Back to Top

Center for Freedom and Prosperity (CF&P)

Subscribe to Center for Freedom and Prosperity (CF&P) feed
Updated: 2 hours 25 min ago

World’s Best Tweet about Socialism and Capitalism

Mon, 12/24/2018 - 12:57pm

I wrote a column earlier this month about the “world’s most depressing tweet,” which came from the Census Bureau and noted that the suburbs of Washington, DC, are the richest parts of America.

To be sure, I was engaging in a bit of hyperbole since a tweet about famine, war, or genocide surely would be more depressing. Nonetheless, I think it is a very bad sign that so many undeserving people are making so much money thanks to a bloated and cronyist central government.

Today I want to share another tweet that deserves some sort of special accolade.

I thought about calling it the “world’s best-ever tweet,” but I’m going to be more restrained and simply assert that it is the best tweet about socialism and capitalism.

“Real Socialism” has never been tried in the same way that “Real Capitalism” has never been tried.

The difference is ‘almost Socialism’ resulted in the impoverishment & death of hundreds of millions of people.

While ‘Almost Capitalism’ has lifted billions from absolute poverty.

— Mark (@markantro) January 23, 2018

This is spot on.

I’ve dealt with countless leftists who claim that the failure of places such as VenezuelaCubaNorth KoreaGreeceZimbabwe, and the Soviet Union don’t count because they weren’t “real socialism” or “real communism.”

Indeed, that’s even become a humorous theme (see herehere, and here from my collection of socialism/communism humor).

But shouldn’t we learn something from the fact that “almost socialism” invariably produces awful results?

Similarly, there has never been a society that is 100 percent capitalist. The world’s freest nations today, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, have state sectors that consume about 20 percent of economic output. Likewise, government consumed 10 percent of GDP during the height of the western world’s supposedly laissez-faire period in the 1800s.

That being said, shouldn’t we learn something from the fact that “almost capitalism” created the amazing hockey stick of human progress? Shouldn’t we learn something from the fact that “some capitalism” is capable of dramatically reducing global poverty?

P.S. If there was a prize for the most short-sighted, naive, and anti-empirical tweet, this example would win the prize.

P.P.S. And this tweet wins the prize for the best comeback. Consider it a case of tweet-on-tweet violence.

Subsidies for Higher Education Are Emptying the Pockets of Students and Lining the Pockets of Bureaucrats

Sun, 12/23/2018 - 12:10pm

I’m not as eloquent on the issue as Professor Daniel Lin, but I recently explained on Fox Business that government subsidies for higher education have enabled big increases in tuition, an outcome that has been good for bureaucrats and bad for students.

In effect, this is simply a story of “third-party payer,” which happens when consumers get to buy something with other people’s money.

Sellers respond by increasing prices since they know that consumers won’t care as much about price.

Indeed, this is the main problem plaguing America’s health sector.

Simply stated, government subsidies are a recipe for higher costs and inefficiency, regardless of the product or sector.

We definitely see the bad consequences in higher education. Mitch Daniels, the head of Purdue University, correctly identifies the problem of third-party payer in a column for the Washington Post.

…let’s design an economic sector guaranteed to cost too much. …we will sell a product deemed a necessity, with little or no option for the customer to avoid us altogether. Next, we will arrange to get paid for inputs, not outputs — how much we do, not how well we do it. We will make certain that actual results are difficult or impossible to measure with confidence. And we’ll layer on a pile of complex federal regulations to run up administrative costs. Then, and here’s the clincher, we will persuade the marketplace to flood our economic Eden with payments not from the user but from some third party. This will assure that the customer, insulated from true costs, will behave irrationally, often overconsuming and abandoning the consumerist judgment he practices at the grocery store or while Internet shopping. Presto! Guaranteed excessive spending, much of it staying in the pockets of the lucky producers. You say, “Oh, sure, this is American health care.” …Your answer is correct but incomplete. It worked so well in health care, we decided to repeat the formula with higher education. …by evading accountability for quality, regulating it heavily, and opening a hydrant of public subsidies in the form of government grants and loans, we have constructed another system of guaranteed overruns. It is the opposite of an accident that the only three pricing categories that have outpaced health care over recent decades are college tuition, room and board, and books.

Amen.

Daniels has done a great job controlling costs at Purdue, but I’m even more impressed that he is willing to look at the problems for our entire system of higher education (as such, I’ll forgive him for being the Budget Director during the big-spending Bush Administration).

I especially like his solution, which in part would require colleges to repay taxpayers if there are loan defaults, thus ensuring that they have some skin in the game.

…a promising movement is advancing in education to put some of the risk of lousy results — students who do not graduate or who graduate without having learned enough to earn their way in the world — on the institutions that “educated” them. It is about time. This game has been skinless far too long. …even a small degree of risk-sharing in higher education would cause significant behavior change. …Even a small charge, plus the embarrassment of its public announcement, would probably jar many schools from their complacent ruts.

By the way, some people (including Paul Krugman) claim higher tuition is caused by budget cuts. Preston Cooper shared some of his research on this issue in the Wall Street Journal.

A typical student in an American public college pays thousands of dollars more in tuition than just a decade ago. Students and parents are worried and frustrated, and many point the finger at state legislators… Hillary Clinton blamed “state disinvestment” in higher education for soaring tuition and declared her support for “free college.”While the “disinvestment” narrative is simple and appealing, it collapses under scrutiny. …Tuition goes up no matter what state legislators do. Public colleges, with state boundaries insulating them from competition, and generous federal student aid programs at their disposal, charge as much as they can get away with. Changes in state funding are largely irrelevant.

He’s right about federal aid enabling higher tuition. Academic scholars have found a very clear link.

Now let’s focus on the problem of ever-expanding bureaucracy.

David Frum points out in the Atlantic that college bureaucracies have done a marvelous job of….drum roll…advancing the interests of college bureaucracies.

One of the most famous essays on bureaucracy ever written was built upon a deceptively simple observation. Between 1914 and 1928, the number of ships in the British Navy declined by 67 percent. The ranks of officers and men shrank by 31 percent. But the number of Admiralty officials administering the shrunken force rose by 78 percent. …Here was the origin of Parkinson’s famous laws of bureaucracy, including “work expands to fill the time available” and “officials make work for each other.” …Why does college education cost so much? The Parkinson of American academia is Ralph Westfall, a professor at California Polytechnic University in Pomona. He computed in 2011 that over the 33 years from 1975 to 2008, the number of full-time faculty in the California state university system had barely increased at all: up from 11,614 to 12,019. Over the same period, the number of administrators had multiplied like little mushrooms: 3,000 had become 12,183. …with our universities. We’ve been thinking of them as institutions for teaching and learning—and wondering why we seem to be spending so much without achieving more. But if you think of them as institutions generating a perpetual cycle of employment in specialties for which there would otherwise be no demand at all? Why in that case, they are succeeding brilliantly.

George Will, in a column about political correctness and campus snowflakes, shares this factoid about bureaucracy in California’s higher-education system.

…between the 1997-1998 academic year and the Great Recession year of 2008-2009, while the University of California student population grew 33 percent and tenure-track faculty grew 25 percent, senior administrators grew 125 percent. “The ratio of senior managers to professors climbed from 1 to 2.1 to near-parity of 1 to 1.1,”

Writing for the Boston Globe, Professor Benjamin Ginsberg warned that higher tuition is feeding an ever-expanding bureaucracy

…over the last half-century, America’s universities have slowly been taken over by a burgeoning class of administrators and staffers who are less interested in training future entrepreneurs and thinkers as they are in turning institutions of learning into cash cows for a growing academic bureaucracy. …Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to university payrolls, even as budget crises force schools to shrink their full-time faculties. There are armies of functionaries – vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants. In turn, the ranks of administrators have expanded at nearly twice the rate of the faculty, while administrative staffs have outgrown the academics by nearly a factor of five. No wonder college is so expensive!

Let’s close with this bit of satire from the libertarian subreddit.

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton, when looking for solutions to a problem caused by government subsidies, recommended even more government subsidies.

Paul Ryan’s Legacy

Sat, 12/22/2018 - 12:04pm

Most politicians are contemptible. They are shallow, grasping, insecure clowns who want to expand the size and scope of government so they have more power to dictate how the rest of us live our lives.

To make matters worse, many of them know they are doing the wrong thing, but they don’t have the moral courage to resist the corrupt, go-along-to-get-along culture of Washington.

But that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. When people ask me what motivates politicians, I sometime explain the theory of “public choice.” In other cases, I tell the simple story of the guy who is endlessly conflicted between an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder.

And I tell them that a good politician is one who – more often than not – sides with the angel.

