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Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

When I wrote last week about “social capital” as a key determinant of long-run prosperity, I didn’t realize I would generate a lot of feedback. Including several requests for more information.

Which creates a small problem since the field is so large that it’s difficult to provide an overview.

If people were asking questions on the flat tax, Laffer Curve, or the economic impact of government spending, I could give succinct and targeted responses. On the topic of social capital, by contrast, I almost don’t know where to start.

The first thing I should say is that scholars have been addressing these issues for centuries, even if in some cases they didn’t use the phrase “social capital” and instead talked about tradition, culture, ethics, morality, or civic attitudes.

Many people know Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the 1700s, and that book deals with issues relating to social capital.

Or consider the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about social capital in Democracy in America in the 1800s. More recently, in the 1970s, Friedrich Hayek discussed ethics and attitudes as part of his three-volume masterpiece on Law, Legislation, and Liberty.

Moving into the 21st Century, the issue of “culture” and economics also was the subject of an in-depth online symposium at the Cato Institute in 2006. Here’s some of what Lawrence Harrison wrote.

Some economists have confronted culture and found it helpful in understanding economic development. Perhaps the broadest statement comes from the pen of David Landes: “Max Weber was right. If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes almost all the difference.” Elaborating on Landes’s theme, Japanese economist Yoshihara Kunio writes, “One reason Japan developed is that it had a culture suitable for it. The Japanese attached importance to (1) material pursuits; (2) hard work; (3) saving for the future; (4) investment in education; and (5) community values.” …More broadly, the analysis of religions suggests that Protestant, Jewish, and Confucian societies do better than Catholic, Islamic, and Orthodox Christian societies because they substantially share the progress-prone Economic Behavior values of the typology whereas the lagging religions tend toward the progress-resistant values. Symbolic of this divide is the persistent ambivalence of the Catholic Church toward market economics… But religion is not the only source of progress-prone economic behavior: the Basques are highly entrepreneurial and highly Catholic; and Chile, boasting the most successful sustained economic performance in Latin America, is also the most Catholic.

And here are portions of Gregory Clark’s contribution.

The standard economist emphasizes that stability, incentives, and laissez-faire are all the magic needed for riches. …attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability. …Weber, as is well known, thought that certain types of Protestant ideology were conducive to economic growth. …The Catholics of modern southern Germany, however, would think they have a thing or two to teach their Protestant compatriots of the north about the virtues of hard work and self-reliance. The dour and thrifty Calvinists of my native Scotland look with envy now at the successes of the Catholic Irish, and ask how they can emulate this.Protestants on average may have values associated with economic growth, but that seems to have nothing to do with their specific theology. Lawrence Harrison may seem to escape some of this problem of identifying cultural variation by using a survey of 25 factors that purports to identify systematically the essential elements of cultures that promote high incomes and growth: universal progress cultures. He divides cultures into the “progress-prone” and the “progress-resistant.” In progress-prone societies, for example, people assert “I can influence my destiny.” In progress-resistant societies “fatalism” rules. Progress-prone societies have better economic performance. …The problem with both the Harrison and McClelland approaches is that the responses may reflect just the realities of the institutional framework people live within, rather than their cultural attitudes. A North Korean who reports “fatalism” or “resignation” is plausibly no different culturally from a South Korean who states “I can influence my destiny.”

My grad school classmate and now Professor Pete Boettke adds his two cents.

…we do need to have market prices to allocate resources efficiently. The “getting the prices right” mantra is not wrong, just incomplete. In order to get market prices, we do need to have private property rights and the enforcement of contracts. The “getting the institutions in place” mantra isn’t wrong either. Many of the significant advances in political economy during the 1990s, when the problems of socialist transition were at the forefront of professional and public policy attention, were related to a change of emphasis from “getting the prices right” to “getting the institutions in place.” …In economic terms, culture is a tool for the self-regulation of behavior, and as such it either lowers or raises the costs of enforcing the rules of the game. A free society works best when the need for policemen is least. If the rules of conduct correlated with high levels of economic well-being are viewed by a culture as illegitimate, then those rules will be violated unless there are strong monitors. The costs of monitoring may be so high that the social order cannot in fact be sustained. …Scholars such as Joel Moykr in The Levers of Riches have documented the great technological innovations that fueled growth during the Industrial Revolution, but Mokyr also documents the underlying belief systems and attitudes that had to be present for those innovations to be discovered, implemented, and put into common practice. Without that underlying cultural commitment to scientific discovery, innovation would have been stifled. We can say the same for beliefs and attitudes that undermine private property, mutually beneficial exchange, and commercial development. …Whatever advantages a culture may have, they will not be realized under bad institutions. And whatever disadvantages a culture may have, they will slowly erode, and the culture will improve, when people get to live under institutions of political and economic freedom. Culture can act as a constraint, but it is also a malleable constraint.

