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Socialism in the Modern World, Part I: The Collapse of Venezuela

Wed, 02/13/2019 - 12:19pm

With the surprising success of Senator Bernie Sanders in the last presidential race and the more-recent instant-celebrity status of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, some are wondering if the United States is about to enter a “socialist era”.

I’ve criticized some of the proposals that are part of this movement, such as confiscatory tax rates and the so-called Green New Deal, so it goes with saying that I’m not a fan.

To learn more about the implications of socialism, let’s look around the world.

We’ll start with Venezuela, which is the focus of a very interesting article in the Washington Post. Here are some excerpts.

Did socialism kill Venezuela? Blessed with the world’s largest oil reserves, this South American nation was once the region’s richest per capita. Twenty years after the launch of the late Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, it is now one of the poorest. …In Washington…Republicans are seizing on Venezuela to score points against those Democrats who have newly embraced the term… But socialism’s role in Venezuela’s collapse, observers say, is not as clear as either side likes to think. At least fleetingly, socialist policies propped up by state petrodollars helped bolster the country’s status as one of the Western Hemisphere’s most equitable societies. But state-heavy policies that distorted prices and exchange rates, coupled with corruption, mismanagement and official repression, turned Venezuela’s economic landscape into scorched earth. …But it is also not communist Cuba or North Korea, where foreign investment and private ownership are strictly limited. …wealthy Venezuelans still own private companies and high-walled mansions in elite neighborhoods. They play golf at country clubs and are taxed at a relatively manageable 34 percent.

This is very fair reporting.

All the main points are accurate: Living standards have plummeted in Venezuela, oil money complicates the analysis, and the economy isn’t quite as statist as Cuba and North Korea.

The article goes on to cite the views of several Venezuelans.

“All the wrongs were created under Chávez,” said Henkel Garcia, head of Econometrica, a Caracas-based financial analysis firm. “The economy only survived as long as it did because of high oil prices.” …Today, roughly a third of the nation, pollsters say, still appears to back socialism — although only half that many remain loyal to Maduro. …With hyperinflation causing acute shortages of food and medicine, more and more former Chavistas, or adherents of Chávez’s ideals, are saying mea culpas and increasingly turning out against Maduro. “Before I die, I want socialism gone from Venezuela,” said Yessid Merlano, a 50-year-old waiter. …Scarcities of food and medicine first surfaced years ago but are now so chronic that he and millions of other Venezuelans have shed pounds and sought work abroad. Before returning to Caracas last year, he spent 10 months working as a laborer in neighboring Colombia, “where all I saw were Venezuelans begging in the streets,” he said. “I feel guilty that I was a Chavista,” he said. “It’s all my fault, all the suffering.”

I’m glad that many Venezuelans now realize that socialism is misguided.

Though I wonder if they will support the reforms that will be necessary once the current regime is deposed (and given the perverse incentives of politicians, I’m even more worried whether a new government will implement those reforms).

The article concludes with some damning data on the country’s economic decay.

State health care, once a pride of the socialists, collapsed as hyperinflation and shrinking resources left hospitals with shortages of syringes and antibiotics, as well as broken equipment too expensive to repair. …Chávez purged skilled managers, engineers and technicians from the state-owned oil giant PDVSA, stocking it with government loyalists. That set it up for a catastrophic failure as global prices fell from record highs. Venezuelan oil output is now at its lowest levels since the 1950s. Industries nationalized by Chávez, who expropriated 1,500 companies, collapsed as regulated prices distorted markets. In two decades, the government seized nearly 5 million acres of productive farmland that has now been largely abandoned. In 1999, there were 490,000 private companies in Venezuela. By last June — the most recent count available — that number had fallen to 280,000.

None of this is a surprise. Venezuela is a basket case.

But that’s not our topic today. We’re focusing instead on whether there are any lessons that the United States can learn from the Venezuelan debacle.

Or, to be more accurate, I think the key question is whether advocates of democratic socialism in America have learned anything from Venezuela’s miserable performance.

Plenty of leftists, including Sen. Sanders, praised the awful policies of Chavez and Maduro.

Now that the chickens have come home to roost and Venezuela’s economy has tanked, have any of them apologized? Or tried to rationalize what happened? Or even expressed second thoughts about the supposed wisdom of socialism?

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Image by ZiaLater, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Proper Understanding of Socialism is Necessary to Fight It

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 10:09am

As the new young radical Democrats in Congress ramp up their efforts to advance their ideology, Republicans have started labeling their ideas “socialism”. From this, one could easily get the impression that the 2020 election is shaping up to be an ideological showdown.

In reality, the ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans is nowhere near the chasm that that current political rhetoric suggests. One of the best clues to this was hidden in plain view in President Trump’s State of the Union speech. On the one hand, Trump made a passing reference to socialism and pledged that America will never go down that path:

We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair. Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

On the other hand, the president said:

 I am also proud to be the first President to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave — so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child.

In other words, the president pledges to advance a new entitlement program that the left has sought after for a long time. In 2010 I pointed to this as a rising issue in liberal circles; as recently as in 2017 I explained that paid family leave, when expanded to European proportions, could cost American taxpayers $370-$500 billion per year.

However, perhaps even more damning than the fiscal cost is the fact that paid family leave – or general income security as it is called in more formal parlance – is indeed a reform that advances socialism. It is, in other words, impossible for President Trump to refute socialism and at the same time grow America’s welfare state.

Undoubtedly, Trump’s speech writers saw no contradiction here – to them, paid family leave has nothing to do with socialism. In fact, it is a widespread notion that the welfare state itself is not a socialist project. One of the vocal proponents of this view is Johan Norberg, a Swedish libertarian and senior fellow with the Cato Institute. In his defense of the Swedish welfare state, Norberg opines that socialism is about government ownership of the means of production – corporations, for short.

It is not clear how President Trump defines socialism, but his State of the Union Address suggests that he shares Norberg’s view. If so, it is likely that Trump will help advance socialism in America while thinking he is keeping us safe from it.

The problem, namely, is that socialism is not about government taking over the means of production. Socialism is about full-fledged egalitarianism.

Or, to be blunt, the complete eradication of economic differences between individual citizens. The core idea of socialism is, namely, that all differences in economic outcomes are the result of a power struggle over corporate profits. Business owners – capitalists – deprive workers of most of what Karl Marx defined as the full value of their labor.

Over the 150 years that Marx’s followers have roamed the Earth, they have pursued two paths to eliminate this alleged injustice. Some have chosen a reformist path where they tax the rich – capitalists and people with high incomes – and give the money to the working class (typically defined as the poor, the needy and those “at risk of poverty”).

The system that redistributes income and wealth is known as the welfare state. The technical term for its policy ambition is “egalitarianism”, but its ideological roots are openly socialist, on display for anyone to see.

While the welfare state began its modern journey in Europe, we have imported a good chunk of it to America over the years. In fact, today’s American welfare state is more similar to than different from its Scandinavian brethren. There are, essentially, only three pieces missing before we have a fully-fledged socialist welfare state:

All these entitlement programs are redistributive in nature: they are paid for with progressive income taxes and dispense services (health care, child care) and money (paid-leave checks) that benefit lower-income citizens more than those making a lot of money.

The goal with the reformist, welfare-state strategy for advancing socialism is to gradually eliminate differences between citizens in area after area of the economy. While people can still own property, the economic meaning of doing so, and of accumulating wealth in general, is gradually eroded until one day it is completely eliminated. At the other end of the redistributive pipeline, the incentives to hard work, education and entrepreneurship are gradually eliminated by increasingly generous entitlements, covering increasingly comprehensive areas of people’s lives.

Reformist socialists have been remarkably successful at advancing their redistributive agenda. They have suffered setbacks, such as the economic disaster in Greece where the welfare state collapsed under its own weight. That, however has not deterred them, especially not those who have now formed the largest Democrat voting block in the House of Representatives.

To continue to draw the line for socialism at government ownership of businesses, is to fail to see how the socialist agenda progresses over time. Eventually, socialists run out of other people’s money; the welfare state brings the economy it lives on, to a grinding halt. To continue to pay for their welfare state, socialists therefore escalate their political agenda to the revolutionary level where they begin taking over private property. It starts with big corporations – the end result of we know as Venezuela – and ends with unmitigated totalitarianism.

Rather than taking an almost aloof attitude to socialism, President Trump, GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney and other leading Republicans need to study up and learn how to fight this ideology. If they don’t, they will be sleepwalking our country down the path from the Swedish welfare state, through the Greek macroeconomic disaster to the Venezuelan end station.

Can’t happen? Consider the fact that six out of ten Americans actually think favorably of socialism as a concept. Then consider what that implies for the 2020 election.

The Unworkable Paradox of Voluntary Socialism

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 12:00pm

As an economic system for a nation, socialism is a miserable failure. Especially real socialism (government ownership of the means of productions, government-dictated prices, etc).

But that doesn’t stop some people from defending socialism. They claim the theory is noble since it is based on sharing and equality.

And they even say that many things we like in society – such as the family, neighborhoods, community groups – are based on socialist principles.

I think it would be more accurate to say those institutions are based on non-market principles rather than socialist principles, but that raises an interesting question.

Would socialism be okay if it was voluntary?

In a column for FEE, Tim Worstall explains that we shouldn’t object to socialism – so long as it isn’t coercive.

