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Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

I’m currently in Asia, where I just finished a series of speeches about economic policy in China and Hong Kong.

These two jurisdictions offer very powerful lessons about the importance of economic policy.

Hong Kong is supposed to be Nirvana for libertarians. It holds the top spot in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. It has an optional flat tax. It has a private retirement system. And based on IMF data, government spending “only” consumes 18.4 percent of GDP (compared to 38.6 percent of economic output in the United States and 54.4 percent of GDP in France).

In reality, Hong Kong is far from perfect. It may have a lot more economic freedom than other jurisdictions, but there is widespread government intervention in certain sectors, such as housing. And while a flat tax and spending burden of 18.4 percent of GDP sound good, let’s not forget that the western world became rich in the 1800s when there was no income tax and the public sector consumed less than 10 percent of GDP.

But when you rank countries on the basis of economic freedom, you don’t compare jurisdictions to a nonexistent libertarian utopia. You compare them to other nations. So Hong Kong gets the top spot. And that’s paying dividends. When you look at long-run comparisons with other nations, Hong Kong has grown faster and become more prosperous.

So what about China? This wasn’t my first visit to the country, but it was the first time I went to Shanghai, and it is a very impressive place. It’s obvious that China has enjoyed a lot of growth in the past few decades.

But just as you shouldn’t judge the United States by a visit to Wall Street, it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions about China after a few days in Shanghai.

Indeed, average living standards for all of China are still far below American levels. Moreover, if you look at the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, China still has a lot of room for improvement. It ranks 123rd out of 152 nations, which is not only far below France (#40), but also Greece (#85), Haiti (#98), and Russia (#101).

That being said, China’s score is 6.22 out of 10, which is a vast improvement compared to where it was in 1980, when it had a score of only 4.00.

This has led to some wonderful outcomes. This chart (h/t: Mark Perry) shows the share of the world’s population living on less than $1 per day (blue line) and the share of East Asia’s population with the same level of deprivation (red line). A big reason the red line has fallen so dramatically is that severe poverty in China has largely disappeared.

The real question for China is the degree to which there will be ongoing improvement.

I think it would be good if China became more like Hong Kong and that this led to much higher living standards. Heck, I’d be happy if China became more like Taiwan or South Korea, both of which have become relatively rich nations by moving substantially in the direction of free markets and small government.

But I don’t think this will happen. In one of my speeches, I posed a series of questions, followed by some less-than-optimistic answers.

Is the financial system weak? (because of too much state control over capital flows and investment)

Is there too much cronyism? (with friends and relatives getting favorable access to business)

Will China’s demographics be a problem? (the one-child policy is not just tyrannical, but it also means China’s population is aging)

Is rapid growth sustainable? (in the absence of reforms to boost economic freedom)

Have stimulus plans led to malinvestment? (such as ghost cities and other boondoggles)

Since economists are lousy when they make predictions, it’s quite possible that I’m wrong and my pessimism is unwarranted. For the sake of the Chinese people, let’s hope so.

And what about Hong Kong? I suspect they’ll remain the freest economy in the world. After all, why wreck a good thing?

Then again, the United States was the world’s 3rd-freest economy as recently as 2001. Now, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, we’ve plummeted to 17 in the ranking.

But I doubt Hong Kong policy makers would be equally foolish.

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Over the past several years, I’ve repeatedly argued that you get more unemployment when the government pays people to be unemployed. But I’m not just relying on theory. I’ve cited both anecdotes and empirical research to bolster my case.

You won’t be surprised to learn that many politicians have a different perspective. They say it is compassionate to provide unemployment insurance benefits. And they say it is cruel and heartless to put a time limit on those payments.

And if you believe Nancy Pelosi, unemployment handouts actually are good for the economy!

You might think this is one of these never-to-be-resolved Washington debates, but we actually have two natural experiments over the past year that show one side was right and the other side was wrong.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, John Hood of the North Carolina-based John Locke Foundation describes what happened when his state decided to limit unemployment benefits.

Here are the changes that were made.

A year ago, North Carolina became the first state in the nation to exit the federal government’s extended-benefits program for the unemployed. …Gov. Pat McCrory and the state legislature…reduced the amount and duration of unemployment-insurance benefits, which had been higher in North Carolina than in most states. As a result the state lost its eligibility to participate in the extended-benefits program on July 1, 2013. …liberal activists pounced. …media outlets excoriated North Carolina for ending extended benefits. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called it a “war on the unemployed.”

And here are the results.

North Carolina didn’t descend into the Dickensian nightmare critics predicted. For the last six months of 2013, it was the only state where jobless recipients weren’t eligible for extended benefits. Yet during that period North Carolina had one of the nation’s largest improvements in labor-market performance and overall economic growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of payroll jobs in North Carolina rose by 1.5% in the second half of 2013, compared with a 0.8% rise for the nation as a whole. Total unemployment in the state dropped by 17%, compared with the national average drop of 12%. The state’s official unemployment rate fell to 6.9% in December 2013 from 8.3% in June, while the nationwide rate fell by eight-tenths of a point to 6.7%.

But we didn’t just have a state-based experiment. Hood explains that the same thing happened on the national level six months later. Congress rejected Obama’s call for another extension of benefits.

So what happened?

Still not convinced that leaving the extended-benefits program encouraged both job creation and job acceptance? As of Jan. 1, 2014, the extended-benefits program expired nationwide. Yet there has been no sudden exodus of discouraged workers to the fringes of the national economy. Both job creation and household employment are up. The nation’s employment-population ratio was 58.9% in May, up from 58.6% in December.

This is a powerful point.

We may not have a strong job market, but the numbers definitely have improved since the start of the year.

There’s actually an important lesson here. You don’t need perfect policy to get better performance. The private economy will generate growth so long as it has some breathing room.

Heck, sometimes the absence of bad policy is enough to boost economic performance. The post-2010 gridlock didn’t lead to a lot of good policies, but it did end the threat of major new statist initiatives from the Obama White House. And that was enough, in my humble opinion, to give us better numbers.

But better numbers are not the same as impressive numbers. This is still the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression. So while it’s good to have a bit of improvement, we should be dissatisfied until we at least get back on the long-run trendline for 3 percent average real growth.

And what needs to happen to give us that kind of growth? The answer is simple: Free markets and small government.

P.S.  Since the main point of today’s column is unemployment insurance, let’s close with some great cartoons on that topic from Michael Ramirez, Robert Gorrell, and Chuck Asay, as well as a superb Wizard-of-Id parody.

P.P.S. On a separate topic, here’s a superb video of a 1948 cartoon comparing free markets to the poisonous ideology of “isms” such as communism, fascism, and socialism.

Very well done, particularly considering that it’s almost 70 years old. And if you want to see how economic growth can make a huge difference over that amount of time, check out this comparison of Argentina and Hong Kong.

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Back in 2010, I shared a remarkable chart showing how quickly economic output doubles in a fast-growth economy, but it also showed how long it takes for GDP to expand if an economy only grows 1 percent or 2 percent per year.

My main message was that nations should follow good policy because:

…even modest differences in economic growth can have a big impact on relative prosperity with a couple of decades.

But what’s really astounding – in a bad way – is that there used to be no growth. I recently posted a remarkable video from Learn Liberty that showed how the world was mired in poverty for century after century until growth exploded around 1800.

Now Don Boudreaux has a similar must-watch video for Marginal Revolution University.

The moral of the story is that poverty is, or at least was, the natural state of humanity.

But then something remarkable happened. The power of government was constrained and the vitality of markets was unleashed. The rest, as they say, is history.

And if you want to see a remarkable case study, the Fund for American Studies has its own great video showing how one nation went from misery to prosperity in just 100 or so years.

And to augment that video, here’s a chart from Wikipedia.

Just something to have in the back of your mind when some statist naively tells you the economy is a fixed pie and that successful entrepreneurs only become rich by making other people poor.

That’s simply not true.

Actually, allow me to revise my remarks. In the left’s fantasy world of taxes, bailouts, handouts, and cronyism, there is no growth and some people are able to use government coercion to become rich by ripping off others.

But in all likelihood, this satirical image shows the true impact of statism and redistribution.

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Why are some nations rich and other nations poor? What has enabled some nations to escape poverty while others continue to languish?

And if we want to help poor nations prosper, what’s the right recipe?

Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m tempted to say a flat tax and small government are an elixir for prosperity, but those policies are just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

A country also needs sensible monetary policy, open trade, modest regulation, and rule of law. In other words, you need small government AND free markets.

But even that doesn’t really tell us what causes growth.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of capital formation and shared a remarkable chart showing how workers earn more when the capital stock is larger (which is why we should avoid punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested).

But that also doesn’t really answer the question. After all, if a larger capital stock was all that mattered, doesn’t that imply that we could get prosperity if government simply mandated more saving and investing?

There’s something else that’s necessary. Something perhaps intangible, but critically important.

Deirdre McCloskey, in a video for Learn Liberty, says that ideas and innovation drive growth.

This is a great video for many reasons, but two points strike me as very important.

First, Deirdre is saying that economic liberty matters, but that modern prosperity also was enabled by a change in the culture. People began to appreciate and respect entrepreneurs. You could call this a form of social capital (and I think such cultural norms are critically important for a thriving society).

