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Archive for September, 2018

Over the years, I’ve felt compelled to “debunk” various articles, columns, and speeches that fundamentally misrepresented and/or misunderstood key economic issues.

A partial list includes Keynesian economics, the Laffer Curve, Obama tax propaganda, Elizabeth Warren’s class warfare, sequester hysteria, export subsidies, libertarianism, carried interest, government size, inequality, Scandinavia, and the value-added tax.

It’s time to add to that list. In a column for the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein claims to have identified “Five myths about capitalism.” He’s not necessarily attacking free enterprise, but he does make several points that rub me the wrong way and/or should be addressed. Here’s his introduction.

Thirty years ago, in the face of a serious economic challenge from Japan and Europe, the United States embraced a form of free-market capitalism that was less regulated, less equal, more prone to booms and busts. Driving that shift was a set of useful myths about motivation, fairness and economic growth that helped restore American competitiveness. …Here are five of the most persistent ones.

Before we get to his myths, I can’t resist questioning his assertion that markets lead to “more booms and busts,” in part because we had very long and strong expansions during the market-oriented Reagan and Clinton years and in part because the big 2008 recession was largely a result of bad government policy.

But let’s set that aside and look at Pearlstein’s myths. Here’s his first assertion.

Adam Smith, the father of economics, first pointed out in his most famous work, “The Wealth of Nations ,” that in vigorously pursuing our own selfish interests in a market system, we are led “as if by an invisible hand” to promote the prosperity of others. …Smith, however, was never the prophet of greed that free-market cheerleaders have made him out to be. In other passages from “The Wealth of Nations,” and in his earlier work, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith makes clear that for capitalism to succeed, selfishness must be tempered by an equally powerful inclination toward cooperation, empathy and trust — traits that are hard-wired into our nature and reinforced by our moral instincts. …An economy organized around the cynical presumption that everyone is greedy is likely to be no more successful than one organized around the utopian assumption that everyone will act out of altruism.

This isn’t really a myth as much as a misrepresentation. What “free-market cheerleaders” extol Smith as a “prophet of greed”?

I self-identify as one of those cheerleaders, and I simply point to Smith’s famous observation about how self-interest is what drives merchants to improve our lives.

Do some people go crazy with greed? Of course.

But that’s true in any system (look at how Chavez’s family members lined their pockets).

What makes capitalism a preferable system is that greedy people have to cater to consumers if they want more money.

Here’s Pearlstein’s second myth.

This is an almost universal belief among corporate executives and directors — that it is their principal mission and legal obligation to deliver the highest possible return to their shareholders. The economist Milton Friedman first declared in the 1970s that the “one social responsibility of business [is] . . . to increase its profits,” but the corporate raiders of the 1980s were the ones who forced that view on executives and directors, threatening to take their companies or fire them if they didn’t go along. …“maximizing shareholder value”…is now widely taught by business schools, ruthlessly demanded by Wall Street’s analysts and “activist” investors, and lavishly reinforced by executive pay packages tied to profits and share prices. In fact, corporations are free to balance the interests of shareholders with those of customers, workers or the public… Legally, corporations can be formed for any purpose. …The only time a corporation is obligated to maximize its share price is when it puts itself up for sale.

I’m not sure what point he’s making. Does he think companies shouldn’t try to make profits? Does he not understand the purpose of profits? Does he want to put corporate governance under the control of politicians, like Elizabeth Warren?

For what it’s worth, he’s correct that corporations can be set up for reasons other than profit, though I’m not sure that’s any sort of stunning revelation.

Here’s the third supposed myth.

The theory of “marginal productivity” holds that a worker’s wage or salary reflects the “amount of output the worker can produce,” according to Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, author of a best-selling economics textbook. This idea is useful in constructing economic models, but Mankiw and others have also relied on it to justify widening income inequality and to oppose proposals to redistribute income… In reality, however, the pay set by markets is also subjective, reflecting the laws and social norms under which markets operate. The incomes earned by workers who planted tobacco — and those who owned tobacco plantations — changed considerably after slavery was abolished, and again after laws protecting sharecroppers were enacted, and again when minimum-wage laws were passed… While it is probably better to rely on markets rather than government to set pay levels, that doesn’t mean that the way the markets set pay is a purely objective assessment of economic contribution or that redistribution is theft.

