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Amazon’s Shameful Effort to Sabotage Small Businesses

Tue, 02/02/2021 - 12:53pm

Assuming they behave ethically and earn money honestly, I applaud big companies and their wealthy owners.

That’s why I recently defended Jeff Bezos’ large fortune. The owner of Amazon mostly (but not entirely) became rich by providing value to the rest of us.

Today, though, I’m very disappointed in Bezos and Amazon. Why? Because the company wants to use the coercive power of government to screw over its competitors in the small business community.

Here’s a look at the company’s full-page advertisement in support of a higher minimum wage.

As a very rich company that already relies on a high degree of automation, it easily can afford to pay $15 per hour and above to every employee.

Indeed, it made a very showy decision back in 2018 to have a company-wide floor on compensation. Which is their choice.

But it’s utterly despicable to then climb in bed with politicians and urge a costly mandate on small-business competitors.

And it’s utterly callous for the company to take such a step when it will means unemployment for hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of workers with marginal skills.

The company is behaving just as badly as the unions that push higher minimum wages in order to push competing workers out of the market.

P.S. Don’t forget that many state governments already screwed over small businesses by mandating their closure while not imposing the same pandemic-related restrictions on Amazon and big box stores.

P.P.S. It is possible that Amazon is also motivated by a desire to appease the Biden Administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress. In other words, the company openly endorses statist policies such as the higher minimum wage in hopes that it won’t be targeted with other actions (antitrustwealth tax, etc). Or maybe Amazon has a deal to support the higher minimum wage in exchange for the Biden Administration opposing the European Union’s tax raid on American tech companies. But those excuses don’t justify screwing over small businesses and low-skill workers.

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Image credit: Christian Harrison | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Will the Supreme Court Limit Tax Imperialism by Massachusetts?

Mon, 02/01/2021 - 12:39pm

On the rare occasions when I write about the Supreme Court, it’s usually to grouse that the Justices don’t defend the Constitution’s limits on the federal government.

For example, the Court engaged in tortured reasoning to rule in favor of Obamacare even though there’s nothing in Article 1, Section 8, that gives Washington the power to mandate the purchase of health insurance (though that awful decision by Chief Justice John Roberts looks brilliant compared to the even-worse 1942 decision that gave Washington the power to control whether a farmer could grow grain on his own farm to feed his own hogs).

But perhaps the Supreme Court can make up for some past mistakes by accepting – and then properly deciding – a case from New Hampshire.

The Granite State wants to block the government of Massachusetts from imposing taxes on people who live and work in New Hampshire.

For some background on this legal battle, the Wall Street Journal has a new editorial on this topic.

Can a state collect income tax from nonresidents working remotely for in-state businesses? Massachusetts, New York and some other states claim they can, and now New Hampshire is asking the Supreme Court to protect its citizens from this tax grab. …New Hampshire, which imposes no income tax on wages, last fall sued Massachusetts and is asking the Supreme Court to hear its case (N.H. v. Mass.). “Massachusetts has unilaterally imposed an income tax within New Hampshire that New Hampshire, in its sovereign discretion, has deliberately chosen not to impose,” says the Granite State. Under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, states can only collect taxes that are “fairly apportioned” and “fairly related to the services provided by the State” within their borders. …Massachusetts and other states are forcing nonresidents to pay income taxes even though they don’t use public services. …If the Court doesn’t intervene, remote workers who are unfairly taxed by other states will have no recourse for redress beyond biased state tax tribunals. States like California may copy the Massachusetts and New York playbook.

Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globeargues his state is one the wrong side of this fight.

In April, the Department of Revenue published an “emergency regulation” declaring that any income earned by a nonresident who used to work in Massachusetts but was now telecommuting from out of state “will continue to be treated as Massachusetts source income subject to personal income tax.” For the first time ever, Massachusetts was claiming the authority to tax income earned by persons who neither lived nor worked in Massachusetts. …Massachusetts has indeed injured New Hampshire… It has launched what amounts to an attack on a fundamental aspect of New Hampshire’s sovereign identity — its principled refusal to tax the income of New Hampshire residents earned in New Hampshire. It was one thing for Massachusetts to withhold taxes from New Hampshire residents for income earned within the borders of Massachusetts. With its new tax rule, however, Massachusetts is reaching over the border to extract taxes, thereby undermining a core New Hampshire policy. …the Supreme Court has the power to shut down such overreaching. And now, thanks to New Hampshire, it has the opportunity.

Professor Ilya Somin from George Mason University’s law school elaborates in a column for Reason.

New Hampshire v. Massachusetts…has some real merit, and also has important implications for the future of American federalism. …New Hampshire’s motion…in the Supreme Court outlines two theories as to why the Massachusetts rule is unconstitutional: it violates the Dormant Commerce Clause (which prevents states from regulating and taxing economic activity beyond their borders), and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which has long been held to bar state taxation of people who neither live nor work within its borders. Both arguments build on one of the bedrock principles of American federalism: that state sovereignty is territorial in nature. States do not have the power to regulate and tax activity beyond their borders. …most of Massachusetts’ arguments rely on the notion that the NH workers in question have close connections to the Massachusetts economy and benefit from interacting with it . Therefore the state claims it has a right to keep taxing them as before. …If Massachusetts prevails…, it could potentially have dire implication for the growing number of people who work as remote employees for firms located in another state. The latter state could tax their income even if they never set foot there. This would also make it much harder for people to “vote with their feet” for states with lower taxes, better public policies, and other advantages. …The “Live Free or Die State” deserves to win this important case.

The above columns mostly focus on the legal aspects of the case.

From my perspective, I’m more concerned about upholding the principle that the economic powers of governments should be constrained by borders.

That’s the reason why I defend so-called tax havens, even when that leads to abuse (government officials engaging in everything from name calling to legal threats). Simply stated, high-tax nations shouldn’t have the right to tax economic activity that occurs inside the borders of low-tax jurisdictions.

After all, if we want to constrain “Goldfish Government,” taxpayers need some ability to escape oppressive tax regimes.

The bottom line is that the Supreme Court should take this opportunity to limit the Bay State’s greedy politicians.

P.S. This case is partly a fight between proponents of territorial taxation (the good guys) and proponents of extraterritorial taxation (the bad guys).

P.P.S. The Supreme Court unfortunately did recently rule on the wrong side of a case involving extraterritorial taxation.

P.P.P.S. If you want a practical example of what this means, read this column about the taxation of successful Olympic athletes.

Libertarianism in Pictures

Sun, 01/31/2021 - 12:26pm

Since yesterday’s column showed “Statism in Five Images,” I feel obliged to provide equal time and now do the same thing for libertarianism.

We’ll start with an accurate depiction of how libertarians compare to other ideologies (similar to the triangle I created back in 2019).

If you prefer a shorter way of describing libertarians, this image is a decent summary.

By the way, if you want to know whether you’re a libertarian, just take one of these quizzes.

And, if you get a high score, you don’t necessarily have to become a weird libertarian. Like the guy in this image.

It’s better to be the kind of libertarian (you have 24 choices) who gets into pointless arguments.

For what it’s worth, I’m the type of person who became a libertarian simply because I don’t like the inanefoolishcorruptdestructive, petty, nonsensicalwasteful, and brainless decisions of politicians and bureaucrats (both in America and abroad).

So you can see why this is my favorite image from today’s choices.

If you want other humorous but serious visual depictions of libertarianism, click herehere, and here.

Statism in Five Images

Sat, 01/30/2021 - 12:22pm

Back in 2018, I shared five images that accurately capture leftism, which is the Mussolini-ish notion of “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” (one of the images was subsequently deleted, so you can enjoy this column if you want five of them).

