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Archive for July, 2018

When I argue against tax increases, I generally rely on two compelling points.

  1. Higher taxes will undermine prosperity by penalizing productive behavior.
  2. More money for politicians will trigger more spending, so red ink will increase.

When I argue against centralization and urge Swiss-style federalism, I also rely on two very strong points.

  1. Local governments will be more responsible if they raise and spend their own funds.
  2. Competition among local jurisdictions will encourage better public policy.

Now let’s mix these issues together by looking at some academic research on what happens when politicians get a windfall of revenue from a  centralized source.

Well, according to new research from Italy’s central bank, bigger government means more corruption.

…large financial transfers from a central unit of government to lower levels of government…come with the risk of exacerbating the agency problem due to the fact that the funds are collected at a higher level and then managed locally with typically little transparency on the actual amount of resources received by each local area. This moral hazard problem may increase incentives for local administrators to extract rents from the funds received. …growing evidence suggests that illegal practices and rent seeking are still often associated with the receipt of transfers from a central government. …we investigate the relationship between financial transfers from a central level of government to local administrations and the coincident occurrence of white collar crimes at the same local level drawing from the case of EU funding to Southern Italy. …The South of Italy has been one of the largest recipients of EU funds: in the most recent programming period it received 25 billion euro out of the 35 billion total allocated to Italy and managed at the local level. The empirical analysis exploits a unique administrative dataset of criminal episodes in Italy and matches them to the records of all the transfers from the EU to each single municipality over the period 2007-2014. We find evidence of a significant positive relationship between EU funds and the occurrence of corruption and fraudulent behaviors in the recipient municipality in the same year. …the robustness analysis we performed provided evidence that the correlation between transfers and corruption that we estimate is likely not just spurious or due to confounding effects

As far as I’m concerned, these results belong in the “least surprising” category. Of course you get more corruption when government gets bigger.

Now let’s look at another study. A few years ago, academic scholars produced even more compelling research from Brazil.

The paper studies the effect of additional government revenues on political corruption and on the quality of politicians, both with theory and data. The theory is based on a version of the career concerns model of political agency with endogenous entry of political candidates. The evidence refers to municipalities in Brazil, where federal transfers to municipal governments change exogenously according to given population thresholds. We exploit a regression discontinuity design to test the implications of the theory and identify the causal effect of larger federal transfers on political corruption and the observed features of political candidates at the municipal level. In accordance with the predictions of the theory, we find that larger transfers increase political corruption and reduce the quality of candidates for mayor. …The empirical findings accord well with the implications of the theory. Specifically, an (exogenous) increase in federal transfers by 10% raises the incidence of a broad measure of corruption by 12 percentage points (about 17% with respect to the average incidence), and the incidence of a more restrictive measure—including only severe violation episodes—by 10.1 percentage points (about 24%).

By the way, this persuasive research isn’t just an argument for smaller government and fewer transfers.

It’s also why foreign aid generally has harmful effects on recipient countries. Handouts line the pockets of the political elite and enable a bigger burden of government.

It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve referred to the International Monetary Fund as a “dumpster fire.” That bureaucracy leverages its money (the U.S. is the biggest backer) to encourage higher tax burdens and more redistribution in countries that already are suffering from too much bad policy.

The two studies we’ve reviewed today are simply an exclamation point.

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There were many policy mistakes that contributed to the Great Depression.

Monetary Policy presumably deserves the lion’s share of the blame, but politicians also increased the fiscal burden of government and radically expanded the amount of regulatory intervention.

And a tit-for-tat trade war, mostly caused by the United States (Hoover’s Smoot-Hawley tariff), also contributed to the economic destruction of the 1930s.

Sadly, history may be repeating itself, at least with regard to trade. That was my message in this recent discussion with Charles Payne.

This is why Trump’s protectionism is so alarming.

Let’s explore this issue.

Peter Coy, in a column for Bloomberg, explains the dangers of Trump’s approach. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to let the protectionist genie out of its bottle.