…voluntary socialism does work sometimes, and it’s habitual now to mention Mondragon as an example of industrial companies that succeed as worker-owned organizations. But the two important words there are voluntary and sometimes.…worker ownership works better sometimes and that more capitalist organizational forms work better elsewhere. What we need is a method of sorting through what works best when—and that’s where the market comes in. …an interesting observation to make about that claimed superiority, of performance at least, of the socialist form. If it were truly more productive always and everywhere, then it would have taken over the economy already.

In the real world, though, it’s hard to find examples of successful socialist entities.

Consider what just happened to Panera Cares.

…after nine years of being in business, Panera Bread’s socialist pay-what-you-want restaurant, Panera Cares, will officially be closing shop on February 15 due to the business model’s unsustainability. …Panera tried to create a socialist system in which meals were offered at a suggested donation price. That means some people would pay more while others would pay less based on what they felt like or could afford. …Panera completely removed any incentive for patrons to meet even the lowest standards of consumer/retailer exchange. The result: some people paid their fair share while others enjoyed a “free lunch.” …company founder Ron Shaich said the cafe was designed as a quasi-test on human sensibility… “In many ways, this whole experiment is ultimately a test of humanity.”

If it was “a test of humanity,” then we failed.

None of the restaurants were self-sustaining, with some locations reportedly being “mobbed” by students along with homeless people looking for a free meal. “The Portland-based Panera Cares was reportedly only recouping between 60 and 70 percent of its total costs,” reports Eater. “The losses were attributed to students who ‘mobbed’ the restaurant and ate without paying, as well as homeless patrons who visited the restaurant for every meal of the week…” Though Shaich said the restaurants tried to educate people about “sharing responsibly, people ultimately came to the locations for a handout.” …As with every socialist experiment, the natural harmony between the commoners and the power-brokers devolved into hostility. “Patrons reported security guards roaming the entrance and ‘glaring at customers,’”… Shaich stepped down as CEO in 2017. He admitted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2018 that “the nature of the economics did not make sense.”

Interesting confession by Shaich. I wonder if we’ll ever see Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez admit socialism doesn’t make sense.

The Kibbutz in Israel were perhaps the most famous example of voluntary socialism. The late Gary Becker explained their collectivist structure.

…nowhere is the failure of socialism clearer than in the radical transformation of the Israeli kibbutz. …Kibbutzniks, as they were called, replaced those fundamental featuresof modern societies and set up agricultural collectives in which all property was owned by the kibbutz, adults were treated equally regardless of productivity… The kibbutz movement was motivated in part by the Marxist dictum of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

But this system has basically disappeared.

By abolishing capitalistic organization, the founders expected members to live in contentment and harmony and to work for the common good. From what I was told and could observe during my brief visit, there was little harmony. Jealousy abounded, directed at those who were only a little better off… Kibbutzniks were also angry at slackers who appeared to be living off the labor of others. …the socialist zeal that propelled the kibbutz movement in its early days has now largely disappeared. …Many were forced into bankruptcy… Self-interest and family orientation are products not of capitalism but of a human nature developed under evolutionary pressure over eons. They will outlive any utopian experiment. …Utopian socialistic experiments like the kibbutz movement, and countries that tried to create large-scale efficient socialism, all failed for the same reasons.

Indeed, not only have the Kibbutz faded away, but the entire nation of Israel has moved significantly in the direction of free markets. Some stories do have happy endings.

I’ll close with this cartoon, which perfectly illustrates why socialism doesn’t work, regardless of the level of coercion.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing an unrelated excerpt from Tim Worstall’s column.

One of the primary objections to capitalism is the boilerplate insistence that in a capitalist system, the worker doesn’t gain the full value of her labor. This is exploitation, and something must be done about it. The argument has a major logical fault: It is a two-way street, for the capitalist doesn’t gain the full product of the use of their capital, either, meaning the capitalist is equally exploited.

Amen.

Labor and capital are complementary factors of production. Labor helps capital generate a return, and capital helps labor generate income.

Which is why it is in the best interest of workers to get rid of capital gains taxes, lower the corporate tax rate, eliminate the death tax. The more investment we have, the more productivity goes up, and the more wages increase.

Hong Kong, Singapore, and Using Good Policy to Bust the Middle-Income Trap

Sun, 02/10/2019 - 12:37pm

International development experts often write about a “middle-income trap.”

According to this theory, it’s not that challenging for nations to climb out of povertybut it’s difficult for them to take the next step and become rich countries.

The theory makes sense to many people because it describes much of what we see in the real world.

We even see the trap at higher levels of income. European nations were catching up with the United States after World War II, but then the convergence process stalled.

But I don’t think there’s actually a “middle-income trap.” Instead, nations don’t enjoy full convergence because they are hamstrung by bad policy.

And Hong Kong and Singapore are the best evidence for my hypothesis. These two jurisdictions have routinely ranked #1 and #2 for economic freedom.

And their solid track record of free markets and small government has paid big dividends. Here a chart, for Our World in Data, which shows how they have fully converged with the United States after starting way behind.

The performance of Hong Kong and Singapore is particularly impressive because the United States historically has been a top-10 nation for economic liberty (notwithstanding all my grousing about bad policy in America, we’ve been fairly good compared to the rest of the world).

So it takes extraordinarily good performance to catch up.

But it can happen.

P.S. By the way, one thing I noticed in the above chart is that Singapore has surpassed Hong Kong in the past couple of decades. This could just be a statistical blip, though I wonder if this is a result of the transfer of Hong Kong from British control to Chinese control. Yes, China has wisely chosen not to interfere with Hong Kong’s domestic policy, but perhaps investors and entrepreneurs don’t fully trust that this economic autonomy will continue.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that comparatively rich nations can de-converge if they adopt bad policy.

New Jersey’s Message to Taxpayers: Move or We Will Tax You to Death

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 12:03pm

According to Freedom in the 50 States, which we reviewed a couple of days ago, New Jersey is in the bottom 10 and has been moving in the wrong direction.

This dismal ranking is not an anomaly. New Jersey also is in the bottom 10 of states according to Economic Freedom of North America, and the Garden State is dead last according the State Business Tax Climate Index and State Fiscal Condition.

In a perverse way, I admire New Jersey’s politicians. They’re not satisfied with the state’s low scores. They want to become even less competitive. If that’s even possible.

As I noted in the interview, the latest proposal for a “rain tax” isn’t necessarily objectionable if examined in isolation.

But in the context of New Jersey’s fiscal deterioration, it’s almost as if politicians are writing another passage in a very long suicide note for the state.

Consider what happened recently with the gas tax, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

…a silver lining used to be the Garden State’s relatively low gasoline tax of 14.5 cents a gallon—second lowest in the U.S. No more, and therein lies a tale of why taxing the rich to finance government is an illusion. In October 2016, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill raising the gas tax by 22.6 cents to 37.1 cents a gallon…the bill also included a clause that automatically raises the gas tax if it doesn’t produce the expected revenue each year. This is a self-fulfilling economic prophesy. A higher gas tax causes people to drive less, which in turn has meant that revenues have fallen short of the expected $2 billion target. So on Oct. 1 the gas tax will rise another 4.3 cents to 41.4 cents per gallon, which will be the ninth highest in the U.S. …This will be the state’s third tax increase in four months, following June’s increase in income and corporate tax rates. …The larger lesson is that sooner or later the middle class always gets the bill for bigger government. Higher income and corporate taxes drive the affluent out of the state, which means less revenue. That leaves the middle class to pay in higher sales, property and now gasoline taxes.

Needless to say, New Jersey’s taxaholic lawmakers want even more revenue.

Here are some excerpts from a report by Politico.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday he may propose new tax increases when he unveils his budget in March, saying he’s worried that the state has not done enough to achieve what he called “tax fairness.” …The governor…had sought some $1.7 billion in new taxes… Murphy was met with fierce resistance from fellow Democrats in the Legislature… Murphy ultimately agreed to…$1.6 billion in annual revenue. …Murphy, speaking at a church in Newark where he delivered a speech on his first-year accomplishments, said he needs to leave his options open as he starts to prepare a budget… “I would say everything is on the table. Period, full stop,” he added when pressed again about the idea of new tax increases.

If all this sound worrisome, that’s because it is.

But it gets even worse. As I warned at the end of the interview, the 2017 tax law restricts the ability of federal taxpayers to deduct taxes paid to state and local governments.

And that means the full burden of those taxes is now much more explicit, which means more and more taxpayers in high tax rates are going to “vote with their feet” and move to states with less onerous fiscal regimes.

In other words, New Jersey politicians are making their tax system worse at precisely the moment that the geese with the golden eggs have more incentive to fly away.

Insane.

P.S. Given this grim news, I’m surprised that fewer than 9 percent of people picked New Jersey to be the first state that will suffer fiscal collapse.

P.P.S. What’s really remarkable – albeit in a very sad and tragic sense – is that New Jersey in my lifetime used to be like New Hampshire, with no state income tax and no state sales tax.

P.P.P.S. There is a Jersey with good tax policy, but it’s far away from the American version.

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Image by alex grichenko, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

The War on Wealth

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 12:46pm

I did not like Bill Clinton’s 1993 class-warfare tax hike, and I also opposed Barack Obama’s 2012 fiscal-cliff tax increase on the so-called rich.

But those were incremental measures.

Today’s leftist politicians have much more grandiose schemes, such as 70 percent tax rateswealth taxes, and extortionary death taxes.

