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Archive for April, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine v Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine, by contrast, has only climbed to 6.16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And here’s yours truly playing tourist.

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

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

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

The solution, he claims, is confiscatory tax rates.

I’m not impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore vs Jamaica

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

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

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

Keith is correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I periodically (some would say over and over and over again, though occasionally made more palatable by using humor and cartoons) warn that the United States should not become a European-style welfare state.

But I wonder whether I spend enough time explaining why this would be a bad idea.

After all, some people may think that you get more security and benefits with the European approach, so why not head in that direction. And these folks aren’t just pointing with approval to the Nordic nations. A writer for the New York Times actually thinks we should copy Italy.

So it is fortuitous that I’m currently in Poland as part of the Free Market Road Show and got to hear a speech by Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz of the Warsaw School of Economics (and former Deputy Prime Minister and head of Poland’s central bank).

Prof. Balcerowicz specifically compared economic performance in Western Europe and the United States, and the results are not very favorable to the welfare state.

Standard economic theory suggests that poor nations should catch up with rich nations. This “convergence theory” actually worked for the first few decades after World War II.

But as you can see from Prof. Balcerowicz’s chart, the convergence process slowed down after the welfare state began to expand in the 1960s. And after the pro-growth reforms of the Reagan years and Clinton years, the United States actually has opened up a bigger lead.

Convergence Balcerowicz

But maybe this chart doesn’t make things sufficiently clear. So I went to the OECD website and found the most recently available data on “average individual consumption,” which is a measure of actual living standards.

OECD AIC

The United States is way ahead of Europe. The only three nations close to us include Norway, which has the good fortune of major oil fields, and Luxembourg and Switzerland, which have the advantage of being tax havens.

By the way, I also shared that data series last year, and you can also see some older AIC data in this 2010 post. But it doesn’t matter how you slice the numbers or when you look at the numbers, the United States has a big lead.

And that lead is now getting larger over time. Heck, the Europeans apparently think any growth – even anemic growth of less than 1 percent – is worth celebrating. Talk about low expectations!

This is why we don’t want to copy Europe. If higher living standards are a good idea (and they are!), then we should copy Hong Kong and Singapore, not France and Italy.

P.S. I’ve always thought that this comparison of the per-capita income of Swedes in Sweden and the per-capita income of folks of Swedish ancestry in the United States is very persuasive.

P.P.S. Leszek Balcerowicz has the honor of being named this year’s winner of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. He’ll receive his award at a very nice black-tie dinner in New York City on May 21.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of swanky black-tie events, the PotL and I got dressed up last Thursday for the annual CIFA dinner in Monaco.

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She’s a lucky girl, huh?

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What happens when you mix something good with something bad?

To be more specific, what happens when you have a big success story, like the spending cap in Switzerland that has dramatically slowed the growth of government, and then expect intelligent and coherent coverage by a government-run media outfit that presumably wants a bigger public sector?

Well, the answer is that you get a very muddled story.

Here’s some of what Swiss Info, which is part of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, wrote about that nation’s “debt brake.”

The mind-boggling…debt racked up by governments…has turned some heads towards Switzerland’s successful track record… Swiss voters approved a so-called ‘debt brake’ on federal public finances in 2001, which was put into operation in 2003. A decade later, the mountain of government debt – that soared to dangerous levels during the 1990s and early 2000s – has been reduced by CHF20 billion ($23 billion) from its 2005 peak. The ratio of debt to annual economic output (gross domestic product or GDP)…fell from 53% to 37% between 2005 and the end of 2012.

There’s nothing wrong with that passage. Indeed, you could almost say that Swiss Info was engaging in boosterism.

Moreover, the story points out that other nations have been going in the wrong direction while Switzerland was enjoying success.

…as Switzerland was chipping away at its mountain of debt, other countries were building theirs up. …Since the middle of 2007 public sector debt alone has soared 80% to $43 trillion, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

And the story even notes that other nations are beginning to copy Switzerland.

The Swiss debt brake is the perfect model for other countries to embrace… Germany applied its own version of the Swiss debt brake in 2009, followed by Spain and other European countries.  …“Switzerland came up with the blueprint for what I am sure will be the standard fiscal model of the future,” said Müller-Jentsch.

So why, then, do I think the story has a muddled message?

The answer is that there is no explanation of how the debt brake works and therefore no explanation of why it is a success.

A reader will have no idea, for instance, that the debt brake is actually a spending cap. Readers also will have no way of knowing that red ink has been controlled because the law properly focuses on limiting the growth of spending.

By the way, it wouldn’t have required much research for Swiss Info to include that relevant data. If you do a Google search for “Swiss debt brake,” the first item that appears is the column I wrote in 2012 for the Wall Street Journal.

In that piece, I explained that “Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period” and I added that “Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.”

So why didn’t Swiss Info mention any of this very relevant information? Is it because it tilts to the left like other government-owned media outfits, and the journalists didn’t want to acknowledge that spending restraint is a successful fiscal policy?

I have no idea whether that’s the case, but there is a definite pattern. When I appear on PBS, the deck is usually stacked in favor of statism. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve had similar experiences with government-run TV in France. And it goes without saying that the BBC in the United Kingdom also leans left (though at least they seem to believe in fair fights).

