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In the pre-World War I era, the fiscal burden of government was very modest in North America and Western Europe.

Total government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output, historical-size-of-govtmost nations were free from the plague of the income tax, and the value-added tax hadn’t even been invented.

Today, by contrast, every major nation has an onerous income tax and the VAT is ubiquitous. These punitive tax systems exist largely because – on average -  the burden of government spending now consumes more than 40 percent of GDP.

To be blunt, fiscal policy has moved dramatically in the wrong direction over the past 100-plus years. And thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, things are going to get much worse according to BIS, OECD, and IMF projections.

Long-Run GDPWhile these numbers, both past and future, are a bit depressing, they also present a challenge to advocates of small government. If taxes and spending are bad for growth, why did the United States (and other nations in the Western world) enjoy considerable prosperity all through the 20th Century?

I sometimes get asked this question after speeches or panel discussions on fiscal policy. In some cases, the person making the inquiry is genuinely curious. In other cases, it’s a leftist asking a “gotcha” question.

I’ve generally had two responses.

1. The European fiscal crisis shows that the chickens have finally come home to roost. More specifically, the private economy can withstand a lot of bad policy, but there is a tipping point at which big government leads to massive societal damage.

2. Bad fiscal policy has been offset by good reforms in other areas. More specifically, I explain that there are five major policy factors that determine economic performance and I assert that bad developments in fiscal policy have been offset by improvements in trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law/property rights.

I think the first response is reasonably effective. It’s hard for statists to deny that big government has created a fiscal and economic nightmare in many European nations.

But I’ve never been satisfied with the second response because I haven’t had the necessary data to prove my assertion.

However, thanks to Professor Leandro Prados de la Escosura in Madrid, that’s no longer the case. He’s put together some fascinating data measuring economic freedom in North America and Western Europe from 1850-present. And since he doesn’t include fiscal policy, we can see the degree to which there have been improvements in other areas that might offset the rising burden of taxes and spending.

Here’s one of his charts, which shows the growth of economic freedom over time. For obvious reasons, he doesn’t include the periods surrounding World War I and World War II, but those gaps don’t make much of a difference. You can clearly see that non-fiscal economic freedom has improved significantly over the past 150-plus years.

Economic Freedom 1850-2007

Most of the improvement took place in two stages, before 1910 and after 1980.

It’s also worth noting that things got much worse during the 1930s, so it appears the developed world suffered from the same bad policies that Hoover and FDR were imposing in the United States.

Indeed, here’s another chart, which highlights various periods and shows which policies were moving in the right direction or wrong direction.

Economic Freedom Changes 1850-2007

As you can see, the West enjoyed the biggest improvements between 1850-1880 and after 1980 (let’s give thanks to Reagan and Thatcher).

There also were modest improvements in 1880-1910 and 1950-1960. But there was a big drop in freedom between the World War I and World War II, and you can also see policy stagnation in the 1960s and 1970s.

By the way, I wonder what we would see if we had data from 2007-2014. Based on the statist policies of Bush and Obama, as well as bad policy in other major nations such as France and Japan, it’s quite likely that the line would be heading in the wrong direction.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main topic.

The moral of the story is that we’ve been lucky. Bad fiscal policy has been offset by better policy in other areas. We’re suffering from bigger government, but at least we’ve moved in the direction of free markets.

That being said, we may now be in an era when bad fiscal policy augments bad policy in other areas.

For further information, this video explains the components of economic success.

P.S. I’ve written before that government bureaucrats don’t work as hard as folks employed in the economy’s productive sector.

Well, that’s becoming official policy in some parts of Sweden.

A section of employees of the municipality of Gothenburg will now work an hour less a day… The measure is being self-consciously conceived of as an experiment, with a group of municipal employees working fewer hours and a control group working regular hours – all on the same pay. …Mats Pilhem, the city’s Left-wing deputy mayor, told The Local Sweden that he hoped “staff members would take fewer sick days and feel better mentally and physically after working shorter days”.

Heck, if you want fewer sick days, just tell them they never have to show up for work. And I’m sure they’ll “feel better mentally and physically” with that schedule.

I’m also amused by this passage from the article.

Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think tank, welcomed the proposals. “Shorter working hours create a more committed and stable workforce,” Ms Coote told The Telegraph.

Gee, what a surprise. If you overpay a group of people and tell them they can spend more time at home, they’ll be very anxious to keep those jobs.

Sounds like a great deal…unless you’re a taxpayer.

The new leftist website, Vox, has an article by Sarah Kliff on Vermont’s experiment with a single-payer healthcare system.

But I don’t really have much to say about what’s happening in the Green Mountain State, other than to declare that I much prefer healthcare experiments to occur at the state level. Indeed, we should reform Medicaid and Medicare and also fix the tax code so that Washington has no role in healthcare. Then the states can experiment and compete to see what works best.

But that’s a topic for another day. The real reason I cite Kliff’s article is that Ezra Klein tweeted this image from the article and stated that is was “The case for single payer, in one graphic.”

Vox Third-Party Payer

I don’t know if the numbers in the graphic are correct, but I have no reason to think they’re wrong.

Regardless, I certainly don’t disagree with the notion that our healthcare system is absurdly expensive and ridiculously inefficient.

In other words, the folks at Vox have accurately diagnosed a problem.

However, do these flaws prove “the case for single payer”?

It’s probably true that “single payer” has a lower monetary cost than the system we have today (assuming you don’t include the cost of substandard care and denied treatment), but that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal system.

Indeed, there is a better way to deal with the waste, inefficiency, and bureaucracy of the current system. third-party-2The answer is free markets and genuine insurance, both of which would help address the real problem of third-party payer.

Third-party payer, for those who are new to the healthcare field, is what you get when somebody other than the consumer picks up the tab. And because of government intervention, that’s what happens with about 90 percent of healthcare spending in the United States. Here’s what John Goodman had to say about this problem.

Almost everyone believes there is an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency in health care. But why is that? In a normal market, wherever there is waste, entrepreneurs are likely to be in hot pursuit — figuring out ways to profit from its elimination by cost-reducing, quality-enhancing innovations. Why isn’t this happening in health care? As it turns out, there is a lot of innovation here. But all too often, it’s the wrong kind. There has been an enormous amount of innovation in the medical marketplace regarding the organization and financing of care. And wherever health insurers are paying the bills (almost 90 percent of the market) it has been of two forms: (1) helping the supply side of the market maximize against third-party reimbursement formulas, or (2) helping the third-party payers minimize what they pay out. Of course, these developments have only a tangential relationship to the quality of care patients receive or its efficient delivery.

And here’s some analysis from a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In most industries, higher quality is associated with higher prices. That is not true in medical care, however, largely because of the public sector. …Every analysis of medical care that has been done highlights the significant waste of resources in providing care. Consider a few examples: one study found that physicians spent on average of 142 hours annually interacting with health plans, at an estimated cost to practices of $68,274 per physician (Casalino et al., 2009). Another study found that 35 percent of nurses’ time in medical/surgical units of hospitals was spent on documentation (Hendrich et al., 2008); patient care was far smaller. …In retail trade, the customer is the individual shopper. If Wal-Mart finds a way to save money, it can pass that along to consumers directly. In health care, in contrast, the situation is more complex, since patients do not pay much of the bill out-of-pocket. Rather, costs are passed from providers to insurers to employers… About one-third of medical spending is not associated with improved outcomes, significantly cutting the efficiency of the medical system and leading to enormous adverse effects.

Here’s my humble contribution to the discussion, starting with an explanation of how special tax breaks deserves some of the blame.

…how many people realize that this bureaucratic process is the result of government interference? For all intents and purposes, social engineering in the tax code created this mess. Specifically, most of us get some of our compensation in the form of health insurance policies from our employers. And because that type of income is exempt from taxation, this encourages so-called Cadillac health plans. …We have replaced (or at least agumented) insurance with pre-paid health care.

I then explain why this isn’t a good idea.

Insurance is supposed to be for unforseen major expenses, such as a heart attack. But our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues…, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. Last but not least, we need to consider how this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working?

And I ask readers to think about the damage this approach would cause if applied in other sectors of the economy.

Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

This is probably more than most people care to read, but it underscores the point that we don’t have a free market in health care. Not now, and not before Obamacare.

