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Coronavirus and the Fiscal Future of the European Union

Mon, 04/13/2020 - 12:00pm

Libertarians and other supporters of limited government historically have mixed feelings about the European Union (and its various governmental manifestations).

On the plus side, there are no trade barriers between nations that belong to the EU, and membership also makes it difficult for countries to impose regulatory burdens that hinder trade. The EU also has helped to improve the rule of law in some nations, particularly for newer members from the former Soviet Bloc.

On the minus side, the EU imposes trade barriers against the rest of the world. There is also continuous pressure for tax harmonization policies and regulatory harmonization policies that increase the burden of government – compounded by efforts to export those bad polices to non-member nations.

Given these good and bad features, it’s understandable that proponents of economic liberty don’t have a consensus position on the European Union.

But views may become more universally hostile since some European politicians now want to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to expand redistribution and enable bailouts by changing existing EU rules.

Currently, there is very limited scope for bad European-wide fiscal policy because Article 125 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union ostensibly prohibits cross-country redistribution or bailouts.

For what it’s worth, there is another provision for nations that use the euro currency. Article 136 of the Treaty allows for a “stability mechanism” to “safeguard the stability of the euro,” but also states that “the mechanism will be made subject to strict conditionality.”

Now let’s apply this background knowledge to the current situation.

As I wrote last month, the coronavirus-triggered economic mess is wreaking havoc with the finances of EU nations, especially for “Club Med” nations.

For example, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute writes for the Hill about the potential consequences for Italy.

The Eurozone’s moment of truth has arrived with the coronavirus pandemic. …a supply side-shock of unprecedented size to Europe in general and to a highly indebted Italy in particular. Indeed, Italy, the Eurozone’s third-largest member country, is now at the epicenter of the pandemic and is being subject to an economic shock of biblical proportions. …That is all too likely to cause the country’s public debt to skyrocket to over 160 percent of GDP by year-end. It is also likely to put enormous strain on the country’s rickety banking system…it would seem to be only a matter of time before markets…became increasingly reluctant to buy Italian government bonds for fear of an eventual default. They would also…chose to move their deposits out of the Italian banks to safer havens abroad. …we should brace ourselves for an Italian exit from the euro that would almost certainly roil the world’s financial markets.

None of this should be a surprise. Italy is a fiscal mess and I’ve been making that point with tiresome regularity.

The coronavirus and the concomitant economic shutdown are merely a final (and very big) straw on the camel’s back.

So is Italy going to default? And maybe crash out of the euro? Or, alternatively, actually impose some long-overdue spending restraint?

Well, why make any tough decision if there’s a potential new source of money – i.e., cash from taxpayers in Germany, Finland, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other EU nations in Northern Europe.

Needless to say, that’s a very controversial concept. British newspapers have been writing about this issue.

Here are some passages from a report in the left-leaning Guardian.

The European Union has weathered the storms of eurozone bailouts, the migration crisis and Brexit, but some fear coronavirus could be even more destructive. …Jacques Delors, the former European commission president who helped build the modern EU, broke his silence last weekend to warn that lack of solidarity posed “a mortal danger to the European Union”. …The pandemic has reopened the wounds of the eurozone crisis, resurrecting stereotypes about “profligate” southern Europeans and “hard-hearted” northerners. …The Dutch finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra,…infuriat[ed] his neighbours by asking why other governments didn’t have fiscal buffers to deal with the financial shock of the coronavirus. His comments were described as “repugnant”, “small-minded” and “a threat to the EU’s future” by Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa.

Here are excerpts from a piece in the right-leaning Telegraph.

Italian politicians took out a full-page advertisement in one of Germany’s most prestigious newspapers…, urging parsimonious northern Europe to do more to help the south… They urged Berlin to drop its opposition to a proposed EU scheme to issue so-called “coronabonds” to raise funds to fight the crisis. And they accused the Netherlands, which has led opposition to the scheme, of operating as a tax haven and diverting revenue from other member states. …Several EU members – led by France, Italy, Spain and Belgium – have called for EU-wide “coronabonds” to help poorer member states borrow as they struggle with the economic impact of the crisis. But a rival faction of northern members, led by the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Germany, has opposed what it sees as an attempt to saddle the countries with the debts of their more feckless neighbours.

An article in the Express highlighted divisions between Portugal and the Netherlands.

Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa has stunned fellow EU leaders after raising the idea…that the Netherlands could be kicked out of the European Union… The Netherlands held up the talks after blocking demands from Italy, Spain and France for so-called ‘corona-bonds’ where the EU would issue joint shared debt to help finance a recovery. …The Portuguese leader said: “If under these conditions it’s not possible for Europe to ensure a common response to this challenge, this is a sign of great concern for those who believe in Europe.” Mr Costa went on to question whether “there is anyone who wants to be left out” of the EU or eurozone. He added: “Naturally, I’m referring to the Netherlands. “There is at least one country in the euro zone that resists understanding that sharing a common currency implies sharing a common effort.”

The rest of this column is going to explain why it’s a very bad idea to have intra-EU redistribution and bailouts.

But I first want to debunk the claim from the Portuguese Prime Minister that a common currency requires a common fiscal policy.

Indeed, he’s not the only one to make this mistake. In a column for the U.K.-based Times, Iain Martin also asserts that a common currency somehow necessitates cross-country redistribution.

European finance ministers and leaders have spent the week arguing over desperate pleas from countries such as Italy…who want the European Central Bank and the EU to underpin common debt that will cover the epic bills being faced by national governments. …The fiscally conservative northern nations see no reason why they should take on the “pooled” debt of weaker southern European economies. …The core problem is what it has always been: the elementary design flaw of the euro. Currency blocs that work depend on that notion of common endeavour and “pooling” debt and risk, and ideally must function as one political organisation. …the euro needed an institutional structure that would operate roughly as the United States does. …This escalating economic emergency is a tragedy…a currency and monetary and fiscal construction that is not capable of swiftly transferring resources to the weak.

Both Costa and Martin are wrong.

Panama does very well using the dollar as its currency, yet there’s obviously no common fiscal policy with the United States. Other nations also have “dollarized” without any adverse impact.

Or consider the fiscal history of the United States. For much of American history, the federal government was trivially small. Most spending happened at the state and local level.

Needless to say, having a common currency in this decentralized system wasn’t a hindrance to U.S. economic development.

With this topic out of the way, let’s now deal with whether the coronavirus crisis should be used as an excuse to open the floodgates for intra-EU redistribution and bailouts.

Politicians from nations on the receiving end obviously approve.

But some Americans also like the idea.

Max Bergmann, a former Obama appointee at the State Department, likes the idea. He argues in the Washington Post for more centralization and more redistribution in the EU.

…this is in fact a fight over the future of Europe. The common European bond proposal hits at the core of what Europe’s union is for. It is an act of unity… A common E.U. bond would take the debt that individual European states accrue to fight this crisis and make it a collective European responsibility. …Moving ahead with it would entail a sweeping increase in the power of the federal union. …The move by…nine countries for a common E.U. bond was in fact a revolt against Europe’s status quo. It was at its core therefore a revolt against Merkel and the past decade of austerity in Europe. …Merkel is also the architect of a decade of devastating austerity that has caused economic devastation and deprivation… The crisis revealed that Europe’s new currency (the euro) had a design flaw. While the E.U. had a common monetary policy with its own central bank, it lacked a common fiscal policy. …Merkel could have pushed for that. …Merkel lectured southern European countries about profligacy. She turned what was a manageable crisis into a systemic shock to Europe’s economies. …As the coronavirus crisis hit, …Merkel has stuck to her guns.

The New York Times, unsurprisingly, has editorialized for centralization and redistribution.

…the European Union is…an alliance of sovereign countries, not a central government, and Brussels has control only over external trade and competition. For the rest, its executive branch, the European Commission, can only seek cooperation, not order it. The states that share the euro do not have true fiscal union, under which wealthier parts of the bloc would prop up the poorer. …Europe could do better. Much better. …Italians or Spaniards confronted with death and economic catastrophe…aren’t in a bind due to profligate spending; they’re in the throes of a plague… The question to ask is what’s the point of any union if it cannot find unity when it is needed most…true leadership requires knowing that we’re all in this together and can only conquer it together.

Is this correct? Would it be a good idea to have “a sweeping increase in the power of the federal union”? Would that be “true leadership”?

Gideon Rachman warns in the Financial Times that such policies will cause political fallout.

…northern Europeans will…feel exploited by the south. …The longer-term fears of the northern Europeans are also legitimate. …The northerners are alert to any sign that they are being sucked into permanent, large transfers of cash to heavily indebted EU partners. They are justifiably concerned that the current anguish is being used to push forward ideas that they have already rejected, many times over. …if political leaders renege on longstanding promises…, they should not be particularly surprised if voters then turn to populist, anti-European parties. …Anti-EU parties have already made strong gains across northern Europe in recent years.

That’s very sensible political analysis.

But the bigger problem, at least from my perspective, is that a common fiscal policy would be very bad economics.

It means more redistribution, with all the unfortunate incentives that creates for both those paying and those receiving (as illustrated by this cartoon).

And it means more overall government spending. The “Club Med” countries obviously would spend any money they got (whether from so-called coronabonds, a common-EU budget, or any other mechanism), and there’s no reason to think the nations in Northern Europe would reduce spending as their taxpayers started to underwrite the budgets of other nations.

This is a problem since government already is far too large in every EU country. Here’s the most-recent data from the European Commission. If you focus on the left, you’ll see the average fiscal burden in the EU is about 45 percent of GDP (and slightly higher in the subset of eurozone countries).

The bottom line is that countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal are in trouble because their governments have been spending too much.

Sadly, I fear it is just a matter of time before Article 125 is somehow sidelined and the profligacy of those “Club Med” nations is rewarded.

And if/when that happens, what’s good about the EU (open trade and the remnants of mutual recognition) definitely will be dwarfed by bad policy (bailouts, transfers, and others form of redistribution).

P.S. One of the strongest arguments for Brexit was that the EU inevitably would morph into a transfer union – and thus accelerate the economic decline of Europe. Given what’s now happening, the British were very wise to escape.

———
Image credit: Sébastien Bertrand | CC BY 2.0.

Coronavirus and the Tradeoff Between Big Government and Competent Government

Sat, 04/11/2020 - 12:51pm

About three weeks ago, I unveiled the “Seventh Theorem of Government” to support the libertarian proposition that a smaller government will do a better job of fulfilling its legitimate responsibilities.

This should not be a controversial concept. There’s plenty of empirical data as well as academic evidence showing that smaller governments are more competent.

Many people in the D.C. bubble obviously disagree.

In his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank tries to make the argument that the fight against coronavirus has been hampered by inadequate government.

…then came the tea party, the anti-government conservatism that infected the Republican Party in 2010 and triumphed with President Trump’s election. …What you see today is your government…a government that couldn’t produce a rudimentary test for coronavirus, that couldn’t contain the pandemic as other countries have done… Now it is time to drown this disastrous philosophy in the bathtub — and with it the poisonous attitude that the government is a harmful “beast” that must be “starved.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this ideology caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government. …Americans are paying for this with their lives — and their livelihoods.

There are some glaring inaccuracies in Milbank’s column, starting with the absurd notion that big-spender Trump (he increased domestic spending at a faster pace than Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama) is somehow connected to the principles that animated the Tea Party.

More relevant, he wants readers to believe that anti-government activism somehow blocked the production of a “rudimentary test” for the virus, yet I’ve repeatedly documented that the actual problem has been mindless red tape from bureaucracies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

Speaking of which, Chris Edwards has rigorously debunked the notion that those bureaucracies, along with the National Institutes of Health, somehow have been starved of resources.

