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Archive for the ‘Dependency’ Category

I wrote the other day about the importance of “social capital,” which is a catch-all phrase for a society’s attitudes about things such as the work ethic, a sense of self-reliance, and the spirit of independence.

Today we’re going to look at the flip side of social capital. I’m not sure whether this is an example of “anti-social capital” or “social anti-capital,” but our newest entrant in the Moocher Hall of Fame is symbolic of what’s wrong with the mental attitude of too many people in today’s welfare states.

Here are some details from a story about Christina in the U.K.-based Daily Mail. As you read the story, keep in mind that a “stone” is 14 pounds and £20,000 equals more than $31,000.

An obese mother-of-two who lives on benefits says she needs more of taxpayers’ money to overhaul her unhealthy lifestyle. Christina Briggs, 26, from Wigan, says she hates being 25 stone but she can’t do anything about it because she can only afford junk food. Meanwhile, exercise is out of the question because she doesn’t have the funds to join a gym. …’I tried swimming but it cost £22 a month and it meant I had to cut back on my favourite pizza and Chinese takeaways.’ Unemployed Christina gets £20,000 in benefits a year and lives in a council house with her two children by different fathers, Helena, 10, and Robert, two. …The family feast everyday on takeaways, chocolate and crisps as Christina says they can’t afford low fat foods. As a result, the mother is currently a dress size 26. …But she insists ‘it’s not my fault – healthy food is too expensive’. She feels her only hope is for the government to give her more money so she can afford to buy fruit and vegetables and join a gym. …She told the magazine: ‘I need more benefits to eat healthily and exercise. It would be good if the government offered a cash incentive for me to lose weight. I’d like to get £1 for every pound I lose, or healthy food vouchers…” She added that she can’t get a job to gain more money because she’s needed at home to care for her children… She explained: ‘There’s no way I could get a job. I don’t feel bad about the taxpayer funding my life…because I don’t treat myself or buy anything excessive.

Wow. Maybe we should add gym memberships to our satirical list of government-manufactured “human rights.”

But the bigger issue is that this story shows the destructive impact of the welfare state. From the perspective of taxpayers, redistribution programs are a rip-off.

However, even from the perspective of recipients, the welfare state is bad news. Christina is not a sympathetic character, to be sure, but one can’t help but think that she would have become a much better person if she hadn’t been seduced into a life of government dependency.

In other words, big government is causing an erosion of social capital.

Just as it has for other British members of the Moocher Hall of Fame, such as  NatailijaTraceyAnjem, Gina, and Danny.

Heck, there’s even a TV show called “Benefits Street” on British TV. Though “poverty porn” would be a better description.

P.S. The Princess of the Levant gets credit for today’s blog post since she sent me the story about Christina.

And she also sent me this cartoon, which is a very good advertisement for the libertarian philosophy.

Sort of like this cartoon, but even better since it accurately identifies the hypocrisy that is found with some left wingers and some right wingers.

By the way, you may recognize the woman on the left. She’s already appeared in one of my posts mocking the statist mentality on gun control.

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When discussing how to boost growth, economists often discuss the importance of human capital and physical capital.

Those are key factors driving economic performance. After all, improvements in human capital mean a more productive workforce. And improvements in physical capital mean greater output per hour worked.

So you can see why I want lower tax rates and less intervention. Simply stated, we’re far more likely to increase – and effectively utilize – human and physical capital when markets allocate resources rather than politicians.

But there’s another form of capital that’s also important. It’s difficult to measure, but I suspect it also plays a huge role in determining a nation’s long-run prosperity.

For lack of a better term, let’s call it social capital, and it refers to the attitudes of a country’s people. I’m not sure how to define social capital, but here are a series of questions that capture what I’m trying to describe: Do the people of a nation believe in the work ethic? Or would they be comfortable as wards of the state, living off others? Are they motivated by the spirit of self-reliance? Would they be ashamed to go on welfare? Do they think the government is obligated to give them things?

