least 22%, against only six in 2008… Raising standard VAT rates was a common strategy for countries…as increasing VAT rates provides immediate revenue.

And here’s a chart from the study that tells you everything you need to know about how politicians behave once they have a new source of tax revenue.

Incidentally, there’s another part of the report that should be highlighted.

For all intents and purposes, the OECD admits that higher taxes are bad for growth and that class-warfare taxes are the most damaging method of taxation.

…increasing VAT rates…has generally been found to be less detrimental to economic growth than raising direct taxes.

What makes this excerpt amusing (at least to me) is that the bureaucrats obviously want readers to conclude that higher VAT burdens are okay. But by writing “less detrimental to growth,” they are admitting that all tax increases undermine prosperity and that “raising direct taxes” (i.e., levies that target the rich such as personal income tax) is the worst way to generate revenue.

Which is what I’ve been pointing out!

Last but not least, I’ll recycle my video explaining why a VAT would be very bad news for the United States.

Everything that has happened since that video was released in 2009 underscores why it would be incredibly misguided to give Washington a big new source of tax revenue. And that’s true even if the people pushing a VAT have their hearts in the right place.

The only exception to my anti-VAT rigidity is if the 16th Amendment is repealed, and then replaced by something that unambiguously ensures that the income tax is permanently abolished. A nice goal, but I’m not holding my breath.

P.S. One of America’s most statist presidents, Richard Nixon, wanted a VAT. That’s a good reason for the rest of us to be opposed.

Identifying (and Preventing) Future Greek-Style Fiscal Collapses

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 12:36pm

Way back in early 2011, I wrote about the likelihood of various nations suffering a Greek-style meltdown. After speculating on the importance of debt burdens and interest payments, I concluded that

…which nation will be the next domino to fall? …Some people think total government debt is the key variable…that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. …Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe… The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

As I noted earlier this year, it’s not easy to predict the point at which “investors no longer trust that they will receive payments on government bonds.”

Though that would be useful information, which is why a new study from the International Monetary Fund could be very helpful. The researchers look at how to measure fiscal crisis.

The literature on fiscal crises and on early warning indicators is limited, although it has expanded in recent years. Most of the past literature focused on sovereign external debt defaults alone …the canonical fiscal crisis is a debt crisis, when the government is unable to service the interest and or principle as scheduled. … It is important to note, however, that fiscal crises may not necessarily be associated with external debt defaults. They can be associated with other forms of expropriation, including domestic arrears and high inflation that erodes the value of some types of debt. …a fiscal crisis is identified when one or more of the following distinct criteria are satisfied: …Credit events associated with sovereign debt (e.g., outright defaults and restructuring). …Recourse to large-scale IMF financial support. …Implicit domestic public default (e.g., via high inflation rates). …Loss of market confidence in the sovereign.

The goal is to figure out the conditions that precipitate problems.

…The objective of this paper is to better understand the structural weaknesses that make countries prone to entering a fiscal crisis. …We use two of the more common approaches to build early warning systems (EWS) for fiscal crises: the signal approach and logit model. …event studies indicate that a fiscal crisis tends to be preceded by loose fiscal policy (Figure 3.1). In the run-up to a crisis, there is robust real expenditure growth.

Some of the obvious variables, as noted above and also in Figure 3.1 (the dashed vertical line is the year a crisis occurs), are whether there’s a rising burden of government spending and whether the economy is growing.

For readers who like wonky material, the authors explain the two approaches they use.

In order to construct early warning systems for fiscal crises, we adopt two alternative approaches that have been used in the literature. We first use the signal approach, followed by multivariate logit models. …The signals approach involves monitoring the developments of economic variables that tend to behave differently prior to a crisis. Once they cross a specific threshold this gives a warning signal for a possible fiscal crisis in the next 1-2 years. …Logit model…early warning systems…draw on standard panel regression…with a binary dependent variable equal to one when a crisis begins (or when there is a crisis). …The main advantage of this approach is that it allows testing for the statistical significance of the different leading indicators and takes into account their correlation.

Then they crunch a bunch of numbers.

Here’s what they find using the signal approach.

…current account deficit, degree of openness, use of central bank credit to finance the deficit, size of the fiscal (overall or primary) deficit and pace of expansion in public expenditures—all these increase the probability of a future crisis.

And here’s what they conclude using the logit approach.

The results, by and large, highlight similar leading indicators as the signals approach… The probability of entering a crisis increases with growing macroeconomic imbalances due to large output gaps and deteriorating external imbalances. The results also indicate a role for fiscal policy, via public expenditures growth. … high expenditure growth could contribute to a deterioration in the current account and a large output gap, making the fiscal position vulnerable to changes in the economic cycle.

