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Updated: 52 min 56 sec ago

The Media’s Pervasively Dishonest Coverage of Trump’s New Budget

Mon, 02/10/2020 - 12:32pm

I would prefer not to write about President Trump’s new budget, largely because I know it’s not a serious proposal.

Even before he was elected, I pointed out that Trump was a big-government Republican who had no intention of dealing with serious fiscal issues such as the rising burden of entitlement spending.

So I wasn’t surprised that he capitulated to swamp-friendly budget deals in 20172018, and 2019. And I’m depressingly confident that the same thing will happen this year.

That being said, I want to comment on how the media is covering his latest budget.

Take a look at some of the headlines that are dominating the news this morning.

From Reuters.

From New York magazine.

From the Washington Times.

From NBC.

From the Associated Press.

From Bloomberg.

From International Business Times.

From Fox.

From the Wall Street Journal.

All of these headlines make is seem like Trump is proposing a Reagan-style budget with lots of cuts, especially with regards to domestic programs.

All of that would be great news…if it was true.

In reality, here’s what Trump is projecting for total spending over the next 10 years.

Can you find the spending cuts?

And here’s what’s happening with domestic spending (mandatory outlays plus domestic discretionary) according to Trump’s budget.

Can you find the spending cuts?

Last but not least, here’s Trump’s plan for domestic discretionary spending.

Can you find the spending cuts?

So why is there such a big disconnect in the media? Why are there headlines about cutting and slashing when government is growing by every possible measure?

For the simple reason that the budget process in Washington is pervasively dishonest, as I’ve explained in interviews with John Stossel and Judge Napolitano. Here are the three things you need to know.

  1. The politicians created a system that automatically assumes big increases in annual spending, called a baseline.
  2. When there’s a proposal to have spending grow slower than the baseline, the gap between the proposal and the baseline is called a cut.
  3. It’s like being on a diet and claiming progress because you’re gaining two pounds each month rather than five pounds.

Defenders of this system argue that programs should get built-in increases because of things such as inflation, or because of more old people, which leads to more spending for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

It’s certainly reasonable for them to argue that budgets should increase for these reasons.

But they should be honest. Be forthright and assert that “Spending should climb X percent because…”

Needless to say, that won’t happen. The pro-spending politicians and interest groups like the current approach because it allows them to scare voters by warning about “savage” and “draconian” spending cuts.

Remember how Obama said the sequester would wreak havoc because of massive cuts? Except there weren’t any cuts, massive or otherwise. As Thomas Sowell pointed out, Obama was trying to deceive voters.

P.S. The British also use dishonest budgeting.

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Image credit: The White House | Public Domain.

Trump and Jobs: An Unbiased Analysis

Sat, 02/08/2020 - 12:14pm

There’s endless “spin” in over-politicized and self-serving Washington, with Democrats and Republicans both trying to convince people why any particular bit of economic data is either wonderful news or horrible news.

Since I care about policy rather than politics, I like to think I’m largely immune from this tendency. I criticize either Republicans or Democrats when they do something wrong, and I also offer praise when either Republicans or Democrats do something right.

That applies to Trump, of course.

For instance, the Department of Labor just released new numbers on the job market and Trump loyalists are bragging that this is additional confirmation that the president has steered the economy into glorious prosperity after the supposed wretched misery of the Obama years.

Is that true?

Well, here’s a chart showing total employment in the United States, taken directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We see that jobs have been increasing, but can anybody identify a change in the trend line when Trump took office in January 2017?

For what it’s worth, the average monthly increase in employment has actually been smaller under Trump than it was under Obama.

Though Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute correctly observes that it’s harder to get more jobs when the unemployment rate is low.

Counterpoint: Job creation is a lot easier when the unemployment rate is over 5% (towards the end of Obama), then when it is already below 4% (the past couple years).

Eventually, you run out of qualified, unemployed people to move into jobs. https://t.co/6aaEsRLh6l

— Brian Riedl (@Brian_Riedl) February 5, 2020

Now that we’ve looked at total employment, let’s examine the BLS numbers for the unemployment rate.

Yes, we see better numbers during the Trump years, but we’ve been getting better numbers ever since 2010.

Can anyone look at this data and make a compelling case that there was some big change starting in 2017?

Next we have the BLS chart showing the employment-population ratio, which measures the share of the adult population which is actually employed (a key factor since economic output is a function of the quantity and quality of both labor and capital).

Notice, once again, that there’s no obvious change in the trend line when Trump took over from Obama.

It’s not good news, by the way, that the employment-population ratio is still below where it was before the 2008 crisis.

Though it’s worth noting that the employment-population numbers look much better if they’re adjusted for demographic change.

But adjusting the numbers for demographic change doesn’t have any impact on the point I’m making today. Notice that there hasn’t been any obvious change in the trend since Trump got to the White House.

So why do I keep making the point that the trend hasn’t changed?

Because I want people to understand that policy matters, not partisan affiliation. And the bottom line is that the trend line hasn’t noticeably changed because Trump hasn’t noticeably changed the overall level of economic freedom compared to Obama.

Yes, Trump has moved policy in the right direction on some issues (taxes and regulation), but he’s also moved policy in the wrong direction on other issues (trade and spending). Simply stated, his bad policies are offsetting his good policies.

Obama moved policy in the wrong direction, of course, but that was largely during his first two years. There was a policy stalemate his final six years.

And in terms of overall economic liberty, the post-2010 policy stalemate under Obama produced similar scores to the zig-zag policy we’re getting under Trump. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the trend lines are so similar.

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

More Economic Illiteracy from Pope Francis

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 12:04pm

Back in 2013, I talked to the BBC about Pope Francis and his bizarre hostility to free enterprise.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that the Pope took my advice (though I think it’s amusing that at least someone in the Vatican is paying attention).

There’s a wealth of evidence that markets are the best way of helping the poor. But the Pope wants more government.

Moreover, there’s also plenty of data showing that higher tax rates and more spending hurt the poor. Yet the Pope wants more government.

And there’s lots of research on capitalism and upward mobility for the less fortunate. Nonetheless, the Pope wants more government.

For instance, he’s once again advertising his ignorance about economics, development, and fiscal policy.

Pope Francis blasted the practice of tax cuts for the rich as part of a “structure of sin” and lamented the fact that “billions of dollars” end up in “tax haven accounts” instead of funding “healthcare and education.” Speaking at the seminar set up by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences  the Pope criticized “the richest people” for receiving “repeated tax cuts” in the name of “investment and development.” These “tax haven accounts” impede “the possibility of the dignified and sustained development of all social agents,” claims the Pope.  He added that “the poor increase around us” as poverty is rising around the world. This poverty can be ended if the wealthiest gave more.

Wow. Sounds more like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rather than a religious leader.

Libertarian Jesus must be very disappointed.

In an attempt to add some rigorous analysis to the discussion, Professors Antony Davies and James Harrigan wrote a column for the Foundation for Economic Education on capitalism and its role in global poverty reduction.

Galileo ran afoul of the Inquisition in 1633 when he was found “vehemently suspect of heresy.” …One might think that being this profoundly wrong about something well outside the realm of theology would cause the magisterium, and the pope specifically, to tread very carefully even 386 years later. But one would be wrong. Because here comes Pope Francis yet again, offering economic opinions from the bulliest of pulpits about something he understands no better than a garden-variety college freshman. …According to the pontiff, “the logic of the market” keeps people hungry. But “the market” has no logic. The market isn’t a thing, let alone a sentient thing. “The market” is the sum total of individual interactions among billions of people. …Whenever a trade occurs, both sides are better off for having made it. We know this because if they weren’t, the trade wouldn’t occur. …Not surprisingly to anyone but perhaps Pope Francis, some of the first financial speculation in which humans ever engaged involved food. Financial speculation and its more evolved cousins, options and futures contracts, evolved precisely as a means to fight hunger. …speculators took some of the risk of price fluctuations off the backs of farmers, and this made it possible for farmers to plant more food.

Davies and Harrigan inject some hard data into the debate.

If these arguments are too esoteric for Francis, there is also overwhelming evidence. Economic freedom measures the degree to which a country’s government permits and supports the very sorts of markets against which Francis rails. …If we list societies according to their economic freedom, the same pattern emerges again and again and again. Whether comparing countries, states, or cities, societies that are more economically free exhibit better social and economic outcomes than those that are less economically free. …even Francis should be able to see it quite clearly from his Vatican perch. …Extreme poverty rates for the half of countries that are less economically free are around seven times the extreme poverty rates for the half of countries that are more economically free.

Here’s one of the charts from their column.

As you can see, the state-controlled economies on the left have much higher levels of poverty than the market-driven economies on the right.

They also share some economic history.

…if the world around Francis doesn’t provide enough compelling evidence, the world prior to Francis certainly does. At the turn of the 18th century, around 95 percent of humans lived in extreme poverty. That was at the advent of the Industrial Revolution and of capitalism. …the extreme poverty rate fell from 95 percent to below ten percent. With the flourishing of capitalism, the extreme poverty rate fell tenfold at the same time that the number of humans grew tenfold.

Amen. Videos by Deirdre McCloskey and by Don Boudreaux confirm how the world went from near-universal poverty to mass prosperity (at least in the nations that embraced free markets and the rule of law).

By contrast, there’s not a single example of a nation that became rich and reduced poverty with big government.

P.S. Mauritius is a good test case of why Pope Francis is wrong. Very wrong.

P.P.S. To learn more about why Pope Francis is off base, I also recommend the wise words of Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams.

P.P.P.S. To be fair, there was plenty of bad economics in the Vatican before Francis became Pope. And also some sound thinking.

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Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza | Public Domain.

Nazis and Socialism

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 12:44pm

Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say that their goal of “democratic socialism” is very different from the socialism of CubaNorth Korea, and Venezuela, as well as the socialism of the former Soviet Union.

And they doubtlessly would get very upset if anyone equated their ideology with the “national socialism” of Hitler’s Germany.

Such angst would be understandable. There are profound differences among the various versions of socialism. At the risk of understatement, a politician who wants to take my money is much better than one who wants to take my life.

From the perspective of economic policy, though, there’s a common link. All strains of socialism reject free enterprise. They want to replace capitalism with some sort of regime based on government planning and coercion.

This observation gets some people rather upset.

In a column for the Washington Post, Ronald Granieri of the Foreign Policy Research Institute expresses dismay that some people are pointing out that Hitler’s National Socialist Workers’ Party was, well, socialist.

Did you know that “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist”? That means that Hitler and his henchmen were all socialists. …There is only one problem: This argument is untrue. Although the Nazis did pursue a level of government intervention in the economy that would shock doctrinaire free marketeers, their “socialism” was at best a secondary element in their appeal. …The Nazi regime had little to do with socialism, despite it being prominently included in the name of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. …The NSDAP’s 1920 party program, the 25 points, included passages denouncing banks, department stores and “interest slavery,” which suggested a quasi-Marxist rejection of free markets. But these were also typical criticisms in the anti-Semitic playbook …linking socialism and Nazism to critique leftist ideas became a political weapon in the post-World War II period, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the Cold War followed directly on the heels of World War II. Scholars as diverse as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hannah Arendt used the larger concept of “totalitarianism” to fuse the two. …National Socialism preserved private property, while also putting the entire resources of society at the service of an expansionist and racist national vision, which included the conquest and murderous subjugation of other peoples. It makes no sense to think that the sole, or even the primary, negative aspect of this regime was the fact that it used state power to allocate financial resources.

Mr. Granieri makes some very good points. I’m not a historian, but I assume he’s correct in stating that Nazis hated capitalism in large part because it was associated with Jews.

And he’s definitely correct in stating that there are much more important reasons to despise Nazis other than their version of socialism (private ownership, but government control, often referred to as fascism).

But none of that changes that fact that all forms of socialism involve hostility to capitalism. Especially among the most repugnant forms of socialism.

Indeed, Nazism and communism are like different sides of the same coin. Joshua Hofford, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, examines the commonalities and differences between the two ideologies.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels are the fathers of both…the swastika and the hammer-and-sickle. …The platform for Soviet socialism was nearly identical to that of National Socialism under the Nazi Party. Though the application of Soviet socialism was Marxian in nature—committed to international socialist revolution and the elimination of class enemies—and National Socialism under the Nazi Party was instituted to the elimination of racial enemies, both were dedicated to the remaking of mankind… Endemic to both Soviet and Nazi socialism, the destruction of class and racial enemies was a literal, not figurative, stage of revolution. …both versions of socialism were dedicated to constructing a new social reality by any means necessary… In addition to belonging to the shared brotherhood of worldwide socialism, clearly, both communism and Nazism were equally totalitarian. …The Nazis rejected the call to international revolution and the class warfare of their Soviet Marxist kin, however, this made them no less socialist. All substantial power and ownership of German business under the Third Reich, while managed and owned by individuals, was in the hands of the state. Price controls, salary caps, and production quotas were set by the nation and left owners to navigate a glut of bureaucracy.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Juliana Pilon shares a historical tidbit to illustrate the disdain for capitalism that characterized Nazis and communists.

Known officially as the Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Hitler-Stalin pact…stunned the world. …As German negotiator Karl Schnurre had observed…, “there is one common element in the ideologies of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies. Neither we nor Italy have anything in common with the capitalist West. Therefore it seems to us rather unnatural that a socialist state would stand on the side of the Western democracies.” …capitalist democracy was their common enemy.

And Michael Rieger, writing for FEE, notes that there are genuine differences among different strains of socialism, though all involve a powerful state.

The Nazis didn’t call their ideology “national socialism” because they thought it sounded good. They were fervently opposed to capitalism. The Nazi Party’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, even once remarked that he’d sooner live under Bolshevism than capitalism. …why…would the Nazis call themselves “socialists”? In part, it’s because the term “socialism” has been constantly evolving and changing since its inception. …Marxist-Leninists came to more narrowly define “socialism” to mean the intermediary period between capitalism and communism where the state owned the means of production and centrally managed the economy. In establishing national socialism, the Nazis sought to redefine socialism yet again. National socialism began as a fusion of socialist ideas of a technocratically-managed economy with Völkisch nationalism, a deeply anti-Semitic form of German nationalism. …The Nazis also distinguished themselves from Marxists in their support for private property, although this came with some caveats. The Nazi government did not own the means of production in Germany, but they certainly controlled them. They set up control boards, cartels, and state-sponsored monopolies and konzerns, which they then carefully planned and regulated. …democratic socialists don’t believe in total government ownership of the means of production, nor do they wish to technocratically manage the economy as the Nazis did. …The wide variance between utopian socialism, communism, national socialism, and democratic socialism makes it remarkably easy for members of each ideology to wag their fingers at the others and say, “That wasn’t real socialism.” …all self-described socialists have shared the belief that top-down answers to society’s problems are superior to the bottom-up answers created by the free market.

To add to the above excerpts, here are two passages from Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties.

  • Page 133: “Hitler took over a small proletarian group called the German Workers’ Party…and reorganized its economic aims into a radical twenty-five point programme: …abolition of unearned incomes, state to take over trusts and share profits of industry, land for national needs to be expropriated without compensation. he also added the words ‘National Socialist’ to its title. …the radical and socialist element in his programme always remained strong.”
  • Page 293: “He regarded himself as a socialist, and the essence of his socialism was that every individual or group in the state should unhesitatingly work for national policy. So it did not matter who owned the actual factory so long as those managing it did what they were told. …’Our socialism reaches much deeper. …Why should we need to socialize the banks and the factories? We are socializing the people.”

I’ll close by re-sharing my humble contribution to this discussion, which is a triangle to replace the traditional right-vs-left line.

My triangle acknowledges that there are differences between communists and Nazis (as well as between populists and democratic socialists, and between Republicans and Democrats).

But it makes the key point that there are ever-greater losses of economic liberty as one descends from libertarianism.

And the closer you get to the bottom of the triangle, the greater the likelihood that you lose political liberty as well.

P.S. I also recommend reading what Friedrich HayekDan Hannan, and Thomas Sowell have written on this topic.

P.P.S. I also think we can learn something from this tweet by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

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Image credit: Nachlass Tomschik | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bernie Sanders Easily Prevails in the Free-Stuff Primary

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 12:41pm

In an amazing display of incompetence, we still don’t know whether Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa caucus.

This has created some opportunities for satire, with people asking how a political party that can’t properly count 200,000 votes somehow can effectively run a healthcare system for 340 million people.

That’s a very good point, but today let’s focus on a contest that does have a clear winner.

As explained in this video, John Stossel and his team crunched the numbers and they have concluded that “Crazy Bernie” wins the free-stuff primary.

Senator Sanders doubtlessly will be very happy with this victory, especially since he trailed Kamala Harris when Stossel did the same calculations last summer.

America’s taxpayers, however, might not be pleased with this outcome. Especially if Bernie Sanders somehow gets to the White House.

Last week, I shared new numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, which showed that the federal budget is now consuming $4.6 trillion.

Bernie Sanders is proposing a staggering $4.9 trillion of new spending – more than doubling the burden of government spending!

And the 10-year cost of his promises could be as high as $97 trillion.

To make matters worse, all this new spending is in addition to already-legislated spending increases for everything from boondoggle discretionary programs to behemoth entitlement programs.

Hello Greece.

Heck, it may be hello Venezuela if Bernie gets unleashed.

P.S. Trump’s record on spending is bad, though his mistakes are measured in billions rather than trillions.

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Image credit: Michael Vadon | CC BY 2.0.

The Best-Ever Tweet about Inequality

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 12:11pm

I periodically see tweets that deserve attention because they reveal something very important, usually in a clever and succinct fashion.

Today, let’s add to this collection.

I’ve argued, over and over again, that the best way to help the poor is to focus on policies designed to boost growth rather than policies designed to reduce inequality.

Simply stated, the former approach is a recipe for making everyone more prosperous, while the latter approach means everyone fights for bigger slices of a shrinking pie.

When making this argument, I sometimes ask people whether they would rather be a poor person in Hong Kong or France? There’s no welfare state in the former, but lots of opportunity, whereas France has plenty of handouts but not much hope for upward mobility.

But no matter how often I’ve tried to analyze and explain why we shouldn’t fixate on inequality, I’ve never come close to cramming this much insight into such a concise observation.

Compassionate people care about poverty.

Envious people care about inequality.

