Archive for February, 2018

I sometimes sardonically comment about Democratic politicians playing Santa Claus, but Republicans can play that game as well.

Trump and his allies in Congress recently agreed on a big-spending budget deal that lavishes more money on both the Pentagon and domestic programs, and that was only a few weeks after agreeing on a tax reform plan that lower taxes (though only for nine years).

Even if I like part of what’s been happening, that kind of populist approach at some point becomes unsustainable. And when the D.C. swamp ultimately has to choose between lower taxes or higher spending, they’ll go with the latter and make things even worse by jacking up the tax burden.

My frustration is apparent in this recent interview.

And I’m not the only one who sees the long-run dangers.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Edward Lazear of Stanford explores the economic damage of ever-expanding government.

The budget deal President Trump signed earlier this month will send federal spending and the deficit skyrocketing. On top of this spending explosion, the administration now plans to add a $500 billion infrastructure bill. …over time high spending necessitates high taxes, and high taxes reduce work and restrain growth. Economic trends in developed nations consistently show that low taxes and hard work are linked to robust growth.

He looks at some of the cross-country evidence.

European countries trail the U.S. in working hard and controlling taxes, and their economies have lagged in comparison. France has a tax-to-GDP ratio of about 44%, and in Italy it’s 43%. The French and Italians work almost 30% fewer hours per person than Americans. Notably, the French economy has flatlined since 2010 while Italy’s has contracted. …Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that a 1% increase in a nation’s tax rate is associated with a 1.4% decrease in hours worked per person in the working-age population.

Here’s the part that resonated with me. It’s excessive spending that ultimately is the problem.

…taxes are ultimately dictated by spending. Countries can borrow to finance short-run spending, but they must eventually levy taxes to repay the loans. Whether a government raises taxes now or later to pay for expenditures is a minor consideration compared with its decision to spend in the first place. …Higher spending goes hand in hand with higher taxes, higher deficits, fewer worked hours and less growth. The international comparisons suggest that a 4% increase in spending is associated with a decrease of roughly 0.5 percentage point in the average annual growth rate. Furthermore, it is spending—rather than the deficit—that correlates with sluggish growth. …Deficits often coincide with low growth because deficit increases are usually caused by heightened spending, not reduced taxes. Raising taxes, or keeping them high without lowering spending, stifles growth.

Heck, even the OECD has produced research on the negative impact of government spending on economic performance.

And this approach can lead to a downward spiral.

To the extent that government spending goes to programs such as welfare that directly discourage work, it has an additional growth-reducing effect. When fewer people work, those who do must be taxed even more to cover public expenses. These heightened taxes on labor discourage work in turn, pushing more potential workers toward government support.

In other words, if we stay on this path, we’ll eventually become Greece. Not a good idea, to put it mildly.

Since we’re on the topic, let’s look at some additional evidence. Three economists from Australia and the United Kingdom did a meta-analysis of studies on the relationship between government spending and economic growth. Here are some of the findings.

One of the most contentious issues in economics is whether ‘big government’ is good or bad for economic growth. …Theoretically, big government can have both negative and positive effects on growth. …In this study, we include all effect-size estimates reported by empirical studies that examine the direct effect of government size on growth.

Here’s what they found.

… findings indicate that: (i) total government expenditures have a medium and adverse effect on per-capita income growth in developed countries only; (ii) the effect of government consumption on per-capita income growth is also medium in developed countries and in developed and LDCs pooled together; and (iii) neither total expenditures nor government consumption has a significant effect on per-capita income growth in LDCs.

I’m not surprised that they didn’t find a strong link in poor nations. The data show that those countries are generally too mismanaged and corrupt to collect much revenue. Therefore, as I noted in my recent analysis of Indian economic policy, they can’t spend much.

What’s primarily holding back those countries is weak rule of law, excessive regulation, and protectionism.

But I’m digressing. The study also acknowledges the Rahn Curve, though they call it the Armey Curve.

…government size tends to have a negative effect on per-capita income growth as the level of income increases. This finding ties in with the Armey curve hypothesis (Armey, 1995), which posits an inverted-U relationship between government size and economic growth. The theoretical argument here is that government size may be characterised by decreasing returns. Another theoretical argument relates to the distortionary nature of taxes, which is minimal for low levels of taxation, but beyond a certain threshold, they grow rapidly and become extremely large.

Quite true.

Sadly, some people mistakenly conclude that if a little bit of government is associated with more prosperity, then a bloated public sector must be even better.

On a related note, Professor Alexander Salter dismisses the assertion (pushed by international bureaucracies) that big government is a pre-condition for prosperity. Here’s some of what he wrote.