The answers to these questions matter a lot because a nation can’t prosper once you reach a tipping point of too many people riding in the wagon and too few people producing.

Here’s what I wrote earlier this year.

…a nation is doomed when a majority of its people decide that it is morally and economically okay to live off the labor of others and want to use the coercive power of government to make it happen. For lack of a better term, we can call this a country’s Dependency Ratio, and it’s a measure of eroding social capital. To what degree, in other words, has the entitlement mentality replaced the work ethic and the spirit of self reliance?

I raise this issue because I want to share two items.

First, here’s some very good news about the United States. According to a new poll from YouGov about attitudes in the United States and United Kingdom, Americans are far more likely to believe they have a moral right to their earnings. Brits, by contrast, overwhelmingly believe that government has a greater moral claim to people’s earnings.

Makes me proud to be American, just as I was back in 2011 when reporting on some Pew research that also showed Americans had a greater spirit of self reliance.

The Brits, by contrast, seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Some of the blame belongs to supposedly right-wing politicians such as David Cameron, George Osborne, and David Gauke, all of whom have argued that people have a moral obligation to pay more to the state than is legally required.

In any event, it’s disturbing to see that people in the United Kingdom have such a warped moral perspective. Which raises the question of whether it’s possible to restore social capital once it’s been eroded?

Or is that a futile task once people have learned a dependency mindset, sort of like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube.

We have some research from Germany that offers guidance on these questions, which is the second item I want to share. Here are excerpts from a story in the Boston Globe.

…If you were a researcher trying to determine how a political system affects people’s values, beliefs, and behavior, you would ideally want to take two identical populations, separate them for a generation or two, and subject them each to two totally different kinds of government. Then you’d want to measure the results… Ethically, such a study would be unthinkable even to propose. But when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, it created what London School of Economics associate professor Daniel Sturm calls a “perfect experiment.” The two halves of the country were like a pair of identical twins separated at birth and raised by two very different sets of parents.

And what did this experiment produce?

The bad news is that living in a statist regime did erode social capital.

…the researchers didn’t know what to expect. On the one hand, East Germans might be resentful of the system that had constrained their lives; on the other hand, it was also plausible that they had become comfortable with the notion that a government would provide for basic needs at the expense of an open society. Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln used data from a German survey administered in 1997, and split the respondents into two groups based on where they had lived before reunification. What they found was that, at that point, people from the East still tended to believe in the social-service model. They were also more likely to support a robust government program to help the unemployed…

But the good news is that at least some of the toothpaste of self reliance can be put back in the tube.

It goes the other way too, if slowly: When Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln looked at survey results from 2002, they found that the two groups of Germans had begun to converge politically. Based on the data, they estimated that it would take between one and two generations—20 to 40 years— for the gap to fully close, and “for an average East German to have the same views on state intervention as an average West German.” …In a separate but related study, it was shown that watching Western TV had actually shaped East Germans’ views about work and chance, making them “more inclined to believe that effort rather than luck determines success in life.”

So what’s the moral of the story?

I guess I’m a tad bit optimistic after learning about this research. I was worried that social capital couldn’t be restored.

So maybe if we force everyone in Greece and Italy to watch my video on free markets and small government, there’s a chance those societies can be salvaged! (But let’s not show it to the French since we’ll always need bad examples.)

P.S. These two cartoons show the dangers of the entitlement mentality.

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I’ve always objected when leftists engage in moral preening about how they supposedly are more compassionate.

Europeans statists, for instance, claim to be more compassionate because their governments have greater levels of coercive redistribution. But I ask them why they think it’s compassionate to give away other people’s money. Then I shame them by showing data on how Americans are far more generous in terms of trying to help others with their own money.

I have the same debate in America. Take the issues of unemployment benefits. My leftist friends say that compassionate people should favor extended benefits. To which I reply by asking them why it’s good to pay people to not work and assert instead that genuine compassion should be defined by policies that enable people to find jobs and become self reliant.

I raise this topic because the Pope recently made news by urging more compassion for the less fortunate, and he specifically said that raising the issue will lead some to think he’s a communist.

