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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The VAT could never be increased.

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

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

Here are examples to show why I am concerned.

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

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

I agree in theory.

America’s corporate tax system is a nightmare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lower the corporate tax rate.

Replace depreciation with expensing.

Replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation.

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

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

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

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

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

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The world is a laboratory, with lots of experiments to see if a nation can prosper with big government and pervasive intervention.

The results are not encouraging. I’ve written about France being a basket case, over and over again.

And I am equally pessimistic about Greece because the moochers and looters outnumber productive people in that country.

Heck, much of Europe is a mess because of widespread statism.

But the rest of the world is filled with bad examples as well. Japan has attracted my critical attention, and I have very little reason to think that nation has a bright future.

I’ve also dinged bad policy in Mexico and South Africa, so nobody can accuse me of being parsimonious when it comes to criticizing politicians that promote big government.

But the country that may be in the deepest trouble is Italy.

To understand the depth of the problem, you should read a recent article in the U.K.-based Spectator.

Here are some excerpts, starting with an anecdote about the government-funded opera house in Rome.

Financed and managed by the state, and therefore crippled by debt, the opera house — like so much else in Italy — had been a jobs-for-life trade union fiefdom. Its honorary director, Riccardo Muti, became so fed up after dealing with six years of work-to-rule surrealism that he resigned. It’s hard to blame him. The musicians at the opera house — the ‘professori’ — work a 28-hour week (nearly half taken up with ‘study’) and get paid 16 months’ salary a year, plus absurd perks such as double pay for performing in the open air because it is humid and therefore a health risk. Even so, in the summer, Muti was compelled to conduct a performance of La Bohème with only a pianist because the rest of the orchestra had gone on strike.

The story says all the staff eventually were fired.

Is that a sign that policy makers in Italy are sobering up? Or is it too little, too late?

The author of the column, Nicholas Farrell, is not optimistic.

Italy’s irreversible demise is a foregone conclusion. The country is just too much of a basket case even to think about. …The youth unemployment rate here is 43 per cent — the highest on record. That figure doesn’t factor in the black market, which is so big that the Italian government now wants to include certain parts of it — prostitution, drug dealing and assorted smuggling — into its official GDP figures.  …Just 58 per cent of working-age Italians are employed, compared with an average 65 per cent in the developed world. …Italy’s economy has been stagnant since 2000. Indeed, over the past five years it has shrunk by 9.1 per cent. …Italy’s sovereign debt, meanwhile, continues to grow exponentially. It is now €2.2 trillion, which is the equivalent of 135 per cent of GDP — the third highest in the world after Japan and Greece. …In Italy, as in France, a dirigiste philosophy has predominated since the second world war. The government is run like a protection racket… Even newspapers are publicly subsidised, which is why there are so many of them.

But high debt in Italy isn’t because of low taxes.

Anyone who works in the real private sector — the family businesses that have made Italy’s name around the world — is in a bad place. Italy has the heaviest ‘total tax’ burden on businesses in the world at 68 per cent… To start a business in Italy is to enter a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, and to keep it going is even worse. It also means handing the state at least 50 cents for every euro paid to staff.

So where do all this tax money go?

Not surprisingly, there’s a parasitic public sector that is very well compensated. Starting with the politicians.

Italian MPs are the highest paid in the civilised world, earning almost twice the salary of a British MP. Barbers in the Italian Parliament get up to €136,120 a year gross. All state employees get a fabulous near-final–salary pension. It is not difficult to appreciate the fury of the average Italian private sector worker, whose gross annual pay is €18,000. The phrase ‘you could not make it up’ fits the gold-plated world of the Italian state employee to a tee — especially in the Mezzo-giorno, Italy’s hopeless south. Sicily, for instance, employs 28,000 forestry police — more than Canada — and has 950 ambulance drivers who have no ambulances to drive.

I gather Sicily is like the Illinois of Italy, so those horrifying numbers don’t surprise me.

And don’t forget that Italy’s representative in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is from Sicily as well.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Simple, adopt a policy of small government and free markets.

An Italian government that really meant business would make urgent and drastic cuts not just to the bloated, parasitical and corrupt state sector, but also to taxes, labour costs and red tape.

And the current Prime Minister, to be fair, is proposing baby steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, he’s being far too timid.

To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem, the Wall Street Journal opined on Italian labor markets, explaining that “pro-worker” interventions by government impose very high costs.

Led by the country’s largest union, the Italian General Confederation of Labor, or CGIL, the activists want to preserve Italy’s job guarantees as they are. Call it Italy’s economic suicide movement. …there is the Cassa Integrazione Guadagni. Under this income-assistance scheme, businesses that need to downsize can put some workers on “standby,” and the government will cover a significant share of the normal salary until the company can hire back the worker. The program strains the state’s budget, discourages workers from seeking other jobs, and prevents struggling companies from downsizing to stay competitive. Need to fire a worker for poor job performance? To do so, businesses must persuade a judge that no alternative short of termination was available—a process of administrative hearings and litigation that can take months and drain company resources. The World Economic Forum in its 2014-15 assessment of labor-market efficiency ranked Italy 141 out of 144 countries for hiring and firing practices, just above Zimbabwe.

