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Archive for July, 2017

The notion that government should automatically give everyone money – a policy known as “universal basic income” – is now getting a lot of attention.

From an economic perspective, I acknowledge that the idea should not be summarily rejected. Here’s some of what I wrote earlier this year.

…there actually is a reasonable argument that the current welfare state is so dysfunctional that it would be better to simply give everyone a check instead.

But I’m nonetheless very skeptical. Simply stated, the math doesn’t work, people would have less incentive to work, and there would be “public choice” pressures to expand the size of the checks.

So when the topic came up as part of a recent interview, I criticized the proposal and praised Swiss voters for rejecting – by an overwhelming margin – a referendum that would have created a basic income in that nation.

My reaction was probably even more hostile than normal because I don’t like it when guilt-ridden rich people try to atone for their wealth by giving away my money.

Moreover, it’s silly for Zuckerberg to use Alaska as an example because of its oil wealth and small population.

That being said, if I had more time, I would have been more nuanced and pointed out that we hopefully will learn more from some of the experiments that are happening around the world. Especially what’s happening on the other side of the north pole from Alaska.

The New York Times published an in-depth preview of Finland’s experiment late last year. Here’s a description of the problem that Finnish policymakers want to solve.

…this city has…thousands of skilled engineers in need of work. Many were laid off by Nokia… While entrepreneurs are eager to put these people to work, the rules of Finland’s generous social safety net effectively discourage this. Jobless people generally cannot earn additional income while collecting unemployment benefits or they risk losing that assistance. For laid-off workers from Nokia, simply collecting a guaranteed unemployment check often presents a better financial proposition than taking a leap with a start-up.

For anyone who has studied the impact of redistribution programs on incentives to work, this hardly comes as a surprise.

Indeed, the story has both data and anecdotes to illustrate how the Finnish welfare state is subsidizing idleness.

In the five years after suffering a job loss, a Finnish family of four that is eligible for housing assistance receives average benefits equal to 73 percent of previous wages, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is nearly triple the level in the United States. …the social safety net…appears to be impeding the reinvigoration of the economy by discouraging unemployed people from working part time. …Mr. Saloranta has his eyes on a former Nokia employee who is masterly at developing prototypes. He only needs him part time. He could pay 2,000 euros a month (about $2,090). Yet this potential hire is bringing home more than that via his unemployment benefits. “It’s more profitable for him to just wait at home for some ideal job,” Mr. Saloranta complains.

So the Finnish government wants to see if a basic income can solve this problem.

…the Finnish government is exploring how to change that calculus, initiating an experiment in a form of social welfare: universal basic income. Early next year, the government plans to randomly select roughly 2,000 unemployed people — from white-collar coders to blue-collar construction workers. It will give them benefits automatically, absent bureaucratic hassle and minus penalties for amassing extra income. The government is eager to see what happens next. Will more people pursue jobs or start businesses? How many will stop working and squander their money on vodka? Will those liberated from the time-sucking entanglements of the unemployment system use their freedom to gain education, setting themselves up for promising new careers? …The answers — to be determined over a two-year trial — could shape social welfare policy far beyond Nordic terrain.

The results from this experiment will help answer some big questions.

…basic income confronts fundamental disagreements about human reality. If people are released from fears that — absent work — they risk finding themselves sleeping outdoors, will they devolve into freeloaders? “Some people think basic income will solve every problem under the sun, and some people think it’s from the hand of Satan and will destroy our work ethic,” says Olli Kangas, who oversees research at Kela, a Finnish government agency that administers many social welfare programs. “I’m hoping we can create some knowledge on this issue.” …Finland’s concerns are pragmatic. The government has no interest in freeing wage earners to write poetry. It is eager to generate more jobs.

As I noted above, this New York Times report was from late last year. It was a preview of Finland’s experiment.

People have been getting checks for several months. Are there any preliminary indications of the impact?

Well, the good news is that recipients apparently like getting free money. Here are some excerpts from a report by Business Insider.

…some of the 2,000 recipients are already reporting lower levels of stress. The $600 they receive each month might not be much, but it’s enough to put some people’s anxiety at ease.

But the bad news is that the handouts are giving people the flexibility to reject work.

Marjukka Turunen, head of Kela’s legal benefits unit, told Kera News. “There was this one woman who said: ‘I was afraid every time the phone would ring, that unemployment services are calling to offer me a job,'”… Scott Santens, a basic income advocate and writer…says basic income redistributes power into the middle-class — namely, to turn down unappealing jobs.

