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A Big Corporate Tax Cut in the United States Will Bring More Prosperity to China and Europe

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 12:40pm

When Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates in America in the 1980s, the obvious direct effect was more prosperity in America.

But the under-appreciated indirect effect of Reaganomics was that it helped generate more prosperity elsewhere in the world.

Not because Americans had higher income and could buy more products from home and abroad (though that is a nice fringe benefit), but rather because the Reagan tax cuts triggered a virtuous cycle of tax competition. Politicians in other countries had to lower their tax rates because of concerns that jobs and investment were migrating to America (Margaret Thatcher also deserves some credit since she also dramatically reduced tax rates and put even more competitive pressure on other nations to do the same thing).

If you look at the data for developed nations, the average top income tax rate in 1980 was more than 67 percent. It’s now closer to 40 percent.

And because even countries like Germany and France enacted supply-side reforms, the global economy enjoyed a 25-year renaissance of growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, there’s been some slippage in the wrong direction in recent years, probably caused in part by the erosion of tax competition (politicians are more likely to grab additional money if they think targeted victims don’t have escape options).

But we may be poised for a new virtuous cycle of tax competition, at least with regards to business taxation. A big drop in the U.S. corporate tax rate will pressure other nations to lower their taxes as well. And if new developments from China and Europe are accurate, I’ve been underestimating the potential positive impact.

Let’s start with news from China, where some officials are acting as if dropping the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent is akin to economic warfare.

U.S. tax cuts—the biggest passed since those during the presidency of Ronald Reagan three decades ago—have Beijing in a bind. Prominent in the new tax policy are generous reductions in the corporate tax and a rationalization of the global tax scheme. Both are expected to draw capital and skilled labor back to the United States. …In April, Chinese state-controlled media slammed the tax cuts, accusing the U.S. leadership of risking a “tax war”… On April 27, state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted a Chinese financial official as saying, “We’ve made our stance clear: We oppose tax competition.” …Beijing has good reason to be afraid. …“Due to the tax cut, the capital—mostly from the manufacturing industry—will flow back to the U.S.,” Chen said.

While Chinese officials are worried about tax competition, they have a very effective response. They can cut tax rates as well.

…the Communist Party had promised to implement financial policy that would be more beneficial for the general public, but has not put this into practice. Instead, Beijing has kept and expanded a regime whereby heavy taxes do not benefit the people…, but are used to prop up inefficient state-owned enterprises… Chinese officials and scholars are considering the necessity of implementing their own tax reforms to keep up with the Trump administration. …Zhu Guangyao, a deputy minister of finance, said in a meeting that it was “indeed impossible” to “ignore the international effects” of the American tax cut, and that “proactive measures” needed to be taken to adjust accordingly. …a Chinese state-run overseas publication called “Xiakedao” came out with a report saying that while Trump’s tax cuts put pressure on China, the pressure “can all the same be transformed into an opportunity for reform.” It remains to be seen whether communist authorities are willing to accept a hit to their tax revenue to balance the economy and let capital flow into the hands of the private sector.

The Wall Street Journal also has a story on how China’s government might react to U.S. tax reform.

…economic mandarins in Beijing are focusing on a potentially… immediate threat from Washington— Donald Trump’s tax overhaul. In the Beijing leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, officials are putting in place a contingency plan to combat consequences for China of U.S. tax changes… What they fear is…sapping money out of China by making the U.S. a more attractive place to invest.

Pardon me for digressing, but isn’t it remarkable that nominally communist officials in China clearly understand that lower tax rates will boost investment while some left-leaning fiscal “experts” in America still want us to believe that lower tax won’t help growth.

But let’s get back to the main point.

An official involved in Beijing’s deliberations called Washington’s tax plan a “gray rhino,” an obvious danger in China’s economy that shouldn’t be ignored. …While the tax overhaul isn’t directly aimed at Beijing, …China will be squeezed. Under the tax plan now going through the U.S. legislative process, America’s corporate levy could drop to about 20% from 35%. Over the next few years, economists say, that could spur manufacturers—whether American or Chinese—to opt to set up plants in the U.S. rather than China.

It’s an open question, though, whether China will respond with bad policy or good policy.

Imposing capital controls to limit the flow of money to the United States would be an unfortunate reaction. Using American reform as an impetus for Chinese reform, by contrast, would be serendipitous.

The sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code, estimated to result in $1.4 trillion in U.S. cuts over a decade, is also serving as a wake-up call for Beijing, which for years has dragged its feet on revamping China’s own rigid tax system. Chinese businesses have long complained about high taxes, and the government has pledged to reduce the levies on them. …Chinese companies face a welter of other taxes and fees their U.S. counterparts don’t, including a 17% value-added tax. …Chinese employers pay far-higher payroll taxes. Welfare and social insurance taxes cost between 40% and 100% of a paycheck in China. World Bank figures for 2016 show that total tax burden on Chinese businesses are among the highest of major economies: 68% of profits, compared with 44% in the U.S. and 40.6% on average world-wide. The figures include national and local income taxes, value-added or sales taxes and any mandatory employer contributions for welfare and social security.

I very much hope Chinese officials respond to American tax cuts with their own supply-side reforms. I’ve applauded the Chinese government in the past for partial economic liberalization. Those policies have dramatically reduced poverty and been very beneficial for the country.

Lower tax rates could be the next step to boost living standards in China.

By the way, the Chinese aren’t the only ones paying attention to fiscal developments in the United States. The GOP tax plan also is causing headaches in Europe, as reported by CNN.

Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy have written to Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin… The letter argues that proposed changes to the U.S. tax code could give American companies an advantage over foreign rivals. …They said the provision could also tax the profits of foreign businesses that do not have a permanent base in the U.S. …The finance ministers said they opposed another measure in the Senate bill that could benefit American companies.

I have two responses. First, I actually agree with some of the complaints in the letter about selected provisions in the tax bill (see, for instance, Veronique de Rugy’s analysis in National Review about the danger of the BAT-like excise tax). We should be welcoming investment from foreign companies, not treating them like potential cash cows for Uncle Sam.

That being said, European officials are throwing stones in a glass house. They are the ones pushing the OECD’s initiative on “base erosion and profit shifting,” which is basically a scheme to extract more money from American multinational firms. And let’s also remember that the European Commission is also going after American companies using the novel argument that low taxes are a form of “state aid.”

Second, I think the Europeans are mostly worried about the lower corporate rate. German officials, for instance, have already been cited for their fear of a “ruinous era of tax competition.” And politicians at the European Parliament have been whining about a “race to the bottom.”

So I’ll give them the same advice I offered to China. Respond to Americans tax cuts by doing the right thing for your citizens. Boost growth and wages with lower tax rates.

The Under-Appreciated Success of Canadian Welfare Reform

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 12:40pm

Back in 2014, I shared a report that looked at the growth of redistribution spending in developed nations.

That bad news in the story was that the welfare state was expanding at a rapid pace in the United States. The good news is that the overall fiscal burden of those programs was still comparatively low. At least compared to other industrialized countries (though depressingly high by historical standards).

I specifically noted that Switzerland deserved a lot of praise because redistribution spending was not only relatively modest, but that it also was growing at a slow rate. Yet another sign it truly is the “sensible country.”

But I also expressed admiration for Canada.

Canada deserves honorable mention. It has the second-lowest overall burden of welfare spending, and it had the sixth-best performance in controlling spending since 2000. Welfare outlays in our northern neighbor grew by 10 percent since 2000, barely one-fourth as fast as the American increase during the reckless Bush-Obama years.

But I didn’t try to explain why Canada had good numbers.

Now it’s time to rectify that oversight. I went to the University of Texas-Arlington last week to give a speech and had the pleasure of meeting Professor Todd Gabel. Originally from Canada, Professor Gabel has written extensively on Canadian welfare policy and he gave me a basic explanation of what happened in his home country.

I asked him to share some of his academic research and he sent me several publications, including two academic studies he co-authored with Nathan Berg from the University of Otago.

Here are some excerpts from their 2015 study published in the Canadian Journal of Economics. Gabel and Berg explain welfare reform in Canada and look at which policies were most successful.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Canada’s social assistance (SA) system transitioned from a relatively centralized program with federal administrative controls to a decentralized mix of programs in which provinces had considerable discretion to undertake new policies. This transition led to substantially different SA programs across provinces and years… Some provincial governments experimented aggressively with new policy tools aimed at reducing SA participation. Others did not. In different years and by different amounts, nearly all provinces reduced SA benefit levels and tightened eligibility requirements.

By the way, the SA program in Canada is basically a more generous version of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program in America, in part because there are not separate programs for food and housing.

The study includes this remarkable chart showing a significant drop in Canadian welfare dependency, along with specific data for three provinces.

The authors wanted to know why welfare dependency declined in Canada. Was is simply a result of a better macroeconomic environment? Or did specific reforms in welfare policy play a role?

…what role, if any, did new reform strategies undertaken by provinces play in observed declines in SA participation. This paper attempts to address this question by measuring disaggregated effects of new reform strategies on provinces’ SA participation rates, while controlling for changes in benefit levels, eligibility requirements, labour market conditions, GDP growth and demographic composition.

Their conclusion is that welfare reform helped reduce dependency.

…our econometric models let the data decide on a ranking of which mechanisms—reductions in benefit levels, tightened eligibility requirements, improved macro-economic conditions or adoption of new reform strategies—had the largest statistical associations with declines in participation. The data suggest that new reforms were the second most important policy reform after reductions in employment insurance benefits. … In the empirical models that disaggregate the effects of different new reform strategies, it appears that work requirements with strong sanctions for non-compliance had the largest effects. The presence of strong work requirements is associated with a 27% reduction in SA participation.

Here’s their table showing the drop in various provinces between 1994 and 2009.

The same authors unveiled a new scholarly study published in 2017 in Applied Economics, which is based on individual-level data rather than province-level data.

Here are the key portions.

A heterogeneous mix of aggressive welfare reforms took effect in different provinces and years starting in the 1990s. Welfare participation rates subsequently declined. Previous investigations of these declines focused on cuts in benefits and stricter eligibility requirements. This article focuses instead on work requirements, diversion, earning exemptions and time limits – referred to jointly as new welfare reform strategies.

Here’s their breakdown of the types of reforms in the various provinces.

And here are the results of their statistical investigation.

The empirical models suggest that new reform strategies significantly reduced the probability of welfare participation by a minimum of 13% overall…the mean person in the sample faces a reduced risk of welfare participation of 1.1–1.3 percentage points when new reform strategies are present… the participation rates of the disabled, immigrants, aboriginals and single parents, appear to have responded to the presence of new reform strategies significantly more than the average Canadian in our sample. The expected rate of welfare participation for these groups fell by two to four times the mean rate of decline associated with new reform policies.

The bottom line is that welfare reform was very beneficial for Canada. Taxpayers benefited because the fiscal burden decreased. And poor people benefited because of a transition from dependency to work.

Let’s close by looking at data measuring redistribution spending in Canada compared to other developed nations. These OECD numbers include social insurance outlays as well as social welfare outlays, so this is a broad measure of redistribution spending, not just the money being spent on welfare. But it’s nonetheless worth noting the huge improvement in Canada’s numbers starting about 1994.

Canada now has the world’s 5th-freest economy. Welfare reform is just one piece of a very good policy puzzle. There also have been relatively sensible policies involving spending restraintcorporate tax reformbank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control.

P.S. If it wasn’t so cold in Canada, that might be my escape option instead of Australia.

P.P.S. Given the mentality of the current Prime Minister, it’s unclear whether Canada will remain an economic success story.

Throwing Good Money after Bad Doesn’t Improve Government Schools

Mon, 12/11/2017 - 12:37pm

Whenever I discuss education policy with one of my leftist friends, it usually follows the same script.

They’ll ask whether I want good education for kids. I’ll say yes. They’ll then say we should devote more money to government schools.

I then show them this powerful chart and point out that we’ve been following their approach for 40-plus years and that it hasn’t worked.

None of them has ever had an effective or coherent response.

I then point out that the United States spends far more than other developed nations, on a per-pupil basis. Yet our national test scores are dismal compared to other developed nations.

Once again, none of them has ever had an effective or coherent response.

The simple reality is that giving more money to government schools is a foolish gesture.

Today, we’re going to look at some additional evidence.

Research from the World Bank pours cold water on the notion that more money for teachers leads to better outcomes for students.

…countries sometimes implement large increases in public-sector salaries to attract higher-quality applicants to government jobs and to better motivate existing employees. …understanding the extent to which unconditional pay increases make incumbent public-sector workers more motivated and productive is a key consideration in evaluating the cost effectiveness of such salary increases. …In this paper, we provide experimental evidence on the impact of a large unconditional salary increase on the effort and productivity of incumbent public employees. Our study was conducted in the context of a policy change in Indonesia that permanently doubled the base pay of eligible civil-service teachers… The reform moved teacher salaries from the 50th to the 90th percentile of the college-graduate salary distribution. Civil-service teachers in Indonesia also enjoy generous benefits and high job security, and quit rates were very low even before the pay increase. Thus, the teachers in our study are typical of public-sector employees in many low- and middle-income countries, who hold highly coveted jobs and enjoy a significant wage premium relative to their private-sector counterparts.

So what were the results of this experiment? The good news, as you might expect, is that teachers were quite happy.

The experiment significantly improved measures of teacher welfare: At the end of two and three years of the experiment, teachers in treated schools had higher income, were more likely to be satisfied with their income, and were less likely to report financial stress.

But for those of us who actually want better education for children, the results were not very satisfactory.

…despite this improvement in incumbent teachers’ pay, satisfaction, …the policy did not improve either their effort or student learning. Teachers in treated schools did not score better on tests of teacher subject knowledge, and we find no consistent pattern of impact on self-reported measures of teacher attendance. Most importantly, we find no difference in student test scores in language, mathematics, or science across treatment and control schools. …Finally, we use the school-level random assignment as an instrumental variable for being taught by a certified teacher in a given year, and find no improvement in student test scores from being taught by a certified teacher (relative to students in control schools taught by similar “target” teachers). These effects are also precisely estimated…our results are consistent with other studies finding no correlation between teacher salaries in the public sector and their teaching effectiveness (Muralidharan and Sundararaman 2011, Bau and Das 2017), and with studies finding that contract teachers who are paid much lower salaries than civil-service teachers are no less effective (Muralidharan and Sundararaman 2013, Duflo, Dupas, and Kremer 2015, Bau and Das 2017).

Indonesia is not similar to the United States, so some people will want to dismiss these finding.

But the authors note that U.S.-focused studies have reached the same conclusion.