And the biggest victim of the “pro-worker” interventions are…you guessed it…workers.

Italy has the largest number of small businesses in the European Union not because companies don’t want to grow, but because they fear growth will mean having to negotiate with the militant national unions like CGIL. The unsurprising result of all these barriers to firing and efficiency is that businesses are reluctant to hire. The official unemployment rate stands at 12%, and half of Italy’s young people are unemployed.

If you want more info about Italy’s dysfunctional labor markets, I also shared some good analysis from the WSJ back in 2012.

Let’s now circle back to a question asked above. Can Italy be saved?

Like Mr. Farrell, I’m not optimistic. There’s no pro-market political party in Italy. And the so-called technocrats have demonstrated amazing levels of incompetence, so they’re obviously not the solution.

P.S. There is one tiny bit of semi-good news from Italy. Over the past 8 years, government spending has increased, on average, by just 1.6 percent per year. The bad news, though, is that the private sector has grown at an even slower rate, so the actual burden of government spending has increased.

Between 1996-2000, by contrast, government spending grew by 1.1 percent per year. But since the private sector was growing, the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

In other words, when you satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule, good things happen.

P.P.S. Even though Italy is a complete mess (or perhaps because it is a complete mess), you won’t be surprised to learn that a New York Times columnist thinks America should adopt Italian-style government policies.

P.P.P.S. Then again, American statists have been urging European-type statism in the United States for decades. To see where that leads, check out these cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Glenn Foden, Eric Allie and Chip Bok.

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In my writings on the Laffer Curve, I probably sound like a broken record because I keep warning that a nation should never be at the revenue-maximizing point.

That’s because there’s lots of good research showing that there are ever-increasing costs to the economy as tax rates approach that level.

So the question that policy makers should ask themselves is whether they’re willing to impose $10 or $20 of damage to the private sector in order to collect $1 of additional revenue.

New we have further evidence. Let’s take a look at a new study by economists from Spain, Arizona, and California. Here’s the issue they decided to study.

As top earners account for a disproportionate share of tax revenues and face the highest marginal tax rates, such proposals lead to a natural tradeoff regarding tax revenue. On the one hand, increases in tax revenue are potentially non-trivial given the income generated by high-income households. On the other hand, the implementation of such proposals would increase marginal tax rates precisely where they are at their highest levels, and thus where the individual responses are expected to be larger. Therefore, revenue increases might not materialise.

And here’s what they found.

…the increase in overall tax collections – including tax collections at the local and state level and from corporate income taxes – is much smaller: 1.6%. Figure 2 shows why. As τ increases there is a substantial decline in labour supply, the capital stock, and aggregate output across steady states. Aggregate output, for example, declines by almost 12% when τ = 0.13. Hence, the government collects taxes from a smaller economy… The message from these findings is clear. There is not much available revenue from revenue-maximising shifts in the burden of taxation towards high earners…and that these changes have non-trivial implications for economic aggregates.

The key takeaways from that passage are the findings about “a smaller economy” and the fact that there are “non-trivial implications for economic aggregates.”

That means less prosperity.

And the authors even acknowledge that the damage to the productive sector is presumably larger than what they found in this research.

…it is important to reflect on the absence of features in our model that would make our conclusions even stronger. First, we have abstracted away from human capital decisions that would be negatively affected by increasing progressivity. Since investments in individual skills are not invariant to changes in tax progressivity, larger effects on output and effective labour supply – relative to a case with exogenous skills – are to be expected. Second, we have not modelled individual entrepreneurship decisions and their interplay with the tax system. Finally, we have not modelled a bequest motive, or considered a dynastic framework more broadly. In these circumstances, it is natural to conjecture that the sensitivity of asset accumulation decisions to changes in progressivity would be larger than in a life-cycle economy. Hence, even smaller effects on revenues would follow.

Richard Rahn’s latest column in the Washington Times also looks at this issue, reviewing the work of James Mirrlees, an economist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1996.

Back in 1971, a Scottish economist by the name of James A. Mirrlees wrote a groundbreaking paper, in which he attempted to answer the question of what an optimum income-tax regime would look like… Mr. Mirrlees had been an adviser to the British Labor Party, which supported the high tax rates in effect at that time. He did a careful analysis of the variation of people’s skills and the effect tax rates had on their incentives to earn. Much to his surprise, he found the optimum tax rate on high earners was about 20 percent… In his 1971 paper, Mr. Mirrlees concluded, “I must confess that I had expected the rigorous analysis of income taxation in the utilitarian manner to provide an argument for high tax rates. It has not done so.”

In other words, tax rates above 20 percent ultimately are self-defeating – even if you’re a statist and you want to maximize the size of the welfare state.

And there’s plenty of data from around the world on specific case studies that show the negative impact of class-warfare taxation, including research from the United States, Denmark, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.

And here’s Part II of my video series on the Laffer Curve, which provides additional evidence.

