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Archive for the ‘Redistribution’ Category

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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Back in 2012, I shared a sadly amusing image about how the modern political process has degenerated into two wolves and a sheep voting what to have for lunch.

I was making an argument in that column against majoritarianism (and that is a critical issue, as explained in this video), but there’s also a very important moral component to this debate.

Walter Williams addresses this issue in his latest column. He starts by asking a hypothetical question.

Suppose I saw a homeless, hungry elderly woman huddled on a heating grate in the dead of winter. To help the woman, I ask somebody for a $200 donation to help her out. If the person refuses, I then use intimidation, threats and coercion to take the person’s money. I then purchase food and shelter for the needy woman. My question to you: Have I committed a crime? I hope that most people would answer yes. It’s theft to take the property of one person to give to another.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how Person A wants to spend money, it’s wrong for Person A to steal from Person B.

Walter than asks some critical follow-up questions, all of which are designed to make readers realize that theft doesn’t magically become acceptable simply because several people want to take Person B’s money.

Would it be theft if I managed to get three people to agree that I should take the person’s money to help the woman? What if I got 100, 1 million or 300 million people to agree to take the person’s $200? Would it be theft then? What if instead of personally taking the person’s $200, I got together with other Americans and asked Congress to use Internal Revenue Service agents to take the person’s $200? The bottom-line question is: Does an act that’s clearly immoral when done privately become moral when it is done collectively and under the color of law? Put another way, does legality establish morality?

Amen. Walter is exactly right.

And this is a point I need to internalize.

I’m often writing about the economic evidence for smaller government, but I suspect advocates of economic liberty and smaller government won’t win the debate unless we augment our arguments by also making the moral case against government-sanctioned theft.

And perhaps one way of getting this point across is to educate people about the fact that we used to have a very small federal government with little or no redistribution. Walter elaborates.

For most of our history, Congress did a far better job of limiting its activities to what was both moral and constitutional. As a result, federal spending was only 3 to 5 percent of the gross domestic product from our founding until the 1920s… James Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, said, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees, Madison stood on the floor of the House of Representatives to object, saying, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Here’s the bottom line according to Professor Williams.

We’ve become an immoral people demanding that Congress forcibly use one American to serve the purposes of another. Deficits and runaway national debt are merely symptoms of that larger problem.

Though I would slightly disagree with the way Walter phrased it.

I would argue that a bloated government is the symptom of growing immorality. Deficits and debt are then symptoms of that problem.

P.S. I want to quickly address another issue.

When I quote Art Laffer, I’m almost always going to be in agreement with what he says.

But, as I wrote last year, we’re in disagreement on the issue of whether states should be allowed to tax sales that take place outside their borders.

And now Art has a short video that rubbed me the wrong way.

He endorses legislation that would create a sales tax cartel and says – right at the start of this video – that this is because “states should have the right to be able to tax whatever they want to within their state.”

I agree, but this is why I’m against the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. That legislation would allow state governments to tax outside their borders.

Simply stated, a merchant in one state should not be forced to collect taxes for a government in another state.

P.P.S. This also explains why FATCA is such horrible legislation. It is an effort by the U.S. government to coerce banks in other nations to enforce bad IRS law.

If we care about liberty, we should make sure the power of government is constrained by borders.

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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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The political left obviously hopes that it can score political points by pitching some Americans against others with a campaign based on income inequality and class warfare taxation.

Is there any merit to this approach? Are the less fortunate suffering because some are succeeding? And would more government alleviate this problem, to the extent it actually exists?

George Will has a must-read column in the Washington Post on the topic of inequality, including a very relevant observation that the rich on Wall Street are the ones who benefit from the easy-money policy embraced by the Washington establishment.

In this sixth year of near-zero interest rates, the government’s monetary policy breeds inequality. Low rates are intended to drive liquidity into the stock market in search of higher yields. The resulting boom in equity markets — up 30 percent last year alone — has primarily benefited the 10 percent who own 80 percent of all directly owned stocks.

But his main point is that the lack of growth in the real economy has been very damaging to ordinary Americans.

And that lack of growth – acknowledged by both the Washington Post and Congressional Budget Office – is because politicians have been increasing the burden of government.

Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, says the total reserves of depository institutions “have ballooned from a pre-crisis level of $43 billion to $2.5  trillion .” And? “The store of bank reserves awaiting discharge into the economy through our banking system is vast, yet it lies fallow.” The result is a scandal of squandered potential: “In fourth quarter 2007, the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $14.7 trillion; at year-end 2013 it was estimated to be $17.1 trillion. Had we continued on the path we were on before the crisis, real GDP would currently be roughly $20 trillion in size. That’s a third larger than it was in 2007. Yet the amount of money lying fallow in the banking system is 60 times greater now than it was at year-end 2007.” …there is abundant money for businesses. But, says Fisher, the federal government’s fiscal and regulatory policies discourage businesses from growing the economy with the mountain of money the Fed has created. This is why “the most vital organ of our nation’s economy — the middle-income worker — is being eviscerated.” And why the loudest complaints about inequality are coming from those whose policies worsen it.

Trillions of dollars sitting on the sidelines because of bad government policy.

Seems like Chuck Asay’s cartoon is right on the mark.

Let’s dig deeper into this topic by looking at what a couple of experts have written on the topic of inequality.

Here are some excerpts from a column by Ronald Bailey for Reason.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Are the poor getting poorer? No. In fact, over the past 35 years most Americans got richer. Has income inequality increased in the United States? Yes. Does it matter? Well, President Barack Obama thinks so.  …Is that true? No. …The real defining economic challenge of our time isn’t to end inequality. It’s persistent joblessness and weak economic growth perpetuated by feckless Obama administration policies.

If you want to know the details (and you should), Bailey explains that what matters is growth because that means all groups can enjoy rising incomes. And that’s exactly what you find in the data.

Using the CBO data, the Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless has shown that from 1979 to 2010, the last year for which data are available, the bottom fifth’s after-tax income in constant dollars rose by 49 percent. The incomes of households in the second lowest, middle, and fourth quintiles increased by 37 percent, 36 percent, and 45 percent, respectively. The poor and the middle class got richer. …The rich got richer too, and they got richer faster. …So inequality in the U.S. has increased. But if most Americans’ incomes are rising, does it matter if some are getting a larger share?

He also makes the key observation that you shouldn’t just compare income groups over time.

This is because there is mobility. A poor household one year may not be part of the “bottom 20 percent” five years later.

Here’s more of what Bailey wrote.

Those worried about rising income inequality also often make the mistake of assuming that each income quintile contains the same households. They don’t. Between 2009 and 2011, for example, 31.6 percent of Americans fell below the official poverty threshold for at least two months, but only 3.5 percent stayed below it over the entire period. …In 2009, two economists from the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Treasury compared income mobility in two periods, 1987 to 1996 and 1996 to 2005. The results, published in the National Tax Journal, revealed that “over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile and that roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom income quintile moved up to a higher income group by the end of each period.” …The Treasury researchers updated their analysis of income mobility trends in a May 2013 study for the American Economic Review, finding that about 75 percent of taxpayers between 35 and 40 years of age in the second, middle and fourth income quintiles in 1987 had moved to a different quintile by 2007. …In January, scholars from Harvard and University of California, Berkeley bolstered the Treasury economists’ conclusions. Parsing data from the 1950s and 1970s, the researchers, who are involved with The Equality of Opportunity Project, reported that “measures of social mobility have remained stable over the second half of the twentieth century in the United States.

Let’s continue with more wonky data.

Writing for National Affairs, Scott Winship delves into the issue, beginning with an explanation of the left’s hypothesis.

To hear many liberals tell it, increasing inequality is holding back growth, crushing the prospects of the poor and middle class, and even undermining American democracy. Such concerns are prominent in President Obama’s rhetoric, and seem also to drive key parts of his policy agenda — especially the relentless pursuit of higher taxes on the wealthy. …Perhaps the most common assertion regarding the ill effects of inequality in our time is that an unequal economy just doesn’t work for most people — that inequality impedes growth and harms standards of living.

He then unloads a bunch of data and evidence to show why the statists are wrong, including reliance on bad methodology.

