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Archive for October, 2017

I’ve been arguing all year that a substantially lower corporate tax rate is the most vital goal of tax reform for reasons of competitiveness.

And I continued to beat that drum in an interview last week with Fox Business.

The Wall Street Journal agrees that the time has come for a lower corporate rate. Unless, of course, one would prefer the United States to fall even further behind other countries.

President Emmanuel Macron last week pushed a budget featuring substantial tax relief through the National Assembly. The top rate on corporate profits will fall to 28% by 2020 from 33.33% today, and Mr. Macron has promised 25% by 2022. …Critics branded Mr. Macron “the President for the rich” for these overhauls, but the main effect will be to stimulate investment and job creation… The Netherlands also is jumping on the bandwagon. Prime Minister Mark Rutte promises to cut the top corporate rate to 21% from 25% by 2021… Do American politicians really want to have to explain to voters why they let the U.S. trail even France?

For the most part, opponents of tax reform in the United States understand that they have lost the competitiveness argument. So they will pay lip service to the notion that a lower corporate rate is desirable (heck, even Obama notionally agreed), but they will fret about the loss of tax revenue and a supposed windfall for the “rich.”

I agree that tax revenues will decrease, at least in the short run. But there’s some very good research showing the long-run revenue-maximizing corporate rate is somewhere between 15 percent and 25 percent.

And Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute reviewed fifty years of data for industrialized nations and ascertained that lower tax rates are associated with rising revenue.

There’s also good evidence from Canada and the United Kingdom if you want country-specific examples of the relationship between corporate tax rates and corporate tax revenue.

By the way, even left-leaning multilateral bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have published research showing the same thing.

And what about the debate over whether the “rich” benefit?

That issue is a red herring. Yes, shareholders of companies, on average, have higher incomes, and they will benefit if the rate is reduced, but I’ve never been motivated by animosity against those with more money (assuming they earned their money rather than mooching off the government).

What does get my juices flowing, however, is growth. And if we can get more dynamism in the economy, that translates into more jobs and higher income.

A new report from the Council of Economic Advisers estimates the potential benefit for ordinary people.

Reducing the statutory federal corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would, the analysis below suggests, increase average household income in the United States by, very conservatively, $4,000 annually. …Moreover, the broad range of results in the literature suggest that over a decade, this effect could be much larger.

There’s some good cross-country data showing nations with lower corporate tax rates do better.

Between 2012 and 2016, the 10 lowest corporate tax countries of the OECD had corporate tax rates 13.9 percentage points lower than the 10 highest corporate tax countries, about the same scale as the reduction currently under consideration in the U.S. The average wage growth in the low tax countries has been dramatically higher.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

As you can see, there’s a clear divergence between higher-tax and lower-tax nations. Though, given the limited time period in the chart and the fact that many other factors can impact wage growth, I’m actually more persuaded by some of the other empirical research cited in the CEA report.

Arulpalapam et al (2012) find that workers pay nearly 50 percent of the tax, while Desai et al (2007) estimate a worker share of 45 to 75 percent. Gravelle and Smetters (2006) generate a rate of 21 percent when the rate of capital mobility across countries is moderate and 73 percent when capital can flow freely, evidence that the labor incidence is likely both dynamic and positively correlated with the rate of international capital transfers. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study (Randolph, 2006) finds that workers bear 70 percent of the corporate income tax burden in the baseline and 59 to 91 percent in alternative specifications. In a summary study, Jensen and Mathur (2011) argue for an assumption of greater than 50 percent. …A cross-country study by Hassett and Mathur (2006) based on 65 countries and 25 years of data finds that the elasticity of worker wages in manufacturing after five years with respect to the highest marginal tax rate in a country is as low as -1.0 in some specifications, although other sets of control variables increase the elasticity to -0.3. Expanded analysis by Felix (2007) follows the Hassett and Mathur strategy, but incorporates additional control variables, including worker education levels. Felix settles on an elasticity of worker wages with respect to corporate income taxes of -0.4, at the high end of the Hassett and Mathur range. …Felix (2009) estimates an elasticity of worker wages with respect to corporate income tax rates based on variation in the marginal tax rate across U.S. states. In this case, the elasticity is substantially lower; a 1 percentage point increase in the top marginal state corporate rate reduces gross wages by 0.14 to 0.36 percent over the entire period (1977-2005) and by up to 0.45 percent for the most recent period in her data (2000-2005). …Desai et al (2007)…measure both the changes in worker wages and changes in capital income associated with corporate income tax changes. The estimated labor burden of the corporate tax rate varies from 45 to 75 percent under various specifications in the paper.

That’s a lot of jargon, so I suspect that many readers will find data from Germany and Australia to be more useful when considering how workers benefit from lower corporate rates.

P.S. While I think a lower corporate tax rate may result in more revenue over time, that’s definitely not my goal.

P.P.S. The biggest obstacle to good tax policy is the unwillingness of Republicans to impose even a modest amount of spending restraint.

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Just in case you didn’t realize, we’re “celebrating” an anniversary.

In 1917, at this time of year, the Bolshevik revolution was occurring in Russia. It resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union, followed in subsequent decades by enslavement of Eastern Europe and communist takeovers in a few other unfortunate nations.

This is a very evil and tragic anniversary, a milestone that merits sad reflection because communism is an evil ideology, and communist governments have butchered about 100 million people.

I’ve written about the horrors that communism has imposed on the people of Cambodia, Cuba, and North Korea, but let’s zoom out and look at this evil ideology from a macro perspective.

My view is that communism is “a disgusting system…that leads to starvation and suffering” and “produces Nazi-level horrors of brutality.”

But others have better summaries of this coercive and totalitarian ideology.

We’ll start with A. Barton Hinkle’s column in Reason.

…the Bolsheviks…seized power from the provisional government that had been installed in the final days of Russia’s Romanov dynasty. The revolution ushered in what would become a century of ghastly sadism. …it is hard even now to grasp the sheer scale of agony imposed by the brutal ideology of collectivism. …In 1997, a French publisher published “The Black Book of communism,” which tried to place a definitive figure on the number of people who died by communism’s hand: 65 million in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, and so on—more than 90 million lives, all told. …depravity was woven into the sinews of communism by its very nature. The history of the movement is a history of sadistic “struggle sessions” during the Cultural Revolution, of gulags and psychiatric wards in Russia, of the torture and murder of teachers, doctors, and other intellectuals in Cambodia, and on and on.

Here’s some of what Professor Ilya Somin wrote for the Washington Post.

May Day. Since 2007, I have defended the idea of using this date as an international Victims of Communism Day. …Our comparative neglect of communist crimes has serious costs. Victims of Communism Day can serve the dual purpose of appropriately commemorating the millions of victims, and diminishing the likelihood that such atrocities will recur. Just as Holocaust Memorial Day and other similar events help sensitize us to the dangers of racism, anti-Semitism, and radical nationalism, so Victims of Communism Day can increase awareness of the dangers of left-wing forms of totalitarianism, and government control of the economy and civil society.

In an article for National Review, John O’Sullivan explains the tyrannical failure of communism.

Those evil deeds…include the forced famine in Ukraine that murdered millions in a particularly horrible fashion; starting the Second World War jointly with Hitler by agreeing in the Nazi–Soviet Pact to invade Poland and the Baltic states; the Gulag in which millions more perished; and much more. …The Communist experiment failed above all because it was Communist. …Economically, the Soviet Union was a massive failure 70 years later to the point where Gorbachev complained to the Politburo that it exported less annually than Singapore. …it is a fantasy that the USSR compensated for these failures by making greater social gains than liberal capitalism: Doctors had to be bribed; patients had to take bandages and medicines into hospital with them; homelessness in Moscow was reduced by an internal passport system that kept people out of the city; and so on.

We’re just scratching the surface.

As an economist, I focus on the material failure of communism and I’ve tried to make that very clear with comparisons of living standards over time in Cuba and Hong Kong as well as in North Korea and South Korea.

But the evil of communism goes well beyond poverty and deprivation. It also is an ideology of mass murder.

Which is why this tweet from the Russian government is morally offensive.

Yes, the Soviet Union helped defeat the National Socialists of Germany, but keep in mind that Stalin helped trigger the war by inking a secret agreement with Hitler to divide up Poland.

Moreover, the Soviet Union had its own version of the holocaust.

I don’t know who put together this video, but it captures the staggering human cost of communism.

Meanwhile, Dennis Prager lists 6 reasons why communism isn’t hated the same way Nazism is hated.

The only thing I can add to these videos is that there has never been a benign communist regime.

Indeed, political repression and brutality seems to be the key difference between liberal socialism and Marxist socialism.

Let’s close with this chart from Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute.

All forms of totalitarianism are bad, oftentimes resulting in mass murder. As Dennis Prager noted in his video, both communism and Nazism are horrid ideologies. Yet for some bizarre reason, some so-called intellectuals still defend the former.

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I fully agree with my leftist friends who say that corporations want to extract every penny they can from consumers. I also (mostly) agree with them when they say corporations are soulless entities that don’t care about people.

But after they’re done venting, I then try to educate them by pointing out that the only way corporations can separate consumers their money is by vigorously competing to provide desirable goods and services at attractive prices.

Moreover, their “soulless” pursuit of those profits (as explained by Walter Williams) will lead them to be efficient and innovative, which boosts overall economic output.

Moreover, in a competitive market, it’s not consumers vs. corporations, it’s corporations vs. corporations with consumers automatically winning.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute makes a very valuable point about what happens in a free economy.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2017 Fortune 500, there are only 59 companies that appear in both lists (see companies in the graphic above). In other words, fewer than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies included in 1955 were still on the list 62 years later in 2017, and more than 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged with (or were acquired by) another firm, or they still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).

It’s not just the Fortune 500.

…corporations in the S&P 500 Index in 1965 stayed in the index for an average of 33 years. By 1990, average tenure in the S&P 500 had narrowed to 20 years and is now forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026. At the current churn rate, about half of today’s S&P 500 firms will be replaced over the next 10 years.

Here’s Mark’s list of companies that have stayed at the top of the Fortune 500 over the past 62 years.

Mark then offers an economic lesson from this data.

The fact that nearly 9 of every 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction over the last six decades. It’s reasonable to assume that when the Fortune 500 list is released 60 years from now in 2077, almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist as currently configured, having been replaced by new companies in new, emerging industries, and for that we should be extremely thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy.

He also emphasizes that consumers are the real beneficiaries of this competitive process.

…the creative destruction that results in the constant churning of Fortune 500 (and S&P 500) companies over time is that the process of market disruption is being driven by the endless pursuit of sales and profits that can only come from serving customers with low prices, high-quality products and services, and great customer service. If we think of a company’s annual sales revenues as the number of “dollar votes” it gets every year from providing goods and services to consumers… As consumers, we should appreciate the fact that we are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Schumpeterian creative destruction that drives the dynamism of the market economy and results in a constant churning of the firms who are ultimately fighting to attract as many of our dollar votes as possible.

Incidentally, Mark did this same exercise in 2014 and 2015 and ascertained that there were 61 companies still remaining on the list.

So creative destruction apparently has claimed two more victims.

Or, to be more accurate, the needs and desires of consumers have produced more churning, leading to greater material abundance for America.

I’ll close with two points.

All of which explains why I want separation of business and state.

The bottom line is that an unfettered market produces the best results for the vast majority of people. Yes, people are greedy, but that leads to good outcomes in a capitalist environment.

But we get awful results if cronyism is the dominant system, and that seems to be the direction we’re heading in America.

P.S. Even when corporations try to exploit people in the third world, the pursuit of profits actually results in better lives for the less fortunate.

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I’ve responded to all sorts of arguments against lower taxes.

  • Tax cuts are “unfair” because rich people will benefit.
  • Tax cuts are wrong because revenue should be going up, not down.
  • Tax cuts are pointless because the economy won’t grow faster.
  • Tax cuts are misguided because there will be more red ink.
  • Tax cuts are risky because vital services would be unfunded.

But I’ve never had to deal with the argument that lower taxes are “dangerous.”

Yet that’s what Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post would like readers to believe. Here’s some of what she wrote today.

…tax cuts — not to mention tax cuts of the magnitude Trump and fellow Republicans contemplate — are worse than unwarranted. They are dangerous.

Dangerous?!?

Before clicking on the headline, my mind raced to imagine what she had in mind. Was she going to argue that lower taxes somehow might cause the nutjob in North Korea to launch a nuke? Was her argument that a tax cut would unleash the Ebola virus in the United States?

Well, you can put your mind at ease. The world isn’t coming to an end. It turns out that Ms. Marcus is simply making a rather hysterical version of the argument that tax cuts are bad because they result in more red ink.

They would add trillions to the national debt at a point when it is already dangerously large as a share of the economy. …the national debt is 77 percent of the economy, the highest since the end of World War II. It is on track to exceed the entire gross domestic product by 2033. That is even without a $1.5 trillion tax cut, the amount envisioned in the just-passed budget resolutions. …the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that increased growth would be counteracted within a few years by the drag of higher deficits; overall, the plan would increase deficits by $2.4 trillion during the first decade. …As an economic matter, they are simply reckless.

I’m actually semi-sympathetic to her argument. It isn’t prudent in the long run to reduce revenues and allow a continuing expansion in the burden of government spending. She would be right to hit Republicans for wanting to do the fun part of cutting taxes while ducking the politically difficult task of restraining spending.

That is a recipe for becoming another Greece. Not today. Not next year. Or even 10 years from now. The United States probably has the ability to stumble along for decades without doing anything to reform entitlements (the programs that are causing our long-term fiscal problems).

