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Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

I’ve complained over and over again that America’s tax code is a nightmare that undermines competitiveness and retards growth.

Our aggregate fiscal burden may not be as high as it is for many of our foreign competitors, but high tax rates and poor design mean the system is very punitive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

For more information, the Tax Foundation has put together an excellent report measuring international tax competitiveness.

Here’s the methodology.

The Tax Foundation’s International Tax Competitiveness Index (ITCI) measures the degree to which the 34 OECD countries’ tax systems promote competitiveness through low tax burdens on business investment and neutrality through a well-structured tax code. …No longer can a country tax business investment and activity at a high rate without adversely affecting its economic performance. In recent years, many countries have recognized this fact and have moved to reform their tax codes to be more competitive. However, others have failed to do so and are falling behind the global movement. …The competitiveness of a tax code is determined by several factors. The structure and rate of corporate taxes, property taxes, income taxes, cost recovery of business investment, and whether a country has a territorial system are some of the factors that determine whether a country’s tax code is competitive.

And here’s how the United States ranks.

The United States provides a good example of an uncompetitive tax code. …the United States now has the highest corporate income tax rate in the industrialized world. …The United States places 32nd out of the 34 OECD countries on the ITCI. There are three main drivers behind the U.S.’s low score. First, it has the highest corporate income tax rate in the OECD at 39.1 percent. Second, it is one of the only countries in the OECD that does not have a territorial tax system, which would exempt foreign profits earned by domestic corporations from domestic taxation. Finally, the United States loses points for having a relatively high, progressive individual income tax (combined top rate of 46.3 percent) that taxes both dividends and capital gains, albeit at a reduced rate.

Here are the rankings, including scores for the various components.

You have to scroll to the bottom to find the United States. It’s embarrassing that we’re below even Spain and Italy, though I guess it’s good that we managed to edge out Portugal and France.

Looking at the component data, all I can say is that we should be very thankful that politicians haven’t yet figured out how to impose a value-added tax.

I’m also wondering whether it’s better to be ranked 32 out of 34 nations or ranked 94 out of 100 nations?

But rather than focus too much on America’s bad score, let’s look at what some nations are doing right.

Estonia – I’m not surprised that this Baltic nations scores well. Any country that rejects Paul Krugman must be doing something right.

New Zealand – The Kiwis can maintain a decent tax system because they control government spending and limit government coercion.

Switzerland – Fiscal decentralization and sensible citizens are key factors in restraining bad tax policy in Switzerland.

Sweden – The individual income tax is onerous, but Sweden’s penchant for pro-market reform has helped generate good scores in other categories.

Australia – I’m worried the Aussies are drifting in the wrong direction, but any nations that abolishes its death tax deserves a high score.

To close, here’s some of what the editors at the Wall Street Journal opined this morning.

…the inaugural ranking puts the U.S. at 32nd out of 34 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). With the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate at over 39% including state levies, plus a rare demand that money earned overseas should be taxed as if it were earned domestically, the U.S. is almost in a class by itself. It ranks just behind Spain and Italy, of all economic humiliations. America did beat Portugal and France, which is currently run by an avowed socialist. …the U.S. would do even worse if it were measured against the world’s roughly 190 countries. The accounting firm KPMG maintains a corporate tax table that includes more than 130 countries and only one has a higher overall corporate tax rate than the U.S. The United Arab Emirates’ 55% rate is an exception, however, because it usually applies only to foreign oil companies.

The WSJ adds a very important point about the liberalizing impact of tax competition.

Liberals argue that U.S. tax rates don’t need to come down because they are already well below the level when Ronald Reagan came into office. But unlike the U.S., the world hasn’t stood still. Reagan’s tax-cutting example ignited a worldwide revolution that has seen waves of corporate tax-rate reductions. The U.S. last reduced the top marginal corporate income tax rate in 1986. But the Tax Foundation reports that other countries have reduced “the OECD average corporate tax rate from 47.5 percent in the early 1980s to around 25 percent today.”