I’m glad he acknowledges that it is “probably better” for markets to set wages, but this section is largely incoherent.

He writes about slavery, but that has nothing to do with capitalism. After all, slavery was government-sanctioned and government-enforced involuntary labor, whereas a defining feature of capitalism is voluntary exchange.

Now for the fourth myth.

The reason Americans tolerate higher levels of income inequality is because of our faith that we all have a fair chance at achieving the American Dream or becoming the next Bill Gates. “In America we stand for equality,” writes Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading defender of the morality of capitalism. “But for the large majority of us, this means equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.” …But while the United States has made great strides in removing legal barriers to equal opportunity, at least half the difference in income between any two people is determined by their parents, either through inherited traits like intelligence, good looks, ambition and reliability (nature), or through the quality and circumstances of their upbringing and education (nurture). …Unless we are prepared to engage in extensive genetic reengineering, or require that all children be brought up in state-run boarding schools, we must acknowledge that we can never achieve full equality of opportunity.

This section actually makes some sense. Some people do have better parents and better genes, and that does put them in a better position to succeed.

In any event, I very much hope that Pearlstein doesn’t think that government-imposed “genetic reengineering” and/or “state-run boarding schools” are good ideas.

Here’s the final myth, and also the one that got me most agitated.

Economists have long believed that there is an unavoidable trade-off between equality and growth — having more of one means having less of the other. Arthur Okun’s book about it, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff,” remains a classic. The implosion of communism and the decisions of socialist countries like Sweden to reduce taxes and welfare are widely seen as acknowledgments of the failure of overly egalitarian systems to produce adequate economic growth. But evidence suggests that there is also a point at which high levels of inequality begin to deliver less economic growth, not more — and that the United States has passed that point, according to research by the International Monetary Fund. …rising income inequality erodes the trust people have in one another and their willingness to cooperate.

I’m glad he cited Okun, and it’s also good that he cited Sweden’s turn in the right direction.

But it’s very disappointing that he called attention to the IMF’s incredibly shoddy research on inequality.

As I’ve repeatedly explained, inequality that results from voluntary exchange is fine and inequality that results from Cronyism is bad. Studies that fail to distinguish between the two are either deliberately dishonest or breathtakingly shoddy.

I’ll close by asking critics of capitalism to give just one accurate answer to my two-question challenge. Or, if that’s too difficult, create the left-wing version of this chart.

I won’t be holding my breath.

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It’s time to augment our collection of surveys that test political orientation. Here are the ones I’ve previously shared.

Today’s addition is a quiz called the “5-Dimensional Political Compass.”

It’s only 30 questions, covering everything from economic issues, international issues, and cultural issues. Your answers are limited to yes, no, and maybe, so there’s not much opportunity for nuance.

Even though I like the concept of a multi-dimensional test, I’m not completely thrilled with how I was graded.

I have no objection to being a “conservative” and “libertarian,” but I’m an avid proponent of free trade, so how can I be a “total-isolationist”?

It turns out that the quiz has nothing on trade and several questions related to international organizations and global governance. Given my views on such issues, that must explain how I’m classified.

I also don’t like being called a “nationalist,” but I’m guessing that’s because of my “yes” to the question about whether “my country is inherently better.”

It’s not that I think Americans are better, but I very much appreciate that I’m part of a nation founded on an ideal of freedom rather than shared nationality, race, or religion. In other words, I’m saying “my country’s organizational principles are inherently better.”

For what it’s worth, if I changed my answer to “maybe” on that question, the “nationalist” part would disappear and my results would change to “conservative libertarian total-isolationist traditionalist.”

Speaking of “traditionalist,” I’m mildly uncomfortable with that label. I think I got that outcome because I answered “yes” to the first question about the “decline of traditional families” being harmful and “maybe” to the second question about “moral decay of our society.”

I guess it all depends on what people think is implied by the questions. I answered “yes” to the first because I think it is unfortunate to have so many children from broken homes, whereas somebody else might answer “yes” because they are bothered by two men or two women getting married.

And when I think about “moral decay,” I’m focusing on the erosion of societal capital, not whether someone smokes pot or looks at a naked picture on the Internet.

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Politicians who preach class warfare repeatedly assert that we need higher taxes on “the rich.”

Indeed, that’s been the biggest political issue (and oftentimes biggest economic issue) in every recent tax fight (the Trump tax reform and Obama’s fiscal cliff), as well as the issue that generates the most controversy when discussing tax reform.

So it seems almost inconceivable that the class-warfare crowd would support a change to the tax code that would only benefit the top-10 percent, right?

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in the fight over the deduction for state and local taxes.

Democrats want to restore an unlimited deduction, thereby enabling people to shield more of their income from tax. But, as the Tax Foundation notes, that change only produces benefits for upper-income taxpayers.

Itemized deductions such as the SALT deduction are mostly utilized by higher-income individuals. As such, any change to the SALT deduction will chiefly impact them. In addition, the value of a deduction increases as a taxpayer’s statutory tax rate increases. A deduction against the top rate of 37 percent is more valuable than a deduction against the 32 percent tax rate. We estimate that eliminating the SALT deduction cap would have no impact on taxpayers in the bottom two income quintiles and a negligible impact on taxpayers in the third and fourth quintiles. …However, taxpayers in the top 5 and 1 percent of income earners would see an increase in after-tax income of 1.6 percent and 3.7 percent respectively.

And if restoring the deduction is “paid for” by raising the corporate tax rate, the net effect is to raise taxes on the bottom-90 percent in order to give a tax to top-10 percent.

Or, to be more precise, to give a tax cut to the top-1 percent.

Some of you may be thinking that the Tax Foundation leans right and therefore can’t be trusted.

So let’s look at some research from the Tax Policy Center, which is a joint project of the left-leaning Urban Institute and left-leaning Brookings Institution.

Only about 9 percent of households would benefit from repeal of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) $10,000 cap on the state and local property tax (SALT) deduction, and more than 96 percent of the tax cut would go to the highest-income 20 percent of households… For all middle-income taxpayers, the average tax cut would be $10. Those in the top 1 percent would pay an average of $31,000, or 2 percent of after-tax income, less.

And here’s the TPC chart showing how almost all the tax relief goes to upper-income taxpayers.

So what’s going on? Why are Democrats fighting for an idea that would give the rich a $31,000 tax cut while only providing $10 of relief for middle-class taxpayers?!?

The simple answer is that they think the loophole is a very valuable way of facilitating higher taxes and bigger government at the state and local level. And they’re right, so I don’t blame them.

But it’s nonetheless very revealing that they are willing to jettison their tax-the-rich rhetoric when it interferes with their make-government-bigger agenda.

P.S. This “SALT” debate strikes me as being similar to the Laffer-Curve debate, which requires folks on the left to choose whether it’s more important to punish rich people or to get more revenue to spend.

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Yesterday, I wrote about the newest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is my favorite annual publication.

Not far behind is the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index, which is sort of the domestic version of their equally fascinating (to a wonk) International Tax Competitiveness Index.

And what can we learn from this year’s review of state tax policy? Plenty.

…the specifics of a state’s tax structure matter greatly. The measure of total taxes paid is relevant, but other elements of a state tax system can also enhance or harm the competitiveness of a state’s business environment. The State Business Tax Climate Index distills many complex considerations to an easy-to-understand ranking.

That’s the theory, but what about the results?

Here are the best and worst states.

If you pay close attention, there’s a common thread for the best states.

The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top 10 states. …there are several states that do without one or more of the major taxes: the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. Wyoming, Nevada, and South Dakota have no corporate or individual income tax (though Nevada imposes gross receipts taxes); Alaska has no individual income or state-level sales tax; Florida has no individual income tax; and New Hampshire, Montana, and Oregon have no sales tax.

By the way, both Utah and Indiana are among the nine states with flat tax systems, so every top-10 state has at least one attractive feature.

But if you peruse the bottom-10 states, you’ll find that every one of them has an income tax with “progressive” rates that punish people for contributing more to the economy.

Indeed, half of the states on that unfortunate list are part of the “Class-Warfare Graduated Tax” club.

Not a desirable group, assuming the goal is faster growth and more jobs.

The Tax Foundation’s report also is worth reading because it reviews some of the academic evidence about the superiority of pro-growth tax systems.

