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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) are congressional bureaucracies that wield tremendous power on Capitol Hill because of their role as fiscal scorekeepers and referees.

Unfortunately, these bureaucracies lean to the left. When CBO does economic analysis or budgetary estimates, for instance, the bureaucrats routinely make it easier for politicians to expand the burden of government spending. The accompanying cartoon puts it more bluntly.

And when JCT does revenue estimates, the bureaucrats grease the skids for anti-growth tax policy by overstating revenue losses from lower tax rates and overstating revenue gains from higher tax rates.

Here are some examples of CBO’s biased output.

The CBO – over and over again – produced reports based on Keynesian methodology to claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus was creating millions of jobs even as the unemployment rate was climbing.

CBO has produced analysis asserting that higher taxes are good for the economy, even to the point of implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

Continuing a long tradition of under-estimating the cost of entitlement programs, CBO facilitated the enactment of Obamacare with highly dubious projections.

CBO also radically underestimated the job losses that would be caused by Obamacare.

When purporting to measure loopholes in the tax code, the CBO chose to use a left-wing benchmark that assumes there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

On rare occasions when CBO has supportive analysis of tax cuts, the bureaucrats rely on bad methodology.

But let’s not forget that the JCT produces equally dodgy analysis.

The JCT was wildly wrong in its estimates of what would happen to tax revenue after the 2003 tax rate reductions.

Because of the failure to properly measure the impact of tax policy on behavior, the JCT significantly overestimated the revenues from the Obamacare tax on tanning salons.

The JCT has estimated that the rich would pay more revenue with a 100 percent tax rate even though there would be no incentive to earn and report taxable income if the government confiscated every penny.

This means the JCT is more left wing than the very statist economists who think the revenue-maximizing tax rate is about 70 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the JCT also uses a flawed statist benchmark when producing estimates of so-called tax expenditures.

Though I want to be fair. Sometimes CBO and JCT produce garbage because they are instructed to put their thumbs on the scale by their political masters. The fraudulent process of redefining spending increases as spending cuts, for instance, is apparently driven by legislative mandates.

But the bottom line is that these bureaucracies, as currently structured and operated, aid and abet big government.

Regarding the CBO, Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus hit the nail on the head.

The CBO’s consistently flawed scoring of the cost of bills is used by Congress to justify legislation that rarely performs as promised and drags down the economy. …CBO relies heavily on Keynesian economic models, like the ones it used during the stimulus debate. Forecasters at the agency predicted the stimulus package would create more than 3 million jobs. …What looks good in the spirit world of the computer model may be very bad in the material realm of real life because people react to changes in policies in ways unaccounted for in these models.

And the Wall Street Journal opines wisely about the real role of the JCT.

Joint Tax typically overestimates the revenue gains from raising tax rates, while overestimating the revenue losses from tax rate cuts. This leads to a policy bias in favor of higher tax rates, which is precisely what liberal Democrats wanted when they created the Joint Tax Committee.

Amen. For all intents and purposes, the system is designed to help statists win policy battles.

No wonder only 15 percent of CPAs agree with JCT’s biased approach to revenue estimates.

So what’s the best way to deal with this mess?

Some Republicans on the Hill have nudged these bureaucracies to make their models more realistic.

That’s a helpful start, but I think the only effective long-run option is to replace the top staff with people who have a more accurate understanding of fiscal policy. Which is exactly what I said to Peter Roff, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

…the new congressional leadership should be looking at ways to reform the way the institution does its business – and the first place for it to start is the Congressional Budget Office. Most Americans don’t know what the CBO is, how it was created or what it does. They also don’t know how vitally important it is to the legislative process, especially where taxes, spending and entitlement reform are concerned. As Dan Mitchell, a well-respected economist with the libertarian Cato Institute, puts it in an email, the CBO “has a number-crunching role that gives the bureaucracy a lot of power to aid or hinder legislation, so it is very important for Republicans to select a director who understands the economic consequences of excessive spending and punitive tax rates.”

Heck, it’s not just “very important” to put in a good person at CBO (and JCT). As I’ve written before, it’s a test of whether the GOP has both the brains and resolve to fix a system that’s been rigged against them for decades.

