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Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

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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As part of his campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government (and to justify his advocacy of class-warfare taxation), President Obama has been asserting that all of us benefit from government spending.

It’s why he now echoes Elizabeth Warren’s claim that entrepreneurs owe their success to government programs and activities.

It’s also why he cites the Internet as an example of wise, prudent, and far-seeing government intervention.

Sounds like a powerful example. The kind of anecdote that leaves libertarians momentarily speechless.

But there’s just one small, tiny, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny problem with Obama’s example. It ain’t true.

Here are some excerpts from a first-rate column by Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal.

It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. …The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way. …If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks. …But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks. Researchers there also developed the first personal computer (the Xerox Alto) and the graphical user interface that still drives computer usage today. …So having created the Internet, why didn’t Xerox become the biggest company in the world? The answer explains the disconnect between a government-led view of business and how innovation actually happens. Executives at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., were focused on selling copiers. From their standpoint, the Ethernet was important only so that people in an office could link computers to share a copier. …As for the government’s role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed—just as the commercial Web began to boom. Economist Tyler Cowen wrote in 2005: “The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished. . . . In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.”

It’s nice to see this urban legend of effective government punctured weakened, but let’s close out this post with a thought experiment. Let’s assume that the federal government deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the Internet.

Our Tax Dollars at Work?

Or we’re sometimes told that NASA generated big benefits, such as Tang and microwave ovens, and maybe those claims are true.

Would any of this justify Obama’s proposals to expand the size and cost of the federal government?

Since I’ve actually explained in one of my videos that there are some forms of government spending – such as capital spending – that can generate positive rates of return, this is an empirical question.

But here’s where Obama’s argument breaks down. If you look at federal outlays for “major public physical capital investment” and “conduct of research and development,” they add up to less than 10 percent of the federal budget.

So the parts of the budget that theoretically might generate some positive spin-offs are trivial. The vast majority of spending, by contrast, is consumed by inefficient tax-and-transfer entitlement programs.

And what are Obama’s two biggest “accomplishments” since taking office? The so-called stimulus and Obamacare, two pieces of legislation that expand the unambiguously unproductive portions of the federal budget.

In other words, like most other politicians, Obama is like an unethical used car salesman. He lures the unsuspecting onto the lot with glib talk of good roads and the Internet, but they wind up driving away with a lemon known as the welfare state.

P.S. Speaking of Elizabeth Warren, here’s an amusing parody of her views as they apply to the world of intimacy. And here’s a video mocking her “Soul Man” claims of Indian ancestry.

P.P.S. Just like I recently apologized to hyenas and gang members, I now apologize to used car salesmen for putting them on the same level of politicians.

P.P.P.S. The government may not have invented the Internet, but it sure is anxious to tax it, with everyone from state politicians to U.N. bureaucrats trying to stick their hands in the cookie jar.

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

Addendum: My Cato colleague Jim Harper and others tell me that government played a bigger role than argued by Crovitz, so the first part of this post overstates the argument against government as incubator. But that underscores the importance of what I wrote in the concluding part of the post.

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Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know – as I explained in my post about Cyprus – that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

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A couple of months ago, I discussed a column by Arthur Brooks, in which he explained that libertarians and conservatives need to make a moral argument for capitalism and not just rely on statistics and economic analysis.

This is correct, I believe, and I cited myself as an example. When the flat tax became an issue in the 1990s, I gave lots of speeches, and I pontificated about lower marginal tax rates and getting rid of double taxation. I quickly learned, though, that people were most excited about getting rid of the corruption in the current system.

Brooks now makes his case for the morality of capitalism in a new video.

A superb job. His insights on earned success are very important. Indeed, this is why the dependency culture is misguided for both taxpayers and recipients.

President of the American Enterprise Institute

And it’s also why I try to stress that bloated government is basically a racket that either allows people to obtain unearned benefits or makes it harder for people to achieve earned success.

P.S. Brooks also is more than capable of making traditional economic arguments, as you can see from what he wrote about Europe’s collapsing welfare states.