James Robinson uses China and Chile as examples that suggest good policies and institutions are key.

If the Chinese do well in Indonesia because they have such a good culture, then why is China one of the world’s poorest countries?  …surely the culture which supposedly is conducive to prosperity in China is an old one and long predates the acceleration of growth which took place in the late 1970s. …culture was held constant and institutions and policies changed while growth accelerated. From this it seems to follow that the reasons countries are poor has nothing to do with culture but rather policies and institutions that do not create the right incentive environment. …What about Chile, the one Latin American success story? Lawrence Harrison argues that Chile has a unique culture, but then why did it manifest itself so recently? It is only since the mid-1980s that the growth path of Chile has distinguished it from other Latin American countries. …culture might matter, but doubters like me will not be convinced by the evidence here.

But this topic gets attention at places other than libertarian think tanks.

Here are some excerpts from a World Bank study looking at the degree to which culture matters for development.

In the abstract there is no doubt a general acceptance that a particular work ethic, a system of personal values and attitudes must have a role in guiding a population along a particular development path; indeed, how could it be otherwise? …Guiso, Sapienza and Zingales (2006) conducted a regression analysis combining survey and macroeconomic data across 53 countries and found that “a 10 percentage point increase in the share of people who think thriftiness is a value that should be taught to children is linked to a 1.3 percentage point increase in the national saving rate”. Tabellini (2010) also showed that European regions with a stronger belief in individual effort tend to have higher GDP per capita and GDP growth. …Lee Kuan Yew speaks of a set of values—“thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty to the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning”—as having provided a powerful cultural backdrop for the development of East Asian countries… Max Weber famously made the case about the role of culture in development in his essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” arguing that Protestantism promoted the rise of modern capitalism “by defining and sanctioning an ethic of everyday behavior that conduced to business success” comprising “hard work, honesty, seriousness, the thrifty use of money and time.

Last but not least, let’s consider some practical applications based on a recently published New York Times column by David Brooks.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the biggest surprise is how badly most of the post-communist nations have done since. …In the bottom group are basket-case nations that haven’t even recovered the level of real income they had in 1990, as measured by real G.D.P. per capita. These failures include Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Serbia and others — about 20 percent of the post-communist world. “Basically,” Milanovic writes, these “are countries with at least three to four wasted generations. …The next group includes those nations that are merely moderate failures, with per capita economic growth rates under 1.7 percent a year. These are nations like Russia and Hungary that continue to fall steadily behind the West — about 40 percent of the post-communist world by population. The third group includes those with growth rates between 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent. These countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovenia, are holding steady with the capitalist world. Finally there are the successes, the nations that are catching up. …There are only five countries that have emerged as successful capitalist economies: Albania, Poland, Belarus, Armenia and Estonia. To put it another way, only 10 percent of the people living in post-communist nations are living in a place that successfully made the transition to capitalism.

I wouldn’t necessarily have listed Albania and Belarus as success stories, but it’s certainly true that the countries that comprised the former Soviet Bloc have seen a lot of divergence.

Heck, check out this graph comparing Ukraine and Poland if you want a remarkable example.

The question is why did they behave differently?

Why did some countries succeed while others failed? First, leaders in some countries simply made better political decisions. Most of these countries enacted economic reforms, like deregulating prices and privatizing nationalized companies. Some nations like Estonia and Poland enacted reforms radically and quickly… The quick and radical group saw a slightly bigger output drop over the near term but much more prosperity over the long run. …Finally, and most important, there is the level of values. A nation’s economy is nestled in its moral ecology. Economic performance is tied to history, culture and psychology. …[Some] countries lacked this cultural brew. Worse, life was marked by fear, by arbitrary power, by suspicion that people are watching you, by distrust. People raised in this atmosphere of distrust have trouble forming companies and associations. They are more likely to be driven by a grab-what-you-can logic — a culture of corruption and appropriation. …The lesson of the past 25 years is that democratic prosperity is built on layers of small achievements 10,000 fathoms deep. Communism ripped at all that bottom-up society-making and damaged the psyches of its victims. Healing from those wounds is gradual.

So what’s the bottom line?

I’m not really sure, other than to assert that we will never triumph over statism if Americans think it is morally acceptable to live off their neighbors via the coercive power of government.

In many of my fiscal policy speeches, I explain that we face a major crisis because of demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, but then tell audiences that we can solve the problem with structural program reforms.

To wrap things up, I often close with this Powerpoint slide. As you can see, the first two themes are very familiar to regular readers. Our problem is too much government spending and the solution is my Golden Rule of spending restraint.

But the third bullet point is really about social capital.

In other words, we can share all sorts of evidence about how some nations grow faster with small government and free markets.

We can also highlight how statist policies slow growth.