The bottom line is that both approaches yield very similar conclusions.

Our results show that there is a small set of robust leading indicators (both fiscal and non-fiscal) that help assess the probability of a fiscal crisis. This is especially the case for advanced and emerging markets. For these countries, we find that domestic imbalances (large output or credit gaps), external imbalances (current account deficit), and rising public expenditures increase the probability of a crisis. …Our results suggest that indeed fiscal variables matter. Strong expenditure growth and financing pressures (e.g., need for central bank financing) can help predict crises.

Some of this data is reflected in Figure 5.2.

And here’s the bottom line, starting with the claim that governments are being semi-responsible because we don’t actually see many fiscal crises.

…we find that some types of vulnerabilities are consistently relevant to explain fiscal crises. This raises the question why governments do not act as they see signals. In large measure they do, as crises among advanced economies are rare. Still, the occurrence of crises may reflect overly optimistic projections about the future… Our results show that a relatively small set of robust leading indicators can help assess the probability of a fiscal crisis in advanced and emerging markets with high accuracy. …countries can reduce the frequency of fiscal crises by adopting prudent policies and strengthening risk management. Fiscal crises are more likely when economies build domestic and external imbalances. This calls for avoiding excessively loose polices when domestic growth is above average. For fiscal policy, this means avoiding procyclical increases in expenditures.

The key takeaway is that spending restraint is a very important tool for avoiding a fiscal crisis.

Yes, a few other factors also are important (central bankers should avoid irresponsible monetary policy, for instance), but some of these are outside the direct control of politicians.

Which is why this new research underscores the importance of some sort of spending cap, preferably enshrined in a jurisdiction’s constitution like in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

P.S. While there haven’t been many fiscal crises in developed nations, that may change thanks to very unfavorable demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs.

P.P.S. I hope the political decision makers at the IMF read this study (as well as prior IMF studies on the efficacy of spending caps) and no longer will agitate for tax increases on nations that get into fiscal trouble.

Some Unsolicited Advice for Colin Kaepernick and the NFL Players

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 12:01pm

I’m a fan of college football rather than the NFL, so I haven’t paid much attention to the controversy over players protesting against police misbehavior during the national anthem.

However, the topic is now trending. The 2018 season about to start and Colin Kaepernick is being featured in a new ad campaign for Nike, so I figure why not insert myself into the discussion.

The bottom line is that Kaepernick and the other players have identified a very real and very important issue.

I’ve written on many occasions about the need for better policing.

Though I don’t think the problem is systemic racism or pervasive brutality.

Some of that exists, of course, but I assume the vast majority of cops want to do a good job and treat people fairly (except when giving me traffic tickets).

The real problem is that politicians have enacted far too many laws, many of which don’t make sense or don’t have any victims, and then they expect the police to use those laws to generate more revenue.

This is a recipe for more Eric Garner tragedies.

That being said, NFL players are not going to win the hearts of middle America by actions that can be portrayed as being anti-flag, anti-police, anti-military, and/or anti-country. Heck, they’re playing into Trump’s hands with that approach.

The players would have much more success (both in terms of the issue and with respect to their own popularity) if they portrayed their cause as one that affirms and extends American ideals.

NFL players should come up with some inclusive pro-America slogan about “The Constitution Protects Everyone” or “The Principles of the Founding Fathers Apply to All Americans.” And then they should be ostentatiously patriotic (in the proper sense), standing for the national anthem, with one hand over their hearts and one hand holding both an American flag and some sort or symbol of their campaign.

Trump would have a hard time attacking that kind of approach.

More important, I’m guessing a lot of Americans who heretofore have been rejecting the message of Kaepernick, et al, may start paying attention. And that would be the ideal outcome. After all, the goal should be to change policy, not generate noise and controversy.

For all intents and purposes, I’m suggesting the football players adopt the strategy Martin Luther King used when fighting Jim Crow laws. Dr. King explained that equality of law was an American principle. He embraced the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, even though slavery and other sins meant America was grossly imperfect at that point.

But he wanted an inclusive message. I hope that today’s NFL players copy that approach. Assuming, of course, they actually want better policing and a better America.

P.S. Until and unless there’s a better strategy, Nike will probably suffer the same adverse consequences as Dick’s, which lost customers after kowtowing to the anti-gun crowd. Irritating a big chunk of the buying public is not a wise idea.