P.P.S. And he has produced some first-rate research on the loss of ethics in Europe compared to the United States.

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To answer the question in the title, it means you need to read the fine print.

This is because we have a president who thinks the government shouldn’t confiscate more than 20 percent of a company’s income, but he only gives that advice when he’s in Ghana.

And the same president says it’s time to “let the market work on its own,” but he only says that when talking about China’s economy.

Now we have more evidence that the President understands the dangers of class-warfare taxation and burdensome government spending. At least when he’s not talking about American fiscal policy.

After the Greek elections, which saw the defeat of the pro-big government Syriza coalition and a victory for the supposedly conservative New Democracy Party, here’s some of what Politico reported.

President Barack Obama on Monday called the results of Greece’s election a “positive prospect” with the potential to form a government willing to cooperate with Europe.  “I think the election in Greece yesterday indicates a positive prospect for not only them forming a government, but also them working constructively with their international partners in order that they can continue on the path of reform and do so in a way that also offers the prospects for the Greek people to succeed and prosper,” Obama said after a meeting with the G-20 Summit’s host, Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

In other words, it’s “positive” when other nations reject big government and vote for right-of-center parties, but Heaven forbid that this advice apply to the United States.

Interestingly, it’s not just Obama who is rejecting (when talking about other nations) the welfare-state vision of bigger government and higher taxes.

Check out this remarkable excerpt from a Washington Post column by Larry Summers, the former Chairman of the President’s National Economic Council.

… it is far from clear, especially after the French election, that there is any kind of majority or even plurality support for responsible policies.

Remarkable. Larry Summers is dissing Francois Hollande and the French people by implying they want irresponsible policies, even though the Hollande’s views about Keynesian economics and soak-the-rich taxation are basically identical to the nonsense Summers was peddling while in the White House.

It’s almost enough to make you cynical about America’s political elite. Perish the thought!

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Back in 2010, I cited the superb work of Christina Hoff Summers as she explained that we should let markets determine wages rather than giving that power to a bunch of bean-counting bureaucrats.

She wrote that article because leftists at the time were pushing a so-called Paycheck Fairness Act that would have given the government powers to second guess compensation levels produced by the private marketplace.

For all intents and purposes, proponents were arguing that employers were deliberately and systematically sacrificing profits by paying men more than they were worth (which is the unavoidable flip side of arguing that women were paid less than they were worth).

Well, bad ideas never die and the Senate recently took up this statist proposal.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it didn’t get enough votes to overcome a procedural objection.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Christina Hoff Summers explains why we should be happy about that result.

Groups like the National Organization for Women insist that women are being cheated out of 24 percent of their salary. The pay equity bill is driven by indignation at this supposed injustice. Yet no competent labor economist takes the NOW perspective seriously. An analysis of more than 50 peer-reviewed papers, commissioned by the Labor Department, found that the so-called wage gap is mostly, and perhaps entirely, an artifact of the different choices men and women make—different fields of study, different professions, different balances between home and work. …The misnamed Paycheck Fairness Act is a special-interest bill for litigators and aggrieved women’s groups. A core provision would encourage class-action lawsuits and force defendants to settle under threat of uncapped punitive damages. Employers would be liable not only for intentional discrimination (banned long ago) but for the “lingering effects of past discrimination.” What does that mean? Employers have no idea. …Census data from 2008 show that single, childless women in their 20s now earn 8 percent more on average than their male counterparts in metropolitan areas.

At the risk of sounding extreme (perish the thought), let me take Ms. Summers argument one step farther. Yes, it would be costly and inefficient to let trial lawyers and bureaucrats go after private companies for private compensation decisions.

But what’s really at stake is whether we want resources to be allocated by market forces instead of political edicts.

This should be a no-brainer. If we look at the failure of central planning in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, a fundamental problem was that government officials – even assuming intelligence and good intentions – did not have the knowledge needed to make decisions on prices.

And in the absence of a functioning price system, resources get misallocated and growth suffers. So you can imagine the potential damage of giving politicians, bureaucrats, and courts the ability to act as central planners for the wage system.