…does it in fact reduce growth? There is no clear evidence that it does. …one of the most widely cited papers in the inequality debates — a 2011 study by IMF economists Andrew Berg and Jonathan Ostry showing that inequality hurts growth — suffers from this very problem of focusing primarily on developing countries.

But if the research looks at industrialized nations, it becomes apparent that it is not bad for growth when some people become rich.

Recent work by Harvard’s Christopher Jencks (with Dan Andrews and Andrew Leigh) shows that, over the course of the 20th century, within the United States and across developed countries, there was no relationship between changes in inequality and economic growth. In fact, between 1960 and 2000, rising inequality coincided with higher growth across these countries. In forthcoming work, University of Arizona sociologist Lane Kenworthy also finds that, since 1979, higher growth in the share of income held by the top 1% of earners has been associated with stronger economic growth across several countries.

There’s a lot more in the article, but this already is a long post. I encourage you to read both articles in their entirety.

The bottom line is that you don’t help poor people by savaging rich people (though it is very appropriate to target rich people who have undeserved wealth because of crony policies such as TARP and Ex-Im Bank).

Pizza FairnessThe left mistakenly acts as if the economy is a fixed pie and one person’s success necessarily means the rest of us are worse off. So in an effort to increase the relative amounts received by the poor, they pursue policies that cause the pie to shrink.

As Margaret Thatcher famously said, it seems they’re willing to hurt the poor if they can hurt the rich even more.

That’s not the way the economy works when people are liberated from the heavy yoke of statism.

Simply stated, you’re not going to be doing much to help the poor unless you focus on policies that generate faster long-run growth.

P.S. It’s not related to the issue of inequality, but George Will also included this delicious sentence in his column. It’s too good not to share.

We spend $1 trillion annually on federal welfare programs, decades after Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that if one-third of the money for poverty programs was given directly to the poor, there would be no poor. But there also would be no unionized poverty bureaucrats prospering and paying dues that fund the campaigns of Democratic politicians theatrically heartsick about inequality.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist sharing this video showing a European Parliamentarian denouncing the politicians and bureaucrats of the European Commission for hypocritically trying to squeeze more tax from the private sector while simultaneously benefiting from special tax breaks only available to themselves.

Gotta love any politician who is willing to quote Murray Rothbard and also state that government is a racket. And Dan Hannan has made similar points.

I can only wonder, by the way, what Mr. Bloom would say if he knew about the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation. They are totally exempt from income tax, yet they spend a lot of their time trying to impose higher taxes on other nations (including the United States).

You can also see him wax poetic in these two videos. And his better-known fellow MEP, Dan Hannan, also has weighed in on the same topics.

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The President’s new budget has been unveiled.

There are lots of provisions that deserve detailed attention, but I always look first at the overall trends. Most specifically, I want to see what’s happening with the burden of government spending.

And you probably won’t be surprised to see that Obama isn’t imposing any fiscal restraint. He wants spending to increase more than twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

Obama 2015 Budget Growth

What makes these numbers so disappointing is that we learned last month that even a modest bit of spending discipline is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the President also wants a $651 billion tax hike.

That’s in addition to the big fiscal cliff tax hike from early last and the (thankfully smaller) tax increase in the Ryan-Murray budget that was approved late last year.

P.S. Since we’re talking about government spending, I may as well add some more bad news.

I’ve shared some really outrageous examples of government waste, but here’s a new example that has me foaming at the mouth. Government bureaucrats are flying in luxury and sticking taxpayers with big costs. Here are some of the odious details from the Washington Examiner.

What can $4,367 buy? For one NASA employee, it bought a business-class flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Vienna, Austria. Coach-class fare for the same flight was $39. The federal government spent millions of dollars on thousands of upgraded flights for employees in 2012 and 2013, paying many times more for business and first-class seats than the same flights would have cost in coach or the government-contracted rate. …Agencies report their premium travel expenses to the General Services Administration each year. These reports were obtained by the Washington Examiner through Freedom of Information Act requests. …The most common reasons across agencies for such “premium” flights in 2012 and 2013 were medical necessities and flights with more than 14 hours of travel time.

