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The Adverse Consequences of a 70-Percent Top Tax Rate on Households

Sun, 01/06/2019 - 12:03pm

She’s not quite as bad as Matt Yglesias, who wants a top tax rate of 90 percent (a rate that Crazy Bernie also likes), but Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not bashful about wanting to use the coercive power of government to take much larger shares of what others have earned.

And she doesn’t want to take “just” half, which would be bad enough. She wants to go ever further, endorsing a top tax rate on household income of 70 percent.

Those of you with a lot of gray hair may recall that’s the type of punitive tax regime we had in the 1970s (does anybody want a return to the economic misery we suffered during the Nixon and Carter years?).

So it’s very disturbing to think we may get an encore performance.

Here are some excerpts from a Politico report.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is floating an income tax rate as high as 60 to 70 percent on the highest-earning Americans… Ocasio-Cortez said a dramatic increase in taxes could support her “Green New Deal” goal of eliminating the use of fossil fuels within 12 years… “There’s an element where yeah, people are going to have to start paying their fair share in taxes.” …When Cooper pointed out such a tax plan would be a “radical” move, Ocasio-Cortez embraced the label… “I think that it only has ever been radicals that have changed this country,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Yeah, if that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”

There are many arguments to make against this type of class-warfare policy, but I’ll focus on two main points.

First, this approach isn’t practical, even from a left-wing perspective. Simply stated, upper-income taxpayers have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income, and they can take very simple (and completely legal) steps to protect their money as tax rates increase.

This is one of the reasons why higher tax rates don’t always translate into higher tax revenue.

If you don’t believe me, check out the IRS data on what happened in the 1980s when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Revenues from those making more than $200,000 quintupled.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to run that experiment in reverse. That won’t end well (assuming, of course, that her goal is collecting more revenue, which may not be the case).

Second, higher tax rates on the rich will have negative consequences for the rest of us. This is because there is a lot of very rigorous research that tell us:

And this is just a partial list.

And I didn’t even include the potential costs of out-migration, which doubtlessly would be significant since Ms. Ocasio-Cortez would impose the developed world’s most punitive tax regime on the United States.

I’ll close by recycling this video on the harmful impact of punitive tax rates.

P.S. Today’s column focused on the adverse economic impact of a confiscatory tax rate, but let’s not forget the other side of the fiscal equation. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to finance a “green new deal,” which presumably means a return to Solyndra-style scandals.

P.P.S. There is some encouraging polling data on class-warfare taxation.

Chile’s Pro-Market Reforms Generate Big Benefits for the Less Fortunate, Part II

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 12:53pm

I’m currently in Chile, enjoying the warm sun and doing research on the nation’s impressive economic performance.

I met yesterday with Jose Pinera, the former minister who created Chile’s incredibly successful system of personal retirement accounts (he’s also one of the people Gary Johnson should have mentioned when he was asked to identify an admirable foreign leader).

Back in 2013, I shared some of Jose’s data showing how the economy took off after Chile enacted pro-market reforms.

I was especially impressed by the stunning reduction in the poverty rate, which had dropped from 50 percent to 11 percent (it’s now down to 7.8 percent).

In other words, capitalism has been great news for poor Chileans. Simply stated, when given more freedom and opportunity, most of them escape poverty.

Interestingly, Reuters reports that even the IMF recognizes Chile’s superior performance.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) hailed Chile’s strengthening economy in a report published on Friday while encouraging President Sebastian Pinera to push forward with promised structural reforms. In a statement following its annual consultation with Chile, the IMF praised Pinera’s proposed reform drive… Conservative billionaire Pinera took office in March with a strong mandate to make changes to the country’s pension system and labor laws and simplify the tax code. …The bank praised his early efforts, which it said were aimed at “re-invigorating investment and economic growth.”

Hmmm… makes me wonder if the IMF (given its dismal track record) actually understands why Chile has become so prosperous.

Though the World Bank has praised the country’s pro-market reforms, so international bureaucracies sometimes stumble on the right answer.

But let’s not get distracted. Today, I want to share further evidence about how pro-market reforms produce big benefits for the less fortunate.

Here’s a chart from an article in the latest edition Economia y Sociedad. The article is in Spanish, but a translation of the relevant passage tells us that, “in Chile, the income of the poorest 20% of the population has risen at a rate (8.2% per year) that is 50% higher than that to which the income of the richest 20% has risen ( 5.3% per year).”

In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats (just as in the U.S.), but the bottom quintile is enjoying the biggest increases.

Sounds like great news. And it is great news. But some people put on blinders.

My left-leaning friends loudly assure me that they are motivated by a desire to help poor people. Yet if that’s true, why aren’t they falling over themselves to praise Chile? Why are they instead susceptible to waxing rhapsodic about the hellhole of Venezuela or bending over backwards to defend Cuba’s miserable regime?

And why do some anti-capitalist economists engage in absurd examples of cherry picking in failed efforts to discredit Chile’s accomplishments?

The bottom line is that Chile became the Latin Tiger thanks to economic liberty. That’s great news for the country, but especially good for the less fortunate.

Government Shutdowns and Financial Markets

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:55pm

I’ve previously explained why I don’t have a dog in the current shutdown fight in Washington.

Simply stated, Trump isn’t fighting to make government smaller. Instead he wants more spending for a wall and isn’t even proposing some offsetting reductions to keep the overall burden of government from expanding.

That being said, I get annoyed when defenders of the status quo act as if the economy is in danger simply because a small handful of non-essential bureaucracies and departments are temporarily shuttered.

In addition to the interview with Fox Business, I also pontificated on the same topic for Cheddar, which is a new network covering financial and economic issues.

So why are TV networks bothering to cover this non-story?

Because some people think the partial shutdown does matter. Here are some excerpts from a report by USA Today.

Economists are starting to weigh the potential damage of the ongoing federal government shutdown…if the impasse drags into late January or beyond, it could take a noticeable toll by dampening federal workers’ productivity,temporarily halting their paychecks… The biggest damage could be inflicted on consumer and business confidence that’s already been dented by the recent stock market selloff. …Economist Jesse Edgerton of JPMorgan Chase predicts it could trim growth by a half a percentage point. That’s about how much the 16-day partial government shutdown reduced growth in late 2013.

Sigh.

The people who made up numbers about the alleged harm of the 2013 shutdown are basically the same people who said the sequester would hurt growth. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.

You use a crummy Keynesian model (which presupposes that government spending is good for the economy) and you get predictably nonsensical Keynesian results.

Writing for the American Spectator, Christopher Buskirk has a more sober perspective.

The DC media complex is not happy with the partial shutdown of the federal government. The government shutdown drags into the New Year, they tell us! …Yet for all of the breathless commentary from Beltway media, the reality is that the federal government can’t even shut itself down properly. Only about 25 percent of the federal government is affected. The military is fully funded and on duty, as are Social Security and Medicare. The US Postal Services continues delivering unwanted flyers and coupons, the TSA is fully funded and patting people down, and the Veterans Administration is still providing substandard care to our veterans. …when I turn on the faucet, water still comes out. When I drive to the store, the street lights are still on. In fact, I passed a police officer on the way to get a coffee this morning, so our neighborhood remains safe. So what am I missing? Not much it turns out. And neither is almost anyone else. …what we learned from the shutdown is that…the federal government is mostly non-essential.

Amen.

This is one of the reasons I don’t get agitated about shutdown (at least the ones that occur because someone is fighting for good policy). If we kept parts of the government shut down for a long period of time, maybe people would notice that nothing bad happened and then conclude that it would be a good idea to never let those departments and agencies reopen.