The last sentence of the excerpt is particularly worrisome. Some advocates think universal handouts are good precisely because people can work less.

It’s obviously too early to draw sweeping conclusions, especially based on a couple of anecdotes.

However, a recent column in the New York Times by two left-leaning Finns suggests that the data will not be favorable to universal handouts. The authors start with a basic explanation of the issue.

Universal basic income is generating considerable interest these days, from Bernie Sanders, who says he is “absolutely sympathetic” to the idea, to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other tech billionaires. The basic idea behind it is that handing out unconditional cash to all citizens, employed or not, would help reduce poverty and inequality… As a rich country in the European Union, with one of the highest rates of social spending in the world, Finland seemed like an ideal testing ground for a state-of-the-art social welfare experiment. …Kela, the national social-insurance institute, randomly selected 2,000 Finns between 25 and 58 years of age who were already getting some form of unemployment benefits. The subsidies were offered to people who had been unemployed for about one year or more, or who had less than six months of work experience.

But then they denigrate the study.

…the Finnish trial was poorly designed… The trial size was cut to one-fifth of what had originally been proposed, and is now too small to be scientifically viable. Instead of giving free money to everyone, the experiment is handing out, in effect, a form of unconditional unemployment benefits. In other words, there is nothing universal about this version of universal basic income. …The government has made no secret of the fact that its universal basic income experiment isn’t about liberating the poor or fighting inequality. Instead, the trial’s “primary goal” is “promoting employment,” the government explained in a 2016 document proposing the project to Parliament. Meaning: The project was always meant to incentivize people to accept low-paying and low-productivity jobs.

Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but it sounds like they are worried that the results ultimately will show that a basic income discourages labor supply.

Which reinforces my concerns about the entire concept.

Yes, the current system is bad for both poor people and taxpayers. But why would anyone think that we’ll get better results if we give generous handouts to everyone?

So if we replace all those handouts with one big universal handout, is there any reason to expect that somehow people will be more likely to find jobs and contribute to the economy?

Again, we need to wait another year or two before we have comprehensive data from Finland. But I’m skeptical that we’ll get a favorable outcome.

P.S. The Wizard-of-Id parody shown above contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. Since I rarely write about Finland, I should point out that it is ranked #20 for economic liberty, only four spots behind the United States (and the country is more pro-market than America when looking at non-fiscal policy factors).

P.P.P.S. On the minus side, Finland has decided that broadband access is somehow a human right. On the plus side, the country’s central bank produces good research on the burden of government spending, and its former president understood the essential flaw of Keynesian economics.

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In the eight years of writing this column, I’ve periodically confessed to certain fantasies. But you’ll notice that these fantasies don’t involve supermodels from Victoria’s Secret (though they did make a cameo appearance in one column).

Instead, either because I’m getting old or because I’m a dorky libertarian, my fantasies involve public policy. Here are imaginary things that have caused my pulse to quicken.

I now have a new fantasy. It involves Donald Trump. But the fantasy doesn’t involve the size of his hands, or any other body part.

Instead, I want President Trump to use his existing power to create irresistible pressure for Obamacare repeal.

Simply stated, I’m fantasizing that this tweet becomes reality.

Michael Cannon, my prescient colleague at the Cato Institute, has been urging this approach since the beginning of the year.

Here’s some of what he wrote for National Review.

Trump…can restore the Constitution’s limits on executive power, provide relief to Americans suffering under Obamacare, and hasten repeal.

Michael has a 14-point list, but here are the ones that matter for our purposes today.

First, put pressure on Congress.

1. End Congress’s illegal Obamacare exemption. Obamacare threw members of Congress and congressional staff out of their health plans and in effect cut their pay by up to $12,000 per year. Obama ignored the law and made illegal payments to private insurance companies on behalf of members of Congress and their staff for six years — all to prevent Congress from reopening the law. Trump should announce that he will end those illegal payments immediately, and that he will veto any bill restoring the pay cut that Obamacare dealt Congress, until Congress earns that money by repealing and replacing the law. Congress shouldn’t get an exemption from Obamacare until the American people do. Democrats who actually voted for Obamacare especially should have to live under it.

Second, put pressure on insurance companies.