Here’s his chart showing funding for NIH and CDC

And here’s his chart showing the number of bureaucrats at the NIH, FDA, and CDC.

And what have we gotten in exchange for more bureaucrats and bigger budgets?

As already noted, we got inefficient bureaucracies that have put Americans at risk by hindering and delaying tests, equipment, and treatments.

Now let’s address the part of Milbank’s column that is a classic example of what’s called an “own goal” in soccer. He wants to make the case that bigger government is more effective government, but look at the examples he cites.

If the United States had more public health capacity, it “absolutely” would have been on par with Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, which have far fewer cases, Auerbach said. South Korea has had 4 deaths per 1 million people, Singapore 1 death per million, and Taiwan 0.2 deaths per million. The United States: 39 per million — and rising fast.

What do we know about Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan?

Well, as I noted in November of 2018, they all have a smaller burden of government spending than the United States.

Significantly smaller.

I’m embarrassed for Mr. Milbank, for the obvious reason that it is personally humiliating to score an “own goal.”

But I’m also embarrassed for myself. I repeatedly try to make the argument for limited government, but Milbank’s accidental case for libertarianism may be more persuasive than anything I’ve ever written.

P.S. On a related note, check out the concept of “state capacity libertarianism.”

———
Image credit: Raed Mansour | CC BY 2.0.

Coronavirus and the Failure of Big Government, Part IV

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 12:38pm

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared headlines and tweets to illustrate how bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence have hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Time to beat that dead horse one more time.

But not just for the sake of mocking the clowns in Washington. I want to help people understand that we would get better outcomes with a slimmed-down public sector that focused on genuine governmental responsibilities.

Before providing a comprehensive collection of headlines and tweets, please read these excerpts from a searing indictment of the federal government’s incompetence, written by Stephen Pimentel for Palladium.

The FDA’s poor performance has little to do with insufficient budgets… The countries with the most effective responses… Taiwan, for example, has relied on a decentralized set of quickly developed digital tools, coordinated by its DIGI+ digital ministry but developed on the fly by private citizens. ….None of these countries allowed their equivalents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to block virus-testing and the production of masks. In the U.S., the FDA possesses exclusive authority to approve tests once the Department of Health and Human Services declares a Public Health Emergency, which it did on January 31, 2020. The FDA proceeded to grant such approval only to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In February, the CDC developed a test on its own and distributed it to state labs. But the test kits had a bad reagent and did not work. During the entire month of February, as the virus continued to spread, the FDA granted no private lab approval to test. The first approval for a private lab was only issued on March 2, 2020. …Why have common surgical masks (and not only the higher-grade N95 masks) run short during the pandemic? Surely they are easy to produce. The answer is that, while they are physically easy to produce, the FDA treats them as regulated medical devices and requires extensive risk analysis and testing before they can be legally sold, making them difficult and time-consuming for a company to legally bring to market. …The American institutions charged with protecting public health are embedded in a bureaucratic culture that values turf-centered gatekeeping and control over effectiveness and outcome.

Now for our collection of headlines and tweets.

And we’ll start with the one that carries the main message of today’s column.

And why are people needlessly suffering? And even dying?

Well, feel free to click on any of these stories and tweets to access the underlying information.

FDA finally allows use of KN95 masks. They should have done this a month ago.https://t.co/Y0bmfiQSWB

— Paul Graham (@paulg) April 3, 2020

The federal government 1) blocks distillers from bulk production of non-retail sanitizer, so “approved” products aren’t there for the public, and 2) blocks import of perfectly good masks because bureaucratic boxes haven’t been checked. Please fix this, @realDonaldTrump. — Kurt Couchman (@KurtCouchman) April 3, 2020

COVID-19 preparedness

With Trump’s trade war tariffs of 25%, the American health care system was forced to reduce by 16% its purchases of critical medical supplies and stockpiles from China in 2019.
https://t.co/ZpGwEuAGQA

— Chad P. Bown (@ChadBown) March 30, 2020

While the FDA and CDC deserve plenty of scorn and criticism, Let’s not forget that states augment the damage of big government thanks to misguided “certificate of need” laws that restrict the capacity of the health sector, as well as laws against so-called price gouging.

Certificate of Need laws have restricted the proliferation of hospitals and surgicenters in many states. This Coronavirus crisis has showed us that central planning can be deadly. End CON laws. @SurgeryCenterOK @AAPSonline @HConomics @StephenMoore @marklevinshow @JediPD

— Alieta Eck, MD (@AlietaEck) March 30, 2020

Tyler is of course right:

The need to “comply with the law” is costing lives:https://t.co/VKNXv6gL19 pic.twitter.com/wSSSnoIjQo

— Megatesting Fan Account (@GarettJones) April 2, 2020

The same problem exists to varying degrees in other nations, and also with international bureaucracies.

This is the strongest statistical association I’ve seen w/ respect to the virus. Wear a mask, mandate others to wear masks, & remember that @WHO is criminally incompetent. To repeat:@WHO is criminally incompetent.

PS-Don’t get into elevators, buses, etc. unless your mask in N95 https://t.co/ZCkl3hql9K

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb (@nntaleb) March 31, 2020

Why does the WHO keep misinforming the public?

– The WHO said the coronavirus couldn’t be transmitted from person to person.
– The WHO says masks don’t protect anyone or prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
– The WHO advised against shutting borders and canceling flights.

— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) March 31, 2020

Why does the WHO keep misinforming the public?

– The WHO said the coronavirus couldn’t be transmitted from person to person.
– The WHO says masks don’t protect anyone or prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
– The WHO advised against shutting borders and canceling flights.

— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) March 31, 2020


So what’s today’s message? Here’s a blunt headline that applies to national red tape, local red tape, and global red tape.

That lesson is captured by this image from the Atlas Society.

Once again, we have an answer to the question first asked back in 2009.

P.S. The bad news shared above doesn’t even count the deadly impact of the FDA’s lengthy and expensive process for approving new drugs.

———
Image credit: Alex Proimos | CC BY-NC 2.0.

The World Health Organization’s Predictable Coronavirus Failure

Wed, 04/08/2020 - 12:18pm

Reviewing public policy and the coronavirus, I’ve mostly focused on the manifest failures of Washington bureaucracies.

But let’s not overlook the politicized incompetence of the World Health Organization, a U.N.-connected bureaucracy that ostensibly exists to prevent global pandemics.

Much of that criticism, as illustrated by this National Review column by Senator Marco Rubio, has focused on the WHO’s ties to China.

…there is grave cause for concern over the independence of the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO). …a systemic problem within WHO leadership: a subservience to Beijing that comes at the expense of its stated commitment to public health. …the WHO refused to act on or publicize Taiwan’s warning that the new respiratory infection emerging in China could pass from human to human. …the organization repeated the CCP’s lie that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. …the WHO, at Beijing’s behest, also blocked Taiwan from participating in critical meetings to coordinate responses to the coronavirus and even reportedly provided wrong information about the virus’s spread in Taiwan. …the U.S. — the WHO’s largest financial contributor, giving five times as much money as obligated… I will also work with my colleagues in Congress to review U.S. contributions to the WHO.

None of this is surprising. International bureaucracies are politicized, and their activities are designed and packaged in part to please the nations that provide funds (especially since the bureaucrats at places such as the WHO get lucrative tax-free remuneration and they don’t want to derail the gravy train).

I’ve made this same point when writing about how European welfare states, which dominate the membership of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, pushed the Paris-based bureaucracy into fighting against tax competition. So it’s not simply a China-specific problem.

The bigger issue is that the WHO, like almost all bureaucracies, has become sclerotic and self-aggrandizing.

For instance, it has sought to expand its power and budget by getting involved in lifestyle issues.

I’ve previously written about the WHO’s reprehensible efforts to harmonize tobacco taxation (including a column about the bureaucracy’s attempted censorship).

But that didn’t have any effect. A few years ago, the then-Director General of the WHO co-authored a column in the Washington Post extolling the bureaucracy’s attempts to dictate global tobacco taxation.

…tobacco taxes have already been formally endorsed by governments representing 90 percent of the world’s people, through a legally binding global treaty — the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control… The United Nations should encourage countries to raise tobacco taxes to support the world’s development goals.

Peter Suderman points out another bizarre example of WHO mission creep.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified video game addiction as a mental disorder. …But now, with much of the global economy shuttered due to a pandemic, and health experts issuing increasingly strenuous recommendations for people to avoid leaving the house whenever possible, the WHO is encouraging people to stay home—and play video games.

And Matt Ridley authored a persuasive indictment of the WHO for the U.K.-based Telegraph, including a critique of the bureaucracy for getting involved in extraneous issues such as obesity and climate change.

There are three charges against WHO. First, it failed to prepare the world for a pandemic, spending the years since the Sars and ebola alarms talking more about climate change, obesity and tobacco… Second, once the epidemic began in China, WHO downplayed its significance… The third charge against WHO is that it has failed before. When the ebola outbreak in West Africa that was to kill 11,000 people began in late 2013, on its own admission WHO hindered the fight against the virus… WHO gives the impression it would rather reprimand rich countries for climate change or bad eating habits than worry about epidemics. It’s also a bit obsessed with celebrities. …On 28 March this year, Tedros found time to tweet about having had “a very good call with @ladygaga.” …It is an open secret among international diplomats and public health experts that WHO is “not fit for mission” (as one of them put it to me), riddled with politics and bureaucracy.

So what’s the bottom line?

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial aptly summarizes the situation, suggesting that it may be time to end subsidies for the WHO from American taxpayers.

The coronavirus pandemic will offer many lessons in what to do better to save more lives and do less economic harm the next time. But there’s already one way to ensure future pandemics are less deadly: Reform or defund the World Health Organization (WHO). …Much of the blame for WHO’s failures lies with Dr. Tedros, who is a politician, not a medical doctor. As a member of the left-wing Tigray People’s Liberation Front, he rose through Ethiopia’s autocratic government as health and foreign minister. After taking the director-general job in 2017, he tried to install Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador. …If WHO is merely a politicized Maginot Line against pandemics, then it is worse than useless and should receive no more U.S. funding. And if foreign-policy elites want to know why so many Americans mistrust international institutions, WHO is it.

I’ll close with an article for the Federalist by Richard Tren. He starts by acknowledging that the WHO did good work in its early days, but then sacrificed lives to appease a handful of rich donor nations.

Early in the organization’s history, when it was allowed to take a more paternalistic approach to disease control in poor countries, it recorded considerable progress against diseases such as river blindness, yaws, leprosy, polio, and malaria. …By the 1970s, however, there was a general move away from disease-specific programs and toward more holistic health programs. …this change of focus had disastrous consequences for malaria control. …The WHO’s global malaria eradication program, which it began in the 1950s and was largely based on the use of public health insecticides, …saved about 1 billion lives, which is a remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards. The move against insecticides and the focus on family planning meant the disease slowly started to reemerge. By the early 2000s, about 1 million people were dying of malaria every year. …wealthy donor countries, such as Sweden and Canada, kept pressure on the WHO to stop the use of these life-saving chemicals.

Interestingly, he concludes with a story about WHO bureaucrats admitting their employer should be shut down.

Several years ago, while visiting Geneva during the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly, I had a fascinating discussion with two long-term WHO staffers… The two, who shall remain nameless, had worked for the organization for many years in various locations around the world and knew the WHO well. In our conversations, I thought I would be criticizing the WHO and they would be defending it. Far from it. They described the backstabbing and the politics, both internal and external, which had frustrated their work and probably cost lives. “But surely we need something like the WHO to control things like global pandemics and other emergencies,” I said. “No,” they both responded. These long-standing public health professionals argued the world didn’t need the WHO, even when dealing with a pandemic. They believed it should be shut down. The Wuhan virus has shown that even during pandemics, the WHO will put politics ahead of public health.