— Jon Stewart Mill (@Jon_StewartMill) February 2, 2020

Kudos to @Jon_StewartMill. In just ten words, he captures the key insight that I’ve tried to get across in several dozen columns.

I’ll close with some speculation about why some people fixate on inequality. What makes them focus on trying to drag down the rich instead of finding ways to build up the poor?

I’m not sure, though there is polling data to suggest that some people really are motivated by envy and resentment of success.

But I suspect that politicians who play the class-warfare card simply think it’s a way of maximizing votes.

Even worse than the politicians are the “poverty hucksters” who deliberately lie about poverty in hopes of advancing a redistributionist agenda.

P.S. The most powerful numbers on why growth matters more than inequality come from China.

P.P.S. The most reprehensible effort to reduce inequality (by making everyone poorer) came from the IMF.

P.P.P.S. The most accurate political analysis of inequality came from Margaret Thatcher.

P.P.P.P.S. The best satire on the issue of inequality can be found in this “modest proposal.”

If Finland Is a Role Model for Bernie Sanders, Middle-Income Taxpayers Won’t Be Happy

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 12:03pm

Assuming he was able to impose his policy agenda, I think Bernie Sanders – at best – would turn America into Greece. In more pessimistic moments, I fear he would turn the U.S. into Venezuela.

The Vermont Senator and his supporters say that’s wrong and that the real goal is to make America into a Nordic-style welfare state.

Since those nations mitigate the damage of their large public sectors with very pro-market policies on regulation, trade, and property rights, that wouldn’t be the worst outcome.

Though “Crazy Bernie” is still wrong to view Denmark and Sweden as role models. Why adopt the policies of nations that have less incomelower living standards, and slower growth?

Is Finland a better alternative?

The answer is yes, according to Ishaan Tharoor’s WorldView column in the Washington Post.

Sanders and some of his Democratic competitors are clear about what they want to change in the United States. They call for the building of a robust social democratic state, including programs such as universal healthcare, funded in large part by new taxation on the ultrarich and Wall Street. …Sanders is particularly fond of the “Nordic model” — the social plans that exist in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, which deploy higher taxation to provide quality public services and keep inequality at rates lower than the United States. …Across the Atlantic, at least one leading proponent of the Nordic model welcomed its embrace by U.S. politicians. “We feel that the Nordic Model is a success story,” said Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin… “I feel that the American Dream can be achieved best in the Nordic countries, where every child no matter their background or the background of their families can become anything, because we have a very good education system,” she said.

I prefer the analysis of a previous Prime Minister, though it’s hard to fault Ms. Marin for extolling the virtues of her nation.

But is Bernie Sanders really talking about turning America into Finland?

Tharoor correctly notes that the Nordic nation tells a very mixed story.

Sanders’s ascent in the past five years has spurred considerable debate over what lessons should be learned from the Nordic countries he celebrates. A cast of centrist and conservative critics note, first, that these Nordic countries are more capitalist than Sanders concedes, with generous pro-business policies and their own crop of billionaires; and, second, that the welfare states in Nordic countries are largely financed by extensive taxes on middle-class wages and consumption.

The last excerpt is key.

The big welfare states in Europe – and specifically in Nordic nations such as Finland – are financed with big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

According to data from the Tax Foundation and OECD, middle-income Finnish taxpayers are forced to surrender about 15 percent more of their income to government.

Why such a big difference?

Because Finland has an onerous value-added tax, punitive payroll taxes, and their income tax imposes high rates on people with modest incomes.

In other words, it’s not the rich who are financing the welfare state. Yet Bernie Sanders never mentions that point.

I’ll close by simply noting that Finland (like other Nordic nations) is not a statist hellhole. As I wrote just two months ago, the nation has some very attractive policies.

Indeed, the country is almost as market-oriented as the United States according to Economic Freedom of the World (and actually ranked above America as recently as 2011).

Bernie Sanders, though, wants to copy the bad features of Finland.

He wants America to have a big welfare state, but doesn’t want Finland’s very strong rule of law or robust property rights for people in the private sector. Nor does he want Finland’s 20 percent corporate tax rate.

And I suspect he doesn’t realize that Finland just learned an important lesson about the downsides of giving people money for nothing.

Most important of all, I’m very confident he doesn’t understand why Americans of Finnish descent generate 47 percent more national income than Finns who stayed home.

P.S.S. Researchers at Finland’s central bank seem to agree with my concern about excessive government spending.

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Image credit: alessandrodanchini | Pixabay License.

Bloomberg Proposes Huge Increase in America’s Tax Burden

Sun, 02/02/2020 - 12:51pm

One of the most significant developments in 2020 politics is how Democratic presidential candidates have embraced hard-left economic policies.

Prominent analysts on the left have noted that even Joe Biden, ostensibly the most moderate of the candidates, has a very statist economic platform when compared to Barack Obama.

And “Crazy Bernie” and “Looney Liz” have made radicalism a central tenet of their campaigns.

So where does Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, fit on the spectrum?

The New York Times has a report on Bloomberg’s tax plan. Here are some of the key provisions, all of which target investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other high-income taxpayers.

Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York unveiled a plan on Saturday that would raise an estimated $5 trillion in new tax revenue… The proposal includes a repeal of President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts for high earners, along with a new 5 percent “surcharge” on incomes above $5 million per year. It would raise capital gains taxes for Americans earning more than $1 million a year and…it would partially repeal Mr. Trump’s income tax cuts for corporations, raising their rate to 28 percent from 21 percent. …Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers estimate his increases would add up to $5 trillion of new taxes spread over the course of a decade, in order to finance new spending on health care, housing, infrastructure and other initiatives. That amount is nearly 50 percent larger than the tax increases proposed by the most fiscally moderate front-runner in the race, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. …Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers said it was possible that he would propose additional measures to raise even more revenue, depending on how his other domestic spending plans develop.

These are all terrible proposals. And you can see even more grim details at Bloomberg’s campaign website.

Every provision will penalize productive behavior.

But there is a bit of good news.

Though it would be more accurate to say that there’s a partial absence of additional bad news.

Bloomberg hasn’t embraced some of the additional bad ideas being pushed by other Democratic candidates.

It would…maintain a limit on federal deductions of state and local tax payments set under the 2017 law, which some Democrats have pushed to eliminate. …the plan notably does not endorse the so-called wealth tax favored by several of the more liberal candidates in the race, like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

I’m definitely happy he hasn’t embraced a wealth tax, and it’s also good news that he doesn’t want to restore the state and local tax deduction, which encouraged profligacy in states such as California, New Jersey, and Illinois.

It also appears he doesn’t want to tax unrealized capital gains, which is another awful idea embraced by many of the other candidates.

But an absence of some bad policies isn’t the same as a good policy.

And if you peruse his website, you’ll notice there isn’t a single tax cut or pro-growth proposal. It’s a taxapalooza, what you expect from a France-based bureaucracy, not from an American businessman.

To add insult to injury, Bloomberg wants all these taxes to finance an expansion in the burden of government spending.

For what it’s worth, this is my estimate of what will happen to America’s tax burden (based on the latest government data) if Bloomberg is elected and he successfully imposes all his proposed tax increases. We’ll have a more punitive tax system that extracts a much greater share of people’s money.

P.S Take these numbers with a grain of salt because they assume that Bloomberg’s tax increases will actually collect $5 trillion of revenue (which won’t happen because of the Laffer Curve) and that GDP won’t be adversely affected (which isn’t true because there will be much higher penalties on productive behavior).

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0.

Chicago’s Continuing Decline…and Inevitable Fiscal Crisis

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 12:37pm

Is Greece the international version of New Jersey or is New Jersey the American version of Greece?

Is New Jersey the national version of Chicago, or is Chicago the the local version of New Jersey?

The answer is yes, regardless of how the question is phrased because – in all cases – we’re talking about examples of how politicians (and short-sighted voters) create “Goldfish Government.”

Let’s examine Chicago to see how this process works.

The Washington Post noted early last year that the new mayor was going to face an enormous fiscal challenge because of the reckless choices made by previous generations of politicians.

The city has been underfunding its pensions for decades, with dire results. Chicago’s pension plans collectively have only about a quarter of the assets they’ll need to pay benefits, one of the worst funding ratios in the nation. To put that hole in dollar terms, Chicago is about $28 billion short of what it needs, even under relatively favorable assumptions about future returns, or about $10,000 for every man, woman and child living in the city. …radical surgery still needed. Within a few years, pension contributions are projected to suck up more than 20 percent of the city’s budget. And Chicago can’t count on much help from the state, which is dealing with its own, equally severe case of pension underfunding. …what’s happening in Illinois is merely the earliest and most extreme manifestation of a quandary that will soon be dominating the public conversation in many states: how to pay for retirement promises to public employees without entering a fiscal death spiral. …shoddy accounting allowed generations of politicians all over the country to curry favor with public-sector workers by offering them ever-fatter pension packages, gaining immediate benefit while deferring the political cost of paying for all those benefits until much later. Later is now arriving. …Chicago has been losing lower- and middle-class residents for years, in part because of its heavily regressive tax burden. And when Chicago and Illinois both start raising the rates on upper earners — as they will have to, and soon — they run the risk that those people ,too, will start trickling away, either to smaller cities without the burdensome pension-legacy costs.