And entrepreneurs are the innovators who figure out ways of mixing capital and labor in ways that generate ever-larger amounts of economic output, so they play a critical role in boosting prosperity.

Second, she reminds us that poverty is the normal human condition and that the modern era truly is an amazing change. Indeed, I was so shocked by her numbers that I had to investigate to see if she was exaggerating.

She wasn’t. Using the Angus Maddison data set, I looked to see if Deirdre was right about world prosperity resembling a hockey stick.

Sure enough, there was an amazing increase in prosperity beginning about 1800, just as she explained. Indeed, she could have said that people lived on less than $2 per day for much of recorded history.

Here’s the data for world per-capita economic output over the past two thousand years.

Modern Prosperity

Wow. Unlike the make-believe hockey stick used by global warming alarmists, this one is real. And it shows that the economy definitely isn’t a fixed pie if the right policies – and the right attitudes – prevail.

So what’s the moral of the story?

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that we should respect and appreciate entrepreneurs and other wealth creators.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where politicians would like us to believe that the economic pie is fixed and that it’s the job of government to re-slice the pie with class-warfare tax policy and lots of redistribution.

But when they re-slice the pie, they also change the size of the pie. And not in a good way.

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In previous columns, I’ve explained why a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And I’ve also pontificated on why leftists are wrong to pursue policies of coerced equality.

So it goes without saying that I’m a big fan of a new Wall Street Journal column by John Steele Gordon.

He writes that the anti-wealth ideology animating the political elite is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how large fortunes are generated.

He starts by pointing out that many of today’s richest people earned their money as a result of the microprocessor, a technological development that has dramatically improved the lives of ordinary people.

The French economist Thomas Piketty, in his new book “Capital in the 21st Century,” calls for an 80% tax on incomes over $250,000 and a 2% annual tax on net worth in order to prevent an excessive concentration of wealth. That is a monumentally bad idea. The great growth of fortunes in recent decades is not a sinister development. Instead it is simply the inevitable result of an extraordinary technological innovation, the microprocessor… Seven of the 10 largest fortunes in America today were built on this technology, as have been countless smaller ones. …no one is poorer because Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, et al., are so much richer. These new fortunes came into existence only because the public wanted the products and services—and lower prices—that the microprocessor made possible.

He then points out that this is actually a consistent pattern through history.

New technologies make us better off, and also create riches for those who most effectively bring those new developments to consumers.

Whenever a new technology comes along that greatly reduces the cost of a fundamental input to the economy, or makes possible what had previously been impossible, there has always been a flowering of great new fortunes—often far larger than those that came before. …The full-rigged ship that Europeans developed in the 15th century, for instance, was capable of reaching the far corners of the globe. …The Dutch exploited the new trade so successfully that the historian Simon Schama entitled his 1987 book on this period of Dutch history “The Embarrassment of Riches.” …Before James Watt’s rotary steam engine, patented in 1781, only human and animal muscles, water mills and windmills could supply power. But with Watt’s engine it was suddenly possible to input vast amounts of very-low-cost energy into the economy. Combined with the factory system of production, the steam engine sparked the Industrial Revolution, causing growth—and thus wealth as well as job creation—to sharply accelerate. By the 1820s so many new fortunes were piling up that the English social critic John Sterling was writing, “Wealth! Wealth! Wealth! Praise to the God of the 19th century! The Golden Idol! The mighty Mammon!” In 1826 the young Benjamin Disraeli coined the word millionaire to denote the holders of these new industrial fortunes. …before the railroad, moving goods overland was extremely, and often prohibitively, expensive. The railroad made it cheap. Such fortunes as those of the railroad-owning Vanderbilts, Goulds and Harrimans became legendary for their size. …Many of the new fortunes in America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century were based on petroleum, by then inexpensive and abundant thanks to Edwin Drake’s drilling technique. Steel, suddenly made cheap thanks to the Bessemer converter, could now have a thousand new uses. Oil and steel, taken together, made the automobile possible. That produced still more great fortunes, not only in car manufacturing, but also in rubber, glass, highway construction and such ancillary industries.

Gordon then concludes by warning against class-warfare tax policy, since it would discourage the risk-taking that necessarily accompanies big investments in new technology.

Any attempt to tax away new fortunes in the name of preventing inequality is certain to have adverse effects on further technology creation and niche exploitation by entrepreneurs—and harm job creation as a result. The reason is one of the laws of economics: Potential reward must equal the risk or the risk won’t be taken. And the risks in any new technology are very real in the highly competitive game that is capitalism. In 1903, 57 automobile companies opened for business in this country, hoping to exploit the new technology. Only the Ford Motor Co. survived the Darwinian struggle to succeed. As Henry Ford’s fortune grew to dazzling levels, some might have decried it, but they also should have rejoiced as he made the automobile affordable for everyman.

My only complaint about Gordon’s column is that he didn’t have the space to emphasize a related point.

All of the large fortunes that he discusses were not accumulated at the expense of those with less money.

In other words, the economy was not a fixed pie. Capitalism made everybody better off. Some just got richer faster than other people got richer.

P.S. I wrote the other day about the VA scandal and emphasized that the problem was not inadequate spending.

I want to revisit the issue because Professor Glenn Reynolds makes a very important point about greed in a column for USA Today.

People sometimes think that government or “nonprofit” operations will be run more honestly than for-profit businesses because the businesses operate on the basis of “greed.” But, in fact, greed is a human characteristic that is present in any organization made up of humans. It’s all about incentives. And, ironically, a for-profit medical system might actually offer employees less room for greed than a government system. That’s because VA patients were stuck with the VA. If wait times were long, they just had to wait, or do without care. In a free-market system, a provider whose wait times were too long would lose business, and even if the employees faked up the wait-time numbers, that loss of business would show up on the bottom line. That would lead top managers to act, or lose their jobs. In the VA system, however, the losses didn’t show up on the bottom line because, well, there isn’t one. Instead, the losses were diffused among the many patients who went without care — visible to them, but not to the people who ran the agency, who relied on the cooked-books numbers from their bonus-seeking underlings. …that’s the problem with socialism. The absence of a bottom line doesn’t reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing.

Amen.

Greed is always with us. The question is whether greed is channeled in productive ways. In a free market, greedy people can only become rich by providing the rest of us with valuable goods and services.

In statist systems, by contrast, greedy people manipulate coercive government policies in order to obtain unearned wealth.

And that choice has big consequences for the rest of us, as illustrated by this satirical image.

P.S. Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail that sums up how Washington will probably deal with the mess at the Veterans Administration.

Sort of reminds me of this Gary Varvel cartoon.

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I haven’t spent much time writing about Thomas Piketty’s inequality book for the simple reason that my goal is economic liberty, not equality.

That being said, I think that Piketty is fundamentally misguided even if the goal is helping the poor. Simply stated, long-run growth is the best way of reducing poverty and boosting living standards. Piketty, by contrast, focuses on redistribution – even though this would require punitive taxation, thus undermining growth and hurting the less fortunate.

This is very obvious when we look at economic performance in market-oriented nations and compare it to economic performance in countries where government plays a bigger role.

Most recently, I showed how Poland is out-pacing Ukraine.

I’ve compared South Korea and North Korea.

The data for Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela is very powerful.

I’ve shown how Singapore has eclipsed Jamaica.

And we can see that Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

As I often remark in my speeches, I’d much rather be a poor person in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore rather than in a “compassionate” country such as France.

France might give me lots of handouts, but I’d remain poor. In a free-market society, by contrast, I could climb out of poverty.

Anyhow, let’s return to Piketty’s thesis about the rich benefiting from capital accumulation. All sorts of scholars have called into question his theoretical model and his empirical data, but I don’t even care if Piketty’s right. In a free society, the worst thing that happens is that the rich get richer faster than the poor get richer.

That’s why we should concentrate on what we can do to boost growth.

And there is one economic reform that is good for growth, but would be especially beneficial for lower-income people. Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation, in a column for Forbes, makes a powerful case for Social Security reform.

He starts with the essential insight that policy makers should focus on helping the poor, not penalizing success.

French economist Thomas Piketty wants to attack the issue of income inequality by redistributing the wealth of the highest earners. Wouldn’t a better solution be to increase the wealth of the lowest earners?

Merrill says we should make it easier for the overall population to become capitalists.

…instead of taxing that success even more than we already do, which discourages capital development and investment, Washington can help lower- and middle-income workers acquire capital so they too can partake in those higher returns.

He then points out that workers are forced to participate in a Social Security system that imposes very high taxes in exchange for rather meager benefits.

Eugene Steuerle and Caleb Quakenbush of the Urban Institute publish an annual estimate of how much workers at different income levels and marriage status pay into Social Security and Medicare and how much they can expect to receive in benefits. Their 2013 report estimates that a single male worker earning the average income of $44,800 (in 2013 dollars) turning 65 in 2015 can expect to receive $287,000 in Social Security benefits. However, that worker paid in $337,000, for a net loss of about $50,000. Both estimates assume a growth rate of 2 percent, which happens to match Piketty’s projection of long-term GDP growth. That disparity between contributions and benefits declines significantly for women, who tend to live longer. A single female worker would have paid in the same amount, $337,000, but could expect to receive $314,000.

Now we get to his proposed reform.