Our results are consistent with prior studies finding no correlation between in creases in teacher pay and improved student performance in the US (Hanushek 1986; Betts 1995; Grogger 1996).

If giving teachers more money doesn’t work, is it possible that spending more money on facilities will help?

Let’s look at another academic study, published in the Journal of Public Economics, for some insight. Here’s the approach used by the scholars.

In this paper we provide the most comprehensive assessment of achievement effects from school facility investments initiated and financed by local school districts. The first part of the analysis examines the impact of nearly 1400 capital campaigns initiated by 748 school districts in the state of Texas over a 14-year period. …We examine the impact of capital campaigns on student outcomes using information on all tested students in the state over this time period, which includes all 3rd through 8th graders and 10th or 11th graders that take the state’s high school exit exam.

And here are the very disappointing results.

…the second part of the study directly measures the effect of capital investment on students actually exposed to it by analyzing more than 1300 major campus renovations. Controls for lagged individual test scores permit us to address changes in student composition resulting from capital investment, analogous to “value-added” models of teacher effectiveness. With or without this adjustment, we find no evidence of achievement effects of major campus renovations, even for renovations that appear to have generated large improvements in school facility conditions. Our estimates are sufficiently precise such that we can rule out positive effects larger than about 0.02 for math and 0.01 for reading for the first four years following a campus renovation.

By the way, I’m not arguing that pay and facilities are irrelevant. I think the takeaway from these studies is that more money doesn’t help when the underlying structure of the education system is faulty. So long as we have a centralized monopoly, more money isn’t going to help.

Unfortunately, American politicians are part of the problem.

Under President George W. Bush, the federal government spent more money on education and grabbed more control of the sector as part of the so-called No Child Left Behind initiative. That didn’t yield good results.

Under President Barack Obama, the same thing happened. Thanks to Common Core, the federal government spent more money on education and grabbed more control of the sector. That didn’t yield good results.

Indeed, a report last year for the National Center for Policy Analysis notes the dismal impact of the federal government.

Over the years, federal funding of primary and secondary education has increased, while students’ academic performance has flatlined. For instance, the high school reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress show that student performance has remained flat for the past 20 years… education reform initiatives by several administrations produced, at best, minimal improvements in student performance at a high price to taxpayers. Given its track record, the federal government should get out of the education business. Federal education reforms have failed to achieve their goals and failed to have a positive impact on education performance.

Amen. The Department of Education in Washington should be eliminated. It’s part of the problem.

Let’s close with a Reason video that looks at some absurd examples of how taxpayer money is wasted by the government school monopoly.

Everything You Need to Know about Tax Reform and the Mortgage Interest Deduction

Sun, 12/10/2017 - 12:23pm

Both the House and Senate have approved reasonably good tax reform plans.

Lawmakers are now in a “conference committee” to iron out the differences between the two bills so that a consensus package can be a approved and sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

Sounds like we’re on the verge of getting a less-destructive tax system, right?

I hope so, but there are still some major hurdles. The conference committee has a difficult task. They’re only allowed $1.5 trillion in tax relief in the short run and have to produce a bill that is “revenue neutral” in the long run. That won’t be easy in an environment where interest groups are putting heavy pressure on lawmakers.

I joked that doing tax reform with these restrictions is like trying to fit an NFL lineman in Pee Wee Herman’s clothes. But the serious point is that genuine tax reform requires some revenue-raising provisions to offset the parts of the bill that reduce revenue.

Needless to say, the right way of doing this is by going after economically harmful tax preferences. I’ve already written (over and over and over again) that the deduction for state and local taxes should be on the chopping block. To their credit, lawmakers are curtailing that loophole.

Today, I want to make the case that housing preferences in the tax code also should be targeted. I’m not naive enough to think politicians are suddenly going to decide to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. But the bills – especially the House version – slightly curtail preferences for housing and it would be nice if they went a bit further.

That would free up more revenue for pro-growth tax cuts and also be smart policy. Let’s look at what some expert voices, starting with market-oriented people.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explains the provisions in the House bill for the Wall Street Journal.

Tax reform could make housing more affordable. Done correctly, it could increase the supply of homes by reducing federal tax subsidies for homeownership. The House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act furthers this aim in several ways—by raising the standard deduction, capping new loans qualifying for the mortgage-interest deduction at $500,000, eliminating the deduction on loans for second homes and the deduction on cashing out home equity, and capping the property-tax deduction at $10,000.

The Senate bill raises the standard deduction as well, but otherwise basically gives housing a pass. In the conference committee, Senators should agree to the House approach. Pinto explains that homeownership will be higher with less “help” from Washington.

…the House tax bill would create about 870,000 additional available units over 10 years. This represents a boost of 14% (the current build rate will yield about 6.2 million units over 10 years). Cutting homeowner subsidies out of the tax code provides other important benefits. The percentage of mortgage holders who itemize would drop from about 60% to 12%. This would free nearly half of mortgaged homeowners from a massive federal tax incentive hanging over their financial decisions, thereby greatly reducing the market-distorting impact produced by the interest deduction. …Lower prices due to loss of subsidies will ultimately allow more low-wealth Americans to become homeowners, since less cash will be needed to close a purchase. Rents will remain roughly constant as house prices decline, thus reducing the cost of homeownership compared with renting—another positive outcome. …It is time to put the interests of taxpayers and aspiring homeowners ahead of the interests of the housing lobby. Tax reform—especially if the final bill fully implements the House’s subsidy cuts—will improve the housing market and make homeownership more accessible to all.

Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia (home of the national championship-bound Bulldogs, I can’t resist pointing out) discusses the issue in Forbes.

About 64% of Americans own a house. Roughly two-thirds of those homeowners have a mortgage. Only 6% of all mortgages are for $500,000 or more. Put all those numbers together and you will find that home builders and realtors think their world is ending over policy changes to the mortgage interest deduction that impact only about 2.5% of American households. Plus, existing mortgages are grandfathered in, so anyone who purchased a home expecting the deduction will continue to enjoy it. …doubling the standard deduction means fewer people will itemize, meaning fewer will use the mortgage interest deduction. Importantly, those households that stop itemizing are doing so because the newly enlarged standard deduction provides them a lower tax burden. Households that have more after-tax income have more money to spend on houses, mortgage payments, and everything else in the economy. Housing is not being made unaffordable by the proposed tax reform since the vast majority of Americans will receive a moderate tax cut under the plan. Home builders and realtors seem concerned that a few rich Americans might not buy as expensive houses without as big a tax break, even though they will have more disposable income. …Housing depends much more on disposable income, the health of the job market, and Americans’ confidence in the economic future than it does on tax breaks. Don’t listen to the real estate industry; they will be just fine if the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passes.

George Will is not a fan of housing preferences in the tax code.

…only around 30 percent of taxpayers itemize their deductions. …not even half of all homeowners use the deduction. …the unpleasantness of 2008 demonstrated the downside of encouraging too much homeownership. Furthermore, the deduction might actually suppress homeownership by being priced into rising housing costs. Besides, Australia, Canada and Britain, which have no mortgage interest deductions, have homeownership rates comparable to that of the United States. …Homeownership is…not an investment because “it does not improve the productive capacity of the economy.” Indeed, the more money that flows into housing, the less flows into stocks, bonds or banks.

Amen. We should have learned from 2008 that it’s bad news for government to muck around in housing.

Yet some politicians can’t resist because of their desire to buy votes.

Kevin Williamson of National Review adds his two cents.

It’s time for…a proposal to reduce or eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction, a tax subsidy that makes having a big mortgage on an expensive house relatively attractive to affluent households… Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing…significant tax increases on the rich. …Slate economics editor Jordan Weissmann, who is not exactly Grover Norquist on the question of taxes, describes the mortgage-interest deduction as “an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. It distorts the housing market in favor of higher prices, which is great if you are old and rich and own a house or three like Bernie Sanders but stinks if you are young and strapped and looking to buy a house. It encourages buyers to take on more debt at higher interest rates than they probably would without the deduction, and almost all of the benefits go to well-off households in the top income quintile. It is the classic example of upper-class welfare. …mortgage subsidies are not randomly distributed. The mortgage-interest deduction is much more important to rich people in San Francisco, where the median home price exceeds $1 million, than it is to middle-class people in Tulsa, where the median home price is about $110,000. …The best course of action would be to eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction entirely over a relatively short period of time, say five years. …it is difficult to make a compelling case that subsidizing Lena Dunham’s mortgage on her $5 million Brooklyn apartment (or helping out whoever took that $4.2 million Trump apartment off Keith Olbermann’s hands) needs to be a top national policy priority.

Writing for the City Journal, Howard Husock explains why the deduction is bad policy.

…the deduction should be pruned or eliminated—not just because it is inequitable but also because it distorts the housing market. Currently, a taxpayer can deduct interest on a mortgage up to $1.1 million—substantially more than the median U.S. home value ($203,000). Not surprisingly, the Government Accountability Office has found that higher-income households are generally more likely to use the mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions. In 2008, the most recent tax year for which data are available, taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of $100,000 or more “accounted for 13 percent of all returns but claimed nearly half (47 percent) of all mortgage interest and property tax deductions.” …The core problem with the MID, though, lies in how it affects housing markets. Inevitably, any policy that provides a tax reduction for those who buy or own homes increases the price of housing, through the implicit promise that the tax code will lower the effective house payments. MID supporters say that it encourages homeownership, but the Urban Institute finds that it mostly “rewards affluent households who would have bought homes anyway,” …Not surprisingly, the homebuilders lobby—among the hardiest of Washington swamp creatures—is fighting the proposal. …Reducing tax deductions that put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage should not be impeded by a special-interest group that has achieved its purported social goal—homeownership—in the U.S. at a rate (64 percent) that lags that of Canada (67 percent), where mortgage interest is not deductible.

Even folks on the left realize that housing preferences are bad policy.

Here are some excerpts from a Slate column.

It also must be said that the mortgage interest deduction is an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed. Currently, it’s an estimated $80 billion-plus subsidy that disproportionately helps upper-middle-class and wealthy households—according to the Tax Policy Center, 72 percent of its benefits go to the highest-earning 20 percent of taxpayers. This is to be expected, since wealthier people can buy larger houses and take out bigger mortgages. It also explains much of its political invulnerability; people who earn low- to mid-six-figures vote and very much treasure their slice of the welfare state that’s submerged in our tax code. But as a result, the deduction mostly encourages people who could have afforded homes anyway to buy bigger. Research has shown it does little if anything to expand homeownership overall, and may actually discourage it among younger American by driving up prices.

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic points out that housing preferences are a reverse from of class warfare.

Although about two-thirds of American households own a home, only one-quarter of them claim the deduction…households earning more than $100,000 receive almost 90 percent of the benefits. …it makes it harder for poor renters to join the class of homeowners. …Desmond writes, “a 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way.”

Scholars also find he deduction is not good policy.

just-released academic study confirms that the right kind of tax reform will be very good for society, the economy, and homeownership.

The model demonstrates that repealing the regressive mortgage interest deduction decreases housing consumption by the wealthy, increases aggregate homeownership, improves overall welfare, and leads to a decline in aggregate mortgage debt. The mechanisms behind these results are intuitive. When both house prices and rents are allowed to adjust, the repeal of the mortgage interest deduction decreases house prices because, ceteris paribus, the after-tax cost of occupying a square foot of housing has risen. Reduced house prices allow low wealth, credit-constrained households to become homeowners because the minimum down payment required to purchase a house falls. At the same time, the elimination of the tax favored status of mortgages, acting in concert with the fall in equilibrium house prices, causes unconstrained households to reduce their mortgage debt. Because rents remain roughly constant as house prices decline, homeownership becomes cheaper relative to renting, which further re-enforces the positive effect of eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on homeownership. Importantly, the expected lifetime welfare of a newborn household rises because the tax reform shifts housing consumption from high income households (the main beneficiaries of the tax subsidy in its current form) to lower income families for whom the additional shelter consumption is relatively more valuable.

Now let’s look at experts who have strong arguments against the deduction, but who also comment on the distasteful role of special interests.

Matt Mitchell and Tad DeHaven, in a column for U.S. News & World Report, point out that the only real beneficiary of the deduction are interest groups (I call them swamp creatures) that want homeowners to go into debt in order to spend more money.

Motivated in part by a need to find revenue offsets for its broader tax cut proposal, the House has proposed to reduce the amount of mortgage debt taxpayers may deduct interest on from $1.1 million to $500,000; the Senate version would slightly reduce it to $1 million. But even these modest reforms have raised the ire of Big Housing. Indeed, even if both chambers had proposed to leave the mortgage interest deduction alone, this powerful lobby would still be upset that Congressional Republicans intend to raise the standard deduction: Doing so would cause fewer taxpayers to itemize, which means fewer people would claim the deduction. … the mortgage interest tax deduction…benefits wealthier Americans and the housing lobby at the expense of the majority of taxpayers, who receive no benefit…even the benefit for wealthier taxpayers is illusory “because the tax gains to homeowners are largely offset by increases in home prices.” That leaves the powerful housing lobby – represented most prominently by the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Homebuilders – as the real beneficiary. …why, then, has Big Housing fought so hard to keep the mortgage interest deduction? The answer is that although the deduction doesn’t affect home ownership, it does incentivize people to purchase more expensive homes. That translates into more money for realtors and home builders. And because the deduction is taken against the interest payment and not the down payment, it encourages home buyers to put more of the purchase on credit. So in reality, the deduction encourages home-borrowship, not homeownership. Did we mention that the Mortgage Bankers Association is also a prominent defender of the mortgage interest deduction?

Since we’re on the topic of swamp creatures, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner explains that housing preferences are bad for families and good for interest groups.

That means a married couple who rents (or owns a modest house, say, less than $225,000) making $70,000 would probably see their federal income taxes fall by 25 percent. Some lower-income families — including homeowners — would have their federal income tax liability wiped out. Middle-class families who currently itemize their deductions (because they spend more $12,600 a year on mortgage interest and charitable giving) would have their taxes go down, and their tax-filing simplified. …Will this lower home prices? Probably yes, because the value of this deduction gets priced into homes. That is, this deduction wasn’t really helping homeowners anyway. Who was the deduction helping? Mortgage lenders and homebuilders mostly, also realtors. These are the special interests who created and who fight tirelessly to save this deduction. Removing an economic distortion that has inflated home prices will create some losers, sure, but that doesn’t make it bad. Inflated home prices have stultified mobility, delayed family formation, increased household debt, and otherwise tied up families’ assets.

Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation also criticizes the interest groups defending special preferences.

