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Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category

The International Monetary Fund isn’t my least-favorite international bureaucracy. That special honor belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, largely because of its efforts to undermine tax competition and protect the interests of the political class (it also tried to have me arrested, but I don’t hold that against them).

But the IMF deserves its share of disdain. It’s the Doctor Kevorkian of global economic policy, regularly advocating higher taxes and easy money even though that’s never been a recipe for national prosperity.

And it turns out that the IMF also is schizophrenic. The international bureaucracy’s latest big idea, garnering an entire chapter in the October World Economic Outlook, is that governments should spend more on infrastructure.

Barack Obama’s former chief economist supports the IMF scheme. Here some of what he wrote for the Washington Post.

…the IMF advocates substantially increased public infrastructure investment, and not just in the United States but in much of the world. It further asserts that under circumstances of high unemployment, like those prevailing in much of the industrialized world, the stimulative impact will be greater if this investment is paid for by borrowing… Why does the IMF reach these conclusions? …the infrastructure investment actually makes it possible to reduce burdens on future generations. …the IMF finds that a dollar of investment increases output by nearly $3. …in a time of economic shortfall and inadequate public investment, there is a free lunch to be had — a way that government can strengthen the economy and its own financial position.

Wow, That’s a rather aggressive claim. Governments spend $1 and the economy grows by $3.

Is Summers being accurate? What does the IMF study actually say?

It makes two big points.

The first point, which is reflected in the Summers oped, is that infrastructure spending can boost growth.

The study finds that increased public infrastructure investment raises output in the short term by boosting demand and in the long term by raising the economy’s productive capacity. In a sample of advanced economies, an increase of 1 percentage point of GDP in investment spending raises the level of output by about 0.4 percent in the same year and by 1.5 percent four years after the increase… In addition, the boost to GDP a country gets from increasing public infrastructure investment offsets the rise in debt, so that the public debt-to-GDP ratio does not rise… In other words, public infrastructure investment could pay for itself if done correctly.

But Summers neglected to give much attention to the caveats in the IMF study.

…the report cautions against just increasing infrastructure investment on any project. …The output effects are also bigger in countries with a high degree of public investment efficiency, where additional public investment spending is not wasted and is allocated to projects with high rates of return. …a key priority in economies with relatively low efficiency of public investment should be to raise the quality of infrastructure investment by improving the public investment process through, among others, better project appraisal, selection, execution, and rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Perhaps the most important caveat, though, is that the study uses a “novel empirical strategy” to generate its results. That should raise a few alarm bells.

So is this why the IMF is schizophrenic?

Nope. Not even close.

If you want evidence of IMF schizophrenia, compare what you read above with the results from a study released by the IMF in August.

And this study focused on low-income countries, where you might expect to find the best results when looking at the impact of infrastructure spending.

So what did the author find?

On average the evidence shows only a weak positive association between investment spending and growth and only in the same year, as lagged impacts are not significant. Furthermore, there is little evidence of long term positive impacts. …The fact that the positive association is largely instantaneous argues for the importance of either reverse causality, as capital spending tends to be cut in slumps and increased in booms… In fact a slump in growth rather than a boom has followed many public capital drives of the past. Case studies indicate that public investment drives tend eventually to be financed by borrowing and have been plagued by poor analytics at the time investment projects were chosen, incentive problems and interest-group-infested investment choices. These observations suggest that the current public investment drives will be more likely to succeed if governments do not behave as in the past.

Wow. Not only is the short-run effect a mirage based on causality, but the long-run impact is negative.

But the real clincher is the conclusion that “public investment” is productive only “if governments do not behave as in the past.”

In other words, we have to assume that politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats will suddenly stop acting like politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats.

Yeah, good luck with that.

But it’s not just a cranky libertarian like me who thinks it is foolish to expect good behavior from government.

Charles Lane, an editorial writer who focuses on economic issues for the left-leaning Washington Post, is similarly skeptical.

Writing about the IMF’s October pro-infrastructure study, he thinks it relies on sketchy assumptions.

The story is told of three professors — a chemist, a physicist and an economist — who find themselves shipwrecked with a large supply of canned food but no way to open the cans. The chemist proposes a solvent made from native plant oils. The physicist suggests climbing a tree to just the right height, then dropping the cans on some rocks below. “Guys, you’re making this too hard,” the economist interjects. “Assume we have a can opener.” Keep that old chestnut in mind as you evaluate the International Monetary Fund’s latest recommendation… A careful reading of the IMF report, however, reveals that this happy scenario hinges on at least two big “ifs.”

