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Can the World Stop the Bucking Bronco? The Need to Balance the Expanding Anti-Money Laundering Regimes

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 3:38am

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Can the World Stop the Bucking Bronco? The Need to Balance the Expanding Anti-Money Laundering Regimes

By Bruce Zagaris*

From the introduction of anti-money laundering laws in 1986, the United States government has led international efforts to prevent and prosecute money laundering and terrorist financing, as well as pioneered legal standards in this arena. A constant theme of U.S. AML/CTF laws has been their extraterritorial application and efforts to impose pressure and penalties on foreign governments and persons who failed to meet international standards. The U.S. has always viewed money laundering and terrorist financing laws as ways to deprive criminals of their illegal proceeds and their instrumentalities to commit the underlying crimes. The U.S. has also conducted AML/CFT policies by proposing and dominating international groups, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

On one hand, the U.S. has proactively used unilateral extraterritorial law enforcement avenues, as well as its superpower status, to prosecute money laundering and terrorist financing violators and forge minilateral alliances. On the other, the U.S.’s unilateralism in the financial enforcement arena has alienated smaller jurisdictions and led to a substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions. This article examines the trade-offs of the U.S.’s unilateral approach and argues for a rebalancing of the expanding financial enforcement regime.

The Extraterritorial Application of U.S. Money Laundering Statutes

U.S. money laundering laws specifically provide for extraterritorial jurisdiction.  In this regard, 18 U.S.C. § 1956(f) provides extraterritorial jurisdiction if

  1. The conduct is by a U.S. citizen or, in the case of a non-U.S. citizen, the conduct occurs in part in the U.S.; and
  2. The transaction or series of related transactions involves funds or monetary instruments of a value exceeding $10,000.

In general, a U.S. court has jurisdiction over extraterritorial conduct when the statute evidences a Congressional intent to achieve extraterritorial effect and the U.S. has the power to reach the extraterritorial conduct under the principles of international law.

Section 1956(f) applies either when a U.S. citizen engages in the conduct or when a non-citizen engages in the conduct at least in part within the U.S. Clearly governments may regulate the acts of their citizens wherever they occur.

With respect to non-U.S. citizens, under the “territorial” theory of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the U.S. has proactively asserted that it has the right to regulate criminal acts occurring outside the U.S. as long as they produce effects within the United States.

At dawn on December 20, 1989, thousands of U.S. troops invaded Panama, killing, according to an internal U.S. Army memo, an estimated 1,000 Panamanians. Several days later, Panamanian President Manuel Noriega, who had taken refuge in the Vatican nuncio, surrendered to the U.S. The U.S. Attorney in Miami had filed under seal an indictment against Noriega for drug-related money laundering offenses.

Section 1956(f) criminalizes “conduct” occurring in the U.S., which is expansively applied.  Electronic conduct, such as a wire transfer into the U.S., even if initiated from abroad, can satisfy presence within the U.S. Section 1956(f) imposes jurisdiction over transactions that occur in whole or in part in the U.S. Hence, “if a defendant, who never enters this country, initiates a transfer of funds from a place within the United States to [a] place outside the U.S., there will be extraterritorial jurisdiction, because a portion of the conduct occurred in the United States.” In United v. Stein, No. 93-375, 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8471, at *10, *13-*14, the court rejected the defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and held that the transfer of funds from New Orleans to London represented “conduct” under § 1956(f). The court explained the defendant’s physical presence in the U.S. was not a factor.

A criminal statute which Congress intends to have extraterritorial application may reach a defendant who has never even entered the U.S. if s/he participated in a conspiracy in which a co-conspirator’s activities occurred within the U.S. For instance, the U.S. indicted Noriega in part under the conspiracy to launder money on the basis of alleged actions by co-conspirators.

The following case demonstrates the use of extraterritorial application of U.S. law in money laundering matters.

Case Study: New York Court Applies Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Even Though None of the Parties or Property Are in the Jurisdiction

On June 4, 2009, the New York Court of Appeals decided a New York Court may issue a judgment ordering the surrender of foreign assets to garnishees even though the property, debtor, and creditor are all outside the jurisdiction.  Although the case is a civil case, it has broad ramifications for criminal and enforcement matters, especially due to New York’s role as a base for international finance and the amount of international enforcement actions arising out of the alleged frauds during the ongoing global financial crisis.[1]

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit asked the New York Court to decide whether a court in New York can order a bank over which it has personal jurisdiction to deliver stock certificates owned by a judgment debtor (or cash equal to their value) to a judgment creditor, pursuant to New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR) article 52, when those stock certificates are located outside the U.S. The Court answered affirmatively.

On June 4, 2009, Lee N. Koehler, a Pennsylvania citizen, obtained in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland a default judgment in the amount of $2,096.43 against his former business partner, A. David Dodwell. At the time of the judgment, Dodwell, a Bermuda resident, owned stock in a Bermuda corporation, of which he and Koehler had been shareholders. Certificates representing Dodwell’s shares were in the possession of the Bank of Bermuda Limited (BBL) and were located in Bermuda. Dodwell had pledged the shares to BBL as collateral for a loan. Koehler registered the judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

On October 27, 1994, Koehler filed a petition against BBL, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking Apayment or delivery of property of judgment [email protected]  Koehler served the petition upon an officer of BBL (New York), which it claimed to be a New York subsidiary and agent of BBL. On October 29, 1994, the District Court ordered BBL to deliver the stock certificates, or monies sufficient to pay the judgment, to Koehler. The surrender order was the subject of the certified question.

In deciding the issue, Justice Pigott, in the majority opinion, found that the key to the reach of the turnover order is personal jurisdiction over a particular defendant. The court reasoned that, when a debtor is neither a domiciliary nor resident of New York, so that the creditor cannot obtain personal jurisdiction of the debtor, but owns assets in New York, courts have exercised jurisdiction over the debtor. Hence, article 52 of the post-judgment enforcement involves a proceeding against a person. The purpose is to demand that a person convert property to money for payment to a credit.

The court applied CPLR article 52, stating that no express territorial limit precluded the entry of a turnover order requiring a garnishee (BBL) to transfer money or property into New York from another state or country. Jurisprudence enabled a New York court with jurisdiction over a judgment debtor in possession of the property to direct a defendant to bring its own property into New York, regardless of whether the defendant is a judgment debtor or a garnishee.

Consequently, the court can issue a judgment ordering the surrender of foreign assets not only to judgment debtors, but also to garnishees. A New York court that has personal jurisdiction over a garnishee bank can order the bank to produce stock certificates located outside New York, pursuant to CPLR 52(b), the post-judgment procedure.

The dissent by Justice Smith observes that the majority’s holding opens a forum-shopping opportunity for any judgment creditor trying to reach an asset of any judgment debtor held by a bank (or other garnishee) anywhere in the word. If the bank has a New York branch B either one that is not separately incorporated, or a subsidiary with which the parent’s relationship is close enough to subject the parent to New York jurisdiction – the judgment creditor, after registering the judgment in New York, can obtain an order requiring the delivery of the asset.

The dissent observed that the record discloses no New York contact with the parties or the dispute, except the amenability of The Bank of Bermuda, the garnishee, to personal jurisdiction in New York. The dissent said serious doubt exists that enough contact existed under the traditional foreseeability jurisprudence to justify the enforcement of a non-New York judgment by a non-New York creditor against a non-New York debtor, to recover an asset that is located in Bermuda.

Financial institutions that are wary of extraterritorial jurisdiction and proactive court remedies for victims will react adversely to this decision. For instance, the Clearing House Association, L.L.C. intervened as amicus curiae. As a prophylactic step, non-U.S. financial institutions may want to move their subsidiaries or other presence from U.S. jurisdiction.

The case may also prompt proactive courts and legislatures in other countries to assert extraterritorial enforcement authority.

The ability to enforce judgments extraterritorially becomes especially important during efforts to prosecute financial frauds and crimes occurring during the global financial crisis.

The dissent points out that the problem is that competing claims may exist to the asset, by parties who think they have as much right to it as the judgment creditor.  If any court with power over the garnishee can order the garnishee to change the asset=s location, significant disruption in the process of deciding whose rights are superior seems inevitable.  The business of banking itself, for banks with offices in several states or countries, will also be disrupted, especially when such banks may be at risk of conflicting adjudications.

Efforts to Apply Terrorist Financing Laws Extraterritorially

The area of terrorist financing also has experienced a substantial expansion of extraterritorial jurisdiction, both against financial institutions and sovereign states, even where the acts have occurred outside the U.S.

The Alien Tort Claims Act (also known as the Alien Tort Statute or ATS), 28 U.S.C. § 1350 authorizes foreign terrorism victims to bring a civil cause of action. Under Section 1350, victims suffering injuries arising from a “violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States” can bring a suit. In the terrorist financing area, foreign nationals have used the ATS to sue the Arab Bank, a Jordanian bank with a New York branch, for knowingly providing bank and administrative services to HAMAS and other Palestinian terrorist organizations that sponsored suicide attacks killing innocent civilians.  Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court did not allow the ATS claim.[2]

28 U.S.C. § 1605A authorizes a private cause of action for U.S. nationals, employees of the U.S., or individuals performing a private contract with the U.S. against a foreign state sponsor of terrorism (SST). The law eliminates sovereign immunity for foreign states designated as “state sponsor of terrorism” (SST). States lose their foreign sovereign immunity where plaintiffs are seeking money damages against a foreign state for personal injury or death that was caused by an “act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage-taking, or the provision of material support or resources” if the provision of material support was by “an official, employee, or agent of such foreign state while acting within the scope of his … office, employment or agency.   Essentially, the statute holds foreign SSTs vicariously liable for the act of their officials, employees, or agents.

One problem of anti-money laundering worldwide is the lack of a cost-benefit analysis. During the George W. Bush Administration, an early initiative was to make AML laws cost-effective, so that regulators, prior to issuing new regulations, would have to consider the cost to the regulators and regulated community. During the morning of September 11, 2001, Under Secretary for Enforcement, U.S. Department of the Treasury Jimmy Gurulé’s press conference to explain the new approach was interrupted when the hijacked planes crashed into the Pentagon.

The attacks on 9/11 shocked the Bush Administration, Congress and American people. Congress asked U.S. law enforcement agencies for proposals to strengthen AML and initiate laws to prevent and punish terrorism financing. The U.S. has since abandoned this sensible approach to AML policy.