…what if workers were able to put that same amount of money—their 12.4 percent Social Security (FICA) tax; $5,555 in Stererle’s example—into a personal retirement account that could be invested in broad-based equities?

With personal retirement accounts, ordinary workers can generate big nest eggs.

Using an interest calculator, a $5,555 annual contribution over 40 years at 6 percent grows to about $970,000. Factor in that wealth and income inequality largely evaporates. …if the left is really concerned about income inequality, the best way to end it is wealth creation, not redistribution. Replacing Social Security’s financially struggling system with personal retirement accounts would create real wealth for millions of working Americans.

As you can imagine, I heartily concur. Here’s the video I narrated on the topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

By the way, if you think the stock market is too risky, particularly after the recent financial crisis, one of my Cato colleagues produced a thorough study showing that people who retired right after the market fell still would have been better off with personal accounts.

P.S. If you want to understand why class-warfare tax policy will backfire, another one of my colleagues dismantled the work of Piketty and others.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though I’m not sure we should laugh considering that tens of millions of Americans will suffer when the system no longer can afford to pay promised benefits.

P.P.P.S. Obama’s supposed solution would be an even bigger move in the wrong direction.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but definitely not least, watch Margaret Thatcher destroy the left’s position on income distribution.

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I’m in Vancouver, Canada, for the biennial meeting of the World Taxpayers Associations.

I gave a speech on why tax competition is a valuable force to constrain the greed of the political class, but warned the audience that high-tax governments and international bureaucracies are using financial protectionism to coerce low-tax jurisdictions into weakening their good policies.

But regular readers know that I pontificate far too often on that topic, so today’s column is instead about a presentation by Michael Walker, who was the founding Executive Director at Canada’s Fraser Institute.

Michael’s great contribution to the world was the creation of the Economic Freedom of the World Index, which he developed working with scholars such as Milton Friedman.

I’ve cited the EFW Index many times, particularly to bemoan how America’s score has deteriorated during the Bush-Obama years.

Today, though, we’re going to look at global trends in economic freedom, using some of the slides from Michael’s presentation. And the good news, as you can see from the green line in this first chart, is that there was a significant increase in economic freedom between 1980 and 2010.

EFW Economic Freedom(1)

The blue line, by the way, shows how much nations differed. A higher blue line means more variation (in other words, some nations with very good scores and some with very bad scores), while a lower blue lines means that nations are converging.

To really understand what’s happening, however, it’s important to look at the component parts of the EFW Index. As I wrote back in 2012:

…a country’s economic performance is governed by a wide range of policies.

Indeed, the research suggests that there are five big factors that determine prosperity, and they’re all equally important.

Rule of law and property rights

Sound money

Fiscal policy

Trade policy

Regulatory policy

So let’s look at what’s been happening in each of these areas. Keep in mind, as we look at the following charts, that 10 is the best score.

We’ll start with fiscal policy. As you can see, policy was moving in the wrong direction from 1970 to 1985, then we got two decades of pro-growth changes, but now policy is again trending in the wrong direction.

EFW Size of Government

We’re still better off than we were 30 years ago, but I’m afraid scores will continue to decline because tax rates are now heading in the wrong direction and the burden of government spending is rising in many nations.

Now let’s look at the regulatory data. The trend may not be dramatic, but it is positive. The green line is gradually rising, showing that governments are easing red tape and reducing intervention.

EFW Regulation

Moreover, there’s no sign that policy is moving in the wrong direction, at least on a global basis.

Shifting to trade, we have perhaps the biggest success story in global economic policy. Between 1980 and 200, there was a dramatic increase in the freedom to trade.

EFW Free Trade

We also see some progress on monetary policy, both in that it stopped moving in the wrong direction in 1975 and then moved in the right direction beginning in 1995.

EFW Sound Money

Though I confess some skepticism about this measure. Central banks have created a lot of problems with excess liquidity, but they generally escape blame so long as easy-money policies don’t result in higher consumer prices.

This brings us to our final category. Property rights and the rule of law are very important for market economies, but unfortunately we’ve seen no long-run improvement in these key measures. Positive change between 1975 and 1995 is offset by movement in the wrong direction at other times.

EFW Rule of Law

Indeed, if we look at this next chart, which measures the distribution of scores for each category in 2010, you’ll see that nations get their lowest scores on rule of law and property rights.

EFW Five Factors

This aggregate data, while very useful, does not tell the entire story. If you look at various regions, you’ll discover that “first world” nations tend to get decent scores on rule of law and property rights while developing nations get poor scores.

Indeed, this is why the blue line in the rule of law/property rights chart is so much higher than it is for other categories. Simply stated, this is one area where there hasn’t been much convergence.

Which is a big reason why many developing nations are economic laggards, even if they get reasonably good scores in other categories.

Here’s a final chart that emphasizes that point. It shows nations that get the best scores on the size of government (left column), but then shows that many of them get very poor scores for rule of law and property rights (right column).

The fiscal burden of government is very low in nations such as Lebanon and Bangladesh, for instance, but these jurisdictions don’t attract a lot of investment or enjoy much growth because government fails to provide the right environment.

EFW Size of Government vs Rule of Law Challenge

All of which shows why Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland deserve special praise. They have strong rule of law and property rights while simultaneously maintaining reasonable limits on the fiscal burden of the public sector. No wonder they are ranked first, second, and fourth in overall economic freedom.

And it’s worth noting that a few other nations deserve honorable mention for getting good fiscal policy scores while doing a decent job on the rule of law and property rights, specifically Bahamas (#39), Chile (#11), Mauritius (#6), and United Arab Emirates (#5).

By the way, the United States only got a 6.4 for size of government and a 7.1 for rule of law and property rights. No wonder America is only #17 in the overall rankings.

Back in 2000, when the United States ranked #3, we got a 7.0 for size of government and a 9.2 for rule of law and property rights.

So now you now know why I complain so much about Bush and Obama. And you especially know why I’m so concerned about the erosion of the rule of law under Obama.

P.S. A Spanish academic has developed some fascinating historical data on non-fiscal economic freedom, which is very helpful in understanding how the western world has managed to remain somewhat prosperous even though the fiscal burden of government increased dramatically in the 20th Century.

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Back in 2011, I shared a video making the moral argument that adults should be allowed to buy and sell kidneys.

After all, if one person is made better off by selling a kidney and another person is made better off by buying a kidney, why should the rest of us be allowed to ban that voluntary exchange?

In a new video looking at anti-market bias, Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University uses kidney sales as an example of how capitalism yields great results.

So why is it against the law to buy and sell kidneys, particularly when the actual buyers and sellers – by definition – both benefit?

In 2010, I speculated that a knee-jerk fixation on the wrong kind of equality might be part of the answer. The current system, with long waiting lines and thousands of needless deaths, may be bad, but at least rich people suffer just as much as poor people.

…it is perplexing that statists are so viscerally opposed. The only interpretation I can come up with – which I admit is very uncharitable – is that they are willing to let people die because they are myopically fixated on equity. No system is acceptable, in their minds, unless it results in equal death rates by income class and equal kidney donations by income class.

In reality, a free market would benefit both rich and poor. Not only would some poor people get a lot of money by selling their spare kidneys, but poor people on dialysis would be far more likely to get transplants since private charities would be able to raise money to save their lives.

P.S. Professor Caplan is the creator of the “libertarian purity quiz.” I only got 94 out of 160 possible points, which doesn’t sound that impressive, but it was enough to get me classified as “hard core.”

P.P.S. In my posts about unemployment benefits, I’ve argued that there’s a big downside to giving people money on the condition that they don’t have a job. Simply stated, you trap people in unemployment.

And I’ve cited lots of academic evidence to support that hypothesis. And for those who prefer anecdotes, check out this story from Michigan and this example from Ohio.

I’ve even cited left-wing economists who admit that unemployment benefits translate into more joblessness. And this Michael Ramirez cartoon on the issue is both amusing and persuasive.

But one thing I haven’t done is share data from actual people without jobs. So here’s some data from a national scientific poll of unemployed Americans.

…80 percent agree that it “is giving me time to find the right position.” …82 percent of those receiving benefits said if their unemployment compensation were to run out prior to their finding a job, they would “search harder and wider for a job.” …48 percent agree that they “haven’t had to look for work as hard” thanks to unemployment compensation.

Gee, what a shocker. Endless unemployment benefits enable people to be less diligent about finding work. That may not be a big problem if people are out of the labor force for two months. But when politicians keep extending jobless benefits, you create permanent unemployment.

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While theory is important, I suspect most people are more likely to be convinced by real-world evidence.

This is why I frequently compare nations when arguing that free markets and small government are the best way of generating prosperity.

Simply stated, I want people to understand that economic liberty produces faster growth, and that faster growth can make a huge difference, particularly when looking at several decades of data.

Most recently, I showed how Poland is out-pacing Ukraine.

I’ve compared South Korea and North Korea.

The data for Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela is very powerful.

I’ve shown how Singapore has eclipsed Jamaica.

Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

After looking at these examples, you’ll understand why I’m very happy to share this new video from one of Sweden’s free-market think tanks. It looks at how nations with more economic freedom get better results.

And I particularly like the comparisons of nations that are moving in the right direction versus those that are degenerating toward more statism.