Here are some excerpts from a news report in the U.K.-based Independent.

In one his longest speeches as Pope, the Holy See outlined his views on a wide range of issues– from poverty and the injustices of unemployment to the need to protect the environment. …Anticipating how his letter would be received by his critics, Francis declared that “land, housing and work are increasingly unavailable to the majority’ of the world’s population,” but said “If I talk about this, some will think that the Pope is communist.” “They don’t understand that love for the poor is at the centre of the Gospel,” he said. “Demanding this isn’t unusual, it’s the social doctrine of the church.”

Several people have asked my opinion about what the Pope said.

My initial instinct was to be very critical. After all, various news reports interpreted the Pope’s statement as an attack on capitalism and an embrace of the welfare state.

But since I know that the establishment media is biased and would want to portray the Pope’s comments as being supportive of statism, I didn’t want to make any unwarranted assumptions. So I tracked down a transcript of the speech. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s only available (at least as of this writing) in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and French.

But with the help of Google Translate, I looked at what the Pope actually said. And if the translation software is accurate, I can now offer my opinion about the Pope’s views: To be succinct, I have no idea what he thinks. And if you want me to elaborate, all I can say is that he calls for lots of action to help the poor, but he doesn’t endorse government coercion to make it happen

On the other hand, he doesn’t say that government shouldn’t be involved. And the tone of the speech certainly seems left wing, but that may simply be a result of me hearing a lot of statists making similar remarks and then calling for government-coerced redistribution policies.

The bottom line, as I suggested above, is that the Pope may be wrong…or he may be right. Which seems inconsistent but accurate. After all, the Vatican sometimes has been very good on economic issues and at times very disappointing.

But I will say something definitive. If anybody, including the Pope, thinks that bigger government is the way to help the poor, they are very misguided.

I’ve already shared some powerful data to show that poverty was falling in America after World War II, but then the progress came to a halt once the federal government launched a “War on Poverty” and dramatically expanded the welfare state.

Let’s augment that data today with a specific look at what happened when the federal government decided to “help” folks in Appalachia. Here are some excerpts from a very compelling National Review column.

Appalachian whites suffer from many of the same social ills as working-class blacks: broken families, substance abuse, poor health, and high poverty. …Early anti-poverty efforts focused largely on the white population. …It was, as Ira Katznelson argued in an explosive book, a type of affirmative action — for white people. …Two federally chartered organizations — the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Johnson’s Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) — pumped millions of development dollars into predominantly white rural locales. …The aid came not just in the form of direct welfare payments, but also as government jobs. The country-music anthem “Song of the South” tells a familiar tale: “Papa got a job with the TVA; we bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet.” …From 1965 until 1981, when the federal government began to scrutinize the cash flowing to Appalachia, federal appropriation to the ARC exceeded $1 billion (in today’s dollars) every single year. Even today, Congress sends about $80 million to the ARC; no other regionally focused entity spends more. As late as 2000, Appalachians received more federal money per capita than average, despite their minimal cost of living and the low number of federal employees in the region.

So has all this federal largesse helped?

Well, not exactly.

…there are now precious few jobs in Tennessee valleys and too few drivers on those wide mountain roads. If Papa bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet, Junior is buying oxy or meth: West Virginia leads the nation in drug-overdose deaths, with Kentucky third and Tennessee eighth. …Today, the inheritors of Katznelson’s affirmative action for whites occupy the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. West Virginia, Kentucky, northern Georgia, and South Carolina all nabbed more than their fair share of federal aid, but now they are among the poorest parts of the country. …Residents of these states suffer the worst consequences. In many Appalachian counties, inhabitants can expect to live only 67 years, more than a decade less than the average American. …Alongside the grim statistics is a spiritual poverty more difficult to measure but easier to see. There’s the high-school teacher who has only once had a class without a pregnant student. …Young students in eastern Kentucky sometimes tell their teachers that they hope to “draw” when they grow up. But they’re not talking about a career as an artist; they’re talking about drawing a government check. These kids weren’t programmed like that at birth; they were taught something destructive by their communities.

