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Archive for July, 2016

Even though it has the largest economy in Europe, I routinely ignore Germany. This isn’t because of deliberate malice or neglect, but rather because the country has boring economic policy.

Unlike Estonia and Switzerland, it doesn’t have any really good policies that are worth applauding.

Not does it have really bad policies that deserve to be mocked, so it doesn’t get the negative attention that I shower upon nations such as France, Italy, and Greece.

Heck, about the only really interesting thing about German policy is whether the country’s politicians will be dumb enough to underwrite the profligacy of some of their neighbors.

Let’s try to atone for this oversight by giving some attention to the peculiar German tendency to be a bit over-zealous about generating money for the government.

  • The Germans, after all, came up with an odd scheme to make streetwalkers pay a nightly tax via parking meters.
  • The Germans also imposed a tax on online coffee beans that cost €30 to enforce for every €1 collected.
  • The Germans even fined a one-armed bicyclist because he didn’t have handbrakes on both handlebars.

We have another example of über-intense tax enforcement to add to our list.

The BBC reports that homeowners on a German street are having to pay for a road that was built by the Nazis.

Homeowners on a street in Germany have been told they must foot the bill for their road’s construction – even though it’s been there for nearly 80 years. …The bills included a conversion from the Nazi-era Reichsmark currency into euros for the original road surface, first laid in 1937… The figures were also adjusted for inflation. …a court has now confirmed that they must cough up the cash. It determined that while construction began in the 1930s, the road was only officially completed in 2009 when pavements were added. For the intervening period it was considered to be under development. …Auf’m Rott’s current residents will be shelling out for the “Hitler asphalt”, streetlamps dating back to 1956, a sewer from the 1970s, and pavements and greenery added in 2009.

How stereotypically German. Not only is there an unusual tax, but they even have the records from the 1930s and went though all the trouble of adjusting the numbers for inflation.

Wow, no wonder other Europeans think the Germans aren’t very compassionate.

By the way, I suspect the German homeowners also think their country isn’t very considerate. The homeowners aren’t getting hit with some annoying-yet-trivial €100 euro charge.They really are “shelling out.”

…city authorities told them pay an average of 10,000 euros ($11,000; £8,400) per household

I guess I’m lucky that Fairfax County in Virginia, which just re-paved my local street, didn’t send me a similar bill!

Though in the interest of fairness, let’s contemplate the German system, which apparently is vaguely based on a user-pays principle.

In Germany, residents have to pay a “development contribution” to the local authority for things like new roads, cycle paths and street lighting.

Part of me actually likes this approach. It’s better to have local communities pay for local infrastructure rather than having some convoluted and wasteful nationwide program (like we have to some degree in the United States) that is susceptible to waste and cronyism.

On the other hand, surely there must be something wrong with doing some routine maintenance on a street and then using that as an excuse to send homeowners a giant bill for expenses that mostly occurred during the Hitler era.

P.S. I haven’t totally ignored Germany. Over the years, I’ve bemoaned the fact that the ostensibly conservative Christian Democrats aren’t conservative and complained that the supposedly classical liberal Free Democrats aren’t classical liberals.

P.P.S. Though I’ve also given the Germans some modest praise for a period of spending restraint last decade and also for largely resisting the siren song of Keynesianism  during and after the recent recession (by the way, you won’t be surprised to learn Krugman botched the numbers when writing about Germany’s fiscal policy during that period).

P.P.P.S. And I have pointed out that the German government occasionally can waste money with Gallic flair. Or even display Greek levels of government incompetence. So, unlike the Washington Post, I would never refer to the country as being “fiscally conservative.”

P.P.P.P.S. By the way, it’s not just the German politicians who are in love with the idea of taxation. There are even some German taxpayers who protest because they want to be saddled with higher tax burdens (though I wonder if they’d be as hypocritical as their American counterparts if they faced a put-up-of-shut-up challenge).

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Maybe it’s just because I’m a wonk, but it seems that comparing long-run growth rates in various nation sets up a slam-dunk argument for the superiority of free markets and small government.

Whether it’s North Korea vs. South Korea, Cuba vs. Chile, or Ukraine vs. Poland, nations with bigger governments and more intervention inevitably decline compared to market-oriented alternatives.

That’s very compelling evidence, in my humble opinion, but I wonder whether it’s not overly persuasive because it’s too dry and analytical.

Maybe I should focus more on the human cost of statism. And not just by sharing data about low levels of per-capita GDP. Perhaps it would help to explain what that means for the lives of ordinary people.

Venezuela certainly would be a perfect (in a bad way) example.

The Associated Press explains that big government and statism aren’t working very well, particularly for the most vulnerable members of Venezuelan society.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans poured into neighboring Colombia to buy food and medicine on Saturday after authorities briefly opened the border that has been closed for almost a year. A similar measure last week led to dramatic scenes of the elderly and mothers storming Colombian supermarkets and highlighted how daily life has deteriorated for millions in Venezuela, where the economy has been in a freefall.

That certainly sounds grim, but that story doesn’t fully capture how bad life has become for ordinary people.

Here are some excerpts from a BBC report on the government-created misery in Venezuela.

Travelling through the country this month I saw endless queues of people trying to buy food – any food – at supermarkets and other government-run shops. I was stopped at a roadblock in the middle of the countryside by people who said they had eaten nothing but mangoes for three days. I saw the hopeless expression of a mother, who had been eating so little that she was no longer able to breastfeed her baby.

What a miserable tragedy.

The reporter shares information on his own family and other people he met.

…it was my family who really brought it home to me. My brother told me all his trousers were now too big. My father – never one to grumble – let slip that things were “really tough”. My mother, meanwhile, confessed that sometimes she only eats once a day. They all live in different parts of Venezuela, but none of them is getting enough to eat. It’s a nationwide problem. …a young mother, Liliana, …admitted to going to bed in tears on days when she had been unable to give her two children any dinner. In western Venezuela, in the oil-rich province of Zulia, I visited several small towns where people didn’t know what they would eat the following day.

What a horrifying life.

Imagine if you were a parent in Venezuela and you couldn’t find food for your children? That shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, deprivation and economic chaos are now the norm.

A study by three of the country’s main universities indicates…that “extreme poverty” has jumped by 53% since 2014. …The country’s official inflation rate was 180% in December, the last time a figure was made public, but the IMF estimates it will be above 700% by the end of the year.

Considering that Venezuela is in last place for Economic Freedom of the World, none of this should be surprising.

But remember that we want to focus today on the human cost of statism, not just broad measures of economic mismanagement.

And this chart from the BBC on food riots certainly is a persuasive piece of evidence.

Here’s the part that shows the mess was created by bad government policies, with price controls being a major culprit.

…the government years ago fixed the price of many basic goods, such as flour, chicken, or bread. But Venezuelans can only buy the goods at these fixed prices once a week, depending on the final digit of the number on their national identity card. …Because there is a risk of the goods running out, people often arrive at supermarkets in the early hours of the morning, or even earlier. At 6am one morning in Caracas, I met a man who had already been in the queue for three hours. …”I’m hoping to get rice, but sometimes I’ve queued and then been unable to buy anything because the rice runs out before I get in,” he said.

In a sad example of Mitchell’s Law as the failure of one bad policy leads to the imposition of another bad policy.

President Nicolas Maduro[‘s]…latest step has been to create Local Committees of Supplies and Production, better known by the Spanish acronym, CLAP. The CLAPs essentially mean that the government will stop sending imported food to supermarkets and start handing it over to local community councils. …The ultimate aim of the CLAPs is to create self-sustaining communities, where people grow their own food. …a member of a colectivo – a group of hardcore government supporters, often armed, …agreed in the end to show me what the CLAP was aiming to achieve. I was taken to see a barren field – “which we aim to have ready for crops in eight months” – and several chili plants waiting to be planted. It was, to say the least, disheartening.

In other words, Venezuela apparently is creating a sure-to-fail mixture of autarky and collective agriculture.

Even Ayn Rand didn’t think to include something that crazy in her dystopian novel, Atlas Shrugged.

Let’s wrap up with a CNN story about a new “jobs” program from the thugs in Caracas.

In a vaguely-worded decree, Venezuelan officials indicated that public and private sector employees could be forced to work in the country’s fields for at least 60-day periods, which may be extended “if circumstances merit.” …President Nicolas Maduro is using his executive powers to declare a state of economic emergency. …According to the decree from July 22, workers would still be paid their normal salary by the government and they can’t be fired from their actual job. …Venezuela…is grappling with the lack of basic food items like milk, eggs and bread. People wait hours in lines outsides supermarkets to buy groceries and often only see empty shelves. …Venezuela is the world’s worst economy, according to the IMF. It’s expected to shrink 10% this year and inflation is projected to rise over 700%. Beyond food shortages, hospitals are low on supplies, causing many patients to go untreated and some to die.

Wow, I’m not even sure where to start. The fact that people are dying because of horribly sub-standard care? The fact that the government is engaging in a form of quasi-slavery by forcing people to work on farms? Or the fact that bad government policy is the reason for the disaster?

As I contemplated these questions, it got me thinking about the varying degrees of statism and the harmful impact on ordinary people.

So, with apologies to fans of Dante’s Inferno, I put together the Five Circles of Statist Hell. The first layer is relatively benign, featuring nations such as France that sap an economy’s vitality with lots of feel-good programs. Then you get countries that belong in the second layer, which is characterized by economies that are actually declining rather than merely stagnating.

And the next layer is where Venezuela is today, with systemic misery and poverty. In other words, the nations in this layer already have declined and have lots of suffering.

But it’s always possible to decline even further. If Venezuela doesn’t reverse some of the awful policies that are causing chaos today, it’s just a matter of time before the country joins North Korea is a state of pervasive deprivation and even starvation.

And the only thing worse than that is the final layer of statist hell, which features countries that actually butcher their own citizens.

By the way, let’s not forget the “useful idiots” who have justified and/or praised Venezuela’s brutal government. I’ve previously cited the misguided words of Joseph Stiglitz.

Well, Joe Kennedy also deserves our scorn and disdain. The former politician actually mourned the death of the evil slug who is most responsible for the mess in Venezuela.

Former congressman Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) is mourning the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez today, praising Chavez as someone who made a difference for poor people. …Kennedy also said that “some of the wealthiest people on our planet have more money than they can ever reasonably expect to spend.” Kennedy joins Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) among the few American politicians to praise Chavez after his death Tuesday.

How disgusting and unseemly. Makes the Che sycophants seems like moral giants.

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I’m still in China, as part of a week-long teaching assignment about markets, entrepreneurship, economics, and fiscal policy at Northeastern University in Shenyang.

One point that I’ve tried to get across to the students is that China should not copy the United States. Or France, Japan, or Sweden. To be more specific, I warn them that China won’t become rich if it copies the economic policies that those nations have today.

Instead, I tell them that China should copy the economic policies – very small government, trivial or nonexistent income taxes, very modest regulation – that existed in those nations back in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when America and other western countries made the transition from agricultural poverty to industrial prosperity.

In other words, pay attention to the polices that actually produced prosperity, not the policies that happen to be in place in 2016. With this in mind, I’m delighted to share a new National Review column about the ostensibly wonderful Nordic Model from Nima Sanandaji. He starts by noting that statists are big fans of nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Ezra Klein, the editor of the liberal news website Vox, wrote last fall that “Clinton and Sanders both want to make America look a lot more like Denmark — they both want to…strengthen the social safety net.” … Bill Clinton argues that Finland, Sweden, and Norway offer greater opportunities for individuals… Barack Obama recently…explain[ed] that “in a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world.”

Sounds nice, but there’s one itsy-bitsy problem with the left’s hypothesis.

Simply stated, everything good about Nordic nations was already in place before the era of big government.

…the social success of Nordic countries pre-dates progressive welfare-state policies. …their economic and social success had already materialized during a period when these countries combined a small public sector with free-market policies. The welfare state was introduced afterward.

Here are some of the key factoids about fiscal policy.

…in 1960, the tax rate in [Denmark] was merely 25 percent of GDP, lower than the 27 percent rate in the U.S. at the time. In Sweden, the rate was 29 percent, only slightly higher than in the U.S. In fact, much of Nordic prosperity evolved between the time that a capitalist model was introduced in this part of the world during the late 19th century and the mid 20th century – during the free-market era.

And here’s the data about equality (though I think it’s far more important to worry about the degree of upward mobility rather than whether everyone has a similar amount of income).

…high levels of income equality evolved during the same period. Swedish economists Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenström, for example, explain that “most of the decrease [in income inequality in Sweden] takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.” A recent paper by economists Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Søgaard reaches a similar conclusion for Denmark and Norway.

Our friends on the left think that government-run healthcare deserves the credit for longer lifespans in the Nordic world.

Nima explains that the evidence points in the other direction.

In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer and Danes 2.4 years longer. Today, after the Nordic countries have introduced universal health care, the difference has shrunk to 2.9 years in Sweden, 2.6 years in Norway, and 1.5 years in Denmark. The differences in life span have actually shrunk as Nordic countries moved from a small public sector to a democratic-socialist model with universal health coverage.

Not to mention that there are some surreal horror stories in those nations about the consequences of putting government in charge of health care.

Here’s the evidence that I find most persuasive (some of which I already shared because of an excellent article Nima wrote for Cayman Financial Review).

Danish Americans today have fully 55 percent higher living standard than Danes. Similarly, Swedish Americans have a 53 percent higher living standard than Swedes. The gap is even greater, 59 percent, between Finnish Americans and Finns. Even though Norwegian Americans lack the oil wealth of Norway, they have a 3 percent higher living standard than their cousins overseas. …Nordic Americans are more socially successful than their cousins in Scandinavia. They have much lower high-school-dropout rates, much lower unemployment rates, and even slightly lower poverty rates.

Nima concludes his article by noting the great irony of Nordic nations trying to reduce their welfare states at the same time American leftists are trying to move in the other direction.

Nordic-style democratic socialism is all the rage among Democrat activists as well as with liberal intellectuals and journalists. But in the Nordic countries themselves, this ideal has gradually lost its appeal. …During the past few decades, the Nordic countries have gradually been reforming their social systems. Taxes have been cut to stimulate work, public benefits have been limited in order to reduce welfare dependency, pension savings have been partially privatized, for-profit forces have been allowed in the welfare sector, and state monopolies have been opened up to the market. In short, the universal-welfare-state model is being liberalized. Even the social-democratic parties themselves realize the need for change.

The net result of these reforms is that the Nordic nations are a strange combination of many policies that are very good (very little regulation, very strong property rights, very open trade, and stable money) and a couple of policies that are very bad (an onerous tax burden and a bloated welfare state).

I’ve previously shared (many times) observations about the good features of the Nordic nations, so let’s take a closer look at the bad fiscal policies.

Sven Larson authored a study about the Swedish tax system for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The study is about 10 years old, but it remains the best explanation I’ve seen if you want to understand the ins and outs of taxation in Sweden.

Here’s some of what he wrote, starting with the observation that the fiscal burden used to be considerably smaller than it is in America today.

Sweden was not always a high-tax nation. …the aggregate tax burden after World War II was modest.

But then things began to deteriorate.

…over the next four decades, there was a relentless increase in taxation. The tax burden first reached 50 percent of economic output in 1986 and has generally stayed above that level for the past 20 years.

Though Sven points out that Swedish politicians, if nothing else, at least figured out that it’s not a good idea to be on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., they figured out the government was getting less revenue because tax rates were confiscatory).

A major tax reform in 1991 significantly lowered the top marginal tax rate to encourage growth. The top rate had peaked at 87 percent in 1979 and then gradually dropped to 65 percent in 1990 before being cut to 51 percent in 1991. Subsequent tax increases have since pushed the rate to about 57 percent.

In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge that there are a few decent features of the Swedish tax system, including the absence of a death tax or wealth tax, along with a modest tax burden on corporations.

But the bottom line is that Sweden’s overall tax system (and the same can be said of Denmark and other Nordic nations) is oppressive. And the system is oppressive because governments spend too much. Indeed, the welfare state in Sweden and Denmark is as large as the infamous French public sector.

To be sure, the Swedes and Danes partially offset the damage of their big welfare states by having hyper-free market policies in other areas. That’s why they rank much higher than France in Economic Freedom of the World even though all three nations get horrible scores for fiscal policy.

Let’s close by circling back to the main premise of this column. Nima explained that good things happened in the Nordic nations before the welfare state exploded in size.

So I decided to see if we could ratify his hypothesis by checking the growth numbers from the impressive Angus Maddison database. Here’s a chart showing the average growth of per-capita GDP in Denmark and Sweden in the 45 years before 1965 (the year used as an unofficial date for when the welfare state began to metastasize) compared to the average growth of per-capita GDP during the 45 years since 1965.

Unsurprisingly, we find that the economy grew faster and generated more prosperity when government was smaller.

Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and the health of the economy? What a novel concept!

P.S. All of which means that there’s still no acceptable response for my two-question challenge to the left.

P.P.S. Both Sweden and Denmark have been good examples for my Golden Rule, albeit only for limited periods.

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Yesterday, I shared some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the Democratic Party platform.

It wasn’t a fun task. The Democrats put together a rat’s nest of taxes, spending, cronyism, and red tape, so my blood pressure probably went crazy as I read the document. Crazy Bernie Sanders may have lost the war for the nomination, but it seems that he mostly won the battle over the platform.

The plank about letting states be in charge of marijuana policy was the only part of the platform that I actually liked (even though I personally disapprove of drug use).

Though it mostly doesn’t matter what’s in party platforms. As I pointed out yesterday, platforms tend to be ideological statements to please party activists. Politicians generally don’t care about their respective party platforms, and they definitely don’t allow their behavior to be constrained by platform language.

With that important caveat in mind, let’s now review the GOP platform. And I’ll use the same approach that I used when looking at the Democrat’s document. I’ll provide a short excerpt and then give my two cents.

Here are some of the main economic issues addressed (or bungled) by Republicans.

We believe the Constitution was written not as a flexible document, but as our enduring covenant.

That’s true, but why aren’t GOPers defunding most of the federal government if that’s what they really believe?

