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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

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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Divided government is good for America’s economy.

Or, to be more specific, divided government is a net plus if the alternative is to have statists fully in charge of economic policy.

I made this point back in 2012 when I pointed out that the unemployment rate started falling after Republicans captured the House of Representatives, and we got further good results when gridlock led to an end to extended unemployment benefits, first in North Carolina and then the entire country.

We also see positive evidence in the new rankings from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, which was published this week.

As you can see from this chart, the United States fell in 2010 to #18 in this global ranking of economic liberty, but now America has improved to #12.

That’s still far below our #3 ranking when Bill Clinton left office, so we’re still paying a high price for the statist policies of both Bush and Obama, but at least we’re finally moving back in the right direction.

If you look at the underlying data, you can see why America’s score has increased since 2010.

There was a slight improvement in the scores for trade and regulation, but that was offset by declines in the scores for monetary policy and property rights.

Fiscal policy is the area where there was a significant improvement for the United States, which matches with my data showing that sequestration and the Tea Party made a big difference by significantly slowing the growth of government spending.

But the improvement over the past two years, as noted above, is small compared to the decline in the previous 10 years.

Here’s how Economic Freedom of the World describes America’s fall.

The 7.81 chain-linked rating of the United States in 2012 is more than 8/10 of a point lower than the 2000 rating. What accounts for the US decline? While US ratings and rankings have fallen in all five areas of the EFW index, the reductions have been largest in the Legal System and Protection of Property Rights (Area 2)… The plunge in Area 2 has been huge. In 2000, the 9.23 rating of the United States was the 9th highest in the world. But by 2012, the area rating had plummeted to 6.99, placing it 36th worldwide. …the increased use of eminent domain to transfer property to powerful political interests, the ramifications of the wars on terrorism and drugs, and the violation of the property rights of bondholders in the auto-bailout case have weakened the tradition of strong adherence to the rule of law in United States. …To a large degree, the United States has experienced a significant move away from rule of law and toward a highly regulated, politicized, and heavily policed state.

Geesh, we’re becoming another Argentina.

Looking at the big picture, a falling score is not a trivial issue.

The decline in the summary rating between 2000 and 2012 on the 10-point scale of the index may not sound like much, but scholarly work on this topic indicates that a one-point decline in the EFW rating is associated with a reduction in the long-term growth of GDP of between 1.0 and 1.5 percentage points annually (Gwartney, Holcombe, and Lawson, 2006). This implies that, unless policies undermining economic freedom are reversed, the future annual growth of the US economy will be only about half its historic average of 3%.

Amen. This is why I worry so much about the corrosive impact of big government.

Now let’s look at the overall ratings for all nations. The chart is too large to show all nations, so here are the nations with the most economic freedom.

You shouldn’t be surprised to see that Hong Kong and Singapore own the top two spots.

Other nations with very high scores include New Zealand, Switzerland, Mauritius, UAE, Canada, Australia, Jordon and Chile.

Getting a good score today, however, is no guarantee of getting a good score in the future.

I’ve already expressed concern about Australia moving in the wrong direction, but I’m even more worried about Chile. That nation’s socialist President is making very bad moves on fiscal policy, and also is trying to undermine her country’s very successful system of school choice.

But it would take a lot of bad policy for Chile to drop down to the level of Venezuela, which has the dubious honor of being in last place.

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In addition to his side job as Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Economics Department at Harvard University, Jeff Miron is Director of Economic Studies at the Cato Institute.

He’s also the narrator of this video from Learn Liberty that discusses three myths about capitalism.

Unsurprisingly, I think Jeff is right on the mark. Here are some of my thoughts on the three myths, but I’ll take a different approach. I’ll state the truth and then add my two cents to Jeff’s debunking.

1. Capitalism is pro-consumer, not pro-business.

I think the myth about a link between capitalism and big business arises because defenders of free markets often are in the position of opposing taxes, regulations, and mandates that also are opposed by the business community. But for some reason, many people overlook the fact that those same advocates of free markets also oppose cronyist policies that are widely supported by big business, such as Export-Import Bank, the so-called stimulus, TARP, and Obamacare. Part of the problem may be that far too many Republicans actually are pro-business instead of pro-free market.

2. Capitalism rewards those who best serve others.

In a genuine free market, you can only become rich by providing goods and services that are valued by others. But I think the myth that capitalism leads to unfair distribution of wealth exists for two reasons. First, a non-trivial number of people actually think the economy is a fixed pie, so they assume a rich person’s wealth came at the expense of the rest of us. This is obviously wrong. The second reason is that some people do get rich because of government intervention and coercion. This is true, of course, but as discussed in the video and in my remarks above, cronyism, handouts, bailouts, and subsidies are the opposite of capitalism.

3. Capitalism can’t work without failure and bankruptcy.

Regarding the myth that capitalism caused the financial crisis, I’ve already explained that bad monetary policy and corrupt subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac deserve the lion’s share of the blame. So I want to focus on the bailouts that occurred once the economy soured. There’s a semi-famous saying that “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.” Unfortunately, politicians feel a compulsion to shield people (especially if they’re politically powerful) from the consequences of bad decisions. That’s not capitalism. And I’m not just making an ideological point. For those who think that the financial system needed to be recapitalized, the “FDIC resolution” approach would have achieved everything we got with TARP, but without rewarding people who made bad decisions.

My only complaint about the video is that it was too short and didn’t address some of the other viewpoints that undermine support for capitalism.

I don’t know if these are myths, per se, but they certainly are mental roadblocks we need to overcome to build more support for a free society.

4. Some people crave security.

Capitalism is all about opportunity, but that also means uncertainty. And for those who crave predictability and security, that makes them uncomfortable. And I suspect they would be uncomfortable even if you showed them all the evidence that capitalism leads to far more wealth in the long run. Simply stated, they worry about falling through the cracks. When trying to convince these people, I point to the collapsing welfare state in Europe and argue that there’s far less long-run security in a society where everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.

5. Some rich people are jerks.

Whether it’s being obnoxious or ostentatious, people with a lot of money sometimes give capitalism a bad name. And that’s true even if they are genuine capitalists rather than cronyists. It doesn’t help that a lot of what comes out of Hollywood routinely paints rich people and big business as bad guys. By the way, it could very well be the case that there are fewer bad people, per capita, among the rich when compared to the rest of us. But the ones that are jerks get a disproportionate share of attention. And since I mentioned Hollywood, it is a bit of a mystery that becoming uber-rich by acting (or singing or in sports) doesn’t seem to arouse as much envy. Yet I strongly suspect those people are far more likely to engage in unseemly behavior. Go figure.

6. Some businesses try to rip off consumers.

While free markets in the long run reward honesty and punish bad behavior, that doesn’t mean much to a person who has been ripped off, whether by a local contractor or a big multinational. The fact that there are bad people, though, isn’t an argument against capitalism. After all, bad people are quite likely to obtain power in a big-government society. And backed by the coercive power of the state, they’ll have much greater ability to do bad things.

P.S. If you want to know the practical difference between capitalism and socialism, check out this image.

P.P.S. The most free-market place in North America is not in the United States.

P.P.P.S. We live in a strange world when Bono is more pro-market than the Pope.

P.P.P.P.S. Statists like to criticize free markets, but they sure seem to enjoy the fruits of capitalism.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I also suspect statists think free markets are bad because they equate capitalism with rich people and the wealthy folks they know are more likely to have obtained their money dishonestly.

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