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I’m currently in Asia, where I just finished a series of speeches about economic policy in China and Hong Kong.

These two jurisdictions offer very powerful lessons about the importance of economic policy.

Hong Kong is supposed to be Nirvana for libertarians. It holds the top spot in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. It has an optional flat tax. It has a private retirement system. And based on IMF data, government spending “only” consumes 18.4 percent of GDP (compared to 38.6 percent of economic output in the United States and 54.4 percent of GDP in France).

In reality, Hong Kong is far from perfect. It may have a lot more economic freedom than other jurisdictions, but there is widespread government intervention in certain sectors, such as housing. And while a flat tax and spending burden of 18.4 percent of GDP sound good, let’s not forget that the western world became rich in the 1800s when there was no income tax and the public sector consumed less than 10 percent of GDP.

But when you rank countries on the basis of economic freedom, you don’t compare jurisdictions to a nonexistent libertarian utopia. You compare them to other nations. So Hong Kong gets the top spot. And that’s paying dividends. When you look at long-run comparisons with other nations, Hong Kong has grown faster and become more prosperous.

So what about China? This wasn’t my first visit to the country, but it was the first time I went to Shanghai, and it is a very impressive place. It’s obvious that China has enjoyed a lot of growth in the past few decades.

But just as you shouldn’t judge the United States by a visit to Wall Street, it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions about China after a few days in Shanghai.

Indeed, average living standards for all of China are still far below American levels. Moreover, if you look at the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, China still has a lot of room for improvement. It ranks 123rd out of 152 nations, which is not only far below France (#40), but also Greece (#85), Haiti (#98), and Russia (#101).

That being said, China’s score is 6.22 out of 10, which is a vast improvement compared to where it was in 1980, when it had a score of only 4.00.

This has led to some wonderful outcomes. This chart (h/t: Mark Perry) shows the share of the world’s population living on less than $1 per day (blue line) and the share of East Asia’s population with the same level of deprivation (red line). A big reason the red line has fallen so dramatically is that severe poverty in China has largely disappeared.

The real question for China is the degree to which there will be ongoing improvement.

I think it would be good if China became more like Hong Kong and that this led to much higher living standards. Heck, I’d be happy if China became more like Taiwan or South Korea, both of which have become relatively rich nations by moving substantially in the direction of free markets and small government.

But I don’t think this will happen. In one of my speeches, I posed a series of questions, followed by some less-than-optimistic answers.

Is the financial system weak? (because of too much state control over capital flows and investment)

Is there too much cronyism? (with friends and relatives getting favorable access to business)

Will China’s demographics be a problem? (the one-child policy is not just tyrannical, but it also means China’s population is aging)

Is rapid growth sustainable? (in the absence of reforms to boost economic freedom)

Have stimulus plans led to malinvestment? (such as ghost cities and other boondoggles)

Since economists are lousy when they make predictions, it’s quite possible that I’m wrong and my pessimism is unwarranted. For the sake of the Chinese people, let’s hope so.

And what about Hong Kong? I suspect they’ll remain the freest economy in the world. After all, why wreck a good thing?

Then again, the United States was the world’s 3rd-freest economy as recently as 2001. Now, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, we’ve plummeted to 17 in the ranking.

But I doubt Hong Kong policy makers would be equally foolish.

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Why do statists make so many mistakes with data? Paul Krugman, for instance, has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

But Krugman isn’t alone. We also have Thomas Piketty, who was lionized by the left after publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Ever since his book was published, various experts have called into question the veracity of Piketty’s numbers. Most recently, here’s some of what Alan Reynolds, my colleague at the Cato Institute, wrote about his data for the Wall Street Journal.

Thomas Piketty…remains a hero on the left, but the honeymoon may be drawing to a sour close as evidence mounts that his numbers don’t add up. …data are so misleading as to be worthless. They attempt to estimate top U.S. wealth shares on the basis of that portion of capital income reported on individual income tax returns—interest, dividends, rent and capital gains. This won’t work because federal tax laws in 1981, 1986, 1997 and 2003 momentously changed (1) the rules about which sorts of capital income have to be reported, (2) the tax incentives to report business income on individual rather than corporate tax forms, and (3) the tax incentives for high-income taxpayers to respond to lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends by realizing more capital gains and holding more dividend-paying stocks.

Alan lists some of specific problems that exist when you try to make sweeping assertions based on tax return data.

For example, interest income from tax-exempt municipal bonds was unreported before 1987—so the subsequent reporting of income created an illusory increase in top incomes and wealth. Since 1997, by contrast, most capital gains on home sales have disappeared from the tax returns of middle-income couples, thanks to a $500,000 tax exemption. …since the mid-1980s, most capital income and capital gains of middle-income savers began to vanish from tax returns by migrating into IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement and college savings plans. Balances in private retirement plans rose to $12.4 trillion in 2012 from $875 billion in 1984. …When individual tax rates dropped from 70% in 1980 to 28% in 1988, this provoked a massive shift: from retaining private business income inside C-corporations to letting earnings pass through to the owners’ individual tax returns via partnerships, LLCs and Subchapter S corporations. …Although more frequent asset sales showed up as an increase in capital income, realized gains are no more valuable than unrealized gains so realization of gains tells us almost nothing about wealth. Similarly, a portfolio shift from municipal bonds, coins or cash into dividend-paying stocks after the tax on dividends fell to 15% in 2003 might look like more capital income when it was merely swapping an untaxed asset for a taxable one.

So what’s the bottom line?

Mr. Piketty’s premonition of soaring U.S. wealth shares for the top 1% finds no credible support in his book or elsewhere.

But let’s now conduct a thought experiment. What if Piketty’s data was right? Would that justify punitive class-warfare tax rates?

I’ve already explained that this would be the wrong approach.

And Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute cites some new academic research to make a similar point.

Meltzer and Richard show that using redistribution to ameliorate income inequality is not only ineffective, but worsens the problem that policy makers seek to cure. …Since workers’ productivity levels increase with the more they produce, and because higher taxes create disincentives to working, taxes lead to lower economic growth. …Higher tax rates that fund transfer payments hamper economic growth. That’s because they increase the number of people who depend on these payments and find it preferable not to work. There also is less learning-by-doing among those who work. …As taxes and transfers rise, hours of work and acquired skills decline, reducing economic growth. …it is this decline in hours worked for low-productivity workers that leads to more economic inequality — not the growth of technology nor the rent-seeking privileges of the rich, two causes cited by Piketty. Reduced effort by the rich in reaction to higher taxes comes at the expense of economic growth, which has the potential to raise everyone’s living standards and increase economic opportunity. …Meltzer and Richard show that the growth of government is the true driver behind inequality.

In other words, the supposed solution of ever-higher tax rates from folks such as Piketty (and Obama) would be harmful to the overall economy and be especially damaging to those with lower incomes.

If we want to help the poor, the goal should be to achieve faster economic growth by enabling capitalism and entrepreneurship.

In other words, copy Hong Kong and Singapore, not France.

Here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explaining why class-warfare tax policy is so misguided.

P.S. This isn’t the first time that Alan Reynolds has debunked Piketty.

P.P.S. These two pizzas tell you everything you need to know about how the left would define success.

P.P.P.S. And Margaret Thatcher exposed why their definition of success is absurd.

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Libertarians tend to like – or at least have a grudging respect for – the underground economy.

For instance, even if we’re personally very straight-laced, we don’t like government prohibitions against gambling, drugs, and prostitution. This is why we’re not upset when these things happen in spite of the laws enacted by the political class.

But this isn’t just about victimless crimes. We also dislike high taxes, so you won’t find libertarians shedding many tears when we read about tax avoidance and tax evasion in nations (such as France and Greece) with punitive tax systems.

Politicians tend to have a different perspective. They generally get very upset if we’re not following their societal diktats and acquiescing to their fiscal demands.

But now we’re suddenly seeing that some politicians have a new-found appreciation for the underground economy.

The New York Times reports that European nations want to add these activities to their estimates of GDP.

As of September, all European Union countries will be required to take fuller accounting of trade in sex, drugs and other underground businesses as part of an overhaul of economic measurements by Eurostat, the European statistics agency. The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who objects, after all, to more accurate numbers?

But it’s always good to be suspicious of governments.

And why is suspicion warranted in this case? Well, it appears that this effort to re-measure GDP may give politicians more ability to spend.

With European Union governments obliged to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies, the changes are also expected to make growth rates from Spain to Sweden look better, possibly also making debt ratios seem rosier. …In Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, …G.D.P. could increase by as much as 2 percent, Eurostat estimates, while Germany and France could see expansions of as much as 3 percent. Britain might show a gain of 3 to 4 percent, Eurostat said.

To elaborate, there are “Maastricht rules” in the European Union that (at least in theory) obligate governments to keep deficits from rising about 3 percent of GDP and to keep debt from climbing above 60 percent of GDP.

So if politicians and bureaucrats can figure out ways to make GDP appear bigger, that means they can have more red ink. Which means, of course, that they can spend more money.

So now it should be abundantly clear why governments have an incentive to add the underground economy to their GDP estimates.

But there’s one little problem with this approach. The whole purpose of the Maastricht rules was to keep nations from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. The rules obviously didn’t work very well (perhaps because they focused on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much government spending), but there presumably would have been even more profligacy if they didn’t exist.

So what’s the point of adding the underground economy to GDP when that simply gives politicians more leeway to spend?

Indeed, the NYT article notes that some of the bean-counting bureaucracies in Europe are concerned that this new approach won’t work because there won’t be any new tax revenue to accompany the new spending.

Statistics agencies, though, say that whatever the improved ratios, debt will not be easier to service, because governments cannot collect taxes from illegal underground activity.

And just in case you don’t trust the New York Times, here’s a blurb from Money News making the same point.

No country is supposed to let their annual deficits exceed 3 percent of GDP or accumulated debt exceed 60 percent of GDP. Countries that don’t comply with the debt limits are to be penalized — 0.2 percent of GDP, plus a “variable component” that can range up to 0.5 percent of GDP annually as long as the breach continues. Boosting GDP helps lower the debt ratio.

The bottom line is that these changes will enable Europe’s politicians to postpone much-needed fiscal discipline.

In other words, they’ll have the ability to spend themselves deeper into a hole.

And as you can see from these sobering IMF, OECD, and BIS estimates, the hole is already enormous.

Not that America is any different. Our economy may be doing better (or less worse) today, but our future fiscal outlook is worse than many other nations thanks to a combination of poorly designed entitlement programs and changing demographics.

And just as is the case for Europe, counting our underground economy would not be a substitute for the reforms needed to save the nation.

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I’ve shared lots of data and evidence about the harmful economic impact of government spending.

Simply stated, budgetary outlays divert resources from more productive uses. And this results in labor and capital being misallocated, leading to less economic output.

The damage is even more pronounced when you look at how politicians finance the budget. Whether they use taxes or borrowing (or even printing money), there are additional distortions that hinder the private sector.

Today, we’re going to look at the economic impact of a particular type of government spending. A new working paper by two academics at the University of Miami has revealed a negative relationship between government consumption spending and economic growth.

But before digging into the details, what do public finance economists mean when they talk about “consumption spending”? At the risk of over-simplifying, it’s the part of the budget used to purchase goods and services. Everything from soldiers to housing and from jails to education.

It’s basically the so-called discretionary portion of the federal budget, minus “investment spending” (which would be things like roads).

Anyhow, here are some of the key findings.

This paper tests the Mundellian hypothesis that too much government spending reduces economic growth… In this paper, we analyze annual panel data from 1999 to 2011 for 31 OECD countries to examine the role of government spending in determining economic growth. In particular, we will focus our attention on government consumption spending on non-market goods such as defense and justice for collective consumption and its effect on growth in real GDP growth. …We find that government consumption spending on non-market goods signifi cantly reduces economic growth. A one percentage point increase in government consumption of non-market goods as a percent of GDP is associated with a 0.86 percentage lower growth rate in GDP. …This result is compatible with Barro (1990)’s fi nding for the Summers and Heston database, but suggests a stronger negative eff ect of government consumption on economic growth.

That’s a big number, which implies that we’re definitely on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

By the way, just in case you’re wondering why Obama’s “stimulus” was such a flop, the study also notes that “the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act envisaged less than 5% spending on public investment, and over 95% on consumption.”

In other words, Obama increased the type of government spending with the worst impact on the economy. Something to keep in mind when politicians, lobbyists, interest groups, and other insiders argue that there’s no need to cut back on discretionary spending.