Because of the vital role of religious organizations, charities, and fraternal benevolent societies in fostering generosity and patriotism, they should not be subject to taxation and donations to them should remain deductible.

Endorsing the deduction for charitable contributions isn’t an optimistic sign for those of us who support fundamental tax reform.

To guard against hypertaxation of the American people in any restructuring of the federal tax system, any value added tax or national sales tax must be tied to the simultaneous repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment, which established the federal income tax.

This may be my favorite part of the GOP platform. Hopefully it will discourage Rand Paul and Ted Cruz from including a VAT if they run for president again and put forth tax reform plans.

We propose to level the international playing field by lowering the corporate tax rate to be on a par with, or below, the rates of other industrial nations.

Hard to argue with that plank, though it raises the question of why Republicans haven’t enacted this change already.

We endorse the recommendation of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, as well as the current Administration’s Export Council, to switch to a territorial system of taxation so that profits earned and taxed abroad may be repatriated for job-creating investment here at home.

Territorial taxation is good policy, so amen.

Republicans believe that no financial institution is too big to fail. We support legislation to ensure that the problems of any financial institution can be resolved through the Bankruptcy Code.

This is the right policy. Too bad many GOPers ignored this bit of wisdom and voted for TARP.

We propose to phase out the federal transit program.

They should phase out the entire Department of Transportation, but this would be a good start.

…we oppose a further increase in the federal gas tax.

That’s good, though repealing the tax would be even better.

Amtrak is an extremely expensive railroad for the American taxpayers, who must subsidize every ticket. The federal government should allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor.

All this sounds good, but it’s a bit vacuous. There should be an explicit commitment to end Amtrak subsidies.

We reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California’s high-speed train to nowhere.

A welcome commitment, though it should be extended to all transportation projects.

We should reduce the occupational licensing laws that shut untold millions of potential workers out of entrepreneurial careers.

This is largely a problem caused by state and local governments, but it’s nonetheless nice to see a statement of support for much-needed change.

We must overturn the regulatory nightmare, created by the Dodd-Frank law, for the community banks and savings and loans that provide nearly half of all small-business loans and over three-quarters of all agricultural loans.

Maybe I’m being paranoid, but where’s the language explicitly calling for repeal of the Dodd-Frank bailout bill?

The taxpayers spend an average of $35,000 a year per employee on non-cash benefits, triple the average non-cash compensation of the average worker in the private sector. Federal employees receive extraordinary pension benefits and vacation time wildly out of line with those of the private sector. We urge Congress to bring federal compensation and benefits in line with the standards of most American employees.

Federal bureaucrats are overcompensated, so it goes without saying (though I’m still glad they said it) that costs should be contained.

We must impose firm caps on future debt… A strong economy is one key to debt reduction, but spending restraint is a necessary component that must be vigorously pursued.

Capping debt is fine. Capping spending would be far better.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and the Foreign Bank and Asset Reporting Requirements result in government’s warrantless seizure of personal financial information without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. …FATCA not only allows “unreasonable search and seizures” but also threatens the ability of overseas Americans to lead normal lives. We call for its repeal and for a change to residency-based taxation for U.S. citizens overseas.

Unambiguous opposition to FATCA is great, but it’s also big news that the GOP wants territorial taxation for labor income.

We call on Congress and state legislatures to enact reforms to protect law-abiding citizens against abusive asset forfeiture tactics.

Civil asset forfeiture is abusive by definition. Repeal the laws entirely.

The Constitution gives the federal government very few powers, and they are specifically enumerated… In obedience to that principle, we condemn the current Administration’s unconstitutional expansion into areas beyond those specifically enumerated.

This is true, but it’s too bad Republicans aren’t serious about this plank.

We oppose any carbon tax.

Good. It’s never a good idea to give politicians a new source of tax revenue.

The Republican path to fiscal sanity and economic expansion begins with a constitutional requirement for a federal balanced budget.

At the risk of being repetitive, spending caps are better.

We support the following test: Is a particular expenditure within the constitutional scope of the federal government? If not, stop it. Has it been effective in the past and is it still absolutely necessary? If not, end it. Is it so important as to justify borrowing, especially foreign borrowing, to fund it? If not, kill it.

If GOPers were serious about this part of the platform, this would put them on record to abolish 90 percent of the federal government.

Impose no changes for persons 55 or older. Give others the option of traditional Medicare or transition to a premium-support model designed to strengthen patient choice, promote cost-saving competition among providers, and better guard against the fraud and abuse that now diverts billions of dollars every year away from patient care.

To their credit (and notwithstanding Trump’s unserious approach to the issue), Republicans still embrace the right type of Medicare reform.

We applaud the Republican governors and state legislators who have undertaken the hard work of modernizing Medicaid. We will give them a free hand to do so by block-granting the program without strings.

It’s also good to see support for the right kind of Medicaid reform.

…all options should be considered to preserve Social Security. As Republicans, we oppose tax increases and believe in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system.

This is vacuous language, though at least it provides an indirect endorsement of personal retirement accounts. Though I don’t want “all options” on the table since that could be construed to include tax hikes.

We support reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which prohibits commercial banks from engaging in high-risk investment.

What?!? This is the most disappointing and economically illiterate part of the GOP platform.

…the Constitution gives [the federal government] no role in education.

True, so why don’t Republicans explicitly call for abolishing the Department of Education?

We agree with the four dissenting judges of the Supreme Court: “In our view, the entire Act before us is invalid in its entirety.” It must be removed and replaced with an approach based on genuine competition, patient choice, excellent care, wellness, and timely access to treatment.

Nice, though remember that repealing Obamacare is just the first step if you want a genuine market-based healthcare sector.

We propose to end tax discrimination against the individual purchase of insurance and allow consumers to buy insurance across state lines.

I like the latter part about breaking down the government-imposed barriers to interstate commerce, but I worry the part about tax discrimination is so vague it could be used to expand tax preferences when the real goal should be to get rid of the healthcare exclusion.

The FDA has slowly but relentlessly changed into an agency that more and more puts the public health at risk by delaying, chilling, and killing the development of new devices, drugs and biologics that can promote our lives and our health.

This is correct, but it would be nice to see specific reforms.

We commend those states that have passed Right to Try legislation, allowing terminally ill patients the right to try investigational medicines not yet approved by the FDA. We urge Congress to pass federal legislation to give all Americans with terminal illnesses the right to try.

This is a very good idea. If I ever have a deadly illness, I’ll want the freedom to roll the dice in hopes a new medicine or procedure will work.

Two grave problems undermine the rule of law on the federal level: Over-criminalization and over-federalization. In the first case, Congress and federal agencies have increased the number of criminal offenses in the U.S. Code from 3,000 in the early 1980s to more than 4,500 today. That does not include an estimated 300,000 regulations containing criminal penalties. …We urge Congress to codify the Common Law’s Rule of Lenity, which requires courts to interpret unclear statutes in favor of a defendant.

If bigwigs like Hillary Clinton can get away with violating very clear-cut national security laws because she didn’t intend to do damage to the nation, then ordinary people surely should get the benefit of the doubt as well when they inadvertently violate some complicated law or regulation.

…we oppose any form of Global Tax.

Amen. Now let’s see if Republicans put our money where their mouths are and defund pro-tax international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Let’s wrap this up. There are more policies that could be addressed, but this column already is too long.

The bottom line is that the platform has many good policies. Heck, if I though GOP politicians actually planned to pursue the agenda outlined in the document, I might consider becoming a Republican.

But does anybody think the average Republican politician even knows what is in the GOP platform? More importantly, does anyone think that Donald Trump has any commitment to the policies in the platform?

So now perhaps you can understand why advocates of small government sympathize with Uncle Sam in this cartoon.

Is it Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or the other way around?

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It’s very risky to trust the promises made by politicians.

But at least there’s a potential downside when they break their word. President George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election, for instances, after violating his read-my-lips, no-tax-hike promise.

So I think it’s useful to get politicians to explicitly commit to good policies, such as the no-tax-increase pledge.

But what about getting language in a party platform? Is that a vehicle for getting good policy, or at least is it a way of blocking bad policy?

For the most part, I don’t think party platforms bind politicians or constrain their behavior. To be sure, I’m happy when platforms embrace policies that I like, but I’m not foolish enough to think that this automatically will translate into better policy after politicians get elected.

For the most part, platforms are a way for politicians to appease the more philosophically inclined people in their parties. So the Democratic platform is generally farther to the left than Democratic politicians and the GOP platform is generally farther to the right than Republican politicians.

With these caveats taken care of, let’s review the proposals and policies in the Democratic platform (I’ll assess the Republican platform tomorrow). I’ve excerpted the items that are noteworthy and I follow each item with a brief observation.

Let’s get started.

Democrats will expand Social Security…[and] will achieve this goal by taxing some of the income of people above $250,000.

This is like stepping on the accelerator while approaching a cliff. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the program’s unfunded liability is a staggering $37 trillion, yet Hillary and her friends want even more spending. And they want to compound the damage with a huge tax increase on investors, entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

Democrats will also create an independent, national infrastructure bank.

This is a recipe for cronyism that will further expand the federal government’s role into an area that should be reserved for states, local governments, and the private sector.

Democrats will defend the Export-Import Bank.

Bernie Sanders was good on this issue, so this platform language means Hillary Clinton’s support for corporate welfare prevailed.

Democrats will provide direct federal funding for a range of local programs that will put young people to work and create new career opportunities.

Since job-training programs have a long track-record of failure, too bad they didn’t suggest repealing job-killing minimum-wage laws.

Democrats will not hesitate to use and expand existing authorities as well as empower regulators to downsize or break apart financial institutions when necessary to protect the public and safeguard financial stability, including new authorities to go after risky shadow-banking activities.

Other than pointing out that big isn’t necessarily bad, I don’t really have any policy reaction. I’m only sharing this blurb since I imagine you’ll also laugh out loud at the platform’s implicit assertion that Hillary Clinton somehow will crack down on her friends and donors at Goldman-Sachs. Yeah, I’m sure that’s high on her list. Right after putting inner-city schoolkids before the teacher unions.

We will ban golden parachutes for those taking government jobs.

Will that rule apply retroactively to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew?

Democrats will claw back tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, eliminate tax breaks for big oil and gas companies, and crack down on inversions and other methods companies use to dodge their tax responsibilities.

There are no “tax breaks” for companies that invert.

We will end deferrals so that American corporations pay United States taxes immediately on foreign profits and can no longer escape paying their fair share of U.S. taxes by stashing profits abroad.

The “fair share” should be zero for income that is earned (and therefore already subject to tax) in other nations.

We will ensure those at the top contribute to our country’s future by establishing a multimillionaire surtax to ensure millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share.

Even the IRS admits the tax system is very biased against the so-called rich.

…we will shut down the “private tax system” for those at the top, immediately close egregious loopholes like those enjoyed by hedge fund managers, restore fair taxation on multimillion dollar estates, and ensure millionaires can no longer pay a lower rate than their secretaries.

Wow, endorsing higher capital gains taxes, higher death taxes, and dishonest math in one sentence fragment.

We will work to crack down on tax evasion.

Unfortunately, they want higher compliance by expanding the power of the IRS, not by lowering tax rates.

…we will make sure that law-abiding Americans living abroad are not unfairly penalized by finding the right solutions for them to the requirements under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR).

This language is vacuous, but it’s nonetheless noteworthy that even the Democrats feel compelled to say bad things about one of Obama’s worst laws.

Democrats believe it is long past time to close this racial wealth gap. Disparities in wealth cannot be solved by the free market alone, but instead, the federal government must play a role in eliminating systemic barriers to wealth accumulation for different racial groups and improving opportunities for people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to build wealth.

More vacuous language, though it’s disappointing that the platform doesn’t endorse personal retirement accounts, which would fix one of the ways minorities are hurt by government policy.

We believe that the states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize it or provide access to medical marijuana should be able to do so.

Easily the most pro-liberty part of the Democratic platform.

Democrats will develop a national strategy, coordinated across all levels of government, to combat poverty. We will direct more federal resources to lifting up communities that have been left out and left behind.

Anyone think this will work any better than all the other failed anti-poverty schemes from Washington? I didn’t think so.

Democrats will protect proven programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—our nation’s most important anti-hunger program—that help struggling families put food on the table.

The only thing “proven” about the food stamp program is that it’s riddled with fraud and it creates dependency.

We will dramatically increase federal infrastructure funding for our cities.

It’s not the role of the federal government to pave roads and and build bridges and corrupt big-city political machines shouldn’t be offloading their responsibilities onto taxpayers in the rest of the country.

We will continue to support public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and for programs providing art and music education in primary and secondary schools.

If I want to listen to cowboy poetry, I should pay for it myself.

We believe America must be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century. We will take bold steps to slash carbon pollution.

Mostly vacuous rhetoric, but it could lead to “bold steps” to undermine prosperity.

Democrats believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities, and to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy and help meet our climate goals.

You don’t have to read between the lines to recognize that “should be priced” is DC-speak for a big energy tax.

All corporations owe it to their shareholders to fully analyze and disclose the risks they face, including climate risk. Those who fail to do so should be held accountable. Democrats also respectfully request the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies accused of misleading shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change.

This is probably the most reprehensible part of the Democratic platform. America is not a banana republic and people shouldn’t be attacked with “lawfare” for disagreeing with the political establishment.

Democrats are unified in their strong belief that every student should be able to go to college debt-free, and working families should not have to pay any tuition to go to public colleges and universities.

A plan that unambiguously will increase the cost of college.

Democrats believe that health care is a right, not a privilege, and our health care system should put people before profits. …Americans should be able to access public coverage through a public option, and those over 55 should be able to opt in to Medicare.

For those who think the Obamacare boondoggle didn’t go far enough.

Democrats will fight any attempts by Republicans in Congress to privatize, voucherize, or “phase out” Medicare as we know it. And we will oppose Republican plans to slash funding and block grant Medicaid and SNAP.

Let’s bury our heads in the sand and pretend there’s no entitlement crisis.

Democrats believe that global institutions—most prominently the United Nations—and multilateral organizations have a powerful role to play

A powerful role is not the same as a productive role or positive role. Though the United Nations is mostly feckless. The real damage is caused by the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I could analyze additional planks, but there’s a limit to have much statist claptrap I can endure.

If I had to give a grade to the Democratic platform, it would be “L” for leftist. Just like the Party’s nominee.

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I have a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to publicize civil servants who manage to get wildly over-paid while being notoriously under-worked. And I have a Moocher Hall of Fame to identify welfare recipients who have displayed special skills in living off the labor of other people.

But now I’m thinking I may need to create a Hall of Fame to “honor” politicians who go above and beyond the call of duty by displaying extraordinary levels of arrogance, elitism, malfeasance, and corruption. That’s because my initial plan to give a once-per-year award has been superseded by events.

  • Back in May, I gave a “Politician of the Year Award” to Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, because he announced to voters that none of his mistresses is on the public payroll.
  • But earlier this month, I had to reopen the balloting since it was revealed that the follicly-challenged President of France, Francois Hollande, was squandering more than $100,000 per year on a hair stylist.

To make matters even more complicated, the Prime Minster of Malaysia has decided to join the contest.

And if these blurbs from a Wall Street Journal column are any indication, he definitely deserves some sort of recognition.

U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday linked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to hundreds of millions of dollars they believe were stolen from the Malaysian state-owned investment fund 1MDB. …The evidence of fraud connected to 1MDB from investigations in the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland and at least four other countries is damning. The U.S. Justice Department put the losses at $3.5 billion on Wednesday. The Swiss Attorney General’s office said earlier this year it suspects $4 billion was misappropriated.

That’s some serious diverting of other people’s money. Makes scams like Solyndra, Export-Import Bank, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac seem like amateur hour by comparison.

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister and his cronies are using political coercion to silence and sidetrack whistle blowers.

…officials who tried to investigate 1MDB were sidelined. Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail was on the verge of bringing charges against Mr. Najib last summer when he was forced to resign for “health reasons.” …Abu Kassim Mohamed, chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, had advised prosecutors to charge Mr. Najib and was investigating 1MDB until last month, when the government announced he would move to a lower post.

Gee, seems like bad health and demotions are quite common in Malaysia.

The stonewalling reflects Mr. Najib’s strong political position at home. He has played the nationalism card to portray himself as a victim of foreign forces, used repressive laws to silence critics in the press and opposition, and expelled dissidents from his party. …Mr. Najib has also been helped at home by the appearance of close ties to U.S. President Obama, who invited him for a golf outing and ostentatious photo-op in Hawaii in December 2014.

I’m shocked, by the way, that Najib’s name hasn’t been linked to the money-laundering racket sometimes known as the Clinton Foundation. Seems like that would be a match made in heaven.

But perhaps I simply haven’t looked closely enough.

Also, this is a good opportunity to recognize the reporter, Clare Rewcastle Brown, who has done more than any other person to publicize this scam. She even got added to Fortune‘s list of “World’s Greatest Leaders.”

Through her website Sarawak Report, London-based journalist Brown has become an irritant in the corridors of power in Malaysia. Her exposés on state investment fund 1MDB—publicizing the alleged siphoning of $700 million into the pockets of Prime Minister Najib Razak—have made her a hero and a villain in the country, depending on whom you ask. The government has tried to arrest her for “activities detrimental to Parliamentary democracy” and has banned her website.

Speaking of her website, you can read her indictment of Najib by clicking here.

Let’s close with a caveat and a lesson.

The caveat is that Prime Minister Najib still hasn’t been convicted of anything. We have to hold out the possibility, however remote, that he’s actually innocent.

The lesson is that the Malaysian government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to allocate capital.

Even if a big government-run development bank miraculously and improbably steered clear of corruption, it’s always a bad idea to let politicians and bureaucrats invest with other people’s money.

And when you add the inevitable corruption to the mix, the net result is that you damage the economy while simultaneously lining the pockets of insiders.

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I’m in Shenyang, China, as part of the faculty for Northeastern University’s International Economics and Management program.

My primary role is to talk about the economics of fiscal policy, explaining the impact of both taxes and spending.