The Role of FATF

Another trend that contributes to the increasing exclusion of certain jurisdictions from the global financial enforcement regime is the ever-expanding role of informal intergovernmental bodies, such as FATF. FATF is an informal body composed of 35 jurisdictions and 2 regional organizations (the Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Commission). It has only a few full-time employees and is mainly staffed with bureaucrats from financial regulators and law enforcement agencies seconded by its members. The rotating FATF President decides on its priorities. FATF officials determine the various money laundering problems as well as the solutions. Only at the very end does FATF occasionally invite non-members and the private sector to express themselves.

Initially, FATF focused almost entirely on money laundering. After the above-mentioned September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the organization’s mission was broadened to encompass terrorist financing and thereafter the financing of weapons of mass destruction. At present, the U.S. is the President of the body, and has as one of its priorities improved engagement with the private sector.

The unequal treatment of smaller jurisdictions is an inherent tension within FATF. As a consequence of the body’s organizational structure, small countries learn about the new standards many months after its members have proposed changes and sometimes struggle to implement properly the new standards, which require new legislation and regulations, and hiring and training regulatory officials to properly implement the entire body of terrorist financing and WMD sanctions. In turn, small countries periodically find themselves on the FATF black list, which results in further excluding them from the world’s financial system through de-risking.

EU AML/CTF Controversy

On February 13, 2019, the European Commission blacklisted 23 jurisdictions for their weak regulation of AML/CTF policy, increasing the level of oversight that European banks would have to overcome in conducting business with said jurisdictions. The list included four U.S. territories – Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands – as well as Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Treasury Department immediately and swiftly condemned the blacklist, noting that it had “significant concerns about the substance of the list and the flawed process by which it was developed.” The Treasury further stated that it did not expect U.S. financial firms to pay any heed to the blacklist.[3] King Salman of Saudi Arabia sharply criticized the list as well, stating that it would damage not only economic, but political relations between the EU and Saudi Arabia. Reports indicate that King Salman went so far as to privately threaten EU Member-States to oppose the blacklist, or risk losing potential contracts with the Kingdom.[4] On March 5, the Council of the European Union announced their objection to the Commission’s blacklist, as it was not “established in a transparent and resilient process that actively incentivizes affected countries to take decisive action while also respecting the right to be heard.”[5] Consequently, the AML/CTF blacklist is stuck in stasis, as the Commission and Council – not to mention the European Parliament – must come to an agreement on how they wish to regulate these matters without frustrating key partners.

Conclusion

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

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*  Berliner Corcoran & Rowe LLP, Washington, D.C.

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation is a public policy, research, and educational organization operating under Section 501(C)(3). It is privately supported and receives no funds from any government at any level, nor does it perform any government or other contract work. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.

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Endnotes

[1]       Koehler v. Bank of Bermuda Ltd., New York, Court of Appeals 2009 NY Slip Op 04297, No. 82, June 4, 2009.

[2]       Jesner et al v. Arab Bank PLC, U.S. Supreme Court, (No. 16-499, Apr. 24, 2018) https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-499_1a7d.pdf.

[3]       Stephanie Bodoni and Alexander Weber, EU Blacklists Saudi Arabia in Fight Against Money-Laundering and Terror Financing, Bloomberg, (Feb. 13, 2019),  https://bloom.bg/2ByPp8S.

[4]       EU to reject money laundering black list as official overreach, The National, (Mar. 6, 2019), https://bit.ly/2VHITEi.

[5]       Council of the European Union, Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) of 13.2.2019 supplementing Directive (EU) 2015/849 of the European Parliament and of the Council by identifying high-risk third countries with strategic deficiencies C(2019)1326, (Mar. 5, 2019),  https://bit.ly/2VHSzP7.

Professional Athletes and Supply-Side Economics

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 12:36pm

My friends on the left hold two impossible-to-reconcile views about taxation.

  • First, they say taxes don’t really have any effect on incentives to work, save and invest, and that governments can impose high tax rates and punitive double taxation without causing meaningful economic damage or loss of national competitiveness.
  • Second, they say differences in taxes between jurisdictions will cause massive tax-avoidance behavior as jobs and investment migrate to places with lower taxes, and that national and international tax harmonization is required to prevent that ostensibly horrible outcome.

Huh?!? They’re basically asserting that taxes simultaneously have no effect on taxpayer behavior and lots of effect on taxpayer behavior.

Well, they’re half right.

Taxpayers do respond to incentives. And when tax rates are too high, both money and people will escape high-tax regimes.

In other words, people do “vote with their feet.”

And it seems pro athletes are not “dumb jocks” when contemplating the best places to sign contracts.

Looking at baseball, taxes presumably had an effect on Bryce Harper’s decision to play for the Phillies.

For Major League Baseball players, three teams are at the bottom of the standings on state taxes: the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. That’s because California is in a league of its own on personal income taxes. We’ve got by far the highest state rate in the nation, topping out at 13.3%. By contrast, Pennsylvania has a low flat rate for every taxpayer regardless of income. It’s just 3.07%. That’s one reason why superstar slugger Bryce Harper signed an eye-popping 13-year, $330-million contract last week with the Philadelphia Phillies, spurning the Dodgers and Giants. …Harper will save tens of millions in taxes by signing with the Phillies instead of a California team. …“The Giants, Dodgers and Padres are in the worst state income tax jurisdiction in all of baseball,” Boras adds. “Players really get hit.” …To what extent do California’s sky-high taxes drive players away? “It’s a red light,” agent John Boggs says. “I’ve had players in the past say they don’t want to go to certain states because they’re going to get hammered by taxes. Obviously, that affects the bottom line.”

Another argument for states to join the flat tax club!

If we cross the Atlantic Ocean, we find lots of evidence that high tax rates in Europe create major headaches in the world of sports.

For example, I’ve previously written about how the absence of an income tax gives the Monaco team a significant advantage competing in the French soccer league.

And there are many other examples from Europe dealing with soccer and taxation.

According to a BBC report, we should highlight the impact on both players and management in Spain.

Ex-Manchester United boss José Mourinho has agreed a prison term in Spain for tax fraud but will not go to jail. A one-year prison sentence will instead be exchanged for a fine of €182,500 (£160,160). That will be added to a separate fine of €2m. …He was accused of owing €3.3m to Spanish tax authorities from his time managing Real Madrid in 2011-2012. Prosecutors said he had created offshore companies to manage his image rights and hide the earnings from tax officials. …In January, Cristiano Ronaldo accepted a fine of €18.8m and a suspended 23-month jail sentence, in a case which was also centred around tax owed on image rights. …Another former Real Madrid star, Xabi Alonso, is also facing charges over alleged tax fraud amounting to about €2m, though he denies any wrongdoing. Marcelo Vieira, who still plays for the club, accepted a four-month suspended jail sentence last September over his use of foreign firms to handle almost half a million euros in earnings. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Neymar have also found themselves embroiled in legal battles with the Spanish tax authorities.

Let’s cross the Atlantic again and look at the National Football League.

Consider Christian Wilkins, who was just drafted in the first round by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. He’s very aware of how lucky he is to have been picked by a football team in a state with no income tax.

The Miami Dolphins picked Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins with the 13th overall pick in Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft. …He’ll be counted on to help usher in a new era of Miami football under first-year head coach Brian Flores. …Wilkins said he “knew they were interested” in him and is happy to be headed to Miami. He also joked that he’s happy he’ll be playing football in Florida, where there is no state income tax. “Pretty excited about them taxes,” he said. “A lot of guys who went before me, I might be making just a little bit more, but hey, it is what it is.”

As he noted, his contract may not be as big as some of the players drafted above him, but he may wind up with more take-home pay since Florida is a fiscally responsible state.

College players have no control over which team drafts them, so Wilkins truly is lucky.

Players in free agency, by contrast, can pick and choose their new team.

And if we travel up the Atlantic coast from Miami to Jacksonville, we can read about how the Jaguars – both players and management – understand how they’re net beneficiaries of being in a no-income tax state.

Hayden Hurst got excited after he received a phone call from someone he trusted who told him the Jaguars were targeting him with the No. 29 overall pick. …Though Hurst…was happy when the Baltimore Ravens took him four slots before the Jaguars, he also knew in advance of the financial consequences that most rookies don’t notice. Since Florida is one of four NFL states (Tennessee, Texas and Washington being the others) with no state income tax, Hurst, who played at South Carolina, understood he’d see a big chunk of his $6.1 million signing bonus disappear on the deduction line when he received his first bonus check. …“I thought about how much of my money was going to be impacted depending on which state I played in,” Hurst said. “I’m paying a pretty hefty percent up in Maryland. To see the amount get taken away right off the bat kind of hurt, it was pretty sickening.” With the NFL free agent market set to open Wednesday, Hurst’s situation illustrates a potential competitive advantage for the Jaguars of being in an income tax-free state when they court free agents.

Yes, the flat tax club is good, but the no-income-tax club is even better.

I’ll close with an observation. Way back in 2009, I speculated that high tax rates could actually hurt the performance of teams in high-tax states.

It turns out I was right, as you can see from academic research I cited in 2017 and 2018.

The bottom line is that teams in high-tax states can still sign big-name players, but they have to pay more to compensate for taxes. And this presumably means less money for other players, thus lowering overall quality (and also lowering average win totals).

P.S. Taxes also impact choices on how often to box and where to box.

P.P.S. And where to run track.

P.P.P.S. And where to play basketball.

P.P.P.P.S. While one can argue that there are no meaningful economic consequences if athletes avoid jurisdictions with bad tax law, can the same be said if we have evidence that high tax burdens deter superstar inventors and entrepreneurs?

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Image credit: Lorie Shaull | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Around the World, Ranking Best and Worst Economic Outcomes for 2018

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 12:22pm

Looking through an economic lens, what’s the best country in the world?

If your benchmark is economic liberty, then Hong Kong is the answer according to both the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation.

If per-capita GDP or per-capita wealth is your benchmark, then Monaco wins the prize.

And you get different answers if you focus on specific features such as competitiveness (the United States) or ease of doing business (New Zealand).

You can also measure national performance by looking at key economic variables.

And that’s what Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University has done.

In the sphere of economics, misery tends to flow from high inflation, steep borrowing costs and unemployment. …Many countries measure and report these economic metrics on a regular basis. Comparing them, nation by nation, can tell us a lot about where in the world people are sad or happy. …To answer this question, I update my annual Misery Index measurements.