And even those proposals may not be enough.

In a column for the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo actually suggests that billionaires should be taxed out of existence. Literally, not just figuratively.

…if we aimed, through public and social policy, simply to discourage people from attaining and possessing more than a billion in lucre, just about everyone would be better off. …Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are floating new taxes aimed at the superrich, including special rates for billionaires. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also favors higher taxes on the wealthy, has been making a moral case against the existence of billionaires. …the question is getting so much attention because the answer is obvious: Nope. Billionaires should not exist… Abolishing billionaires might not sound like a practical idea, but if you think about it as a long-term goal in light of today’s deepest economic ills, it feels anything but radical. …Billionaire abolishment could take many forms. It could mean preventing people from keeping more than a billion in booty, but more likely it would mean higher marginal taxes on income, wealth and estates for billionaires and people on the way to becoming billionaires. …But abolishment does not involve only economic policy. It might also take the form of social and political opprobrium. …Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world? …When American capitalism sends us its billionaires, it’s not sending its best. It’s sending us people who have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing inequality. They’re bringing injustice.

Wow, I’m not even sure how to respond to this demonization of success. Should I focus on the vicious populism? The economic ignorance?

Maybe I should joke about how Mr. Manjoo wants to turn David Azerrad’s satire into reality?

Fortunately, I don’t have to come up with a response. I can simply rely on Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Daily Telegraph.

He explains, in his latest column, that these crazy ideas are a real threat.

Hard-Left ideas are uber-trendy: they are making a catastrophic comeback in the world’s most powerful universities, capturing many young minds, and are now being proposed by a new generation of supposedly modern politicians around the world. …pro-capitalist arguments…are met with derision by this new generation of intellectuals. Higher taxes bad for the economy? Hilarious! Nationalisation doesn’t work? Laughable! Venezuela? Nothing to do with actual socialism, all America’s fault. It’s a dialogue of the deaf… The old Left used to argue (falsely) that entrepreneurs, investors and executives aren’t really put off by high tax, which means that rates can be jacked up safely, raising lots to “redistribute”, without discouraging work and investment. The new Left has turned the argument on its head. It now admits the “rich” would work less if they were highly taxed – but claim this would be a good thing, as it would make society less unequal… As Harvard’s Greg Mankiw puts it, the Left now believes that “we can no longer afford the rich”.

If such policies were ever enacted, the results would be catastrophic.

The impact would be Venezuelan-style: it would lead to a collapse in GDP… Only the richest are being targeted at first: but everybody will suffer when the economy tanks, and such taxes are always eventually extended to the prosperous middle classes. …We could thus be on the cusp of a new socialist era, where even zero GDP growth will be seen as a good year. …we are on the brink of a new war on wealth.

Here’s what worries me.

Allister’s warning about terrible economic consequences is accurate, but I’m not sure that matters.

When I talk to hard-core leftists, I usually make the following three points.

In the past, leftists would disagree. Maybe they would claim government could make investments. Or perhaps they would assert that government could somehow compel employers to pay higher wages.

But it’s now quite common for my leftist friends to simply assert that lower living standards are an acceptable result. For all intents and purposes, hurting the rich is more important than helping the poor.

You may think I’m joking, or that only a small handful of crazies actually want this outcome.

But the establishment left also advocates for lower living standards. The International Monetary Fund has financed and publicized research that explicitly embraces the twisted notion that it would be ideal to reduce everyone’s living standards so long as rich people suffered the bigger declines.

Margaret Thatcher is spinning in her grave.

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Image by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Separate the Baby from the Bathwater to Defend the Rules-Based Postwar Order

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 12:08pm

Donald Trump and other populist leaders frequently are condemned for undermining the “rules-based system” that is the basis of the “postwar order.”

What exactly is meant by this criticism? In the case of Trump, is it disapproval of his protectionism?

Yes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The broader accusation is that Trump and the others are insufficiently supportive of the so-called “international architecture” of treaties and organizations (the United NationsInternational Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, World Bank, G-7, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, NATO, etc) that western nations created after World War II.

And the critics are right, in my humble opinion.

But that’s besides the point. What’s really needed is a case-by-case analysis to determine whether the aforementioned treaties and organizations are making the world a better place.

To help understand this topic, let’s look at some excerpts from an anonymously authored article in the latest issue of Cayman Financial Review.

What is the oft-cited “postwar order” that ostensibly is being threatened by populism? …begin with some history. There have beenthree major attempts to create an international architecture in hopes of discouraging war and encouraging peaceful commerce among world’s countries. The first occurred after the Napoleonic wars, the second occurred after World War I, and the third occurred after World War II.

The article explains that first postwar order was a big success, with 100 years of relative peace and prosperity between 1815 and 1914.

But the second postwar order, which followed World War I, was a miserable failure.

…the urgent economic problems that World War I had created – the need for demobilization, the restoration of the gold standard, the resumption of international trade flows, and the reconstruction of war-ravaged areas. Reparations burdened Germany and contributed to hyperinflation. …Germany depended on American loans to make its reparations payments to France and the United Kingdom. In turn, France and the United Kingdom depended on German reparations to repay their wartime loans from the United States. This financial merry-go-round was inherently unstable. …In the 1930s, many countries tried economic nationalism to escape from the Great Depression. Abandonment of the interwar gold standard, high tariffs to discourage imports, and competitive devaluations to boost exports became widespread. However, these “beggar-thy-neighbor” failed economically, caused the collapse of international trade, and contributed to rising international tensions.

And this grim experience was in the minds of policymakers as they sought to restore a system based on peace and open commerce.

…neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted to punish ordinary Germans, Italians or Japanese. Instead of the postwar harshness of Clemenceau, Churchill and Roosevelt favored the postwar magnanimity of Metternich, in which Germany, Italy, and Japan would be reconstructed as democratic capitalist countries. …both Churchill and Roosevelt thought that other new international organizations would be needed to help finance postwar reconstruction, provide stable exchange rates, and promote the progressive liberalization of international trade. …At the risk of oversimplifying, there are four major pieces of what is now loosely though of as the postwar order.

1. The United Nations and other multilateral bodies
2. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank
3. The World Trade Organization and affiliated trade pacts
4. NATO and other military/security alliances

The article is filled with details on how these various institutions evolved.

But for our purposes, let’s focus on ostensible threats to this order. Here’s what “Hamilton” wrote.

All four components of the current international architecture have critics, but they should be examined separately.

  1. The United Nations is routinely condemned for being ineffective, wasteful and anti-Western. However, the UN part of the post-war order is not under serious threat. However, the OECD is subject to considerable attacks because of its statist policy agenda.
  2. The IMF and World Bank are routinely condemned for being wasteful and anti-market. The IMF also is singled out for bailout policies that are said to encourage profligacy in developing nation and to reward sloppy lending practices by big western banks. Notwithstanding the instability than many say is caused by the IMF, this part of the postwar order is not under serious threat.
  3. The WTO and regional FTAs are under threat from a populist backlash in the United States and Europe, driven in large part by angst over financial prospects for lower-skilled workers. This part of the postwar order is under serious threat, especially because U.S. laws give the president significant unilateral powers over trade policy.
  4. NATO and other security arrangements are being questioned for both cost and changing geopolitical factors (e.g., the rise of China, Islamic terrorism). While unlikely at this point, dramatic policy changes from the United States could substantially alter the structure and/or operation of these military alliances.

How depressing. The part I like is the part that is under assault.

Here are the key points from the article’s conclusion.

The so-called postwar order is not a monolithic entity. …Some have been very successful. Consider, for instance, the sweeping reduction in trade barriers and the concomitant rise in cross-border commerce. …But other parts of the post-war order do not have very strong track records. Bureaucracies such as the IMF and OECD arguably deserve some hostile attention because of their support for anti-market policies. Policymakers who want to preserve the best parts of the post-war order may want to consider whether it is time to jettison or reform the harmful parts.

This is spot on.

Parts of the “postwar order” should be preserved. The World Trade Organization definitely belongs on that list. And presumably nobody wants to disrupt or eliminate the parts of the “international architecture” that facilitate things such as cross-border air travel, international shipping, and global telecommunications.

But the helpful work of those entities doesn’t change the fact that other entities engage in activities that are counterproductive. A “rules-based order” is only good, after all, if it advancing good rules.

Needless to say, the answer to all of these questions is no.

Which brings to mind the old saying about “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

As “Hamilton” wrote, the bad parts of the postwar order should be jettisoned to preserve the good parts.

For those interested in this topic, Adam Tooze of Columbia University has a very interesting article on the same topic.

Published in Foreign Policy, his article basically applies a “public choice” description of how the current postwar order evolved. And he says it initially was not very successful

For true liberals in both the United States and Europe, who hankered after the golden age of globalization in the late 19th century, the resulting Cold War economic order was a profound disappointment. The U.S. Treasury and the first generation of neoliberals in Europe fretted against the U.S. State Department and its interventionist economic tendencies. Mavericks such as the young Milton Friedman—true advocates of free markets in the way we take for granted today—demanded a bonfire of all regulations. …The reality of the liberal order that supposedly came into existence in the postwar moment was the more or less haphazard continuation of wartime controls. It would take until 1958 before the Bretton Woods vision was finally implemented. Even then it was not a “liberal” order by the standard of the gilded age of the 19th century or in the sense that Davos understands it today. International mobility of capital for anything other than long-term investment was strictly limited.

