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Updated: 2 hours 22 min ago

A Primer on Dividend Taxation

Sat, 06/20/2020 - 12:25pm

Assuming the goal is more prosperity, lawmakers who work on tax issues should be guided by the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

  1. Low marginal tax rates on productive activity such as work and entrepreneurship.
  2. No tax bias (i.e., extra layers of tax) that penalizes saving and investment.
  3. No complicating preferences and loopholes that encourage inefficient economic choices.

Today, with these three principles as our guide, we’re going to discuss a major problem in how dividends are taxed in the United States.

Simply stated, there’s an unfair and counterproductive double tax. All you really need to know is that if a corporation earns a profit, the corporate income tax takes a chunk of the money. But that money then gets taxed again as dividend income when distributed to shareholders (the people who own the company).

So why is this a bad thing?

From an economic perspective, the extra layer of tax means that the actual tax burden on corporate income is not 21 percent (the corporate tax rate) or 23.8 percent (how dividends are taxed on the 1040 form), but a combination of the two rates. And when you include the average additional tax imposed at the state level, the real tax rate on dividends in the United States can be as high as 47.47 percent according to the OECD.

You don’t need to be a wild-eyed supply-sider to think that incentives to build businesses and create jobs are adversely affected when the government grabs nearly half of the additional income generated by corporate investment.

Keep in mind, by the way, that workers ultimately bear most of this tax since lower levels of investment translate to lower wages.

So what’s the solution?

If we want a properly designed system for taxing businesses, we know the answer. Just get rid of the extra layer of tax.

2015 report from the Tax Foundation explains how various types of “corporate integration” can achieve this goal.

The United States’ tax code treats corporations and their shareholders as separate taxable entities. The result is two layers of taxation on corporate income: one at the corporate level and a second at the shareholder level. This creates a high tax burden on corporate income, increasing the cost of capital. The double taxation of corporate income reduces investment and distorts business decisions. … Many developed countries have integrated their tax systems in order to mitigate or completely eliminate the double taxation of corporate income. …There are several ways to integrate the corporate tax code. Corporate income can be fully taxed at the entity level (a corporate income tax) and then tax exempt when passed to shareholders as dividend income, or corporations could be given a deduction for dividends passed to their shareholders, who pay tax on the dividend income. Alternatively, shareholders and corporations both pay tax on their income, but shareholders can be given a credit to offset taxes the corporation already paid on their behalf.

For what it’s worth, I think it would be best to get rid of the double tax by eliminating the layer of tax that is imposed on individuals.

In other words, modify the above image in this way.

Though the economic benefit would be the same if the corporate income tax was abolished and the income was taxed one time at the individual level.

I’ll close today’s column with a bit of good news.

A few years ago, the United States had a much higher burden of double taxation because the corporate tax rate was so high. Indeed, the combined tax rate on dividends was the fourth-highest in the developed world.

Today, thanks to the 2017 tax reform, the combined tax rate is “only” the tenth-highest in the developed world.

P.S. The Estonian tax system for businesses is a good role model.

P.P.S. Under Joe Biden’s tax plan, the U.S. would have the world’s-highest combined tax rate on dividends.

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Image credit: Max Pixel | CC0 Public Domain.

Which Country Enjoys More Economic Liberty, the United States or Denmark?

Fri, 06/19/2020 - 12:05pm

When writing yesterday’s column about new competitiveness rankings from the IMD business school in Switzerland, I noticed that I have not yet written about this year’s edition of the Index of Economic Freedom.

Time to rectify that oversight.

We’ll start with a look at the nations with the most economic freedom. Interestingly, Singapore has now displaced Hong Kong as the world’s most market-friendly jurisdiction (because Hong Kong’s score declined, not because Singapore’s score increased), with New ZealandAustralia, and Switzerland rounding out the top 5.

The United States, meanwhile, isn’t even in the top 10. Instead, America dropped from #12 last year to #17 this year.

The decline is partly due to a lower score (with Trump’s protectionist policies deserving the biggest share of the blame), but mostly caused by better scores from nations such as ChileGeorgiaEstonia, and Lithuania.

What may shock people, though, is that even supposedly socialist Denmark (score of 78.3) ranks above the United States (score of 76.6). Here’s a look at U.S. and Danish scores from 1995-present.

Regular readers already know that Denmark is not a socialist nation. Indeed, it’s never been socialist. By world standards, there’s basically no history of government ownershipcentral planning, or price controls.

The most accurate way of describing Denmark is that it combines laissez-faire economics with tax-and-spend redistributionism.

Since this is a common approach among nations in that part of the world, some people even refer to this set of economic policies as the Nordic model.

So how does this approach compare to policy in the United States? The short answer, as illustrated by this table, is that America generally does better on fiscal policy, but gets lower scores when looking at almost every other type of policy.

The great irony of all this is that Bernie Sanders wants the U.S. to be more like Denmark, but he only says that because he doesn’t realize it would mean reducing the negative impact of government.

P.S. While Denmark has some awful fiscal policies (the tax burden is terrible), there are some bright spots. It has done a good job in recent years of restraining the growth of government, and it also has a partially private retirement system.

P.P.S. Not that any of these will be a surprise, but the three lowest-ranked nations in the Index of Economic Freedom are Cuba (26.9), Venezuela (25.2), and North Korea (4.2).