The first “if” deals with the Keynesian argument that government spending “stimulates” growth, which I don’t think merits serious consideration.

But feel free to click here, here, here, and here if you want to learn more about that issues.

So let’s instead focus on the second “if.”

The second, and more crucial, “if” is the IMF report’s acknowledgment that stimulative effects of infrastructure investment vary according to the efficiency with which borrowed dollars are spent: “If the efficiency of the public investment process is relatively low — so that project selection and execution are poor and only a fraction of the amount invested is converted into productive public capital stock — increased public investment leads to more limited long-term output gains.” That’s a huge caveat. Long-term costs and benefits of major infrastructure projects are devilishly difficult to measure precisely and always have been. …Today we have “bridges to nowhere,” as well as major projects plagued by cost overruns and delays all over the world — and not necessarily in places you think of as corrupt. Germany’s still unfinished Berlin Brandenburg airport is five years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, to name one example. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford’s Said Business School studied 258 major projects in 20 nations over 70 years and found average cost overruns of 44.7 percent for rail, 33.8 percent for bridges and tunnels and 20.4 percent for roads.

Amen. Governments are notorious for cost overruns and boondoggle spending.

It happens in the United States and it happens overseas.

It’s an inherent part of government, as Lane acknowledges.

In short, an essential condition for the IMF concept’s success — optimally efficient investment — is both difficult to define and, to the extent it can be defined, highly unrealistic. As Flyvbjerg explains, cost overruns and delays are normal, not exceptional, because of perverse incentives — specifically, project promoters have an interest in overstating benefits and understating risks. The better they can make the project look on paper, the more likely their plans are to get approved; yet, once approved, economic and logistical realities kick in, and costs start to mount. Flyvbjerg calls this tendency “survival of the unfittest.” …Governments that invest in infrastructure on the assumption it will pay for itself may find out that they’ve gone a bridge too far.

Or bridge to nowhere, for those who remember the infamous GOP earmark from last decade that would have spent millions of dollars to connect a sparsely inhabited Alaska island with the mainland – even though it already had a very satisfactory ferry service.

Let’s close with two observations.

First, why did the IMF flip-flop in such a short period of time? It does seem bizarre for a bureaucracy to publish an anti-infrastructure spending study in August and then put out a pro-infrastructure spending study two months later.

I don’t know the inside story on this schizophrenic behavior, but I assume that the August study was the result of a long-standing research project by one of the IMF’s professional economists (the IMF publishes dozens of such studies every year). By contrast, I’m guessing the October study was pushed by the political bosses at the IMF, who in turn were responding to pressure from member governments that wanted some sort of justification for more boondoggle spending.

In other words, the first study was apolitical and the second study wasn’t.

Not that this is unusual. I suspect many of the economists working at international bureaucracies are very competent. So when they’re allowed to do honest research, they produce results that pour cold water on big government. Indeed, that even happens at the OECD.

But when the political appointees get involved, they put their thumbs on the scale in order to generate results that will please the governments that underwrite their budgets.

My second observation is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the IMF’s theoretical assertions in the August study. Infrastructure spending can be useful and productive.

It’s an empirical question to decide whether a new road will be a net plus or a net minus. Or a new airport runway. Or subway system. Or port facilities.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we’re far more likely to get the right answers to these empirical questions if infrastructure spending is handled by state and local governments. Or even the private sector.

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Years ago, I shared a very funny poster that suggests that more government is hardly ever the right answer to any question.

Yet in Washington, the standard response to any screwup by government is to make government even bigger. Sort of Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with the Ebola crisis. The bureaucracies that have received tens of billions of dollars over the years to preclude a crisis are now expecting to get rewarded with more cash.

Governor Jindal of Louisiana debunks the notion that more money for the bureaucracy is some sort of elixir. Here’s some of what he wrote for Politico.