Why are Western countries like the United States and Germany so much richer today than other countries around the world? …One explanation for the success of the West is, in a word, liberty. Over the last few hundred years, classical liberal ideas such as the rights of man and the rule of lawput constraints on European governments’ power, which resulted in a strong protection of private property rights. This resulted in meteoric economic growth, which delivered the modern cornucopia of wealth. …Free countries get rich; unfree countries stay poor.

But there’s a competing theory.

…another explanation — state capacity…is the idea that economic development requires strong, centralized states to uphold the rule of law and provide crucial public goods. …The state capacity literature in economics…places heavy emphasis on a single, strong, central legal authority. In this framework, the fractured and decentralized legal authorities in medieval and early modern Europe are now seen as antithetical to economic development.

Salter is skeptical of the second theory.

…it is undeniable that economic growth in the West did not take off until the rise of modern nation-states. … While governance institutions obviously began centralizing at the beginning of the modern era, …that’s insufficient as a causal explanation. …the state capacity literature has a hard time dealing with a very troubling counterexample: the totalitarian states of the 20th century: like the USSR and China. These states had plenty of capacity, as evidenced by their ability to murder millions of their own citizens… Needless to say, these kinds of things aren’t conducive to economic development.

So he concludes that the first theory must be the answer, at least in part.

…whatever is “doing the work” of promoting economic growth, it is upstream of the creation of states. …State capacity may or may not be a valuable steppingstone to an explanation, but it is not itself an explanation that social scientists should accept. …it seems the old hypothesis — that the big ideas of classical liberalism created Western economic growth — is worth another look!

My bottom line, for what it’s worth, is that the classical-liberalism approach is the necessary condition, but that doesn’t automatically make it a sufficient condition.

In a column last year on the emerging micro-state of Liberland, I tried to square the circle. Here’s some of what I wrote after looking at the literature on state capacity.

…the key to prosperity is having a state strong enough and effective enough to provide rule of law, but to somehow constrain that state so that it doesn’t venture into destructive redistribution policies. This is why competition between governments played a key role in the economic development of the western world. When governments have to worry about productive resources escaping, that forces them to focus on things that help an economy (i.e., rule of law) while minimizing the policies that hinder prosperity (i.e., high taxes and spending). …America’s Founding Fathers dealt with the same issues… Their solution was a constitution that explicitly limited the size and scope of the federal government. …that system worked reasonably well until the 1930s.

I find this issue fascinating, but I suspect most people are more concerned about the real-world consequences rather than the theoretical underpinnings.

So I’ll end on a pessimistic note by observing that we normally get bad fiscal policy from Democrats and worse fiscal policy from Republicans (Reagan being the only modern-era exception).

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I periodically fret that individualism is dying in the United States and that Americans are morphing into handout-loving Europeans.

Well, the spirit of 1776 is not completely dead. There are still some Americans who stand up against the greedy, grasping, and oppressive state. I heartily applaud the guy in this video (and not just for personal reasons) for doing what I have thought about many times.

Sonny Bunch, writing for the Washington Free-Beacon, applauds pro-liberty vandalism.

Obviously we shouldn’t cheer all those who destroy the state’s property or all those who circumvent efforts to enforce the law. But some laws are unjust. Some of the state’s property serves to oppress. Sometimes you need a hero. …some laws are good and just. Prohibitions against rape and murder, for instance. We need them. Without laws we are savages. But speed cameras are not included in the “good and just” category. They are revenue-producing monstrosities designed to suck people of their money in order to fill the coffers of bureaucrats… If the corruptocrats in D.C. try to imprison this hero, I promise to lead the resistance in an effort to spirit him southward. We shall protect you, brother. You are one of us now.

I fully concur.

Moreover, this apparently wasn’t a one-off gesture. Washingtonian reports that numerous cameras were knocked out of action.

An unidentified man suspected of smashing 11 of the District’s traffic cameras that produce tickets for drivers who speed or run red lights is being celebrated by some as a hero after DC Police released footage of one camera’s violent demise. Police say that the cameras, located mostly around Northeast DC, were reported to be malfunctioning last Tuesday. When officers checked out the locations, they found the cameras damaged as a result of vandalism.

By the way, I have no objection to cameras that nail jerks who blow through an intersection 3 seconds after a light has turned red. Those are people who risk innocent lives.

But the cameras I’ve noticed are set in spots where the speed limit is set absurdly low. In other words, they are the modern-day version of the speed traps that used to characterize corrupt small towns.

Some people object to speed cameras but think red-light cameras are okay. As already noted, I agree with their safety concerns, but that’s not how government operates.