So what will happen? I’m not sure, but Roll Call has a report on the behind-the-scenes discussions on Capitol Hill.

Flush from their capture of the Senate, Republicans in both chambers are reviewing more than a dozen potential candidates to succeed Douglas W. Elmendorf as director of the Congressional Budget Office after his term expires Jan. 3. …The appointment is being closely watched, with a number of Republicans pushing for CBO to change its budget scoring rules to use dynamic scoring, which would try to account for the projected impact of tax cuts and budget changes on the economy.

So who will it be? The Wall Street Journal weighs in, pointing out that CBO has been a tool for the expansion of government.

…the budget rules are rigged to expand government and hide the true cost of entitlements. CBO scores aren’t unambiguous facts but are guesses about the future, biased by the Keynesian assumptions and models its political masters in Congress instruct it to use. Republicans who now run Congress can help taxpayers by appointing a new CBO director, as is their right as the majority. …The Tax Foundation’s Steve Entin would be an inspired pick.

I disagree with one part of the above excerpt. Steve Entin is superb, but he would be an inspired pick for the Joint Committee on Taxation, not the CBO.

But I fully agree with the WSJ’s characterization of the budget rules being used to grease the skids for bigger government.

In a column for National Review, Dustin Siggins writes that Bill Beach, my old colleague from my days at the Heritage Foundation, would be a good choice for CBO.

…few Americans may realize  that the budget process is at least as twisted as the budget itself. While one man can’t fix it all, Republicans who want to be taken seriously about budget reform should approve Bill Beach to head the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Putting the right person in charge as Congress’s official “scorekeeper” would be an important first step in proving that the party is serious about honest, transparent, and efficient government. …CBO has several major structural problems that a new CBO director should fix.

Hmm… Entin at JCT and Beach at CBO. That might even bring a smile to my dour face.

But it doesn’t have to be those two specific people. There are lots of well-regarded policy scholars who could take on the jobs of reforming and modernizing the work of JCT and CBO.

But that will only happen if Republicans are willing to show some fortitude. And that means they need to be ready to deal with screeching from leftists who want to maintain their control of these institutions.

For example, Peter Orszag, a former CBO Director who then became Budget Director for Obama (an easy transition), wrote for Bloomberg that he’s worried GOPers won’t pick someone with his statist views.

The Congressional Budget Office should be able to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming February with pride. …The occasion will be ruined, however, if the new Republican Congress breaks its long tradition of naming an objective economist/policy analyst as CBO director, when the position becomes vacant next year, and instead appoints a party hack.

By the way, it shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness for someone like Orszag to complain about the possibility of a “party hack” heading up CBO.

In any event, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I fully expect we’ll also see editorials very soon from the New York Times, Washington Post, and other statist outlets about the need to preserve the “independence” of CBO and JCT.

Just keep in mind that their real goal is to maintain their side’s control over the process.

P.S. There’s another Capitol Hill bureaucracy, the Congressional Research Service, that also generates leftist fiscal policy analysis. Fortunately, the CRS doesn’t have any scorekeeper or referee role, so it doesn’t cause nearly as much trouble. Nonetheless, any bureaucracy that produces “research” about higher taxes being good for the economy needs to be abolished or completely revamped.

P.P.S. This video explains the Joint Committee on Taxation’s revenue-estimating methodology. Pay extra attention to the section beginning around the halfway point, which deals with a request my former boss made to the JCT.

P.P.P.S. If you want to see some dramatic evidence that lower tax rates don’t necessarily lead to less revenue, check out this amazing data from the 1980s.

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I don’t pretend that tax reform, by itself, will create economic Nirvana.

After all, the experts who measure economic policy and economic performance say that only about 20 percent of a nation’s prosperity is determined by fiscal policy.

Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of simple and fair tax systems such as the flat tax. Not only because I think we will get more growth, but also because I want to rein in the power of the IRS and reduce corruption in Washington.

So did the Republican wave in the mid-term elections make reform more likely?

Interestingly, the normally left-leaning Washington Post editorial page seems to have the right attitude about the issue.

