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For Bernie Sanders, Union Bosses Matter More than Poor Kids

Sun, 05/19/2019 - 12:09pm

Bernie Sanders is a delusional hard-core statist, but that’s part of what makes him attractive for some voters.

Simply stated, they think he’s authentic rather than a finger-in-the-wind politician.

But I’m not so sure that’s true.

pointed out in 2015 that he’s not even true to his socialist ideology. Rather than promoting government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls, he has behaved like a conventional left-wing politician. Indeed, there was almost no difference between his voting record and those of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of judgement, of course.

Today, though, I want to highlight something that’s unambiguously bad. He’s decided that currying favor with union bosses at the National Education Association is so important that it’s okay to trap kids from poor families in failing schools. And that, to me, makes him a political hack rather than an honest leftist.

Check out these excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

Senator Bernie Sanders took aim at charter schools on Saturday… In a 10-point plan, Mr. Sanders…said that, if elected, he would…forbid…federal spending on new charter schools as well as…ban…for-profit charter schools — which account for a small proportion of existing charters. “The proliferation of charter schools has disproportionately affected communities of color,” Mr. Sanders wrote… Mr. Sanders of Vermont would also require that charter schools be subject to the same oversight as public schools… Parts of the plan focused on educators, declaring Mr. Sanders’s support for a $60,000 baseline for teachers’ starting salaries as well as unionization efforts by charter schoolteachers.

By the way, I’m not a big fan of charter schools. It would be far better to have true school choice and allow parents to pick high-performing private schools.

But charter schools are definitely a better option if the only other choice is a failing government school. Especially since pouring more money into a broken system doesn’t work. Regardless of whether it’s a Democrat plan to waste money or a Republican plan to waste money.

This assumes, however, that the goal is to help children get a good education so they have a better chance for a good life.

That’s not what motivates Bernie Sanders. Like many Democrats, his main goal is to appease the teacher unions. And that means protecting and preserving the privileges and perks of union members and the government’s education monopoly.

Disgusting.

P.S. It’s even more nauseating that the NAACP has betrayed the interests of black people by rejecting school choice (I much prefer the views of Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell).

P.P.S. Just like it’s disgusting that Obama’s Secretary of Education chose private schools for his kids (as did Obama) while fighting against school choice for poor families.

P.P.S. On an uplifting note, Fran Tarkenton, the former Georgia Bulldog (he also played a bit in the NFL) used a sports analogy to explain the benefits of school choice.

P.P.P.S. It’s also uplifting to see very successful school choice systems operate in nations such as CanadaSwedenChile, and the Netherlands. And India doesn’t have school choice, but it’s a remarkable example of how private schools are the only good option for poor families that want upward mobility.

P.P.P.P.S. The Washington Post provides an example of honest and decent leftism, having editorialized in favor of poor children over teacher unions.

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Great Moments in Washington Waste

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:49pm

Every so often, I’ll see a story (or sometimes even just a photo, a court decision, or a phrase) that sums up the essence of government – a unseemly combination of venality and incompetence.

Today, we’re going to review three examples that make my point.

We’ll lead with a story that is a perfect case study of Washington.

It starts with Trump imposing tax increases on imports. That’s bad.

Then Trump says we have to subsidize sectors of the economy hurt by retaliatory tariffs. That’s one bad policy leading to another bad policy (hmmm…., there’s a name for that).

And that second bad policy leads to something else bad, at least according to the New York Daily News.

The Department of Agriculture cut a contract in January to purchase $22.3 million worth of pork from plants operated by JBS USA, a Colorado-based subsidiary of Brazil’s JBS SA, which ranks as the largest meatpacker in the world. …The bailout raised eyebrows from industry insiders at the time, as it was sourced from a $12 billion program meant for American farmers harmed by President Trump’s escalating trade war with China and other countries. …previously undisclosed purchase reports…reveal the administration has since issued at least two more bailouts to JBS, even as Trump’s own Justice Department began investigating the meatpacker, whose owners are Joesley and Wesley Batista — two wealthy brothers who have confessed to bribing hundreds of top officials in Brazil. Both brothers have spent time in jail over the sweeping corruption scandal. …Nonetheless, Trump’s Agriculture Department issued $14.5 million in bailout cash for pork products from JBS in February and another $25.6 million earlier this month, totaling more than $62.4 million, according to the purchase reports. …Including the JBS bailouts, the administration doled out $11 billion in relief payments to farmers hurt in the trade war last year.

Wow. I don’t know if this is better or worse than the Administration spending $13.6 million to hire two agents for the border patrol.

And I don’t know whether it’s better or worse than this next example of government foolishness.

report published by Quartz estimates the amount of many Washington has wasted on abstinence programs.

Between 1982 and 2017, Congress spent over $2 billion on programs which teach teens that the best way to address their desire to have sex is to wait until they get married, according to a new study… Called abstinence only until marriage (AOUM), these programs accurately explain that the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sex. …From 1995 to 2011–2013, the share of US adolescents who received instruction on abstinence but no instruction about birth control methods, increased from 8% to 28% of females and from 9% to 35% of males, according to the report. …Scientific evidence shows the approach doesn’t actually delay teens having sex, or engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

Just like the money spent to encourage marriage is a waste.

By the way, I’m also sure that the money spent on regular sex education and birth control education hasn’t worked, either.

Indeed, I wonder if such spending actually makes things worse (such as the Indiana driver education program that turned kids into worse drivers).

For our third example, here’s some of what the New York Times wrote about refrigerators on Air Force One.

…two of the refrigerators on the president’s plane need to be upgraded, and these specially designed “chillers” aren’t cheap. The Boeing Company was awarded a nearly $24 million contract in December to engineer the refrigerators for Air Force One, the Defense Department said. …Perhaps in anticipation of taxpayer sticker shock, the Air Force also said “the engineering required to design, manufacture, conduct environmental testing and obtain Federal Aviation Administration certification” were all included in the cost. …Air Force One must be able to feed passengers and crew for weeks without resupplying, according to the news website Defense One. …Two galleys can provide up to 100 meals at one sitting, according to the Air Force.

This story presumably involves two common features of government contracting.

First, pay too much for what is ordered (and this doesn’t even count the seemingly inevitable cost overruns).

Second, ask for something excessive in the first place. What’s the point, for instance, of storing several weeks of food when the longest-possible trips are maybe 20 hours? Yes, I watched Independence Day and I realize that Air Force One may become the mobile White House in an emergency, but wouldn’t MREs be acceptable for our pampered politicians and senior staff if there was a real crisis?

I’ll conclude by observing that these three stories reminded me of this satirical version of The Candyman.

P.S. There’s also an Obamaman version of Candyman.

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Image credit: TaxRebate.org.uk | CC BY 2.0.

Job Churning, Trade, and Prosperity

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 12:03pm

shared a video last year that pointed out that Americans live in a nation that became prosperous thanks to “creative destruction.”

That’s the term developed by Joseph Schumpeter to describe the economic churning caused by competition, innovation, and markets (international trade is just a minor part of this process,though it’s the part that generates the most controversy).

The bad news is that some people lose their jobs as the economy evolves and changes. And some companies go bankrupt. There are real victims and tragic stories.

But the good news is that other jobs are created. And entrepreneurs start new businesses.

And the better news is that our living standards increase. Especially over time. Even for many of those who lost jobs in the short run.

That’s why we’re much richer, on average, than our parents and grandparents.

Needless to say, a key measure of a healthy and dynamic economy is for the job gains to exceed the job losses.

So when I spoke to congressional staff earlier this week about trade and protectionism, I figured I should go beyond theory and include some numbers.

I went to the relevant website at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that more than 28 million jobs were lost in 2017 (final data for 2018 is still not available).

That sounds terrible. And for many workers, it was horrible news.

But the good news, as you can see in the screenshot below (click to expand), is that the U.S. economy created more than 30 million new jobs that year.

The obvious takeaway from this data is that the crowd in Washington should adopt policies that ensure we have strong growth so that people who lose jobs have lots of good options for new employment.

In other words, don’t impose the kind of policies that have created high unemployment and economic stagnation in many European welfare states.

For what it’s worth, that message seems to be lost on Bernie Sanders, who has a long list of policies that would turn America into a version of GreeceFrance, and Italy.

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Image credit: geralt | Pixabay License.

The (Seemingly) Inexorable Increase in the Burden of Federal Spending

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 12:59pm

Earlier this year, I reviewed new fiscal projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and showed that balancing the budget would be relatively easy if politicians simply limited spending so that it didn’t grow faster than inflation.

Though I made sure to point out that the primary goal should be to limit the burden of spending. That’s because government spending, regardless of whether it’s financed by taxes or financed by borrowing, undermines prosperity by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy.

We now have some new numbers from CBO. The number-crunching bureaucrats have put together their estimates of the latest Trump budget and that’s generated some predictable squabbling between Republicans and Democrats.

Most of the finger-pointing has focused on the (relatively trivial) fiscal impact of the Trump tax cuts.