The United States Plummets in Ranking of World Competitiveness

Thu, 06/18/2020 - 12:49pm

When looking at which nations have the best economic policy, the best options are the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.

But I also look forward to other measures, including the annual competitiveness ranking from the Swiss-based IMD business school, which was just released this month.

We’ll start with a look at the top nations. Singapore remains the most competitive nation, while Denmark made a big jump to #2, and Switzerland climbed a notch to #3.

The United States, which was 3rd last year, dropped to #10.

Only 63 nations are part of the survey, and no sentient being should be surprised about Venezuela being in that final spot. Nor should there be much surprise that Argentina is next-to-last.

Here are some highlights from the accompanying article.

The annual rankings, now in their 32nd year, have been released unlocking a wealth of data on the performance of 63 economies across the globe. Singapore was number one for the second year in a row. In second to fifth place, in order, came: Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Hong Kong SAR. A marked pattern in this year’s results, which are an amalgam of hard data taken from 2019 and survey responses from early 2020, is the strength of smaller economies. …The number of small economies – broadly defined as such by their GDP –  in the top ten is striking. However, this is not to say that we are seeing a triumph of democracies. Singapore, Hong Kong and the UAE remain in the top ten, whilst some democracies (such as Argentina) sit at the bottom of the scale.

Here are some of the more interesting observations about specific nations.

China this year dropped to 20th position from 14th last year.

My two cents is that China is still overrated.

But I sadly concur that the trendline for Hong Kong is not overly encouraging.

While Hong Kong SAR came in at 5th, this is a far cry from 2nd which it enjoyed last year. The decline can be attributed to a decline in its economic performance, social turmoil in Hong Kong as well as the rub-on effect of the Chinese economy.

It’s worth noting that Brexit is helping the United Kingdom, which is exactly what I predicted.

The UK climbed from 23rd to 19th… One interpretation is that Brexit may have created the sentiment of a business-friendly environment in the making. The UK ranked 20th on the business efficiency measure, compared to 31st least year.

But I take no satisfaction in my predictions that Trump’s protectionism would backfire on the United States.

…For the second year in a row, the USA failed to fight back having been toppled from its number one spot last year by Singapore, and coming in at 10th …Trade wars have damaged…the USA.

In a column for Forbes, Stuart Anderson elaborates on America’s decline.

America used to be number one but not anymore, according to the 2020 rankings of the world’s most competitive economies from the Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland. The Trump administration’s trade policies are the primary reason given for why America fell from 2018, when it was ranked number one, and from 2019, when it was ranked number three. …Christos Cabolis, IMD’s chief economist and an author of the report, told Fortune that Trump’s trade policies are the main reason for the significant drop in American competitiveness. “One of the pillars of competitiveness is how open an economy is, and we measure that in different ways, from the perceptions of executives, to trade [statistics],” said Cabolis. The trade war Donald Trump initiated with China “brings some of the results we see in how the numbers of the U.S. went down,” he said.

Let’s close with a closer look at IMD’s estimates of what’s good and bad about the United States.

We get very good (though declining in this year’s ranking) scores for economic performance and infrastructure (suggesting, by the way, that we don’t need a new boondoggle package from Washington).

But we’re not quite as impressive when looking at business efficiency and we’re mediocre when measuring government efficiency.

For what it’s worth, I’m not optimistic about America’s trajectory. If Trump gets reelected, I don’t expect big developments in the policy areas where he’s good (taxes and red tape), but I wouldn’t be surprised to see new initiatives in the areas where he is bad (trade and spending).

Biden, meanwhile, has a very statist policy agenda. So if he gets elected, we have to cross our fingers that he doesn’t really believe in his Bernie-lite agenda.

P.S. It is possible, of course, for a nation to adopt additional bad policy and still climb in the rankings. All that’s required is for other nations to adopt an even-greater amount of bad policy. Needless to say, that’s not the ideal way to climb a few spots. Which is why we should consider absolute and relative measures of economic liberty.

Voluntary Socialism and the Dubious Viability of CHAZ

Wed, 06/17/2020 - 12:43pm

Like most libertarians, I support decentralization and federalism. Under the right circumstances, I’m even sympathetic to the idea of secession (hooray for Brexit!).

This is why I have no problem with a community based on voluntary socialism. History tells us that approach doesn’t work (largely for the reasons captured in this cartoon), but people should be free to try over and over again.

Which brings us to “CHAZ.”

For those who haven’t been following the news, protestors in Seattle (motivated in part by legitimate concerns about police misbehavior) have seized control of a neighborhood and declared it to be the “Capital Hill Autonomous Zone.”

Some people see CHAZ as an example of self-government based on a strange mix of libertarian impulses (pro-gun, for example) and leftist impulses (anti-cop, for example).

The Washington Post has a rather sympathetic report about the group, written by Gregory Scruggs.