In any event, the focus of fiscal policy should be on shrinking the federal government, not merely a temporary partial shutdown (which doesn’t even save money since bureaucrats eventually get full pay for the days they weren’t in their offices).

The Greatest-Ever Act of Tax Avoidance?

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:14pm

despise the death tax. It should be abolished.

My main objection is that it is immoral. If a person earns money, pays tax on the money, and then responsibly saves and invests the money (which generally requires paying another layer of tax), it is reprehensible that politicians want to tax the money yet again simply because the person dies.

But I’m also an economist, so I don’t like the tax because it is the most pernicious form of double taxation. The levy not only drains capital from the private sector, it also discourages the building and creating of wealth in the first place, while also lining the pockets of accountants and tax lawyers.

None of that is good for those of us who will never have enough money to get hit by the tax.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that we get very interesting stories of what people are willing to do to escape this unfair and destructive levy.

Jeanne Calment’s apparent longevity turned her into a global celebrity before she died at the age of 122 years and 164 days in 1997. However, that age is being challenged… Yuri Deigin, a genealogist, claims that Mrs Calment actually died in 1934 and that her daughter, Yvonne, usurped her identity… The genealogist said that Mrs Calment, born in 1875, and Fernand, her husband, were the joint owners of a department store in Arles, in Provence. If Mrs Calment’s death had been registered, Mr Calment would have had to pay inheritance tax of up to 38 per cent on his wife’s half of the business. …Mr Deigin said that Mr Calment avoided the bill by telling officials that it was his daughter who had died. The daughter then passed herself off as her mother for the rest of her life.

Not everyone accepts Mr. Deigin’s analysis and it’s possible that will be genetic testing of Mrs. Calment’s remains.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing the story is accurate. We already have lots of evidence that people will take extraordinary steps to protect family funds from this additional layer of tax.

Sadly, I don’t have to worry about the death tax. But if I did, I would do everything in my power to make sure my kids got my money rather than the despicable people in Washington.

So I admire Mrs. Calment. Yes, she broke the law, but that doesn’t bother me when the law is unjust.

P.S. I’ll defend just about anybody who benefits from dodging the death tax, even if they are hypocrites or buffoons.

P.P.S. Sadly, the U.S. death tax is more punitive than the French death tax.

Americans “Vote with their Feet” for Lower Taxes

Wed, 01/02/2019 - 12:10pm

I’ve written many times about people and businesses escaping high-tax states and moving to low-tax states.

This tax-driven migration rewards states with good policy and punishes those with bad policy.

And now we have some new data.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the updated numbers.

…some states are booming while others are suffering a European-style sclerosis of population loss and slow economic growth. …The eight fastest-growing states by population last year…also experienced rapid employment and GDP growth spurred by low tax rates and policies generally friendly to business and job creation. Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Utah, Florida and Colorado ranked among the eight states with the fastest job growth this past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nevada, Texas, Washington and Florida have no income tax. …Then there’s California. Despite its balmy weather and thriving tech industry, the Golden State last year lost more people to other states than it gained from foreign immigration. Since 2010, a net 710,000 people have left California for other states. …New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently blamed cold weather for the state’s population exodus, but last year frigid New Hampshire with no income tax attracted 3,900 newcomers from other states. …Illinois’s population has declined by 157,000 over the past five years… Cold weather? While Illinois’s population has declined by 0.8% since 2010, Indiana’s has grown 3.1% and Wisconsin’s by 2.2%.

Here’s my favorite part of the editorial.

America as a whole can thank the Founders for creating a federalist system that allows the economic and political safety valve of interstate policy competition.

Amen. Federalism is great for a wide range of reasons, but I especially like that people have the freedom to escape when policy is decentralized.

Companies escape high taxes.

Honeywell International Inc. is snubbing New Jersey and heading south. …Honeywell’s move follows other companies that have moved corporate offices out of states with elevated costs of living and high taxes, including General Electric Co.’s relocation of its headquarter to Boston from Connecticut. Those costs were exacerbated by a new law last year that removed state income-tax deductions on federal taxes. North Carolina has a lower state income tax than New Jersey for higher-paid employees.

Former governors escape high taxes.

Gov. Paul LePage said Monday that he plans to move to Florida for tax reasons… LePage and his wife, Ann, already own a house in Florida and often vacation there. He said he would be in Maine from April to September. Asked where he would maintain his legal residency, LePage replied Florida. …”I have a house in Florida. I will pay no income tax and the house in Florida’s property taxes are $2,000 less than we were paying in Boothbay. … At my age, why wouldn’t you conserve your resources and spend it on your family instead of on taxes?” …LePage often has cited Maine’s income tax – currently topping out at 7.15 percent, down from a high of 8.5 percent when he took office – as an impediment to economic growth and attracting/retaining residents.

Even sports stars avoid class-warfare tax regimes.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado…will “take home” significantly higher or lower pay depending on which teams sign them and the applicable income tax rates in the states where those teams are based. This impact could be worth tens of millions of dollars. …For example, assume the Cubs and Dodgers offer identical eight-year, $300 million contracts to Machado. Lozano would warn the Dodgers that their offer is decidedly inferior. As a Dodger, Machado’s million-dollar wages would be subject to the top bracket of California’s state income tax rate. At 13.3%, it is the highest rate in the land. In contrast, as a Cub, Machado would be subject to the comparatively modest 4.95% Illinois income tax rate. …the difference in after-tax value of these two $300 million contracts would be $14 million.

Though Lozano needs to warn Machado that the recent election resultssignificantly increase the danger that Illinois politicians will finally achieve their long-held goal of changing the state constitution and replacing the flat tax with a class-warfare system.

Since we’re talking about the Land of Lincoln, it’s worth noting that the editors at the Chicago Tribune understand the issue.

Every time a worker departs, the tax burden on those of us who remain grows. The release on Wednesday of new census data about Illinois was alarming: Not only has the flight of citizens continued for a fifth straight year, but the population loss is intensifying. This year’s estimated net reduction of 45,116 residents is the worst of these five losing years. …Residents fed up with the economic climate here are heading for less taxaholic, jobs-friendlier states. …Many of them left because they believed Illinois is headed in the wrong direction. Because Illinois politicians have raised taxes, milked employers and created enormous public indebtedness that the pols want to address with … still more taxation. …How bad does the Illinois Exodus have to get before its dominant politicians understand that their debt-be-damned, tax-and-spend policies are ravaging this state?

Wow, no wonder Illinois is perceived to be the first state to suffer a fiscal collapse.

Let’s now zoom out and consider some national implications.

Chris Edwards took a close look at the data and crunched some numbers.

The new Census data confirms that people are moving from tax-punishing places such as California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey to tax-friendly places such as Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Tennessee, and South Carolina. In the chart, each blue dot is a state. The vertical axis shows the one-year Census net interstate migration figure as a percentage of 2017 state population. The horizontal axis shows state and local household taxes as a percentage of personal income in 2015. …On the right, most of the high-tax states have net out-migration. …On the left, nearly all the net in-migration states have tax loads of less than 8.5 percent. …The red line is fitted from a simple regression that was highly statistically significant.

Here’s the chart.

Professor Glenn Reynolds wrote a column on tax migration for USA Today.

He starts by warning states that it’s a very bad recipe to repel taxpayers and attract tax consumers.