This final excerpt should help explain why I spend a lot of time defending and promoting tax competition.

As bad as the tax system is now, just imagine how bad it would be if politicians didn’t have to worry about jobs and investment escaping.

P.S. If there was a way of measuring tax policies for foreign investors, I suspect the United States would jump a few spots in the rankings.

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America’s health care system is a mess, and we can assign almost all the blame on government. Simply stated, we don’t have functioning and efficient markets because Medicaid, Medicare, tax-code distortions, and other forms of regulation and intervention have created a system that is crippled by a third-party payer crisis.

There’s no logical reason to expect consumers to be smart shoppers, after all, when they’re only responsible for directly paying just 11 cents for every $1 of health care they consume. And providers have little reason to be efficient when they know that consumers are largely insensitive to price.

Let’s now apply these insights to the political controversy over birth control. Except, as I explained in July, there is no fight over birth control. As far as I’m aware, nobody is trying to ban birth control.

The real fight is whether the government should mandate that health insurance plans include coverage for birth control (and certain abortifacients).

Writing for Bloomberg, Megan McArdle explains that Obamacare’s birth control mandate is silly because a modest and routine expense shouldn’t be covered by insurance at all.

I am not very patient with the political fights over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. …Generic birth-control pills are a cheap, regular expense used by many millions of people, exactly the sort of thing that insurance is not designed for. All this does is spread the cost around a bit while adding administrative overhead for your policy.

Moreover, the better policy is to allow birth control to be purchased without a prescription.

In other words, address the issue by reducing government regulation rather than imposing a mandate!

…make birth-control pills available over-the-counter rather than a prescription item. This is an excellent idea. It was an excellent idea before Obamacare passed, and it will remain a fine policy even if Obamacare somehow vanishes into dust. Physicians assess the danger of giving you birth control by asking simple questions you can ask yourself: Are you over 35, a smoker or troubled by a family history of early stroke?

Seems like a good idea, right? Particularly since it should appeal to Republicans that want less regulation and also appeal to Democrats that want easier access to birth control.

The Republicans are on board, as Byron York reports.

…the GOP has a new policy response… The idea is to make the birth control pill available over the counter, to all, 24/7, without a prescription. It’s becoming a trend among Republican candidates in Senate races around the country. In North Carolina, GOP candidate Thom Tillis recently embraced it. So has Ed Gillespie in Virginia. Mike McFadden in Minnesota. Gardner in Colorado. And one of the leading proponents of the move is a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. …Gardner first rolled out the proposal in a Denver Post op-ed in June. The birth control pill has safely been in use since it was first approved 44 years ago, Gardner argued. “When other drugs have that kind of track record, we approve them for purchase without a prescription,” he wrote. “Name-brand drugs like Advil, Pepcid, Claritin, Prilosec and many others were once sold by prescription only, but moved to over-the-counter sale once they’d been proven safe and unlikely to be abused.”

But some Democrats are hostile.

Indeed, a columnist for the Denver Post is very upset that some GOPers are supporting over-the-counter access to birth-control pills.

Following the lead of Colorado U.S. Senate candidate Cory Gardner, a handful of Republicans in midterm races across the country are now embracing over-the-counter sales of birth control pills without a prescription. Don’t be fooled. It’s a disingenuous move that could actually make the pill more expensive for women… But women already pay for those pills as part of the health care coverage they purchase through employers. Why would we want to pay for them twice? …What happens, however, if birth control pills are sold over the counter? Insurance companies will likely stop covering them. That means women will keep paying health insurance premiums, plus an additional out-of-pocket fee for pills. …And free doctor visits to discuss birth-control risks could also be replaced with fee-based pharmacy consults to determine whether women have risk factors like smoking, hypertension or migraines that prevent safe use of the pill, reports the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. That’s hardly a “cheaper and easier” alternative — which is why Politifact rates Gardner’s claim as “mostly false.”