For the past several days, Ochoa, 28, has been serving as an unarmed volunteer “sentinel,” or guard, in the protest zone. Ochoa, a self-described leftist libertarian recently furloughed from the Seattle International Film Festival, and other volunteers have been serving four-hour shifts to help to keep the peace. …Core to the zone is a vision of a self-governed community with no formal policing. Instead, volunteers, many of them avowed police abolitionists, have begun to organize their own safety force. …Volunteers say this work is a way to highlight what a city without police might look like. “We have a chance to really build something here, so I have a vested interest in defending that as a part of my community,” said Ochoa, who lives in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. …Markinson describes himself as an anti-fascist, anti-racist community defense advocate. He is a gun owner… Markinson views Seattle’s ongoing experiment as part of a lineage of anarchist neighborhoods… a sentinel who gave his name as James Madison stood at the southern barricade with an AR-15 draped over his chest, as he has done on other nights. …“There are a few of us who are armed.” …a hand-painted sign approaching the barricades offers watchwords: “In a world without cops we must never again become the cops ourselves.”

If nothing else, CHAZ is anti-authority, at least if traditional city government is the definition of authority.

But is it a viable system?

Robert Tracinski, in an article for the Bulwark, discusses potential problems.

…the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, endearingly nicknamed CHAZ…is the product of anti-police protests in Seattle that led the mayor to order the abandonment of one of the city’s downtown police precincts, ceding a six-block area of Seattle’s downtown to the protesters, who have turned it into a kind of anarcho-socialist utopia, with free food, free music, no cops, and lots of peace and love, man. …CHAZ certainly set a record for socialist utopias when it comes to running out of food. Within the first day, they were already sending out the alarm: “The homeless people we invited took away all the food at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. We need more food to keep the area operational…” I’ve checked to see whether this is parody, and as far as I can tell, it’s not. …Another area where they are well ahead of schedule for a socialist utopia is in putting up walls and establishing checkpoints with internal passports. …This leads us to the big question about the “autonomous zone”: Whose “autonomy” is it? Certainly, it’s not the autonomy of the people who actually live there, who did not invite the protesters and never had the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to reject the protection of the Seattle PD and establish new protectors. …With leadership seemingly up for grabs, CHAZ is the scene of sporadic petty scuffles, which activists are asking people not to film because it might make them look bad. Yes, well, I’m sure the Minneapolis PD felt the same way. …My favorite description of CHAZ is from a Seattle Times article which says it has “mostly been peaceful.” That’s a favorite bit of journalistic spin. “Mostly peaceful” is how you describe something that’s violent when you don’t want the reader to draw that conclusion.

Tracinski certainly is correct that existing property owners haven’t consented to the new system.

And he’s probably correct in that the new form of authority in CHAZ may be even more arbitrary and unfair than the old system (time will tell).

But he only scratches the surface of the issue that is of greatest interest to me, which is whether CHAZ has a viable economic system.

Ideally, local businesses will be free to operate and to transact with the outside world. And if there are no taxes and nobody to enforce red tape, we might almost see an example of anarcho-capitalism.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing Seattle bureaucrats intend to retroactively collect taxes and take other steps to make sure there is no long-run reduction in the burden of government for CHAZians.

What about in the short run? In a column for Spectator USA, Ben Sixsmith suggests that authorities should adopt a hands-off attitude and let CHAZ sink or swim.

A group of anarchists and leftists collected in Capitol Hill, known for its hipster and LGBT scenes, they have barricaded themselves into a small area and established an anarchic intentional community… Seattle’s aspiring revolutionaries had only just announced the creation of CHAZ, as a place in which progressives can live free of corporate consumerism and police violence, when a local rapper-cum-warlord named Raz Simone began stalking the place with an armed militia. …I believe that the state and federal authorities should leave them alone. If people are being raped and killed in CHAZ then the officials will have to get involved, of course, but otherwise they should be left to their own devices. …for radical leftists to establish their own territory is, frankly, refreshing. For years they have been insisting that the culture, communities, education, religious beliefs et cetera of their fellow citizens be transformed in accordance with their own idiosyncratic ideas. Everyone has had to conform with their progressive beliefs. The CHAZers? They aren’t trying to reshape America. They are trying to build a place of their own. How is that not preferable? …Of course, I think CHAZ will be an embarrassing failure. I suspect it will collapse in a heap of shortages, grievances and recriminations… If it all collapses of its own accord, then a lot of radical progressives are going to have a tough, useful lesson in the value of civilized institutions.

In other words, let’s allow CHAZ to be a test case.

If it adopts a bunch of leftist policies (which seems likely), then we’ll almost surely see another example of socialism failing, even when it’s voluntary.

Though I’m crossing my fingers that the CHAZians adopt a libertarian approach to economics.

Given that Seattle has a very left-leaning government, we then might finally get an example to disprove Jacob Leddy.

Sadly, I don’t think that will happen. The city’s crazy politicians will be more than happy to tolerate CHAZ if it’s a socialist experiment, but they’ll send in the cops if it morphs into a libertarian experiment.

———
Image credit: Derek Simeone | CC BY 2.0.

The Interesting Case for Anarcho-Capitalism

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 12:14pm

Libertarians believe in limited government for both moral reasons (government coercion is bad) and utilitarian reasons (nations with small government enjoy much higher levels of prosperity than countries with bigger governments).

But if small government is good, would no government be even better? That’s the core argument of so-called anarcho-capitalists or voluntaryists.

To understand this approach, let’s start with the video from Learn Liberty, featuring Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University.

And here’s a video from Reason featuring David Friedman.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I was very happy to hear him embrace jurisdictional competition toward the end of the interview (and I also agree with him that this is a reason to be skeptical about the European Union’s pro-centralization mindset).

But let’s stick with the main topic. Is anarcho-capitalism a good idea?