IRS data show that taxpayers are migrating from high-tax states like New York, Illinois, and California to low-tax states like Texas and Florida. …In time, if taxpayers tend to migrate from high-tax states to low-tax states, and if people receiving government benefits tend to stay in place or migrate from lower-benefit states to higher-benefit states, then over time lower-tax states will tend to accumulate more people with high earnings, while higher-benefit states will tend to accumulate more people who live on the dole. …if high-benefits states are also high-tax states (as is often the case) since then states with high benefits will accumulate more people who draw on them, while shedding the taxpayers they need to support them. The problem is that the result isn’t stable: High-tax, high-benefit states will eventually go bankrupt because they won’t retain enough taxpayers to support their welfare spending.

He then makes a very interesting observation about the risk that people who leave states such as New York, Illinois, California, and New Jersey may bring their bad voting habits to their new states.

…migrants from high tax states might bring their political attitudes with them, moving to new, low-tax states for the economic opportunity but then supporting the same policies that ruined the states they left. This seems quite plausible, alas, and I’ve heard Coloradans lament that the flow of Californians to their state involved a lot of people doing just that. …If I were one of those conservative billionaires…I might try spending some of the money on some…sort of welcome wagon for blue state migrants to red states. Something that would explain to them why the place they’re moving to is doing better than the place they left, and suggesting that they might not want to vote for the same policies that are driving their old home states into bankruptcy.

Glenn makes a very good point.

As part of my work on defending TABOR in Colorado, I often run into people who fret that the state has moved in the wrong direction because of migration from left-leaning states.

Though Chuck DeVore shared some data on how migrants to Texas are more conservative than people born in the state.

Fascinating @CNN #Texas exit poll: those who moved to Texas favored Cruz over O’Rourke by 57-42 – https://t.co/RvFkMujXic This finding agrees w/ a @TexasTribune poll showing California expats in Texas were 2:1 conservative – https://t.co/OC5JVsg67s @TPPF pic.twitter.com/XAqgs4QFae

— Chuck DeVore (@ChuckDeVore) November 8, 2018

I’ll close today’s column with a helpful map from the Tax Foundation.

All you really need to know is that you should move if you live in a blue state and you should erect a no-leftists-allowed sign if you live in a gray state.

P.S. Everything I wrote about the benefits of tax migration between states also applies to tax migration between nations.

I will never stop defending the right of labor and capital to escape high-tax regimes. I especially enjoy the hysterical reactions of folks on the left, who think that my support of fiscal sovereignty means that I’m “trading with the enemy,” being disloyal to my government, or that I should be tossed in jail.

Hopes and Fears for 2019

Tue, 01/01/2019 - 12:00pm

I started my end-of-year “best and worst” series back in 2013, but didn’t begin my start-of-year “hopes and fears” series until 2017.

In that first year, I got part of what I hoped for (some tax reform and a bit of regulatory easing) and part of what I feared (no Medicaid and Medicare reform), but I mostly felt relieved that some of my fears (border-adjustment tax and an infrastructure boondoggle) weren’t realized.

For 2018, none of my hopes (government collapse in Venezuela and welfare reform) became reality, but we dodged one of my fears (Trump killing NAFTA) and moved in the wrong direction on another (a bad Brexit deal).

Time for third edition of this new tradition. It is the first day of the year and here are my good and bad expectations for 2019.

We’ll start with things I hope will happen in the coming year.

  • Hard Brexit – There is a very strong long-run argument for the United Kingdom to have a full break with the European Union. Unfortunately, the political establishment in both London and Brussels is conspiring to keep that from happening. But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that the deal they put together is so awful that Parliament may vote no. Under current law, that hopefully will lead to a no-deal Brexit that gives the U.K. the freedom to become more free and prosperous.
  • Supreme Court imposes limits of Washington’s power – I didn’t write about the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court because I don’t know if he believes in the limits on centralized power in Article 1, Section 8. But I’m semi-hopeful that his vote might make the difference in curtailing the power of the administrative state. And my fingers are crossed that he might vote with the Justices who want to restore the Constitution’s protection of economic liberty.
  • Gridlock – Some people think gridlock is a bad thing, but it is explicitly what our Founders wanted when they created America’s separation-of-powers system. And if the alternative to gridlock is politicians agreeing to bad policy, I will cheer for stalemate and division with great gusto. I will be perfectly content if Trump and House Democrats spend the next two years fighting with each other.
  • Maduro’s ouster – For the sake of the long-suffering people of Venezuela, I’m going to keep listing this item until it eventually happens.
  • Limits on the executive branch’s power to impose protectionism – Trade laws give a lot of unilateral power to the president. Ideally, the law should be changed so that any protectionist policies proposed by an administration don’t go into effect unless also approved by Congress.
  • Chilean-style reform in Brazil – Brazil recently elected a president who is viewed as the Trump of Latin America. But he might be the good kind of populist who uses his power to copy Chile’s hugely successful pro-market reforms.

Here are the things that worry me for 2019.

  • Trump – The President does not believe in small government, so I’m concerned we may get the opposite of gridlock. In my nightmare scenario, I can see him rolling over to Democrat plans for a higher minimum wageinfrastructure porkwage subsidies, and busting (again) the spending caps.
  • Recession-induced statism – If there’s an economic downturn this year, then I fear we might get an Obama-style Keynesian spending orgy in addition to all the things I just mentioned.
  • More protectionism – Until and unless there are limits on the president’s unilateral power, there is a very real dangers that Trump could do further damage to global trade. I’m particularly concerned that he might pull the U.S. our of the very useful World Trade Organization and/or impose very punitive tariffs on auto imports.
  • Fake Brexit – This is the flip side of my hope for a hard Brexit. Regardless of the country, it’s not easy to prevail when big business and the political elite are lined up on the wrong side of an issue.

Sadly, I think my fears for 2019 are more likely than my hopes.

And I didn’t even mention some additional concerns, such as what happens if China’s economy suffers a significant downturn. I fear that is likely because there hasn’t been much progress on policy since the liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s.

Or the potential implications of anti-market populism in important European nations such as Germany, Sweden, and Italy.

Last but not least, we have a demographic sword of Damocles hovering over the neck of almost every nation.

That was a problem last year, it’s a bigger problem this year, and it will become an even-bigger problem in future years.

We know the right answer to this problem, but real solutions are contrary to the selfish interests of politicians.

The Best and Worst News of 2018

Mon, 12/31/2018 - 12:50pm

One of my annual traditions is to share the “best and worst news” for each year. I started in 2013, and continued in 201420152016, and 2017.

Looking back, 2016 clearly was the best year, though entirely because of things that happened overseas (the Brits vote for BrexitBrazil adopting spending capsabolition of the income tax in Antigua, and Switzerland’s rejection of a basic income).

What about this year?

Sadly, there’s not much to cheer about. Here’s the meager list.

Amendment 73 rejected in Colorado – As part of a plan to expand the burden of government (for the children!), the left wanted to gut the state’s flat tax and replace it with a so-called progressive tax. Fortunately, voters realized that giving politicians the power to tax the rich at higher rates would also mean giving them the power to tax everyone at higher rates. The proposal was defeated by 11 percentage points.

Deregulation – The Administration’s record is certainly far from perfect on regulatory issues. But big-picture measures of the regulatory burden indicate that the overall trend is positive. Easing dangerous Obama-era car mileage rules may be the best step that’s been taken.

Positive trends – I’m having to scrape the bottom of the barrel, but I suppose a drop in support for bad ideas has to count as good news, right? On that basis, I’m encouraged that the notion of universal government handouts became less popular in 2018. Likewise, I’m glad that there’s so much opposition to the carbon tax that some supporters of that new levy are willing to throw in the towel.

