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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

As a supporter of genuine capitalism, which means the right of contract and the absence of coercion, I don’t think there should be any policies that help or hinder unions.

The government should simply be a neutral referee that enforces contracts and upholds the rule of law.

Similarly, I also don’t have any philosophical objection to employers and employees agreeing to “defined benefit” pension plans, which basically promise workers a pre-determined amount of money after they retire based on factors such as average pay and years in the workforce.

After all, my money and property aren’t involved, so it’s not my business.

That being said, these so-called “DB plans” have a bad habit of going bankrupt. And that means the rest of us may get stuck with the bill if there’s a taxpayer bailout.

I discuss these issues in an interview with Fox Business News.

My main point is that there’s a deep hole in many of these plans, so someone is going to feel some pain.

I don’t want taxpayers to be hit, and I also don’t think well-managed pensions should be gouged with ever-rising premiums simply because other plans are faltering.

But I bet both will suffer, as will workers and retirees in the under-funded plans.

As part of the interview, I also warned that other “DB plans” are ticking time bombs. More specifically, most pensions for state and local bureaucrats involve (overly generous) pre-determined commitments and very rarely have governments set aside the amount of money needed to fund those promises.

And the biggest DB time bomb is Social Security, which has an unfunded cash-flow liability of more than $30 trillion. That’s a lot of money even by Washington standards.

But I closed with a bit of good news.

As workers and employers have learned that DB plans tend to be unstable and unsustainable, there has been a marked shift toward “defined contribution” plans such as IRAs and 401(k)s.

These plans are the private property of workers, so there’s no risk that the money will be stolen or squandered.

But even this good news comes with a caveat. We closed the interview by fretting about the possibility that governments will steal (or at least over-tax) these private pension assets at some point in the future.

That’s already happened in Argentina and Poland, so I’m not just being a paranoid libertarian.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I’m a supporter of a single-rate tax regime, especially if there’s no double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s why I like the flat tax.

But I’ve expressed concern about the national sales tax, even though it’s basically the same as a flat tax (the only real difference is that the flat tax takes a bite out of your income when it is earned, while the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent).

The reason for my skepticism is that I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they will adopt a sales tax, but never replace the income. As a result, we’ll wind up like Europe, with much bigger government.

And also much more red ink – even though politicians claim tax hikes and new taxes will lead to balanced budgets.

I’m not just being paranoid. Not only is this what occurred in Europe, the same thing is now happening in Japan.

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal has to say about “reforms” to the value-added tax in the land of the rising sun.

Japan on Tuesday increased its consumption tax to 8% from 5%. An increase to 10% is written into the law for next year, and don’t imagine for a minute that this will be the last. Welcome to the value-added-tax ratchet, which only goes in one direction—up. Tokyo first imposed a 3% consumption tax in 1989, after politicians had tried for a decade to enact one. …The new tax was billed as part of a tax reform, but the reform never materialized.

And as I warned in a prior column, the VAT has become a recipe for bigger government in Japan.

The new tax didn’t solve Japan’s deficit woes, as the debt to GDP ratio climbed to 50%, so in 1997 politicians increased the rate to 5%. Again politicians promised the increase would be offset by income-tax reforms. Again the reform proved illusory. …The additional revenue still didn’t satisfy Tokyo’s spending ambitions, and debt has since climbed well above 200% of GDP despite the VAT increase. …So now the rate is going up again in the name of, you guessed it, shoring up government finances as the population ages.

The OECD likes this development, which is hardly a surprise, but it’s bad news for those of us who favor growth and opportunity.

Japan’s experience points up the broader political problem with a value-added tax wherever it has been imposed. Economists tout the VAT for generating revenue without creating disincentives to work and invest. But in practice the consumption levy merely becomes one more tax in addition to current taxes and thus one more claim by the political class on the private economy. …The lesson for tax reformers elsewhere, not least in America, is to beware the VAT because once it is imposed it is only going up.

And it’s worth noting that the Europeans also have been increasing the VAT in recent years.

Simply stated, this is a levy to finance bigger government.

I elaborate in my video on the VAT.

P.S. You can see some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT 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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Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has unveiled the GOP’s latest budget plan.

Is this proposal deserving of applause or criticism? The answer is yes and yes, with a bit of emphasis on the former.

Let’s start with some depressing news. The Ryan budget has gotten weaker each year.

Three years ago, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 2.8 percent per year.

Two years ago, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 3.1 percent per year.

Last year, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 3.4 percent per year.

His latest budget continues this slide in the wrong direction. Here are the numbers from the new budget, showing that the burden of government spending will rise by an average of 3.5 percent annually over the next 10 years.

And this is during a time when inflation is projected to be about 2 percent per year!

Ryan FY2015 Budget

Since it would be foolish to ever expect perfection from the political process, let’s now look at the positive features of the Ryan budget.

1. Spending may be growing, but it would grow at a slower rate than the President’s proposed budget.

2. Spending may be growing, but it would grow at a slower rate than nominal economic output, thus satisfying Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

3. Perhaps most important, the budget contains genuine and structural reform of both Medicare and Medicaid, so it at least partially solves the long-run fiscal crisis.

4. The budget also foresees tax reform, including lower tax rates for households, a 25 percent corporate tax rate, and a move toward territorial taxation.

Now let’s close with some hard-to-judge news.

The tax reform would be “revenue neutral,” so it’s difficult to accurately assess the proposal without knowing the “revenue raisers” that would offset the “revenue losers” listed above (particularly since lawmakers would be bound by static scoring).

If lower tax rates are financed by getting rid of distortions such as the healthcare exclusion, the net effect is very positive.

But if lower tax rates are financed with increased double taxation (a major shortcoming of the Cong. Camp tax plan), then it’s unclear whether policy has improved.

One final comment. I’m disappointed that the House Budget Committee’s report approvingly cites Congressional Budget Office analysis to suggest that the Ryan budget would boost economic performance.

I think that’s a tactically and morally dubious approach. It’s tactically misguided because the Ryan budget supposedly hurts growth from 2015-2017 according to CBO’s short-term Keynesianism.

And it’s morally dubious because it’s wrong to use bad arguments to advance good policy. The supposed added growth beginning in 2018 is based on the assumption that interest rates are the significant determinant of economic growth – which is the same thinking displayed in the left-wing debt video I shared yesterday.

Paul Ryan and the House GOP can legitimately claim that the proposed budget is good for growth. But improved economic performance would be the result of a smaller burden of government spending and a potentially less destructive tax system. Those are the policies that free up labor and capital for the productive sector and boost incentives to utilize those resources efficiently.

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a widespread consensus that high tax rates were economically misguided. Many Democrats, for instance, supported the 1986 Tax Reform Act that lowered the top tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent (albeit offset by increased double taxation and more punitive depreciation rules).

And even in the 1990s, many on the left at least paid lip service to the notion that lower tax rates were better for prosperity than higher tax rates. Perhaps that’s because the overwhelming evidence of lower tax rates on the rich leading to higher revenue was fresh in their minds.

The modern left, however, seems completely fixated on class-warfare tax policy. Some of them want higher tax rates even if the government doesn’t collect more revenue!

I’ve already shared a bunch of data and evidence on the importance of low tax rates.

A review of the academic evidence by the Tax Foundation found overwhelming support for the notion that lower tax rates are good for growth.

An economist from Cornell found lower tax rates boost GDP.

Other economists found lower tax rates boost job creation, savings, and output.

Even economists at the Paris-based OECD have determined that high tax rates undermine economic performance.

Today, we’re going to augment this list with some fresh and powerful evidence.

Lots of new evidence. So grab a cup of coffee.

The New York Times, for instance, is noticing that high taxes drive away productive people. At least in France.

Here are some excerpts from a remarkable story.

A year earlier, Mr. Santacruz, who has two degrees in finance, was living in Paris near the Place de la Madeleine, working in a boutique finance firm. He had taken that job after his attempt to start a business in Marseille foundered under a pile of government regulations and a seemingly endless parade of taxes. The episode left him wary of starting any new projects in France. Yet he still hungered to be his own boss. He decided that he would try again. Just not in his own country.

What pushed him over the edge? Taxes, taxes, and more taxes.

…he returned to France to work with a friend’s father to open dental clinics in Marseille. “But the French administration turned it into a herculean effort,” he said. A one-month wait for a license turned into three months, then six. They tried simplifying the corporate structure but were stymied by regulatory hurdles. Hiring was delayed, partly because of social taxes that companies pay on salaries. In France, the share of nonwage costs for employers to fund unemployment benefits, education, health care and pensions is more than 33 percent. In Britain, it is around 20 percent. “Every week, more tax letters would come,” Mr. Santacruz recalled.

Monsieur Santacruz has lots of company.

…France has been losing talented citizens to other countries for decades, but the current exodus of entrepreneurs and young people is happening at a moment when France can ill afford it. The nation has had low-to-stagnant economic growth for the last five years and a generally climbing unemployment rate — now about 11 percent — and analysts warn that it risks sliding into economic sclerosis. …This month, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris, which represents 800,000 businesses, published a report saying that French executives were more worried than ever that “unemployment and moroseness are pushing young people to leave” the country, bleeding France of energetic workers. As the Pew Research Center put it last year, “no European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France.”

But it’s not just young entrepreneurs. It’s also those who already have achieved some level of success.

Some wealthy businesspeople have also been packing their bags. While entrepreneurs fret about the difficulties of getting a business off the ground, those who have succeeded in doing so say that society stigmatizes financial success. …Hand-wringing articles in French newspapers — including a three-page spread in Le Monde, have examined the implications of “les exilés.” …around 1.6 million of France’s 63 million citizens live outside the country. That is not a huge share, but it is up 60 percent from 2000, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thousands are heading to Hong Kong, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai and other cities. About 50,000 French nationals live in Silicon Valley alone. But for the most part, they have fled across the English Channel, just a two-hour Eurostar ride from Paris. Around 350,000 French nationals are now rooted in Britain, about the same population as Nice, France’s fifth-largest city. …Diane Segalen, an executive recruiter for many of France’s biggest companies who recently moved most of her practice, Segalen & Associés, to London from Paris, says the competitiveness gap is easy to see just by reading the newspapers. “In Britain, you read about all the deals going on here,” Ms. Segalen said. “In the French papers, you read about taxes, more taxes, economic problems and the state’s involvement in everything.”

Let’s now check out another story, this time from the pages of the UK-based Daily Mail. We have some more news from France, where another successful French entrepreneur is escaping Monsieur Hollande’s 75 percent tax rate.

François-Henri Pinault, France’s third richest man, is relocating his family to London.  Pinault, the chief executive of Kering, a luxury goods group, has an estimated fortune of £9 billion.  The capital has recently become a popular destination for wealthy French, who are seeking to avoid a 75 per cent supertax introduced by increasingly unpopular Socialist President François Hollande. …It has been claimed that London has become the sixth largest ‘French city’ in the world, with more than 300,000 French people living there.

But it’s not just England. Other high-income French citizens, such as Gerard Depardieu and Bernard Arnault, are escaping to Belgium (which is an absurdly statist nation, but at least doesn’t impose a capital gains tax).

