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Updated: 58 min 40 sec ago

Socialism Humor

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 12:59pm

The Babylon Bee is America’s best site for political satire, with several appearances in my collection of libertarian humor.

The site is great even when libertarians get mocked.

Check out the following three stories.

We’ll start with one about a vapid millennial (who presumably took part in this poll).

Local socialist millennial man Matthew Hatter lamented Monday that there are no concrete examples of socialism he can point to in order to have some kind of idea how it would turn out. “If only there were other countries that have tried socialism before,” Hatter said to a friend at an ethical coffee shop… “Like, say some countries in South America tried socialism before and everybody starved to death,” he said. “Or if there were major superpowers who implemented socialism and then, like, 100 million people died—that would be really bad. We could look to these ‘books of history’ and decide that wouldn’t be the route for us.” …Hatter said he’s just glad that if socialism turns out to be terrible, no other country would be dumb enough to follow in our footsteps.

Some people are familiar with socialism, of course.

And this next bit of satire from Babylon Bee indicates that they’re planning ahead.

The nation’s Democratic leaders announced Tuesday they are reversing course on Trump’s proposed border wall, since “it will keep people in once we switch to socialism.” “We thought the border wall was a bad, racist idea,” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. …But that got me thinking…when we switch to socialism, everyone’s gonna try to run away. But what if there’s a big, solid object along the border? Then they can’t run away. I mean, they could try to climb, but we could shoot them.” Senator Bernie Sanders said in his experience, walls are “absolutely necessary” to keep a socialist country’s citizens from fleeing. “The Soviets had it right: big wall in Berlin, the symbolic Iron Curtain, shooting people who try to flee. It’s all necessary to a healthy socialist state.”

Sounds like they read the advice that Walter Williams gave – tongue in cheek – to California’s politicians.

Our third and final example from Babylon Bee involves the Democrats’ electoral plan.

Laying their cards on the table with the midterms approaching, the nation’s Democrats have united to send a clear message: socialism is America’s only hope of ending the current nightmare of economic prosperity. “We’re living in a hellscape—but there is an escape,” 2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden said… “democratic socialism is what’s going to free us from our horrific, flourishing, present conditions. You do the math.” …“Kill anyone who disagrees!” Maxine Waters bellowed from the background.

The Foundation for Economic Education just published a column with 10 of the jokes that East Germans told about their dictatorial government.

Here are my three favorites.

  • Why do Stasi officers make such good taxi drivers? — You get in the car and they already know your name and where you live.
  • What’s the best feature of a Trabant? — There’s a heater at the back to keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it.
  • What would happen if the desert became a socialist country? — Nothing for a while… then the sand becomes scarce.

Speaking of satire, Hasbro apparently has produced a socialist version of their famous Monopoly board game.

Sounds fake, but you can find it on Amazon.

John Ellis of PJ Media is quite amused.

Hasbro’s new “Monopoly: Socialism,” though, sounds like a hoot and a great way to continue to teach my kids why socialism is for the math-, economics-, and history-challenged among us. …the game sounds awesome! …the only game played in my house on game night henceforth will be Hasbro’s Monopoly: Socialism. …I get to incorporate both fun and education into family game night.

We’ll close out with another appearance by Libertarian Jesus.

Very appropriate given what I wrote about two weeks ago.

If you’re interested, other examples of Libertarian Jesus can be found herehere, and here.

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Image credit: nrkbeta | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Wealth Taxation and Confiscatory Effective Tax Rates

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 12:29pm

With their punitive proposals for wealth taxes, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are leading the who-can-be-craziest debate in the Democratic Party.

But what would happen if either “Crazy Bernie” or “Looney Liz” actually had the opportunity to impose such levies?

At the risk of gross understatement, the effect won’t be pretty.

Based on what’s happened elsewhere in Europe, the Wall Street Journal opined that America’s economy would suffer.

Bernie Sanders often points to Europe as his economic model, but there’s one lesson from the Continent that he and Elizabeth Warren want to ignore. Europe has tried and mostly rejected the wealth taxes that the two presidential candidates are now promising for America. …Sweden…had a wealth tax for most of the 20th century, though its revenue never accounted for more than 0.4% of gross domestic product in the postwar era. …The relatively small Swedish tax still was enough of a burden to drive out some of the country’s brightest citizens. …In 2007 the government repealed its 1.5% tax on personal wealth over $200,000. …Germany…imposed levies of 0.5% and 0.7% on personal and corporate wealth in 1978. The rate rose to 1% in 1995, but the Federal Constitutional Court struck down the wealth tax that year, and it was effectively abolished by 1997. …The German left occasionally proposes resurrecting the old system, and in 2018 the Ifo Institute for Economic Research analyzed how that would affect the German economy. The authors’ baseline scenario suggests that long-run GDP would be 5% lower with a wealth tax, while employment would shrink 2%. …The best argument against a wealth tax is moral. It is a confiscatory tax on the assets from work, thrift and investment that have already been taxed at least once as individual or corporate income, and perhaps again as a capital gain or death tax. The European experience shows that it also fails in practice.

Karl Smith’s Bloomberg column warns that wealth taxes would undermine the entrepreneurial capitalism that has made the United States so successful.

…a wealth tax…would allow the federal government to undermine a central animating idea of American capitalism. …The U.S. probably could design a wealth tax that works. …If a country was harboring runaway billionaires, the U.S. could effectively lock it out of the international financial system. That would make it practically impossible for high-net-worth people to have control over their wealth, even if it they could keep the U.S. government from collecting it. The necessity of this type of harsh enforcement points to a much larger flaw in the wealth tax… Billionaires…accumulate wealth…it allows them to control the destiny of the enterprises they founded. A wealth tax stands in the way of this by requiring billionaires to sell off stakes in their companies to pay the tax. …One of the things that makes capitalism work is the way it makes economic resources available to those who have demonstrated an ability to deploy them effectively. It’s the upside of billionaires. …A wealth tax designed to democratize control over companies would strike directly at this strength. …a wealth tax would penalize the founders with the most dedication to their businesses. Entrepreneurs would be less likely to start businesses, in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, if they think their success will result in the loss of their ability to guide their company.

The bottom line, given the importance of “super entrepreneurs” to a nation’s economy, is that wealth taxes would do considerable long-run damage.

Andy Kessler, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, explains that wealth taxes directly harm growth by penalizing income that is saved and invested.

Even setting comical revenue projections aside, the wealth-tax idea doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Never mind that it’s likely unconstitutional. Or that a wealth tax is triple taxation… The most preposterous part of the wealth-tax plans is their supporters’ insistence that they would be good for the economy. …a wealth tax would suck money away from productive investments. …liberals in favor of taxation always trot out the tired trope that the poor drive growth by spending their money while the rich hoard it, tossing gold coins in the air in their basement vaults. …So just tax the rich and government spending will create great jobs for the poor and middle class. This couldn’t be more wrong. As anyone with $1 billion—or $1,000—knows, people don’t stuff their mattresses with Benjamins. They invest them. …most likely…in stocks or invested directly in job-creating companies… A wealth tax takes money out of the hands of some of the most productive members of society and directs it toward the least productive uses. …existing taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains discourage the healthy savings that create jobs in the economy. These are effectively taxes on wealth—and we don’t need another one.

Professor Noah Smith leans to the left. But that doesn’t stop him, in a column for Bloomberg, from looking at what happened in France and then warning that wealth taxes have some big downsides.

Studies on the effects of taxation when rates are moderate might not be a good guide to what happens when rates are very high. Economic theories tend to make a host of simplifying assumptions that might break down under a very high-tax regime. …One way to predict the possible effects of the taxes is to look at a country that tried something similar: France, where Piketty, Saez and Zucman all hail from. …France…shows that inequality, at least to some degree, is a choice. Taxes and spending really can make a big difference. But there’s probably a limit to how much even France can do in this regard. The country has experimented with…wealth taxes…with disappointing results. France had a wealth tax from 1982 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 2017. …The wealth tax might have generated social solidarity, but as a practical matter it was a disappointment. The revenue it raised was rather paltry; only a few billion euros at its peak, or about 1% of France’s total revenue from all taxes. At least 10,000 wealthy people left the country to avoid paying the tax; most moved to neighboring Belgium… France lost not only their wealth tax revenue but their income taxes and other taxes as well. French economist Eric Pichet estimates that this ended up costing the French government almost twice as much revenue as the total yielded by the wealth tax.

In other words, the much-maligned Laffer Curve is very real. When looking at total tax collections from the rich, the wealth tax resulted in less money for France’s greedy politicians.

And this chart from the column shows that French lawmakers are experts at extracting money from the private sector.

The dirty little secret, of course, is that lower-income and middle-class taxpayers are the ones being mistreated.

By the way, Professor Smith’s column also notes that President Hollande’s 75 percent tax rate on the rich also backfired.

Let’s close with a report from the Wall Street Journal about one of the grim implications of Senator Warren’s proposed tax.

Elizabeth Warren has unveiled sweeping tax proposals that would push federal tax rates on some billionaires and multimillionaires above 100%. That prospect raises questions for taxpayers and the broader economy… How might that change their behavior? And would investment and economic growth suffer? …The rate would vary according to the investor’s circumstances, any state taxes, the profitability of his investments and as-yet-unspecified policy details, but tax rates of over 100% on investment income would be typical, especially for billionaires. …After Ms. Warren’s one-two punch, some billionaires who generate pretax returns could pay annual taxes that would leave them with less money than they started with.

Here’s a chart from the story (which I’ve modified in red for emphasis) showing that investors would face effective tax rates of more than 100 percent unless they somehow managed to earn very high returns.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been making this same point for many years, starting in 2012.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to see it’s finally getting traction. Hopefully this will deter lawmakers from ever imposing such a catastrophically bad policy.

Remember, a tax that discourages saving and investment is a tax that results in lower wages for workers.

P.S. Switzerland has the world’s best-functioning wealth tax (basically as an alternative to other forms of double taxation), but even that levy is destructive and should be abolished.

P.P.S. Sadly, because their chief motive is envy, I don’t think my left-leaning friends can be convinced by data about economic damage.

Sweatshops, Robber Barons, and Capitalist Exploitation

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 12:53pm

The hard part about being a libertarian is that there are endless opportunities to be frustrated. Especially if you’re job is trying to convince politicians to restrain the size and scope of government when that’s not in their self interest.

One of my special frustrations, though, is that many people don’t understand economic history.

Today, let’s talk about another example of bad economic history. Many people think corporations are rapacious entities that – in the absence of wise government – will create monopolies that screw workers with sweatshop conditions and screw consumers with ever-higher prices.