Megan McArdle pointed out that Chicago is a mess because of “public choice” – i.e., politicians make short-sighted and irresponsible decisions in order to maximize votes and power.

Throw in a recession sometime in the next couple of years, and Chicago is going to be in a full-blown crisis. …it’s the fault of generations of politicians before them who promised an ever-richer array of benefits to government workers. Particularly, they liked to raise the retirement benefits. …The whole point of giving workers pension benefits instead of cash was that you didn’t have to pay for them; you could promise the benefits now and gather up the votes that the grateful workers tossed at your feet, all without costing current taxpayers a single dime. …Future taxpayers mostly weren’t voting in 1982 municipal elections. …Chicagoans, welcome to “later.” The municipal pensions only have about 25 percent of the assets they’ll need to cover projected benefits, a shortfall of roughly $28 billion. …If you use a more cautious method, you come up with a shortfall of more than $40 billion. …Moody’s Investors Service rates the city’s general obligation debt as junk bonds. …Chicago is now approaching the point where the growth of its obligations will outpace the growth of any possible revenue stream it might use to cover them. It’s a few steps from there to municipal bankruptcy.

Unsurprisingly, Chicago’s relatively new mayor wants to keep the scam going.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, she wants to extract more money from taxpayers.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot…said there’s “no question” residents will need to pay more in taxes or fees to plug a looming city budget shortfall… “There’s no question we’re going to have to come to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue.” …Lightfoot did not specify what sort of revenue she expects to raise — whether it would come in the form of new taxes, a property tax hike or increased fees. …referring to her campaign promise to seek cuts before asking taxpayers for more money, Lightfoot added, “I meant what I said on the course of the campaign: We have a lot of hard choices we’re going to have to make regarding city finances.”

Like previous mayors, she’s buying votes with other people’s money.

The Wall Street Journal opined last year about her surrender to the teacher unions (a Chicago tradition, as illustrated by the adjacent cartoon by Lisa Benson).

Except it wasn’t really a surrender since she was already on their side (as perfectly captured by this Ramirez cartoon).

So the net result is a combination of bad fiscal policy and bad education policy.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union on Thursday struck an agreement to end an 11-day strike, and by the looks of it the union was bargaining with itself. The mayor is touting the new contract as the most generous in Chicago history, and she’s right. …The new contract includes a 16% raise over five years (not including raises based on longevity), a three-year freeze on health insurance premiums, lower copays, …and more than 450 new social workers and nurses. …you can bet it will be expensive. Last week the mayor proposed a slew of tax increases including levies on ride-hailing services and restaurant meals. This week her staff suggested that property taxes may have to increase . . . again. Michelle Obama the other day complained that white people were leaving the city to escape minorities who are moving in. No, they’re fleeing Chicago’s high taxes and lousy schools—and so are minorities.

This story from Reason is a powerful (and nauseating) example of how a money-hungry city is making life miserable for ordinary people.

Chicago police pulled Spencer Byrd over for a broken turn signal. Byrd says his signal wasn’t broken, but that detail would soon be the least of his worries. …Byrd was giving a client, a man he says he had never met before, a ride… Police pulled both of them out of the car and searched them. Byrd was clean, but in his passenger’s pocket was a bag of heroin… Police released Byrd after a short stint in an interrogation room without charging him with a crime. But when Byrd went to retrieve his car, he found out the Chicago Police Department had seized and impounded it. …The program impounds cars when the owner beats a criminal case or isn’t charged with a crime in the first place. It impounds cars even when the owner isn’t even driving, like when a child is borrowing a parent’s car. …Byrd calls his car his “livelihood,” and he has been fighting for close to two years now to recover it. He says he has $3,500-worth of tools locked in the trunk, and he can’t retrieve them. …Like tens of thousands of other Chicagoans, Byrd was a victim of years of the city’s fiscal negligence. …to try and nickel-and-dime…out of these massive budget gaps. …The result is a uniquely punitive impound system, in which Chicago profits off restricting the ability of its residents to drive.

Amazingly, Chicago’s politicians want to dig an even deeper hole.

The Wall Street Journal has a new editorial examining a scheme to borrow even more money in hopes of keeping the gravy train rolling.

Chicago has been seeking to take advantage of historically low interest rates by refinancing debt—even as its credit rating has deteriorated amid swelling budget deficits and pension payments. …In 2017 state and city politicians contrived a shell scheme to lower the city’s borrowing costs. The city essentially sold off sales-tax revenue that it receives from the state to a corporation specially created to pay creditors. …Voila, Chicago’s financial magicians spun junk into gold. …Chicago’s budget woes are mounting, and financial alchemists are diluting the claims of existing creditors. If the city were to renege on its $8 billion in GO debt, those bondholders would surely demand a slice of the sales-tax revenue now pledged to other creditors. This is what happened in Puerto Rico. …Chicago’s population has declined for each of the past four years, and taxpayers are getting tapped out. On top of a $50 million increase in property taxes this year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has imposed a new “congestion” fee on Uber and taxi rides, doubled the tax on restaurant meals, and raised a special personal property tax on computer cloud software. Yet a recession would probably blow a gigantic hole in its budget and could cause its pension funds to run dry. Does anyone think that city politicians wouldn’t prioritize public workers over bondholders?

So when will this house of cards collapse?

I have no idea. There’s a famous quote from the late economist Rudiger Dornbusch, who observed that, “In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”

The people buying bonds from Chicago are betting that the collapse won’t happen in the near future.

But that was the same mentality of the people who bought Greek bonds in, say, 2005.

I’ll simply observe that what’s happening in Chicago is confirmation of my “First Theorem of Government.”

And I’ll also make an easy prediction that the people buying Chicago bonds will want a bailout when the you-know-what hits the fan.

Needless to say, the answer should be a resounding no.

P.S. If you want to know all my Theorems of Government, click here.

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Image credit: Allen McGregor | CC BY 2.0.

The OECD Closes in on its Ultimate Goal

Fri, 01/31/2020 - 2:51am

My colleague Dan Mitchell recently provided any overview of the tax fight between the U.S. and the E.U. over taxing digital businesses. He aptly summarized: “all you really need to understand is that European politicians view American tech companies as a potential source of loot.”

The quality of the U.S. response has been mixed. On the one hand, members of the Trump administration are starting to take a harder line against E.U. nations that have or are planning to implement digital taxes on U.S. tech giants. In response to a threat to impose steep tariffs on their exports, France agreed to delay the tax through the end of the year while the countries negotiate. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has also threatened Italy and the U.K. with tariffs as they move forward with their own taxes.

Nevertheless, many European nations are planning digital services taxes, as Elke Asen of the Tax Foundation explains:

However, despite these ongoing multilateral negotiations, several countries have decided to move ahead with unilateral measures to tax the digital economy. About half of all European OECD countries have either announced, proposed, or implemented a digital services tax (DST), which is a tax on selected gross revenue streams of large digital companies.

…Although these DSTs are generally considered to be interim measures until an agreement is reached at the OECD level, it is unclear whether all of them will be repealed at that point.

Asen is referring to the multilateral negotiations underway at the OECD that grew out of the BEPS project. Nations are using the threat of their own taxes, along with blacklists, to force the OECD to do its bidding. CF&P’s Brian Garst has argued this undermines the organization’s claim to be consensus-based.

And as I’ve previously written, this effort is a threat to tax competition. One of the proposals is a global minimum tax, which amounts to tax harmonization, which we’ve long warned will be used to raise global tax burdens.

Unfortunately, the administration has mostly supported the push for a global minimum tax, likely calculating that a multilateral agreement is preferable to a raft of countries imposing their own digital taxes. Under pressure from businesses, they briefly pushed for an optional system that would allow firms to choose between the current or new rules, but quickly agreed to drop that demand. Needless to say, since the objective of the high-tax nations is not just to change the global system but to ensure higher tax burdens, optional is not an option to them.

So the OECD soldiers on, working toward its stated goal to have an agreement by the end of the year. Unless the administration begins to more seriously fight back, there’s a very real danger that the OECD will finally get what it wants: an end to global competition over taxes that will allow for much higher burdens on economic activity. And we’ll all be poorer for it.

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Image credit: The White House | Public Domain.

The Right Way to Adopt a Consumption Tax

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 12:27pm

I’ve written dozens of columns explaining why it would be a terrible idea for the United States to enact a value-added tax.

But that’s not because I think consumption taxes are worse than income taxes. Indeed, sales taxes and VATs are less destructive because tax rates tend to be reasonable and there’s no double taxation of saving and investment.

My opposition is solely based on the fact that we shouldn’t give politicians an extra source of revenue to finance bigger government. That would effectively guarantee that the United States would morph into a stagnant European-style welfare state.

In other words, I’d be willing to accept a trade. Politicians get a VAT, but only if they permanently abolish the income tax.

There’s no chance of that happening in Washington, but it may happen in Nebraska, as reported by the North Platte Telegraph.

If Nebraskans can’t agree on reform…, state Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard has a sweeping answer: …Income and property taxes in Nebraska would be abolished — and the state sales tax replaced by a “consumption tax” to fund state and local governments — if a constitutional amendment spearheaded by Erdman were approved by lawmakers and voters. …It would need “yes” votes from 30 of the 49 senators on final reading to appear on November’s general election ballot. …Nebraska’s state and local governments now collect a combined $9.5 billion annually in taxes, which would require a 10% consumption tax rate to replace, Erdman said. …If income and property taxes go away, Erdman said, all the state and local departments or agencies that enforce, set and collect them wouldn’t be needed, either.