By the way, “medical necessities” is an easily exploited loophole. All too often, bureaucrats get notes from their doctors saying that they have bad backs (or something similarly dodgy) and that they require extra seating space.

Probably the same doctors who participate in the disability scam.

But I’m digressing. It’s sometimes hard to focus when there are so many examples of foolish government policy.

Let’s look at more examples of taxpayers getting reamed.

One such flight was a trip from Washington, D.C., to Brussels, Belgium, which cost $6,612 instead of $863. Similar mission-required upgrades included several flights to Kuwait for $6,911 instead of $1,471, a flight from D.C. to Tokyo for $7,234 instead of $1,081 and a trip from D.C. to Paris for $6,037 instead of $477. …NASA employees also racked up a long list of flights that cost 26, 72 and even 112 times the cost of coach fares, according to Examiner calculations. Several space agency employees flew from Oslo, Norway, to Tromso, Norway — a trip that should have cost $65. Instead, each flew business class for $4,668. Another NASA employee flew from Frankfurt, Germany, to Cologne, Germany, for $6,851 instead of $133, a flight that cost almost 52 times more than the coach fare. …One flight from D.C. to Hanoi, Vietnam, for an informational meeting cost $15,529 instead of $1,649, according to the agency’s 2012 report.

Frankfurt to Cologne for $6851?!? Did the trip include caviar and a masseuse? A domestic flight in Norway for $4668? Was the plane made of gold?

I do enough international travel to know that these prices are absurd, even if you somehow think bureaucrats should get business class travel (and they shouldn’t).

And as you might suspect, much of the travel was for wasteful boondoggles.

Department of the Interior employees, for example, flew to such exotic locations as Costa Rica, Denmark, Japan and South Africa in 2012. …The Department of Labor sent employees to places like Vietnam and the Philippines for “informational meetings,” conferences and site visits.

The one sliver of good news is that taxpayers didn’t get ripped off to the same extent last year as they did the previous year.

The agencies spent $5.7 million in 2012, almost double the $3 million they paid for premium travel in 2013.

The moral of the story is that lowering overall budgets – as happened in 2013 – is the only effective way of reducing waste.

P.P.S. Want to know why the tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp was so uninspiring, as I noted last week?

The answer is that he preemptively acquiesced to the left’s demands that class warfare should guide tax policy. Politico has the details.

Republicans had vowed for more than three years to slash the top individual income tax rate to 25 percent as part of a Tax Code overhaul. …last week Camp abandoned plans for a deep cut in the top marginal tax rate. He settled for 35 percent, which is just 4 percentage points lower than the current one. “It was a distribution issue,” Camp said. Getting all the way down to 25 percent “would have reduced taxes for the top 1 percent” and “I said we would be distributionally neutral.”

In other words, this is the tax code version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Whenever the left is successful is raising the tax burden on the so-called rich (the top 20 percent already bears two-thirds of the burden), that then supposedly becomes a never-to-be-changed benchmark.

Fortunately, Reagan did not accept the left’s distorted rules and we got the Economic Recovery Tax Act in 1981, which helped trigger the 1980s boom.

And even when Reagan agreed to “distributional neutrality,” as happened as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, at least he got something big in exchange.

The Camp plan, by contrast, is thin gruel.

A big rate cut is what powered the last major tax overhaul, in 1986, which delivered tax cuts to every income group while slicing the top rate to 28 percent from a whopping 50 percent. …Lawmakers may look at the proposal and think: “I’m having the world coming down on me” and “all this just to get the rate down 4 points?”

That being said, the Camp plan has plenty of good features, including modest rate reductions and repeal of a few bad loopholes. But it’s accompanied by some really bad provisions, such as increased double taxation and higher taxes on business investment.

P.P.P.S. Long-time readers may remember this amusing Reagan-Obama comparison.

For understandable reasons, that’s what crossed my mind when seeing this example of Obama humor.

I should hasten to add, incidentally, that this is not to suggest I want Obama to do anything about the Ukrainian conflict (other than perhaps encourage decentralized power).

Unless one genuinely thinks that Putin has both the capacity and the desire for global imperialism, it’s hard to see how America’s national security is affected.

