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Archive for September, 2014

Much of my writing is focused on the real-world impact of government policy, and this is why I repeatedly look at the relative economic performance of big government jurisdictions and small government jurisdictions.

But I don’t just highlight differences between nations. Yes, it’s educational to look at North Korea vs. South Korea or Chile vs. Venezuela vs. Argentina, but I also think you can learn a lot by looking at what’s happening with different states in America.

So we’ve looked at high-tax states that are languishing, such as California and Illinois, and compared them to zero-income-tax states such as Texas.

With this in mind, you can understand that I was intrigued to see that even the establishment media is noticing that Texas is out-pacing the rest of the nation.

Here are some excerpts from a report by CNN Money on rapid population growth in Texas.

More Americans moved to Texas in recent years than any other state: A net gain of more than 387,000 in the latest Census for 2013. …Five Texas cities — Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth — were among the top 20 fastest growing large metro areas. Some smaller Texas metro areas grew even faster. In oil-rich Odessa, the population grew 3.3% and nearby Midland recorded a 3% gain.

But why is the population growing?

Well, CNN Money points out that low housing prices and jobs are big reasons.

And on the issue of housing, the article does acknowledge the role of “easy regulations” that enable new home construction.

But on the topic of jobs, the piece contains some good data on employment growth, but no mention of policy.

Jobs is the No. 1 reason for population moves, with affordable housing a close second. …Jobs are plentiful in Austin, where the unemployment rate is just 4.6%. Moody’s Analytics projects job growth to average 4% a year through 2015. Just as important, many jobs there are well paid: The median income of more than $75,000 is nearly 20% higher than the national median.

That’s it. Read the entire article if you don’t believe me, but the reporter was able to write a complete article about the booming economy in Texas without mentioning – not even once – that there’s no state income tax.

But that wasn’t the only omission.

The article doesn’t mention that Texas is the 4th-best state in the Tax Foundation’s ranking of state and local tax burdens.

The article doesn’t mention that Texas was the least oppressive state in the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Soft Tyranny Index.

The article doesn’t mention that Texas was ranked #20 in a study of the overall fiscal condition of the 50 states.

The article doesn’t mention that Texas is in 4th place in a combined ranking of economic freedom in U.S. state and Canadian provinces.

The article doesn’t mention that Texas was ranked #11 in the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index.

The article doesn’t mention that Texas is in 14th place in the Mercatus ranking of overall freedom for the 50 states (and in 10th place for fiscal freedom).

By the way, I’m not trying to argue that Texas is the best state.

Indeed, it only got the top ranking in one of the measures cited above.

My point, instead, is simply to note that it takes willful blindness to write about the strong population growth and job performance of Texas without making at least a passing reference to the fact that it is a low-tax, pro-market state.

At least compared to other states. And especially compared to the high-tax states that are stagnating.

Such as California, as illustrated by this data and this data, as well as this Lisa Benson cartoon.

Such as Illinois, as illustrated by this data and this Eric Allie cartoon.

And I can’t resist adding this Steve Breen cartoon, if for no other reason that it reminds me of another one of his cartoons that I shared last year.

Speaking of humor, this Chuck Asay cartoon speculates on how future archaeologists will view California. And this joke about Texas, California, and a coyote is among my most-viewed blog posts.

All jokes aside, I want to reiterate what I wrote above. Texas is far from perfect. There’s too much government in the Lone Star state. It’s only a success story when compared to California.

P.S. Paul Krugman has tried to defend California, which has made him an easy target. I debunked him earlier this year, and I also linked to a superb Kevin Williamson takedown of Krugman at the bottom of this post.

P.P.S. Once again, I repeat the two-part challenge I’ve issued to the left. I’ll be happy if any statists can successfully respond to just one of the two questions I posed.

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I’m a huge fan of Switzerland, largely because its voters approved a spending cap that should be a role model for other nations.

It’s called the “debt brake” and it has helped reduce the burden of government spending in Switzerland at a time when most nations in Europe have been moving in the wrong direction.

But that’s not the only reason I like Switzerland.

I also appreciate the fact that Swiss voters seem to be much more sensible than voters in other nations.

Every so often I see polls, for instance, suggesting that French voters overwhelmingly want less government spending. But then they go out and elect statist presidents such as Sarkozy and Hollande.

In Switzerland, by contrast, voters are sensible where it counts most – in the voting booth.

Earlier this year, 76 percent of voters rejected a minimum wage hike.

Back in 2010, nearly 60 percent of voters shot down a class-warfare proposal for higher taxes on the rich.

And they’ve done it again. In a recent referendum, they defeated a government-run healthcare system by a landslide.