The Wall Street Journal wisely put the focus instead on the growth of government.

You wouldn’t know it from the press coverage, but there’s some modest good news about the federal budget. The deficit is rising, but not as much as feared because tax revenues are increasing due to faster economic growth. …So why has the federal deficit increased by $145 billion this fiscal year to $531 billion? Because federal spending continued to rise rapidly—7% in the first seven months to $2.571 trillion. That’s $178 billion more than in the same period a year ago. …The media blame deficits on tax reform, but the facts show the main culprit is spending. No one in the political class wants to talk about entitlements but that’s where the money is.

The WSJ’s editorial focused on short-run data.

I want to augment that analysis by looking at medium-run and long-run numbers.

We’ll start with this chart looking at what will happen over the next 10 years. As you can see, Washington is violating my Golden Rule by allowing spending to grow faster than the private economy.

As a result, the burden of federal spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, is projected to climb over the next decade.

That’s not good news.

(For what it’s worth, since tax revenues will be growing at the same pace as spending, there won’t be any meaningful change in the deficit as a share of GDP.)

Now let’s look at the most-recent long-run data from CBO. These numbers are even more depressing because the spending burden continues to grow faster than the private sector. A lot faster.

Which is why the burden of federal spending is projected to increase from less than 21 percent of GDP today to nearly 29 percent of GDP by 2049.

That’s terrible news.

And if you include spending by state and local governments (which currently consumes more than 11 percent of economic output and also is projected to increase), the terrible news gets even worse.

Moreover, the tax burden is projected to climb as well, and that doesn’t even include any estimate of what will happen if politicians manage to impose a value-added tax, an energy tax, a wealth tax, a financial transactions tax, or any of the other revenue-raising schemes under consideration in Washington.

In other words, the U.S. is on track to become just like GreeceFrance, and Italy.

P.S. There is an alternative to this dismal future. But can we convince politicians to adopt a spending cap and then make it work with genuine entitlement reform? I’m not holding my breath for any of that to happen.

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Image credit: Bjoertvedt | CC BY-SA 3.

Argentina and the Political Consequences of Right-Wing Statism

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 12:00pm

Just last month, I wrote about Argentina’s grim economic outlook and criticized the supposed right-of-center President, Mauricio Macri, for failing to deliver any meaningful economic liberalization.

And reform is desperately needed.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Argentina is one of the most statist nations on the planet (the only nations that do worse are Libya and Venezuela).

For all intents and purposes, Argentina is suffering from decades of bad policy.

Argentina is a sobering example of how statist policies can turn a rich nation into a poor nation. …After World War II, Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations. But then Juan Peron took power and initiated Argentina’s slide toward big government, which eroded the nation’s competitiveness and hampered growth.

To put it mildly, the country is an economic tragedy and it should be a lesson for all countries about the importance of good policy.

Yet why am I writing again about Argentina after last month’s analysis?

Because a story in the New York Times discusses the nation’s upcoming presidential election and manages to paint a grotesquely inaccurate picture of what’s been happening in the country. We’re supposed to believe that Macri has been a hard-charging free-market fundamentalist.

Since taking office more than three years ago, President Mauricio Macri has broken with the budget-busting populism that has dominated Argentina for much of the past century, embracing the grim arithmetic of economic orthodoxy. Mr. Macri has slashed subsidies… “It’s a neoliberal government…It’s a government that does not favor the people.” …tribulations playing out under the disintegrating roofs of the poor are a predictable dimension of Mr. Macri’s turn away from left-wing populism. He vowed to shrink Argentina’s monumental deficits by diminishing the largess of the state. …Mr. Macri’s…presidency was supposed to offer an escape from the wreckage of profligate spending.

And we’re also supposed to believe that his failed free-market policies are paving the way for a return to left-wing populism.

As the October election approaches, Mr. Macri is contending with the growing prospect of a challenge from the president he succeeded, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner… Her return would resonate as a rebuke of his market-oriented reforms while potentially yanking Argentina back to its accustomed preserve: left-wing populism.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that Kirchner will win the next election. So that part of the article is correct.

But the part about free-market reforms is laughably inaccurate.

You don’t have to believe me. Let’s look at the Argentinian data from Economic Freedom of the World. Maybe I’m being dogmatic, but I hardly think a tiny improvement in 2015 followed by backsliding in 2016 qualifies as “diminishing the largess of the state.”

The bottom line is that Macri should have been bold and made sweeping changes once he was in charge. Like Chile after Allende’s Marxist regime was deposed.

Those reforms doubtlessly would have triggered protests. But if they became law, they would have produced tangible results.

Instead, Macri chose a timid approach and the economy has remained stagnant. Yet because many voters think he adopted reforms, they blame him and they blame free markets.

The net result is that they will probably vote for Kirchner, which presumably will mean even more statism for the long-suffering people of Argentina.

P.S. What’s happening in Argentina is not an isolated example. It’s very common for supposed right-wing politicians to choose bad policies, which then paves the way for left-wing election victories. Look at how Bush’s statist policies created the conditions for an Obama victory. Or how Sarkozy set the stage for Hollande in France. Or how Theresa May’s fecklessness in the United Kingdom may lead to a win for Jeremy Corbyn.

P.P.S. I’m tempted to also warn that Trump’s risky protectionism may lead to a victory for Crazy Bernie or some other Democrat in 2020. But Trump does have some good policies as well, so it’s hard to know whether the economy will be a net plus or net minus in the election.

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Image credit: Kremlin | CC BY 4.0.

May’s Brexit Failure and the Grim Prospect of a Corbyn Government

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 12:23pm

By refusing to implement a Clean Brexit and instead pursuing a Brexit-in-Name-Only, Prime Minister Theresa May has dramatically reduced support for the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

The poll numbers are now so bad that it is conceivable to imagine that Jeremy Corbyn could win the next election.

That would be horrible news. The leader of the Labour Party is an unreconstructed hard-core socialist. A real socialist who would move the country toward government ownershipcentral planning and price controls.

In other words, like Crazy Bernie, only crazier.

Theodore Dalrymple aptly summarizes for City Journal what a Labour government would mean for the U.K.

Thanks to the current imbroglio over Brexit, Britain could soon be Venezuela without the oil or the warm weather. The stunning incompetence of the last two Tory prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May, might result in a Labour government, one led by Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has long admired Hugo Chavez… Corbyn’s second in command, John McDonnell, would, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, be in charge of the economy. Only five years ago, he said that the historical figures he most admired were Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky… he argued for the nationalization of land. He also favors nationalizing railways and public utilities, which can be done only through rates of taxation so high that they would amount to the nationalization of everything—with a resultant economic collapse—or by outright confiscation… The arrival in power of such men will produce an immediate crisis, which they will blame on capitalism, the world economic system, the Rothschilds, and so forth. They will use the crisis to justify further drastic measures. …None of this is inevitable, but thanks to the bungling of Brexit, it is considerably closer.

This video tells you everything you need to know.

Let’s look at a couple of specific topics.

Writing for CapX, Eamonn Ives explains what’s wrong with the Labour Party’s agenda for more government spending.

…what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are arguing for is a long way from Keynesian doctrine. They propose a massive injection of government spending in the economy, despite the UK experiencing unprecedented levels of employment and (admittedly rather anaemic) growth. Keynes, by contrast, argued for counter-cyclical fiscal policy.…Of course, the money would have to be found from somewhere: either in existing budgets, or levying new or higher taxes, or through quantitative easing, or additional borrowing. …this model only makes sense if governments are more strategic in deploying resources than private firms and individuals. And, as failed socialist experiment after failed social experiment has shown, there is no evidence to suggest that is the case. …It’s often remarked that if something’s too good to be true, then it probably is. Labour’s voodoo economics are no exception to this. If they really want to stimulate the economy, they should be celebrating, not denigrating the real way to foster genuine economic growth: tax cuts and other supply-side reforms.

Andrew Lilco opines for CapX on an Elizabeth Warren-type scheme that’s been proposed by John McDonnell, the guy would be Chancellor of the Exchequer (what Americans would call a Treasury Secretary) in a Labour government.

John McDonnell…proposed that businesses should be required to share profits with workers either in the form of bonuses or share distributions. He said he wants to “transform the economy”… Indeed, he says the “overthrow of Capitalism” is now his “job”. …What would be the economic effects? Many firms already pay bonuses to staff if the they make higher-than-expected profits, and other firms offer key staff bonuses in the form of shares. …But problems arise if one mandates that all firms should be run that way or attempts to cap returns at some state-set “fair” level. …The essential definitive feature of capitalism is that it is a system of opportunity for those without money to have their projects funded. …If we…cap their rates of return to a “fair” level, that will…mean that only certain sorts of investment occur. In particular, it means an end to high risk investment, where very high rates of return when a project is successful make up for all the losses in other less successful ventures when projects are not successful. …That would have fairly clear implications for the sort of economy the UK would have. …New technologies and new products would come in gradually, but only from abroad and only later than other countries had them. …That in turn will, over time, drag the state into a wider and wider role in the economy.