But regular readers already know my views on those issues, so let’s look instead at the vaunted Chinese Miracle.

And I don’t use “vaunted” in a sarcastic sense. Ever since China began to liberalize its economy in the late 1970s, economic growth has been very impressive. I don’t necessarily believe the statistics coming from the Chinese government, but it’s unquestionably true that there’s been spectacular progress.

The great mystery, though, is whether China will continue to enjoy rapid growth. In other words, will it actually converge with the United States (right now per-capita economic output in America is more than five times higher than it is in China)? Or will China, like many other developing/transition economies, hit a ceiling and then begin to stagnate.

I don’t pretend to know the future, but I can say with great confidence that the answer depends on the actions of the Chinese government.

The good news is that economic freedom jumped dramatically starting in 1980 according to Economic Freedom of the World. Thanks to good reforms, China’s score rose by more than 50 percent, climbing from 4.0 in 1980 to more than 6.0 in just a bit over two decades.

That’s a huge improvement, and it largely explains why prosperity has expanded and there’s been a record reduction in the grinding poverty and material deprivation that characterized the country.

But the bad news is that there hasn’t been much reform in the past 15 years. China’s economic freedom score has oscillated between 6.0 and 6.4 during that period.

Indeed, there have been financial bailouts and Keynesian-style “stimulus” schemes, so it’s possible that China is now going in the wrong direction.

Before digging into the details, let’s consider the economics of growth. I’ve written before that labor and capital are the two factors of production and that economic growth is a function of more labor, more capital, or learning to use existing labor and/or capital more productively.

One way to visualize this is with a production possibility curve. This is a tool in economics that often is used to illustrate tradeoffs and opportunity costs. If Robinson Crusoe is on a deserted island, what the best way for him to allocate his time to maximize the amount of fish he can catch and the number of coconuts he can collect? Or, for an entire society, what’s the “guns-vs-butter” tradeoff?

Here’s a chart I found online that illustrates the role of capital and labor and producing output. It’s a three-dimensional chart, which is helpful since it not only shows that there’s no output in the absence of capital and labor, but it also shows that an economy with just labor or just capital also won’t have much if any output. You produce a lot, by contrast, with labor and capital are mixed together.

But that’s just the beginning.

The above chart shows the amount of output that theoretically can be produced with given amounts of labor and capital. But what if there’s bad policy in a nation? Consider the difference, for example, between China’s plateaued economic freedom score and decent economic performance compared to Hong Kong’s great economic freedom score and great economic performance.

With that in mind, contemplate this two-dimensional image. With bad policy, either the economy only produces A when it can produce B (i.e., by using existing labor and capital more productively) or it produces B when it can produce C (i.e., by expanding the amount of labor and capital).

I suspect that China’s problem is mostly that bad policy interferes with the efficient allocation of labor and capital. In other words, there’s already a lot of labor and capital being deployed, but a significant amount is misallocated because of cronyism and other forms of intervention.

Now let’s move from theory to empirical details.

Here’s a close look at China’s reforms from Professor Li Yang, Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Over the past 35 years, China has achieved extraordinary economic performance thanks to the market-oriented reforms and opening-up….The GDP per capita also reached to $6075 in 2012, up from $205 in 1980… China’s economy experiences impressive changes in favor of marketization. In fact, as far back as 1996, 81% of the production materials, and 93% of retail sales, had already been traded according to the market pricing mechanism.

And here’s a chart showing the gradual expansion of market forces in China, presumably based on whether prices are determined by markets or by central planning.

We also have two charts showing the decline in genuine socialism (i.e., government ownership of the means of production).

The first chart shows that state-owned companies are becoming an ever-smaller share of the economy.

Even more impressive, there’s been a huge decline in the share of the population employed by state-owned firms.

This is good news, and it helps to explain why China is much richer today than it was 30 years ago.

But the great unknown is whether China will experience similar strong growth for the next 30 years.

Here’s more of Professor Yang’s optimistic analysis.

Another indispensable factor explaining China’s growth miracle is constant opening-up, which is equally guided by the principle of gradualism. Regarding the space structure, the markets successively opened up from the special economic zones, economic and technological development zones, coastal economic development zones, riparian regions, inland regions, and finally the whole China; regarding the industrial structure, from the advantaged manufacturing industry, to the less advantaged agriculture and service industries. In 2001, China’s entry into the WTO can be regarded as a milestone: China’s opening up transformed from selective policy measures to widespread and deep institutional arrangements.

The liberalization of trade is particularly impressive, as shown by the following chart from the study.

Makes me wonder what Donald Trump would adjust his protectionist China-bashing if he saw (and understood) this chart.

Anyhow, here are some passages from Professor Yang’s conclusion.

…market-oriented reforms constitute the most crucial factor to support China’s growth in the future. The key here is to properly deal with the relationship between government and markets. The latter will be expected to play the fundamental role in the allocation of economic resources. …China should make more effort to improve the efficiency of investment. …the government needs to reduce its intervention in the micro-level economic activities, promote deregulation and administrative decentralization, break up monopolies, and improve the efficiency of functioning.

I agree, particularly the part about boosting the efficiency of investment.

And that can only happen if China ends cronyism by letting capital be allocated by market forces rather than political connections.

Let’s close with two items.

First, one of the other faculty with me at the University in Shenyang is Ken Schoolland. In his presentation, he noted that there’s some real federalism in China. Provinces have considerable flexibility to engage in reform.

And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the rapid growth in China has been concentrated in the areas that have moved the fastest and farthest in the direction of free markets.

Second, some experienced observers are a bit pessimistic about future Chinese economic developments. Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute explains what needs to happen to boost future prosperity.

…the economy is in the process of stagnating. The only solution is a return to market-driven, politically difficult reform. Such reform must be focused primarily on rolling back the state sector. …Expanded individual or household land ownership in rural areas would be…helpful. …More individual land rights shrink the rural state. The critical step in revitalizing the economy is to shrink the urban state, and by a considerable amount. Such changes will of course be phased in over time but the sooner they start, the sooner economic performance improves. Shrinking the urban state sector would (i) finally address excess capacity; (ii) enable capital to be much more efficiently allocated; (iii) thereby slow or halt unproductive debt accumulation; and (iv)encourage innovation by enabling more competition. …In terms of capital allocation, formal interest rate liberalization was said to be a vital step. But it cannot be while the state controls most financial assets – the incentives for collusion among sister state financials are overwhelming.

Here’s Derek’s bottom line.

Want to know when China is going to thrive again – just check if the state sector is actually shrinking.

Amen.

What he’s basically describing are the policies that would dramatically improve China’s score from Economic Freedom of the World. And if China can ever climb as high as Hong Kong, then the sky’s the limit for growth and prosperity.

P.S. There are some signs that China’s leadership recognizes that a Reagan-style agenda is needed.

P.P.S. On the other hand, if China’s government takes the IMF’s advice, then prepare for economic decline and stagnation.

P.P.P.S. The most amusing economic news in recent years was when a senior Chinese official basically explained that the welfare state in Europe makes people lazy.

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I periodically get asked who should be in the White House.

Since I’m a policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I generally sidestep the question.

Though it probably isn’t too hard to figure out my preference if you peruse what I’ve written about previous presidents.

I’m a huge fan of both Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge, for instance.

But I’m definitely not partisan. I’ve also said nice things about John F. Kennedy and even Bill Clinton.

And to further demonstrate my independence, it’s time for me to endorse another Democrat.

Yes, you read correctly. The person I want in the White House is….(drum roll, please)…the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.

He’s mostly famous for being the only President to serve non-consecutive terms (he won in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892). And perhaps also for marrying a 21-year woman while in the White House.

But he should be remembered instead – and with great fondness – for his belief in classical liberal principles.

Let’s start with this blurb from his Wikipedia page.

Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He relentlessly fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. …He also used his appointment powers to reduce the number of federal employees, as many departments had become bloated with political time-servers. …Cleveland used the veto far more often than any president up to that time.

Perhaps his most glorious moment came when he rejected the Texas Seed Bill.

After a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there. Cleveland vetoed the expenditure. In his veto message, he espoused a theory of limited government:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. …the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

Wow, can you imagine any President saying these words today?

President Cleveland’s steadfast behavior and sound principles have garnered him some well-deserved praise.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily back in 2011, Paul Whitfield opined about Cleveland’s track record.

If free-market advocates could resurrect a U.S. president to deal with today’s problems, many would choose Grover Cleveland. …He vetoed hundreds of spending bills, refusing to succumb to political temptation whether it was wrapped in patriotism or sob stories. …Union military veterans had become a powerful special interest group. Expenditures on their pensions increased about 500% over 20 years… When Congress passed a bill granting pensions to veterans for injuries not caused by military service, he vetoed it. …He vetoed 414 bills during his eight years — 1885-89 and 1893-97 — in the White House, forcing Congress to curb its appetite for spending.

President Cleveland even had a libertarian approach to overseas entanglements.

Cleveland had a simple approach to foreign policy. He said America should “never get caught up in conflict with any foreign state unless attacked or otherwise provoked.”

Let’s go back even further in time. Here’s some of what Lawrence Reed wrote in 1996.

I give high marks to those presidents who actively sought to uphold the Constitution, and who worked to expand the frontiers of freedom. I’ll take a president who leaves us alone over one who can’t keep his hands out of other people’s pockets any day of the week. Honesty, frugality, candor, and a love for liberty are premium qualities in my kind of president. The one man among post-war presidents (post-Civil War, that is) who exemplified those qualities best was Grover Cleveland… Cleveland took a firm stand against a nascent welfare state. Frequent warnings against the redistributive nature of government were characteristic of his tenure. He regarded as a “serious danger” the notion that government should dispense favors and advantages to individuals or their businesses. …Disdainful of pork barrel politics, he felt that those who would use and gain from such projects should pay for them. …He rightly argued that tariffs stifle competition, raise prices, and violate the people’s freedom to patronize the sellers of their choice.

The article points out that Cleveland wasn’t perfect.

Indeed, the squalid Department of Agriculture was elevated to the Cabinet during his tenure.

But, on net, he pushed for liberty. Heck, look at this quote from President Cleveland, which Lawrence Reed shared in an article from 1999.

When more of the people’s sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and the expense of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government.

Wow. Taxation to fund beyond limited government equals “ruthless extortion.” That warms my libertarian heart!

Robert Higgs, the great economic historian, shared another great quote from President Cleveland.

Cleveland believed in keeping government expenditure at the minimum required to carry out essential constitutional functions. “When a man in office lays out a dollar in extravagance,” declared Cleveland, “he acts immorally by the people.”

Let’s begin to wrap up with some wisdom from Burton Folsom, who wrote about President Cleveland for the Freeman back in 2004.

For a U.S. president, one test of this courage is the willingness to veto bad bills— bills that spend too much money or that contradict Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. In that test of character, perhaps no president passed more convincingly than Grover Cleveland… During Cleveland’s first term (1885–1889), he vetoed 414 bills, more than twice the total vetoed by all previous presidents. …Over half of Cleveland’s vetoes involved pensions to Civil War veterans. Congressmen, especially Republicans, were increasingly trying to funnel taxpayer dollars to unqualified veterans in hopes of capturing “the soldier vote.”

Sadly, politicians today not only go after the “soldier vote,” but also the “farmer vote,” the “elderly vote,” the “urban vote,” etc, etc, etc.

And we don’t have principled leaders like Grover Cleveland with a veto pen.

Let’s look at some historical budget data to understand how truly lucky the nation was during Cleveland’s era. During the 1880s, in his first term, total primary spending (which is total outlays minus expenditures for net interest) averaged just 1.7 percent of GDP.

And this was before the income tax was enacted. After all, there was no need to have a punitive levy when the fiscal burden of government was so small.

P.S. Barton Folsom was the narrator of the superb video from Prager University on government-controlled investment.

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The United States is laboring through the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression.

Median household income is stagnant and labor-force participation is dismal.

Sounds awful, right?

Compared to the strong growth of the pro-market Reagan years and pro-market Clinton years, it is awful.

But maybe we should count our blessings

Here’s a chart from a presentation. by economists from the European Central Bank, and it shows how much the United States has grown since 1999 compared to Japan and euro nations.

We’ve enjoyed nearly twice as much growth as Europe and almost three times as much growth as Japan. Which is remarkable since those countries aren’t as rich as the United States and they should grow faster according to convergence theory.

So while it’s true that Obamanomics hasn’t been good for the United States, it’s apparently not as bad as Abenomics in Japan and Hollandenomics (and Renzinomics and Tsiprasnomics) in Europe.

Allan Meltzer explains why Europe is lagging in an article for the Hoover Institution.

Europe has become the model for how democratic capitalism can give way to the welfare state. Following a surge of market-driven growth after World War II, there was a rise across the continent in income redistribution and regulations intended to protect workers and consumers, and to achieve “fairness.” From the 1960s onward, high tax rates and heavy regulations slowed economic growth. And many welfare state programs became roadblocks to economic progress by resisting reforms and prolonging the current European recession. …France and Italy are not as far along to disaster as Greece, but their welfare systems are also difficult to reduce to regain competitiveness. …Monetary policy cannot overcome real, structural problems. Spain and Ireland showed that EU members can restore growth most effectively by making…painful real changes… Sluggish growth will continue until EU officials adopt policies that encourage private investment.

It’s depressing to think that some American politicians want to copy European failure.

Some of the candidates in the 2016 presidential race offer more welfare state benefits as a remedy for current voter malaise. The promise is that the way to make everyone better off is by taxing high incomes and distributing more to others. That’s the route that many in Europe took. Instead of the promised happy outcome, much of Europe got slow growth and high unemployment and an ever greater need to restore competitiveness by reducing the expanded welfare state. …Prime Minister Thatcher often said, “The welfare state will end when they run out of YOUR money.” If she was right, the end for Europe is here. And the lesson for the United States is to adopt less costly policies before debt markets force the change. …the lesson for the United States is that we will not escape the problems of the welfare state.

Even the left-wing bureaucrats at the OECD sort of admit Europe is falling behind.

I’ve previously shared data from the OECD showing much higher living standards in the US than in Europe, and here are some excerpts from a recent report on global migration patterns for high-skilled workers.

…migrants to the EU are younger and less well educated than those in other OECD destinations. Of the total pool of highly-educated third-country migrants residing in EU and OECD countries, the EU hosts less than one-third (31%), while more than half (57%) are in North America. …most importantly, many labour migrants are not coming to the EU under programmes for skilled workers. …EU Member States covered by EU legal migration policies received annually less than 80 thousand highly qualified third country labour migrants. By comparison, Canada and Australia have annual admissions under their selective economic migration programmes for highly-qualified workers of 60 thousand each.

In the section on recommendations, you won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD failed to suggest pro-market reforms.

There’s boilerplate language about streamlining the process for high-skill immigrants, but nothing about the stifling tax burdens and expensive welfare states that cause European economies to be so stagnant and unappealing.

One very visible manifestation of inferior living standards in Europe is that people generally have very cramped housing conditions compared to the United States (even Americans in poverty have more living space than the average European).

And to make matters worse, air conditioning is the exception not the rule.

Amusingly, Europeans pretend to feel superior about their summertime misery, as reported by the Washington Post.

Whereas many Americans would probably never consider living or working in buildings without air conditioning, many Germans think that life without climate control is far superior. …many Europeans visiting the U.S. frequently complain about the “freezing cold” temperatures inside buses or hotels. …Europe thinks America’s love of air-conditioning is actually quite daft. …according to the Environmental Protection Agency, …demand for air-conditioning has only  increased over the past decades. …the United States consumes more energy for air conditioning than any other country. …Europeans are generally more used to warmer room temperatures because most of them grew up without any air-conditioning.

As one might expect, the issue is being used by climate alarmists.

Another factor that may explain Europe’s sniffy reaction toward American cooling is the continent’s climate change awareness. According to a 2014 survey, a majority of Europeans would welcome more action to stop global warming. Two thirds of all E.U. citizens said that economies should be transformed in an environmentally-friendly manner. Cooling uses much more energy than heating, which is why many Europeans prefer sweating for a few days… America’s air-conditioning addiction may also have another negative side effect: It will make it harder for the U.S. to ask other countries to continue to abstain from using it to save energy. …”If everyone were to adopt the U.S.’s air-conditioning lifestyle, energy use could rise tenfold by 2050,” Cox added, referring to the 87-percent ratio of households with air-conditioning in the United States.

I’m much more tolerant of heat than the average American, so I probably could survive in a world without air conditioning.

But I hope that day never arrives and I continue to enjoy the full benefits of living in a first-world nation.

Let’s close with a fascinating map showing populations changes in Europe from 2001-2011. It’s in German, but all you need to know is that dark red means a 2-percent-plus increase in population while dark blue means a decline of at least 2 percent.

France and Ireland have population growth, as well as (to a lesser extent) Northern Italy and Poland.

But take a look at Portugal, Northwestern Spain, Eastern Germany, and the non-Polish portions of Eastern Europe. You’ll understand why I fret about demographic crisis in both Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

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Since I’m not a fan of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I think that puts me in a good position to fairly assess whether the candidates are being dishonest.

And since several media outlets just produced their “fact-checks” on Donald Trump’s acceptance speech to the Republican convention, this is a perfect opportunity to see not only whether Trump was being dishonest but also whether media fact-checking is honest.

Here’s some of the “fact-checking” from NBC., with each indented example being followed by my two cents.

TRUMP CLAIM: Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African-American youth are now not employed. Two million more Latinos are in poverty today than when the President took his oath of office less than eight years ago.

THE FACTS: Yes, 38 percent of African American children are living in poverty, according to Census data. But Trump isn’t correct that 58 percent of African American youth are unemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the African American unemployment rate for those ages 16-19 is 28.4 percent (versus 16.9 percent for all youth that age). And Trump is misleading on his claim about Latinos living in poverty. In 2009, 12.3 million Latinos were living in poverty (with a rate of 25.3 percent). In 2014, the number jumped to 13 million — but the rate actually DECLINED to 23.6 percent.