But I still appreciate good political humor. I like it when Obama is the target, and I like it even when it’s directed at people like me.

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One of the many differences between advocates of freedom and supporters of statism is how they view “rights.”

Libertarians, along with many conservatives, believe in the right to be left alone and to not be molested by government. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “negative liberty,” which is just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual.”

Statists, by contrast, believe in “positive liberty.” This means that you have a “right” to things that the government will give you (as explained here by America’s second-worst President). Which means, of course, that the government has an obligation to take things from somebody else. How else, after all, will the government satisfy your supposed right to a job, education, healthcare, housing, etc.

Sometimes, the statists become very creative in their definition of rights.

You may laugh at these examples, particularly the ones that focus on seemingly trivial issues.

But don’t laugh too hard, because our friends on the left are busy with very grandiose plans for more “positive liberty.”

The EU Observer reports on efforts in Europe to create expanded rights to other people’s money.

Austerity programmes agreed with the troika of international lenders (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) are in breach of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, according to a German legal expert. …under the EU charter of fundamental rights, a legal text which became binding for member states in 2009, several austerity measures enshrined in the MoUs can be fought in courts. …His study highlights that the MoUs “have seriously limited the autonomy of employers and trade unions to negotiate wages.” …Education and health care reforms prescribed in the memorandums are also questionable because they are focusing too much on cutting budgets, he said. …He noted that the concept of “financial stability” was put above all other considerations. “But financial stability cannot be achieved without social stability,” he said.

But it’s not just one oddball academic making these claims.

…the Council of Europe’s social rights committee noted that public policies since 2009 have been unable to stem a generalised increase in poverty on the continent. The committee identified some 180 violations of European Social Charter provisions on access to health and social protection across 38 European countries. In the bailed-out countries, the committee found several breaches – particularly in terms of wages and social benefits. Ireland was found in breach of the social charter for not ensuring the minimum levels of sickness, unemployment, survivor’s, employment injury and invalidity benefits. Greece and Cyprus have “inadequate” minimum unemployment, sickness, maternity and old age benefits, as well as a restrictive social security system. Spain also pays too little to workers on sick leave.

This crazy thinking also exists in the United States. A former Carter Administration official, now a law professor at Georgetown, has written that countries with good policy must change their systems in order to enable more tax revenue in nations with bad policy.

Do states like Switzerland, which provide a tax haven for wealthy citizens of developing countries, violate internationally recognized human rights? …bank secrecy has a significant  human rights impact if governments of developing countries are deprived of resources needed to meet basic economic rights guaranteed by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. …The Covenant explicitly recognizes individual rights to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11); health care, clean water, and sanitation (Article 12); and education (Article 13). The Covenant also imposes obligations on member states to implement these rights.

And the right to redistribution isn’t just part of the U.N. mission.

There’s also a European set of Maastricht Principles which supposedly obligates nations to help each expand the burden of government.

Articles 19 and 20 of The Maastricht Principles call on states to “refrain from conduct which nullifies or impairs the enjoyment and exercise of economic . . . rights of persons outside their territories . . . or which impairs the ability of another State to comply with that State’s . . . obligations as regards economic rights.” …recognizing the fact that secrecy for offshore accounts makes it difficult for developing countries to implement Covenant obligations. It therefore seems indisputable that offshore accounts impede the fulfillment of internationally recognized human rights.

You may be thinking that all this sounds crazy. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s insane to push global schemes for bigger government at the very point when the welfare state is collapsing. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s absurd to trample national sovereignty in pursuit of bad policy. And you’re right.

And you may be thinking this is a complete bastardization of what America’s Founding Fathers had in mind. And you’re right.

But you probably don’t understand that this already is happening. The IRS’s awful FATCA legislation, for instance, is basically designed for exactly the purpose of coercing other nations into enforcing bad American tax policy.

Even more worrisome is the OECD’s Orwellian Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which is best viewed as a poisonous acorn that will grow into a deadly World Tax Organization oak tree.

P.S. And the Obama Administration already is pushing policies to satisfy the OECD’s statist regime. The IRS recently pushed through a regulation that says American banks have to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law.