Tooze argues that genuine liberalism (i.e., open markets and trade) didn’t really take hold until the 1980s, with the market-based revolution of Thatcher and Reagan, the “Washington Consensus,” and the collapse of communism.

The stakeholders in the 1970s were obstreperous trade unions, and that kind of consultation was precisely the bad habit that the neoliberal revolutionaries set out to break. …the global victory of the liberal order required a more far-reaching struggle. …the market revolution of the 1980s…  the aftermath of the Cold War, the moment of Western triumph. …the defeat of inflation, this was the age of the Washington Consensus.

For those not familiar with this particular piece of jargon, the “Washington Consensus” refers to the 1980s-era acceptance of free markets as the ideal route for economic development.

And “neoliberal” refers to classical liberalism, not the modern dirigiste version of liberalism found in the United States.

I’ll close by recycling this visual, which attempts to distinguish between good globalism and bad globalism.

The image uses the example of trade and jurisdictional competition, so I don’t pretend it captures all the issues and controversies that we discussed today.

But it reinforces why it is wrong to blindly accept and support the anti-market components of the postwar order simply because there are other parts that deserve our support. The goal is more global prosperity, not less.

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Image by Basil D Soufi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

America’s Most Libertarian State Is…?

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 12:03pm

wrote a couple of days ago about America’s best and worst cities for pro-market policy, and I noted that there are several rankings of economic liberty for statesand nations.

But what if you want to know the place with the most overall freedom? In other words, what is the most libertarian place to live based on both economic liberty and personal liberty?

If you don’t mind a bit of travel, the answer is New Zealand.

For those who prefer to stay in the United States, Will Ruger and Jason Sorens periodically crunch numbers to calculate Freedom in the 50 States.

Their previous edition had New Hampshire in first place, so let’s take a look at the newest version.

This 2018 edition of Freedom in the 50 States presents a completely revised and updated ranking of the American states on the basis of how their policies promote freedom in the fiscal, regulatory, and personal realms. …More than 230 policy variables and their sources are now available to the public on a new website for the study. …the 2018 edition provides annual data on economic and personal freedom and their components back to 2000. …Freedom in the 50 States is an essential desk reference for anyone interested in state policy and in advancing a better understanding of a free society.

The publication is loaded with data, as you’ll see from the following charts.

To put all this data in context, the report separately calculates fiscal freedom, regulatory freedom, and personal freedom.

We’ll start with the fiscal section, which includes variables about taxes and spending, as well as other measures such as debt and government employment.

For those interested, the report has plenty of analysis and explanation about the variables that are used and the weights that are assigned.

Most of us, though, simply want to see which states get good scores and which ones get bad scores.

I’m not surprised to see that zero-income-tax states – led by Florida – are at the top. And I’m also not surprised that flat-tax states – led by Pennsylvania – also are well represented.

I assume nobody is surprised to see New York in last place.

Now let’s shift to regulatory policy and see where the burden of red is most onerous.

This part of the ranking covers a range of issues, most notably controls on land use and restrictions on the use of markets in health care.

But there are other important variables, including the extent and burden of occupational licensing.

Indeed, before getting to the overall rankings for regulation, I want to share those scores because it is so galling and upsetting that politicians impose barriers that limit the freedom of people to earn income.

Colorado deserves hearty applause for being at the top, edging out Idaho by a narrow margin. And even though Vermont was near the bottom of the fiscal rankings, it merits a mention for being good on the issue of occupational licensing.

California deserves hearty condemnation for being in last place. And I’m not surprised to see states like Illinois and New Jersey near the bottom.

I’m very disappointed, however, that Texas and Florida have such a dismal record.

But let’s not fixate on just one of the variables. If we look at the rankings for all regulatory issues, Kansas is in first place, followed by Nebraska and Idaho.

The worst states (hardly a surprise) are New York, New Jersey, and California.

Now let’s combine fiscal policy and regulatory policy and see the report’s ranking for overall economic freedom.

Florida is in first place by a comfortable margin, followed by three other zero-income-tax states (though the absence of a state income tax does not guarantee a good score, as you can see from the poor performance of Alaska, Wyoming, and Washington).

New York wins the Booby Prize by a large margin.

Hawaii and California also stand out in a bad way.

The above table tells us which state enjoys the most economic liberty, but that doesn’t tell us where to live if you want the maximum amount of overall freedom.

To identify the nation’s most libertarian state, we also need to look at rankings for personal liberty.

This means, in part, whether people are harassed and persecuted for victimless crimes, but it also includes measures of educational freedom and gun rights.

Speaking of which, I can’t resist sharing the data on which states most respect the 2nd Amendment.

Kansas gets the best score, followed by Vermont(!), Arizona, Idaho, and Mississippi.

Hawaii is the worst state by a significant margin and we (again) find California near the bottom.

Another issue which is near and dear to my heart is asset forfeiture.

I am nauseated and disgusted that governments are allowed to steal property from people who have not been convicted of any wrongdoing.

So let’s applaud New Mexico, Nebraska, and New Hampshire for putting limits on this awful practice.

And let’s heap unending score on Rhode Island for having the nation’s worst track record on this issue.

But what happens when we combine all issue relating to personal freedom?

Well, that’s exactly what the authors did, which means we get a comprehensive ranking for personal freedom. I’m not surprised that Nevada, Colorado, and New Hampshire are in the top 5, but I’m surprised to see that Maine leads the pack.

Likewise, I guess I’m not too surprised that Texas and other bible-belt states are socially conservative.

But Hawaii next to last?!?

In any event, the report combines economic freedom and personal freedom and tells us which state could be considered the most libertarian.

And the winner is the Sunshine State of Florida, followed by New Hampshire, Indiana, Colorado, and Nevada. I’m surprised that Florida does so well, though some of the other high-scoring states make sense (especially when I look at data on who reads these columns).

By contrast, the most dirigiste state is New York. That doesn’t surprise me, and I’m also not shocked by some of the other bottom dwellers.

I’m tempted to end here since we’ve already surveyed so much information.

But there’s one final chart which hopefully should be very fascinating.

We just looked at the data on how states currently rank for overall liberty.

This final selection tells us which ones have been moving in the right direction and wrong direction since the turn of the century.

Kudos to Oklahoma for adopting a lot of good reform. Same for New Mexico. And it’s also interesting to see that several states from the Great Lakes region boosted their scores (with Illinois being a laggard, of course).

Vermont has the dismal distinction of having moved the fastest in the wrong direction (No wonder it’s the Moocher State).

Hawaii also deserves an unfavorable mention, while the deterioration of New Jersey and New York is hardly a surprise.

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Image by SiBr4, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Rich Pay More with Lower Tax Rates

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 12:27pm

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute is most famous for his Venn diagrams that expose hypocrisy and inconsistency.

But he also is famous for his charts.

And since I’m a big fan of sensible tax policy and the Laffer Curve, we’re going to share Mark’s new chart looking at the inverse relationship between the top tax rate and the share of taxes paid by the richest Americans.

Examining the chart, it quickly becomes evident that upper-income taxpayers started paying a much greater share of the tax burden after the Reagan tax cuts.

My left-leaning friends sometimes look at this data and complain that the rich are paying more of the tax burden only because they have grabbed a larger share of national income. And this means we should impose punitive tax rates.

But this argument is flawed for three reasons.

First, there is not a fixed amount of income. The success of a rich entrepreneur does not mean less income for the rest of us. Instead, it’s quite likely that all of us are better off because the entrepreneur created some product of service that we value. Indeed, data from the Census Bureau confirms that all income classes tend to rise and fall simultaneously.

Second, it’s not even accurate to say that the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer.

Third, one of the big fiscal lessons of the 1980s is that punitive tax rates on upper-income taxpayers backfire because investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners will choose to earn and report less taxable income.

For my contribution to this discussion, I want to elaborate on this final point.

When I give speeches, I sometimes discover that audiences don’t understand why rich taxpayers can easily control the amount of their taxable income.

And I greatly sympathize since I didn’t appreciate this point earlier in my career.

That’s because the vast majority of us get the lion’s share of our income from our employers. And when we get this so-called W-2 income, we don’t have much control over how much tax we pay. And we assume that this must be true for others.

But rich people are different. If you go the IRS’s Statistics of Income website and click on the latest data in Table 1.4, you’ll find that wages and salaries are only a small fraction of the income earned by wealthy taxpayers.

These high-income taxpayers may be tempting targets for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and the other peddlers of resentment, but they’re also very elusive targets.

That’s because it’s relatively easy – and completely legal – for them to control the timing, level, and composition of business and investment income.

When tax rates are low, this type of tax planning doesn’t make much sense. But as tax rates increase, rich people have an ever-growing incentive to reduce their taxable income and that creates a bonanza for lawyers, accountants, and financial planners.

Needless to say, there are many loopholes to exploit in a 75,000-page tax code.

P.S. There’s some very good evidence from Sweden confirming my point.

The Best and Worst Cities in the United States

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 12:06pm

There are several options if you want to measure economic freedom and competitiveness among nations (rankings from the Fraser InstituteHeritage Foundation, and World Economic Forum).

You also have many choices if you want to measure economic freedom and competitiveness among states (rankings from the Tax FoundationMercatus Center, and Fraser Institute).

But there’s never been a good source if you want to know which local jurisdiction is best.