And that’s why, when asked to comment on the outgoing Speaker of the House, I applauded Paul Ryan. You can watch the entire interview here, but I’ve excerpted a segment that hits the two main points.

Simply stated, Ryan was instrumental in moving the ball forward on tax reform. I very much doubt we would have achieved a lower corporate tax rate or scaled back the state and local tax deduction without all the work he did during his time at the Budget Committee and Ways & Means Committee.

And while entitlement reform never happened, first because of Obama and now because of Trump, it’s nonetheless a remarkable achievement that Ryan was able to:

  • Put together budgets with genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.
  • Get those budgets approved by the House and Senate.

By the way, I’m not being a naive cheerleader.

Ryan had plenty of bad votes, including the horribly corrupt TARP bailout. And he routinely supported many other elements of George W. Bush’s big-government agenda.

And his tax record wasn’t perfect, either. His Roadmap budget plan had some great reforms, but also included a value-added tax. More recently, he supported the border-adjustment tax (sort of a pre-VAT).

But even Saint Ronald wasn’t perfect.

P.S. My biggest sin of omission in the interview is that I didn’t mention the de facto five-year spending freeze between 2009-2014, an achievement that largely overlapped with Ryan’s tenure as Chairman of the Budget Committee.

Fiscal Fights with Friends: If a Carbon Tax Is Imposed, Hauser’s Law Won’t Protect America from Bigger Government

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 12:55pm

I have a series of columns where I explore tactical disagreements with folks who generally favor free markets and less government.

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.
  • In Part IV, I highlighted reasons why conservatives should reject a federal program for paid parental leave.

Today, we’re going to revisit the carbon tax because Josiah Neeley and William Murray of the R Street Institute have a column in the Hill that claims that levy would not finance bigger government.

…There have been numerous tax rate changes in the past 70 years, with the marginal income tax rate falling from a high of over 90 percent in the 1950s to as low as 28 percent in the late 1980s. Yet during this entire time period, federal tax revenue has stayed in a fairly narrow band when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product, never rising above 20 percent or falling much below 15 percent between 1950 and 2018. This phenomenon, which keeps federal revenues within a relatively narrow band, is known as Hauser’s law…the belief that any kind of new taxation introduces even greater government spending is based on very little actual evidence. Instead, Hauser’s law provides evidence that certain kinds of tax swaps, such as exchanging an income tax for a carbon tax, may actually increase the rate of economic growth without increasing the tax share of the overall economy.

They also claim that higher taxes don’t lead to more spending.

…demand for government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around. This conclusion has important implications for the carbon tax debate. …The relative imperviousness of the gross domestic product tax percent equilibrium since the late 1940s suggests that spending pressures drive taxes and not the other way around.

I have two responses to this analysis.

First, I very much want Hauser’s Law to be true. It would be very comforting if politicians in Washington could never seize more than 20 percent of the private sector’s output.

Sadly, that’s simply not the case. Just look at Europe, where central governments routinely extract far more than 40 percent of economic output.

All that’s required is taxes that target lower- and middle-income taxpayers. That’s happened in Europe because of harsh value-added taxes, punitive payroll taxes, onerous energy taxes, and income taxes that impose very high rates on ordinary people.

Needless to say, a carbon tax would be a step in that direction.

Second, the authors offer zero evidence that “government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around.”

By contrast, there is some persuasive data for the “starve the beast” hypothesis, which is based on the notion that higher taxes will encourage more spending.

In other words, Milton Friedman was right when he warned that “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

Though I actually don’t think this causality debate is very important. The bottom line is that higher taxes are a bad idea if they trigger higher spending, and higher taxes also are a bad idea if they merely enable higher spending.

The column in the Hill is a spin-off from a recent study published by the R Street Institute.

Let’s look at that publication to further explore this issue. It starts with the basic hypothesis that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be desirable.

…a carbon tax…provides a source of revenue that can be put to beneficial purposes, such as funding cuts to other existing taxes. By using the revenue from a carbon tax to replace existing ones, such a revenue neutral “tax swap” would greatly reduce or eliminate the economic costs of the tax. Indeed, in some cases, even if benefits from reduced emissions are not considered, a tax swap could be a net positive for the economy. …many critics of a carbon tax are skeptical as to whether a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be enacted. Some critics go further, arguing that even if a carbon tax started out as revenue neutral, it would not remain so. …While there are no guarantees, the existing evidence suggests that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would not lead to larger government over the long term and could even shrink it.

I don’t object to the notion that a carbon tax would be theoretically desirable if it replaced a tax that did more damage per dollar collected, such as the corporate income tax.

My concern has always been such a swap is highly unlikely. Indeed, many proponents of the carbon tax are very explicit about wanting to use the revenues to create a new entitlement. That would be the worst outcome, assuming we want more growth.

And, as noted above, I don’t think Hauser’s Law would save us from higher overall taxes and a larger burden of government spending.

Interestingly, the study basically acknowledges the same thing.

…given that Hauser’s Law is not an iron law of economics, it would be imprudent to put too much weight on it when considering the effects of a tax swap.

There are a couple of other parts of the study that deserve attention, including the assertion that politicians would have a hard time using the carbon tax as a money machine.

…a carbon tax has natural limitations that preclude it from being used to generate ever-increasing amounts of tax revenue. This is because higher carbon-tax rates induce a more rapid fall in greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, limits the overall revenue collected from the tax. In fact, unlike revenue from income, sales or property taxes, which tends to increase over time even at a constant tax rate, revenue from a carbon tax is likely to remain stable or fall gradually as emissions decline.

Since I’m a fan of the Laffer Curve, I think this argument is very reasonable in theory.

In effect, the R Street Institute is making the same argument – excessive tax rates can reduce revenue – that Alexander Hamilton used when endorsing tariffs.

But where is the point where carbon taxes become excessive? I don’t know the answer, but I’m very worried that there would be ample leeway to collect a lot of tax revenue before getting close to the revenue-maximizing point (the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a $25-per-ton carbon tax would generate more than $1 trillion in the first ten years).

The bottom line is that I worry that a carbon tax likely would be akin to a value-added tax. Yes, there are negative feedback effects from a VAT, as I noted at the end of yesterday’s column. But that doesn’t change the fact that the revenue-generating capacity of the VAT helps to explain Europe’s bloated welfare states.

I understand how a carbon tax, in theory, might not enable bigger government. But I see no way, in reality, that politicians wouldn’t use this new levy to finance even more spending.

P.S. If you’re not already convinced that a carbon tax will mean bigger government, then all you need to know is that both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development support higher energy taxes for the United States.

World Bank Study Confirms the Ever-Increasing Damage of Ever-Increasing Tax Rates

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

A couple of weeks ago, I used a story about a local tax issue in Washington, DC, to make an important point about how new tax increases cause more damage than previous tax increases because “deadweight losses” increase geometrically rather than arithmetically.

Simply stated, if a tax of X does Y amount of damage, then a tax of 2X will do a lot more damage than 2Y.

This is the core economic reason why even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree that class-warfare taxes are so destructive. When you take a high tax rate and make it even higher, the damage grows exponentially.

As such, I was very interested to see a new study on this topic from the World Bank. It starts by noting that higher tax rates are the wrong way to address fiscal shortfalls.

…studies have used the narrative approach for individual or multi-country analyses (in all cases, focusing solely on industrial economies, and mostly on industrial European countries). These studies find large negative tax multipliers, ranging between 2 and 5. This recent consensus pointing to large negative tax multipliers, especially in industrial European countries, naturally entails important policy prescriptions. For example, as part of a more comprehensive series of papers focusing on spending and tax multipliers, Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi (2015) point that policies based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of short run output losses than tax based adjustments.

The four authors used data on value-added taxes to investigate whether higher tax rates did more damage or less damage in developing nations.

A natural question is whether large negative tax multipliers are a robust empirical regularity… In order to answer this highly relevant academic and policy question, one would ideally need to conduct a study using a more global sample including industrial and, particularly, developing countries. …This paper takes on this challenge by focusing on 51 countries (21 industrial and 30 developing) for the period 1970-2014. …we focus our efforts on building a new series for quarterly standard value-added tax rates (henceforth VAT rates). …We identify a total of 96 VAT rate changes in 35 countries (18 industrial and 17 developing).

The economists found that VAT increases did the most damage in developing nations.

…when splitting the sample into industrial European economies and the rest of countries, we find tax multipliers of 3:6 and 1:2, respectively. While the tax multiplier in industrial European economies is quite negative and statistically significant (in line with recent studies), it is about 3 times smaller (in absolute value) and borderline statistically significant for the rest of countries.

Here’s a chart showing the comparison.

Now here’s the part that merits close attention.

The study confirms that the deadweight loss of VAT hikes is higher in developed nations because the initial tax burden is higher.