P.P.S. Statists may be evil, but they’re not stupid. They understand that tax havens and tax competition are a threat to big government.

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If you want to know why the left is wrong about income inequality, you need to watch this Margaret Thatcher video. In just a few minutes, the “Iron Lady” explains how some – perhaps most – statists would be willing to reduce income for the poor if they could impose even greater damage on the rich.

This picture is another way of getting across the same point. It was sent to me by Richard Rahn (famous for the Rahn Curve), and it uses two pizzas to show how leftist policies would “solve” inequality.

Leftist Fairness

I like this analogy, and not just because I also used the pizza analogy to make the same argument in this TV interview.

The growing or shrinking pizza is useful because it helps to focus people on the importance of growth.

Nations that follow the right policy recipe can enjoy the kind of strong and sustained growth that enables huge increases in prosperity for all income classes. In other words, everyone can have a bigger slice if the pie is growing.

I even tried to educate a PBS audience that growth is better than redistribution if you really want to help the poor. Talk about Daniel in the Lion’s Den!

I don’t know if I persuaded anyone, but at least the facts are on my side. Consider, for instance, how the world’s two most laissez-faire jurisdictions – Hong Kong and Singapore – have overtaken the United States over the past 50-plus years.

That’s been great news for low-income and middle-income people, not just the rich.

So ask yourself whether you’d rather be a poor person in one of those jurisdiction or in France. The government in France has all sorts of programs to make your life easier, but you have very little hope of escaping a life of dependency.

And now ask yourself whether it’s good that Obama is doing his best to push America in that direction.

P.S. If you want another example of how long-run growth makes a big difference, check out this chart comparing Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. Not only has Chile overtaken the other nation thanks to pro-market reforms, but the poverty rate has fallen dramatically.

P.P.S. Since this post shares a very good image about income inequality, let’s include a bonus picture on taxation.

It’s a helpful suggestion on how to make kids aware of the cost of big government.

Tax Lesson for Kids

Though let’s be sure to acknowledge that Obama is doing what he can to make kids more skeptical of class warfare.

P.P.P.S. On a separate topic, I’ve explained that the so-called “austerity” vs “growth” argument is grossly misguided because Keynesian spending isn’t pro-growth and also because it’s important to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity.

Too many governments are choosing the wrong type of austerity, imposing destructive tax hikes on the private sector. What’s really needed in genuine spending restraint so that “austerity” is imposed on the public sector.

But some folks on the left say there’s been too much spending restraint in recent years.

So who’s right? Well, UBS has produced a report containing some very useful data.

Viewing the global economy as a single unit, we see a very  different picture to the post-crisis world of austerity – at least if “austerity” is taken to mean government spending cuts. The two largest components of global GDP, namely private consumption and fixed investment, both hit multi-year peaks in the first quarter of 2008. …Since the start of 2008, government consumption at the  global level has risen by 20% in real terms, whereas private consumption and fixed investment have risen just 8% and 5%, respectively. In other words, despite talk of austerity, government spending continues to run ahead of private-sector spending.

Hmmm…the burden of government has been growing faster than the private sector. That’s the opposite of what the Golden Rule calls for.

And not only has government been growing too fast in the past, it’s likely that fiscal policy will get even worse in the future.

Structurally, government debt, government spending, and the share of government within the economy must be sustainable. Government consumption’s share of global GDP has risen from 11% to 14% over the past 15 years. In 2013, it reached its highest level since 1980. At the same time, government debt-to-GDP ratios have hit record highs in many countries. In the long run, such elevated levels of expenditure (and corresponding levels of debt and deficit) are probably not sustainable, in particular, given other structural changes underway. For instance, demographic trends in many advanced economies pose challenges.

The moral of the story is that America and other nations should be restraining budgets, ideally by enacting the right kind of entitlement reform.

Though I’m worried that Obama is learning the wrong lesson from what’s happening in Europe.

Indeed, this Henry Payne cartoon shows what he has in mind. And if he succeeds, this satirical 2012 campaign slogan may become reality.

P.P.P.P.S. Here’s a final image that captures the essence of Washington.

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