But that didn’t stop the economic illiterates in Washington from pushing a vote in the Senate.

Here’s some of what Steve Chapman wrote for the Washington Examiner.

President Barack Obama said it would merely mandate “equal pay for equal work.” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada warned beforehand that failing to pass the bill would send “the message to little girls across the country that their work is less valuable because they happened to be born female.” …This is a myth resting on a deception. …The gap reflects many benign factors stemming from the choices voluntarily made by women and men. …Women, on average, work fewer hours and are more likely than men to take time off for family duties. A 2009 report commissioned by the U.S. Labor Department concluded that such “factors account for a major portion and, possibly, almost all of the raw gender wage gap.” “The gender gap shrinks to between 8 percent and 0 percent when the study incorporates such measures as work experience, career breaks and part-time work,” Baruch College economist June O’Neill has written. …What the alleged gender pay gap reflects is the interaction of supply and demand in a competitive labor market. Even in a slow economy, companies that mistreat women can expect to lose them to rival employers.

Regular readers know that I’m very critical of Republicans for their propensity to do the wrong thing, particularly since they presumably know better.

But I also believe in giving praise when it’s warranted. That’s why I’ve written nice things about Bill Clinton and also why I praised House Republicans for supporting entitlement reform.

Well, here’s a case where a very bad idea was blocked because every single GOPer in the Senate held firm and voted for economic rationality. Those Senate Republicans did the right thing and prevailed, just as they were victorious when they did the right thing on taxes a couple of years ago.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, refused to take a position on the issue, showing that he is trying very hard to be the Richard Nixon of 2012.

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I sometimes wonder whether journalists have the slightest idea of how capitalism works.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen breathless reporting on the $2 billion loss at JP Morgan Chase, and now there’s a big kerfuffle about the falling value of Facebook stock.

In response to these supposed scandals, there are all sorts of articles being written (see here, here, here, and here, for just a few examples) about the need for more regulation to protect the economy.

Underlying these stories seems to be a Lake Wobegon view of financial markets. But instead of Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town where “all children are above average, we have a fantasy economy where “all investments make money.”

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble or shatter any childhood illusions, but losses are an inherent part of the free market movement. As the saying goes, “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.”

Unlike today’s chattering class, King Canute understood limits to power

Moreover, losses (just like gains) play an important role in that they signal to investors and entrepreneurs that resources should be reallocated in ways that are more productive for the economy.

Legend tells us that King Canute commanded the tides not to advance and learned there are limits to the power of a king when his orders had no effect.

Sadly, modern journalists, regulators, and politicians lack the same wisdom and think that government somehow can prevent losses.

But perhaps that’s unfair. They probably understand that losses sometimes happen, but they want to provide bailouts so that nobody ever learns a lesson about what happens when you touch a hot stove.

Government-subsidized risk, though, is just as foolish as government-subsidized success.

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Singapore has been in the news because one of the Facebook billionaires has decided to re-domicile to that low-tax jurisdictions.

Some American politicians reacted by blaming the victim and are urging tax policies that are disturbingly similar to those adopted by totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Maybe they should go on one of their fancy junkets instead and take a visit to Hong Kong and Singapore. Even with first-class airfare and 5-star hotels, taxpayers might wind up benefiting if lawmakers actually paid attention to the policies that enable these jurisdictions to grow so fast.

They would learn (hopefully!) some of what was just reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook  co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s recent decision to give up his U.S. citizenship in favor of long-term residence in Singapore has drawn fresh attention to the appeal of residing and investing in the wealthy city-state and other parts of Asia, where tax burdens are significantly lighter than in many Western countries. …Some 100 Americans opted out of U.S. citizenship in Singapore last year, almost double the 58 that did so in 2009, according to data from the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. …The increase of Americans choosing to renounce their citizenship comes amid heated tax debates in the U.S. Many businesses and high-income individuals are worried…[about]…tax increases in future years.

