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Archive for October, 2010

A good lesson for all children, though I tried to indoctrinate my kids throughout the year by explaining that we couldn’t buy certain things because the government stole too much of our money.

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A paper posted on the Social Science Research Network looks at nations that are prospering compared to those that are stagnating. Not surprisingly, limited government and free enterprise policies are associated with better economic performance. Here’s an excerpt from this new research.

What can we conclude about the effect of various policies on economic growth? What lessons can we learn from the growth miracles of recent years, and how can we avoid the sorry fate of the growth disasters? The countries that have been most successful at increasing their economic growth rates, and therefore at raising the living standards of their population, have all shared a commitment to increasing economic freedom, limiting the role of government, stamping out corruption, and strengthening the rule of law. They relied on free markets, rather than on central planning. They lowered their tax rates, and some even adopted a flat income tax. They made their labor laws more flexible, and allowed their firms to hire new workers more easily. They privatized their inefficient state-owned enterprises. They lowered tariffs, and opened up to trade and international competition. They courted foreign investors, and created a favorable business environment to lure them in. In other words, growth miracles have occurred in countries whose governments have adopted policies that reflect the classical liberal ideals of economic freedom, limited government and rule of law. Our brief survey of economic successes around the world shows that this lesson is universal: Countries as diverse as China, Estonia, Germany, India, Chile, South Korea and Slovakia have benefited from applying a similar set of market-oriented policies.

The paper also makes a key point about economic growth and living standards.

Over time, even modest increases in the economic growth rate can, furthermore, lead to vast improvements in the standard of living. If China sustains the eight percent annual GDP growth rate that it has achieved since its market-oriented reforms began in 1978, its inhabitants will double their living standards every nine years. By contrast, in the United States, which has grown at an average annual rate of about two percent, a doubling of living standards would require thirty-six years.

This is an under-appreciated observation. The author cites a rather dramatic example, but the key observation is that even modest differences in economic growth can have a big impact on relative prosperity with a couple of decades. Here’s a chart I include in many of my Powerpoint presentations. It shows how long it takes to double GDP based on different growth rates.

Let’s look at a real-world example. Hong Kong has been growing by more than 5 percent each year for decades, while France has been growing by less than 2 percent annually. Now let’s ask a couple of big-picture questions. Why have Bush and Obama been trying to make us more like France? Do they fail to understand that this means less future prosperity for the American people? Don’t they realize that this means a loss of relative competitiveness?

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The death tax is a punitive levy that discourages saving and investment and causes substantial economic inefficiency. But it’s also an immoral tax that seizes assets from grieving families solely because someone dies. The good news is that this odious tax no longer exists. It disappeared on January 1, 2010, thanks to the 2001 tax cut legislation. The bad news is that the death tax comes back with a vengeance on January 1, 2011, ready to confiscate as much as 55 percent of the assets of unfortunate families.

I’ve criticized the death tax on many occasions, including one column in USA Today explaining the economic damage caused by this perverse form of double taxation, and I highlighted a few of the nations around the world that have eliminated this odious tax in another column for the same paper.

Politicians don’t seem persuaded by these arguments, in part because they feel class warfare is a winning political formula. President Obama, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been successful in thwarting efforts to permanently kill the death tax. But I wonder what they’ll say if their obstinate approach results in death?

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is getting a bit of attention (including a link on the Drudge Report) for her recent comments that some people may choose to die in the next two months in order to protect family assets from the death tax. For successful entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners who might already be old (especially if they have a serious illness), there is a perverse incentive to die quickly. 

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis says some of her Wyoming constituents are so worried about the reinstatement of federal estate taxes that they plan to discontinue dialysis and other life-extending medical treatments so they can die before Dec. 31. Lummis…said many ranchers and farmers in the state would rather pass along their businesses — “their life’s work” — to their children and grandchildren than see the federal government take a large chunk. “If you have spent your whole life building a ranch, and you wanted to pass your estate on to your children, and you were 88 years old and on dialysis, and the only thing that was keeping you alive was that dialysis, you might make that same decision,” Lummis told reporters.

The class-warfare crowd doubtlessly will dismiss these concerns, but they should set aside their ideology and do some research. Four years ago, two Australian scholars published an article on this issue in Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, which is published by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Entitled “Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?”, their paper looked at the roles of tax, incentives, and death rates. The abstract has an excellent summary.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. …our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

And here’s a graph from the article, which shows how many affected taxpayers managed to delay death until the tax went away.

Obama and other class-warfare politicians now want to run this experiment in reverse. I already noted in another blog post that there are Americans who are acutely aware of the hugely beneficial tax implications if they die in 2010. In other words, Congresswoman Lummis almost certainly is right.