In a paid speech last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to link spending restraints enacted by Congress—and signed into law by President Obama—to the fight against Ebola. Secretary Clinton claimed that the spending reductions mandated under sequestration “are really beginning to hurt,” citing the fight against Ebola: “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is another example on the response to Ebola—they’re working heroically, but they don’t have the resources they used to have.” …In recent years, the CDC has received significant amounts of funding. Unfortunately, however, many of those funds have been diverted away from programs that can fight infectious diseases, and toward programs far afield from the CDC’s original purpose. Consider the Prevention and Public Health Fund, a new series of annual mandatory appropriations created by Obamacare. Over the past five years, the CDC has received just under $3 billion in transfers from the fund. Yet only 6 percent—$180 million—of that $3 billion went toward building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. …While protecting Americans from infectious diseases received only $180 million from the Prevention Fund, the community transformation grant program received nearly three times as much money—$517.3 million over the same five-year period. …Our Constitution states that the federal government “shall protect each of [the States] against Invasion”—a statement that should apply as much to infectious disease as to foreign powers. So when that same government prioritizes funding for jungle gyms and bike paths over steps to protect our nation from possible pandemics, citizens have every right to question the decisions that got us to this point.

What Governor Jindal is describing is the standard mix of incompetence and mission creep that you get with government.

Bureaucracies fail to achieve their stated goals, but also divert lots of resources to new areas.

After all, that’s a great way of justifying more staff and more money.

Especially since they can then argue that they need those additional resources because they never addressed the problems that they were supposed to solve in the first place!

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Free Beacon, starting with some whining from the head bureaucrat at the National Institutes of Health, who wants us to be believe that supposed budget cuts have prevented a vaccine for Ebola.

“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” said NIH Director Francis Collins, blaming budget cuts for his agency’s failure to develop a vaccine for the deadly virus.

Yet take a look at how the NIH has been squandering money.

However, the Washington Free Beacon has uncovered $39,643,352 worth of NIH studies within the past several years that have gone to questionable research. For instance, the agency has spent $2,873,440 trying to figure out why lesbians are obese, and $466,642 on why fat girls have a tough time getting dates. Another $2,075,611 was spent encouraging old people to join choirs. Millions have gone to “text message interventions,” including a study where researchers sent texts to drunks at the bar to try to get them to stop drinking. The project received an additional grant this year, for a total of $674,590. …The NIH’s research on obesity has led to spending $2,101,064 on wearable insoles and buttons that can track a person’s weight, and $374,670 to put on fruit and vegetable puppet shows for preschoolers. A restaurant intervention to develop new children’s menus cost $275,227, and the NIH spent $430,608 for mother-daughter dancing outreach to fight obesity. …Millions went to develop “origami condoms,” in male, female, and anal versions. The inventor Danny Resnic, who received $2,466,482 from the NIH, has been accused of massive fraud for using grant money for full-body plastic surgery in Costa Rica and parties at the Playboy mansion.

Origami condoms?!? I’m almost tempted to do a web search to see what that even means, particularly since there are male, female, and anal versions.

But even without searching online, I know that origami condoms have nothing to do with stopping Ebola.

The Centers for Disease Control also have a long track record of wasting money. Here are some odious details from a Townhall column.

So now the federal health bureaucrats in charge of controlling diseases and pandemics want more money to do their jobs.

Gee, what a surprise.

Maybe if they hadn’t been so busy squandering their massive government subsidies on everything buttheir core mission, we taxpayers might actually feel a twinge of sympathy. At $7 billion, the Centers for Disease Control 2014 budget is nearly 200 percent bigger now than it was in 2000. …Yet, while Ebola and enterovirus D68 wreak havoc on our health system, the CDC has been busying itself with an ever-widening array of non-disease control campaigns, like these recent crusades: Mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. …Video games and TV violence. …Playground equipment. …”Social norming” in the schools. …After every public health disaster, CDC bureaucrats play the money card while expanding their regulatory and research reach into anti-gun screeds, anti-smoking propaganda, anti-bullying lessons, gender inequity studies and unlimited behavior modification programs that treat individual vices — personal lifestyle choices — as germs to be eradicated. …In 2000, the agency essentially lied to Congress about how it spent up to $7.5 million earmarked each year since 1993 for research on the deadly hantavirus. …The diversions were impossible to trace because of shoddy CDC bookkeeping practices. The CDC also misspent $22.7 million appropriated for chronic fatigue syndrome and was investigated in 2001 for squandering $13 million on hepatitis C research.

By the way, you may be wondering why we have both the National Institutes of Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control.

Is this just typical bureaucratic duplication?

No, it’s typical bureaucratic triplication, because we also have the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

And as Mollie Hemingway explains in The Federalist, this additional layer of bureaucracy has been MIA on Ebola, perhaps because the head bureaucrats diverted funds to a political crony.