Dean Stansel of Southern Methodist University is helping to fill this gap with a report looking at the relative quality of government policy in various metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs encompass not just a city, but also economically relevant suburbs).

…the level of economic freedom can vary across subnational jurisdictions within the same country (e.g., Texas and Florida have less-burdensome economic policies and therefore much greater economic freedom than New York and California). However, levels of economic freedom can also vary within those subnational jurisdictions. For example, the San Jose metro area has substantially higher economic freedom than Los Angeles. The same is true for Nashville compared to Memphis. In some places, metropolitan areas straddle state borders, skewing state-level economic data. This report quantifies those intra-state disparities by providing a local-level version of the EFNA, ranking 382 metropolitan areas by their economic freedom levels.

So who wins this contest?

Here are the five most-free MSAs. It’s worth noting that all of them are in states with no income tax, which shows that good state policy helps.

What if we limit ourselves to large cities?

Here are the five most-free MSAs with population over 1 million. As you can see, Houston is in first place and zero-income-tax Texas and Florida are well represented.

Now let’s shift to the localities on the bottom of the rankings.

Which MSA is the worst place for economic freedom in America?

Congratulations to El Centro in California for winning this booby prize. As you can see, jurisdictions in New York and California dominate.

What if we look are larger jurisdictions, those with over 1 million people?

In this case, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario is the worst place to live.

Though if you want to focus on big cities, the NYC metro area deserves special mention.

Now let’s consider why economic freedom matters.

I’ve shared charts showing how more economic freedom leads to more prosperity in nations.

The same thing is true for states.

So you shouldn’t be surprised to discover that it also is true for metro areas.

Last but not least, here’s a map showing freedom in all MSAs.

I’m not surprised to see so much red in California and New York, but I didn’t realize that Ohio (thanks for nothing, Kasich), Oregon, and West Virginia were so bad.

And the good results for Texas and Florida are predictable, but I didn’t think Virginia would look so good.

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Image by Mapswire, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The OECD Wants to Impose Higher Taxes and Bigger Government on Poor Nations

Sun, 02/03/2019 - 12:50pm

When I ask friends on the left to answer my two-question challenge about prosperity and the size of government, they sometimes will flip the script and demand that I answer their version of the same question.

Name a jurisdiction that became rich with small government, they ask!

I’ve always viewed that as a grossly ineffective debating tactic because I have so many good responses. For instance, I often point to Hong Kong and Singapore as modern-era examples of poor places that became rich places thanks to free markets and small government.

But my favorite examples are from North America and Western Europe. If you look at the historical data, nations in the western world evolved from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of the public sector was minuscule.

It’s true that all of those nations, after they became prosperous, then chose to adopt welfare states of various sizes. That was an unfortunate development (though somewhat offset by trade liberalization and other pro-market policies), but at least they got rich before making that mistake.

After providing all these examples, I then tell my friends that it is their turn. Please, I ask, give me just one example of a nation that adopted big government and then became rich?

I’ve never received a good answer.

And this is why I’m so disappointed (but not surprised) that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a project to increase the fiscal burden in poor nations.

The Paris-based OECD actually asserts that higher taxes and more spending will lead to more prosperity. I’m not joking.

The OECD has a unique role to play in supporting developing countries to generate domestic revenues to finance their sustainable development. …While the ratio of tax to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in OECD countries averaged 33% in 2008, in developing countries it was only around half this level, indicating that there was great potential yet to be exploited. …a growing focus on taxation as a development priority…as it is clearly the primary source of financing for development. …to unlock the potential of countries…the design and delivery of “modernised, progressive tax systems, improved tax policy and more efficient tax collection” were high on the list of must-dos.

I’m sure that poor people in developing nations will be delighted to learn that their politicians are conspiring with the OECD to “exploit” them with “progressive” and “efficient” tax regimes.

And I’m both amused and disgusted that the OECD report has creative euphemisms for higher taxes, such as “domestic resource mobilization” and “capacity building.”

But the section on how taxes supposedly are good for growth is downright unbelievable.

Taxation enables governments to invest in development, relieve poverty and deliver public services to underpin long-term growth. Strong tax systems not only raise crucial revenues: they also promote inclusiveness… Above and beyond the direct benefits to developing countries themselves, international co-operation in the area of taxation is essential in today’s globalised world. …Such actions can realise the potential of taxation to help drive development on a global scale.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD does not provide any empirical evidence to back up this rhetoric.

The bureaucrats don’t even provide a single anecdote or example. Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Instead, we’re supposed to believe that there’s a mysterious alchemy that somehow leads transforms higher taxes and bigger government into greater prosperity.

By the way, the OECD isn’t the only international bureaucracy pushing this message. I had the surreal experience of being a credentialed observer at a United Nations conference where seemingly every other participant was on the other side. And the International Monetary Fund is also guilty of this peculiar form of economic malpractice.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity examines whether big government is the right way to boost prosperity in poor nations.

P.S. I don’t know whether to characterize this as irony or hypocrisy, but OECD bureaucrats don’t pay tax on their lavish remuneration. Perhaps this explains why they are so oblivious to the real-world consequences of higher tax burdens.

P.P.S. I feel sorry for the professional economists at the OECD, who often produce very good studies. It must be embarrassing for them when the political appointees push bad policies.

P.P.P.S. Needless to say, I’m not happy that American taxpayers are financing the OECD’s statist agenda.

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Image by OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Trump, Xi, Trade, and the Need for a Second Stage of Pro-Market Economic Reform in China

Sat, 02/02/2019 - 12:17pm

Since trade promotes prosperity, I want increased market-driven, cross-border commerce between China and the United States.

But you can see in this CNBC interview that I’m worried about achieving that outcome given protectionism from President Trump and mercantilism from President Xi in China.

There’s never much chance to elaborate in short interviews, so here’s some additional analysis on the key points.

1. China’s economy is weak because of insufficient liberalization.

I have written about how China got great results – especially huge reductions in poverty – thanks to partial economic liberalization last century. But those reforms were just a step in the right direction. The country currently ranks only #107 according to Economic Freedom of the World, largely because so much of the economy is hampered by subsidies, regulation, protectionism, and cronyism. Sweeping pro-market reforms are needed if China’s leaders want their country to become rich.

2. Trump’s unthinking protectionism hurts both sides, but China may be more vulnerable.

I mentioned in the interview that Trump’s protectionism meant that he was harming both nations. This is what always happens with protectionism, so I wasn’t saying anything insightful. But it is quite likely that China will suffer more because its economy doesn’t have the flexibility and durability of America’s more market-oriented system.

That is one of the conclusion from a recent news report.

Policymakers in Europe have spared no effort to emphasize that there can be no winners in an escalated trade conflict between the United States and China. But a fresh study shows there are several beneficiaries. …But a study by research network EconPol Europe suggests such an assertion isn’t quite true — in fact, it isn’t true at all. The survey analyzes the impact of tariffs imposed by the US on China and the effect of China’s retaliatory tariffs. …The EconPol Europe study calculates that Chinese exporters are bearing approximately 75 percent of the costs… in Asia, Vietnam has been gaining the most from firms relocating their production away from China. Malaysia, Singapore and India have also been profiting from this development.

3. China’s cronyism presents a challenge for supporters of unilateral free trade.

I’m a supporter of unilateral free trade. America should eliminate all trade barriers, even if other nations want to hurt themselves by maintaining their restrictions. That being said, it’s not genuine free trade if another country has direct or indirect subsidies for its companies. As I noted in the interview, some economists say we shouldn’t worry since the net result is a wealth transfer from China’s taxpayers to America’s consumers. On the other hand, that approach means that some American workers and companies are being harmed. And if supporters of free markets are upset when American workers and companies are hurt by domestic cronyism, we also should be upset when the same thing happens because of foreign cronyism.

The challenge, of course, is whether you can use trade barriers to target only cronyism. I worry that such an effort would get hijacked by protectionists, though Professor Martin Feldstein makes a good argument in the Wall Street Journal that it’s the right approach.

China’s strategy is to give large government subsidies to state-owned companies and supplement their research with technology stolen from American and other Western companies. …That is the real reason why the Trump administration has threatened tariffs of 25% on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S.—nearly half the total—unless Beijing reforms its policies. …The purpose of the tariffs is not to reduce the bilateral trade deficit but to counter Chinese technology theft and forced transfer. …the U.S. could impose heavier tariffs and other economic penalties in order to force China to play by the rules, ending its attempt to dominate global markets through subsidies and technology theft.

4. Trump should have used the World Trade Organization to encourage Chinese liberalization.

wrote last year that the President would enjoy more success if he used the WTO to apply pressure on China.

It’s not just me making this claim. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Post.

Pressure from Europe and Japan is amplifying the president’s vocal complaints about Chinese trade practices… “it wasn’t a Trump issue; it was a world issue,” said Jorge Guajardo, …a former Mexican ambassador to China. “Everybody’s tired of the way China games the trading system and makes promises that never amount to anything.” …Germany and the United Kingdom joined the United States this year in tightening limits on Chinese investment. …In September, trade ministers from the United States, European Union and Japan issued a joint statement that blasted the use of subsidies in turning “state owned enterprises into national champions and setting them loose in global markets.” The statement…also rejected forced technology transfer… The United States did win E.U. and Japanese support for a complaint to the WTO alleging China has violated U.S. intellectual property rights. But rather than use the global trade body for a broader attack on China, the administration has demanded changes in the way the organization operates. To critics, the administration missed an opportunity to marshal China’s trading partners behind an across-the-board indictment of its state-led economy.