But it’s also important to note that the study has some findings that may distress libertarians and small-government conservatives. It finds, for instance, that “government investment spending is positively related to growth.”

Also, it’s important to realize that the study is limited to only certain forms of discretionary spending. As the authors explain, they examine, “the impact of government consumption spending net of health, education and housing service.”

But even with those caveats, we have another strong piece of evidence that our economy would grow much faster if we reduced the burden of government spending.

And if you need more evidence on the harmful effect of government spending (either generally or specific types of outlays), allow me to call your attention to research even from normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Central Bank.

And you can find similar findings in the work of scholars from all over the world, including the United States, Finland, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

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There have been many truly awful presidents elected in the United States, but if I had to pick my least favorite, I might choose Herbert Hoover.

I obviously have disdain for Hoover’s big-government policies, but I also am extremely irritated that – as Jonah Goldberg explained – he allowed the left to create an utterly bogus narrative that the Great Depression was caused by capitalism and free markets.

Indeed, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity produced a video demonstrating that the statist policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt helped trigger, deepen, and lengthen the economic slump.

Building on that theme, here’s a new video from Prager University that looks specifically at the misguided policies of Herbert Hoover.

Amen. Great job unmasking Hoover’s terrible record.

As I explained when correcting a glaring error by Andrew Sullivan, Hoover was a big-government interventionist. Heck, even FDR’s inner circle understood that the New Deal was simply an extension of Hoover’s statist policies.

In other words, FDR doubled down on Hoover’s awful record. And with awful results. We have a better understanding today of how the New Deal caused the downturn to be deeper and longer.

This Tom Sowell video is definitely worth watching if you want more information on that topic.

And here’s something else to share with your big-government friends. The Keynesian crowd was predicting another massive depression after World War II because of both a reduction in wartime outlays and the demobilization of millions of troops. Yet that didn’t happen, as Jeff Jacoby has succinctly explained. And if you want more details on how smaller government helped restore growth after WWII, check out what Jason Taylor and Rich Vedder wrote for Cato.

P.S. I’ve compared Bush and Obama to Hoover and Roosevelt because of some very obvious similarities. Bush was a big-government Republican who helped pave the way for a big-government Democrat, just as Hoover was a big-government Republican who also created the conditions for a big-government Democrat.

The analogy also is good because I suspect political and economic incompetence led both Hoover and Bush to expand the burden of government, whereas their successors were ideologically committed to bigger government. We know about Obama’s visceral statism, and you can watch a video of FDR advocating genuinely awful policy.

The good news is that Obama will never be as bad as FDR, no matter how hard he tries.

P.P.S. It’s also worth mentioning that a very serious downturn in 1921 was quickly ended in part thanks to big reductions in the burden of government spending. Your Keynesian friends will also have a hard time explaining how that happened.

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Back in 2010, I shared a remarkable chart showing how quickly economic output doubles in a fast-growth economy, but it also showed how long it takes for GDP to expand if an economy only grows 1 percent or 2 percent per year.

My main message was that nations should follow good policy because:

…even modest differences in economic growth can have a big impact on relative prosperity with a couple of decades.

But what’s really astounding – in a bad way – is that there used to be no growth. I recently posted a remarkable video from Learn Liberty that showed how the world was mired in poverty for century after century until growth exploded around 1800.

Now Don Boudreaux has a similar must-watch video for Marginal Revolution University.

The moral of the story is that poverty is, or at least was, the natural state of humanity.

But then something remarkable happened. The power of government was constrained and the vitality of markets was unleashed. The rest, as they say, is history.

And if you want to see a remarkable case study, the Fund for American Studies has its own great video showing how one nation went from misery to prosperity in just 100 or so years.

And to augment that video, here’s a chart from Wikipedia.

Just something to have in the back of your mind when some statist naively tells you the economy is a fixed pie and that successful entrepreneurs only become rich by making other people poor.

That’s simply not true.

Actually, allow me to revise my remarks. In the left’s fantasy world of taxes, bailouts, handouts, and cronyism, there is no growth and some people are able to use government coercion to become rich by ripping off others.

But in all likelihood, this satirical image shows the true impact of statism and redistribution.

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Obamacare resulted in big increases in the fiscal burden of government (ironically, it would be even worse if Obama hadn’t unilaterally suspended parts of the law).

The legislation increased government spending, mostly for expanded Medicaid and big subsidies for private insurance.

There were also several tax hikes, with targeted levies on medical device makers and tanning beds, as well as some soak-the-rich taxes on upper-income taxpayers.

These various policies are bad news for economic performance, but the damage of Obamacare goes well beyond these provisions.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Professor Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago explains that Obamacare contains huge implicit tax hikes on work and other forms of productive behavior.

…can we begin to take seriously the idea that the fiscal policies and regulations hidden in the Affordable Care Act are shrinking our economy? …Politicians and journalists use the term tax more narrowly than economists do, but the economic definition is needed to understand the economic effects of the ACA. …Withholding benefits from people who work or earn is hardly different than telling them to pay a tax. For this reason, economists refer to benefits withheld as “implicit taxes.” What really matters for labor market performance is the reward to working inclusive of implicit taxes, and not the amount of revenue delivered to the government treasury… The ACA…is full of implicit taxes. Many of them have remained hidden in the “fog of controversy” surrounding the law and their effects excluded from economic analyses of it.

In other words, his basic message is that the government reduces incentives to be more productive and earn more money when it provides handouts that are based on people earning less money.

Indeed, click here to see a remarkable chart showing how redistribution programs discourage work.

And speaking of charts, here’s one from Professor Mulligan’s article, and it shows the nation’s largest tax hikes based on what happened to the marginal tax rate on working.

Wow. No wonder we’re suffering from a very anemic recovery.

Professor Mulligan elaborates.

During a period that included more than a dozen tax increases, the ACA is arguably the largest as a single piece of legislation, adding about six percentage points to the marginal tax rate faced, on average, by workers in the economy. The only way to cite larger marginal tax increases would be to combine multiple coincident laws, such as the Revenue Acts of 1950 and 1951 and the new payroll tax rate that went into effect in 1950. Even with these adjustments, the ACA is still the third largest marginal tax rate hike during the seventy years. …Let’s not be surprised that, as we implement a new law that taxes jobs and incomes, we are ending up with fewer jobs and less income.

By the way, other academics also have found that Obamacare will lure many people out of the workforce and into government dependency.

The White House actually wants us to believe this is a good thing, as humorously depicted by this Glenn McCoy cartoon.

But rational people understand that our economic output is a function of how much labor and capital are being productively utilized.

In other words, Obamacare is a mess. It’s hurting the economy and should be repealed as the first step in a long journey back to market-based healthcare.

P.S. Mulligan’s chart also re-confirms that unemployment benefits increase unemployment. Heck, that’s such a simple and obvious concept that it’s easily explained in this Wizard-of-Id parody and this Michael Ramirez cartoon.

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I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in a hellhole like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is – at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy – a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

Here’s a chart from the report showing that taxes consume about 40 percent of economic output in EU nations. And while Americans correctly view the internal revenue code as very burdensome, taxes “only” consume about 25 percent of GDP in the United States.

EU Report Total Tax

Other nations with comparatively modest tax burdens include Canada (CA), Australia (AU), South Korea (KR), and Switzerland (CH).

But it’s important to understand that not all nations in the European Union are identical.

Just as there are high-tax states and low-tax states in America, there are high-tax countries and low-tax countries in Europe. Surprisingly, France was not the worst nation.

…the ratio of 2012 tax revenue to GDP was highest in Denmark, Belgium and France (48.1 %, 45.4 % and 45.0 % respectively); the lowest shares were recorded in Lithuania (27.2 % of GDP), Bulgaria (27.9 % of GDP) and Latvia (27.9 % of GDP).

I’m surprised, by the way, that Sweden isn’t among the highest-taxed nations. I guess they’ve made even more progress than I thought.

Now let’s drill down into the report and look at some of the specific data.

But you may want to stop reading now if you get easily depressed.

That’s because it’s time to look at a chart showing what’s happened to income tax rates. Specifically, this chart shows the average top tax rate on personal income, both for Eurozone (nations using the euro currency) and European Union nations.

As you can see, the average top tax rate has jumped by almost four percentage points for euro nations and by about two percentage points for all EU nations.

EU Report Personal Income Tax

This is very unfortunate. Tax rates were heading in the right direction when there was vigorous tax competition inside Europe. But now that high-tax nations have been somewhat successful in forcing low-tax jurisdictions to become deputy tax enforcers, that positive trend has halted and policy is moving in the wrong direction.

But not in all regards.

Tax competition also has been compelling governments to lower corporate tax rates. And while that trend has abated, you can see in this chart that politicians haven’t felt they have leeway to push rates higher.

EU Report Corporate Income Tax

Though I am very concerned about the OECD’s campaign to undermine corporate tax competition.

If they’re successful, there’s no doubt we’ll see higher corporate tax rates.

Let’s now look at some more depressing data. This chart shows that a continuation in the trend toward higher rates for value-added taxes (VATs).

EU Report VAT

I’ve warned repeatedly that the VAT is a money machine for big government and the EU data certainly supports my position.

But if you want evidence from other parts of the world, there’s some IMF data that clearly shows how politicians use the VAT to expand the burden of government.

Last but not least, let’s now draw some conclusions from all this information.

At the beginning of the column, I mentioned that Americans should not copy Europe because bigger government translates into lower living standards.

Simply stated, there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and economic performance.

So let’s look at another piece of data to emphasize that point. The bureaucrats at the OECD just did a report on the U.S. economy and they produced a chart showing that the current recovery is very anemic. We haven’t recaptured lost economic output, which normally happens after a downturn. Indeed, we haven’t even returned to normal growth levels.

But that’s not news to regular readers. I’ve shared powerful data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve showing the failure of Obamanomics.

What is noteworthy, though, is comparing Europe to the United States. As you can see from these two charts, euro nations have flat lined. And if you look at the vertical scale, you can see that they were growing a lot slower than the United States to begin with.

Dismal European Economy

In other words, we’re not doing very well in the United States.

But compared to Europe, we’re Hong Kong.

Two final caveats: First, I always like to stress that economic performance is impacted by a wide range of policies. So while I think that rising tax burdens and higher tax rates are hurting growth in Europe, there are other factors that also matter.

Second, any analysis of fiscal policy should also include data on the burden of government spending. After all, a nation with a low tax burden will still suffer economic problems if there’s a large public sector financed by red ink.

And one big warning: Obama wants to make America more like Europe. If he succeeds, we can expect European-style stagnation.

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Why are some nations rich and other nations poor? What has enabled some nations to escape poverty while others continue to languish?

And if we want to help poor nations prosper, what’s the right recipe?

Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m tempted to say a flat tax and small government are an elixir for prosperity, but those policies are just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

A country also needs sensible monetary policy, open trade, modest regulation, and rule of law. In other words, you need small government AND free markets.

But even that doesn’t really tell us what causes growth.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of capital formation and shared a remarkable chart showing how workers earn more when the capital stock is larger (which is why we should avoid punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested).

But that also doesn’t really answer the question. After all, if a larger capital stock was all that mattered, doesn’t that imply that we could get prosperity if government simply mandated more saving and investing?

There’s something else that’s necessary. Something perhaps intangible, but critically important.

Deirdre McCloskey, in a video for Learn Liberty, says that ideas and innovation drive growth.

This is a great video for many reasons, but two points strike me as very important.

First, Deirdre is saying that economic liberty matters, but that modern prosperity also was enabled by a change in the culture. People began to appreciate and respect entrepreneurs. You could call this a form of social capital (and I think such cultural norms are critically important for a thriving society).

And entrepreneurs are the innovators who figure out ways of mixing capital and labor in ways that generate ever-larger amounts of economic output, so they play a critical role in boosting prosperity.

Second, she reminds us that poverty is the normal human condition and that the modern era truly is an amazing change. Indeed, I was so shocked by her numbers that I had to investigate to see if she was exaggerating.

She wasn’t. Using the Angus Maddison data set, I looked to see if Deirdre was right about world prosperity resembling a hockey stick.

Sure enough, there was an amazing increase in prosperity beginning about 1800, just as she explained. Indeed, she could have said that people lived on less than $2 per day for much of recorded history.

Here’s the data for world per-capita economic output over the past two thousand years.

Modern Prosperity

Wow. Unlike the make-believe hockey stick used by global warming alarmists, this one is real. And it shows that the economy definitely isn’t a fixed pie if the right policies – and the right attitudes – prevail.

So what’s the moral of the story?