I strongly suspect that the author simply wanted to make a partisan attack on the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado. After all, more substantive and serious people on the left, including those at both Vox and Think Progress, favor over-the-counter access to birth control.

But let’s assume she really believes what she wrote. In which case she would get an F from any economics professors because health insurance companies obviously include predicted costs when pricing their policies. So if the mandate disappears and birth control is available without a prescription, then insurance companies will be able to lower the cost of the policies they sell.

In other words, women wouldn’t be paying twice. Indeed, they’ll pay less, though that will only be obvious to those who understand that employer-provided health plans are part of overall employee compensation.

There is another reason, other than partisanship, for some on the left to oppose Republican proposals to allow birth control to be sold over the counter. And you won’t be surprised to learn that self interest is playing a role.

Writing for The Federalist, Ben Domenech notes that Planned Parenthood wants to retain the current prescription-only approach.

You may think Ben made a big mistake, or that I misinterpreted. After all, isn’t that contrary to the organization’s ostensible mission of reducing unwanted pregnancies?

Well, Ben points out that Planned Parenthood may be more interested in maximizing handouts than it is in reducing pregnancies.

…interestingly enough, Planned Parenthood is pushing back on over-the-counter contraception. Why is this? Why would Planned Parenthood want to decrease the availability of contraception, and require women to see a doctor in order to get it? That seems awfully paternalistic of them. …birth control is a major lead generator for Planned Parenthood, to the degree that they can’t afford to lose their existing purpose as a source of prescribed contraception without it hurting their status as an institution. …Now you can understand why they wouldn’t want potential customers to be free to go to CVS or Walgreens or Rite Aid instead of heading to Planned Parenthood – providing those and other services is worth a lot of taxpayer money, $540 million in FY 2012 alone. And if you don’t provide those services, you can’t bill the taxpayers for them. …That’s why they want to keep the government’s ban on over-the-counter birth control intact.

Here’s a chart from Ben’s article that shows “what percentage of Planned Parenthood’s “services” are related to contraception.” As he notes, “it’s over a third of their activity.”

So I guess it makes sense – at least from an amoral perspective – that the organization wants to limit access to over-the-counter birth control.

By the way, the GOP plan for easier access to birth control is not a move to uncharted territory.

Here’s a map from a pro-reform left wing group that shows that over-the-counter birth control pills are easily available to most of the world’s women.

Let’s close by sharing one final – and very persuasive – piece of information from the experts at Reason.

Women already have over-the-counter access to Plan B, which involves larger doses of the hormones that are present in birth control pills.

…the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been considering making oral contraceptives available over-the-counter (OTC) for more than twenty years. “Plan B,” an emergency contraceptive, became available OTC last year. That one-step pill is simply a more potent dose of the same hormones that make up regular birth control pills. There’s no good medical justification for the differentiation. Yet in America, regular birth control pills remain stubbornly behind the pharmacy counter and behind the times.

In other words, the usual pro-regulation argument is that prescriptions are necessary because consumers can’t be trusted to make their own decisions with strong doses of medicine.

But the government already has made Plan B available over the counter while blocking similar access to birth control pills. Go figure.

P.S. Planned Parenthood is not the only interest group that has behaved in a disreputable and dishonorable fashion.

P.P.S. If you want to know what happens to healthcare in the absence of pervasive third-party payer, check out this remarkable chart.

P.P.P.S. Since today’s topic was birth control, let’s use this opportunity to revisit our collection of Sandra Fluke humor. Just in case you don’t remember, she was the 30-year old college student who got her 15 minuted of fame by demanding that other people pay for her expenses. Anyhow, if you want to laugh, check out this great Reason video, this funny cartoon, and four more jokes here.

P.P.P.P.S. On a separate topic, I added my two cents late last year to a debate inside libertarian circles over whether America’s plethora of welfare programs should be replaced by a single “basic income” grant that would be given to all Americans. Sort of a guaranteed minimum income.