But I can’t resist making two points.

First, where was Ms. Marcus when Bush was pushing the TARP bailout through Congress? Where was she when Obama was advocating for his faux stimulus? Or the Obamacare boondoggle?

These pieces of legislation were hardly examples of fiscal rectitude, yet a search of her writings does not produce examples of her warning about the “dangerous” implications of more red ink.

Her selective concern about deficits makes me think that what she really wants is bigger government. So if the deficit is increasing because of new spending, that’s fine. But if red ink is increasing because of tax cuts, that’s “dangerous.”

If nothing else, Marcus may deserve membership in the left-wing hypocrisy club.

Second, if Ms. Marcus genuinely cares about deficits, then I’ll forgive her for her past hypocrisy and instead simply ask her to look at the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent long-run fiscal forecast.

She will see that more than 100 percent of America’s future fiscal crisis is due to expected increases in the burden of entitlement spending.

You may be wondering how something can cause more than 100 percent of a problem. Well, if you look closely at that long-run forecast (or previous forecasts), you will discover that tax revenues automatically are expected to increase. Not just in nominal terms. Not just after adjusting for inflation. Tax revenues will climb as a share of overall economic output. By about two percentage points over the next 30 years.

By the way, that built-in tax increase is bigger than the Trump/GOP tax cut, which will only reduce taxes over the next 10 years by $1.5 trillion out of an expected haul of $43 trillion.

Oh, by the way, I’ll add a third point. Advocates of higher taxes should be required to explain why more revenue for Washington will somehow lead to better results than what happened when such policies were adopted in Europe.

In other words, some of us don’t want to “feed the beast.”

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When I gave speeches during Obama’s time in office, especially to audiences with a lot of Republicans, I sometimes asked a rhetorical question about whether they approved of presidents who increased spending, bailed out big companies, expanded the power of the Washington bureaucracy, imposed more red tape, and supported Keynesian stimulus schemes.

They understandably assumed I was talking about Obama, so they would always expressed disapproval.

I then would startle the audience (and sometimes make myself unpopular) by stating that I was describing economic policy during the Bush years.

To be sure, there were some differences. I would give Bush a better grade on tax policy. But Obama got a better score (or, to be more accurate, a less-worse score) on government spending. But the overall impact of both Bush and Obama, as confirmed by the declining score for the United States from Economic Freedom of the World, was a loss of economic liberty.

This bit of background is important because any analysis of economic policy during the Obama years reveals that “hope and change” somehow became “more of the same.”

At least for economic policy. When I examined the economic record of George W. Bush, there were a lot of items to include in the “anti-growth policy” portion of the bar chart, but not much for the “pro-growth policy” section.

And now that we’re doing the same exercise for the Obama years, we get a chart that looks very similar. The specific policies have changed, of course, but the net result is the same. Bigger role for the state, less breathing room for the private sector and civil society.

That’s a rather disreputable collection of policies, including the faux stimulus, the cash-for-clunkers boondoggle, the Dodd-Frank regulatory orgy, and the costly Obamacare disaster. And it’s worth noting that the one good policy that occurred during Obama’s policy, the Budget Control Act and the resulting automatic budget cuts (a.k.a., sequester), happened over his strenuous (and silly) objections.

By the way, I don’t think that Obama and Bush share the same ideology. My guess is that Obama has a very strident left-wing mindset and that he was telling the truth when he said he wanted to be a statist version of Ronald Reagan. I’m quite relieved that he was largely ineffective in achieving his goals.

Bush, by contrast, presumably didn’t want to significantly expand the size and scope of the federal government. But lacking a Reagan-style commitment to principles of limited government, his administration largely surrendered to public choice-driven incentives that resulted in incremental statism.

The lesson for the rest of us is that people should be less partisan and more principled. A bad policy doesn’t become good simply because a politician belong to the “R” team rather than “D” team.

Anyhow, the bottom line is that Obama era moved America in the wrong direction. For what it’s worth, he wasn’t nearly as bad as Nixon. And if I do this same exercise for LBJ, Hoover, and FDR, I expect Obama won’t be as bad as them, either.

But wouldn’t it have been nice if he had been as good as Bill Clinton?

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The United Nations has proposed a set of “sustainable development goals.” Most of them seem unobjectionable. After all, presumably everyone wants things such as less poverty, a cleaner environment, better education, and more growth, right?

That being said, I’m instinctively skeptical about the goal of “climate action” because of the U.N.’s past support for statist policies in that area.

And I also wonder why the bureaucrats picked “reduced inequalities” when “upward mobility for the poor” is a much better goal.

While I am tempted to nit-pick about some of the other goals as well, I’m actually more worried about how the U.N. thinks the goals should be achieved.

I participated in a U.N. conference in early April and almost every bureaucrat and government representative asserted that higher tax burdens were necessary to achieve the goals. It truly was a triumph of ideology over evidence.

And some of the cheerleaders for this initiative have a very extreme view on these issues. Consider a new report, issued by Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, that ranks nations based on how successful they are at achieving the sustainable development goals. Jeffrey Sachs was the lead author, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that there are some very odd results.

Bernie Sanders will be naively happy since the Nordic nations dominate the top of the rankings. The United States is #42, by contrast, sandwiched between Argentina and Armenia. Moreover, the United States is behind countries such as Hungary, Belarus, Portugal, Moldova, Greece, and Ukraine, which seems strange because Americans enjoy significantly higher levels of consumption – even when compared to other rich jurisdictions.

But the most absurd feature – at least for anyone with the slightest familiarity with international economic data – is that Cuba (circled in green) is ranked considerably above the United States (circled in red).

This is a jaw-droppingly stupid assertion. Cuba is a staggeringly impoverished nation thanks to an oppressive communist dictatorship.

So how can Sachs and his colleagues produce a report putting that country well above a rich nation like the United States?

Let’s look at some of the data. Here’s the summary of Cuba from the report. Pay particular attention to the circle on the right. If the blue bars extend to the outer edge, that means the country supposedly is doing a very good job achieving a goal, whereas a small blue bar indicates poor performance.

And here is the same information for the United States.

It appears that Cuba does much better for poverty (#1), responsible consumption (#12), climate action (#13), life on land (#15), and partnership (#17), while the United States while the United State does much better for industry, innovation, and infrastructure (#9).

But here’s an easier and more precise way of comparing the two nations. All you need to know is that green is the best, yellow is second best, followed by burnt orange, and red is the worst.

Cuba wins in nine categories and the United States is ranked higher in three categories.

Now here’s why most of these rankings are total nonsense. If you go to page 51 of the report, you’ll see the actual variables that are used to produce the scores for the 17 U.N. goals.

And what do you find? Well, here are some things that caught my eye.

  • For the first goal of “no poverty,” the report includes a measure of income distribution rather than poverty. This is same dodgy approach that’s been used by the Obama Administration and the OECD, and because almost everyone is Cuba is equally poor, that means it scores much higher than the United States, where everyone is richer, but with varying degrees of wealth. I’m not joking.
  • For the second goal of “zero hunger,” I can’t figure out how they concocted a higher score for Cuba. After all, there’s pervasive food rationing in that hellhole of an island. My best guess is that the United States gets downgraded because the category includes an obesity variable. Having a lot of overweight people may not be a good feature of America, but is it rude for me to point out that a large number of heavy people is the opposite of hunger?
  • Jumping ahead to the fifth goal of “gender equality,” I assume the United States gets a bad score because of the variable for the gender wage gap, even though women in America earn far higher incomes than their unfortunate and impoverished counterparts in Cuba.
  • Regarding the eighth goal of “decent work and economic growth,” it’s not clear how Sachs and his colleagues gave Cuba the best possible score. But I know the final result is preposterous given that the Cuban people are suffering from crippling material deprivation.
  • For the twelfth (“responsible consumption and production”) and thirteenth (“climate action”) goals, it appears that the United States gets a lower score because rich nations consume more energy than poor nations. If this is why Cuba beats the USA (just as they “scored higher” in the so-called Happy Planet Index), then I’m glad America loses that contest.
  • Last but not least, I can’t resist commenting on Cuba getting the best score and the U.S. getting worst score for “partnerships,” which is the seventeenth goal. If you read the fine print, it turns out that nations get better grades if their tax burdens are higher. And countries like the United States get downgraded because they are tax havens and/or they respect financial privacy.

The main takeaway is that Sachs and his colleagues produced a shoddy report based on statist ideology and – in many cases – on dodgy methodology.

Anyone who ranks Cuba above the United States when trying to measure quality of life should be treated like a laughingstock.

The report also ranks the ultra-rich and very successful nation of Singapore at #61, below poor countries such as Uzbekistan and Mexico. Are these people smoking crack? That’s even more absurd than the OECD’s report on Asian taxes, which basically pretended Singapore didn’t exist.

Heck the report also has dysfunctional Venezuela ahead of Panama, even though tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Panama to escape their poorly governed nation. But I guess real-world evidence doesn’t matter to people trying to promote statism.

P.S. I got to tangle with Jeffrey Sachs at a United Nations conference on the state of the world economy back in 2012. Nothing has changed.

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I’ve written a couple of times to explain why the deduction for state and local taxes should be eliminated as part of pro-growth tax reform.

One of my main arguments, as I pointed out at the beginning of this interview, is that Republicans are generally unwilling to finance pro-growth tax changes by restraining government spending.

And since GOPers are too timid on spending, that means “revenue offsets” are needed to finance the good provisions in tax reform (assuming the goal is to make such changes permanent).

But this second-best approach can still be very good if the right loopholes are targeted.

In other words, wiping out the deduction is a good idea as a general principle, but it’s a very good idea in today’s environment since it would produce a lot of revenue to “offset” the cost of lowering tax rates and making our awful tax system less onerous. Plus, the deduction is unfair and inconsistent with principles of good policy.

Many organization point out that generating revenues by getting rid of the state and local deduction would be a win-win situation.

The National Taxpayers Union is not a fan.

…the provision departs from principles of sound tax policy and unwisely abets the behavior of high-tax states, enabling big government.

And the Heritage Foundation doesn’t like the loophole.

The deduction for state and local taxes creates winners and losers within states. Higher-income taxpayers win; lower-income taxpayers lose.

The Tax Foundation has weighed in.

The deduction favors high-income, high-tax states like California and New York, which together receive nearly one-third of the deduction’s total value nationwide.

Along with the American Enterprise Institute.

…repealing the state and local tax deduction would be an important move toward broadening the tax base.

Americans for Tax Reform also opposes the deduction.

…this deduction actually subsidizes upper income earners in high tax states.

And the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a fact sheet with lots of data.

…nearly all filers (~99.7%) would likely benefit from a lower rate and increased standard deduction notwithstanding the loss of SALT.

National Review rejects the loophole.

Getting rid of state-tax deductibility is…good policy. …deductions mainly benefit higher-income households. …The federal government…should not use the tax code to encourage or discourage.

But the most powerful and persuasive evidence for getting rid of the deduction is that organizations favoring higher taxes and bigger government openly admit that the loophole encourages and enables bad policy (what they would call good policy) at the state and local level. You don’t have to believe me. Here are some passages from a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

…with this deduction, higher-income filers are more willing to support state and local taxes. …Ending the SALT deduction would strain state budgets over time by making it harder for states and localities to raise…revenues… The GOP tax plan…would threaten many states’ ability to raise…revenue.

What’s amazing is that the report openly acknowledges that the deduction overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy, something that CBPP normally doesn’t like because of their support for class-warfare taxation.

But if one’s goal is bigger government, you acquiesce to reverse class warfare when it makes life easier for tax-aholic politicians in states such as CaliforniaConnecticutIllinoisNew York, and New Jersey.

The lesson for the rest of us, though, is that if CBPP thinks this preference for the rich is worth preserving, the rest of us should want it abolished.

Let’s close with some analysis that is compelling to me. Here’s what Ronald Reagan said when he tried to eliminate this odious loophole back in the 1980s.

P.S. I still prefer the first-best option of tax reform financed by spending restraint. If Republicans simply limited federal spending so it grew by 1.96 percent per year over the next 10 years, that would enable both a balanced budget and a $3 trillion tax cut. And that’s even with static scoring!

P.P.S. Back during the debate on tax reform in the 1980s, Reagan also opposed the VAT. Helps to explain why I admire the Gipper so much.

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Back in 2013, I did an assessment of economic policy changes that occurred during the Clinton Administration.

The bottom line was that the overall burden of government declined by a semi-significant amount. Which presumably helps to explain why the economy enjoyed good growth and job creation in the 1990s, especially in the last half of the decade when most of the pro-growth reforms were enacted.

The chart I prepared has been very helpful when speaking to audiences about what actually happened during the Clinton years, so I decided to do the same thing for other presidents.

A week ago, I put together my summary of economic policy changes during the Nixon years. At the risk of understatement, it was a very grim era for free markets.

A few days ago, I followed up with a look at overall economic policy during the Reagan years. That was a much better era, at least for those of us who favor economic liberty over statism.

Now it’s time to look at the record of George W. Bush. It’s not a pretty picture.

I think the TARP bailout was the low point of the Bush years, though he also deserves criticism for big spending hikes (especially the rapid rise of domestic spending), additional red tape, special-interest trade taxes, and more centralization of education.

On the plus side, there was a good tax cut in 2003 (the 2001 version was mostly Keynesian and thus didn’t help growth), as well as some targeted trade liberalization. Unfortunately, those good reforms were swamped by bad policy.