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that we should respect and appreciate entrepreneurs and other wealth creators.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where politicians would like us to believe that the economic pie is fixed and that it’s the job of government to re-slice the pie with class-warfare tax policy and lots of redistribution.

But when they re-slice the pie, they also change the size of the pie. And not in a good way.

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Imagine how weird it would be if the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform praised Barack Obama for fiscal responsibility.

And think how inconceivable it would be for the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union to applaud Tim “Turbotax” Geithner for economic stewardship.

But the Canadian version of that happened while I was at the conference of the World Taxpayers Association in Vancouver two weeks ago.

The event was organized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the main speaker was Paul Martin of the Liberal Party, who served as Finance Minister from 1993-2002 and Prime Minister from 2003-2006.

And I should add, for context, that the Liberal Party in Canada is not a classical liberal party with a track record of free markets and small government.

But Paul Martin was honored because he was responsible, while Finance Minister, for one of the best records of fiscal restraint of any policy maker in recent history (click here for international comparisons).

I’ve pointed out that the burden of spending fell under Bill Clinton, and I’ve even acknowledged that the federal budget hasn’t grown much under Obama, at least once you get past his first couple of years.

But Paul Martin was far more frugal. And since Canada has a parliamentary system, there’s no ambiguity about who deserves credit. He restrained spending when his party had control.

What happened to generate the good results? For all intents and purposes, he imposed a spending freeze. And I’m talking a nominal spending freeze, not the kind of fake fiscal discipline you get when politicians make “cuts” off an inflated baseline.

And because the budget was successfully restrained, that addressed both the problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.

In his speech, Martin won me over when he bragged that the burden of government spending fell to its lowest point in 50 years.

And my man crush became even more pronounced when he said they allowed agencies to ask for more funds, but only if they identified offsetting cuts elsewhere.

What a novel concept! A government that actually looked at tradeoffs and prioritized outlays. Sort of like a household or business.

Paul Martin DiscussionI asked the former Prime Minister a couple of questions.

I was specifically interested in why the Liberal Party didn’t behave like other left-wing parties and raise taxes to enable bigger government.

Martin said there were some in his party who wanted that approach, but that there were two reasons for good policy.

First, enough people understood that Canada has a spending problem rather than a debt problem. And second, there was concern that financial markets would react poorly if policy makers simply pushed for higher taxes and ignored the size of government.

Wow, I wish the average Republican had the same sophisticated understanding of fiscal policy.

No wonder Canada got such good results. They imposed austerity on the public sector, rather than trying to squeeze the private sector (a distinction that seems to escape Paul Krugman).

To give you an idea of what Paul Martin accomplished, here’s a video prepared by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which features laudatory comments by representatives of major market-oriented think tanks.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t think there will ever be a video like this about Obama.

Very well done, even though I think it focused too much on red ink and not enough on the real accomplishment of spending restraint.

My Cato colleague, Chris Edwards, has produced some very good data on what’s happened to the burden of government spending in his home country.

For further information on that topic, here’s my video on international examples of spending restraint. Canada, you’ll notice, is one of the prominent case studies.

P.S. If you know any Keynesians, you can have some fun by asking them why Canada’s economy grew when the burden of government spending was reduced.

P.P.S. It’s also very impressive that Canada has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending of any developed nation.

P.P.P.S. No wonder Canada now ranks above the United States for economic freedom and the freest jurisdiction in North America is actually a Canadian province.

P.P.P.P.S. To end on a humorous note, Canadians should fortify their border to avoid an influx of American leftists.

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When the new Tory-led government came to power in the United Kingdom, I was rather unimpressed.

David Cameron positioned himself as a British version of George W. Bush, full of “compassionate conservative” ideas to expand the burden of government.

But even worse than Bush, because Cameron also jacked up taxes when he first took office, including big increases in the capital gains tax and the value-added tax.

But I must admit that policy in recent years has moved in the right direction, at least with regard to corporate taxation.

Writing for the U.K.-based Telegraph, Jeremy Warner remarks that business activity has significantly strengthened.

A survey by EY, published on Monday, showed that the UK is continuing to pull away from the rest of Europe in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The UK secured nearly 800 projects last year, the highest ever, accounting for around a fifth of all European FDI, far in advance of any other country. …Such investment is in turn helping to fuel Britain’s economic recovery… Go back 10 years and it was all the other way; companies were scrambling to leave the country and domicile somewhere else. It is perhaps the Coalition’s biggest unsung achievement that it has managed to reverse this flow.

So why has the United Kingdom experienced this economic rebound?

Lower corporate tax rates are key, Warner explains.

…it has done so largely through the tax system, where it has been as good as its promise to make the UK the most competitive in the G20. By next year, Britain will have the equal lowest headline rate of corporation tax – along with Russia and Saudi Arabia – in this eclectic group of economies, as well as at 20pc the lowest by some distance of the G7 major advanced economies. Other G7 countries range from 25pc to a crushing 38pc and 39pc in France and the US. …Britain has also halted the double taxation of repatriated foreign profits and the taxation of controlled foreign subsidiaries.

So the 20 percent corporate tax rate has yielded good results.

Now let’s connect the dots.

More economic activity means more income for taxpayers.

And more income means a bigger tax base.

Which means…can you guess?…yup, it means revenue feedback.

In other words, we have another piece of evidence that the Laffer Curve is very real.

…Reducing corporation tax has reversed the outflow of corporate head office functions, and doing so has substantially added to overall employment, output, income tax, national insurance and VAT receipts. Dynamic modelling by the UK Treasury has shown that lower tax rates are helping to drive a higher overall tax take. The “Laffer curve” lives. …Let business profit from its own enterprise. It’s amazing how effective this principle can be in generating growth, and yes, taxes, too.

If you want more evidence about the Laffer Curve, here’s one of the videos I narrated.

Warner points out, by the way, that the United Kingdom should not rest on its laurels.

If modest reductions in the corporate tax rate are good, then deeper cuts should be even better.

If comparatively minor changes like these to the competitiveness of the tax system can have such dramatic effects, just think what more serious, root and branch tax reform might achieve. In Singapore, the headline rate is 17pc, in Hong Kong 16.5pc and in Ireland just 12.5pc. There’s a way to go.

Though if The U.K. keeps moving in the right direction, that may arouse hostility and attacks from countries with uncompetitive tax systems.

Indeed, the statists at the European Commission have just launched an investigation of three countries for supposedly under-taxing companies.

Here are some blurbs from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

European Union regulators are preparing to open a formal investigation into corporate-tax regimes in Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands… The probe by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, follows criticism in Europe of low tax rates paid by global corporations… The probe is likely to consider whether generous corporate-tax regimes in Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands amount to illegal state aid. …The EU’s tax commissioner, Algirdas Semeta, has warned that the region “can no longer afford freeloaders who reap huge profits in the EU without contributing to the public purse.”

This is remarkable.

In the twisted minds of the euro-crats in Brussels, it is “state aid” if you let companies keep some of the money they earn.

This is horrible economics, but it’s even worse from a moral perspective.

A subsidy (or “state aid”) occurs when the government taxes money from Person A and gives it to Person B. But it’s a perversion of the English language to say that a subsidy takes place if Person A gets a tax cut.

By the way, this perverse mentality is not limited to Europe.

The “tax expenditure” concept in the United States is based on the twisted notion that a tax cut that results in more money in your pocket is economically (and morally) equivalent to a spending handout that puts more money in your pocket.

P.S. The United Kingdom also provides us with powerful evidence that the Laffer Curve plays a big role when there are changes in the personal income tax.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding a bit of good news on corporate tax, I’m not optimistic about the U.K.’s long-run outlook. Simply stated, the nation’s political elite is too statist.

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Regular readers know that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private economy.

Nations that maintain this Golden Rule for extended periods of time shrink the relative burden of government spending, thus enabling more growth by freeing up resources for the productive sector of the economy and creating leeway for lower tax rates.

And when countries deal with the underlying disease of too much spending, they automatically solve the symptom of red ink, so it’s a win-win situation whether you’re a spending hawk or a so-called deficit hawk.

With this in mind, let’s look at some interesting new research from the Heritage Foundation. They’ve produced a report entitled Europe’s Fiscal Crisis Revealed: An In-Depth Analysis of Spending, Austerity, and Growth.

It focuses on fiscal policy over the past few years and is an important contribution in two big ways. First, it shows that the Keynesian free-lunch approach is counterproductive. Second, it shows that the right kind of fiscal consolidation (i.e., spending restraint) generates superior results.

Here are some excerpts from the chapter by Professor Alberto Alesina of Harvard of Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. They look at some of the academic evidence.

The debate over the merits of austerity (the implementation of debt-reduction packages) is frustrating. Most people focus only on deficit reduction, but that can be achieved in many different ways. Some ways, such as raising taxes, deeply hurt growth… The data show that austerity has been implemented in Europe. However, with some rare exceptions, the forms of austerity were heavy on tax increases and far from involving savage spending cuts. …spending-based adjustments are more likely to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, regardless of whether fiscal adjustments are defined in terms of improvements in the cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit or in terms of premeditated policy changes designed to improve a country’s fiscal outlook. …Other research has found that fiscal adjustments based mostly on the spending side are less likely to be reversed and, as a result, have led to more long-lasting reductions in debt-to-GDP ratios. …successful fiscal adjustments are often rooted in reform of social programs and reductions in the size and pay of the government workforce rather than in other types of spending cuts. …tax increases failed to reduce the debt and were associated with large recessions. …growing evidence suggests that private investment tends to react more positively to spending-based adjustments. For instance, data from Alesina and Ardagna and from Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi show that private-sector capital accumulation increases after governments cut spending.

The basic message of the Alesina-de Rugy chapter is that bad outcomes are largely unavoidable when nations spend themselves into fiscal trouble, but the damage can be minimized if policy makers impose spending restraint.

The Heritage Foundation’s Salim Furth is the editor of the report, and here’s some of what he wrote in Chapter 3, which looks at what’s happened in recent years as countries dealt with fiscal crisis.

Tax austerity is very harmful to growth, while spending cuts are partially replaced by private-sector activity, making them less harmful. …Estimating growth effects on private GDP, the difference between tax and spending multipliers grows predictably. A two-dollar decline in private GDP is associated with every dollar of tax increases, but spending cuts are associated with no change in private GDP.  …fiscal consolidation that relied 60 percentage points more on spending cuts was associated with 3.1 percentage points more GDP growth from 2009 to 2012, when average growth was just 3.3 percent over the entire period. In other words, a country that had a fiscal consolidation composed of 80 percent of spending cuts and 20 percent of tax increases would grow much more rapidly than a country in which only 20 percent of the consolidation was spending cuts and 80 percent was tax increases. The association is slightly stronger for private GDP.

Salim then cites a couple of powerful examples.

…the difference between Germany’s 8 percent growth from 2009 to 2012 and the 1 percent growth in the Netherlands is largely accounted for by Germany’s cut-spending, cut-taxes approach and the Netherlands’ raise-spending, raise-taxes approach. The U.K. and Italy enacted similarly-sized austerity packages, but Italy’s was half tax increases while the U.K. favored spending cuts. Neither country excelled, but over half of the gap between the U.K.’s 3 percent growth and Italy’s negative growth is explained by Italy’s tax increases.

By the way, it’s not as if Germany and the United Kingdom are stellar examples of fiscal restraint. It’s just that they’re doing better than nations that traveled down the path of even bigger government.

Regarding supposed Keynesian stimulus, Salim makes a very important point that more government spending seems positive in the short run, sort of like the fiscal version of a sugar high.

But that sugar high produces a bad hangover. Nations that try Keynesianism quickly fall behind countries with more prudent policy.

Government spending boosts GDP instantly and then crowds out private spending slowly. The incentive effects of taxation may take effect over several years, but they are permanent and especially pronounced in investment. If anything, this recent crisis shows how brief the short run is: Countries whose spending-focused stimulus put them one step ahead in 2010 were already two steps behind in 2012.

There’s a lot more in the report, so I encourage readers to give it a look.

I particularly like that it emphasizes the importance of properly defining “austerity” and “fiscal consolidation.” These are issues that I highlighted in my discussion with John Stossel.

Another great thing about the report is that it has all sorts of useful data.

Though much of it is depressing. Here’s Chart 2-9 from the report and it shows all the countries that have increased top marginal tax rates between 2007 and 2013.

Portugal wins the booby prize for the biggest tax hike, though many nations went down this class-warfare path. Including the United States thanks to Obama’s fiscal cliff tax increase.

