Archive for January, 2018

Considering that America’s Founders created a very small central government that operated for more than 100 years without any income tax (or any other broad-based tax), it’s very disappointing that Washington is now consuming more that 20 percent of our nation’s output.

That’s bad for growth since resources are diverted from the productive sector of the economy.

But let’s also keep in mind that politicians also impose policies that may not have much impact on GDP statistics, but definitely reduce our quality of life.

I’ve written about some of these annoying bits of red tape.

Jeffrey Tucker, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, shares my disdain for the nanny state.

Soap doesn’t work. Toilets don’t flush. Clothes washers don’t clean. Light bulbs don’t illuminate. Refrigerators break too soon. Paint discolors. Lawnmowers have to be hacked. It’s all caused by idiotic government regulations that are wrecking our lives one consumer product at a time, all in ways we hardly notice.

And he points out another item to add to our list.

We now have gas cans that don’t work nearly as well as they used to because of mindless bureaucracy.

Who would make a can without a vent unless it was done under duress? After all, everyone knows to vent anything that pours. Otherwise, it doesn’t pour right and is likely to spill. …The whole trend began in (wait for it) California. …The notion spread and was picked up by the EPA, which is always looking for new and innovative ways to spread as much human misery as possible. …So…you have not been able to buy gas cans that work properly. They are not permitted to have a separate vent. The top has to close automatically.

Environmental zealots tell us we need these poorly functioning gas cans to save the environment from vapor.

But as Tucker explains, the policy is backfiring.

…don’t tell me about spillage. It is far more likely to spill when the gas is gurgling out in various uneven ways, when one spout has to both pour and suck in air. …There is no possible rationale for these kinds of regulations. It can’t be about emissions really, since the new cans are more likely to result in spills.


This is a never-ending nightmare when I mow my lawn. When it’s time to refill the gas tank, I know gas is going to spill regardless of how careful I am.

I can’t imagine that’s good for the environment (I’m sure it releases far more vapor than would seep into the atmosphere with a vent), but I confess that my main concern is that gas dribbles onto a hot lawnmower engine. So I’m always poised to run away from my mower if the thing bursts into flame.

Oh, the joy of red tape!

Writing for Forbes, Clyde Wayne Crews also has commented on this inane and counter-productive regulation.

…when I first tried to use these new gas cans a few months after purchase I was shocked at their new spring-loaded, Mousetrap game style…spouts. …You need three hands to operate today’s gas can spouts. You’ll start each project spilling more gas than you get into the mower, motorcycle, car or whichever. In other words, you will create more vapor emissions than you ever would have otherwise. …No gas cans available for sale anymore have vents on the opposite top-side either, so when trying to pour you get a sloshing, heaving mess, burping gasoline eruptions leaking from the complex yet flimsy spout that easily breaks.

But Wayne very helpfully proposes a solution…assuming one is willing to incur a small risk.

…in order to harm the Earth less with a normal, non-polluting spout, I was wondering about workarounds for the inhumane, vapor-spewing trick spouts the environmentally unfriendly EPA forces you to buy to increase pollution. With a bit of searching, I found so-called EZ Pour “water” jugs. Note: You and I cannot use these alternatives to pour gasoline into vehicles or equipment, since that is an illegal non-EPA bureaucrat-approved hack, but they can be used to pour “liquid,” however.

The EPA can have our EZ Pour jugs when they pry them from our cold, dead, non-polluting fingers!

I had some fun in 2013 by pointing out that when they outlaw tanks, only outlaws will have tanks. Who could have predicted we’d be saying the same thing about well-functioning gas cans?

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So long as people keep emailing me libertarian humor (pro and con), I’ll continue to periodically share the items that meet my test.

Today, we have another edition of anti-libertarian humor. Nothing funny enough to supplant the “Libertarian Paradise of Somalia,” which still is at the top of my list, but I got a laugh from several items.

We’ll start with what happens when the same company that produces “Libertarios” also runs a bar.

I shouldhn’t have to say this, but I’ll point out that businesses don’t make profits by killing their customers, so this may be funny satire, but it’s also inaccurate satire.