Shame on NBC for pulling a bait-and-switch. Trump didn’t say that there is a 58-percent unemployment rate among black youth. He said that 58 percent of them aren’t employed.

What NBC doesn’t understand (or deliberately chooses to hide) is that the unemployment rate only counts those “actively” looking for work.

Trump was focusing on labor-force participation.

I’m sure he made that choice because it gave him a number that sounded bad, but there are very good reasons to focus on the share of people employed rather than the unemployment rate (though it’s worth noting that a 28.4 percent unemployment rate for young blacks is plenty scandalous, which raises the question of why Trump didn’t point out that African-Americans have been hurt by Obamanomics).

On the other hand, Trump may be factually wrong about the number of Latinos living in poverty, though you’ll notice below that National Public Radio basically said Trump is right on this issue.

TRUMP CLAIM: President Obama has almost doubled our national debt to more than 19 trillion dollars, and growing.

THE FACTS: He’s right. When Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, the public debt stood at $10.6 trillion. It is now $19.4 trillion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Since I’ve already explained that George W. Bush deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for the budget numbers in Fiscal Year 2009 (which started on October 1, 2008), I think NBC actually missed a chance to criticize Trump for either being dishonest or for overstating the case against Obama.

Now let’s see what the New York Times wrote about Trump’s accuracy.

• “Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African-American youth are not employed.”

Fact Check: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of African Americans ages 16-19 in June was 31.2 percent (among whites of the same age, it was 14.1 percent).

The NYT does the same bait-and-switch as NBC, accusing Trump of saying A when he actually said B.

Is this because of dishonesty or sloppiness? Beats me, though I suspect the former.

• “Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000.”

Fact Check: This is mostly true. Median household income in 2000 was $57,724; in 2014, which has the most recent available data, it was $53,657.

My only comment is that I’m surprised the NYT didn’t go after Trump for using 2000 as his starting year, which obviously includes the stagnant big-government Bush years as well as the stagnant big-government Obama years.

• “Our manufacturing trade deficit has reached an all-time high – nearly $800 billion in a single year.”

Fact Check: The goods deficit — more imported goods, less exported goods — was $763 billion last year. But that includes agricultural products and raw materials like coal. Moreover, the total trade deficit last year was only $500 billion because the U.S. runs a trade surplus in services.

I think Trump is wrong about trade. Wildly wrong.

But the NYT is once again doing a bait-and-switch. Trump was talking about the trade is goods, not the overall trade balance.

They could have accurately accused him of selective use of statistics, or even misleading use of statistics. But his claim was accurate (depending whether you think $763 billion is “nearly” $800 billion).

• “President Obama has doubled our national debt to more than $19 trillion, and growing.”

Fact Check: The national debt was $10.6 trillion on the day Obama took office. It was $19.2 trillion in April, so not quite double, but close.

As I explained above, this is an example of the media missing a chance to hit Trump, presumably because journalists don’t understand the budget process.

• “Forty-three million Americans are on food stamps.”

Fact Check: As of October, this figure was largely accurate, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

At least the New York Times didn’t try to spin this number by claiming food stamps are “stimulus.”

Speaking of spin, here’s the fact-checking from National Public Radio.

Nearly 4 in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58% of African-American youth are now not employed.

[Thirty-six percent of African-Americans under 18 were below the poverty line as of 2014, according to the Census Bureau. It’s not entirely clear what Trump means by “not employed,” which is not technically the same as “unemployed,” which counts people who aren’t working and are looking for work. However, the unemployment rate for black Americans ages 16 to 19 was 38.1 percent as of June. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

It’s actually very clear what Trump meant by “not employed.” As should be obvious, it means the share of the population that is not working.

But NPR presumably is pretending to  be stupid so they can do a bait-and-switch and focus on the unemployment rate.

2 million more Latinos are in poverty today than when President Obama took his oath of office less than eight years ago.

[That’s roughly true, by the latest data available. Around 11 million Hispanic-Americans were in poverty in 2008, compared with 13.1 million in 2014. The poverty rate makes more sense to compare, though — that has grown 0.4 points since 2008, but it has also declined lately, down by nearly 3 points since 2010. As for whether President Obama is responsible for this, we get to that below. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

The fact that NBC and NPR disagree appears to be based on whether one uses the total number of poor Latinos in 2008 or 2009.

Obama took his oath of office in early 2009, so it seems that NPR missed a chance to attack Trump.

Though without knowing how the Census Bureau measures the number of people in poverty in any given year (average for the entire year? the number as of January 1? July 1? December 31?), there’s no way to know whether Trump exaggerated or misspoke.

Another 14 million people have left the workforce entirely.

[There’s a lot going on in this statistic. So here goes: Trump may be talking about the number of adults not in the labor force — that is, neither working nor looking for work (so it includes retirees and students, for example). That figure has climbed by 14 million since January 2009 (importantly, this isn’t people leaving the labor force; it’s just people not in it, period). But while labor force participation is relatively low, the labor force has still been growing — Trump’s 14 million figure might imply that it’s not. And that low labor force participation isn’t entirely about a tough economy — a lot of it is simple demographics. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office found that half of a recent 3-point drop in the rate had been due to baby boomers retiring. The other half was economic factors. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

That’s a long-winded way of saying that Trump’s number was accurate, but they want to imply his number is inaccurate.

Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000. That’s sixteen years ago.

[That’s true, using median household income data, though he is not measuring from the start of the Obama administration as he is for the other stats here. If he measured from 2008, the drop was $1,656. Measuring from 2000 means measuring from the figure’s near-peak.

[A broader point about all of these economic statistics: A lot of them have been true, but the question is whether Obama is to blame. Higher poverty, for example, doesn’t appear to be Obama’s doing, as we wrote in a fact check last year. Moreover, many experts believe a president generally has only very limited ability to affect the economy. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

As suggested from my earlier analysis, I think it’s fair to point out that Trump was being somewhat arbitrary to use 2000 as his base year.

But it’s amusing to see NPR admit that the number is right but then engage in gymnastics in an effort to excuse the weak economic numbers during Obama’s tenure.

Excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year, and we will end it very, very quickly.

[A few analyses have found that regulation costs around $2 trillion — one of the best-known, from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, estimated it at around $1.9 trillion this year. But as the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker has pointed out, in the past this figure has been characterized as a “back of the envelope” count, and that moreover, it doesn’t make sense to talk about costs without trying to count the benefits of regulation. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

This is another example of Trump making an accurate point, but NPR then blowing smoke in an attempt to imply he was being dodgy.

Last but not least, here are some assertions from Factcheck.org.

Trump claimed Clinton “plans a massive … tax increase,” but tax experts say 95 percent of taxpayers would see “little or no change” in their taxes under Clinton’s plan.

The fact that Clinton targets the top-5 percent doesn’t change the fact that she’s proposing a very large tax hike.

Trump claimed Clinton “illegally” stored emails on her private server while secretary of state, and deleted 33,000 to cover-up “her crime.” But the FBI cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing, and found no evidence of a cover-up.

This isn’t an economic issue, but I can’t resist making a correction.

The FBI Director explicitly pointed out that she repeatedly broke the law.

He simply chose not to recommend prosecution.

He said the “trade deficit in goods … is $800 billion last year alone.” It was nearly that, but it discounts the services the U.S. exports. The total trade deficit for goods and services is just over $500 billion.

As I noted above, Trump is wrong on trade, but the media shouldn’t do a bait-and-switch and criticize him for something he didn’t say.

By the way, the fact that media fact-checkers are largely wrong and dishonest is not a reason to be pro-Trump.

People can decide, if they want, to choose between the lesser of two evils.

My only message is that Trump is wrong on lots of issues, but that’s no excuse for hackery from self-styled fact-checkers.

P.S. Here’s my best Trump humor and here’s my best Hillary humor.

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Last year, I shared the most depressing PowerPoint slide in Danish history.

Back in 2011, I wrote about a depressing picture of tax complexity in America.

Let’s continue with the “depressing” theme today.

James Bessen, from Boston University Law School, has an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review about the source of corporate profits in the 21st century (h/t: James Pethokoukis).

He starts with an observation and a query.

Profits are up. …is it good news for society?

The default answer presumably is yes. Higher profits, after all, generally are a sign of wise investments.

And when labor and capital are allocated wisely, that’s good news for consumers and workers.

But Bessen correctly observes that profits can increase for bad reasons, and that’s the focus of his research.

…the rise in profits might represent a decline in…economic dynamism. …Firms engage in political “rent seeking”—lobbying for regulations that provide them sheltered markets—rather than competing on innovation. If so, then high profits portend diminished productivity growth. …In a new research paper, I tease apart the factors associated with the growth in corporate valuations.

Unfortunately, he finds that cronyist policies account for a depressingly large share of corporate profits.

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase.

Here’s a very grim chart from his article. At the very least, I’ll call this the most depressing image of 2016.

Ugh, what a dismal observation on the state of our economy. Companies are almost making as much money from manipulating Washington as they earn from serving consumers. Heck, just consider the way politically connected financial institutions tilt the playing field for unearned goodies.

Bessen adds some analysis, including the very important insight that regulation and intervention tends to help big companies relative to small companies and new competitors.

Much of this result is driven by the role of regulation… Lobbying and political campaign spending can result in favorable regulatory changes, and several studies find the returns to these investments can be quite large. For example, one study finds that for each dollar spent lobbying for a tax break, firms received returns in excess of $220. …regulations that impose costs might raise profits indirectly, since costs to incumbents are also entry barriers for prospective entrants. For example, one study found that pollution regulations served to reduce entry of new firms into some manufacturing industries.

It’s also worth noting that he finds that this bad news really started back in 2000, which makes sense given that both Bush and Obama have pushed policies that have expanded the clumsy footprint of government.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. …while political rent seeking is nothing new, the outsize effect of political rent seeking on profits and firm values is a recent development, largely occurring since 2000. Over the last 15 years, political campaign spending by firm PACs has increased more than thirtyfold and the Regdata index of regulation has increased by nearly 50% for public firms.

What an awful cycle. Government gets bigger and more powerful, which lures companies into viewing Washington as a profit center, which then leads to more policies that expand the size and power of the federal government, which leads to further opportunities for rent-seeking behavior. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Oh, and don’t forget this is one of the reasons why there’s a revolving door of insiders who shift back and forth between the private sector and government, but their real job is always to be working the system to obtain undeserved wealth.

Which is why I periodically explain that there’s a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.

P.S. Earlier this year, I shared some data, based on sources of billionaire wealth, that suggested that cronyism wasn’t a major factor in the United States. But Bessen’s new research nonetheless shows we do have a major problem, perhaps because people who get rich honestly then decide to maintain their wealth dishonestly.

P.P.S. If there’s any sort of silver lining to this bad news, it’s this amusing parody commercial about Kronies, which are toys for the children of Washington’s gilded class.

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What’s the best measure of the tax burden on the U.S. economy?

Is it the amount of money that we’re forced to surrender to the knaves in Washington (i.e., the difference between our pre-tax income and post-tax consumption)?

Or is it the loss of economic output caused by high tax rates, distorting preferences, and pervasive double taxation (i.e., policies that reduce our pre-tax income)?

The answer is both.

But even that’s not sufficient. There’s another very big part of the tax burden, which is the complexity caused by a 75,000-page tax code that imposes very high compliance costs on taxpayers. In other words, the tax (as measured by time, resources, and energy) we pay for the ostensible privilege of paying taxes.

And this compliance tax is enormous according to new research from the Tax Foundation. The report starts with some very sobering numbers.

…In 1955, the Internal Revenue Code stood at 409,000 words. Since then, it has grown to a total of 2.4 million words: almost six times as long as it was in 1955 and almost twice as long as in 1985. However, the tax statutes passed by Congress are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tax complexity. There are roughly 7.7 million words of tax regulations, promulgated by the IRS over the last century, which clarify how the U.S. tax statutes work in practice. On top of that, there are almost 60,000 pages of tax-related case law, which are indispensable for accountants and tax lawyers trying to figure out how much their clients actually owe.

It then measures the burden of this convoluted system for taxpayers.

According to the latest estimates from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Americans will spend more than 8.9 billion hours complying with IRS tax filing requirements in 2016. This is equal to nearly 4.3 million full-time workers doing nothing but tax return paperwork. …in dollar terms, the 8.9 billion hours needed to comply with the tax code computes to $409 billion each year in lost productivity, or greater than the gross product of 36 states… The cost of complying with U.S. business income taxes accounts for 36 percent of the total cost of the entire tax code, at $147 billion. Complying with the individual income tax costs another $99 billion annually.

The report provides data for 50 provisions of the tax code. In the interest of brevity, here are the 10-most expensive features of the internal revenue code.

The overall $147 billion compliance cost for businesses is enormous, particularly when you consider that corporate tax revenue for Uncle Sam this year is estimated to be $329 billion. So companies have a double-whammy of enduring the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate, and they have to spend lots of money for the pleasure of that punitive system.

Another part that grabbed my attention is “Form 4562” dealing with depreciation. If you care about good policy and stronger growth, businesses shouldn’t even have to depreciate. Instead, we should have a policy of “expensing,” which is simply the common-sense approach of recognizing costs in the year they occur. So firms are paying a $23 billion-plus tax for the privilege of a policy that already punishes them for investing. Amazing.

And don’t forget the death tax, which also makes the top-10 list. The Tax Foundation points out that the compliance cost basically doubles the burden of that horrible and unfair levy.

The estate and gift tax, which will only collect approximately $20 billion in federal revenues this year, has a compliance cost of $19.6 billion.

What a mess.

So what’s the answer?

Simply stated, we should rip up the entire internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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Over the years, I’ve repeatedly tried to explain why socialism is a terrible system while also explaining that we should be careful not to label people as socialists if it’s more accurate to refer to them as statists, redistributionists, cronyists, or fascists.

To help illuminate this issue, here’s a four-quadrant matrix. Free markets are on the left and state planning is on the right. And small government is on the top with redistribution is on the bottom.

So it’s a very good idea to be in the top-left quadrant, hopefully close to the corner, sort of like Hong Kong and Singapore. And it’s a big mistake to be in the bottom-right quadrant, sort of like Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.

Notice, by the way, that Denmark and Sweden are more free market than the United States (i.e., further to the left), but with much more redistribution (i.e., closer to the bottom). Which is exactly what you see when you look at the underlying data from Economic Freedom of the World.

Let’s augment our four quadrants by adding a couple of historical examples, which are colored red.

In the top left quadrant, we have the United States in the late 1800s, which is when we had a public sector that was significantly smaller than what Hong Kong has today. Heck, nations such as France and Sweden also had very small governments in the 1800s, which is when the western world became rich.

I also added the National Socialists from 1930s Germany. Their fascist economic system retained the veneer of private ownership, but state planning was the dominant economic model.

Moreover, it would be very illuminating to have a three-dimensional matrix in order to capture the difference between cronyism/interventionism and socialism/state planning.

Both involve government officials exercising power over the allocation of resources, of course, but cronyism/interventionism tends to be ad hoc and morally corrupt while socialism/state planning tends to be systemic and intellectually corrupt.

Though if a government engages in enough cronyism/interventionism (think Venezuela), the net result looks a lot like socialism/state planning (think North Korea).

Or maybe we should have a four-dimensional matrix so we also can distinguish between systems with nominal private property (such as fascism) and ones where the government owns the “factors of production” (such as socialism and communism).

The unfortunate reality is that there are several strains of statism, all of which are bad.

By the way, one of Hillary Clinton’s advisors, Gene Sperling, was recently asked about the difference between a socialist and a Democrat and was accused of dodging the question just like Hillary (and, I would add, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz).

“I’m not here to do general definitions,” replied Gene Sperling, a Hillary Clinton economic adviser, when asked by MSNBC: ‘What is the difference between a socialist and a Democrat?’ MSNBC’s Chris Matthews stumped Hillary Clinton with the same question several months ago.

Though, if you watch the interview, I think Gene actually gets close to the truth. He said Hillary was a “progressive” (which presumably means lots of redistribution), but nonetheless supports the market economy (as opposed to state planning).

To be sure, there are many examples of Hillary wanting to engage in interventionism, so Sperling may be right about socialism but wrong about Mrs. Clinton.

Let’s close with a video on socialism from Dennis Prager, though it applies equally to redistributionism (or any system where people can use the coercive power of government to obtain unearned goodies).

One of the most insightful parts of the video was when Dennis pointed out that excessive government weakens character. Which is just another way of pointing out that statism erodes social capital.

And I fear he’s right that regaining and restoring character is not that easy. Once people have decided that it’s morally acceptable to use the power of government to take what other people have produced, restoring an ethical society is probably like putting toothpaste back in a tube.

Which explains why I am so miserably pessimistic about the future of places such as Greece.

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Over the years, I’ve shared some clever images, jokes, and cartoons to expose the flawed mindset of those who hope to achieve coerced equality of outcomes with redistribution and high tax rates.

The size of a pizza vs the share of a slice.

The modern version of the Little Red Hen.

Washington’s Byzantine welfare state.

Chuck Asay’s overburdened tractor.

A left-wing nursery rhyme.

The Wizard-of-Id parody.

Two pictures showing how the welfare state begins and ends.

A socialist classroom experiment (including a video version).

The economics of redistribution in one image.

As you can see, this is a common-sense issue. When you give people money on the condition that they don’t earn much money, you create a perverse incentive for them to be unproductive.

Especially since, when people work more and earn more, they get hit by a combination of fewer handouts and more taxes. The net result is very high implicit marginal tax rates, in some cases rising above 100 percent.

Needless to say, it’s very foolish to have a welfare state that puts people in this untenable situation where the welfare state becomes a form of economic quicksand.

And it’s also foolish to punish the people who are pulling the wagon with high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Russell Jaffe, one of our Cato interns, helpfully cranked out a clever little image showing how redistribution is bad for both those who receive and those who pay.

No wonder the welfare state and War on Poverty have been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

And the problem is getting worse, not better.

Let’s begin to wrap up. I shared a Thomas Sowell quote at the beginning to today’s column.

Now let’s read some of his analysis.

He aptly and succinctly summarized why redistribution is a no-win proposition (h/t: Mark Perry).