I’ve had current and former OECD employees say the same thing, so I’m not surprised that some bureaucrats at the WHO have the same attitude.

It must be depressing to be a non-ideological professional and watch your organization get hijacked by those who care primarily about budgetary expansion and personal aggrandizement.

So if we ever get to that wonderful day when Washington puts an end to taxpayer subsidies for the OECD, maybe they’ll simultaneously defund the WHO as well.

———
Image credit: United States Mission Geneva | CC BY-ND 2.0.

Learning from Colorado’s Success, Alaska (and Every Other State) Should Adopt a TABOR-Style Spending Cap

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 12:56pm

As explained in this short video, a spending cap limits how fast a government’s budget can grow each year.

That’s a very sensible approach, sort of like having a speed limit in a school zone, and even left-leaning international bureaucracies have concluded it’s the best fiscal rule.

That being said, not all spending caps are created equal. A fiscal rule that allows continuous increases in the burden of government spending is akin to an excessive speed limit on the road in front of an elementary school.

At a minimum, a spending cap should keep the spending burden constant (relative to the economy’s productive sector). Even better, a spending cap should fulfill the Golden Rule of fiscal policy by slowly but surely reducing the size of government.

Let’s learn from a real-world example.

Ben Wilterdink, a Visiting Fellow with the Alaska Policy Forum, explains for readers of the Peninsula Clarion that the state has a spending cap, but one that is set too high.

Alaska is in the midst of a perfect fiscal storm. …Even before the present crisis, our state faced large budget deficits and tough decisions about how to make ends meet. …That’s why adopting a functional limit on the growth in state spending is essential for long-term economic success. …a functional limit in the growth of state spending decreases the temptation to dramatically increase spending when economic times are good, creating new budget expectations that are difficult to maintain during inevitable economic downturns… Technically, Alaska already has a constitutional spending cap in place, but the formula used renders it basically meaningless. …While Alaskans can’t retroactively adopt a meaningful spending limit, we can ensure that those economic benefits are captured going forward.

So why is a spending cap now an important issue?

Because the state relies overwhelmingly on energy taxes, which are very cyclical, and the drop in oil prices is putting pressure on state finances.

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Here’s some of what Henry Olsen wrote last year for the Washington Post.

Alaskans have long financed their state government without paying for it themselves. Alaska has no personal income tax and no statewide sales or property tax. Instead, the state uses taxes and royalties on oil and gas producers to fund the overwhelming share of its government. …Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) told his constituents that the gravy train is over. Oil prices and production have been down for many years… Dunleavy showed the leadership that many conservatives contend is lacking in Washington and proposed slashing state spending by nearly 25 percent. Those cuts are real, not some phony accounting scheme against “projected” spending. …Dunleavy’s budget is forcing Alaskans to decide how much government they want and how much they are willing to pay for it.

The bad news is that Alaskans may decide they want more government. Indeed, Olsen suggests in his column that this may be the outcome.

That might even lead politicians in the state to do something really unfortunate, such as adopting a state income tax.

The key thing to understand, however, is that the state would not be in this position if it had the kind of meaningful spending cap that Ben Wilterdink discussed in his column.

I wrote about Alaska’s fiscal policy back in 2015 and shared a very depressing chart showing that the burden of state spending tripled in the eight-year period between 2005 and 2013.

Just imagine, though, if spending during that period only grew at the rate of population plus inflation. The state would be in a very strong fiscal position today instead of dealing with a big mess (that’s also the case for the federal government, which also deals with revenue fluctuations).

So what’s the bottom line? Here’s another excerpt from Wilterdink’s column, noting that Colorado’s spending cap is a good role model.

…the most effective is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which constitutionally limits spending growth to the rate of inflation plus estimated population growth. The stable budget and tax climate created by TABOR has served Coloradans remarkably well. Over the past decade, Colorado’s gross state product (GSP) has grown by 45.5%, personal income has grown by 59.5%, and non-farm payroll employment has grown by 15.8%.

Amen. Colorado’s TABOR policy is a common-sense policy with a strong track record. And Colorado voters, most recently last November, routinely reject proposals to bust the state’s spending cap. So it’s an economic success and a political success.

P.S. If Alaska (or any other jurisdiction) wants global examples of successful spending caps, Switzerland and Hong Kong are good role models.

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Image credit: 401(K) 2012 | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Coronavirus and the Threat of (More) Central Planning

Mon, 04/06/2020 - 12:08pm

The current crisis teaches us that excessive regulation and bureaucratic sloth can have deadly consequences.

Here’s John Stossel’s video with another lesson, explaining that we need more capitalism rather than more government.

This seems like a no-brainer, especially given the wretched economic performance of countries where the government owns or controls the means of production.

But not everyone agrees. The appropriately named Paris Marx wants government to have more power, making the case for nationalization of Amazon in an article for Jacobin.

The government needs to…respond to the needs of people across the country as the pandemic situation deteriorates. The response should be to nationalize Amazon and integrate it with the USPS. …Nationalizing the company would also allow Amazon workers to get covered by the same union as postal workers… Amazon isn’t just an online e-commerce marketplace. …Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud computing platform…the cloud should be placed under public ownership. Taking control of AWS would allow the government to…ensure the cloud platform is serving the public good… We have a rare opportunity to fundamentally alter the economy to serve the needs of people instead of private profit, and it’s time to seize it.

Call me crazy, but if the government takes over Amazon and merges it with the Postal Service, I’m guessing that what emerges will have the inefficiency of the latter rather than the nimbleness of the former.

Just imagine a giant Department of Motor Vehicles (or, on a related note, the government’s track record on teaching kids to drive).

Which is why the U.K.-based Economist warned back in 2017 about the dangers of government-run companies.

Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments. For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. …But in the 1970s economists came to see state ownership as a costly fix to such problems. Owners of private firms benefit directly when innovation reduces costs and boosts profits; bureaucrats usually lack such a clear financial incentive to improve performance. Firms with the backing of the state are less vulnerable to competition; as they lumber on they hoard resources that could be better used elsewhere. …economists saw in the productivity slowdown of the 1970s evidence that an overreaching state was throttling economic dynamism. …State-owned firms pose risks beyond that to dynamism. Government-run companies may prioritise swollen payrolls over customer satisfaction. More worryingly, state firms can become vehicles for corruption, used to dole out the largesse of the state to favoured backers or to funnel social wealth into the pockets of the powerful. As state control over the economy grows, political connections become a surer route to business success than entrepreneurialism.

The good news is that very few politicians are supporting explicit nationalization.

The bad news is that there’s plenty of support for intermediate steps involving cronyism, industrial policy, and various types of direct and indirect subsidies.

Including in the legislation recently approved in Washington (not that anyone should be surprised).

Professor Amit Seru from Stanford and Professor Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago warn, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. has take a dangerous step on the road to central planning.

The need to help individuals and small firms has provided cover to the largest corporate subsidy program in U.S. history. Under intense pressure from lobbyists, the Cares Act allocates $510 billion to support loans for large businesses. A small chunk of this money ($56 billion) will be used directly by the Treasury to grant loans to airlines and other “strategic” firms (read: Boeing). The Treasury will then confer the rest ($454 billion) to the Federal Reserve to absorb losses the Fed might incur in lending to firms in the private sector. The expectation is that the central bank will leverage this money… This is the largest step toward a centrally planned economy the U.S. has ever taken. And it socializes only losses. Profits, when they come, remain private. …The urgency of the moment facilitated a giveaway to vested interests. Now that the Cares Act is law, policy makers need to find ways to impose restrictions on how the money is deployed. It isn’t only a question of fiscal prudence; the nature of American capitalism is at stake.

In other words, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction on my “Industrial Policy Spectrum.”

The key unanswered question is whether the government’s new powers will be temporary or permanent.

There’s a legitimate argument for some form of intervention while the crisis in ongoing. But what happens once things go back to normal? Will politicians allow the “creative destruction” of capitalism, or will they use their expanded power to permanently interfere with market forces?

If they choose the latter, there will be less long-run prosperity.

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Image credit: Andy Withers | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Dealing with Coronavirus: What Can Be Learned from Germany and the United Kingdom?

Sat, 04/04/2020 - 12:49pm

Near the beginning of the croronavirus crisis, I observed that “government-run health systems have not done a good job” of dealing with the pandemic.

And I’ve repeatedly noted the failure of government bureaucracies to respond effectively in the United States.

Is there, perhaps, a lesson to be learned about what happens when politicians get more control of the health sector?

Let’s consider the different experiences of two European nations.

Kai Wess of the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna has a column for CapX on the performance of the German system.

…the responses of national governments to the crisis have been starkly different. …Germany’s approach is particularly interesting. …the death rate of Germany has been hovering around 0.2% to 0.5% for the entirety of March, only rising to the current 1.1% in the last days after deaths spiked in the first days of April. And yet, 1.1% is still light years away from Spain’s 8.7% Italy’s 11.7%, Britain’s 7.11%, and France’s 6.8%. …Germany’s lockdown has also been somewhat more lenient than in other European countries. …So why is Germany doing comparatively well? For one thing, mass testing has taken place for weeks… The second key factor is the good condition of Germany’s health sector. The number of critical care beds in Germany previously stood at 29.2 per 100,000 inhabitants – the highest of the countries most affected by Covid-19 other than the US (34.7). …why does Germany have these testing capacities? And why is the health sector so well-equipped? One of the main answers is that, at least relatively speaking, Germany’s health sector is more decentralised and leaves more room for competition… Germany does not have an NHS-style one-size-fits-all approach, but an insurance-based system. Everyone has to have health care and the government bears the cost for poorer patients. …there is competition between different insurance plans and individuals can pick their preferred plan. The health sector’s revenue comes from the premiums paid by patients as well as their employer – not through state funding. …The testing system has also been very decentralised, with a mixture of government agencies, private enterprise, and research organisations working on expanding testing capabilities – indeed, the January test was made possible by a private biotech entrepreneur. …when it comes to testing, Germany does not have a centralised diagnostic system, but a network of local authorities. As Christian Drosten explain, “Germany does not have a public health laboratory that would restrict other labs from doing the tests.”

Now let’s look at the performance of National Health Service in the United Kingdom.

Writing for the Telegraph, Charles Moore opines on its less-than-impressive track record.

The Government’s policy of lockdown is in significant part dictated by the demands not of patients, but of the NHS, and by its lack of adaptability and readiness. …A significant reason for the slow development, arrival and use of the antigen tests (“Have I got it?”) and the antibody tests (“Have I had it?”) seems to be the reluctance of the health service, and of Public Health England, to look outside their own spheres for help. In a culture almost proudly hostile to the private sector and mistrustful of independent academic work, the NHS’s first instinct is to defend bureaucratic territory. …the NHS belatedly admitted within government that it had failed to get enough ventilators. …University College Hospital, Formula I and Mercedes Benz got together to produce the CPAP… Next week, the repurposed Mercedes Benz F1 factory in Brixworth expects to produce 1,000 CPAPs a day. …the amazing 4,000-bed capacity Nightingale field hospital at the ExCeL centre in east London, opened yesterday… For two weeks after it was proposed, NHS top brass opposed it. When they finally admitted they needed it, the Army and the private contractors were the ones who made it happen in nine days. …Ten days ago, government contacts found the only company in Britain with expertise in making reagent for antigen swab tests. The firm was put on to the NHS, but at the time of writing, the health service had still not had a conversation with it. …That system is the problem. …The defects are baked into our system of national bureaucratic command. People have noticed that Germany has been more successful in managing the virus spread through testing. This is not a coincidence. Germany does not have our lumbering central diagnostic system, because it does not have, in our sense, a national health service.