Here are some excerpts from an AFP report.

Swiss voters on Sunday rejected a plan for a seismic shift from the country’s all-private health insurance system to a state-run scheme. Referendum results showed that almost 62 percent of voters had shot down a reform pushed by left-leaning parties. …”The Swiss population does not want a single national scheme,” said the Swiss Insurance Association. “Our health system is among the top performers in the world. Competition between health insurers and freedom of choice for clients play a major role in this,” it added. …The rejection of the plan by nearly two-thirds of voters is a major blow for pro-reform campaigners, given that opinion polls had shown the ‘No’ vote was likely to be around 54 percent. In a 2007 referendum, 71 percent of voters rejected similar reforms. …for Switzerland’s cross-party government and its right- and centre-dominated parliament, the current system has proven its mettle and is debt-free, unlike the health services of France, Italy or Britain.

Though it seems that speaking French is somehow linked to economic illiteracy.

German-speaking regions voted against the plan, while their French-speaking counterparts were in favour.

Back in 2011, I wrote that there were five reasons why Switzerland was better than the United States.

But perhaps I wasn’t being sufficiently enthusiastic. Over at Being Classically Liberal, there’s an article entitled “9 Reasons Libertarians Should Love Switzerland.” Here’s the bottom line.

The Swiss are rich, happy, gun-owning, peace-loving people. The country has one of the freest market economies in the world and a relatively small and very decentralized government which hasn’t waged war since the early 19th century. In this libertarian’s eyes, Switzerland might just be the most awesome country in existence.

I’m agnostic on whether Switzerland is the “most awesome.” Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, have smaller government.

That being said, Switzerland is much better on both guns and federalism.

And if you believe in grading on a curve, the burden of government spending in Switzerland is far smaller than it is in neighboring nations.

So it is a very admirable place.

Though I haven’t given up on America quite yet. And if I ever do, I’ll still choose Australia over Switzerland.

P.S. While it is encouraging that Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a single-payer healthcare scheme, I should acknowledge that their current system is not exactly libertarian Nirvana since it mandates that households purchase a health insurance policy.

P.P.S. But I don’t want to close on a bad point, so I’ll simply call your attention to the fact that Switzerland has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among industrialized nations.

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Most of us will never be directly impacted by the international provisions of the internal revenue code.

That’s bad news because it presumably means we don’t have a lot of money, but it’s good news because IRS policies regarding “foreign-source income” are a poisonous combination of complexity, harshness, and bullying (this image from the International Tax Blog helps to illustrate that only taxpayers with lots of money can afford the lawyers and accountants needed to navigate this awful part of the internal revenue code).

But the bullying and the burdens aren’t being imposed solely on Americans. The internal revenue code is uniquely unilateral and imperialistic, so we simultaneously hurt U.S. taxpayers and cause discord with other jurisdictions.

Here are some very wise words from a Washington Post column by Professor Andrés Martinez of Arizona State University.

Much of his article focuses on the inversion issue, but I’ve already covered that topic many times. What caught my attention instead is that he does a great job of highlighting the underlying philosophical and design flaws of our tax code. And what he writes on that topic is very much worth sharing.

The Obama administration is not living up to its promise to move the country away from an arrogant, unilateral approach to the world. And it has not embraced a more consensus-driven, multipolar vision that reflects the fact that America is not the sole player in the global sandbox. No, I am not talking here about national security or counter-terrorism policy, but rather the telling issue of how governments think about money — specifically the money they are entitled to, as established by their tax policies. …ours is a country with an outdated tax code — one that reflects the worst go-it-alone, imperialistic, America-first impulses. …the…problem is old-fashioned Yankee imperialism.

What is he talking about? What is this fiscal imperialism?

It’s worldwide taxation, a policy that is grossly inconsistent with good tax policy (for instance, worldwide taxation is abolished under both the flat tax and national sales tax).

He elaborates.

The United States persists in imposing its “worldwide taxation” system, as opposed to the “territorial” model embraced by most of the rest of the world. Under a “territorial” tax system, the sovereign with jurisdiction over the economic activity is entitled to tax it.  If you profit from doing business in France, you owe the French treasury taxes, regardless of whether you are a French, American or Japanese multinational.  Even the United States, conveniently, subscribes to this logical approach when it comes to foreign companies doing business here: Foreign companies pay Washington corporate taxes on the income made by their U.S. operations. But under our worldwide tax system, Uncle Sam also taxes your income as an American citizen (or Apple’s or Coca-Cola’s) anywhere in the world. …Imagine you are a California-based widget manufacturer competing around the world against a Dutch widget manufacturer. You both do very well and compete aggressively in Latin America, and pay taxes on your income there. Trouble is, your Dutch competitor can reinvest those profits back in its home country without paying additional taxes, but you can’t.