Today, we’re going to look at five more example that reveal the statist mindset.

We’ll start with this algorithm showing how our leftist friends analyze real and imagined problems.

It’s especially frustrating that they inevitably decide that the proper response to government-caused problems is more power for government.

Anyhow, here’s a picture of two of those leftists.

Speaking of government, here’s a cartoon showing the attitude statists have when they obtain power.

Yes, there are serious ways of explaining why the private sector does a better job, but sometimes humor is an effective way of making that point.

Next, we have this clever meme.

The opposite of libertarianism, to say the very least.

I’ve saved the best for last, as usual.

By the way, I’ve never considered Dwight Eisenhower to be a great president like Reagan or Coolidge, but he made a similar point about prison being an ideal leftist world.

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Image credit: nrkbeta | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Coronavirus and Federalism

Fri, 01/29/2021 - 12:35pm

I was a big fan of federalism (to the extent it still exists) before any of us ever heard of the coronavirus.

And, given the federal government’s incompetent response to the pandemic, I’m an even bigger fan of federalism today.

Though that doesn’t mean states are paragons of efficiency and competence. Here’s a map from the New York Times showing the percent of each state’s population that has receive at least one shot of the vaccine.

Why is Oklahoma doing so much better than Kansas? Why is West Virginia so far ahead of Pennsylvania?

Part of the answer is whether the states were willing to let Washington micro-manage their delivery.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized a few days ago about lessons we should learn.

The gap continues to grow between states that are getting shots into arms, and those arguing over who gets what and when. North Dakota had administered some 84% of its supply as of Jan. 23, and West Virginia about 83%—far better than states like California (45%) or Alabama (47%). Federalism is showing what works—and what doesn’t. …The risk is that Team Biden tries to micromanage state administration of the vaccine, especially now that the media, Democrats and some public-health officials are blaming slow state rollouts on a “vacuum” of federal leadership. But vaccine administration was always intended to be state-led, and too many jurisdictions squandered the ample time they had for preparation. …the biggest state mistakes so far have been adhering too much to the federal government’s initial guidance… The states with the highest per capita vaccination rates are all rule-breakers—Alaska (12,885 per 100,000), West Virginia (11,321), and North Dakota (9,602) as of Jan. 23. Top performers also thought creatively about how best to distribute and administer the vaccine, even if that meant departing from federal advice. …Mr. Biden is under pressure from the left to infuse the vaccine rollout with “equity” politics. As California (5,568 per 100,000) and New York (5,816 per 100,000) show, such bickering is a recipe for fewer vaccines and more deaths.

George Will, opining in today’s Washington Post, adds his two cents to the discussion, citing Philip Howard’s work on inflexible bureaucracy.

The covid-19 tragedy teaches this: Government is more apt to achieve adequacy when it does not try to achieve purity. …the benefits of federalism: Among 50 governors, at least a few are apt to be wiser and nimbler than the federal bureaucracy. …there are too many lawyers and too much law, and that both surpluses are encouraged by misbegotten ideas about ideal governance. “…This is not an unavoidable side-effect of big government, but a deliberate precept of its operating philosophy. Law will not only set goals and governing principles, but it will also dictate exactly how to implement those goals correctly.” …Then the pandemic arrived. Red tape prevented public health officials from using tests they possessed or buying tests overseas. To function, hospitals had to jettison myriad dictates about restrictions on telemedicine, ambulance equipment and many other matters. …The Progressive Era project that began 120 years ago got its second wind 60 years ago. …A virulent, fast-moving and mutating virus is teaching the cost of this.

Normally, I would argue against any government involvement.

In this case, however, taxpayers financed a big chunk of the development, so I’ll begrudgingly acknowledge that this gives politicians and bureaucrats the right to make allocation decisions.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize those decisions when they result in mistakes. Especially since delayed vaccine rollout literally can result in needless deaths.

There are no perfect answers in this kind of situation, but surely we would be in better shape if Washington simply distributed the vaccines to the states, with the assumption that they would immunize as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

Yes, some states would bungle the process (as we’re seeing in poorly governed jurisdictions such as New York and California), but a big advantage of federalism is that residents might learn from the superior performance of other states that they need better-quality elected officials.

Federalism was the right way of deciding lockdown policies, and it’s the right way of determining vaccination policies.

P.S. In his column, George Will cites Philip Howard, who thinks bureaucratic rules from Washington are too rigid. I certainly agree that a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach is misguided, but regulatory flexibility can be a recipe for corruption and cronyism. The right approach is to end federal involvement whenever possible.

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Image credit: Shaw Girl | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

What Matters More to Biden: Union Bosses or Poor Children?

Thu, 01/28/2021 - 12:07pm

I have a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to highlight government employees who have turned sloth and overcompensation into an art form, and I have a Moocher Hall of Fame to illustrate the destructive entitlement mindset that exists when politicians pay people to do nothing.

I’m now thinking we also need another Hall of Fame to bring attention to the despicable people who oppose school choice because currying favor with teacher unions is more important than giving poor children an opportunity for a good education.

Some of the charter members would include:

And we many need to include Joe Biden on this tawdry list.

We’ll know soon enough. There’s a federally funded school choice program in Washington, DC, and time will tell whether the President intends to kill it.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Virginia Walden Ford expresses hope that President Biden won’t sacrifice the needs of minority children in the nation’s capital.

I hope his administration doesn’t tear down a program that has brought hope to thousands of African-American children in the District of Columbia. In 2004, Congress created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. …In 2020-21, 82% of scholarship recipients identified as African-American and another 12% as Hispanic. While scholarships for poor children of color should hold bipartisan appeal, the…2020 Biden-Sanders “unity” platform went out of its way to recommend defunding the program.

Ms. Ford isn’t opposed to government schools, but she does want poor kids to have the same opportunity as Joe Biden’s kids.

I strongly support both public education and school choice. I attended public schools, and my father served as the first African-American school administrator in Little Rock, Ark.—for which my family received a burning cross on our front yard. …What really undermines public education is attempts from elites to keep good education for themselves… Mr. Biden’s children went to private schools. Why shouldn’t my former neighbors in Southeast Washington have the opportunity to do so too?

I’ll close by observing that many of the people opposing school choice are total hypocrites. They send their kids to private schools while fighting to deny hope and opportunity for children from poor families.

Including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Obama’s Education Secretary, both of whom also would be charter members of a new Hall of Fame for policy makers who care more about union bosses than poor kids.

There are folks on the left who have genuine integrity on this issue, including the editors at the Washington Post.

P.S. At the risk of stating the obvious, the solution is not dumping more money into government-run schools. We’ve tried that and tried that and tried thatover and over again, and it never works.

For example, Bush’s No Child Left Behind (which I call No Bureaucrat Left Behind) was a failure, as was Obama’s Common Core.

Instead of throwing good money after bad and imposing more centralization, getting rid of the Department of Education in Washington would be a far-preferable approach (we’d be copying Canada with that approach).

P.P.S. If you want evidence on the benefits of school choice, click hereherehereherehere, and here.

There’s also international evidence from SwedenChileCanada, and the Netherlands, all of which shows superior results when competition replaces government education monopolies.

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Image credit: InstagramFOTOGRAFIN | Pixabay License.

No, the Government Shouldn’t Punish Retail Investors Because of Bad Hedge Fund Bets

Wed, 01/27/2021 - 4:57pm

Retail investors have hit hedge fund short sellers with billions in losses in just a matter of days, and more are on the way. Some commentators are now calling for SEC investigations or new government regulations, but retail investors have done nothing wrong, and the government should reject indignant calls to punish David for daring to take down Goliath.