…the president has instigated a trade war…his actions are eroding trust among both allies and rivals. Once gone, trust is hard to reestablish… U.S. corporate leaders soft-pedaled their criticisms of his trade policies in the past because they hoped he’d come around to their point of view. …Now they worry that waiting for the squall to pass may be a mistake because real damage could be done in the meantime. …the threats and counter threats create uncertainty that may induce businesses to hold back investment in new plants and equipment, known as capital spending, or capex.

We’re already seeing some blowback against the United States. But as I stated in the interview, the big concern is what comes next. The economic damage can be significant.

And all bets are off if the trade war goes hot. Fink warned that stocks could fall 10 percent to 15 percent if the Trump administration approves tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese imports. …In the longer term, trade barriers make the global economy permanently less efficient because sheltered economies produce things that could be made more cheaply elsewhere. …if countries restored their tariff rates to their 1990 levels, wiping out almost 30 years of reductions, world average living standards in 2060 would end up about 14 percent lower.

Sadly, Trump seems oblivious to these concerns. So, just like 80 years ago, we’re heading down the tit-for-tat path.

What’s instructive for today is how the U.S. extracted itself from the beggar-thy-neighbor spiral that started with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 and helped deepen the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt lobbied for and got the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act of 1934, in which Congress ceded some authority over international commerce to the president… To Dartmouth College economist Douglas Irwin, a historian of free trade, one lesson of the 1930s is that “it’s not as easy to snap back as you think” from a trade war.

Irwin’s argument is similar to the point I made in the interview about needing an adult to take charge before things spiral out of control.

P.S. Since I’ve referenced the Great Depression, I can’t resist reminding people that FDR was so awful that he actually tried to impose a 100 percent tax rate by executive fiat.

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Back in 2016, I had an informal “politician of the year” contest. The three candidates were:

  • The Prime Minister of Malaysia, who took normal cronyist corruption and added several zeroes to the total.
  • The president of the Philippines, because he announced to voters that none of his mistresses would be on the public payroll.
  • The follicly-challenged President of France, Francois Hollande, who squandered more than $100,000 per year on a hair stylist.

As a proud American, I was chagrined that no Americans made the list.

So I’m delighted to report that our first contestant in the 2018 race is from the United States.

Courtesy of the Washingtonian, let’s look at a very strong candidate for this year’s award.

Parking laws in the District can seem like a mess, but as any DC driver can note, confusion is not an excuse for breaking the law—unless you’re DC Councilmember Jack Evans. Evans, whose free-form approach to parking regulations has been well-documented, was spotted in his car Saturday morning, idling in a no-parking zone in Georgetown… Evans is hardly the first member of the DC Council to be criticized or spotlighted for flouting the District’s traffic and parking rules. …But of all of these, Evans is the council’s best-known parking-law skeptic. As it turns out, he has a point: In 2002, the DC Council granted itself the same legal immunity that members of Congress enjoy in the District, allowing them to park in bus zones, crosswalks, and residential permit zones when on official city business.

But the mere fact that there are special rules for insiders isn’t what qualifies Mr. Evans for an award.

If that was the case, the folks on Capitol Hill would deserve an award for wanting exemptions from the Obamacare law that they imposed on the country. Or we could give a giant prize to the bureaucrats at the OECD, who get tax-exempt salaries while pushing higher taxes on the rest of us.

What makes Mr. Evans worthy is the remarkable logic that he used when confronted by a lowly voter.

Kmetz says he first noticed Evans’ car parked at the corner of 32nd and Q streets, Northwest, while on his way to the post office. …Kmetz approaching Evans and asking the councilmember if he knows he is parking illegally. “Can I ask you something? Why do you care?” Evans responds. “Because if I parked illegally, I would get a ticket,” Kmetz says. “If I park illegally, that opens up a spot for you,” Evans says.

That’s some impressive sophistry.

But I’m wondering if Mr. Evans missed a golden opportunity. Instead of being snarky, he should have expressed fake empathy and told Mr. Kmetz that he would “solve” the problem the by submitting a bill to provide chauffeur-driven limousines to all members of the DC Council.

And he could even demonstrate his “frugality” by buying second-hand limos from the federal government’s massive fleet.

P.S. Since I’m mocking politicians, here’s an amusing joke that a reader shared with me.