Hanke explains the evolution of the Misery Index and how he puts together his version.

The first Misery Index was constructed by economist Art Okun in the 1960s as a way to provide President Lyndon Johnson with an easily digestible snapshot of the economy. That original Misery Index was just a simple sum of a nation’s annual inflation rate and its unemployment rate. The Index has been modified several times, first by Robert Barro of Harvard and then by myself. My modified Misery Index is the sum of the unemployment, inflation and bank lending rates, minus the percentage change in real GDP per capita. Higher readings on the first three elements are “bad” and make people more miserable. These are offset by a “good” (GDP per capita growth), which is subtracted from the sum of the “bads.”

You can see the entire list of 95 nations (some countries don’t report adequate data, so they aren’t counted) by clicking here.

And here are the nations with the best scores (remember, this is a Misery Index, so the top results are at the bottom of the list).

Professor Hanke comments on Thailand’s first-place results and Hungary’s second-place results.

Thailand takes the prize as the least miserable country in the world on the 2018 Misery Index. It’s 2018 rank of No. 95 out of 95 countries is a stunner. …Hungary delivered yet another stunner, making a dramatic improvement from 2017 to 2018.  It comes in at No. 94 as the second least miserable country in the world. While the European Union and the international elites have thrown everything they can throw at Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, it’s easy to see why he commands a strong following at home.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Hanke’s list is a measure of annual economic outcomes.

So a relatively poor country can get a very good score. Indeed, they should get comparatively good scores according to convergence theory.

Assuming, of course, that they have decent policy.

However, if you look at the nations with the most miserable outcomes, you can see that many countries don’t have decent policy.

Here’s Hanke’s analysis of the world’s worst performers.

Venezuela holds the inglorious title of the most miserable country in the world in 2018, as it did in 2017, 2016, and 2015. The failures of President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist, corrupt petroleum state have been well documented… Argentina jumped to the No. 2 spot after yet another peso crisis. Since its founding, Argentina has been burdened with numerous economic crises. Most can be laid at the feet of domestic mismanagement and currency problems (read: currency collapses). To list but a few of these crises: 1876, 1890, 1914, 1930, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1985, 1989, 2001, and 2018.

For what it’s worth, if you look at the actual Misery Index numbers, Venezuela is in first place by an enormous margin. Chalk that up as another “victory” for socialism.

Moreover, I’m not surprised to see that JordanUkraine, and South Africa are doing poorly. Sadly, there’s not much hope for improvement in those nations.

It’s also not a surprise to see Brazil on the list, though there may be room for optimism if the new government can adopt meaningful reforms.

P.S. Professor Hanke noted that Arthur Okun created the first Misery Index. Okun also is famous for his explanation of the equity-efficiency tradeoff. Okun supported redistribution in order to increase equality of outcomes, but he was honest and admitted that this would mean less prosperity. Too bad international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF don’t share Okun’s honesty.

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Image credit: geralt | Pixabay License.

Governor J.B. Pritzker: Hypocrite of the Year

Sat, 04/27/2019 - 12:24pm

If the people who advocate higher taxes really think it’s a good idea to give politicians more cash, why don’t they voluntarily send extra money with their tax returns?

Massachusetts actually makes that an easy choice since state tax forms give people the option of paying extra, yet tax-loving politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry never avail themselves of that opportunity.

And the Treasury Department has a website for people who want to give extra money to the federal government, yet proponents of higher taxes (at least for you and me) never lead by example.

For lack of a better phrase, let’s call this type of behavior – not choosing to pay extra tax – conventional hypocrisy.

But what about politicians who support higher taxes while dramatically seeking to reduce their own tax payments? I guess we should call that nuclear-level hypocrisy.

And if there was a poster child for this category, it would be J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois governor who is trying to replace his state’s flat tax with a money-grabbing multi-rate tax.

The Chicago Sun Times reported late last year that Pritzker has gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure his money isn’t confiscated by government.

…more than $330,000 in property tax breaks and refunds that…J.B. Pritzker received on one of his Gold Coast mansions — in part by removing toilets… Pritzker bought the historic mansion next door to his home, let it fall into disrepair — and then argued it was “uninhabitable” to win nearly $230,000 in property tax breaks. …The toilets had been disconnected, and the home had “no functioning bathrooms or kitchen,” according to documents Pritzker’s lawyers filed with Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

Wow, maybe I should remove the toilets from my house and see if the kleptocrats in Fairfax County will slash my property taxes.

And since I’m an advocate of lower taxes (for growth reasons and for STB reasons), I won’t be guilty of hypocrisy.

Though Pritzker may be guilty of more than that.

According to local media, the tax-loving governor may face legal trouble because he was so aggressive in dodging the taxes he wants other people to pay.

Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, his wife and his brother-in-law are under federal criminal investigation for a dubious residential property tax appeal that dogged him during his gubernatorial campaign last year, WBEZ has learned. …The developments demonstrate that the billionaire governor and his wife may face a serious legal threat arising from their controversial pursuit of a property tax break on a 126-year-old mansion they purchased next to their Gold Coast home. …The county watchdog said all of that amounted to a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers out of more than $331,000. …Pritzker had ordered workers to reinstall one working toilet after the house was reassessed at a lower rate, though it’s unclear whether that happened.

This goes beyond nuclear-level hypocrisy – regardless of whether he’s actually guilty of a criminal offense.

Though he’s not alone. Just look at the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. And John Kerry. And Obama’s first Treasury Secretary. And Obama’s second Treasury Secretary.

Or tax-loving international bureaucrats who get tax-free salaries.

Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

To be fair, my leftist friends are consistent in their hypocrisy.

They want ordinary people to send their kids to government schools while they send their kids to private schools.

And they want ordinary people to change their lives (and pay more taxes) for global warming, yet they have giant carbon footprints.

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Image credit: Chi Hack Night | CC BY 3.0.

Denmark, Socialism, and Free Markets, Part II

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 12:47pm

explained yesterday that Denmark is not a good role model for American leftists.

Simply stated, Otto Brøns-Petersen’s video shows that the admirable outcomes in that country are the result of laissez-faire markets and the bad outcomes are the result of the welfare state imposed beginning in the 1960s.

In any event, Denmark is not a socialist country. As I wrote, “There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.”

But to make matters clear, here’s a comparison of Denmark and the United States from Economic Freedom of the World.

The bottom line is that if folks on the left want to claim Denmark is socialist, then America also is socialist. Alternatively, if Denmark is an example of Democratic Socialism, then so is the United States.

And if that’s the case, we’ve already reached Collectivist Nirvana and my leftist friends can shelve some of their crazy ideas such as 70 percent tax rates and the Green New Deal.

Needless to say, I won’t hold my breath.

Today, I want to focus on another aspect of Danish public policy that warms my heart. Back in 2015, I applauded the government for imposing some spending restraint and I expressed hope that plans for future fiscal discipline would be fulfilled.

Well, based on IMF and OECD data, policy makers in Denmark deserve a gold star. They followed my Golden Rule and limited the growth of government spending. As a result, there’s been a meaningful decline in the burden of spending (measured as a share of economic output).

Too bad American politicians weren’t similarly prudent. If federal spending in the U.S. grew at the same rate since 2012, the burden of spending today would be more than $700 billion lower.

And since spending is the problem and red ink is the symptom, it naturally follows that the United States would have a deficit this year of about $370 billion instead of nearly $1.1 trillion.

It’s a shame we can’t go back in time and trade profligate Obama and profligate Trump for Denmark’s leaders.

P.S. Here’s a list of other nations with successful periods of spending restraint, and here’s a video highlighting four of those episodes.

Denmark, Socialism, and Free Markets, Part I

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 12:13pm

I’ve repeatedly dealt with the argument over Denmark’s supposed socialism.

My core argument is that Denmark is very bad on fiscal policy, but very laissez-faire on other issues such as regulation. The net effect is that Danes have about the same amount of economic liberty as Americans.

The bottom line is that Denmark isn’t socialist. At least not if we use the technical definition. There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.

Which is basically the message in this Prager University video by Otto Brøns-Petersen from the CEPOS think tank in Denmark.

This is a great video.

Basically everything you need to know about Danish economic policy.

To augment Otto’s video, let’s review a report from some of his CEPOS colleagues.

The entire report is worth reading, but I want to focus on one excerpt and some key visuals.

First, notice that Denmark and the United States have similar levels of economic freedom.

Since I’m a public finance economist, I was very interested in some observations in the report about fiscal policy.

This excerpt notes that Denmark has a much more onerous tax burden, and it points out that the value-added tax is the main reason for the gap.

…the tax burden (taxes to GDP) is the second-highest in the OECD and 70 percent higher than in the US (46 vs. 27 per cent of GDP). …The biggest difference between the Danish and the American tax systems is that consumption taxes are much higher in Denmark. VAT is 25 per cent in Denmark while the average sales tax is 6 per cent in the US. …Including the effect of consumption taxes, the top marginal tax rate on labor income is 67 per cent in Denmark. For low and middle-income workers, it is 55 per cent. This is significantly higher than in the USA. It’s important to include consumption taxes when you calculate the effective marginal tax rate. High consumption taxes means that you can buy fewer goods for one extra working hour.

My first takeaway is that this explains why blocking the VAT is absolutely necessary for advocates of limited government in the United States.

And the second takeaway is that big government means big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers, which is what we seen in this next chart.

Last but not least, here are two charts comparing taxes and labor supply in the United States and Denmark.

In the tax chart, you can see that the two countries were very similar from the 1930s to the 1960s. But then the tax burden in Denmark got much worse (coinciding with the imposition of the VAT).

Now take a look at hours worked in both nations.

We were very similar back in 1970. But as the Danish tax burden grew, people responded by working less and less.

In other words, more evidence to support the core insight of supply-side economics. The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

The Philoso-raptor surely would agree.

Yellow Vest Protesters in France =/= Tea Party Activists in America

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 12:15pm

admired the Tea Party because it was made up of people who were upset by the bipartisan waste and corruption of Washington. And I think they even had a positive – albeit only temporary – effect.

But the “Yellow Vest” protesters in France, as I explain in this interview, are much less coherent.

Needless to say, I’m glad the Yellow Vests are upset about France’s oppressive tax regime. In that sense, they are like the Tea Party in America.