But let’s get back to the story. The billionaire’s actress wife, perhaps having learned from all the opprobrium heaped on Phil Mickelson when he said he might leave California after voters foolishly voted for a class-warfare tax hike, is pretending that taxes are not a motivating factor.

But despite the recent exodus of millionaires from France, Ms Hayek insisted that her family were moving to London for career reasons and not for tax purposes.  …Speaking about the move in an interview with The Times Magazine, the actress said: ‘I want to clarify, it’s not for tax purposes. We are still paying taxes here in France.  ‘We think that London has a lot more to offer than just a better tax situation.

And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’m willing to sell for a very good price.

Speaking of New York bridges, let’s go to the other side of Manhattan and cross into New Jersey.

It seems that class-warfare tax policy isn’t working any better in the Garden State than it is in France.

Here are some passages from a story in the Washington Free Beacon.

New Jersey’s high taxes may be costing the state billions of dollars a year in lost revenue as high-earning residents flee, according to a recent study. The study, Exodus on the Parkway, was completed by Regent Atlantic last year… The study shows the state has been steadily losing high-net-worth residents since 2004, when Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey signed the millionaire’s tax into law. The law raised the state income tax 41 percent on those earning $500,000 or more a year. “The inception of this tax, coupled with New Jersey’s already high property and estate taxes, leaves no mystery about why the term ‘tax migration’ has become a buzzword among state residents and financial, legal, and political professionals,” the study, conducted by Regent states. …tax hikes are driving residents to states with lower tax rates: In 2010 alone, New Jersey lost taxable income of $5.5 billion because residents changed their state of domicile.

No wonder people are moving. New Jersey is one of the most over-taxed jurisdictions in America – and it has a dismal long-run outlook.

And when they move, they take lots of money with them.

“The sad reality is our residents are suffering because politicians talk a good game, but no one is willing to step up to the plate,” Americans for Prosperity New Jersey state director Daryn Iwicki said. The “oppressive tax climate is driving people out.” …One certified public accountant quoted in the study said he lost 95 percent of his high net worth clients. Other tax attorneys report similar results. …Michael Grohman, a tax attorney with Duane Morris, LLP, claimed his wealthy clients are “leaving [New Jersey] as fast as they can.” …If the current trend is not reversed, the consequences could be dire. “Essentially, we’ll find ourselves much like the city of Detroit, broke and without jobs,” Iwicki said.

By the way, make sure you don’t die in New Jersey.

The one bit of good news, for what it’s worth, is that Governor Christie is trying to keep matters from moving further in the wrong direction.

Here’s another interesting bit of evidence. The Wall Street Journal asked the folks at Allied Van Lines where wealthy people are moving. Here’s some of the report on that research.

Spread Sheet asked Allied to determine where wealthy households were moving, based on heavy-weight, high-value moves. According to the data, Texas saw the largest influx of well-heeled households moving into the state last year, consistent with move trends overall. South Carolina and Florida also posted net gains. On the flip side, Illinois and Pennsylvania saw more high-value households move out of state than in, according to the data. California saw the biggest net loss of heavy-weight moves. Last year, California had a net loss of 49,259 people to other states, according to the U.S. Census. …Texas had the highest net gain in terms of domestic migration—113,528 more people moved into the state than out last year, census data show. Job opportunities are home-buyers’ top reason for relocating to Texas, according to a Redfin survey last month of 1,909 customers and website users.

The upshot is that Texas has thumped California, which echoes what I’ve been saying for years.

One can only imagine what will happen over the next few years given the punitive impact of the higher tax rate imposed on the “rich” by spiteful California voters.

If I haven’t totally exhausted your interest in this topic, let’s close by reviewing some of the research included in John Hood’s recent article in Reason.

Over the past three decades, America’s state and local governments have experienced a large and underappreciated divergence. …Some political scientists call it the Big Sort. …Think of it as a vast natural experiment in economic policy. Because states have a lot otherwise in common-cultural values, economic integration, the institutions and actions of the federal government-testing the effects of different economic policies within America can be easier than testing them across countries. …And scholars have been studying the results. …t present our database contains 528 articles published between 1992 and 2013. On balance, their findings offer strong empirical support for the idea that limited government is good for economic progress.

And what do these studies say?

Of the 112 academic studies we found on overall state or local tax burdens, for example, 72 of them-64 percent-showed a negative association with economic performance. Only two studies linked higher overall tax burdens with stronger growth, while the rest yielded mixed or statistically insignificant findings. …There was a negative association between economic growth and higher personal income taxes in 67 percent of the studies. The proportion rose to 74 percent for higher marginal tax rates or tax code progressivity, and 69 percent for higher business or corporate taxes.

Here are some of the specific findings in the academic research.

James Hines of the University of Michigan found that “state taxes significantly influence the pattern of foreign direct investment in the U.S.” A 1 percent change in the tax rate was associated with an 8 percent change in the share of manufacturing investment from taxed investors. Another study, published in Public Finance Review in 2004, zeroed in on counties that lie along state borders. …Studying 30 years of data, the authors concluded that states that raised their income tax rates more than their neighbors had significantly slower growth rates in per-capita income. …economists Brian Goff, Alex Lebedinsky, and Stephen Lile of Western Kentucky University grouped pairs of states together based on common characteristics of geography and culture. …Writing in the April 2011 issue of Contemporary Economic Policy, the authors found “strong support for the idea that lower tax burdens tend to lead to higher levels of economic growth.”

By the way, even though this post is about tax policy, I can’t resist sharing some of Hood’s analysis of the impact of government spending.

Of the 43 studies testing the relationship between total state or local spending and economic growth, only five concluded that it was positive. Sixteen studies found that higher state spending was associated with weaker economic growth; the other 22 were inconclusive. …a few Keynesian bitter-enders insist that transfer programs such as Medicaid boost the economy via multiplier effects… Nearly three-quarters of the relevant studies found that welfare, health care subsidies, and other transfer spending are bad for economic growth.

And as I’ve repeatedly noted, it’s important to have good policy in all regards. And Hood shares some important data showing that laissez-faire states out-perform their neighbors.

…economists Lauren Heller and Frank Stephenson of Berry College used the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America index to explore state economic growth from 1981 to 2009. They found that if a state adopted fiscal and regulatory policies sufficient to improve its economic freedom score by one point, it could expect unemployment to drop by 1.3 percentage points and labor-force participation to rise by 1.9 percentage points by the end of the period studied.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a reward. We have some amusing cartoons on class-warfare tax policy here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

And here’s a funny bit from Penn and Teller on class warfare.

P.S. Higher tax rates also encourage corruption.

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It’s not often that I agree with the Washington Post, but a government-run monopoly is not the best way to get mail delivered.

Moreover, it’s not often that I agree with the timid (and sometimes reprehensible) Tory-led government in the United Kingdom, but they just put the Royal Mail into the private sector. And that’s something deserving of loud applause.

Here’s a slice of the big news from the Financial Times.

The goal of privatising Royal Mail had defeated governments for 40 years. …Even prime minister Margaret Thatcher balked at the political risk of selling off a public service that carried the Queen’s head on its stamps. This time, the legislation went through parliament.

My Cato colleague, Chris Edwards, is suitably impressed.

Here’s some of what he wrote for Cato-at-Liberty.

Britain privatized its Royal Mail in 2013, proceeding with an initial public offering of shares that raised about $2.7 billion. …privatization in Britain has been hugely successful. Prime Minister Cameron should be applauded for having the guts to build on the privatization reform legacy of Thatcher, Major, and Blair. Meanwhile on this side of the pond, Republican Darrell Issa is having trouble getting his own nominally conservative party to accept even small changes to the broken government postal system.

Not surprisingly, some folks in Washington think we should move in the wrong direction by retaining the monopoly and allowing the Postal Service to enter new lines of business.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto, I explain why the Postal Service should be unleashed – but only after getting weaned from the taxpayer teat.

You’ll notice that I took the opportunity to explain that many poor people can’t afford banking services in part because government “anti-money laundering” rules impose very high costs on banks.

And since I’ve already mentioned that I have strange bedfellows at the Washington Post and UK government on the issue of postal privatization, I may as well note that the World Bank agrees with me about the poor being disadvantaged by these ill-advised financial regulations.

Let’s close with a good cartoon by Jerry Holbert.

Postal Service Cartoon

It’s not as good as his classics about Obamacare, sequestration, big government, and Patty Murray’s budget, but obviously very appropriate for today’s topic.

P.S. In there was a contest for government stupidity, the Japanese might be front runners.

No, I’m not talking about their bizarre policy of regulating coffee enemas.

Instead, I’m baffled by the notion of government-funded dating. I’m not joking. Check out these excerpts from the British press.

The Japanese government is funding matchmaking events in a desperate attempt to boost a birth rate that has halved over the past six decades. …The support of marriage – and the active encouragement of young people to settle down – is regarded by government policy-makers as a key strategy for boosting the nation’s birth rate. …Matchmaking events organised by local authorities, where young singles are introduced to one another in romantic settings, are becoming increasingly common in areas such as rural Kochi, a prefecture around 500 miles west of Tokyo.

By the way, Japan does have a severe demographic problem.

And when you mix falling birthrates and increasing longevity with a tax-and-transfer welfare state, the results are catastrophic.

But the right way to deal with that problem is with genuine entitlement reform, not another bound-to-fail government-run version of Match.com.

P.P.S. If you like making fun of foreign governments, here are some more examples.

Taxpayer-financed friends for mass murderers in Norway.

Spending 800,000 euro to collect 25,000 euro of tax in Germany.

Giving welfare handouts to foreigners in the United Kingdom.

Remember, nothing is too stupid for government.

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Senator Rand Paul is being criticized and condemned by the Washington establishment.

That’s almost certainly a sign that he’s doing the right thing. And given the recent events in Russia and Ukraine, we should say he’s doing a great thing.

Rand PaulThis is because Senator Paul is waging a lonely battle to stop the unthinking and risky move to a world where governments – including corrupt and evil regimes – collect and share our private financial information.

I’ve written about this topic many times and warned about the risks of letting unsavory governments have access to personal information, but the Obama Administration – with the support of some Republicans who think government power is more important than individual rights – is actively pushing this agenda.

The White House has even endorsed the idea of the United States being part of a so-called Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, even though that would require the sharing of large amounts of personal financial data with thuggish and corrupt regimes such as Argentina, Azerbaijan, China, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia!

I’m sure Vladimir Putin very much appreciates this insider access so he can monitor dissidents and track political opponents. His government even signed onto a recent G-20 Communique that endorsed automatic information-sharing.

Heck, there’s even a Russian heading up the Financial Action Task Force, which is endlessly pushing to give governments untrammeled access to private information. FATF even wants banks and other financial institutions to spy on customers, regardless of whether there’s the slightest evidence of any wrongdoing.

The general mindset in Washington is that we should all bury our heads in the sand and blithely allow this massive accumulation of power and information by governments. After all, Putin and other thugs would never abuse this system, right?