One of the obstacles to fundamental tax reform has always been that there is an entrenched constituency that benefits in some way from every provision in the tax code, and that can be counted on to noisily oppose any change to it. These constituencies are often not taxpayers themselves but business interests that have built a business on a particular tax provision. An obvious example is the residential mortgage interest deduction. …current tax reform plans would increase the standard deduction available to taxpayers who choose not to itemize their deductions. In other words, the real estate industry has a targeted tax preference that is only available to home owners through the itemized deduction, and they don’t want to see that tax preference diluted by a higher standard deduction available to everyone else. This is an obnoxious argument for the real estate industry to be making. Giving a higher standard deduction to those who do not itemize doesn’t take anything away from taxpayers who do, and it would simplify tax filing for many taxpayers because it would make the standard deduction more attractive. Apparently the real estate industry doesn’t want Americans to get a tax break unless they agree to go into massive debt to buy a house.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the odious role of interest groups.

…doubling the standard deduction…would make the first $24,000 of income for a married couple tax-free. What’s not to like? Plenty, says the housing lobby. The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and the National Association of Realtors each bashed the larger standard deduction on grounds that it would make the tax subsidy to their industries less appealing. …a reminder of how misguided the mortgage-interest deduction is. For starters, it distorts the allocation of capital by favoring housing, a form of consumption, over investments that might be more productive and raise everyone’s living standards. The deduction also disproportionately benefits the affluent, who buy more expensive homes with bigger mortgages. A 2013 Congressional Budget Office study found that 75% of the benefit of the mortgage-interest deduction goes to the top 20% of income earners. Two of three American tax filers don’t even itemize, which means they can’t deduct mortgage interest even if they have it. It’s also not clear the mortgage deduction is as critical to home ownership as advocates contend. Canada and Britain have similar rates of home ownership as the U.S. (nearly two thirds of their citizens) without a mortgage-interest deduction. …Republicans should reconsider giving housing a pass. For example, the GOP could limit the amount of mortgage-interest that could be deducted, or limit the deduction to borrowing below, say, $250,000. This would make the tax benefit less tilted to the affluent, and it would also provide more revenue for lower tax rates.

Since the WSJ editorial mentions that Canada has very high homeownership without any loopholes, let’s close today’s column by reviewing some additional global evidence.

In a chapter for a book on tax reform, Bill Gale of Brookings points out that the U.K. dramatically curtailed the tax benefit of housing without any adverse impact on homeownership.

Great Britain conducted a fascinating experiment showing both the political and economic viability of reducing mortgage subsidies.’ When tax subsidies for most forms of borrowing were eliminated in 1974-1975, subsidies for interest on the principal primary residence were retained, subject to a loan limit of £25,000. No subsidies were provided on second homes. The limit was raised to £30,000 in 1983-1984 and has stayed fixed since. …More recently, the subsidy has been provided only up to a fixed rate, set at 25 percent and then reduced to 15 percent for new loans in 1998. The British experience raises several interesting possibilities. …because the £30,000 limit is well below the average new mortgage loan, mortgage subsidies provide no marginal incentive for most taxpayers. …the decline in the value of the mortgage interest subsidy has been gradual, but huge. From 1974 to 1996, the value-thought of as the interest rate times the rate at which the subsidy is taken times the real loan limit-fell by about 90 percent. Nevertheless, finding much of an effect of the policies on the housing sector is difficult. From 1974 to 1994, homeownership rates, the ratio of mortgage debt to GDP, the ratio of mortgage debt to the housing stock, and the ratio of housing to fixed capital rose faster in the United Kingdom than in the United States. …the significant reduction in mortgage subsidies when homeownership rates were rising (by thirteen percentage points from 1974 to 1994) may make the events even more remarkable from a political perspective. The British experience and cross-country evidence that the presence of a deduction for mortgage interest does not greatly influence homeownership rates suggest that the value of subsidies for owner-occupied housing could be reduced.

Charles Hughes of the Manhattan Institute writes about the deduction’s downsides, but the part of his article that I want to highlight is the description of how Denmark curtailed housing preferences with no adverse consequences.

Many areas in the tax code introduce substantial distortions that are ripe for reform. One area is the mortgage interest deduction (MID), which allows claimants to deduct mortgage interest on their primary or secondary residences, up to a certain threshold. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the deduction for mortgage interest will reduce revenue by $72.4 billion this year, and by $234 billion through 2020, making it one of the most expensive tax expenditures in the tax code. Even at this magnitude, only about a quarter of tax filers claim the deduction… A new working paper analyzing the effects of the mortgage interest deduction in Denmark finds that it has no effect on homeownership rates in the long run, and it distorts decision-making about the size and price of which homes to buy. …the economists found no short- or long-run effects on home ownership.

Here’s a chart from that study. As you can see, dramatically curtailing the value of the deduction for mortgage interest did not have any noticeable impact on homeownership.

P.S. If you like the gory details of tax policy, I explained in 2012 that the problem with the tax code and housing isn’t the mortgage interest deduction, per se, but rather the fact that business investment doesn’t get the same treatment as residential real estate.

P.P.S. While lawmakers are debating whether to slightly limit preferences for housing, I should point out that there are two other huge loopholes – the municipal bond interest exemption and the healthcare exclusion – that basically were left untouched. Hopefully, they will be on the chopping block for the next installment of tax reform.

100 Years of Communism, 100 Million Deaths, and the Morally Bankrupt Death Cult of Che Guevara

Sat, 12/09/2017 - 12:29pm

It’s time for the final installment of my series commemorating the evil impact of 100 years of communism.

Today we’re going to wrap up the series with a look at Che Guevera and contemplate how a mass-murdering racist and homophobe became a cultural icon.

Jay Nordlinger looks at the legacy of Guevera in a column for National Review.

Danilo Maldonado Machado, a.k.a. El Sexto, the Cuban street artist and human-rights activist, who is in and out of prison. I interviewed him at the Oslo Freedom Forum. …At the end of our interview, I asked him a standard question: “What do you wish people could know?” And you know what he said? You know what were the first words out of his mouth? “Che Guevara was a murderer.  He wasn’t a hero.” …“Maldonado says he can excuse Cubans who wear Che shirts: They have been propagandized all their lives. He has a much harder time excusing men and women from free societies.”

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan has a good summary of Guevera’s monstrous life.

Che Guevara was definitely evil, almost certainly a moron, and possibly also a psychopath. …Acting as Castro’s Treasury Secretary, Guevara ignored the failures and associated moral hardships his collectivist policies imposed. …Guevara may have been a psychopath. …for ideological zealots like Guevara, purifying the Earth of non-believers is an act of the highest moral order. In Guevara’s blood lust, we see his mental union with the propaganda offerings of ISIS… Guevara was also intellectually defective to the point of being a moron. …Guevara’s fervent obstinance planted the roots of far-left delusion that prevail today. It doesn’t matter that every population that tries out capitalism…does better than under communism. …He might have murdered hundreds of political prisoners…the true metaphor of Guevara’s cigar smoking face is not one of moral courage, insurgent glory, and resolute intellect, but of a useful idiot for totalitarian propaganda.

Even the establishment understands that there’s something wrong about Che idolatry, as illustrated by this Economist column.

In death Che, with his flowing hair and beret, has become one of the world’s favourite revolutionary icons. His fans span the globe. …The ascetic, asthmatic Argentine doctor first fought alongside Fidel Castro in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. After the Cuban revolution had imposed communism on the island, Guevara left to try to “liberate” first Congo and then Bolivia. Those who idolise Che do so because they see him as an idealist who laid down his life for a cause. An aura of Christian sacrifice surrounds him. …In Guevara’s view, equality was to be achieved by levelling down. As minister of industries in Cuba, he wanted to expropriate every farm and shop. …the cost of miserable wages, the denial of opportunity and the brutal suppression of dissent. In Venezuela’s pastiche of the Cuban revolution, installed by the late Hugo Chávez, another Che fan, the masses have been impoverished while insiders have become fabulously and corruptly rich. …Not only does democracy offer the best hope of progress for the masses, it also protects the left against its own mistakes. It is long past time to bury Che and find a better icon.

Let’s go back in time and look at excerpts from a 2004 Slate column.

The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. …Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s “labor camp” system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che’s imagination. … “Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become …”— and so on. …The present-day cult of Che—the T-shirts, the bars, the posters—has succeeded in obscuring this dreadful reality. …Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version… I wonder if people who stand up to cheer a hagiography of Che Guevara…will ever give a damn about the oppressed people of Cuba—will ever lift a finger on behalf of the Cuban liberals and dissidents.

And here’s a grim body count from the Cuba Archive.

Ernesto Guevara, better known as “Che,” is the ultimate poster boy of “revolutionary chic,” a quintessential icon of mass culture. …the flesh and blood “Che” exhibited a deep contempt for the sanctity of human life. He knew from his communist self-education that terror would be a necessary component of revolutionary order. …from day one of the new revolutionary government, January 1, 1959, he and the Castro brothers set out to take control in Cuba by sheer terror through mass killings. …From January 1 to 3, 1959, Che executed, or left orders to execute, 25 people in Santa Clara. On January 3, Fidel Castro appointed him commander of La Cabaña prison in Havana and supreme judge of the revolutionary tribunals. In the few months Che was in charge of La Cabaña (from January 4 to November 26, 1959), 73 people are believed to have been executed without basic legal guarantees; the vast majority was killed immediately after kangaroo summary trials that often lasted minutes and presented no evidence of the alleged crimes of the accused. …Che spoke frankly to the international community about the revolutionary government’s killings in Cuba. At the United Nations in New York on December 11, 1964, he made his famous statement: “”Fusilamientos” (executions by firing squad), yes, we have executed, we execute, and will continue executing while necessary.”

Here’s some more background on Guevara from Politifact, including his murder of fellow Cubans and his racist attitude.

Ernesto “Ché” Guevara was a Latin American guerrilla leader and Marxist revolutionary, and a major figure in the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s. Although hailed in some circles as a legendary icon of rebellion, the Argentine-born doctor is also reviled by many Cubans for ruthlessly ordering the execution of more than 150 prisoners in Cuba without a fair trial. …But was he a racist? …The most compelling evidence was from The Motorcycle Diaries, a book based on diaries he kept while traveling through Latin America in the early 1950s. ” …their different ways of approaching life separate them completely: The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations.”

This story, by the way, attempts to exonerate Guevara even though it acknowledges his racist pedigree.

Guevara’s words in The Motorcycle Diaries were highly critical of the blacks he came across in that Caracas neighborhood, and he placed them beneath Europeans. The experts we consulted said the remarks are real and would not have been unusual coming from a 24-year-old from Argentina at the time. …We rate this claim Mostly False.

So he was racist, but it’s “Mostly False” to say he was racist because he was a product of his times.

Does anyone think Politifact would say that slaveowners in the 1840s weren’t really racist because they were products of their times? Likewise, who thinks defenders of the Jim Crow laws in the 1960s would get a free pass since they were products of their times?

For some bizarre reason, leftists (and lots of vacuous college kids and brainless celebrities) want to excuse – or even justify – Guevara’s unsavory life.

Indeed, notwithstanding a record of cruelty and hate, Che Guevara has a big contingent of fanboys.

Such as the government of Ireland.

An Post have issued a one euro stamp featuring the face of Che Guevara, a leading figure in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. The stamp, which features a famous image of Guevara by Dublin artist Jim Fitzpatrick, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the revolutionary’s death on October 9, 1967. …Designed by Red&Grey, the stamp is based on Mr Fitzpatrick’s artwork, which appears on t-shirts, posters, badges and clothing worldwide and is now rated among the world’s top 10 most iconic images.

I’m assuming Ireland’s vacuous president somehow played a role in the decision to honor Guevera.

In any event, I can’t wait to see the new stamps for Hitler, Mao, and Stalin that the Irish postal service doubtlessly is preparing.

The United Nations also is part of the Che death cult.

With an impeccable instinct for venerating murderous thugs, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has now added to its Memory of the World Register the writings of Cuba’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara. That means that the documents generated by Che during his bloody career will now be treated as historical treasures, protected and cared for with the help of UNESCO. What’s next? The teachings of Stalin and Pol Pot? …Che’s works were nominated for UNESCO’s special attentions by Cuba and Bolivia, and to be added to the UNESCO Register the nomination had to be endorsed by UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova. You might suppose that as a former Bulgarian government functionary, from the days when Bulgaria orbited the Soviet Union, Bokova would be aware of the horrors behind Che’s radical “cool.” But Bokova appears to suffer from a longstanding infatuation with Cuba’s repressive regime. …one might wish for a UN cultural organization endowed with at least some hint of a moral compass.

Let’s look at a couple of videos.

We’ll start with Johan Norberg’s succinct summary of Guevara.

Reason has a video about the Che fetish, with a special focus on Hollywood’s moral bankruptcy.

Let’s close on an uplifting note.

Some people are waking up on the issue, as noted in a report from the Economist.

Che Guevara was born in Rosario, then Argentina’s second-largest city… A red banner marks the posh apartment block where he was born. A four-metre-high (13-foot) bronze statue stands in Che Guevara Square. The city council finances CELChe, a centre devoted to the study of his life, and celebrates “Che week” around his birthday in June. …Not everyone in Rosario thinks the bereted revolutionary…deserves such reverence. Fundación Bases, a liberal think-tank based in the city, has launched a petition to persuade the city council to remove the monuments. The martyr was himself a killer, says Franco Martín López, the institute’s director. Guevara was second-in-command to Fidel Castro, whose Cuban revolution killed more than 10,000 people. …Under the motto “a murderer doesn’t deserve state tributes”, Mr López’s foundation has produced videos to educate Argentines, and rosarinos in particular. One shows a clip of Guevara promising to “continue the firing squads for as long as necessary” in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 1964. In another, a narrator reads out the accusatory suicide note of Reinaldo Arenas, a gay novelist who died in 1990 after suffering decades of persecution by Cuba’s government. …Norberto Galiotti, the cigar-smoking secretary of Rosario’s Communist Party, …suspects liberals are envious of Che’s posthumous charisma. “You don’t see many kids walking around with Margaret Thatcher T-shirts,” he observes.

I rarely agree with communists, but it is sad that kids are more likely to idolize Guevara than a great leader like Margaret Thatcher.

By the way, my disdain for Che and the Cuban dictatorship does not mean I support a trade embargo by the United States.

Such a policy may have been appropriate when the Soviet Union still existed and was using Cuba as a proxy regime. But that’s no longer the case.