Now let’s look at the bad news.

Here are the worst developments of 2018.

Aggressive protectionism – It’s no secret that Trump is a protectionist, but he was mostly noise and bluster in 2017. Sadly, bad rhetoric became bad policy in 2018. And, just as many predicted, Trump’s trade taxes on American consumers are leading other nations to impose taxes on American exporters.

The Zimbabwe-ization of South Africa – My trip to South Africa was organized to help educate people about the danger of Zimbabwe-style land confiscation. Sadly, lawmakers in that country ignore me just as much as politicians in the United States ignore me. The government is moving forward with uncompensated land seizures, a policy that will lead to very grim results for all South Africans.

More government spending – Ever since the brief period of fiscal discipline that occurred when the Tea Party had some influence, the budget news has been bad. Trump is totally unserious about controlling the burden of government spending and even routinely rolls over for new increases on top of all the previously legislated increases.

The good news is that this bad news is not as bad as it was in 2015 when we got a bunch of bad policies, including resuscitation of the corrupt Export-Import Bankanother Supreme Court Obamacare farce, expanded IMF bailout authority, and busted spending caps.

I’ll close by sharing my most-read (or, to be technically accurate, most-clicked on) columns of 2018.

  1. In first place is my piece explaining why restricting the state and local tax deduction was an important victory.
  2. Second place is my column (and accompanying poll) asking which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse.
  3. And the third place article is my analysis of how rich nations can become poor nations with bad policy.
For what it’s worth, my fourth-most read column in 2018 was a piece from 2015about political and philosophical quizzes. And the fifth-most read article was some 2012 satire about using two cows to describe systems of government.

I guess those two pieces are oldies but goodies.

Now for the columns that didn’t generate many clicks.

  1. My worst-performing column was about how DC insiders manipulate so-called tax extenders to line their own pockets.
  2. Next on the least-popular list was a piece that looked at proposals to make taxpayers subsidize wages.
  3. And the next-to-next-to-last article explained how expanding the IMF would increase the risk of bailouts and bad policy.

I’m chagrined to admit that none of these columns reached 1,000 views.  Though I try to salve my ego by assuming that many (some? most?) of the 4,000-plus subscribers eagerly devoured those pieces.

The other noteworthy thing about 2018 is that I posted my 5,000th column back in July.

And I also shared data indicating that I’m relatively popular (or, to be more accurate, I get a lot of clicks) in places like the Cayman Islands, the VaticanMonacoBermudaJersey, and Anguilla.

How to Talk about Public Policy and Why It Matters

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 12:47pm

I periodically try to remind people that you can’t explain or understand economic performance by looking at just one policy.

I’ve argued, for instance, good tax policy isn’t a panacea if there are many other policies that expand the burden of government. Likewise, bad fiscal policy isn’t a death knell if there’s a pro-market approach on issues such as trade, regulation, and monetary policy.

Which was the point I made, in this short excerpt from a recent interview, when asked about the Trump tax cut.

This obviously has implications for Trump. He wants the economy to grow faster, but he is sabotaging his good tax reform with bad protectionism.

Which is why I’ve also explained that Trump’s overall “grade point average” for economic policy isn’t very good.

And here are two other examples, but showing that tax policy – by itself – does not drive the economy.

  • The economy enjoyed good performance during the Clinton years because his one bad policy (the 1993 tax hike) was more than offset by many good policies.
  • Similarly, the economy didn’t get strong growth during the Bush years because his one good policy (the 2003 tax cut) was more than offset by many bad policies.

The same is true for policy in other nations. That’s why I always check the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World before writing about another country. I want a dispassionate source of data that covers all the major types of public policy.

And that generates counter-intuitive results, at least for people who focus on fiscal policy.

  • I’ve crunched the data to show that nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands remain relatively rich because they have pro-market policies that offset onerous fiscal burdens.
  • Likewise, some nations in Eastern Europe continue to lag economically because the pro-growth effect of their flat taxes are offset by weak scores in other areas, especially quality of governance.

There are a couple of takeaways from this type of nuanced analysis.

First, don’t pay excessive attention to partisan affiliations. Yes, sometimes a Republican such as Reagan reduces the burden of government, but plenty of GOPers (Hoover, the first BushNixon) impose lots of statism.

The same is true in other nations. Many of the pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand were initiated by Labour governments.

Second, let’s close by explaining why this matters. When people fixate on partisan labels rather than policy changes, it can lead them to very erroneous conclusions.

  • For instance, even though the Great Depression was mostly the result of government intervention, many people think it was caused by capitalism simply because a Republican president was in office when it started.
  • Similarly, even though the recent financial crisis was caused by government intervention, many people want to blame free markets merely because a Republican president was in office when it started.

P.S. In the interview, I said monetary policy might deserve some of the blame if the economy turns south. I want to stress, however, that I’m not blaming the Fed for trying to “normalize” today. Instead, the problem is all the easy-money policy earlier this decade.

As scholars from the Austrian School have explained, artificially low interest rates and other types of Keynesian monetary policy create the conditions for subsequent suffering.

Reagan’s Pro-Trade Wisdom

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 12:42pm

President Trump’s view of global trade is so bizarreriskyuninformedmisguided, and self-destructive that I periodically try to maintain my sanity by reviewing the wisdom of one of America’s greatest presidents.

  • Ronald Reagan’s remarks in 1985 about the self-destructive impact of trade barriers.
  • Ronald Reagan’s remarks in 1988 about the economic benefits of trade liberalization.

Today, let’s travel back to 1982 for more wisdom from the Gipper.

What’s especially remarkable is that Reagan boldly defended free and open trade at the tail end of the 1980-82 double-dip recession that he inherited.

Many politicians, facing an unemployment rate above 10 percent, would have succumbed to the temptation for short-run barriers.

But just as Reagan did the right thing on inflation, even though it was temporarily painful, he also advocated good long-run policy on trade. He understood Bastiat’s wise insight about “seen” benefits vs “unseen” costs.

Trump, by contrast, has a very cramped and limited understanding of trade. Which is why almost all economists disagree with his approach.

…on Trump’s other point — that protectionism offers Americans the road to riches — most specialists in international trade would beg to differ. “Even by Washington standards, Trump’s tweet was profoundly wrong,” said Daniel J. Mitchell, a conservative economist. In a recent column criticizing Trump’s tweet, Mitchell wrote, “The last time the United States made a big push for protectionism was in the 1930s. At the risk of understatement, that was not an era of prosperity.” …said Lawrence White, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business…”tariffs, like any tax, generally introduce an inefficiency and makes the two sides of the trading relationship poorer — not richer.”

I appreciated the chance to be quoted in the story, and I also was happy that a link to one of my columns was included.

Though I gladly would have traded that bit of publicity if Politifact instead had shared my “edits” to Trump’s infamous “Tariff Man” tweet.

I’ll conclude by noting that Reagan’s record didn’t always live up to his rhetoric.

P.S. I winced when Reagan positively cited the International Monetary Fund in his remarks. Though maybe the IMF in the early 1980s wasn’t the pro-taxanti-marketbailout-dispensing bureaucracy that it is today.

P.P.S. I noted that Reagan was one of America’s great presidents. I also include Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland on that list.

The Economy Is Faltering and Trump’s Protectionism and Weakness on Spending Deserve Part of the Blame

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:24pm

In this interview yesterday, I noted that there are “external” risks to the economy, most notably the spillover effect of a potential economic implosion in China or a fiscal crisis in Italy.

But many of the risks are homegrown, such as Trump’s self-destructive protectionism and the Federal Reserve’s easy money.