Another good part of the video is that it shows how the European Union could have a very free economy if all nations simply copied the European nation with the best policy in the five major categories of economic liberty (rule of law, fiscal policy, trade, regulation, and monetary policy).

And it turns out that Denmark is the best in three of the categories (rule of law, trade, and regulation), which is why that nation manages to remain very competitive even though it does very poorly in fiscal policy.

The moral of the story is that trendlines matter. Better policy leads to faster growth, and sustained faster growth is immensely important to long-run living standards.

This appreciation for trendlines is also why I’m so fixated on controlling the long-run growth of government spending.

Indeed, my Golden Rule is a combination of two trend lines. If government spending grows at a slow rate and the private economy grows at a rapid rate, that’s a wonderful combination that could cure the fiscal nightmare of any nation. Even France and Greece.

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In the battle of ideas, supporters of capitalism and economic liberty sometimes face an uphill climb because of a perception of heartlessness.

When companies get in trouble, we’re the mean people who don’t want to give bailouts.

When workers are laid off, we’re the Scrooges who don’t want perpetual unemployment checks.

And when some workers aren’t earning much money, we’re the scoundrels who don’t want to boost the minimum wage.

Our “problem” is that we care about good results rather than good intentions. Motivated by the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat, we look at indirect effects and long-run consequences. And this is why we routinely reject statist proposals.

The challenge, of course, is educating others so that they understand that small government and free markets are the best way of providing more opportunity and better lives – particularly for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

This is why I was very happy to see this new video from Learn Liberty. It basically explains the process of “creative destruction” to show how progress and prosperity are undermined when politicians try to “protect jobs.”

I also like the video because it makes the point that our living standards are the result of how much we produce, not the number of jobs.

In other words, we don’t want people employed for the sake of being employed. We want them doing things that add value to the economy.

government-job-cartoonThat’s one of the reasons why many government jobs are wasteful. People who could be creating wealth are instead imposing costs.

But let’s shift back to the topic of “creative destruction.” In my speeches, I’ll sometimes make the point that progress can be painful. Consider these examples:

The invention of the light bulb was very bad news for the candle making sector.

The invention of the automobile was a grim development for the horse and buggy industry.

The invention of the personal computer devastated typewriter companies.

In every case, these inventions made society much richer, but they also caused the destruction of thousands of jobs and bankrupted many firms. These were very real tragedies for certain people.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, we know that it was good that this “creative destruction” took place. We even know that the descendents of the candle makers, buggy builders, and typewriter producers are better off because our economy is so much more productive.

Just as the video explains that we’re much better off because 90 percent of the population no longer has to work on farms.

Yet we’re still faced with the paradox that supporters of capitalism are called heartless even though we’re the ones that support policies that create wealth and lift people from poverty.

P.S. On a separate topic, I criticized the World Bank in 2012 for putting together a “tax effort” scorecard that gave nations higher scores for heavier tax burdens.

Well, international bureaucracies must be in love with higher taxes (probably because they’re exempt from having to pay tax) and you won’t be surprised to learn that the International Monetary Fund has now published a similar report.

The nation that gets the highest score (i.e., the nation with the worst tax system) is Italy, with an average of almost 99 percent, though France (97 percent) is probably very envious and I wouldn’t be surprised if they asked for a recount.

The nation with the lowest “tax effort” is Guinea-Bissau, with a “failing” grade of about 32. I doubt this means they have a good tax system. I suspect it simply means nobody complies and the government doesn’t expend much “effort” on trying to collect.

Among developed nations, Singapore got the lowest score, with an average of 38. Which means, of course, that they have a very good tax system.

Though there were no grades for places such as Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands, so the report is not complete.

The United States, for what it’s worth, got a 70. So we’re not nearly as bad as countries such as France and Italy. But we’re much more onerous that Singapore.

We also have a higher “tax effort” than officially communist nations such as China and Vietnam. Gee, I guess that means we can be proud of the IRS, huh?

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Using a comparison of Jamaica and Singapore, I recently argued that growth should trump inequality.

Simply stated, a growing economic pie is much better for poor people that incentive-sapping redistribution programs that trap people in dependency.

In other words, nations with smaller government and less intervention produce better results than nations with bloated governments and lots of meddling.

You see that relationship by comparing Jamaica and Singapore, and you also see it when examining other nations.

This is fresh in my mind since I just spoke at the Kyiv stop on the Free Market Road Show.

I told the audience about the reforms that Ukraine needs to strengthen economic performance, but I probably should have simply read what one expert recently wrote about Ukraine and Poland.

Here’s some of what Allister Heath had to say for London’s City A.M.

In the dreadful communist days, Ukraine and Poland used to be equally poor. The former was part of the Soviet Union, and Poland was one of the USSR’s satellite nations, belonging to the Warsaw pact. In 1990, both countries had roughly the same GDP per capita – their economies were eerily similar. A quarter of a century later, everything has changed… It’s a tale of two economic models, and a central reason why Russia – a waning world power desperate to cling on to its historic zone of influence – has felt able to bully Ukraine in such a shocking way. …The big difference is that Poland has pursued free-market policies, reducing the size of its state, introducing a strict rule of law and respect for property rights, privatising in a sensible way, avoiding the kleptocracy and corruption that has plagued regimes in Kiev, and embracing as much as possible Western capitalism.

Allister cites World Bank data to state that “Poland’s GDP per capita is now 3.3 times greater than Ukraine’s.”

I prefer the Angus Maddison data, which doesn’t show quite the same divergence. But if you look at the chart, you still see an amazing change in relative living standards in the two nations.

Ukraine v Poland

These numbers are shocking. Even with the Maddison data, Poland quickly passed Ukraine after the collapse of communism and now enjoys more than twice the level of per-capita output (and would probably have about three times as much per-capita GDP if the numbers were updated through 2014).

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that Poland is a pro-market paradise. As Allister explains, it’s not exactly Hong Kong or Singapore.

Poland’s tax system remains far too oppressive, the red tape is too strict and the bureaucracy still too redolent of the bad old days, the labour market is excessively regulated, parts of the population rejects elements of the new order and the country remains relatively poor, which explains why so many of its most ambitious folk have moved to the UK and elsewhere. But Poland has been one of the great success stories of the post-communist era, whereas Ukraine, tragically, has been one of the great failures.

To add some details, Freedom of the World ranks Poland as the 59th-freest economy in the world.

That’s not great, but it’s a lot better than Ukraine, which ranks only 126 out of 152 nations (behind even Russia!).

More important, Poland’s overall score was only 3.90 in 1990 and now it is up to 7.20.

Ukraine, by contrast, has only climbed to 6.16.

As I’ve already stated, their big problem is Putinomics. If they want to catch the West, they need free markets and small government.

P.S. If you examine the five major factors in Freedom of the World, Ukraine does best in the fiscal policy measure (in part because it has a flat tax!), but it has a horrible grade for monetary policy and doesn’t do well in the other areas.

P.P.S. On the issue of ethnic division in the country, Ukraine also would benefit from Swiss-style decentralization.

P.P.P.S. This chart comparing Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela also should be very persuasive to every open-minded person.

P.P.P.P.S. I visited the Maidan Square, which is where the recent revolution took place.

Here’s one of the main buildings that caught fire.

IMG-20140430-00301

Here are pictures of those killed by (presumably) government snipers.

IMG-20140430-00299

And here’s yours truly playing tourist.

IMG-20140430-00303

It’s only an armored personnel carrier, but it got me thinking that maybe I should copy other Americans and get my own tank?

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There’s a new book by French economist Thomas Piketty, called “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,”  that supposedly identifies the Achilles’ Heel of the market economy.

Piketty argues that the rate of return to capital is higher than the economy-wide growth rate and that this will lead to untenable inequality as the rich grab a larger and larger share of the pie.

The solution, he claims, is confiscatory tax rates.

I’m not impressed.

Garett Jones of George Mason University has a very good review that casts doubt on Piketty’s hypothesis, but I also think Margaret Thatcher pre-debunked (if I’m allowed to make up a word) Piketty in this classic video from the House of Commons.

Simply stated, if you care about those with lower incomes, your goal should be faster growth.

If the economy is more prosperous, that means a rising tide that will lift all boats.

Piketty’s class-warfare prescription, by contrast, almost certainly will hurt the poor because of anemic growth, largely because higher tax rates will discourage productive behavior and exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment.

This means less capital and there should be no doubt about the strong link between the capital stock and worker compensation.

But I sometimes worry that this type of analysis sounds too theoretical for a lot of people and that perhaps it would be helpful to offer some tangible real-world evidence.

So it is quite fortuitous that I’m currently in Lithuania as part of the Free Market Road Show and that one of the participants is John Charalambakis, who teaches at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

In discussing the importance of economic growth, he explained that Singapore and Jamaica were economically similar in the early 1960s and then asked why they are so different today.

I have to admit that I was skeptical. I know Singapore is much richer today, but was it actually the case that it had the same level of per-capita GDP as Jamaica as recently as 50 years ago?

So I looked at the long-run data and John was exactly right. Take a look at this chart and you’ll understand why rapid growth caused by free markets is so vastly superior to the stagnation caused by statism.

Singapore vs Jamaica

I also included the world average for per-capita GDP so you can see that Singapore easily out-paced a lot of nations, not just Jamaica.