Much of this mythology goes back to the era of supposed “Robber Barons” in the late 1800s.

Fortunately, in a column for FEE, Professor Burton Folsom shared an excerpt from his book on the topic. He notes that there was considerable economic liberty – and considerable economic progress – during that era.

The years…from 1865 to the early 1900s, saw the U.S. encourage entrepreneurs indirectly by limiting government. Slavery was abolished and so was the income tax. Federal spending was slashed… American politicians learned from the past. They had dabbled in federal subsidies from steamships to transcontinental railroads, and those experiments dismally failed. Politicians then turned to free markets as a better strategy for economic development. The world-dominating achievements of Cornelius Vanderbilt, James J. Hill, John D. Rockefeller, and Charles Schwab validated America’s unprecedented limited government.

Yet that’s not the story you find in most history books.

Professor Folsom explores why there’s such a poor understanding and finds bias in the academy, as well as an inability to understand the difference between honest wealth and politically connected wealth.

Why is it, then, that for so many years, most historians have been teaching the opposite lesson? …most historians have preached that many, if not all, entrepreneurs were “robber barons.” They did not enrich the U.S. with their investments; instead, they bilked the public and corrupted political and economic life in America. The catalyst for this negative view of American entrepreneurs was historian Matthew Josephson, who wrote a landmark book, The Robber Barons. …Josephson began research for his book in 1932, the nadir of the Great Depression. Businessmen were a handy scapegoat for that crisis, and Josephson embraced a Marxist view that the Great Depression was perhaps the last phase in the fall of capitalism and the triumph of communism. …“I am not a complete Marxist,” Josephson insisted, “But what I took to heart for my own project was his theory of the process of industrial concentration… Josephson missed the distinction between market entrepreneurs like Vanderbilt, Hill, and Rockefeller and political entrepreneurs like Collins, Villard, and Gould. …Most of Josephson’s ire is directed toward political entrepreneurs. The subsidized Henry Villard of the Northern Pacific Railroad, with his “bad grades and high interest charges”… But it never occurs to Josephson that the subsidies government gave these railroads created the incentives. …If Josephson’s research was so sloppy, and his interpretation so biased, how did his Robber Baron view come to prevail in the writing of U.S. history? …Progressive historians had begun to dominate the writing of history and they were eager to blame a new generation of robber barons for the collapse of the American economy.

Now let’s take a closer look at two infamous companies.

We’ll begin with Standard Oil, which has a modern-day reputation of being a greedy monopolist.

Yet as David Weinberger explained for FEE, that’s an odd way of describing a company that continuously lowered prices.

In 1870, when it was in its early years, Standard Oil owned just 4 percent of the petroleum market. John D. Rockefeller, however, obsessed over improving efficiency and cutting costs. Through economies of scale and vertical integration, he vastly improved oil-refining efficiency. His business grew as a result. By 1874, his share of the petroleum market jumped to 25 percent, and by 1880 it skyrocketed to about 85 percent. Meanwhile, the price of oil plummeted from 30 cents per gallon in 1869 to eight cents in 1885. …His business was a model of free-market efficiency.

The government ultimately used antitrust laws to dismantle the company, but it’s worth noting that the courts never found any evidence of actual monopolistic behavior.

In 1911, the court declared Standard Oil a monopoly and ordered its breakup. …economist John S. McGee reviewed over 11,000 pages of trial testimony, including the charges brought by Standard Oil’s competitors. Publishing his findings in the Journal of Law and Economics, he concluded that there was “little to no evidence” of wrongdoing, adding that “Standard Oil did not use predatory price cutting to acquire or keep monopoly power.” Furthermore, and also in contradiction to monopoly theory, Standard Oil’s share of the market had declined from close to 90 percent in the late 1800s to about 65 percent at the time of the court’s ruling. …In other words, Standard Oil did precisely the opposite of what monopoly theory maintains—it reduced rather than raised prices, it increased rather than cut production, it lost rather than “controlled” market share, and it paid its employees more rather than less than its competitors—yet the theory that Standard Oil engaged in “predatory practices” and “exploited” consumers has prevailed in our history books.

Now let’s look at the United Fruit Corporation, which history tells us was a master of brutal exploitation.

Yet a new academic study by Esteban Mendez-Chacon and Diana Van Patten discovered that the workers of Costa Rica were beneficiaries (h/t: Alex Tabarrok).

These excerpts from the abstract provide a very good summary of what really happened.

The United Fruit Company (UFC)…was given a large land concession in Costa Rica — one of the so-called “Banana Republics”— from 1889 to 1984. Using administrative census data with census-block geo-references from 1973 to 2011, we implement a geographic regression discontinuity (RD) design that exploits a quasi-random assignment of land. We find that the firm had a positive and persistent effect on living standards. Regions within the UFC were 26% less likely to be poor in 1973 than nearby counterfactual locations, with only 63% of the gap closing over the following 3 decades. Company documents explain that a key concern at the time was to attract and maintain a sizable workforce, which induced the firm to invest heavily in local amenities that likely account for our result. We then build a dynamic spatial model in which a firm’s labor market power within a region depends on how mobile workers are across locations and run couterfactual exercises. The model is consistent with observable spatial frictions and the RD estimates, and shows that the firm increases aggregate welfare
by 2.9%.

Here’s a look at the data showing lower poverty rates based on proximity to company lands.

And here are other measures of well-being for populations on either side of those boundaries.

What’s especially interesting is that the benefits have remained even several decades after the company’s concession ended.

By the way, I’m not saying that the United Fruit Company was motivated by anything other than profits.

Nor am I saying that Standard Oil was guided by anything beyond making money.

What I am saying, however, is that Adam Smith was right. The pursuit of self interest (whether by companies, workers, entrepreneurs, etc) is what creates mass prosperity. And what enabled an end to child labor.

Here are two videos for those who want further background. Here’s Professor Brian Domitrovic analyzing the “Gilded Age.”

And here’s an excerpt of the great Milton Friedman discussing the so-called Robber Barons.

P.S. By today’s standards, workers didn’t have great lives in the 1800s. But it’s important to understand that what we perceive today as “sweatshop conditions” were actually a big improvement over the grinding poverty of subsistence agriculture. Similarly, working conditions in modern-era third world sweatshops seem awful, but they are an avenue of upward mobility for people who otherwise would suffer unimaginable material deprivation.

The Paris-Based OECD’s Ongoing Effort to Replace Tax Competition with Tax Harmonization

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 12:44pm

Ever since the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development launched their attack on so-called harmful tax competition back in the 1990s, I’ve warned that the goal has been to create a global tax cartel.

Sort of an “OPEC for politicians.”

Supporters of the initiative said I was exaggerating, and that the OECD, acting on behalf of the high-tax nations that dominate its membership, simply wanted to reduce tax evasion. Indeed, some advocates even said that the effort could lead to lower tax rates.

That was a nonsensical claim. I actually read the various reports issued by the Paris-based bureaucracy. It was abundantly clear that the effort was based on a pro-tax harmonization theory known as “capital export neutrality.”

And, as I documented in my first study on the topic back in 2000, the OECD basically admitted the goal of the project was to enable higher taxes and bigger government.

  • Low-tax policies “unfairly erode the tax bases of other countries and distort the location of capital and services.”
  • Tax competition is “re-shaping the desired level and mix of taxes and public spending.”
  • Tax competition “may hamper the application of progressive tax rates and the achievement of redistributive goals.”

The OECD’s agenda was so radical that it even threatened low-tax jurisdiction with financial protectionism if they didn’t agree to help welfare states enforce their punitive tax laws.

At first, there was an effort to push back against the OECD’s tax imperialism – thanks in large part to the creation of CF&P, which helped low-tax jurisdictions fight back (I almost got thrown in a Mexican jail as part of the fight!).

But then Obama got to the White House and sided with Europe’s big welfare states. Lacking the ability to resist the world’s most powerful nations, low-tax jurisdictions around the world were forced to weaken their human rights laws on privacy so it would be easier for high-tax countries to track and tax flight capital.

Once that happened, was the OECD satisfied?

Hardly. Any victory for statism merely serves as a springboard for the next campaign to weaken tax competition and prop up big government.

Indeed, the bureaucrats are now trying to impose minimum corporate tax rates. Let’s look at some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Financial Times.

…large multinationals could soon face a global minimum level of corporate taxation under new proposals from the OECD… The Paris-based organization called…for the introduction of a safety net to enable home countries to ensure their multinationals cannot escape taxation, even if other countries have offered them extremely low tax rates. …The proposals would…reduce incentives for countries to lower their tax rates… The OECD said: “A minimum tax rate on all income reduces the incentive for…tax competition among jurisdictions.”

Sadly, the Trump Administration is not fighting this pernicious effort.

Indeed, Trump’s Treasury Department is largely siding with the OECD, ostensibly because a one-size-fits-all approach is less bad than the tax increases that would be imposed by individual governments (but also because the U.S. has a bad worldwide tax system and our tax collectors also want to reach across borders to grab more money).

In any event, we can safely (and sadly) assume that this effort will lead to a net increase in the tax burden on businesses.

And that means bad news for workers, consumers, and shareholders.

Moreover, if this effort succeeds, then the OECD will move the goalposts once again and push for further forms of tax harmonization.

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Image credit: Vinícius Pimenta | Pexels License.

The Deadly Impact of Pharma Price Controls

Tue, 11/12/2019 - 12:28pm

Yesterday, I shared part of an interview that focused on Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s scheme to give more subsidies to colleges, thus transferring money from poorer taxpayers to richer taxpayers.

Here’s the other part of the interview, which revolved around a very bad idea to copy nations that impose price controls on prescription drugs.

In some sense, this is a debate on price controls, which have a long history (going all the way back to Ancient Rome) of failure.

But my comments focused primarily on the adverse consequences of Pelosi’s approach.

And if you want more details, Doug Badger explained how Pelosi’s approach would backfire in a report for the Heritage Foundation. He starts with an explanation of the legislation.

The Lower Drug Costs Now Act of 2019 (H.R. 3), introduced last week with the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would double down on the failures of existing government policies that have distorted prescription drug prices and contributed to higher health care costs. …H.R. 3 would establish a system in which the U.S. government bases prices for cutting-edge drug treatments on those set by foreign governments. The measure would set an upper price limit at 1.2 times a drug’s average price in six other countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom). The secretary of health and human services then would seek to “negotiate” prices below that upper limit for at least 25—and as many as 250—drugs each year. …A manufacturer that declined to negotiate the price of any of its products would incur an excise tax of up to 95% of the revenues it derived from that product in the preceding year.

Doug then warns against an expansion of government power.