There are some lessons to be learned.

…the failure of the effort gives us ample reason to question the wisdom of federally led development efforts no matter the intended beneficiaries. Government cannot create a sustainable economy, no matter how hard it tries. And traditional welfare, while defensible as a way of alleviating immediate deprivation, too often fails to place people on the road to self-sufficiency. …encouraging family stability — or at least not discouraging it through the tax code or needless incarceration — promotes upward mobility more effectively than transfer payments…if the failures of Appalachia are any guide, a narrower policy agenda might actually serve the poor — white and black alike.

Amen. If you want to help the poor, push for economic growth rather than redistribution.

There are even some honest liberals who now admit that big government promotes long-run dependency.

P.S. Since the first part of this post dealt with religion and compassion, it’s time to share Libertarian Jesus as well as the thoughts of Cal Thomas on whether Jesus was a socialist.

P.P.S. Since the last part of this post dealt with Appalachia, I guess it’s appropriate to share this redneck joke.

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Back in 2010, I shared some wise words from Walter Williams and Theodore Dalrymple about how society can become unstable when people figure they can “vote themselves money.”

On a related note, I shared the famous “riding in the wagon” cartoons in 2011 and the “Danish party boat” image in 2014. Both of these posts highlighted the danger that exists when societies reach a tipping point, which occurs when too many people vote themselves into dependency and expect (and vote) for never-ending handouts.

Indeed, this is why I’m very pessimistic about the future of welfare states such as Greece.

And, depending what happens in an upcoming run-off election, I probably won’t be very optimistic about Brazil.

Investor’s Business Daily has shared some fascinating – and disturbing – data from that country’s recent election.

A Brazilian economist has shown a near-exact correlation between last Sunday’s presidential election voting choices and each state’s welfare ratios. Sure enough, handouts are the lifeblood of the left. …Neves won 34% of the vote, Rousseff took 42% and green party candidate Marina Silva took about 20% — and on Thursday, Silva endorsed Neves, making it a contest of free-market ideas vs. big-government statism. But what’s even more telling is an old story — shown in an infographic by popular Brazilian economist Ricardo Amorim. …Amorim showed a near-exact correlation among Brazil’s states’ welfare dependency and their votes for leftist Workers Party incumbent Rousseff. Virtually every state that went for Rousseff has at least 25% of the population dependent on Brazil’s Bolsa Familia welfare program of cash for single mothers… States with less than 25% of the population on Bolsa Familia overwhelmingly went for Neves and his policies of growth. …Fact is, the left cannot survive without a vast class of dependents. And once in, dependents have difficulty getting out.So Brazil’s election may come down to a question of whether it wants to be a an economic powerhouse — or a handout republic.

Here’s the map from IBD showing the close link between votes for the left-wing candidate and the extent of welfare dependency.

It’s not a 100 percent overlap, but the relationship is very strong.

Sort of like the maps I shared on language and voting in Ukraine.

That being said, I’m a policy wonk who wants economic liberty, not a political hack with partisan motives. So let’s look at the implications of growing dependency.

As IBD explains, the greatest risk is that people get trapped in dependency. We see that in advanced nations like the United States and United Kingdom (and the Nordic nations) so is it any surprise that it’s also a problem in a developing country like Brazil (or South Africa)?

Problem is, “some experts warn that a wide majority cannot get out of this dependence relationship with the government,” as the U.K. Guardian put it. And whether it’s best for a country that aspires to become a global economic powerhouse to have a quarter of the population — 50 million people — dependent on welfare and producing nothing is questionable.

I especially appreciate the last part of this excerpt. Economic output is a function of how capital and labor are productively utilized.

In other words, a welfare state imposes a human cost and an economic cost.

Now let’s consider possible implications for the United States. A few years ago, I put together a “Moocher Index” to show which states had the highest percentage of non-poor households receiving some form of redistribution.