Speaking of McDonnell, what sort of politician is willing to be part of an event that celebrates brutal communist dictators?

John McDonnell now on stage with not just one but two banners depicting Stalin and Mao. This is the man who will be running the economy if Labour win a general election. pic.twitter.com/d96W8SnUd8

— James Bickerton (@JBickertonUK) May 1, 2019

This guy may be even worse than Corbyn.

Let’s wrap up with a look at how Labour Party bigwigs have been infatuated with the thuggish dictatorship in Venezuela.

Just as bad as Michael MooreJoseph Stiglitz, and Bernie Sanders.

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Image credit: Garry Knight | CC0 1.0.

How Nations Can Create (and Retain) Millionaires and Billionaires

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 12:46pm

Because they wrongly assume the economy is a fixed pie, some of my friends on the left think it’s bad for there to be rich people. They actually think that must mean the rest of us have less income.

But that’s not true. At least it’s not accurate if we start with the assumption that wealth is earned honestly and not accumulated thanks to subsidies, bailouts, protectionism, and other forms of cronyism.

So if it’s good to have more honest rich people, what’s the recipe to make that happen?

Frans Rautenbach, author of South Africa Can Work, recently crunched numbers and wrote about economic policy and the prevalence of billionaires.

Here is some of Frans’ accompanying analysis.

I calculated the relative number of billionaires by dividing the population of a country by the number of billionaires, to calculate the number of people per billionaire. So, the lower the number the greater the percentage of billionaires. …What is immediately clear, is that the three top performers in the table are Hong Kong, Switzerland and Singapore, all countries with exceptionally free markets and very low tax burdens. What that makes clear is, if a country is really serious about nurturing billionaires, free markets and low taxes are the way to go.

By the way, Frans focused on major countries.

If he included every jurisdiction, I very much suspect Monaco would be at the top of the list.

Followed by some of my other favorite places, such as BermudaLiechtenstein, and the Cayman Islands.

But it’s true that the numbers for those small place would distort the rankings, so it makes sense to remove them.

In his analysis, Frans also addresses the fact that Nordic nations do reasonably well and correctly attributes their success to the fact that they are very laissez-faire in areas other than fiscal policy.

What we also see, is that not all the Nordic countries are world-beaters in the billionaire stakes. The social democracy system (high taxes and spending on welfare benefits) has not worked to make Finland and Denmark top performers. …a fair question: Why do Sweden and Norway beat the US in the super-rich game? We now know that the high-equality welfare state of social democracy is not the reason. If that were so, it would have been fair to expect Finland and Denmark to beat the US too. And we would have expected all four these countries to have dynamic, high-growth economies – which they don’t. Having said that, it remains true that both Sweden and Norway are free markets in their own right. …The only criterion that identifies them as statist is size of government (tax, government spending, and so on). According to the other four criteria (trade policy, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and property rights and rule of law), these countries are very free. …What is more, until about 1950, Sweden and Norway had smaller governments than the UK, the US, Japan, Germany and France.

Now that we’ve looked at the policies associated with having more rich people, let’s look at the policies that are needed to retain them.

Bloomberg has a very interesting story on the migration of millionaires around the world.

The world’s wealthy are increasingly on the move. About 108,000 millionaires migrated across borders last year, a 14 percent increase from the prior year, and more than double the level in 2013, according to Johannesburg-based New World Wealth. Australia, U.S. and Canada are the top destinations, according to the research firm, while China and Russia are the biggest losers. …Wealth migration figures…can also be a key future indicator, said Andrew Amoils, head of research at New World Wealth. “It can be a sign of bad things to come as high-net-worth individuals are often the first people to leave — they have the means to leave unlike middle-class citizens,” he said. …Australia tops most “wish lists” for immigrants because of its perceived safety, no inheritance tax and strong business ties to China, Japan and South Korea.

Here’s an accompanying chart.

I’ll simply note that if the numbers were adjusted for population, the United States would not rank nearly so high (I’m guessing America’s unfair death tax is a major reason why some rich people choose other countries).

What can we say about the nations losing rich people?

If you peruse the data from Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll notice that they don’t rank very high.

China’s tightening grip on capital outflows in recent years has placed many of the country’s wealthier citizens in the crosshairs of the taxman, leading to a shift of assets and people. …Turkey losing 4,000 millionaires last year, the third straight year that many have left. About 7,000 millionaires left Russia last year.

My two cents is that rich people aren’t fully confident about stability in come countries (think Russia) and they’re quite worried about government greed in other nations (think France).

Another issue is that successful entrepreneurs and investors don’t feel comfortable having their private financial data being promiscuously shared, and one way to minimize government snooping is to move to move.

The desire for privacy is also prompting rich individuals to reconsider their place of residence. Under the Common Reporting Standard, launched by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development in 2017, banks and other financial institutions are disclosing data on foreign account holders to their local tax authority. …”Many wealthy people are looking for opportunities to reduce risks associated with spreading information about their accounts,” said Polina Kuleshova of Henley & Partners. …Citizenship and residency by investment programs are big business: currently, the industry is worth an estimated $2 billion annually… The Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development is scrutinizing…these schemes. In October 2018, it released a blacklist of 21 jurisdictions, including Malta and Cyprus, that it believes are undermining international efforts to combat tax evasion.

Since I’m a critic of the OECD’s efforts to create a global tax cartel, I’m glad people still have some options to protect themselves. Including the CBI programs.

P.S. This analysis of cross-border migration between nations also applies to cross-border migration between states. Unsurprisingly, successful people move from high-tax hellholes (places such as New JerseyIllinois, and California) to zero-income-tax jurisdictions (places such as TexasFlorida, and Tennessee).

Great Moments in Foreign Government

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 12:22pm

I spend much of my time analyzing the foolish and counterproductive policies imposed by Washington. Often accompanied by some mockery of politicians and their silly laws.

And I also employ the same approach when reviewing the bone-headed policies often pursued by state governments and local governments.

And since this is “International Liberty,” I obviously like to pay attention to what happens in other nations as well. I guess you could call it the global version of misery-loves-company.

So today we’re going to add to our collection of “Great Moments in Foreign Government.”

We’ll start in Egypt, where we got a version of alchemy. Except instead of turning a base metal into gold, a donkey was turned into a zebra.

A zoo in Egypt has denied painting black stripes on a donkey to make it look like a zebra after a photo of the animal appeared online. Student Mahmoud Sarhan put the images on Facebook after visiting Cairo’s International Garden municipal park. Aside from its small size and pointy ears, there were also black smudges on its face. …the enclosure contained two animals and that both had been painted. When contacted by local radio station Nogoum FM, zoo director Mohamed Sultan insisted the animal was not a fake.

The most amusing part of the report, though, was learning that zoos routinely try to mislead customers.

This is not the first time that a zoo has been accused of trying to fool its audience. Unable to find a way around the Israeli blockade, a zoo in Gaza painted two donkeys to look like zebras in 2009. Another Gaza zoo put stuffed animals on display in 2012 because of the shortages of animals. In 2013, a Chinese zoo in Henan province tried to pass off a Tibetan mastiff dog as an African lion, and in 2017 a zoo in Guangxi province disappointed visitors by exhibiting blow-up plastic penguins. Weeks later, another Guangxi zoo drew condemnation for displaying plastic butterflies. …Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest countries in Apec, with 40% of the population living on less than $1 a day according to the UN.

I have to confess, though, that I don’t know if any of these zoos were private. So maybe we have a problem that isn’t just limited to government.

Our next story is from India.

It seems that the military doesn’t understand that submarines are supposed to be watertight.

…it’s a good idea to, like, close the hatches before you dive. Call it a lesson learned for the Indian navy, which managed to put the country’s first nuclear-missile submarine, the $2.9 billion INS Arihant, out of commission in the most boneheaded way possible. The Hindu reported yesterday that the Arihant has been out of commission since suffering “major damage” some 10 months ago, due to what a navy source characterized as a “human error” — to wit: allowing water to flood to sub’s propulsion compartment after failing to secure one of the vessel’s external hatches. …It’s hard to articulate how major a foul-up this is… Indian authorities ordered the pipe replacement because they “likely felt that pipes exposed to corrosive seawater couldn’t be trusted again, particularly pipes that carry pressurized water coolant to and from the ship’s 83 megawatt nuclear reactor.”

Sounds like India’s navy would have been better off if the person in charge of the hatch had been one of the country’s famous no-show bureaucrats.

Now let’s turn our attention to Papau New Guinea, where the roads are so poor that it makes no sense to have fancy, high-speed cars.

Yet that didn’t stop the government from using a summit as an excuse to buy 40 Maseratis

Papua New Guinea’s government is under scrutiny for importing 40 luxury Maserati cars from Italy for the…Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit. The Quattroporte sedans, which cost more than $100,000 each (£75,000), will be used by foreign leaders. Media and activists have questioned if the poor Pacific country has wasted millions. …Apec Minister Justin Tkatchenko said the cars, which can reach speeds of 240 km/h (149 mph), would “provide the level of carriage for leaders that is the standard for vehicles used at Apec summits”. …Some of the Pacific country’s main roads are poorly maintained, with vehicle speeds limited to 80 km/h (50 mph). Other roads wind through mountainous terrain and often require a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate.