Senator Paul battles the statists

Fortunately, at least one lawmaker is trying to throw sand in the gears. Like Horatius at the bridge, who single-handedly thwarted an invasion of Rome in 509 BC, Senator Paul is objecting to this massive invasion of privacy.

He has this old-fashioned appreciation for the Constitution and doesn’t think government should have carte blanche to access private financial data. He even – gasp! – thinks that government power should be restrained by the 4th Amendment and that there should be due process legal protections for individuals.

No wonder the DC establishment doesn’t like him.

One example of this phenomenon is that Senator Paul has placed a “hold” on some tax treaties. Here are some excerpts from a recent article in Politico.

Paul for years has single-handedly blocked an obscure U.S.-Swiss tax treaty that lawmakers, prosecutors, diplomats and banks say makes the difference between U.S. law enforcement rooting out the names of a few hundred fat-cat tax evaders — and many thousands more. …International tax experts for years have seethed over Paul’s block on the Swiss and several other tax treaties. These sorts of mundane tax protocols used to get approved by unanimous consent without anyone batting an eyelash — until Paul came to town.

These pacts are “mundane” to officials who think there shouldn’t be any restrictions on the power of governments.

Fortunately, Senator Paul has a different perspective.

Kentucky’s tea party darling says the treaty infringes on privacy rights. …Paul, a libertarian Republican widely believed to be eyeing a 2016 presidential run, says his hold stems from concerns about Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.” “These are people that are alleged, not convicted of doing anything wrong,” Paul said a few weeks ago. “I don’t think you should have everybody’s information from their bank. There should be some process: accusations and proof that you’ve committed a crime.”

The article also notes that Senator Paul is one of the few lawmakers to fight back against the egregious FATCA legislation.

Paul’s protest is also linked to his abhorrence of the soon-to-take-effect Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which will force foreign banks to disclose U.S. account information to the IRS, and domestic banks to reciprocate to other nations’ revenue departments. …the senator has legislation to repeal FATCA and hesitates to support a treaty that enables a law he views as U.S. government overreach.

I don’t know how long Senator Paul can withstand the pressure in his lonely fight for individual rights, but I’m glad he’s waging the battle.

Even the Swiss government and Swiss banks have thrown in the towel, having decided that they have no choice but to weaken their nation’s human rights laws on financial privacy because of threats of financial protectionism by the United States.

So let’s give three cheers to our modern-day Horatius, a very rare elected official who is doing the right thing for the right reason.

For more information on the importance of financial privacy, here’s my video on the moral case for tax havens.

P.S. I shared some good jokes about Keynesian economics a few weeks ago.

Now, via Cafe Hayek, I have a great cartoon showing the fancy equation that left-wing economists use when they tell us that the economy will grow faster if there’s a bigger burden of government spending.

Keynesian Miracle Cartoon

Now you can see how the Congressional Budget Office puts together its silly estimates.

Indeed, Chuck Asay even produced a cartoon on CBO’s fancy methodology.

The next step is to find the secret equation that CBO uses when it publishes nonsensical analysis implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

But to be fair, the politicians who pay their salaries want them to justify bigger government, so should we expect anything else?

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Back in 2010, I shared a video that predicted a catastrophic end to the welfare state.

I said it was an example of “Libertarian Porn” because:

…it is designed for the dark enjoyment of people who think the government is destroying the nation. If you don’t like bloated government and statist intervention and you think that the policies being imposed by Washington are going to lead to hyperinflation and societal collapse, then you will get a certain level of grim satisfaction by watching the video.

While I also stated in that post that I thought the video was far too dour and pessimistic, I don’t automatically reject the hypothesis that the welfare state will lead to societal chaos.

UK RiotsIndeed, I’ve specifically warned that America might experience European-type disarray because of big government and I even wrote about which nations that might be good escape options if the welfare state causes our country to unravel.

Moreover, I’ve speculated about the possible loss of democracy in Europe and specifically said that people should have the right to be well armed just in case society goes you-know-where in a handbasket.

So I’m definitely not a Pollyanna.

I’ve given this background because here’s another video for those of you who revel in the glass being nine-tenths empty. It’s about the United Kingdom, but these numbers from the BIS, OECD, and IMF show that the long-term spending problem is equally severe in the United States.

Be warned, though, that it’s depressing as well as long. And I gather it’s also designed to sell a magazine, so you can ignore that (particularly if you’re not British).

Now that I’ve shared the video, I’ll add a couple of my own observations.

First and foremost, no country is past the point of no return, at least based on the numbers. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, or France. Politicians always have the option of reforming entitlements and restraining the burden of government spending. So long as they follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule over an extended period of time, they can dig out of the mess.

That’s why I’m a big fan of Switzerland’s spending cap, That policy, technically known as the debt brake, imposes a rolling cap on budgetary growth and has been very effective. Colorado also has a spending cap that has been somewhat effective in restraining the cost of the public sector.

My second observation, however, is that some nations may be past the psychological point of return. This is not easy to measure, but it basically means that there’s good reason to be pessimistic when the majority of citizens in a country think it’s morally acceptable to have their snouts in the public trough and to live off the labor of others. When you have too many people riding in the wagon (or riding in the party ship), then it’s difficult to envision how good policy is implemented.

Indeed, the video includes some discussion of how a growing number of people in the United Kingdom now live off the state. And if you add together the votes of people like NatailijaTraceyAnjem, Gina, and Danny, perhaps the United Kingdom has reached a grim tipping point. Especially since welfare spending has dramatically increased in recent years!

A third and final point about the video. I think it focuses too much on deficits and debt. Red ink is a serious issue, to be sure, but it’s very important to understand that too much borrowing is merely a symptom of too much spending.

P.S. On a totally separate matter, everyone should read the USA Today column by Glenn Reynolds. He explains how government is perverting our criminal justice system.

Here are some of the most important passages, but you should read the whole thing.

Here’s how things all-too-often work today: Law enforcement decides that a person is suspicious (or, possibly, just a political enemy). Upon investigation into every aspect of his/her life, they find possible violations of the law, often involving obscure, technical statutes that no one really knows. They then file a “kitchen-sink” indictment involving dozens, or even hundreds of charges, which the grand jury rubber stamps. The accused then must choose between a plea bargain, or the risk of a trial in which a jury might convict on one or two felony counts simply on a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” theory even if the evidence seems less than compelling.

This is why, Glenn explains, there are very few trials. Almost everything gets settled as part of plea bargains.

But that’s not a good thing, particularly when there are no checks and balances to restrain bad behavior by the state.

…although there’s lots of due process at trial — right to cross-examine, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and, of course, the jury itself, which the Framers of our Constitution thought the most important protection in criminal cases — there’s basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to “get” people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.When juries decide not to convict because doing so would be unjust, it’s called “jury nullification,” and although everyone admits that it’s a power juries have, many disapprove of it. But when prosecutors decide not to bring charges, it’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s subject to far less criticism, if it’s even noticed.

Here’s the bottom line.

…with today’s broad and vague criminal statutes at both the state and federal level, everyone is guilty of some sort of crime, a point that Harvey Silverglate underscores with the title of his recent book, Three Felonies A Day: How The Feds Target The Innocent, that being the number of felonies that the average American, usually unknowingly, commits. …The combination of vague and pervasive criminal laws — the federal government literally doesn’t know how many federal criminal laws there are — and prosecutorial discretion, plus easy overcharging and coercive plea-bargaining, means that where criminal law is concerned we don’t really have a judicial system as most people imagine it. Instead, we have a criminal justice bureaucracy that assesses guilt and imposes penalties with only modest supervision from the judiciary, and with very little actual accountability.

Glenn offers some possible answers.

…prosecutors should have “skin in the game” — if someone’s charged with 100 crimes but convicted of only one, the state should have to pay 99% of his legal fees. This would discourage overcharging. (So would judicial oversight, but we’ve seen little enough of that.) Second, plea-bargain offers should be disclosed at trial, so that judges and juries can understand just how serious the state really thinks the offense is. …And finally, I think that prosecutors should be stripped of their absolute immunity to suit — an immunity created by judicial activism, not by statute — and should be subject to civil damages for misconduct such as withholding evidence. If our criminal justice system is to be a true justice system, then due process must attach at all stages. Right now, prosecutors run riot. That needs to change.

Amen to all that. And you can read more on this topic by clicking here.

The Obama years have taught us that dishonest people can twist and abuse the law for ideological purposes.

Obamacare rule of law cartoonWhether we’re talking about the corruption of the IRS, the deliberate disregard of the law for Obamacare, or the NSA spying scandal, the White House has shown that it’s naive to assume that folks in government have ethical standards.

And that’s also true for the law enforcement bureaucracy, as Glenn explained. Simply stated, people in government abuse power. And jury nullification, while a helpful check on misbehavior, only works when there is a trial.

Indeed, I’m now much more skeptical about the death penalty for many of the reasons Glenn discusses in his column. To be blunt, I don’t trust that politically ambitious prosecutors will behave honorably.

That’s why, regardless of the issue, you rarely will go wrong if you’re advocating fewer laws and less government power.

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I generally get very suspicious when rich people start pontificating on tax policy.

People like Warren Buffett, for instance, sometimes advocate higher taxes because they’re trying to curry favor with the political elite. Or maybe they feel compelled to say silly things to demonstrate that they feel guilty about their wealth.

Tax SystemRegardless, I don’t like their policy proposal (as you can see from TV debates here and here).

That being said, I also realize that stereotypes can be very unfair, so it’s important to judge each argument on the merits and not to reject an idea simply because it comes from a rich guy.

That’s why I was very interested to see that Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire software maker, decided to add his two cents to the discussion of tax reform.

Here’s what Gates said at an American Enterprise Institute forum (transcript here and video here).

…economists would have said that a progressive consumption tax is a better construct, you know, at any point in history. What I’m saying is that it’s even more important as we go forward.

He doesn’t really expand on those remarks other than to say that it’s important to reduce the tax on labor.

That part of Gates’ remarks doesn’t make much sense for the simple reason that workers are equally harmed whether the government takes 20 percent of their income when it’s earned or 20 percent of their income when it’s spent.

But his embrace of a “progressive consumption tax” is very intriguing.

I don’t like the “progressive” part because that’s shorthand for high marginal tax rates, and that type of class-warfare policy is a gateway to corruption and is also damaging to growth (see here, here, here, here, and here).

But the “consumption” part is one of the key features of all good tax reform plans.

For all intents and purposes, a “consumption tax” is any system that avoids the mistake of double-taxing income that is saved and invested.

Both the national sales tax and the value-added tax, for instance, are examples of consumption-based tax systems.

But the flat tax also is a consumption tax. It isn’t collected at the cash register like a sales tax, but it has the same “tax base.”

Under a flat tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is earned. Under a sales tax, income is taxed – but only one time – when it is spent. They’re different sides of the same coin.

Most important, neither the flat tax nor the sales tax has extra layers of tax on saving and investment. And that’s what makes them “consumption” taxes in the wonky world of public finance economists.

This means no death tax, no capital gains tax, no double taxation of interest or dividends. And businesses get a common-sense cash-flow system of taxation, which means punitive depreciation rules are replaced by “expensing.”