So the folks at Vox are right about the current system being a mess. But I disagree with the notion that more government is a way to solve problems created by government.

The real answer, as I’ve already noted, is to get Washington out of health care. This means entitlement reform AND tax reform.

And if you want to get a flavor of why this would generate better results, watch this Reason TV video and read these stories from Maine and North Carolina.

So how do we get there? Repealing Obamacare is a necessary but far from sufficient condition. Cato’s Adjunct Scholar, John Cochrane, has a nice roadmap of what’s really needed.

Though Vermont certainly is welcome to travel in the other direction. It’s always good to have bad examples and I wouldn’t be surprised if the “Moocher State” played that role.

President Obama and many other leftist politicians are running around the nation claiming that supposedly greedy employers are deliberately choosing to reduce their profits.

They’re not actually making that specific claim, but that’s what they’re asserting, for all intents and purposes, when they claim that women are not getting equal pay for equal work.

Inaccurate, but nonetheless clever

If genuine and pervasive sexism existed, then non-discriminatory employers could dramatically reduce labor costs – and therefore dramatically increase profits – by getting rid of overpaid male workers and hiring women. Does anyone really think entrepreneurs and business owners are willing to sacrifice big profits simply because of anti-women animus?

That’s what Obama would like us to believe. And he wants the government to have the power to second-guess the decisions of private businesses. Heck, he probably would like to make America like Europe, where there are efforts to impose gender quotas.

And one of his chief economists tried to back up the President’s claims. Here’s some of what Ashe Schow wrote on the issue for the Washington Examiner.

While detailing executive actions President Obama plans to take Tuesday regarding equal pay for women, Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said very defiantly that…women… continue to make less than men. …“They’re stuck at 77 cents on the dollar, and that gender wage gap is seen very persistently across the income distribution, within occupations, across occupations, and we see it when men and women are working side by side doing identical work.” That sounds awfully specific. Stevenson certainly sounds like she’s saying men and women doing the exact same job are earning very different pay.

Ms. Stevenson certainly was trying to be a loyal employee.

But then something very unusual happened. A journalist actually asked a real question.

And Ms. Stevenson, who obviously didn’t want to make herself a laughingstock to her colleagues in the economics profession, was forced to admit that the President is peddling nonsense.

…as soon as Stevenson was actually questioned about the statistic by McClatchy reporter Lindsay Wise, the White House adviser crumbled, admitting her earlier comments were inaccurate. “If I said 77 cents was equal pay for equal work, then I completely misspoke,” Stevenson said. “So let me just apologize and say that I certainly wouldn’t have meant to say that.” …Don’t expect Obama to admit any of this as he travels around the country continuing to claim that women don’t earn as much as men.

So why did Ms. Stevenson quickly back down? Well, perhaps she is familiar with the work of Christina Hoff Sommers, who has explained that men and women do get equal pay when you adjust for career choices, labor supply, and other factors.

There’s lots of evidence that the supposed sexist pay gap is a political weapon rather than economic reality.

Mary Perry and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute just wrote a very thorough debunking of the pay gap myth for the Wall Street Journal. Here are some of the key passages, starting with an explanation that the pay gap largely disappears when you make apples-to-apples comparisons.

…the numbers bandied about to make the claim of widespread discrimination are fundamentally misleading and economically illogical. …Men were almost twice as likely as women to work more than 40 hours a week, and women almost twice as likely to work only 35 to 39 hours per week. Once that is taken into consideration, the pay gap begins to shrink. Women who worked a 40-hour week earned 88% of male earnings. Then there is the issue of marriage and children. The BLS reports that single women who have never married earned 96% of men’s earnings in 2012.

Wow. No wonder Steve Chapman wrote that the left’s pay-gap rhetoric is “a myth resting on a deception.”

But there’s more.

Risk is another factor. Nearly all the most dangerous occupations, such as loggers or iron workers, are majority male and 92% of work-related deaths in 2012 were to men. Dangerous jobs tend to pay higher salaries to attract workers. Also: Males are more likely to pursue occupations where compensation is risky from year to year, such as law and finance. Research shows that average pay in such jobs is higher to compensate for that risk.

Finally, Perry and Biggs seal the argument by pointing out that discrimination doesn’t make sense in a competitive market.

