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Posts Tagged ‘Rankings’

I’ve posted more than 3,500 items since I started International Liberty. And if you look at the earliest posts, way back in April of 2009, you’ll find that one of the very first of them made the link between big government and big corruption.

My premise was very simple. When government is very large, with all sorts of power to provide unearned wealth via taxes, spending, and regulation, then you will get more sleaze.

Sort of like the way a full dumpster will attract lots of rats and roaches.

A story in Fortune reports that government corruption at the state level is very costly.

…corruption is everywhere, in one form or another. And it’s costing U.S. citizens big time. A new study from researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Indiana University estimates that corruption on the state level is costing Americans in the 10 most corrupt states an average of $1,308 per year… The researchers studied more than 25,000 convictions of public officials for violation of federal corruption laws between 1976 and 2008 as well as patterns in state spending to develop a corruption index that estimates the most and least corrupt states in the union.

Most Corrupt StatesHere’s the list of the 10-most corrupt states. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern.

Southern states are over-represented, it appears, but that’s obviously not an overwhelming factor since Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas (among others) didn’t make the list.

But it turns out that there is a factor that seems to be very prevalent among corrupt states.

The researchers also found that for 9 out of the 10 of the most corrupt states, overall state spending was higher than in less corrupt states (South Dakota was the only exception).

The authors suggest an attack on corruption could lead to a lower burden of government spending.

Attacking corruption, the researchers argue, could be a good way to bring down state spending.

I don’t disagree, but I wonder whether there’s an even more obvious lesson. Maybe the primary causality goes the other direction. Perhaps the goal should be to lower state spending as a way of reducing corruption.

Returning to the analogy I used earlier, a smaller dumpster presumably means fewer rats and roaches.

That’s not the only interesting data from the study. Fortune also reports that infrastructure projects and bloated bureaucracies are linked to corruption.

The paper explains that construction spending, especially on big infrastructure projects, is particularly susceptible to corruption… Corrupt states also tend to, for obvious reasons, simply have more and better paid public servants, including police and correctional officers.

I’m not surprised by those findings. Indeed, I would even argue that a large bureaucracy, in and of itself, is a sign of corruption since it suggests featherbedding and patronage for insiders.

For more info on the size of government and corruption, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. It’s several years old, but the message is even more relevant today since the public sector is larger and more intrusive.

P.S. Speaking of corruption, there’s actually a serious effort on Capitol Hill to shut down the Export-Import Bank, which has been a cesspool of corruption and cronyism.

P.P.S. Switching to a different topic (though it also fits under corruption), we have another member for our potential Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Or maybe this person belongs in a politician-ripping-off-the-system Hall of Fame.

Here are some of the details from an Irish news report and you can judge for yourself.

Ireland’s outgoing European Commissioner, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, is entitled to a total €432,000 EU pay-off over the next three years to help her adjust to life after Brussels. …EU commissioners leaving office are entitled, subject to certain conditions, to a “transitional allowance” over three years varying between 45pc and 65pc of salary. Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn’s entitlement amounts to 55pc of her salary, or €137,000 per year.

Huh?!? A transitional allowance? For what? That’s more than $500,000 in American money.

Is it really that difficult to end one’s term as an overpaid European Union Commissioner?

But what really makes Ms. Geoghegan-Quinn an inspiration to other bureaucrats (and a nightmare for taxpayers) is that she’ll also have her snout buried deeply in Ireland’s public trough.

And from this autumn, she can also resume collecting her Irish TD and ministerial pensions totalling €108,000 a year – giving her total pension entitlements worth over €3,000 a week.

Though to be fair, she’s simply doing what other politicians already have done. Not only in Ireland, but also in America.

Government has become a racket for the benefit of insiders.

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I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in a hellhole like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is – at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy – a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

Here’s a chart from the report showing that taxes consume about 40 percent of economic output in EU nations. And while Americans correctly view the internal revenue code as very burdensome, taxes “only” consume about 25 percent of GDP in the United States.

EU Report Total Tax

Other nations with comparatively modest tax burdens include Canada (CA), Australia (AU), South Korea (KR), and Switzerland (CH).

But it’s important to understand that not all nations in the European Union are identical.

Just as there are high-tax states and low-tax states in America, there are high-tax countries and low-tax countries in Europe. Surprisingly, France was not the worst nation.

…the ratio of 2012 tax revenue to GDP was highest in Denmark, Belgium and France (48.1 %, 45.4 % and 45.0 % respectively); the lowest shares were recorded in Lithuania (27.2 % of GDP), Bulgaria (27.9 % of GDP) and Latvia (27.9 % of GDP).

I’m surprised, by the way, that Sweden isn’t among the highest-taxed nations. I guess they’ve made even more progress than I thought.

Now let’s drill down into the report and look at some of the specific data.

But you may want to stop reading now if you get easily depressed.

That’s because it’s time to look at a chart showing what’s happened to income tax rates. Specifically, this chart shows the average top tax rate on personal income, both for Eurozone (nations using the euro currency) and European Union nations.

As you can see, the average top tax rate has jumped by almost four percentage points for euro nations and by about two percentage points for all EU nations.

EU Report Personal Income Tax

This is very unfortunate. Tax rates were heading in the right direction when there was vigorous tax competition inside Europe. But now that high-tax nations have been somewhat successful in forcing low-tax jurisdictions to become deputy tax enforcers, that positive trend has halted and policy is moving in the wrong direction.

But not in all regards.

Tax competition also has been compelling governments to lower corporate tax rates. And while that trend has abated, you can see in this chart that politicians haven’t felt they have leeway to push rates higher.

EU Report Corporate Income Tax

Though I am very concerned about the OECD’s campaign to undermine corporate tax competition.

If they’re successful, there’s no doubt we’ll see higher corporate tax rates.

Let’s now look at some more depressing data. This chart shows that a continuation in the trend toward higher rates for value-added taxes (VATs).

EU Report VAT

I’ve warned repeatedly that the VAT is a money machine for big government and the EU data certainly supports my position.

But if you want evidence from other parts of the world, there’s some IMF data that clearly shows how politicians use the VAT to expand the burden of government.

Last but not least, let’s now draw some conclusions from all this information.

At the beginning of the column, I mentioned that Americans should not copy Europe because bigger government translates into lower living standards.

Simply stated, there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and economic performance.

So let’s look at another piece of data to emphasize that point. The bureaucrats at the OECD just did a report on the U.S. economy and they produced a chart showing that the current recovery is very anemic. We haven’t recaptured lost economic output, which normally happens after a downturn. Indeed, we haven’t even returned to normal growth levels.

But that’s not news to regular readers. I’ve shared powerful data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve showing the failure of Obamanomics.

What is noteworthy, though, is comparing Europe to the United States. As you can see from these two charts, euro nations have flat lined. And if you look at the vertical scale, you can see that they were growing a lot slower than the United States to begin with.

Dismal European Economy

In other words, we’re not doing very well in the United States.

But compared to Europe, we’re Hong Kong.

Two final caveats: First, I always like to stress that economic performance is impacted by a wide range of policies. So while I think that rising tax burdens and higher tax rates are hurting growth in Europe, there are other factors that also matter.

Second, any analysis of fiscal policy should also include data on the burden of government spending. After all, a nation with a low tax burden will still suffer economic problems if there’s a large public sector financed by red ink.

And one big warning: Obama wants to make America more like Europe. If he succeeds, we can expect European-style stagnation.

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Two years ago, there was a flurry of excitement because some guy named Rex Nutting crunched annual budget numbers and concluded that Barack Obama was the most fiscally conservative President since at least 1980.

I looked at the data and found a few mistakes, such as a failure to adjust the numbers for inflation, but Nutting’s overall premise was reasonably accurate.

As you can see from the tables I prepared back in 2012, Obama was the third most frugal President based on the growth of total inflation-adjusted spending.

And he was in first place if you looked at primary spending, which is total spending after removing net interest payments (a reasonable step since Presidents can’t really be blamed for interest payments on the debt accrued by their predecessors).

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my old – but misguided – buddy Bruce Bartlett asserted?

Not exactly. A few days after that post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

So I removed TARP, deposit insurance, and other bailout-related items, on the assumption that such one-time costs distort the real record of various Administrations.

And that left me with a new set of numbers, based on primary spending minus bailouts. And on this basis, Obama’s record is not exactly praiseworthy.

Instead of being the most frugal President, he suddenly dropped way down in the rankings, beating only Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Which explains why I accused him in 2012 of being a big spender – just like his predecessor.

But the analysis I did two years ago was based on Obama’s record for his first three fiscal years.

So I updated the numbers last year and looked at Obama’s record over his first four years. And it turns out that Obama did much better if you look at the average annual growth of primary spending minus bailouts. Instead of being near the bottom, he was in the middle of the pack.

Did this mean Obama moved to the right?

That’s a judgement call. For what it’s worth, I suspect that Obama’s ideology didn’t change and the better numbers were the result of the Tea Party and sequestration.

But I don’t care who gets credit. I’m just happy that spending didn’t grow as fast.

2014 Spending TotalI’m giving all this background because I’ve finally cranked the most-recent numbers.  And if we look at overall average spending growth for Obama’s first five years and compare that number to average spending growth for other Presidents, he is the most frugal. Adjusted for inflation, the budget hasn’t grown at all. That’s a very admirable outcome.

But what about primary spending? By that measure, we have even better results. 2014 Spending PrimaryThere’s actually been a slight downward trend in the fiscal burden of government during the Obama years.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, to be sure, that Obama deserves credit. Maybe the recent spending restraint in Washington is because of what’s happened in Congress.

I’ve repeatedly argued, for instance, that sequestration was a great victory over the special interests. And Obama vociferously opposed those automatic budget cuts, even to the point of making himself a laughingstock.