Amen.

Indeed, if you watch this video, you’ll see that I also show how the territorial system of the Netherlands is far superior and more pro-competitive than America’s worldwide regime.

And if you like images, this graphic explains how American companies are put at a competitive disadvantage.

Professor Martinez points to the obvious solution.

Instead of attacking companies struggling to compete in the global marketplace, the Obama administration should work with Republicans to move to a territorial tax system.

But, needless to say, the White House wants to move policy in the wrong direction.

Looking specifically at the topic of inversions, the Wall Street Journal eviscerates the Obama Administration’s unilateral effort to penalize American companies that compete overseas.

Here are some of the highlights.

…the Obama Treasury this week rolled out a plan to discourage investment in America. …the practical impact will be to make it harder to make money overseas and then bring it back here. …if the changes work as intended, they will make it more difficult and expensive for companies to reinvest foreign earnings in the U.S. Tell us again how this helps American workers.

The WSJ makes three very powerful points.

First, companies that invert still pay tax on profits earned in America.

…the point is not to ensure that U.S. business profits will continue to be taxed. Such profits will be taxed under any of the inversion deals that have received so much recent attention. The White House goal is to ensure that the U.S. government can tax theforeign profits of U.S. companies, even though this money has already been taxed by the countries in which it was earned, and even though those countries generally don’t tax their own companies on profits earned in the U.S.

Second, there is no dearth of corporate tax revenue.

Mr. Lew may be famously ignorant on matters of finance, but now there’s reason to question his command of basic math. Corporate income tax revenues have roughly doubled since the recession. Such receipts surged in fiscal year 2013 to $274 billion, up from $138 billion in 2009. Even the White House budget office is expecting corporate income tax revenues for fiscal 2014 to rise above $332 billion and to hit $502 billion by 2016.

Third, it’s either laughable or unseemly that companies are being lectured about “fairness” and “patriotism” by a cronyist like Treasury Secretary Lew.

It must be fun for corporate executives to get a moral lecture from a guy who took home an $800,000 salary from a nonprofit university and then pocketed a severance payment when he quit to work on Wall Street, even though school policy says only terminated employees are eligible for severance.

Heck, it’s not just that Lew got sweetheart treatment from an educational institution that gets subsidies from Washington.

The WSJ also should have mentioned that he was an “unpatriotic” tax avoider when he worked on Wall Street.

But I guess rules are only for the little people, not the political elite.

P.S. Amazingly, I actually found a very good joke about worldwide taxation. Maybe not as funny as these IRS jokes, but still reasonably amusing.

P.P.S. Shifting from tax competitiveness to tax principles, I’ve been criticized for being a squish by Laurence Vance of the Mises Institute. He wrote:

Mitchell supports the flat tax is “other than a family-based allowance, it gets rid of all loopholes, deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions, and preferences, meaning economic activity is taxed equally.” But because “a national sales tax (such as the Fair Tax) is like a flat tax but with a different collection point,” and “the two plans are different sides of the same coin” with no “loopholes,” even though he is “mostly known for being an advocate of the flat tax,” Mitchell has “no objection to speaking in favor of a national sales tax, testifying in favor of a national sales tax, or debating in favor of a national sales tax.” But as I have said before, the flat tax is not flat and the Fair Tax is not fair. …proponents of a free society should work towardexpanding tax deductions, tax credits, tax breaks, tax exemptions, tax exclusions, tax incentives, tax loopholes, tax preferences, tax avoidance schemes, and tax shelters and applying them to as many Americans as possible. These things are not subsidies that have to be “paid for.” They should only be eliminated because the income tax itself has been eliminated. …the goal should be no taxes whatsoever.

In my defense, I largely agree. As I’ve noted here, here, here, and here, I ultimately want to limit the federal government to the powers granted in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, in which case we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

Though I confess I’ve never argued in favor of “no taxes whatsoever” since I’m not an anarcho-capitalist. So maybe I am a squish. Moreover, Mr. Vance isn’t the first person to accuse me of being insufficiently hardcore.

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I’m a big believer that real-world examples can teach us about the benefits of good fiscal policy (think Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, and the U.S. under Reagan and Clinton) and the costs of bad fiscal policy (France, Cyprus, Greece, and the U.S. under Bush and Obama).

Today, let’s look at another example of bad fiscal policy. And we’re going to pick on Slovenia since I’m on my way back from the annual Liberty Seminar at Lake Bohinj.

I’m motivated because one of the other lecturers at the Seminar was that country’s former Finance Minister, Janez Šušteršič.