There is broad agreement that the Internal Revenue Code is an unfair, inefficient mess and that the solution is to lower marginal rates and apply them to a broader base of income. A simpler code, purged of its market-distorting loopholes, would foster economic equality and economic growth, both of which the United States desperately needs.

So does the election make reform more likely?

Does the rise of a newly elected Republican Senate change that calculus? We’d say that it might… To be sure, Democrats want tax reform to raise money; Republicans want cuts. Still, a good deal of work has already been done on basic principles of a tax overhaul by Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress. …With a strong push from Mr. Obama, early in the new Congress, they might just be willing to finish the job their predecessors started.

I suspect the Washington Post is being far too optimistic about bipartisan compromise.

Not only would lawmakers have to overcome the big divide over whether reform should produce more revenue for Washington or less money for Washington, but there’s also a big divide on how to properly measure income.

And don’t forget that Obama (unlike the Washington Post) wants higher marginal tax rates because of his class-warfare ideology.

But maybe I’m just being a pessimist.

Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation, for instance, also offers a semi-optimistic assessment about the possibility of reform.

One of the most obvious questions from Tuesday’s election results is: what does this mean for tax reform? I think it certainly enhances the prospects of Congress and the president reaching a grand bargain on overhauling the tax code… Starting in January 2015, expect the new chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee begin holding a series of hearings on various aspects of reforming the tax system and the numerous “off-the-shelf” options available to them—such as the Flat Tax, X-Tax, FairTax, Cash Flow Tax, and the Camp draft. …Considering the energy to reform the tax code in both the House and Senate, it is quite possible that lawmakers could deliver a comprehensive tax reform bill to President Obama’s desk in 2015.

Scott makes several other points, including the long-overdue need to reform the biased revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

However, he also acknowledges that President Obama very likely would veto good tax reform. So even though our economy needs a less-destructive tax code, folks shouldn’t hold their breath expecting it to happen in the next two years.

I also addressed the topic as part of a recent forum at the Heritage Foundation, and I outlined several issues that have to be addressed if there is a serious effort to pursue tax reform. Here’s my part of the presentation.

But if you don’t want to watch me pontificate for ten-plus minutes, particularly since the video quality isn’t that great, here are my key points:

1. The tax base matters. If you don’t fix the double taxation of saving and investment, you may as well not even bother.

2. Bold beats timid. This is why I think a pure flat tax actually is more realistic than a proposal, such as Lee-Rubio, that makes compromises in hopes of being more politically realistic.

3. Highlight international competitiveness. Simply stated, globalization increases the benefits of good policy and increases the costs of bad policy.

4. International bureaucracies hinder good policy. Good tax reform is based on taxing income only once and only taxing income earned inside national borders, yet the OECD wants to impose global rules based on extra-territorial double taxation.

5. Good tax reform is good health reform. The biggest genuine loophole in the tax code is for fringe benefits, and this is a big reason for the third-party-payer crisis in healthcare.

6. Fix the biased scorekeeping of the JCT. The Joint Committee on Taxation uses methodology that it farther to the left than Paul Krugman.

7. Growth trumps fairness. The left will always use class-warfare arguments against good policy and the only effective counter-argument is that economic growth benefits all taxpayers.

One final point. Folks often ask me about plans – such as the Fair Tax – that would abolish the income tax and instead collect revenue with a national sales tax.

That approach is theoretically sound, but I have some practical concerns based on my distrust of politicians.

P.S. Here’s some humorous fallout from the election. Hitler learns that Democrats lost the Senate.

Hitler parody videos have appeared many places in recent years. Here are my favorites.

The head of the National Socialist Workers Party gets a double-dose – here and here – of bad news about Obamacare.

Here’s Hitler learning about Europe being downgraded.

And here’s the Fuehrer finding out that Scott Walker prevailed in his fight against government bureaucrats in Wisconsin.

P.P.S. I shared some cartoons before the election with the theme that Obama has been bad news for the Democratic Party.

Now that the election is over, that theme is even more appropriate.  Here’s Glenn McCoy’s assessment of the change Obama delivered.