I acknowledged that the current system is a mess, but I suggested that decentralization was a better approach.

…it seems that nothing could be worse than the current system. …But what about the idea of trashing what we have today and instead offering everyone some sort of basic income? …I agree, but only sort of. I like the idea of radical reform, but I think there’s a better road to Rome. It’s called federalism.

But what if someone held a gun to my head and said federalism wasn’t an option and demanded that I choose between the “basic income” and the status quo?

There’s not an obvious right answer, but I suspect I would prefer the devil I know because of fears that we might get more redistribution and even bigger government.

And I’m not the only one to have that opinion. Here’s what a proponent of more redistribution wrote about the concept.

Basic Income, unlike the programs we have now, will be politically easy to raise once it’s in place. …if you have one big, high-profile redistribution program, you can get enough popular support to overcome the concentrated opposition of the rich people footing the bill. …by endorsing Basic Income, libertarians are walking right into a trap. Anti-redistributionists’ great fear has always been that the masses will use the power of majority rule to simply vote themselves more money. As things stand, the fragmentation of our redistribution programs makes it easier for the anti-redistributionists to punch holes in the safety net. If the fragmented system were replaced with one universal, high-profile program, the result would be a huge political gift to redistributionists.

But maybe I’m just a pessimist. Tyler Cowen has a different perspective.

…let’s say a historical accident swept Basic Income proponents into power for a term and they passed that legislation.  Over time those income transfers would prove larger, more visible, and they would at least appear superficially more anti-work than the public stomach for them.  I predict they would be restricted along a number of possible dimensions, starting with (partial) work requirements for the able-bodied. Under most plausible assumptions about the Basic Income level, most people would not be recipients, nor would they expect to be potential net gainers from the program. …So I think the “why send money to people who aren’t working?” intuition will crowd out the “I want to think of myself as someone who helps other people” feeling.

I guess it depends on how the “basic income” is designed. If the government sends checks to everybody (as some are proposing), then Tyler’s “plausible assumption” about recipients would be wrong.

Which reinforces in my mind that my original idea was right. Let’s go with federalism and get Washington out of the business of redistribution.

The decentralized approach has been very successful in Switzerland and its also the system that’s consistent with the Constitution.

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Why is President Obama so fixated on a class-warfare agenda of higher taxes on the rich and government dependency for the poor?

Is it because a tax-the-rich agenda is good politics, as determined by clever pollsters who have tapped into the collective mind of American voters (and as demonstrated by this cartoon)?

Or is the President ideologically committed to a redistributionist mindset, meaning that he will pursue class-warfare policies even if they rub voters the wrong way?

Since I can’t read the President’s mind, I’m not sure of the answer. I suspect he’s a genuine ideologue, but your guess is as good as mine.

But I can say with more confidence that his pursuit of class-warfare doesn’t resonate with voters.

Or, to be more specific, the American people aren’t susceptible to the politics of hate and envy so long as they’re offered a better alternative.

Let’s look at some new polling data on this topic.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, William Galston explains that anemic growth is making it harder and harder for households to increase their living standards.

Over the next decade, there is one overriding challenge—recreating an economy in which growth works for everyone, not just a favored few.  …Recent reports underscore the extent of the challenge. …long-term trends continued to point in the wrong direction. The employment-to-population ratio is lower than it was at the official end of the Great Recession in mid-2009. The labor-force participation rate dropped to 62.8%, the lowest since the late 1970s. …from 2010 to 2013 median family income corrected for inflation declined by 5%, even as average family income rose by 4%. Only families at the very top of the income distribution saw gains during this period. Family incomes between the 40th and 90th percentiles stagnated, while families at the bottom experienced substantial declines.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the American people understand that class warfare and redistribution is not a route to a better life.

They are much more supportive of policies that increase the size of the economic pie.