Defenders of the idea frequently make the point that it’s got to be better than what we have now.

Which is the message of this sarcastic meme.

But let’s take a more serious look at the topic.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are three big questions that always get asked about how a society could exist with no government:

  • What to do about pollution?
  • What to do about crime?
  • And what to do about national defense?

David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom is the classic tome on anarcho-capitalism.

First published in 1973, here’s what he says about pollution.

The pollution problem exists because certain things, such as the air or the ocean, are not property. Anyone who wishes to use them as garbage dumps is free to do so. If the pollution were done to something that belonged to someone, the owner would permit it only if the pollutor were willing to pay him more than the damage done. …The ideal solution is to convert unowned resources into property. One could, for instance, adopt the principle that people living along a river have a property right in the river itself and that anyone who lowers the value of the river to them by polluting it, without first getting their consent, is liable to suit. …Some things, such as air, are extraordinarily difficult to deal with in this way. …The simplest solution to such a paradox is to permit parties injured by air pollution to sue for damages—presumably in class actions, by many victims against many pollutors. I would not be able to shut down your blast furnace merely by proving that a sufficiently sensitive instrument could occasionally detect sulfur dioxide in my air. But, if the concentration were high enough to be offensive, I could sue you for the damage done. At present, pollution is ‘controlled’ by governments. … Who gets away with it depends not on real costs but on politics. If pollutors must pay for their pollution, however avoidable or unavoidable, we will rapidly find out which ones can or cannot stop polluting.

Here’s how Friedman argues that crime would be handled (by the way, there’s a 2015 book by Ed Stringham, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, that takes a very rigorous look at the history and prevalence of private law).

Protection from coercion is an economic good. It is presently sold in a variety of forms—Brinks guards, locks, burglar alarms. As the effectiveness of government police declines, these market substitutes for the police, like market substitutes for the courts, become more popular. Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts. …In practice, once anarcho-capitalist institutions were well established, protection agencies would anticipate such difficulties and arrange contracts in advance. …In such a society law is produced on the market. A court supports itself by charging for the service of arbitrating disputes. Its success depends on its reputation for honesty, reliability, and promptness and on the desirability to potential customers of the particular set of laws it judges by. The immediate customers are protection agencies. But the protection agency is itself selling a product to its customers. …The most serious objection to free-market law is that plaintiff and defendant may not be able to agree on a common court. Obviously, a murderer would prefer a lenient judge. If the court were actually chosen by the disputants after the crime occurred, this might be an insuperable difficulty. Under the arrangements I have described, the court is chosen in advance by the protection agencies. There would hardly be enough murderers at any one time to support their own protective agency, one with a policy of patronizing courts that did not regard murder as a crime.

Though even Friedman is uncertain how national defense could be privatized.

National defense has traditionally been regarded, even by believers in a severely limited state, as a fundamental function of government. … the usual solution is to use government force— taxation—to make those benefited (and others) pay… national defense—defense against nations—must defend areas of national size, whether or not they contain nations. It is thus a public good, and one with a very large public. …The cost of a minimal national defense is only about $20 billion to $40 billion a year. The value to those protected is several hundred billion dollars a year. National defense is thus a public good worth about ten times what it costs; this may make it easier, although not easy, to devise some noncoercive way of financing it. … a national defense agency might raise enough money to finance national defense without taxation. Obviously, a system that depends on local agencies evolved for a different purpose or a ramshackle system financed by charity, passport sales, and threats to Hawaiian insurance companies is economically very imperfect. So is a system financed by coercion and run by government. …What will I do if, when all other functions of our government have been abolished, I conclude that there is no effective way to defend against aggressive foreign governments save by national defense financed by taxes—financed, in other words, by money taken by force from the taxpayers? In such a situation I would not try to abolish that last vestige of government. I do not like paying taxes, but I would rather pay them to Washington than to Moscow—the rates are lower. I would still regard the government as a criminal organization, but one which was, by a freak of fate, temporarily useful.

For what it’s worth, anarcho-capitalism may be moving from theory to reality.

At least in small doses.

I’ve previously written about Liberland, a tiny would-be independent entity on some unclaimed land between Serbia and Croatia.

There’s also the idea of libertarian-themed floating communities that would be independent of any government.

The U.K.-based Daily Mail wrote about the idea back in 2017.

Stunning concept images for the world’s first floating nation have been released as part of a project bankrolled by PayPal founder Peter Thiel. The plans will see the seabound city-state, complete with a handful of hotels, homes, offices, restaurants and more, built in the Pacific Ocean off the island of Tahiti… The scheme is the creation of the nonprofit Seasteading Institute, which hopes to ‘liberate humanity from politicians’. The radical plans could see the creation of an independent nation that will float in international waters and operate within its own laws. …the fantasy looks to be coming closer to reality with companies, academics and architects from the Seasteading Institute working on a prototype… Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, said he wants to see ‘thousands’ of rogue floating cities by 2050, each of them ‘offering different ways of governance’. …’We can create a huge diversity of governments for a huge diversity of people.’ …The Institute claims it will ‘give people the freedom to choose the government they want instead of being stuck with the government they get’. If inhabitants disagree with the city’s government, they could paddle their colony to another city, forcing governments to work to attract citizens.

It’s worth noting, though, that a seasteading community was supposed to start this year, and that deadline apparently won’t be met.