GameStop ($GME) stock, a struggling brick-and-mortar retailer of new and used video games, was trading around $4 last summer. For most of today it’s been in the $300s. Now $AMC and others are making similar big jumps. So what gives?

If you listen to much of the coverage, you might think this is irrational exuberance or evidence of a bubble about to pop. And maybe it is those things, but what this framing leaves out is the role of savvy investors seizing an opportunity for big profits.

Large funds shorted over 100% of $GME. They all but bet on the company to go bankrupt, but once enough money flowed in they were forced to scramble to cover potentially unlimited losses. As prices rose, they were forced to buy shares to cover their shorts, driving prices up even further.

The hedge funds simply bet wrong, but regulatory scrutiny is coming and, along with it, the possibility that the government will succumb to Wall Street pressure to change the rules.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here it should be for funds to consider more closely their overexposure through excessive short positions. But some seem to think it’s the small retail investors who should be restricted going forward.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with shorting. It improves the market’s price discovery function. But a short position is a big risk, and it’s not the proper role of government or the market exchanges to protect participants from the consequences of losing a risky bet. Short squeezes are how the market self-regulates such behavior.

Any effort to clamp down on retail investors, such as by shutting down the forums they use to communicate or making it harder for them to participate in the market, must be adamantly opposed.

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Image credit: EPIC | CC BY-SA 4.0.

Blacks, Trump, and Media Bias

Tue, 01/26/2021 - 12:54pm

I rarely write about media bias, but I sometimes come across stories that cry out for correction because of blatant inaccuracies.

We’re going to add to the list today.

In a story for the Washington Post, Tracy Jan (aided by Seung Min Kim and Emily Guskin) argue that the Trump’s policies were bad news for African Americans.

Black voters overwhelmingly chose Biden, with 87 percent casting their ballots for him… Trump presided over the most unequal recession in modern American history because of his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. …Economists say that rather than champion economic policies targeting average Black Americans, who are more likely to work low-wage jobs without health and retirement benefits, Trump’s annual budgets proposed eviscerating the social safety net, with cuts to housing, food stamps and health care.

I have two minor comments and one major comment.

The first minor comment is that Trump never proposed to eviscerate the so-called social safety net. Indeed, he increased domestic spending faster than Obama.

The second minor comment is that the recession was caused by the coronavirus, not by Trump’s policies.

The major comment is that Ms. Jan and her two colleagues wrote a lengthy story (more than 2,000 words) and never once mentioned or acknowledged that the black poverty rate fell to a record low during the Trump years.

Or that median household income for blacks rose to a record high.

This is a shocking level of journalistic malpractice. Sort of like writing about the Cold War without ever mentioning the Soviet Union.

By the way, I’m not saying that a pro-Trump spin was needed. They could have written about the poverty and income data and offered alternative explanations for why there were good numbers.

Heck, that’s what I did.

To be fair, the article does acknowledge that unemployment rate for African Americans fell to a record low during the Trump years.

…the Black unemployment rate’s record low average of 6.1 percent over 2019 — a steady improvement that had begun during the Obama administration — remained double that of Whites.

Though the obvious implication is that Trump doesn’t deserve any credit for a trend that started under Obama.

Which is certainly a legitimate argument, though honest journalists would have cited some people making the counter argument that his policies did make a difference (for what it’s worth, I think it’s a combination of both).

P.S. I’ll add another minor comment. The story quotes several people (all on the left side of the political spectrum) on how African Americans ostensibly will benefit if there is a bigger welfare state and more redistribution.

It’s certainly appropriate to write about that perspective, but why didn’t the three journalists bother to cite at least one person who could have pointed out the inverse relationship between social-welfare spending and the poverty rate?

Or cite at least one person who could have pointed out that low-income people in the United States enjoy higher living standards than middle class people in nations with bigger welfare states?

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Image credit: rawpixel.com | CC0 Public Domain.

Is France Suffering from Excessive Austerity?

Mon, 01/25/2021 - 12:31pm

If asked to describe French economic policy, rational people will use phrases such as “big government” and “high taxes.” Or perhaps “dirigisme” and “bureaucracy.”

And they would be correct.

Here’s a chart from the OECD, showing spending burdens for major European nations. In a continent that’s known for big welfare states and costly government, France (highlighted in red) easily ranks as the worst of the worst.

France also ranks as the worst of the worst when looking just at spending on social welfare programs.

Indeed, it’s probably just a matter of time before the country becomes another Greece.

But none of these facts matter to Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist who thinks her nation’s government is too small.

I’m not joking. She actually wrote a column for the Washington Post asserting that France’s response to the corornavirus has been hampered by fiscal austerity.

…the government has failed multiple times at handling the crisis… It was a shock for citizens to discover that France — the world’s seventh largest economy, widely praised for its remarkable health system — could end up struggling to cover the basic needs of its hospitals. But was it a total surprise? Not really. …President Emmanuel Macron…policies…favored the richest fringes of the population while abandoning workers who did not earn enough to cover their necessities. …Under Macron, more than $3 billion (2.6 billion euros) has been cut from public hospitals in 2018 and 2019 — far more than under his predecessor. And it took the pandemic to ensure there were no further cuts to this vital infrastructure. …a politician who claimed he intended to govern a “start-up nation” and thereby support a neoliberal agenda. …For the past two decades, French public services have been damaged by austerity rules… The major health crisis has exposed the serious damages caused by the neoliberal turn implemented in France. At a moment when effective public services are needed more than ever before, austerity is a threat not only to the social stability but also the well-being of the population.

Wow. I’m reminded of the official from Belgium (3rd-biggest fiscal burden in the above chart) who complained a few years ago about “the small size of the Belgian government.”

These people must live in an alternative universe where facts don’t matter.

By the way, if Ms. Diallo is actually interested in “the well-being of the population,” I wonder what she thinks of the OECD data that shows that people in the bottom 10 percent in the United States are better off than the average middle class person in France?

Given that the United States, with its medium-sized government, does so much better than France, with its large-sized government, how can she reconcile those numbers with her dogmatic view that society will be better off if government is even bigger?

Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath expecting her to address these issues.

But the people of France have noticed something is wrong. Many of them would flee to the United States if they had the opportunity.

P.S. Regarding the title of Ms. Diallo’s column, neoliberal is the term used in Europe for classical liberals – i.e., advocates of small government and individual liberty.

P.P.S. The current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has expressed some sympathy for market-oriented reforms, which may explain Ms. Diallo’s hostility (but does not justify her inaccuracy).

A Battlefield Conversion on Fiscal Policy for the GOP

Sat, 01/23/2021 - 12:07pm

I have relentlessly criticized Republicans in recent years for being profligate big spenders.

But I have some good news. The GOP is finding religion and is once again fretting about big government.

The bad news is that many of them are total hypocrites.

The only reason that they’re now beating their chests about fiscal responsibility is that there’s now a Democrat in the White House pushing for big government rather than a Republican in the White House pushing for big government.

Talking a few days ago with Politifact, I remarked on the GOP’s battlefield conversion.

“The very narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will make big policy changes difficult for Biden,” said Daniel Mitchell, a conservative economist with decades of experience in Washington. “Republicans were big spenders under Trump, but they’ll dust off their fiscal conservatism rhetoric with Biden in the White House. …”There will be unanimous, or near-unanimous, GOP opposition to the tax increases,” Mitchell said. That could make passage difficult.

I’m not the only one to notice Republicans change their spots when Democrats are in charge.

In her Washington Post column, Catherine Rampell also notes their hypocrisy.