Robert Ariail has a similar perspective.

In other words, as I suggested back in 2012, lots of non-leftist people should be happy that Obama got reelected.

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Some of my left-wing friends have groused that Democrats didn’t do well in the mid-term elections because they failed to highlight America’s strong economic performance.

I’m tempted to ask “what strong economic performance?!?” After all, median household income is lower than it was when Obama took office. And labor force participation rates have plummeted.

However, my leftist buddies have a point. America’s economy does look good when compared to Europe.

But why should that be the benchmark for success?

If you look at today’s growth numbers compared to data on historical growth in the United States, you get a much different picture. Here’s some of what Doug Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, wrote as part of a study for the National Chamber Foundation.

Over the entire postwar period from 1947 to 2013, the trend for economic growth in America was 3.3%. Unfortunately, looking at the period as a whole masks a marked deterioration in U.S. growth performance. Since 2007, the rate has downshifted to a mere 1.5%, which translates into a meager 0.7% in growth per capita in the United States. …At the current pace of growth, it will take 99 years for incomes to double. The poor U.S. growth performance is a threat to American families and their futures.

Here’s a chart from the report showing the 10-year rolling average of inflation-adjusted growth in the United States. As you can see, there was plenty of variation, but America usually enjoyed growth average a bit above 3 percent. But then, beginning about 2007/2008, that average dropped below 2 percent.

If you look at projections until 2024, you’ll notice that growth is projected to improve.

But you have to wonder if those projections will materialize.

And, even if they do, growth will only be about 2.5 percent annually, so we’ll still be enduring sub-par economic performance.

Moreover, it appears that those projections may be unrealistic. Here’s another chart from the National Chamber Foundation. It wasn’t in the study, but it’s worth including since it shows how the American economy has been routinely under-performing in recent years.

With this track record of anemic economic performance, it’s hard to have much sympathy for Democrats who thought they should be rewarded on election day. Doing better than France and Italy is not exactly a message that will resonate with voters, particularly when many people have been alive long enough to remember the good growth that America enjoyed during the Reagan and Clinton years, when policy was much more focused on small government and free markets.

But let’s set aside politics and consider the impact of growth on regular Americans rather than politicians. Holtz-Eakin explores some of the ramifications if the economy grows faster over the next decade.

Imagine that growth averages instead 3.3%—just one percentage point higher—for the next 10 years. …A full percentage point would eliminate $3 trillion in debt and slow the growth of the national debt. …Growing at a 3% rate means 1.2 million more jobs, and 1.3 million more if growth escalated to 3.5% for the next 10 years. …Three percent growth would mean another $4,200 in average incomes, while 3.5% growth would boost this an additional $4,500 to nearly $9,000. …faster economic growth would improve the future for the poor, the middle class, and the affluent alike.

By the way, it’s worth noting that faster growth leads to less debt mostly because the government collects a lot more tax revenue when people have higher incomes. And even a knee-jerk anti-taxer like me won’t complain if the IRS gets more money simply because people are more prosperous (though I reserve the right to then argue for lower tax rates).

Now let’s look at the most important question, which is to ask what policies will restore traditional American growth rates.

Doug has several suggestions, starting with entitlement reform.

The policy problem facing the United States is that spending rises above any reasonable metric of taxation for the indefinite future. ….Over the long term, the budget problem is primarily a spending problem, and correcting it requires reductions in the growth of large mandatory spending programs—entitlements like Social Security and federal health programs.

I certainly agree. Assuming, of course, that he wants good entitlement reform rather than gimmicks.

He also suggests tax reform.

The tax code is in need of dramatic improvements, including a modern international tax system, a lower corporation income tax rate, correspondingly lower rates on business income tax via so-called pass-thru entities, and broad elimination of tax preferences to preserve efficient allocation of investment… At the same time, one could improve work incentives by simplifying individual income tax rate brackets (recent proposals have suggested two brackets of 10% and 25%) and exclude a substantial portion of dividends and capital gains from taxation.

Once again, I agree. Though I reserve the right to change my mind and become a vociferous opponent if advocates decide that they wanted to finance these reforms with a value-added tax.