But don’t forget that TARP-type expenses can mask important underlying trends. So now let’s look at the numbers that I think are most illuminating. 2014 Spending Primary Minus BailoutsHere’s the data for average inflation-adjusted growth of primary spending minus bailouts.

As you can see, Obama no longer is in first place. But he’s jumped to third place in this category, which is an improvement over prior years and puts him ahead of every Republican other than Reagan. Given that all those other GOPers were statists, that’s not saying much, but it does highlight that party labels don’t necessarily mean much.

My Republican friends are probably getting irritated, so I’ll share one last set of numbers that may make them happy.

I cranked the numbers for average spending growth, but subtracted interest payments, bailouts, and defense outlays. What’s left is domestic spending, and here are the rankings based on those numbers.

2014 Spending Primary - Defense - Bailouts

Reagan easily did the best job of restraining overall domestic discretionary and entitlement outlays. Bill Clinton came in second place, showing that Democrats can preside over reasonably good results. And Richard Nixon came in last place, showing that Republicans can preside over horrible numbers.

Obama, meanwhile, winds up in the middle of the pack. Which is probably very disappointing for the President since he wanted to be a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the left, in the same way that Reagan was a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the right.

Instead, Obama’s only two legacies may turn out to be a failed healthcare plan and a tongue-in-cheek award for being a great recruiter for the cause of libertarianism.

P.S. Historical numbers sometimes change slightly because the government’s data folks massage and re-measure both inflation and spending. Though I confess I’m not sure why the 2013 calculation for Nixon’s primary spending minus bailouts is somewhat different from the 2012 and 2014 numbers. Perhaps I screwed up when copying some of the numbers, which has been known to happen. But since Nixon’s performance isn’t the focus of this post, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the discrepancy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hassett Putin Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EFW Putin Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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If you look at measures (such as the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index) of what makes a nation competitive and prosperous, you’ll find some obvious variables such as fiscal policy, trade openness, regulatory burden, and monetary policy.

But in addition to those policy levers, you’ll find that it’s equally important that a nation does a good job of protecting and maintaining the rule of law.

This is not something easy to define or measure. It includes all sorts of characteristics such as protection of property rights, absence of corruption, honest courts, government transparency, and non-discriminatory application of laws.

But one thing is clear. Nations that don’t have good rule of law are not going to enjoy much prosperity, even if they have ostensibly good policies.

So it was with considerable interest that I saw that a Rule of Law Index has been released by the World Justice Project.

This is the first I’ve heard of the WJP, and I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, but the Index is interesting and impressive.

And I’m a bit dismayed – but not surprised – to see that the United States only ranks #19 in their comprehensive measure of the rule of law. Here are the top 52 nations.

Rule of Law Rankings

If you look at the detailed data for the 8 major categories in the Index, you’ll see that the United States was fairly consistent, with a high score of 17 and low scores of 27.

To use a classroom analogy, America is akin to a decent student, with grades of B+ in some classes and B- in other classes.

Other nations display more variety. They may have a higher overall GPA (like #10 Singapore) or lower overall GPA (like #50 Belarus), but their grades for specific categories may deviate substantially.

Looking at the places with the strongest rule of law, the good performance of the Nordic nations is not surprising. Countries such as Denmark and Sweden may have big welfare states, but they have very laissez-faire policies in other areas.

And let’s give a special shout-out to the nation that produced the PotL. Lebanon made it into the top 50.

Interestingly, the WJP must have previous editions, or at least historical data, because they also show whether countries are getting better or worse.

The good news is that America apparently has more order and security. The bad news is that we’re moving in the wrong direction with regards to constraints on government power.

Rule of Law US Trend

I don’t know why the U.S. score deteriorated, but the Obama Administration’s abuse of the IRS and its lawless behavior on Obamacare might be good guesses.

Let’s now look at the slow students in the class.

Is anybody surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place of the 99 nations in the Index?

Rule of Law Rankings 2

And if you’re interested in other nations that are in the news, the low rankings for Ukraine and Russia help to explain why these countries are under-performing (even though they both have a flat tax, which is one of my favorite policies).

Now that I’ve shared this data, it’s time to acknowledge that there’s no obvious way to improve the rule of law.

In my humble opinion, the rule of law is a form of social capital. And like other examples of social capital (work ethic, honesty, etc), it’s part of a nation’s culture.

That being said, let’s look at some polling data from Europe that captures one aspect of the rule of law. These numbers show the extent of corruption.

The moral of the story is that it would be a good thing to reduce the burden of government in countries such as Germany and Denmark, but that it’s absolutely critical to reduce the size and scope of the state in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Simply stated, a smaller public sector would reduce opportunities to abuse the rule of law.

P.S. Since we just showed some data on Europe, let’s share some European humor. I don’t know if this is an example of someone from Europe mocking America, or someone from Europe engaging in some self-mockery of European stereotypes about America. In either case, this image is amusing.

American Breakfast

Well done, though maybe the carbs should be excluded.

And also long overdue.

I’ve shared some cartoons about Europe (here and here), and this Dave Barry satire about Europe is very funny, but I don’t often see political humor produced by Europeans.

The Brits occasionally step forward, as you can see from this terror alert humor and this jab at France and Germany. And this comedian definitely seems to be Greek, but that’s about it.

Though it’s possible someone from Europe put together these maps about European stereotypes. Or perhaps this video about a German-Greek romantic breakup.

P.P.S. There is a global ranking that puts Venezuela ahead of the United States. I’ll let you decide whether it has any merit.

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What’s the best state in America?

I’m not sure I can answer that broad question, but I can address the more narrow issue of which state has the most economic freedom. Last month, for instance, I shared some data from the Canada-based Fraser Institute which showed that South Dakota was America’s most laissez-faire state, followed by Tennessee, Delaware, Texas, and Virginia (though all of them trailed the Canadian province of Alberta).

And one year ago, I posted about a fascinating Mercatus study that ranked states based on total freedom (including, interestingly, a “bachelor party” variable). That research put North Dakota at the top, followed by South Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma.

Now we have another measure of overall economic liberty at the state level. The Texas Public Policy Foundation has put together a “soft tyranny” index that measures total economic oppression, both for the United States and for the 50 states.

As you would suspect, the ranking was constructed with various measures of spending, taxes, and regulation.

Since we’re focusing today on state competitiveness, let’s first look at that data. As you can see, Texas is in the top spot with the lowest burden of government, followed by South Dakota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Tennessee.

Soft Tyranny States
Since South Dakota and Tennessee appear in the top 5 of all measures, I’m guessing that means they are the best states (and it’s presumably no coincidence that they don’t have broad-based income taxes).

Now let’s review the data for the United States.

Probably the most relevant thing to notice is that economic freedom improved during the Reagan and Clinton years, whereas it worsened under Carter, both Bush Administrations, and Obama.

Soft Tyranny USA

And since America’s last two presidents have imposed a larger burden of government, it’s no surprise that the United States has fallen in both major global measures of economic freedom.

P.S. On a totally separate issue, I’m not surprised to learn that Republicans who are philosophically corrupt sometimes are personally corrupt as well.

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If you’re a libertarian, you generally don’t act and think like other people. Most folks, when they heard about Governor Christie’s bridge-closing scandal, focused on the potential political ramifications.

But not me. My immediate reaction was to think that the problem could have been avoided if the bridge and its various entry points were privately owned. Sort of like the Ambassador Bridge between Canada and Michigan, which is the busiest border crossing in North America. Or the Progreso International Bridge, a major transportation link between Mexico and Texas.

If the George Washington Bridge also had private owners, they would want to maximize the flow of traffic, not arbitrarily close lanes for petty political purposes. So while others may speculate about Chris Christie and the 2016 presidential race, I daydreamed about how privatized bridges would improve transportation (just as I couldn’t stop myself from pontificating about private fire departments when sharing some libertarian humor).

All that being said, I’m digressing before I even get started. The purpose of today’s column is to focus on the real scandal in New Jersey.

New research from the Mercatus Center looks at cash solvency, budget solvency, long-run solvency, and service-level solvency to show which states are fiscally responsible and which states face serious long-run problems.

And while Chris Christie may have taken a few steps to rein in excessive compensation for state bureaucrats (causing me to become giddy with infatuation), he still has a long way to go because the Garden State is in last place in this comprehensive new ranking of fiscal responsibility.

And that means New Jersey is even behind fiscal hell holes such as California, New York, and Illinois.

Here are the key takeaways from the study, which ranks all 50 states.

This paper contributes to that stream of research by applying models of fiscal condition to create indices measuring cash, budget, long-run, and service-level solvency as well as overall fiscal condition at the state level. It also discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solvency index and provides a ranking — based on these indices and using fiscal year 2012 data — of the 50 US states. …Table 9…shows the state rankings based on fiscal condition with all four dimensions taken into account. …the states at the bottom are there due to years of poor financial management decisions, bad economic conditions, or a combination of both. New Jersey and Illinois face similar problems of tax revenues that have not kept up with expenditures, use of budget practices that only appeared to balance their annual budgets, and significant debt levels as a result of decades of using bonds without being able to pay for them. In addition, both states have underfunded their pension systems, resulting in   billions in unfunded liabilities.

Now let’s take a look at the main chart from the study, showing the ranking for all 50 states.

And I want to focus on the bottom 10, which are a rogue’s gallery of big-government basket cases. New Jersey, as already noted, is in last place, but the next-worst state is Connecticut, which has become a fiscal mess ever since making the horrible mistake of adopting an income tax more than two decades ago.

Mercatus State Fiscal Ranking

Illinois is in 48th place, which is not surprising since the state is infamous for tax-and-spend fiscal policy. Massachusetts is number 47, making it the fourth-worst state…just as it is the fourth-worst state in the Tax Freedom Day rankings.

California is number 46, and I was surprised (given Jerry Brown’s attempts to drive successful people from the state) to read in the study that its fiscal condition actually has gotten better in recent years. And no rating of fiscal irresponsibility is complete without New York, which is in 45th place.