5. The imperfect Trans-Pacific Partnership was an opportunity to pressure China to reduce cronyism.

Because of my concerns about regulatory harmonization, I wasn’t grievously disappointed when the United States chose not to participate in the TPP, but I fully recognized that the pact had very positive features. Including the pressure it would have placed on China to shift toward markets and away from cronyism.

6. Additional Chinese reform is the ideal outcome, both for China and the rest of the world.

Three years ago, I wrote that China needs a Reagan-style revolution of economic liberalization. That’s still true today. The bottom line is that China’s leaders should look at the progress that was achieved last century when the economy was partially liberalized and decide that the time is ripe for the free-market version of a great leap forward. In other words, the goal should be great economic success, not modest economic success.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that I don’t want China to copy the United States, even though that would be a step in the right direction.

According to data from Economic Freedom of the World, there’s a much better role model.

Indeed, I would like the United States to copy Hong Kong as well.

The recipe for prosperity is the same all over the world. The challenge is getting politicians to do what’s best for citizens rather than what’s best for themselves.

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Image by Foreign and Commonwealth Office , licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Positive and Negative Trends in Global Economic Liberty

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 12:52pm

My favorite annual publication from the Heritage Foundation, the Index of Economic Freedom, has just been released.

Like the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and, to a lesser extent, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the Heritage Foundation survey is filled with interesting data on economic liberty in various nations.

We’ll start by sharing the global map. It’s good to be green, especially dark green. But it’s bad to be orange and even worse to be red.

Sadly, there are only six “free” jurisdictions.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong and Singapore are at the top, and I’m also not surprised to see New Zealand and Switzerland in the next two positions.

What’s especially impressive is that four of the six jurisdictions managed to increase their score.

Now let’s look at the “mostly free” nations.

Note how the Nordic nations all get reasonably good scores. As I’ve repeatedly explained, they have onerous welfare states, but they largely compensate by being very pro-free market in other policy areas (one interesting quirk is that Iceland ranks #11 in the Heritage Index but only #59 in the Fraser rankings).

The United States, for what it’s worth, improved its score but still doesn’t crack the top 10.

Since a majority of readers are from the United States, let dig into the details.

Here’s a breakdown of America’s score. I am befuddled at how the U.S. improved on government spending, but all the other variables make sense.

Pay special attention to the decline in trade freedom.

Now let’s look at a few other countries that merit special attention.

Here’s data for the past 15 years on Iceland, Taiwan, and Chile.

I include Iceland merely because I’m intrigued by the wide divergence in how the country is ranked by Heritage and Fraser.

And I include Chile because I’m worried about the decline in recent years.

Taiwan, meanwhile, deserves mention because it continues to slowly but surely improve – a process that hopefully won’t stop, thus allowing Taiwan to eventually converge with Hong Kong and Singapore.

 

Now let’s shift to the Baltic nations.

I’ve been a big fan of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, but I’ve been worried about a recent drift in the wrong direction.

And that’s apparent in the Heritage data. This worries me since those countries should be further liberalizing and reforming to help counteract grim demographic trends.

By the way, I have similar concerns about Slovakia, though that nation’s drift in the wrong direction started several years sooner

Let’s close our discussion by looking at the unfortunate nations in the bottom category.

If you guessed the North Korea was the most repressed of the “repressed” nations, congratulations. It’s not just that it’s in last place, it wins that dubious distinction by a wide margin.

Though at least the North Koreans are trending in the right direction, albeit with an almost-too-small-to-measure improvement of just 0.1.

Cuba is #178 out of #180, yet still managed to go from absolutely awful to breathtakingly terrible with a -4.1 change in its score.

Speaking of awful and terrible, Venezuela is next to last. It remains even below Cuba, notwithstanding a small increase of 0.7.

P.S. I’m saddened, but not surprised, that there was a big drop in the score for South Africa. The only good news is that it still is nowhere close to being another Zimbabwe. At least not yet.

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Image by geralt, licensed under Pixabay License.

New CBO Numbers Confirm that Modest Spending Restraint Is the Ideal Way of Balancing the Budget

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 12:45pm

The Congressional Budget Office just released it’s annual Budget and Economic Outlook, and that means I’m going to do something that I first did in 2010 and most recently did last year.

I’m going to show that it’s actually rather simple to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

This statement shocks many people because they’ve read about out-of-control entitlement spending, pork-filled appropriations bills, big tax cuts, and trillion-dollar deficits.

But  the first thing to understand when contemplating how to fix America’s fiscal problems is that tax revenues, according to the new CBO numbers, are going to increase by an average of nearly 5 percent annually over the next 10 years. And that means receipts will be more than $2.1 trillion higher in 2029 than they are in 2019.

And since this year’s deficit is projected to be “only” $897 billion, that presumably means that it shouldn’t be that difficult to balance the budget.

By the way, I don’t even think balance should be the goal. It’s far more important to focus on reducing the burden of government spending. After all, the economy is adversely affected if wasteful outlays are financed by taxes, just as the economy is hurt when wasteful outlays are financed by borrowing.

In other words, too much government spending is the disease. Deficits are best understood as a symptom of the disease.

But I’m digressing. The point for today is simply that the symptom of borrowing can be addressed if a good chunk of that additional $2.1 trillion of new revenue is used to get rid of the $897 billion of red ink.

Unfortunately, the CBO report projects that the burden of government spending also is on an upward trajectory. As you can see from our next chart, outlays will jump by about $2.6 trillion by 2029 if the budget is left on autopilot.

The solution to this problem is very straightforward.

All that’s needed is a bit of spending restraint to put the budget on a glide path to balance.

I’m a big fan of spending caps, so this next chart shows the 10-year fiscal outlook if annual spending increases are limited to 1% growth, 2% growth, or 2.5% growth.

As you can see, modest spending discipline is a very good recipe for fiscal balance.

Our final chart adds a bit of commentary to illustrate how quickly we could move from deficit to surplus based on different spending trajectories.

I’ll close with a video from 2010 that explains why spending restraint is the best way to achieve fiscal balance. Especially when compared to tax increases.

The numbers are different today, but the analysis hasn’t changed.

As I noted at the end of the video, balancing the budget with spending restraint may be simple, but it won’t be easy.

If we want spending to grow, say, 2% annually rather than 5% annually, that will require some degree of genuine entitlement reform. And it means finally enforcing some limits on annual appropriations.

Those policies will cause lots of squealing in Washington. But we saw during the Reagan and Carter years, as well as more recently, that spending discipline is possible.

P.S. The video also exposed the dishonest way that budgets are presented in Washington.

The Evidence-Based Case for Free Trade

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 5:43pm

Last November, I shared a one-minute video from Freedom Partners on the economics of trade.

Here’s a full-length (but still only four minutes) treatment of the issue that I narrated.

The first part of the video is a quick glimpse at some of the academic evidence for open trade, and I hope it helps make the case against protectionism.

I then cite some country-specific examples, including how Herbert Hoover’s protectionism contributed to the economic misery of the Great Depression.

Argentina is another bad example mentioned in the video. It used to be one of the world’s richest countries, but it plummeted in the rankings in part because of its protectionist policy of “import substitution.”

The video also mentions the examples of China and India. Since I think this point is especially compelling, I want to take this opportunity to briefly elaborate on my comments in the video.

First, let’s establish that both nations did liberalize trade. Here’s a chart from Economic Freedom of the World, and you can see that there was dramatic liberalization starting about 1990.

Both nations are still a long way from total free trade (Singapore and Hong Kong, for instance, respectively get scores of 9.29 and 9.32), but it goes without saying that there was considerable liberalization in China and India.

And how did that work out?

Trade liberalization was a slam-dunk success. Based on data from the World Bank, here’s a look at how China and India started converging with the United States after opening to the world economy.

To be sure, both nations still have a long way to go. And it’s highly unlikely that either nation will ever fully converge to American living standards unless there is a lot more pro-market reform. Not just in trade, but all facets of economic policy.

But as I mentioned in the video, the reforms that already have occurred – particularly trade liberalization – have contributed to huge reductions in poverty in China and India.

Given all this evidence, I’ll close with a version of my two-question challenge. Can anybody identify a nation that has prospered by moving to protectionism (h/t: the USA in the 1800s is not a good answer) or a nation that has suffered because of trade liberalization?

How Single-Payer Would Make U.S. Healthcare Worse

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 10:00am

Democrats all over the country are loudly raising their voices for socialized medicine, no doubt determined to finally put in place that crown jewel of the egalitarian welfare state. Echoing arguments from previous fights over health-care socialism, they tell us all about affordability and accessibility and all the other good things it will bring.

What they don’t tell us about is the reality of single-payer health care: high taxes, rationed care and higher mortality rates.

In my review last summer of data on health care access I concluded that our health-care system, imperfect as it is, at least still lives up to its purpose

Plain and simple: the reason why we have a more expensive health care system is that we actually provide health care.

A single-payer system works like managed care in Medicaid: its foremost function is not to provide health care, but to contain costs. This is painfully visible in Europe, the pinnacle – or dungeon – of government-run health care.

For example, as my article from last August explained, people in other countries are more likely to die of cancer than Americans are. For breast cancer, e.g., we have the highest survival rate, beating every country with single-payer health care.