Do the moocher states vote for leftists? Well, it we use the 2012 presidential election as a guidepost, 7 of the top 10 moocher states voted for Obama.  That suggests that there is a relationship.

But if you look at the states with the lowest levels of dependency, they were evenly split, with 5 for Obama and 5 for Romney. So perhaps there aren’t any big lessons for America, though Obama’s margins in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada were relatively small.

For what it’s worth, I’m far more worried about these economic numbers, not the aforementioned political numbers.

P.S. I probably shouldn’t assume that a leftist victory automatically means more statism in Brazil. After all, keep in mind that we got more economic freedom during the Clinton years and bigger government during the Bush years. Moreover, it was a left-leaning Brazilian president who had the wisdom to acknowledge that you can’t redistribute unless someone first produces.

P.P.S. At least one honest leftist admits there is a heavy cost to government dependency.

P.P.P.S. If you live in a nation that already has passed the tipping point of too much dependency and you want to live more freely, you can always escape. As reported by the U.K.-based Independent.

Up to 2.5 million French people now live abroad, and more are bidding “au revoir” each year. …the “lifeblood” of France are leaving because of “the impression that it’s impossible to succeed”… There is “an anti-work mentality, absurd fiscal pressure, a lack of promotion prospects, and the burden of debt hanging over future generations,” he told Le Figaro. …while the figure of 2.5 million expatriates is “not enormous”, what is more troubling is the increase of about 2 per cent each year. “Young people feel stuck, and they want interesting jobs. Businessmen say the labour code is complex and they’re taxed even before they start working. Pensioners can also pay less tax abroad,” she says. France’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10 per cent. As for high-earners, almost 600 people subject to a wealth tax on assets of more than €800,000 (£630,000) left France in 2012, 20 per cent more than the previous year.

The good news is that some people escape. The bad news is that the political environment becomes even worse for those remaining.

P.P.P.P.S. And don’t forget that the Obama campaign celebrated dependency during the 2012 campaign.

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We know the welfare state is good news for people inside government. Lots of bureaucrats are required, after all, to oversee a plethora of redistribution programs.

Walter Williams refers to these paper pushers as poverty pimps, and there’s even a ranking showing which states have the greatest number of these folks who profit by creating dependency.

But does anybody else benefit from welfare programs?

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation explains in the Washington Times that the War on Poverty certainly hasn’t been a success for taxpayers or poor people. Instead, it’s created a costly web of dependency.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty. …Since then, the taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on Johnson’s war. Adjusted for inflation, that’s three times the cost of all military wars since the American Revolution. Last year, government spent $943 billion providing cash, food, housing and medical care to poor and low-income Americans. …More than 100 million people, or one third of Americans, received some type of welfare aid, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient.

Here are some of the unpleasant details.

The U.S. Census Bureau has just released its annual poverty report. The report claims that in 2013, 14.5 percent of Americans were poor. Remarkably, that’s almost the same poverty rate as in 1967, three years after the War on Poverty started. How can that be? …When Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he wanted to give the poor a “hand up, not a hand out.” He stated that his war would shrink welfare rolls and turn the poor from “tax-eaters” into “taxpayers.” Johnson’s aim was to make poor families self-sufficient — able to rise above poverty through their own earnings without dependence on welfare. The exact opposite happened. For a decade-and-a-half before the War on Poverty began, self-sufficiency in America improved dramatically. For the past 45 years, though, there has been no improvement at all.

The final two sentences of that excerpt are the most important words in Robert’s column.

We were making lots of progress in the fight against poverty in the 1950s. That’s because we relied on the private economy and self sufficiency, as seen on the right side of this Chuck Asay cartoon..

But once politicians decided government was responsible for fighting poverty, progress ceased.

Why did progress stop? Because, as Robert explains, the welfare state creates a dependency trap and enables self-destructive behavior.

The culprit is, in part, the welfare system itself, which discourages work and penalizes marriage. …The welfare state is self-perpetuating. By undermining the social norms necessary for self-reliance, welfare creates a need for even greater assistance in the future. President Obama plans to spend $13 trillion over the next decade on welfare programs that will discourage work, penalize marriage and undermine self-sufficiency.