2. End Obamacare’s unconstitutional cost-sharing subsidies. In House v. Burwell, a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration “violate[d] the Constitution” by paying billions of dollars in “cost-sharing” subsidies to private insurance companies without a congressional appropriation. Trump should immediately drop the Obama administration’s appeal of that decision, stop the unconstitutional payments, and prevent insurers from canceling Obamacare plans until 2018.

3. End Obamacare’s illegal “reinsurance” payments. The Government Accountability Office found that the Obama administration illegally diverted additional billions of dollars in “reinsurance” payments from the Treasury to private insurance companies. Trump should immediately stop the diversion of those funds and demand that insurers repay the more than $3 billion in unlawful payments they have received.

4. Block Big Insurance’s “risk-corridor” raid on the Treasury. The Obama administration tried to circumvent a statutory cap on “risk-corridor” payments to private insurance companies by offering to settle lawsuits filed by the insurers. Trump should immediately announce that his administration will not settle but will instead vigorously defend taxpayers’ interests in all such lawsuits.

Needless to say, the combination of angst-ridden folks on Capitol Hill and angst-ridden bigwigs from insurance companies would probably be more than enough to get weak-kneed Republicans to climb on board for repeal.

Indeed, in my fantasy, Trump uses his bully pulpit (and Twitter account) to specifically pressure those callow Republicans who voted for major repeal in 2015 and then flip-flopped and voted against various (usually partial) repeal proposals earlier this month.

Various media sources certainly agree that Trump has a huge amount of leverage.

Here are excerpts from a Bloomberg story.

Ending the CSR subsidies, paid monthly to insurers, is one way that Trump could hasten Obamacare’s demise without legislation, by prompting more companies to raise premiums in the individual market or stop offering coverage. …health-care analyst Spencer Perlman at Veda Partners LLC said in a research note that there’s a 30 percent chance Trump will end CSR payments, which may “immediately destabilize the exchanges, perhaps fatally.” …Many insurers have already dropped out of Obamacare markets in the face of mounting losses, and blamed the uncertainty over the future of the cost-sharing subsidies and the individual mandate as one of the reasons behind this year’s premium increases.

The Blaze has a similar report.

President Donald Trump announced on Saturday that if Congress doesn’t act soon on health care, he could end federal “BAILOUTS” for insurance companies, which could effectively force Congress to act or else put health insurance companies in the difficult position of having to raise rates on people who can’t afford to pay them or to leave Obamacare exchanges entirely. …The “BAILOUTS” to insurance companies Trump referred to in his tweet are “cost sharing reduction” payments… If Trump were to withhold these funds from health insurance companies, it would likely result in many insurers choosing to leave the Obamacare health insurance exchanges… If health insurance companies choose to leave the insurance exchanges, which is the most likely response, it could catalyze the collapse of the Obamacare exchange system, making it more difficult for members of Congress to wait on implementing a repeal and replace bill.

And here are passages from a Wall Street Journal story.

President Donald Trump made one of his most explicit threats to cut off payments to insurance companies to force senators and lobbyists back to the bargaining table for a GOP health-care bill, and saying, for the first time, that he was also willing to cancel some of lawmakers’ health-care benefits. …Those payments have been challenged in court by House Republicans, who argue the funds were never authorized by Congress. A federal judge has sided with the House but allowed the payments to continue until the litigation concludes. Democrats have said that cutting off the payments would be tantamount to sabotaging the insurance markets… Mr. Trump’s Saturday tweet…also the first to mention that he was open to another idea proposed by conservative activists to pull lawmakers back to the task of a health-care bill: cutting off their existing health benefits. …some lawmakers contending that it is an end-run around a provision in the 2010 health law that requires members of Congress to get their health coverage like other Americans.

Keep in mind, by the way, that this isn’t just a matter of political brinksmanship. The various payments to insurance companies are either not authorized by the law, or they were authorized and Congress has declined to appropriate funds. In other words, these payments make a mockery of the rule of law. They are illegal and/or unconstitutional.

Moreover, my former Heritage colleague Mike Needham has a good explanation of how the Obama Administration preposterously decided to classify Congress as a small business in order to enable subsidies that were not part of the Obamacare legislation. Once again, throwing the rule of law overboard for political convenience (which was a pattern with the previous Administration).

So even if Trump didn’t want to get rid of Obamacare, these payments should end.

But we may as well make a policy virtue out of legal necessity by getting rid of these payments as part of a campaign to pressure Capitol Hill to do what’s right and get rid of the disastrous Obamacare legislation.