Doesn’t mean it can’t happen, or that it won’t happen, but we’re still waiting to see if it actually happens and how well it will work.

There’s also the idea of anarcho-capitalism in small pieces.

Such as private police, as happened in Sharpstown, Texas.

One thing that holds many Libertarians back from converting to free-market anarchism is the idea of the police force. Many libertarians believe that one of the few functions that the government should have is the provision of police within society. …One town, though, did privatize the police… Sharpstown, Texas, is not an actual town, but rather a community. They purchase services from S.E.A.L. Security Services, LLC, a completely private firm that provides policing services. The results have been quite astounding. Their director of operations, James Alexander, gave a rundown of the success of the firm… In the 20 months leading up to February of 2015, S.E.A.L. successfully brought crime down 61%. Alexander’s numbers have been disputed, though, by Jim Bingham, president of the Sharpstown civic association. He claims that Alexander’s numbers are unbacked, and says instead that crime (particularly burglaries) went down about 32% over two years. …The people who work for the firm are private individuals being privately funded. They are subject to the same rules and regulation that go for regular people, meaning that they cannot murder or steal. Public police, on the other hand, are able to cite “stress” as an excuse for murdering unarmed black men and steal astronomical amounts of money from citizens in DUI checkpoints and through civil asset forfeiture.

This is a very appealing idea, especially given the serious problems we’re seeing with government-operated police departments.

A Fiscal Joke, Not a Grand Bargain

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 12:59pm

As indicated by one of my columns last week, I’m a big believer in federalism.

Indeed, I’ve even proposed that Washington shouldn’t operate any social programs. No food stamps. No Medicaid. No redistribution programs of any kind.

Such programs, to the extent they should exist, should be handled by state and local governments.

The welfare reform legislation under Bill Clinton is an example of how to move in the right direction. A top-down program from Washington was turned into a block grant, and then state and local governments got the freedom to choose policies that might actually help the poor become self-sufficient instead of being trapped in dependency.

Not pure libertarianism, of course, but still an example of progress. And we got good results.

Given this track record, I was very interested to see a column in today’s New York Times by Ezekial Emanuel and Rahm Emanuel on the topic of federal-state fiscal relations.

Medicaid and unemployment insurance…need permanent institutional reform and modernization. …the next stimulus package…should then be…a…federal-state Grand Bargain would solve festering problems in health care and unemployment assistance Years of political experience show that no matter how imperative and sensible, a policy’s chances of success are diminished unless it delivers political benefits. This bargain would create a victory for both parties.

This sounds intriguing. And potentially even desirable.

There’s no question, after all, that the current Medicaid system desperately needs reform. And the unemployment program also is a mess, luring people into joblessness.

So what exactly are the Emanuel brothers proposing? What is the “Grand Bargain” that offers benefits for both sides?

Sadly, it turns out that their bipartisan rhetoric is just an excuse for bigger government.

The bargain, which we call American Modernization Initiative…the federal government to assume the costs and administration of Medicaid and unemployment insurance, the states would have to agree to use freed up resources — a quarter of a trillion dollars per year — to invest in education and infrastructure. …The Grand Bargain is not only good policy, but good politics. …Governors would no longer be responsible for large programs… With the American Modernization Initiative, the constant, bitter battles over cutting state programs to fund growing Medicaid costs will disappear.

Yes, you read correctly. Their idea of a “bargain” is that the federal government agrees to spend more money so that that state governments will then have the ability to spend more money.

Even Republicans aren’t stupid enough to go along with that kind of deal.

So I’ll propose an alternative.

According to Chris Edwards, there are now nearly 1,400 programs involving some sort of link or overlap between the federal government and state governments.

The biggest of these programs is Medicaid, accounting for 56 percent of the overall spending.

So why not give the states a choice: They either take full responsibility for Medicaid – including the financing after some transition period. Or they take responsibility for the other 1,385 programs (probably more by now) programs – assuming, again, they are responsible for the financing after a transition period.

Regardless of their choice, the end result would be a system where there’s a reasonably significant shift toward federalism. And perhaps we would add a bit of clarity to the blurry line that currently sets the boundary between what’s Washington’s job and what’s the role of state governments.

And maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be as much wasteful leakage as we have now.

P.S. For what it’s worth, there’s strong academic evidence that decentralized governments produce better outcomes.

P.P.S. Federalism doesn’t only apply to income-redistribution programs. We also should eliminate any role for Washington in areas like education and transportation.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the data on the history of redistribution spending in developed nations.

The “Grabbing Hand” of Industrial Policy

Sat, 06/13/2020 - 12:53pm

If you want to understand how government really works, learn about “public choice.”

This is the common-sense theory that politicians and other people in politics often make decisions based on self interest, and it does a very good job of explaining why we get so many short-sighted and misguided policies from the crowd in Washington.

Public choice is especially insightful when compared to the naive view that politicians are mostly concerned with helping ordinary people.

The theory also tends to generate some pithy concepts, such as “stationary bandit” and “predatory government.”

Another example is “grabbing hand,” which describes how intervention usually is a vehicle for helping government rather than helping people.

Today’s column is going to be about industrial policy (the incrementalist version of central planning) as an example of this phenomenon.

Specifically, we’re going to look at a new academic study that measured the impact of government control on the performance of companies in China.