I don’t actually think that Obama, Rangel, Baucus and the rest of the big-government crowd should be blamed for any premature deaths that occur. But I definitely think that they should be asked if they feel any sense of guilt, remorse, and/or indirect responsibility.

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The “good government” crowd tells us that voting is a “civic duty.” When I hear that type of nonsense, it makes me want to deliberately stay home.

But I did actually vote today, in part to avoid lines on Tuesday and in part because I leave that morning for a speech in Florida. But why did I bother? The odds of my vote making a difference in any race are so infinitesimally small that there’s no logical reason to vote. But that’s if you view voting as an “investment good” – i.e., you vote in hopes of influencing the outcome.

Voting only make sense as a “consumption good.” In other words, you do it just for the sheer joy of voting against someone (or, in very rare cases, because you actually want to vote for someone).

Some libertarians argue that voting is wrong, for any reason, because it legitimizes the current system. This is the sentiment that motivates this t-shirt, and it also is the title of P.J. O’Rourke’s new book. But that argument, while superficially appealing, doesn’t make sense. Does anyone actually think that the corrupt crowd in Washington will suddenly stop stealing our money and trying to control our lives if fewer people decide to vote? I don’t think it would have the slightest impact on their behavior.

I’m not saying people should vote, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can escape the predations of the political class if you opt out. Pericles, way back around 430 B.C., supposedly said that, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

I’m not sure if that’s a real quote, but it sure is accurate.

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At least this form of stimulus might work.

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HEAVEN OR HELL

While walking down the street one day a Corrupt Senator was tragically hit by a car and died.

His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”

“No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.

“Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”

“Really?, I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,” says the Senator.

“I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”

And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.

Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people.

They played a friendly game of golf and then dined on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.

Also present is the devil, who is a very friendly guy time dancing and telling jokes.

They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go.

Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven.”

So, 24 hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have an okay time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

“Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”

The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean, heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above.

The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

“I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?”

The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning.  Now that you voted, it’s time for reality.” 

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In the past 15 years, I’ve debated in favor of a national sales tax, testified before Congress on the merits of a national sales tax, gone on TV to advocate for the national sales tax, and spoken with dozens of reporters to explain why the national sales tax is a good idea. Even though I prefer the flat tax, I’ve been an ardent defender of sales tax proposals such as the FAIR tax because it would be a great idea to replace the current system with any low-rate system that gets rid of the tax bias against saving and investment. I even narrated this video explaining that a national sales tax and flat tax are different sides of the same coin – and therefore either tax reform proposal would significantly improve prosperity and competitiveness.

I will continue to defend the FAIR tax and other national sales tax proposals that replace the income tax, but I wonder whether this is a losing battle. Every election cycle, candidates that endorse (or even say nice things about) the FAIR tax wind up getting attacked and put on the defensive. Their opponents are being dishonest, and their TV ads are grossly misleading, but they are using this approach because the anti-FAIR tax message is politically effective. Many pro-tax reform candidates have lost elections in favorable states and districts, largely because their opponents were able to successfully demagogue against a national sales tax.

The Wall Street Journal reaches the same conclusion, opining this morning about the false – but effective – campaign against candidates who support a national sales tax.

In 16 House and three Senate races so far, Democrats have blasted GOP candidates for at one point or another voicing an interest in the FAIR tax. …FAIR tax proponents are right to say these Democratic attacks are unfair and don’t mention the tax-cutting side of the proposal, but the attacks do seem to work. Mr. Paul’s lead in Kentucky fell after the assault, and the issue has hurt GOP candidate Ken Buck in a close Colorado Senate race. In a special House election earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Democrat Mark Critz used the FAIR tax cudgel on Republican opponent Tim Burns. In a district that John McCain carried in 2008, Mr. Critz beat the Republican by eight points and is using the issue again in their rematch. This is a political reality that FAIR taxers need to face. …in theory a consumption tax like the FAIR tax is preferable to an income tax because it doesn’t punish the savings and investment that drive economic growth. If we were designing a tax code from scratch, the FAIR tax would be one consumption tax option worth debating. But…voters rightly suspect that any new sales tax scheme will merely be piled on the current code.

We won’t know until next Tuesday what is going to happen in Kentucky and Colorado, and we won’t know until then what will happen in the other campaigns where the FAIR tax is an issue. But if there are two tax reform plans that achieve the same objective, why pick the approach that faces greater political obstacles?

FAIR tax proponents presumably could defuse some of the attacks by refocusing their efforts so that repealing the income tax is the top priority. This would not require any heavy lifting since all honest proponents of a national sales tax want to get rid of the 16th Amendment and replace it with something that unambiguously prohibits any direct tax on income. So why not lead with that initiative, and have the national sales tax as a secondary proposal? This is what I propose in the video, and I think it would be much harder for demagogues to imply that a FAIR tax would mean a new tax on top of the corrupt system that already exists.

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