But none of those arguments will mean much in the long run if people prefer to be wards of the state.

P.S. My concern with personal morality helps to explain why I think libertarians and social conservatives should be natural allies.

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) are congressional bureaucracies that wield tremendous power on Capitol Hill because of their role as fiscal scorekeepers and referees.

Unfortunately, these bureaucracies lean to the left. When CBO does economic analysis or budgetary estimates, for instance, the bureaucrats routinely make it easier for politicians to expand the burden of government spending. The accompanying cartoon puts it more bluntly.

And when JCT does revenue estimates, the bureaucrats grease the skids for anti-growth tax policy by overstating revenue losses from lower tax rates and overstating revenue gains from higher tax rates.

Here are some examples of CBO’s biased output.

The CBO – over and over again – produced reports based on Keynesian methodology to claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus was creating millions of jobs even as the unemployment rate was climbing.

CBO has produced analysis asserting that higher taxes are good for the economy, even to the point of implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

Continuing a long tradition of under-estimating the cost of entitlement programs, CBO facilitated the enactment of Obamacare with highly dubious projections.

CBO also radically underestimated the job losses that would be caused by Obamacare.

When purporting to measure loopholes in the tax code, the CBO chose to use a left-wing benchmark that assumes there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

On rare occasions when CBO has supportive analysis of tax cuts, the bureaucrats rely on bad methodology.

But let’s not forget that the JCT produces equally dodgy analysis.

The JCT was wildly wrong in its estimates of what would happen to tax revenue after the 2003 tax rate reductions.

Because of the failure to properly measure the impact of tax policy on behavior, the JCT significantly overestimated the revenues from the Obamacare tax on tanning salons.

The JCT has estimated that the rich would pay more revenue with a 100 percent tax rate even though there would be no incentive to earn and report taxable income if the government confiscated every penny.

This means the JCT is more left wing than the very statist economists who think the revenue-maximizing tax rate is about 70 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the JCT also uses a flawed statist benchmark when producing estimates of so-called tax expenditures.

Though I want to be fair. Sometimes CBO and JCT produce garbage because they are instructed to put their thumbs on the scale by their political masters. The fraudulent process of redefining spending increases as spending cuts, for instance, is apparently driven by legislative mandates.

But the bottom line is that these bureaucracies, as currently structured and operated, aid and abet big government.

Regarding the CBO, Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus hit the nail on the head.

The CBO’s consistently flawed scoring of the cost of bills is used by Congress to justify legislation that rarely performs as promised and drags down the economy. …CBO relies heavily on Keynesian economic models, like the ones it used during the stimulus debate. Forecasters at the agency predicted the stimulus package would create more than 3 million jobs. …What looks good in the spirit world of the computer model may be very bad in the material realm of real life because people react to changes in policies in ways unaccounted for in these models.

And the Wall Street Journal opines wisely about the real role of the JCT.

Joint Tax typically overestimates the revenue gains from raising tax rates, while overestimating the revenue losses from tax rate cuts. This leads to a policy bias in favor of higher tax rates, which is precisely what liberal Democrats wanted when they created the Joint Tax Committee.

Amen. For all intents and purposes, the system is designed to help statists win policy battles.

No wonder only 15 percent of CPAs agree with JCT’s biased approach to revenue estimates.

So what’s the best way to deal with this mess?

Some Republicans on the Hill have nudged these bureaucracies to make their models more realistic.

That’s a helpful start, but I think the only effective long-run option is to replace the top staff with people who have a more accurate understanding of fiscal policy. Which is exactly what I said to Peter Roff, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

…the new congressional leadership should be looking at ways to reform the way the institution does its business – and the first place for it to start is the Congressional Budget Office. Most Americans don’t know what the CBO is, how it was created or what it does. They also don’t know how vitally important it is to the legislative process, especially where taxes, spending and entitlement reform are concerned. As Dan Mitchell, a well-respected economist with the libertarian Cato Institute, puts it in an email, the CBO “has a number-crunching role that gives the bureaucracy a lot of power to aid or hinder legislation, so it is very important for Republicans to select a director who understands the economic consequences of excessive spending and punitive tax rates.”

Heck, it’s not just “very important” to put in a good person at CBO (and JCT). As I’ve written before, it’s a test of whether the GOP has both the brains and resolve to fix a system that’s been rigged against them for decades.

So what will happen? I’m not sure, but Roll Call has a report on the behind-the-scenes discussions on Capitol Hill.

Flush from their capture of the Senate, Republicans in both chambers are reviewing more than a dozen potential candidates to succeed Douglas W. Elmendorf as director of the Congressional Budget Office after his term expires Jan. 3. …The appointment is being closely watched, with a number of Republicans pushing for CBO to change its budget scoring rules to use dynamic scoring, which would try to account for the projected impact of tax cuts and budget changes on the economy.