As has been the case for other presidents, my calculations are based solely on policy changes. Presidents don’t get credit or blame for policies they endorsed or opposed. So when fans of President Bush tell me he was better on policy than his record indicates, I shrug my shoulders (just like I don’t particularly care when Republicans on Capitol Hill tell me that Clinton’s good record was because of the post-1994 GOP Congress).

I simply want to show where policy improved and where it deteriorated when various presidents were in office. Other people can argue about the degree to which those presidents deserve credit or blame.

In the case of Bush, for what it’s worth, I think he does deserve blame. None of the bad laws I listed were enacted over his veto.

Incidentally, I was torn by how to handle monetary policy. The artificially low interest rates of the mid-2000s contributed to the housing bubble and subsequent financial meltdown. Should I have blamed Bush for that because of his Federal Reserve appointments?

On a related note, the affordable lending mandates of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were made more onerous during the Bush years, thus exacerbating perverse incentives in the financial sector to make unwise loans. Was that Bush’s fault, or were those regulations unavoidable because of legislation that was enacted before Bush became President?

Ultimately, I decided to omit any reference to the Fed, as well as Fannie and Freddie. But I double-weighted TARP, both because it was awful economic policy and because that was a way of partially dinging Bush for his acquiescence to bad monetary and housing policy.

If there’s a lesson to learn from this analysis of Bush policy, it is that party labels don’t necessarily have any meaning. The economy suffers just as much if a Republican expands the burden of government as it does when the same thing happens under a Democrat.

P.S. I haven’t decided whether to replicate this exercise for pre-World War II presidents. If I do, Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland presumably would look very good.

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Most politicians are feckless creatures driven by their insecurities to say anything and everything in hopes of getting elected. And, once in power, they will do or say anything and everything in hopes of getting reelected. Public choice” theory explains how these conventional politicians behave.

But not all politicians fit in that box. There are also evil politicians in the world. Maduro in Venezuela would be a prime example, and you can add the dictators of North Korea, Cuba, and other hellholes to that list.

There are even a few admirable politicians, though that’s a very limited list.

But there’s also another category, at least in my mind. These are the ones who behave conventionally but say things that are really blur the line between foolish and despicable. For lack of a better phrase, these are the morally blind officials.

The politicians who eulogized Cuban dictator Fidel Castro belong in this group.

Another example would be Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, who urged a return to “collective values” and condemned the “Celtic Tiger” era for being too individualistic and selfish – even though that was the period when the people of Ireland enjoyed both rapid income growth and huge improvement in quality-of-life measures ranging from central heating to infant mortality.

Now I have another politician who belongs in this special category.

The new Prime Minster of New Zealand just demonstrated her profound ignorance of world history and New Zealand history by declaring that capitalism is “a blatant failure.”

New Zealand’s new prime minister called capitalism a “blatant failure”, before citing levels of homelessness and low wages as evidence that “the market has failed” her country’s poor. Jacinda Ardern, who is to become the nation’s youngest leader since 1856, said measures used to gauge economic success “have to change” to take into account “people’s ability to actually have a meaningful life”. …Ms Ardern has pledged her government will increase the minimum wage, write child poverty reduction targets into law, and build thousands of affordable homes. …The Labour leader said her government would judge economic success on more than measures such as GDP.

She sounds like a clueless college student, regurgitating some nonsense she heard in a sociology class. Is she not aware that capitalism is the only successful strategy for reducing poverty? Does she not understand that the entire world was mired in poverty before free markets took hold?

Is she unaware that horrible material deprivation in countries such as China and India only fell after those nations opened themselves to some economic liberalization?

I wish some journalist would ask her a version of my two-question challenge. Or, better yet, have Bono talk with her about how to genuinely help poor people. Heck, let’s sign her up for an economic history class with Deirdre McCloskey.

She reminds me of Pope Francis, who has a knee-jerk view that capitalism is bad. I’ve explained why those views are wrong, though I’d first recommend reading what Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell wrote on the matter.

By the way, I don’t know enough to comment on homelessness and child poverty in New Zealand, but if their welfare state is anything like the mess in the United States, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the government is actually subsidizing destitution and dependency.

But even if that’s not the case, Ms. Ardern is condemning capitalism because it doesn’t solve every problem in society. That might be a fair assertion, except the alternatives to capitalism have never solved any problem. Indeed, the various forms of statism are the cause of much misery around the world.

For what it’s worth, I would not be agitated if she simply had made a conventional left-of-center argument about being willing to accept less growth to get additional redistribution because the benefits of capitalism aren’t “equally shared,” or something like that. That’s the standard equity-vs-efficiency debate. But she apparently doesn’t have the depth or knowledge for that discussion.

The bottom line is that New Zealand is now governed by a politician who doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. That doesn’t mean she’ll be any worse than the standard elected official, but I’m not overflowing with optimism that New Zealand will continue to be ranked near the top by Economic Freedom of the World.

By the way, I appeared on New Zealand TV earlier this month while in the country for a speech. But we talked about America’s top politician (and his worrisome protectionist mindset) rather than what’s happening in Kiwi-land.

Though I did mention that New Zealand made great progress because of sweeping economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. Hopefully Ms Ardern won’t have much success in moving her country back in the wrong direction.

P.S. Obama came close to joining the morally blind club when he suggested we could learn from communism. And Bernie Sanders deserves to be in that club, but may belong in an even worse category.

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The cossetted bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund are on a roll. In the past few months, they’ve published reports pushing a very misguided and statist agenda.

  • In June, I wrote about the IMF pushing a theory that higher taxes would improve growth in the developing world.
  • In July, I wrote about the IMF complaining that tax competition between nations is resulting in lower corporate tax rates.
  • In October, I wrote about the IMF asserting that lower living standards are desirable if everyone is more equally poor.

Now let’s add to that awful collection.

A new IMF report tries to quantify the fiscal implications of a new agenda for so-called sustainable development from the United Nations.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched in September 2015 establish ambitious objectives to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all by 2030… From inception, it was clear this ambition would have to be accompanied by significant efforts to boost the financing resources available to developing countries.

By the way, “financing resources” is basically bureaucrat-speak for more revenue to finance bigger government.

But not just bigger government. We’re talking huge amounts of money and much, much bigger government.

…the numbers are likely to be very large. For example, Schmidt-Traub (2015) estimated that the average annual investment increase required in low-income countries (LICs) to attain these goals could reach up to $400 billion (or 50 percent of their GDP).

The article speculates that private investors and foreign aid will cover some of this cost, but the focus is on the degree to which poor nations independently have the capacity to expand the burden of government spending.

…the heavy burden imposed on the public sector cannot be overstated…requires assessing the fiscal space in LICs. … fiscal space captures the ability of a government to raise spending… The purpose of this paper is to develop a new metric of fiscal space in LICs.

The good news, from the IMF’s warped perspective, is that there’s lots of leeway to expand government in these countries, presumably enabled by big tax increases. The bad news is that there’s not enough “fiscal space” to finance the desired expansion of government.

…the fiscal space available in LICs may be in the double digits but, not surprisingly, it will be insufficient to undertake the spending needed to achieve the SDGs.

For those that care, here are some specific results.

…fiscal space in LICs is estimated to be in the double digits, with the median value reaching up to 16 percent of GDP for the full sample.

And here is a chart showing the estimates of fiscal space for resource-dependent poor countries are regular poor countries, based on various conditions.

And here’s another chart showing the potential “fiscal space” in low-income countries.

Though keep in mind that even very big increases in government would not produce the large public sectors envisioned by UN bureaucrats.

…the fiscal space available in LICs is dwarfed by the incremental annual spending needs that must be financed by the public sector to achieve the SDGs—estimated at around 30 percent of GDP.

Now that I’ve shared the IMF’s analysis, let me explain why it is anti-empirical nonsense.

Simply stated, the bureaucrats want us to reflexively assume that bigger government is the way to achieve the “sustainable development goals.” Yet the only sure-fire method of achieving those goals is to become a high-income nation. Those are the places, after all, that have achieved low poverty, clean environments, equal rights, and other desirable features that are part of the UN’s goals.

That being said, the world’s successful western countries all became rich when government was very small. Indeed, there was almost no redistribution spending in the western world as late as 1930. Yes, those nations generally adopted expensive and debilitating welfare states once they became rich, thus producing less growth and fiscal problems, but at least they they first achieved prosperity with lengthy periods of free markets and small government.

Moreover, there’s not a single example of a country that adopted big government and then became rich (and therefore capable of achieving the UN’s goals). So the notion that higher taxes and bigger governments can produce better outcomes for poor nations is utter bunk.

These issues were addressed in a recent video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

And I suppose I should link to my video on the recipe for growth and prosperity.

The bottom line is that the IMF has come up with analysis that – if followed – will ensure continued poverty and misery in the developing world. With that in mind, I think I was being too nice when I referred to that bureaucracy as the Dr. Kevorkian of global economic policy.

P.S. I don’t want anyone to conclude the IMF is biased against poor countries. They also push for higher taxes and bigger government in rich countries.

P.P.S. While they are infamous for urging higher taxes all around the world, IMF bureaucrats don’t have to suffer the consequences since they receive very lavish tax-free salaries. What a reprehensible scam.

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One of my pet peeves is when people characterize Robin Hood as some sort of left-wing redistributionist. As I’ve explained, that’s utter nonsense.

If you read the book or watch the movie starring Errol Flynn, Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham were the bad guys because they over-taxed the peasants. Robin Hood was the good guy because he rescued the money from the tax collectors and returned it to the people who earned it.

Kudos to Ted Cruz, who tried to educate (a poorly informed) Bernie Sanders on this topic.

Cruz accidentally promoted Prince John to King John (or is my aging memory betraying me and did Prince John declare himself King at some point?), but he’s 100 percent correct on the fundamental point.

And now I’m wondering which modern leftists should play the roles of the bad guys from Robin Hood if there’s a remake of the movie. Perhaps Obama should be Prince John, which might be a better fit than the other movie roles people have imagined for our former president.

And the Sheriff of Nottingham obviously could be played by our corrupt IRS Commissioner. He would be a natural for the role.

But let’s not get too distracted. The focus today is on whether Robin Hood belongs to Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party. This image reinforces the point that the latter is a better fit.

Just in case the message isn’t clear, here’s a nice clip from the cartoon version of Robin Hood.

I’m delighted that children actually were exposed to this message. I suggest sharing this clip widely with your kids, grandkids, nieces, nephew, etc, etc.

For what it’s worth, I also tried to correct the record about Robin Hood in a TV interview back in 2012.

P.S. Leftists aren’t the only people to mischaracterize Robin Hood, as I noted when discussing an otherwise-solid column by Cal Thomas.

P.P.S. Since Cal Thomas mentioned Robin Hood as part of a column explaining that Jesus wasn’t a socialist, I can’t resist showing Libertarian Jesus, who dispenses wisdom here and here.

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Back in 2013, I put together a visual showing the good and bad policies that were enacted during the Clinton years. The big takeaway was that the overall burden of government was substantially reduced during his years in office.

Two days ago, I did the same thing for Richard Nixon, but noted that his record was universally awful. I couldn’t think of a single pro-growth policy when he was in the Oval Office.

Now let’s look at the Ronald Reagan. I analyzed his record last year, but mostly looking at the aggregate results.

So let’s look at the details, putting specific pro-growth policies in one column and specific anti-growth policies in another column. As you can see, there was a substantial net improvement during the Reagan years.

I gave extra credit for his tax cuts, the spending restraint, and the taming of inflation.

On the negative side of the ledger, Reagan did approve some post-1981 tax hikes, imposed some protectionism, and also supported Medicare expansion, so he certainly wasn’t perfect.

I also was tempted to give Reagan some credit for NAFTA and the WTO since those initiative got their start during his presidency, but that would break my rule of only counting policies that were implemented while a president was in office.

The bottom line is that Reagan was a net plus for economic liberty. And if you count the collapse of the Soviet Empire, he was a net plus for global liberty.

Let’s close by discussing Henry Olsen’s new book on Ronald Reagan. Henry tried to make the case that Reagan was sort of a New Deal Democrat rather than a libertarian-ish ideologue. Writing for the Claremont Review of Books, Steven Hayward obviously is a fan of the book but is not entirely sympathetic to Henry’s hypothesis.

You should read Steven’s entire review, and also get Henry’s book and read it as well. I’ll simply cite two passages from the review for the simple reason that they match my beliefs (shocking, huh?). First, Reagan (quite correctly) was not a big fan of the New Deal.

Reagan’s long-time economic adviser Martin Anderson once told me that despite Reagan’s general kind words for FDR and the New Deal, he could not recall Reagan ever endorsing a specific New Deal policy… But if anyone wants to see Reagan as the heir of the New Deal, he has to get past one of Reagan’s most famous critiques of it—his 1976 remark that “Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal.” …Reagan, to his campaign managers’ consternation, stoutly defended his comments. In August 1980 Reagan told dumbfounded reporters: “Anyone who wants to look at the writings of the Brain Trust of the New Deal will find that President Roosevelt’s advisers admired the fascist system. . .  They thought that private ownership with government management and control a la the Italian system was the way to go, and that has been evident in all their writings.”

And he also opposed Washington-based income redistribution (another sensible view).

When Reagan opposed Nixon’s guaranteed annual income proposal, the Family Assistance Plan, in 1969 and 1970—the only governor in the country to do so—he said in a TV debate that “I believe that the government is supposed to promote the general welfare; I don’t think it is supposed to provide it.” If welfare was centralized in Washington, Reagan knew, reform would be all but impossible and there would be a bias toward increased spending in the future. …“If there is one area of social policy,” Reagan began to say in his standard stump speech, “that should be at the most local level of government possible, it is welfare. It should not be nationalized—it should be localized.” …In another 1982 speech to the NAACP (amidst a fierce recession), Reagan argued that the Great Society had done more harm than good for black Americans. Liberals howled with indignation about both of these heresies.