The United Kingdom is an interesting case. It raised its top rate by 10 percentage points, but then cut the rate by 5 percentage points after it became apparent that the higher rate wasn’t collecting any additional revenue.

We should give credit to the handful of nations that have lowered tax rates, several of which replaced discriminatory systems with simple and fair flat taxes.

Though it’s also important to keep in mind where each nation started. Switzerland lowered it’s top rate by only 0.4 percentage points, which seems small compared to Denmark, which dropped its top rate by 6.7 percentage points.

But Switzerland started with a much lower rate, whereas Denmark has one of the world’s most punitive tax regimes (though, paradoxically, it is very laissez-faire in areas other than fiscal policy).

Let’s look at the same data, but from a different perspective. Chart 2-10 shows how many nations (from a list of 37) raised top rates or lowered top rates each year.

The good news is that tax cutters out-numbered tax-hikers in 2008 and 2009.

The bad news is that tax increases have dominated ever since 2010.

Many of these post-2009 tax hikes were enabled by a weakening of tax competition, which underscores why it is so important to preserve the right of jurisdictions to maintain competitive tax systems.

And don’t forget that tax policy will probably get even worse in the future because of aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Let’s close with some more numbers.

Here’s Table 2-5 from the report. It shows changes in the value-added tax (VAT) beginning in December 2008.

The key thing to notice is that there’s no column for decreases in the VAT. That’s because no nation lowered that levy. Practically speaking, this hidden form of a national sales tax is a money machine for bigger government.

But you don’t have to believe me. The International Monetary Fund unintentionally provided the data showing that VATs are the most effective tax for financing bigger government.

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There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.

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The title of this post sounds like the beginning of a strange joke, but it’s actually because we’re covering three issues today.

Our first topic is corporate taxation. More specifically, we’re looking at a nation that seems to be learning that it’s foolish the have a punitive corporate tax system.

By way of background, the United States used to have the second-highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

But then the Japanese came to their senses and reduced their tax rate on companies, leaving America with the dubious honor of having the world’s highest rate.

So did the United States respond with a tax cut in order to improve competitiveness? Nope, our rate is still high and the United States arguably now has the world’s worst tax system for businesses.

But the Japanese learned if a step in the right direction is good, then another step in the right direction must be even better.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Japan will be lowering its corporate tax rate again.

Japan’s ruling party on Tuesday cleared the way for a corporate tax cut to take effect next year… Reducing the corporate tax rate, currently about 35%, is a long-standing demand of large corporations. They say they bear an unfair share of the burden and have an incentive to move plants overseas to where taxes are lower. …Business leaders want the rate to fall below 30% within the next few years and eventually to 25%… The Japan Business Federation, known as Keidanren, says tax cuts could partly pay for themselves by spurring investment. Japan’s current corporate tax rate is higher than most European and Asian countries, although it is lower than the U.S. level of roughly 40%.

If only American politicians could be equally sensible.

The Japanese (at least some of them) even understand that a lower corporate rate will generate revenue feedback because of the Laffer Curve.

I’ve tried to make the same point to American policymakers, but that’s like teaching budget calculus to kids from the fiscal policy short bus.

Let’s switch gears to our second topic and look at what one veteran wrote about handouts from Uncle Sam.

Here are excerpts from his column in the Washington Post.

Though I spent more than five years on active duty during the 1970s as an Army infantry officer and an additional 23 years in the Reserves, I never fired a weapon other than in training, and I spent no time in a combat zone. …nearly half of the 4.5 million active-duty service members and reservists over the past decade were never deployed overseas. Among those who were, many never experienced combat. …support jobs aren’t particularly hazardous. Police officers, firefighters and construction workers face more danger than Army public affairs specialists, Air Force mechanics, Marine Corps legal assistants, Navy finance clerks or headquarters staff officers.

So what’s the point? Well, this former soldier thinks that benefits are too generous.

And yet, the benefits flow lavishly. …Even though I spent 80 percent of my time in uniform as a reservist, I received an annual pension in 2013 of $24,990, to which I contributed no money while serving. …My family and I have access to U.S. military bases worldwide, where we can use the fitness facilities at no charge and take advantage of the tax-free prices at the commissaries and post exchanges. The most generous benefit of all is Tricare. This year I paid just $550 for family medical insurance. In the civilian sector, the average family contribution for health care in 2013 was $4,565… Simply put, I’m getting more than I gave. Tricare for military retirees and their families is so underpriced that it’s more of a gift than a benefit. …budget deficits are tilting America toward financial malaise. Our elected representatives will have to summon the courage to confront the costs of benefits and entitlements and make hard choices. Some “no” votes when it comes to our service members and, in particular, military retirees will be necessary.

The entire column is informative and thoughtful. My only quibble is that it would be more accurate to say “an expanding burden of government is tilting America toward financial malaise.”

But I shouldn’t nitpick, even though I think it’s important to focus on the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

Simply stated, it’s refreshing to read someone who writes that his group should get fewer taxpayer-financed goodies. And I like the idea of reserving generous benefits for those who put their lives at risk, or actually got injured.

Last but not least, I periodically share stories that highlight challenging public policy issues, even for principled libertarians.

You can check out some of my prior examples of “you be the judge” by clicking here.

Today, we have another installment.

The New York Times has reported that a mom and dad in the United Kingdom were arrested because their kid was too fat.

The parents of an 11-year-old boy were arrested in Britain on suspicion of neglect and child cruelty after authorities grew alarmed about the child’s weight. The boy, who like his parents was not identified, weighed 210 pounds. …In a statement, the police said that “obesity and neglect of children” were sensitive issues, but that its child abuse investigation unit worked with health care and social service agencies to ensure a “proportionate and necessary” response. The police said in the statement that “intervention at this level is very rare and will only occur where other attempts to protect the child have been unsuccessful.”

So was this a proper example of state intervention?

My instinct is to say no. After all, even bad parents presumably care about their kids. And they’ll almost certainly do a better job of taking care of them than a government bureaucracy.

But there are limits. Even strict libertarians, for instance, will accept government intervention if parents are sadistically beating a child.

And if bad parents were giving multiple shots of whiskey to 7-year olds every single night, that also would justify intervention in the minds of almost everybody.

On the other hand, would any of us want the state to intervene simply because parents don’t do a good job overseeing homework? Or because they let their kids play outside without supervision (a real issue in the United States, I’m embarrassed to admit)?

The answer hopefully is no.

But how do we decide when we have parents who are over-feeding a kid?

My take, for what it’s worth, is that the size of kids is not a legitimate function of government. My heart might want there to be intervention, but my head tells me that bureaucrats can’t be trusted to exercise this power prudently.

P.S. I guess “bye bye burger boy” in the United Kingdom didn’t work very well.

P.P.S. But the U.K. government does fund foreign sex travel, and that has to burn some calories.

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Our leftist friends have decided that income inequality is a scourge that must be addressed.

That might be a noble goal if they were motivated by a desire to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

Based on their policy proposals, though, it appears that the main goal is to punish the so-called rich. And they’re so fixated on that objective, Margaret Thatcher pointed out, that they’re willing to make the poor worse off.

And what’s especially bizarre is that rich leftists are among the biggest cheerleaders for these policies. Heck, I’ve even debated some of these limousine liberals, as you can see here and here.

But maybe their feelings of self-loathing and guilt are justified. After all, it seems that statist policies are actually associated with higher degrees of income inequality.

Let’s see what Steve Moore and Rich Vedder discovered when they looked at evidence from the states. Here are excerpts from their column in the Wall Street Journal.

Our state-by-state analysis finds that the more liberal states whose policies are supposed to promote fairness have a bigger gap between higher and lower incomes than do states that have more conservative, pro-growth policies. …According to 2012 Census Bureau data (the latest available figures), the District of Columbia, New York, Connecticut, Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest measure of income inequality of all the states; Wyoming, Alaska, Utah, Hawaii and New Hampshire have the lowest Gini coefficients. The three places that are most unequal—Washington, D.C., New York and Connecticut—are dominated by liberal policies and politicians. Four of the five states with the lowest Gini coefficients—Wyoming, Alaska, Utah and New Hampshire—are generally red states.

Steve and Rich then look at some specific comparison and some specific issues.

Texas is often regarded as an unregulated Wild West of winner-take-all-capitalism, while California is held up as the model of progressive government. Yet Texas has a lower Gini coefficient (.477) and a lower poverty rate (20.5%) than California (Gini coefficient .482, poverty rate 25.8%). Do the 19 states with minimum wages above the $7.25 federal minimum have lower income inequality? Sorry, no. States with a super minimum wage like Connecticut ($8.70), California ($8), New York ($8) and Vermont ($8.73) have significantly wider gaps between rich and poor than those states that don’t. What about welfare benefits? …In general, the higher the benefit package, the higher the Gini coefficient. States with high income-tax rates aren’t any more equal than states with no income tax.

So what’s the bottom line?

The conclusion is nearly inescapable that liberal policy prescriptions—especially high income-tax rates and the lack of a right-to-work law—make states less prosperous because they chase away workers, businesses and capital. …When politicians get fixated on closing income gaps rather than creating an overall climate conducive to prosperity, middle- and lower-income groups suffer most and income inequality rises. …John F. Kennedy had it right that a rising tide lifts all boats. It would be better for low- and middle-income Americans if growth and not equality became the driving policy goal in the states and in Washington, D.C.

Speaking of rich, guilt-ridden leftists, Michael Moore is getting divorced and the fight with his soon-to-be ex is resulting in some revelations about the immense wealth of this anti-capitalist crusader.

Here are some eye-catching details from a story in the UK-based Daily Mail.

According to Celebrity Worth, Moore has $50m in assets. …the Torch Lake mansion…put a spotlight on his wealth and opened him up for ridicule because he has so often criticized the rich in his films. …The home, which was completed years ago, is believed to cost in the neighborhood of $2m. …The lake house isn’t their only home. They own a total of nine properties in Michigan and New York. Their Manhattan condo was created through ‘the combination of three separate units,’ according to The Smoking Gun. …Together Moore and Glynn own ‘multiple substantial residences and multiple companies,’ including Dog Eat Dog Films, the production company behind films Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine.

Nine properties, including a lakefront mansion and a three-units-combined-into-one Manhattan condo?!?

Who knew bashing the rich was such a lucrative gig.

Geesh, I’m a defender of the top 1 percent and I only have a house in Virginia.

I’m obviously doing something wrong.

P.S. While rich leftists say they want higher taxes, they’ve been exposed on camera as complete hypocrites.

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In previous columns, I’ve explained why a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And I’ve also pontificated on why leftists are wrong to pursue policies of coerced equality.

So it goes without saying that I’m a big fan of a new Wall Street Journal column by John Steele Gordon.

He writes that the anti-wealth ideology animating the political elite is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how large fortunes are generated.

He starts by pointing out that many of today’s richest people earned their money as a result of the microprocessor, a technological development that has dramatically improved the lives of ordinary people.

The French economist Thomas Piketty, in his new book “Capital in the 21st Century,” calls for an 80% tax on incomes over $250,000 and a 2% annual tax on net worth in order to prevent an excessive concentration of wealth. That is a monumentally bad idea. The great growth of fortunes in recent decades is not a sinister development. Instead it is simply the inevitable result of an extraordinary technological innovation, the microprocessor… Seven of the 10 largest fortunes in America today were built on this technology, as have been countless smaller ones. …no one is poorer because Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, et al., are so much richer. These new fortunes came into existence only because the public wanted the products and services—and lower prices—that the microprocessor made possible.

He then points out that this is actually a consistent pattern through history.

New technologies make us better off, and also create riches for those who most effectively bring those new developments to consumers.

Whenever a new technology comes along that greatly reduces the cost of a fundamental input to the economy, or makes possible what had previously been impossible, there has always been a flowering of great new fortunes—often far larger than those that came before. …The full-rigged ship that Europeans developed in the 15th century, for instance, was capable of reaching the far corners of the globe. …The Dutch exploited the new trade so successfully that the historian Simon Schama entitled his 1987 book on this period of Dutch history “The Embarrassment of Riches.” …Before James Watt’s rotary steam engine, patented in 1781, only human and animal muscles, water mills and windmills could supply power. But with Watt’s engine it was suddenly possible to input vast amounts of very-low-cost energy into the economy. Combined with the factory system of production, the steam engine sparked the Industrial Revolution, causing growth—and thus wealth as well as job creation—to sharply accelerate. By the 1820s so many new fortunes were piling up that the English social critic John Sterling was writing, “Wealth! Wealth! Wealth! Praise to the God of the 19th century! The Golden Idol! The mighty Mammon!” In 1826 the young Benjamin Disraeli coined the word millionaire to denote the holders of these new industrial fortunes. …before the railroad, moving goods overland was extremely, and often prohibitively, expensive. The railroad made it cheap. Such fortunes as those of the railroad-owning Vanderbilts, Goulds and Harrimans became legendary for their size. …Many of the new fortunes in America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century were based on petroleum, by then inexpensive and abundant thanks to Edwin Drake’s drilling technique. Steel, suddenly made cheap thanks to the Bessemer converter, could now have a thousand new uses. Oil and steel, taken together, made the automobile possible. That produced still more great fortunes, not only in car manufacturing, but also in rubber, glass, highway construction and such ancillary industries.