So who will it be? The Wall Street Journal weighs in, pointing out that CBO has been a tool for the expansion of government.

…the budget rules are rigged to expand government and hide the true cost of entitlements. CBO scores aren’t unambiguous facts but are guesses about the future, biased by the Keynesian assumptions and models its political masters in Congress instruct it to use. Republicans who now run Congress can help taxpayers by appointing a new CBO director, as is their right as the majority. …The Tax Foundation’s Steve Entin would be an inspired pick.

I disagree with one part of the above excerpt. Steve Entin is superb, but he would be an inspired pick for the Joint Committee on Taxation, not the CBO.

But I fully agree with the WSJ’s characterization of the budget rules being used to grease the skids for bigger government.

In a column for National Review, Dustin Siggins writes that Bill Beach, my old colleague from my days at the Heritage Foundation, would be a good choice for CBO.

…few Americans may realize  that the budget process is at least as twisted as the budget itself. While one man can’t fix it all, Republicans who want to be taken seriously about budget reform should approve Bill Beach to head the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Putting the right person in charge as Congress’s official “scorekeeper” would be an important first step in proving that the party is serious about honest, transparent, and efficient government. …CBO has several major structural problems that a new CBO director should fix.

Hmm… Entin at JCT and Beach at CBO. That might even bring a smile to my dour face.

But it doesn’t have to be those two specific people. There are lots of well-regarded policy scholars who could take on the jobs of reforming and modernizing the work of JCT and CBO.

But that will only happen if Republicans are willing to show some fortitude. And that means they need to be ready to deal with screeching from leftists who want to maintain their control of these institutions.

For example, Peter Orszag, a former CBO Director who then became Budget Director for Obama (an easy transition), wrote for Bloomberg that he’s worried GOPers won’t pick someone with his statist views.

The Congressional Budget Office should be able to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming February with pride. …The occasion will be ruined, however, if the new Republican Congress breaks its long tradition of naming an objective economist/policy analyst as CBO director, when the position becomes vacant next year, and instead appoints a party hack.

By the way, it shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness for someone like Orszag to complain about the possibility of a “party hack” heading up CBO.

In any event, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I fully expect we’ll also see editorials very soon from the New York Times, Washington Post, and other statist outlets about the need to preserve the “independence” of CBO and JCT.

Just keep in mind that their real goal is to maintain their side’s control over the process.

P.S. There’s another Capitol Hill bureaucracy, the Congressional Research Service, that also generates leftist fiscal policy analysis. Fortunately, the CRS doesn’t have any scorekeeper or referee role, so it doesn’t cause nearly as much trouble. Nonetheless, any bureaucracy that produces “research” about higher taxes being good for the economy needs to be abolished or completely revamped.

P.P.S. This video explains the Joint Committee on Taxation’s revenue-estimating methodology. Pay extra attention to the section beginning around the halfway point, which deals with a request my former boss made to the JCT.

P.P.P.S. If you want to see some dramatic evidence that lower tax rates don’t necessarily lead to less revenue, check out this amazing data from the 1980s.

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I don’t pretend that tax reform, by itself, will create economic Nirvana.

After all, the experts who measure economic policy and economic performance say that only about 20 percent of a nation’s prosperity is determined by fiscal policy.

Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of simple and fair tax systems such as the flat tax. Not only because I think we will get more growth, but also because I want to rein in the power of the IRS and reduce corruption in Washington.

So did the Republican wave in the mid-term elections make reform more likely?

Interestingly, the normally left-leaning Washington Post editorial page seems to have the right attitude about the issue.

There is broad agreement that the Internal Revenue Code is an unfair, inefficient mess and that the solution is to lower marginal rates and apply them to a broader base of income. A simpler code, purged of its market-distorting loopholes, would foster economic equality and economic growth, both of which the United States desperately needs.

So does the election make reform more likely?

Does the rise of a newly elected Republican Senate change that calculus? We’d say that it might… To be sure, Democrats want tax reform to raise money; Republicans want cuts. Still, a good deal of work has already been done on basic principles of a tax overhaul by Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress. …With a strong push from Mr. Obama, early in the new Congress, they might just be willing to finish the job their predecessors started.

I suspect the Washington Post is being far too optimistic about bipartisan compromise.

Not only would lawmakers have to overcome the big divide over whether reform should produce more revenue for Washington or less money for Washington, but there’s also a big divide on how to properly measure income.

And don’t forget that Obama (unlike the Washington Post) wants higher marginal tax rates because of his class-warfare ideology.

But maybe I’m just being a pessimist.

Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation, for instance, also offers a semi-optimistic assessment about the possibility of reform.