They’ve turned red-light cameras into a scam, as explained in this Reason video. Greedy politicians actually do dangerous things like shortening the yellow light simply because they want to produce more cash. No wonder they actually cause accidents!

Moreover, Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal explained several years ago how cameras are first and foremost set up to generate money, not to promote safety.

And here’s something else that irritates me. I’m guessing that the cops will put a lot of time and energy into tracking down the guy who knocked the cameras out of commission. Why? Because this is an issue that generates revenue for politicians.

Which raises the bigger issue of whether law enforcement resources are wisely allocated. We saw in Florida that local cops ignored dozens of calls and warnings about the nutjob loser who killed the students in Parkland, Florida (the FBI also dropped the ball as well since they were tipped off). I wonder how often those same cops were busy operating speed traps, engaging in asset forfeiture, and otherwise shaking down residents for cash?

The good news is that the heroic vandal who has gone after D.C.’s cameras is just the tip of the iceberg. Arizona residents basically killed a revenue-camera scam with civil disobedience. And Houston voters voted to shut down the shakedown being operated by their city government.

This spirit of resistance should be nationwide.

Here are three closing observations.

  1. Let’s hope this guy doesn’t get caught.
  2. Let’s also hope that other motorists follow his example and destroy other speed-trap cameras.
  3. Finally, let’s hope that a jury will engage in nullification if the guy is caught.

P.S. There’s also a group of people in England who are acting to thwart greedy, grasping government, albeit in a less revolutionary way.

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In 2016, here’s some of what I wrote about the economic outlook in Illinois.

There’s a somewhat famous quote from Adam Smith (“there is a great deal of ruin in a nation“) about the ability of a country to survive and withstand lots of bad public policy. I’ve tried to get across the same point by explaining that you don’t need perfect policy, or even good policy. A nation can enjoy a bit of growth so long as policy is merely adequate. Just give the private sector some “breathing room,” I’ve argued.

I subsequently pointed out that politicians in Illinois were doing their best to suffocate the private sector, and also warned that a tax hike would push the state even closer to a day of reckoning.

Let’s apply this same analysis to California.

So here are some excerpts from a column I wrote about the Golden State in 2016

Something doesn’t add up. People like me have been explaining that California is an example of policies to avoid. Depending on my mood, I’ll refer to the state as the France, Italy, or Greece of the United States. But folks on the left are making the opposite argument. … statists…do have a semi-accurate point. There are some statistics showing that California has out-performed many other states over the past couple of years. … California may have enjoyed some decent growth in recent years as it got a bit of a bounce from its deep recession, but it appears that the benefits of that growth have mostly gone to the Hollywood crowd and the Silicon Valley folks. I guess this is the left-wing version of “trickle down” economics.

So what’s happened in California since I wrote that article?

Well, lots of California-type policies.

And where does that leave the state? Is California heading in the wrong direction faster or slower than Illinois?

Victor Davis Hanson’s column in Investor’s Business Daily has a grim assessment. He explains that California residents pay a lot for lousy government.

Some 62% of state roads have been rated poor or mediocre. There were more predictions of huge cost overruns and yearly losses on high-speed rail — before the first mile of track has been laid. One-third of Bay Area residents were polled as hoping to leave the area soon. Such pessimism is daily fare, and for good reason. The basket of California state taxes — sales, income and gasoline — rates among the highest in the U.S. Yet California roads and K-12 education rank near the bottom. …One in three American welfare recipients resides in California. Almost a quarter of the state population lives below or near the poverty line. Yet the state’s gas and electricity prices are among the nation’s highest. One in four state residents was not born in the U.S. Current state-funded pension programs are not sustainable. California depends on a tiny elite class for about half of its income tax revenue. Yet many of these wealthy taxpayers are fleeing the 40-million-person state, angry over paying 12% of their income for lousy public services.

In effect, statist policies have created two states, one for the rich and the other for the poor.

…two antithetical Californias. One is an elite, out-of-touch caste along the fashionable Pacific Ocean corridor that runs the state and has the money to escape the real-life consequences of its own unworkable agendas. The other is a huge underclass in central, rural and foothill California that cannot flee to the coast and suffers the bulk of the fallout from Byzantine state regulations, poor schools and the failure to assimilate recent immigrants from some of the poorest areas in the world. The result is Connecticut and Alabama combined in one state.

Jonah Goldberg is not quite as pessimistic. He opines that the state has certain natural advantages that help it survive bad policy.