It’s almost like clockwork. As soon as a Democrat enters the White House, Republicans pretend to care about deficits again. …And so Republicans laid the groundwork for blocking the Biden administration’s request for more covid-19 fiscal relief, on the grounds that further spending is not merely unnecessary but also irresponsible. …These foul-weather fiscal hawks neglect to mention, …before the coronavirus pandemic — the Republican-controlled Senate passed and President Donald Trump signed spending bills that added…$2 trillion to deficits.

If Ms. Rampell’s column focused solely on Republicans behaving inconsistently, I would fully applaud.

Unfortunately, she also used the opportunity to make some assertions that deserve some pushback. Beginning with what she said about the 2017 tax reform.

…the GOP’s prized 2017 tax cuts added nearly $2 trillion to deficits.

It is true that the legislation is a short-run tax cut, but there’s no long-run revenue reduction because many of the provisions expire at the end of 2025.

And, as Brian Riedl made clear in this chart, the tax cuts only play a tiny role even if all the provisions ultimately are made permanent.

Ms. Rampell then makes a Keynesian argument that more spending would be stimulative.

…the U.S. economy actually needs more federal spending, and President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion plan… Republicans objecting to Biden’s proposal…seem to be writing off the need for more relief entirely, at least now that a Democrat is president.

Is she right about Republican hypocrisy? Yes.

Is she right that bigger government produces growth? No.

If Biden and the Democrats were simply arguing that some level of handouts are needed and justified to compensate for government-mandated shutdowns, I wouldn’t be happy, but I also wouldn’t complain.

But I do object to the mechanistic argument that government can magically produce prosperity by borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pocket.

At best, the borrow-and-spend approach only produces a transitory bump in consumption, but does nothing for real problem of inadequate income (which is why we should focus on GDI rather than GDP).

She also engages in a bit of historical revisionism about Obama’s failed stimulus from 2009.

This is, not coincidentally, almost exactly what they did about a decade ago. …Republicans suddenly demanded to turn off fiscal (and monetary) spigots once Barack Obama was elected.

In reality, Republicans didn’t control either the House or Senate in Obama’s first two years. He was able to adopt his so-called stimulus. And the economy was stagnant.

Republicans did win the House at the end of 2010 and were somewhat successful in controlling spending for the next few years. And that’s when the economy did better.

Just like it did better during the Reagan and Clinton years when there was spending restraint.

To put this discussion in the proper context, I’ll close with another chart from Brian Riedl. The long-run problem we face is not red ink. Deficits and debt are merely the symptom of the real problem of excessive government spending.

P.S. I wish Politicifact had identified me as a libertarian. I’m only willing to be called a conservative if that means Reaganism, but I worry it now means Trumpism.

The Destabilizing Mix of Demography and Entitlements, Part II

Fri, 01/22/2021 - 12:18pm

A few days ago, I shared some slides from a presentation to an e-symposium organized by Trends Research in Abu Dhabi.

Here’s a video of my presentation, which includes 16 visuals to drive home the point that the world is facing a demographic/entitlement crisis.

Today, I want to share five more visuals to underscore the severity and magnitude of this catastrophe.

But before we look at the charts, I’ll start by saying this isn’t a fast-developing problem. It’s taken several decades to get where we are now and most nations probably have several decades before an actual crisis materializes.

Though what’s already happened in Greece (and what’s presumably about to happen in Italy) should underscore the seriousness of this issue.

This issue is global, as illustrated by this chart showing the staggering shift that will happen to the world’s population. Simply stated, there are going to be lots and lots of old people, but no concomitant increase in the number of children.

It’s not just that there’s not a corresponding increase in the number of children.

The real story is that birthrates are plummeting.

The data for Europe is particularly sobering.

Here’s a look at some other nations that face big fertility declines.

By the way, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with families deciding they want fewer children.

But it does create a big fiscal problem because governments have tax-and-transfer entitlement programs that were created when everyone thought there would always be ever-larger generations.

But that’s not happening now, which explains why the world is going from eight workers per retiree to four workers per retiree.

That’s the global data. For many developed regions, such as Europe, the situation is far more challenging.

And the United States isn’t far behind.

I’ll close by observing that there’s actually a very simple solution to this problem. We need genuine entitlement reform.

Sadly, that definitely didn’t happen in the past four years in the United States. And it also won’t be happening in the next four years.

P.S. Hong Kong and Singapore have very low birth rates and very long lifespans, but those jurisdictions are in reasonably good shape because they didn’t make the mistake of imposing western-style welfare states.

P.P.S. Some have argued that the demographic problem can be solved by having government-created incentives for fertility. At the risk of understatement, I’m skeptical of that approach.

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Image credit: Matthias Zomer | Pexels License.

The Case Against Biden’s Class-Warfare Tax Policy, Part IV

Thu, 01/21/2021 - 12:51pm

I’ve shared three reasons why Biden’s tax plan is misguided (the tax code is biased against rich taxpayers, the tax hike would have Laffer-Curve implications, and it would saddle America with the world’s highest corporate tax burden).

For Part IV of the series, let’s explain why every piece of his plan will backfire.

There are three main arguments for higher taxes, though I don’t find any of them convincing.

  1. Spite and envy against successful entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and business owners.
  2. Bringing more money to Washington to finance a larger burden of government spending.
  3. Bringing more money to Washington to ostensibly lower the burden of deficits and debt.

For what it’s worth, Biden’s proposed spending increases are far larger than his proposed tax increases, so we can rule out reason #3.

So we have to ask ourselves whether reasons #1 and #2 are compelling.

And when considering those two arguments, we also should ask whether those reasons are sufficiently compelling to justify throwing millions of Americans into unemployment and reducing the nation’s competitiveness.

The answer should be a resounding no.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal from last July, Philip DeMuth elaborated on the damage that would be inflicted by Biden’s class-warfare agenda.

Mr. Biden has proposed to reinstate the Obama tax rates for top earners while simultaneously imposing an unlimited 12.4% Social Security payroll tax on earnings over $400,000. …Mr. Biden proposes to eliminate the capital gains reset to fair market value at death. For long-term holdings, much of that gain is merely inflation, created by the government’s failure to maintain price stability, so this is effectively a tax on a tax. The remaining gains are usually from corporate earnings, which were already taxed once, when they came in the door. It will be difficult to keep your business or farm in the family if the Biden scheme forces it to be liquidated to pay the death taxes. …If a President Biden has his way, the top capital-gains tax rate will be 39.6%—the same as for ordinary income. This could be a triple whammy: cutting the estate tax exemption in half, eliminating the capital gains reset to fair market value, and then doubling the capital-gains tax rate. A small step for the government, a giant loss for the American family. …The former vice president’s ambitious spending programs would more than offset any new revenue from his tax proposals. …This isn’t a debate between growing the pie vs. redistributing the pie; it is about everyone settling for a smaller pie.

The final two sentences deserve extra attention.

First, nobody should be deluded that tax increases will be used to reduce red ink. Yes, Biden is proposing to collect a lot more money, but he’s proposing about $2 of new spending for every $1 of projected tax revenue.

Brian Riedl’s Chartbook has the grim details on Biden’s spending agenda.

Second, the point about “growing the pie” is critically important since even a very small reduction in long-run growth will have a surprisingly large impact on household finances within a few decades.

The bottom line is that living standards in the United States are significantly higher than living standards in Europe, in large part because fiscal burdens are not as onerous in America.

Biden’s plan to make America more like FranceItaly, and Greece is not a good idea.

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

Ranking Presidents: Trump’s Mixed Economic Record

Wed, 01/20/2021 - 4:34pm

Since both political parties have sent good and bad people to the White House, I don’t think it makes much sense to compare all Democratic presidents vs all Republican presidents.