The history of the 20th century is full of examples of countries that set out to redistribute wealth and ended up redistributing poverty. …It is not complicated. You can only confiscate the wealth that exists at a given moment. You cannot confiscate future wealth — and that future wealth is less likely to be produced when people see that it is going to be confiscated. …Those who are targeted for confiscation can see the handwriting on the wall, and act accordingly. …We have all heard the old saying that giving a man a fish feeds him only for a day, while teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Redistributionists give him a fish and leave him dependent on the government for more fish in the future.

So what’s the bottom line?

The simple (and correct) answer is to dismantle the welfare state. State and local governments should be in charge of “means-tested” programs, ideally with much less overall redistribution (a goal even some Scandinavian nations are trying to achieve).

In effect, the goal should be to replicate the success of the Clinton-era welfare reform, but extending the principle to all redistribution programs (Medicaid, food stamps, EITC, etc).

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state cripples independence and self reliance.

P.P.S. For those who like comparisons, you can peruse which states provide the biggest handouts and also which nations have the most dependency.

P.P.P.S. To end on a sour note, our tax dollars are being used by the Paris-based OECD to produce junk research that argues more tax-financed redistribution somehow is good for growth.

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There are no simple answers to Islamist terrorism, particularly when individual nutjobs are determined to kill a  bunch of innocent people.

But I know that some answers to the problem are wrong. So when politicians like Hillary Clinton say we should have more gun control, I side with police chiefs who recognize that an armed citizenry is a much more effective approach.

Simply stated, we’re dealing with evil people who want to maximize death, so they pick out places where they are less likely to encounter armed resistance.

The European response to terrorism is especially insipid. Law-abiding people are disarmed while terrorists have no problems obtaining all the guns they need.

Which leads to terrible consequences with tragic regularity.

I’m not sure how to categorize this sarcastic look at how Europe responds to a terror attack compared to how Texas responds, but it does make the key point that it’s better to shoot back than die meekly.

Consider this the terrorism version of the joke comparing how the governors of Texas and California respond to a coyote attack.

Though this is a deadly serious issue, not a joking matter.

P.S. If you want some genuine terror-related humor, look at the bottom of this post.

P.P.S. And if you want something truly pathetic, look at how statists try to rationalize terrorism.

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If you asked a bunch of Republican politicians for their favorite fiscal policy goals, a balanced budget amendment almost certainly would be high on their list.

This is very unfortunate. Not because a balanced budget amendment is bad, per se, but mostly because it is irrelevant. There’s very little evidence that it produces good policy.

Before branding me as an apologist for big government or some sort of fiscal heretic, consider the fact that balanced budget requirements haven’t prevented states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad policy.

Or look at France, Italy, Greece, and other EU nations that are fiscal basket cases even though there are “Maastricht rules” that basically are akin to balanced budget requirements (though the target is a deficit of 3 percent of economic output rather than zero percent of GDP).

Indeed, it’s possible that balanced budget rules contribute to bad policy since politicians can argue that they are obligated to raise taxes.

Consider what’s happening right now in Spain, as reported by Bloomberg.

Spain’s acting government targeted an extra 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) a year from corporate tax as it tried to persuade the European Commission not to levy its first-ever fine for persistent budget breaches. …Spain is negotiating with the European Commission over a new timetable for deficit reduction, as well as trying to sidestep sanctions after missing its target for a fourth straight year. Spain is proposing to bring its budget shortfall below the European Union’s 3 percent limit in 2017 instead of this year, Guindos said.

Wow, think about what this means. Spain’s economy is very weak, yet the foolish politicians are going to impose a big tax hike on business because of anti-deficit rules.

This is why it’s far better to have spending caps so that government grows slower than the private sector. A rule that limits the annual growth of government spending is both understandable and enforceable. And such a rule directly deals with the preeminent fiscal policy problem of excessive government.

Which is why we’ve seen very good results in jurisdictions such as Switzerland and Hong Kong that have such policies.

The evidence is so strong for spending caps that even left-leaning international bureaucracies have admitted their efficacy.

I’ve already highlighted how the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

Here are some highlights from another study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

…the adoption of a budget balance rule complemented by an expenditure rule could suit most countries well. As shown in Table 7, the combination of the two rules responds to the two objectives. A budget balance rule encourages hitting the debt target. And, well-designed expenditure rules appear decisive in ensuring the effectiveness of a budget balance rule (Guichard et al., 2007). Carnot (2014) shows also that a binding spending rule can promote fiscal discipline while allowing for stabilisation policies. …Spending rules entail no trade-off between minimising recession risks and minimising debt uncertainties. They can boost potential growth and hence reduce the recession risk without any adverse effect on debt. Indeed, estimations show that public spending restraint is associated with higher potential growth (Fall and Fournier, 2015).

Here’s a very useful table from the report.

As you can see, expenditure rules have the most upside and the least downside.

Though it’s important to make sure a spending cap is properly designed.

Here are some of the key conclusions on Tax and Expenditure Limitations (TELs) from a study by Matt Mitchell (no relation) and Olivia Gonzalez of the Mercatus Center.

The effectiveness of TELs varies greatly depending on their design. Effective TEL formulas limit spending to the sum of inflation plus population growth. This type of formula is associated with statistically significantly less spending. TELs tend to be more effective when they require a supermajority vote to be overridden, are constitutionally codified, and automatically refund surpluses. These rules are also more effective when they limit spending rather than revenue and when they prohibit unfunded mandates on local government. Having one or more of these characteristics tends to lead to less spending. Ineffective TELs are unfortunately the most common variety. TELs that tie state spending growth to growth in private income are associated with more spending in high-income states.

In other words, assuming the goal is better fiscal policy, a spending cap should be designed so that government grows slower than the productive sector of the economy. That’s music to my ears.

And the message is resonating with many other people in Washington who care about good fiscal policy.

P.S. Hopefully this column explains why I’ve only mentioned “balanced budget amendment” eight times in nearly 4,300 columns over the past seven-plus years. And most of those mentions were incidental or dismissive.

P.P.S. Simply stated, it’s a mistake to focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of excessive government spending.

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Something doesn’t add up. People like me have been explaining that California is an example of policies to avoid. Depending on my mood, I’ll refer to the state as the France, Italy, or Greece of the United States.

But folks on the left are making the opposite argument.

A writer for the Huffington Post tells readers that California is proof that the blue-state model can work.

Many factors contribute to California’s preeminence; one being its liberalism. Republicans don’t like to acknowledge California’s success. …The state’s job growth outpaced the nation’s in the first nine months of last year. California’s non-farm employment of 15.7 million people is at an all-time high. …California’s economy has thrived in spite of relatively high taxes and stringent regulations.

Meanwhile, a couple of columnists for the Washington Post are doing a victory dance based on recent California numbers.

…the…experiences of California…run counter to a popular view, particularly among conservative economists, that tax cuts tend to supercharge growth and tax increases chill it. California’s economy grew by 4.1 percent in 2015, according to new numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, tying it with Oregon for the fastest state growth of the year. That was up from 3.1 percent growth for the Golden State in 2014, which was near the top of the national pack. …almost no one can say that raising taxes on the rich killed that recovery.

And let’s not forget that Paul Krugman attacked me two years ago for failing to acknowledge the supposed success story of job creation in California. I thought he made a very silly argument since the Golden State at that time had the 5th-highest unemployment rate in the nation.

But Krugman and the other statists cited above do have a semi-accurate point. There are some statistics showing that California has out-performed many other states over the past couple of years. Let’s look at the numbers. The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank has a helpful website filled with all sorts of economic data, including figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis on per-capita income in states.

I selected California for the obvious reason, but also Texas (since it’s often seen as the quintessential “red state”) and Kansas (which has become infamous for a big tax cut). And, lo and behold, if you look at what’s happened to per-capita income in those states, California has enjoyed the most growth.

Is this evidence that high taxes and a big welfare state are good for growth?

Hardly. California’s numbers only look decent because the state fell into a deep hole during the recession. And, generally speaking, a severe recession almost always is followed by good numbers, even if an economy is simply getting back to where it started.

So let’s expand on the above numbers and look at what’s happened not just over the past five years, but also since 2000 and 2005.

And if you look at California’s relative performance over a 10-year period or 15-year period, all of a sudden the Golden State looks a bit tarnished.

By the way, these numbers are not adjusted for either inflation or for cost of living. The former presumably doesn’t matter for our purposes since changing to inflation-adjusted dollars wouldn’t alter the rankings. Meanwhile, the data on cost of living would matter for comparative living standards (for instance, $46,745 in Texas probably buys more than $52,651 in California), but remember that we’re focusing on changes in per-capita income (i.e., which state is enjoying the most growth, regardless of starting point or how much money can buy in that state).

In any event, the numbers clearly show there’s more long-run growth in Texas and Kansas, and it’s long-run growth rates that really matter if you want more prosperity and higher living standards for people.

But let’s not stop there. Our left-wing friends frequently tell us that per-capita income numbers are sometimes a poor measure of overall prosperity since a few rich people can skew the average.

It’s better, they tell us, to look at median household income since that’s a measure of the well-being of ordinary people. And we can get those numbers (only through 2014, though adjusted for inflation) from the Census Bureau. What does this data show for Texas, California, and Kansas?

As you can see, California is in last place, regardless of whether the starting point is 2000, 2005, or 2010. In other words, California may have enjoyed some decent growth in recent years as it got a bit of a bounce from its deep recession, but it appears that the benefits of that growth have mostly gone to the Hollywood crowd and the Silicon Valley folks. I guess this is the left-wing version of “trickle down” economics.

Perhaps most interesting, the short-run numbers show that tax-cutting Kansas has a comfortable lead over tax-hiking California.

If that trend continues, then over time we can expect that the long-run numbers will begin to diverge as well.

Let’s close by looking at some analysis about those two states for those who want some additional perspective.

Victor David Hanson, a native Californian, has a pessimistic assessment of his state. Here’s some of what he wrote for Real Clear Politics.

The basket of California state taxes — sales, income and gasoline — rates among the highest in the U.S. Yet California roads and K-12 education rank near the bottom. …One in three American welfare recipients resides in California. Almost a quarter of the state population lives below or near the poverty line. …the state’s gas and electricity prices are among the nation’s highest. …Current state-funded pension programs are not sustainable. California depends on a tiny elite class for about half of its income tax revenue. Yet many of these wealthy taxpayers are fleeing the 40-million-person state, angry over paying 12 percent of their income for lousy public services. …Connecticut and Alabama combined in one state. A house in Menlo Park may sell for more than $1,000 a square foot. In Madera three hours away, the cost is about one-tenth of that. In response, state government practices escapism, haggling over transgendered restroom issues and the aquatic environment of a 3-inch baitfish rather than dealing with a sinking state.

The bottom line is that he fears the trend line for his state is moving in the wrong direction.

John Hood takes a look at why the Kansas tax cuts have resulted in budget turmoil, while tax cuts in has state of North Carolina haven’t caused much controversy.

How did Kansas and North Carolina end up in such different conditions? For one thing, while the two states both enacted major tax cuts, they weren’t structured the same way. Kansas punched a large hole in its income-tax base by excluding self-employment income. North Carolina briefly created a version of this exclusion in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, but then wisely eliminated it in favor of applying a low, uniform tax rate on a broad base of personal income. In Kansas, lawmakers also allowed themselves to be bamboozled by some out-of-state tax “experts” claiming that cutting income taxes would generate so much new investment, entrepreneurship, and population growth that the revenue loss to the state would be substantially offset. This can actually be true, of course — in the very long run, counted in decades. In the short run of state budgeting, however, policymakers are better off making far more conservative assumptions about revenue feedbacks. …Our state policymakers didn’t just reduce and reform taxes. They also controlled expenditures. Since the enactment of the 2013 tax changes, their authorized budgets have never pushed spending growth above the combined rates of inflation and population growth. Actual spending, in fact, has often come in below even these budgeted amounts.

John’s message is that pro-growth tax cuts don’t generate overnight miracles. Lawmakers have to be prudent when calculating Laffer Curve feedback. And they also should make sure there is concomitant restraint on the spending side of the budget.

The bottom line is that the Kansas tax cuts are good for the state’s economy, but they might not be sustainable unless politicians don’t quickly make reforms to cap spending.

P.S. Closing with some California-specific humor, this Chuck Asay cartoon speculates on how future archaeologists will view California. This Michael Ramirez cartoon looks at the impact of the state’s class-warfare tax policy. And this joke about Texas, California, and a coyote is among my most-viewed blog posts.

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In 2014, I was outraged that more than 80 percent of senior bureaucrats at the Veterans Administration were awarded bonuses, even though this is the bloated bureaucracy that caused the death of many veterans by putting them on secret waiting lists. This, I argued, was a perfect example (in a bad way) of federal bureaucracy in action.

In 2015, I put together a version about bureaucracy in action at the local level, noting that the number of firefighters has climbed by 50 percent since 1980, even though the number of fires has declined by more than 50 percent during the same period.

This year, let’s look at the overseas edition of bureaucracy in action. Our story comes from Italy, where there’s been a government shutdown. Though only in the town of Boscotrecase. And not because of an Obamacare-style budget fight, but rather because a bunch of the local bureaucrats got arrested for routinely skipping work.

The mayor of a small town outside Naples had to shut down most municipal offices after police arrested 23 of his staff in the latest revelations of absenteeism in Italy’s public sector. Staff were filmed clocking in and then leaving to go about their personal business or using multiple swipe cards to register absent colleagues, police said, in scenes that have become familiar after numerous similar scandals. A police video showed one man trying to tamper with a security camera and then putting a cardboard box over his head to hide his identity before swiping two cards. Police arrested around half of all employees in the town hall offices of Boscotrecase following a weeks-long investigation that they said revealed 200 cases of absenteeism involving 30 people. …four major town hall departments had been closed on Tuesday due to a lack of staff. Those arrested, accused of fraud against the state, included the head of the local traffic police and the head of the town’s accounting department. The workers, whose arrest comes amid a government crackdown against absenteeism, have been suspended from work for between six and 12 months and risk eventual dismissal.

What I want to know, of course, is whether the bureaucrats were suspended with pay or without pay.

If it’s the former (which would be my guess), how will their lives be any different? They’ll be goofing off at home while getting overpaid!

No wonder Italy is in a death spiral.

P.S. The Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is comprised of specific government employees who have perfected the art of slacking (such as the Italian doctor who legally worked only 15 days in a nine-year period). That being said, I’m tempted to give adjunct membership to the entire local government of Boscotrecase.

P.P.S. Switching topics, the unpalatable choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton does have a silver lining. It’s generated this clever make-believe announcement from the British Monarch.

To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II:

In light of your failure to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (except North Dakota, which she does not fancy). Your new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will appoint a Governor for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

———————–
1. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘colour,’ ‘favour,’ ‘labour’ and ‘neighbour.’ Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters, and the suffix ‘-ize’ will be replaced by the suffix ‘-ise.’ Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. (look up ‘vocabulary’).
————————
2. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as ”like’ and ‘you know’ is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. There is no such thing as U.S. English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take into account the reinstated letter ‘u” and the elimination of ‘-ize.’
——————-
3. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.
—————–
4. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using lawyers, psychics or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not quite ready to be independent. If you can’t sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, then you’re not ready to be a sovereign nation.
———————-
5. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler. Although a permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.
———————-
6. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left side with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.
——————–
7. The former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) of roughly $10/US gallon. Get used to it.
————–
8. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.
——————-
9. The cold, tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. South African beer is also acceptable, as they are pound for pound the greatest sporting nation on earth and it can only be due to the beer. They are also part of the British Commonwealth – see what it did for them. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.
———————
10. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters. Watching Andie MacDowell attempt English dialect in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one’s ears removed with a cheese grater.
———————
11. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer.
Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancies).
———————
12. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. You will learn cricket, and we will let you face the South Africans first to take the sting out of their deliveries.
——————–
13. You must tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us mad.
—————–
14. An inland revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).
—————
15. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 p.m. with proper cups, with saucers, and never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; plus strawberries (with cream) when in season.

Reasonably clever. Reminds me of the somewhat un-PC humor a British friend sent me on how different countries respond to terrorism.

By the way, I’m not sure the part about needing a permit to carry a vegetable peeler is a joke. After all, we’re talking about the country where you need an ID to buy a teaspoon.

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Two months ago, I decided that the new President of the Philippines was the winner of the 2016 award for politician of the year.

It takes a remarkable amount of chutzpah, after all, to freely admit to having mistresses (yes, more than one). But the icing on the cake is that he then bragged that none of them are on the public payroll. I imagine Filipino taxpayers are very grateful that he self-finances his extracurricular activity.

This is all quite noteworthy, but I may have jumped the gun when giving President Duterte this award.

That’s because we now have another politician who has gone above and beyond the call of duty. This politician, you will see, has displayed a stunning degree of arrogance and elitism, acting as if the normal rules of decorum and prudence don’t apply.

No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton getting a free pass for endangering national security. Though that would be a good guess.

Instead, our new contestant for politician of the year is Monsieur Francois Hollande.

And the reason he has vaulted into contention is this amusing story (though presumably very aggravating story for French taxpayers) about the elitist and wasteful habits of France’s socialist leader.

French President François Hollande’s hairdresser earns a gross salary of €9,895 a month, according to a report in French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, to be published Wednesday. …Over the course of the president’s mandate, which ends next year, the hairdresser will have received a gross salary of more than €590,000. The hairdresser regularly follows Hollande during his travels, according to Le Canard.

I realize I may be a bit old fashioned, and maybe my reactions are influenced by my minimalist approach to hair care (shower, comb with fingers, done), but why does a male politician need an on-staff hairdresser?!?

Especially when he doesn’t have that much hair to begin with!

By the way, it’s not 100 percent clear that taxpayer money is financing Hollande’s hairdresser, though I suspect that’s almost certainly the case. The article mentions that the hairdresser signed the contract with Hollande’s top staffer, which certainly makes it sound as if the French President isn’t spending his own money.