Regarding trade, Trump is hurting himself as well as the economy. He simply doesn’t understand that trade is good for prosperity and that trade deficits are largely irrelevant.

Regarding monetary policy, I obviously don’t blame Trump for the Fed’s easy money policy during the Obama years, though I wish that he wouldn’t bash the central bank and instead displayed Reagan’s fortitude about accepting the need to unwind such mistakes.

The interview wasn’t that long, but I had a chance to pontificate on additional topics.

The bottom line is that Trump has a very mixed record on the economy. But I fear the good policies are becoming less important and the bad policies are becoming more prominent.

The Feel-Good Story of 2018

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 12:13pm

Back in 2014, I wrote a feel-good story from Ferguson, Missouri, about how armed black men protected a white-owned store during riots that wreaked havoc in the city.

Sarah Silverman surely wouldn’t approve, but I thought it was a heartwarming combination of human solidarity and individual rights.

It’s time for another feel-good story. The Washington Free-Beacon reported earlier this month that Dick’s Sporting Goods is suffering because the company adopted an anti-gun posture.

Dick’s Sporting Goods told investors during the Goldman Sachs Retailing Conference that its gun-control stance hurt sales of its hunting business, outdoors business, and that it may close its outdoor-focused Field & Stream stores. Edward Stack, chairman and CEO of Dick’s, said during the event that the sporting goods chain’s recent 3.9 percent drop in same-store sales was the result of a mix of factors beyond their control as well as some he called “self-imposed.” Specifically, he said, “the decisions we made on firearms” negatively affected their bottom line… The company insisted during the earnings call that while their embrace of gun-control policies was hurting store foot traffic as well as their hunting and outdoors business, they’ve found ways to offset the losses. …Still, Dick’s admitted both firearms customers and the firearms industry have rebutted the retailer because of their gun-control advocacy. …The company said it may soon close down their entire Field & Stream chain of 35 stores across 18 states.

By the way, I was interviewed earlier this year by a French TV program on the issue of gun control. Here’s the part where I discussed the company’s foolish decision.

Since I’m not a shareholder, part of me is unconcerned about decisions made by the management at Dick’s.

The CEO presumably lives in a wealthy area, far removed from the threat of crime or chaos, so I’m guessing he has no understanding or appreciation of the need for self defense.

And he probably thought – foolishly, we’ve learned – that the company’s decision would help the bottom line by generating positive coverage from the establishment media.

It brings to mind this insightful tweet, which I saw thanks to Amy Alkon.

We are living in an era of woke capitalism in which companies pretend to care about social justice to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism.

— Clay Routledge (@clayroutledge) September 6, 2018

Except the people who buy sporting goods are not the vapid social justice warriors who proclaim their hostility to capitalism while patronizing some of the world’s most aggressively hyper-capitalist companies.

In any event, I don’t care that the senior management at Dick’s has adopted an anti-gun ideology.

But I get very agitated when the company gets in bed with government in a campaign to reduce the freedoms of other people.

Dick’s decided to hire their own gun-control lobbyists in order to push for stricter gun laws nationwide. That action led the National Shooting Sports Foundation—the firearms industry’s trade group—to expel the retailer.

This is why I’m happy to see Dick’s go downhill.

Schadenfreude rocks!

A Government “Success Story”

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:20pm

I often write about the failure of government.

In other words, there’s lots of evidence that government spending makes things worse.

Needless to say, this puts a lot of pressure on folks who favor bigger government. They desperately want to find any type of success story so they can argue that increasing the size and scope of the public sector generates some sort of payoff.

And they got their wish. Check out the ostensibly good news in a story from the San Fransisco Chronicle.

Investing billions of dollars in affordable housing and homeless programs in recent years has apparently put the brakes on what had been a surge in California’s homeless population, causing it to dip by 1 percent this year, a federal report released Monday showed. …The report put California’s homeless population this year at 129,972, a drop of 1,560 in the number of people on the streets in 2017. …“I think San Francisco has shown that when targeted investments are made, we see reductions in homelessness here,” Kositsky said. He pointed out that family, youth and chronic veterans homelessness dropped in the city’s last full count — although the number of chronically homeless people went up.

Maybe I’m not in the Christmas spirit, but I don’t see this as a feel-good story.

Are we really supposed to celebrate the fact that the government spent “billions of dollars” and the net effect is that the homeless population dropped just 1 percent?

The story doesn’t contain enough details for precise measurements, but even if we assume “billions” is merely $2 billion, then it cost taxpayers close to $1.3 million to get one person off the street. For that amount of money, taxpayers could have bought each of them a mansion!

In other words, the program has been a rotten investment. Heck, it makes Social Security seem like a good deal by comparison.

To be sure, maybe the number isn’t quite so bad because we’re comparing multi-year outlays with a one-year change in the homeless population. Though maybe the number is even worse because taxpayers actually coughed up far more than $2 billion.

The bottom line is that if my friends on the left see this as an example of success, I’d hate to see their definition of failure.

Have a Very Merry Libertarian Christmas

Tue, 12/25/2018 - 12:02pm

In the past, I’ve highlighted Christmas rivalries.

This Christmas, though, let’s just go with a libertarian theme. We’ll start with a new video from the clever folks at Reason.

Since the video mentioned Santa sneaking in the country and evading tariffs, here’s a cartoon strip featuring a protectionist Scrooge.

Poor Santa Claus.

He already buried by red tape and he’s been hassled by the IRS and other federal agencies.

Plus he has to deal with children who make impossible requests.

The last thing he needs is trade taxes reducing the amount of toys he can distribute.

But there is hope for a détente between Trump and Santa.

Now let’s focus on some good news.

Here’s a video about the blessings of capitalism. It has a Christmas theme, but free enterprise is a gift every single day of the year.

The above video makes a very Schumpeterian point about how capitalism is the system that best serves the needs of poor people.

But let’s not digress from out holiday theme.

We now have another video from Reason. Remy sings about how a corrupt tax code forces a very unsavory form of redistribution from the poor to the rich.

And if you liked that Remy video, he has a pair of great Christmas-themed videos (here and here) about the TSA.

Merry Christmas!

World’s Best Tweet about Socialism and Capitalism

Mon, 12/24/2018 - 12:57pm

I wrote a column earlier this month about the “world’s most depressing tweet,” which came from the Census Bureau and noted that the suburbs of Washington, DC, are the richest parts of America.

To be sure, I was engaging in a bit of hyperbole since a tweet about famine, war, or genocide surely would be more depressing. Nonetheless, I think it is a very bad sign that so many undeserving people are making so much money thanks to a bloated and cronyist central government.

Today I want to share another tweet that deserves some sort of special accolade.

I thought about calling it the “world’s best-ever tweet,” but I’m going to be more restrained and simply assert that it is the best tweet about socialism and capitalism.

“Real Socialism” has never been tried in the same way that “Real Capitalism” has never been tried.

The difference is ‘almost Socialism’ resulted in the impoverishment & death of hundreds of millions of people.

While ‘Almost Capitalism’ has lifted billions from absolute poverty.

— Mark (@markantro) January 23, 2018

This is spot on.

I’ve dealt with countless leftists who claim that the failure of places such as VenezuelaCubaNorth KoreaGreeceZimbabwe, and the Soviet Union don’t count because they weren’t “real socialism” or “real communism.”

Indeed, that’s even become a humorous theme (see herehere, and here from my collection of socialism/communism humor).

But shouldn’t we learn something from the fact that “almost socialism” invariably produces awful results?