But I like the dig about tyranny, just like “socialist snowplows.”

Our next item, from Babyon Bee, exploits the stereotype that libertarians are part of some sort of Randian cult.

While browsing memes on a popular libertarian meme Facebook page, local man Kyle Coats reportedly felt himself “cut to the heart” Wednesday, grabbing a Gadsden flag he had recently purchased and darting outside into the afternoon sun where he dropped to his knees and asked Ron Paul to come into his heart, once and for all, fully committing his life to the ideals of liberty he stands for. …“Ron, would you come into my life and make me new?” he whispered privately to himself, a single tear streaming down his cheek as he clutched the “DON’T TREAD ON ME” flag, according to sources. “Please, Ron, forgive me of all my violations of the non-aggression principle and all the times I unwittingly supported a statist agenda.” “I swear here and now, taxation is theft!” he added.

Sort of the like the dorky libertarians who care more about dogma than the opposite sex.

Next we have a libertarian super hero.

Reminds me of the libertarian at Thanksgiving dinner.

And if you’ve ever been trapped by a libertarian in a discussion on the nuances of limited government, such as private roads, you may appreciate how there are different types of headaches.

For what it’s worth, I only do this to people when pontificating about the Laffer Curve.

This last bit of satire doesn’t target libertarians, per se, but I’m including it since libertarians (like Ron Swanson) are the only people nowadays who will defend child labor.

Don’t forget that libertarians also defend sweatshops, so I’m sure that will be the topic of some future anti-libertarian satire.

Anyhow, enjoy today’s collection and feel free to share with others to show that libertarians have the self-confidence to laugh at themselves. But if you feel a need to also laugh at big government to confirm your philosophical bona fides, this collection of cartoons is a good place to start.

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Judged by the amount of attention various provisions produced, last year’s fight over tax reform was about reducing the corporate tax rate and limiting the deduction for state and local taxes.

But there were many other important changes, including a a big increase in the standard deduction (i.e., the amount households can protect from the IRS), a shift that will reduce the number of people who utilize itemized deductions.

A report in the Washington Post suggests that this reform could hurt charities.

Many U.S. charities are worried the tax overhaul bill signed by President Trump…could spur a landmark shift in philanthropy, speeding along the decline of middle-class donors… The source of concern is how the tax bill is expected to sharply reduce the number of taxpayers who qualify for the charitable tax deduction — a big driver of gifts to nonprofits. …the number of people who qualify for the charitable deduction is projected to plummet next year from about 30 percent of tax filers to as low as 5 percent. That’s because the new tax bill nearly doubles the standard deduction and limits the value of other deductions, such as for state and local taxes.

Many charities opposed this change.

One study predicts that donations will fall by at least $13 billion, about 4.5 percent, next year. …“The tax code is now poised to de-incentivize the heart of civic action in America,” said Dan Cardinali, president of Independent Sector, a public-policy group for charities, foundations and corporate giving programs. “It’s deeply disturbing.”  The tax bill’s treatment of charities led the Salvation Army to express serious concerns, and it’s why United Way opposed the legislation, as did the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinali’s group turned its home page — normally a place for a feel-good story — into a call to protest, with the banner headline: “KILL THE TAX REFORM BILL.” …Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), the main tax bill writer in the House…argued that people would soon have more money to donate because of the economic growth driven by the bill’s tax cuts

As an aside, here’s the part of the story that most irked me.

“The government has always seen fit to reward the goodness of Americans with a tax incentive,” said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, development secretary at the Salvation Army.

Huh, how is it goodness if people are only doing it because they’re being bribed by the tax code?

But let’s stick with our main topic of whether the tax bill will hurt the non-profit sector.

A Bloomberg column also hypothesized that the GOP tax reform will be bad news for charities.

Will Americans give as generously now that the incentives have completely shifted? Recent research provides little hope for them. …last year’s tax reform…doubled the standard deduction, effectively eliminating most taxpayers’ ability to itemize deductions via contributions to charity…. Tax cost refers to the actual, post-tax price that someone pays when they make a donation. Imagine someone with a marginal tax rate of 25 percent. Every dollar donated only “costs” the taxpayer 75 cents after he or she takes the charitable deduction. …What happens when you change these “tax costs”? …Almost everyone who studied taxpayer behavior found that the charitable deduction encouraged people to donate more than they would if it didn’t exist. But studies yielded very different price elasticity figures ranging from -0.5 (a dollar in lost tax revenue generates an additional 50 cents in donations) to -4.0 (every dollar in forgone tax revenue generates a whopping four dollars of donations). A recent meta-analysis of approximately 70 of these studies yielded a price elasticity a median of -1.2. A recent study by Nicholas Duquette of the University of Southern California…examined how taxpayer contributions changed after the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which increased the tax cost of giving by dramatically lowering marginal tax rates. The result was eye-popping: A 1 percent rise in the tax cost of giving caused charitable donations to drop 4 percent.

I agree that lower tax rates increase the “tax cost” of giving money to charity.

And Reagan’s tax policy (the 1981 tax bill as well as the 1986 tax reform) had a huge impact. In 1980, it only cost 30 cents for a rich person to give a dollar to charity. By 1988, because of much lower tax rates, it cost 72 cents to give a dollar to charity.

Yet I’m a skeptic of Duquette’s research for the simple reason that real-world data shows that charitable contributions rose after Reagan slashed tax rates.

What Duquette overlooks is that charitable giving also is impact by changes in disposable income and net wealth. So the “tax cost” of donations increased, but that was more than offset by a stronger economy.

So our question today is whether we’re going to see a repeat of the 1980s. Will a reduction in the tax incentive for charitable giving be offset by better economic performance?

Some research from the Mercatus Center suggests that the non-profit sector should not fear reform.

…one study by William C. Randolph casts doubt on the claim that the deduction increases giving in the long run. Randolph’s paper analyzes both major tax reforms in the 1980s and follows individuals for 10 years, finding that taxpayers alter the timing of their giving in response to changes in tax policy, but not necessarily the total amount of giving. …lower-income households also donate to charities in large numbers. …However, very few of them benefit in terms of their tax burden, because many lower-income households have no positive tax liability. …For the 80 percent of middle-income filers who do not currently claim the charitable deduction, any cut in marginal tax rates is a pure benefit. Most taxpayers would be better served by eliminating the charitable contributions deduction and using the additional revenue to lower tax rates.

I would put this more bluntly. Only about 30 percent of taxpayers itemize, so 70 percent of taxpayers are completely unaffected by the charitable deduction. Yet many of these people still give to charity.

And they’ll presumably give higher donations if the economy grows faster.

This is one of the reasons the Wall Street Journal opined that tax reform will be beneficial.

…nonprofits…sell Americans short by assuming that most donate mainly because of the tax break, rather than because they believe in a cause or want to share their blessings with others. How little they respect their donors. …Americans don’t need a tax break to give to charities, which should be able to sell themselves on their merits. …The truth is that Americans will donate more if they have more money. And they will have more money if tax reform, including lower rates and simplification, helps the economy and produces broader prosperity. The 1980s were a boom time for charitable giving precisely because so much wealth was created. Like so many on the political left, the charity lobby doesn’t understand that before Americans can give away private wealth they first have to create it.

A column in the Wall Street Journal also augments the key points about generosity and giving patterns.

…a drop in the amount of deductible gifts does not necessarily mean an equivalent drop in actual giving. …recessions aside, Americans have steadily increased their giving despite numerous tax law changes. Individual donations increased by 4% in 2015 and another 4% in 2016. If donations continue to increase at such rates, it won’t take long to make up for changes brought about by tax reform. …Americans have continued to give to charities no matter what benefits the tax code conveys on them for doing so.

Last but not least, Hayden Ludwig, writing for the Washington Examiner, explains that charitable contributions increase as growth increases.