Americans have strong views about the economic course policy makers should pursue. Surveys of 3,000 Americans conducted between January and March of 2014 by the Global Strategy Group found that fully 78% thought that it was important for Congress to promote an agenda of economic growth that would benefit all Americans. …Strategies to spread wealth more evenly and reduce income inequality received the least support; 53% believe that fostering economic growth is “extremely important,” compared with only 30% who take that view about narrowing income inequality. …These views have political consequences. By 59% to 37%, Global Strategy Group found that Americans prefer a candidate who focuses on economic growth to one who emphasizes economic fairness. By a remarkable margin of 64 percentage points (80% to 16%), they opt for a candidate who focuses on more economic growth to one who emphasizes less income inequality.

What makes these results especially notable, as pointed out by another WSJ columnist, is that the Global Strategy Group is a Democrat-connected polling firm.

Here’s some of what James Freeman wrote.

Now here’s something you don’t see every day. A prominent Democratic polling firm has found that voters don’t view reducing income inequality as a top priority. Instead, they want economic growth. …The results were released in April but until now have received almost no attention in the press. No doubt the findings would have rudely interrupted the months-long media celebration of Thomas Piketty and his error-filled and widely unread book on income inequality. And the survey data suggest that the core message of President Obama and his political outfit Organizing for Action is off target.the Obama economic message is all about redistributing wealth, not creating it. But as the liberals at Global Strategy Group felt compelled to observe, “Growth-focused candidates appeal to many more voters.”

I’m very encouraged by these numbers.

For decades, I’ve been telling folks in Washington that growth trumps fairness. And I’ve made that argument based on policy and politics.

The policy part is easy. All you have to do is compare, say, France to Hong Kong if you want evidence that pro-growth policy is how you help the less fortunate.

But since I worry that America’s social capital is eroding, I’m also concerned that people might be more sympathetic to redistribution. In other words, maybe a growth message no longer is effective when trying to get votes.

According the Global Strategy Group data, though, voters still understand that it’s better for politicians to focus on growing the pie.

In this same spirit, here’s an interview I did earlier in the week for Blaze TV. The early part of the discussion is about a new Harvard report on the economy. But since the report didn’t say anything, skip to the relevant part of the interview, which starts at about 3:15. I explain that economic growth is the only viable way of boosting the well being of lower-income Americans.

And if you want more information on why growth is better for the poor than redistribution, click here.

P.S. For a humorous explanation of why the dependency agenda is so destructive, here’s the politically correct version of the fable of the Little Red Hen.

And the socialism-in-the-classroom example, which may or may not be an urban legend, makes a similar point.

But I think this pizza analogy may be the best way of showing that redistribution doesn’t help the poor.

P.P.S. I still think Margaret Thatcher has the best explanation of why the left is wrong on inequality. And if you want to see a truly disturbing video of a politicians with a different perspective, click here.

P.P.P.S. We have yet another update (updating yesterday’s update, which updated previous stories) on horrific IRS abuse.

Take a look at this video, which features the big Democratic donor who was made head of the IRS by Obama, and get a load of his cavalier attitude about the IRS obeying the law.

If you watch the entire exchange, I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Koskinen wasn’t saying that the IRS shouldn’t obey the law. But his flippant response, combined with the Obama Administration’s repeated decisions to arbitrarily ignore and/or change existing law, certainly shows that the ruling class isn’t very serious about the rule of law.

And that’s not a good sign for America’s future.

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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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Maybe I’m biased because I mostly work on fiscal policy, but it certainly seems feasible to come up with rough estimates for the damage caused by onerous taxes and excessive spending.

On a personal level, for instance, we have a decent idea of how much the government takes from us and we know the aggravation of annual tax returns. And we tend to have some exposure to government bureaucracies, so we’re familiar with the concept of wasteful spending.

But how do you quantify the cost of regulation and red tape? Well, here are some very large numbers to digest.

Americans spend 8.8 billion hours every year filling out government forms.

The economy-wide cost of regulation is now $1.75 trillion.

For every bureaucrat at a regulatory agency, 100 jobs are destroyed in the economy’s productive sector.