This video from Swiss Info is similarly vague. It’s a favorable portrayal, but people who watch the video won’t know how the debt brake works or why it has been successful.

P.S.  I don’t know the details about the German version of the debt brake, but it’s probably having some positive impact. The burden of government spending has not increased in that nation since 2009, at least when measured as a share of GDP. Though the Germans also weren’t as profligate as other nations (including the United States) in the years before they adopted a debt brake, so I’ll have to do more research to ascertain whether the German approach is as good as the Swiss approach.

P.P.S. In any event, the moral of the story is that good fiscal policy should be based on the Golden Rule of having government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy.

P.P.S. The Princess of the Levant and I continued our tour of the French Riviera. This photo is from Les Jardins Exotiques at Chateau d’Eze.

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As part of my travels, I’ve learned that the unluckiest people in the world are from Menton and Roquebrune in France. That’s because they were part of Monaco until 1860.

So now, instead of enjoying an income tax of zero under Monegasque rule, they are part of France’s wretched fiscal system.

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I’ve already suggested that subsidies for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are the most wasteful and counterproductive item in the federal budget. At least on a per-dollar-spent basis.

But what about a similar exercise for government red tape?

How would we come up with the worst regulation or the most counterproductive regulatory agency?

Thanks to the IRS, I have a strong candidate for the worst regulation, but if I had to pick the worst agency, I’d probably choose the horribly mis-named Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

These bureaucrats are infamous for bone-headed initiatives, such as:

The EEOC making it hard for trucking companies to weed out drunk drivers.

The EEOC telling a coffee shop it had too many attractive waitresses.

The EEOC forcing companies to make special accommodations for “pee-shy” employees.

The EEOC trying to give special employment rights to crooks.

We now have another item for the list.

The bureaucrats apparently like forcing companies to hire people who are more likely to rip off customers, though sometimes they find judges that aren’t nearly so tolerant.

Let’s see what the Wall Street Journal had to say about the “hilariously caustic rebuke of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

The EEOC had sued Kaplan, the for-profit education company, for using “the same type of background check that the EEOC itself uses,” as Judge Raymond Kethledge cheekily put it in the first sentence of his ruling in EEOC v. Kaplan. Despite its own practices, the Obama EEOC has made a cause of suing private companies because it claims that credit and criminal background checks discriminate against minorities.

But so-called disparate impact doesn’t mean discrimination.

Judge Kethledge eviscerated the EEOC like a first-day law student, writing that Kaplan had good reason to conduct credit checks… As for proving disparate racial impact, Judge Kethledge noted that “the credit-check process is racially blind; the [credit-check] vendor does not report the applicant’s race with her other information.” …The unanimous opinion was joined by Damon Keith, one of the most liberal judges on the entire federal bench. If government officials were accountable, EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez would be fired for losing in such humiliating fashion.

But that’s just one crazy case.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about another strange example of EEOC quackery. The bureaucrats actually believe that stealing should be a protected disability.

Or, to be more technical, that stealing should be an acceptable behavior because of a supposed disability.

In September 2008, Walgreens employee Josefina Hernandez claims she had a hypoglycemia attack, grabbed a bag of potato chips off a shelf and ate them to boost her blood sugar. The drug-store company has a strict policy against “grazing” (i.e., stealing) and so a supervisor fired Ms. Hernandez, an 18-year veteran of the company. Three years later, the EEOC sued Walgreens for discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and asked for punitive damages. …The ADA requires employees to request an accommodation for a medical condition, which Mrs. Hernandez never did. Nor does federal law sanction illegal activity—i.e., theft—under cover of a disability, as the Supreme Court made clear in 2003’s Raytheon v. Hernandez.

A green light for thievery from the EEOC

Seems like this should be an open-and-shut case. Which raises the interesting question of why the EEOC decided that the federal government should intervene on behalf of potato chip thievery.

So why pursue such a case in the first place? The EEOC’s lawyers probably figured they had nothing to lose. If they landed a sympathetic judge, they could set a new legal precedent. If they lost, taxpayers would pay for the case anyway. And sure enough, U.S. District Judge William Orrick, an Obama appointee, ruled against the store’s motion for summary judgment last week. The question now is whether Walgreens will continue to fight for the right to fire employees who steal from company shelves, or simply settle to get the EEOC’s lawyers to go away.

I hope all companies fight meddling and stupidity by the federal government.

I do understand that sometimes it makes sense to acquiesce to extortion, at least in the short run. The long-run costs of surrender, though, are very high.

Which is why companies should fight, but they should get support from Capitol Hill. The EEOC budget should be slashed to show that there are consequences to bureaucratic insanity.

P.S. I shared some political humor last year about a make-believe Obama Administration initiative called the “Americans with no Abilities Act.”

Anybody want to guess when that becomes official EEOC policy?

I’m only partially joking. It’s sort of happened already in the United Kingdom.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that EEOC regulation is just one straw of red tape on the camel’s back.

Americans spend 8.8 billion hours every year filling out government forms.