But the Tea Party also wanted smaller government. That doesn’t seem to be the case in France.

Which means the Yellow Vests are either ignorant or hypocritical. After all, the burden of government spending is very onerous in France, and the country also has high levels of debt. So how is the government supposed to lower taxes unless there’s at least some degree of spending restraint?!?

Some of the Yellow Vests seem to think that class-warfare taxes on the rich could be a silver bullet, but that didn’t work for Francois Hollande and there’s no reason to think it would work for Emmanuel Macron.

Ironically, some American politicians think America should copy France.

Veronique de Rugy, who was born and raised in France but is now an American, explained for FEE why her former nation is not a role model.

…what Sanders and AOC actually have in mind is a regime more like that of France. …That’s because there is one aspect in particular that the AOCs and Sanders of the world fail to mention to their followers when they talk about their socialist dream: all of the goodies that they believe the American people are entitled to receive in fact come at a great cost—and so the only way to pay for these goodies is with oppressive and regressive taxes (i.e., taxes heaped on to the backs of the middle class and the poor). …Paris relies disproportionately on social-insurance, payroll and property taxes. …In France, VAT and other consumption taxes make up 24% of revenue… Consumption taxes often fall hardest on the poor and middle class, who devote a greater proportion of their income to consumption.

Amen.

Big government means stifling taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers. This is the point I’ve made, over and over again.

But Veronique notes that France also suffers from excessive regulation and other forms of intervention.

France has all sorts of labor regulations on the books: some preventing firms from firing workers and, hence, creating a disincentive to hire workers in the first place. …the French also have all sorts of “generous” family friendly laws that end up backfiring and penalizing female employment. …All of these policies make the lives of lower and middle-class people harder… The bottom line is this: All those people in America who currently fall for the socialism soup that AOC and Sanders are selling need to realize that if their dream came to pass, they, not the rich—not the bankers and politicians—will be ones suffering the most from the high taxes, high unemployment, and slow growth that go hand in hand with the level of public spending they want.

Interestingly, Bloomberg recently reported that the French want tax cuts.

The French want to pay less tax. That was the clear message that emerged from a two-month “Great Debate” that saw voters present their grievances and suggest remedies to President Emmanuel Macron. …Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said…“The clear message is that taxes must fall and fall fast.” …Macron announced the “Great Debate” in December to respond to the Yellow Vest protests… Among the findings, valued added tax and income tax were the levies that most people listed as needing reduction. …For 75 percent of the participants, the lower taxes must be accompanied by cutting government spending, though they were vague about where the cuts should come, with 75 percent citing “the lifestyle of the state.”

This is all good news. And it does echo polling data I shared back in 2013.

But I’m nonetheless skeptical. I suspect the French (including the Yellow Vests) would be rioting in the streets if the government proposed to curtail the nation’s bloated welfare state.

Though I hope I’m wrong.

In any event, there are signs that President Macron actually does want to move policy in the right direction.

He’s already gone after some bad tax and regulatory barriers to prosperity.

And the Wall Street Journal recently opined about his effort to trim the country’s massive bureaucracy.

The French President is still reeling from months of “yellow vest” protests against his poorly conceived fuel-tax hike, but now he has a much better idea to take on France’s infamously bloated civil service. …Bureaucrats would lose much of their extra time off and instead work the 35-hour week that’s standard in the private economy. The plan would streamline staff reassignments within the civil service and make it easier for local officials to reorganize government departments. …if the reforms happen, they’ll still be a long-overdue step in a country where 5.5 million government employees out of a population of 67 million consume around 13% of GDP in wages. …The political test will be whether Mr. Macron can dust himself off from his fuel follies and persuade French voters to embrace another crucial reform.

I’ll close with the pessimistic observation that France may have passed the tipping point.

Simply stated, government is so big and there’s so much dependency that real reform is politically impossible.

Heck, I worry the United States is on the same trajectory.

P.S. Veronique has a must-watch video explaining why America shouldn’t become another France.

P.P.S. While I’m sympathetic to Macron’s domestic agenda, he’s very bad on European-wide policy issues.

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Image credit: Thomas Bresson | CC BY 4.0.

Fed Must Leave Real-Time Payment Services to Private Sector

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 12:57am

Originally published by NewsMax on April 22, 2019.

The Federal Reserve is getting a lot of news coverage because of new nominations that President Donald Trump has put forth to serve on the Board of Governors.

But America’s central bank also should be in the news because the bureaucrats at the Fed are proposing a massive expansion of its power over the operation of real-time payment systems.

The Federal Reserve’s primary function is the management of the nation’s money supply. And it doesn’t even do a good job with that role. It has an incredibly poor track record, marked by economic instability, frequent asset bubbles, and inflation. Specifically, the Fed bears significant blame for the Great Depression, 1970s stagflation, and the 2008 financial crisis, among other economic disasters.

Such an ignominious track record does not support a case for expanding the power of the Federal Reserve, yet that is precisely what it is considering with a proposal to develop its own real-time payment system to facilitate transfers between banks, credit unions, and other depository institutions.

As monetary expert George Selgin explained in his submitted comments in response to the request for feedback on the proposal, the Board of Governors has historically held to the principle that payment services should be directly provided by the Reserve Banks only under strict conditions. The most salient requirement, in this case, is that the service is “one that other providers alone cannot be expected to provide with reasonable effectiveness, scope, and equity.”

As it so happens, a private system has already been established by The Clearing House Payments Company, owned by a cooperative of 25 banks, and it is growing at a reasonable pace. Their Real-Time Payments network offers 24/7 payment clearing and settlement in real time, improving upon the one-to-three-day lag that many retailers and financial institutions experience today.

There are also big-picture reasons to oppose government competition against the private sector.

In the short-term, government provision of services is inherently unfair to private competition given the vast resources, not to mention the ability to change laws to its own benefit, available to the government. This crowds out private firms and reduces overall competition in an industry. In the long run, that leads to higher costs and less innovation.

A key difference between the private sector and the government is not necessarily the propensity for error, but the degree to which feedback mechanisms hold them accountable. Because failure in the private sector is more punishing, problems are fixed sooner and are less likely to be repeated, while government agencies tend to be rewarded with higher budgets when they screw up under the perverse logic that any new problems they create provide further evidence of the need for government problem-solving.

There’s also a long-run problem. If the Federal Reserve expands its power over the payments system, that could be the precursor to intervention in other areas. What if politicians or bureaucrats then suggest that the Fed should make loans to selected companies? Or invest in selected sectors?

The arguments in favor of these types of intervention would be very similar to those we hear today in support of the Fed directly intervening in the payments market. Yet hopefully people would realize why it would be very risky to give the government such powers. Indeed, intervention by central banks is a common characteristic of some of the world’s worst economies.

The bottom line is that a ubiquitous real-time payment network in the U.S. is everyone’s shared goal. However, the Federal Reserve has failed to make a case for why it must step in to get the industry across the goal line. Its history of failure suggests an expansion of its power and even more control over the financial system is the exact opposite of what’s needed.

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Image credit: Federal Reserve | United States government Work.

Good News from Washington: Social Security’s Long-Run Fiscal Shortfall Is “Only” $42.1 Trillion

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:57pm

Every year, the Social Security Administration issues a “Trustees Report” that summarizes the program’s financing. So every year (see 2018201720162015, etc) I cut through all the verbiage and focus the numbers that really matter.

First, here’s the data from Table VI.G9 showing annual spending and annual revenue, and the numbers are adjusted for inflation. Everything to the left of the vertical red line is historical data. Everything to the right is an estimate based on “intermediate” economic and demographic projections.

The bad news is that there’s a never-ending increase in the program’s fiscal burden.

The only good news is that country presumably will be much richer in the future, so we’ll have more income to pay all those taxes and finance all that spending.

That being said, the fiscal burden is projected to increase faster than our income, so the economic burden of Social Security will increase over time.

But there’s also a wild card to consider. Simply stated, we have more data from Table VI.G9 that shows the program has a giant, ever-expanding deficit.

Here are the grim numbers (though not quite as grim as last year when the cumulative shortfall was $43.7 trillion). Once again, everything to the left of the line is historical data and everything to the right is a projection.

The obvious takeaway is that the program is bankrupt.

Indeed, a private pension fund with these numbers would have been shut down a long time ago. And its executives would be in prison for running a Ponzi Scheme.

Politicians won’t put themselves in prison, of course, but they eventually will be forced to address Social Security’s huge shortfall. If nothing else, the so-called Trust Fund (which isn’t a real Trust Fund since it is filled with IOUs) runs out of money in 2035.

The interesting question is what sort of “solution” they choose when the crisis occurs.

Sadly, many politicians are gravitating to a plan to impose ever-higher taxes to prop up the system.

A far better approach is personal retirement accounts. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

The bottom line is that there’s been a worldwide revolution in favor of private savings and the United States is falling behind.

P.S. If you have some statist friends and family who get confused by numbers, here’s a set of cartoons that shows the need for Social Security reform.

P.P.S. As I explain in this video, reform does not mean reducing benefits for current retirees, or even older workers.

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Image credit: 401kcalculator.org | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Washing Machines, Protectionism, and Net Job Losses

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 12:48pm

When I pontificate about trade, I often point out that protectionism is a net negative for the economy.

Yes, it is possible to erect trade barriers that benefit specific sectors and protect certain jobs, and this is the “seen” benefit.

But the “unseen” costs are always far greater.

Simply stated, protectionism inevitably results in higher prices, foregone prosperity, and economic inefficiency.

Which is exactly what was determined in new research by three economists when they investigated Trump’s trade taxes on washing machines.

We analyze several rounds of U.S. import restrictions against washing machines. Using retail price data, we estimate the price effect of these import restrictions by comparing the price changes of washers with those of other appliances. We find that in response to the 2018 tariffs on nearly all source countries, the price of washers rose by nearly 12 percent; the price of dryers—a complementary good not subject to tariffs—increased by an equivalent amount. Factoring in the effect of dryers and price increases by domestic brands, our estimates for the 2018 tariffs on washers imply a tariff elasticity of consumer prices of between 110 and 230 percent. …The result is an increase of 1.542 billion USD in consumer costs per year. …calculated duties from February 2018 to January 2019 amounted to just under 82 million USD for washing machines, and about 355,000 USD for washing machine parts. …Combining these numbers together reveals a consumer cost per job of roughly 817,000 USD annually.