Yes, the current regime in Cuba is still deplorable. It impoverishes and oppresses its own people. But that description applies to a lot of nations that have normal economic relations with the United States. If we allow trade and travel with China, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, the same should be true for Cuba.

The bottom line is that we can have economic relations with unsavory nations. Even with nations that produce evil people like Che Guevara.

P.S. Returning to the topic of Che Guevara fanboys, don’t forget the cynical actions of Mercedes-Benz. But at least the company apologized.

P.P.S. If you want to understand the economic impact of communism, consider the astounding fact that Cuba and Hong Kong had similar living standards in the late 1950s.

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The Policy Solution to the World’s Demographic Problem

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 12:48pm

wrote yesterday about “the world’s demographic problem,” citing a new study about the fiscal implications of aging populations. The report was produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is not my favorite international bureaucracy when they make policy recommendations, but I’ll be the first to admit that the bureaucrats produce some useful statistics and interesting reports.

To be succinct, the basic message of the study is that developed nations (the U.S.EuropeAsia, etc) face a demographic nightmare of increased longevity and falling birthrates.

It’s good that people are living longer, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with people choosing to have fewer kids. But since most governments maintain tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, the OECD report basically warns that those demographic changes have some very grim fiscal implications. In other words, the world’s demographic shift is actually a policy problem.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s a policy solution.

The aforementioned OECD study (which can be accessed here) is a survey of how retirement income is provided in key nations. So in addition to grim information about fiscally unstable government-run retirement systems we looked at yesterday, the report also has data about the nations that rely – at least to some degree – on private savings.

Let’s start with this helpful flowchart in the report. It illustrates that there are three approaches for the provision of retirement income. The first tier is government-run programs such as the U.S. Social Security system and the third tier is voluntary savings such as IRAs and 401(k)s in America.

For today’s discussion, let’s focus on the second tier. These are the systems that are “funded” with mandatory savings.

And I highlighted (in green) the two private options. In a “defined contribution” system, retirement income is determined by how much is saved and how well it is invested. Workers accumulate a big nest egg and then choose how to spend the money when retired. In a “defined benefit” system, workers are promised a pre-determined level of retirement income and the managers of their pension funds are expected to ensure that enough money will be available.

Yes, public options based on real savings do exist. And they presumably are better than the pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer schemes found in the first tier. But it’s also the case that these systems (such as pension funds for state and local bureaucrats) generally don’t work very well.

So now let’s look at another table from the OECD report. It shows nations that have some degree of mandatory private retirement savings, either defined contribution (highlighted in red) or defined benefit (highlighted in yellow). As you can see, there actually are a lot of “privatized” systems.

I’ve actually written about many of these systems, especially the ones in Australia and Chile.

And I have very recent columns on the Dutch and Swiss systems.

A common theme in these columns is that government-run systems are very risky because workers are at the mercy of politicians, who are great at making extravagant promises. But huge unfunded liabilities show that they’re not very good at delivering on those promises.

Nations with funded systems, by contrast, accumulate private savings. That’s not only good for workers, but it’s very beneficial for national economies.

This table from the OECD report shows that Americans and Canadians have managed to save a lot of money, but all of the other nations with pension assets of more than 100 percent of GDP have mandatory funded systems.

When I talk about how the United States would benefit by moving to a private retirement system, people sometimes say it sounds too good to be true.

That’s obviously not the case since other nations have very successful private systems. But there is a catch, as I acknowledged in 2015.

…a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades.

The appropriate analogy is that shifting to private retirement accounts for younger workers (while protecting current retirees and older workers) would be like refinancing a mortgage. The short-run costs might be higher, but that temporary burden is overwhelmed by the long-run savings. That’s a good deal, at least if the goal is fiscal stability and secure retirement.

Or we can stay with the current approach and become another Greece.

P.S. Social Security reform is especially beneficial for blacks and other minorities.

P.P.S. There is some risk with personal retirement accounts. But I’m not talking about the implications of a falling stock market crash (even a horrible crash would be offset by decades of compounding earnings). Instead, I’m referring to the possibility that future politicians might simply confiscate the money.

The World’s Demographic Problem

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 12:16pm

I gave a speech last night at the University of Texas Arlington on the topic of “Is America turning into Greece? How the growth of government and debt risk creating a dismal future for young Americans.”

Not a very succinct title, I realize, but I wanted to warn students that they are the ones who will suffer if today’s politicians fail to enact genuine entitlement reform. And since I told them I wasn’t expecting reform with Trump in the White House, my message was rather gloomy.

My only good news is that I told students that nations such as ItalyJapan, and France likely would suffer fiscal crises before the you-know-what hit the fan in America.

Though it would have been better if my speech was today. I could have cited this Robert Samuelson column from the Washington Post.

No one can say we weren’t warned. For years, scholars of all shapes and sizes — demographers, economists, political scientists — have cautioned that the populations of most advanced countries are gradually getting older, with dramatic consequences for economics and politics. But we haven’t taken heed by preparing for an unavoidable future. The “we” refers not just to the United States but to virtually all advanced societies. In fact, America’s aging, though substantial, is relatively modest compared with that of many European countries and Japan. …The problem is simple. Low birth rates and increasing life expectancies result in aging populations. Since 1970, average life expectancy at age 60 in OECD countries has risen from 18 years to 23.4 years; by 2050, it’s forecast to increase to 27.9 years — that is, to nearly 90. The costs of Social Security and pensions will explode. …The implication: Unless retirement ages are raised sharply or benefits are cut deeply, more and more of the income of the working-age population will be siphoned off through higher taxes or cuts in other government spending to support retirees.

Here’s a table from the article that shows the radical erosion in the age-dependency ratio for selected nations. To give you an idea what the numbers mean, a ratio of 33 (Greece today) means that each worker is supporting one-third of a retiree while a ratio of 73 (Greece in 2050) means that each worker is supporting three-fourths of a retiree.

The Greek numbers are grim, of course, and Italy and Japan are also in very bad shape.

And it’s worth noting that the ratio in China will rapidly deteriorate.

An article in New Scientist makes a similar observation about dramatic demographic change.

Could the population bomb be about to go off in the most unexpected way? Rather than a Malthusian meltdown, could we instead be on the verge of a demographic implosion? To find out how and why, go to Japan, where a recent survey found that people are giving up on sex. Despite a life expectancy of 85 and rising, the number of Japanese is falling thanks to a fertility rate of just 1.4 children per woman… Half the world’s nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of just over two children per woman. Countries across Europe and the Far East are teetering on a demographic cliff, with rates below 1.5. On recent trends, Germany and Italy could see their populations halve within the next 60 years.

The most sobering information is contained in a new report from my “friends” at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I’m definitely not a fan of the OECD’s policy work, but it does a good job of collecting apples-to-apples data.

Let’s start with the OECD’s calculations of how the old-age dependency ratio will change in various nations.

It’s not good to have a very tall black line in Figure 1.1, so we can confirm the bad news about Italy, Greece, and Japan. But note that Spain, Portugal, and South Korea also face a grim future. Simply stated, tomorrow’s workers will face an enormous burden.

There are two reasons for these grim numbers.

First, we’re living longer. That’s good news for us, but it’s bad news for the sustainability of tax-and-transfer entitlement programs (i.e., this partially explains why Social Security in the U.S. has a $44 trillion shortfall).

This chart shows that increasing longevity is a big reason why both men and women are spending more years in retirement (though there’s a glimmer of good news since the data shows that we’re no longer retiring at ever-younger ages).

In addition to living longer, we’re also having fewer kids.

This is a big deal because more babies today mean more future taxpayers.

But you can see from this table that birthrates have declined in America, as well as in other developed nations (keep in mind that a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to keep the native-born population from shrinking).

Even more shocking, check out the demographic data for Japan and South Korea. Birth rates in Japan already had fallen by 1960 and they’re even lower today. But the numbers for South Korea are staggering.

Wow.

I guess it’s now easy to understand this story from South Korea.

Students at two South Korean universities are being offering courses that make it mandatory for them to date their classmates as the country battles to reverse one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …She said: ”Korea’s fall in population has made dating and marriage important but young Koreans are too busy these days and clumsy in making new acquaintances.” And as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month… Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I don’t know what’s the strangest part of the article, the part about having to date your classmates as part of homework (do you get extra credit if the girl gets pregnant?!?) or the part about the government squandering an astounding 50 billion pounds (about 67 billion dollars) on trying to encourage kids (I guess politicians never learn).

Or this story from Japan that brings back painful memories of high school.

Talk about a shrinking population. A survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that almost 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women are not in a relationship. Moreover, many of them have never got close and cuddly. Around 42 percent of the men and 44.2 percent of the women admitted they were virgins. The government won’t be pleased that sexlessness is becoming as Japanese as sumo and sake. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked up boosting the birthrate through support for child care, but until the nation bones up on bedroom gymnastics there’ll be no medals to hand out. …Boosting the birthrate is one of the coveted goals of the Abe administration, which has declared it will raise the fertility rate from the current 1.4 to 1.8 by 2025 or so.

The bottom line, as Samuelson suggested in his column, is that western nations are facing a baked-in-the-cake demographic-fiscal crisis.

What’s sad is that we know the crisis will happen, but politicians in most nations have no intention of solving the problems.

Lessons from Portugal about Ending the Drug War

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 12:14pm

When I explain to people how the government’s War on Drugs violates the rights of people to do dumb things to their own bodies, they intellectually understand but they’re usually not convinced.

When I also explain why the Drug War causes additional crime and enriches mobsters, they almost always nod their heads in agreement but resist the obvious implication that we should decriminalize.

When I then explain that the War on Drugs has led to horrific policies such as civil asset forfeiture and senseless policies such as costly and ineffective money-laundering laws, they agree that the consequences are bad but they’re generally unpersuaded about legalization.

The stumbling block in every case is that they fear decriminalization will lead to more drug use, more addiction, and more suffering families.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of real-world examples to put their minds at ease. But “a lot” isn’t the same as “any.”

This report about Portugal from the U.K.-based Guardian is must reading and may convince the doubters that we can end the War on Drugs without societal chaos and decay. It starts with an observation about the ravages of illegal drugs.

It was the 80s, and by the time one in 10 people had slipped into the depths of heroin use – bankers, university students, carpenters, socialites, miners – Portugal was in a state of panic. …one in every 100 Portuguese was battling a problematic heroin addiction at that time… Headlines in the local press raised the alarm about overdose deaths and rising crime. The rate of HIV infection in Portugal became the highest in the European Union.

This led to predictable responses.

In the early days of Portugal’s panic, …the state’s first instinct was to attack. Drugs were denounced as evil, drug users were demonised, and proximity to either was criminally and spiritually punishable. The Portuguese government launched a series of national anti-drug campaigns that were less “Just Say No” and more “Drugs Are Satan”.

But something remarkable then happened. Rational voices began to push a libertarian-oriented message.

The first official call to change Portugal’s drug laws came from Rui Pereira, a former constitutional court judge who undertook an overhaul of the penal code in 1996. He found the practice of jailing people for taking drugs to be counterproductive and unethical. “My thought right off the bat was that it wasn’t legitimate for the state to punish users,”

And Portugal ultimately went in that direction – and got very positive results.

In 2001, …Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. …The opioid crisis soon stabilised, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. …The official policy of decriminalisation made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing etc) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities.

Here’s a summary of the Portuguese approach, which certainly seems more humane and logical than what we do in America.

Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.

Want some additional evidence?

Here’s a chart from the invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute.

2009 study from the Cato Institute also highlighted the benefits of Portugal’s reform.

Because more than seven years have now elapsed since enactment of Portugal’s decriminalization system, there are ample data enabling its effects to be assessed. Notably, decriminalization has become increasingly popular in Portugal since 2001. …very few domestic political factions are agitating for a repeal of the 2001 law. …none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents — from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists” — has occurred. …The political consensus in favor of decriminalization is unsurprising in light of the relevant empirical data. …drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes. …drug-related pathologies — such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage — have decreased dramatically. …judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.

By the way, allow me to reiterate that my support for decriminalization is not an endorsement of drug use.

It’s not just that I’m a teetotaler and want others to make the same choice. Stories like this one from CNN genuinely worry me.

Regina Mitchell, a co-owner of Warren Fabricating & Machining in Hubbard, Ohio, told The New York Times this week that four out of 10 applicants otherwise qualified to be welders, machinists and crane operators will fail a routine drug test. …”We have a 150-ton crane in our machine shop. And we’re moving 300,000 pounds of steel around in that building on a regular basis. So I cannot take the chance to have anyone impaired running that crane, or working 40 feet in the air.” …For 48 of the 50 years her company has been around, drug abuse had never been an issue, she told Smerconish.”It hasn’t been until the last two years that we needed to have a policy, a corporate policy in place, that protects us from employees coming into work impaired,” she said. …there are almost 12,000 open skilled labor jobs in Mahoning County.”There are good-paying jobs and the opportunity for people in our area. We just can’t find people to show up who can pass a drug test,” she said.

This is not good news for the country. And I’ve personally spoken to several employers in other parts of the country who have made the same point.

But I’ll simply observe that we have this problem with drugs being illegal already. Given the evidence from Portugal, I’m hopeful that decriminalization might lead to less drug use.

I also wonder whether redistribution programs enable reckless behavior. In other words, people may decide it’s okay to be stoners because they can rely on handouts to stay alive instead of staying clean and having a job.

In any event, let’s review a couple of additional stories. Here’s a column from National Review, written by Michelle Malkin, which shows continuing progress on the right.

My own interest in pediatric use of medicinal marijuana is more than academic. When my daughter, Veronica, fell ill in late spring of 2015 — unable to breathe normally, bedridden with chronic pain and fatigue — she saw of specialists. …The various drugs prescribed to my daughter weren’t working and had awful side effects. …To our surprise, the mainstream neurologist suggested Veronica try CBD. This doctor had other young patients who used CBD oil with positive results… So we did our own independent research…consulted with other medical professionals and friends — and entered a whole new world. Two physicians signed off on our daughter’s application for a medical-marijuana card. She became one of more than 360 children under 18 to join Colorado’s medical-marijuana registry in 2015. …we became pediatric pot parents. For Veronica, CBD provided more relief than all the other mainstream pharmaceutical interventions she had endured, and without the scary side effects.

To her credit, Michelle has learned that the harm of government intervention exceeds any potential benefit.