Based on different types of macroeconomic models (which in turn rely on different mechanisms), the output effect of tax changes is expected to be small at low initial levels of taxation but exponentially larger when initial tax levels are high. Therefore, the distortions and disincentives imposed by taxation on economic activity are directly, and non-linearly, related to the level of tax rates. By the same token, for a given level of initial tax rates, larger tax rate changes have larger tax multipliers. …In line with theoretical distortionary and disincentive-based arguments, we find, using our novel worldwide narrative, that the effect of tax changes on output is indeed highly non-linear. Our empirical findings show that the tax multiplier is essentially zero under relatively low/moderate initial tax rate levels and more negative as the initial tax rate and the size of the change in the tax rate increase. …This evidence strongly supports distortionary and disincentive-based arguments regarding a nonlinear effect of tax rate changes on economic activity…the economy will inevitably suffer when taxes are increased at higher initial tax rate levels.

What makes these finding especially powerful is that value-added taxes are less destructive than income taxes on a per-dollar-raised basis.

So if taking a high VAT rate and making it even higher causes a disproportionate amount of economic damage, then imagine how destructive it is to increase top income tax rates.

P.S. The fact that a VAT is less destructive than an income tax is definitely not an argument for enacting a VAT. That would be akin to arguing that it would be fun to break your wrist because that wouldn’t hurt as much as the broken leg you already have.

I’ve even dealt with people who actually argue that a VAT isn’t economically destructive because it imposes the same tax on current consumption and future consumption. I agree with them that it is a good idea to avoid double taxation of saving and investment, but that doesn’t change the fact that a VAT increases the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

And that means less incentive to earn income in the first place.

Which is confirmed by the study.

Panels A and B in Figure 18 show the relationship between the VAT rate a and the perceived effect of taxes on incentives to work and invest, respectively, for a sample of 123 countries for the year 2014. Supporting our previous findings, the relationship is highly non-linear. While the perceived effect of taxes on the incentives to work and invest barely changes as VAT rates increase at low/moderate levels (approximately until the VAT rate reaches 14 percent), it falls rapidly for high levels of VAT rates.

Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

The moral of the story is that all tax increases are misguided, but class-warfare taxes wreak the most economic havoc.

P.S. Not everyone understands this common-sense observation. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office basically argued back in 2010 that a 100 percent tax rate was the way to maximize growth.

Baltimore’s Anti-Gun Government Offers Free Money to Gun Owners

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

I have many examples of gun control humor, all of which were created to mock anti-2nd Amendment zealotry.

But nothing I’ve ever read is as funny as this week’s gun buyback scheme by the Baltimore Police Department, which was organized by anti-gun politicians and bureaucrats.

Here’s what the Baltimore Sun reported about the buyback scheme.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle announced the launch of the gun buyback program at a news conference Tuesday at police headquarters. Pugh said the program is one strategy to try to reduce violence in the city… “We are coming towards the end of the year and we are doing everything we can to stay under a certain number, but I don’t want to even talk about that,” Pugh said, describing the buyback event as part of the city’s violence reduction initiatives. …Pugh did not say how much the buyback program would cost, but she believes the city has enough money for it. She said nonprofits would be contributing.

So why is this so funny? Shouldn’t I be upset that Baltimore politicians and bureaucrats want law-abiding people to give up guns, which will make life easierfor criminals?

After all, that is bad policy.

But there’s a very amusing part of this story. Baltimore is offering $25 for every “hi-capacity” magazine.

And this creates a very interesting opportunity to make a quick buck since a quick online search reveals that one popular magazine (holds 30 rounds, so easily qualifies) can be purchased for about $11-$13.

Before you buy a truckload of magazines in hopes of some easy cash, I must warn you that there is a slight obstacle. If the poster above is accurate, the buyback is only for residents of Baltimore.

That being said, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a local guy to act as your “straw seller.”

P.S. Some of you might feel guilty about participating since taxpayer money will be squandered on the buyback. That’s a noble sentiment. However, the story in the Sun also noted that some of the financing would come from nonprofits. And that means participants will probably be helping to deplete the bank accounts of George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. More money for you and less money for them is a win-win situation.

P.P.S. To the best of my recollection, my only other example of gun-buyback humor is at the end of this column.

In a Single Story, Everything You Need to Know about Waste and the Federal Government

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 12:51pm

What’s the most inefficient and wasteful part of the federal government?

It’s impossible to answer that question without greater detail.

Are we supposed to identify the worst cabinet-level department? If that’s the case, then bureaucracies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Education would be high on the list.

Or are we supposed to identify the most counter-productive activity of Washington? If that’s the case, then agriculture subsidiesjob-training programs. or subsidies for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development come to mind.

But what if we’re simply asked to identify the dumbest single thing our overlords in D.C. have financed? That would generate a very long (and ever-growing) list of options. Today, we’re going to look at an example.

Here’s a story that perfectly symbolizes the waste, ineffectiveness, and corruption of Washington.

Customs and Border Protection hired Accenture to hire and recruit 7,500 agents within the next five years. But just 10 months into the contract, only two accepted job offers have been processed, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. Accenture, a global management consulting company headquartered in Ireland, was awarded a $297 million contract to achieve the hiring goal. But the report says that $13.6 million has been spent in the last 10 months, and that CBP “risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a hastily approved contract that is not meeting its proposed performance expectations.” …CBP ultimately agreed to the four recommendations in the report, including that the CBP commissioner should assess Accenture’s performance.

This is outrageous on several levels.

  • First, federal employees make much more than folks in the private sector, so I’m mystified why it’s necessary to spend any money to attract applicants.
  • Second, why did Uncle Sam sign a contract to pay Accenture nearly $40,000 for each CBP agent hired, assuming the company fully delivered?
  • Third, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that it is absurd that taxpayers to date have paid $6.8 million each for two new CBP bureaucrats.

Sadly, there won’t be any consequences for this boondoggle, at least if history is any guide.

Nobody at the CBP will get fired.

Nobody at the CBP will be demoted.

Nobody at the CBP will lose a bonus.

Simply stated, people in the government don’t care whether our money is being wasted.

Before concluding, we need to add an additional reason to be outraged.

  • Fourth, this is an all-too-typical example of government contracting, with a “beltway bandit” scamming the system for unearned riches.

Maybe I should create a Waste Hall of Fame to augment the Moocher Hall of Fame and Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

In addition to this squalid Accenture contract, other examples could be the $15 million scam to improve the IRS’s image, the State Department paying 35 times the market price for some Kindles, bonuses for VA bureaucrats who left veterans to die on waiting lists, gold-plated renovations for the CFPB headquarters, and $6,000-a-piece interviews about erectile dysfunction.

New Research: Even Talking about Tax Increases Can Cause Economic Damage

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 12:38pm

I recently wrote about the failed 1990 budget deal. My big complaint was that President George H.W. Bush compounded the mistake of higher taxes by also allowing a big increase in the burden of government spending.

However, I didn’t blame the agreement for that year’s recession for the simple reason that the downturn began in July and the tax hike was signed in November (that would make me like Paul Krugman, who wanted people to think that Estonia’s 2008 recession was caused by spending cuts in 2009).

But maybe I’m not being sufficiently critical. After all, Bush announced he would abandon his no-tax pledge in June, and that was then followed by months of tax-hike negotiations. Isn’t it reasonable to think all that talk would have a negative effect, especially on investors and business owners?

The answer may be yes, at least in part. There’s a very interesting new study by Sandra García-Uribe at Spain’s central bank. She examines how the anticipation of tax changes affects economic performance.

Prior to the approval of laws, there is often widespread information about the progress of bills. This information may be valuable for the forecasts that agents make about the economic environment in the future. …This paper provides a way to account for the economic responses to anticipation of tax shocks… In this paper I introduce a new measure of mass media anticipations of tax bill approvals by exploiting the content of news in the US television during the period 1968-2007. …this is the first paper that exploits a dynamic factor model to account for fiscal policy effects on economic activity. The factor specification considers the dynamics of the factor and the potential effects of tax changes and their anticipation on it.

She’s definitely correct about there being a process for tax legislation, so people (“agents” in economic jargon) have ample warning.

The study includes data on how tax increases harm growth once they are adopted.

Figure 3 presents the implementation effects of exogenous tax liability changes on economic activity, in the period 1948 to 2007…The figure shows the cumulative effects in terms of an increase in tax liabilities of a one percent of QGDP together with the one-standard-error bands. The maximum effects are achieved 29 months after implementation of the tax changes when monthly economic activity growth drops by 99.56%. …the maximum implementation effect of a 1% of QGDP increase of tax liabilities is a reduction of monthly economic activity growth of 0,28%. …For the period that we dispose of television data, 1968 to 2007, immediate implementation effects are -6.6% for monthly economic activity growth. Two months after implementation the effects are -10.7%. Maximum effects are a -69.1% and happen 25 months after implementation.