Gordon then concludes by warning against class-warfare tax policy, since it would discourage the risk-taking that necessarily accompanies big investments in new technology.

Any attempt to tax away new fortunes in the name of preventing inequality is certain to have adverse effects on further technology creation and niche exploitation by entrepreneurs—and harm job creation as a result. The reason is one of the laws of economics: Potential reward must equal the risk or the risk won’t be taken. And the risks in any new technology are very real in the highly competitive game that is capitalism. In 1903, 57 automobile companies opened for business in this country, hoping to exploit the new technology. Only the Ford Motor Co. survived the Darwinian struggle to succeed. As Henry Ford’s fortune grew to dazzling levels, some might have decried it, but they also should have rejoiced as he made the automobile affordable for everyman.

My only complaint about Gordon’s column is that he didn’t have the space to emphasize a related point.

All of the large fortunes that he discusses were not accumulated at the expense of those with less money.

In other words, the economy was not a fixed pie. Capitalism made everybody better off. Some just got richer faster than other people got richer.

P.S. I wrote the other day about the VA scandal and emphasized that the problem was not inadequate spending.

I want to revisit the issue because Professor Glenn Reynolds makes a very important point about greed in a column for USA Today.

People sometimes think that government or “nonprofit” operations will be run more honestly than for-profit businesses because the businesses operate on the basis of “greed.” But, in fact, greed is a human characteristic that is present in any organization made up of humans. It’s all about incentives. And, ironically, a for-profit medical system might actually offer employees less room for greed than a government system. That’s because VA patients were stuck with the VA. If wait times were long, they just had to wait, or do without care. In a free-market system, a provider whose wait times were too long would lose business, and even if the employees faked up the wait-time numbers, that loss of business would show up on the bottom line. That would lead top managers to act, or lose their jobs. In the VA system, however, the losses didn’t show up on the bottom line because, well, there isn’t one. Instead, the losses were diffused among the many patients who went without care — visible to them, but not to the people who ran the agency, who relied on the cooked-books numbers from their bonus-seeking underlings. …that’s the problem with socialism. The absence of a bottom line doesn’t reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing.

Amen.

Greed is always with us. The question is whether greed is channeled in productive ways. In a free market, greedy people can only become rich by providing the rest of us with valuable goods and services.

In statist systems, by contrast, greedy people manipulate coercive government policies in order to obtain unearned wealth.

And that choice has big consequences for the rest of us, as illustrated by this satirical image.

P.S. Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail that sums up how Washington will probably deal with the mess at the Veterans Administration.

Sort of reminds me of this Gary Varvel cartoon.

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I haven’t spent much time writing about Thomas Piketty’s inequality book for the simple reason that my goal is economic liberty, not equality.

That being said, I think that Piketty is fundamentally misguided even if the goal is helping the poor. Simply stated, long-run growth is the best way of reducing poverty and boosting living standards. Piketty, by contrast, focuses on redistribution – even though this would require punitive taxation, thus undermining growth and hurting the less fortunate.

This is very obvious when we look at economic performance in market-oriented nations and compare it to economic performance in countries where government plays a bigger role.

Most recently, I showed how Poland is out-pacing Ukraine.

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.

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

As I often remark in my speeches, I’d much rather be a poor person in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore rather than in a “compassionate” country such as France.

France might give me lots of handouts, but I’d remain poor. In a free-market society, by contrast, I could climb out of poverty.

Anyhow, let’s return to Piketty’s thesis about the rich benefiting from capital accumulation. All sorts of scholars have called into question his theoretical model and his empirical data, but I don’t even care if Piketty’s right. In a free society, the worst thing that happens is that the rich get richer faster than the poor get richer.

That’s why we should concentrate on what we can do to boost growth.

And there is one economic reform that is good for growth, but would be especially beneficial for lower-income people. Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation, in a column for Forbes, makes a powerful case for Social Security reform.

He starts with the essential insight that policy makers should focus on helping the poor, not penalizing success.

French economist Thomas Piketty wants to attack the issue of income inequality by redistributing the wealth of the highest earners. Wouldn’t a better solution be to increase the wealth of the lowest earners?

Merrill says we should make it easier for the overall population to become capitalists.

…instead of taxing that success even more than we already do, which discourages capital development and investment, Washington can help lower- and middle-income workers acquire capital so they too can partake in those higher returns.

He then points out that workers are forced to participate in a Social Security system that imposes very high taxes in exchange for rather meager benefits.

Eugene Steuerle and Caleb Quakenbush of the Urban Institute publish an annual estimate of how much workers at different income levels and marriage status pay into Social Security and Medicare and how much they can expect to receive in benefits. Their 2013 report estimates that a single male worker earning the average income of $44,800 (in 2013 dollars) turning 65 in 2015 can expect to receive $287,000 in Social Security benefits. However, that worker paid in $337,000, for a net loss of about $50,000. Both estimates assume a growth rate of 2 percent, which happens to match Piketty’s projection of long-term GDP growth. That disparity between contributions and benefits declines significantly for women, who tend to live longer. A single female worker would have paid in the same amount, $337,000, but could expect to receive $314,000.

Now we get to his proposed reform.

…what if workers were able to put that same amount of money—their 12.4 percent Social Security (FICA) tax; $5,555 in Stererle’s example—into a personal retirement account that could be invested in broad-based equities?

With personal retirement accounts, ordinary workers can generate big nest eggs.

Using an interest calculator, a $5,555 annual contribution over 40 years at 6 percent grows to about $970,000. Factor in that wealth and income inequality largely evaporates. …if the left is really concerned about income inequality, the best way to end it is wealth creation, not redistribution. Replacing Social Security’s financially struggling system with personal retirement accounts would create real wealth for millions of working Americans.

As you can imagine, I heartily concur. Here’s the video I narrated on the topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

By the way, if you think the stock market is too risky, particularly after the recent financial crisis, one of my Cato colleagues produced a thorough study showing that people who retired right after the market fell still would have been better off with personal accounts.

P.S. If you want to understand why class-warfare tax policy will backfire, another one of my colleagues dismantled the work of Piketty and others.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though I’m not sure we should laugh considering that tens of millions of Americans will suffer when the system no longer can afford to pay promised benefits.

P.P.P.S. Obama’s supposed solution would be an even bigger move in the wrong direction.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but definitely not least, watch Margaret Thatcher destroy the left’s position on income distribution.

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I’m in Vancouver, Canada, for the biennial meeting of the World Taxpayers Associations.

I gave a speech on why tax competition is a valuable force to constrain the greed of the political class, but warned the audience that high-tax governments and international bureaucracies are using financial protectionism to coerce low-tax jurisdictions into weakening their good policies.

But regular readers know that I pontificate far too often on that topic, so today’s column is instead about a presentation by Michael Walker, who was the founding Executive Director at Canada’s Fraser Institute.

Michael’s great contribution to the world was the creation of the Economic Freedom of the World Index, which he developed working with scholars such as Milton Friedman.

I’ve cited the EFW Index many times, particularly to bemoan how America’s score has deteriorated during the Bush-Obama years.

Today, though, we’re going to look at global trends in economic freedom, using some of the slides from Michael’s presentation. And the good news, as you can see from the green line in this first chart, is that there was a significant increase in economic freedom between 1980 and 2010.

EFW Economic Freedom(1)

The blue line, by the way, shows how much nations differed. A higher blue line means more variation (in other words, some nations with very good scores and some with very bad scores), while a lower blue lines means that nations are converging.

To really understand what’s happening, however, it’s important to look at the component parts of the EFW Index. As I wrote back in 2012:

…a country’s economic performance is governed by a wide range of policies.

Indeed, the research suggests that there are five big factors that determine prosperity, and they’re all equally important.

Rule of law and property rights

Sound money

Fiscal policy

Trade policy

Regulatory policy

So let’s look at what’s been happening in each of these areas. Keep in mind, as we look at the following charts, that 10 is the best score.

We’ll start with fiscal policy. As you can see, policy was moving in the wrong direction from 1970 to 1985, then we got two decades of pro-growth changes, but now policy is again trending in the wrong direction.

EFW Size of Government

We’re still better off than we were 30 years ago, but I’m afraid scores will continue to decline because tax rates are now heading in the wrong direction and the burden of government spending is rising in many nations.

Now let’s look at the regulatory data. The trend may not be dramatic, but it is positive. The green line is gradually rising, showing that governments are easing red tape and reducing intervention.

EFW Regulation

Moreover, there’s no sign that policy is moving in the wrong direction, at least on a global basis.

Shifting to trade, we have perhaps the biggest success story in global economic policy. Between 1980 and 200, there was a dramatic increase in the freedom to trade.

EFW Free Trade

We also see some progress on monetary policy, both in that it stopped moving in the wrong direction in 1975 and then moved in the right direction beginning in 1995.

EFW Sound Money

Though I confess some skepticism about this measure. Central banks have created a lot of problems with excess liquidity, but they generally escape blame so long as easy-money policies don’t result in higher consumer prices.

This brings us to our final category. Property rights and the rule of law are very important for market economies, but unfortunately we’ve seen no long-run improvement in these key measures. Positive change between 1975 and 1995 is offset by movement in the wrong direction at other times.

EFW Rule of Law

Indeed, if we look at this next chart, which measures the distribution of scores for each category in 2010, you’ll see that nations get their lowest scores on rule of law and property rights.

EFW Five Factors

This aggregate data, while very useful, does not tell the entire story. If you look at various regions, you’ll discover that “first world” nations tend to get decent scores on rule of law and property rights while developing nations get poor scores.

Indeed, this is why the blue line in the rule of law/property rights chart is so much higher than it is for other categories. Simply stated, this is one area where there hasn’t been much convergence.

Which is a big reason why many developing nations are economic laggards, even if they get reasonably good scores in other categories.

Here’s a final chart that emphasizes that point. It shows nations that get the best scores on the size of government (left column), but then shows that many of them get very poor scores for rule of law and property rights (right column).

The fiscal burden of government is very low in nations such as Lebanon and Bangladesh, for instance, but these jurisdictions don’t attract a lot of investment or enjoy much growth because government fails to provide the right environment.

EFW Size of Government vs Rule of Law Challenge

All of which shows why Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland deserve special praise. They have strong rule of law and property rights while simultaneously maintaining reasonable limits on the fiscal burden of the public sector. No wonder they are ranked first, second, and fourth in overall economic freedom.

And it’s worth noting that a few other nations deserve honorable mention for getting good fiscal policy scores while doing a decent job on the rule of law and property rights, specifically Bahamas (#39), Chile (#11), Mauritius (#6), and United Arab Emirates (#5).

By the way, the United States only got a 6.4 for size of government and a 7.1 for rule of law and property rights. No wonder America is only #17 in the overall rankings.

Back in 2000, when the United States ranked #3, we got a 7.0 for size of government and a 9.2 for rule of law and property rights.

So now you now know why I complain so much about Bush and Obama. And you especially know why I’m so concerned about the erosion of the rule of law under Obama.

P.S. A Spanish academic has developed some fascinating historical data on non-fiscal economic freedom, which is very helpful in understanding how the western world has managed to remain somewhat prosperous even though the fiscal burden of government increased dramatically in the 20th Century.

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On many occasions, I’ve explained that economic output is a function of how much labor and capital are productively utilized.

This is why I relentlessly criticize policies that undermine GDP growth by hindering the use of these “factors of production.”

That’s a bit of economic jargon, but it helps to explain why we shouldn’t be discriminating against capital by double taxing income that is saved and invested.

And it helps to explain why we shouldn’t be discouraging labor by subsidizing unemployment and idleness.

But it’s time to issue a very important caveat. The goal of policy should be economic freedom, not maximizing GDP.

There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to be out of the labor force – so long as they’re not expecting taxpayers to pay their expenses.

Many women, for instance, may want to be at home with children, particularly during their younger years.