One of the most obvious questions from Tuesday’s election results is: what does this mean for tax reform? I think it certainly enhances the prospects of Congress and the president reaching a grand bargain on overhauling the tax code… Starting in January 2015, expect the new chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee begin holding a series of hearings on various aspects of reforming the tax system and the numerous “off-the-shelf” options available to them—such as the Flat Tax, X-Tax, FairTax, Cash Flow Tax, and the Camp draft. …Considering the energy to reform the tax code in both the House and Senate, it is quite possible that lawmakers could deliver a comprehensive tax reform bill to President Obama’s desk in 2015.

Scott makes several other points, including the long-overdue need to reform the biased revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

However, he also acknowledges that President Obama very likely would veto good tax reform. So even though our economy needs a less-destructive tax code, folks shouldn’t hold their breath expecting it to happen in the next two years.

I also addressed the topic as part of a recent forum at the Heritage Foundation, and I outlined several issues that have to be addressed if there is a serious effort to pursue tax reform. Here’s my part of the presentation.

But if you don’t want to watch me pontificate for ten-plus minutes, particularly since the video quality isn’t that great, here are my key points:

1. The tax base matters. If you don’t fix the double taxation of saving and investment, you may as well not even bother.

2. Bold beats timid. This is why I think a pure flat tax actually is more realistic than a proposal, such as Lee-Rubio, that makes compromises in hopes of being more politically realistic.

3. Highlight international competitiveness. Simply stated, globalization increases the benefits of good policy and increases the costs of bad policy.

4. International bureaucracies hinder good policy. Good tax reform is based on taxing income only once and only taxing income earned inside national borders, yet the OECD wants to impose global rules based on extra-territorial double taxation.

5. Good tax reform is good health reform. The biggest genuine loophole in the tax code is for fringe benefits, and this is a big reason for the third-party-payer crisis in healthcare.

6. Fix the biased scorekeeping of the JCT. The Joint Committee on Taxation uses methodology that it farther to the left than Paul Krugman.

7. Growth trumps fairness. The left will always use class-warfare arguments against good policy and the only effective counter-argument is that economic growth benefits all taxpayers.

One final point. Folks often ask me about plans – such as the Fair Tax – that would abolish the income tax and instead collect revenue with a national sales tax.

That approach is theoretically sound, but I have some practical concerns based on my distrust of politicians.

P.S. Here’s some humorous fallout from the election. Hitler learns that Democrats lost the Senate.

Hitler parody videos have appeared many places in recent years. Here are my favorites.

The head of the National Socialist Workers Party gets a double-dose – here and here – of bad news about Obamacare.

Here’s Hitler learning about Europe being downgraded.

And here’s the Fuehrer finding out that Scott Walker prevailed in his fight against government bureaucrats in Wisconsin.

P.P.S. I shared some cartoons before the election with the theme that Obama has been bad news for the Democratic Party.

Now that the election is over, that theme is even more appropriate.  Here’s Glenn McCoy’s assessment of the change Obama delivered.

Robert Ariail has a similar perspective.

In other words, as I suggested back in 2012, lots of non-leftist people should be happy that Obama got reelected.

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Some of my left-wing friends have groused that Democrats didn’t do well in the mid-term elections because they failed to highlight America’s strong economic performance.

I’m tempted to ask “what strong economic performance?!?” After all, median household income is lower than it was when Obama took office. And labor force participation rates have plummeted.

However, my leftist buddies have a point. America’s economy does look good when compared to Europe.

But why should that be the benchmark for success?

If you look at today’s growth numbers compared to data on historical growth in the United States, you get a much different picture. Here’s some of what Doug Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, wrote as part of a study for the National Chamber Foundation.

Over the entire postwar period from 1947 to 2013, the trend for economic growth in America was 3.3%. Unfortunately, looking at the period as a whole masks a marked deterioration in U.S. growth performance. Since 2007, the rate has downshifted to a mere 1.5%, which translates into a meager 0.7% in growth per capita in the United States. …At the current pace of growth, it will take 99 years for incomes to double. The poor U.S. growth performance is a threat to American families and their futures.

Here’s a chart from the report showing the 10-year rolling average of inflation-adjusted growth in the United States. As you can see, there was plenty of variation, but America usually enjoyed growth average a bit above 3 percent. But then, beginning about 2007/2008, that average dropped below 2 percent.

If you look at projections until 2024, you’ll notice that growth is projected to improve.

But you have to wonder if those projections will materialize.

And, even if they do, growth will only be about 2.5 percent annually, so we’ll still be enduring sub-par economic performance.

Moreover, it appears that those projections may be unrealistic. Here’s another chart from the National Chamber Foundation. It wasn’t in the study, but it’s worth including since it shows how the American economy has been routinely under-performing in recent years.

