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Archive for November, 2016

When I write about gun control, I generally make two arguments.

  • First, criminals are lawbreakers, so the notion that they will be disarmed because of gun control is a fantasy. Crooks and thugs who really want a gun will always have access to black-market weapons.
  • Second, to the extent that good people obey bad gun-control laws (and hopefully they won’t), that will encourage more criminal activity since bad people will be less worried about armed resistance.

These points are common sense, but they doesn’t seem to convince many leftists, who have a religious-type faith that good intentions will produce good results (they need to read Bastiat!).

Every so often, however, the other side accidentally messes up.

As part of its never-ending, ideologically driven campaign to undermine gun rights, the New York Times ran a big 5,000-plus word story last month about mass shootings. Creating hostility to guns was the obvious goal of this “news” report.

But buried in all that verbiage was a remarkable admission. A big majority of shooters already are in violation of gun laws.

The New York Times examined all 130 shootings last year in which four or more people were shot, at least one fatally, and investigators identified at least one attacker. …64 percent of the shootings involved at least one attacker who violated an existing gun law.

And for the 36 percent of the nutjobs in the story who purchased or obtained guns legally, almost all of them presumably would have gotten their hands on weapons even if they had to violate minor laws on guns prior to violating major laws against murder.

So what the New York Times and other anti-second amendment activists are really saying is that honest people should be defenseless even though bad guys always will have the ability to arm themselves. And by making such a preposterous claim, they actually provided ammo (pun intended) for those of us who defend the Second Amendment.

P.S. Maybe we should give the New York Times a “Wrong-Way Corrigan Award” for inadvertently helping to make the libertarian case for more freedom! Oh, and give Trevor Noah the Award at the same time.

P.P.S. Years ago, I used to post lots of gun-control humor. I’ve gotten out of the habit, but I can’t resist sharing some items that popped into my inbox yesterday.

This one of my favorites.

And this brought back fond childhood memories. Somehow I avoided becoming a killer even though I grew up watching Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, and other trigger-happy angry white men. Not to mention shows like Combat and Rat Patrol!

Last but not least, this reminds me that crazed mass shooters are always sufficiently un-crazy that they manage to pick out gun-free zones before engaging in their rampages.

So maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t guns. Indeed, perhaps we can draw the conclusion that society will be safer if more good people are armed.

Heck, even big-city police chiefs are beginning to reach that conclusions.

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The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

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At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Perhaps reflecting the mindset of the European governments that dominate its membership, the Paris-based international bureaucracy has morphed into a cheerleader for statist policies.

All of which was just fine from the perspective of the Obama Administration, which doubtlessly appreciated the OECD’s partisan work to promote class warfare and pimp for wasteful Keynesian spending.

What is particularly irksome to me is the way the OECD often uses dishonest methodology to advance the cause of big government.

But my disdain for the leftist political appointees who run the OECD doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging that the professional economists who work for the institution occasionally generate good statistics and analysis.

For instance, I’ve cited two  examples (here and here) of OECD research showing that spending caps are only effective fiscal rule. And I praised another OECD study that admitted the beneficial impact of tax competition. I even listed several good example of OECD research on tax policy as part of a column that ripped the bureaucracy for some very shoddy work in favor of Obama’s redistribution agenda.

And now we have some more good research to add to that limited list. A new working paper by two economists at the OECD contains some remarkable findings about the negative impact of government spending on economic performance. If you’re pressed for time, here’s the key takeaway from their research.

Governments in the OECD spend on average about 40% of GDP on the provision of public goods, services and transfers. The sheer size of the public sector has prompted a large amount of research on the link between the size of government and economic growth. …This paper investigates empirically the effect of the size and the composition of public spending on long-term growth… The main findings that emerge from the analysis are…Larger governments are associated with lower long-term growth. Larger governments also slowdown the catch-up to the productivity frontier.

For those who want more information, the working paper is filled with useful information and analysis.

Here’s one of the charts from the study, showing how government spending is allocated in OECD nations.

The report also acknowledges that there’s a lot of preexisting research showing that government spending hinders economic growth.

There is a vast empirical literature investigating the relationship between the size of the government and economic growth (see Slemrod, 1995; Myles 2009; Bergh and Henrekson, 2011 for overviews). A review by Bergh and Henrekson (2011), based on papers published in peer reviewed journals after 2000, suggested a negative relationship in OECD countries. Likewise, a recent OECD study confirmed a negative relationship between the size of government and GDP growth (Fall and Fournier, 2015). …the link between the size of government and growth may vary with the income level and could be hump-shaped (Armey, 1995). A few studies have found support for the existence of a non-linear relationship between the size of government and growth (e.g. Vedder and Gallaway, 1998; Pevcin, 2004; Chen and Lee, 2005).

By the way, the reference to “hump-shaped” means that the OECD is even aware of the Rahn Curve.

The methodology in the paper is not ideal from my perspective. For all intents and purposes, the economists compare economic performance of the OECD’s big-government nations with the growth numbers from the OECD’s not-quite-as-big-government nations. But even with that limitation, the study generates some powerful results.

…the simulation assumes that in countries where the size of government is above the average level of countries in the bottom half of the sample, the government size will gradually converge to this level (36% of GDP). Similar to the spending mix reforms, this reform is phased in over 10 years. Such a reduction in the size of the government could increase long-term GDP by about 10%, with much larger effects in some countries with currently large or ineffective governments. …a reduction of the size of government has a positive, but moderate, effect on the income of the poor. The average disposable income also rises. However, the rich gain relatively more. Finally, in countries where the government is less effective (such as Italy) the growth effect dominates and a moderate reduction of the size of government would have a large growth effect, so that it would lift all boats.

And here’s a chart showing how much more growth would be possible if the countries with really-big government downsized their public sectors to the somewhat-big level.

Even with the methodology limitations I described, these results are astounding. Potential GDP gains of more than 30 percent for Greece and Italy. Gains of more than 20 percent for Slovenia, France, and Hungary. And more than 10 percent for Belgium, Czech Republic, Portugal, and Poland.

The working paper also looks at the composition of government spending. In other words, just as not all taxes are equally damaging, the same is true for spending programs.

The results from the estimation of the size of the government and the public spending mix illustrate that public spending matters for long-term growth…pension and subsidy spending [are] the two items with a significantly negative effect on growth. As each regression includes the size of government and one spending share, the estimates provide the effect of increasing this type of spending while decreasing spending on other items to keep the spending to GDP ratio unchanged… larger governments are in several specifications significantly and negatively associated with long-term growth. This is consistent with the literature… Larger governments can impede convergence (Table 8, columns 1 and 3), because they are associated with higher taxation that can discourage business investment including foreign investment and households to supply labour.

Pensions and subsidies seem to cause the most economic harm.

Reducing the share of pension spending in primary spending yields sizeable growth gains with no significant adverse effect on disposable income inequality. This reduction could be achieved by an increase in the effective retirement age or by cutting the replacement rate. …Cutting public subsidies boosts growth, as public subsidies…can distort the allocation of resources and undermine competition. …Education outcomes depend not only on education spending but also on the effectiveness of education policies, and the literature suggest the latter can be more important. Since the seminal work of Coleman (1966), a broad literature suggests that there is no clear link between education spending and education outcomes. …policies aimed at increasing education spending effectiveness can be more appropriate than an across-the-board rise of education spending. …It may be that, beyond a certain point, additional spending on investment has adverse effects, if poorly managed.

For those of you with statistical/econometric knowledge, here’s some relevant data from the study.

And you can match the numbers in Table 6 with these excerpts.

…pension spending reduces growth (Table 6, columns 2, 5, 7 and 10). Increasing the share of pension spending in primary spending by one percentage point (offset by a reduction in other spending) would decrease potential GDP by about 2%. …Public spending on subsidies also reduces growth (Table 6, columns 3, 5, 8 and 10). …increasing the share of public subsidies in primary spending by one percentage point would decrease potential GDP by about 7%.

If you’re not a stats wonk, these two charts may be more helpful and easy to understand.

What jumped out at me is how the normally sensible nation of Switzerland is very bad about subsidies. That’s a policy they obviously need to fix (along with the fact that they also have a wealth tax, which is very uncharacteristic for that country).

But I’m digressing.

Let’s return to the study. One of the interesting things about the working paper is that it notes that bad fiscal policy can be somewhat mitigated by having market-oriented policies in other areas, which is a point I always make when writing about Scandinavian nations.

…countries with a high level of public spending may also be characterised by features that partly offset the adverse growth effect of government size. …in Sweden the mix of growth-friendly structural policies…may have offset the adverse growth effect of a large government sector.

In other words, the moral of the story is that smaller government is good and free markets are good. Mix the two together and you have best of all worlds.

P.S. Even if the OECD published dozens of quality studies like this one, I would still argue that American taxpayers should no longer be forced to subsidize the Paris-based bureaucracy. And even if the OECD’s political types stopped pushing statist policies, I would still have the same view about ending handouts from American taxpayers. This has nothing to do with the fact that the bureaucrats once threatened to have me arrested and thrown in a Mexican jail. I simply don’t think taxpayers should fund international bureaucracies.

P.P.S. Other international bureaucracies, including the World Bank and European Central Bank, also have published good research about the negative effect of excessive government spending.

P.P.P.S. My general disdain for the OECD (notwithstanding my qualified praise today for their new study on spending) may be exceeded by my hostility for the International Monetary Fund. I’ve referred to the IMF as both “the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy.”

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There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a hard-nosed businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting – albeit depressing – article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

But let’s get back to Will’s article. He asserts that Wagner’s Law is bad news for advocates of smaller government.

…free-marketeers tend to insist that the key to achieving higher rates of economic growth is slashing the size of government. After all, it’s true that the private sector is better than government at putting resources to their most productive use and that some public spending crowds out private investment. If you’re really committed to the idea of stronger economic growth through government contraction, you’re pretty much committed to the idea that the pattern behind Wagner’s Law is a sort of fluke—a contingent correlation without any real cause-and-effect basis—and that there’s got to be some workaround or fix.

I don’t particularly agree with his characterization. You can believe (as I surely do) that smaller government would lead to faster growth without having to disbelieve, deny, or debunk Wagner’s Law.

  • First, it’s quite possible to have decent growth along with expanding government so long as other policy levers are moving in the right direction. Which is exactly what one Spanish scholar found when examining data for developed nations during the post-World War II period.
  • Second, it’s overly simplistic to characterize this debate as government or growth. The real issue is the rate of growth. After all, even France has a bit of growth in an average year. The real issue is whether there could be more growth with a lower level of taxes and spending. In other words, would the rest of the developed world grow faster with Hong Kong-sized government?

All that being said, Will certainly is right in his article when he points out that libertarians and other advocates of smaller government haven’t done a good job of constraining government spending.

He then examines some of the ideas have been proposed by folks on the right who want to constrain spending. Beginning with the starve-the-beast hypothesis.

The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

Here’s my first substantive disagreement with Will. I’m definitely not in the all-we-have-to-do-is-cut-taxes camp, but I certainly like lower tax rates and I definitely believe that higher taxes would worsen our long-run fiscal outlook.

And I’ve looked closely at the starve-the-beast academic research. Niskanen’s study has some methodological problems and the Romer & Romer study that most people cite when arguing against the starve-the-beast hypothesis actually shows that cutting taxes is somewhat effective so long as tax cuts are durable.

Will then looks at whether it would be effective to end withholding.

…withholding made tax collection cheaper and more reliable. …paying taxes automatically and with a minimum of pain makes it less likely that you’ll be livid about them when you vote. The complaint…is the libertarian/conservative argument against a VAT or national sales tax in a nutshell. It’s the same line of reasoning that leads some libertarians and conservatives to flirt with the idea that we ought to pass a law that requires us to write a single, hugely infuriating check to the IRS each year.  The idea is that if voters are really ticked off about taxes, they’ll want lower tax rates. So taxes need to be as salient and painful—i.e., as inefficient and distortionary—as possible.

Will is skeptical of this approach, though I would point out that the one major developed economy that doesn’t have withholding is Hong Kong. And that’s a place that has successfully constrained government spending.

To be sure, the spending restraint could exist for other reasons (such as the spending cap in Article 107 of the jurisdiction’s Basic Law), but the hypothesis that people will want less government if taxes are painful is quite reasonable.

And, by the way, requiring lump-sum payments rather than withholding wouldn’t change the degree to which taxes are distortionary.

Will then turns his attention to the ‘supply-side” argument about lower tax rates.

Supply-siders generally present two scenarios, and neither helps reduce the size of government. One: If the tax cuts pushed by ticked-off taxpayers create supply-side stimulus and increase rather than decrease revenue, there’s no downward pressure on spending. …But it doesn’t make government smaller. Two: If tax cuts aren’t self-funding and simply leave a hole in the budget, the beast (as Niskanen showed) does not therefore get starved. Instead, spending feels cheap, the beast grows even more, and the tax bill gets shifted to the future.

Since I’ve already addressed the starve-the-beast issue, I’ll simply note that self-financing tax cuts (which do exist, though only in rare cases) are only possible if there’s a big uptick in growth and/or compliance. And to the extent that the revenue feedback is due to growth, that will mean that the burden of government spending will fall relative to the size of the private sector even if actual outlays stay the same.

Maybe I’m insufficiently libertarian, but I’ll take that outcome every day of the week. Heck, I’m willing to let government get bigger so long as the private sector gets to grow at a faster pace.

Now we get to Will’s main point. He suggests that maybe libertarians shouldn’t be so fixated on the size of government.

…well-funded and well-organized attempts “to convince voters to reduce their demand for the services financed by federal spending” so far have all failed. It’s time to consider the possibility that there’s no convincing them. …If we look at the world, what we see is that when people get richer, they want more welfare state. Maybe there’s nothing much we can do about that. …When people get richer, they want more welfare state. You can want Americans to get continuously wealthier and also want the government to consume a smaller share of national economic output, but there’s very little reason to think you can have both of those things. That is what the world is telling us.

To the extent that Will is simply making a prediction about the likelihood of continued government expansion, I assume (and fear) he’s right.

But to the degree he’s arguing that we should meekly acquiesce to that outcome, then I’ll strongly disagree. I may lose the fight against big government, but I intend to go down swinging.

Interestingly, Will and I may not actually disagree. This passage points out that it’s a good idea to fight against ineffective programs and to support entitlement reform.

…accepting that it’s probably not possible to shrink government would have a transformative effect on right-leaning politics. We would focus on figuring out the best ways to match receipts to outlays… You start to accept that spending cuts are ultimately more about optimizing the composition and effectiveness of spending than about the overall level of spending or its rate of growth. This doesn’t mean not fighting like hell to slash nonsense programs, or not prioritizing reforms to make entitlement programs fiscally sustainable, or not trying to balance budgets from the spending side, or not trying to minimize the rate of spending growth. This just means that you do it all knowing that the rate of spending growth isn’t going to go negative unless you hit a recession, a debt crisis, or end a major war.

And, most important, this passage also highlights the desirability of a policy to “minimize the rate of spending growth.”

Gee, I think I know someone who relentlessly argues in favor of that approach. Indeed, this guy is so fixated on that policy that he even created a “Rule” to give the concept more attention.

I can’t remember his name right now, but I’m sure he’s a swell guy.

More seriously (and to echo the point I made above), it would be a libertarian victory to have government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy. To be sure, obeying my rule (which actually does happen every so often) doesn’t mean we’ll soon reach the libertarian Nirvana of the “night watchman” state set forth in the Constitution.

But the real fiscal fight in America is whether government is becoming a bigger burden, relative to the private economy, or whether its growth is being constrained so that it’s becoming a smaller burden.

Will closes with a very sensible point about not overlooking the other policy areas where government is hindering prosperity (though that doesn’t require us to give up on the very practical quest to limit the growth of government).

Giving up on the quixotic quest to…falsify Wagner’s Law would also lead us to…focus our energy on removing regulatory barriers to economic participation, innovation, and growth.

And his concluding passage is correct, but too pessimistic.

This is just a conjecture. But when…the United States—where the freedom-as-small-government philosophy is most powerfully promoted and most widely accepted—has lost ground in economic freedom year after year for nearly two decades, it’s a conjecture worth taking very seriously.

Yes, he’s right that overall economic freedom has declined during the Bush-Obama years.

But what about the fact that overall economic freedom increased during the ReaganClinton years? And what about the fact that we achieved a five-year nominal spending freeze even with Obama in the White House?

In other words, there’s no need to throw in the towel. I may not be overflowing with optimism about whether we ultimately succeed in sufficiently constraining the growth of government, but I feel very confident that it’s a worthwhile fight.

P.S. While I disagree with a few of Will’s points, I think his article is very worthwhile. Moreover, a consensus on restraining the growth of government would be an excellent outcome to the debate he has triggered.