Incidentally, the government claimed that the Maseratis would be resold to private buyers, meaning no net cost to taxpayers. Highly unlikely, to be sure.

Moreover, if there was a follow-up story, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they magically wound up in the hands of politicians and their family members.

The bottom line is that governments manage to combine malicious venality with staggering incompetence. Quite a feat.

P.S. For what it’s worth, America’s political elite prefers to rely ontaxpayer-financed limousines.

P.S.S. I’ve noticed on my trips to Cayman that there are lots of fancy, high-performance cars. In some sense this isn’t surprising. After all, zero-tax Cayman is a wealthy place. Yet I’ve always wondered why people buy such cars on a small island where high-speed travel is both difficult and unnecessary. But at least those are people spending their own money (though the government there certainly is capable of over-spending in other ways).

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Image credit: Alex Proimos | CC BY-NC 2.0.

Merit-Based Solutions to the Trump Immigration Reform Proposal

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 12:15pm

Originally published by Townhall on May 9, 2019.

The Trump administration is working on a proposal to reform immigration by increasing border security and pivoting legal immigration away from the Visa Lottery and chain migration. Politico reported on May 7, 2019, “Jared Kushner briefed senators Tuesday on an immigration proposal meant to boost border security and set up a new merit-based system that would keep the number of legal immigrants coming into the U.S. at current levels, according to administration officials and lawmakers.” The EB-5 Investor Visa program is a perfect fit in a merit-based reform effort.

The EB-5 program allows immigrants to apply for a visa if they invest in a U.S. commercial project that creates American jobs. The program was created in an effort to lure foreign investment that both provides needed money for infrastructure projects and lowers unemployment. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Under a program initially enacted as a pilot in 1992, and regularly reauthorized since then, investors may also qualify for EB-5 classification by investing through regional centers designated by USCIS based on proposals for promoting economic growth.” Foreign investors must put up $1 million with an exception for targeted areas with high unemployment where an investor must put up $500,000 instead. In addition, the investor must create at least 10 full time positions. If the investor qualifies, they will be provided a visa and provided the opportunity for lawful permanent resident status.

President Donald J. Trump has been a frequent proponent of converting current law towards a merit-based system, and the EB-5 program has proven to be a merit-based success. The American Action Forum released a report in January of 2018 that found, “EB-5 immigrants have invested at least $20 billion in the U.S. economy since 2008, with over $5 billion invested in 2017 alone.” They also used government data to calculate that “projects associated with EB-5 investments have created over 174,000 jobs, which equates to approximately 16 jobs per investor.” These are great numbers and an increase in the program would contribute to the Trump administration’s efforts to promote policies that expand the private sector while reducing unemployment numbers to even more historic lows.

Other data indicates that this program has expanded the economy by billions while creating a large number of jobs. According to Department of Commerce statistical data, about 11 thousand EB-5 visa holders directly invested $5.8 billion back in FY2012 and 2013 that aided in a total of $16.7 billion raised for 562 projects. While those are older numbers, a more recent look at the program would likely further show that this program has lowered unemployment while helping the economy to grow.

Notably in the current political climate, the EB-5 program does not allow these visa holders to compete with American workers. They do the opposite by spurring economic growth and helping Americans get off the unemployment line and into jobs. This program is a magnet for investment that would otherwise be used abroad—over which other governments compete using similar programs—and brings needed cash into the United States to build up American infrastructure projects.

The EB-5 program was targeted as part of a last-ditch effort by the Obama administration, using a midnight regulation, intended to make the program unworkable. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has yet to scrap that Obama-era regulation, but they have an opportunity now to improve and expand the program with the new reform proposal instead of continuing to follow the anti-growth path laid out by the Obama administration.

Politico reports that Kushner “has been quietly working on the plan for several months. He has told allies that he believes he has the buy-in of Trump and other more hard-line administration officials, even though some Trump allies and the president himself have previously backed efforts to slash legal immigration.” The plan is said to target high-skilled workers, so the EB-5 program to attract successful and business-savvy investors should be added to this proposal.

Our immigration system is in dire need of reform. The president is correct when he touts a merit-based system that provides an opportunity to move our immigration system away from chain migration and the Visa Lottery. An effective merit-based system must include incentives for wealthy foreigners to bring their money to the United States, thus helping the push to sustainable full employment, instead of taking it to any of the many other jurisdictions competing for foreign investment. Not including the EB-5 program in this new push would be a mistake that hurts the U.S. economy and workers.

Five Things to Understand about Trump’s Trade War with China

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 12:17pm

When I want to feel optimistic about China, I look at data from Economic Freedom of the World to confirm that there was a lot of economic liberalization (triggered in part by some civil disobedience) between 1980 and the early 2000s.

Then I look at how that period of capitalist reform dramatically improved living standards and reduced poverty.

But I also look at the same data if I want to feel pessimistic about China. That’s because there hasn’t been any additional liberalization in the past 15 years. China is basically treading water, and that means it is actually losing ground as other nations reform.

Indeed, it is now ranked #107 after being ranked as high as #87.

Which is why I’ve argued – repeatedly – that China needs a new period of free-market reform.

And that includes adopting better trade policy.

Which raises an interesting question: Is Trump’s saber rattling on China trade helping or hurting?

Here’s some of what I wrote for Inside Sources on this issue.

President Donald Trump has launched a new attack in his trade war with China… Is it possible…that his bluster will produce a good long-run deal to offset short-run costs? Let’s hope so, but it’s unclear…we all have a stake in the outcome of these trade negotiations. So here are five things to understand as discussions continue.

Starting with two reasons why there’s a trade deficit and why it doesn’t matter.

First:

Americans are much richer than their counterparts in China. …per-capita economic output in the United States is six times larger than it is in China ($60,000 compared to $10,000). This means Americans can afford to buy a lot more, including more goods and services from around the world. As such, a bilateral trade deficit with China is neither surprising nor worrisome.

And second:

The United States enjoys a far higher level of economic freedom than China. …the United States is ranked No. 6 while China is a lowly No. 107. This helps to explain why Chinese entrepreneurs who earn dollars by selling to American consumers often decide to invest those dollars in the American economy (the United States is the world’s top destination for global investment). This means the trade deficit is matched by a capital surplus.

I then explain China is guilty of protectionism and it would be good for both nations if these barriers were eliminated.

China has more protectionist barriers than America. …average Chinese tariffs are nearly three times higher than America tariffs. And China is also guiltier of using subsidies to help domestic companies. …people of both nations are the main victims of these bad policies, but it would be good for all of us if those trade barriers were reduced.

But what’s the best approach to encourage better policy from China?

I don’t think Trump’s unilateral protectionism will be successful.

Bullying and tit-for-tax retaliation is not an effective strategy. …tariffs hurt China, but they also hurt the United States by raising the price of consumer and intermediate goods. Taxes on Chinese goods also reduce incentives for America companies to become more efficient and better producers. Perhaps most important, there is little reason to think these taxes will have the desired effect of altering Chinese behavior.

I’d be much more hopeful if Trump used the World Trade Organization to push for good policy.

The WTO is an underused tool for trade liberalization. It has a dispute resolution process that has been successfully used to cajole and pressure nations into reducing trade barrier. The president has publicly criticized the WTO, but he probably doesn’t realize that the United States wins about nine out of every 10 cases when it challenges other nations’ trade barriers. …many other nations would have supported the United States if we had used the WTO as a vehicle to achieve more liberalization.

The bottom line, for what it’s worth, is that I’m not terribly hopeful.

It’s not too late for the president to select that strategy, of course, but that won’t be likely as long as he mistakenly sees trade as a zero-sum proposition.

Let’s close by looking at relevant excerpts from three other articles.

First, a columnist for National Review explains how cronyism infects the Chinese economy.

…just because China has many private companies, allows Communist-Party member Jack Ma to become a billionaire as head of Alibaba Group, and translates capitalist classics into Mandarin doesn’t mean it’s capitalist. The fact that few describe the Chinese economic system without putting a modifier in front of the term “capitalism” — “authoritarian,” “state,” “predatory,” “Communist,” etc. — should tell us something. …China has more than 150,000 state-owned enterprises, accounting for 40 percent of industrial assets. However, Chinese state capitalism is not just, or even principally, about the number and size of such enterprises; it’s about the central role the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plays in virtually all aspects of economic life. …Chinese state capitalism is a system in which the purpose of firms — private and public — is to fulfill the goals of the Communist Party. …capitalism is…a system in which…property owners have considerable…freedom to pursue their goals without influence from the state. By this standard, China’s is far from a capitalist economy.

Second, here are some excerpts from an Atlantic column about why it is difficult to alter China’s misguided approach.