But we can learn a lot by looking at the track record of specific presidents. I’ve done that with several past chief executives (WilsonHooverFDRNixonReaganBush IClintonBush II, and Obama), and today we’re going to assess Trump’s performance.

The bottom line, as you can see from the chart, is that he did really well in some areas and really poorly in other areas, so his overall record was flat. Or perhaps slightly negative.

The bottom line is that Trump was good on taxes and bad on spending and trade.

And there were some very positive moves on regulation, but they were partly offset by areas where Trump increased intervention (coal subsidiesproperty rightsFannie/Freddie, and international tax rules, for instance).

By the way, I’d like to give Trump a negative grade for his failure to address entitlements, but, in the interest of fairness, I only include actual policy changes.

Having given my big-picture assessment, here are some columns and articles that offer interesting insights.

We’ll start with some pro-Trump analysis. Professor Casey Mulligan opined in the Wall Street Journal that he restored growth (until the coronavirus, of course).

The Obama administration promulgated hundreds of new federal regulations that protected certain special interests from market competition. The beneficiaries included large banks, trial lawyers, big tech, major health-insurance companies, labor unions and foreign drug manufacturers. President Trump promised to undo all that, and in many cases succeeded, sometimes with the help of a Republican Congress. …Mr. Trump also helped remove government obstacles to innovation and competition in health care. Democrats will tell you that the first calendar-year drop in retail prescription drug prices in 46 years was mere coincidence, not the result of deregulation. …The Fed and the Obama economic team overpredicted growth almost every year from 2010-16. When growth failed to meet their rosy predictions, Mr. Obama’s advisers blamed the poor economic performance on America itself. …No one in Washington predicted that small business optimism would skyrocket to record levels when Mr. Trump was elected, that real wages would grow again (especially for blue-collar workers), that business formation would hit 20th-century highs, or that poverty and unemployment rates would quickly fall to record lows for Hispanics and African-Americans.  …Although Mr. Trump’s economic policy was imperfect, it was preferable by a long shot to Mr. Obama’s, which punished work, hiring and success rather than rewarding them. 

And here’s a chart that definitely makes Trump look good compared to Obama.

Those numbers will look much worse once 2020 numbers are included, but I won’t blame Trump for coronavirus-caused economic havoc (though I also don’t give him full credit for the good data in 2019).

Now let’s look at some less-than-flattering analysis.

Jeffrey Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research lists some of Trump’s statist policies.

From 2015, even from his first public speeches following his presidential run, it was clear that Donald Trump was not a conservative in the Reagan tradition… This is not an American ideal. It’s not about freedom, rights, the rule of law, much less the limits on government. …Trump’s first year began with a more traditional Republican agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and non-progressive court appointments. …That all changed on January 22, 2018. …This was the beginning of the trade war that would expand to Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of Asia, and ultimately the entire world. …What he ended up seeking was nothing short of trade autarky. …In addition to this calamity, US government spending soared 47% while the money supply registered record increases as measured by M1. The effects of this debt and money printing will be felt through next year.

Rick Newman wrote for Yahoo that Trump’s fiscal performance makes him an honorary Democrat.

Trump’s last-second objection to the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill Congress approved after eight months of negotiation is an unexpected Christmas gift for Democrats. Trump says the $600 direct payment to most Americans contained in the bill is too small. He wants $2,000. Trump could have insisted on this while Congress was drafting the bill… Democrats are gleeful. They’d happily accept a supersized stimulus payment, and even better, they now get to watch Republicans battle each other as they try to figure out what to do about Trump. Some Congressional Republicans think $2,000 is too generous, and there’s no chance of that getting into the bill unless other provisions come out. 

Newman was focusing on Trump’s spending proclivities during the pandemic, but the assertion that “maybe Trump’s a Democrat” applies to his fiscal record during his first three years as well.

P.S. I didn’t rank Trump on monetary policy for the same reason I didn’t rank Obama on that issue. Simply stated, I think both of them pursued a misguided Keynesian approach of easy money and artificially low interest rates, but we don’t have firm evidence (yet) of negative consequences.

P.P.S. I also didn’t give Trump a grade, positive or negative, regarding coronavirus. The federal government failed, but those failures largely were independent of the White House.

P.P.P.S. I generally approved of Trump’s judicial appointments, but don’t includes judges in my assessments of economic policy (though I may have to change my mind if they restore the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty and limits on the power of Washington).

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

The Destabilizing Mix of Demography and Entitlements, Part I

Tue, 01/19/2021 - 2:32pm

I’ve written many times about demographic change and the implications for public policy – both in the United States and around the world.

Simply stated, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain tax-and-transfer entitlement programs in societies where people are having fewer children and people are living longer.

I’m raising this issue because I spoke on this topic earlier today at an e-symposium organized by Trends Research in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Here’s a slide with my main message.

Why is it bad news from an economic perspective?

As I noted in the next slide, tax-and-transfer entitlement programs for the elderly (most notably Social Security and Medicare in the United States) become harder to finance when there are lots of beneficiaries and too few taxpayers to support them.

So what’s going to happen in various nations when the irresistible force of more beneficiaries meets the immovable object of fewer taxpayers?

In my presentation, I pointed out that there are only three potential solutions.

I explained that higher tax burdens and higher debt levels would not be economically prudent.

The right approach is genuine entitlement reform, but I freely admitted that this “pre-funding” model probably won’t happen.

Here’s the relevant slide.

By the way, Singapore is the role model for pre-funding, but many other nations have adopted that approach for retirement income (such as IsraelDenmarkSwitzerlandHong KongNetherlandsFaroe Islands, and Sweden).

Unfortunately, most nations are heading for a demographic iceberg (including the U.S.) but I fear few of them will enact the reforms that are needed to avert a bad outcome.

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Image credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões | CC BY 2.0.

Teacher Unions vs. Students

Mon, 01/18/2021 - 11:04am

Coronavirus has been a dark cloud. But if we want to find a silver lining, the government’s bungled response to the pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in the government school monopoly.

And this could mean opportunity for competing structures that can do a better job of educating kids.

  • School choice – An approach where parents get vouchers that they can send their kids to schools, either government or private, that compete to best serve their needs and interests.
  • Home schooling – An approach where parents direct their children’s education, often in cooperation with other parents and experts who specialize in certain fields.
  • Charter schools – An approach where education entrepreneurs (often groups of parents) set up government schools that operate outside of the existing monopoly.

Even before the coronavirus, there was plenty of evidence against the government’s monopoly.

Politicians have been shoveling ever-larger amounts of money into the system. Yet student outcomes have not improved.

Why? Part of the answer is that too many schools systems are run for the benefit of teacher unions, with student outcomes being a secondary (at best) concern.

And that problem has become increasingly apparent because of the pandemic.

But, in an article for Reason, Matt Welch hopes the despicable behavior of teacher unions may lead to long-overdue reforms.

…in the COVID-scarred year of 2020. Teachers unions, and the (largely Democratic) politicians they back, have relentlessly limited parental choice in the name of maximizing the autonomy of teachers to opt out of classrooms while still getting paid. No other country in the industrialized world has closed schools down to this degree. …The remote learning that tens of millions of kids are suffering through nationally is broadly understood to be a disaster. The results are as predictable as day following night: Parents are pulling their kids out of public schools. …I’m furious that public schools have used our money to fail poor kids. …unions and their allies have made America a global outlier in keeping schools shut, driving parents away from the systems, and some cities, in droves. …the same guilds that have such a concentrated amount of power are soon going to find themselves having to explain to the rank and file just why there aren’t as many jobs anymore.