The study also includes suggestions for regulatory reform and other policy changes, but this post is too long already, so let’s now return to the central theme of economic growth.

Or, to be more accurate, the absence of economic growth. Because that’s the legacy of Obamanomics. We’re adopting European-style economic policies, so is it any surprise that our growth rates are declining in the direction of European-style stagnation?

And, to be fair, I’ll be the first to state that this bad trend began under Bush. Big government hinders prosperity, regardless of whether the policies are imposed by Republicans or Democrats.

Just as you get faster growth with good policy, even if those policies are implemented with a Democrat in the White House.

Simply stated, if you want better economic performance, there’s no substitute for free markets and small government.

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I’ve argued that we’ll get better government if we make it smaller.

And Mark Steyn humorously observed, “our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it.”

But can these assertions be quantified?

I had an email exchange last week with a gentleman from Texas who wanted to know if I had any research on the efficiency of government. He specifically wanted to know the “ratio of federal tax dollars collected to the actual delivery of the service.”

That was a challenge. If he simply wanted examples of government waste, I could have overloaded his inbox.

But he wanted an efficiency measure, which requires apples-to-apples comparisons to see which jurisdictions are delivering the most output (government services) compared to input (how much is spent on those services).

My one example was in the field of education, where I was ashamed to report that the United States spends more per student than any other nation, yet we get depressingly mediocre results (though that shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has looked at this jaw-dropping chart comparing spending and educational performance).

But his query motivated me to do some research and I found an excellent 2003 study from the European Central Bank. Authored by Antonio Afonso, Ludger Schuknecht, and Vito Tanzi, the study specifically examines the degree to which governments are providing value, and at what cost.

The objective of this paper is to provide a proxy for measuring public sector performance and efficiency. To do this we will put together a number of performance indicators in the government’s core functions. …We will set these indicators in relation to the costs of achieving them. We will, hence, derive simple performance and efficiency indicators for 1990 and 2000 for the public sectors of 23 industrialised OECD countries. …As a first step, we define 7 sub-indicators of public performance. The first four look at administrative, education, health, and public infrastructure outcomes. …The three other sub-indicators reflect the “Musgravian” tasks for government. These try to measure the outcomes of the interaction with and reactions to the market process by government. Income distribution is measured by the first of these indicators. An economic stability indicator illustrates the achievement of the stabilisation objective. The third indicator tries to assess allocative efficiency by economic performance.

Here’s a flowchart showing how they measured public sector performance.

I should explain, at this point, that I’m not a total fan of the PSP measure. Most of the indicators are fine, but some rub me the wrong way.

I think an even distribution of income is a nice theoretical concept, for instance, but I don’t think it can be mandated by government (unless the goal is to make everybody poor). Economic stability also isn’t necessarily a proper goal. I’d much rather live in a society that oscillates between 7 percent growth and -2 percent growth if the only other alternative was a society that had very stable 1 percent growth.

But enough nit-picking on my part. What did the study find when looking at public sector performance?

Indicators suggest notable but not extremely large differences in public sector performance across countries… Looking at country groups, small governments (industrialised countries with public spending below 40 % of GDP in 2000) on balance report better economic performance than big governments (public spending above 50 % of GDP) or medium sized governments (spending between 40 and 50 percent of GDP).

These are remarkable findings. Nations with small governments achieve better outcomes.

And that’s including some indicators that I don’t even think are properly defined.

But what’s most amazing if that the above findings are simply based on an examination of outputs.

So what happens if we also look at inputs so we can gauge the degree to which governments are delivering a lot of bang for the buck?

Public expenditure, expressed as a share of GDP, can be assumed to reflect the opportunity costs of achieving the public sector performance estimated in the previous section. …Public expenditures differ considerably across countries. Average total spending in the 1990s ranged from around 35 percent of GDP in the US to 64 percent of GDP in Sweden. The difference is mainly due to more or less extensive welfare programs. …we now compute indicators of Public Sector Efficiency (PSE). We weigh performance (as measured by the PSP indicators) by the amount of relevant public expenditure, PEX, that is used to achieve a given performance level.