…nobody has even discussed the fact that the federal government not ten years ago created and funded a brand new office in the Health and Human Services Department specifically to coordinate preparation for and response to public health threats like Ebola. The woman who heads that office, and reports directly to the HHS secretary, has been mysteriously invisible from the public handling of this threat. And she’s still on the job even though three years ago she was embroiled in a huge scandal of funneling a major stream of funding to a company with ties to a Democratic donor—and away from a company that was developing a treatment now being used on Ebola patients.

Here are some additional details.

…one of HHS’ eight assistant secretaries is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, whose job it is to “lead the nation in preventing, responding to and recovering from the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters, ranging from hurricanes to bioterrorism.” …“Lurie’s job is to plan for the unthinkable. A global flu pandemic? She has a plan. A bioterror attack? She’s on it. Massive earthquake? Yep. Her responsibilities as assistant secretary span public health, global health, and homeland security.” …you might be wondering why the person in charge of all this is a name you’re not familiar with. …why has the top official for public health threats been sidelined in the midst of the Ebola crisis?

Perhaps because of the scandal.

You can—and should—read all about it in the Los Angeles Times‘ excellent front-page expose from November 2011, headlined: “Cost, need questioned in $433-million smallpox drug deal: A company controlled by a longtime political donor gets a no-bid contract to supply an experimental remedy for a threat that may not exist.”…The donor is billionaire Ron Perelman, who was controlling shareholder of Siga. He’s a huge Democratic donor… The award was controversial from almost every angle—including disputes about need, efficacy, and extremely high costs.

So what’s the bottom line?

The Progressive belief that a powerful government can stop all calamity is misguided. In the last 10 years we passed multiple pieces of legislation to create funding streams, offices, and management authorities precisely for this moment. That we have nothing to show for it is not good reason to put even more faith in government without learning anything from our repeated mistakes.

And that’s the most important lesson, though a secondary lesson is that big government means big corruption.

Big government is incompetent government.

Writing for The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson puts everything in context, explaining that big, bureaucratic states don’t do a good job.

The government’s response to the outbreak has exposed the weakness of the modern administrative state in general, and the incompetence of the White House in particular. …The second nurse to contract Ebola, Amber Vinson, traveled from Cleveland to Dallas on a commercial flight Monday and checked herself into the hospital Tuesday with Ebola symptoms. She called the CDC before she boarded the flight and reported she had a temperature of 99.5—yet CDC officials didn’t stop her from boarding the plane. …Thus continues a pattern of crippling naiveté and ineptitude from the White House on…the Ebola outbreak. On the press call, Frieden explained that you can’t get Ebola from sitting on a bus next to someone who’s infected, but if you have Ebola then don’t use public transportation because you might infect someone. …whether it’s funding or regulation, it’s becoming clear that government “everywhere putting its hands to new undertakings” isn’t working out all that well. …In a hundred years, when Americans read about the U.S. Ebola outbreak of 2014 and antiquated government agencies like the FDA that hampered the development of a vaccine, they’ll laugh at us. …Likewise, future Americans will probably scoff at us for thinking our FDA, in its current form, was somehow necessary or helpful, or for how the Department of Health and Human Services could spend almost a trillion dollars a year and yet fail to prevent or adequately respond to the Ebola outbreak.

And if you want a humorous look at the link between bloated government and incompetent government, Mark Steyn nails it.

Since we’ve shifted to humor, somebody on Twitter suggested that this guy is probably in line to become Obama’s new Ebola Czar.

Last but not least, here’s the icing on the cake.

I mentioned above that we have bureaucratic triplication thanks to NIH, CDC, and HHS. And I joked that the guy in the Holiday Inn might become the President’s new Czar, creating bureaucratic quadruplication (if that’s even a word).

Well, that joke has now become reality. The Washington Examiner is reporting that Obama has named an Ebola Czar. But the guy in the video will be sad to know he didn’t make the cut.

President Obama has chosen Ron Klain, former chief of staff for two Democratic vice presidents, as his Ebola czar, the White House said Friday. …In choosing Klain, Obama is selecting a D.C. insider and veteran of numerous political battles to spearhead a campaign with major implications on his own legacy and how Democrats fare in the November midterms.

Great. I’m sure a lobbyist and former political operative will have just the skills we need to solve this crisis.

I’m going out on a limb and predicting that he’ll say the solution is more money and bigger government. And we know how that turns out.

Yup, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s government man to the rescue!