Here’s a chart showing the negative impact of tax increases.

But does the discussion of tax changes also impact the economy?

According to the research, the answer is yes.

Anticipating tax increases reduces economic activity by 1,36% while anticipating tax cuts stimulates it by 3,04%. …Conditional on the media release of information about a potential tax approval, it is likely that people is aware of what is the net tax liability change associated to the potential approval since media also makes reference to terms like ”increase”, ”rise” or ”cut”. There are 20 episode approvals in the sample and learning how to predict the sign joint to the approval based on 10 approvals per sign resulted in something unfeasible. I construct an indicator variable that captures the mention of ”increase” or ”rise” within the tax news to approximate the possibility of a tax rise approval. …In columns (3) and (4) I control for this indicator and its interaction with media anticipation of tax approvals …A 10% probability of tax approvals conditional on the tax news at t not mentioning tax increases significantly stimulates current monthly economic activity growth by 3.04%. In the case of the media mentioning tax increases the effect is a reduction of monthly economic activity growth by 1.36%.

For economic junkies, here’s the relevant table from the study.

By the way, none of this changes my view that monetary policy is always the first place to look when assigning blame for economic downturns and volatility.

Simply stated, taxation is just one of many factors that determine economic performance. But the fact that it’s not the only thing that matters doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very bad idea to increase the tax burden.

Trade and Creative Destruction

Sun, 12/16/2018 - 12:35pm

I have a four-part video series on trade-related topics.

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

Here’s Part III, which explains how trade (whether domestic or international) leads to creative destruction, which results in some painful short-run costs but also yields immense long-run benefits.

I recently argued that creative destruction is the best part and worst part of capitalism.

It’s bad if you’re a worker in a company that loses out (or if you’re an investor in that company). but it’s also what enables us to become more prosperous over time.

I’m not alone. Writing for CapX, Oliver Wiseman reviewed Capitalism in America, a new book by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge. Here are some key observations.

…there was nothing predictable about America’s rise from colonial backwater to world-beating economy. …The fight for independence began a year before the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations; “the new country was conceived in a revolt against a mercantilist regime that believes a nation’s economic success was measured by the size of its stock of gold.” …The Constitution’s limits on the power of the majority set America apart from the rest of the world and “did far more than anything else to guarantee America’s future prosperity…” On top of this fortuitous start is the country’s “greatest comparative advantage”: its “talent for creative destruction”, the driving force of innovation, growth and prosperity that “disequilibriates every equilibrium and discombobulates every combobulation”. Americans realised that “destruction is more than an unfortunate side effect of creation. It is part and parcel of the same thing”. …The result is a system that has squeezed more productive energy out of its human capital than other countries, and generated unparalleled prosperity.

For those interested in economic history, Joseph Schumpeter gets most of the credit for developing the concept of creative destruction.

This Powerpoint slide is a nice summary of Schumpeter’s contribution (notwithstanding the fact that the person misspelled his name).

And here’s a Tweet showing that Schumpeter was under no illusions about the folly of socialism.

Turns out, Schumpeter was a troll. pic.twitter.com/7ApBK5UYSy

— Damir Marusic (@dmarusic) December 12, 2018

The bottom line is that creative destruction is what gives us churning, and churning is what dethrones rich and powerful incumbents. My friends on the left should be cheering for it.

Instead, they push for regulations and taxes that hinder creative destruction. And that means less long-run prosperity for all of us.

Piketty Urges Higher Taxes in Response to French Tax Revolt

Sat, 12/15/2018 - 12:20pm

Less than 10 years ago, many European nations suffered fiscal crises because of a combination of excessive spendingpunitive taxes, and crippling debt.

The crises have since abated, largely because of direct and indirect bailouts. But the underlying policy mistakes haven’t been fixed.

Indeed, the burden of government spending has increased in Europe and debt levels today are much higher than they were when the previous crisis began.

Unsurprisingly, these large fiscal burdens have resulted in anemic economic performance, which helps to explain why middle-class French taxpayers launched nationwide protests in response to a big increase in fuel taxes.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, capitulated.

But some have suggested that Macron’s problem is that he wasn’t sufficiently bold.

I’m not joking. Led by Thomas Piketty, a few dozen European leftists have issued a Manifesto for bigger government.

We, European citizens, from different backgrounds and countries, are today launching this appeal for the in-depth transformation of the European institutions and policies. This Manifesto contains concrete proposals, in particular a project for a Democratization Treaty and a Budget Project… Our proposals are based on the creation of a Budget for democratization which would be debated and voted by a sovereign European Assembly. …This Budget, if the European Assembly so desires, will be financed by four major European taxes, the tangible markers of this European solidarity. These will apply to the profits of major firms, the top incomes (over 200,000 Euros per annum), the highest wealth owners (over 1 million Euros) and the carbon emissions (with a minimum price of 30 Euros per tonne).

Here are the taxes they propose as part of their plan to expand the burden of government spending.

I’m surprised they didn’t include a tax on financial transactions.

And here’s a video (in French, but with English subtitles) explaining their scheme.

To put it mildly, this plan is absurd. It would impose another layer of government and another layer of tax on a continent that already is suffocating because the public sector is too large.

I’m not the only one with concerns.

In a column for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky points out why he is underwhelmed by Piketty’s proposal.

The reforms proposed by Piketty and a group of intellectuals and politicians — notably Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s leftist Podemos party — include the creation of a European Assembly. It would have the power to shape a common budget and impose common taxes…Piketty advocates four measures that would collect a total equivalent to 4 percent of Europe’s GDP… What is being proposed is essentially a return to the fiscal policies of the 1970s, which provoked Astrid Lindgren to write her satirical essay “Pomperipossa in Monismania.” In 1976, the children’s author was confronted with a tax bill of 102 percent of her income. …Hit them with new taxes and watch them flee to the U.S. and Asia. They won’t stay like patriotic Lindgren, whose essay helped to topple the Swedish government in 1976. And no amount of government funding…will repair the damage that envy-based taxation can wreak on economies already finding it hard to innovate.

Let’s not forget, by the way, the many thousands of French households who also have suffered 100 percent-plus tax rates.

But let’s not digress.

Writing for CapX, John Ashmore explains why Piketty’s plan will make Europe’s problems even worse.

…a group of politicians, academics and policy wonks spearheaded by…French economist Thomas Piketty…have put their names to a new Manifesto for the Democratisation of Europe. …For the most part, the manifesto reads like a souped up version of the kind of policies we’ve heard time and again from leftwing politicians. …The details of today’s ‘manifesto’ make Labour’s Marxist Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell look like a moderate centrist. Where Labour advocate putting corporation tax back up to 26 per cent, Piketty and co want it hiked to 37 per cent. And while we Brits spent plenty of the Coalition years discussing whether income tax should be 45p or 50p in the pound, the Manifesto goes all guns blazing for a 65 per cent top rate… these measures are projected to raise 800bn euros, equivalent to four times the current EU budget. …that would be a huge transfer of power, not from the rich from the poor, but from taxpayers to politicians.

A 65-percent top tax rate? At the risk of understatement, that’s a recipe for less entrepreneurship and less innovation.

Moreover, based on America’s experience during the Reagan years, it’s safe to say that actual tax receipts would fall far, far short of the projection.

But the higher spending would be real, as would the inevitable increase in red ink. And it’s worth noting that the Manifesto proposes to subsidize the debt of bankrupt welfare states. Very much akin to the eurobond scheme, which I pointed out would be like cosigning a loan for an unemployed alcoholic with a gambling addiction.

P.S. During my recent trip to London, I repeatedly warned people that a real Brexit was the only sensible choice because the European Union at some point will fully morph into a transfer union (i.e., a European budget financed by European taxes). It was nice of Piketty to issue a Manifesto that confirms my concerns. Simply stated, the United Kingdom will be much better off in the long run if it escapes.

P.P.S. Let’s not forget that Piketty’s core argument for class warfare has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked. Indeed, only 3 percent of economists agree with his theory.

How Washington Profits from “Tax Extenders”

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 12:18pm

Since I’m a proponent of tax reform, I don’t like special favors in the tax code.

Deductions, exemptions, credits, exclusions, and other preferences are back-door forms of cronyism and government intervention.

Indeed, they basically exist to lure people into making decisions that otherwise aren’t economically rational.

These distortionary provisions help to explain why we have a hopelessly convoluted and deeply corrupt tax code of more than 75,000 pages.