These two columns are very instructive, not only because they show the adverse consequences of too much government, but also because they show that there are big differences in European health systems.

Many people have the (very!) inaccurate belief that the United States has a market-based system. And many of them also share the mistaken belief that all European nations have systems where everything is financed and provided by government.

In reality, there’s a wide divergence of policies across the globe.

Back in 2013, I created a back-of-the-envelope “Freedom Meter” to illustrate how Obamacare was best viewed as in incremental step on a long (and well-traveled) road to a government-dominated health care system.

Simply stated, we already greatly reduced the role of markets thanks to a range of programs and policies (MedicareMedicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

Obamacare simply added another layer of taxes, spending, and regulation.

I actually suspect many nations that supposedly have “government-run healthcare” actually would be closer to the free-market side of the Freedom Meter than the United States.

Sort of like what I’m depicting in this revised, worldwide version.

Though I admit I’m just guessing that Germany and Switzerland might be better than the United States.

What we really need is the healthcare equivalent of what the Tax Foundation does with its State Business Tax Climate Index and its International Tax Competitiveness Index.

Only instead of a fiscal ranking based on factors such as income taxes, business taxes, property taxes, and consumption taxes, we’d have a health ranking based on factors such as third-party payer, degree of centralization, consumer choice, regulatory burden, financing mechanisms, and extent of direct government provision.

If anybody’s aware of anything like this, please share.

Ranking Presidents: The Awful Economic Record of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Fri, 04/03/2020 - 12:50pm

Starting with a column about government-subsidized debt and ending yesterday with a column about why government shouldn’t own airlines, I’ve written about coronavirus-related issues for 14 straight days. And since that’s the topic now dominating the national discussion, I expect many more coronavirus-themed columns will be forthcoming.

But I’m going to make a detour to normalcy today and write about the person who is probably America’s second-worst president in terms of economic policy.

No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama or George W. Bush.  Or even Herbert Hoover.

That’s a list of bad presidents, to be sure, but none of them are in the same league as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As I’ve explained before, FDR deserves scorn for doubling down on Hoover’s awful policies of higher taxes, increased spending, and more intervention – thus keeping the economy mired in misery all through the 1930s.

Amazingly, some people applaud his performance. Including some self-described conservatives.

Conrad Black, in an article for American Greatness, actually wants readers to think of FDR as a conservative.

My motive is…to correct the widespread misperception of Roosevelt as a socialist and somehow the person responsible for the present leviathan-state. …Roosevelt wanted to make America safe for wealthy people like himself. …he wanted a contented working-class and agrarian class, as he thought equitable in a rich country, and the only assurance against social instability. …retroactive quarterbacks have never suggested any serious alternatives to what Roosevelt did and no significant part of his domestic legislation has been seriously altered… When it comes to long-term social and economic policy, Roosevelt gets a solid B-plus. …Roosevelt acknowledged that the New Deal would, and did, make many mistakes, but it saved the country.

Saved the country?!? According to academic experts, the New Deal lengthened and deepened the downturn.

Why? Because FDR adopted so many bad policies. For instance, increased the top tax rate to 79 percent (and fortunately failed in his effort to impose a 100 percent tax rate). He cartelized the economy based on fascist economic principles. And he doubled the burden of federal spending in just eight years.

I’ll discuss more about FDR’s policy mistakes at the end of this column, but I also want to address his upside-down view of freedom.

He wanted to replace the Founding Fathers’ vision of “negative liberty” (the right to be left alone) with the redistributionst concept of “positive liberty” (the right to get handouts).

Here’s one of his speeches, which I first shared back in 2011.

I’m not the only one to find this point of view to be repugnant.

Here’s some of what James Bovard wrote last year, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Franklin Roosevelt did more than any other modern president to corrupt Americans’ understanding of freedom. …his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech…declared: “The third [freedom] is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world.” Proclaiming a goal of freedom from fear meant that government should fill the role in daily life previously filled by God and religion. Politicians are the biggest fearmongers, and “freedom from fear” would justify seizing new power in response to every bogus federal alarm. …Three years later, …Roosevelt called for a “Second Bill of Rights” and asserted that “True individual freedom can’t exist without economic security.” And security, according to FDR, included “the right to a useful and remunerative job,” a “decent home,” “good health,” and “good education.” Thus, if…someone was in bad health, then that person would be considered as having been deprived of his freedom, and somehow it would be the government’s fault. Freedom thus required boundless control over health care.

Amen.

There is no “right” to other people’s earnings.

Let’s now return to FDR’s specific policies.

My contribution to this discussion is a back-of-the-envelope assessment of the policies adopted while he was in office. As you can see, there were many anti-growth policies (and the policies that did the most damage get the biggest bars).

Trade was the only area where he consistently pushed policy in the right direction.

P.S. According to presidential scholars such as Al Felzenberg, President Roosevelt didn’t have firm views on economics and his administration was characterized by haphazard shifts in policy depending on which group of advisors (the reflationists, corporatists, Keynesians, anti-trust zealots, etc) were most influential.

P.P.S. FDR’s Treasury Secretary admitted the failure of the New Deal in 1939, telling a congressional committee that “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work… I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started…and an enormous debt, to boot.”

P.P.P.S. I wrote above that FDR is “probably America’s second-worst president.” I’m hesitant to give a definitive answer, in part because Nixon was so terrible. More important, the wretched track record of Woodrow Wilson (creator of the income tax and Federal Reserve, as well as an odious racist) suggests he may deserve the prize for being the worst of the worst.

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Image credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration | Public Domain.

Protecting Airlines and Other Companies from Government Control

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 12:45pm

Most economic downturns are caused by misguided government policy, which leads to predictable battles over how to address the fallout as well as battles over how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Today’s crisis is different. It’s more akin to a natural disaster. But it’s not a one-off event like a big hurricane or earthquake. It’s an ongoing pandemic, which is having a terrible impact on many sectors of the economy. And if it lasts a long time, the consequences will be catastrophic depression rather than ordinary recession (which is why it is reasonable to contemplate the economic and health tradeoffs of re-opening the economy).

To deal with the immediate consequences of this crisis, Washington has responded by approving a mutli-trillion dollar relief package. And I won’t be surprised if politicians come back with another huge package.

Since responding to a pandemic is a legitimate function of government, I don’t have a principled objection to emergency legislation (for wonky readers, there’s an interesting debate in libertarian circles about whether government assistance – even bailouts – can be justified because government has ordered a shutdown of economic activity, which can be viewed as a “regulatory taking“).

That being said, I worry that self-interested politicians will use the crisis as an excuse to shovel goodies to their friends and cronies.

And I also want to minimize the danger that politicians will use the crisis as a reason to permanently expand the size and scope of government.

I’ve already written about how the crowd in Washington is exploiting the crisis with regards to three different issues.

Today, let’s consider a potential downside of providing assistance to companies. We’ll focus on airlines, but the lessons apply to any businesses that get government assistance.

Bloomberg report explains why this issue, in general, is controversial.

…the administration may consider asking for an equity stake in corporations that want coronavirus aid from taxpayers. …Against that, there’s the potential for political risk. During the financial crisis, some Republicans decried a tilt toward European-style socialism. The current crisis coincides with the — albeit fading — candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and his democratic socialist platform. …“This is a very big slippery slope because the ownership of private capital by government is not traditionally consistent with capitalism,” said Kevin Caron, portfolio manager for Washington Crossing.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on this issue focuses on the airline industry and makes some very important points.

America’s beleaguered passenger airlines are allocated roughly $50 billion in the coronavirus relief bill… The idea is simply to freeze the staff list for six months, at which point the pandemic might have receded and air travel recovered. In exchange, Congress has authorized the Treasury Secretary, at his sole discretion, to “receive warrants, options, preferred stock, debt securities, notes, or other financial instruments” that constitute “appropriate compensation to the Federal Government.” …The desire to get something for the taxpayer’s buck is understandable, but there’s a real risk here of a long-term nationalization. …Washington should have no role in directing the business of a private company, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin perhaps would agree. What if his successor turns out to be Treasury Secretary Elizabeth Warren? …Helping the airlines weather a 100-year pandemic might be, arguably, within the government’s job description. Owning them isn’t.

The bad news is that are no good options.

It’s not a good idea to simply give taxpayer money to airlines. And it’s also not a good outcome for airlines to go bankrupt, perhaps leading to a total shutdown rather than a reorganization.

Some outcomes, however, are worse than others. And having government as a major shareholder is the option with the greatest long-run risk. Simply stated, it’s a recipe for cronyism and industrial policy.

Based on what’s already happened on issues such as energy and trade, I don’t trust President Trump and his team to have a hands-off attitude. What will happen, as we approach the November election, if the White House thinks it can win a key state by forcing a company (either an airline or any other affected firm) to increase jobs and/or pay?

Or, if you happen to trust Trump, what happens if Joe Biden wins in November and – as the Wall Street Journal warned – a dogmatic interventionist like Elizabeth Warren becomes Treasury Secretary.

She already has a very bad track record on issues of corporate governance. Do you want her to have the power that comes with being a major shareholder?

For all intents and purposes, this is why I unveiled the Fifth Theorem of Government last September.

I’ll close with some troubling observations about where we may be heading.

  1. The technical definition of fascism (at least with regards to its economic policy) is nominal private ownership of business but government control.
  2. The technical definition of socialism is outright government ownership and control of business (along with other policies such as central planning and price controls).

Which raises the depressing issue of how much government ownership is required to get to #1 and how much additional government ownership is required to get to #2.

Could it be that Bernie Sanders may be the real winner, regardless of who is in the White House next year?

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Image credit: Michael Vadon | CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Worst Coronavirus Policy Proposal: Restoring the Deduction for State and Local Tax Payments

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 12:30pm

The crowd in Washington has responded to the coronavirus crisis with an orgy of borrowing and spending.

The good news is that the legislation isn’t based on the failed notion of Keynesian economics (i.e., the belief that you get more prosperity when the government borrows money from the economy’s left pocket and then puts it in the economy’s right pocket).

Instead, it is vaguely based on the idea of government acting as an insurer for unforeseen loss of income.

Not ideal from a libertarian perspective, of course, but we can at least hope it might be somewhat successful in easing temporary hardship and averting bankruptcies of otherwise viable businesses.

The bad news is that the legislation is filled with corrupt handouts and favors for the friends and cronies of politicians. Simply stated, they have not “let a crisis go to waste.”

The worst news, however, is that politicians have plenty of additional ideas for how to exploit the crisis.

An especially awful idea for so-called stimulus comes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wants to restore (retroactively!) the full federal deduction for state and local tax payments.

Pelosi suggested that reversing the tax law’s $10,000 cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction… The cap on the SALT deduction has been strongly disliked by politicians in high-tax, Democratic-leaning states such as New York, New Jersey and California… But most Republicans support the SALT deduction cap, arguing that it helps to prevent the tax code from subsidizing higher state taxes.

I’ve written many times on this issue and explained why curtailing that deduction (which basically existed to subsidize the profligacy of high-tax states) was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform.

Needless to say, it would be a horrible mistake to reverse that much-needed change.

The Wall Street Journal agrees, opining on Pelosi’s proposal to subsidize high tax states.