The Obama Administration added $236 billion of red tape in 2012 alone.

In other words, the regulatory burden is enormous, but I worry that these numbers lack context and that most of us don’t really grasp how we’re hurt by government intervention.

So let’s look at some additional data.

If nothing else, this video from the Mercatus Center will help you appreciate just how vast the regulatory state has become.

The video mentions a report with additional data. Well, here’s some of what’s in that report.

A recent study published in the Journal of Economic Growth found that between 1949 and 2005 the accumulation of federal regulations slowed US economic growth by an average of 2 percent per year. Had the amount of regulation remained at its 1949 level, 2011 gross domestic product (GDP) would have been about $39 trillion—or three and a half times—higher, which translates into a loss of about $129,300 for every person in the United States.

A 2005 World Bank study found that a 10-percentage-point increase in a country’s regulatory burdens slows the annual growth rate of GDP per capita by half a percentage point. Based on this finding, an increase in regulatory burdens can translate to thousands of dollars in lost GDP per capita growth in less than a decade.

Other economists have estimated that a heavily regulated economy grows two to three percent slower than a moderately regulated one.

According to a World Bank study, moving from the 25 percent most burdensome to the 25 percent least burdensome regulatory environment (as measured by the World Bank’s Doing Business index) can increase a country’s average annual GDP per capita growth by 2.3 percentage points.

Hopefully all those numbers drive home the point that our economy is weaker and our incomes are lower because of needless red tape.

And never forget that even small differences in growth add up to big differences in living standards after a few decades.

Want more evidence? This chart, also from Mercatus, gives us a good idea. Industries that are heavily regulated had far lower levels of productivity compared to industries with less red tape.

And remember that labor productivity helps determine wages, so both workers and investors suffer.

By the way, if you’re interested in the methodology, here’s some of the explanatory text that accompanied the graph.

Regulatory burden is measured using RegData, a text analysis tool that counts the number of binding words—“shall,” “must,” “may not,” “prohibited,” and “required”—that appear in the Code of Federal Regulations and cross-references those word counts with the industries to which they apply. Comparing this data to production-efficiency measures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that industries that are subject to less regulation have significantly higher production-efficiency measures than industries that are subject to more regulation.

And here are some sobering numbers from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They show that regulatory compliance costs are now larger than the costs – for both households and businesses – of obeying the income tax.

Maybe now you can fully appreciate this Nate Beeler cartoon.

Let’s close with some specific examples of regulation run amok.

First, Kevin Williamson of National Review writes about the deadly (no hyperbole) decision by the Food and Drug Administration to block additional patients from receiving a promising treatment for the Ebola virus.

When you are infected with Ebola, you are not very much worried about the possibility that you might get sick — you are sick, horrifyingly so, and mortally so in more than half of all cases. Worrying that your health might take an additional turn for the worse after you’ve been infected with Ebola is like noticing that your car’s check-engine light has come on a half-second after you’ve driven it over the rim of the Grand Canyon. And so the controversy over giving experimental Ebola drugs to two American aid workers, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, and whether to extend the same option to dying people in Africa, is a strange one. …the drugs should be released, but the World Health Organization is hearing none of it. The experimental Ebola serum, which has shown promise in tests on monkeys but has not been through human trials, may very well have saved the two aid workers’ lives. The serum, called ZMapp, is a project of Mapp Pharmaceutical of San Diego — one of those wicked pharmaceutical companies that are a favorite whipping-boy of health-care reformers while they are quietly working to save the world — in collaboration with Dreyfus Inc. and U.S. and Canadian health agencies. Mapp seems ready and willing to get moving: “Mapp and its partners are cooperating with appropriate government agencies to increase production as quickly as possible,” the firm said in a statement. But use of ZMapp remains “under the regulatory guidelines of the FDA.” An American firm with a potentially life-saving drug is allowed to administer it to two Americans, while 1,600 or more Africans are denied… Ebola experts including Peter Piot, the discoverer of the virus, argue that African doctors and patients should be given the same choice that was given to Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. He’s right.