Or, maybe the union bosses should explain why sauce for the goose isn’t also sauce for the gander.

They vigorously defend their jobs and perks, but they often make sure their kids aren’t victimized by the system.

For instance, here’s the headline of a story forwarded to me by a reader.

Not that I’m surprised.

I’ve shared many examples of two-faced behavior by defenders of the government education monopoly – crummy schools for the children of ordinary people but high-quality private schools for their kids.

So can we hope for reform?

Most of the action will need to take place at the state and local level, but the federal government unfortunately has been playing a bigger role in schooling, so it’s also worth paying attention to what we’ll get from the Biden Administration.

In a column for New York, Jonathan Chait worries that Democrats are so cowed by teacher unions that they aren’t even willing to maintain support for charter schools.

…charter schools have produced dramatic learning gains for low-income minority students. In city after city, from New York to New Orleans, charters have found ways to reach the children who have been most consistently failed by traditional schools. The evidence for their success has become overwhelming, with apolitical education researchers pronouncing themselves shocked at the size of the gains. …in 2015, a survey focused on charters in urban districts, where education reformers have concentrated their energies (and where gains have outpaced suburban and rural areas). It found urban charters on average gave their students the equivalent of 40 additional school days of learning in math and 28 additional days of learning in reading every year. CREDO’s studies confirm the conclusion that the lottery studies have found: In most cases, urban charters now provide the same group of students much better instruction. …The ability of urban charters all over the country to get nonselective groups of poor, Black students to learn at the same level as students in affluent, middle-class schools is one of the great domestic-policy achievements in American history.

Chait is on the left, but he’s honest.

So he recognizes that this is a battle over what really matters – currying favor with teacher unions or delivering better education for kids.

The final element of charters’ formula is inescapably controversial. They prioritize the welfare of their students over those of their employees, which means paying teachers based on effectiveness rather than how long they’ve been on the job — and being able to fire the worst ones. …the traditional practice of granting teachers near-total job security, without any differentiation based on performance, is a disaster for children.

Sadly, many folks on the left have decided that union bosses matter more than children.

They’re even willing to condemn minority children to substandard education to keep the unions happy.

…the second outcome of the charter-school breakthrough has been a bitter backlash within the Democratic Party. The political standing of the idea has moved in the opposite direction of the data, as two powerful forces — unions and progressive activists — have come to regard charter schools as a plutocratic assault on public education and an ideological betrayal. …as Biden turns from campaigning to governing, whether he will follow through on his threats to rein them in — or heed the data and permit charter schools to flourish — is perhaps the most unsettled policy mystery of his emerging administration. …or many education specialists, the left’s near abandonment of charter schools has been a bleak spectacle of unlearning — the equivalent of Lincoln promising to rip out municipal water systems or Eisenhower pledging to ban the polio vaccine. …Today, teachers unions have adopted a militant defense of the tenure prerogatives of their least effective members, equating that stance with a defense of the teaching profession as a whole. They have effectively mobilized progressives (and resurgent socialist activists) to their cause, which they identify as a defense of “public education”.

The actions of white leftists is particularly disgusting.

Polls show that the backlash against charters has been mainly confined to white liberals, while Black and Latino Democrats — whose children are disproportionately enrolled in those schools — remain supportive.

Though there are exceptions, to be sure. Not just Chait, but even the editors at the Washington Post.

But I fear too many Democrats have made a deal with the devil.

Teacher unions bring money and votes to the table. Meanwhile, many Democrats take for granted the votes of minorities. Given these real-world considerations, it makes sense (from a self-interest perspective) to side with the union bosses.

But from a humanitarian perspective, that’s an awful choice.

For what it’s worth, I have zero hope that Biden will be sympathetic to genuine school choice. But there’s a chance he could follow Obama and be somewhat open to charter schools.

And if that happens because of the coronavirus, that will indeed be a silver lining.

P.S. School choice doesn’t automatically mean every child will be an educational success, but evidence from SwedenChileCanada, and the Netherlands shows superior results when competition replaces government education monopolies.

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

The Case Against Biden’s Class-Warfare Tax Policy, Part III

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 11:00am

In Part I of this series, I explained that President-Elect Biden’s soak-the-rich agenda didn’t make sense because the internal revenue code already is very biased against upper-income taxpayers. Indeed, the U.S. tax system is even more weighted against the rich than the tax codes of nations such as France and Sweden.

In Part II of this series, I explained that Biden’s proposed reincarnation of Obamanomics would not be a recipe for increased federal revenues. Simply stated, higher tax rates on productive behavior will lead to macro-economic and micro-economic responses that have the effect of producing lower-than-expected revenues.

For today’s addition to the series, I want to focus on how Biden’s tax agenda will discourage investment and undermine competitiveness by saddling the United States with the developed world’s highest effective tax rate on corporate income – as measured by the combined burden of the corporate income tax and the additional layer of tax when dividends are paid to shareholders.

Everything you need to know is captured by this new data from the Tax Foundation.

Needless to say, American policy makers should be striving to make our business tax system more like the one in Estonia.

Instead, Biden wants to go from America being worse than average to America being the absolute worst.

When faced with this data, my friends on the left usually respond in one of two ways.

Some of them simply assert that there is no double taxation. I don’t know if they are ignorant or if they are dishonest.

The others (either more honest or more knowledgeable) will agree with the numbers but assert it is okay because any economic damage will be modest and the benefits of new spending will be significant.

But if higher taxes and more spending are somehow beneficial, why is the United States so much more prosperous than the nations that do have higher taxes and more spending?

P.S. While Biden’s proposals, if enacted, will result in the United States having a very bad tax system for companies, the U.S. will still have some big fiscal advantages over other nations.

P.P.S. Adding everything together, the biggest difference between the United States and other developed nations is that lower-income and middle-class taxpayers in America enjoy far lower tax burdens.

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Image credit: Vinícius Pimenta | Pexels License.

Coronavirus and the Failure of Big Government, Part V

Sat, 01/16/2021 - 10:19pm

I wrote a four-part series last year about coronavirus and big government (hereherehere, and here), so it goes without saying that the first two lines of this tweet deserve some sort of accuracy award for hitting the nail on the head.

But the sentiment expressed in the last line of the tweet also deserves some sort of award.

I don’t know if the award should be for false hope or naive expectation, but I am sadly confident that everything will stay the same. Or perhaps get even worse.

Simply stated, instead of the deregulation that’s needed, here are some more likely outcomes.

  • The World Health Organization will get rewarded with a bigger budget and more power, notwithstanding its failures.
  • The Centers for Disease Control will get rewarded with a bigger budget and more power, notwithstanding its failures.
  • The Food and Drug Administration will get rewarded with a bigger budget and more power, notwithstanding its failures.

Why am I so pessimistic? Because I understand “public choice,” which is the application of micro-economic analysis (things like incentives) to the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats. In other words, people in Washington act in ways to advance their own interests.

Just in case all this isn’t clear, here are a few headlines and tweets to drive the point home.

We’ll start with an understatement.

And here are examples of that failure.

Starting with a column in the Wall Street Journal.

And this tweet.

FDA officials wanted to engage private sector in February and were told to stand down. For many weeks, admin didn't get private sector involved as virus spread. It's a mistake now seen by many in the administration as one of the biggest response flaws. https://t.co/MxFXCFe3we https://t.co/JlmVmkGhqf

— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) April 17, 2020

There are many more headlines that tell tragic stories.

From the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s a very sad and succinct headline.

Government intervention also hurt in little ways.

This tweet tells us the lesson we should learn.