So Bill Gates is halfway on the path to tax policy salvation. His endorsement of so-called progressivity is wrong, but his support for getting rid of double taxation is right.

If you like getting into the weeds of tax policy, it’s interesting to note that Gates is advocating the opposite of the plan that was proposed by Congressman Dave Camp.

Camp wants to go in the right direction regarding rates, but he wants to exacerbate the tax code’s bias against capital. Here’s what I said to Politico.

Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he didn’t see it as an individual versus business issue, but rather took issue with Camp’s punitive treatment of savings and investment. “The way Camp is extracting more money from businesses — more punitive depreciation and the like — is he is making the tax system more biased against savings and investment,” said Mitchell, who worked for Republican Sen. Bob Packwood after the historic 1986 tax act that Packwood helped negotiate as chair of the Finance Committee.

By the way, this doesn’t mean Camp’s plan is bad. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the good and bad features.

Just like that type of analysis was appropriate in 1986, when the bad provisions that increased taxes on saving and investment were offset by a big reduction in marginal tax rates.

The 1986 law did take aim at some popular business benefits, including a lucrative investment tax credit. But the reward was a lot sweeter. “At least then, we got a big, big reduction in tax rates in exchange,” Mitchell said.

Here’s an interview I did with Blaze TV on Congressman Camp’s plan. If you pay attention near the beginning (at about the 2:00 mark), you’ll see my matrix on how to grade tax reform plans.

Now let’s circle back to the type of tax system endorsed by Bill Gates.

We obviously don’t know what he favors beyond a “progressive consumption tax,” but that bit of information allows us to say that he wants something at least somewhat similar to the old “USA Tax” that was supported by folks such as former Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici.

Is that better than the current tax system?

Probably yes, though we can’t say for sure because it’s possible they may want to increase tax rates by such a significant amount that the plan becomes a net minus for the economy.

Not that any of this matters since I doubt we’ll get tax reform in my lifetime.

P.S. Speaking of taxes and the rich, you’ll enjoy this very clever interview exposing the hypocrisy of wealthy leftists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s everything you need to know.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s more of what Bailey wrote.

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

Let’s continue with more wonky data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My all-time most-viewed blog post wasn’t the parable about beer and the tax system.

Nor was it the joke about California, Texas, and the Coyote.

Those won the silver and bronze trophies. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsThe gold medal belongs to the two pictures that explain how the welfare state begins and how it ends.

Those images make a very serious point that the social capital of a nation gets eroded and the economy gets overburdened when there are too many people riding in the wagon and not enough people pulling the wagon.

And I’ve been especially fond of the wagon cartoons because they were my idea.

Unfortunately, I can no longer claim to be the first one to explain this relationship using humor.

I’m currently in Copenhagen, where I just gave a speech on the collapse of the welfare state at the Center for Politiske Studier (CEPOS). While at the CEPOS offices, I noticed a big print hanging on the wall and it was eerily familiar.

One of Denmark’s main newspapers put together this cartoon, based on CEPOS research, about the growing share of the population living off the state. It shows a boat of galley slaves (i.e., taxpayers) towing a party boat filled with people (like the infamous Lazy Robert) who live off the state.

Denmark Party Boat

Since Denmark has a very large burden of government spending, you won’t be surprised to learn that the dependency class is a huge chunk of the population.

Here’s a table from the CEPOS study.

You don’t to be fluent in Danish to get the message. The first line is the number of government bureaucrats (and they’re really expensive in Denmark). The second line is the number of people getting transfers.

Those categories are then added together on line 3 and compared to the adult population on line 4.

The key takeaway is that two-thirds of the population is riding in the wagon!

Denmark 67 percent Dependency

No wonder the burden of government spending is enormous and tax rates are so high.

It’s so bad that I even joked that birthers should accuse Obama of being born in Denmark.

But at least the Danes have a sense of humor. Here’s Mads Lundby Hansen, one my friends at CEPOS, holding the “trophy” they received from the Swedish Taxpayers Association.

Denmark Tax Prize

Not exactly the prize a nation should want to win.

Though it’s worth noting that Denmark actually does better than the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

Their welfare state is bigger than ours, so they get a bad score on fiscal policy. But they are more pro-capitalism in other areas and their overall grade is higher.

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With Crimea potentially breaking away from Ukraine and the ongoing risk of conflict, it’s time to revisit the topic.

I explained a few weeks ago that decentralization was one way of defusing the crisis.

Now Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has a refreshing and important analysis explaining how bad economic policy has hindered Ukraine’s development.

He explains that Ukraine was one of the former Soviet Bloc nations that made the mistake of not copying the more market-oriented nations of Western Europe.

Prior to the breakup [of the Soviet Empire], Eastern Europe was underdeveloped relative to the West, mostly because of the failure created by central planning. When a market economy is unleashed in such a setting, “convergence” of the standard of living to that of the developed world can be quite rapid. …A large academic literature has emerged analyzing the impact of “going west.” The literature documents that those nations that assimilated into the EU saw dramatic economic growth. …The countries, like Ukraine, that failed to take that path have stagnated.

The impact is remarkable. Using EU membership as a proxy for nations that “went west,” Kevin put together a graph showing how the more market-oriented nations have dramatically out-performed the rest.

Hassett Putin Effect

He notes that per-capita income has climbed far faster in the western-oriented nations.

Income per capita has grown sharply since the mid 1990s, more than doubling for the former Soviet countries, and increasing about 50 percent for the Eastern Bloc countries (such as the Czech Republic) that have joined the EU. …The three lines on the bottom of the chart depict what has happened to those nations that have not joined the EU. Each of these countries has stagnated, seeing a standard of living that has barely budged since the fall of the USSR.

So what’s the moral of the story? Kevin bluntly writes that people who want to affiliate with Putin are traitors because they are condemning their fellow citizens to economic misery.

Vladimir Putin’s desire to maintain a zone of influence has had a dramatically negative effect on the economic well-being of citizens of the affected countries. It is hard to imagine how anyone could look at such data and not conclude that Putin supporters outside Russia are traitors, if not to their nations at the very least to their compatriots’ prospects of economic security and prosperity.

Now I want to build on what Kevin wrote by stating that “going west” is important because it is a proxy for more economic freedom.

Let’s take another look at his chart, but augment it with some numbers from Economic Freedom of the World.

I collected both the absolute ranking and relative economic freedom scores for the former Soviet Bloc nations, and then put together averages for each of the categories in Kevin’s chart. The first number is the average ranking and the second number is the average score. As you can see, the nations that have enjoyed more growth are the ones that have the most economic liberty.

EFW Putin Effect

Time for some caveats. Because of data limitations, the EFW Index does not have numbers for nations such as Kosovo. Moreover, Kevin didn’t include the former Soviet states that are in Asia, and I confess I don’t know for sure whether that means nations such as Armenia and Georgia are excluded.

But those issues only influence the green and red lines, and adding or subtracting those nations doesn’t change the look of the graph.

That having been said, the real moral of the story is that Ukraine needs economic liberty. It doesn’t have that now, and it almost surely won’t have that if it falls more under Putin’s influence.

Why? Because Ukraine already has been practicing Putinonomics (which is a sordid mix of cronyism, regulation, corruption, and weak rule of law), so more Russian control presumably will mean jumping from one frying pan to another.

Simply stated, if you want more prosperity, there’s no substitute for free markets and small government. The more nations move in that direction, the richer they will become.

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The headline of this post might not be completely honest. Indeed, if you asked me to grade the accuracy of my title, I’ll admit right away that it falls into the “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” category of mendacity.

Krugman WeatherBut I’m only prevaricating to set the stage for some satire about Keynesian economics.

But this satire is based on a very bizarre reality. Advocates of Keynesian economics such as Paul Krugman have claimed that war is stimulus for the economy and that it would be good if we were threatened by an alien invasion. As such, it doesn’t take too much imagination to think that conversations like this may have taken place inside the Obama White House.

Particularly since Keynes himself thought it would be good for growth if the government buried money in the ground.

So enjoy this satire from The Onion.

By the way, Krugman also said the 9-11 terrorist attacks would “do some economic good.”

So the folks at The Onion need to step it up if they want to keep pace.

Now let’s share a serious video.

I’ve written before about how the Food and Drug Administration’s risk-averse policies lead to needless deaths.

Econstories builds upon that hypothesis, using the Dallas Buyers Club to make excellent points about why markets are better than command-and-control regulation.

Very similar to what Steve Chapman wrote about bureaucracy, competency, and incentives.

By the way, the bureaucrats at the FDA also have engaged in pointless harassment of genetic testing companies, even though nobody claims there is even the tiniest shred of risk to health and safety.

And nobody will be surprised about the bureaucracy’s anti-smoking jihad.

But nothing exemplifies brainless bureaucracy more than the raid by the FDA’s milk police. Though the FDA’s strange condom regulations might be even more bizarre.

It’s hard to decide when bureaucracies do so many foolish things.

P.S. The prize for the craziest bit of red tape still belongs to Japan, where the government actually regulates providers of coffee enemas, though the Department of Agriculture’s rules for magic rabbits is a close competitor.

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I wish there was a magic wand that somebody could wave and all of us would have more money. Or maybe Santa Claus could play that role, or some version of the Tooth Fairy.

And if that magic person only had limited powers, I would want more money specifically for those with modest incomes.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in this fantasy world. As a society, we can’t enjoy output unless we first go through the toil and trouble of working, saving, and investing.

Heck, even some leftists have admitted that you can’t redistribute unless somebody first produces.

But that doesn’t stop some politicians from practicing free-lunch economics. They tell us, for instance, that government can impose a higher minimum wage with no job losses.

And now the Obama Administration is claiming that it can expand overtime eligibility rules without any adverse impact of base pay, hours, or employment.

In my role as the designated bad guy who has to inform people there’s no magic wand or Santa Claus, here’s what I told the New York Times.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, who warned that employers might cut pay or use fewer workers. “If they push through something to make a certain class of workers more expensive, something will happen to adjust.”

I also shared my putative wisdom with the International Business Times, underscoring the principle that government shouldn’t intervene in labor markets.

“Our view is pretty straightforward,” Daniel Mitchell, a fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington D.C., told International Business Times by phone on Wednesday. “From a philosophical perspective the government shouldn’t get involved with labor contacts between two consenting adults. You can’t impose more labor costs and have them magically disappear.”

I also pontificated on this issue for CBS News radio, but the “highlight” of the day was having to dispel economic myths in a series of TV interviews.

In this debate for Nightly Business Report, I had to explain that faster growth was the only effective way to improve living standards, but my opponent somehow thought we should go back to the glorious 1970s.

And in this interview with Ali Velshi on AJ, I’m stunned that he blames today’s weak job market on free markets.

Last but not least, I made what will probably be my last appearance on Larry Kudlow’s great show on CNBC and used the opportunity to say we shouldn’t copy Europe’s failed welfare states.

Larry is retiring at the end of the month and he will be sorely missed.

P.S. Lots of people are suffering because of Obamacare, especially taxpayers and patients.

But since our main topic today is jobs, let’s not forget that millions of workers are being screwed over by this bad law. They’re losing jobs, losing hours, and/or losing take-home pay thanks to Obama’s ham-fisted intervention.