Here’s some additional coverage from KETV.

Imagine not having to pay any property or income taxes in Nebraska, but there’s a catch you’d pay a new consumption tax on just about everything you buy, such as food and medical services, things that are not taxed right now. That is the idea behind a new constitutional resolution introduced by state Sen. Steve Erdman. …He and nine other lawmakers introduced LR300CA on Thursday. The resolution would allow voters to decide whether to replace all those taxes with a consumption tax. It is like a sales tax and would be about 10.6% on everything, including services and food. …He said under this proposal, everyone would get a payment called a prebate of about $1,000, which would offset the cost for low-income families. Erdman said it would also eliminate the need for property tax relief and the state having to offer costly tax incentives to attract businesses. “This is fixing the whole issue, everything. This is eliminating all those taxes and replacing it with a fair tax,” Erdman said. “Nothing is exempt,” Erdman said.

I have no idea if this proposal has any chance of getting approval by the legislature, but Senator Erdman’s proposal for a broad-based neutral tax (i.e., no exemptions) would make Nebraska more competitive.

Which would be a good idea considering that the state is only ranked #28 according to the Tax Foundation and is way down at #44 according to Freedom in the 50 States.

In one fell swoop, Nebraska would join the list of states that have no income tax, which is even better than the states that have flat taxes.

P.S. The switch to a consumption tax would address the revenue side of the fiscal equation. Nebraska should also fix the spending side by copying its neighbors in Colorado and adopting a TABOR-style spending cap.

P.P.S. Unlike advocates of the value-added tax, proponents of a national sales tax support full repeal of the income tax. I don’t think that’s realistic since it’s so difficult to amend the Constitution, but their hearts are in the right place.

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Image credit: ErgoSum88 | Public Domain.

Washington’s Budget Outlook: Still Getting Worse, but Still Fixable

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 12:27pm

When the Congressional Budget Office released its Budget and Economic Outlook yesterday, almost everyone in Washington foolishly fixated on the estimate of $1 trillion-plus annual deficits.

What’s far more important – and much more worrisome – is that the burden of government spending is projected to relentlessly increase, violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

More specifically, the federal budget currently is consuming 21 percent of gross domestic product, but will consume 23.4 percent of economic output in 2030 if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

Here is a chart, based on CBO’s new data, that shows why we should be very concerned.

By the way, last year’s long-run forecast from CBO shows the problem will get even worse in the following decades, especially if there isn’t genuine entitlement reform.

We’re in trouble today because government has been growing too fast, and we’ll be in bigger trouble in the future for the same reason.

But the situation is not hopeless. The problem can be fixed with some long-overdue and much-needed spending restraint.

We don’t even need to cut spending, though that would be very desirable.

As this next chart illustrates, our budgetary problems can be solved if there’s some sort of spending cap.

The grey line shows the current projection for federal spending and the orange line shows how much tax revenue Washington expects to collect (assuming the Trump tax cut is made permanent). There’s a big gap between those two lines (the $1 trillion-plus deficits everyone else is worried about).

My contribution to the discussion is to show we can have a budget surplus by 2028 if spending only grows by 1 percent annually and we can balance the budget by 2030 if spending grows by 1.7 percent per year.

Needless to say, I’m not fixated on balancing the budget and eliminating red ink.

The real goal is to change budgetary trend lines with a spending cap so that the fiscal burden of government begins to shrink as a share of the nation’s economy.

The bottom line is that modest spending restraint (government growing at 1.7 percent annually, nearly as fast as projected inflation) would slowly but surely achieve that goal by gradually reversing the big-government policies of BushObama, and Trump.

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Image credit: pxhere | CC0 Public Domain.

Economic Lessons from Cuba and Hong Kong

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 12:14pm

Back in 2014, I compared Hong Kong’s amazing growth with Cuba’s pitiful stagnation and made the obvious point that free markets and limited government are the right recipe for prosperity.

Especially if you care about improving the lives of the less fortunate.

Communists claim that their ideology represents the downtrodden against the elite, yet the evidence from Cuba shows wretched material deprivation for most people.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, incomes have soared for all segments of the population.

Today, let’s update our comparison of Cuba and Hong Kong. Law & Liberty has posted a a fascinating review of Neil Monnery’s book, A Tale of Two Economies, authored by Alberto Mingardi from Italy’s Bruno Leoni Institute.

As Alberto explains, the book is about how developments in both Hong Kong and Cuba were shaped by two individuals.

How important are key individuals in shaping the success or failure of economies? …Neil Monnery’s A Tale of Two Economies is in some sense a polemic against historical determinism, at least insofar as promoting economic reforms is concerned. It stresses the importance of two single individuals, one a great man for many, one an obscure official and political unknown to the most, in shaping the destiny of their respective countries. …Ernesto “Che” Guevara and John Cowperthwaite. …Monnery insists that both of them were “deep and original thinkers.” …The key difference between the two was perhaps that Cowperthwaite had a solid education in economics… Neither the way in which Hong Kong progressed, nor Cuba’s, were thus inevitable.

I’ve written previously about the noble role of John Cowperthwaite.

Here’s what Alberto culled from the book.

Monnery points out that Hong Kong’s success happened not because Cowperthwaite and his colleague were trying “to plant an ideological flag,” but because they were “professional pragmatists.” …Then the success of relatively libertarian arrangements in Hong Kong perpetuated itself. …Cowperthwaite tested what he knew about classical economics when he “first arrived in Hong Kong, in 1945” and “was put in charge of price control.… He soon realized the problems with attempting to set prices low enough to meet consumer needs but high enough to encourage supply, and in a dynamic environment.” He opposed subsidies that he saw as “a brazen attempt to feed at the trough of government subsidies.” …Cowperthwaite is a hero to Monnery, who emphasises his competence, and even more, his integrity.

And I’ve also written about Che Guevara, but only to comment on his brutality.

It turns out he was also a lousy economic planner.

Guevara held office in a variety of capacities related to economic matters and took them seriously. In 1959, he took a three months trip to countries as different as India, Japan and Burma, to learn “how they managed their economy.” He was struck by examples of countries that succeeded in developing heavy industries and thought Cuba could do the same. …Guevara, who, once converted to Marxism, had swallowed the whole thing. Since he maintained that “the sine qua non for an economic plan is that the state controls the bulk of the means of production, and better yet, if possible, all the means of production,” he acted accordingly.

So what’s the bottom line?

Hong Kong and Cuba were roughly equal at the start of the process. Today, not so much.

To the reader of A Tale of Two Economies, it is rather obvious which lessons ought to be taken: “in the late 1950s, both economies had a GDP per capita of around $4,500 in today’s money. By 2018 Cuba had slightly more than doubled its GDP per capita to around $9,000 per person. But Hong Kong reached $64,000 per capita”—seven times Cuba’s, and even exceeding the UK’s as well.

Here’s my modest contribution to the discussion, based on the Maddison database.

P.S. Hong Kong still ranks as the world’s freest economy, though there are increasing worries about whether China will allow economic liberty in the long run.

We Need a Separation Between Politics and Banking

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 2:22am

Originally published by Townhall on January 27, 2020.

This week, the House Financial Services Committee will convene a hearing to question efforts to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act. Not only are the reforms proposed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) that aim to prevent a repeat of the subprime lending crisis and reduce compliance burdens on banks long overdue, but the administration should go further and clarify the CRA’s role in preventing ideologically based lending discrimination.

Last month, Senator David Perdue (R-GA) and 14 other senators wrote to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Federal Reserve System Board and the OCC to highlight “a disturbing trend in the financial services industry.” Specifically, they note that, “Over the past few years, one after another, the largest banks in the United States have steadily “derisked” from industries such as firearm manufacturers, private prison services, and fossil fuel producers,” and that, “according to the public statements of the banks and their executives, these actions are mainly designed to curry favor with partisan interest groups.”

Banks benefit from taxpayer-backed deposit insurance along with other implicit protections and are required by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) to meet the credit needs of their local communities. Historically, the focus of CRA has been on ensuring that low and moderate-income neighborhoods have access to credit, but serving local communities surely means also serving the lawfully, creditworthy businesses upon which they rely.

What good is the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms if manufacturers and sellers of firearms are denied the access to credit that any business needs to operate?

Activists and their allies in Congress that are pressuring banks to restrict access to financial services recognize the potential to shape the economy toward their desired ends. Such an end-run around the legislative process is attractive when their desired legislation proves politically unpopular or conflicts with constitutional protections.

And thanks to Operation Choke Point, they know just how effective such tactics can be. The Obama-era program was created to serve an arguably legitimate purpose “to attack Internet, telemarketing, mail, and other mass market fraud against consumers,” but regulators quickly abused the program to serve ideological ends by targeting lawful industries like gun manufacturers and dealers, short-term lenders, tobacco sellers, and oil and gas companies. Even individual porn stars saw their accounts closed for “moral” reasons.