…the trade dispute is about far more than tariffs and deficits. It is a contest of two very different national ideologies. Though the Trump administration has deviated from this somewhat, the United States believes that openness—political, economic, and social—creates prosperity, resolves disagreements within society, and promotes the diversity that spawns innovation and progress. China—or, more accurately, its leadership—sees government control as critical to developing the economy, achieving social peace, and forwarding the best interests of the nation overall. Americans tend to think open, free markets that are operating in a fair regulatory environment produce the best economic results. Beijing, on the other hand, doesn’t trust market forces and instead wants the state to play a more direct role in achieving the economic outcomes it determines are necessary for the country. …As a result, what Trump is demanding is extremely difficult to achieve: a “level playing field” for American firms. In fact, nothing of the sort actually exists in China, even for Chinese companies. The state has a nasty tendency to favor its own, with government-controlled businesses enjoying a smorgasbord of official assistance, including tax credits, low-interest loans from state banks, and other subsidies that give them an undue edge in local competition. That leaves private Chinese companies and entrepreneurs often facing the same kinds of hurdles to doing business that foreign ones face.

Third, Professor Deirdre McCloskey has a more optimistic assessment, arguingthat it is foolish for the U.S. government to fixate on China’s distortionary policies.

The White House is pursuing two stupid policies, trying to reduce the United States’ “balance of payments” with China and trying to protect “intellectual property” from China’s thievery. These policies are leading to a crash in the Chinese economy, which has been grossly ill-managed under President Xi Jinping. …when did you last feel the U.S. balance of trade? You feel only the idiotic policies advocated in reaction to it by Peter Navarro, a White House economist who never learned economics. (His Ph.D. is from Harvard. I’m thinking of turning mine back in.) It would be better if the government did not calculate and announce the balance of payments at all. It’s meaningless and an occasion for sin. What about China stealing intellectual property? Intellectual property sounds nice. …Patents and copyrights make things that are free in nature artificially scarce in order to cream off profit for the influentials. They are comparable to hack medallions, recently threatened by monopoly breakers Uber and Lyft. …Economists would be satisfied with a rough-and-ready rule of, say, a 10-year monopoly. But asserting an expansive right to intellectual property, which Congress then regularly extends in order to preserve the privileges of drug companies and the Walt Disney Corporation, is no solution.

I’ll add one final point.

We should support Chinese economic reform because it is good for the United States and good for China.

Here’s a chart showing 2017 World Bank data and 2019 IMF data on per-capita economic output in both nations.

In other words, notwithstanding all the growth China has enjoyed, it is still well behind the United States.

That’s the price the country is paying for insufficient reform.

Beijing should copy Hong Kong and Singapore if it wants to converge with America.

P.S. The last thing China should do is listen to the OECD or IMF.

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Image credit: The White House | Public Domain Mark 1.0.

The Baltic Nations, Demographics, and the Need to Shrink the Welfare State

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 12:43pm

I’m a big fan of many of the economic reforms that have been implemented in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

All three of the Baltic nations rank highly according to Economic Freedom of the World. Estonia and Lithuania are tied for #13, and Latvia isn’t far behind at #23.

Rather impressive for nations that suffered decades of communist enslavement.

But this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic for the future of these countries.

Simply stated, they need a lot more reform to prepare themselves for demographic decline.

And demographic decline is a huge issue, in large part because young people are moving away. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nine of the world’s countries most at risk of losing citizens over the next few decades are former East bloc nations. Porous borders and greater opportunity in the west have lured people away. …The trend is hitting especially hard in the Baltics.Latvia, with a current population of 1.96 million, has lost about 25 percent of its residents since throwing off Soviet control in 1991. The U.N. predicts that by 2050, it will have lost an additional 22 percent of its current population…and by 2100, 41 percent. In Estonia, with a population of 1.32 million, the U.N. foresees a 13 percent decline by 2050 and a 32 percent drop by 2100. And in Lithuania, the current population of 2.87 million is expected to drop by 17 percent by 2050. By 2100, it will have lost 34 percent. …Latvian demographer Mihails Hazans said that, as of 2014, one in three ethnic Latvians age 25 to 34 — and a quarter of all Latvians with higher education — lived abroad.

Part of the issue is also fertility.

Here’s a chart from the World Bank showing that all three Baltic nations are way below the replacement rate.

The combination of these two factors helps to explain this map.

As you can see, the Baltics don’t quite face the same challenges as Moldova.

But that’s the only silver lining in these grim numbers.

By the way, people should be free to emigrate.

And women should be free to choose how many children to have.

But when a country also has a welfare state and – over time – there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young taxpayers, that’s a recipe for some sort of Greek-style fiscal crisis.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.

The Baltic nations need to copy Hong Kong. Fertility rates are even lower there, but the jurisdiction doesn’t face a big long-run fiscal challenge since people mostly rely on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer welfare states.

P.S. One of the reasons I like the Baltic nations is that they cut spending (actual spending cuts, not fake DC-style reductions in planned increases) when they were hit by the global financial crisis last decade.

P.P.S. Even better, Paul Krugman wound up beclowning himself by trying to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

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Image credit: Matthias Zomer | Pexels License.

The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations: Good Objectives, Wrong Policies

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 12:26pm

I’m doing my third field trip to the United Nations.

In 2012, I spoke at a conference that was grandiosely entitled, “The High Level Thematic Debate on the State of the World Economy.” I was a relatively lonely voice trying to explain that a bigger burden of government would hinder rather than promote economic development.

In 2017, I was a credentialed observer to the 14th Session of the Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters, as well as the Special Meeting of ECOSOC on International Cooperation in Tax Matters. I somehow survived having to spend several days listening to government officials wax poetic about various schemes to extract more money from the productive sector of the economy.

This year, I”m at the U.N. participating in the 17th International Forum of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors. My panel focused on taxation and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Here are the goals, which presumably are widely desirable.

The controversial part is how to achieve these goals.

Many of the folks at the U.N. assert that governments need more money. A lot more money.

A new Fund to support UN activities that will help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals was launched today by UN Deputy-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed at a ministerial meeting to review financing for sustainable development. …Ms. Mohammed said the new Fund will “provide some muscle” to help UN country teams support countries’ efforts and priorities to achieve the 2030 Agenda – the global agenda that sets out 17 goals to promote prosperity and improve people’s well-being while protecting the environment. “It will help us hit the ground running and to pick up the pace,” for financing the Goals, she said, cautioning that it was still only part of the estimated $300 trillion that will be needed.

Needless to say, $300 trillion is a lot of money. Even when spread out between now and 2030.

To put that number in perspective, the annual GDP (economic output) of the United States is about $20 trillion.

My concern, whether the number is $300 or $300 trillion, is that folks at the United Nations have a very government-centric view of development.

Which is why I tried to explain that the only successful recipe for progress is free markets and small government.

Take a look at this list of the top-25 jurisdictions as ranked by the United Nations.

And what do these places have in common?

They generally became rich when government was a very minor burden.

This means the 1800s and early 1900s for nations in North America and Western Europe.

And it means the post-World War II era for some of the Pacific Rim jurisdictions.

I concluded with my challenge, asking participants to identify a single nation – anywhere in the world at any point in history – that became rich with big government and high taxes.

The answer is none. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The bottom line is that many people at the U.N. have a sincere desire to help the world’s less-fortunate people. But they need to put facts and empirical data above statist ideology.

P.S. Maybe the U.N. doesn’t do the right thing about fighting poverty because it has some people who are very dishonest about the topic?

P.P.S. I don’t know whether to classify this as absurd or dishonest, but Jeffrey Sachs actually claimed that Cuba ranks about the United States in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Image credit: Basil D Soufi | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Trump’s Worst-Ever Tweet?

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 12:09pm

Back in 2015, when Trump was a long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination, I criticized him for not signing the no-tax-hike pledge.

But he then pushed through a better-than-expected tax plan after getting the White House. And that package reduces the tax burden (at least for the first nine years).

So is it time for me to retract my 2015 criticism?

Nope.

Look at this horrifying tweet that Trump issued yesterday. The President is actually claiming that the economy is doing well because of higher tax payments.

For 10 months, China has been paying Tariffs to the USA of 25% on 50 Billion Dollars of High Tech, and 10% on 200 Billion Dollars of other goods. These payments are partially responsible for our great economic results. The 10% will go up to 25% on Friday. 325 Billions Dollars….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2019

This has to be Trump’s worst-ever tweet, at least with regards to economic policy.

Normally, only hard-left politicians and international bureaucracies have the gall to claim that you can strengthen an economy by having governments collect more money.

Needless to say, it’s strange to see a Republican president make the same argument.

But Trump’s tweet isn’t just bad from the perspective of fiscal policy.

He also shows that he doesn’t understand trade policy, either from a technical perspective or an economic perspective.

For instance, the tariffs (i.e., trade taxes) technically are paid by those making the purchases (i.e., importers), not by the sellers (i.e., Chinese companies).

But just as the corporate income tax is really a tax on people (either as workers, consumers, or shareholders), the burden of trade taxes also falls on people.