With this track record of anemic economic performance, it’s hard to have much sympathy for Democrats who thought they should be rewarded on election day. Doing better than France and Italy is not exactly a message that will resonate with voters, particularly when many people have been alive long enough to remember the good growth that America enjoyed during the Reagan and Clinton years, when policy was much more focused on small government and free markets.

But let’s set aside politics and consider the impact of growth on regular Americans rather than politicians. Holtz-Eakin explores some of the ramifications if the economy grows faster over the next decade.

Imagine that growth averages instead 3.3%—just one percentage point higher—for the next 10 years. …A full percentage point would eliminate $3 trillion in debt and slow the growth of the national debt. …Growing at a 3% rate means 1.2 million more jobs, and 1.3 million more if growth escalated to 3.5% for the next 10 years. …Three percent growth would mean another $4,200 in average incomes, while 3.5% growth would boost this an additional $4,500 to nearly $9,000. …faster economic growth would improve the future for the poor, the middle class, and the affluent alike.

By the way, it’s worth noting that faster growth leads to less debt mostly because the government collects a lot more tax revenue when people have higher incomes. And even a knee-jerk anti-taxer like me won’t complain if the IRS gets more money simply because people are more prosperous (though I reserve the right to then argue for lower tax rates).

Now let’s look at the most important question, which is to ask what policies will restore traditional American growth rates.

Doug has several suggestions, starting with entitlement reform.

The policy problem facing the United States is that spending rises above any reasonable metric of taxation for the indefinite future. ….Over the long term, the budget problem is primarily a spending problem, and correcting it requires reductions in the growth of large mandatory spending programs—entitlements like Social Security and federal health programs.

I certainly agree. Assuming, of course, that he wants good entitlement reform rather than gimmicks.

He also suggests tax reform.

The tax code is in need of dramatic improvements, including a modern international tax system, a lower corporation income tax rate, correspondingly lower rates on business income tax via so-called pass-thru entities, and broad elimination of tax preferences to preserve efficient allocation of investment… At the same time, one could improve work incentives by simplifying individual income tax rate brackets (recent proposals have suggested two brackets of 10% and 25%) and exclude a substantial portion of dividends and capital gains from taxation.

Once again, I agree. Though I reserve the right to change my mind and become a vociferous opponent if advocates decide that they wanted to finance these reforms with a value-added tax.

The study also includes suggestions for regulatory reform and other policy changes, but this post is too long already, so let’s now return to the central theme of economic growth.

Or, to be more accurate, the absence of economic growth. Because that’s the legacy of Obamanomics. We’re adopting European-style economic policies, so is it any surprise that our growth rates are declining in the direction of European-style stagnation?

And, to be fair, I’ll be the first to state that this bad trend began under Bush. Big government hinders prosperity, regardless of whether the policies are imposed by Republicans or Democrats.

Just as you get faster growth with good policy, even if those policies are implemented with a Democrat in the White House.

Simply stated, if you want better economic performance, there’s no substitute for free markets and small government.

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I’ve argued that we’ll get better government if we make it smaller.

And Mark Steyn humorously observed, “our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it.”

But can these assertions be quantified?

I had an email exchange last week with a gentleman from Texas who wanted to know if I had any research on the efficiency of government. He specifically wanted to know the “ratio of federal tax dollars collected to the actual delivery of the service.”

That was a challenge. If he simply wanted examples of government waste, I could have overloaded his inbox.

But he wanted an efficiency measure, which requires apples-to-apples comparisons to see which jurisdictions are delivering the most output (government services) compared to input (how much is spent on those services).

My one example was in the field of education, where I was ashamed to report that the United States spends more per student than any other nation, yet we get depressingly mediocre results (though that shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has looked at this jaw-dropping chart comparing spending and educational performance).

But his query motivated me to do some research and I found an excellent 2003 study from the European Central Bank. Authored by Antonio Afonso, Ludger Schuknecht, and Vito Tanzi, the study specifically examines the degree to which governments are providing value, and at what cost.

The objective of this paper is to provide a proxy for measuring public sector performance and efficiency. To do this we will put together a number of performance indicators in the government’s core functions. …We will set these indicators in relation to the costs of achieving them. We will, hence, derive simple performance and efficiency indicators for 1990 and 2000 for the public sectors of 23 industrialised OECD countries. …As a first step, we define 7 sub-indicators of public performance. The first four look at administrative, education, health, and public infrastructure outcomes. …The three other sub-indicators reflect the “Musgravian” tasks for government. These try to measure the outcomes of the interaction with and reactions to the market process by government. Income distribution is measured by the first of these indicators. An economic stability indicator illustrates the achievement of the stabilisation objective. The third indicator tries to assess allocative efficiency by economic performance.

Here’s a flowchart showing how they measured public sector performance.

I should explain, at this point, that I’m not a total fan of the PSP measure. Most of the indicators are fine, but some rub me the wrong way.