Though I would amend the joke by removing “bipartisan.” As we saw with TARP, or the budget deal earlier this year, it’s almost always bad news for taxpayers when the Evil Party and Stupid Party agree on something.

P.P.S. Here’s a good link if you enjoy anti-politician jokes.

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Given the routine corruption and reckless spending in Washington, I frequently get asked how I keep my sanity.

It’s possible, as some of my friends argue, that I’m not actually sane. That would explain why I try to put my finger in the dyke of big government as more and more new leaks keep developing. Only a crazy person would fight against big government when politicians and bureaucrats have a “public choice” incentive to do the wrong thing.

Moreover, if “victory” is restoring the kind of limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers, then there’s a 99.99 percent chance all my efforts will be wasted.

But allow me to offer a reason for optimism. What if we decide that “victory” is simply hindering the growth of government so that the private sector has enough “breathing room” to continue making our lives richer and better?

That’s the basic message of Human Progress, Marian Tupy’s website showing how the world is constantly improving. And we see good long-run developments from Economic Freedom of the World.

In other words, we don’t need to achieve Libertarian Nirvana. We just need to throw sand in the gears of government.

And that’s why I don’t think my life is pointless. To be sure, I haven’t given up on my dream of replacing the odious internal revenue code with a flat tax, but if the only thing I achieve is to protect America from a value-added tax, I’ll nonetheless go to my grave feeling like I did something very valuable for my country.

But there’s something else that keeps me sane. I also enjoy laughing at government. I regularly write about “great moments” in government and point out that incompetence and stupidity is a regular feature of the federal government, of state governments, and of local governments.

And I also enjoy mocking the spectacular screw-ups and bizarre blunders that are a feature of foreign governments as well.

And that’s our topic for today. So let’s start with this story from India about a very unusual example of vote buying.

A south Indian state has become possibly the first in the world to offer publicly-funded breast implants, its health minister arguing, “Why should beauty treatment not be available to the poor?” The Tamil Nadu state health department on Wednesday launched the free service at a clinic in the capital Chennai. …The clinic had already been providing breast reconstruction surgery for cancer patients, but was now extending the service for people who wished to alter the size of their breasts for other health or cosmetic reasons. The head of plastic surgery at the clinic, Dr V Ramadevi, said some of her patients…sought to augment or shrink their breasts for a boost in confidence. “There is a psychological benefit. Many girls who have larger breasts don’t like to go out. There is no reason this surgery should be restricted from the poor.” The procedure would also be available to men, she said. …Tamil Nadu’s government is known for its largesse, particularly under former chief minister Jayalalithaa, who pioneered free food canteens and doled out wedding jewellery and venues to the poor.

I’ve previously reported on crazy examples of government policy in India, so I suppose this story shouldn’t surprise me.

And since taxpayer-financed cosmetic surgery exists in the United Kingdom and the United States, Indian taxpayers can take solace that they’re not alone.

Now let’s go to Belgium, where there’s apparently a problem with rogue royalty.

Prince Laurent of Belgium has had his monthly allowance docked for a year, after a vote by the country’s federal parliament. The sanction was imposed after the prince attended a Chinese embassy reception last year without government permission, in full naval uniform. Lawmakers voted for a 15% cut to his €307,000 (£270,000; $378,000) annual allowance. …Prince Laurent, who is the younger brother of King Philippe, wrote a lengthy emotional letter to parliament before the vote on his endowment, arguing that, as a royal, he is unable to work for a living. He described the vote as “the trial of my life” and said it would “likely cause me serious prejudice” if MPs went against him. …The prince, 54, said the royal family had obstructed his attempts to be financially independent. …Lawmakers ultimately rejected his claim that no citizen of their country had been so exploited, voting to cut his stipend by 93 to 23 votes. …He had previously been criticised for attending meetings in Libya when the late Muammar Gaddafi was still in power, and making an unsanctioned 2011 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony.

I suppose this is a feel-good story in that politicians actually voted to cut spending.

Though we should never forget that this is the country where the public sector consumes half of economic output but officials actually complained that it’s hard to fight terrorism because of “the small size of the Belgian government.”