It’s not just that America is moving in the wrong direction. That’s important, but it’s also noteworthy that some jurisdictions have good policy, and Hong Kong and Singapore are always at the top of those lists.

The Asian financial hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong, on the other hand, have kept personal and corporate taxes among the lowest in the world to attract more foreign investment. Top individual income-tax rates are 20% in Singapore and 17% in Hong Kong, compared with 35% at the federal level in the U.S., according to an Ernst & Young report. The two Asian financial centers have also been praised by experts for having simpler taxation systems than the U.S. and other countries. …The tax codes are also more transparent so that many people don’t require a consultant or adviser.

Keep in mind that Hong Kong and Singapore also avoid double taxation, so there’s nothing remotely close to the punitive tax laws that America has for interest, dividends, capital gains, and inheritances.

One reason they have good tax policy is that the burden of government spending is relatively modest, usually less than 20 percent of economic output (maybe their politicians have heard of the Rahn Curve!).

No wonder some Americans are shifting economic activity to these pro-growth jurisdictions.

“The U.S. used to be a moderate tax jurisdiction compared with other countries and it used to be at the forefront of development,” said Lora Wilkinson, senior tax consultant at U.S. Tax Advisory International, a Singapore-based tax services firm that specializes in U.S. taxation laws. Now “it seems to be lagging behind countries like Singapore in creating policies to attract business.” She said she gets at least one query per week from Americans who are interested in renouncing their citizenship in favor of becoming Singaporeans. …Asian countries offer a business climate and lifestyle that many find attractive: “America is no longer the Holy Grail.”

That last quote really irks me. I have a knee-jerk patriotic strain, so I want America to be special for reasons above and beyond my support for good economic policy.

But the laws of economics do not share my sentimentality. So long as Hong Kong and Singapore have better policy, they will grow faster.

To get an idea of what this means, let’s look at some historical data from 1950-2008 on per-capita GDP from Angus Maddison’s database. As you can see, Hong Kong and Singapore used to be quite poor compared to the United States. But free markets, small government, and low taxes have paid dividends and both jurisdictions erased the gap.

Wow, America used to be 4 times richer, and that huge gap disappeared in just 60 years. But now let’s look at the most recent data from the World Bank, showing Gross National Income for 2010.

It’s not the same data source, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable, but the 2010 data shows that the United States has now fallen behind both Hong Kong and Singapore.

These charts should worry us. Not because it’s bad for Hong Kong and Singapore to become rich. That’s very good news.

Instead, these charts are worrisome because trend lines are important. Here’s one final chart showing how long it takes for a nation to double economic output at varying growth rates.

As you can see, it’s much better to be like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have been growing, on average, by more than 5 percent annually.

Unfortunately, the United States has not been growing as fast as Hong Kong and Singapore. Indeed, last year I shared some data from a Nobel Prize winner, which showed that America may have suffered a permanent loss in economic output because of the statist policies of Bush and Obama.

What makes this so frustrating is that we know the policies that are needed to boost growth. But those reforms would mean less power for the political class, so we face an uphill battle.

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We know that the United States and most other developed nations are in deep trouble if we leave government policy on auto-pilot. And we know the painful day of reckoning will arrive even faster if we continue the Bush-Obama policies of expanding the burden of the public sector.

All this sounds very depressing, but the good news is that we know the types of policies that will solve the problem.

The bad news is that we often don’t do a very good job of convincing people of the changes that are needed.

Part of the answer is that libertarians and small-government conservatives are probably too utilitarian. Not in our hearts, but in the way we talk.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute addresses this problem in a column for the Washington Examiner.