I think an even distribution of income is a nice theoretical concept, for instance, but I don’t think it can be mandated by government (unless the goal is to make everybody poor). Economic stability also isn’t necessarily a proper goal. I’d much rather live in a society that oscillates between 7 percent growth and -2 percent growth if the only other alternative was a society that had very stable 1 percent growth.

But enough nit-picking on my part. What did the study find when looking at public sector performance?

Indicators suggest notable but not extremely large differences in public sector performance across countries… Looking at country groups, small governments (industrialised countries with public spending below 40 % of GDP in 2000) on balance report better economic performance than big governments (public spending above 50 % of GDP) or medium sized governments (spending between 40 and 50 percent of GDP).

These are remarkable findings. Nations with small governments achieve better outcomes.

And that’s including some indicators that I don’t even think are properly defined.

But what’s most amazing if that the above findings are simply based on an examination of outputs.

So what happens if we also look at inputs so we can gauge the degree to which governments are delivering a lot of bang for the buck?

Public expenditure, expressed as a share of GDP, can be assumed to reflect the opportunity costs of achieving the public sector performance estimated in the previous section. …Public expenditures differ considerably across countries. Average total spending in the 1990s ranged from around 35 percent of GDP in the US to 64 percent of GDP in Sweden. The difference is mainly due to more or less extensive welfare programs. …we now compute indicators of Public Sector Efficiency (PSE). We weigh performance (as measured by the PSP indicators) by the amount of relevant public expenditure, PEX, that is used to achieve a given performance level.

And what did the experts discover? Here’s a chart showing the results.

There’s a lot of data, particularly if you’re looking at individual countries. But if you want the bottom-line results, look at the numbers circled in red.

As you can see, countries with small governments are far more productive and efficient.

We find significant differences in public sector efficiency across countries. Japan, Switzerland, Australia, the United States and Luxembourg show the best values for overall efficiency. Looking at country groups, “small” governments post the highest efficiency amongst industrialised countries. Differences are considerable as “small” governments on average post a 40 percent higher scores than “big” governments. …This illustrates that the size of government may be too large in many industrialised countries, with declining marginal products being rather prevalent.

The conclusion of the study makes some very important observations.

Unsurprisingly, countries with small public sectors report the “best” economic performance… Countries with small public sectors report significantly higher PSE indicators than countries with medium-sized or big public sectors. All these findings suggest diminishing marginal products of higher public spending. …Spending in big governments could be, on average, about 35 per cent lower to attain the same public sector performance.

Though I can’t help but wonder what the results would have been if Hong Kong and Singapore also were added to the mix.

After all, I don’t consider the United States to have a “small” government. Same for Japan, Switzerland, and Australia. Those are simply nations where government isn’t as big and bloated as it is in France, Italy, Sweden, and Greece.

Or imagine the results if you could measure public sector performance and public sector efficiency for the United States and other developed nations in the pre-World War I era, back when the burden of government spending averaged less than 10 percent of economic output.

I strongly suspect we got far more “bang for the buck” when government was genuinely small.

But I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, so let’s focus on the results of the study. The clear message is that big governments spend a lot more and deliver considerably less.

And that’s a very worrisome message since the burden of government is projected to increase substantially in the United States thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs.

So at the very least, we should do everything possible to reform those programs to keep America from becoming Greece.

And once we achieve that goal, then we can try to reduce the size and scope of government so we’re more like Hong Kong and Singapore., with only about 20 percent of GDP diverted to government.

Then, in my libertarian fantasy world, we can cut, prune, privatize, and eliminate until government once again only consumes about 10 percent of economic output.

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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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Libertarians are sometimes accused of being unrealistic and impractical because we occasionally talk about unconventional ideas such as competitive currencies and privatized roads.

But having a vision of a free society doesn’t mean we’re incapable of common-sense political calculations.

For example, my long-run goal is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of the federal government, both because that’s how the Founding Fathers wanted our system to operate and because our economy will grow much faster if labor and capital are allocated by economic forces rather than political calculations. But in the short run, I’m advocating for incremental progress in the form of modest spending restraint.

Why? Because that’s the best that we can hope for at the moment.

Another example of common-sense libertarianism is my approach to tax reform. One of the reasons I prefer the flat tax over the national sales tax is that I don’t trust that politicians will get rid of the income tax if they decide to adopt the Fair Tax. And if the politicians suddenly have two big sources of tax revenue, you better believe they’ll want to increase the burden of government spending.

Which is what happened (and is still happening) in Europe when value-added taxes were adopted.

And that’s a good segue to today’s topic, which deals with a common-sense analysis of the value-added tax.

Here’s the issue: I’m getting increasingly antsy because some very sound people are expressing support for the VAT.