Moreover, some older workers may want to retire early.

So while I think it’s bad news that labor force participation has dropped under Obama, there’s more than one possible way to look at that data when you factor in the voluntary choices of some segments of the potential workforce.

But it’s very difficult to give any sort of optimistic or positive spin to these numbers from the Senate Budget Committee. They show a very worrisome trend among prime-working-age men.

These are people who should be in the labor force.

Here’s what John Hinderaker at Powerline wrote about these sobering figures.

An unprecedented number of men–one in six–between the ages of 25 and 54, what should be their prime earning years, are either unemployed or out of the work force entirely.

Here’s the breakdown.

One in eight, the highest proportion since record-keeping began in 1955, are out of the labor forceAnother 2.9 million men in the 25-54 age group haven’t given up–they are still in the labor force–but are currently unemployed.

And here are the consequences.

…the damage done to a generation of American men (and women too, of course) will not easily be undone. Those who missed a chunk of what should have been their most productive years, or departed the labor force entirely, will suffer from Obamanomics for the rest of their lives. The damage being done by our current, inept economic policies is literally incalculable.

Here’s another chart, this one comparing idleness among men in 2007 and 2014.

So how do we fix this problem, keeping in mind that this is not a partisan issue since the bad trend started under Bush?

The big-picture answer is free markets and small government.

In other words, you create jobs by having Washington get out of the way.

P.S. Over the years, the President has made some remarkable statements.

  • In my video on class warfare, I noted that Obama said in 2008 that – for reasons of “fairness” – he wanted to raise the capital gains tax even if the government lost revenue.
  • A couple of years ago, he arrogantly remarked that “at some point you have made enough money.”
  • In 2011, the President was complaining about bank fees and asserted that, “you don’t have some inherent right just to, you know, get a certain amount of profit…”
  • And in 2012, Obama made his infamous “you didn’t build that” statement, which generated some very amusing political cartoons.

With these statements in mind, here’s some Obama humor.

No substantive policy message, I’ll admit, but still funny. Sort of like this t-shirt, this Pennsylvania joke, this Reagan-Obama comparison, this Wyoming joke, this Bush-Obama comparison, this video satire, and this bumper sticker.

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Keynesian economics is a failure.

It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it didn’t work for Bush or Obama in recent years.

No matter where’s it’s been tried, it’s been a flop.

So why, whenever there’s a downturn, do politicians resuscitate the idea that bigger government will “stimulate” the economy?

I’ve tried to answer that question.

Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. You build a model that assumes government spending is good for the economy and you assume that there are zero costs when the government diverts money from the private sector. …politicians love Keynesian theory because it tells them that their vice is a virtue. They’re not buying votes with other people’s money, they’re “stimulating” the economy!

I think there’s a lot of truth in that excerpt, but Sheldon Richman, writing for Reason, offers a more complete analysis. He starts by identifying the quandary.

You can’t watch a news program without hearing pundits analyze economic conditions in orthodox Keynesian terms, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. …What accounts for this staying power?

He then gives his answer, which is the same as mine.

I’d have said it’s because Keynesianism gives intellectual cover for what politicians would want to do anyway: borrow, spend, and create money. They did these things before Lord Keynes published his The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936, and they wanted to continue doing those things even when trouble came of it.

Makes sense, right?

But then Sheldon digs deeper, citing the work of Professor Larry White of George Mason University, and suggests that Keynesianism is popular because it provides hope for an easy answer.

Lawrence H. White of George Mason University, offers a different reason for this staying power in his instructive 2012 book The Clash of Economic Ideas: The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years: namely, that Keynes’s alleged solution to the Great Depression offered hope, apparently unlike its alternatives. …White also notes that “Milton Friedman, looking back in a 1996 interview, essentially agreed [that the alternatives to Keynesianism promised only a better distant future]. Academic economists had flocked to Keynes because he offered a faster way out of the depression, as contrasted to the ‘gloomy’ prescription of [F.A.] Hayek and [Lionel] Robbins that we must wait for the economy to self-correct.” …Note that the concern was not with what would put the economy on a long-term sustainable path, but rather with what would give the short-term appearance of improvement.

In other words, Keynesian economics is like a magical weight-loss pill. Some people simply want to believe it works.

Which is understandably more attractive than the gloomy notion the economy has to go through a painful adjustment process.

But perhaps the best insight in Sheldon’s article is that painful adjustment processes wouldn’t be necessary if politicians didn’t make mistakes in the first place!

A related aspect of the Keynesian response to the Great Depression—this also carries on to the current day—is the stunning lack of interest in what causes hard times. Modern Keynesians such as Paul Krugman praise Keynes for not concerning himself with why the economy fell into depression in the first place. All that mattered was ending it. …White quotes Krugman, who faulted economists who “believed that the crucial thing was to explain the economy’s dynamics, to explain why booms are followed by busts.” …why would you want to get bogged down trying to understand what actually caused the mass unemployment? It’s not as though the cause could be expected to shed light on the remedy.

This is why it’s important to avoid unsustainable booms, such as the government-caused housing bubble and easy-money policy from last decade.

Hayek, Robbins, and Mises, in contrast to Keynes, could explain the initial downturn in terms of the malinvestment induced by the central bank’s creation of money and its low-interest-rate policies during the 1920s. …you’d want to see the mistaken investments liquidated so that ever-scarce resources could be realigned according to consumer demand… And you’d want the harmful government policies that set the boom-bust cycle in motion to end.

Gee, what a radical notion. Instead of putting your hope in a gimmicky weight-loss pill, simply avoid getting too heavy in the first place.

For further information, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.S. Here’s some clever humor about Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. If you like humor, but also want some substance, here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, this satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols is right on the mark.

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There aren’t any nations with pure libertarian economic policy, but there are a handful of jurisdictions that deserve praise, either because they have comparatively low levels of statism or because they have made big strides in the right direction.

Hong Kong and Singapore are examples of the former, and Switzerland deserves honorable mention.

And if we look at nations that have moved in the right direction, then Chile is definitely a success story.

The free-market revolution in Chile is remarkable. If you look at the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, Chile was in last place in 1970 and third from the bottom in 1975. But then reforms began. It climbed to 60th place in 1980, 40th place in 1985, 28th place in 2000, and Chile now has one of the world’s freest economies, hovering around 10th place.

And the results are amazing. Now known as the Latin Tiger, Chile has become the richest nation in the region, thanks to a big increase in economic liberty. Many people know about that nation’s very successful system of personal retirement accounts (discussed here by Jose Pinera), but Chile’s economic renaissance is much deeper than private pensions.

The country has an admirable system of school choice, for instance, and 60 percent of students now attend private schools.

Most remarkable, the poverty rate has plummeted, showing that free markets and small government are the best way of helping the less fortunate.

But there’s no such thing as permanent success, and it appears that Chilean politicians may try to kill the geese that are laying the golden eggs.

Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report, starting with a description of the class-warfare tax plan proposed by the nation’s socialist leader.

Chile’s leftist government is proposing a controversial overhaul of its tax code that business leaders say threatens to reverse the gains that have made this country Latin America’s most prosperous nation. …The government says the tax reform will increase the tax haul by three percentage points of annual economic output, or by about $8.2 billion annually. The proposed overhaul includes an increase in the corporate tax rate to 25% from the current rate of 20% and the elimination of a popular tax exemption program that allows businesses that reinvest profits, known as the FUT. …Ms. Bachelet, a 62-year-old Socialist Party member, said Wednesday that the changes are required to fund a plan to improve the quality of the schools system.

The FUT system sounds like expensing, which is how the tax code should treat business investment, not a loophole.

In any event, we definitely know that the tax plan would significantly boost the tax burden.

And that has wealth creators worried.

The plan to raise the corporate tax rate and close an exemption that companies use to reinvest profits has stirred up an ideologically-charged debate at a time when economic growth has weakened to its slowest level in four years. …many of the company’s 450 business clients in Chile are reconsidering investment plans. “They are watching this with a lot of concern.” …business groups say they will try to pressure the government to rethink the tax overhaul. Juan Pablo Swett, the head of Chile’s association of small businesses, said that some 250,000 small-business owners could protest if the government doesn’t save the FUT. “Chile is going down the road of Latin American populism,” added Axel Kaiser, an economist and executive director at the Foundation for Progress, a conservative Chilean think tank.

The story notes that economic reform has been very positive for Chile.

This mineral-rich, long sliver of a country that hugs the Pacific Ocean has long been a laboratory for economic innovation. Starting in the mid-1970s, when much of Latin America had closed their economies from international trade, Chile went the other way, embarking on a program to liberalize trade, deregulate and even create a private pension system. Since 1990, successive governments, most of them left-leaning, oversaw business-friendly policies that turned it into the region’s most stable and wealthiest nation. …The robust economic growth, coined the “Chilean Miracle,” led to a decline in poverty to 15% in 2011 from almost 40% in 1990, according to the World Bank. During the same period, Chile’s gross domestic product per capita rose from less than $5,000 to more than $20,000, the highest in Latin America.

And since reform has produced such good results, that leaves us with two issues.

First, why do the politicians want to ruin a good thing? These people presumably are educated and well-traveled. They must realize how Chile has prospered relative to other nations in the region. So why tinker with success? Are they really so short-sighted that they’re willing to condemn their nation to slower growth just so they have the ability to buy votes with a temporary increase in tax revenue?

Second, why did voters elect these politicians? Don’t they realize that they’ve benefited from the pro-market reforms? Though I suspect the answer is that previous left-of-center governments haven’t done anything bad, while the recently ousted right-of-center government didn’t do anything good, so maybe voters didn’t realize that the new left-leaning government intended to make radical changes.

Regardless, it will be tragic if these reforms are imposed and Chile sinks back into economic stagnation.

The world in general – and Latin America in particular – already has plenty of basket case economies such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Argentina. The last thing we need is another statist economy.

I realize this may sound like whining, but it would make my job easier to have more examples of jurisdictions that can be role models for free markets and small government.

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Back in 2011, I shared a video making the moral argument that adults should be allowed to buy and sell kidneys.

After all, if one person is made better off by selling a kidney and another person is made better off by buying a kidney, why should the rest of us be allowed to ban that voluntary exchange?

In a new video looking at anti-market bias, Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University uses kidney sales as an example of how capitalism yields great results.

So why is it against the law to buy and sell kidneys, particularly when the actual buyers and sellers – by definition – both benefit?

In 2010, I speculated that a knee-jerk fixation on the wrong kind of equality might be part of the answer. The current system, with long waiting lines and thousands of needless deaths, may be bad, but at least rich people suffer just as much as poor people.

…it is perplexing that statists are so viscerally opposed. The only interpretation I can come up with – which I admit is very uncharitable – is that they are willing to let people die because they are myopically fixated on equity. No system is acceptable, in their minds, unless it results in equal death rates by income class and equal kidney donations by income class.

In reality, a free market would benefit both rich and poor. Not only would some poor people get a lot of money by selling their spare kidneys, but poor people on dialysis would be far more likely to get transplants since private charities would be able to raise money to save their lives.

P.S. Professor Caplan is the creator of the “libertarian purity quiz.” I only got 94 out of 160 possible points, which doesn’t sound that impressive, but it was enough to get me classified as “hard core.”

P.P.S. In my posts about unemployment benefits, I’ve argued that there’s a big downside to giving people money on the condition that they don’t have a job. Simply stated, you trap people in unemployment.

And I’ve cited lots of academic evidence to support that hypothesis. And for those who prefer anecdotes, check out this story from Michigan and this example from Ohio.

I’ve even cited left-wing economists who admit that unemployment benefits translate into more joblessness. And this Michael Ramirez cartoon on the issue is both amusing and persuasive.

But one thing I haven’t done is share data from actual people without jobs. So here’s some data from a national scientific poll of unemployed Americans.

…80 percent agree that it “is giving me time to find the right position.” …82 percent of those receiving benefits said if their unemployment compensation were to run out prior to their finding a job, they would “search harder and wider for a job.” …48 percent agree that they “haven’t had to look for work as hard” thanks to unemployment compensation.

Gee, what a shocker. Endless unemployment benefits enable people to be less diligent about finding work. That may not be a big problem if people are out of the labor force for two months. But when politicians keep extending jobless benefits, you create permanent unemployment.

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I’m beginning to think that people from some nations are smarter and more rational than others.

That may explain, for instance, why voters in Estonia support fiscal restraint while voters in France foolishly think the gravy train can continue forever.

But I’m not making an argument about genetic ability. Instead, what I’m actually starting to wonder is whether some political cultures yield smarter and more rational decisions.