Indeed, you’ll notice that there’s a good bit of overlap between the states at the bottom of the Mercatus study and the “death spiral” states that I shared last year. No wonder taxpayers are fleeing these oppressive jurisdictions.

Likewise, you’ll see that there’s also overlap between the highest-ranking states and the states that have avoided the mistake of imposing an income tax.

And since we’re on the topic of top-ranked states, it is worth noting that five of the top 10 don’t have an income tax, but we should issue a caveat. Both Alaska and Wyoming have a lot of natural resources, so politicians in those states have lots of revenue to spend. Indeed, too much if we believe these numbers showing state debt in Alaska.

And the same is true for North Dakota, which makes the mistake of maintaining an income tax while also collecting a flood of severance tax revenue.

P.S. If you want to further explore state fiscal performance, here are four additional rankings.

P.P.S. I have a confession to make. I’m currently on vacation in Nevis with the PotL. Nevis 3Sounds like an idyllic (albeit very temporary) lifestyle, particularly since it’s cold back in Washington. But every night has been a battle because I can’t figure out how to operate the bloody thermostat. It’s automatically set for 64 degrees, which is far too cold for my tastes, but I don’t know how to change the temperature. It’s a digital device and when I move the temperature up or down, the word “set” starts blinking on the screen, but with no indication of how to actually implement that command. Nevis TempSo I have to get up in the middle of the night and turn the device to “on” or “off” depending on whether I’m too cold or too hot. You may be asking yourself why I don’t inquire with the hotel staff, but that’s not an option. A friend on the island arranged for me to rent a private condo, so there’s nobody I can contact. Sort of reminds me of the time in Slovakia when I couldn’t figure out how to operate a shower, or the time in Switzerland when I was baffled by a toilet. And if I can’t figure out how to operate household fixtures, how on earth will I ever figure out how to shrink the size and scope of the federal government.

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There’s an old joke about two guys camping in the woods, when suddenly they see a hungry bear charging over a hill in their direction. One of the guys starts lacing up his sneakers and his friend says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.” The other guys says, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you.”

That’s reasonably amusing, but it also provides some insight into national competitiveness. In the battle for jobs and investments, nations can change policy to impact their attractiveness, but they also can gain ground or lose ground because of what happens in other nations.

The corporate tax rate in the United States hasn’t been changed in decades, for instance, but the United States has fallen further and further behind the rest of the world because other nations have lowered their rates.

Courtesy of a report in the UK-based Telegraph, here’s another example of how relative policy changes can impact growth and competitiveness.

The paper looks at changes in the burden of welfare spending over the past 14 years. The story understandably focuses on how the United Kingdom is faring compared to other European nations.

Welfare spending in Britain has increased faster than almost any other country in Europe since 2000, new figures show.  The cost of unemployment benefits, housing support and pensions as share of the economy has increased by more than a quarter over the past thirteen years – growing at a faster rate than in most of the developed world. Spending has gone up from 18.6 per cent of GDP to 23.7 per cent of GDP – an increase of 27 per cent, according to figures from the OECD, the club of most developed nations. By contrast, the average increase in welfare spending in the OECD was 16 per cent.

This map from the story shows how welfare spending has changed in various nations, with darker colors indicating a bigger expansion in the welfare state.

Welfare Spending - Europe

American readers, however, may be more interested in this excerpt.

In the developed world, only the United States and the stricken eurozone states of Ireland, Portugal and Spain – which are blighted by high unemployment – have increased spending quicker than Britain.

Yes, you read correctly. The United States expanded the welfare state faster than almost every European nation.

Here’s another map, but I’ve included North America and pulled out the figures for the countries that suffered the biggest increases in welfare spending. As you can see, only Ireland and Portugal were more profligate than the United States.

Welfare Spending - NA + WE

Needless to say, this is not a good sign for the United States.

But the situation is not hopeless. The aforementioned numbers simply tell us the rate of change in welfare spending. But that doesn’t tell us whether countries have big welfare states or small welfare states.

That’s why I also pulled out the numbers showing the current burden of welfare spending – measured as a share of economic output – for countries in North America and Western Europe.

This data is more favorable to the United States. As you can see, America still has one of the lowest overall levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

Welfare Spending - NA + WE -Share GDP

Ireland also is in a decent position, so the real lesson of the data is that the United States and Ireland must have been in relatively strong shape back in 2000, but the trend over the past 14 years has been very bad.

It’s also no surprise that France is the most profligate of all developed countries.

Let’s close by seeing if any nations have been good performers. The Telegraph does note that Germany has done a good job of restraining spending. The story even gives a version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule by noting that good policy happens when spending grows slower than private output.

Over the thirteen years from 2000, Germany has cut welfare spending as a share of GDP by 1.5 per cent… Such reductions are possible by increasing welfare bills at a lower rate than growth in the economy.

But the more important question is whether there are nations that get good scores in both categories. In other words, have they controlled spending since 2000 while also having a comparatively low burden of welfare outlays?

Welfare Spending - The Frugal FiveHere are the five nations with the smallest increases in welfare spending since 2000. You can see that Germany had the best relative performance, but you’ll notice from the previous table that Germany is not on the list of five nations with the smallest overall welfare burdens. Indeed, German welfare spending consumes 26.2 percent of GDP, so Germany still has a long way to go.

The nation that does show up on both lists for frugality is Switzerland. Spending has grown relatively slowly since 2000 and the Swiss also have the third-lowest overall burdens of welfare spending.

Hmmm…makes you wonder if this is another sign that Switzerland’s “debt brake” spending cap is a policy to emulate.

By the way, Canada deserves honorable mention. It has the second-lowest overall burden of welfare spending, and it had the sixth-best performance in controlling spending since 2000. Welfare outlays in our northern neighbor grew by 10 percent since 2000, barely one-fourth as fast as the American increase during the reckless Bush-Obama years.

No wonder Canada is now much higher than the United States in measures of economic freedom.

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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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One year ago, I looked at the worst policy developments of 2012.

I had some very good (or should I say bad?) options for that award, including the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, the IRS’s lawless decision to make American banks act as tax collectors for foreign governments, Japan’s higher VAT tax, the California vote for a class-warfare tax hike, and France’s 75 percent income tax rate.

I ultimately decided, perhaps for selfishly sentimental reasons, that the worst development was repeal of the flat tax in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

We’re going to do the same exercise this year, but the glass is going to be half full. Not only will we look at the worst policy developments of 2013, but we’ll also list the best policy developments of the year.

And because I try to be optimistic, we’ll start with the good news.

But remember the rules. We’re looking at policy rather than politics. I know, for instance, that one of my favorite posts in 2013 was the one about Reagan crushing Obama in a hypothetical matchup, but that’s obviously not a policy development.

So what are my choices?

Potential examples of good news include the fact that very little legislation was enacted during the year, the sequester (while it lasted), the overwhelming rejection of class-warfare tax policy in Colorado, and the government shutdown.

Those are all good options, but I think these three developments rank the highest.

1. Obamacare – You’re probably thinking I’m on drugs since Obamacare is listed as good news, but bear with me because I’m engaging in some one-step-backwards-two-steps-forward analysis. More specifically, I think the President’s signature “achievement” has done more than anything else in recent years to discredit big government. I also think the flop of Obamacare has rejuvenated interest in – and support for – the types of policies that would make health care system more affordable and efficient. I’ve always feared that undoing the damage of government intervention in the health sector was our most intractable challenge, but Obama may have given us a path forward and that is worth celebrating. By the way, the Detroit bankruptcy is good news for the same reason. Maybe, just maybe, some people will learn the right lessons when statist policies spectacularly fail.

2. The defeat of pro-gun control politicians in Colorado – I don’t think many people will argue when I say that nothing matters more to politicians than getting reelected. And that’s why I am so happy that two Colorado state senators were kicked out of office because of their votes to impose gun control. And that was then followed by the resignation of another state senator who wanted to avoid the same fate. There aren’t many certainties in life, but I can assure you that pro-gun control politicians all across the nation noticed what happened to these Colorado thugs and are now much less likely to push anti-second amendment initiatives. More broadly, we can feel somewhat optimistic that the right to keep and bear arms has never been in a stronger political position.

3. Spending restraint – This hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves, but the federal budget in 2013 was actually smaller than the federal budget in 2012. And I’m using honest math, not the Washington approach of calling an increase a cut because the budget might have grown even faster. Indeed, the nation actually has enjoyed a two-year spending slowdown that substantially reduced government spending as a share of GDP. In other words, my Golden Rule was in effect! If we could maintain this approach for a few more years, we’d quickly have a balanced budget and hopefully kill off any pressure for tax hikes.

Feel free, by the way, to offer your suggestions in the comment section. Maybe the best news of 2013 was something that I neglected to cover.

Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger.

Potential bad news stories might include the IMF coercing/bribing Albania to get rid of its flat tax, the easy-money policies of the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, the 100th anniversary of the income tax, the global shift to higher tax rates, the seemingly permanent drop in the employment-population ratio, and the fiscal cliff tax hike from last January 1.

Geesh, that’s a depressing list. But there are three options – in my humble opinion – that are even worse.

1. Obamacare – I realize I listed Obamacare as one of the best developments of 2013, but it also has to be one of the worst. The legislation is a toxic stew of spending, taxes, regulation, cronyism, and intervention, and it was based on the absurd theory that you solve government-caused problems by adding even more government. And even though Obamacare has discredited big government and opened the door to real reform, we can’t dismiss the possibility that the law will survive and created more dependency.

2. Erosion of the Rule of Law – One of the defining features of a civilized society is the rule of law. Heck, even if laws are bad, it’s still important for people to know that there are rules and that the government is constrained by those rules. That’s the basic difference between the developed world and the types of despotic rule you find in developing nations (with Argentina being a tragic example). Unfortunately, the Obama White House seems to think that it can arbitrarily change laws or ignore laws simply based on the President’s ideological whims or political needs. This has happened over and over again with Obamacare, but the problem extends to many other issues.