If you like gallows humor, Reason TV addresses this issue in a new video. Enjoy.

And if you like Obamacare parody videos, here are the other ones that will produce some smiles and laughs.

*The head of the National Socialist Workers Party finds out he can’t keep his health plan.

Varvel Obamacare Ambulance*A creepy version of Uncle Sam wants to know about your sex life.

*Young people discover that they’re screwed by Obamacare.

*One of the biggest statists of the 20th century is angry that the Obamacare exchanges don’t work.

*A consumer tries to buy Obama-coffee.

By the way, if you’re concerned about America’s fiscal future, here’s a video on Obamacare that definitely is not funny.

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When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I even, much to my surprise, wrote a column in 2012 stating that it’s “Time to Follow Sweden’s Lead on Fiscal Policy.”

More specifically, I’m impressed that Swedish leaders have imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress.

It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

It’s also worth noting that Sweden hasn’t fallen off the wagon. Spending has been growing a bit faster in recent years, but not as fast as overall economic output. So the burden of spending is now down to about 48 percent of GDP.

And for those who mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending, you’ll be happy to know that spending discipline in the 1990s turned a big budget deficit (right axis) into a budget surplus.

Now let’s get the other side of the story. While Sweden has moved in the right direction, it’s still far from a libertarian paradise. The government still consumes nearly half of the country’s economic output and tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors max out at more than 50 percent.

And like the United Kingdom, which is the source of many horror stories, there are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

Though I suppose if the third man grew new legs, maybe we would all reassess our views of the Swedish system. And if the first guy managed to grow a new…oh, never mind.

But here are the two most compelling pieces of evidence about unresolved flaws in the Swedish system.

First, the system is so geared toward “equality” that a cook at one Swedish school was told to reduce the quality of the food she prepared because other schools had less capable cooks.

Second, if you’re still undecided about whether Sweden’s large-size welfare state is preferable to America’s medium-size welfare state, just keep in mind that Americans of Swedish descent earn 53 percent more than native Swedes.

In other words, Sweden might be a role model on the direction of change, but not on the level of government.

P.S. On a separate topic, regular readers know that I’m a fan of lower taxes and a supporter of the Second Amendment. So you would think I’d be delighted if politicians wanted to lower the tax burden on firearms.

This is not a hypothetical issue. Here’s a passage from a local news report in Alabama about a state lawmaker who wants a special sales tax holiday for guns and ammo.

Rep. Becky Nordgren of Gadsden said today that she has filed legislation to create an annual state sales tax holiday for gun and ammunition purchases. The firearms tax holiday would occur every weekend prior to the Fourth of July. Alabama currently has tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and severe weather preparedness. Nordgren says the gun and ammunition tax holiday would be a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s birth and Alabama’s status as a gun friendly state.

I definitely admire the intent, but I’m enough of a tax policy wonk that the proposal makes me uncomfortable.

Simply stated, I don’t want the government to play favorites.

For instance, I want to replace the IRS in Washington with a simple and fair flat tax in part because I don’t want the government to discriminate based on the source of income, the use of income, or the level of income.

And I want states to have the lowest-possible rate for the sales tax, but with all goods and services treated equally. Alabama definitely fails on the first criteria, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also granted a lot of loopholes.

So put me in the “sympathetic skepticism” category on this proposal.

Though I imagine this Alabama lass could convince me to change my mind.

P.P.S. A few days ago, the PotL noticed that I shared some American-European humor at the end of a blog post. She suggests this would be a good addition to that collection.

Europe Heaven Hell

I can’t comment on some of the categories, but I will say that McDonald’s in London is just as good as McDonald’s in Paris, Milan, Geneva, and Berlin.

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The United States is supposed to be enjoying a recovery. Indeed, we’re now supposedly in the fifth year of an expanding economy.

Many Americans must wonder why it doesn’t feel that way.

In part, that’s because growth has been very anemic. Indeed, this is the weakest recovery since the Great Depression.

But it’s also because the labor market has been very weak.

Most observers correctly note that there are far fewer jobs than Obama promised if the so-called stimulus was enacted.

I think that’s a very fair complaint, but I’m even more concerned about the very troubling drop in the employment-population ratio and the grim data on long-run joblessness.

Simply stated, our economy’s ability to generate prosperity is a function of the quantity and quality of labor and capital that are being utilized.

So it’s very bad news when millions of workers drop out of the labor force.

So how can we rejuvenate job creation?

I addressed this issue in a column for The Federalist. Here’s some of what I wrote, starting with a generic complaint that the crowd in Washington seems to think that “more government” is the answer to every question.

The discussion in Washington over how best to “create” jobs is a bit surreal. In part, this is a semantic gripe. …jobs are created in the private sector, not by politicians. …Politicians would probably admit that they simply want to “create” the conditions that lead to job creation. But even by that more realistic standard, the Washington debate often is surreal for the simple reason that too many politicians think that a larger burden of government will boost job creation.

President Obama clearly is guilty of this form of hubris.

I touch on several points in the article, but this excerpt highlights his ongoing fixation on Keynesian economics, which I’ve previously referred to as the perpetual motion machine of the left.

President Obama, for instance, routinely urges more government spending to “stimulate” job creation. …The new outlays, we are told, inject money into the economy and jump-start growth, leading to more jobs as businesses increase production in response to higher demand.The problem with this argument, as explained in an earlier Federalist article, is that government can’t inject money into the economy without first taking money out of the economy, either by borrowing or taxation. This is why Keynesian spending didn’t work for Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, or Obama in 2009.

But the me-too crowd on the right commits the same sins.

While the left has bad ideas and has delivered poor results, some proposals from the “right” aren’t much better. Consider a recent article in National Affairs by Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute. Entitled “A Jobs Agenda for the Right,” the piece is filled with proposals that are distressingly reminiscent of the big-government-lite platform of pre-Reagan Republicans.

Do you think I’m exaggerating?

You can click on his article and see for yourself. You’ll find some good information on how the job market is very weak.

But when Strain proposes solutions, he goes awry. As I say in the article, many of his policy ideas “could have been uttered by Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.”

He writes that “conservatives should see that there is a role for macroeconomic stimulus.” …He claims, for instance, that “government spending can support economic growth during a recession” That Keynesian statement sounds more like Brookings than AEI. He also has Obama’s faith in “shovel-ready jobs,” extolling “the desirability of a multi-year program of high-social-value infrastructure spending.” …He wants to finance additional spending, at least in part, with higher taxes, suggesting “a reining in of tax expenditures.” There’s nothing wrong with cutting back on tax preferences (properly defined), but the money should be used to lower tax rates rather than expand the burden of government spending. …he endorsed extended unemployment benefits – notwithstanding the wealth of evidence that such policies encourage joblessness.

To be fair, he does list some ideas that are good, as well as some that are mixed, but the unambiguous message of his article is that government needs to play an activist role to boost the job market.

Needless to say, I offer my prescription for job creation and suggest that we go in the opposite direction.

I make (what should be) an elementary observation about the conditions that are necessary for businesses to hire new workers.

[Jobs] are created when businesses think that the amount of revenue generated by new employees will exceed the total costs (including those imposed by government) of putting those people on the payroll.

And I elaborate on this point, quoting myself in the article (and now I’m quoting myself quoting myself, which is definitely a sign I’ve been in DC too long).

It may not be an agenda tailored to appeal to politicians, who generally want to be seen as “doing something,” but the best way to create jobs is to get government to stop trying to help. Free markets and small government are far more likely to produce the conditions that lead to more employment. In other words, let the private sector flourish. The pursuit of profit is a powerful force for growth. To quote one of my favorite people, “businesses are not charities. They only create jobs when they think that the total revenue generated by new workers will exceed the total cost of employing those workers. In other words, if it’s not profitable to hire workers, it’s not going to happen.” …If we really care about workers, particularly those without jobs, the most compassionate approach is prosperity rather than dependency.

And that means free markets and small government.

Which is the direction we headed during the Reagan years and Clinton years, when we enjoyed very good performance in labor markets (as illustrated by this Michael Ramirez cartoon).

But the 21st century has been very bad news for economic freedom.

P.S. In a postscript last week, I shared a very amusing image of Obama and Putin on a horse.

In that same spirit, here’s a phone call between a statist who doesn’t respect the rule of law…and another statist who doesn’t respect the rule of law.

Obama Putin Phone Call

I’m not sure whether this is better than Obama’s NSA phone-tapping conversation, but still amusing.

By the way, it goes without saying that this doesn’t imply the United States should be intervening. You can read my thoughts here.

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In recent weeks, I’ve pontificated on Obama’s spendthrift budget, Congressman Dave Camp’s timid tax reform plan, and the corrupt cronyism of Washington.

I got to elaborate on all these topics – and more – in this interview with Professor Glenn Reynolds, more widely known as Instapundit.

If there was an overall theme, it’s that President Obama’s statist agenda is not helping the country.

Other than my hair looking strange, I think this was a good interview.

But here’s a point I probably should have included when assessing the President’s performance. If you look at the Census Bureau’s data on median household income (adjusted for inflation), you’ll see that the median American is earning less during the Obama years. And that’s true whether you use 2008 or 2009 as the base year.

Median Household Income

Now let me provide three caveats on this data, two that help Obama and another that is less favorable.

1. First, if you look at the historical data from the Census Bureau, you’ll see that median household income is a lagging indicator. That means that incomes don’t improve in the first year or two of a recovery.

In other words, you can argue, with considerable justification, that Obama inherited bad numbers.

2. Second, median household income is an incomplete measure of living standards. If you peruse the data, you’ll see that median income for 2012 (the latest available year) is lower than it was the year Reagan left office.

I’m a big Reagan fan, so I’m tempted to say the country has lost ground since he left office, but that would be an exaggeration. We obviously have higher living standards today, notwithstanding the Census Bureau numbers.

3. But I’m not making excuses for Obama. My third and final caveat is that the median numbers don’t tell the full story. If you look at the Census Bureau’s numbers for various income groups, you’ll see that the only cohort that has enjoyed higher real income during the Obama years is….drum roll, please…the rich!

You read correctly. The bottom 20 percent have suffer lower incomes. The three middle-income quintiles have lost ground. Even the top 20 percent have lower median incomes. The only group that is ahead is the top 5 percent.

In other words, Obama may use lots of class-warfare rhetoric to pretend he’s on the side of ordinary people.

But his policies (TARPSolyndra, etc) have been enormously beneficial to the cronyists and insiders that have made the Washington metropolitan area so wealthy.

Here’s some of what Senator Portman of Ohio had to say about the topic.

It’s been five years since the experts said the recession was over, but for millions of Americans, it feels like it never ended. We’re living through the weakest economic recovery since World War II, and a lot of folks are struggling to make ends meet. Unemployment remains stubbornly high; the number of long-term unemployed is actually at record levels. But these statistics only tell half the story. Eleven million Americans have become so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work altogether. Poverty rates have gone up, salaries have gone down, with the average family now bringing home $4,000 less than they did just five years ago.

Just in case you doubt Portman’s remarks, here’s the chart I produced using data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.