Democrats are far from finished using the crisis to try to force through partisan priorities they couldn’t pass in normal times. Mrs. Pelosi is now hinting the price for further economic relief may include expanding a regressive tax deduction for high-earners in states run by Democrats. …In the 2017 tax reform, Republicans limited the state and local tax deduction to $10,000. …Democrats have been trying to repeal the SALT cap since tax reform passed. …Blowing up the state and local tax deduction would…also make it easier for poorly governed states to rely on soaking their high earners through capital-gains and income taxes, because the federal deduction would ease the burden. …Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks underscore the potential for further political mischief and long-term damage as the government intervenes… When Democrats next complain that Republicans want to cut taxes “for the rich,” remember that Mrs. Pelosi wants to cut them too—but mainly for the progressive rich in Democratic states.

Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also denounced the idea.

This is not the time to load up emergency packages with giveaways that waste billions of taxpayer dollars… Weakening or eliminating the SALT cap would be regressive, expensive, poorly targeted, and precisely the kind of political giveaway that compromises the credibility of emergency spending. …Retroactively repealing the SALT caps for the last two years would mean sending a check of $100,000 to the household making over $1 million per year, and less than $100 for the average household making less than $100,000 per year. …During this crisis, the Committee implores special interest lobbyists to stand down and lawmakers to put self-serving politics aside.

By the way, I care about whether a change in tax policy will make the country more prosperous in the long run and don’t fixate on whether the change helps or hurts any particular income group. So Maya’s point about the rich getting almost all the benefits is not what motivates me to oppose Pelosi’s proposal.

That being said, it is remarkable that she is pushing a change that overwhelmingly benefits the very richest people in the nation.

The obvious message is that it’s okay to help the rich when a) those rich people live in places such as California, and b) helping the rich also makes it easier for states to impose bad fiscal policy.

Which is why she was pushing her bad idea before the coronavirus ever became an issue. Indeed, House Democrats even passed legislation in 2019 to restore the loophole.

Professor John McGinnis of Northwestern University Law School wrote early last year why the deduction was misguided and why the provision to restrict the deduction was the best provision of the 2017 tax law.

…the best feature of the Trump tax cuts was the $10,000 cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. It advanced one of the Constitution’s most important structures for good government—competitive federalism. Deductibility of state taxes deadens that competition, because it allows states to slough off some of the costs of taxation to citizens in other states. Moreover, it allows states to avoid accountability for the taxes they impose. Given high federal tax rates in some brackets, high income tax payers end up paying only about sixty percent of the actual tax imposed. The federal government and thereby other tax payers effectively pick up the rest of the tab. …the ceiling makes some taxpayers pay more, but its dynamic effect is to make it less likely that state and local taxes, particularly highly visible state income taxes, will be raised and more likely that they will be cut.

For what it’s worth, I think the lower corporate tax rate was the best provision of the 2017 reform, but McGinnis makes a strong case.

Perhaps the best evidence for this change comes from the behavior of politicians from high-tax states.

Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial from early last year.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo…is blaming the state’s $2.3 billion budget shortfall on a political party that doesn’t run the place. He says the state is suffering from declining tax receipts because the GOP Congress as part of tax reform in 2017 limited the state-and-local tax deduction to $10,000. …the once unlimited deduction allowed those in high tax climes to mitigate the pain of state taxes. It amounted to a subsidy for progressive policies. …The real problem is New York’s punitive tax rates, which Mr. Cuomo and his party could fix. “People are mobile,” Mr. Cuomo said this week. “And they will go to a better tax environment. That is not a hypothesis. That is a fact.” Maybe Mr. Cuomo should stay in Albany and do something about that reality.

Amen.

The federal tax code should not subsidize politicians from high-tax states. Nor should it subsidize rich people who live in high-tax states.

If Governor Cuomo is worried about rich people moving to Florida (and he should be), he should lower tax rates and make government more efficient.

I’ll close with the observation that the state and local tax deduction created the fiscal version of a third-party payer problem. It reduced the perceived cost of state and local government, which made it easier for politicians to increase taxes (much as government subsidies for healthcare and higher education have made it easier for hospitals and colleges to increase prices).

P.S. Speaking of fake stimulus, there’s also plenty of discussion on Capitol Hill (especially given Trump’s weakness on the issue) about squandering a couple of trillion dollars on infrastructure, even though such spending a) should not be financed at the federal level, b) would not have any immediate impact on jobs, and c) would be a vehicle for giveaways such as mass transit boondoggles.

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Image credit: Zack Seward | CC BY-ND 2.0.

Government, Coronavirus, and Libertarianism, Part II

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 12:12pm

About three weeks ago, when the coronavirus crisis was becoming a big deal, I explained the libertarian viewpoint.

  1. Governments should focus on protecting life, liberty, and property. That includes fighting pandemics.
  2. A big sprawling federal government will be less capable and competent when responding to a real crisis.
  3. International evidence suggests greater government control of the health sector is not a good recipe for success.
  4. Domestic evidence indicates that bureaucracies such as the FDA and CDC are exacerbating the problem.

Unsurprisingly, there are still plenty of people claiming the crisis shows why libertarianism is impractical and misguided.

Henry Olsen opines for the Washington Post that the time has come to put libertarianism on the ash heap of history. But much of what he writes cries out for correction.

It is difficult to underestimate the influence of libertarian principles on Republican economic policy. Nearly every economist or economic journalist revered by the party advocates for policies that are derived from libertarian impulses. …Let people do what they want, the story goes, and they will cure poverty, bring world peace and do better at managing social discord than any centrally planned government act can ever hope to accomplish. …Pure libertarianism…is, of course, almost nonexistent in party circles… Even libertarian icons such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) or Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) publicly support much higher levels of government activity than do many of the thinkers and activists who sing their praises.

There are two huge problems with the above passages.

First, it’s nonsensical to claim that libertarians have a big influence on GOP economic policy. Just look at the mixed-to-horrible track records of NixonBush IBush II, and Trump.

Ironically, Henry actually contradicts his own assertion by noting that libertarianism is “almost nonexistent in party circles.”

Second, what he’s really criticizing is the notion of limited government. Yes, libertarians believe in small government, but so do many conventional conservatives (remember Ronald Reagan?).

So is the notion of small government wrong? Henry argues that people want “strong government.”

Trump…grasps what they do not: People love freedom, but they love security as much or more. Time and again, people draw together in support of strong government to protect them from something fearful they cannot handle on their own. War and civil unrest are classic events that persuade people that strong mandatory measures are necessary; the current pandemic is another. …The modern social welfare state is grounded in the idea that some measure of economic security, opportunity and equality are necessary parts of a decent life. Policies designed to achieve these goals all impose on individual liberty through taxes and regulation. …a supermajority of Americans approves… They do not believe that liberty is the one true god before which all should bow. …The pandemic’s aftermath will see….conservatives…try to right this imbalance in the name of national security and general welfare, even if it means curtailing the liberty to trade. As the pandemic continues, it will be much easier for Republican voters and politicians to cast off the rose-colored libertarian glasses they have worn for far too long.

Let’s explore whether the notion of small government is inconsistent with the idea of strong government.

Writing for The Week, Bonnie Kristian explains how libertarian principles apply. Yes, government action is appropriate, but in ways that are consistent with other principles.

…pandemic-era libertarianism is emerging, and it remains distinctly libertarian. Here are the trends… Praise for the free market’s role in keeping day-to-day life functional. “That gallon jug of hand sanitizer delivered to your front door less than 48 hours after you ordered it online? It didn’t show up because Trump tweeted it into existence or because the surgeon general is driving a delivery truck around the country,” Reason‘s Eric Boehm wrote… Condemnation of counterproductive regulations and lack of transparency. Why is the United States so far behind other countries in testing for coronavirus cases? For weeks, the FDA and CDC wouldn’t let medical workers and academics move forward with COVID-19 tests they’d developed without lengthy processes of federal approval. …Rejection of corporate bailouts and price controls. Trump is exploring plans for corporate bailout loans and other economic stimuli which libertarians generally oppose. …Insistence on temporary changes. Fierce opposition to expansions of the surveillance state to fight the novel coronavirus is likely widespread among libertarians in no small part because privacy rights, once lost, are very rarely recovered. But the risk of this pandemic permanently expanding the power of the state will shape the libertarian view on every proposed solution.

These are solid principles. And very desirable.

Now let’s specifically address whether we need a “strong government.”

In a column for the National Interest, Andy Craig addresses that issue, most notably with his observation that responding to a pandemic is a legitimate exercise of government power, but also that government incompetence has worsened the crisis.

…there has been snark from some quarters about the current crisis somehow catching libertarians flat‐​footed. …Libertarianism, properly understood, encompasses certain core functions as the proper role of government. It is not the libertarian view that government should be ineffective at protecting individual rights or dysfunctionally paralyzed in the face of a massive threat to people’s lives. Government has a role to play in responding to the pandemic in much the same way it is the government’s job to prosecute murderers or defend the country from invasion. …Libertarian criticisms of bad regulations have proven especially prescient. A crucial government failure has been…inflexible and heavy‐​handed bureaucracy, which has held up tests and prevented thousands of private and academic labs from quickly increasing testing capacity. …Another example of a libertarian response to the pandemic has been the quick need to suspend many occupational licensing restrictions, such as by letting doctors practice interstate and upgrading the permissions of nurse practitioners and doctors’ assistants. Even mundane and trivial regulations…have suddenly been cast aside. Two months ago, who would have thought it an urgent concern to suspend alcohol regulations so that restaurants can serve beverages to go for home delivery by rideshare drivers?

Amen.

I’ve documented (in Part IPart II, and Part III) how big, blundering, bureaucratic government has hindered an effective response to the crisis.

Sadly, it’s quite likely that politicians will use the crisis to expand government power.

That’s certainly consistent with what we’ve seen through history. Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University has a new column about the insights of Robert Higgs.

…a book that I’ve lately been pondering quite a lot: economic historian Robert Higgs’s 1987 volume, Crisis and LeviathanIn this richly documented work, Higgs convincingly shows that with each national crisis government power ratchets up. The crisis might be fully genuine or inflated or utterly mythical; it matters not. Whenever there prevails widespread belief that a crisis looms, people turn to the state for help. …additional powers granted to – or seized by – government during each crisis shrinks somewhat when the crisis passes. …But never do such additions to state power fully disappear. …the likelihood is that the ideology of the holders of power prompts them, not to keep their power in check, but to expand it. And as power expands in a ratcheting-upward way, power becomes ever-more valuable and intoxicating to possess.

In a column for the U.K.-based CapX, Helen Dale discusses the role of a limited but competent state sector as a key to classical liberalism.

…liberalism needs a strong state. Yes, state. Not strong supranational organisations like the EU or UN or IMF. …Liberalism needs a state powerful enough to collect taxes and pay for police forces, courts, prisons, and the military. Only powerful states, it emerges, can strong-arm their citizens into the rule of law: that is, a system where like cases are treated alike, contracts are enforced…the modern nation-state is the only way to produce liberal tolerance at scale. …If liberalism needs a strong state, that state must also be a constrained one for liberal forms of governance to persist. Johnson and Koyama speak of a “shackled leviathan” rather than a “despotic leviathan”; that is, powerful states require institutional constraints because without them you get modern China or, historically, Nazi Germany and the USSR.

She’s highlighted a key issue, which is how you give government power to do good things without simultaneously giving it power to do bad things (hint: a good answer is the U.S. Constitution’s limits on the scope of government, at least back in the days when the Supreme Court cared about Article 1, Section 8).

Professor Michael Munger of Duke University makes the all-important point that a bloated public sector will be less competent at doing the few things we want from government.