Here’s a chart from the study showing how prices increased after the tax was imposed.

report in the New York Times highlights some of the findings.

President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported washing machines..is a case study in how a measure meant to help domestic factory workers can rebound on American consumers, creating unexpected costs and leaving shoppers with a sky-high bill for every factory job created. …consumers bore between 125 percent and 225 percent of the costs of the washing machine tariffs. The authors calculate that the tariffs brought in $82 million to the United States Treasury, while raising consumer prices by $1.5 billion. And while the tariffs did encourage foreign companies to shift more of their manufacturing to the United States and created about 1,800 new jobs, the researchers conclude that those came at a steep cost: about $817,000 per job. …The costs of tariffs are paid by some combination of consumers, in the form of higher prices for the products they buy, and companies, which sometimes accept lower profit margins in order to avoid losing sales when tariffs are applied. …

Not that these findings should be a surprise.

There have been numerous studies showing that protectionism is very costly.

Indeed, the NYT story cites a few of these examples.

Other studies support the idea that tariffs are an expensive way to bolster job-creation in the United States. A study by the Peterson Institute found that tire tariffs imposed by Mr. Obama cost about $900,000 per job created. A more recent one found that Mr. Trump’s steel tariffs raised prices on steel users by $650,000 for every job they supported.

By the way, I suspect all this research is incomplete because it mostly measures how consumers have to pay higher prices.

That’s a real cost, of course, but what about secondary costs? What economic activity is being lost because consumers (in the case of washing machines) no longer have $1.542 billion available for other expenditures?

I explored this issue when writing about the green-energy programs that were part of the Obama Administration’s stimulus scheme. Here’s some of that column.

You don’t measure the job impact…simply by dividing the number of jobs into the amount of money… That only gives you part of the answer. You also have to estimate how many jobs would have been created if the $19 billion (or full $38.6 billion) had been left in the private sector rather than being diverted by the heavy hand of government. …Keeping in mind that good analysis requires us to measure the “seen” and “unseen,” let’s now look at net job creation, which is where the rubber meets the road. The federal government is going to divert $38.6 billion from private capital markets for its green energy program, and the Administration claims this will lead to 60,000-65,000 jobs. However, based on the existing ratio of non-financial capital to employment, that same $38.6 billion, if left in the productive sector of the economy, would create about 240,000 jobs. In other words, for every one job “created” by the government, almost four jobs will be foregone. The Obama White House isn’t defending a program that spends a lot of money to create very few jobs. The Administration is defending a program that spends a lot of money and – as a result – reduces total jobs by perhaps 180,000.

I freely confessed in that column that these were back-of-the-envelope calculations, so perhaps the economic costs would show up as lower average wages instead.

None of that changes my point that the economy suffers because of government intervention (whether Obama-style fake stimulus or Trump-style trade taxes).

P.S. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute added his two cents on this issue and shared these examples of costly protectionism.

P.P.S. I much prefer Reagan’s approach to trade (see herehere, and here).

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Image credit: Philip Halling | CC BY-SA 2.0.

IMF Research Shows Higher Business Taxes Reduce Likelihood of Firm Survival

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 12:39pm

The International Monetary Fund is one of my least favorite international bureaucracies because the political types who run the organization routinely support bad policies such as bailouts and tax increases.

But there are professional economists at the IMF who do good work.

While writing about the mess in Argentina yesterday, for instance, I cited some very sensible research from one of the IMF’s economists.

Today, I’m going to cite two other IMF scholars. Serhan Cevik and Fedor Miryugin have produced some new research looking at the relationship between firm survival and business taxation. Here’s the basic methodology of their study.

While creative destruction—through firm entry and exit—is essential for economic progress, establishing a conducive ecosystem for firm survival is also necessary for sustainable private sector development… While corporate income taxes are expected to lower firms’ capital investment and productivity by raising the user cost of capital, distorting factor prices and reducing after-tax return on investment, taxation also provides resources for public infrastructure investments and the proper functioning of government institutions, which are key to a firm’s success. …the overall impact of taxation on firm performance depends on the relative weight of these two opposing effects, which can vary with the composition and efficiency of taxation and government spending. … In this paper, we focus on how taxation affects the survival prospects of nonfinancial firms, using hazard models and a comprehensive dataset covering over 4 million nonfinancial firms from 21 countries with a total of 21.5 million firm-year observations over the period 1995–2015. …we control for a plethora of firm characteristics, such as age, size, profitability, capital intensity, leverage and total factor productivity (TFP), as well as systematic differences across sectors and countries.

By the way, I agree that there are some core public goods that help an economy flourish. That being said, things like courts and national defense can easily be financed without any income tax.

And even with a very broad definition of public goods (i.e., to include infrastructure, education, etc), it’s possible to finance government with very low tax burdens.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s focus on the study. As you can see, the authors grabbed a lot of data from various European nations.

And they specifically measured the impact of the effective marginal tax rate on firm survival.

Unsurprisingly, higher tax burdens have a negative effect.

We find that the tax burden—measured by the firm-specific EMTR—exerts an adverse effect on companies’ survival prospects. In other words, a lower level of EMTR increases the survival probability among firms in our sample. This finding is not only statistically but also economically important and remains robust when we partition the sample into country subgroups. …digging deeper into the tax sensitivity of firm survival, we uncover a nonlinear relationship between the firm-specific EMTR and the probability of corporate failure, which implies that taxation becomes a detriment to firm survival at higher levels. With regards to the impact of other firm characteristics, we obtain results that are in line with previous research and see that survival probability differs depending on firm age and size, with older and larger firms experiencing a lower risk of failure.

For those that like statistics, here are the specific results.

Here are the real-world implications.

Reforms in tax policy and revenue administration should therefore be designed to cut the costs of compliance, facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation, and encourage alternative sources of financing by particularly addressing the corporate debt bias. In this context, the EMTR holds a special key by influencing firms’ investment decisions and the probability of survival over time, especially in capital intensive sectors of the economy. Importantly, the challenge for policymakers is not simply reducing the statutory CIT rate, but to level the playing field for all firms by rationalizing differentiated tax treatments across sectors, capital asset types and sources of financing.

There are some obvious takeaways from this research.

For what it’s worth, this IMF study basically embraces the sensible principles of business taxation that you find in a flat tax.

Too bad we can’t convince the political types who run the IMF to push the policies supported by IMF economists!

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Image credit: Vinícius Pimenta | Pexels License.

Can Argentina Finally Break Free from Decades of Economy-Sapping Statist Governance?

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 12:52pm

Argentina is a sobering example of how statist policies can turn a rich nation into a poor nation.

I’m not exaggerating. After World War II, Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations.

But then Juan Perón took power and initiated Argentina’s slide toward big government, which eroded the nation’s competitiveness and hampered growth.

Even the Washington Post‘s Bureau Chief shares my assessment.

Perón’s rise marked the start of the country’s long, slow slide. …big-government populism squandered Argentine’s fortunes on nationalized railroads and ports. Perón’s pro-labor policies cultivated devout working-class followers but also laid the groundwork for the conversion of his party into an entity that would mirror a corrupt union. …The country battled bouts of damaging inflation in 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1974. …in the 1980s, Argentina saw a bonanza of public-sector hiring, bloated budgets… Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Perónist ex-president, took the helm a decade ago, ushering in a new era of fudged financial data and populism.

Thanks to endless bouts of bad policy, the nation suffers from perpetual crisis.

…a country stuck in what has now become its natural state: crisis. As if living a deja vu, I flipped on the TV to once again hear Argentine newscasters fretting about bailouts, the diving peso and fears of default. Beggars — even more than before — panhandled on the same corner by an imposing church on Santa Fe Avenue. As others had done years before, stores advertised going-out-of-business sales. …Argentina is doomed to a repeating history of financial emergencies. You can almost set your watch to it, and, worryingly, the intervals between implosions are growing ever shorter.

If we focus on policy this century, there was plenty of bad policy under the previous Perónist-oriented Presidents.

And since government amassed so much power over the economy, nobody should be surprised by this BBC report about rampant corruption.

More than a dozen people have been arrested in Argentina after copies of notebooks were found detailing what seem to be illicit political payments. They were kept by Oscar Centeno, who was employed as a driver by a public works official and describe delivering bags of cash. The notebooks cover from 2003 to 2015, when Cristina Fernández and her late husband Néstor Kirchner were president. …She has previously said she is being politically persecuted by the current government, who want to distract people from the country’s economic problems. …the payments total around US$56m (£43m), but Judge Claudio Bonadio says the corruption network could reached up to US$160m.

The Economist reports that the current president, Mauricio Macri, is imposing his share of bad policies, including price controls.

The measures are a change of course for a president who sought to undo the effects of more than a decade of populist government. The most important one is a…revival of a price-control mechanism in force under the two Peronist presidents who preceded him, Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Mr Macri’s version, which he, like the Kirchners, calls “precios cuidados” (“curated prices”), the price of 64 consumer items, from milk to jam, will be frozen for six months (ie, until the eve of the election). An “army” of inspectors, under the direction of the production ministry, will enforce supermarkets’ adherence to the freeze.

Price controls are spectacularly misguided.

Politicians cause inflation by having the central bank create too much money. They then act as if the result rise in prices is the fault of “greedy businesses” and impose controls.

All of which never ends well (see Venezuela, for instance).

But Macri is also adopting other bad policies.

The government has also opened new credit lines for pensioners and families with children and expanded a plan to build new homes with state financing.

He obviously hopes his short-sighted policies will enable him to prevail in the upcoming elections.

And maybe he will if his main opponent is similarly bad.

But at least one candidate supports pro-market reforms.

Argentine economist José Luis Espert once described President Mauricio Macri’s political movement as “kirchnerism with good manners,”… Now a presidential candidate himself, Espert wants to make government a lot less polite. “We need to lay off approximately 1.5 million public employees,” Espert, the head of the newly-formed Libertarian party, told AQ in an exclusive interview. “What I propose is a complete U-turn.” …The economist claims that he is the only candidate who can actually turn around what he describes as “Argentina’s century-long failure, marked by economic populism.” …“We need to abandon our model of import substitution and of running budget deficits, and revise our labor laws, which are similar to those during Italian fascism. We need to have free trade and a state that can pay for itself through reasonable taxes,” added Espert, who on Feb. 2 released a book called The Complicit Society, in which he describes “the economic myths that led Argentina to decadency.”