P.S. Keith Hennessey of the Hoover Institution writes that it makes more sense to think of the economy as a garden rather than a pie.

The pie metaphor for the economy is misleading and damaging, especially if you place a high priority on economic growth. …because dividing a pie is zero-sum, the flawed metaphor assumes that if one person’s slice grows larger, it comes at the expense of others. The inapt metaphor and its accompanying flawed logic lead one to conclude that when rich people have a larger share of a bigger economy, they do so “at the expense of” others lower on the income scale. …A flower garden is a better metaphor for looking at economic growth and income distribution. A flower’s growth depends on the individual characteristics of that type of flower and that particular seed. …the rapid growth of a sunflower at one end of the garden largely does not come at the expense of a struggling tulip at the other end. The sunflower may have advantages the tulip does not, even unfair ones, but the fast-growing sunflower is not “taking growth” from the slow-growing tulip. Flowers will grow at different rates for a variety of different reasons. Policymakers should focus their energies on absolute growth rates rather than relative ones.

Keith is correct.

Or, if he isn’t correct, it’s because the garden analogy doesn’t go far enough. If my neighbor is akin to a fast-growing sunflower, that presumably creates more wealth that will benefit me and the other tulips of the world.

In other words, I’m more likely to get richer if my neighbor gets richer.

But if you like the “pie” approach, then this pizza graphic is very appropriate because it gets across the message that the pie isn’t fixed in size.

P.P.S. For more on the inequality vs. growth issue, here’s my PBS debate.

P.P.P.S. The indispensable Tim Carney addresses the relationship between growth and inequality in this post.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, here’s a post with some very sage analysis by George Will, Ronald Bailey, and Scott Winship.

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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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My favorite Heritage Foundation publication (other than…ahem…my studies on government spending and the flat tax) is the annual Index of Economic Freedom.

Like the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the Index is a broad measure of liberty to engage in voluntary exchange in a system of secure property rights and honest government.

Unfortunately, the United States has been moving in the wrong direction in recent years. As you can see here, here, and here, America used to rank in the top 10. But this chart shows that the United States is now has fallen to number 12 and is considered to be only “Mostly Free.”

Index Ranking 2014

I’m not surprised to see Hong Kong and Singapore at the top of the list, but notice how large of a lead they have over the other four “Free” nations. Their big advantage, if you dig into the details, exists because of relatively low burdens of government spending and comparatively modest tax rates.

Canada’s strong performance shows how a nation can improve with the right reforms.

In the “Mostly Free” section, it’s kind of embarrassing that America is behind Denmark. The United States actually has a slightly better (or, to be more accurate, slightly less worse) fiscal regime (with “Lazy Robert” being the poster child for the welfare state), but Denmark gets very good grades for being very laissez-faire in other regards.

I’m pleased to see, by the way, that Chile and Estonia score reasonably well. Estonia has been a good role model in recent years for fiscal restraint (even if Paul Krugman can’t understand the numbers). Chile, meanwhile, engaged in many pro-growth reforms over the past three decades (though I’m worried the new government may harm the nation’s leading position in Latin America).

You’ll notice that Slovakia isn’t on the list of “Free” or “Mostly Free” nations. That nation suffered a big drop, in part because a socialist government repealed the flat tax. Such a shame.

One of the good things about the Heritage Index is that you can play with the data to compare nations based on particular variable. Here’s a chart showing scores for “government spending” in Europe. Wow, talk about a “red” continent.

Index Europe Spending

Switzerland stands out for being the only advanced nation with a semi-decent score of “Moderately Free,” though that’s nothing to brag about. But when all your neighbors are “Unfree,” you look good by comparison. No wonder Switzerland is in much better shape than France.

P.S. I prefer the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World over the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom, not because I’m an expert on the methodology of the two publications, but for the simple reason that I assume Economic Freedom of the World must be slightly more accurate because, unlike the Heritage Index,  it showed the U.S. score declining during the Bush years.

P.P.S.  I wrote back in 2010 that we shouldn’t fear the supposed Chinese tiger and the new numbers in the Index corroborate what I wrote. China is mired way down in the “Mostly Unfree” category, with a score that puts them in 137th place.

P.P.P.S. If you like global rankings that make no sense, here are some quasi-amusing options.

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If you ask an economist about the difference between capitalism and socialism, you’ll probably get a boring answer about the size of government, the impact on incentives, and the power of the state.

Or maybe you’ll get a nit-picking answer, sort of like when I explained that Obama technically isn’t a socialist.

That’s why it’s sometimes best to use simple, common-sense analogies.

Two years ago, I used two cows to explain the differences between various economic systems.

But this image may be an ever more succinct way to showing the difference between capitalism and socialism.

Socialism capitalism bread

Or, if you prefer stories, this updated version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper makes the same point.

And here’s the PC version of the Little Red Hen.

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Back in February, I said Australia probably was the country most likely to survive and prosper as much of the world suffered fiscal collapse and social chaos.

In hindsight, I probably should have mentioned Canada as an option, in part because of pro-growth reforms in the past two decades that have significantly reduced the burden of government spending.

And I’ve already acknowledged that Canada has passed the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

So I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the most economically free state in North America isn’t a state. It’s a Canadian province. Here’s a map from a new report showing how sub-national jurisdictions rate for economic freedom.

Economic Freedom NA Map

And here’s the ranking for economic freedom in states and provinces. As you can see, Alberta and Saskatchewan are in the top two spots, followed by the American states of Delaware, Texas, and Nevada.

Interestingly, Canadian provinces also held the bottom two slots, with Prince Edward Island being last and Nova Scotia second to last. The worst American states are New Mexico, West Virginia, and Mississippi.

Economic Freedom North America

But the previous table looks at the combined impact of national and sub-national government policies.

If you look at the policies that sub-national governments actually control, the rankings change a bit. Alberta still comes in first place, but Saskatchewan plummets.

Meanwhile, the best American state is South Dakota, followed by Tennessee, Delaware, and Texas.

Economic Freedom States + Provinces

Canadian provinces dominate the bottom of the rankings, with Quebec coming in last place (too many language police?).

The worst American state is New York, which isn’t a big surprise. And since Vermont was the top state in the Moocher Index, it’s also hardly a shock that it’s the next worst state.

One pattern you may have noticed is that American states without income taxes tend to be near the top of the list.

So does this mean that I’ve changed my mind and I’ll escape to Alberta when a future President Elizabeth Warren destroys America? Mehh….it’s still too cold for my tastes. Freedom is important, but I want someplace where I can play softball more than two months per year.

P.S. As this joke indicates, American leftists used to think about escaping to Canada. Times sure have changed.

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Forget the debate over whether Obama is a socialist.

Now we’re discussing whether Jesus is for big government. Or, to be more accurate, the Pope has started a debate about whether free markets are bad, particularly for the poor.

Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute wrote about the underlying theological issues in an article for National Review, but I hope I also contributed to the secular aspect of the debate in this BBC interview.

The first thing I said was the rather obvious point that there’s a lot more to life than accumulating wealth.

My most important point was that capitalism is the only successful model for creating broadly shared prosperity and I used examples from the Pope’s home region of Latin America to show that nations with more economic liberty are far more successful.

But I emphasized that supporters of freedom have a challenge because many people mistakenly associate capitalism with cronyism and bailouts for big business. In reality, free markets are a system based on voluntary exchange and private property, which means no special favors for any industry or company.

To bolster my point that economic growth is the best way to help the poor, I cited Hong Kong as a role model, both for creating growth and for enabling upward mobility.

My second most important point, which came near the end of the interview, was that genuine compassion is when you give away your own money, not when you vote for politicians who will use coercion to redistribute other people’s money. I should have used the opportunity to cite the data showing that Americans are far more compassionate – in the right sense – than their European counterparts.

I’m sure “Libertarian Jesus” would have agreed.

Now we need to get others to climb on the freedom bandwagon. I suspect the Pope will be more receptive to that message than politicians, though the Vatican sometimes has been very good on these issues and at times very disappointing.

P.S. I was worried I made up a word when I stated that I wanted to make a “theologic” point, but it’s actually in the dictionary, so I got lucky. But even if it turned out it wasn’t a word, it wouldn’t have been nearly as embarrassing as the time in the 1990s when I wanted to say “annals” and pronounced it “anals.”

P.P.S. Thomas Sowell has some insightful analysis on whether Obama is a socialist.

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The genius of capitalism is that there is a link between effort and reward. In a genuine market economy (as opposed to cronyism), people can only make themselves rich by working harder and smarter to satisfy the needs and wants of others.

The blunder of statism is that the link between effort and reward is damaged. Punitive tax rates, for instance, punish people for producing. Redistribution programs, meanwhile, create incentives for dependency. And regulation throws lots of sand in the gears of the economy, while also creating big opportunities for corrupt cronyism.

I sometimes try to make this clear by citing the failure of communism. And by failure, I’m not talking about the brutality of Soviet-style dictatorships. Instead, I’m referring to the basic failure of state-controlled economies. Heck, places such as Cuba and Venezuela can’t even produce enough toilet paper!

And North Korea is such a basket case that it reduced physical requirements for military service after pervasive famine led to a stunted generation.

But I don’t want anyone to accuse me of red-baiting, so let’s pretend communism never existed and look at an unfortunate episode from American history.