By the way, being “poor” in America rarely means material deprivation.

Most Americans who live in “poverty” have much higher living standards that people elsewhere in the world.

The actual living conditions of households labeled as poor by Census are surprising to most people. According to the government’s own surveys, 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning; nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television; half have a personal computer; 40 percent have a wide-screen HDTV. Three-quarters own a car or truck; nearly a third has two or more vehicles. Ninety-six percent of poor parents state that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food. …As a group, poor children are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children, and in most cases is well above recommended norms. …the average poor American has more living space than the typical nonpoor individual living in Sweden, France, Germany or the United Kingdom.

By the way, don’t be surprised by the final sentence in that excerpt. Most people have no idea that Americans have far higher living standards than their cousins in Europe.

For more information on how best to help the poor, watch this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Bono actually agrees that capitalism is the best approach to fighting poverty. Too bad the Pope lacks the same insight.

P.S. Here’s a map showing which states have the biggest welfare benefits.

P.P.S. If you want to see an utterly dishonest approach to public policy, read how the OECD tried to exaggerate poverty in the United States, so much so that it even tried to imply that there was more poverty in America than Greece.

P.P.P.S. Thomas Sowell has wise thoughts on how the welfare state hurts the less fortunate.

P.P.P.P.S. Some libertarians have suggested a “basic income” to replace the dozens of inefficient and failed welfare programs in Washington. For what it’s worth, I think there’s a better alternative.

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When asked about the most worrisome statistic for a nation, I don’t say it’s the top marginal tax rate, even though I think class-warfare taxation is very poisonous for long-run economic performance.

Nor do I say it’s the burden of government spending relative to private economic output, even though the size of the public sector gives us a good idea of the degree to which labor and capital are being poorly allocated.

I don’t even say that a nation’s score in the Economic Freedom of the World index is the most important number, even though that’s the best and most comprehensive measure of the quality of a country’s economic policy.

My answer, for what it’s worth, is that a nation is doomed when a majority of its people decide that it is morally and economically okay to live off the labor of others and want to use the coercive power of government to make it happen.

For lack of a better term, we can call this a country’s Dependency Ratio, and it’s a measure of eroding social capital. To what degree, in other words, has the entitlement mentality replaced the work ethic and the spirit of self reliance?

But before continuing further, I want to provide two important caveats.

1) The Dependency Ratio is not the percentage of households that get money from the government. That’s an important number, to be sure, but it includes people who get money but don’t have an entitlement mentality. A good example is that Social Security recipients in America get checks from Uncle Sam, but only because they had no choice but to pay into the system and did not have the freedom to use that money instead for a personal retirement account. In many if not most cases, they don’t see themselves as part of a “takers” coalition.

2) From a practical perspective, the Dependency Ratio is a good concept, but I’m not aware of a methodologically sound way to calculate a nation’s entitlement mentality. And there’s definitely not good data for purposes of doing international comparisons (though this polling data suggests that the problem is much more severe in nations such as France than it is in the United States). So you have to rely on imperfect proxy measures, such as the share of households getting payments, the size and cost of the bureaucracy, and overall social welfare spending.

I’ve shared all these thoughts because they give the necessary background for today’s main topic, which is South Africa’s dismal economic future.

Take a look at this very depressing chart that appeared in my Twitter feed. It shows what has happened over the past five years in South Africa’s labor market.

This isn’t good news. The number of bureaucrats has risen dramatically while there’s been no growth in the number of people working in the economy’s productive sector.

If this trend continues, it’s only a matter of time before South Africa suffers economic collapse. You can’t have an ever-growing class of people living off a non-growing pool of taxpayers.

However, I realize that the chart only shows five years of data, so it could present a misleading view of trends in the country, particularly if there are policy reforms in other areas that might offset the damage of expanding bureaucracy.

So let’s look at other economic sources to confirm whether South Africa is moving in the wrong direction.