3. Murray-Ryan budget deal – Since I thought the sequester was one of the good things that happened in 2013, you won’t be surprised that a law designed to evade the sequester would make the list of bad policy developments. The budget pact between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray allowed more short-term spending, much of it financed by back-door tax hikes. I’m the first to admit that the spending hikes and tax increases were relatively small compared to the size of the federal Leviathan, but what’s really depressing about the Murray-Ryan deal is that it probably sets the stage for future bad agreements. And this Charlie Brown cartoon shows what frequently happens when Republicans and Democrats decide to negotiate on fiscal policy.

Once again, feel free to offer your suggestions for the worst development of 2013.

On a more personal note, I’m happy to report that I don’t think there were any noteworthy bad developments in my life. Other than getting another year older, which isn’t any fun.

I can,however, report a couple of good developments for the year, including the Princess of the Levant and some better performance on the softball field.

And in the I’m-not-sure-how-to-react category, my favorite daughter got engaged this year. I’m worried this may eventually lead to marriage. And then children.

Which would make me a grandfather, and I’d like to think that I’m much too young for anyone to call me Grandpa!

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It’s time to extinguish any lingering Christmas cheer. Today’s topic is over-bearing and tyrannical tax administration.

To be more specific, we’re going to look at the extent to which taxpayers are mistreated during the process of collecting revenue.

Yes, the amount that governments steal from you also is important, but that’s a topic we’ve already discussed on many occasions.

Moreover, we’re not going to focus on the IRS. Yes, the internal revenue service is infamous for its brutal and intrusive tactics. And I’m embarrassed to note that the United States scored very poorly in a Tax Oppression Index prepared by Switzerland’s Institut Constant.

But I want to focus today on places other than Washington. And the good news (at least relatively speaking) is that some countries scored even lower than the United States. The very worst nation was Italy, and you probably won’t be surprised that Germany (the country that figured out a way to use parking meters to tax prostitutes) and France were among the jurisdictions that also ranked below America.

This story from Brittany provides a rather appropriate glimpse at what it’s like to be a taxpayer in France.

For customers at the Mamm-Kounifl concert-café in Locmiquélic, carrying drinks trays and used glasses back to the bar was a polite tradition. But for social security agency URSAFF, it was also an infringement of labour laws because customers were acting like waiters, French local newspaper Le Télégramme reported.

But what’s really amazing is the way in which France’s revenue-hungry bureaucrats “caught” the alleged scofflaws.

“Around half-past midnight, a customer returned a drinks tray. She passed by the bar to go to the toilets. That was when it all kicked off.   My husband was pinned against the glass by a man. A woman leapt on me, showing her ID card and that’s when I realised it was a URSSAF check. They told me I had been caught using undeclared labour,” owner Markya Le Floch told Le Télégramme. …The authorities initially fined the pub owners €7,900 and briefly placed them in police custody. …URSSAF are still pursuing a social case and are now seeking €9,000 due to non-payment of the original fine.

Wow. This may be even more Orwellian than the FDA raid against the Amish farm that was selling unpasteurized milk to consenting adults. Or more absurd than the DEA busting a grandmother for buying cold medicine.

Imagine if the IRS adopted this French policy. If you take your significant other on a fancy date to McDonald’s and then carry your trash to the garbage receptacles, you’ll be guilty of providing “undeclared labor” and the tax police can then decide to impose taxes and fines because there could have been a taxable employee fulfilling that role.

I’m not joking. That seems to be the premise of the case in France.

Let’s now look at how taxpayers are treated by the various states here in America. Using data from the Council on State Taxation, the Tax Foundation has put together a map with grades for each state based on “good government” principles of tax administration.

Tax Administration Map of States

I’m surprised that Maine and Ohio rank so highly, particularly since neither state gets very good grades based on either Tax Freedom Day, aggregate tax burden, or the State Business Tax Climate.

But I’m not surprised that California ranks at the bottom. The state routinely gets bad grades on various measures of fiscal policy. No wonder so much income is moving out of the state. As for Louisiana, I can understand why Governor Jindal is so anxious to get rid of the state income tax.

Though the absence of a state income tax doesn’t guarantee good tax administration. Nevada, for instance, gets a poor grade in the COST survey.

P.S. If you like cartoons mocking California’s tax-and-spend politicians, click here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. I’ve only shared one French-related cartoon, but you can seem my attempts at humorous captions here, here, and here.

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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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While I’m critical of the overall design and impact of President Obama’s economic policy, I don’t have a partisan agenda and I’m willing to give the White House credit when it’s warranted.

I’ve pointed out, for instance, that Obama has increased spending at a slower rate than his GOP predecessor. That may be damning with faint praise since Bush was a big spender, but at least Obama didn’t open the money spigot in Washington even wider.

I also gave Obama some grudging praise for opposing a French tax harmonization scheme.

Heck, I even went out of my way to find something vaguely positive to say about Obamacare.

And I’ve shared some pro-Obama humor and even (sort of) defended Obama from the accusation that he’s a socialist.

So I think I have at least some ability to dispassionately judge (from a libertarian perspective) how President Obama ranks in comparison to others who have held the office.

I’m motivated to address this issue because several readers sent me an article in the Huffington Post that makes a rather remarkable claim.

Barack Obama is one of the greatest presidents America has ever seen. I believe history will prove this, and with time, he will be remembered in the annals of history as a revered revolutionary.

Even more amazing, the author wasn’t being satirical. He lists 12 specific reasons why he thinks Obama deserves high praise.

1. He is for The People. …2. He is for civil rights. …3. He is for one race – the human race. …4. He is for a healthcare system that brings hope and healing to the hurting. …5.  He is for the middle class. …6. He is for women’s rights. …7. He is for doing away with pomp and circumstance. …8. He is for the environment. …9. He is for veterans. …10. He is for peace. …11. He is for education. …12. He is for entertaining the masses.

If you click through and read the details, you’ll notice that the author almost never provides any details to back up his 12 reasons. He simply asserts that the President has good intentions.

Well, that probably true. But so what? I’m sure Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon also had good intentions.

And when the author does provide details, they are very weak. Let’s look at a few specific claims.

We’re supposed to believe Obama “is for peace” because he was awarded a Nobel Prize immediately after taking office and before he did anything.

His actual record, for what it’s worth, has been to continue many of Bush’s policies and to pursue military intervention in Libya and Syria.

The author says Obama is “for the middle class,” yet that passage of the article doesn’t list a single policy, much less a specific accomplishment.

And there certainly wasn’t any effort to explain how an $8 trillion output gap and a seemingly permanent reduction in the employment-population ratio are good for ordinary people.

Moreover, if Obama “is for a healthcare system that brings hope and healing to the hurting,” then one might expect the author to reconcile that assertion with the fact that Obamacare is causing millions of people to lose their health insurance.

I’m also puzzled by the claim that the President “is for education.” This is the White House, after all, that was so intent on undermining opportunity for disadvantaged kids in Louisiana that even the Washington Post felt compelled to slam the Administration.

There’s no need to go through all 12 “reasons” before reaching the conclusion that there’s no way Obama deserves to be ranked anywhere near the top of the list for best Presidents.

And I’m not basing that on my own ideological preferences. If you want my opinion, Reagan and Coolidge are among the best (with an honorable mention for Bill Clinton) and FDR, Nixon, Wilson, and Hoover are near the bottom.

But even by non-ideological standards, it’s simply not credible to give Obama high marks.

P.S. If I had to guess, I suspect Obama would like to be another FDR. Fortunately, he won’t achieve that goal.

P.P.S. The assertion that Obama is “one of the best Presidents ever” is almost as silly as the claim that he is a conservative.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re comparing Presidents, I can’t resist sharing that the polling data showing that people would overwhelmingly vote for Reagan over Obama.

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The Tax Foundation in Washington does some great work on fiscal issues, but I also admire their use of maps when they want to show how various states perform on key indicators.

They’re best known for “Tax Freedom Day,” which measures how long people have to work each year before they’ve earned enough to satisfy the tax demands of federal, state, and local government. And they have a map so you can easily see how your state ranks.

But my favorite map from the Tax Foundation is the one showing that the geese with the golden eggs are moving from high-tax states to low-tax states. That’s tax competition in action!

I also like their map showing which states have done the best and worst jobs of controlling the burden of government spending, as well as their map showing which states steal the biggest share of economic output from taxpayers.

So it should go without saying that I’m going to share their new State Business Tax Climate Index. And the accompanying map.

Tax Foundation State Tax Ranking

What are some important takeaways from this ranking? Five things caught my eye.

1. It’s a very good idea for a state to not impose an income tax. The top six states all avoid this punitive levy and every no-income tax state is in the top 15. And you won’t be surprised to learn that these states grow faster and create more jobs.

2. It’s just a matter of time before states such as New York and California are beset by fiscal crisis. When a jurisdiction has something special – like California’s climate or the appeal (to some) of New York City – it can get away with imposing higher tax burdens. But there’s a limit, and migration patterns show that productive people are voting with their feet.

3. Scott Walker and Chris Christie often are mentioned as serious 2016 presidential candidates, and both have become well known for trying to deal with the problem of over-compensated state bureaucrats. But they both preside over states in the bottom 10 of this ranking, and presumably should address this problem if they want to demonstrate that they’re on the side of taxpayers.

4. It’s possible for a state to make a dramatic jump. North Carolina currently is one of the bottom 10, but that will soon change because of reforms – including a flat tax – that were enacted this year. As the Tax Foundation noted: “While the state remains ranked 44th for this edition, it will move to as high as 17th as these reforms take effect in coming years.”

5. States also can move dramatically in the wrong direction. Connecticut is now one of America’s least-competitive states, in large part because politicians managed to push through a state income tax in the early 1990s.