In other words, American consumers are paying for Trump’s tariffs.

Which gives me an excuse to share Trump’s second-worst-ever tweet, which was issued this morning.

The United States has been losing, for many years, 600 to 800 Billion Dollars a year on Trade. With China we lose 500 Billion Dollars. Sorry, we’re not going to be doing that anymore!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 6, 2019

At the risk of understatement, the United States doesn’t “lose” $500 billion by trading with China.

Americans voluntarily purchase lots of output from China and both sides benefit (otherwise the transactions wouldn’t occur).

And many Chinese use the dollars they earn to invest in the U.S. economy, another set of win-win transactions.

The net result of all these voluntary transactions is that America has a trade deficit, which is a meaningless figure. Basically the flip side of having a capital surplus.

The bottom line is that Trump should stick to tax policy and regulatory policy, since those are areas where his policies have been beneficial.

P.S. If Trump was focused on Chinese technology theft or Chinese industrial subsidies, I would be at least partly sympathetic. Especially if he utilized the World Trade Organization and included our allies. But he’s mostly attacking China because he doesn’t like the voluntary decisions of American and Chinese consumers and businesses.

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Incomes, Fairness, Mobility, and Equality

Sun, 05/05/2019 - 12:45pm

I wish my leftist friends understood the Laffer Curve. I also wish they understood the downsides of artificially low interest rates. And the Rahn Curve. And comparative advantage.

But perhaps more than anything else, I wish they understood that poor people aren’t poor simply because rich people are rich.

John Stossel has a new video from Reason about the issue.

Spot on.

John is right about income growth. That’s why I think it’s so important to have policies that enable more growth. When the economy does well, that’s good for the poor, good for the rich, and good for the rest of us as well.

And this position is certainly supported by the historical data. We are much richer than 50 years ago and 100 years ago.

Heck, poor Americans are rich compared to people in many developing nations.

also like what John said about income mobility. People can rise out of poverty. And they can fall out of prosperity.

By the way, I wish the discussion about unfairness also mentioned height and looks. There’s fairly solid academic evidence that taller people and better-looking people earn more money and have better lives.

That’s genuine unfairness, just like having better parents is a source of genuine unfairness.

Yet not even Bernie Sanders or AOC has proposed taxes to equalize those sources of real unfairness (since I don’t want to give them any ideas, hopefully they don’t read my columns).

P.S. I started today’s column by giving examples of things I wish leftists understood. Well, there are also issues where I wish my friends on the right had more insight. For instance, I would like them to understand that tax cuts very rarely pay for themselves. I wish they realized that spending caps are far preferable to balanced budget rules. And I wish they understood that disapproval of things such as drug usegambling, and prostitution doesn’t mean those activities should be illegal.

P.P.S. I also mentioned at the start of the column that higher incomes for some people doesn’t imply lower incomes for other people. I should have included the caveat that this isn’t true if government is tilting the playing field. Bailoutsprotectionismsubsidies, and other forms of cronyism enable the politically well connected to prosper at the expense of everyone else.

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Image credit: rawpixel.com | CC0 1.0.

Trump Endorses Obama-Style Budget Blowout for Infrastructure

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 12:15pm

Back in April, I observed that, “If you would have loudly condemned a policy under Obama but support a similar policy under Trump, you’re the problem.”

We now have a good test case.

The President already has demonstrated – repeatedly – that he likes to spend other people’s money.

But now he’s unleashing his inner Obama, having reached a tentative deal with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi for a $2 trillion infrastructure blowout.

Notwithstanding the GOP’s supposed belief in the Constitution and limits on the role of the federal government, there are plenty of Republicans on Capitol Hill (especially on the committees that will get to direct this money to various campaign contributors) who will gladly join this spending orgy.

The relevant question, though, is whether there are some good GOPers to stop this boondoggle.

The Washington Post reports that there are some holdouts.

A $2 trillion infrastructure deal outlined this week by President Trump and top Democrats is already losing momentum, as the president’s own chief of staff is telling people inside and outside the administration that the effort is too expensive… Democratic leaders in Congress…said they were pleasantly surprised by the president’s willingness to back a large-scale spending effort. …But the initiative has run into immediate opposition from Republicans who balk at the hefty price tag and from conservative allies who are pushing lawmakers to block it. …Earlier in the administration, Trump praised Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — a potential 2020 foe — for her ideas because, in his view, she was determined to spend more than Republicans. He would tell aides to get a list of projects and “let’s just spend it,” in the words of one former administration official. …Trump always wanted to spend more. …raising fuel tax rates by 35 cents and pegging them to rise with inflation would generate only about a quarter of the necessary revenue over 10 years. …Getting the remaining $1.5 trillion would involve much more significant tax increases… But even fully reversing the corporate income tax cut, which dropped the rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, would not close the gap

One obvious takeaway from this article is that taxes eventually will increase if Republicans don’t get serious about spending restraint.

Indeed, I’ve already warned that Trump’s profligacy is making tax increases more likely.

And another takeaway is that a blank-check approach would violate my rules for sensible infrastructure policy.

The editors at National Review share my concern about the plan for a bipartisan budget-busting package.

Some time ago, President Trump’s team produced a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, which was really a $200 billion infrastructure plan with some wishful thinking attached. …now the president has joined forced with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on something new: a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which also is composed mainly of wishful thinking. …What could possibly go wrong? You can tell this is backward by the fact that the triumvirate has settled on a price tag — an incomprehensibly large one — but is remarkably fuzzy on what’s to be bought with that $2 trillion. …We have been here before, with Barack Obama and his “shovel-ready” projects. The lesson of Obama’s failed stimulus bill — which was in considerable part an infrastructure program — is that doing things backwards does not work. …figuring out how to pay for this is at the bottom of the current agenda. …This is not a sane way to proceed. …The infrastructure scheme deserves to die an early and unlamented legislative death.

It should just “die an early an unlamented legislative death.” It never should have been born in the first place.

I’m not surprised that Trump is supporting a pork-filled budget plan for infrastructure. As I warned back before the 2016 election, he’s a big-government Republican.

What’s not clear, though, is how many GOP lawmakers will support his Greek-style approach to the transportation budget.

Suffice to say that I’m worried. It seems that many Republicans are Bushies rather than Reaganites.

P.S. The correct infrastructure policy for Washington is to have no infrastructure policy. That’s because transportation should be handled by state and local government. Or, even better, the private sector. In my fantasy world, we’d shut down the Department of Transportation and repeal the federal gas tax.

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Image credit: Grzegorz_Skibka | Pixabay License.

A History Lesson: Comparing Socialist East Germany vs Capitalist West Germany

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 12:43pm

In a column for the New York Times, Jochen Bittner writes about how a rising star of Germany’s Social Democrat Party wants the type of socialism that made the former East Germany an economic failure.

Socialism, the idea that workers’ needs are best met by the collectivization of the means of production… A system in which factories, banks and even housing were nationalized required a planned economy, as a substitute for capitalist competition. Central planning, however, proved unable to meet people’s individual demands… Eventually, the entire system collapsed; as it did everywhere else, socialism in Germany failed. Which is why it is strange, in 2019, to see socialism coming back into German mainstream politics.

But this real-world evidence doesn’t matter for some Germans.

Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the Social Democrats’ youth organization and one of his party’s most promising young talents, has made it his calling card. Forget the wannabe socialism of American Democrats like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 29-year-old Mr. Kühnert is aiming for the real thing. Socialism, he says, means democratic control over the economy. He wants to replace capitalism… German neo-socialism is profoundly different from capitalism. …Mr. Kühnert took specific aim at the American dream as a model for individual achievement. …“Without collectivization of one form or another it is unthinkable to overcome capitalism,” he told us.

In other words, he wants real socialism (i.e., government ownership). And that presumably means he also supports central planning and price controls.

What makes Kühnert’s view so absurd is that he obviously knows nothing about his nation’s history.

Just in case he reads this, let’s look at the evidence.

Jaap Sleifer’s book, Planning Ahead and Falling Behind, points out that the eastern part of Germany was actually richer than the western part prior to World War II.

The entire country’s economy was then destroyed by the war.

What happened afterwards, though, shows the difference between socialism and free enterprise.

Before…the Third Reich the East German economy had…per capita national income…103 percent of West Germany, compared to a mere 31 percent in 1991. …Here is the case of an economy that was relatively wealthy, but lost out in a relatively short time… Based on the official statistics on national product the East German growth rates were very impressive. However, …the actual performance was not that impressive at all.

Sleifer has two tables that are worth sharing.

First, nobody should be surprised to discover that communist authorities released garbage numbers that ostensibly showed faster growth.

What’s really depressing is that there were more than a few gullible Americans – including some economists – who blindly believe this nonsensical data.

Second, I like this table because it confirms that Nazism and communism are very similar from an economic perspective.

Though I guess we should give Germans credit for doing a decent job on product quality under both strains of socialism.

For those who want to read further about East German economic performance, you can find other scholarly articles herehere, and here.