The bill represents an unprecedented exercise of raw government power. The federal government already imposes price curbs across a range of programs, requiring manufacturers to pay the government rebates… These provisions all are confined to federal programs, but nonetheless have distorted drug prices throughout the health sector. It’s one thing for the government to dictate the prices it pays in programs it finances. It is quite another for the government to impose a price for a product’s private sale and to extract money from a company on a long-ago settled transaction.

He then concludes by showing some of the negative consequences.

…aggressive government price-setting has damaged innovation and limited access to new treatments in all six of the countries whose price controls the bill would import. If the U.S. adopts price controls, it risks the same results here. Access to new drugs is much greater in the U.S. than in countries with price controls, in part because of having shunned price controls. …This lack of access can have damaging effects. A study by IHS Markit…concluded that Americans gained 201,700 life years as a result of faster access to new medicines. …Countries with price controls also suffer a decline in pharmaceutical research and development. In 1986, European firms led the U.S. in spending on pharmaceutical research and development by 24%. After the imposition of price control regimes, they fell behind. By 2015, they lagged the U.S. by 40%. …the president’s Council of Economic Advisers…concluded that while price controls might save money in the short term, they would cost more money in the long run. Government price-setting, it wrote, “makes better health care costlier in the future by curtailing innovation.”

As you can see, price controls have a deadly effect in the short run (the 201,700 life years).

But as I stated in the interview, the far greater cost – in terms of needless deaths – would become apparent in the long run as new drugs no longer come to market.

By the way, it’s not just me, or folks on the right, who recognize that there will be adverse consequences from price controls.

Writing for left-leaning Vox, Sarah Kliff acknowledges that there are trade-offs.

The United States is exceptional in that it does not regulate or negotiate the prices of new prescription drugs when they come onto market. …And the problems that causes are easy to see, from the high copays at the drugstore to the people who can’t afford lifesaving medications. What’s harder to see is that if we did lower drug prices, we would be making a trade-off. Lowering drug profits would make pharmaceuticals a less desirable industry for investors. And less investment in drugs would mean less research toward new and innovative cures. …In other words: Right now, the United States is subsidizing the rest of the world’s drug research by paying out really high prices. If we stopped doing that, it would likely mean fewer dollars spent on pharmaceutical research — and less progress developing new drugs for Americans and everybody else.

Here’s a chart from her article, which I’ve modified (in red) to underscore how other nations are free-riding because American consumers are picking up the tab for research and development.

By the way, I have no idea where the red lines actually belong. I’m just trying to emphasize that consumers who pay the market price (or closer to the market price) are the ones why underwrite the cost of discovering new drugs and treatments.

And Ms. Kliff definitely agrees this trade-off exists.

Every policy decision comes with trade-offs… If the United States began to price regulate drugs, medications would become cheaper. That would mean Americans have more access to drugs but could also expect a decline in research and development of new drugs. We might have fewer biotech firms starting up, or companies deciding it’s worth bringing a new drug to market. …Are we, as a country, comfortable paying higher prices for drugs to get more innovation? Or would we trade some of that innovation to make our drugs more accessible to those of all income levels?

For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think there’s much of a trade-off. I choose markets, both for the moral reason and because I want to maximize long-run health benefits for the American people.

P.S. Because pharmaceutical companies got in bed with the Obama White House to support Obamacare, some people may be tempted to say Pelosi’s legislation is what they deserve. While I fully agree that it’s despicable for big companies to get in bed with big government, please remember that the main victims of Pelosi’s legislation will be sick people who need new treatments.

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Image credit: Images Money | CC BY 2.0.

Buttigieg’s Greek-Style Fiscal Policy

Mon, 11/11/2019 - 12:21pm

Candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders supposedly are competing for hard-left voters, while candidates such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are going after moderate voters. But a review of Buttigieg’s fiscal policy suggests he may belong in the first category.

In the interview, I focused on Buttigieg’s plan to subsidize colleges. Hopefully, I got across my main point is that students won’t be helped.

Based on what’s happened with the “third-party payer” subsidies that already exist, colleges and universities will simply jack up tuition and fees to capture the value of any new handouts.

I’m not the only person to speculate that Buttigieg is simply a watered down version of Warren.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on Mayor Pete’s statist agenda.

Mr. Buttigieg has risen steadily in the Real Clear Politics polling average to a solid fourth place, with about 7% support. …on Friday he released what he called “An Economic Agenda for American Families.” For a candidate who wants to occupy the moderate lane, Mr. Buttigieg’s policy details veer notably left. …$700 billion—presumably over 10 years, but the plan doesn’t specifically say—for “universal, high-quality, and full-day early learning.” …$500 billion “to make college affordable.” That means free tuition at public universities… $430 billion for “affordable housing.” …$400 billion to top off the Earned Income Tax Credit… A $15 national minimum wage.

At the risk of understatement, that’s not a moderate platform.

This isn’t an economic agenda, and there isn’t a pro-growth item anywhere. It’s a social-welfare spending and union wish list. …Don’t forget the billions more he has allocated to green energy, as well as his $1.5 trillion health-care public option, “Medicare for All Who Want It.” So far Mayor Pete’s agenda totals $5.7 trillion… Mayor Pete’s policy wish list is shorter and cheaper than Elizabeth Warren’s, but it still includes gigantic tax increases to finance a huge expansion of the welfare and entitlement state. Call it Warren lite.

Methinks John Stossel needs to update this video. With $5.7 trillion of new outlays, Buttigieg is definitely trying to win the big-spender contest.

No wonder he’s now embracing class-warfare tax policy. One of his giant tax increases, which I should have mentioned in the interview, is a version of Elizabeth Warren’s “nutty idea” to force people to pay taxes on capital gains even if they haven’t sold assets and therefore don’t actually have capital gains!

And the Washington Post reports that he also wants to increase the capital gains tax rate, even though that will make America less competitive.

By the way, Buttigieg is also a hypocrite. He’s joined with other Democratic candidates in embracing a carbon tax on lower-income and middle-class voters, yet the Chicago Tribune reports that he zips around the country on private jets.

Pete Buttigieg has spent roughly $300,000 on private jet travel this year, more than any other Democrat running for the White House, according to an analysis of campaign finance data. …his reliance on charter flights contrasts sharply with his image as a Rust Belt mayor who embodies frugality and Midwestern modesty. …Buttigieg’s campaign says the distance between its South Bend headquarters and major airports sometimes makes private jet travel necessary. “We are careful with how we spend our money, and we fly commercial as often as possible,” Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher said Wednesday. “We only fly noncommercial when the schedule dictates.”

In other words, one set of rules for ordinary people, but exemptions for the political elite.

Though at least he hasn’t proposed to ban hamburgers. At least not yet.

P.S. If you like this cartoon by Gary Varvel, I very much recommend this Halloween cartoon. And he is among the best at exposing the spending-cut hoax in DC, as you can see from this sequester cartoon and this deficit reduction cartoon. This cartoon about Bernie Madoff and Social Security, however, is probably my favorite.

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0.

Honest Leftist Openly Acknowledges a Bigger Welfare State Requires Giant Tax Increases on Lower-Income and Middle-Class Taxpayers

Sun, 11/10/2019 - 12:52pm

I give Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang credit for a bit of honesty. Both of them have proposals to significantly – indeed, dramatically – expand the burden of government spending, and they actually admit their plans will require big tax increases on lower-income and middle-class voters.

Their numbers are still wrong, but at least they recognize you can’t have French-sized government financed by just a tiny sliver of rich people.

This makes them far more honest than other candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

In the past, I’ve pointed out that there’s no nation in the world that finances a big welfare state without high tax burdens on ordinary people – generally steep value-added taxes, along with onerous payroll taxes and high income tax rates on middle-income earners (see, for instanced, this horrifying story from Spain).

And I’ve also periodically shared analysis from honest leftists who admit major tax hikes on the broader population will be inevitable if politicians in the U.S. create European-sized redistribution programs.

Today, we’re going to add to this collection of honest leftists.

There’s an explicitly pro-socialist magazine called Jacobin, in which Doug Henwood has a lengthy article explaining – from his statist perspective – that it’s necessary to have higher taxes on everybody.

We should be clear about what it will take to fund a decent welfare state: not just soaking the rich, but raising taxes across the board… I’m defining social democracy as a large and robust welfare state that socializes a lot of consumption through taxation and spending, compressing the income distribution, …insulating people from the risks of sickness and unemployment, and…it’s a lot bigger than Medicare for All and free college.

He compares the U.S. to other nations, especially the Nordic nations.

For those who want bigger government, America doesn’t spend nearly enough.

In 2017 (the vintage of most of these stats), the US government at all levels (aka general government in fiscal jargon) took in 34 percent of GDP in taxes and spent 38 percent. …Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — spend an average of 50 percent of GDP and take in 53 percent. None is very far from those averages, which are twelve and nineteen points above US levels, respectively. …The fourth graph is where American exceptionalism really comes in — the share of GDP spent on “social protection,” that is, classic welfare state programs. In the OECD’s words, these include “sickness and disability; old age (i.e. pensions); survivors; family and children; unemployment; housing; social exclusion n.e.c. [not elsewhere classified]; [and] R&D social protection.” The United States spends under 8 percent of GDP on these things, less than half the OECD average and a third what the Scandinavians spend.

Here’s a chart from the article showing how the U.S. doesn’t keep pace.

And how do the northern Europeans finance their big welfare states?

Henwood is very honest about the implications. You can tax the rich, but the rest of us need to have our wallets lightened.

How do the Scandinavian states — and others that are more generous social spenders than the United States — finance that spending? Not…by borrowing. Countries with more generous welfare states than ours borrow far less. Instead, they tax. …On some things, like Social Security and personal and corporate income taxes, the United States isn’t an outlier. On others, we are. …At 5 percent of GDP, our taxes on goods and services — mostly value-added taxes (VATs) in other countries… — are less than a third the Scandinavian share of GDP (16 percent)… The difference between the United States and the Scandinavians is over 10 percent of GDP.

In other words, big government means a punitive value-added tax.

That means higher taxes on the poor, as well as the middle class.

But he argues that’s okay because government will take care of everybody.

Yes, VATs are regressive. They’re taxes on consumption that hit the poor harder than the rich because the further down the income scale you go, the larger a portion of your income you consume. But their regressivity is more than compensated for in the Scandinavian countries by spending, which not only takes from the rich and gives to the poor, but takes from the masses and gives it back… It’s a way of socializing consumption to some degree, of taking things out of competitive markets.

Here’s another chart from the article, this one showing that the United States ostensibly doesn’t collect enough taxes from consumption (“goods and services”).