And what did the experts discover? Here’s a chart showing the results.

There’s a lot of data, particularly if you’re looking at individual countries. But if you want the bottom-line results, look at the numbers circled in red.

As you can see, countries with small governments are far more productive and efficient.

We find significant differences in public sector efficiency across countries. Japan, Switzerland, Australia, the United States and Luxembourg show the best values for overall efficiency. Looking at country groups, “small” governments post the highest efficiency amongst industrialised countries. Differences are considerable as “small” governments on average post a 40 percent higher scores than “big” governments. …This illustrates that the size of government may be too large in many industrialised countries, with declining marginal products being rather prevalent.

The conclusion of the study makes some very important observations.

Unsurprisingly, countries with small public sectors report the “best” economic performance… Countries with small public sectors report significantly higher PSE indicators than countries with medium-sized or big public sectors. All these findings suggest diminishing marginal products of higher public spending. …Spending in big governments could be, on average, about 35 per cent lower to attain the same public sector performance.

Though I can’t help but wonder what the results would have been if Hong Kong and Singapore also were added to the mix.

After all, I don’t consider the United States to have a “small” government. Same for Japan, Switzerland, and Australia. Those are simply nations where government isn’t as big and bloated as it is in France, Italy, Sweden, and Greece.

Or imagine the results if you could measure public sector performance and public sector efficiency for the United States and other developed nations in the pre-World War I era, back when the burden of government spending averaged less than 10 percent of economic output.

I strongly suspect we got far more “bang for the buck” when government was genuinely small.

But I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, so let’s focus on the results of the study. The clear message is that big governments spend a lot more and deliver considerably less.

And that’s a very worrisome message since the burden of government is projected to increase substantially in the United States thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs.

So at the very least, we should do everything possible to reform those programs to keep America from becoming Greece.

And once we achieve that goal, then we can try to reduce the size and scope of government so we’re more like Hong Kong and Singapore., with only about 20 percent of GDP diverted to government.

Then, in my libertarian fantasy world, we can cut, prune, privatize, and eliminate until government once again only consumes about 10 percent of economic output.

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I’ve always objected when leftists engage in moral preening about how they supposedly are more compassionate.

Europeans statists, for instance, claim to be more compassionate because their governments have greater levels of coercive redistribution. But I ask them why they think it’s compassionate to give away other people’s money. Then I shame them by showing data on how Americans are far more generous in terms of trying to help others with their own money.

I have the same debate in America. Take the issues of unemployment benefits. My leftist friends say that compassionate people should favor extended benefits. To which I reply by asking them why it’s good to pay people to not work and assert instead that genuine compassion should be defined by policies that enable people to find jobs and become self reliant.

I raise this topic because the Pope recently made news by urging more compassion for the less fortunate, and he specifically said that raising the issue will lead some to think he’s a communist.

Here are some excerpts from a news report in the U.K.-based Independent.

In one his longest speeches as Pope, the Holy See outlined his views on a wide range of issues– from poverty and the injustices of unemployment to the need to protect the environment. …Anticipating how his letter would be received by his critics, Francis declared that “land, housing and work are increasingly unavailable to the majority’ of the world’s population,” but said “If I talk about this, some will think that the Pope is communist.” “They don’t understand that love for the poor is at the centre of the Gospel,” he said. “Demanding this isn’t unusual, it’s the social doctrine of the church.”

Several people have asked my opinion about what the Pope said.

My initial instinct was to be very critical. After all, various news reports interpreted the Pope’s statement as an attack on capitalism and an embrace of the welfare state.

But since I know that the establishment media is biased and would want to portray the Pope’s comments as being supportive of statism, I didn’t want to make any unwarranted assumptions. So I tracked down a transcript of the speech. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s only available (at least as of this writing) in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and French.

But with the help of Google Translate, I looked at what the Pope actually said. And if the translation software is accurate, I can now offer my opinion about the Pope’s views: To be succinct, I have no idea what he thinks. And if you want me to elaborate, all I can say is that he calls for lots of action to help the poor, but he doesn’t endorse government coercion to make it happen

On the other hand, he doesn’t say that government shouldn’t be involved. And the tone of the speech certainly seems left wing, but that may simply be a result of me hearing a lot of statists making similar remarks and then calling for government-coerced redistribution policies.

