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Archive for October, 2016

At the start of the year, I argued that capitalism was the way to get more growth in poor nations.

Foreign aid, by contrast, hasn’t worked very well.

…there’s a big difference between good intentions and good results. If you examine the evidence, it turns out that redistribution from rich nations to poor nations is just as counterproductive as redistribution within a society.

But don’t believe me. Professor William Easterly of NYU spent many years at the World Bank working on issues relating to economic development and he’s written entire books on the failure of foreign aid.

And here’s some of what he wrote for Cato back in 2006.

The West’s efforts…have been even less successful at goals such as promoting rapid economic growth, changes in government economic policy to facilitate markets, or promotion of honest and democratic government. The evidence is stark: $568 billion spent on aid to Africa, and yet the typical African country no richer today than 40 years ago. Dozens of “structural adjustment” loans (aid loans conditional on policy reforms) made to Africa, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, only to see the failure of both policy reform and economic growth. The evidence suggests that aid results in less democratic and honest government, not more. …Economic development happens, not through aid, but through the homegrown efforts of entrepreneurs and social and political reformers. While the West was agonizing over a few tens of billion dollars in aid, the citizens of India and China raised their own incomes by $715 billion by their own efforts in free markets.

One of the best critiques of foreign aid was written by an Indian back in 1972. The late Minoo Masani, who began his political career as a believe in socialism, learned through experience that markets work better than handouts.

…government-to-government aid distorts the international division of labour. It comes in the way of the natural laws of the market which should decide which country should produce what. …Government-to-government loans encourage socialism, communism and Statism, concentration of power, and waste. When a government aids another government, who disburses that aid? The government of that country. Aid thus transfers economic power from the people, the industrialists, the businessmen and the people to the hands of bureaucrats and politicians. The patronage the politician can dispense increases; the politicisation of economic life goes on. So, in a very direct way, every rupee of aid given by America or any other country or the World Bank to any aided country, including India, directly strengthens the forces of Statism, socialism and communism and weakens the forces of people’s free enterprise. It also breeds irresponsibility and waste.

He makes a great point that it is private investment that produces sustainable growth, not government-to-government transfers.

…one of the greatest disadvantages of government-to-government aid is that it discourages the investment of private equity capital in these countries. It does so because when one gets government-to-government aid at cheap rates, the temptation is not to raise equity capital abroad. This is a pity because our countries need foreign equity capital desperately. When foreign capital comes into India from any part of the world, it brings in foreign plant or machinery and engages Indian labour to work on it. It takes its profits out of the country only when it makes a profit. So such investment is in the interests of the Indian people. When a government-to-government loan comes, we have to repay the capital and the interest to the foreign government, however badly the money may have been wasted by our government. This is against the interests of the Indian people. So foreign private equity capital is good for India; government-to-government loans are bad for India. Let us hope we shall be spared them from now on.

Let’s look at some real-world evidence from the modern era.

In her recent Wall Street Journal column, Mary Anastasia O’Grady explains how aid has stifled the private sector in Haiti.

…why are so many Haitians still living in such dire poverty in the 21st century? Paradoxically, the answer may be tied to the way in which humanitarian aid, necessary and welcome in an emergency, easily morphs into permanent charity, which undermines local markets and spawns dependency. …The trouble is their assumption, too often, that poverty is caused by a lack of money or resources. This produces the wrong solution, one that prescribes getting as much free stuff to the target economy as possible. …The country has also been the recipient of billions of dollars in foreign-government bilateral and multilateral aid over the last quarter century. This enormous giving has created harmful distortions in the local economy because when what would otherwise be traded or produced by Haitians is given away, it drives entrepreneurs out of business.

Mary shares a couple of concrete examples.

The country was once self-sufficient in rice thanks to the work of rural peasants. That changed, according to the testimony of one development expert in the film, in the early 1980s. That’s when Haiti opened its rice market and the U.S. began dumping subsidized grain in the country with the goal of ending hunger—and helping Arkansas rice growers with U.S. taxpayer money. Most Haitian farmers could not compete with Uncle Sam’s generosity, and they lost their customers. …Donations of bottled water, clothing, shoes and even solar panels destroy local businesses in the same way. Just ask Jean-Ronel Noel, who co-founded the solar-panel company Enersa in his garage in the mid-2000s and expanded it to more than 60 employees. He is proud of his workforce…comes mainly from Port-au-Prince’s notorious slums. …The company was doing a robust business until the 2010 earthquake. “After the earthquake we were competing mostly against NGOs . . . coming with their solar panels . . . and giving them away for free. So what about local businessmen?” As Alex Georges, Mr. Noel’s partner puts it, “The demand stopped because it’s hard to compete with free.”

And here is the problem from a national and cultural perspective.

Mr. Noel zeroes in on another related problem: “Those NGOs are changing the mentality of the people. Now you have a generation with a dependency mentality.”

In other words, handouts from rich nations are destroying the social capital of Haiti.

Let’s go back to 2009 and see what Dambisa Moyo wrote about foreign aid to her home continent.

Kibera, the largest slum in Africa…is…just a few yards from…the headquarters of the United Nations’ agency for human settlements… Kibera festers in Kenya, a country that has one of the highest ratios of development workers per capita. …Giving alms to Africa remains one of the biggest ideas of our time — millions march for it, governments are judged by it, celebrities proselytize the need for it. Calls for more aid to Africa are growing louder, with advocates pushing for doubling the roughly $50 billion of international assistance that already goes to Africa each year. Yet evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment. It’s increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest… Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.

She has some very grim numbers.

…aid can provide band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth. …Over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades. …The most obvious criticism of aid is its links to rampant corruption. Aid flows destined to help the average African end up supporting bloated bureaucracies in the form of the poor-country governments and donor-funded non-governmental organizations. …A constant stream of “free” money is a perfect way to keep an inefficient or simply bad government in power.

If foreign aid money was “merely” wasted, that would be a bad outcome.

But that’s the optimistic version of the story.

In reality, the evidence suggests that these handouts actually subsidize bad policy in the developing world.

None of this would surprise the late Peter Bauer.

Lord Bauer was famous for observing that “government-to-government transfers . . . are an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.”

That’s good, if you happen to be a third world kleptocrat and you have a nice bank account filled with stolen funds in New York.

But if you’re a poor person in a poor country, you’re the one victimized by a bigger government that’s riddled with more corruption.

Amazingly, many western politicians accept corruption as the price of giving away money.

But this brings me back to where we started. If foreign aid achieved good results, then there would be a utilitarian case for accepting a degree of waste and corruption.

But since the evidence shows that these programs lead to slower growth and less prosperity, it’s a lose-lose-lose situation.

Here’s a video trailer for a great documentary on how foreign aid is helpful, but only for the people in charge of the programs.

Let’s close with something that probably should be called Bauer’s Paradox since I’m almost sure he said something making this point.

But until I find proof (maybe it was Easterly or some other scholar), we won’t attribute this sentiment to anyone in particular. We’ll simply go with a rather anodyne title.

But even if the title is boring, this Paradox makes a critical point. The poor nations that have become rich nations in recent decades did not rely on handouts and redistribution.

Instead, they generated growth by limiting the size and scope of government while allowing markets to function.

The nations that got the most aid, however, have stayed relatively poor.

P.S. The foreign aid bureaucrats and contractors have been the only real beneficiaries, much as the “poverty pimps” are the only real beneficiaries of the failed War on Poverty.

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The horrid day is rapidly approaching. Yes, November 8 is when Americans will choose which Tweedledee/Tweedledum fire to jump into after two terms of Barack Obama’s slow-growth frying pan.

So let’s try to enjoy some gallows humor in advance

Hillary already has been the target of satire in one Nazi movie. This time she’s graduated to a Nazi movie featuring the head of the National Socialist Workers Party.

Speaking of Ms. Clinton, I can greatly sympathize with the disgust she felt when receiving this selfie from America’s laughingstock, Anthony Weiner.

Now let’s train our fire on one of Hillary’s long-time donors and supporters.

Here’s Doc Brown giving some very important instruction on how to save the nation from the big-government fake Republican who is running against the big-government all-too-real Democrat.

We even have some satire mocking the Libertarian nominee. Here are some excerpts from an article posted by the Onion, ostensibly written by Gov. Gary Johnson.

…there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here for a third-party candidate to present a transformative new vision for our nation and win the support of voters all across the country. And frankly, I am just as disappointed as you are to realize I am in no way qualified to do that. …As it turns out, though, being a high-profile presidential candidate requires you to do a lot of stuff you don’t have to do when you’re only pulling in 1 percent of the vote, like know all about foreign affairs and domestic policy. …as you can probably tell by now, I am simply not up to the task. Not even close. …I’ve had to field questions on all kinds of subjects I just don’t have any clue about. It’s actually been pretty embarrassing. …What makes it really disappointing is that I truly believe libertarianism has valuable ideas to contribute to America’s political discourse. …But boy oh boy, am I ever doing a shitty job of communicating all that.

For what it’s worth, I suspect most Americans are relieved that Gary Johnson doesn’t know about places like Aleppo. That way, he’s less likely to invade and cause more instability and anti-American radicalism in the Middle East.

P.S. If you enjoyed the Hitler parody, other examples of this genre include:

And you can find more Hillary and/or Trump humor here, here, and here.

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In just 10 days, voters will go to the polls and deal with the rather distasteful choice of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In some states, they also will have an opportunity to vote for or against various ballot initiatives and referendums.

Here are the five proposals that would do the most damage in my humble opinion.

ColoradoCare (Amendment #69) – Apparently learning nothing from what happened in Vermont, advocates of big government in Colorado have a proposal to impose a 10 percent payroll tax to finance statewide government-run healthcare. The Tax Foundation points out that, if this scheme is approved, Colorado’s score in the State Business Tax Climate index “would plummet from 16th overall to 34th,” while the Wall Street Journal opines that “California would look like the Cayman Islands by tax comparison” if Colorado voters say yes.

Oregon Gross Receipts Tax (Measure #97) – Back in 2010, presumably guided by the notion that it’s okay to steal via majoritarianism, Oregon voters approved a class-warfare tax hike on upper-income taxpayers. Now they’re about to vote on a scheme to pillage the state’s businesses with a gross receipts tax, which is sort of like a value-added tax but with no credit for taxes paid earlier in the production process, which means the burden “pyramids” as goods and services are created. The Tax Foundation warns that this levy could lead to “a 25 percent increase in the Oregon state budget” and that “Oregon’s corporate tax climate would be the worst in the nation.”

Maine Income Tax Hike (Question #2) – Voters are being asked whether to boost the state’s top income tax rate to 10.15, which would be the second-highest in the nation. According to the Tax Foundation, the Pine Tree State “would drop to 45th overall” in the State Business Tax Climate Index (down from #30) if this class-warfare scheme is enacted. The National Taxpayers Union warns that the ” tax would make the state a less competitive place in which to do business.”

Oklahoma Sales Tax Increase (Question #779) – Sales taxes don’t do as much damage, per dollar raised, as income taxes, but it’s still a foolish idea to impose a big tax hike in order to finance bigger government. And that’s what will happen if voters in the state agree to boost the state sales tax by one-percentage point. The Tax Foundation notes that “Question 779 would give the Sooner State the second highest combined state and local sales tax rate in the nation, after only Louisiana.

California Tax-Hike Extension (Proposition #55) – One of worst ballot initiatives in 2012 was California’s Proposition 30, which imposed a big, class-warfare tax hike on upper-income residents and gave the Golden State the nation’s highest income tax rate. One of the arguments in favor of Prop 30 was that the tax increase was only temporary, lasting until the end of 2018. Well, as Milton Friedman famously observed, there’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government program. And that apparently applies to “temporary” taxes as well.  Proposition #55 would extend the tax until 2030.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of ballot initiatives that would move policy in the right direction. Here’s the one that probably matters most.

Massachusetts Charter Schools (Question #2) – Much to the dismay of teacher unions (and presumably the hacks at the NAACP as well), this initiative would expand charter schools. It’s remarkable that even the very left-leaning Boston Globe is embracing Question 2, opining that “the proposal would create new opportunities for the 32,000 students, predominantly black and Latino, who are now languishing on waiting lists hoping for a spot at a charter school” and that “Students in all Massachusetts charter schools gain the equivalent of 36 more days of learning per year in reading and 65 more days of learning in math.”

A related measure is Amendment #1 in Georgia.

Now let’s shift to a ballot initiative that is noteworthy, though I confess I don’t have a very strong opinion about the ideal outcome.

Washington Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax (Initiative #732) – The bad news is that a carbon tax would be imposed. This means, according to the Tax Foundation, that the “average household would pay $225 more per year for gasoline under the proposal, and $64 more for electricity.” The good news is that the sales tax would drop by one cent and the state’s gross receipts tax would almost disappear. So is this a good deal? Part of me says no because it’s never a good idea to give politicians a new source of tax revenue. But the fact that the measure is opposed by many hard-left green groups suggests that the idea probably has some merit.

For what it’s worth, I would vote against I-732 because of concerns that it eventually will lead to a net increase in the burden of government.

Last but not least, I’ll also be following the results on initiatives dealing with marijuana and tobacco.

States Voting for Marijuana Legalization (and Taxation) – Voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada will have an opportunity to fully or partly legalize marijuana. These initiatives also include buzz-kill provisions to levy hefty taxes on producers and consumers.

States Voting for Tobacco Tax Increases – Politicians in California, Colorado, Missouri, and North Dakota all hope that voters will approve tax hikes that target smokers (and, in some cases, vapers). In every case, the tax hikes will fund bigger government.

P.S. I can’t resist adding that I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that other voters in Fairfax County will join me in rejecting a scheme to add a 4 percent tax on restaurant meals. Not just because it’s a tax hike to fund bigger government, but also because the hacks in the county government are using dishonest and reprehensible arguments to push the tax.

P.P.S. I will be updating my prediction for the presidential election, and also making predictions for the House and Senate, the morning of November 8.

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I’ve written before about Hillary Clinton’s unethical and (presumably) illegal actions, both in terms of her email server and the Clinton Foundation.

We’ve probably only seen the tip of the iceberg, but one thing that can be said with confidence is that there is strong scent of corruption, cronyism, and insider dealing that surrounds Mrs. Clinton.

Every day seems to bring new evidence. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Kimberly Strassel puts it in blunt terms.

A Hillary Clinton presidency will be built, from the ground up, on self-dealing, crony favors, and an utter disregard for the law. This isn’t a guess. …It comes in the form of a memo written in 2011 by longtime Clinton errand boy Doug Band, who for years worked simultaneously at the Clinton Foundation and at the head of his lucrative consulting business, Teneo. It is astonishingly detailed proof that the Clintons do not draw any lines between their “charitable” work, their political activity, their government jobs or (and most important) their personal enrichment. Every other American is expected to keep these pursuits separate, as required by tax law, anticorruption law and campaign-finance law. For the Clintons, it is all one and the same—the rules be damned. …Any nonprofit lawyer in America knows the ironclad rule of keeping private enrichment away from tax-exempt activity, for the simple reason that mixing the two involves ripping off taxpayers. Every election lawyer in the country lives in fear of stepping over the lines governing fundraising and election vehicles. The Clintons recognize no lines. Here’s the lasting takeaway: The Clintons…know the risks. And yet they geared up the foundation and these seedy practices even as Mrs. Clinton was making her first bid for the presidency. They continued them as she sat as secretary of state. They continue them still, as she nears the White House. This is how the Clintons operate. They don’t change. Any one who pulls the lever for Mrs. Clinton takes responsibility for setting up the nation for all the blatant corruption that will follow.

Let’s look at some examples.

And we’ll start with the example of a Swiss bank that was being wrongfully persecuted by the American government for the supposed crime of protecting the privacy of clients (i.e., for following Swiss law inside Switzerland).

In other words, I’m very sympathetic to the bank. But I’m not a big fan of the Clintons using the bank’s legal woes as an opportunity to raise a bunch of money in exchange for a favorable disposition. Yet that’s exactly what happened, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian.

In February 2009, the IRS sued UBS and demanded that it disclose the names of 52,000 possible American tax evaders with secret Swiss bank accounts. …On 19 August 2009, it was announced that UBS would pay no fine and would provide the IRS with information about 4,450 accounts within a year. Since the deal was struck, disclosures by the foundation and the bank show the donations by UBS to the Clinton Foundation growing “from less than $60,000 through 2008 to a cumulative total of about $600,000 by the end of 2014”… The bank also teamed up with the foundation on the Clinton Economic Opportunity Initiative, creating a pilot entrepreneur program through which UBS offered $32m in loans to businesses, the newspaper reported. Other UBS donations to the Clinton Foundation include a $350,000 donation from June 2011 and a $100,000 donation for a charity golf tournament. Additionally, UBS paid more than $1.5m in speaking fees to Bill Clinton between 2001 and 2014, the newspaper reported.

James Freeman, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, cites two other examples of Clinton-style pay-to-play. The first example deals with Morocco.

We now know from emails published by WikiLeaks that before Mrs. Clinton formally launched her campaign, she arranged for the king of Morocco to donate $12 million to Clinton Foundation programs. What’s significant about the Morocco case is that for years the Clintons peddled the fiction that donors write checks simply to support wondrous acts of Clintonian charity. But that cover story isn’t available here. Mrs. Clinton’s trusted aide Huma Abedin put it in writing: The Moroccans agreed to the deal on the condition that Mrs. Clinton would participate at a conference in their country. Panicked Clinton-campaign aides persuaded Mrs. Clinton to avoid such a trip before launching her candidacy—and the foundation got the king to settle for Bill and Chelsea Clinton. But the record is clear. The king wanted the access, influence and prestige that all strongmen crave from legitimate democracies.

The second example comes from Kazakhstan.

This wasn’t the first time the Clintons satisfied such a desire while collecting megadonations. When it comes to human rights, Kazakhstan’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, makes Morocco’s king look enlightened. In power since 1991 and never freely elected, Mr. Nazarbayev must have enjoyed the sensation of Mr. Clinton endorsing him to lead an international election-monitoring group in 2005. The Kazakh strongman knows how to return a favor, and he granted valuable mining concessions to Clinton Foundation donors. The donors then built a global uranium powerhouse that was eventually sold to the Russians in a deal that required the 2010 approval of a U.S. government committee that included Mrs. Clinton’s State Department.

There’s a lot more material I could share, but the purpose of today’s column isn’t to demonstrate Hillary’s recent unethical behavior.

Instead, I want to show how she has a decades-long pattern of using government for self-advancement and self-enrichment. And I’ll follow by drawing (what should be) a very obvious lesson about public policy.

To keep today’s column manageable, let’s review just two examples.

First, let’s go back more than 20 years to the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Peggy Noonan explains Hillary’s attempt to replace the career professionals at the White House travel with cronies from Arkansas.

Why don’t people like Hillary Clinton? …Why, when some supposed scandal breaks and someone says she’s hiding something, do people, including many of her supporters, assume it’s true? …the scandals stretch back…all the way to her beginnings as a national figure. …It was early 1993. …It was the first big case in which she showed poor judgment, a cool willingness to mislead, and a level of political aggression that gave even those around her pause. It was after this mess that her critics said she’d revealed the soul of an East German border guard.

Let’s look at what happened.

On May 19, 1993, less than four months into the administration, the seven men who had long worked in the White House travel office were suddenly and brutally fired. The seven nonpartisan government workers, who helped arrange presidential trips, served at the pleasure of the president. But each new president had kept them on because they were good at their jobs. A veteran civil servant named Billy Dale had worked in the office 30 years and headed it the last 10. He and his colleagues were ordered to clear out their desks and were escorted from the White House, which quickly announced they were the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI. They were in shock. So were members of the press, who knew Mr. Dale and his colleagues as honest and professional. A firestorm ensued. Under criticism the White House changed its story. They said that they were just trying to cut unneeded staff and save money. Then they said they were trying to impose a competitive bidding process. They tried a new explanation—the travel office shake-up was connected to Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review. (Almost immediately Mr. Gore said that was not true.) The White House then said it was connected to a campaign pledge to cut the White House staff by 25%. Finally they claimed the workers hadn’t been fired at all but placed on indefinite “administrative leave.”

Noonan continues.

Why so many stories? Because the real one wasn’t pretty. It emerged in contemporaneous notes of a high White House staffer that the travel-office workers were removed because Mrs. Clinton wanted to give their jobs—their “slots,” as she put it, according to the notes of director of administration David Watkins—to political operatives who’d worked for Mr. Clinton’s campaign. And she wanted to give the travel office business itself to loyalists. There was a travel company based in Arkansas with long ties to the Clintons. There was a charter travel company founded by Harry Thomason, a longtime friend and fundraiser, which had provided services in the 1992 campaign.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Clinton lied about her efforts to turn the travel office into a goodie for a crony.

All along Mrs. Clinton publicly insisted she had no knowledge of the firings. Then it became barely any knowledge, then barely any involvement. When the story blew up she said under oath that she had “no role in the decision to terminate the employees.” She did not “direct that any action be taken by anyone.” In a deposition she denied having had a role in the firings, and said she was unable to remember conversations with various staffers with any specificity. A General Accounting Office report found she did play a role. But three years later a memo written by David Watkins to the White House chief of staff, recounting the history of the firings, suddenly surfaced. (“Suddenly surfaced” is a phrase one reads a lot in Clinton scandal stories.) It showed Mrs. Clinton herself directed them.

By the way, the most disgusting part of this scandal is the way Hillary sicced the government on Mr. Dale.

The White House pressed the FBI to investigate, FBI agents balked—on what evidence?—but ultimately there was an investigation, and an audit. …Billy Dale was indicted on charges including embezzlement. The trial lasted almost two weeks. …The jury acquitted him in less than two hours.

In other words, expect to see more Lois Lerner-type scandals if Hillary reaches the White House. There should be little doubt that she will use the power of government to attack her political opponents.

Now let’s go back even further in time, to the late 1970s when Hillary Clinton somehow managed to turn a $1,000 “investment” into $100,000 is less than one year. The New York Times reported on this rather implausible story back in 1994.

…in 1978 Hillary Rodham Clinton invested $1,000 in commodities futures and that the investment grew in 10 months of trading in the notoriously volatile market into a gain of nearly $100,000. Seeking to dispel suggestions that the trades were risk-free and improperly arranged by an Arkansas lawyer who represents one of the state’s most powerful companies, the White House issued a statement this afternoon that said the First Lady had put up her own money and that she bore all of the financial risks in a marketplace where three out of four investors lose money. The officials also released a year’s worth of brokerage statements from one of Mrs. Clinton’s two accounts. …Mrs. Clinton based her trades on information in The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Mrs. Clinton, a complete novice, with no experience in the private sector or the investment business, suddenly decided to sink money into a very complex type of speculation.

And we’re supposed to believe that she made a series of very clever market-timing decisions and turned small amount of money into a big pile of money.

Needless to say, even the reporter for the New York Times couldn’t help but express skepticism and doubt. Particularly since nobody was willing to back up Mrs. Clinton’s story.

The White House insisted today that Mrs. Clinton received no improper financial assistance on the trades from the lawyer, James B. Blair, a close friend who at the time was the top lawyer for Tyson Foods of Springdale, Ark., the nation’s biggest poultry company. Mr. Blair has said that he had suggested that she get into the commodities market, and that he used his knowledge of trading to guide her along the way. During Mr. Clinton’s tenure as Governor, Tyson benefited from several state decisions, including favorable environmental rulings, $9 million in state loans, and the placement of company executives on important state boards. …brokers in the Springdale office of Refco where Mrs. Clinton executed the trades, including the one she describes as her personal broker, said in interviews in recent weeks that they have no recollection of ever talking with her about the trades. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Blair have said that they used Robert L. (Red) Bone, the broker who founded the Springdale office of Refco, a Chicago commodities firm, to execute the trades. But Mr. Bone, who worked at Tyson for 13 years until 1973, insisted in several interviews this month that he has no recollection of ever trading for Mrs. Clinton or talking to her about commodities trades.

Here’s the bottom line. Back when this scandal surfaced in the 1990s, I talked to several people in the financial markets, every one of whom was 99.99 percent certain that Hillary was the beneficiary of a gift (if they were favorable to her) or a bribe (if they were unfavorable to her). And they all agreed that somebody on the inside arranged to give her, after the fact, the winning side of trades in order to make it look like she was simply a good investor.

Moreover, every single Democrat that I talked to admitted (but only off the record) that she was the recipient of a gift or a bribe.

And she hasn’t changed in the past 38 years. Government is a vehicle for personal advancement and personal enrichment.

Now let’s conclude by bring public policy into the discussion. Corrupt politicians are able to amass lots of power and money because government is big and powerful.

And I’m not making a partisan argument. Indeed, here are the same bullet points I used when pointing out the empty futility of Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp” and end DC corruption.

All I’m saying is that Hillary Clinton both supports big government and profits from big government. And as the public sector gets larger, don’t be surprised when you find out that Hillary and her cronies have figured out additional ways of feathering their own nests.

P.S. By the way, I do recognize that there’s an infinitesimally small possibility that Hillary’s story about cattle futures is accurate.

I also recognize, for what it’s worth, that there’s a greater-than-zero possibility that aliens will invade the earth tomorrow.

But neither of these hypotheses is remotely plausible (though if I had to pick, I’d go with the alien invasion for the simple reason that it would bring great joy to Paul Krugman).

P.P.S. Plenty of Republicans will get rich as well as Hillary expands government. If you don’t believe me, just consider how many of them collect campaign cash in exchange for votes in favor of ethanol and the Export-Import Bank.

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For data-loving policy wonks, the World Bank’s Doing Business report is a fascinating look at the degree to which nations have a policy and governance environment that is conducive to economic activity.

Unlike Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not designed to measure whether a jurisdiction has small government. Doing Business is probably best described as measuring quality of governance and whether a nation has sensible business policy.

That being said, there’s a lot of overlap between the rankings of the two publications. Indeed, you’ll notice many free-market countries in the top 20 of Doing Business, led by the “unsung success story” of New Zealand, followed by the capitalist haven of Singapore.

The United States is ranked #8, and you’ll notice most of the Nordic nations with very good scores, along with two of the Baltic nations.

Here’s some of the report’s analysis, including the unsurprising observation that countries with market-friendly policies tend to have high incomes (a lesson one wishes Hillary Clinton was capable of absorbing).

OECD high-income economies have on average the most business-friendly regulatory systems, followed by Europe and Central Asia. There is, however, a large variation within those two regions. New Zealand has a ranking of 1 while Greece has a ranking of 61; FYR Macedonia stands at 10 while Tajikistan is at 128. The Sub-Saharan Africa region continues to be home to the economies with the least business-friendly regulations on average.

If you’re wondering where the rest of world’s nations rank, click on the table in the excerpt. One thing that stands out is that Venezuela – finally! – isn’t in last place. Though being 187 out of 190 is not exactly something to brag about.

While it’s good to give favorable attention to the nations with the highest scores, it’s also worthwhile to see which countries are moving in the right direction at the fastest pace.

Ten economies are highlighted this year for making the biggest improvements in their business regulations—Brunei Darussalam, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Belarus, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Kudos to Georgia (the one wedged between Turkey and Russia on the Black Sea, not the one that is home to my beloved – but underperforming – Bulldogs). It’s the only country that is both in the overall top 20 and among the 10 nations that delivered the most positive reforms.

Here’s the table from the report showing why these 10 nations enjoyed a lot of improvement.

The report observes that a more sensible regulatory approach is associated with higher levels of prosperity.

A considerable body of evidence confirms that cross-country differences in the quality of business regulation are strongly correlated with differences in income per capita across economies.

But here’s the part that should open a few eyes among our leftist friends.

A more market-friendly regulatory environment also is linked to lower levels of inequality.

There is a negative association between the Gini index, which measures income inequality within an economy, and the distance to frontier score, which measures the quality and efficiency of business regulation when the data are compared over time (figure 1.8). Data across multiple years and economies show that as economies improve business regulation, income inequality tends to decrease in parallel.

As I’ve said many times tomorrow, I don’t care about differences in income. I simply want economic liberty so everybody has a chance to earn more income.

Nonetheless, it’s good have some evidence for statists who fixate on how the pie is sliced. Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

And here’s another chart showing that lots of regulation and red tape in labor markets (inevitably imposed for the ostensible goal of “protecting” workers) is correlated with a bigger underground economy.

Reminds me of the research showing how “labor protection” laws actually hurt workers.

Let’s now turn to the tax component, which predictably the part that grabbed my interest.

The score for this component is based on both the tax burden and the cost of tax compliance.

While the size of the tax cost imposed on businesses has implications for their ability to invest and grow, the efficiency of the tax administration system is also critical for businesses. A low cost of tax compliance and efficient tax-related procedures are advantageous for firms. Overly complicated tax systems are associated with high levels of tax evasion, large informal sectors, more corruption and less investment.

Here’s a table from the report showing some of the good reforms that have happened in various nations.

Sadly, America did not make any improvements in tax policy, so we don’t show up on any of the lists.

But since we’re on that topic, let’s now take a closer look at the United States. As already noted, America is ranked #8, which obviously is a reasonably good score.

But if you look at the various components, you sort of get the same story that we saw with the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, namely that there are some sub-par government policies that are hampering an otherwise very efficient private economy.

I’m particularly displeased that the U.S. scores so poorly (#51) in “starting a business.” And just imagine how much the score will drop if statists succeed in forcing states like Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada to alter their business-friendly incorporation laws.

And I’m also unhappy that we rank #8 when the United States started at #3 in the World Bank’s inaugural 2006 edition of Doing Business. Thanks Bush! Thanks Obama!

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Last year, I explained the theoretical argument against antitrust laws, pointing out that monopoly power generally exists only when government intervenes.

Now it’s time to consider a real-world example from the private sector and ask whether we should be concerned about monopoly power. ATT and Time Warner have announced a merger, a step that has triggered lots of hand-wringing by politicians.

But as I explain in this interview for a British news outlet, the expanded company won’t have any power or ability to coerce me, particularly so long as politicians don’t create any “barriers to entry” to hinder the entry of new competitors to the market.

The Skype connection became garbled for a few seconds at the end of the interview, but I think my point about the misuse of antitrust laws was reasonably clear.

Suffice to say that allowing politicians and bureaucrats to have any authority over mergers is a recipe for abuse and corruption as companies try to use antitrust laws to sabotage their competitors.

Let’s see what some experts have written on this topic. And we’ll start by looking at the big picture. Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Tyler Cowen points out that antitrust laws often don’t make sense.

Reading through old cases does not induce great faith in the contemporary usefulness of 19th- and 20th-century antitrust laws. …For instance, the famous suits against Standard Oil, Kodak and Alcoa wouldn’t make sense in today’s globalized economy. …In 1998, the U.S. Justice Department initiated an antitrust suit against Microsoft, partly on the grounds that the company sought to extend its market power to browsers. Few people today think the company’s Internet Explorer browser failed because the government restored competitiveness; Firefox and Google built better software. Yet prosecutors spent years distracting the talent of one of America’s most successful companies, as they had with IBM earlier in a 13-year case dropped in 1982.

And he points out how monopoly power often is created by government intervention and regulation.

…there is a strong case that growing concentration in the hospital market has raised health-care costs. Some major metropolitan areas have only a small number of hospital chains. Part of the problem is that highly regulated environments encourage consolidation and larger firms to deal with compliance costs… Cable television is another area where anti-monopoly remedies might be appropriate, but keep in mind that cable is typically a government-created local monopoly.

Now let’s look at he specific case of the ATT/Time Warner merger.

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal is not impressed by those who want government interference. And he shares my disdain for the way influence peddlers in Washington are the big beneficiaries of antitrust laws.

…this week’s proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner is eliciting opposition that is ferocious, idiotic and almost contentless. …tens of thousands of people in Washington make their living by extracting rents from companies going about their business and trying to adapt to besetting waves of technological and market change. …Unwisely, Silicon Valley mostly sat out 2014’s epic battle over the Obama administration’s desire to impose antique utility regulation on broadband. Its argument: Who cares? Technology will swamp the regulators with broadband ubiquity anyway, so why pick a fight…the Valley’s naïfs may discover they have underestimated the power of bureaucratic perversity and political indifference to things that would actually serve the public good. One way to look at the inevitable torture AT&T is about to undergo at the hands of Washington’s regulators: It will be the first test of the libertarian-optimist theory that technology is more powerful than a bloody-minded bureaucrat.

Last but not least, Paula Dwyer’s Bloomberg column takes a dim view of those who want the heavy foot of government to second guess the invisible hand of the market.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, wearing their populist stripes, want regulators to block it outright. …the politicians’ concerns are overblown. …Antitrust, of course, is meant to protect consumers from the higher prices and reduced choices that result when a company has market power. But a merged AT&T and Time Warner are in different industries, and their merger wouldn’t affect ownership concentration. Nor would it result in the loss of a competitor from the market.

And she points out the dismal history of antitrust enforcement.

…think back to 1974 to the original AT&T antitrust case, which also began from a fear of vertical integration. …For sure, AT&T had a monopoly, but it was created and sanctioned by the federal government. All that was needed was a government deregulation order and a green light that it wouldn’t block competitors. Instead, the U.S. sued to break up Ma Bell. …If the U.S. had simply deregulated plain old telephone service, any one of these technologies could have forced AT&T to adjust or disappear. The U.S.’s 1998 antitrust case against Microsoft had much the same fighting-the-last-war problem. …while the Justice Department was fixating on browsers and operating systems, the personal computer was losing market share to laptops, which lost out to tablets and which are now being overtaken by smartphones. While Microsoft was bogged down with the Windows case, which it eventually settled in 2001 on favorable terms to the company, a new generation of tech giants — Google, Facebook, Amazon — took flight. The lesson is that a technology or media conglomerate’s dominance these days is almost certainly transitory.

In other words, let the merger proceed. It may be a wise business decision. Or it may be a foolish business decision.

But that outcome should be determined by the preferences of consumers in a competitive marketplace.

The heavy foot of government shouldn’t play a role. Especially since, as noted by this cartoon, antitrust laws are so broad and vague that companies can get in legal trouble for charging more than their competitors, less than their competitors, and the same as their competitors.

P.S. If this information hasn’t been sufficient to make you skeptical about antitrust laws, then also keep in mind that the European Commission’s tax shakedown of Apple is based on antitrust policy rather than tax policy.

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Based on what she’s been saying during the campaign, Hillary Clinton is a big fan of class warfare. She has put forth a series of “soak-the-rich” tax hikes designed to finance bigger government.

Her official plan includes provisions such as an increase (“surcharge”) in the top tax rate, the imposition of the so-called Buffett Rule, an increase in the tax burden on capital gains (including carried interest), and a more onerous death tax.

The Tax Foundation explains that this plan won’t be good for the economy or the budget.

Hillary Clinton’s tax plan would reduce the economy’s size by 1 percent in the long run. The plan would lead to 0.8 percent lower wages, a 2.8 percent smaller capital stock, and 311,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs. …If we account for the economic impact of the plan, it would end up raising $191 billion over the next decade.

Here’s a table showing the static revenue impact for the various provisions, followed by the estimated economic impact, which then allows the Tax Foundation to calculate the real-world, dynamic revenue impact.

So what does all this mean?

Well, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that tax revenue over the next 10 years will be $41,658 billion based on current law. Hillary’s plan will add $191 billion to that total, an increase of 0.46 percent.

Which means that she’s willing to lower our incomes by 0.80 percent to increase the government’s take by 0.46 percent. A good deal for her and her cronies, but bad for America.

But it gets worse. Hillary’s official tax plan doesn’t include her biggest proposed tax hike. As I’ve warned before, and as Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise explains in a new article, she has explicitly stated her support for huge tax hikes to bail out Social Security.

…she has endorsed both of the main tax increases included in Sanders’ Social Security plan: imposing the Social Security tax on earnings above the current $118,500 cap and applying Social Security taxes to investment income in addition to wages.

Andrew warns that busting the wage-base cap may boost payroll tax receipts, but such a policy will lead to lower revenues from other sources.

Eliminating the payroll tax ceiling would require workers and employers to each pay an additional 6.2% tax on all earnings above the ceiling, currently $118,500. Both the SSA actuaries and the Congressional Budget Office assume that when employers are hit with an additional payroll tax they will over time reduce employees’ wages to cover the increased cost, consistent with economists’ view that employees ultimately “pay” for employer-provided benefits through lower wages. Those lost wages would then no longer be subject to federal income taxes, Medicare payroll taxes or state government income taxes. If the average marginal tax rate on earnings above the current payroll tax ceiling is 48% – say, the top earned income tax rate of 39.6%, plus the 3.8% top Medicare payroll tax rate, plus a roughly 5% state income tax – then federal and state tax revenues would fall by 26 cents for each additional dollar of Social Security taxes collected.

And this estimate is based solely on the reduction in taxable income that occurs as businesses give their employees less take-home buy because of the higher payroll tax.

To be accurate, you also have to consider how workers will react (and rest assured that upper-income taxpayers have plenty of ability to alter the timing, level, and composition of their income). Andrew looks at the potential impact.

…revenue losses occur even if individual earners themselves make no adjustments to their earnings in response to higher tax rates. They’re purely a function of employers adjusting wages to compensate for their payroll tax bills. But if affected earners react to higher tax rates by reducing their earnings, either though less work or by tax avoidance strategies, then net revenue losses would be even higher. A 2010 literature survey by economists Emmanuel Saez, Joel Slemrod, and Seth Giertz found that high earners reduce their earnings by between 0.12% and 0.40% for each 1% increase in their taxes. These estimates imply that total revenues gained by eliminating the Social Security tax max would fall one-third to one-half below the static assumptions that Social Security reforms rely upon. Other credible academic studies find even higher sensitivities of taxable income to tax rates.

For more information, here’s a video I narrated on the issue for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Let’s close on a grim note. If Hillary Clinton goes forward with her plan to bust the wage base cap and change Social Security from an actuarially bankrupt social insurance program into a conventional tax-and-spend redistribution program, she won’t collect very much tax revenue because of the way workers and employers will react.

But from Hillary’s perspective, she won’t care. Under the budget rules governing Washington, she’ll still be able to increase spending (i.e., buy votes) based on how much revenue the Joint Committee on Taxation inaccurately predicts will materialize based on primitive “static scoring” estimates.

In other words, the Laffer Curve will prevail, but – other than the ability to say “I told you so” – proponents of good policy won’t have any reason to be happy.

And when, in the real world, the long-run fiscal and economic outlook weakens because of her misguided policies, Mrs. Clinton will just propose additional tax hikes to deal with the “unexpected” shortfalls. Lather, rinse, repeat, until we become Greece.

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Sweden punches way above its weight in debates about economic policy. Leftists all over the world (most recently, Bernie Sanders) say the Nordic nation is an example that proves a big welfare state can exist in a rich nation. And since various data sources (such as the IMF’s huge database) show that Sweden is relatively prosperous and also that there’s an onerous fiscal burden of government, this argument is somewhat plausible.

A few folks on the left sometimes even imply that Sweden is a relatively prosperous nation because it has a large public sector. Though the people who make this assertion never bother to provide any data or evidence.

I have five responses when confronted with the why-can’t-we-be-more-like-Sweden argument.

  1. Sweden became rich when government was small. Indeed, until about 1960, the burden of the public sector in Sweden was smaller than it was in the United States. And as late as 1970, Sweden still had less redistribution spending than America had in 1980.
  2. Sweden compensates for bad fiscal policy by having a very pro-market approach to other areas, such as trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law and property rights. Indeed, it has more economic freedom than the United States when looking an non-fiscal policies. The same is true for Denmark.
  3. Sweden has suffered from slower growth ever since the welfare state led to large increases in the burden of government spending. This has resulted in Sweden losing ground relative to other nations and dropping in the rankings of per-capita GDP.
  4. Sweden is trying to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms. Starting in the 1990s, there have been tax-rate reductions, periods of spending restraint, adoption of personal retirement accounts, and implementation of nationwide school choice.
  5. Sweden doesn’t look quite so good when you learn that Americans of Swedish descent produce 39 percent more economic output, on a per-capita basis, than the Swedes that stayed in Sweden. There’s even a lower poverty rate for Americans of Swedish ancestry compared to the rate for native Swedes.

I think the above information is very powerful. But I’ll also admit that these five points sometimes aren’t very effective in changing minds and educating people because there’s simply too much information to digest.

As such, I’ve always thought it would be helpful to have one compelling visual that clearly shows why Sweden’s experience is actually an argument against big government.

And, thanks to the Professor Deepak Lal of UCLA, who wrote a chapter for a superb book on fiscal policy published by a British think tank, my wish may have been granted. In his chapter, he noted that Sweden’s economic performance stuttered once big government was imposed on the economy.

Though the Swedish model is offered to prove that high levels of social security can be paid for from the cradle to the grave without damaging economic performance, the claim is false (see Figure 1). The Swedish economy, between 1870 and 1950, grew faster on average than any other industrialised economy, and the country became technologically one of the most advanced and richest in the world. From the 1950s Swedish economic growth slowed relative to other industrialised countries. This was due to the expansion of the welfare state and the growth of public – at the expense of private – employment.57 After the Second World War the working population increased by about 1 million: public employment accounted for c. 770,000, private accounted for only 155,000. The crowding out by an inefficient public sector of the efficient private sector has characterised Sweden for nearly half a century.58 From being the fourth richest county in the OECD in 1970 it has fallen to 14th place. Only in France and New Zealand has there been a larger fall in relative wealth

And here is Figure 1, which should make clear that what’s good in Sweden (rising relative prosperity) was made possible by the era of free markets and small government, and that what’s bad in Sweden (falling relative prosperity) is associated with the adoption and expansion of the welfare state.

But just to make things obvious for any government officials who may be reading this column, I augment the graph by pointing out (in red) the “free-market era” and the “welfare-state era.”

As you can see, credit for the chart actually belongs to Professor Olle Krantz. The version I found in Professor Lal’s chapter is a reproduction, so unfortunately the two axes are not very clear. But all you need to know is that Sweden’s relative economic position fell significantly between the time the welfare state was adopted and the mid 1990s (which presumably reflects the comparative cross-country data that was available when Krantz did his calculations).

You can also see, for what it’s worth, that Sweden’s economy spiked during World War II. There’s no policy lesson in this observation, other than to perhaps note that it’s never a good idea to have your factories bombed.

But the main lesson, which hopefully is abundantly clear, is that big government is a recipe for comparative decline.

Which perhaps explains why Swedish policymakers have spent the past 25 years or so trying to undo some of those mistakes.

Addendum on November 3, 2016: A Swedish researcher kindly sent me a clear copy of Professor Kranz’s chart, so the axes are now very clear.

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While the overall issue of immigration is highly controversial and emotional, I’ve explained before that everyone should be able to agree that it’s a very good idea to bring in people who can be expected to increase per-capita economic output.

The good news is that we have some policies designed to make this happen, including the H-1B visa for skilled workers and the EB-5 visa for job-creating investors. And if the data on median income for certain immigrant groups is any indication, we’re getting some good results.

Today, motivated in part by the fact that I’ll be participating next month in a conference in London on the topic of “economic citizenship” and therefore having to prepare for that discussion,  let’s take a closer look at the EB-5 policy and why it’s a smart approach (by the way, I’m allowed to share a few discounted registrations since I’m a speaker, so contact me if you’re interested in the London event).

To put things in context, we’ll begin by reviewing a four-author study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that looks at the growing effort by many nations to attract highly productive and capable immigrants.

Highly skilled workers play a central and starring role in today’s knowledge economy. Talented individuals make exceptional direct contributions—including breakthrough innovations and scientific discoveries—and coordinate and guide the actions of many others, propelling the knowledge frontier and spurring economic growth. In this process, the mobility of skilled workers becomes critical to enhancing productivity. …In the 2013 World Population Policies report, 40 percent of countries reported policies to raise immigration of high-skilled workers, a large increase from 22 percent in 2005. …For recipient countries, high-skilled immigration is often linked to clusters of technology and knowledge production that are certainly important for local economies and are plausibly important at the national level. …When it comes to talented foreigners, a number of countries…implement recruiting programs. …Canada has been very active in targeting skilled migrants who are denied or frustrated by the H-1B visa system in the United States, even taking out ads on billboards in the United States to attract such migrants.

By the way, I can’t resist observing that the authors recognize that highly talented (and therefore highly compensated) people are very important for economic growth. Based on the tax policies they advocate, that’s something politicians such as Hillary Clinton have a hard time understanding. Heck, upper-income taxpayers are the ones who finance the lion’s share of big government, so you’d think leftist politicians would be slapping them on their backs rather than across their faces.

But I digress. Let’s look at what the study says about migration by those most capable of producing growth.

Observed migration flows are the result of a complex tangle of multinational firms and other employers pursuing scarce talent, governments and other gatekeepers trying to manage these flows with policies, and individuals seeking their best options given the constraints imposed upon them. …The number of migrants with a tertiary degree rose nearly 130 percent from 1990 to 2010, while low skilled (primary educated) migrants increased by only 40 percent during that time. A pattern is emerging in which these high-skilled migrants are departing from a broader range of countries and heading to a narrower range of countries—in particular, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. …More than half of the high-skilled technology workers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are foreign-born. …host countries may end up with high concentrations of high-skilled immigrants in particular occupations. For example, immigrants account for some 57 percent of scientists residing in Switzerland, 45 percent in Australia, and 38 percent in the United States (Franzoni et al. 2012). In the United States, 27 percent of all physicians and surgeons and over 35 percent of current medical residents were foreign born in 2010. Immigrants also accounted for over 35 percent of recent enrollments in STEM fields, with very high proportions in specific areas like Electrical Engineering (70 percent), Computer Science (63 percent) and Economics (55 percent)… The global migration of inventors and the resulting concentration in a handful of countries have been particularly well documented. …the global migration rate of inventors in 2000 stood at 8.6 percent, at least 50 percent greater in share terms than the average for high-skilled workers as a whole. Figure 4 builds on WIPO global patent filings from 2001-2010. The United States has received an enormous net surplus of inventors from abroad.

The authors then consider the policies that different nations adopt in their search for GDP-enhancing immigrants.

…we then review the “gatekeepers” for global talent flows. At the government level, we compare the points-based skilled migration regimes as historically implemented by Canada and Australia with the employment-based policies used in the United States through mechanisms like the H-1B visa program. …The exceptional rise in the number of high-skilled migrants to OECD countries is the result of several forces, including increased efforts to attract them by policymakers as they recognize the central role of human capital in economic growth, positive spillovers generated by skill agglomeration, declines in transportation and communication costs, and rising pursuit of foreign education by young people. Among the resulting effects are the doubling of the share of the tertiary-educated in the labor force and fierce competition among countries hoping to attract talent. …One can explain certain aspects of current high-skilled migration patterns using this model. For example, the United States has a very wide earnings distribution and low tax levels and progressivity, especially compared to most source countries, including many high-income European countries. As a result, we can see why the United States would attract more high-skilled migrants…relative to other high-income countries.

By the way, I can’t resist making one minor correction. While we generally have lower taxes than other developed nations, we actually have a very “progressive” tax system. But US-style progressivity is the result of very low taxes on lower- and middle-income workers (no value-added tax, for instance), not unusually steep taxes on higher-income workers.

Returning to our main topic , the authors explain that developed nations either use a points-based system or an employment-based system when seeking to facilitate more high-skilled immigration.

Here’s how the the points-based system works.

Canada and Australia are prominent examples of countries that implement points-based systems for skilled migration. These programs select individuals based upon their observable education, language skills, work experience, and existing employment arrangements. …In the Canadian example, migrants need to collect 67 points across six categories. In terms of education, for example, 15 points are awarded for one-year post-secondary diploma, trade certificate or apprenticeship, compared to 25 for a doctorate degree. With regards work experience, six or more years of applicable experience receive 15 points, compared to 9 points for just one year of experience.

And here’s information on the employment-based approach, with the US being an obvious example.

The United States is the most cited example of a country that uses an employer-driven program for highskilled immigration, with the H-1B and L1 visas as primary categories (Kerr et al. 2015a). The H-1B visa allows US companies to temporarily employ skilled foreigners in “specialty occupations,” defined to be those demanding application of specialized knowledge like engineering or accounting. …Virtually all H-1B holders have a bachelor’s degree or higher and about 70% of the visas in recent years went to STEM-related occupations. India is by far the largest source country, accounting for about two-thirds of H-1B recipients in recent years. …most real-world regimes combine different features of points-based and employment-driven systems.

But the study notes that America also has a special system for bringing in ostensible superstars. Sort of a points system for the super talented.

Superstar talent rarely competes for H-1B visas, for example, but instead gains direct access to the United States through O1 temporary visas for extraordinary ability and direct green card applications of the EB-1 level for those with even more exceptional talent. …In effect, the US operates a points system for individuals with truly exceptional talents such as Nobel Prize winners, superstar athletes and musicians.

Now let’s turn the EB-5 program, which is another way that the United States seeks to attract those capable of making big economic contributions.

In part because the natural inefficiency of government creates opportunities for corruption in implementation, the EB-5 program has become very controversial. Some lawmakers even want the entire program to lapse when its authorization expires in December.

At the risk of understatement, I hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Brookings Institution notes that Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) want to impose stricter rules and micro-manage how the investment occurs.

It also raises the minimum investment amount to $800,000 within a [targeted employment area] and $1.2 million otherwise. Most important for reaching the program’s economic development goals, however, are the bill’s new rules on defining TEAs. …The bill would revise the TEA definition to include rural areas, closed military bases, or single census tracts within metro areas with an unemployment rate at 150 percent of the national average. To further increase the effect of EB-5 financing, at least 50 percent of the job creation would have to be within the metro area, or within the county in which a rural TEA is located.

The business community doesn’t object to some stricter standards, as reported by The Hill, but wants the program to remain and wants it made permanent.

A coalition of business groups is pushing Congress to permanently renew a controversial investor visa program before it expires in September. …In a letter shared with The Hill on Thursday, those groups called on lawmakers to renew the EB-5 investor visa program with bolstered security and anti-fraud checks, adjustments to highly criticized investment incentives and streamlined visa processing. “Congress must not let this important job-creating program lapse, in large measure because of the immediate negative consequences to U.S. businesses and projects counting on EB-5 investment to create jobs for Americans,” wrote the groups to the Senate and House Judiciary committees. …The EB-5 program is responsible for more than $15 billion in investment and 100,000 jobs between 2005 and 2010, the coalition says.

Ike Brannon, writing for the Weekly Standard, worries that politicians will undermine the positive impact of the program with some back-door central planning.

That EB-5 program has succeeded at its intended purpose is not in dispute: A Brookings Institution study estimated that the program has created nearly 100,000 jobs along with over $5 billion of new investment since its inception. The current EB-5 program technically consists of two different pieces: The first is the original EB-5 visa program, which Congress enacted in 1990. Its intent was to help American business compete for foreign investment with countries like Canada and Australia, which had similar investor programs in place. …The overriding intent of the program has always been about job creation, anywhere and everywhere. Senator Paul Simon, a sponsor of the original EB-5 program, took care to emphasize that its purpose was first and foremost to attract entrepreneurs and spur job creation, noting that “neither the Senate nor the House bill established any sort of criteria about the type of business investment…As long as the employment goal is met, it is unnecessary to needlessly regulate the type of business or the character of the investment.”

But politicians love the “needlessly regulate,” so the EB-5 system has lots of red tape and Ike fears it may get even more.

Congress nonetheless attempted to spur some sort of geographic balance-cum-urban development with the creation of Target Employment Areas [TEAs], which consist of areas with high unemployment rates or rural areas outside the boundary of any city or town with a population over 20,000. In a TEA, the necessary investment need only be $500,000, so long as it creates the requisite number of jobs. …The problem with a federal top-down approach of this sort is that such a constraint could limit the efficacy of the program. …imposing a new rule that restricts how states designate Targeted Employment Areas will only make EB-5 more of a political football than it already is. Creating a welter of restrictions about where such investment can and cannot go would likely dampen the economic impact of the program.

A columnist for Forbes explains why the program should continue.

The EB-5 immigration visa may be the best immigration program the U.S. has to offer. Foreign investors…are putting up a minimum of $500,000 to renew and rebuild rundown urban areas and create jobs. It’s a legal way in for the kind of immigrant, a fortunate one, that tends to contribute to the neighborhood by bringing in money and jobs. …“EB-5 has economic benefits that doesn’t stop at the five hundred thousand dollars they need to invest to participate,” says Julian Montero, a partner in the Miami law office of Arnstein & Lehr. “It’s just the beginning of a more significant investment that will be made by these families when the come here. They’re going to private schools. They’re making good income. They’re paying taxes. And most of them start other businesses once here.” …The EB-5 has become a way for developers to attract foreign capital at low, project finance-style structured interest rates because the people giving the money are getting a prize: the right to live, work and study in the United States.

Perhaps most notably, even the International Monetary Fund recognizes the advantages of this type of program.

…economic residency programs were recently launched across a wide range of (generally much larger) European countries, including Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Almost half of EU member states now have a dedicated immigrant investor route. Also known as golden visa programs, these arrangements give investors residency rights…some advanced economies, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have had immigrant investor programs since the late 1980s or early 1990s, offering a route to citizenship in exchange for specific investment conditions… The inflows of funds to countries from these programs can be substantial, with far-reaching macroeconomic implications for nearly every sector.

The IMF article includes a helpful summary of nations that have programs to attract investors.

The bottom line is that there are many high-income and high-wealth people in the world (including the “super-entrepreneurs“) who would like to move to places that offer more stability, security, and opportunity. This creates a potential win-win situation for both the people migrating and the recipient nations.

The United States is already a big beneficiary of economic-based migration, but we could reap even greater benefits with a more sensible, streamlined, and expanded EB-5 system.

P.S. Zooming out to the broader issue of immigration and whether people want to come to the United States for the wrong reason, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a very intriguing proposal to have open immigration with nations such as Denmark that have bigger welfare states than America.

P.P.S. Today’s column is about economic-based immigration. There’s also the issue of economic-based emigration. Sadly, the United States policy on allowing people to leave is even worse than France’s system.

P.P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some migration-related humor, we have a video about Americans emigrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

P.P.P.P.S. Remember to contact me if you’re interested in the London conference.

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Since I’ve referred to the International Monetary Fund as both “the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” readers can safely conclude that I’m not a fan of the international bureaucracy. My main gripe is that senior bureaucrats routinely make the mistake of bailing out profligate governments (often as a back-door way of bailing out banks that foolishly lent to those governments), and they compound that mistake by then insisting on big tax hikes.

But as I’ve noted when writing about international bureaucracies, the professional economists who work for these organizations often produce very good work.

And that’s true even for the IMF. The bureaucracy published a study a few years ago entitled “The Size of Government and U.S.–European Differences in Economic Performance” and it has some useful and interesting conclusions. Here are some excerpts, along with my observations. We’ll start with the question the authors want to answer.

How much of a drag is the modern welfare state on economic performance? … One standard approach has been to estimate the disincentive effects of taxes and deduce that lower taxes would imply higher welfare. However, in the context of modern democracies, this argument begs the question why voters prefer an inferior economic outcome (a higher tax burden) instead of voting for parties that would minimize taxes.

Actually, we don’t need to “beg the question.” We get bad policy because voters get seduced into voting for politicians who promise to pillage the “rich” and give goodies to everyone else. And since voters generally don’t understand that this approach leads to “an inferior economic outcome,” the process can continue indefinitely (or until the ratio between those pulling the wagon and those riding in the wagon gets too imbalanced).

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main focus of the study. The authors note that Europe isn’t converging with the United States, which is what standard economic theory says should be happening.

The academic debate over the long-term failure of European countries to catch up with U.S. economic performance also points to the need for a better assessment of the economic effects of large governments. Over the last three decades, European countries have not made inroads in closing a gap in per capita income vis-à-vis the US. …This paper focuses on…the role of the size of the public sector… The literature studying the impact of government on economic performance is large. Theory has focused on welfare effects—stressing the distortionary impact of taxation and government spending… observed government sizes generally tend to be too large, thus depressing welfare in many countries, or actual policies depart from allocationally optimal ones, especially in the “Rhineland-model” European economies.

And here are some of the results.

… a higher tax wedge results in lower hours worked. Moreover, the equation can be used to predict hours worked as a function of the tax wedge. …based on these calibrations, and using the welfare measure described in Appendix II, the steady-state welfare effects of varying the size of government can be analyzed. Table 2 provides the results of two such thought experiments: (i) to cut the marginal tax rate by five percentage points and (ii) to adopt U.S. taxation levels (in both accompanied by offsetting changes in spending), with the welfare change measured in the incremental consumption equivalent of the tax cuts. For example, had Belgium between 1990–99 cut marginal income tax rates by five percentage points, it would have reaped a welfare gain equivalent to 7⅓ percent of aggregate consumption (or of 21 percent if it had adopted US tax levels). These are large potential welfare gains from cutting back government.

Here’s a table from the study showing the theoretical gains from lowering tax rates, either by 5-percentage points, or all the way down to American levels.

But the authors note that their model is incomplete, with some countries doing better than what’s implied by their fiscal systems.

The basic model has considerable difficulties in accounting for labor supply in very high-tax countries, which it frequently underpredicted (e.g., the Nordic countries, excluding Norway…). …One group comprising Sweden and Denmark… Both countries are often singled out as countries with large government, but, as seen in the previous, both also have higher than predicted labor supply in the baseline model.

The study tries to explain such differences by considering whether some governments spend money in an effective manner on “active labor market policies” that produce higher levels of labor supply.

Perhaps that’s a partial explanation, but I think there’s a much simpler way of making sense of the data. The Nordic nations, as I’ve repeatedly written, have strongly pro-market policies once fiscal policy is taken out of the equation.

So if you just look at fiscal policy, they should be way behind the United States. But since they are more market-oriented than America in other areas (trade, rule of law, regulation, and monetary policy), that shrinks the gap.

That being said, I’m not going to be too critical of the IMF study since it does reach a very sensible conclusion.

…the size of government does play a significant role in explaining lower European labor supply…the size of European governments appears to imply large welfare costs. …Moreover, government policies that do not directly increase the size of government, e.g., regulation, are observed to also impart significant costs.

By the way, don’t assume this IMF study is an outlier. When economists at international bureaucracies are free to do real research without interference by their political masters, it’s not uncommon for them to produce sensible results.

Last but not least, here’s the video I narrated on the “Rahn Curve” and the growth-maximizing size of government.

Now if we could just get Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to understand this research, we’ll be in good shape (actually, since those two are poster children for the theory of Public Choice, who am I kidding?).

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One interesting feature of this election is that many voters, grappling with the unpalatable choice of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are dealing with the feelings of dismay and despair that libertarians experience almost every election.

All I can say is, “welcome to my world.”

Though I admit our experiences aren’t the same. Ordinary voters presumably are agitated by Hillary’s corruption and Donald’s buffoonery.

As a free-market policy wonk, by contrast, I’m more concerned that both Clinton and Trump are statists. Heck, I’d tolerate some unseemly behavior and sleaze if a politician actually reduced the burden of government (hence, my bizarre ex post facto fondness for Bill Clinton’s presidency).

But since Hillary isn’t Bill and Trump isn’t Reagan, the dark cloud that we’re facing doesn’t have any silver lining.

Unless, of course, you’re a fan of political humor. In which case the 2016 election is Nirvana.

And since I’m a fan (even when libertarians are the intended target), I’m greatly enjoying each and every time that Clinton and Trump are mocked.

And the best of all worlds is when there’s some humor that nails both of them at the same time. So it’s easy to see why I like this bit of satire that combines the controversy over Trump’s undisclosed tax returns and the controversy over Clinton’s illegal (and vulnerable) email server.

Here’s another example of this genre.

Here’s an amusing image showing what might happen if Trump was capable of time travel.

And this anti-Hillary image obviously is satire, though I think it makes a very sensible point about the dangers of interventionism.

Indeed, to be momentarily serious, the moral of the story is that Hillary’s recklessness is likely to create more risk for America, whereas the libertarian approach (illustrated by George Will, Barack Obama (in theory but not practice), and Mark Steyn is based on prudence and a Bastiat-like appreciation for unintended consequences.

Let’s get back to the funny stuff.

Did your parents ever say “America is great because anyone can grow up to be President”? Well, as you can see, that’s not such a good idea.

Last but not least, this cartoon captures the outcome of the election, regardless of which major-party candidate prevails.

Though Libertarians say you can escape this dilemma by choosing with “The Johnson.”

P.S. Since Putin made an appearance in our first item, it reminded me that he featured in a couple of amusing bits of satire (here and here) mocking Obama.

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The great contribution of western civilization is the notion that the power of government must be constrained by laws.

This doesn’t mean that all laws (or even most laws) are good. But, as explained in this video, if the choice is between the “rule of man” (the arbitrary and capricious exercise of power) and the “rule of law,” there’s no contest.

This is why issues related to the rule of law account for 20 percent of a nation’s grade in the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World.

And it’s why some people get very upset when, for instance, the Obama Administration chooses to unilaterally change – or simply chooses to not enforce – certain laws that are inconvenient to the President’s agenda.

But while the rule of law has been eroding in the United States, the good news is that we still rank in the top 20 in a new ranking from the World Justice Project.

Here’s how the WJP describes the importance of the rule of law.

Effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices large and small. It is the foundation for communities of peace, opportunity, and equity – underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights. …The Index is the world’s most comprehensive data set of its kind and the only to rely solely on primary data, measuring a nation’s adherence to the rule of law from the perspective of how ordinary people experience it. These features make the Index a powerful tool that can help identify strengths and weaknesses in each country, and help to inform policy debates, both within and across countries, that advance the rule of law

And here’s a map showing the 113 nations that are included in the rankings.

All you need to know is that it’s good to be light-colored and bad to be dark-colored (though the map is a bit confusing since nations that aren’t ranked – much of Africa, for instance – also appear as light-colored).

One of the obvious conclusions is that the western world (Europe, North America, some nations in the Pacific Rim) does the best on protecting, observing, and maintaining the rule of law.

Simply stated, western civilization is superior.

But what can we learn by specifically examining the rule of law in developed nations?

What’s immediately apparent, if you look at the ranking of high-income nations, is that Nordic nations score very well. This is one of the reasons, I’ve explained, that they have a higher ability to tolerate and endure a large welfare state.

Germanic and Anglo-Saxon nations win the proverbial silver and bronze medals.

Looking at the rest of the world, I’m also not surprised to see strong scores for free-market success stories such as Singapore, Estonia, Hong Kong, and Chile.

Let’s close by taking a closer look at the data for the United States.

Among high-income nations, America gets a decent score, but it’s nothing to celebrate. Indeed, we actually do poorly when compared to other Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions.

In the above excerpt, I included the list of eight categories that are used to rank nations. Now let’s look at how America scores in those areas.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we do well in two areas. There are reasonably strong constraints on government powers and a reasonable degree of openness and transparency.

On the other hand, we don’t do very well (particularly when compared to other high-income nations)  for areas related to the judicial system.

Though I shudder to contemplate the scores America will receive after four or eight years of Hillary Clinton.

P.S. Is anybody surprised that Venezuela is in last place? Though I suppose I should repeat my caveat from earlier in the month that hellholes such as Cuba and North Korea would probably rank lower if they were included in the rankings.

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The polls are not looking good for Donald Trump. Indeed, I suspect my most recent prediction for the 2016 race gives him too many states.

With time running out, he now faces pressure to come up with some new idea or a new narrative to change the likely outcome.

Which may explain why he just unveiled a new plan to “drain the swamp” in Washington with new ethics rules. Such initiatives tend to be popular with voters, who view Washington as a corrupt mess. And an ethics-reform agenda may be an effective way of reminding voters that Hillary Clinton has major problems with corruption.

But let’s consider whether his plan actually would work. Taken directly from his campaign website, here’s what Trump is proposing.

As you can see, he basically wants to make it harder for Washington insiders to go through the revolving door.

And to augment his lobbying restrictions, Trump also has embraced congressional term limits.

Donald Trump added a new proposal to his recently unveiled ethics reforms package on Tuesday, promising to pursue a constitutional amendment that would impose term limits on members of Congress should he win the election on Nov. 8. …Establishing term limits at the federal level would help “break the cycle of corruption” that has plagued Washington and “give new voices to change so that we can have a government that works again and can function properly,” Trump argued.

For what it’s worth, I suspect many voters will like what Trump is saying.

If you look at Chapman University’s “Survey of American Fears,” the most commonly cited concern is “corruption of government officials.”

For people in the political world, the obvious follow-up issue is whether a popular issue/agenda actually will attract voters. In other words, will people concerned about Washington corruption rally to Trump simply because he highlights the issue.

Beats me.

I’m much more concerned with a different follow-up issue, which is whether his five points (six if you include term limits) would actually work if they were adopted.

To be blunt, I’m not holding my breath. And the reason for my concern is that Trump isn’t proposing to actually drain the swamp. There’s rampant sleaze in Washington because politicians and bureaucrats have massive powers to give undeserved wealth to those with political connections.

In other words, the “swamp” is big government. And since Trump isn’t proposing to shrink the size and scope of Washington, the incentives that currently exist to get unearned wealth via government coercion will still remain.

If you look at Trump’s proposals, what he’s really talking about is a plan to make it somewhat more difficult for certain people to wade into the swamp.

I have no objection, by the way, to additional rules that hinder the ability of politicians, congressional staffers, and presidential appointees to cash in on the connections they’ve made.

But I’m also not naive enough to think that this will reduce Washington sleaze. The policies that Trump is proposing are like pressing down on one part of a balloon and somehow hoping that other parts of the balloon won’t expand. Indeed, that’s the message of my video on the very strong link between the size of government and the amount of corruption.

P.S. Let me add a technical point that is very important in this discussion. Lobbying occurs when someone asks a politician to vote “yes” or “no” on a piece of legislation. It’s not lobbying, however when someone tells a politicians that an idea is good or bad (which is what I often do as part of my job).

But if Trump can change the definition of lobbying for former government officials (the third point in his five-point plan), that might disrupt the status quo for certain people (assuming it could be effectively enforced).

But so long as the size and scope of government isn’t curtailed, that kind of change won’t eliminate the incentive of interest groups to hire people who are allowed to lobby. The only way to reduce corruption is to reduce government.

P.P.S. By the way, restrictions on campaign donations also won’t work.

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My main problem with bureaucrats is that there are too many of them (because government is too big) and that they are paid too much (almost twice the level of compensation as workers in the private sector).

But even the government was the proper size (America’s Founders had the right idea on that issue) and even if pay levels were more reasonable, that wouldn’t solve all problems. There’s also the issue of making sure that bureaucrats work hard and don’t cause trouble, something that is a big problem in government agencies and departments because of policies that make it virtually impossible to fire anybody.

I recently explored the issue of how to deal with bad bureaucrats and noted that civil service rules have the effect of shielding ” slackers, trouble makers, and other undesirable employees.”

We have an example from Oklahoma that is a perfect (in a rather disturbing way) illustration of this phenomenon.

A community is wondering why a teacher who is accused of lewd acts with a child is still getting paid. State agents arrested 48-year-old Shelley Jo Duncan, accusing her of having inappropriate contact with a 14-year-old boy. …messages detail the pair’s plans for future sexual encounters, including Duncan allegedly texting the boy she would give him “oral sex with a cough drop in her mouth.” ….The Tishomingo Public Schools Superintendent Ken Duncan, who is Duncan’s husband, said that she is entitled to her pay while she is suspended. “The district has been instructed by legal counsel, per the Teacher Due Process Act governed by Oklahoma statute, that the teacher is entitled to compensation during her suspension,” Duncan reportedly said during the meeting.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Why isn’t sexual contact with a child an immediate cause for termination? I can’t imagine that private employers would have any tolerance for this kind of behavior.

To be sure, the rule of law is vitally important. If there are legal procedures for dealing with bad bureaucrats, they should be followed. So, in this specific case, perhaps Ms. Duncan’s husband is correct and that she should be paid.

But this is why I wrote earlier this month that “there needs to be a much tougher approach when contract negotiations take place.” Simply stated, politicians like to curry votes from powerful interest groups, so contract negotiations between governments and government unions generally are a sham. All too often, the politicians and unions conspire against taxpayers.

This is why pay levels for bureaucrats tend to be exorbitant. It’s why pensions are so extravagant (and a fiscal nightmare, as I wrote just yesterday). And it’s why civil service rules protect deadbeats and sketchy people.

Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between identifying a problem and solving a problem. It doesn’t really matter if we can identify the “public choice” incentives that lead to bad decisions in government if we can’t then figure out the policies that counteract those bad incentives.

Yes, this is why a no-tax-increase position should be a no-brainer. And this is another piece of evidence why the natural profligacy of all governments should be constrained by spending caps. But even I will admit that those are macro-type solutions that only indirectly make it harder for politicians and bureaucrats to misbehave.

On that depressing note, I guess all that’s left is for us to decide whether Ms. Duncan deserves to be in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. For what it’s worth, I think we have to wait before making that decision. If she (and perhaps her husband) can manipulate the rules and get paid for 12 months while doing nothing, even though she was caught red-handed (or perhaps we should say Altoid-mouthed) for misbehaving with a child, she’ll deserve membership. And if you think that’s asking too much, don’t forget that a bureaucrat in India managed to get paid for more than two decades even though he stopped showing up for work.

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America’s main long-run retirement challenge is our pay-as-you-go Social Security system, which was created back when everyone assumed we would always have a “population pyramid,” meaning relatively few retirees and lots of workers.

But as longevity has increased and fertility has decreased, the population pyramid increasingly looks like a cylinder. This helps to explain why the inflation-adjusted shortfall for Social Security is now about $37 trillion (and if you include the long-run shortfalls for Medicare and Medicaid, the outlook is even worse).

But Social Security is not the only government-created retirement problem. State and local governments have “defined benefit” pension systems for their bureaucrats, which means that their bureaucrats, when they retire (often at an early age), are entitled to receive monthly checks for the rest of their lives based on formulas devised by each state (based on factors such as years employed in the bureaucracy, pay levels, contributions, etc).

Unlike Social Security (which has a make-believe Trust Fund), these pension systems are supposed to be “funded” in the proper sense, which means that money supposedly is set aside and invested every year so that there will be a big nest egg that can be used to pay benefits to future retirees.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. In reality, politicians like promising big retirement benefits to government bureaucrats, but they oftentimes aren’t willing to actually set aside the money needed to fund the nest egg. After all, it’s more fun to spend the money appeasing other interest groups (state and local bureaucrats don’t approve of underfunding, but their retirement benefits generally are seen as a contractual obligation, so they don’t have much incentive to lobby for honest accounting).

The net result is that every retirement system for state government workers is underfunded. How far in the red? That’s a hard question to answer because you have to make long-run assumptions about the investment earnings of the various pension funds.

But the answer is going to be a big number regardless of methodology. According to a new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the shortfall is enormous.

When state pension funds are examined through the lens of a more realistic valuation, pension funding gaps are revealed to be much larger than reported in official state financial documents. This report totals state-administered plans’ assets and liabilities and finds nationwide total unfunded liabilities to be $5.59 trillion. The nationwide funding level is a mere 35 percent, which is one percentage point lower than two years ago. Combined across all states, the price tag for unfunded pension liabilities is now $17,427 for every man, woman and child in the United States. …Taxpayers are on the hook for the legal obligation to cover the promised benefits of traditional, defined-benefit pension plans. …When unfunded pension liabilities are viewed as shared debt placed on each individual, Alaska, where each resident is on the hook for a staggering $42,950, tops the list. Ohio and Illinois follow for the highest per person unfunded pension liabilities.

Here’s a map from the report. It’s bad news if your state is dark blue. And if your state is gray, your burden is relatively low.

Though keep in mind that these numbers are not adjusted for state income.

Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky get bad scores, but they probably are in even deeper trouble that lower-ranked states like California and New Jersey where per-capita income is higher (yes, the cost of living is lower in those southern states, but that doesn’t matter since the relevant comparison is per-capita income vs per-capita pension liabilities.

The ALEC report is more pessimistic than other estimates, but that’s because they use more cautious assumptions about the potential investment earnings of the various pension funds that manage money for state and local bureaucrats.

State Budget Solutions uses a more reasonable valuation to determine the unfunded liabilities of public pension plans. Given that many plans’ assumed rates of return are too high and invite risk, State Budget Solutions uses a more prudent rate of return, rather than the loftiest goals of money managers. This study uses a rate of return based on the equivalent of a hypothetical 15-year U.S. Treasury bond yield. …. State Budget Solutions is not alone in calling attention to the flawed accounting practices of state agencies. A recent study released by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Pension Debt: United States Public Employee Pension Systems, also suggests that states use unrealistically high rates of return to discount their pension liabilities. The study found that pension debt totals $4.8 trillion, a finding similar to this report.

A new study from Pew isn’t nearly as pessimistic, but it still shows a huge gap.

The nation’s state-run retirement systems had a $934 billion gap in fiscal year 2014 between the pension benefits that governments have promised their workers and the funding available to meet those obligations. …This brief focuses on the most recent comprehensive data from all 50 states and does not reflect the impact of weaker investment performance in fiscal 2015, which averaged 3 percent. Performance has been even weaker in the first three quarters of fiscal 2016. …Total pension debt is expected to be over $1 trillion for state plans, an increase of more than 10 percent from fiscal 2014. When combined with the shortfalls in local pension systems, this estimate reaches more than $1.5 trillion for fiscal 2015 and will likely remain close to historically high levels as a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Here’s a visual from the report showing how the fiscal outlook for state pension systems has deteriorated over the past 15-plus years.

Equally troubling, most states are heading in the wrong direction.

…this brief shows that 15 states currently follow policies that meet the positive amortization benchmark—exceeding 100 percent of needed funding—and can be expected to reduce pension debt in the near term. The remaining 35 states fell short; those performing the worst on this measure typically had the largest unfunded pension liabilities.

Here’s the chart from the study. As you can see, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Illinois are falling deeper in the red at the fastest rate.

Kudos to New York and West Virginia, by the way, for being the most aggressive in trying to address long-run problems.

Moody’s Investor Services also has a new report on pension shortfalls. Here are some of the highlights, or perhaps lowlights would be a more appropriate word.

Total US state aggregate adjusted net pension liabilities (ANPL) totaled $1.25 trillion, or 119% of revenue in fiscal 2015, Moody’s Investors Service says in a new report. The results, based on compliance with new GASB 68 accounting rules, set a new ANPL baseline and are poised to rise for the next two fiscal years as market returns fall below annual targets. “The median return for public pension plans in FY 2016 was 0.52% compared to an average assumed investment return of 7.5%,” Moody’s Vice President — Senior Credit Officer Marcia Van Wagner says. “We project that aggregate state ANPL will grow to $1.75 trillion in FY 2017 audits.” Moody’s new report also introduces a new “Tread Water” benchmark, which measures whether states’ annual contributions to their pensions are enough to keep the unfunded net liability from growing. …there were several states whose pension contributions were notably below the Tread Water mark, including Kentucky (Aa2 stable), New Jersey (A2 negative), Illinois (Baa2 negative), and Texas (Aaa stable). …The states with the highest pension burdens — measured as the largest three-year average ANPL as a percent of state governmental revenue — were consistent with previous years. Illinois topped the list with pension liabilities at 280% of total governmental revenue, followed by Connecticut (Aa3 negative) at 209%, Alaska (Aa2 negative) at 179%, Kentucky at 162%, and New Jersey at 157%.

Wow, it doesn’t matter what report you look at, or what methodology is being used, Illinois, New Jersey, and Kentucky are a big mess (Alaska’s numbers also are awful, but the state – within certain limits – can use energy tax revenues to cover much of its shortfall).

So what’s the solution to all this mess? As I noted a couple of months ago when sharing other grim numbers about state pension systems, the answer is to, 1) stop promising excessive benefits to bureaucrats (and stop giving them excessive pay as well), and 2) switch to “defined contribution” plans so that workers have their own piles of money and the underfunding problem automatically disappears.

P.S. I’ve already granted the “Politician of the Year Award” to the President of the Philippines, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and the President of France, which probably means I should have a “Politician of the Month Club” instead. And if the Award is expanded, the politicians from the Solomon Islands obviously would be good candidates for the honor.

There was a public outcry in the Pacific island nation in May 2015, when a parliamentary commission voted to exempt MPs’ earnings from tax. …now the Court of Appeal – the Solomon Islands highest court – has said that MPs can benefit from tax-free salaries after all. It ruled that while the policy may be unpopular with the public, it’s still legal.

Living off taxpayers while paying no tax. Who do they think they are, IMF or OECD bureaucrats?

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A few years ago, I put together an amusing collection of stories comparing truly bizarre examples of political correctness and bureaucratic idiocy in the United States and United Kingdom.

I was especially impressed (in a you-must-be-joking fashion) that a British job placement office got in trouble for discrimination because they sought “reliable” and “hard-working” applicants. Sounds impossible to believe, but consider the fact that the EEOC bureaucracy in the U.S. went after a trucking company because it didn’t want to employ drunk drivers.

And I’ve shared jaw-dropping reports of anti-gun political correctness in American schools, as well as a proposal to ban skinny models in Britain.

Let’s expand on this collection of horror stories.

Reason reports that some bureaucrats in New York City think that it is sexual harassment for a professor to base grades in part on effort and classroom behavior.

A professor at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College was ordered to make changes to his syllabus because it amounted to sexual harassment. The professor, David Seidemann has refused to comply, and for good reason. …a university administrator expressed three grievances about the syllabus. First, and most quizzically, the grading portion of the syllabus suggests sexual harassment. It reads, “Class deportment, effort etc……. 10% (applied only to select students when appropriate).” …Seidemann told me in an email that his department chair said “the 10% section could be construed as a prelude to sexual harassment,” and had to be changed at once. This order apparently came from the Director of Diversity Investigations and Title IX Enforcement. In the course of Seidemann’s interactions with the director, he realized something quite stunning: there was no record of anyone actually complaining about the syllabus. The university had apparently launched this investigation on its own. …The professor refused to meet with the Director of Diversity Investigations, preferring to talk via email so that the conversation could be documented. This eventually caused the director to abandon the investigation: the matter is now officially closed, according to Seidemann. The professor is pleased with the result, but little else.

If you read the entire story, it appears that the bureaucrats decided that “effort” could be interpreted as an invitation for female students to trade sex for higher grades. At least I think that’s the implication.

In which case, there must have been rampant sexual harassment when I was young because our report cards in elementary school always included our teachers’ assessment of our “effort.” And all the way through college, I periodically had classes in which grades were based in part on “participation.”

I guess I was so young and naive that I didn’t realize my teachers and professors were inviting me to offer sex for grades (my grades often were low enough that it was probably best I didn’t run the risk of having them go even lower).

More seriously, I’m glad the professor stood up against the absurd accusations put forth by the diversity bureaucrats. I especially like that he insisted on having everything occur via email so he couldn’t be victimized by the selective memory of some pencil pushers who probably try to justify their comfortable sinecures by claiming an occasional scalp.

Bureaucrats in Knoxville, Tennessee, also seem to be amazingly skilled at seeing sexual harassment where it doesn’t exist.

The student, Keaton Wahlbon, had to take a geology quiz featuring the following question: “What is your lab instructor’s name? (if you don’t remember, make something good up).” Wahlbon followed the instructions: he didn’t remember, so wrote down the first generic girl name that came to mind—Sarah Jackson. Unbeknowst to Wahlbon, Sarah Jackson is a real person: a pornographic model. Of course, there are hundreds (thousands?) of other Sarah Jacksons in the world, and Wahlbon had no idea that his lab instructor would interpret his answer in such a specific and malicious manner. His answer was marked “inappropriate” and he received a grade of zero on the quiz. Wahlbon appealed to his professor, Bill Deane, but Deane maintained that Wahlbon had committed sexual harassment. Wahlbon contacted the head of department because, well, that’s nonsense. …no resolution has been reached yet. But according to The Knoxville News Sentinel, the university is now investigating the matter as if a complaint had been filed—even though no one has taken such an action.

Wow, this is surreal. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Wahlbon was thinking of the pornographic model when he wrote “Sarah Jackson” on the quiz. How is this sexual harassment? I don’t claim to be an expert on such matters, but I’m under the impression that harassment occurs when someone with power in a relationship makes some sort of sexual advance (or even tells a dirty joke). So how can a student harass a teacher? Or even a teacher’s lab instructor?

You can say that Wahlbon is guilty of displaying bad taste, but then we get to the issue of whether he actually meant the Sarah Jackson. If it was a more uncommon name (such as Jenna Jameson, the famous Republican-supporting porn star), then you could safely assume (though not legally prove) that he intended to make a boorish joke. But is the Sarah Jackson so famous that it’s safe to think that’s who Wahlbon had in mind? For what it’s worth, I never heard of that Sarah Jackson (though I once dated a girl with that name).

By the way, the British have similarly brainless people in their nation.

Though they express their political correctness in non-sexual ways (what a surprise), such as the principal who has banned running on the playground.

The headmaster of Hillfort Primary School in Liskeard, Dr Tim Cook, introduced the ban to prevent the little blighters injuring themselves. Instead, kids at Hillfort can blow off steam at playtime by playing with Lego, Jenga, and even dancing, as part of the school’s plan to reduce ‘negative behaviours’. Cook has responded by reassuring parents that their children are not completely prohibited from running – they are just not allowed to run across the playground. Have the nippers been given a small area to run around instead? Getting dizzier and dizzier as they charge about in circles? …Arguing that the ban is for safety reasons is pathetic. It’s running, not sword-swallowing. Grazed knees are part of growing up, and do not, or at least should not, result in lawsuits.

Fortunately, British parents seem a bit more sensible than their bureaucratic overlords. They’re petitioning to allow their kids to…gasp…do more than walk on the playground during recess.

There’s also lunacy in Australia. And since I’m a parent, I’m especially horrified about what happened to a father who wanted to protect his stepdaughter from sexting.

A man who found out that his 15-year-old stepdaughter was sexting her boyfriend proceeded to download the evidence to bring it to the school and the police to ask them to intervene. …Intervene they did. Now the dad has been convicted on child pornography charges and placed on the sex offender registry. This, despite the judge understanding exactly why the man, Ashan Ortell, 57, held onto the images. “There is no suggestion of any exploitation of them by anybody,” ruled Judge Jane Patrick, over in Australia, which is becoming as daffy as the United States. “You made no attempt to conceal the images. In fact, you were so concerned that you contacted the authorities about the images.”

If you read the entire story, I’m guessing that the cops went after the dad because he was badgering them for not doing anything about his stepdaughter. And I sympathize with the cops for choosing not to make a big deal out of two teenagers sexting, but did they really have to go after the guy for having the images when nobody thinks he had any unsavory intent or motives?

Keep in mind that this took place in the nation that awarded workers compensation to a woman who injured herself while having sex and also threatened fines against companies that pointed out the downside of a carbon tax.

All that being said, Australia is still my top choice for where to go if (when?) America suffers a Greek-style fiscal and economic collapse.

P.S. I’ve come across lots of crazy government decisions in my time, so I’m not surprised by today’s material. Though since I mentioned Greece, that government deserves some sort of prize for subsidizing pedophiles and demanding stool samples before letting entrepreneurs set up online companies.

And let’s not forget that European courts that have ruled that there’s an entitlement to free soccer broadcasts and a right to satellite TV. About as nutty as the Finnish court that ruled there’s a right to broadband access, and as crazy as the Bolivian decision that there’s a human right to receive stolen property.

P.P.S. In his speech to the 2008 Democratic Convention, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said “Government, as Barney Frank likes to say, is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

If that’s true, then the above examples show that we “choose” to do some really foolish things. In reality, as Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit reminds us, we don’t choose. That’s why this poster contains a much more accurate assessment of what really happens when government gets involved.

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Since it’s very likely that Hillary Clinton will be our next President, I’m mentally preparing myself for upcoming fights over her agenda of bigger government and class warfare. But the silver lining to this dark cloud is that I don’t think I’ll be distracted by also having to fight against protectionist policies.

My tiny bit of optimism is based on the fact that hackers at Wikileaks got access to the secret speeches she gave to Wall Street and other corporate bigwigs and we learned that, when she can speak freely with no cameras and outside observers, she believes in “open trade.”

In other words, I was right when I said on TV that she was lying about being in favor of protectionism.

Since I don’t think bureaucrats and politicians should have the power to interfere with our buying decisions, I’m glad Hillary is a secret supporter of free trade.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that she also is a genuine and sincere supporter of the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics (i.e., the theory that more government spending is a form of “stimulus” notwithstanding all the evidence of failure from the spending binges of Obama, Hoover and Roosevelt, and Japan).

Here’s what the Daily Caller is reporting about one of her secret speeches to a corporate audience.

Hillary Clinton argued that expanding food stamps and other safety net programs is essential to fuel economic growth at a speech to General Electric executives, according to an excerpt of the transcript made public by WikiLeaks Friday. “Economic growth will take off when people in the middle feel more secure again and start spending again,” Clinton said in her speech at General Electric’s Global Leadership Meeting in January, 2014. …Giving people income assistance, like the food stamps program, would help the economy because families on food stamps will have more money to spend, Clinton argued.

Wow, this is depressing. If this was an off-the-record speech to the Democratic National Committee, a George Soros group, or some other left-leaning outfit, I’d be tempted to dismiss her remarks as rhetoric.

But GE executives presumably aren’t big fans of income redistribution (other than to themselves, of course). So Hillary’s comments were not a form of pandering. She presumably really believes that Keynesian economics is some sort of elixir, that you actually can boost economic performance by taking money out of the economy’s right pocket and putting it in the economy’s left pocket.

Not only is this wrong, it’s backwards.

  • When the crowd in Washington spends money, much of it is lost to bureaucracy and waste. This may not matter to Keynesians since they just want there to be spending (no joke, Keynes actually did write that  it would be good policy to bury money in the ground so that people would get paid to dig it out). Sensible people, by contrast, understand that it matters for the economy whether money is spent wisely.
  • Moreover, redistribution spending tends to be especially harmful since it subsidizes people for not working or for having low levels of income, which is why research has shown that policies such as Obamacare, jobless benefits, and food stamps are associated with lower levels of employment. In other words, redistribution is bad for economic performance.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t expect any sort of economic renaissance if Hillary is our next president. Just another four years of the kind of anemic performance we’ve experienced under Obama.

P.S. Click here to learn more about the failure of Keynesian economics.

P.S. If you want both substance and entertainment, here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

 

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about the new rankings from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report and noted that America’s private sector is considered world class but that our public sector ranks poorly compared to many other developed nations.

To elaborate on the depressing part of that observation, let’s now look at the Tax Foundation’s recently released International Tax Competitiveness Index.

Lots of data and lots of countries. Estonia gets the top score, and deservedly so. It has a flat tax and many other good policies. It’s also no surprise to see New Zealand and Switzerland near the top.

If you’re curious about America’s score, you’ll have to scroll way down because the United States ranks #31, below even Belgium, Spain, and Mexico.

If you look at how the U.S. ranks in the various categories, we have uniformly poor numbers for everything other than “Consumption Taxes.” So let’s be very thankful that the United States doesn’t have a value-added tax (VAT). If we did, even France would probably beat us in the rankings (I hope Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are paying attention to this point).

And if you wonder why some nations with higher top tax rates rank above the U.S. in the “Individual Taxes” category, keep in mind that there are lots of variables for each category. And the U.S. does poorly in many of them, such as the extent to which there is double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

By the way, there is some “good” news. Compared to the 2014 ranking, the United States is doing “better.” Back then, there were only two nations with lower scores, Portugal and France. In the new rankings, the U.S. still beats those two nations, and also gets a better score than Greece and Italy.

But we’re only “winning” this contest of weaklings because the scores for those nations are falling faster than America’s score.

Here’s the 2014-2016 data for the United States. As you can see, we’ve dropped from 54.6 to 53.7.

P.S. The Tax Foundation’s International Tax Competitiveness Index is superb, but I hope they make it even better in the future by adding more jurisdictions. As of now, it only includes nations that are members of the OECD. That’s probably because there’s very good and comparable data for those countries (the OECD pushes very bad policy, but also happens to collect very detailed numbers for its member nations). Nonetheless, it would be great to somehow include places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands (all of which punch way above their weight in the international economy). It also would be desirable if the Tax Foundation added an explicit size-of-government variable. Call me crazy, but Sweden probably shouldn’t be ranked #5 when the nation’s tax system consumes 50.4 percent of the economy’s output (this size-of-government issue is also why I asserted South Dakota should rank above Wyoming in the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index).

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As part of her collection of class-warfare tax proposals, Hillary Clinton wants a big increase in the death tax.

This is very bad tax policy. In a good system, there shouldn’t be any double taxation of income that is saved and invested, especially since that approach means a smaller capital stock (i.e., less machinery, technology, equipment, tools, etc). And every single economic school of thought – even Marxism and socialism – agrees that this means lower productivity for workers and therefore lower wages.

In a must-read column for the Wall Street Journal, Steven Entin of the Tax Foundation elaborates on why the death tax is pointlessly destructive. He starts by explaining that the tax is unfair.

…estate taxes are always double taxation. Estates are built with savings that have already been taxed as income, or soon will be. …The superrich can afford to give away assets during their lives or hire estate planners to help minimize the tax. …The main victims of the death tax are middle-income savers and small-business owners who die before transferring ownership to their children.

And because the tax reduces investment and wages, the revenue gained from imposing the tax is largely offset by lower income tax and payroll tax receipts.

The estate tax…produces so little revenue, only $19 billion last year. But because the tax has recoil effects, even this revenue is illusory. Because the tax reduces the stock of capital, it lowers the productivity of labor and reduces wages and employment. Much of the burden of the tax is shifted to working people. Research suggests that the estate tax depresses wages and employment enough to actually lower total federal revenue over time.

He then reports on some of the Tax Foundation’s analysis of the good things that happen if the tax is repealed.

…to eliminate the estate tax…would raise GDP by 0.7% over 10 years and create 142,000 full-time equivalent jobs. After-tax incomes for the bottom four-fifths of Americans would rise by 0.6% to 0.7%, mainly due to wage growth. …Revenue losses in the first six years would be almost entirely offset by gains later in the decade, with more gains thereafter. Both the public and the government would be net winners.

But he also warns of the bad things that will happen if Hillary’s class-warfare scheme is enacted.

Mrs. Clinton plans to lower the exempt amount to $3.5 million for estates and $1 million for gifts. She would raise the top rate to 45% for assets over $3.5 million, with further increases up to 65% for individual estates above $500 million. …Mrs. Clinton’s plan would lower GDP by 1% over 10 years and cost 194,000 full-time equivalent jobs. After-tax incomes for the bottom four-fifths of Americans would fall by 0.9% to 1%, due to slower wage growth. …the public and the government would be net losers.

So what’s the bottom line?

The revenue numbers cited here also do not take into account increased efforts to avoid the tax. If these imaginative and highly productive people plan ahead to direct their assets to causes they deem worthy, rather than cede their wealth by default to the government, Washington will not see a dime from an estate-tax increase. …Mrs. Clinton’s plan would not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it. Everyone would lose except estate lawyers and life insurers.

Over the years, I’ve shared other research on the death tax, including a recent column on Hillary’s grave-robber plan, as well as my own modest efforts to impact the overall debate in print and on TV.

But my favorite bit of research on the death tax comes from Australia, where repeal of the tax created a natural experiment and scholars found that death rates were affected as successful people lived longer so they could protect family money from the tax collector.

Now there’s research from another natural experiment.

An economist from the University of Chicago produced a study examining a policy change in Greece to determine what happens when taxes are reduced on the transfer of assets. Here’s a bit about her methodology.

I exploit a 2002 tax reform in Greece that reduced succession tax rates for transfers of limited liability companies to family members from 20% to less than 2.4%. …In the quasi-experimental setting made possible by the tax policy change, I employ two different methodologies to measure the effect of this policy change on investment. …by comparing the two groups before and after the tax reform, the analysis disentangles the effect of the identity of the new owner (family or unrelated) from the effect of the succession tax.

And here are her results. As you can see, there’s a notable negative impact on investment.

…estimates reveal a negative effect of transfer taxes on post-succession investment for firms that are transferred within the family. In the presence of higher succession taxes, investment drops from 17.6% of property, plant, and equipment (PPE) the three years before succession to 9.7% of PPE the two years after. This impact of succession taxes on investment is economically large: the implied fall in the investment ratio (0.079) is approximately 40% of the pre-transition level of investment. For those firms, successions are also associated with a depletion of cash reserves, a decline in profitability, and slow sales growth. Note that to the extent that entrepreneurs can plan ahead for the succession and the related tax liability, the estimates I report in the paper provide an underestimate of the true effect of succession taxes.

Even academics who seem to support the death tax for ideological reasons admit that it undermines economic performance, as seen in this study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

…aggregate capital and income go up as the estate tax is lowered. When the labor income tax is used to balance the government budget constraints, for given prices, reducing estate taxation does not reduce the rate of return to savings for anyone in the population and still increases the return to leaving a bequest… As a result, aggregate capital goes up a bit more…and so does aggregate output.

By the way, the economists who produced this study constrained their analysis by assuming other taxes would have to be increased to compensate for any reduction in the death tax. To my knowledge, there’s not a single lawmaker who wants to raise other taxes while reducing or eliminating the tax. As such, the results in the above study almost certainly understate the economic benefits of reform.

If you don’t like reading academic studies and dealing with equations and jargon, here’s what you really need to know.

  • Rich people aren’t idiots, or at least the tax advisors they have aren’t idiots.
  • Those upper-income taxpayers have tremendous ability to manage their finance.
  • Rich people (and their smart advisors) figure out how to protect themselves from tax.
  • The death tax is a voluntary tax it can be avoided by people with substantial assets.
  • But the various means of avoidance all tend to result in a less dynamic economy.

In other words, when politicians shoot at rich taxpayers, the rich taxpayers manage to dodge much of the incoming fire, but ordinary people like you and me suffer collateral damage.

Let’s close by shifting from economics to morality.

The death tax is odious in part because it is a pure (in a bad sense) form of double taxation, but it also is bad because the government shouldn’t be imposing double taxation simply because someone dies.

Actually, let’s add one more wrinkle to the discussion. If it’s immoral to impose tax simply because of a death, then it’s doubly immoral to impose such taxes while simultaneously (and hypocritically) taking steps to dodge the tax.

Which is a good description of Hillary’s behavior, as reported by the Washington Examiner.

Bill and Hillary, like most millionaires whose wealth is mostly in housing and liquid assets, have engaged in sophisticated estate planning to avoid the death tax. …the Clintons placed their Chappaqua home — the one that housed the secret servers Hillary used to evade transparency laws — into two separate trusts. For complex reasons, this protects Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax when she inherits the house. …The Clintons also hold five life insurance policies, worth somewhere around $2 million. This is “designed to transfer assets outside of the estate,” one estate planner told Time. Life insurance payouts are generally exempt from death taxes.

Oh, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Hillary has close ties to the special interest cronyists who profit from the death tax.

The death tax brings in a paltry sum for Uncle Sam, but it provides a windfall for a couple of tiny segments of the economy: estate planners, and well-funded investors who buy out the family businesses threatened by the death tax. Jeff Ricchetti is a longtime Clinton confidant, a revolving-door corporate lobbyist on K Street, and a donor to all of Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. …Jeff has spent two decades lobbying to preserve and expand the death tax. In 1999, When Jeff cashed out of the Clinton administration, he joined the Podesta Group, co-founded by Clinton’s current campaign manager John Podesta. One client there: the American Council of Life Insurers, where Ricchetti lobbied in favor of taxing inheritances. …Life insurers, such as the members of ACLI and AALU, sell estate-planning products that could become worthless — or at least worth less — if parents were simply able to hand the fruits of their life’s work to their children. That’s why in April, TheTrustAdvisor.com ran a piece headlined “Estate Tax Repeal: Has Hillary Become the Estate Planner’s Best Friend?”

I’m shocked, shocked.

By the way, one of the main practitioners of cronyism is Hillary’s political ally, Warren Buffett.

Buffett advocates the death tax because it has been so very good to him over the years. To fully understand the depth of Buffett’s cynicism and self-interest, let’s take a look at how one might avoid paying the death tax. If you’re a wealthy person and want to steer clear of this tax, you have three options: Set up complicated trust arrangements, which mostly serve to enrich lawyers and merely delay and shift a tax that must eventually be paid; arrange for your estate to make tax-deductible contributions to charitable organizations; or plow your wealth into life insurance before you die. By law, when your heirs are paid the life-insurance disbursement, it’s tax-free. It doesn’t take a genius to see how certain industries could make a tidy profit off these death-tax escape hatches. In fact, some of the most ardent opponents of permanent death-tax repeal are (surprise, surprise) estate lawyers (who set up the trusts), charities (who fear their spigots of money turning off), and the life-insurance lobby (which does all it can to preserve its tax loopholes). Buffett has major investments in companies that sell life insurance. The death tax has helped make him rich while it has made other families poor. What’s sad and ironic is that it takes families with the resources of the Buffetts (and the Hiltons and the Kardashians) to set up the trusts and life-insurance schemes that are necessary to avoid paying the death tax.

Once again, I’m shocked, shocked.

P.S. Our death tax is even more punitive that the ones imposed by left-wing hell-holes such as Greece and Venezuela.

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One of the most remarkable developments in the world of fiscal policy is that even left-leaning international bureaucracies are beginning to embrace spending caps as the only effective and successful rule for fiscal policy.

The International Monetary Fund is infamous because senior officials relentlessly advocate for tax hikes, but the professional economists at the organization have concluded in two separate studies (see here and here) that expenditure limits produce good results.

Likewise, the political appointees at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development generally push a pro-tax increase agenda, but professional economists at the Paris-based bureaucracy also have produced studies (see here and here) showing that spending caps are the only approach that leads to good results.

Heck, even the European Central Bank has jumped into the issue with a study that reaches the same conclusion.

This doesn’t mean balanced budget requirements are bad, by the way, but the evidence shows that they aren’t very effective since they allow lots of spending when the economy is expanding (and thus generating tax revenue). But when the economy goes into recession (causing a drop in tax revenue), politicians impose tax hikes in hopes of propping up their previous spending commitments.

With a spending cap, by contrast, fiscal policy is very stable. Politicians know from one year to the next that they can increase spending by some modest amount. They don’t like the fact that they can’t approve big spending increases in the years when the economy is expanding, but that’s offset by the fact that they don’t have to cut spending when there’s a recession and revenues are falling.

From the perspective of taxpayers and the economy, the benefit of a spending cap (assuming it is well designed so that it satisfies Mitchell’s Golden Rule) is that annual budgetary increases are lower than the long-run average growth of the private sector.

And nations that have followed such a policy have achieved very good results. The burden of government spending shrinks as a share of economic output, which naturally also leads to less red ink relative to the size of the private economy.

But it’s difficult to maintain spending discipline for multi-year periods. In most cases, governments that adopt good policy eventually capitulate to pressure from interest groups and start allowing the budget to expand too quickly.

That’s why the ideal policy is to make a spending cap part of a nation’s constitution.

That’s what happened in Switzerland early last decade thanks to a voter referendum. And that’s what has been part of Hong Kong’s Basic Law since it was approved back in 1990.

And while many nations struggle with ever-growing government, both Switzerland and Hong Kong have enjoyed good outcomes and considerable fiscal stability.

Now a Latin American nation may enact a similar reform. Brazil, which is suffering a recession in part because of bad government policies, is trying to boost its economy with market-based reforms. Given my interests, I’m especially excited that it has taken the first step in a much-needed effort to impose a spending cap.

The Brazil Chamber of Deputies on Monday voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would limit government spending to counteract the country’s alarming economic downturn. …The amendment proposal must pass two rounds of voting in the lower House and Senate. Should it be passed, the government would limit spending increases to the rate of inflation… Following approval, the amendment would take effect in 2017.

The specific reform in Brazil would limit spending so it doesn’t grow faster than inflation. And it would apply only to the central government, so the provinces would be unaffected.

Capping central government outlays would be a significant step in the right direction. The central government would consume 16.8 percent of economic output in 2025 with the cap, compared to 20.8 percent of GDP if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

Of course, there’s no guarantee this reform will become part of the Constitution. It needs to be approved a second time by the Chamber of Deputies (akin to our House of Representatives) and then be approved twice by the Senate.

But the good news is that more than 71 percent of Deputies voted for the measure. And there’s every reason to expect a sufficient number of votes when it come up for a second vote.

Brazil’s Senate, however, may be more of a challenge. Especially since various interest groups are now mobilizing against the proposal.

Advocates of the reform should go over the heads of the interest groups and other pro-spending lobbies and educate the Brazilian people. They should make two arguments that hopefully will be appealing even to those who don’t understand economic policy.

First, a spending cap doesn’t require spending cuts in a downturn. Outlays can continue to grow according to the formula. This should be a compelling argument for Keynesians who think government spending somehow stimulates growth (and also may appease those who simply think it is “harsh” to reduce spending when the economy is in recession).

Second, by preventing big spending increases during the boom years, a spending cap is a self-imposed constraint to protect against “Goldfish Government,” which should be an effective argument for those who are familiar with the underlying fiscal and demographic trends that already have caused so much chaos and misery in nations such as Greece.

P.S. While I haven’t been a fan of Brazilian economic policy in past years, I actually defended that nation when Hillary Clinton applauded Brazil for being more statist than it actually is.

P.P.S. Being less statist than Hillary is not exactly something to brag about, so I will note that Brazil deserves credit for moving in the right direction on gun rights and also having some semi-honest left-wing politicians.

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Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a a bunch of laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.

But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.

Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.

And now we have even more evidence that these laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.

Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.

The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.

And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.

By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.

And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?

Hardly. David and Norbert point out that we’re all paying more and getting very little in return for the higher burdens.

The original goal of the BSA/AML rules was to reduce predicate crimes, such as illegal drug distribution, rather than money laundering itself. Judged by this standard, very little empirical evidence suggests that the rules have worked as designed. In fact, even though BSA/AML rules have been expanded consistently throughout the past four decades, it remains difficult to discern any net benefit of the overall BSA/AML regulatory framework. Even though there is no clear evidence that the rules materially reduce crime, the BSA/AML bureaucracy began relentlessly expanding internationally—primarily through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—more than two decades ago. One comprehensive study reports that even though the FATF proceeds as if these rules have produced only public benefits, “[t]o date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the International Monetary Fund, to assess either the costs or benefits of” this regulatory framework. In fact, BSA/AML regulations have been sharply criticized as a costly, ineffective approach to reducing crime. …compliance costs are high for financial companies, with a disproportionate burden falling on smaller firms…, where hiring even one additional employee can lower the return on assets by more than 20 basis points. Other research suggests that the increasing compliance burden in the banking industry is at least partly responsible for the trend toward consolidation and the disappearance of smaller banks. …an American Bankers Association (ABA) publication highlights a small bank that reports it has to dedicate more than 15 percent of its employees to compliance-related tasks. An ABA survey also suggests that the cumulative cost associated with compliance has caused banks to offer fewer services and raise fees, thus harming consumers. …the BSA/AML regime has been a highly inefficient law enforcement tool. At the very least, a high degree of skepticism about further expansion of these and similar requirements is in order. Given the billions of dollars spent annually by the private sector on the existing elaborate and costly AML bureaucracy, a serious data-driven cost-benefit analysis of the existing system is warranted.

If anything, I think they’re being too nice.

The cost-benefit analysis already exists. The laws and regulations don’t work.

Let’s expand our look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current approach has myriad negative consequences as banks sever relationships with customers (in a process called “derisking”) because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, expense, and liability of money-laundering red tape.

…financial firms, faced with strict penalties over counterterror and anti-money-laundering rules, have severed accounts of thousands of customers in recent years over fears of heightened risk. The consequences of shuttered accounts were detailed this week in a Wall Street Journal investigation showing how money-transfer firms whose bank accounts have been closed have been pushed out of the global banking system. In addition, nonprofit organizations operating in Syria and Lebanon have faced challenges after losing their bank accounts. …In February of this year, more than 50 nonprofits asked the U.S. Treasury to publicly affirm that nonprofit organizations aren’t inherently high risk. …Two studies by the World Bank in late 2015 found that money-service businesses—which include money transmitters—and foreign banks were both seeing account closures at increasing rates.

Amen.

This process has made life much more difficult for people and businesses seeking to engage in legitimate commerce.

Not to mention that the government abuses the enormous powers it has accumulated, as we can see from the Obama Administration’s odious “Operation Choke Point.”

Another report from the WSJ explains that the rules actually make it harder for law enforcement to monitor the people who might actually be doing bad things.

U.S. banks have closed thousands of accounts held by people and organizations considered suspicious, high-risk or difficult to monitor—including money-transfer firms, foreign banks and nonprofits working abroad. Closing accounts for fear their customers may be up to no good evicts from the financial system the innocent as well as those the U.S. government would most like to watch, a consequence not anticipated by Washington. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry this month acknowledged the potential danger. “Transactions that would have taken place legally and transparently may be driven underground,” he told an international conference of bankers and regulators in Washington. …Fearing steep financial penalties for failing to spot a wayward customer, many banks now shun anyone who looks risky. That leaves ostracized companies to seek alternatives—such as toting bags of cash overseas—a practice that allows hundreds of millions of dollars to leave the global banking system… “The whole flow of money goes underground, and that becomes counterproductive to the original purpose of being able to track” it, said Dilip Ratha, head economist of the World Bank’s unit that studies remittances. “It’s a bit paradoxical.” U.S. officials said they didn’t intend banks to close whole categories of customer accounts.

So potential bad guys are harder to track.

And financial institutions waste lots of money (which translates into higher costs for consumers).

Risky accounts should be managed, officials said, not avoided altogether. …Western Union said it now spends $200 million a year watching for suspicious activity… J.P. Morgan Chase & Co….now has about 9,000 employees dedicated to anti-money-laundering and has cut off thousands of customers viewed as higher-risk. …Jaikumar Ramaswamy, a Bank of AmericaCorp. compliance executive and former federal prosecutor, said, “I’m surprised at how much of my time is spent not focusing on the guilty but chasing the innocent.” Instead of looking for needles in haystacks, he said, the system demands banks “turn over every piece of hay.”

The good news is that some nations are looking to adopt a more rational approach, as evidenced by this Bloomberg report from 2015.

The U.K. government said it will look to relax anti-money laundering controls as part of a plan to save British companies 10 billion pounds ($15.4 billion) over the next five years. …The government said it wants to protect the country without putting “disproportionate burdens” on legitimate businesses. …“This new review is about making sure the rules we have to protect our strong financial services industry from abuse are not unintentionally holding back new and existing British business,” Business Secretary Sajid Javid said. “I want firms to come forward and tell us where regulation is unclear or its enforcement ineffective.”

Though, as reported by the Times, the U.K. government has a bizarrely inconsistent approach to these issues. Even to the point of threatening to steal people’s property unless they can somehow prove that it was purchased with innocent money.

People who amass suspicious quantities of wealth in Britain will be ordered to prove that it was not obtained through corruption, under proposals being considered by the Home Office. New “unexplained wealth orders”, which would reverse the burden of proof to compel the recipient to justify the source of the questionable cash.

Sigh.

Here’s a novel idea. Why doesn’t law enforcement engage in actual, old-fashioned police work. In other words, instead of having costly burdens imposed on everybody, governments should use the approach which historically has successfully reduced crime – i.e., policies that increase the likelihood of apprehension and/or severity of punishment.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Instead, we actually get politicians and policy makers coming up with schemes to expand the burden of money laundering laws. Some of them want to ban the $100 bill, or perhaps even ban cash entirely. All so government can more closely monitor the private financial choices of innocent people.

If you want more information, here’s a video I narrated on this topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Last but not least, let’s return to the Heritage study, which includes this very important warning about a very risky and dangerous treaty that may be considered by the U.S. Senate.

…the willingness to impose costs on the private sector and to violate the privacy interests of ordinary people should be less in the case of information sharing for tax purposes than for the purposes of preventing terrorism or crime. Moreover, tax-information-sharing programs are quite often a veiled attempt to stifle tax competition from low-tax jurisdictions. Tax competition is salutary and limits the degree to which governments can impose unwarranted taxation. …The U.S. Senate is currently considering the “Protocol Amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters,” which would impose a wide variety of new information-reporting requirements on financial institutions to help foreign governments collect their taxes. A second treaty—worse than this protocol—is the follow-on OECD treaty known as the “Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement on Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information.” This follow-on treaty implements both the protocol and the 311-page OECD “Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters.” Together, the protocol, the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, and the OECD Standard constitute the three main parts of a new automatic information-exchange regime being promoted by the OECD and international tax bureaucrats. If the U.S. ratifies the protocol and implements the new OECD standard, Washington would automatically, and in bulk, ship private financial and tax information—including Social Security and other tax identification numbers—to Argentina, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, and nearly 70 other countries. In other words, foreign governments that are hostile to the U.S., corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards, would automatically have access to private financial (and other) information of some U.S. taxpayers and most foreigners with accounts in the U.S.

A truly awful pact. And keep in mind it also would be the genesis of a World Tax Organization.

P.S. Since we closed by discussing the intersection of tax and money laundering, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

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Most folks in Washington are still digesting last night’s debate between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. If that’s what you care about, you can see my Twitter commentary, though I was so busy addressing specific issues that I failed to mention the most disturbing part of that event, which was the total absence of any discussion about the importance of liberty, freedom, and the Constitution.

But let’s set aside the distasteful world of politics and contemplate U.S. competitiveness. Specifically, let’s examine America’s position in the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. This Report is partly a measure of policy (sort of like Economic Freedom of the World) and partly a measure of business efficiency and acumen.

The bad news is that we used to be ranked #1 and now we’re #3.

The good news is that being #3 is still pretty good, and it’s hard to beat Switzerland and Singapore because they have such good free-market policies. And that’s where America falls short.

Indeed, if you look at the top-10 nations and the three major measurements, you’ll notice that the United States ranks extremely high in “efficiency enhancers” and “innovation and sophistication factors,” both of which have a lot to do with the private sector’s competitiveness. But we have a mediocre (at least for developed nations) score for “basic requirements,” the area where government policy plays a big role.

Moreover, if you look at the the biggest obstacles to economic activity in the United States, the top 4 deal with bad government policy.

The tax treatment of companies is easily the main problem, as you might expect since we rank #94 out of 100 nations in a study of business tax policy.

Let’s now look at the indices where the United States scored especially low out of the 138 nations that were ranked.

America’s lowest scores were for exports (#130) and imports (#134), though I take issue with the Report‘s methodology, which is based on trade flows as a share of GDP. The problem with that approach is that the United States has a huge internal market, equal to about 22 percent of the world’s economic output. That’s why our trade flows aren’t very large relative to GDP. Being surrounded by two major oceans also probably has some dampening effect on cross-border trade flows. Yes, America is guilty of some protectionism, but I think our ranking for trade tariffs (#33) is the more appropriate and accurate measure of the degree to which there is a problem.

America also got a very bad score (#128) for government debt, though at least we beat Italy (#135), Greece (#137), and Japan (#138). In case you’re wondering, Hong Kong was #1, as you might expect from a well-run jurisdiction with small government and a flat tax.  Though I must say that it is rather disappointing that the Report doesn’t include rankings for the overall burden of government spending. After all, government debt is basically a symptom of an underlying problem of a bloated public sector.

And there also was a very low score for the business cost of terrorism (#104), which is probably an unavoidable consequence of being the world’s leading superpower (and therefore a target for crazies). That being said, I imagine America’s score could be improved if we weren’t engaging in needless intervention – and thus generating needless animosity – in places such as Syria and Libya.

Here are two indices that deserve special attention. As you can see the United States gets a poor score for wasteful spending and a terrible score for the punitive taxation of profits.

With this information in mind, let’s now remind ourselves about last night’s debate. Did either candidate propose to control spending and reduce pork-barrel programs? Nope.

Did either candidate put forth a realistic plan to lower the corporate tax rate? Hillary’s plan certainly doesn’t qualify since she wants a bunch of class-warfare tax hikes. And while Trump’s plan includes a lower corporate rate, it’s not a serious proposal since he is too timid to put forth a plan to restrain government outlays.

And since neither candidate intends to address America’s looming fiscal crisis, it will probably be just a matter of time before America drops in the rankings.

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I’m a policy wonk rather than a political partisan or political prognosticator, so I generally don’t comment on elections. But since I’ve received several emails asking my opinion of the Trump debacle and this is the topic dominating the headlines, I will offer my two cents on the mess.

My first observation is that there are nearly 325 million people in the United States, so it’s rather amazing that neither Republicans nor Democrats could find candidates more appealing than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It’s almost as if Democrats had a secret meeting and decided, “Hey, let’s deliberately lose this election by nominating a corrupt, statist hack.” Which led Republicans to convene their own secret meeting, where they decided, “Two can play at this game. Let’s nominate an empty-suit populist who is famous for being a reality TV huckster.”

And if that is what happened, both the polls and the betting markets indicate that the GOP is more competent at losing (since they are adept at throwing away simple-to-win policy fights, it stands to reason that they’d also be good at fumbling away sure-thing political victories).

But have they thrown away victory in the presidential race? Let’s look at the analysis of Scott Adams, the Dilbert creator who has now become famous as a quasi-pundit because he predicted Trump would get the GOP nomination when the rest of us thought it would never happen.

Here are his 14-points, each followed by my assessment.

1. If this were anyone else, the election would be over. But keep in mind that Trump doesn’t need to outrun the bear. He only needs to outrun his camping buddy. There is still plenty of time for him to dismantle Clinton. If you think things are interesting now, just wait. There is lots more entertainment coming.

Yes, it’s probably true that Hillary could still lose. And, yes, things will probably get more interesting. But my guess, for what it’s worth, is that the additional “entertainment” that we’ll experience will not be favorable to Trump. Don’t be surprised if women come forward to say that Trump coerced them into sex, into abortions, into whatever.

2. This was not a Trump leak. No one would invite this sort of problem into a marriage.

I wasn’t aware that anybody was even speculating that Trump or his people would leak a tape with him bragging about grabbing women’s privates.

3. I assume that publication of this recording was okayed by the Clinton campaign. And if not, the public will assume so anyway. That opens the door for Trump to attack in a proportionate way. No more mister-nice-guy. Gloves are off. Nothing is out of bounds. It is fair to assume that Bill and Hillary are about to experience the worst weeks of their lives.

Trump was being a nice guy up to this point?!? More important, what can he dump on Hillary at this stage that will change minds? People already recognize that she’s corrupt and dishonest. But her sleaze is boring and conventional, and voters probably prefer that to an unconventional and erratic Trump.

4. If nothing new happens between now and election day, Clinton wins. The odds of nothing new happening in that timeframe is exactly zero.

I’m tempted to repeat my response to point #1, but let’s hypothesize about what can happen that might derail Hillary. We now have the alleged transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street and the only revelation of any note is that she’s for free trade (as many of us suspected). But since voters already know she lies, I don’t think this matters. Some folks speculate that the Russians or some other foreign power (or a random hacker) will release top secret emails that she illegally transmitted on her insecure private server. But I suspect most voters already know and accept that she put America’s national security at risk. Or what if we learn that she altered government policy in response to bribe money going to the Clinton Foundation? Again, most voters probably already accept this as a given. Maybe I don’t have a sufficiently vivid imagination, but I just can’t think of a (pro-Trump, anti-Hillary) game changer between now and election day.

5. I assume that 75% of male heads of state, including our own past presidents, are total dogs in their private lives. Like it or not, Trump is normal in that world.

I suspect there’s some truth to this. But those various heads of state didn’t brag about their conquests and advertise their infidelities. To be sure, Trump fans do have a point that he is being held to a tougher standard than Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, both of whom allegedly engaged in sexual assaults on women. But Trump isn’t running against Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy.

6. As fictional mob boss Tony Soprano once said in an argument with his wife, “You knew what you were getting when you married me!” Likewise, Trump’s third wife, Melania, knew what she was getting. It would be naive to assume Trump violated their understanding.

No argument with this. But I also don’t think this point has any political relevance.

7. Another rich, famous, tall, handsome married guy once told me that he can literally make-out and get handsy with any woman he wants, whether she is married or not, and she will be happy about it. I doubted his ridiculous claims until I witnessed it three separate times. So don’t assume the women were unwilling. (Has anyone come forward to complain about Trump?)

Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, that some women are turned on by money and power and that they are amenable to advances by someone like Trump. My response is “so what?” What will matter, for purposes of handicapping the election, is whether any women come forward to say that they didn’t welcome the advances. And it won’t even matter if they’re telling the truth.

8. If the LGBTQ community wants to be a bit more inclusive, I don’t see why “polyamorous alpha male serial kisser” can’t be on the list. If you want to label Trump’s sexual behavior “abnormal” you’re on shaky ground.

This seems very weak. The issue isn’t whether Trump is “abnormal.” I don’t think anyone will be shocked if we learn he’s cheated on all of his wives, including the current one. But if it come out that he actually has grabbed an unwilling woman by the you-know-what, that’s something that could impact voting behavior.

9. Most men don’t talk like Trump. Most women don’t either. But based on my experience, I’m guessing a solid 20% of both genders say and do shockingly offensive things in private. Keep in mind that Billy Bush wasn’t shocked by it.

I know plenty of guys (and even a few gals) who talk like Trump. And since I have a juvenile sense of humor (I used to enjoy hearing Trump as a guest on the Howard Stern show), I confess that I’m amused by what’s now being called “locker-room banter.” But I’ll repeat what I just said. People probably won’t change their votes based on Trump’s rhetoric, but some of them will change their votes if they learn his actions matched his bluster.

10. Most male Hollywood actors support Clinton. Those acting skills will come in handy because starting today they have to play the roles of people who do not talk and act exactly like Trump in private.

Probably true, but does any of that matter for the election? No.

11. I’m adding context to the discussion, not condoning it. Trump is on his own to explain his behavior.

Fair enough.

12. Clinton supporters hated Trump before this latest outrage. Trump supporters already assumed he was like this. Independents probably assumed it too. Before you make assumptions about how this changes the election, see if anyone you know changes their vote because of it. All I have seen so far is people laughing about it.

Perhaps true, but Republican strategists are probably terrified that there will be revelations that Trump crossed the line from mere rhetoric to actual misbehavior.

12. I hereby change my endorsement from Trump to Gary Johnson, just to get out of the blast zone. Others will be “parking” their vote with Johnson the same way. The “shy Trump supporter” demographic just tripled.

Republicans (at least the ones who want Trump to win) are praying and hoping that the “Bradley Effect” is real and that there are lots and lots of voters who will secretly vote for Trump even though they’re telling pollsters otherwise. I’m guessing that there are lots of these people. But probably not “lots and lots,” which is probably what Trump would need to prevail.

13. My prediction of a 98% chance of Trump winning stays the same. Clinton just took the fight to Trump’s home field. None of this was a case of clever strategy or persuasion on Trump’s part. But if the new battleground is spousal fidelity, you have to like Trump’s chances.

Even if the new battleground was spousal fidelity, that doesn’t help Trump since he’s running against Hillary rather than Bill. But I think Adams is wrong. The new battleground is potential abuse of power.

To be sure, Hillary has plenty of vulnerabilities in this regard, most notably with the pay-to-play antics at the Clinton Foundation. But the media doesn’t want to cover that example of corruption and I doubt Trump has the discipline to make her sleaze an issue.

By the way, since Trump is at 20 percent in the betting markets, Mr, Adams has a chance to become very rich. I wonder if he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

However, before dismissing his prediction, it’s worth remembering that he was right about Trump getting the GOP nomination when everyone else (including me) didn’t think is would ever happen.

14. Trump wasn’t running for Pope. He never claimed moral authority. His proposition has been that he’s an asshole (essentially), but we need an asshole to fight ISIS, ignore lobbyists, and beat up Congress. Does it change anything to have confirmation that he is exactly what you thought he was?

A very good point. I bet a big part of Trump’s appeal is that people think he would kick butt in Washington (for what it’s worth, he might disrupt Washington, but I very much doubt that he would shrink Washington).

But let’s stick with the political side of things. I repeat what I’ve already written about the difference between saying coarse things and engaging in actual coarse (and unwelcome) behavior. That is Trump’s bigger vulnerability.

Adams concludes by arguing that “reason is not part of decision-making when it comes to politics” and that none of what’s discussed above will impact voters.

I’m dubious about this claim. Besides, what matters for elections is whether some voters are affected, not whether all of them care about a particular issue. And on that basis, I suspect Trump is heading for defeat. And since we’re a month from the election, here’s my prediction of a comfortable victory for Hillary.

The good news is that Trump’s presumed loss is not a defeat for limited government. In part because he doesn’t believe in small government, but also because Democrats may rue the day Hillary prevailed because of what that implies for the 2018 midterm election and whether that sets the stage for total GOP control in 2020.

Though keep in mind that I’ve made the same argument in the past. Here’s what I wrote back in 2012.

…keeping Obama for an additional four years would be the best way of laying the groundwork for a Reagan-style victory in 2016 with a presumably small-government advocate like Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, or Paul Ryan at the top of the ticket. …my first political decision was to favor Carter over Ford in 1976 in hopes of paving the way for Reagan in 1980.

So maybe the real issue is whether Republicans would be crazy enough to nominate another Trump in 2020 or whether they might actually find another Reagan-style limited-government conservative.

And if this hypothetical poll is any indication, that would be the route to electoral success.

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One of the great flaws of Keynesian economics is that proponents assume policy makers are angels who are motivated solely by a desire to help people by boosting the economy when there’s a downturn.

Needless to say, that’s an absurd assumption. To cite just one real-world example, we can see how Obama’s stimulus scheme was simply an opportunity for politicians and interest groups to do what they like doing regardless of the economy’s performance, which is to have fun with other people’s money. Think scams like Solyndra, but expanded to almost all parts of the federal budget.

This sober-minded assessment of how government really works is sometimes categorized as being part of “public choice economics.”

Here’s what I wrote about this theory earlier this year, as part of a column explaining why politicians will keep spending even if they know it will lead to disaster.

…there’s an entire school of thought in economics, known as “public choice,” which is based on making real-world assumptions about the self-interested behavior of politicians and interest groups. …In other words, both voters and politicians can have an incentive for ever-larger government, even if the end result is Greek-style fiscal chaos because taxes and spending reach ruinous levels. I call this “Goldfish Government” because some think that a goldfish lacks the ability to control its appetite and therefore will eat itself to death when presented with unlimited food. …America’s Founding Fathers had the right solution. They set up a democratic form of government, but they strictly limited the powers of the central government. This system worked remarkably well for a long period, but then the Supreme Court decided that the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution were just a suggestion.

One of the key insights of public choice theory is that we often get excessive government because the people getting handouts from any particular program have a very strong incentive to lobby for those goodies while the average taxpayer often does not have the time, knowledge, energy, or incentive to to either learn what’s happening or to figure out how best to fight against the various counterproductive redistribution programs.

Here’s a video from Learn Liberty that explains how “concentrated benefits” and “dispersed costs” produce bad outcomes (and if you have any doubts that this is true, just think about the Export-Import Bank or farm subsidies).

By the way, I hope everyone noticed, in the hypothetical law that was discussed, that half the money collected from taxpayers would be burned.

This is an under-appreciated reason why redistribution is so damaging. I’ve tried to make this point by talking about how federal spending involves taxing people around the nation, carrying the money in a leaky bucket to Washington, pouring some of it down a toilet, and then carrying it in a leaky bucket back to interest groups in various parts of the nation.

Building on these concepts, Professor Ben Powell uses the example of farm subsidies to explain how we get bad policy (think ethanol).

Kudos to Ben (who also narrated a great video on “sweatshops”). I particularly like his explanation of how interest groups recycle money back to politicians.

Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the federal government is a racket that lines the pockets of insiders at the expense of taxpayers.

Last but not least, here’s Professor Mark Pennington from the University of London discussing public choice, market failure, and government failure.

If you’re interested, I recommend that you also watch Part II, Part III, and Part IV of Mark’s presentation.

At this stage, you may be thinking that fixing the mess in Washington is hopeless. After all, if it’s in the self interest of politicians to expand the burden of government to buy votes and win their next elections, then aren’t we doomed to have “goldfish government”?

That’s certainly what’s happened in nations such as Greece that presumably have reached and surpassed a “tipping point” of too much government dependency.

But here’s why I think there’s still hope for the United States.

…asking politicians to reduce government is like asking burglars to be in favor of armed homeowners. …we know politicians generally have bad incentives. But it’s not hopeless. While I certainly enjoy mocking politicians, they’re not totally immoral or even amoral people. Many of them do understand there’s a problem. Indeed, I would argue that recent votes for entitlement reform are an example of genuine patriotism – i.e., doing the right thing for the country. So is there a potential solution? Maybe. Let’s use an analogy from Greek mythology. Many politicians generally can’t resist the siren song of a go-along-to-get-along approach. But like Ulysses facing temptation from sirens, they recognize that this is a recipe for a bad outcome. So they realize that some sort of self-imposed constraint is desirable. And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful that we can get them to impose binding spending caps. We know there are successful reforms by looking at the evidence. And we know there is growing support from fiscal experts. And we even see that normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as theOECD and IMF acknowledge that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule. So if Ulysses can bind himself to the mast and resist the sirens, perhaps we can convince politicians to tie their own hands with a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. Though whenever I think about the 2016 election, I confess that’s it’s hard to be optimistic.

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One (hopefully endearing) trait of being a policy wonk is that I have a weakness for jurisdictional rankings. At least if they’re methodologically sound.

This is why I was so happy a couple of weeks ago when I got to peruse and analyze the 2016 version of Economic Freedom of the World (even if the results for America were rather depressing).

Heck, sometimes I even can’t resist commenting on methodologically unsound rankings, such as the profoundly stupid “Happy Planet Index” that puts despotic hellholes such as Cuba and Venezuela above the United States.

Given my interest in rankings, you can appreciate how excited I am that my colleague at Cato, Chris Edwards, just unveiled the 2016 version of his Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors and that the Tax Foundation just released its annual State Business Tax Climate Index. It’s sort of like Christmastime for me.

Here’s the big news from Chris’ Report Card. As a Virginia resident, I’m not terribly happy the Governor McAuliffe scores a D (not that his GOP predecessor was any good). It’s also perhaps somewhat newsworthy that Governor Pence earned an A (so he seems committed to smaller government even if the guy he’s paired with doesn’t share the same philosophy).

And here’s the Tax Foundation’s map showing each state’s ranking, with top-10 states in blue and bottom-10 states in light orange.

If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that zero-income-tax states are disproportionately represented among the states with the best scores.

All this is quite interesting (at least to me), but it occurred to me that it might be even more illuminating to somehow meld these two rankings together.

After all, Chris’s Report Card is a measure of whether a state is moving in the right direction or wrong direction while the Tax Foundation is more of a comparative measure of how a state ranks at a given point in time compared to other states.

So I created the following matrix that looks only at the states that received A or F in the Cato Report Card and also were either in the top 10 or bottom 10 of the Tax Foundation Index.

As you might guess, the best place to be is in the top-left portion of the matrix since that shows a state that is both moving in the right direction while also having a very competitive tax system. So kudos to Florida and Indiana (with honorable mention for North Carolina, which received an A in the Cato Report Card but just missed cracking the top 10 in the Tax Foundation Index).

The bad news, if you look at the bottom-left quadrant, is that there are three states with good tax systems but bad governors. South Dakota, Oregon, and Nevada are in strong shape today, but it’s hard to be optimistic about those states preserving their lofty rankings since policy is moving in the wrong direction.

And the worst place to be is the bottom-right quadrant, which means that a state has both a bad tax system and a bad policy environment.

Last but not least, the sad news is that the top-right quadrant is empty, which means there aren’t any bad states moving aggressively in the right direction.

So the bottom line is that American citizens should think about moving to Florida and Indiana. Especially if they live in Vermont, California, or Connecticut.

P.S. It would be even better to move to Monaco, Hong Kong, or the Cayman Islands, but those presumably aren’t very practical options for most of us.

P.P.S. Actually, the best place for an American taxpayer to live is Puerto Rico since it’s a legal tax haven.

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What are the main problems with government bureaucrats?

Is it that they’re paid too much? Given that they get far more compensation than workers in the economy’s productive sector, that certainly true.

Is it that there are too many of them? Well, we have lots of bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist, such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc. So that’s true as well.

But there’s another possible answer. People employed by government take advantage of preferential rules in ways that should get all decent people upset.

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm tells us about a cop who successfully mugged taxpayers in Paterson, New Jersey.

Despite not having to show up for work since June 2007, Manuel Avila received periodic increases in pay, managed to double his monthly pension and qualified for free healthcare for the rest of his life at the expense of city taxpayers. Avila qualified for all those benefits while spending the past nine years on paid leave from the Paterson, New Jersey, police department because he was under investigation for having sex with a female prisoner at the city’s jail.

Wow, go fishing every day, get pay increases, a fat pension, and free healthcare. Where can I sign up for that deal?

Government, of course.

And let’s not overlook sex with a female prisoner, which gives a whole new meaning to the notion of fringe benefits. Reminds me of the Pennsylvania bureaucrat who came up with the clever idea of trading welfare benefits for sex.

But the story is actually more disturbing (at least from the perspective of taxpayers) than you think.

It gets worse, though, because that crime would never have happened if Avila’s bosses hadn’t already been trying to give his retirement benefits a little boost. …Avila—apparently with plenty of help, or at least an abundance of people willing to look the other way—was able to boost his annual pension to about $70,000 from an estimated $32,000 if he had been forced to retire in 2007 when a police psychiatrist recommended removing Avila from the force. “But instead of forcing Avila out of the police department, city law enforcement officials decided to allow him to stay on the job for another six months so he could reach a critical pension milestone of 20 years, the court records show,” the Paterson Press wrote. While there, he was charged with sexually assaulting a female prisoner. Those charges were dropped in 2010 after the city paid an undisclosed amount of money to the accuser as part of a settlement, but Avila remained on paid leave from the department until finally retiring this year.

This is galling. If Mr. Avila misbehaved and was declared unfit, why wasn’t he immediately terminated?

And now that we’ve learned about this scandal, why aren’t the officials who enabled this ripoff being fired?

At the risk of repeating myself, the answer is government.

There are two broader policy lessons from this scandal.

First, the use of “defined benefit” pension systems for bureaucrats should be discontinued. By way of background, these “DB” plans promise workers guaranteed monthly payments based on formulas including factors such as years worked and highest pay levels. There is no reason why DB plans can’t be feasible and successful (indeed, the Netherlands has a private Social Security system based on this model), but politicians at the state and local level repeatedly have demonstrated that they are incapable of operating this type of system, both because they promise lavish benefits (on top of overly generous pay levels) as a means of buying political support (using our money) from government workers and because they then don’t set aside enough money to finance the generous benefits they have promised. That system may be good for getting reelected in the short run, but it’s also why there’s a multi-trillion dollar shortfall that is contributing to deep fiscal problems in states such as Illinois and California. To stop from going deeper in the red, states should switch to “defined contribution” plans, which work similar to the IRAs and 401(k)s that are now prevalent in the private sector.

Second, something needs to be done to curtail the power of government unions. It’s not just that they conspire with politicians to get excessive pay for bureaucrats, but they compound that damage by also insisting on rules that make it very difficult to discipline or terminate problem employees. In the private sector, employees generally work “at will,” which means they can be fired without reason (this is one of the reasons the United States is near the top in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking. In government, by contrast, slackers, trouble makers, and other undesirable employees are shielded from this discipline. And that results in cases (such as the example discussed above) that are bad for taxpayers and bad for government. I don’t know if this means that unions should be prohibited (as even President Franklin Roosevelt believed), but surely one lesson to be learned is that there needs to be a much tougher approach when contract negotiations take place.

P.S. Let’s shift to a different topic. I’ve written many times about the gap between intentions and results in government. It’s very common to see politicians vote for laws that (at least in some cases) they think will help people, but they fail to recognize the indirect or second-order effects of government intervention.

Now we have another example. Almost all politicians will agree that it’s a good idea to prohibit child labor in poor nations. But what if poor families don’t have any better options? Could it be that government intervention will hurt the people who are supposed to be helped?

According to the World Bank (not normally a hotbed of libertarian thought), the answer is yes.

The study explores the law that increased the minimum employment age from 14 to 16 in Brazil in 1998, and uncovers its impact on time allocated to schooling and work in the short term and on school attainment and labor market outcomes in the long term. The analysis uses cross-sectional data from 1998 to 2014… The estimates show that the ban reduced the incidence of boys in paid work activities by 4 percentage points or 27 percent. …The study follows the same cohort affected by the ban over the years, and finds that the short-term effects persisted until 2003 when the boys turned 18. The study pooled data from 2007 to 2014 to check whether the ban affected individuals’ stock of human capital and labor market outcomes. The estimates suggest that the ban did not have long-term effects for the whole cohort, but found some indication that it did negatively affect the log earnings of individuals at the lower tail of the earnings distribution.