Now let’s take a closer look at the budgetary numbers.

Henwood points out that the usual class-warfare taxes would only finance a portion of the statism wish list.

Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez published a widely cited paper arguing that the optimal top tax rate for soaking the rich is 73 percent — optimal in the sense of pulling in the most revenue. …Bernie Sanders’s freshly released wealth tax plan would raise $435 billion a year, according to its designers, Saez and his Berkeley colleague Gabriel Zucman… Combine those two and you get a revenue increase of $520–755 billion, or 2.4–3.5 percent of GDP. Scandinavian revenues are 19 percentage points higher as a share of GDP than the United States’. …these taxes, which are probably what lots of contemporary American leftists have in mind, come only an eighth to a fifth of the way toward closing the gap with the Scandinavians.

His conclusion is very frank and honest.

Some might find it impolitic of me to say all this, but you have to be honest with people, otherwise they’ll turn on you for selling a bill of goods. …if we want a seriously better society of the sort outlined in the Green New Deal, then it’s going to take a lot more — and it won’t “pay for itself.”

My conclusion is that Henwood has profoundly awful policy preferences (Europeans have much lower living standards, for instance), but doesn’t believe in make-believe budgeting.

P.S. The Democrat presidential candidates have embraced one big levy – the carbon tax – that would grab lots of money from lower-income and middle-class people. But they seem to have successful convinced themselves (and maybe voters) that it doesn’t lead to higher tax burdens (even though proponents of such levies, such as the International Monetary Fund, openly acknowledge that consumers will bear the cost).

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Image credit: Max Pixel | CC0 Public Domain.

Communism, Reagan, and the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Sat, 11/09/2019 - 12:32pm

Back in 2011, I shared eight short videos that captured the greatness of Ronald Reagan.

One of the videos was this excerpt of his famous tear-down-this-wall speech at Brandenburg Gate.

In a column for the Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer explains why this was a momentous event.

The greatest climactic event of the 20th century occurred 30 years ago Saturday, as thousands of Germans pushed through, climbed over, and began tearing down the Berlin Wall. Human freedom overcame human evil. Human potential was unleashed. Exuberantly but peaceably, the good guys won. The story needs to be told again and again, because those too young to have lived through the Cold War have trouble feeling viscerally the stakes, the danger, and the drama. …the late William F. Buckley said in his last-ever public speech that The Lives of Others, about life in East Germany under communist domination, should be required viewing in every American high school. The film reminds us that not just in gulags where perceived “troublemakers” were sent but in everyday life: The repression was severe; the fear was palpable; the attempted destruction of the human psyche was pervasive. And there stood the Berlin Wall. Both the real presence of brutality and the era’s most chilling symbol of mass enslavement, the wall was the physical, concrete portion of the figurative Iron Curtain. Also featuring extended barriers of metal-mesh fences, trenches, and 259 vicious-dog runs, and guarded by 186 observation towers manned by machine-gun-toting soldiers, the wall was a monstrosity. The joy that greeted the wall’s fall, not just on-site but around the world, remains almost indescribable.

By the way, I echo Quin’s endorsement of The Lives of Others. It really does capture the day-to-day horror of statism, and has a really nice twist at the end.

Returning to the issue of the Wall and communism, Reagan deserves considerable credit for this victory over evil.

Part of Reagan’s genius is that he attacked the moral foundations of communism. Or the lack of any moral foundation, to be more precise.

Here are some observations about his speech at Moscow State University in 1988.

Ronald Reagan, in the last year of his presidency, delivered one of his most magnificent speeches. …It was the last day of his fourth and final summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. …Reagan never regarded his meetings with Mr. Gorbachev as pertaining solely to arms control. Arms control was merely the pretext for a more fundamental challenge. …If the theme is diplomacy, the underlying purpose is liberty. …He did…understand that victory would belong in the end not to one nation over another, but to one political-moral idea over another. Freedom must triumph over totalitarianism. Reagan had always abominated communism. …Reagan’s ultimate aim was to plant the seed of freedom in the newly receptive furrows of a cracking totalitarianism. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he cried at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987. “Isn’t it strange,” he mused to reporters, “that there’s only one part of the world and one philosophy where they have to build walls to keep their people in.” …Reagan delivered his Moscow speech standing before a gigantic scowling bust of Lenin and a mural of the Russian Revolution. He incorporated them as props in his address. “Standing here before a mural of your revolution,” he said, “I want to talk about a very different revolution,”… “The key,” Reagan said, “is freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of communication.”

Yes, Reagan’s rejuvenation of the American economy helped lead to the collapse of communism (notwithstanding the fact that some western economists were dupes for Soviet central planning).

And, yes, Reagan’s military buildup helped weaken the Soviet Union’s resolve.

I’m convinced, though, that Reagan’s attack on the core evil of communism made a key difference. Aided and abetted by his relentless mockery of communism’s many failures.

Let’s not forget that history also is the result of random events.

David Frum last year wrote about a bureaucratic snafu that helped hasten the downfall of East Germany’s evil regime.

At an evening news conference on November 9, 1989, a spokesman for the East German Communist government made a history-altering mistake. The spokesman had been authorized to say that travel restrictions on East German citizens would be lifted the next day, November 10. Instead, he said that the restrictions were lifted effective immediately. Within minutes, hundreds of thousands of East Berliners rushed to the checkpoints of the Berlin Wall. Since the erection of the wall in 1961, border guards had killed more than 750 people seeking to escape East Germany. That night, the border guards had heard the same news as everyone else. Their license to kill had been withdrawn. They stood aside. The long-imprisoned citizens of East Berlin rushed out into West Berlin that night, in what became the greatest and best street party in the history of the world. Soon, Berliners east and west began to attack the hated wall, smash it, rip it apart.

Here’s a video that describes the same event.

By the way, we can’t write about the Berlin Wall without taking the opportunity to reflect on the failure of socialism.

Writing for the U.K.-based Spectator, Kristian Niemietz points out that big government failed in East Germany, just like it fails everywhere.

Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialism is back in fashion. The anniversary is a good occasion to reflect on some of the lessons that we have collectively un-learned, or perhaps never learned properly in the first place from the fall of Communism. The division of Germany into a broadly capitalist West, and a broadly socialist East, represented a natural experiment, and did so in two ways. It was, first of all, a gigantic economic experiment about the viability of socialism, and it produced conclusive results. Around the time of Reunification, West Germany’s GDP per capita was about three times that of East Germany’s. There was also around a three-year-gap in average life expectancy.

Amen.

I invite people to compare the numbers on East German vs. West German economic performance.

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

How the Welfare State Undermines Support for Immigration

Fri, 11/08/2019 - 12:43pm

When non-libertarian audiences ask my opinion about immigration, I generally point out that it is a very good sign that so many people want to come to the United States.

Almost everyone agrees with that statement, but that doesn’t put them in the pro-immigration camp. Instead, I find that many people have a “what’s in it for us” attitude.

  1. They like the underlying concept of programs such as the EB-5 visa that attract immigrants with money, and they are broadly sympathetic to immigrants with skills and education. At the risk of over-simplifying, they want immigrants who won’t rely on handouts and they like immigrants who presumably will increase the nation’s per-capita GDP (and there certainly is strong evidence that this happens).
  2. They’re skeptical of mass immigration by people with low incomes. This is mostly because they fear such migrants will impose higher costs on taxpayers, though Republican types also seem motivated by concerns about future voting patterns. The notable exception to this pattern is that business audiences are somewhat sympathetic to mass migration because they believe labor costs will fall.

When I deal with people in category #2, I sometimes ask them about Tyler Cowen’s idea of allowing limitless migration from nations with bigger welfare states. After all, I doubt people such as “Lazy Robert” will move from Denmark to the United States.

But what about poor people from poor nations? Would they like to migrate to rich nations to get handouts, rather than for economic opportunity?

Taxpayers in many nations are worried about that possibility and are not very welcoming to immigrants who will collect benefits.

Indeed, that’s motivated the Trump Administration to consider tightening rules for who gets in the country.

The Trump administration announced long-awaited “public charge” immigration regulations this week, and the furor immediately kicked up to derangement level. …But immigration regulation of this sort has been a part of our laws for more than a century…the 1882 act declared that “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge…shall not be permitted to land.” …The 1952 revisions to immigration law maintained the idea that the government may exclude “paupers, professional beggars, or vagrants” and those who are “are likely at any time to become public charges.” …In 1996, Congress strengthened the public charge provisions…why would anyone call the Trump administration’s interpretation “un-American?” …the regulations—which do not apply to refugees, asylum-seekers, and various other groups—propose guidance to determine if an immigrant would be likely to use the welfare system for more than 12 months during a three-year period.

But it’s not just a controversy in the United States.

Taxpayers in the Netherlands, for instance, are becoming less tolerant of immigrants who want handouts rather than work.

Non-Western immigrants and their descendants also depend on welfare to a much greater extent than the native Dutch. They are half of all welfare recipients but only 11% of the total population. Among recent Somali refugees granted asylum, 80% are on welfare. Holland is truly a welfare state, and the Dutch are proud of it. …This type of open and yet highly regulated society can function only if it is carried by a disciplined and well-educated citizenry… That is what the fuss is about. To put it in abstract terms: Can a welfare state become an immigration state? You know the answer: A welfare state with open borders will one day run out of money.

I can’t imagine that stories like this make German taxpayers happy.

As early as 2016, German newspapers have been reporting on migrants with recognized refugee status having holidays in countries that they “fled,” such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria. Because Hartz IV, the welfare system that certain migrants granted refugee status receive, permits 21 days per year of “local absence,” those who have recognized refugee status and have no income or assets simply leave Germany for vacation and continue to receive money from German taxpayers.

There are also concerns that welfare spending hinders economic integration and independence in Sweden.

…only 20 percent of the Somali immigrants in Sweden have jobs, according to a report released on Monday by the government’s Commission… In an opinion article published in the Expressen newspaper, the author of the report, Benny Carlsson of Lund University, explained that Sweden would be well served to let community-based organizations do more…rather than relying on public agencies… Carlsson explained that…Sweden’s rigid labour market and labour protection laws also create “higher risks” for employees which amount to “higher thresholds” for Somali jobseekers. …Carlsson also cited Sweden’s social safety net which “lets people live at a decent level even if they don’t work, while the same can’t be said of the United States”.

Speaking of Sweden, stories of welfare dependency help to explain this report in the New York Times.