His basic argument is that Slovenia is at risk of falling behind because of a failure to reduce the size and scope of government.

Here are some of his slides, starting with a look at how Slovenia started out richer than many other post-Soviet Bloc jurisdictions, but you can see that other nations (with better track records on reform) are catching up.

I especially like that he shows the rapid growth of the Baltic nations (hmmm….I guess Paul Krugman was wrong after all).

The message from these two slides is one that I often make, which is that faster economic growth makes a big difference over time.

You can click here to get links to a bunch of similar examples of how countries with pro-market policies out-pace other countries that chose statism.

The one disappointment in Dr. Šušteršič‘s presentation is that he looked at deficits and debt when he discussed fiscal policy.

Here’s his slide showing a big increase in red ink.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think he should have focused on the underlying disease of too much spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

So I went to the IMF data and put together this chart.

As you can see, the reason that Slovenia has more red ink is that the burden of government spending increased so rapidly in recent years.

In the past few years, you can see that spending no longer is growing so rapidly.

I’d like to think this is a sign of new-found fiscal rectitude, but I suspect it’s simply a sign that Slovenian politicians realize they may be at the precipice of a fiscal crisis.

What Slovenia needs (what just about every nation needs) is some sort of spending cap to enforce long-run and sustainable spending restraint.

The Swiss “debt brake” is a good model to emulate.

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I believe that protecting the environment is both a good thing and a legitimate function of government.

But I’m rational. So while I want limits on pollution, such policies should be determined by cost-benefit analysis.

Banning automobiles doubtlessly would reduce pollution, for instance, but the economic cost would be catastrophic.

On the other hand, it’s good to limit carcinogens from being dumped in the air and water. So long as there’s some unbiased science showing net benefits.

But while I’m pro-environment, I’m anti-environmentalist. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

But since I’m an economist, what really worries me is that these people are statists. There’s an old joke that environmentalists are “watermelons” since they’re green on the outside and red on the inside.

But maybe it’s not really a joke. At least not in all cases. Check out this video from Reason, filmed at the so-called climate march in New York City.

Just in case you think the folks at Reason deliberately sought out a few crazy people in an otherwise rational crowd, let’s now look at the views of Naomi Klein, who is ostensibly a big thinker for the left on environmental issues.

Slate published an interview with her and you can judge for yourself whether her views are sensible. Here’s some of what Slate said about her.

According to social activist and perennial agitator Naomi Klein, the really inconvenient truth about climate change is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. …she’s turned her argument into a hefty book… This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is focused on exposing how the relentless pursuit of growth has locked us in to a system that’s incompatible with a stable climate. …

And here’s some of what Ms. Klein said.

The post-carbon economy we can build will have to be better designed. …not only does climate action mean a healthy community—it’s also the best chance at tacking inequality. …The divestment movement is a start at challenging the excesses of capitalism. It’s working to delegitimize fossil fuels, and showing that they’re just as unethical as profits from the tobacco industry. …profits are not legitimate in an era of climate change.

Profits are not legitimate?!? Geesh, sounds like a certain President who also disdains profit.

By the way, I’d bet Naomi Klein has a far bigger “carbon footprint” than the average person.

And I can say with great certainty that other leftists are huge hypocrites on the issue. Check out the vapid actor who did some moral preening at the climate-change march.

Kudos to Ms. Fields. She has a way of exposing phonies on camera.

Though I think it’s safe to say that Mr. DiCaprio doesn’t win the prize for being the biggest environmental hypocrite.

Shifting back to policy issues, even “mainstream” environmental initiatives are often very misguided. Here are a few examples.

The bottom line is that we presumably have some environmental challenges. For instance, it’s quite possible that there is some global warming caused by mankind.

I just don’t trust environmentalists to make policy. When they’re in charge, we get really dumb policies. Or grotesque examples of government thuggery. Or sleazy corruption and cronyism.

But at least we have some decent environmental humor here, here, here, and here.

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I’ve shared some interested rankings on tax policy, including a map from the Tax Foundation showing which states have the earliest and latest Tax Freedom Days.

There’s also a depressing table showing that the United States “earns” a lowly 94th place in a ranking of business-friendly tax system.

Heck, there’s even a map showing the states with the highest wine taxes, as well as a map showing which states have the lightest and heaviest tax burdens compared to income.

So I was very interested to see this table from the Tax Foundation revealing which countries have the most punitive regimes for penalizing success.

Portugal has the dubious honor of having the most progressive (i.e., discriminatory) tax system in the developed world.

I don’t think anyone is surprised to see France in second place, though I confess that I was not expecting to see pro-reform success stories such as Chile and Canada in the top five.