As a lifelong social conservative, my views on marijuana policy may surprise some of you. I used to be a table-pounding crusader for the government’s war on drugs. …But the war on drugs has been a ghastly quagmire — an expensive and selective form of government paternalism that has done far more harm than good. What has this trillion-dollar war wrought? Overcrowded jails teeming with nonviolent drug offenders. An expanded police state enriched by civil asset forfeiture. And marginalization of medical researchers pursuing legitimate research on marijuana’s possible therapeutic benefits for patients with a wide variety of illnesses. …let me be clear as a liberty-loving, conservative mom: Keep your hands off. Let the scientists lead. Limited government is the best medicine.

Now let’s add some economic analysis to the discussion.

Here’s some insight from the Foundation for Economic Education about how the Drug War is increasing the potency and danger of drugs.

One issue that is often mentioned but rarely explained is the increasing potency of illegal drugs, whether it be cannabis with a high percentage of THC in the US or super potent MDMA (Ecstasy) in Europe. What’s behind this phenomenon? …economic theory might have the answer. …The theory that can explain rising drug potency under prohibition was first described in 1964 by Armen Alchian and William R Allen. It states that when the price of two substitute goods is increased by a fixed per-unit amount (such as transportation or taxation) the consumer will opt for the higher priced, higher quality good because the price of the more expensive product has sunk in proportion to the price of the less expensive product. …In the particular case of illegal drugs, two different kinds of drugs–let’s say two different kinds of cannabis–act as the substitute goods. When buying illegal drugs on the black market, you do not only pay for the drug itself. On top of the monetary price comes the potential social cost you pay. This can range from a small regulatory offence, where you must pay a fine, to a felony where you can face a prison sentence. This comes with other problems: losing your job, family, social status and so on. This is the fixed per-unit cost added on top of the price of the drug itself.

All of which leads to yet another reason why prohibition is backfiring and another reason why decriminalization is the answer.

It is not worth the risk to buy a low-quality product regarding the potential price you must pay. …Drug cartels have recognised this behaviour and increased the potency of their drugs (i.e. improved the quality of their product) so you get more value for the potential fixed per-unit cost you pay. …What sounds good in economic theory becomes a massive public health problem in real life. The potency of many drugs has increased too much. As it is in most prohibitionist countries, many consumers don’t know exactly what drug they are taking and in which dosage they are consuming the drug: not to mention added substances that increase quantity. …If drugs were decriminalized, customers would have knowledge about the contents of their MDMA, their cocaine, their cannabis. Drugs that are too potent could easily be avoided. Legalized drugs would include packaging with the specific content. Sales in specialized stores would allow customers to receive medical help if they show signs of problematic consumption, without fear of being imprisoned over it.

And since we’ve veered into some economic analysis, one of the reasons I favor legalization is that I don’t want law enforcement resources being misallocated.

Which is why this column resonates with me.

Police in Ohio are blaming a lack of resources for the fact that unsolved homicide cases greatly outnumber the cases that are solved, yet they seem to have the resources to arrest thousands of suspected cannabis users. …in the state of Ohio…an average of over 20,000 people are arrested on charges of cannabis possession each year. …despite the fact that they seem to have plenty of resources when it comes to arresting and detaining nonviolent offenders, police in Ohio are blaming a lack of resources for the fact that the number of homicide cases they solve continues to decline. …How did police in the United States go from solving over 90 percent of homicides in the 1960s to around 60 percent today, with cities like Columbus solving as little as 30 percent of homicides? It was not a change in resources—it was the introduction of the Drug War. …“Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” an ACLU and Human Rights Watch report found last year. “More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.” In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined. …As states like Ohio find that the number of unsolved homicide cases greatly outnumber the cases that are solved, it makes you wonder—what more could they accomplish if they were able to use their resources to track down violent murder suspects, instead of wasting them on nonviolent individuals who are found in possession of a plant?

Let’s close with some wisdom from Milton Friedman (h/t: Reddit).

As was so often the case, Friedman was right. If you look at the real-world consequences of the War on Drugs, the net effect of prohibition has been to enrich some very bad people.

P.S. It’s an open question whether the War on Drugs has been more damaging or less damaging than the War on Poverty. I guess the moral of the story is that there are a lot of “friendly fire” casualties when politicians declare war.

 

Big Government Can Be Deadly, Literally

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 12:57pm

Too much government can be hazardous to your health.

Instead, this is a column about the wonky issue of cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, we’re going to look at whether some regulations can be sufficiently onerous that the resulting economic damage actually produces needless death. This insight can even apply to regulations that are designed to save lives!

It’s quite common, when I first suggest this hypothesis, for people to think I’m nuts. But they begin to see the light when I share this example from an article I wrote 25 years ago for the Journal of Regulation and Social Cost.

People in wealthier nations, on average, live longer and better lives than residents of poorer nations. …government policy makers should consider the adverse effects on health and mortality of economic policies that impose costs on the productive sector of the economy. …it is quite possible that regulations designed to reduced mortality and morbidity, if they impose sufficiently high costs on the economy, actually can result in premature deaths and a less healthy population. Banning the use of motor vehicles, for instance, would save…lives lost annually in traffic accidents as well as preventing whatever number of premature deaths can be attributed to auto emissions. …It would be absurd, however, to…support the elimination of motor vehicles… The higher living standards made possible by fast and efficient transportation clearly must result in reduced mortality…rates over time for the general population.

I don’t know if they accept that society would be so much poorer that – on net – more people would die. But they definitely grasp that there’s a tradeoff.

And that’s a big victory. After all, people are much more likely to accept cost-benefit analysis when they understand that a decision can have both good and bad consequences.

I wrote about this topic back in 2012 because supporters of President Obama basically accused Mitt Romney of contributing to the death of a woman who lost her health insurance. So I looked at the academic data on the relationship between economic prosperity and lifespans to measure Obama’s body count.

Looking over much of this research, it appears that $14 million is a reasonable middle-ground estimate of how much foregone income is associated with a needless death. Now let’s do some simple math to get an estimate of the total number of preventable deaths caused by the economy’s sub-par performance during Obama’s reign. …divide $836.6 billion (our earlier estimate of foregone growth) by $14 million and we get an estimate that Obama’s policies have caused 59,757 deaths.

In that column, I warned that my back-of-the-envelope calculations were not very unreliable, and I also pointed out that it would be wrong to hold Obama personally accountable for any premature deaths.

I simply wanted people to understand that a weak economy has serious consequences (I also thought that Obama’s supporters were making a very dodgy attack on Romney, particularly since there were so many other reasons to criticize the GOP candidate).

But I’m beginning to digress. The purpose of today’s column is to further explain why we should be concerned about the economic damage of excessive government. But not just because of lost income and reduced prosperity. We also need to recognize that a weaker economy translates into needless deaths.

So let’s look at some additional research.

study prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency provides a dispassionate analysis of this form of cost-benefit analysis. The report starts with a couple of specific examples.

The essence of risk-risk analysis, as it will be referred to here, is the assertion that regulations seeking risk-reduction benefits may also unintentionally increase risks, and by enough in some cases to outweigh the intended benefits. …One such situation currently of concern is the possibility that parents with young children might elect the more risky option of driving a long distance instead of the less risky alternative of flying if the latter alternative is rendered much more expensive by a requirement to purchase a seat on the aircraft for the child instead of sharing a seat with the parent. Similarly, if regulations governing small drinking system quality are sufficiently costly, individuals might elect to use private wells, which could pose even more risks to their health than the public water supply in the absence of the costly rules.

It then puts forth the sensible hypothesis about the economy-wide implications of onerous red tape.

A slightly different version of risk-risk analysis is predicated on the observation that people’s wealth and health status, as measured by mortality, morbidity, and other metrics, are positively correlated. Hence, those who bear a regulation’s compliance costs may also suffer a decline in their health status, and if the costs are large enough, these increased risks might be greater than the direct risk-reduction benefits of the regulation. Advocates of risk-risk analysis emphasize its use as an important commonsense screen… It does seem eminently reasonable not to promulgate costly rules that actually increase risks rather than decrease them.

The study looks at some of the past academic literature.

Lutter and Morrall (1994) attribute to Aaron Wildavsky, see for example Wildavsky (1980), the general proposition that government programs tend to reduce economic growth, thereby interfering with the primary mechanism by which human health has improved over time. According to Lutter and Morrall, the first to apply this principle quantitatively was Keeney (1990), who calculated that an additional death occurs for roughly each $3.14 million to $7.25 million of income lost (1980 dollars). OMB on several occasions has brought health-health analysis to bear both in its review of OSHA regulations related to worker safety, and in examining regulations of other agencies, such as EPA and FDA. For example, using a finding that $7.5 million of costs induces one additional statistical death, OMB argued that although OSHA’s proposed permissible exposure limits for a large number of workplace air contaminants would offer the benefit of preventing 8 to 13 deaths per year, the regulatory costs of $163 million per year would indirectly cause some 22 deaths annually. On that basis, OMB suspended its review of the proposed regulation and OSHA agreed to study the issue further….researchers continue to further refine this estimated relationship between income and mortality risk. For example, Viscusi (1994) reports various estimates of the lost income that induces an additional statistical death ranging from $1.9 million to $33.2 million, and indicates that his own research (in press at the time) places this number at about $30 million to $70 million.

Keep in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency is not a hotbed of free-market radicals. So it’s noteworthy that at least some people at that bureaucracy realize that there should be some cost-benefit constraints on regulation.

The Institute of Energy Research also explored the issue.

…in practice we all make decisions that increase the risk of death, and in that sense, we trade off our own longevity for other goals. In this context, economists can estimate the implied value of a human life, judged by the choices of the individuals themselves. One surprising implication of this approach is that costly government regulations not only reduce Americans’ standard of living, but they also indirectly lead to more deaths. In a modern economy, wealth is health, and so an inefficient regulation doesn’t merely reduce GDP—it also reduces average lifespans. …By analyzing consumer behavior, economists can come up with rough estimates of the implied “value of a statistical life” (VSL) that this behavior exhibits.

Here’s an example.

…suppose a very stringent rule on the emission of soot from smokestacks theoretically would reduce deaths by 2,000 lives, but at an aggregate cost to the economy of $80 billion in forfeited GDP. With these numbers, even on its own terms, such a regulation would save lives at a price of $40 million per life. This is much more than typical Americans spend with their own money to reduce risks and prolong their lifespans, and thus it indicates that the proposed regulation is inefficient because it implicitly forces Americans to “spend” much more on reducing a particular risk, rather than on other goods and services that they value more.

And here’s the key takeaway.

…there is a well-established causal connection between wealth and health. Costly federal regulations make Americans poorer and thus indirectly lead to more deaths, because poorer people are less able to take advantage of private methods of prolonging their lives. If regulations are particularly inefficient, this indirect effect might overwhelm the direct benefit of the regulation, meaning that it not only makes Americans poorer, but actually kills them on net.

Here are some excerpts from a study published by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

Many forms of regulation have grown dramatically in recent decades—especially in the areas of environment, health, and safety. Moreover, expenditures in those areas are likely to continue to grow faster than the rate of government spending. Yet, the economic impact of regulation receives much less scrutiny than direct, budgeted government spending. We believe that policymakers need to rectify that imbalance. …We should judge regulations by their individual benefits and costs… One study found that a reallocation of mandated expenditures toward those regulations with the highest payoff to society could save as many as 60,000 more lives per year at no additional cost. …the costs of compliance with regulations pose risks. Compliance typically reduces the amount of private resources that people have to spend on a wide range of activities, including health care, children’s education, and automobile safety. When people have fewer resources, they spend less to reduce risks. The resulting increase in risk offsets the direct reduction in risk attributable to a government action. Moreover, if that direct risk reduction is small and the regulation is very ineffective relative to its cost, then total risk could rise instead of fall.

The AEI-Brookings report also looks at some of the existing research.

Dozens of articles in economics and public health journals substantiate the claim that richer people live longer.10 Simple correlations of annual death rates and income suggest that a community whose income rises by about $10 million can expect about one fewer death. …Sunstein argued that courts should find that regulations that raise risks rather than lower them are arbitrary and capricious. … Lutter, Morrall, and Viscusi…estimated that an increase in income of about $15 million in a large U.S. population reduces mortality risk by one statistical death.

The authors look at regulations from the 1980s and 1990s and calculate which ones saved lives and which ones cost lives.

By the way, allow me to interject by pointing out some specific examples of regulations that are on the books and are causing needless deaths.

Now let’s close with a look at a very recent analysis from the Mercatus enter.

…many regulations result in unintended consequences that increase mortality risk in various ways. These adverse repercussions are often the result of regulatory impacts that compete with the intended goal of the regulation, or they are direct behavioral responses to regulation. As examples, fuel efficiency regulations can encourage automobile manufacturers to produce smaller cars that are more dangerous in an accident (Crandall and Graham 1989). Increased airport security measures after 9/11 made air travel more inconvenient, which has led to increases in estimated car accident deaths as individuals substituted driving for flying (Blalock, Kadiyali, and Simon 2007). …Finally, regulatory efforts reduce individual expenditures on health, both because risk reduction achieved through regulation is a substitute for private risk reduction and because the costs incurred by regulations reduce private health-related expenditures. It is this last item that has been the focus of health-health analysis (HHA).

The authors look at potential ways of conducting this type of cost-benefit analysis.

Despite a robust academic literature that spans decades, HHA has not become widely used by policymakers… HHA relies on an estimate of what is known as the cost-per-life-saved cutoff (the “cutoff”), which is a threshold cost-effectiveness level beyond which life-saving regulations will be counterproductive in that they can be expected to induce more fatalities than they prevent. …There are two competing ways of identifying the cutoff, a direct approach based on empirical observation and an indirect approach grounded in economic theory. …The indirect approach, which is our preferred method, relies on a theoretical model of the income-mortality relationship that is calibrated using data on the value of a statistical life (VSL) and the marginal propensity to spend on health (MPSH). …Employing the indirect approach has led to a cost-per-life-saved cutoff value closer to $85 million for the United States. We employ the indirect approach here as well, estimating a cutoff range from $75.4 million to $123.2 million (2015 dollars). A reasonable rule of thumb might be to assume that regulations costing more than $100 million per life saved will be counterproductive in that they can be expected to increase mortality risk on net.

Like the other studies, there’s a look at previous research.

Ralph Keeney developed the first formal model for estimating fatalities induced by income losses, finding that for every $7.25 million (1980 dollars) in costs, one statistical fatality will be induced (Keeney 1990). Chapman and Hariharan’s (1994) study, published in a special issue of the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty devoted to HHA, develops a similar empirical model but controls for initial health status as a means to account for reverse causality (i.e., poor health causing lower income). The study’s authors estimate the cutoff at $12.2 million (1990 dollars). Keeney provided an update of his model in 1997, estimating the cutoff at between $5 million and $14 million (1991 dollars), depending on the distribution of costs.