Another important metric is the nurse-to-bed ratio. Here, the United States beats almost every single-payer system. This is more important than it might seem at first glance. Better staffing allows medical staff to be less stressed out at work, therefore make fewer mistakes and are more likely to pick up on patients’ needs before they become problems.

Access to medical technology is also different. Americans rightfully expect to be able to get a CT scan when they need it; in every other OECD country except Australia, patients have to wait longer – sometimes much longer – than here.

Mandatory referrals are another method for health-care rationing. Under socialized medicine, patients have to start their journey to treatment by seeing a general practitioner. That is where the waiting begins. Once they get to see him, a referral to a specialist is by no means guaranteed. Cost containment is one of the factors that general practitioners have to take into account when writing referrals.

Those patients who get a referral then move on to the next waiting list: to see the specialist. In Sweden, e.g., this means waiting weeks, even months. As of November 2018, eleven of the country’s 21 health care districts reported excessive waiting lists for specialist consultation. One third or more of the patients had to wait more than 60 days.

Just to see a medical specialist. When they finally got to see that specialist, they had to line up for treatment. In 14 of the 21 health care districts, at least one third of the patients had to wait more than 60 days for treatment. In one district, more than half the patients had to wait more than 60 days.

The same government that forces Swedes into these lines has also put a law on the books that guarantees every patient treatment within 90 days. Does it surprise anyone to learn that one in four patients had to wait more than 90 days for treatment?

The Canadian system is a bit better, but not exactly something to write home about. According to the Fraser Institute’s annual Waiting Your Turn review,

  • The median waiting time between referral from a general practitioner to receipt of treatment has increased by 113 percent in the past 25 years;
  • The waiting time from referral to consultation with a specialist had increased by 136 percent, to a national average of 8.7 weeks;
  • The waiting time from consultation to treatment had increased by 97 percent, averaging eleven weeks.

In five of Canada’s ten provinces, patients had to wait on average six months or more from a specialist referral to treatment. Nationally, Canadians had to wait on average four weeks for radiation oncology, ten weeks for elective cardiovascular surgery, 26 weeks for neurosurgery and 39 weeks for orthopedic surgery.

How many Americans in need of knee replacement would accept having to wait more than nine months for surgery?

As for diagnostic technologies, the Fraser Institute reports:

Canadians could expect to wait 4.3 weeks for a computed tomography (CT) scan, 10.6 weeks for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and 3.9 weeks for an ultrasound.

They also explain that waiting times exceed what is deemed to be clinically reasonable:

Specialists are also surveyed as to what they regard as clinically “reasonable” waiting times in the second segment covering the time spent from specialist consultation to delivery of treatment. Out of the 96 categories (some comparisons were precluded by missing data), actual waiting time exceeds reasonable waiting time in 72% of the comparisons.

Oblivious to these facts, Democrats across America are in full campaign mode to create a single-payer system. This campaign spans from local governments through states all the way to Congress. For example, according to MSN.com, New York City Mayor de Blasio

is set to roll out an ambitious $100 million plan to provide a “public option” to provide healthcare to serve New York City’s 600,000 uninsured — including undocumented immigrants. “This has never been done before in this country in this kind of comprehensive way — it’s going to be for the first time a guarantee of healthcare,” de Blasio said Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “We’re going to guarantee healthcare for New Yorkers who need it.”

As if to drive home the point about cost containment, de Blasio’s plan allots a whopping $167 worth of health care per uninsured person. Given the going rates for anything in New York, plus taxes and other fees on health care, this will probably give each one of them an annual 15-minute chat with the receptionist at the local public hospital.

Perhaps sensing the arithmetic problem with his plan, MSN reports that the mayor

said the city would be expanding an already existing public option. Though he did not specify which program, on Monday DocumentedNY reported he was poised to expand ActionHealthNYC, a pilot that provided reduced health costs in a managed care framework at public hospital facilities.

Plain and simple: government-run medicine means managed care, and managed care means cost containment above all. Medicaid is a good example: currently, 65 percent of all people enrolled in the program are on managed-care plans, yet those plans only represent 43 percent of total Medicaid costs. This is not surprising, given how even the federal government admits that cost management is the first goal of managed care in Medicaid.

The single-payer delusion is also taking California by storm (and we are all very surprised). The Daily Wire has the story:

[Governor] Gavin Newsom doubled down on claims he made earlier this month that he’d turn California into a single-payer healthcare state, telling the Pod Save America podcast that he plans on expanding Medicare to cover every Californian — even illegal immigrants.

There is a slight problem with Newsom’s plan. Medicare is a federal program. The state of California has no jurisdiction over it.

Perhaps Newsom his hoping that the federal government will happily pick up the tab for his new program? After all, Newsom’s record from his tenure as mayor of San Francisco is not exactly one of fiscal responsibility. The Daily Wire again, quoting Newsom:

“I did universal health care when I was mayor, fully implemented regardless of pre-existing conditions, ability to pay, and regardless of your immigration status.”

Thanks in part to this program, Newsom left San Francisco with a $576 million deficit for his successor to deal with.

How much is he going to increase the hole in the La La State’s budget?

Incidentally, the Daily Wire observes that health care professionals in California are not exactly enthusiastic about Governor Newsom’s plans:

doctors and California’s healthcare administrators are against the prospect of a fully single-payer system, largely because it will tank their salaries, and they’re planning on opposing any legislation designed to make big changes.

It remains to be seen if Gavin Newsom listens to facts and reason. His fellow Democrats in Congress do not seem to want to do that. From the Fiscal Times:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said last week that she supports holding hearings on Medicare-for-All legislation, and on Tuesday House Budget Committee chair Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) sent a letter to the Congressional Budget Office requesting a comprehensive analysis of how a single-payer health system would work in the U.S.

The federal government can certainly make a single-payer system “affordable” if it wants to. All that is needed is systemic rationing that restricts access to health care to the point where people no longer think it is worth the while to try to see a doctor.

There really are no other paths to “affordable” health care – at least not through more government involvement. Jim Kelly, writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, dispels the myth that for-profit health insurers make excessive profits. Contrary to what health-care socialists often suggest, there is only about two percent of insurer profit margins for government to do away with.

Nor is there much to be saved on the prescription-drug front; as Kelly notes, the federal government already has Medicare, and there are no discernible bulk-buy savings to be found in that system.

America still has a world class health care system. We can keep it that way, but to do so we need to move in the exact opposite direction from what single-payer advocates want: we need to get government out and leave the rest to patients and medical professionals.

New Video Makes the Economic Case Against Protectionism

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 8:05am

Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
202-285-0244

www.freedomandprosperity.org

New Video Makes the Economic Case Against Protectionism

(Washington, DC, Tuesday, January 29, 2019) A new video narrated by Dan Mitchell, Chairman of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation, explains how protectionism weakens economic performance. The 4-minute presentation is entitled, “The Economic Case Against Protectionism,” and it begins with a look at research that confirms how free trade increases economic growth and benefits consumers. It also explains the theoretical value of trade, in addition to providing real-world comparisons between nations that embraced trade and thrived, and those that suffered thanks to protectionist policies.

Dan Mitchell is a leading expert on fiscal policy and international tax competition. In addition to being Chairman of CF&P, Dan previously served as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, and as an economist for Senator Bob Packwood and the Senate Finance Committee. He is the author of The Flat Tax: Freedom Fairness, Jobs, and Growth, a co-author of Global Tax Revolution, and is a frequent TV commentator.

This new video is part of CF&P Foundation’s Economic Lessons Series, which includes over 50 videos with more than 2 million views.

###

Philadelphia’s Soda Tax Backfired (for Everyone other than Politicians)

Mon, 01/28/2019 - 12:23pm

I’ve periodically opined about why politicians should not try to control people’s behavior with discriminatory taxes, such as the ones being imposed on soda.

And I’ve cited some examples of how these taxes backfire.

If the following headlines are any indication, we can add Philadelphia to that list.

For instances, this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Or this story from the local CBS affiliate.

These examples reinforce my view that it is not a good idea to let meddling politicians impose more taxes in an effort to control people’s behavior.

Some of my left-leaning friends periodically remind me, however, that there’s a difference between anecdotes and evidence. There’s a lot of truth to that cautionary observation.

To be sure, I could simply respond by saying a pattern is evident when a couple of anecdotes turns into dozens of anecdotes. And when dozens become hundreds, surely it’s possible to say the pattern shows causality.

That being said, it is good to have rigorous, statistics-based analysis if we really want to convince skeptics.

So let’s look at the results of some new academic research from scholars at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Minnesota. We’ll start with the abstract, which nicely summarizes their findings about the impact of Philadelphia’s big soda tax.

We analyze the impact of a tax on sweetened beverages, often referred to as a “soda tax,” using a unique data-set of prices, quantities sold and nutritional information across several thousand taxed and untaxed beveragesfor a large set of stores in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. We find that the tax is passed through at a rate of 75-115%, leading to a 30-40% price increase. Demand in the taxed area decreases dramatically by 42% in response to the tax. There is no significant substitution to untaxed beverages (water and natural juices), but cross-shopping at stores outside of Philadelphia completely o↵sets the reduction in sales within the taxed area. As a consequence, we find no significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.

Here are some of their conclusions.