Amen.

I’m not a Reagan historian like Olson or Hayward, so I’ll wrap up this conversation with one small observation. Reagan was not as libertarian as I would like. I came to DC near the beginning of his second term and I remember feeling disappointed at the time that more progress could be made. I’ve now learned much more about the very weak records of other senior Republican and I now realize his accomplishment were large and meaningful.

It wasn’t just what he achieved. He also changed the “Overton Window,” meaning that he substantially expanded the acceptability of ideas about free markets and limited government. Prior to the Gipper’s tenure, Republicans rarely challenged the welfare state. They basically accepted the New Deal and Great Society. Reagan didn’t have much success unraveling welfare state programs, but he showed that such programs could be criticized and big-picture ideas about reform were not politically toxic.

P.S. Let’s also not forget that Reagan opposed the value-added tax. The rejection of a bad policy doesn’t belong on the above list, but it’s a notable piece of evidence about Reagan’s economic wisdom.

P.P.S. Reagan also showed that good policy can be good politics.

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I’ve written several times that the left wants big tax hikes on poor and middle-class taxpayers. Simply stated, that’s the only way they can finance a European-sized welfare state.

Some of them even admit they want to pillage ordinary taxpayers.

Now we have another addition to our list. Writing in today’s Washington Post, two law professors from UCLA openly argue in favor of tightening the belts of average Americans to enable a bigger federal government.

…we need more tax revenue from the middle class, not less.

They start by complaining that middle-income taxpayers have benefited from big tax cuts over the past 35 years.

Middle-class tax burdens are at historic lows. The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2016 that the average federal income tax rate for the middle class — here meaning the middle 60 percent of the income distribution — declined from 7.8 percent in 1979 to 3.4 percent in 2013. Focusing on all federal taxes (not just income taxes), the average tax rate dropped from 19.2 to 13.8 percent over the same period. With these lower tax rates, the share of taxes paid by the middle class has also declined. The middle class paid 35 percent of income taxes in 1979 but only 16 percent in 2013, while its share of all federal taxes fell from 43 to 30 percent.

As far as I’m concerned, this is good news, not something to bemoan. Indeed, my goal is to have similar reductions in tax burdens for all taxpayers.

But the authors raise a very valid point. We will have giant tax increases in the future and people at all income levels will be adversely impacted. Though there is one way of avoiding that grim European future.

Unless Congress is willing to dramatically cut major entitlement programs.

Incidentally, we don’t need to “dramatically cut” those programs. The authors are relying on dishonest Washington budget math.

In reality, the problem is solved and tax increases are averted so long as reforms are adopted to ensure that entitlement programs no longer grow faster than the private sector.

But that’s not what the authors want. They actually look forward to big tax increases.

What the middle class needs is not meager tax cuts but a muscular commitment to robust public institutions designed to benefit middle-income individuals. The higher taxes could come from our current income tax (from tax increases on the middle class and the wealthy) or a broad-based consumption tax (such as a VAT or carbon tax).

I’m greatly amused by the language they use. They want readers to believe that bloated European-style welfare states are “robust public institutions” and that politicians grabbing more money to buy more votes is a way of showing “muscular commitment.”

I’m also not surprised that they embraced a carbon tax or value-added tax.

By the way, the column compares the United States with other industrialized nations. Simply stated, we win (at least from my perspective).

Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reveal that American families with children face substantially lower average income-tax rates (in some cases, less than half) than similar families in other developed countries. And this is before factoring in consumption taxes, which represent a large share of middle-class tax burdens in most countries, but not in the United States.

Those are remarkable numbers. Income taxes grab a much bigger share of family income in Europe. And then governments take an even bigger slice thanks to onerous value-added taxes.

The authors would argue that Europeans get “robust public institutions” in exchange for all that money, but what they really get is less growth and lower living standards.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that the richest European nations are on the same level (or below) the poorest American states.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for higher tax burdens.

The bottom line is that left-wing politicians usually pontificate about raising taxes on the rich, but the truly honest folks on the left openly admit that the real targets are lower-income and middle-class households.

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A few days ago, using several methodologies, I calculated how fast government spending increased during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

One of my big takeaways was that Republican presidents – with the exception of Reagan – allowed the burden of government spending to increase far too rapidly. Oftentimes faster than budgets grew under Democratic presidents.

That column generated a lot of feedback. And whether the responses were positive or negative, a common theme was that presidents shouldn’t be judged solely based on the growth of federal spending – both because Congress plays a big role and because there are many other policies that also matter when assessing economic policy.

I fully agree, and I explicitly noted that the relatively good spending numbers during the Obama years were because of policies – sequestration, shutdowns, etc – he opposed.

And I also concur that other policies matter. That’s one of the reasons I’m always highlighting Economic Freedom of the World. Yes, fiscal policy is one of the variables, but monetary policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, and the rule of law are equally important.

Indeed, I did an overall assessment of Bill Clinton a few years ago, comparing the pro-growth polices that were adopted during his tenure with the anti-growth policies that were implemented.

The bottom line is that economic liberty increased during his presidency. Significantly. Others can debate about whether he deserves full credit, partial credit, or no credit, but what matters to me is that the overall burden of government shrank. And that was good for America.

It’s time to do an overall assessment of economic policy for other presidents. And we’ll start with one of America’s worst presidents, Richard Nixon.

He’s mostly infamous for Watergate, which led to his resignation, but he also should be scorned because every single major economic policy of his presidency expanded the size, scope, and power of the federal government. Here’s the list, with a couple of the items getting larger bars because the policies were so misguided.

Is it true that there were no good economic policies under Richard Nixon? I asked Art Laffer, who worked at the Office of Management and Budget at the time, whether there were any pro-market reforms during the Nixon years.

He mentioned that the top tax rate on labor and small business income was reduced from 70 percent to 50 percent as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1969. I would have included that law in the pro-growth column, except that was the legislation that also created the alternative minimum tax (for both households and corporations). And there was an increases in the tax burden on capital gains, as well as a more onerous tax regime for new investment. My assessment is that these bad provisions basically offset the lower tax rate.

For what it’s worth, Nixon also proposed a value-added tax, which is yet another piece of evidence that he was a terrible statist. But I only include policies that were enacted rather than merely proposed (if I did include proposed policies, Bill Clinton would take a hit for Hillarycare).

P.S. I’m open to revising this list. I probably missed some policies, perhaps even a good one. And maybe I’m overstating the negative impact of spending increases and price controls, or understating the bad consequences of other policies. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.

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I gave a couple of speeches about fiscal policy in Australia late last week.

During the Q&A sessions (as so often happens when I speak overseas), the audiences mostly asked questions about Donald Trump. I generally give a three-part response.

So when I was asked to appear on Australian television, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was asked several questions about Trump.

But the good news is that the segment lasted for more than 18 minutes so I got a chance to pontificate about taxes and spending.

In particular, I had an opportunity to explain two very important principles of fiscal policy.

First, I explained the Rahn Curve and discussed why both Australia and the United States should worry that the public sector is too large. This means less growth in our respective nations because government spending (whether financed by taxes or borrowing) diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy.

Second, I explained the Laffer Curve and tried to get across why high tax rates are a bad idea (even if they raise more revenue). As always, my top goal was to explain that a nation should not seek to be at the revenue-maximizing point.

I also had an opportunity to take some potshots at international bureaucracies such as the IMF and OECD. Yes, we get good statistics from such organizations and even some occasional good research, but they have a statist policy agenda that undermines global growth. And I never cease to be offended that bureaucrats at these organizations get tax-free salaries, yet get to jet around the world urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

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I’ve learned that it’s more important to pay attention to hard numbers rather than political rhetoric. Republicans, for instance, love to beat their chests about spending restraint, but I never believe them without first checking the numbers. Likewise, Democrats have a reputation as big spenders, but we occasionally get some surprising results when they’re in charge.

President Obama was especially hard to categorize. Republicans automatically assume he was profligate because he started his tenure with a Keynesian spending binge and the Obamacare entitlement. But after a few years in office, some were arguing he was the most frugal president of modern times.

Or, to be more accurate, what I basically discovered is that debt limit fights, sequestration, and government shutdowns were actually very effective. Indeed, the United States enjoyed a de facto spending freeze between 2009 and 2014, leading to the biggest five-year reduction in the burden of federal spending since the end of World War II. And it’s unclear that Obama deserves any of the credit since he was on the wrong side of those battles.

Anyhow, I’ve decided to update the numbers now that we have 8 years of data for Obama’s two terms.

But first, a brief digression on methodology: All the numbers you’re about to see have been adjusted for inflation, so these are apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, all my calculations are designed to show average annual increases. I also made sure that the “stimulus” spending that took place in the 2009 fiscal year was included in Obama’s totals, even though that fiscal year began (on October 1, 2008) while Bush was President.

We’ll start with a look at total outlays. On this basis, Obama is actually the most conservative President since World War II. And Bill Clinton is in second place.

But total outlays doesn’t really capture a President’s track record because interest payments are included, which effectively means they get blamed for all the debt run up by their predecessors.

So if we remove payments for net interest, we get a measure of what is called primary spending (total outlays minus net interest). As you can see, Obama is still in first place and Reagan jumps up to second place.

I would argue that one other major adjustment is needed to make the numbers more accurate.

There have been two major financial bailouts in the past 30 years, the savings & loan bailout in the late 1980s and the TARP bailout at the end of last decade. Those bailouts created big one-time expenses, followed by an influx of money (from asset sales and repaid loans) that actually gets counted as negative spending.

Those bailouts added a big chunk of one-time spending at the end of the Reagan years and at the end of the George W. Bush years, while then producing negative outlays during the early years of the George H.W. Bush Administration and Obama Administration.

So if we take out the one-time effects of those two bailouts (which I categorize as “non-TARP” for reasons of brevity), we get a new ranking.

Reagan is now in first place, followed by Clinton and Obama.

By the way, Lydon Johnson has been in last place regardless of how the numbers are calculated, and George W. Bush has had the second-worst numbers.

For all intents and purposes, the above numbers are how a libertarian would rank the various Presidents since both domestic spending and military spending are part of the calculations.

So let’s close by looking at how a conservative would rank the presidents, which is a simple exercise because all that’s required is to remove military spending. Here are the numbers showing the average inflation-adjusted increase in overall domestic outlays for various Presidents (still excluding the one-time bailouts, of course).

By this measure, Reagan easily is in first place. Though it’s worth noting that three Democrats occupy the next positions (though Obama’s numbers are no longer impressive), while Republicans (along with LBJ) get the worst scores.

The bottom line is that Reaganomics was a comparative success. But should we also conclude that Obama was a fiscal conservative?

I don’t think he deserves credit, but I won’t add anything to what I wrote above. Instead, I’ll simply note that Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has a good analysis of Obama’s fiscal record. Here’s his conclusion.

It is important to recognize that Obama did not stop trying to expand government after 2010. The president’s eight annual budget requests gradually upped their 10-year revenue demands from $1.3 trillion to $3.4 trillion, while proposing an average of $1.0 trillion in new program spending over the next decade. His play, in short, was to gradually trim the budget deficit by chasing large spending increases with even larger tax increases. The Republican Congress stopped him. My assessment: Obama’s most important fiscal legacy was a sin of omission. Despite promising to confront Social Security and Medicare’s unsustainable deficits, the president refused to endorse any plan that would come close to achieving solvency. This surrendered eight crucial years of baby-boomer retirements while costs accelerated. With baby boomers retiring and a national debt projected to exceed $90 trillion within 30 years, this was no small surrender.

In other words, the relatively good short-run numbers were in spite of Obama. And the long-run numbers were bad – and still are bad – because he chose to let the entitlement problem fester. But he was still better (less worse) than Bush I, Bush II, and Nixon.

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When companies want to boost sales, they sometimes tinker with products and then advertise them as “new and improved.”

In the case of governments, though, I suspect “new” is not “improved.”

The British territory of Jersey, for instance, has a very good tax system. It has a low-rate flat tax and it overtly brags about how its system is much better than the one imposed by London.

In the United States, by contrast, the state of New Jersey has a well-deserved reputation for bad fiscal policy. To be blunt, it’s not a good place to live and it’s even a bad place to die.

And it’s about to get worse. A column in the Wall Street Journal warns that New Jersey is poised to take a big step in the wrong direction. The authors start by observing that the state is already in bad shape.

…painless solutions to New Jersey’s fiscal challenges don’t exist. …a massive structural deficit lurks… New Jersey’s property taxes, already the highest in the nation, are being driven up further by the state’s pension burden and escalating health-care costs for government workers.

In other words, interest groups (especially overpaid bureaucrats) control the political process and they are pressuring politicians to divert even more money from the state’s beleaguered private sector.

…politicians seem to think New Jersey can tax its way to budgetary stability. At a debate this week in Newark, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Phil Murphy, pledged to spend more on education and to “fully fund our pension obligations.” …But just taxing more would risk making New Jersey’s fiscal woes even worse. …New Jersey is grasping at the same straws. During the current fiscal year, the state’s pension contribution is $2.5 billion, only about half the amount actuarially recommended. The so-called millionaire’s tax, a proposal Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed several times since taking office in 2010, will no doubt make a comeback if Mr. Murphy is elected. Yet it would bring in only an estimated $600 million a year.