P.S. If you want some good data showing why Krugman and other class warriors are wrong about tax rates, Alan Reynolds did a very good job of skewering their analysis.

P.P.S. The right tax rate is the one that finances the legitimate functions of government, and not one penny more.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re discussing the Laffer Curve and class-warfare taxation, it’s appropriate to share this very encouraging survey of economists. They were asked whether they agreed with the fundamental premise of Thomas Piketty’s work on inequality and taxation.

Wow. This is about as close as you can get to unanimous rejection as you can get.

By the way, even if 2-3 percent of economists are right, that still doesn’t justify Piketty’s policy prescriptions.

P.P.P.P.S. In addition to writing about taxation, Richard is the creator of the famous Rahn Curve.

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I wrote last year about the remarkable acknowledgement by Bono that free markets were the best way to lift people out of poverty. The leader of the U2 band and long-time anti-poverty activist specifically stated that, “capitalism has been the most effective ideology we have known in taking people out of extreme poverty.”

As the old saying goes, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Too many politicians and interest groups want us to believe that foreign aid and bigger government are the answer, but nations that have jumped from poverty to prosperity invariably have followed a path of free markets and small government.

But today’s topic isn’t foreign aid.

Instead, I want to come to Bono’s aid. He recently defended his home country’s favorable corporate tax regime. Here are some excerpts from a report earlier this month in the Irish Times.

U2 singer Bono has said Ireland’s tax regime, used to attract multinational companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google to Irish shores, has brought Ireland “the only prosperity we’ve known”. Speaking in an interview in today’s Observer newspaper, Bono said Ireland’s tax policy had given the country “more hospitals and firemen and teachers”. “We are a tiny country, we don’t have scale, and our version of scale is to be innovative and to be clever, and tax competitiveness has brought our country the only prosperity we’re known,” he said. …“As a person who’s spent nearly 30 years fighting to get people out of poverty, it was somewhat humbling to realise that commerce played a bigger job than development,” said Bono. “I’d say that’s my biggest transformation in 10 years: understanding the power of commerce to make or break lives, and that it cannot be given into as the dominating force in our lives.”

So why does Bono need defending?

Because bosses from the leading Irish labor union apparently think he said something very bad. Here are some excerpts from a story published by the U.K-based Guardian.

Unite, which represents 100,000 workers on the island of Ireland, launched a blistering attack on the U2 singer for remarks…defending the 12.5% tax rate on corporations enjoyed by multinational companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. …Unite pointed out that one in four Irish people have to endure social deprivation, according the state’s own official Central Statistics Office. Mike Taft, Unite’s researcher and an economist, told the Guardian: “The one in four who suffer deprivation as well as the tens of thousands of others having to put up with six years of austerity will regard Bono’s remarks with total derision, it is the only word anyone could use to describe what he has said. “…for six years we have seen public services smashed apart due to austerity cuts, and here we have Bono talking about low corporation tax bringing us prosperity.”

I have three reactions.

First, I wonder whether the union is comprised mostly of private-sector workers or government bureaucrats. This may be relevant because I hope that private-sector union workers at least have a vague understanding that their jobs are tied to the overall prosperity of the economy. But if Unite is dominated by government bureaucrats, then it’s no surprise that it favors class-warfare policies that would cripple the private sector.

Second, the union bosses are right that Ireland has been suffering in the past six years, but they apparently don’t realize that the nation’s economy stumbled because government was getting bigger and intervening too much.

Third, maybe it’s true that “one in four” in Ireland currently suffer from “deprivation,” but that number has to be far smaller than it was thirty years ago. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita economic output in Ireland. As you can see, per-capita GDP has jumped from $15,000 to more than $37,500. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

I gave some details back in 2011 when I had the opportunity to criticize another Irish leftist who was blithely ignorant of Ireland’s big improvements in living standards once it entered into its pro-market reform phase.

I don’t know how the folks at Unite define progress, but I assume it’s good news that the Irish people now have more car, more phones, more doctors, more central heating, and fewer infant deaths.

Last but not least, none of this should be interpreted as approval of Ireland’s current government or overall Irish policy. There’s too much cronyism in Ireland and the overall fiscal burden (other than the corporate income tax) is onerous.

I’m simply saying that Bono is right. Pro-growth corporate tax policy has made a big – and positive – difference for Ireland. The folks at Unite should learn a lesson from the former President of Brazil, who was a leftist but at least understood that you need people in the private sector producing if you want anything to redistribute.

P.S. Bono isn’t the only rock star who understands economics.  Gene Simmons, the lead singer for Kiss, stated that “Capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to human beings. The welfare state sounds wonderful but it doesn’t work.”

P.P.S. Irish politicians may understand the importance of keeping a low corporate tax rate, but they certainly aren’t philosophically consistent when it comes to other taxes.

P.P.P.S. Some statists have tried to blame Ireland’s recent woes on the low corporate tax rate. More sober analysis shows that imprudent spending hikes and misguided bailouts deserve the blame (Ireland’s spending is particularly unfortunate since the nation’s period of prosperity began with spending restraint in the late 1980s).

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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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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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