Liberal groups such as the National Council of Nonprofits claim that the plan will be “disastrous” for charities… The thrust of the Left’s argument is that allowing Americans to keep more of their money makes them stingier, and high taxes are needed to force Americans to take advantage of charitable tax write-offs. It’s ironic that anyone in the nonprofit sector, which is built entirely on the generosity of individuals and corporations, can argue that higher taxes encourage charity – or that charity needs to be legislated. …if the Left’s argument about tax incentives is true, we should see sharp declines in charitable donations after every tax cut in U.S. history. We don’t. According to a 2015 report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, individuals’ charitable giving rose four percent in 1965 and more than two percent in 1966, following the Kennedy and Johnson tax cuts of 1964 and 1965, respectively. Between the Reagan tax cuts in 1981 and 1986, individual giving rose a whopping 21 percent from $119.7 billion to $144.9 billion. By 1989, individual giving grew another 4.7 percent. …The reason is simple: Prosperity and generosity are inextricably linked.

Amen. Make America more prosperous and two things will happen.

Fewer people will need charity and more people will be in a position to help them.

I’ll conclude by noting that the charitable deduction is the itemized deduction I would abolish last. Not because it is necessary, but because it doesn’t cause macroeconomic harm. The state and local tax deduction, by contrast, is odious and misguided because it subsidizes bad policy and the home mortgage interest deduction is harmful since it is part of a tax code that tilts the playing field and artificially lures capital from business investment to residential real estate.

Things to keep in mind for the next round of tax reform.

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The good news is that President Trump wants to boost economic growth, which is a laudable goal after the economy’s sub-par performance during the Obama years.

The bad news is that he may sabotage his good reforms of tax policy and regulation with protectionism.

In a column earlier this month for the Wall Street Journal, Robert Zoellick warns about the likely consequences.

The Trump administration has stacked up a pile of trade cases that will come tumbling down early in 2018. More important than any specific case is the signal of a strategy of economic defeatism. …Mr. Trump’s tactic will likely trigger retaliation from other countries. …“safeguards” to block imports of solar panels and washing machines…doesn’t even require a claim of unfairness. …these amount to an overture to the big show: likely withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement or both. …The president…relies on the support of economic isolationists who find it easier to blame others than to make America more competitive. Killing Nafta would fit the bill.

Charles Hughes addresses the same topic for Economics 21 and specifically explains that the net effect of trade barriers on solar panels will be to destroy jobs.

President Trump approved new tariffs on solar imports… Manufacturing of solar panels is only one component of the solar industry, which employs between 260,000 and 374,000 workers.  Out of this group, only 38,000 work in manufacturing. Even this oversells the number of people whose work would be insulated from competition from imports, as Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that only 2,000 of these solar manufacturing workers make the products covered by the tariffs.  Significantly more people work in installation. Their jobs would be at risk from higher solar panel prices that would reduce demand for installations, with one estimate that the tariffs would cost 23,000 U.S. jobs in the first year.

These numbers are not a surprise. There have been many studies looking at the impact of protectionism and lost jobs are the usual result, both because trade barriers create inefficiencies, reduce consumer buying power, and increase input prices.

As is so often the case, it’s a question of the seen versus the unseen.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s President Reagan talking about trade shortly before he left office (h/t: Cafe Hayek).

By the way, some people try to justify Trump’s protectionism by citing some protectionist policies during the Reagan years.

As explained by Colin Grabow and Scott Lincicome in National Review, that is historical revisionism.

Trumpist efforts to save U.S. jobs through higher tariffs, bilateral trade deals, and lower trade deficits can find no “conservative” justification in Reagan-era trade actions. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The Reagan administration did indeed pursue unilateral import restrictions and foreign-trade “enforcement” actions, but history shows that — unlike protectionist policies proposed by Trump — such moves were intended to liberalize trade… Reagan also often sought to educate his fellow Americans on the U.S. trade balance, even extemporaneously (and correctly) explaining at a 1985 press conference that trade deficits often correlate with job growth and economic vitality. …Reagan negotiated and concluded the 1988 Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement — the basis for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). …Reagan administration negotiators also helped launch the Uruguay Round under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which would in 1994 strike the single biggest blow for free trade in the last 70 years by establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Amen. I may have to revise my assessment of Reaganomics and give the Gipper an even better grade.