Now it’s time for ar stop in Malaysia, where corrupt politicians spent the country into debt and now they want taxpayers to voluntarily cough up extra money.

When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad unexpectedly won his bid for office in May, he pledged to…get the country’s $250 billion worth of debt under control. And this week, he announced the government had found a way to at least get started: crowdfunding. Within 24 hours, the “Malaysia Hope Fund” raised almost $2 million, the BBC reported. “The rakyat (people) voluntarily want to share their earnings with the government to help ease the burden,” the finance ministry said in a statement, announcing that it would be accepting donations to a special fund set up to help relieve the country’s debt. …The crowdfunding idea started with a 27-year-old named Nik Shazarina Bakti, who recently launched a private crowdfunding initiative to help relieve Malaysia’s debt.  She raised around $3,500 before the government stepped in. In a sense, the effort is a version of what she said Malaysians did during their struggle for independence from Britain, when they donated jewelry, money and valuables. It’s also similar to what South Korea did as it attempted to pull itself out of economic crisis in the late 1990s, and regular citizens lined up to donate their most prized possessions to the government, including wedding rings and trophies.

Hmmm…, $2 million raised to pay off $250 billion of debt. Methinks they won’t meet their goal.

Though this story reminds me that politicians like Elizabeth Warren want the rest of us to pay more tax, yet she conveniently doesn’t participate in her state’s version of voluntary crowdfunding.

Here’s an amazing story from Romania.

He’s a dead man walking and the court ruling is final. A Romanian court has rejected a man’s claim that he is still very much alive, after he was officially registered as deceased, the Associated Press reports. Constantin Reliu, 63, lost his case in Vasului because he appealed too late on the ruling, a court spokeswoman said Friday. The story goes that Reliu had traveled to Turkey in 1992 for work and lost contact with his family. Since his wife had not heard from her husband in years, she acquired a death certificate for him in 2016, the AP reports. However, since Reliu was discovered by Turkish authorities this year with expired papers, he was deported back to Romania. That’s when he discovered he had been declared dead.

Wow. I thought American courts generated some outlandish decisions, but this belies belief.

Last but not least, here’s a report from Spain that should leave you skeptical about the efficacy of additional NATO spending.

An attempt to deploy a new submarine for Spain’s navy has run aground again, after it emerged it cannot fit in its dock, Spanish media report. The S-80 boat was redesigned at great expense after an earlier mistake meant it had problems floating, and it was lengthened to correct the issue. Spanish newspaper El País now reports that after the changes, the docks at Cartagena can no longer fit the vessel. The cost for each has almost doubled, the newspaper said. …The original problem with the submarine dates back to 2013, when it was discovered that it was about 100 tons heavier than it needed to be. That caused a problem for its buoyancy – so it could submerge, but might not come back up again. A former Spanish official told the Associated Press at the time that someone had put a decimal point in the wrong place, and “nobody paid attention to review the calculations”. …the base at Cartagena will have to be dredged and reshaped to accommodate the now-floating longer vessel, the El País report said. Spain’s Defence Minister Margarita Robles, speaking on Spanish radio, admitted that “there have been deficiencies in the project”.

Call me crazy, but “deficiencies” doesn’t really describe what happened. Almost makes the Pentagon look frugal. Almost makes the German intelligence service look competent.

For previous examples of great moments in foreign government, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.S. In other words, my “government in cartoons” collection applies equally no matter where you travel.

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If you look at the top of your screen on my home page, you’ll notice that I have a collection of special pages such as the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame and examples of what happens when you mix government and sex.

I’m thinking of creating a new page, but I need a pithy way of describing leftists who lie about poverty. And there are plenty of them.

Today, we identify some additional members who are eligible for this disreputable club.

And we’ll start with the European Commission.

Here’s a chart from a recent report that supposedly shows poverty rates in various European nations.

If you compare the “at-risk-of-poverty rate” for various nations, you’ll notice some very odd outcomes.

For instance, the tiny tax haven of Luxembourg is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet it supposedly has more poverty than Hungary. And super-rich Switzerland has more poverty than Slovakia. And oil-rich Norway has more poverty than the Czech Republic.