It shows every recovery since end of World War II. The red line is Obamanomics.

Hmmm….this is almost enough to make one think that maybe we should try free markets and small government instead.

P.S. This Gary Varvel cartoon provides a good synopsis of Obama’s economic policy.

Political Cartoons by Gary Varvel

I also like Varvel’s take on Obamacare, and here’s another one of his cartoons on Obamanomics.

Varvel is the best at exposing the spending-cut hoax in DC, as you can see from this sequester cartoon and this deficit reduction cartoon. This cartoon about Bernie Madoff and Social Security, however, is at the top of my list.

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Germany isn’t exactly a fiscal role model.

Tax rates are too onerous and government spending consumes about 44 percent of economic output.

That’s even higher than it is in the United States, where politicians at the federal, state, and local levels divert about 39 percent of GDP into the public sector.

Germany also has too much red tape and government intervention, which helps to explain why it lags other European nations such as Denmark and Estonia in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But I have (sort of) defended Germany a couple of times, at least on fiscal policy, explaining that the Germans didn’t squander much money on Keynesian spending schemes during the downturn and also explaining that Paul Krugman was wrong in his column on Germany and austerity.

Today, though, I’m going to give Germany some unambiguous praise.

If you look at last decade’s fiscal data, you’ll see that our Teutonic friends actually followed my Golden Rule on fiscal policy for a four-year period.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF numbers, showing total government spending in Germany from 2003-2007. As you can see, German policy makers basically froze spending.

German Fiscal Restraint

I realize that I’m a libertarian and that I shouldn’t be happy unless the burden of spending is being dramatically reduced, but we’re talking about the performance of European politicians, so I’m grading on a curve.

By that standard, limiting spending so it grows by an average of 0.18 percent is rather impressive. Interestingly, this period of fiscal discipline began when the Social Democrats were in power.

And because the economy’s productive sector was growing at a faster rate during this time, a bit more than 2 percent annually, the relative burden of government spending did fall.

The red line in this next chart shows that the public sector, measured as a share of economic output, fell from almost 49 percent of GDP to less than 44 percent of GDP.

German Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

It’s also worth noting that this four-year period of spending restraint also led to a balanced budget, as shown by the blue line.

In other words, by addressing the underlying problem of too much government, the German government automatically dealt with the symptom of red ink.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the German government wasn’t willing to sustain this modest degree of fiscal discipline. The Christian Democrats, who took office in mid-2005, allowed faster spending growth beginning in 2008. As I noted above, the budget increases haven’t been huge, but there’s been enough additional spending that Germany no longer is complying with the Golden Rule and the burden of the public sector is stuck at about 44 percent of GDP.

The moral of the story is that Germany shows that good things happen when spending is restrained, but long-run good performance requires long-run spending discipline.

That’s why I’m a fan of Switzerland’s spending cap. It’s called the “debt brake,” but it basically requires politicians to limit spending so that the budget doesn’t grow much faster than inflation plus population.

And that’s why Switzerland has enjoyed more than a decade of good policy.

To see other examples of nations that have enjoyed fiscal success with period of spending restrain, watch this video.

The Canadian example is particularly impressive.

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Obamacare may not be good news for taxpayers or consumers, but let’s look at the bright side. At least the law has generated some superb political humor, including funny videos.

*The head of the National Socialist Workers Party finds out he can’t keep his health plan.

*A creepy version of Uncle Sam wants to know about your sex life.

*Young people discover that they’re screwed by Obamacare.

*One of the biggest statists of the 20th century is angry that the Obamacare exchanges don’t work.

We have another addition to this amusing collection. This cartoon video employs lots of snark to expose the illogical underpinnings of Obamacare.

My one complaint with this video, though, is that it merely scratches the surface.

Yes, Obamacare is a cluster-you-know-what, but there are many other government programs and policies that cause inefficiency and high costs

Here’s some of what I wrote on this topic back in 2009, starting with an explanation of how government intervention in the tax code has distorted the insurance market and turned it into an inefficient form of pre-paid healthcare.

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 discussed above, 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.

I then ask readers to contemplate what car insurance would look like if government also intervened in that market. Or to think about the consequences if insurance for houses also was subject to government-caused distortion.

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.

The best way of fixing the mess in health insurance, for what it’s worth, is a flat tax. This is because the “healthcare exclusion” is repealed and compensation in the form of fringe benefits is taxed at the same (low) rate as other forms of income.

This presumably will end the incentive for gold-plated Cadillac health plans since workers – once the playing field is level – will prefer a greater amount cash compensation. So health plans gradually will be scaled back so they offer genuine insurance.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity offers a good explanation.

You also should watch this Reason TV video that shows a real-world example of how prices fall and the system is more efficient when consumers are in charge of healthcare.

For the same reason, I also recommend this story from North Carolina, as well as this example of capitalism from Maine.

It’s also worth noting that there are a few tiny parts of our healthcare system where markets are allowed to operate and consumers are in charge of spending their own money, and in these areas – such as cosmetic surgery, laser eye surgery, and abortion (regardless of whether you approve or disapprove) – we find stable prices and rising quality.

Free markets work…when they’re allowed to function.

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The President’s new budget has been unveiled.

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

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

Obama 2015 Budget Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably the same doctors who participate in the disability scam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Camp plan, by contrast, is thin gruel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the famous Roman poet, Horace, wrote “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

To his credit, Congressman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of this clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

As you can see, I included obvious features such as low tax rates, simplicity, double taxation, and social engineering, but I also graded plans based on other features such as civil liberties, fairness, and downside risk.

Tax Reform Grading Matrix

There obviously have been many new plans since I wrote this paper, most notably the Fair Tax (a different version of a national sales tax than the Tauzin plan), Simpson-Bowles, the Ryan Roadmap, Domenici-Rivlin, the Heritage Foundation’s American Dream proposal, the Baucus-Hatch blank slate, and – as noted above – the new tax reform plan by Congressman Dave Camp.

Given his powerful position as head of the tax-writing committee, let’s use the 1995 guide to assess the pros and cons of Congressman Camp’s plan.

Rates: The Top tax rate for individual taxpayers is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, which is a disappointingly modest step in the right direction. The corporate tax rate falls from 35 percent to 25 percent, which is more praiseworthy, though Camp doesn’t explain why small businesses (who file using the individual income tax) should pay higher rates than large companies.

Simplicity: Camp claims that he will eliminate 25 percent of the tax code, which certainly is welcome news since the internal revenue code has swelled to 70,000-plus pages of loopholes, exemptions, deductions, credits, penalties, exclusions, preferences, and other distortions. And his proposal does eliminate some deductions, including the state and local tax deduction (which perversely rewards states with higher fiscal burdens).

Saving and Investment: Ever since Reagan slashed tax rates in the 1980s, the most anti-growth feature of the tax code is probably the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Shockingly, the Camp plan worsens the tax treatment of capital, with higher taxation of dividends and capital gains and depreciation rules that are even more onerous than current law.

Social Engineering: Some of the worst distortions in the tax code are left in place, including the healthcare exclusion for almost all taxpayers. This means that people will continue to make economically irrational decisions solely to benefit from certain tax provisions.

Civil Liberties: The Camp plan does nothing to change the fact that the IRS has both the need and the power to collect massive amounts of private financial data from taxpayers. Nor does the proposal end the upside-down practice of making taxpayers prove their innocence in any dispute with the tax authorities.

Fairness: In a non-corrupt tax system, all income is taxed, but only one time. On this basis, the plan from the Ways & Means Chairman is difficult to assess. Loopholes are slightly reduced, but double taxation is worse, so it’s hard to say whether the system is more fair or less fair.

Risk: There is no value-added tax, which is a critically important feature of any tax reform plan. As such, there is no risk the Camp plan will become a Trojan Horse for a massive expansion in the fiscal burden.

Evasion: People are reluctant to comply with the tax system when rates are punitive and/or there’s a perception of rampant unfairness. It’s possible that the slightly lower statutory rates may improve incentives to obey the law, but that will be offset by the higher tax burden on saving and investment.

International Competitiveness: Reducing the corporate tax rate will help attract jobs and investment, and the plan also mitigates some of worst features of America’s “worldwide” tax regime.

Now that we’ve taken a broad look at the components of Congressman Camp’s plan, let’s look at a modified version of my 1995 grades.

Camp Tax Matrix

You can see why I’m underwhelmed by his proposal.

Congressman Camp’s proposal may be an improvement over the status quo, but my main reaction is “what’s the point?”

In other words, why go through months of hearings and set up all sorts of working groups, only to propose a timid plan?

Now, perhaps, readers will understand why I’m rather pessimistic about achieving real tax reform.

We know the right policies to fix the tax code.

And we have ready-made plans – such as the flat tax and national sales tax – that would achieve the goals of tax reform.

Camp’s plan, by contrast, simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic.

P.S. If you need to be cheered up after reading all this, here’s some more IRS humor to brighten your day, including the IRS version of the quadratic formula, a new Obama 1040 form, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon ofhow GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), and two songs about the tax agency (hereand here),  and a PG-13 joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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One of my goals is to convince people that even small differences in long-run growth can have a powerful impact on living standards and societal prosperity.

In other words, the economy is not a fixed pie. The right policies, such as free markets and small government, can create a better life for everybody.

And bad policy, needless to say, can have the opposite impact.

Very few people realize, for instance, that Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations at the end of World War II, but interventionist policies have weakened growth and caused the country to plummet in the rankings.

Hong Kong, by contrast, had a relatively poor economy at the end of the war, but now is one of the globe’s most prosperous jurisdictions.

If you want more examples, check out this chart showing how North Korea and South Korea have diverged over time.

Or how about the chart showing how Chile has out-performed other major Latin American economies.

This comparison of living standards in the United States and Europe also is very compelling.

Here’s a simple guide to highlight the difference between weak growth and strong growth. It shows how long it takes a nation to double economic output depending on annual growth.

As you can see, a nation with 1 percent growth (think Italy) will have to wait 70 years before the economic pie doubles in size.

But a nation that grows 4 percent or faster each year (think Singapore) will double GDP in less than 20 years.

Years to Double GDP

So why am I plowing through all this material?

My answer is simple, but depressing. I’m worried that the United States is becoming more like Europe. During the Bush-Obama years, we’ve seen big increases in the size and scope of government, and it’s no surprise that we’re now suffering from anemic economic performance.

That’s the first point I made in this interview with Michelle Fields of PJTV.

Much of the material in the interview will be familiar to regular readers, but a few points deserve some emphasis.

I say that America becoming more like Europe isn’t the end of the world, but I should elaborate. What I meant is that we can survive 2 percent growth instead of 3 percent growth. We could even survive 1 percent growth.

But if we continue on the current path of ever-growing government and combine that with an aging population and poorly designed entitlement programs, then we will see the end of the world. At least in the sense of fiscal crisis and economic collapse.

All the points I make about jobs, employment, labor force participation, unemployment insurance and disability are simply different ways of saying that it’s not good for the economy when politicians continuously make dependency more attractive than work.

If you want to know more about why the so-called stimulus was a failure, my article in The Federalist is a nice place to start.