California attracts an enormous number of rich people who think it’s worth the high taxes, awful traffic, and even the threat of tectonic annihilation to live there — for reasons that literally have nothing to do with the state’s liberal policies. Indeed, most of the Californians I know live there despite those policies, not because of them. No offense to South Dakota, but if it adopted the California model of heavy regulation, high taxes, and politically correct social engineering, there’d be a caravan of refugees heading to states such as Wyoming and Minnesota. …Wealthy liberal Californians can be quite smug about how they can afford their strict land-use policies, draconian environmental regulations, and high taxes. And wealthy Californians can afford them — but poor Californians are paying the price.

Regarding the state’s outlook, I’m probably in the middle. Goldberg is right that California is a wonderful place to live, at least if you have plenty of money. But Hanson is right about the deteriorating quality of life for the non-rich.

Which may explain why a lot of ordinary people are packing up and leaving.

A columnist from the northern part of the state writes about the exodus of the middle class.

The number of people packing up and moving out of the Bay Area just hit its highest level in more than a decade. …Operators of a San Jose U-Haul business say one of their biggest problems is getting its rental moving vans back because so many are on a one-way ticket out of town. …Nationwide, the cities with the highest inflows, according to Redfin are Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Nashville.

And a columnist from the southern part of the state also is concerned about the middle-class exodus.

All around you, young and old alike are saying goodbye to California. …2016 census figures showed an uptick in the number of people who fled…the state altogether. …Las Vegas is one of the most popular destinations for those who leave California. It’s close, it’s a job center, and the cost of living is much cheaper, with plenty of brand-new houses going for between $200,000 and $300,000. …”There’s no corporate income tax, no personal income tax…and the regulatory environment is much easier to work with,” said Peterson. …Nevada’s gain, our loss.

What could immediately cripple state finances, though, is out-migration by the state’s sliver of rich taxpayers. Especially now that there’s a limit on how much the federal tax system subsidizes California’s profligacy.

Here are some worrisome numbers, as reported by the Sacramento Bee.

Will high taxes lead the state’s wealthiest residents to flee the Golden State for the comparable tax havens of Florida, Nevada and Texas? Republicans reliably raise that alarm when Democrats advocate for tax increases, like the 2012 and 2016 ballot initiatives that levied a new income tax on very high-earning residents. But now, with the federal tax bill cutting off deductions that benefited well-off Californians, the state’s Democrats suddenly are singing the GOP song about a potential millionaire exodus. …Democratic state lawmakers are worried because California relies so heavily on the income taxes it collects from high earners to fund government services. The state’s wealthiest 1 percent, for instance, pay 48 percent of its income tax, and the departure of just a few families could lead to a noticeable hit to state general fund revenue. …Among high-income brackets, about 38 percent of Californians who earn more than $877,560 – the top 1 percent – would see a tax hike. About 25 percent of Californians earning between $130,820 and $304,630, also would see a tax increase… “The new tax law is kind of like icing on the cake for some who were thinking about moving out of the state,” said Fiona Ma, a Democrat on the tax-collecting Board of Equalization who is running for state treasurer. …Joseph Vranich, who leads an Orange County business that advises people on where to locate their businesses, called the tax law “one more nail in the coffin” that would cause small- and middle-size entrepreneurs to leave California.

Politicians and tax collectors get resentful when the sheep move away so they no longer can be fleeced.

This powerful video from Reason should be widely shared. Thankfully it has a (mostly) happy ending.

One of the reasons the state has awful tax policy is that interest groups have stranglehold on the political system. And that leads to ever-higher levels of spending.

Writing for Forbes, for example, Josh Archambault examines the surge of Medicaid spending in the state.

Over the past ten years, Medicaid spending in California has almost tripled, growing from $37 billion per year to a whopping $103 billion per year—including both state and federal funding. And things have only accelerated since the state expanded Medicaid to a new group of able-bodied adults. …nearly 4 million able-bodied adults are now collecting Medicaid, which was once considered a last-resort safety net for poor children, seniors, and individuals with disabilities. …California initially predicted that its ObamaCare expansion would cost roughly $11.6 billion in the first three fiscal years of the program. The actual cost during that time? An astounding $43.7 billion. …Though California represents only 12 percent of the total U.S. population, it receives more than 30 percent of all Medicaid expansion spending.

And the Orange County Register recently opined about the ever-escalating expenses for a gilded class of state bureaucrats.

California’s annual state payroll grew by 6 percent in 2017, an increase of $1 billion and twice the rate of growth of the previous year. …Employee compensation is one of the largest components of the General Fund budget. In 2015-16, salaries and benefits accounted for about 12 percent of expenditures from the General Fund, a total of over $13 billion. …pay increases drive up pension costs. …The administration estimated that the annual cost to the state for the pay raises would be $2 billion by 2020-21, but the LAO said that didn’t take into account the higher overtime costs that would result from higher base pay, or the extra pension costs from that overtime. …if an economic downturn caused state revenues to decline, taxpayers would still have to pay the high and rising salaries for the full length of the contract.