Helms (1985) and Bartik (1985) put forth forceful arguments based on empirical research that taxes guide business decisions. Helms concluded that a state’s ability to attract, retain, and encourage business activity is significantly affected by its pattern of taxation. Furthermore, tax increases significantly retard economic growth when the revenue is used to fund transfer payments. Bartik concluded that the conventional view that state and local taxes have little effect on business is false. Papke and Papke (1986) found that tax differentials among locations may be an important business location factor, concluding that consistently high business taxes can represent a hindrance to the location of industry. …Agostini and Tulayasathien (2001) examined the effects of corporate income taxes on the location of foreign direct investment in U.S. states. They determined that for “foreign investors, the corporate tax rate is the most relevant tax in their investment decision.” Therefore, they found that foreign direct investment was quite sensitive to states’ corporate tax rates. Mark, McGuire, and Papke (2000) found that taxes are a statistically significant factor in private-sector job growth. Specifically, they found that personal property taxes and sales taxes have economically large negative effects on the annual growth of private employment. …Gupta and Hofmann (2003) regressed capital expenditures against a variety of factors… Their model covered 14 years of data and determined that firms tend to locate property in states where they are subject to lower income tax burdens.

None of this research should come as a surprise.

Businesses aren’t moving from California to Texas because business executives prefer heat and humidity over ocean and mountains.

The bottom line is that tax rates matter, whether we’re looking at state data, national data, or international data.

Let’s close by sharing a map from the report. Simply stated, red is bad and teal (or whatever that color is) is good.

P.S. My one complaint about this report from the Tax Foundation is that it doesn’t include the overall fiscal burden. Alaska and Wyoming score well because they have small populations and easily fund much of their (extravagant) state budgets with energy-related taxes. If data on the burden of state government spending was included, South Dakota would be the best state.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, Americans are moving from high-tax states to low-tax states.

P.P.P.S. It’s also no surprise to find New Jersey in last place.

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Since I’ve been writing a column every day since 2010, you can imagine that there are some days where that’s a challenge.

But not today. The Fraser Institute has released a new edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is like a bible for policy wonks. So just like last year, and the year before, and the year before, and so on (you may sense a pattern), I want to share the findings.

First, here’s what EFW measures.

The cornerstones of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, open markets, and clearly defined and enforced property rights. …The EFW measure might be thought of as a measure of the degree to which scarce resources are allocated by personal choices coordinated by markets rather than centralized planning directed by the political process. It might also be thought of as an effort to identify how closely the institutions and policies of a country correspond with the ideal of a limited government, where the government protects property rights and arranges for the provision of a limited set of “public goods” such as national defense and access to money of sound value, but little beyond these core functions.

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong is at the top of the rankings, followed closely by Singapore. Those jurisdictions have been #1 and #2 in the rankings every year this century.

The rest of the top 5 is the same as last year, featuring New Zealand, Switzerland, and Ireland.

The good news for Americans is that we’re back in the top 10, ranking #6.

Here’s what the report says about the United States.

…the United States returned to the top 10 in 2016 after an absence of several years. During the 2009–2016 term of President Obama, the US score initially continued to decline as it had under President Bush. From 2013 to 2016, however, the US rating increased from 7.74 to 8.03. This is still well below the high-water mark of 8.62 in 2000 at the end of the Clinton presidency.

It’s important to understand that the improvement in the U.S. score has nothing to do with Trump. The EFW ranking is based on America’s economic policies as of 2016 (there’s always a lag in getting hard data).

President Trump’s policies may increase America’s score (think taxes and regulation) or they may decrease America’s score (think trade and spending). But we won’t know for sure until we see future editions.

Here’s what’s happened to economic liberty in America between 1970 and 2016.

As you can see from the historical data, the U.S. enjoyed progress through the Reagan and Clinton years, followed by decline during the Bush years and early Obama years. But we’ve trending in the right direction since 2013.

Let’s look at other nations that get decent scores.

Here are the other nations that are in the top quartile.

Canada and Australia were tied for #10, so the rest of the rankings start with the under-appreciated success story of Taiwan at #12.

All the Baltic nations do well, especially Estonia and Lithuania. Chile also remains highly ranked, as is the supposedly socialist nation of Denmark.