We draw several lessons about the effectiveness of local sweetened-beverage taxes from these analyses. First, the tax was ineffective at reducing consumption of unhealthy products. Second, in terms of revenue generation, the tax was only partly effective due to consumers substituting to stores outside of Philadelphia. Third, low income households are less likely to engage in cross-shopping, and instead are more likely to continue to purchase taxed products at a higher price at stores in Philadelphia. The lower propensity for low income households to avoid the tax through cross-shopping leads to a relatively larger tax burden for those households. In summary, the tax does not lead to a shift in consumption towards healthier products, it affects low income households more severely, and it is limited in its ability to raise revenue.

If you’re wondering why consumers responded so strongly, here’s a chart from the study showing the price difference after the tax was imposed.

The bottom numbers in Figure 3 show that some sales still occurred in the city, but a persistent gap between city sales and suburban sales appeared.

And here’s what happened to sales inside the city (taxed) and outside the city (untaxed).

Wow. This data makes me wonder if suburban sellers will start contributing to the Philadelphia politicians who have generated this windfall?

Others have noticed how the tax is hurting rather than helping.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the failure of Philly’s soda tax.

When Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would improve public health while funding universal pre-K. Two years in, the policy hasn’t delivered on that elite ideological goal. But the tax has come at the expense of working people… On Jan. 2, Brown’s Super Stores announced the closure of a ShopRite on Haverford Avenue. The supermarket is close to the city limit, and customers discovered they could avoid the soda tax by shopping outside Philly. …the once-profitable store began losing about $1 million a year. …That means fewer opportunities for workers with a criminal record. Mr. Brown’s supermarkets employ more than 600 of them, with the majority in Philadelphia. Some of the ex-cons have become his most-valued employees.

And Kyle Smith explained in National Review how the tax backfired.

Philadelphia’s outlandish soda tax is what Democratic-party politics looks like when it lets its freak flag fly. So many classic elements are there: (failed) social engineering and “think of the children!” on one side, paid for with a punitive tax on poor people and destroyed businesses, which means destroyed jobs, which in turn means lives upended. …Now that beer is, in some cases, cheaper than soda in Philadelphia, alcohol sales are up sharply. …the total loss attributable to the tax in sales of all items was $300,000 a month per store. Other, untaxed drinks also suffered sales declines within the city, suggesting people were simply saving up their shopping trips for when they left town.

I don’t feel compelled to add much to what’s been cited.

Though I will cite a headline from the Seattle Times to reinforce one of the points in the academic study about consumers bearing the cost of the tax rather than the soda companies.

And my one modest contribution to all this analysis is this comparison of the winners and loser from Philadelphia’s new tax.

For what it’s worth, similar comparisons could be developed for just about every action by every government. Academics call this “public choice” while ordinary people realize it’s just common sense.

Carbon Tax Salesmanship: A Case Study of Political Dishonesty

Sun, 01/27/2019 - 12:03pm

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I don’t believe in using dodgy numbers or nonsensical analysis – even if that would help my side in a policy debate.

And it goes without saying that I also don’t like when the other side is dishonest. But I’m not talking about my left-leaning friends who have genuine (albeit misguided) views on things such as Keynesian economics or the minimum wage.

I’m talking about people who deliberately dissemble and prevaricate in hopes of advancing their policy agenda.

Consider, for instance, the new carbon tax that has been introduced by Congressmen Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Patrick Rooney (R-FL). The core features of the bill are:

  • A $15-per-ton carbon tax that increases $10 each subsequent year until it reaches $100.
  • A new entitlement program giving money to all legal American residents, including children.
  • A new tax on consumers who buy imports from nations without similar taxes on energy usage.
  • A supposed adjustment and easing of existing regulations governing carbon emissions.

There’s obviously a serious policy debate to have about both the general concept as well of the individual components of this type of legislation, and I’ve periodically added my two cents to the discussion.

But what irks me is that the sponsoring lawmakers are openly and deliberately lying about a key part of their plan. Here’s the relevant section from their talking points.

The claim about “revenue neutrality” is a stunning level of dishonesty, even by Washington standards.

At the risk of stating the obvious, if the government imposes a tax and then also creates a program to give money to people, that’s not revenue neutrality.

Was Obamacare “revenue neutral” because all the new taxes were balanced out by the handouts and subsidies that the law created for the big insurance companies?

Of course not.

And a new carbon tax doesn’t magically become “revenue neutral” because new revenues are matched by new spending.

To be sure, supporters can argue that their plan is “deficit neutral,” and that would be legitimate (even though I would argue that this wouldn’t be the case in the long run because of the adverse economic impact of new taxes and new spending).

But “revenue neutral” is a bald-faced lie.

The Daily Caller reported on this amazing example of deceptive advertising, citing the good work of Paul Blair of Americans for Tax Reform.

The bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus claims it is pushing a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax, but legislation proposed Thursday would hike taxes by at least $1 trillion over the next decade… Florida Reps. Ted Deutch, a Democrat, and Francis Rooney, a Republican, reintroduced a bill Thursday that would place a $15-per-ton tax on carbon emissions in 2019. The tax would rise by $10-a-year increments until it hits nearly $100 per ton. …Though Rooney claims the tax is “revenue-neutral,” the plain text of the bill does not include any reciprocal tax cuts to balance out the burden of the added tax on emissions… “Historically and for anyone engaged in tax policy, the definition of ‘revenue-neutral’ is and always has been if you increase a tax, the amount of revenue it generates must be offset by an equal tax cut elsewhere,” Blair said. …Blair said…that the “apology checks” sent as carbon dividends will be treated as new spending and do not negate a new tax burden.

By the way, just in case anyone thinks I’m imposing some weird, libertarian-ish, meaning to “revenue neutral,” you may want to look at how the left-leaning Tax Policy Center defines the term.

Revenue-neutral. A term applied to tax proposals in which provisions that raise revenues offset provisions that lose revenues so the proposal in total has no net revenue cost or increase.

I often disagree with the folks at the Tax Policy Center, but I’ve never questioned their honesty.

So when we both agree on the definition of ‘revenue neutral,” this is slam-dunk confirmation that it’s preposterously dishonest to count new spending as an offset to a tax increase.

P.S. Some of my friends and allies who supported the Fair Tax sometimes played fast and loose with the truth. That plan would have required the government to send “prebate” checks to households to partly compensate people for the new tax, yet supporters would argue that this expenditure shouldn’t count as a new entitlement program. While my first choice for tax reform is the flat tax, I certainly think a national sales tax would be a far better way to tax than the mess we have today, but that did not justify mischaracterizing the plan.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Has the Biggest Welfare State of All?

Sat, 01/26/2019 - 12:53pm

When I think about social welfare spending, I mostly worry about recipients getting trapped in dependency.

But I also feel sorry for taxpayers, who are bearing ever-higher costs to finance redistribution programs.

Today’s column won’t focus on those issues. Instead, we’re going to utilize new OECD data to compare the size of the welfare states in developed nations.

We’ll start with the big picture. Here it total redistribution spending, measured as a share of economic output, for selected countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nobody will be surprised, I assume, to see that France, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, and Italy have the biggest welfare states.

The United States is in the middle of the pack. American taxpayers might be surprised to learn, though, that they finance a bigger welfare state than the ones that exist in Canada, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

The overall numbers are important, but it’s also educational to consider the various components.

And the largest chunk of social spending in most nations is for their old-age programs. The biggest burdens are found in Greece, Italy, France, Portugal, and Austria. The United States, once again, is in the middle of the pack.

By the way, keep in mind that there are many factors that determine why some nations spend more than others.

  • How generous are benefits? – This is often measured as the “replacement rate,” which compares retirement benefits to income during working years.
  • When can people retire? – Some countries allow people, or some classes of people, to get benefits while relatively young. Others are more stringent.
  • Does a country have an aging population? – Demographic changes already are beginning to have a large effect on the finances of some systems.
  • Is there a private savings system? – Nations such as SwitzerlandAustraliaChile, and the Netherlands have significant private retirement savings.

Now let’s look at government spending on health.

Here’s the area where the United States is more extravagant than almost every other nation. Only France spends more money.

Actually, since per-capita GDP is significantly larger in the United States than in France, American taxpayers spend more on a per-person basis.

Some people will observe, with great justification, that the data for the United States may be a measure of the inefficiency of the American system rather than taxpayer generosity. This is a topic for another day.

Last but not least, let’s look at traditional welfare. In other words, cash assistance to the working-age population.

The fiscal burden of this spending is highest in Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Luxembourg. The United States, meanwhile, is comparatively frugal.

P.S. Here are a couple of caveats for number crunchers and policy wonks.

First, there are methodological challenges when comparing OECD nations. Eastern European nations tend to be significantly less prosperous than Western European nations, thanks to decades of communist enslavement. So looking at this data does not really allow for apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, there are a handful of developing nations that belong to the OECD, such as Mexico and Turkey, so comparison are effectively meaningless. And Chile is on the cusp of becoming a fully developed nation so it’s in its own category.

Second, as I briefly mentioned above, nations have different levels of per-capita GDP. If we look at the last chart, Austria and Spain spend a similar share of GDP on welfare, but since Austria is a richer nation, its taxpayers actually finance a lot more per-capita welfare spending. The same is true if you compare Canada and Estonia, Sweden and Slovenia, and Germany and Greece.

P.P.S. There was virtually no welfare state in OECD nations prior to the 1930s and very small welfare states until the 1960s. For what it’s worth, the huge reduction in poverty in those nations occurred before the welfare state.

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