The last sentence is key. I’ve previously pointed out that California has a very unstable boom-bust fiscal cycle. The state looks like it’s in good shape right now, but it’s going to blow up when the next recession hits.

Let’s close by acknowledging that poor residents also pay a harsh price.

Kerry Jackson’s article in National Review is rather depressing.

California — not Mississippi, New Mexico, or West Virginia — has the highest poverty rate in the United States. According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure — which accounts for the cost of housing, food, utilities, and clothing, and which includes non-cash government assistance as a form of income — nearly one out of four Californians is poor. …the question arises as to why California has so many poor people… It’s not as if California policymakers have neglected to wage war on poverty. Sacramento and local governments have spent massive amounts in the cause, for decades now. Myriad state and municipal benefit programs overlap with one another; in some cases, individuals with incomes 200 percent above the poverty line receive benefits, according to the California Policy Center. California state and local governments spent nearly $958 billion from 1992 through 2015 on public welfare programs.

That’s probably a partial answer to the question. There’s a lot of poverty in the state because politicians subsidize idleness. In effect, poor people get trapped.

The author agrees.

…welfare reform passed California by, leaving a dependency trap in place. Immigrants are falling into it: Fifty-five percent of immigrant families in the state get some kind of means-tested benefits… Self-interest in the social-services community may be at work here. If California’s poverty rate should ever be substantially reduced by getting the typical welfare client back into the work force, many bureaucrats could lose their jobs. …With 883,000 full-time-equivalent state and local employees in 2014, according to Governing, California has an enormous bureaucracy — a unionized, public-sector work force that exercises tremendous power through voting and lobbying. Many work in social services. …With a permanent majority in the state senate and the assembly, a prolonged dominance in the executive branch, and a weak opposition, California Democrats have long been free to indulge blue-state ideology.

And one consequences of California’s anti-market ideology is that poor people are falling further and further behind.

P.S. If Golden State leftists really do convince their neighbors to secede, I suspect the country would benefit and the state would suffer.

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

P.P.P.S. Closing with some California-specific humor, this Chuck Asay cartoon speculates on how future archaeologists will view the state. This Michael Ramirez cartoon looks at the impact of the state’s class-warfare tax policy. And this joke about Texas, California, and a coyote is among my most-viewed blog posts.

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In yesterday’s column, I shared a humorous video mocking the everywhere-its-ever-been-tried global failure of socialism.

And I tried to preempt the typical response of my left-wing friends by pointing out that Scandinavian nations are not role models for statism.

In global ranking of economic liberty, Nordic nations score relatively high, with Denmark and Finland in the top 20. Scandinavian nations have large welfare states, but otherwise have very laissez-faire economic policies. Nordic nations got rich when government was small, but growth has slowed since welfare states were imposed.

Based on some of the emails I received, some critics have a hard time understanding this argument.

All of which is very frustrating since I’ve repeatedly tried to make this point. So I pondered the issue for hours, trying to figure out whether there was some way of helping people grasp the issue.

Maybe this chart from Economic Freedom of the World will help. It shows, based on the five major categories of economic liberty, that the once-significant gap between the United States and Scandinavia has almost completely disappeared.

In other words, anyone who claims that Scandinavian nations are socialist must also think that the United States also is socialist.

To be sure, there are differences. If you look at specific categories of economic liberty, America gets a noticeably better score than Nordic nations on fiscal policy.

But we get a significantly worse score for governance issues such as property rights, corruption, and the rule of law.

We also do a bit worse on trade and slightly better on regulation.

The bottom line is that both the United States and Scandinavian nations are market-oriented, but also saddled with plenty of bad government policies. If that makes us socialist, then what’s the right term for nations where government has a much bigger footprint, such as France, Italy, or Greece?

How about Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

Or North Korea and Cuba?

What I’m saying is that there’s a spectrum and we should be cognizant that there are different degrees of statism. And nations closer to one end are much different from countries closer to the other end.

Plenty of other people make similar arguments about the Nordic countries.

Tim Worstall, writing about Finland for CapX, emphasizes the laissez-faire nature of Scandinavian nations, while also pointing out that there’s a degree of decentralization that makes big government somewhat less inefficient.