Choke Point was effectively ended in 2017 when, according to the agency’s press release, the FDIC issued a Financial Institution Letter “encouraging supervised institutions to take a risk-based approach in assessing individual customer relationships, rather than declining to provide banking services to entire categories of customers without regard to the risks presented by an individual customer or the financial institution’s ability to manage the risk.”

Federal regulators, in other words, were forced to admit that they couldn’t simply create a “hit list” of industries that liberals find distasteful and then tell banks that serving them would create a “reputational risk” that might trigger an enforcement action. That stance was bolstered in 2019 with settlement of a lawsuit brought by short-term lenders targeted by the government.

But activists nevertheless saw the program as a proof of concept that they now seek to replicate. For instance, the group Real Money Moves, which includes Hollywood celebrities, athletes and prominent feminists, operates at what it calls “the intersection of money and justice” and works to target “extractive industries” like fossil fuels and private corrections.

They have a right to invest their funds however they please, but banks should not be bowing to their demands for lending discrimination. Nor should the government, under the rules of the CRA, allow them to do so.

Even worse, Financial Services Committee members are using the implicit power that comes with the position to intimidate bank CEOs into dropping clients. At one hearing, Rep. Carolyn Maloney badgered a CEO to go “above and beyond the law” to impose “common-sense gun safety policies” on clients, and she praised two other banks that dropped gun manufacturers for opting not to “finance gun slaughter.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has similarly gone after banks for working with firms that build federal immigration detention facilities with some notable success, while others have targeted fossil fuels and, by extension, sought to raise energy costs on consumers.

That these attacks to some degree have worked will only serve to encourage expansion into new policy areas.

One can take issue with one or more of these industries and still see the downsides of allowing wholesale lending discrimination, or of permitting politicians to effectively enact far-reaching policy changes without passing actual legislation. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if conservatives and Republican politicians retaliated and pressured banks into dropping abortion providers, tech giants, legal marijuana growers, or the news media. Where would the escalation stop?

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Image credit: Myfuture.com | CC BY-ND 2.0.

The Correct Fiscal Goal Is Smaller Government, not Budget Neutrality or Deficit Neutrality

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 12:55pm

About 10 years ago, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video to explain that America’s real fiscal problem is too much spending and that red ink is best viewed as a symptom of that problem.

wrote a primer on this issue two years ago, but I want to revisit the topic because I’m increasingly irked when I see people – over and over again – mistakenly assume that “deficit neutrality” or “budget neutrality” is the same thing as good fiscal policy.

  • For instance, advocates of a carbon tax want to use the new revenues to finance bigger government. Their approach (at least in theory) would not increase the deficit. Regardless, that’s a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Just two days ago, I noted that Mayor Buttigieg wants the federal government to spend more money on health programs and is proposing an even-greater amount of new taxes. That’s a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Back in 2016, a columnist for the Washington Post argued Hillary Clinton was a fiscal conservative because her proposals for new taxes were larger than her proposals for new spending. That was a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • And in 2011, Bruce Bartlett argued that Obama was a “moderate conservative” because his didn’t raises taxes and spending as much as some on the left wanted him to. Regardless, he still increased the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.

To help make this point clear, I’ve created a simple 2×2 matrix and inserted some examples for purposes of illustration.

At the risk of stating the obvious, good fiscal policy is in the top-left quadrant and bad fiscal policy is in the bottom-two quadrants.

Because of “public choice,” there are no real-world examples in the top-right quadrant. Why would politicians collect extra taxes, after all, if they weren’t planning to use the money to buy votes?

P.S. In 2012, I created a table showing the differences on fiscal policy between supply-siders, Keynesians, the IMF, and libertarians.

P.P.S. I also recommend Milton Friedman’s 2×2 matrix on spending and incentives.

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Image credit: Martin Jacobsen | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Senator Warren’s Redistribution Agenda Will Erode Societal Capital

Sun, 01/26/2020 - 12:52pm

Barack Obama’s strategy during the 2008 campaign was very shrewd. His statist policy positions and doctrinaire Senate voting record (almost identical to Bernie Sanders) made him very appealing to the left, yet he also made himself acceptable to other voters with a calm and moderate demeanor (Mayor Buttigieg is trying to follow the same strategy for 2020, albeit with less success so far).

Obama’s one major “oops moment” in an otherwise very disciplined campaign occurred one month before the election when he admitted that he wanted to “spread the wealth around.”

Elizabeth Warren isn’t following Obama’s script since she’s running as an out-of-the-closet leftist, but she just experienced her own “oops moment.”

Writing for PJ Media, Megan Fox explains that Senator Elizabeth Warren inadvertently – but very clearly – acknowledged that her plan penalizes people with individual integrity and personal responsibility.

Elizabeth Warren was confronted at an Iowa town hall event by a voter who wanted to know if he could get back the money that he paid for his daughter’s college education since Warren’s running on forgiving student loan debt. “My daughter is in school,” he said. “I saved all my money just to pay… Can I have my money back?” Warren replied, “Of course not!” The man continued to push Warren for an explanation for why some people can have a free education while others have to pay. “So you’re going to pay for people who didn’t save any money and those of us who did the right thing get screwed?” he asked. …the plan is really just a bribe to current college students with debt as it does not address students who take out student loans in the future. …That’s what we would normally call a hustle.

Katherine Timpf of National Review has a first-hand account of why Sen. Warren’s scheme rubs many people the wrong way.

…this guy…is…absolutely right… When he references the sacrifices that he and his family had to make to pay for his daughter’s college, what he’s implicitly saying is that his choice to be financially responsible has cost him things that money cannot replace. …I wrote about some of the sacrifices that I myself had to make to avoid shouldering a debt that I knew I couldn’t repay. …I found out that I’d been accepted to Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. I was absolutely thrilled by this; it had been my dream since childhood to attend this exact school… Then, I realized I’d never be able to repay the $80,000 loan I’d have to take out to attend my dream school. …I withdrew. It was a tough decision — and the consequences were even tougher. …Unless Elizabeth Warren can go back in time and put me in a Columbia classroom during the time I spent cleaning those Boston Market bathrooms, her plan wouldn’t be “fair.” Unless she can give me the hours of my life back that I spent sitting alone covered in scabies cream, her plan wouldn’t be “fair.” …Elizabeth Warren can’t “pay me back” for a loan that I decided against taking out — a decision that I’d made precisely because I did not expect that anyone else would pay it back for me. …In other words? No — I don’t think that I should have to pay for someone else making an irresponsible decision when they could have made a responsible one.

Warren’s comments are getting lots of negative attention because people now have an easy-to-understand example of how her policies reward bad behavior and punish good behavior.

  • If you save for your kid, you’re a chump.
  • If you display personal responsibility, you’re a chump.
  • If you work hard, you’re a chump.
  • If you sacrifice today for a better tomorrow, you’re a chump.
  • If you invest, you’re a chump.
  • If you think it’s your job to take care of your family, you’re a chump.

There are many reasons to oppose redistribution programs. For instance, I was on TV just last month explaining how government programs encourage debt instead of savings.

What Warren has done, though, is to remind us something more important – that these programs are especially bad because they erode societal capital. They teach people it’s okay to live off the government and that they don’t need to worry about hard work and self reliance.

And when enough people adopt that attitude and a nation reaches a “tipping point,” then you wind up with a society where too many people are riding in the wagon and not enough people are pulling the wagon.

Think Greece.

P.S. I thought the big “oops moment” for Obama in 2008 occurred when he openly argued that he wanted higher capital gains taxes even if the government didn’t collect any extra revenue because of concomitant economic damage. In other words, like many folks on the left, he was willing to impose hardship on ordinary people just to hurt people with high incomes.

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0.

Oracle Case Shows More Reform Needed at Anti-Discrimination Agency

Sun, 01/26/2020 - 12:36pm

Originally published by Morning Consult on January 27, 2020.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is the Department of Labor agency tasked to enforce Executive Order 11246, which lays out the affirmative action and anti-discrimination requirements imposed on government contractors. And given the size and scope of the government, that includes companies employing almost a quarter of the U.S. workforce. Thus, its actions can have a profound impact on the economy.

Unfortunately, OFCCP has long been accused of allowing its auditors to run wild and abuse their authority at the expense of due process. Now, it is also pursuing enforcement actions based on statistical analysis that is fundamentally flawed. Consider the case of Oracle, which is fighting a record claim that it owes over $400 million to its female, Asian American and African American employees for underpayment over a four-year period.

The government’s case against Oracle is built primarily upon the theory of disparate impact, which holds that the presence of unequal outcomes between demographic groups is proof of discrimination even if rules or policies are racially neutral.

There are circumstances where a disparate impact is indicative of a problematic policy, but other times it can be the result of factors beyond a company’s control, such as unequal levels of education, or that aren’t even bad, like average differences resulting from the aggregate of individual choices.

For instance, the fact that the NHL is 93 percent white is less likely to be explained by racial discrimination as the fact that it began as a Canadian sport and has yet to garner as much interest from minority youths as other major sports. It might be argued that the sport is expensive, and that therefore socioeconomic factors contribute to racial disparities. But is it proper to then hold a team or the league liable for society-wide issues?

Likewise, a corporation can’t be held accountable for factors outside its control. Even the government understands this, which is why it tries to control for things like education and experience before using statistics to prove discrimination. In the case of Oracle, the OFCCP simply didn’t do a good job of this task.