I want to call special attention, though, to a column by an economist from India. Written back in 1960, even before there was a Berlin Wall, he compared the two halves of the city.

Here’s the situation in the capitalist part.

The contrast between the two Berlins cannot miss the attention of a school child. West Berlin, though an island within East Germany, is an integral part of West German economy and shares the latter’s prosperity. Destruction through bombing was impartial to the two parts of the city. Rebuilding is virtually complete in West Berlin. …The main thoroughfares of West Berlin are near jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic, the German make of cars, big and small, being much in evidence. …The departmental stores in West Berlin are cramming with wearing apparel, other personal effects and a multiplicity of household equipment, temptingly displayed.

Here’s what he saw in the communist part.

…In East Berlin a good part of the destruction still remains; twisted iron, broken walls and heaped up rubble are common enough sights. The new structures, especially the pre-fabricated workers’ tenements, look drab. …automobiles, generally old and small cars, are in much smaller numbers than in West Berlin. …shops in East Berlin exhibit cheap articles in indifferent wrappers or containers and the prices for comparable items, despite the poor quality, are noticeably higher than in West Berlin. …Visiting East Berlin gives the impression of visiting a prison camp.

The lessons, he explained, should be quite obvious.

…the contrast of the two Berlins…the main explanation lies in the divergent political systems. The people being the same, there is no difference in talent, technological skill and aspirations of the residents of the two parts of the city. In West Berlin efforts are spontaneous and self-directed by free men, under the urge to go ahead. In East Berlin effort is centrally directed by Communist planners… The contrast in prosperity is convincing proof of the superiority of the forces of freedom over centralised planning.

Back in 2011, I shared a video highlighting the role of Ludwig Erhard in freeing the West German economy. Given today’s topic here’s an encore presentation.

Samuel Gregg, writing for FEE, elaborates about the market-driven causes of the post-war German economic miracle.

It wasn’t just Ludwig Erhard.

Seventy years ago this month, a small group of economists and legal scholars helped bring about what’s now widely known as the Wirtschaftswunder, the “German economic miracle.” Even among many Germans, names like Walter Eucken, Wilhelm Röpke, and Franz Böhm are unfamiliar today. But it’s largely thanks to their relentless advocacy of market liberalization in 1948 that what was then West Germany escaped an economic abyss… It was a rare instance of free-market intellectuals’ playing a decisive role in liberating an economy from decades of interventionist and collectivist policies.

As was mentioned in the video, the American occupiers were not on the right side.

Indeed, they exacerbated West Germany’s economic problems.

…reform was going to be easy: in 1945, few Germans were amenable to the free market. The Social Democratic Party emerged from the catacombs wanting more top-down economic planning, not less. …Further complicating matters was the fact that the military authorities in the Western-occupied zones in Germany, with many Keynesians in their contingent, admired the economic policies of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in Britain. Indeed, between 1945 and 1947, the Allied administrators left largely in place the partly collectivized, state-oriented economy put in place by the defeated Nazis. This included price-controls, widespread rationing… The result was widespread food shortages and soaring malnutrition levels.

But at least there was a happy ending.

Erhard’s June 1948 reforms…abolition of price-controls and the replacement of the Nazi-era Reichsmark with much smaller quantities of a new currency: the Deutsche Mark. These measures effectively killed off…inflation… Within six months, industrial production had increased by an incredible 50 percent. Real incomes started growing.

And Germany never looked back. Even today, it’s a reasonably market-orientednation.

I’ll close with my modest contribution to the debate. Based on data from the OECD, here’s a look at comparative economic output in East Germany and West Germany.

You’ll notice that I added some dotted lines to illustrate that both nations presumably started at the same very low level after WWII ended.

I’ll also assert that the blue line probably exaggerates East German economic output. If you doubt that claim, check out this 1990 story from the New York Times.

The bottom line is that the economic conditions in West Germany and East Germany diverged dramatically because one had good policy (West Germany routinely scored in the top 10 for economic liberty between 1950 and 1975) and one suffered from socialism.

These numbers should be very compelling since traditional economic theory holds that incomes in countries should converge. In the real world, however, that only happens if governments don’t create too many obstacles to prosperity.

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Image credit: US Dept of Defense | CC by 2.0.

The Immorality of Socialism

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 12:41pm

Since I think comparative economics can be very enlightening, I’m quite pleased to see a new study by David Burton of the Heritage Foundation, which uses several metrics to assess the relative merits of socialism and free enterprise.

This is not necessarily an easy task since socialism is a moving target.

Some people still adhere to the technical definition, which means government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls. While others assume that socialism is high tax rates and lots of redistribution.

Here’s David’s summary.

State ownership of the means of production is the central tenet of traditional socialist or communist thought. Traditional socialist and communist economic policies involve state-owned enterprises and a high degree of state control over all aspects of economic life. Over time, politicians came to understand that they did not need to have legal ownership of, or legal title to, businesses or other property in order to control them by regulation, administrative actions, or taxation. Furthermore, not having legal title meant that they could disclaim responsibility when government control did not work out well. Thus, the meaning of the term “socialist” evolved considerably during the last half of the 20th century to mean a strong state role in the economy, the pursuit of aggressive redistributionist policies, high levels of taxation and regulation, and a large welfare state—but not necessarily government ownership of the means of production.

Regardless of how it’s defined, it doesn’t work. And the closer a country is to technical socialism, the greater the economic misery.

David reviews and analyzes a lot of material and I recommend the entire report.

For today’s purposes, though, I want to focus on his ethical arguments.

Here’s how he describes the morality of capitalism.

As a libertarian, I’m especially sympathetic to the argument about cooperative exchange versus coercion.

As an economist, I’m naturally sympathetic to the argument about prosperity versus poverty.

And I hope everyone agrees with the arguments about individual choice and civil society.

Now let’s look at David’s description of the morality of socialism.

For what it’s worth, I think the final point is the most compelling.

Socialism (whether the technical version or the redistribution version) basically creates a zero-sum game in which people are told it is moral to take from others simply because they produce more.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean the poor taking from the rich. Yes, that’s a big part of it, but there are all sorts of government programs that burden lower-income and middle-class people in order to line the pockets of the well-connected.

Last but not least, David charitably focuses on democratic socialism rather than Marxist socialism, so he’s not even counting the horrible abuses that you find in socialist regimes such as CubaNorth Korea, and Venezuela.

P.S. While I realize we shouldn’t laugh about an ideology that has produced so much misery, I do have a collection of anti-socialist humor.

P.P.S. I strongly recommend this speech by Dan Hannan about the superiority of markets over socialism.

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Image credit: Max Pixel | CC0 1.0.

Lessons from the 1920s and 1930s about Growth vs Equality

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 12:37pm

I have a very low opinion of leftist politicians, in large part because I suspect most of them privately understand their policies don’t work, but they don’t care because their main goal is the accumulation of political power (Crazy Bernie is an exception since he seems to genuinely believe in socialism).

But I don’t dislike ordinary people with statist views. They have good intentions.

All that’s wrong is that they think government intervention and redistribution can improve the lives of the less fortunate. Presumably because they incorrectly assume the economy is a fixed pie and that some people must be poor if some people are rich.

One of my main goals is to help them understand why this is wrong.

which is why I write so often about growth in general and comparative growth between nations in particular.

And it also helps to share evidence about historical growth within a nation.

Amity Shlaes addresses this issue in a must-read article about U.S. growth in the City Journal. She starts with a pessimistic observation about malpractice by historians.

Free marketeers…are not winning U.S. history. …No longer is American history a story of opportunity, or of military or domestic triumph. Ours has become, rather, a story of wrongs, racial and social. …an axiom is taking hold: equal incomes lead to general prosperity and point toward utopia. Teachers, book review editors, and especially professors withhold any evidence to the contrary. …Decades in which policy endeavored or managed to even out and equalize earnings—the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson—score high. Decades where policymakers focused on growth before equality, such as the 1920s, fare poorly.

This is upside down, Amity explains.

…progressives have their metrics wrong and their story backward. The geeky Gini metric fails to capture the American economic dynamic: in our country, innovative bursts lead to great wealth, which then moves to the rest of the population. Equality campaigns don’t lead automatically to prosperity; instead, prosperity leads to a higher standard of living and, eventually, in democracies, to greater equality. …growth cannot be assumed. Prioritizing equality over markets and growth hurts markets and growth and, most important, the low earners for whom social-justice advocates claim to fight. …a review trip through the decades is useful because the evidence for growth is right there, in our own American past.

The article looks at several periods, but I want to focus on what she wrote about the 1920s and 1930s.

We’ll start with the 1920s, which began with a deep downturn.