…high tax rates do indeed reduce economic growth rates by undercutting incentives. So do interfering bureaucracy and state planning. And so if you’re going to go overboard on one of those two then you’ve got to be minimalist on the other point. In other words, you’ve got to kill off bureaucracy in order to leave room for the tax rates and still have a growing economy. …That is more or less how Finland and other Scandinavians do things. …The other important point is quite how decentralised they all are. …A much larger piece of the pay packet goes to the local government… That money raised locally is then spent locally too. …There’s thus an efficiency to the system, something that gets lost when…people send their cash off to the national government to be distributed without that local accountability. …if you want that Scandi life then you’ve got to do it as they do. Very local government and taxation plus a distinctly less economically interventionist government.

Amen. Local government oftentimes is bad, but it’s rarely as bad as a centralized system.

I also found a must-read 2016 article for FEE by Corey Iacono.

Democratic socialism purports to combine majority rule with state control of the means of production. However, the Scandinavian countries are not good examples of democratic socialism in action because they aren’t socialist. In the Scandinavian countries, like all other developed nations, the means of production are primarily owned by private individuals, not the community or the government, and resources are allocated to their respective uses by the market, not government or community planning. …it is true that the Scandinavian countries provide…a generous social safety net and universal healthcare, an extensive welfare state is not the same thing as socialism. …The Scandinavians embrace a brand of free-market capitalism… The Economist magazine describes the Scandinavian countries as “stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies.” …These countries all also rank in the top 10 easiest countries to do business.

If you don’t believe Worstall and Iacono, check out this table of data I prepared back in 2015.

I took the Economic Freedom of the World rankings and I removed the variables for fiscal policy.

And what you find is that Denmark, Sweden, and Finland were all in the top 10 for economic liberty. And Norway was #14.

That’s compared to #24 for the United States.

Heck, there were plenty of other European nations that ranked as being more free market than the United States.

So we should be grateful that we only have a medium-sized welfare state. Because our better score on fiscal policy helps to offset our comparatively anemic scores on the other four variables.

Having pointed out that the United States now has only a rather small advantage over Scandinavian nations when looking at all five measures of economic liberty, that’s still better than nothing.

It probably explains, for instance, why Americans of Scandinavian descent earn so much more than their cousins who remained back home.

And why Americans of all backgrounds generally enjoy higher living standards than folks in Europe, even the ones in Nordic nations.

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I like to share examples of political/policy humor, including self-deprecating jokes that poke fun at libertarians (we may be dorky, but at least we don’t want to control your life!).

But I have a challenge. When sharing jokes that make mock leftist economics, I have to decide whether something is socialist humor, communist humor, or generic anti-leftist or anti-Democrat humor. And that’s sometimes not easy because the technical definition of socialism (government ownership of the means of production) makes it very similar to communism, but the man-on-the-street definition of socialism (a big welfare state) makes it very similar to Obamanomics or Clintonomics (Hillary, not Bill).

Well, whoever put this together wants us to believe that there’s no difference between Democrats and socialists, which is arguable (as Debbie Wasserman-Schultz will agree). But I think the part about the difference between socialism and communism is very clever.

Kudos to whoever created this. I wrote an entire column on the difference between liberal socialism and Marxist socialism, but this gets across the same point much more succinctly.

Moving on, I’m convinced that many of my leftist friends support bad policy because they have the mistaken view that the economy is a fixed pie. And when they start with that inaccurate assumption, they naturally think that a rich person’s wealth means poverty for others.

And that’s reflected in this comparison.

By the way, some people do get expensive houses under socialism, and you can probably guess which ones.

Our next image wins the prize for subtle humor.

Though I’m guessing Bernie didn’t laugh at this practical application of his philosophy.

Next, from Reddit’s libertarian page, here’s an image that mocks the endless failure of statist economics. Yes, I realize that Venezuelan statism and North Korean statism aren’t the same (and that Ukraine is a failed kleptocracy more than anything else), but the broad point about the failure of big government makes this meme worth sharing.

And since we’re on the topic of how big government fails everyplace where it’s tried, let’s conclude today with a video that was turned into humor by the addition of a five-word caption.

At the risk of injecting some serious discussion into today’s column, allow me to preemptively address the leftist argument that Scandinavian nations show that socialism can work.

  • In global ranking of economic liberty, Nordic nations score relatively high, with Denmark and Finland in the top 20.
  • Scandinavian nations have large welfare states, but otherwise have very laissez-faire economic policies.
  • Nordic nations got rich when government was small, but growth has slowed since welfare states were imposed.

P.S. If you want even more socialism humor, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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At some point in the next 10 years, there will be a huge fight in the United States over fiscal policy. This battle is inevitable because politicians are violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy by allowing government spending to grow faster than the private sector (exacerbated by the recent budget deal), leading to ever-larger budget deficits.