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Europe is in deep trouble.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, since there are a handful of nations that seem to be moving in the right direction (or at least not moving rapidly in the wrong direction).

But notwithstanding those exceptions, Europe in general is suffering from economic stagnation caused by a bloated public sector. Barring dramatic change, another fiscal crisis is a virtual certainty.

A key problem is that Europe’s politicians suffer from fiscal incontinency. They can’t resist spending other people’s money, regardless of all the evidence that excessive government spending is suffocating the productive sector of the economy.

Yet some of them cling to the discredited Keynesian notion that government spending “stimulates” economic performance. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Brian Wesbury explains why European politicians are wrong.

We need less government, not more, and yet governments are engaged in deficit spending like they did in the 1970s. It didn’t work then to boost growth, and it isn’t working now. Euro area government spending was 49.8% of GDP in 2013 versus 46.7% in 2006. In other words, euro area governments have co-opted an additional 3.1% of GDP (roughly €300 billion) compared with before the crisis—about the size of the Austrian economy. France spent 57.1% of GDP in 2013 versus 56.7% in 2009, at the peak of the crisis. This is the opposite of austerity—but the French economy hasn’t grown in more than six months. It is no wonder S&P downgraded its debt rating. Italy, at 50.6% of GDP, is spending more than the euro area average but is contracting faster.

Brian isn’t the first person to make this observation.

Constantin Gurdgiev, Fredrik Erixon, and Leonid Bershidsky also have pointed out the ever-increasing burden of government in Europe.

And I can’t count how many times I’ve also explained that Europe’s problem is too much government.

The problem with all this government spending, as Brian points out, is that politicians don’t allocate resources very intelligently. So the net result is that labor and capital are misallocated and we get less economic output.

Every economy can be divided into two parts: private and public sectors. The larger the slice taken by the government, the smaller the slice left over for the private sector, which means fewer jobs and a lower standard of living. If government were more productive than private business this wouldn’t be true, but government is not.

Let’s be thankful, by the way, that the United States isn’t as far down the wrong road as Europe.

And this is why America’s economy is doing better.

The U.S. is growing faster than Europe not because…our government is relatively smaller. Federal, state and local expenditures in the U.S. were 36.5% of GDP in 2013. This is too high, but because it is less than Europe, the U.S. has a larger and more vibrant private sector.

Ironically, even President Obama agrees that the U.S. economy is superior, though he (predictably) is incapable of putting 2 and 2 together and reaching the right conclusion.

My Cato colleague Steve Hanke (using the correct definition of austerity) also has weighed in on the topic of European fiscal policy.

Here’s some of what he wrote for the Huffington Post.

The leading political lights in Europe — Messrs. Hollande, Valls and Macron in France and Mr. Renzi in Italy – are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. They don’t like it. And now Greece has jumped on the anti-austerity bandwagon. …But, with Greece’s public expenditures at 58.5 percent of GDP, and Italy’s and France’s at 50.6 percent and 57.1 percent of GDP, respectively — one can only wonder where all the austerity is (see the accompanying table). Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding.

Here’s Professor Hanke’s table. As you can see, the burden of government spending is far above growth-maximizing levels.

That’s a very depressing table, particularly when you realize that government used to be very small in Europe. Indeed, the welfare state basically didn’t exist prior to World War II.

P.S. Shifting to another issue, it’s not exactly a secret that I have little respect for politicians.

But some of our “leaders” are worse than others. Maryland’s outgoing governor is largely known for making his state inhospitable for investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

Notwithstanding his miserable record, he thinks of himself as a potential presidential candidate. And one of his ideas is that wireless access to the Internet is a human right.

I’m not joking. Here’s what Charles Cooke wrote for National Review.

Maryland’s governor Martin O’Malley — a man so lacking in redeeming qualities that a majority in his own state hopes he doesn’t run for president – is attempting to carve out a new constituency: young people with no understanding of political philosophy. …“WiFi is a human right”? Hey, why not? Sure, Anglo-American societies have traditionally regarded “rights” as checks on the power of the state. But if we’re going to invert the most successful philosophy in American history to appease a few terminally stupid millennials in Starbucks, let’s think big

This definitely belongs in my great-moments-in-human-rights collection.

Here are previous winners of that booby prize.

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I’ve had ample reason to praise Hong Kong’s economic policy.

Most recently, it was ranked (once again) as the world’s freest economy.