I see the proper domain of the state as sharply circumscribed… Given that we have a state, it must have the capacity to carry out the functions… A key part of the justification for the existence of the state is the duty to manage property rights and institutions…the state needs to have sufficient capacity to protect individual rights… the key variable is the scope of government, not its size. A relatively small government that arbitrarily sets prices, nationalizes private property, and controls the media is the archetype of the authoritarian regime, as is the case in Turkmenistan or Chad. A large government that accepts constitutional and customary limits on its domain of action can be an archetype of personal freedom, as is the case in Denmark and Sweden. …The state needs the capacity to carry out public health functions, but those powers must be effectively limited to that domain, not available to be hijacked for socialist boondoggles. To my friends on the left: If you had been responsible enough to keep government in its proper, limited role we would have plenty of resources and capacity to carry out the functions we now find lacking. …We need a state that is good at a few things, not your state which tries to do everything and fails at all of it.

There’s lots of good stuff in the above excerpt, including the fact that fiscal policy is only a small piece of the puzzle when measuring the extent of free enterprise (which is why there’s far more economic liberty in, say, Denmark compared to every single country in the developing world).

The last sentence from the excerpt tells us everything we need to know. Indeed, a version of this insight is my Seventh Theorem of Government.

The bottom line is that we definitely don’t want big government.

What’s needed is not really “strong government,” but rather limited, competent, and effective government. Think Singapore, which does a much better job of providing core public goods while spending much less money.

As I noted when correcting Henry Olsen, this is not a libertarian-only principle. It also works for small-government conservatives, an important distinction since Singapore isn’t libertarian (high scores for economic freedom are offset by weak scores for personal freedom).

And I’ll close by observing that there’s plenty of academic and empirical literature supporting this Theorem.

Robert Samuelson and Mark Steyn have made the same point.

Coronavirus and Big Government, Part III

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 12:19pm

I wrote about “Coronavirus and Big Government” on March 22 and then followed up on March 27 with “Coronavirus and Big Government, Part II.

Now it’s time for the third installment, and we’ll start with this hard-hitting video from Reason, which shows how red tape has hindered the development and deployment of testing in the United States.

Next, here are a bunch of stories and tweets about the deadly impact of bureaucracy and regulation.

As with the Part I and Part II, feel free to click on any of the stories for the details.

The FDA just waived their usual demanding face-mask regulatory standards!

Awesome, let’s get making masks:https://t.co/TaBXdNyUK5

— Robert Wiblin (@robertwiblin) March 27, 2020

FDA greenlights COVID-19 point-of-care test that can return results in as little as 5 minutes https://t.co/8ZYWdbr0Oz by @AnjKhem pic.twitter.com/QPBOUgtFDb — Yahoo Finance (@YahooFinance) March 29, 2020

By the way, the problem of excessive government exists in other nations.

Here are two tweets about the situation in the United Kingdom.

The first one deals with having to get government approval for medical devices.

To everyone making 3D printed ventilator parts in the UK – there is good news from the regulators!

You can apply for approval to supply a non-compliant medical device on humanitarian grounds during the #COVID19 pandemic. Decision made in 48 hours.https://t.co/vjlYtVYRGe

— Hugh Harvey (@DrHughHarvey) March 25, 2020

The second one deals with how politicians and bureaucrats have misallocated public health resources – similarly to some of the foolish misadventures of the FDA and CDC (and let’s not forget the World Health Organization).

“Only a tiny fraction of the £4 billion spent on public health in England goes towards the prevention of infectious disease. Far more is spent hassling people about their lifestyles.” https://t.co/smMMnAjJOU

— Matt Ridley (@mattwridley) March 29, 2020

I’ll close with another story from the United States.

This report from Reason is especially useful because it contains a 30-minute interview with Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University. So if you liked the short video at the start of this column, you’ll definitely want to click through and watch this video.

The message here isn’t that government shouldn’t exist. As I wrote earlier this month, collective action is appropriate to protect life, liberty, and property. Needless to say, that libertarian principle applies during a pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean government should be micro-managing everything.

In normal times, excessive regulation is a costly nuisance because things cost more and take longer.

In a crisis, however, that means needless death and suffering. Which is exactly what’s happening today.

Let’s hope the folks in Washington learn from this awful experience.

P.S. Another lesson to be learned is the Seventh Theorem of Government.

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Image credit: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration | U.S. Government Works.

Eurobonds: A Further Threat to the Long-Run Viability of the European Union

Sat, 03/28/2020 - 12:54pm

Motivated in part by a sensible desire for free trade, six nations from Western Europe signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, thus creating the European Economic Community (EEC). Sort of a European version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (now known as USMCA).

Some supporters of the EEC also were motivated by a desire for some form of political unification and their efforts eventually led to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union – along with increased powers for a Brussels-based bureaucracy (the European Commission).

There are significant reasons to think that this evolution – from a Europe based on free trade and mutual recognition to a Europe based on supranational governance – was an unfortunate development.

Back in 2015, I warned that this system would “morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.”

A few years earlier, when many of Europe’s welfare states were dealing with a fiscal crisis, I specifically explained why it would be a very bad idea to have “eurobonds,” which would mean – for all intents and purposes – that reasonably well governed nations such as Germany and Sweden would be co-signing loans for poorly governed countries such as Italy and Greece.

Well, this bad idea has resurfaced. Politicians from several European nations are using the coronavirus as an excuse (“never let a crisis go to waste“) to push for a so-called common debt instrument.

Letter from @emmanuelmacron @antoniocostapm et al to @eucopresident on the need for Common Debt Issuance. Note the absence to references to the ESM instruments… pic.twitter.com/69kLToQrxG

— Shahin Vallée (@Shahinvallee) March 25, 2020

Here are the relevant parts of the letter.

…we need to work on a common debt instrument issued by a European institution to raise funds on the market on the same basis and to the benefits of all Member States, thus ensuring stable long term financing… The case for such a common instrument is strong, since we are all facing a symmetric external shock, for which no country bears responsibility, but whose negative consequences are endured by all. And we are collectively accountable for an effective and united European response. This common debt instrument should have sufficient size and long maturity to be fully efficient… The funds collected will be targeted to finance in all Member States the necessary investments in the healthcare system and temporary policies to protect our economies and social model.

Lots of aspirational language, of course, but no flowery words change the fact that “collectively accountable” means European-wide debt and “social model” means welfare state.

wrote last year that globalization is good whereas global governance is bad. Well, this is the European version.

The Wall Street Journal opined against the concept. Here’s some background information.

Bad crises tend to produce worse policy… We speak of proposals for “corona bonds,” an idea floated as a fiscal solution to Europe’s deepening pandemic. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte launched the effort, and French President Emmanuel Macron this week joined Mr. Conte and seven other leaders in backing such a bond issue for health-care expenditures and economic recovery. Some 400 economists have joined the chorus. …The bonds would be backed collectively by member governments. The proceeds could be allocated to members such as Italy that otherwise couldn’t borrow from private markets. …Calls for euro bonds last hit a crescendo during the debt crises of 2010-12, when they were pitched to fund bailouts of Greece and others. But the idea has never gone anywhere because it would transform the eurozone into something voters didn’t approve when the currency was created in the 1990s.

And here’s the editorial’s explanation of why eurobonds would be a very bad idea.

Europeans were promised the euro would not become an excuse or vehicle for large fiscal transfers between member states. …Proponents say corona bonds are a special case due to the unfolding economic emergency. But the Italian government that now can’t finance its own recovery was also one of the worst fiscal offenders before Covid-19… Claims that the corona bond would be temporary aren’t credible because European elites have wanted such a facility for years… Voters can assume that if they get these bonds in a crisis, they’ll be stuck with this facility forever. …euro bonds would create profound governance problems. …With corona bonds, German and Dutch taxpayers for the first time are being asked to write a blank check to Italy and perhaps others.

Amen.

Once the camel’s nose is under the tent, it would simply be a matter of time before eurobonds would become a vehicle for bigger government in general and more country-to-country transfers in particular.

Hopefully this terrible idea will be blocked by nations such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands (this satirical video will give you an idea of the tension between the European nations that foot the bills and the ones looking for handouts).

Some advocates for eurobonds say there’s nothing to worry about since the European Commission and related pan-European bureaucracies currently don’t spend much money, at least when measured as a share of overall economic output.

Which is why I sometimes warn my European friends that the United States is an example of why they should be vigilant.

For much of American history, the central government in Washington was very small, as envisioned by the Founders. But beginning with the so-called Progressive Era and then dramatically accelerating under the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt, the federal government has expanded dramatically in both size and scope.

The lesson to be learned is that more centralization is a very bad idea, particularly if that centralized form of government gains fiscal power.

That’s especially true for Europe since the burden of government spending at the national level already is excessive. Eurobonds would exacerbate the damage by creating a new European-wide method of spending money.

P.S. While eurobonds are a very bad idea, it would be even worse (akin to the U.S. approving the 16th Amendment) if the European Union somehow got the authority to directly impose taxes.

Coronavirus and Big Government, Part II

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 12:28pm

Five days ago, I wrote “Coronavirus and Big Government” to highlight how sloth-like bureaucracy and stifling red tape deserve much of the blame for America’s slow response to the crisis.

And I started that column by sharing four points from a previous column on “Government, Coronavirus, and Libertarianism.” I’ll start today’s column by repeating the final observation.

4. The federal government has hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Here’s a video from John Stossel documenting the federal government’s clumsy incompetence.

And here are a bunch of stories and tweets that provide additional elaboration.

Feel free to click on the underlying stories if you want to get even angrier about the deadly impact of big government.

Good. Another regulation we never needed bites the dust. https://t.co/Ytmy6p7mPi

— Alex Tabarrok (@ATabarrok) March 26, 2020

Wondered why it’s been so hard to ramp up production of surgical masks and respirators? Why haven’t private companies flooded into the market to meet peak demand? Because they are regulated medical devices & new versions require FDA approval which can take months to obtain. 1/ — Paul Matzko (@PMatzko) March 25, 2020

Distiller trying to switch over to producing hand sanitizer must poison the hand sanitizer or be taxed as if it were producing an alcoholic beverage. https://t.co/HI4801oL0o

— Alex Tabarrok (@ATabarrok) March 25, 2020

No, this is not why we have more coronavirus cases. We have more cases because the FDA and the CDC–both of which are regarded as world class regulators from whom other countries take their lead–were too slow off the mark in establishing a testing regime. https://t.co/KL78iecoBw

— Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) March 26, 2020

The silver lining to all the bad news is that politicians and bureaucrats have been relaxing regulatory barriers.

But will they learn the right lesson and permanently repeal government-created barriers that hinder the provision of health care?

Is it true, as Robert Tracinski wrote for the Bulwark, that “We’re All Libertarians now”?

This talking point has since been taken up by others in a more technically accurate form: there are no libertarians in a pandemic. The idea is that when a crisis hits, everyone suddenly realizes how much they need Big Government. This is a bizarre argument to make about a virus that got a foothold partly because of the corrupt and tyrannical policies of a communist government in China. The outbreak is currently at its worst in Italy, where socialized medicine has not turned out to be a panacea. And it was allowed to get out of control in America because the feds imposed an incompetent government monopoly on COVID-19 testing, blocking the use of better and faster tests developed by private companies. …There has been a surge of emergency deregulation to lift artificial barriers that prevent people from solving problems. …the loosening of federal controls on the private development of diagnostic testing, after the disastrous attempt to centralize it all at the CDC. We’re also seeing the suspension of restrictive licensing requirements on doctors and nurses to allow them to work across state lines, so they can go where the shortages are worst. There has also been a whole series of waivers on restrictions on the transportation and serving of food and beverages in order to help restaurants stay in business and feed their customers by offering curb-side service.

Needless to say, I hope Tracinski is right.

But I worry that the net result of this crisis is that we’ll have more red tape and the CDC and FDA will have bigger budgets.