Though maybe the Socialist Party or some other entity is paying the bills, so I will leave open the possibility that Hollande is merely guilty of being a vain clown instead of being a vain clown who wastes taxpayer money.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that Hollande a few years ago publicly cut back on some of the lavish perks he and his cabinet were enjoying. But I guess that was all for show.

Though I’d actually consider it a bargain if politicians spent all their time preening in front of the mirror.

That would leave them less time to tax our earnings.

Or regulate our behavior.

And discourage our productivity.

Or corrupt our nation.

And they’d have less time to reward their donors at our expense!

Or to reward themselves.

Or to be disingenuous hypocrites.

But no need to belabor the point. Maybe now it’s easy to understand why I prefer “do-nothing” politicians.

Heck, I’d be willing to double their pay if they promised to stay home.

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The Congressional Budget Office has just released the 2016 version of its Long-Term Budget Outlook.

It’s filled with all sorts of interesting data if you’re a budget wonk (and a bit of sloppy analysis if you’re an economist).

If you’re a normal person and don’t want to wade through 118 pages, you’ll be happy to know I’ve taken on that task.

And I’ve grabbed the six most important images from the report.

First, and most important, we have a very important admission from CBO that the long-run issue of ever-rising red ink is completely the result of spending growing too fast. I’ve helpfully underlined that portion of Figure 1-2.

And if you want to know the underlying details, here’s Figure 1-4 from the report.

Once again, since I’m a thoughtful person, I’ve highlighted the most important portions. On the left side of Figure 1-4, you’ll see that the health entitlements are the main problem, growing so fast that they outpace even the rapid growth of income taxation. And on the right side, you’ll see confirmation that our fiscal challenge is the growing burden of federal spending, exacerbated by a rising tax burden.

And if you want more detail on health spending, Figure 3-3 confirms what every sensible person suspected, which is that Obamacare did not flatten the cost curve of health spending.

Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other government health entitlements are projected to consume ever-larger chunks of economic output.

Now let’s turn to the revenue side of the budget.

Figure 5-1 is important because it shows that the tax burden will automatically climb, even without any of the class-warfare tax hikes advocated by Hillary Clinton.

And what this also means is that more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal challenge is caused by excessive government spending (and the Obama White House also has confessed this is true).

Let’s close with two additional charts.

We’ll start with Figure 8-1, which shows that things are getting worse rather than better. This year’s forecast shows a big jump in long-run red ink.

There are several reasons for this deterioration, including sub-par economic performance, failure to comply with spending caps, and adoption of new fiscal burdens.

The bottom line is that we’re becoming more like Greece at a faster pace.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that underscores why our healthcare system is such a mess.

Figure 3-1 shows that consumers directly finance only 11 percent of their health care, which is rather compelling evidence that we have a massive government-created third-party payer problem in that sector of our economy.

Yes, this is primarily a healthcare issue, especially if you look at the economic consequences, but it’s also a fiscal issue since nearly half of all health spending is by the government.

P.S. If these charts aren’t sufficiently depressing, just imagine what they will look like in four years.

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It would be impossible to pick the most hare-brained government policy. We have all sorts of bizarre examples from the United States. And we have equally “impressive” examples from other nations.

And today, we’re going to augment our collection of bone-headed policies from elsewhere in the world.

We’ll start with the United Kingdom, which already is a very strong competitor in the government-stupidity contest.

Though they may deserve to win that contest since the government is actually giving welfare benefits to polygamous immigrants.

Immigrants in polygamous marriages drain British taxpayers of millions of dollars each year by taking advantage of loopholes in the welfare system, and future legislation will make it even more profitable. …Married couples in Great Britain can receive need-based income support of up to $162 per week. As of 2013 — when a number of reforms to marriage support came into effect — a man can claim an additional $57 for every subsequent wife. In total, a polygamous household can claim more than $17,000 in welfare over the course of a year.

There apparently is some effort to clamp down on handouts based on future multiple marriages, but there’s a giant loophole.

An even more profitable way for polygamous marriages to bring in welfare money is by getting married in a so-called “Nikah” ceremony, which is recognized by Islam, but not British law. The wives will hence appear as “single” in the system, and can take out additional benefits if they have children. …New legislation expected to go into effect by 2021, will no longer recognize multiple marriages for the same person. But “Nikah” marriages will still receive a huge boost from the new law, since women can receive more money under “single” status than she did as an additional wife. The allowance for the extra “wives” will more than double to $454 each per month.

This may be the “triple crown” of stupidity. The first mistake is providing handouts. The second mistake is giving handouts to immigrants (which creates unseemly yet understandable backlash). And the third mistake is supposedly cutting back on handouts, but doing it in such a foolish fashion that more money will be wasted. Impressive.

Speaking of going above and beyond the call of duty in the battle to squander money, the U.K.-based Telegraph reports that the British government has been flushing away huge amounts of money for a facility to house unsuccessful asylum seekers.

An accommodation centre for failed asylum seekers is more costing than the world’s most exclusive hotels, taking just 14 families last year at a cost of more than £450,000 each. Cedars, a secure centre run by the Home Office, was occupied for approximately 40 nights in the first nine months of 2014/15 – but landed the taxpayer with a bill for millions of pounds. Total running costs for 2014/15 were estimated at £6,398,869 – or more than £457,000 for each family which passed through its doors. If each family stayed at the centre for the full year, the cost would equate to £1,252 a night, or £38,088 per family per month. However, the true cost is far higher – as much as £152,354 a night – because most families spend only 72 hours at Cedars… London’s Savoy hotel charges from £1,150 for a suite with a view of the River Thames, making it cheaper than the minimum nightly cost of Cedars House.

Wow. I’ve never stayed anyplace that nice on my trips to England. Maybe I should ask for asylum on my next trip?

Here’s another story that almost defies belief. Apparently the geniuses in the British bureaucracy thought wars only get fought in cold weather.

The Royal Navy’s fleet of six £1bn destroyers is breaking down because the ships’ engines cannot cope with the warm waters of the Gulf, defence chiefs have admitted. They also told the Commons defence committee on Tuesday that the Type 45 destroyers’ Rolls-Royce WR-21 gas turbines are unable to operate in extreme temperatures and will be fitted with diesel generators. Rolls-Royce executives said engines installed in the Type 45 destroyers had been built as specified – but that the conditions in the Middle East were not “in line with these specs”. Earlier a Whitehall source told Scotland’s Daily Record: “We can’t have warships that cannot operate if the water is warmer than it is in Portsmouth harbour.”

But it’s not just British bureaucrats who make bizarre mistakes.

Consider how the incompetence of Belgian officials paved the way for a terrorist attack.

…ministers and prosecutors…admitted failures that led to the release, last year, of two of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s terror attacks in Brussels. Interior minister Jan Jambon and justice minister Koen Geens said that information about one of the three suicide bombers transmitted by Turkey was not properly handled. …a Belgian prosecutor said that a second terrorist had been arrested and released by the Belgian justice system.

Here are the jaw-dropping details on one of the terrorists.

El Bakraoui had been sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in prison for robbery and for shooting at police with a Kalashnikov rifle. He was released in October 2014 but on condition he didn’t leave Belgium for more than 30 days at a time. He was arrested on the border between Turkey and Syria in June. Turkish authorities notified Belgium about it at the end of June, Geens told journalists. …”It was then very dificult to arrest him”, Geens said, as El Bakraoui had landed as “a normal Belgian citizen”, even though he had missed appointments with justice officials as part of his conditional release.

Wow, we have another contestant for the triple crown of government incompetence. First, the dirtbag only served four years in prison after trying to murder some cops. Second, it didn’t set off any red flags when he violated the conditions of his way-too-early release and went to Syria as a jihadist. Third, the Belgian government failed to act when given advance notice and warning by officials in Turkey that he was returning from his jihadist vacation. In this case, the net result wasn’t just wasted money, it was death for innocent civilians.

Let’s not forget, by the way, that a government bureaucrat excused all this incompetence on the theory that the “small size of the Belgian government” precluded an effective approach against terrorism. Yet if you look up the data, government in Belgium is so bloated that it consumes 54 percent of economic output, which is worse than even Italy and Sweden.

And let’s also not forget that American taxpayers subsidize jihadists, so we can’t really laugh too much about the Belgians.

Now let’s move from deadly incompetence to protectionist cruelty. The government in the Bahamas, acting to protect the local dentist cartel, shut down a clinic providing free dentistry for poor people.

Lenny Kravitz learned the hard way about government over-regulation on Monday when police raided a free dental clinic he sponsored in the Bahamas. “The dentists literally had to run out the back door to escape being arrested,” one source told me exclusively. …Kravitz flew several American dentists there for the four-day clinic, but evidently didn’t get all the permits required. On Monday, the last day of the program, as local residents were being fitted for dentures and having root canals, police and immigration officials burst in “and gave the team working 15 minutes to pack up all the equipment and leave,” the Eleutheran newspaper reported.

Heaven forbid that a government permit was missing! No good deed goes unpunished, even if it means poor people lose access to dental care.

Let’s close with a truly inane bit of government from Canada, where bureaucrats stopped a couple of kids from operating an unlicensed – gasp! – lemonade stand (the same thing happens in California, Georgia, and Oregon).

But in a surprising display of humanity, the local paper pushers decided the lemonade stand was okay and they even agreed to waive the $1520 daily fee.

But only with the following conditions.

The NCC has issued a special permit to allow two young girls to sell lemonade…which came with several conditions they must abide by while they operate their lemonade stand…carry a copy of the permit at all times while on NCC property…comply with all federal, provincial and municipal bylaws and regulations…create signs for the lemonade stand in both official languages…only sell lemonade…ensure that customers park their bikes on the grass.

Geesh, I knew the language police were active in Quebec, but I assumed Ontario wasn’t so crazy.

Reading all these stories, the only possible conclusion is that P.J. O’Rourke should apologize to teenage boys.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite examples of great moments in foreign government.

Though American readers shouldn’t laugh too hard. After all, we pay for bagpipe police and milk police.

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I don’t mind being polemical on occasion, but I generally don’t accuse my opponents of being “socialists.”

American leftists generally focus on redistribution and regulatory intervention and socialism technically means that the government directly owns, operates, and controls various sectors of the economy (think, for example, of the difference between Obamacare and the U.K.’s system, where doctors are public employees and the government operates the hospitals).

But we do have a few islands of socialism in the United States. Education is probably the biggest sector of our economy that is dominated by government. The air traffic control system is another unfortunate example.

Today, though, let’s focus on the Postal Service.

I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago, but we now have lots of additional evidence on why we should replace this costly and inefficient government monopoly with a system based on real competition and no subsidies.

My colleague Chris Edwards explains that, from an economic and taxpayer perspective, the postal monopoly is a dumpster fire.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lost more than $50 billion since 2007, even though it enjoys legal monopolies over letters, bulk mail, and access to mailboxes. The USPS has a unionized, bureaucratic, and overpaid workforce. And as a government entity, it pays no income or property taxes, allowing it to compete unfairly with private firms in the package and express delivery businesses. …the USPS needs a major overhaul. It should be privatized and opened to competition. But instead of reform, congressional Republicans are moving forward with legislation that tinkers around the edges. Their bill adjusts retiree health care, hikes stamp prices, and retains six-day delivery despite a 40 percent drop in letter volume since 2000. The bill would also create “new authority to offer non-postal products,” thus threatening to increase the tax-free entity’s unfair competition against private firms.

Amazingly, this is an area where European nations actually are more market-oriented than the United States.

Republican…timidity is particularly striking when you compare their no-reform bill to the dramatic postal reforms in Europe. …Since 2012 all EU countries have opened their postal industries to competition for all types of mail. A growing number of countries have privatized their postal systems, including Britain, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands. …On-the-ground competition is small but growing in Europe. In a dozen countries, new competitors have carved out more than five percent of the letter market, and in a handful of countries the share is more than ten percent. …the Europeans are giving entrepreneurs a chance. In response to even the modest competition that has developed so far, major European postal companies have “increased their efficiency and restructured their operations to reduce costs,” according to the EU report.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center weighs in on the issue in a column for Reason.

The Postal Service is a major business enterprise operated by the federal government. Thanks to Congress, it has something many business owners would love to have— protection from competition. Its monopoly on access to mailboxes and the delivery of first-class and standard mail means it doesn’t have to worry about someone offering a better service at a lower price. …unlike private businesses, the Postal Service has access to low-rate loans from the Department of the Treasury, effectively pays no income or property taxes, is exempt from local zoning rules and even has the power of eminent domain.

In addition to all these favors, the Postal Service is getting a huge indirect subsidy for it’s unfunded pension system.

Congress mandated that the Postal Service start making payments to fund the generous retirement health benefits it has promised workers. This was an important reform because the Postal Service has built up an unfunded liability for these benefits of nearly $100 billion. Ideally, postal workers should be paying for these benefits from payroll contributions rather than leaving the liabilities to federal taxpayers down the road. Sadly, Congress is too timid to take on special interests that benefit from the inefficient status quo, such as postal unions, and won’t support serious reforms… A few years ago, President Barack Obama called for a $30 billion bailout from the federal government, a five-day delivery schedule and an increase in the price of stamps. Unfortunately, that would be a bad solution from the perspective of customers and taxpayers. It also would perpetuate the blatantly unfair competition with companies such as FedEx and UPS.

Amazingly, some statists actually want to expand the Postal Service.

One bad idea that “reform” Postal Service supporters are pushing is to allow the government service to compete with private firms in other industries, such as banking. That would be hugely unfair to taxpaying private businesses, and do we really believe that such a bureaucratic agency as the U.S. Postal Service could out-compete private businesses in other areas if there were a level playing field?

The simple way to think about this issue is that an expanded Postal Service would be like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, only able to operate because of special privileges.

Shane Otten, writing for E21, has an “undeliverable” message for the Postal Service.

…the United States Postal Service (USPS)…an independent agency of the U.S. government, …has exclusive control over the postal system. Like every other government monopoly, it has lost money—$56.8 billion since 2007. The Postal Service is a smorgasbord of common government failures, including high labor costs due to unions (including the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association), congressional burdens restricting needed changes, unfunded pensions… Postal workers earn between 24 percent and 36 percent more than comparable workers in the private sector.  Because of this, labor costs represent approximately 80 percent of all expenses incurred by USPS. For comparison, private delivery service UPS’s labor costs only make up 62 percent of expenditures, even though UPS is unionized. And at union-free FedEx, labor costs come in at just 38 percent of total operating expenses.

Shane echoes Veronique’s argument about the Postal Service’s dodgy approach to pensions.

…the Post Office has not made a prefunding payment since fiscal year 2011. …the Postal Service pays nothing in federal, state, and local taxes on income, sales, property, and purchases. This saves the agency over $2 billion each year, giving it a major advantage over private competitors. The USPS is also immune from zoning regulations, tolls, vehicle registration, and parking tickets. …The Postal Service…can borrow money from the Treasury at a reduced interest rate. …borrowing at this artificially low rate is equivalent to a subsidy of almost $500 million.

By the way, I got castigated for saying it was a “bailout” when Congress said it was okay for the Postal Service to skip payments for employee pensions. I was basically correct, but should have referred to it as a “pre-bailout” or something like that.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason in a modern economy for a government to operate a business that delivers pieces of paper (and more than it would make sense to have government deliver pizzas). Indeed, this is such a slam-dunk issue that even the Washington Post is on the right side.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the Postal Service actually is constitutional. It’s one of the federal government’s enumerated powers. But the fact that the federal government is allowed to maintain postal service doesn’t mean it’s obliged to do it.

P.P.S. Here’s my only example of Postal Service Humor.

P.P.P.S. Though if you have a very dark sense of humor, you may laugh at the “action” of this postal employee. I think he may deserve a retroactive promotion to the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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While Switzerland is one of the world’s most market-oriented nations, ranked #4 by Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

Government spending, for instance, consumes about one-third of economic output. That may be the second-lowest level among all OECD nations (fast-growing South Korea wins the prize for the smallest public sector relative to GDP), but it’s still far too high when compared to Hong Kong and Singapore.*

Moreover, while the Swiss tax code is benign compared to what exists in other European nations, it also is not perfect. One of the warts is a wealth tax, which is a very pernicious levy that drains capital from the private sector.

Let’s look at some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the Swiss system.

Switzerland has taxed wealth since the late 18th century. Its 26 cantons in 2014 levied taxes on net wealth with rates varying from 0.13% in the lighter taxing German-speaking parts to 1% in French-speaking Geneva. Swiss wealth taxes are also special because they apply from wealth as low as 25,000 Swiss francs, ensuring large swaths of the middle class incur them. Typical taxpayers pay a rate of just over 0.5%.

Here are the wealth tax rates in the various cantons, based on a recent study of the system.

As noted in the WSJ story, that study contains strong evidence that the tax is hurting Switzerland.

…according to a new paper, …taxing wealth leads declared wealth to disappear. Based on experience in Switzerland, which uses wealth taxes the most, reported wealth falls around 20 times as much in response to an increase in a wealth tax as it does to an equivalent increase in a tax on capital income, such as dividends or capital gains. …Economists at the University of Lausanne and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a 0.1 percentage point increase in Swiss wealth taxes caused a 3.5% reduction in reported wealth. That’s equivalent to 100,000 Swiss francs going missing for a person worth 3 million francs. …they conclude in a study investigating changes in wealth tax rates on Swiss taxpayers’ reported wealth from 2001 to 2012.

Why is there such a big response?

For the same reason that class-warfare taxes don’t work very well in the United States. Simply stated, taxpayers have considerable ability to rearrange their financial affairs when governments try to tax capital (or capital income). And that ability is especially pronounced for those with higher levels of income and wealth.

Individuals have greater control over their reported wealth–especially financial wealth such as bank deposits, stock and bonds–than their reported income.

By the way, the story also included this nugget of good news.

Thanks primarily to tax competition, many nations have eliminated wealth taxes over the past 20 years.

…only five members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still levy annual taxes on individuals’ total financial and non-financial wealth… That is down from 14 nations two decades ago.

And if you want more good news, the Swiss cantons also are lowering their tax rates on wealth.