…many who strongly believe in free enterprise steer clear of all public “moral” arguments. This is a mistake and a missed opportunity. A great deal of research shows that people from all walks of life demand a system that is morally legitimate, not just efficient. …Privately, free enterprise’s champions…celebrate capitalism because they believe that succeeding on merit, doing something meaningful, seeing the poor rise by their hard work and virtue, and having control over life are essential to happiness and fulfillment. But in public debate, conservatives often fall back on capitalism’s superiority to other systems just in terms of productivity and economic efficiency. …The dogged reliance on materialistic arguments is a gift to statists. It allows them to paint free enterprise advocates as selfish and motivated only by money. Those who would expand the government have successfully appropriated the language of morality for their own political ends; redistributionist policies, they have claimed to great effect, are fairer, kinder, and more virtuous. …Average Americans are thus too often left with two lousy choices in the current policy debates: the moral Left versus the materialistic Right. The public hears a heartfelt redistributionist argument from the Left that leads to the type of failed public policies all around us today. But sometimes it feels as if the alternative comes from morally bereft conservatives who were raised by wolves and don’t understand basic moral principles. …There just doesn’t seem to be a good alternative to the “statist quo,” and as a consequence, the country is slipping toward a system that few people actually like.

I think Brooks is correct. Most libertarians and conservatives are not motivated by GDP numbers. They believe in small government because it is morally sound (no government-imposed stealing) and fair (you don’t get rich without offering something of value).

During public policy debates, though, we rely on utilitarian arguments.

I offer myself as an example. When the flat tax became a big issue in the 1990s and I started giving lots of speeches about tax reform, I would make dry and technical arguments about marginal tax rates and capital formation. But I quickly learned that much of the support for the flat tax was motivated by a belief in a fair and moral system – no cronyism, treating everybody equally, ending corruption, shutting down loopholes, etc. So I modified my speeches and gave much more attention to the moral arguments.

That being said, there’s no silver bullet in public policy fights. We probably need a combination of morality and utilitarianism. And it’s obviously important to put things in terms ordinary people can understand. That, I believe, is what made Reagan so effective. And it’s what I try to do with this blog (albeit on a much more limited level).

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Sweden has a very large and expensive welfare state, but it’s actually becoming a bit of a role model for economic reform. I’ve already commented on the country’s impressive school choice system and noted that the Swedes have partially privatized their Social Security system.

I even wrote a Cato study looking at the good and bad features of economic policy in the Nordic nations, and cited a Swedish parliamentarian who explained that his nation became rich because of small government and free markets and how he is hopeful his country is returning to its libertarian roots.

Notwithstanding the many admirable features of Sweden, I never thought they would be moving in the right direction on fiscal policy while the United States was heading in the opposite direction.

Yet that’s the case. We all know that America has had made many mistakes during the Bush-Obama years, particularly with failed stimulus schemes in 2008 and 2009.

Sweden, by contrast, has put in place pro-growth reforms. Here’s what Fraser Nelson wrote for the UK-based Spectator.

Can we trade Geithner for Borg?

When Europe’s finance ministers meet for a group photo, it’s easy to spot the rebel — Anders Borg has a ponytail and earring. What actually marks him out, though, is how he responded to the crash. While most countries in Europe borrowed massively, Borg did not. Since becoming Sweden’s finance minister, his mission has been to pare back government. His ‘stimulus’ was a permanent tax cut. …Three years on, it’s pretty clear who was right. ‘Look at Spain, Portugal or the UK, whose governments were arguing for large temporary stimulus,’ he says. ‘Well, we can see that very little of the stimulus went to the economy. But they are stuck with the debt.’ Tax-cutting Sweden, by contrast, had the fastest growth in Europe last year, when it also celebrated the abolition of its deficit. …‘Everybody was told “stimulus, stimulus, stimulus”,’ he says — referring to the EU, IMF and the alphabet soup of agencies urging a global, debt-fuelled spending splurge. Borg, an economist, couldn’t work out how this would help. ‘It was surprising that Europe, given what we experienced in the 1970s and 80s with structural unemployment, believed that short-term Keynesianism could solve the problem.’ …He continued to cut taxes and cut welfare-spending to pay for it; he even cut property taxes for the rich to lure entrepreneurs back to Sweden. The last bit was the most unpopular, but for Borg, economic recovery starts with entrepreneurs. If cutting taxes for the rich encouraged risk-taking, then it had to be done.