P.S. If you like maps, here are some interesting ones, starting with some international comparisons.

Here are some good state maps with useful information.

There’s even a local map.

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I got involved in a bit of a controversy last year about presidential profligacy.

Some guy named Rex Nutting put together some data on government spending and claimed that Barack Obama was the most frugal President in recent history.

I pointed out that Mr. Nutting’s data left something to be desired because he didn’t adjust the numbers for inflation.

Moreover, most analysts also would remove interest spending from the calculations since Presidents presumably shouldn’t be held responsible for servicing the debt incurred by their predecessors.

But even when you make these adjustments and measure inflation-adjusted “primary spending,” it turns out that Nutting’s main assertion was correct. Obama is the most frugal President in modern times.

When you look at the adjusted numbers, though, Reagan does a lot better, ranking a close second to Obama.

I also included Carter, Nixon, and LBJ in my calculations, though it’s worth noting that none of them got a good score. Indeed, President Johnson even scored below President George W. Bush.

Some of you may be thinking that I made a mistake. What about the pork-filled stimulus? And all the new spending in Obamacare?

Most of the Obamacare spending doesn’t begin until 2014, so that wasn’t a big factor. And I did include the faux stimulus. Indeed, I even adjusted the FY2009 and FY2010 numbers so that all of stimulus spending that took place in Bush’s last fiscal year was credited to Obama.

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my misguided buddy Bruce Bartlett has asserted?

Not exactly. Five days after my first post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

And when I removed TARP and other bailouts from the equation, Obama plummeted in the rankings. Instead of first place, he was second-to-last, beating only LBJ.

But this isn’t the end of the story. My analysis last year only looked at the first three years of Obama’s tenure.

We now have the numbers for his fourth year. And if you crank through the numbers (all methodology available upon request), you find that Obama’s numbers improve substantially.

Pres Spending 2013 - PrimaryAs the table illustrates, inflation-adjusted non-interest spending has grown by only 0.2 percent per year. Those are remarkably good numbers, due in large part to the fact that government spending actually fell in nominal terms last year and is expected to shrink again this year.

We haven’t seen two consecutive years of lower spending since the end of the Korean War!

Republicans can argue, of course, that the Tea Party deserves credit for recent fiscal progress, much as they can claim that Clinton’s relatively good numbers were the result of the GOP sweep in the 1994 elections.

I’ll leave that debate to partisans because I now want to do what I did last year and adjust the numbers for TARP and other bailouts.

In other words, how does Obama rank if you adjust for the transitory distorting impact  of what happened during the financial crisis?

Well, as you can see from this final table, Obama’s 2013 numbers are much better than his 2012 numbers. Pres Spending 2013 - Primary Minus BailoutsInstead of being in second-to-last place, he’s now in the middle of the pack.

I used a slightly different methodology this year to measure the impact of TARP and related items, so all of the numbers have changed a bit, but Reagan is still the champ and everyone else is the same order other than Obama.

So what does all this mean?

As I constantly remind people, good fiscal policy occurs when the burden of government spending is falling as a share of economic output.

And this happens when policy makers follow my Golden Rule and restrain spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

That’s actually been happening for the past couple of years. Even after you adjust for the quirks of how TARP repayments get measured.

I’m normally a pessimist, but if advocates of small government can maintain the pressure and get some concessions during the upcoming fights over  spending levels for the new fiscal year and/or the debt limit, we may even see progress next year and the year after that.

And if we eventually get a new crop of policymakers who are willing to enact genuine entitlement reform, the United States may avoid the future Greek-style fiscal crisis that is predicted by the BIS, OECD, and IMF.

That would almost be as good as a national championship for the Georgia Bulldogs!

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About two years ago, I shared a map put together by a pro-statism organization that supposedly showed that welfare benefits were very miserly and not sufficiently generous to lift people out of poverty.

My gut instinct was to reject the findings. As I wrote at the time:

The poverty line is set considerably above a level that would indicate material deprivation…far above the average level of income in most nations of the world. …Welfare checks are just one of many forms of redistribution, and the data used to create the map do not count food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies and a plethora of other means-tested programs.

My skepticism was further augmented when I ran across an amazing chart showing that it made more sense to live off the government in Pennsylvania rather than earn more income.

It turns out that I was right to be skeptical. My colleagues at the Cato Institute have just released a detailed study calculating the amount of handouts available in each state. They then investigated whether the level of redistribution was so high that people might decide it didn’t make sense to be productive members of society.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that it’s better to live off the government in most states.

Welfare benefits continue to outpace the income that most recipients can expect to earn from an entry-level job, and the balance between welfare and work may actually have grown worse in recent years. The current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work. Welfare currently pays more than a minimum-wage job in 35 states, even after accounting for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and in 13 states it pays more than $15 per hour.

Here are some of the details from the study, which used the example of a mother and two children.

…the federal government currently funds 126 separate programs targeted toward low-income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in-kind benefits to individuals. …no individual or family receives benefits from all 72 programs, but many recipients do receive aid from a number of the programs at any given time. …this study seeks to determine the approximate level of benefits that a typical welfare family, consisting of a single mother with two children, might receive, and to compare those benefits with the wages that a recipient would need to earn in order to take home an equivalent income.

What shocked me the most were a couple of tables showing how living off the taxpayers is a pretty good deal.

The first table shows how much a household would have to earn – before tax – to have the same lifestyle that is available from the welfare system. The study also looks at median salary in each state and shows that eight states actually provide handouts that are greater than that amount!

Redistribution Nation Worst 24

The study also reveals that handouts give recipients far more than is needed to reach the federal poverty level. Indeed, the panoply of benefits is so excessive in some places that recipients are pushed to more than twice what is needed to get out of poverty.

Redistribution Nation Poverty Rate

Or maybe it would be more accurate to state that handouts are so excessive that recipients are lured into dependency.

I’ll close with a couple of surprises from the study. I was shocked that Illinois and Maine both ranked among the least extravagant states. Maine “earned” third place in the Moocher Index, so I assumed they would be especially profligate. But I guess having a lot of people on welfare doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re getting a lot of money.

And Illinois has veered far to the left on fiscal policy in recent years, so I assumed politicians were giving out lots of goodies. But apparently bureaucrats are first in line for handouts and that reduces the amount of loot available for other groups.

On the other hand, I didn’t expect to find New Hampshire being about as profligate as Vermont.

Most of the other states are where you would expect them to be. Fiscal hell-holes like New York and California redistribute money like crazy, while zero-income tax states such as Texas, Florida, and Tennessee are comparatively frugal.

P.S. Here’s a map showing which states have the most food stamp dependency.

P.P.S. Let’s not forget that the poverty rate was falling steadily before the federal government declared a “War on Poverty.”

P.P.P.S. If you’re thinking about moving, you may want to avoid “death spiral states.”

P.P.P.P.S. The U.K. welfare system also makes work unattractive compared to living off taxpayers.

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Back in 2010, I put together a “Moocher Index” as a rough measure of which states had the highest levels of welfare dependency after adjusting for poverty rates.

My goal was to answer this question.

Is there a greater willingness to sign up for income redistribution programs, all other things being equal, from one state to another?

It turned out that there were huge differences among states. Nearly 18 percent of non-poor Vermont residents were utilizing one or more welfare programs, putting them at the top of the Moocher Index.

In Nevada, by contrast, less the 4 percent of non-poor residents had their snouts in the public trough.

Does this mean Nevada residents are more self-reliant and Vermont residents are culturally statist?

To be perfectly frank, I don’t know, in part because the Moocher Index was an indirect measure of attitudes about dependency.

So I was very interested when I came across some state-by-state numbers from the Department of Agriculture showing food stamp participation compared to food stamp eligibility.

Food Stamp Participation Rate

There are some clear similarities between these food stamp numbers and the Moocher Index. Maine and Vermont are in the top 3 of both lists, which doesn’t reflect well on people from that part of the country.

And Nevada and Colorado are in the bottom 10 of both lists.

But there’s no consistent pattern. Mississippi and Hawaii are in the top 10 of the Moocher Index but bottom 10 for food stamp utilization.

What really stands out, though, is that the people of California win the prize for self reliance, at least with regard to food stamps. Only 55 percent of eligible people from the Golden State have signed up for the program. Doesn’t make sense when you look at some of the crazy things that are approved by California voters, but I assume the numbers are accurate.

I’m also surprised that folks from New Jersey are relatively unlikely to utilize food stamps.

On the other hand, why are Tennessee residents so willing to use my wallet to buy food?

As you can see from the map, they not only have a very high participation/eligibility rate, but also have one of the highest overall levels of food stamp dependency.

Oregon, not surprisingly, always does poorly, whether we’re looking at a map or a list.

Let’s close with a few real-world examples of what we’re getting in exchange for the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent each year for food stamps.

With stories like this, I’m surprised my head didn’t explode during this debate I did on Larry Kudlow’s show.

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I’ve relentlessly complained that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate among all developed nations.

And if you look at all the world’s countries, our status is still very dismal. According to the the Economist, we have the second highest corporate tax rate, exceeded only by the United Arab Emirates.

But some people argue that the statutory tax rate can be very misleading because of all the other policies that impact the actual tax burden on companies.

That’s a very fair point, so I was very interested to see that a couple of economists at a German think tank put together a “tax attractiveness” ranking based on 16 different variables. The statutory tax rate is one of the measures, of course, but they also look at policies such as “the taxation of dividends and capital gains, withholding taxes, the existence of a group taxation regime, loss offet provision, the double tax treaty network, thin capitalization rules, and controlled foreign company (CFC) rules.”

It turns out that these additional variables can make a big difference in the overall attractiveness of a nation’s corporate tax regime. As you can see from this list of top-10 and bottom-10 nations, the United Arab Emirates has one of the world’s most attractive corporate tax systems, notwithstanding  having the highest corporate tax rate.