If you think I’m being too pessimistic, just remember that the Department of Veterans Affairs was rewarded with more money after letting veterans die on secret waiting lists, the IRS was rewarded with more money after persecuting Tea Party groups to help Obama’s political prospects, and the education monopoly endlessly gets rewarded with more money even though student outcomes stagnate or deteriorate.

All as predicted by the First Theorem of Government.

European Fiscal Crisis, Round 2?

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 12:30pm

I’m not an optimist about Europe’s economic future.

Most nations have excessive welfare states and punitive taxes, which is hardly good news. You then have to consider demographic trends such as aging populations (i.e., more people relying on government) and falling birthrates (i.e., fewer future taxpayers).

That’s a very grim combination.

Indeed, this is a big reason why I favored Brexit. Yes, it was largely about escaping an increasingly dirigiste European bureaucracy in Brussels, but it was also about not being chained to a continent with a dismal long-run outlook.

More than one year ago, before there were any concerns about a coronavirus-instigated economic crisis, Vijay Victor, an economist from Szent Istvan University in Hungary, expressed concern about Europe’s fiscal future in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The debt crisis in the Eurozone is getting no better, even in the wake of the new year. The five countries in the Eurozone with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the third quarter of 2018 were Greece, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain. The total debt of Greece is around 182.2 percent of its GDP and that of Italy is 133 percent… Dawdling economic growth coupled with low-yield investment options are dragging these indebted economies toward insolvency… Unemployment rates, for example, are still very high in most of these highly indebted European economies. Despite the recurrent monetary assistance and policy support, job creation is weak, which might imply that the debt financing is channelized in a nonproductive direction.

By the way, I can’t resist taking this opportunity to remind people that debt is a problem, but it also should be viewed as a symptom of en even-bigger problem, which is an excessive burden of government spending.

A bloated welfare state is a drag on economic performance, whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Though nations that try to finance big government with red ink eventually spend their way into crisis (as defined by potential default).

And we may be reaching that point.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise has authored a very grim assessment, focusing primarily on Italy, for the National Interest.

Today, with Italy at the epicenter of the world coronavirus epidemic, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the durability of the Euro is again tested by another full-blown Italian sovereign debt crisis. …even before the coronavirus epidemic struck its economy was weak while its public finances and banking system were in a state of poor health. After having experienced virtually no economic growth over the past decade, the Italian economy again entered into a recession by end-2019. At the same time, at 135 percent its public debt to GDP ratio was higher than it was in 2012 while its banks’ balance sheets remained clogged with non-performing loans and Italian government bonds. …the coronavirus epidemic will seriously damage both Italy’s public finances and its banking system…by throwing the country into its deepest economic recession in the post-war period. That in turn is bound to cause Italy’s budget deficit to balloon and its banking system’s non-performing loans to skyrocket as more of its households and companies file for bankruptcy. …all too likely that the Italian economy will shrink by at least 10 percent in 2020.

All this matters because the people and institutions that purchase government debt may decide that Italy’s outlook is so grim that they will be very reluctant to buy the country’s bonds (i.e., they’ll be very hesitant about lending money to the Italian government because of a concern that they won’t get paid back).

This means that the Italian government will have to pay much higher interest rates in order to compensate lenders for the risk of a potential default.

So what are the implications? Will Italy default, or will there be some sort of bailout?

If the latter, Lachman predicts it will be huge.

One way to gauge the amount of public money that might be needed to prop up Italy is to consider that over the past decade it took around US$300 billion in official support to keep Greece in the Euro. Given that the Italian economy is around ten times the size of that of Greece, this would suggest that Italy might very well need around $3 trillion in official support to keep Italy in the Euro. …Meanwhile, Italy’s US$4 trillion banking system could very well need at least US$1 trillion in official support to counter the capital flight and the spike in non-performing loans that are all too likely to occur in the event of a deep Italian recession.

For what it’s worth, Lachman thinks a bailout would be desirable.

I disagree. Default is a better choice because it will discipline the Italian government (it would mean an overnight balanced budget requirement since nobody will lend money to the government) and also discipline foolish lenders who thought Italian politicians were a good bet.

Simply stated, we should minimize moral hazard.

I also think it’s worth noting that Italy isn’t the only government at risk of fiscal crisis. Here’s the OECD data for major nations, including a few non-European examples.

Japan wins the prize for the most red ink, though this doesn’t mean Japan is most vulnerable to a default, at least in the short run.

A fiscal crisis is driven by investor sentiment (i.e., when will people and institutions decide they no longer trust a government to pay back loans). And that depends on a range of factors, including trust.

The bottom line is that investors trust the Japanese government and they don’t trust the Italian government.

That being said, I think all of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are very vulnerable.

And politicians in Ireland, Belgium, and France should be nervous as well.

I’ll close by sharing some calculations, based on the aforementioned OECD data, showing which nations used last decade’s economic recovery to improve their balance sheets.

Congratulations to Germany and Switzerland for fiscal responsibility, and mild applause for the Netherlands and Sweden.

I’ve highlighted (in red) the nations that were most reckless.

Though keep in mind that you want to look at both the trend for debt (far-right column) and the existing level of debt (the next-to-far-right column). So I’m not overly worried about Australia. Debt is still comparatively low, even though it almost doubled last decade.

But all of the PIGS are in trouble.

So if economic conditions deteriorate in Europe, the fallout could be significant.

P.S. The United Kingdom, like Japan, benefits from a high level of trust – presumably in part because the country paid off enormous debts from the Napoleonic wars and World War II. That being said, the numbers for the U.K. are worrisome, which hopefully will lead to a renewed commitment to spending restraint by Boris Johnson’s government.

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Image credit: Håkan Dahlström | CC BY 2.0.

Washington’s Counterproductive Attack on Stock Buybacks

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 12:18pm

Back in 2013, I joked that “you get bipartisanship when the Stupid Party and the Evil Party both agree on something.”

That generally means bad outcomes, with the TARP bailout being a prime illustration.

We now have another example since many Republicans and Democrats want to restrict – or even ban – companies from buying shares from owners (i.e., company shareholders).

Known as stock buybacks, these share purchases should be viewed as an innocuous way of distributing profits.

But you’ll see below that many politicians think they be able to dictate how private businesses operate.

First, let’s look at some excerpts from the Tax Foundation’s very useful primer on the issue.

It’s important to understand why stock buybacks occur and the economic role they play. The new tax law lowered the corporate income tax rate… A lower rate also means that corporations will receive larger profits than anticipated on investments they made in the past—it should be expected that companies would share at least some of this unexpected increase in cash with their shareholders. …Stock buybacks are complements to investment, not substitutes for it. Research shows that stock buybacks do not deprive firms of capital that they would otherwise invest, and further, that stock buybacks can facilitate long-term investment by redirecting funds from lower growth firms to higher growth firms. …Limiting the ability of a corporation to return value to shareholders—value which was created by productive investments made in the past—will not improve economic conditions.

Many experts from the worlds of finance, business, and public policy have tried to explain why stock buybacks should not be viewed as controversial.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Donald Luskin and Chris Hynes explain why it’s a bad idea to curtail buybacks.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren would require, among other things, that to receive aid…companies receiving aid be permanently barred from executing share buybacks, even after the aid is repaid. This is an opportunistic mutation of the left’s longstanding claim that buybacks are a uniquely evil form of predatory capitalism. In reality, buybacks create benefits for shareholders large and small… Shareholders must receive a dividend when it’s declared and pay taxes on it. In a share buyback, investors who want cash can sell some shares and pay taxes. If they don’t want cash, they can choose to hold on to their shares. …Some opponents of buybacks…argue that they waste company cash that ought to be reinvested in plant and equipment. But not every company is in growth mode, and even those that are might have more cash than growth ideas. …Paying money out to shareholders frees them to reinvest in new companies with big growth ideas. This is the best way to promote growth for the economy as a whole.

The Washington Post is not exactly a hotbed of libertarian thinking, so it’s noteworthy that its editorial warned that politicians shouldn’t be dictating private business choices.

the practice by which public corporations use spare cash to buy back their own stock has turned into a policy flash point for both Democrats and Republicans. The basic allegation is that profits devoted to stock buybacks…are profits not plowed back into new plants, equipment or higher wages. …Contrary to the concerns about diverting investment funds, U.S. nonresidential investment and job creation have been rising for most of the past decade. When shareholders get cash for their stocks, the money doesn’t disappear; it flows through the economy, often as productive investment elsewhere. …Perhaps a tax change would accomplish something — though companies would still have an incentive to give spare cash back to shareholders as long as there is no clearly superior investment alternative. Critics of stock buybacks are saying, in effect, that elected officials or regulators may know better than companies themselves what should be done with extra cash.

Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Ethan Lamb points out why Senator Cory Booker doesn’t understand the economics of buybacks.

Senator Cory Booker…reintroduced the “Workers Dividend Act,” which would mandate corporations match every dollar spent on buybacks with compensation toward employees. …this bill presupposes that stock buybacks are inherently bad for society. …Booker doesn’t understand the function of stock buybacks. …Buybacks are just another mechanism, like dividends, to return money to shareholders. …Booker and company will also argue that stock buybacks come at the expense of investment, whether it be in the form of wages or capital expenditures. …none of that is true. …stock buybacks are a brilliant example of the free-market system offering a win-win to both parties. In other words, when the corporation purchases its own stock, the money from that exchange has to go somewhere. Presumably, the investor that just received the money would re-invest in another company that would be more inclined to use that money on investments in labor, R&D, or capital.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal warned about the risks of government intervention.

Stock buybacks are the latest bipartisan piñata, whacked by politicians on the left and right who misunderstand capital markets. …Repurchasing shares is simply one way a company can return cash to owners if it lacks better ideas for investment. …Senators complain that “when corporations direct resources to buy back shares on this scale, they restrain their capacity to reinvest.” But the money doesn’t fall into a black hole. An investor who sells stock into a buyback will save or reinvest the proceeds. …Banning buybacks won’t create better investment options inside companies. Instead CEOs may spend more on corporate jets or pet projects with marginal economic returns. …A recent report from Mr. Rubio floats the idea of raising tax rates on buybacks. …For example: “An increased tax rate on repurchases might raise revenue to finance other incentives for capital investment.” In other words, Mr. Rubio wants politicians to have more leverage to direct how businesses deploy their capital. This would produce less investment, not more, with corresponding damage to workers and federal revenue.

Jon Hartley, in an article for National Reviewdebunks the notion that there’s some sort of special tax favoritism for buybacks.

Marco Rubio’s plan to tax stock buybacks in the hopes of spurring investment…is heavily flawed for multiple reasons. …the senator seems to be operating under the incorrect belief that buybacks are tax-advantaged, when in fact buybacks are already taxed in the form of capital-gains taxes. Since 2003, when the dividend-tax rate was lowered to remove the tax advantage then afforded buybacks, the tax rates on qualified dividends and long-term capital gains have been the same. …let’s take a hypothetical example: Say an investor bought a stock at $100 and over the period of a year, the stock price appreciated by 10 percent to $110 after the company increased its profits and paid corporate taxes (at today’s 21 percent rate) on its earnings. If the company pays a $2 dividend at the end of the year and the investor sells the stock at $108 (ex-dividend), the investor pays the 23.8 percent dividend tax on the $2 dividend received and 23.8 percent on the $8 capital gain. If the company buys back some of its stock at $110 instead of paying a dividend and the investor sells his shares at $110, the investor pays the long-term capital-gains tax of 23.8 percent on the $10 he made. …Now, let’s imagine that Senator Rubio’s legislation is passed and a tax on buybacks goes into effect. …A transaction that was previously subject to two layers of taxation (corporate and capital-gains taxes) is suddenly subject to three layers of taxation (corporate taxes, capital-gains taxes, and buyback taxes), yielding a higher overall tax bill.