…four years after the influx, growing numbers of native-born Swedes have come to see the refugees as a drain on public finances. …Antipathy for immigrants now threatens to erode support for Sweden’s social welfare state. “People don’t want to pay taxes to support people who don’t work,” says Urban Pettersson, 62, a member of the local council here in Filipstad, a town set in lake country west of Stockholm. “Ninety percent of the refugees don’t contribute to society. These people are going to have a lifelong dependence on social welfare. This is a huge problem.” …Under the Nordic model, governments typically furnish health care, education and pensions to everyone. The state delivers subsidized housing and child care. When people lose jobs, they gain unemployment benefits… But the endurance of the Nordic model has long depended on two crucial elements — the public’s willingness to pay some of the highest taxes on earth, and the understanding that everyone is supposed to work. …Sweden’s sharp influx of immigrants — the largest of any European nation, as a share of the overall population — directly tests this proposition. …The unemployment rate was only 3.8 percent among the Swedish-born populace last year, but 15 percent among foreign-born… Roughly half of all jobless people in Sweden were foreign-born. …these sorts of numbers are cited as evidence that refugees have flocked here to enjoy lives of state-financed sloth. …The average refugee in Sweden receives about 74,000 Swedish kronor (about $7,800) more in government services than they pay into the system, Joakim Ruist, an economist at the University of Gothenburg, concluded in a report released last year and commissioned by the Ministry of Finance. Over all, the cost of social programs for refugees runs about 1 percent of Sweden’s annual national economic output

But is it true that migrants are looking for handouts? Are the afore-cited stories just random anecdotes, or do they suggest some countries are “welfare magnets”?

I’ve already shared some evidence that welfare recipients inside the United States gravitate to places that provide bigger benefits.

And this seems to be the case for migrants that cross national borders. Here are some findings from some new academic research showing that the generosity of Denmark’s welfare state has a significant impact on migration choices.

We study the effects of welfare generosity on international migration using a series of large changes in welfare benefits for immigrants in Denmark. The first change, implemented in 2002,lowered benefits for immigrants from outside the EU by about 50%, with no changes for natives or immigrants from inside the EU. The policy was later repealed and re-introduced. The differential treatment of immigrants from inside and outside the EU, and of different types of non-EU immigrants, allows for a quasi-experimental research design. We find sizeable effects:the benefit reduction reduced the net flow of immigrants by about 5,000 people per year, or 3.7percent of the stock of treated immigrants, and the subsequent repeal of the policy reversed the effect almost exactly. Our study provides some of the first causal evidence on the widely debated “welfare magnet” hypothesis. …our evidence implies that, conditional on moving, the generosity of the welfare system is important for destination choices.

Here’s the relevant graph from the study, based on two different ways of slicing the data.

As you can see from the red lines, migration fell when benefits were reduced, then immediately jumped when benefits were increased, and then immediately fell again when they were again lowered.

For what it’s worth, scholars believe that support for the welfare state in Europe is declining for these reasons. Taxpayers are tolerant of subsidizing their long-time neighbors, but are much less sympathetic when giving away money to newcomers.

From my perspective, the solution is obvious. I generally like immigration and generally don’t like redistribution.

So why not reduce benefits, ideally for everyone, but just to migrants if that’s the only possible outcome. That way nations are more likely to attract people (especially from low-income societies) who are seeking economic opportunity.

Senator Warren’s “Nutty Idea” to Tax Unrealized Capital Gains

Thu, 11/07/2019 - 12:37pm

Last month, I accused Elizabeth Warren of being a “fiscal fraud” for proposing a multi-trillion dollar government takeover of healthcare.

She then unveiled a plethora of class-warfare taxes. As I discussed yesterday on CNBC, she even wants to tax capital gains even if the gains are only on paper.

By the way, I’m disappointed that I forgot to mention in my final soundbite that school choice would be a very specific and very effective way of helping poor people climb the ladder of opportunity.

But let’s set that aside and focus on Senator Warren’s radical proposal.

Because the idea would be such a nightmare of complexity, I joked in the interview that the Senator must own shares in firms that do tax accounting.

That’s not a novel observation on my part. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal opined why this was a bad idea. Not just a bad idea, a ridiculously foolish idea.

Under current law, long-term capital gains are taxed at rates up to 20%—plus a 3.8% ObamaCare surcharge on investment income—only after the asset is sold. Mr. Wyden calls this a loophole. …Mr. Wyden…proposes an annual “mark to market” scheme… As an asset rises in value, its owners would pay tax each year on the incremental gain. This would create an enormous new accounting burden. Mr. Wyden may say that his mark-to-market rule will apply only to the top 1% or 0.1%, but it would still be a bonanza for tax attorneys. How will people in the top 2% know whether they’ve passed the threshold, and how far will they go to avoid it? …Mr. Wyden’s plan would tax gains that exist merely on paper. …And what about illiquid investments, such as private companies or real estate? As with Ms. Warren’s suggested wealth tax, no one knows how Mr. Wyden would go about valuing them. …Would the owner of an apartment building be asked to revalue it every year? Will an art investor be told to mark that Picasso to market? Good luck.

I’ve already written about Senator Wyden’s proposal.

It’s not just absurdly complex. It’s also bad tax policy, as the WSJ noted.

…there are good reasons to tax capital gains at preferential rates, which is why the U.S. has done it for decades under Democrats and Republicans. The lower rate…reduces the harm from double taxation after corporations already pay income taxes. …A lower tax rate is also a matter of fairness. If investors have capital losses, they aren’t allowed to deduct more than $3,000 a year. There’s no inflation adjustment either: If $100 of stock bought in 1999 is sold for $150 today, the difference is taxed even though much of it is an illusory gain caused by dollar erosion.

The final sentence should be emphasized.

Under the Wyden – now Warren – plan, you can have illusory gains that only reflect inflation, and then you can get taxed on those illusory gains even if you don’t actually get them because you haven’t sold the asset.

David Bahnsen, writing for National Review, says the idea is simply nutty.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is the top-ranking member of the Senate’s tax committee... And his recent policy proposal to tax unrealized capital gains is just as extreme, silly, impractical, dangerous, and inane as any of the aforementioned policy whiffs floating around in the leftist hemisphere. …The problems here are almost as severe as the problems with getting a wind-powered ride across the Pacific Ocean in the Green New Deal. First and foremost, the compliance costs would be the biggest boondoggle our nation’s financial system has ever seen. How in the world is illiquid real estate that has not sold supposed to be “valued” each and every year, let alone illiquid businesses, private debt, venture capital, and the wide array of capital assets that make up our nation’s economy but do not fit in the cozy box of “mutual funds”? …Another problem exists for this delusional plan: How do smaller investors pay the tax on an investment that has not yet returned the cash to them? …Underlying all of the mess of this silly proposal from Senator Wyden is the Democrats’ continued lack of understanding about what is most needed in our economy — business investment. The war on capital is a war on jobs, on productivity, on growth, and on wages. Taking bold actions to disincentivize productivity, investment, risk-taking, and capital formation is akin to discouraging diet and exercise for someone trying to lose weight.

Amen.

I’ve repeatedly tried to explain that it is economically self-destructive to impose high – and discriminatory – taxes on income that is saved and invested.

Which is why the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

In other words, instead of worsening the bias against capital, we should be copying nations such as Switzerland, Singapore, Luxembourg, and New Zealand by abolishing the capital gains tax.

For more on that, I recommend this video.

P.S. Don’t forget that Senator Warren also has misguided proposals on many other issues, such as Social Securitycorporate governancefederal spendingcorporate taxationWall Street, etc.

 

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0.

Chile’s Pro-Market Reforms Have Been Especially Beneficial for Low-Income Citizens

Wed, 11/06/2019 - 12:47pm

Last month, I criticized the New York Times for a very inaccurate attack against Chile’s successful pro-market reforms.

The paper’s editorial asserted that only the rich have gained, a view that is utterly nonsensical and inaccurate.

Indeed, I visited Chile about a year ago and finished a three-part series (herehere, and here) showing how the less fortunate have been the biggest winners.

But numbers and facts are no match for ideology at the NYT.

We now have a new story, written by Amanda Taub, asserting that free markets have failed in Chile.

For three weeks, Chile has been in upheaval. …Perhaps the only people not shocked are Chileans. …The promise that political leaders…have made for decades — that free markets would lead to prosperity, and prosperity would take care of other problems — has failed them. …Inequality is still deeply entrenched. Chile’s middle class is struggling… There is broad agreement, among protesters and experts alike, that the country needs structural reforms.

This view is echoed by a Chilean professor in a column for the U.K.’s left-leaning Guardian.

Inequality in Chile is scandalous and most middle-class Chileans live in precarity. …the country has a structural problem with a clear name: inequality. The per capita income of the bottom quintile of Chileans is less than $140 a month. Half the population earns about $550. …This crisis is, at heart, an urgent message to the Chilean elite: profound changes are needed to rebuild the social contract.

But if Chile is a failure, then other nations in Latin America must be in a far worse category.

Look at what’s happened to average incomes over the past three decades.

Evolución 1990-2019 del PIB per cápita en Sudamérica a Paridad de Poder de Compra (PPP), dólares de 2011. pic.twitter.com/lDEoWrUpry

— Aldo Lema – Chile (@AldoLema_cl) November 2, 2019

It’s also worth noting Argentina’s decline and Venezuela’s collapse. Does Ms. Taub prefer those outcomes over Chile’s growing prosperity? Speaking of which, here’s a powerful video comparing Chile and Venezuela.

Capitalism vs. Socialism: the Latin American story. pic.twitter.com/0T2e5AUVZr — Prof. Steve Hanke (@steve_hanke) October 30, 2019

So why is there discontent when Chile has been so successful?

In her Wall Street Journal column, Mary Anastasia O’Grady worries that the left controls the narrative in Chile.

…the hard left has spent years planting socialism in the Chilean psyche via secondary schools, universities, the media and politics. Even as the country has grown richer than any of its neighbors by defending private property, competition and the rule of law, Chileans marinate in anticapitalist propaganda. The millennials who poured into the streets to promote class warfare reflect that influence. The Chilean right has largely abandoned its obligation to engage in the battle of ideas in the public square. Mr. Piñera isn’t an economic liberal and makes no attempt to defend the morality of the market. He hasn’t even reversed the antigrowth policies of his predecessor, Socialist Michelle Bachelet. Chileans have one side of the story pounded into their heads. As living standards rise, so do expectations. When reality doesn’t keep up, the ground is already fertile for socialists to plow.

Incidentally, even the center-left Economist doesn’t agree with the argument that Chile is a failure.