Similarly, there has never been a society that is 100 percent capitalist. The world’s freest nations today, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, have state sectors that consume about 20 percent of economic output. Likewise, government consumed 10 percent of GDP during the height of the western world’s supposedly laissez-faire period in the 1800s.

That being said, shouldn’t we learn something from the fact that “almost capitalism” created the amazing hockey stick of human progress? Shouldn’t we learn something from the fact that “some capitalism” is capable of dramatically reducing global poverty?

P.S. If there was a prize for the most short-sighted, naive, and anti-empirical tweet, this example would win the prize.

P.P.S. And this tweet wins the prize for the best comeback. Consider it a case of tweet-on-tweet violence.

Subsidies for Higher Education Are Emptying the Pockets of Students and Lining the Pockets of Bureaucrats

Sun, 12/23/2018 - 12:10pm

I’m not as eloquent on the issue as Professor Daniel Lin, but I recently explained on Fox Business that government subsidies for higher education have enabled big increases in tuition, an outcome that has been good for bureaucrats and bad for students.

In effect, this is simply a story of “third-party payer,” which happens when consumers get to buy something with other people’s money.

Sellers respond by increasing prices since they know that consumers won’t care as much about price.

Indeed, this is the main problem plaguing America’s health sector.

Simply stated, government subsidies are a recipe for higher costs and inefficiency, regardless of the product or sector.

We definitely see the bad consequences in higher education. Mitch Daniels, the head of Purdue University, correctly identifies the problem of third-party payer in a column for the Washington Post.

…let’s design an economic sector guaranteed to cost too much. …we will sell a product deemed a necessity, with little or no option for the customer to avoid us altogether. Next, we will arrange to get paid for inputs, not outputs — how much we do, not how well we do it. We will make certain that actual results are difficult or impossible to measure with confidence. And we’ll layer on a pile of complex federal regulations to run up administrative costs. Then, and here’s the clincher, we will persuade the marketplace to flood our economic Eden with payments not from the user but from some third party. This will assure that the customer, insulated from true costs, will behave irrationally, often overconsuming and abandoning the consumerist judgment he practices at the grocery store or while Internet shopping. Presto! Guaranteed excessive spending, much of it staying in the pockets of the lucky producers. You say, “Oh, sure, this is American health care.” …Your answer is correct but incomplete. It worked so well in health care, we decided to repeat the formula with higher education. …by evading accountability for quality, regulating it heavily, and opening a hydrant of public subsidies in the form of government grants and loans, we have constructed another system of guaranteed overruns. It is the opposite of an accident that the only three pricing categories that have outpaced health care over recent decades are college tuition, room and board, and books.

Amen.

Daniels has done a great job controlling costs at Purdue, but I’m even more impressed that he is willing to look at the problems for our entire system of higher education (as such, I’ll forgive him for being the Budget Director during the big-spending Bush Administration).

I especially like his solution, which in part would require colleges to repay taxpayers if there are loan defaults, thus ensuring that they have some skin in the game.

…a promising movement is advancing in education to put some of the risk of lousy results — students who do not graduate or who graduate without having learned enough to earn their way in the world — on the institutions that “educated” them. It is about time. This game has been skinless far too long. …even a small degree of risk-sharing in higher education would cause significant behavior change. …Even a small charge, plus the embarrassment of its public announcement, would probably jar many schools from their complacent ruts.

By the way, some people (including Paul Krugman) claim higher tuition is caused by budget cuts. Preston Cooper shared some of his research on this issue in the Wall Street Journal.

A typical student in an American public college pays thousands of dollars more in tuition than just a decade ago. Students and parents are worried and frustrated, and many point the finger at state legislators… Hillary Clinton blamed “state disinvestment” in higher education for soaring tuition and declared her support for “free college.”While the “disinvestment” narrative is simple and appealing, it collapses under scrutiny. …Tuition goes up no matter what state legislators do. Public colleges, with state boundaries insulating them from competition, and generous federal student aid programs at their disposal, charge as much as they can get away with. Changes in state funding are largely irrelevant.

He’s right about federal aid enabling higher tuition. Academic scholars have found a very clear link.

Now let’s focus on the problem of ever-expanding bureaucracy.

David Frum points out in the Atlantic that college bureaucracies have done a marvelous job of….drum roll…advancing the interests of college bureaucracies.

One of the most famous essays on bureaucracy ever written was built upon a deceptively simple observation. Between 1914 and 1928, the number of ships in the British Navy declined by 67 percent. The ranks of officers and men shrank by 31 percent. But the number of Admiralty officials administering the shrunken force rose by 78 percent. …Here was the origin of Parkinson’s famous laws of bureaucracy, including “work expands to fill the time available” and “officials make work for each other.” …Why does college education cost so much? The Parkinson of American academia is Ralph Westfall, a professor at California Polytechnic University in Pomona. He computed in 2011 that over the 33 years from 1975 to 2008, the number of full-time faculty in the California state university system had barely increased at all: up from 11,614 to 12,019. Over the same period, the number of administrators had multiplied like little mushrooms: 3,000 had become 12,183. …with our universities. We’ve been thinking of them as institutions for teaching and learning—and wondering why we seem to be spending so much without achieving more. But if you think of them as institutions generating a perpetual cycle of employment in specialties for which there would otherwise be no demand at all? Why in that case, they are succeeding brilliantly.

George Will, in a column about political correctness and campus snowflakes, shares this factoid about bureaucracy in California’s higher-education system.

…between the 1997-1998 academic year and the Great Recession year of 2008-2009, while the University of California student population grew 33 percent and tenure-track faculty grew 25 percent, senior administrators grew 125 percent. “The ratio of senior managers to professors climbed from 1 to 2.1 to near-parity of 1 to 1.1,”

Writing for the Boston Globe, Professor Benjamin Ginsberg warned that higher tuition is feeding an ever-expanding bureaucracy

…over the last half-century, America’s universities have slowly been taken over by a burgeoning class of administrators and staffers who are less interested in training future entrepreneurs and thinkers as they are in turning institutions of learning into cash cows for a growing academic bureaucracy. …Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to university payrolls, even as budget crises force schools to shrink their full-time faculties. There are armies of functionaries – vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants. In turn, the ranks of administrators have expanded at nearly twice the rate of the faculty, while administrative staffs have outgrown the academics by nearly a factor of five. No wonder college is so expensive!

Let’s close with this bit of satire from the libertarian subreddit.

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton, when looking for solutions to a problem caused by government subsidies, recommended even more government subsidies.

Paul Ryan’s Legacy

Sat, 12/22/2018 - 12:04pm

Most politicians are contemptible. They are shallow, grasping, insecure clowns who want to expand the size and scope of government so they have more power to dictate how the rest of us live our lives.

To make matters worse, many of them know they are doing the wrong thing, but they don’t have the moral courage to resist the corrupt, go-along-to-get-along culture of Washington.

But that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. When people ask me what motivates politicians, I sometime explain the theory of “public choice.” In other cases, I tell the simple story of the guy who is endlessly conflicted between an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder.

And I tell them that a good politician is one who – more often than not – sides with the angel.

And that’s why, when asked to comment on the outgoing Speaker of the House, I applauded Paul Ryan. You can watch the entire interview here, but I’ve excerpted a segment that hits the two main points.

Simply stated, Ryan was instrumental in moving the ball forward on tax reform. I very much doubt we would have achieved a lower corporate tax rate or scaled back the state and local tax deduction without all the work he did during his time at the Budget Committee and Ways & Means Committee.