Specifically, the government claims that Oracle employees have equivalent levels of experience if they are of similar age and have worked at Oracle for the same length of time, but the particulars of their work are ignored. Likewise, with education, only the degree level is considered, but not its relevance to a particular job.

How can the government honestly say that any compensation differences are evidence of discrimination when using such poor proxies for education and experience? Perhaps the fact that the Oracle case was launched two days before Barack Obama left office should be considered telling.

To be fair, the agency took a first step toward reform in 2018 when it rescinded the vague, open-ended guidelines of the Obama era that led the agency to often rely exclusively on statistical evidence of discrimination, and even to deny contractors opportunity to provide nondiscriminatory explanations for pay differences.

New rules sought to bring transparency for contractors, as well as to move away from the exclusive use of statistical evidence. Changes were made to how OFCCP groups employees to better ensure they are only compared to those of similar circumstances for the purposes of pay analysis. Unfortunately, the Oracle case shows those rules can be skirted simply by using poorly constructed controls.

OFCCP has been repeatedly accused of abusive tactics going back decades, relying on the threat that it may exercise its power to debar contractors and render them ineligible for current or future government contracts to keep objections to a minimum. That, along with lackluster oversight over its auditors, has made for a culture of fear where few companies dare defend themselves.

As one of the few to truly fight back, a victory by Oracle in its case might do much to caution the agency against such overreach in the future, but stricter oversight would be even more useful. Should the Trump administration withdraw the flawed case against Oracle, premised on old guidelines, it would also save taxpayers from continuing to finance an overzealous prosecution.

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Image credit: Oracle PR | CC BY 2.0.

The “Public Option” Is a Slow-Motion Version of Medicare-for-All

Sat, 01/25/2020 - 12:48pm

Government intervention has made a mess of health care in America. Programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, along with the tax code’s healthcare exclusionhave created a massive third-party-payer problem.

The inevitable result is systemic inefficiency and ever-rising prices.

Some politicians look at these government-created problems and want us to believe that the right solution is to have even more government.

Consider, for example, the radical Medicare-for-All scheme that is supported by “Crazy Bernie” and “Looney Liz.” That’s like driving in the wrong direction at 100 miles per hour.

It’s also a bad idea to head the wrong direction at 50 miles per hour.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Lanhee Chen exposes the reckless nature of the so-called public option that is supported by other candidates.

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg claim they’re proposing a moderate, less disruptive approach to health-care reform when they advocate a public option—a government policy offered as an alternative to private health insurance—in lieu of Medicare for All. Don’t believe it. …those effects are predicated on two flawed assumptions: first, that the government will negotiate hospital and provider reimbursement rates similar to Medicare’s fee schedules and far below what private insurers pay; second, that the government would charge “actuarially fair premiums,” which cover 100% of provided benefits and administrative costs.

Mr. Chen explains that politicians can’t resist buying votes by offering ever-more goodies at ever-lower costs (I made similar points in a video explaining why Obamacare would be a fiscal boondoggle).

Political pressure upended similar financing assumptions in Medicare Part B only two years after the entitlement’s creation. The Johnson administration in 1968 and then Congress in 1972 had to intervene to shield seniors from premium increases. Objections from health-care providers to low reimbursement rates have regularly led to federal spending increases in Medicare and Medicaid.

And when politicians offer more goodies at lower cost, that means someone else will have to pay.

Either taxpayers today (higher income taxes and payroll taxes) or taxpayers tomorrow (more borrowing).

If premiums can’t rise to cover program costs, or reimbursement rates are raised to ensure access to a reasonable number of providers, who’ll pay? Taxpayers… If Congress’s past behavior is a guide, a public option available to all individuals and employers would add more than $700 billion to the 10-year federal deficit. The annual deficit increase would hit $100 billion within a few years. Some 123 million people—roughly 1 in 3 Americans—would be enrolled in the public option by 2025, broadly displacing existing insurance. These estimates don’t include the costs of additional Affordable Care Act subsidies and eligibility expansions proposed by Messrs. Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg. …if tax increases to pay for a politically realistic public option were limited to high-income filers, the top marginal rate would have to rise from the current 37% to 73% in 2049… Congress could enact a new broad-based tax similar to Medicare’s 2.9% Hospital Insurance payroll tax. The new tax would be levied on all wage and salary income and would reach 4.8% in 2049.

Mr. Chen also reminds us that the public option would surely have a very bad effect on private insurance.

Beyond fiscal considerations, the public option would quickly displace employer-based and other private insurance. …Consumers seeking coverage would be left with fewer insurance options and higher premiums. …Longer wait times and narrower provider networks would likely follow for those enrolled in the public option, harming patients’ health and reducing consumer choice.

For those of you who like lots of numbers, I also recommend a new report from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The folks at CRFB are a bit misguided in that they focus too much on deficits and debt when they should be mostly concerned about the size of government.

But they do reliable work and their new report, Primary Care: Estimating Leading Democratic Candidates’ Health Plans, is filled with horrifying data.

We’ll start with this table looking at the details of the plans that have been put forth by Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren. The red numbers are new spending. The black numbers are offsets (mostly tax increases).

As you can see from the above table, Warren and Sanders are definitely in the go-rapidly-in-the-wrong-direction camp.

But that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that Biden and Buttigieg also are proposing a big expansion in the burden of government.

Here’s another graphic from the CRFB report, but I’m focusing solely on the numbers for Biden and Buttigieg so that it’s clear to see that they both want about $2 trillion of new spending over the next decade.

If you look closely at the numbers for Buttigieg in Figure 2, you’ll notice that his health plan supposedly will reduce the deficit by $415 billion over 10 years (the difference between $3.3 trillion of new spending and $2.85 trillion of cost reductions and offsets).

Does that make his plan desirable? Of course not. What he’s really proposing (and this is how CRFB should have presented the data) is $1.65 trillion of net new spending (the difference between his “new spending” and his “cost reductions” ) accompanied by $2.1 trillion of new taxes.

P.S. Most of the “cost reductions” in Buttigieg’s plan are achieved with price controls on prescription drugs. At the risk of understatement, that’s a very costly way of trying to save money.

P.P.S. And if his plan is ever enacted, don’t forget that the actual amount of “new spending” will be much higher than the estimate of “new spending.”

European Tax Greed and American Tech Companies

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 12:27pm

There are many boring topics in tax policy, such as the debate between expensing and depreciation for business investment.

International tax rules also put most people to sleep, but they’re nonetheless important.

Indeed, the United States government is currently squabbling with several European governments about the appropriate tax policy for U.S.-based tech companies.

report from the New York Times last July describes the controversy.

France is seeking a 3 percent tax on the revenues that companies earn from providing digital services to French users. It would apply to digital businesses with annual global revenue of more than 750 million euros, or about $845 million, and sales of €25 million in France. That would cover more than two dozen companies, many of them American, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. …Mr. Lighthizer said the United States was “very concerned that the digital services tax which is expected to pass the French Senate tomorrow unfairly targets American companies.” …France’s digital tax adds to the list of actions that European authorities have taken against the tech industry… And more regulation looms. Amazon and Facebook are facing antitrust inquiries from the European Commission. …Britain provided further details about its own proposal to tax tech companies. Starting in 2020, it plans to impose a 2 percent tax on revenue from companies that provide a social media platform, search engine or online marketplace to British users.

For the latest developments, here are excerpts from an article in yesterday’s New York Times.

A growing movement by foreign governments to tax American tech giants that supply internet search, online shopping and social media to their citizens has quickly emerged as the largest global economic battle of 2020. …At the core of the debate are fundamental questions about where economic activity in the digital age is generated, where it should be taxed and who should collect that revenue. …The discussions, which are expected to last months, could end with an agreement on a global minimum tax that all multinational companies must pay on their profits, regardless of where the profits are booked. The negotiations could also set a worldwide standard for how much tax companies must remit to certain countries based on their digital activity. …Mr. Mnuchin expressed frustration on Thursday in Davos that a digital sales tax had become such a focus of discussion at the World Economic Forum. …American tech firms are eager for a deal that would prevent multiple countries from imposing a wide variety of taxes on their activities.

Daniel Bunn of the Tax Foundation has an informative summary of the current debate.

In March of 2018, the European Commission advanced a proposal to tax the revenues of large digital companies at a rate of 3 percent. …The tax would apply to revenues from digital advertising, online marketplaces, and sales of user data and was expected to generate €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in revenues for EU member countries. The tax is inherently distortive and violates standard principles of tax policy. Effectively, the digital services tax is an excise tax on digital services. Additionally, the thresholds make it function effectively like a tariff since most of the businesses subject to the tax are based outside of the EU. …the European Commission was unable to find the necessary unanimous support for the proposal to be adopted. The proposal was laid aside… the French decided to design their own policy. The tax was adopted in the summer of 2019 but is retroactive to January 1, 2019. Similar to the EU proposal, the tax has a rate of 3 percent and applies to online marketplaces and online advertising services. …The United Kingdom proposed a digital services tax at 2 percent as part of its budget in the fall of 2018. The tax has already been legislated and will go into force in April of 2020. …The tax will fall on revenues of search engines, social media platforms, and online marketplaces. …The OECD has been working for most of the last decade to negotiate changes that will limit tax planning opportunities that businesses use to minimize their tax burdens. …The reforms have two general objectives (Pillars 1 and 2): 1) to require businesses to pay more taxes where they have sales, and 2) to further limit the incentives for businesses to locate profits in low-tax jurisdictions. …This week in Davos, the U.S. and France…agreed to continue work on both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2… The burden of proof is on the OECD to show that the price the U.S. and other countries may have to pay in lost revenue or higher taxes on their companies (paid to other countries) will be worth the challenge of adopting and implementing the new rules.