P.S. Never forget that we wouldn’t be in this mess if John Roberts had upheld his oath and ruled that Obamacare was unconstitutional.

P.P.S. From the moment he emerged on the national stage, I’ve been worried that Donald Trump would preside over an expansion in the burden of government. But if there’s a libertarian bone in his body, it becomes apparent when he tweets. Not only did he tweet a very appropriate and effective threat against Obamacare yesterday, he also tweeted a very appropriate and effective threat about a government shutdown back in May.

P.P.S. It wasn’t one of my fantasies, but here’s something from 2013 about a libertarian fantasy dealing with ammo and sex.

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As a former Connecticut resident, I’m ashamed that my home state, which used to be a success story with no income tax, has now morphed into a high-tax welfare state that is now increasingly infamous for the outflow of productive people and taxable income.

And even though I left several decades ago, I also feel vaguely guilty that my former state produces politicians such as Senator Chris Murphy.

Most people have never heard of him since he’s never accomplished anything in Washington. Though I would argue that’s a good thing since he’s a knee-jerk statist.

But I gather that Senator Murphy no longer wants to be in the shadows. Here’s a tweet he issued yesterday that has received a lot of publicity.

Wow, this is an astounding display of statolatry. The kind of statement one might expect from a functionary from a totalitarian regime.

Or maybe a line from George Orwell’s 1984. Just think of the implications:

  • Are you afraid of spiders? Hey, government can help!
  • Are there dandelions in your yard? Don’t worry, Big Brother to the rescue!
  • Did McDonald’s forget to include a toy in your Happy Meal? Time for political action!

While his views are reprehensible, I’m actually glad Senator Murphy inadvertently revealed his statism.

If nothing else, it’s produced some clever humor. The folks at Twitchy have been sharing this tweet, which came from a parody account for a North Korean news service.

By the way, if you’re like me and are not familiar with “Juche,” it’s apparently a North Korean twist on Marxism.

In other words, take the traditional horror of communism and then add a layer of autarky to ensure even greater misery.

And here’s another amusing take, juxtaposing Murphy’s statolatry with Reagan’s wisdom (see last video from this collection). And they even demoted him to Representative rather than Senator.

But we shouldn’t merely mock Murphy.

His views truly are reprehensible because they imply there is no element of human existence that is independent of government. The state is everything.

And if that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you know something about economics, philosophy, and history. The most evil people in world history have expressed the same sentiment.

Such as the leader of Germany’s National Socialist Workers Party.

And the first dictator of the Soviet Union.

Though if I had to pick the quote that is closest to Murphy’s, it would be this awful statement from Mussolini.

Senator Murphy obviously doesn’t share the horrid ideology of either national socialism or international socialism, so his version of statolatry is far more benign.

Sort of like this cartoon instead of gulags and concentration camps.

But I still think his views are reprehensible. We’re not children and the government is not our parents. America’s Founding Fathers strictly limited the powers of the federal government because they understood the risks of a coercive state dictating our lives. Even if it’s benign statism rather than totalitarian statism.

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When I give speeches about the economic case for small government, one of my main points is that people in the private sector (workers, investors, managers, entrepreneurs, etc) are motivated by self interest to allocate labor and capital efficiently. To be more specific, the pursuit of higher pay and greater profit will lead people to allocate resources productively.

I freely admit that people in the private sector make mistakes (most new business ventures ultimately fail, for instance), but I explain that’s part of a dynamic process in a market economy. Every success and every mistake leads to feedback, both via the price system and also via profits and losses. All of which leads to continuous changes as people – especially entrepreneurs – seek to better serve the needs and wants of consumers, since that’s how they can increase their income and wealth.

In other words, Adam Smith was right when he said that self interest encourages people to focus on making others better off.

By contrast, when politicians and bureaucrats allocate resources (either directly via spending programs, or indirectly via regulation or tax distortions), feedback mechanisms are very weak. Once politicians intervene, they never seem to care if they are generating positive results. There are plenty of examples, however, of government imposing high costs while producing no benefits. Or even producing harm.

And let’s not forget that “Public Choice” teaches us that interest groups will manipulate government to obtain unearned benefits.

The main lesson from all this information is that it’s good to have small government rather than large government.

But there’s a secondary lesson about how the economic harm of government can be reduced if market forces somehow can be part of the process. And that’s why a new study from two Italian economists at the Centre for Economic and International Studies is worth sharing.

The abstract of the study is a good summary.

We empirically investigate the effect of oversight on contract outcomes in public procurement. In particular, we stress a distinction between public and private oversight: the former is a set of bureaucratic checks enacted by contracting offices, while the latter is carried out by private insurance companies whose money is at stake through so-called surety bonding. We analyze the universe of U.S. federal contracts in the period 2005-2015 and exploit an exogenous variation in the threshold for both sources of oversight, estimating their causal effects on costs and execution time. We find that: (i) public oversight negatively affects outcomes, in particular for less competent buyers; (ii) private oversight has a positive effect on outcomes by affecting both the ex-ante screening of bidders – altering the pool of winning firms – and the ex-post behavior of contractors.

In other words, normal bureaucratic waste, featherbedding, and cost overruns are less likely when the private sector does the oversight.

And here’s an excerpt from the text for those who want more details.

…we propose a distinction between public and private oversight, depending on its source. Public oversight includes all formal checks – cost certifications, pricing data transmission, production surveillance – which the contracting authorities enact during the contract awarding phase and execution. It typically involves considerable paperwork for both the buyer and the sellers. At the cost of some red tape, it is aimed at alleviating the moral hazard problem… On the other hand, private oversight involves third parties – surety companies – issuing bonds (surety bonds) to secure the buyer against unpredictable events. If the seller fails to fulfill contractual tasks, contracting authorities make claims to recover losses. A surety is then called on either to complete the public work by themselves (i.e. with their own resources or by subcontracting) or to refund the authority of the bond value. Being liable in case of unsatisfactory contract outcomes, the sureties have strong incentives both to screen bidders (ex ante) and to monitor contractors (ex post). They help mitigate the asymmetry of information between the buyer and the sellers thanks to their experience of the market – i.e. access to private information – and the screening enacted through price discrimination on premia, which directly affects offers placed by potential contractors. Hence, private oversight enhances the selection of the best contractors and provides a second tier of monitoring of contractors’ progresses.

This is encouraging. It would be nice to have smaller government, but it also would be nice to get the most bang for the buck when the government does spend money.

To be sure, there are probably many parts of government that are impervious to market forces.

But surely there are many ways to protect taxpayers by creating incentives to save money.

  • For instance, on the programmatic level, we can enlist the private sector to fight rampant Medicare and Medicaid fraud by allowing private investigators to keep a slice of any recovered funds.
  • And on the sectoral level, we can achieve big educational gains with school choice, thus giving schools a bottom-line incentive to attract students with better outcomes.
  • Last but not least, we can rely on the competitive impact of federalism to encourage better macroeconomic policy by state and local governments.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that the private sector does a better job than government. So let’s do what we can to unleash market forces. Be more like Hong Kong and less like Venezuela.

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In addition to his exemplary work as a Senior Fellow for the Cato Institute, Johan Norberg narrates some great videos for Free to Choose Media. Here are some that caught my eye.

But my favorite video, which I shared back in January, is his concise explanation of why policy makers should focus on fighting poverty rather than reducing inequality.

I’m posting it again to set the stage for a discussion on inequality and fairness.

Now let’s dig into the main topic for today.

A study by three academics from Yale’s Department of Psychology concludes that people want fairness rather than equality.

…there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.

My former grad school classmate Steve Horwitz wrote about the aforementioned study

…what we really care about is something other than inequality per se. We care about upward mobility, or average income overall, or how well the least well off do. …A recent study in Nature argued, with evidence, that what bothers people more than inequality per se is “unfairness.” People will accept inequality if they feel the process that produced it is fair. …when I give talks about inequality. I point out the number of Apple products visible in the room and ask them if they think the wealth Steve Jobs and other Apple founders accumulated over their lifetimes was objectionable. Is that the kind of inequality they object to? Students are usually hard-pressed to articulate why Jobs’ wealth is wrong… I also remind them that economic studies show that only about 4% of the total benefits of innovation accrue to the innovator. The rest goes to consumers.

Steve cites Nozick and Hayek to bolster his argument before then making the key point that markets produce material abundance based on genuine fairness.