Are all those rich nations in Western Europe really suffering from higher poverty rates than some of the Eastern European countries still recovering from communist rule?

Of course not. The chart is based on a big, fat lie.

And I know it’s a lie because if you look in the glossary at the end of the long report, you’ll see that the bureaucrats openly admit that their so-called poverty chart has nothing to do with poverty and nothing to do with living standards (I’ve underlined the most important parts).

Interestingly, the bureaucrats in Brussels included a chart in the study revealing the level of inaccuracy for each country.

Here’s a look at the dishonest poverty rate (the blue diamond) compared to a measure of “severe material deprivation” that presumably does a better job of showing the real number of poor people (the red diamond).

By the way, I’m not a huge fan of the European Commission’s measure of “severe material deprivation” since it includes variables such as having a car, a color TV, and the money to take a one-week vacation.

But that’s a separate story.

Let’s look at other new members of our club.

An Eduardo Porter column in the New York Times also used the dishonest definition of poverty.

How can it be that the United States spends so much money fighting poverty and still suffers one of the highest child poverty rates among advanced nations? One in five American children is poor by the count of LIS, a data archive tracking well-being and deprivation around the world. …the United States tolerated more child poverty in 2012 than 30 of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of advanced industrialized nations. The percentage of children who are poor is more than three times as high in the United States as it is in Norway or the Netherlands. America has a larger proportion of poor children than Russia.

And here’s a chart from the article that definitely makes the United States look bad.

But, unless you read the column carefully, you would have missed this all-important detail.

…international standards that set the poverty line at one-half the income of families on the middle rung of the income ladder.

In other words, everything in the article, and all the numbers in the chart, have nothing to do with actual poverty. Instead, we’re simply looking at an indirect measure of income distribution.

And the United States is made to look bad because our median income is generally much higher than it is in other nations.

How absurd.

You’ll think I’m joking, but you can dramatically reduce “poverty,” based on this dishonest definition, if you randomly kill rich people.

Let’s conclude by looking at the U.K.-based Guardian‘s article about supposed poverty in Hong Kong.

A record number of Hong Kong residents live in poverty, with one fifth of the population falling below the poverty line despite economic growth, according to new government figures. The number of people living below the poverty line rose to 1.35 million in 2016, about 20% of the city’s population. The number is the highest number of poor since the government began publishing statistics in 2009. Despite opulent wealth, Hong Kong is a deeply unequal society. …The number of poor rose despite the government raising the poverty line last year. For single person households it is set at HK$4,000 (£388). It is HK$9,000 (£873) for a two person home and HK$15,000 (£1,455) for a family of three.

There’s a small problem and big problem with this article. The small problem is that it states that the number of poor people increased “despite” an increase in the poverty line.

Huh?!?

If the government raises the threshold, of course it will seem like more people are poor. The article should replace “despite” with “because.”

Tom Worstall, writing for CapX, explains the big problem in the article.

One of the great injustices of our age is, as The Guardian reported…, that 20 per cent of the people in Hong Kong, one of the richest places on the planet, live in poverty. …The Guardian [is] waxing indignant over things it doesn’t understand. …there’s an important underlying point: inequality – not poverty – is being measured here. The international definition of poverty is less than $1.90 a day. There’s no one in Hong Kong on this at all, therefore there’s no poverty. …we’re told that the poverty line in Hong Kong is HK $4,000 per month (roughly £380) for an individual which certainly doesn’t seem like much. Yet when we plug that into a comparison of global incomes we find that, accounting for price differences across geography, it’s firmly in the top fifth of all global incomes. In other words, the poorest 20 per cent in Hong Kong are still find themselves in the richest 20 per cent of all humans.

Given the praise I’ve heaped on Hong Kong, I also can’t resist sharing this excerpt even though it’s a separate topic.

As Hong Kong so vividly demonstrates, the…economy in which the poverty line is defined as being rather rich by global standards must have something going for it. According to the World Bank’s figures, back in 1960 Hong Kong was at around the average level of income for the planet, with GDP per capita at a little over $400 (in 1960 dollars). Today the figure is slightly over $40,000 per head while the global average has only struggled up to $10,000 or so. An over performance by a factor of four isn’t that bad over half a century, is it?