The bottom line, as I suggested above, is that the Pope may be wrong…or he may be right. Which seems inconsistent but accurate. After all, the Vatican sometimes has been very good on economic issues and at times very disappointing.

But I will say something definitive. If anybody, including the Pope, thinks that bigger government is the way to help the poor, they are very misguided.

I’ve already shared some powerful data to show that poverty was falling in America after World War II, but then the progress came to a halt once the federal government launched a “War on Poverty” and dramatically expanded the welfare state.

Let’s augment that data today with a specific look at what happened when the federal government decided to “help” folks in Appalachia. Here are some excerpts from a very compelling National Review column.

Appalachian whites suffer from many of the same social ills as working-class blacks: broken families, substance abuse, poor health, and high poverty. …Early anti-poverty efforts focused largely on the white population. …It was, as Ira Katznelson argued in an explosive book, a type of affirmative action — for white people. …Two federally chartered organizations — the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Johnson’s Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) — pumped millions of development dollars into predominantly white rural locales. …The aid came not just in the form of direct welfare payments, but also as government jobs. The country-music anthem “Song of the South” tells a familiar tale: “Papa got a job with the TVA; we bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet.” …From 1965 until 1981, when the federal government began to scrutinize the cash flowing to Appalachia, federal appropriation to the ARC exceeded $1 billion (in today’s dollars) every single year. Even today, Congress sends about $80 million to the ARC; no other regionally focused entity spends more. As late as 2000, Appalachians received more federal money per capita than average, despite their minimal cost of living and the low number of federal employees in the region.

So has all this federal largesse helped?

Well, not exactly.

…there are now precious few jobs in Tennessee valleys and too few drivers on those wide mountain roads. If Papa bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet, Junior is buying oxy or meth: West Virginia leads the nation in drug-overdose deaths, with Kentucky third and Tennessee eighth. …Today, the inheritors of Katznelson’s affirmative action for whites occupy the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. West Virginia, Kentucky, northern Georgia, and South Carolina all nabbed more than their fair share of federal aid, but now they are among the poorest parts of the country. …Residents of these states suffer the worst consequences. In many Appalachian counties, inhabitants can expect to live only 67 years, more than a decade less than the average American. …Alongside the grim statistics is a spiritual poverty more difficult to measure but easier to see. There’s the high-school teacher who has only once had a class without a pregnant student. …Young students in eastern Kentucky sometimes tell their teachers that they hope to “draw” when they grow up. But they’re not talking about a career as an artist; they’re talking about drawing a government check. These kids weren’t programmed like that at birth; they were taught something destructive by their communities.

There are some lessons to be learned.

…the failure of the effort gives us ample reason to question the wisdom of federally led development efforts no matter the intended beneficiaries. Government cannot create a sustainable economy, no matter how hard it tries. And traditional welfare, while defensible as a way of alleviating immediate deprivation, too often fails to place people on the road to self-sufficiency. …encouraging family stability — or at least not discouraging it through the tax code or needless incarceration — promotes upward mobility more effectively than transfer payments…if the failures of Appalachia are any guide, a narrower policy agenda might actually serve the poor — white and black alike.

Amen. If you want to help the poor, push for economic growth rather than redistribution.

There are even some honest liberals who now admit that big government promotes long-run dependency.

P.S. Since the first part of this post dealt with religion and compassion, it’s time to share Libertarian Jesus as well as the thoughts of Cal Thomas on whether Jesus was a socialist.

P.P.S. Since the last part of this post dealt with Appalachia, I guess it’s appropriate to share this redneck joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The VAT could never be increased.

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

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

Here are examples to show why I am concerned.

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

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

I agree in theory.

America’s corporate tax system is a nightmare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lower the corporate tax rate.

Replace depreciation with expensing.

Replace worldwide taxation with territorial taxation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The story says all the staff eventually were fired.

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

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

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

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

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

So where do all this tax money go?

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

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

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

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

So what’s the solution to this mess?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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