The column warns that New Jersey may wind up repeating Connecticut’s mistakes.

Going down that path, however, is a recipe for a loss of high-value taxpayers and businesses.

Let’s look at a remarkable story from the New York Times. Published last year, it offers a very tangible example of how the state’s budgetary status will further deteriorate if big tax hikes drive away more successful taxpayers.

One man can move out of New Jersey and put the entire state budget at risk. Other states are facing similar situations…during a routine review of New Jersey’s finances, one could sense the alarm. The state’s wealthiest resident had reportedly “shifted his personal and business domicile to another state,” Frank W. Haines III, New Jersey’s legislative budget and finance officer, told a State Senate committee. If the news were true, New Jersey would lose so much in tax revenue that “we may be facing an unusual degree of income tax forecast risk,” Mr. Haines said.

Here are some of the details.

…hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper…declared himself a resident of Florida after living for over 20 years in New Jersey. He later moved the official headquarters of his hedge fund, Appaloosa Management, to Miami. New Jersey won’t say exactly how much Mr. Tepper paid in taxes. …Tax experts say his move to Florida could cost New Jersey — which has a top tax rate of 8.97 percent — hundreds of millions of dollars in lost payments. …several New Jersey lawmakers cited his relocation as proof that the state’s tax rates, up from 6.37 percent in 1996, are chasing away the rich. Florida has no personal income tax.

By the way, Tepper isn’t alone. Billions of dollars of wealth have already left New Jersey because of bad tax policy. Yet politicians in Trenton blindly want to make the state even less attractive.

At the risk of asking an obvious question, how can they not realize that this will accelerate the migration of high-value taxpayers to states with better policy?

New Jersey isn’t alone in committing slow-motion suicide. I already mentioned Connecticut and you can add states such as California and Illinois to the list.

What’s remarkable is that these states are punishing the very taxpayers that are critical to state finances.

…states with the highest tax rates on the rich are growing increasingly dependent on a smaller group of superearners for tax revenue. In New York, California, Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey, the top 1 percent pay a third or more of total income taxes. Now a handful of billionaires or even a single individual like Mr. Tepper can have a noticeable impact on state revenues and budgets. …Some academic research shows that high taxes are chasing the rich to lower-tax states, and anecdotes of tax-fleeing billionaires abound. …In California, 5,745 taxpayers earning $5 million or more generated more than $10 billion of income taxes in 2013, or about 19 percent of the state’s total, according to state officials. “Any state that depends on income taxes is going to get sick whenever one of these guys gets a cold,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The federal government does the same thing, of course, but it has more leeway to impose bad policy because it’s more challenging to move out of the country than to move across state borders.

New Jersey, however, can’t set up guard towers and barbed wire fences at the border, so it will feel the effect of bad policy at a faster rate.

P.S. I used to think that Governor Christie might be the Ronald Reagan of New Jersey. I was naive. Yes, he did have some success in vetoing legislation that would have exacerbated fiscal problems in the Garden State, but he was unable to change the state’s bad fiscal trajectory.

P.P.S. Remarkably, New Jersey was like New Hampshire back in the 1960s, with no income tax and no sales tax. What a tragic story of fiscal decline!

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. Like many other international bureaucracies, it pushes a statist agenda.

The IMF’s support for bad policy gets me so agitated that I’ve sometimes referred to it as the “dumpster fire” or “Dr. Kevorkian” of the global economy.

But, in a perverse way, I admire the IMF’s determination to advance its ideological mission. The bureaucrats will push for tax hikes using any possible rationale.

Even if it means promoting really strange theories like the one I just read in the bureaucracy’s most recent Fiscal Monitor.

Welfare-based measures can help policymakers when they face decisions that entail important trade-offs between equity and efficiency. …One way to quantify social welfare in monetary units is to use the concept of equally distributed equivalent income.

And what exactly is “equally distributed equivalent income”?

It’s a theory that says big reductions in national prosperity are good if the net result is that people are more equal. I’m not joking. Here’s more about the theory.

…a welfare-based measure of inequality…with 1 being complete inequality and 0 being complete equality. A value of, say, 0.3 means that if incomes were equally distributed, then society would need only 70 percent (1 − 0.3) of the present national income to achieve the same level of welfare it currently enjoys (in which incomes are not equally distributed). The level of income per person that if equally distributed would enable the society to reach the same level of welfare as the existing distribution is termed equally distributed equivalent income (EDEI).

Set aside the jargon and focus on the radical implications. The IMF is basically stating that “the same level of welfare” can be achieved with “only 70 percent of the present national income” if government impose enough coercive redistribution.

In other words, Margaret Thatcher wasn’t exaggerating when she mocked the left for being willing to sacrifice national well-being and hurt the poor so long as those with higher incomes were subjected to even greater levels of harm.

Not surprisingly, the IMF uses its bizarre theory to justify more class-warfare taxation.

Figure 1.16 shows how the optimal top marginal income tax rate would change as the social welfare weight on high-income individuals increases. Assuming a welfare weight of zero for the very rich, the optimal marginal income tax rate can be calculated as 44 percent, based on an average income tax elasticity of 0.4… Therefore, there would appear to be scope for increasing the progressivity of income taxation…for countries wishing to enhance income redistribution.

But not just higher statutory tax rates.

The bureaucrats also want more double taxation of income that is saved and invested. And wealth taxation as well.

Taxes on capital income play an equally important role in shaping the progressivity of a tax system. …An alternative, or complement, to capital income taxation for economies seeking more progressive taxation is to tax wealth.

The article even introduces a new measure called “progressive tax capacity,” which politicians doubtlessly will interpret as a floor rather than a ceiling.

Reminds me of the World Bank’s “report card” which gave better grades to nations with “high effort” tax systems.

Though I guess I should look at the bright side. It’s good news that the IMF estimates that the “optimal” tax rate is 44 percent rather than 100 percent (as the Congressional Budget Office implies). And I suppose I also should be happy that “progressive tax capacity” doesn’t justify a 100 percent tax rate.

I’m being sarcastic, of course. That being said, there is a bit of genuinely good analysis in the publication. The bureaucrats actually acknowledge that growth is the way of helping the poor, which is a point I’ve been trying to stress for several years.

…many emerging market and developing economies…experienced increases in inequality during periods of strong economic growth. …Although income growth has not been evenly shared in emerging market economies, all deciles of the income distribution have benefited from economic growth, even when inequality has increased. …Benefiting from high economic growth, East and South Asia and the Pacific region, in particular, showed remarkable success in reducing poverty between 1985 and 2015 (Figure 1.8). Likewise, a period of strong growth has led to a sustained decline in absolute poverty rates in sub-Saharan Africa and in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Here are two charts from this section of the Fiscal Monitor. Figure 1.7 shows that the biggest gains for the poor occurred in the emerging market economies that also saw big increases for the rich. And Figure 1.8 shows how global poverty has fallen.

I’m not saying, by the way, that inequality is necessary for growth.

My argument is merely that free markets and small government are a recipe for prosperity. And as a nation becomes richer thanks to capitalism, it’s quite likely that some people will get richer faster than others get richer.

I personally hope the poor get richer faster than the rich get richer, but the other way around is fine. So long as all groups are enjoying more prosperity and poverty is declining, that’s a good outcome.

P.S. My favorite example of rising inequality and falling poverty is China.

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Back in 2013, when I was still doing a “question of the week” column, I suggested that Australian was the best option for those contemplating a new home in the event of some sort of Greek-style fiscal collapse in the United States.

I pointed out that America wasn’t in any immediate danger, though I can understand why some people are interested in the question since our long-run outlook is rather grim.

Anyhow, I picked Australia for several reasons, including its geographic position (no unstable welfare states on the border, which is why I didn’t select Switzerland), its private social security system (unfunded liabilities are small compared to the $44 trillion shortfall in America’s government-run system), and its relatively high level of economic freedom.

I’m not the only person to notice that Australia is a good place to live. A recent Bloomberg column noted that millionaires are moving Down Under.

They’re all going to the land Down Under. Australia is luring increasing numbers of global millionaires, helping make it one of the fastest growing wealthy nations in the world… Over the past decade, total wealth held in Australia has risen by 85 percent compared to 30 percent in the U.S. and 28 percent in the U.K., aided by the fact that Australia has gone 25 years without a recession. As a result, the average Australian is now significantly wealthier than the average American or Briton. …At the end of 2016 individuals held about $192 trillion of wealth worldwide…, with 13.6 million millionaires holding $69 trillion of this. There were 522,000 multi-millionaires, having net assets of $10 million or more.

The number of millionaires moving to Australia is especially impressive when looking at global data.

Here’s a map showing the nations with the most incoming and outgoing rich people (h/t: Steve Hanke). Maybe it’s because there’s no death tax in Australia, but it’s remarkable that a nation with less than one-tenth the population of the United States manages to attract more millionaires.

But not everybody is cheerful about Australia’s economic position.

I’m currently in Brisbane for a couple of speeches. I spoke earlier today about how market-oriented jurisdictions grow much faster over the long run when compared to nations with statist economic policy.

But I don’t want to focus on my remarks (much of which will be old news to regular readers). Instead, let’s look at the some of the information in a speech by Professor Tony Makin of Griffith University.

Two of his slides caught my attention. Let’s start with a depressing look at how Australia has declined in the global competitiveness rankings put together each year by the World Economic Forum.

This is not a good trend.

That being said, I think Economic Freedom of the World is a more accurate measure and it shows that Australia (whether looking at its absolute score or its relative ranking) has suffered only a small decline.

Here’s another chart that is depressing as well. It shows that the per-capita burden of taxes and spending has continuously increased even after adjusting for inflation.

To be fair, the numbers aren’t quite as bad when looking at taxes and spending as a share of gross domestic product.

Nonetheless, the trend isn’t favorable, which is a point I made back in 2014.

None of this changes my view that Australia is still a good choice for emigrating Americans. But it does leave me worried about whether it will still be the top choice in 10 years or 20 years.

For what it’s worth, the main recommendation in my speech was for Australia to adopt a spending cap, similar to the ones that exist in Hong Kong and Switzerland. I also should have suggested sweeping decentralization since the government actually is open to that idea.

P.S. One of the most disappointing things about Australia is that the country’s foreign aid bureaucrats are trying to bribe/coerce Vanuatu’s government into adopting an income tax.

P.P.S. Professor Makin was the author of the report I recently cited about the failure of Australia’s Keynesian spending binge.

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When writing about the Obamacare and its birth-control mandate, I’ve made a handful of observations.

President Trump recently announced that his Administration would relax the mandate. I think that is good news for the above reasons.

Critics are very upset. But rather than argue about the desirability of insurance coverage and the wisdom of Washington mandates, they’re actually claiming that the White House has launched some sort of war on birth control. I’m not joking.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe analyzes the issue. He starts by observing that nobody is proposing to ban birth control

…the Supreme Court ruled, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that government may not ban anyone from using contraceptives. …That freedom is a matter of settled law, and hasn’t been challenged in the slightest by President Trump or his administration.

He then points out that some folks on the left have gone ballistic.

Hillary Clinton accused Trump of showing “blatant disregard for medicine, science, & every woman’s right to make her own health decisions.” Elizabeth Warren, denouncing “this attack on basic health care,” claimed that the GOP’s top priority is to deprive women of birth control.

Their arguments, however, are utter nonsense. If Person A no longer has to subsidize Person B, that doesn’t mean Person B can’t buy things. It simply means there won’t be third-party payer.

Jacoby agrees.

News flash to Warren, et al.: There is no attack on health care, and no in America is being deprived of birth control. You are losing nothing but the power to force nuns to pay for your oral contraceptives. …As a matter of economics and public policy, the Affordable Care Act mandate that birth control be supplied for free is absurd. …Especially since birth control will remain as available and affordable as ever.

Indeed, the Trump Administration was actually far too timid. There should be no birth-control mandate for any insurance plan. It should be something negotiated by employers and employees.

…the new White House rule leaves the birth-control mandate in place. Trump’s “tweak won’t affect 99.9 percent of women,” observes the Wall Street Journal, “and that number could probably have a few more 9s at the end.” Washington will continue to compel virtually every employer and insurer in America to supply birth control to any woman who wants one at no out-of-pocket cost.

Jacoby closes his column with some very sensible observations and recommendations.

…there is no legitimate rationale for such a mandate. Americans don’t expect to get aspirin, bandages, or cold medicine — or condoms — for free; by what logic should birth control pills or diaphragms be handed over at no cost? …By and large, birth control is inexpensive; as little as $20 a month without insurance. …access to birth control, as the Centers for Disease Control reported in 2010, was virtually universal before Obamacare. The White House is right to end the burden on religious objectors. But it is the birth-control mandate itself that should be scrapped. Contraception is legal, cheap, and available everywhere. Why are the feds meddling where they aren’t needed?

The last sentence is key. The federal government (heck, no level of government) should be involved with birth control. They shouldn’t ban it. And they shouldn’t mandate it, either.

P.S. About five years ago, Sandra Fluke got her 15 minutes of fame by asserting that she had a right to third-party-financed birth control. That led to some clever jokes, including this cartoon and this video.

For what it’s worth, I think this cartoon is the best summary of the issue.

P.P.S. Predictably, the United Nations supports a “right” to taxpayer-financed birth control.

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In my ideal world, we’re having a substantive debate about corporate tax policy, double taxation, marginal tax rates, and fundamental tax reform (plus spending restraint so big tax cuts are feasible).

Sadly, we don’t live in my ideal world (other than my Georgia Bulldogs being undefeated). So instead of a serious discussion about things that matter, there’s a big fight in Washington about the meaning of Donald Trump’s words.