I mentioned above that the Economic Freedom of the World has the best data on the quality of a nation’s economic policy. Here’s South Africa’s performance.

The good news is that South Africa enjoyed a big jump in economic freedom between 1990 and 2000, which isn’t too surprising since the morally abominable Apartheid regime relied on heavy levels of government intervention. Ending that system was a key step in economic liberalization.

But the bad news is that there’s been no improvement since that time. Indeed, South Africa’s score has declined. The fall in the absolute score is minor, but bigger problem is that the nation’s relative score has suffered a big drop. If you look at the blue bars on the bottom, you can see that South Africa had the world’s 36th-freest economy in 2003, but it’s now down to having the world’s 88th-freest economy.

In other words, other nations have moved policy in the right direction while South Africa has been stagnant.

Since I’m a fiscal policy economist, I also looked at what’s been happening to the burden of government spending in South Africa.

As you can see, this chart (based on IMF data) shows that government outlays (left axis) have jumped significantly since the turn of the century.

And since government grew faster than the private sector (violating the Golden Rule), the overall burden of government spending increased (right axis) even when measured as a share of economic output.

I don’t know if the additional spending has been used to pay for additional bureaucrats, social welfare programs, infrastructure, education, or the military.

I suspect all of the above, which helps to explain why South Africa’s fiscal policy score from Economic Freedom of the World has dropped from 6.45 to 5.45 (on a 1-10 scale) since 2000.

More important, I also suspect that the net result is to have lured lots of additional people into government dependency.

That doesn’t bode well for South Africa’s future.

P.S. On a different topic, we have a couple of updates on the politicized and corrupt behavior at the IRS.

First, we have another case of misplaced email messages. Here’s an excerpt from an AP report.

On Friday, the IRS issued a report to Congress saying the agency also lost emails from five other employees related to the probe, including two agents who worked in a Cincinnati office processing applications for tax-exempt status. …The IRS blamed computer crashes for all the lost emails.

Gee, how convenient.

I wonder if the IRS will allow me to claim lost data next time I have a tax dispute?

Second, it’s understandable that the IRS is anxious to hide its internal communication because what does get released shows a partisan and malevolent bureaucracy.

The day that former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner publicly apologized for using “inappropriate criteria” to delay tax exemptions for Tea Party groups, she told her colleagues that they were being “beaten up by the press for all the wrong reasons.” …The documents show Lerner’s efforts to persuade Treasury auditors that there was no institutional bias at the IRS, the agency’s attempts to head off a damaging investigation with a pre-emptive apology, and Lerner’s pep talk to her staff after the apology. …The idea for a public apology to head off the audit came at least a month before. Lerner was set to give a speech at Georgetown University and was “begging” for some newsworthy information, IRS chief of staff Nikole Flax said in an e-mail. “We may want to use it to burst a bubble,” said then-acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller in response. He later joked that Lerner could use the speech to “apologize for undermanaging.”

Amazing. The bureaucrats laughed about their efforts to terrorize people and distort the political process.

The only real solution is sweeping tax reform so the IRS loses almost all its power.

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I’m a pessimist about public policy for two simple reasons:

1) Seeking power and votes, elected officials generally can’t resist making short-sighted and politically motivated choices that expand the burden of government.

2) Voters are susceptible to bribery, particularly over time as social capital (the work ethic, spirit of self reliance, etc) erodes and the entitlement mentality takes hold.

Actually, let me add a third reason.

The first two reasons explain why countries get into trouble. Our last reason explains why it’s oftentimes so hard to then fix the mess created by statism.

3) Once a nation adopts big government, reform is difficult because too many voters are riding in the wagon of dependency and they reflexively oppose good policy.

Or they’re riding in the party boat, but you get the idea.

Now that I’ve explained why I’m a Cassandra, let me try to be a Pollyanna.

And I’m going to be Super Pollyanna, because my task is to explain how Greece can be saved.

I’ll start by pointing out that government spending has actually been cut in recent years. And we’re talking about genuine spending cuts, not the make-believe cuts you find in Washington, which occur when spending doesn’t grow as fast as previously planned.