And I’ve shown that this makes a difference by comparing Hong Kong’s economic performance to the comparatively lackluster (or weak) performance of economies in the United States, Argentina, and France.

But perhaps the most encouraging thing about Hong Kong is that the nation’s top officials genuinely seem to understand the importance of small government.

Here are some excerpts from a recent speech delivered by Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary. He brags about small government and low tax rates!

Hong Kong has a simple tax system built on low tax rates. Our maximum salaries tax rate is 15 per cent and the profits tax rate a flat 16.5 per cent. Few companies and individuals would find it worth the risk to evade taxes at this low level. And that helps keep our compliance and enforcement costs low. Keeping our government small is at the heart of our fiscal principles. Leaving most of the community’s income and wealth in the hands of individuals and businesses gives the private sector greater flexibility and efficiency in making investment decisions and optimises the returns for the community. This helps to foster a business environment conducive to growth and competitiveness. It also encourages productivity and labour participation. Our annual recurrent government expenditure has remained steady over the past five years, at 13 per cent of GDP. …we have not responded irresponsibly to…populist calls by introducing social policies that increase government spending disproportionally. …The fact that our total government expenditure on social welfare has remained at less than 3 per cent of our GDP over the past five years speaks volumes about the precision, as well as the effectiveness, of these measures.

And he specifically mentions the importance of controlling the growth of government, which is the core message of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline….It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.

Is that just empty rhetoric?

Hardly. Here’s Article 107 from the Basic Law, which is “the constitutional document” for Hong Kong

The most important part of Article 107, needless to say, is that part of keeping budgetary growth “commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product.”

The folks in Hong Kong don’t want to wind up like Europe.

Last year, I set up a Working Group on Long-term Fiscal Planning to conduct a fiscal sustainability health check. We did it because we are keenly aware of Hong Kong’s low fertility rate and ageing population, not unlike many advanced economies. And that can pose challenges to public finance in the longer term. A series of expenditure-control measures, including a 2 per cent efficiency enhancement over the next three financial years, has been rolled out.

And, speaking of Europe, he says the statist governments from that continent should clean up their own messes before criticizing Hong Kong for being responsible.

I would hope that some of those governments in Europe, those that have accused Hong Kong of being a tax haven, would look at the way they conduct their own fiscal policies. I believe they could learn a lesson from us about the virtues of small government.

Just in case you think this speech is somehow an anomaly, let’s now look at some slides from a separate presentation by different Hong Kong officials.

Here’s one that warmed my heart. The Hong Kong official is bragging about the low-tax regime, which features a flat tax of 15 percent!

But what’s even more impressive is that Hong Kong has a very small burden of government spending.

And government officials brag about small government.

By the way, you’ll also notice that there’s virtually no red ink in Hong Kong, largely because the government focuses on controlling the disease of excessive spending.

Why is government small?

In large part, as you see from the next slide, because there is almost no redistribution spending.

Indeed, officials actually brag that fewer and fewer people are riding in the wagon of dependency.

Can you imagine American lawmakers with this kind of good sense?

None of this means that Hong Kong doesn’t have any challenges.

There are protests about a lack of democracy. There’s an aging population. And there’s the uncertainty of China.

But at least for now, Hong Kong is a tribute to the success of free markets and small government.

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You’re probably surprised by the title of this post. You may even be wondering if President Obama had an epiphany on the road to Greece?

I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but the leader we’re talking about isn’t the President of the United States.

Instead, we’re talking about the Prime Minister of Finland and he deserves praise and recognition for providing one of the most insightful and profound statements ever uttered by a politician.

He explained that the emperor of Keynesian economics has no clothes.

As reported by Le Monde (and translated by Open Europe), here’s what Alexander Stubb said when asked whether European governments should try to “stimulate” their economies with more spending.

We need to put an end to illusions: it’s not the public sector that creates jobs. To believe that injecting billions of euros [into the economy] is the key to growth is an idea of the past.

Amen.

You don’t make a nation richer by taking money from one pocket and putting it in another pocket.

Particularly when the net effect is to redistribute funds from the productive sector to the government.

I’m glad Mr. Stubb has figured this out. I just with some American politicians would look at the evidence and reach similarly wise conclusions.

The Obama Administration, for instance, still wants us to believe the faux stimulus was a success.

And speaking of our President’s views, this Gary Varvel cartoon isn’t new, but it’s right on the mark.

Any “job” created by government spending necessarily comes at the expense of the private sector.