Politico has a report on this silly controversy. Here are some of highlights.

“We are the highest taxed nation in the world,” President Donald Trump has repeated over and over again. …He said it at a White House event last Friday. He’s tweeted it, repeated it in television interviews and declared it at countless rallies. It is his go-to talking point, his favorite line… It is also false — something fact checkers have been pointing out since 2015.

This fight revolves around the fact that Trump is referring to corporate taxes, but generally does not make that explicit. So you have exchanges like this.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought for the second time in less than a week to defend the comment… “We are the highest taxed corporate tax [sic] in the developed economy. That’s a fact,” Sanders said when pressed on the comment during a briefing. “But that’s not what the president said,” a reporter retorted. “That’s what he’s talking about,” Sanders responded. “We are the highest taxed corporate nation.” “But that’s not what he said. He said we’re the highest taxed nation in the world,” said the reporter, Trey Yingst.

Sigh. What a silly exchange. It reminds me of the absurd debate about “what the definition of is is” during the Clinton years.

I start with the assumption that all politicians aggressively manipulate words, either deliberately or instinctively. Or maybe just out of sloppiness.

So let’s look at three bits of data, starting with the numbers that are least favorable to Trump. Here’s a chart from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It’s definitely not my favorite international bureaucracy, but it has good apples-to-apples figures for developed nations. And you can see that the United States (highlighted in red) definitely does not have the highest overall tax burden.

For what it’s worth, we should be happy about these numbers. Indeed, I think they help to explain why Americans are much more prosperous than our European friends. And it’s also worth noting that Trump – at best – is being sloppy when he asserts that America is the “highest taxed nation.”

The President’s defenders can argue, with some legitimacy, that he often makes that claim while talking about business taxation. In those cases, it’s presumably obvious that “highest taxed” is a reference to corporate rates.

And if that’s the case, looking at a second set of numbers, the President is spot on. The United States unambiguously has the highest corporate tax rate among developed nations. And the U.S. may even have the highest corporate rate in the entire world depending on how certain severance taxes in developing nations are categorized.

Moreover, the United States has a very onerous system of worldwide taxation, accompanied by rules that rank very near the bottom.

In other words, Trump has a very strong case, but he undermines his argument when he doesn’t explicitly state that he’s talking about corporate taxation.

There’s even a third set of numbers that Trump could cite when discussing the “highest taxed nation.” As I’ve noted before, the United States actually has the most “progressive” tax system in the developed world.

But the President shouldn’t cite me when he can easily use quotes and data from the Washington Post on September 19, 2012.

The United States has by far the most progressive income, payroll, wealth and property taxes of any developed country.

Or the same newspaper on April 4, 2013.

…the American system remains the most progressive tax system in the developed world.

Or the Washington Post on April 5, 2013.

A few readers were surprised by my mention Thursday that the U.S. tax code…is actually the most progressive in the developed world. But it’s true! …Our top 10 percent…pays a much higher share of the tax burden than the upper classes in other countries do.

Here’s the most relevant chart.

These numbers may not be terribly relevant for the current controversy since Trump’s tax plan is focused more on business taxpayers rather than individual taxpayers.

But our friends on the left are very anxious to impose more class-warfare taxation, so we should file this data for future reference.

P.S. The April 4, 2013, story in the Washington Post includes this very important passage.

…social democracies like France, Germany and Sweden have actively regressive systems heavily reliant on value-added taxes.

This reinforces what I’ve repeatedly noted, which is that Europe’s costly welfare states are financed by lower-income and middle-class taxpayers (in large part because of punitive value-added taxes). The bottom line is that we should listen to Bernie Sanders and become more like Europe. But only if we want ordinary citizens to pay much higher taxes and to accept much lower living standards.

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I shared some academic research last year showing that top-level inventors are very sensitive to tax policy and that they migrate from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions.

Now we have some new scholarly research showing that they also migrate from high-tax states to low-tax states.

Let’s look at some of the findings from this new study, which was published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. We’ll start with the issue the economists chose to investigate.

…personal taxes vary enormously from state to state. These geographical differences are particularly large for high income taxpayers. …the average tax rate (ATR) component due solely to state individual income taxes for a taxpayer with income at the 99th percentile nationally in 2010…in California, Oregon, and Maine were 8.1%, 9.1%, and 7.7%, respectively. By contrast, Washington, Texas, Florida, and six other states had 0 income tax. Large differences are also observed in business taxes. …Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota had corporate income taxes rates of 12%, 9.99%, and 9.8%, respectively, while Washington, Nevada, and three other states had no corporate tax at all. And not only do tax rates vary substantially across states, they also vary within states over time. …If workers and firms are mobile across state borders, these large differences over time and place have the potential to significantly affect the geographical allocation of highly skilled workers and employers across the country.

Here’s a map showing the tax rates on these very successful taxpayers, as of 2010. Many of these states (California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut) have moved in the wrong direction since that time, while others (such as North Carolina and Kansas) have moved in the right direction.

Anyhow, here’s more information about the theoretical issue being explored.

Many states aggressively and openly compete for firms and high-skilled workers by offering low taxes. Indeed, low-tax states routinely advertise their favorable tax environments with the explicit goal of attracting workers and business activity to their jurisdiction. Between 2012 and 2014, Texas ran TV ads in California, Illinois and New York urging businesses and high-income taxpayers to relocate….In this paper, we seek to quantify how sensitive is internal migration by high-skilled workers to personal and business tax differentials across U.S. states. Personal taxes might shift the supply of workers to a state: states with high personal taxes presumably experience a lower supply of workers for given before-tax average wage, cost of living and local amenities. Business taxes might shift the local demand for skilled workers by businesses: states with high business taxes presumably experience a lower demand for workers, all else equal.

And here’s their methodology.

We focus on the locational outcomes of star scientists, defined as scientists…with patent counts in the top 5% of the distribution. Using data on the universe of U.S. patents filed between 1976 and 2010, we identify their state of residence in each year. We compute bilateral migration flows for every pair of states (51×51) for every year. We then relate bilateral outmigration to the differential between the destination and origin state in personal and business taxes in each year. …Our models estimate the elasticity of migration to taxes by relating changes in number of scientists who move from one state to another to changes in the tax differential between the two states.

So what did the economists find? Given all the previous research on this topic, you won’t be surprised to learn that high tax rates are a way of redistributing people.

We uncover large, stable, and precisely estimated effects of personal and business taxes on star scientists’ migration patterns. …For the average tax rate faced by an individual at the 99th percentile of the national income distribution, we find a long-run elasticity of about 1.8: a 1% increase in after-tax income in state d relative to state o is associated with a 1.8 percent long-run increase in the net flow of star scientists moving from o to d. …To be clear: The flow elasticity implies that if after tax income in a state increases by one percent due to a personal income tax cut, the stock of scientists in the state experiences a percentage increase of 0.4 percent per year… We find a similar elasticity for state corporate income tax… In all, our estimates suggest that both the supply of, and the demand for, star scientists are highly sensitive to state taxes.

Wonky readers may appreciate these graphs from the study.

For everyone else, the important lesson from this research is that high tax rates discourage productive behavior and drive away the people who create a lot of value.

Two years ago, I shared some research showing that entrepreneurs flee high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions. Now we know the some thing happens with top-level inventors.

And let’s not forget that it’s even easier for investment to cross borders, which is why high corporate tax rates and high levels of double taxation are so damaging to U.S. workers and American competitiveness.

P.S. I don’t expect many leftists to change their minds because of this research. Some of them openly admit they want high tax rates solely for reasons of spite. Sensible people, by contrast, should be even more committed to pro-growth tax reform.

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Puerto Rico is getting lots of attention because Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous amount of economic damage.

That leads to an important discussion about the role of government – particularly the federal government – when there is a natural disaster (and a secondary discussion about the silly Keynesian argument that disasters are good for prosperity).

But let’s focus today on a man-made disaster. Puerto Rico is the Greece of America, and it was a fiscal mess well before the hurricane hit. Indeed, there’s already been partial-bailout legislation from Washington.

The Wall Street Journal opined wisely on the topic, starting with the observation that we shouldn’t feel too much sympathy for investors who purchased bonds from the island’s profligate government.

…they knew what they were getting into. Lenders piled into Puerto Rican bonds that paid high yields that are “triple tax-exempt”—they can’t be taxed by federal, state or local governments in the U.S. Yet lenders also knew that the Puerto Rican government was heading toward a debt crisis. The economy has been contracting for a decade, and the commonwealth has $48 billion in unfunded pensions on top of $72 billion in bond debt. Creditors bet that the high yield was worth the political risk, but the music was bound to stop. One lesson of the last decade that creditors don’t want to learn, even after Detroit and Greece, is that sovereign debt to lousy governments is high risk. The abrogation of debt contracts that will now take place is regrettable, but there is a price for betting on politicians.

It would be a nice lesson if investors learned not to trust governments, especially the ones most prone to destructive statist policies.

But that doesn’t address the underlying problem of how to generate growth in Puerto Rico. The answer, needless to say, is free markets and small government.

…the territory will have to grow faster. This is where bankruptcy alone is inadequate. Puerto Rico will have to cut taxes on investment, rationalize welfare programs that deter working, and pare back labor protections that make France look like Hong Kong. If Mr. Rossello won’t do it, then the control board will have to. Puerto Rico will continue to flounder even with reduced debt if labor participation remains stuck at 40% and unemployment is in the double digits.

Unfortunately, the government has been doubling down on bad policy.

Investor’s Business Daily delves deeper into the issue of how big government is strangling prosperity.

The key is to create the correct incentives for the island’s people to encourage — rather than discourage — their policymakers to implement necessary and difficult reforms. This is particularly true with regard to pension reform. …Emphasis should instead be put on the many necessary changes to Puerto Rican labor laws, welfare programs and business and tax regulations which could spur more private sector business and job creation, encourage more people to work, and allow economic growth to resume. …Changes to U.S. laws and regulations discouraging labor force participation in Puerto Rico, such as the high minimum wage and easier eligibility for Social Security disability benefits for Spanish speakers, would also help greatly. And most importantly, Puerto Rico’s lingering pension crisis must be solved, both because of its fiscal significance and because it illustrates the lack of political courage and imagination by the government and the oversight board. …economic activity in Puerto Rico is now so severely depressed by a heavy government presence.

And even the most establishment-leaning Economist noted that government dependency is a major problem.

The island is distinguished by its poverty and joblessness, which are far worse than in any of the 50 states. The territory’s economy, moreover, has fallen further behind the national one over the past three decades. Bad government—not just locally, but also federally—is largely to blame. …Puerto Rico’s annual income per person was around $12,000 in 2004, less than half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. More than 48% of the island’s people live below the federally defined poverty line.

Why is income so low and why is there so much poverty?

Simply stated, idleness is being heavily subsidized. The welfare state reduces labor supply on the mainland. And the same thing happens in Puerto Rico.

Half the working-age men in Puerto Rico do not work. …Many things have gone wrong. Most important, however, is that the United States government assumed too big a role in the Puerto Rican economy, and its largesse enabled the commonwealth’s government to do the same. …the island’s economy is now lost in a thicket of bad incentives…an oversized welfare state…transfers…make up more than 20% of the island’s personal income. These federal handouts…by Puerto Rican economic standards, they are huge. And the more a man or woman earns through paid work, the more they decrease. …federal disability allowances are much higher than the United States average as a share of wages and pension income. Unsurprisingly, therefore, one in six working-age men in Puerto Rico are claiming disability benefits. …For many people, …the money that can be earned through federal transfers and a little informal work is more than the market wage—and requires much less effort.

In other words, Puerto Rico is just another layer of evidence on the well-established link between government and poverty.

And when people do have jobs, all too often they are employed by a bloated and inefficient government bureaucracy.

Puerto Rico’s bloated government… Around 30% of the territory’s jobs are in the public sector. Among other things, a big and coddled bureaucracy undermines Puerto Rico’s educational achievements…nearly half those on the education department’s payroll are not teachers; quality has fallen because of low accountability and mismanagement. …As he walked through Aguadilla’s town hall recently, Mr Méndez…says, is that “All they want to do is find security only. They have no ambition…Everybody wants to work for the government.” Manuel Reyes, of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, also sees little hope that the government’s role will shrink.

It’s almost as if Puerto Rico is a perfect storm (no pun intended) of bad policy.

The solution is – or should be – obvious. And it’s the same one I suggested for Greece. Allow the government to default on existing debt, but only in exchange for pro-market reforms such as a long-run spending cap, privatization, a freeze on the size and compensation of the island’s bloated bureaucracy, and elimination of destructive regulation.

For all intents and purposes, Puerto Rico should become the Hong Kong of America. The island does have substantial autonomy and local policymakers have demonstrated that they sometimes are willing to do the right thing (they made Puerto Rico a legal tax haven for U.S. citizens). Now it’s time to make a great leap forward.

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One of my great frustrations (and there are many) is that the conventional wisdom about economic history oftentimes is wrong. It is very common for students to learn things that simply are not true.

Let’s add to that list by looking at the issue of child labor. The conventional wisdom is that child labor was a regular feature of an oppressive capitalist system and that children were eventually saved from abuse thanks to government intervention.

Hardly. Child labor was – and still is, in some places – a way for desperately poor people to stay alive and perhaps create a stepping stone for a better future. And capitalism-enabled prosperity is the best way to end the unfortunate practice.

I previously cited some World Bank research, in a postscript to a column on bureaucracy, showing that restrictions on child labor had negative long-run effects on income for poor people.