Written by Marzieh Abolhassani, Zhi Wang, and Jakob de Haan, it’s a test of whether government is a “helping hand” or “grabbing hand.”

We’ll start with their description of the study’s methodology.

…the impact of government involvement on the financial performance of listed firms in emerging economies has received scant attention. This paper examines the relationship between government control of firms and firms’ financial performance for the case of China. …we measure government control by the fraction of outstanding shares held either directly or indirectly by the government. …We classify firms as state controlled whenever the government is the shareholder with the largest number of shares held either directly or indirectly through pyramid structures.

Here are the key results.

Our empirical results suggest that firm performance is generally lower for firms where the government is the shareholder with the largest number of (direct and indirect) shares. Specifically, the return on assets, the return on equity and the market-to-book ratio are, on average, 1.3%, 2.0% and 8.2% lower for government-controlled firms. Both central and local government control is undermining firm performance. These findings provide support for the ‘grabbing hand’ theory of the government. … we make sure the estimates are not driven by differences in the size, age and leverage of the firms. Importantly, we also control for industry-region-year fixed effects, and therefore compare firms within the same industry in the same province during the same year, further enhancing the credibility of our estimates. …These results provide support for hypothesis and to theories conjecturing that management of firms controlled by the government have fewer incentives to maximize profits and shareholder value.

For those who like the wonky details, here are the key findings from their number crunching.

So what’s the bottom line?

Their conclusion tells us everything we need to know.

The results reported in this study broaden our understanding of the role of government influence on firm performance. …Our empirical results indicate that government-controlled firms have a worse financial performance than non-government-controlled firms. …These conclusions support the ‘grabbing hand’ theory proposed by Shleifer and Vishny.

So why do these results matter?

From an economic perspective, it’s further evidence that government intervention leads to a misallocation of resources. And that inevitably means living standards will be lower than they would be if markets were allowed to function.

recent article from Foreign Affairs suggests enormous potential benefits if China ended industrial policy.

…state-owned enterprises… These inefficient behemoths control nearly $30 trillion in assets and consume roughly 80 percent of the country’s available bank credit, but they contribute only between 23 and 28 percent of GDP. …The economist Nicholas Lardy has estimated that genuine economic reforms, in particular those targeting state-owned enterprises, could boost China’s annual GDP growth by as much as two percentage points in the coming decade.

Very similar to what I’ve written, so let’s hope that China returns to the policy of economic liberalization that led to genuine progress.

I’ll close with the depressing observation that there are people in Washington who are now agitating for industrial policy in the United States.

Needless to say, there’s zero reason to think that intervention from Washington will produce results that are better than intervention from Beijing.

P.S. It doesn’t matter if Republicans are trying to pick winners or Democrats are trying to pick winners. When politicians intervene, the economy suffers, which means less prosperity for ordinary people.

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Image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office | CC BY 2.0.

The “Broken Window Fallacy” of Keynesian Economics

Fri, 06/12/2020 - 12:39pm

There’s much to dislike about Keynesian economics, most notably that it tells politicians that their vice – buying votes by spending other people’s money – is somehow a virtue.

Advocates of Keynesianism also can be very simplistic, sometimes falling victim to the “broken window fallacy” described in this short video.

Bastiat is perhaps most well-known for his insight on this fallacy.

He explained that a good economist was capable of recognizing the difference between the seen and unseen (if you want to be wonky, the difference between direct effects and indirect effects).

Sadly, there are many people today who don’t grasp this distinction.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman is in this group.

And now we have a new member of the club. In a piece for Axios, Felix Salmon reveals he still believes in this primitive form of Keynesian economics.

There’s one big non-political reason why luxury stores were targeted by looters: Their wares can now be sold for top dollar, thanks to the rise of what is often known as the “circular economy.” …Instead of stealing goods they need to live, looters are increasingly stealing the goods they can most easily sell online. …Economically speaking, looting can have positive effects. Rebuilding and restocking stores increases demand for goods and labor, especially during a pandemic when millions of workers are otherwise unemployed. …The circular economy helps to reduce waste and can efficiently keep luxury goods in the hands of those who value them most highly.

To be fair, Salmon would have been correct (though immoral) if he said looting had a positive effect on looters.

But it definitely doesn’t have a positive effect on merchants (who lose money in the short run and probably have higher insurance payments thereafter), on consumers (who are likely to pay more for products in the future), or on the overall economy (because of the unseen reductions in other types of economic activity).

Let’s wrap up with a cartoon on the topic.

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Image credit: skeeze | Pixabay License.

Poor People and Minorities Are Victimized by “Predatory Cities”

Thu, 06/11/2020 - 12:28pm

One week ago, I wrote about how the welfare state creates high implicit marginal tax rates, thus making it difficult for low-income people to climb out of poverty and dependence.

But that’s not the only way that poor people are victimized by big government.

Another very serious problem is the way local and state governments impose a plethora of fees, fines and charges that can wreck the lives of the less fortunate.

In a column for the New York Times, Professor Bernadette Atahuene of the Chicago-Kent College of Law opines on the problem of greedy local governments.