The economy-wide cost of regulation is now $1.75 trillion.

For every bureaucrat at a regulatory agency, 100 jobs are destroyed in the economy’s productive sector.

The Obama Administration added $236 billion of red tapein 2012.

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Whenever I find clever political humor, I like to share with readers.

And because I’m confident in the superiority of liberty over statism, I’m even amused when I find jokes that target my libertarian philosophy. After all, only dour people are unable to laugh at themselves.

Indeed, I’m actually disappointed that I rarely find any good jokes about advocates of small government. I haven’t found any good anti-libertarian humor since this cartoon last January.

I can gladly report, though, that the drought has ended.

Writing for The New Yorker, Tom O’Donnell has some fun at the expense of libertarians.

He has an article on the adventures of a “Libertarian Police Department,” told from the perspective of a patrolman.

I was shooting heroin and reading “The Fountainhead” in the front seat of my privately owned police cruiser when a call came in. I put a quarter in the radio to activate it.

It seems that some bitcoins (much loved by libertarians) were stolen!

“…Somebody just stole four hundred and forty-seven million dollars’ worth of bitcoins.” The heroin needle practically fell out of my arm. “What kind of monster would do something like that? Bitcoins are the ultimate currency: virtual, anonymous, stateless. They represent true economic freedom, not subject to arbitrary manipulation by any government. Do we have any leads?”

The patrolman rushes to the scene, seeing if someone will pay to solve the crime.

Ten minutes later, I was on the scene. It was a normal office building, strangled on all sides by public sidewalks. I hopped over them and went inside. …“Now, which one of you punks is going to pay me to investigate this crime?” No one spoke up. “Come on,” I said. “Don’t you all understand that the protection of private property is the foundation of all personal liberty?” It didn’t seem like they did.

But our private sector libertarian cop eventually finds a suspect and tries to catch him while dealing with the daunting challenge of government-owned sidewalks!

“Stop right there!” I yelled as I ran. He was faster than me because I always try to avoid stepping on public sidewalks. Our country needs a private-sidewalk voucher system, but, thanks to the incestuous interplay between our corrupt federal government and the public-sidewalk lobby, it will never happen.

The suspect eventually is caught…and confesses that he is part of the “Ben Bernank” club.

…the man yelled, throwing down his weapon. “I give up, cop! I confess: I took the bitcoins.” “Why’d you do it?” I asked… “Because I was afraid…Afraid of an economic future free from the pernicious meddling of central bankers,” he said. “I’m a central banker.” …I shook my head. “Let this be a message to all your central-banker friends out on the street,” I said. “No matter how many bitcoins you steal, you’ll never take away the dream of an open society based on the principles of personal and economic freedom.” He nodded, because he knew I was right. Then he swiped his credit card to pay me for arresting him.

I suggest you read the entire article. It’s not very long, and it delivers some good jabs. Sort of like this collage about the 24 different types of libertarians.

But I suppose I should make a serious point at this stage.

The author is really mocking anarcho-capitalists (just like this Somalia video), yet I suspect that the vast majority of libertarians are in the small-government camp rather than the no-government camp. In other words, they wouldn’t mind a very small government that focused on matters such as life, liberty, and property.

So tracking down bitcoin thieves would be a legitimate function of government!

More specifically, the goal of libertarianism is to make government small and focused so it can effectively carry out its legitimate responsibilities.

P.S. For more libertarian humor, here’s a cartoon on libertarian ice fishing and another showing libertarian lifeguards.

And the “think I do” montage is a classic, as well as this post about “libertarian problems.”

P.P.S. To see if you’re an anarcho-capitalist rather than a small-government libertarian, take this online quiz.

P.P.P.S. Here’s another photo with the PotL. We’re outside of the Royal Palace and looking over Monaco’s yacht harbor.

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Monaco is a very rich place and there is no income tax (just like the system that used to exist someplace else). One wonders whether our leftist friends will ever see the connection.

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Early last month, I wrote an article for The Federalist on job creation.

I used that opportunity to document that there is a serious problem with jobs under Obama, and I explained that the problem existed in part because the President was intervening with so-called stimulus schemes.

The far better approach is for government to “get out of the way.”

Though that’s not really correct. I want changes in government policy. Indeed, major changes. But those policy changes would involve less government, whereas Obama pushed major changes in the other direction.

I took this discussion to the next level in this debate on C-Span.

My opponent, Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, was my mirror image.

He wanted more spending and I urged less spending.

He called for more intervention and I advocated less intervention.

We would probably even disagree about the answer to 2 + 2 = ?.

Viewers can make their own decisions on who did a better job in the debate. I’ll simply state that my strongest point (at least in my humble opinion) is that businesses only create jobs when they expect new workers will increase net revenue.

But don’t believe me. You can read what actual real-world employers have to say about the topic.

In other words, I agree with the message of this poster. If you think more government is the answer, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. I’m in Monaco for the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors and the Princess of the Levant is with me at the Hotel Hermitage. It’s nice to get a glimpse at the lifestyle of the infamous Top 1 Percent.

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Fortunately, Monaco seems to have plenty of guys with women out of their league, so I don’t feel too out of place.

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