Unfortunately, the United States remains mired near the bottom.

Tax Attractiveness Top-Bottom 10

The “good news” is that we beat out Argentina and Venezuela, two of the world’s most corrupt and despotic nations.

Not surprisingly, so-called tax havens dominate the top spots in the ranking. And that’s the case even though financial privacy laws are not part of the equation.

Here are all the scores from the report. They listed nations in alphabetical order, so it’s not very user-friendly if you want to make comparisons. But a simple rule-of-thumb is that any score about .6000 is relatively good and any score below .4000 suggests a country is shooting itself in the foot.

Tax Attractiveness Ranking

For what it’s worth, Switzerland and Estonia exceed the .6000 threshold, as one might expect, but I was surprised that both Hong Kong and Liechtenstein were in the middle of the pack. Heck, both nations scored worse than France!

But that gives me an opportunity to issue a very important caveat. It’s good to have an attractive corporate tax system, but there are dozens of other factors that help determine a nation’s prosperity and competitiveness. Indeed, fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a country’s score in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. So not only is it important to also look at other tax policies and the overall burden of government spending to gauge a nation’s fiscal policy, you also need to look at other big factors such as monetary policy, trade policy, and regulatory policy.

As such, even though it’s galling that the American corporate tax system ranks below France (and Italy, Greece, Ukraine, Nigeria, etc), the United States fortunately does better in most other areas. That being said, I’m quite worried that we’ve dropped from 3rd place in the overall Economic Freedom of the World rankings when Bill Clinton left office to 18th place in the most recent rankings, so the trend obviously isn’t very encouraging.

Another caveat to keep in mind that the rankings are for 2005-2009, so some nations will have moved up or down since then. I would be very surprised, for instance, if Cyprus was still in the top 10. And it’s quite like that the U.S. score dropped as well, thanks to the tax increases in Obamacare and the “fiscal cliff” deal.

P.S. I’ve never seen a ranking of nations based solely on personal income taxes, but the Liberales Institut in Switzerland put together a “Tax Oppression Index” for industrialized nations and the United States scored 19th out of 30 nations in that measure of how individual taxpayers are treated.

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I don’t write or speak about education very much, but, when asked, I explain that America has a very costly and inefficient government school monopoly.

Education spending Cato chartThe strongest piece of evidence is an amazing chart put together by a Cato colleague. It shows that education spending has skyrocketed while educational performance has stagnated.

One of my favorite soundbites, when discussing this issue, is that the U.S. spends more per capita than any nation other than Switzerland, but we get very sub-par results for all that money.

According to new data, though, I can no longer make that assertion. I’d like to say it’s because we now get above-average results, but the real reason is because we’ve now surpassed Switzerland to become the biggest spenders on education.

But we still get a crummy return on all that money that is spent.

Here are the key findings from an OECD study, as reported by the AP.

The United States spends more than other developed nations on its students’ education each year… Despite the spending, U.S. students still trail their rivals on international tests. …brand-new and experienced teachers alike in the United States out-earn most of their counterparts around the globe.

Now let’s look at some of the grim details.

…the United States spent $15,171 on each young person in the system — more than any other nation covered in the report. That sum inched past some developed countries and far surpassed others. Switzerland’s total spending per student was $14,922… The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person. …The United States routinely trails its rival countries in performances on international exams despite being among the heaviest spenders on education. U.S. fourth-graders are 11th in the world in math in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a separate measure of nations against each other. U.S. eighth-graders ranked ninth in math, according to those 2011 results. The Program for International Student Assessment measurement found the United States ranked 31st in math literacy among 15-year-old students and below the international average. The same 2009 tests found the United States ranked 23rd in science among the same students, but posting an average score. …The average first-year high school teacher in the United States earns about $38,000. OECD nations pay their comparable educators just more than $31,000. …The average high school teacher in the United States earns about $53,000, well above the average of $45,500 among all OECD nations.

Here’s the chart from the OECD study showing per-student spending.

OECD Education Spending Rankings

So we spend more, pay more to our bureaucrats, yet we get worse results. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the education monopoly.

Oh, by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are even worse than we think. Check out this Cato video, which reveals that politicians and bureaucrats hide the real cost of their inefficient and wasteful monopoly.

One reason the system is so expensive is that we squander so much money on bureaucratic overhead. But I guess we need all those paper pushers so we can stop little kids from engaging in terrorist behavior.

But you have to give the teacher unions credit for chutzpah. One of the union bosses actually had the gall to ignore the actual findings in the study and to assert that taxpayers aren’t doing enough!

“When people talk about other countries out-educating the United States, it needs to be remembered that those other nations are out-investing us in education as well,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union.

Not that I can blame union bosses and other defenders of the status quo. They’ve got a great scam going, so why not blatantly prevaricate in hopes that the gravy train will continue.

What makes this situation so tragic is that we have strong proof that we could get much better outcomes by shifting to a system of school choice.

But that’s a difficult fight. The teacher unions understandably want to preserve their undeserved privileges. What really irks me, though, is that some people side with the unions for political purposes, even though it means they deliberately sacrifice the best interests of children. That’s a harsh accusation, I realize, but I think it describes both President Obama and the NAACP.

All the more reason to get government out of the education business.

Though this is not just an issue of government inefficiency. Other nations have government-run education systems and they spend less and produce better results.

In a few cases, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, It’s quite likely that school choice helps to explain better outcomes. But what about other nations? Is there something about the American system that makes it especially wasteful?

P.S. This is a depressing post, so let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that education spending has been reduced.

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I’ve complained endlessly about America’s bloated and expensive government bureaucracies. It irks me that people in the productive sector get slammed with ever-higher taxes in part to support a bunch of paper pushers, regulators, cronies, busy bodies, hacks, and others who have climbed on the gravy train of public sector employment.

It even bothers me that bureaucrats put in fewer hours on the job than private-sector workers, even though I realize the economy probably does better when government employees are lazy (after all, we probably don’t want hard-working OSHA inspectors, Fannie and Freddie regulators, and IRS bureaucrats).

But sometimes it helps to realize that things could be worse. And based on some international data from my “friends” at the OECD, let’s be thankful the United States isn’t Denmark.

That’s because nearly 20 percent of Denmark’s economic output is diverted to pay the salaries and benefits of bureaucrats, compared to “only” about 11 percent of GDP in the United States.

Bureaucrat Costs

Not only are bureaucrats nearly twice as expensive in Denmark as in the United States, they’re also much more expensive in Denmark than in other Nordic nations.

Speaking of Nordic nations, they tend to get bad scores because a very large share of their populations are sucking at the government employment teat.

Bureaucrat share of labor force

Whether we’re looking at the total cost of the bureaucracy or the number of bureaucrats, the United States is a middle-of-the-pack country.

But I am somewhat surprised by some of the other results.

  • Germany is significantly better than the United States, whether measured by the cost of the bureaucracy or the size of the bureaucracy.
  • Japan also does much better than America, notwithstanding that nation’s other problems.
  • In the I’m-not-surprised category, France does poorly and Switzerland does well.
  • To see where bureaucrats are most overpaid, look at the nations (particularly Greece, but also Portugal and Spain) where overall pay is a very large burden but bureaucrats are not a big share of the workforce.
  • To see where the trends are most worrisome, look at the changes over time. The total cost of bureaucracy, for instance, jumped considerably between 2000 and 2009 in Ireland, Greece, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain, and the United States. So much for “austerity.”

P.S. These numbers are only for OECD nations, so it’s quite possible that other jurisdictions are worse. To cite just one example, I was one of the researchers for the Miller-Shaw Commission, which discovered that fiscal problems in the Cayman Islands are almost entirely a function of too many bureaucrats with too much compensation.

P.P.S. Here’s my video on the cost of bureaucracy in the United States.

P.P.P.S. Denmark has a bloated and costly bureaucracy, but it compensates by having very pro-market policies in areas other than fiscal policy.

P.P.P.P.S. Perhaps the numbers are bad in Denmark because people like Robert Nielson are listed on government payrolls as independent leisure consultants?

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Sometimes I myopically focus on fiscal policy, implying that the key to prosperity is small government.

But I’ll freely admit that growth is maximized when you have small government AND free markets.

That being said, our goal should be to expand freedom, not merely to have the largest possible GDP.

Which is why the Freedom Index is a good complement to Economic Freedom of the World.

It shows, for instance, that Singapore may be ranked #2 for economic freedom, but it is only #39 when you look at all freedoms.

We also have a comprehensive ranking of economic and personal freedom for the 50 states.

Here are the full rankings from the newly released Freedom in the 50 States from the Mercatus Center, showing North Dakota as the state with the most freedom, with South Dakota (#2), Tennessee (#3), New Hampshire (#4), and Oklahoma (#5) also deserving praise for high scores.

Mercatus State Freedom Ranking

What makes Freedom in the 50 States so interesting is that you can mix and match variables based on your own preferences.

I checked the “fiscal” and “tax burden” categories, and South Dakota (no state income tax!) jumped to #1 for both of those measures.

You won’t be surprised to learn that New York is the worst state, not only overall, but also for various fiscal policy measures.

Who would have guessed, by the way, that there’s a “bachelor party” category based on laws governing alcohol, marijuana, prostitution, and fireworks. Interesting, Massachusetts is ranked #1, though I suspect most guys will still opt for #3-ranked Nevada.

P.S. I must be learning. I grew up in New York, which is #50 in the rankings of freedom in the states, and then in Connecticut, which ranks only #40. But I went to college in Georgia, which is #9 in the rankings, and I now live in the Virginia, which is #8. But I somehow doubt that I’ll ever wind up in North Dakota.

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The food stamp program seems to be a breeding ground of waste, fraud, and abuse. Some of the horror stories I’ve shared include:

With stories like this, I’m surprised my head didn’t explode during this debate I did on Larry Kudlow’s show.

So exactly how bad is the food stamp program?