And while entitlement reform never happened, first because of Obama and now because of Trump, it’s nonetheless a remarkable achievement that Ryan was able to:

  • Put together budgets with genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.
  • Get those budgets approved by the House and Senate.

By the way, I’m not being a naive cheerleader.

Ryan had plenty of bad votes, including the horribly corrupt TARP bailout. And he routinely supported many other elements of George W. Bush’s big-government agenda.

And his tax record wasn’t perfect, either. His Roadmap budget plan had some great reforms, but also included a value-added tax. More recently, he supported the border-adjustment tax (sort of a pre-VAT).

But even Saint Ronald wasn’t perfect.

P.S. My biggest sin of omission in the interview is that I didn’t mention the de facto five-year spending freeze between 2009-2014, an achievement that largely overlapped with Ryan’s tenure as Chairman of the Budget Committee.

Fiscal Fights with Friends: If a Carbon Tax Is Imposed, Hauser’s Law Won’t Protect America from Bigger Government

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 12:55pm

I have a series of columns where I explore tactical disagreements with folks who generally favor free markets and less government.

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.
  • In Part IV, I highlighted reasons why conservatives should reject a federal program for paid parental leave.

Today, we’re going to revisit the carbon tax because Josiah Neeley and William Murray of the R Street Institute have a column in the Hill that claims that levy would not finance bigger government.

…There have been numerous tax rate changes in the past 70 years, with the marginal income tax rate falling from a high of over 90 percent in the 1950s to as low as 28 percent in the late 1980s. Yet during this entire time period, federal tax revenue has stayed in a fairly narrow band when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product, never rising above 20 percent or falling much below 15 percent between 1950 and 2018. This phenomenon, which keeps federal revenues within a relatively narrow band, is known as Hauser’s law…the belief that any kind of new taxation introduces even greater government spending is based on very little actual evidence. Instead, Hauser’s law provides evidence that certain kinds of tax swaps, such as exchanging an income tax for a carbon tax, may actually increase the rate of economic growth without increasing the tax share of the overall economy.

They also claim that higher taxes don’t lead to more spending.

…demand for government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around. This conclusion has important implications for the carbon tax debate. …The relative imperviousness of the gross domestic product tax percent equilibrium since the late 1940s suggests that spending pressures drive taxes and not the other way around.

I have two responses to this analysis.

First, I very much want Hauser’s Law to be true. It would be very comforting if politicians in Washington could never seize more than 20 percent of the private sector’s output.

Sadly, that’s simply not the case. Just look at Europe, where central governments routinely extract far more than 40 percent of economic output.

All that’s required is taxes that target lower- and middle-income taxpayers. That’s happened in Europe because of harsh value-added taxes, punitive payroll taxes, onerous energy taxes, and income taxes that impose very high rates on ordinary people.

Needless to say, a carbon tax would be a step in that direction.

Second, the authors offer zero evidence that “government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around.”

By contrast, there is some persuasive data for the “starve the beast” hypothesis, which is based on the notion that higher taxes will encourage more spending.

In other words, Milton Friedman was right when he warned that “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

Though I actually don’t think this causality debate is very important. The bottom line is that higher taxes are a bad idea if they trigger higher spending, and higher taxes also are a bad idea if they merely enable higher spending.

The column in the Hill is a spin-off from a recent study published by the R Street Institute.

Let’s look at that publication to further explore this issue. It starts with the basic hypothesis that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be desirable.

…a carbon tax…provides a source of revenue that can be put to beneficial purposes, such as funding cuts to other existing taxes. By using the revenue from a carbon tax to replace existing ones, such a revenue neutral “tax swap” would greatly reduce or eliminate the economic costs of the tax. Indeed, in some cases, even if benefits from reduced emissions are not considered, a tax swap could be a net positive for the economy. …many critics of a carbon tax are skeptical as to whether a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be enacted. Some critics go further, arguing that even if a carbon tax started out as revenue neutral, it would not remain so. …While there are no guarantees, the existing evidence suggests that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would not lead to larger government over the long term and could even shrink it.

I don’t object to the notion that a carbon tax would be theoretically desirable if it replaced a tax that did more damage per dollar collected, such as the corporate income tax.

My concern has always been such a swap is highly unlikely. Indeed, many proponents of the carbon tax are very explicit about wanting to use the revenues to create a new entitlement. That would be the worst outcome, assuming we want more growth.

And, as noted above, I don’t think Hauser’s Law would save us from higher overall taxes and a larger burden of government spending.

Interestingly, the study basically acknowledges the same thing.

…given that Hauser’s Law is not an iron law of economics, it would be imprudent to put too much weight on it when considering the effects of a tax swap.

There are a couple of other parts of the study that deserve attention, including the assertion that politicians would have a hard time using the carbon tax as a money machine.

…a carbon tax has natural limitations that preclude it from being used to generate ever-increasing amounts of tax revenue. This is because higher carbon-tax rates induce a more rapid fall in greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, limits the overall revenue collected from the tax. In fact, unlike revenue from income, sales or property taxes, which tends to increase over time even at a constant tax rate, revenue from a carbon tax is likely to remain stable or fall gradually as emissions decline.

Since I’m a fan of the Laffer Curve, I think this argument is very reasonable in theory.

In effect, the R Street Institute is making the same argument – excessive tax rates can reduce revenue – that Alexander Hamilton used when endorsing tariffs.

But where is the point where carbon taxes become excessive? I don’t know the answer, but I’m very worried that there would be ample leeway to collect a lot of tax revenue before getting close to the revenue-maximizing point (the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a $25-per-ton carbon tax would generate more than $1 trillion in the first ten years).

The bottom line is that I worry that a carbon tax likely would be akin to a value-added tax. Yes, there are negative feedback effects from a VAT, as I noted at the end of yesterday’s column. But that doesn’t change the fact that the revenue-generating capacity of the VAT helps to explain Europe’s bloated welfare states.

I understand how a carbon tax, in theory, might not enable bigger government. But I see no way, in reality, that politicians wouldn’t use this new levy to finance even more spending.

P.S. If you’re not already convinced that a carbon tax will mean bigger government, then all you need to know is that both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development support higher energy taxes for the United States.

World Bank Study Confirms the Ever-Increasing Damage of Ever-Increasing Tax Rates

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 12:24pm

A couple of weeks ago, I used a story about a local tax issue in Washington, DC, to make an important point about how new tax increases cause more damage than previous tax increases because “deadweight losses” increase geometrically rather than arithmetically.

Simply stated, if a tax of X does Y amount of damage, then a tax of 2X will do a lot more damage than 2Y.

This is the core economic reason why even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree that class-warfare taxes are so destructive. When you take a high tax rate and make it even higher, the damage grows exponentially.

As such, I was very interested to see a new study on this topic from the World Bank. It starts by noting that higher tax rates are the wrong way to address fiscal shortfalls.

…studies have used the narrative approach for individual or multi-country analyses (in all cases, focusing solely on industrial economies, and mostly on industrial European countries). These studies find large negative tax multipliers, ranging between 2 and 5. This recent consensus pointing to large negative tax multipliers, especially in industrial European countries, naturally entails important policy prescriptions. For example, as part of a more comprehensive series of papers focusing on spending and tax multipliers, Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi (2015) point that policies based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of short run output losses than tax based adjustments.

The four authors used data on value-added taxes to investigate whether higher tax rates did more damage or less damage in developing nations.