And since I’m sharing old cartoons, here’s one that also is a nice summary of what happens when government gets bigger.

This cartoon definitely belongs in my collection (here, herehereherehere, here, herehereherehere, here, and here) of government as a blundering, often-malicious, overweight nitwit.

P.S. Other European policy makers have admitted that Keynesian economics is a farce.

P.P.S. Finland has the world’s 7th-freest economy, significantly better than the United States.

P.P.P.S. If you want some humor about Keynesian economics, click here.

P.P.P.P.S. If you prefer tragedy instead of humor, here are some horrifying quotes by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

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My colleagues Chris Edwards and Nicole Kaeding have just released the biennual Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors from the Cato Institute.

The Report Card is one of the Cato Institute’s most impressive publications since developments on the state level help illustrate the relationship between good fiscal policy and economic performance.

The top scores were earned by Pat McCrory of North Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Both have taken steps to significantly reduce marginal tax rates and restrain the burden of state government spending in their states.

Here are all the scores. Paul LePage of Maine and Mike Pence of Indiana also earned high marks, while the governors of Minnesota, Oregon, Delaware, Washington, Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Calfornia all received failing grades.

Here some of what Chris and Nicole wrote for National Review about the results of their research .

Let’s start with the good news.

Pat McCrory of North Carolina signed a bill replacing individual-income-tax rates of 6.0, 7.0, and 7.75 percent with a single rate of 5.75 percent. He also cut the corporate-tax rate from 6.9 to 5.0 percent and repealed the estate tax. Sam Brownback of Kansas approved a plan in 2012 replacing three individual-income-tax rates with two and cutting the top rate from 6.45 to 4.9 percent. The reform also increased the standard deduction and reduced taxes on small businesses. Brownback cut income-tax rates further in 2013.

Now for the not-so-good news.

…all eight governors earning an “F” were Democrats. …Jerry Brown of California and Pat Quinn of Illinois, for example, earned “F” grades for their large tax hikes.

If you look at the data on state spending, Governor Brownback of Kansas and Governor Bentley of Alabama both got high scores of 85, largely because per-capita spending fell during their tenure.

Governor Kasich of Ohio did the worst job on spending (why am I not surprised), getting a low score of 16 (Governor Abercrombie of Hawaii and Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado were the next lowest, both “earning” a score of 22).

Interestingly, the left is very anxious to undermine the achievements of America’s best governors.

I’ve previously defended the pro-growth reforms to unemployment insurance adopted by Governor McCrory of North Carolina.

And now let me take this opportunity to defend Governor Brownback of Kansas.

The New York Times is desperately hoping he loses his reelection bid since that might dissuade other state policy makers from enacting good reforms.

Mr. Brownback’s proudly conservative policies have turned out to be so divisive and his tax cuts have generated such a drop in state revenue that they have caused even many Republicans to revolt. …it is unsurprising that many Kansas Republicans have turned on Mr. Brownback. This is a state that once had a tradition of centrist Republicans, like former Senator Bob Dole… More than 100 current and former Republican elected officials have endorsed Mr. Davis.

The Wall Street Journal, however, points out that the anti-Brownback GOPers are largely sore losers.

…many of the “Republicans” on the list are in fact independents who long ago defected from the GOP. …six state Senators whom tea-party groups ousted in 2012 for obstructing tax and government reforms are supporting Mr. Davis.

What really matters, though, is that Governor Brownback’s reforms are designed to rejuvenate a state economy that has lagged its neighbors.

Here are some details from another WSJ editorial.

By liberal accounts Kansas is experiencing a major fiscal and economic meltdown like well, you know, Illinois. …But some early economic indicators suggest they may be producing modest positive effects. The danger is that a coalition of Democrats and big-spending Republicans will pull out the rug before the benefits fully materialize.

What are those benefits?

Well, it’s still early, but the preliminary results are positive.

Kansas has long trailed its neighbors in private job and economic growth. …All of Kansas’s surrounding states save Nebraska had lower top tax rates, and most also had lower unemployment. …Since the tax cuts took effect, the gap in job creation between Kansas and neighboring states has shrunk. Kansas’s rate of private job growth between January 2013 and June 2014 averaged 167% of that in Nebraska, 105% of Iowa and 61% in Oklahoma. That compares to 61%, 85% and 42%, respectively, between 2004 and 2012. While Kansas added jobs at a slower pace than Missouri this year, its private economy grew more than twice as fast as its eastern neighbor last year.

