Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for February 3rd, 2013

A reader from New York has a follow-up question for me.

Referencing a “Question of the Week” from last month, in which I expressed guarded optimism that America could be saved, she wants to know what I would do if things go the wrong way.

In other words, what if things go really wrong and America suffers a Greek-style fiscal collapse? And imagine how bad that might be since there wouldn’t be an IMF or European Central Bank capable of providing bailouts to the United States.

Perhaps because of an irrational form of patriotism, I’m fairly certain that I will always live in the United States and I will be fighting to preserve (or restore) liberty until my last breath.

But I probably would want my children someplace safe and stable, so I’ll answer the question from that perspective.

The obvious first choice is a zero-income tax jurisdiction like the Cayman Islands that is prosperous and reasonably well governed.

But I’m not sure about the long-run outlook for the Cayman Islands, in part because the politicians there have flirted with an income tax and in part because the jurisdiction inevitably would suffer if the United States was falling apart.

So what’s a place that is stable and not overly tied to the American economy.

Then the obvious choice is Switzerland. That nation’s long-run fiscal outlook is relatively favorable because of  modest-sized government and a very good spending control mechanism.

But while Switzerland is not dependent on the U.S. economy, it is surrounded by European welfare states. And I’m fairly certain that nations such as France, Italy, and (perhaps) Germany will collapse before America.

And even though most Swiss households have machine guns and the nation presumably can defend itself from barbarian hordes in search of a new welfare check, Switzerland’s probably not the ideal location.

Estonia is one of my favorite countries, and they’ve implemented some good reforms such as the flat tax. But I worry about demographic decline. Plus, I’m a weather wimp and it’s too chilly most of the year.

Another option is a stable nation in Latin America, perhaps Chile, Panama, or Costa Rica. I haven’t been to Chile, but I’m very impressed by the nation’s incredible progress in recent decades. I have been to Panama many times and it is one of my favorite nations. I’ve only been to Costa Rica two times, but it also seems like a nice country.

The bad news is that I don’t speak Spanish (and my kids don’t speak the language, either). The good news is that Hispanics appear to be the world’s happiest people, so that should count for something.

“G’day mate, we’ve privatized our social security system!”

This brings me to Australia, the country that probably would be at the top of my list. The burden of government spending in Australia is less than it is in the United States.

But the gap isn’t that large. The reason I like Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system (called Superannuation) and the long-run fiscal outlook is much, much better than the United States.

Plus the Aussies are genuinely friendly and they speak an entertaining form of English.

So if America goes under, I recommend going Down Under.

Read Full Post »

What’s the worst thing about Delaware?

No, not Joe Biden. He’s just a harmless clown and the butt of some good jokes.

Instead, the so-called First State is actually the Worst State because 100 years ago, on this very day, Delaware made the personal income tax possible by ratifying the 16th Amendment.

Though, to be fair, I suppose the 35 states that already had ratified the Amendment were more despicable since they were even more anxious to enable this noxious levy (and Alabama was first in line, which is a further sign that Georgia deserved to win the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, but I digress).

Let’s not get bogged down in details. The purpose of this post is not to re-hash history, but to instead ask what lessons we can learn from the adoption of the income tax.

The most obvious lesson is that politicians can’t be trusted with additional powers. The first income tax had a top tax rate of just 7 percent and the entire tax code was 400 pages long. Now we have a top tax rate of 39.6 percent (even higher if you include additional levies for Medicare and Obamacare) and the tax code has become a 72,000-page monstrosity.

But the main lesson I want to discuss today is that giving politicians a new source of money inevitably leads to much higher spending.

Here’s a chart, based on data from the Office of Management and Budget, showing the burden of federal spending since 1789.

Since OMB only provides aggregate spending data for the 1789-1849 and 1850-190 periods, which would mean completely flat lines on my chart, I took some wild guesses about how much was spent during the War of 1812 and the Civil War in order to make the chart look a bit more realistic.

But that’s not very important. What I want people to notice is that we enjoyed a very tiny federal government for much of our nation’s history. Federal spending would jump during wars, but then it would quickly shrink back to a very modest level – averaging at most 3 percent of economic output.

Federal Spending 1789-2012

So what’s the lesson to learn from this data? Well, you’ll notice that the normal pattern of government shrinking back to its proper size after a war came to an end once the income tax was adopted.

In the pre-income tax days, the federal government had to rely on tariffs and excise taxes, and those revenues were incapable of generating much revenue for the government, both because of political resistance (tariffs were quite unpopular in agricultural states) and Laffer Curve reasons (high tariffs and excise taxes led to smuggling and noncompliance).

But once the politicians had a new source of revenue, they couldn’t resist the temptation to grab more money. And then we got a ratchet effect, with government growing during wartime, but then never shrinking back to its pre-war level once hostilities ended (Robert Higgs wrote a book about this unfortunate phenomenon).

The same thing happened in Europe. The burden of government spending used to be quite modest on the other side of the Atlantic, with outlays consuming only about 10 percent of economic output.

Once European politicians got the income tax, however, that also enabled a big increase is the size of the state.

But Europe also gives us a very good warning about the dangers of giving politicians a second major source of revenue.

Here’s a chart I prepared for a study published when I was at the Heritage Foundation. You’ll notice from 1960-1970 that the overall burden of government spending in Europe was not that different than it was in the United States.

That’s about the time, however, that the European governments began to impose value-added taxes.

The rest, as they say, is history.

VAT and Govt Spending in EU

I’m not claiming, by the way, that the VAT is the only reason why the burden of government spending expanded in Europe. The Europeans also impose harsher payroll taxes and higher energy taxes. And their income taxes tend to be much more onerous for middle-income households.

But I am arguing that the VAT helped enable bigger government in Europe, just like the income tax decades earlier also enabled bigger government in both Europe and the United States.

So ask yourself a simple question: If we allow politicians in Washington to impose a VAT on top of the income tax, do you think they’ll use the money to expand the size and scope of government?

If it takes more than three seconds to answer that question, I suggest you emigrate to France as quickly as possible.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the crazy bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD think the VAT is good for growth and jobs. Sort of makes you wonder why we’re subsidizing those statists with American tax dollars.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,512 other followers

%d bloggers like this: