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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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