So what would it mean if Trump’s protectionist push led to similar statist policies by other nations?

A World Bank study gives us an idea of the potential implications.

This paper quantifies the wide-ranging costs of potential increases in worldwide barriers to trade…a coordinated global withdrawal…from all existing bilateral/regional trade agreements, as well as from unilateral preferential schemes coupled with an increase in the cost of traded services, is estimated to result in annual worldwide real income losses of 0.3 percent or US$211 billion relative to the baseline after three years. …Highlighting the importance of preferences, the impact on global trade is estimated to be more pronounced, with an annual decline of 2.1 percent or more than US$606 billion relative to the baseline if these barriers stay in place for three years. Second, a worldwide increase in tariffs up to legally allowed bound rates coupled with an increase in the cost of traded services would translate into annual global real income losses of 0.8 percent or more than US$634 billion relative to the baseline after three years. The distortion to the global trading system would be significant and result in an annual decline of global trade of 9 percent or more than US$2.6 trillion relative to the baseline in 2020.

I wonder if those numbers underestimate the threat given how tit-for-tax protectionism caused much greater levels of damage during the 1930s.

Anyhow, let’s conclude with a very effective (and concise) video from Matt Ridley on the principle of comparative advantage. It’s about trade between two people, but the same principle applies to trade between nations. Simply stated, trade allows for specialization, which enables higher productivity (and therefore higher wages and living standards).

P.S. I also invite readers to watch excellent videos on trade and protectionism from Professors Tyler Cowen and Don Boudreaux.

P.P.S. I also encourage people to read Walter Williams on this topic.

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Last September, Economic Freedom of the World was released, which was sort of like Christmas for wonks who follow international economic policy.

I eagerly combed through that report, which (predictably) had Hong Kong and Singapore as the top two jurisdictions. I was glad to see that the United States climbed to #11.

The good news is that America had dropped as low as #18, so we’ve been improving the past few years.

The bad news is that the U.S. used to be a top-5 country in the 1980s and 1990s.

But let’s set aside America’s economic ranking and deal with a different question. I’m frequently asked why European nations with big welfare states still seem like nice places.

My answer is that they are nice places. Yes, they get terrible scores on fiscal policy, but they tend to be very pro-market in areas like trade, monetary policy, regulation, and rule of law. So they almost always rank in the top-third for economic freedom.

To be sure, many European nations face demographic challenges and that may mean Greek-style crisis at some point. But that’s true of many developing nations as well.

Moreover, there’s more to life than economics. Most European nations also are nice places because they are civilized and tolerant. For instance, check out the newly released Human Freedom Index, which measures both economic liberty and personal liberty. As you can see, Switzerland is ranked #1 and Europe is home to 12 of the top 16 nations.

And when you check out nations at the bottom, you won’t find a single European country.

Instead, you find nations like Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Indeed, the lowest-ranked Western European country is Greece, which is ranked #60 and just missed being in the top-third of countries.

Having now engaged in the unusual experience of defending Europe, let’s take a quick look at the score for the United States.

As you can see, America’s #17 ranking is a function of our position for economic freedom (#11) and our position for personal freedom (#24).

For what it’s worth, America’s worst score is for “civil justice,” which basically measures rule of law. It’s embarrassing that we’re weak in that category, but not overly surprising.

Anyhow, here’s how the U.S. score has changed over time.

Let’s close with a few random observations.

Other nations also improved, not just the United States. Among advanced nations, Singapore jumped 16 spots and is now tied for #18. There were also double-digit increases for Suriname (up 14 spots, to #56), Cambodia (up 16 spots, to #58), and Botswana (up 22 spots, to #63). The biggest increase was Swaziland, which jumped 25 spots to #91, though it’s worth pointing out that it’s easier to make big jumps for nations with lower initial rankings.