I don’t object to their theoretical analysis. They say they don’t want the VAT in order to finance bigger government. Instead, they argue the VAT should be used only to replace the corporate income tax, which is a far more destructive way of generating revenue.

And if that was the final – and permanent – outcome of the legislative process, I would accept that deal in a heartbeat. But notice I added the requirement about a “permanent” outcome. That’s because I have two requirements for such a deal.

1. The corporate income tax could never be re-instated.

2. The VAT could never be increased.

And this shows why theoretical analysis can be dangerous without real-world considerations. Simply stated, there is no way to guarantee those two requirements without amending the Constitution, and that obviously isn’t part of the discussion.

So my fear is that some good people will help implement a VAT, based on the theory that it will replace a worse form of taxation. But in the near future, when the dust settles, the bad people will somehow control the outcome and the VAT will be used to finance bigger government.

Here are examples to show why I am concerned.

Here’s some of what Tom Donlan wrote for Barron’s.

…the U.S. imposes the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world. Make no mistake, corporations pay no tax. That is a tax on American consumers, American workers, and American shareholders.  Don’t think that the corporate income tax eases your personal tax burden. Add your share of the corporate income tax to the other taxes you pay.  Better yet, create a business tax we can all understand. A value-added tax is a tax on consumption. We would pay it according to the amount of the economic resources we choose to enjoy, and we would not pay it when we choose to save and invest in making the economy bigger and more productive. We would pay it on imported goods as much as on those domestically produced. The makers of goods for export would receive a rebate on their value-added tax.  Trading the corporate income tax for the value-added tax is one of the best fiscal deals the U.S. could make.

I agree in theory.

America’s corporate tax system is a nightmare.

But I think giving Washington a new source of tax revenue is an even bigger nightmare.

Professor Greg Mankiw at Harvard, writing for the New York Times, also thinks a VAT is better than the corporate income tax.

…here’s a proposal: Let’s repeal the corporate income tax entirely, and scale back the personal income tax as well. We can replace them with a broad-based tax on consumption. The consumption tax could take the form of a value-added tax, which in other countries has proved to be a remarkably efficient way to raise government revenue.

Once again, I can’t argue with the theory.

But in reality, I simply don’t trust that politicians won’t reinstate the corporate tax. And I don’t trust that they’ll keep the VAT rate reasonable.

At this point, some of you may be thinking I’m needlessly worried. After all, journalists and academic economists aren’t the ones who enact laws.

I think that’s a mistaken attitude. You don’t have to be on Capitol Hill to have an impact on the debate.

Besides, there are elected officials who already are pushing for a value-added tax! Congressman Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, actually has a “Roadmap” plan that would replace the corporate income tax with a VAT, which is exactly what Donlan and Mankiw are proposing.

this plan does away with the corporate income tax, which discourages investment and job creation, distorts business activity, and puts American businesses at a competitive disadvantage against foreign competitors. In its place, the proposal establishes a simple and efficient business consumption tax [BCT].

At the risk of being repetitive, Paul Ryan’s plan to replace the corporate income tax with a VAT is theoretically very good. Moreover, the Roadmap not only has good tax reform, but it also includes genuine entitlement reform.

But I’m nonetheless very uneasy about the overall plan because of very practical concerns about the actions of future politicians.

In the absence of (impossible to achieve) changes to the Constitution, how do you ensure that the corporate income tax doesn’t get re-imposed and that the VAT doesn’t become a revenue machine for big government?

By the way, this susceptibility to the VAT is not limited to Tom Dolan, Greg Mankiw, and Paul Ryan. I’ve previously expressed discomfort about the pro-VAT sympathies of Kevin Williamson, Josh Barro, and Andrew Stuttaford.

And I’ve written that Mitch Daniels, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney were not overly attractive presidential candidates because they’ve expressed openness to the VAT.

This video sums up why a value-added tax is wrong for America.

Last but not least, let me preemptively address those who will say that corporate tax reform is so important that we have to roll the dice and take a chance with the VAT.

I fully agree that the corporate income tax is a self-inflicted wound to American prosperity, but allow me to point out that incremental reform is a far simpler – and far safer – way of dealing with the biggest warts plaguing the current system.

Lower the corporate tax rate.

Replace depreciation with expensing.

Replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation.

So here’s the bottom line. If there’s enough support in Congress to get rid of the corporate income tax and impose a VAT, that means there’s also enough support to implement these incremental reforms.

There’s a risk, to be sure, that future politicians will undo these reforms. But the adverse consequences of that outcome are far lower than the catastrophic consequences of future politicians using a VAT to turn America into France.

P.S. You can enjoy some good VAT cartoons by clicking here, here, and here.

P.P.S. I also very much recommend what George Will wrote about the value-added tax.

P.P.P.S. I’m also quite amused that the IMF accidentally provided key evidence against the VAT.

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