But I can’t resist being a bit more critical about something Noah Smith wrote about Will’s article. In his Bloomberg column discussing the hypothesis that libertarians should focus less on (or perhaps even give up on) the battle against government spending, he has a passage that is designed to lure readers into thinking that small government is associated with economic deprivation.

…a stark fact — the richer a country is, the more its government tends to spend. …Today, the top spenders include countries such as France, Denmark and Finland, while the small-government ranks include Sudan, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Sigh.

It’s true that the burden of government spending is much higher in France, Denmark, and Finland than in Sudan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, but let’s take a look at the overall data from Economic Freedom of the World.

France (#57), Denmark (#21), and Finland (#20) are all much more market-oriented than Sudan (unrated, but would have an awful score), Nigeria (#113), and Bangladesh (#121). Smith’s argument is akin to me saying that government-built roads cause economic misery because that’s how they do it in the hellhole of North Korea.

More important, he either ignores or is unaware of the research showing that nations such as France, Denmark, and Finland became rich when government spending was very small. Sigh, again.

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Do politicians celebrate the life of Osama bin Laden? Or fondly remember the supposed contributions of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Workers Party? Or wax poetic about the memory of Pol Pot?

Maybe in some backwater of the third world, but no politician from a civilized nation would be remotely tempted to say anything nice about these evil people.

So why, then, are some of these clowns falling all over themselves to lionize one of the world’s worst people, the former communist dictator of Cuba? Why would any sentient adult say anything nice about Fidel Castro, a vicious and brutal tyrant who imposed such hardship on his people?

Yet there are people with this perverse degree of moral blindness.

Including the head of the European Commission.

And the Prime Minister of Canada, who actually referred to the former dictator as Cuba’s “longest serving President.” I guess the boy wonder of Ottawa doesn’t understand that you can rule for a long time when you don’t allow free elections. Now you can understand why I am so quick to believe that he’ll say really stupid things.

Almost nobody in the world would recognize the President of Ireland. But since he didn’t like the fact that Ireland’s economy boomed, it’s understandable that he is despondent about the death of a man who did so much to keep Cuba mired in poverty.

And, of course, Jimmy Carter couldn’t resist showing why he was a one-term blunder.

The nutjob leader of the British Labour Party predictably fawned over Castro with a series of laughably inaccurate assertions.

I’m relieved, by the way, that Barack Obama resisted the temptation to say anything overly vacuous about Castro (even if he did say something stupid about Cuba’s totalitarian regime earlier this year). His statement is mostly mush. And even though I have my doubts about Trump, his statement hit the nail on the head.

But let’s set aside Castro’s brutal treatment of dissidents and denial of basic human rights. Let’s ignore the fact that tens of thousands of people have risked their lives to escape his island prison. And let’s instead look at the economic misery of Cuban communism.

In a column back in 2014, I noted that living standards in Cuba and Hong Kong were identical in the 1950s.

But the two nations then conducted an experiment. Hong Kong chose laissez-faire capitalism while Cuba chose communism.

The result, as you can see in the graph, is that Hong Kong has enjoyed decades of strong growth while Cuba has stagnated.

I’m not alone in noticing the onerous economic cost of Cuban oppression.

This academic article has a devastating summary.

We examine Cuban GDP over time and across space. We find that Cuba was once a prosperous middle-income economy. On the eve of the revolution, incomes were 50 to 60 percent of European levels. They were among the highest in Latin America at about 30 percent of the United States. In relative terms, Cuba was richer earlier on. Income per capita during the 1920s was in striking distance of Western Europe and the Southern United States. After the revolution, Cuba slipped down the world income distribution. Current levels of income per capita appear below their pre-revolutionary peaks.

Now let me make a new contribution to the discussion.

I went again to the Angus Maddison database and decided to compare historical numbers for per-capita GDP, looking at Cuba, Chile, and the world average.

As you can see, Cuba has been a disaster for ordinary people. Living standards used to be near the world average. Now the average Cuban is at half the world average.

Meanwhile, Chileans also had a period of stagnation during their era of statism. But once free-market reforms were adopted, the notion started a lengthy boom and per-capita GDP is now almost twice world average.

That’s the real-world consequence of statism. Deprivation and hardship.

To get an idea what it’s like in a communist prison nation, slaves in the 1800s actually got more food than what Castro allowed when the government took control of food production and distribution.

The good news, so to speak, is that the rationing has moved from starvation levels to hunger-and-misery levels.

The Guardian has a summary of the current system.

Every Cuban family registers with a local supply store, where they can use a libreta or ration book. This typically provides about 10kg (22lb) of rice, 6kg of white sugar, 2kg of brown sugar, 250 millilitres (1 cup) of cooking oil, five eggs and a packet of coffee per person per month, along with 2kg of meat (usually chicken) every 10 days, a bun every day and a bag of salt every three months. Milk is provided for pregnant women and children under seven years of age. The basic libreta products are guaranteed, but they are not enough – so people often have to travel to several places on several different days to make up the shortfall.

Not as bad as 1962, but still a miserable life.

Here are portions of a very appropriate obituary in the Washington Post by a Yale professor.

One of the most brutal dictators in modern history has just died. Oddly enough, some will mourn his passing, and many an obituary will praise him. Millions of Cubans who have been waiting impatiently for this moment for more than half a century will simply ponder his crimes and recall the pain and suffering he caused. …deceit was one of Fidel Castro’s greatest talents, and gullibility is one of the world’s greatest frailties. …Many intellectuals, journalists and educated people in the First World fell for this myth, too — though they would have been among the first to be jailed or killed by Castro in his own realm — and their assumptions acquired an intensity similar to that of religious convictions. Pointing out to such believers that Castro imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands more of his own people than any other Latin American dictator was usually futile. His well-documented cruelty made little difference.

He highlights 13 reasons to despise Castro. Here are the one that stood out to me.

●He was responsible for so many thousands of executions and disappearances in Cuba that a precise number is hard to reckon.

●He brooked no dissent and built concentration camps and prisons at an unprecedented rate, filling them to capacity, incarcerating a higher percentage of his own people than most other modern dictators, including Stalin.

●He condoned and encouraged torture and extrajudicial killings.

●He forced nearly 20 percent of his people into exile, and prompted thousands to meet their deaths at sea, unseen and uncounted, while fleeing from him in crude vessels.

●He outlawed private enterprise and labor unions, wiped out Cuba’s large middle class and turned Cubans into slaves of the state.

●He persecuted gay people and tried to eradicate religion.

●He censored all means of expression and communication.

And the Caracas Chronicles also summed it up nicely.

Has any other Latin American done as much damage in a single lifetime as Fidel Castro? It’s…not even close. From his roots as a student gangster and two-bit murderer in Havana in the 40s, through a succession of catastrophes on four continents, Fidel Castro punched far, far above his weight. The guy who pleaded with Khrushev to start a nuclear holocaust, who sent tens of thousands of Cuban farm kids to dole out lead in a crazy, murderous war in Angola, thousands to attack Israel in the Yom Kipur War, thousands more to stand with the genocidal communist Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, who tried and failed to destabilize Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, el Salvador, Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Guatemala, who tried and succeeded in destabilizing Nicaragua, Chile, Granada and — alas — Venezuela is finally, finally dead at 90.

Keep all this in mind the next time you hear some leftist says something nice about Castro. Or the racist murder Che Guevera.

P.S. For what it’s worth, Castro did have a late-in-life epiphany about the failure of communism.

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Earlier this year, I criticized the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for endorsing an orgy of Keynesian spending.

Did my criticism have an effect? Well, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that bluntly suggests a reorientation of fiscal policy to achieve more growth.

…the global economy remains in a low-growth trap with weak investment, trade, productivity and wage growth and rising inequality in some countries. …a stronger fiscal policy response is needed to boost near-term growth and strengthen long-term prospects for inclusive growth.

Sounds good to me. I welcome sinners who want to repent. Is the OECD now recommending corporate tax rate reductions? A flat tax? Entitlement reform? Elimination of wasteful departments, agencies, and programs? A spending cap?

Don’t be silly. This is the OECD. Some of the professional economists are sensible and competent, but major policy initiatives almost always are determined by the high-level hacks who crank out proposals designed to give cover to politicians that want ever-more taxes and spending.

So when the bureaucrats in Paris suggest “a stronger fiscal policy response,” they’re actually advocating for more government. Which is exactly what they did back in February. And what they’ve been repetitively doing all during the Obama Administration. I’m not joking. Here are some further excerpts.

…this chapter emphasises the need for a fiscal initiative…to foster productivity in the medium to long term. Measures should be chosen depending on each country’s most pressing needs and could include not only raising soft and hard infrastructure or education spending… In many countries, such a package could be deficit-financed for a few years, before turning budget-neutral.

The OECD says that “stimulus” would be a good idea because nations now have more “fiscal space,” which is bureaucrat-speak for an estimate of how much additional red ink is supposedly feasible feasible given interest rates, existing debt levels, and other variables.

I’m more worried, for what it’s worth, about the level of spending. And on that basis, there’s less fiscal space. Here’s a comparison (based on the OECD’s own dataset) of the burden of spending before the great recession/global financial crisis and today. As you can see, government outlays are consuming almost 2-percentage points more of economic output.

Needless to say, there’s hasn’t been much “austerity” over the past decade (other than higher income taxes and higher VAT taxes, which means taxpayers have taken a hit but not bureaucrats and interest groups).

In any event, the OECD ignores all this evidence and thinks today is the perfect time for another spending binge. Here are additional details from the report.

OECD governments could finance a ½ percentage point of GDP productivity-enhancing fiscal initiative, for three to four years on average in OECD countries without raising the debt-to-GDP ratio in the medium term, provided the selected activities and projects are sound. Such an initiative could encompass high-quality spending on education, health and research and development as well as green infrastructure that all bring significant output gains in the long run. …the average output gains for the large advanced economies of such a fiscal initiative amount to 0.4-0.6% in the first year.

It’s laughable that the bureaucrats project more growth as a result of Keynesian “stimulus” even though we just suffered through the failure of Obama’s 2009 program (not to mention the repeated failure of Keynesian economics in Japan and elsewhere).

The only good news, if we grade on a curve, is that the bureaucrats apparently don’t think Keynesian “stimulus” would be that helpful for the American economy.

Though I’m worried this Table, buried four pages from the end of the report, won’t get much attention (just as other decent portions of the report, such as commentary about the damage caused by bad tax policy, also will get ignored).

If you think I’m being paranoid, check out these passages from a news report in the Wall Street Journal. The main takeaway from the OECD’s new publication, according to the reporter, is that politicians around the world have a green light for more wasteful spending.

Adding detail to earlier calls for a switch to budget stimulus from exhausted monetary policies, the Paris-based think tank said most governments have room to boost spending by half a percentage point of economic output over a period of three to four years without risking an increase in their already high debts. …The think tank calculates that an increase in spending on the scale it recommends would lift economic growth in the countries involved by between 0.4 and 0.6 of a percentage point, with an additional 0.2 percentage point boost if the effort were to be coordinated internationally. …If governments were to follow the OECD’s advice, it would mark a further turn away from the policies of austerity that were an immediate response to surging government debts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. …A slow shift toward a greater reliance on fiscal policy has been under way since last year, when Canada embarked on a fiscal stimulus, while the OECD noted that increases in spending are also under way in Germany, Italy and China. …“There is quite a bit more receptivity to the notion of using fiscal policy more actively,” said Ms. Mann.

And I’m worried that this kind of bad advice may influence President-Elect Trump, who already has made worrisome comments about spending for infrastructure and entitlements.

P.S. But I’m semi-hopeful that Trump won’t be a fan of the OECD in general, if for no other reason than the head bureaucrat in Paris called him a racist and was remarkably open about favoring Hillary Clinton’s election.

Gurria tells UpFront’s Mehdi Hasan: “I would tend to agree with those who say that this is not only misinformed, but yes, I think the word racist can be applied. “I think that because the American public is wise, it will then act in consequence,” Gurria adds.

I’ve previously argued that ending American subsidies for the OECD (and its leftist agenda) is an IQ test for Republicans. In prior years, GOPers on Capitol Hill have failed this test. Maybe Trump, if for no other reason than Secretary General Gurria’s harsh attack, will finally end the gravy train for this parasitical bureaucracy.

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What’s the fundamental problem with redistributionist economic policy?

As a libertarian, I would answer with a philosophical argument against coercion. I think it is immoral for vote-seeking politicians, using the threat of imprisonment, to rob Peter to subsidize Paul.

But as an economist, the problem is incentives. Simply stated, redistribution from Peter to Paul undermines the incentive of either to produce. And the greater the level of plunder, as we see from extreme examples such as Venezuela and North Korea, the greater the damage.

This is a lesson that we should have learned from the earliest days of American history.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Richard Ebeling explains a very important lesson about incentives and human behavior. He begins by pointing out how the Pilgrims initially created a collectivist economic system.

The English Puritans…wanted to turn their backs on what they viewed as the materialistic and greedy corruption of the Old World. …they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. …all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness.

But this system – what a shock – didn’t work.

What resulted is recorded in the journal of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. …The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent their efforts. The harder working among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too, were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.

Commenting about the downside of a system based on communal sharing, Richard shares a simple lesson in economics.

Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.

And he also shows the economic lesson to be learned when the Pilgrims abandoned collectivism for private property.

Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only did many families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement. …Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error in the ideas of that since the time of the ancient Greeks had promised paradise through collectivism rather than individualism. …This is the lesson of the First Thanksgiving. …the triumph of capitalism over the failure of collectivism in all its forms.

The adverse consequences of 17th-century collectivism are examined in this video from Reason, which I try to share every Thanksgiving.

By the way, the Pilgrims weren’t the only early Americans to make the mistake of collectivist economics.

An article from the Mises Institute discusses a similar failed experiment in Jamestown.

The Jamestown colony in Virginia had similar experiences as they started under the same rules:

  1.  They were to own nothing.
  2.  They were to receive only as much food and clothing as they needed.
  3.  Everything that the men secured from trade or produced from the land had to go into the common storehouse.

Of the 104 men that started the Jamestown colony in 1607 only 38 survived the first year and even those had to be marched to the fields “to the beat of a drum” simply to grow food to keep them alive in the next year.

Fortunately, the Jamestown settlers learned that socialism doesn’t work.

And when a system based on private property was created, the results were spectacular.

Captain John Smith writes after the common store concept was abandoned:

When our people were fed out of the common store, and labored jointly together, glad was he could slip from his labor, or slumber over his task he cared not how, nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true pains in a week, as now for themselves they will do in a day. … We reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty, as now three or four do provide for themselves.

Gee, people produce much more when they keep the fruits of their labor. What a radical concept!

On a more serious note, the lessons from Plymouth and Jamestown are the same lessons from France and Cuba.

The more government there is in a nation (imagine a spectrum of statism), the worse its economy will perform.

Let’s close with a Thanksgiving-themed addition to our collection of libertarian humor. This guy obviously prefers the moral argument against statism.

Not that I would recommend going overboard with libertarian intensity at a family gathering. Then you come across like the libertarian chicken, or the “missionary” from the 24-types-of-libertarians collage.

Just have friends and family sign up for International Liberty!

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I routinely grouse about the heavy economic cost of red tape.

I’ve also highlighted agencies (such as the EEOC) that seem especially prone to senseless regulations.

And I’ve explained why private regulation actually is a very effective way of promoting health and safety.

Today, let’s get specific and look at the Food and Drug Administration. This bureaucracy ostensibly is supposed to protect us by making sure drugs and medical devices are safe and effective before getting approval, which seems like it might be a reasonable role for government.

But the FDA routinely does really foolish things that undermine public health. The likely reason is that the bureaucracy has a bad incentive structure. As Professor Alex Tabarrok has explained.

…the FDA has an incentive to delay the introduction of new drugs because approving a bad drug (Type I error) has more severe consequences for the FDA than does failing to approve a good drug (Type II error). In the former case at least some victims are identifiable and the New York Times writes stories about them and how they died because the FDA failed. In the latter case, when the FDA fails to approve a good drug, people die but the bodies are buried in an invisible graveyard.

This video from Learn Liberty looks at some data on how the FDA’s Type II errors have led to thousands of deaths, but mostly focuses on whether people and medical professionals should have the freedom to makes choices different from what the FDA has officially blessed.

It’s also worth mentioning that the process of drug approval is jaw-droppingly expensive, as Professor Tabarrok noted in another column.

It costs well over a billion dollars to get the average new drug approved and much of that cost comes from FDA required clinical trials. Longer and larger clinical trials mean that the drugs that are eventually approved are safer. But longer trials also mean that good drugs are delayed. And the more expensive it is to produce new drugs the fewer new drugs will be produced. In short, longer and larger trials mean drug delay and drug loss.

The FDA bureaucracy can’t even approve things it already has approved. There was a big controversy a few months ago about the EpiPen, which is a very expensive device that auto-injects medication to people suffering severe allergic reactions.

But the device is only costly because the FDA is hindering competition, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Epinephrine is a basic and super-cheap medicine, and the EpiPen auto-injector device has been around since the 1970s. Thus EpiPen should be open to generic competition, which cuts prices dramatically for most other old medicines. Competitors have been trying for years to challenge Mylan’s EpiPen franchise with low-cost alternatives—only to become entangled in the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory afflatus. …the FDA maintains no clear and consistent principles for generic drug-delivery devices like auto injectors or asthma inhalers. …injecting a kid in anaphylactic shock with epinephrine…is not complex medical engineering. But no company has been able to do so to the FDA’s satisfaction.

Research from the Mercatus Center reveals that the FDA imposes ever-higher costs and gets ever-higher budgets, but also how the bureaucracy fails to deliver on its obligation to facilitate innovation.

The expense of putting drugs and devices through this system is almost unimaginable. The cost of bringing low- to medium-risk 510(k) medical devices to market averages $31 million, $24 million (75 percent) of which is dedicated solely to attaining FDA approval within an average of about six months. Any significant improvement to the device requires reapplication. For higher-risk medical devices where there may be significant health gains, the costs are about $94 million, $75 million (80 percent) of which is dedicated to attaining FDA approval. For drugs, the situation is much worse. It costs an average of $2.6 billion simply to get a drug through the FDA process and onto the market. This does not include postmarket monitoring, the terms of which are laid out by FDA upon approval. These costs have increased from about $1 billion between 1983 and 1994. …we continue to increase the funding and authority for FDA and assume that we will somehow boost innovation in medical products (drugs and devices) despite the growing obstacles. This has not happened. …Congress continues to increase funding for FDA through both the general fund and industry user fees…with the hope that performance goals and additional funding would increase FDA’s performance and lead to an increase in innovations. …but FDA finds strategic ways to narrowly meet each goal while frustrating the original goal of improving health outcomes through innovation.

By the way, the FDA also does really bone-headed things. I’ve previously written about the bureaucracy’s war against unpasteurized milk (including military-style raids on dairies!). Now the bureaucrats think soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to get cigars.

The Wall Street Journal has the details of this silly nanny-state intervention.

You might think GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan have enough to worry about with Islamic State and the Taliban. But it turns out they’ve also got a problem called the Food and Drug Administration. In August a new FDA rule went into effect that forbids tobacco makers and distributors from handing out free samples. Some companies that have been donating cigars to service members for decades have now stopped for fear that this is now illegal. The FDA nuttiness has attracted the attention of Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 14th district, which includes “Cigar City,” or Tampa. She has introduced a bill to “reinstate the tradition of donating cigars to our military members to provide them with a taste of home while deployed.” Her press release notes that cigars are the “second-most requested item” from troops overseas. …cigars for service members is in question because it’s a proxy for the political war on tobacco, but the first casualty is common sense. The FDA’s bureaucrats are happy to have U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines dodge bullets overseas but they’re horrified they might relax by lighting up a stogie.

But the nanny-state war against soldiers enjoying cigars is downright trivial compared to the deadly impact of the FDA’s attack on vaping.

Jacob Sullum of Reason outlines some of the horrifying details.

The Food and Drug Administration’s e-cigarette regulations, which took effect last week, immediately struck two blows against public health. As of Monday, companies that sell vaping equipment and the fluids that fill them are forbidden to share potentially lifesaving information about those products with their customers. They are also forbidden to make their products safer, more convenient, or more pleasant to use. The FDA’s censorship and its ban on innovation will discourage smokers from switching to vaping, even though that switch would dramatically reduce the health risks they face. That effect will be compounded by the FDA’s requirement that manufacturers obtain its approval for any vaping products they want to keep on the market for longer than two years. The cost of meeting that requirement will force many companies out of business… All of this is unambiguously bad for consumers and bad for public health. Yet the FDA took none of it into account…the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act…gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, a category to which it has arbitrarily assigned tobacco-free e-cigarettes, even when they contain nicotine that is not derived from tobacco or no nicotine at all. …A brief that 16 advocates of tobacco harm reduction filed last week in support of Nicopure’s lawsuit notes that the cost of the FDA’s regulations will far outweigh their benefit if they cause even a small percentage of vapers to start smoking again or deter even a small percentage of current smokers from switching. That’s because of the huge difference in risk between e-cigarettes and the conventional kind (at least 95 percent, according to the Royal College of Physicians)… The FDA acknowledges that its regulations might also harm public health by retarding the substitution of vaping for smoking. But it does not include that cost in its analysis, deeming it too speculative. The FDA literally assigns zero value to the lives of smokers who would have quit were it not for the agency’s heavy-handed meddling.

Oh, I suppose I also should mention that FDA red tape is responsible for the fact that Americans have a much more limited selection of condoms than Europeans.

I’m sure there’s a good joke to be made about the bureaucrats screwing us in ways that interfere with us…um…well, you know.

Let’s wrap up with some tiny bits of good news. First, Arizona’s Goldwater Institute has been remarkably successful in getting states to adopt “Right to Try” laws that give seriously ill people the right to try investigational medications.

Sadly, those laws will have limited use until there’s also reform in Washington. Fortunately, there’s some movement. Here’s a video from a congressional hearing organized by Senator Johnson of Wisconsin.

Here’s a second item that sort of counts as good news.

If there is one silver lining to the dark cloud of FDA incompetence, it’s that the bureaucrats haven’t figured out how to criminalize those who use drugs for “off-label” purposes (i.e., for reasons other than what was approved by the government). A good example, as reported by the New York Times, is a tooth desnsitizer that’s only been recently approved by the FDA (after being available for decades in nations such as Japan), and already dentists are using it to fight cavities.

Nobody looks forward to having a cavity drilled and filled by a dentist. Now there’s an alternative: an antimicrobial liquid that can be brushed on cavities to stop tooth decay — painlessly. The liquid is called silver diamine fluoride, or S.D.F. It’s been used for decades in Japan, but it’s been available in the United States, under the brand name Advantage Arrest, for just about a year. The Food and Drug Administration cleared silver diamine fluoride for use as a tooth desensitizer for adults 21 and older. But studies show it can halt the progression of cavities and prevent them, and dentists are increasingly using it off-label for those purposes. …Silver diamine fluoride is already used in hundreds of dental offices. Medicaid patients in Oregon are receiving the treatment…it’s relatively inexpensive. …The noninvasive treatment may be ideal for the indigent, nursing home residents and others who have trouble finding care. …But the liquid may be especially useful for children. Nearly a quarter of 2- to 5-year-olds have cavities

Since I’m not familiar with the history of the FDA, I wonder whether the bureaucrats have ever tried to block medical professionals from using drugs and devices for “off-label” purposes.

Let me close with one final point. Our leftist friends aren’t very interested in reforming the FDA.

Instead, they argue that the big problem is greedy pharmaceutical companies and suggest European-style price controls.

That could save consumers money in the short run, I’m sure, but it would gut the incentive to develop new medications.

One expert looked at the Rand Corporation estimates that such policies would lead to a decline in life expectancy of 0.7 years by 2016. He then crunched the numbers and concluded that the aggregate impact would be worse thing to ever happen. Even worse than the brutality of Mao’s China.

…let me put this in context. In 2060 there will probably be 420 million Americans and 523 million Europeans. And suppose that whatever changes we make in drug regulations today last for one human lifespan, so that everybody has a chance to be 55-60. So about a billion people each losing about 0.7 years of their life equals 700 million life-years. Since some people live in countries outside the US and Europe [citation needed] and they also benefit from First-World-invented medications, let’s round this up to about a billion life-years lost. What was the worst thing that ever happened? One strong contender is Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which ineffective agricultural reforms and very effective purges killed 45 million people. Most of these people were probably already adults, and lifespan in Mao’s China wasn’t too high, so let’s say that each death from the Great Leap Forward cost what would otherwise be twenty healthy life years. In that case, the worst thing that has ever happened until now cost 45 million * 20 = 900 million life-years. Once again, RAND’s calculations plus my own Fermi estimate suggest that prescription drug price regulation would cost one billion life-years, which would very slightly edge out Communist China for the title of Worst Thing Ever.

I guess the bottom line is that the FDA is a typical regulatory agency, both incompetent and expensive. But if the statists have their way, things could get a lot worse.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling and there are some really inane examples of silly rules such as the FDA’s war on vaping, I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with today’s level of red tape when building an ark. And here’s some clever anti-libertarian humor about deregulated breakfast cereal.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you think regulation is “merely” a cost imposed on businesses, hopefully today’s column drives home that red tape can have terrible consequences for human health. And don’t forget that bureaucratic red tape is the reason we’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, second-rate dishwashers, and inadequate washing machines.

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I’m very happy that we don’t have a one-world government, but my views have nothing to do with conspiratorial fears involving blue helmets and black helicopters.

Instead, I’m happy that there are lots of independent nations because that means lots of different approaches to public policy. And that means we have lots of real-life experiments about the relative merits of big government vs small government.

And this brings me joy because the evidence overwhelmingly shows that you get much better results when the size and scope of government is constrained.

Just compare France and Switzerland. Or look at the wreckage of communism. Or consider the prosperity of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Heck, I’ve put together all sorts of long-run comparisons to show that free markets produce much better results than statism.

This is also why I like federalism inside a nation. I think this decentralized approach leads to better policy, as we can see from Switzerland.

But it also means I have another set of real-life experiments about public policy.  And, once again, this brings a smile to my face because the data clearly show the negative consequences of big government.

It’s especially amusing to compare California and Texas. The Golden State is a playground for statist policies, including the highest income tax in the nation. The Lone Star State, by contrast, is famous for its laissez-faire approach and it doesn’t have any income tax.

And if you look at income data, we have very clear evidence that living standards are climbing much faster in Texas, particularly for the middle class.

I’m certainly not the only person to notice that there’s a clear link between good policy and good results.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, Vance Ginn of the Texas Public Policy Foundation compares Texas and California. He starts by noting that the Lone Star State and the Golden State share some common characteristics.

Texas and California…contribute 25% of U.S. economic output, have similar abundances of natural resources, and are where 20% of Americans reside.

But that’s where the similarity ends. California almost surely wins the battle for which state has the best climate and scenery, but Texas is way ahead when you measure economic freedom.

Texas has low taxes, no personal income tax, and less regulation, versus California’s high taxes, highest marginal personal income tax rate nationwide, and burdensome regulations. The Economic Freedom of North America report…ranks Texas as the third most free state and California as second worst. The Tax Foundation ranks Texas as having the 14th best business tax climate while California ranks third worst.

Vance then addresses the left-wing stereotype that Texas is a poverty-stricken backwater.

He looks at various measures and finds that Texas always comes out on top. There’s more poverty in California.

What about poverty? Taking the average over the 2013 to 2015 period, the Census Bureau provides the official poverty rate of 16.1% in Texas and 15% in California, which suggests that the critics are right. However, that rate doesn’t account for regional differences in housing costs or noncash government assistance. The supplemental poverty rate includes these factors and instead finds a rate of 14.9% in Texas while California has the highest rate nationwide at 20.6%.

But there’s more income in Texas.

What about real income? Average nominal median household income from 2010 to 2014 (in 2014 dollars) in California ($61,489) is 17% higher and nationwide ($53,482) is 1.7% higher than in Texas ($52,576). But, the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ regional price parities data for 2014 show that the cost of living for California is 17% higher and the U.S. average is 3.5% higher than in Texas. Therefore, real income in Texas purchases as much as in California and even more when you consider that Texas doesn’t have a personal income tax.

Vance then points out that there is more income inequality in California, which I generally think is an irrelevant measure.

In this case, though, it probably does matter because bad policy is causing disproportionate harm for the poor and middle class in California.

The column also looks at the jobs data (which will cause special angst for Paul Krugman).

In the last decade, Texas has been the economic and job creation engine as the real private sector expanded 29% in Texas compared with only 14% in California. Moreover, total civilian employment increased 1.2 million in California but 1.7 million in Texas, with a labor force two-thirds the size of California’s. This increase in Texas’ employment accounts for nearly one-third of all jobs created nationwide.

So what’s the moral of the story?

Vance closes his column with some very appropriate advice for the incoming Trump Administration.

The more you tax and regulate something, the less you get of it. Clearly, less government contributes to higher standards of living in Texas. …As the new administration and policymakers nationwide reassess which direction to take, it’s important to remember that spending is the disease and taxes are a function of that disease. Restraining spending growth while following the Texas model of free market capitalism would be an excellent way to get the economy, and personal finances, back on track.

None of this means policy is perfect in Texas, needless to say. There are several ways that policy could be improved.

But if you’re looking for general lessons about the relative merits of big government vs. small government, both Texas and California are role models. They teach us lessons about job creation. About business climate. About government efficiency. And about labor mobility. And the lesson is always the same: You get better results when government is smaller and less intrusive.

Last but not least, there’s even a very amusing joke about California, Texas, and a coyote.

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One of the many frustrations of working in Washington is that politicians, when dealing with a problem created by government intervention, routinely propose that the solution is to give even more power to government. And since they are either unwilling or unable to connect the dots, they don’t care that their “solutions” will make matters worse. I’ve referred to this unfortunate pattern as “Mitchell’s Law.”

Of course, this concept isn’t new to me. It’s been around for a long time. I just like the phrase, “Bad government policy begets more bad government policy.”

Other people also have been publicizing this concept. I especially like what Chuck Blahous of the Mercatus Center recently wrote about the 5-step Washington tradition of “doubling down” on policy mistakes. The final step could be called the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of government failure.

Chuck also cites some very powerful (and very depressing) examples from healthcare policy.

He starts with the tax code’s healthcare exclusion.

With the best of intentions the federal government has long exempted worker compensation in the form of health benefits from income taxation.  There is wide consensus among economists that the results of this policy have been highly deleterious.  As I have written previously, this tax exclusion “depresses wages, it drives up health spending, it’s regressive, and it makes it harder for people with enduring health conditions to change jobs or enter the individual insurance market.”  Lawmakers have reacted not by scaling back the flawed policy that fuels these problems, but rather by trying to shield Americans from the resulting health care cost increases.

I fully agree.

He then points out that Medicare, Medicaid, and other spending programs have a similar impact.

The federal government has enacted programs such as Medicare and Medicaid to protect vulnerable seniors and poor Americans from ruinous health care costs.  …it is firmly established that creating these programs pushed up national health spending, driving health costs higher for Americans as a whole.  Consumer displeasure over these health cost increases subsequently became a rationale for still more government health spending, rather than reducing government’s contribution to the problem.  Examples of this doubling down include the health exchange subsidies established under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as its further expansion of Medicaid.

I fully agree.

Chuck also shows how government involvement has created the same unhealthy dynamic in other areas, writing about college costs, Social Security, and Obamacare.

The moral of the story, as displayed by this poster, is that more government is the problem instead of the solution. Which is something Bastiat warned us about back in the 1800s.

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When I give speeches on fiscal policy, I commonly get some variation of this question (and you can choose one of more of the options).

Isn’t our fiscal problem largely the result of the wars/intervention/Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/Syria launched by Bush/Hillary/neocons/Blackwater/Pentagon?

I generally respond by first confessing my lack of expertise on military and foreign affairs, but then I point out that I’m not a fan of nation building (see George Will and Mark Steyn on this topic), so I tell people that I’m very sympathetic to the proposition that trillions of dollars that have been misspent on foreign adventurism this century. Not to mention the human cost of dead and wounded American soldiers.

But I then tell audiences that the Pentagon is not the reason why we’re in fiscal trouble.

Let’s look at two charts, both derived from the Office and Management and Budget’s historical data.

First, here are two pie charts based on the spreadsheet in Table 4.2, which looks at how much of the budget is consumed by different agencies and departments. For both 1962 and 2016, I added together outlays for the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs and compared that military-related spending to other major categories.

As you can see, military-related outlays used to account for more than one-half of the federal budget, but not they are less than one-fourth of total spending in Washington.

Notice, by the way, that Social Security spending now consumes a significantly larger share of the federal budget, as does spending by the Treasury Department (I assume much of that is EITC redistribution).

But the biggest change, by far, is that the Department of Health and Human Services used to account for 3 percent of federal outlays, but now eats up 28 percent of the budget. Why? Because of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

By the way, the above numbers do not mean that the military budget has been cut.

Here’s our second chart, which is based on the spreadsheet in Table 8.2, which has the numbers for inflation-adjusted outlays for major budget categories.

As you can see, the federal government is spending more today on defense than it was back in the 1960s, even after adjusting for inflation. And outlays for “domestic discretionary” programs also have increased.

But what’s obviously driving fiscal policy is the relentless expansion of entitlements (referred to as “mandatory spending” for purposes of the Budget Enforcement Act).

And because of demographic changes and bad policy choices, outlays for entitlement are projected to become a much larger burden in the future.

So now, perhaps, you understand why I keep arguing in favor of genuine entitlement reform and why I think it’s so critical that Donald Trump reconsider his skepticism.

P.S. In addition to George Will and Mark Steyn, Barack Obama also expressed some support for a libertarian-oriented foreign policy. But only in theory, not in practice.

P.P.S. To put America’s military spending in global context, check out this pie chart.

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There are several features of President-Elect Trump’s tax plan that are worthy of praise, including death tax repeal, expensing, and lower marginal tax rates on households.

But the policy that probably deserves the most attention is Trump’s embrace of a 15 percent tax rate for business.

What makes this policy so attractive – and vitally important – is that the rest of the world has been in a race to reduce corporate tax burdens.

Ironically, the U.S. helped start the race by cutting the corporate tax rate as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. But ever since then, policy in America has stagnated while other developed nations are engaged in a virtuous contest to become more competitive.

And that race continues every day.

Most impressively, as reported by the Financial Times, Hungary will cut its corporate tax rate from 19 percent to 9 percent.

Hungary’s government is to cut its corporate tax rate to the lowest level in the EU in a sign of increasingly competitive tax practices among countries seeking to lure foreign direct investment. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said a new 9 per cent corporate tax rate would be introduced in 2017, significantly lower than Ireland’s 12.5 per cent. …The government said the new single band would apply to all businesses. “Corporation tax will be lowered to single digits next year: a rate of 9 per cent will apply equally to small and medium-sized enterprises and large corporations,” a statement said. …Gabor Bekes, senior research fellow at Hungary’s Institute of Economics…said the measure would likely provoke complaints of unfair tax competition from western capitals.

Needless to say, complaints from Paris, Rome, and Berlin would be a sign that Hungary is doing the right thing.

Croatia also is moving policy in the right direction, albeit in a less aggressive fashion.

Corporate income tax will…be cut from 20 to 18 per cent for large companies and from 20 to 12 per cent for small and mid-level companies whose income is no higher than 400,000 euros annually.

Though the Croatian government also plans to lower tax rates on households.

Before the reform, people with salaries between 300 and 1,750 euros a month were taxed at 25 per cent, while now everyone earning up to 2,325 euros a month will be taxed at a 24 per cent rate. People earning more than 2,325 euros a month will have a 36 per cent tax rate, replacing a 40 per cent tax rate for anyone earning over 1,750 euros a month.

But let’s keep the focus on business taxation.

Our friends on the left don’t like Trump’s plan for a corporate tax cut, but here are there things they should know.

  1. A lower corporate tax rate won’t necessarily reduce corporate tax revenue, particularly over time as there’s more investment and job creation.
  2. A lower corporate tax rate will dramatically – if not completely – eliminate any incentive for American companies to engage in inversions.
  3. A lower corporate tax rate will boost workers wages by increasing the nation’s capital stock and thus improving productivity.

If you want more information, here’s my primer on corporate taxation. You can also watch this video.

Or, to make matters simple, we can just copy Estonia, which has the world’s best system according to the Tax Foundation.

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I’m a fiscal policy wonk, so I freely acknowledge that I sometimes look at the world through green-eyeshade-colored lenses. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that expanding entitlements,Demographic 2030 changing demographics, and increasing dependency are the main long-run threats to the American economy.

And this is why the concerns I had about a Hillary Clinton presidency aren’t that different from the concerns I have about a Donald Trump presidency.

Simply stated, he apparently doesn’t even think there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Here’s what Trump said in an interview with the Daily Signal.

I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.

Some people have told me not to get too worried about this statement because candidates make so many speeches and give so many interviews that they’re bound to make mistakes and say things they don’t really mean.

I agree that we shouldn’t get too hung up on every slip of the tongue on the campaign trail (notwithstanding this clip, for instance, Obama surely doesn’t think there are 57 states).

But the Trump people actually re-posted the Daily Signal interview on the campaign’s website, which certainly suggests (to use legal terminology) malice and forethought on the issue of entitlements.

That being said, this doesn’t mean Trump is a lost cause and that genuine entitlement reform is an impossibility.

  • First, politicians oftentimes say things they don’t mean (remember Obama’s pledge that people could keep their doctors and their health plans if Obamacare was enacted?).
  • Second, the plans to fix Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t involve any cuts. Instead, reformers are proposing changes that will slow the growth of outlays.
  • Third, if Trump is even slightly serious about pushing through his big tax cut, he’ll need to have some plan to restrain overall spending to make his agenda politically viable.

For what it’s worth, I’m particularly hopeful (or not un-hopeful, to be more accurate) that Trump will be willing to address Medicaid reform, ideally as part of an overall proposal to block-grant all means-tested programs.

One reason for my semi-optimism is that the programs is becoming even more of a mess thanks to Obamacare and plenty of governors and state legislators would gladly accept that kind of reform simply to have more control over state budget matters.

And every serious budget person in Washington understands the program must be reformed because of spiraling costs.

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial today about out-of-control Medicaid spending.

One immediate problem is ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid, which has seen enrollment at least twice as high as advertised. …Governors claimed not joining would leave “free money” on the table because the feds would pick up 100% of the costs of new beneficiaries. In a new report this week for the Foundation for Government Accountability, Jonathan Ingram and Nicholas Horton tracked down the original enrollment projections by actuaries in 24 states that expanded and have since disclosed at least a year of data on the results. Some 11.5 million people now belong to ObamaCare’s new class of able-bodied enrollees, or 110% higher than the projections. Analysts in California expected only 910,000 people to sign up, but instead 3.84 million have, 322% off the projections. The situation is nearly as dire in New York, where enrollment is 276% higher than expected, and Illinois, which is up 90%. This liberal state triumvirate is particularly notable because they already ran generous welfare states long before ObamaCare.

Of course, the “free money” for states is a fiscal burden for all taxpayers. It’s just that the money from taxpayers gets cycled through Washington before going to state capitals.

But it’s also worth noting that the money soon won’t be “free.”

The state spending share of new Medicaid enrollment will rise to 5% next year and then to 10% by 2020, up from 0% today. The enrollment overruns mean these states will have less to spend than they planned for every other priority, especially the least fortunate.

I suppose this is a good opportunity to recycle my video on Medicaid reform. It was filmed more than five years ago, so some of the numbers are outdated (they’re worse today!). But the policy analysis is still right on point.

Who knows, maybe Trump actually will do the right thing and (in a phrase he took from Reagan) make America great again.

Remember, none of us expected that economic freedom would expand during Bill Clinton’s presidency, so a bit of optimism isn’t totally out-of-bounds.

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The concept of secession (part of a jurisdiction breaking away to become independent) has a bad reputation in the United States because it is linked to the reprehensible institution of slavery.

But, as Walter Williams has explained, secession today may be an effective way of protecting liberty from ever-expanding centralized government.

And I’ve favorably written about secessionist movements in Sardinia, Scotland, and Belgium, largely because the historical data shows that better policy is more likely when there are many jurisdictions competing with each other.

So it was with considerable interest that I saw an article in Fortune about a secessionist movement in California.

“Calexit” didn’t start with Donald Trump, but his victory on Election Day certainly sparked more interest in the idea. A play on “Brexit,” it’s the new name for the prospect of California seceding from the U.S. The movement…seems to have gained steam in the past six months, thanks in part to the U.K.’s recent Brexit vote and Donald Trump being elected president. …The group’s goal is to hold a referendum in 2018 that, if passed, would transition California into its own independent country. …the movement has even grabbed the attention of some potential Silicon Valley bankrollers.

I like this idea, though I’m not sure it’s good for California since the state faces very serious long-run challenges.

Though this is one of the reasons I like secession. As an independent nation, California no longer would have any hope of getting a bailout from Washington, so the politicians in Sacramento might start behaving more responsibly.

And there are examples of secession in the modern world, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic emerging from Czechoslovakia. That was a very tranquil divorce, unlike what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

As is so often the case, we can learn a lot from Switzerland. There is a right of secession, albeit dependent on a nationwide vote of approval. Municipalities also can vote to switch cantons, as happened in 1996 when Vellerat left Bern and became part of Jura. By the way, villages in Liechtenstein have the unilateral right to secede from the rest of the nation (though that seems highly unlikely since it is the second-richest nation in the world).

Notwithstanding these good role models, the secessionist movement in California presumably won’t get very far.

But maybe full-blown secession isn’t necessary. If Californians don’t like what’s happening in Washington (or, for that matter, if Texans aren’t happy with the antics in DC), that should be an argument for genuine and comprehensive federalism.

In other words, get rid of the one-size-fits-all policies emanating from the central government and allow states to decide the size and scope of government.

California can decide to do crazy things (such as regulate babysitters and give bureaucrats too much pay) and Texas can choose to do sane things (such as no income tax), but neither state could dictate policy for the entire nation.

This also happens to be the system envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers.

Think of federalism as a live-and-let-live system. New York doesn’t have to become North Dakota and Illinois doesn’t have to become Alabama. Red states can be red and blue states can be blue. And we can add all the other colors in the rainbow as well. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that.

And consider how well federalism works in Switzerland, a nation that doesn’t have a single language, culture, or religion.

Now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I even suggested federalism as a solution to the mess in Ukraine.

P.S. If California actually chooses to move forward with secession, the good news is that we already have a template (albeit satirical) for a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting historical footnote. There’s a small part of Germany that is entirely surrounded by Switzerland. This enclave wanted to become part of Switzerland many decades ago, but there was no right of secession notwithstanding overwhelming sentiment for a shift of nationality.

A whopping 96 percent of the inhabitants voted for annexation by Switzerland. The people had spoken loud and clear, but their voices were ignored. As the Swiss were unable to offer Germany any suitable territory in exchange, the deal was off. Büsingen would remain, somewhat reluctantly, German.

Since Germany is a reasonably well-run nation, I guess we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the people of Büsingen (unlike, say, the residents of Menton and Roquebrune in France, who used to be part of a tax haven but now are part of a tax hell).

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with some additional election-related humor.

Here’s some satire from the twitter account of the fake North Korean News Service.

And here’s another Hitler parody to add to our collection.

And here’s Michelle Obama feeling sad about what’s about to happen.

P.P.P.P.S. We also have some unintentional humor. When Trump prevailed, Paul Krugman couldn’t resist making a prediction of economic doom.

Since markets have since climbed to record highs, Krugman’s forecasting ability may be even worse than all the hacks who predicted Brexit would result in economic calamity for the United Kingdom.

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When writing about money laundering laws, I’ll sometimes highlight gross abuses by government and I’ll periodically make the usual libertarian arguments about privacy.

But I mostly focus on how the laws simply don’t make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Anti-money laundering laws and regulations impose large burdens on the private sector, which creates disproportionate hardship for the poor. Yet there’s no evidence that the laws actually hinder criminal activity, which was the rationale for imposing the laws in the first place.

I have the same attitude about the War on Drugs. Yes, I get upset that people are mistreated and it irks me as a libertarian that people aren’t free to make their own choices (even if they are dumb choices) about what to put in their bodies.

But what really gets me angry is the absurd misallocation of law enforcement resources. Consider this info from a recent WonkBlog column in the Washington Post about the ever-expanding efforts of government to harass drug users.

Federal figures on drug arrests and drug use over the past three decades tell the story. Drug-possession arrests skyrocketed, from fewer than 200 arrests for every 100,000 people in 1979…, hovering near 400 arrests per 100,000 people. …despite the tough-on-crime push that led to the surge in arrests in recent decades, illicit drug use today is more common among Americans age 12 and older than it was in the early 1980s. Federal figures show no correlation between drug-possession arrests and rates of drug use during that time.

But here’s the part that should upset all of us, even if we don’t like drugs or even if we think they should be illegal.

Instead of focusing on the fight against crimes that actually have victims (such as robbery, murder, rape, assault, etc), the government is squandering an immense about of time, energy, resources, and money on drug arrests.

…arrests for drug possession continue to make up a significant chunk of modern-day police work. “Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” the report finds, citing FBI data. “More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.” In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

That last sentence is breathtaking. Does anyone think that busting potheads is more important than fighting genuine crime?!?

Do you want an example of law enforcement resources being misallocated?

Well, this story from New Hampshire tells you everything you need to know.

…an 81-year-old grandmother had been growing…the plant as medicine, a way to ease arthritis and glaucoma and help her sleep at night. Tucked away in a raspberry patch and separated by a fence from any neighbors, the plant was nearly ready for harvest when a military-style helicopter and police descended on Sept. 21. In a joint raid, the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police entered her yard and cut down the solitary plant…authorities are using budgeted funds, prior to the end of the federal fiscal year Saturday, to gas up helicopters and do flyovers. …“Is this the way we want our taxpayer money spent, to hassle an 81-year-old and law-abiding patients?” Cutler said.

Gee, I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more comfortably tonight knowing that lots of taxpayer money was squandered to seize a pot plant from this dangerous granny!

Still not convinced that law enforcement resources aren’t being wasted? And still not upset that lives are being disrupted and harmed by heavy-handed government.

Then consider this horror story from Reason.

James Slatic, a California medical marijuana business owner, found out all his family’s bank accounts had been seized by the government one day in January when his 19-year-old daughter tried to buy lunch at the San Jose State University cafeteria and her card was declined. Slatic’s wife tried to transfer money to their daughter, figuring she had simply overdrawn her account, as teenagers are wont to do, but her account wouldn’t work, either. What the Slatics soon learned was the San Diego police had frozen all of their bank accounts: $55,258 from Slatic’s personal checking and savings account; $34,175 from his wife Annette’s account; and a combined $11,260 from the savings accounts of their two teenage daughters, Penny and Lily. …The Slatics’ crimes? None. Or at least, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office hasn’t charged them with any in the nine months since it seized their accounts.

His business also was shut down, which wasn’t good news for him or his employees that are now out on the street.

The trouble for James Slatic began five days before his family’s accounts were frozen, when around 30 San Diego police officers and DEA agents raided Slatic’s medical marijuana business, Med-West Distribution, and seized nearly $325,000 in cash from a safe. …The raid was a crushing blow to Slatic—not to mention his 35 employees, who lost their jobs and benefits without notice.

Here’s a video detailing this disgusting abuse by government.

There is some good news. Voters in several states voted last week to decriminalize pot.

And for those who worry that legalizing marijuana will be a gateway to decriminalizing harder drugs, I encourage you to read this Cato Institute study on what happened after Portugal legalized all drugs early last decade.

This isn’t an argument about whether you should use drugs, like drugs, or approve of drug use. You can be the drug equivalent of a teetotaler like me and still realize that it makes no sense for the government to squander lots of money and hurt lots of lives simply because politicians want to control what people choose to put in their own bodies.

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I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

So the bad news is that the flat tax could soon disappear in Estonia and Lithuania.

But the good news, based on my discussions with people in these two nations, is that the battle isn’t lost. At least not yet.

In both cases, policy can’t be changed unless all parties in the coalition government agree. Fortunately, they haven’t reached that point.

And hopefully that point will never be reached if Estonia and Lithuania want long-run success.

All of the Baltic nations get reasonably good scores from Economic Freedom of the World. Ditching the flat tax will cause their scores to decline.

Given that fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a nation’s grade, adopting some bad tax policy may not seem like the end of the world.

But the flat tax isn’t just good policy. It also has symbolic value, telling both domestic entrepreneurs and global investors that a country has a commitment to a system that won’t impose extra punishment just because a person contributes more to national economic output.

By the way, the LPGU Party is very correct to worry about emigration. The Baltic nations (like most countries in Eastern Europe) face a very large demographic problem. And every time a young person leaves for better opportunities elsewhere (even if that better opportunity is a big welfare check), that makes the long-run outlook even more challenging.

But imposing a more punitive tax system is exactly the opposite of what should happen if the goal is faster growth so that people don’t leave the nation.

Let’s close with a famous quote from John Ramsay McCulloch, a Scottish economist from the 1800s.

To be sure, progressive taxation didn’t lead to total catastrophe, so McCulloch’s warning may seem overwrought by today’s standards.

But the so-called progressive income tax did lead to the modern welfare state. And the modern welfare state, when combined with demographic change, is threatening immense economic and societal damage in many nations.

So what he wrote in 1863 may turn out to be very prescient for historians in 2063 who wonder why the western world collapsed.

P.S. If Estonia and Lithuania move in the wrong direction, Latvia could be a big winner. That nation already has received some positive attention for being fiscally responsible, and it also has withstood pressure from the IMF to impose bad tax policy. So Latvia is well positioned to reap the benefits if Estonia and Lithuania shoot themselves in the foot.

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During the election, Donald Trump promised a big package of infrastructure spending, twice as much new spending as Hillary Clinton was proposing.

During his victory speech the night of the election, he doubled down on this approach, promising that more infrastructure spending would be one his first priorities.

This sounds like bad news for advocates of limited government. And it may turn out to be bad news. Though if you look at what the Trump campaign actually proposed, there’s a lot of wiggle room.

I will work with Congress to introduce the following broader legislative measures and fight for their passage within the first 100 days of my Administration: …American Energy & Infrastructure Act. Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over 10 years. It is revenue neutral.

In other words, it’s possible that President-Elect Trump might give us an Obama-style stimulus scheme. Or he may take a radically different approach by removing roadblocks that hinder more private-sector involvement.

And my colleague Chris Edwards points out that the private sector already does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to infrastructure spending.

Hillary Clinton says that “we are dramatically underinvesting” in infrastructure and she promises a large increase in federal spending. Donald Trump is promising to spend twice as much as Clinton. …But more federal spending is the wrong way to go.  …let’s look at some data. There is no hard definition of “infrastructure,” but one broad measure is gross fixed investment in the BEA national accounts. …The first thing to note is that private investment at about $3 trillion was six times larger than combined federal, state, and local government nondefense investment of $472 billion. Private investment in pipelines, broadband, refineries, factories, cell towers, and other items greatly exceeds government investment in schools, highways, prisons, and the like. …if policymakers want to boost infrastructure spending, they should reduce barriers to private investment.

This is very helpful and interesting data. And one of the obvious conclusions is that the types of infrastructure that historically are the responsibility of the private sector (pipelines, cell towers, etc) are handled much more efficiently than those (highways, mass transit, etc) that have been monopolized by governments.

Trump presumably intends his infrastructure plan to focus on the latter type of infrastructure, so let’s consider three simple rules to help guide an effective approach for transportation.

1. More private-sector involvement

A key principle for good infrastructure policy is to harness the efficiency of the private sector.

Why? Because, as Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute argues, governments naturally are inefficient and incompetent at building and managing infrastructure.

Government authorities view maintenance solely as a cost, rather than as an investment that can increase future revenues. As a result, roads remain riddled with potholes, bridges crumble, airports are overcrowded, water is contaminated, and we have classrooms with mold and falling ceilings. Moreover, without a profit motive, repairs are seldom done in a timely manner or at lowest cost. Instead of assets being owned and controlled by people who understand the economics of the industry and have the technical knowledge to operate and repair them efficiently, politicians (the majority of whom appear to be lawyers these days) and bureaucrats control them. This guarantees waste, inefficiency and cronyism, such as the greenlighting of white-elephant projects that are driven by politics rather than economics.

But there is some good news.

Chris Edwards explains that the private sector is taking a larger role.

Before the 20th century, for example, more than 2,000 turnpike companies in America built more than 10,000 miles of toll roads. And up until the mid-20th century, most urban rail and bus services were private. With respect to railroads, the federal government subsidized some of the railroads to the West, but most U.S. rail mileage in the 19th century was in the East, and it was generally unsubsidized. The takeover of private infrastructure by governments here and abroad in the 20th century caused many problems. Fortunately, most governments have reversed course in recent decades and started to hand back infrastructure to the private sector. …Short of full privatization, many countries have partly privatized portions of their infrastructure through public-private partnerships (“PPPs” or “P3s”). PPPs differ from traditional government contracting by shifting various elements of financing, management, maintenance, operations, and project risks to the private sector. …Unfortunately, the United States “has lagged behind Australia and Europe in privatization of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and tunnels,” notes the OECD. More than one fifth of infrastructure spending in Britain and Portugal is now through the PPP process, so this has become a normal way of doing business in some countries. Canada is also a leader in using PPP for major infrastructure projects.

2. Less involvement from Washington

To the extent that government must be involved, another important principle is to let state and local governments handle infrastructure.

That’s what I argued back in 2014.

…the Department of Transportation should be dismantled for the simple reason that we’ll get better roads at lower cost with the federalist approach of returning responsibility to state and local governments. …Washington involvement is a recipe for pork and corruption. Lawmakers in Congress – including Republicans – get on the Transportation Committees precisely because they can buy votes and raise campaign cash by diverting taxpayer money to friends and cronies. …the federal budget is mostly a scam where endless streams of money are shifted back and forth in leaky buckets. This scam is great for insiders and bad news for taxpayers. Washington involvement necessarily means another layer of costly bureaucracy. And this is not a trivial issues since the Department of Transportation is infamous for overpaid bureaucrats.

For a more detailed explanation, Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard has some devastating analysis in an article for City Journal.

The most pressing problem with federal infrastructure spending is that it is hard to keep it from going to the wrong places. We seem to have spent more in the places that already had short commutes and less in the places with the most need. Federal transportation spending follows highway-apportionment formulas that have long favored places with lots of land but not so many people. …Low-density areas are remarkably well-endowed with senators per capita, of course, and they unsurprisingly get a disproportionate share of spending from any nationwide program. Redirecting tax dollars across jurisdictions is rarely fair—and it isn’t right, either, that poorer, lower-density regions should subsidize New York’s subway and airports. Washington’s involvement also distorts infrastructure planning by favoring pet projects. The Recovery Act set aside $8 billion for high-speed rail, for instance, despite the fact that such projects would never be appropriate for most of moderate-density America. California was lured down the high-speed hole with Washington support… Detroit’s infamous People Mover Monorail would never have been built without federal aid. Alaska’s $400 million Gravina Island bridge to nowhere was a particularly notorious example of how Congress abuses transportation investment. As the Office of Management and Budget noted, during the Bush years, highway funding was “not based on need or performance and has been heavily earmarked.”

3. Sensible cost-benefit analysis

Our third principle is that infrastructure should only be built if it makes sense. In other words, do the benefits exceed the costs?

In the private sector, the profit motive automatically generates that type of calculation.

With government, that effort becomes much more challenging.

Professor Michael Boskin at Stanford explains the problem in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

…a huge pot of additional money earmarked for infrastructure, on top of the recently passed $305 billion five-year highway bill, is sure to unleash a mad scramble in Congress to secure funds for the home turf. The logrolling and pork will get ugly without far tighter cost-benefit tests and oversight. …Most federal infrastructure spending is done by sending funds to state and local governments. For highway programs, the ratio is usually 80% federal, 20% state and local. But that means every local district has an incentive to press the federal authorities to fund projects with poor national returns. We all remember Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.” In other words, if a local government is putting up only 20% of the funds, it needs the benefits to its own citizens to be only 21% of the total national cost. Yet every state and every locality has potential infrastructure needs that it would like the rest of the country to pay for. That leads to the misallocation of federal funds and infrastructure projects that benefit the few at the cost of the many. …taxpayers generally don’t notice all the fiscal cross-hauling, sending their money to Washington to be sent back in leaky buckets to local jurisdictions. Since we all reside in a state and locality, it’s an inefficient negative sum game with complex cross-subsidies. If these local projects are so good, why aren’t citizens willing to finance the projects locally?

And don’t forget government infrastructure always is more expensive – sometimes far more expensive – than politicians first promise. Chris Edwards has the details.

Federal infrastructure projects often suffer from large cost overruns. Highway projects, energy projects, airport projects, and air traffic control projects have ended up costing far more than promised. When both federal and state governments are involved in infrastructure, it reduces accountability. That was one of the problems with the federally backed Big Dig highway project in Boston, which exploded in cost to five times the original estimate. U.S. and foreign studies have found that privately financed infrastructure projects are less likely to have cost overruns.

The challenge, of course, is getting governments to produce honest cost-benefit analysis. Bureaucrats respond to the people who control their jobs and control their pay. So if politicians want to squander more money, it’s quite likely that bureaucrats will concoct the numbers needed to justify the expansion of government.

To cite a high-profile example, I caught the IMF making up numbers to justify infrastructure boondoggles, even though that politically driven analysis contradicted the work of the bureaucracy’s professional economists.

Let’s finish with two additional points.

First, advocates of more infrastructure spending act like there’s some national crisis.

But if this is true, why does the United States get relatively high scores from the World Economic Forum?

Second, let’s consider the example of Japan. That nation has been stuck in a multi-decade period of stagnation, with very little expectation of an economic turnaround. But if infrastructure spending was some sort of elixir, that economy should be booming.

…a look at ailing Japan, which has spent over $6.3 trillion since 1981 on truly impressive bridges and bullet trains, suggests infrastructure isn’t always a cure for economic woes.

The bottom line is that Donald Trump should not follow the business-as-usual approach of simply dumping more money into a system that almost always produces poor results.

P.S. Whoever does the “Redpanels” cartoons is very clever. I’ve already shared ones on the minimum wage, universal basic income, and Keynesian economics. Now, here’s one on federal infrastructure.

P.P.S. I wrote two years ago about the guy in England who built a private road to help drivers avoid lengthy delays caused by poor government planning. We have an even more…um…interesting example from Russia of how the private sector can take over when the government founders.

Gangs smuggling goods into Russia have secretly repaired a road on the Belarussian border in order to boost business, the TASS news agency reported Monday. Smugglers have transformed the gravel track in the Smolensk region in order to help their heavy goods vehicles traveling on the route, said Alexander Laznenko from the Smolensk region border agency. The criminal groups have widened and raised the road and added additional turning points, he said. The road, which connects Moscow to the Belarussian capital of Minsk, is known to be used by smugglers wishing to avoid official customs posts.

This is like a libertarian fantasy. The private sector builds a road to help entrepreneurs avoid trade taxes. What’s not to love? And unlike the libertarian sex fantasy or my 1992 debate fantasy, it’s actually true!

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Back in August, I acknowledged that lifestyle leftists in California won a real victory. They imposed a tax on sugary soft drinks in Berkeley and achieved a reduction in consumption.

But I pointed out that their success actually was an affirmation of supply-side economics, which is simply the common-sense principle that taxes impact behavior. Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

Which is why I’m constantly trying to get my leftist friends to be intellectually consistent. Even though I don’t think it’s the role of government to dictate our private behavior, I tell them that they are right about higher taxes on tobacco leading to less smoking (also more smuggling, but that’s a separate issue).

Yet these people simultaneously claim that higher tax rates on income (especially on the evil rich!) won’t lead to less work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Maybe the disconnect is that leftists think tobacco and sugar are special cases.

So let’s look at another example of a “successful” tax increase.

Oct 4 Home sales in the Vancouver region’s heated housing market fell for the second consecutive month after the province introduced a tax on foreign home ownership, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver said on Tuesday. In a statement, the board said September’s sales were at 2,253 homes, down 32.6 percent on a year-to-year basis and down 9.5 percent from August, the first full month after British Columbia announced a 15 percent tax on foreign buyers.

Hmmm…., a tax gets imposed on X (in this case, housing) and the result in less X. What a shocking outcome!

One week ago, I would have suggested that Hillary Clinton look at this story before moving forward with her plan for more class-warfare tax hikes.

Given the surprising election outcome, I’ll suggest that Donald Trump look at this story before moving forward with his plan to boost the capital gains tax on “carried interest.” And he definitely should use this example to bolster support for the main features of his tax plan, particularly the lower corporate rate and death tax repeal.

P.S. Even Barack Obama has endorsed the core principle of supply-side economics.

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Back in 2010, I shared a cartoon video making a very important point that there’s a big downside when class-warfare politicians abuse and mistreat highly productive taxpayers.

Simply stated, the geese with the golden eggs may fly away. And this isn’t just theory. As revealed by IRS data, taxpayer will move across borders to escape punitive taxation.

It’s harder to move across national borders, of course, but it happens. Record numbers of Americans have given up their passports, including some very high-profile rich people.

Some folks on the left like to argue that taxes don’t actually lead to behavioral changes. Whenever there’s evidence of migration from high-tax jurisdictions to low-tax jurisdictions, they argue other factors are responsible. The rich won’t move just because tax rates are high, they contend.

Oh, really?

Here are some excerpts from a new Research Brief from the Cato Institute. Authored by economists from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Italy’s Einaudi Institute, the article summarizes some scholarly research on how top-level inventors respond to differences in tax rates. Here’s what they did.

According to World Intellectual Property Organization data, inventors are highly mobile geographically with a migration rate of around 8 percent. But what determines their patterns of migration, and, in particular, how does tax policy affect migration? …Our research studies the effects of top income tax rates on the international migration of inventors, who are key drivers of technological progress. …We use a unique international data set on all inventors from the U.S. and European patent offices to track the international location of inventors since the 1970s. …We combine these inventor data with international top effective marginal tax rates data. Particularly interesting are “superstar” inventors, those with the most abundant and most valuable innovations. …We define superstar inventors as those in the top 1 percent of the quality distribution, and similarly construct the top 1–5 percent, the top 5–10 percent, and subsequent quality brackets. The evidence presented suggests that the top 1 percent superstar inventors are well into the top tax bracket.

And here’s what they ascertained about the behavioral response of the superstar inventors.

We start by documenting a negative correlation between the top tax rate and the share of top quality foreign inventors who locate in a country, as well as the share of top quality domestic inventors who remain in their home country. …We find that the superstar top 1 percent inventors are significantly affected by top tax rates when choosing where to locate. …the elasticity of the number of foreign top 1 percent superstar inventors to the net-of-tax rate is much larger, with corresponding values of 0.63, 0.85, and 1.04. The far greater elasticity for foreign relative to domestic inventors makes sense since, when a given country adjusts its top tax rate, it potentially affects inventor migration from all other countries.

And they point out a very obvious lesson.

…if the economic contribution of these key agents is important, their migratory responses to tax policy might represent a cost to tax progressivity. … An additional relevant consideration is that inventors may have strong spillover effects on their geographically close peers, making it even more important to attract and retain them domestically

And don’t forget the research I shared last year showing that superstar entrepreneurs are more likely to be found in lower-tax jurisdictions.

P.S. Seems to me, given that upper-income taxpayers shoulder most of the nation’s fiscal burden, that our leftist friends should be applauding the rich rather than demonizing them.

P.P.S. Let’s close with some more election-related humor.

Saw this very clever item on Twitter today.

And connoisseurs of media bias will have to double check to confirm this is satire rather than reality.

Regular readers know I’m skeptical about whether Trump will seek to control big government, but one thing I can safely say is that we’ll have an opportunity to enjoy some amusing political humor for the next four years.

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It’s easy to define and/or understand most statist policies.

  • We know that a tax increase is when politicians take (or, given the Laffer Curve, try to take) more of your money based on your decisions to work, save, shop, or invest.
  • We know that protectionism is when politicians use taxes and other policies to restrict your freedom to buy goods and services produced in other nations.
  • We know that a minimum wage mandate is when politicians criminalize employment contracts between consenting adults, thus harming low-skilled workers.
  • We know that Keynesian “stimulus” is when politicians borrow from one part of the economy and spend in another part of the economy and pretend there’s more money.

The list is potentially endless, but there’s one statist policy – cronyism – that I haven’t added to the list because I haven’t thought of a simple definition.

Are bailouts cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are subsidies cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are favors in the tax code cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are trade barriers cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that.

You’re probably noticing a pattern, which is why this new visual from the Mercatus Center is helpful. It illustrates that there are many policies that should be considered cronyism.

And Mercatus comes up with a definition that we can add to our list.

  • We know that cronyism is when politicians create “privileges that governments give to particular businesses and industries.”

Speaking of which, one of the most damaging features of cronyism is the way that it gives capitalism a bad name.

Many people equate free markets with “business.” So when people in the business sector get special favors, regular folks conclude that capitalism is a “rigged” system.

In theory, this false impression could be offset by an aggressive educational campaign by those who support free enterprise. Unfortunately, that task is rather difficult since many people assume Republicans are the pro-capitalism party. So when they see the GOP favoring corrupt handouts to business such as the Export-Import Bank and the sleazy ethanol program, they conclude – once again – that capitalism is rigged for the politically powerful.

And the battle to separate capitalism from cronyism is further hindered when major figures in the business world (such as Warren Buffett) get in bed with government.

Another example is Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX. He is known as a visionary entrepreneur, which is good. But Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains that he also has put taxpayers on the hook to underwrite and prop up much of his business activities.

It was announced this week that one of Elon Musk’s companies, Tesla Motors, will buy one of his other companies, SolarCity, for an all-stock deal worth $2.6 billion. …With the amount of taxpayer support both companies have received, perhaps the rest of us should get a vote… The deal comes as SolarCity has floundered despite significant taxpayer support through a bevy of state and federal tax credits and subsidies. Nevertheless, the solar energy company’s stock has been in long term decline as the company struggles to develop a profitable market not reliant on generous helpings of taxpayer support. Tesla, too, has fed repeatedly at the government trough. The government provided federal loan guarantees and tax credits to help manufacture its electric vehicles. It also subsidized the purchase of those same vehicles to increase sales. Even still, the company makes more money selling “carbon credits” to other manufacturers than it does electric vehicles. …Musk’s other endeavor, SpaceX, also relies heavily on government. Obviously much of its business comes from government contracts, but more interesting is how those contracts are apparently obtained. …this year’s National Defense Authorization Act contains an amendment from Senator John McCain designed to eliminate from competition the Defense Department’s current supplier of rockets and pave the way for SpaceX to take over, despite the fact that its rockets aren’t yet powerful enough for the job.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy adds her insight

Elon Musk delivered a much-anticipated speech…where he laid out his vision for colonizing Mars…a testament to human innovation and determination. …it might be more impressive if Musk could provide a vision for how his companies can succeed here on Earth first, especially without heavy reliance on taxpayer support. …Musk is no stranger to cozy relations with federal and state governments. All three of his companies have benefited heavily from taxpayers. Yet despite generous green energy handouts, his SolarCity is heavily indebted. He now wants to merge it with his electric car company, Tesla Motors, which also benefited from almost $1.3 billion in subsidies. Solidifying his crony credentials, the epitome of crony capitalism itself, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, has subsidized the payloads for numerous SpaceX launches. The Ex-Im Bank’s chairman misrepresented this as support for “small business.” …There’s no doubt that Musk is an impressive salesman and innovator. …Now that he has set his sights on Mars, let’s hope—for the future of science and exploration—that he…has the courtesy to leave taxpayers out of it.

Amen.

It’s great when entrepreneurs are successful. And I don’t resent their wealth in the slightest.

But only if they earn their money honestly, in a genuinely free and competitive market.

Cronyism, by contrast, is a cancer that compromises and erodes genuine capitalism.

P.S. Let’s close on a more upbeat and entertaining topic, which is the bipartisan mockery of politicians.

I shared a very funny post about American leftists escaping to Canada after the Tea Party election of 2010.

Here’s some related humor about Canada closing the border for the next eight years.

One unfortunate aspect of being a libertarian is that you’re almost always unhappy about whoever becomes President. Indeed, I’ve only been pleased with one President who has served in my lifetime.

So I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Republicans who were unhappy after the 2012 election. And I’m similarly immune to feelings of empathy for Democrats who are unhappy about this election.

Especially the leftists who are engaging is hysterical hyperbolic histrionics (how’s that for alliteration!) about Trump. Here’s some great satire about the millennials protesting against Trump’s victory.

As anti-Trump rallies nationwide turned hostile overnight with widespread reports of violence, looting, vandalism, and death threats against the president-elect and his supporters, police in numerous major cities were able to instill calm and regain control by handing out participation trophies to all millennial protesters who were enraged about losing the election, sources confirmed. …“It’s a foreign notion to them. Even in sports—win or lose, everyone won, and everyone got a trophy no matter what. This is the millennial way,” he said. “So I had the idea—hey, why not start handing out participation trophies to the protesters, and telling them ‘Hey, you know what? You may have lost the election, but look—everyone gets a trophy. Everyone’s a winner.’” Seeing how the trophies had an instantaneous calming effect on the millennials and filled them with a sense of fulfillment and achievement, word spread quickly among police departments nationwide, and emergency trophies were procured by the thousands for use at the rallies.

Speaking of which, here’s an amusing image that has a serious message. I agree with leftists who fear that Trump may abuse the vast powers of the federal government. But they supported Obama’s dubious expansion of executive power, so they don’t have much credibility on the issue.

Reminds me of this clever poster that the Libertarian Party created to mock the Occupy crazies.

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Now that Donald Trump has been elected, one of my main goals will be to convince him and his team that it would be wrong to leave government spending on autopilot (and it would be even worse to spend more money and increase the burden of government!).

Since Trump semi-endorsed the Penny Plan, I don’t think this is a hopeless quest. But it will be an uphill battle since populists have a “public choice” incentive to appease interest groups.

But we have a very powerful weapon in this battle. It’s called evidence.

And now there’s even more data on our side. The Institute for Economic Affairs in London has just published an excellent new book on fiscal policy. Edited by Philip Booth, Taxation, Government Spending, & Economic Growth is must reading for those who want to understand the deleterious impact of the modern welfare state.

The IEA’s Director General, Mark Littlewood, explains the goal in the book’s foreword.

The authors of this monograph have taken a rigorous and data-driven approach to discovering and documenting the size of the state and how government spending and regulation affect the wider economy. But, most importantly, they have undertaken a major and original statistical analysis of the economic costs of high taxes and, equally importantly, which taxes cause the most economic harm.

The most depressing part of the book is contained in Chapter 3. As you can see from Table 7, the burden of government used to be rather modest in western nations. Indeed, I’ve made the point that it was during the era of small government that the western world became rich.

But now look at the numbers. Pay special attention to the period between 1960 and 1980, which is when the welfare state exploded in many of the countries (aided and abetted by the value-added tax).

But let’s not cry about unfortunate historical developments.

It will be more productive if we measure the harm so we can educate policy makers about the need for spending restraint.

And the book is filled with lots of useful information in that quest. In Chapter 4, David Smith explains the interaction between fiscal policy and economic performance, noting that excessive government not only reduces the level of economic output, but also the future growth rate.

…increased governmental consumption appears to reduce national output. This is likely to be because the resources diverted to supply such expenditures would be better employed in the private sector. In particular, the evidence from international cross-section and panel-data studies suggests that almost all increases in the share of governmental expenditure in GDP lead to a near one-for-one reduction in the share allocated to private capital formation. This under-capitalisation takes the economy onto a lower, but parallel, growth path according to ‘neo-classical’ growth models but leads to an additional permanent reduction in the growth rate in the context of a ‘post-neo-classical endogenous-growth’ model.

He provides a micro-economic explanation for why various government activities hinder growth (I offer eight reasons in this video, by the way).

Transfer payments are likely to reduce economic growth in various ways, not least because of the supply-side effects of the taxes necessary to finance them. Unlike with government investment, there is unlikely to be any offsetting effect on growth. These have grown rapidly over the last century. Transfers in the form of pensions and other payments to people at older ages are likely to reduce saving in the private sector and fixed capital formation. However, the most potentially counter-productive public expenditure appears to be paying means-tested welfare benefits to the population of working age. These reduce potential GDP because of their impact in reducing the supply of labour to the private sector, which exacerbates the effect of the taxes necessary to finance them. …there has been a big increase in government spending over the last 100 years. However, within the government spending envelope, there has been a particularly large increase in those items that damage the economy most while those items that tend to have a beneficial effect on growth or which damage the economy least have been reduced.

In other words, he’s saying that not only is government too big. He’s also pointing out that much of the spending is seemingly designed to impose economic damage by discouraging the productive use and allocation of labor and capital.

I also like that he explains that the real problem is spending, not just red ink (a point I often make, but not always successfully, when talking to politicians).

…statistical evidence that suggests that the negative effects of higher taxes and budget deficits on private activity are identical in the long run and quite similar in the short term. This confirms that the primary issue is the size of state spending compared with national output and that the choice between tax and bond finance is a secondary consideration. Ultimately, government spending is financed either by taxes levied now or deferred taxes.

He then reviews some of the research on the “Rahn Curve.”

…it is reasonable to ask whether there are ‘growth-maximising’ or ‘welfare-maximising’ levels of government expenditure. …The growth-maximising share of government spending in GDP was some 20–25 per cent of GDP. This was based on the fact that ratios in this range were typical of the fast growing South East Asian ‘Tiger’ economies, countries such as Japan and Korea in their high growth phases, and even Australia, Canada and Spain in the 1950s. This indicative range should probably be revised down to some 18.5–23.5 per cent, using current (June 2016) UK definitions.

Incidentally, I like and dislike what he wrote in this section.

I like it because the obvious conclusion is that the burden of government is excessive in both the United States (37.9 percent of GDP according to OECD fiscal data) and the United Kingdom (43.3 percent of GDP). And we can use this data to argue for much-needed spending restraint.

But I don’t like the above passage because I think the growth-maximizing size of government is well below 20 percent of GDP. As I’ve previously explained, academic researchers are constrained by the lack of data for small-government economies. So when they crunch numbers (relying in all cases on post-WWII data, and in most cases on much more recent figures), they basically find that Hong Kong and Singapore grow the fastest and they think that implies the public sector should consume 20 percent of economic output.

But that implies, if you recall the data in Table 7 from above, that nations would have enjoyed more growth in 1870 if they doubled the burden of government spending. I think that’s nonsensical. What’s really happening is that researchers are simply measuring the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

But just because Hong Kong and Singapore are the first two jurisdictions that can be plotted, that doesn’t mean the Rahn Curve peaks at that point.

But I realize I’m nit-picking, so let’s go back to the book.

In the following chapter, Professor Patrick Miniford shares some additional research on the link between government spending and economic performance. I especially like how he shares a very useful table looking at some scholarly findings on the relationship between the overall fiscal burden and national prosperity.

He also shares the conclusions from additional research.

Later studies show similar associations. For example, Afonso and Furceri (2008) examine a number of EU and other OECD countries over the period 1970–2004. As well as several components of government expenditure and taxation, they include variables such as initial output, population growth, investment ratio, human capital and openness. Their finding is that a 1 percentage point rise in the government spending to GDP ratio cuts growth in the OECD by 0.12 per cent and in the EU by 0.13 per cent. …overall, the tax (or government spending) and growth studies, indicate a strong association between the two variables. As a rule of thumb, it would appear that a 10 percentage point fall in the share of national income taken in tax would lead to slightly more than a 1 percentage point increase in the growth rate – results of this order of magnitude occur over and over again.

And he discusses some new statistical findings, along with the potential implications for the United Kingdom.

…the relationship between the growth rate of GDP per capita, the tax rate, a dummy variable specific to each time period, and a dummy variable specific to each country is modelled. Panel data were used that were averaged over consecutive decades from 1970 to 2000 for 100 countries. …overall, the modelling found an overwhelmingly strong negative relationship between tax and growth…there is an elasticity of growth to tax of approximately –1.4 at the mean of the growth rate (1.6 per cent). …a fall in the tax rate by 25 per cent of its existing value (from about 40 per cent to about 30 per cent of national income in the UK) would lead to a rise in the growth rate to 2.7 per cent if the initial growth rate were 2 per cent. This is roughly in line with the growth regression results discussed above.

I’m sure the data and conclusions also apply to the United States.

Which brings me back to where I started. I fretted yesterday that Trump’s election will be a challenge to advocates of economic liberty. Indeed, he explicitly called for more infrastructure spending and implicitly called for more VA spending in his acceptance speech. Combined with his apparent rejection of entitlement reform, this doesn’t instill much confidence.

But that’s all the more reason to disseminate this new research on the bad consequences of letting America become more like France.

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Wow.

I don’t know what else to say.

Almost all the experts said Trump couldn’t win the GOP nomination. Then the expert consensus was that Trump had virtually no chance of winning the White House.

Now, for better or worse, he’s going to be America’s next President.

What about my 2016 prediction? Well, other than my guess that Michigan might go for Trump (outcome still not confirmed), I don’t look very prescient. At the very least, I missed Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.

For what it’s worth, I did better with Congress. Depending on the outcome of the Senate contest in New Hampshire, my prediction for a 51-49 GOP majority may be spot on (though I generally wasn’t right about the seats that would change hands). But who cares about my prediction. It’s downright remarkable that Republicans held on to the Senate, something that seemed improbable considering that the GOP was defending more than twice as many seats as Democrats.. Moreover, the leading Tea Party-type Senators from the 2010 election – Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, and Pat Toomey – were all reelected.

And we may not know the final number for a few days, but my guess that there would be 239 House Republicans also will be very close. Again, the accuracy of my prediction is trivial compared to the fact that the GOP will have lost fewer than 10 seats when they were defending their largest majority in almost 90 years. A stunning outcome.

So what does the election mean? The political answer is that Barack Obama has been a disaster for Democrats. I joked back in 2010 that Libertarians should name him as “Man of the Year” for restoring interest in the ideas of limited Government. Republicans should turn that joke into reality since Obama turned a dominant Democrat Party (majority of senators, representatives, governors, and state legislators) into a hollow shell.

The policy answer is a bit more difficult. I’ve fretted many times that Trump doesn’t believe in economic liberty. Some folks say that doesn’t matter since House and Senate Republicans can drive the agenda. But, as indicated by this slide that I shared in several recent European speeches, I don’t think that’s realistic.

A Republican Congress almost certainly isn’t going to push policies unless they get some sort of positive signal from the White House (remember how the Bush years led to lots of statism, notwithstanding a supposedly conservative House and Senate).

The real mystery is predicting the signal Trump will send. Here’s what I hope for – and what I’m afraid of – in the next four years.

My fantasy outcome – Given his disappointing rhetoric, it’s highly unlikely that Trump will embrace comprehensive entitlement reform. It’s especially doubtful that he will touch the programs (Social Security and Medicare) that provide benefits to seniors. But it’s plausible to think he might be open to reforming the “means-tested” programs. Even if he simply decided to support the block-granting of Medicaid, that would be a big achievement. And repealing Obamacare would be great as well. He did propose a rather attractive tax plan as part of his campaign, though I didn’t get too excited since a large tax cut seemed unrealistic in the absence of a concomitant plan to limit the growth of spending. But if Trump can get one or two of the big provisions approved, most notably a lower corporate rate and death tax repeal, that would be a very positive step in the right direction. And if he actually gets serious about the “Penny Plan,” that would give him a lot more leeway for big tax cuts. Needless to say, I also hope  his protectionist campaign rhetoric doesn’t translate into actual proposals for higher taxes on trade.

My feared outcome – In his acceptance speech, Trump focused on two policies. More infrastructure spending and helping veterans. This is not a good sign. Regarding infrastructure, my nightmare scenario is that he pushes a giant stimulus-type scheme that would increase the federal government’s role in transportation. On the issue of veterans. I’m not aware of any specific plans, but my fear is that he will simply throw more money at the failed VA system. Let’s also not forget he has endorsed a higher capital gains tax on “carried interest.” And if he does decide to push protectionist legislation, that could wreak a lot of havoc. In the long run, I’m also worried that Trump will commit a “sin of omission” by leaving entitlements untouched. And if we wait another four – or eight – years to address the problem, the slow-motion train wreck may turn into an about-to-happen train wreck. Last but not least, what if Trump gets to the White House and feels that all his big plans for tax cuts and new spending aren’t feasible because the numbers don’t add up? Will he then decide that he needs a big revenue plug like a value-added tax? Sounds crazy, right, but don’t forget that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were seduced into adding VATs to their plans, so why wouldn’t Trump be susceptible to the same mistake? A horrifying, but not implausible, scenario.

Now perhaps you understand why, in yesterday’s column, I focused on the potential silver lining of a Hillary victory. It’s because I don’t like to dwell on the potential downside of a Trump victory.

Let’s close with a quick review of the major ballot initiatives I highlighted last month.

  • The Good – The biggest slam-dunk of the night was the overwhelming 80-20 rejection of single-payer health care in Colorado. Voters in the state also rejected a tax hike on tobacco. A pro-gun control initiative in Maine is narrowly failing. In other news, a sales tax increase was defeated in Oklahoma, as was the gross receipts tax in Oregon and the carbon tax in Washington. Also, lots of state legalized pot (although voting to tax it as well).
  • The bad – Voters appear to have approved class-warfare tax hikes in Maine and California. Maine voters also hiked the minimum wage, as did voters in Colorado, and California voters approved higher cigarette taxes. Soda taxes were approved in a handful of locations.
  • The ugly – The defeat of charter school expansion in Massachusetts is a crippling blow to the hopes of poor families for a better education.

As you can see, a mixed bag. Some good results, but also some bad choices.

But this is why I like federalism. States can innovate and experiment, constrained by the fact that really crazy policies will eventually lead to California-style decline. And I’d rather have a couple of states in a death spiral rather than the entire nation.

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The bad news is that America is about to elect a statist president. But will we get Hillary’s corruption or Donald’s buffoonery?

According to RealClearPolitics, Hillary Clinton will prevail, albeit by a very narrow margin, with 272 electoral votes. They have a very close race because Trump is projected to prevail in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada. If you believe these numbers, Trump simply has to flip semi-competitive New Hampshire (home to thousands of free-state libertarians) and he is the next President. At which point this joke about emigration to Canada becomes reality.

According to Nate Silver, a highly regarded statistics expert, Hillary Clinton wins comfortably because she carries the swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada. That should give her 323 electoral votes, but Silver’s model is based on probabilities, so she instead is projected to get 302.4 electoral votes. For what it’s worth, Gary Johnson easily breaks the record for the Libertarian Party, but he falls just short of the 5-percent mark.

According the political betting markets, Hillary Clinton will prevail with 323 electoral votes. The people waging cash believe she will come out on top in Nevada, Florida, and North Carolina, matching Nate Silver’s projection (interestingly, Trump is seen as having a better chance in Michigan than in Nevada). All of the third-party candidates, including Gary Johnson, apparently have a 0.1 percent chance of winning.

Last but not least, we have Professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He picks Hillary and says she will get 322 electoral votes. Sabato has the same state-by-state breakdown as Silver and the betting markets, but he projects that Trump will win one electoral vote from Maine, which (like Nebraska) allocates two votes to the statewide winner and then one vote to the winner of each congressional district. In the for-what-it’s-worth department, there are twice as many (90) vulnerable electoral votes that Democrats have to worry about compared to Republicans (43).

So what’s my prediction?

If I wanted to torture the American people by prolonging the race, I would take the RealClearPolitics prediction, shift New Hampshire to Trump and shift Maine’s second congressional district to Hillary. The net result would be a 269-269 tie and the result would be total turmoil since the election would then be decided based on skullduggery in the electoral college or a state-by-state vote in the House of Representatives.

But I don’t expect that to happen, even though it would be highly entertaining (it would make Bush-vs.-Gore in 2000 seem like a bipartisan picnic).

I’m tempted to simply recycle the prediction I put forth one month ago. I showed Hillary winning with 328 electoral votes (basically similar to the consensus above, but with Iowa going for Hillary).

But it does indeed look like Trump will prevail in Iowa, so my final prediction will move the Hawkeye State back in the GOP column.

But I don’t want to have the same guess as almost everyone else (we libertarians have a tendency to be obstreperous), so let’s mix things up. The easy adjustment would be to give one or two of the “leaning Democrat” states to Trump. But my gut instinct tells me that growing Hispanic populations in Nevada and Florida make that unlikely. And North Carolina has too many college-educated whites, as well as an increased Hispanic presence, neither of which is good news for Trump.

So I’m going to defy all the experts and give Trump an extra state from the rust belt. Let’s say Michigan, which means my final electoral prediction is a 306-232 victory for Tweedledee. Or is she Tweedledum? Whatever.

Some of my Republican friends will be disappointed by this outcome, so time to make some predictions that will make them happy. The House stays Republican in my humble opinion, with a final total of 239 seats (my one success in the business of political prognostication occurred six years ago when I was exactly right in my House prediction).

The Senate outcome is even more important and GOPers will be very happen if I am correct in predicting that Republicans will hold the Senate 51-49, which would be a remarkable achievement since they are defending more than twice as many seats as Democrats this cycle. Nonetheless, that still means they will lose three seats, and my guess is that Wisconsin, Illinois, and Pennsylvania is where Republicans incumbents will fall short.

By the way, this outcome is not too bad for libertarians and other advocates of limited government. Consider these implications.

  • Hillary will enter office widely disliked and distrusted, and the media will pay much closer attention to her misdeeds once she defeats Trump.
  • She’ll have very little opportunity to expand the burden of government since the House (and maybe the Senate) will be controlled by Republicans.
  • The 2018 mid-term elections are usually bad news for the party that controls the White House and Democrats have to defend a disproportionate number of Senate seats that cycle.
  • The GOP might nominate someone in 2020 who believes in smaller government and that candidate may sweep into office with a Republican House and a Republican Senate.
  • In 2021, genuine entitlement reform and sweeping tax reform could get enacted and Dan Mitchell could then safely retire to the Cayman Islands and introduce softball to that population.

Nice scenario, huh?

Then again, I basically made the same argument four years ago, and that didn’t turn out so well.

So if you’re done laughing at my optimistic take, here’s some meant-to-be-funny material to carry you through the day.

We’ll start with Anthony Weiner learning why it’s not a good idea to get on Hillary’s bad side (by the way, I have run into people who actually think that the Clintons have had people murdered and I always give them this column in hopes of calming them down).

And since Donald Trump is on the bad side of lots of Hispanic voters (presumably enough to give the election to Hillary), this quip by Seth Meyers is particularly (and appropriately) savage. Indeed, if Trump loses by a narrow margin and if he is capable of introspection, one wonders whether he will regret some of his rhetoric.

Last but not least, if you liked the “Mitt Romney Style” video from 2012, we can balance it with a video about Hillary, showing how the White House will operate under when pay-to-play become the modus operandi at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

P.S. Don’t forget that there are several important ballot initiatives today.

Addendum: Can’t resist adding this cleverly doctored photo of Chelsea reading a bedtime story.

Though, to her credit, Chelsea isn’t associated with any bad policy ideas. The same can’t be said for Ivanka Trump.

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about Clemens Schneider’s hypothesis, presented at the European Students for Liberty regional conference in Maastricht, that 1356 was a very important year in European history because of two events that promoted decentralization and federalism.

I also participated in the event and was asked to speak about “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe.”

But I spent 90 percent of my speech saying there was very little hope of that happening. I highlighted three points.

  1. Europe is suffering from anemic growth and is falling further behind the United States.
  2. Demographic changes in Europe will likely cause even further economic stagnation.
  3. An ever-rising burden of government spending will further cripple economic performance.

To tie all these points together, I pointed out that worsening fiscal policy doesn’t necessarily mean economic decline. If nations make sufficient improvements in other policy areas (regulation, monetary policy, trade, rule of law and property right), then it is still possible to have more overall freedom and a stronger economy. Indeed, that’s basically what happened in developed nations after World War II.

But that hasn’t been happening in the 21st Century. Here’s a chart I prepared for the students showing changes in overall economic freedom in the major nations of Western Europe from 2000-present.

As you can see, other than Austria’s tiny increase and Greece’s unchanged (but still lowest on the list) score, economic freedom in Europe has been eroding. Indeed, the average decline is about .2 on a 0-10 scale, which isn’t trivial.

I also included the United States, which unfortunately has experienced the biggest decrease of all nations (thanks Bush and Obama!). And I’m disappointed that Switzerland (one of my favorite nations) also has moved in the wrong direction.

To conclude, there was a reprehensible American journalist named Lincoln Steffens who made a trip to the Soviet Union in 1919 and then told American audiences that, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Some might argue we shouldn’t judge him too harshly since it took time for the barbarity of communism to become apparent, but any ideology that puts the state over the individual is a priori evil in my humble opinion.

But I’m digressing. I cite Steffens’ infamous quote because I, too, have seen the future. It’s Europe. And it doesn’t work.

P.S. I did point out that the outlook for European is not theoretically hopeless. Even Greece could climb out of its statist malaise with sustained spending restraint and other market reforms.

P.P.S. My indictment of Europe, I explained, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the United States. I explained that our long-run outlook was similarly grim (and will probably accelerate in the wrong direction because of the election).

P.P.P.S. Which is why I told the students in my conclusion that they should apply for Australian visas.

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I’m generally a fan of Australia. I wrote my dissertation on the country’s private Social Security system, and I’m always telling policy makers we should  copy their approach. The Aussies also abolished death taxes, which was a very admirable choice.

I even wrote that Australia is the place to go if politicians wreck the American dream and turn us into a New World version of Greece.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of foolish policy Down Under.

A column in the Sydney Morning Herald notes that the mining-heavy state of Western Australia faces a fiscal crisis even though it enjoyed a lengthy economic boom when there was a lot of demand for natural resources.

…the state has recently attracted much attention – and derision – for the way its policy making elite squandered the wealth generated by the resources boom. …how WA managed to emerge from the once in a lifetime mining boom with an estimated debt burden of $40 billion by 2020 and a projected budget deficit of $4 billion is one of the West’s great mysteries. Or not, if you bother to look at what happened.

Ironically, the author of the column didn’t bother to look at what happened. He wasted a lot of ink extolling the supposed virtues of Norway’s oil-financed sovereign wealth fund, but he never shared any fiscal data.

Why he omitted this very relevant information is a bit of a mystery. It’s certainly not because it’s hidden. I’m on the other side of the world, but my intern managed to get spending and revenue data for Western Australia without any heavy lifting.

And what do we see? Can we learn why the Aussie state is in a fiscal mess?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that politicians in Western Australia spent too much money. Annual outlays grew by an average of nearly seven percent each year.

That spending spree may not have seemed reckless when the resources boom was generating big increases in government receipts.

But as happened in both Alberta and Alaska, the chickens of fiscal profligacy eventually come home to roost when there are resources-fueled spending binges.

Not that all politicians in Western Australia have learned from their mistakes.

WA Nationals leader Brendon Grylls certainly has…launched a rather lonely campaign to make the miners pay more tax.

By the way, the National Party is supposed to be on the right side of the political spectrum, yet this politician wants to blame mining companies even though it was the government that squandered so much money. Makes me wonder if his middle initial is “W“?

Anyhow, there is a larger lesson for the rest of us – assuming, of course, that we want sensible fiscal policy.

The main conclusion we should draw is that it is vitally important to control spending in boom years. That’s when lots of revenue is flowing to the government and it’s very difficult for politicians to resist the temptation to spend that windfall revenue.

A spending cap, though, solves this problem.

And research from the International Monetary Fund echoes this argument.

One of the desirable features of expenditure rules compared to other rules is that they are not only binding in bad but also in good economic times.

The European Central Bank reached the same conclusion.

…if governments have fiscal rules in place, the results suggest that governments can no longer fully use their fiscal space and (on average) are even forced to reduce their current expenditures.

Even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development agrees.

…spending rules can can limit pro-cyclical spending in the presence of revenue windfalls in good times.

So we know the right solution. Now the challenge is convincing politicians (who are often governed by bad incentives) to tie their own hands.

P.S. Now I understand why Crocodile Dundee didn’t like giving Australian politicians any more money than absolutely necessary.

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Back in 2012, I wrote a detailed article explaining that Europe became rich in part because Europe didn’t exist.

The geographic landmass of Europe existed, of course, but the continent was characterized by massive political fragmentation. And this absence of centralized authority, many scholars concluded, meant lots of inter-government rivalry, a process that gave the private economy room to prosper.

Europe benefited from decentralization and jurisdictional competition. More specifically, governments were forced to adopt better policies because labor and capital had significant ability to cross borders in search of less oppression. …the intellectual history of this issue is enormous, and the common theme is that big, centralized states hinder development. …sovereignty should be celebrated. Not because national governments are good, but because competition between governments is the best protector of liberty and civilization. …promotion of better tax policy is just the tip of the iceberg.

I mention this because I’m currently in Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands that is (in)famous for hosting the meeting that led to the creation of the European Union.

But today, it is the European Students for Liberty meeting in Maastricht, in this case for a regional conference on “The Future of Europe.”

I’m here to give a speech on “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe,” but that’s a topic for another day. Instead, I want to highlight Clemens Schneider’s speech on “Patchwork Continent – A History of Federalism in Europe.”

Clemens is with the Prometheus Institute, a German think tank, and he discussed how federalism was critical to Europe’s development.

What made his presentation especially fascinating is that he suggested that 1356 was a very important year in the history of Europe.

Clemens based his claim on two historical events that advanced the principles of decentralization and federalism.

First, he cited the “Golden Bull” of 1356. What’s that, you ask? Wikipedia gives us the details about this remarkable development in the history of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Golden Bull of 1356 was a decree issued by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg and Metz (Diet of Metz (1356/57)) headed by the Emperor Charles IV which fixed, for a period of more than four hundred years, important aspects of the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire. It was named the Golden Bull for the golden seal it carried. …the Bull cemented a number of privileges for the Electors, confirming their elevated role in the Empire. It is therefore also a milestone in the establishment of largely independent states in the Empire, a process to be concluded only centuries later, notably with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

In other words, what was important about the Golden Bull is that signified that the Holy Roman Empire no longer was an Empire. Instead, independent (and competing) principalities became the defining feature of European polity.

Second, he cited the creation of the Hanseatic League in the same year. Once again, Wikipedia has a good description.

The Hanseatic League…was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. It dominated Baltic maritime trade (c. 1400–1800) along the coast of Northern Europe. …The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own armies for mutual protection and aid. Despite this, the organization was not a state… Much of the drive for this co-operation came from the fragmented nature of existing territorial government, which failed to provide security for trade. Over the next 50 years the Hansa itself emerged with formal agreements for confederation and co-operation covering the west and east trade routes. The principal city and linchpin remained Lübeck; with the first general Diet of the Hansa held there in 1356, the Hanseatic League acquired an official structure.

I’m not sure whether it would be accurate to say this is an example of private governance, but the Hanseatic League definitely was an example of voluntary cooperation among sovereign cities wanting peaceful trade.

Schneider basically argued in favor of this “confederalist” approach and cited Switzerland and the United States as positive examples (at least during their early years).

All of which is quite consistent with my view that centralization is the enemy of liberty. We need to make governments compete with each other. And when that happens, we’re more likely to get good policy.

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I know exactly how Ronald Reagan must have felt back in 1980 when he famously said “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter during their debate.

That’s because I endlessly have to deal with critics who try to undercut the Laffer Curve by claiming that it’s based on the notion that all tax cuts “pay for themselves.”

Now it’s time for me to say “There you go again.”

Reuters regurgitated this misleading trope about the Laffer Curve last year, issuing a report about how the head of the Congressional Budget Office supposedly disappointed “devotees” of “Reaganomics” by saying that tax cuts are not self-financing.

The…Republican-appointed director of the Congressional Budget Office delivered some bad news…to the party’s “Reaganomics” devotees: Tax cuts don’t pay for themselves through turbocharged economic growth. Keith Hall, who served as an economic adviser to former President George W. Bush, made the pronouncement… “No, the evidence is that tax cuts do not pay for themselves,” Hall said in response to a reporter’s question. “And our models that we’re doing, our macroeconomic effects, show that.” His comment is at odds with lingering economic theory from the 1980s.

Well, I’m a “devotee of Reaganomics.” So was I disappointed?

Nope. I largely agree with the CBO Director on this topic.

But I think he should have included two caveats.

First, while there are some politicians (both now and also back in the 1980s) who blindly act as if all tax cuts are self-financing, Reaganomics was not based on that notion.

Instead, proponents of the Reagan tax cuts simply argued reforms would lead to more growth – and therefore more taxable income. And, on that basis, it was a slam-dunk victory.

Interestingly, the report from Reuters quasi-admits that Reaganomics wasn’t based on self-financing tax cuts, noting instead that the core belief was that revenue generated by additional growth would result in “less need” (as opposed to “no need”) to find offsetting budget cuts.

Stronger economic growth generated by tax cuts would boost revenues so much that there is less need to find offsetting savings.

The second caveat is that not all tax cuts (or tax increases) are created equal. Some changes in tax policy have big effects on incentives to work, save, and invest. Others don’t have much impact on economic activity because the tax system’s penalty on productive behavior isn’t altered.

In a few cases, it actually is possible for a tax cut to be self-financing. But in the vast majority of cases, the real issue is the degree to which there is some amount of revenue feedback. In other words, the discussion should focus on the extent to which the foregone revenue from lower tax rates is offset by revenue gains from increased taxable income.

Let’s now look at a real-world example from Sweden to see how politicians are blind to this common-sense insight. The left-wing coalition government in that country indirectly increased marginal tax rates (by phasing out a credit) for some high-income taxpayers this year. The experts at Timbro have examined the potential revenue impact. They start with a description of what happened to policy.

To finance their reforms, …the marginal tax rate for some 400,000 people working in Sweden – e g doctors, engineers, accountants/auditors and others in high income brackets – will be increased by three percentage points to 60 per cent. …it is also necessary to take into consideration payroll tax… Under current rules, the effective marginal tax rate is 75 per cent for high earners. After the phase-out it rises to 77 per cent.

Amazingly, the Swedish government assumes that taxpayers won’t change their behavior in reaction to this high marginal tax rate.

Decades of economics research show that if you raise income tax, people will reduce their working time, put in less effort on the job and engage in more tax planning. When the government calculated the expected increase in revenue of SEK 2.7 billion from the earned income tax credit’s phase out, it failed to take changes in behaviour into consideration because revenue and expenses in the budget are calculated statically.

The folks at Timbro explain what likely will happen as upper-income taxpayers respond to the higher marginal tax rate.

The amount of revenue generated from a tax hike depends on how people change their behaviour as a result. … High elasticity means that salary earners are sensitive to changes in taxation, and that they are very likely to alter their behaviour with certain types of reforms. Examples of this are increasing or decreasing hours worked, switching jobs, or starting a company to enable more tax-planning options. …Elasticity of 0.3 is often used in international literature (e g Hendren, 2014) as a reasonable estimate of the mainstream for this area of research. Piketty & Saez (2012) state that most estimates of elasticity are within the range of 0.1 and 0.4. They conclude that 0.25 is “a realistic mid-range estimate” of elasticity.

So what happens when you apply these measures of taxpayer responsiveness to the Swedish tax hike?

With zero elasticity, i e a static assessment, the revenue increase from phase-out of the earned income tax is assessed at SEK 2.6 billion. That is in line with the government’s estimate of SEK 2.7 billion. … all revenue disappears already at a low, 0.1, level of elasticity.

And when you look at the more mainstream measures of taxpayer responsiveness, the net effect of the government’s tax hike is that the Swedish Treasury will have less revenue.

In other words, this is one of those rare examples of taxable income changing by enough to swamp the impact of the change in the marginal tax rate.

And since we’re dealing with turbo-charged examples of the Laffer Curve, let’s look at what my colleague Alan Reynolds shared about the “huge across-the-board increase in marginal tax rates…Herbert Hoover pushed for” in the early 1930s.

Total federal revenues fell dramatically to less than $2 billion in 1932 and 1933 – after all tax rates had been at least doubled and the top rate raised from 25% to 63%.  That was a sharp decline from revenues of $3.1 billion in 1931 and more than $4 billion in 1930, when the top tax was just 25%. …Revenues fell even as a share of falling GDP –  from 4.1% in 1930 and 3.7% in 1931 to 2.8% in 1932 (the first year of the Hoover tax increase) and 3.4% in 1933. That illusory 1932-33 “increase” was entirely due to less GDP, not more revenue.

Roosevelt’s additional tax increases in the mid-1930s didn’t work much better.

The 15 highest tax rates were increased again in 1936, dividends were made fully taxable at those higher rates, and both corporate and capital gains tax rates were also increased…  Yet all of those massive “tax increases”…failed to bring as much revenue in 1936 as was collected with much lower tax rates in 1930.

The point of these examples is not that governments wound up with less money. What matters is that politicians destroyed private-sector output as a consequence of more punitive tax policy.

And that’s why the tax increases that generate more tax revenue are almost as misguided as the ones that lose revenue.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s tax-hike plan. The Tax Foundation crunched the numbers and concluded it would generate more revenue for the federal government. But I argued that shouldn’t matter.

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.

At the risk of repeating myself, we shouldn’t try to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

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I’m in Sweden today, where I just spoke before Timbro (a prominent classical liberal think tank) about the US elections and the implications for public policy.

My main message was pessimism since neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton support genuine entitlement reform.

But I’ve addressed that topic many times before. Today, motivated by my trip, I want to augment my analysis about Sweden from 10 days ago.

In that column, I highlighted some research from Professor Olle Kranz showing that Sweden became a rich nation during a free-market era when government was relatively small. And as you can see from his chart (I added the parts in red), this is also when per-capita economic output in Sweden caught up with – and eventually surpassed – per-capita GDP in other advanced countries.

Then Sweden began to lose ground. Some of this was understandable and inevitable. Sweden didn’t participate in World War II, so its comparative prosperity during the war and immediately afterwards was a one-time blip.

But the main focus of my column from last week was to show that Swedish prosperity began a sustained drop during the 1960s, and I argued that the nation lost ground precisely because statist policies were adopted.

In other words, Sweden enjoyed above-average growth when it relied on policies I like and then suffered below-average growth when it imposed the policies (high tax rates, massive redistribution, etc) that get Bernie Sanders excited.

Today, let’s build upon Professor Kranz’s analysis by extending his calculations. He did his research in the early part of last decade, and we now have many years of additional data that can be added to the chart.

But before doing that, it’s worth noting that the years of additional data basically coincide with a period of market-oriented reforms in Sweden. A study from the Reform Institute in Stockholm explains some of what happened, starting with the stagnation caused by the era of big government.

The seventies and eighties saw Sweden’s tax burden rise from an average European level to the world’s highest. The public sector expanded vastly. All facets of the welfare system were made more generous in international comparison. Meanwhile, labour market regulation increased… Throughout these years, Swedes’ individual after-tax real income stagnated, private sector job creation ceased, and public debt spiralled higher. This culminated in a severe economic crisis in the early 1990s. By then, Sweden had fallen to 14th place in the GDP per capita rankings of OECD countries.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that this economic misery led to market-oriented reforms.

When the onset of the financial crisis coincided with election of a market-oriented centre-right government in 1991, the reform process began in earnest. Most emphasis at the time was placed on reforms that opened significant sectors in the economy to greater competition. Moreover, an important feature of these regulatory reforms was that the crisis spurred local authorities to implement less burdensome regulation. …significant changes were introduced to the tax system, macroeconomic policy framework, and social insurance system. …every aspect of the Swedish economy has changed due to implementation of reforms. …public sector employment has declined.

To be sure, none of the means Sweden became Hong Kong. It is currently ranked only #38 by Economic Freedom of the World, and its score only improved from 6.92 in 1990 to 7.46 today, hardly a huge jump.

But we nonetheless can now check whether this period of modest reform yielded any dividends. And, looking at an updated and extended version of Professor Kranz’s chart, there certainly seems to be a clear relationship between pro-market policy and Swedish prosperity.

Call me crazy, but it seems like there’s a lesson here about the right recipe for growth.

P.S. The 16 countries in the comparison are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

P.P.S. If you’re so disposed, you can watch my speech in Stockholm on Timbro’s Facebook page. If you prefer YouTube, the folks at CEPOS in Denmark saw the same speech (I only oppose wasteful forms of recycling) and they posted it yesterday.

P.P.P.S. If you’re interested in more information about market-oriented reforms in Sweden, check out Lotta Moberg’s video and Johan Norberg’s video.

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In 2008, government spending consumed 50.9 percent of economic output in Greece according to OECD fiscal data. That same year, Greece’s score from Economic Freedom of the World was 7.12 (on a 0-10 scale), which was rather poor for a supposedly developed country and only #60 for all nations.

Then the fiscal crisis hit and Greece supposedly has atoned for its profligacy and gone through a tough period of “austerity” to reduce the burden of government spending and cut back on onerous levels of bureaucracy and red tape.

How much progress has occurred? Have Greek politicians, with the help of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank (the infamous “troika”), scaled back government and freed up the private sector?

Nope.

The OECD data shows that the burden of government spending is now 53.1 percent of economic output. And the latest data from Economic Freedom of the World shows that Greece’s score has dropped to 6.93 (dropping the country to #86 in the rankings).

In other words, Greece suffered a crisis caused by too much government and too much statism and the politicians (along with outside “experts”) decided that the solution was to….drum roll, please…increase the relative size and scope of government.

As one Greek observer noted in a column for CapX, this has not been a very successful recipe.

…how has the Troika been performing? 3 adjustment programs, 12 reviews, 220 billion Euros and 7 years down the road, the results are abysmal: 179% debt, 0% growth, 25.1% unemployment.

To be fair, there has been some spending restraint since the crisis began. In some years, the budget even shrank. The problem, though, is that the private sector has been battered by huge tax increases, thus crippling incentive to create jobs and growth.

If you want to get a sense of what’s happening, this New York Times story is a very sobering example. Apparently the tax burden is so oppressive that people don’t want to inherit property.

At law courts throughout Greece, people are lining up to file papers renouncing their inheritance. …they are turning their backs on what used to be a pillar of Greece’s economy and society: real estate. …In 2013, two years after a property tax was introduced (previously, real estate tax revenue came mainly from transfers or conveyance taxes), 29,200 people declined to accept their inheritance, according to the Justice Ministry. In 2015, the number had climbed to 45,627, an increase of 56 percent in two years. Reports from across the country suggest that this year, too, large numbers of people are refusing to inherit. …People once hoped that if they came into property they could sell it and live easier; now they fear that they will be unable to sell it and the taxes will drag them down. …After many years in which only very valuable properties were taxed, many Greeks went from paying almost no taxes on real estate to not having enough money to pay. In 2010, property taxes accounted for 0.26 percent of gross domestic product, while this year they are around 2 percent, according to state budget figures. …Arrears in tax payments at the end of September were at 92.8 billion euros and keep increasing by about 1 billion each month.

But give Greek politicians credit for a perverse form of perseverance. They’re doing everything they can to squeeze even more money from oppressed taxpayers. Indeed, the U.K.-based Times reports that they’re even spying on social media to see if people have lifestyles that seem extravagant compared to the income they report to tax police.

Finance ministry officials said that an operation named “24 hours” will monitor about 1.8 million Greeks believed to be declaring an income inconsistent with their lavish lifestyles they enjoy and display on websites. Trifon Alexiades, the deputy finance minister, said: “It may sound ludicrous, but this is a serious effort to crosscheck information about those suspected of concealing wealth.” Tax authorities will begin operating software in September for a month-long trial. “Under this new scheme, auditors will be able to access taxpayers’ Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to extract information and details of assets that may not have declared,” a Greek news site reported.

Ugh, I guess this is the kind of policy you get with you mix French-style economic advice and German-style tax enforcement. Geesh, maybe the IRS isn’t so bad after all.

And it doesn’t seem the current left-wing government is learning from all these mistakes. The EU Observer reports that it wants to make the nation’s infamous bureaucracy even bigger.

Alexis Tsipras’ Greek government plans to hire 20,000 civil servants over the next year to help Greece’s austerity hit education and health services. Government officials believe that the hiring will not run into objections from representatives of Greece’s international creditors, Kathimerini newspaper reports.

By the way, Greek politicians think more spending is the right recipe, even if it means more spending in other nations. Here’s some of what was reported back in June by Bloomberg.

Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos urged Germany to take advantage of record-low borrowing costs and invest more to spur the economy, saying Europe should seize the chance to modernize its infrastructure. …Failure to provide the euro area with a Keynesian-type stimulus would risk leaving the region with insufficient infrastructure, said Tsakalotos, whose country has the biggest ratio of debt to gross domestic product in Europe. European Union budget rules should be changed so that investment spending is excluded when calculating whether countries have met deficit targets, he said.

I guess this could be called an example of misery-loves-company economic advice. Germany has actually been complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule in recent years (and part of last decade also) and its economy is in decent shape.

But Greek politicians are basically saying, “Hey, you should be more like us.”

Heck, the Prime Minister of Greece already is trying to create a coalition of fiscally mismanaged nations.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras on Thursday invited leaders of six southern EU states to meet…in a bid to form a strong southern alliance and counter the stance of countries in Northern Europe. Athens News Agency reports the states invited will include France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta.

The article doesn’t say what this alliance would accomplish, though presumably Tsipras hopes it will be a unified voice for more handouts. Maybe it can agitate for something really crazy such as eurobonds.

I’m also amused that Greek officials think businesses will invest in a highly-taxed economy merely if politicians promise not to raise taxes even further. I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters report.

Greece is offering big investors more than a decade of no increases in their taxes, in an effort to promote entrepreneurship in a country struggling to return to growth after almost seven years of recession. …Under the law, investment plans exceeding 20 million euros and creating at least 40 new jobs could choose a stable tax regime with no tax increases for 12 years once the investment is concluded.

By the way, just in case you think promising not to go even further in the wrong direction is akin to a step in the right direction, you need to keep reading the article because you’ll discover the plan is based on cronyism.

Alternatively, they can apply for a subsidy, amounting to 10 percent of the plan and up to 5 million euros.

And if you want to understand why Greece is hopeless, check out what the Economy Minister said about how any new investments will get “quick” approval.

Stathakis said that Athens will seek to shorten approval time for investment plans to three months instead of the two to three years it takes now.

Needless to say, the approval time in a market economy is zero because people don’t have to get permission from bureaucrats before creating jobs and investing money.

But in Greece, if you curry favor with the mandarins, you’ll “only” have to wait three months. I guess that’s to be expected in a nation where bureaucrats demand stool samples before you can set up an online company.

And since we’re on the topic of regulation and red tape, this is a good time to point out that the Greek government apparently is good at passing laws to liberalize the economy but not very good at implementing them.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Liberals and Democrats, is very critical… “Greece is passing a lot of legislation, but is not implementing it. It is shocking to see that 74% of the legislation that has been adopted since the first bailout package has never been implemented.”

But let’s look at the bright side. This means 26 percent has been implemented. Of course, that 26 percent presumably includes all the tax increases.

In any event, Greece has a miserable track record when it comes to following through on commitments to reduce state intervention. The government was supposed to engage in sweeping privatizations, but the gap between projections and performance is enormous.

Last but not least, I’ve always thought the ultimate sign of incompetence is when a government can’t even waste money effectively. I’ve already noted that Japan and the U.K. have met this test, and now I can add Greece to the list.

Hundreds of millions of available EU funds have yet to be used by the Greek state to help migrants and refugees. Administrative bottlenecks on the Greek side mean that…The European Commission…will soon be sending someone to Athens to help the government resolve its issues in an effort to better spend the money.

You may be wondering what’s the purpose of today’s attack on Greece. Is it because I think poorly of Greeks? Well, I despise Greek moochers, but I have the same view of French moochers and American moochers, so that’s not the answer.

You also may be thinking this is just another excuse for me to say “I told you so” about the failure of bailouts. Sure, I’m happy to pat myself on the back, even though any non-comatose person should have known bad things were going to happen.

My real goal is to warn that the miserable results in Greece will be replicated if we try the same policy in America. There are several states that are on a very bad trajectory, such as California and Illinois. I don’t know if things will blow up during the next recession or afterwards, but if there’s any hope of forcing politicians to make sensible choices in Sacramento and Springfield, it will be very important for Washington to reject all pleas for handouts.

Likewise, pension funds for state and local government bureaucrats are ticking time bombs. Once again, prudent reforms will only be possible if politicians conclude that there’s no hope for bailouts from Uncle Sam.

The bottom line is that politicians will continue to make mistakes if they can make other people pay the price. That’s today lesson.

P.S. Even though Greece’s debt is sustainable, I would prefer a default if it meant no more bailouts. Yes, Greek politicians would be reneging on their past obligations, but the good news is that they wouldn’t be able to borrow any more money and (hopefully) would have no choice but to copy Latvia and adopt good policy.

P.P.S. Though it’s an open question whether Greece can be saved. Many productive people already have escaped the nation and most of the ones who have stayed are part of the problem.

P.P.P.S. To offset the grim message of today’s column, let’s close with some Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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While the political world is consumed by the various scandals and baggage of the two main presidential candidates, let’s play a game of make-believe. Let’s pretend that politicians aren’t crooks and clowns and instead actually want to make America’s economy more vibrant and productive so the American people can enjoy higher living standards.

What would they do? What should they do?

Those are very big questions with lots of answers, so let’s focus just on the issue of tax policy. If the goal is more growth and prosperity, there are two obvious choices.

And if these two policies are desirable, there are three ways to make them happen.

  • Pass a stand-alone tax cut.
  • Finance a tax cut with concomitant reductions in federal spending (i.e., a spending-reducing and deficit-neutral tax cut).
  • Finance a tax cut by eliminating special tax preferences (i.e., a revenue-neutral, spending-neutral, and deficit-neutral tax reform).

Needless to say, a combination of the three also is possible.

My preference is for a spending-reducing/deficit-neutral tax cut for the simple reason that lower spending and better tax policy is a win-win situation that would make us more like Hong Kong. And I certainly don’t mind going with a pure, stand-alone tax cut since it’s generally a good idea to “starve the beast.”

In the current political environment, however, I suspect the final choice may be the most practical option. That’s because reasonable leftists may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that the burden of government spending won’t be reduced. And self-styled deficit hawks may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that red ink won’t increase.

But this also can be a win-win situation since there are many distortionary preferences in the tax code that lure people into making economically inefficient decisions solely because of tax considerations. So if those provisions are repealed and all the money is used to finance lower tax rates and less double taxation, we’ll have a tax system that is much less punitive.

Heck, this is the premise of the flat tax. Wipe out the 70,000-plus pages of the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair system that taxes income only one time at one low rate.

This means getting rid of preferences such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, the charitable contributions deduction, and the state and local tax deduction.

Some people say eliminating tax preferences is too politically risky, however, akin to “touching the third rail.”

And it’s certainly true that the interest groups benefiting from a tilted playing field will fight to preserve their special preferences. But I’m not sure they would be able to scare voters into supporting their position.

The first thing to understand is that only 30.1 percent of taxpayers utilize itemized deductions. And those that do itemize on their tax returns tend to have higher-than-average incomes. And remember that these are the same people who will directly benefit from lower tax rates and less double taxation.

Interestingly, the Open Source Policy Center has an interactive site where you can see what happens to people in various income classes if selected itemized deductions are repealed.

Here are the results from repealing the state and local tax deduction. As you can see, rich people are the only ones who take a meaningful hit.

Yet are these upper-income taxpayers going to fight to preserve that deduction if they are offered a trade for lower tax rates and less double taxation?

I suppose it depends on the specific circumstances of each taxpayer, but I’m guessing a majority of them would prefer a friendlier and simpler tax code that didn’t punish wealth creation.

Moreover, if you look at where these people live, you find that they are highly concentrated in just a handful of states along with a few urban areas elsewhere in the country.

This suggests that policy makers from most states shouldn’t even care about itemized deductions. So there shouldn’t be any reason for them to oppose a tax reform plan that produces lower tax rates and less double taxation.

P.S. The hard-core left will not go along with revenue-neutral tax reform. They have such antipathy to success that some of them openly urge punitive taxes even if the economic damage is so severe that the government doesn’t collect any revenue.

P.P.S. With regards to the reasonable leftists and the deficit hawks, one can point out that good tax policy will generate better economic performance and therefore more taxable income (i.e., the Laffer Curve). But it’s only in rare (albeit sometimes very noteworthy) cases that the increase in taxable income is sufficiently large to offset the impact of lower tax rates, so revenues will still fall. And since these people don’t like tax cuts, even smaller-than-expected ones, they will still be opposed to pro-growth tax policy unless it is revenue-neutral.

P.P.P.S. The mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate.

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