And I’m totally embarrassed that the United States is #8, worse than such garden spots as Greece, Mexico, and Belgium.

Though it’s important to understand that the Tax Foundation is relying on a narrow definition of progressivity.

One way to measure and compare the progressivity of income tax codes across countries is to express the level of income at which each country’s top tax bracket applies as a multiple of that country’s average income.

That’s a useful bit of information and it shows one aspect of progressivity, but it’s also a bit misleading since it implies that the Swedish tax system (with a top tax rate of 56.7 percent) is less progressive than the Slovakian tax system (with a top tax rate of 21.7 percent).

You won’t be surprised that I think a ranking that purports to show the burden of “progressive” taxation should include the top tax rate.

Speaking of which, this is why I like the Tax Foundation’s measure of progressivity on the state level.

The…table also shows the gap between the top marginal tax rate and the marginal tax rate on $25,000 of taxable income. …Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have progressive rate structures that rise after $25,000. California, New Jersey, and Vermont have the most progressive rate structures by a wide margin.

Who could have guessed that California would be the worst state, though I’m not surprised to see New Jersey (the worst place to die) and Vermont (worst place for self reliance) have such poor ratings as well.

And is anyone even remotely shocked to see that states with no income taxes manage to avoid any problems with ‘so-called” progressivity? Not surprisingly, they also grow faster and create more jobs.

The moral of the story, at the very least, is that America needs a simple and fair flat tax.

And not the Obama or Hollande version.

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I want to challenge supporters of intervention and big government. Here are two simple questions. I’ll be happy if I can get a semi-reasonable answer to either of them.

1. Can you name a nation that became rich with statist policies?

Before you say Sweden, or even France, note that I asked you to name a nation that became rich during a period when it followed policies of interventionism and big government. Countries in Western Europe became rich during the 1800s and early 1900s when government was very small. Indeed, government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output in Western Europe prior to World War I and there was almost no redistribution. That’s more libertarian than what you find today in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Speaking of which, what I’m really asking my leftist friends is that they give me the left-wing versions of Hong Kong and Singapore. These jurisdictions were relatively impoverished at the end of World War II, but they are now both very rich by global standards. And libertarians and other advocates of small government and free markets can make a very strong case that good policy played a role in their amazing rise to prosperity.

So where’s the role model for statists? What nation can they put forth as a successful example?

I won’t hold my breath waiting for an accurate answer.

Now for the other part of the challenge.

2. Can you name a nation that with interventionism and big government that is out-performing a similar nation with free markets and small government?

Before you embarrass yourself by asserting that, say, Denmark is richer than Paraguay because of statism, you need to look at the data. Denmark has a bigger welfare state than Paraguay, but it’s much more pro-market in other respects. Indeed, it is ranked #14 in the Economic Freedom of the World, compared to #89 for Paraguay. You’d be more clever to ask why, for example, #42 Belgium is richer than #6 Mauritius.

But this is why I asked for a comparison of similar nations. In other words, find two countries that are, or were, roughly equal in terms of demographics, economic development, resource endowments, and other factors. And then I want an example of a nation with statist policy that has out-performed a nation that instead chose small government and free markets. Or the jurisdictions don’t even need to be that similar. Just show me a statist nation that grows faster, over a meaningful period of time, than a pro-market jurisdiction.

From a libertarian perspective, I can cite lots of examples, such as Chile vs. Argentina vs. Venezuela. Or North Korea vs. South Korea. Or Ukraine vs. Poland. Or Hong Kong vs. Argentina. Or Singapore vs. Jamaica. Or the United States vs. Hong Kong and Singapore. Or even Sweden vs. Greece. I could continue, but I think you get the point.

I will patiently wait for my left-wing friends to provide examples that support their perspective, but cobwebs will form before they fulfill my challenge.

In the meantime, here’s a video that explains the simple recipe that countries should follow if they want to enjoy growth and prosperity.

You’ll notice that the video heavily borrows from Economic Freedom of the World.

That’s no surprise. There’s no better source for making apples-to-apples comparisons to see whether countries are following good policy.

The bad news is that the United States has taken a dive in the wrong direction in these rankings.

When Bill Clinton left office, the United States had the world’s 3rd-freest economy. Today, thanks to years of statism under both Bush and Obama, we’ve dropped to #17.

This Lisa Benson cartoon is a very painful illustration of what’s happening.

America is copying the nations that are in deep trouble because of excessive government.

Which is the same message you find in this Glenn Foden cartoon and this Michael Ramirez cartoon.

But maybe some leftist can answer one or both of the questions above and we can stop worrying about the ever-expanding welfare state.

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