Switzerland is a good example. In a referendum this past weekend, an overwhelming majority of voters rejected a proposal to impose a minimum wage. Here are some excerpts from a BBC report.

Swiss voters have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to introduce what would have been the highest minimum wage in the world in a referendum. Under the plan, employers would have had to pay workers a minimum 22 Swiss francs (about $25; £15; 18 euros) an hour. …critics argued that it would raise production costs and increase unemployment. The minimum wage proposal was rejected by 76% of voters. Supporters had argued it would “protect equitable pay” but the Swiss Business Federation said it would harm low-paid workers in particular. …unions are angry that Switzerland – one of the richest countries in the world – does not have a minimum pay level while neighbouring France and Germany do.

Every single Swiss Canton voted against the minimum wage.

That means the French-speaking cantons voted no, even though the French-speaking people in France routinely support politicians who favor bad policy.

That means the German-speaking cantons voted no, even though the German-speaking people in Germany routinely support politicians who favor bad policy.

And it means that the Italian-speaking canton voted no, even though the Italian-speaking people in Italy routinely support politicians who favor bad policy.

So why is it that the same people, genetically speaking, make smart decisions in Switzerland and dumb decisions elsewhere?

I don’t have an answer, but here’s some more evidence. As you can see from these passages in a New York Times story, the Swiss have a lot more common sense than their neighbors.

“A fixed salary has never been a good way to fight the problem,” said Johann Schneider-Ammann, the economic minister. “If the initiative had been accepted, it would have led to workplace losses, especially in rural areas where less-qualified people have a harder time finding jobs. The best remedy against poverty is work.” …“Switzerland, especially in popular votes, has never had a tradition of approving state intervention in the labor markets,” said Daniel Kubler, a professor of political science at the University of Zurich. “A majority of Swiss has always thought, and still seems to think, that liberal economic principles are the basis of their model of success.”

Even the non-Swiss in Switzerland are rational. Check out this blurb from a story which appeared before the vote in USA Today.

…some who would be eligible for the higher wage worry that it may do more harm than good. Luisa Almeida is an immigrant from Portugal who works in Switzerland as a housekeeper and nanny. Almeida’s earnings of $3,250 a month are below the proposed minimum wage but still much more than she’d make in Portugal. Since she is not a Swiss citizen, she cannot vote but if she could, “I would vote ‘no’,” she says. “If my employer had to pay me more money, he wouldn’t be able to keep me on and I’d lose the job.”

Heck, I’m wondering if Ms. Almeida would be willing to come to Washington and educate Barack Obama. Minimum Wage BensonShe obviously has enough smarts to figure out the indirect negative impact of government intervention, so her counsel would be very valuable in DC.

But if Ms. Almeida isn’t available, we have another foreigner who already has provided advice on the issue of minimum wages. Here’s Orphe Divougny, originally from Gabon, with a common-sense explanation of why it doesn’t make sense to hurt low-skilled workers.

By the way, this isn’t the first time the Swiss have demonstrated common sense when asked to vote of key economic policy issues.

In 2001, 85 percent of voters approved a plan to cap the growth of government spending.

In 2010, 59 percent of voters rejected an Obama-style class-warfare tax plan.

No wonder there are many reasons why Switzerland ranks above the United States.

P.S. I wrote earlier this month about Pfizer’s potential merger that would allow the company to reduce its onerous tax burden to the IRS by redomiciling in the United Kingdom.

Well, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe has weighed in on the issue and I can’t resist sharing this excerpt.

…the outrage isn’t the wish of an American corporation to lower its tax bill. It is a US tax code so punitive and counterproductive that it can drive a company like Pfizer, which was launched in Brooklyn in 1849, to turn itself into a foreign corporation. The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world. That puts American companies at a serious competitive disadvantage, since their rivals elsewhere are able to channel more of their profits into new investment, hiring, and productivity. What’s worse, ours is the only country that enforces a system of “worldwide” taxation, which means that American firms have to pay tax to the IRS not only on income earned in the United States but on their foreign earnings as well. Other nations content themselves with “territorial” taxation — they only tax income earned within their national borders. US corporations like Pfizer that have significant earnings overseas are thus taxed on those earnings twice: first by the government of the country where the money was earned, and then by the IRS.

Amen, amen, and amen.

Our tax system imposes a very punitive corporate tax rate.

It then augments the damage with worldwide taxation.

And the system is riddled with onerous rules that cause America to rank a lowly 94th out of 100 nations for business “tax attractiveness.”

In other words, when greedy politicians complain about Pfizer’s possible inversion, it’s a classic case of blaming the victim.

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What’s the worst economic development during Obama’s reign?

Some would say it’s the higher tax burden.

Some would say it’s the wasteful faux stimulus.

Others would say it’s the fiscal nightmare of Obamacare.

And others would say it’s the loss of millions of workers from the labor force.

I suppose there’s no objective way to pick the most ill-conceived policy, but if you think the biggest problem is either Obamacare or falling labor force participation, then I have some very grim news that will confirm your fears.

According to new research, it appears Obamacare will drive many more people from the labor force. More specifically, the Medicaid expansion will alter – in a very destructive way – the tradeoff between labor and leisure.

Researchers Laura Dague, Thomas DeLeire, and Lindsay Leininger argue in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper that Medicaid enrollment will lead to significant and lasting reductions in employment among childless adults. …Dague and her colleagues conclude that if the Medicaid expansion enrolls about 21 million additional adults, anywhere from 511,000 to 2.2 million fewer people will be employed. Furthermore, they argue that the Medicaid expansion will knock almost a full point off of today’s labor force participation rate — or share of the civilian population that is working — a measure of economic health that is already at its lowest point since 1977. …This research provides strong evidence for the contention that enrolling in Medicaid traps people in poverty and makes it harder for them to make their way into the middle class. Furthermore, it links the Medicaid expansion to the weakening of our nation’s economy.

By way of background, Medicaid is the federal government’s healthcare entitlement for (supposedly) poor people, while Medicare is the entitlement for old people. And, as part of Obamacare, the eligibility rules for Medicaid were dramatically weakened.

But the new research cited above shows that if you give people “free” health care, that makes them less likely to work.

Particularly when you combine that freebie with food stamps, housing subsidies, welfare, and other handouts.

That’s obviously bad news for taxpayers, who bear the direct cost of a bloated welfare state.

Welfare CliffBut it’s also bad for the less fortunate. They get trapped in a web of dependency, both because handouts reduce the incentive to work (humorously depicted here and here), band also because they face very high implicit marginal tax rates if they actually try to escape government dependency.

But Obama and other leftists probably see this as a feature, not a bug.

After all, those who are lured into being dependent on government presumably have an incentive to vote for those who give them the most goodies.

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While theory is important, I suspect most people are more likely to be convinced by real-world evidence.

This is why I frequently compare nations when arguing that free markets and small government are the best way of generating prosperity.

Simply stated, I want people to understand that economic liberty produces faster growth, and that faster growth can make a huge difference, particularly when looking at several decades of data.

Most recently, I showed how Poland is out-pacing Ukraine.

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.

Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

After looking at these examples, you’ll understand why I’m very happy to share this new video from one of Sweden’s free-market think tanks. It looks at how nations with more economic freedom get better results.

And I particularly like the comparisons of nations that are moving in the right direction versus those that are degenerating toward more statism.

Another good part of the video is that it shows how the European Union could have a very free economy if all nations simply copied the European nation with the best policy in the five major categories of economic liberty (rule of law, fiscal policy, trade, regulation, and monetary policy).

And it turns out that Denmark is the best in three of the categories (rule of law, trade, and regulation), which is why that nation manages to remain very competitive even though it does very poorly in fiscal policy.

The moral of the story is that trendlines matter. Better policy leads to faster growth, and sustained faster growth is immensely important to long-run living standards.

This appreciation for trendlines is also why I’m so fixated on controlling the long-run growth of government spending.

Indeed, my Golden Rule is a combination of two trend lines. If government spending grows at a slow rate and the private economy grows at a rapid rate, that’s a wonderful combination that could cure the fiscal nightmare of any nation. Even France and Greece.

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In the battle of ideas, supporters of capitalism and economic liberty sometimes face an uphill climb because of a perception of heartlessness.

When companies get in trouble, we’re the mean people who don’t want to give bailouts.

When workers are laid off, we’re the Scrooges who don’t want perpetual unemployment checks.

And when some workers aren’t earning much money, we’re the scoundrels who don’t want to boost the minimum wage.

Our “problem” is that we care about good results rather than good intentions. Motivated by the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat, we look at indirect effects and long-run consequences. And this is why we routinely reject statist proposals.

The challenge, of course, is educating others so that they understand that small government and free markets are the best way of providing more opportunity and better lives – particularly for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

This is why I was very happy to see this new video from Learn Liberty. It basically explains the process of “creative destruction” to show how progress and prosperity are undermined when politicians try to “protect jobs.”

I also like the video because it makes the point that our living standards are the result of how much we produce, not the number of jobs.

In other words, we don’t want people employed for the sake of being employed. We want them doing things that add value to the economy.

government-job-cartoonThat’s one of the reasons why many government jobs are wasteful. People who could be creating wealth are instead imposing costs.

But let’s shift back to the topic of “creative destruction.” In my speeches, I’ll sometimes make the point that progress can be painful. Consider these examples:

The invention of the light bulb was very bad news for the candle making sector.

The invention of the automobile was a grim development for the horse and buggy industry.

The invention of the personal computer devastated typewriter companies.

In every case, these inventions made society much richer, but they also caused the destruction of thousands of jobs and bankrupted many firms. These were very real tragedies for certain people.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, we know that it was good that this “creative destruction” took place. We even know that the descendents of the candle makers, buggy builders, and typewriter producers are better off because our economy is so much more productive.

Just as the video explains that we’re much better off because 90 percent of the population no longer has to work on farms.

Yet we’re still faced with the paradox that supporters of capitalism are called heartless even though we’re the ones that support policies that create wealth and lift people from poverty.

P.S. On a separate topic, I criticized the World Bank in 2012 for putting together a “tax effort” scorecard that gave nations higher scores for heavier tax burdens.

Well, international bureaucracies must be in love with higher taxes (probably because they’re exempt from having to pay tax) and you won’t be surprised to learn that the International Monetary Fund has now published a similar report.

The nation that gets the highest score (i.e., the nation with the worst tax system) is Italy, with an average of almost 99 percent, though France (97 percent) is probably very envious and I wouldn’t be surprised if they asked for a recount.

The nation with the lowest “tax effort” is Guinea-Bissau, with a “failing” grade of about 32. I doubt this means they have a good tax system. I suspect it simply means nobody complies and the government doesn’t expend much “effort” on trying to collect.

Among developed nations, Singapore got the lowest score, with an average of 38. Which means, of course, that they have a very good tax system.

Though there were no grades for places such as Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands, so the report is not complete.

The United States, for what it’s worth, got a 70. So we’re not nearly as bad as countries such as France and Italy. But we’re much more onerous that Singapore.

We also have a higher “tax effort” than officially communist nations such as China and Vietnam. Gee, I guess that means we can be proud of the IRS, huh?

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Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

The IMF even floats a trial balloon that governments could confiscate 10 percent of household assets.

The tax rates needed to bring down public debt to precrisis levels…are sizable: reducing debt ratios to end-2007 levels would require (for a sample of 15 euro area countries) a tax rate of about 10 percent on households with positive net wealth.

Many people condemned the IMF for seeming to endorse theft by government.

The IMF’s Deputy Director of Fiscal Affairs then backpedaled a bit the following month. He did regurgitate the implausible notion that a wealth tax won’t hurt the economy so long as it only happens once and it is a surprise.

To an economist, …it’s close to an ideal form of taxation, since there is nothing you can now do to reduce, avoid, or evade it—the holy grail of what economists call a non-distorting tax. …Such a levy would entail a one-off charge on capital assets, the precise base being a matter for choice, but generally larger than cash left on kitchen tables. Added to the efficiency advantage of such a tax, many see an equity appeal in that such a charge would naturally fall most heavily on those with the most assets.

But he then felt obliged to point out some real-world concerns.

…governments have rarely implemented capital levies, and they have almost never succeeded. And there are very good reasons for that. …to be non-distorting the tax must be both unanticipated and believed certain not to be repeated. These are both very hard things to achieve. Introducing and implementing any new tax takes time, and governments can rarely do it in entire secrecy (even leaving aside transparency issues). And that gives time for assets to be moved abroad, run down, or concealed. The risk of future levies can be even more damaging; they discourage the saving and investment that generate future capital assets.