One way of measuring the cost of the program, both to taxpayers and to the people who get trapped in dependency, is to see what share of a state’s population is utilizing the program.

I just did a “Mirror, Mirror” post on states with the most education bureaucrats compared to teachers and got a lot of good feedback, so let’s do the same thing for food stamps.

Here’s a rather disturbing map from the Washington Post.

Food Stamp Map

A couple of things stand out. I can understand Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico being among the worst states because they have relatively low average incomes. And that’s sort of an excuse for Tennessee, though it’s worth noting that economically and demographically similar states such as Georgia and Alabama don’t fall into the same dependency trap.

Why such a significant handout culture?

But the state that stands out is Oregon. Based on the state’s income, there’s no reason for more than 20 percent of resident’s to be on the dole. The state does get a “high” ranking on the Moocher Index, so there’s some evidence of an entitlement mentality. And welfare handouts also are above average in the Beaver State as well.

It’s also disappointing to see that food stamp dependency has doubled since 2008 in Florida, Rhode Island, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. Though it’s a credit to the people of Utah that they’re still in the least-dependent category. But the trend obviously is very bad.

And it’s also depressing to look at the bar chart on the right and see that spending on the program has tripled in the past 10 years. Heck, food stamps were about 70 percent of the cost of a recent Senate “farm bill.”

P.S. A local state legislator asked an official in Richmond why Virginia got such a bad score in the ranking of teachers compared to education bureaucrats. The good news, so to speak, is that Virginia is not as bad as suggested by the official numbers. According to the response sent to this lawmaker, “VDOE has determined that the data it reported on school division personnel and assignments to NCES for 2005-2006 through 2009-2010 through the US Department of Education’s EdFacts Portal were inaccurate.”

The bad news, as you can see from this table, is that there are still more edu-crats than teachers, but the ratio apparently isn’t as bad with this updated data.

Virginia Bureaucrat-Teacher Numbers

As a Virginia taxpayer, I suppose I should be happy. But it’s hard to get overly excited when other states are taking positive steps to bring choice and competition to education, and the best thing I can say about the Old Dominion is that we’re not quite as infested with bureaucrats as we originally thought.

P.P.S. I guess I should give the left-wing Washington Post some credit for sharing the map on food stamp dependency. And, to be fair, the paper did reprint this remarkable chart showing how bad Obama’s record is on jobs compared to Reagan and Clinton. And the paper also printed this chart showing how the economy’s performance is way below average under Obama.

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I like rankings and maps because you get to see a lot of information in a single image.

I’ve shared some maps making very interesting international comparisons.

Here are some good state maps with useful information.

And I even have a local map.

Now we have a map, based on some research from the Friedman Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, showing which states have the most education bureaucrats compared to actual educators.

Non-teacher to Teacher Ratio Map

I’m ashamed that my state of Virginia is the worst in the nation. Maybe paying for this bureaucratic bloat explains why our Governor recently broke his promise and imposed a huge tax increase.

I’m also shocked that Illinois is one of the best states in the nation, at least by this measure. Though I suspect this is the exception to the rule and the Prairie State will still be neck and neck with California in the race to bankruptcy.

Though Illinois is much closer to the bottom than to the top in the “Moocher Index,” so maybe it’s not as bad as we think.

P.S. If you like this “educrat” ranking, here’s a “Poverty Pimp” ranking of “public welfare” bureaucrats compared to state population. Ohio and Alaska do poorly in both, for what it’s worth.

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I’ve always been a big fan of Economic Freedom of the World because it provides a balanced and neutral measure of which nations do best in providing free markets and small government.

And I like it even when it gives me bad news. It’s somewhat depressing, after all, to read that the United States has dropped from the #3 nation when Bill Clinton left office to the #18 country in the most recent index.

But for all its many positive attributes, Economic Freedom of the World isn’t a comprehensive measure of liberty. That’s why I’m very glad to see that Ian Vasquez and Tanja Stumberger have put together a Freedom Index designed to measure economic and personal liberty.

And since they’re both sensible people, their definition of personal liberty is very sound – i.e., the freedom to be left alone and not harassed, persecuted, or annoyed by government.

Here’s their description of what the Freedom Index is designed to measure.

…we use indicators that are as consistent as possible with the concept of negative liberty: the absence of coercive constraint on the individual. We do not attempt to measure positive freedom…nor do we measure so-called “claim freedoms,” which often become government-imposed attempts at realizing positive freedoms (e.g., the “right” or freedom to a have job or housing). …This index of freedom also does not incorporate measures of democracy or “political freedom.” …Democracy may be more consistent than other forms of government at safeguarding freedom, but it is not freedom, nor does it necessarily guarantee freedom. …We combine economic freedom measures from the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) index with measures of what we somewhat imprecisely call civil or personal  freedoms. The economic freedom index and the personal freedom index we devise each receive half the weight in the overall index.

Here are some additional details on the personal freedom score.

For the personal freedom sub-index, we use 34 variables covering 123 countries… The index is divided into four categories: 1) Security and  Safety; 2) Freedom of Movement; 3) Freedom of Expression; and 4) Relationship Freedoms. …We have tried to capture the degree to which  people are free to enjoy the major civil liberties—freedom of speech, religion, and association and assembly—in each country in our survey.  In addition, we include indicators of crime and violence, freedom of movement, and legal discrimination against homosexuals.

So how do nations compare with this system?

New Zealand is the nation with the most freedom, followed by the Netherlands and Hong Kong. The United States is #7

Freedom Index Top 20

By the way, if you’re wondering about places to avoid on your next overseas vacation, Zimbabwe is in last place, followed by Burma and Pakistan.

And if you want to maximize your personal liberty, but aren’t as concerned about economic liberty, the top nations are the Netherlands (9.5), Uruguay (9.4), and Norway/Japan/New Zealand (9.2).

If you want to experiment with a life of very limited personal liberty, your “best” choices are Pakistan (3.1), Zimbabwe (3.2), Sri Lanka (3.4), and Iran (3.6).

Last but not least, here’s the video I narrated from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that explains in more detail the economic-freedom component of the Freedom Index.

Hmmm…more growth and prosperity with free markets and small government. Such a novel concept!

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Rankings can be very useful tools, assuming the methodology is reasonable and the authors use robust data. I’ve cited many of them.

But I’ve also run into some really strange rankings since starting this blog, some of which are preposterous and others of which are rather subjective.

That last one was good for my ego. My only comment is that I wish that I had real influence.

Speaking of preposterous rankings, I have something new for the list.

There’s a group that puts out something called the “Happy Planet Index,” which supposedly is a “global measure of sustainable well-being.”

But it’s really an anti-energy consumption ranking, modified by life expectancy data along with some subjective polling data about lifestyles. And it leads to some utterly absurd conclusions.

Here’s their map of the world. All you really need to know is that it’s supposedly bad to be a red country.

I’m perfectly willing to agree that people in Afghanistan and Angola are not part of a “happy planet,” but do they really expect people to believe that the United States is in the bottom category?

I’m not being jingoistic. Yes, I am a patriot in the right sense of the word, so I would like the United States to be at the top of most rankings.

But my job is to criticize bad public policy, so my life would be rather dull if the crowd in Washington adopted a much-needed policy of benign neglect for the economy.

My real gripe is that some of the world’s main cesspools get high rankings. The United States is 105th according to the clowns who put together the rankings, while Cuba somehow came in 12th place.

Venezuela also ranks near the top, and other jurisdictions that score at least 50 places above America include Albania, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq, Moldova, and Tajikistan.

It’s not just that those nations all rank about the United States. They also are ahead of Sweden, Canada, Australia, Iceland, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

And I’d rather live in any of those nations than live in any of the ones I listed that got good scores according to the poorly named Happy Planet Index.

Heck, I’d also prefer to live in some of the nations that score even lower than the United States, such as Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, or Luxembourg.

The Luxembourg ranking is particularly absurd. It is down near the bottom, with a ranking of 138 and trailing such garden spots as Burkina Faso and the Congo.

But it also happens to be one of the world’s richest nations according to World Bank data, in part because it is a very good tax haven.

But the nuts who put together the Crazy Planet Index give Luxembourg the second-to-worst ranking for its “ecological footprint,” and I guess you’re supposed to be unhappy if you have enough wealth to use a lot of energy.

Gee, too bad Luxembourg couldn’t be more like the nations that get the highest rankings for their “ecological footprint.” The people of Afghanistan and Haiti must be very, very happy about that high honor.

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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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Every year, I look forward to the annual releases of both Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom. With their comprehensive rankings, these two publications enable interested parties to compare nations and see which countries are moving in the right direction.

As an American, I’m ashamed to say that these publications also show which nations are moving in the wrong direction. And the United States ranks poorly by this metric, having dropped from 3rd place to 10th place since 2000 according to Economic Freedom of the World.

The U.S. also has dropped to 10th place in the Index of Economic Freedom, and is now ranked only as a “mostly free” nation.

Some people dismiss these pieces of data because the two rankings are considered to reflect a pro-free market bias.

But the folks at the World Economic Forum surely can’t be pigeonholed as a bunch of small-government libertarians, and the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report shows the same trend.

The United States took the top spot in the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index as recently as 2007 and 2008, but then dropped to 2nd place in 2009.

I think Bush bears the full blame for that unfortunate development. But the decline has continued in recent years, and Obama deserves a good part of the blame for the drop to 4th place in 2010.

The U.S. then fell to 5th place last year, in part because of horrible scores for “Wastefulness of Government Spending” (68th place) and “Burden of Government Regulation” (49th place).

Given this dismal trend, I opened the just-released 2012 Report with considerable trepidation. And my fears were justified. The United States has now dropped to 7th place.

Here is some of what was said about America.