And they also encourage higher tax rates as greedy politicians seek alternative sources of revenue.

This current debate over “tax extenders” is a sad illustration of why the system is such a mess.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy explains how special interests work the system.

Tax extenders are temporary and narrowly targeted tax provisions for individuals and businesses. Examples include the deductibility of mortgage-insurance premiums and tax credits for coal produced from reserves owned by Native American tribes. …These tax provisions were last authorized as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which retroactively extended them through the end of 2017, after which they have thus far been left to remain expired. If Congress indeed takes up extenders during the current lame-duck session, any extended provisions are likely to once again apply retroactively through the end of 2018, or perhaps longer. There are several problems with this approach to tax policy. Frequently allowing tax provisions to expire before retroactively reauthorizing them creates uncertainty that undermines any potential benefits from incentivizing particular behaviors.

To make matters more complicated, a few of the extenders are good policy because they seek to limit double taxation (a pervasive problem in the U.S. tax system).

…not all tax extenders are a problem. Some are meant to avoid or limit the double taxation of income that’s common in our tax code. Those extenders should be preserved. Yet others are straightforward giveaways to special interests. Those should be eliminated.

Veronique suggests a sensible approach.

It’s time for a new approach under which tax extenders are evaluated and debated on their individual merits. The emphasis should be on eliminating special-interest handouts or provisions that otherwise represent bad policy. Conversely, any and all worthy provisions should be made permanent features of the tax code. …The dire need to fix the federal budget, along with the dysfunctional effects from extenders, should provide the additional motivation needed to end this practice once and for all.

Needless to say, Washington is very resistant to sensible policies.

In part, that’s for the typical “public choice” reasons (i.e., special interests getting into bed with politicians to manipulate the system).

But the debate over extenders is even sleazier than that.

As Howard Gleckman explained for Forbes, lobbyists, politicians, and other insiders relish temporary provisions because they offer more than one bite at the shakedown apple.

If you are a lobbyist, this history represents scalps on your belt (and client fees in your pocket). If you are a member of Congress, it is the gift that keeps on giving—countless Washington reps and their clients attending endless fundraisers, all filling your campaign coffers, election after election. An indelible image: It is pre-dawn in September, 1986. House and Senate tax writers have just completed their work on the Tax Reform Act.  A lobbyist friend sits forlornly in the corner of the majestic Ways & Means Committee hearing room. “What’s wrong,” I naively ask, “Did you lose some stuff?” Oh no, he replies, he got three client amendments in the bill. And that was the problem. After years of billable hours, his gravy train had abruptly derailed. The client got what it wanted. Permanently. And it no longer needed him. Few make that mistake now. Lawmakers, staffs, and lobbyists have figured out how to keep milking the cash cow. There are now five dozen temporary provisions, all of which need to be renewed every few years. To add to the drama, Congress often lets them expire so it can step in at the last minute to retroactively resurrect the seemingly lifeless subsidies.

In other words, the temporary nature of extenders is a feature, not a bug.

This is a perfect (albeit depressing) example of how the federal government is largely a racket. It enriches insiders (as I noted a few days ago) and the rest of us bear the cost.

All of which reinforces my wish that we could rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax. Not only would we get more growth, we would eliminate a major avenue for D.C. corruption.

P.S. I focused today on the perverse process, but I can’t help but single out the special tax break for electric vehicles, which unquestionably is one of the most egregious tax extenders.

EV tax credits…subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Recent research by Dr. Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows that 79 percent of EV tax credits were claimed by households with adjusted gross incomes greater than $100,000. Asking struggling Americans to subsidize the lifestyles of America’s wealthiest is perverse… Voters also shouldn’t be fooled by the promise of large environmental benefits. Modern internal combustion engines emit very little pollution compared to older models. Electric vehicles are also only as clean as the electricity that powers them, which in the United States primarily comes from fossil fuels.

was hoping that provisions such as the EV tax credit would get wiped out as part of tax reform. Alas, it survived.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I especially dislike government flood insuranceSocial Securitygovernment-run lotteries, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts. Let’s add the EV tax credit to this shameful list.

George H.W. Bush: Good Man, Bad President

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:49pm

I’m not a fan of President Bush. The first one or the second one.

Both adopted policies that, on net, reduced economic liberty.

Today, let’s focus on the recently deceased George H.W. Bush (a.k.a., Bush 41). By all accounts, he was a very good man, but that doesn’t mean he was a very good president. Or even a mildly good one.

Steve Moore’s column in the Washington Times is a damning indictment of his infamous read-my-lips tax betrayal.

Liberals love George H.W. Bush for the very tax increase betrayal that destroyed his presidency. …This was not just the political blunder of the half-century, it was a fiscal policy catastrophe. …What the history books are writing is that Mr. Bush showed political “courage” in breaking his “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge, and he was thrown out of office for doing the right thing.Wrong. The quick story is that the Reagan expansion — in no small part due to the reduction of the highest tax rates from 70 percent to 28 percent — was shrinking deficit spending dramatically by the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The budget deficit had fallen in half down to 2.9 percent of GDP by 1988. It was headed to below 2 percent if Mr. Bush simply had did nothing. …the 1990 budget deal became a license for Democrats to spend and spend. …Government expenditures accelerated at a faster pace than at any time in 30 years. In two years time, the domestic budget grew by almost 20 percent above inflation. …The tax increases either caused the recession or exacerbated it — ending the Reagan expansion. The economy lost 100,000 jobs and the unemployment rate rose and the unemployment rate rose from 5.5 percent to 7.4 percent. Real disposable income fell from 1990 to the eve of the 1992 election. If this tax hike was a success, so was the Hindenburg.

There’s a lot of good analysis in Steve’s column.

But I want to emphasize the part about the budget deficit being on a downward trajectory when Reagan left the White House. That’s absolutely accurate, as confirmed by both OMB and CBO projections.

All Bush needed to do was maintain the Gipper’s pro-market policies.

Unfortunately, he decided that “kinder and gentler” meant putting Washington first and giving politicians and bureaucrats more power over the economy.

And not just on fiscal policy.

Jim Bovard points out in USA Today that Bush 41 also had some very unseemly bouts of protectionism.

Bush was the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover. Like Trump, he spoke of the need for level playing fields and fair trade. But Bush-style fairness gave federal bureaucrats practically endless vetoes over Americans’ freedom to choose foreign goods. Bush’s Commerce Department ravaged importers with one bureaucratic scam after another, using the dumping law to convict 97 percent of imports investigated, claiming that their prices were unfairly low to American producers (not consumers). Bush also ordered the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate after ice cream imports threatened to exceed one percent of the U.S. market. And he perpetuated import quotas on steel and machine tools. …he slapped new textile import quotas on Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines, Burma (now Myanmar), Costa Rica, Panama, Pakistan and many other nations. Mexico was allowed to sell Americans only 35,292 bras in 1989 — part of a byzantine regime that also restricted imports of tampons, typing ribbons, tarps, twine, table linen, tapestries, ties and thousands of other products.

To be fair, George H.W. Bush played a key role in moving forward NAFTA and the WTO/GATT, so his record on trade is mixed rather than bad.

Let’s return to the tax issue. Alan Reynolds explains that the Bush 41 tax hike was a painful example of the Laffer Curve in action.

The late President G.H.W. Bush famously reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge… The new law was intended to raise more revenue from high-income households and unincorporated businesses.  It was supposed to raise revenue partly by raising the top tax rate from 28% to 31% but more importantly by phasing-out deductions and personal exemptions… Treasury estimates expected revenues after the 1990 budget deal to be higher by a half-percent of GDP.  What happened instead is that revenues fell from 17.8% of GDP in 1989 to 17.3% in 1991, and then to 17% in 1992 and 1993.  Instead of rising from 17.8% of GDP to 18.3% as initial estimates assumed, revenues fell to 17%. …A recession began in October 1990, just as the intended tax increase was being enacted.  To blame the weak revenues of 1991-93 entirely on that brief recession begs the obvious question: To what extent was a recession that began with a tax increase caused or at least worsened by that tax increase?  …When discussing tax increases (or tax cuts), journalists and economists must take care to distinguish between intended effects on revenue and actual effects.

We’ll never know, of course, how the 1990 tax increase impacted the economy. As a general rule, I think monetary policy is the first place to look when assigning blame for downturns.

But there’s no question that the tax increase wasn’t helpful.

That being said, my biggest complaint about Bush 41 was not his tax increase. It was all the new spending.

Not just new spending in general. What’s especially galling is that he allowed domestic spending to skyrocket. Almost twice as fast as it increased under Obama and more than twice the rate of increase we endured under Clinton and Carter.

The opposite of Reaganomics, to put it mildly.