Though these practical flaws and problems don’t cause much hesitation on the left.

Here’s what Joann Weiner recently wrote in the Washington Post about the work of Thomas Piketty, a French economist who apparently believes society will be better if higher taxes result in everyone being equally poor.

A much higher tax on upper income — say 80 percent — coupled with a significant tax on wealth — say 10 percent — would go a long way toward making America’s income distribution more equitable than it is now. …capital is the chief culprit… Piketty has another pretty radical, at least for the United States, way to shrink the share of wealth at the top — introduce a global tax on all capital. This means taxes on not just stocks and bonds, but also land, homes, machines, patents — you name it; if it’s wealth or if it generates what tax authorities call “unearned income,” then it should be taxed. One other thing. All countries have to adopt the tax to keep capital from fleeing to tax havens.

Writing in the New York Times back in January, Thomas Edsall also applauds proposals for a new wealth tax.

…worsening inequality is an inevitable outcome of free market capitalism. …The only way to halt this process…is to impose a global progressive tax on wealth – global in order to prevent (among other things) the transfer of assets to countries without such levies. A global tax, in this scheme, would restrict the concentration of wealth and limit the income flowing to capital.

Not surprisingly, there’s support in academia for confiscating other people’s money. One professors thinks the “impossible dream” of theft by government could become reality.

…this article proposes a yearly graduated tax on the net wealth of all individuals in excess of $100 million. The rate would be 5% on the excess up to $500 million and then 10% thereafter. …Such taxes are attacked as “class warfare” that runs counter to America’s libertarian and capitalist traditions. However…the time may once again be ripe for adopting a new tax to combat the growing wealth inequality in the nation. …wealth inequality harms the very social fabric of society. …The purpose of the proposed Equality Tax would not be to raise general revenue, although revenue would be raised. Instead it would be focused on establishing a societal value that for the health of society, no individual should accrue wealth beyond a certain point. Essentially, once an individual has $100 million of assets, …further wealth accumulation harms society while providing little economic benefit or incentive to the individual. …At a minimum such a tax would raise
at least $140 billion a year.

Let’s close by looking at the real economic consequences of wealth taxation. Jan Schnellenbach of the Walter Eucken Intitut in Germany analyzed this question.

Are there sound economic reasons for the net wealth tax, as an instrument to tax stocks of physical and financial capital, to be levied in addition to taxes on capital incomes?

Before even addressing that issue, the author points out that policy actually has been moving in the right direction, presumably because of tax competition.

There has been a wave of OECD countries abolishing their personal net wealth taxes recently. Examples are Spain (abolished in 2008), Sweden (2007) as well as Finland, Iceland and Luxembourg (all 2006). Nevertheless, the net wealth tax repeatedly surfaces again in the public debate.

So what about the economics of a wealth tax? Schnellenbach makes the critical point that even a small levy on assets translates into a very punitive rate on actual returns.

…every tax on domestic wealth needs to be paid out of the returns on wealth, every net wealth tax with a given rate is trivially equivalent to a capital income tax with a substantially higher rate. …even an – on aggregate – non-confi scatory wealth tax may at least temporarily actually have confi scatory eff ects on individuals in periods where they realize sufficiently low returns on their capital stock.

He then looks at the impact on incentives.

…a net wealth tax will have similar distortionary e ffects as a capital income tax. …Introducing a comprehensive net wealth tax would then, through the creation of new incentives for tax avoidance and evasion, also diminish the base of the income tax. Scenarios with even a negative overall revenue eff ect would be conceivable. There is thus good reason to cast doubt on the popular belief that a net wealth tax combines little distortions and large amounts of revenue. …A wealth tax aggravates the distortions and the incentives to evade that already exist due to a pre-existing capital income tax.

And he closes by emphasizing that this form of double taxation undermines property rights.

The intrusion into private property rights may be far more severe for a wealth tax compared to an income tax. …It takes hold of a stock of wealth that consists of saved incomes which have already been subject to an income tax in the past… Our discussion has shown that economically, the wealth tax walks on thin ice.

In other words, a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And that’s true whether it’s a permanent levy or a one-time cash grab by politicians.

Some may wonder whether a wealth tax is a real threat. The answer depends on the time frame. Could such a levy happen in the next year or two in the United States?

The answer is no.

But the wealth tax will probably be a real threat in the not-too-distant future. America’s long-run fiscal outlook is very grim because of a rising burden of government spending.

This necessarily means there will be a big fiscal policy battle. On one side, libertarians and small-government advocates will push for genuine entitlement reform. Advocates of big government, by contrast, will want new revenues to enable and facilitate the expansion of the public sector.

The statists will urge higher income tax rates, but sober-minded folks on the left privately admit that the Laffer Curve is real and that they can’t collect much more money with class-warfare tax policy.

That’s why there is considerable interest in new revenue sources, such as energy taxes, financial transaction taxes, and the value-added tax.

And, of course, a wealth tax.

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Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the data, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

China v Taiwan

Yes, China has made big strides in recent decades thanks to reforms to ease the burden of government. But Taiwan is far above the world average while China has only recently reached that level (and only if you believe official Chinese numbers).

So why is there a big difference between China and Taiwan? Well, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Taiwan ranks among the top-20 nations while China ranks only 123 out of 152 countries.

By the way, Taiwan has a relatively modest burden of government spending. The public sector only consumes about 21.5 percent of economic output. That’s very good compared to other advanced nations.

Moreover, Taiwan is one of the nations that enjoyed considerable progress by adhering to Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Between 2001 and 2006, total government spending didn’t grow at all.

Taiwan Spending Freeze

During this period of fiscal restraint, you won’t be surprised to learn that the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that because politicians addressed the underlying disease of government spending, that also enabled big progress is dealing with the symptom of government borrowing.

Look at what happened to spending and deficits between 2001 and 2006.

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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If you’re a regular reader, you already know I’m a big supporter of tax competition and tax havens.

Here’s the premise: Politicians almost always are focused on their next election and this encourages them to pursue policies that are designed to maximize votes and power within that short time horizon. Unfortunately, this often results in very short-sighted and misguided fiscal policies that burden the economy, such as class-warfare tax policy and counterproductive government spending.

So we need some sort of countervailing force that will make such policies less attractive to the political class. We don’t have anything that inhibits wasteful spending,* but we do have something that discourages politicians from class-warfare tax policy. Tax competition and tax havens give taxpayers some ability to escape extortionate tax policies.

Now we have a couple of new – and very high-profile – examples of this process.

First, a big American drug company is seeking to redomicile in the United Kingdom.

The New York Times has a thorough (and fair) analysis of the issues.

Pfizer proposed a $99 billion acquisition of its British rival AstraZeneca that would allow it to reincorporate in Britain. Doing so would allow Pfizer to escape the United States corporate tax rate and tap into a mountain of cash trapped overseas, saving it billions of dollars each year and making the company more competitive with other global drug makers. …the company wishes to effectively renounce its United States citizenship. …a deal would allow it to follow dozens of other large American companies that have already reincorporated abroad through acquiring foreign businesses. They have been drawn to countries like Ireland and the Netherlands that have lower corporate rates, as well as by the ability to spend their overseas cash without being highly taxed. At least 50 American companies have completed mergers that allowed them to reincorporate in another country, and nearly half of those deals have taken place in the last two years. …American businesses have long complained about the corporate tax rate, arguing that in today’s global marketplace, they are left at a competitive disadvantage.

You can click here if you want some of those additional examples.

To get an idea of why companies want to redomicile, here’s another excerpt from the story.

…the British corporate tax rate is currently 21 percent and will soon fall to 20 percent. Analysts at Barclays estimated that for each percentage point less Pfizer paid in taxes, it would save about $200 million a year by reincorporating. People briefed on Pfizer’s discussions said that figure could be substantially higher. That means that Pfizer would be saving at least $1 billion a year in taxes alone. And moving to a lower-tax jurisdiction would allow Pfizer to tap cash that it holds overseas without paying a steep tax to bring it back to the United States. Of the company’s $49 billion in cash, some 70 to 90 percent of that is estimated to be held overseas.

I’m encouraged, by the way, that reporters for the New York Times are smart enough to figure out the destructive impact of worldwide taxation. Too bad the editors at the paper don’t have the same aptitude.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that Pfizer’s expatriation doesn’t have any negative impact on America.

Pfizer points out that it would retain its corporate headquarters here and remain listed on the New York Stock Exchange. …Pfizer’s chief executive, Ian C. Read, a Briton, said Pfizer found it was hard to compete with other acquirers while saddled with “an uncompetitive tax rate.” Still, he added that even as a reincorporated British company, “we will continue to pay tax bills” in the United States.

The only meaningful change is that the redomiciled company no longer would pay tax to the IRS on foreign-source income, but that’s income that shouldn’t be taxed anyhow!

The Wall Street Journal opined on this issue and made what should be very obvious points about why this is happening.

…because the combined state-federal corporate income tax rate in the U.S. is nearly 40%, compared to the 21% rate in the U.K.

Amen. America’s punitive corporate tax rate is a self-inflicted wound.

But it’s not the just the statutory tax rate. The WSJ also points out that the United States also wants companies to pay tax to the IRS on foreign-source income even though that income already has been subject to tax by foreign governments!

The U.S., almost alone among the world’s governments, demands to be paid on a company’s world-wide profits whenever those profits are brought back to the U.S.

It’s for reasons like this that America’s corporate tax system came in 94th place (out of 100!) in a ranking of the degree to which national tax systems impacted competitiveness.

Now let’s look at the second example of a high-profile tax-motivated corporate migration.

Toyota is moving the heart of its American operation from high-tax California to zero-income tax Texas.

And the Wall Street Journal correctly explains the lesson we should learn. Or, to be more accurate, the lesson that politicians should learn.

In addition to its sales headquarters, Toyota says it plans to move 3,000 professional jobs to the Dallas suburb… Toyota’s chief executive for North America Jim Lentz…listed the friendly Texas business climate…as well as such lifestyle benefits as affordable housing and zero income tax.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.

In 2006, Nissan moved its headquarters from Gardena—north of Torrance—to Franklin, Tennessee. CEO Carlos Ghosn cited Tennessee’s lower business costs.

The bottom line is that greedy California politicians are trying to seize too much money and are driving away the geese that lay the golden eggs.

According to the Tax Foundation, the state-local tax burden is more than 50% higher in California than in Tennessee and Texas, which don’t levy a personal income tax. California’s top 13.3% marginal rate is the highest in the country. …Since 2011 more than two dozen California companies including Titan Laboratories, Xeris Pharmaceuticals, Superconductor Technologies, Pacific Union Financial and Med-Logics have relocated in Texas. Dozens of others such as Roku, Pandora and Oracle have expanded there.

No wonder, as I wrote a few years ago, Texas is thumping California.

The real puzzle is why most high-tax governments don’t learn the right lessons. Are the politicians really so short-sighted that they’ll drive away their most productive people?

But notice I wrote most, not all. Because we do have some very recent examples of very left-wing states doing the right thing because of tax competition.

Here are some excerpts from a column in Forbes.

Maryland is the latest state to make its estate tax less onerous, and it’s significant because it’s a staunchly Democratic state indicating that easing the pain of the death tax isn’t just a Republican issue. Today the Maryland Senate passed the measure, already passed by the House, gradually raising the amount exempt from the state’s estate tax to match the generous federal estate tax exemption.

And other blue jurisdictions seem to be learning the same lesson.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget calls for increasing the state’s estate tax exemption from $1 million to match the federal exemption, and lowering the top rate from 16% down to 10% by fiscal 2017.  …A commission on tax reform in the District of Columbia recently recommended raising D.C.’s estate tax exemption from $1 million to the federal level. …In Minnesota, Democratic Governor Mark Dayton has proposed doubling the state estate tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million as part of a bigger tax package.

This is why tax competition is such a wonderful thing. There’s no question that politicians in states such as New York don’t want to lower the burden of the death tax.

But they’re doing it anyhow because they know that successful taxpayers will move to states without this awful form of double taxation.

Just like European politicians reduced corporate tax rates even though they would have preferred to keep high tax rates.

Tax competition isn’t a sufficient condition for good policy, but it sure is a necessary condition!

*There are spending caps that restrain wasteful government spending, such as the debt brake in Switzerland and TABOR in Colorado, but those are policies rather than processes.

P.S. Here’s a joke about California, Texas, and a coyote.

P.P.S. And supporters of the Second Amendment will appreciate this Texas vs. California joke.

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