I’m more sanguine about red ink than most people. After all, deficits and debt are merely symptoms. The real problem is excessive government spending.

But when peacetime, non-recessionary deficits climb above $1 trillion, the political pressure to adopt some sort of “austerity” package will become enormous. What’s critical to understand, however, is that not all forms of austerity are created equal.

The crowd in Washington reflexively will assert that higher taxes are necessary and desirable. People like me will respond by explaining that the real problem is entitlements and that we need structural reform of programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Moreover, I will point out that higher taxes most likely will simply trigger and enable additional spending. And I will warn that tax increases will undermine economic performance.

Regarding that last point, three professors, led by Alberto Alesina at Harvard, have unveiled some new research looking at the economic impact of expenditure-based austerity compared to tax-based austerity.

…we started from detailed information on the consolidations implemented by 16 OECD countries between 1978 and 2014. …we group measures in just two broad categories: spending, g, and taxes, t. …We distinguish fiscal plans between those that are expenditure based (EB) and those that are tax based (TB)… Measuring the macroeconomic impact of a plan requires modelling the relationship between plans and macroeconomic variables.

Here are their econometric results.

There is a large and statistically significant difference between the effects on output of EB and TB austerity. EB fiscal consolidations have, on average, been associated with a very small downturn in output growth: a spending based plan worth one percent of GDP implies a loss of about half of a percentage point relative to the average GDP growth of the country, which lasts less than two year. Moreover, if an EB austerity plan is launched when the economy is not in a recession, the output costs are zero on average. …On the other hand TB plans are associated with large and long lasting recessions. A TB plan worth one per cent of GDP is followed, on average, by a two percent fall in GDP relative to its pre-austerity path. This large recessionary effect lasts several years.

Here’s a chart from the study showing that economic performance drops farther and farther to the extent taxes are part of an austerity package.

In addition to the core results, the authors explain why tax-based austerity packages are bad for capital…

…investment growth responds very differently following the introduction of the two types of austerity plans. It responds positively to EB plans and negatively to TB plans. …in their sample of OECD countries, business confidence increases immediately at the start of an EB consolidation plan, much more so that at the beginning of a TB plan.

…and why tax-based austerity packages are bad for labor.

…clearly tax hikes and spending cuts – beyond other effects – have different effects on labor supply. …EB plans are the least recessionary the longer lived is the reduction in government spending. Symmetrically, TB plans are more recessionary the longer lasting is the increase in the tax burden and thus in distortions.

Since capital and labor are the two factors of production, the obvious and inevitable conclusion is that the economy does worse when taxes are higher.

The study also make a critical point about the futility of tax increases when the burden of government spending is rising faster than the private sector. Simply stated, that’s a recipe for ever-increasing taxes, sort of like a dog chasing its tail.

…a TB plan which does not address the automatic growth of entitlements and other spending programs which grow over time if much less like likely to produce a long lasting effect on the budget. If the automatic increase of spending is not addressed, taxes will have to be continually increased to cover the increase in outlays.

That’s why spending restraint is the only way to successfully address red ink.

It doesn’t even require dramatic spending cuts, even though that would be desirable. All that’s needed is some modest fiscal restraint so that spending grows slower than the productive sector of the economy.

Nations that follow this approach for a multi-year period always get good results. But if you want examples of nations that have achieved good outcomes with tax increases, you’ll have to explore a parallel universe because there aren’t any on this planet.

P.S. I need to update the table because both the United States (between 2009-2014) and the United Kingdom (between 2010-2016) enjoyed dramatic improvements in fiscal outcomes in recent years because of spending restraint.

P.P.S. Politicians don’t like spending restraint, which is why most periods of good fiscal policy come to an end. To achieve good long-run outcomes, some sort of constitutional spending cap is probably necessary.

P.P.P.S. The study cited above builds upon research I cited in 2016.

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I wrote three days ago about the worst-international-bureaucracy contest between the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A reader emailed to ask me whether I had a favorite international bureaucracy. I confess I’ve never given that matter any thought. My gut-instinct answer would be the World Trade Organization since its mission is to discourage protectionism.

But I’m also somewhat fond of the European Central Bank, both because the euro has been better than many of the currencies it replaced and because the ECB often publishes good research.

  • Two studies (here and here) on the benefits of spending caps.
  • Two studies (here and here) showing small government is more efficient.
  • Two studies (here and here) on how large public sectors retard growth.
  • And also studies on the adverse impact of regulation, bureaucracy, and welfare.