As Robert Nozick argued in Anarchy, State, and Utopia: if each step in the evolution of the market is fair by itself, how can the pattern of income that emerges be unfair? …Hayek…observed in The Constitution of Liberty that if we want equality of outcomes, we will have to treat people unequally. If, however, we treat people equally, we will get unequal outcomes. Hayek’s argument was premised on the fact that human beings are not equal in our native intelligence, strength, skills, and abilities. …If people really care about fairness, then supporters of the market should be insisting on the importance of equality before the law. …Equality of outcomes requires that we treat people differently, and this will likely be perceived as unfair by many. Equality before the law corresponds better with notions of fairness even if the outcomes it produces are unequal. …If what appear to be concerns about inequality are, in fact, concerns about unfairness, we have ways of addressing them that demonstrate the power of exchange and competitive markets. Markets are more fair because they require that governments treat us all equally and that none of us have the ability to use political power to protect ourselves from the competition of the marketplace and the choices of consumers. In addition, market-based societies have been the best cure for poverty humans have ever known.

Writing for CapX, Oliver Wiseman analyzes other scholarly research on equality and fairness.

A 2012 study by behavioural economists Dan Ariely and Mike Norton generated some attention for demonstrating that Americans wanted to live in a more equal country. But more equal is not the same thing as fully equal. …if you let people choose between equal and unequal societies – and then tell them that they themselves will be assigned a level of wealth within it completely at random – most people choose inequality. And that preference is observable across the political spectrum, in different countries and at a range of ages.

But people don’t want undeserved inequality since that is the result of unfair interventions (i.e., cronyism).

This paper’s conclusions help explain much of the outcry over economic inequality in recent years. Occupy Wall Street and the very idea of the “one per cent” emerged just after the financial crisis plunged much of the world into recession, and US and British banks were handed billion-dollar bailouts to steady the ship. The anger didn’t come from the fact that bankers were so well paid. It came from the perception that they’d made that money by piling up risk rather than being particularly clever or hard-working – risk that was now being underwritten by the taxpayer. The wealth wasn’t just distributed unequally, but unfairly. The market mechanisms that most people accepted as the rules of the economic game suddenly seemed rigged. …Voters, in other words, don’t want equality – they want fairness. …As the Soviets found, true economic equality cannot be accommodated within a system that allows people tolerable levels of economic and political freedom. But fairness, by contrast, is something capitalism can – and should – deliver.

Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University cites some additional academic research buttressing the conclusion people don’t object to fair types of inequality.

…most Americans don’t mind inequality nearly as much as pundits and academics suggest. A recent research paper, by Graham Wright of Brandeis University, found that polled attitudes about economic inequality don’t correlate very well with the desire for government to address it. There is even partial evidence, once controls are introduced into the statistics, that talk of inequality reduces the support for doing something about it. …It’s not obvious why such counterintuitive results might be the case. One possibility is that…talk about economic inequality increases political polarization, which lowers the chance of effective action. Or that criticizing American society may cause us to feel less virtuous, which in turn may cause us to act with less virtue. …A variety of other research papers have been showing that inequality is not a major concern per se. One recent study by Matthew Weinzierl of Harvard Business School shows that most Americans are quite willing to accept economic inequality that stems from brute luck, and that they are inclined to assume that inequality is justified unless proved otherwise.

Last but not least, Anne Bradley of the Institute for Humane Studies augments this analysis by explaining the difference between ethical market-driven inequality versus unfair cronyist-caused inequality.

The question of whether income inequality is bad hinges on the institutions within that society and whether they support entrepreneurship and creativity or thuggery and exploitation. Income inequality is good when people earn their money by discovering new and better ways of doing things and, through the profit mechanism, are encouraged to bring those discoveries to ordinary people. …Rising incomes across all income groups (even if at different rates) is most often the sign of a vibrant economy where strangers are encouraged to serve each other and solve problems. Stagnant incomes suggest something else: either a rigged economy where only insiders can play, or an economy where the government controls a large portion of social resources, stalling incomes, wealth, and wellbeing.

She includes a very powerful example of why it can be much better to live in a society with high levels of (fair) inequality.

Consider the following thought experiment: knowing nothing other than the Gini index scores, would you rather live in a world with a Gini of .296 (closer to equality) or .537 (farther from equality)? Many people when asked this question choose the world of .296. These are the real Gini scores of Pakistan (.296) and Hong Kong (.537). If given the choice, I would live in Hong Kong without thinking twice. Hong Kong has a thriving economy and high incomes, and it is the world leader in economic freedom. The difference between these two countries could not be more striking. In Pakistan, there might be more income equality, but everyone is poorer. It is difficult to emerge out of poverty in Pakistan. Hong Kong provides a much richer environment where people are encouraged to start businesses, and this is the best hope for rising incomes, or income mobility.

Her example of Hong Kong and Pakistan is probably the most important takeaway from today’s column.

Simply stated, it’s better to be poor in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong where there is strong growth and high levels of upward mobility. Indeed, I often use a similar example when giving speeches, asking audiences whether poor people are better off in Hong Kong, which has only a tiny welfare state, or better off in nations such as France and Greece, which have bloated welfare states but very little economic dynamism.

The answer is obvious. Or should be obvious, at least to everyone who wants to help the poor more than they want to punish the rich (and there are plenty in the latter camp, as Margaret Thatcher explained).

And I’m now going to add my China example to my speeches since inequality dramatically increased at the same time that there was a stupendous reduction in poverty.

Once again, the moral of the story should be obvious. Focus on growth. Yes, some rich people will get richer, but the really great news is that the poor will get richer as well. And so long as everyone is earning money through voluntary exchange rather than government coercion, that also happens to be how a fair economy operates.

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It’s depressing to see how Republicans are bungling the Obamacare issue. But it’s also understandable since it’s politically difficult to reduce handouts once people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency (a point I made even before Obamacare was enacted).

Unfortunately, I fear that the GOP might bungle the tax issue as well. I was interviewed the other day by Dana Loesch on this topic and highlighted several issues.

Here’s the full discussion.

What’s especially frustrating about this issue is that taxes should be reduced. A lot.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute debunks six tax myths. Here they are, followed by my two cents.

Myth #1: Long-term deficits are driven by tax cuts and falling revenues

Fact: They are driven entirely by rapid spending growth

Brian nails it. I made this same point earlier this year. Indeed, because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time, it is accurate to say that more than 100 percent of the long-run fiscal problem is caused by excessive spending (particularly poorly designed entitlement programs).

Myth #2: Democratic tax proposals would significantly reduce the deficit

Fact: Their most common proposals would raise little revenue

Once again, Brian is right. There are ways to significantly increase the tax burden in America, such as a value-added tax. But the class-warfare ideas that attract a lot of support on the left won’t raise much revenue because upper-income taxpayers have substantial control over the timing, level and composition of their income.

Myth #3: Taxing millionaires and corporations can balance the long-term budget

Fact: These taxes cannot cover Washington’s current commitments, much less new liberal wish lists

Since even the IRS has admitted that upper-income taxpayers finance a hugely disproportionate share of the federal government, it hardly seems fair to subject them to even more onerous penalties. Especially since the IRS data from the 1980s suggest punitive rates could lead to less revenue rather than more.

Myth #4: The U.S. income tax is more regressive than other nations

Fact: It is the most progressive in the entire OECD

There are several ways to slice the data, so one can quibble with Brian’s assertion. But when comparing taxes paid by the rich compared to taxes paid by the poor, it is true that the United States relies more on upper-income taxpayers than any other developed nation. Not because we tax the rich more, but because we tax the poor less.

Myth #5: The U.S. tax code is becoming more regressive over time

Fact: It has become increasingly progressive over the past 35 years

Brian is right. Child credits, changes in the standard deduction and personal exemptions, and the EITC have combined in recent decades to take millions of households off the tax rolls. And since the U.S. thankfully does not have a value-added tax, lower-income people are largely protected from taxation.

Myth #6: Tax rates do not matter much to economic growth

Fact: They are among the most important factors

There are many factors that determine a nation’s economic success, including trade policy, regulation, monetary policy, and rule of law, so a good tax code isn’t a guarantor of prosperity and a bad tax system doesn’t automatically mean malaise. But Brian is right that taxation has a significant impact on growth.

In the interview, I said that I had two fantasies. First, I want to junk the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Second, I’d ultimately like to shrink government so much that we could eliminate the income tax entirely.

Many people don’t realize that income taxes only began to plague the world about 100 years ago.

If we can somehow restore the kind of limited government envisioned by America’s Founders, the dream of no income tax could become a reality once again.

But if Republicans can’t even manage to cut taxes today, when they control both the executive and legislative branch, then neither one of my fantasies will ever become reality.

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Canada is now one of the world’s most economically free nations thanks to relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

So when I saw a column in the Atlantic, suggesting that America can learn from Canada, I was instantly intrigued.