In Chile, free-marketeers’ favourite economy in the region, protests against a rise in fares on the Santiago metro descended into rioting and then became a 1.2m-person march against inequality… Despite its flaws, Chile is a success story. Its income per person is the second-highest in Latin America and close to that of Portugal and Greece. Since the end of a brutal dictatorship in 1990 Chile’s poverty rate has dropped from 40% to less than 10%. Inflation is consistently low and public finances are well managed. …This is no argument for complacency in Chile. …Chileans still feel underserved by the state. They save for their own pensions, but many have not contributed long enough to provide for a tolerable retirement. Waiting times in the public health service are long. So people pay extra for care.

Sadly, the article then goes on to endorse bigger government and more redistribution – policies which would erode Chile’s competitiveness and prosperity.

Unfortunately, the President of Chile seems willing to embrace these bad policies.

In another column for the WSJ, Ms. O’Grady warns about the possible consequences.

The pain for Latin America’s most successful economy is only beginning. …Mr. Piñera…has opened the door to rewriting Chile’s Constitution to meet the demands of socialists, communists and others on the left. If Latin American history is any guide, a constitutional rewrite will strip away political and economic rights, concentrate power and leave the nation poorer and more unjust. The biggest losers would be the aspirational poor, who will be denied access to a better life in what has become one of the world’s most socially mobile economies. …Mr. Piñera has agreed to talks with the “citizens” whose interests are presumably represented by the firebombers and looters. …This is a stunning surrender and it is hardly surprising that it seems only to have whet the appetite of the radical left.

She points out that Chile’s market reforms have been hugely successful.

What isn’t debatable is the economic gains, across the board, that the market model has created. Less than 9% of the nation now lives below the poverty level. In a 2018 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report titled “A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility,” Chile stands out for its social mobility. According to the data, 23% of sons whose fathers were in the bottom quartile of earners make it to the top quartile. By this measure, Chile had the highest social mobility among 16 OECD countries in the study. …inequality in Chile has been falling for 20 years. …That’s something for Mr. Piñera to think about before he helps the left destroy a model that works.

Amen.

It would be a tragedy if politicians wrecked Latin America’s biggest success story.

Let’s close with some analysis in Harvard’s Latin America Policy Journal by Rodrigo Valdés, who was a finance minister under the previous center-left government.

What are the facts? Chile’s per capita GDP increased almost threefold between 1990 and 2015, with short-lived and shallow recessions in 1999 and 2009 only. More precisely, per capita GDP increased a cumulative 280 percent, or 5.3 percent per year (at PPP and constant dollars). At the same time, the distribution of income improved. …Remarkably, all but the top quintile (actually, all but the top decile) improved their share of total income after taxes and transfers. …For the middle 20 percent or “middle class,” growth explained more than 10 times what they gained through better income distribution. For the bottom 20 percent, the redistribution effort was more relevant, though growth was still dominant, explaining six times more than redistribution. Second, what Chile accomplished in the last 25 years is impressive. For the middle class, even a sudden transformation to the Nordics in terms of income distribution (without changes in aggregate GDP) produces less than one-tenth of what the combination of actual growth and better distribution produced for this segment. The bottom 20 percent gained in these two and half decades more than four times what they would achieve with a sudden Nordic distribution.

I suppose I should highlight the fact that a high-level official for a left-leaning government is pointing out that Chile’s reforms have been very successful.

But what really matters is the point he makes about how growth being far more important than redistribution – assuming the goal is to actually help low-income people live better lives.

The third column shows how much income has expanded for each segment of the population. And you can see (highlighted in red) that the bottom 10 percent has enjoyed more than twice the income gains as the top 10 percent.

But pay extra attention to the first and second columns. Economic growth far and away is the most important factor in boosting prosperity for the less fortunate.

Which shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve shared lots of evidence (over and over and over again) showing that market-driven growth is the best way of helping low-income people.

Indeed, even the World Bank agrees the Chilean model is vastly superior to the Venezuelan approach.

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Image credit: Mark Scott Johnson | CC BY 2.0.

Capitalism vs. Statism

Tue, 11/05/2019 - 12:35pm

Many libertarians support capitalism because of ethics and morality. Simply stated, they want an economic system based on voluntary exchange compared to statist alternatives (socialism, fascism, communism, etc) that rely on government coercion.

I also like the non-aggression principle, so I certainly don’t want to dissuade anyone from supporting free markets for that reason.

But one of my main goals is to show people that economic liberty also is the best approach from the utilitarian perspective.

This is why I share so many examples showing how market-oriented jurisdictions out-perform statist nations over multi-decade periods.

I want to build on this empirical foundation by sharing some 2009 research from Professor Peter Leeson. Here’s the abstract from his study.

According to a popular view that I call “two cheers for capitalism,” capitalism’s effect on development is ambiguous and mixed. This paper empirically investigates that view. I find that it’s wrong. Citizens in countries that became more capitalist over the last quarter century became wealthier, healthier, more educated, and politically freer. Citizens in countries that became significantly less capitalist over this period endured stagnating income, shortening life spans, smaller gains in education, and increasingly oppressive political regimes. The data unequivocally evidence capitalism’s superiority for development. Full-force cheerleading for capitalism is well deserved and three cheers are in order instead of two.

Here are his data sources.

I consider the trajectory of capitalism and four “core” development indicators in countries that have embraced and rejected capitalism over the past quarter century. These categories are average income, life expectancy, years of schooling, and democracy. …My data are drawn from several sources. The first is the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Project (2008), which provides data on the extent of capitalism across countries and over time. …I get data for my development indicators from Shleifer (2009), who collects his information from several standard sources. His data on countries’ GDP per capita and life expectancies are from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (2006). His data on education and democracy are from the Barro-Lee (2000) dataset and the Polity IV Database (2000) respectively.

He then compares nations that moved toward free markets with those that gravitated to statism.

The results are unambiguous.

The data are clear: countries that became more capitalist became much wealthier. The average country that became more capitalist over the last 25 years saw its GDP per capita (PPP) rise from about $7600 to nearly $11,800—a 43% increase. If rapidly rising wealth deserves cheering, so does capitalism. What about longevity? All the money in the world doesn’t mean anything if you’re not alive to spend it on things that improve your life. Figure 2b charts the movement of average life expectancy at birth in countries that became more capitalist over the last quarter century at 5-year intervals. Growing capitalism is clearly associated with growing life expectancy. In the average country that became more capitalist over the last 25 years, the average citizen gained nearly half a decade in life expectancy. … In the average country that became more capitalist, the average number of years of schooling in the population rose from 4.7 to just over 6. …Countries that became more capitalist over the last 20 years became dramatically more democratic.

Here are the charts showing great results from capitalism.

Now let’s look at what Professor Lesson discovered about nations that moved in the wrong direction.

The good news is that there weren’t that many since this was the era when the “Washington Consensus” held sway.

Although most countries became more capitalist over the past quarter century, not every country did. …Fortunately, only five countries became significantly less capitalist over the last quarter century when most everyone else was busy reaping the rewards of becoming more capitalist. These countries are: Myanmar, Rwanda, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Each of these countries lost more than 1 point of economic freedom over the period on Fraser’s 10-point scale. This decline translates into a 20–40% loss of economic freedom depending on the country one considers.

Unsurprisingly, bad things happen when nations suffer a decline in economic liberty.

Here’s what happened to the four key indicators in countries that moved toward statism.

Professor Leeson’s conclusions are very blunt…and very accurate.

Unless one prefers poverty, premature death, ignorance, and political oppression to wealth, longevity, knowledge, and freedom, less capitalism deserve no cheers. …Global capitalism’s effect is clear to the point of smacking one in the face: it has made the world unequivocally better off.

Amen.

We know the recipe for growth and prosperity. The challenge is convincing self-interested politicians to reduce their power and control over the economy.

P.S. I’m still waiting for any of my left-leaning friends to provide an answer – even just a partial answer – to my two-question challenge.

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Image credit: Jacob Bøtter | CC BY 2.0.

The Most Important Ballot Initiative of 2019

Mon, 11/04/2019 - 12:24pm

Last November, voters in some states had the opportunity to accept or reject some very important initiatives, including votes on Colorado’s flat tax, Arizona’s school choice system, and a carbon tax in the state of Washington.

Since 2019 is an off-year election, there aren’t as many initiatives and referendums. But one of them is vitally important. Politicians in Colorado are hoping voters will approve Proposition CC, which would gut the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and thus allow more government spending.

Why is TABOR worth defending? Because it’s far and away the most effective and well-designed fiscal rule in the United States.

It’s basically a spending cap, which is the ideal fiscal policy, and here’s a description of how it works that I shared last year.

Colorado voters adopted The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992. TABOR allows government spending to grow each year at the rate of inflation-plus-population. Government can increase faster whenever voters consent. Likewise, tax rates can be increased whenever voters consent. …The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that excess government revenues be refunded to taxpayers, unless taxpayers vote to let the government keep the revenue.

Proposition CC doesn’t fully repeal TABOR, but it allows politicians to keep – and spend – excess tax revenues.

Thomas Aiello of the National Taxpayers Union wrote last month for the Colorado Springs Gazette about TABOR. He explains why it has been successful.

By guaranteeing refunds of excessive taxes, restricting spending to sensible growth rates, and giving Coloradans the ability to vote on tax increases, TABOR has been instrumental in the state’s booming economy. …Since TABOR limits the amount of money the state is allowed to spend, surplus revenue in excess of the cap must be refunded to Colorado taxpayers. Generally, the revenue cap on the state level grows with inflation plus population increases. …TABOR is working as designed: limiting the growth of government, protecting taxpayers, and ensuring working Coloradans keep more of their hard-earned money. …since 1992 more than $3 billion has been refunded back to taxpayers in the form of lower property, sales, and income taxes.

And he warns about the adverse consequences of Proposition CC.

…in the 2019 legislative session, the Democratic-controlled legislature agreed to place Proposition CC onto the November ballot. If approved by voters, TABOR’s provision for refunds would be gutted, thereby allowing the treasury to retain all excess revenue it is required to return to taxpayers. That means taxpayers would forfeit future refunds from 2019 on. Just put that into perspective: taxpayers will send an extra $1.3 billion to the treasury than what would normally be spent. Instead of giving that money back to you as required by TABOR, lawmakers want Coloradans to forget about overpayments so they can just spend it on other things in the budget.

Writing for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Jay Stooksbury also opines against Proposition CC.

They lied to us in 2005, and they are doubling down on this lie in 2019. Colorado voters were sold a bill of goods with Referendum C in 2005, and it is of the utmost importance that we aren’t fooled again with Proposition CC in 2019. Proponents of Referendum C originally claimed that their measure was “temporary.” The measure was supposed to offer a five-year reprieve from the constitutional limitations created by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR)… Referendum C proved to be anything but “temporary.” The referendum allowed Colorado’s spendthrift government to permanently augment its spending cap, shortchanging taxpayers on their potential refund year after year since its passing.