…gender-disparity claims are also economically illogical. If women were paid 77 cents on the dollar, a profit-oriented firm could dramatically cut labor costs by replacing male employees with females. Progressives assume that businesses nickel-and-dime suppliers, customers, consultants, anyone with whom they come into contact—yet ignore a great opportunity to reduce wages costs by 23%. They don’t ignore the opportunity because it doesn’t exist.

By the way, this does not mean that discrimination doesn’t exist.

I’m sure there are still some employers who let sex or race play a role in their decisions. But such people are not only immoral, but also stupid. They are giving up potential profits to indulge their own insecurities.

And other employers will take advantage of their foolishness.

In other words, the free market is the best way to fight discrimination, not government intervention.

P.S. Walter Williams explains that racial and sexual profiling sometimes makes sense.

P.P.S. I explain that anti-discrimination laws can boomerang against intended beneficiaries.

P.P.P.S. There is real evidence that tall people and attractive people are paid more, though I nonetheless argue that government is incapable of addressing this issue.

P.P.P.P.S. For those who are genuinely worried about discrimination, particularly against minorities, the real issues to address are Social Security and government schools.

One of the best ways of reducing crime is to make anti-social behavior more expensive. Simply stated, the goal is to alter the cost-benefit analysis of criminals.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I’m assuming that bad guys are geniuses who put together spreadsheets or engage in elaborate calculations. Instead, I’m simply suggesting that crime becomes less attractive if thugs have a feeling that they’ll be more likely to get caught and/or more likely to get harsh punishment.

And, as I explained in my IQ test for liberals and criminals, bad guys also will be less likely to commit crimes if they know there’s a non-trivial chance that they may get shot. I know that would change my cost-benefit analysis if I was a crook.

But it’s not just my satirical IQ test. You get the same results from real experts such as John Lott and David Kopel.

This is why there’s less crime when law-abiding people own guns (as humorously depicted here and here by Chuck Asay).

Unfortunately, an army base is one place where bad guys can feel confident that they’ll find unarmed victims.

This is worth discussing since, for the second time, we have a sad example of innocent – and disarmed – people getting killed at Fort Hood.

Glenn McCoy has a cartoon that aptly summarizes this issue.

McCoy Fort Hood Cartoon

I’m sure some statists would argue that both the cartoon and my analysis are wrong because the killers (Ivan Lopez earlier this month and Major Hasan back in 2009) were crazy and simply wanted to kill the maximum number of people.

But experts have shown that even nutjobs engage in planning and figure out that they will have more ability to kill if they choose venues where potential victims are disarmed.

And even if we hypothesize that some crazy people might be too unstable to make those calculations, what’s wrong with allowing people to carry weapons on a military base so they can defend themselves?!?

But I’m not holding my breath expecting the ideologues in the Obama Administration to change their anti-Second Amendment policies.

Though at least we can be happy that more and more states are acknowledging reality and expanding concealed-carry rights and implementing stand-your-ground laws.

P.S. I’m increasingly optimistic that we are beating the statists on this issue. Honest leftists (see here and here) are acknowledging the value of private firearms ownership. We have very strong polling data from cops that gun control is misguided. And ordinary citizens would engage in massive civil disobedience (as we’re seeing in Connecticut) if the thugs in government tried to confiscate guns.

P.P.S. But let’s not get complacent. Statists may be losing some battles, but they won’t give up in their war against the Constitution. And they’re using government schools to push a fanatical anti-gun agenda. And they’re also working through the United Nations in an effort to get gun control through the back door. Though I suppose we should be happy that American statists aren’t as crazy as their British counterparts.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with some gun control humor. If you want to know how leftists concoct data against gun ownership, here’s a good example. And here’s a video showing how leftists think about guns. Folks will also enjoy this comparison of how guns are viewed by liberals, conservatives, and Texans. And I think we can all agree that this driver is being very polite.

My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

I’ve observed, reported, mocked, written, and explained that Obamacare is a cluster-you-know-what.

So I’m rather bemused and frustrated by the latest pro-Obamacare spin that the law is a “success” because there are now 7 million people who have picked a plan.