Including some foreign studies.

Elvik (1999) is a Norwegian study that estimated the cutoff in Norway at between 25 million and 317 million NOK (1995 prices), which translates to US$3.8 million to US$47.5 million (1995 US dollars). Gerdtham and Johannesson (2002) used longitudinal data (tracking individuals for between 10 and 17 years) for a sample of randomly selected Swedes. After controlling for initial health status, they estimated the cutoff at between US$6.8 million and US$9.8 million (1996 US dollars), depending on how costs are distributed. More recently, Ashe et al. (2012) examined fire prevention regulations in Australia. These authors estimate the cutoff at between AU$20 million and AU$50 million (2010 Australian dollars), again depending on how costs are distributed across the population.

The Mercatus study then contemplates the indirect approach, which utilizes the “value of a statistical life” approach, or VSL.

…the empirical evidence from the United States and other countries, as well as the evidence from labor market estimates of the VSL and revealed preference studies, indicate a positive income elasticity of the VSL and a greater income elasticity at lower income levels. This economic mechanism is also consistent with the common conjecture that the mortality effects of regulatory expenditures will be greatest for the poorest members of society. …When a binding government regulation affects risk levels, there will be two effects. First, because health expenditures and job safety levels are substitutes, regulation will decrease the private incentive to invest in health. Second, because the individual bears regulatory costs, there will be decreased investment in health. Whether a regulation reduces risks on balance depends on the sum of three components: the direct effect of the regulation on safety, the indirect effect on risk through a substitution toward safety achieved through regulation and away from personal health expenditures, and the indirect effect on risk as personal health expenditures fall from reduced income as a result of compliance with regulations.

And the authors come up with a range.

According to our estimates, the cost-per-life-saved cutoff is in the range of $75.4 million to $123.2 million (2015 dollars). Any regulation with a cost-per-life-saved that exceeds this range can be expected to increase mortality risk on net. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding a number of factors that produce this estimate, however, including the fraction of income spent on risk reduction, the income elasticity of risk-reducing expenditures, and the VSL.

I don’t have the competence to judge which approach is best. The part of me that is worried about excessive red tape hopes the direct approach is more accurate since a lower “cutoff” means we can argue that a greater share of regulations fail to meet the threshold.

On the other hand, the part of me that is resigned to ever-expanding amounts of red tape hopes the indirect approach generates more accurate numbers since a higher “cutoff” means that the net cost of regulation is not as onerous.

Regardless, my only point is that there should be some form of cost-benefit analysis before bureaucrats churn out new rules, and the impact of red tape on overall economic performance should be part of the equation.

P.S. Speaking of economic impact, a study from the European Central Bank had some very sobering data.

Renewable Fuel Standards Have Some ‘Leaks’ We Need to Fill

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 6:10pm

Originally published by The Hill on December 4, 2017.

Democrats are upset that President Trump finally ended the illegal ObamaCare “Cost Sharing Reduction” (CSR) payments to insurers. They apparently believe that the president should defy a court order and break the law by continuing to spend money that Congress never appropriated. Or maybe they are upset that Trump is embracing Obama’s pen-and-phone strategy.

Obviously, the president should act unilaterally only where legal authority permits. That was the beauty of ending the CSR payments — it represented both the legally appropriate thing to do as well as an opportunity to remove a core component of ObamaCare. And it doesn’t have to be a one-off. There’s at least one other area where the president can legally mitigate a poorly thought-out law without Congress having to lift a finger — a task the body seems to find increasingly difficult.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), or ethanol mandate, was created by the 2005 Energy Policy Act and expanded in 2007, and establishes a quota for the amount ethanol that must blended with fuel as well as mandates for certain sub-categories. The rates established by the law increase each year through 2022.

It also established a credit trading program, where each gallon of biofuel is assigned a Renewable Identification Number (RIN). A refiner must earn RIN credits to meet its annual obligation by selling enough gallons of biofuel or by purchasing them — the credits, not the actual product — from others with a surplus. This policy often negatively effects smaller refiners, which are forced to purchase expensive credits that appreciate in cost every year to meet the government’s compliance standards.

The current requirements skirt dangerously close to the so-called “blend wall,” or the set of market conditions that limit the total percentage of ethanol that can be safely blended into gasoline without straining infrastructure and harming some existing vehicles. In short, the government is mandating the use of more ethanol than the country can bear on its own.

Politicians in 2005 and 2007 clearly had no special knowledge about the economic conditions of today, and likely only limited awareness of even then-present conditions, and thus foisted requirements on the economy that are not feasible. The only thing that prevented the RFS mandate from complete disaster is the authority that was granted to the EPA to reduce the requirements based on “inadequate domestic supply,” which it has done in recent years for certain sub-quotas like cellulosic biofuel.

The EPA also proposed in 2013 to reduce the total RFS mandate based on the blend wall, only to face heavy opposition from the ethanol lobby and their captured politicians. The final rule in 2015 partially backtracked, and today biofuel lobbyists continue to apply pressure to ensure that the RFS mandate stays in line with the statutory limit in order to benefit ethanol producers at the expense of refiners, consumers, and the overall economy.

The RFS is bad policy, but politics make scrapping it difficult. It is a classic case of defused costs versus concentrated interests. The ethanol industry is organized and motivated to keep their handouts and a bipartisan coalition of politicians from corn states are prepared to do their bidding, while drivers face smaller individual costs and have their attention divided among a host of other issues. This makes doing the right thing a challenge.

Currently, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has a hold placed on Bill Northey’s nomination for a key Department of Agriculture position until the White House agrees to at least entertain open, reasonable discourse on the ethanol mandate. On. Nov. 14, he sent a letter to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds assuring her that he is committed to finding a “win-win solution” that will “help both Iowans and Texans thrive.”

Cruz may succeed in pushing a middle of the road solution, amending the RFS so that it works for everyone, including the ethanol industry. The law’s significant grant of authority to the executive branch provides opportunity for a compromise that can, at least for a while, relieve some of the pressure. Right now, RINs — the credits used to ensure compliance with the rule — are not provided for exported fuel. A regulatory change to allow exported fuel to count for RFS compliance would ease the pressure on refiners and the domestic fuel supply while not reducing the benefit to ethanol producers. And the change is environmentally neutral, since air in the U.S. is no more or less important than air anywhere else.

Ultimately, the RFS in its current form isn’t an example of good lawmaking. Congress shouldn’t write laws that are unworkable without heavy regulatory intervention, nor excessively rely on the executive branch to fill in legislative details. But President Trump has recently shown how some good policy objectives can be achieved thanks to the tendency of Congress to write legislation that is less than robust. Just as with ObamaCare, while Congress dithers the administration should act to move the RFS in the right direction.

What’s the Best Reason to Support Tax Havens, Protecting Human Rights or Restraining Greedy Politicians?

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 12:47pm

The late Mancur Olsen was a very accomplished academic economist who described the unfortunate tendency of vote-seeking governments to behave like “stationary bandits,” seeking to extract the maximum amount of money from taxpayers.

I’m not nearly as sophisticated, so I simply refer to this process as “goldfish government.”

Tax competition is a way of discouraging this self-destructive behavior. Politicians are less likely to over-tax and over-spend if they know that jobs and investment can migrate from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions (borders can be a hassle, but they are beneficial since they presumably represent a limit on the reach of a government’s power).

This is why I’m a big fan of so-called tax havens.

I want politicians to be afraid that the geese with the golden eggs may fly away. This is one of the reasons why “offshore” nations play a very valuable role in the global economy.

But it’s important to realize that there’s also a moral argument for tax havens.

Ask yourself whether you would want the government to have easy access to your nest egg (whether it’s a lot or a little) if you lived in Russia? Or Venezuela? Or China? Or Zimbabwe?

Ask yourself whether you trust the bureaucracy to protect the privacy of your personal financial information if you lived in a country with corruption problems like Mexico? Or India? Or South Africa?

Here’s a story from France24 that underscores my point.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Sunday that businessmen who move assets abroad are committing “treason”, adding that his government should put an end to the practice. “I am aware that some businessmen are attempting to place their assets overseas. I call on the government not to authorise any such moves, because these are acts of treason,” Erdogan said in televised comments to party members in the eastern town on Mus.

Allow me to translate. What Erdogan is saying is “I don’t want escape options for potential victims of expropriation.” For all intents and purposes, he’s basically whining that he can’t steal money that is held offshore.

Which, of course, is why offshore finance is so important.

Professor Tyler Cowen elaborates in a Bloomberg column.

I’d like to speak up for offshore banking as a significant protection against tyranny and unjust autocracy. It’s not just that many offshore financial institutions, such as hedge funds registered in the Cayman Islands, are entirely legal, but also that the practice of hiding wealth overseas has its upside. …offshore…accounts make it harder for autocratic governments to confiscate resources from their citizens. That in turn limits the potential for tyranny.

Tyler looks at some of the research and unsurprisingly finds that there’s a lot of capital flight from unstable regimes.

A recent study shows which countries are most likely to use offshore banking, as measured by a percentage of their gross domestic product. …The top five countries on this list, measured as a percentage of GDP, are United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Argentina, based on estimates from 2007. In all of those cases the risk of arbitrary political confiscations of wealth is relatively high. …When I consider that list of countries, I don’t think confidential offshore banking is such a bad thing. …consider some of the countries that are not major players in the offshore wealth sweepstakes. China and Iran, for instance, have quite low percentages of their GDPs held in offshore accounts, in part because they haven’t been well integrated into global capital markets. …Are we so sure it would be bad for more Chinese and Iranian wealth to find its way into offshore banks? The upshot would be additional limits on the power of the central leaders to confiscate wealth and to keep political opposition in line.

So what’s the bottom line?

Simple. People need ways of protecting themselves from greedy government.

From the vantage point of Western liberalism, individuals should be free from arbitrary confiscations of their wealth, connected to threats against their life and liberty, even if those individuals didn’t earn all of that wealth justly or honestly. There is even a “takings clause” built into the U.S. Constitution. On top of these moral issues, such confiscations may scare off foreign investment and slow progress toward the rule of law.

By the way, the moral argument shouldn’t be limited to nations with overtly venal governments that engage in wealth expropriation. What about the rights of people in nations – such as Argentina and Greece – where governments wreck economies because of blind incompetence? Shouldn’t they have the ability to protect themselves from wealth destruction?

I actually raised some of these arguments almost 10 years ago in this CF&P video.

P.S. There’s lots of evidence that politicians raise tax rates when tax competition is weakened.

P.P.S. Which is why I’m very happy that Rand Paul is leading the fight against a scheme for a global tax cartel.

New Research on the Benefits of Lower Corporate Tax Rates

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 12:02pm

As part of yesterday’s column about the comparatively tiny – and temporary – tax cut in the Republican tax reform plan, I quoted a leftist columnist for US News & World Report, who argued that there should be a big tax increase (including a big tax hike on middle-income taxpayers) and that such a tax hike would not hurt the economy.

Today, I want to address the latter argument about taxes and economic growth. When this topic arises, I normally cite both public-finance theory and empirical research to make the case that taxes do impact economic performance, and I try to always stress that not all taxes are created equal.

And if the focus is corporate taxation, I usually share my primer on the issue, and then link to research from AustraliaCanadaGermany, and the United Kingdom.

But maybe it will be more persuasive to look at some new academic evidence from a study on U.S. corporate taxes by Professor Eric Ohrn (forthcoming in the American Economic Journal).

If you don’t want to dwell on the details, the paper’s abstract tells you the highlights. Simply stated, a lower corporate rate translates into more investment and less debt.

I exploit quasi-experimental variation created by the Domestic Production Activities Deduction, a corporate tax expenditure created in 2005. A one percentage point reduction in tax rates increases investment by 4.7 percent of installed capital, increases payouts by 0.3 percent of sales, and decreases debt by 5.3 percent of total assets. These estimates suggest that lower corporate tax rates and faster accelerated depreciation each stimulate a similar increase in investment, per dollar in lost revenue.

But hopefully there will be interest in some of the details from the study.

Here’s the problem Professor Ohrn identified.

…relatively little empirical work has been able to directly estimate the effects of a reduction in the corporate income tax rate on business activity. This study provides new evidence on these effects.

His evidence is based on the fact lawmakers created a lower tax rate for America-based manufacturing (a.k.a., the domestic production activities deduction, or DPAD).

In 2005, when the DPAD was implemented, firms could deduct 3 percent of manufacturing income. This rate was scaled to 6 percent in 2007 and 9 percent in 2010, where it remains today. As a result of the policy, after 2010, firms that derive all of their income from domestic manufacturing activities and face the top statutory corporate income tax rate have a 3.15 (= 0.09 × 35 percent) percentage point lower effective tax rate than firms with no domestic manufacturing activities. …I use data provided by the IRS Statistics of Income (SOI) Division. The SOI publishes the aggregate annual dollar values of the DPAD and Net Taxable Income for corporations in 75 unique industries and all businesses in 12 asset-classes (firm size bins).

And what did he find as he looked at the difference between firms with lower tax rates and higher tax rates?

It turns out that even modest differences in tax rates can have a big impact.

I find that the DPAD has a large effect on corporate behavior. A one percentage point reduction in the effective corporate income tax rate via the DPAD increases investment by 4.7 percent of installed capital, increases payouts by 0.3 percent of revenues, and decreases debt usage by 5.3 percent of total assets. …corporations respond strongly to the DPAD, and corporate income tax rate cuts more generally, by increasing investment and payouts and decreasing debt usage. The average firm does not report more taxable income per dollar of asset, suggesting that any increases in revenue generated by corporate tax rate reductions are the product of real effects such as investment but not decreased avoidance activity.

Here are a couple of charts from the study. The dark blue line represents companies with lower tax rates and the dashed line represents the ones with higher tax rates.

And since it’s good to have more investment and good to have less debt, both these findings are very positive.

Interestingly, the benefits of fixing depreciation laws (by moving in the direction of expensing) are quite similar to the benefits of lowering the corporate tax rates.

…a dollar spent by the government stimulates virtually the same amount of investment whether it is used to reduce corporate tax rates or accelerate depreciation expenses.

I hate to digress, but I can’t resist pointing out that I’m irked by the language about “a dollar spent by the government.” Professor Ohrn certainly seems to be a rigorous and capable economist, but he has a bit of a moral blind spot. If the federal government adopts a policy that allows a business to keep more of the money it earns, that is not “a dollar spent” by government.

Unless you have the bizarre mindset of some statists who think all output belongs to the state.

Anyhow, back to regularly scheduled programming.