He explains that Proposition CC would be far worse.

If passed, this 2019 ballot measure would permanently abolish the state government’s obligation to refund taxpayers. I repeat: permanently. At least this time around, legislators have dropped the pretense that they are bluffing with “temporary” half-measures; when it comes to keeping all of your hard-earned income, these legislators are going all-in, baby. …TABOR is, unfortunately, a shell of its former self. Its effectiveness has been chipped away by a decades-long rebranding campaign that laundered tax revenue by using terms like “fees” and “enterprises.” …Regardless, TABOR is still a vital, one-of-a-kind safeguard that empowers Coloradans against the wastefulness of government. Come November, let’s be certain to keep it that way. Fool us once with C, shame on you; fool us twice with CC, shame on all of us.

I don’t have much to add to these analyses. The real gold standard for good fiscal policy is to make sure government doesn’t grow faster than the private sector, and that’s what TABOR is designed to achieve.

It’s basically the closest thing we have in America to Switzerland’s “debt brake” and Hong Kong’s Article 107.

My only contribution to the discussion is this chart, based on data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, showing how Coloradans now enjoy more than $4,000 of additional personal income compared to the national average – up from just $526 when TABOR was enacted.

While it’s impossible to precisely explain why income has grown faster in Colorado, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the state gets high scores for economic liberty.

P.S. To see the real-world impact of TABOR, look at what happened after pot legalization produced additional tax revenue.

P.P.S. I’m also paying close attention to Proposition 4 in Texas, which would amend the state constitution to prohibit consideration of a personal income tax.

Taxpayer-Subsidized Corruption in Europe

Sun, 11/03/2019 - 12:25pm

The Department of Agriculture should be abolished. Yesterday, if possible.

It’s basically a welfare scam for politically connected farmers and it undermines the efficiency of America’s agriculture sector.

Some of the specific handouts – such as those for milkcornsugar, and even cranberries – are unbelievably wasteful.

But the European Union’s system of subsidies may be even worse. As reported by the New York Times, it is a toxic brew of waste, fraud, sleaze, and corruption.

…children toil for new overlords, a group of oligarchs and political patrons…a feudal system…financed and emboldened by the European Union. Every year, the 28-country bloc pays out $65 billion in farm subsidies… But across…much of Central and Eastern Europe, the bulk goes to a connected and powerful few. The prime minister of the Czech Republic collected tens of millions of dollars in subsidies just last year. Subsidies have underwritten Mafia-style land grabs in Slovakia and Bulgaria. …a subsidy system that is deliberately opaque, grossly undermines the European Union’s environmental goals and is warped by corruption and self-dealing. …The program is the biggest item in the European Union’s central budget, accounting for 40 percent of expenditures. It’s one of the largest subsidy programs in the world. …The European Union spends three times as much as the United States on farm subsidies each year, but as the system has expanded, accountability has not kept up. …Even as the European Union champions the subsidy program as an essential safety net for hardworking farmers, studies have repeatedly shown that 80 percent of the money goes to the biggest 20 percent of recipients. …It is a type of modern feudalism, where small farmers live in the shadows of huge, politically powerful interests — and European Union subsidies help finance it.

Is anyone surprised that big government leads to big corruption?

By the way, the article focused on the sleaze in Eastern Europe.

The problem, however, is not regional. Here’s a nice visual showing how there’s also plenty of graft lining pockets in Western Europe.

P.S. I imagine British politicians will concoct their own system of foolish subsidies, but the CAP handouts are another reason why voters were smart to vote for Brexit.

P.P.S. The CAP subsidies are one of many reasons why the European Union has been a net negative for national economies.

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Image credit: Håkan Dahlström | CC BY 2.0.

Senator Warren’s Looney Medicare-for-All Scheme

Sat, 11/02/2019 - 12:04pm

I’ve always considered Senator Bernie Sanders to be the most clueless and misguided of all presidential candidates.

But I also think “Crazy Bernie” is actually sincere. He really believes in socialism.

Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, seems more calculating. Her positions (on issues such as Social Securitycorporate governancefederal spendingtaxationWall Street, etc).) are radical, but it’s an open question whether she’s a true believer in statism. It’s possible that she simply sees a left-wing agenda as the best route to winning the Democratic nomination.

Regardless of motive, though, her proposals are economic lunacy. So maybe it’s time to give her “Looney Liz” as a nickname.

Consider, for instance, her new Medicare-for-All scheme. She got hammered for promising trillions of dollars of new goodies without specifying how it would be financed, so she’s put forward a plan that ostensibly fits the square peg in a round hole.

But as Chuck Blahous of the Mercatus Center explains, her plan is a farce.

…presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her proposal to ostensibly pay for the costs of Medicare for All (M4A) without raising taxes on the middle class. As published, the plan would not actually finance the costs of M4A. …the Warren proposal understates M4A’s costs, as quantified by multiple credible studies, by about 34.2%. Another 11.2% of the cost would be met by cutting payments to health providers such as physicians and hospitals. Approximately 20% of the financing is sought by tapping sources that are unavailable for various reasons, for example because she has already committed that funding to other priorities, or because the savings from them was already assumed in the top-line cost estimate. The remaining 34.6% would be met by an array of new and previous tax proposals, most of it consisting of new taxes affecting everyone now carrying employer-provided health insurance, including the middle class.

Here’s a pie chart showing that Warren is relying on smoke and mirrors for more than 50 percent of the financing.

By the way, the supposedly real parts of her plan, such as the new taxes, are a very bad idea.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute unleashed a flurry of tweets exposing flaws in her proposal.

Since I’m a tax wonk, here’s the one that grabbed my attention.

Combination of 35% corporate rate (worldwide, no deferral), “Real corporate profits tax,” curtail depreciation, huge capital gains taxes, financial transactions tax, bank tax, and 6% wealth tax is economic fantasyland. Taxes on capital would be through the roof. 9/

— Brian Riedl (@Brian_Riedl) November 1, 2019

Wow. Higher taxes on domestic business income, higher taxes on foreign-source business income, higher taxes on business investment, more double taxation of capital gains, a tax on financial transactions, and a very punitive wealth tax (which would be a huge indirect tax on all saving and investment).

If ever enacted, the United States presumably would drop to last place in the Tax Foundation’s competitiveness ranking.

And let’s not forget that Medicare-for-All would dramatically increase the burden of government spending. In one fell swoop, we’d become Greece.

Actually, that probably overstates the damage. Based on my Lassez-Faire Index, I’m guessing we’d be more akin to Spain or Belgium (in other words, falling from #6 in the rankings to the #35-#40 range according to Economic Freedom of the World).

P.S. Don’t forget that Medicare has a massive shortfall already.

P.P.S. Looney Liz’s plan is terrible fiscal policy, but keep in mind it’s also terrible health policy since it would exacerbate the third-party payer problem.

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

Full Socialism vs. Full Stomachs

Fri, 11/01/2019 - 12:52pm

Lord Acton famously noted that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I need to develop something similar about socialism. Based on the statism spectrum, it could be something like “socialism deprives and absolute socialism deprives absolutely.”

In other words, the bigger the government, the worse the results.

And when the government controls everything, the consequences can be catastrophic. Horrifyingly catastrophic, as Marian Tupy explains.

America’s college-educated youth…are too young to remember the Cold War and few study history. It is, therefore, timely to remind the millennials of what socialism wrought – especially in some of the world’s poorest countries. Those of us who remember the early 1980s will always remember the images of starving Ethiopian children. …these were the innocent victims of the Derg – a group of Marxist militants who took over the Ethiopian government… Between 1983 and 1985, some 400,000 people starved to death. …in 1999, Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old Marxist dictator who came to power in 1980, embarked on a catastrophic “land reform” program. The program saw the nationalization of privately-held farmland and the expulsion of non-African farmers and businessmen. The result was a collapse of agricultural output, the second highest hyperinflation in recorded history that peaked at 89.7 sextillion or 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000 percent per year and an unemployment rate of 94 percent. Thousands of Zimbabweans died of hunger and disease despite massive international help.

It turns out that governments have played big roles in some of the worst famines in recent memory.

Benjamin Zycher’s table of the greatest famines of the 20th century. …six out of the 10 worst famines happened in socialist countries. Other famines, including those in Nigeria, Somalia and Bangladesh, were partly a result of war and partly a result of a government’s economic mismanagement.

Here’s a table with some of the grim totals. Unsurprisingly, Pol Pot’s Cambodia is at the top of the list.

In some cases, such as Cambodia and Ukraine, starvation was a policy choice by evil communist governments (are there any other kinds?).

In other cases, the total state control of economic life produced famine as a byproduct.

In either case, Marian has a suggestion for some of today’s vapid millennials.

Wherever it has been tried, from the Soviet Union in 1917 to Venezuela in 2015, socialism has failed. Socialists have promised a utopia marked by equality and abundance. Instead, they have delivered tyranny and starvation. Young Americans should keep that in mind.

And if they forget, here’s an excellent cartoon from Pat Cross that may be easier to remember (h/t: Mark Perry).

P.S. The table looks at starvation in the 20th century. Let’s not forget that people currently are dying of malnutrition in the socialist hellhole of Venezuela (the lucky ones raid zoos and eat household pets for food).

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Image credit: ZiaLater | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Halloween Humor

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 12:41pm

My all-time favorite bit of Halloween humor is this video, which I periodically recycle.

Courtesy of the satirists at Babylon Bee, we now have some more Halloween-themed humor.

haunted house for our left-leaning friends!

It’s that time of year where houses, churches, and businesses around the neighborhood begin opening up their haunted houses for those seeking a good fright. One haunted house in Portland is promising progressives the scariest experience of all: a tour of a regular conservative guy’s home. The home contains a sizable collection of guns, several Bibles, a few American flags, some pictures of Ronald Reagan, and of course, a copy of the Constitution. “I can’t look!” screamed one progressive as he opened one door and saw a hunting rifle. “Ahhhhh!!!” He ran from the house screaming, taking shelter in a nearby yoga studio. …No progressive has currently made it through more than a few rooms in the house, as they usually run screaming or dive out a window in their hurry to get away.

By the way, we can’t have a holiday without considering how it is hindered by the visible foot of government (as opposed to the prosperity-creating invisible hand of the market).

Janelle Cammenga of the Tax Foundation has some analysis of how state politicians have turned the taxation of candy into a complicated mess.