There are lots of reasons for normal people to have a what-the-expletive-deleted response to this declaration of victory. For instance:

The goal of Obamacare was to insure the uninsured, yet that number has barely budged, so why is the Administration allowed to move the goalposts to something far more modest?

Obamacare also was supposed to lower premiums by $2500 and allow everyone to keep their plans and their preferred providers, so what happened to those goals?

And why should we even believe the White House spin when we have no idea whether people who have picked a plan have actually paid for that plan?

Moreover, what’s so impressive about getting some people to sign up for plans when they can get something that’s subsidized by taxpayers or other consumers?

But here’s an image put together by Senator Cruz’s office that may be the best – and certainly most amusing – look at the Administration’s supposed “achievement.”

Obamacare Broken WIndows

Amen. People are being both coerced and bribed to sign up for Obamacare, in many cases after the law forced the cancellation of plans that they liked.

So why are we supposed to applaud the fact that a small fraction of the population has chosen the only possible option?

That’s the same mentality that allows politicians to brag about our “voluntary” tax system. As if any of us send our hard-earned money to the crooks in Washington for any reason other than the fact that otherwise we would get arrested.

P.S. Since I commented on our acquiescence to the IRS and our “voluntary” tax system, I will admit thatWashington Tax I’m amused and chagrined by this poster. It’s minimized since it uses a sometimes-inappropriate synonym for wimps.

P.P.S. Since this post was about the “broken window” theory of Obamacare, let’s make sure to give ultimate credit to Bastiat, who came up with the original broken windows analogy (as captured by this cartoon mocking Keynesian economics).

Last August, I shared a fascinating map from the Tax Foundation.

It showed which states have chased away taxable income and which ones have attracted more taxpayers (along with their taxable income).

In other words, what are the “Golden Geese” doing with their money?

Well, the obvious and unsurprising answer is that they are escaping high-tax states and moving to states that aren’t quite so greedy.

Now we have another map from the Tax Foundation. They’ve just released the latest data on state and local tax burdens as a share of state income. Because of lags in data, we’re looking at 2011 numbers, but that’s not important. The main thing is to notice that the states with the highest tax burdens are very much correlated with the states that suffered the great loss of taxable income.

State-Local Tax

You can tell a few additional things just by looking at the map, most notably that the high-tax states are largely along the Pacific coast, in the upper Midwest, and much of the Northeast.

The rest of the nation seems more reasonable.

If you specifically want to know the best and worst states, I’ve put together a list. But I’ve reversed the order. The state with the lowest tax burden is #1 while the state with the greediest politicians is #50.

Best-worst tax states

A couple of observations on the data.

First, it helps to have no state income tax. The top four states, and seven out of the top 10, avoid that punitive levy.

Second, while it’s no surprise to see which states are at the bottom because of harsh tax burdens, it will be interesting to see how Chris Christie and Scott Walker explain the poor rankings of their respective states should they run for President.

This isn’t to say it’s their fault. After all, New Jersey and Wisconsin were high-tax states when they took office. But it will be incumbent upon them to say what they’ve done to make a bad situation better (or at least to keep a bad situation from getting worse).

Here are some more interesting maps, including international comparisons, national comparisons, and even one local comparison.

Which nations have the most red ink.

Which nations are money laundering centers (hint, not tax havens).

A crazy left-wing “Happy Planet” map.

Another silly map showing that America is supposedly one of the world’s most authoritarian nations.

Here are some good state maps with useful information.

Which states give the highest welfare payments.

In which state is the burden of government spending climbing most rapidly.

Which states are in a “death spiral” because of too many takers and too few makers.

Which states have too many school bureaucrats compared to teachers.

There’s even a local map.

How many of the nation’s richest counties are in the D.C. metro region.

P.S. I wrote recently about the foolishness of anti-money laundering laws, which impose very high costs without having any positive impact in terms of thwarting crime.

Now bureaucrats want to make these laws even worse. Casinos are going to be required to be more intrusive, regardless of whether there’s any evidence or suspicion that customers have done anything wrong. I’m not a gambler, so I don’t worry about the fate of Las Vegas, but even I feel sorry for the casinos since many high rollers from overseas will decide to go to Macau, Monaco, or other locations where they’re not treated poorly because of misguided government.

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