There’s No Galt’s Gulch, but New Zealand, Switzerland, and Hong Kong Are the Next-Best Alternatives

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 9:27pm

What’s the world’s freest nation?

I’ve suggested that Australia as an option if the United States ever suffers a Greek-style collapse, but my answer wasn’t based solely on that country’s level of freedom.

Another option is to look at Economic Freedom of the World, which is an excellent resource, but it only measures the degree to which a nation allows free markets.

If you want to know the world’s freest nation, the best option is to peruse the Human Freedom Index.  First released in 2013, it combines economic freedom and personal freedom.

The 2018 version has just been published, and, as you can see, New Zealand is the world’s most-libertarian nation, followed by Switzerland and Hong Kong. The United States is tied with Sweden for #17.

If you scan the top-20 list, you’ll notice that North America, Western Europe, and the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) dominate.

And that also is apparent on this map (darker is better). So maybe “western civilization” isn’t so bad after all.

Here is an explanation of the report’s guiding methodology. Simply stated, it’s a ranking of “negative liberty,” which is basically freedom from government coercion.

The Human Freedom Index casts a wide net in an attempt to capture as broad a set of freedoms as could be clearly identified and measured. …Freedom in our usage is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined by the absence of coercive constraint. …Freedom thus implies that individuals have the right to lead their lives as they wish as long as they respect the equal rights of others. Isaiah Berlin best elucidated this notion of freedom, commonly known as negative liberty. In the simplest terms, negative liberty means noninterference by others. …This index is thus an attempt to measure the extent to which the negative rights of individuals are respected in the countries observed. By negative rights, we mean freedom from interference—predominantly by government—in people’s right to choose to do, say, or think anything they want, provided that it does not infringe on the rights of others to do likewise.

Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between personal freedom and economic freedom.

Though it’s not a perfect correlation. The Index highlights some of the exceptions.

Some countries ranked consistently high in the human freedom subindexes, including Switzerland and New Zealand, which ranked in the top 10 in both personal and economic freedom. By contrast, some countries that ranked high on personal freedom rank significantly lower in economic freedom. For example, Sweden ranked 3rd in personal freedom but 43rd in economic freedom; Slovenia ranked 23rd in personal freedom but 71st in economic freedom; and Argentina ranked in 42nd place in personal freedom but 160th in economic freedom. Similarly, some countries that ranked high on economic freedom found themselves significantly lower in personal freedom. For example, Singapore ranked in 2nd place in economic freedom while ranking 62nd in personal freedom; the United Arab Emirates ranked 37th in economic freedom but 149th in personal freedom; and Qatar ranked 38th in economic freedom but 134th in personal freedom.

This raises an interesting question. If you had to move, and assuming you couldn’t move to a nation that offered both types of freedom, would you prefer a place like Sweden or a place like Singapore?

As an economist, my bias would be to choose Singapore.

But if you look at the nations in the top-10 for personal freedom, they’re all great place to live (and they tend to be very market-oriented other than their big welfare states). So I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for instead choosing Sweden.

P.S. There are some very attractive micro-states that were not including in the Human Freedom Index, presumably because of inadequate data. I suspect places such as BermudaLiechtensteinMonaco, and the Cayman Islands would all get very high scores if they were included.

More Evidence for Private Social Security

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 12:46pm

The world is in the middle of a dramatic demographic transition caused by increasing lifespans and falling birthrates.

One consequence of this change is that traditional tax-and-transfer, pay-as-you-go retirement schemes (such as Social Security in the United States) are basically bankrupt.

The problem is so acute that even the normally statist bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are expressing considerable sympathy for reforms that would allow much greater reliance on private savings (shifting to what is known as “funded” systems).

Countries should introduce funded arrangements gradually… Policymakers should carefully assess the transition as it may put an additional, short-term, strain on public finances… Tax rules should be straightforward, stable and consistent across all retirement savings plans. …Countries with an “EET” tax regime should maintain the deferred taxation structure… Funded, private pensions may be expected to support broader economic growth and accelerate the development of local capital markets by creating a pool of pension savings that must be invested. The role of funded, private pensions in economic development is likely to become more important still as countries place a higher priority on the objective of labour force participation. Funded pensions increase the incentive to work and save and by encouraging older workers to stay in the labour market they can help to address concerns about the sustainability and adequacy of public PAYG pensions in the face of demographic changes.

Here’s a chart from the OECD report. It shows that many developed nations already have fully or partly privatized systems.

By the way, I corrected a glaring mistake. The OECD chart shows Australia as blue. I changed it to white since they have a fully private Social Security system Down Under.

The report highlights some of the secondary economic benefits of private systems.

Funded pensions offer a number of advantages compared to PAYG pensions. They provide stronger incentives to participate in the labor market and to save for retirement. They create a pool of savings that can be put to productive use in the broader economy. Increasing national savings or reallocating savings to longer-term investment supports the development of financial markets. …More domestic savings reduces dependency on foreign savings to finance necessary investment. Higher investment may lead to higher productive capacity, increasing GDP, wages and employment, higher tax revenues and lower deficits.

Here’s the chart showing that countries with private retirement systems are among the world leaders in pension assets.

The report highlights some of the specific nations and how they benefited.

Over the long term, transition costs may be at least partially offset by additional positive economic effects associated with introducing private pensions rather than relying solely on public provision. …poverty rates have declined in Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland since mandatory funded pensions were introduced. The initial transformation of Poland’s public PAYG system into a multi-pillar DC approach helped to encourage Warsaw’s development as a financial centre. …the introduction of funded DC pensions in Chile encouraged the growth of financial markets and provided a source of domestic financing.

For those seeking additional information on national reforms, I’ve written about the following jurisdictions.

At some point, I also need to write about the Singaporean system, which is one of the reasons that nation is so successful.

P.S. Needless to say, it would be nice if the United States was added to this list at some point. Though I won’t be holding my breath for any progress while Trump is in the White House.

Research on Why Lower-Income People Are Skeptical about a Bigger Welfare State

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 12:28pm

There was a book last decade by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that asked why lower-income voters in the state didn’t vote for greater levels of redistribution.

The author claimed these voters were sidetracked by cultural issues, which may very well be part of the story. I like to think that these Kansans also were motivated by ethics and that they realized it would be wrong to use government coercion to take money from other people.

And maybe, unlike the folks at the IMF, they were not motivated by envy and they realized that high taxes and more redistribution would make them worse off over time because of the negative impact on overall prosperity.

Well, it appears that the folks in Kansas aren’t that different from people in India, Morocco, Nigeria, Mexico, and South Africa. At least that’s the takeaway from some new research that Christopher Hoy wrote about for the World Bank. Here’s the issue he investigated.

Social commentators and researchers struggle to explain why, despite growing inequality in many countries around the world,  there is often relatively limited support among poorer people for policies where they are set to benefit (such as increases in cash transfers or in the minimum wage). …Conventional theories of preferences for redistribution, such as the Meltzer-Richard Hypothesis, imply that if poor people were made aware they were relatively poorer than most other people in their country, they would become more supportive of redistribution. Yet there is little empirical evidence that evaluates this prediction. …empirical evidence is needed to understand how poorer people’s misperceptions of their relative position in the national income distribution effects their support for redistribution.

Here’s the methodology he used.

I conducted the first cross country survey experiment on preferences for redistribution in the developing world… The experiment involved over 16,000 respondents in five developing countries that make up almost 25% of the global population (India, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Morocco). …To test whether informing poor people of their relative position in the national income distribution makes them more supportive of redistribution, I randomly allocate half of the respondents in each country to be told which quintile their household belongs to in the national income distribution (based upon their reported household income and the number of household members). …After the treatment they were asked if they thought the gap between the rich and poor was too large and whether the government was responsible for closing this gap.

And here are some of the results.

People tend to think they are in the middle of the income distribution, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. …poor people who perceived themselves to be in the bottom two quintiles of the distribution were between 15 to 28 percentage points more likely to prefer lower levels of inequality than poor people who perceived themselves to be in the top two quintiles. …Surprisingly, telling poor people that they are poorer than they thought makes them less concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country…there was no effect from the treatment on these people’s support for the government to close the gap between the rich and poor.

Here’s a chart showing how people became less sympathetic to government-coerced redistribution after learning more about their own economic status.

The author speculates on possible reasons for these results.

A plausible channel that is causing this effect is people using their own living standard as a ‘benchmark’ for what they consider acceptable for others. …people…realise two points. Firstly, there are fewer people in their country with a living standard they considered to be relatively poor than they had thought. Secondly, what they had considered to be an ‘average’ living standard (their own standard of living) is actually relatively poor compared to other people in their country. I show how both of these points would lead people to respond by being less likely to be concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country. …there are opposing channels through which poorer people’s preferences for redistribution respond to information about their relative position. On the one hand, poorer people may be more supportive if they are set to benefit from redistribution. However, on the other hand they may be less supportive if they are less concerned about the absolute living standard of people who are relatively poor.