Wouldn’t it be a great ending to the story if Argentina become another Chile?

My fingers certainly will be crossed (as they are currently for Brazil).

Ironically, even though the International Monetary Fund has subsidized bad policy in Argentina with periodic bailouts, some of the economists who work at the IMF actually understand what’s plaguing the country.

Here are some excerpts from their study, starting with a description of how big government is stifling prosperity.

Argentina’s economic fortune has been on a declining path for a long time. Argentina’s per capita output relative to that of advanced economies nearly halved over the past 50 years. …yearly labor productivity growth has been close to zero on average since 1980… Argentina’s regulatory and administrative burden on businesses is one of the heaviest among EMs… Argentina has the worst overall PMR index among 42 OECD and non-OECD countries, owing to high barriers to entrepreneurship (including complex regulatory procedures which impede firm entry/expansion, and barriers in network sectors), …high trade and other external barriers, and a significant involvement of the state in the economy, both through state-owned enterprises and price controls. …Stringent labor market regulations, such as high firing costs and restrictions on temporary employment, hamper efficient allocation of resources in the economy, discourage investment, and lead to labor underutilization and informality… High tax burden, especially on labor, have similar adverse effects on investment, labor utilization (particularly formal employment), and overall competitiveness of the economy.

Here’s a chart showing how Argentina is de-converging, which is remarkably depressing since conventional theory tells us that poor nations should be catching up with rich nations.

Here are the main findings from the study.

The main objective of this paper is to…assess the role of the reforms in boosting long-term GDP growth through their impact on (i) capital accumulation, (ii) labor utilization, and (iii) total factor productivity or efficiency. …The paper finds that structural reforms can have significant impact on long-term GDP growth through all three supply-side channels. …An ambitious reform effort, which were to improve business regulatory environment (closing half the gap with Australia and New Zealand over two decades), would add 1–1½ percent to average annual growth of GDP. Reducing trade tariffs and payroll taxes (closing half the gap with Australia and New Zealand) could each boost average annual real GDP growth by about 0.1 percent.

Keep in mind, by the way, that even small increments of sustained growth make a huge difference to a nation’s long-run prosperity.

Here’s a table showing the IMF’s suggested reforms.

I actually agree with almost everything on the list.

The only mistake is calling for aggressive anti-trust laws. Yet history teaches us that such laws wind up being tools to protect incumbent companies.

Moreover, the best way to fight monopolies is to have completely open entry to the marketplace.

But I don’t want to quibble. By IMF standards, that list of proposed policies is excellent.

P.S. Pope Francis inexplicably wants to export the failed Argentine model to the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, I think Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have a better approach.

The Federal Reserve Should Have Less Power, not More Power

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:25pm

What’s the biggest problem with the Federal Reserve?

The obvious answer is that the Central Bank is susceptible to Keynesian monetary policy, which results in a harmful boom-bust cycle.

For instance, the Fed’s artificially low interest rates last decade played a key role (along with deeply misguided Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac subsidies) is causing the 2008 crisis.

And let’s not forget the Fed’s role in the Great Depression.

Today, though, let’s focus on a narrower topic.

As Norbert Michel explains for the Heritage Foundation, the central bank is trying to expand its power in the financial system.

…one of the “potential actions” the Fed Board is considering is to develop its very own real-time settlement system. This approach makes many private sector actors anxious because no private company wants to compete with the feds. …Since its inception, the Fed has been heavily involved in the U.S. payments system. And one can easily argue that the system has lagged behind precisely because the Fed has been too involved. …The Fed also effectively took over the check-clearing business even though the economic case for such a move was highly suspect. Private firms were doing fine. In fact, there is a long history of the Fed usurping the private market.

Here are some details on the Fed’s most-recent power grab.

…the government is once again angling to take over a function that private firms are already providing. The Clearinghouse, a private association owned by 25 large banks, launched its own system—Real-Time Payments (RTP)—in November 2017. …the private sector is better than the government at providing more goods and services to more people. In the private sector, competitive forces and the need to satisfy customers create constant pressure to innovate and improve. Government entities are wholly insulated from these pressures. The government should not provide a good or service unless there is some sort of clear market failure, where the private sector has failed to provide it. This type of failure clearly does not exist in the payments industry.

Norbert is right. Competition is the way to get better outcomes for consumers.

As such, it’s rather absurd to think a government-operated monopoly will produce good results (look, for instance, at its cronyist behavior during the financial crisis).

Now let’s zoom out and consider the big picture.

Richard Rahn has a column in the Washington Times that raises questions about the Fed’s role in a modern economy.

Is there a need for the Fed? …The Fed has an extensive history of policy mistakes, (too long to even summarize here). The problem has been the assumption that the Fed had better information and tools than it had. At times, it was expected to “lean against the wind” as if it had information not available to the market — or smarter people. In Hayekian terms, it suffered from “the pretense of knowledge.” At this point, it may be beyond fixing. Several very knowledgeable economists who have held high-level positions at the Fed, including regional bank presidents, have begun discussions about setting up a new commission to rethink the whole idea of a Fed and its activities. The structure that now exists is a jerry-built concoction that has been assembled in bits and pieces for more than a century — and increasingly appears to be past its expiration date.

I’ve written about the need to clip the Fed’s wings, but Richard’s column suggests even bolder action is needed.

Larry White and John Stossel also have questioned the role and power of the Federal Reserve.

In any event, one thing that should be clear is that the Fed hasn’t used its existing powers either wisely or effectively.

Thomas Sowell is right. Don’t reward a bureaucracy’s poor performance by giving it even more power.

P.S. Here’s a video I narrated on the Fed and central banking.

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Image credit: Rdsmith4 | CC BY-SA 2.5.

Busting the Spending Caps…Again

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:40pm

There are two things everyone should understand about the federal budget.

Sadly, the politicians in Washington generally aren’t interested in sensible fiscal policy. They have a “public choice” incentive to spend more money in hopes of buying more votes.

Congressman Chip Roy, a freshman from Texas, is one of the few lawmakers who objects to the spend-like-there’s-no-tomorrow mentality in Washington.

Here’s some of what he wrote for the Hill.

…both parties appear to have reached a consensus on one major issue: busting spending caps is their solution to disagreements over spending. …Members of my party would be happy to agree with Democrats’ demands to spend outside our means, so long as they get all the money they want for defense. …The truth is Washington is all about power rather than solving the problem. It’s politically easier for Republicans to press for defense spending and Democrats to push for non-defense spending… Years of out-of-control spending and poor decision making is catching up with us.

He specifically wants to maintain the spending caps that apply to annually appropriated outlays.

Instead of wringing our hands and finding political convenient reasons to spend outside our means, Congress should stick to the caps. Doing so will force us – Republicans and Democrats – to sit at the table and negotiate—a lost art in Washington… allowing an across-the-board sequester to kick-in is more responsible than what Congress appears on track to do. …we must act now to do our job. We must stick to the budget caps.

He’s right about the desirability of a sequester.

Indeed, the sequester that took place in 2013 was the biggest victory for fiscal discipline during Obama’s presidency.

Sadly, politicians since then have been jumping through all sorts of hoops to avoid a second sequester. And the Democrats in the House of Representatives are proposing to bust the spending caps once again.

Here’s a chart prepared by Republicans on the House Budget Committee.

By the way, I’m not citing material from Republicans because they deserve praise.

So even though House Democrats are now proposing something that’s “absurdly terrible,” Republicans don’t have much credibility on the issue.

I’ll close with an observation about Greece’s fiscal tragedy.

There was no single decision that caused that country’s economic crisis. Instead, it was hundreds of short-sighted choices to spend more on Program A, Initiative B, Plan C, and Project D, along with every kind of tax increase under the sun.

And when some people warned that the fiscal orgy eventually would produce bad consequences, they were dismissed or ignored.

Sadly, American is heading down the same path. We know the solution, but politicians are more interested in buying votes than doing what’s right for America.

That includes the President. Trump has the power to force a sequester. All he has to do is veto any spending bill that busts the caps. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

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Image credit: Trading Academy | Financial Images.

The Village Experiment that Transformed China

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:08pm

Every Thanksgiving, I share the story of how the Pilgrims nearly starved to death because of their experiment with collectivized agriculture.

Once the settlers shifted to a system based on private ownership, however, their problems disappeared.

The obvious moral of the story is that incentives matter. Socialist systems encourage slackers (see this cartoon strip) and market systems encourage productivity.

column by X in the Wall Street Journal tells a similar story about China.

It’s actually the story of an important anniversary.

The People’s Republic of China turns 70 in October and will celebrate with flag-waving and fireworks. …2019 also marks the anniversary of the result of a smaller, quieter but just as defiant protest—one that will receive little attention in or out of China, even though it launched the economic reforms that kick-started the country’s rise.

Here’s the background.

After taking power in 1949, China’s Communist Party had effectively abolished private land ownership, grouping farms into “people’s communes” subservient to the state. By 1978 villages were crippled by quotas that seized most of what they grew for redistribution. …there was no food. Xiaogang’s farmers dug up roots, boiled poplar leaves with salt, and ground roasted tree bark into flour. Families left their thatched-roof homes and took to the road to beg.

By the way, the Chinese system of collective farms was an example of hardcore socialism – i.e., government ownership and control.

So it’s hardly a surprise that it produced awful results. Including mass starvation.

But desperate times were the motivation for desperate measures.

…a farmer named Yan Hongchang summoned the heads of the village’s desperate families to a clandestine meeting. On paper torn from a child’s school workbook, the farmers wrote a 79-word pledge to divide the commune’s land into family plots, submit the required quota of corn to the state, and keep the rest for themselves.

And what happened?

Incentives and property rights worked. Spectacularly.

…farmers…reported a grain yield of 66 metric tons. This single harvest equaled the village’s total output between 1955 and 1970—but for once the figure was not exaggerated. In fact, villagers underreported their actual yield by a third, fearing officials would not believe their record haul.

And the really good news is that the successful experiment in Xiaogang led to market-based reform for the entire nation.

The grass-roots experiment did spread. In Beijing, three years after Mao Zedong’s death, Deng Xiaoping urged the Chinese to ignore political dogma and instead “seek truth from facts.” Now came news that dissenting farmers were actually growing food. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Deng’s decision to scrap collective farming. In its place came one of the country’s most popular reforms, the Household Contract Responsibility System, or chengbao, which allows families to farm their own allocation of land and sell most of the harvest at unregulated prices.