Luxembourg, which was ranked #1 as recently as 1985, is now #25.

I also noticed that Rwanda (#40) has eased past Botswana (#44) to become the highest-ranked nation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By the way, I’m not going to bother showing the bottom nations, but nobody should be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place.

Though that may simply be because there’s isn’t adequate data to include North Korea and Cuba.

Let’s close by including a chart that hopefully will show why economic liberty is important.

Simply stated, people enjoy much higher living standards in nations with free markets and small government. Conversely, people living under statist regimes suffer from poverty and deprivation.

The bottom line is that Economic Freedom of the World shows the recipe for growth and prosperity.

Sadly, very few nations follow the instructions because economic liberty is not in the interests of politicians.

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I’m happy to discuss theory when debating economic policy, but I mostly focus on real-world evidence.

That’s because my friends on the left always have a hard time answering my two-question challenge, which simply asks them to name one success story for big government.

They usually point to Sweden and Denmark, but get discouraged when I point out that those nations became rich when government was relatively small.

And I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my fellow economists once thought that communist nations grew faster than capitalist nations.

But let’s not digress. I raise this topic because there are many critics of capitalism who admit that free markets generate more wealth, but they assert that society would be better off if incomes were lower so long as rich people suffered more than poor people.

This strikes me as morally poisonous. But it also gives me an opportunity to cite a new study from the International Monetary Fund that allows us to further analyze this issue.

The IMF report starts by noting that globalization (free trade, liberalization, etc) has been good for global prosperity.

Over the course of the last decades the world economy has witnessed rapid integration. Most countries have opened up their economies and experienced an unprecedented rise in the flow of goods and capital across borders. This phenomenon – now widely known as economic globalization – was coincident with rising living standards in a large number of countries. Many developing countries have experienced episodes of strong economic growth and substantial poverty reduction as they integrated their economies with the rest of the world.

Sounds like good news, right?

It is good news, but those who fixate on inequality are worried.

…while globalization might on average be good for growth, more might not always be better for all. …When we shift the analysis to how income gains from globalization are distributed within countries, we also find globalization to have different effects on different incomes…gains are, however, distributed unequally both across and within countries. …Within countries, income inequality increases as a consequence of globalization. The income gains resulting from globalization tend to go primarily to the top of the national income distributions.

In other words, rich people are getting richer at a faster pace.

This phenomenon is captured in these two charts, which show that globalization is associated with more growth and more inequality.

But what’s important is that poor people also are getting richer.

In the subsample of developing countries where the gains from globalization are generally larger, however, they also reach the bottom of the income distribution and reduce poverty. … We find…some evidence of a poverty reducing effect of globalization in developing countries.

Consider, for example, the remarkable data I shared about China. Income inequality increased at the same time that poverty dramatically declined.

And those results seem to hold for the rest of the world, especially in developing nations.

So now let’s look at the most important chart from the IMF study, which shows that all income groups enjoy more prosperity with globalization.

Yes, rich people benefit the most, so official inequality numbers will increase.

But put yourself in the shoes of a poor person. Would you be willing to forego your additional income in order to deny additional income for a rich person? I suspect the vast majority of poor people would think that’s a crazy question.

But, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, there are plenty of folks on the left who think that’s a perfectly reasonable position. Including, incidentally, some of the people at the IMF.

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A few years ago, I shared an image that neatly summarized why the left’s fixation on income inequality is misguided.

Now I have something even better.

I don’t know who “JIMBOB” is, but this cartoon he created is a masterpiece. The car analogy is perfect.

I’ll have to recycle this cartoon every time I write on the issue (along with substantive analysis, including Max Roser’s numbers and the powerful Chinese data).

That being said, I’m going to suggest one possible revision to JIMBOB. I think it would be a slight improvement if both captions started with “some.”

For what it’s worth, I think that phrasing would better reflect how the left thinks.

Or, to be fair, it shows how some on the left think.

I’ve never forgotten a conversation I had with a friend from the other side of the spectrum. His support for class-warfare policies is based on the fact that some (many?) rich people got their wealth via government.

And those people obviously don’t deserve their loot.

The difference between me and my friend is that I’d rather keep tax rates low and get rid of the programs that provide unjust riches. In other words, we should be guided by this very powerful image.

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