Now let’s look at nations moving in the wrong direction. Among developed nations, Canada dropped 7 spots to #11. Still a very good score, but a very bad trend. It’s also unfortunate to see Poland drop 10 spots, to #32. Looking at developing nations, Brunei Darussalam plummeted an astounding 52 spots, down to #115, followed by Tajikistan, which fell 46 spots to #118. Brazil is also worth highlighting, since it plunged 23 spots to #120.

P.S. I don’t know if Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia count as European countries or Asian nations, but they all rank in the bottom half. In any event, they’re not Western European nations.

P.P.S. I mentioned last year that Switzerland was the only nation to be in the top 10 for both economic freedom and personal freedom. In the latest rankings, New Zealand also achieves that high honor.

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I don’t like it when voters support tax increases.

Needless to say, voters rarely if ever vote to raise their own taxes. Instead, they get seduced into robbing their neighbors in exchange for the promise of new goodies from politicians.

Regardless, it’s still very unfortunate when it happens because it shows an erosion in the American spirit (we should be more like Switzerland!).

I raise this issue because the people of Oregon just gave fairly strong support to a tax-hike referendum. Here are some of the details.

…voters approved hundreds of millions of dollars in health care taxes in a special election. Measure 101, which led 62 percent to 38 percent with returns partially tallied, was the only issue on the ballot. It will raise $210 million to $320 million in taxes on Oregon’s largest hospitals and many health insurance policies by 2019.

At first glance, this is just another example of Oregon voters voting for bigger government and more class warfare.

But as you read further in the story, you’ll find something remarkable.

…the tax deal was a victory for…the health care industry, which bankrolled the “yes” campaign. …The largest contributor to the campaign to pass the taxes was the association that represents Oregon hospitals. Other health care companies also spent heavily to pass the measure.

Huh? Why would an industry support and bankroll an initiative to give more of their money to government?!?

It turns out that the industry isn’t filled with masochists (like the neurotic trust fund leftists who posture in favor of higher taxes). Instead, the special interests such as the hospital lobby viewed a couple of hundred million of taxes as an “investment” that will generate about $1 billion of taxpayer-financed loot.

…the health care industry…will benefit from the resulting $1 billion-plus that will be spent on Oregonians’ health care.

And taxpayers in other states will pick up a majority of the tab!

That tax revenue will enable Oregon to qualify for $630 million to $960 million in federal Medicaid matching funds that benefit the state’s health care industry. …state taxes would allow the state to keep federal matching funds.

This scam was exposed last year in a Wall Street Journal column.

…42 states tax hospitals. Why? One answer is the perverse incentives built into the Medicaid law. When a state returns tax money to hospitals through Medicaid “supplemental payments,” it qualifies for matching funds from Washington. …Medicaid supplemental payments, as the term implies, are separate and distinct from the reimbursements that cover the actual cost of services rendered to beneficiaries. But the federal government turns a blind eye to the circular nature of the arrangement: Hospitals and other providers are both the source and the recipient of most of the funds.

Here are more details on this oleaginous ripoff.

…supplemental-payment schemes…“have the effect of shifting costs to the federal government,” according to a 2014 study by the Governmental Accountability Office. The more a state taxes its hospitals and then gives them money back, the more federal funds it can obtain. …The hospital tax is the biggest revenue-raiser, but 44 states also tax nursing homes, and 34 tax at least one other type of health-care provider. The GAO study found that these taxes had almost doubled nationally, from about $9.5 billion in 2008 to $18.5 billion in 2012.

By the way, I have written on this topic before, and even included a handy infographic that explains a version of the scam.

Let’s now return to the column. The author cites an example from Connecticut.

Connecticut hospitals will pay $900 million in taxes, but the state will offset that with $600 million in supplemental Medicaid payments—matched with $450 million of federal funds. The state keeps those matching funds, plus the $300 million from the hospital tax, meaning Hartford comes out ahead in the whole scheme by $750 million. Nice work if you can get it.

I’m not a fan of my home state, but the Nutmeg State is hardly alone is playing this game.