"The fact that these inflexible regulations can easily be discarded in times of crisis demonstrates the absurdity of those policies in the first place. If throwing out the regulations leads to good outcomes now, they should stay off the books later." https://t.co/AyUSqx3zfF

— The FGA (@TheFGA) April 12, 2020

As does this tweet as well.

This should be a major takeaway from the U.S.’s wasted February. Centralized regulation was perhaps the biggest problem. https://t.co/yz18GM0BD0

— Ben Thompson (@benthompson) April 15, 2020

One of Trump’s great failures was protectionism.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that trade barriers also hurt the fight against the pandemic.

And here’s a tweet about the FDA’s bungling.

Bottlenecks are caused by rigidity of FDA approved protocol for testing.

It says use kits for RNA extraction sold by two specific firms that can’t keep up. Labs give up.

Meanwhile academics show that you you can skip the RNA extraction step. No matter. Not approved.

— Paul Romer (@paulmromer) April 11, 2020

Don’t forget that bureaucracy and big government also caused problems in other nations.

Such as the United Kingdom.

Public Health England—in response to The Sun—have confirmed by omission that they:

1. Rebuffed help from commercial labs;
2. Did not pursue a mass testing strategy.
3. Are too incompetent to be put in charge of a mass testing strategy.

Here’s what we know pic.twitter.com/ujbBvfGTRi

— Matthew Lesh (@matthewlesh) April 21, 2020

Sounds like the bureaucrats in the U.K. want to compete with the FDA and CDC for some sort of incompetence award.

NEW | "If Public Health England refuses to cut through the red tape and allow testing to take place in facilities outside of its direct control extremely soon, countless lives will be needlessly lost. Let’s get on with it.” – @JasonReed624 https://t.co/fJt2SaN3Yg

— Free Market Conservatives (@FMConservatives) April 9, 2020

There was a better response in Germany because the private sector played a much bigger role.

And the German approach was better than the United States as well.

One secret of Germany’s success in averting COVID deaths was that it had no limits on private testing — the opposite of what our @US_FDA did. https://t.co/rA8pwNSYd7 @businessinsider

— Dean Clancy (@DeanClancy) April 5, 2020

Needless to say, the WHO also deserves some negative attention.

Indeed, it should come with this warning label.

And we’ll close by shifting back to the failure of government in the United States.

This column from the New York Times captures the real lesson of the past 12 months.

P.S. At the risk of outing myself as a libertarian, this image tells us everything we need to know. As does this collection of cartoons.


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

Spain’s Self-Imposed Fiscal Mess Is Going to Get Much Worse

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 10:51pm

Early last decade, when writing about Spain’s fiscal crisis, I pointed out that the country got in trouble for the same reason Greece got in trouble.

Simply stated, government spending grew faster than the private economy. And when nations violate fiscal policy’s Golden Rule, that means a growing fiscal burden and – if maintained for a long-enough period of time – a recipe for chaos.

Spain managed to get past that crisis, thanks to indirect bailouts and some belated spending restraint.

But some politicians in the country didn’t learn from that experience. The nation now has a hard-left government that is going to test how long it takes to create another fiscal crisis.

And even establishment-oriented experts are worried. In an article last June for the Bulwark, Desmond Lachman and John Kearns warned that Spanish politicians were putting the nation in a precarious fiscal position.

Spain’s economy was painfully slow to recover from its 2008 economic recession, which saw its GDP drop by 4 percent. …Over the past decade, a major reason for Spain’s poor economic performance was its need to mend its public finances, which were seriously compromised by the collapse of its housing bubble… Spain’s coronavirus-induced recession could now make the 2008 housing market collapse look like a minor speed bump. …Spain’s GDP is projected to contract by almost 13 percent. As in 2008, Spanish public finances will be sure to suffer… the country’s public-debt-to-GDP ratio will by the end of this year jump to 120 percent—a level appreciably above its 2010 peak. …Another disturbing projection is the toll that the recession will take on its banking system… It does not inspire confidence that Spanish banks entered the present crisis with among the slimmest capital reserves in Europe.

At the risk of understatement, no sensible person should have confidence in any aspect of Spain’s economy, not just the banking system.

A few days ago, Daniel Raisbeck authored a column for Reason about the country’s downward spiral to statism.

The PSOE-Podemos coalition is not only Spain’s most left-wing government since the country restored democracy after dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975; currently, it’s also the most leftist government in the entire European Union (E.U.). As you would expect, this has brought about a barrage of progressive pet projects…a torrent of debt, public spending, and tax increases. …The government’s budget for 2021 also includes record levels of spending after the executive raised the ceiling on non-financial expenditures by over 50 percent. …The Spanish government has also taken advantage of the current crisis to impose drastic tax hikes. These include a “tax harmonization” scheme—a euphemism for getting rid of fiscal competition—that would end the freedom of autonomous communities, the largest political and administrative units in Spain, to set their own policies in terms of wealth, inheritance, and income taxes, the last of which consist of both a national and a regional rate.

Let’s now look at a few additional passages from the article.

One of the reasons I oppose fiscal centralization in Europe is that it will subsidize more bad policy. Which is now happening.

Spain’s spending spree will be subsidized with €140 billion ($172 billion) of E.U. money, part of a “recovery fund” agreed upon last July at an emergency summit in Brussels.

It’s also worth noting that higher taxes don’t necessarily produce more revenue.

This is a lesson Spanish politicians already should have learned because of mistakes by the central government.

They also have evidence at the regional level. Catalonia has a bigger population than Madrid and imposes higher tax rates, but it collects less revenue.

…although Madrid…charges some of the country’s lowest rates for inheritance and income taxes, the region raises €900 million ($1.1 billion) more in taxes per year than the far more interventionist Catalonia according to economist José María Rotellar.

As you might expect, politicians in Catalonia grouse that Madrid’s lower tax rates are “fiscal dumping” and they argue in favor of tax harmonization.

Madrid’s leading lawmaker has a very deft response.

…the Republican Left of Catalonia, the pro-Catalan independence party that allowed Sánchez to become president, recently accused Madrid of practicing “fiscal dumping.” …Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the Popular Party president of the Community of Madrid, stated that “if Catalonia wants fiscal harmonization, they should reduce their own taxes,” a reference to that region’s notoriously high taxation levels.

Touche!

Let’s close by returning to the big-picture topic of whether it’s a good idea for Spain’s government to expand the nation’s fiscal burden.

The leftists politicians currently in charge make the usual class-warfare arguments about helping the poor and penalizing the rich. Whenever I hear that kind of nonsense, I’m reminded of this jaw-dropping story about how people with modest incomes are being strangled by statism.

Imagine only making €1000 per month and losing two-thirds of your income to government?!?

No wonder Spaniards come up with clever ways of lowering their tax burdens.

P.S. The current government of Spain may be naive (or malicious) about taxes, but there are some sensible economists at the country’s central bank who have written about the negative impact of higher tax rates.

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Image credit: Efraimstochter | Pixabay License.

Who Should Pay When Government Fails?

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 11:16am

Early last decade, a former Prime Minister of Iceland was brought before a special tribunal to determine whether he was legally responsible for his nation’s 2008 economic downturn.

As you might imagine, I had mixed emotions about that story.

On one hand, I don’t like politicians and I viscerally like the idea of holding them accountable for bad outcomes.

On the other hand, I believe in the rule of law and it’s absurd to bring charges against someone when no law has actually been broken. Moreover, tossing politicians in jail because we don’t like their policies is the kind of thing you might find is some backwater banana republic.

And, to add some humor to this analysis, it would contribute to prison overcrowding if we did things such as jailing Bush for TARP, Obama for the failed stimulus, and Trump for his bungled protectionism.