If you’re like many Americans, you’ve been stockpiling bags of chocolate and nougat-based treats to share with trick-or-treaters… In other words, there’s no better time for a map looking at how different state sales taxes treat consumable goods like candy… Forty-five states and the District of Columbia levy a state sales tax. Of those, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia exempt groceries from the sales tax base. Twenty-three states and D.C. treat either candy or soda differently than groceries. Eleven of the states that exempt groceries from their sales tax base include both candy and soda in their definition of groceries: Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wyoming. …This picking and choosing creates arbitrary and counterintuitive discrepancies that go beyond the bowl of Halloween candy. If you live in New Jersey, it also affects the jack-o-lantern on your front porch. A recent tweet by the New Jersey Division of Taxation reminded consumers that decorative pumpkins are subject to sales tax, but pumpkins intended to be eaten are exempt. …Twenty-four states align with the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA), which determines that candy is different from other sweet foods because it comes in the form of bars, drops, or pieces, and does not contain flour. …this particular definition leads to some interesting distinctions: If you bought a Hershey’s® bar, it would be subject to sales tax. If you bought a Twix® bar, it would be tax-free.

If that wasn’t sufficiently confusing, here’s a map showing the strange mix of different tax regimes.

At the risk of being wonky, the best sales tax is zero. Just like the best income tax is zero.

But if politicians are going to grab that source of revenue, they should have the lowest-possible rate and impose it evenly on all consumption. As the Tax Foundation observed, “…states and consumers alike would benefit from a low, flat-rate sales tax that captures all final consumer products. Such a tax would be easy to administer, providing a stable source of revenue through a neutral and transparent structure.”

At the risk of understatement, it’s not good tax policy to have zero-tax rules for groceries combined with a hodge-podge of special taxes on candy.

But politicians benefit from a complicated approach because they can swap special favors for campaign cash. Just like the crowd in Washington uses the internal revenue code as a means of extorting money.

P.S. Thanks to corrupt sugar subsidies, our Halloween candy is needlessly expensive.

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Image credit: WxMom | CC BY-SA 2.0.

What Nation Most Punishes Success?

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 12:59pm

In some cases, politicians actually understand the economics of tax policy.

It’s quite common, for instance, to hear them urging higher taxes on tobacco because they want to discourage smoking.

I don’t think it’s their job to tell people how to live their lives, but I agree with their economic analysis. The more you tax something, the less you get of it.

One of my many frustrations is that those politicians then conveniently forget that lesson when it comes to taxing things that are good, such as work, saving, production, and investment.

And some countries are more punitive than others. There’s some new research from the European Policy Information Center, Timbro, and the Tax Foundation, that estimates the “effective marginal tax rate” for successful taxpayers for 41 major countries.

And they don’t simply look at the top income tax rates. They quite properly include other taxes that contribute to “deadweight loss” by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

The political discussion around taxing high-earners usually revolves around the income tax, but in order to get a complete picture of the tax burden high-income earners face, it is important to consider effective marginal tax rates. The effective marginal tax rate answers the question, “If a worker gets a raise such that the total cost to the employer increases by one dollar, how much of that is appropriated by the government in the form of income tax, social security contributions, and consumption taxes?” …all taxes that affect the return to work should be taken into account. …Combining data mainly from international accounting firms, the OECD, and the European Commission, we are able to calculate marginal tax rates in the 41 members of the OECD and/or EU.

The main message of this research is that you don’t want to live in Sweden, where you only keep 24 percent of any additional income you produce.

And you should also avoid SloveniaBelgium, Portugal, Finland, France, etc.

Congratulations to Bulgaria for being the anti-class warfare nation. That’s a smart strategy for a nation trying to recover from decades of communist deprivation.

American readers will be happy to see that the United States looks reasonably good, though New Zealand is the best of the rich nations, followed by Switzerland.

Speaking of which, we need a caveat for nations with federalist systems, such as the U.S., Switzerland, and Canada. In these cases, the top income tax rate is calculated by adding the central government’s top rate with the average top rate for sub-national governments.

So successful entrepreneurs in those countries actually have the ability to reduce their tax burdens if they make wise decisions on where to live (such as Texas or Florida in the case of the United States).

Let’s now shift to some economic analysis. The report makes (what should be) an obvious point that high tax rates have negative economic effects.

Countries should be cautious about placing excessive tax burdens on high-income earners, for several reasons. In the short run, high marginal tax rates induce tax avoidance and tax evasion, and can cause high-income earners to reduce their work effort or hours.

I would add another adverse consequence. Successful taxpayers can move.

That’s especially true in Europe, where cross-border tax migration is much easier than it is in the United States.

But even though there are odious exit taxes for people leaving the United States, we’ll see an exodus if we wind up with some of the crazy tax policies being advocated by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

P.S. Today’s column looks at how nations rank based on the taxation of labor income. For taxation of capital income, the rankings look quite different. For instance, because of pervasive double taxation, the United States gets poor scores for over-taxing dividendscapital gains, and businesses.

P.P.S. If you want to see tax rates on middle-income workers (though it omits value-added taxes), here is some OECD data.

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Image credit: geralt | Pixabay License.

Capitalism and Workers: Counter-Tweet of the Year

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 12:59pm

In early September, I wrote about how capital and labor are both necessary to create prosperity.

Economists sometimes explain this with lots of jargon, referring to capital and labor as “factors of production” and pointing out how they are “complementary.”

In ordinary English, this simply means that workers earn more income when they are equipped with better machinery, equipment, and technology. Similarly, investors can only generate earnings if they have people to utilize capital.

This doesn’t mean that there’s a happy relationship between labor and capital. Indeed, there’s a constant tug or war over who gets what slice of the economic pie.

That being said, the relationship tends to be reasonably cordial so long as the pie is growing.

According to some folks on the left, though, that’s not the case. From their perspective, workers get screwed and capitalists grab ever-larger slices. Consider, for example, this tweet from @existentialcoms.

This tweet made a big splash, with nearly 30,000 likes and more than 12,500 re-tweets.

But there was a slight problem. Actually, a big problem.

There was a counter-tweet from @ne0liberal featuring three graphs that demolish the core premise of the tweet from @existentialcoms.

Here are the three graphs that @ne0liberal shared.

The first one confirms that workers enjoy far more leisure time than in the past.

The second one uses current data to show that more productive workers have much more leisure time.

And the third one reveals that worker compensation has increased significantly.

The unambiguous conclusion is that capitalism produces very good outcomes for workers. If @existentialcoms and @ne0liberal were in a boxing match, this would be a first-round knockout.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to point out that there are no real-world examples of good results produced by socialism. Or Marxism. Or fascism. Or by any form of statism.

Yes, there are some rich nations with big welfare states, but they only imposed those policies after they became rich.

Which is why I’m still waiting for any of my friends on the left to successfully respond to this challenge.

P.S. Since I’ve decided that @ne0liberal produced the counter-tweet of the year, I may as well also call attention to the best-ever tweet about capitalism and socialism, the world’s most-depressing tweet, and Trump’s worst-ever tweet.

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Image credit: LaurMG | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Which Nations Have the Least Red Tape?

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 12:52pm

The World Bank has released its annual report on the Ease of Doing Business.

Unsurprisingly, the top spots are dominated by market-oriented jurisdictions, with New ZealandSingapore, and Hong Kong (at least for now!) winning the gold, silver, and bronze. The United States does reasonably well, finishing in sixth place.

It’s also worth noting that Nordic nations do quite well. Denmark even beats the United States, and Norway and Sweden are both in the top 10.

Georgia gets a very good score, as does Taiwan. And I’m sure Pope Francis will be irked to see that Mauritius ranks highly.

I’m surprised, though, to see Russia at #28 and China at #31. That’s better than France!

And I’m even more surprised that normally laissez-faire Switzerland is down at #36.

What economic lessons can we learn from the report? First, the authors remind us that less red tape means more prosperity.

Research demonstrates a causal relationship between economic freedom and gross domestic product (GDP) growth, where freedom regarding wages and prices, property rights, and licensing requirements leads to economic development. … The ease of doing business score serves as the basis for ranking economies on their business environment: the ranking is obtained by sorting the economies by their scores. The ease of doing business score shows an economy’s absolute position relative to the best regulatory performance, whereas the ease of doing business ranking is an indication of an economy’s position relative to that of other economies.

By the way, here’s a simple depiction of the World Bank’s methodology.

It’s also worth noting that less intervention means less corruption.

There are ample opportunities for corruption in economies where excessive red tape and extensive interactions between private sector actors and regulatory agencies are necessary to get things done. The 20 worst-scoring economies on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index average 8 procedures to start a business and 15 to obtain a building permit. Conversely, the 20 best-performing economies complete the same formalities with 4 and 11 steps, respectively. Moreover, economies that have adopted electronic means of compliance with regulatory requirements—such as obtaining licenses and paying taxes—experience a lower incidence of bribery.

Poor countries, not surprisingly, have more red tape.

An entrepreneur in a low-income economy typically spends around 50 percent of the country’s per-capita income to launch a company, compared with just 4.2 percent for an entrepreneur in a high-income economy. It takes nearly six times as long on average to start a business in the economies ranked in the bottom 50 as in the top 20. There’s ample room for developing economies to catch up with developed countries on most of the Doing Business indicators. Performance in the area of legal rights, for example, remains weakest among low- and middle-income economies.

Africa and Latin America are especially bad.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the weak-performing regions on the ease of doing business with an average score of 51.8, well below the OECD high-income economy average of 78.4 and the global average of 63.0. …Latin America and the Caribbean also lags in terms of reform implementation and impact. …not a single economy in Latin America and the Caribbean ranks among the top 50 on the ease of doing business.

I’m disappointed, by the way, that Chile is only ranked #59.

Now let’s shift to some very important graphs about the relationship between economic freedom and national prosperity.

We’ll start with a look at the relationship between employment regulation and per-capita income. Not surprisingly, countries that make it hard to hire workers and fire workers have lower levels of prosperity.

Here’s a chart showing the relationship between employment regulation and the underground economy.

The moral of the story is that lots of red tape drives employers and employees to the black market.

Perhaps most important, there’s a very clear link between good regulatory policy and overall entrepreneurship.

Here’s a bit of good news.

Developing nations have reduced the burden of red tape in some areas, in part because Ease of Doing Business puts pressure on governments.

We can see the results in this chart.

I’ll close with a look at the regulatory burden in the United States, which also can be considered good news.

Here’s the annual score for the past five years (a higher number is better).

I’m frequently critical of this White House, but I also believe in giving credit when it’s deserved. The bottom line is that Trump’s policies have been a net plus for businesses.

In other words, lower tax rates and less red tape have more than offset the pain of protectionism.

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Image credit: Lilly_M | CC BY-SA 3.0.

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