Amen.

If we actually care about reducing genuine poverty, there’s no substitute for the miracle of compounding growth.

Which is why our friends on the left, if they actually cared about poor people (and I think most of them genuinely do care), should focus on growth rather than being fixated on redistribution.

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I get offended when I hear people argue that Donald Trump is another Ronald Reagan. I’m not saying that out of animosity to the President. I also got offended when people compared Bush 41 or Bush 43 to Reagan.

I realize Reagan was not perfect, but I think he genuinely believed in free enterprise and he moved the country in that direction. Other GOPers, not so much.

That’s especially true on the issue of trade. Reagan’s goal was to expand markets. Trump, by contrast, seems inspired by Herbert Hoover.

So when CNBC asked for my thoughts on the President’s protectionism, I wasn’t overly optimistic.

Based on eight simple questions, I explained the economy-wide argument for free trade back in 2011. Simply stated, if it’s bad for prosperity for governments to impose taxes, regulation, and intervention on trade inside a country, then it’s also bad for prosperity for government to impose taxes, regulation, and intervention on trade that crosses national borders.

But maybe the case for free trade is easier to understand if we consider how various specific groups are harmed by protectionism.

Taxpayers – Tariffs are taxes. So when Trump imposes $13 billion of tariffs on Canada and $37 billion of tariffs on China, what’s really happening is that he’s increasing taxes by those amounts on American consumers. Trade taxes technically are paid by importers, but the real burden is borne by individuals, just as individuals bear the cost when a business writes a check for the corporate income tax.

Workers – The “seen” effect of protectionism is that a few jobs are saved in a certain sector. But because the economy-wide cost of saving those jobs is so high, the “unseen” effect of protectionism is that overall employment falls. To cite just one example, Trump’s proposed taxes on auto imports are projected to reduce net employment by 195,000-624,000 jobs.

Consumers – When tariffs are imposed, selected special interests are shielded from competition and they respond by raising prices. This is bad news for households. Consider the case of washing machines. In the opening salvo of his war on trade, Trump imposed higher taxes on imported machines earlier this year. This headline from Mark Perry at AEI shows the consequences.

Retailers – As trade taxes ripple through the economy, one obvious adverse effect is that stores have to raise prices, which leads to lower sales. But that microeconomic impact just part of the damage. The combination of trade taxes and higher prices also put a dent in household budgets, and this macroeconomic impact leads to less overall spending on other items.

Exporters – When Trump unilaterally imposes higher taxes on trade, other nations almost always respond with tit-for-tat protectionism. And when these other nations target American products, that necessarily reduces exports.

Manufacturers – One of the big buzz phrases in business is “global supply chains,” which is simply a way of saying that companies have developed intricate networks to ensure the best inputs at the best prices. Trump’s tariffs have disrupted these networks by raising the prices of certain inputs. But the damage isn’t just higher prices.

Investors – At the end of the interview, I said Trump’s latest protectionist measures were akin to going from 1 month pregnant to 3 months pregnant. Except we’re talking about Rosemary’s Baby, not a bundle of joy. At the risk of mixing my cinematic references, continued 1930s-style protectionism eventually could produce Chucky after 9 months.

Hmmm…., maybe I should stick to economics and let movie critics develop analogies.

Since investors were my last category of victims, it’s very appropriate that we conclude today’s analysis by looking at some passages from a very good column by the Chief U.S. Economist for Morgan Stanley in the New York Times.

A protracted, escalating cycle of trade tensions has begun. In the latest action, the United States has proposed a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion in Chinese goods. …Even if all the proposed actions don’t go into effect, prolonged uncertainty alone can have a measurable impact on economic growth, and we should not underestimate the risks. …Just the threat of trade actions, even if there is no follow-through, is enough to dent business sentiment and investment. …roughly half of the growth we are seeing now is a result of a side effect of trade tensions — “doomsday prepping.” Global companies are stockpiling raw materials, intermediate goods and finished goods before tariffs take effect and raise the prices of those goods.

But the damage of protectionism will show up in other ways as well.