I coined the term “predatory cities” to describe urban areas where public officials systematically take property from residents and transfer it to public coffers… Ferguson, Mo., is one well-known predatory city. As a 2015 Department of Justice report showed, the police in Ferguson systematically targeted African-Americans and subjected them to excessive fines and fees. …local courts issued arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees… Minor offenses, like parking infractions, resulted in jail time… The Ferguson Police Department and courts prioritized revenue raising over public safety, transforming Ferguson into a predatory city.

Professor Atahuene cites the pernicious policies of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. (and note that asset forfeiture is one of the problems).

New Orleans is another. …Orleans Parish Criminal District Court’s primary source of funding was the fines and fees it collected. This created a structural incentive for judges to aggressively and erroneously pursue payment from those with no ability to pay, turning New Orleans into a predatory city. Washington, D.C., is yet another predatory city. While civil asset forfeiture laws allow the police to seize property that they suspect was involved in a crime, in Washington, D.C., property owners had to post bonds of up to $2,500 in order to challenge the seizure. If the owner could not raise money in time, the D.C. Police Department sold the property, and the money went into its annual budget. In a two-year period, the Police Department made $4.8 million in profit by seizing money from over 8,500 people as well as seizing 339 vehicles.

Every decent human being should get upset about the grotesque way that politicians are mistreating their residents.

Especially since poor people are being disproportionately victimized.

By the way, it appears that Professor Atahuene is not a libertarian. She wants Congress to approve a big bailout, based on the theory that state and local politicians will be less likely to engage in what I’ve called “rapacious revenue-raising tactics” if they get big buckets of money from Uncle Sam.

Needless to say, I think that would be a mistake.

But I don’t think someone needs to agree with me on everything, or even most things, if we can periodically find common ground on proposals that would improve the lives of people (not just on the need to curtail greedy local governments, but also on issues such as over-criminalization and police unions).

P.S. I wonder if there would be fewer petty fines, fees, and charges if they were levied on the ability to pay, thus making higher-income people more sensitive to the problem?

Fiscal Fantasyland

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 12:00pm

There are plenty of people on the left who write serious and substantive articles about fiscal policy. For instance, I strongly disagree with many of the policy prescriptions from the IMF and the OECD, but those international bureaucracies are reasonably rigorous with data.

Heck, they even use real data when they’re being dishonest.

Some people, though, churn out analysis that is utterly disconnected from reality. I’m even thinking of creating a Fiscal Fantasyland Club to commemorate their fact-deprived writings.

  1. In a column for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank blamed the “disastrous philosophy” of “anti-government conservatism” for leaving the federal government without the resources to fight the coronavirus.
  2. In an article for the Atlantic, George Packer told readers that the federal government screwed up because it has been subjected to “steady defunding” by right-wing ideologues intent on “squeezing it dry.”
  3. Another columnist for the Washington Post, Dan Balz, claims that the botched response to coronavirus was caused by “underinvestment” and “hollowing out” of the federal budget.

The reason we may need a special club (akin to my collection of “Poverty Hucksters“) is that all of these writers are wildly wrong.

Even a cursory look at budget data confirms that the federal government has been getting bigger over time.

Much bigger.

As such, only someone who is completely ignorant or totally dishonest is capable of writing an article based on the notion that there have been reductions in the burden of federal spending.

If I create this club, I know who will be fourth member.

Writing for the Bulwark, Richard North Patterson argues that President Trump’s personal shortcomings are somehow connected to Reagan-type opposition to big government.

He starts with one of my favorite quotes from The Gipper and then tells us that this type of hostility to statism is no longer appropriate or desirable.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan cheerfully gibed: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Then it seemed amusing. But 34 years later, the convergence of COVID-19 and a racial conflagration makes Reagan’s quip sound myopic. …Only government can ensure the safety of our food and drugs and protect our natural environment. And government can help navigate our racial fissures, and provide the economic and public health interventions indispensable to combating a deadly pandemic.

Given that Washington’s response to the coronavirus has been spectacularly incompetent, well beyond what even libertarians would have predicted, it’s remarkable that Patterson thinks this is a moment in time when people should embrace big government.

And let’s not forget that today’s racial unrest was triggered by government misbehavior, enabled by corrupt deals between local politicians and government employee unions.

But the real problem with Patterson’s rhetoric is that he seems to assume that an argument for some government is the same as an argument for lots of government.

He’s obviously not familiar with the Rahn Curve, which is based on the insight that some government may be good for growth (assuming the outlays are for core public goods) but that lots of government (particularly when spending is for consumption and redistribution) is bad for growth.

To be fair, I understand why Patterson, who is mostly known for being a very successful novelist, isn’t familiar with the academic research on the growth-maximizing size of government.

But since he’s decided to pontificate on these issues, he should feel an obligation to know some basic data.

For instance, he’s a wealthy man and presumably has traveled the world. Hasn’t he noticed that nations with big governments don’t do a better job of providing public goods – even if we use an expansive concept of what government should be doing?

Let’s look at some more of his article.

Patterson not only rejects the notion of smaller government, he seems to embrace bigger government.

What was once a philosophical preference for limited government has degenerated into phobia. “Long before Trump,” GOP strategist Stuart Stevens observes, “the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad. But somewhere along the way, it became ‘all government is bad.’ Now we are in a crisis that can be solved only by massive government intervention.” …Witnessing so much death and disturbance, one cannot but ponder how poorly Reagan’s casual nostrum has aged. Farhad Manjoo nails it: “The most comforting words I can think of now, amid so much uncertainty, chaos and confusion, are these: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

There’s a lot of nonsense in those few sentences. Regarding Manjoo’s quote, I’ll simply repeat my earlier observation about how the federal government has hindered rather than helped the fight against the coronavirus.