The libertarian fantasy world of a small central government is a very good goal, but it’s still possible to make significant progress if politicians follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

P.S. You may recognize the host because she narrated a very good video for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Michelle explained how the big-government policies of Hoover and Roosevelt deepened and extended the Great Depression.

She also exposed rich leftists as complete hypocrites in this interview.

P.P.S. Since I mentioned above that South Korea has far surpassed North Korea, I should share this powerful nighttime picture of the Korean peninsula.

North Korea v South Korea

Gee, maybe capitalism is better than statism after all.

Unless, of course, you think there’s something really nice about North Korea to offset South Korea’s economic advantages.

Such as malnutrition or enslavement. Or a small carbon footprint, which led some nutjobs to rank Cuba far above America.

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There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he oftentimes doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Here’s some of what Professor Krugman wrote for the New York Times.

I hear people trying to dismiss the overwhelming evidence for large economic damage from fiscal austerity by pointing to Germany: “You say that austerity hurts growth, but the Germans have done a lot of austerity and they’re booming.” Public service announcement: Never, ever make claims about a country’s economic policies (or actually anything about economics) on the basis of what you think you’ve heard people say. Yes, you often hear people talking about austerity, and the Germans are big on praising and demanding austerity. But have they actually imposed a lot of it on themselves? Not so much.

In some sense, I agree with Krugman. I don’t think the Germans have imposed much austerity.

But here’s the problem with his article. We know from the examples above that he’s complained about supposed austerity in places such as the United Kingdom and France, so one would think that the German government must have been more profligate with the public purse.

After all, Krugman wrote they haven’t “imposed a lot of [austerity] on themselves.”

So I followed the advice in Krugman’s “public service announcement.” I didn’t just repeat what people have said. I dug into the data to see what happened to government spending in various nations.

And I know you’ll be shocked to see that Krugman was wrong. The Germans have been more frugal (at least in the sense of increasing spending at the slowest rate) than nations that supposedly are guilty of “spending cuts.”

German Austerity Krugman

To ensure that I’m not guilty of cherry-picking the data, I look at three different base years. But it doesn’t matter whether we start before, during, or after the recession. Germany increased spending at the slowest rate.

Moreover, if you look at the IMF data, you’ll see that the Germans also were more frugal than the Swedes, the Belgium, the Dutch, and the Austrians.

So I’m not sure what Krugman is trying to tell us with his chart.

By the way, spending in Switzerland grew at roughly the same rate as it did in Germany. So if Professor Krugman is highlighting Germany as a role model, maybe we can take that as an indirect endorsement of Switzerland’s very good spending cap?

But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that endorsement to become official. After all, Switzerland has reduced the burden of government spending thanks to the spending cap.

Not exactly in line with Krugman’s ideological agenda.

P.S. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with folks who mischaracterize German fiscal policy. When Professor Epstein and I debated a couple of Keynesians in NYC as part of the Intelligence Squared debate, one of our opponents asserted that Germany was a case study for Keynesian stimulus. But when I looked at the data, it turned out that he was prevaricating.

P.P.S. This post, I hasten to add, is not an endorsement of German fiscal policy. As I explained while correcting a mistake in the Washington Post, the burden of government is far too large in Germany. The only good thing I can say is that it hasn’t grown that rapidly in recent years.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with a look at another example of Krugman’s misleading work. He recently implied that an economist from the Heritage Foundation was being dishonest in some austerity testimony, but I dug into the numbers and discovered that, “critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years”

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If I banged my head against the wall every time politicians advocated bad policy in Washington – which is a tempting impulse, I would have been institutionalized because of brain damage a long time ago.

But it’s difficult to maintain my self control when I think about minimum wage laws.

All sentient human beings should know higher minimum wage laws will mean more unemployment. Just ask them, for instance, what would happen if the minimum wage was raised to $100 per hour. Once they admit that would lead to massive job losses, they’ve accepted the principle and it’s simply an empirical issue of figuring out how many jobs are lost when the minimum wage is $75, $50, $20, $10, $6, etc.

At the risk of stating the obvious, businesses seek to make money and they won’t hire somebody who can only produce $6 of value per hour if the government says that person has to be paid $7.25.

But there are those who nonetheless push for higher minimum wage requirements. I’ve previously provided six potential reasons why a person would support such a policy, three of which are because of cynicism and three of which are because of naiveté.

I strongly suspect Obama and his team are pushing for a higher minimum wage for the first reason, but it’s hard to even care. All that really matters is that people will suffer if the President succeeds.

And I’m not making a partisan point. Mitt Romney and George W. Bush had the same mentality.

Now, perhaps, you understand why this issue is so frustrating.

So let’s try to maintain our sanity by mocking these feckless and uncaring politicians.

Here are a couple of good cartoons on the topic, beginning with a clever contribution from Lisa Benson.

Political Cartoons by Lisa Benson

This Steve Breen cartoon makes the same point, showing how the poor are disadvantaged.

Political Cartoons by Steve Breen

I also would recommend this video if you want to learn more about the minimum wage, and if you want to understand why this issue gets me very frustrated, check out this interview.

It’s especially perverse that politicians are pushing these policies when, as Walter Williams has explained, blacks and other minorities are among the biggest victims.

Last but not least, I’m a libertarian, which means that I’m motivated by morality as well as economic efficiency.

So I get equally upset that politicians think they should have the right to block a labor contract between consenting adults.

What gives them the right to tell other people that they can’t engage in non-coercive, non-violent exchange?

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Did you sing Happy Birthday?

The nation just “celebrated” the fifth anniversary of the signing of the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Political Cartoons by Nate Beelermore commonly referred to as the “stimulus.”

This experiment in Keynesian economics was controversial when it was enacted and it’s still controversial today.

The Obama Administration is telling us that the law was a big success, but I have a far more dour assessment of the President’s spending binge.

Here’s some of what I wrote about the topic for The Federalist.

The White House wants us to think the legislation was a success, publishing a report that claims the stimulus “saved or created about 6 million job-years” and “raised the level of GDP by between 2 and 3 percent from late 2009 through mid-2011.”

Sounds impressive, right?

Unfortunately, these numbers for jobs and growth are based on blackboard models that automatically assume rosy outcomes.

Here’s how I explain it in the article.

…how, pray tell, did the White House know what jobs and growth would have been in a hypothetical world with no stimulus? The simple answer is that they pulled numbers out of thin air based on economic models using Keynesian theory. …Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. They build models that assume government spending is good for the economy and they assume that there are zero costs when the government takes money from the private sector. That type of model then automatically generates predictions that bigger government will “stimulate’ growth and create jobs. The Keynesians are so confident in their approach that they’ll sometimes even admit that they don’t look at real world numbers. And that’s what the White House did in its estimate. The jobs number (or, to be more technical, the job-years number) is built into the model. It’s not a count of actual jobs.

In the real world, however, you can count jobs.

As part of my article, I looked at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website and compared the current recovery to all business cycle expansions in the post-World War II era.

And I did that comparison for jobs and growth. Here are the numbers for the labor market. The current recovery is in red, and you can see that the nation is “stumbling through the second-worst recovery for job creation in the post-WWII era.”

Minn Fed Recovery Jobs Data

And here are the Minneapolis Fed’s numbers for growth.

It doesn’t seem possible, but GOP performance has been even worse than job performance. We are mired in stagnation. As I noted, “the current recovery (red line) is the weakest expansion since World War II.”

Minn Fed Recovery GDP Data

In other words, it’s very difficult to argue – looking at the numbers – that the President’s main economic initiative was a success.

So why did it flop?

I pontificate in the article, pointing out three specific problems with Keynesian economics. I start with the elementary observation that the theory is based on the notion that you can become richer by taking money out of one pocket and putting it in another pocket.

…there is an “opportunity cost” when government borrows money and spends it. Resources are diverted from the productive sector of the economy. This might not be a problem if government spent money wisely, but stimulus schemes tend to reward interest groups with the most political clout. So instead of outlays for physical and human capital, which at least theoretically might improve the economy’s productive capacity, the White House directed the bulk of the stimulus to redistribution programs and handouts to state governments.

I then make a critical observation about how you shouldn’t try to solve one set of bad government policies with another layer of bad policy.

…the Keynesians don’t seem to appreciate that recessions generally are the result of bad government policies – such as inflation, housing subsidies, etc – that lead to fundamental and unsustainable economic imbalances. Unfortunately, more government spending often is designed to prop up these imbalances, which can create a longer and more painful period of adjustment.

Political Cartoons by Eric AllieBut the clincher, at least for most people, is the simple fact that Keynesianism doesn’t work.

But the biggest problem with Keynesianism is that the real-world evidence is so unfriendly. Consider, for instance, that the White House claimed that the unemployment would never climb above 8 percent if the stimulus was adopted. The following chart shows the actual unemployment projection put together by the Obama Administration, but modified to show the actual monthly unemployment rates the country experienced. …And that’s just the tip of the stimulus iceberg. Keynesian economics has a long track record of failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked this century for either Bush or Obama.

And guess what? I’m going to make a very sad prediction that we’ll get more Keynesian economics in the future, but it’s easy to predict right now that these future spending binges will fail just like previous stimulus schemes have flopped.

P.S. Here’s my video on Keynesian economics and here’s my video on Obama’s failed stimulus.

P.P.S. If you’d rather laugh than hear my voice, my favorite cartoons on Keynsianism can be viewed here and here.

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When I give speeches around the country, I often get asked whether it’s time to give up.

More specifically, has America reached a tipping point, with too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency and too few people creating wealth and pulling the wagon in the right direction?

These questions don’t surprise me, particularly since my speeches frequently include very grim BIS, OECD, and IMF data showing that the long-run fiscal problem in the United States is larger than it is in some nations that already are facing fiscal crisis.

But that doesn’t mean I have a good answer. I think there is a tipping point, to be sure, but I’m not sure whether there’s a single variable that tells us when we’ve reached the point of no return.

Is it when government spending consumes 50 percent of economic output? That would be a very bad development if the burden of government spending reached that level, but it’s not necessarily fatal. Back in the early 1990s, the public sector was that big in Canada, yet policy makers in that country were able to restrain budgetary growth and put the country on a positive path. Sweden is another nation that has turned the corner. Government spending peaked at 67 percent of GDP in the early 1990s, but is now down to 47 percent of GDP after years of free-market reforms.

Is it when a majority of households are getting government handouts? That’s also a worrisome development, especially if those folks see the state as a means of living off their fellow citizens. But taking a check from Uncle Sam doesn’t automatically mean a statist mindset. As one of my favorite people opined, “some government beneficiaries – such as Social Security recipients – spent their lives in the private sector and are taking benefits simply because they had no choice but to participate in the system.”

Is it when a majority of people no longer pay income taxes, leaving a shrinking minority to bear all the burden of financing government? It’s not healthy for society when most people think government is “free,” particularly if they perceive an incentive to impose even higher burdens on those who do pay. And there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of the tax burden is borne by the top 10 percent. There’s little evidence, though, that the rest of the population thinks there’s no cost to government – perhaps because many of them pay heavy payroll taxes.