And here’s a study on regulation to add to the collection. The European Central Bank published a working paper that looks at the effect of selected pro-market reforms. Here’s their methodology.

In this paper, we investigate the relationship between a wide range of structural reforms and economic performance over a ten-year time horizon. …we identify 23 episodes of wide-reaching structural reform implementation (so-called “reform waves”). These are based on a database…which provides detailed information on both real and financial sector reforms in 156 advanced and developing countries over a 40 year period. Indicators considered specifically cover trade-, product market-, agriculture-, and capital-account liberalisation, together with financial and banking sector reform. Then, we track top-reforming countries over the 10 years following adoption and estimate the dynamic impact of reforms.

And here’s an excerpt that describes the theoretical assumptions.

…orthodox economic theory has made a strong case for structural reforms, identified as measures aimed at removing supply-side constraints in an economy. This in turn would favour efficient factor allocation and contribute to medium- to long-term growth. Such measures include, but are not limited to, product and labour market liberalisations, current and capital account openness, and financial liberalisation. For a long time, a collection of these policies has fallen under the name of Washington Consensus.

I agree with this theory, though allow me to elaborate.

The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World is the gold standard when looking at overall economic policy. It considers five major factors – fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and governance policy (indicators such as rule of law and property rights).

The “Washington Consensus” also is based on good policy, but it undervalues the importance of a small burden of government spending.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to the ECB study, which basically looks at the impact of trade liberalization and deregulation. Here’s what the authors found.

Our main findings are as follows: on average, reforms had a negative but statistically insignificant impact in the short term. This slowdown seems to be connected to the economic cycle, and the tendency to implement reforms during a downturn, rather than an effect of reforms per se. Reforming countries however experienced a growth acceleration in the medium-term. As a result, ten years after the reform wave started, GDP per capita was roughly 6 percentage points higher than the synthetic counterfactual scenario.

Here’s a chart from the study illustrating the positive effect of reform.

And here’s another chart from the ECB report looking at the results from another perspective.

The obvious good news from this research is that we have new evidence about the benefits of pro-market reforms. Boosting economic output by an extra 6.3 percent is nothing to sneeze at. And it reinforces my oft-made point that even small improvements in growth – if sustained over time – can lead to dramatic improvements in living standards.

What might be most noteworthy in this study, however, is the finding that pro-market reforms are associated with a short-run dip in economic performance. The authors suggested that it might be a statistical quirk related to the fact that governments have a “tendency to implement reforms during a downturn”.

That’s certainly plausible, but I’m also open to the notion that good reforms sometimes may have short-run costs. Simply stated, if bad policy has produced a misallocation of labor and capital, then pro-growth reforms are going to cause some temporary disruption.

But unless you’re planning on dying very soon and also don’t care about your heirs, that’s not an argument against reform. For example, I think the housing lobby’s opposition to the flat tax is misguided since every sector will enjoy long-run benefits from faster growth, but it’s certainly possible that residential real estate will endure some short-run weakness as some resources shift to business investment.

Unfortunately, politicians tend to have very short time horizons (i.e., the next election), so they fixate on short-run costs and under-value long-run benefits.

But I’m digressing again. Let’s look at one final passage from the ECB study. For those interested in additional research, there’s a section citing some of the other literature on liberalization and growth.

Post-Soviet countries moving towards a market economy have received considerable attention in this respect. Fischer et al. (1996) looked at 26 transition economies over the period 1989-1994. They conclude that structural reforms played a vital role in reviving economic growth. This finding for transition economies was echoed by de Melo et al. (1996), and more recently by Havrylyshyn and van Rooden (2003) and Eicher and Schreiber (2010). Focussing more broadly on countries implementing wide reform packages covering domestic finance, trade, and the capital account, Christiansen et al. (2013) find a strong impact of the former two on growth in middle-income countries. Moreover, they show how well-developed property rights are a precondition in order to reap fully the benefits of structural reforms. The importance of institutions in explaining cross-country heterogeneity is further remarked by Prati et al. (2013), who illustrate how the positive relationship between structural reforms and growth depends on a country’s constraints on the authority of the executive power. Distance from the technological frontier seems also to play a role.

If you’re not familiar with technological jargon, “distance from the technological frontier” is basically a way of saying that nations with lots of bad policy – and thus lots of misallocated and/or underutilized labor and capital – probably have more ability to enjoy fast growth. Sort of a version of convergence theory.

I also like the reference to “constraints on the authority of the executive power,” which presumably a recognition of the importance of the rule of law.

The bottom line is that the ECB study reconfirms that free enterprise is the answer if the goal is reducing poverty and increasing prosperity.

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