These are all plausible answers.

Though I have the same questions about this research as I did about Frank’s book. Do people in these five developing nations have any level of moral aversion to redistribution and/or do they understand (at least implicitly) that a tax-and-redistribute model is a recipe for national economic decline?

Perhaps a more practical way of looking at the issue is to ask whether lower-income people care most about economic growth or economic inequality.

Many of the professional left, including the ideologues at the IMF, are fixated on the latter and they’re willing to hurt the poor if the rich suffer even greater harm (in other words, Margaret Thatcher was right about their motives).

By contrast, I strongly suspect the average lower-income person is far more interested in more prosperity for their family and far less concerned about the prosperity of the rich family on the other side of town. They presumably are unaware of the powerful Chinese data on poverty reduction and inequality, but they instinctively understand that a rising tide lifts all boats.

The World’s Most Depressing Tweet

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

I periodically will make use of “most depressing” in the title of a column when sharing bad news.

And new data from the Census Bureau definitely qualifies as bad news. It confirms what I’ve written about how the Washington region has become the richest part of America.

But the D.C. area didn’t become wealthy by producing value. Instead, it’s rolling in money because of overpaid bureaucratsfat-cat lobbyistssleazy politiciansbeltway-bandit contractors, and other grifters who have figured out how to hitch a ride on the federal gravy train.

Anyhow, here’s a tweet with the bad news (at least if you’re a serf elsewhere in America who is paying taxes to keep Washington fat and happy).

Highest counties by median household income (2013-2017):
-Loudoun County, Va.
-Fairfax County, Va.
-Howard County, Md.
-Falls Church City, Va.
-Arlington County, Va. https://t.co/1AA3U00xBA #ACSdata

— U.S. Census Bureau (@uscensusbureau) December 6, 2018

Most of my friends who work for the federal government privately will admit that they are very fortunate.

But when I run into someone who denies that bureaucrats get above-market compensation, I simply share this data from the Labor Department. That usually shuts them up.

By the way, there’s strong evidence from the European Central Bank that overpaid bureaucrats have a negative impact on macroeconomic performance.

And the World Bank has produced a study showing how bureaucrats manipulate the political process.

…public sector workers are not just simply implementers of policies designed by the politicians in charge of supervising them — so called agents and principals, respectively. Public sector workers can have the power to influence whether politicians are elected, thereby influencing whether policies to improve service delivery are adopted and how they are implemented, if at all. This has implications for the quality of public services: if the main purpose of the relationship between politicians and public servants is not to deliver quality public services, but rather to share rents accruing from public office, then service delivery outcomes are likely to be poor.

Here’s my video explaining how bureaucrats are overpaid. It was filmed in 2010, so many of the numbers are now out-dated, but the arguments are just as strong today as they were back then.

But keep in mind that the bureaucracy is only one piece of the puzzle.

The D.C. metropolitan region is unjustly rich because of everyone else who has figured out how to divert taxpayer money into their pockets. That includes disgusting examples of Democrat sleaze and Republican sleaze.

Simply stated, Washington is riddled with rampant corruption as insiders get rich at our expense. No wonder many of them object to my license plate!

P.S. Here’s some data comparing the size and cost of bureaucracy in various nations.

France, Taxes, and Riots

Sat, 12/08/2018 - 12:21pm

Maybe there’s hope for France. When GreeksBelgians, and the Brits riot, it’s because they want more handouts.

The French, by contrast, have taken to the streets to protest higher taxes. And they have plenty of reasons to be upset, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

France became the most heavily taxed of the world’s rich countries in 2017… The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual review of taxes in its 36 members published on Wednesday showed the French government’s tax revenues were the equivalent of 46.2% of economic output, up from 45.5% in 2016 and 43.4% in 2000. The Danish government’s tax take, which was the highest among OECD members between 2002 and 2016, fell to 46% of gross domestic product from 46.2% in the previous year and 46.9% in 2000. …The rise in French tax revenues was in line with a longstanding trend… The average tax take across the organization’s members edged up to 34.2% of GDP in 2017 from 34% in 2016 and 33.8% in 2000.

I suppose we should applaud Denmark for no longer being at the top of this list.

The tax burden on Danes is still absurdly high, but at least there is a small bit of progress (presumably because of a modest amount of long-overdue spending restraint).

Shifting back to France, the WSJ story mentions that the French president had to retreat on his plan for higher fuel taxes.

President Emmanuel Macron backed off a fuel-tax increase that enraged much of the nation and sparked a grass-roots protest movement against his government. …Before Tuesday’s climb down, Mr. Macron’s government had planned to raise fuel taxes in an effort to cut automobile pollution. …But the planned move sparked the worst riots to hit Paris in decades on Saturday, leaving the city’s shopping and tourist center dotted with burning cars and damaged storefronts. Protesters vandalized the Arc de Triomphe, rattling Mr. Macron’s administration and the country.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad Macron backed down. He actually has some good proposals to liberalize the French economy. That’s where he should be focused, not on concocting new ways to fleece citizens.

To be sure, over-taxation is not limited to France. Here are the most heavily taxed nations according to the OECD report.

Income taxes and payroll taxes generate most of the revenue, as you can see. But keep in mind that all of these countries also have onerous (and ever-increasing) value-added taxes, as well as other levies.

If I was in France (or any of these nations), the first thing I would point out is that people are getting ripped off.

A huge chunk of their income is seized by tax collectors, yet they’re not getting better services in exchange.

Are schools, roads, and healthcare in France better than they are in Switzerland or New Zealand, where the burden of government is much lower?

Or are they better in France than they are in Hong Kong and Singapore, where the fiscal burden is much, much lower?

The European Central Bank confirms that the answer is no.

Here is the data on taxes and spending for OECD member nations. For some reason, not all countries in the OECD’s tax database are included in the OECD’s spending database. Regardless, the obvious takeaway is that big welfare states require confiscatory tax regimes (with the middle class getting pillaged).

A few closing observations on this data.

  • Governments also have non-tax revenues, so red ink is only a partial explanation for the gap between spending and taxes in various nations.
  • Because of somewhat distorted GDP data, the actual tax burden in Ireland and Luxembourg is worse than shown in these numbers.
  • From 1965-present, the tax burden has increased the most in Greece. Needless to say, that has not been a recipe for economic or fiscal success.
  • The U.S. has a modest fiscal burden compared to other industrialized nations, which helps to explain why living standards are higher in America.
  • Mexico is not a low-tax nation. Like many developing economies, its government is simply too incompetent and corrupt to enforce onerous tax laws.

Circling back to our main topic, I joked years ago that the French national sport is taxation. It’s so bad that thousand of taxpayers have faced effective tax rates of more than 100 percent. Indeed, taxes are so onerous that even EU bureaucrats have warned taxes are excessive.

P.S. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that more than half the population would flee to America if they had the opportunity.

The Economic Illiteracy of Tariff Man

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 12:43pm

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said really foolish things, but Donald Trump may have set a new record for economic illiteracy with this tweet.

….I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so. It will always be the best way to max out our economic power. We are right now taking in $billions in Tariffs. MAKE AMERICA RICH AGAIN

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2018

This tweet contains an astounding collection of inaccurate and offensive statements.

Here my corrective commentary.

I’ll briefly elaborate, starting at the top left and going clockwise.

The bottom line is that Trump is playing with fire. Indeed, what’s happening in financial markets is a very worrisome sign that he’s putting the economy at risk.

To be sure, I don’t think all of the volatility on Wall Street can be blamed on Trump’s protectionist policies and statement (the Federal Reserve should be blamed for creating a fragile market with easy-money policies). But a trade war could be the trigger that leads to the next recession.

Supply-Side Economics and the Post-Reagan Years

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 12:25pm

Steve Moore and Art Laffer are the authors of Trumponomics, a largely favorable book about the President’s economic policy.

I have a more jaundiced view about Trump.

I’m happy to praise his good policies (taxes and regulation), but I also condemn his bad policies (spending and trade).

And as you might expect, some people are completely on the opposite side from Moore and Laffer.

Writing for New York, Jonathan Chait offers a very unfriendly review of the book. He starts by categorizing Steve and Art (as well as Larry Kudlow, who wrote the foreword) as being fixated on tax rates.