What’s remarkable is that there are 8 states what don’t participate in the ripoff.

Anyhow, I can’t resist making one final point. Here’s a sordid tidbit from the earlier story about what happened in Oregon.

Democrats in the Oregon House helped achieve the deal by agreeing to fund three projects in a Medford Republican’s district, in exchange for that lawmaker providing the lone Republican “yes” vote in the state House.

One more piece of evidence that Republicans often are the most despicable people.

P.S. While today’s column focused on an odious quirk in the Medicaid program, let’s not lose sight of the forest by fixating on this particular tree. The reason we should care is that Medicaid is an initiative-sapping, money-draining program that greatly contributes to the mess in our overall healthcare system.

P.P.S. Which is why I encourage folks to watch the short video I narrated on the program. Pay close attention to the discussion that starts at 1:48. I explain that programs with both federal and state spending create perverse incentives for even more spending (e.g., what I wrote today). This is mostly because politicians in either Washington or state capitals can expand eligibility and take full credit for new handouts while only being responsible for a portion of the costs.

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I’ve just finished up a week of lectures and meetings in India. It was an interesting trip, but not an encouraging trip.

My first observation is that Indians are enormously successful when they emigrate to the United States. And they also do very well when they migrate to Singapore, South Africa, and other place around the world.

Yet Indians in India remain comparatively poor. Per-capita income is only $5,350 based on purchasing power parity (and far lower on a exchange-rate basis).

Why the difference? Let’s start with Economic Freedom of the World, which measures the degree to which misguided government policy suppresses the private sector.

The bad news is that India is ranked only #95, which puts it in the bottom half of the world.

Its worst score is on trade, where India is a miserable #142. And since there are only 159 nations that are included in the Fraser Institute’s ranking, that’s close to the bottom.

The regulation score also is quite bad. Not quite in the bottom third of nations, but close. Monetary policy and legal system/property rights (i.e., rule of law) are a bit better, but still in the bottom half of the EFW rankings.

The country’s only good score is for fiscal policy. But I would argue that the #22 ranking is an overstatement. India does well mostly because the government is too disorganized and incompetent to collect a lot of revenue. That’s the only reason why the burden of government spending is modest.

Below is a chart from EFW that maps India’s score starting in 1970. The good news is that India’s score – though still depressingly low – did improve considerably in the 1990s.

But here’s a very important caveat. India’s score increased, but its relative ranking has declined. Simply stated, other nations have improved their scores at a much faster rate.

Here’s some data on fiscal policy from a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

We’ll start with data on tax revenue as a share of economic output. By that measure, India is a low-tax country.

But now check out corporate tax rates. As you can see, the system is relatively onerous.

So a possible conclusion, as I noted above, is that revenues are low because of an unfriendly tax system. Hello Laffer Curve.

I’ll close by shifting from macro data to personal observations based on my trip.

Here are four reasons why I’m leaving India with a pessimistic feeling.

  1. I had lots of meetings with people in the business community and there is not only skepticism of free trade, but also considerable support for protectionism.
  2. Similarly, the business community has a semi-favorable view of big government because the state is a source of subsidies and handouts.
  3. India has a federalist system, but state governments are basically administrators of programs designed by the central government (unlike Switzerland).
  4. The big “pro-market reform” in India has been the “single window” for regulatory clearances, when the right policy would be to abolish red tape altogether.

But I’ll close with a bit of optimism (above and beyond what I wrote the other day about the burgeoning role of the private sector in education). There’s a saying in the country that “India grows at night, while government sleeps.” And there’s even a book with that title. In other words, policy is generally not friendly, but the private sector manages to find “breathing room” to operate in spite of government.

So poverty is falling, slowly but surely. And hopefully globalization will gradually lead the government to be more open to trade liberalization and open markets.

P.S. Another reason to be pessimistic about India is that the government recently imposed “demonetization.” Any nation that joins the war against cash generally has the wrong mindset.

P.P.S. I can’t resist linking again to a truly bizarre case in India of government handouts encouraging very bizarre behavior.

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