Indeed, China now celebrates Xiaogang’s rebellious shift to markets.

Xiaogang village is a “red tourism” attraction, albeit the only one whose “patriotic education base” (museum) celebrates local defiance of government policy. Its exhibition hall displays a copy of the farmers’ pledge—the original was lost years ago—and floor-to-ceiling photographs of its signatories. The men are lauded as heroes, and Xiaogang celebrated with a slogan: “The origin of our nation’s economic rise!”

Maybe future historians will look upon the events in Xiaogang the same way some people look at 1356 in Europe?

In any event, what began forty years ago already has yielded great results for the people of China. Grinding poverty has virtually disappeared.

To be sure, China still needs a lot of reform. It’s only ranked #107according the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World.

But if some good reform yielded some good results, just imagine how much prosperity China could enjoy with a lot of good reform?

P.S. Just as the village of X helped to rescue China from hardcore socialism, there’s a grocery store in Texas that played a role in rescuing Russia’s economy.

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Image credit: judithscharnowski | Pixabay License.

Is Crazy Bernie Sanders a Sincere Hypocrite?

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 12:58pm

Bernie Sanders demonizes the rich and argues that millionaires need to pay higher tax rates in order to finance a bigger burden of government.

Which presumably means that he should surrender more of his income, since he is part of the gilded class. The New York Times has a report on the Vermont Senator’s lavish income.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, disclosed 10 years of tax returns on Monday… He and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, reported income that topped $1 million in 2016 and 2017… Mr. Sanders’s higher income in recent years has created some political awkwardness for the senator, who in his 2016 presidential campaign frequently railed against “millionaires and billionaires” and their influence over the political process. …His income now puts him within the top 1 percent of taxpayers, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service.

Yet when asked why he didn’t pay a big chunk of his income to the IRS, Sanders showed typical statist hypocrisy by giving the same reason used by every rich person (including Trump) and every big corporation.

Fox News has the details.

Early in the program, Sanders was asked about the 10 years worth of tax returns he had released just before the program, which showed that he had an adjusted gross income of $561,293 in 2018, on which he paid a 26 percent effective tax rate. Baier asked Sanders why he’s holding onto his wealth rather than refusing deductions or writing a check to the Treasury Department — since Sanders had said he voted against Trump’s tax bill that he himself benefited from. “Pfft, come on. I paid the taxes that I owe,” Sanders replied.

If he actually followed the law and paid his taxes, that puts him ahead of some of his fellow leftists, such as Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle.

But that’s still not good enough, at least if Sanders is serious in wanting to resurrect FDR’s infamous second Bill of Rights.

FDR stated the Bill of Rights wasn’t enough and we needed to guarantee economic rights as well: the right to a decent job, the right to health care, housing, education, retirement security, etc. I agree with FDR. Economic rights are human rights.

— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 24, 2019

For what it’s worth, the notion that people have a right to free stuff is the core principle behind the so-called Green New Deal.

Yet if Sanders wants to minimize his own tax bill, why should he complain when the rest of us try to protect ourselves from being victimized by his redistribution agenda?

Though I will admit that Sanders is probably a sincere hypocrite.

After all, would anyone other than a committed leftist support Venezuela’s leftist dictatorship?

And let’s not overlook the fact that Crazy Bernie has some crazy advisers with the same crazy viewpoint, as revealed by the Wall Street Journal. Like their boss, they have a perverse admiration for the despotic hellhole of Venezuela.

Socialism is cool again, and Bernie Sanders wants to reassure voters that there’s nothing to worry about. “I think what we have to do, and I will be doing it, is to do a better job maybe in explaining what we mean by socialism—democratic socialism,” Mr. Sanders said last month. …But we’ve been reading the work of Bernie’s senior political advisers… Take speechwriter David Sirota, who joined the Sanders campaign in March… Mr. Sirota wrote an op-ed for Salon in 2013 titled “Hugo Chávez’s Economic Miracle.” …Sirota wrote… “in a United States that has become more unequal than many Latin American nations, are there any constructive lessons to be learned from Chávez’s grand experiment with more aggressive redistribution?” …Mr. Sanders’ political director, Analilia Mejia, spent part of her childhood in Venezuela and told the Atlantic in 2016 that “it was better to live on poverty-level wages in a shantytown in Venezuela than on a garment-worker’s salary in Elizabeth, New Jersey.” …senior policy adviser Heather Gautney visited Caracas in 2006…wrote about how Chávez had “implemented a serious [sic] of programs to redistribute the wealth of the country and bolster social welfare.” …She also wrote that “today’s neoliberal capitalist system has become utterly incompatible with the requisites of democratic freedom.” …Mr. Sanders is…a leading candidate…and these are the people who would staff his White House. Voters need to understand that they don’t merely admire Venezuela. By their own words, they want America to emulate it.

I’m almost at a loss for words. People are starving in Venezuela. Women are being forced into prostitution. Families are eating household pets.

Yet Bernie’s people think we should mimic Venezuela’s horrid socialism.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

But since I prefer laughter, let’s close with same Bernie-themed humor, starting with this gem from the satirists at Babylon Bee.

Needing to cool off from the high-stress life of a U.S. senator who has to work three days a week, Bernie Sanders was spotted Tuesday ranting at the wide selection of deodorants at a D.C.-area Target. “There are people who don’t have enough food to eat in this world, and yet there are 29 different brands of deodorant here!” Sanders bellowed, citing the two completely unrelated facts for some reason. … Several shoppers attempted to go around Sanders but he blocked the aisle, ranting to them about the 1% and the failures of capitalism before they ran away, frightened. …At publishing time, Sanders was seen in the snacks aisle ranting about how no country needs three different varieties of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

By the way, this isn’t random humor.

Sanders is such a crazy crank that he actually has condemned capitalism for providing too many underarm choices.

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

Two Negative Consequences of the Income Tax

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 12:48pm

There are some fortunate people (in the Cayman IslandsBermudaMonacoVanuatuAntigua and Barbuda, and a few other places) who don’t have to pay income taxes.

The United States used to be in that lucky club. The income tax did not become a permanent blight upon the nation until 1913 (there was a temporary income tax during the Civil War and an attempted income tax in 1894 – ruled unconstitutional in 1895).

Indeed, this odious tax is a relatively new invention for the entire world. If my memory is correct, the first income tax was a temporary measure imposed by the United Kingdom to finance the fight against Napoleon. And the U.K. also was the first country to impose a permanent income tax (ironically, to help offset lower taxes on international trade).

In every case, politicians followed the same script. Income taxes originally were supposed to have low rates and only apply to the rich.

But it was simply a matter of time before small taxes on the wealthy became punitive taxes on everybody.

Since today is tax filing today for Americans, let’s take the opportunity to highlight two specific unfortunate consequences of the income tax.

First, it enabled the modern welfare state. You can see from the chart that the explosion of redistribution spending only occurred after politicians obtained a new source of revenue (a problem that was exacerbated in Europe when politicians adopted value-added taxes and were able to further increase the burden of government spending).

Needless to say, this is a reason to oppose an energy tax, a wealth tax, or a financial transactions tax. Giving politicians a new source of revenue is like giving alcoholics the keys to a liquor store.

Second, the income tax enabled costly economic discrimination. Prior to income taxes, governments largely relied on trade taxes and excise taxes, and those levies did not create many opportunities for mischief.

An income tax, by contrast, allows the government to impose all sorts of special penalties – either with discriminatory tax rates or with extra layers of tax on saving and investment – on people who generate a lot of economic output.

And it’s worth mentioning that the income tax also allows politicians to create all sorts of special credits, exemptions, deduction, exclusion, and other preferences (about 75,000 pages of them) for politically well-connected interest groups.

These penalties and preferences are both morally troubling (rampant cronyism) and economically damaging (back-door methods of central planning).

Let’s wrap up today’s column with this helpful reminder that the income tax is basically a penalty on productive behavior.

P.S. Politicians can play games with other revenue sources (i.e., special VAT rates or differential tariff burdens), but the income tax stands apart because it is capable of generating large amounts of revenue while simultaneously giving politicians considerable ability to pick winners and losers.

P.P.S. If you need some gallows humor to make it through tax day, go to the bottom of this column.

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Image credit: Chris Tolworthy | CC BY 2.0.

Socialism: A Track Record of Failure

Sun, 04/14/2019 - 12:42pm

What’s socialism?

Is it the centrally planned economies of Cuba and North Korea? Or the kleptocracies of Zimbabwe and Venezuela?

How about the interventionist welfare states of GreeceItaly, and France? Or the redistribution-oriented Nordic nations?

Since socialism means different things to different people, the answers will be all over the map.

But there’s one constant. However it’s defined, it doesn’t work.

Joshua Muravchik, writing for the Wall Street Journal, shares the many and inevitable failures of socialism.

It’s hard to think of another idea that has been tried and failed as many times in as many ways or at a steeper price in human suffering. …Marx (1818-83)…called his vision “scientific socialism.” Inspired by the dream of proletarian revolution overthrowing capitalist immiseration, socialist parties sprouted across Europe. Yet instead of growing poorer, workers in industrialized countries saw improvement in their living standards; and instead of disappearing, middle classes expanded—all disproving Marx. …Lenin pioneered modern communism, which in the 20th century was imposed on 18 countries and one-third of mankind. Repression was justified by socialism’s purported economic benefits, but the actual trade-off entailed economic misery and the snuffing out of as many as 100 million lives. …“Social democrats” and “democratic socialists” rejected Lenin’s methods. But their goals remained transformational. …British Labour Party leader Clement Attlee…sought to bring “main factors in the economic system”—including banks, mining and energy—under “public ownership and control.” Nationalization worked so badly, however, that Attlee soon beat a retreat and was voted out in 1951.

Though there was plenty of socialism until Margaret Thatcher was elected.

And if you consider the creaky National Health Service, some sectors of the economy remain socialized.

Anyhow, self-described American socialists claim they simply want to be like Scandinavian countries.

But as Muravchik notes, those nations aren’t technically socialist (i.e., they don’t have government ownershipcentral planningprice controls).

Yes, they have expensive welfare states (which have hampered growth), but markets determine how resources are allocated.