Ted Frank, writing for the Washington Examiner, adds further analysis.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, proposed banning buybacks as one of a series of conditions of government relief. Anyone making blanket condemnations of stock buybacks is either confused or otherwise fundamentally unserious — and proposing counterproductive policies that will slow the recovery. …It’s economically indistinguishable from a special dividend, where a corporation pays out money to every shareholder, except it permits shareholders to elect their own tax consequences, unlike a dividend that creates a tax event immediately. …Proposals to ban buybacks are effectively proposals to demand corporations hold such huge stockpiles of cash, depriving shareholders of investment choices. Such proposals will backfire by slowing down the economic recovery when money that could be invested is instead held in corporate bank accounts, doing nothing.

I want to close by sharing two additional columns that argue against restrictions on stock buybacks, but also suggest that there may be some desirable reforms that might – as a side effect – lead to fewer buybacks.

Clifford Asness recently opined for the Wall Street Journal about buybacks and investment, echoing many of the points included in the above excerpts.

Share buybacks are when a company purchases its own common shares on the open market. After a buyback, a company is left with less cash and fewer shares outstanding. Buybacks, along with ordinary dividends, are one of the main ways companies return cash to investors—the ultimate objective of any investment. So why have buybacks become the subject of vitriolic criticism? …The lead accusation against buybacks is that they “starve investment.” …Related to the claims of starving investment, some argue that today’s buybacks are a form of “self-liquidation” in which companies are systematically shrinking away. This ignores that…the net cash outflow from share buybacks has been more than replaced by cash inflow due to new borrowing (think of this as a debt-for-equity swap). Despite buybacks, on net companies have been raising money, not liquidating. …Buybacks…facilitate a movement of capital from companies that don’t need it to those that do. That’s how markets are supposed to work.

But he then notes that the tax code’s bias for debt could be a problem.

…there are some possible problems with buybacks. If taken to excess far beyond today’s levels and financed with debt, they could lead to too much leverage.

Noah Smith explains for Bloomberg that banning stock buybacks is the wrong response to the wrong question.

Stock buybacks are a fraught and confusing issue. …A number of politicians have decried this practice, and sought restrictions or a ban. …Many observers are mystified by this animosity. …share repurchases are like dividends — a way to return money to shareholders. When companies don’t have any way to invest their money profitably, they might as well give the money back to investors.

But he then suggests other government policy mistakes that could be artificially boosting the level of buybacks.

…many of the concerns people have with buybacks probably could be better addressed by reforming other parts of the corporate system. If executive short-termism is the problem, stock- and option-based compensation should be discouraged. If debt is the problem, tax corporate borrowing more heavily. …instead of attacking buybacks, reformers should focus on fixing other parts of corporate America.

Since I just wrote about the tax code being biased in favor of debt, I obviously am very sympathetic to tax reforms that would put debt and equity on a level-playing field.

Noah Smith raised the issue of whether stock- and option-based compensation arrangements for company executives are artificially encouraging buybacks.

Well, my modest contribution to this discussion is to explain that such compensation packages became more prevalent after Bill Clinton’s failed 1993 tax hike imposed a significant indirect tax increase on corporate salaries of more than $1 million. That tax hike, however, did not apply to performance-based compensation, such as measures tied to a stock’s performance.

So what we’re really looking at are a couple of example’s of Mitchell’s Law in action.

Politicians adopt bad policies (favoritism for debt in the tax code and higher taxes on regular salaries), which lead to unintended consequences (more stock buybacks), which then gives politicians an excuse to further expand the size and scope of the federal government (restrictions and bans on buybacks).

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Image credit: Vinícius Pimenta | Pexels License.

A Statement from CF&P on COVID-19

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 9:00am
A Statement from CF&P on COVID-19

In these extraordinary times, we at the Center for Freedom & Prosperity hope that you and your loved ones are well.

As believers in the importance of individual liberty, it is incumbent on each of us to take responsibility for the welfare of our communities by taking appropriate precautions to safeguard the health of not just our families, but all with whom we may come in contact. That means responsible social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent our brave health care providers from becoming overwhelmed.

Even as we all do our part to mitigate the toll of the pandemic, life must also go on as much as possible. At CF&P, we recognize that moments of crisis are often when our liberties are most threatened, and we are working to ensure that lawmakers not seize new powers as they consider relief to protect businesses that have been forced to close, along with the workers who have already lost their jobs as a consequence.

Now, after early delays, the government is allowing the private sector to do what it does best and mobilize to solve a pressing problem.  Car manufacturers are converting their plants to produce ventilators and masks, brewers are making hand sanitizer, and private labs are creating better testing kits. Individuals are also stepping up with charitable donations of time and money.

The resilience of our private institutions and the prosperity they create are what will ultimately see us through this. It is our duty to protect them so they can continue to benefit future generations.

We hope you will continue to follow our coverage of these and other issues surrounding the outbreak here.

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Image credit: Eneas De Troya | CC BY 2.0.

The Temporary Tradeoff Between Health Outcomes and Economic Outcomes

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 12:34pm

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed a bunch of coronavirus-related issues, ranging from big-picture topics such as the proper role of government and the catastrophic downsides of excessive bureaucracy to more-focused topics such as how gun control puts families at risk, why laws against “price gouging” are misguided, and how government-encouraged debt makes the economy more vulnerable.

The crisis even led me to unveil a new theorem. And I also shared some amusing cartoons in hopes of lightening the mood.

The latest chapter in the coronavirus saga is that people are beginning to question how much economic damage we should be willing to accept in order to get the disease under control.

Public health experts argue that isolation and lockdown are critical if we we to “flatten the curve” so that new cases don’t overwhelm the ability of the system to treat patients (thus resulting in unpalatable forms of triage, with older and sicker patients set aside to die so that limited resources can be utilized to save others).

But if the economy is put on hold for several months, the economic damage will be catastrophic. At some point, policy makers won’t have any choice but to relax restrictions on people and businesses.

So how do we assess the costs and benefits of various options?

Eline van den Broek-Altenburg and Adam Atherly, both from the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, explain the necessary tradeoffs.

While a growing number of people are starting to understand the message of the intuitive picture of “Flattening The Curve”, some health economists are starting to wonder how flat the curve should actually be for the benefits to exceed the costs. …how does the economic cost of the flattening fit into the discussion? …we use publicly available data to calculate the cost effectiveness of the flattening the curve. …When considering the value of a healthcare intervention to inform decision-making, benefits are usually measured in terms of life years gained, with the life years adjusted for the “quality” of the life (using standard formulas) to create a “Quality Adjusted Life Year” or QALY. …interventions in younger populations will typically yield more QALYs than interventions in older populations: because younger people have longer life expectancy. …Heath systems then compare the QALYs gained to the cost and calculate a cost per QALY gained. In the United States, interventions that cost less than $100,000 per QALY gained are often considered “cost effective,” although the precise number is somewhat controversial.

What you just read is the theoretical framework.

The authors then apply the model to the current situation.

…is the current “stay at home” and social isolation-policy, with school closed and businesses shuttered, cost effective using the standard health economics framework? …The years of life-gains are relatively straightforward. …statistics on the people who died of COVID19 in China and Italy are the best source of currently available data. …The average 80-year old in the United States has a life expectancy of about 9 years, suggesting that on average, a death averted will “buy” 9 extra years of life. …If we use diabetes as a reasonable proxy for the many chronic diseases, we would adjust the 9 years down to 7.8 years or QALYs. In other words: the average loss per person of quality-adjusted life years is 7.8. …This implies the pandemic, if unchecked, will lead to a loss of between 1.56 million and 13.26 million QALYs. …What, then, is the cost of the intervention of social distancing? One easy estimate would be to use the cost of the current stimulus bill before congress — 1 trillion dollars. This is likely an underestimate of the true cost, but is a reasonable starting place. …the cost per QALY gained from the current approach to be somewhere between approximately $75,000 and $650,000.

So what’s the bottom line?

Here’s a graphic they prepared.

And here’s their explanation.

…the key variable is the expected number of deaths. A pandemic that is likely to lead to 1.7 million deaths can justify the enormous public costs. However, if the pandemic is in the lower end of the predicted range, then the public funds would have been more valuable if spent elsewhere. …Some claim it is impossible or even unethical in times of a crisis, to think about cost when lives are involved. But in a world of finite resources, it’s necessary to make choices. Why not use a framework that has been defended by governments and scientists for decades?

Richard Rahn, former Chief Economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is very explicit about the downsides of an economic shutdown for future generations.

Some government officials, politicians and commentators keep saying words to the effect, “we need to spend whatever it takes to stop the coronavirus deaths.” They, of course, do not literally mean the government should spend an infinite amount of money to save a life — because, if they did, we would not let people drive more than five miles an hour in order to save more than 35,000 Americans who die on the roadways each year. …What is missing in this discussion is what American taxpayers and workers in terms of job losses should spend to save each life… Such calculations are necessary for insurance companies to price their products correctly, and for all of those government agencies involved in health and safety to determine both the proper form and degree of regulation. …If we learn that a 35-year-old MD has unexpectedly passed away, we are likely to feel far worse about the tragedy than if we hear her 90-year-old grandfather has died.

That’s Richard’s conceptual framework.

Here are his calculations.

Let’s assume that the low-cost measures will result in 50,000 more deaths (which is almost certainly on the very high-side given the experience of other countries). If we value the average death at…$2,000,000 figure… (which is high, because of the advanced age of most of the coronavirus victims), then policies that cost taxpayers, and the hit to GDP, more than $100 billion are counterproductive. Even if you assume that my figures are off by a magnitude of three, the mitigation policies should not cost more than $300 billion — not trillions.

Jeffrey Polet, a political scientist at Hope College, also explores the adverse consequences of an economic lockdown.

A panicking public will produce bad consequences, and we are already seeing its destructive effects on our economy. …While the elderly and infirm are the most vulnerable populations, small businesses, low wage laborers, and less healthy social institutions are the most likely to succumb to the economic consequences of the reaction to the virus. …The result will be, as we already see, a call for more government programs to aid those made destitute by the government’s reactions. …collective overreacting has profound social, economic, and political effects. …Good leadership neither overreacts nor under-reacts but reacts sensibly. …Calling something a “pandemic” excites public fear, even if the majority of the population is unlikely to be either directly or indirectly harmed. …For many people in this country, the prospect of losing their business or their job is far more frightening and harmful than the prospect of getting infected with the virus. An already insolvent government is hardly in a position to get this economy up and running, particularly if its policies create massive economic dislocations. …One of the appeals of utilitarianism is that it actually provides a functioning calculus, however imperfect in implementation.

I’ll close with the observation that I want to err on the side of public health in the short run, though I confess I’m not even sure what that means in terms of public policy since we not only need to agree on how much a life is worth (an unpleasant number to consider), but also get a handle on how many lives might be at risk (a very speculative number).

The goal of today’s column is simply to point out that the tradeoffs are real and to applaud the people who have the honesty to write about the issue.

In the long run, we should all appreciate the overlooked point that there is no tradeoff between health outcomes and economic outcomes.

That’s because wealthier societies are healthier societies. Here are a couple of chart from an article I wrote for the Journal of Regulation and Social Costs way back in 1992.

I’ve written about this correlation many times, both as a general concept, and also when addressing specific topics such as the adverse impact of President Obama’s anti-growth policies (and I cited one of Obama’s top economic appointees, Cass Sunstein, who explicitly agrees about the link between health and wealth).

P.S. There’s a very amusing Remy video about health-and-wealth tradeoffs at the end of this column.

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Image credit: http://401kcalculator.org | CC BY-SA 2.0.

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