But it turns out that the author, Jonathan Kay, was more interested in extolling the virtues of big government rather than boasting about his nation’s economic reforms.

He starts by grousing about sub-par infrastructure in America.

There hasn’t been a new major airport constructed in the United States since 1995. And the existing stock of terminals is badly in need of upgrades. Much of the surrounding road and rail infrastructure is in even worse shape (the trip from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan being particularly appalling). Washington, D.C.’s semi-functional subway system feels like a World’s Fair exhibit that someone forgot to close down. Detroit’s 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge—which carries close to $200 billion worth of goods across the Canada-U.S. border annually—has been operating beyond its engineering capacity for years.

I have little doubt that America has serious infrastructure problems, particularly in big cities (such as New York, Washington, and Detroit) where spending decisions are driven by a desire to line the pockets of unionized bureaucrats rather than to provide services to taxpayers.

But is the United States really some sort of third-world backwater compared to our northern cousins? A few years ago, I looked at data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report to see how the United States was ranked for infrastructure and discovered America was in 12th place. Which was higher than Canada’s 15th-place ranking.

But maybe things have changed since 2014. So I perused the most recent rankings. Lo and behold, the United States actually jumped one spot, to #11, while Canada remained in 15th place.

I don’t want to imply that the United States has good infrastructure policy. As far as I’m concerned, increased federal involvement has caused our system to become somewhat dysfunctional.

But since Canada ranks even lower, perhaps Mr. Kay shouldn’t be throwing rocks in a glass house.

What makes his error noteworthy is that he then tries to argue that America’s supposedly inferior infrastructure is the result of inadequate taxation.

The United States is falling apart because—unlike Canada and other wealthy countries—the American public sector simply doesn’t have the funds required to keep the nation stitched together. …The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a group of 35 wealthy countries, ranks its members by overall tax burden—that is, total tax revenues at every level of government, added together and then expressed as a percentage of GDP—and in latest year for which data is available, 2014, the United States came in fourth to last. Its tax burden was 25.9 percent—substantially less than the OECD average, 34.2 percent. If the United States followed that mean OECD rate, there would be about an extra $1.5 trillion annually for governments to spend.

The obvious implication of Mr. Kay’s column is that a much bigger tax burden would lead to much better infrastructure.

Yet if that was the case, then why does the United States rank above Canada?

Heck, I also want to ask why Mr. Kay to explain why the l0w-tax outposts of Hong Kong and Singapore ranked #1 and #2 for infrastructure?

His entire column is a case study of sloppiness. He starts out with an easily falsifiable assertion about infrastructure and he then makes another easily falsifiable claim about taxes. Does the Atlantic not have any editors?

By the way, none of this is an attack on Canada. Indeed, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you will see that Canada has passed the United States and now has more economic liberty. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that America’s score dropped faster and farther than Canada’s score. In any event, Canada is now ranked #5 and the United States is #16.

In other words, there is much to admire in Canada. And much to copy.

But Mr. Kay apparently doesn’t want America to mimic pro-market reforms. Instead, he thinks the lesson to be learned is that there should be higher taxes in the United States.

Let’s look at two final excerpts from his column, starting with his observation about the joy of taxation.

It’s really quite simple: When Canadian governments need more money, they raise taxes. Canadians are not thrilled when this happens. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, taxes are the price paid “for civilized society.”

I can’t resist pointing out that Justice Holmes made his point about taxes and civilization back when the federal government only consumed about 5 percent of economic output. As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

And the final excerpt implies that the business community in Canada doesn’t mind taxes.

…when I recently interviewed Canadian business leaders about the challenges they perceive, the word taxes didn’t get mentioned much.

Since the federal corporate tax rate in Canada is 15 percent, far lower than the 35 percent federal corporate rate in the United States, I’m not surprised that Canada’s business leaders no longer think taxes are their biggest problem. So why doesn’t Mr. Kay argue we should copy that feature of the Canadian system?

Sigh. I joked back in 2012 that supporters of small government in the United States might want to escape to Canada because of all the market-oriented reform. These are the changes that Mr. Kay should be extolling.

P.S. I’m surprised Mr. Kay didn’t advocate that we copy Canada’s government-run health system. You know, the one that is so wonderful that a Canadian politician escaped to the U.S. for surgery while leaving ordinary Canadians stuck in long waiting lines.

P.P.S. To close on a light note, here’s a satirical article about American leftists trying to escape to Canada after the 2010 elections.

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