The quote from Stuart Stevens is even stranger, at least the the latter part, because it is so completely contrary to real-world data.

While it is true that Reagan briefly reoriented Republicans and did a good job of controlling spending while he was in office, every other Republican in recent history has been a big spender.

They’ve even increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Democratic presidents.

Yet Stevens wants people to believe that’s the track record of a party that thinks “all government is bad.”

I also want to debunk the notion that there’s been a “decades-long gutting of government,” as asserted in the subtitle of Patterson’s article.

Here’s a chart that I shared back in April, which shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980 – and that’s after adjusting for inflation.

If you read Patterson’s entire article, you’ll find that he mostly focuses on President Trump’s chaotic management of the executive branch.

Since I’ve gone on TV and referred to Trump as being akin to the crazy uncle you deal with during family holidays, I’m certainly not going to argue with his criticisms of the White House’s governing style.

But surely it should be possible to criticize the president without relying on make-believe budget analysis.

P.S. I wonder if Patterson and other members of the Fiscal Fantasyland Club have been tricked into thinking that there have been budget cuts.

P.P.S. If Patterson decides to learn and use real budget data, I hope he’ll join me in criticizing Trump for being a big spender.

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

Absolute Economic Liberty, Relative Economic Liberty, and the Never-Answered Question

Tue, 06/09/2020 - 12:25pm

As part of my recent presentation to IES Europe, here’s what I said (and what I’ve said many times before) about the relationship between economic policy and national prosperity.

My remarks focused in part on the difference between absolute economic liberty and relative economic liberty.

  • The absolute level of economic liberty is the degree to which a nation relies on markets or statism (see, for instance, the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World).
  • The relative level of economic liberty is a measure of whether one country is more market-oriented than another country (basically a measure of national competitiveness).

Understanding these two concepts explains why it is possible to criticize nations in North America and Western Europe for having too much government while also recognizing that those same nations tend to have better policies than most countries in other parts of the world.

An obvious example is Denmark. It certainly has some foolish and misguided government policies, but it is very pro-market when compared to the 90 percent of nations that have even lower levels of economic liberty (a distinction that Bernie Sanders has never grasped).

The obvious takeaway is that economic liberty matters, regardless of whether we’re looking at absolute levels or relative levels.

During my remarks, the audience got to see a two-question challenge, which asks our friends on the left to give an example of their dirigiste policies generating good economic outcomes.

But I’ve never been happy with the clunky wording of that challenge (just as I wasn’t happy with the original wording of fiscal policy’s Golden Rule).

So here’s a new version, which I’m now calling “The Never-Answered Question.”

I frequently unveil this question during debates.

And it’s quite common that my opponent will claim Sweden.

But as I noted in the above video clip, Sweden became a rich nation when government was very small. It didn’t have an income tax until 1902, and the welfare state was tiny until the 1960s. And I then explain that Sweden’s economic performance has been inversely correlated with the size and scope of government.

Unsurprisingly, the same is true for every other prosperous country in Europe and North America.

The bottom line is that my leftist friends will never successfully answer this question.

P.S. When considering the second part of The Never Answered Question, I don’t want a cherry-picked one- or two-year period. I want several decades of data, so we can be sure of a real trend. Much as I’ve done when making comparisons.

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Image credit: Bengt Nyman | CC BY 2.0.

The Unfortunate Decline of Federalism in the United States

Mon, 06/08/2020 - 12:21pm

Last week, I participated in a webinar with IES Europe. The program covered a wide range of issues, including tax competitionSocial Security reform, and the recipe for national prosperity.

Here’s what I said on the topic of federalism.

To add some hard data to the discussion, let’s compare the degree of fiscal decentralization in the United States in both 1902 and 2019, based on numbers from the Census Bureau (click on Govt_Finances) and the Office of Management and Budget (click on Table 14.3).

As you can see from the chart, Washington now accounts for a much bigger share of overall government spending.

By the way, these numbers should not be misinterpreted.

There’s been no reduction in the burden of state and local government outlays. Indeed, there’s been a steady increase in such spending, even after adjusting for inflation.

But the federal government has grown far more rapidly.

Indeed, the fiscal history of the United States is a sad story about the loss of almost all constraints and limits that America’s Founders put in the Constitution in hopes of controlling the size and scope of Washington.

The bottom line is we now have much bigger government and it’s more remote because of centralization.

I mentioned Switzerland in the latter part of my answer.

Here’s the data comparing Switzerland and the United States. As you can see, Switzerland has been more successful in retaining genuine federalism.

Indeed, the two countries are mirror images, with nearly 2/3rds of government spending in the U.S. coming from Washington and nearly 2/3rds of government in Switzerland taking place a the level of cantons and municipalities.

P.S. Here’s what scholars from the Austrian School have said about federalism.

P.P.S. Here’s my two cents on federalism in the context of issues such as welfarenatural disasterstransportationcoronavirusinfrastructure, and Medicaid,

P.P.P.S. Because there’s strong evidence that decentralization produces better outcomes, I’m even willing to accept bad examples of federalism.

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

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