When the colonists created the Plymouth Colony, they used a socialist model. This video from Reason TV explains how that system foundered.

Gee, what a surprise. Socialism was the problem and capitalism was the solution. When you give people property rights and establish a clear link between effort and reward, good things happen.

As Bono now understands. More remarkable, even Obama once said we should “let the market work.” So maybe there’s hope.

In honor of the season, let’s share a few more Thanksgiving cartoons, all of which – as you might expect – make fun of Obamacare.

Continuing a theme from some of yesterday’s cartoons, we have the Turkey of the Year.

TG II Cartoon 1

And an observation on how well the law is working.

TG II Cartoon 2

This Lisa Benson cartoon is very appropriate since the Mayflower carried the first colonists to Plymouth.

TG II Cartoon 3

P.S. I don’t want to pass up this opportunity for some well-deserved mockery of the evil philosophy of communism,. You can see some great Reagan jokes in the fourth video of this link and the first video in this link. And this doctored image makes a very powerful point in an amusing fashion.

P.P.S. Back in 2010, I also debunked the leftist counter-argument in a post that included the Reason video and a John Stossel column on the topic of the Pilgrims and property rights.

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Switzerland’s left-wing party has instigated a referendum for November 24 that asks voters to limit pay ranges so that a company wouldn’t be able to pay top employees more than 12 times what they’re paying their lowest-level employees.

I talked with Neil Cavuto about this proposal and made several (hopefully) cogent points.

Since Swiss voters already have demonstrated considerable wisdom (rejecting a class-warfare tax proposal in 2010 and imposing a cap on government spending in 2001), I predicted they will reject the plan. And I pointed out that Switzerland’s comparatively successful system is a result of not letting government have too much power over the economy.

But I don’t want to focus today on the Swiss referendum. Instead, I want to expand on my final point, which deals with the misguided belief by some on the left that the economy is a fixed pie and that you have to penalize the rich in order to help the poor.

I’ve covered this issue before, and I even tried to educate a PBS audience that economic growth is key.

But maybe this chart is the most persuasive bit of evidence. It shows per-capita GDP in France and Hong Kong over the past 50 or so years. France is a nation that prides itself of redistribution to “help” the poor while Hong Kong is famous for having the most economic freedom of any jurisdiction.

Now look at this data and ask yourself whether you’d rather be a poor person in France or Hong Kong?

Hong Kong v France Per-Capita GDP

Since Hong Kong is richer and is growing faster, the obvious answer is that poor people in France almost surely face a bleaker outlook.

In other words, the welfare state can give you the basic necessities and allow you to survive (at least until the house of cards collapses), but it comes at a very high cost of lower growth and diminished opportunity.

The moral of the story is that prosperity is best achieved by a policy of free markets and small government.

P.S. If you want more evidence on the superiority of markets over statism, check out the comparison of South Korea and North Korea and the difference between Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. Heck, even the data comparing America and Europe show similar results.

P.P.S. As you might expect, Margaret Thatcher addressed this issue in a brilliant fashion.

P.P.P.S. There’s a lot to like about Sweden, but click here if you want to see an impossibly absurd example from that nation of the equality-über-alles mentality.

P.P.P.P.S. There is some very interesting academic research that suggests humans are hard-wired by evolution to be statists. Let’s hope that’s not true.

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Sometimes you find support for capitalism and small government in some rather unexpected places.

I was surprised, for instance, when I found out that Gene Simmons, the lead singer for Kiss, stated that, “Capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to human beings. The welfare state sounds wonderful but it doesn’t work.”

That’s pretty hard core.

Bad news for Denmark’s Lazy Robert?

Or what about the Finance Minister of Denmark’s left-wing government, who admitted that, “We live in a world of global competition for jobs… That requires a modernization of the welfare state.”

That’s not hard core, to be sure, but it certainly suggests that he understands the need to reduce the burden of government spending.

And my jaw hit the floor when I read that former KGB bigwig Vladimir Putin remarked that, “Many European countries are witnessing a rise of [the] dependency mentality when not working is often much more beneficial than working. This type of mentality endangers not only the economy but also the moral basics of the society.”

I’m not about to take lessons in societal morality from a strongman like Putin, but it’s nonetheless surprising that he recognizes that handouts can turn people into supplicants.

So after reading all these examples, perhaps you won’t be overly shocked to learn that Bono, head of the famous U2 band, is a supporter of capitalism. He’s no Milton Friedman, as you’ll see, but check out this quote from an interview in the Guardian.

My father was Labour, classic Dublin Northside household. And I still carry that with me. And though I believe that capitalism has been the most effective ideology we have known in taking people out of extreme poverty, I don’t think it is the only thing that can do it, and in some ways I wish it wasn’t.

Even with his caveats, it’s big news when one of the world’s leading anti-poverty campaigners acknowledges that free markets are the best tool for improving the lives of poor people.

“Please don’t use naughty words like capitalism in my presence”

Bono’s comments sort of remind me of when the former leftist president of Brazil remarked that, “…it was necessary to first build capitalism, then make socialism, we must have something to distribute before doing so.”

Neither Lula nor Bono are libertarians, of course, but at least their views are rooted in reality. Which is more than can be said for many of the people in Washington who have never produced anything and have no idea how markets actually work.

Perhaps even more stunning is the fact that Bono defends tax competition and fiscal sovereignty.

…at the heart of the Irish economy has always been the philosophy of tax competitiveness. Tax competitiveness has taken our country out of poverty. People in the revenue accept that if you engage in that policy then some people are going to go out, and some people are coming in. It has been a successful policy. On the cranky left that is very annoying, I can see that. But tax competitiveness is why Ireland has stayed afloat.

Wow, there’s no ambiguity to that statement. I’d like to think he’s knowledgeable about the benefits of tax competition because he’s watched my videos or read my writings, but the real story is that he lived through and personally experienced the Irish miracle.

He saw his relatively poor country become very successful, in large part because of big improvements in tax policy. And he obviously understands the importance of maintaining Ireland’s low corporate tax rate (which I’ve also argued is very important to keep Ireland from sinking further into statist stagnation).

Let’s close with a couple of additional examples of folks on the left who have confessed some very un-PC thoughts, such as the New York Times columnist who bravely wrote that, “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. …Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.”

“We’ve learned from you that communism doesn’t work”

Perhaps most amazing is that a high-ranking official from China’s communist government stated that, “If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare society. I think the labour laws are outdated. The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out of whack.”

Last but not least, surely it’s big news that even Fidel Casto confessed that, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

P.S. Sometimes even Obama says reasonable things, such as the time he remarked that “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top.” Or the time he said that it was best to ““let the market work on its own.” Unfortunately, when you read the fine print and look at the context, there’s no indication that the President actually has learned anything about economics.

P.P.S. My favorite examples of liberals crossing the ideological aisle are Justin Cronin and Jeffrey Goldberg, both of whom wrote very powerful anti-gun control columns.

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I’ve narrated a video that cites Economic Freedom of the World data to explain the five major factors that determine economic performance.

But that video is only six minutes long, so I only skim the surface. For those of you who feel that you’re missing out, you can listen to me pontificate on public policy and growth for more than sixty minutes in this video of a class I taught at the Citadel in South Carolina (and if you’re a glutton for punishment, there’s also nearly an hour of Q&A).

There are two points that are worth some additional attention.

1. In my discussion of regulation, I mention that health and safety rules can actually cause needless deaths by undermining economic performance. I elaborated on this topic when I waded into the election-season debate about whether Obama supporters were right to accuse Romney of causing a worker’s premature death.

2. In my discussion of deficits and debt, I criticize the Congressional Budget Office for assuming that government fiscal balance is the key determinant of economic growth. And since CBO assumes you maximize growth by somehow having large surpluses, the bureaucrats actually argue that higher taxes are good for growth and their analysis implies that the growth-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent.

P.S. If you prefer much shorter doses of Dan Mitchell, you can watch my one-minute videos on tax reform that were produced by the Heartland Institute.

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I’ve written before about the remarkable vitality of Hong Kong and Singapore, two jurisdictions that deserve praise for small government and free markets.

Monaco T

Pretending to be a jet-setter in Monaco

I have also praised Switzerland because of policies such as genuine federalism and financial privacy, and it goes without saying that I admire tax havens such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands

I’m a big fan of Estonia, which has made big strides thanks to the flat tax and other free market reforms.

Australia also is one of my favorite nations, in part because of its privatized Social Security system.

Even Canada and Sweden have earned my praise for recent economic reforms.

But here’s a video, produced by the folks at The Fund for American Studies, that identifies an even more impressive economic miracle.

I did guess the country in the video, but only a few seconds before the narrator spilled the beans. My excuse is that I watched early on Sunday morning, when civilized people should still be asleep.

But allow me to atone for my slowness by adding a very important point about growth. The country in the video became successful because it enjoyed a very long period of decent growth. But that has recently changed for the worse.

And things got worse when statists were in power, as even the Washington Post has acknowledged.

The lesson to be learned is that even small differences in growth can make a big difference over time.

By some measures, Hong Kong and Singapore are now richer than the United States. The simple reason is that those jurisdictions have been enjoying 5 percent-plus growth for decades while the United States economy has struggled to achieve 3 percent growth.