The article notes that government is still far too large in Sweden, but it’s also clear that moving in the right direction generates immediate benefits.

I posted a video back in 2010, narrated by a Swedish economics student, and asked a rhetorical question of why Obama wants to make America more like Sweden when the Swedes are moving in the other direction.

Unfortunately, there was no good answer then and there’s no good answer now.

Let’s close with some irony. Last year, I cited a study showing how large public sectors undermine economic performance. The study was written by two Swedish economists. In addition to trading Geithner for Borg, perhaps we can ship Krugman to Stockholm and bring those economists to America.

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A problem in Washington is that people who specialize in particular fields are tempted to exaggerate the importance of their issues. To cite a couple of examples:

This is an understandable tendency, and I’m sometimes guilty of over-emphasizing fiscal policy. But all of us should realize that 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.

  1. Rule of law and property rights
  2. Sound money
  3. Fiscal policy
  4. Trade policy
  5. Regulatory policy

This video provides a good explanation.

I’m frequently reminded of this video when I debate people who claim that higher taxes are desirable because the economy expanded during the 1990s. But as I’ve explained, Clinton’s 1993 tax increase was anti-growth (and definitely didn’t balance the budget), but its harmful impact was more than offset by pro-growth policies – such as a reduction in the burden of federal spending, trade liberalization, welfare reform, and deregulation.

But that’s not the topic of this post. Instead, I want to discuss the causes of growth, but dig a bit deeper into the relationship between public policy and prosperity. Specifically, let’s consider the importance of entrepreneurship.

Conventional economic theory says that economic output is a function of labor and capital. And if you want an economy to produce more, your only choices are to somehow achieve one or more of the following:

  • More capital.
  • More labor.
  • More efficient use of capital.
  • More productive use of labor.

In other words, labor and capital are the two ingredients that determine economic performance. But this conventional theory is incomplete. It usually overlooks the role of entrepreneurship.

In simple terms, entrepreneurs are the chefs, the people who mix together the two ingredients of labor and capital.

But this then raises an important question. Who are the entrepreneurs? Do we want politicians and bureaucrats in Washington to play that role? Even if we assume they are totally honest and non-corrupt, that seems to be the wrong answer. When politicians try to allocate labor and capital, we get policies like Solyndra. We get Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We get TARP, the minimum wage law, and a 72,000-page tax system.

And unlike the private sector, there’s no virtuous feedback. Indeed, failure often results in more resources getting diverted in an effort to compensate for the original failure. Sort of Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

When chefs are from the private sector, by contrast, there is a bottom-line incentive to allocate labor and capital in ways that increase economic output. This doesn’t mean entrepreneurs are always right. Markets are a never-ending learning process.

But when private entrepreneurs hit upon a good recipe, they are rewarded by consumers, which means that both labor and capital get good results – meaning higher wages for workers and profits for investors.

In other words, there’s more economic output. In colloquial terms, the pie gets bigger. In a system where markets are allowed to operate, entrepreneurs constantly try to figure out ways of satisfying consumers, and this process of self interest makes us more prosperous.

Let’s now circle back to the role of public policy and think about the five main determinants of economic performance and how they relate to entrepreneurship.

  1. In a nation with poor rule of law and weak protection of property rights, entrepreneurs are undermined in their efforts to innovate, expand, and create.
  2. In a nation with bad monetary policy, entrepreneurs are hampered because the basic unit of account and medium of exchange is unstable.
  3. In a nation with onerous fiscal policy, entrepreneurs are discouraged because government is misallocating resources and imposing punitive tax rates.
  4. In a nation with protectionist trade policy, entrepreneurs are denied the ability to buy and sell in ways that enable the most productive use of labor and capital.
  5. In a nation with interventionist regulatory policy, entrepreneurs are saddled with extra costs that make it more expensive to mix labor and capital in ways that most effectively satisfy consumer desires.

One final point. Warren Buffett probably doesn’t belong in the montage of good chefs since he’s now playing footsie with politicians in exchange for special handouts. But I’m using an old image and was too lazy to photoshop someone new to take his place.