Let’s augment that research. Here are some passages from a very sobering study about the unintended consequences of restricting child labor (h/t: Dev Patel via Tyler Cowen).

While bans against child labor are a common policy tool, there is very little empirical evidence validating their effectiveness. In this paper, we examine the consequences of India’s landmark legislation against child labor, the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. Using data from employment surveys conducted before and after the ban, and using age restrictions that determined who the ban applied to, we show that child wages decrease and child labor increases after the ban.

Some basic economic analysis shows why this happens.

…families use child labor to reach subsistence constraints and where child wages decrease in response to bans, leading poor families to utilize more child labor.

And it’s worth noting that there are all sorts of harmful secondary effects.

The increase in child labor comes at the expense of reduced school enrollment. We also examine the effects of the ban at the household level. Using linked consumption and expenditure data, we find that along various margins of household expenditure, consumption, calorie intake and asset holdings, households are worse off after the ban.

The bottom line on this issue is that some children are born to very poor families in very poor nations. In those tragic situations, child labor is a matter of survival rather than a lifestyle choice.

I don’t think that the businesses employing children are noble. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them mistreat kids. And even the nice ones probably would seem horrifying to those of us lucky enough to live in rich western nations.

But I also don’t believe in putting good intentions above real-world results. Businesses that employ child labor are offering a better (or, to be more accurate, offering a less-worse) opportunity for people stuck in horrid poverty. Capitalism is the only effective escape from economic misery.

Let’s close with some libertarian satire. It’s focused more on sweatshops, but it also applies to child labor (and “neoliberal” refers to “classical liberal” rather than modern leftism).

For what it’s worth, child labor was ubiquitous in the western world prior to the explosive growth that was unleashed by free markets and limited government.

If we want poor children in poor families from poor nations to have a better life, we should urge the same policies in the developing world. Assuming we prefer good results over good intentions, of course.

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While I focus on economic issues, particularly what’s happening with fiscal policy, I maintain my libertarian “cred” by periodically pointing out that victimless crimes should be legalized. Even if I don’t particularly like the activities.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I find gambling to be boring and I worry about people who ruin their family’s finances by over-indulging, but the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

And now it’s time to dive into the issue of prostitution. Intellectually speaking, of course (even though people don’t like economists pontificating about sex).

It’s becoming an issue because some governments in the United States are looking to legalize sexual/monetary relations between consenting adults. Such as Washington, DC, which is famous for a different form of prostitution.

A D.C. lawmaker has proposed a bill aimed at decriminalizing sex work in the nation’s capital. David Grosso (I-At-Large) introduced the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health and Safety Amendment Act of 2017 on Thursday. He said he developed the bill after working with the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition. “I believe that we as a society are coming to realize that excessive criminalization is causing more harm than good, from school discipline to drug laws to homelessness,” said Grosso.

And Hawaii.

Hawaii lawmakers are considering decriminalizing prostitution in the Aloha State after House Speaker Joseph Souki introduced a bill. …Transgender activist Tracy Ryan says she’s pushing the bill because transgender women in the sex trade are disproportionately impacted by criminalization laws. …Souki says he takes no position on the bill, but he introduced it as a favor to Ryan.

So what should lawmakers decide?

The Economist has a very sensible view on legalization.

…the sheer seediness of prostitution is just one reason governments have long sought to outlaw it, or corral it in licensed brothels or “tolerance zones”. NIMBYs make common cause with puritans, who think that women selling sex are sinners, and do-gooders, who think they are victims. …for many, both male and female, sex work is just that: work. …We have dissected data on prices, services and personal characteristics from one big international site that hosts 190,000 profiles of female prostitutes… The results show that gentlemen really do prefer blondes, who charge 11% more than brunettes. …Prostitutes themselves behave like freelancers in other labour markets. They arrange tours and take bookings online, like gigging musicians. They choose which services to offer, and whether to specialise. They temp, go part-time and fit their work around child care. …Moralisers will lament the shift online because it will cause the sex trade to grow strongly. …But everyone else should cheer. Sex arranged online and sold from an apartment or hotel room is less bothersome for third parties than are brothels or red-light districts. Above all, the web will do more to make prostitution safer than any law has ever done. …Governments should seize the moment to rethink their policies. Prohibition, whether partial or total, has been a predictable dud. It has singularly failed to stamp out the sex trade. …And prohibition has ugly results. Violence against prostitutes goes unpunished because victims who live on society’s margins are unlikely to seek justice, or to get it. …Criminalisation of clients perpetuates the idea of all prostitutes as victims forced into the trade. Some certainly are—by violent partners, people-traffickers or drug addiction. But there are already harsh laws against assault and trafficking. …When Rhode Island unintentionally decriminalised indoor prostitution between 2003 and 2009 the state saw a steep decline in reported rapes and cases of gonorrhoea. Prostitution is moving online whether governments like it or not. If they try to get in the way of the shift they will do harm.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that prostitution is sad and tragic in probably 95 percent of cases. But adding criminal penalties on top of the human cost doesn’t make a bad situation any better.

Prohibition may not stop prostitution, but it does make violence more likely.

Being a sex worker in the United States…means that you are likely vulnerable to extreme rates of physical, sexual and emotional violence, facilitated by the criminalization of the sex trade and the social stigma associated with those who engage in it. Sex worker advocates and the World Health Organization alike have recommended a fix that could dramatically improve sex worker safety, which has been proven to work in other parts of the world: decriminalize sex work. …in the U.S., …the rate of violence against sex workers is four times higher than it is in places where commercial sex is legal. …A study from the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project found 46% of sex workers experienced violence in the course of their work. Another study from SWP found that an overwhelming majority of street-based sex workers — 80% — reported being threatened or beaten. …Decriminalization of sex work would have a clear effect on sex worker safety, according to SWOP-USA communications director Katherine Koster, and it could be the key to reducing the threat of violence. …Koster told Mic. “When New Zealand decriminalized sex work, 70% of advocates, sex workers and social service providers who work with sex workers said that sex workers were more likely to reach out to the police if they experienced violence.”

Here’s a chart from the article.

This is simple common sense. In a legal market, it’s much easier for prostitutes to control their environment and to know the identity of customers. Both of those factors make crime more risky for bad guys.

Legalization not only would reduce violence against sex workers, it probably would reduce overall sex crimes.

 Does prostitution increase or decrease sex crimes? …Our research focuses on indoor prostitution. In states where prostitution is illegal, indoor prostitution usually occurs in strip clubs, gentlemen’s clubs, and as part of escort services. Indoor prostitution may increase sex crimes if prostitution reinforces the view of women as objects and therefore encourages violence against women. Alternatively, prostitution may reduce sex crimes if it is a substitute for sex crimes. In addition, indoor prostitution establishments may keep potential sex-crime offenders away from potential victims, leading to further substitution away from sex crimes. Our analysis benefits from a unique data set with daily precinct-level information for New York City (NYC). …We exploit exogenous variation in the date of registration of indoor prostitution establishments to provide causal evidence of these establishments on sex crimes using crime data at the daily level. …We find that the presence of an indoor prostitution establishment in a given precinct leads to a 0.4 percent daily reduction in sex crimes per precinct. …We find that sex crime is reduced since potential sex offenders are indoor prostitutes’ customers. …the results suggest that potential sex offenders prefer to use the services offered by these establishments rather than committing sex crimes. Furthermore, these results suggest that sex crimes and indoor prostitution are substitutes.

Unsurprisingly, former President Jimmy Carter isn’t on the right side. Though he wants to shift the punishment.

If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold. There is a much better policy option. …Pioneered in Sweden and adopted most recently in Canada and France, this strategy involves decriminalizing prostituted women and offering them housing, job training and other services. Instead of penalizing the victims, however, the approach treats purchasing and profiting from sex acts as serious crimes. …demand for prostitution has fallen dramatically under this model. Conversely, Germany and New Zealand, which have legalized all aspects of prostitution, have seen an increase in sex trafficking and demand for sexual services. Critics of the Nordic model assert that mature adults should be free to exchange money for sex. This argument ignores the power imbalance that defines the vast majority of sex-for-cash transactions, and it demeans the beauty of sexual relations when both parties are respected.

I actually like the world that Carter envisions. But wishing and hoping isn’t going to make the sex trade disappear.

Though prostitutes may get replaced by robots at some point. Needless to say, they don’t like competition.

Europe’s first sex robot brothel has been forced to move after real-life prostitutes complained sex dolls were stealing their trade. …the brothel, not far from La Rambla in the heart of the city has now moved to a mystery new location with a receptionist saying the address would only be given out to paying customers. Prostitutes who work in the city with Aprosex – the Association of Sex Professionals – objected saying a doll cannot match the services of a real person and denigrates real sex workers to merely being an object. …Janet, a prostitute with over 30 years in the industry, who works in the city’s Raval district said: “It is another strategy of the patriarchy that presents us as objects without rights or soul. A privilege of the wealthy classes.” …Municipal police in the Catalonian capital also launched an investigation into the legality of the brothel which offered clients sex with realistic state-of-the-art polymer sex dolls after it opened late last month. …The brothel offered the services of four life-like dolls which cost around £4,373 ($4,300, €5,000) to produce and are made in the US and made out of thermoplastic elastomer, charging punters around £105 (€120) for two hours.

Now that we’ve spent time looking at the serious side of the issue, let’s look at the quirky interaction of the world’s oldest profession and the world’s second-oldest profession. The Daily Caller reports on what’s being proposed in Germany.

The German Green Party wants to grant people with severe health issues taxpayer-funded access to prostitutes. Green Party Spokeswoman Elisabeth Scharfenberg imagines a system where doctors can issue prescriptions to sick people who can’t afford prostitutes on their own account. …The idea is modeled upon a similar system in the Netherlands, where people can receive need-based state grants with a medical note stating they can’t get sexual satisfaction any other way.

Taxpayer-financed hookers already exist in the United Kingdom, so I guess I’m not surprised that German politicians are contemplating something similar.

And since German politicians have figured out innovative ways of taxing hookers (the Spanish government has a more conventional approach), maybe it’s only fair that tax money gets plowed back into the industry.

In Nevada, for what it’s worth, prostitution gets a special tax loophole.

Meanwhile, Russia’s boss actually advertises on behalf of his nation’s streetwalkers.

President Putin bragged that Russian prostitutes were “without question the best in the world” yesterday.

Incidentally, since Putin already has recognized the Laffer Curve, he also should realize that it applies to…umm…adult entertainment. Indeed, excess taxation of prostitution has led to novel forms of tax avoidance in other countries.

By the way, here’s a tidbit from that Hawaii decriminalization story I already referenced.

The proposal also would end a state law that says police officers can’t have sex with prostitutes in the course of investigations.

P.S. Our left-wing friends have a strange fascination with prostitution.

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Imagine that we’re in a parallel universe and that you’re the lookout on the Titanic. But in this make-believe world, you have all sorts of fancy radar that allows you to detect icebergs with lots of advance notice. Furthermore, imagine that you detect danger and give lots of warning to the Captain and other officers.

How would you feel if they then decided to ignore your warnings and continued on their course to disaster? You’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

And that’s a pretty good description of how I feel about the easy-to-predict, visible-to-the-naked-eye, baked-in-the-cake, bound-to-happen fiscal crisis that will occur because of the combination of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

It’s happening in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Asia. Heck, this is a worldwide problem.

Simply stated, welfare states were created back when everyone assumed that there would always be a “population pyramid,” which means relatively few old people (who collect a lot of money from entitlement programs) at the top, plenty of workers (also known as taxpayers) in the middle, and lots of children (i.e., future taxpayers) at the bottom.

In that world, a modest-sized welfare state isn’t a good idea, but at least it is mathematically sustainable.

Today, by contrast, such a welfare state is a problem because we’re living longer and having fewer children.

And in the future, that kind of welfare state is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis because demographic trends will be even less favorable. To be blunt, there won’t be enough people pulling the wagon compared to the mass of people riding in the wagon.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s some additional data on this global problem. We’ll start with this look at how the population pyramid is becoming a population cylinder. The key thing to notice is the growth of the over-65 cohort.

And here’s a different way of looking at the same data, but stretching out to 2100.

I didn’t add a red line at age 65, but it’s easy to see that the number of older people will dramatically increase without a concomitant increase in the number of working-age people who are expected to pay the taxes to finance pensions and health care.

So what’s all this mean? Here’s a sobering thought from Prospect.

The ageing populations of the advanced economies and the larger emerging ones combines with past falls in the birth rate to mean that the share of total world population who are of prime working age has been falling since 2012. After a four-decade rise, the trend has reversed with that fall projected to last throughout the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. A slower-growing global workforce will be a big challenge for the global economy.

A “big challenge” may win the prize for understatement.

Bloomberg has a column on the implications of this massive demographic shift. Notice the data on the number of workers per retiree in various nations.

Rising dependency ratios — or the number of retirees per employed worker — provide one useful metric. In 1970, in the U.S., there were 5.3 workers for every retired person. By 2010 this had fallen to 4.5, and it’s expected to decline to 2.6 by 2050. In Germany, the number of workers per retiree will decrease to 1.6 in 2050, down from 4.1 in 1970. In Japan, the oldest society to have ever existed, the ratio will decrease to 1.2 in 2050, from 8.5 in 1970. Even as spending commitments grow, in other words, there will be fewer and fewer productive adults around to fund them.

The bottom line is that there are enormous unfunded liabilities.

Arnaud Mares of Morgan Stanley analyzed national solvency, or the difference between actual and potential government revenue, on one hand, and existing debt levels and future commitments on the other. The study found that by this measure the net worth of the U.S. was negative 800 percent of its GDP; that is, its future tax revenue was less than committed obligations by an amount equivalent to eight times the value of all goods and services America produces in a year. The net worth of European countries ranged from about negative 250 percent (Italy) to negative 1,800 percent (Greece). For Germany, France and the U.K., the approximate figures were negative 500 percent, negative 600 percent and negative 1,000 percent of GDP.

Wow, it’s depressing that the long-run outlook for the United States is worse than it is for some of Europe’s most infamous welfare states. Though I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised since I’ve already shared similarly grim estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’ll close with some (sort of) good news.

Notwithstanding some of the estimates I’ve shared, America actually is in better shape than these other nations. If we enact genuine entitlement reform, ideally sooner rather than later, the long-run numbers dramatically improve because spending and debt no longer would be projected to rise so dramatically (whereas government already is an enormous burden in Europe).

This isn’t idle theory. Policymakers don’t have much control over demographics, but they can reduce the fiscal impact of demographic change by adopting better policy.

To cite the most prominent examples, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have very long lifespans and very low birthrates, yet their public finances don’t face nearly as much long-run pressure because they never made the mistake of setting up western-style welfare states.

The solution, therefore, is for America and other nations to copy these successful jurisdictions by replacing tax-and-transfer entitlements with systems based on private savings.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with optimism that we’ll get the reforms that are needed with Trump in the White House.

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The Republican tax plan is based on some very attractive principles.

Unfortunately, the GOP isn’t planning to completely fix these policies, largely because there’s no commitment to control government spending. But any shift toward better tax policy will be good for the nation.

Another goal to add to the above list is that Republicans want to create a level playing field for American-based firms by replacing “worldwide taxation” of business income with “territorial taxation” of business income.

For those who have wisely avoided the topic of international business taxation, here’s all you need to know: Worldwide taxation means a company that earns income in another country is taxed both by the government where the income is earned and by the government back home. Territorial taxation, by contrast, is simply the common-sense notion that income is taxed only by the government where the income is earned.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, two authors explain how America’s anti-competitive system of worldwide taxation undermines U.S.-domiciled companies.

…earlier this month Iconix , the U.S.-based company that owns the rights to Charles Schulz’s comic characters, announced it will sell them to Canada’s DHX Media. That makes Charlie Brown America’s latest expatriate. It’s a clear signal that U.S. corporate taxes are nudging business elsewhere. …why? In part because the U.S. corporate tax system hampers U.S.-based businesses by subjecting them to world-wide taxation. Canada’s aggregate corporate taxes are about 10 percentage points lower. …America’s high corporate tax rate and its practice of taxing international income is out of step with the rest of the world. The solution is so clear even a cartoon character should grasp it: Cut tax rates and adopt a system for taxing international income that more closely resembles those used by the country’s international competitors.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that the entire “inversion” controversy only exists because of America’s worldwide tax regime.

Simply stated, American-domiciled multinationals have a big competitive disadvantage compared to their foreign rivals. So it’s understandable that many of them try to protect shareholders, workers, and consumers by arranging (usually through a merger) to become foreign companies.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the Republican tax reform plan ostensibly will shift America to a territorial tax system. As explained above, this is the sensible notion of letting other nations tax income earned inside their borders while the IRS would tax the income earned by companies in the United States.

This would be good for competitiveness, particularly since the United States is one of only a handful of nations that impose a worldwide tax burden on domestic firms.

But not everybody likes the idea of territorial taxation.

One reason for opposition is that some people see corporations primarily as sources of tax revenue. So when there are discussions of international tax, their mindset is nations should compete on grabbing the most money. I’m not joking.

European Union regulators’ tax crackdown on Amazon.com Inc. — like the EU’s case against Apple Inc. — should spur U.S. policy makers to address companies’ aggressive offshore tax-avoidance strategies before it’s too late, experts said. …“Really, what we are seeing is a race by the different taxing jurisdictions to claim a share of the tax prize represented by the largely untaxed streams of income that U.S. multinationals have engineered for themselves,’’ said Ed Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California and the former chief of staff for Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation. “If the United States doesn’t join the race, it will just lose tax revenue to more aggressive host countries around the world.’’ The EU rulings “do make it clear that if we are not interested in protecting our corporate tax base, other countries will be more than happy to tax the income,’’ said Kimberly Clausing, a professor of economics at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Call me crazy, but I think American policymakers should be in a race to create jobs, boost investment, and increase wages. And that means doing the opposite of what these supposed experts want.

Unsurprisingly, left-wing groups also are opposed to territorial taxation. Here are some passages from a report published by the Hill.

One hundred organizations, including a number of progressive groups and labor unions, are urging Congress to reject a major international tax change proposed in Republicans’ framework for a tax overhaul. In a letter dated Monday, the groups speak out against the framework’s move toward a “territorial” tax system that would largely exempt American companies’ foreign profits from U.S. tax. …”Ending taxation of offshore profits would give multinational corporations an incentive to send jobs offshore, thereby lowering U.S. wages,” they wrote.

Both assertions in that excerpt are wrong and/or misleading.

First, territorial taxation doesn’t mean that profits are exempt from tax. It simply means that the IRS doesn’t impose an additional layer of tax on income that already has been subject to the tax system of another country.

And other countries impose plenty of tax on American firms operating overseas.

Second, the incentive to shift job overseas is caused by America’s high corporate tax rate. That’s what makes it attractive for firms to operate in other nations.

Worldwide taxation is not the way to fix that bias since foreign-domiciled companies wouldn’t be impacted and they easily can sell into the American market.

By the way, the Republican tax plan doesn’t even create a real territorial tax system. Returning to the Bloomberg story cited above, the GOP proposal basically copies a very bad idea that was being pushed a few years ago by the Obama Administration.

…the GOP tax framework contemplates a so-called “minimum foreign tax’’ on multinationals’ future earnings that would apply in cases where a company’s effective tax rate fell below a pre-determined threshold.

To be fair, the Republican approach is less punitive that what Obama wanted.

Nonetheless, I worry that if Republicans adopt some sort of global minimum tax, it will just be a matter of time before that rate increases. In which case a shift toward territoriality actually plants a seed for a more onerous worldwide system!

Without knowing what will happen in the future, there’s no right or wrong answer, but I’m wondering whether the smart approach is to simply leave the current system in place. Yet, it’s based on worldwide taxation, but at least companies have deferral, which creates de facto territoriality for firms that manage their affairs astutely.

Such a shame that the GOP isn’t capable of simply doing the right thing.

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Over the years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find intellectuals on the left who are willing to risk opprobrium from their ideological peers by acknowledging that gun control doesn’t make sense.

  • In 2012, I shared some important observations from Jeffrey Goldberg, a left-leaning writer for The Atlantic. In his column, he basically admitted his side was wrong about gun control.
  • Then, in 2013, I wrote about a column by Justin Cronin in the New York Times. He self-identified as a liberal, but explained how real-world events have led him to become a supporter of private gun ownership.
  • Most recently, in 2015, I shared a column by Jamelle Bouie in Slate. Bouie addresses the left’s fixation on trying to ban so-called assault weapons and explains that such policies are meaningless.

Now we have another addition to the list.

In a must-read column in the Washington Post, Leah Libresco admits that the research shows that gun control simply doesn’t work. She starts by openly confessing her bias.

Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.

She then points out that she and other researchers did a thorough investigation of gun deaths and found that restrictions on gun ownership would not have saved lives.

…my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence.

She looked at international data and the case for gun control evaporated.

I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans. Mass shootings were too rare in Australia for their absence after the buyback program to be clear evidence of progress. And in both Australia and Britain, the gun restrictions had an ambiguous effect on other gun-related crimes or deaths.

She also looked at some of the proposals advanced by U.S. advocates of gun control and discovered they don’t work.

…no gun owner walks into the store to buy an “assault weapon.” It’s an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, a rocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos. …silencers limit hearing damage for shooters but don’t make gunfire dangerously quiet. An AR-15 with a silencer is about as loud as a jackhammer. Magazine limits were a little more promising, but a practiced shooter could still change magazines so fast as to make the limit meaningless.

Sounds like Ms. Libresco has reached the same conclusion as firearms expert Larry Correia.

So what’s her bottom line? Well, Libresco still doesn’t like guns, but she’s intellectually honest about the fallacy of gun control.

By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout. I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners, and I don’t want a gun in my home, as I think the risk outweighs the benefits. But I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them.

Very well stated.

Let’s close with two infographics from Reddit‘s libertarian page. I can’t personally vouch for every factoid, but based on what I’ve previously shared (see here, here, here, and here), I would be quite surprised if this information isn’t accurate.

And here’s the second one.

P.S. If you want to laugh at the dishonest (or naive) liberals, watch this amusing video to see how they think gun control works in their fantasy world (and here’s a more somber video that makes the same point). And for unintentional humor, Trevor Noah’s naiveté is always funny.

Then give your leftist friends this IQ test on gun control and see if they can figure out the right answer.

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I’ve shared a couple of amusing posts featuring Libertarian Jesus (see here and here), both of which make the point that compassion isn’t demonstrated by redistributing someone else’s income.

So it’s time to create a parallel character. We’ll call him Libertarian Doofus.

He already made one appearance in my libertarian humor collection, showing that he has a one-track mind, but not like most men.

Now Libertarian Doofus strikes again (as usual, credit belongs to Reddit‘s libertarian page). He’s somehow captured the imagination of a lovely young lass.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that he’s too myopic to take advantage of the situation.

Given the poor track record of the Federal Reserve, the corruption of Washington insiders, and the brutality of the income tax and IRS, can we really fault Doofus for being distracted from amorous pursuits?

And here’s how Doofus got to where he is today. He began as a clean-cut, well-adjusted lad. And then…

No wonder people roll their eyes when Doofus shows up for Thanksgiving dinner.

Finally, Doofus may not socially adept, but he is popular with the ladies. Though, once again, he is so focused on liberty that other opportunities go to waste.

This probably isn’t a good advertisement for libertarianism!

It’s like admitting we’re misfits with no social life.

So I’ll end by noting that libertarians sometimes do seize opportunities.

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There are several challenges when trying to analyze the impact of policy on economic performance.

One problem is isolating the impact of a specific policy. I like Switzerland’s spending cap, for instance, but to what extent is that policy responsible for the country’s admirable economic performance? Yes, I think the spending cap helps, but Switzerland also many other good policies such as a modest tax burden, private retirement accounts, open trade, and federalism.

Another problem is the honest and accurate use of data. You can make any nation look good or bad simply by choosing either growth years or recession years for analysis. This is known as “cherry-picking” data and I try to avoid this methodological sin by looking at multi-year periods (or, even better, multi-decade periods) when analyzing various policies.

But not everyone is careful.

Jason Furman, who was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during Obama’s second term, has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal. What immediately struck me is how he cherry-picked data to bolster his claim that the government shouldn’t reduce its claim on taxpayers. Here’s his core argument.

…the 1981 and 2001 model of tax cuts makes no sense in today’s fiscal environment. Tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product is lower today than it was when Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush cut taxes.

And here the chart he shared, which apparently is supposed to be persuasive.

But here’s the problem. If you look at OMB data for the entire post-World War II era, tax revenues have averaged 17.2 percent of GDP. If you look at CBO data, which starts in 1967, tax revenues, on average, have consumed 17.4 percent of GDP.

So Furman’s implication that tax receipts today are abnormally low is completely wrong.

Moreover, he shows the projection for 2017 tax receipts, which is appropriate, but he neglects to mention that the Congressional Budget Office’s forecast for the next 10 years shows revenues averaging 18.1 percent of GDP (or the 30-year forecast that shows revenues becoming an even bigger burden).

In other words, a substantial tax cut is needed to keep the tax burden from climbing well above the long-run average.

Furman’s slippery use of data is disappointing, but it’s also inexplicable. He could have offered some effective and honest arguments against tax cuts, most notably that reducing revenues is problematical since Trump and Republicans seem unwilling to restrain the growth of government spending.

Let’s close by looking at a few other interesting passages from his column.

I found this sentence to be rather amusing since he’s basically admitting that Obamanomics was a failure.

Growth has been too low for too long and raising it should be a top priority.

He then asserts that tax cuts never pay for themselves. I would have agreed if he wrote “almost never,” or if he wrote that the new GOP package won’t pay for itself. But his doctrinaire statement is belied by data from the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom.

…no serious analyst has ever claimed that tax cuts generate enough growth to pay for themselves.

By the way, Furman openly admits the Laffer Curve is real. And if the Joint Committee on Taxation shows revenue feedback of 20 percent-30 percent when scoring the Republican plan, that will represent huge progress.

Estimates by a wide range of economists and the nonpartisan scorekeepers at the Joint Committee on Taxation have found that the additional growth associated with well-designed tax reform may offset 20% to 30% of the gross cost of tax cuts—not counting dynamic feedback.

Last but not least, he comes out of the tax-increase closet by embracing the truly awful Simpson-Bowles budget plan.

The economy needs a fiscal plan that combines an increase in revenues with entitlement reforms that protect the poor a la Simpson-Bowles.

As I’ve explained before, Simpson-Bowles is best characterized as lots of new revenue on the tax side and plenty of gimmicky provisions on the spending side (rather than genuine reform).

P.S. Even though Republicans are not serious about controlling spending and even though I don’t think the GOP tax cut will come anywhere close to “paying for itself,” the tax cuts are still a good idea. Both to generate growth and also because reduced tax receipts hopefully will translate into pressure to control spending at some point.

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