The authors of Trumponomics are Larry Kudlow (who left in the middle of its writing to accept a job as director of the National Economic Council), Stephen Moore, and Arthur Laffer. The three fervently propound supply-side economics, a doctrine that holds that economic performance hinges largely on maintaining low tax rates on the rich. …Kudlow, Moore, and Laffer are unusually fixated on tax cuts, but they are merely extreme examples of the entire Republican Establishment, which shared their broad priorities.

For what it’s worth, I think low tax rates are good policy. And I suspect that the vast majority of economists will agree with the notion that lower tax rates are better for growth than high tax rates.

But Chait presumably thinks that Larry, Steve, and Art overstate the importance of low rates (hence, the qualification about “economic performance hinges largely”).

To bolster his case, he claims advocates of low tax rates were wrong about the 1990s and the 2000s.

In the 1990s, the supply-siders insisted Bill Clinton’s increase in the top tax rate would create a recession and cause revenue to plummet. The following decade, they heralded the Bush tax cuts as the elixir that had brought in a glorious new era of prosperity. …The supply-siders have maintained absolute faith in their dogma in the face of repeated failure by banishing all doubt. …they have confined their failed predictions to the memory hole.

If Chait’s point is simply that some supply-siders have been too exuberant at times, I won’t argue. Exaggeration, overstatement, and tunnel vision are pervasive on all sides in Washington.

Heck, I sometimes fall victim to the same temptation, though I try to atone for my bouts of puffery by bending over backwards to point out that taxation is just one piece of the big policy puzzle.

Which is why I want to focus on this next excerpt from Chait’s article. He is very agitated that the book praises the economic performance of the Clinton years and criticizes the economic performance of the Bush years.

A brief economic history in Trumponomics touts the gains made from 1982 to 1999, and laments “those gains stalled out after 2000 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.” Notice, in addition to starting the Reagan era in 1982, thus absolving him for any blame for the recession that began a year into his presidency, they have retroactively moved the hated leftist Bill Clinton into the right-wing hero camp and the beloved conservative hero George W. Bush into the failed left-wing statist camp.

Well, there’s a reason Clinton is in the good camp and Bush is in the bad camp.

As you can see from Economic Freedom of the World (I added some numbers and commentary), the U.S. enjoyed increasing economic liberty during the 1990s and suffered decreasing economic liberty during the 2000s.

For what it’s worth, I’m not claiming that Bill Clinton wanted more economic liberty or that George W. Bush wanted more statism. Maybe the credit/blame belongs to Congress. Or maybe presidents get swept up in events that happen to occur when they’re in office.

All I’m saying is that Steve and Art are correct when they point out that the nation got better overall policy under Clinton and worse overall policy under Bush.

In other words, Clinton’s 1993 tax increase was bad, but it was more than offset by pro-market reforms in other areas. Likewise, Bush’s tax cuts were good, but they were more than offset by anti-market policies in other areas.

P.S. Chait complained about Moore and Laffer “starting the Reagan era in 1982, thus absolving him for any blame for the recession that began a year into his presidency”.

Since I’m a fan of Reaganomics, I feel compelled to offer three comments.

  • First, the recession began in July 1981. That’s six months into Reagan’s presidency rather than one year.
  • Second, does Chait really want to claim that the downturn was Reagan’s fault? If so, I’m curious to get his explanation for how a tax cut that was signed in August caused a recession that began the previous month.
  • Third, the recession almost certainly should be blamed on bad monetary policy, and even Robert Samuelson points out that Reagan deserves immense praise for his handling of that issue.

P.P.S. Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike didn’t produce the budget surpluses of the late 1990s. If you don’t believe me, check out the numbers from Bill Clinton’s FY1996 budget.

The Looming Debt Crisis in Developing Economies

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 12:19pm

I don’t like writing about deficits and debt because I don’t want to deflect attention from the more important underlying problem of excessive government spending.

Indeed, I constantly explain that spending is what diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy,regardless of whether outlays are financed by taxes or borrowing. This is why a spending cap is far and away the best rule for fiscal policy.

That being said, red ink does matter when politicians incur so much debt that investors (i.e., the folks in the private sector who buy government debt) decide that a government no longer is trustworthy. And when that happens, interest rates climb because investors insist on getting a higher return to compensate for the risk of default.

And if things really deteriorate, a government may default (i.e., no longer make promised payments) and investors obviously will refuse to lend any more money. That’s basically what happened in Greece.

Sadly, most governments have not learned from Greece’s mistakes. Indeed, government debt in Europe is now significantly higher than it was before the 2008 recession.

This suggests that there will be another fiscal crisis when the next recession occurs. Italy presumably will be the big domino to fall, though there are many other nations in Europe that could get in trouble.

But the problems of excessive spending and excessive debt are not limited to Europe. Or Japan.

The World Bank has a new report that shows that red ink is a growing problem in the rest of the world. More specifically, the report is about “fiscal space,” which some see as a measure of budgetary flexibility but I interpret as an indicator of budgetary vulnerability. Here’s how it is defined in the report.

…fiscal space is simply defined as the availability of budgetary resources to conduct effective fiscal policy. …some studies define it as the budgetary room to create and allocate funding for a certain purpose without threatening a sovereign’s financial position. …Debt service capacity is a critical component of fiscal space. It has multiple dimensions, including financing needs that are related to budget positions and debt rollover, access to liquid markets, resilience to changes in market valuations of debt, and the coverage of contingent liabilities. …Market participants’ perceptions of sovereign risk reflect and, in turn, influence an economy’s ability to tap markets and service its obligations. Thus, fiscal space can function as an essential instrument of macroeconomic risk management.

And what is “effective fiscal policy”?

From the World Bank’s misguided perspective, it’s the ability to engage in Keynesian spending.

Countries with ample fiscal space can use stimulus measures more extensively.

But let’s set aside that anti-empirical assertion.

I found the report useful (though depressing) because it had data showing how debt levels have increased, especially in emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs).

Fiscal space improved during 2000−07, but has shrunk around the world since the global financial crisis. …debt sustainability indicators, including government debt and fiscal sustainability gaps, have deteriorated in at least three-quarters of countries in the world. …and perceptions of market participants on sovereign credit risks have worsened. …Since 2011, fiscal space has shrunk in EMDEs. …fiscal deficits widened to 3 to 5 percent of GDP in 2016, on average… Government debt has risen to 54 percent of GDP, on average, in 2017. …EMDEs need to shore up fiscal positions to prevent sudden spikes in financing costs… Fiscal space has been shrinking in EMDEs since the global financial crisis. It needs to be strengthened.

Here is a set of charts from the report, showing both developed nations (red lines) and developing nations (yellow lines). The top-left chart shows debt climbing for EMDEs and the bottom-right chart shows debt ratings dropping for EMDEs.

The EMDEs have lower debt levels, but their debt is rated as more risky because poorer nations don’t have a very good track record of dealing with recessions and fiscal crises (would you lend money to Argentina?).

In any event, the yellow lines in the top-left chart and bottom-right chart are both headed in the wrong directions.

The bottom line? It won’t just be European welfare states that get in trouble when there’s another recession.

By the way, the report from the World Bank offers some policy advice. Some of it potentially good.

Pension reforms could…support fiscal credibility and generate long-term fiscal gains… credible and well-designed institutional mechanisms can help support fiscal discipline and strengthen fiscal space. …Fiscal rules impose numerical constraints on budgetary aggregates—debt, overall balance, expenditures.

But most of it bad.

Fiscal sustainability could be improved by increasing the efficiency of revenue collection… Measures to strengthen revenue collection could include broadening tax bases to remove loopholes for higher-income households or profitable corporates. In countries with high levels of informality, taxing the informal sector—for example, by promoting a change in payment methods to non-cash transaction and facilitating collective action by informal sector associations—could help raise revenues directly, as well as indirectly… In EMDEs, reforms to broaden revenue bases and strengthen tax administration can generate revenue gains.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the problem in developing nations is bad government policy, not insufficient revenue in the hands of politicians.

P.S. I included the caveat that some of the recommendations were “potentially good” since the report didn’t specify the type of pension reform or the type of fiscal rule. I like to think the authors were referring to personal retirement accounts and spending caps, but it’s not clear.

P.P.S. The IMF subsidizes and encourages bad fiscal policy with bailouts. Fortunately, there is a much more sensible approach.

Pages

Donate to Tea Party Manatee





Follow us on social media

About

If you have Constitutional values, believe in fiscal restraint, limited government, and a free market economy - then join us or just come and listen to one of our excellent speakers. We meet every Tuesday from 6-8 pm at Mixon Fruit Farms in the Honeybell Hall, 2525 27th St. East, Bradenton, Florida. Map it

Tea Party Manatee welcomes all like-minded Americans.

Our core values are:

  • Defend the Constitution
  • Fiscal Responsibility
  • Limited Government
  • Free Markets
  • God and Country

Read more