We’re now at a critical point in the battle for tax reform. The House passed its version and now the Senate has passed its version. The good news is that there’s strong agreement on Capitol Hill to slash the corporate tax rate.

This latest study underscores why that reform will boost investment. And remember, when investment increases, that translates into higher wages for workers.

Balancing the Budget Should Be Very Easy, Regardless of the GOP’s Tiny (and Temporary) Tax Cut

Sat, 12/02/2017 - 12:41pm

Since the House has passed a tax cut and the Senate has passed a tax cut, it’s quite likely that there will be a consensus deal that will be signed into law.

Which makes me happy since any agreement presumably will include a lower corporate tax rate and the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes.

But some folks don’t think this is good news.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Pat Garofalo argues that taxes should be going up.

The entire bill is premised off the belief that taxes are too high and need to go down, when the opposite is actually true. …the U.S. is, by developed country standards, a very low-tax country. It raises about a quarter of its gross domestic product in revenue at all levels of government, compared to about a third in the rest of the developed world, and well more than 40 percent in some countries. For the last several decades, the U.S. at the federal level alone has raised roughly 18 percent of GDP in taxes, while spending around 20 percent. Sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it. …other countries prove there’s plenty of room to raise more revenue without kneecapping economic growth. …America’s concentration of wealth is such that there’s plenty of room to raise taxes on the rich with nary an economic blip… it is possible, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., does all the time, to make a case that, yes, taxes on the middle class will go up, but that the benefits will be more than worth it.

I won’t bother responding to all his inaccurate assertions, but I will give Mr. Garofalo credit for honesty. Unlike a lot of folks on the left, he openly acknowledges that the middle class will have to be pillaged to finance a European-style welfare state. I’ll add him to my list of honest leftists.

But honesty is not the same as accuracy.

Chris Edwards put together a very helpful chart showing federal taxes and revenues as a share of economic output. As you can see, America’s real fiscal problem is government spending. The tax cut being considered on Capitol Hill only causes a small – and completely temporary – drop in revenues.

This is such good information that it deserves a closer look.

I decided to look at the raw year-to-year numbers. I got the latest 10-year budget projections from the Congressional Budget Office, as well as the 10-year projections for the Senate tax bill from the Joint Committee on Taxation (the House bill’s numbers are very similar, so these figures presumably are a very accurate proxy of any final package).

Let’s start with a look at the annual baseline revenues (blue) and annual baseline spending (orange), along with the annual post-tax cut revenues (grey). As you can see, there’s very little difference in the two revenue lines. There’s some short-run aggregate tax relief, but that quickly begins to shrink. And by the 10th year, the federal government actually will be collecting more revenue!

Some people nonetheless will oppose even a tiny and temporary tax cut. They will claim they want to balance the budget (though oftentimes these are the same people who supported the faux stimulus and wanted the new Obamacare entitlement, so judge for yourself whether they are sincere).

Even in the unlikely event that they are sincere, their complaints don’t make sense since revenues will be higher after 10 years. And that’s not even properly considering the impact of additional economic growth, which would cause tax receipts to grow even faster.

But let’s set that aside and consider what would be necessary to balance the budget over the 10-year budget window. Earlier this year, I calculated that it would be possible to balance the budget and enact a $3 trillion tax cut so long as politicians would simply restrain federal spending so that it grew by 1.96 percent per year.

Based on the most recent numbers (and starting the spending restraint in 2019 rather than 2018), the budget can be balanced if federal spending grows by 2.67 percent annually. Since that’s much faster than what would be necessary to keep pace with inflation (projected to average about 2 percent per year), this wouldn’t require any “harsh” austerity.

By the way, if you want an example of successful multi-year spending restraint, we had a five-year de facto spending freeze from 2009-2014 (yes, those fights over debt limitssequestration, and government shutdowns produced a big payoff).

Heck, when Clinton was in the White House, overall government spending grew by 3.2 percent annually between 1993 and 1999.

Surely Republicans can beat Bill Clinton’s record, right?

I’ll close by observing that we shouldn’t fixate on balancing the budget in any particular year. It’s much more important to shrink the burden of government spending. And that happens when the private sector grows faster than the federal budget.

To be sure, it’s also a good idea to shrink red ink, at least relative to our ability to finance debt. That happens whenever the private economy grows faster than federal borrowing.

The good news is that spending restraint is the one policy that achieves both goals.

Everything You Need to Know about Statism in One Story

Fri, 12/01/2017 - 6:02pm

One of my specialty pages deals with the unfortunate nexus between sex and government. You can find columns about taxes and sexObamacare and sex, and licensing and sex.

My new addition to that collection involves the venal government of Venezuela.

Here’s a story from the Washington Post that will forever symbolize the utter failure of statism. It seems that big government can even ruin sex.

In a country beset by shortages, this is one of the most difficult: the disappearance of contraceptives. When she couldn’t renew her supply of birth-control pills, Gutierrez and her husband…tried to be careful, but soon she was pregnant with her second child. “We barely eat three times a day now,” said a distraught Gutierrez, a former hair washer in a beauty salon who lost her job because of the economic crisis. “I don’t know how we’re going to feed another mouth.” In Venezuela, …nearly two decades of socialist policies…has sparked a severe recession and one of the world’s highest inflation rates. People often wait hours in line to buy bread. Prices for staples jump almost by the day. Medical short­ages range from antibiotics to cancer drugs.

Socialism is infamous for creating shortages of critical things like food and important things like toilet paper.

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it produces shortages of birth control. With grim consequences.

Venezuelan doctors are reporting spikes in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases that are adding to the country’s deepening misery. …media outlets have published articles about the “counting method” of contraception that women can use to calculate when they are ovulating and likely to get pregnant. An article on the Venezuelan website Cactus24 offered “15 home remedies to avoid pregnancy,” including eating papaya twice a day and drinking two cups of tea with ginger. …Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become informal exchanges for the purchase or trading of birth-control pills, intrauterine devices and implants — albeit at black-market ­prices.  Other women beg friends and relations to bring them contraceptives from outside Venezuela.

There is a black market, which helps a few people, but that option is prohibitively expensive given the horrific state of the Venezuelan economy.

…a female customer in her 20s looking for pills was told, “We only have the imported ones” — implying they would be sold at a black-market rate. The manager offered her a single pack of 21 pills for 120,000 bolívares. That’s about $3, equal to one-third of Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage. …condoms, meanwhile, have disappeared from store shelves. But the cheaper brands taking their place are still imported, and therefore still unaffordable for many. A three-pack can now cost several days’ minimum-wage pay.

By the way, I hope this next anecdote about condoms doesn’t mean what I think it means.

…said Juan Noguera, 28, an unemployed economic researcher…“we just share them between friends. This is the sharing economy.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought recycling was overrated.

That being said, a shared condom may be better than nothing.

…the gynecologist from Caracas University Hospital, said the number of patients with STDs she is seeing has soared. “In my private practice, out of every 10 patients, five or six now have an STD,” she said. “Two years ago it was just two or three.” Making matters worse, drug shortages are so severe that doctors often lack what they need to treat patients with STDs. “Something as simple as penicillin — the cheapest antibiotic in the world — can’t be found in the country,” said Moraima Hernández, an epidemiologist at Concepción Palacios Maternity Hospital.

Unsurprisingly, government officials have no defense of the terrible situation.

Officials at Venezuela’s Health Ministry did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

I’d be curious, however, to see comments from pro-Venezuelan leftists in America. Do Bernie Sanders and Joe Stiglitz still think Venezuela is a praiseworthy role model?

I remarked last year that Venezuela was entering the fourth circle of statist hell. Why don’t we stipulate that the country in now fully and (un)comfortably ensconced in that grim position. Who knows, maybe it can join North Korea in the fifth circle if Maduro clings to power a few more years.

Congress Can’t Let the Swamp Swallow Tax Reform

Fri, 12/01/2017 - 7:00am

Originally published by Townhall.com on December 1, 2017.

As tax reform legislation moves through Congress, the swamp is in a frenzy. An army of lobbyists is marching the halls of Congress in search of one thing: to defend their clients’ special carveouts at any cost. Each might pay lip-service to the need for an overhaul and simplification of the tax code, but all argue that their benefits should be an exception, posing a significant threat to tax reform.

The primary stated objectives of tax reform are to make the tax code less economically destructive (such as by slashing the corporate rate to an internationally competitive level and lowering marginal tax rates on individuals), to simplify it (by eliminating deductions and credits as much as possible), and to provide broad tax relief. The latter is primarily of political importance, but the real long-term benefit will come from the provisions aimed at boosting economic growth like the corporate rate cuts, which in turn means greater job availability and higher wages for years to come.

But none of it will happen if special interests get their way. They are viciously defending every carveout and deduction. If enough of these are not eliminated, then there’s no fiscal room for reforms and cuts while also keeping the legislation compliant with budgetary rules so that it can bypass a Senate filibuster and pass without any Democratic votes.

Pushback started in earnest even before legislative language was released when the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors declared war on tax writers for considering the mortgage interest deduction for elimination. It’s one of the biggest distortions in the tax code. It encourages housing bubbles by favoring retail over commercial investment, and also benefits primarily those in the upper income bracket while raising housing costs for everyone else.

Ideal tax reform would find a way to eliminate the mortgage deduction, with transition rules if necessary, and plow the savings into lower rates for all. Instead, House tax writers caved to special interest pressure and only lowered the mortgage cap for deductibility from $1 million to $500,000, while the Senate bill doesn‘t currently touch it at all.

Another point of contention is the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, which allows some filers to deduct income paid to their state and local governments from their federal taxes. It benefits at most the 30% of taxpayers who itemize, a population that skews wealthier, but some taxpayers in high tax states—a majority of the value of SALT deductions benefit those in just six states—and their representatives in Washington see it as needed relief from confiscatory state governments.

In contrast, the SALT deduction encourages states to overtax in the first place. When state and local governments can raise taxes without their constituents feeling the full effects, they are able to set rates higher than they otherwise could before suffering electoral blowback. Thanks to the SALT deduction, for instance, the rest of the nation finances roughly 5 percentage points of California’s top-in-the nation 13.3% income tax.

Not every deduction is being defended for narrow, self-interested reasons. Some, like the adoption tax credit, strike a more emotional cord. Nevertheless, achieving an ideal tax code would require doing without it just the same.

Adopting a child is a noble and socially desirable behavior, and of course adoption should be less expensive. That’s an admirable policy goal, but one that can surely be accomplished through other means without mucking up the tax code.

Tax compliance sucks a lot of productivity out the economy and encourages businesses to waste resources lobbying for carveouts instead of pleasing customers. That’s why simplifying the tax code is one of the main reasons for doing tax reform. Simplification means eliminating all the deductions and credits. When no one gets special treatment in the tax code, everyone gets a lower tax burden. In that way it’s not only more efficient but also fairer.

Of course, Republicans opened themselves up to these attacks by not actually targeting every deduction. They chose instead to expand low-to-middle class handouts like the earned income tax credit and child tax credit. This was done for political rather than economic reasons, as both of these increase complexity while doing nothing for growth, and leaves legislators more vulnerable to attack for not saving other credits and deductions than if they had taken a principled position against all handouts in the tax code. Unfortunately, that makes tax reform very difficult to achieve.

In the grand scheme of things, the adoption credit is not fiscally significant. Restoring it doesn’t immediately threaten the major pro-growth provisions of tax reform. But when it comes to major carveouts like the SALT and mortgage interest deductions, they need to find a stronger backbone. They’re already not taking as principled a position as they should by not aiming to eliminate them entirely. Congress must stand firm and let the special interests complain in order to deliver a much-needed, pro-growth tax reform package.

CF&P Opposes Rubio-Lee Amendment

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 7:00pm

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity joined a coalition of 15 free-market groups in opposition to the Rubio-Lee amendment to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

At a time when pro-growth tax reform is finally within reach, it is extremely irresponsible to seek to cannibalize the most important provisions for growth in order to provide even more handouts to favored voting blocs. Rather than narrowly focusing on gimmicks to temporarily increase certain after-tax incomes, the Senators, if they are truly concerned about the welfare of families, should keep in mind the overriding importance of long-run economic growth.

With faster growth, all Americans–families included–will see higher incomes without the need to undermine the primary goals of creating a tax code that is simpler and less destructive. Senators should reject the Rubio-Lee amendment in order to move forward with pro-growth tax reform.

As Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Are About to Learn, America’s Worldwide Tax Regime Is a Royal Pain

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 12:38pm

I realize that we’re in the midst of an important tax battle in Washington and that I should probably be writing about likely amendments to the Senate tax bill.

But long-time readers know that I’m bizarrely preoccupied by international tax issues (I would argue for very good reasons since global tax competition is a way to discipline greedy politicians and because I want the power of governments to be constrained by national borders).

So I can’t resist commenting on a Washington Post story about the tax implications of the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

It may seem like a modern fairy tale, but the upcoming wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle will come with some mundane hurdles. Perhaps most inconveniently for the British royals, this transatlantic partnership could end up involving the United States’ Internal Revenue Service.

Most readers probably wonder how and why the IRS will be involved. After all, Ms. Markle no longer will be living in the United States or earning income in the United States after she marries the Prince.

But here’s the bad news (for the millions of Americans who live overseas, not just Ms. Markle): The United States imposes “worldwide taxation,” which means the IRS claims the right to tax all income earned by citizens, even if those citizens live overseas and earn all their income outside of America.

…there already has been widespread speculation that the union of Prince Harry and Markle eventually could result in some British royal children wielding American passports. But there’s a big obstacle in the way: American tax laws. …The United States’ citizenship-based taxation system is unusual: Only Eritrea has a similar system. It’s a relic of the Civil War and the Revenue Act of 1862, which called for the taxing of U.S. citizens abroad.

Here’s what this means for the royal family.

Markle’s American citizenship could open up the secretive finances of the royal family to outside scrutiny. If she remains a U.S. citizen, Markle will have to file her taxes to the IRS every year. And if she has more than $300,000 in assets at any point during the tax year — a likely scenario, given her successful acting career and her future husband — she will be expected to annually file a document called Form 8938 that will reveal the detail of these assets, which could include foreign trusts. …Although Markle’s tax information would not become public once sent to the United States, it would leave the royal family open not only to IRS review but also the risk that the information could leak, said Dianne Mehany, a tax lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale.

So what’s the solution if the royal family wants to avoid the greedy and intrusive IRS?

Ms. Markle will need to copy thousands of other overseas Americans and renounce her citizenship.