Then again, the United States is more prosperous than most European nations, though that may be an example of damning with faint praise.

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Folks, the pendulum is swinging in the right direction.

PendulumIn recent weeks, I’ve shared a bunch of examples to support my hypothesis that libertarians, small-government conservatives, and classical liberals are finally making some progress.

This trend actually started with the fiscal cliff, though that was simply a smaller-than-expected defeat.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed victories on the sequester, the IMF, and dynamic scoring. I’ve also posted some evidence showing that the Tea Party has made a positive difference and specifically shared data showing that the burden of government fiscal policy has been reduced since the 2010 elections.

Well, here’s another feel-good story. A powerful Committee Chairman in the House of Representatives realizes that being pro-market is not the same as being pro-business. Hallelujah!

The Wall Street Journal reports:

During Jeb Hensarling’s first congressional bid, a man at a campaign stop in Athens, Texas, asked the Republican if he was “pro-business.” “No,” the candidate replied, drawing curious stares from local business leaders who had gathered to hear him speak, a former Hensarling aide recalled. “I’m not pro-business. I’m pro-free enterprise.” Now, more than a decade later, that distinction has Wall Street on edge. The new chairman of the House financial services committee wants to limit taxpayers’ exposure to banking, insurance and mortgage lending by unwinding government control of institutions and programs the private sector depends on, from mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to flood insurance. Banks and other large financial institutions are particularly concerned because Mr. Hensarling plans to push legislation that could require them to hold significantly more capital and establish new barriers between their federally insured deposits and other activities, including trading and investment banking. …In interviews, a half-dozen industry representatives expressed some level of anxiety about Mr. Hensarling’s legislative agenda.

So, the cronyists are “on edge” and feeling “anxiety.” Gee, just breaks my heart.

And it’s not just Rep. Hensarling that is singing from the right song sheet.

Earlier this month, all 45 Senate Republicans voted for a symbolic measure aimed at banks with more than $500 billion in assets. The amendment, offered by Sens. David Vitter (R., La.) and Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), sought to eliminate any subsidies or other advantages enjoyed by the biggest financial institutions because investors expect the government to prevent them from collapsing. …Most congressional Republicans believe the changes enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—principally in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill—enshrined the notion that the biggest institutions are “too big to fail” because they guaranteed the government would step in to prevent the most sprawling firms from going under.

To be sure, many of these same politicians voted for TARP, so I’m not under any illusions that they’ve become committed supporters of genuine capitalism.

Putting taxpayers before Wall Street

Though Hensarling did vote the right way, so I’m confident that he understands that insolvent banks should be liquidated rather than bailed out.

Too bad folks in the Bush Administration didn’t understand this simple principle of free markets.

Here are some more details from the article about Hensarling’s commitment to economic liberty.

Mr. Hensarling has been a vocal critic of taxpayer backstops for the private sector. He voted against the Wall Street rescue package in the fall of 2008 and supported measures to ease the importation of prescription drugs. He even picked a fight with one of the largest employers in his backyard—American Airlines—by supporting initiatives to allow more long-distance flights out of Dallas’s Love Field, the home base for rival Southwest Airlines. Now, his other potential targets include: the Export-Import Bank of the U.S., which makes loans to American companies that do business overseas, and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, a temporary backstop created in the aftermath of 9/11 to insure construction projects. The latter measure expires at the end of 2014, unless Mr. Hensarling’s committee acts to extend it. “In every jurisdictional area that I can get my fingers on, I want to move us away from the Washington insider economy,” he said. Mr. Hensarling sharpened his free-market views when he studied economics under former Sen. Phil Gramm at Texas A&M University.

I’m especially happy to see that he wants to end the corrupt system of subsidies from the Export-Import Bank, which is a typical example of big businesses being anti-free market.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps not much in the short run, particularly with Obama in the White House and Tim Johnson of South Dakota chairing the Senate Banking Committee.

In the long run, though, this is a positive sign. Our prosperity and liberty depend on small government and free markets, so we need at least a few lawmakers who understand that there shouldn’t be any special favors for big interest groups.

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I’ve spent a lot of time debunking class-warfare tax policy, and I’ve certainly explained ’til I’m blue in the face that big government facilitates a pernicious form of corruption that enriches powerful and well-connected insiders.

But I haven’t spent much time addressing the topic of income inequality, which is connected to those two other issues.

U.S. News & World Report just weighed in on this issue, citing a leftist video designed to build support for redistributionist policies.

Occupy is by now forgotten (if not gone), but the top 1 percent came roaring back into view this week with a viral video that has been seemingly inescapable for anyone on Facebook or Twitter. The slick, graph-heavy animation shows the results of a 2011 study that found not only that Americans vastly underestimate wealth inequality in the U.S. but that current inequality is very far from what most Americans see as ideal.

I contribute to the discussion, making the point that people should focus on the source of inequality.

…some would argue that not all inequality is created equal. According to one expert, the problem is far worse when it’s a function of bad government than when it’s a function of private industry growth. “If you’re a very corrupt, cronyist type economy like Argentina or Mexico, you have a huge degree of income inequality and it’s driven by the fact that the elites control the levers of power,” says Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Meanwhile, a less-corrupt, high-inequality, but fast-growing economy–Mitchell uses the example of Hong Kong–might be healthier, more stable, and more likely to have a rising tide of growth lifting all boats, even if it’s lifting some boats more than others. In other words, as long as everyone is benefiting, albeit to different degrees, he says, that’s one key test of whether inequality is “good” or “bad.” …As for the question of where U.S. inequality is coming from, Mitchell says he fears that corporate influence in Washington may be creating inequality of what he might call the Mexican or Argentinian type. That is, he believes that big banks and healthcare companies are skewing the system in their own favor via legislation like Dodd-Frank and healthcare reform.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out this chart comparing economic performance in a nation with capitalism, a nation with cronyism, and a nation with statism.

And since I specifically cited Hong Kong, check out this chart. And click here to see how Argentina has fared with a system where government picks winners and losers.

The article then follows with a sentence that may be true as a political prediction, but completely misreads the point I was trying to make.

If that’s true–that those at the top are able to entrench their places at the top, at the expense of others–it is reason to angrily hit the share button.

NO!!! What I’m pointing out is that we should repeal laws such as Obamacare that promote cronyism and corruption.

But that’s not the only argument against the leftist argument for redistribution. My former grad school colleague, Steve Horwitz, makes the key argument that it is shoddy to compare changes over time for income quintiles without also measuring income mobility.

And you can click this link to hear what one of my professors from grad school, Don Boudreaux, had to say about the notion that wages have stagnated.

if you want even more, here’s something I wrote on income inequality and here’s a debate I did on income mobility. Even better, here’s what Margaret Thatcher said about these topics.

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While I generally have a happy-go-lucky attitude toward life, I’m pessimistic about public policy.

So when I got an email asking me how I would reconcile the supposed superiority of libertarian principles with the absence of libertarian societies, I initially was tempted to assert that our principles are sound and then give reasons why I nonetheless expect freedom to continuously diminish.

There are probably other reasons, but I think you get the idea. No wonder I’ve been speculating about where people should move when America descends into Greek-style economic chaos.

But I want to be uncharacteristically optimistic and explain why libertarian principles are still very relevant and that the outlook is better than we think.

So while I don’t expect that there will ever be a libertarian Nirvana, I also don’t think it’s time to throw in the towel and meekly accept the yoke of statism.

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When I travel, particularly overseas, I run into a lot of people who are totally confused about the American healthcare system.

For all intents and purposes, they think the United States relies on the free market and that government (at least in the pre-Obamacare era) was largely absent.

So they are baffled when I tell them that nearly one-half of all health expenditures in America are directly financed by taxpayers  and that the supposedly private part of our healthcare system is massively distorted by government interference and intervention.

When explaining how government has screwed up private health insurance, I talk about third-party payer and  how genuinely private insurance works for home ownership and automobiles. And I cite examples of genuine free markets for cosmetic surgery and even (regardless of your views) abortion.

But from now on, I think I will simply tell people to watch this superb video from Reason TV.

This shows how a true free market operates. Efficiency and low prices are the norm, and consumers get a good deal.

My only quibble is that the video doesn’t explain how government policies – such as the healthcare exclusion in the tax code – should be blamed for the grotesque waste, inefficiency, and featherbedding in most parts of the medical industry.

But that’s a minor gripe. You should share this post with any and all fuzzy-headed friends and colleagues and tell them this is how smoothly the market would work if the government simply would get out of the way.

And if they want another example, here’s a report from North Carolina on free-market healthcare in action.

If we want this kind of system to be the rule rather than the exception, we need to scrap the healthcare exclusion in the tax code as part of a switch to a simple and fair flat tax. That will help bring some rationality to the health insurance market and address the part of the third-party payer crisis caused by indirect government intervention.

Then we also should reform Medicaid and Medicare to help address the part of the third-party payer crisis caused by the direct government intervention.

P.S. As this poster cleverly illustrates (and as Ronald Reagan correctly warned in the second video of this post), government is the problem, not the solution.

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Regarding Obama’s “you-didn’t-build-that” comment back in July, I explained why that attack on entrepreneurs and small business owners was misguided.

And I also shared some humorous cartoons on the topic.