So ignore him and focus on the key message, which is that a policy mix of small government and free markets is the best way of unleashing entrepreneurs.

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Being pro-market is not the same as being pro-business. A free market means that nobody is using the coercive power of government to obtain unearned goodies, and that is true for big business as well as big labor, or any particular segment of the population.

Indeed, handouts to big business are the worst form of redistribution, as I noted in my previous post, because they transfer money from the poor to the rich and thus violate “Mitchell’s Guide to an Ethical Bleeding Heart”.

This is why I have strongly criticized subsidies and favors for the business community, whether for entire industries or for specific companies such as General Motors, Wal-Mart, and General Electric.

But it’s not just big business that should be weaned from the public teat. Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center has a Wall Street Journal column explaining why the Small Business Administration should be shuttered.

…the SBA hurts more small businesses than it helps, wastes taxpayer money and distorts economic activity. The SBA’s main activity is to provide government-backed loans to qualifying small businesses. In fiscal 2011, the agency requested $1.5 billion in discretionary outlays. However, total outlays, which include projected payouts for defaults, were $6.2 billion. …the agency has suffered increased losses in recent years on its guarantees. How this trend will evolve depends on the economy and whether default rates on SBA loans continue to increase. Currently, outstanding loans guaranteed by the SBA—and federal taxpayers—total about $92.9 billion. …The SBA loan program is best understood as a subsidy to banks. Borrowers apply to an SBA-certified bank. The SBA guarantees 75% to 85% of the value of loans made in the flagship program. The banks then boost their earnings by selling the risk-free portion of the loans on a secondary market. Ironically, it’s also the biggest banks that do the most business through the SBA.

Ms. de Rugy then closes with an important insight from Frederic Bastiat (who is probably Veronique’s great great grandfather since I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say they’re the only two free market people in French history).

French economist Frederic Bastiat noted that many economic fallacies persist because the beneficiaries of government actions are easily visible, while the victims are harder to identify. The SBA is a classic example. Small-business owners who get subsidized loans feel good (so do the banks that profit from the loans), but we can’t identify how that capital would have been used absent government intervention. We can count the jobs created at the subsidized businesses, but we don’t know how many more jobs might have been created if market forces determined the allocation of capital. That’s the economic analysis. The political analysis is that politicians have successfully sold the SBA as a program to help small business—a widely held belief that’s almost as sacrosanct as baseball, motherhood and apple pie. In reality, the SBA is a form of corporate welfare, and America’s biggest banks are the only clear winners, leaving taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars.

By the way, Veronique could use your help. There’s an online poll and the statists have been stuffing the ballot box. So click on the column link above and help her out. You folks have helped me prevail in some of my online debates for U.S. News and World Report (see here, here, here, and here), so don’t hesitate to cast a vote for Veronique and against cronyism.

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Back in 2009, I got very excited when President Obama stated, “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top.”

Did that mean he wanted to reduce America’s punitive and anti-competitive corporate tax burden? Or maybe even fix the entire tax code and install a simple and fair flat tax?

Unfortunately, it turns out the President was speaking to the Parliament of Ghana and apparently his recommendation for good policy didn’t apply inside the United States.

With this in mind, I’m not sure whether I should get too excited about his remarks yesterday that it is better to “let the market work on its own.”

Here are a few reasons why I am less than enthusiastic about this remarkable statement.

The President was not talking about solving the problem of government-caused third-party payer in health care.

Nor was he urging the elimination of the culture of bailouts and cronyism in the financial services sector.

And he obviously wasn’t saying it was time to end the government’s failed school monopoly.

"Free market for thee, not for me"

Instead, when he said that we should “let the market work on its own,” he was referring to the very narrow issue of China’s production and distribution of certain minerals.

In other words, if presidential statements came with asterisks, the fine print at the bottom of the page would read “offer good in China only.”

However, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step. So if he thinks it’s a good idea to reduce government intervention in China, maybe someday he will apply the same wisdom to the American economy.

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