I explore these issues in this interview with Charles Payne.

The main takeaway from the interview is that the tipping point is not a number, but a state of mind. It’s the health of the nation’s “social capital.”

So for what it’s worth, the country will be in deep trouble if and when the spirit of self-reliance becomes a minority viewpoint. And the bad news is that we’re heading in that direction.

The good news is that we’re not close to the point of no return. There is some polling data, for instance, showing that Americans still have a much stronger belief in liberty than their European counterparts.

And we’ve even made a small bit of progress against big government in the past few years.

I speculated in the interview that we probably have a couple of decades to save the country, but it will become increasingly difficult to make the necessary changes – such as entitlement reform and welfare decentralization – as we get closer to 2020 and 2030.

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd if those changes don’t occur…?

That’s a very grim subject. I fully understand why some Americans are thinking about the steps they should take to protect their families if reforms don’t occur and a crisis occurs.

Indeed, this to me is one of the most compelling arguments against gun control. If America begins to suffer the chaos and disarray that we’ve seen in nations such as Greece, it’s better to be well-armed.

Though maybe there will be some nations that remain stable as the world’s welfare states collapse. And if emigration is your preferred option, I’d bet on Australia.

But wouldn’t it be better to fix what’s wrong and stay in America?

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The tax code is a complicated nightmare, particularly for businesses.

Some people may think this is because of multiple tax rates, which definitely is an issue for all the non-corporate businesses that file “Schedule C” forms using the personal income tax.

A discriminatory rate structure adds to complexity, to be sure, but the main reason for a convoluted business tax system (for large and small companies) is that politicians don’t allow firms to use the simple and logical (and theoretically sound) approach of cash-flow taxation.

Here’s how a sensible business tax would work.

Total Revenue – Total Cost = Profit

And it would be wonderful if our tax system was this simple, and that’s basically how the business portion of the flat tax operates, but that’s not how the current tax code works.

We have about 76,000 pages of tax rules in large part because politicians and bureaucrats have decided that the “cash flow” approach doesn’t give them enough money.

So they’ve created all sorts of rules that in many cases prevent businesses from properly subtracting (or deducting) their costs when calculating their profits.

One of the worst examples is depreciation, which deals with the tax treatment of business investment expenses. You might think lawmakers would like investment since that boosts productivity, wage, and competitiveness, but you would be wrong. The tax code rarely allows companies to fully deduct investment expenses (factories, machines, etc) in the year they occur. Instead, they have to deduct (or depreciate) those costs over many years. In some cases, even decades.

But rather than write about the boring topic of depreciation to make my point about legitimate tax deductions, I’m going to venture into the world of popular culture.

Though since I’m a middle-aged curmudgeon, my example of popular culture is a band that was big about 30 years ago.

The UK-based Guardian is reporting on the supposed scandal of ABBA’s tax deductions. Here are the relevant passages.

The glittering hotpants, sequined jumpsuits and platform heels that Abba wore at the peak of their fame were designed not just for the four band members to stand out – but also for tax efficiency, according to claims over the weekend. Abba…And the reason for their bold fashion choices lay not just in the pop glamour of the late 70s and early 80s, but also in the Swedish tax code. According to Abba: The Official Photo Book, published to mark 40 years since they won Eurovision with Waterloo, the band’s style was influenced in part by laws that allowed the cost of outfits to be deducted against tax – so long as the costumes were so outrageous they could not possibly be worn on the street.

When I read the story, I kept waiting to get to the scandalous part.

But then I realized that the scandal – according to our statist friends – is that ABBA could have paid even more in tax if they wore regular street clothes for their performances.

In other words, this is not a scandal at all. It’s simply the latest iteration of the left-wing campaign (bolstered by tax-free bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD) to de-legitimize normal and proper tax deductions.

So I guess this means that the New York Yankees should play in t-shirts and gym shorts since getting rid of the pinstripes would increase the team’s taxable income.

And companies should set their thermostats at 60 degrees in the winter since that also would lead to more taxable income.

Or, returning to the example of ABBA, perhaps they should have used these outfits since there wouldn’t be much cost to deduct and that would have boosted taxable income.

Shifting to the individual income tax, another potential revenue raiser is for households to follow this example from Monty Python and sell their kids for medical experiments. That would eliminate personal exemptions and lead to more taxable income.

Heck, maybe our friends on the left should pass a law mandating weekend jobs so we could have more income for them to tax.

Though I’m not sure how that would work since the statists are now saying Obamacare is a good thing because it “liberates” millions of people from having to work.

I’m not sure how they square that circle, but I’m sure the answer is more class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. If you want to a simple rule to determine what’s a legitimate tax deduction, just remember that economic activity should be taxed equally (and at the lowest possible rate). That’s why businesses should have a cash-flow tax, and it’s why households should have a neutral system like a flat tax or national sales tax.

P.P.S. Though it would be nice if we had the very limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In that case, we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax whatsoever.

P.P.P.S. A very low tax rate is the best way of encouraging taxpayers to declare income and minimize deductions. Sweden Individual Income tax ratesWhen ABBA first became famous, the top personal tax rate in Sweden was at the confiscatory level of about 80 percent and the corporate tax rate was about 55 percent. With rates so high, that meant taxpayers had big incentives to reduce taxable income and little reason to control costs.

After all, a krona of deductible expense only reduced income by about 20 öre for individual taxpayers.

Corporate taxpayers weren’t treated as badly, but a rate of 55 percent still meant that a krona of deductible expense only reduced after-tax income by 45 öre.

But if the rate was very modest, say 20 percent, then taxpayers might be far more frugal about costs (whether the cost of uniforms or anything else) because a krona of deductible expense would reduce income by 80 öre.

By the way, the United States conducted an experiment of this type in the 1980s and the rich wound up declaring far more income to the IRS.

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I feel a bit like Goldilocks.

No, this is not a confession about cross-dressing or being transsexual. I’m the boring kind of libertarian.

Instead, I have a run-of-the-mill analogy. Think about when you were a kid and your parents told you the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

You may remember that she entered the house and tasted bowls of porridge that were too hot and also too cold before she found the porridge that was just right.

And then she found a bed that was too hard, and then another that was too soft, before finding one that was just right.

Well, the reason I feel like Goldilocks is because I’ve shared some “Rahn Curve” research suggesting that growth is maximized when total government spending consumes no more than 20 percent of gross domestic product. I think this sounds reasonable, but Canadians apparently have a different perspective.

Back in 2010, a Canadian libertarian put together a video that explicitly argues that I want a government that is too big.

Now we have another video from Canada. It was put together by the Fraser Institute, and it suggests that the public sector should consume 30 percent of GDP, which means that I want a government that is too small.

My knee-jerk reaction is to be critical of the Fraser video. After all, there are examples – both current and historical – of nations that prosper with much lower burdens of government spending

Singapore and Hong Kong, for instance, have public sectors today that consume less than 20 percent of economic output. Would those fast-growing jurisdictions be more prosperous if the burden of government spending was increased by more than 50 percent?

Or look at Canadian history. As recently as 1920, government outlays were 16.7 percent of economic output. Would Canada have grown faster if lawmakers at the time had almost doubled the size of government?

And what about nations such as the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, all of which had government budgets in 1870 that consumed only about 10 percent of GDP. Would those nations have been better off if the burden of government spending was tripled?

I think the answer to all three questions is no. So why, then, did the Fraser Institute conclude that government should be bigger?

There are three very reasonable responses to that question. First, the 30 percent number is actually a measurement of where you theoretically maximize “social progress” or “societal outcomes.” If you peruse the excellent study that accompanies the video, you’ll find that economic growth is most rapid when government consumes 26 percent of GDP.

Second, the Fraser research – practically speaking – is arguing for smaller government, at least when looking at the current size of the public sector in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe. According to International Monetary Fund data, government spending consumes 41 percent of GDP in Canada, 39 percent of GDP in the United States, and 55 percent of GDP in France.

The Fraser Institute research even suggests that there should be significantly less government spending in both Switzerland and Australia, where outlays total “only” 34 percent of GDP.

Third, you’ll see if you read the underlying study that the author is simply following the data. But he also acknowledges “a limitation of the data,” which is that the numbers needed for his statistical analysis are only available for OECD nations, and only beginning in 1960.

This is a very reasonable point, and one that I also acknowledged when writing about some research on this topic from Finland’s Central Bank.

…those numbers…are the result of data constraints. Researchers looking at the post-World War II data generally find that Hong Kong and Singapore have the maximum growth rates, and the public sector in those jurisdictions consumes about 20 percent of economic output. Nations with medium-sized governments, such as Australia and the United States, tend to grow a bit slower. And the bloated welfare states of Europe suffer from stagnation. So it’s understandable that academics would conclude that growth is at its maximum point when government grabs 20 percent of GDP. But what would the research tell us if there were governments in the data set that consumed 15 percent of economic output? Or 10 percent, or even 5 percent? Such nations don’t exist today.

For what it’s worth, I assume the author of the Fraser study, given the specifications of his model, didn’t have the necessary post-1960 data to include small-state, high-growth, non-OECD jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore. If that data had been available, I suspect he also would have concluded that government should be closer to 20 percent of economic output.

I explore all these issues in my video on this topic.

The moral of the story is that government is far too large in every developed nation.

I suspect even Hong Kong and Singapore have public sectors that are too large, causing too many resources to be diverted from the private sector.

But since I’m a practical and moderate guy, I’d be happy if the burden of government spending in the United States was merely reduced back down to 20 percent of economic output.

P.S. Though I would want the majority of that spending at the state and local level.

P.P.S. Since I’m sharing videos today, here’s an amusing video from American Commitment about the joy of being “liberated” from employment.

And if you like snarky videos about Obamacare, here are some based on sex and mockery, and there’s even a Hitler parody.

P.P.P.S. This has nothing to do with public policy, but I got a good chuckle from this news out of Iraq.

A group of Sunni militants attending a suicide bombing training class at a camp north of Baghdad were killed on Monday when their commander unwittingly conducted a demonstration with a belt that was packed with explosives, army and police officials said. …Twenty-two ISIS members were killed, and 15 were wounded, in the explosion at the camp.

One of the reasons I laughed is that I recalled a cartoon that was sent to me many years ago. And when I dug into my humor folder, it was still there.

I think you’ll see the obvious connection.

Terrorist School

And since we’re venturing into humor about self-detonating terrorists, here’s another joke from my treasure trove.

===================================

Guy goes into a sex shop and asks for an inflatable doll.

Guy behind the counter says, “Male or female?”

Customer says, “Female.”

Counter guy asks, “Black or white?

Customer says, “White.”

Counter guy asks, “Christian or Muslim?”

Customer says, “What the hell does religion have to do with it?”

Counter guy says, “The Muslim one blows itself up.”

===================================

And here’s another joke that’s worth sharing.

Garfield Terrorist

If this isn’t enough terrorism-related humor for you, we also have this collection of stereotypes I received from an English friend.

This image, meanwhile, doubtlessly has caused a few nightmares in certain quarters.

And this Jay Leno joke is one of the best examples of anti-political correctness I’ve ever seen.

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