But it is true that no entrepreneur produces a product without help from many others. But what the President apparently doesn’t understand is that almost all of the real help comes from voluntary and decentralized exchange in the private market.

This CEI video is a good introduction to this spontaneous process.

And if you want to look at the topic from a different perspective, this video helps to explain how we often get much more than we pay for in a competitive market economy.

There’s also a moral argument presented in this video from the American Enterprise Institute.

Needless to say, Walter Williams is always worth reading to understand the difference between markets and statism. And here’s some good real-world evidence about the benefits of better policy.

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Wow. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the United States dropped in the new rankings unveiled today in Economic Freedom of the World.

But I’m somewhat shocked to learn that we fell from 10th last year all the way down to 18th this year, as can be seen on the chart (click to enlarge).

Last year, the U.S. fell from 7th to 10th, and I though dropping three spots was bad. But falling by eight spots this past year is a stunning decline.

Who would have thought that Scandinavian welfare states such as Denmark and Finland would rank higher than the United States? Or that Ireland, with all its problems, would be above America?

But since I’m not a misery-loves-company guy, I’m happy to see some nations doing well. I’ve previously highlighted the good policies in Hong Kong and Singapore. And I’ve trumpeted the good policies in Switzerland and Australia, as well as Canada, Chile, and Estonia.

So kudos to the leaders in those nations.

American politicians, by contrast, deserve scorn. Let’s update the chart I posted when last year’s report was issued.

As you can see, it’s an understatement to say that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. We’re still considerably ahead of interventionist welfare states such as France and Italy, though I’m afraid to think about what the U.S. score will be five years from now.

Here’s what the authors of the report had to say about America’s decline.

The United States, long considered the standard bearer for economic freedom among large industrial nations, has experienced a substantial decline in economic freedom during the past decade. From 1980 to 2000, the United States was generally rated the third freest economy in the world, ranking behind only Hong Kong and Singapore. After increasing steadily during the period from 1980 to 2000, the chainlinked EFW rating of the United States fell from 8.65 in 2000 to 8.21 in 2005 and 7.70 in 2010. The chain-linked ranking of the United States has fallen precipitously from second in 2000 to eighth in 2005 and 19th in 2010 (unadjusted ranking of 18th).

For those interested in why the United States has dropped, the “size of government” score has fallen from 8.65 in 2000 to 7.70 in the latest report. That’s not a surprise since the burden of government spending has exploded during the Bush-Obama years.

But the trade score also dropped significantly over the same period, from 8.78 to 7.65. So the protectionists should be happy, even though the rest of us have less prosperity.

The most dramatic decline, though, was the in the “legal system and property rights” category, where the U.S. plummeted from 9.23 in 2000 down to 7.12 in the new report. We’re not quite Argentina (3.76!), to be sure, but the trend is very troubling.

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I’m a big fan of fundamental tax reform, in part because I believe in fairness and want to reduce corruption.

But I also think the flat tax will boost the economy’s performance, largely because lower tax rates are the key to good tax policy.

There are four basic reasons that I cite when explaining why lower rates improve growth.

  1. They lower the price of work and production compared to leisure.
  2. They lower the price of saving and investment relative to consumption.
  3. They increase the incentive to use resources efficiently rather than seek out loopholes.
  4. They attract jobs and investment from other nations.

As you can see, there’s nothing surprising or unusual on my list. Just basic microeconomic analysis.

Yet some people argue that lower tax rates don’t make a difference. And if lower tax rates don’t help an economy, then presumably there is no downside if Obama’s class-warfare tax policy is implemented.

Many of these people are citing David Leonhardt’s column in Saturday’s New York Times. The basic argument is that Bush cut tax rates, but the economy stunk, while Clinton increased tax rates and the economy did well.

The defining economic policy of the last decade, of course, was the Bush tax cuts. President George W. Bush and Congress, including Mr. Ryan, passed a large tax cut in 2001, sped up its implementation in 2003 and predicted that prosperity would follow. The economic growth that actually followed — indeed, the whole history of the last 20 years — offers one of the most serious challenges to modern conservatism. Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush both raised taxes in the early 1990s, and conservatives predicted disaster. Instead, the economy boomed, and incomes grew at their fastest pace since the 1960s. Then came the younger Mr. Bush, the tax cuts, the disappointing expansion and the worst downturn since the Depression. Today, Mitt Romney and Mr. Ryan are promising another cut in tax rates and again predicting that good times will follow. …Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan would do voters a service by explaining why a cut in tax rates would work better this time than last time.

While I’ll explain below why I think he’s wrong, Leonhardt’s column is reasonably fair. He gives some space to both Glenn Hubbard and Phil Swagel, both of whom make good points.

“To me, the Bush tax cuts get too much attention,” said R. Glenn Hubbard, who helped design them as the chairman of Mr. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and is now a Romney adviser. “The pro-growth elements of the tax cuts were fairly modest in size,” he added, because they also included politically minded cuts like the child tax credit. Phillip L. Swagel, another former Bush aide, said that even a tax cut as large as Mr. Bush’s “doesn’t translate quickly into higher growth.” Why not? The main economic argument for tax cuts is simple enough. In the short term, they put money in people’s pockets. Longer term, people will presumably work harder if they keep more of the next dollar they earn. They will work more hours or expand their small business. This argument dominates the political debate.

I hope, by the way, that neither Hubbard nor Swagel made the Keynesian argument that tax cuts are pro-growth because “they put money in people’s pockets.” Leonhardt doesn’t directly attribute that argument to either of them, so I hope they’re only guilty of proximity to flawed thinking.

But that’s besides the point. Several people have asked my reaction to the column, so it’s time to recycle something I wrote back in February. It was about whether a nation should reform its tax system, but the arguments are the same if we replace “a flat tax” with “lower tax rates.”

…even though I’m a big advocate for better tax policy, the lesson from the Economic Freedom of the World Index…is that adopting a flat tax won’t solve a nation’s economic problems if politicians are doing the wrong thing in other areas.

There are five major policy areas, each of which counts for 20 percent of a nation’s grade.

  1. Size of government
  2. Regulation
  3. Monetary Policy
  4. Trade
  5. Rule of Law/Property Rights

Now let’s pick Ukraine as an example. As a proponent of tax reform, I like that lawmakers have implemented a 15 percent flat tax.

But that doesn’t mean Ukraine is a role model. When looking at the mix of all policies, the country gets a very poor score from Economic Freedom of the World Index, ranking 125 out of 141 nations.

Conversely, Denmark has a very bad tax system, but it has very free market policies in other areas, so it ranks 15 out of 141 countries.

In other words, tax policy isn’t some sort of magical elixir. The “size of government” variable accounts for just one-fifth on a country’s grade, and keep in mind that this also includes key sub-variables such as the burden of government spending.

Yes, lower tax rates are better for economic performance, just as wheels matter for a car’s performance. But if a car doesn’t have an engine, transmission, steering wheel, and brakes, it’s not going to matter how nice the wheels are.

Not let’s shift from theory to reality. Here’s the historical data for the United States from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see, overall economic policy moved in the right direction during the Clinton years and in the wrong direction during the Bush-Obama years.

To be more specific, the bad policy of higher tax rates in the 1990s was more than offset by good reforms such as lower trade barriers, a lower burden of government spending, and less regulation.

Similarly, the good policy of lower tax rates last decade was more than offset by bad developments such as a doubling of the federal budget, imposition of costly regulations, and adoption of two new health entitlements.

This is why I have repeatedly challenged leftists by stating that I would be willing to go back to Bill Clinton’s tax rates if it meant I could also go back to the much lower levels of spending and regulation that existed when he left office.

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I’m not a big fan of international bureaucracies, particularly the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD, funded by American tax dollars, has become infamous for its support of statist pro-Obama policies.

But I’m a policy wonk, so I’ll admit that I often utilize certain OECD’s statistics. After all, if numbers from a left-wing organization help to advance the cause of liberty, that makes it harder for opponents to counter our arguments.

With that being said, let’s look at some truly remarkable statistics from the OECD website on comparative living standards in industrialized nations. This chart shows average levels of individual consumption (AIC) for 31 OECD countries. There are several possible measures of prosperity, including per-capita GDP. All are useful, but AIC is thought to best capture the well-being of a people.

As you can see from this chart, the United States ranks far ahead of other nations. The only countries that are even close are Luxembourg, which is a tiny nation that also serves as a tax haven (a very admirable policy, to be sure), and Norway, which is a special case because of oil wealth.

At the risk of making an understatement, this data screams, “THE U.S. SHOULD NOT BECOME MORE LIKE EUROPE.”

For all intents and purposes, Americans are about 40 percent better off than their European counterparts, in part because we have less government and more economic freedom.

Yet Obama, with his plans to exacerbate class-warfare taxation and further expand the burden of government spending, wants America to be more like nations that have lower living standards.

And don’t forget European living standards will presumably fall even further – relative to the U.S. – as the fiscal crisis in nations such as Greece, Spain, and Italy spreads to other welfare states such as France and Belgium

Here’s another chart that looks at the G-7 nations. Once again, the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is remarkable.

Maybe, just maybe, the United States should try to copy nations that are doing better, not ones that are doing worse. Hong Kong and Singapore come to mind.

Getting there is simple. Just reduce the size and scope of government.

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