P.P.S. I believe in a tough-on-crime approach, but only if laws are just.

P.P.P.S. If you want some cop-related humor, click herehere, and here.

Voluntary Quit Rates Confirm that Federal Bureaucrats Are Overpaid

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 12:33pm

President Trump has proposed a one-year pay freeze for federal bureaucrats, which has reinvigorated the debate over whether compensation levels for the civil service are too lavish.

The Washington Post opines this is nothing but “government bashing,” but this chart from my former colleague Chris Edwards should be more than enough evidence to show that federal bureaucrats have a big advantage over workers in the economy’s productive sector.

 

And there is plenty of additional evidence that federal employment is very attractive. For instance, it’s just about impossible to get fired from a bureaucracy.

Though defenders of the civil service sometimes make the preposterous claim that nobody gets fired because bureaucrats are such good employees.

The low rate at which federal employees are fired for poor performance doesn’t prove the government accepts it but instead “could actually be a positive sign,”… A report from the Merit Systems Protection Board in effect responds to members of Congress and others who contend that federal managers don’t care, or don’t dare, to take disciplinary action because of civil service protections. “…If the agency is successful in preventing poor performance…, a small number of performance-based removals could actually be a positive sign,” MSPB said. …Of the 2.1 million federal employees in a government database…, about 10,000 are fired for either poor performance or misconduct each year. …That low rate of firing has been cited in proposals to force agencies to take action… Individual employees, too, commonly express dissatisfaction with how agencies handle poor performers among their co-workers.

I have to confess that my jaw dropped when I read this article. Maybe we should ask veterans whether they think all federal bureaucrats do a good job?

Or we can ask non-profit groups whether they think IRS bureaucrats are top-quality workers? Or ask anyone who has ever tried to navigate the federal government?

We also know that the counties where most federal bureaucrats reside are now the richest region of the entire nation.

The three richest counties in the United States with populations of 65,000 or more, when measured by their 2016 median household incomes, were all suburbs of Washington, D.C., according to data released today by the Census Bureau. Eight of the 20 wealthiest counties with populations of 65,000 or more were also suburbs of Washington, D.C.–as were 10 of the top 25. …With Falls Church City included in the 2015 data, the nation’s four wealthiest counties were D.C. suburbs.

To be fair, this data is also driven by all the high-paid lobbyists. contracts, consultants, and others who have their snouts buried in the federal trough. So the incredible wealth of the DC region is really an argument for shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.

But the bureaucracy is part of the problem.

Interestingly, even the Congressional Budget Office concluded that bureaucrats are overpaid. And CBO almost certainly understated the gap, as noted in congressional testimony.

The CBO report’s headline figure is that, on average, federal salaries and benefits are 17 percent above private-sector levels. … I would consider the CBO’s reported federal compensation premium to be on the low end… when I analyze federal employee wages using the methodology that the progressive-leaning Economic Policy Institute has used in numerous studies of state and local government salaries, I find an average federal salary premium of not 2 percent but of about 14 percent. … The CBO chose to value federal employees’ pension benefits using a 5 percent discount rate. Using that discount rate, the federal employee retirement package was found to be substantially more generous than is received by comparable private-sector employees. But…corporate pensions are not nearly as safe as federal pensions, as witnessed by pending benefit reductions for “multiemployer” defined benefit plans. Valuing federal pension benefits using a lower discount rate to better reflect their safety would find a higher overall federal compensation premium.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, the unions representing bureaucrats nonetheless try to crank out numbers showing federal employees are underpaid.

To be sure, overall compensation levels don’t tell us everything. It is important to adjust for education, skills, and other factors.

Which is why the most useful, powerful, and revealing data in this debate is produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures voluntary quit rates by industry. If there is a lot of turnover in a sector of the economy, that suggests workers are underpaid. But if there are very few voluntary departures, that suggests workers in that part of the economy are overpaid.

And the numbers from BLS clearly show that federal bureaucrats are far less likely to leave their positions when compared to employees in the private sector.

This five-fold gap is staggering. I have lots of friends who work for the federal government. Most privately confess that they know that are making out like bandits. I think I’ll send this chart to the few holdouts.

By the way, I shared the numbers about quit rates for state and local bureaucrats back in 2011. Same story, though the compensation gap isn’t quite as large and may be driven mostly by unfunded fringe benefits.

P.S. I’m much more interested in shrinking government rather than shrinking pay levels. The correct pay for bureaucrats at the Departments of TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture is zero. Why? Because they bureaucracies shouldn’t exist.

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