Statists are grousing about lower-than-expected revenues, but their command of the facts leaves something to be desired.

Tax-reform critics complain that revenues (as expected) declined this year and that receipts were $235 million—or about 4%—below the state’s estimate last year. However, predicting revenues was particularly challenging this year because federal tax changes encouraged investors to shift income to 2012 from 2013. Revenues missed the mark in numerous states including Iowa ($185 million; 3%), Missouri ($308 million; 4%) and Oklahoma ($283 million; 5%).

And here’s some analysis from Reason.

While The New York Times denounces as “ruinous” the Kansas tax cut, it is sitting in a state, New York, with a top rate of 8.82 percent. If all the government spending paid for by those high taxes were the panacea that the Times claims it is, you might expect New York to have a lower unemployment than Kansas. But check the numbers, and Kansas’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for June was a low 4.9 percent, while New York’s was 6.6 percent. “Ruinous,” indeed.

Given the high stakes, it will be very interesting to see whether Brownback is reelected next month.

Same with Scott Walker of Wisconsin (who, by the way, earned a B), who got national attention for his efforts to rein in the privileged position of state bureaucrats and Pat Quinn of Illinois (who got an F), who attracted a lot of attention for his destructive tax hikes.

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What’s the relationship between the Rahn Curve and the Laffer Curve?

For the uninitiated, the Rahn Curve is the common-sense notion that some government is helpful for prosperous markets but too much government is harmful to economic performance.

Even libertarians, for instance, will acknowledge that spending on core “public goods” such as police protection and courts (assuming, of course, low levels of corruption) can enable the smooth functioning of markets.

Some even argue that government spending on human capital and physical capital can facilitate economic activity. For what it’s worth, I think that the government’s track record in those areas leaves a lot to be desired, so I’d prefer to give the private sector a greater role in areas such as education and highways.

The big problem, though, is that most government spending is for programs that are often categorized as “transfers” and “consumption.” And these are outlays that clearly are associated with weaker economic performance.

This is why small-government economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore tend to grow faster than the medium-government economies such as the United States and Australia. And it also explains why growth is even slower is big-government economies such as France and Italy.

The Laffer Curve, for those who don’t remember, is the common-sense depiction of the relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

The essential insight is that taxable income is not fixed (regardless of the Joint Committee on Taxation’s flawed methodology).

When tax rates are low, people will earn and report lots of income, but when tax rates are high, taxpayers figure out ways of reducing the amount of taxable income they earn and report to government.

This is why, for instance, the rich paid much more to the IRS after Reagan lower the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

So why am I giving a refresher course on the Rahn Curve and Laffer Curve?

Because I’ve been asked on many occasions whether there is a relationship between the two concepts and I’ve never had a good answer.

But I’m happy to call attention to the good work of other folks, so here’s a very well done depiction of the relationship between the two curves (though in this case the Rahn Curve is called the Armey Curve).

I should hasten to add, by the way, that I don’t agree with the specific numbers.

I think the revenue-maximizing rate is well below 45 percent and I think the growth-maximizing rate is well below 30 percent.

But the image above is spot on in that it shows that a nation should not be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

Since I’m obviously a big fan of the Rahn Curve and I also like drawing lessons from cross-country comparisons, here’s a video on that topic from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Well done, though I might quibble on two points, though the first is just the meaningless observation that the male boxer is not 6′-6″ and 250 lbs.

My real complaint (and this will sound familiar) is that I’m uneasy with the implication around the 1:45 mark that growth is maximized when government spending consumes 25 percent of economic output.

This implies, for instance, that government in the United States was far too small in the 1800s and early 1900s when the overall burden of government spending was about 10 percent of GDP.

But I suppose I’m being pedantic. Outlays at the national, state, and local level in America now consume more than 38 percent of economic output according to the IMF and we’re heading in the wrong direction because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs.

So if we can stop government from getting bigger and instead bring it back down to 25 percent of GDP, even I will admit that’s a huge accomplishment.

Libertarian Nirvana would be nice, but I’m more concerned at this point about simply saving the nation from becoming Greece.

P.S. I’ve shared numerous columns from Walter Williams and he is one of America’s best advocates of individual liberty and economic freedom.

Now there’s a documentary celebrating his life and accomplishments. Here’s a video preview.

Given Walter’s accomplishments, you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s another video documentary about his life.

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