A natural question is whether large negative tax multipliers are a robust empirical regularity… In order to answer this highly relevant academic and policy question, one would ideally need to conduct a study using a more global sample including industrial and, particularly, developing countries. …This paper takes on this challenge by focusing on 51 countries (21 industrial and 30 developing) for the period 1970-2014. …we focus our efforts on building a new series for quarterly standard value-added tax rates (henceforth VAT rates). …We identify a total of 96 VAT rate changes in 35 countries (18 industrial and 17 developing).

The economists found that VAT increases did the most damage in developing nations.

…when splitting the sample into industrial European economies and the rest of countries, we find tax multipliers of 3:6 and 1:2, respectively. While the tax multiplier in industrial European economies is quite negative and statistically significant (in line with recent studies), it is about 3 times smaller (in absolute value) and borderline statistically significant for the rest of countries.

Here’s a chart showing the comparison.

Now here’s the part that merits close attention.

The study confirms that the deadweight loss of VAT hikes is higher in developed nations because the initial tax burden is higher.

Based on different types of macroeconomic models (which in turn rely on different mechanisms), the output effect of tax changes is expected to be small at low initial levels of taxation but exponentially larger when initial tax levels are high. Therefore, the distortions and disincentives imposed by taxation on economic activity are directly, and non-linearly, related to the level of tax rates. By the same token, for a given level of initial tax rates, larger tax rate changes have larger tax multipliers. …In line with theoretical distortionary and disincentive-based arguments, we find, using our novel worldwide narrative, that the effect of tax changes on output is indeed highly non-linear. Our empirical findings show that the tax multiplier is essentially zero under relatively low/moderate initial tax rate levels and more negative as the initial tax rate and the size of the change in the tax rate increase. …This evidence strongly supports distortionary and disincentive-based arguments regarding a nonlinear effect of tax rate changes on economic activity…the economy will inevitably suffer when taxes are increased at higher initial tax rate levels.

What makes these finding especially powerful is that value-added taxes are less destructive than income taxes on a per-dollar-raised basis.

So if taking a high VAT rate and making it even higher causes a disproportionate amount of economic damage, then imagine how destructive it is to increase top income tax rates.

P.S. The fact that a VAT is less destructive than an income tax is definitely not an argument for enacting a VAT. That would be akin to arguing that it would be fun to break your wrist because that wouldn’t hurt as much as the broken leg you already have.

I’ve even dealt with people who actually argue that a VAT isn’t economically destructive because it imposes the same tax on current consumption and future consumption. I agree with them that it is a good idea to avoid double taxation of saving and investment, but that doesn’t change the fact that a VAT increases the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

And that means less incentive to earn income in the first place.

Which is confirmed by the study.

Panels A and B in Figure 18 show the relationship between the VAT rate a and the perceived effect of taxes on incentives to work and invest, respectively, for a sample of 123 countries for the year 2014. Supporting our previous findings, the relationship is highly non-linear. While the perceived effect of taxes on the incentives to work and invest barely changes as VAT rates increase at low/moderate levels (approximately until the VAT rate reaches 14 percent), it falls rapidly for high levels of VAT rates.

Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

The moral of the story is that all tax increases are misguided, but class-warfare taxes wreak the most economic havoc.

P.S. Not everyone understands this common-sense observation. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office basically argued back in 2010 that a 100 percent tax rate was the way to maximize growth.

Baltimore’s Anti-Gun Government Offers Free Money to Gun Owners

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 12:09pm

I have many examples of gun control humor, all of which were created to mock anti-2nd Amendment zealotry.

But nothing I’ve ever read is as funny as this week’s gun buyback scheme by the Baltimore Police Department, which was organized by anti-gun politicians and bureaucrats.

Here’s what the Baltimore Sun reported about the buyback scheme.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle announced the launch of the gun buyback program at a news conference Tuesday at police headquarters. Pugh said the program is one strategy to try to reduce violence in the city… “We are coming towards the end of the year and we are doing everything we can to stay under a certain number, but I don’t want to even talk about that,” Pugh said, describing the buyback event as part of the city’s violence reduction initiatives. …Pugh did not say how much the buyback program would cost, but she believes the city has enough money for it. She said nonprofits would be contributing.

So why is this so funny? Shouldn’t I be upset that Baltimore politicians and bureaucrats want law-abiding people to give up guns, which will make life easierfor criminals?

After all, that is bad policy.

But there’s a very amusing part of this story. Baltimore is offering $25 for every “hi-capacity” magazine.

And this creates a very interesting opportunity to make a quick buck since a quick online search reveals that one popular magazine (holds 30 rounds, so easily qualifies) can be purchased for about $11-$13.

Before you buy a truckload of magazines in hopes of some easy cash, I must warn you that there is a slight obstacle. If the poster above is accurate, the buyback is only for residents of Baltimore.

That being said, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a local guy to act as your “straw seller.”

P.S. Some of you might feel guilty about participating since taxpayer money will be squandered on the buyback. That’s a noble sentiment. However, the story in the Sun also noted that some of the financing would come from nonprofits. And that means participants will probably be helping to deplete the bank accounts of George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. More money for you and less money for them is a win-win situation.

P.P.S. To the best of my recollection, my only other example of gun-buyback humor is at the end of this column.

In a Single Story, Everything You Need to Know about Waste and the Federal Government

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 12:51pm

What’s the most inefficient and wasteful part of the federal government?

It’s impossible to answer that question without greater detail.

Are we supposed to identify the worst cabinet-level department? If that’s the case, then bureaucracies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Education would be high on the list.

Or are we supposed to identify the most counter-productive activity of Washington? If that’s the case, then agriculture subsidiesjob-training programs. or subsidies for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development come to mind.

But what if we’re simply asked to identify the dumbest single thing our overlords in D.C. have financed? That would generate a very long (and ever-growing) list of options. Today, we’re going to look at an example.

Here’s a story that perfectly symbolizes the waste, ineffectiveness, and corruption of Washington.

Customs and Border Protection hired Accenture to hire and recruit 7,500 agents within the next five years. But just 10 months into the contract, only two accepted job offers have been processed, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. Accenture, a global management consulting company headquartered in Ireland, was awarded a $297 million contract to achieve the hiring goal. But the report says that $13.6 million has been spent in the last 10 months, and that CBP “risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a hastily approved contract that is not meeting its proposed performance expectations.” …CBP ultimately agreed to the four recommendations in the report, including that the CBP commissioner should assess Accenture’s performance.

This is outrageous on several levels.

  • First, federal employees make much more than folks in the private sector, so I’m mystified why it’s necessary to spend any money to attract applicants.
  • Second, why did Uncle Sam sign a contract to pay Accenture nearly $40,000 for each CBP agent hired, assuming the company fully delivered?
  • Third, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that it is absurd that taxpayers to date have paid $6.8 million each for two new CBP bureaucrats.

Sadly, there won’t be any consequences for this boondoggle, at least if history is any guide.

Nobody at the CBP will get fired.

Nobody at the CBP will be demoted.

Nobody at the CBP will lose a bonus.

Simply stated, people in the government don’t care whether our money is being wasted.

Before concluding, we need to add an additional reason to be outraged.

  • Fourth, this is an all-too-typical example of government contracting, with a “beltway bandit” scamming the system for unearned riches.

Maybe I should create a Waste Hall of Fame to augment the Moocher Hall of Fame and Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

In addition to this squalid Accenture contract, other examples could be the $15 million scam to improve the IRS’s image, the State Department paying 35 times the market price for some Kindles, bonuses for VA bureaucrats who left veterans to die on waiting lists, gold-plated renovations for the CFPB headquarters, and $6,000-a-piece interviews about erectile dysfunction.

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