At the risk of over-simplifying, European politicians want the tech companies to pay tax on their revenues rather than their profits (such a digital excise tax would be sort of akin to the gross receipts taxes imposed by some American states).

And they want to use a global formula (if a country has X percent of the world’s Internet users, they would impose the tax on X percent of a company’s worldwide revenue).

Though all you really need to understand is that European politicians view American tech companies as a potential source of loot (the thresholds are designed so European companies would largely be exempt).

For background, let’s review a 2017 article from Agence France-Presse.

…are US tech giants the new robber barons of the 21st century, banking billions in profit while short-changing the public by paying only a pittance in tax? …French President Emmanuel Macron…has slammed the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple as the “freeloaders of the modern world”. …According to EU law, to operate across Europe, multinationals have almost total liberty to choose a home country of their choosing. Not surprisingly, they choose small, low tax nations such as Ireland, the Netherlands or Luxembourg. …Facebook tracks likes, comments and page views and sells the data to companies who then target consumers. But unlike the economy of old, Facebook sells its data to French companies not from France but from a great, nation-less elsewhere… It is in states like Ireland, whose official tax rate of 12.5 percent is the lowest in Europe, that the giants have parked their EU headquarters and book profits from revenues made across the bloc. …France has proposed an unusual idea that has so far divided Europe: tax the US tech giants on sales generated in each European country, rather than on the profits that are cycled through low-tax countries. …the commission wants to dust off an old project…the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base or CCCTB — an ambitious bid to consolidate a company’s tax base across the EU. …tax would be distributed in all the countries where the company operates, and not according to the level of booked profit in each of these states, but according to the level of activity.

This below chart from the article must cause nightmares for Europe’s politicians.

As you can see, both Google and Facebook sell the bulk of their services from their Irish subsidiaries.

When I look at this data, it tells me that other European nations should lower their corporate tax rates so they can compete with Ireland.

When European politicians look at this data, it tells them that they should come up with new ways of extracting money from the companies.

P.S. The American tech companies are so worried about digital excise taxes that they’re open to the idea of a global agreement to revamp how their profits are taxed. I suspect that strategy will backfire in the long run (see, for instance, how the OECD has used the BEPS project as an excuse to impose higher tax burdens on multinational companies).

P.P.S. As a general rule, governments should be free to impose very bad tax policy on economic activity inside their borders (just as places such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands should be free to impose very good tax policy on what happens inside their borders). That being said, it’s also true that nations like France are designing their digital taxes American companies are the sole targets. An indirect form of protectionism.

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Image credit: TheDigitalArtist | Pixabay License.

The Economic Consequences of War

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 12:30pm

Back in 2010, I wrote about the absurd contention, promoted by some advocates of Keynesian economics, that wars are good for prosperity.

According to this crackpot theory, destroying wealth is a net positive because people then have to spend money to rebuild.

Now this “conceptual bad penny” is showing up again.

The New York Times, in an article about Iran’s economy, includes some analysis suggesting that war would stimulate growth.

…some experts suggest that the regime’s hard-liners may eventually come to embrace hostilities with the United States as a means of stimulating the anemic economy. …Iran has in recent years focused on forging a so-called resistance economy in which the state has invested aggressively, subsidizing strategic industries, while seeking to substitute domestic production for imported goods. …it appears to have raised employment. Hard-liners might come to see a fight with Iran’s archenemy, the United States, as an opportunity to expand the resistance economy.

Needless to say, Iran is marching in the wrong direction. Not only would a war be devastating for the country’s prosperity, but Iran also is making a big mistake by pursuing a policy of “import substitution.”

That’s basically the Peronist approach that helped trigger Argentina’s big economic decline. Though, to be fair, Iran presumably is doing the wrong thing for geopolitical reasons (avoiding sanctions) rather than protectionist reasons.

There are some Keynesians in other parts of the world who think war is good for growth, in part based on a misreading of America’s economic history.

In a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor Burton Folsom exposes a great weakness in their argument, pointing out that advocates of Keynesian wrongly expected a return to depression when government spending dropped after World War II.

On the surface, World War II seems to mark the end of the Great Depression. During the war more than 12 million Americans were sent into the military, and a similar number toiled in defense-related jobs. Those war jobs seemingly took care of the 17 million unemployed in 1939. Most historians have therefore cited the massive spending during wartime as the event that ended the Great Depression. …In truth, building tanks and feeding soldiers—necessary as it was to winning the war—became a crushing financial burden. …In other words, the war had only postponed the issue of recovery. …President Roosevelt and his New Dealers sensed that war spending was not the ultimate solution; they feared that the Great Depression—with more unemployment than ever—would resume after Hitler and Hirohito surrendered. Yet FDR’s team was blindly wedded to the federal spending that…had perpetuated the Great Depression during the 1930s. …Roosevelt’s death in the last year of the war prevented him from unveiling his New Deal revival. But President Harry Truman was on board for most of the new reforms. …Republicans and southern Democrats refused to give Truman his New Deal revival. …Instead they cut tax rates to encourage entrepreneurs to create jobs for the returning veterans. …In 1945 and 1946 Congress repealed the excess-profits tax, cut the corporate tax to a maximum 38 percent, and cut the top income tax rate to 86 percent. In 1948 Congress sliced the top marginal rate further, to 82 percent.

Let’s be thankful that FDR (and then Truman) didn’t succeed in the plan for an “economic bill of rights” that would have radically expanded the power of government.

For those interested, there are other possible economic consequences of war.

In a scholarly study for the Journal of Monetary Economics, Professors Dan Ben-David and David H. Papell find that moments of significant economic disruption – such as wars – often are followed by periods of above-average and better-than-expected growth.

In this paper, we use up to 130 years of annual aggregate and per capita GDP data for 16 countries to investigate whether output exhibits a trend break and whether economic growth is constant or changing over time. …This study provides empirical evidence that, for nearly every one of the countries, the years that provide the strongest evidence for a trend break are associated with a sharp decline in GDP. These breaks are associated with World War II for most of the countries and either World War I or the Great Depression for the remainder. While countries do tend to exhibit relatively constant growth rates for extended periods of time, the occurrence of a major shock to the economy and the resultant drop in levels are usually followed by sustained growth that exceeds the earlier steady state growth. …On average, aggregate postbreak steady state growth rates are 79 percent higher than the average prebreak rates. The results are even stronger for the per capita case, where all fifteen countries exhibit postbreak growth rates that exceed prebreak rates. In the per capita case, the steady state postbreak rates are 163 percent higher than the steady state prebreak rates.

Their study doesn’t explain why the economy expands beyond the pre-disruption trend, but one obvious explanation is that wars erode the power of privileged interest groups and thus reduce the deadweight cost of cronyism. Especially for nations that lose wars and have to start from scratch.

That’s not an excuse to have a war, of course, but it does suggest that dark clouds can have silver linings.

But sometimes dark clouds have dark linings.

In a column for Vox, Dylan Matthews examines research about the link between war and harsh tax rates.

…for the first century of American history, the federal government was funded mainly through tariffs, not income taxes. It was only in the early 20th century that the 16th Amendment authorizing income taxes passed… A recent paper by UC – Berkeley grad student Juliana Londoño Vélez provides an intriguing explanation for this evolution. Progressive taxation wasn’t an inevitable effect of democracy… It was an accidental effect of the 20th century’s massive wars. …The first federal income tax proposal came during the War of 1812, and one was implemented briefly during the Civil War. While the Progressive Era brought a renewed push, and the 16th Amendment and an accompanying income tax law were passed four years before US entry into World War I, it wasn’t until the US joined the conflict that the tax’s scale expanded to modern levels. …World War I also greatly expanded the French income tax; in 1920, to help pay for reconstruction, the top rate grew from 2 percent to 50 percent. …Londoño Vélez’s argument is quantitative. She compiled data on top income tax rates for sixteen rich, developed countries, and pairs it with data on mass mobilizations for war. …Londoño Vélez found that “no country had high taxes on the rich before the advent of war, with [the] top rate rarely exceeding 10 percent … the Wars created substantial income tax progressivity, with periods of mass war mobilization coinciding with significant rises in the top income tax rate.” …Londoño Vélez also finds that war mobilization has a significant effect on income tax rates five years on, suggesting that the effect on taxes persisted.

Here’s Figure 1 from the article, showing how tax burdens jumped because of World War I and then jumped again because of World War II.

My two cents is that wars may have been the initial excuse for income taxes and high rates, but politicians eventually would have concocted other reasons (based on their self interest) to extract lots of money.

Indeed, “Wagner’s Law” is an entire hypothesis based on the notion that politicians figure out how to grab ever-greater amounts of money as nations get richer.

That being said, it’s good to have another reason to oppose war.

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Image credit: Army Signal Corps Collection | Public Domain.

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