Here’s another map from the study. It shows that a couple of French-speaking cantons have imposed very small increases in the tax since 2003, while the vast majority of cantons have moved in the other direction, in some cases slashing their wealth tax rates by substantial amounts.

Since I’m a big fan of Switzerland, let’s close with some more good news about the Swiss tax system. Not only are tax rates on wealth dropping, but there’s no capital gains tax. And there are no taxes on interest.

So while there is a wealth tax, which is a very unfortunate and destructive imposition, the Swiss avoid many other forms of double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

*The burden of government spending also is excessive in Hong Kong and Singapore. Based on historical data, economic performance will be maximized if total government spending is less than 10 percent of GDP.

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I’m like a broken record when it comes to entitlement spending. I’ve explained, ad nauseam, that programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and Social Security must be reformed.

In part, genuine entitlement reform is a good idea because you get better economic performance when you replace tax-and-transfer schemes with private savings and competitive markets.

Demographic 2030But reform also is desperately needed because of changing demographics. Simply stated, leaving all the entitlement programs on autopilot is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

If you want a rigorous explanation of the issue, my colleague Jeff Miron has a must-read monograph on the topic. You should peruse the entire study, but here’s the key conclusion if you’re pressed for time.

…this paper projects fiscal imbalance as of every year between 1965 and 2014, using data-supported assumptions about gross domestic product (GDP) growth, revenue, and trends in mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. The projections reveal that the United States has faced a growing fiscal imbalance since the early 1970s, largely as a consequence of continuous growth in mandatory spending. As of 2014, the fiscal imbalance stands at $117.9 trillion, with few signs of future improvement even if GDP growth accelerates or tax revenues increase relative to historic norms. Thus the only viable way to restore fiscal balance is to scale back mandatory spending policies, particularly on large health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Jeff’s report is filled with sobering charts. I’ve picked out three that deserve special attention.

First, here’s a look back in history at the growing fiscal burden of entitlement programs.

Second, here’s a look forward at how the fiscal burden of entitlement programs will get even worse in coming decades.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the two above charts only show the fiscal burden of entitlement programs (sometimes referred to as “mandatory spending” since the laws “mandate” that money be given to anyone who is “entitled” based on various criteria).

When you add discretionary (annually appropriated) spending to the mix, as well as interest that is paid on the national debt, the numbers get even more grim.

Jeff adds everything together and shows, for each year between 1965 and 2014, the “present value” of the gap between what the government is promising to spend and how much revenue it is projected to collect.

These numbers are especially horrific because “present value” is a measure of how much money the government would have to somehow obtain and set aside in order to have a nest egg capable of offsetting future deficits.

Needless to say, the federal government did not have access to $118 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) in 2014. And if there were updated numbers for 2015 and 2016 (which would probably be even higher than $118 trillion), the federal government still wouldn’t have access to that amount of money either.

Especially since the total annual output of the American economy is about $18 trillion.

So now you can understand why international bureaucracies like the IMF, BIS, and OECD estimate that the fiscal challenge in the United States may be even bigger than the problems in decrepit welfare states such as France and Italy.

Let’s get another perspective on the issue. James Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center warns about the scope of the problem.

Despite what presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been saying on the campaign trail, the need to reform the nation’s major entitlement programs cannot be wished away. The primary cause of the nation’s fiscal problems, now and in the future, is the rapid rise in entitlement spending. In 1970, spending on Social Security and the major health care entitlement programs was 3.6 percent of GDP. In 2015, spending on these programs was 10.3 percent of GDP. By 2040, CBO expects spending on these programs to reach 14.2 percent of GDP. …entitlement reform is needed to put the federal government’s finances on a more stable foundation.

He outlines his preferred reforms, some of which I heartily embrace and some of what I think are too timid, but the key point is that he succinctly explains the need to act soon to avoid a giant long-term problem.

…reforms are not intended to create budgetary balance in the short-run. Large-scale change cannot be implemented in the major programs without significant transition periods, which means the reforms need to be enacted soon to reduce costs in fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years. Skeptics may say it’s pointless to worry about fiscal problems that are more than twenty years off. They’re wrong. …The result is a misallocation of resources that undermines long-term economic growth. …Entitlement reform is an absolute necessity, as will soon become evident to everyone, one way or another.

The recent testimony by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute also is must reading.

In just two generations, the government…has effectively become an entitlements machine. …transfers have become a major component in the family budget of the average American household-and our dependence on these government transfers continues to rise. …Fifty years into our great social experiment of massive expansion of entitlement programs, there is ample evidence to indicate that the unintended consequences of this reconfigutation of American political and economic life have been major and adverse.

You should read the entire testimony, which is a comprehensive explanation of how entitlements are eroding American exceptionalism.

And I’ve previously shared some of Eberstadt’s work on the growing dependency crisis in America.

In effect, our “social capital” of self reliance and the work ethic is being replaced by an entitlement mentality.

At the risk of understatement, that won’t end well. Heck, I don’t know which part is more depressing, the ever-growing burden of spending or the fact that more and more Americans think it’s okay to live off the labor of others.

All I can say for sure is that this combination never was, is not now, and never will be a recipe for national success.

Let’s conclude with some sage observations by George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal. He summarizes the problem as being a combination of too much spending and too little political courage. Here’s the too-much-spending part.

…we seem richer than we actually are because we have borrowed so heavily from future generations. …the nation’s slow growth and rising debt are already reducing the opportunities for upward mobility. …Recent projections of the future cost of current government obligations certainly won’t relieve…people’s worries. Those promises have expanded far beyond any reasonable projection of the government’s ability to extract enough revenue to cover them. …The Congressional Budget Office projects a steady rise in “mandatory” (i.e., entitlement) costs as a share of GDP out into the distant future. …The upshot: Americans are deep in debt, mainly thanks to government excesses.

And here’s the too-little-political-courage part.

The only real answer is that the entitlement programs will have to be reformed, and sooner better than later, because the longer reform is postponed the greater the fiscal imbalance will become and the greater its drain will be… Donald Trump is out to lunch on this issue, as he is on most questions that require more than a fatuous sound-bite answer. As for Hillary…, forget about it.

Sigh, how depressing. It seems like America will be “Europeanized.”

For additional background on the issue of debt, unfunded liabilities, and present value, this video is a great tutorial.

P.S. I must have taken LSD or crack earlier this year. That’s the only logical explanation for saying I was optimistic about entitlement reform.

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My main problem with Hillary Clinton is that she not only supports the bloated and enervating welfare state that already exists, but she wants to make it even bigger. Indeed, there’s only a very small gap between her and crazy Bernie Sanders when you examine their voting records.

There’s only a trivially small difference…between Hillary Clinton’s lifetime rating of 10.6 from the National Taxpayers Union and Bernie Sanders’ lifetime rating of 9.4. They both earned their failing grades by spending other people’s money with reckless abandon.

That being said, I’m disgusted and outraged by her dishonest and corrupt behavior.

The rule of law is one of the most important building blocks of a just and prosperous society, so it’s both morally nauseating and economically destructive when members of the elite enjoy special treatment.

Josh Barro definitely isn’t a member of the vast right wing conspiracy, so his list of Hillary’s ethical lapses should carry extra weight.

It’s possible that Clinton and Lynch were just catching up — “a social meeting,”… Similarly, it’s possible foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation because they viewed it as the most efficient available philanthropic opportunity, without regard for the favorable impression it might make on Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s possible Goldman Sachs paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 for three speeches because they thought she would be really interesting, not because they thought the payment might help the bank make a favorable impression on a potential future president. It’s possible a major Clinton donor ended up on a State Department nuclear advisory board for perfectly innocent reasons, and that there were no untoward effects from top Clinton staffers being simultaneously on State Department and private payrolls. …The list goes on and on. …the Clintons have no apparent concern for appearances of impropriety, as long as they believe their actions cannot get them in trouble with the law.

And the Clintons get away with things that would land ordinary Americans in jail, so you have to give them credit for knowing how to exploit their political connections and power.

And that has a lot of people legitimately upset. The Washington Examiner opined about Hillary’s free pass from the FBI.

The Founding Fathers embraced principles that transcended their own human weaknesses and those of their posterity. They created a system in which process and law could check base personal ambition, favoritism and other low and common temptations. The idea was to put in place a system that would survive incompetent and corrupt leaders. …the public witnessed what happens when the system fails. Special people receive special treatment. Equal protection under the law turns out to be a fancy fiction. Some people are more equal than others. …An average government official who spent five years breaking the rules to frustrate the Freedom of Information Act, and who recklessly compromised classified information (more than 100 times), including top secret information (eight times), would serve time in federal prison. But Hillary Clinton is almost certain to suffer no consequences at all.

But what about Hillary supposedly having no bad intent, as the FBI Director offered up as a distraction?

This is bunk. Intention is something this law does not require. “Gross negligence” alone is sufficient grounds for prosecution because the officials to which it applies are entrusted with secrets that bring greater obligations than average citizens must bear. Precisely because of that greater risk of prosecution, high-ranking government officials who handle classified information, including Clinton, sign agreements that spell out their legal jeopardy.

Jacob Sullum of Reason also addresses this topic.

…one of the statutes guiding the FBI’s investigation, 18 USC 793, makes it a felony to “mishandle classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way” (emphasis added), as Comey himself notes… Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, …who was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Reagan administration, says Comey’s description of Clinton’s behavior plainly qualifies as a violation of 18 USC 793(f). …Giuliani told NBC’s Brian Williams yesterday, “because he clearly found a direct violation of 18 United States Code, Section 793, which does not require intent. It requires only gross negligence in the handling of anything relating to the national defense. …The definition of gross negligence under the law is extreme carelessness. It’s the first definition that comes up in the law dictionary. …So that is a clear, absolutely unassailable violation of 18 United States Code, Section 793, which is not a minor statute. It carries 10 years in prison.”

For those who think Rudy Giuliani is perhaps exaggerating because of his support for Trump, then consider the views of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who is part of the #neverTrump camp.

It is a felony for anyone entrusted with lawful possession of information relating to national defense to permit it, through “gross negligence,” to be removed from its proper place of custody and disclosed. “Gross negligence” rather than purposeful conduct is enough. …As an example of the kind of information at stake, he described seven email chains classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level. These were the emails that the government had said earlier are so sensitive that they will never be disclosed publicly. …To be “extremely careless” in the handling of information that sensitive is synonymous with being grossly negligent.

Needless to say, ordinary Americans would never get this kind of preferential treatment.

David French, a former military officer, explains what would happen to someone in the armed forces who treated national security with the same degree of disdain.

I served ten years as an Army lawyer, and one of my responsibilities was advising the command on matters of military justice, including incidents where soldiers mishandled classified information. And if Hillary Clinton was a soldier, she would lose her security clearance, face administrative action, and face the specter of criminal prosecution. I’ve not only seen the pattern, I’ve also participated in the process. …If Hillary were Captain Clinton instead of the presumptive Democratic nominee and wife of a disbarred former president, the following things would occur, more or less simultaneously. First, the command would immediately suspend her security clearance. …Next, her commander would probably draft an administrative reprimand. …a career-killer if placed in an officer’s permanent file…Finally, the command would consider criminal charges. …the officer would in all likelihood not only violate the Espionage Act (the same statute at issue in Clinton’s case) but also the Uniform Code of Military Justice. …In other words, her actions would have ended her military career, and she would have been fortunate to resign in lieu of enduring a court-martial. In her post-military civilian life, she would have been unemployable in any serious government position… To say that Hillary Clinton is unfit to be commander-in-chief is to give her too much credit. It implies that she might be fit for other positions of responsibility. She’s not fit to be POTUS, and she’s not fit to be a private.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of Hillary favoritism.

We can enjoy some dark humor while the rule of law is further eroded.

The clever folks at Reason TV put together this video showing how Hillary Clinton has blatantly lied about her actions.

By the way, Hillary’s negligence and disdain for national security is just the tip of the iceberg.

She already has engaged in countless other shady acts, such as allowing her top aide, Huma Abedin, to be on the government payroll while simultaneously getting payoffs as an influence peddler.

Or consider the Clinton Foundation. Investor’s Business Daily makes a compelling case that it’s nothing but a racket.

…the Clinton Foundation gathered some $100 million from a variety of Gulf sheikhs and billionaires, not to mention taking in millions of “donations” from private businesses that later benefited from their supposed “charitable” largesse. Some of those who gave big bucks to the Clintons had interests that were, to put it mildly, not in keeping with U.S. interests. …now comes a more serious, far-reaching question: Is the entire Clinton Foundation so full of conflicts of interest and questionable dealings that it amounts to little more than a massive fraud intended solely to enrich its presidential namesake and his family? Charles Ortel, a Wall Street financial analyst, who pored over the Clinton Foundation’s books, filings and records, thinks so. He concluded that “a substantial portion of Clinton Foundation activities is certainly not ‘charitable’ or ‘tax-exempt’ in the accepted legal senses…” the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator removed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation from its list of charities because of its “atypical business model.” …Getting rich isn’t a crime. But it might be if you did it in the guise of being a tax-free humanitarian charity, interested only in the betterment of humankind.

The Washington Examiner also has looked at the Clinton Foundation’s dodgy finances and activities.

The Clinton Global Initiative has a curious record of leaving its projects unfinished, despite receiving multiple large donations from foreign interests that could benefit if Hillary Clinton is elected president (and may have already benefited from her service at the State Department). …the initiative has completed fewer than half of the commitments made since 2005. Thirty-six percent of them are listed as being “in progress.” Many others are listed as “stalled,” “unfulfilled,” or haven’t had any progress reported in at least two years. This may just be a sign of bad timing or ineffective philanthropy, but when combined with the rest of the information available about the Clintons’ philanthropic activities, it hints at something more sinister. …accepted a great deal of money in donations from businesses and foreign governments that had a lot to gain from her help.

Here one of the examples that certainly seems tawdry, if not sinister.

In one well-known case, a group of Canadian mining magnates made millions in undisclosed donations to the Clinton Foundation, and a Russian bank closely linked to the Kremlin paid Bill Clinton $500,000 to give a single speech in Moscow. All of these parties involved in funneling money to the Clintons and their enterprises were part of a large mining deal that required approval from a government panel on which Clinton sat.

We also have the Clintonian equivalent of Trump University, as outlined by Professor Jonathan Turley.

Donald Trump has been rightfully criticized and sued over his defunct Trump University. There is ample support for claiming that the Trump University was fraudulent in its advertisements and operations. However, the national media has been…sidestepping a scandal involving the Clintons that involves the same type of fraud allegations. The scandal involves a dubious Laureate Education for-profit online college (Walden) and entails many of the common elements with other Clinton scandals: huge sums given to the Clintons and questions of conflicts with Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State.

Here are some of the sordid details.

Laureate Education was sued over its Walden University Online offering, which some alleged worked like a scam designed to bilk students of tens of thousands of dollars for degrees. Students alleged that they were repeatedly delayed and given added costs as they tried to secure degrees, leaving them deeply in debt. …The respected Inside Higher Education reported that Laureate Education paid Bill Clinton an obscene $16.5 million between 2010 and 2014 to serve as an honorary chancellor for Laureate International Universities. …Various sites have reported that the State Department funneled $55 million in grants during Hillary Clinton’s tenure to groups associated with Laureate’s founder.  That would seem a pretty major story… The Wall Street Journal reported that Laureate was able to “skirt” regulations on reporting “gainful employment” due to its large number of schools and students outside of the country… Laureate has come up in the Clinton email scandal.  In her first year as Secretary of State, Clinton is quoted as directly asking that Laureate be included in a high-profile policy dinner — just months before the lucrative contract was given to Bill Clinton. …the size of the contract to Clinton, the grants from State and the complaints over alleged fraud should warrant a modicum of attention to the controversy.

Let’s close with one final example of Clintonesque sleaze. She apparently thinks insider trading is a good idea so long as the insiders are members of her family.

In 2012, Mezvinski, the husband of Chelsea Clinton, created a $325 million basket of offshore funds under the Eaglevale Partners banner through a special arrangement with investment bank Goldman Sachs. The funds have lost tens of millions of dollars predicting that bailouts of the Greek banking system would pump up the value of the country’s distressed bonds. …newly released emails from 2012 show that she and Clinton Foundation consultant, Sidney Blumenthal, shared classified information about how German leadership viewed the prospects for a Greek bailout. Clinton also shared “protected” State Department information about Greek bonds with her husband at the same time that her son-in-law aimed his hedge fund at Greece. …sharing such sensitive information with friends and family would have been highly improper. Federal regulations prohibit the use of nonpublic information to further private interests or the interests of others. The mere perception of a conflict of interest is unacceptable. …monitoring Greece was part of Clinton’s job description, but, ethically, that does not mean that a family member should make bets that depend upon the actions of another family member.

The point of all this is not that Hillary Clinton is sleazy and corrupt, though that’s one obvious conclusion.

Instead, as I’ve demonstrated over and over again, the real lesson is that Washington is filled with people like her.

And the reason that sleazy people gravitate to Washington is that we have Leviathan-sized government that enables politically well-connected people to obtain vast amounts of unearned and undeserved wealth.

Including lots of Republicans, so this isn’t a partisan argument.

Moreover, the problem almost certainly won’t get solved by electing different people. The only real solution is shrinking the size of government so there’s less opportunity for graft.

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Over the years, I’ve run into oddball stories about what happens when politicians and bureaucrats get involved with matters relating to sex.

And here are two more examples. Government isn’t involved yet, but will be if statists get their way.

  • Leftists concocted a crazy theory that tax havens promote sex slavery.
  • And other leftists hypothesized that climate change promotes prostitution and AIDS.