American socialists like Mr. Sanders, while often defending the likes of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, prefer to point to Scandinavia as a model. But Scandinavian social democrats learned to settle for dense social safety nets underwritten by remarkably free, capitalist economies. On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scale, Denmark ranks third of 190 countries, Norway seventh and Sweden 12th.

The bottom line is that socialism has failed every place it’s been tried.

Socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried… Surely today’s young people can create their own ideas and make their own mistakes rather than repeat those that darkened the times of their parents, grandparents and the generations before.

Now let’s look at a column by Richard Geddes of the American Enterprise Institute.

He notes that there’s a grim relationship not only between socialism and economic failure, but also that the ideology has a long list of victims.

Socialism has an abysmal record in the twentieth and twenty-first century, its effects include economic destruction, failure, and misery — Venezuela being the latest in a long line of wretched examples. Yet today, Democratic Party leaders such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez are still proud to adopt the label of “democratic socialist.” …the more rigorously socialist principles are applied, the greater the human suffering, regardless of race, creed, or geographic location. …the grim statistics of those who died in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the name of socialist experimentation (such as those who suffered forced starvation during the collectivization of agriculture) are pegged at about 100 million.

Geddes looks at the argument over how to define socialism and notes that regulation can be a back door form of socialism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as: “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” New socialists argue that the distinction between government ownership and regulation is critical, and that they want extensive regulation but not nationalization. Yet, if regulation is sufficiently intrusive and onerous, private property rights are neutered, and control is effectively transferred to the socialist state.

That’s also a good definition of fascism, for what it’s worth. In other words, nominal private ownership, but the heavy hand of government actually determines how resources are allocated.

Geddes notes that American socialists don’t favor dictatorship, but that doesn’t change the fact that their policies will have a very adverse impact on the economy.

New socialists argue that, unlike their 20th century counterparts, they oppose the use of force to achieve their policy goals, instead preferring peaceful democratic processes. …however, whether socialist ends are achieved through forceful or democratic processes matters little when it comes to the nefarious effects of policies such as “free” healthcare, “free” college tuition, and so on. The destructive effects on both the supply and demand side of those markets would be much the same in the end.

Like Muravchik, Geddes also explains that Nordic nations don’t qualify as socialist.

Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) — beloved by some as examples of successful socialism. …those countries are in many ways more market-oriented that the United States… Indeed, those countries are decades ahead of the United States in adopting market reforms in two of my areas of policy expertise: postal services and infrastructure delivery.

My two cents is that the Scandinavian nations are not socialist based on the technical definition.

And here’s my amateur depiction of how that works, with degree of intervention measured from top to bottom. Notice that Sweden is well above the line and isn’t socialist (indeed, it is farther from socialism than the United States.

But if everyone now thinks socialism simply means a lot of redistribution, then we get a different picture.

Under this Crazy Bernie/AOC approach, Sweden is to the right of the line and is socialist but (perversely) Venezuela doesn’t qualify.

But maybe the way to accommodate both the traditional definition and the modern usage is to draw a diagonal line.

Here’s my depiction, and I deliberately put Sweden on the socialist side to make some of my lefty friends happy (though if you’re looking at overall levels of economic freedom, they shouldn’t be socialist unless the United States also is socialist).

The obvious takeaway is that it’s best to be near the top left, near Hong Kong. And it’s also good to avoid the bottom right (Venezuela being closest to that corner, which makes sense since it is in last place according to Economic Freedom of the World).

P.S. Since I bent over backwards to define socialism in ways to make the left happy, I will atone by calling attention to my collection of socialism/communism humor.

P.P.S. The Soviet Union, as far as I understand, didn’t have any sort of welfare state other than meager pensions for the elderly. So it’s in the lower left.

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Image credit: Max Pixel | CC0 1.0.

Bureaucrat of the Year?

Sat, 04/13/2019 - 12:18pm

When I gave readers an opportunity to select their favorite political cartoonist back in 2013, they picked Michael Ramirez.

And I can understand, given the excellent options that I shared (hereherehere, and here).

But I now think I overlooked his true masterpiece, at least if salience is an issue. The cartoon he produced on politicians and bureaucrat unions perfectly identifies the problem that has produced gaping fiscal shortfalls in so many states and communities.

Simply stated, politicians and bureaucrats have figured out how to gang up against taxpayers.

The Chicago Tribune recently opined on this horrific example.

…a controversial state law…allowed a lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, David Piccioli, to become certified as a substitute teacher in December 2006 by working one day at a Springfield elementary school — and to buy pension credit for his 10 previous years working as a lobbyist. That sweet deal qualified him for a pension windfall from a teachers retirement fund that as of late 2018 carried an unfunded liability of more than $75 billion-with-a-B. Because he also draws a pension from a previous job as a House Democratic aide, Piccioli’s total pension income now rises to nearly $100,000.

Sadly, Illinois courts routinely acquiesce to this kind of scam.

…the court upheld a dubious loophole that allowed government employees who left those jobs to work for their union in the private sector to still qualify for a public pension — with payouts based on their much higher salaries in their union roles. One example: Former Chicago labor boss Dennis Gannon, who started out working for the city, was able to retire at age 50 with a city pension based on his union salary of at least $240,000. The Supreme Court upheld that arrangement too.

Perhaps those actually were correct legal decisions.

But, if so, that underscores my original point about politicians and bureaucrat union working together to fleece taxpayers.

This story underscores the unfairness of a system that provides much higher levels of compensation for government bureaucrats compared to those toiling in the economy’s productive sector.

But it also can be seen as a Exhibit A for why Illinois is a fiscal black holeWhich is, of course, why the state’s politicians are so anxious and determined to get rid of the state’s flat tax.

And this explains why productive people are leaving.

Needless to say, this won’t end well.

P.S. I’m not going to put Mr. Piccioli in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. That high honor is reserved for people who actually had government jobs for longer than one day (such as the Philadelphia bureaucrat who “earned” a $50,000 annual pension after being employed for just 2-1/2 years. As a consolation prize, I will instead offer him up as a potential candidate for Bureaucrat of the Year.

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Image credit: Kiwiev | CC0 1.0.

The European Union and Economic Performance

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 12:02pm

Thanks to the glorious miracle of capitalism, I’m writing this column 36,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

I’m on my way back from Europe, where I ground through about a dozen presentations as part of a swing through 10 countries.

Most of my speeches were about the future of Europe, which was the theme of the Austrian Economic Center’s 2019 Free Market Road Show.

So it was bad timing that I didn’t have a chance until now to comb through a new study from three scholars about the economic impact of the European Union. As they point out at the start of their research, EU officials clearly want people to believe European-wide governance is a recipe for stronger growth.

The great European postwar statesmen, including the EU founding fathers, clearly…envisaged the establishment of a common political and economic entity as a guarantor of…domestic economic progress.…Article 2 of the foundational Treaty of Rome explicitly talked about “raising the standard of living.” … in practice EU today mainly emphasizes growth, as is evident from its most ambitious recent policy agendas. In 2000, a stated aim of the Lisbon Agenda was to make the European economy the “most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” And all seven of the Flagship Initiatives adopted as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy were about growth—smart, sustainable, and inclusive.

Here’s a bit of background on their methodology.

…the focus of the present paper will be on prosperity as the key outcome that the EU will be measured up against… Our approach in the present paper is to use different empirical strategies (difference-in-differences type setups and standard growth regressions); slice the length of the panel in various ways (e.g., dropping post crisis observations); look at different samples of countries (e.g., a global sample, the sample of original OECD countries, the sample of formerly planned economies, and the sample of EU member countries); pay attention to spatial dependencies; and, finally, require manipulability of the treatment variable.

And what did they find?

It seems that the European Union has not triggered or enabled better economic performance.

The conclusion that emerges upon looking systematically at the data is that EU membership has no impact on economic growth. …We start by simply looking at the comparative performance of the EU and the United States, which is the comparison that Niall Ferguson makes. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database provides real GDP growth rates going back to 1980 for the EU and the US. These are plotted in Figure 1. The EU only managed to outperform the US economy in terms of real GDP growth in ten out of the 35 years between 1980 and 2015. …With these growth rates, the US economy would double its size every 27 years, whereas the corresponding number for the EU is 36 years. This hardly amounts to stellar performance on part of the EU.

What makes this data so remarkable is that convergence theory tells us that poorer nations should grow faster than richer nations.

So EU countries should be catching up to America.

Yet the opposite is happening. Here’s the relevant chart on US vs. EU performance.

The scholars conducted various statistical tests.

Many of those test actually showed that EU membership is associated with weaker performance.

…we basically measure pre- and post-entry growth for the EU countries up against the growth trajectories of all other countries. …EU membership is associated with lower economic growth in all columns. …where we use the maximum length WDI sample (i.e., 1961-2015), EU entry is associated with a statistically significant growth reduction of roughly 1.8 percentage points per year. When we remove the period associated with the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone (i.e., 2010-15), the reduction remains significant but is lower (1.27 percentage points per year). Finally, when we remove the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the reduction (which is now statistically insignificant) is 0.5 percentage points per year. Using GDP per worker growth from PWT gives roughly similar results… Consequently, in a difference-in-differences type setting EU entry seems to have reduced economic growth.

Moreover, a bigger EU (i.e., more member nations) is associated with slower average growth.

Last but not least, the authors compared former Soviet Bloc nations to see if linking up with the EU led to improvements in economic performance.

…we ask whether growth picked up in the new Eastern European EU countries after accession vis-à-vis growth in 18 formerly planned non-EU countries. …Of the 11 accession countries, not a single one had higher average annual real GDP per capita growth in the period after the EU accession as compared to the period before.

Ouch.

These are not flattering results.

Here’s a look at the relevant chart.

These findings leave me with a feeling of guilt. For almost twenty years, I’ve been telling audiences in Eastern Europe that they probably should join the EU.

Yes, I realized that meant a lot of pointless red tape from Brussels, but I always assumed that those costs would be acceptable because the EU would give them expanded trade and help improve the rule of law.

I’ll have to do some thinking about this issue before my next trip.

P.S. In case you’re wondering why I’ve been telling Eastern European nations to join the EU while telling the United Kingdom to go for a Clean Brexit, my analysis (at least up til now) has been that market-oriented nations are held back by being in EU while poorer and more statist economies are improved by EU membership.

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Image credit: Sébastien Bertrand | CC BY 2.0.

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