…the early 1920s experienced a significant recession. …the top rate was still high, at 73 percent. …In response, Wall Street and private companies mounted a “capital strike,” dumping cash not into the most promising inventions but into humdrum municipal bonds. …The high tax rates, designed to corral the resources of the rich, failed to achieve their purpose. In 1916, 206 families or individuals filed returns reporting income of $1 million or more… By 1921, just 21 families reported to the Treasury that they had earned more than a million. ….Against this tide, Harding and Coolidge made their choice: markets first. …Harding and Mellon got the top rate down to 58 percent. …In a second round, stewarded by Coolidge, …Mellon and conservatives would get a (somewhat) lower tax rate of 46 percent…in 1924, Coolidge joined Mellon, and Congress, in yet another tax fight, eventually prevailing and cutting the top rate to the target 25 percent. …the tax cuts worked—the government did draw more revenue than predicted, as business, relieved, revived. The rich earned more than the rest—the Gini coefficient rose—but when it came to tax payments, something interesting happened. …the rich now paid a greater share of all taxes. Tax cuts for the rich made the rich pay taxes. …the United States did average 4 percent real growth. …the 1920s economy gave workers something far more important than notional wage equality: a job. Unemployment averaged 5 percent or lower.

Excellent points about overall economic policy and lots of good information about fiscal policy.

The tax cuts were a big successjust like the Kennedy tax cuts in the 1960s and the Reagan tax cuts in the 1980s.

Moreover, the recovery from the 1920-21 recession deserves a lot of attention because it shows that spending reductions are good for prosperity.

Sadly, that lesson was almost immediately forgotten.

Here’s some of what Amity wrote about the many policy mistakes of the 1930s.

The 1930s tell the opposite story. …Hoover responded differently from the way predecessors had responded to previous crashes: he intervened. …Hoover changed policy to focus on social equality… Hoover hauled business leaders to Washington and bullied them…he cajoled Congress into passing laws…the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931…raising the top rate to 63 percent. …Hoover thoroughly intimidated business and markets… Franklin Roosevelt…sent an even clearer signal that in his presidency, equality would come first. …the New Deal’s equality measures prolonged and deepened the Depression. …For ten years, joblessness stuck stubbornly in the double digits. This mattered far more to families than any theoretical envy index. With the coming of World War II, Roosevelt pushed the top tax rate to 94 percent.

From the perspective of economic policy, the 1930s was a trainwreck. Hoover imposed terrible policy. Then FDR takes office and does more of the same.

Let’s now get to the main point of today’s column. Which decade was better for poor people:

Did poor people enjoy better results in the 1920s, when government did less and policy was more focused on growth and opportunity?

Did poor people enjoy better results in the 1930s, when government did more and policy was more focused on equality of outcomes?

The answer should be obvious.

It was better to be a poor person in the 1920s rather than the 1930s.

Just like poor people did better in the laissez-faire 1980s than they did in the statist 1970s. Just like poor people today do better in Chile than in Venezuela. Just like poor people did better in West Germany than East Germany. Just like poor people….well, you get the idea.

P.S. Today’s column is another reminder that Calvin Coolidge was one of America’s greatest presidents.

New CF&P Paper Tracks Dangerous Expansion of Anti-Money Laundering Regimes

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 12:42pm

Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
202-285-0244

www.freedomandprosperity.org

New CF&P Paper Tracks Dangerous Expansion of Anti-Money Laundering Regimes

(Washington, D.C., Tuesday, April 30, 2019) The Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation today published a new study titled, “Can the World Stop the Bucking Bronco? The Need to Balance the Expanding Anti-Money Laundering Regimes.” Authored by Bruce Zagaris, the paper follows the development of U.S. anti-money laundering laws, their extra-territorial expansion, and how it’s now blowing back on the United States as other nations begin following suit.

Link to the paper: http://freedomandprosperity.org/2019/publications/can-the-world-stop-the-bucking-bronco-the-need-to-balance-the-expanding-anti-money-laundering-regimes/

From the Introduction:

From the introduction of anti-money laundering laws in 1986, the United States government has led international efforts to prevent and prosecute money laundering and terrorist financing, as well as pioneered legal standards in this arena. A constant theme of U.S. AML/CTF laws has been their extraterritorial application and efforts to impose pressure and penalties on foreign governments and persons who failed to meet international standards. 

… This article examines the trade-offs of the U.S.’s unilateral approach and argues for a rebalancing of the expanding financial enforcement regime.

About the Author: Bruce Zagaris is a partner with Berliner Corcoran & Rowe LLP specializing in tax controversy and international law. His tax controversy work has included representing individuals on voluntary disclosures, audits, and litigation as well as consulting and serving as an expert witness in criminal trials for defendants and the U.S. Government. He is founder and editor of the International Enforcement Law Reporter.

 

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Image credit: geralt | Pixabay License.

The Messy Mix of Red Tape, Money Laundering, and Extraterritoriality

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 12:13pm

I’m not a big fan of so-called anti-money laundering (AML) requirements.

And things are getting worse because these laws and rules increasingly are part of a Byzantine web of extraterritorial mandates – meaning nations trying to impose their laws on things that happen outside their borders.

Bruce Zagaris, a lawyer with special expertise in international legal issues, just wrote a study on this issue for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation.

Here’s how he frames the issue.

From the introduction of anti-money laundering laws in 1986, the United States government has led international efforts to prevent and prosecute money laundering…the U.S.’s unilateralism in the financial enforcement arena has alienated smaller jurisdictions and led to a substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions. This article examines the trade-offs of the U.S.’s unilateral approach and argues for a rebalancing of the expanding financial enforcement regime. …under the “territorial” theory of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the U.S. has proactively asserted that it has the right to regulate criminal acts occurring outside the U.S. as long as they produce effects within the United States. …A criminal statute which Congress intends to have extraterritorial application may reach a defendant who has never even entered the U.S. if s/he participated in a conspiracy in which a co-conspirator’s activities occurred within the U.S.

In part, this is a problem of the United States trying to dictate policy in other nations.

But what goes around, comes around. As Bruce explains,the European Commission is trying to coerce American territories into changing their policies.

On February 13, 2019, the European Commission blacklisted 23 jurisdictions for their weak regulation of AML/CTF policy, increasing the level of oversight that European banks would have to overcome in conducting business with said jurisdictions. The list included four U.S. territories – Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands… The U.S. Treasury Department immediately and swiftly condemned the blacklist, noting that it had “significant concerns about the substance of the list and the flawed process by which it was developed.” The Treasury further stated that it did not expect U.S. financial firms to pay any heed to the blacklist.

All this cross-border bullying would be bad news even if the underlying laws were reasonable.

But Bruce concludes by explaining that this is not the case.

The result of over-aggressive application of extraterritorial jurisdiction by the U.S. and the EU for anti-money laundering and prosecution of financial institutions and officials, together with the use of informal organizations, such as FATF, to establish new AML/CFT standards, has led to increasing exclusion of countries (called de-risking) and other depositors, especially in small jurisdictions. It has also led to substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions, as financial institutions must increase AML due diligence, including Know Your Customer, Customer Due Diligence, and the requirement to report suspicious transactions, as well as be subject to prosecution and regulatory enforcement actions. National laws and international standards should have a cost-effect requirement, especially as they continually impose new requirements on the private sector and impede normal commerce and privacy.

All this extraterritoriality has economic implications.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Timesopines about the CF&P report.

…rarely do government leaders fully think through the effects of their actions — extraterritorial application of law being a prime example. …Noted legal scholar Bruce Zagaris, who specializes in international financial crime, has written a new paper for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation… the United States has proactively asserted it “has the right to regulate criminal acts by non-U.S. citizens occurring outside the U.S., as long as they produce effects in the U.S.” As can easily be seen, such a definition is a never-ending slippery-slope, which is causing great conflicts among governments. As a result of the increasingly expansive view of U.S. courts to take cases and enforce judgments extraterritorially, courts and legislatures in other countries are also asserting extraterritorial enforcement authority.

Richard explains why this is bad news for those who care about economic growth.

…It is difficult enough for businesses and individuals in any one jurisdiction to understand all the laws and regulations that apply to them, but once governments begin to extend their laws and regulations to foreign jurisdictions, the global financial and legal system begins to melt down. Laws and regulations are often in conflict, so those who are engaged in multiple legal jurisdictions are increasingly at risk — which causes them to rationally de-risk by withdrawing investment from those entities least able to defend themselves. The result is slower world growth and job creation. …Clear global rules need to be established as to when extraterritorial application of laws is justified and not justified. Issues like dual criminality in tax, anti-money laundering and terrorist finance need to be addressed to bring some rationality and fairness to the system. And finally, procedures need to be established so that any jurisdiction can challenge a rule that does not meet a reasonable cost-benefit test.

I’ll close by making two points.

First, politicians and bureaucrats claim that laws and regulations against money laundering are designed to fight crime. Don’t believe them. Money laundering is mostly a problem in “onshore” nations. The real motive is to undermine financial privacy so governments can track – and tax – capital around the world.

Second, American politicians and bureaucrats are playing with fire. The more we try to bully other nations to enforce our bad tax laws, the greater the risk that other governments no longer will use the dollar as a reserve currency. That would be costly to the U.S. economy.

P.S. Senator Rand Paul is one of the few heroes on this issue.

P.P.S. Click here for a good summary article on why laws should be limited by borders.

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