Let’s add to our collection. We now have new evidence in favor of the Laffer Curve, thanks to Illinois politicians levying a tax on strip clubs.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

…she and others…were expecting at least $1 million to be raised…the Live Adult Entertainment Facility Surcharge tax…went into effect Jan. 1, 2013, with the first monies collected in fiscal year 2014. For that fiscal year, the State Department of Revenue reported $405,996.62 in revenue; over the next two fiscal years, the amounts collected were a bit more — $501,334.85 for fiscal year 2015 and $532,271.46 for fiscal year 2016. The state’s newest ‘sin tax,’ which poses a tax on facilities that serve alcohol and that have live adult entertainment, includes topless, nude dancing and stripping. “They were expecting it to raise quite a bit of revenue,” McClanahan said of the tax on strip-club type facilities… “We anticipated it would be a greater number of clubs that would be paying and we would have anticipated about a million in revenue,” Poskin said. “So I don’t know if that if the tax that they’re paying is accurate and consistent with their gross receipts.”

The bottom line (no pun intended) is that politicians collected about half as much money as originally projected.

It’s unclear, to be sure, why the revenues didn’t materialize.

The clubs are probably engaging in a bit of avoidance and evasion, which is quite common in all areas of the economy when tax burdens increase.

And the clubs presumably are suffering from a loss of business because of the tax, which also is a common effect of higher tax burdens in all sectors of the economy.

Which gives me an excuse to make a broader point about the economy-wide implication of higher tax burdens.

Scott Sumner compares output in the U.S. and the four biggest European nations (Germany, U.K., France, and Italy), observes that per-capita tax collections in the U.S. are almost as high as they are in these other countries with far higher tax burdens, and has some must-read analysis about the very high economic cost of getting additional tax revenue.

…tax rates in the US are about 31% lower than in Europe, so there is a lot of scope for tax increases in the US. But how much revenue would those higher taxes actually collect—in the long run? This data suggests not very much. …we are in a region where disincentive effects are kicking in. GDP per person in these four countries is about 25.5% lower than in the US (PPP), so they only raise about 7.5% more revenue that we do, despite far higher tax rates. …The mistake that progressives make is to see the huge US GDP as a sort of piggy bank from which money can be raised for any policy objectives, without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. …it’s clear that progressivism can never succeed in America. The only question is how badly it will fail.

Looking at all this data, the one important question that must be asked is how anyone could possibly think that it’s a good idea to sacrifice 25.5 percent of our income in order to give politicians 7.5 percent more tax revenue.

By the way, for those who think Scott’s conclusions are somehow illegitimate because they’re based on back-of-the-envelope calculations, check out the very detailed and rigorous analysis from the European Central Bank that found an even larger negative relationship between tax revenue and foregone economic output.

In other words, there is a Laffer Curve. When tax burdens climb, taxable income falls. Which is just another way of stating that the cost of higher taxes isn’t just that politicians take our money. They also impose lots of damage on the economy, which means we suffer from lower earnings.

So it’s a double-whammy. They tax more, we earn less.

P.S. While I don’t want politicians involved with sex, I must confess that there’s also some compelling evidence that people don’t want economists involved with sex.

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European economic analysts are paying too much attention to the United Kingdom and too little attention to Italy.

Yes, the Brexit decision is important, and the United Kingdom is the world’s 5th-largest economy so it merits attention to see if there are any speed bumps as it escapes from the slowly sinking ship otherwise known as the European Union.

But one of the other passengers on that doomed ship is Italy, the world’s 8th-largest economy. And if the UK merits attention because of uncertainty on its way to a brighter future, then Italy should be getting five-alarm focus for its festering economic crisis as it descends into chaos.

Part of that crisis is quasi-permanent stagnation, as illustrated by this map showing changes in per-capita economic output since 1995.

To state that Italy is the slow student in the class is an understatement. There’s been a two-decade period with almost no improvement in economic output.

Even Greece has done better!

To make matters worse, Italy’s long-run stagnation is matched by an immediate banking crisis. Here are some excerpts from a MarketWatch report.

Banks in Italy are weighed by about €360 billion in nonperforming loans, or unpaid debts, according to Italy’s central bank. That represents 18.1% of total loans to consumers. Roughly €210 billion of those loans have been taken out by borrowers now considered to be insolvent. “Meanwhile, average return on equity has been less than 2% per year during the last five years, neither enough to clear out the NPLs at a decent pace, nor to attract more capital.

And, as illustrated by this chart from the Economist, this puts the nation in a very undesirable position.

There’s also a demographic disaster in Italy. The fertility rate is 1.43, which puts Italy in 208th place out of 224 nations.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to have fewer children. The “disaster” is that Italy has a huge, pay-as-you-go entitlement state that is premised on having an ever-growing number of new taxpayers to pay for the promises made to older taxpayers. And since Italy’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder, that’s obviously not happening.

Indeed, the EU Observer reports that parts of Italy are becoming ghost towns.

Around a third of villages in Italy are at risk of turning into “ghost” villages in the next 25 years because young people are leaving, and those who are left behind are dying of old age. …2,430 villages are at risk.

The “good news” is that there is some awareness that the nation faces a double-disaster of statism and unfriendly demographics.

Unfortunately, that awareness doesn’t extend to Italy’s ruling class. Almost nothing is being done to address the problems of a bloated (and notoriously incompetent) public sector and excessive government intervention. Fully one-half of the nation’s economic output is consumed by a bloated public sector. And a stifling tax burden helps to explain why economic output is stagnant.

And I’m not expecting good results from a new scheme to change the nation’s demographic outlook.

Italy’s health minister is proposing doubling a ‘baby bonus’ incentive for couples to have more children to combat what she calls a catastrophic decline in the country’s birth rate. …Lorenzin told the paper she wanted to double the standard baby bonus, currently 80 euros ($90) a month…and introduce higher payments for second and subsequent children to encourage bigger families.

Part of my concern is that I don’t think the government should pay people to have children, both because I don’t like redistribution and because I’m skeptical that you can successfully bribe people to have more children with $90 per month.

But when you dig into the details, the proposal is even more troubling. The government basically wants to encourage more children from the portion of the population that is most likely to rely on state handouts.

Higher-income families, those with taxable earnings of more than 25,000 euros per year, are not eligible for the scheme, excluding about a third of parents. The allowances are paid at higher rates for the poorest — those declaring less than 7,000 euros a year to the taxman. Under the new proposals, the payment for second and subsequent children would be 240 euros/month for average families and 400 euros/month for the poorest.

Call me crazy, but the last thing Italy needs is more people riding in the wagon of government dependency.

Oh, by the way, this scheme will add to the burden of government spending.

Lorenzin’s proposals would add 2.2 billion euros to public spending over six years, her department estimates.

More spending, bigger government, higher taxes, and additional red ink. Maybe that’s a recipe for prosperity on some planet in the universe, but it definitely won’t work on Earth.

P.S. No wonder there’s discussion in Sardinia on leaving Italy and joining Switzerland. After all, the luckiest Italian people in the world are the ones in Ticino, the southernmost canton of über-prosperous Switzerland (just as the unluckiest French people live in Menton and Roquebrune, which used to be part of Monaco).

P.P.S. Though you have to give the Italians credit for ingenuity. This doctor and this cop both went to extraordinary lengths to earn membership in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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Exactly five years, I created a Declaration of Dependence for my statist readers.

It was supposed to be satire, but after looking at some new estimates of dependency, I now wonder whether I accidentally foretold America’s future.

Anyhow, here’s how my attempt to be funny began.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people should be made equal, that they are endowed by their government with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are jobs, healthcare and housing.–That to secure these rights, Governments must rule over the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the elite.

While I like to think I came up with a few clever lines, it’s hard to laugh when you think about what’s happened ever since America’s real Declaration of Independence.

Here’s what the Tax Foundation tells us about the evolution of taxation.

Since our country’s founding, we have witnessed…federal revenues taking up less than 5 percent of our economy to more than 20 percent. …Taxation in the United States in 1776 was incredibly different than what it is today. There were no income taxes, no corporate taxes, and no payroll taxes.

Instead, the government relied on a relatively modest set of tariffs and excise taxes.

…taxes primarily existed on imports of goods and services to the colonies, as well as on the sale of particular products. What sort of items were these tariffs imposed on? Primarily, they were levied on ships on a per-tonnage basis, slaves, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages. In all, the average tariff worked out to about 10 percent of the value of imports.

Amazingly, this very modest form of taxation lasted for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until that wretched day when the 16th Amendment was approved that the stage was set for the oppressive tax system that now exists.

By the way, when there was no income tax, there also was very little government spending.

For much of our nation’s history, federal outlays consumed less than 3 percent of economic output. The burden of Washington spending today, by contrast, amounts to more than 20 percent of GDP. And I hate to even think about the long-run projections since I become suicidal.

Oh, and let’s not forget the regulatory burden. We’ve gone from a system that had virtually no red tape to a nation that is now suffocating from a blizzard of bureaucratic edicts.

All of which makes today more costly, as the Washington Examiner reports.

Hundreds of federal regulations on beer, fireworks, hamburgers and even corn-on-the-cob cost families an additional $40, according to a new report on the July 4th tax. American Action Forum regulatory policy director Sam Batkins researched the regulations on the holiday treats to determine the costs. And they are huge.

Here’s the infographic he created.

Red tape adding $40 to our costs today? That will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Let’s close on an upbeat and inspirational note by reading Professor Randy Barnett on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

The Committee of Five consisted of the senior Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, New York’s Robert Livingston, the Massachusetts stalwart champion of independence John Adams, and a rather quiet thirty-three year old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson. After a series of meetings to decide on the outline of the declaration, the committee assigned Jefferson to write the first draft. …Jefferson did not have three leisurely weeks to write. He had merely a few days. Needing to work fast, Jefferson had to borrow, and he had two sources in front of him from which to crib. The first was his draft preamble for the Virginia constitution that contained a list of grievances, which was strikingly similar to the first group of charges against the King that ended up on the Declaration. The second was a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights that had been drafted by George Mason in his room at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg where the provincial convention was being held. …Mason’s May 27th draft proved handy indeed in composing the Declaration’s famous preamble. Its first two articles present two fundamental ideas that lie at the core of a Republican Constitution. The first idea is that first come rights, and then comes government.

To be sure, the Founders’ view of rights was grossly imperfect. Blacks and Indians were grossly mistreated and women were not full citizens.

But by the standards that existed then, the America’s Founders did a remarkable job of curtailing the power of the state and enhancing the rights of individuals.

The good news is that there have been some significant expansions of liberty ever since the Declaration of Independence. A bloody war was fought in part to end the scourge of slavery. The toxic combination of racism and statism embodied by the Jim Crow laws has been abolished. And women now have full political and economic rights.

The bad news is that there also have been significant contractions of liberty in the economic sphere. It started with the so-called Progressive Era, particularly the disastrous tenure of Woodrow Wilson. It then accelerated during FDR’s economy-stifling New Deal. Government’s size and power further expanded during the grim LBJ-Nixon years. And, more recently, we witnessed the debacle of a Supreme Court ruling that the very limited enumerated powers in the Constitution somehow give the federal government the right to coerce individuals to buy products from private companies.

Notwithstanding all this bad news, I’m not quite ready to pack my bags for Australia.

The United States was the only nation founded on a set of philosophical principles and I’m very patriotic – in the proper sense of the word – about being an American.

I hope all American readers enjoy Independence Day. And in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, break a few rules. Dodge a tax, set off some illegal fireworks, and drive over the speed limit!

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The economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is the predictable result of statism run amok.

And I will confess a bit of Schadenfreude has suffused my columns on the topic.

But we shouldn’t laugh at the collapse of statism. Real people are suffering. And even if a painful collapse is necessary to create the conditions for a rebirth of freedom in Venezuela, the widespread misery that now exists is still tragic.

So let’s set aside sarcasm and try to draw a very important lesson from the crisis.

Moisés Naim of the Carnegie Endowment and Francisco Toro of the Caracas Chronicles have a column in the Washington Post about Venezuela’s collapse under Chávez and Maduro. They point out that ordinary people are the main victims of the nation’s statism.

Venezuela is the sick man of Latin America, buckling under chronic shortages of everything from food and toilet paper to medicine and freedom. Riots and looting have become commonplace, as hungry people vent their despair while the revolutionary elite lives in luxury.

They also ask the key question of why so many leftists became enamored with corrupt, failed, and anti-democratic leaders, particularly Hugo Chávez, who was “admired as a progressive visionary who gave voice to the poor.”

Not long ago, the regime that Hugo Chávez founded was an object of fascination for progressives worldwide, attracting its share of another-world-is-possible solidarity activists. …the time has come to ask some hard questions about how this regime — so obviously thuggish in hindsight — could have conned so many international observers for so long.

The authors answer that question in two ways.

Chávez pioneered a new playbook for how to bask in global admiration even as he hollowed out democratic institutions on the sly. …he mastered the paradoxical art of destroying democracy one election at a time. Venezuelans have gone to the polls 19 times since 1999, and chavismo has won 17 of those votes. The regime has won by stacking the election authorities with malleable pro-government officials, by enmeshing its supporters in a web of lavishly petro-financed patronage and by intimidating and marginalizing its opponents. It worked for more than a decade — until it didn’t work anymore.

In other words, the Venezuelan left sometimes won by rigging the rules, which is obviously bad.

But Chávez and Maduro sometimes did win genuine majorities. Those outcomes, however, were only made possible by bribing voters. People were seduced into stealing from their neighbors as part of a process that produces ever-larger sclerotic government.

This is the untrammeled majoritarianism that America’s Founders tried to avoid with a Constitution limiting the power of government.

In the absence of societal ethics, it’s not a good idea to let two wolves and a sheep vote on what to have for lunch. It has destroyed Venezuela. It’s destroying Greece. It’s what makes me pessimistic about the future of nations as diverse as Brazil, Italy, and South Africa. And it’s the biggest long-run danger facing the United States.

Simply stated, majoritiarianism produces “goldfish government.”

Let’s close by noting that type of system is very beneficial for powerful insiders.

Chávez successfully cultivated a pro-poor, anti-American posture . Endless professions of concern for the poor… But this, too, was a charade. We now know that the fiery speeches professing unconditional love and support for the poor were a ruse to deflect attention from the wholesale looting of the state. In fact, more than $100 billion in oil profits stashed in a “National Development Fund” were simply never accounted for. …regime-connected politicians run their luxury yachts aground after drunken romps. …You would think that preying on the world’s largest oil reserves would be enough for even the most voracious of kleptocratic elites, but no. The regime is also deeply involved in drug trafficking.

In other words, big government is very profitable for the insiders of Caracas just as big government in the United States is very profitable for the insiders of Washington.

P.S. I will admit that majoritarianism works when voters are knowledgeable and ethical. Switzerland is a very good (but very rare) example.

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As I’ve pointed out before, the big difference between the United States and Europe is not taxes on the rich. We both impose similar tax burden on high-income taxpayers, though Europeans are more likely to collect revenue from the rich with higher income tax rates and the U.S. gets a greater share of revenue from upper-income taxpayers with double taxation on interest, dividends, and capital gains (we also have a very punitive corporate tax system, though it doesn’t collect that much revenue).

The real difference between America and Europe is that America has a far lower tax burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

  • Tax rates in Europe, particularly the top rate, tend to take effect at much lower levels of income.
  • European governments all levy onerous value-added taxes that raise costs for all consumers.
  • Payroll tax burdens in many European nations are significantly higher than in the United States.

This makes for interesting cross-border comparisons, but it also raises an overlooked point about political attitudes. Why are leftists so hostile to successful people?

Think about it this way. If a farmer has five cows but one of the cows produces most of his milk, at the very least he would treat that cow with great care and concern.

Left-wing politicians in the United States, by contrast, express contempt and disdain for the upper-income taxpayers who finance our welfare state.

Let’s look at some of the numbers

The invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute points out that the top-20 percent bear the lion’s share of the fiscal burden in the United States.

CBO provides detailed data on American households for each income quintile in 2013 for: a) average household “market income”(includes labor income, business income, income from capital gains, and retirement/pension income), b)average household transfer payments (payments and benefits from federal, state and local governments including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)), and c) average federal taxes paid by households (including income, payroll, corporate, and excise taxes).

Mark presents that data in an easy-to-understand format and highlights the relevant numbers in red. The key takeaway is that the top-20 percent basically finance our Leviathan.

To make the issue even clearer, Mark created a chart showing the data from the sixth line in the above table.

Again, the only possible conclusion to reach is that higher-income households are the net financiers of big government.

Now let’s augment Mark’s analysis by examining some research from Scott Greenberg and John Olson of the Tax Foundation.

They also review the new CBO numbers and their focus in the tax burden on the top-1 percent (i.e., people who actually are rich).

One of the main takeaways from this year’s report is that the richest Americans pay a lot in taxes. In 2013, the top 1 percent of households paid an average of 34.0 percent of their income in federal taxes. To compare, the middle 20 percent of households paid only 12.8 percent of their income in taxes. Moreover, taxes on the rich are much higher than they’ve been in recent years. …in 2013, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a higher tax rate (34.0 percent) than in the year President Reagan took office (33.2 percent).

And here’s the chart accompanying their analysis.

There are all sorts of interesting stories inside this graph, such as the interaction of capital gains taxes and stock market performance (the top-1 percent tend to be significant investors).

There are also interesting stories that aren’t captured by this graph, such as the fact that rich people have great ability to adjust their taxable income when tax rates climb and fall (which was one of the reasons rich people paid a lot more tax when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent). Also, the average tax rate is less important than marginal tax rates if you want to understand how much damage the tax code imposes on the economy.

But for our purposes today, all that matters is that rich people over the past several decades have coughed up, on average, about 31 percent of their income to Uncle Sam.

That’s a lot of money. In effect, the federal government gets a dividend when successful taxpayers earn money.

Which brings us back to the perplexing fact that leftists have nothing but scorn for the folks who finance the welfare state.

Indeed, some statists have so much contempt for successful people that they want to push tax rates to high that the rich no longer would want to earn additional money. Which means, of course, that the IRS wouldn’t be collecting any money.

I don’t know whether the right metaphor is a farmer abusing the cow that produces most of the milk or a shareholder who sabotages the company paying good dividends, but the only possible conclusion is that leftists hate rich people more than they like big government.

If you think I’m exaggerating and such people don’t exist, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

P.S. To be fair, leftists don’t hate all rich people. They’re willing to shower bailouts, subsidies, and handouts on wealthy people who give them lots of campaign contributions.

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