The United States continues the decline that began a few years ago, falling two more positions to take 7th place this year. Although many structural features continue to make its economy extremely productive, a number of escalating and unaddressed weaknesses have lowered the US ranking in recent years. …some weaknesses in particular areas have deepened since past assessments. The business community continues to be critical toward public and private institutions (41st). In particular, its trust in politicians is not strong (54th), perhaps not surprising in light of recent political disputes that threaten to push the country back into recession through automatic spending cuts. Business leaders also remain concerned about the government’s ability to maintain arms-length relationships with the private sector (59th), and consider that the government spends its resources relatively wastefully (76th). A lack of macroeconomic stability continues to be the country’s greatest area of weakness (111th, down from 90th last year).

For people who like to look at the glass as being 1/10th full, the U.S. does beat Portugal (116ht place) in the score for macroeconomic stability.

Here are a few additional highlights. Or lowlights might be a better word.

  • The U.S. scores 42nd in property rights, behind Namibia and Uruguay.
  • The U.S. ranks 59th in government favoritism, behind Guinea and Bolivia.
  • The U.S. scores 76th in wastefulness in government spending, behind Mali and Nicaragua.
  • The U.S. also is 76th in the burden of government regulation, behind Kenya and Thailand.
  • The U.S. scores 69th in extent of taxation, behind Gambia and Ethiopia.
  • The U.S. ranks 103rd for total tax rate, behind Greece (!) and Philippines.

Now time for some caveats. The WEF report is based on survey results, for better or worse, and it also probably is best characterized as a measure of the attitudes of the business community rather than an estimate of economic freedom.

Regardless of limitations, though, it is a good publication. As such, it is downright embarrassing to see the U.S. fare so poorly in key indices – particularly when third-world nations score better.

We know that small government and free markets are the keys to prosperity. Bush took us in the wrong direction, however, and Obama is repeating his mistakes.

So don’t be surprised to see the American score decline further as additional reports are issued.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn. Since the declining score in the U.S. is partly due to poor fiscal policy, you may want to peruse this video primer on the size of government.

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I’ve been quite involved in the debate over which Presidents were big spenders.

I started with an analytical post that crunched the data from the Office of Management and Budget, and I showed that Obama was only a fiscal conservative if you ignored the budget impact of the TARP bailout.

I then augmented that analysis with a second post showing in more detail that Obama deserves a bad grade because of spending on social welfare programs.

Last but not least, my most recent post stated that Bush also was a big spender and I cited Jonah Goldberg’s excellent column suggesting that Romney should admit that Republicans bear some blame for the fiscal mess in Washington.

So we’ve been entirely too serious about this topic. Time for some cartoons! We’ll start with this gem from Eric Allie.

Now let’s look at a good one from Lisa Benson. The dirt being swept under the carpet is TARP, of course.

I think that’s the first cartoon I’ve used from Mr. Allie, but I have shared Ms. Benson’s work before. You can find some of my favorites here, herehere and here.

P.S. Getting back to the serious issue, much of the debate over Obama’s spending record revolves around TARP, but there’s also some discussion of how to divvy up blame for spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008). You can find some of my analysis on that issue here and here.

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Last week, I jumped into the surreal debate about whether Obama has been the most fiscally conservative president in recent history.

I sliced the historical data from the Office of Management and Budget a couple of ways, showing that overall spending has grown at a relatively slow rate during the Obama years. Adjusted for inflation, both total spending and primary spending (total spending minus interest payments) have been restrained.

So does this make Obama a fiscal conservative?

And how can these numbers make sense when the President saddled the nation with the faux stimulus and Obamacare?

Good questions. It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

The combination of those two factors made a big difference in the numbers. Here’s another table from my prior post, looking at how the presidents rank when you subtract both defense and the fiscal impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

All of a sudden, Obama drops down to the second-to-last position, sandwiched between two of the worst presidents in American history. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

But this ranking is incomplete. At that point, I was trying to gauge Obama’s record on domestic spending, and the numbers certainly provide some evidence that he is a stereotypical big-spending liberal.

But the main debate is about which president was the biggest overall spender. So I’ve run through the numbers again, and here’s a new table looking at the rankings based on average annual changes in inflation-adjusted primary spending, minus the distorting impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

Obama is still in the second-to-last position, but spending is increasing by “only” 5.5 percent per year rather than 7.0 percent annually. This is obviously because defense spending is not growing as fast as domestic spending.

Reagan remains in first place, though his score drops now that his defense buildup is part of the calculations. Clinton, conversely, stays in second place but his score jumps because he benefited from the peace dividend after Reagan’s policies led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Let’s now look at these numbers from a policy perspective. Rahn Curve research shows that government is far too big today, so the goal of fiscal policy should be to restrain the burden of government spending relative to economic output.

This means that policy moves in the right direction when government grows more slowly than the private sector, as it did under Reagan and Clinton.

But if government spending is growing faster than the productive sector of the economy, as has been the case during the Bush-Obama years, then a nation eventually will become Greece.

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A financial columnist named Rex Nutting recently triggered a firestorm of controversy by claiming that Barack Obama is not a big spender.

Here’s the chart he prepared, which certainly seems to indicate that Obama is a fiscal conservative. Not only that, it shows that Republicans generally are the big spenders, while Democrats are frugal with other people’s money.

In some ways, these numbers don’t surprise me. I’ve explained before that Bush bears a lot of blame for the big expansion in the burden of government this century, and I’ve specifically pointed out that he deserves the blame for most of the higher spending from the 2009 fiscal year (which began October 1, 2008).

That being said, Nutting’s numbers seemed a bit nutty. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Nutting’s numbers actually seem accurate, including the fact that he decided that Obama should be responsible for $140 billion of the spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (a number he may have taken from one of my posts).

But sometimes accurate can be misleading, so I decided to dig into the data.

I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget from the Office of Management and Budget, and I calculated all the numbers for every President since LBJ (with the exception of Gerald Ford, whose 2-year reign didn’t seem worth including).

But I corrected a big mistake in Nutting’s analysis. I adjusted the numbers for inflation, using OMB’s GDP deflator.

As you can see, this changes the results. My chart isn’t as pretty, but based on the inflation-adjusted average annual growth of outlays, it shows that Clinton was the most frugal president, followed by the first President Bush and Obama.

With his guns-n-butter Keynesianism, it’s no big surprise that LBJ ranks last. And “W” also gets a very low grade.

But then I figured we should take interest payments out of the budget and focus on inflation-adjusted “primary spending.” After all, Presidents shouldn’t be held responsible for the national debt that existed before they took office.

Looking at these numbers, it turns out that Obama does win the prize for being the most fiscally conservative president in recent memory. Reagan jumps to second place. Clinton is in third place, which won’t surprise people who watched this video, while W and LBJ again are in last place.

But I don’t want my Republican friends to get too angry with me, so let’s expand our analysis. Just as we don’t want to blame Presidents for net interest payments on debt that was accrued before their tenure, perhaps we should make sure they don’t get credit or blame for defense outlays that often are dictated by external events.

There’s obviously room for disagreement, but most people will agree that the Cold War and 9/11 meant higher defense spending, regardless of which party controlled the White House. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Empire inevitably meant lower military expenditures, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge.

So let’s now look at primary spending after subtracting defense outlays (still adjusting for inflation, of course). All of a sudden, Reagan jumps to the top of the list by a comfortable margin. LBJ and W continue to score poorly, but Nixon takes over last place.

But it’s also worth noting that Obama still scores relatively well, beating Clinton for second place. Inflation-adjusted domestic spending (which is mostly what we’re measuring) has grown by 2.0 percent annually during his three years in office.

So does that mean Obama deserves re-election? Well, before you answer, I want to make one final calculation. Just as there are good reasons to exclude interest payments because they’re not something a president can control, we also should take a look at what spending would be if we don’t count the cost of bailouts.

To be sure, these types of expenditures can be controlled, but if we go with the assumption that the federal government was going to re-capitalize the banking system (whether using the good FDIC-resolution approach or the corrupt TARP approach), then it seems that Presidents shouldn’t get arbitrary blame or credit simply because some financial institutions failed during their tenure.

So let’s take the preceding set of numbers and subtract out the long-run numbers for deposit insurance, as well as the TARP outlays since 2009. And keep in mind that repayments of TARP monies (as well as deposit insurance premiums) show up in the budget as “negative spending.”

As you can see, this produces a remarkable result. All of a sudden, Obama drops from second to second-to-last.

This is because there was a lot of TARP spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009), which created an artificially high benchmark. And then repayments by banks during Obama’s fiscal years counted as negative spending.

When you subtract out the big TARP spending surge, as well as the repayments, then Bush 43 doesn’t look quite as bad (though still worse than Carter and Clinton), while Obama takes a big fall.

In other words, Obama’s track record does show that he favors an expanding social welfare state. Outlays on those programs have jumped by 7.0 percent annually. And that’s after adjusting for inflation! Not as bad as Nixon, but that’s not saying much since he was one of America’s most statist presidents.

Allow me to conclude with some caveats. None of the tables perfectly captures what any president’s fiscal record. Even my first table may be wrong if you want to blame or credit presidents for the inflation that occurs on their watch. And there certainly are strong arguments that bailout spending and defense spending are affected by presidential policies rather than external events.

And keep in mind that presidents don’t have full power over fiscal policy. The folks on Capitol Hill are the ones who actually enact the bills and appropriate the money.

Moreover, the federal government is akin to a big rusty cargo ship that is traveling in a certain direction, and presidents are like tugboats trying to nudge the boat one way or the other.

But enough equivocating. The four different tables at least show more clearly which presidents presided over faster-growing government or slower-growing government. More importantly, the various tables provide a good idea of where most of the new spending was taking place.

We can presumably say Reagan and Clinton were comparatively frugal, and we can also say that Nixon, LBJ, and Bush 43 were relatively profligate. As for Obama, I think his tugboat is pushing in the wrong direction, but it’s only apparent when you strip out the distorting budgetary impact of TARP.

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