The Ebola episode, isn’t an isolated example.

It isn’t just Africa, of course. Every year, Americans in the late stages of terminal illnesses are denied access to experimental treatments by the FDA, on the theory that untested drugs might make these dying people sick. The agency’s “compassionate use” program, which gives some leeway in the use of unapproved drugs, is cumbrous and narrow, and, like most regulatory programs, is much more oriented toward the FDA’s institutional interests than those of the sick and dying people the program allegedly is there to serve. The FDA is not there to look after Americans’ health; the FDA is there to look after the FDA.

And that can have deadly consequences for sick people.

Here’s a story, from Washington’s Freedom Foundation, about the Forest Service using its regulatory power to abuse a disabled veterans.

The story began about four years ago, when a small rock slide covered the entrance portal to Nicholas’ mine and, based on Forest Service rules and bureaucratic obstruction, he was forbidden to clear the slide debris with heavy equipment.  In addition to inventing new excuses and red tape to delay Nicholas’ rightful access to his claim, the agency also decided to seize his trailer and related equipment located at his mine, valued at $68,000.  …The USFS managers were very capable of inventing new justifications, excuses and delays to pick on Nicholas, and they apparently had plenty of time and energy to do this.

Fortunately, we have a happy ending.

While the Forest Service was denying Nicholas the ability to access his equipment with a backhoe because it might disturb spotted owls or cause some other imaginary terrible event, they admitted they could not prevent Nicholas from removing the small debris slide by hand. The bureaucrats appeared to think this was amusing because they knew Tony was disabled, and he wasn’t physically able to move these rocks.  They never considered that his neighbors would come to Nicholas’ aid and move tons of rocks for him.  This is exactly what happened in late June when – led by Manweller, 50 volunteers showed up at the Liberty Café in Cle Elum, drove up to Nicholas’ mine claim and moved many of the rocks.

I’m glad things worked out, but who would have thought the Forest Service would behave so poorly?

Then again, we recently learned that the Park Service was filled with spiteful bureaucrats.

Here’s one final example of ludicrous regulation, this time from Nebraska.

Massage a horse, go to jail. That’s the absurd fate Karen Hough could face if she wants to continue her business in Nebraska. A certified instructor, Karen has been massaging horses for years. …Earlier this year, she applied for a license in equine massage but was told only veterinarians can become licensed. A 2007 memo from Nebraska’s Board of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery asserted that “no health professional other than licensed veterinarians and licensed veterinary technicians may perform services/therapies on animals.” This means Karen would need to spend thousands of dollars and seven years of her life just to acquire a government permission slip to do what she’s been doing for years. A few weeks later, she received a letter from Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services ordering her to “cease and desist” from the “unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine.” In Nebraska, continuing to operate a business without a license after getting a cease and desist letter is a Class III felony. So Karen could face up to 20 years in prison and pay a $25,000 fine. By comparison, that’s the same penalty for manslaughter in the Cornhusker State. What’s worse, under Nebraska state law, she can’t even give out advice on how to massage horses: “They told me I couldn’t give massages for money; I couldn’t do it for free and I couldn’t even tell friends how to do it. That last one really got to me. To me, that is restricting my free speech.”

I confess that horse massaging sounds as odd as getting a psychologist for your cat, but maybe I’m behind the times.

Regardless, it’s absurd that you could get thrown in jail for rubbing a horse!

Or for selling milk. Or transporting a bagpipe.

As Joe Biden said, it’s time to take back America.

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I very rarely feel sorry for statists. After all, these are the people who think that their feelings of envy and inadequacy justify bigger and more coercive government.

And I get especially irked when I think about how their authoritarian policies will hurt the most vulnerable in society.

But I nonetheless feel sorry for statists when I see them fumble, stumble, duck, and weave when asked why global evidence contradicts them.