While the most direct effects will likely come from retaliatory measures that dent American exports, those impacts are just a fraction of what should be considered. Economists also need to consider the indirect effects of tariffs on consumer demand. Of the first $50 billion of announced tariffs, less than 2 percent apply to consumer goods. So the spillover effect on consumer demand — tariffs passed on as higher prices to consumers — should be quite small. But consumer goods represent more than 30 percent of the latest round of tariffs…firms can absorb the tariffs and cut costs elsewhere, but labor is the largest line item, which means layoffs or slower hiring. …At some point, investors will start to question whether global supply chains can withstand the escalating pressures from multiple rounds of tariffs, and financial markets may start to react.

In other words, there are no winners in a protectionist battle. Except, of course, for the army of lobbyists who get fat contracts to manipulate the system. So the swamp wins, but the rest of us lose.

P.S. As I noted in the interview, I don’t buy the argument that Trump is using protectionism to fight protectionism.

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If you did man-on-the-street interviews across America and asked people about Social Security, I suspect most of them would have some degree of understanding about the program’s looming fiscal crisis.

Since they’re not policy wonks, they presumably wouldn’t know the magnitude of the problem (not that I blame them since I once underestimated the shortfall by $16 trillion).

I also doubt many of them would be able to explain why the so-called Trust Fund is an accounting fiction, which is understandable since even supposedly knowledgeable people pretend IOUs are real assets.

But at least they know the program’s finances are a giant mess and that we face a fiscal crisis.

That being said, there’s a second crisis in the program that doesn’t get nearly as much attention. Simply stated, the program is a rotten deal for workers.

I explained both crises in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Today, thanks to a new report from the Heritage Foundation, we have a great opportunity to peruse up-to-date numbers on the second Social Security crisis.

Here’s the problem, succinctly defined.

With Social Security consuming such a large component of workers’ paychecks and offsetting their own private savings, it is important that workers receive a valuable benefit from Social Security—one at least as good as they, as a whole, could obtain from saving on their own. This analysis looks across the United States and across generations to see if Social Security does in fact provide that.

Sadly, Social Security does a crummy job of giving workers a decent amount of retirement income.

Taking an average of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the average worker receives significantly less from Social Security than he would have if he had conservatively invested his Social Security payroll taxes in the market. …Individuals with lower life expectancies often lose greatly. This occurs because they receive little or nothing in benefits and cannot pass along all their lost contributions to their surviving family members. …Younger workers face lower, and even negative, returns from Social Security compared to older workers. This comes as a result of paying higher average Social Security tax rates over their lifetimes, coupled with a two-year increase in Social Security’s normal retirement age—as well as the benefit cuts that will occur.

The bottom line is that the implicit rate of return from Social Security is very inadequate compared to the genuine rate of return that could be obtained if workers could invest their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.

Here’s the key table from the Heritage study, showing rates of return for today’s young workers based on how long they live.

You have to wonder why so many young people are intrigued by socialism when they’re the ones getting screwed by big government!

Anyhow, there are 12 tables in the report showing lots of additional data, including breakdowns based by state. The entire study is worth a look.

But for those short on time, the conclusion is a very clear summary of why we need to fix Social Security’s rate-of-return crisis as well as the program’s fiscal crisis.

The results are overwhelmingly clear. Americans would be better off keeping their payroll tax contributions and saving them in private retirement accounts than having to sacrifice them to the government’s broken Social Security system. Social Security’s design has, over the decades, presumed that many Americans are too incompetent to make informed decisions for themselves, but few Americans believe that the government knows better than they do what is best for them and their families. Moreover, Social Security’s financial structure effectively guarantees that workers will receive extremely low, or even negative, returns on their payroll taxes.

P.S. Fixing Social Security is simple, but it won’t be easy. Benefits would have to be preserved for current retirees and older workers, so there would be a “transition cost” as we shift to a “funded” system of personal accounts.

P.P.S. But reform is possible. If you want real-world role models of retirement systems based on private saving, take a look at the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system, or even the system in the Faroe Islands.

P.P.P.S. Our friends on the left have a solution – albeit misguided – for Social Security’s fiscal crisis. But their approach would greatly worsen the rate-of-return crisis.

P.P.P.P. S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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