But it’s time to look at this issue from a serious perspective because a former governor in Michigan, as reported by the Detroit Free Press, is going to be dragged into court because of contaminated water in the state’s 7th-largest city.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed two charges of willful neglect of duty against former Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday, a day before her office is set to announce new details in the Flint water crisis investigation. …Each charge Snyder faces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison or a fine of $1,000 or less. …a misdemeanor conviction could allow a judge to issue a significant restitution order against Snyder, a multi-millionaire who made a fortune in computers and venture capital before he was elected Michigan governor in 2010.

You may be wondering why the Attorney General is targeting a former governor for the flawed operation of a city water system. Shouldn’t local officials be held accountable?

But there is a connection. Local politicians had spent the city into a fiscal crisis and the state appointed managers to clean up the mess.

Snyder…was governor when state-appointed managers in Flint switched the city’s water to the Flint River in 2014 as a cost-saving step while a pipeline was being built to Lake Huron. The water, however, was not treated to reduce corrosion — a disastrous decision affirmed by state regulators that caused lead to leach from old pipes and poison the distribution system used by nearly 100,000 residents.

So does this mean the former governor committed some sort of crime?

I guess we’ll find out if there’s a trial, but it certainly seems like partisan politics may be the real reason for the charges.

David Griem, a Detroit criminal defense attorney and former federal and state prosecutor, said he believes politics are a significant factor in the case. …“I can’t think of a good reason for this other than vendetta and politics. I challenge anyone to come up with a reason that makes sense other than closed-door politics…”

The bottom line, as I explained back in 2016 when writing about mess in Flint, is that you blur responsibility and accountability when multiple layers of government are involved in anything.

Which is why we need genuine federalism.

Decentralization is good for many reasons, including the fact that it’s much harder to deflect blame when something bad happens at the local level.

More specifically, nobody should be responsible for Flint’s water system other than the people from that city. If they screw up (as they did) by voting for venal politicians who funneled too much of the city’s money to a cossetted group of bureaucrats (a common problem), that’s their fault and they then need to deal with the consequences.

Sadly, we’re moving in the wrong direction in the United States, with Washington playing an ever-greater role in things that should be handled by state and local governments.

Let’s conclude by returning to the topic of whether politicians should face legal consequences for bad policy.

I’m very tempted to support anything that makes life harder for that oleaginous group of people. But the tort system (going to court and suing for damages) is actually a preferable way of addressing accidental damage to people.

That’s a big part of how we encourage safe and sound behavior in the private sector. Though I’ll be the first to admit it won’t work as well when dealing with government mistakes because taxpayers (rather than bureaucrats and politicians) bear the burden when there are successful lawsuits.

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Image credit: Daniel_B_photos | Pixabay License.

Ten Observations about Trump and the GOP

Wed, 01/13/2021 - 10:15am

Since I’m a policy wonk, I rarely play the role of political pundit other than biennial election predictions.

But I’m getting a lot of requests to comment about Trump, especially in light of the recent protest/riot/insurrection and the ongoing political fallout (impeachment, etc).

So here are 10 observations (full disclosure: I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020, but have never been part of the Never-Trump community).

Trump’s style is bluster and bullying – As I wrote way back before the 2016 election, Trump’s personal style is akin to a temperamental child. This can be entertaining (which is why CNN and other networks gave him so much attention during his initial campaign), but it also has limitations as an approach to governance (for instance, you don’t stop a virus by merely asserting it won’t come to the United States).

Trump is America’s “Crazy Uncle” – Early in his presidency, I happened to be in New Zealand and was asked about Trump in a TV interview. I basically said he’s like a grouchy and opinionated uncle who shows up on holidays and dominates the conversation with controversial statements. Given what’s happened over the past few years, that observation holds up well.

Republicans lawmakewrs in Washington never liked Trump – GOPers in the House and Senate like some of the things Trump has accomplished (tax reform and conservative judges), but they’ve never liked having him as president because he is too erratic and too self-centered. But most important, they’ve been afraid his simultaneous popularity (with core GOP primary voters) and unpopularity (with, say, suburbanites) is a threat to their ability to stay in power. In other words, it’s hard to win general elections in some places as a Trumpian populist but also hard to win GOP primaries in many places as a Never-Trumper.

Republican voters, by contrast, like Trump – One thing that surprised me over the past four yeas is that I found strong support for Trump from grassroots conservative Republicans. Yes, they didn’t like his fiscal profligacy and they mostly didn’t like his protectionism, but they did like the fact that he was a “fighter,” unlike so many (but not all) Republican politicians who get cozy with the DC establishment. They also figured he was worth supporting because he was so reviled by the establishment media (i.e., the enemy of my enemy is my friend).

Republican lawmakers generally have been in a no-win situation – Because of Trump’s popularity with GOP voters, Republican lawmakers have felt a lot of pressure to act as Trump loyalists even though many of them don’t like his behavior and disagree with some of his policies.

Be glad there were normal GOPers in the Trump Administration – Some people in the Never-Trump community want to create a blacklist of people who worked for Trump. This is misguided in the vast majority of cases. Most Trump appointees had nothing to do with Trump’s excesses and instead did good things (deregulation, for instance) in the various agencies and departments where they worked.

There are three GOP wings: Populist Trumpies, conservative Reaganites, and the establishment – Most pundits portray GOP infighting as a battles between Trumpist conservatives and the Republican establishment (symbolized, perhaps, by Sen. Romney). But that’s an insufficient description of what’s happening because it overlooks the fact that there are plenty of Reagan-style conservatives who definitely are not part of the establishment, yet don’t fit in with Trump’s big-government populism. It will be very interesting to see which anti-establishment strain wields more influence in the next few years.

Trump’s legacy to GOP: Total Democratic control of DC – On January 21, 2017, Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. Four years later (a few days from now), Democrats will control the House, the Senate, and the White House. By way of background, one of the reasons I don’t like George W. Bush is that his failed polices paved the way for the left to have total control of Washington in 2009 and 2010. Shouldn’t Trump be judged similarly?

In spite of his many flaws, why did Trump win normally Democratic states? – While I just explained that Trump set the stage for the left to have total power in Washington, Republicans need to figure out how Trump managed to win some states in 2016 that historically have been unwinnable when contested by establishment Republicans (though he lost some traditionally GOP-leaning states in 2020).

In spite of his many flaws, why did Trump get more minority votes? – Similarly, Republicans need to figure out how a supposedly racist Trump managed to win a higher percentage of minority voters than recent GOP nominees such as John McCain and Mitt Romney. The bottom line is Republicans need to figure out if there are good parts of Trumpism once Trump is out of the picture.

I’ll close with a few statements:

  • It is perfectly okay to have voted for Trump because you liked some of his policies (whether they are ones I like, such as tax cuts, or ones I don’t like, such as protectionism).
  • It is perfectly okay to have voted against Trump for the same reason.
  • It is perfectly okay to have voted for Trump because you wanted to shake up the Washington establishment with unconventional behavior.
  • It is perfectly okay to have voted against Trump because his unconventional behavior was offensive.
  • It is perfectly okay to have been a Never-Trumper or a Trumpian populist.
  • What’s not okay, though, is to engage in political violence.
  • And what’s utterly awful is lying to supporters and creating the conditions for political violence.

P.S. While it’s worth spending some time to dissect and analyze the past four years, I hope that libertarians, Reagan conservatives, Trump populists, Never-Trumpers, establishment Republicans, etc, all join together to fight some of Biden’s awful ideas (the “public option” threat to private health insurance, class-warfare taxesgun control, a blue-state bailout, etc).

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

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