In other words, it’s almost painful to watch when they are asked  why nations with varying degrees of statist policy – such as Venezuela, France, the United States (under Obama), Argentina, and Greece – suffer from economic stagnation and decline.

And it’s equally uncomfortable to watch them struggle and squirm when they’re asked to explain why jurisdictions with more pro-market policies – such as Bermuda, Estonia, Switzerland, the United States (under Reagan), Chile, and Singapore – tend to enjoy growth and rising living standards.

However, I can’t help adding to their discomfort. Let’s look at more evidence.

Here’s some of what Richard Rahn wrote for the Washington Times about Hong Kong’s economic miracle.

Hong Kong is about as close to the ideal free-market capitalist model that you can find on the planet — which came about largely by accident. …The British basically left Hong Kong to fend for itself… here was no foreign aid and no welfare state — but there was a competent government that kept the peace, ran an honest court system with the rule of law, provided some basic infrastructure, and little more. Also, Hong Kong had economic freedom — for the last several decades, Hong Kong has been ranked as the freest economy in the world (according to Economic Freedom of the World Index). Economic freedom allowed the people to create an endless number of productive enterprises, and because they had free trade, they could import necessary goods and services to fuel these enterprises. …average real income has gained parity with the United States, and it will probably be double that of France in a couple of years.

By the way, if you don’t believe the last sentence in that excerpt, check out this remarkable chart.

But the big takeaway is that free markets and small government have made the people of Hong Kong very rich. Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a recipe to follow if you want prosperity.

Let’s look at another example. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and Michael Solon compare economic policy and outcomes in Ukraine and Poland.

They explain that statist policies in Ukraine have stymied growth in a nation that otherwise could be very prosperous.

There is no better modern example of the power of an economic triumph than the experience of Ukraine and Poland in the post-Cold War era. …Ukraine has largely squandered its economic potential with pervasive corruption, statist cronyism and government control. …The per capita income of Ukraine, in U.S. dollar equivalence, has grown to only $3,900 in 2013 from a base of $1,570 in 1990. …Ukraine should be a wealthy country. It has world-class agricultural land, it is rich in hydrocarbons and mineral resources, and it possesses a well-educated labor force. Yet Ukraine remains poor, because while successful Central European nations have replaced their central-planning institutions with market-based reforms, Ukraine has never been able to break the crippling chains of collectivism.

Poland was in the same position as Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet empire, but it followed better policy and is now several times richer.

By employing free-market principles and unleashing the genius of its people, Poland has triggered an economic triumph as per capita GDP, in U.S. dollar equivalence, soared to more than $13,432 by 2013 from $1,683 in 1990. Today Poland is the fastest-growing economy in Europe. …The man largely responsible for Poland’s transformation is Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister who was later governor of Poland’s Central Bank. …The Balcerowicz Plan was built around permitting state firms to go bankrupt, banning deficit financing, and maintaining a sound currency. It ended artificially low interest rate loans for state firms, opened up international trade and instituted currency convertibility. …A miracle transition was under way and the rest is history.

Since I’ve also compared Ukraine and Poland, you can understand why I especially liked this column.

One final point. Today’s post looks at just a couple of nations, but I’m not cherry picking. There are all sorts of comparisons that can be made, and the inevitable conclusion is that markets are better than statism.

Here are some previous iterations of this exercise.

I’ve compared South Korea and North Korea.

The data for Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela is very powerful.

I’ve shown how Singapore has eclipsed Jamaica.

Here’s a comparison of Sweden and Greece.

And we can see that Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

So hopefully you can understand why I have a tiny (very tiny) degree of sympathy for my left-wing friends. It can’t be easy to hold views that are so inconsistent with global evidence.

P.S. When presented with this kind of evidence, leftists oftentimes will counter by saying that many nations in Europe are rich by global standards, while also having large governments. True, but it’s very important to understand that they became rich nations when they had small governments. Moreover, some of them have wisely compensated for large public sectors by maintaining ultra-free market policy in other areas.

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