So the bottom line is that lower-skilled workers missed a chance to earn money when they were young and they then suffered income losses over time as well.

Bastiat certainly wouldn’t be surprised by this outcome. And if the lower-skilled workers understood how they were hurt, I’m sure that they wouldn’t feel very grateful to politicians for their “compassion.”

P.P.S. This reminds me of the “sweatshop” controversy. The left wants to ban factory work in the developing world because they don’t understand or appreciate that such jobs are a great opportunity when nations are at a certain stage of development.

P.P.P.S. This isn’t the first time that the World Bank has produced good research. In 2014, the bureaucrats released a good study showing how high tax rates facilitate corruption. And in 2012, they issued a study explaining how large public sectors undermine prosperity.

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I live-tweeted last night’s debate between the Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine.

As the debate closed, I summed up my reaction with two tweets, one of which sadly observed that Donald Trump does not share Ronald Reagan’s belief in smaller government and more freedom.

And because I’m fair and balanced, I also reminded people that Hillary Clinton is no Bill Clinton. Indeed, I pointed out that her vote rating in the Senate was almost identical to Bernie Sanders’.

That doesn’t mean Bernie and Hillary are identical.

I’ve remarked many times that he wants America to become Greece at 90 miles per hour while she seems content for the country to become Greece at 55 miles per hour.

But, in practice, they were almost always on the same side when it came time to cast votes on the floor of the Senate.

In any case, my tweet obviously touched a nerve since there were a bunch of (mostly incoherent) responses. And I also got this reaction from a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

I assume he thinks I was being juvenile to say that Senator Sanders is crazy. Since I actually am juvenile in many ways (particularly my sense of humor), I might be tempted to plead guilty.

But let’s actually contemplate how the Vermont Senator should be labeled.

Sanders is a virulent and dogmatic supporter of coercive statism. Even columnists for the Washington Post have criticized him for being too far to the left.

But he’s not a real socialist (which technically means government ownership of the means of production). And even though his policies are based on coercion, I certainly don’t think he is a totalitarian.

Yet he’s not a rational leftist like you find in the Nordic nations (where they at least compensate for large welfare states by being very market-oriented about trade, regulation, etc).

All this explains why, when categorizing different types of leftists, I put him in the “crazies” group along with the Syriza Party of Greece.

And while “crazies” might be a pejorative bit of shorthand, I do think folks like Bernie Sanders are largely detached from reality.

But I don’t want people to be upset with me, so I’m going to reconsider how Sanders should be categorized.

To help with this chore, let’s consider a few additional bits of information, starting with an item from his Senate office that contains this remarkable passage.

These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?

By the way, it’s not clear if this is a column written by Sanders or whether he just endorses the sentiments expressed therein.

Though it doesn’t really matter since – at the very least – he obviously agrees with the message.

So let’s think about what it means that Sanders views Argentina and Venezuela as role models.

Argentina used to be one of the richest nations in the world, ranked in the top 10 at the end of World War II. But then decades of statism, starting with Peron and continuing through Kirchner, wreaked havoc with the nation’s economy and Argentina has plummeted in the rankings.

And I’ve written many times about the basket case of Venezuela, so there’s already ample information to discredit anyone who thinks that nation should be emulated.

But let’s add one more straw to the camel’s back. Here are some excerpts from a very depressing story about the human misery being caused by big government in that country.

Klaireth Díaz is a 1st-grade teacher at Elías Toro School… Last year, she says, attendance was painfully low. Every day, of a class of 30 children at least 10 would be absent. “The reason was always lack of food,” she told Fox News Latino. She said she had a student who skipped class every single Thursday and when she asked his mother about it, she explained that Thursday was the day of the week assigned to her family to buy food at government-regulated prices – which involves standing in line starting sometimes as early as 3 a.m.

Food lines?!? That’s what Bernie Sanders thinks is a success story?

Though I guess if everyone has to wait in lines for food, at least they’re all equally poor (though even that’s not true since the ruling-class leftists in Venezuela have plundered the nation’s treasury).

In other words, maybe this image isn’t a joke or satire after all.

But it gets worse. The food lines apparently don’t provide enough food.

Across the country, teachers have said they have seen children faint or fall asleep because they haven’t had enough to eat. …As the school year progressed last year, Diaz said, she noticed more and more kids had stopped bringing lunch. …According to a poll conducted last month by More Consulting among 2,000 respondents in Caracas, in 48 percent of the times children do not attend school, the cause is related to the food. Either they are feeling too weak for lack of nutrition, or their parents rather use the transport money to buy food, or they are in the food lines with their parents. The poll revealed that 36.5 percent of children eat only twice a day and 10.2 percent just once.

So maybe Bernie Sanders isn’t crazy. If he views Venezuela as a role model, maybe he’s morally blind. Or genuinely evil.

But I’m a nice guy, so I’m sticking with crazy since I would hate to think that even a crank like Sanders willfully embraces the monstrous outcomes found in Venezuela.

P.S. I haven’t written about Ecuador, but if forced to choose among Bernie’s various success stories, I guess that would be my pick since it is 142 out of 159 in the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World, which surely is better than being Argentina (156) or Venezuela (dead last at 159).

To be fair to Sanders, at least he didn’t list Cuba, which is such an economic hell-hole that (if reliable numbers were available) it would presumably rank below even Venezuela.

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Because of his support for big government, I don’t like Donald Trump. Indeed, I have such disdain for him (as well as Hillary Clinton) that I’ve arranged to be out of the country when the election takes place.

The establishment media, by contrast, is excited about the election and many journalists are doing everything possible to aid the election of Hillary Clinton. In some cases, their bias leads to them to make silly pronouncements on public policy in hopes of undermining Trump. Which irks me since I’m then in the unwanted position of accidentally being on the same side as “The Donald.”

For instance, some of Trump’s private tax data was leaked to the New York Times, which breathlessly reported that he had a huge loss in 1995, and that he presumably used that “net operating loss” (NOL) to offset income in future years.

As I pointed out in this interview, Trump did nothing wrong based on the information we now have. Nothing morally wrong. Nothing legally wrong. Nothing economically wrong.

All that people really need to know is that NOLs exist in the tax code because businesses sometimes lose money (the worst thing that happens to individuals, by contrast, is that we get laid off and have zero income). With NOLs, companies basically get a version of “income averaging” so that they’re taxed on their long-run net income (i.e., total profits minus total losses).

In other words, this is not a controversy. Or it shouldn’t be.

But if you don’t believe me, let’s peruse the pages of The Flat Tax, which was written by Alvin Rabushka and Robert Hall at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and is considered the Bible for tax reformers.

Here’s what it says about business losses in Chapter 5.

Remember that self-employed persons fill out the business tax form just as a large corporation does. Business losses can be carried forward without limit to offset future profits (assuming your bank or rich relatives will keep lending you money). There is no such thing as a tax loss under the individual wage tax. You can’t reduce your compensation tax by generating business losses. Well-paid individuals who farm as a hobby or engage in other dubious sidelines to shelter their wages from the IRS had better enjoy their costly hobbies; the IRS will not give them any break under the flat tax.

And here’s the business postcard for the flat tax. As you can see, it’s a very simple system based on the common-sense notion that profits equal total receipts minus total expenses.

And it allows “carry-forward” of losses, which is just another term for a company being able to use NOLs in one year to offset profits in a subsequent year.

But it’s not just advocates of the flat tax how hold this view.

A news report for the Wall Street Journal notes that NOLs are very normal in the business world for the simple reason that companies sometimes lose money.

The tax treatment of losses, bound to become a subject of national debate, is a typically uncontroversial feature of the income-tax system. The government doesn’t pay net refunds when business owners lose money, but it lets taxpayers use those losses to smooth their tax payments as they make money. That reflects the fact that “the natural business cycle of a taxpayer may exceed 12 months,” according to a congressional report.

Megan McArdle of Bloomberg also comments on this make-believe controversy.

At issue is the “net operating loss,” an accounting term that means basically what it sounds like: When you net out your expenses against the money you took in, it turns out that you lost a bunch of money. However, in tax law, this has a special meaning, because these NOLs can be offset against money earned in other years. …this struck many people as a nefarious bit of chicanery. And to be fair, they were probably helped along in this belief by the New York Times description of it, which made it sound like some arcane loophole wedged into our tax code at the behest of the United Association of Rich People and Their Lobbyists. …Every tax or financial professional I have heard from about the New York Times piece found this characterization rather bizarre. The Times could have just as truthfully written that the provision was “particularly prized by America’s small businesses, farmers and authors,” many of whom depend on the NOL to ensure that they do not end up paying extraordinary marginal tax rates — possibly exceeding 100 percent — on income that may not fit itself neatly into the regular rotation of the earth around the sun.

I like how she zings the NYT for its biased treatment of the issue.

She also explains why the law allows NOLs and why businesses (including, presumably, Trump’s companies) would prefer to never be in a position to utilize them.

“If someone has a $20 million gain in one year and a $10 million loss in the second year, that person should be treated the same as someone who had $5 million in each of the two years,” says Alan Viard, a tax specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, who like all the other experts, seemed somewhat surprised that this was not obvious. “There are definitely tax provisions narrowly targeted to various industries that you could take issue with,” says Ron Kovacev, a tax partner at Steptoe and Johnson. “The NOL is not one of them.” …Losing $900 million dollars may save you $315 million or so on future or past taxes. But astute readers will have noticed that it is not actually smart financial strategy to lose $900 million in order to get out of paying $315 million to the IRS. Most of us would rather have the other $585 million than a tax bill of $0. …If Trump managed to pay no taxes for years, the most likely way he did this was by losing sums much vaster than the unpaid taxes. This is fair, it is right, it is good tax policy.

In other words, Trump used NOLs, but he would have greatly preferred to avoid the big $916 million loss in the first place.

Ryan Ellis, writing for Forbes, doesn’t suffer fools gladly on this issue.

…political reporters don’t know a damned thing about taxes. …That ignorance was on display in vivid colors over the weekend. We were told that this tricky NOL was some sort of “loophole” that only super-rich bad guys like Donald Trump got to use. We were told that this relieved him of having to pay taxes for 18 years, a laughably arbitrary, made up number that is the tautological output of simple arithmetic and wild assumptions. …It’s not difficult to see how political reporters got played like a fiddle here. Most of them have never actually run a business, much less learned about the tax rules surrounding them.

I especially like that Ryan also nails the NYT for bias, in this case because the reporters used made-up number to imply that he didn’t pay tax for almost two decades.

And Ryan also notes that NOLs are very common (and were even used in 2015 by Trump’s opponent).

…a net operating loss is very common in businesses. As Alan Cole of the Tax Foundation pointed out this morning, about 1 million taxpayers had an NOL in 1995. It results from business deductions exceeding business income in a particular year. …Trump’s not the only presidential candidate this year who once had a big loss on his taxes. In 2015, the Clintons realized a capital loss of nearly $700,000. That will be available in perpetuity to offset capital gains they might incur. Unlike an NOL, a capital loss can slowly be used to offset other income, albeit at a slow $3000 per year net of any other gains offset.

Now that we’ve established that there’s nothing remotely scandalous about NOLs, let’s see whether there are any lessons we can from this kerfuffle.

Let’s return to the Wall Street Journal story cited earlier in this column.

Real-estate developers can generate losses more easily than other taxpayers. …Unlike investors in other businesses, they can use those losses to offset other income. …Bryan Skarlatos, a tax lawyer at Kostelanetz & Fink LLP, said…“Trump appears to have a perfect storm of allowable real-estate losses that can be offset against streams of income from salaries from his companies and royalty fees from the use of his name,” Mr. Skarlatos said. “Most taxpayers who have large real-estate losses don’t have such large steady streams of other ordinary income; they just have losses that may turn into profits in the future when they sell the real estate.”

This doesn’t tell us whether Trump actually did use his NOLs to offset other income, though I’m guessing the answer is yes. And as I speculated in the above interview, I wonder whether the losses were real losses or paper losses.

And others have suggested that Trump actually lost other people’s money and he was able to use their losses to offset some of his income.

I have no idea if that’s even possible, just as I have no idea whether his losses were real.

But I do know that a flat tax would put an end to any possible gamesmanship since it is a cash-flow system (which means it is based on actual transactions that take place, not whether companies use currency).

In a world with a flat tax, Trump would be allowed to “carry forward” losses, but only if they are real. And as explained above, he wouldn’t be able to use those losses to offset income that gets reported on the individual postcard.

So as I argued in the interview, let’s rip up the corrupt and destructive internal revenue code and copy the simple and fair flat tax that is used by Hong Kong.

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If nothing else, Belgian politicians deserve credit for perseverance. One year ago, the nation was considering a “tax shift” that would reduce taxes on labor and increase taxes on consumption.

I pointed out that this didn’t make much sense since it wouldn’t alter the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. In other words, the government might not take as much when you earned your income, but it would compensate by taking more when you consumed your income, so there would be no improvement in your living standards and therefore no incentive to be more productive and earn more money.

Now the government in Belgium is considering a different “tax shift.” Here are some excerpts from a report in the Financial Times.

The Belgian government is rolling out a “tax shift” policy that Charles Michel, the country’s 40 year-old prime minister, says is aimed…to support people on low to medium incomes by reducing the taxes and social security charges on labour — some of the highest in Europe — and to make up the shortfall by boosting taxes on capital.

I’m underwhelmed by this approach.

Though let’s start with what’s good. The government should be lowering taxes on work. As the article notes, employees in Belgium are treated worse than medieval serfs, who only had to surrender one-third of their output to the Lord of the Manor.

…according to 2015 OECD data, is that an unmarried Belgian worker without children faced the highest “tax wedge” as a proportion of income of any citizen in the 35-country club. It stood at 55.3 per cent, compared with an average of 35.9 per cent. The burden results from a combination of high social security charges and a 50 per cent tax rate kicking in at a relatively low level — around €38,000.

Here’s one of the charts from the article. As you can see, greedy politicians get the lion’s share of the money when a Belgian worker chooses to earn income.

At the risk of understatement, the overall tax burden in Belgium is stifling.

Here’s another chart, this one showing how long European workers must toil before satisfying the tax demands of their governments.

I don’t know if the methodology is similar to the Tax Freedom Day calculations for the United States, and it’s unclear whether this is just a measure of the tax burden on labor income, or whether it also captures other taxes that workers pay (corporate income tax, value-added tax, excise taxes, etc). But it’s clear than Belgian workers have a terrible system.

Now for the bad news. Belgian politicians want to cut taxes on workers, but they say they want to compensate by imposing higher taxes on saving and investment.

That’s not a good idea since the productivity – and therefore compensation – of workers is very much linked to the amount of machinery, tools, and technology that’s available. So when politicians increase the tax burden on saving and investment, that reduces an economy’s stock of capital, and workers wind up with less pre-tax income than they would have earned otherwise.

Let’s see what Belgium’s government is trying to achieve. Here’s another blurb from the article.

Some changes, including a new financial speculation tax, were driven through last year and there are more to come. One of Mr Michel’s coalition partners, the Flemish Christian Democrats, is even pushing for a French-style wealth tax. …The speculation tax is estimated to bring in only about €20m this year, considerably less than the €34m initially predicted by the government. Also, there is little support for a more comprehensive inheritance tax. To Michel Maus, a tax law professor at Brussels Free University, the government’s efforts so far to increase taxation of capital amount to “window dressing” and “a bit political propaganda”.

I suppose the relative dearth of specific tax hikes on saving and investment is the good news inside the bad news.

Indeed, while the government did impose a tax on “speculation” (and discovered a Laffer Curve-effect when revenues came in below projections), there actually are some proposals to reduce the tax burden on saving and investment. For instance, the government has announced a move to lower the nation’s 33.99 percent corporate tax rate.

Under Minister Van Overtveldt’s current plan, the corporate tax rate would be reduced to 28% in 2017, 24% in 2018 and 20% in 2020, and would ultimately apply to companies of all sizes. At 20%, Belgium’s corporate tax rate would fall just below the EU average and would place the country in a more competitive – but not a leading – position within its peer group. …In addition, the Finance Minister is considering abolishing the Fairness Tax as well as the minimum tax on capital gains on shares, as advocated by the Chamber. The plan also includes a full tax deduction on qualifying dividends received from subsidiaries, as is the case in the Netherlands and Luxembourg, in lieu of the current deduction of 95%.

There are some offsetting tax hikes in this new plan, so this proposal presumably isn’t as good as it sounds, but it’s hard to argue with an initiative that drops the corporate rate by almost 14 percentage points.

So while I don’t like the theoretical concept of a tax shift from labor to capital, the net effect of all the tax changes in Belgium may be positive for the simple reason that the anti-growth part of the shift isn’t happening.

But regardless of what eventually happens, it is unlikely that Belgium will make much long-run progress because the country is burdened by one of the largest public sectors in the world.

Here some data from the OECD on the burden of government spending in Western Europe (and the United States). As you can see, Belgium isn’t as bad as France, but it’s worse than Greece, Sweden, and Italy.

The bottom line is that you can’t have a non-punitive tax system when government is consuming half of what the private sector produces.

So I think I’m semi-happy with what Belgian politicians are doing in the short run (reserving the right to change my mind as more details are unveiled), but I don’t have much long-term hope in the absence of effective reforms to shrink the burden of government spending.

But hope springs eternal. Maybe the government will adopt a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. Here’s a story that tells you everything you need to know about Belgium’s bloated public sector.

P.P.S. And if you look at America’s long-run fiscal projections, the problems in Belgium today will be problems in the United States in the not-too-distant future.

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I’m somewhat chagrined that my collection of libertarian-oriented humor contains more jokes created by statists to make fun of libertarians rather than the other way around.

Since everyone should have the ability to laugh at themselves, I certainly don’t mind sharing clever humor mocking libertarians (such as the how-the-world-sees-libertarians collage).

That being said, I would like to augment my collection with more mockery of statists (such as Libertarian Jesus).

Well, the good news (so to speak) is that the Tweedledee and Tweedledum choice that we’ve been given by the two main parties is a target-rich environment for political humor.

Building on what I shared last week, let’s look at some amusing analysis of the Clinton-Trump (Clump) contest.

Some masochistic readers may have watched the first Clump debate and you may even be thinking about subjecting yourself to one of the upcoming debates. If you do, this drinking game may help preserve your sanity.

But if you’re not a heavy drinker (or don’t want to become one within the first 10 minutes of the next debate), perhaps you can modify the game so it resembles the state-of-the-union bingo game I shared back in 2012.

Our next bit of humor is from the folks at Balanced Rebellion, who put together this clever video giving Democrats and Republicans an option to preserve their dignity.

Heck, since they equate their idea to Tinder, maybe they can even turn it into a dating service after the election.

P.S. Some folks have written to ask why I haven’t produced election predictions, like I did back in 2012. I suppose I’ll force myself to do that in the next few weeks, but I can safely say at this point that America will lose regardless of who wins.

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