…the royal family employs some of the country’s best tax consultants. …”My guess is that she’ll be pressured by the Royal family to renounce [her U.S. citizenship], even if she’d rather not,” Spiro added. In many ways, that solution may be the simplest. And if Markle does give up her citizenship, she won’t be alone. Treasury Department data show that 5,411 people chose to expatriate in 2016 — a 26 percent year-over-year increase and potentially a historic high — and experts expect that number to keep rising because of the increasing tax burdens placed on U.S. citizens living abroad.

And it’s embarrassing to acknowledge that the United States has a very barbaric practice (used by evil regimes such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) of extorting funds from Americas who are forced to give up citizenship.

She…would be subject to a potentially considerable exit tax.

This is adding injury to injury.

But Ms. Markle can be comforted by the fact that she’s not an outlier. Because of America’s bad worldwide tax regime (and especially because of FATCA, which makes enforcement of that bad system especially painful), an ever-growing number of overseas Americans have been forced to give up their citizenship.

Maybe as a wedding present to Prince Harry, American politicians can junk America’s terrible worldwide tax regime. That doesn’t require dramatic change, but why not fix a bunch of problems at once? I’ll simply point out that the flat taxis based on the common-sense approach of territorial taxation (governments only tax economic activity inside national borders).

P.S. This issue also impacts America’s Olympic athletes.

P.P.S. And Santa Claus as well!

CF&P Urges Support for Sen. Paul’s FATCA Repeal Amendment to Tax Reform

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 12:41pm

Center for Freedom and Prosperity

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
202-285-0244

www.freedomandprosperity.org

CF&P Urges Support for Sen. Paul’s FATCA Repeal Amendment to Tax Reform

(Washington, D.C., Wednesday, November 29, 2017) – Senator Rand Paul is prepared to offer his FATCA repeal legislation, S. 869, as an amendment to the Senate’s tax reform bill. The Center for Freedom and Prosperity applauds this news and urges full-fledged support from his colleagues.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act has carved a path of destruction through the international financial sector, leaving millions of innocent Americans in its wake. Its extensive reporting requirements and onerous penalties are completely out of proportion with the relative pittances it recovers.

FATCA was poorly conceived and looked at as nothing more than a hasty revenue raiser. Its anti-privacy provisions could not be adopted by foreign banks without so-called “intergovernmental agreements,” which Treasury implemented without authorization or consideration of the full impact on U.S. national interests.

Earlier this year, CF&P co-led a coalition of 23 taxpayer protection and grassroots organizations in a letter urging Congressional leadership to include FATCA repeal as part of comprehensive tax reform. As the GOP included FATCA repeal in its 2016 platform, Republicans must now seize the opportunity to fulfill their pledge.

CF&P President Andrew Quinlan commented, “Senator Paul is providing a voice for the 9 million Americans living abroad whose suffering has been ignored to date. FATCA’s aggressive and outdated approach to tax compliance has no place in a fair, pro-growth tax system.”

The Center for Freedom & Prosperity is a Washington, DC-based think-tank dedicated to the promotion of tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

For additional comments:
Andrew Quinlan can be reached at 202-285-0244, [email protected]

###

Reducing Solyndra-Style Green Cronyism Is another Reason to Be Excited about Tax Reform

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 12:41pm

I have a fantasy of junking the entire corrupt tax system and adopting a simple and fair flat tax.

I have an even bigger fantasy of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government to what America’s Founders intendedin which case Washington wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

But in the real world, where I know “public choice” determines political behavior, I have much more limited hopes and dreams.

I’ve been saying for months that tax reform will be a worthwhile success if it leads to a significantly lower corporate tax rate and the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes.

And I recently added repeal of the death tax as a third item that would make me very happy.

Now let’s add a fourth item to my wish-list. The House version of tax reform actually does a decent job of curtailing some of the egregious distortions that line the pocket of companies that peddle so-called green energy.

I know it must be a decent job since the GOP plan is causing angst for leftist journalists.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives…bill would slash incentives for renewable energy and the electric car industry. Environmental groups are frantic. …The House provision raising the most ire are proposed changes tothe renewable electricity production tax credit, which benefits producers of wind, solar, geothermal and other types of renewable energy. …The House GOP plan would also repeal the Investment Tax Credit for big solar projects that start construction after 2027. House Republicans also propose eliminating the $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases. …the Senate bill may not include all of the House’s cuts to clean energy.

It is true that the Senate bill is very timid. But given that there will be a lot of pressure to find “offsets” in any final deal, I’m vaguely hopeful that some of the good provisions in the House bill will survive.

Let’s explore why that would be a very good outcome.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is not a fan of cronyist subsidies to solar energy.

Under President Barack Obama, green energy subsidies were given out like candy. The failure of solar panel company Solyndra is well-known, but the problem extends well beyond the shady loan deal and its half-billion-dollar cost to taxpayers. Between 2010 and 2013, federal subsidies for solar energy aloneincreased by about 500 percent, from $1.1 billion to $5.3 billion (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration), and all federal renewable energy subsidies grew from $8.6 billion to $13.2 billion over the same period. …However, that didn’t stop the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer, SolarWorld, from filing for bankruptcy earlier this year despite $115 million in federal and state grants and tax subsidies since 2012, along with $91 million in federal loan guarantees. SolarWorld and fellow bankrupt manufacturer Suniva are now begging for even more government assistance, in the form of a 40-cent-per-watt tariff on solar imports and a minimum price of 78 cents (including the 40-cent tariff) a watt on solar panels made by foreign manufacturers.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that wind energy is reliant on taxpayer handouts.

…government data shows that offshore wind power cannot survive in a competitive environment without huge taxpayer subsidies. Today, wind power receives subsidies greater than any other form of energy per unit of actual energy produced. …public subsidies for wind on a per megawatt-hour basis are 26 times those for fossil fuels and 16 times those for nuclear power. …The tax credit gives $23 for every megawatt-hour of electricity a wind turbine generates during the first 10 years of operation. …Yet, even with these incentives, only 4.7 percent of the nation’s electricity is currently supplied by wind power and that is entirely wind power from on-land turbines. …Think about it: Four large power plants could produce as much electricity as offshore wind turbines placed side by side along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida. Moreover, power plants last longer than wind turbines. A British study found that turbines need to be replaced within 12 to 15 years, and they must be imported from Europe.

Given the disgusting nature of ethanol subsidies, I wonder whether Mark’s headline can possibly be accurate.

In any event, Senator Alexander of Tennessee agrees that wind subsidies are a bad idea.

As we look at all the wasteful and unnecessary tax breaks that are holding us back, I have a nomination: At the top of the list should be ending the quarter-century-old wind production tax credit now — not two years from now. This giveaway to wind developers was meant to end in 1999 but has been extended by Congress ten different times. While the wind production tax credit is scheduled to be phased out by the end of 2019, we should do better and end it at the end of this year, and use the $4 billion in savings to lower tax rates. …Congress needs to stop its habit of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. Twenty-five years of picking wind developers over more-reliable sources of electricity hasn’t paid off. Imagine what innovation we might unleash if we used the billions wasted on wind energy to invest in research to help our free-enterprise system provide the abundance of cheap, clean, reliable energy we need to power our 21st-century economy.

A recipient of tax preferences discusses his undeserved benefits in a Wall Street Journal column.

…it’s only appropriate that I express appreciation for the generous subsidy you provided for the 28-panel, four-array, 8,540-watt photovoltaic system I installed on my metal roof last year. Thanks to the investment tax credit, I slashed my 2016 federal tax bill by $7,758. …thanks to the incentives for rooftop solar, I’ve snared three subsidies. …fewer rooftop solar projects are being installed in low-income neighborhoods. …According to a study done for the California Public Utility Commission, residents who have installed solar systems have household incomes 68% higher than the state average. Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, calls the proliferation of rooftop solar systems and the returns they provide to lucky people like me, “a wealth transfer from less affluent ratepayers to more affluent ones.” It is, Mr. Brown says, “Robin Hood in reverse.” Do I feel bad about being a solar freeloader? Yes, a little. …the local barista or school janitor—people who likely can’t afford solar panels—are paying incrementally more for the grid’s maintenance and operation. And the more that people like me install panels, the more those baristas and janitors have to pay.

By the way, the United States is not the only nation with green-energy boondoggles (remember Solyndra?).

I’ve previously written about the failure of such programs in Germany.

Let’s add to that collection with an all-too-typical story from the United Kingdom.

Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn American wood pellets that do more harm to the climate than the coal they replaced, a study has found. Chopping down trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal, according to the report. It blames the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets… Green subsidies for wood pellets and other biomass were championed by Chris Huhne when he was Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government. Mr Huhne, 62, who was jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice, is now European chairman of Zilkha Biomass, a US supplier of wood pellets.

In a perverse way, I admire Mr. Huhne, who didn’t follow the usual revolving-door strategy of politician-to-cronyist. He apparently went politician-to-prisoner-to-cronyist.

If you head north in Great Britain, the foolishness mostly revolves around wind power.

…the blackmailing, money-printing sausage factory is a wind farm in Scotland. There are currently about 750 wind farms north of the border, with roughly 3,000 wind turbines. …The wind farms are distributed across Scotland, sometimes in very remote regions, so there is a real problem in getting their energy down to the English border – let alone getting it across. …Why has so much been built? Partly, it is because of income-support subsidies. This top-up of nearly 100 per cent over the wholesale price – funded, of course, from consumer bills – makes wind farms very attractive… Subsidies to onshore wind in the UK now cost a little under £600 million a year, with Scottish wind taking about half, yet the Scottish government continues to ignore the protests and consent to new wind farms as if they cost almost nothing at all. Which as far as Holyrood is concerned, is in fact true. Part of the attraction for Scottish politicians is that the subsidies that pay for Scottish wind farms come from consumers all over Great Britain. Scottish consumption is about 10 per cent of the British total – so when the Scottish government grants planning permission to the wind industry, it is simply writing a cheque drawn overwhelmingly on English and Welsh accounts. …The result is that there is a perverse incentive to locate wind farms in Scotland, even though they aren’t welcome and the grid can’t take their output.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that taxpayers in the U.K. have been subsidizing green groups.

From an economic perspective, the bottom line is that green energy is more expensive and it requires subsidies that line the pockets of politically connected people and companies. That’s true in America, and it’s true in other nations.

Which is unfortunate, because it gives a bad name to energy sources that probably will be capable of producing low-cost energy in some point in the future.

Indeed, my long-run optimism about green energy is one of the reasons why I’m such a big believer in capitalism and private property. I just don’t want politicians to intervene today and make it harder to achieve future innovation.

Sequesters Are Good for Prosperity, Tax-Hike Triggers Are Bad for Growth

Tue, 11/28/2017 - 12:06pm

I’ve been grousing all year that tax cuts and tax reform are jeopardized by the failure to restrain the growth of federal spending.

At the start of the year, I pointed out that it would be possible to both balance the budget and approve a $3 trillion tax cut if spending grew each year by an average of 1.96 percent.

That modest bit of fiscal discipline apparently was asking too much. When Trump’s budget was released in May, he proposed that spending should increase by an average of 3.5 percent annually.

But neither Trump nor Republicans on Capitol Hill have done much to hit even that lax target (which is especially disappointing since they actually did a good job of restraining spending when Obama was in the White House). So the federal budget instead is operating on auto-pilot and spending is now projected to increase by 5.2 percent annually, more than tw0-and-one-half times faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

Sigh. No wonder I’ve fretted that GOPers can’t be trusted to do the right thing.

The net result of all this is that there’s very little leeway for tax relief under congressional budget rules. This is why Republicans are looking at tax reform proposals that only have a modest tax cut in the first 10 years and no net tax cut after the first decade.

But even that may be too much to hope for.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are now considering an automatic tax hike as part of tax reform legislation. I’m not joking.

Senate Republicans are considering a trigger that would automatically increase taxes if their sweeping legislation fails to generate as much revenue as they expect. It’s an effort to mollify deficit hawks who worry that tax cuts for businesses and individuals will add to the nation’s already mounting debt. …The trigger would be a way for senators to test their economic assumptions, with real consequences if they are wrong. “Do we have realistic numbers and is there a backstop in the process just in case we don’t?” asked Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “We should build in the ‘What if?’ What if this doesn’t work?” Lankford said. “What changes might be needed in the tax code in the days ahead to be able to adjust in what scenario?” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the Trump administration and Senate Republican leaders are open to some kind of a trigger to increase revenues if the tax plan falls short. Neither Corker nor Lankford spelled out exactly how the trigger would work, noting that senators are still working on the proposal.

This is discouraging beyond words. I’m almost at the point of wanting the whole exercise to collapse.

But I don’t want to lose sight of two very important goals: Lowering the corporate rate and getting rid of the deduction for state and local income taxes (and I’m still fantasizing about a third goal of death tax repeal).

So let’s contemplate what a tax-hike trigger would mean.

First, what tax hikes would be imposed by a Trigger?

Any automatic tax hike is a bad idea, but not all tax increases are equally bad. If politicians insert a provision that automatically increases the corporate tax rate, that’s a very bad recipe for uncertainty and the result will be less growth. If the standard deduction for households is reduced, by contrast, the resulting increase in taxable income will give politicians more tax revenue but not cause as much harm.

Second, would a Trigger be linked to projected revenue(s)?

Based on the article, it appears that politicians are focused on potential revenue shortfalls. But are they looking at overall revenue, or revenue by category? This raises important questions, such as whether businesses should get hit by an automatic tax hike if individual tax collections fall short – or vice-versa.

Third, is a Trigger linked to deficit projections?

Early last decade, some politicians wanted tax-increase triggers based on what happens to deficits and/or debt. This approach would create a perverse scenario where taxpayers are punished when politicians over-spend. And what happens if there is a recession, which would mean falling tax revenues? Do politicians really want an automatic tax hike in a faltering economy?

Fourth, is a Trigger symmetrical, meaning automatic tax cuts are possible?

If taxpayers are punished when revenues fall short, simple fairness requires that they benefit if revenues rise faster than projected. Since the bean counters at the Joint Committee on Taxation almost surely will underestimate the pro-growth impact of a lower corporate tax rate, this is especially relevant when looking at specific sources of revenue.

Fifth, why not a spending-cut Trigger?

Since America’s long-run fiscal problems are entirely caused by excessive government spending, politicians who claim to be concerned about fiscal balance should support a provision to automatically restrain spending. Such a mechanism already exists, and it works very well. It’s called sequestration.

Sadly, the fifth option is not very likely. Under current law, there are partial spending caps as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act. But big-spending Republicans canceled the sequester in 2013, and then canceled another sequester in 2015.

So I won’t hold my breath for a sequester in 2017.

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