This chart, based on IMF data, shows that the budget increased dramatically in Greece from 1980-2009. But once the fiscal crisis started and Greek politicians no longer had the ability to finance spending with borrowed money, they had no choice but to reduce the burden of government spending.

This seems like great news, but there’s one minor problem and one major problem.

The minor problem is that there hasn’t been nearly enough structural reform of the welfare state in Greece. For long-run fiscal recovery, it’s very important to save money by reducing handouts that create dependency, while also shrinking the country’s bloated bureaucracy. By comparison, it’s less important (or perhaps even harmful) to save money by letting physical infrastructure deteriorate.

The major problem is that controlling government spending is just one piece of the puzzle. There are five major factors that determine economic performance, with experts assigning equal importance to fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law.

Moreover, not only is fiscal policy just 20 percent of the puzzle, it’s also important to understand that spending is just part of that 20 percent. You also have to consider the tax burden.

And the progress Greece has made on the spending side of the budget has been offset by a bunch of destructive tax increases.

But there is a glimmer of hope because Greek politicians apparently realize that this is a problem.

Here are some excerpts from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras promised tax-relief measures to help jump-start the country’s economy and boost the government’s popularity as it faces a series of political challenges in the months ahead. “The overtaxation has to end,” Mr. Samaras said Saturday during a speech.

It’s easy to see why there’s a desire to boost economic performance.

Since entering recession in 2008, Greece’s economy has shrunk by more than a quarter… This year, however, the country is expected to emerge from recession and post growth of 0.6%. But the recovery has yet to trickle down to ordinary Greeks who continue to face a jobless rate of more than 27% and higher taxes imposed during the past few years.

However, don’t get too excited. The Premier isn’t talking about sweeping reforms.

Instead, it appears that the proposed changes will be very minor.

In his remarks, the Greek premier announced a number of tax changes, including a 30% reduction in the levy on home heating oil and amendments to a new unified property tax that has been so far marred by errors and miscalculations in implementation.

Geesh, talk about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Indeed, at least one of the tax cuts may be designed to bring in more money for the government. The New York Times, for instance, reports that the energy tax didn’t generate any extra tax revenue.

That levy, which was introduced in 2012, raised the tax on heating oil 450 percent. But it has failed to bring in additional revenue and has led to environmental damage as Greeks turned to burning wood for heat.

I guess it’s progress that both the Greek government and the New York Times are acknowledging the Laffer Curve, but this is a perfect example of why it’s important to be on the growth-maximizing point of the curve rather than the revenue-maximizing point.

So why am I expressing a tiny sliver of optimism when the Greek government’s tax agenda is so timid?

Well, there’s at least some hope of bigger and more pro-growth reforms.

He also announced a reduction to a so-called solidarity tax on income, the size of which is to be determined when the state budget for 2015 is drafted in October. The changes would be part of a “road map” for lowering taxation with cuts to the property tax, income tax and corporate tax to come later, he said. “Overtaxation may have been necessary, but now it must stop,” he said.

And the Greek press is reporting further details indicating that the government wants to reduce marginal tax rates

Samaras said that it his ultimate aim to reduce the top income tax rate to 32 percent and for business to pay no more than 15 percent.

If these policies actually took place, then I suspect Greece’s economy would enjoy robust growth.

Particularly if policy makers also dealt with the major problem of excessive regulation (see here and here to get a flavor of the awful nature of red tape in Greece).

In other words, any nation can prosper if good policy is adopted.

Including Greece, though I must admit in closing that I suspect that there’s a less-than-15-percent chance that my optimistic scenario will materialize. And if you read this Mark Steyn column, you’ll understand why the pessimistic scenario is much more likely.

P.S. Click here and here for two very funny (or sad) cartoons about Obama and Greece. And here’s another cartoon about Greece that’s worth sharing.

P.P.S. Click here and here for some amusing Greek policy humor.

P.P.P.S. The IMF also has admitted that Greece is on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

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